Lovecraft’s most self-conscious, if somewhat strained, fusion of occult folklore and weird science occurs in the 1932 story “The Dreams of the Witch-House.” The demonic characters that the folklorist Walter Gilman first glimpses in his nightmares are stock ghoulies: the evil witch crone Keziah Mason, her familiar spirit Brown Jenkin, and a “Black Man” who is perhaps Lovecraft’s most unambiguously Satanic figure. These figures eventually invade the real space of Gilman’s curiously angled room. But Gilman is also a student of quantum physics, Riemann spaces and non-Euclidian mathematics, and his dreams are almost psychedelic manifestations of his abstract knowledge. Within these “abysses whose material and gravitational properties…he could not even begin to explain,” an “indescribably angled” realm of “titan prisms, labyrinths, cube-and-plane clusters and quasi- buildings,” Gilman keeps encountering a small polyhedron and a mass of “prolately spheroidal bubbles.” By the end of the tale he realizes that these are none other than Keziah and her familiar spirit, classic demonic cliches translated into the most alien dimension of speculative science: hyperspace.
Lovecraft understands that, from the perspective of hyperspace, our normal, three-dimensional spaces are exhausted and insufficient constructs.
These days, one finds the motif of hyperspace in science fiction, pop cosmology, computer interface design, channeled UFO prophecies, and the postmodern shamanism of today’s high-octane psychedelic travelers—all discourses that, by the way, feed contemporary chaos magic. The term hyperspace itself was probably coined by the science fiction writer John W. Campbell Jr. in 1931, though its origins as a concept lie in 19th century mathematical explorations of the fourth dimension. But Lovecraft was the
concept’s first mythographer. He understands that, from the perspective of hyperspace, our normal, three-dimensional spaces are exhausted and insufficient constructs. Because we are incapable of vividly imagining this new dimension in humanist terms, we face a crisis of representation, a crisis that for Lovecraft invokes our most ancient fears of the unknown. “All the objects … were totally beyond description or even comprehension,” Lovecraft writes of Gilman’s seething nightmares. Of course, this doesn’t keep Lovecraft from offering descriptions of these objects, descriptions which emphasize the breakdown of cognitive categories through almost non- sensical juxtapositions like “obscene angles” or “wrong” geometry.
One Chaos magician calls this rhetorical technique “Semiotic Angularity,” an aspect of Lovecraft’s long-standing habit of labeling his horrors “indescribable,” “nameless, “unseen,” “unutterable,” “unknown” and “formless.” Though superficially weak, these moves can also be seen a kind of macabre via negativa. Like the apophatic oppositions of negative theologians like Pseudo-Dionysus or St. John of the Cross, Lovecraft marks the limits of language, limits which paradoxically point to the Beyond our intellects are always striving, and failing, to map. For the mystics, this ultimate is the ineffable One, Pseudo-Dionysus’ “superluminous gloom” or the Ain Soph of the Qabalists. But there is no unity to Lovecraft’s Beyond. It is the omnivorous Outside, the heartless screaming multiplicity of cosmic hyperspace opened up by reason alone.
For Lovecraft, scientific materialism is the ultimate Faustian bargain, but not because it hands us Promethean technology (a man for the 18th century, Lovecraft had no interest in gadgetry). Instead, science leads us beyond the horizon of what our minds can withstand. “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the mind to correlate all its contents,” goes the famous opening line of “Call of Cthulhu.” By correlating those contexts, empiricism opens up “terrifying vistas of reality”—what Lovecraft elsewhere calls “the blind cosmos [that] grinds aimlessly on from nothing to something and from something back to nothing again, neither heeding nor knowing the wishes or existence of the minds that flicker for a second now and then in the darkness.”
Lovecraft gave this existentialist dread an imaginative voice, what he called “cosmic alienage.” For Fritz Leiber, the “monstrous nuclear chaos” of Azathoth, Lovecraft’s supreme entity, symbolizes “the purposeless, mindless,
yet all-powerful universe of materialistic belief.” But this symbolism isn’t the whole story, for, as DMT voyagers know, hyperspace is haunted. The entities that erupt from Lovecraft’s inhuman realms seem to suggest that in a blind and mechanistic cosmos, the most alien thing is sentience itself. Peering outward through the cracks of domesticated “human” consciousness, a compassionless materialist like Lovecraft could only react with horror, for reason must cower before the most raw and atavistic dream-dragons of the psyche.
