“Good writers have two things in common; they prefer to be understood rather than admired; and they do not write for knowing and over-acute readers.” [Nietzsche, Human, all too Human, 1886].
Judged by Nietzsche’s criteria, Colin Wilson is a good writer. To Wilson’s critics – usually “knowing and over-acute readers” – his motivation was to be “admired” and nothing more. An objective reading of his work will demonstrate this to be quite untrue, but as Wilson’s oeuvre is vast and sometimes difficult to locate, this type of objectivity cannot be realised without some long term effort and a little cultural de-conditioning.
Any reader of Wilson who is unburdened with either academic specialism or an obsession with yesterday’s papers is able to engage directly with his ideas. As Wilson’s work is concerned with the problems of prejudice within consciousness, the tradition of missing the point critically is a revealing one. From The Outsider onwards, far too much of the English speaking media has concentrated on his brief fame – and subsequent lack of it – at the expense of engaging with his highly intriguing mix of philosophy, fiction and criticism. In the long term, this will be regrettable; future readers will find it curious that hardly any commentators bothered to grapple with his ideas. Ultimately this a is reflection of our “age of defeat” with which Wilson is so concerned.
Ironically, one reason for Wilson’s neglect is his sheer stylistic accessibility: there is no ‘code’ to translate, and there is a presumption that such easy access must lack depth. Postmodern philosophy is sustained by the illusion that impenetrable linguistic pyrotechnics equals erudition and Wilson cannily notes that this intellectual sleight of hand is also a technique used by all cults and quacks. His body of work remains a sharp analysis of unquestioned prejudices in philosophy and literature. Such as the assumption – you could even call it a tradition – that pessimismic states are more ‘intellectual’ than optimistic insights because they are reported with greater frequency and discussed with serious analysis. Wilson’s method was to reverse this and meticulously dissect and document moments of affirmation in all areas of experience, in literature, philosophy, poetry and personal anecdote without prejudice or snobbery. As Alfred North Whitehead said: “Familiar things happen and mankind does not bother about them. It takes a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious.”
Perhaps the somewhat dismissive critical tone Wilson usually (but not always, it must be remembered) encountered had less to do with his working class roots and his autodidactic learning curve, his ‘everyman’ writing style, or even his brief flirtation with celebrity. None of these things are as surprising as they were in 1956. The repetive format of ad hominem attacks that plagued Wilson’s career were essentially motivated by his inability to “know his place” – for continuing to write after bad reviews of his second book, for working out radical philosophical strategies outside of academia – and worse than that, presenting these in such a lucid fashion that anyone could understand them. Because of the latter factor, Wilson was in fact, a very popular writer (he was allegedly one of the most borrowed authors in the British public library system.) Generally his critics were snobs – ‘good writing’ for admiration rather than understanding, as Nietzsche remarked. A British newspaper even once ran an interview with Wilson which attempted to avoid talking about his phenomenological existentialism “at all costs”. In The Treason of the Intellectuals section of Beyond the Outsider he notes how thinkers who propose solutions to problems are usually condemned as shallow. “Such men are never popular with their ‘intellectual peers’, since their very existence is an implied reproach.” Wilson himself falls into this category.
