Authentic Science Fiction Monthly No 41 | Jan 1954 | Featured Novel: The Phoenix Nest | Richard DeMille | Download Issue as .pdf (to download, click on the grey ‘Download through Browser’ button which will appear in a new tab).
If you mention Scientology today, to anyone who who has not looked into it, a typical response will be: “Isn’t that the cult Tom Cruise is involved with?”
Scientology has cultivated celebrities for years, now and treats celebrity members like royalty. They are one of the few means that the Church has left to project a positive image and attract attention to its message. Tom Cruise is the Jewel in Scientology’s tarnished crown, but they also count a number of minor celebrities and fading stars among their members.
This obsession isn’t new. In early1955, an article in the Scientology periodical “Ability” by L Ron Hubbard offered a reward to any Scientologist who recruited anyone on a list of named celebrities. That article is probably the first written evidence of such a policy, but Hubbard recruited minor celebrities before it became a fixed doctrine, and exploited the resources they provided him with and interest they drew.
One of the early Scientology celebrities was Richard deMille who was, for many years, presented as the son of the film director Cecil B deMille. Among other things, he wrote for science fiction pulp magazines (as did L Ron Hubbard).
Although he was probably valued by Hubbard as much for his potential to influence his famous father as for himself, deMille did subtly promote Scientology in his writing, as we can see in the story featured in this post
Appearing in the British pulp science fiction magazine “Authentic Science Fiction” its plot depended crucially on Scientology concepts (principally the incorporeal ‘Thetan’) and developed a theme of personal immortality through Science.
About Richard deMille
Unfortunately for Hubbard, Richard deMille was not really the son of Cecil B deMille. Richard did not learn this himself until after his real father had died, when he was 33 years old (some time after he had left Scientology). His biological father was actually William C deMille and uncle Cecil had adopted Richard at an early age.
Richard deMille was evidently a capable individual. He served with the US Army Air corps, and then wrote for KTLA, the first commercial TV station in the Western US. When he took up dianetics, circa 1950, his ability (and possibly also his access to his celebrated uncle) soon elevated him to the position of L Ron Hubbard’s personal assistant.
Hubbard employed the services of personal assistants for some time. Years later, in England, one Reg Shape held the post, and was even allowed to write book about Scientology that were sold in Orgs. Reg defended Hubbard against the press, but finally left Scientology because he objected to the repressive behaviour of a Sea Org ‘mission’ to Saint Hill Manor.
deMille also left – after having done some very reprehensible things in Hubbard’s service. For example, in 1951, when Hubbard was in dispute with his wife Sarah, deMille helped Hubbard kidnap both Sarah and her child (a baby daughter called Alexis). Hubbard and deMille attempted to persuade a psychiatrist to commit Sarah to an institution. When this failed, they absconded to Havana with Alexis.
Safe from US law, Hubbard blackmailed Sarah by making unbalanced threats against his own daughter (including sending his wife letters claiming that he had cut her baby to pieces and disposed of the remains at sea.
This story is covered extensively by Russell Miller in his classic examination of Hubbard’s life, entitled “Bare Faced Messiah” (p 228 on in the paperback edition).
[…] thought [Hubbard] was a great man who had made a great discovery, and whatever his shortcomings they must be discounted because he had the the answer.
In other words, the ends justified the means. Nothing good ever comes from that argument.
deMille eventually left Scientology in 1954. Like so many others, since he “didn’t like all the contradictions and […] was becoming more and more sceptical of the whole thing”.
The Story in Question – “The Phoenix Nest”
Although “The Phoenix Nest” appeared as the “Featured Novel” in the January 1954 issue of “Authentic”, it was written when deMille was still a committed follower of Hubbard, because there were long delays between the writing of a story for a pulp magazine and its publication. The submission had to be accepted, set in type, printed and distributed and you had to get in before the deadline – even reader’s letters took at least three months to appear.
It’s a curious tale. A scientist believes he can resurrect the personalities of deceased people by culturing a new body for them from cells previously harvested. He somehow obtains permission to restore Winston Churchill to life – as twins.
His assistant (the hero of the story) has misgivings – not about the morality of the exercise, but about its feasibility. He thinks that leader of the project does not properly understand what he is doing.
Of course, things go wrong. The new bodies are inhabited by disembodied spirits (which bear a great resemblance to Hubbard’s ‘Thetans’) namely the spirits of Churchill and Hitler. The two, unsurprisingly, come into lively conflict..
At the end of the story, when all is resolved, the hero realises that the process can be made to work and, as a result, he need never die, because he can always be reborn. His response provides an insight into the appeal of Scientology’s wish-fulfilment fantasy of serial reincarnation. “Surprise burst upon his face. He shouted at the steel walls “I’m immortal!”
Of course, there are multiple problems with this idea – not least the questions:
- Where are all of the new bodies going to come from?
- If nobody dies is humanity going to stop reproducing and if now, how will we avoid overpopulation?
That said, for a pulp story of the period, it was quite good. It was well-paced, well-plotted and literate It enjoyed an interesting premise which was worked out in a lively way and story was properly concluded. It was easy-to-read casual entertainment, not designed to be examined too closely – and certainly a better example of the craft than most of L Ron Hubbard’s clumsily-written submissions.
The Historical Context
At the time of Hubbard and deMille’s adventures in Cuba, the Dianetics Foundations were struggling, but dianetics was still a going concern, soon to be temporarily rescued from bankruptcy by an eccentric millionaire called Don Purcell.
Dianetics had traced ‘engrams’ all the way back to the womb, but not before. Hubbard’s claims about ‘Previous lives’ and ‘Thetans’ didn’t arise until arise until about 1954 when the Church of Scientology was founded by L Ron Hubbard and “The Phoenix Nest” published by deMille.
It’s possible that deMille was used as a sounding-board for Hubbards new ideas, and they strongly influenced this story, which served to promote the basic concepts of Scientology in a popular mass medium.
A Personal Note
I enjoyed “The Phoenix Next” when I read it at the age of about 14. My father had brought the magazine back for me from a Church jumble sale. He knew I liked science fiction, and wanted to show me an example of the popular literature from which the genre originated.
Many years later, I remembered the story, realised that the plot was influenced by Scientology concepts, looked deMille up, and learned of his close connection with L Ron Hubbard. Unfortunately, when I referred back to the magazine I found that I had left it close to a damp wall, and the rough old pulp paper had disintegrated. I mourned the loss, but the Internet came to the rescue. I was eventually able to obtain a scan of that issue – which is presented here.