Monday, August 23, 2010

Best of Lovecraft and the Occult Extravaganza

Many years ago, when I was just starting my college career, I discovered the short stories, novellas and novels written by H. P. Lovecraft. Since I was something of a terrible occult nerd, I consumed all of the stories written by him and his associates in a matter of weeks. I learned to love and revel in what had been called the Cthulhu Mythos, named after the great aquatic god of that dreadful pantheon of elder deities.

I already knew a fair amount about the occult, particularly in the areas of magick, paganism and witchcraft, so I understood that these tales, as fun as they were to read, were never to be taken seriously. The pantheon of elder gods was wholly made up, and so were many of the terrible grimoires mentioned in those stories, especially the premier book, the Necronomicon. That grimoire had a truly awesome name, but the various quotes from it, it’s supposed author and historical context made it an obvious fictional creation. I knew about the real grimoires from that time period and afterward. I even had copies of some of them, too. So I never got too excited about the various stories and their supposed pseudo occult lore. It was all too unreal for me, especially the deadly pantheon of elder gods who were inimical to all human life and the craven and corrupted evil folk who served and sought to bring them back. It was all in good fun (and bad taste) and I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The serious occult work that I engaged in was focused on subject material that was real and historically authentic. Yet the Lovecraft stories were fun, goofy and amusing, in a kind of tangential sort of way.

A few years later, two books appeared on the scene, both reputing to be translated versions of the “actual” Necronomicon. You can imagine how dubious I was about such a claim, but I purchased these books anyway to see what all the hype was about. Of the two, the Simon version was the most interesting because its contents had been plagiarized from actual translated material whose source was Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets, most notably from Babylonian and Assyrian collections. The Colin Wilson version seemed to be more of a melange of various obscure occult ideas mixed together with a lot of creative imagination (as I make a “voorish” sign to protect myself).

I even went so far as to test the systems of magick found in both versions, and found the Simon edition to be more capable of producing results. However, as a student of Semitic languages and ancient beliefs and practices, I had pretty much deduced the sources of the reputed Simon Necronomicon. It was, after all,  an object lesson in how to create a complete magickal system using various antique source materials. Neither of these books were authentic or represented any kind of “real” Lovecraftian occultism. The world of humanity was safe, at least for the moment, from being eaten and tortured by the elder gods once they returned.

Not too long after those books were first published, a system of occultism called Chaos Magick, appeared. It was based on the premise that any system of mythology could be used to fashion a magickal system, so it was proposed as a kind of “meta-system.” To show how this worked, the fictional mythological system of the Cthulhu Mythos was used to create a legitimate magickal system. I suspect that this example was used to demonstrate that the contents of a magickal system are not as important as the structure and nature of all systems. However, for reasons both absurd and perhaps even a bit ridiculous, the idea produced a cult following. Now, all of a sudden, there were a bunch of chaos magicians who used the Cthulhu Mythos as their magickal system, and of course, the Necronomicon became quite vogue again. The real point was that any mythological system could be used, but for some reason the message got muddled, and instead, there were a collective of magicians who were seriously using this mythos (and no other) in their magickal workings.

While I was impressed with Peter Caroll and other writers who were trail blazing magickal systems development with this new perspective, I was not impressed with how some chaos magicians were practicing their new magickal system. Instead of releasing occultists from hide-bound traditionalism so they could craft unique and fascinating new systems of magick, it seemed that some chaos magicians were happy to produce magickal systems based on the most absurd concepts and notions. This was particularly true for those who invested the Cthulhu Mythos with far more serious development and detail than any previous fiction writer had deemed worthwhile. These days, when someone talks about worshiping the elder gods or invoking Azothoth, Yog Sothoth or Nyarlathotep, I find myself smiling and shaking my head. In my honest opinion, there are far better sources of material out there to be harvested and used to build a new magickal system. The Simon Necronomicon is a good example, since it used very obscure but esthetically pleasing Mesopotamian sources, making it a real exercise in post modern occult creativity.

