Devil worship

Satan Wants Me

Robert Irwin <em>Dedalus, 232pp, £14.99</em>

This is a novel that may confirm all Norman Tebbit's worst fears about the 1960s. Set in the magical year of 1967, it suggests how even during the brightest days of the "summer of love" a frightening darkness swirled amid the psychedelic lights. When Peter, the novel's hero, buys Sgt Pepper on the morning of its release, the sleeve gives him a start, because "there, standing towards the left in the Beatles' fantasy entourage, was a scowling Aleister Crowley". On the loopier fringes of hippiedom, it seems, there was always a certain sympathy for the devil. It is certainly one which Peter himself strongly grooves.

He grooves, too, all the other things that any self-respecting hippy should: the chicks, the drugs. But it is devil-worship that really gets him going. The novel is written in the form of an occult diary, imposed on Peter as a discipline by the Black Book Lodge, a commune of Crowley's disciples whose ranks he is gradually ascending. The reason for this is made clear when he takes qat and finds it a disappointing experience: "I was having lots and lots of thoughts - more thoughts than I had words for - but the trouble was that they were all sane thoughts, whereas I only really like my thoughts when they are fucking weird."

He certainly finds an abundance of weirdness in the Black Book Lodge, but the question of what precise form it takes is one with which the novel expertly plays. Irwin's writing is witty and scabrous - there are passages that read like Adrian Mole on acid - but it is also subtle in a way that keeps catching the reader out. The blending of the fantastical with the philosophical has been the defining characteristic of Irwin's fiction and, in Peter's drug-drenched, demon-haunted diary, it has found its perfect expression. Satan Wants Me is also surprisingly moving: the two girls in Peter's life, especially, are drawn with tenderness, and his relationships with them serve to give the book its human heart.

On the jacket there is a photograph of the author taken in 1967. We don't really need it, though, to be convinced that Irwin must have been there. The novel itself - so vivid, so bizarre, so psychedelic - is more than sufficient proof of that.

Tom Holland is a novelist

This article first appeared in the 24 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Luvvies, stop moaning