Monday 16 December 2013

Pete Tombs remembers Colin Wilson (1931-2013)


News filtered through at the beginning of last week. The death of one of the most interesting individuals I’ve ever met and someone who in the future will, I am sure, be seen as a valuable and  much maligned thinker and writer. I’m talking about Colin Wilson. Depending on where you are in the world, that statement might seem baffling. In some countries (Japan, the US, mainland Europe) he has long been taken seriously; his books still in print and his past talks and lectures well attended. But in the UK, where he was born and lived most of his life, that was far from the case. The reasons for this say a lot about the narrowness of British intellectual life, the enduring strength of the class system and the elitism of the British literary world.

Colin was unfortunate (in retrospect, of course) in having been something of “an overnight success”. His first published book, The Outsider, which hit the shops in 1956, rocketed him to fame and, initially at least, some fortune. A recent article estimated that he earned, in today’s money, around £430,000 ($800k) in the book’s first year of publication. During that year he was everywhere and met everyone. From Marilyn Monroe to Albert Camus. He drank a lot, travelled a lot and talked a lot. The result was Wilson Overkill. So much so that when his next book, Religion and The Rebel, appeared, it was – in the UK at least – generally slated. Even those who had praised The Outsider went into print saying that they had been wrong about that first book and wanted to set the record straight by tearing the new one apart. In fact RATR is much more interesting and substantial than The Outsider. But the damage had been done.

The unfairness of it all is that Colin was only 24 when his first book was published. He was a young, working class guy who had never been to university and was in fact sleeping in a public park to save money so he could spend all his time writing. Who, in those circumstances, would not have bitten hungrily at any offered fruit when fame and fortune beckoned.

Despite his young age, he had already been married once and had a son. Without an alternative source of income, he had no other way of providing for himself and his family than by writing. And he wrote prodigiously. In the 5 years following The Outsider he published eight books, including his first novel, Ritual in the Dark. By the time of his death he had 115 full length books to his name and numerous articles, essays and introductions to other works.

His interests ranged wide, but came to centre around crime, the sexual impulse and (following the publication in 1971 of The Occult) the paranormal. The thread that connected all these was his lifelong investigation into the power and untapped potential of the human mind.  However, the perceived “lurid” aspect of such interests, alongside his prolificacy, led to a general perception of him, in the UK at least, as a “hack”.

Colin was very much aware of the brickbats being lobbed his way by the literary establishment. Being a generally optimistic individual he chose to set it aside, taking revenge via his prodigious output and comfort from the large and varied global audience that found much of interest in what he had to say, even if they didn’t (contrary to what the naysayers always assume) take everythign he wrote at face value.

I don’t wish to portray him as a saint. I only had a passing acquaintance with him, including a mammoth weekend session of interviews for a documentary film, and he could be opinionated, argumentative, naive and occasionally infuriating. But who isn’t? He was a human being, like the rest of us. He was an autodidact and exhibited all the faults of same, but also the virtues – a hunger for knowledge, a deeply held belief in the importance of thought and ideas, and a strong desire to communicate.

In both his novels and non fiction, that desire to communicate is the thing that shines most strongly. He is never less than readable and often quite compulsively so. At his best he can explain complex ideas in easy to digest forms. As one review said he can “make even a detailed account of a severe attack of clinical depression sound like something out of the last five minutes of the Choral Symphony”. At his worst, yes he can be credulous, over simplistic, and bumptious. But that’s part of the mix. In aiming at a moving target, there are always going to be lots of stray shots.

I first heard the name Colin Wilson when my parents started discussing him after a TV appearance. I was a kid, so this would have been in the 1960s. I remember my mother saying that she’d read The Outsider and it was “just a collection of quotes from other books”. The implication being that he was some sort of fake; that he’d let his readership down.

Years later, while at college, I came across some paperback reprints of his “Lovecraft” themed books, The Philosopher’s Stone and The Mind Parasites. The Wilson name rang a bell and, being a Lovecraft fan, I bought the books and was blown away by them. I thought, if this guy’s a fake, then bring on more of them. It was populist, genre fiction with a side order of mind expanding ideas. I soon discovered that whenever you start talking about Colin Wilson there’ll always be others within earshot who have their own opinions of him (for and against) and are not shy about sharing them. From one of these I learned about the “New Existentialism” and the underlying thrust of all Wilson’s work to that point.

I went on to read all of Colin’s fiction and most of his non fiction. Later, while working in the publishing industry, I was involved with a new edition of one of his earliest and perhaps least typical novels – Adrift in Soho. It was during that period that I began to communicate with Colin directly and, eventually, to meet him. This was at a talk he was giving in central London to promote the publication of From Atlantis to the Sphinx. He was in the company of another Wilson fan, an American who turned out to be Gary Lachman former Blondie song writer and bass guitarist. Gary told me that he’d spent much of  his royalties moving to the UK to be able to get to know Colin and later he collaborated with him on a number of books and articles.

