In the Kingdom of MescalBy Georg Schafer and Nan Cuz (Shambala Publications; 1970)

This “fairy-tale for adults” is a wondrous concoction. Formatted like a traditional kids’ story book, complete with imposing full-page illustrations, it’s a traditional mythology-based tale in many respects. In true Joseph Campbell approved fashion it features a young hero undergoing various tribulations in an enchanted land, where he meets several individuals who guide and/or hinder his quest, and emerges from the experience with a far greater understanding of himself and the world around him. What differentiates this tale from most others is that the journey in question is an inner one accomplished with psychedelic drugs.

According to a brief afterward this book was inspired by “ancient Indian symbolic forms,” and informed by actual mescaline experimentation undertaken by its author Georg Schafer and illustrator Nan Cruz (the subject of a scientific paper the two wrote that attracted the attention of Albert Einstein). Published back in 1970, it’s obviously very much a product of its time, and includes a warning that “Uncontrolled “trips” may be physically or psychologically harmful.”

Beginning with that much (ab)used phrase “Once upon a time,” it tells the story of an Indian boy known as Blackhair. Blackhair desires to see beyond the surface of the world, and gets his wish when a local medicine man gives him a potion that when imbibed in a vast forest by the light of a full moon promises to take Blackhair to “the kingdom of mescal,” where all his queries will be answered. That night Blackhair does as the medicine man advises, and finds his fears and apprehensions departing as the landscape around him begins to dance, his feet grow massively large and he vomits up a talking serpent. The creature identifies itself as Time, and starts Blackhair on his quest.

That quest involves a trip through the sky inside a raindrop, a malevolent emperor who rides a donkey with a hundred legs, trees that bow and talk, a palace with a thousand doors and the awesome Lord of Mescal, who takes Blackhair on an interplanetary voyage before imparting some timeless wisdom that makes Blackhair a wiser person, and a mini-celebrity among his people after the trip is over.

Georg Schafer’s rendering of this hallucinatory tale, in simple, child-like verbiage that makes little demarcation between hallucination and reality, reinforces the feel of a warped kid’s book. The illustrations of Nan Cruz, rendered in colorful, primitive fashion redolent of actual Indian art, are outstanding, making for a fairy tale, adult oriented though it may be, that I really wish I had read when I was a kid.