Despite the snubs from the press and the academy, Wilson has a dedicated and unusual fan base. Groucho Marx was an admirer: “Gollancz sent me a copy of his autobiography…he told me that Groucho had ordered him to send copies to three people in England only: Winston Churchill, Somerset Maugham and Colin Wilson. Naturally I was flattered.” Philip Pullman, the author of the important His Dark Materials trilogy, told the BBC that “Wilson has written very interestingly on David Lindsay and I am grateful to him for making me aware not only of Lindsay, but several other people it would have taken me a lot longer to find otherwise”. Mark E. Smith credits him as an influence on his seminal underground band: “if you know what Wilson does… he’ll write a science fiction book but it’s not really about science fiction… which I think is amazing. Or he’ll write a detective novel [Necessary Doubt, 1964] and tell you who the murderer is on the second page, you know, and then just go off to describe his own theories all the way through the book (chuckling) …it’s very similar to what The Fall do.” And indeed it is. He is said to be a cult hero in the Middle East, read in English and Arabic translation (bizarrely, Colonel Gaddafi was such a avid reader of Wilson’s debut that he wanted to meet the author.) According to the Times Literary Supplement, he was “among the most discussed English authors in Moscow” [his ‘lost’ vampire novel has only been published in Russian], and he has admitted he makes most of his money from Japan where they print literally everything he writes. He wrote approximately one hundred and seventy books, from treatises on philosophy, literature and poetry, to studies of violence and deviancy, the latter anticipating the explosion of true crime writing by several decades. He wrote novels which managed to be genuinely high/low cultured without having to make an issue about it, and he deconstructed irrationality with a completely rational sceptical mind. He wrote studies on classical music and even on the history of wine and alcohol. And because he wrote such a huge amount of journalism, reviews, criticism and forewords and also kept an enormous written and audio journal, this body of work continues to grow.
Wilson’s democratic style – the descriptive method – is unfashionable today. Yet this method is used to challenge an environment still wallowing in ‘the fallacy of insignificance.’ This dull cultural pessimism – repackaged decade after decade with much of it described and rejected in Wilson’s books – is somehow still thought to be objective and normal, “natural” in fact. This was Wilson’s starting point in his first book, The Outsider, and continued throughout. A 2005 article in Philosophy Now pointed out that he “has been unjustly neglected by academia, in the case of philosophy almost totally so. This may be because he has worked outside the university system almost all his life, and therefore attracts an irredeemable suspicion of not really being ‘sound’. One does not have to agree with every turn in his writings in general to believe that his specifically philosophical work is in fact of significant value. Wilson’s criticism of Sartre” [in Anti-Sartre] “echoes Nietzsche’s charge that what are presented by philosophers as universally valid conclusions based on cool reasoning may often be “…an audacious generalization of very narrow, very personal, very human, all too human facts.” [Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil].” Probably the only contemporary philosopher to engage with Wilson’s ideas in any meaningful sense is Slavoj Žižek, in books such as The Ticklish Subject and The Puppet and the Dwarf . Yet even this “Elvis of cultural theory” [ironic to note that the young Wilson was also compared to Elvis] appears to be surprised to find inspiration in a Wilson book. So much for the post-everything eradication of all boundaries!
The following pages are intended to be a condensed guide to Wilson’s large corpus of thought, and the structure of the information owes something to Howard F. Dossor’s Colin Wilson: The Man and his Mind (1990), which was essentially the only summary readily available when I started the site. I have kept the subjects organised in sections – philosophy, crime and ‘occultism’ etc. for brevity, but Wilson did not write in simple categories: he was able to see important parallels in many apparently unrelated disciplines.
Appendix. When I started the original version of this site at the end of 2004, Colin Wilson was one of the first people to see it. He sent me a document with a personally ordered bibliography (see appendix here) and some commentaries on his important Outsider Cycle and other early titles. This was all intended for a website of his own (which was never completed) and he suggested I use what I want of it. There was also a CV and short biography which I append here as a concise autobiographical sketch.
Colin Wilson was born in Leicester, a manufacturing town in the British Midlands, June 26, 1931. His father was a manual worker in the boot and shoe trade, who earned about £3 a week. At the age of 11 he won a scholarship to a secondary school, and became deeply interested in science – particularly chemistry, physics and astronomy. At this time his intention was to become a scientist, working in relativity theory and quantum physics. His first book, written at the age of 13, was A Manual of General Science, attempting to cover all the sciences, from biology and geology to mathematics. It was through writing this book that he became interested in philosophy.
Because he failed to gain a credit in mathematics in the School Certificate examination, he spent some months working in a wool factory while taking the exam a second time. He found the experience so depressing that he began to spend all his spare time reading poetry, and trying to write plays. The result was that when he resumed his scientific career – as a laboratory assistant at his old school – he discovered that he had lost interest in science and wanted to be a writer. When, a year later, his exam results made it clear that he had done no academic work, he was dismissed, and became a Civil Servant. At the age of 18 he entered the Royal Air Force for his national service, but disliked this so much that he succeeded in getting himself discharged by claiming to be homosexual (which he is not.)
