Jack London’s last published novel before his death tells the story of a prisoner in solitary confinement who escapes the pain of a straitjacket by astral travels. Despite some critics’ assertions that it’s his greatest book, The Star Rover has never been very popular. It was written in 1913-14, when London was probably the most famous writer in America. Yet when published in 1915, it sold fewer copies than any of his previous works and eventually went out of print. It was republished in England in 1967 under the title The Jacket, and appears to only recently have been reprinted in America. You can read it for free on Kindle.
From Prison Reform to Astral Travel
The Star Rover’s two main themes are prison reform and astral travel through past lives. When London was 16 years old he was imprisoned for 30 days for vagrancy, “an experience he found so traumatic that he vowed that thenceforward instead of actually living the hobo life which had left him friendless and terrified behind bars, he would only write about it—and doing so get rich and famous,” according to “Introduction to The Star Rover” by Leslie A. Fiedler, published in A New Fiedler Reader.
A reader might think London himself had practiced, or at least was interested in, reincarnation and astral travel. However, it appears London’s mother, a spiritualist who conducted séances, may have been an initial inspiration. “London consciously seems to have felt that these practices were a sham,” wrote Stewart Gabel in Jack London: A Man In Search Of Meaning. Fiedler relates that London never had an out-of-body experience himself, but learned about it from Ed Morrell, a convicted felon on whom the story is based. While in California’s San Quentin State Prison, Morrell was accused of having a secret stash of dynamite and spent five years in solitary confinement, much of in the jacket, due to the false accusation (the same story as in London’s novel). Morrell inadvertently learned etheric projection while in the jacket, and was able to walk around San Francisco and confirm his experiences were real. (One time he witnessed a shipwreck just off the coast that he later read about in the papers.) His journeys are recounted in his memoirs, The 25th Man – The Strange Story of Ed Morrell, the Hero of Jack London’s Star Rover. Eventually Morrell was released from prison and became an outspoken prison reformer. The words of London’s protagonist Darrell Standing could have been spoken by him:
Solitary confinement, they call it. Men who endure it, call it living death. But through these five years of death-in-life I managed to attain freedom such as few men have ever known. Closest-confined of prisoners, not only did I range the world, but I ranged time. They who immured me for petty years gave to me, all unwittingly, the largess of centuries.
A Quick Guide to Astral Travel
When Standing first starts to have out-of-body experiences (OBOs), his method is to put his conscious mind to sleep and then let loose his subconscious mind. At first his subconscious was undisciplined and incoherent. Then Ed Morrell—whom London made a character in The Star Rover—teaches him a method that could be straight out of a book on self-hypnosis or astral projection.
In the novel, Morrell is a few cells away from Standing, also in solitary confinement. Unable to talk to each other due to the watchful eye of guards, he teaches Standing how to have a more intense OBO via their secret language of knuckle-rapping on the cell bars. Morrell tells him to will himself to die: Lying on your back, you start with a toe and use your will to make it die, and work your way up the body until your body is completely dead and only the consciousness remains:
The thing you must think and believe is that your body is one thing and your spirit is another thing. You are you, and your body is something else that don’t amount to shucks. Your body don’t count. You’re the boss. You don’t need any body. And thinking and believing all this you proceed to prove it by using your will. You make your body die.
Using this method Standing feels his mind enlarging and time and space expanding until he knows without opening his eyes that he’s no longer in his cell. His heart slows so much he can no longer count the space between its beats. His first experience is among the stars. He then journeys through numerous past lives, which he writes down later on Murderer’s Row. Time passes so quickly in the jacket, he’s no longer afraid of the warden’s constant threats to make him reveal his nonexistent stash of explosives: “Dynamite or curtains!”
The Star Rover Through Time
Many of Standing’s past life experiences are based on actual historical figures. He relives the life of Daniel Foss, who was shipwrecked on a barren island in 1809, lived off seal meat for five years, and later wrote A journal of the shipwreck and sufferings of Daniel Foss. In another life, Standing is a young boy involved in the Mountain Meadows massacre in Utah in 1857, when Mormon settlers conspired with members of the Paiute Indian tribe to slaughter a group of pioneers in covered wagons. Another past life is based on an account written by Hendrick Hamel, who was shipwrecked with other Dutchmen in Korea in the mid-seventeenth century. He was also a friend of Pilate in Rome who discusses divergent views of the afterlife with a devotee of Jesus. Standing eventually concludes Memory is only thing that remains after death—similar to the views of experienced astral traveler Aleister Crowley.
An Ode to the Eternal Feminine
A sense of peace and quiet joy comes at the end of the sometimes-depressing novel, when Standing realizes that in all of his lives, for all the times he fought, risked his life, and even died, it was for the love of woman. It has been for woman that man has tamed the horse, slew the mammoth, and harvested rice and wheat. Even in his heavens, “Valkyrie or houri, man has fain made place for her, for he could see no heaven without her.” Standing continues his praise of the eternal woman:
I conclude that the greatest thing in life, in all lives, to me and to all men, has been woman, is woman, and will be woman so long as the stars drift in the sky and the heavens flux eternal change. Greater than our toil and endeavour, the play of invention and fancy, battle and star-gazing and mystery—greatest of all has been woman.
The Star Rover should have a place on lists of top American novels and top occult novels. Some have said it’s like a collection of short stories delving into all of London’s interests, and each past life is quite fascinating for a general historical overview. Others have compared it to The Count of Monte Cristo. London’s last novel before his untimely death in 1916 at age 40, The Star Rover weaves together social reform, men’s rights, reincarnation, and historical drama, and will be a riveting read to anyone interested in astral travel or past life regression.