Shortly before the war, the man whom the sensational press is still calling ‘the wickedest man in the world’ paid a visit to Mousehole. This was a gift to gossip, which flourishes like an exotic plant in the soft moist air; from rumours still current in the neighbourhood and even beyond, one would suppose that ‘the Beast’, as Aleister Crowley indiscreetly styled himself, had made on several occasions a protracted stay. The accusations range widely in seriousness; some merely assert he was a bad influence in the district; others, that he and his followers danced naked round the stone circle at Tregaseal; yet others that he performed rites on the rocks above Trevelloe; that he revived Druidic cults involving human sacrifice and that his disciples in the locality still resort to this practice, kidnapping women for the purpose. (One or two mysteries of disappearance which the police failed to solve are ‘explained’ in this way). Not a word of factual evidence is brought forward in substantiation.
INTO THE SPIRITUAL BLACK COUNTRY
When I moved from Somerset to Cornwall in 1984, I settled in St Columb Major, a moorland community with a big church and a stream that ran down a wooded valley, emerging at the big, darkish bay of Mawgan Porth, where there are vestiges of a Bronze Age settlement. Why are people drawn to places like Cornwall – places of cliffs and seaboards, of carping winds and saturnine moors, of junctions and doubts? I suppose, once you reach a place like Land’s End, three distinct choices present themselves: to stay and settle down, jump over the cliffs and drown or cross to America and revive your old life in the context of a new world.
I chose a house in St Columb because it was ‘there’ like Everest and up for sale. The more you delay the buying of a property, the more it costs. So I bought it and hoped for the best. The building was a wood-framed, two-up two-down, with cob and granite walls and a massive, ungainly chimney-piece that held the structure together, like the pole of a wigwam. The upper walls were slate-hung and the building shared a backyard with other cottages. I was a single man in a row of mainly elderly couples, and I brought with me a noisy motorbike and a string of visitors in my wake, some of whom proved popular, others more controversial.
Shortly after the move, I interviewed the well-known authority on matters literary, sexual, criminal, philosophical and psychic, Colin Wilson, who had achieved instant worldwide fame with the publication of his first book The Outsider (1952). He had just brought out a large novel called Spiderworld presenting a dystopia ruled by giant telephathic arachnids. The interview came through a friend called Joe Cook who had just founded Black and White, a kind of open-assembly magazine, innovative and ahead of its time, featuring sophisticated Glen Baxter type cartoons, anti-establishment art and a lively freeplay of collage and poems. Joe was then based at Falmouth. Later Joe was to move to to Prague where he set up a magazine for British business men visiting the city.
My interview with Colin was scheduled to appear in Black and White and I arrived late, at the very time he was about to go for a walk. He fitted me with a pair of solid green Wellingtons, gathered his Labradors, bundled them into the back of his Landrover and drove me and them to the coastal path, from where we walked along the cliffs to the Dodman.
During the walk, I asked him about various matters, ecology, literature and politics. His replies were patient and exact, and I remember him quoting Shaw about having solved certain problems, while the world still carried on as if the solutions were not available. I touched on political matters, hinting at a left-wing solution, and he told me that he had written an essay, proving the impossibility of socialism, thus dousing a once-potent political fire.
To look at, Colin was lofty and well-built with a determined beam of imperturbability. Young-looking for his years, he had an authority about him; his hair was light brown, his bespectacled eyes keen and genial. When he spoke, a faint buzzing undertow in his esses betrayed a trace of his native accent, but that was all. With his deerstalker, anorak and companionable Labradors, he looked like country gentleman, a far cry from the Leicestershire teenager with his nose permanently stuck in a book. When I asked him to pose for a photograph, he seemed amused at my frantic manoeuvres with lens and flashgun and remarked how Cecil Beaton had asked him to maintain various awkward postures.
Soon after the interview, a friendship developed. From 1989 onwards, on Saturday evenings, I visited The Ship to talk and drink with Colin and his wife, Joy, herself an author and local historian. Colin would generously give away copies of whatever books he had recently published which I might read or review in Abraxas – a magazine that I intermittently published. Over the years many people visited the The Ship, including the novelists Donna Tart and Nicholas Shakespeare, the television reporter, Louis Theroux, together with scientists, psychologists, criminologists and psychics.
