Dear Friendly Residents of the Sol System,
As those currently not preoccupied by the continuous menace of existential risk may have noted, the LNN has been rather quiet lately. However, today we have deactivated the cryogenic suspension of our maltheistic drones and re-fired the furnaces of our cyclopean engines to swing the bow around and broadside you with the following critically important announcement:
The Lovecraft News Network is extremely proud to present the following treatise entitled "Debunking the Lovecraftian Occult" by Thomas Jude Barclay Morrison.
A resident of the bucolic Pennines in England, Mr. Morrison is a prolific writer of fiction and essays, a polymathic musician-singer-songwriter, a dedicated botherer of dolphins, an accomplished Godzilla haikuist, a pious chronicler of alchemical legerdemain, and a heterodoxically inclined expert on the history of the arcane and occult.
He is also great friend of the LNN.
Being privy to his formidable intellectual resources and interest in guerrilla academic pursuits, we invited him to pen a few thoughts on a Lovecraftian topic of his choosing. Mr. Morrison was good enough to submit to us the following article, of which we are simultaneously astounded by and deeply grateful for. His treatise is a devastating phalanx of logic and reason, yet it is gleeful and neither mean-spirited or overtly hostile. It is a gentleman's argument, though we suspect there may be those who passionately disagree with his findings. We have found that such is typically the case with all of the best writings of the most interesting and rhetorically dexterous authors. With the article, we also welcome those who would dispute it to the discussion. Our goal by presenting this is not to end the life of the debate through a definitive endorsement, though we admit to finding the piece quite compelling; instead, we wish to facilitate the breeding of this debate's steroid-addled and radiation-filled, mutant progeny by inviting further argument from the community on all sides of the spectrum of belief.
At this time, in recognition of the completion of this most dangerous literary quest, by the considerable power vested in us, we heft our onyx-encrusted battle axe and dub Mr. Thomas Jude Barclay Morrison as "Hewer of the Hebetudinous and Indefatigable Antagonizer of Chaos Magicians" and bestow upon him all the rights, ranks, and privileges requisite of this glorious calling.
Senior Phrenologist and Director of Public Relations
The Lovecraft News Network
“I am, indeed, an absolute materialist so far as actual belief goes; with not a shred of credence in any form of supernaturalism—religion, spiritualism, transcendentalism, metempsychosis, or immortality.” (H. P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters, Vol. II, p. 27)
The both delightfully and horrifyingly bizarre spectacle that we laughably refer to as “the modern world” is graced by the presence of a perhaps surprisingly large number of Lovecraftian occult 'orders', and an ever-growing body of writings concerning the practice of Lovecraftian occultism. This literalising of Lovecraft's tales of crazed and diabolical cultists enslaved by monstrous, ancient god-like entities has to qualify as one of the most curious cultural phenomena, even by the standards of the already highly curious subculture of contemporary Lovecraftiana. I would therefore like to take a few moments of your time, dear reader, in which to survey this singular scene, and to challenge, perhaps, some of the presumptions and misconceptions that underlie it—please do not be alarmed, the process will be almost entirely painless, and I can assure you that you will feel much better in the morning.
Besides the great many Lovecraftian occultists who belong to no formal organisation, and who practice their magic in a solitary way, occult orders claiming to work Lovecraftian magic include the Typhonian Order, the Order of the Trapezoid, the Bate Cabal, the Lovecraftian Coven, the Starry Wisdom group, the Miskatonic Alchemical Expedition, a veritable plethora of Esoteric Orders of Dagon, and of course, the Cult of Cthulhu, already very much known and loved by Adepts and Grand Wizards of the Lovecraft News Network. Lovecraftian occult groups and practitioners like to think that they are highly unique and individualistic—and indeed, there are minor differences between them—but broadly speaking, they are united in the following ways: their fondness for hierarchical organisation, which manifests in a variety of deliciously pompous titles like “High Priest” and “Grand Master”; their fondness for Lovecraft; their fondness for the postmodern occultism known as Chaos Magic; their fondness for Satanism. They are also united in that they continue to exist—a fact which might in itself be viewed as an argument against the reality of the magic they practice, given the fate of those who actually succeed in 'invoking' the 'Old Ones', in Lovecraft's stories.
