“Read a Damn Book – 058: An Occult Dictionary”

an occult dictionary (1966) - (peg)

Howard V. Chambers – An Occult Dictionary (1966)

For this entry, I cracked into an odd little book that I found a few years ago, which purports to cover “every accepted theory and idea connected to the vast and growing field of the occult,” or so it says on the back cover. That’s ambitious for a book that’s only about 150 pages long, and who “accepted” these theories and ideas? Unfortunately, the book doesn’t say. It doesn’t have a “Works Cited” page, nor does Chambers cite any historical documents, scholars, specialists, or sources of any kind in the individual entries (except when he’s hocking other books in the “For the Millions” series, which this book comes from.) An Occult Dictionary is full of definitions, but with no reason to believe that Chambers didn’t just invent the entries out of whole cloth.

And who is this guy, anyway? I looked for hours trying to uncover any information I could find on Howard V. Chambers, such as an author page or academic credentials or any kind of a history, but I found nothing. There are a few books available by Chambers on topics as diverse as UFOs, phrenology, and dowsing—available second hand on Amazon—but I couldn’t find any information on what qualifies/d him to write about “the occult.” Maybe he had a secret history where he learned his occult expertise, but if he’s an expert at this stuff, he hides it pretty well.

On to the text. The first thing I want to point out is that this book is over fifty years old, and although most people like to think of “the occult” as being synonymous with “ancient wisdom,” many of the concepts covered in supernatural and occult literature can change significantly in just a few years. For instance, Chambers defines “ORBS” in this way: “In astrology, the space found between planets which aspect one another” (p. 104). Digital photography wouldn’t be available for decades, and the belief that dust particles reflecting light from the camera flash are ghosts wasn’t popular yet. Another possible surprise for some would be the absence of an entry for “Wicca.” Although Wicca was already starting to bloom (primarily in England) in the 1950s, it wasn’t even on his radar in ’66. Instead, Chambers tends to focus on astrology, spiritualism, a bit of psychic powers, some mythology, and magic-light.

Unfortunately, the quality of the text is not always great. There are some simple mistakes, like when Chambers misnames the world-famous Society for Psychical Research as the Society for Physical Research (p. 23), which is probably just sloppy. (Or, maybe he has a grudge against them.) The written entries are sometimes unclear (many items say that this or that topic “sees,” but Chambers doesn’t provide an explanation for what “see” means), some entries are not in alphabetical order, and there are several flat-out mistakes. For example, the entry on “NIAD” says “Nymphs of rivers, brooks, and springs. See also NYMPHS” (p. 96), but there’s no entry for “NYMPHS.” This type of thing happens few times in the book.

Chambers also seems to bounce between credulity and skepticism. In the entry on “SPIRIT PHOTOGRAPHY” he writes, “Because of the great possibility of fraud, such photographic work would have to be made under the most rigidly supervised of conditions to have any validity among psychical researchers” (p. 130). This seems to be a reasonable, rational position, but on the very next page, Chambers writes this in the entry under “SUNDAY”: “People born on Sundays are likely to be possessed of psi abilities” (p. 131). And that is definitely NOT reasonable or rational. He even goes straight up believer from time to time, as in his entry on “ASTROLOGY”: “Although the majority of modern scientists consider it a pseudo-science and a sham, it is winning a great number of adherents because of the accuracy of its predictions” (p. 19). The predictions made by astrology are accurate? I’m afraid I have to disagree, but Chambers also wrote an entire book on astrology, so he was probably a fan.

For the most part, Chambers seems like a hack regurgitating the common magical and supernatural concepts of the day. Tabloid mysticism. However, every once in a while, he writes something that is truly nasty or just plain strange. The entry on “SWASTIKA” briefly mentions the mystical significance of the symbol, but Chambers doesn’t even MENTION the connection to Nazis or racism, which is inexcusable (p. 131-132). In the entry on “HUNS” Chambers repeats this nasty, racist belief: “Believed by the Germans to be the result of intercourse between women and evil spirits, and to have many witches among their number” (p. 76).

And then there are the weird entries, like this one for “FAUST, JOHANN”: “A sixteenth century German magician and astrologer who is believed by the ignorant to have sold his soul to the Devil for the gift of occult knowledge, power, and youth” (p. 60). Believed by the “ignorant?” The two most famous versions of the Faust story that I know of are by Goethe and Christopher Marlow. I wouldn’t call either of those two ignorant by any stretch. And, what is it that the NON-ignorant are supposed to believe? Another odd entry is this note on the “ILLUMINATI”: “Those occult persons who are able to manifest enough power to cause luminescent glowings in their auras” (p. 77). That’s the entire entry. It’s possible, of course, that Chambers had never heard of Adam Weishaupt or the Discordians (who started their fun in 1963) or any of the other secret societies floating around in the 1960s, but really? Glowing auras? That’s all that the Illuminati are? Smacks just a bit of silliness—or is it obfuscation? Maybe Chambers is a misinformation artist! Maybe—but I don’t really think so.

Overall, the book seems like a hack job to me. It’s a bit dry, took quite a long time to read, and wasn’t altogether that enlightening. (No pun intended.) One could also ask why a skeptic who doesn’t believe in magic, psychic powers, demons, or astrology would bother to read an entire dictionary full of stuff he doesn’t believe in? Because I like symbology and semiotics. I know that people, whether through folk tales, magical thinking, religion, or fiction, imbue their symbols with MEANING. By studying the symbols, we can understand the thinking of the people. Granted, this book is half a century old, and I know I pointed out how these things tend to change over time, but it can also be illuminating (pun intended) to track those changes and try to understand which concepts shift and speculate as to why. HOWEVER, this book is pretty rare, probably wouldn’t be that interesting for most readers, and hasn’t got much to offer. I’m glad that I made it through the book, and I’m interested in the wording on a few of the weirder entries, but I doubt that I’m going to be reaching for this book if I ever need some quick info on a rare bit of esoterica. It really just isn’t that good.

—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)




About richardfyates

Compulsive creator of the bizarre and absurd. (Artist, writer, poet, provocateur...)
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