Bob Shea and l began the Illuminatus series in 1969, inspired directly by our work as co-editors of The Playboy Forum. The Forum (not to be confused with The Playboy Advisor) deals with civil liberties, the rights of the individual, and abuses of government power. Naturally, in addition to a great many intelligent letters from people justifiably indignant about real cases of unconstitutional behavior by judges and legislators, the Forum—especially in those days—received a lot of paranoid rantings from people imagining totally baroque conspiracies. One day, either Shea or I—we don't remember which—asked whimsically, "Suppose all these nuts are right, and every single conspiracy they complain about really exists?"
Thus, the Illuminatus saga was born. The idea was simple—a novel, perched midway between satire and melodrama, and also delicately balancing between "proving" the case for multiple conspiracies and undermining the "proof." Of course, if Shea and I had any real sense of the market we would have realized that such a deliberately ambiguous work was not going to have immediate commercial appeal. But once we got started, the writing was so much fun we simply forgot about The Plain Reader in Duluth. We, alas, were writing for some kind of Elite (or Cult). Worse yet: we didn't even know it, or have a clear idea of which Elite-Cult we were writing for. We had created an unsolved (perhaps unsolvable) mystery that was not merely puzzling like, but dumbfounding, flabbergasting, and more than a bit unnerving-like , , or modern philosophy in general.
The commercial results of this venture in guerrilla ontology were not quite as bad as you might expect. It took over five years to get such a weird book published, true—and the refrain "I can't understand that damned thing" was heard from Senior Editors as often as "I love it" from Junior Editors—but when it finally got into print, in 1975, the trilogy received almost uniformly good reviews everywhere. We even earned fairly decent royalties the first year (a1though we were both so inexperienced that we didn't realize how rare that was). Illuminatus became a successful Rock Opera in London (1976) and did equally well on the road in Liverpool, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt. English and German editions of the book were published.
Then the road became rocky. The book sold "steadily, but slowly" and within two years Dell let it go out of print. Nobody wanted to import the play to the United States. Options on the movie rights lapsed. The English edition also went out of print. Nobody wanted to publish it in any other languages. Only the German edition continued to sell. Then Dell brought out a new printing, which also sold "steadily, but slowly" and went out of print in about a year... And this was repeated several times. Every time we thought the book was safely afloat again, it sank one more time.
It was 11 years after original publication (1986) before Dell decided to keep the book in print continually. By then, the English edition was back in print, too—but although several of my other books have appeared in a variety of languages, Illuminatus still remains available only in English and German. In the last three years (i.e., 13 to 15 years after publication) the combined royalties have increased suddenly and steeply; last year the royalties were as high as any five years in the mid-80s. More and more in-jokes referring to the trilogy creep into other novels, movies and music videos. We have created some kind of "underground classic." A comic book version is due out soon. The Rock Opera version has been optioned for the stage a few times, in this country, but has recently appeared only in Jerusalem.
I have become rather successful on the lecture circuit (and even have a small career as a stand-up comic) and thus have met a lot of Illuminatus fans—the "Elite" (or "Cult?") that Shea and I did not know we were writing for. They tend to be youngish, and make a very motley group indeed—political libertarians, sci-fi buffs (Shea and I never thought of the book as science fiction while we were writing it), neo-pagans, witches, Futurists, space colony advocates, longevity and vitamin freaks, and (among the more "mature") a lot of psychologists, psychiatrists, radical M.D.s, and other professionals concerned with the illnesses of our nation. There are also a lot of people who don't want the Feds taking their dope away, and an assortment of anti-IRS "cranks."
As far as I can make out, the one bond uniting all these diverse groups—and separating them from others with similar convictions—is a deep conviction that the government lies to us a lot, combined with a refusal to buy into any orthodox school of radical analysis. That is, they believe that any Ideology which claims to explain "what is really going on behind the lies" is just guess-work, and they feel that the jokes, insane exaggerations and surrealistic twists of Illuminatus are about as plausible, and about as implausible, as the sober, serious, and totally humorless critiques of the New Left, the New Age or any other organized Counter-culture. In short, while they agree with the Dissenter's Credo—those people up there are liars—they also recognize the trained expertise and elegant finesse of the really top-notch professional liars in government and media, and doubt that anybody is shrewd enough to guess what the hell is really going on, or who is really in charge of this planet, or if anybody is in charge at all.
Maybe these agnostic heretics are just plain weird, as I seem to be.
Shea has gone on to write a series of mainstream novels. I've gone on writing increasingly weird and bizarre works of satire or fantasy (take your pick) that all go out of print and come back into print etc., just like Illuminatus. As of now, they are all back in print again, and selling better than ever. (Maybe the world is getting so spooky that my surrealism seems normal.)
I don't know that this is the best path for a writer, but it seems to be the only possible path for me. If I try to write for the common reader, the results are wooden and nobody wants to print them at all; if I follow my own peculiar humor, the books have a sales chart that goes up, and goes down, and goes up and down, but eventually finds a loyal audience.
This essay first appeared in Mystery Scene Magazine Nr. 27, October 1990. 3840 Clark Rd. S.E. Cedar Rapids, IA 52403. Reprinted with permission from the author.
Robert Shea died on March l0, 1994.
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