Reviewed by Douglas Chapman
True to its title, Curt Rowlett's book is a labyrinth through which one travels to the less-explored reaches of forteana, occultism, crime, and unnerving doings. Vampires, werewolves, black dogs, and sinister criminals abound here, as do more benevolent characters like the Poe Toaster — who annually visits Edgar Allan Poe's grave to leave tokens of respect.
Rowlett has contributed much to Strange Magazine, and the late Editor/Publisher Mark Chorvinsky was an early publisher of Rowlett's work, which has also been featured in such publications as Fortean Times and Popular Paranoia. Rowlett's own website, Labyrinth 13 (www.labyrinth13.com) includes a remembrance of Chorvinsky, and features versions of many of the articles in this book. Here, added interviews, footnotes and updates make this version a must-read.
Even when dealing with familiar topics, Rowlett finds unexplored aspects. Many famous murders, such as those by the Manson "family" and Son of Sam, have been saddled with occult connotations. Those who have previously written about them have not been in a position to know about occultism from the inside — and have not asked the needed questions. Labyrinth 13 is, as Rowlett puts it, an "explorer's notebook" of one who has explored "the vast landscape of the weird." And he brings a refreshingly non-paranoid point of view. Too many tabloid-style books have done the opposite.
One of his supernatural studies has been of "Historical American Vampires." Bram Stoker certainly was mindful about America's traditions; if he had not, a cowboy would not have knifed the villain of his novel Dracula. Rowlett shares with readers the historical sources that seem to have been that author's source material. Stoker had clippings from New York reprintings of Rhode Island newspaper stories concerning the "Exeter Vampire," Mercy Lena Brown. Brown had died of consumption in 1892, but was put in a crypt aboveground — the cold weather having prevented her from being buried in a timely manner. There were reports that she was soon sighted out and about in Exeter. Her brother contracted the same disease — a.k.a. tuberculosis — that had killed her. When Mercy was exhumed after nine weeks, her body seemed fresh and there were signs she had moved. Due to worries about this being supernatural, her heart and liver were removed and burned.
In Dracula, the fate of Lucy Westenra echoes many aspects of the Mercy Brown case — including the freshness. But it could also have been inspired by other similar cases. For example, accounts of Sarah Tillinghast and her after-death visitations also tie a family's tuberculosis to dreams and superstition.
Rowlett makes one small misemphasis in this chapter when he writes: "And while Stoker did not invent the vampire, his true legacy may well lie with a much more significant aspect: his Count Dracula character transformed what was once thought to be a hideous, evil monster that was feared and hated into the modern image of the vampire as a refined aristocrat to be admired, envied and even pitied." This is almost right, but the initially polite aristocrat described by Stoker could hardly be called refined – even after he arrives in England. The more refined Dracula emanated from Hamilton Deane's stageplay adaptation.
Rowlett, of course, also describes the earlier aristocratic vampire, Lord Ruthven, who was conceived by John Polidori. Ruthven, based as he was on Lord Byron, mixed better in society.
Occultist that he is, does Rowlett believe in vampires? Yes – to a point — in that he allows for the potential existence of vampiric ghosts.
He reveals some his magical background in the Author's Note for "Chapter 2: The Strange Case of John Whiteside Parsons." This article originally appeared in the newsletter for an occult order of which he was a member. His participation in that order informs this chapter more than in any other part of the book.
Magic is described by Rowlett as follows: "The ultimate goal in any occult magical working is to change the very fabric of the objective universe, to alter it in such away as to create change in accordance with the will of the magician." (This expands upon Aleister Crowley's famous motto: "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.")
Rowlett stresses that a magician cannot know all the effects that his workings will let loose. This is important when dealing with the unusual story of John Whiteside Parsons. A source very heavily used for this chapter is an article the present reviewer wrote for Strange Magazine #6 — "Jack Parsons: Sorcerous Scientist." Rowlett names more names, and adds a rather unusual addition — that a noted present-day occultist claims to be the result of Jack Parsons' most famous magical achievement – the Babalon Working.
