The List of Seven

Mr. Reindeer

White Lodge
Apr 13, 2022
This is certainly the most read and most talked-about book in Frost’s oeuvre, outside of the Peaks ones, partly by nature of being his first and being published shortly after the end of Twin Peaks when interest in his work was at its height, but also due in no small part to the superficial overlap between the book and the show, stemming from the Theosophy references, and people’s hopeful fascination that there might be some breadcrumbs that could lead to a better understanding of the Peaks mythology. So it makes sense for me to just address the Theosophy stuff first, as the elephant in the room. For those who haven’t read the book but are just interested in the Theosophy angle, these next few paragraphs are largely free of spoilers about the book’s plot.

I have to confess, I’m mostly ignorant when it comes to this corner of the Peaks world, aside from the stuff I’ve read online about the origins of specific terms like “Black Lodge” and “Dweller on the Threshold.” I am interested in knowing more about the ideas, but I’m unlikely to ever sit down and read Isis Unveiled (I’ve tried multiple times to read even a few paragraphs and I get a headache). As far as I can tell, the Theosophy elements in Peaks are largely window dressing, the borrowing of some buzz words that sound cool and mysterious, and can be broadly applied in a mythological context. Case in point: the lodges. Frost has acknowledged that he got the term “Black Lodge” from Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defense (Higher peaks in view: The man who wrote Twin Peaks has plans to get). From what I can figure out by googling, Fortune used the terms “White Lodge” and “Black Lodge” to refer to competing factions of distinctly mortal occultists, not to any supernatural space. It seems like Frost just liked the ring of the phrase, and decided to appropriate it to fit his own narrative concepts. It is worth noting that Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who wrote decades earlier than Fortune and is in essence the founder of Theosophy, referred to a “Great White Brotherhood” of Ascended Masters: Tibetan spiritualists who had achieved the highest possible level of enlightenment, and having passed over to the other side (i.e., the spirit world), now guide the human race, in occasional special cases (such as Blavatsky’s) even speaking directly to individuals and dictating their wisdom for the benefit of humanity. Annie Besant, a high-ranking Theosophist and in many ways Blavatsky’s successor, later used the phrase “White Lodge” to refer to what Blavatsky had called the Brotherhood, so there is precedent in Theosophy for assigning the term “White Lodge” to a more spiritual plane…just not in the book that Frost mentioned. As far as I can tell, neither Blavatsky nor Besant ever referred to a “Black Lodge,” a term which seems to originate with Fortune, as Frost says.

Lodges are not mentioned in The List of Seven, but Blavatsky does appear as a character in one chapter (more on that later), as does her book Isis Unveiled. Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defense also appears in the narrative, but for some weird reason, Frost presents it as a work of Blavatsky’s! Even more curiously, Fortune herself appears as a character in the same scene where the book appears, depicted as a subservient to Blavatsky and “a founding member of the London branch of the Theosophical Society and an author of some note in the esoteric world.” This takes place in 1884 in Frost’s novel…but in reality, Fortune would not even be born until 1890, certainly never met Blavatsky (she would have been five months old when Blavatsky died), and would not publish Psychic Self-Defense until 1935! Ultimately, it seems the only reason that Frost shoehorns Psychic Self-Defense into the narrative at all is for a cheap joke where the book is used for literal self-defense to knock someone out. You start to get a sense of Frost playing fast and loose with history here.

Probably the most interesting tie-in for looky-loos hoping to get some more insight into the Peaks mythology is repeated reference to the phrase “Dweller on the Threshold,” albeit in a very different context than in Peaks. As far as I can tell, this phrase dates back to the 1842 novel Zanoni by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (who is best remembered, if at all, for originating several indelible English-language phrases, such as “the pen is mightier than the sword” and “it was a dark and stormy night”). Zanoni, a novel about a Rosicrucian occultist, was one of many sources Blavatsky liberally plundered for her foundational Theosophical works. The concept of Dweller on the Threshold is defined thus in the appendix of Zanoni:

FEAR (or HORROR), from whose ghastliness men are protected by the opacity of the region of Prescription and Custom. The moment this protection is relinquished, and the human spirit pierces the cloud, and enters alone on the unexplored regions of Nature, this Natural Horror haunts it, and is to be successfully encountered only by defiance,—by aspiration towards, and reliance on, the Former and Director of Nature, whose Messenger and Instrument of reassurance is Faith.

