Television

CBS Dabbles in America's Unusual Occult History in Strange Angel

Book-based bioseries delves into the life of a rocket scientist with a dark side.

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Strange Angel. Available now on CBS All Access.

'Strange Angel'
'Strange Angel,' CBS All Access

In an epoch when we've already had television shows about heroic motorcycle gangs and cuddly-puppy serial-killers-next-door, I suppose we shouldn't be surprised when a devil-worshiping aerospace engineer takes center stage. Yet the effects of the digital age on television diversity continue to amaze me.

It was not so long ago that any American who turned on his television at 8 p.m. on a Friday had a choice of Family Matters, Uncle Buck, America's Most Wanted, Quantum Leap, or putting a gun in his mouth. And now the digital arm of what used to be known as The Tiffany Network has a series with a hero, or at least protagonist, who regularly masturbates on magic tablets in an attempt to summon the Whore of Babylon.

To be fair, neither the Whore of Babylon nor any of her precursor acts has appeared in the first three episodes of Strange Angel. But it should be just a matter of time. The series is based on a biography of Jack Parsons, a real-life pioneer of American rocketry and one of the founders of NASA'S Jet Propulsion Lab. More interestingly, he was also a follower of Aleister Crowley, the wandering, omnisexual occultist, practitioner of black magic and, at the very least, Luciferian fellow traveler. (Crowley always denied being a Satanist, but rather undercut his claim by referring to himself as "the Beast 666" and mailing out "Antichristmas cards.")

Parsons was not just a dabbler in Crowley's Thelima religion but a congregant sufficiently faithful and enthusiastic to have written a volume called The Book of AntiChrist. He stuck with Crowley though several wives, jobs, and security clearances before an early and violent demise. (Spoiler alert: Seventy years on, he still hasn't come back.)

The retelling of this story requires a worthy and weird vehicle, and Strange Angel appears up to the task. Photographed with a full palate of darkness and gloom, cautiously edging from its prosaic suburban starting point out to the emotional thin ice of sexual obsession and emotional uncertainty, it proceeds in the deliberative tones of the best horror stories.

The show starts around 1938, on the eve of World War II, with what seems like a typical young-newlyweds-with dreams scenario. Jack Reynor (What Richard Did) plays Parsons, a Stanford dropout who works in a Pasadena chemical factory by day and experiments with rockets by night, hoping some come up with something promising enough to get funding from Cal Tech.

His pretty blonde wife Susan (Bella Heathcoat, The Man in the High Castle) stands behind him, and rocketry partner Richard Onstead (Peter Mark Kendall, Chicago Med) loves his genius for devising fuels, if not the occasion explosions that go with it.

But with a closer look, spidery cracks appear in this picture. Sex between Jack and Susan is rushed and laborious. Their mortgage payments are two months behind because so much of their money goes into rocket fuel. (That's in addition to all the fuel Jack steals.) And Jack himself is worried his frequent lapses into daydreams drawn from the pulp sci-fi magazines he reads.

As these strains emerge, a new character appears: Ernest Donovan (Rupert Friend, Carrie's jack-of-all-lethal-trades CIA pal on Homeland), who moves into the empty house next door to Jack and Susan. Full of unasked favors and unsettling habits like walking into their home (he airily brushes away objections with the slogan, "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law"), Ernest sparks an unwelcome sexual tension with Susan, and a grudging fascination in Jack, who secretly follows him to a mysterious meeting one night.

Peeking through a back window, Jack sees what looks like a barely-unconsummated virgin sacrifice, and not the kind that's performed in back seats at the drive-in movies. Meanwhile, Jack's dreams begin drifting back into forgotten parts of his past, including a boyhood attempt to speak to the dead through a pentagram chalked on his bedroom floor.

Crowley—who seemed endlessly at the center of depraved scandals throughout the 1920s involving everything from the death of follower said to have drunk the blood of a sacrificed cat to poetry extolling pederasty—exercised a mysterious and magnetic allure on the public of the era, one that repulsed many in authority. Mussolini kicked him out of Italy; the British press dubbed him the wickedest man in the world. The Beatles put him on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Even today, internet loons brood about whether he might secretly have been the father of Barbara Bush. (Which would make George W. Bush, you know…)

That malign enthrallment oozes through Strange Angel. It's much more than the simple thrill of the forbidden, though that's certainly part of it. The sexual restiveness, the quest for an exotic plane of spiritualism, the touch of buttons in dark places—all of them are deeply felt in Strange Angel. Go ahead. Reach out for your inner creep. And wonder if he'll reach back.

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40 responses to “CBS Dabbles in America's Unusual Occult History in Strange Angel

  1. Jack sees what looks like a barely-unconsummated virgin sacrifice
    Like this?

    1. Oh god, my art skills went to shit in that alternate dimension!

      1. I see my taste in art went to shit in this dimension’s future. My MS Paint skillz are unrivaled.

    2. Jack Parsons was a fascinating character. He played a role in the Twin Peaks, Final Chapter book, which helped explain the biggest mindfuck ever put on television: Twin Peaks episode 3×08.

  2. “(Spoiler alert: Seventy years on, he still hasn’t come back.)”

    But isn’t it possible that he came back as Satan J. Trump?

  3. Go ahead. Reach out for your inner creep. And wonder if he’ll reach back.

    I’m guessing at least a supermajority of Hit’n’Runners don’t need to wonder.

