John L. Steadman, a scholar of H.P. Lovecraft and western occultism, is an English professor at Olivet College here in Michigan. He recently published a fascinating book about the author and his influence on contemporary occult and magickal practice, H.P. Lovecraft & the Black Magickal Tradition. (The book was reviewed earlier; see also Horror Theory:Lovecraft and Black Magick) This week Mr. Steadman graciously took time out from his busy academic schedule to answer some questions about his new book. What follows is the first of a three part series.
How and when did you first become acquainted with the work of H.P. Lovecraft? Do you have a favorite story?
I don’t remember a time in my early life and childhood when I wasn’t fascinated by ghosts, vampires, witches, werewolves and occult subjects. I actually saw a ghost when I was very young up at our summer cottage in Claire, Michigan. When I was in elementary school, there were two books that I constantly checked out at the school library: The Thing at the Foot of the Bed (a collection of ghost stories compiled by folklorist Maria Leach) and the wonderful anthology, The Fireside Book of Ghost Stories. I also collected Famous Monsters of Filmland.
When I attended Middle School, I graduated to more sophisticated reading material. I first read the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ray Bradbury and M. R. James in the 7th grade. It was in Middle School, also, when I discovered Lovecraft. This was in the mid 1960’s. I was shopping at a bookstore and was drawn to a paperback book with a particularly lurid cover. The book was titled The Colour Out of Space & Other Stories, by H. P. Lovecraft. The cover was black, with a burning, orange and red skull in the center. I bought the book mainly because of this cover. At this time, it was autumn, my favorite season, and after school, I liked to sit outside to read and to savor the crisp days and the colorful trees. On that day, I read the title story and I remember even after all these years how terrified I was by it. Quite literally, I found myself shivering, even though the day was rather warm and comfortable.
This was an entirely new sensation for me; no other story, with the possible exception of E. F. Benson’s “The Room in the Tower,” had ever had such an immediate, disturbing effect on me. And from that point on, I was a lifelong fan of Lovecraft. I like all of Lovecraft’s stories, particularly those written after 1926, and I always try to find the time to re-read all of them at least once a year. If I had to pick favorites, it would be these three: “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”, “The Dunwich Horror”; and “The Dreams in the Witch House.”
How would you evaluate Lovecraft as a writer in terms of his strengths and weaknesses?
Quite honestly and emphatically, I rank Lovecraft as a very great writer, the supreme 20th century writer, in fact, of horror, fantasy and science fiction. Moreover, I believe Lovecraft, as a stylist, to be superior to Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Dunsany, Machen, Blackwood, Bierce, Bulwer-Lytton, James, Wells, or any other fantasist of previous generations. This claim may, no doubt, seem outrageous to many individuals, but nevertheless, I abide by it and believe it to be true.
Lovecraft’s particular strengths lie in his descriptive, evocative prose and in his narrative power; his characters and especially, his places, are vividly and unforgettably realized. His greatest contribution to literature, of course, is his brilliant expression of the conviction that human life and human concerns, and in fact, the earth itself, is of minimal significance in the great, cosmic expanse of the universe and that, furthermore, there is no real purpose or direction to human life.
Lovecraft’s weakness, at least for many of his critics, is his tendency to use vague, rather indefinite adjectives to “spice” up his work- “horrible, terrible, frightful, weird, unholy, blasphemous, hellish, infernal”, etc. But from my own standpoint, I like these adjectives because they do, indeed, spice things up, making the whole brew much more delightfully delicious. And in fact, there are critics, notably Graham Harman, Associate Provost for Research Administration and Professor of Philosophy at the American University in Cairo, who argue that Lovecraft’s use of such adjectives, serve a very important function in his work, highlighting the “weird” content of reality.
Lovecraft has been criticized for his prose style as well as content now considered insensitive and disrespectful of ethnic or racial minorities. Yet most would agree that his influence on horror and science fiction is pervasive and enduring. What do you think accounts for this? Do his critics appreciate what he was trying to accomplish in his fiction?
