Monday, September 28, 2015

3. Lovecraft and Magick: An Interview with John L. Steadman

This is the final section of a three part series featuring an interview with John L. Steadman, author of the recently published H.P. Lovecraft & the Black Magickal Tradition.  Previously, Mr. Steadman commented on the authenticity and use of the Necronomicon in magickal practice, Lovecraft’s interaction and influence with other authors in his circle, and the clear “dichotomy between Lovecraft, the atheist and the materialist, and Lovecraft as a dreamer—as the prophet, in effect, of the Aeon of the Great Old Ones.”

As a magickal practitioner yourself, can you discuss the status of contemporary occult and magickal practice? How do you envision the future?

Currently, the predominate white magickal organization in the US and worldwide is the OTO (Ordo Templi Orientis) USA; this organization has at least 46 or so lodges, encampments and oases scattered across the country and their ranks of initiates continue to grow on a yearly basis.  I was a member of the Thelema Lodge for many years in my youth; I took the following degrees: II° in New York on 3/79; I° on 11/20/77 and the 0° in California on 5/70, though I allowed my membership in the order to lapse as of 11/27/84.  Nevertheless, I still have friends in the OTO, and it seems clear to me that the OTO USA will continue to grow in the future, guiding and assisting fledging initiates in their quest for spiritual, mental and moral perfection.

In the near future, also, I think that the great black magickal systems that I have focused on in the latter portion of my book will continue to flourish.  The Vodou religion has become a bona-fide religion and yet, unlike most of the Christian sects (excepting the Catholics, of course), Vodou has managed to preserve its magickal roots and its mysteries.  The Wiccan religion is likewise in the process of solidifying its position as a new religion, but whether or not its magickal roots will remain intact is an open question.  Certainly, creative neopagans such as Konstantinos (who has written seven wonderful books under the Llewellyn imprint) are earnestly working to keep Wiccan vital, while incorporating Lovecraftian themes and concepts into their ritual workings.

As for the other three systems, the Typhonian Order, the Church of Satan, and the Chaos Magick Pacts, these all seem to be expanding, evolving and transmogrifying into a diversity of different organizations and offshoots. The Typhonian Order, under the directorship of Michael Staley, Kenneth Grant’s “deputy”, still operates; whether it will continue to flourish is unclear as yet. Chaos Magick spokesman Peter Carroll has established the Arcanorium College, which offers advanced degrees in magickal practice; this is an interesting idea, but in  my opinion, institutionalized magickal temples tend to work against the natural inclinations among average Chaos Magickians to function in small, individualistic, cell-like covens. 

Interestingly, I see a lot of healthy growth among the Satanists. The original Church of Satan, under the directorship of Magistra Peggy Nadramia and Ms. Barton, is still going strong (Satan bless them!), but there are many new groups as well.  There is the Temple of Set, represented by High Priestess Patricia Hardy IV°; there is the Modern Church of Satan (MCoS); and there is The Satanic Temple—Detroit.  In addition, there are a number of satanic groups that are generally closed to the public; the International Satanist Union; the Dark Black Satan Metal group; and the Satanica Universal, among others.  All of these groups and organizations are keeping the dark gnosis alive in the 21st century.

I think that the new millennium will witness a more extensive use of Lovecraft’s pantheon of extra-terrestrial entities and Lovecraftian elements by occultists. Currently, there is an order known as The Esoteric Order of Dagon, headquartered in Eugene, Oregon, and presided over by Grand Master Frater Obed Marsh which has, according to Marsh, been in operation for nearly thirty years.  The writer and artist Gavin Callaghan discusses the Cult of Cthulhu group in Wisconsin, led by Venger Satanis; this group is actively working to evoke the Great Old Ones and literally bring about a Lovecraftian apocalypse. 

In the future, however, I see Lovecraft’s occult influence becoming more spiritualized—a kind of R’lyehian spirituality, in fact, as Scott R. Jones refers to it in his excellent book, When the Stars are Right (Martian Migraine Press, 2014).

