In days of yore, when men were real men, women were real women, and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were, well, yet to visit the luminous mind of Douglas Adams, there was a thriving tradition of so-called “occult journals” or magazines, sold by mail-order or on the shelves of The Atlantis Bookshop, Forbidden Planet or Watkins. Almost invariably they were shoddy little productions - gestetnered or photocopied, folded and stapled - containing boastful proclamations and often fanciful accounts of arcane activities that appeared to owe more to student readings of Machen and Lovecraft than any real work. Most of them were single-order publications, house magazines, if you will, of magical groups that probably existed nowhere beyond the four walls of the bedrooms in which the articles were written. And yet… And yet, as a teenager I’d catch the train to London once a month just in the hope that I’d find a new one on the shelves. Because, you see, some of them really were worth the effort and the expense. There was ‘Sothis’, of course, a reprint of which is surely long overdue. ‘Starfire’, too, with its more impressive production values. ‘Chaos International’, too, and ‘Aquarian Arrow’, which had writing of such good quality that its articles wouldn’t have been out-of-place in any number of mainstream periodicals. Finally, there was the ‘Cincinnati Journal of Ceremonial Magic’, with its remarkable design and artwork.
And then along came the Internet and, with it, disaster for this type of production. Suddenly – and it really was quite sudden – you could find what you were looking for in moments. Production quality seemed to become irrelevant, when pretty much everything Crowley ever wrote was available for immediate download and when every wannabe occult master was able to “self-publish”. The journals became websites and the work of days and weeks to produce something of lasting value turned into the often boastful work of minutes on Geocities or Fortune City, where a “web presence” resulted in moments from templated sites of little creativity and less application.
So, the digital world of instant gratification killed the occult journal, stone dead. Only it didn’t; not entirely. ‘Starfire’ continued its somewhat erratic publishing schedule, standing almost alone on the shelves as something worth buying and, more importantly, worth reading. Self-publishing companies like ‘lulu.com’ ensured that individuals and small groups could publish without the inconvenience of laying money down upfront. If you could save a Word document as a PDF file you could become a published author, even if the end result was depressingly formulaic, poorly produced and destined to remain unread.
And then the postman called and left me a rather splendidly wrapped work of such excellence that it became clear that the very technology that had led to the near-fatal malaise of the occult journal had enabled a publication of extraordinary beauty and remarkable content: ‘Abraxas’.
We all knew about the impending arrival of this new occult periodical, of course, as it had been trailed on a number of websites. What made these announcements special, of course, was the two names associated: Robert Ansell from Fulgur and Christina Oakley Harrington from Treadwells Bookshop. Fulgur, of course, is the publishing house that has produced works of enormous power and beauty and Treadwells Bookshop has become a salon of excellence, promoting lectures by the most prominent specialists working within the genre, a cavalcade of occult excellence.
So, what of ‘Abraxas’? Surprisingly little is given away in Robert’s Editorial about its objective and raison d’etre, so it becomes that which it appears to be: an occult journal par excellence. Its banner proclaims it to be “An International Journal of Esoteric Studies”, and that’s probably about as much as we need to know for the time being.
The journal is a large format paperback of 128 pages but that simple description doesn’t begin to do it justice. Its cover is skillfully laminated and it’s solidly bound: there’s certainly no fear of this one falling apart despite repeated readings. It uses a range of paper types and colours, including a substantial portion printed in black on dark grey paper: the fact that this section is not only legible but eminently so is testament to the typographic skills of the “Art editor”, Robert Ansell, who also contributes a photographic work and the Editorial. Questions have been asked about a twenty-five-quid price tag for a magazine, but it’s worth every penny with production qualities like this: besides which, I’d be surprised if there are many readers of this review that have lost money on the purchase of anything from Fulgur! Make no mistake, ‘Abraxas’ is physically the work of a publishing house at the absolute peak of its powers – it’s a magnificent production that owes more to the most up-market artistic and architectural journals for its inspiration than it does to its occult legacy.
Moving slowly past the achingly beautiful cover illustration by Francesco Parisi and, rather more rapidly, past the, ahem, “Manifesto” we arrive at the Editorial, which sets the tone, with its friendly welcome, although the mission statement on page 128 is perhaps rather more informative.
And, before we move on to Daniel A Schulke’s ‘The Green Intercessor’, it’s time that I make a confession: I’m not all that interested in witchcraft. There, I’ve said it: it’s a matter of record. And this journal – or, rather, this issue of this journal – is most assuredly about witchcraft. And yet… And yet, I was fascinated by every single article in this extensive collection of essays and artistry. Schulke’s piece on ‘plant-magic’ will enthrall all those that enjoy the works published by Xoanon: it’s well-informed, erudite and well-referenced. I enjoyed his account of a subject that I’d normally avoid.
Edward Gauntlett is up next with a fascinating discussion of witchcraft and “the graal” in the woefully overlooked fiction of Arthur Machen.
Now, poetry in occult journals is often best avoided or at least treated as an ordeal or peril on the path. ‘Abraxas’, however, has bucked this trend by including ‘Song for Sleeping Souls’, by the venerable Zachary Cox, and ‘Babalon’ from Aleister Crowley’s ‘Book Of Oaths’, both of which are captivating and worth reading. I’ll pass over the remaining poetry in this volume.
A beautifully illustrated interview with Francesco Parisi follows. His work, with which I was previously unfamiliar, is astonishing and Robert Ansell’s interview a respectful delight.
Sarah Penicka-Smith’s essay on flying ointments is a substantial contribution to a subject that has been covered extensively in the past but to far less effect. Her piece is impressive and wide-ranging.
Surrealist Stuart Inman’s article on “gnosis and epistemology in Traditional Craft” left me somewhat baffled but, given his obvious enthusiasm for his subject, this doubtless says more about me than him. As he writes: “You may chose [sic.] to disagree with what I have written here, after all who am I? On the other hand, can you really dismiss my argument? After all, who are you?” Quite.
"The anonymous author of Liber Niger Legionis" is up next with an intriguing and rather impressive piece of work that rewards multiple re-reads.
Author and lecturer John Callow's lengthy essay on Durer is absorbing, as is James Butler's 'On Sappho'. Phil Hine - who will need no introduction to most readers of this - writes amusingly and sympathetically about Lobsang Rampa in what is one of the journal's most impressive and entertaining articles.
I say, "one of the most impressive" because there's an article that I've yet to mention. I believe it to be an extraordinary article that deserves to be reproduced widely. Stephen Grasso's 'Skip Witches, Hop Toads' is really good stuff: informed, erudite and unpretentious. Every paragraph sings with an earnest comparison of witchcraft and magic by someone well qualified to write on both. Wonderful!
So, to summarise. Fulgur and Treadwells have combined forces to produce a book - sorry, a journal - with magnificent production values and, importantly, with contents that justify the effort. Quite simply, superb; I can't wait to see future issues.