In written form, the most (in)famous manifestations of Lovecraftian occultism are almost certainly the various competing versions (including those by Donald Tyson and Robert Turner) of Lovecraft's pseudo-grimoire, the Necronomicon—the most renowned of which is that which “Simon” (a nom de plume) penned. These Necronomicons are exactly what you'd expect them to be—collections of spells and rituals designed to invoke and summon Lovecraft's “Old Ones”, written in the style of medieval and renaissance grimoires, and in the case of Simon, also that of Sumerian mythology. The number of people who believe these texts to be genuinely archaic is surprisingly high, given the widespread availability of information concerning their spurious nature—although perhaps it should not be surprising, since credulity and wilful myopia have never been in short supply.
Let's take a closer look at the Simon Necronomicon. It's one of the most magnificently unoriginal texts you could hope to encounter. A quarter of it is stolen from Lovecraft, a quarter of it from Aleister Crowley, a quarter from Sumerian mythology, and a quarter from the Key of Solomon and the Lesser Key of Solomon (famous medieval/renaissance grimoires, whose beautiful 'seals' Simon poorly imitates, in the extensive sections of his book taken up with sigils, such as his 'Book of Fifty Names'). Of course, few books are truly original—but Simon fails even to combine his sources in an imaginative, interesting or surprising way. Frankly, if you like books with grimoire-y atmosphere, which is above all what Simon attempts to create, then you're far better off with real grimoires, like the Key of Solomon—and the same is true if you're looking for an authentic book of magic (if there is such a thing). Should you be reckless enough to wish to follow Crowley's Ignis Fatuus, then you'll find his own writings far more interesting than Simon's sycophantic idolisation of him. As for Lovecraft—Simon's Necronomicon completely misrepresents his stories, and in so doing renders him a great disservice.
In the Introduction to Simon's Necronomicon, in the section entitled 'The Mythos and the Magick', Simon states that:
“Lovecraft depicted a kind of Christian Myth of the struggle between opposing forces of Light and Darkness, between God and Satan, in the Cthulhu Mythos.”
This is by no means what Lovecraft depicted. The struggle between the “Elder Gods” and the “Ancient Ones”, to which Simon refers, is to be found in the pages of August Derleth's work, not Lovecraft's. Unlike 'Cthulhu Mythos' authors such as Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch and Frank Belknap Long, Derleth wrote his stories after Lovecraft's death, with no guidance from or collaboration with Lovecraft. His work is widely acknowledged—by everyone, it seems, but Simon—to be cliched, simplistic, and in general inferior to the work of both Lovecraft and many of the other Mythos writers. It is only in Derleth's stories that you will find Lovecraftian entities engaged in a war of good versus evil. In Lovecraft's own writings, the situation is far more complex and ambiguous than a childish “goodies vs. baddies” scenario, and in claiming that Lovecraft himself wrote of such a struggle, Simon distorts and diminishes Lovecraft and his work.
