I first stumbled onto a battered paperback of Robert Anton Wilson‘s novel Masks of the Illuminati in my suburban public library a little over twenty years ago, and I can safely say that this one book transformed my life and sent it spinning in several new directions—heck, it might even be how I ended up writing this column, if you stretch the connections out far enough. And it’s not just me he influenced: you can find references to his work in TV shows from Lost to The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, the upcoming Jim Carrey film The Number 23 is one big Illuminati in-joke, and I can’t be alone in contending that Dan Brown wouldn’t be half the megastar he is without Wilson’s mindblowing novels, including the Illuminatus! trilogy he co-wrote with Robert Shea in the 1970s, to pave the way. (You’ve seen me argue before that Masks just might be the best American novel since 1980; it’s certainly one of the few that still sticks in my mind—hell, that can keep me up at night just thinking about certain scenes—more than two decades later.) Unfortunately, Wilson died Thursday morning, a week shy of his 75th birthday, after a long illness which led to financial support from fans worldwide.
In addition to the books I’ve mentioned already, I’d highly recommend the 1977 memoir Cosmic Trigger: Final Secret of the Illuminati, in which Wilson describes his own explorations into psychedelic drugs and occult rituals with an amiable candor—and a healthy skepticism that made him seem all the more reliable a guide to the wonderfully weird universe he lived and played in. Over at the Reason blog, Brian Doherty describes Wilson as “a noble steward of the ideas he espoused, a brilliant and passionate popularizer… [He] was a pop-Pynchon of sorts in his sprawling, comic-serious approach to Big Crazy Ideas, who got a thousandth of the respect and delivered a thousand times the joy and humanity.”
He will be profoundly missed.