alchemy in fiction

ouroboros dragon black and white

Reading Jung on Alchemy

At some point while I was writing The Friendship of Mortals, the first book of the Herbert West Series, I realized that alchemy had intruded into the story. It must have originated with the book’s narrator, librarian Charles Milburn. His job requires him to catalogue books about alchemy, and eventually he decides his friend Herbert’s experiences are analogous to a transformation from a base metal into gold.

So I (the writer) had to learn more about alchemy. I was slightly familiar with it from library research for a term paper in my undergrad years, specifically writings of the Romanian historian and philosopher Mircea Eliade. Alchemy had lodged in my mind as “one of those interesting things.” When I decided to read up on alchemy while writing TFoM, I discovered that Carl Gustav Jung had read and written a great deal about it.

I don’t remember buying Alchemical Studies, which is Volume 13 of The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, but there it was among my books. I decided to read it, even though I had finished writing the Herbert West books long before, and didn’t intend to change them. It took me a couple of months to work my way through it. I read for about 30 minutes to an hour a day. Skimming was definitely out; if I was going to do that, I might as well not have bothered. Every page bristles with footnotes. Some text is in Greek or Latin (always with English translations, fortunately).

So what did I learn, apart from the fact that I’m pretty much ignorant when it comes to psychology? Jung thought the alchemists (those who wrote down their ideas, anyway) experienced the same psychological events as people of his own time, but described them using symbols from religion and mythology. The alchemical process, he said, paralleled what he called the process of individuation, or the fulfillment of one’s potential. This accounts for the multiplicity of alchemical ideas and the apparent contradictions among them. Alchemy wasn’t a secret known to a select company of initiates, but a psychological process.

Jung sums it up thus at the end of the final essay in this volume:

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Alchemy lost its vital substance when some of the alchemists abandoned the laboratorium for the oratorium, there to befuddle themselves with an ever more nebulous mysticism, while others converted the oratorium into a laboratorium and discovered chemistry. We feel sorry for the former and admire the latter, but no one asks about the fate of the psyche, which thereafter vanished from sight for several hundred years.

Well, I don’t know about that. My own idea (and I’m certainly nowhere near as learned as Jung) is that alchemy was rooted in metalworking, which must have been viewed in prehistory as a near-magical ability overseen by divine forces. The practical process was adopted by thinkers as a metaphor and used to express their ideas about the inner workings of the human mind and spirit. In medieval times, some alchemists worked with metals and other substances, heating and dissolving, combining and distilling. I’m sure many were affected in various physical ways. Mercury, lead, and acids can be toxic. Explosions and fires probably happened regularly in the “laboratorium.” Other alchemists confined themselves to the “oratorium,” and spent their time thinking and writing. But when alchemy fizzled out in the 17th century, psychological ideas certainly didn’t vanish. They found expression in literature, art, and poetry. What about Shakespeare and William Blake? Jung himself says that Goethe’s tragedy Faust (early 1800s) is full of alchemical ideas.

My takeaways from each of the five essays:

