Faculty X
December 7, 2013 1:19 PM   Subscribe

Colin Wilson has passed away at the age of 82. He rose to fame in the 50s with The Outsider, which made him a figure amongst Britain's Beat movement and Angry Young Men. His writing has spanned the fiction and non-fiction, with an interest in the paranormal and the occult, his thoughts on which he blended with HP Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos to produce The Mind Parasites. A TV series based on his The Space Vampires, also the basis for the movie Lifeforce (previously), is currently planned. Wikipedia page, 2004 Guardian interview, Times Obituary (subs only).
posted by Artw (39 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Huh. I was just thinking of him yesterday, specifically how much I loved Adrift in Soho when I was about 17. For a few years I had thought that the Colin Wilson who wrote about the Beat generation and the Colin Wilson who wrote about UFOs must have been different writers who shared a name, and was surprised/puzzled/charmed when I found out they were one and the same.
posted by scody at 1:34 PM on December 7, 2013 [8 favorites]

posted by Francis7 at 1:35 PM on December 7, 2013

Scody - Colin Wilson was a polymath of the highest order. You are SO right, it seems he lived several lives. Seriously, he could talk about anything.

What can you say about Colin Wilson? From The Outsider to Ritual In The Dark to his writings on so many other topics, Wilson had a huge impact on many writers and those of an intellectual bent. As scody was writing about, he later made a legion of new fans with his science fiction, true crime, and paranormal books.

We have lost a great man.

R.I.P. Colin

posted by Gerard Sorme at 1:42 PM on December 7, 2013 [6 favorites]

posted by Gorgik at 2:09 PM on December 7, 2013

Like lots of people, I guess, The Outsider rocked my world when I read it at 17 or 18. I remarked on him in this thread nine years ago. I haven't changed my mind about much of his work, but my own interests might be different if I hadn't encountered him.
posted by octobersurprise at 2:13 PM on December 7, 2013

I don't think I've ever read a single word he's written, but the cover to Spider World sprung to mind immediately. Someday I will have to redress that.
But, of course, I have seen Lifeforce.

posted by Mezentian at 2:25 PM on December 7, 2013

It's something I wonder idly - How many people know him through The Outsider versus how many people know him through Return of the Lloigor versus how many people know him as they guy who wrote Lifeforce versus how many people know him as a guy who turned up in Fortean Times once in a while.

my money would be on Return of the Llogior being his most read work, as it was in Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos one of those early Lovecraft anthologies when there were only a couple of them about, and so everyone into that kind of thing read them. It's still in print.
posted by Artw at 2:25 PM on December 7, 2013

I really enjoyed The Occult and The Criminal History of Mankind. If you wanted to read all of his books you would be busy a very long time. He seemed to write faster than a lot of people read.
posted by bukvich at 2:40 PM on December 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

my money would be on Return of the Llogior

So, he gave the Many-Angled Ones from Zenith their name?

I'd bet Spider World being his most read work must be in contention. I see it in every second hand bookstore I go to.
posted by Mezentian at 2:43 PM on December 7, 2013

I was a big fan of The Occult. Of course it's shot through with his Faculty X theory - and I'm not sure that it was as killer a theory as he thought it was - and he's not the best writer on any of the subjects he addressed, but it was a brilliant introduction to the history of what I refer to as weirdiness, that I could go on to flesh out later on.
posted by Grangousier at 2:43 PM on December 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think Lloigor was originally an offhand reference in some Derleth thing, but it was Wilson who put a concept to the name.
posted by Artw at 2:45 PM on December 7, 2013

And, come to think of it, an important thing was that he didn't really drink the kool aid of his subjects - so he wrote very good, clear, well-researched potted histories of Crowley or Gurdjieff without being a Crowleyite or Gurdjieffist himself. Which in itself does make him a better writer on the subject than most.
posted by Grangousier at 2:47 PM on December 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty certain I read some of his non-fiction stuff back in the day when I'd read literally anything that was was about the occult. And of course Lifeforce always has a fond place in my heart (if not exactly in Colin's by all accounts)
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:00 PM on December 7, 2013

I've known of all of Wilson's work, but never really followed his interest in science fiction and the paranormal; though I've read it all and I DO find his thoughts on consciousness fascinating. The early Wilson was my "favorite" Wilson, but he never abandoned those early philosophical leanings either.

By the way, if anyone has ever read Ritual In The Dark - then you understand my love for Colin Wilson through my username(!) (see below)

He came out of the Underground at Hyde Park Corner with his head lowered, ignoring the people who pressed around him and leaving it to them to steer out of his way.

Thus begins Colin Wilson’s debut novel, first published in 1960, described by the critic Nicolas Tredell in 2011 as 'an unsung achievement of post-war British fiction.' It is a novel not only set in London but, in the course of its writing, inextricably linked with post-war London literary history.

