Novelist Jake Arnott writes about Crowley as an inspiration for fictional characters.
The Satanist and spy has inspired memorable characters
By Jake Arnott
published: 6:30AM BST 30 May 2009
Jake Arnott's The Devil's Paintbrush features Aleister Crowley
Aleister Crowley is the archetypal villain in 20th-century fiction. Larger than life, he personified the extreme fears and disturbing desires of a new age. Poet, chess master, mountaineer, sexual adventurer, cult leader, spy, magician: all these achievements have faded. What remains is an unforgettable creature of the imagination. The “Great Beast 666”, as he was known, was never that bad, but he possessed a seductive horror that enchanted many of the most important writers of his generation. His own literary ambitions were never realised; his legacy is as a character, or rather a series of them.
WB Yeats first met him in 1899 as a fellow initiate in the Order of the Golden Dawn, a fashionable mystical society. The young Beast became indignant when the older poet appeared to snub him. “What hurt him was the knowledge of his own incomparable inferiority,” Crowley was later to comment. When a bitter schism divided the Golden Dawn, they found themselves on opposite sides, issuing curses, magical spells and even threats of violence.
Nevertheless, they shared an artistic temperament. Both sought to infuse modern verse with an occult sensibility and had apocalyptic visions for the coming century. And, though clearly the better poet, Yeats remained intimidated by the Beast’s demonic prowess. “The Second Coming” (1920) has a depiction of the Antichrist with the unmistakable silhouette of his old adversary: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last.”
By then, Crowley was firmly established as a fictional character. W Somerset Maugham’s The Magician (1908) featured the sinister Oliver Haddo, whom Maugham admitted was based on Crowley. They had both frequented the same dining club in Montparnasse. “I made my character more sinister and ruthless than Crowley ever was,” Maugham insisted. Already, the Beast was more distinct in fiction than in fact, and despite his protestations was clearly enjoying his double life. Crowley later featured in other depictions of Parisian expatriate life, including Arnold Bennett’s Paris Nights (1911) and Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (1964).
There is some debate as to whether Crowley is the basis for the evil alchemist Karswell in M R James’s ghost story Casting the Runes (1911). This tale came at a moment when Crowley was still forming his alter-ego and there are prophetic lines in James’s yarn. Karswell is said to have “invented a new religion for himself”, which is precisely what the Beast went on to do.
By the Twenties, Crowley had done much else: travelled the world, scaled K2 in the Himalayas, experimented with drugs, practised ritual sex with men and women, been involved in espionage and published scores of poems, novels, stories, plays and books on ceremonial magic. The only thing left was to set himself up as a prophet with a temple for his disciples. This led him to the notorious Abbey of Thelema in Sicily, where one of his acolytes died of cholera after drinking animal blood in a sacrificial ritual.
“The Wickedest Man in the World”, claimed the Sunday Express. Though he led a precarious fictional life, it was reality that got Crowley into trouble, in tabloid reports and his appearance in scandalous memoirs. After initial success in suing for defamation, the Beast was finally bankrupted by a disastrous libel case in 1934. Anthony Powell was working for the publishers Duckworth at the time and he met Crowley over lunch to discuss yet another “factual” book that mentioned him. Powell came away with a sketch for two sinister characters in A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-75): Dr Trelawney, who is “hounded by the Sunday papers after a devotee had fallen to her death at a temple” and later Scorpio Murtlock.
It was now open season on Crowley, as his legend became the stuff of gaudy thrillers. The best of these is Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out (1934), where he is clearly the Satanist Morcata. He also appears in Warwick Deeping’s Exiles (1930), HR Wakefield’s He Cometh and He Passeth By (1930), and Dion Fortune’s The Winged Bull (1935), which contains the marvellously melodramatic announcement: “London, Paris, New York, Berlin are full of all sorts and conditions of organisations experimenting and researching and playing about generally with the Unseen.”
Indeed, Crowley was playing with sects and secrecy in all these places, his life now a complex charade. He was in Berlin at the same time as Christopher Isherwood, sharing a flat with the communist con man Gerald Hamilton, who had his own fictional double in Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935). Immersed in a decadent demi-monde, Crowley and Hamilton were both spying on each other for the British and German secret services respectively. Isherwood was later to use Crowley as the basis of the antihero in A Visit to Anselm Oakes (1969).
At the outbreak of war, the Beast found himself caught up in further intrigue as the occult and espionage worlds collided. Ian Fleming, working for naval intelligence in M15, contacted him with an outlandish plan to lure Rudolf Hess to Britain by using mystical enchantments and astrology. The details of this plot remain obscure, but Hess, a passionate devotee of the occult, did fly to Scotland and Fleming was keen that Crowley should interrogate him using his magical knowledge. All that is certain about this curious episode is that Crowley provided Fleming with the template for Le Chiffre, the first Bond villain in Casino Royale (1953). This was to be the final study in his lifetime and a fitting climax to the absurd double narrative of his existence. He died in 1947, addicted to heroin, morose, penniless, exhausted.
After the Second World War, Crowley’s status as the wickedest man in the world seemed faintly ludicrous, and his eligibility as a literary villain began to wane. Indeed, by the Sixties he had been reinvented as a hero to the counter-culture movement, which questioned traditional morality just as he had done. He featured on the cover of the The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album and in the lyrics of Led Zeppelin and David Bowie. He was still the consummate baddy for the old-guard novelist Powell though, who used the Beast once more, reincarnating him as the vicious cult leader Scorpio Murtlock in Hearing Secret Harmonies (1975), the final volume of his epic cycle.
He features as himself in my new novel The Devil’s Paintbrush, as a witness to the homosexual scandal of Major General Sir Hector Macdonald. His appearance is based on an actual historical event: Crowley did indeed meet the doomed Empire hero over lunch at the Hotel Regina, Paris in 1903. But, though I started with the facts, the nature of the Beast has inevitably led me astray, off on a wild night in the city of sin. So Crowley continues his merry dance between fiction and reality, only really making sense as a character of wild speculation. But he is neither villain nor hero in my book. Just a man with terrible flaws and precocious talents, a prescient embodiment of all the wicked delights and holy terrors of the modern age.
Jake Arnott’s ‘The Devil’s Paintbrush’ is published by Sceptre.