Thursday, January 13, 2011

Our Lady of Darkness & Megapolisomancy

One of the most interesting and amazing science fiction tales that I gobbled up when I was a young man was written by Fritz Leiber, entitled “Our Lady of Darkness.” It was a rare genre from that time, an occult fantasy novel written in the same vein as the tales of H. P. Lovecraft and August Derelith, although Fritz Leiber was a much better writer than Lovecraft (and occultist), in my humble opinion.

The tale takes place in San Francisco in the contemporaneous post Hippy age of the late seventies, when the novel was actually written. The main character, a writer named Franz Westen, has an perilous encounter with a long dead mad magician named Thibaut de Castries, who had written an obscure book with the strange title “Megapolisomancy: A New Science of Cities” and had formed some sinister occult group. That group had oddly consisted of some of the more affluent and outrageous members of the artistic intelligentsia in turn of the century San Francisco, just before the great earthquake of 1906. I will not spoil a good ripping story for the sake of my article, so I will refrain from giving away any further elements of the plot.

Still, I would like to expound a little on the occult premise of the book, and on the art of megapolisomancy, in greater detail. Based on the name, megapolisomancy is the art of predicting and manipulating the present and future using the massive building structures, roads, railways, electric lines, water, sewage and gas lines, underground tunnels and cisterns as a kind of magickal topology, which can be seeded with sigils, talismans and other occult artifacts and thereby, harnessed to whatever ends the magician would desire. As de Castries himself says in his book, as quoted in the story:

“The electro-mephitic city-stuff whereof I speak has potencies for achieving vast effects at distant times and localities, even in the far future and on other orbs, but of the manipulations required for the production and control of such I do not intend to discourse in these pages.”

My reasons for discussing this very obscure topic and giving it some serious consideration is that I met my own version of de Castries in the person of Michael Bertiaux, and he also used a system of magick that was very similar to what was revealed in this fictional tale. First of all, I doubt that Bertiaux had ever read Fritz Leiber’s novel, so the fact that one of his systems of magick corresponded exactly with the book’s is probably a coincidence. The irony is that the book was published in 1977, exactly when I was first introduced to Michael Bertiaux and his strange occult systems. I read this book during the same period that I would occasionally travel to Chicago to visit with Michael and personally experience his magickal rites and ceremonies. Not only that, but Michael attempted to use his own version of megapolisomancy to prevent me from leaving his apartment on the very last time that I visited him. Sounds kind of strange and weird, I know, but it really happened.

In order to unravel this mystery and make sense out of it, let’s first examine the nature of megapolisomancy and look at it from a purely occult perspective. To do this we will have to rely on Fritz Leiber’s story, using various quotes from his fictional historical character, the sinister Thibaut de Castries, to make some sense out of this idiosyncratic occult system. I believe that I can do so in a thorough manner without giving away the plot and the shocking end of the story. I leave you, my readers, to the pleasure of seeking out this book and reading it for yourself, or not.

Megapolisomancy is based on both the energy and spirit model of magick, however, it would seem that the spiritual entities (called paramentals by de Castries) are very likely generated rather than existing forever as part of the domain of Spirit. The energy of this system of magick is based on the collection and disbursement of various substances, like electricity, natural gas, fresh water, sewage (and in the modern age we could include telephone, television and broadband cable and data lines). In addition there is the collection, accumulation and removal of various kinds of trash, both recyclable and non-recyclable substances, as well as the transportation of various goods to be sold and consumed. Streets made of concrete and asphalt provide a surface level grid formulation, but underground pipes, cables and subterranean tunnels for subways and sewers produce a multi-layer grid structure as well.

Buildings and skyscrapers are the most obvious formulations that impact the city-scape, since they produce a vertical grid structure and add loci of extreme mass and weight at strategic points, producing a nexus of horizontal and vertical forces. Thus megapolisomancy uses a kind of complex occult topology to map the confluence of forces and nexus points of what de Castries called “paramentality.” Knowledge of this occult topology allows one the ability to manipulate, prognosticate and alter reality - to create something from nothing, as well as to control or destroy individuals, structures or whole city-scapes.    