‘He’ is Gerard Sorme,, the hero of a trilogy of novels that would unfold in the ensuing decade, on his way to Richard Buckle’s Diaghilev exhibition — actually held at Forbes House, Hyde Park Corner in 1954 — where he meets Austin Nunne for the first time. After viewing the exhibition they move on to a club in Dover Street, enjoy a meal at a restaurant in Dean Street, Soho, ending-up at the renowned ‘French pub’.

I highly recommend Ritual In The Dark (needless to say).

There you go!
Signed, (See Username)
posted by Gerard Sorme at 3:02 PM on December 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

I was blown away as a teenager by his SF novel The Philosopher's Stone years ago, which at least in my paperback edition had a forward by Joyce Carol Oates! I wonder how it holds up...
posted by twsf at 3:14 PM on December 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's appalling that there seems to be no ebook edition of The Outsider available.
posted by twsf at 3:21 PM on December 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

posted by El Brendano at 4:02 PM on December 7, 2013

So farewell then, Colin Wilson, knicker fetishist and neo-fascist:
His supporters also managed not to pick up on Wilson's offensive witterings about what he termed "the common mob" - 95 per cent of the population, by his estimation, although the real Outsiders comprised 0.005 per cent of the elite 5 per cent - being worthless "apes", "caged animals", "hogs", "flies", "ants", "insects", "human lice". Actually, the Mandarins clearly found that general line rather congenial, because it fitted only too well into their cherished Romanticist/modernist myth of the artistic genius set apart from and above society, and justified in that alienation by utter contempt for the masses. With his horrendous simplicities, Wilson proclaimed that intellectual misanthropy loud and clear. He recommended, for example, that the mentally ill should be shot. He also demanded that his artist-visionary Outsiders should "achieve political power from the hogs".

Indeed, Wilson toyed with the idea of doing just that in 1958, when he helped found a new literary-political movement, the Spartacans, to replace iniquitous democracy with the dictatorship of the "expert minority" of the spiritual elite. The Spartacan movement soon fizzled out, but not before attracting the eager support of Oswald Mosley.
In later life Wilson dabbled with Holocaust denialism, publishing a favourable review of the National Front pamphlet Did Six Million Really Die? in which he described the Final Solution as an 'emotional historical distortion'.
posted by verstegan at 4:02 PM on December 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

A Criminal History of Mankind remains at the top of the list of books I'd take if I could only have one on a desert island. It is full of insights which are profound precisely because they seem so obvious once pointed out -- that "crime" itself is a relatively modern concept, and that the looting of a village because it was there wasn't considred a bad thing to do if you could get away with it 2,000 years ago; that there is a "right man" syndrome by which otherwise normal people make "the decision to be out of control;" that motive seems to be ascending the Maslow heirarchy as technology makes humanity wealthier, with the extremely modern rise of sex crime and "crimes anomique" as results. It does have passages afflicted with enough woo to bother a fervent materialist but I've never seen any similar attempt to create a unified theory of why people murder one another.

posted by localroger at 4:04 PM on December 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Ah, dang, another great 20th century writer gone.

posted by Pope Guilty at 4:07 PM on December 7, 2013

I just had a long conversation about him last week, when I bought a second-hand copy of "The Outsider"--I knew him from the dozens of occult and UFO things of his I read when I was a kid, from a work on mystical poetry, his bio of Crowley, and from his name coming up a really crazily broad list of literary circles. Talking to the store owner, though, we both came to the conclusion we didn't know much about him at all.

I guess this is a sad opportunity to learn more.
posted by LucretiusJones at 5:16 PM on December 7, 2013

Have you been to the English Deer Park?
It's a large type artist ranch
This is where C Wilson wrote Ritual in the Dark
Have you been to the English Deer Park?
posted by chrisgregory at 5:20 PM on December 7, 2013

His introduction to the book Poetry and Mysticism and its description of what he called Holiday Consciousness which was actually quite close to Gurdjieff's notion of waking up, was my favorite. I was quite happy to spend an evening with him here in San Francisco back in the early 90's. And The Outsider... A complex, very interesting guy.

posted by njohnson23 at 5:47 PM on December 7, 2013

I read my dad's copy of 'The God of the Labyrinth' cover to cover when I was about 11. It was quite an eye-opener.
posted by andraste at 6:50 PM on December 7, 2013


Wilson certainly had a number of bizarre (even offensive) beliefs, but so do a lot of people.

Three cheers for A Criminal History of Mankind.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:50 PM on December 7, 2013

That second link of verstegan's is a delight ... if you delight in passionate skewering.

