Thursday, November 26, 2015

Necromantic Epiphenomena

So Saul disguised himself, putting on other clothes, and at night he and two men went to the woman. “Consult a spirit for me,” he said, “and bring up for me the one I name.”
 —1 Samuel 28: 8

This quote from an Old Testament passage describes an act of necromancy involving King Saul and the Witch of Endor.  Saul had earlier outlawed all mediums and spiritists from his beleaguered kingdom, but facing a difficult battle with the Philistines, he decides to ask a local sorceress to raise the spirit of the prophet Samuel to obtain military advice.  The troubled king’s request is inconsistent with his official line, but also recognizably human.  He wants to hedge his bet.  The advice from the reconstituted prophet is not particularly helpful or encouraging.  One can imagine his more practical companions saying something like “Trust not these charlatans, my lord!  Is it not be wiser to surveil the enemy with our own eyes?”

Necromancy is an ancient practice, and likely has always provoked tension between belief and skepticism, or more broadly between supernaturalism and materialism—that is, between religious thinking and science.  It involves conjuring the spirits of the dead in order to influence current events, chiefly by acquiring the secret knowledge only such spirits can impart.  As such, necromancy is a frequent motif in horror entertainment, a source of general spookiness and dire, ironic effects.  Of course, such mumbo-jumbo is anathema to atheists and materialists, who have challenged the assumptions underlying necromancy as early as the time of the ancient Greeks. 

Necromancy assumes that the mind can exist separately from the body, that certain practices can synchronize the consciousness of the living with that of the dead, creating a bridge between the two, and that the nonmaterial can interact with the material—can move things, rap on tables and doors or make sounds which communicate information.  Like King Saul, the living may have an urgent interest in communicating with the dead, but the reverse is not always so.  The interests of the living and the dead frequently diverge, with disastrous results, at least on one side of the veil. 

(As we approach an election year, we should note that in several large American cities both the living and the dead apparently vote—“early and often”—and typically along party lines.  So it is possible for the political and economic views of both camps to converge on occasion, though the departed are often underrepresented in opinion polls.)

Anthony Aveni’s Behind the Crystal Ball (2002) is a fascinating survey of the historical relationship between science and the occult, from antiquity to the present.  He devotes several chapters to the rise of spiritism in the middle to late nineteenth century, when celebrity mediums and séances came into vogue, attracting numerous adherents as well as several scientific efforts to debunk the craze.  Which efforts were only partially effective, given the continued prevalence of revived occult practice today’s society.  There is interesting material about the Fox sisters, who were able to channel telegraphic messages from the local departed of Hydesville, New York, and Daniel Dunglas Home, (“DDH”), a Scottish necromancer also adept at levitation.  Aveni describes their exploits in some detail, and then shows how contemporary scientists and debunkers tried to disprove their outlandish claims.

Aveni offers Sir William Crookes as an example of how an individual could ascribe to both supernatural and scientific viewpoints at the same time, achieving an unstable amalgam of heart and mind as a result of personal tragedy.  (Crookes’ younger brother died a couple years before he took up his researches into occult phenomena.)  Crookes was a brilliant Victorian scientist known for his invention of the “Crooke’s Tube”, a device that could produce a vacuum for the study of phosphorescent gases, lightning, and related phenomena.  His invention laid the groundwork for the later discovery of X-rays. 

This is the same Crookes referenced in H.P. Lovecraft’s story The Shunned House (1928), in which the scientist’s invention is used unsuccessfully against a malevolent, vampiric entity in the basement of an abandoned house.

We had devised two weapons to fight it; a large and specially fitted Crookes tube operated by powerful storage batteries and provided with peculiar screens and reflectors, in case it proved intangible and opposable only by vigorously destructive ether radiations, and a pair of military flame-throwers of the sort used in the World War, in case it proved partly material and susceptible of mechanical destruction…

Lovecraft’s story is an example of a transitional point between supernatural horror and the emergence of a more science-based speculative fiction—in a sense it is proto-science fiction.  Like Crookes, Lovecraft was an enthusiastic materialist and revered science, yet his fiction betrays his reliance on supernaturalist assumptions.  (Is it possible to create genuine horror in the absence of supernatural beliefs?)  Remarkably, Crookes completed some of his most important work in thermodynamics while preoccupied with his investigations of spiritism and psychic phenomena.  Perhaps his scientific advances were guided in some way by communications with the spirit world!  But his career and reputation suffered greatly because of his support—and probably hopefor further research in the paranormal field, driven in part by his personal experience of the premature death of his brother.

