Colin Wilson dies at Age Eighty-One

The British writer Colin Wilson (1931 – 2013) died last night in Cornwall just before midnight, local time.  Wilson, who became a celebrity at twenty-six on the publication of his first book The Outsider in 1956, was a prolific writer on a wide variety of topics from philosophy, with special attention to existentialism, to literature, history, and the occult.  Wilson was never what one might call a traditionalist, but he was an inveterate critic of modernity and a defender of religion against its materialist-positivist detractors.  Wilson’s authorship encompassed both fiction and nonfiction.  In fiction, he exploited genre-formulas in ingenious ways, as in his first and in many ways most ambitious novel, Ritual in the Dark (1960).  His science fiction The Space Vampires was adapted to the silver screen by Tobe Hooper under the title Life Force in the mid-1980s, but the adaptation did little credit to its author.  Ritual in the Dark, several times optioned for cinema, regrettably never made it to the screen, large or small.  Wilson, an impressive autodidact, developed a core of devoted readers who took many cues from his intellectual independence and admired him for the nonconformist freedom witnessed by his contrarian interests.

An excellent introduction to Wilson’s thinking is the immediate sequel to The Outsider, Religion and the Rebel (1957), whose chapters on literature, history, and philosophy constitute an important polemic against the deadening cultural assumptions of the mid-Twentieth Century.  Wilson had befriended Albert Camus just before the latter’s fatal automobile accident.  Wilson’s work may be seen as an Anglo-Saxon parallel to Camus’ work although Wilson, in contrast to Camus, was never distracted by politics.

14 thoughts on “Colin Wilson dies at Age Eighty-One

  1. Pingback: R.I.P. Writer Colin Wilson | Mike Cane’s xBlog

  2. I was inspired by Colin Wilson’s work as a youth and recently rediscovered it in my 50’s. I found it just as inspiring and have collected over 30 volumes of his writing.

    Aldous Huxley died on the same day as JFK and his death went unreported as a result. Colin Wilson died on the same day as Nelson Mandela. Wilson and Huxley were penpals.

    • I had the same experience. I read The Outsider when I was seventeen and was, as they say, blown away by it. Yesterday I was at my departmental Christmas party. I mentioned Wilson’s death, but none of the other English professors had ever heard of him.

  3. Mike Cane’s obituary comments at length on the virtues of Wilson’s extensive bibliography; it is well worth reading. From a few years ago there is also this article [] by yours truly at The Brussels Journal.

    • Nice piece, thanks for that, it is good to see Wilson given serious attention.

      I may have a higher opinion of his later work than you and don’t see a great disconnect between it and his earlier work. He also introduced me to John Cowper Powys work, he had a great appreciation of Powys Glastonbury Romance. I also think Wilson’s Spiderworld series is a great piece of imaginative writing.

  4. I was gratified to see Dr. Bertonneau mention Religion and the Rebel as an introduction to Wilson’s thought.

    My own copy was purchased at a used bookstore in Capitol Plaza in Austin TX, autumn 1971. Barely touched, a first edition (there was no second). The volume is now battered and tattered from four decades of my rough handling.

    It was his worst received book, with poor sales. Savagely panned in both the UK and USA, it was reviewed as ‘Scrambled Egghead’, by Time, which had praised The Outsider. This may have been an offshoot of the ‘second book’ syndrome in the UK, whereby a young writer’s first is lavishly praised for encouragement, and the next gets it in the neck as a form of severe hazing. Brigid Brophy said publishing a second novel in England was ‘the literary equivalent of being flogged through the Fleet’.

    I had read The Outsider following the lead of my then literary mentor, the critic Dwight Macdonald. He had praised Wilson’s range and erudition, but disparaged his religious inclinations. I liked the book but was not overwhelmed by it.

    Religion and the Rebel in, contrast, did bowl me over. It is hard to overstate the impact on my future development and reading. Of the great figures covered I knew a lot only of Pascal and Shaw. I knew of Swedenborg as a great engineer and founder of a crank cult, of Whitehead only as Russell’s mathematical partner. I knew only the names of Kirkegaard and Spengler.

    I had never heard of Ferrar, of Boehm, of William Law (to my lasting regret I did not actually read the Serious Call for many years after).

    I eventually read and profited from the writing of all these men. After finishing Religion and the Rebel, I went back to the same bookstore but found only the two volume Atkinson translation of Decline of the West. I still have these two volumes, in much better condition than the Spengler, and they started an obsession with the philosophy of history that has not abated in forty years.

    Thanks for the memories and the deserved homage to Wilson, Dr. Bertonneau.

    I have followed Wilson’s vast bibliography thoroughly. His one major fault is an obsessive interest in sordid murder and sexual crime which sometimes does not rise above the tabloid level.

    I do have a numbers of favorites among his books. Voyage to a Beginning, Brandy of the Damned, Mysteries, A Criminal History of Mankind, his little book on Wilhelm Reich,
    and the gorgeous Lovecraftian pastiche The Mind Parasites, where the hero meets and duels with the consciousness of Great Cthullu himself.

