H.P. Lovecraft & The Black Magickal Tradition

HPL

Howard Philips Lovecraft has become a prominent figure in the occult world over the last fifty or sixty years, particularly among black magickal practitioners. In fact, a number of contemporary occultists view Lovecraft as a virtual progenitor of a new aeon of black magick—an aeon ruled by an ancient pantheon of entities that predate the pagan deities of Africa, Greece, and Rome and which are known only as the Ancient Ones or the Great Old Ones. These occultists argue that Lovecraft was a knowledgeable, conscious progenitor, versed in arcane lore and magickal practices. More conservative black magickians, like Konstantinos, see Lovecraft’s role as more passive, even largely unconscious—they believe that Lovecraft inspired black magickians by his imaginative literary constructions and clever manipulation of psychological and psychic realities. A good example of this latter approach to Lovecraft’s work is described in Erik Davis’s essay, “Calling Cthulhu: H. P. Lovecraft’s Magick Realism.”

Lovecraftian magick is an imaginative and coherent reading set in motion by the dynamics of Lovecraft’s own texts, whose thematic, stylistic, and intertextual strategies constitute what I call Lovecraft’s Magick Realism . . . Lovecraft constructs and then collapses a number of intense polarities—between realism and fantasy, book and dream, reason and its chaotic Other. By playing out these tensions in his writing, Lovecraft also reflects the transformations that modern occultism has undergone as it confronts the new perspectives of psychology, quantum physics, and existentialism. And by embedding all this in an intertextual Mythos of profound depth, he draws the reader into the chaos that lies “between the worlds” of magick and reality.

Lovecraft might have been amused by this interest from occultists; nevertheless, the interest is very real. It is important to determine the validity of some occultists’ claims that Lovecraft’s pantheon of ancient entities are not merely literary constructs that are efficacious in “drawing the reader” into alternative dimensions, but rather actual extraterrestrial entities that are directly accessible to the magickal practitioner…

Since Lovecraft was a materialist, and clearly did not believe in either the reality or the efficacy of magickal practices, it is necessary to offer some explanation as to why many magickal practitioners, myself included, have seen fit to make use of the Mythos as the foundation for a bona fide magickal system. Indeed, in his letters to acquaintances and business associates, Lovecraft himself clearly indicates that his works are only fiction, written to entertain and hopefully inspire his reader with fear of the unknown. However, there are two reasons why the Mythos can be used as the basis of a magickal system, irrespective of Lovecraft’s strongly professed materialistic inclinations.

First, in an important passage from a letter to his fellow writer Clark Ashton Smith, dated October 17, 1930, Lovecraft himself admits that, on an unconscious level, there does seem to be a reality of sorts associated with the basic, archetypal sources of his own dreams and visions. In the following excerpt from that letter, Lovecraft refers to the dreams and waking visions he has had in the past and suggests that his conscious experiences (and, by implication, his imaginative work) can be interpreted as an attempt to “recapture” the “fleeting & tantalizing mnemonic fragments” derived from those dreams and visions.

In fact I know that my most poignant emotional experiences are those which concern the lure of umplumbed space, the terror of the encroaching outer void, & the struggle of the ego to transcend the known & established order of time, (time, indeed, above all else, & nearly always in a backward direction) space, matter, force, geometry, & natural law in general. My most vivid experiences are efforts to recapture fleeting & tantalizing mnemonic fragments expressed in unknown or half-known architectural or landscape vistas . . . Some instantaneous fragment of a picture will well up suddenly through some chain of subconscious association—the immediate excitant being usually half-irrelevant on the surface—& fill me with a sense of wistful memory and bafflement; with the impression that the scene in question represents something that I have seen & visited before under circumstances of superhuman liberation & adventurous expectancy, yet which I have almost completely forgotten, & which is so bewilderingly uncorrelated & unoriented as to be forever inaccessible in the future . . . The more recent an experience is—be it objective, pictorial, or verbal—the more sharply vivid it has to be in order to gain a place in this subconscious reservoir of vision-material.36

Lovecraft goes a bit further than this in a subsequent letter to his friend Frank Belknap Long from February 27, 1931, in which he clearly indicates that his “fleeting, mnemonic” dream-visions are not only useful for artistic purposes, but also that these visions may represent a valid, and thoroughly real, supplementary source of knowledge to humanity.