    1. I take it Crusty’s one of our superdelegates?

      1. See, i knew you were gonna go straight to Crusty, but he is merely the least ashamed of our many, many creepsters.

        1. Nobody will explain how or why. If anything, in my experience he’s one of the less perverted commentators.

          Seriously, how did he get the reputation as Reason’s perviest perv? What did he do?

          1. It is an accumulation of comments over the years. Individually, they are not so bad, perhaps, but they slowly build into a sense of buzzing numbness. Like Szechuan peppercorns.

            SugarFree, on the other hand, is more like Thai bird peppers. One taste, and your neural circuits are spasming for a week.

        2. Crusty is just the homeless man’s Episiarch.

          1. Actually, Crusty is the homeless man’s Episiarch’s homeless man.

            1. Yes. A poor copy of an even poorer copy of the original.

            2. Damnit, Crusty is not homeless. Just because the chinchillas keep eating the cardboard walls he puts up around the cage does not mean he doesn’t have a permanent residence. Plus, he has a shagwagon.

    2. I’m guessing at least a supermajority of Hit’n’Runners don’t need to wonder.

      Am I part of the minority if I’m not sure that ‘extending a stub’ counts as ‘reaching’?

    3. My innermost of innermost creeps likes to fantasize about being Very Naughty, and doing forbidden things like making a homemade cheap plastic flute as detailed in http://www.churchofsqrls.com/DONT_DO_THIS/ (Do NOT do that, I beg of you!).

      Then an FDA official, in a VERY tight leather blouse, and a spiky dog collar, and high heels, she comes us and PUNISHES me! With a SPANKING!!!

      (But please do not tell ANYONE about my fave fantasy, OK?)

      What is YOUR innermost creep up to, these days, pray tell? I can HELP you keep these secrets, you know, if only you will tell me all about tit!!!

        1. OK, your secret has now been secured for the ages and for the sages!

            1. TMI! I’m not sure how much more I can stand, before the temptation to make the BIG bucks, by spilling to the grocery-store-checkout-lane magazines becomes TOO MUCH for me to handle!

      1. SQRLSY, your story reminds me of the time T told me she would put an electric dog collar on me and shock me.

    4. Just because I wanted to self-insert as my mom when she and my dad had sex doesn’t mean I have an “inner creep.” Also just because I liked to watch them slither their bodies over one another when I was a kid doesn’t mean “he’ll reach back.” (A “he” that doesn’t exist!)
      I was always taught that I’m just a tad different. So stop making sweeping assumptions, assfaggot!

        1. A faggot is a bundle of sticks. An assfaggot, then, is a bundle of sticks that have been shoved up someone’s ass!

          They don’t burn quite as well as regular faggots, but man o man, they sure do smell nice! (But only if you’re into that kind of thing, obviously).

          1. So the goatse guy used an assfaggot?

            1. Wow, I had to look that one up!

              http://gawker.com/finding-goat…..rb-5899787

              OK, now I am truly educated about important stuff and stuff!!!!

              1. Well, someone is late to the lemon party.

        2. I guess he thinks someone is less gay if he only does oral. lol

  4. Wow, definitely gonna have to watch this. Thelema (do what thou wilt) is also the basis of ‘drug addiction’.

  5. Glenn, it’s “Thelema”, not “Thelima”.

  6. From what I have read, Jack Parsons and L. Ron Hubbard (of Scientology infamy) were also in each others’ orbits. Creeps of a feather flock together, it seems!

    1. “Orbits” is an interesting euphemism.

    2. Parson’s first wife left him because he slept with her sister. The sister then left Parsons for Hubbard, who she eventually married. Parsons and Hubbard broed around for a while talking about Thelema, but then Hubbard and the sister swindled Parsons out of his life savings and ran off to invent Dianetics.

      1. NO SPOILERS.

      2. Wow, thanks for the summary! I wasn’t aware of that!

        As I recall, one of Hubbard’s sons wrote that Hubbard was actually a flat-out worshipper of “the Great Beast”, or some such, in Hubbard’s words, and that he deliberately designed Scientology as a trap of sorts. Here, pay us all this money and you’ll be rewarded with secret magical ooga-booga powers. Like driving down the road in the rain, you can mentally, remotely fix (“faith heal”) your just-now-broken windshield washers! But Scientology the “Church” was legally smart enough to NOT promise those kinds of things as the official “church”, or as leaders thereof. Instead, followers were “encouraged” to write “testimonials” of this kind!

  7. I happen to be about halfway thru that book… it engenders a real… sense of wonder.

  8. “It was not so long ago that any American who turned on his television at 8 p.m. on a Friday had a choice of Family Matters, Uncle Buck, America’s Most Wanted, Quantum Leap, or putting a gun in his mouth.”

    Hah. We need more GG articles.

  9. More interestingly, he was also a follower of Aleister Crowley, the wandering, omnisexual occultist, practitioner of black magic and, at the very least, Luciferian fellow traveler.

    Ahhh … I miss the days when my boyfriend used to think of me that way.

  10. If you look for the space where rocket science and mystic weirdness overlap, you can only find Jack Parsons.

  11. This is a very poorly written and researched article. It is full of run on sentences which make little sense, and Thelema is misspelled. Reason is better than this excuse for journalism.

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