The Philosopher’s Stone: A great book by an evolutionary “throw forward”

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Philosopher’s Stone by Colin WilsonThe Philosopher’s Stone by Colin Wilson

In her article on Colin Wilson in the May 30, 2004 Observer, reporter Lynn Barber mentioned that the author, then 73, had seemingly read “every book ever written.” She also noted that Wilson claimed never to have thrown a book away, and that his home library in Cornwall contained approximately 30,000 volumes. Well, any reader who delves into the author’s 1969 offering, The Philosopher’s Stone, is not likely to dispute those statements. Though chosen for inclusion in Cawthorn & Moorcock’s Fantasy: The 100 Best Books, the novel could just as easily have been placed on a Top 100 Horror or Science Fiction list, and its range of literary, cultural, historical and anthropological reference is immense. In his 1961 book The Strength to Dream — which he refers to as “a study of the creative imagination” — Wilson had disparaged the works of the great horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, and was challenged by Lovecraft publisher August Derleth to try to write something in the Lovecraft style himself. The result was Wilson’s 1967 novel The Mind Parasites, and The Philosopher’s Stone finds the author again taking an exceedingly scientific approach to outdo the antiquarian recluse of Providence, and with winning results.

In the novel, we meet Howard Lester, a young scientist who is obsessed with the concepts of life prolongation and the expansion of human consciousness. By manipulating the prefrontal cortex of his brain, he gradually acquires the ability to use “time vision” — to look at an object and see its history — along with numerous lesser abilities. Wilson conflates into his story the mysteries of Stonehenge, Silbury Hill, Chichen Itza and the Voynich Manuscript; weaves in sidelines involving the provenance of Shakespeare’s works and a haunted house mystery; treats the reader to numerous speculations regarding the potentialities of the human brain; and ultimately gets very dark and Lovecraftian indeed, as he shows us the true origins of man AND the Cthulhu Mythos! It is one wild story, lemme tell you, both mind-blowing and mind-expanding, and told with such a remarkable amount of scientific detail and citation as to seem absolutely credible. This reader almost found himself believing that he really COULD live forever, if he only stimulated his consciousness enough with what Wilson calls “value experiences,” and that he COULD make concrete images appear by using the power of the mind, as Lester learns to do by the novel’s end.

The Philosopher’s Stone, it must be said, is not an “easy” book. Wilson, self-proclaimed genius that he is, has, as I’ve mentioned, thrown in an incredible number of references into his novel; by my count, 214 that sent me scurrying to my encyclopedia, atlas and the Interwebs to check out. He is seemingly knowledgeable of every obscure philosopher (George Edward Moore, Henri Bergson, Edmund Husserl, etc.), mathematician (Julius Dedekind, Carl Gauss, Karl Weierstrass, etc.), composer (Ralph Vaughn Williams, Roland de Lassus, Carlo Gesualdo, etc.), Mayan authority (Diego de Landa, Whorf, Knorozov, etc.) and alchemist (Cornelius Agrippa, Alkindi, Costa ben Luca, etc.) who’s ever lived, and the average reader will most likely learn an awful lot by the time he/she finishes this book. Wilson must have an IQ like a telephone number, but fortunately for the reader, he also has an astonishingly fine imagination to match. That said — and far be it for me to contradict a self-styled genius! — there do seem to be some slight problems with his book. He refers to a Grand Rapids, Illinois somewhere, when all we Yanks know that the city is in Michigan. He gets some quotes wrong, as far as I can tell: the Yeats poem referred to should read “truth flourishes where the student’s lamp shines,” NOT “where the scholar’s lamp has shone.” And he even misquotes his hero, George Bernard Shaw. The quote should read “minding your own business is like minding your own body — it’s the shortest way to make yourself sick,” NOT “the quickest way.” He gets the title of a Benjamin Britten work incorrect; it’s “A Boy Was Born,” NOT “A Boy Is Born.” And the title of G.C. Vaillant’s book is The Aztecs In Mexico, NOT The Aztecs Of Mexico. Perhaps worst of all, in his description of the continent of Mu, he depicts a humongous chasm on the east coast; a little later, that same chasm is said to be on the west coast.

Still, these are quibbles; the efforts of a comparative dunderhead to tweak a man who is manifestly some kind of evolutionary “throw forward” (to quote Wilson in this novel). The bottom line is that Wilson has written, in The Philosopher’s Stone, not just an engrossing and fun read, but one guaranteed to make the reader wonder and think. This is a great book.


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough’s finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a “misspent youth” of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship — although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century — and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror… but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle “ferbs54.” Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club….

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One comment

  1. I vaguely remember the fascination with this type of book — a kind of “throw everything in, including the kitchen sink” approach. I don’t care much for Wilson; I keep picturing Wilson and Moorcock in a London pub, well into their cups, congratulating themselves on what geniuses they are. That said, I think this book probably works.

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