Saturday, February 25, 2017

Part Two: Egregoric Phenomena in Lovecraft and Elsewhere

Something like the evocation and invocation that John L. Steadman describes* occurs frequently in stories by H.P. Lovecraft.  But a typical Lovecraftian protagonist conjures the egregoric entity by accident; he is usually a passive participant in the manifestation of the horror, often directed against his will and awareness by the force of the emerging entity, by a kind of eldritch genius loci.  Lovecraft’s characters are not like Steadman’s “magickians”, who are wary but in control—more or less—of the process.  The Lovecraftian hero is more of a lonely, scholarly dabbler.  He blunders into some undifferentiated evil that he struggles ineffectively against, growing weaker and overwhelmed as the other comes into focus.

Lovecraft’s early story, “The Tomb” (1922), depicts the gradual but relentless possession of a young man who makes ritual-like visits to an ancient family crypt.  In “The Rats in the Walls” (1924), the descendant of a notorious clan succumbs to the manifestation of a cannibalistic ancestor as he naively rebuilds the family homestead.  The mere proximity of Walter Gilman to the dessicated remains of Keziah Mason and her familiar, Brown Jenkin—tucked into the hidden attic above his bedroom—is sufficient to alter his dreams and understanding of reality, and draw him against his will into unspeakable ritual acts.  Here is an egregoric explanation of “Brown Jenkin” from “The Dreams in the Witch House” (1933):

That object—no larger than a good-sized rat and quaintly called by the townspeople ‘Brown Jenkin’—seemed to have been the fruit of a remarkable case of sympathetic herd-delusion, for in 1692 no less than eleven persons had testified to glimpsing it.

The well-known story “The Haunter of the Dark” (1936) depicts the relentless psychic possession of one Robert Blake, who inadvertently begins the evocation of an avatar of Nyarlathotep by fumbling about among the occult paraphernalia (among them a “Shining Trapezohedron”) in a desecrated church.  Probably the most elaborate depiction of a malevolent egregor in Lovecraft’s fiction is found in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” (1941).  The evil necromancer Joseph Curwin is able to reconstitute himself through the naïve scholarship and occult dabbling of his doomed descendent, Charles Ward.

In all of these examples, the Lovecraftian protagonist does not actively summon the horror, as in Peter J. Carroll’s instructions for inviting Azathoth, but is a passive victim, swayed by supernatural forces he barely understands, terrified of them, and subject to their will.  Conjuration involves antiquarian scholarship, obsession, and relentless, irresistible attention which brings the dreaded entity into focus and gives it power.

The process is described playfully in a series of letters H.P. Lovecraft wrote to Clark Ashton Smith in 1933.  The first announces the arrival of the “Nameless Eikon”, one of Smith’s small stone carvings, typically of a stylized humanoid head.  In a letter dated May 31, 1933, Lovecraft writes:

By the way—in my new quarters the Nameless Eikon of pre-human horror has a new function to perform…It is a bookend, situate thus on the top of a broad, glass-doored case in the neighborhood of an old-fashioned full-mounted terrestrial globe.

Lovecraft soon notices that the odd figurine somehow alters the content of several of the books it supports.  An astronomy book “has begun to suggest the most unutterable cosmic horrors, whilst a textbook of botany hints at monstrous fungi and blasphemous thallophytes…”  By June 14th of that year, the author’s reading behavior has been markedly altered by the presence of the stone head:

Glancing the other day at the book next the Nameless Eikon, I found myself reading in a highly peculiar fashion—picking out words from odd and unrelated places in the text, as if led to them by some invisible influence…A certain memory welled up—and shrieking, I dropt the volume while there was yet time.     

In a letter Lovecraft wrote to Smith on June 29, 1933, the end is unavoidably near.  The writer, in an advanced state of exhaustion and terror, reports that he has used a mirror to read a section of “that crumbling tome of elder lore” adjacent to the stone figurine.

Now in spite of Heaven’s vaunted mercy—I know.  The veil is withdrawn…and I have glimpsed that which has bowed me in convulsive terror for the few days or weeks of life which remain to me.  Iä! Shub-Niggurath!  Is the Grey Rite of Azathoth no more of avail?


Despite some variations of setting and character, isn’t this the typical sequence by which a Lovecraftian protagonist summons and then succumbs to the manifestation of some entity, some egregoric phenomenon?  Perhaps what is finally summoned is knowledge, a terrifying and forgotten—because repressed—understanding of the nature of reality.  Though passively encountered by Lovecraft’s traumatized characters, knowledge is what many occult practitioners say they are actively seeking when they attempt to interact with supernatural entities, with egregores.  Steadman concludes his book* with this remark:

…it must be remembered that Lovecraft, for all his veneration of pure intellect and reason, also acknowledged that humans have an incomplete and limited knowledge of reality.  Thus he tended to keep an open mind on the issue of spirituality, accepting the premise that there might be alternate levels of being that “supplement” rather than contradict the laws of material substances.

The phenomenon of the egregore may not be limited to obscure occult practices, nor the preoccupations of an influential author of horror literature, nor the deranged plans of extremists and mass murderers.  It seems likely that it is the primary engine of horrors both imagined and real.


*H.P. Lovecraft and the Black Magickal Tradition (2015)

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