Wilson once said that he wanted to be remembered for his philosophical ideas and his novels. Fundamentally, they are the same thing. The Outsider was created from an idea in his first novel Ritual in the Dark, it’s sequel Man Without a Shadow analysed the same themes as Origins of the Sexual Impulse and it’s sequel, Beyond the Outsider, helped Wilson write The Glass Cage, which again investigated the same connections as Ritual. His Lovecraft pastiche, The Mind Parasites, came from a single paragraph from Introduction to the New Existentialism, and was in fact written at the request of Lovecraft’s literary executor August Derleth, responding to Wilson’s criticisms of the Mythos in Wilson’s The Strength to Dream. “Ideas tended to shape themselves into characters and events” he remembered in the mid-seventies. Writing novels, he thinks, is a way of philosophising. “Philosophy may only be a shadow of the reality it tries to grasp, but the novel is altogether more satisfactory. I am also tempted to generalise and say that no philosopher is qualified to do his job unless he is also a novelist.”
The novel itself has a central place in Wilson’s philosophy, and he places huge importance on the appearance, in 1740, of Richardson’s Pamela. After this work, with its then shocking realism (told in the form of letters) novels became a craze – Rousseau’s scandalous Julie, or the New Heliose sold so fast that it had to be rented out by the hour, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther inspired readers to commit copycat suicides and Schiller’s drama The Robbers was considered so dangerous that Nietzsche once quoted a remark that if God had known that this German would write such immoral fiction, “he would not have created the world”. There had been picaresque novels before of course, but their impact was nothing like this strange and stormy hysteria known as romanticism.
‘It seems incredible” says Wilson, “that Pamela and The Robbers were written a mere forty years apart. They seem to be separated by a gulf of centuries. Less than ten years later came the French Revolution, for which Rousseau and Schiller are about equally responsible”. The novel could create imaginary landscapes and entire historical eras; Gothic novelists “explored new realms of fear with stories of demons, werewolves and vampires” and Balzac “created whole cities with their cobbled streets and dark houses”. The science fiction of Wells made it seem “like there were no limits to the human imagination”. With these powerful glimpses of other times and other places, “the novel was closely associated with the question of human freedom and evolution”. For over five centuries, Wilson writes, “the human spirit was starved of an essential vitamin, a vitamin that the Church of the Middle Ages had been able to supply, although in smaller quantities. Man not only possesses a capacity for ‘otherness’, for turning away from his own narrowness to the greater world that surrounds him; he possesses a raging appetite for it”. But the “broad current of romantic culture began to satisfy [this] appetite” for otherness, and imagination became a powerful way of creating reality rather than escaping from it. “Some historians have blamed romanticism on the Industrial Revolution and the need to escape from the ‘dark satanic mills’” says Wilson. “This is to put the cart before the horse; it was romanticism that caused the Industrial Revolution. It was romanticism that created the great colonial empires of the European powers. And it could be argued that it was romanticism that caused the great wars of the twentieth century”. In The Misfits (1988) Wilson also suggests that the romantic daydreams of Richardson soon led to the excesses of modern pornography and the rise of sex crime. It would seem that ‘if God had known Schiller would write The Robbers, he would not have created the world’ was not such a hyperbolic statement after all.
But as Wilson the criminologist says, the ‘crime explosion’ is an effect, a kind of waste product, of our narrowed rational consciousness; it is the unfortunate price we pay for science and logic. And although the imaginative revolution of the romantics casts a similar dark shadow, it is only because of it’s intrinsic brilliance. “The irony of romanticism” says Wilson in Mysteries (1978) “is that it was rendered impotent by it’s own premises”. After mentally flying through these extraordinary torrid zones of imagination, the real world appeared flat and dreary. “The romantics failed to plumb the powers of the imagination because they failed to recognise clearly that what is wrong with human beings is that we keep losing our sense of reality. We are the victims of ‘closeupness’”. Romanticism, with it’s distant realities and language of ecstasy and rapture, soon collapsed into defeat when set against the harsh realities of everyday lived experience, but it never actually went away – Wilson sees the existentialists as intellectual romantics, and his own work is an attempt to continue the investigations of romanticism from a strictly scientific (phenomenological) basis, by analysing conscious experience itself. Consciousness remains elusive to scientific measurement but is beautifully analysed in the interior narratives of masterpieces like Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Joyce’s Ulysses and Musil’s unfinished The Man Without Qualities (to name only three Modernist novels).