Such distortions are typical of Lovecraftian occult texts. Other than the various Necronomicons, the most widely-known and influential text of Lovecraftian occultism is probably Satanic Rituals, by Anton LaVey (the founder of the Order of the Trapezoid)—the earliest text in which Lovecraftian occult rituals were published. Whilst LaVey's portrayal of Lovecraft and his work is slightly more sophisticated than that of Simon, Satanic Rituals is crammed with misconception after delightful misconception. LaVey's ideological stance continually impares his ability to read the text for what it is—like all ideologues, he views everything through the distorting prism of his fundamentalist beliefs. For example:
“The concept of worship per se is strikingly absent from the Cthulhu mythos. Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath, Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu are all honored through bizarre festivals, but their relationship to their followers is invariably that of teacher to students. Compare the description of a Lovecraftian ceremony to that of a Christian mass or a Voodoo rite, and it is clear that the element of servility is definitely lacking in the first. ”
Let us instead compare the description of a Lovecraftian ceremony with LaVey's description, above, of what happens in such a ceremony:
“In a natural glade of the swamp stood a grassy island of perhaps an acre's extent, clear of trees and tolerably dry. On this now leaped and twisted a more indescribable horde of human abnormality than any but a Sime or an Angarola could paint. Void of clothing, this hybrid spawn were braying, bellowing, and writhing about a monstrous ring-shaped bonfire; in the centre of which, revealed by occasional rifts in the curtain of flame, stood a great granite monolith some eight feet in height; on top of which, incongruous in its diminutiveness, rested the noxious carven statuette. From a wide circle of ten scaffolds set up at regular intervals with the flame-girt monolith as a centre hung, head downward, the oddly marred bodies of the helpless squatters who had disappeared. It was inside this circle that the ring of worshippers jumped and roared, the general direction of the mass motion being from left to right in endless Bacchanal between the ring of bodies and the ring of fire.” (H. P. Lovecraft, Call of Cthulhu)This is no teacher, handing on wisdom to his pupils, as LaVey states the relationship between Mythos entities and their followers “invariably” is—Lovecraft describes these 'pupils' as “mentally aberrant” and “degraded and ignorant”, within a couple of paragraphs of the above quotation, which is hardly a description of those capable of receiving a teaching. And contrary to what LaVey argues about “the concept of worship” being “strikingly absent” from Lovecraft's ceremonies, this is very much an act of worship, in which Lovecraft's portrayal of the cultists' bestiality (amongst other details, such as the human sacrifices, or the idol that 'lords it over' the cultists, from its throne high on the monolith) is intended to convey a sense of abject, mindless servility to Cthulhu, in which the cultists are diminished, and become less than human. Lovecraft even states that this act of worship is tinged with “a colouring of voodooism”―which LaVey specifically singles out as being unlike Lovecraft's fictional ceremonies. LaVey, with his cult of “the flesh”, celebrates and is a propagandist for Dionysian animalism, and so assumes that Lovecraft also must be, simply because he writes about Bacchanalian ceremonies—even though the text itself veritably screams his contempt (fascist and racist, at root) for the cultists.
Exactly the same misconception is evident in the following passage from Satanic Rituals:
“There is evidence that he [Lovecraft] was acutely aware of civilization's effects upon mankind—both educational and repressive. His tales constantly remind the reader that humanity is but a short step from the most depraved and vicious forms of bestiality. He sensed man's drive toward knowledge, even at the risk of sanity. Intellectual excellence, he seemed to say, is achieved in concert with cataclysmic terror—not in avoidance of it. ”It's true that Lovecraft's tales constantly warn against the bestiality that lurks in the human heart. But he intends this warning in precisely the opposite way to LaVey's reading of it—Lovecraft is clinging to civilisation, not condemning it. LaVey seems entirely ignorant of one of the most persistent subtexts in Lovecraft's work: his almost Hardyesque lament for the passing away of eighteenth century culture, which he saw as being more civilised than that of the times which followed it.
Consider, for example, The Horror at Red Hook. Lovecraft describes Red Hook as a place in which the veneer of civilisation has fallen away. This is not a place that civilisation has corrupted, as LaVey's argument would lead you to believe, but rather a place which could only benefit from the presence of civilisation. Lovecraft's protagonist is:
“...conscious, as one who united imagination with scientific knowledge, that modern people under lawless conditions tend uncannily to repeat the darkest instinctive patterns of primitive half-ape savagery in their daily life and ritual observances...”Lovecraft clearly states, here, the exact opposite to LaVey's distortion of his views—he argues that “modern people” are degraded as a consequence of civilisation's lack (ie. “lawless conditions”), not as a consequence of civilisation itself, as LaVey suggests, and also that “primitive” people are less than human precisely because they are not civilised.