De Castries’ main declaration is that cities were originally designed as necropolises, places where the honored dead were housed for eternity. However, in the present modern age, the same designs are used to build massive domiciles for the living. One of only a couple of actual quotes from de Castries’ book seems to describe his dread, loathing and deep insight into the collective gathering of human beings and their associated materials in large megapolises. 

“At any particular time of history there have always been one or two cities of the monstrous sort -- viz., Babel or Babylon, Ur-Lhassa, Nineve, Syracuse, Rome, Samarkand, Tenochtitlan, Peking -- but we live in the Megapolitan (or Necropolitan) Age, when such disastrous blights are manifold and threaten to conjoin and enshroud the world with funebral yet multipotent city-stuff. We need a Black Pythagoras to spy out the evil lay of our monstrous cities and their foul shrieking songs, even as the White Pythagoras spied out the lay of the heavenly spheres and their crystalline symphonies, two and a half millennia ago.” - de Castries (from “Megapolisomancy”)

It is assumed that de Castries himself took the role of the “Black Pythagoras” in producing his system of occultism and magick, which he called the “new science” of the modern age, and through a system of mathematics known only to him (and never divulged) he was able to perceive and control the inherent, unknowable and unperceived powers and spirits that course through the grid structures that permeate a typical city. So instead of feeling alienated and repulsed by the obvious innate evil associated with large cities, de Castries was instead powerfully attracted to them. Where others might have used their knowledge to avoid the dangers of megapolises, de Castries sought to master these inherent forces through an application of his own occult system, making him a kind of puppet master or dark high priest of these negative manifestations. A further quote from de Castries’ book pretty much sums up his particular motives for ensconcing himself in a large city, in this case, San Francisco of 1900. 

“Since we modern city-men already dwell in tombs, inured after a fashion to mortality, the possibility arises of the indefinite prolongation of this life-in-death. Yet, although quite practicable, it would be a most morbid and dejected existence, without vitality or even thought, but only paramentation, our chief companions paramental entities of azoic origin more vicious than spiders or weasels.” - de Castries (from “Megapolisomancy”)

What de Castries is saying about the “azoic origin” of the paramental entities is that they were formed from substances and in conditions where no life had previously existed. Of course, a city is teaming with life besides the obvious human occupants and their deliberate pets and stock animals. There are numerous insect and rodent forms of life, as well as a veritable massive volume of microbes of an almost infinite variety. However, within the pure streams of electricity, natural gas, high pressure steam, not to mention the cables carrying streams of data and condensed video signals, a certain proto elemental life form could be conceived as living, reproducing and thriving, yet all but completely undetected by living creatures - a veritable “ghost in the machine.” These elemental entities are what de Castries has called “paramentals” and their actions and effects are called “paramental phenomena.” De Castries’ system of magick is particularly concerned with these entities and their effects on the artificial world of the city-scape.  Through a system of “neopythagorean metageometrics”, the location and effects of the paramentals can not only be deduced, but they can be revealed as well, allowing the operator a rare vision into the spirit dimension of a large city-scape and seeing what is transpiring on that super-symbolic level.

The method for tapping into and also controlling the behavior and effects of paramentals is through the use of sigils and talismans strategically placed at the various points of a city where the greatest impact of mass, weight and energy flow would occur, verifiable nexus points where streams join and form collective pools of various substances. The most obvious points would be where massive skyscrapers have been built. These points were considered by de Castries as a kind of fulcrum, and the planted talisman acted as a kind of lever that could manipulate the massive powers of the fulcrum and tap into the concentration of paramentals that would collect at these points.

A total of fifty of these sigils were required, all placed throughout the city at strategic nexus points, and a copy of each of the sigils would be placed in a book, called by de Castries, the Grand Cipher, or Fifty-Book. The number 50 was highly significant, since it was the total number of faces associated with all five of the Pythagorean solids. The relationship between the planted sigil or talisman and the Grand Cipher was analogous to a lattice structure or web, which would allow the magician to expand his senses as well as compel the paramentals to perform specific operations. Whatever happens in the city, and how it develops in the future, from the most minute to the most macro level in the various grids would be sensible and perceptible to the megapolisomantic magician.

