17 April 2019


Mike Jay. Stranger Than Fiction; Essays by Mike Jay. Daily Grail Publishing, 2018.

Mike Jay will be familiar to Magonia readers as the author of books and magazine articles on the ‘twilight zones’ of the human mind, with titles which have covered the history of drugs and other mind-altering processes. The whole range of his interests is explored in this volume, which is a collection of essays from a variety of sources, with an emphasis on the role that drugs have played in the history of art and literature, but including many other remarkable topics.
He examines how ‘magic mushrooms’ may – or may not – have been responsible for the creation of Alice’s Wonderland and other forms of Victorian fairy art, even perhaps the way in which the liberty-cap mushroom was ultimately responsible for the development of garden gnomes. He points out that Alice is full of “mushrooms and hallucinatory potions, mind-bending and shapeshifting motifs” but there is no evidence that Charles Dodgson (‘Lewis Carroll’) had ever taken drugs other than a moderate consumption of alcohol. However, a clever piece of sleuthing at the Bodleian Library reveals that he had probably read a chapter in a book on the use of fly-agaric mushrooms in Russia.

If Dodgson’s acquaintance with hallucinogenic substances was at second hand, many other nineteenth century literary figures were more deeply involved. Thomas de Quincy, in his Confessions of an English Opium Eater helped formulate the image of opium as a romantic and transgressive drug. The romantic, elitist image of the artistic opium taker was further promoted by the Club des Hachischins, which met for a few years in the 1840s. It was a sort of literary salon, which originally met at the Hotel Pimodan on the Isle St Louis in Paris. Members were invited with the promise that “you will have your share of a light dinner, and await the hallucination”.

Reports of the Club’s meeting became a sensation, and in retrospect it seems that it may have been created more as a satirical response to contemporary conspiracy theories of an ‘Order of Assassins’, allegedly responsible for revolutionary movements throughout history. Although the Club was rumoured to have elaborate rituals and ceremonies, with a hierarchy of officers, it is more likely that it was an informal group that gathered for just a few meetings over a period of three or four years. It claimed to have members amongst the intellectual elite of Paris, including figures such as Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, Balzac and Delacroix, but it is unlikely that they ever attended more that one or two of the club's meetings, if any at all. Although many were probably glad to have their names associated with the salon, purely for notoriety.

Not all nineteenth-century drug experimentation took place amongst literary and artistic circles, however. We have the story of James Lee, who grew up far from the salons of Paris, and first worked as a draughtsman in the steelworks of Sheffield and Teesside. Tiring of that life, he applied for engineering jobs in the far east, ending up in Assam, where he first discovered, and used, a variety of drugs. He records his experiences in his memoir, published in 1935, splendidly entitled The Underworld of the East, Being Eighteen Years Actual Experiences of the Underworlds, Drug Haunts and Jungles of India, China and the Malay Archipelago, which really tells you all you need to know about the content of the book.

The significant difference between Lee’s account of his drug experiences and that of earlier writers is, in Jay’s words, “Lee’s mission, by contrast, is to separate the pleasures from the pains, to pass on to his readers the techniques that will allow them to do the same, and to put drugs aside painlessly when the time comes”. Lee’s account is straightforward and pragmatic, leaving aside the mystical overtones of the nineteenth century literary world, and avoiding the prejudice and racism of other writers of his era.

Detail from a satirical print from 1830,
depicting Humphrey Davy administering
a dose of Laughing Gas to a woman 

Jay outlines the social history of one substance which, until very recently, had completely lost its reputation as a recreational drug: nitrous oxide, ‘laughing gas’. This starts with Humphrey Davy – the inventor of the miner's safety lamp and later President of the Royal Society – in a large sealed cabinet, and breathing in 20 quarts (22 litres) of nitrous oxide every five minutes. This was part of the activities of the Pneumatic Institute at the Hotwells Spa in Bristol, where its founder Thomas Beddoes experimented with a variety of gases in an attempt to find a treatment for consumption.

However, the side-effects of the gas proved to be more of a public attraction than its intended medical properties, and despite Davy’s and Beddoes’ best efforts, ‘laughing gas’ soon became an attraction at variety theatres and fairground sideshows such as 'The Court of Death', where for 25 cents participants were subjected to a slide-show depicting the evils of drink and the horrors of Hell while breathing the gas. I suppose if you like that sort of thing, that’s the sort of thing you’d like.

It was at one of these shows in Connecticut that a dentist noticed that one of the participants, despite hurting himself badly crashing against a wooden bench, apparently felt no pain. This gave him the inspiration to use the gas when treating his own patients. Very quickly this ‘painless dentistry’ spread across America and the world, and nitrous oxide moved from the variety theatre to the operating theatre. The circle now appears to have turned 180 degrees, and nitrous oxide, in the form of bulbs of the compressed gas, have created a new drug scare.

There is just too much fascinating material in this book to describe in any great detail. The use of hallucinogenic substances in various cultures, historical and contemporary; how the ‘John Frum’ cargo-cult has taken on a political dimension; how a patent application for a Time Machine influenced the development of the cinema and the idea of future human races; the rise and fall of surgical and chemical treatments for mental illnesses and the reality or otherwise of ‘brainwashing’; and importantly for students of the sorts of contemporary visions that we discuss in Magonia, an examination of ‘hallucinations of the sane’ and the remarkable ‘Charles Bonnet Syndrome’.

Other chapters present the life of Nicolas Roerich and his collaboration with Igor Stravinsky; Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s investigation of ghosts; the rise and fall of cocaine as a virtual cure-all; the origins of Illuminati conspiracy theories; and closer to home the history of the riotous and raucous Lewes bonfire celebrations. Mike Jay covers an amazing range of human experience with insight and great readability, and demonstrates just how extraordinary the human mind is.

The book displays the usual high standards of Daily Grail production, well designed, with an extensive and eclectic selection of illustrations. My only complaint is the curiously waxy surface texture of the card covers, but that’s just me. This is a book that every Magonian should have on their bookshelves. 
  • John Rimmer.

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