Civilization describes the process through which humans come to suppress, ignore or constrain these forces lurking in our lizard brain. In terms of myth, this process is characterized as demons imprisoned under the angelic yokes of altruism, morality, and reason. But if one no longer believes in any ultimate universal purpose, then these base impulses within us are paradoxically more attuned to the cosmos precisely because they are amoral and inhuman. In “The Dunwich Horror,” Henry Wheeler overhears a monstrous moan from a diabolical rite and asks “from what unplumbed gulfs of extra-cosmic consciousness or obscure, long-latent heredity, were those half-articular thunder-croakings drawn?” The Outside, in other words, is within.
Like most Chaos magicians, the British occultist Peter Carroll gravitates towards the Black, not because he desires a simple Satanic inversion of Christianity but because he seeks the amoral and shamanic core of magical experience
Lovecraft’s fiction expresses a “future primitivism” that finds its most intense esoteric expression in Chaos magic, an eclectic contemporary style of darkside occultism that draws from Thelema, Satanism, Austin Osman Spare, and Eastern metaphysics to construct a thoroughly postmodern magic. For today’s Chaos mage, there is no “tradition.” The symbols and myths of history’s sects, orders, and faiths, are constructs, useful fictions, “games.” That magic works has nothing to do with its truth claims and everything to do with the will and experience of the magician. Recognizing the distinct possibility that we may be adrift in a meaningless, iterative cosmos within which human will and imagination are vaguely comic flukes (the “cosmic indifferentism” Lovecraft himself professed), the mage accepts his groundlessness, embracing the chaotic self-creating void that is himself.
As in Lovecraft’s fictional cults and grimoires, chaos magicians refuse the hierarchical, symbolic and monotheist biases of traditional esotericism. Like most Chaos magicians, the British occultist Peter Carroll gravitates towards the Black, not because he desires a simple Satanic inversion of Christianity but because he seeks the amoral and shamanic core of magical experience—a core that Lovecraft conjures up with his orgies of drums, guttural chants, and screeching horns. At the same time, Chaos mages like Carroll also plumb the weird science of quantum physics, complexity theory and electronic Prometheanism. Some darkside magicians become consumed by the atavistic forces they unleash or addicted to the dark costume of the Satanic anti-hero. But the most sophisticated adepts adopt a balanced mode of Gnostic existentialism that calls all constructs into question while refusing the cold comforts of skeptical reason or suicidal nihilism, a pragmatic and empirical shamanism that resonates as much with Lovecraft’s hard-headed materialism as with his horrors.
The first occultist to really set these notions in motion was Aleister Crowley, who shattered the received vessels of occult tradition while creatively extending the dark dream of magic into the 20th century. With his outlandish image, trickster texts, and his famous Law of Thelema (“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”), Crowley called into question the esoteric certainties of “true” revelation and lineage, and was the first magus to give occult antinomionism a decidedly Nietzschean twist, an occult will to power that is more exuberantly expressed as a will to Art. In many ways, the fin de siecle occultism that exploded during Crowley’s time was an esthetic esotericism. A good number of the 19th century magicians who inspire us today were poets, painters, and writers informed by Symbolism and decadent Romanticism. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was infused with artistic pretensions, and Golden Dawn member and fantasy writer Arthur Machen was one of Lovecraft’s strongest influences.
Surrealism took a step toward chaos magic by ripping mystic techniques and sensibilities from their traditional “occult” contexts and applying them to the goal of transforming quotidian reality through the Freudian energies of dream and desire. But it was the British maverick Austin Osman Spare who most decisively dissolved the boundary between artistic and magical life. Though working independently of the Surrealists, Spare also based his art on the dark and autonomous eruptions of “subconscious” material, though in a more
overtly theurgic context. Today’s Chaos magicians are heavily influenced by Spare, and their Lovecraftian rites express this simultaneously creative and nihilistic dissolution. And as postmodern spawn of role-playing games, computers, and anime, they celebrate the fact that Lovecraft’s secrets are scraped from the barrel of pop culture.
Surrealism took a step toward chaos magic by ripping mystic techniques and sensibilities from their traditional “occult” contexts and applying them to the goal of transforming quotidian reality through the Freudian energies of dream and desire.
In a message cross-posted to the Internet newsgroups alt.necromicon [sic] and alt.satanism, Parker Ryan listed a wide variety of magical techniques described by Lovecraft, including entheogens, glossalalia, and shamanic drumming. Insisting that his post was “not a satirical article,” Ryan then described specific Lovecraftian rites he had developed, including this “Rite of Cthulhu”:
- Chanting. The use of the “Cthulhu chant” to create a concentrative or meditative state of consciousness that forms the basis of much later magickal work.
- Dream work. Specific techniques of controlled dreaming that are used to establish contact with Cthulhu.
- Abandonment. Specific techniques to free oneself from culturally conditioned reality tunnels.
Ryan goes on to say that he’s experimented with most of his rites “with fairly good success.”