  • Commentary on “The Secret of the Golden Flower.” I have to admit, I found this somewhat incomprehensible because of my deficient knowledge of psychology and its terms. The only points I grasped were that a superficial adoption of yoga practices by Europeans was not the correct approach to the wisdom of the east. I kept reminding myself that this essay was written in the 1930s, and wondering exactly what “yoga practices” Jung was referring to.
  • The Visions of Zosimos. Describing the writings of a 3rd-4th century Graeco-Egyptian alchemist and Gnostic mystic, this essay impressed upon me the fact that alchemy in some form or other was written about for nearly two thousand years. Many of the basic concepts and symbols are described here in vivid and dramatic detail. Jung’s interpretations point out similarities among many mythologies and religions, concluding that “although chemistry has nothing to learn from the vision of Zosimos, it is a mine of discovery for modern psychology.”
  • Paracelsus as a Spiritual Phenomenon. Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, known as Paracelsus, was a 16th century Swiss physician, alchemist, and philosopher. Reading this essay, I detected a measure of respect and admiration by Jung for a fellow countryman and also one for whom “the art of healing” was of great importance. In performing this role, Paracelsus had to reconcile his Christian faith with natural religion, and in this conflict, Jung says, he began groping toward psychology and psychoanalysis.
  • The Spirit Mercurius. Of the five essays, this one impressed me the most. Jung shows the similarities among Mercury/Hermes, Wotan, the devil, Lucifer, and a Christ-analogue, a figure he calls “this many-hued and wily god.” I think that figure was lurking in the background when I wrote the Herbert West books, which is why I found this the most readable of the essays.
  • The Philosophical Tree. The final essay begins with descriptions of tree-like forms in paintings and other artworks created by some of Jung’s patients. I found them fascinating, but admit that I rather lost my way in the subsequent discussions of tree-symbols, snakes, Gnosticism, and the lapis. Jung takes the reader through a bewildering array of writings, symbols, and myths, to conclude with the human need to confront the unconscious and integrate it into the personality.

I suspect some of this book’s substance failed to register in my understanding, but in any case, reading it certainly exposed me to ideas and images I would not have encountered otherwise. The bizarre visions or dreams of Zosimos of Panopolis, for example, in which the dreamer is pierced with a sword and dismembered “in accordance with the rule of harmony.” Or the multiple manifestations and meanings of the Spirit Mercurius. Or Gnosticism (Just say “know”). And a whole list of new-to-me words: antinomian, ithyphallic, hylic, quaternity, ogdoad, chthonic, pleroma, mythologem, nominalism… to name a few.

Even though I don’t intend to learn much more about psychology, I identified a few terms I wished I had understood before I started reading. The idea of “projection,” for example, or “individuation,” or “participation mystique.” Wikipedia rabbit holes beckon!

Given all the above, how worthwhile was my reading of Jung’s essays on alchemy? At the very least, it did not lead me to conclude that I was irresponsible or frivolous in the way I incorporated alchemical ideas and symbols into my fiction. (Of course, it’s pretty hard to tell, given the self-contradicting and incredibly varied ways to describe the process and the ideas behind it, accumulated over a couple of millennia.) I approached alchemy as a process of transformation, whether material, spiritual, or psychological, and I don’t think I went wrong with that.

Squared circle, alchemical symbol
Image source unknown

Featured image from Pixabay

Original photo for 2010 FofM cover image and 2020 fun version plus 2014 final

Cover Image Whimsy

Not long ago, I wrote a post about whether or not to write a new and different version of my first novel, The Friendship of Mortals. I decided not to do that, but while writing the book’s tenth anniversary post, I had a look at the original cover image I created when I published the book in 2010.

The original ebook cover image, 2010

That image was replaced with a professionally designed one in 2014, but I thought I would see what I could do with the original using Canva, which I discovered a few years ago. The free version offers way more capabilities than MS Paint, which is what I used for the 2010 cover image.

I started with a modified version of the original photograph. My idea (back in 2010) was to make it look like an old, damaged photo. With MS Paint, I gave it a sepia shade and added a rusty paperclip mark, a creased corner and a few suspicious stains. I also executed a handwritten annotation — not easy to do using a touchpad mouse!

In the end, I didn’t use the modified photo for the first cover image, but I thought it might be a starting point for a new one. With Canva, I added a texture background and the text for title, author and series, aiming for a style similar to what the professional designer achieved with superior tools and skills.

Alternate cover image for The Friendship of Mortals, created on a whim
Whimsical revision, 2020

One thing I like about this image is that it includes the four colours of alchemy — black, white, yellow, and red. The story includes references to alchemy, where it also serves as a symbol.

I have no intention to replace the current glowing purple cover image for The Friendship of Mortals, but I am rather pleased with my revision of the original. And creating it was fun, which would not be the case with a rewrite of the novel itself.

