Ed. Hereward Tilton & Merlin Cox
Fulgur Press, 2019
Witchcraft is having a moment. In the bookstore where I work receiving, over the last few weeks alone I’ve unboxed & shelved copies of “Waking the Witch: Reflections on Women, Magic, and Power” (Grossman), “The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present” (Hutton), “Light Magic for Dark Times: More than 100 Spells, Rituals, and Practices for Coping in a Crisis” (Basile), “Witch: Unleashed, Untamed, Unapologetic” (Lister), “Basic Witches: How to Summon Success, Banish Drama, and Raise Hell with Your Coven” (Saxena), “Blotto Botany: A Lesson in Healing Cordials and Plant Magic” (McGowan), “Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive” (Solee), “The Green Witch: Your Complete Guide to the Natural Magic of Herbs, Flowers, Essential Oils, and More” (Murphy-Hiscock), “Moon Power: Lunar Rituals for Connecting With Your Inner Goddess” (Butler), “Hexing The Patriarchy: 26 Potions, Spells, and Magical Elixirs to Embolden the Resistance” (Gore), and “Becoming Dangerous: Witchy Femmes, Queer Conjurers and Magical Rebels on Summoning the Power to Resist” (West, Elliot).
A particular corner of the literary world is flush with these timely explorations of femme & queer power, the fuzzy space encompassing both Satanic ritual and self-care routine, criminal justice abuses, and the secret languages we can master to bend a chaotic world ever-so-slightly back into our control. On the other hand, some of these are just fluffy
pinkwashing witchwashing cashgrabs -- but whatever, it’s the quantity & variety which matter with an emergent zeitgeist. (...wait-wait: hexwashing)
“Touch Me Not” is on-trend but not trendy, interesting but not intersectional: First-wave witchcraft. Think of it as a deluxe re-issue of some obscure, “A Band Called Death”-esq album discovered collecting dust in an attic -- or specifically: a 48-page manuscript tucked away in the stacks of the Wellcome Library, a London-based collection focused on the history of medicine. While its exact history is unknown prior to the Library’s acquisition in 1928, the editors place its creation in Austria, no earlier than 1795.
The manuscript -- formally titled “Compendium Rarissimum Totius Artis Magicae” (“A Most Rare Compendium of the Whole Magical Art”) -- is derived from a lineage of Höllenzwang (Treasure-hunting) grimoires which arose in 17th c. Germany, when the popular imagination swirled with rumors of buried loot from retreating armies following the Thirty Years’ War. It focuses primarily on black magic and the fine art of demon summoning, and it sparkles & pops with exquisite, terrifying watercolor illustrations of the otherworldly entities which the intrepid spellcaster will encounter. If “a cock-headed, dolicophalic demon, extinguishing a lantern with its urine, [dragging] an ill-fated treasure-hunter to his doom” is your jam... you should probably just stop reading this review and order the book.
A medical library might seem an odd place for such an item,I but historians find significant interest in its “extensive list of ingredients for entheogenic potions, salves, and above all fumigations designed to ‘poison the imagination’ and transport the magician into the realms of dreams and madness.” (And with which the editors suspect the manuscript’s illustrator may have been a little too familiar.)
This new deluxe edition begins with a luscious introduction by Hereward Tilton, kept intentionally brief so the reader can dive right into an exquisite photo reproduction of the manuscript itself. This is followed by a transcription & translation of the manuscript’s text, in parallel columns of German/Latin & English. The introduction comes with two pages of endnotes, while the translation includes both footnotes and endnotes -- all of which are overflowing with citations, both modern & archaic.
All of this constant section-flipping unexpectedly rekindled memories of reading Danielewski's “House of Leaves” back in the early 2000s -- It blew my mind and I remember thinking that all books would be that way from then on lololol.
A few years ago, I happened to see the documentaries “Helvetica” & “Visual Acoustics” about a month apart. Both contain an almost identical sequence: The soundtrack tilts ominously as architects & typographers alike tumble from Modernist grace into the dismal PoMo abyss -- Ray Gun magazine runs an entire article in Zapf Dingbats, hotels sprout grecoroman columns from smooth walls of glass and steel. Men with serious voices confirm that we’d gone too far.II
The 21st c. Modernist revival rides in on a cool breath of flowers. It was all just a phase -- Gwenyth Paltro in dirty Keds & mom jeans, smoking a cigarette at the Se7en premier. But I digress.
Several of the operations in this grimoire present significant hurdles to the average, present-day American. The procedure for forging a cacomagical mirror and its accompanying altar bell, for example, includes lengthy rituals to be undertaken at an operational gallows, creating a box from the wood of a coffin, rags from the clothing of a hanged man, and takes three years, eight months to complete. Considering California’s executions have been carried out via gas or injection since 1937 -- and are, as of this year, on a moratorium -- my chances of procuring these items for a test kitchen-style review seem prohibitively low.
And anyways, it isn’t really that kind of grimoire. The quality of the manuscript’s workmanship and its lack of practical field elements (such as an index) betray it as, in fact, a bespoke luxury item, created well after peak Höllenzwang and aimed squarely at the upscale antiquarian market at the turn of the 19th century. A $1000 Snoop Dogg T-Shirt.
My favorite byproducts of this dynamic are sprinkled throughout the footnotes: On leaf 14R, we’re told that “most of the characters of the magic circle seem to be inventions of the illustrator.” A column of mysterious symbols rises beside the terrifying visage of the demon Asheroth on 13R; they resemble a “simple replacement cipher” from Agrippa, but are likely just for decoration.