Frost said that he never read, or even heard of, Zanoni (Conversations page 138). Blavatsky, for her part, acknowledged that the term appeared in Zanoni but claimed that Bulwer-Lytton must have heard it from some Eastern Initiate. Insisting that the term predated the novel, she defined the Dweller as the previous incarnation of a materialistic person discarded by the Higher Ego, which is attracted to its new incarnation:

Our “Dweller,” led by affinity and attraction, forces itself into the astral current, and through the Auric Envelope of the new tabernacle inhabited by the Parent Ego, and declares war to the lower light which has replaced it. This, of course, can only happen in the case of the moral weakness of the personality so obsessed. No one strong in his virtue, and righteous in his walk of life, can risk or dread any such thing; but only those depraved in heart.

Finally, we have Mark Frost’s own definition of the term, as he understands it, in both Theosophy and as applied in Twin Peaks (Conversations page 138):

As I understand the idea, the Dweller on the Threshold is something anyone on the spiritual path eventually has to confront: the accumulation of all the person’s wants, dreams, desires, and negativity. Somewhere along the path to enlightenment, those qualities have to be confronted and transcended. It’s apparently a step on the path to enlightenment that requires this sort of ideal or test. I see it as metaphorical in some way, but also as a useful psychological model for how a psyche, or a soul, develops over time. At some point, you have to confront that which you’re most afraid of.

Frost’s definition seems to comport most closely with the writings of Alice Bailey, who began as a second-wave Theosophist in the 1920s before breaking away and forming her own practice, the Lucis Trust. This makes sense, as Frost has said that Bailey was the first Theosophist he read, and she introduced him to the concepts (Conversations page 102). Although Bailey is not specifically mentioned in The List of Seven, her Great Invocation (apparently transmitted to her by the mythical Djwhal Khul) is used by the character Jack Sparks as a loyalty oath.

So, how is the Dweller on the Threshold defined in The List of Seven? Well, it’s pretty different from any of the above interpretations.

SPOILERS begin here…

Although the description in the context of the novel is alleged to have come from Blavatsky, that does not appear to be strictly the case. The Dweller is presented as Satan himself (just one of the many names humanity has had for the entity over the millennia), a spiritual entity who upon first taking mortal form in the human world gave in to the desire for power and earthly appetites. At the end of each of its reincarnated mortal lives, it retreats to a limbo at the door between worlds, where it collects around it the lost, corrupted souls of those who fell to its influence while alive and followed it blindly to their deaths, then returns these souls to the physical realm, where they prepare passage for their Dark Lord—the Dweller—to return. The race to prevent the Dweller’s followers—the titular “Seven”—from bringing about the birth of this Dweller ends up being the major driving force of the story.

So, that’s about it for the Theosophy stuff. Now, getting more into the nitty-gritty of the book itself… On some level, the book is a spiritual precursor to The Secret History of Twin Peaks, in the way it blends real-world figures and facts into a fictional narrative. In my opinion, The Secret History does this much more effectively, as it is more concerned with accuracy. However, I imagine that The List of Seven does have one major advantage over the later work for many readers: as opposed to being a mish mash of epistolary sources (which I personally love), it is a straightforward rip-roaring boys’ own adventure narrative.

I entered this book as a massive Sherlock Holmes nerd. There have probably been more pastiches of Sherlock Holmes than any other fictional character in existence (Frost’s character in Twin Peaks, Cyril Pons, is named after one such character, Solar Pons). By going over such well-trod ground, Frost risks accusations of unoriginality, but he takes the interesting step of introducing Holmes’s creator Arthur Conan Doyle himself as the protagonist in a distinctly Holmesian adventure (albeit one laced with supernatural elements of the sort that would never turn up in a proper Holmes story). Frost plays fast and loose with real-world chronology throughout the book. He sets the story in 1884, largely so that Doyle will not have created Holmes yet, but this means several other things have to be fudged.