Still the official image

The original photo and all three cover images are shown in the post header. If you have any thoughts about them, or cover image design in general, please add a comment!

The Herbert West Series blog header, blue, purple, and pink with Mercurius symbol

November Novel #4

In November 2000, I started writing the first novel of what would become the Herbert West Series. This November, I have set myself a goal to finish writing a collection of stories I intend to publish in 2020. Call it my own version of NaNoWriMo. So, I’ve scheduled posts for the next four weeks featuring each of the four books of the series. Oh, and November 7th was Herbert West’s 133rd birthday!

The final book in the series is Hunting the Phoenix.

Journalist Alma Halsey chases the story of a lifetime to Providence, Rhode Island and finds more than she expected – an old lover, Charles Milburn, and an old adversary, renegade physician Herbert West, living under the name Francis Dexter. Fire throws her into proximity with them both, rekindling romance and completing a great transformation.

In writing The Friendship of Mortals, I wasn’t sure what to do with Charles Milburn’s girlfriend, Alma. I sent her off to be an ambulance driver in the Great War, after which she became a journalist in Boston and New York City. To compensate, I decided she would be the narrator of Hunting the Phoenix, in which Herbert West/Francis Dexter’s story ends. Before that, Alma rediscovers her poetic talents as well as shocking things about Charles, Herbert, and herself.
In this final book, the theme of alchemy as a symbol of transformation is evident, both in the titles of the five parts and in the narrative itself.

This scene is from the section titled “Calcination.” It’s followed by one of Alma’s poems.


I woke up so suddenly that the dream I was dreaming came with me. I had to save my brother Danforth from taking off in his homemade flying machine and falling to his death. To do that, I had to figure out the plans for it that he’d left in his room. I had to read them aloud to the wind, so the wind would know how to help him. There were so many papers! They kept re-shuffling themselves as I scrabbled through them. I would catch a glimpse of the drawing I needed – the machine drawn in blue ink and Dan’s neat block capitals labelling the parts. My fingers grasped it as it flipped past, and I began to slide it out from the other papers. But to my horror, the ink was crumbling, shifting into other shapes that meant nothing. If I couldn’t preserve it, I couldn’t read it, and Dan would die. I strained my eyes. “Aileron,” I stammered. “Flange. Wing control lever. Strut.”

“Strut,” I muttered, coming awake. The word hung in the air as the urgency of the dream faded, to be replaced with the beginnings of relief. But instead of sliding back into sleep, I came fully awake, slowly becoming aware that something was different. Something was wrong.

There was a smell of smoke. Sometimes Jim Priddy would light a wood fire in one of the fireplaces, as a treat on a cold evening. But he hadn’t done that tonight. “No damn wood left,” he’d said. Donna Maria burned garbage in a metal drum in the back yard every few weeks. But never at night.

There was a flicker of orange light under my door. I thought I heard people shouting, far away.

I scrambled out of bed and ran to the door. The doorknob was warm and the floor was warm too, pleasantly warm to my feet. And smoke was thick around me.

Panicked, I pulled open the door. As though they had been waiting for my summons, flames leaped and rushed into my room from the inferno of the stairwell. Closing the door was impossible. I jumped back, but not quickly enough, heard an intense crackling and smelled my own hair burning. Heat enveloped me. I beat at the flames with my hands and arms. Fire seared my skin, pain shrieked through my body. The window! The window!

Rushing over to it, I fumbled with the catch. It was stuck. No use. Break the glass! Grabbing a shoe from the floor, I pounded the glass with the heel. A star of cracks appeared, but it held. Frantically, I pounded harder. The glass shattered and my hand came down on a jagged shard. Hot blood steamed in the icy air that blasted in, whirling snowflakes over my desk. The shoe fell from my hand, teetered for a second on the outside ledge, was gone. I grabbed a towel from the back of a chair, wrapped my bleeding hand in it and thumped out the remaining shards from the frame.

