Ed Note: Boingboing's current guest blogger Gareth Branwyn writes on technology, pop and fringe culture. He is currently a Contributing Editor at Maker Media. Recent projects have included co-creating The Maker's Notebook and editing The Best of MAKE and The Best of Instructables collections.
Manly Palmer Hall has been called the America Madame Blavatsky, which probably isn't far from the truth. Like the controversial Russian-born founder of Theosophy, Hall seemed dedicated to quantity over quality in his writing (authoring more than 50 books on esoterica and self-help), and like Helena, the troubling smell of snake oil swirled in his rotund wake. Manly P Hall is one of the people principally responsible for the birth of the New Age religious movement in the United States, first in LA, starting in the '20s, and then beyond, through his writings and endless lecturing. While some of his lesser works, like Questions Answered on the Problems of Life by Manly P Hall, Philosopher, may have proven less than influential, his occult encyclopedia The Secret Teachings of All Ages was a bedrock influence on New Age thought then, and to some extent, remains so today (Secret Teachings still sells well, as is now in its 16th edition).
LA Times staff writer Louis Sahagun's biography, Master of the Mysteries: The Life of Manly Palmer Hall (Process Media) is an engrossing look inside, not only the life of this self-taught philosopher and spiritual teacher, but the growth of the often bizarre alternative religious movements that were busting out all over Southern California in the first half of the 20th century. This is Hollywood Babylon in Egyptian ankhs and yoga pants. Actors, artists, musicians, politicians, and scientists of the time flocked to hear Hall lecture on the mysteries of East, self-help psychology, and secret societies. Allegedly blessed with photographic memory, Hall was capable of absorbing huge amounts of information and then reformatting it into his own books, frequently under suspicions of plagiarism and playing fast and loose with facts and legitimate sources (another dubious distinction he shared with Blavatsky).
Through Sahagun's engaging text and lots of photos and bits of ephemera (lecture ticket stubs, news clippings, plans for Mayan temples in downtown Hollywood, hand-written death threats), we're taken on an amazing LSDisney trip through the most surreal spiritual theme park imaginable. We get lots of juicy gossip along the way about the Hollywood of the times, a creative-community as hungry as it will ever be for deeper levels of meaning, rejuvenation, and fulfillment. As if to cap off this bizarre tale with a scene cut straight from gas-lit celluloid, Hall died under gruesome and mystery circumstances. Foul play was suspected when he was found dead on top of an unslept-in bed with traces of dirt around his face and thousands of black ants streaming from his nose, mouth, and ears. The LA Coroner's Office subsequently botched the autopsy, the investigation was poorly handled, and the case was never solved.
Even when I was a teen seeker and into a lot of fluffy New Age beliefs and practices, I got a bad odor from a lot of Manly P. Hall's work and tended to steer clear of it. (Color me an unimaginative skeptic, but I found the whole Mayan temple in downtown Hollywood to be a tad on the flamboyant side.) So, I went into this book without a lot of respect for its subject. I can't say that opinion was significantly changed, but I do think I understand "Dr" Hall a lot better now. This was obviously an extraordinarily smart man who fervently believed in what he was talking about. You gotta give the guy props for passion. He remains the most prolific writer of mysticism and the occult and he continued lecturing until his likely-murder at 89.
What I found most interesting in this story was the parallels between Hall and another Southern California occult resident of the time, Jack Parsons (covered in another recommended Feral House book Sex and Rockets — Process is an imprint of Feral House). Parsons was also self-educated, began his occult career at an early age, had matinee-idol good looks and an impressive ability to learn things quickly, hobnobbed with bohemian Hollywood, saw himself as birthing a new religion, and died under mysterious circumstances (though Parsons' death was likely an accident). They also each had their own court "confidence men," Hall, the mysterious colonic-loving "Dr. Fritz" (suspected in Hall's death), and Parsons, the reality-barnstorming L. Ron Hubbard.
Ultimately, the most fascinating character in Master of the Mysteries is the City of Angels herself. Through the tale of one of her more extraordinary residents, we can almost feel a new city emerging, one with an identity like no other. And with her naive sense of wonder and an openness to new ideas, new beliefs, and novel experiences comes a lot of seriously weird shit.
L.A.'s occult roots: Master of the Mysteries