THE RISEN: A Holographic Novel by Peter Whitehead
A review by Alan Moore
The occult novel, a rather Edwardian‑looking edifice, presides gloomily over the most sodden and untrodden reaches of the literary landscape; a critical hinterland forever infused by the peculiar, paranoiac shade of Dennis Wheatley and thus seldom visited by those of subtler talent or more sophisticated intellect.
Wheatley's Manichean world, hopelessly confusing Satan with Stalin, is a place where fat and unpleasant Devil‑worshippers with bad breath (often of uncertain ethnic origin) indulge in astral rumbles with a charming array of right‑wing, upper class occult dilettantes. We can tell that the devil‑worshippers are the bad guys because of their generally "evil" demeanour and their willingness to French kiss a goat's rectum while chanting "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law!"
Sadly, when genuine occultists have made forays into fiction the result is little better. While less hysterical than Wheatley, Crowley's "Moonchild" reads most often like a mirror‑image version of "The Satanist". Here, the diabolists are good guys but the general sense of middle‑class decorum and lacklustre prose remain the same. One could cite Dion Fortune or Sax Rohmer, or, on a more elevated level, Arthur Machen or Algernon Blackwood. Even with such glittering examples as these last‑named gentlemen it is quite clear, however, that little of worth has been accomplished in the field of occult fiction for the best part of a century.
Part of the problem is the changing face of the occult itself, or to be more precise, the change that has occurred in our perception of the occult world. In that occult means "hidden", the latter half of the twentieth century has seen much that was formerly occult resolved into a scientific sphere of influence that is expanding exponentially.Even the most die‑hard aficionado of the magickal arts must surely admit that the frontiers of understanding are these days more usually the province of the quantum physicist than the sorcerer. In the day of John Dee, or even of Isaac Newton, magic and science had a close fraternal relationship, and were indeed in many instances exactly the same thing. Since then, there has been a schism. Mysteries of the Universe that were previously the sole domain of the philosopher or thaumaturge now display themselves brazenly to our tunnelling microscopes and astronomical apparatus, in service to a rational, Cartesian world‑view that has no room for Newton's alchemy or Dee's angels.
Christianity, balking at a God that could not create the world in seven days, failed to come to terms with advances in cosmology and our understanding of evolutionary principles. In doing so, it left itself intellectually isolated and thus hastened its own collapse into self‑doubt and spiritual impotence. The contemporary occultist faces just such a dilemma: if the traditions and essence of magickal thinking are not to disappear into the same mists as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fairies or Swedenborg's spirits then magick must once more embrace science; become as familiar with cyberspace as it has formerly been with the Aethyrs.
Which brings us, at last, to "The Risen". Some years in the crafting and yet written in fierce and visionary rushes, "The Risen" maps a viable new territory for the occult novel that is both vital and inclusive, drawing upon holography, crystallography and quantum physics every bit as much as upon timeless Egyptian myth or the SOMA mysteries that also provide part of its substance.
Linking diverse areas of scientific and metaphysical speculation is a narrative that on one level reads as a heavily eroticized version of a country house detective story: a missing‑person mystery is posed that opens like a black hole in the text to draw both characters and readers inexorably into a deeper, truer mystery. Investigations here are carried out on more than merely mundane levels, probing in the dark recesses of Great Pyramid or human mind alike to furnish not so much "Whodunnit?" as "Whatarewe?"
Peter Whitehead's literary style betrays his splendid cinematic origins with streams of imagery that linger in the mind's eye to create an almost virtual space in which the mystery unfolds. Iconic characters are drawn into a dance where in the last analysis they are made aspects of each other, caught up in an archetypal drama that was old when Earth was young: the scattered pieces of the God Osiris are here pieced together as computer files. The mysteries of Isis emerge unexpectedly in the midst of hard‑core dildo‑wielding pornography. The drugged hedonism of our late twentieth century connects in a chilling arc‑flash with the occult spaces of a much older gnosis.
While Whitehead's prior experience pays off here in his skilful use of visual imagery and narrative, his treatment of the basic subject matter also indicates a man who knows of whereof he speaks. The various musings upon crystallography gain much support from Whitehead's own experience as a crystallographer. The keen descriptions of the feel of magic as presented in the work have the resounding smack of authenticity, and one suspects these occult aspects, although obviously fictionalised, may also have their origins in the personal experience.
In summary, "The Risen" is remarkable both for its entertainment value as a fiction and its educational potential as a non‑fictional treatise on some interesting aspects of our occult and scientific culture. More than this, it is to be hoped that it may become a template for the occult fictions of the future. Move over, Dennis Wheatley, and tell Sax Rohmer the news.
Copyright Alan Moore