And did Space Gods Build the Pyramids? Can you calculate the date of the Apocalypse by squaring the height of the second building on the left at Chichen Itza? No, basically. So today we take an interest in speculative author John Sladek, dear old H P Lovecraft, Erich von Däniken and a smattering of Arthur Conan Doyle. This is a fortunate state of affairs, as our next question comes from a Mrs von Däniken, of 3 The Alps, Switzerland, who wants to know which alien astronaut caused her little boy Erich to commit embezzlement, fraud and other naughty things.
Well, Mrs von Däniken, it might be that your son suffers from the belief that he is one of Theosophy’s Root Races, and that his kind will eventually prove the rest of us wrong. Or that he’s nuts, and likes money. He certainly enjoyed his hidden books. Listeners who have been here before will remember the Book of Dzyan, mentioned in one of Lovecraft’s stories:
“I learned of the Book of Dzyan, whose first six chapters antedate the earth, and which was old when the lords of Venus came through space in their ships to civilise our planet.”
The Diary of Alonzo Typer, H. P. Lovecraft & William Lumley
We have, of course, already pottered around HPL, the roots of weird fiction and Madame Blavatsky’s theosophy in early outings ( the fawcett saga pt 1 ). We’ll come back to HPL later, but note that Von Däniken liked to bring this book up as a key source to back up his theories.
On the other hand, Samuel Rosenberg (1912 – 1996), the American writer, photographer and literary consultant, described the Book of Dzyan as “a fabrication superimposed on a gigantic hoax concocted by Madame Blavatsky.”
Rosenberg is better known to some for his peculiar interpretations of Sherlock Holmes, in the book Naked is the Best Disguise (1974). There’s always someone with a new theory about the Great Detective. A search for hidden meanings in the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, when it first came out this book was described by some Holmes scholars as more a desecration than a legitimate contribution to the field.
“The presence of Friedrich Nietzsche at the Reichenbach Falls in 1877 was the premiss for Rosenberg’s theory that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based the character of Professor Moriarty on the German philosopher and that Doyle’s detective stories were the “pre-Freudian psycho-dramatic confessions” of a “self-revealing allegorist”.
“His findings were published in 1974 by Bobbs Merrill (or Boobs Merrill as he referred to them). The book, Naked is the Best Disguise: the death and resurrection of Sherlock Holmes, enjoyed great success in America (where it sold over 25,000 copies in hardback and was on the “Book-of- the-Month” list for several months), and there was success of a different sort in England where Desmond Elliott of Arlington Books was forced to remainder many thousand copies to the delight of bemused Sherlockians, who were able to purchase them for as little as 50p a copy.”
Richard Lancelyn Green, Rosenberg Obituary, Independent (1996)
But more to the point, we recently re-read John Sladek’s The New Apocrypha (1973), and saw both Rosenberg and von Däniken turning up (on different sides). We were reminded of much nonsense from those heady times.
John Sladek (1937-2000) was a remarkably clever and amusing writer, a favourite of our youth – Roderick at Random, The Reproductive System, The Steam-Driven Boy – and, of course, Keep the Giraffe Burning, a wondrous title. You might call him an SF writer, but really much of his work tunnelled inventively into and around SF, producing satires and parodies which still stand up forty or more years later.
Sladek was part of the New Wave movement of the sixties and seventies, and was in Britain at the time of Michael Moorcock and the New Worlds magazine. Not that he was limited by it, nor was it exactly a coherent movement. But it was a time of great experimentation in prose style and subject, in the abandonment or subversion of old SF tropes. More William Burroughs than Edgar Rice.
Such matter formed a substantial part of our reading habits in the seventies. In the process of digging into J G Ballard, Thomas Disch, Joanna Russ, Michael Moorcock and the like back then, we also picked up Sladek’s The New Apocrypha: A Guide to Strange Science and Occult Beliefs. It’s not a novel, but a most enjoyable romp through the fact-free nonsense and pseudo-science of the time, with a special place reserved for von Däniken. Sladek described von Däniken’s book Was God an Astronaut as:
“…A kind of crank compendium. Nearly every dubious theory of the past century is enlisted to prove that spacemen visited the earth at some time in the dim, dumb past.”
Within The New Apocrypha you can find chapters on deceptive psychics and ESP, the ‘lost’ lands of Atlantis and Lemuria, crank medicine, perpetual motion, the Apocalypse, ufology, how astronauts did not build the pyramids, and much more. Sladek gives referenced details for the debunking of much nonsense, and does so in a way which is highly readable. An excellent fun book.
We mentioned Sladek’s The Steam-Driven Boy collection a long while back, because it includes a number of excellent parodies ( parodies and possibilities ). By coincidence, the Guardian obituary for Sladek was written by David Langford, who we mentioned in that same post. As a Secret Grandmaster of British SF Fandom, he is no mean parody writer himself. He wrote, of Sladek’s myth-busting:
“Urged by Moorcock to document the irrational byways of modern thought, Sladek produced the useful and funny The New Apocrypha: A Guide to Strange Sciences and Occult Beliefs. The realisation that pseudoscience could be highly profitable was all too tempting: as James Vogh he published Arachne Rising (1977), laboriously justifying a “long suppressed” 13th zodiac sign, Arachne the Spider. One of the invented case studies is of Cassandra Knye. Eventually he summarised this project as “a gigantic waste of time”.”
David Langford, Sladek Obituary, The Guardian (2000)
Roughly contemporary with the development of the New Wave, there arose another more peculiar piece of “non-fiction”, The Morning of the Magicians.
Written in 1960 by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier, it appeared in England in 1963 as The Dawn of Magic, and in America as The Morning of the Magicians, in 1964 (that was also the year in which Moorcock was appointed as editor to New Worlds magazine).
“The author provides raw material for speculation of the most outlandish order – secret societies, ancient prophesy, alchemical transmutation, the giant race that once ruled the Earth, the Nazca lines. Whether or not Pauwels or the reader believes any or all of these theories is beside the point.”
www.curledup.com. © Deborah Adams, 2009
Our interest here is that we can follow The Morning of the Magicians forward, through Sladek’s New Apocrypha debunkings, and on to a far more recent book, The Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft And Extraterrestial Pop Culture, by Jason Colavito (2005)
“Many Americans believe that so-called ancient astronauts (visitors from outer space) were responsible for historical wonders like the pyramids. This entertaining and informative book traces the origins of such beliefs to the work of horror writer H. P. Lovecraft (1890–1937). The author takes the reader through fifty years of pop culture and pseudoscience highlighting such influential figures and developments as Erich von Däniken (Chariots of the Gods), Graham Hancock (Fingerprints of the Gods), Zecharia Sitchin (Twelfth Planet), and the Raelian Revolution. The astounding and improbable connections among these various characters are revealed, along with the disturbing consequences of Lovecraft’s “little joke” for modern science and public knowledge.”
Basically, the author proposes that, allowing for some synthesis from the thoughts of earlier writers and from movements like theosophy, Lovecraft’s “weird SF” ends up being the root of much of the nonsense that followed. Examples include ‘At the Mountains of Madness’, with its aeons of alien colonisation and experimentation, which may be seen as lighting the fuse for The Morning of the Magicians, the confused theories of von Däniken, and so on.
Does it all come together in a seamless trail? Do we agree with everything that Colavito proposes? No, but there is some pleasure to be had from watching people try to make such leaps, whether or not they succeed. And for HPL fans, it’s another string to the bow when discussing how influential he was – or might have been.
Our Verdict: When in doubt, ignore the Astronaut Gods and read Sladek. He was a marvellous writer, and should be far more widely known.