Sorcery and Psychedelics: Dark Fantasy Tropes in Graham Hancock’s Fiction


My sci-fantasy graphic novel TRETA-YUGA, now live on Kickstarter, has been inspired by Graham Hancock’s bibliography (and a host of other authors). I wanted to take the time to trace some of these influences while simultaneously reviewing Hancock’s newly released epic Return of the Plumed Serpent, the second installment of the War God trilogy.

Graham Hancock is a legendary author, and therefore writing about his work can be prove to be immensely daunting. So much has already been said, and yet there are a great number of themes that I do not see discussed in his work.

For better or worse, the psychedelic activism that he has been adamant about in recent years is given more attention than the majestically magic worlds of his fiction, which he considers a more important vehicle for the translation of entheodelic visions that have consumed him in the over 100+ ayahuasca/DMT experiences he’s had. [1]

The roots of the dark fantasy that Graham has mastered in his fiction work runs dubiously deep. While I loved Entangled, it was decidedly more meta (what time tripping story isn’t?) than his War God series. War God has an admirable and deep commitment to the tropes of the historical fantasy genre, making the visions within the text more immersive and cinematic simultaneously.

Whenever genre arguments come up, I’m always reminded of Michael Moorcock’s now infamous 1978 dismantling of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’ staunch anti-technological views in his essay “Epic Pooh”. Moorcock would never consider his fiction anything other than pulp (and maybe even low-brow pulp at that), but the multiverse he established was a direct influence on the lore of my own YUGAVERSE. The idea of a creating a history rich with interconnected characters over different series, the blending of sci-fantasy, all the things that Gene Wolfe, Jack Nance, and Roger Zelazny playfully contributed to, have all been a massive inspiration.

The seminal “Epic Pooh” was the first New Wave response to the old world fantasy genre traditionalism that has its roots in E.R. Eddison’s near constant assertion that the ever romantic past was somehow better, and less brutal, than both the cyberpunk present and future.

The historical fantasy genre that was in some ways perfected in Nights of the Witch (the first installment of the War God trilogy) becomes even more compelling in the newly released Return of the Plumed Serpent. I believe this is due to Graham being a bit less naïve about how dark sorcery permeated (and was often the cause of) war and conquest in ancient civilization.

The depictions of violence and strategic warfare between the clashing of Aztec and Spanish inquisition is gruesome (sometimes unrelenting so), and yet I feel attached to Hancock’s lovely characterization of Tozi and Cortes, more so than Steven Erikson’s recent stabs at epic war stricken post-modern fantasy. The tendency of recent fantasy to include a ridiculously large number of characters (looking at you here, George R.R. Martin) is one of the things that I miss about Fritz Leiber and the Lovecraft Trio’s tight-knit approach to character evolution in the fantasy genre. [2]

Rightly so Return of the Plumed Serpent has been described as a tale that educates and entertains simultaneously. I would go as far to say that Graham proves, in an offhanded way, what Tolkien meant when describing how mytho-poetic fairy tales could be more metaphysically true than history itself. [3]

The acquisition of magical power in coming of age stories has been done quite a bit in pop culture by Hunger Games and Harry Potter, but Hancock’s freshly intense characterization of Tozi learning the ways of the invisible void grid is one of the more admirable takes on the scenario I’ve encountered in fiction for some time. In some ways the standard for me is still Jean Grey’s battling of the exploding phoenix transformation in Chris Claremont’s early 90’s X-Men. [4]

Tozi’s intelligence and cunning is well developed. Hancock in no way talks down to the intelligence of his readers or insults them with ridiculous clichés. She is not a superior character simply because she’s not a dude with a dick, but you believe in the small steps she takes towards growing in her evolution. The sorcery tropes in general are handled in a far more subtle way than J.K. Rowling’s infamous wizardry obsession, and I do enjoy Tozi, overall, far more than Hermione. Maybe that’s a bit unfair, War God is obviously meant to be read by adults, even with a younger witchy girl as a protagonist. Either way, with only three books into his career in fiction, the real life Indiana Jones has already proven he’s a badass master wizard.

 Eastern Lore

The anime One Piece covers the same occult treasure charting territory as War God, but on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. The rather obvious danger of long serialization and fictional trilogies is that characters and repeated plot elements become tired if the world building is not expansive enough. Both fictional innerspaces have a potential for the epic lore of a story to be continuously deep as it unravels rather slowly, rather than the far more common experience of ending up flat and stale, something that I miss about the tremendous potential of Naruto and Bleach, in the early stages.

The acquisition of power by young girls is also a predominant theme in anime, encompassing an entire sub-genre called mahou shoujo that parallel’s Tozi’s slow mastery of witchiness. While most every American knows Sailor Moon as the popularization moment of the trope, Princess Knight started it (1953) and the trope was in some ways brought to a kind of strange psychedelic perfection in the experimental Puella Magi Madoka Magica series and films. [5] It’s interesting that global transmedia seems to be recalling not-too-distant memories of paganism, which are quite different from the Rinzai sect of Zen, for instance, in Japan—or any other of the “do not eat the plants” sects of religion.