After this he became a tramp, and travelled to Paris and Strasbourg, often sleeping rough. On his return to England, he was obliged to marry when his girlfriend, a nurse, became pregnant. The marriage lasted only 18 months, during which time he worked in factories, and continued to try to write a novel which would later become Ritual in the Dark. After the break-up of the marriage (largely due to inability to find lodgings in London), he went to Paris again, where he continued to write. Returning to London, he slept out on Hampstead Hath in a sleepng bag to save rent, while working during the day at the British Museum Reading Room on the novel. During Christmas 1954, while the writer Angus Wilson (who was the assistant superintendent of the Reading Room) read the unfinished novel, he conceived the idea of a critical book about ‘Outsiders’, men who feel intellectually alienated from society. In the summer of 1955 this was accepted by a London publisher. The Outsider appeared in May 1956, and became an overnight success, becoming a bestseller in England and America.
The accident of being ‘discovered’ at the same time as John Osborne, author of Look Back in Anger, led to his being saddled with the nonsensical label Angry Young Man. With his girlfriend Joy (now his wife) he moved to Cornwall, a remote country area by the sea. The ‘succces fou’ of his first book, and the immense amount of publicity that followed – much of it hostile – led to violent attacks on his second book, Religion and the Rebel (1957.) He has nevertheless continued to make a living by writing, although usually with an overdraft, and his books (over a hundred) have continued to be translated into many foreign languages. He has been a visiting professor at a girls’ college in Virginia and two American universities, and has lectured in America, Europe and Japan.
He regards himself primarily as a philosopher concerned with the meaning of human existence. Unlike many ‘existentialists’, his outlook is basically optimistic.
Colin Wilson still lives in Cornwall with his wife. He has three children by this second marriage, two sons and a daughter.
This is a brief autobiographical sketch – for greater detail see my autobiography Dreaming to Some Purpose (2004) – plus Bibliography.
[a short biographical sketch follows]
Born in Leicester, June 26, 1931, son of a boot and shoe worker who earned £3 a week, I became fascinated by chemistry and astronomy at the age of 10, and formed the ambition of being ‘Einstein’s successor.’ I won a scholarship to the Gateway Secondary School at the age of 11, but left at 16, the family not having enough money to think in terms of university. After a few months of intense misery working in a wool factory, I began to read poetry as an emotional outlet, and suddenly decided that I wanted to be a writer, not a scientist. I began writing a vast sequel to Shaw’s Man and Superman, and a book called The Quintesence of Shavianism. At this point, my old school offered me a job as a lab.assistant and I remained there a year until it became obvious to everyone that I had lost interest in science, and they regretfully sacked me. For want of anything better to do, I entered the Civil Service (taxes) but found that just as frustrating and boring as the lab. However, I passed my ‘establishment’ exams at 18, and shortly afterwards joined the RAF for my National Service, my father expressing the wish that it would knock some sense into me. There I was made a clerk in an anti-aircraft (auxiliary) unit, and was soon as bored and frustrated as ever. In the spring of 1949 I succeeded in ‘working my ticket’ by claiming to be homosexual (which I am not). After this, determined not to go back to an office, I resigned from the Civil Service (to my father’s horror) and became a kind of tramp, wandering around England, occasionally sleeping in haystacks, and taking such jobs as apple-picking in Kent where I slept in a derelict cottage. I crossed the channel to France, and stayed for a while in the ‘Akademia’ of the American poet Raymond Duncan (brother of dancer Isadora) at 31 rue de Seine, Paris, before going on to Strasbourg to see a pen-pal. and so back to England.