We have little capacity for ‘otherness’ as our minds impose their own subconscious prejudices on perceptions, ordering them into ranks – they are “bullies”, like doormen who only accept similarly dressed customers, and the idiosyncrasies of otherness rarely pass through everyday consciousness. Husserl’s phenomenological method attempts to catch out the mind in this prejudice or selectivity towards formulaic similarity, and this was thoroughly discussed in Wilson’s new existentialist groundwork of 1956-‘66, from which his early novels bloomed. Both his fiction and non-fiction are concerned with the romantic dilemma of those glimpses of freedom which end up being flattened out by everyday ‘reality’ (Heidegger’s ‘triviality of everydayness’).
Wilson’s The Craft of the Novel (1975) is an engaging history of novel-writing but also his analysis of what fiction, the creation of imaginative worlds, is actually for. Shaw said that art is a magic mirror in which we can see our own souls. Wilson thinks that “the purpose of art is not to hold a mirror up to Nature, but to your own face. And not your everyday face, but the ‘face behind your face’, your ultimate face”. In Husserl’s language, the ‘transcendental ego’, what Wilson called the ‘hidden I’ – the real you. All true art should be an attempt to reflect to this actual self through it’s chosen medium, and the novel, with it’s inward sounding intentional voice, is a particularly powerful way to create a self image, a mirror. There were novels before Richardson’s of course, but they mostly lacked this inner voice (although Wilson’s points to the bumbling Sir Roger de Coverley, an absent minded knight created by Addison and Steele for their daily Spectator in 1711: his rambling monologues were hugely popular).
The novel is a method to project this self image into the real world (The Looking Glass, a short story by Machado de Assis which Wilson discusses in his book, is a particularly good example of the problems of a ‘blurry’ self image). Shaw projected an idealised version of himself in An Unsocial Socialist, Tolstoy spilt his self image into two in War and Peace via Pierre and Prince Andrew, and Frederick Rolfe “asked himself: ‘What would I like to become?’, and answered: ‘The Pope’. The result, a minor masterpiece: his novel Hadrian the Seventh”. However, this method has it’s dangers – as seen in Goethe’s Werther – in that it can retreat into too much camera like subjectivity and become claustrophobic and eventually despondent. Wilson says that despite the intensity of feeling, “the world reflected in a small mirror soon gets monotonous”. A small convex mirror can be useful, but distorting (phenomenology studies perceptual distortions) even it reveals more detail, just like our restricted everyday consciousness. The aim of the novel, Wilson thinks, is a widening of vision, like those glimpses of the romantics, a wide angle of reflection or a camera pulling back to reveal the patterns on the ground, a bird’s eye view.
The novelist or artist should essentially be projecting an image of what they want, their ideal, rather than describing what they don’t want. This is what Wilson calls the ‘paradox of freedom’, inherent in romanticism, in that we know what don’t want – mundane, everyday reality – but we don’t quite know what we do want, apart from a vague notion of ‘freedom’ (Nietzsche’s ‘freedom from’ rather than ‘freedom for’). This, again, is to do with the ‘passive fallacy’ of perception, our unawareness of the selectivity or intentionality of our minds, a very deep seated habit. The rise of the romantic novel, with it’s descriptions of distant realities and of intense states of consciousness, reflected an intense dream world back to the reading public like a magic mirror, it was a way of understanding the ‘otherness’, the reality of other times and other places – even if they were wholly imaginary. Proust understood this ‘reality function’ when he realised that he was a child in Combray in Swann’s Way, and this realisation is what Wilson insists is a hidden faculty of consciousness – Proust describes it as ‘dormant’ through his series of novels – which can be developed phenomenologically. Again, the basis of this is discussed in Wilson’s ‘Outsider Cycle’ and developed in his ‘Occult Trilogy’ and in the novels which surround them.
