a different view of Parsons ...
As noted in my previous review, this is going to be taking a look at some of the more mundane aspects of the life of Jack Parsons. Frankly, it was hard to keep elements of George Pendle's Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons
out of my review of Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword
, as this is much more a whole history of Parson's life, and some of the details presented here were certainly germane to the context of Parson's own writing.Strange Angel
is an interesting counter-point to the fascinating Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons
(released in 2000), which was penned by a pseudonymous "John Carter" who is said to be a famed occultist, either in the OTO or very familiar with the assorted mystical groups in which Parsons operated. Where the earlier book is very much a celebration of Parsons' non-rocketry work, this is more of an "journalistic" look at Parsons (not surprising, as Pendle is a newspaper writer), from all angles of his life.
I had two main take-aways from reading this, that Parsons was (from the view of the author) a fairly pitiful character, and that his death had been an actual accident (sorry conspiracy enthusiasts). On the latter point, Parsons had re-connected with Cameron (his third wife, and the "Scarlet Woman" of the Babalon Working) and they were leaving that evening for Mexico, to spend some time in an artists' colony, and possibly have him working with a new company. He had been contacted by a special effects company that morning, begging him to get a special rush order done before he left, and this is what he had been working on all day in the coach house laundry/lab. Having most of his equipment boxed up (he'd recently moved it out of a separate facility), he appears to have been improvising, mixing things up in empty cans. As his life-long friend and associate Ed Forman later put it: "Jack used to sweat a lot and the damn thing just slipped out of his hand and blew him up."
George Pendle appears to have done a great deal of research for this book, tracking down Parson's old associates (or their survivors), both in rocketry and occultism, which has, I suspect, provided him with perspectives on Parsons which were hard to frame previously. However, he certainly does not come across as either a fan or an apologist for Parsons, which makes this a harsher
look at him than in books done by others. While being rather matter-of-fact on Parsons' Crowley and OTO affiliation, he is obviously not a sympathetic observer, and paints much of the activities of the Agape Lodge in terms that hint at condescension. It seems in this narrative that the great tragedy of Parsons' life was not that he was unable to be the inheritor of Crowley's mantle, but that he got brushed aside by the rocket industry he was so instrumental in creating.
Pendle does look deep into Parsons' history, and shows the chaos of his early years, the family's move to Pasadena, and the loss of its wealth in the depression. Partially due to this, Jack did not end up going to college, and was largely self-taught in chemistry ... a fact that would constantly put stress on his standing with various academic, corporate, and military entities. It is telling that the one "university" partner in their early rocketry experiments, Frank Malina, eventually became very wealthy through his retaining his stock in Aerojet ... stocks that both Parsons and Foreman were advised to divest. He also looks in detail at the personal life of Parsons, made complicated by the "free love" aspects of Crowley's teachings that seemed to have been the key element in the Agape Lodge under his control. Both Parsons and his first wife Helen, were very into this, and she eventually ended up with the previous
head of the Lodge, and he with her sister
, only to disengage with here when Cameron appeared.
Unlike in Sex and Rockets
, there is very little about the content
of Parsons' mystical workings, although the externals
of who was doing what to whom, and who wrote to Crowley when, and who was trying to undermine what and under whose orders, are delved into enthusiastically. So, you don't know why
Parsons was "waiting" for Cameron, but you hear what was communicated to Crowley about it. While this is interesting
, it is a good deal less satisfying that knowing the "why" and "how" (or as much of the "how" as anybody is likely to be putting into a mass-market book) of the whole Babalon Working.
By the end of the book, one feels very badly for Parsons, but he is regularly the tool of his own destruction. When he is ultimately duped out of his remaining money by L. Ron Hubbard (who had run off with Parson's second wife, Betty) one starts to wonder just how pliable he was. Also, much of the communications between Crowley and the OTO's Karl Germer is far less "supportive" of Parsons than other books have described, leaving one wondering how much of an "anointed successor" he actually was.
I did rather enjoy reading this (although found it sad in whole), but I would suggest reading it along with Sex and Rockets
and possibly even Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword
. It is hard to imagine the Parsons shown in Strange Angel
writing something as powerful as the latter book (especially given the dyslexia issues that are outlined here), and one certainly does not get the sense of the "mystical hero" that comes through in the former. Perhaps between the three, one might be able to begin to triangulate the "real" Jack Parsons.
Amazon has this at 1/3rd off of cover, which makes it only a couple of bucks (assuming getting free shipping) than going with a used copy. They actually do pair this up with Sex and Rockets
, and you could get all three for under $35 delivered ... if you felt interested enough in Parsons to spend the time and dollars.