So I thought I might have a crack at some non-fiction, since I haven’t really done any for quite a while (not for over a year, in fact, if my records are correct). And so I settled on Peter Levenda’s Sinister Forces books, which some might say makes rather a mockery of my determination to read some non-fiction… I’ll reserve judgement on that, cos frankly I don’t know how much of the stuff Levenda goes on about here is, you know, real and correct and all of that. And there’s an awful lot in these three books for him to go on about…
The series is subtitled “A Grimoire of American Political Witchcraft”, which kind of sums it all up. Boiled down, the thesis he explores through the trilogy is that America is quite literally haunted by its past, and through the 20th century in particular some very bad things have been at work… on the mundane level, there’s been the Republican party’s flirtations (to put it mildly) with fascism, but on a less worldly level there’s also quite literal non-human forces, which Levenda compares to the “hungry ghost” of Chinese myth; and he explicitly uses terms like “satanic” and “black magic” to describe the events he presents us with.
Basically, this book (and I think we can refer to the series in the singular, since the three individual volumes do add up to a more or less continuous work) has FUCKING EVERYTHING in it: Indian burial mounds, Roswell, “wandering bishops”, Operation Paperclip, MK-ULTRA, the Priory of Sion, Aleister Crowley, Watergate, the Kennedy assassinations, Richard Nixon, Charles Manson, the Process Church, Freemasonry, the Templars, Jim Jones, Mark David Chapman, Marilyn Monroe, Jeffrey Dahmer, Kenneth Anger and his famous friends, the Son of Sam “cult”, alien abductions, UFOs, C.G. Jung, all that and more. Seemingly everything but the Spear of Destiny, the reverse vampires and the kitchen sink. It is nothing if not impressive; Levenda devoted decades to researching and writing this thing, and if you take it on face value it is one of the most frightening books in history.
This book has problems. One is that sheer weight of Things Happening in it. There is so much going on, so many names being dropped, that I found myself becoming kind of numbed by it. It is pure overload. And, frankly, Levenda could’ve done with a better editor, not just to trim down the material but to help him keep track of it himself; more than once I felt him talking about certain individuals (particularly the unfortunate Ioan Culianu) in a way that suggested Levenda himself had forgotten he’d just mentioned them a few pages earlier. And Levenda himself is perhaps the book’s biggest problem, simply because I have no idea how far to trust him. I mean, yeah, he’s anal about footnoting his sources; his determination to use primary sources and give due credit for his data is noble. And yet, and yet… Necronomicon.
That’s the thing. Levenda is an admitted part of one notable hoax, and I don’t really want to go into it here, but the Wiki entry will give you a rough idea. Exactly what part he played in it still seems open to debate, but it’s generally accepted he was/is the mysterious “Simon”. I don’t know how many of the people who’d read this book are familiar with his role in the Simonomicon, but I am, and that knowledge leaves me wary of this book too, however well footnoted it may be.
Plus, though Levenda obviously knows far more than me about most of the things he writes about—I’ve never been more than a casual dabbler in conspiracy stuff of this sort—there are a few things I can still pick him up on. A couple of small things (e.g. his repeated observation that the 1940 film of Maeterlinck’s Blue Bird, a play that, er, plays a certain part throughout the book, was the first film of said play, which is simply and demonstrably wrong; he could’ve probably even got the latter one on VHS back in the day. And he gets Kenneth Anger’s birth year wrong), but also bigger things like his references to the Priory of Sion, made famous by Messrs Lincoln, Baigent & Leigh in The Holy Blood & the Holy Grail, but which Levenda doesn’t seem to recognise was an admitted hoax by Pierre Plantard (even LBL kind of admit in The Messianic Legacy they finally realised their French friend had been stringing them along). Or if he does know then he doesn’t seem to care. Which is probably worse. As someone has noted, conspiracy theories and hoaxes like the Priory have one problem, i.e. there’s always someone out there for whom denials or admissions of guilt like Plantard’s not only don’t matter, they actually reinforce the belief in the theory or whatever. Cos “they WOULD say that, wouldn’t they” (said with a knowing nod) to try to deflect attention or spread disinformation. And I don’t know if Levenda actually believes the Priory existed (exists?) or not despite the evidence, but the book treats it as if it does. And that, again, leaves me wary.
Ultimately, though, it’s not necessarily the individual facts that are the issue, but how Levenda adds them up. Late in the book he introduces us to the idea of synchronicity, Jung’s “acausal connecting principle”, and how the physicist Wolfgang Pauli thought it could be used as an interesting new way of studying history, as a pattern of coincidences at the quantum level. This is essentially what Levenda does, trawling through the underbelly of American history, and finding a vast and amazing array of coincidences underlying it. Wherein lies the problem, cos synchronicity isn’t just coincidence per se, as Jung reminds us: it’s meaningful coincidence. But how far can Levenda’s many and varied coincidences be described as “meaningful” rather than just weird? And what meaning?
Levenda gets quite snippy at author Maury Terry, author of the book on the Son of Sam killings, at various points, acknowledging the reliability of his data but querying the conclusions he draws therefrom, and he specifically cites one of the suspects sharing a birthday with Aleister Crowley, which Terry apparently found significant but Levenda notes (not wrongly) that this fact is hardly enough to imply satanic tendencies in that man. But Levenda does this sort of thing all the way through Sinister Forces, noting events that happen on particular dates—including Crowley’s birthday, more than once—as if there were a connection. At one point, for example, he notes the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War came on the 30th anniversary of Hitler’s death. Which is an undeniably interesting fact, yes, but… so? Does the coincidence mean anything? I don’t know.
In fairness, cos I have been critical for much of this, I must admit that, for all its considerable length, Sinister Forces is rarely dull; Levenda does have a neat, slightly sardonic turn of phrase at many points, and he writes well enough and offers sufficiently interesting information that it compelled me along for the several days it took to read the whole thing despite frequently wondering where if anywhere it was all going. But it really is too much to take in. It is literally TMI. It’s overload. And overload of this sort is not only hard to take in, it’s also consequently hard to actively refute (which is why it’s an attractive technique to certain people who don’t really want an argument). I don’t know how many more times I’d have to read it to offer a more detailed critical response than I’ve done here. I just have reservations, like I’ve outlined here. Gut instinct is kind of hard to argue with too, after all.