This faculty is the central theme which runs throughout all of Wilson’s books. In the novels of his new existentialist period, mentioned at the beginning, it is being worked out in fiction just as rigorously as it is in it’s non-fiction equivalent. Man Without a Shadow, which is told in the form of a diary (it’s actual title is The Sex Diary of Gerard Sorme) documents this phenomenological thought on November the 18th – “Your consciousness puts out a kind of arm, a pseudopodium, and envelops [the object]”. The Mind Parasites is also packed with Husserlian details, some real, some amusingly invented, and claims to be a “composite document made up from various papers, tape recordings and verbatim reports of conversations” during the first fifteen years of the twenty-first century (it’s actual setting appears to be 2018 or thereabouts). In this Lovecraft parody, Wilson describes a “mind cancer, another name for neurosis or anhedonia, the spiritual malaise of the twentieth century” as described in his third non-fiction book, The Age of Defeat. This novel, which anticipated the trend for writing about Lovecraft philosophically by decades, was drawn from Wilson’s 1966 summation of his ‘Outsider Cycle’ books and is an excellent introduction to his philosophy itself. Writing this, alongside the detective stories Necessary Doubt (a Heidegger professor tracks down a murderer) and The Glass Cage (which involves the poetry of Blake and a serial killer) as well as the spy story The Black Room (a concept discussed in Introduction to the New Existentialism), Wilson began notice a pattern. He was struck by the fact that he was unconsciously making use of Brecht’s ‘alienation effect’ by parodying these popular forms. As Nicholas Tredell noted in his study of Wilson’s fiction: “A major feature of Wilson’s novels is their use of elements and forms from popular fiction. Of course, he is not the only modern novelist to use such materials, but he does so more wholeheartedly, and with less attempt to safeguard his ‘serious’ credentials.”
Wilson thought the novel had become so bound up with it’s own seriousness – or rather, with it’s own neuroticism and obscurity – and use of Brecht’s technique of “establishing a complicity” between the author and the audience would give parodic forms a flexibility impossible for a naturalistic or ‘serious’ novel. So Wilson’s The God of the Labyrinth parodies the pornographic novel; the characters Gerard Sorme, Kit Butler and a ‘Lord Leicester’ quote Wilson’s own philosophy by saying that ‘human beings are like grandfather clocks driven by watch-springs’ in various novels; and in true Brechtian style, Wilson himself appears at the end of The Personality Surgeon to discuss the techniques of ‘personality surgery’ with his own central character (the latter novel describes experiments into modifications of the self image via the Quintell Digital Paintbox, an antecedent of Photoshop). There were also more Lovecraft interpretations with The Philosopher’s Stone, the short story The Return of the Lloigor (also published by Arkham House) and The Tomb of the Old Ones. Wilson also invented the fictional “Dr Stanislaus Hinterstoisser” for his preface to yet another text purporting to be Lovecraft’s Necronomicon. Writing in his ‘Sex Diary’ on December the 3rd, Gerard Sorme remarks that he will include Aleister Crowley in a ‘charlatan chapter’ of a book he is working on. Wilson, the real ‘Gerard Sorme’, actually did this decades later in a non fiction work entitled The Devil’s Party, and in that book he himself remarks that it is the closest he’s got to writing Sorme’s own The Varieties of Human Self–Delusion (from Ritual in the Dark – the book is entitled Methods and Techniques of Self–Deception in Man Without a Shadow and is perhaps a fictional ‘prop’ representing The Outsider).
Wilson also wrote ‘straight’ fiction, such as Adrift in Soho, a short picaresque ‘beat’ novel which has hardly dated (it is now a film) and The Magician from Siberia – a fictional account of Tsarist Russia’s ‘mad monk’ which is just as compelling as his earlier biography, Rasputin and the Fall of the Romanovs. There are the Inspector Saltfleet ‘psychic detective’ stories, The Schoolgirl Murder Case and The Janus Murder Case (Saltfleet was a name borrowed from one of Wilson’s favourite writers, David Lindsay) and the remarkable portrait of a psychopathic murderer based on real cases from Wilson’s early crime books, The Killer, which was almost filmed by Nic Roeg (who placed a copy of Wilson’s A Criminal History of Mankind in a shot in his film Castaway). Lifeforce, Tobe Hooper’s cinematic mangling of The Space Vampires is ironically enjoyable – although Wilson thought it one of the worst films ever made – but doesn’t do the novel much justice. Taking off from where The Mind Parasites left off, The Space Vampires updates Lovecraft rather than parodies him (unlike the film, which is set in 1986, the action of the novel takes place place near the end of this century and beyond) with some commentators classifying it as part of the Cthulhu Mythos itself: there are subtle references to the mythology of Lovecraft associate Clark Ashton Smith (Wilson’s prior use of ‘Lliogor’ was from Derleth, not Lovecraft). A huge and excellent sequel was written, with