This preoccupation in making the Cthulhu Mythos into a legitimate occult system was not solely invented by the chaos magicians. Anton LaVey and Kenneth Grant got there first, with the publication of the Satanic Rituals and Grant’s later books (beyond the Typhonian Tetralogy). The ritual known as the “Ceremony of Nine Angles” was a brilliant example of taking literary sources and ideas and fitting them into a neat and tight ritual working. It’s rumored that Michael Aquino was the probable author of that work, but it stands as one of the really creative endeavors in that genre. Kenneth Grant, after writing and publishing five brilliant books on magick and occultism, devolved into complete absurdity when he published the book “Hecate’s Fountain” and its ridiculous forays into the “Mauve Zone.”

However, many occultists and magicians bought these and other books, and it became a fairly popular preoccupation. One has to look no further than the pulpy pocketbook edition of Simon’s Necronomicon to prove this point, or the recently published Necronomicon Tarot deck. Needless to say I was quite discouraged and even a bit annoyed by all of this foolishness. There was so much legitimate work that needed to be done, and too many people were spending their time preoccupied with a completely (and poorly) made up mythological system.

H. P. Lovecraft was a writer of pulp fiction stories, and not a particularly gifted one at that. What he lacked in literary style he more than made up in imagination, uniquely joining science fiction horror with gothic and occult horror genres. Admittedly, he was the first to craft this new genre, and he spawned many literary followers, who were far more gifted and prolific as writers than he ever was.

However, his literary works are still fun to read to this day, and I have turned to them again and again to amuse and titillate myself.  Perhaps one of my favorite stories in that mythos is the famous “Haunter of the Dark.” My imagination was completely captured by such plot devices as the long lost and defunct cult of Starry Wisdom and its infamous abandoned church on Federal Hill (in Providence) and the shining black trapezohedron in a golden box moldering in the darkened steeple room bell-tower. Others actually went so far as to attempt to emulate the supposed occult lore obliquely mentioned in that tale, but I just really enjoyed it for what it was, a good gripping story. Yet despite the fact that it’s just a story, the Temple of Set places great significance in the mythos and lore associated with the “Shining Trapezoid.” I can’t say as I blame them much, since that story does use some compelling imagery.

Even though I was a fan, I judged all of the various stories that Lovecraft wrote as just fiction and nothing more. Yet one group of stories did actually inspired me and fired up my personal imagination. I didn’t go off and produce a full blown magickal system from them, of course, but they did influence some of my ideas, and I fully admit that here. These stories were part of a series known as the Dream Quest, and they included the following short stories and a short novel.

These stories were not considered to be the best that Lovecraft had produced, in fact they are believed to be poorly edited, structured and rather meager fare. The short novel was never published during Lovecraft’s lifetime, and the others found their way into pulp magazines. Anyway, here is the list of stories that are my favorites.

  • The Dream Quest of Unknown Kaddath
  • The Silver Key
  • Through the Gates of the Silver Key
All three of these stories revolve around the protagonist named Randolph Carter, who was something of an occultist, dreamer, philosopher and erstwhile writer. He was also independently wealthy and came from an old New England family. This series of stories was not considered to be a part of the Cthulhu mythos, even though they borrowed some elements from it. Robert Bloch has guessed that Randolph Carter was a literary version of Lovecraft himself, or how he would have liked to have lived. Lovecraft wasn’t wealthy nor did he come from some blue-blood New England family, but I suppose that if he could have picked the kind of life that he was born into, he would have been a lot like Randolph Carter. The most singular talent that the character Randolph Carter had was the ability to dream up fabulous places, and to travel on amazing dream quests while in that lucid state.

The Dream Quest of Unknown Kaddath was the singular quest of Randolph Carter, an adept dreamer and master of the dream worlds and their peculiar geography, who sought to discover what had happened to a fabulous city that he had dreamed up. He was able to briefly acquire this dream scape three times before he was denied entry into it altogether, for reasons completely unknown to him. Randolph Carter wanted to know why he was being denied entry into a wondrous city that he himself had created. In order to obtain the answer to this question, he was told that he must travel to the farthest hyperborean world of the gods themselves, and therein to petition them directly.

