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Book Review: ‘Supernatural: Writings on an Unknown History’ by Richard Smoley

NOTE: This is a longer version of a review that also appears at New York Journal of Books. The book itself was published just today.

Supernatural_by_Richard_Smoley

Supernatural: Writings on an Unknown History, by Richard Smoley. Tarcher/Penguin. Published February 7, 2013. 240 pages.

Reviewed by Matt Cardin

There’s a handful of writers working today whose books about esoteric religious, spiritual, and philosophical subjects bridge the divide between the small niche audience devoted to such things in earnest and the wider popular audience that has a casual interest in them and occasionally reads occult conspiracy novels like The Da Vinci Code and spiritual self-help books like The Power of Now. Prominent representatives of this group include Daniel Pinchbeck (2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl), Patrick Harpur (Daimonic Reality), Victoria Nelson (Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural), Gary Lachman (Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality), and Mitch Horowitz (Occult America).

Richard Smoley also numbers among them, and with the publication of Supernatural, a book that looks to be aimed squarely at the readers inhabiting this middle ground, Mr. Smoley extends his appeal and his considerable expertise in these areas to a wider audience than he has previously reached. Over the past three decades he has built a stellar reputation as an authority on the alternative, esoteric, and occult streams of Western religion and philosophy. Trained in classics and philosophy at Harvard and Oxford, he rose to prominence in the 1980s and 90s as a writer for, and eventually the editor of, the now-legendary magazine Gnosis: A Journal of the Western Inner Traditions. He then turned to writing books, beginning with 1999’s Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions (co-authored with Jay Kinney, publisher and editor-in-chief of Gnosis) and continuing with additional books on Nostradamus, Gnosticism, and esoteric Christianity, including, perhaps most prominently, Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition.

In Supernatural, Mr. Smoley returns to the broad-based, encyclopedia-oriented approach of Hidden Wisdom by surveying a wide variety of trends and traditions in sixteen separate essays, most of them previously published elsewhere (the majority in New Dawn, the long-running, Australia-based magazine about esoterica and the paranormal). But he does so in a more personal and conversational tone that makes the book more accessible to all types of readers than some of his previous work has been. He has always written beautifully smooth and lucid prose, and has always presented complex, profound, and subtle ideas with striking ease, but here he adds to that elegance a casual, informal tone that generates a sense of simply hanging out with the author and listening to him talk extemporaneously from his insights, experiences, and vast store of knowledge. Read the rest of this entry