AUGUST 15, 2013
JAKE ARNOTT’S The House of Rumour, published in 2012 in the UK and released last March in the US by New Harvest Books, is a bit of a departure for the author. Arnott is best known for gritty, inventive crime novels such as He Kills Coppers and Johnny Come Home, both vivid works of contemporary neo-noir. Another pair of books, The Long Firm and Truecrime, chronicle the exploits of a gay gangster from the swinging 1960s to the raving 1990s: as well as being riveting thrillers, they are wonderfully rich and detailed cultural documents of the evolution of London’s drug and music subcultures during these decades. Only The Devil’s Paintbrush, a sardonic fantasia of Edwardian-era espionage and pseudo-occult skullduggery published in 2009, really prepares one for the outré excesses of House of Rumour — which, like Devil’s Paintbrush, features the self-promoting pop-mystic Aleister Crowley as a character. The book centers, however (despite numerous swirling subplots), on a famous disciple of Crowley, John Whiteside (a.k.a. “Jack”) Parsons, one of Southern California’s true technocultural pioneers.
Parsons was, during the 1930s and 1940s, one of a handful of champions of practical rocketry at a time when the science was scorned as Buck Rogers nonsense. Working with a small cadre of outlaw engineers on the fringes of the CalTech campus in Pasadena, Parsons revolutionized solid-fuel propulsion, helping to invent the Jet-Assisted Take-Off (JATO) system widely used by the American armed forces during World War II. He was also a co-founder of the Aerojet Engineering Corporation, which would go on to build the Titan and Minuteman missiles and the engine for the Apollo Command Module used during the lunar landings, thus realizing the dreams of pulp-era science fiction. Unfortunately, Parsons would not live to see these triumphs since he clumsily blew himself up while mixing explosives at his home in 1952.
Yet that isn’t all there is to Parsons’s story, as George Pendle’s recent biography, Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons, shows in ample detail. Experimenting with rocket engines in the Pasadena arroyos by day, by night he worshipped Pan and conjured spirits as head priest of the Agape Lodge, the California chapter of Crowley’s notorious crypto-pagan Church of Thelema. As Pendle points out, Parsons’s streak of wild imagination was “a valuable commodity to have” in “a nascent science” like rocketry, where risk-taking was often more important than professional discipline (it’s not for nothing that his CalTech cohort was dubbed the “Suicide Squad”); at the same time, Parsons always approached his “magick” rituals (Crowley’s preferred spelling) “as a strictly literal branch of learning, one that could be mastered by concentrated scientific application.” Of course, as Pendle makes abundantly clear, Parsons was attracted to Crowley’s half-baked ceremonials in large measure because they provided license for dissipations he already had a strong taste for, such as free love, bad poetry, and narcotics. It boggles the mind to imagine this dapper engineer racing home from his pioneering experiments to whip up a batch of homemade absinthe, compose avid doggerel celebrating the wonders of cocaine and peyote, and perform a lengthy divination requiring focused chanting and ritual masturbation. No wonder such an incendiary life ended in such an explosive death.
Moreover, Parsons was not only a follower of both science and magic but also an enthusiastic fan of a genre that often fuses (if not confuses) these two realms: science fiction. His abiding fannish interests, combined with his budding local celebrity as a rocketeer, drew him into the orbit of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, where he hobnobbed with Ray Bradbury and “number one fan” Forrest J. Ackermann. He was also befriended by Robert A. Heinlein, whose own pecadillos included a taste for casual nudism and whose association with Parsons likely influenced the stories “Waldo” and “Magic, Inc.” Parsons invited Heinlein to his freewheeling bohemian boarding house for lively fencing matches and Heinlein invited Parsons to meetings of the Mañana Literary Society, boozy gatherings held at the author’s home in Laurel Canyon. The Society, immortalized in Anthony Boucher’s 1942 murder-mystery-à-clef Rocket to the Morgue, was frequented by genre stalwarts such as Cleve Cartmill and Jack Williamson (whose 1940 werewolf tale Darker Than You Think fascinated Parsons), not to mention German ex-pats like Fritz Lang and Willy Ley (who had worked in the German rocket program under Wernher von Braun). It was likely here that Parsons met inveterate pulp hack L. Ron Hubbard, and that’s where the story really starts to get weird.