More importantly, however, I think that magickal practice and the scientific disciplines will begin to move closer together as the millennium progresses, and I think a time will come when scientists, philosophers and other proponents of rationality will eventually undertake the study of magickal texts in their search for viable ways to quantify their speculations. Indeed, they will need to do this ultimately if they have any intention of progressing beyond speculation.
Can you talk some more about the connections between quantum physics and the various entities in Lovecraft’s pantheon, (i.e., “the Great Old Ones”)? This seems especially applicable to Lovecraft’s The Dreams in the Witch-House.

The entities in “The Dreams in the Witch House”, are perfect examples (if there is such a thing) of quantum entities; asymmetrical; chaotic, iridescent, poly-dimensional and pan demonic, constantly merging and melding into different forms, shapes and colors that bear little resemblance to the shapes characteristic of our  normal time-space continuum. 

The Great Old Ones, likewise, tend to manifest in a similar fashion.  For example, Azathoth is envisioned as a shapeless, nuclear chaos (some Mythos scholars equate Azathoth with the scientific concept of the Big Bang), while Yog-Sothoth appears as a congeries of iridescent  spheres, similar to the forms that Keziah Mason and Brown Jenkin assume in the alternate dimensions.

Lovecraft makes it clear that human beings who gain access to the alternate dimensions are unable to form anything other than the vaguest conception of the ever-changing panorama of sights and sounds that they are experiencing.  Consequently, they are forced to grasp at mental constructs derived from their own unique physiologies and psychological predispositions.  

In the chapter about the Church of Satan, you describe LaVey’s belief that existence after death may be possible through the exercise of a strong ego, powerful will, and “lust for life”. This sounds very close to the beliefs of the refrigerated Dr. Muñoz in Lovecraft’s Cool Air. Given the author’s chronic illness and early death, is it possible that this was his best hope?

Lovecraft had no hope at all that any human component, the soul, the mind, the “will”, the vitality, whatever, is strong enough to survive the death of the physical body. Consequently, Dr. Munoz’s beliefs are certainly not Lovecraft’s own beliefs.  And in fact, Lovecraft makes it clear in Cool Air that Munoz, despite his assertion that “will and consciousness are stronger than organic life itself”, still succumbs to death in the end since, after all, the man is really only being kept alive because of the ammonia cooling system in his room; his powerful will and drive are, thus, by themselves, ineffectual.

With regard to Lovecraft’s own death, I find the accounts of his last months and particularly, his reaction to the fact that he was dying, to be very stirring and noble. Right up to the end, Lovecraft bravely held to his principles and his convictions.  He never wavered from his beliefs, and there is no cowardly recanting of his atheistic principles, such as we find in the case of Oscar Wilde or Aubrey Beardsley, both of whom professed to be atheists, but whom, ultimately, received Extreme Unction rites administered by Catholic priests before their deaths.      
Your book has received considerable praise from several in the field, including the venerable S.T. Joshi, who shares with Lovecraft a materialist and atheist world view. Have you received any pushback from less supernaturally inclined reviewers?

I can’t say that any of my experiences with reviewers and endorsers have been anything other than positive and, in fact, entirely satisfying. I did ask Bruce Sterling for an endorsement and he refused, humorously claiming that if he endorsed the book, then the night gaunts would likely “get” him.  I suppose that this experience might be construed as “pushback”, but I found it quite amusing.  And if Mr. Sterling is reading this, I should warn him that I am going to take another stab at an endorsement from him for my second book, night gaunts notwithstanding. 

What do you have in mind for future projects? Are there other aspects of Lovecraft’s work you would like to explore?

H. P. Lovecraft & the Black Magickal Tradition is the first book in a projected trilogy.  Currently, I am working on the second book and have finished, to date, just over 86,000 words, so it is nearing completion.  Definitely, this second book and the third one will deal with other aspects of Lovecraft’s life and works, but I don’t want to go into detail about any of the specifics until I have signed a contract for the second book; I am hoping that Weiser Books will publish the entire trilogy, of course.

