Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Occult Fantasy

The study of the occult is the pursuit of hidden or secret doctrine (the word comes from the Latin occultere, "to conceal"). The knowledge that is pursued is thus not unknown, but has been hidden from mankind as being too dangerous to know. The pursuit of the occult could thus be claimed to have started when Adam and Eve ate the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and understood that which was forbidden. Students of the occult may be individuals – famous ones from history include Pythagoras (?582-500BC), Apollonius of Tyana (1st century AD), Michael Scot (?1175-1230), Albertus Magnus (?1206-1280), Roger Bacon (?1214-?1292), Christian Rosencreutz, John Dee, Count Cagliostro (1743-1795) and, more recently, Aleister Crowley – or may be nameless members of a secret society or occult order, the studies of which would be related to one of the following: the Cabbala, Gnosticism (> Gnostic Fantasy), Rosicrucianism, Hermeticism (> Golden Dawn) and Theosophy. Members of these organizations may aspire to higher levels of awareness or consciousness, and thus students of the occult are often classified as Wizards, adepts, warlocks or Witches. Stories related to the occult are thus often classified with Black Magic, Satanism and Witchcraft; while these have aspects in common with the occult, the terms are not synonymous.

True OFs are stories which explore the mysteries, often in pursuit of or being pursued by Secret Guardians or Secret Masters, in the hope of a revelation. The aftermath of this is usually a conflict between Good and Evil which often serves as the climax of an OF.

OFs may be traced back to the Roman writers (> Greek and Latin Classics). The most complete surviving Latin novel, Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass (?150AD) by Lucius Apuleius has an occult basis. Although many medieval texts appeared on the subject of the occult, the subject was banned in Britain during the dominance of Puritanism and did not return until the rise of Arabian Fantasy provided an opportunity to blend the two interests. The two seminal works of Occult Fantasy both first appeared in French: Le Diable Amoureux (1772; trans as The Devil in Love 1793 UK) by Jacques Cazotte and Vathek (ot An Arabian Tale 1786 France) by William Beckford. In both, individuals enter Pacts with the Devil to seek exceptional pleasures. Honoré de Balzac continued the theme in France, with Séraphita (1835), while in the UK the primary Victorian exponent was Lord Bulwer-Lytton, particularly with Zanoni (1842) and A Strange Story (1861-1862 All the Year Round; 1862). Although Bulwer-Lytton established the occult novel in the UK it was not until the general rise of public interest in Spiritualism and the occult sciences towards the late 19th century that OF became a genre in its own right. Much of this was due to the teachings of Helena Blavatsky, who established Theosophy. Theosophy gave rise to a host of Occult Fantasies, particularly the works of Marie Corelli. At the same time Ignatius Donnelly (1831-1901) produced Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882), which brought the lost sciences of Atlantis (and by extension Mu, Lemuria and other lost worlds) into the equation. The fascination for the Lost-Race novels of H Rider Haggard resulted in an upsurge of adventure fantasy, and this soon merged with the Theosophical Romance to produce a number of genuine OFs. The master of this form was Talbot Mundy, whose Om: The Secret of Abhor Valley (1924) may be seen as the quintessential OF. Somewhat in the same mould were the works of Abraham Merritt, although the occult was less intrusive. A similar mood pervades some of the novels of L Adams Beck and Joan Grant. Their influence lives on in the Indiana Jones films, especially Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

The more traditional OF, related to black magic, was explored by Joris-Karl Huysmans in Là-Bas (1891; trans Keene Wallace as Down There: Là-Bas 1928 France). In this vein a number of UK writers, particularly those steeped in the teachings of Theosophy and the Golden Dawn, produced their own OFs, including Algernon Blackwood, J W Brodie-Innes (1848-1923), Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune, Arthur Machen and Sax Rohmer. Successors were Dennis Wheatley and even Elliott O'Donnell (1872-1965), with The Dead Riders (1952). It was the work of these writers, especially Crowley and Wheatley, that made the OF so closely associated with black magic. Several of them produced stories about Occult Detectives, a subgenre that overlaps at some points with OF. Likewise, some of the antiquarian Ghost Stories of M R James and the James Gang have elements of the OF, particularly James's "Casting the Runes" (1911). Karslake, in that story, like Oliver Haddo in The Magician (1908) by W Somerset Maugham, is based on Crowley.

H P Lovecraft used occultism as the basis for developing what became the Cthulhu Mythos, since the stories depend upon studies of ancient tomes, most notably The Necronomicon (> Books). There is an argument that the Cthulhu Mythos is in its entirety an OF.

The emergence of Genre Fantasy and the recommercialization of Horror fiction during the past 30 years has blurred the distinction between OF and other subgenres. For instance, Lyndon Hardy's Arcadia sequence – particularly Master of the Five Magics (1980) – and the Adept series by Deborah Turner Harris and Katherine Kurtz both use occult studies as a basis for novels of High Fantasy. Paramount among these are the works of Louise Cooper, especially the Time Master trilogy. Most fantasies featuring Wizards studying arcane lore might be regarded to have their bases in OF, but they have been overtaken by the wider popularity of Sword and Sorcery. The most distinctive OF in the fantasy genre during this period was the Seedbearers trilogy by Peter Valentine Timlett, which traces the downfall of Atlantis and the continuation of occult knowledge among the survivors.

Otherwise, OF remains closer to the realms of Supernatural Fiction, and particularly supernatural horror. James Herbert uses Hitler's interest in the occult in The Spear (1978) while Mark Frost sweeps Arthur Conan Doyle into a turbulent occult adventure in The List of 7 (1993). A similar Recursive Fantasy drawing upon the work of Arthur Machen is The Devil's Maze (1983) by Gerald Suster (1951-2001). Other modern fictions which have elements of Occult Fantasy include: The Magus (1965; rev 1977) by John Fowles; The Ceremonies (1984) by T E D Klein; Son of the Endless Night (1985) by John Farris (1936-    ); and the Titus Crow stories by Brian Lumley. [MA]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.