Of course, Lovecraft being Lovecraft, there is no optimism in this view. Although he regards lack of civilisation as the least desirable option, neither is he very hopeful about civilisation's prognosis:
“...the wishes, hopes, and values of humanity are matters of total indifference to the blind cosmic mechanism.” (H. P. Lovecraft, A Confession of Unfaith (1922), in H. P. Lovecraft, Miscellaneous WritingsMoreover, his pessimism is by no means limited to the ultimate fate of civilisation. What admiration he had for civilisation was largely rooted in his almost paranoiac fear of its collapse—he fervently believed that what civilisation he saw around him was very much under threat, menaced by exactly the sort of 'barbarian' immigrants (this is definitely not to overstate his xenophobic views, although it should be remembered that such views were typical of his time) that he depicted with such contempt in The Horror at Red Hook, in which he is careful to banish “American and Scandinavian” (ie. Aryan) people from Red Hook, which he populates with “Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and Negro elements impinging upon one another”. His cultists are usually foreigners.
Although Lovecraft's views on civilisation were tainted with fascism, they were also complex, nuanced, and not a little ambiguous. This is a stark contrast to LaVey's straightforward contempt of civilisation, which is a black-and-white, fundamentalist ideology that does no justice to the complexity of the subject at hand—it is not simply in his outright hostility to civilisation (in contrast to Lovecraft's clinging to it), but also in the simplistic nature of his views, that he is utterly at odds with Lovecraft. He reads his own obsessions into Lovecraft's work, simply because Lovecraft happens to be talking about the same general subject matter (ie. civilisation)—it's a bit like arguing that the authors of the Malleus Maleficarum were advocates of witchcraft, on the basis that their book is about witchcraft. LaVey is either wilfully or delusively blind to anything in Lovecraft's writing which doesn't neatly fit into his rigid ideology, and 'cherry-picks' Lovecraft for superficial similarities to his own world view.
Kenneth Grant—the founder of the Typhonian order—is another influential figure in the field of Lovecraftian occultism, where his The Magical Revival casts a long shadow (Simon's Necronomicon, for example, is heavily influenced by it). Grant approaches Lovecraft from a background rooted in Chaos Magic, rather than Satanism. In Chaos Magic, archetypes found in fiction or popular culture are regarded as being as magically potent as those found in the pantheons of the ancient world—Superman, Elvis and Marilyn Monroe are as fitting symbols with which to make magic as Mars, Orpheus or Venus. Grant, in The Magical Revival, treats Lovecraft's 'Old Ones' in this way, arguing that “fiction, as a vehicle, has often been used by occultists”, and that “writers such as Arthur Machen, Brodie Innes, Algernon Blackwood and H.P. Lovecraft are in this category ”.
In stating that Lovecraft's writing 'falls into the category' of fiction used “as a vehicle... by occultists”, Grant is arguing that Lovecraft was an occultist. Yet his argument is less straightforward and more deceptive than that, because he sees Lovecraft as a mage who lived in denial of his status as mage, who failed to pass—as he rather pompously puts it—“the final pylons of Initiation”. This thoroughly condescending view of Lovecraft's achievement is no doubt rooted in Lovecraft's passionate atheism and disbelief in magic—that is, his total rejection of Grant's world-view—and yet this implicit acknowledgement of Lovecraft's disbelief does not stop Grant from arguing that Lovecraft was a subconscious propagandist for magic, writing stories that advocate the occult, without realising that he was doing so.