With regard to the second book, however, I will say that I am utilizing my skills as a literary critic (which I developed during my tenure at the University of Virginia) and am offering the reader a close, analytical study of Lovecraft’s major works; correcting previous readings when necessary, refuting what needs to be refuted, on occasion, and generally examining the direction and future of contemporary Mythos fiction.


If you are in the area next week, John L. Steadman will be discussing his book at Crazy Wisdom, 114 South Main, Ann Arbor, Michigan on Tuesday night, 10/6/15, 7:00-9:00 p.m.  (734-665-2757)


Saturday, September 26, 2015

2. Lovecraft and Magick: An Interview with John L. Steadman

This is the second of a three part series featuring an interview with John L. Steadman, the author of H.P. Lovecraft & the Black Magickal Tradition.  The book examines the influence of H.P. Lovecraft on contemporary occult and magickal practice.  In the previous section, Mr. Steadman described his early experiences with Lovecraft’s work and that author’s enduring importance to the field of weird fiction.  He also explained his unique perspective on communication with extraterrestrials.

If an authoritative version of the Necronomicon did exist, how would it be used in the 21st Century? Outside of occult ritual practice, would it be used for good or evil, or for some other end?

In a sense, all of the Necronomicons that we have today, even the ones that I label “spurious” in Chapter 3 of my book, can be understood as authentic, provided that they help the magickal practitioner accomplish the goals outlined previously.  A good maxim for magickal practice is: if it works, use it!

Thus, the emergence of yet another Necronomicon would do nothing more than give magickal practitioners in the 21st century another book to use, and those practitioners would likely use it much the same way that the current recensions are being used, for either good or evil, depending on the behavior and proclivities of the individual practitioners.

Is there any evidence that Lovecraft compared notes with his friend H.S. Whitehead? The latter made extensive use of material drawn from Vodou in his Tales of the Jumbee. Could there be a connection between some episodes in The Call of Cthulhu and Whitehead’s work?

Lovecraft first received a letter from H. S. Whitehead toward the end of 1930 and this marked the beginning of their correspondence.  However, it is difficult to determine whether or not the two men “compared notes” on their writing projects, since there are no surviving letters by Whitehead to Lovecraft, while Lovecraft’s own side of the correspondence has also been lost.

Whitehead was an Anglican priest who officiated at a rectory in Dunedin, Florida, where Lovecraft visited him on May 21, 1931.  During this visit, Lovecraft collaborated with Whitehead on the story “The Trap” (published in1932, in Strange Tales), which ended up being a relatively conventional horror story about a mirror that traps individuals into a dreamlike realm.  The collaboration, in my estimation, is not very effective; the story starts out as a typical Whitehead tale, light, urbane and worldly, and then it disharmoniously evolves into the kind of long, descriptive passages characteristic of Lovecraft’s work.  I think that Robert Chambers would have been a much better fit in terms of a collaborator for Whitehead than Lovecraft.

I’ve read Whitehead’s Jumbee and Other Uncanny Tales (1944) and Whitehead was, indeed, familiar with Vodou rites and practices, at least superficially, while Lovecraft was decidedly not.  But I must confess that I see little connection between Whitehead’s treatment of Vodou practices and Lovecraft’s depiction of New Orleans Vodou rites in his story “The Call of Cthulhu.”  Of course, both men are describing rites enacted in the woods in the dead of night and so, there are bound to be similarities: the reddish glare of bonfires; the animalistic cries and chants of the devotees; the beating of drums, the “animal fury and orgiastic license”, as it were; and the obligatory human sacrifice.  But this similarity is merely due to the use of the same subject matter on the part of both men.

References to the occult are also common in some of Lovecraft’s collaborations with other authors, for example Through the Gates of the Silver Key, which he co-wrote with E. Hoffman Price. Was Lovecraft experimenting with various ideas drawn from occult traditions, with the goal of incorporating them later on in his own work?

In Chapter 2 of my book, I examine in full detail what Lovecraft knew and how much he knew about western occultism.  Lovecraft wasn’t too interested in occult ideas; in this, he differs from Algernon Blackwood, who was a mystic and very much interested in all facets of occultism.

