The Sage of Tetherdown

A Ghostly Company is a literary association for those who love the great British Ghost Story, especially from the late Victorian and early 20th century golden age of the genre. In 2022 I started writing a regular column on books and authors for their thrice-yearly newsletter. This is a slightly longer version of the one that appeared in the summer of that year, number 78. The title is from a book published in 2020 by the Pauper’s Press, edited by Colin Stanley.

Colin Wilson (1931-2013) was a highly prolific and controversial author from the publication of The Outsider in 1956, the first of 150 titles, to the end of his life. It has long been the fashion to deride him. After the initial excitement caused by The Outsider, which had less to do with the book than the fact that he was lumped together with Osborne, Wain and Amis as an ‘Angry Young Man,’ he was dismissed by the cultural and intellectual establishment as, at best, an autodidact with an inflated ego (only in England is ‘autodidact’ a put-down, if not an insult), and at worst a pseudo-philosopher and gullible crank.

I am happy to state that he has always been one of my favourite writers, who has had a deep influence on my attitude to life, as well as my prose style. His main contention, repeated throughout his work, that we are all potentially much greater than we realise, and that we fail to see this mainly through laziness and passivity, is clearly true, and will ensure his lasting importance. He approached the problem of how human beings can evolve to a more godlike state of consciousness by way of philosophy, psychology, mysticism, literature, the occult, sex, criminology and studies of such diverse figures as George Bernard Shaw, Abraham Maslow, Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, Rudolph Steiner, Jung and Aleister Crowley. Pick up almost any of his books, and you will soon be drawn in, and find yourself stimulated and energised in a way that I can associate with no other author.

I first became aware of him from a television book programme in 1976 where he talked about a new edition of The Strength to Dream (originally published in 1963), on the creative imagination. I was so impressed that I went and bought a copy the next day, and from then on was an avid collector of his works. In 1977, when I was 18, he came to speak at Dartington Hall, near Totnes. I was asked to interview him for a local arts and entertainments guide and met him in Exeter, where he was attending a gathering of the literary panel of South West Arts. We had a leisurely lunch with several well-known writers from around the region, including Ted Hughes, and he talked to me clearly and lucidly about his ideas. He must, by then, have said the same things hundreds of times, and knew I was only writing a short piece to be read, at most, by a few thousand people, but he put as much energy and enthusiasm into it as he would into being interviewed for a major publication.

After his lecture at Dartington he told me to keep in touch, and sent me a personally inscribed copy of The Outsider.

I continued to explore his books, and he became for me the model of the writer (and the lecturer). I never made the pilgrimage to visit him at Tetherdown, his home on the Cornish coast filled with books, records, family, friends and visitors, but knew that, if I did, I would be welcomed warmly, fed and wined, and would probably leave with more copies of inscribed books (I was waiting until I had one of my own to give him that would be worthy of his attention). There was something reassuring about the thought that he was there, working constantly away at what he knew was important. I interviewed him again, years later, for a weird magazine I was editing. Like nearly everyone who met him, I was impressed by his kindness and generosity, and lack of egotism, just a strong sense of who he was.

For anyone interested in the paranormal, his masterly trilogy, starting with The Occult (1971) and continuing with Mysteries (1978) and Beyond the Occult (1988), which he considered his best non-fiction book, are of seminal value. They are encyclopaedic in range, always open-minded and never lose sight of what is, to him, the real issue, of how we can grow and realise our highest potential. Other books on the subject include Strange Powers (1975), which he told me he wrote in three days, Poltergeist! (1981), Afterlife (1987) and one which I particularly enjoy, and think is underrated, The Psychic Detectives (1984).

Disconcertingly for many, Wilson came to believe that poltergeists are not the out-of-control energy of frustrated teenagers, the conventional explanation, but disembodied spirits. He also came to accept the reality of UFOs and alien abduction, covered in detail in Alien Dawn (1989). He entered Graham Hancock territory in From Atlantis to the Sphinx (1997) and The Atlantis Blueprint, written with Rand Flem-Ath (2000).

For the record, my favourite non-occult books include Poetry and Mysticism (1969), The Craft of the Novel (1975), On Music (1967), A Book of Booze (1974), A Criminal History of Mankind (1984), The Books in My Life (1998) and The Angry Years (2007), about his literary contemporaries and what became of them. For those unfamiliar with his work, a good way in is The Essential Colin Wilson (1985, re-published with additional material in 2019 as The Ultimate Colin Wilson), and Super Consciousness (2009). His best novels are probably Ritual in the Dark (1960), Adrift in Soho (1961), The Glass Cage (1967), The Mind Parasites (1967) and The Philosopher’s Stone (1969).

Of course, he wouldn’t think much of us, or at least of what brings us together. In The Strength to Dream he dismisses ghost stories, including those of M. R. James and Algernon Blackwood, and in his collection of essays on literature Eagle and Earwig (1965, reprinted in 2018 by Eyewear Publishing under his preferred title Eagles and Earwigs), he mentions the ‘usual low standard of ghost stories – in which a certain immaturity of mind appears to be necessary in the writer.’ (Ironically, this is an accusation often made against his admirers, which means I am twice-damned). But I can forgive him for this, just as I can forgive his frequent repetition of the same stories and quotations, and his sometimes old-fashioned sexism, homophobia and other characteristics only to be expected from a man of his time and background. The stimulation and illumination I have gained from his work over the years far outweigh any such lapses.