I remember the talk well. It was a mixed audience of wannabe hipsters, a few Wilson freaks and a scattering of those who looked as though they’d wandered in off the street because the door was open. Colin soon launched into an explanation of his theory of the mind and the power of intentionality, as usual, via a series of anecdotes. One recounted how, a few years before, he had begun to feel that he was losing his sex drive. He was on a train to London and some schoolgirls got into the carriage. He thought, “Hmmm. Let me concentrate on the legs of these schoolgirls and see if I can get an erection.” Which, to his delight, he did! A small, but memorable illustration of the power of the mind…

As the anecdote progressed, you could feel a ripple of unease pass through the audience. Over the next few minutes a fair number left and the mood chilled noticeably. But I remember thinking – here’s a guy who’s totally fearless and completely honest. And, let’s be frank, what man hasn’t at some point done what he did? But to do it as part of some existential experiment. That’s near genius.

We kept in touch and some years later, following discussions with fellow Wilson fan Paul Woods, I pitched to Colin the idea of making  a documentary film about him. With fortunate timing, this coincided with the writing of his autobiography Dreaming to Some Purpose, so he was in something of a self reflective mood. I remember we considered postponing the initial interviews as Colin had suffered a minor stroke. But he kept to his word, despite his poor health, and insisted that we go ahead. He invited us down to his house in rural Cornwall and was very disappointed when he learned that we’d booked into a hotel as he was more than happy to put us up and feed us for the entire weekend.

Over the course of the next three days he was generous almost to fault, not only with his time but with his food and wine. I’ll always remember both him and his wife Joy with great affection. Although I was certainly old enough to be long past the gushing “fan” stage, I’ll admit I was more than a little in awe of him. That didn’t stop us having a fair few disagreements and I began to take some pleasure in provoking him from time to time. I thought we’d get the best material that way.

Sadly, the documentary was never finished. We planned to do a number of follow up interviews and license some archive material, but Colin was hugely busy with his autobiography and a punishing work schedule. His large global audience and huge list of publications hadn’t translated into great wealth. He was a working writer who needed to work, and that was what he remained all his life.

Over the course of the interview we discussed the negative aspects that had been attached to him. Including the strange notion that he was some sort of crypto fascist or Satanist. I can remember him telling us with relish about an alleged quote from David Bowie (deep into his Thin White Duke phase, I guess), that he had been initiated into a satanic coven in the West Country whose eminence grise was Colin Wilson!

Much of this negative commentary comes from the use in his work of such theories as “the dominant 5%” in human evolution and the notion that most of us sleepwalk through life in a robotic state. What his critics seem to miss is that, far from praising this state of affairs, Colin’s analysis of it was centred around the notion of finding out the secrets of the dominant so that we could all share them, and thus go beyond the robot phase and live life to the full. Whatever one may think about such ideas in the first place, his goals were the very opposite of fascism and elitism.

One of the aspects of his career that we discussed was his status as a novelist and how this has increasingly been seen as secondary. Interestingly Colin mentioned that in Japan he was best known for his fiction and he suspected that any obituary there would be for “Colin Wilson author of Spider World”. My way into his writing was through the fiction and I still think a fair number of his novels bear reading (and re-reading) today. The “Lovecraft” books for sure (The Mind Parasites, The Philosopher’s Stone); and The Space Vampires, The Glass Cage, Ritual in the Dark, Necessary Doubt, The Killer, God of the Labyrinth, Spider World, all are recommended.

Interestingly, although he dabbled in genre fiction, Colin was not a great fan of genre films. A number of his books were optioned for the screen and he made money from writing treatments for, among others, Dino de Laurentiis. However the only one of his books to reach the screen was Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce, based on The Space Vampires, a film I have a lot of time for. To Colin it was not just a bad film, it was “probably one of the worst films ever made”.

A friend has just pointed out to me that The Space Vampires has now been optioned anew, this time for a TV mini series. We can only hope that the long form version stays closer to the original novel and that, if it’s a success, it leads, finally, to the publication of the follow up. The elusive Metamorphosis of the Vampire, of which I’ve read a lengthy extract from what is apparently a 1500 page epic, is one of the most eagerly awaited of all Colin Wilson’s unpublished works. Its appearance now would be a worthwhile epitaph for this still controversial literary figure.


  1. Hi Pete. A decade or so ago a Wilson associate named Maurice Bassett was selling photocopies of the typed manuscript of Metamorphosis of the Vampire, apparently authorised by Wilson himself. I bought one, but excited as I was to get it, have yet to read it through to the end. I'm a huge fan of Wilson's fiction and early non-fiction, but Metamorphosis seems to have more in common with his crackpot occult 'non-fiction' than his early fiction and, for that matter, non-fiction. Very disappointing. Still, maybe it's time to go back and have another look, with expectations lowered.

    If you like his Lovecraft pastiches, look into Return Of The Lloigor. I always preferred it to either of the others, and, in fact, to any of Lovecraft's own mythos stuff. It appeared in Tales Of The Cthulhu Mythos (the first Lovecraft tribute anthology?), but also exists in a somewhat longer standalone chapbook.

  2. Thanks! I really enjoyed the extracts I read. But it was a long time ago. Colin seemed convinced that it was the length of the thing that was putting publishers off; maybe not! But it would still be good to see it out finally.