It’s a truly fun and marvelous tale, written in a style reminiscent of Lord Dunsany, whom Lovecraft attempted to emulate for this tale. According to critics, his pretentious literary attempt with this short novel was far less than satisfactory, but I personally loved it and it became one of my favorites. One of the most incredible, zany and all-together fun events in the story was when Randolph was rescued by an army of cats from Ulthar. He had been kidnapped and taken to the moon as a prisoner in a black galley. After defeating his kidnappers, they bunch around him in a furry mob and then leap back from the moon to their home in Ulthar, bringing Randolph with them. Where else could you find a scene described like that one?

The second of these three stories in the Dream Quest series tells the tale of an older Randolph Carter who has lost the key to the world of dreams, having given up dreaming as a consequence of middle age and the unwitting affectation of worldliness. However, he does have a dream where he is told by one of his ancestors the location of a strange and ornate silver key kept in a strange wooden box. There is also a piece of parchment in that box written in hieroglyphs of some completely unknown language.

Randolph takes the box and travels to the old homestead, which is shuttered up and in a state of advanced decay. He takes the key out of the box and proceeds to a hidden cave (called the “snake den”), which is located on the old property. Yet before he can access the cave, he hears the voice of an old servant, Benji (now long dead), calling him to come in for supper. He discovers that he has crossed the void of time and is now around 10 years old and staying at his Uncle Christopher’s home, but he still has the silver key. Benji forces him to abandon his quest for the day, so he follows him home, eats his supper, goes to bed later on, and wakes up the next morning ready to resume his quest. After breakfast, he finds the cave’s entrance and squeezes into its narrow confines.

What happens after that is not told, but the child Randolph Carter thereafter appears to have changed and has become something of a family prodigy and seer, talking about things years before they ever happened. The middle aged Randolph Carter disappears without a trace, although his automobile, the box and parchment are later found. Here the second story (The Silver Key) ends, and it was some time before Lovecraft wrote the final concluding story, with assistance from one of his writer friends, E. Hoffman Price.

The third story (Through the Gates of the Silver Key) begins with a conference held in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where four men meet to discuss the proceedings of the final breakup of the Carter estate. Randolph has been gone now for four years, and due to the urging of distant family members, represented by a zealous lawyer (who is also a relative), they meet in the home of a Creole occultist and visionary named Etienne-Laurent de Marigny. At that meeting is one of Randolph Carter’s outspoken friends and fellow visionary and occultist, Ward Phillips, the antagonistic lawyer, Ernest K. Aspinwall and a swarthy stranger dressed as a resident of Benares, whose given name is Swami Chandraputra. The story of what has happened to Randolph Carter is narrated by the mysterious Swami.

Meanwhile, in the background of the antique rooms of the French Quarter mansion that are filled with various antique oddities, are tripod braziers burning olibanum incense and a coffin shaped clock mounted on the wall (which tells no earthly time), whose many turning hands and oddly syncopated ticking marks it as yet stranger still. These peculiar elements add a dimension of the bizarre and the preternatural to the proceedings.

Aspinwall can hardly contain himself as this strange tale is spun out, since he and his constituents have waited for four years for the reading of the last will and the divestment of the Carter estate. However, de Marigny is the executor, and insists that the Swami have the opportunity to tell his tale, which he does.

The narration begins where the previous story left off, with young Randolph kneeling in the cave and retrieving the silver key that he had taken with him into his past. Using the key, he opens a portal into a world that is between worlds, residing at the threshold of the greater gateway, which is Randolph’s sole objective. In that world between worlds, Randolph Carter discovers the other-worldly guide named ‘UMR AT-TAWIL - the prolonged of life and his circle of ultra-high adepts, who welcome him as a member of their group.

Just so I don’t give away too much of the story, I will stop here. However, I can say that Randolph joins this circle of heavily robed extraterrestrials, all who are sitting upon stone pedestals, adorned with strangely shaped miters and holding long scepters. There is a pedestal reserved for him, so he sits upon it, holding his silver key as a kind of scepter. Thus mounted, he enjoins the strange rites that are now performed for his benefit.

