The Doom that Came to Chelsea

| 11 Nov 2014 | 11:43

    My ex-wife died back in March, after a long and heroic bout with cancer. She walked out on me in 1997, but we remained on good enough terms that I hosted her first and only visit to Vegas in October of 2001. Las Vegas was a refuge from the maudlin hysteria of the time. She was dazzled by it. I got to spend a week with her last year, just before I drove to California. I didn’t think I’d be coming back, and we both knew that this would probably be our last time together.

    She had just enough strength to walk down the driveway to the mailbox, so we spent the week just hanging out, smoking pot and watching television, going over old times. The pot counteracted the nausea from the chemo and kept her appetite up. I brought her a stuffed toy camel from the Hard Rock Cafe in Bahrain and a keffiya from Beirut, and offered pep talks about spontaneous remissions and her old Lotto habit.

    "The odds on Lotto are pretty bad," I said, "but you played it twice a week. Your chances of beating this are much better."

    I managed to hold back the tears until I got back to my apartment in Manhattan. I had a tricky moment in the airport bar, but then again, I always do in those places.

    I first laid eyes on Bonnie at a bar called the Bells of Hell on 13th St. just west of 6th Ave. where the Cafe Loup now resides. The Bells of Hell was a hardcore Irish joint with a bar in the front and a good-sized performance space in the back. The location and name made the place a natural watering hole for the customer base of Herman Slater’s Magickal Childe, up in Chelsea at 35 W. 19th St. The Magickal Childe was ground zero for the occult explosion in New York City in the 1970s.

    Herman Slater and his lover Ed Buczynski had a little occult emporium on Henry St. in Brooklyn, just off Atlantic Ave., back in the early 1970s. They mainly sold herbs, candles and oils, but they also carried a modest selection of books. The Warlock Shop was just a hole in the wall, but despite its humble appearance, it was a true cash cow. In 1976, the duo pulled up stakes and moved the operation to Chelsea.

    At the Magickal Childe, there was enough space to dramatically increase the merchandise offered, and since Herman had the cash and the connections, the new store became, in effect, the one-stop-shop for any and all conjuring needs. In addition to herbs, oils, candles, books, robes, swords and other accoutrements of the Art, one could find human skulls, dried bats, mummified cat’s paws and a wide variety of unusual jewelry, a large portion of which was created by Bonnie, my ex-wife-to-be. A room in the back of the store served as a temple and classroom for the various strains of wicca that began to gravitate to the place.

    That temple also served as the launching pad for the explosive growth of Aleister Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) in the city in the late 70s and early 80s.

    Herman had vigorously encouraged and supported the creation of the Schlangekraft Necronomicon, edited by "Simon." No doubt he’d grown weary of explaining to customers that H.P. Lovecraft’s fabled forbidden tome was a fiction, a plot device for great horror stories and nothing more. He was savvy enough to sell leftover chicken bones as human finger bones to wannabe necromancers, so he surely knew that the market for a "genuine" Necronomicon could be huge–with the right packaging. In 1977, the book made its debut in the window of Herman’s little shop of horrors in Chelsea. It generated a scene of its own, a scene bursting with mad, unfocused creativity and slapstick mayhem.

    Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea had just published their Illuminatus trilogy, and interest in secret societies and occult lore was sweeping through counterculture circuits. Grady McMurtry was attempting to jumpstart the long-dormant OTO in California and had just succeeded in having Aleister Crowley’s Thoth tarot deck published. Punks and proto-goth/industrial types searched out obscure Satanic treatises and rare tracts from the seemingly defunct Process Church of the Final Judgement. Unrepentant hippies and uber-feminists found common ground in the gentle, woodsy eco-cult of the wicca, available in enough variant "traditions" to suit any palate with an appetite for sweets.

    None of the wiccan "traditions" were any older than the electric light bulb, and the OTO had its origins in a very dubious Masonic lineage of no greater antiquity than aniline dyes, but that didn’t stop any of us from having a good time. The Necronomicon was not merely the icing on the cake: It was the hideous formless mass that squatted gibbering and piping where the bride and groom should be.

    This was the 1970s, and the whole scene was awash in drugs and crazy sex. Herman had an appetite for rough trade and kept a steady stream of dope-crazed street hustlers flowing down from the Haymarket Saloon up on 8th Ave. above Port Authority. He’d keep them around until they ripped him off, then give them the boot and move on to the next one. He liked them big and stupid, a total contrast with Eddie’s graceful and intelligent demeanor.