The book plays on the essential dichotomy in Doyle’s personality that has bemused literary scholars for generations: he was a doctor, a man of science, who created the most rational and logical thinker in all of fiction, and who inexplicably became a fanatical believer in the occult. It’s easy to see why portraying Doyle as a character appealed to Frost, as Frost seems to have a similar schism between his inherently rational nature and his irresistible attraction to the supernatural and spiritual, and it is frequently easy throughout the book to see Doyle as a surrogate for Frost himself. When we learn that this version of Doyle has cribbed from Blavatsky’s writings to embellish his fiction, this feels autobiographical on Frost’s part (and there’s something irresistibly delicious about the fact that Doyle is swept into a world of murder and danger due to an act of benign plagiarism). Similarly, the portion when Doyle and “Armond Sacker” discuss Doyle’s attempts to get his novel published plays as very tongue-in-cheek and self-referential on Frost’s part (“Rough business, the publishing game”; there’s also a hilarious bit later where Jack Sparks unwittingly sells a monograph to a publisher without even trying while doing undercover research, much to Doyle’s chagrin). Of course, by this point in Frost’s career, he was far more successful as a writer than the young Arthur Conan Doyle of 1884, but it’s difficult not to hear Frost’s voice coming through when “Sacker” calls Doyle’s prospective book a potboiler, and Doyle objects, “I’d hoped my sights were set a bit higher,” and later adds that his intention was to “stimulate a little thought while [I’m] at it.”

When it comes to Doyle’s supernatural pursuits, Frost is perhaps a bit more generous than the real Doyle deserves. Frost presents Doyle as a believer, but a skeptical one who has devoted himself to the cause of investigating and exposing fraudulent mediums who take advantage of the weak and desperate. I’ve never read anything indicating that the real Doyle was dedicated to exposing frauds in the spiritualist world. Quite the opposite, once he did fully immerse himself in that culture, he seems to have been very easily taken in by charlatans, continuing to believe even after they had been exposed as fakes and even after they themselves had admitted such, and he was known to enact social revenge campaigns on those who tried to discredit mediums and spiritualists.

As to Doyle’s purported fascination with Blavatsky’s writings in the book: By his own account, Doyle had a short-lived interest in Theosophy, which fell off due to Blavatsky’s insistence that the spirit world could not physically break through into the material world, which offended Doyle’s deep-seated interest in séances. (Note that the Blavatsky of Frost’s novel seems not only accepting but nonchalant about the idea that spirits can move between the two realms.) Doyle also criticized Blavatsky for essentially plagiarizing the entirety of Isis Unveiled from other sources.

Aside from Doyle, the other main character of the book is Jonathan “Jack” Sparks. The character of Sparks is inherently derivative, as this is the man upon whom (in Frost’s reality) Sherlock Holmes is based. Still, even if not an original invention, Frost writes him in a very fun style, distinct from Holmes in some ways while clearly overlapping in many many others. In reality, Doyle always said that Holmes was based on Joseph Bell, a surgeon at the University of Edinburgh under whom Doyle studied, who possessed keen powers of observation and deduction. Bell did not shy away from the notoriety the Holmes books brought him, and occasionally consulted on police investigations in a forensic capacity, including giving his opinion on the Jack the Ripper killings. Bell apparently once wrote to Doyle, “You are yourself Sherlock Holmes and well you know it.” Bell is alluded to in The List of Seven, when Sparks surmises that Doyle had an “inspirational professor” who encouraged him to develop his powers of observation and deduction. Whereas in some respects Doyle in Frost’s book clearly fills the Dr. Watson role, he is presented as much more an equal of Sparks, capable of similar feats of deduction, almost as if the two are halves of the same whole…thus in some ways reflecting the reality of Doyle possibly having based Holmes not only on Joseph Bell but also on himself. There is also, perhaps inevitably, a little bit of Dale Cooper in Sparks, as Holmes himself was an inspiration on Cooper (as acknowledged in Episode 1 when Harry makes his crack about feeling like Dr. Watson). I was particularly reminded of Cooper when Sparks arises after an unpleasant night of hiding under a bridge, and instantly goes into a cheerful routine of morning yoga exercises, much to Doyle’s annoyance.

