Was H. P. Lovecraft a Βeliever in the Paranormal?
By Daniel Harms
Το αγαπημένο θέμα των ιστοριών του Λάβκραφτ ήταν ο τρόμος που προκαλούσε η σύγκρουση του άλογου στοιχείου με την συμβατική και παγιωμένη αντίληψη των ανθρώπων. Και το εργαλείο για να προκαλέσει αυτά τα συναισθήματα στους πρωταγωνιστές αλλά και τους αναγνώστες του, ήταν το παραφυσικό. Πόσο πολύ πίστευε όμως στον κόσμο των πνευμάτων και της μαγείας για τον οποίο τόσο πολύ αρέσκονταν να γράφει; Ο συγγραφέας και εξαίρετος ερευνητής της Μυθολογίας Κθούλου D. Harms απαντά με ένα άρθρο που δημοσιεύτηκε αρχικά στο περιοδικό Fortean Times τ. 184 (Ιούνιος 2004)
Mention of the name Howard Phillips Lovecraft might elicit nothing more than a noncommittal shrug from most people, but for fans of the macabre he is still a revered figure, held in awe for his unique literary visions of cosmic horror.
Lovecraft spent most of his life (1890-1937) in Providence, Rhode Island. The last son of a once-wealthy family, he devoted his life to literature, soon finding that his strengths lay in tales of the uncanny. These stories attracted a small following among the readers of Weird Tales and other pulp magazines, and his correspondents included a formidable roster of early horror writers. Since his early death, the popularity of his work has grown – in ways he could never have imagined – inspiring countless stories and novels, films, cartoons, games and even cuddly toys.
His tales have continued to compel readers because of their convincing melding of fact and fantasy and their evocation of a world both phantasmagoric and believable at the same time. The stories serve as a loosely constructed chronicle of the "Old Ones," alien creatures from other worlds and other dimensions. The Old Ones include the mindless chaos Azathoth; the Black Goat of the Woods, Shub-Niggurath; and Cthulhu, a winged squid-like god who lives in a sunken city in the Pacific. Once, in the planet’s distant past, the Old Ones lived on Earth, but eventually they fell into an æons-long sleep. Their worshippers, including the fish-men known as the "deep ones," and the crustacean-like fungi from the planet Yuggoth (Pluto) are still awake and sometimes menace humanity. Books such as the infamous Necronomicon of Abdul Alhazred hold the Old Ones’ lore, and cults around the world work their rituals in the hope that their masters will return to rule again.
Given the power of his vision, many have speculated on just how much Lovecraft knew about the occult. Some occultists hail him as the prophet of a new Dark Age, claiming that his fiction bears genuine traces of ancient knowledge and re-emerging archetypes from the depths of our collective unconscious. Yet, all too often, their conclusions are based on guesswork, rather than the evidence of his own writing. Fortunately for us, he had perhaps one of the best-documented lives in literary history, writing approximately 100,000 letters over his 46 years. Through these letters, and other newly discovered sources, a glimpse into the reality of Lovecraft’s occult lore is finally possible.
Lovecraft as Debunker
To begin with, it’s clear that Lovecraft himself had no belief whatsoever in the occult. As a youth, he had come to doubt the Christian faith of his family, and explored the beliefs of the Greeks, Muslims, Egyptians, and Hindus. None of these satisfied him, and he turned to atheism and scepticism as the only possible alternatives. In 1925, he wrote to his friend Clark Ashton Smith, saying: "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". 1 Anyone who wrote to him asking if the gods and occult tomes mentioned in his stories were real would receive a polite letter stating his disbelief in such notions.
He was not merely a passive believer in a philosophy of scepticism, but a passionate missionary for his creed. He wrote letters to local newspapers attacking claims of the Hollow Earth and astrology. These letters may contain more vitriol than reasoned critique, but they nonetheless make their points effectively and entertainingly. Such debates also raged in his letters, for he kept a wide circle of friends with widely differing perspectives from his own. If he were alive today, Lovecraft would probably be a strong supporter of CSICOP.