In 1950 my girlfriend, a nurse, became pregnant, and my parents railroaded me into marriage. We moved to London, where we had a son named Roderick, but a succession of landladies who didn’t like babies led to our separation after eighteen months. I joined the London Anarchist Group, wrote and presented an ‘Anarchist revue’ in a hired hall, and wrote a play called The Metal Flower Blossom for the same company, meanwhile working as a hospital porter. However, frustration and boredom again drove me to Paris, where I worked selling subscriptions for The Paris Review (edited by George Plimpton), and Marlin, edited by Alexander Trocchi. There I met the poet Christopher Logue.
When I returned to England in November 1952, I went to work in a department store in Leicester, and there met Joy Stewart, a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, who was then engaged to be married. I persuaded to break her engagement and come to London with me. (We have been together ever since – now more than fifty years). In London, I took a series of manual jobs and office jobs while I worked on my first novel Ritual in the Dark, based on Jack the Ripper. From spring to autumn 1954 I slept out on Hampstead Heath in a sleeping bag to save rent, while writing during the day in the Reading Room of the British Museum. There I met the novelist Angus Wilson, Assistant Superintendent of the Reading Room, and while Angus was reading the unfinished novel over Christmas 1954, I planned a book about ‘existential philosophy’, to be called The Outsider in Literature, which I began writing as soon as the Reading Room opened again in January 1955. Meanwhile I was working as a dish washer in the newly opened Coffee House in the Haymarket.
I was lucky; The Outsider was accepted by the first publisher to whom I sent an outline and some extracts – Victor Gollancz. Published in the last week of May 1956, it received an unprecedented reception from serious critics, and – as journalist Kenneth Allsop wrote in The Angry Decade – I ‘woke up to find myself famous.’ The book became a bestseller in England and America, and was translated into a dozen languages. Suddenly, to my bewilderment, I found myself making TV and radio broadcasts, lecturing at universities, and being endlessly written about in the gossip columns. This was partly due to the fact that my own success happened at the same time as that of John Osborne, whose Look Back in Anger was reviewed the same day as The Outsider. The press quickly labelled us ‘Angry Young Men’, and during the ‘silly season’ of 1956 we received non-stop publicity, which soon had the serious critics foaming at the mouth and declaring that our success had been undeserved after all.
Disaster struck in the spring of 1957, when Joy’s parents turned up at my flat with a horsewhip, accusing me of being a homosexual and having six mistresses. We had to call in the police; the press got wind of the story, notified by a disgraceful old queer called Gerald Hamilton (Christopher Isherwood’s ‘Mr Norris’) to whom we had been giving dinner at the time. We made the mistake of fleeing – first to Devon, then to Ireland, with all the British press in hot pursuit; the result was that the ‘horsewhipping scandal’ stayed on the front pages for two weeks, destroying what was left of my serious reputation. On the advice of Gollancz, we moved to Cornwall (where we still live) and I completed my second book Religion and the Rebel, which was savagely mangled by all the serious critics, now thoroughly sick – as Nancy Spain put it – of ‘the boy Colin.’ In fact, I found it something of a relief to be off the pedestal, and went on writing – five more volumes of ‘The Outsider cycle’, an Encyclopedia of Murder (criminology had always been one of my main interests since I became fascinated by Jack the Ripper at the age of ten), and a series of novels, beginning with Ritual in the Dark. In 1961 and 1966 I did two lecture tours in America, and became Writer in Residence at Hollins College, Virginia, from ‘66 to ‘67, then at the University of Washington, in Seattle, from ‘67 to ‘68. (Later still I was ‘Visiting Professor’ at Rutgers in Philadelphia.)
In the ‘Outsider cycle’ it became clear that what I was doing was creating a ‘New Existentialism’ (summarised in a book of that title in 1967) with a positive and evolutionary bias, as contrasted with the nihilistic existentialism of Heidegger, Sartre and Camus. I still regard this as my major achievement. After two centuries of pessimism (dating roughly from 1773, with Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther), I felt that the pessimism that permeates Western culture had to be bulldozed aside if our culture is to develop.