The only permanently artistic use of Yog-Sothothery, I think, is in symbolic or associative phantasy of the frankly poetical type; in which fixed dream-patterns of the natural organism are given an embodiment & crystallization. The reasonable permanence of this phase of poetical phantasy as a possible art form . . . seems to me a highly strong probability . . . But there is another phase of cosmic phantasy (which may or may not include frank Yog-Sothothery) whose foundations appear to me as better grounded than those of ordinary oneiroscopy; personal limitation regarding the sense of outsideness . . . The time has come when the normal revolt against time, space & matter must assume a form not overtly incompatible with what is known of reality—when it must be gratified by images forming supplements rather than contradictions of the visible & measurable universe.37

Despite the jocularity of his reference to the Great Old Ones as “Yog-Sothothery,” Lovecraft, in his discussion of the second phase of “cosmic phantasy,” is making two claims here: that humans have incomplete and limited knowledge of reality, i.e. of “what is or is not possible in the universe”; and that there may be entities or life-forms in the vast universe that “supplement” rather than “contradict” our current, limited perceptions of what is or is not possible. Although Lovecraft is definitely not arguing that it is probable, or even possible, that his own Great Old Ones exist in some ontological sense, he is still entertaining the possibility that entities that have previously been misinterpreted as being gods or goddesses could nevertheless really and truly exist—not as gods or goddesses but as extraterrestrial entities. S. T. Joshi, in fact, in The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos (2008),38 argues that Lovecraft, particularly in his later work, “demythologized” his gods and goddesses, making them more “amenable” to his materialistic view of the cosmos.39

A second reason why the Cthulhu Mythos can serve as the basis for magickal practice is the simple fact that this system, unlike strictly fictional mythologies, does seem to reference actual archetypes that are equivalent in scope and power to the traditional archetypes that black magickal systems utilize in their workings. This fact is supported by the experiments and the writings of many notable magickians. Kenneth Grant, for example, asserts that Lovecraft’s work was based on the older magickal systems; in his three Typhonian Trilogies, Grant argues that Lovecraft, through the agency of the dream state, established a connection with real, Dionysian deities, and that these deities bear an affinity with the Sumerian magickal tradition and with the more Dionysian aspects of Crowley’s Thelemic Cult. Grant even provides a table in The Magical Revival (1972) contrasting elements of the Cthulhu Mythos with corresponding elements in Crowley’s system. A number of these associations are intriguing. For example, Grant observes the similarity between the title of Lovecraft’s principal grimoire, Al Azif, and the title of Crowley’s Book of the Law, Al vel Legis. Similarly, Grant associates Yog-Sothoth with Sut-Thoth or Sut-Typhon, names which Crowley gave to his own Holy Guardian Angel. Grant, likewise, equates Azathoth, the blind idiot god at the center of infinity, with Hadit, the Chaos at the center of Infinity; Hadit is one of the three important deities spoken of in The Book of the Law (1904).40 To justify these associations, Grant is careful to point out that Lovecraft was unacquainted with Crowley’s work. Thus, Grant’s view represents a type of psychic absorption.

Fiction, as a vehicle, has often been used by occultists. Writers such as Arthur Machen, Brodie Innes, Algernon Blackwood and H. P. Lovecraft are in this category. Their novels and stories contain some remarkable affinities with those aspects of Crowley’s Cult dealt with in the present chapter, i.e. themes of resurgent atavisms that lure people to destruction. Whether it be the Vision of Pan, as in the case of Machen and Dunsany, or the even more sinister traffic with denizens of forbidden dimensions, as in the tales of Lovecraft, the reader is plunged into a world of barbarous names and incomprehensible signs. Lovecraft was unacquainted with the name and work of Crowley, yet some of his fantasies reflect, however, distortedly, the salient themes of Crowley’s Cult.41

More recently, Donald Tyson argues that the Great Old Ones are just as potent and “real” as any of the “archetypal realities that lie on the edges of human consciousness,” and which have found expression in various veiled forms in our religious myths. In his Grimoire of the Necronomicon, Tyson picks up on many of the themes in Lovecraft and makes these the foundation of a projected magickal order devoted to the Great Old Ones. Rather fancifully, Tyson has named this group the Order of the Old Ones—even though, as yet, it has no priests or priestesses, and no initiates. According to Tyson, the individual magickal practitioner who embraces and creatively makes use of Lovecraft’s archetypes can attain to a higher level of consciousness that is nothing short of a genuine, personal apocalypse, equivalent in scope to the apocalypse referred to in Christian mythology.