Certainly, Lovecraft wasn’t experimenting with occult ideas; he used books such as Murray’s The Witch Cult in Western Europe merely to mine them for imagery or for sensationalistic décor that he could then incorporate into his own work.  Throughout his life, Lovecraft kept his mind firmly closed against any infiltration of occult ideologies. 

The case of E. Hoffman Price is an interesting one.  Price was so fascinated by “The Silver Key” that he wrote his own sequel, “The Lord of Illusion”—a rather pedestrian work, incidentally—and Lovecraft, out of friendship, agreed to help Price revise it.  As was Lovecraft’s habit, he did an extensive rewrite, but I don’t think that the end result can be described as a genuine collaboration.  I tend to agree with S. T. Joshi’s final assessment of this story, as given in his biography of Lovecraft, A Dreamer and a Visionary (2001): “Whereas “The Silver Key” is a poignant reflection of some of Lovecraft’s innermost sentiments and beliefs, “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” is nothing more than a fantastic adventure story with awkward and laboured mathematical and philosophical interludes.”

Besides H.S. Whitehead, other writers in Lovecraft’s circle, among them Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, made extensive use of occult material in their work. Was there something unique about that period between the two world wars that encouraged a turn towards the occult? How has this interest in the occult changed over the decades since?

Conventional wisdom insists that there is always a spike in occult interest during times of particular stress and anxiety in the world and I won’t dispute this.  Surely, the period between the two world wars was a particularly stressful time for many individuals.  But there are always going to be wars and there is always going to be stress because of this, and I think that there never has been or will be any time in history when interest in the occult will ever diminish.  Western culture has always been fascinated by magick, infatuated by magick, in fact, and magick has always maintained an overarching presence at all times, protecting and nurturing our humanity and our culture.  

You acknowledge in your book that Lovecraft was a materialist and an atheist, disinclined to believe in any existence of mind or soul outside of the body. And yet his fiction contains numerous references to both occult and conventional Christian imagery and ideas. Why do you suppose this is so? What attracted him to these notions?

It is important to understand that there is no Christian imagery or Christian ideology in Lovecraft’s work at all. Lovecraft’s colleague August Derleth mistakenly (deliberately?) tried to impose a Christian schemata on the Cthulhu Mythos while Lovecraft was still alive, and subsequently, Derleth aggressively tried to keep this imposition alive after Lovecraft’s death.  But in this goal, he was unsuccessful.

Certainly, there is a clear contrast between good and evil in Lovecraft’s work, irrespective of any religious overtones.  There is, also, a clear dichotomy between Lovecraft, the atheist and the materialist, and Lovecraft as a dreamer—as the prophet, in effect, of the Aeon of the Great Old Ones.  In fact, I would argue that this dichotomy was never resolved by Lovecraft at any time in his own personal and intellectual life, and that, furthermore, the great power and fascination inherent in Lovecraft’s work is fueled by this same dichotomy.
Among the occult traditions that you survey in your book, are there any that Lovecraft would have been especially interested in or comfortable with, given what is known of the author from his fiction and correspondence?

I’m certain that Lovecraft would have been intrigued by the metaphysical and philosophical speculations raised by the Chaos Magickians.  He would have been interested in the quantum elements inherent in the Vodou religion as well.  But Lovecraft, of course, wouldn’t have had any use for anything else associated with the occult systems that I examine in my book, any more than he had any use for the trappings and elements of Christianity.

To be continued…


Mr. Steadman and I differ somewhat—it may be just a matter of semantics—on the appearance and purpose of conventional Christian imagery in Lovecraft’s work.  There is no question that Lovecraft—a man of considerable integrity—remained true to his atheist and materialist principles all his life.  Nevertheless, in my view at least, Christian imagery is frequent in Lovecraft’s work, and the author uses it often very cleverly to amplify the horror or weirdness in some of his stories.  I catalog some of these instances in H.P. Lovecraft Goes to Church.  An example of how he effectively used one such image is described in The Lurking Fear and the Prodigal Son.