Okay, sure -- but what exactly happens if you perform magic with #FakeSigils? Do the spells fail? Or are they just different spells?
I recently took over cataloging the zine archive at the Prelinger Library. Sara, my progenitor, did most of the work: 4,000 down and ~1,000 left to go? It’s about 40 bankers boxes in total. It’s a fuckton of zines.III
Zine collections sit at the knottiest center of the tangled theoretical and ethical questions archives now represent in the academic/critical sphere. They sprout endless cataloging challenges owing to the breadth and unpredictability of the material they contain, and a raft of privacy & patriation issues regarding their creators and intended audiences.
My first cataloging session bent unexpectedly. Zines are a tactile pleasure: chaotic xerography, loopy handwriting, perfectly self-contained. But after a time, the emotional currents of these documents began to pull me out to sea; it’s like reading through sheafs of decades-old letters, never knowing if they were ever received or answered.
A bankers box of zines is a mountain of heartbreak, power, and loneliness; voices singing into the night. I’m a sensitive person & it’s a lot.
The first day, I logged around 200. A few were typeset on a computer, but I don’t think any used Helvetica.
At present, most online publications have gone all-in on the Crystal GobletIV -- “clean design” is the watchword, while CMS ensures that we “put our
films articles into uniform.”V And at the same time, laypersons and academics alike have fallen back in love with the irresistible flutter of zines. But these two trends aren’t in opposition, they happily coexist here in the orobusian twirl of the metamodern age.
Warde places her reader in the role of the wine connoisseur -- but what of the goblet connoisseur? My last review on Full Stop appears “transparent” to the reader, but is comprised of a scant 15k of text wrapped in over 3mb of JS, CSS, nav & headers, widgets, social media integration, and analytics code. A Wordpress quirk nests an unnecessary <span style="font-weight: 400;"> inside of every <p> element. This goblet is indeed crystalline, but it’s as big as the Stanley Cup and covered in oddly-shaped handles.
Yes-yes-I-know, it’s unfair to pick on Warde -- surely personal computers, printers, and 10¢ copies at the library meet her criteria for “some unimagined successor” to 1930s printmaking -- but her insistence on the strict delineation between text (as idea transmission) and art (as aesthetic expression) rings to contemporary ears like a stern patriarchal warning that no one will take you seriously with all that glitter makeup and purple hair.
I recently read an articleVI which opened with an epigram by Craig Ferguson:
There are three things you must always ask yourself before you say anything, which is: Does this need to be said? Does this need to be said by me? Does this need to be said by me — now?
Aside from being a rather ballsy way to start an article, this immediately ratcheted my imposter syndrome into maximum overdrive.
Who among us hasn’t occasionally waffled on whether to hit publish? Questioned whether our threads wove into a meaningful design? Considered whether we should remain silent so that more eloquent, necessary, or
underrepresented marginalized oppressed voices could fill the space?
And, if we did decide to hit publish, had we ever really assuaged those doubts? Or had we just reached some kind of fuck it point, where we felt we couldn’t proceed,
artistically emotionally, without doing so? Brushed aside our internal spiraling with that classic fainting sweep of the forelock -- dramatic & languorous: “...I must.”VII
But zines present another way forward; an alternative response to the Fergusson epigram: like, duh. You’ve only got a few dozen elliptical orbits around the heliosphere -- so whatever it is, you gotta say it & you gotta say it now.
Tilton closes the introduction to “Touch Me Not” with the observation that, “If it can indeed be considered a grimoire in the Höllenzwang tradition, then it is also a work of supernatural horror composed in the form of a Höllenzwang grimoire...” And this new edition, along with being a rigorous academic work, is also a lowkey meditation on the value of taking a more expansive view of authenticity, punctuated by paintings of topless witches huffing psychedelics and skeletons vomiting blood.
Zines were, and continue to be, a flowering canvas for outsider voices -- visual & typographic experimentation flowing from experiences ill-expressed by the structural limits our language. Magic, broadly construed, is a similar way to interface with our lives: it bends & opens the concrete aspects of our existence; reaches into some unknown, but not, perhaps, unknowable region.
So who cares if Warde discards the meaning of your text once it crosses some salted threshold into art? And who cares if your lit crit friends get judgy when you saunter home with a satchelful of marshmallow witchy bestsellers? Navigating the 21st century is impossible without some lateral thinking -- and maybe the whisper that changes your life will be delivered on the snaky wings of some mass-market demon while you’re bopping Carly on your shitty Android. You do you.
Devin Smith records pop music under the name Miracle Cat and plays in Bob Woods-LaDue's weird metal band Onkos. He assists at the Prelinger Library, and occasionally writes nonfiction articles and book reviews. See his website for everything.
A few weeks after I wrote the first draft of this article, three copies of “Touch Me Not” arrived at our book store. I hadn't told our buyer that I was writing this review; it was purely coincidental (& I suppose from a shared set of preferences among a self-selecting group of book weirdos in SF). I wrote a shelf talker :)
But this was like six weeks ago. We've only sold one copy. Maybe I wrote the shelf talker wrong? Not enough drama in the narrative? Maybe it just takes more than an index card to communicate how this book made me feel?
About a week later, a rep from the Modern Witches Confluence stopped by to hang some posters for the Sorceress Sabbath Film Festival.