One Saturday, in the early 1990s, I was drinking with Colin and a middle-aged lady joined us called Molly. She was an old friend of Colin and Joy and had come down from the Cotswolds. While living in Devon, she told us, she had been a neighbour of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. They were a charming couple, she recalled, and Sylvia seemed to her a perfectly happy young housewife. Then, moving away from the Plath tragedy, her talk turned to Bruce Chatwin, near to whom she lived, then dying of AIDS. Finally Molly started to reminisce about her days in Mevagissey. Names like Derek Savage, Jock Graham and Lionel Miskin floated up briefly and popped into oblivion. Then she went on to recall the novelist and musician, Frank Baker – ‘Dear Frank’ – from whom she turned to the incident of a young couple and Aleister Crowley, “that dreadful man”, saying he’d drawn them into a web of black magic that resulted in a death or tragic accident. “Frank told me all about it,” she said, as if personally affected. “Nothing was ever heard of them again – apparently the man went mad, and the woman committed suicide.” I was amazed to hear of such things. I had always doubted that the ‘Great Beast’ had ever visited Cornwall. But I did not question Molly because I did not want to appear to be ‘grilling’ rather than letting conversation run its natural course. What surprised me was the vehemence with which she referred to the incident. You might have thought the couple had been her friends or that Crowley had bewitched her. It did not sound like hearsay, more like jagged, living memory, yet no details were provided.
Unsuitable for Children
The name Aleister Crowley raked up old memories. Kept at the top of my father’s wardrobe there had been a paperback book, priced half a crown, that it was thought unwise to let fall into the hands of children. The cover showed a bald man with a forceful face and horn-brown, malevolent eyes, glaring at a world that had not found his talents socially acceptable. The book came out in 1952 and was called The Great Beast. Its author, John Symonds, was a journalist who had written for magazines like Lilliput and Picture Post, aside from producing novels and occasional short stories. The author and playwright, Clifford Bax, had recommended that he should write a biography of the poet, mountaineer and practitioner of magic, Aleister Crowley (1875–1947).
Edward Alexander Crowley or ‘Aleister’ Crowley has been called the Picasso of the Occult. He was the most versatile and notorious wizard of his age whose life was an Arabian Nights fantasia rather than a biography. On attaining his mid-forties, he achieved the distinction of being called ‘The Wickedest Man in the World’ and ‘A Monster of Depravity’ – titles that simultaneously titillated and petrified. Thus he presented an especial challenge for any biographer who sought to be fair and even-tempered about his subject, in that almost every phase of his life created a stir or scandal somewhere.
After contacting Crowley, befriending him and being appointed his literary executor, John Symonds produced The Great Beast, a grotesque pantomime of a biography, appalling and riveting. Quickly the work went through several editions, although certain libraries banned it, for it contained descriptions of practices considered to be shocking, odd and disgusting. Not only, apparently, was Crowley sexually liberated, he was also gastronomically liberated, eating for ritual purposes substances from his own body and taking nearly every drug under the sun.
Born at Leamington Spa, son of strict Plymouth Brethren, Crowley attended Cambridge University where he acquired a reputation as a poet and dabbler in the occult. Leaving university, he joined the Order of the Golden Dawn, explored China and India, organised mountaineering expeditions, wove spells and sexual scandals. An outre figure in Edwardian London, he was acquainted with W.B. Yeats – thought his work ‘lacked virility’ – Arnold Bennet and Somerset Maugham. The latter made him the centrepiece of The Magician, a novel that was made into a classic of the silent cinema by the director Rex Ingram.
As England’s foremost occultist, Crowley worshipped at strange shrines; as a climber he scaled the high peaks of the world; as a traveller and scholar, he scoured remote corners of the globe, absorbing exotic foods, sexual and religious practices; as the Rasputin of the literary salon, he produced violently erotic texts that titillated and appalled. Having frittered away a fortune, in old age he retired to Hastings and, together with Lady Frieda Harris, designed a tarot pack with a markedly Egyptian bias. A chronic asthamatic and heroin addict, he drifted out of existence in Christmas 1947 amid a rapturous floodtide of condemnation.
Hence, in the days before the Lady Chatterley trial (1960) and the wide acceptance of authors like Henry Valentine Miller, Crowley’s life possessed a hypnotic fascination for any teenager or rebellious adolescent, containing as it did a full-length portrait of man who spurned conventional morality, travelled widely and experimented with drugs, sex and magical rites. From the standpoint of the 1950’s, it left the reader unhealthily charged, in that it contained statements that made the imagination reel, about such unusual customs as hanging women upside down in cupboards, and squandering money with cheerful profligacy.
