Brighter Than You Think
“The mainspring of an individual is his creative Will. This Will is the sum of his tendencies, his destiny, his inner truth.”
- John Whiteside Parsons, “Doing Your Will” (July 31, 1945)
Brighter Than You Think is Alan Moore’s comic biography about the short but remarkable life of the writer, poet, occult leader and rocket scientist, John Whiteside Parsons (1914-1952). The controversial six-page story, illustrated by Moore’s wife and Lost Girls collaborator, Melinda Gebbie (with psychedelic digital colors by Chris Chuckry) was ultimately published in the 2003 anthology, Top Shelf Asks the Big Questions; however, it had originally been slated to appear in Tomorrow Stories #8, part of the America’s Best Comics line which Moore established in 1999 as an imprint of Jim Lee’s Wildstorm Comics[i].
Moore’s micro-biography is a fairly straight forward and chronological account of Parsons’ fascinating life, but despite being loaded with facts and figures, the author glossed over many of the details regarding this compelling historical figure. The striking duality of Jack Parsons’ public and private personas is the central theme of the story, which Moore immediately establishes in the opening panel, introducing Parsons as “a man caught between two worlds… Between science and magic. Between sex and death. Between the earth and the moon.”
Emphasizing this duality visually, Gebbie’s layered opening composition depicts Parsons in a similar fashion to the old Batman rogue, Two-Face, with his vastly different identities literally dividing him in half. On the left, he is shown in fairly typical business clothing, clutching what appears to be an engine part. In the background, a space launch represents Parsons’ chosen profession as a rocket scientist. However, on the right, Parsons’ private life as an occultist shatters this traditional image of normalcy. On this half of the scene, Parsons is flanked by the “Seal of God” (Sigillum Dei Aemeth) in the upper right corner, a magickal diagram believed to have been created in the 14th century. The amulet, which consists of “two circles, a pentagram, and three heptagons, and is labeled with the names of God and his angels,” is believed to allow “the initiated magician to have power over all creatures except Archangels.” (Wikipedia, “Sigillum Dei”) Just below is the “Holy Table,” another geometric system used by the famous 15th century mathematician John Dee (and his partner, Edward Kelley) as “communication hardware” during their legendary rituals attempting to speak with angels.
Diving into the biography, Moore quickly touches on Parsons’ childhood in Pasadena, California, pausing only briefly to mention that he grew up without a father and was rumored to have exhibited occult interests as young as thirteen years old. Moore then jumps the timeline forward to 1936, where Parsons, now a 22-year-old man fresh out of school, had just begun working as a scientist. Although Moore and Gebbie only devote a couple panels to Parsons’ early professional career, it is worth emphasizing that to this day he is considered a pioneer in the field of rocket propulsion.
Parsons worked at the California Institute of Technology throughout the 1930s and, in 1936, became one of the principal founders of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a federally funded research and development center, whose “primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft.” (Wikipedia, “Jet Propulsion Laboratory”) In what some scholars consider an early sign of his interest in alchemy, Parsons’ most important contribution was in the development of “solid fuel,” which, according to Professor Theodore von Kármán, Parsons’ supervisor at the time (and who, as Moore notes, was also a descendant of Rabbi Loew, legendary creator of Prague’s Golem), was instrumental in ushering in the age of space travel in the United States. According to von Kármán, Parsons’ work in solid fuel research “made possible such outstanding rockets as the Polaris and the Minuteman,” both of which were instrumental in propelling America into the space age, culminating with the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969.
However, Moore, a practicing magician himself, was understandably more intrigued by Parsons’ fascinating private life, including his notoriety as an occultist and author. As Moore describes, Parsons’ gateway to the occult was through the book Konx Om Pax (“Essays in Light”) by the famous British author and occult leader, Aleister Crowley[ii].
A full biography of “the Great Beast” is beyond this essay’s scope, but Crowley’s influence on the world of modern occultism and magick cannot be overstated. His seminal work, The Book of the Law, written in Egypt in 1904, became a cult classic and remains one of the foundational texts for the modern magickal movement. It established an entire belief system known as Thelema, including many ritualistic practices which Parsons practiced during his short life.
Although Parsons’ deep interest in the occult seems incongruent with his chosen profession, as Colin Bennett noted, “Like all dedicated occultists, he looked for bigger things than objective science.” In fact, according to Moore, Parsons’ reading of Crowley’s book affected him so profoundly that he and his first wife, Helen, became active members of Crowley’s US-based magical society, the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.), which was operating in Pasadena under the name, the Agapè Lounge.