    The differing wicca groups were squabbling over the supposed validity of lineage, and there were no fewer than four established OTO groups internationally, each claiming exclusive dominion over the brand and trademarks. As a lifelong student of what Crowley termed "magick" (the "k" inserted to distinguish the practice from prestidigitation), I have never been a big fan of what I call the "booga-booga" school of magick. I tend to see the practice more as a form of radical self-help and advanced covert sales technique than any kind of actual traffic with disembodied critters and goblins. That said, between the copious amounts of hallucinogens ingested and the spells and counterspells hurled around, there were times when the vibes around the store congealed and quivered like a great Waldorf Salad.

    Into this bubbling swamp of spiritual fecundity stepped Peter Levenda, aka "Simon." Charming, soft-spoken and aloof, well-versed in all aspects of occult theory and practice, he eased his way to the center of the scene. The Necronomicon was a team effort. Herman provided the sponsorship, while the design and layout were the work of Jim Wasserman of the OTO, a raving cokehead from Jersey named Larry Barnes whose daddy had the production facilities and a fellow who called himself Khem Set Rising (who also designed the sigils). The text itself was Levenda’s creation, a synthesis of Sumerian and later Babylonian myths and texts peppered with names of entities from H.P. Lovecraft’s notorious and enormously popular Cthulhu stories. Levenda seems to have drawn heavily on the works of Samuel Noah Kramer for the Sumerian, and almost certainly spent a great deal of time at the University of Pennsylvania library researching the thing. Structurally, the text was modeled on the wiccan Book of Shadows and the Goetia, a grimoire of doubtful authenticity itself dating from the late Middle Ages.

    "Simon" was also Levenda’s creation. He cultivated an elusive, secretive persona, giving him a fantastic and blatantly implausible line of bullshit to cover the book’s origins. He had no telephone. He always wore business suits, in stark contrast to the flamboyant Renaissance fair, proto-goth costuming that dominated the scene. He never got high in public.

    In short, he knew the signifiers and emblems of authority, and played them to the hilt. He hinted broadly of dealings with intelligence agencies and secret societies operating at global levels of social influence. He began teaching classes in the back room, and showed a genuine knack for clarifying and elucidating such baroque encrypted arcana as John Dee’s Enochian magick system in such a way as to make it understandable even to a novice. He also lacked the guts to let a woman know when he was through with her, or so Bonnie said. She was positioned to know at the time, despite her failing marriage to Chris Claremont, the comic book author who put the X-Men on the map. Chris was her third husband. I was her fourth, and last.

    As Simon, Levenda threw parties with various forms of live entertainment and staged rituals presented by the various groups that swarmed around the shop. He had no political enemies on the scene, owing to his adamantine and resolute refusal to affiliate with any one group. There has always been a very heavy crossover factor between the Renaissance fair/Society for Creative Anachronisms crowd, the science-fiction fan circuit and the occult/wicca scenes. Simon had friends throughout all of these arenas, and they all showed up to support this effort at unity.

    The house band for these affairs was Turner and Kirwan of Wexford, whose sound was primarily influenced by Irish traditional folk music, Pink Floyd and the esoteric "Canterbury School" of so-called "progressive" rock inspired by the band the Soft Machine, which school included Mike Oldfield; Hatfield and the North; McDonald; Giles, Giles and Fripp. Connor Freff Cochran (known then simply as "Freff") was nearly always in attendance, juggling and entertaining, ornamental and always a hit with the women.

    Copernicus–second only perhaps to G.G. Allin on the obnoxious meter–had his performance debut at one of these events, and occasionally even Norman Mailer would pop in, with his assistant Judith McNally in tow. Judith and Simon were rumored to be an item, and it was also rumored that she had done the bulk of the work on Mailer’s big hit, The Executioner’s Song. She’s listed in the acknowledgements of the Necronomicon.

    Certain theories have it that even a bogus (or, to be kind, synthetic) grimoire will work if it is internally consistent, but that means following the rules to the letter. Simon’s Necronomicon contains a manual of self-initiation in the form of a series of "gates" that are to be "walked." Following the instructions given in the book, walking these gates should take just shy of a year. One certain Martin Mensch–an adepti who had received the book in manuscript form for examination, as had Bonnie due to her status as a Gardnerian wiccan high priestess of some repute–decided to accelerate the process, and ran the gates in a matter of weeks. Shortly after completing the final gate, he stepped out of a cab at 10th St. and 1st Ave. and got capped in the head in one of those random acts of mindless violence that were coming into vogue at that time.