Parsons fell immediately under the glib spell of Hubbard, a charming con-man who would go on to achieve Crowley’s life-long dream: to found a thriving cash-cow religion. Hubbard moved in with the sprawling menagerie of oddballs — waggishly dubbed “The Parsonage” — and soon convinced the credulous household of his brilliant magical gifts, which Parsons eagerly recounted in letters to Crowley (then in the process of killing himself with heroin in an English seaside resort). Hubbard gamely joined in an epic “magical working” designed to summon “an Elemental mate” for Parsons, whose corporeal girlfriend, Betty, Hubbard had recently stolen. When this plan petered out, Hubbard talked Parsons into funneling his savings into a venture to buy a fleet of yachts in Florida, then sail them through the Panama Canal to sell at a profit in California. As was immediately clear to his friends and associates (including Crowley), but only gradually to Parsons himself, this proposal was a massive rip-off, and a frantic Parsons was forced to chase down Hubbard and Betty in Miami before they sailed off around the world. As Parsons explained in another letter to Crowley, the pair almost did escape, but the resourceful magician managed to invoke the demon Bartzabel in a hasty hotel-room ceremony, whereupon Hubbard’s “ship was struck by a sudden squall off the coast, which ripped off his sails and forced him back to port.” I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.
The House of Rumour is a fictional take on Parsons’s crazed story, chronicling the lifestyles of the nerdy and perverted who made up the fringe-science/SF scene in 1940s Southern California. But its ambitions are even wider, offering a vastly complex alternative history in which Parsons and his SoCal circle of mystics, tech nerds, and pulp aficionados come to represent the twinned utopian and dystopian impulses that have inspired and deformed the postwar world. The ingenious, infernally complicated plot — which spurns linear chronology, dizzyingly mixing real personages with fictional characters — is impossible to summarize, but suffice it to say that it features all the major dramatis personae from Pendle’s book, interweaving them with numerous subplots that are mostly drawn from historical events. The story is sparked when British intelligence agent (and future spy novelist) Ian Fleming recruits Crowley to assist in persuading Hitler’s chief lieutenant, Rudolf Hess, to defect to England; by the time the author is done, he has roped in everything from the Bloomsbury Group to the 1970s punk scene, from the Apollo 11 moon landing to the People’s Temple mass suicide, from UFOs to the Mariel boatlift to Afrofuturist music, and much more. The twenty-one chapters enact incidents loosely linked to the trump cards in Crowley’s Thoth tarot deck, with these major arcana providing an array of potent images that shadow and thematically amplify the plot. The result is an entertaining farrago whose invention never flags, even when the story threatens to collapse under the weight of its wild ambition and density of allusion.
Arnott seems aware of this danger, which he attempts to forestall by invoking metafictional intentions, the goal of producing “no clear linear narrative, merely quanta of information, free particles that fire off each other.” The work of Borges is referenced repeatedly, especially “The Garden of Forking Paths” and “The Library of Babel” — suggesting that history is a multiverse of alternative possibilities, which no single volume could ever hope to tame or contain. One of the characters writes an SF novel, The Quantum Arcana of Arnold Jakubowski, structured around the tarot, like The House of Rumour itself. And so on. These recursive flourishes are perhaps a tad too clever, but they do lend a shimmer of unreality to a tale that is, on the one hand, already numinous with fantasy and, on the other, firmly based on historical facts. As Fleming’s spymaster advises him, “A story should sound improbable. If it is too logical it’s liable to appear contrived.” The book’s title refers to a passage from Ovid’s Metamorphoses evoking a bronze tower “that hums and echoes, repeating all it hears, mixing truth with fiction,” a veritable “vortex for conspiracy theories” — such as The House of Rumour itself.