Lovecraft’s scepticism was so vehement that, at one point, it almost brought him a book deal. The celebrated stage magician Harry Houdini was known as a debunker of spiritualists and quacks. Lovecraft revised a fictionalised account of one of Houdini’s adventures, in which the conjuror escapes bandits and far worse things in the tunnels beneath the Great Pyramids ("Imprisoned with the Pharaohs"). Houdini was happy with the rewrite, and the two exchanged letters discussing future collaborations. Along with Providence author C M Eddy, they decided to write a book called The Cancer of Superstition, which they thought would strike a final blow against credulity. Houdini’s death in 1926 put an end to the project; if what survives is anything to go by, 2 it was no great loss, the authors’ names being the book’s most interesting feature.
Nevertheless, 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 Encyclopædia 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. 3 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 4 – from libraries and his friends, most notably Herman C Koenig of New York City. (Interestingly, Lovecraft actually mentions Fort by name in a couple of stories.). Lovecraft, then, was hardly an authority on matters esoteric and uncanny, but he had some basic knowledge that he incorporated into his tales.
New England Folklore
To understand Lovecraft’s writing, we must first understand New England. The work is permeated with a love of the old lanes, ancient houses, winding alleys, and sunset skylines of this region. He travelled across the eastern United States and lived (unhappily) for a time in New York City, yet he always returned to Providence and New England. He conducted a good deal of research into the area’s folktales, coming across a number of legends that worked their way into his fiction.
The prize of his library was an old edition of Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana. Mather (1663-1728) was a noted New England minister, whose writings encouraged the belief in witchcraft and indirectly led to the Salem witch-trials. Mather devotes one section of the book to the witch-trials, and another to miraculous and supernatural events – witch-findings, ghosts, supernatural warnings, and examples of poltergeist phenomena.
One of Mather’s sermons, reprinted in Magnalia, tells of the punishments God inflicted upon sinners. One prominent figure in the sermon is a young man with a distinctive blemish in his eye, who commits bestiality. His sin is exposed when a farm animal gives birth to an abomination bearing the same mark. The man confesses what he has done, and the local authorities have him executed.
When Lovecraft visited Salem in 1923, its old houses and quaint squares gave him a wonderful thrill. There, in the Charter Street Burying Ground, he found a willow growing around a shattered gravestone, with a crumbling old house beyond it. This house, which still stands, was once the home of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fiancée, and served as the inspiration for that author’s "Dr. Grimshawe’s Secret". The house made a deep impression on Lovecraft, who was also aware of the strand of folklore concerning New England families who kept ill or deformed relatives hidden in the attic. Weaving these elements together with Mather’s account, he created "The Unnamable".
In the story, two men sit in a cemetery and discuss whether anything can be "unnameable." Joel Manton asserts that nothing can bear such a label, save in a cheap horror story, but the narrator insists that such a thing can indeed exist, and alludes to Mather’s story. In this version, the half-human monstrosity grows into a beast that terrorises the countryside, attacking people on the roads and slaying the parson and his family. The townsfolk lock the monster in the attic of its father’s house, where it dies. The narrator ends his demonstration by stating that he found the creature’s bones and buried them – in the grave on which the two men are sitting. As this revelation is made, the monster reappears and attacks the unfortunate pair.
The Salem witch-trials of 1692 form a common motif in Lovecraft’s fiction. While he didn’t believe in witches, he was fascinated with what he saw as the morbidity of the Puritan lifestyle and the executions that had happened only a short train-ride away from 20th century Providence. While he never wrote a story centring on the witch trials, Lovecraft mingled them with other occult beliefs to create his own literary version of such events.