Its humour was daubed with pitch, showing Crowley making barbaric jokes about the death of loved ones, treating prostitution and venereal disease as comic accidents and invoking exotic and demonic deities in the same way one might say good morning to the milkman. It was a book that turned values upside down and, although Symond’s tone was ironically distanced, the personality of the Beast somehow burned through the pages, creating a packed, pregnant narrative, half-horrific, half-pantomimic, yet in its way unforgettable. Thus the Beast and his strange and alarming antics became part of my youthful mythology, counterbalancing more apparently salubrious figures like Richmal Crompton’s William Brown or Ian’s Fleming’s James Bond.
Now, coincidentally, my father had glancingly met – and spoken to – Crowley on several occasions. As I remember it, the meetings took place in the 1930s when he would regularly visit a cafe in Soho, often in the company of an out-of-work actor called Alec Waters. The latter was a drinker, a jocular ginger-haired man. He often attempted to bait Crowley who, my father said, was frequently to be seen encircled by what he termed “nubile women” although, at that stage in his career, his skin had been burned parchment-dry and his looks greatly deteriorated. Apparently Waters would shout within hearing distance of Crowley: “If that man was a proper magician, he’d be able to pull a rabbit out of his hat.” My father would laugh as Crowley stared back at them, and that was the extent of their contact, save for sundry occasions when Crowley had asked him whether a certain chessplayer had called at the cafe.
This information was extracted from my father by my brother, Caspar, who had undergone a ‘character change’ in his teens, becoming progressively obsessed with the Nazis and right-wing cults revolving around the worship of Thor and Odin – subjects that hardly guaranteed a flow of vivacious topical chatter. He quickly discovered that the head of SS, Heinrich Himmler, and various other Nazi top-brass, including the Fuhrer’s deputy, Rudolf Hess, had also been preoccupied by magic and astrology. With his messianic complex and German disciples, several of whom embraced Aryan racial theory, Crowley naturally fitted into this pantheon of anti-heroes. To Father, of course, he was a man of “odious reputation” who had squandered a fortune, been dubbed a ‘traitor’ and engendered scandal, despair and suicide among his followers. Father had also heard about Crowley from his brother, my Uncle Bertram, a scholar and biographer of Edmund Burke, Jonathan Swift and Lord Melbourne. Uncle Bertram had met the writer Mary Butts; she had told him about the motley activities that took place in the Abbey of Thelema at Cefalu, Sicily, but he did not think it fit to confide what he had heard.
Caspar read The Great Beast with absorption and excitement. His appetite was whetted when he learned Father had actually sat in the public gallery during the famous ‘Laughing Torso’ trial. Father tried to oblige Caspar by providing scraps of information, but he simply was not drawn to ‘Magick’ or weird sexual rites – his tastes erred towards writers like Boswell, Dickens or the poetry of Alexander Pope. Crowley’s eccentric and paradoxical discourses struck him as lop-sided and verbose. Such disinterest Caspar almost found offensive. He did not have Father’s urbane and distant outlook. He was drawn towards the shocking, the blasphemous and the obscene – not, I should add, because these designations offered any lasting reward or satisfaction. No, it was rather because they generated a frisson of shock and unease and it is possible to derive a morbid pleasure from alarming conventional or merely respectable people.
As both of us, as young boys, had been stopped and preached at by fervent middle-aged Christians, the implications of Crowley’s revolt ran deep. It shattered the pane of reverence that protected and sanitised the Christian religion and opened an almost terrifying vista of freedom, for Crowley seemed to have done every forbidden act that was thinkable and many others that would fall entirely beyond the scope of the imagination. And when Caspar began to demand from my parents implements like crystal balls and magic wands, arguments would ensue in which my mother berated my father, saying. “You laughed at old Crowley, but he’s getting his own back. Look at the way Caspar’s going, the Nazis, black magic – where’s it going to end!”
