Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. Blog, Internet resources, online reading groups, articles and interviews, Illuminatus! info.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

My Robert Shea talk

Robert Shea and his son. (From 

[A few days ago, I posted my interview with Prop Anon, recorded during Confluence. This is my talk during Confluence about Shea, which I wrote out for delivery in a coffee shop on July 28. If you prefer, you can listen to a recording, about 19 minutes long  which is pretty close to the below, although the first couple of sentences are missing, and I  threw in a few additional remarks. I'll have Gregory Arnott's and Bobby Campbell's talks available soon.  -- The Management]

Robert Anton Wilson's posthumous career, and the struggle to make sure his works are not forgotten, has been sustained by a worldwide network of fans. This network was described in the "Foreword" by British writer John Higgs to Brenton Clutterbuck's new book, Chasing Eris, which describes Brenton's adventures in traveling the world from Australia to meet with Discordians. Higgs says that thanks to the efforts of fans, authors such as Adam Gorightly,  and the publishing work by Robert Anton Wilson Trust, "I no longer worry that Robert Anton Wilson will be forgotten."

I have been a part of that grassroots effort, particularly since I began my blog in 2010. I've been doing daily postings to the blog since then. So I obviously have devoted a lot of time and energy to the project of keeping Robert Anton Wilson's name alive.

I am part of a network that would be worth talking about sometime in another discussion. Robert Anton Wilson fandom isn’t driven by interest in colleges and universities. He isn’t getting a lot of backing from large commercial publishers. He doesn’t have enough of a reputation for libraries to keep his books on the shelves. His reputation is sustained by a decentralized, grassroots network, and I think that’s interesting.

But the Illuminatus! trilogy, which is still Wilson's best-known work, was co-written by Robert Shea, and particularly since I began reading Shea's historical novels, I have felt that Shea also deserves not to be forgotten. There aren't many web sites, blogs or Twitter accounts to devoted to him. I do also write about Shea on my blog and I want to talk about him today.

Perhaps you may not know that it was Robert Shea who came up with the idea of Illuminatus! Or you may not know that Shea was the one who obtained a book contract for it.

The original mass market paperback originals for the  Illuminatus! trilogy were issued by Dell in 1975.  Shea's first solo novel, Shike: Time of the Dragons came out in 1981. His last published novel, Shaman, came out in 1991. Shea died of cancer in 1994, about 13 years before Wilson died in 2007. Shea’s novels have gone out of print, but can easily be obtained as used books, and his novels also are widely available as ebooks, including ebooks that can legally be downloaded at no cost.

I want to begin my discussion of Shea's fiction by quoting a short snippet from his 1986 historical novel, All Things Are Lights, that is printed at the front of the book as a kind of brief prologue:

“How much jousting have you done?”

“A little,” replied the young troubadour.

“A little!” the Templar said ironically. “In tournaments all over Europe, Count Amalric has bested hundreds of knights. Many times he has killed men. Of course, it is against the rules. But he is a master at making it look like an accident.” He looked at Roland with an almost fatherly kindness. “Indeed, Messire, the best advice I could give you would be not to enter the tournament at all.”

Roland laughed. “Such cautious advice from a Templar?”

“We fight for God, Messire. Have you as great a motive?”

“Yes, I do,” said Roland, seeing Nicolette’s eyes shining in the darkness before him. “I fight for love.”

In just a few sentences, you get an idea of what Shea is about in his historical novels. His work is emotionally direct and written in straightforward prose, and pulls you into the concerns of his characters. There are no modernist experiments in prose -- his sentences are very clear and transparent.  His work is based on knowing a lot about the history of the time he is writing about.

 And in many of his books, you learn a lot about secret societies and hidden knowledge, which links Shea's work to Illuminatus! In All Things Are Lights, for example, you learn a lot about the Templars and the Cathars,, and there are references to the Freemason and to esoteric sex knowledge.

