Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1558
Wilson, Colin 1931–
Wilson is a British novelist, essayist, and playwright. Essentially a phenomenologist, he has pursued the "sources of human energy" into the dark corners of witchcraft and the occult in his many books of fiction and nonfiction. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
By English standards [Colin] Wilson belongs to the recognized and respected European tradition of the unaffiliated lower-middle-class man of letters and ideas, the tradition of Wells, Shaw, and Orwell. His defects can for the moment be excused on the ground of his youth and the high hopes held out for his promise. By less charitable American standards Mr. Wilson is quite simply brash, conceited, pretentious, presumptuous, prolix, boring, unsound, unoriginal, and totally without intellectual subtlety, wit, and literary style. But then if Mr. Wilson were living by American standards, he would undoubtedly be grubbing for a Ph.D. instead of writing books….
Unfortunately, Mr. Wilson's ultimate problem is lack of vision. He pursues his argument through portentous discussions of Jacob Boehme, Nicholas Ferrar, Pascal, Swedenborg, Kierkegaard, Whitehead, and others, but he never brings it to earth or, for that matter, to Heaven. All his cases in point turn out to be just that: good existentialists and good Outsiders, the archetype of whom, according to Mr. Wilson, was none other than Jesus Christ. The result, of course, is that finally the Outsiders, since they proliferate so vigorously, become Insiders, and the Insiders—if any are still to be found—become the rebels and as such seem, after a few hundred pages of Mr. Wilson, to deserve the world's sympathy. It is not that the idea behind Mr. Wilson's work is not important. On the contrary, the existential concept is one of the most if not the most important idea in the thought of our time, and the most effective challenge to materialistic philosophy yet conceived. But it is not properly served by Mr. Wilson. His book is not a synthesis or an analysis but an exposition, an industriously produced primer on its subject.
John W. Aldridge, "Colin Wilson" (1957), in his Time to Murder and Create: The Contemporary Novel in Crisis, McKay, 1966, pp. 233-36.
[Wilson's] novels show him to be searching for a form, a proper metaphor, a true hero to give his ideas the directness of life. And the direction of his search has been toward more imaginative and artificial means which convey truth by effect more than by statement, by art more than by philosophy. Of his seven novels, the first three use the traditional form and methods of psychological realism, the fourth breaks out of those strictures by exploiting the freedom of the diary form, and the three most recent use openly artificial popular forms (detective and science fiction) to develop metaphoric and parabolic novels of vital imagination, of what Wilson calls "existential realism."…
Ritual in the Dark (1960), Adrift in Soho (1961), and The World of Violence (1963; in America: The Violent World of Hugh Greene ), Colin Wilson's first three novels, are all novels of initiation, of a young man's first painful encounters with experience and reality, and of the heightened awareness he gains from that initiation. They are concerned with the birth, the first real awakening of the hero to his evolutionary purpose. As in most religious initiation rites, the subject of the ritual is primarily passive, acted upon by the experience which will ultimately allow him to act himself in experience. Missing, however, is the wise older man who traditionally guides the youth through the initiation, for Wilson's hero is alone, existentially isolated, able to seek advice...
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from his elders but forced finally and always to discover and decide for himself….
Man Without a Shadow (1963; in America: The Sex Diary of Gerard Sorme) is Wilson's first attempt to break out of the fetters of realism. Using the form of the philosophical diary and the sex novel, he found the freedom to present his understanding of the life force in an elemental form…. [This] novel is one of Wilson's most interesting, for the ideas are at the surface, and the sexual intensity drives them along….
[In] his three most recent novels Wilson moves into new forms which plunge their heroes from thought into action, from understanding into being. The new active heroes and the more imaginative modes of fiction all reflect Colin Wilson's own determination to carry his beliefs into action, to move from philosophy and criticism to art…. The three novels, Necessary Doubt (1964), The Glass Cage (1966), and The Mind Parasites (1967), two detective novels and a science fiction novel, are his most imaginative, and they carry his hero from awakening into purposive and creative action. They are, to my mind, his best novels….