With his loose talk of Übermensch, Outsiders and geniuses, and his happy acceptance that he himself was probably a genius and "a major prophet", he also offered an unwittingly comic, Hancockian version of the Great Writer the Mandarins desperately wanted to appear - preferably one who could lead them all out of the cul-de-sac that their beloved modernists seemed to have led them into, and definitely one who could single-handedly rescue a second-rate era of unambitious writing.

Alas, as it turned out, Colin Wilson wasn't even a flash in the pan so much as an accident in the kitchen sink, and his preposterous rise and ludicrous fall served only to humiliate an already embattled literary establishment and further discredit their devotion to modernism and all things European.

... and yet ...

Three cheers for A Criminal History of Mankind.

I have to agree. That was good work. It still informs my thinking in myriad small ways.
posted by philip-random at 8:58 PM on December 7, 2013

Another recommend for A Criminal History of Mankind and his early sc-fi.

posted by bigZLiLk at 3:36 AM on December 8, 2013

I read The Philosopher's Stone in college. It sent me off on a quest to read as much of his work as I could find. It was then that I found out that the "naked space vampire" movie that I saw as a kid was based on one of his books.

posted by anansi at 5:41 AM on December 8, 2013

It's appalling that there seems to be no ebook edition of The Outsider available.

It's been my experience that books that are relatively old but still under copyright are the hardest to find as ebooks, unfortunately.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 7:28 AM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure if I've ever actually read anything that Wilson wrote, but his name is familiar to me because of his authorship of numerous "weird studies" books in the seventies, when I first started to get interested in that sort of thing.

His name also comes up in the afterword to Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell, in an interesting context. Apparently, he'd at first endorsed the theory of author Stephen Knight regarding the Jack the Ripper murders (which forms the core of From Hell), then disparaged it. Moore relays a story from Iain Sinclair, supposedly told to Sinclair by Wilson himself, that a "peer of the realm" told Wilson that if he didn't denounce the theory (which implicates the royal family in the Ripper murders), he'd never be knighted. Of course, Wilson never did get that sword-tap on the shoulder, after all.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:54 AM on December 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Lengthy Telegraph obit
posted by Artw at 11:04 AM on December 8, 2013

It's easy to mock Colin Wilson for endlessly claiming that he was a genius. On the other hand, at least Wilson had the good manners to share his "genius" with the world. Further, while many people secretly suspect that they're much smarter than everybody else, at least Wilson had the honesty to say as much, no matter the reaction of others.

His confidence produced a full catalog of work. He was not content to leave behind stacks of half-baked, drive-by criticisms of others. No, he converted those half-baked beliefs into full-length, if still a bit half-baked books. For example, he backed up his criticism of H. P. Lovecraft with a novel written to one-up the big man himself. While many more will remember Lovecraft than Wilson, and with good reason, there's a lot to be said for the fullness of that response. Compare with Godard's credo that the best film criticism is to make another film.

Wilson may not have been the titan of literature that he sold himself as, but then again, nobody ever is.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:24 AM on December 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

posted by gonzo_ID at 1:56 PM on December 8, 2013

posted by homunculus at 5:34 PM on December 8, 2013

Colin Wilson site that contains some of his writing. An epiphany experienced in a dreary textile factory prompted him to quit and write the best selling "Outsider". "Down and out in Soho" is his other famous book about the pursuit of freedom. I briefly believed in "faculty x" when going through a youthful occult phase.
posted by Narrative_Historian at 1:23 AM on December 9, 2013

I was introduced to Wilson's writing by reading two of his lengthy nonfiction books about crime (neither one the Criminal History of Mankind) in which he pushed a "dominance" theory that held certain people tend to criminality because of a dominance impulse that results in a greater drive to greed in monetary and sexual matters (and they often find less dominant people to manipulate).

As with some of his other writing, I don't know how convincing his position was, but his writing was never boring and the number of obscure cases he filled the two doorstop volumes with was impressive.
posted by Gelatin at 5:48 AM on December 9, 2013

Gelatin, the dominance theory was a couple of chapters in ACHOM and developed in a quite unexpected way. After observing primate dominance behavior at the zoo, Abraham Maslow developed tests which sorted people into three categories of low, medium, and high dominance.

Wilson made the interesting observation that some of the oddest criminal couples, where neither partner seemed likely to be a superstar killer, consisted of partners of medium and high dominance. Wilson's most prominent example was the pairing of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, though I suspect he'd agree that Harris and Klebold of Columbine also qualify. Apparently this combination produces a toxic feedback loop by which the medium dominance person is persuaded to do more and more outrageous things to prove their devotion, and the high dominance partner is challenged to keep finding more outrageous tests to prove the extent of their control.
posted by localroger at 3:09 PM on December 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Colin Wilson: Eternal outsider
posted by Artw at 11:39 AM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

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