Review by Linda Lappin
The Book of Angels is the title of a novel written by Michael Lynch, the main character of the late Thomas E. Kennedy’s occult thriller – The Book of Angels, published by Wordcraft of Oregon, in 1996. If that sounds metafictional – it’s meant to be. The book is a metaphysical mirroring of art and life, exploring the limits of fiction and the imagination as an alternative reality.
While fully satisfying readers’ cravings for the uncanny with its creepy characters, black magic, eerie atmospheres, and sexy witches, the book’s true focus is an investigation into the Mundus Imaginalis, that realm mapped by Persian philosophers where thoughts and images may take on corporeality and substance. It is here that angels dwell, and to gain entry, we must employ the secondary imagination celebrated by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: the voluntary, conscious power used by poets to build new worlds. In the Book of Angels, Kennedy draws a parallel between the writer’s art of creating fictional realities and necromancy: the art of conjuring spirits of the dead from the imaginal world into our own everyday space.
The novel opens with a haunting prologue – the story of a bereaved father trying to contact his dead son through an act of intense concentration, staring into the dark for hours. Finally, after countless nights, he manages to glimpse his lost child in the shadows half-hidden by a looming figure. He resolves to continue this extenuating mental exercise until he succeeds in being reunited with his son.
Later, we learn that this story is a chapter in a novel called The Book of Angels, written by Kennedy’s protagonist, Michael Lynch—a writer from New York City transplanted to the Midwest where he teaches creative writing and lives a comfortable existence with his wife and two children, neither of whom is dead. Many aspects of Lynch’s career, temperament, and background seem to echo Kennedy’s own.
The only dissonance in Lynch’s life is his estrangement from his sister, Jenny, still in New York. Lynch has stopped communicating with her to punish her for her fecklessness: She has dropped out of college, can’t find a job or a decent boyfriend, squanders her inheritance. The beginning of the novel finds her involved with a coven, headed by Asmodeus who has enslaved her –body and soul. Meanwhile, Lynch and his wife, Pamela, have become friends with their seductive, mysterious new next door neighbors, Steve and Linda Rizzo, who are keenly interested in Lynch’s novel and in his ideas about the active imagination.
In classic occult stories, evil enters the protagonists’ homes randomly – through a cursed object – a book, mask, picture, ring picked up in a junk shop, inherited from a distant family member, brought back from a trip abroad, which unleashes its horrific powers upon unsuspecting, innocent victims. In this case, however, evil is unleashed by the victim — Lynch—himself, through his own novel, or rather, through his creative power as a writer. We soon discover that both Jenny and Lynch have been targeted by Asmodeus who is convinced that Lynch, if properly primed and trained in magical methods can actually achieve what his character attempted in the Book of Angels: to raise the spirit of a dead person as a palpable, physical presence. The training to which Lynch unwillingly submits involves temptation, kidnapping, starvation, torture, and the sacrifice of someone he loves dearly.
The resulting story is at turns hair-raising, erotic, cruel, and, crude, as the genre requires. As the coven weaves its suffocating web around Lynch and his family, we find ourselves, like him, besieged first by doubts and then sinking into paranoia. Who is in the coven and who isn’t? How far-ranging is their influence? Are they mad? Do they really believe this stuff? How far will they go to achieve their aims? The answer to the last question is: they will go to all extremes – murder and child abuse are nothing to them. But in the final analysis, Asmodeus’ power is that of one human being dominating another out of greed and sadism. Though the members of the coven are proficient hypnotists and poisoners, despite their grimoires, bloody rituals, and obsessions, they have no real supernatural abilities. But as Lynch will discover, he does, and through this power, honed for years through the act of writing, he will save himself and most of his family, but not all.
One of the great pleasures of this book is its recreation of Kennedy’s own New York neighborhood in Queens, where in the novel, Lynch returns to tend to family affairs and is kidnapped by the coven. Through his eyes, we see the streets as they are in the 1990s and earlier, in Lynch’s childhood as he wanders about, distraught, hoping to find comfort in his old church, but it’s locked. The shabby, familiar neighborhood counterpoints the deeply unsettling, and exotic story unfolding in this ordinary place, adding to the reader’s sense of unease and alienation.
Another pleasure are the literary underpinnings of the plot itself – allusions to Jung, Coleridge, Blake, and the occult philosophers Neville Goddard, and Aleister Crowley. Also of interest, the Book of Angels contains the germ of Thomas E Kennedy’s greatest novel: In the Company of Angels. In that novel, the main character, who has survived multiple episodes of torture as a political prisoner, experiences angelic visitations under duress and through their intervention, finds the strength to go on living.
Where do these experiences come from, Lynch/ Kennedy asks us in The Book of Angels. Are they real?
“I believe that the imagination is a dimension of reality…I believe you can tap into the pool of all consciousness, the pool of mind, through the imagination…” Lynch explains to Steve Rizzo. “Everything you can imagine is real. Has a reality:”
What could be scarier – or more marvelous — than that?