The Occult Bookstore

This image is of Ray’s Occult Books, the rundown fictional NYC bookstore opened by Ghostbuster Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd). In the time between Ghostbusters I and II,.

Ray had problems dealing with life then. The city of New York had a restraining order on them for the property damage incurred while they saved the city from Gozer in the first Ghostbusters film. Those were hard years following the collapse of the Ghostbusters. He opened a store that specialized in bizarre, strange, and hard-to-find books. Ray tells someone that his books cover alchemy, astrology, apparitions, Bundu Magic Men, demon intercession, U.F.O. Abductions, psychic surgery, stigmata, modern miracles, pixie sightings, golden geese, geists, and ghosts. Peter Venkman was a frequent customer. We know that in 1989, Peter ordered a book a copy of Magical Paths to Fortune and Power.

Discovering this little piece of movie trivia, I immediately remembered an occult bookstore I had gone to with my friends Karen and Bob. Ray’s store exteriors were filmed at 33 St. Mark’s Place, but the store was supposed to be in the cooler part of Greenwich Village. The store I went to was also in the Village back in the 1970s but I don’t remember the location. We always called it “the occult bookstore” and I’m not sure what was its official name – if it had one.

It was as odd as Ray’s and equally odd were the staffers and customers. You could get into some interesting conversations there with people.

I bought a copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead there and some incense on one visit. The book is for the living to prepare yourself or others who are dying for liberation and the passage between worlds in the bardo.

I’ve thought about that store and that book, especially when Bob passed from this world and I wondered if he was somewhere in that intermediary place between life and death and the next step.

I know Ghostbusters is played for laughs but I have been haunted my whole life by the idea of ghosts (only once by a ghost) and wondering if there is an afterlife.

Ray’s store shows up in Ghostbusters II, and the third film, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, and in the comic book series and board and video games.

The Haunting of Shirley Jackson

Have you ever read any stories or novels by Shirley Jackson? If you know her writing, it’s most likely to be that you read her short story “The Lottery” in a classroom. It is a classic creepy story hidden inside somewhat normal circumstances.

The story begins:
“The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o’clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 26th, but in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.”

If you haven’t read the story,  you should – so  I won’t add a spoiler, but it’s not what you’d expect. This is not a lottery where the winner is rewarded.

That story was originally published in The New Yorker in 1948 and it still has power. Readers were shocked, wrote angry letters, and canceled their subscriptions.

Jackson has other stories and books that readers should try.  Her novel The Haunting of Hill House is a good haunted house book. What I like about her is that she often takes ordinary people in realistic settings and tells a tale of horror and the occult.

In Hill House, there are four characters – an occult scholar, his assistant, a sad young woman with some poltergeist experience, and the future heir of Hill House. It turns out that the house has plans to make one of them its own.

I used to offer Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle as outside reading when I taught middle school. I don’t know who had the book approved for our reading list. It was a strange choice made before my time there. I had a class set of the novel. I never “taught” the novel. It was a book students could choose from a group of four novels. It was fairly easy to seduce some students into reading the novel by implying that we shouldn’t be reading it for school. Thankfully, I never had any issues with parents about it. That might not be true today.

In this novel, the strange – but not haunted – castle is called Blackwood House. The girl who narrates, Merricat, tells a tale that was described on book jackets as “macabre, sinister and humorous.”

Merricat is a character that I found middle school girls really liked. She has created an odd world with her own rules. My students assumed that her use of magic, her buried talismanic objects and ones she attached to trees, along with her rituals, and the talk about poisoned relatives was the truth. Ah, the unreliable narrator.

I think middle schoolers are ripe for a strange family in a strange house that is viewed with distrust and some hostility by neighbors and other villagers.  The neighbors don’t really ever see anything paranormal going on, but the family gets a reputation as a weird family. The reader starts to wonder what is the truth.

Merricat’s little world is invaded by cousin Charles, who seems to want to grab hold of the Blackwood “fortune.” He undoes her spells and digs up her treasures and she gets desperate.

My young teenage students seemed to really connect with being seen as strange or being an outsider. Maybe they didn’t cope or fight like Merricat, but they knew her battle. They found the novel’s conclusion as tragic.