"Pickman’s Model" is the story of Richard Upton Pickman 5, a gifted painter from an old Salem family, one of whose ancestors was hanged during the witch-trials. Pickman’s paintings are of undeniable genius, but are so morbid that all the local artists ostracise him. Stinging with this rejection, Pickman brings his friend Thurber to a secret apartment in Boston’s North End, where he shows him a hideous series of paintings suggesting that the witches dealt with corpse-eating monsters that burrow beneath cemeteries and cities. In the end, it is revealed that they have more than a little to do with Pickman’s own dark heritage…
In "The Dreams in the Witch-House", a witch named Keziah Mason is imprisoned in the Salem jail, but escapes the authorities by drawing a curious design in blood on the wall of her cell. Such a magical diagram is a common motif in supernatural fiction, but Mason’s mastery of space and time is not due to any knowledge of ‘magic’ in the traditional sense. Rather, she enters other dimensions through her use of advanced mathematics and geometry, and creeps back to our world centuries later to find converts and sacrifices. She decides that a young mathematics student would be the perfect acolyte, and uses her powers and those of her familiar – the rat-like Brown Jenkin – to draw him into her sorcery. As fantasy author Fritz Leiber pointed out, this was one of the first uses of the mathematical concept of hyperspace in fiction.6
The Vampires of Providence
Lovecraft’s "The Shunned House" may not be his most famous tale, but it contains one of the most striking uses of folklore in a horror story. He did not take any aspect of the story from just one source, but mixed and matched various elements to fit his own ends.
"The Shunned House" tells of a building on Benefit Street in Providence noted for the ill health of its tenants. When the narrator’s investigation begins, the house is abandoned. As a child, he visits the house, noting its air of desolation and a curious, anthropomorphic patch of phosphorescent mould in the basement. Going back through its history, he discovers tales of illness and creeping insanity engulfing its inhabitants, dating back to the time of the first builders. Invalids die shrieking about monsters, while some mutter in French, a language of which they have no knowledge. Later, it is revealed that the house was built on the site of the Roulet family graveyard – which nobody troubled to move when Benefit Street was straightened. The narrator informs his uncle, a historian, of these strange findings, and the two visit the house with scientific instruments – not to mention flame-throwers! – to put the horror to rest. Yet, the spirit that resides in the house is not easily defeated.
If the ‘Shunned House’ really existed, one might expect it to be a dark and forbidding dwelling, whispered about in local folklore. Yet the house which is most likely to have inspired the tale is nothing of the sort; now painted yellow, its cellar doors still open directly onto the sidewalk, and part of the overgrown yard is now a community garden. Lovecraft mentions in his letters that the house had a foreboding air, and that his aunt once lived there for a short time in the early 1920s. 7
Some scholars have sought the tale’s inspiration in local legends of the vampire. While the word conjures up images of castles perched high in the mountains of Transylvania, similar sources lay closer to home. As recently as a century ago, some Rhode Islanders believed in these monsters. In 1892, a wasting disease, now thought to be tuberculosis, struck the Brown family of Exeter. The locals became convinced that the dead family members fed off the living in spirit form, dragging their brothers and sisters with them to the grave. Digging up one of the daughters, Mercy Brown, they found her body fresh and seeping blood. The family burned the young woman’s heart to ashes and fed them to her brother, in an unsuccessful attempt to cure him. Christopher Rondina’s book The Vampire-Hunter’s Guide to New England details a number of such legends circulating in the rural areas of Rhode Island.
Oddly enough, however, these legends played virtually no role in the construction of Lovecraft’s tale – in fact, he dismisses them in a single sentence, one paraphrasing a book of folklore in his own collection, Charles M. Skinner’s Myths and Legends of Our Own Land (1896). A further perusal of this work uncovers a more likely source for Lovecraft’s story. Skinner writes of a house on Green Street in Schenectady, New York, said to have a patch of mould on the floor shaped like a body. Other parts of the story – the illness of the tenants, the unearthed and forgotten body beneath – may also be found in this story 8. It is unlikely that Lovecraft tried to find this house during his brief trips to upstate New York, but that did not stop the legend from influencing his work.
What, then, accounts for the sinister nature of the occupant of the forgotten tomb? Lovecraft incorporated a legend from John Fiske’s Myths and Myth-Makers (1872), regarding an event near the French town of Caude in 1598, when a group of men saw two wolves devouring the body of a boy. Chasing them, they found a man coated in blood and gore hiding in the woods. He was revealed to be one Jacques Roulet, who claimed to use a salve to change his shape to that of a wolf. He was convicted of murder but, before he could be executed, the government intervened and locked him in an asylum. 9 In his story, Lovecraft suggests that the same Roulets had come to the New World and taken up residence in Providence, with sinister results.