Paramentals were believed to be controlled or temporarily deflected by certain instruments or substances. These are items (tools) made of pure silver, abstract designs and star forms, such as the pentagram. One could also assume that pure gold or copper might have the same effect as silver (as conductors), and that abstract designs and star forms would do nothing more than channel the powers of a paramental. Considering that they are generated, it would be impossible to completely destroy them without completely destroying the city structure and various substances that generate them. Needless to say, because paramentals are not living or sentient as we would understand, they function without any compassion or sentiment towards other living beings. They can be enslaved and made to perform tasks or they can behave in a fashion that is completely inimical and hostile to all life forms when made aware of them. You almost get the idea that being able to see and interact with paramentals would be a very dangerous preoccupation, and one that could ultimately go awry with disastrous results. 

One of the most important occult components in the system of megapolisomancy would have to be astrology, since it would be necessary to know the impact of various cosmic forces on the large geographic structures of city-scapes. The Fifty-Book appeared to be full of astrological symbology, so one could assume it to be an important feature. A megapolisomantic magician would use astrology to assist him to predict future events and to understand the astrological aspects that precipitated the events of the past. The megapolisomantic magician would likely have to create a natal chart of the city, based upon the date of its legal founding, and this chart would be progressed and compared to transit aspects for the present times as well as the future.

That natal chart and its progressions and transits would have a considerable bearing on certain conditions that would make specific strategic nexus points more volatile than at other times. The factor of timing, and when and where to exert certain manipulations could only be determined by some kind of astrological methodology. It’s also likely that astrology would play a part in the charging and generation of the talismans that would be used to produce the network of 50 planted talisman-sigils. This factor was only obliquely hinted at in the story, but it would make sense based on the description of the Grand Cipher at the end of the story.

De Castries gathered around himself some rather famous and eccentric writers who lived in San Francisco at the turn of the century, such as Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, and poet George Sterling. Other individuals, actors and actresses, artists and free thinkers, the host of the bohemian crowd, gathered around de Castries and became, for a year or so, acolytes of a kind of dark magickal lodge. De Castries called this coterie, the Hermetic Order of the Onyx Dusk, and as the master adept, he wore a specially made black onyx ring whose stone was shaped like a black bird of prey which he wore at all times.

However, after a surprisingly short while, all of the members of this organization became bored and lost interest, since de Castries was loath to reveal the true nature of his occult system, and these sophisticated folks had never really taken him seriously. Individual members were expected to perform random and mindless actions at certain places and times in the city, and were never really told what they were doing or why. After a little while, they got tired of de Castries demands, his short temper, tyrannical and obstreperous mannerisms and his paranoid inability to trust anyone. They all left at around the same time, and the short lived cult of the Onyx Dusk quickly collapsed. Needless to say, de Castries was furious, referring to all of his former associates as traitors and defamers of the mysteries, vowing to get revenge on one and all. A few died within a few years of leaving his group, and others, who were probably terrified of him, likely paid de Castries blackmail money to keep matters quiet and peaceable. Some believed that de Castries had killed some of his former followers by sending paramentals after them, and the fear that was generated by this speculation allowed him to continue to live a comfortable but somewhat meager existence.

Then the great earthquake of 1906 occurred, which almost completely destroyed the city of San Francisco. While most would see it as a natural catastrophe, those former members of de Castries’ group fearfully and quietly blamed him for causing the cataclysm. Afterward, the remaining members of the former group all met terrible and tragic deaths, one by one, until none were left. De Castries had only a couple of devoted friends left who looked after his needs, but his decline slowly continued. They witnessed de Castries’ obsession with reacquiring all of his published books by whatever means, including threats and intimidation, only to burn and destroy them when he got them back. In a sense, de Castries was attempting to erase completely whatever information about this occult system that he had put forward in his books, as if to ensure that only he would have any knowledge of it.

By the 1920's de Castries was an aged and cantankerous old man whose paranoia had grown to the point that it made him a borderline psychotic. Clark Ashton Smith, a science fiction, fantasy and horror writer of some fame was one of the last of de Castries followers. Yet even he could only stand so such much of de Castries’ raving madness and moments of terrible clarity. Some quotes from his diary that he kept at the time give quite an impression of what it was like to spend afternoons in de Castries’ parlor, at the inexpensive hotel Rhodes. So terrifying were these sessions, that Smith couldn’t even commit to his own diary the name of Thibaut de Castries, instead calling him Tybalt or Tiberias. Here are few excerpts from Smith’s diary, as presented in the story.
“Three hours today at 607 Rhodes with the furious Tybalt. All I could take. Half the time railing at this fallen-off acolytes, the other half contemptuously tossing me scraps of paranatural truth. But what scraps! How that old devil sees into cities and their invisible sicknesses - a new Pasteur, but of the dead-alive.

