Colin Wilson was an author who electrified the critics in the 1950s before turning to books on crime and the occult
Colin Wilson , the writer, who has died 82, suspected he was a genius; and there were some who agreed with him when in 1956, aged 24, he published The Outsider, a somewhat portentous overview of existentialism and alienation.
Examining the role of outsiders in the arts, Wilson’s attention roamed across a multitude of figures such as Camus, Nietzsche, Kafka, Sartre, Hermann Hesse and Van Gogh. Few first books have been greeted with such unequivocal enthusiasm. Edith Sitwell, Cyril Connolly and Philip Toynbee were among those who hailed Wilson as one of the brightest young writers of the moment (although Connolly later claimed that he hadn’t even read the book) and he was feted by the press.
Wilson became a celebrity almost overnight and the book went on to be translated into 12 languages. It added to the excitement that he had written The Outsider in the Reading Room at the British Museum, while spending his nights in a sleeping bag on Hampstead Heath. On finding himself lionised, however, Wilson spent lavishly on wine, whisky and long-playing records; meanwhile, his frankly expressed opinion that he was “a genius” soon earned him the enmity of Fleet Street.
A few months later he was attacked by his future father-in-law brandishing a horsewhip and shouting: “Aha, Wilson, the game is up!”, and the subsequent press coverage drove him out of London to Cornwall, where he remained for the rest of his life.
Wilson never replicated the stellar success of his debut publication, but his output as a writer was nothing less than prodigious — well over 100 books of fiction and non-fiction, many of them about crime (in the context of an individual’s alienation from society) and the occult.
He was regularly criticised for making sweeping generalisations and for his habit of quoting from memory without reference to his sources, but he remained unshakeably convinced of his own talent. “Most criticism is based purely on incomprehension,” he said. “I have long accepted that the chief difficulty with my work is that it covers too wide a field. Even sympathetic readers can’t see the wood for the trees.”
Colin Henry Wilson was born in Leicester on June 26 1931, the eldest of four children. His father, Arthur, worked in a local shoe factory and Wilson recalled that he was “a particular burden” to his parents, “forever demanding attention and getting into mischief”.
At 11 he developed an interest in science (“I was reading Einstein by the age of 12”) and spent his free time making “bomb mixture” with his chemistry set. This he sold to schoolmates on a regular basis until his grandfather, an air-raid warden, was no longer able to keep the young Colin supplied with magnesium and gunpowder. “My ambition was to develop the atomic bomb,” Wilson later declared, “and when this was done in 1945 I lost interest in science. However, I had also been writing since I was nine.”
Despite this precocity, he did not distinguish himself at the Gateway School in Leicester, and left at 16 having failed to achieve the required mathematics credit that would have gained him a place at university. Instead he started work, in the same shoe factory as his father, before returning to his old school as a laboratory assistant.
Colin was a melancholic youth who toyed with the idea of suicide on more than one occasion. In 1947 he wrote in his diary that he had almost taken cyanide in the school lab, but that he had had “a moment of vision” and decided “to devote all free time to the pursuit of excellence”. He left his job at the school and went to work in the Leicester office of the Collector of Taxes.
Influenced by the work of George Bernard Shaw, he was resolved to become a writer. But he needed to earn a living. In 1949 he was persuaded to take the Civil Service exam, and a year later was transferred to the tax office in Rugby. Called up for National Service, he was so bored by life as an RAF clerk that he feigned homosexuality and was dismissed from the Service.
Returning to his parents’ home, Wilson spent his time “digging the garden, reading Rabelais, practising ballet steps” and formulating what he later described as his “theory of the new existentialism”. Over the next few years he worked variously as a carnival ticket salesman, ditch digger, labourer and factory hand.
It was while he was employed in a steelyard that he met and married the company nurse, Betty Troop, 10 years his senior. He later admitted that he felt pressured into marriage by his parents and by the fact that Betty was expecting his child. The day after the wedding Wilson moved to London, leaving his wife behind in Leicester; although she later joined him, the marriage was not a happy one and lasted only 18 months.
Throughout this time Wilson had been writing plays, stories and essays; and in London he took any part time jobs that would enable him to continue writing, working as a slater on church roofs and in a plastics factory . For a time he became involved with The Bridge, a group of writers which included Laura del Rivo, Stuart Holroyd, Bill Hopkins and Alfred Reynolds .
Wilson’s first play, written in 1951, was The Metal Flower Blossom, which dealt with the lives of a group of young Bohemians living in Soho. Although it was rejected for commercial performance, he later recycled it as the novel Adrift in Soho. His second play, The Death of God, was commissioned by the Royal Court but was again rejected, because it contained “too much philosophy and not enough drama”. Undiscouraged, Wilson continued to churn out dramas, few of which saw the stage .
By 1956 he had established himself as a modish eccentric, dressing in turtleneck sweaters and open-toed sandals and spending his nights in a sleeping bag on Hampstead Heath; and in May that year The Outsider hit the bookshops. The reviews were effusive — Philip Toynbee called it “an exhaustive and luminously intelligent study” — and the first impression of 5,000 copies sold out in a single day.
The admiration was, however, short-lived. (The Outsider’s critical reception in the United States, incidentally, was rather more measured — the Herald Tribune Book Review, for example, judging the book “full of fashionable literary allusion” and “half-baked”.) Wilson’s loud affirmations of his own talent led to regular descriptions of him in the press as “Colin (I am a genius) Wilson”. At first he was undeterred, enjoying the financial rewards that came with his success and spending lavishly on entertaining his friends. “As his guest,” Stuart Holroyd recalled, “one had to be prepared to drink wine like a Saxon warlord .”
Eventually, however, the pressure told. He was by now in a relationship with Joy Stewart, whose sister had read Wilson’s notes for his novel Ritual in the Dark (about a sadistic sex murderer, it was not published until 1960) and had mistakenly believed them to be his diary. She told her father, who attacked the young writer with a horsewhip. Wilson and Joy Stewart decamped to Cornwall, married, and went on to have three children together.
Following the success of The Outsider, Colin Wilson produced Religion and the Rebel (1958), which was savaged almost universally by the critics . He then embarked on a writing career remarkable for its scope and sheer prolificness.
As well as maintaining his interest in literary and philosophical studies, he published books on psychic phenomena and the occult; UFOs and Atlantis; Rasputin, poltergeists, sexology and astral travel. He also wrote two volumes of memoirs: Voyage to a Beginning (1969) and Dreaming to Some Purpose (2004).
At his home in Cornwall, Wilson stored much of his collection of 30,000 books in various garden sheds, each dedicated to a particular subject (including one to house his own works).
He liked to spend his leisure hours walking along the cliff tops near his home or listening to music. Friends and visitors knew him as generous with both his time and his hospitality. He was happy to enter into correspondence with people who wished to hear his views about anything from philosophy and religion to Jack the Ripper and alien abduction; for a decade, as part of his interest in criminology, he exchanged letters with the Moors murderer Ian Brady.
Colin Wilson once observed: “I consider my life work that of a philosopher, and my purpose to create a new and optimistic existentialism.”
He is survived by his second wife Joy and by his four children.