In the early ‘40s, Parsons became increasingly immersed in the shadowy world of the occult, even as his professional career thrived. However, he also had another obsession which would influence his outlook on the world; he was a voracious consumer of science-fiction and pulp magazines. Moore noted that not only was Parsons an avid reader, he also frequently attended Forrest J. Ackerman’s “sci-fi and fantasy society meetings” in L.A. and even interacted with many of the most famous writers of the period, including A.E. Van Vogt, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein.
In 1942, Crowley personally chose Parsons to lead the Agapè Lodge. That same year, Parsons and his wife moved into an 11-room pre-war mansion in South Orange Grove which Jack inherited from his estranged father. They playfully nicknamed it “the Parsonage” (mimicking Ackerman who had similarly dubbed his home “the Ackermansion”). Immediately, according to Bennett, rumors of black magic, orgies and other strange goings-on abounded. One particular evening in 1942, police were called to investigate reports of a pregnant woman jumping naked through a fire in the back yard. However, Parsons convinced the officers of his status as a respectable scientist and the affair was dismissed without incident.
To help cover the costs of the mansion, Parsons decided to rent out rooms; however, according to Moore, “Jack advertised for tenants, stipulating atheists and non-conformists only,” so it was not surprising that the home quickly “became a boarding house for a variety of artists and eccentrics, including journalist Niesson Himmel (of the L.A. Times crime section), physicist Robert Cornog (who helped develop the atomic bomb), and author and future Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard.” (Wikipedia, “John Whiteside Parsons”)
L. Ron Hubbard’s brief, tumultuous relationship with Jack Parsons has been the subject of many articles and essays, and indeed serves as the central focus of Moore’s biography as well. When they first met, in the early ‘40s, Hubbard, who had just turned 30, had only recently established himself as a writer. Dianetics, his defining book which would become the bedrock religious text of the Church of Scientology, was still nearly a decade away from being published (in 1950). Rather, as the ‘40s began, Hubbard was a moderately well-known and prolific writer for science-fiction pulp magazines (the kind that Parsons devoured), with his first published story appearing in Thrilling Adventure magazine in 1934. However, despite his prolificacy (Hubbard wrote over 140 stories under several pen names during this period), writing adventure stories left him deeply unsatisfied.
Eventually, with the war looming, Hubbard enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1941. Though his official war records differ substantially from his personal accounts regarding his military service, sometime in early 1945 he was injured and sent to a hospital in Oakland to recuperate. When he was discharged, he invited his wife (Margaret “Polly” Grubb) and their two children to join him in California, but having settled into a comfortable life in Washington state without him, she was unwilling to uproot the family. Thus, Hubbard found himself alone and directionless following the end of the war, and it was during this turbulent period that he came to live in Parsons’ mansion (in August 1945).
Almost immediately, as Moore described, Hubbard, newly liberated from his marital obligations (though an official divorce was not finalized until June 1947), began a relationship with Parsons’ 21-year-old girlfriend, Sara “Betty” Northrup[iii]. Yet owing to his “Crowleyan free love ideals,” Parsons didn’t seem to mind that Hubbard had stolen his girl. Rather, he was excited to have a well-known science-fiction writer living under his roof and, like Betty, became enamored with Hubbard, writing to Crowley that the two had “become great friends.” Parsons also saw in Hubbard a kindred spirit and believed that, despite his lack of practical exposure to magick, he had “an extraordinary amount of experience and understanding in the field.”
Thus, in January 1946, Parsons and Hubbard (like John Dee and Edward Kelly centuries earlier) began their infamous “Babalon Working” rituals, which, as Moore noted, were intended to “conjure a partner using the Enochian (Angelic) magic of John Dee.” Although the exact details of the “Babalon Working” rituals are also beyond the scope of this essay, they were essentially a series of intensive “sex magic rituals intended to summon an [Elemental] incarnation of Babalon[iv], the supreme Thelemite Goddess” in human form. (Wikipedia, “Babalon”)
For Parsons, Babalon’s traditional description as a red-headed goddess carrying a sword was also particularly resonant given his deep love for one particular science-fiction story, “Darker Than You Think” by Jack Williamson. While the story was generally praised by critics for its craft and suspense, Parsons found it inspirational for entirely different reasons. “The story’s description of a scarlet-haired woman riding a great beast recalled (Aleister) Crowley’s own personal mythology, and the tale […] seems to have captured Parsons’ imagination because it resonated with his own awakening fervor for the O.T.O.” (Wikipedia, “Darker Than You Think”) Once again reflecting the duality of Parsons’ life, Moore’s carefully chosen title, “Brighter Than You Think,” serves as both a contrast to Williamson’s story, as well as a veiled reference to Parsons himself, who was much smarter than many people realized.
