REVIEW: Occult London by Merlin Coverley

One of the nice things about returning to an old hobby is discovering the way that time and emotional detachment translate into critical distance.

When Lockdown gave me the excuse/opportunity to start a regular RPG campaign, my first instinct was to approach writing a game in the way that RPG publishers suggest. In other words, I chose a game, then some setting books, and then I tried to find a story I wanted to tell using that game and that setting. However, the second I sat down and started reading, I remembered why I tended not to make much use of setting books…

I was always happy to spend money on RPG supplements but when the time came to actually sit down and prepare a session, I always wound up looking elsewhere for my inspiration. At the time, I assumed that this was down to my being either lazy or inattentive but revisiting these kinds of books as a mature adult has really brought home the profound mediocrity of your average RPG: Poorly written, poorly organised, under-imagined, and almost completely devoid of useful information, your average RPG supplement promises to save you time but inevitably turns out to be little more than a waste of money.

However, rather than turning myself into a purveyor of hatchet jobs, I thought it might be useful to cast the net a little wider and take a look at books which, though not written with games in mind, could be used as inspiration for your campaigns. Who knows… reading more abstract source material might even help me work out what I actually want from RPG supplements in future.

Merlin Coverley is a British author best known for his book on psychogeography, a literary tradition best described as producing essays about place that draw as much upon first-person experience of these places as they do from conceptual frameworks dreamt up by critical theorists. If this sounds rather like using a sledgehammer to crack an egg then you are already most of the way towards grasping the aesthetics of the form as psychogeography is all about bringing together the visceral, the mundane, and the impossibly high-minded.

What this means in practice is that psychogeographers often wind up writing about the present in terms of abandoned pasts and potential futures, and this is where the connection with RPG setting books becomes most obvious as it turns out that there is a long tradition of writing about London in terms of its occult history. Coverley’s Occult London offers an entertaining, accessible, and fascinating overview of London’s occult history that could easily inspire any number of RPG supplements let alone sessions.

The book’s opening chapters look at four historical periods of intense interest in the occult: the Elizabethan era of John Dee, the 18th Century of William Blake, the Victorian period of Aleister Crowley, and the 20th Century of Ley Lines and the Highgate Vampire. Each of these sections touches on why there happened to have been a renewed interest in the occult and considers some of the bigger names in the occult undergrounds of each period.

If the Elizabethan and Victorian chapters feel a lot more polished than the other two, it’s because a lot of work has already been done on ‘weirding’ popular understandings of those periods. Thanks as much to academic history as popular culture, we are already used to thinking of the Elizabethan and Victorian periods as timeframes in which people cut about the place claiming to be wizards and so Coverley does not have to look too far for appropriate names and cultural narratives. You can also feel when Coverley steps away from those familiar cultural narratives as while the chapters dealing with the 18th and 20th Centuries are full of interesting ideas, they feel less like discrete cultural epochs and more like convenient dumping grounds for names and events that didn’t really fit into any of the other chapters. For example, while the 20th Century chapter touches on stuff like Ley Lines, no attempt is made to look at the work of people like Gerald Gardner and how the Wiccan revival of the 1960s interacted with the mass-popularisation of stuff like psychedelia and the hippy counter-culture. Coverley could even have pushed the boat out a little further and considered how 1990s popular culture came to be dominated by talk of conspiracy theories and UFOs. Admittedly neither of these cultural moments were specifically London-focused but these were just as much moments of occult cultural flourishing as the 18th Century of William Blake.

Even though I think this section could have been better handled, I really appreciated the way that Coverley describes not just the big names of each era, but also the cultural conditions that allowed them to become big names in the first place. Names and places may be useful from a historical perspective, but games often rely as much upon general vibes as they do on names and places. For example, which is the more game-relevant piece of information: The fact that Alastair Crowley existed in Victorian London? Or, the fact that he was just one of dozens of people claiming to be ritual magicians? One person can always be an outlier, but dozens implies a scene and scenes imply cultures.  The second you have a culture, you have space for the kinds of rivalries and conflicts that are perfect settings for RPGs. Coverley’s willingness to write about cultures as well as famous names makes this book both useful and inspiring.

The book’s fifth chapter is perhaps the most conventional when viewed from the perspective of the RPG as it surveys a number of areas and landmarks with occult histories. Given the sheer age of London as both a real-world city and a subject for cultural output, this chapter could probably have been three times as long and still inspired complaints about all the places that have been left out. This being said, Coverley has a great nose for weirdness and those areas that do get coverage are overflowing with evocative and inspirational details. It’s so rich that you could easily take this chapter and simply work through the sections, turning each one into a different stand-alone adventure.

The final chapters are also useful in that they touch upon the history of London’s occult book shops before surveying the various fictional representations of London’s occult history and concluding with suggestions for further reading and online resources.

Having sat down to write about this book, I am struck by the fact that this book could easily have been twice as long as it turned out being. Aside from the somewhat rushed chapters on the 18th and 20th Centuries, I would have liked to have seen a bit more on London’s occult bookshops and a more expansive approach to the suggestions of further reading, especially given that each chapter in this book comes with bibliographical footnotes. This being said, the relatively brief nature of the book does make it both accessible and a useful jumping-off point for anyone wanting either to read more, or to develop these ideas in their own game-specific direction. While the book could certainly have been longer and some of the chapters could have been a bit tighter, I found this book really useful for running games set in London. Every paragraph is an adventure hook.

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