My mother’s words were truthful. Even today, I still do not know where it is going to end – in oblivion where all things end, I suppose! – but Caspar eventually acquired the standard magician’s regalia which enabled him to make contact with angels, demons, genii and other Gothic scallywags. This was disconcerting to Mother and me – Father had died by then. With gusts constantly blowing under the doors, a stuffed owl in the hall and the stairs endlessly creaking, our mouldering Victorian mansion was scary on the sunniest of days and Caspar’s spell-casting and invocations did little to brighten the atmosphere, though no dramatic phenomena seemed to come out of it, save for a certain edginess on my part.
Coincidentally, across the road from us, lived a lad with a flag of bright yellow hair called Frank who was equally immersed in the occult, studying the works of Aleister Crowley, Kenneth Grant and Osman Spare. After midnight, I would see the light on in his room and glimpse him standing within a pentacle calling up whatever entity was preoccupying him. Meanwhile Caspar, a few doors away, would also be busy doing a conjuration. So what choice had I? Gradually, I acclimatised myself to the idea – started to take comfort in it. Every night, I’d go up to bed thinking, well here I am, snugly wrapped up with a hot water bottle, while Frank’s conversing with Beelzebub and Caspar with some horned or scaled threshold-dweller and I’m reading Paradise Lost for my exams.
To further aid his efforts in contacting otherworldly intelligences, Caspar amassed many volumes on time-travel, the soul and astral bodies. They were piled up in the cupboards and shelves along with tarot packs, crystals balls and other esoteric impedimenta. Years later, he would remark wistfully that, although he had the wherewithal to forsee the future and contact every spirit and angel in the universe, it didn’t seem to have got him anywhere save the dole queue. There was a pathos in this that made me recall a painting of Crowley’s: ‘Four Red Monks Carrying a Black Goat Across the Snows to Nowhere’ – a title combining poetic specificity with the vastation of pointlessness.
The Celtic Church
Apart from the uproarious goings-on in my family life, Molly’s anecdote stung another memory. You see, I had read of the tragic incident of which she spoke. I cannot recall the author. But it was in one of those topographical books, once highly popular, but which publishers came to regard as a drug on the market. In a section dealing with the Land’s End district, there was a short sentence to this effect. “In a house near here, the black magician, Aleister Crowley, stayed. A young couple got drawn into his sinister web, as a result of which there was a tragic death.” There was absolutely nothing else to go on. Not so much as a name or date was supplied. Research needs a starting-point, a living witness. But here there was only an unattached, free-floating anecdote that made little sense, given the notoriety of the central character and the absence of a living witness.
And yet, surprisingly, Crowley’s early history reveals unexpected links with Cornwall and the budding of Cornish Nationalism. These were made the subject of a splendid paper by Sharon Lowenna (Cornish Studies 12, 2004) that appraised Crowley’s intriguing relationship with the elusive journalist and campaigner for the Duchy as a Celtic nation, Duncombe Jewell, and (indirectly) with Henry Jenner, first bard of Cornwall, who published his A Handbook of the Cornish Language in 1904. All three loved titles, the longer the better, and shared similarities of outlook with reactionary elitists who believed in an aristocracy of the blood rather than a populist or democratic approach to government. As a student at Cambridge, Crowley had been drawn into a Late Victorian sect called the Celtic Church who maintained the true faith dated from before the Roman heresy, after which the strain had become polluted.
Crowley’s Teenage Mistress
While working on the filmscript, I received an extraordinary letter from a friend in Ireland, Rosemary Sigel. It concerned a missing manuscript, an autobiography of a woman she had known, who went by several different names, but who had apparently been Crowley’s Cornish mistress. The contents of the letter came as a shock, like the ‘library angel’ or the synchronicities that occur when one attunes one’s perceptions to a particular area of research. I realized the story of the young couple was more than a sensational rumour. Although Rosemary made no mention of such an incident, she did make plain there was a quantity of material waiting to be uncovered. Rosemary had been very fond of Crowley’s mistress. She had recognized in her a kindred spirit. They had consumed cider together and exchanged stories and experiences. The woman had originally come from Newlyn and treated Rosemary to an account of her hectic career which she racily paraphrased:
“She studied in Germany before the Second World War and had a hair-raising flight from the Nazis into Egypt when war was declared – a sort of reverse Exodus! She fled in an old banger packed with kids and a Jewish spy. She spent the War in Cairo. Afterwards the trail runs cold. I know she married again and lived in a castle in Scotland, escaping once again, this time from a brutish husband, settling in Wheal Betsy, where she devoted herself to bringing up an enormous pack of children, her own and fostering black babies. In the sixties she turned Wheal Betsy into a children’s home. I think that’s when she lost all of her money.”
