Monday 3 August 2009

Crowley and the Runes

Oh, the discoveries I’m making about Aleister Crowley, a prefect monster of egoism. His writing is at best indifferent and his poetry, well, what can I say? It’s utterly dreadful! But what a marvelous self-promoter, an object for so many writers in every way better than himself. I came across him a year or so ago as the central figure in W. S. Maugham’s novel The Magician. But the author of the biography I am reading suggests that I may have encountered him even earlier than that.

I read the wonderful ghost stories of M. R. James when I was away at school, including one called Casting the Runes. Now, Crowley was up at Cambridge while James was Dean of King’s College. There is no evidence that the two men ever met but it is possible that James came to know Crowley, after he went down, by the colour of his subsequent reputation. Casting the Runes, published in 1911 in More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, features an unpleasant Crowley-like figure by the name of Karswell, who lives in a disused Warwickshire Abbey, leading him to be known as the ‘Abbot of Lufford.’ This was no holy man; oh no;

Nobody knew what he did with himself: his servants were a horrible set of people; he invented a new religion for himself, and practiced no one could tell what appalling rites; he was very easily offended, and never forgave anybody; he had a dreadful face….he never did a kind action, and whatever influence he did exert was mischievous.

So, yes, it is possible. I must say, in winging through the life of ‘the Beast’ I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard. :-))


  1. I always used to assume that Crowley was the original for Karswell. But Reggie Oliver has argued that Karswell may not have been based on Crowley, but on one Oscar Browning, a Fellow of King's and former Eton housemaster, whom, Oliver believes, MRJ regarded as "a kind of satanic double of himself". "Like James", Oliver explains, "Browning was gregarious, charming and genuinely concerned for the welfare of the young, but Browning's capacity for holding a grudge, his occasional malice, his shaky scholarship, his stoutness, and slightly sinister appearance, not to mention his forays into the homosexual underworld, all suggest a likely model for Karswell." Oliver's account is based on the uniquely spiteful portrait of Browning in MRJ's otherwise anodyne autobiography, 'Eton and Kings'. But while it would avoid the difficulties of chronology and coincidence entailed by the Crowley theory, I have to say that I find Browning, whose greatest claim to occult menace appears to have been that he was a Christian Scientist, a rather disappointing original for the sinister Karswell.

    Crowley was also the model for a character in another supernatural story I enjoyed, but I can't remember the author's name. I thought it may have been H R Wakefield, but my brief perusal of his works didn't turn up the story I had in mind. Wakefield, an infamous drunkard and misogynist, as well as a keen golfer (nobody's perfect), also wrote some excellent ghost stories. 'The Red Lodge' and 'Blind Man's Buff' are the most frequently anthologised, but there are many others, like 'The Sepulchre of Jasper Sarasen' (based on MRJ's 'Count Magnus'), which are well worth reading. I'll let you know if I ever track down that other story.

  2. Ah, that's interesting, Allectus. Have you read The Magician?

  3. No; I'll have to look out for it when I'm next in the UK.

    I read John Symonds's biography of Crowley, 'The Great Beast', and his 'The Magick of Aleister Crowley', a couple of years' ago. Crowley was one of those wonderfully weird real-life personalities who could never have been anyone's invention but his own. Sometimes truth really can be stranger than fiction.

  4. Yes, he was. I have Do What Thou Wilt: a Life of Aleister Crowley by Laurence Sutin, though I have yet to read it. You might also be interested in Chemical Wedding, Allectus, a movie with Simon Callow in the role of 'the Beast.' :-)