He contends that Lovecraft's lifelong “night terrors”, which inspired so much of his writing, were in fact occult visions—which is very presumptuous of him, it has to be said, given that Lovecraft himself, who did not believe in occult visions, would have objected in the strongest possible terms to his nightmares being represented as such. Grant 'substantiates' his argument by detailing ways in which he believes Lovecraft's Mythos parallels the ideas and mythology of Aleister Crowley. These largely consist of alleged similarities between names used in Lovecraft's stories and names significant in Crowley's work—Yog Sothoth, for instance, he claims to be related to “Sut-Thoth”, an Egyptian deity important to Crowley, whilst Azathoth he connects with both Azoth, “the alchemical solvent”, and again Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing and scribes, beloved by Crowley. He accepts that Lovecraft and Crowley never met, and that Lovecraft never read Crowley's work, but argues that both took their inspiration from the same occult source.
Linguistic and etymological sophistries of the sort outlined by Grant are a common tool of occult mountebanks, and the fact that phonetic resemblances are undeniably present between certain words has surprising potency, when it comes to blinding intelligent people to the true causes of such similarities. And yet the fact remains that the human tongue can only utter a limited number of sounds, which means that there are bound to be phonetic parallels between any two groups of otherwise entirely unconnected words. To put it bluntly—the alleged linguistic connections between Lovecraft's writing and Crowley's ideas, which Grant outlines, are the result of blind chance, anatomical necessity, and Grant's obsession with the occult, and are flimsy foundations indeed on which to base an argument that Crowley and Lovecraft were inspired by the same occult vision. Grant's writings on the subject of Lovecraft are (like LaVey's) an abundantly excellent example of the following truth: if you are obsessed with something in a big enough way, then you will interpret everything you encounter as being connected with the object of your obsession. If you go looking for them, then you will find names from Lovecraft, Crowley, Solomonic Magic, Ancient Babylon, and Disney® (or any other flavour of pantheon that takes your fancy) everywhere, including in the registration plates of passing cars.
None of this is to deny that there are occult elements in Lovecraft's work. It's well known that he was aware of various occult texts, and that he drew on these texts in his writing:
“Lovecraft was at least somewhat familiar with the literature of occultism, especially in his later years. At the time of his death, his library contained such works as Lewis Spence’s Encyclopæia of Occultism, Sir Walter Scott's Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, Camille Flammarion's Haunted Houses, and a variety of works on ghosts, folklore, and mythology. This was not the end of the matter, as Lovecraft also borrowed a number of occult works—as well as Charles Fort's Book of the Damned and New Lands—from libraries and his friends, most notably Herman C. Koenig of New York City... Lovecraft, then, was hardly an authority on matters esoteric and uncanny, but he had some basic knowledge that he incorporated into his tales.” (Daniel Harms, H.P. Lovecraft, in Fortean Times, June 2004)Yet pointing out the existence of such influences is not enough, if one intends to argue that Lovecraft held occult beliefs, that he would have approved of his stories being used as the basis of a practice of magic, or that his writings should be read as occult texts. These arguments are largely refuted in his letters, which reveal him as a passionate and outspoken opponent of superstition who regarded magic in all its forms as nothing but superstition. If his works are to be read as occult texts, then one might as well read the telephone directory in search of occult wisdom, because he wrote them with the same lack of intent to create an occult text as the authors of the telephone directory. To argue that he wrote occult texts without realising it is to both ignore the sense of disgust with which he writes his cultists, and which give his stories a significant undercurrent of anti-occult propaganda, and to patronise him, by implying that the poor dear wasn't self-aware enough to understand the true significance of his work (which of course can only be glimpsed by occultists—so much of the occult is about elitism). Lovecraft's writings draw on occult texts, yes—but that by no means makes them occult texts in themselves.