Behind me flames capered, feeding joyously on the fresh air. Time to go, Alma! Thought fragments whipped through my brain like bullets. Bathrobe? No time. Coat? No time. Slippers? No time. Shoe gone. My notes? My notes! They’re in several piles, all over my desk. I start to gather them up.

Stupid Alma! Stupid!

But I’ve got to –

Go, you fool! Go!

The room is full of fire. There’s no more room for me. Too late – the hem of my nightgown is on fire. Monstrous pain screams up my legs. Clawing frantically at the garment, I tear it off and scramble naked over the desk, scattering papers to the flames. My hand catches on something solid and I clutch it as I push myself through the window, feeling a long tear on my left thigh from an up-pointing glass fragment. The house has teeth, it’s fighting back. But it should bite the fire, not me!

Now I’m on the edge, on the ledge, the very edge, a tiny balcony, just wide enough for me to crouch on. I’m still burning; soon I’ll be a torch. There’s no fire escape. (“Oh, there was a ladder once,” Donna Maria had said, “but it got rotten. I’ll get Jim to make another one in the spring.” Yes, Maria, but I need it now). It’s a long way down, to black and white studded with faces looking up. Their mouths move, yelling things I can’t hear. A siren wails and wails. I know, I know it’s burning! You don’t have to make all that noise!

The fire is done with my room. Now it’s coming for me. No more time, Alma.

I stand up. What a Juliet I am! There’s no Romeo here and this isn’t a nightingale night. Snowflakes swirl around me, turning orange from the flames. Or maybe they’re sparks. Orange flowers in the air. The wind howls. The mouths below me howl. The fire talks to itself, smacking its lips as it eats the house. I’m alone. This is no place to be. I clutch my hands around the only thing I’m taking with me – square, smooth, hard. Is that Charles down there? His face is like a flesh-coloured flower. I can’t hear what he’s saying, but I see his lips moving.

Closer to you soon, Charles.

The fire gives me one last shove and I’m in the air, snowflakes all around me, swirling themselves into a net, holding me up. So this is what it’s like inside the star globe! But where’s my unicorn?

A long rush, a hard thud. Then nothing.


Once I built with wood,
Stone, steel, bricks, cement–
Heavy, straight, squared off and carefully measured.
A life for a lifetime, solid and strong
And all my own.
My house of life.

I did not think it could be so easily destroyed,
Corroded by resentment,
Weakened by desires deferred, ambitions unrealized,
Split by ambivalence
And burned, burned, burned.

Rebuild now?
I have no materials,
My tools are gone to rust,
Mud, air, the water of my tears,
The sulfur of solitude,
And the salt of sorrow.

These are my matter,
But I have no formula,
No vessel except myself.
I need a catalyst.
I need magic, a secret fire.

Is there a magician in this house of night?


What readers have said:

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  • “… the culmination of the final book is exactly what it should be: tragic, but beautiful. I wish there was more, the story was brilliant.”
  • “I absolutely loved this series. Beautifully written and unpredictable. At times both heart pounding and heart breaking.”
  • “I really wish I could give ‘Hunting the Phoenix’ a 10 out of 5 but even my limited math knows that’s impossible. Suffice to say that this book, in fact the whole series, is as close to perfect as a story can get. It joins a relatively short list of books, including Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’, that I consider to be exceptional, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants /more/.”
  • “A noteworthy aspect of this book is the author’s skill in evocative description. She really knows how to set a scene and create a mood; furthermore characters appear, take shape, and are molded in front of your very eyes.”

Hunting the Phoenix is available from:

Amazon: US UK CA AU DE

Apple Books

Barnes & Noble

Kobo

Smashwords

This is the last of four posts about the Herbert West novels. Here are links to the first three: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Header image by Audrey Driscoll using Canva. Book cover image by Damonza.