Lovecraft’s genius, then, was to find inspiration and material aplenty in occult, folkloric and historical sources and to use them – with, as we have seen, no belief in the possibility of their reality – as the raw material for tales of an entirely different nature. When we finally meet the terror at the house on Benefit Street, it is much worse than any werewolf or vampire could be.
Lovecraft and the Western Esoteric Tradition
Black magic and forbidden books have been staples of European folklore for centuries, and Lovecraft makes extensive use of them in his works: immortal wizards plot revenge against their foes, magical keys open gates to other dimensions, and a book called the Necronomicon foretells the doom of humanity at the hands (or tentacles) of the Old Ones. These elements of Lovecraft’s fiction have led to plenty of speculation that he was a practising wizard, or at least had a deep knowledge of the magical lore of past ages. In fact, his knowledge of Western esotericism was pretty spotty for most of his career.
His story "The Horror at Red Hook" was his first attempt to use genuine magical lore as the basis for a story. "Red Hook" tells of a policeman’s fight against a sinister cult based in Brooklyn’s seedy Red Hook district. The cult – which mixes such diverse belief systems as Kurdish Yezidism, Tibetan shamanism, and Nestorian Christianity – meets in an old church used as a dance hall and worships demons such as Ashtaroth and Lilith. The tale is a jumble of occult lore, with good reason – he took most of his information, including a chant to the Greek goddess Hecate, from the Encyclopedia Britannica’s articles on magic and demonology, hardly a very esoteric source!
If nothing else, "Red Hook" made Lovecraft realise how little he knew about magic. He asked his correspondents for suggestions for his reading list. "Are there any good translations of any mediæval necromancers for raising spirits, invoking Lucifer, & all that sort of thing?" he asks in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith. 10 By the end of his life, Lovecraft had read several works on magic, though most of them were sensationalistic works of a second-hand nature. These included Arthur Edward Waite’s Book of Black Magic and of Pacts, Lewis Spence’s Encyclopædia of Occultism, Sax Rohmer’s Romance of Sorcery, and The Mysteries of Magic by Eliphas Levi (Alphonse Constant).
The latter served Lovecraft well when he came to write The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Ward is a young scholar and historian who discovers that an ancestor, Joseph Curwen, while apparently a prominent and respectable merchant, was also a wizard with a library full of works on alchemy and mysticism. In 1771, a group made up of Providence’s most distinguished citizens attacked Curwen’s farmhouse and did away with him. During the raid, Curwen chanted two spells lifted straight from Levi’s The Mysteries of Magic. Nonetheless, when it came to the final incantation that resurrects the dead, Lovecraft could not find one suitable, so he wrote one in his own "R’lyehian" language.
As time went on, Lovecraft largely abandoned the trappings of magic and adopted a language more congenial to his temperament – that of science. In a letter written near the end of his life, he revealed that he found the language of esotericism "flat, childish, pompous, and unconvincing" 11, and expressed his belief that a writer could make up occult books just as terrifying as any that actually existed. History has proven him right; his arch piece of literary invention, the Necronomicon, has inspired a tremendous number of ‘hoax’ versions, none of which match the power of Lovecraft’s vision.
Even as Lovecraft sought his terrors in the realm of science, his fame was already spreading among occultists. While he did not share their views, he was nonetheless a polite correspondent who answered their questions and presented his opinions without judgement. So, who were these occult figures? Or, given the rumours that still circulate, who weren’t they?
A great deal of nonsense has appeared about Lovecraft’s connection to the notorious magician Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), coiner of the term "magick" – pronounced may-jick – to distinguish his own "sex-magic" from conjuring parlour-tricks. Some authors say that the two men met, while others claim that Lovecraft’s wife Sonia Greene dated Crowley before marrying Lovecraft. None of this is true. Lovecraft had heard of Crowley, but had little information outside the newspapers of the day and such fictional caricatures as appeared in H Russell Wakefield’s "He Cometh and He Passeth By". He never corresponded with Crowley or read any of his work, and found him to be, if anything, "rather over-advertised". 12 Lovecraft’s "The Thing on the Doorstep" refers to an English cult leader – but this seems to be the extent of Crowley’s influence on the Providence author.