He says his book is kindergarten stuff, but the new thing - the core and why of it and how to work it - he keeps only in his mind and in the Grand Cipher he’s so sly about. He sometimes calls it (the Cipher) his Fifty-Book, that is, if I’m right and they are the same. Why fifty?” - C. A. Smith’s diary

One of the last entries in Smith’s diary shows both the fascination and the horror of being exposed to de Castries’ theories and ideas, and we can only assume, experimental proofs.

“I should get out myself - I’ve all that I can use and there are stories crying to be written. But can I give up the ultimate ecstasy of knowing each day I’ll hear from the very lips of Black Pythagorus some new paranatural truth? It’s like a drug I have to have. Who can give up such fantasy? - especially when - the fantasy is the truth.

The paranatural, only a word - but what it signifies! The supernatural - a dream of grandmothers and priest and horror writers. But the paranatural! Yet how much can I take? Could I stand full contact with a paramental entity and not crack up?

Coming back today, I felt that my senses were metamorphosing. San Francisco was a meganecropolis vibrant with paramentals on the verge of vision and audition, each block a surreal cenotaph that would bury Dali, and I one of the living dead aware of everything with cold delight. But now I am afraid of this room’s walls!” - C. A. Smith’s diary

In this final entry, we can see that Smith has finally deduced that he himself is getting into trouble with de Castries, and he also learned the fate first hand of those other followers who met tragic ends.

“Hated what gloating Tiberius hinted today about the disappearance of Bierce and the deaths of Sterling and Jack London. Not only that they were suicides (which I categorically deny, particularly in the case of Sterling!) but that there were other elements in their deaths - elements for which the old devil appears to take credit.

He positively sniggered as he said, ‘You can be sure of one thing, my dear boy, that all of them had a very rough time paramentally before they were snuffed out, or shuffled off to their grey paranatural hells. Very distressing, but it’s the common fate of Judases - and little busybodies.’ he added, glaring at me from under his tangled white eyebrows.

Could he be hypnotizing me? Why do I linger one, now that the menaces outweigh the revelations? That disjointed stuff about techniques of giving paramental entities the scent - clearly a threat.” - C. A. Smith’s diary

Not long after writing that diary entry, Smith quickly abandoned his hotel room and left San Francisco without leaving any note of explanation or apology, never to return. De Castries saw it as yet another betrayal and vowed to have revenge on Smith. However, Clark Ashton Smith lived to a very advanced age, but even so, he became a recluse and avoided traveling to any large cities or metropolitan areas for reason we can only speculate about.

De Castries died in 1929, ironically just a few months shy of the great stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. His body was cremated and then later, the ashes were secretly buried at the top of a wild promontory called Corona Heights. There, his urn of ashes and his magick ring, lay hidden through the decades that followed, enduring all of the major building projects that followed his death. However, the magickal currents and powers that de Castries had tapped and controlled were still active, and the Grand Cipher, hidden away in a secret place, acted as the lever for the fulcrum of the Trans-America building and the massive twin TV tower, positioned obliquely to the secret burial on Corona Heights and the place where the Grand Cipher was hidden. These magickally strategic points were all fully alive and waiting for the moment when someone or something would activate them, manifesting de Castries’ final curse on humanity.

Anyway, that’s how the book promotes this system of magick, and I felt it prudent to go over the details so that my own personal experience back in the late seventies with Michael Bertiaux would make more sense. You see, Michael had somehow intuited this entire system of magick, and had placed a number of talismans at various locations in the great city of Chicago. Michael lived at that time in the downtown area right near the shore line of Lake Michigan. He called these talismans the strategic points of his spider’s web, and through it, he could draw power, cause things to happen, and even project into the past and the future. He might have been lying, or even exaggerating, and I might have written it all off as some eccentric gag, except that he demonstrated to me personally how it worked.

