The Occult Jew, pt. 6

In the second half of the twentieth century, the occult migrated to the horror genre where, especially following the success of Ira Levin’s canny Rosemary’s Baby (1967), it narrowed to a concern with satanism. (One of Levin’s satanists is Jewish, but this is because the book portrays a 1960s New York City where the occult, like everything else, is forward-thinking and inclusive.)

Western esotericism would also become a preoccupation of various Borgesian, postmodern writers whose books, sometimes fantasy-adjacent, draw on the histories of esoteric knowledge and secret societies primarily as a means of exploring and ironizing human systems of meaning. This second category includes writers as different as Thomas Pynchon, Umberto Eco, and John Crowley, and has generally been treated by critics as literature proper rather than genre fiction. If horror writers focused on the devil, these other writers focused conspiratorially on the details.

The occult in horror focused on the devil; in postmodernism, on the details.

Among the American fantasy writers who came to prominence in the middle of the century, we find a tendency either to keep occult and fantasy writing separate, or to deploy occult elements in science fiction, science fantasy, and alternate history contexts.

For instance, Fritz Leiber’s early novella “Adept’s Gambit,” which he sent to H. P. Lovecraft in 1936, featured his famous anti-heroes Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and was set in a semi-historical pre-Christian Mediterranean world—the tale opens “near the Sidonian harbor of Tyre”—that includes a range of esoteric cults and mysteries. Lovecraft’s comments on the unpublished early version of the novella suggest that the primary antagonist was a sorcerer with the rather Jewish name of Isaiah ben Elshaz.[1]

Yet when the work was finally published in 1949, there was no semitic sorcerer involved, only a passing reference to an “obscure treatise, ‘The Demonology of Isaiah ben Elshaz,’” as if the sword-and-sorcery genre required a distance from the historical world and its occult traditions. Leiber’s other Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories have no lack of creepy wizards and magical monsters, but the historical setting is eliminated in favor of Leiber’s invented world of Lankhmar.[2]

Leiber’s published sorcerer has the cowl, the bats, the tomes, but isn’t exactly a typical Renaissance magus.

Leiber’s occult materials find a place not in his fantasy stories but his horror novels, American parallels to the occult thrillers of a Charles Williams or Dion Fortune. His 1943 Conjure Wife is a marvelous exploration of mid-century relations between the sexes, and of the fate of the occult in rational modernity. The main character is a sociology professor who has built his academic career on the social scientific study of magical beliefs and folk cultures, not realizing that he owes all his good fortune to his wife’s witchcraft, which protects him above all against the machinations of malicious faculty wives.

In Our Lady of Darkness (1977), Leiber took up the late-Victorian occult and its relation with early twentieth-century Lovecraftian pulp writers. In this book, a dead but still quite dangerous magician, who founded a rival group to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, has laid a curse on the author’s alter-ego in 1970s San Francisco.

Jack Vance’s Dying Earth cycle of stories, begun in the 1940s, makes use of the language and motifs of scholarly magic. The adventures of Vance’s amoral Cugel, for instance, commence when he breaks into the home of a wizard to raid his “vast collection of thaumaturgical artifacts, instruments, and activants, as well as curiosa, talismans, amulets and librams.” However, Vance’s setting is a far-future in which sorcery and technology coexist. Magic, while much sought-after, is shown in the stories to be an indication of the civilization’s decadence and stagnation. Mathematics and space travel are more promising endeavors.[3]

Poul Anderson slipped a bit of Devil-worship into his heroic fantasy The Broken Sword, which is otherwise mostly concerned with Norse and Celtic mythologies, and experiments with epic themes and forms that have parallels to Tolkien and other literary fantastists. Anderson’s more extensive fun with occult elements takes place in his alternate-history science fantasy World War Two mash-up stories, published separately in the 1950s and collected as Operation Chaos in 1971.

The first published installment of Poul Anderson’s “Operation Chaos” stories

It may be that the occult, when it left the environs of the horror genre, was taken up more readily in science fiction contexts than pure fantasy ones during this period. For instance, the science fiction writer James Blish produced Black Easter (1968), a work of occult fiction, and its hybrid occult-and-military-sci-fi sequel The Day After Judgement (1971), which he dedicated to the memory of C. S. Lewis.

