Sometimes it’s easy to point out your formative experiences. We as writers love to do this, don’t we? The acknowledgments pages of millions of books are littered with references to the authors and works that influenced us. Many an interview has asked that question: who influenced your work? Many an author has waxed poetic about it–to even begin to list the credits we’ve all read in the work of others would take days.
For myself, I’m not particularly interested in the easy influences. I can say that Stephen King has influenced my writing; well of course he has–I’ve been a huge fan since childhood, and have read most of his books, many of them more than once. If a little King didn’t make its way into my writing, you’d suspect I was a total idiot. (And maybe I am, but that has nothing to do with King, I assure you.) What I’m interested in are the ones that elude me–the books and authors that I remember, but not clearly. I grew up in the pre-Internet age, when there was no Goodreads to track my reading, no Facebook to share it, no Amazon to buy new copies, no iBooks and Google Drive to carry my library in my pocket. If I read a book once, and wanted to remember it, I had damned well better hold onto it. That wasn’t always easy, though, or even possible; between libraries, borrowed books, and things I really wasn’t supposed to be reading in the first place, many books touched me briefly, then were lost to time. In many cases, I don’t even remember the titles or the authors.
The book I’m discussing here falls into that third category, probably: the books I really wasn’t supposed to be reading. I say “probably” because it’s an assumption; I wasn’t forbidden to read it–only once can I remember them ever outright forbidding a book–but they would probably have gently warned me off of this one, had they known I was reading it. It’s not that it was vulgar or profane or any of the other things that usually get books banned; it’s just that it was considerably above my level.
Colin Wilson’s The Mind Parasites thus became one of my “white whales”. The copy I read was lost somewhere along the way, possibly even immediately after I read it. I spent years trying to lay hands on another. It’s not that the book is unknown (it isn’t); but it did seem to be rare, for some years at least. I never located it again, in libraries or used bookstores; and by the time I became aware of Amazon and Ebay, I had forgotten about it. My life was falling apart–a topic I’ve discussed at length on this blog and in other places–and there was no time to think about or chase mysterious books from my childhood. It was only a year or so ago that I thought about it again. At that point it was easy to track down–Amazon carries it–but then, for reasons I don’t know, I put it on a wishlist and promptly forgot about it again. (The book’s protagonist, Professor Austin, would suggest that the Mind Parasites made me forget, if only he hadn’t beaten them in 1997, the year in which the book is set.) I finally picked up a copy (in convenient ebook format) last week, and set about discovering if my memories held up.
Let’s say up front that this is not high literature, and it doesn’t claim to be–but it’s not quite genre either. The book was published in 1967, and falls squarely into the camp of the form of science fiction that was flourishing at the time–if you read it, you’ll hear hints of Asimov and his peers in it, though I don’t think the author ever cited them as direct influences. However, it also draws strongly upon the work of H.P. Lovecraft, and that, I think, gives it a pulp flavor that really makes it its own thing. (I love Lovecraft’s work, and will be covering some of it here eventually as part of the Great Reddit Reading List, so don’t take that as an insult.) Wilson was acquainted with–friends with, really–August Derleth, Lovecraft’s friend, original publisher, and fellow author in the Cthulhu mythos; and it was this that led him to write the book. In fact, he dedicated the book to Derleth, “who suggested it”. (Derleth also gets an in-universe mention in the story; Professor Austin mentions him as being in his eighties, though in real life he died at the young age of sixty-two, just four years after The Mind Parasites was published. Lovecraft also gets some mention in the story; he is stated to have had visions of the parasites and other things related to them, and to have worked them into his books.) It was Derleth’s Arkham House publishing company that published the book in America, though it would be Wilson’s only contribution to that publisher.
The book follows the escapades of Professor Gilbert Austin, an archaeologist who is thrust into the book’s events by the sudden suicide of an old friend, psychologist Karel Weissman. His own work soon dovetails with Weissman’s, as he and fellow archaeologist Wolfgang Reich make a world-changing discovery: the remains of a massive city, two miles below the surface of Turkey, and many thousand years older than any other known civilization. This city fits the description of those described in Lovecraft’s work as being built by the “great old ones”–indeed, it becomes known as Kadath, the name of one of Lovecraft’s cities–and the discovery sets the world buzzing. However, at the same time, as Austin (and later Reich) delve into Weissman’s papers, they discover the existence of a threat to humanity, which they dub the “mind parasites” (or the Tsathogguans, to borrow another Lovecraftian word). It quickly becomes clear that the parasites were involved in the building and destruction of Kadath and its civilization–but that’s incidental to the story, as it turns out.