I was visiting Michael one weekend day when we also happened to meet an acquaintance of his who had flown in from Europe. I was with my teacher, Christopher Syn (Bill Schnoebelen), and somehow, we invited Michael’s friend to accompany us back to Milwaukee and stay there as our guest for a week. This fellow was very polite and charismatic (unlike Michael), and he knew a lot about the occult and had traveled a lot, too. He had many fascinating and entertaining stories to tell us. Why he was visiting Michael at that particular time wasn’t revealed to me, but then Michael had a lot of visitors back in those days. Anyway, he stayed with me and with Christopher for a week, and then needed to get back to Chicago to catch his flight back home. I volunteered to drive this fellow back to Chicago, so we both climbed into my Red Gremlin and drove down the turnpike to that great megapolis.

After I got there, I stayed with Michael for a few hours to wait for the traffic to die down and also to be sociable. Michael had plans for me, however, and wanted me to spend the night at his place to work magick with him and my new friend. I demurred, since I had to get back to Milwaukee so I could go to work at my evening job. I couldn’t stay because at that time I needed every penny that I earned to survive. Michael insisted that I stay, and began to threaten me magickally, even though he made it out to be a joke. He told me about his magickal system where he was able to tap the powers and spirits of the actual structure of the city, and could use it to force me to stay. He told me that my automobile wouldn’t get me safely back home, which was a rather frightening thing to say.

I was adamant, and despite the protests and the various bribes and offers that were made, I effusively apologized and then left. When I got to my car, I discovered that it wouldn’t start. I used my will and desperate desire to get home, and somehow managed to get the car started, but it was running very roughly, with gouts of black smoke coming out of the tail pipe. Even though this car was six years old and had a fair amount of mileage on it, it had never acted this way as long as I had owned it. Running on what seemed like four out of six cylinders, I jerkily and weakly drove away, wondering if I was even going to make it home, but unwilling to return to Michael’s apartment. I used my will and my innate connection with the car to proceed back down the city street to where the freeway was located. I noticed that the further I got away from Michael’s apartment, the car began to run better and smoother, until by the time I entered the freeway and proceeded north on my way to Milwaukee, my car acted as it had always acted. As I crossed the state line into Wisconsin, my car was functioning normally. I arrived back in Milwaukee without an incident, but it seemed that a dark power had locked onto my car, but then allowed me to continue. Had Michael been more forceful, the car would have either failed to run, or I might have had an accident when the car broke down on the freeway somewhere. Such an incident would have put me in mortal danger. I got home because my will was so strong, and because Michael let me go, but not until showing me that his magickal spider web was both potent and long reaching.

So, it would seem that I had a personal experience with a variation of megapolisomancy, and that Michael Bertiaux was my own real version of de Castries. I have no doubts that such a system of magick is not only plausible, but in fact it is also completely practical. If I lived in an urban area, I would likely experiment with this system of magick, but I live in the country and happily so. However, I have expounded on this system of magick just in case anyone has any interest in experimenting with it and seeing if they can get it to work. I am certain that a lot of details have been left out. Yet a crafty and creative magickal practitioner would probably be able to discover how to make this system work, if not by insight, then by trial and error. I guess that such an eccentric system of magick would be very attractive to a Chaos Magician, except for the necessary use of astrology.

Anyway, I have presented this system from an experienced occult perspective, which was missing from Fritz Leiber’s novel. Yet he had uncannily included more than enough components to make my work fairly simple and straightforward. I kind of wonder how much Fritz Leiber really knew about the occult, but since he is now dead for some years, we will never know.

As a final note, I believe that the paramentals are out there. They can be found and then enslaved to the will of a true Black Pythagorus, yet it is doubtful that such a person would ever come forth and reveal himself. I suspect that Michael Bertiaux would have qualified, but my evidence is unfortunately anecdotal and over thirty years old. Still, Megapolisomancy is a very credible system of magick for the urban magus. Here’s to the old paramentality!

Frater Barrabbas


  1. Our Lady of Darkness is my favorite Leiber novel. Megapolisomancy is a challenging occult notion and/or magical system. I've wondered why there haven't been more books about magic in urban settings. It's interesting that somebody tried to bring aspects of it into play. And I gotta say that Corona Heights in San Francisco is one of the most uncanny places in any city I've ever been in.

  2. So interesting! I would like to find more info about Megapolisomancy and about Michael Bertiaux and his very similar system of magik. Is there anyone who can help me?:)