As I said, the book is first and foremost a pretty straightforward adventure story that moves from one action setpiece to another, feeling very much like a summer blockbuster of the 1990s at times. But the dialogue is consistently sharp (Frost self-admittedly loves writing loquacious characters, and working in the Victorian literary style assures that every character is allowed to be verbose and articulate), the atmosphere of the scenes is immersive and beautifully realized (scenes during a blizzard in the seaside town of Whitby are particularly evocative, as is a London New Year’s Eve scene that is rich in mood), the occasional philosophical and sociological tangents are well-placed and thoughtful, and the backstory, particularly that of Jack Sparks and his truly despicable brother Alexander, lends hair-raising horror as well as psychological depth. Alexander is of course a stand-in for Prof. Moriarty (again, a dynamic previously cribbed by Frost for the Cooper/Windom Earle storyline), but due to his familial connection to Jack and his absolute sociopathic depravity, Alexander really leaps off the page and becomes a great villain in his own right, despite not truly appearing until very near the end of the book. It’s not difficult to see why Guillermo del Toro considered adapting the book to film, as it almost feels ready-made for that medium. In particular, it’s easy to imagine the fun that del Toro could have with the terrifically spooky séance scene that occurs early on and proves key to much of what follows. There’s also a wonderful suspenseful portion of the novel where Doyle believes Jack Sparks might be a madman and that Alexander might not exist at all, while the two men are trapped in a private moving train together with no chance for escape. Even though it seems fairly obvious that (narrative conventions being what they are) Doyle’s fears will ultimately be unfounded, the case for Sparks’s madness is compellingly and believably made in the moment, and Doyle’s sense of dread is palpable as he lies in his bunk bed motionlessly holding a loaded gun while watching Sparks.

The book also weaves together a host of other Victorian fascinations, including a mostly pointless appearance by Bram Stoker (who delivers some great exposition, as well as a couple of fun Dracula Easter eggs, but doesn’t really do anything else before exiting the narrative…Stoker and Doyle were friends in reality); the Jack the Ripper murders; western obsession with Egypt and stockpiling of Egyptian relics; Queen Victoria herself; the revival of Cyril Tourneur’s violent seventeenth-century play Revenger’s Tragedy (Stoker anachronistically uses the term “Grand Guignol” to describe it, although the French theatre that genre was named after would not be built until 1897); and even a brief allusion to Sigmund Freud (who would have been barely getting started with his practice at this point…perhaps the reference is a nod to Nicholas Meyer’s famous Holmes pastiche The Seven Per-Cent Solution, the gold standard by which all others are judged).

The Ripper stuff is largely peripheral, and requires a fudge in chronology, since the Ripper murders took place in 1888 and this book takes place in 1884-1885. The implication is that Alexander committed the murders as part of a ritual to prepare the way for the Dweller, although it’s possible that it was another of the Seven, Nigel Gull. Gull is clearly based on the real-life William Gull, physician to the royals. Like his real-world counterpart, Frost’s slightly-fictionalized Gull attends to (and manipulates) the mentally stunted Prince Albert “Eddy” Victor. Both Gull and Prince Eddy have been proposed as Ripper suspects over the years. Frost’s handling of the material unfortunately calls to mind Alan Moore’s much better-executed and heavily-research-supported approach to the subject in his brilliant From Hell, which was in the midst of its protracted serialization at the time The List of Seven was published. The Ripper victim depicted here, “Fairy Fay,” likely did not exist. The first account of her appears to be in a 1950 publication (which claimed that she was murdered in 1887). There is no contemporaneous record of “Fairy Fay” existing, even as a Jane Doe, so it was presumably easier for Frost to shift the year of her supposed “death” to fit his timeline since she was not a real person. Per the 1950 article, she did apparently die on Boxing Day as depicted by Frost.

(I've hit the character limit, apparently, so my thoughts are continued in the next post.)
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Mr. Reindeer

White Lodge
Apr 13, 2022
A core theme of the book is that Christianity has robbed the world of its mystery, placing artificial barriers between human society and nature, and destroying invaluable spiritual resources that would benefit mankind, solely because such knowledge threatened the power of the church. In particular, the “secret” knowledge of Tibetan Buddhists is presented as imperative to human survival. This all seems to come straight from Blavatsky, and of course, the Tibetan influence is a direct tie-in to Twin Peaks. In passages that feel very Frostian, and very much in the vein of The Secret History of Twin Peaks, Sparks and other characters opine about ancient beliefs that the earth is a living organism, with an “electromagnetic nervous system,” and points of great spiritual power where these “veins” intersect. The industrial revolution represents mankind’s fall from grace; as Sparks puts it, “We’re guests who no longer respect the house we inhabit, but rather treat it as rough clay to be molded to our basest use.” Sociological questions abound as to whether the value of “social progress” is worth the exploitation of the working class bearing the burden, the complacency inherent in living in “civilized” society and turning a blind eye to the needs of the oppressed, and Dr. Doyle laments that while the greatest accomplishment of the age may be the advances in medicine, those discoveries were accelerated by pure necessity due to the decreased quality of life of the unfortunate labor class who need to be kept alive in order to sustain the comfort of the middle and upper classes. The climax of the novel brings this sociological nightmare to its rather heavy-handed hellish conclusion, as the villains have, through a combination of medical expertise and Haitian voodoo, managed to create an army of zombie-like servants who staff a massive munitions factory, presaging the war the Dweller on the Threshold will bring.

