James Joyce was not the only notorious writer to come knocking on the door of Inky Stephensen's publishing office at the Mandrake Press. Aleister Crowley — the 'wickedest man in the world'— turned up one afternoon followed by an acolyte carrying a stack of unpublished typescripts.
Crowley greeted Stephensen with his piercing stare and the sacred injunction 'Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law!'
Crowley's magical formulations combined Jewish, Egyptian, and other occult mythology with eastern techniques of yoga and meditation. Sex acts however were his main medium for mystical experience, and he always signed his name with an exaggerated phallic A. In his mid-fifties, Crowley was thick-set, with head shaven smooth as an egg, some said so that it resembled an enormous penis. This was appropriate, for he was Satan incarnate to the reading public of the Sunday newspapers.
He was also an arrogant rogue and an adventurer who'd used part of his family inheritance to purchase Boleskine Manor by the shore of Loch Ness. By the 1920s his money had almost run out and he was living on his wits and on the largesse of his followers. He'd sold so few copies of his privately printed books that he considered faking his own suicide to promote his volumes of unsaleable poetry.
The first contract Stephensen signed with Crowley, in the summer of 1929, was for a volume of short stories for the Mandrake Booklets series. A few weeks later further contracts were signed for four more Crowley titles, including a novel and his multi-volume Confessions. It was this boastful autobiography that would before long sink the Mandrake Press.
Another of Stephensen's authors, D.H. Lawrence, recommended the Mandrake to other writers, while warning novelist Rhys Davies that its future was uncertain. 'If you catch them on the rise of the wave, the Mandrake ought to serve your purpose very well', he wrote to Davies. 'But I don't think they'll have a long run. Stephensen is another sort of mushroom — he grows too fast.'
That summer, with little in the way of staff, Stephensen saw through the press a dozen new titles. He even installed and fed Liam O'Flaherty, so the Irishman could write a novel that Stephensen had commissioned. When The Return of the Brute was published, it was described by The Times Literary Supplement as the most savage war novel to appear in either England or Germany.
Alcohol, books, and revolutionary politics were the basis of Stephensen and O'Flaherty's friendship. A war veteran who'd suffered shell shock on the Western Front, O'Flaherty prided himself on his wild Celtic ancestry. After the war he'd joined the Industrial Workers of the World in North America, before returning to Ireland to support the republican forces.
Though now a publisher of expensive books for wealthy collectors, Inky Stephensen was still regarded by his friends as a volatile communist. 'He stirred a pub to life,' remembered Philip Lindsay. 'Tall, fair, handsome, noisy, generous, but a trifle deaf, Inky was, in manner and appearance, the typical Queenslander, a turbulent, merry fellow, whom no one could dislike.'