H.P. Lovecraft – The Cult of Cthulhu
From: Dark History of the Occult (2011) by Paul Roland
In a dark and forbidding corner of one of London’s more obscure occult bookshops stands a rack of extraordinary prints depicting hideous bug-eyed creatures that would give even the keenest naturalist nightmares. Should a customer take an interest in the display, the balding, bespectacled owner will emerge from behind the counter to explain the significance of these loathsome beings. Such creatures, he will tell them, are not figments of the artist’s fevered imagination but elemental spirits he encountered on the astral plane.
The fact that these eldritch horrors bear a striking resemblance to the winged and multi-tentacled entities described by the American pulp horror writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890–1937) is due, we are to understand, to the fact that Lovecraft had encountered these very same creatures during his uncommonly vivid dreams. Lovecraft dismissed them as mere ‘Night-Gaunts’, but then he felt compelled to do so, because he had a genuine fear of being overpowered and driven insane by the power of his own imagination. He did not want to die in a lunatic asylum as his father had done. Consequently, in letters to friends and admirers, the Providence-born writer readily admitted that his ‘black pantheon’ of nameless horrors was ‘one hundred per cent fiction’.
And yet many practitioners of the forbidden arts argue that artists and writers possess an acute psychic sensitivity as a consequence of exploring the furthest regions of their imagination, which stimulates the areas of the brain associated with extrasensory perception—a latent faculty the mass of humanity might have lost during the course of our evolution.
Psychics often speak of the Akashic Records—an astral library containing the entire knowledge of the world that one can browse in sleep or during meditation. Every thought and every event in our history is said to be documented there, accessible to all who seek it. A voracious reader and dreamer such as Lovecraft would have visited this source of all knowledge in his dreams but may not have had any memory of having done so.
He certainly knew the power of visualization and the mind’s capacity to manifest archetypal creatures from the depths of the subconscious. As a child of seven or eight he admitted to being so intoxicated with the mythology of the ancient Greeks that he ‘half believed’ in the existence of their gods and nature spirits.
“Once I firmly thought I beheld some kind of sylvan creatures dancing under autumnal oaks, a kind of ‘religious experience’ as true in its way as the subjective ecstasies of a Christian … I have seen hoofed Pan …”
Modern-day occultists believe that Lovecraft was a visionary who unconsciously accessed the lower astral worlds, which are inhabited by a multitude of archetypal manifestations of our unconscious fears, and that these provided the inspiration for his Cthulhu mythos—a fictional universe that Lovecraft originally created for his own stories. The Cthulhu mythos has since been used by a number of other authors of horror stories. Places, names and inhabitants crop up again and again in different books, thereby adding substance to this shared dimension. Mythos stories often refer to the ‘Great Old Ones’, a race of malevolent gods who were cast out of our world for practising black magic. They now dwell in a sixth dimension in the spaces between worlds, and are “ever ready to take possession of this earth again”.
In a letter to friend Virgil Finlay dated October 1936, Lovecraft recalled his childhood nightmares in which black, faceless, lean, “rubbery things”with wings and tails would carry him over “dead and horrible” cities.
Seventy years after his death H.P. Lovecraft continues to exert an all-pervasive influence on fantasy fiction and popular culture, because the world he created was so richly conceived and vividly described that it holds a morbid fascination for writers, artists, film-makers and connoisseurs of the macabre the world over.
His Cthulhu mythos, with its dark pantheon of ancient gods and loathsome eldritch horrors, has inspired several generations of authors and artists, including H.R. Giger (creator of the creature in Alien) and illustrator Alan Moore, as well as generating a slew of comic books, computer games and countless Heavy Metal anthems. Sadly, though, there have been few films worthy of his fervid imagination.
The key to Lovecraft’s enduring appeal is his creation of a very credible alternative reality, in which monstrous evil lurks on the threshold of our world, waiting to prey upon those foolish enough to invoke it. His fictional town of Arkham and its environs, in which many of the stories are set, was based on real locations near his home in Providence, New England, which lent the turn of the century tales an air of genteel melancholy and decay.
So convincing was he in chronicling the lore and mythology of this claustrophobic nightmarish world – despite a professed lack of interest in all things supernatural – that the dark gods of his imagination have now taken on a life of their own and are being worshipped by several demonic cults who believe in their actual existence.
