Guy Somerset reviews Shadow Worlds for Aotearoa New Zealand Review of Books


Guy Somerset has reviewed Shadow Worlds: A history of the occult and esoteric in New Zealand by Andrew Paul Wood for Aotearoa New Zealand Review of Books:

When Kenneth Anger, the American author of 1959 scandal bible Hollywood Babylon, underground experimental filmmaker and follower of influential English occultist Aleister Crowley, died in May, a journalist friend of mine recalled interviewing him during a trip to New Zealand to promote his 1984 Hollywood Babylon sequel.

My friend, familiar with Anger’s ‘Magick Lantern Cycle’ of films, including Lucifer Rising (1972/1980), and the darker recesses of Crowley’s reputation, said he had never been more spooked by an interviewee, going so far as to wear a crucifix for the occasion to ward off evil spirits.

Afterwards, totally unnerved, my friend returned home, where the sense of menace was not alleviated by him finding a light, inexplicable spray of blood specks on the screen of his television. The Devil, like the Lord, moves in mysterious ways. Either that or my friend’s two cats had been sacrificing another sparrow in front of the TV altar. No sign of feathers, though.

Kenneth Anger does not appear in Andrew Paul Wood’s entertaining and enlightening Shadow Worlds: A History of the Occult and Esoteric in New Zealand, but Crowley acolyte Rosaleen ‘Roie’ Norton, whom Anger was researching during his visit, does.

Norton was born in Dunedin in 1917 – during a thunderstorm and ‘with pointed ears, blueish marks on her left knee and a hymenal tag [that] marked her out as a witch from the beginning,’ she said.

‘From age three she was drawing what she called ‘nothing beasts’ – animal-headed ghosts with tentacular arms,’ writes Wood. ‘As a five-year-old she once had a vision of a shining dragon beside her bed. This and other unusual events convinced her from an early age that another, spiritual world existed.’ As well they might.

In 1925, Norton’s family moved to Sydney, where, aged 14, ‘she was expelled from her Anglican girls’ school because her drawings of witches, devils and vampires were thought disruptive’. So, more widely, was the art Norton created, exhibited and published as an adult, including drawings of ‘provocatively nude goddesses and copulating demons’.

If Norton’s art was the start of her tabloid notoriety, allegations that she had officiated at a Satanic Black Mass sealed it, with headlines about her being a devil worshipper and ‘the witch of King’s Cross’. The allegations were made by Anna Karina Hoffman, another New Zealander destined for notoriety, again for witchcraft.

Norton’s own notoriety went stratospheric when one of the Aussie tabloids got hold of (ie nicked) letters to her from Eugene Goossens, the English composer, conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and director of the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music. Norton and Goossens had, writes Wood, become lovers ‘in a sort of informal menage à trois’ with Norton’s partner. (What exactly is a formal menage à trois?)

Sample letter content: ‘Contemplating your hermaphrodite organs in the picture nearly made me desert my evening’s work and fly to you by first aerial coven … a delicious orificial tingling that you were about to make your presence felt … I need your physical presence very much, for many reasons. We have many rituals and indulgences to undertake. And I want to take more photos.’

I bet he did.

Read the full review here.