Wilson remarking at the time that it was his best novel, but so far it has only been available in Russian (a fragment of Metamorphosis of the Vampire was published in the Wilson fanzine Abraxas but the entire thing deserves to be published in English as soon as possible). The four volumes of the Spider World Series, set in the twenty-fifth century, were inspired by Roald Dahl’s suggestion that Wilson write a children’s book. Not exactly ‘children’s books’, the genesis of the spider world conceit could have come from an image in a previous Wilson novel, The World of Violence, according to Wilson scholar Howard F. Dossor. One of Wilson’s most under appreciated novels, The World of Violence is in two distinct parts – The Outer Dark and The Inner Dark – and contrasts the ivory tower attitude of a mathematician with the reality of gang violence, while anticipating the sensory deprivation metaphor of The Black Room. A rare short story, Timeslip, was published in the compendium Aries 1 and as a stand-alone pamphlet, and in 2017 the fragments of Wilson’s never completed Lulu were published as a part of the ongoing Colin Wilson Studies series. It is unnecessary to divide his fiction up into parodic and non-parodic forms, however, this outline is for reading suggestions only. All of Wilson’s novels have the essential flavour of his philosophy and all are enjoyably compulsive (but then again, his non-fiction prose was just as enjoyable: one reviewer of his huge treatise on the dense and recondite subject of the ‘occult’ remarked that it was as “compulsive as a Raymond Chandler thriller”).
“Spinning tales to amuse idle readers or distract troubled readers from other problems has never been Wilson’s intention” wrote John Weigel in his 1975 study. And “none of Wilson’s prose fiction […] awes literary critics, but it is honestly adequate to it’s purpose”. Wilson “accepts his texts as intentional creations rather than as contingent or accidental events. His failure to achieve verisimilitude in much of his fiction is really no failure at all if the effect of not being real was not intended” (i.e. use of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt). Wilson’s intention, as an existentialist, was to be scientific (phenomenological) with the material of the novelist – everyday life. But as he remarked in The Craft of the Novel, detailed naturalism can become monotonous, so a wide angle of overall meaning is also needed. Healthy people experience these ‘peak experiences’ a dozen times a day: they are as part of lived reality just as much as Beckett’s documentation of his own torpor. Wilson’s primary theory of ‘Faculty X’, the realisation of the reality of other times and places, was often illustrated by incidents in novels; in Proust, in Hesse’s Steppenwolf, in Huysman’s’ Against Nature (where imagination is preferable to physical travel, or “a clumsy change of locality” as Huysmans’ narrator puts it) and in L. H. Myers’ trilogy The Root and the Flower. The opening scene of the first part (The Near and the Far) is a perfect illustration of Faculty X – in fact, the term the ‘near and the far’ is an attribute of this Faculty. A young prince looks out at the desert he has spent the last few days tramping through, and is unable to equate that feeling with the visual beauty of the desert as seen from his minaret. One day, he says to himself, he will be “vigorous” enough to understand that ‘both’ deserts are the same desert, the near desert (sand in your shoes, a “clumsy change of locality”) and the far desert (the distant horizons which tortured the romantics). That would be Faculty X, the faculty which Proust investigated in his own epic series of novels. In 1968 Wilson wrote a novel “devoted entirely to the problem of Faculty X” – so in The Philosopher’s Stone we read that “the will feeds on enormous vistas, deprived of them, it collapses”. Less the racy Lovecraft pastiche is is usually advertised as, The Philosopher’s Stone takes in Shakespeare’s “Mr. W. H.” enigma – Wilson later wrote Will Shakespeare’s Hand about this, but it too remains unpublished, although a fragment was also presented in Abraxas – and has a steady narrative concerning the perception of the past before returning to the weird terrain of The Mind Parasites and the Lliogor in the second part. By concentrating on what he wants – this ‘phenomenological’ Faculty X – Wilson focuses on his aims, in fiction as much as non-fiction. After all, this Faculty was described by Wilson as the “single obsessional idea” that runs through his work. Wilson insists that the novel, with it’s glimpses of ‘duo consciousness’ is an important evolutionary development. “As I said in Religion and the Rebel”, Wilson told interviewer Dale Salwak In 1984, “there are certain subtle ideas that can only be expressed in a novel that you simply could not say in a volume on philosophy. Because if you are an existentialist, what you’ve got to talk about is actual living”. He says that he sees no distinction between expressing ideas in a book like The New Existentialism or in fictional forms as they aim for the same goal. His non-fiction is as full of anecdotes from lived experience – practical examples, if you will – just as his fiction is packed with ‘unnaturalistic’ philosophical discussions.