Others have insisted that Lovecraft knew members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an occult fraternity founded in 1877 and whose membership included Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood, two authors whom Lovecraft admired greatly. He never wrote to either of these men, though – he resisted "fawning on the great". Further, no Golden Dawn-specific terminology turns up anywhere in his writings.
One person Lovecraft may have met was the science fiction writer and founder of the Church of Scientology, L Ron Hubbard. The two men did write for the pulps at the same time, and both even attended a Fiction Guild dinner in June 1936. In a letter to Robert Bloch (author of Psycho), Lovecraft mentions Hubbard’s name, but finds himself unable to remember meeting the gentleman 13. Of course, Hubbard did not found his Dianetics movement until well after Lovecraft was dead, and no researchers have found any Hubbard-Lovecraft letters.
This doesn’t mean that Lovecraft didn’t correspond with occultists. One of his pen pals was descended from a Salem witch, and sent him gruesome pieces of folklore that she hoped he would use in his stories (he never did). Another, a gentleman from Iowa named Olson, claimed he held the secret to immortality. His beliefs, as quoted in a letter from Lovecraft’s friend and fellow author Robert E Howard (of Conan the Barbarian fame), included a mixture of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy with physics and other curious tenets, such as the belief that Jesus was a vampire. Howard thought this was odd, if acceptable, but became most incensed when Olson asked him to send on a chain letter. 14
Nor should we forget E Hoffman Price, a prolific pulp author from New Orleans. Price was not only a soldier and renowned traveller, but described himself as a Theosophist and Buddhist and sometimes cast horoscopes for money. When Lovecraft travelled to Louisiana, Howard informed Price, and the two men spent the next 36 hours together. Later, Lovecraft collaborated with Hoffman on "Through the Gates of the Silver Key", in which Randolph Carter, Lovecraft’s hero and literary alter ego, goes through a mystical initiation in his search for ultimate meaning.
Perhaps the most famous of Lovecraft’s occult correspondents was William Lumley (1880-1960), a night watchman from Buffalo, New York. Before settling down, Lumley had been a sailor who heard strange tales in Port Said and other distant lands. Lumley told Lovecraft of his meetings with Eastern masters – including one who apparently visited him for a short time in Buffalo – and spectral figures in the haunted valleys and houses of western New York. Despite his scepticism, Lovecraft humoured his friend, and the two struck up a lively correspondence which lasted until Lovecraft’s death. When Lumley wrote a story called "The Diary of Alonzo Typer", about a haunted house near Attica, Lovecraft revised it for him. Lumley’s first draft has since been published 15 and closely resembles a real-life journal of a paranormal investigation. Could Lumley have been describing an actual experience? Most of his papers have vanished, so there is no way of knowing.
Lovecraft and Theosophy
In the late 19th century, a Russian émigrée named Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky electrified the West. Blavatsky founded Theosophy, meaning roughly "divine knowledge", in 1875. Blavatsky’s "Masters" showed her the Book of Dzyan, a volume existing on the astral plane and written on palm leaves. With the help of the wisdom of Dzyan, the Theosophical Society set out to uncover the truths behind science, religion, and psychic phenomena. Previous civilisations on the lost continents of Lemuria and Atlantis had destroyed themselves due to lack of spiritual purity, but the Theosophists hoped through their researches to move humanity into the next stage of its spiritual evolution, and thereby bring the world to an age of brotherhood. Despite its high-minded claims, scandal rocked the group, and by the 1920s it was a pale shadow of its former self.
Lovecraft skirted the edges of Theosophical literature for over 10 years. In 1926, he read W Scott-Elliot’s Story of Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria. This work is a description of the geography and culture of the lost continents, with notes on their former inhabitants. Shortly after reading this work, Lovecraft penned one of his most celebrated tales, "The Call of Cthulhu". The story tells of a worldwide psychic disturbance in which authors and poets have strange dreams of an underwater city in the Pacific. While some groups – including the Theosophists – consider this to be a good omen, one student of ethnology pieces together the truth: the dreams do not come from a kindly-disposed spiritual lord, but from an alien monstrosity whose return will destroy all of humanity.