In coming to terms with the “real magic” embedded in Lovecraft, one quickly encounters a fundamental irony: the cold skepticism of Lovecraft himself. In his letters, Lovecraft poked fun at his own tales, claiming he wrote them for cash and playfully naming his friends after his monsters. While such attitudes in no way diminish the imaginative power of Lovecraft’s tales—which, as always, lie outside the control and intention of their author—they do pose a problem for the working occultist seeking to establish Lovecraft’s magical
The most obvious, and least rewarding, answer is to find authentic magic in Lovecraft’s biography. Lovecraft’s father was a traveling salesman who died in a madhouse when Lovecraft was eight, and vague rumors that he was an initiate in some Masonic order or other were exploited in the Necronomicon cobbled together by George Hay, Colin Wilson, and Robert Turner. Others have tried to track Lovecraft’s occult know-how, especially his familiarity with Aleister Crowley and the Golden Dawn. In an ambiguous Internet document relating the history of the “real” Necronomicon, Colin Low, tongue firmly lodged in cheek, argues that Crowley befriended Sonia Greene in New York a few years before the woman married Lovecraft. As proof of Crowley’s indirect influence on Lovecraft, Low sites this intriguing passage from “The Call of Cthulhu”:
That cult would never die until the stars came right again and the secret priests would take Cthulhu from His tomb to revive His subjects and resume His rule of earth. The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild, and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom.
Low claims this passage is a mangled reflection of Crowley’s teachings on the new Aeon and The Book of the Law. In a letter written the year before he died, Lovecraft makes passing reference to “the rather over-advertised Aleister Crowley.” Crowley was mentioned in Leonard Cline’s The Dark Chamber, a novel Lovecraft discussed in his Supernatural Horror in Literature.
But so what? Lovecraft was a fanatical and imaginative reader, and many such readers are drawn to the semiotic exotica of esoteric lore regardless of any beliefs in or experiences of the paranormal. From The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and elsewhere, it’s clear that Lovecraft knew the basic outlines of occultism and Theosophy. But these influences pale next to Vathek, Poe, or Lord Dunsany.
That cult would never die until the stars came right again and
the secret priests would take Cthulhu from His tomb to revive His subjects and resume His rule of earth.
Desperate to assimilate Lovecraft into a “tradition,” some occultists enter into dubious explanations of mystical influence by disincarnate beings. North gives this Invisible College idea a shamanic twist, asserting that prehistoric Atlantian tribes who survived the flood exercised telepathic influence on people like John Dee, Blavatsky, and Lovecraft. But none of these Lovecraft hierophants can match the delirious splendor of Kenneth Grant. In The Magical Revival, Grant points out some curious but essentially trivial similarities between Lovecraft and Crowley: both refer to “Great Old Ones” and “Cold Wastes” (of Kadath and Hadith, respectively); the entity “Yog- Sothoth” rhymes with “Set-Thoth,” and Al Azif: The Book of the Arab resembles, vaguely, Crowley’s Liber AL vel Legis: The Book of the Law. In Nightside of Eden, Grant maps Lovecraft’s pantheon onto a darkside Tree of Life, comparing the mangled “iridescent globes” that occasionally pop up in Lovecraft’s tales with the shattered sefirot known as the Qlipoth. Grant concludes that Lovecraft had “direct and conscious experience of the inner planes,” the same zones Crowley prowled, and that Lovecraft “disguised” his occult experiences as fiction.
Low claims this passage is a mangled reflection of Crowley’s teachings on the new Aeon and The Book of the Law.
Like many latter-day Lovecraftians, Grant commits the error of literalizing a purposefully nebulous myth. A subtler and more satisfying version of this argument is the notion that Lovecraft had direct unconscious experiences of the inner planes, experiences which his quotidian mind rejected but which found their way into his writings nonetheless. After all, Lovecraft was blessed with a vivid and nightmarish dream life, and drew the substance of a number of his tales from beyond the wall of sleep. In this sense, Lovecraft’s magical authority is nothing more or less than the authority of dream.
But what kind of dream tales are these? A Freudian could have a field day with Lovecraft’s fecund, squishy sea monsters, and a Jungian analyst might recognize the liniments of the proverbial shadow. But Lovecraft’s Shadow is so hostile to light it swallows the standard archetypes of the collective unconscious like a black hole. If we see the archetypal world not as a static storehouse of timeless godforms but as a moving host of figures that mutate
as cultural and historical conditions change, then the seething extraterrestrial monsters that Lovecraft glimpsed in the chaos of hyperspace are not so much archaic figures of heredity as the avatars of a new psychological and mythic aeon. At the very least, it would seem that things are getting mighty out of hand beyond the magic circle of the ordered daylight mind.