The great work of the Old Ones may be identical to the apocalyptic vision foretold in the biblical book Revelation. It will be marked by a transformation that necessitates widespread destruction of the present existing state of the world, followed by the emergence of a more spiritual condition. In Lovecraft’s fiction, those who survive the great work of the Old Ones will be those chosen by the Old Ones, who have put off their lower earthly natures and been transformed into something less tangible that approaches pure mind.42 The goal of Tyson’s current magickal endeavors is further clarified by the author; Tyson argues that mankind should not “fear” the Old Ones, or dread contact with these extraterrestrial beings, as Lovecraft’s narrators invariably do, but rather that mankind (or at least that portion of mankind devoted to magickal practices) should bond together into a community dedicated to actively achieving contact with the Great Old Ones.

Given Lovecraft’s own admissions regarding the possible unconscious validity of his imaginative constructs, and taking into account the aforementioned testimony of prominent magickal practitioners, I would further argue that Lovecraft’s view of the cosmos is, in actuality, not at odds with the postmodernistic magickal view of the cosmos in general. The principal black magickal systems posit a view of the cosmos that is remarkably akin to the views of the leading quantum physicists of today, and these views are virtually equivalent to Lovecraft’s concept of the universe. I have already noted that early quantum physicists and Lovecraft shared similar views of the human being as an energy stream. In fact, Lovecraft had done some study of quantum physics, for he alludes to the works of Planck, Einstein, and Heisenberg in “The Dreams in the Witch House.” In the 1960s, over twenty years after Lovecraft’s death, the modern quantum physicists, extending the work of Bohr and Heisenberg, developed string theories; in 1984, Schwarz and Green of Queen Mary’s College in London combined string theory with the concept of supersymmetry, leading to the superstring theory. Building on this, contemporary quantum physicists developed the theory that there are hidden or shadow-matter dimensions. The concept of hidden dimensions first originated in the work of the Swiss American Fritz Zwicky, who in 1930 calculated that galaxies in large clusters moved so fast that the gravity provided by their visible stars was insufficient to hold the galaxies together. Thus, Zwicky concluded, hidden or shadow-matter must exist. Lovecraft, of course, died long before the string and superstring theorists, and before Zwicky’s work was used as a rationale for the existence of hidden dimensions; thus, Lovecraft could not have given us his impression of the latter-day quantum physicists. Nevertheless, there are many definitions of alternate dimensions scattered throughout Lovecraft’s fiction and poetry.

9781578635870The best definition of Lovecraft’s view of alternate dimensions is provided in “The Dunwich Horror.” The black magickian Wilbur Whateley visits the library at the fictional Miskatonic University to consult the Necronomicon. He is deep in his reading when the librarian, Dr. Henry Armitage, glances over his shoulder at a passage: “The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be. Not in the spaces we know, but between them, They walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us, unseen.”43 According to this definition, the dimensions of the Great Old Ones are located “between” the regular spatial/temporal boundaries characteristic of phenomenal existence. These dimensions are, thus, identical to the types of shadow-matter dimensions postulated by contemporary quantum physicists. In Lovecraft’s estimation, human beings are essentially confined to their own dimensions, physically as well as metaphysically. In some of the stories I will be examining in the final section of this chapter, the humans who do manage to find their way into alternate dimensions in their natural state can only exist in those dimensions for a brief time. For Lovecraft, though humans are composed of energy-streams, these streams break down at the moment of death, i.e. “after the withdrawal of the chemical and physical processes called life.”44 As such, Lovecraft retains his materialistic view of mankind and his place in the cosmos; mankind, in his view, is merely a transient, rather insignificant incident when reckoned against the background of the universe.

NOTES

    • 36. Lovecraft, Selected Letters: 1925–1929, 197.
    • 37. Ibid., 293–96.
    • 38. S. T. Joshi, The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos (Poplar Bluff, MO: Mythos Books, 2008), 90.
    • 39. S. T. Joshi, “H. P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West,” The Weird Tale (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1990), 168–229.
    • 40. Grant, The Magical Revival, 115–16.
    • 41. Ibid., 114.
    • 42. Donald Tyson, Grimoire of the Necronomicon (St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 2008), xvi.
    • 43. H. P. Lovecraft, Tales (New York: Library of America, 2005), 385.
    • 44. Lovecraft, Selected Letters: 1925–1929, 267.
John L. Steadman is a scholar of H. P. Lovecraft and western occultism and has been a magickal practitioner for more than thirty years. He is currently a college English professor at Olivet College in Michigan.
Reprinted with permission from Weiser Books H. P. Lovecraft and the Black Magickal Tradition  © 2015 by John L. Steadman is available wherever books are sold, from Amazon.com, directly from the publisher at 1-800-423-7087 or at www.redwheelweiser.com.