Lovecraft’s friend E Hoffman Price notes in his memoirs how unimpressed he was with Lovecraft’s understanding of Theosophy 16. Perhaps if Lovecraft had read more of the stuff, many of the key concepts within Theosophical texts would have resonated with his own fictional creations. After all, the Theosophists discussed Lemuria, Atlantis, and the Imperishable Sacred Land to the far north (all of which were now lost), and a similar lore concerning lost continents was not unique to "The Call of Cthulhu", but turns up throughout Lovecraft’s œuvre, for instance in "The Temple" and "Out of the Aeons" (written with Hazel Heald). Another important Eastern concept dear to the Theospophists – reincarnation – serves as the theme for a number of Lovecraft stories, including The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, as mentioned opposite (p38). Finally, we should not neglect the fact that Blavatsky and Lovecraft had, in effect, the same goal – the reconciliation of myth and ancient knowledge with modern science. The difference, of course, is that Lovecraft attempted a fictional synthesis, while Blavatsky created a new philosophy centred on this notion.
Some commentators, among them Colin Wilson 17, have asked whether Blavatsky’s Book of Dzyan could be the inspiration for the Necronomicon. Lovecraft’s letters, though, tell a different story. He didn’t hear of the Book of Dzyan until E Hoffman Price told him about it in 1933. Price’s account of the phantasmal book intrigued him, and it actually appears alongside the Necronomicon in his later works, including "The Diary of Alonzo Typer" and "The Haunter of the Dark".
So did Lovecraft ever read Blavatsky’s work? As it turns out, he might have done. In November 1936, Californian science fantasy author Henry Kuttner sent one of Blavatsky’s works – either Isis Unveiled or The Secret Doctrine – to Providence. Lovecraft thanked his friend, mentioning that he’d always meant to read Blavatsky, but had never got around to it. He died four months later; if he had finally grappled with Blavatsky’s literary efforts, his thoughts on them were lost forever.
The Master’s Legacy
Lovecraft’s death brought his writer friends out en masse to offer their condolences. It was this outpouring of grief that kick-started Lovecraft fandom. Weird Tales, which had never given Lovecraft a cover illustration during his life, frantically reprinted his old stories and searched for new ones. August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, two of Lovecraft’s friends, founded Arkham House to publish his works in book form. The first Arkham House edition, The Outsider and Others, commands prices of up to ,000 today. A rather unexpected side effect of all this attention was the adoption of Lovecraftian concepts into occult practice.
Modern occultists may be surprised to know that Lovecraft’s influence first made itself felt among the believers in the Hollow Earth and underground cities. Morris Doreal, head of the Brotherhood of the White Temple, referred to a "Yog Sog-Thoth, the gateway to the cycle below" in his Interpretations on the Emerald Tablets, published in 1948. Others discovered Lovecraft indirectly, through the stories of August Derleth, who in his own additions to the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’, as it came to be known, turned Lovecraft’s essentially amoral creations into the evil "Great Old Ones", who are opposed by the protective "Elder Gods." The book Agartha, written by Buddhist monk Robert Ernst Dickhoff in 1951, mentions both groups of beings, plus Lovecraft’s mountain of "Kadath". Richard Shaver, a Pennsylvania welder and long-time Weird Tales reader, used very similar imagery in his writing about the underground "deros" who inflict suffering upon mankind and the "teros" who oppose them (see FT127:36-41).
Lovecraft’s ideas slowly made their way into other sections of the occult community. John Keel’s concept of "windows" – areas in which extra-dimensional beings might appear – is similar to Lovecraft’s notion that a place or object might serve as a focus for influences from Outside. Robert M Price and Charles Garofalo point out how Lovecraft anticipated von Däniken’s theory of "ancient astronauts" by several decades 18. I’m not suggesting Lovecraft directly inspired Keel or von Däniken, yet their ‘real’ ideas follow an intriguingly parallel course to the ‘fictional’ ones of the man from Providence.
Rumours of strange sects practising Lovecraftian magic have been with us for years, but two works published in 1972 brought them to a broader audience. Anton LaVey’s The Satanic Rituals included ceremonies by Michael Aquino to call Lovecraft’s gods Shub-Niggurath and Cthulhu into consciousness. LaVey and Aquino maintained that these rituals were merely psychodrama, a fact seemingly lost on many of those who practise them. A hemisphere away, Kenneth Grant published The Magical Revival, which hailed Lovecraft as a contemporary of Crowley who echoed his prophecies of a new æon. While occultists have never been averse to creating their own traditions, the embrace of an admittedly fictional pantheon started a firestorm of controversy that has never died down.