It seems as though Sir William Crookes could have been the model for Julian Blair, the doomed electro-physicist in William Sloane’s The Edge of Running Water (1939).  This novel and Sloane’s earlier To Walk the Night are published in a collection re-issued this year called The Rim of Morning.  (See also An Archetypal Terror.)  There are a number of similarities between the two stories; in a way, the second, longer work is essentially a further elaboration of themes introduced in the first.  Both are novels of quiet horror and dis-ease, leisurely in pace but concluding with powerful and haunting images.  Each involves a narrator whose unfortunate friend is hopelessly obsessed with a mysterious and powerful woman.  In The Edge of Running Water, the narrator is appropriately a psychologist, insightful about everyone else’s motivations, though not his own.

In The Edge of Running Water there are four powerful women.  There is Mrs. Walters, the treacherous and ambitious medium who is assisting the scientist with his necromantic work.  Visiting them for the summer is Ann Conner, the younger sister of the scientist’s late wife Helen, with whom the narrator has fallen in love.  The narrator’s feelings are mixed; he had originally loved the sister who is now departed, but she had fallen for Julian and married him instead.  There is also the unfortunate, long suffering housekeeper Mrs. Marcy, a remnant of the grand family that had once occupied the residence, now fallen on hard times. 

Though she never puts in a formal appearance, the spirit of Helen hangs over the dismal atmosphere of the house, and is the impetus for Julian’s feverish, obsessive experiments upstairs.  Typical of Sloane, the science fiction elements of the story are really incidental to the focus on the relationships among the characters.  Here is Sloane describing Ann’s ability to drive, circa the late 1930s:

We went on, not exactly racing but making incredible speed for the condition of the road.  Anne handled the car with a magnificent blend of daring and judgment; I thought we weren’t going to make the bridge at the turn by the creek, but we got across it by a hair…Even with the chances Anne took, I did not feel nervous about her driving.  There was competence in the way her hands were resting on the wheel, in the way she sat behind it, alert but not tense.

The narrator makes similar appreciative comments about his nemesis, the scheming and ruthless Mrs. Walters.  He acknowledges that in a way, she is a professional competitor, and uses some of the same expertise about human behavior that he does--but for evil and personal gain.  These are remarkable appraisals to find in the genre fiction of this time, and have a very contemporary feel.  Thinking of the Witch of Endor and her modern fictional avatar, Mrs. Walters, one wonders if occultism attracts a disproportionate number of competent, self-directed women to its ranks, and if historically it was one of the earliest equal opportunity employers.  

Julian Blair is the reclusive mad scientist, though he is more obsessed than maniacal.  (The character was played by Boris Karloff in a film adaptation of the novel called The Devil Commands in 1941.)  Both he and the narrator are the principle male voices, and seem to represent rational minds overwhelmed by supernatural and emotional forces that cannot be easily analyzed, explained or controlled.  It is no accident that the lonely house is set on a point of land in the midst of a bay and tidal river—“the edge of running water”, an archetypal image of emotional inundation.  Blair cannot come to terms with the loss of his beloved Helen, and so applies his scientific prowess to finding a technology that will allow him to communicate with her.  Like Sir William Crookes, he makes spectacular progress and inadvertently makes an awesome scientific discovery—but not the one his heart was directing him to find.


Necromancy has been the topic of several earlier posts.  Further discussion of this interesting subject can be found at:

“…doe not call up Any that you can not put downe…”... (H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward)

Raising the Dead (Clark Ashton Smith’s The Empire of the Necromancers)

Towards A Modern Necromancy (developments in cryogenics)

Friday, November 20, 2015

A Dark Alchemy

Thomas Ligotti has often been compared to H.P. Lovecraft, with whom he shares some superficial commonalities.  His work is distinctive, however, and is not merely an emulation of the older master.  His relationship to Lovecraft seems similar to that of Clark Ashton Smith’s to Lord Dunsany.  The influence of the earlier author is obvious, but the elements have been entirely assimilated into the unique style of the later writer.  As in Lovecraft’s writing, Ligotti’s fiction makes extensive use of dream material as a kind of base metal, which he transmutes into a more lustrous substance, while still retaining the darker, disturbing qualities. 

Readers may be familiar with Carl Jung’s dream psychology, which proposes three stages in the transformation of dream imagery over time: the nigredo, albedo and rubedo.  Broadly speaking, the idea is that dreams progress through periods that are dark, intermediate and bright in quality, sometimes in the space of a single dream or more often across a series of dreams.  (Those of us who have spent time diligently logging our dreams and nightmares may have observed a pattern like this.)

The nigredo is the initial point in the cycle, composed of themes of decay, disintegration, dismemberment, and gloom.  Things are falling apart or being destroyed.  In the albedo phase, imagery is in flux, and objects change form and shape, shifting back and forth, becoming lighter and more illumined.  Options are being considered.  Finally, in the rubedo phase a synthesis or solution is achieved, characterized by brightness, color and energy.   

