When the shadows slink and slither
And the goblins all parade
then reason is a broken reed
At the Devil’s Masquerade
The narrative of Masks of the Illuminati begins in April of 1914 with a seemingly mad Englishman arriving by train in Zurich; he has shared a carriage with a Swiss psychologist1, who figures later in the book, and a Russian2, whom I suspect plays a part in politics of the time. The distraught Englishman stumbles into a rathskellar where he encounters Einstein (comparatively sober) and James Joyce (half-seas over). The two soothe him and begins to recount a very disturbing tale.
Sir John Babcock, a member of England’s aristocracy rendered wealthy beyond the dreams of most of his countrymen through being orphaned twice over3, becomes an initiate in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, as it is named in the book. As the matter is presented to Babcock initially, his teacher is George Cecil Jones, who purports to be in opposition to Aleister Crowley, though in reality the two were prime movers in the group after it broke away from the Order of the Golden Dawn. Babcock dutifully attempts to learn the lessons Jones sets him which are, so far as I can tell, based on occult knowledge of societies of the time. Partway through his course of study, Babcock begins to suspect that there is more to his study of cabalism than a mere initiation of a novice. However, he is startled to discover a book titled Clouds Without Waterin one of the many used bookstalls in Soho, , which was edited from a private MS by the Reverend C. Verey on behalf of a Scottish Presbyterian group, The Society for the Propagation of Religious Truth. This book is, to the eyes of a novice, promulgating the very Cabalistic Arts which it is purporting to dismiss.
He contacts the author, one Charles Verey, the rector of a church in Inverness, who reveals that he and his family have been the victim of subversive and nightmarish attacks from secret societies. Recently, Verey’s wife and brother-in-law have committed suicide after receiving books mailed from one M.M.M at 93 Jermyn Street; unfortunately the victims tossed the volumes they received in the fire before Verey came into the room so Verey, and as a result Babcock, do not know what the triggering volume was. Verey shows up on Babcock’s doorstep, as he believes Babcock to be the only man capable of both understanding what has happened and assisting in solving the issue. Babcock calls upon Jones, who provides them a safe house…and Babcock wakes the next morning to find Jones, Verey, the safe house, M.M.M. in Jermyn Street and indeed every trace of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn to be not only vanished but apparently lacking any previous existence. It is at this point that Babcock’s mind breaks down and he flees, ending up fainting at the feet of Joyce and Einstein in Zurich.
Was the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn only a hallucination? a construct in order to bamboozle Babcock? or was there ever a real secret society reaching out to Babcock in order to indoctrinate him and initiate him into their practices? Well, readers may need to decide that for themselves; suffice it to say that there was never a division, at least in Masks of the Illuminati, between Jones and Crowley. Indeed, the vast majority of the people whom Babcock encountered in his search for enlightenment, were in league with Crowley, if they were not Crowley himself in disguise.
I’ve always found Masks of the Illuminati to be Wilson’s most approachable book; I’ve made several attempts at the Illuminatus (written with Robert Shea) and Schrodinger’s Cat (written alone) trilogies but never gotten more than a few pages in before losing track of the plotline and wandering off to something more straightforward. Masks of The Illuminati is a blend of fact and fiction—how much of each depends on how factual readers consider Crowley’s works and actions to be—and many of the characters are real, though necessarily modified to fit Wilson’s tale. Additionally, this tale is not told in a straightforward manner, even once we begin with Babcock’s narrative to Joyce and Einstein describing the events that happened to him leading up to his distressed arrival in Zurich. Wilson mixes dialogue with description with material written as if for a movie screenplay with question and answer sessions between unnamed guides and their followers.
1we find out later that this is Carl Gustav Jung
2the character is not named, though I suspect it’s Lenin (possibly Trotsky) given Wilson’s pattern in this book of including very real figures from the period, as he was also in Zurich in the pre-WWI period.
3first both of Babcock’s wealthy landed parents died, then his similarly wealthy landed uncle took him in and finished raising him only to die himself just as Babcock turned eighteen and escaped Eton…