Parsons and Hubbard performed the “Babalon Working” rituals on multiple occasions over a three-month period in early 1946. The preliminary sessions, which began on January 4, were largely inspired by Crowley’s writings. Indeed, Crowley was in correspondence with Parsons throughout the course of the rituals, though Moore notes that he was addicted to heroin at the time. Nevertheless, Crowley repeatedly voiced cynicism about the goals of the rituals.
Yet despite Crowley’s objections (many of which were directed specifically at Hubbard, who he was deeply suspicious of), Parsons became convinced of the rituals’ success when, two weeks after the completion of the first phase, on February 23, 1946, a “flame-haired” woman named Marjorie Cameron “arrived from nowhere” at his home looking for residence. Parsons regarded her as “the Scarlet Woman” he had summoned (writing excitedly to Crowley, “I have my Elemental!”) and immediately recruited her to participate in the next stage of the rituals “in which Cameron acted as Parsons’ magickal sexual partner with whom he would sire the Moonchild,” (a term which was taken from Crowley’s 1929 novel of the same name). Although they never actually conceived a child, Parsons remained convinced that the arrival of Cameron was evidence of the ritual’s success.
Likely due to space restrictions, Moore glossed over the demise of Hubbard and Parsons’ friendship, noting only that Hubbard “absconded with Betty and ten thousand dollars.” What actually happened was that in January 1946, just as they were beginning their infamous rituals, Parsons, Hubbard and Northrup also formed a business partnership called Allied Enterprises. The plan was to use the funds to purchase yachts for cheap in Miami, then sail them back to California and sell them at a premium. According to records, Parsons invested $21,000 of his own funds, nearly his entire life savings, while Hubbard contributed only $1,200. However, “Hubbard had a different idea [about how to spend their money]; he wrote to the U.S. Navy requesting permission to leave the country ‘to visit Central and South America and China’ for the purposes of ‘collecting writing material’ – in other words, undertaking a world cruise.” (Wikipedia, “L. Ron Hubbard”)
In June, realizing he had been swindled, “Parsons attempted to recover his money by obtaining an injunction to prevent Hubbard and Betty from leaving the country [however] they attempted to sail away anyway.” When he learned of this, Parsons was infuriated and retreated to his Miami hotel room where, enraged, he attempted to summon “Bartzabel, the wrathful planetary spirit of Mars,” in order to conjure a typhoon and force Hubbard to return to shore. By all accounts this desperate ritual was successful and “a terrifying, sudden squall” developed which ripped the sails from Hubbard’s yacht and forced them to return to port “where [they] were detained by the U.S. Coast Guard.” A week later, a Florida court dissolved Allied Enterprises, but “Parsons received only a $2,900 promissory note from Hubbard and returned home ‘shattered.’” (Wikipedia, “L. Ron Hubbard”) Inexplicably, Hubbard was even awarded ownership of the boat. The entire incident greatly unsettled Parsons, who had to sell his mansion to developers in order to recoup his losses. The whole affair soured Parsons so severely, he ultimately resigned his leadership of the Agapè Lodge in October 1946, and supported his new wife (Cameron) by “’bootlegging nitroglycerine’ and working in aviation.”
Despite the lasting distaste following the affair with Hubbard, Parsons remained interested in magick and in 1948 he authored The Book of the Anti-Christ. Although nowhere near as prolific as Hubbard, Crowley, or any of the authors he admired during his life, Parsons penned several other short occult-based essays, most of which were posthumously collected in Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword, which Bennett described as “a visionary mystical writing formed out of conflicts with what he saw as an increasingly oppressive society.”
On June 17, 1952, tragedy struck when, at the age of 37, Parsons died from wounds suffered during an explosion at his home. Although scholars generally agree that his death was likely the result of an experiment with fulminate of mercury that went awry (even Moore writes that “Jack apparently dropped an explosive mixture”), due to his reputation as an occult leader, “unsubstantiated rumors of suicide, murder, or a magical ritual gone wrong” have persisted over the years. (Wikipedia, “John Whiteside Parsons”) Despite having an arm blown off and becoming “living flame,” eerily fulfilling Hubbard’s premonition uttered during their rituals six years earlier, Parsons apparently survived the initial blast and lived for nearly an hour before succumbing. His mother, Ruth, inconsolable upon learning of her only child’s death, killed herself just hours later with an overdose of Nembutal[v].