The parasites are called “mind parasites” for a reason; they are bodiless, and they exist inside the human mind, feeding on the life energy of humanity. I say “mind” and not “minds”, because it becomes evident that, although individuality is certainly a thing, all life draws from a common source, accessible at a deep level of the mind. Austin and Reich–along with many others whom they recruit–learn to sink down into these internal mindscapes and battle the parasites on that level. Along the way they develop great mental powers–telepathy, telekinesis, a form of energy transfer–and they discover the existence of alien races in the galaxy. They discover that the moon serves as a kind of amplifier for the powers of the parasites, and ultimately detach it from Earth, sending it spinning into an orbit close to the Sun. In the end, they defeat the parasites, allowing mankind to flourish in a way previously unknown.
It all sounds fantastically silly, and I suppose it is. Wilson has admitted freely that he was influenced not just by Lovecraft, but by all the spiritualist trends of the 1960s, and they are evident here. It’s a sort of “humanity, f*ck yeah!” anthem (to borrow a term from Reddit), as it spends much time and energy on the strength and nobility and potential of humanity…when they’re free of the parasites, of course. In that sense, it’s a fun read–who doesn’t want to cheer for the home team, right? Still, it’s fluffy. What caught my attention about it, though, and caused me to finish the book, is the uncanny resemblance of the mind parasites to the traditional Christian concept of demons. The parasites are unseen, omnipresent by way of numbers, have the power to influence thoughts, create general oppression, lead people to suicide or violence, can possess receptive individuals completely…all of these are traits attributed (rightly so, I think) to demons. The only difference, really, is that the parasites live inside everyone, unseen and unknown, while demons are external. It’s a remarkable comparison, because Austin–and let’s be honest here, he’s a self-insert for Wilson–is a dedicated, atheistic scientist. He’s not given to looking at things in spiritual terms; the eventual reveal of the origin of the parasites is quite scientific. However, even Austin is forced to admit as the story progresses that he can’t rule out some sort of benign, friendly power working on the side of humanity against the parasites, though he tries desperately to minimize it. It makes me wonder what Wilson’s personal worldview was, and if it changed throughout his life.
There were many things I had forgotten from my childhood reading. I remembered the buried city of Kadath, and the expedition to unearth it; I also remembered the matter of sinking down into the mind to fight the parasites. (I suspect I may have conflated those two things a bit–the descent into the earth and the descent into the mind.) I forgot completely about the world war that begins during the story, and the sabotage to Austin’s group at one point, and the telekinetic powers, and the matter of the aliens, and the relocation of the moon. Still, what I do remember, I remembered very well, as it turns out.
Earlier I mentioned that I consider this book to be an influence on my writing. Perhaps it’s not as direct as, say, Stephen King; but what I picked up from The Mind Parasites is the trick of having characters engage in introspection. That can be a double-edged sword, of course; and it’s also perfectly appropriate to have characters who don’t self-reflect, assuming that that is a facet of their characterization. Colin Wilson taught me–at a time that was very likely before my earliest attempts at writing fiction–how to distinguish between those types of characters, and how to have introspection without slowing the story down. The Mind Parasites, for all that it takes place mostly inside its characters’ heads, is not slow; it practically hurries along.
Given that this was a matter of recovering a piece of my past, I don’t think I’ll be moving on to any of Wilson’s other works anytime soon. (For what it’s worth, there are two sequels of sorts: 1969’s The Philosopher’s Stone; and 1976’s The Space Vampires. The latter was later adapted into the 1985 movie Lifeforce, featuring–of all people–Patrick Stewart! Wilson also alleged that there was an unpublished third sequel, called Metamorphosis of the Vampire.) It’s not that they’re necessarily bad; he was quite prolific, with many published works, so he must have done something right. Rather, it’s that I don’t have any history with them, and no connection of the type I felt for The Mind Parasites. But maybe someday. In the meantime, I credit this book for what it means to me…and we’ll leave it at that.
The Mind Parasites may be purchased from Amazon or other booksellers.
How’s your reading? Where do you stand on your own reading challenges for the year? I have been running behind; I’ve finished fifteen of fifty books for the year. There’s still time to catch up! Let me know how it’s going. Thanks for reading!