Hidden Shallows

This is the story of one man's struggle with occult forces beyond the ken of bulmer. It is the story of how I dabbled in nameless knowledge – and paid the price. As it has been said, There's a seeker born every minute ...

'It's disgusting,' said Hazell. 'Just look at this.' It was the News of the World.

'I don't need to look,' I told her. 'Take it away, take it away.'

'No, look at the article.' She handed me the paper and refilled my glass of homemade forty-proof wine. Gulping deeply, I looked. The gist of it was that an occult-supplies shop called Star Child had moved from (I think) Luton to somewhere else – spice being added by the Reverend Rudall, local vicar and publicity hound, who told reporters that this was a victory. His Bible Study Group, he said, had been praying for years for God to smite Star Child; God had finally given in and smitten them with a rent increase, whereupon they moved.

'Very silly,' I said. 'So what?'

'It's absolutely disgusting. It's religious persecution. I'd like to write that vicar a strong letter.'

I projected bafflement, and Clive elucidated: 'Hazell's a witch, you know.' Clive is her husband; husbands notice these things.

'Aaaah,' I said, a vague light dawning. 'So that's why there are forty kinds of incense in the cupboard with the tea.'

'Didn't I tell you?' said Hazell solicitously.

A stage whisper from Clive: 'She never uses them, of course. She collects the materials and just gloats over them.'

'That's what you think,' said Hazell. To me – 'You wouldn't like to write to that vicar, would you?'

'Sure thing,' said the forty-proof wine. 'Wait a minute –' Too late. Suddenly there was this typewriter in my lap and, urged on by Hazell, I was pounding erratically away. The letter filled up with snide things ... suggestions that the mighty force of the vicar's Bible Study Group be diverted to the cause of world peace; that removing the accursed shop from Luton and inflicting it on someone else was hardly a Christian act; that his choice of newspaper was disillusioning in a man of God ... good nasty stuff. Even under the influence of goat wine (or whatever) I would have been more restrained, had Hazell not said she only wanted a draft; she'd make a fair copy and send it herself.

(She did. With my name and Clive's at the bottom, as well as her own).

But I was more interested in witchery. With the letter finished, I plied Hazell with wine and questions. 'Come on, tell me some occult secrets.' (An attack of pleonasm).

'Don't be stupid. If we went round telling people it wouldn't be occult.'

'She won't tell me,' said Clive bitterly.

I begged for some unclassified literature. Their home is full of strange books with titles like Psychic Self-Defence (a sort of remote-control Kung Fu?), Legend of the Werewolf and so on. After long consideration, Hazell produced a stack of ... fanzines? Duplicated productions with awful layout and titles like Quest and The Pagan Way ... occult fanzines!

I carried them off and soon discovered strange and wonderful truths. Did you know that Star Trek scores highly in the occult world, since the Enterprise chain-of-command allegedly represents the Qabalistic Tree-of-Life? Or that every year there's an ESOTERICON in London? These affairs last one day; have 100+ attendance; talks on magic; no bar. Hucksters, though: 'As some of the stalls were selling preparations for ritual cleansing, those attending the conference were able to buy suitable remedies for any sort of psychic contamination they might have picked up in London.' ... I know that feeling.

On a dottier note is a plea for authenticity in historical stage costumes ... gradually you realize that not only the actors but historians are condemned; the writer knows the true style of Egyptian/Aztec/Inca clothing: 'I was there.' A warning of dangers inherent in mysticism-through-drugs examples '"Angel's Dust" ... sure to reach these shores fairly soon. It affects most people by making them convinced they are two inches high. Its effects are permanent. There appears to be no particular occult danger attached to this drug, apart from general insanity ...' And, jolting me back to everyday fannish life: 'We have news of a witch who is actually breeding familiars. Will anyone who wants a useful and well brought-up feline familiar please contact ...'

Thus to the heart of the matter, the nameless rites and abominations. (Control yourselves). The hottest stuff, in fact, consists of half-hearted pokes at the C of E (specifically vicars like the Rev. Rudall) and a debate akin to fandom's Naughty Words vapourings, on whether one should ritualize in the buff. 'For the coven or magical group there is a sound case for nakedness. But it has also been shown that it is not essential. As many will have experienced, group nudity is not erotic.' Which calls up a vision of skinny-dipping Kittens [[the then Kingston SF Group]] – right on! All this sounds barely (h'mm. Sorry) more interesting than C of E church services, my memories of which are filled with paralysing boredom. Maybe I missed something: owing to hearing trouble I never actually followed a sermon. Though I several times pointed this out to my mother, she held that church-going was a weekly spiritual sheep-dip, good for you whether you understood it or not ...

(Religion has lately been coming to the front door in the form of Jehovah's Witnesses, at whom I smile fixedly, unable to hear their mutterings but perfectly aware of my wife in the back room shouting 'There is no God! ' and 'Religion is the crutch of the weak and ignorant!' The dust shaken from Witnesses' feet has accumulated in a small pile, just outside our gate).

Practical details of ritual are quite fun. 'Safety in the Temple ... always wear fireproof robes. Even an expert can make a mistake with a thurible!' Very nasty. 'Candles must be held firmly in place – by consecrated plasticene if necessary.' And so on. Articles: How To Convert An Old Wardrobe Into A Place Of Meditation (you get inside, having installed a light-bulb), How To Form A Circle Of Protection, How To Make Mirror Magic ('Buy it at Woolworths ... consecrate as necessary'), with the warning 'You can make a moon maze mirror in the dark of the moon to drive someone mad, but DON'T mess around with this sort of thing, it can so easily rebound –' and you get hit in the eye by a bouncing mirror. This is a highly typical formula – so dire are the warnings against misusing magic that you hardly notice they haven't actually said how to use it. My nearest approach to a twinge of occult dread came from an article beginning: 'In case Quest readers have children's birthday presents to buy, they might appreciate a guide to occult presents for the young.' Example: 'Hanky Panky Magic Set ... complete with a plastic magic rod to wave about. These sets are no good for REAL magic work but they can be fun for youngsters ...' Author: A M West, aged 8. Uncertain frown; pursing of lips....

