The Occult and the Mystical

The last few days here in Washington have been gloriously spring-like in temperature, while the trees have taken on their autumnal reds and muted browns and the landscape is blanketed with fallen leaves. That period when the sun is in Scorpio must be the time of year I most love.

Now, as it happens, I am a Scorpio--my birthday was November 6--and perhaps I respond so strongly to this season because it was All Ordained by the Stars. I say this with those ironic capitals because I don’t believe in the zodiac, horoscopes, or any form of the occult. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t love to read about such things. Today--Thursday, Nov. 10--I reviewed Umberto Eco’s “The Prague Cemetery” and, while writing the piece, thought back to how much I had enjoyed “Foucault’s Pendulum,” a novel built around various theories of the occult and the human tendency to find conspiracies and secret societies behind the turning-points of history. I also loved the use of the Tarot in William Lindsay Gresham’s “Nightmare Alley” and the way that Fredric Brown, in “Night of the Jabberwock,” makes it seem that the weird characters in Lewis Carroll actually exist. One of the reasons I’m so fond of John Dickson Carr’s locked-room mysteries is simply because the impossible crime nearly always seems, at first, utterly uncanny.

Lately, I’ve been mulling over the idea of writing a piece about mystical novels. What I mean by this term isn’t entirely clear to me just yet, but I’m thinking of books where the protagonist searches after or finally connects with some other realm of being, i.e. somehow pierces the veil, or has an encounter with Pan, or discovers some kind of unity with a pantheistic Nature, or even experiences a major trauma that leads him or her to religious belief. Many of the books that interest me belong to the first half of the last century: Arthur Machen’s “The Hill of Dreams,” Kenneth Grahame’s “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” chapter in “The Wind in the Willows,” Algernon Blackwood’s “The Centaur,” the early stories of E.M. Forster, the novels of Charles Williams, the novels of Russell Hoban. I suppose I was led to this theme, in part, by the research for my little book, “On Conan Doyle” (just published by Princeton): The creator of Sherlock Holmes was deeply interested in the psychical and supernatural throughout his life, not just at the end of it when he became a devout Spiritualist. I suppose I should add the last Professor Challenger, “The Land of Mist,” to my mystic list, since it recounts various seances and communications from the Other World.

Can Reading Room members suggest other titles for this admittedly rather inchoate category? Have any others here found themselves drawn to any kind of “mystical” writing or even to mysticism itself? Have you ever attended a seance or had your fortune told by a serious “Reader and Advisor” (which is how I’ve always wanted to describe myself on business cards)? Do you have favorite “mystical” authors or books? Do you enjoy books with a supernatural background, whether ghostly tales or religious fiction? Please share your suggestions and thoughts.

Michael Dirda

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