    Simon decided to start a group of his own, one that would span the different traditions and merge the gentle current of the wicca with the rigorous scholarship of the Golden Dawn/OTO trend under the umbrella of the Necronomicon. Heavily inspired by the Illuminatus books and Timothy Leary’s exopsychology theory of the eight-circuit brain, he launched Stargroup-1 at these parties.

    As the 80s dawned and the Reagan era began, the Berkeley-based Caliphate OTO swelled to become the dominant force among the Crowley crowd, and the internal politics of that group morphed into a drug-soaked, sex-crazed caricature of I, Claudius. The wicca continued their ongoing disputes regarding the validity or lack thereof of the various "traditions," and Stargroup-1 issued the New York Tarot, a genuinely cute endeavor to replace the traditional tarot card images with photographs of New York City and certain members of the group. People were having mad sex of every conceivable variety in every imaginable combination. Turner and Kirwan of Wexford streamlined their sound and turned into a new-wave effort called the Major Thinkers.

    Simon was finding Larry Barnes increasingly difficult to tolerate, an understandable position given the man’s outrageous level of cocaine consumption. Simon refused to attend a book signing, so Wasserman recruited me to impersonate him and forge his signature on a run of hardcover reprints. Barnes kept laying out rails of blow until I simply had to refuse any more; I thought I was going to have a stroke. His skin had that bluish tinge one usually associates with corpses; he couldn’t shut up and made no sense at all. He was completely obsessed with numerology, a classic symptom of incipient paranoia. Shortly thereafter, Larry snitched out his suppliers and entered the Federal Witness Protection Program, never to be seen again. In 1980, Avon released the paperback version of the Necronomicon, which remains in print and has been selling very steadily ever since.

    For me, the scene peaked at a reception thrown by a prominent tax attorney from DC at the Plaza Hotel honoring Grady McMurtry, filmmaker Kenneth Anger and Simon. There was a screening of Anger’s film, Lucifer Rising, a splendid buffet, rivers of free booze and a full range of sense-deranging substances. It was the last time that particular crowd got together on friendly terms.

    Not all of us took Simon’s hints of dabblings in intelligence work all that seriously, but apparently the Feds did. An agent infiltrated the OTO with the apparent intent of getting close to Simon, who was doing a great deal of consulting for the local lodge and seemed to be flirting with affiliation. As the noose tightened, Simon became more and more critical of the OTO, finally denouncing it as "fascist" and vanishing, some said to Singapore. Other reports placed him in Hong Kong or Shanghai. The truth is, no one knew.

    Bonnie and I headed out to San Francisco, where we were married by a Justice of the Peace on October 6, 1983. Grady McMurtry led the Caliphate OTO through a series of court battles aimed at establishing it as the one true OTO and died of congestive heart failure on the day the judge granted his victory. Stargroup-1 quietly disintegrated, and the wicca made peace with one another as fundamentalist Christians took control of the White House. The Major Thinkers broke up. Pierce Turner went solo, and Larry Kirwan formed Black 47.

    Herman Slater sailed his little pirate ship through it all, indomitable and ornery, the very fairy godmother of the entire scene. Every now and then the issue of unpaid sales taxes would pop up and he’d threaten to sell the shop, but he never did. The books, such as they were, consisted mainly of scraps of paper stuffed into shopping bags. There was no earthly way anyone but Herman could make any sense of it. The cranky old fucker fired me no fewer than three times in the course of my tenure there, but Bonnie’s jewelry sold, and he eventually bought the line from her. She never had much business sense, not that I consider that a flaw. She was an artist, first and foremost, and a damned fine one at that.

    In 1989, Ed Buczynski died of complications from AIDS. On July 9, 1992, Herman followed him into the Western Lands. He left the shop to a handful of employees who had managed to avoid pissing him off. Unfortunately, he also left an incredible tax debt. The shop limped along for a few years, deteriorating gradually and finally closing its doors for good in 1999. The space remains vacant as of this writing.

    During the last ten years of her life, my wife embraced Tibetan Buddhism, specifically the variant known as Dzogchen. In our last conversation, she mentioned that my picture was sitting next to the Dalai Lama in her makeshift shrine in the hospice where she was spending her final days.

    "I am honored by the gesture," I told her, "but I’m not so sure I belong there. It might give His Holiness weird dreams."

    She left me her Necronomicon, number 141 of the first edition of 666 hardcover copies, inscribed by Simon: "To Greymalkin, As per the missing page of the Nec… ‘Blessed Is, Blessed Was, Blessed Will Be…’"

    She was a wonderful woman. It was a very colorful scene, a very colorful time. We were all naive and completely insane, but we had a good time together. It was, in a word, magick.