In the late 60s there was a fresh departure when I was asked to write a book on ‘the occult.’ Initially something of a sceptic, I became .convinced of the reality of the paranormal, and produced the quarter-of-a-million word volume The Occult (1971), which achieved the same kind of success as The Outsider and sold even more. With the late Dr Christopher Evans I edited a series of books ‘The Supernatural’ for Aldus Books, and wrote several more volumes on the paranormal, of which the most important are Mysteries (1978) and Beyond the Occult (1989), the latter perhaps the best general summary of my ideas on existential philosophy as well as the paranormal. Other books on the paranormal include Poltergeist, Afterlife and The Psychic Detectives. In 1989 my science fiction novel The Space Vampires was turned into a truly horrible ‘blockbuster’ film, probably the worst ever made.
Since 1957 I have lived in Cornwall. In 1959 we moved from a cottage into a house, and produced three children, a girl (Sally) and two boys (Damon and Rowan) – the latter have co-authored a number of books on crime and unsolved mysteries with me. In 45 years I have written over eighty books, falling mainly into the four categories: existential philosophy, criminology, the paranormal and psychology (I have written biographies of Wilhelm Reich and Abraham Maslow.).
I suppose my main departure in the 1990s was a new interest in the problem of ancient civilisations. This began when I was asked to write a film outline on Atlantis for Dino de Laurentiis, and decided to base it on John Anthony West’s theory (derived from Schwaller de Lubicz) that the Sphinx was probably built thousands of years earlier than is generally supposed, by survivors from Atlantis. I decided to write a book on this idea, but delayed for a couple of years, until I was commissioned to write on by Virgin. Then a series of serendipities led to contact with John Anthony West, Graham Hancock, Robert Bauval, Rand Flem’Ath, and others, and led to the writing of From Atlantis to the Sphinx (not my title, but my publisher’s, alas – I wanted to call it Before the Sphinx.) It sold well, and Virgin commissioned me to write a book on the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, which became Alien Dawn (1998). There are also twenty novels and three plays – the latest, Mozart’s Journey to Prague, written for the Medici String Quartet and two actors, has been widely performed under the auspices of the Royal Shakespeare Company and recorded on compact disc and cassette. There is also a CD recording of me reading from my work, The Essential Colin Wilson, a selection from a volume of that title.
In the mid-1980s, I made a lecture tour of Japan, and thereafter have lectured regularly in America, Australia and Japan. (In the latter there are more than forty of my books currently in print.) In Poland and Russia my books have recently sold in vast quantities – regrettably not reflected in the royalties, diminished by galloping inflation. In England, I think it would be true to say that my reputation has never recovered from the publicity of the late ‘fifties – although this at least has the advantage (less easy to achieve in America or Japan) of preserving my privacy.
In 1998, Rand Flem-Ath proposed that we should collaborate on a book about his theory that Plato’s Atlantis could be Antarctica. His starting point was an observation made by the American professor of history Charles Hapgood that civilisation might well date from before 100,000 years ago. My researches uncovered that Hapgood had become convinced that Neanderthal Man possessed a remarkably high level of culture 50,000 years before ‘we’ – the Cro-Magnons – came on the scene. This notion had first been proposed by the psychologist Stan Gooch in the 1980s, in his book Cities of Dreams, and much subsequent research has supported this. In Atlantis to the Sphinx, (as in The Occult) I had argued that our remote ancestors possessed far greater paranormal abilities than we do, and had a completely different ‘knowledge system’, based on these abilities. This notion played a major part in the final chapters of the book I wrote in collaboration with Rand Flem-Ath, The Atlantis Blueprint. Alas, my collaborator disagreed with me, and regarded the Neanderthal theory as ‘laughable’. The result was that he broke his contract of collaboration, and made sweeping changes to the proof of the book, excising its last two chapters completely. I became aware of this only when I saw the proof, and it was too late to put back what Rand had removed. The result was that The Atlantis Blueprint has no real conclusion, and failed even to cover its advance. My reaction was to write a sequel called Atlantis and the Old Ones (the ‘old ones’ being Neanderthals), which is still (June 2004) unpublished. 