Lovecraft’s views about ethnic and racial minorities were much more than simply insensitive or disrespectful; Lovecraft was, in fact, a racist; he hated most ethnic groups, particularly Jews, Italians, Poles, Asians and definitely African-Americans, which he freely referred to as “Niggers.” In fact, there are critics who claim that Lovecraft’s female Great Old One, Shub-Niggurath, represents a product of Lovecraft’s racism, i.e. “Shub” suggesting sub-human, and “Niggurath” suggesting “Nigger.”
Admittedly, Lovecraft’s racism was a very thorny issue among his friends during his lifetime and has remained so for his fans and admirers right up to the present day. During Lovecraft’s lifetime, his friends tried to downplay this issue, making the argument that Lovecraft only hated ethnic groups in the abstract, but actually not when he encountered them on a personal level. As justification for this view, these individuals cite the fact that Lovecraft married Sonia Greene, a Jewish woman whom he admired and fell in love with, despite of the fact that Lovecraft, in his writings and conversation, expressed an intense dislike for the Jewish people.
However, this type of reasoning is clearly specious. It is true that Lovecraft did love and admire Ms. Greene, but this didn’t mitigate his racist opinions towards Jews. Lovecraft was able to tolerate his wife because she wasn’t “in-your-face” ethnic in terms of looks or behavior; Sonia was white like him, she sounded like him and acted like him, and thus, he was able to overlook her ethnic background. If Sonia had been an African American woman, then Lovecraft would not have been capable of marrying her and wouldn’t have done so.
Quite frankly, there isn’t any way of getting around the fact of Lovecraft’s racism, and this is something that the scholar, the student and the fan of Lovecraft must simply acknowledge. I’ve read a great deal of Lovecraft criticism over the years and the critics almost invariably find themselves easily able to get past Loveraft’s racism; they ignore the less attractive, reprehensible traits, and they admire Lovecraft for his fine, though slightly flawed, intellect. And, without question, they all agree that Lovecraft’s influence on horror, science fiction and fantasy is, indeed, pervasive and enduring and is likely to remain so for a very long time.
Early in the book you make the provocative claim that the ultimate purpose of ritual magick is to facilitate communication with extraterrestrials. Can you elaborate on this interesting idea?
All magickal practice derives from the earnest desire on the part of the magickal practitioner for an original relationship with the universe; this is the goal of magick, in fact, and in pursuit of that goal, the practitioner expects to find meaning and purpose for his or her life. The black magickal systems, in particular, allow for the achievement of knowledge and power, while the white magickal systems are focused primarily on spiritual perfection. But all three of these goals, knowledge, power and even spiritual attainment, must come from something. Or from some place. And they do; they come from the extra-terrestrial entities themselves, and the places that these entities inhabit.
In my book, I allow for the broadest interpretation of the term “extra-terrestrial.” It is perfectly reasonable to argue that extra-terrestrial entities are merely personifications of the powers of the mind, which are unlocked and utilized by the magickal practitioner; in terms of this interpretation, the entities are imaginary entities, “evoked” or “invoked” as the case might be for specific purposes. It is equally reasonable to argue that the extra-terrestrial entities are actual existing beings who inhabit alternate dimensions and can be contacted via ritual, dream control or controlled magickal possession. And, similarly, it is reasonable to view the extra-terrestrial entities merely as ontological creatures of a form and substance similar to our own who happen to dwell on other planets; alien beings who may, perhaps, have colonized the earth in the past and are still living hidden in remote or inaccessible places.
In Lovecraft’s work, we find examples of all three types of extra-terrestrial entities, though in terms of goals, Lovecraft’s entities provide only knowledge or power- there is no such thing as spiritual perfection in Lovecraft’s universe. In terms of magickal practice, it doesn’t really matter how the practitioner views the extra-terrestrial entities, or, in fact, what he or she conceives these entities to be; as long as the magick works, then the practitioner should be sensible enough to be satisfied.
To be continued…