Bernard the Storyteller

by Arthur B

Andy Collins might be the author of The Black Alchemist, but someone entirely different devised the story...
Andrew Collins, a key figure in the development of “psychic questing” and a participant in the events of The Green Stone and The Eye of Fire, didn't just restrict himself to helping out his buddies Graham and Martin in their quests; a practised ceremonial magician in his own right and benefiting from a wide network of friends and contacts in the community, he was more than able to conduct his own investigations, usually with a suitable psychic colleague guiding him.

One such colleague was “Bernard” - his true identity not disclosed by Collins out of respect to his wishes. In the mid-1980s, Andy and Bernard discovered something disturbing: their questing efforts kept crossing the path of a mysterious figure, an individual that they never met in person but who Bernard was able to sense psychically. Time and time again, they'd arrive at some sacred site or other to discover that the individual they'd dubbed the Black Alchemist had been there first, often leaving behind strange tokens and other remnants of his sinister rituals.

As time went by, it became dreadfully apparent that the Black Alchemist was aware of them - and indeed part of his plans involved harming sacred sites which both Andy and Bernard had adopted a sort of spiritual guardianship of. Eventually, they found that the Black Alchemist had gained a cult of devotees - including his fearsome second-in-command, the Black Sorceress of Arundel - and that their plans involved nothing less than creating a sort of immaterial Antichrist - a superhuman entity existing only in the spiritual realm and unhampered by gross matter, able to act to spread evil on a global scale. And the side effects of this working included such events as the hurricane which unexpectedly wreaked havoc in Britain in 1987…

...or maybe Bernard was making all of this shit up, but Collins never suspects this for a second.

Though Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman had produced the first psychic questing accounts to reach a wider audience, their colleague Andrew Collins had been producing small press monographs detailing some of his own investigations. The Black Alchemist, however, can be seen as his true debut - though self-published, it's of a level of production values in keeping with a mass market book, and his initial print run (produced at no small expense to himself) sold out rapidly and became the foundation of a more extensive future publishing career for Collins. After Bernard's death in 2010, Collins has reissued the book in a new edition, which incorporates some material which didn't make it into the original book, in part to make the text widely available again (it had ended up falling out of print and attracting absurd prices on eBay) and in part to pay tribute to Bernard.

Like Phillips, Collins took a diversion into more “alternative history”-type books for a while, playing down the role psychic information had on his theories. However, Collins didn't altogether abandon psychic questing; in fact, quite the opposite, he rapidly became its most popular and widely-recognised proponent, eventually beginning an annual Psychic Questing Conference. (This was later renamed the Questing Conference, and then Origins - not to be confused with the American games industry convention of the same name - to reflect the gradual shift of its emphasis from psychic questing to “ancient mysteries”, but it has never 100% dropped its psychic content.)

This continued overt encouragement of the field (compared to Phillips’ increasing distance from it) may be the primary reason that Collins became its primary proponent, but there is another reason I can point to, one which is very apparent from The Black Alchemist: Collins is simply a more exciting writer. He doesn't turn in grand artistic prose - indeed, doing so would be harmful to the presentation of the book as an account of events which we are expected to accept actually happened. But the book is very much a page-turner and offers about as entertaining a story as you could hope for given that it mostly involves folk walking around the English countryside imagining magic and spirits and evil wizards besieging them.

There are, of course, two levels you can enjoy the book on. You can just enjoy it as a story, and on the level of fiction masquerading as fact I rather enjoy it. Alternately and simultaneously, you can examine the credibility of it and read another story entirely - one which Andy may be entirely unaware of.

The book is pretty thin on information which you can substantiate, outside of the various occult sourced from which the Black Alchemist supposedly cobbled together his strange inverted version of alchemy from. A major exception that in the revised version Collins offers the exact address of the Alchemist's former home in Eastbourne - this home having supposedly been seen and sketched by Bernard based on a dream he had, and then identified by readers of the book. Fine, except Land Registry queries are cheap these days, and I have discovered through a little legwork of my own that the house in question has been divided into flats since the early 1980s, before the story begins - a fact not reflected at all in Bernard's vision. (Larger factual errors include an instance where Venus is seen between the horns of the crescent Moon - really, in waking life, not in a vision. That's impossible.)

The Bernard factor is a major factor in the lack of independently confirmable information offered, and it's appropriate that Andy reprinted the book in tribute to Bernard in a way, because this really is the Andy and Bernard show - and Bernard is very much in the lead. It's him who psychically detects the Black Alchemist's activities, him who sets the timetable of the quest (overruling Andy at some points even when there's apparently really good reasons to change the timing on a particular plan), and it's him who eventually declares the quest over when he's fed up of it. Andy is very much along for the ride, documenting what Bernard is saying and the items they find.