Robert Shea was born in 1933 and he died in 1994. He worked as a magazine editor for much of his life but became a freelance writer and published seven books, including six novels, before he died. He was a magazine editor in New York and Los Angeles before going to work for "Playboy" magazine in Chicago, which is where me met a fellow editor named Robert Anton Wilson, who became a lifelong friend. The two editors both became involved in Discordianism. According to Adam Gorightly's book, Historia Discordia, Shea's Discordian names were Josh the Dill and Alexander Eulenspiegel.

Illuminatus! apparently began as a Friday night joke by Shea when he and his friend Wilson were drinking in a Chicago bar. On payday, they had a ritual of going out for drinks

Playboy had a section called the Playboy Forum which consisted of readers writing in to discuss various topics, including conspiracy theories of the day. Wilson described in an interview how those letters were turned into the idea for Illuminatus!

STARSHIP: Can you discuss the genesis of Illuminatus!? How did the idea originate?

WILSON: It started with the Discordian Society, which is based on worship of Eris, the Greek goddess of confusion and chaos. Actually, the Discordian Society is a new religion disguised as a complicated joke, although some skeptics think it’s a joke disguised as a religion. We [Robert Shea, his coauthor] felt the Society needed some opposition, because the whole idea of it is based on conflict and dialectics. So, we created an opposition within the Discordian Society, which we called the Bavarian Illuminati. We got the idea from the John Birch Society and various other right-wing groups who believe that the Illuminati really run the world. There were several Discordian newsletters written in the 1960s, and several Discordian members wrote for the underground press in various parts of the country. So, we built up this myth about the warfare between the Discordian Society and the Illuminati for quite a while, until one day Bob Shea said to me, “You know, we could write a novel about this!” The rest is history.

Another account comes from author Lewis Shiner's interview with Wilson. Wilson said, "Bob Shea and I used to go out for drinks every Friday evening after work and solve all of the problems of the world over a few Bloody Marys. We were talking about all of these kooky conspiracy theories and Shea said, 'Why don't we write a book about all the craziest conspiracy theories.' And eventually the Illuminatus trilogy developed out of that."

According to an interview of Shea by Neal Wilgus, it was Shea who got the pair a book contract to write Illuminatus! 

Wilgus: Since you and Wilson were both editors at Playboy at the time ILLUMINATUS! was written, I'm wondering why Playboy Press didn't publish it. Or was that too close to home?

Shea: At the time we got the idea for ILLUMINATUS!, Playboy Press wasn't publishing original novels, and a very good friend of mine, Bob Abel, was an editor at Dell. I was looking for an opportunity to write paperback fiction, so I wrote Bob a letter briefly sketching about half a dozen ideas for books, of which a book about the Bavarian Illuminati was one. He thought that one had the most possibilities, so Wilson and I did three sample chapters and an outline and sent it in. On the strength of that we got a contract and began writing the book.

As Wilson writes in Cosmic Trigger, he quit his job as a Playboy editor because he was determined to make it as a writer, but Shea continued to work at Playboy magazine. In 1980 or so, Shea lost his job at the magazine. It may not have been anything personal against him. The magazine hit a peak of circulation in 1975 and has been losing circulation ever since. It could have been one of the magazine's periodic attempts to halt the slide.

According to a chapter about Shea in Robert Anton Wilson's Cosmic Trigger Vol. 3, Shea began sending out novel proposals when he was looking for work. His first historical novel, Shike: Time of the Dragons came out in 1981. So something good came out of the personal disaster, at least for Shea's readers.

At one of his talks at an Association for Consciousness Expansion event in Cleveland, Shea described how he had tried to break into fiction writing many years before when he was in college, sending out short stories to men's magazines such as "Playboy" and its competitors, to science fiction magazines and to literary magazines. He collaborated on a story called "Scarlet Panties," which was offered to Playboy and other "girlie" magazines. In spite of the excellent title, it did not sell.

