Last November was full of fiftieth anniversaries. Not just Doctor Who, but three important deaths on the day before the Doctor's first episode aired in 1963. Thanks to the glare of publicity following the assassination of President Kennedy, no one noticed at first that Aldous Huxley of Brave New World fame and C.S. Lewis of Narnia fame had both died on the same day.
Another accidental upstaging happened in December 2013, when the world resounded to reports of Nelson Mandela's death while there was silence about the departure – again on the same day – of Colin Wilson. Even the BBC website, usually pretty quick with death reports, took over a week to catch up.
As a writer and philosopher, Colin Wilson had a strange career. His first book The Outsider (1956), an eccentric study of links between creativity and alienation, was an instant bestseller. His huge output included pioneering psychological serial-killer novels like Ritual in the Dark, plus many gruesome studies of true crime and gosh-wow reports of the paranormal. 1950s newspapers lumped him together with Kingsley Amis and others as an Angry Young Man, though he was in fact persistently cheerful.
The Outsider led him to H.P. Lovecraft via the coincidence of Lovecraft's first collection being titled The Outsider and Others. Like HPL himself and unlike most imitators, Wilson saw the Cthulhu Mythos as science fiction – featuring monstrous, sanity-destroying aliens from other dimensions rather than traditional gods, demons and ghosts. Intrigued, he wrote two Lovecraftian SF novels that reworked the extradimensional nasties in terms of his own home-brewed philosophy.
First came The Mind Parasites, in which the "parasites" within our minds are at the same time Cthulhoid aliens, mental cancers, and metaphors for laziness and all the other factors that stop us (well, certainly me) from thinking at peak efficiency 24/7. Clear out all this rubbish with the whirling Dyno-Rod of enlightened thought, Wilson suggested, and psi powers like telepathy and telekinesis inevitably follow. His second Lovecraftian venture, The Philosopher's Stone, added immortality to the benefits and provided a vaguely Theosophical history of how the Great Old Ones long ago ruled Earth and created puny humanity before succumbing to their own mind parasites. But they'll be back! Keep watching the metaphysical skies!
This is all cranky fun, as is our man's fantasy The God of the Labyrinth, which – perhaps a little tamely – uses the apparatus of porn rather than SF to push the Wilson philosophical agenda. The UK paperback cover, by Discworld artist Josh Kirby, borrowed Arcimboldo's trick of building up a face from smaller objects: Arcimboldo used vegetables but Josh got into the proper, or improper, spirit with a satyr's head constructed from writhing naked bodies. I had to hide that one from my mother.
The philosophy of mental self-improvement even turned up in unlikely nonfiction contexts like the bibulous and obviously well-researched A Book of Booze. Wilson once confided that his book of music criticism, The Brandy of the Damned, was largely produced to make his record collection tax-deductible. You can't help wondering what boozy research expenses for the later volume were claimed against tax.
Further Wilsonian SF ventures include the A.E. van Vogt homage The Space Vampires – dreadfully filmed as Lifeforce – and the young-adult Spider World series set in a far future dominated by giant spiders against which humanity begins, first with guns and later with philosophy, to fight back. A future children's classic, he reckoned: "They will know me as the author of Spider World, in the way that they know Lewis Carroll as the author of Alice in Wonderland."
Long ago I worked with Colin on another Lovecraftian project, The Necronomicon edited by George Hay: see SFX #53. That was fun too. Now (gulp) I'm the last surviving contributor. Am I next on Great Cthulhu's list?
David Langford hopes to pop his clogs on a slow news day when the SF media have nothing else to write about.