The novels of Colin Wilson are … a developing and growing artistic expression of the serpent's statement in Shaw's Back to Methuselah that "every dream could be willed into creation by those strong enough to believe in it." He has used literary forms as he has needed them to create love and life from the crude materials of sex, violence, and death….
Wilson once said that "a good novel can't be faked," for it can only show "what it is actually like to be the writer." If doing and being are somehow one, his novels, with their developing manner and matter, their movement toward a viable existential realism of inner as well as outer truth, show Colin Wilson to be a young man of real vision who has never ceased to grow and whose promise, for that reason, outshadows even his present achievement.
R. H. W. Dillard, "Toward an Existential Realism: The Novels of Colin Wilson," in Hollins Critic, October, 1967, pp. 1-12.
Colin Wilson is a controversial writer. Inescapably so; since in an age of talented mediocrity, he is blessed with far more than talent—he is blessed with insight, sincerity, humility, an extraordinarily wide learning (comparable to that of the 'universal man' of the Renaissance), and also manifests something of the breadth of genius of a Goethe. He is interested in many things, many subjects; but his interest is not a surface interest; it goes deep. He questions, investigates, ponders; and then comes up, not only with what may well be the right answers, but with some fascinating and original theories.
He has, moreover, the rare faculty of concentrating into a limited space—with the utmost clarity and readability—that which would demand of the average author more than twice the amount of print.
His new book … The Occult is by far and away his best work to date, and worthy to be placed on the same shelf alongside William James, F. W. H. Myers' monumental study of Human Personality (in its complete two-volume edition), and Frazer's Golden Bough. And it has something of the thoroughness and erudition of Havelock Ellis's celebrated Studies….
Wilson's approach is that of the careful scientist, convinced of the reality of unusual facts and happenings previously dismissed by the strict materialist as due either to imagination, or explicable on the basis of superstitious misinterpretation…. The Occult is a valuable 'must' for anyone with the remotest interest in the future of civilised man.
Alan Hull Walton, in Books and Bookmen, December, 1971, pp. 50-1.
What Wilson has searched for, in his wide ranging study and literary output (he has published well over 20 books since The Outsider, both fiction and nonfiction) is a path to the human energy centers, the springs of evolution that drive all life, and especially humanity, up to higher levels of consciousness and achievement—i.e., an energy, consciousness, and power that know the conscious and unconscious evils in modern thinking as irrelevant hindrances.
The Mind Parasites is a novel that isolates and objectifies these hindrances to productivity and happiness. Although it borrows a little from the fantastic ideas of H. P. Lovecraft and is dedicated to August Derleth, "who suggested it," The Mind Parasites is really a piece of cultural history and parapsychology….
Colin Wilson, with his commitment to clarity and at least inward progress, is a powerful force in current philosophy. An encyclopedic scholar, he unites the truth of religion with the truth of science in a hopeful and progressive manner.
Richard Hack, in Chicago Review, Winter, 1972, pp. 158-59.
Wilson's own distinctive thesis [in The Occult: A History] is that man is capable of achieving oneness or union with the universe through a faculty latent within him. He posits that the meaning of the universe, although occult, can be fathomed by man through "Faculty X"—if, that is, this "sixth sense" (which he later describes as "not a 'sixth sense,' but an ordinary potentiality of consciousness") is developed to its fullest degree….
The Occult: A History, however, has its problematical side. For one thing, while the book's title leads one to expect a systematic history of occultism from prehistoric to contemporary times, no such history materializes….
[As] the examination of its contents discloses, the book is not what it would seem; it is a treatise on "Faculty X." Enigma or contradiction? Only the author and his editor know for sure. The answer might be that there are two books here, both in gestation, yet put together with a non-fixative glue. In any event, Colin Wilson's partial history of the occult makes fascinating reading.
Robert Lima, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), January 15, 1972, pp. 48-9.