Rowlett has more fun than did the Strange article with the events around the time of the Babalon Working. He mentions the first atomic bomb, the development of LSD, the demise of Aleister Crowley, the first notorious "UFO" wave, the Roswell incident, and the timely birth of Temple of Set founder Michael A. Aquino in Pasadena (Parsons' stomping grounds). However, much of Aquino's assertion that he is Crowley's "heir" is based on his decoding of a cryptogram in Verse 76 of the Book of the Law. Crowley had maintained that the person to decipher it would be the person to carry on his legacy — his magical son.
Many followers of Crowley, during his lifetime and later, have worked to find the meaning of the cryptogram. It is probably safe to say, though, that Aquino's solution will satisfy those predisposed to do so but will not find favor among the majority of the Thelemites.
There are other evidences offered. Aquino's birth – in which he was born dead but was revived — nine months after the Babalon working, is considered one of many external signs of his claim. Some of the others have to do with his personal appearance.
It is interesting that Aquino considers the Set (Satan) entity to be an alien intelligence that gave humans consciousness in what is called (in Temple of Set literature) as "The Gift of Set." This rather resembles the plots of two movies: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Five Million Years to Earth (Quatermass and the Pit), the former of which is mentioned here. One of the authors of the 2001 screenplay had in 1953 written a novel entitled Childhood's End — in which aliens who help humanity to progress to the next step of development look like devils. Rowlett writes:
Additionally, some Temple of Set members have expressed a belief in the possibility of some form of "genetic modification" by Set in our distant past that enabled our ape-like ancestors to evolve into the human race as we know it today, and that this alteration, which resulted in a phenomenal increase in brain power and size, allowed humans to evolve and gain mastery of the planet.
The late Nigel Kneale might not have been pleased by this theory, if he had ever been aware of it, since it resembles his Quatermass and the Pit plot.
Rowlett does not come to a final decision regarding the results claimed by some for the Babalon Working – he just provides some of the more tantalizing claims and theories (as had the Strange article). In the sources and notes at the end of this volume, enough of Parsons' magical diary is quoted to give the reader a feeling of the nature of the Working.
Other topics in Labyrinth 13 may not upend reality so much, but they enhance the dark yet celebratory mood.
Some Rowlett material on "Phantom Black Dogs" appeared in Strange. The canines (hellhounds) fit nicely into the mix here, and are, as Rowlett puts it, "exactly the sort of 'pet' that Labyrinth 13 would endorse!"
Another fun chapter profiles the Poe Toaster, a mysterious figure said to have put three red roses and a cognac bottle on the grave of Edgar Allan Poe at Baltimore's Westminster Church every January 19th since 1949. There has apparently, though, been more than one "Poe Toaster." Rowlett covers the antics of this person (or persons) in the right attitude. He mentions that "no attempt has ever been made to stop or hinder this enigmatic admirer." This was probably right when he wrote it, but in 2006 things got a little out of hand. Thankfully, the red roses and cognac bottle were left on schedule despite the people around who wanted to waylay the "Toaster."
Other chapters have more meaning to the book's overall messages, and to its comments on the human – and beast — condition. Some of the key underlying themes in Labyrinth 13 are brought home in the chapter "A Lecture on Lycanthropy."
Rowlett writes: "As such, I see the myth of the werewolf as a sort of genetic memory of the time when we had fur and fangs and went about on all fours." His angle on this resembles that of many modern magicians, including Aleister Crowley. "My opinion is that because an animal heritage and nature is certainly an inherent part of all human beings, it is wise to explore and learn about this legacy, i.e., the 'lower-self' in order to better understand the intellectual or 'higher-self' and indeed life itself."
He writes of the fear of the aggressive and amoral – the "animal" — from which society tries to shield itself. Werewolves, in fiction and movies, don't need to be covered in hair and have fangs. Rowlett cites Stephen King's opinion about Psycho – that it is really a werewolf story. Inspired as it was by the story of Ed Gein, the wearing of the special clothing — symbolically skin — easily recalls werewolf associations.
