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Arkon Daraul
Secret Societies
Tandem, London
1965 (© 1961)
(5/-; 224 pages)

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Eklal Kueshana
The Ultimate Frontier
Stelle, Chicago
1974 (© 1963)
($1.90; 224 pages)

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Neal Wilgus
The Illuminoids
NEL, London
1980 (© 1978)
(95p; 192 pages)

There are millions of conspiracy theorists, thousands of theories, but underlying them all is the paranoid belief that the country - or, better yet, the world - is being run by a secret, self-perpetuating organization that never emerges from the shadows. Curiously, despite superficial appearances, it is for the most part a right-wing fantasy: think of those two classic forged documents of the 20th century, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion and the Zinoviev Letter alleging Jewish and communist conspiracies respectively. And while The X-Files makes it look like it's the kindly and slightly crumpled David Duchovny who worries about aliens, actually it's much more likely to be your good old boys in the militias.

The reason for this is that if you're even vaguely on the left, you don't need a conspiracy theory to tell you that the world is in the grip of unaccountable elites: it's bloody obvious. The transnational companies, the World Bank and the currency speculators are clearly running the show, and their chosen method of control is capital, not occult ritualism. And to say that America was responsible for destroying the governments of - to take some random examples - Patrice Lumumba, Salvador Allende and Maurice Bishop is not so much a conspiracy theory as a simple statement of fact. It only becomes a conspiracy theory if you start joining them all up and claiming that there's a single organization at work, as opposed to a single philosophy.

Having said that, the first of these books isn't really a conspiracy - more a celebration of secrecy. Arkon Daraul's work is a quick gallop through the various esoteric and occult traditions, featuring chapters on such obvious subjects as the Gnostics, Knights Templar and Thugs as well as the more marginal Holy Vehm and Skoptsi. What is particularly pleasing is the refusal to accept that any of these exert any awesome power in the world. The simple and disappointing truth is that there's something about being a member of a secret society that appeals to people (especially boys) - it doesn't mean that anything is actually gained by the secrecy other than the feeling of exclusivity. This work could have been a useful corrective to what is to come, but unfortunately the total lack of references makes what was a potentially nice little book almost entirely pointless as a serious source of information.

The Ultimate Frontier takes up a standard occult belief - that there is a group of learned elders who have evolved to a higher plane than that of common humanity - and insists that these wise old men have been guiding our existence for millennia. Told in the form of a conversation between a boy and an enigmatic figure known as Dr White (not that one), its principal obsession is with science and the disjunction between scientific endeavour and spiritual concerns. And - despite the fact that Dr White is supposedly an esoteric teacher of some prestige - his message is essentially that of Christianity. Which is a dull turn of events, frankly.

Neal Wilgus' book, on the other, is refreshingly bonkers. Claiming to tell the story of an ultra-secret Masonic sect called the Illuminati (who might as well be the Rosicrucians and be done with it), it traces their influence through history, and its tone is best described by quoting the back of the book:

Were the great modern conflicts - from Flanders trenches to Mao's revolution - prompted by Illuminoid conspiracy?
Leon Trotsky, Robert Kennedy, President Garfield ... were they victims of assassins primed by the Illuminati?
Are Robespierre and Lee Harvey Oswald linked by a developing brain-control technology that will produce a real-life 1984?

If your instinctive answer to these questions is 'No, of course not, don't be so bloody daft' then you're no good whatsoever as a conspiracy theorist. Congratulations.

see a later Tandem edition
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my thanks to Malcolm Prest for the scan

non fiction