Incredible though it may seem, several cults have adopted Lovecraft’s fictional grimoire, theNecronomicon, as their black bible, despite his admission that the “hellish & forbidden volume is an imaginative conception of mine” and its ‘author’, Abdul Alhazred the mad Arab, has been thought of as a real person (letter to Robert Bloch, author of Psycho, 9 May 1933). It is thought that the name (which has no origin in Arabic) was Lovecraft’s pet name for his youthful self, whom he saw as a voracious reader (All-Has-Read). Quite apart from Lovecraft’s own admission that the name came to him in a dream, there is the undeniable fact that no mention was made of this 8th century text before Lovecraft alluded to it more than 1,000 years later. Moreover, in his early stories Lovecraft contradicts himself as to its contents and the nature of the work—is it a witches’ Book of Shadows or a witchfinder’s handbook? Its frustrating vagueness and constant deferral to other elusive texts is characteristic of fictional grimoires and would immediately arouse the suspicions of serious occultists.Nevertheless, one group of devotees, the Esoteric Order of Dagon—who claim to have established lodges in Australia, the United States and Europe—have stated that while they do not necessarily believe in the existence of the ‘Great Old Ones’, they find the iconography of Lovecraft’s world to be a useful stimulus for gaining access to areas of their own subconscious. It is believed that dreams may offer a glimpse of a greater reality, even though they might not possess physical substance.
This reality can also be accessed in the waking state, through a form of guided visualization that members of the Western esoteric tradition call Pathworking and Jungian psychologists refer to as ‘active imagination’. The term Pathworking comes from the Kabbalists, who developed the technique as a means of exploring the symbolic landscape of the psyche, as represented by the interconnecting paths and spheres on the Tree of Life, the central glyph of the Kabbalistic system. In this way individuals who are attracted to Lovecraft’s timeless world could use his primal gods in a ritual visualization that would awaken the atavistic forces that exist in a dreamless sleep between dimensions.
The influence of H.P. Lovecraft on modern practical occultism cannot be overestimated. One of his most ardent admirers was Anton LaVey, founder and high priest of the Church of Satan, who chose to consecrate each meeting of his sect with an incantation from Lovecraft’s The Horror At Red Hook.
Kenneth Grant, a disciple of Aleister Crowley, believed that Lovecraft was a natural adept who was drawn to the nightmarish Qlippothic shadow realms of the Tree in his dreams, but being unfamiliar with the Kabbalistic system he was not able to contextualize what he had experienced, so he constructed his own fictional nether world that was inhabited by the creatures he had seen.
The very elusiveness of the Necronomicon is, of course, part of its appeal. Its origins have been obscured by the many veiled references to it in the works of other fantasy writers with whom Lovecraft corresponded, among them Robert Bloch, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan). But although Lovecraft had been invited to pen the accursed work himself to satisfy fans, he admitted that it was beyond him and that no book could live up to the legend.
“I wish I had the time and imagination to assist in such a project … one can never produce anything even a tenth as terrible and impressive as one can awesomely hint about.” (H.P. Lovecraft, Collected Letters)
Lovecraft proclaimed himself a ‘mechanistic materialist’ and he professed disbelief in the supernatural, yet he was both awed and terrified by the idea that as a writer he might have developed an acute psychic sensitivity and so be able to access the surreal symbolic landscape of the unconscious. He shrank from a world in which his fears could take form, fears which literally haunted him throughout his brief, unhappy life.
In his most celebrated short story, The Call of Cthulhu, Lovecraft expounded his own nihilistic philosophy. It was wrought from an inherent neurosis and frustrated literary ambitions and exacerbated, presumably, by an increasing fear that the creatures of his imagination were now beginning to take possession of him.
‘The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents … some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
While the Necronomicon is without a shadow of a doubt a fictional creation, a number of fake editions have been published in recent years by fans and less scrupulous occultists in order to satisfy the demand, and indeed need, for such a Stygian tome. Some of these small press publications are clearly cobbled together from the fictional excerpts Lovecraft included in his stories and are as harmless as a Gandalf grimoire, but other less scrupulous individuals have included genuine magical rituals without any warning of the inherent dangers that await the unwary.
Genuine magicians will say that even if the dark gods and demons of Lovecraft’s stories had originally been insubstantial projections of his imagination, any form of prolonged meditation on such things would effectively empower them with life. If that is true, the collective obsession of successive generations of horror addicts might have given these eldritch horrors real substance by now.