Half my posts seem to be thoughts on the passing of literary heroes. Here’s another: a few thoughts on Colin Wilson.
If it’s possible for a book to change your life, then Wilson’s THE OUTSIDER changed mine. While a fledgling writer the book had a profound effect on me and it has remained a great comfort over the years. I found Wilson’s own life experience inspirational (even though his success came quickly, Wilson was self taught and endured a time honoured outsider’s path to becoming a writer – he slept rough on Hampstead Heath and worked on his first book in The British Library where he was discovered by Angus Wilson). I’ve read dozens of his books but The Outsider, and its successors, were the books that encouraged me to stop wasting my time on a soul destroying path and to focus on doing what I needed to do: making writing the purpose of each day. That was nigh on twenty years ago and I’ve stuck at it. As pretentious as it sounds, THE OUTSIDER was my manifesto. And today, I realise just how much I owe to Colin Wilson.
In a bizarre twist of fate, on the day I ended eight years of my own old school approach to becoming a writer, by taking on a professional job in publishing, I actually had a long conversation with Colin Wilson by sheer chance (or was it?). In the first minutes of my first morning as an editor at Virgin Books, sat at what was to become my desk for the next 5 years, and while waiting for my new boss to end a phone call on the other side of my office, the phone in front of me began to ring. I answered the phone and found myself speaking to Colin Wilson. And it really did feel like a sign; I’d been following his advice on becoming a writer, and trying to conjure his willpower and observe his fierce independence for nearly a decade after first reading him. On the phone, once I’d gathered my wits, I told him exactly how much The Outsider had meant to me, and what an influence his earliest ideas still were for me. And he was very pleased to know his books still had an impact, and then graciously read my first horror novel, BANQUET FOR THE DAMNED (as one character was inspired by him, and much of the story is informed by his ideas, and the novel’s title is a play on Wilson’s book on music, BRANDY OF THE DAMNED). Within a couple of weeks, I received a detailed critique from him (though he was mystified as to which character was based on him), occasionally followed by long and always fascinating emails. I’ve often regretted not accepting his invitation to visit him in Cornwall.
In another random Nevill episode, after Wilson had written an unflattering critique of Lovecraft, as a younger man, my father wrote to Colin Wilson, care of his publishers, to disagree with Wilson’s ideas about Lovecraft. Wilson replied to my dad to say he had subsequently revised his opinion and begun writing Lovecraftian fiction. So two generations of Nevill intruded upon his precious time!
In an age of fads and get-rich-quick aspirations, of shortcuts to success and an obsession with materialism, for me, Colin Wilson was an alternative sage and a champion for individualism beyond the status quo, for the enriched inner life, for self examination and for constantly engaging with new ideas (he took on more than most 20th century minds). Through his ideas he lit an alternative path for many. By chance I’ve encountered other, usually alienated, young(ish) men over the years, and all around Europe, for whom Wilson was a kind of guru.
A great outsider, a tremendous one man reactor of cerebral energy, and a fine writer (his writing carries a wonderful voice). I’m genuinely saddened to know that he’s no longer in this world, but I cherish a hope that he flourishes elsewhere and is now revelling in the answers to so many of the questions he sought throughout his long and meaningful life.
My pick from Colin Wilson’s long bibliography:
Religion and the Rebel (The Outsider Book 2)
The Age of Defeat (The Outsider Book 3)
The Strength to Dream (The Outsider Book 4)
Ritual in the Dark (fiction)
Man Without a Shadow (fiction)
Spider World: The Tower (fiction)
26 June 1931 – 5 December 2013