All this was powerfully intriguing, and Rosemary seemed to think that it should be looked into. She was not on the spot and was therefore unable to carry out the work. But I was in a different position. Money from the film work having put my existence on a more secure footing, I decided to undertake the research. So I started to make regular visits to Truro, looking in odd corners of Cornish history. During one of these I happened to come across a noted authority on local matters. He asked me what I was writing. I told him the subject of my filmscript and he exclaimed, “Good God! Crowley in Cornwall! There’s a subject to write about! Now when exactly was this?”
I said that it was in the summer of 1938, when Crowley had spent his time innocently rock-climbing and sea-bathing, and that his brief visit was his only recorded appearance in the county.
To my surprise he flatly contradicted me.
“No, Crowley was here much longer than that,” he said, “for about a year. There was this terrible incident, the St Ives police took down a full report of the case, and he was literally drummed out of the county!”
“I’m not certain of all the details. But the Chief Constable of Cornwall, Sir Hugh Protheroe Smith, looked into it. There was a full investigation that should be in the files of the St Ives police. I’m not sure of the exact details. There was some sort of ceremony, – Crowley called up the Devil, I believe. This poor fellow, he was in a dreadful state, utterly wrecked by the experience, gibbering mad.”
This shook me slightly. St. Ives had been one of Crowley’s stamping-grounds and something alarming had taken place! I was aware that in a conversation with John Symonds, not long before his death, he had considered Cornwall a possible place to form a magical community, but I did not realize that he had lived there for an extended period and generated a major scandal.
Yet, I asked myself, if all that drama had taken place, how had it managed to escape the notice of the press and Crowley’s several biographers? Crowley was hardly the meekest of men. He tended to generate sensation and hearsay wherever he set foot. Even if he behaved immaculately, a trace-element of fear or scandal usually lingered in the atmosphere. What made me additionally sceptical is that he is often invoked in specific locations when he was definitely elsewhere. Many latter-day wizards and witches supply false anecdotes, involving him in their destinies, as if desperate to bask in the sable gloom of his notoriety. But I had to admit that, in an odd sort of way, he fitted into that offbeat aspect of Cornwall that can so easily absorb the outrageous while taking exception to tinier lapses.
I asked all the people I knew who might retain a living memory of the incident. Most of them had been children or fairly young when it happened, but the most dramatic anecdote came from Zennor, that dark little granite village beyond St Ives, a place of legend and rumour, and involved one of the most important families in the district: the immensely distinguished Arnold-Forsters, liberals and educationalists and associates of Bloomburys Group. At the heart of the affair was Katherine Arnold Forster, nee Ka Cox, the ex-love of Rupert Brooke, who married Will Arnold Forster, artist, gardener and politician and, after WW1, settled in Zennor in an imposing house called The Eagle’s Nest.
The basic story I was told was this –
A young woman knocked on the door of the Eagle’s Nest – a house above Zennor – in a state of distress. Something terrible had happened to Mrs Ka Arnold-Forster, something involving the notorious wizard, Aleister Crowley, then living at Tregerthen and conducting strange rites at churches and ancient sites in the neighbourhood. Accordingly Ka had made her way up to the cottage to confront the Satanist, provoking an appalling confrontation, after which she had been taken with a seizure. One of the men involved in fracas was in a terrible state, gibbering mad! The Chief Constable of Cornwall was called to investigate….
Many years ago I decided to investigate this rumour that I had initially doubted and encountered a great deal of difficulty and resistance. I simply did not believe that information surrounding Crowley could have been concealed that long from the public eye. When I explored its full implications, a truth was revealed, far broader and deeper than I expected, harking back to D.H. Lawrence and his entourage at Zennor, a young woman’s affair with Rupert Brooke, the death of the mountaineer, George Mallory, a scandal centring around the life of a distinguished painter of the Newlyn school, along with the overshadowing presence of the Faust of the 20th century, Aleister Crowley, plus various artists, writers and mystics, including Dylan Thomas and Mary Butts. The narrative unreeled still more revelations, taking in wartime adventures, scandalous goings-on at Mousehole and a sensational murder case that remains unsolved today.
The Tregerthen Horror is presently only obtainable from Lulu.com.