While pop culture has attempted to make psilocybin initiations something strange and even related to dubious persona’s like NBC’s Hannibal, Graham changed my life by unconsciously encouraging me to explore both the light and dark sides of altered states in relation to my graphic novel YUGAVERSE. Shadow healing can have a profound impact on philosophical disposition, but psychedelic themes do not need to be overt in art in order to be subversively effective, either.

Hancock claims that through his use of ayahuasca he was able to see, in the intense holographic download flashes that characterize the experience, the epic time period of the Spanish inquisition in a new way, one in which magic (white, grey, black) was present in shaping history. Ayahuasca proved that his lifelong fascination for lost archeology was a way of recalling how magical power once sincerely dominated human civilization.

Suddenly readers may see the potential for how Marlene Dobkin De Rios’ work on ayahuasca divination [6] may relate to the fictional landscape. Maybe it is that the dark veiled glimpse of the mirror world can provide a more true version of reality than the purely historical one, but Wonderland is always the greatest of hell and heavens.

In general the biased bibliophile will always declare that imagination and the humanities are the least respected (and certainly least profitable) subjects, but perhaps the most essential in the slow churning alchemy of the Soul.

[1] In a recent interview I conducted, Graham indicated that he actually prefers the smoked DMT admixture changa to ayahuasca at the moment. Primarily because it is less demanding on the body and the visions are as clear while still fast acting.

[2] Like Hancock, Erikson has a background in archeology, which informed the 10 thick volumes (!) of his high fantasy series The Malazan Book of the Fallen. On the subject of false technological doom and the unsustainable idea of civilization, see Erikson’s letter Derrick Jensen about his anarchist book Endgame. While most people prefer Lovecraft to Robert E Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, I’m one of those utterly strange souls who delights in the Smythos as the crystalized perfection of what Lovecraft set out to do, probably because there is more magic and less monsters…but still.

[3] “On Fairy-Stories” by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1939

[4] Grant Morrison’s flawed but thoroughly zany take on Marvel’s beloved figures will probably always be my favorite, however.

[5] Heroines of Film and Television: Portrayals in Popular Culture by Norma Jones, Maja Bajac-Carter, Bob Batchelor is a worthy study.

[6] Fate, Fortune, and Mysticism in the Peruvian Amazon: The Septrionic Order and the Naipes Cards by Marlene Dobkin De Rios’

Benton Rooks co-coined the term “entheodelic storytelling” with Graham Hancock, Jeremy D. Johnson, and Rak Razam. Follow him on Twitter.

5 Comments on "Sorcery and Psychedelics: Dark Fantasy Tropes in Graham Hancock’s Fiction"

  1. Ignatius J. Reilly | Nov 21, 2014 at 9:22 pm |

    I really enjoyed reading this thing. Was hoping for a bit more.
    Huge fan of Graham Hancok; of both his non-fiction and his fiction.
    Entangled was a cliff-hanger. Still waiting for the sequel of that one.
    Loved War God. Looking forward to reading the sequel. The guy really has a way with characters. I agree with you about Tozi. Her and the young Spanish boy, I forget his name, (Manolo?) are both brilliant.

  2. Benton Rooks | Nov 21, 2014 at 10:49 pm |

    Thank you Juan, appreciate that. I’m sure you will enjoy Plumed Serpent. I meant to mention how much Rowling is in debt to Ursula Le Guin’s fantastic Earthsea cycle, but I thought Disinfonauts would mostly know that series, too.

  3. Awesome! I still need to read the War God series, Benton, but reading this primer should set me up for it pretty well.

    Hancock’s historical fiction is likely to be one of the most interesting, and little investigated, of those writers who dared to explore Meso-American culture. Being Mexican-American myself, I’m very glad Hancock is writing about it and, hopefully, doing his best to honor what he knows about these cultures and their history. And as Hancock often says in interviews, sometimes fiction can tell us more than non-fiction can, when it comes to the consciousness and culture of a people.

    Anyways, great write-up man. Looking forward to reading the books… and maybe chatting about them with you on my podcast (which I’ll likely be publishing here).

  4. You really knocked it out of the park with this one Benton. Am well familiar with Tolkien, Mythopoeia and SubCreation, so really dug your references there. Unfortunately have not read any of Hancocks fiction but have been meaning to do so. Excellent primer and once the reading stack has lessened I shall be getting into this.
    A big bonus here was learning more of the YugaVerse inspiration from Hancock himself.
    Well done all around

  5. Benton Rooks | Nov 22, 2014 at 11:43 am |

    Thank you for the sweet comments, Jer and Anthony. Please let me know when you end up reading Graham’s fiction, it’s fantastic. I know he is a big fan of Joe Abercrombie who has supposedly done some awesome po-mo dark fantasy, too. Need to investigate more myself.

    Mortal Kombat X also has a character who is a Mayan shaman. You can place totems to acquire various metaphysical/elemental sorcery powers, not unlike the typical shaman archetype in RPG’s, but still, pretty cool.

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