How Allan Bennett’s “blasting rod” fuelled certain frenzies of 1980s mass-marketed pop occult consumerism


Crowley wrote:

Having now rejected Catholicism, he took up Magick and at once attained extraordinary success. He used to carry a “lustre” — a long glass prism with a neck and a pointed knob such as adorned old-fashioned chandeliers. He used this as a wand. One day, a party of theosophists were chatting sceptically about the power of the “blasting rod”. Allan promptly produced his and blasted one of them. It took fourteen hours to restore the incredulous individual to the use of his mind and his muscles.

The astute investigator may immediately point out some ambiguities in this story.

The first problem is that Bennett did not frequently repeat such performances. If he had been in the habit of blasting dozens or hundreds of human targets, it would be possible to compare the targets and note whether they shared any important characteristics.

The second problem is that Theosophists include some highly suggestible neurotics. (This is not to say that all Theosophists are neurotic, or suggestible.) If the target who was blasted happened to be an extreme neurotic with a subconscious desire to have an emotionally impressive experience, the force of the “blast” would be derived entirely from the subconscious mind of the target, due to fairly well-known psychosomatic effects.

Aleister Crowley bragged a great deal about his association with Allan Bennett. Unfortunately, Bennett’s habits of personal asceticism, self-sacrifice, etc. do not seem to have rubbed off on Crowley, who showed a flagrant disregard for other people’s rights. Crowley’s bragging about the above “blasting rod” story unfortunately gave many people the notion that occultism could turn them into super-heroes out of a Bulwer-Lytton vril story – or perhaps an H. Rider Haggard epic.

It is interesting to note that some of the seminal writers of occult fiction were associated with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn –

  • Edith Nesbit;
  • Sax Rohmer;
  • Arthur Machen;
  • Charles Williams;
  • Algernon Blackwood;
  • Bram Stoker (marginally associated).
  • So it’s not at all surprising that “ceremonial magic” gets mixed up with adventure fiction, when one considers that so many important fiction writers were themselves ceremonial magicians.

    In the context of Grant Morrison’s occult-inspired fiction, commenter gaikokumaniakku wrote:

    It’s pretty hard to write an autobiography that people will read. It’s much easier to write an action story with over-the-top violence and Hollywood-style special effects.

    When you write autobiography, you have an opportunity to be honest and say, “I don’t face any dangers more dramatic than the risk of car accidents. I don’t put forth any effort more heroic than paying my rent. The only exciting thing that’s happened to me is that I managed to get rich – call it destiny, positive thinking, magic, or coincidence – I got rich enough to have the spare time to write this book.” Autobiography can be tinged by self-flattery, but it can’t stray too far into wish-fulfillment.

    I agree with part of gaikokumaniakku’s post – namely that the mass-media market provided a financial incentive to bastardize occult ideas.

    I fear he is missing some important context when he quotes Moore:
    “You know in the twenties Magicians still had style. Turbans, tuxedos and tarts in tiaras. Smashing times. Now it’s all Sigils, stubble and self abuse.”

    In fact, a few Golden Dawn magicians died violently while seeking magical wisdom.

    A WOMAN is found dead on the island of Iona near the Fairy Mound, a place associated locally with magic and dark deeds. She is naked, but for a strange cloak and her feet are bloodied and swollen. In her hands is a knife and her body lies atop a crude cross carved out of the peat. There is a look of terror on her face.

    You would be forgiven for thinking that this is the start of a newly discovered Sherlock Holmes story, but these events describe the death in 1929 of Norah Fornario, a clever, but slightly eccentric student of the occult.

    Fornario was a member of the Alpha and Omega, an offshoot of the esoteric and theosophical Golden Dawn. These late-19th century societies set up by the occultist Samuel Liddell Mathers promoted western and eastern mysticism. The infamous black magician Aleister Crowley was one of the novices attracted by the colourful rites and promise of power.Fornario believed she could heal telepathically and was striving to converse with other worlds. One of her friends, Dion Fortune, a high-ranking member of Alpha and Omega, worried that Fornario had become too involved in her craft.

    “I do not object to reasonable risks,” Fortune wrote in her book Psychic Self Defence, “but it appeared to me that ‘mac’ as we called her, was going into very deep waters … and there was certain to be trouble sooner or later.”

    Iona is known today as the “The Cradle of Christianity”, but in the 1920s it was popular with occultists and spiritualist. St Columba himself revealed that he had spoken with spirits on the island and it has long been regarded as a place where this world and others are close.

