Mystics, Monsters and the Macabre: Visual Books Honor the Occult

By Molly Fitzpatrick

An Illustrated History
By Roger Luckhurst

The Library of Esoterica
Edited by Jessica Hundley and Pam Grossman

Using the Cards for Self-Care, Acceptance, and Growth
By Jessica Dore

What does “Gothic” mean to you? For me, the word conjures images of an ancient Eastern Germanic tribe, a flying buttress and myself circa 2003, loitering in front of a rack of studded belts at Hot Topic. In “Gothic: An Illustrated History,” Roger Luckhurst sets forth an extensive, macabre taxonomy of the protean genre and its hallmark “pleasant shivers,” dark tendrils grasping through time and space to ensnare gloomy castles, suburban shopping malls and even the most desolate — though maybe not quite unoccupied — reaches of the cosmos.

A professor of 19th-century studies at Birkbeck College, University of London, Luckhurst manages to balance granular detail (in the margins I scribbled reminders to myself to investigate further the enticingly breadcrumbed movies, video games and other references) with liveliness and charm. His analysis of the Gothic labyrinth draws a direct line from the Minotaur to Pac-Man. Another chapter is devoted entirely, delightfully, to the slimy horror of tentacles.

Luckhurst locates the Gothic in the demilitarized zone between the modern and the ancient, the city and the country, the living and the dead, the self and the other. That last tension has proved particularly fertile in art and culture, birthing a bestiary of monsters (werewolves, changelings, “The Stepford Wives”) whose difference reflects back to us the cruelly policed boundaries of what society will tolerate.

But when it comes to these outcast figures, Luckhurst shows, the Gothic genre can be a double-edged sword. “What any social order excludes as monstrous can become an unexpected point of identification for the outcast and abused,” he writes, citing the rich tradition of queer and trans readings of “Frankenstein” and its adaptations. (There are some who say Ari Aster’s “Midsommar,” and Robert Eggers’s “The Witch,” have happy endings, myself included.) If the human status quo has been a font of repression and rejection, who wouldn’t want to live deliciously, as a monster, instead?

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    “Witchcraft,” a lavish coffee-table book edited by Jessica Hundley and Pam Grossman, is a decadent feast for the eyes, laced with belladonna. Through more than 400 works of art — interspersed with personal and wide-ranging essays by present-day practitioners and aficionados — the latest installment in Taschen’s “Library of Esoterica” series surveys the shadow and the light the witch has cast across the Western imagination.

    “Witchcraft” captures the dizzying clip at which its subject has shape-shifted over centuries, a cipher capable of embodying society’s deepest fears and desires, and their considerable overlap. There’s a medieval woodcut by Hans Baldung Grien of grotesque hags applying flying ointment (made from the flesh of children, so the old stories go); John William Waterhouse’s dreamy, main-character-energy Pre-Raphaelite enchantresses; an alluring siren’s nearly nude torso glistening in the steam off her cauldron on the borderline-softcore cover for Peter Tremayne’s 1978 fantasy novel “The Vengeance of She.”

    But the book’s most indelible images are those of the self-identified witches, art and artifacts that blur the line between aesthetic object and spiritual practice — “Haitians, Lend a Hand to Mother,” one of Myrlande Constant’s stunning, intricately beaded ceremonial Voodoo flags, for instance, or an unknown spell-caster’s 1953 poppet, dressed in black lace to represent “an evil Nazi wife,” stabbed through the face with a nail.

    The anthology posits the witch as far more than a passive muse — a formidable creative force herself. She is also a subversive champion for the marginalized: With her arcane knowledge, her power exists outside of the restrictive systems of church, state and industry.

    Thanks to another new book, “Tarot for Change,” some such age-old secrets have never been more accessible. That said, this choose-your-own-adventure collection of thoughtful prompts for introspection will more likely be found on the self-help shelf of a therapist’s office than wedged under a crystal ball in a psychic parlor.

    The author and licensed social worker Jessica Dore has amassed a formidable social media presence by pulling daily tarot cards for hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter and Instagram. In her first book, she argues that behavioral science and evidence-based treatment are in fact “deeply compatible” with spirituality and mystic philosophies. As she sees it, tarot functions as a miniature projector screen for our inner lives. Observed at that safe remove, they may offer us new perspectives on our circumstances, new possibilities for growth and change.

    A chapter is devoted to each of the 78 cards as depicted by the commonly used Rider-Waite-Smith deck, incorporating methods of mental health treatment, poetry, folk tales and pop culture. Dore cites James Cameron’s “Titanic,” the British occultist and magician Aleister Crowley, “The Body Keeps the Score”’s author Bessel van der Kolk, and the ’90s Nickelodeon teen drama “The Secret World of Alex Mack,” all in the course of elucidating, movingly, what the King of Cups can teach us about resolving trauma.

    I have to confess a bias: I love the evocative imagery of the tarot, but remain unconvinced that any card I’ve ever drawn has appeared before me for any reason beyond pure, boring chance. Nevertheless, “Tarot for Change” won me over with its generous, practical and gently radical advice. Dore repeatedly invokes the principles of dialectical behavior therapy (though she does not practice psychotherapy herself) and its emphasis on holding multiple, even apparently contradictory truths at once. “Holding paradox,” she writes, “remains the continual lesson of tarot.” No one and nothing is all good or all bad — no monster, no witch, not even ourselves.

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