In spring 2002, an editor named Paul Copperwaite suggested that I should write my autobiography for Virgin. Unfortunately, he was unable to offer a reasonable advance; I therefore decided to write the book and find a publisher when it was finished. It was written between July and November 2002, making use of letters to my mother and wife, and dozens of volumes of journals – as well as a ‘preliminary autobiography, Voyage to a Beginning, written in the mid-1960s. Accepted by Random/Century, it was published in on June 10, 2004, virtually forty eight years after the appearance of The Outsider. My publisher and editor Mark Booth encouraged me to expand it from 150,000 words to 200,000 words. This I am inclined to believe to be my most important book.
© Colin Wilson
 Subsequently published as Atlantis and the Kingdom of the Neanderthals (Bear and Company, 2006)
Note: many of the older volumes listed here are now out of print and some are rarities, so I would suggest that best all round overview on Wilson for the novice is Gary Lachman’s Beyond the Robot, a comprehensive volume which compresses a large amount of relevant information between two covers. Wilson regarded his second attempt at autobiography, Dreaming to Some Purpose as ‘the pocket Wilson’ and is excellent as a summation of his work, perhaps the first Wilson title you should read. The compendium The Essential Colin Wilson will be reissued in an expanded edition in 2019. There is a guide to Wilson’s daunting bibliography here.
The World of Colin Wilson by Sidney Campion (Muller, 1962. This contains extracts from Wilson’s own journals and shows a genuine enthusiasm for his early works. Written by an author who Wilson had read in his youth, it’s 1963 sequel, The Sound Barrier, was eventually published in 2011 by Paupers’ Press)
Voyage to a Begining: a preliminary autobiography (Cecil & Amelia Woolf, 1969). Extra chapters from the American edition were published for U.K. readers by Paupers’ Press as two separate booklets – Marriage and London (1991) and Sex, America and Other Insights (1992)
Colin Wilson by John A. Weigel (Twayne Publishers, 1975)
Colin Wilson, The Outsider and Beyond by Clifford P. Bendau (Borgo Press, 1979)
The Essential Colin Wilson (Grafton, 1987). This ‘best of’ is due to be reissued in an expanded edition in 2019
Autobiographical Reflections (Paupers’ Press, 1988)
Colin Wilson, a Celebration. [Edited by Colin Stanley], (Cecil Woolf, 1988)
Colin Wilson: Two Essays: The English Existentialist and Spiders and Outsiders (Including an Interview with the Author) by John Moorhouse and Paul Newman (Paupers’ Press, 1989)
Colin Wilson: The Man and his Mind by Howard F. Dossor (Element, 1990)
Dreaming to Some Purpose (Century, 2004) kindle
Two responses to the mainstream press criticisms of Wilson’s memoir appeared soon after. The Odyssesy of a Dogged Optimist (2004) by Robert Meadley was only ever offered as a free PDF and is still available from Savoy Books here. Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism by Brad Spurgeon (Michael Butterworth Books, 2006), which contains a lengthy interview with Wilson was reissued in 2017.
Around the Outsider: essays presented to Colin Wilson on the occasion of his 80th birthday [edited by Colin Stanley], (O-Books, 2011) kindle
Philosophical (a)Musings: Colin Wilson, Me + the Meaning of Life by Vaughan Rapatahana (Entropy Press, 2012)
The Ultimate Colin Wilson Bibliography [1956 – 2015] [Colin Wilson Studies # 24] by Colin Stanley (Paupers’ Press 2015) This is the fourth edition of this huge and very limited work (mine is number 10 of only 50 copies). An extraordinary catalogue of everything Wilson wrote and more. However, new items are coming to attention so quickly that the author has suggested the next version, should it ever be written, will have to be presented in two volumes.
Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson by Gary Lachman (Tarcherperigee, 2016) kindle
Bargaining with the Devil: The Work of Colin Wilson in a Cultural Context by Nigel Bray (CreateSpace 2016) kindle
Geoff Ward’s excellent and comprehensive Colin Wilson World site is here.
Colin Stanley’s invaluable Paupers’ Press is here.
Colin Wilson at Wikipedia.