Despite this uncertainty, Lovecraftian magic is here to stay. Erik Davis’s article in the now-defunct magazine Gnosis 19 provided much insight into its practitioners, but failed to capture its broad appeal. For example, I have talked with members of the Miskatonic Alchemical Expedition, a group of spiritual seekers who once met at a farmhouse near West Danby in upstate New York. There, they took hallucinogens and sought visions bringing contact with a wide variety of god-forms – including Lovecraft’s Old Ones. Black Moon Publishing, associated with Cincinnati’s Bate Cabal, provides photocopies of a staggering collection of Lovecraftian conjurations, rituals, Tarot decks, and theoretical speculation. As Lovecraft makes his resurgence in popular culture, it is likely that more people will practice magic based on his fiction.
Perhaps the most widespread and broadly appealing strand in this factitious magical tradition – and perhaps its creator’s most enduring legacy – is that madness-inducing book of eldritch lore, the Necronomicon. Since 1940, numerous attempts were made to write the book Lovecraft had invented. The most commercially successful of these were the Simon Necronomicon (1977), which emerged from the New York occult community, and George Hay’s Necronomicon: The Book of Dead Names (1978), published by Neville Spearman and later by Skoob Books. Having examined their beliefs for many years, I have to say that those who believe in the reality of such books are sincere – not to mention more numerous than most commentators have realised.
So the cult of Cthulhu lives. It may be that some day, Howard Phillips Lovecraft himself will be forgotten, while the devotees of his Old Ones "bellow and prance and slay around idol-capped monoliths in lonely places," as he puts it in "The Call of Cthulhu".
I hope this will not be the case, and that Lovecraft’s unique literary gifts will be remembered alongside his creations.
1 Selected Letters II, Arkham House, Sauk City, 1968, p 27.
2 “The Cancer of Superstition”, in The Dark Brotherhood and Other Pieces, ed August Derleth, Arkham House, Sauk City, 1966, pp 246-261.
3 Letters to Robert Bloch, Necronomicon Press, West Warwick, 1993, p 17.
4 Selected Letters III, Arkham House, Sauk City, 1971, p 136.5 Lovecraft scholar Michael Tice points out that the description of the event in Lovecraft’s story points to Salem witch Martha Carrier. It is not known whether Lovecraft intended to refer to any specific person, however.
6 Fritz Leiber, “Through Hyperspace with Brown Jenkin: Lovecraft’s Contribution to Speculative Fiction” in The Dark Brotherhood and Other Pieces, Arkham House, Sauk City, 1966, reprinted in Lovecraft Remembered, ed Peter Cannon, Arkham House, Sauk City, 1999, and in H P Lovecraft: Four Decades of Criticism, ed S T Joshi, Ohio State University Press, Athens, Ohio, 1980.
7 S T Joshi, HP Lovecraft: A Life, Necronomicon Press, West Warwick, 1996, p 347.
8 Selected Letters I, Arkham House, Sauk City, 1965, pp 76-77.
9 John Fiske, Myths and Myth-Makers, 1872, p 84.
10 Selected Letters II, p. 28.
11 H P Lovecraft and Willis Conover, Lovecraft at Last, Carrollton Clark, Arlington, 1975, p 32.
12 Selected Letters V, Arkham House, Sauk City, 1976, p 120.
13 Letters to Robert Bloch, p 83.
14 Robert E Howard, Selected Letters 1931-1936, Necronomicon Press, West Warwick, 1991, pp 17-18.
15 In Black Forbidden Things, ed Robert M Price, Starmont, Mercer Island, 1992, pp 91-96.
16 Book of the Dead, Arkham House, Sauk City, 2001, p 61.
17 Necronomicon: The Book of Dead Names, Skoob, London, 1992, p 45.
18 “Chariots of the Old Ones?” In Black Forbidden Things, pp 86-87.
19 “Calling Cthulhu”, Gnosis 37, pp 56-63.