The almost-annual appearance of Dark Lore is something of an occasion, with its collection of well-informed, well-written essays on a wide range of mystical, Fortean and paranormal topics. But it's this very range of topics which makes Dark Lore a very difficult volume to review. I'll start with the declaration that Allan Moore's splendidly extravagant polemic on the practical uselessness of modern magic (an idea which you would not expect a sceptical Magonian to disagree with) largely rushes past me – if not well over the top of my head – but his enthusiastic demand that magical ritual processes be regarded as a new and encompassing form of art seems to be something with which I would agree.
Fortunately, quite a few of the essays are rather more accessible to me. When discussing scientists' unwillingness to accept the reality of UFOs as a genuine physical phenomenon, the precedent is often quoted of the scientific blindness to meteorites in the early nineteenth century. A wealth of eye-witness testimony was adamant that stones did fall from the sky but was rejected by the scientific consensus. Although this is a reasonable point to make, I have often been surprised that UFO proponents have not been able to come up with another, and perhaps more recent, example of scientific rejection of an observed phenomenon.
Greg Taylor presents just such an example. Many people for several centuries have reported hearing noises in conjunction with the visual observation of meteors. Astronomers, including the famous Edmund Halley, were quick to dismiss this testimony on the entirely reasonable grounds that as the meteors were many tens of miles distant from the observer, there could be no direct connection between what was heard and what was seen, and the phenomenon was entirtely psychological – witnesses expecting there to be some sort of 'swooshing' sounds to accompany the spectacular sights. As this 'earwitness' testimony grew scientists began to find a little wriggle-room for accepting it, which was not available for hard-core UFO reports. A suggested mechanism for the creation of these 'sounds' was the effect of Very Low Frequency electromagnetic waves produced by the meteor's descent into the Earth's atmosphere, although it is still not clear how these may have an effect on witnesses such as to produce an aural or pseudo-aural phenomena.
In an interesting sidelight on the 'skeptical' scientist, Taylor instances Colin Keay, who proposed a theory of 'electrophonic meteors'. He justified the existence of the phenomenon by referencing “some very notable people have reported them … so many people can't be wrong, you might say”. When his interviewer suggested that this was exactly the same argument used by UFO proponents, of whom Keay was a noted critic, his answer was, “Yes, but when a lot of people with observational experience report it, you can't discount it”. Those 'trained observers' eh?
Other essays include Mike Jay's investigation of the Club des Hachischins in mid-nineteenth century Paris, which uncovers a curious amalgam of occult, literary and scientific activities hidden in the activities of a sinister undercover society which may never have actually existed, but has had a significant influence on the development of psychiatry.
The impenetrable complexities of the Kennedy assassination are explored in Adam Gorightly's account of the life of Kerry Thornley, who seems to have been involved with just about every underground figure and sinister conspiracy from American culture in the sixties and seventies. Thornley reappears in Ian 'Cat' Vincent's exploration of new religions and cults and their origins in popular culture, as as originator of 'Discordianism', a religion based on Eris, the Greek goddess of chaos. Another religious movement evolving at this time was the 'Church of All Worlds', based on the religious ideas behind Robert Heinlein's novel Stranger in a Strange Land. Vincent sees this as a developing process, with young people seeking gods and myths that “closely match' their truths … that bring that 'ecstatic sense of recognition" they do not find in older figures.
Other contributors to this volume are John Reppion, who examines a specific English form of magic, via the magical significance of the characters and actions in Susanna Clarke's novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and the fairy tradition in English folklore; Paul Deveraux, writing on the use of hallucinogens in native American shamanism, and why it is far more widespread in the New World as compared to the Old; Robert Schoch gives us a condensed history of lycanthropy, and examines links between the physical and psychic manifestations of the phenomena and Blair MacKenzie Blake traces the nature and history of grimoires.
It is unlikely that any one person will find everything in this book of equal interest, but everyone will find a great deal to enjoy, and will gain something even from the essays on topics in which they may feel they have little interest – in fact probably especially from those essays. – John Rimmer.