Shirley is a strange writer. I mean that in a good way. But Shirley Jackson also wrote some light, humorous tales about family life. She wrote Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. She was a mom with four children and not some dark, disturbed woman. She wrote at night after her mothering work was done.

Maybe it was those night hours that took her into that other directions. Maybe it was an escape from those daytime “demons” she was raising.  Maybe she had a rough time in 8th grade.

Yeats and the Occult

A drawing by Edmund Dulac from WB Yeats’ “A Vision.”

Irish poet and playwright William Butler (W.B.) Yeats is still best known for his Irish nationalism and poems like “The Wild Swans at Coole,” “Easter 1916,” “Sailing to Byzantium,” and “The Second Coming.”

Yeats was born in Sandymount, near Dublin, but moved to London when he was still a young man. He went back to Ireland every summer to spend time with his grandparents in County Sligo, a place that would appear frequently in his work.

His father was a well-known painter and began training Yeats as a child. William went to art school to appease his father, but only long enough to realize he really wanted to be a poet. In London (1886), he made the acquaintance of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. He liked to dress in a long black cloak, soft black sombrero, and untidy black trousers.

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”

Yeats was introduced to the study and practice of the occult while in art college in Dublin. He found work as a correspondent for two American newspapers and he met the poet Paul Verlaine in Paris. This was also the time when joined the Theosophical Society and the Order of the Golden Dawn, an English occult group.

There is another world, but it is in this one.”

Conventional Christianity had been closed off for him because of his father’s religious skepticism. But he felt a need to believe in something and he sought some kind of spiritual life. Throughout his life, he tried to contact the spirit world through occult practices.

His involvement in the occult was connected to his relationships with a series of women who shared these beliefs. Almost all the women who inspired his poems were involved in the occult. In 1890, he joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in London, a secret society that practiced ritual magic and included in its member his great love Maud Gonne.

“…I’m looking for the face I had, before the world was made…”

Reincarnation, communication with the dead, mediums, supernatural systems, and Oriental mysticism fascinated Yeats throughout his life. It had a profound effect on his poetry. Mysticism and the occult occur in many poems, most explicitly in ‘The Second Coming” but also in poems such as “Sailing to Byzantium.” Not everyone appreciated that effect. W.H. Auden said that these poems were the “deplorable spectacle of a grown man occupied with the mumbo-jumbo of magic and the nonsense of India.”

The Embassy of the Free Mind

A rather strange and fascinating collection of pre-1900 books on alchemy, astrology, magic, and other occult subjects has been digitized. The digitization of these rare texts is being done under an  education project called “Hermetically Open.”

The project also received a generous donation from author Dan Brown, who certainly has an interest in these things and has used texts like these in his novels. Who knows – maybe his next novel will come from these texts.

Amsterdam’s Ritman Library has made the first 1,617 books from the project available in their online reading room at It is still a work in progress, but you will have full access to hundreds of rare occult texts.

Be aware that these books are written in several different European languages. My Latin is quite elementary and that was the scholarly language of Europe throughout the Medieval and Early Modern periods so there are plenty of Latin texts. I have to say that my first browsings have been more to look at the illustrations, front pieces and the visual aspects.

Some books are in German, Dutch, and French, so us language poor monolingual English speakers are at a reading disadvantage.

I do love the idea of digitizing texts that would otherwise be lost or not available to the masses. Now we need some kind of tech babel fish who can read and speak all these books to us.

Saying Yes Yes to Ouija

Ouija design by @lordofmasks

Starting in the late sixties and early seventies, American poet James Merrill became interested in the occult and began using a Ouija board regularly to communicate with spirits. He began to use those conversations for his poems.

The Ouija board was originally known as a spirit board or talking board.  “Ouija” is a trademark of Hasbro, Inc. who bought the rights and produced it as a game board using the French oui and German ja to make the foreign-sounding yes+yes board name. How about a $260 glow-in-the dark version?

This flat board is marked with the letters of the alphabet, the numbers 0–9, the words “yes”, “no”, “goodbye” and sometimes includes  “hello” and other symbols and graphics. The user places their fingers lightly on a heart-shaped piece of wood or plastic called a planchette. The movement of the planchette supposedly spells out words and the occult idea is that the movement is controlled by a spirit you have contacted.