In the years following his untimely death, Parsons has earned a degree of notoriety in popular culture. His brief relationship with L. Ron Hubbard was analyzed in the book, A Piece of Blue Sky by John Atack. In addition, he was one of the characters in Craig Baldwin’s collage film Mock Up on Mu. […] Parsons was also referenced in Philip K. Dick’s novel, Dr. Futurity, in which the protagonist is named Jim Parsons. […] A play about Parsons, Babalon, was performed in London in December 2005 [and] he also appears as a major character on a 2012 episode of the Science Channel series, Dark Matters: Twisted But True.” (Wikipedia, “John Whiteside Parsons”) Parsons also briefly appeared in Moore’s own series, Promethea (in issue #21).
Ultimately, Moore’s condensed biography of Parsons’ dual life illuminates one of the lesser-known personalities in the occult world. That it manages to convey so much information about its subject in just six pages without ever feeling cluttered or dense is a testament to the author’s storytelling instincts and years of refining his craft. Although “Brighter Than You Think” is perhaps a minor entry among Moore’s expansive body of work, the short story demonstrates just how meticulous and intelligent even his most seemingly inconsequential stories are.
Bennett, Colin. “John Whiteside Parsons.” (http://www.forteantimes.com/features/profiles/507/john_whiteside_parsons.html). Fortean Times, March 2000.
Gray, Maggie. “Rummaging Around in Alan Moore’s Shorts.” (http://comicsforum.org/2012/09/03/rummaging-around-in-alan-moores-shorts-by-maggie-gray/). Comics Forum, September 3, 2012.
Parkin, Lance. Alan Moore. Pocket Essentials, March 2009.
Rose, Steve. “Moore’s Murderer.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2002/feb/02/sciencefictionfantasyandhorror.books) The Guardian. February 1, 2002.
Rydeen, Paul. “Babalon Bunch – Jack Parsons, The Magickal Scientist and His Circle.” (http://www.redicecreations.com/specialreports/2006/01jan/babalonbunch.html). Red Ice Creations, January 4, 2006.
[i] “When Lee signed an exclusive contract with DC Comics, the entire ABC line [ended] up being distributed by DC. “This arrangement caused problems all around when Moore wrote a Cobweb story for Tomorrow Stories #8 which touched on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and his connection to occultist John Whiteside Parsons. Fearing legal action, DC ordered the story scrapped. Moore, in response, withdrew his approval for a commemorative fifteenth anniversary hardcover of his landmark Watchmen graphic novel.” (Wikipedia, “Cobweb (comics)”) The thinly modified version of the story which Top Shelf published is still narrated by the Cobweb; however, to avoid potential legal issues, the sultry heroine was renamed “La Toile” (French for “the canvas”) and given a slightly altered costume.
[ii] Although Parsons didn’t discover it until 1939, Konx Om Pax was originally published by Crowley in 1907. One of his earlier, more light-hearted books, the collection contains four short stories and, according to its Amazon.com description (an admittedly dubious source of scholarship), “Crowley poured his occult knowledge, particularly that which he learned in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, into the four essays contained therein. It is an essential work for all students of [magick].”
[iii] Betty was the younger sister of Parsons’ first wife, Helen, whom he had divorced in 1943.
[iv] “Babalon (also known as ‘The Scarlet Woman’) is a goddess found in the mystical system of Thelema […] In her most abstract form, she represents the female sexual impulse and the liberated woman.” (Wikipedia, “Babalon”) Crowley prophesied in his writings that Babalon would usher in “the Aeon of Horus,” a matriarchic era of peace, bringing an end to the reign of Christianity and other modern male-dominated social institutions. Thus, through the “Babalon Working” rituals, Parsons and Hubbard were essentially preparing for a Thelemic messiah. Moore portrayed the mythical figure of “Babalon” from a more scholarly perspective, noting that “the Great Mother” has appeared throughout history in many forms (echoing the similar historical recurrence of the title character in his own series, Promethea). According to Moore, “You can find [Babalon’s] name, carefully encoded, in Dr. Dee’s protective symbol, the Sigillum Aemeth [from the opening panel]. You can (also) find her in the works of Aleister Crowley and in the Book of Revelations.”
[v] In perhaps the most bizarre revelation of all (which was omitted entirely from Moore’s biography), according to Sex and Rockets author, John Carter, police investigating the explosion discovered a box on Parsons’ property “which contained a film showing Parsons and his mother Ruth having sex,” though this remains unconfirmed.