The drug and other stories by Aleister Crowley
Wordsworth puts out lots of affordable editions of classics and public domain works, and I recently found a used copy of this collection of stories by Aleister Crowley. It has 49 stories, many of them previously unpublished. I know Wordsworth has at least one other collection of his stories which has all the ‘Simon Iff” mysteries and a few other miscellaneous fantasies.
I am only about 1/2 way through this collection, but I figured I’d comment on the stories I’ve read so far. I’d say the stories in The drug and other stories have no overarching theme, and generally defy classification.
Some are clearly mystical/occult allegories, and I found these to be kind of boring, since they really presuppose a lot of knowledge of freemasonry and occultism, and of Crowley’s particular take on occultism. Some of these occult stories seem to be autobiographical, and are a reminder of just how narcissistic Crowley was. The writing is usually pretty colorful and vivid, but I found myself leaving many of these half-read.
Other stories have occult elements and symbolism but are more straightforwardly narrative, and often have a joke or twist ending. Many of these showcase Crowley’s scandalous (for his time) interest in sex and he is clearly hoping to shock conventional readers. It is a little surprising just how unsettling some of his stories manage to be, perhaps more for their brutal immorality than anything else. Although he doesn’t revel in gore, some of the imagery is pretty disturbing. He also makes many off-hand references to British social life and politics, and the editor explains some of these in footnotes. Despite the obscurity of some passages, Crowley can be very witty, and some bits are very funny.
A few stories are straightforward political satires, and others are psychological studies. These are usually pretty heavy-handed but have their moments. A few are thinly veiled rants on moral or political issues, and it speaks well of Crowley that even these stories are entertaining.
Several stories are horror tales or ‘weird tales’, with or without supernatural elements.
The standouts for me were:
“Ercildoune,” a short novella about intrigue and revenge;
“The testament of Magdalene Blair,” which is probably Crowley’s most famous story and still has the power to disturb;
“The stratagem,” another of his more well-known stories;
“The vixen,” a very short fantasy involving shape-changers;
“The dream Circean,” a weird tale about a vanishing house in Paris;
”The soul-hunter,” a horror story about a scientist’s search for the human soul in an unwilling subject; and
“Lieutenant Finn’s promotion,” which reads like an adventure in colonial Africa but is actually a spoof on European geopolitics.
I think the stories are presented in chronological order, and I would definitely say Crowley’s writing improved with time. Many were published under pseudonyms, and some were published in the various propaganda papers he published while working as a British spy, so I would hesitate to read too much into the politics of those stories — Crowley wore a lot of masks, and I imagine that some stories were written ‘in character’ in his assumed identities.
I know what you’re thinking — any gamable ideas? The occult stuff has some potential, particularly with the descriptions of rituals and rituals spaces like temples. I understand that “Atlantis,” a story I haven’t gotten to yet, is a fantasy tale, which sounds promising. Nothing so far has really jumped out at me for DD, but I could see using many of the characters, places, and events in Call of Cthulhu. In fact Crowley’s settings (Edwardian England, ‘belle epoque’ Paris, Russia, and colonial outposts in Africa and the East) are all the sorts of places you’d expect to find CoC adventurers, and Crowley himself — mountaineer, poet, mystic, cult leader, and spy — would make a fine CoC villain or hero.