For the scholar and fan of science fiction, the novel is impressively detailed, though Arnott rather flaunts the meticulousness of his research. This is certainly an author that knows the modern genre well, from its Golden Age scientism to its New Wave skepticism. Most amusing is his portrait of Hubbard, a reptilian manipulator and “verbal illusionist” whose career as a spinner of pulp yarns led inexorably to the Church of Scientology: “He took Jack Parsons’ arcane utopia of rocketry and the occult, and transformed it into a grotesque space-opera.” Heinlein is evoked as a complex mix of radical leftist and quasi-fascist impulses, and the meetings of his Mañana Literary Society convey a charge of nostalgia for a lost era of high-tech romanticism. In Arnott’s depiction, SF’s utopianism is both a lure and a cheat: it promises an unfettered future in space yet conspires with earthly power to produce annihilating superweapons. The corrupt, proto-Nazi Thule Society, whose membership included Rudolf Hess, is the dystopian twin of Heinlein’s whimsical salon, a “lethal parody of all [SF’s] childhood dreams of flight and space travel.” In an extraordinary passage, Hess’s desperate journey to Scotland is crosscut with transcripts from NASA’s Eagle module as Neil Armstong and Buzz Aldrin descend toward the Sea of Tranquility. SF’s utopias, it turns out, may be no more than compensatory fantasies; as a character hounded by Nazi agents wryly comments: “What could be better than imagining strange new lands, to forget the dreadful one we live in.” Though there are occasional small errors of fact — e.g., LASFS is the Los Angeles Science Fantasy [not “Fiction”] Society — there can be little doubt that Arnott is both an avid SF fan and an astute critic of the genre.
The main flaw of his book, in my view, is the central character around whom much of the story rather distantly revolves — a fictional SF writer named Larry Zagorski, who begins as a space-opera hack on the margins of the Parsons-Heinlein-Hubbard scene and evolves into a countercultural (and later New Age) guru spinning out paranoiac extraterrestrial psychedelia à la Philip K. Dick. This description, alas, makes him sound more interesting than he actually is; in fact, he is an insufferable drip, a whiny shlemiel who acts as a major buzzkill to both Heinlein’s waggish soirées and Parsons’s nocturnal orgies. Though he is featured in only about a third of the chapters, he is also the book’s framing narrator, and the texture of events often feels infected with his self-conscious maunderings. Arnott never avails himself of the chance to get inside the heads of such fascinating characters as Parsons or Hubbard; instead, we see them largely through Larry’s eyes and those of his unrequited love interest, Mary Lou Gunderson (another fictional SF writer, loosely based on Leigh Brackett). This can’t be because of a reticence to scan the psyches of historical figures, since the creepy, baleful interiorities of Hess and Fleming are rendered indelibly. A major opportunity has been missed here, it seems to me.
Still, though we do not share their thoughts, we do get a probing tour of the SoCal scene that drew such unlikely types as Parsons, Heinlein, and Hubbard together. At first blush, it seems almost “a kind of paradise. The land around the coast was so empty then. We would drive out to the point at Palos Verdes, park above the cliff and climb down to deserted beaches. An uninhabited planet we would colonize with our dreams.” Yet only a short decade later, the city of angels has morphed into a noirish horror, “a ruthless boomtown teeming with strangers [. . .], a bright and guilty place.” Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory —which begans as a weird adventure, with “mystics raising fire demons in the wilderness” — ends as a technocratic outfit sending recordings of former Nazi Kurt Waldheim’s voice into outer space via the Voyager probes. Like SF itself, SoCal is both a lure and a cheat, a “dystopian utopia: heaven in the hills, hell in the valley. A simple illusion, fleeting and terminal.” In its rich and complex evocation of LA, The House of Rumour functions as both a love poem and an elegy.