I'd like to round off our stroll through the murky underworld of Lovecraftian occultism, dear reader, by stating—for the record, and so it's out in the open—my views on Satanism and Chaos Magic, since these belief systems are so significant to the theory and practice of Lovecraftian occultism. In a nutshell, and as you've probably already guessed, I believe both Satanism and Chaos Magic to be deeply flawed. In the case of Satanism, I simply can't get away from the fact that the Christians invented the Devil. Satanism, therefore, is forever chained to the very ideology it has made its enemy. By defining itself solely in relation to Christianity, it remains fundamentally Christian in perspective—Satanists completely fail to escape the Christian metaphor. A Satanist is just a Christian standing on their head. I'm reminded of LaVey's observation that:
“Lovecraft recorded his aversion to conventional religious dogma in The Silver Key, and he regarded with a similar scorn those who, rejecting religion, succumbed to a controversial substitute, i.e. the popular notion of witchcraft.” (from Satanic Rituals)
LaVey, for once, is exactly right—although he doesn't realise that Satanism is precisely the sort of deliberately controversial and populist substitute for the dogmas of religion that Lovecraft despised.
In the case of Chaos Magic, although I have more respect for it than I do for Satanism, I find its defining characteristic of 'paradigm shifts' to be shallow and self-defeating. Chaos Magic advocates taking up and discarding world views and belief systems as they serve the magician's purpose—a Chaos magician works with Lovecraft's deities one week, the pantheon of ancient Egypt the week after that, and the cast of Star Trek the week after that, and regards all such belief systems as fundamentally untrue (“nothing is true, everything is permitted”, the Chaos magicians cry, seemingly unaware of the rather ambiguous context in which Nietzsche first framed their one-liner). This attempt to manipulate the power of belief must ultimately fail because anyone who can throw away a belief system and adopt a different one overnight, and without a second thought, simply because it's useful to do so, and who moreover overtly states that they hold no belief system to be true, doesn't really believe in the first place. Chaos magicians are the antithesis of medieval and renaissance mages, to whom belief was not a clever game, but the literal and unchangeable truth—and yet Chaos magicians argue that it is in precisely that kind of rock-solid, unshakable belief that magical power lies. There is no illuminating paradox here—just a straightforward contradiction, born of flawed logic.
As for occult tradition in general—it's true to say that I have a lot more respect for the occultism of renaissance and medieval times than I do for postmodern forms of magic. Yes, pre-modern occultism is steeped in dogma and superstition, but there's a depth to it that I find lacking in postmodern occultism—and even a humility in the face of mystery that feels like a breath of fresh air, after reading the writings of know-it-alls like LaVey or Crowley. It also has an atmosphere, an aesthetic, and a poetry that is all of its own, and which I find far more unique, imaginative and downright bizarre than that of, say, Satanism or Chaos Magic. On the wider matter of magic itself—above all, I recognise that “there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in your philosophy”. For this reason, I'm not going to expound my views on magic here, because that would be to either deny that there is mystery or imply that I could confidently explain the mysterious, and fall into precisely the kind of arrogance that I abhor in the writings of Crowley and LaVey. Suffice it to say that my views are ambiguous, evolving, and sceptical—but that although I am dismissive of postmodern occultism, I am by no means entirely dismissive of either occultism or magic itself.
Last of all, now that I have completed my attempt to tear the Lovecraftian occult to shreds before your very eyes, let me take a moment to celebrate it—for make no mistake, I have genuine affection for it. I wholeheartedly believe that we would all be impoverished, if delusions like those of the Lovecraftian occultist were to ever go out of fashion. Life can only be enriched by the existence of harmless and entertaining insanities like the literalising of works of fiction, or the adopting of splendidly pompous titles like “Intergalactic Grand Potentate of the Thirteen Sacred Dishes of Ishra”, or “Seven Hundred and Thirty Fourth Heresiarch of the Thrice Reviled Ixplatagm”, or whatever. In short, it's hokum, but it's dashed good hokum, and for this reason, Lovecraftian occultists—I salute you! May your grandiloquent delusions remain unconquerable, and bring you nothing but satisfaction and joy! May drab and mediocre reality never sully you!