To Rowlett, it is important for each person to be in touch with their animal instincts — and to know when and when not to use them, this being important for humanity's survival.
Other things are important to humanity's ways — and the perplexities thereof. One enjoyable chapter is "Reports from the Labyrinth: A Curious Collection of Uncanny Occurrences" which leads off with G. K. Chesterton's statement: "Coincidences are spiritual puns."
In a series of examples, an annual tribute to H. P. Lovecraft at his gravesite in Swan Point Cemetery is showcased, including what has happened one year or another at that notable event in Providence, Rhode Island. The strangenesses have included a snow flurry, that lasted only as long as a song by a black-clad woman, and timely gusts of wind during meaningful passages of Lovecraft's work. Crows attending one observation cawed during a song at Lovecraft's grave. Perhaps the H. P. Lovecraft Graveside Tribute outdoes the Poe Toaster for effect.
Coincidences surrounding Poe are also notable. In the 1838 story "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket," Poe told of shipwreck survivors who resorted to cannibalism. Their meal was Richard Parker, a cabin boy. In real life, in 1884, a similar situation occurred during a voyage to Australia. Consumed was cabin boy Richard Parker. (Another Richard Parker was eaten under similar circumstances in 1846, but he was not a cabin boy, so hardly counts.) Nigel Parker, a 12-year-old relative of the former, made the above known in a 1974 coincidence contest.
What may attract people outside the fortean and literary communities to this book is the Chapter 9 material on the Zodiac Murders in the San Francisco Bay area. The Zodiac killer may end up an enduring mystery like London's Jack the Ripper. Both criminals apparently sent mysterious communications to newspapers (and others). Many people have been trying to make sense of these missives ever since. The new movie The Zodiac will no doubt increase interest.
The most popular of the Zodiac suspects are listed in this chapter, as well as the pros and cons regarding alleged guilt. One suspect, proffered by the Dr. Zodiac: The Unabomber-Zodiac Connection CD-ROM and “The Unabomber-Zodiac Connection” website (http://mysite.verizon.net/douglas.oswell/index.html), is Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber – but Rowlett does not give much credence to this theory as presented on the site. Rowlett opines that the actual Zodiac killer is likely not among the people who have been suspected. While the case may descend into being a "parlor game" like Jack the Ripper, Rowlett emphasizes Mike Butterfield's reminders that real people were involved. The Zodiac killer may be alive to this day. Rowlett's summations and questions clarify longstanding questions that remain relevant.
Another key section is in Chapter 10, which includes much about the Process Church of the Final Judgment. The church, created in 1962 in London, has had an especially bad rap over the years. Unlike most articles and books that mention the group, Rowlett describes the actual beliefs and practices of the church — which had some of their origin in another controversial psychotherapy-turned-religion. Because Process sessions took place in a room that features a cross and a Goat of Mendes symbol, many outsiders misunderstood the symbolism.
Rowlett tracks the religion's meanings and evolution. Offshoots are chronicled, both the real and the reputed. One is the Best Friends Animal Society (which has a sanctuary near Kanab, Utah), which helped Rowlett in his researches. Some of the original Process members work here, and tell a rather jolly version of their 1960s doings on a section of their website at http://www.bestfriends.org/aboutus/oldhistory/intro.htm.
Also tracked by Rowlett are the books, articles and television shows that continue to demonize the Process Church — and link it to Charles Manson, David Berkowitz and Satanic conspiracies. Maury Terry, author of The Ultimate Evil, is a leading figure in this trend as he ties the Satanic trend to the Process' arrival on the scene some four decades ago. That Berkowitz claims to be a born-again Christian now, and says he used to be a Satanist at the time of the Son of Sam murders, is useful to Terry's contention. However, Rowlett corresponded with Berkowitz in the late '90s and can vouch that the latter lacks knowledge of the occult.