The original talking board of 1894
The original talking board of 1894

Most people treat the Ouija as a party game. It was big with teenage girls in my youth as a way to find out about boyfriends and future events. Once upon a long time ago, I spent some serious hours using it with a girlfriend who was into all things strange. She read the books and had rules we followed. For example, never ask a question that you already know the answer to. We received some “messages” that were difficult to pass off as coincidences or as things we had deliberately pointed the planchette to spell out. There were things that we were later able to confirm as accurate. There was also a lot of gibberish.

American Spiritualist Pearl Curran popularized its use as a divining tool during World War I. He believed that the dead were able to contact the living and he used a talking board to enable faster communication with spirits.

When I taught middle school, the Ouija board always seemed to come up somehow in some a class discussion. I would tell students that some religions, like Christians, think that its use can lead to demonic possession. That warning probably just made it seem more appealing to my students, as did reading about it in Stephen King’s The Stand or watching The Exorcist.

Paranormal and supernatural beliefs like the Ouija are generally considered pseudoscience. The planchette moves because of unconscious (or quite conscious) movements by the users. I’m sure Merrill wasn’t interested, but if you want some science, look into the psychophysiological explanation under ideomotor effect.

With his partner David Jackson, Merrill spent more than 20 years transcribing supernatural communications during séances using a Ouija board. He published his first Ouija board narrative in a poem for each of the letters A through Z, calling it “The Book of Ephraim.”  It appeared in the collection Divine Comedies, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1977.

“The Book of Ephraim,” a 90-page narrative poem in that volume. It comes from those 20+ years using the Ouija board and revelations spelled out by Ephraim. That spirit was a Greek Jew once in the court of Tiberius. Merrill mixed his own personal memories with Ephraim’s messages. In Mirabell: Books of Number, a sequel to “The Book of Ephraim” he continued that path at even greater length.

Is it great poetry? Not for me. I prefer other work by Merrill, but with a Pulitzer and with Mirabell getting the National Book Award for Poetry, don’t rely on my critical opinions.

Merrill is an interesting poet story.  He had a pretty sweet early life as the son of a founding partner of the Merrill Lynch investment firm. He had a governess that taught him French and German. They lived on a 30-acre estate in Southampton. Yes, James rejected much of that and lived a fairly simple life.

When Merrill thought he had exhausted the Ouija inspiration, the  “spirits” “ordered” (his word) him to write and publish more. That’s spooky. This led to further installments and finally a complete three-volume book titled The Changing Light at Sandover in 1982. It is a 560-page apocalyptic epic poem.

The Occult of Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton was born on Christmas Day 1642 or January 4, 1643. (I have found both listed online, the latter more often.). You probably learned about him in school. He was an English physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and natural philosopher. He is considered by many to be the greatest and most influential scientist who ever lived. His monograph Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, published in 1687, lays the foundations for most of classical mechanics. In this work, Newton described universal gravitation and the three laws of motion, which dominated the scientific view of the physical universe for the next three centuries.

But he was also an alchemist, and theologian and he wrote many works that would now be classified as occult studies. He explored with great seriousness chronology, alchemy, and Biblical interpretation.

Many authors who have written about him believe that his scientific work may have actually been of lesser personal importance to him than his “fringe science” studies because for a good part of his life, Newton was focused on re-discovering the occult wisdom of the ancients.

On his scientific side, there is the “Newtonian Worldview.” Until the early 20th century, the classical mechanics of Newton and his followers was seen as the foundation for science as a whole. In fact, most people thought that the other sciences would follow suit.  But biology, psychology and other sciences didn’t really move in that direction. They did adopt a general mechanistic or Newtonian world view. And many people equate “scientific thinking” with “Newtonian thinking”.

So, did Newton have a purely mechanistic world view? If so, why did he search for the Philosopher’s Stone? Yes, that same stone that was the basis for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone which was originally titled in the U.K. editions  Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone. Newton’s writings suggest that the discovery of The Philosopher’s Stone (a material believed to turn base metals into gold) was definitely a goal of his research. He also appears to have had an interest in finding the Elixir of Life.

Newton reportedly believed that a Diana’s Tree (an alchemical demonstration producing a “growth” of silver from solution and also known as the “Philosopher’s Tree”) was evidence that metals “possessed a sort of life.”

In the 1940s, economist John Maynard Keynes studied Newton’s alchemical works and concluded that “Newton was not the first of the age of reason; he was the last of the magicians.”