The cold and dark base metal of nightmare is transformed through an intermediate quicksilver stage to bright, warm gold.  And then back again.

Insofar as Jung’s insight applies to The Dream Cycle of H.P. Lovecraft (1995) or Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer (1989), one can see that neither author made it very far beyond the nigredo stage, though each may have made brief forays into the albedo or “quicksilver” phase.  In their fiction, Lovecraft and Ligotti never make it to the rubedo—bright, warm, energetic, golden—which signals integration, wholeness, even holiness.  This would imply a kind of salvation, which is impossible in their stories and worldview.

In an excerpt from his book, The Conspiracy against the Human Race (2010), Ligotti describes as “craven” any attempt by horror writers to make use of conventional religious ideas as source material for their stories.  Echoing Lovecraft’s famed materialism and atheism, he makes clear his disdain for traditional religious doctrine that might inculcate cosmic fear or presume to offer a remedy for it. Ligotti prefers nightmare alone as a source of the weird and terrifying, which source can also include the nightmarish aspects of everyday existence—anything that threatens life or sanity. 

Though horror fiction has value in helping readers somehow face the most dreadful aspects of their lives, it is not cathartic or ultimately helpful in anyway, because there is no escape.  Humanity is cursed with a predilection to seek meaningfulness, but there ultimately is no meaning or purpose in a life of struggle and eventual deterioration and death.  This grimly stoic world view is not shared by all, but readers can appreciate the integrity with which authors like Ligotti and Lovecraft allow it to inform their art.

And yet, one does not have to read very many stories by either author before encountering familiar religious motifs.  Why are there so many churches in Lovecraft’s stories?  Certainly these elements are not present to provide much hope or comfort.  If anything, Lovecraft and Ligotti are adept at using religious imagery to violate conventional expectations and so keep the focus on inescapable darkness and dismay.  When dealing with universal questions about life, death, insanity—the purpose or meaning of it all— it may be a challenge to avoid thinking along religious lines.  We are wired for this. 

That Ligotti is able to short circuit this wiring is evident in his short story The Shadow at the Bottom of the World (1991).  This is one of Ligotti’s earlier works, and introduces an understanding of human reality that pervades much of his later work.  It is not so much a story as a prose poem.  While there is a narrative of sorts, the focus is on an unfolding revelation.  The effectiveness of the text lies in its powerful and disturbing images, which Ligotti skillfully conflates with familiar religious motifs as well as ordinary objects. 

The setting is Midwestern and rural, a scene typical of some ordinary wall calendar turned to the page for October.  But the brightly colored leaves of autumn are not falling, and a wandering prophet named Mr. Marble, a type of John the Baptist, interprets these and other signs as harbingers of disaster.  The passage of autumn has been suspended; it is “Halloween Town” for the indefinite future.  Even the air has changed and become oppressive.  

The Lovecraftian influence can be seen in the “malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos…” as Lovecraft would put it.  Even more ominously, there appears at the edge of town, among the cornstalks, at the very edge of collective consciousness, a blasphemous image of Christ-as-scarecrow.  The figure has been internally defiled from the ground up by an organic upwelling of evil, a nebulous black vine that animates the figure and makes its head bob in the absence of any breeze. 

The narrator of The Shadow at the Bottom of the World is a collective “we”—here Ligotti parts ways with Lovecraft, who speaks relentlessly in the first person autobiographical “I”.  This rhetorical “we” makes the story sound like a philosophical treatise at times, or a statement of queasy suspicions about the nature of reality.  Is Ligotti speaking for all of us?
Reminiscent of Lovecraft’s classic The Call of Cthulhu (1928), the emergence of this subterranean—as opposed to submarine—horror enters into the dreams of the townspeople.  The revelation makes itself known in the midst of collective nightmare as much if not more than in its physical appearance in the corn field.  It becomes an object of terrified veneration.  As is typical in such situations, a sacrifice of some kind will be needed to restore equilibrium.  In this sacrifice all of the townspeople are somehow complicit.      

In an interview published in the Wall Street Journal back in September, Ligotti acknowledged that he had not attempted to write in any other genre but horror.  He reiterated a sense that many horror writers have, (including Lovecraft perhaps), that horror writers, because of their relentless focus on the darker and more frightful aspects of human existence, are considered lesser lights, underachievers.  Horror fiction can often seem devoid of the commonplace, omitting the warmth and breadth of human social experience.  

“Dickens trumps Poe” as Ligotti put it in the interview.  This is also a criticism of Lovecraft’s work, which is almost completely empty of women, children, pets, work, food, and many other aspects of normality.  But Ligotti is satisfied to operate within this narrow range, as are his devoted readers.  Effective horror requires a clear and obsessive focus.