Saturday, September 5, 2015

Horror Theory: Lovecraft and Black Magick

Near the end of his two volume biography of H.P. Lovecraft, S.T. Joshi devotes a few paragraphs to a phenomenon that emerged in the late 1970s:  the publication of several versions, both hardcover and paperback, of the Necronomicon.  In that same decade several occult and New Age groups began to incorporate Lovecraftian concepts and imagery into their ritual practices, a few believing them to be literally true and efficacious.  There were also scholarly attempts to link the author more explicitly to occult traditions of the kind formulated by Aleister Crowley and his colleagues. 
Joshi reminds us that the temptation to view Lovecraft’s fictional creations as somehow revelatory is quite old.  He cites the example of William Lumley, one of Lovecraft’s more eccentric collaborators.  The two co-wrote The Diary of Alonzo Typer (1935), and intrepid readers will get some understanding of Lumley’s peculiar world view by reading this dreadful joint effort.  Lumley believed that the entities comprising Lovecraft’s mythos actually existed and used sensitive individuals as their “mouthpieces”.  Joshi, who may be even more of an atheist and materialist than the subject of his biography, is predictably dismissive. 

But the use of Lovecraft’s material in occult practice continues in some form even today.  Why this should be so is a fascinating subject, one that is relatively unexplored.  Horror fiction, nightmare and supernaturalism are closely related, all trafficking in the same underlying source material, which is ultimately religious in nature.  It is through ritual—conventional, scientific or otherwise—that we attempt to control and understand the amorphous unknown, and so stave off terror and despair.  It seems self-evident that powerful and archetypal fictional ideas will influence occult practice and vice versa. 

A new book out this month explores this interesting relationship.  The author, John L. Steadman, is a professor of English here in Michigan, a scholar specializing in H.P. Lovecraft and western occultism.  He has also been a “magickal practitioner” for more than thirty years, having begun experimental work in this field in the 1970s.  His book, H.P. Lovecraft & The Black Magickal Tradition, provides an interesting and valuable overview of contemporary black magickal traditions, their history, principle beliefs, and most salient ritual practices, and then goes on to illuminate the relationship between Lovecraft’s horror fiction and occult experience. 

Steadman’s tone is respectful.  He is, after all, a practitioner himself, though not an uncritical one.  Readers can decide for themselves based on his thorough presentation of the material.  Among the traditions surveyed are various Vodou cults, Wiccan covens, the Typhonian Order, the Church of Satan, and—of interest to this writer—the Chaos Magick Pacts, a kind of post-modernist, Libertarian collection of disparate magickians.  H.P. Lovecraft & The Black Magickal Tradition is a well-researched, accessible and thought provoking bookan excellent base for further exploration of this fascinating subject. 

What is the ultimate purpose of these magickal practices and occult religions?  Steadman offers a provocative answer: it is not merely to conjure the various traditional demons and deities, but to communicate with “extraterrestrials”, or more specifically, the elemental energies—think quantum physics—that these named entities represent. 

Thus the members of various occult pantheons, Erzulie, Legba, Hecate, the Qliphoth, and Lucifer, as well as familiar members of the so-called Cthulhu Mythos, are metaphors and archetypes for non-anthropomorphic forces, the wave and particle phenomena that underlie matter. The best way to communicate with these forces is to become psychically possessed by them, which is the goal of magickal ritual practice.   

Steadman endeavors to show how Lovecraft’s famous cosmicism as well as the more metaphysical aspects of his dreaded pantheon of Great Old Ones are consistent with occult understandings about the universe.  This is a daunting challenge, given that Lovecraft was famously an atheist and a materialist who dismissed any notion that mind or soul can exist separate from the physical body.  And his mythos was after all a fictional creation.  (Or was it?)  Steadman takes the reasonably conservative view that there is little evidence Lovecraft was ever an “initiate” or in touch with supernatural entities.  (He notes that Lovecraft did share with occultists an intense interest in dreams and the use of dream material in his work.)

Nevertheless, Lovecraft enthusiasts know that his fictional work contains frequent reference to psychic possession and mental transference with other entities, as well as a preoccupation with pagan and magickal practices.  Steadman lists 18 of Lovecraft’s stories that contain these elements, and offers intriguing analysis of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The Call of Cthulhu, The Thing on the Doorstep, The Haunter of the Dark, and The Dreams in the Witch-House from his unique perspective.  The last story, with its perseveration on “the convergence of angled planes”, “freakish curvatures of space”, and “the fourth dimension”, has special significance for several occult groups.  In particular, Lovecraft’s Azathoth, Yog Sothoth, and Shub-Niggurath excite the attention of some occult practitioners.  