This feels like a somewhat different dynamic from The Green Stone or The Eye of Fire, in which Marion and Gaynor Sunderland are definitely quite central but numerous group members have input at points - like I said in my review of that, it feels like they were almost in a sort of unacknowledged LARP or an improv exercise where they are yes-anding each other. That's possible here, but if it is the case then the yes-anding only goes in one direction - Andy takes it as read that everything that Bernard says is true, Bernard regularly contradicts or shoots down stuff Andy suggests. It's similarly possible that Bernard was just straight bullishitting, making the whole thing up and producing the various artifacts the duo find and planting them ahead of time, and Andy was just completely taken in.

If you read with the assumption that Bernard is faking a lot of it, you can even spot instances where it becomes kind of blatant. For instance, there's a bit when he was expecting an item to be found under the altar of a church and absented himself (presumably so he wouldn't be the one who found it), only for the item not to be found at all - presumably because Bernard had concealed it a while before and someone had moved it, forcing Bernard to improvise some stuff about the Black Alchemist removing it. Another instance has him putting his hand up under the tiles of a church roof only to withdraw it again complaining of bad vibes, with Andy subsequently discovering a letter from the Black Alchemist in the same spot - Bernard must have been pretty confident in his ability to slip an object into a hiding place in full view of Andy, but it's hardly an impossible bit of prestidigitation.

After the discovery of a heart with a dagger stabbed through it, Bernard makes Andy throw the heart away - presumably hoping to keep open the possibility that it was a human heart obtained in a diabolical sacrifice and not, say, a pig or calf’s heart bought from a butcher or something. It's only because of the intervention of a different pair of researchers that Andy goes back and retrieves the heart to check up on its origin.

If Bernard is the true inventor of this story and Andy is merely his muse, his cast of characters could do with work. The depiction of “Maria the Jewess”, apparently an actual historical figure, as a grotesque crone is deeply unfortunate, to say the least, and when you get to the Black Sorceress of Arundel being all sexy and femme fatale-y and leaving traces of her lipstick and perfume for them to find and trying to use corrupt love magic to ensnare Bernard I feel like he's letting his fetishes flap about in the open just a little.

The original release of the book (my prized copy of which is falling apart somewhat) doesn't really have a proper ending - because how could there really be a true confrontation when the Black Alchemist doesn't exist and never did? - closing merely with a note that the investigation is ongoing and you can get a supplementary pamphlet including recent developments by writing in. Eventually, later incidents formed the basis for another book, The Second Coming, but we do get some extra meat here, which I reckon is probably the incident related in the supplement because it comes very late in the editing of the original book, and also provides something resembling an ending for the story. This is a hilarious sequence in which the Black Alchemist's grand plan is definitively thwarted by Andy and some pals standing on a hill doing absolutely nothing except yes-anding each other into being totes scared of imaginary wolves.

Another change for this edition is the removal of material suggesting that the Black Alchemist and the Black Sorceress of Arundel were in cahoots with the Friends of Hekate. This is a supposed demonic cult that performs dark rituals in Clapham Wood - at least, that's the story told by Charles Walker, the paranormal researcher who first brought them to public attention. Allegedly, when investigating various mysteries connected to Clapham Wood Walker was approached by an individual who claimed to be their representative, told to back off, and given some information about them as a quid pro quo. (Even if this informant exists, I don't get why Walker believes them.)

After a bit of digging in the writing of this article, I found a potential reason why: Charles Walker veered away from supporting the idea of the connection after the publication of The Black Alchemist. He offered no real evidence to support this beyond “a knowledgeable person told me they didn't think the Friends would work with outsiders” - but who says the Black Alchemist is an outsider? And why trust the Friends’ claims about such policies?

I begin to suspect that Walker wanted to back off from the controversy surrounding the book; apparently fundamentalist Christians protested against it when it came out, probably because of the 100% BADASS METAL cover art. This might have hurt the speaking engagements and other opportunities for a researcher specialising in a rather esoteric spin on the Satanic Panic, thus requiring Walker to back away. Either way, Collins seems happy to buy the idea that the Friends weren't involved after all.

The rerelease ends with a chapter detailing a trip undertaken to a significant site late in the process of preparing the reissue - in which a new psychic friend, Richard, reports a vision of the Black Alchemist at work. It's oddly heartwarming that others have adopted and yes-anded Bernard's schtick so that the story can roll on into the future...

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