While the occult was never entirely absent from the fantasy genre, the firming up of the genre’s borders, from the Tolkien boom of the 1960s through the mass-market paperback series of the 1980s and 1990s, sidelined occult themes from fantasy, instead favoring mythical fantasylands and elven magic. The Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series of 1969-74, an important definer of the fantasy genre, included among its dozens of new and reprinted titles only a handful of works that might be associated in any way with the occult.[4]

In the period’s fantasylands, the figures most associated with the occult are (rather like Tolkien’s own Saruman) often villains whose use of black magic suggests a corruption of the natural order of the world and is sometimes associated with a genre-crossing infection of modern technology. The dark lord Brona in Terry Brooks’s 1977 bestseller Sword of Shannara fits the corrupting occultist-technologist profile, as does the evil wizard Blackwolf in Ralph Bakshi’s science fantasy movie Wizards of that same year. Exceptions to the marginalization of scholarly and ritual magic in fantasy (e.g., Moorcock’s Elric, LeGuin’s Earthsea academy, the Jewish wizards in Lisa Goldstein’s The Red Magician) tend to soft-pedal elements taken directly from western occult and esoteric systems.

Bakshi’s Blackwolf, a sorcerer with a film projector

The most popular fantasy writer with a direct connection to occult practice at this time was Marion Zimmer Bradley. Her reputation has today been overshadowed by revelations, or in some cases belated acknowledgement, of sexual abuse committed by her and her husband Walter Breen, a convicted pedophile.

In Berkeley, California in the 1960s, Bradley and Breen founded the Aquarian Order of the Restoration, a New Age spiritual-magical group based on the teachings of Dion Fortune. Bradley and Diana Paxson, co-author with Bradley of several titles in the Avalon series of Arthurian fantasy novels, helped found and direct several other Bay Area pagan and feminist spirituality groups.

Paxson writes, in her foreword to a 2010 reprint of Fortune’s 1927 occult novel The Demon Lover:

My own copy is a worn hardback that was given to me by Marion Zimmer Bradley. My husband, Jon DeCles, had been adopted into Marion’s family as a teenager, so when we married in 1968, Marion effectively became my sister-in-law. Most of the family already belonged to the Aquarian Order of the Restoration (AOR), an occult lodge run by Marion and her husband that was based on the work of Dion Fortune. So my first magical training was in a group descended from the same tradition as the one portrayed in The Demon Lover.

Paxson notes that “dog-eared copies of [Fortune’s spiritual guide] The Mystical Qabalah were passed around the lodge. Fortune’s works were our basic texts.” Paxson also writes that “the AOR was much more relaxed, egalitarian, and gender-balanced than the one” portrayed in The Demon Lover—which, it should be noted, is about the romantic devotion of a woman to her abuser, an emotionally stunted and sadistic occultist who preys on children.[5]

A 1976 reprint of Dion Fortune’s The Demon Lover

Coming up: Prospero, Roger Bacon, and a kabbalist named Millhorn.


Greyland, Moira. The Last Closet: The Dark Side of Avalon. Castalia House, 2018.

Leiber, Fritz and H. P. Lovecraft. Writers of the Dark. Eds. Ben J. S. Szumskyj and S. T. Joshi. Holicong, PA: Wildside Press, 2003.

Paxson, Diana L. Foreword. The Demon Lover, by Dion Fortune. San Francisco, CA and Newburyport, MA: Weiser Books, 2010. 1-4.

Vance, Jack. Tales of the Dying Earth. e-book, Tom Doherty Associates, 2012.

[1] Leiber and Lovecraft 2003, 67, 39-40.

[2] Leiber and Lovecraft 2003, 72.

[3] Vance 2012, 134.

[4] Machen’s The Three Imposters is the main instance, and as much by virtue of the author’s membership in occult societies as for any occult motifs in the book. More loosely, one might include David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus (which begins with a séance), Haggard and Lang’s The World’s Desire, and perhaps the Eastern romances Vathek (William Beckford) and Khaled (Francis Marion Crawford) and the couple of titles by Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith.

[5] Paxson 2010, 1. Bradley was also active in the elaborate cosplay and Renaissance recreation culture that emerged in 1960s Berkeley, centered around the Society for Creative Anachronism which Paxson helped found, and in which a number of fantasy writers participated. One of Bradley and Breen’s victims, their daughter Moira Greyland, has written a chilling memoir detailing the abuse that seems to have been a chronic part of this Bay Area subculture. Greyland notes that Paxson was not connected with the sexual abuse she suffered, and that the feminist neo-pagan ceremonies Greyland was required to participate in were, if cringe-inducing, not themselves abusive. Greyland has since become an advocate for victims of sexual abuse, while taking a position against homosexuality. See Greyland 2018.

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