“In his unashamed use of popular forms for purportedly serious ends”, wrote Nicholas Tredell in 1982, “Wilson is still viewed with some suspicion by his age; but it may be that, in a good sense, he anticipates the future”. Against the Zeitgeist of pessimism (Wilson describes it in The Mind Parasites as an epidemic of anhedonia) Wilson’s novels and his entire oeuvre is “an attempt, a virtually one-man attempt in contemporary culture, to hold up a heroic image of man, to produce a literature of celebration. If it does not altogether succeed, this is partly because our language of heroism and celebration has worn thin. It seems archaic and false.” But as Tredell goes on to say, Wilson was fully prepared to work alone, away from fashions, “unsupported by his age, fighting against it’s language, creating his own concepts, his own language, in the hope that they may one day become common concepts, a common language”. Our present century “may look back on Colin Wilson as one of the novelists who foresaw the future of fiction, and something, perhaps, of the future of man”.
Eagle and Earwig: Essays on Books and Writers. (John Baker, 1965; now reissued by Eyewear Publishing).
Lindsay as novelist and mystic in The Strange Genius of David Lindsay. (John Baker, 1970; as The Haunted Man, Borgo Press, 1979, this essay is also included in the lavish Savoy reissue of Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, 2002)
The Craft of the Novel. (Gollancz, 1975)
Science Fiction as Existentialism. (Bran’s Head, 1978; reprinted in Existentially Speaking)
The Books in My Life. (Hampton Roads, 1998)
Existential Criticism: Selected Book Reviews. (Paupers’ Press, 2009)
Ritual in the Dark. (Gollancz, 1960). kindle
Adrift in Soho. (Gollancz, 1961). kindle
The World of Violence. (Gollancz, 1963). kindle
Man without a Shadow. (Arthur Barker, 1963) kindle
Necessary Doubt. (Arthur Barker, 1964) kindle
The Glass Cage. (Arthur Barker, 1966). kindle
The Mind Parasites. (Arthur Barker, 1967). kindle
The Philosopher’s Stone. (Arthur Barker, 1969) kindle
Strindberg (play). (Calder & Boyars, 1970, Paupers’ Press, 2008)
The God of the Labyrinth. (Hart-Davis, 1970). kindle
The Killer. (NEL, 1970, uncut edition, Savoy Books, 2002)
The Black Room. (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971)
The Return of the Lloigor. (Originally in Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, reprinted as a booklet by Village Press in 1974)
The Schoolgirl Murder Case. (Hart-Davis, 1974)
The Space Vampires. (Hart-Davis, 1976) kindle
The Janus Murder Case. (Granada, 1984)
The Personality Surgeon. (NEL, 1985)
Spider World: The Tower (Grafton, 1987)/Spider World: The Delta (Grafton, 1987)/Spider World: The Magician (Grafton, 1992)/Spider World: Shadowland. (Hampton Roads, 2003)
The Magician from Siberia. (Robert Hale, 1988)
Mozart’s Journey to Prague: a playscript. (Paupers’ Press 1992)
The Tomb of the Old Ones. (twinned with John Grant’s Qineartha and the Girl Child LoChi; Cosmos Books, 2002)
The Novels of Colin Wilson. (Critical Studies Series) by Nicholas Tredell (Vision Press, 1982). A third updated edition is available from Paupers’ Press and it’s also available for the kindle.
The Death of God’ and Other Plays. (Paupers’ Press, 2010)
Colin Wilson’s Existential Literary Criticism: a guide for students. [Colin Wilson Studies #23] by Colin Stanley (Paupers’ Press 2014)
The Writing of Colin Wilson’s Adrift in Soho Including Charles Russell’s The Other Side of Town. [Colin Wilson Studies # 26] Ed. Colin Stanley. (Paupers’ Press 2016)
Colin Wilson’s Lulu: an unfinished novel. [Colin Wilson Studies # 27] Intro. by Vaughan Rapatahana. (Paupers’ Press 2016)