I’ve longed liked Gary Lachman’s articles in the Fortean Times. I’m also an admirer of his work, under the name Gary Valentine, with the rock band Blondie, particularly his song “X Offender”.
So, it was only a matter of time before I decided to read one of his books.
Review: Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius, Gary Lachman, 2001.
Lachman’s basic thesis is that several elements of the mystic 1960s led not just to the Summer of Love but the murders of Charles Manson and that the strains of thought that produced both go back to the late 1890s.
It’s an interesting story, but most parts of it were familiar to me already, and I’m not going to talk much about them. I am also not sympathetic to mysticism, the Summer of Love, or the spirit of the 1960s.
What I am going to talk about is the surprising amount of material in the book about writers and works of fantastic fiction and how they were connected to the mystic Sixties.
Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s not only wrote the very popular The Morning of the Magicians, but Bergier also wrote a letter praising H. P. Lovecraft that appeared in the March 1936 issue of Weird Tales. The Morning of the Magicians, published in 1960, had Fortean material and centered on mysticism, transcendence, mutation and the evolution of consciousness. It was a heady mix that drew from the zeitgeist.
Flying saucers were one of the things connecting mysticism and science fiction. Ray Palmer’s Amazing Stories publicized Kenneth Arnold’s UFO sightings and printed Richard Shaver’s deros/Lemuria works.
Pauwels and Bergier’s themes were the themes of popular science fiction works like John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human, Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. X-Men comics with their superhuman mutants started in 1963. Arthur Machen and other weird writers got renewed interest in the 1960s partly because of their connection with the Order of the Golden Dawn mentioned in The Morning of the Magicians.
The feedback cycle between mysticism and fantastic literature strengthened in 1965 with Lin Carter’s seminal paperback resurrection of old fantasy in his Ballantine Adult Fantasy series starting with J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
Among the authors Carter reprinted was Lovecraft whose disdain for the masses and hostility towards other races Lachman says was Nietzschean. (Having never read Nietzsche, I’ll take his word for it.) Robert E. Howard was also reprinted by Carter.
Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos entered occult thought, and Howard’s celebration of barbarism over civilized decadence was in sync with the mystic Sixties’ idea of social and world transformation. Lachman errors a bit in emphasizing the return of the Great Old Ones in “The Call of Cthulhu”, as implying that Lovecraft expressed some wish for a time of license rather than just considering an imaginative premise. Lachman claims it was only the mention of Lovecraft by Lachman’s hero Colin Wilson that made Lovecraft really popular. I would dispute that. Lovecraft had paperback editions as early as 1947. But I haven’t looked at the historical record for Lovecraft’s paperback sales.
Occultist Kenneth Grant could claim that Lovecraft’s stories came from fantastic dreams and that Lovecraft was a member of an occult group and failed his final initiation because he did not want to know ultimate truths.
Besides the above writers, Carter also resurrected writers who seemed in keeping with the times. David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus was seen as a literary drug trip. Sections on California mysticism of the pre-1960s includes tales of Aldous Huxley and his friend and mentor, another science fiction writer, Gerald Heard, a homosexual and prototypical hippie. (Heard published under the name H. F. Heard and is extensively discussed in Brian Stableford’s Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950.)
Of course, several other familiar names pop up in this history: L. Ron Hubbard and Dianetics/Scientology; Jack Parsons – sf fan, rocket scientist, and occultist; and A. E. van Vogt’s General Semantics. Anton LaVey (Satanist, libertarian, and devotee of Weird Tales) regarded H. P. Lovecraft and William Hope Hodgson as better occult teachers than Aleister Crowley or A. E. Waite. In meetings at LaVey’s house were Forrest Ackerman, Clark Ashton Smith (presumably in his later years when he moved out of Auburn), August Derleth, and Robert Barbour Johnson.
This book strengthened my belief that a certain portion of science fiction fans have problems with the reality the universe has given them. The personality traits of openness and its attendant trait of novelty seeking that can lead to reading science fiction can also lead to minds so open that a lot of garbage gets thrown in them in their quest for transcendence or special Slan status.
The Sixties in general once again proved that experiments in social order, like experiments in art, usually end in failure. And, while art experimentation does not have to impose any greater costs than some wasted time by the artist, social experimentations can have far higher costs, costs imposed on people who become unwilling lab rats for their elders’ folly and hubris nigh unto the decades. And it’s not like there weren’t Jeremiahs who foresaw the end results of many of them.
Still, while the Sixties gave us Charles Manson, some interesting art was produced and, perhaps most importantly, some worthy literature of the past was rescued from obscurity.