    In August 1929, Fornario packed her belongings and travelled to the island for what was clearly to be a long stay. No one knows for certain why she left her London home, but what is known is that she was experimenting with “flight” between worlds. Her former housekeeper was quoted in The Scotsman in 1929 as saying, “Several times she said she had been to the ‘far beyond’ and had come back to life after spending some time in another world.”From the archiveIona Mystery

    The Scotsman,27 November 1929 This “alien” woman, who dressed in the fashion of the Arts and Crafts movement – with long cape and hand-woven tunic – settled into the house of someone only known as Mrs MacRae. The 33-year-old Fornario spent her time walking the island and in long trances, some of which could last for days.

    Initially MacRae was intrigued by her guest’s “mystical practices”, but her interest turned to concern one morning when her lodger appeared in a panic-stricken state. In Francis King’s book Ritual Magic in England, Fornario told her landlady that “certain people” were affecting her telepathically. MacRae was particularly alarmed to see her silver jewellery had turned black overnight.

    Fornario was determined to get off the island, but after hastily packing her belongings she appeared to have second thoughts and decided to remain.

    The next day, 12 November 1929, she rose early and left the house. The alarm was raised when she failed to appear and two days later her near-naked body was found on isolated moorland.

    No police investigation was carried out as the presiding physician noted the cause of death as heart failure from exposure. This explanation has never satisfied Ron Halliday, a psychic investigator and author of Evil Scotland who thinks the death should have been properly investigated.”The death is mysterious, after all she disappeared on Sunday, but wasn’t found until Tuesday,” he says. “I find it hard to imagine that her body went unnoticed for two days on such a small island.”

    Halliday thinks that Fornario got out of her depth in communicating with spirits. “At the time there was talk of blue lights and the colour blue is connected with other worlds,” he explains. “I think she died trying to establish a link with another world,” Halliday shares, “and some psychic force attacked and killed her.”

    There is terrestrial intrigue too. Islanders had reported a mysterious cloaked figure seen with Fornario close to the time she died. It is not, thinks Halliday, outside the bounds of possibility that she was chased and killed by someone she had fled London to escape. That would offer one explanation for her terror on the day she disappeared.

    Whether she died from a mystic dual, was killed by a feuding member of an occult organisation, or simply died from exposure whilst conducting one of her rituals, there is no doubt that the story leaves some unanswered questions.

    And the mystery didn’t end with her death.

    An odd postscript can be found in The Scotsman of 5 December that year, where readers are told of a curious instance of telepathy. Norah Fornario’s father, a well-known Italian professor, was seized with great anxiety regarding his daughter.

    “He was unable to account for his fears, yet could not shake off the feeling that something was wrong. Two days later a telegram arrived announcing that the dead body of his daughter had just been discovered.”

    So there was a certain degree of physical danger to being a Golden Dawn magician, but it was scarcely like being in an adventure story as written by Allan Moore or Grant Morrison.

    What I think gaikokumaniakku has failed to notice is that the modern magicians who got started in the 1980s and 1990s put a lot less emphasis on paranormal research and falsifiable tests of psychic ability than the old Golden Dawn magicians.

    Now, in 2014, we are blessed with a considerable body of reproducible, peer-reviewed research into paranormal topics. The aesthetic appeal of 1920s magic will endure, but its relevance to psychical research will probably be upstaged by more statistically sound methods.

    Unfortunately, the mass media still loves its ignorance and rails against those who would seek to teach.

    The popular science media often gets things wrong about psi research. But today I saw a news post that establishes a new threshold for journalistic nonsense.

    In its “Weird” news section, National Geographics’ website carried an article entitled “ESP Is Put to the Test—Can You Foretell the Results? It’s just hokum, say researchers, who offer a new experiment as proof.”

    The news post goes on to report that a study published January 13 in PLOS ONE, an online peer-reviewed journal, provides this proof in an experiment described as:”Can people use ESP to figure out what’s on the face of a card?”


    In fact the paper doesn’t mention ESP, the reported study wasn’t a test of ESP, and the references in the article don’t cite any articles that are even tangentially relevant to ESP. It had nothing whatsoever to do with ESP.

    So what was the source of this silly mistake, blaring proof of ESP as “hokum”?

    The majority of science news appearing on blogs today, even on presumably well-regarded sites like National Geographic, is just cut and pasted from other blogs. When one of the blogs gets the story wrong, but the topic seems suitably spicy for a “weird column,” a writer who is under pressure to provide daily blog content assumes that the content of the copied blog is correct, embellishes it a bit to avoid plagiarism filters, and submits it to an editor who doesn’t have the time or interest to check the facts.

    This practice quickly perpetuates nonsense, the nonsense morphs into a widely cited source, and that soon becomes gospel on Wikipedia.

    I am sad to report that the psi taboo is alive and kicking.

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