These zines don't just worry vicars in Luton. One local council decided that the use of a private home to duplicate Quest constituted a 'change of use' or 'development'; they issued a Cease and Desist order. A blind eye could be turned on parish magazines, but Filthy Occult Practices! Anyway, after a lot of religious obfuscation, the council was quashed by the Dept of the Environment and all was well. This could have been awkward for some of us; it was Ealing Council that made the fuss.

On first sight of the occultzines I planned a vast mapping of fannish correspondences. The finger would be pointed: here is the occult analogue of Greg Pickersgill, here is the occult Kettle, will all fans join me in praying that the country holds no more occult version of D. West ... Trouble is, the basic drives of these magic-wielders are not literary (in the broadest sense). Their fanzines are merely a symptom: ours are a disease in their own right. So sf fanzines discuss sf or anything else that occurs to the editors; occultzines don't, because ritual magic is something that's done, not discussed – and besides, no-one agrees about it. 'You cannot ever state something about the Craft as fact because there are so many different Covens and so many different methods.' This implies nice lively discussions and arguments – like the debates on D&D refinements in certain games zines – but no. One thing they do agree on, you see, is that occult doings are so very occult that one can't write about them, except in the most general and uninformative way. Meanwhile, as sf fandom retreats to the pub, the social side of occultdom vanishes into coven meetings, dancing au naturel amid windy stone circles: and good luck to them.

No zine can subsist on nothing but generalized descriptions of rites and prayers. Therefore Quest (source of all quotes above) becomes very serious and constructive about the Qabalah, the Tarot and all that. Starchild is 'an Aquarian collage of magic, alternatives, freedom & deep grokking things' – nothing in the dire graphics and verse altered the impression I got from that chilling line ... The Wiccan is near-fannish; its anonymous editor denounces Quest with some venom. But it's only Quest he vilifies, not Quest's editors: no personalities, no rattish eye-gouging in the gutter; ultimately tedious. The Pagan Way, last in the selection I borrowed, is mediaeval folk-cultural, replete with Morris-dancers and forgotten seasonal rites. Which brings me to my favourite quotation, at length –

'The Rev. David Pennal of Hardfoot, Dorset, is to revive the ancient Randy Day ceremony in an effort to interest the potentially large teenage congregation inhabiting the villages of Melcombe Bingham and Cheselbourne.

'"It was a gift from Heaven," said Vicar Pennel, "when two old villagers told me about Randy Day. Bishop George of Salisbury has given the revival his blessing and we are to go ahead with the manufacture of Randy Poles.

'"Come Randy Day the village lads will be encouraged to chase the girls with their Randy Poles.

'"In the old days," the Vicar continued, "the girls were only supposed to surrender if a Randy Pole touched them, but we live in permissive times. It's anybody's guess what will happen."'

(Western Mail 27.2.76)

We need more vicars like this. The Rev. Rudall, recipient of a letter of protest lo! these many paragraphs ago, refrained from turning the other cheek: he wrote back to Hazell with pious hopes that she would cease her vile practices and see the light. The Bible Study Group, he explained, is indeed working on more important things; they're now exerting maximum prayer-power against Communism. This is expected to take a little longer than Star Child, but when Russia's economic collapse comes, don't say Rev. Rudall didn't warn you. In any case (he says), God has it in for occult shops and occultists in general: the awesome power of the Bible Study Group just helps him along a bit.

The vicar kindly added that That Letter was we11-written ... aw shucks, etc. I think the Johnsonian style misled him; he also sent some little pamphlets entitled, 'How Christianity can help you to face middle-age'. Or is that a warning? Already I have a tuft of white hairs just over one eyebrow ... middle-aged at 23 ... the shadow of the Bible Study Group lies over me ... where's Quest and the article on Forming a Circle of Protection?' H'm, more cookbook magic: 'Holy names, signs and symbols can be inserted in accordance with your own beliefs.' Beliefs? Think, Langford, THINK ...

Meanwhile, ancient powers are stirring. Occultzines are but a symptom. We are entering the age of whatever it was. In the squat concrete blockhouse not far from my office is a 20-gigawatt pulsed reactor; all around it, the grass has erupted with an autumn growth of toadstools, neatly arranged in fairy rings.

Anyone remembering this article as somehow subtly different probably read John Piggott's strangely edited "reprint" in his games fanzine Ethil the Frog 4 (1977), which methodically substituted game-fan for sf-fan references and left me in the uncomfortable position of making sardonic asides about people I didn't know. Thus "skinny-dipping Kittens" became "Wakefield and Fisher, skinny-dipping", the bit about occult versions of sf fans turned into "here is the occult analogue of Will Haven, here is the occult Sharp, will all fans join me in praying that the country holds no more occult version of Glyn Palmer", and "ours" [i.e. our fanzines] became "Diplomacy zines". I have no idea what subtle nuance required the alteration of "sf fandom retreats to the pub" to "games fandom retreats to the dartboard". On the other hand, it was an improvement to change "Hazel" (with one L) to "my wife" and avoid the need to emphasize that these are different ladies....