Rowlett, when debunking the "satanic cult conspiracy" to which many groups have been linked, does so from a knowledge of the occult. He writes "I have learned that most of the persons who have written about alleged 'satanic' connections to this case and/or who tout themselves as 'occult crime experts' have absolutely no concept of what does and does not constitute actual evidence of an occult or satanic nature." Rowlett knows that much that is taken to be Satanic — especially in graffiti — is actually the work of "bored teenagers."
But that is not how much media responds to the situation. For example, Maury Terry's aforementioned book helped fan the flames of a "Satanic Panic" that was strong in the U.S. and Britain (and had effects well outside the parameters of any associations with Satan). Dead German Shepherd dogs, implied by Terry to be victims of the Process Church, are not likely to be the work of a group that is particularly upset by cruelty to animals.
The Process' reputation was hurt by outsiders who have taken its ideas in the wrong context — and its symbols literally. Rowlett campaigns against the biases that have given a very wrong picture of those who have occult belief systems. In this book, many fringe groups obtain what they cannot get in other places — their needed say. Labyrinth 13 dares offer opinions that can stimulate real controversy and risk touchy reactions.
There is more than one way to change minds, for good or ill. Lovers of conspiracy theories will particularly enjoy what Rowlett has to offer on the subject of brainwashed "Manchurian candidates," who are the subject of extended inquiry in this book — especially regarding their mysterious manipulators. A "Catcher in the Rye" link (referencing the book by J. D. Salinger) is found between many "lone nut" gunmen, including Mark Chapman and John Hinckley Jr.
Doubles are another continuing theme in conspiracy studies. It has been claimed there was a duplicate Lee Harvey Oswald. Rowlett relays reports that there was "double" named Edward Richardson who followed Hinckley's route from Colorado to Connecticut – and who also wrote letters to Jodie Foster. Rowlett wonders what the odds are that two such similar men would both be emulating the movie Taxi Driver regarding assassination intentions and Foster fixations around the same time.
The late author Kerry Thornley contended that he — as well as Oswald — was mind-controlled in connection with the JFK assassination. Interestingly, a then-unpublished novel he wrote based on Lee Harvey Oswald, The Idle Warriors, brought him to the attention of the Warren Commission. He had written it before the JFK assassination. But Thornley's biggest contribution to conspiracy thought may have been his writing of the Principia Discordia, the humorous religious tract that inspired the ultimate conspiracy novel, The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson.
Strange Magazine, in its various issues, only lightly touched on conspiracies. Yet Mark Chorvinsky researched the rumors that John Chambers, famous for both the Planet of the Apes prosthetic makeups and espionage disguises, was responsible for the Patterson Bigfoot suit in the famous film footage. Rowlett covers these efforts and once refers to the footage in question as the Wright-Patterson Bigfoot film — which links it with a certain Air Force base of occasional strange repute. This is, of course, an amusing typo but it nevertheless seems fitting.
Rowlett quotes Jonathan Vankin and John Whalen (in their book 60 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time) about the unusual nature of the Symbionese Liberation Army, whose leader may have been an agent provocateur. Disguise makeup may have been used by the SLA in the murder of Dr. Marcus Foster, which is a suggestive detail if nothing else.
Many groups outside the political norm are aware of the agents provocateur in their midst. And they are part of a large and complex — well nigh labyrinthine — game. Brainwashing can be used to perform massive political changes by violence — the source of which misleads world opinion. But the "game" can get too complex for its own good — to the point of backfiring. For example, how many Catcher in the Rye-obsessed loan gunmen can there be without people becoming a tad suspicious? Labyrinth 13 in many ways reveals how disinformation efforts and conspiracies can go awry.
Curt Rowlett's background as a former merchant marine has likely contributed to his wide worldview, able to take in many cultures and a wide variety of arcana. He explores peoples, places and ideas that few have dared. Whether concerning coincidence, spycraft, the occult, or strange human behavior, he is in a position to make connections that elude most. He is an ideal guide through a massive maze — the highways and byways of which will never lose their fascination to readers who love the unusual. Labyrinth 13 is a treasure trove.