Shea was a lifelong science fiction fan. He knew science fiction writers, editors and fans, and attended science fiction conventions. But none of his novels are science fiction. All of them are historical novels. The two Shike books are set in medieval Japan. All Things Are Lights is set in medieval France, while the two Saracen novels are in medieval Italy.  Shaman is about Native Americans in Illinois before the Civil War and concerns the Black Hawk War

I've read three of the novels so far, and my favorite is All Things Are Lights. I have referred to it on my blog as a "thematic prequel" to Illuminatus!,. The hero of the novel, a troubadour named Roland, takes an agnostic attitude toward belief systems. He lives in a Catholic society, but he is sympathetic toward the Cathars and believes that Moslems are no better and no worse than Christians.  The title comes from a saying by John Scotus Eriugena, a ninth century Irish theologian, who made a statement that is translated in Illuminatus! as "All things that are, are lights."

The late Patricia Monaghan, Shea's last wife, also told me that All Things Are Lights was her favorite of Shea's books.

She wrote to me, "What drove Bob as an historical novelist was an interest in the underdogs of history, the people who were 'lost' from a historical point of view.  (I keep thinking that Saracen should be made into a movie, now, with the rise in interest in the Islamic world--but of course Bob's Muslim characters weren't terrorists!  Well...they were...sort of....)  The Cathars were persecuted in what was really a land-grab by the French against the Spanish--in Languedoc today, you can still see, in bars, maps of France before and after the 'Albigensian crusade,' which make very clear that France exploded in size after grabbing that land.  Bob's last published book, Shaman, looked at the Black Hawk War from the Indian side.  That was his way--always to focus on the ‘other’ in any historical situation."

Many of Shea's books have gone out of print, but you can easily obtain used copies from sites such as Amazon. They are available on Amazon as inexpensive Kindle ebooks.  In addition, his novels have all been released as free ebooks by his son, Mike Shea, under a Creative Commons license. I have a blog post at my blog,, on how to find the free ebooks. You can find the post by searching for it, or by finding the link under the Robert Shea Resources section on the right side of my page.

Patricia Monaghan, by the way, was an interesting writer in her own right. She wrote more than 25 books, including poetry, women's spirituality, a "complete guide" to meditation, Celtic culture and mythology, even a book about wineries in Minnesota and Wisconsin. She was a professor of interdisciplinary studies at DePaul University, reflecting perhaps her many interests. She was unfailingly kind to me when I emailed her to ask her questions about Robert Shea.

My last email from her was in May 2012, and she died of cancer in November, 2012. She wrote me an email on March 10, 2011, the 17th anniversary of Shea's death. She wrote, "Although I am very happily remarried, I still think of Bob virtually every single day, and am grateful for all that he gave me and the world."

For the last few years, I've had a couple of obsessions that I've pursued on my blog. I wanted to know who the editor was who acquired Illuminatus! for Dell books, and I wanted to find out what happened to the years of correspondence between Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson.

I did finally get an answer to my first question. The Dell editor who bought Illuminatus! was named Bob Abel.  He was an assistant editor for Paul Krassner at “The Realist”, was a book editor and author and worked in magazines, and was a friend of Shea. My article about Abel posted on my blog a few days ago, July 23, Robert Anton Wilson Day.

Figuring out what happened to the Shea-Wilson letters has been harder.

In his chapter about Robert Shea in Cosmic Trigger Vol. 3, Wilson wrote that he and Shea wrote letters back and forth for 23 years. "We wrote about every important idea in the world and we filled enough paper for several volumes," Wilson wrote. "I hope some of that will get published someday."

I hope so, too, but I don't know if that can ever happen. On Robert Shea's side, I asked Patricia Monaghan and Shea's son, Mike Shea, about it. I've asked Rasa, and, through Rasa, Christina Pearson. I've also written about it on my blog, hoping that someone might have a lead. I've had no luck so far.

If you decide at some point you are interested in Robert Shea, I would invite you to check out the links under "Robert Shea Resources" which you can find on the right side of  my blog if you scroll down a little. You'll find links to the official Robert Shea website, the Wikipedia biography, my article on finding free ebooks of Shea's novels, the text of Shea's acceptance speech when he won the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award for Illuminatus! and everything else of possible interest I have been able to find so far.

To quote from my favorite Robert Shea novel, “All things that are, are lights. The light shines in each man and each woman.” Thank you for listening to me.

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