Randolph Carter then becomes aware that he is a multiple faceted being existing simultaneously in many different time periods, in many different worlds and perhaps even different universes. Armed with this extended multi-faceted being-ness, he is able to pass through the greater threshold into the domain of pure dream, or perhaps even the domain of the meta-structures behind dreams. Unfortunately, he has left the parchment behind, which was a crucial part of the magickal process, and this creates for him all sorts of difficulties. I won’t go any further - if you want to read the story for yourself, I can’t be blamed for spoiling it. Hopefully, I have done nothing more than whet your appetite for more. (However, I was somewhat disturbed by the occurrence of Lovecraft’s not so obvious racism, since his character Aspinwall does use the “N” word in the story when confronting the Swami as a fraud.)

The reason why these stories have so powerfully resonated with me is that like Randolph Carter, I was an inveterate dreamer when I was a youth, so much so that it took me years to ground myself in material practicality. I don’t regret that lost time, since it has left me with a fantastic imagination, an important tool in the repertoire of a trained ritual magician.

The riddle of the Silver Key and what happens when it’s used has many ramifications in my own personal magickal workings and discoveries. The ordeal of the Silver Key is probably one of the most authentic pieces of actual occult lore that I have found in all of Lovecraft’s stories, although it is much adulterated with literary inventions and other aspects of a fictional work. The Nephilim, who I have contacted and communed with on a number of occasions, exist in a kind of interstice domain between worlds, and they are the guardians of a grand threshold that leads into worlds that we can only vaguely guess about. (A system of magick, called Spiritual Archaeomancy, was developed to enable one to pass beyond that threshold and enter into those worlds.)

In my opinion, the last of the three stories contains a ritual working that might assist one in gaining complete consciousness of all of one’s various facets in time and space, although the details are sorely lacking. Needless to say, this story fired my imagination like nothing else in the fictional world that I have read prior or since. I am, in a sense, searching for my own “silver key,” and I have actually managed to find clues here and there in my own magickal workings and research.

Randolph Carter disappeared from the world when he was 55 years old, so that at least gives me some hope and incentive that I may yet be able to follow in his fictional footsteps. Not that I am looking to leave this world, but I am seeking to master it and the multiverse as well. As time goes on and more pieces are revealed to me, then I may even share some of that knowledge with my readers, or maybe not. All I can say is - read the stories for yourself.

As a final note, I will admit that I did like Lovecraft’s other stories as well, such as “At the Mountains of Madness,” “The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” and “The Dunwich Horror” and many others, but none of them had quite the impact on me as the story “Through the Gates of the Silver Key.”

Now that you have labored through my article and have absorbed my ideas, I will end with a quick note. You may need some refreshment, so for those who are true fans of the Lovecraft stories, may I recommend one of the more peculiar coffee drinks served at the Black Light Coffee House. I can assure you that there are many guilty pleasures awaiting you there. You can find a copy of the menu here.

Or you can just chill out with the music of Dark Moor, listening to the tune “The Silver Key,” which was thematically inspired by all three of the Dream Quest stories.

Frater Barrabbas


  1. The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath is one of my favourite Lovecraft stories as well. His breadth of imagination is astonishing.

    It's a shame he died thinking he was a failure, especially given the wide range of media that have been inspired by his creations in the years since his death.

  2. Great post and very insightful regarding the use of Lovecraft's mythos in occult circles. Your post has me wanting to read some Lovecraft, something I haven't done in a long, long time. Time to point my Internet Explorer to Amazon to see what I can find.

  3. Interesting post. Have you read David Geall's wonderful essay, - ‘A half-choked meep of cosmic fear: Is there esoteric symbolism in H.P.Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath?' in issue #3 of the Journal for the Academic Study of Magic?

    Geall makes a compelling argument that the story can be mapped near perfectly upon the tree of life and how each sequence of the story equates to paths between the sephirot. Intentional or not, it's absolutley fascinating.