Historian Pierce Moffett’s ongoing scholarly obsession with “magic, secret histories, and the End of the World” is depicted in ever darkening hues—in the forbiddingly dense third volume of Crowley’s ambitious Aegypt Quartet (Aegypt, 1987; Love and Sleep, 1994).
As before, the action is set both in the remote upstate New York town of Blackbury Jambs and in memories of rural Kentucky and a heritage of violence—a legacy the reclusive Pierce is still trying to escape. Furthermore, the present narrative is mirrored in excerpts from the bizarre children’s books of Fellowes Kraft, as well as from Pierce’s research (inspired by Kraft) into the histories of the 16th-century philosophers “heretic” Giordano Bruno and English scientist-mystic John Dee, whose “dealings with the spirits” (a form of the “daemonomania” that grips Pierce) may have awakened dark forces that threaten overweening mortals. These potent materials easily upstage a comparatively wan contemporary story that centers in Pierce’s confused relationships with two women named Rose (who may be Platonic halves of a single feminine figure), a little girl named Sam who suffers inexplicable seizures and may be a “sensitive” attuned to unearthly harmonies, and the menacing Powerhouse International cult. Though its surface is refreshingly lucid, this overstuffed novel turns on a “plot” that’s really a series of episodic variations on the Aegypt Quartet’s commanding theme: that a “secret history” grasped by only a few humans underlies the world we think we know, and directs our actions. Dreams and foreshadowings, alchemy, Rosicrucianism, the kabala, astrology, Neoplatonism, and many other skillfully assimilated sources and influences suffuse a narrative likewise steeped in grand mythic resonances—as a childless mother becomes Demeter seeking Persephone, and Pierce both a subdued Faust and a chastened Prospero resigned to the necessity of “burning his books.”
Deeply atmospheric, impressively learned, endlessly suggestive: it won’t mean much, though, to readers who haven’t wrestled with its equally demanding predecessors. Crowley’s work is a taste well worth acquiring, but you have to work at it.