Lovecraft’s connection with magickal practice, according to Steadman, has to do with similarities between the author’s understanding of the universe—in terms of insights drawn from quantum physics—and the metaphorical expression of these insights in various magickal traditions.  Occult religion continues the habit of using anthropomorphic or zoomorphic representations of its deities—in Calvinist parlance this is called idolatry—a habit occultism shares with conventional religions.  Humans want tangible expressions of the unknown that they can somehow influence or control.  Lovecraft’s great contribution, both in horror literature and in religious sensibility, was to conceive of non-anthropomorphic, non-zoomorphic “monsters” who are ultimately unconcerned with the fears and desires of puny, transient humanity.

Steadman’s point may be a bit of a stretch, but his argument is strongest in a later chapter about the Chaos Magic Pacts.  Here the indeterminacy of wave and particle physics and post-modernist deconstruction of shared experience combine to form a troubling insight:  maybe all “subjective” experiences should be considered valid and real. Was William Lumley, Lovecraft’s eccentric colleague, on to something?

Though not emphasized by Steadman, H.P. Lovecraft & The Black Magickal Tradition raises some disturbing issues about the nature of human consciousness and understanding.  The use of Lovecraft’s fictional creations in black magickal practices is not really all that outlandish, or even unusual.  In many fields—politics, journalism, and memoire come to mind, among others—the lines between fiction and nonfiction, and more broadly, “objective” and “subjective” are being inexorably erased.  (What exactly is “reality TV” anyway?) 

An ironic consequence of “the information age” and the proliferation of wondrous communications technology is the relentless disintegration of a shared view of reality.  It may be that our collective notion of “the truth”—whatever that is—will resolve to the pragmatic: the truth is what is useful to believe.1 The occult groups that Steadman portrays in this important book are examples of this emerging understanding about the world, but not the only ones.

The chapter on “The Spurious Necronomicons” is entertaining.  Some familiar names in speculative fiction and criticism were apparently involved in a few of the earlier hoaxes he describes.  However, the author suggests that one of these “recensions” may actually have some degree of validity and application in magickal practice.  The book also contains interesting trivia: though it may not come up often in polite conversation, can you name the four Crown Princes of Hell*?

And speaking of which, though I currently lean more towards a Calvinist world view, this was not always so.  Back in the 70s and early 80s—the same period that saw the amalgamation of Lovecraftian and occult ideas—I was very interested in efforts to revive pre-Christian, Celtic forms of religious experience.  (Case in point:  why do we insist on celebrating the eve of a new year on December 31st, at the onset of winter, when it would make much more practical and spiritual sense to do so on October 31st, a day—Samhain—that concludes the yearly agricultural cycle?)  I was a fan of Isaac Bonewits’ books as well as his pagan organization, Ár nDraíocht Féin (“A Druid Fellowship”), and was also impressed at the time with Margo Adler’s wonderful book Drawing Down the Moon, (1979). 

While I cannot agree with some of the philosophical or ethical notions that underlay magickal ritual, I can sympathize with the religious and supernatural impulse—instinctual in my view—that draws each of us along some path to a deeper understanding of our selves and reality.
*Satan, Lucifer, Belial, and Leviathan.

1For a less ominous, somewhat parallel comment on this development, see David Brooks’ essay, “The New Romantics”, (New York Times, 9/4/15).

H.P. Lovecraft & The Black Magickal Tradition is available from Weiser Books (


  1. Steadman's book is, to be frank, crap. At it's best it is a partial distillation of "The Necronomicon Files" by Harms and Gonce, and the rest of the time it's full of misleading diversions (vodou, wicca) only tangentially related to the subject at hand - and Steadman glosses over a lot; the section on Chaos Magick is particularly threadbare.

  2. Thank you for your spirited remarks--no one will misinterpret how you feel about Steadman's book.

    I am not familiar with the work by Harms and Gonce, (do you recommend it?), but the author does reference their material in various locations of his book. He also disagrees with Gonce on some points, which is permissible.

    The challenge for Steadman I think was to show clear relationships between contemporary occultism and Lovecraft's work--which may not always have been possible, (e.g. in the case of the Chaos Magic Pacts). I feel that his analysis of the occultism in "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" is stronger.

    However, I can appreciate Steadman's efforts. Horror fiction and occultism have an interesting symbiotic relationship which can be observed in Lovecraft, but also Howard, Smith and others. More work can be done on this fascinating subject.

    Do you know of any other books that explore this terrain?


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