  5. Brandy of the Damned focused my interest in music. Everything that I have written about music is modeled on Wilson’s discourse in that book.

  6. Surprising but possibly telling how ignored his passing is in the lamestream, one can understand why younger people don’t know of him, but that doesn’t explain it. The scheduled ‘death’ (they had the cadaver in cold storage) of a communist ‘hero’ to coincide with the release of his hagiografilm outshines Wilson’s demise, according to popular media.

  7. The only obituary, in the national newspapers, for the now forgotten Colin Wilson was published in “The Times”. It emphasizes his auto-didacticism, and has this to say about his best remembered book:

    ” “The Outsider” was not a creative work as such, rather an assemblage, in easily assimilable form, of philosophising and literary criticism, taken from the works of Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus, Hemingway and Kafka, as well as reflections on Van Gogh, Nijinsky, and Lawrence of Arabia. But its title, echoing as it did that of the English translation of Albert Camus’ novel “L’Etranger”, irresistibly pointed to its existentialist manifesto.

    ……Critics as Cyril Connolly and Philip Toynbee gave it their imprimatur in “The Sunday Times” and “The Observer”, with the “Listener” declaring it to be the most remarkable book upon which its reviewer had ever had to pass judgement ……..

    ……the uncritically enthusiastic reception of “The Outsider” by the literary establishment was ill considered. But it was understandable in the ferment of the times, in which something “new” was looked for as the country still relatively painfully extracted itself from the dreary conventional ethos of the postwar period. While the book was not intellectually distinguished, it did have emotional bite and excitement.

    The critics did Wilson no service in elevating him to a plane on which he could not by any stretch of the imagination sustain himself. ”

    I think this extract from his obituary in “The Times”, pretty accurately reflects the
    current opinion of Wilson’s work among the British ‘intelligentsia’.

  8. I only discovered news of his death by accident because of course the British dont celebrate intellectuals.That book ‘The Outsider’ was my mental liberation from a horrendous English boarding school. The world of great literature was opened up, in contrast to the British emphasis on sport, deportment and upper class demeanour. I read it secretly and followed up all the wonderful texts eg Camus, Dostoyevsky… I identified as another outsider in that barbaric prison disguised as privilege. With multiple O levels and sitting 4 A levels, I was summoned by the head mistress who said I would be ‘selfish’ to go to university depriving a ‘more worthy’ person of a place. So, after leaving, I defied her orders and took my Oxford entrance independently… and won a place.. All that intellectually ever expanding world of ideas, imagination and political questioning was inspired by The Outsider.
    Thanks to Colin Wilson and that first liberation, I became a professor and author. I still have that school copy which I ‘borrowed’ from a place now long ago bulldozed

  9. Colin Wilson’s ‘new existentialism’ changed my life almost half a century ago when I was at the beginning of my own academic career. Many so-called intellectuals sneer at him, of course. Intellectuals can be a jealous lot. He far outshone them. His marvellous consciousness encompassed so many subjects that shortsighted people underrated him sadly. To be thought worthy of academic regard, one must study assiduously in only one small area, or so many limited academics think. Colin was a finely intelligent, generous-hearted, highly innovative and hugely disciplined thinker and writer. He offered a way forward to those interested in the evolution of human consciousness, and his work was valued by many reputable people who were themselves original thinkers and dared to offer their thoughts to the world. Armchair critics can rave and rant, but Britain should be proud of Colin Wilson.That he has been largely ignored in his own country despite having a large following elsewhere arises out of a meanness of spirit that reflects badly on those who engaged in it. Had he received the support he deserved, there would have been more books like Religion and the Rebel and The Stature of Man and fewer of his always interesting books on crime and the occult. I met him at his home near St Austell in Cornwall in 1981 and walked along the cliffs with him as we chatted. His generosity of spirit and the warm hospitality he and his wife, Joy, offered a young stranger confirmed for me what I had hoped he would turn out to be. The philosopher and the human being do not always turn out to be the same person. But Colin Wilson was the man of his books: warm, outspoken, willing to put his ideas on the line, willing to be considered outrageous, sure of his purpose in the world, ambitious for further evolution of the human mind. The world would certainly have been much the poorer without him. I am South African. Colin and Nelson Mandela died on the same day. I have the feeling Colin would have quite liked that… sliding quietly out of life amid the fanfare being awarded to an icon of the age. I also have the feeling that Nelson Mandela, who so valued some of the qualities that Colin possessed, would have liked and respected this Englishman who clung so tenaciously to his belief that the human species had the capacity to fulfil an as yet unfulfilled and barely understood potential. Shirley Bell, Durban, South Africa.

  10. @TB – I have just read your Brussels Journal piece – excellent!

    CW was a big influence in my life – and I contributed a few pieces to the WIlsonian journal Abraxas, which (so the editor told me) he liked!


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