We should remember that Newton lived in a time when the distinctions between science, superstition, and pseudoscience were still being formulated.

Much of what we know about Newton’s studies in the occult is from his study of alchemy. Newton was deeply interested in all forms of natural sciences and materials science, an interest which would ultimately lead to some of his better-known contributions to science. During Newton’s lifetime the study of chemistry was still in its infancy, so many of his experimental studies used esoteric language and vague terminology more typically associated with alchemy and occultism.

It was not until several decades after Newton’s death that experiments by Antoine Lavoisier and others brought on analytical chemistry and the nomenclature that we are familiar with today.

There was probably more of Newton’s writing on alchemy that was lost in a fire in his laboratory.  Newton also suffered a nervous breakdown during the period of his alchemical work. Some historians think the breakdown resulted from the psychological transformation alchemy was originally designed to induce. Others think that it may have been some form of chemical poisoning (possibly from mercury, lead, or some other substance.

Newton wrote in 1704 about his attempts to extract scientific information from the Bible. He spent much of his life seeking what could be considered a Bible Code and placed a great deal of emphasis upon the interpretation of the Book of Revelation and studying the Apocalypse. He estimated that the world would end no earlier than 2060.

In Newton’s “The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms” there are several passages that directly mention the mythical land of Atlantis. He seems to have believed that Homer’s Ulysses left the island of Ogygia which was home to Calypso, the daughter of Atlas (after whom Atlantis was named). It appears Newton may have also believed that Ogygia or Cadis or Cales was Atlantis, a land as big as all Europe, Africa and Asia, but that it was sunk into the sea.

“Official” emblem of the Priory of Sion, partly based on the fleur-de-lis, a symbol associated with the French monarchy

Isaac Newton has also been connected to various secret societies and fraternal orders throughout history. The evidence is sketchy because of the secretive nature of such organizations, a lack of supportive publicized material, and weak motives for Newton’s participation in these groups.

One movement that seems to have  influenced Isaac Newton was  Rosicrucianism.  The Rosicrucian movement caused a lot of interest in the European scholarly community during the early seventeenth century. When Newton encountered it, there was less sensationalism and it influenced his alchemical work and philosophical thought.

The Rosicrucian belief that some are chosen for their ability to communicate with angels or spirits fit into both Newton’s alchemy and his religious beliefs.

Rosicrucians also claimed to have the ability to live forever through the use of the elixir vitae and they claimed they could produce gold from the use of The Philosopher’s Stone, which they further claimed to have in their possession.

Like Newton, the Rosicrucians were deeply religious, avowedly Christian, anti-Catholic, and highly politicized.

At the time of his death, Isaac Newton had 169 books remaining on the topic of alchemy in his personal library which was considered one of the finest alchemical libraries in the world. He had a heavily annotated personal copies of “The Fame and Confession of the Fraternity R.C.”  by Thomas Vaughan (which represents an English translation of The Rosicrucian Manifestos) and other alchemical classics.

Evidence that Newton was a Freemason is less evident, but he is often identified as being a member of several early Masonic Lodges including the Grand Lodge of England. There are few records of early Freemasonry but the modern structure of the organization was partly established during Newton’s lifetime in and around London.

Newton was a member  of The Royal Society and many Royal Society members have been identified as early Freemasons.  It is clear that Newton was deeply interested in architecture, sacred geometry, and the structure of the Temple of Solomon – subjects that also interested Freemasons.

It would be fun to believe that Newton actually a Grand Master of the Priory of Sion. But the Priory itself seems to be mythical.  This path is more like the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail of a novel like The Da Vinci Code. Isaac Newton’s membership in the Priory actually does play a role in Dan Brown‘s book as one of the plot puzzles. The “tomb of a knight a pope interred” refers not to a medieval knight, but rather to Newton’s tomb in Westminster Abbey, because Newton was eulogized by Alexander Pope (A. Pope but not the Catholic Pope).

Actually, Newton may have liked curling up in a chair to read our modern day Holy Blood, Holy Grail: The Secret History of Jesus, the Shocking Legacy of the Grail, and even Dan Brown‘s take on him in The Da Vinci Code. The occult side of Newton is as appealing to me as the scientific long shadow he casts.