Another fascinating idea Frost presents is that of the arhanta, apparently a Tibetan spiritual adept of the highest order who, after sacrificing his entire life in the practice of developing psychic abilities, is then required to entirely forsake the use of these abilities, and engage in a life of quiet solitary contemplation; the arhantas’ “radiant presence” (there are always twelve at any given time) prevents mankind’s self-destruction. (Sparks is called an arhanta at one point by a boy psychic, although Sparks clearly does not fit the description and claims to be perplexed at the term being applied to him.)

If the novel has a fault, it’s that it goes on too long. The book begins to feel a bit bloated in the final third, as some of the setpieces start to feel repetitive and do little to advance the narrative. By the time our heroes are fending off simultaneous attacks by wild wolves and ghost-nuns (“I hate nuns!”), then escape using a coffin lid as a sled, I was starting to be ready for the book to wrap up. Some of the comedy is a bit too broad, like the braindead cockney boxer Bodger Nuggins who repeatedly punches himself in the face for forgetting things as Doyle interrogates him. And there are a couple of relatively minor loose ends left dangling, such as the identity of the medium who performed the séance, and what her relationship to the Seven and to the Dweller is (a lot of effort goes into investigating this, but it is never resolved). Oh, and I should at least mention that Doyle is given a love interest, an actress named Eileen Temple, who enters the book pretty late into the proceedings and doesn’t leave much of an impression beyond being a badass femme fatale. Additionally, the climax falls rather flat, as the story devolves into a cliché scene of the villains revealing their plans to the hero over a fancy dinner, followed by the inevitable shootout and defeat. Once the story proper ends, the final two chapters just sort of wander (much as Doyle himself is left wandering, unsure what to do with himself), a strangely lame denouement where Frost just unabashedly copies the Holmes story “The Final Problem” beat for beat, ostensibly killing off both Sparks brothers at Reichenbach Falls. We also get a hasty passage where Doyle meets his real-life wife Louisa (oddly called “Louise” in the book), which did occur during this period and more or less under the circumstances as described in the novel…although for reasons of setting up the epilogue (presumably), Frost has Doyle’s first daughter, Mary Louise, being born three years before she actually was.

And then, just for good measure, in an epilogue set in 1890 at Reichenbach Falls, we learn that Alexander did succeed in birthing the Dark Lord after all, as we meet adorable baby Adolf Hitler! (“The Final Problem” meets the Final Solution? Sorry…I’ll see myself out.) Anyway…it’s a little too corny an ending for my taste. Aside from the obviousness of it, I object to any interpretation that tries to portray Hitler as something other than a fallible human, as I think we all need to keep in mind the “there but for the grace of God go I” aspect (PSA: Everyone go see Zone of Interest, in a theater if you can). This also goes back to the “Leland or Bob?” question on Twin Peaks. Presenting Hitler as a reincarnation of an evil demon lets the actual human being off the hook in a way that he doesn’t deserve, and also lets humanity as a whole off the hook in a way that oversimplifies things. I know, it’s just a dumb closing punchline to the book that I shouldn’t be overthinking to this degree, but Frost is capable of more subtlety and nuance than this.

Other scattered thoughts (and Peaks parallels):

Frost’s depiction of ectoplasm is interesting. Obviously, ectoplasm had a decade earlier entered the modern pop culture pantheon thanks to Ghostbusters, but Frost returns the term to its 19th-century roots as a “milky, malleable vapor” emerging from the skin, mouth or nose of a medium, signaling the spirit world breaking through. This visual feels very reminiscent of the substance that Judy/“Experiment” coughs up in Part 8 of Twin Peaks.

In another quasi-tie-in with Twin Peaks, Sparks references Glastonbury Abbey (most famed as the alleged burial place of King Arthur, although this is almost certainly a hoax) as a nexus of the planet’s energy lines.

One of the book’s dedications is to Bill Herbst, Mark Frost’s astrologer, who came up with all the Twin Peaks characters’ birthdays for the trading cards and the Access Guide.