The Plot Running Like a Silver Cord: Channeling and Mediumship on the Margins of Literature
(Given all of the conversations that have arisen here recently on the connections between theological speculation and fantastic fiction, it seems an appropriate time to revisit, and revise, and expand, a piece that I originally wrote for The Eyeless Owl.)
Let no man read here who lives only in the world about him. To these leaves, let no man stoop to whom Yesterday is as a closed book with iron hasps, to whom Tomorrow is the unborn twin of Today. Here let no man seek the trend of reality, nor any plan or plot running like a silver cord through the fire-limned portraits here envisioned. But I have dreamed as men have dreamed and as my dreams have leaped into my brain full-grown, without beginning and without end, so have I, with gold and sapphire tools, etched them in topaz and opal against a curtain of ivory.
– From the introduction to Etchings in Ivory by Robert E. Howard
While reading Joscelyn Godwin’s Atlantis and the Cycles of Time — regarding which, see this excerpt — I was struck by how familiar I already was with the invoked imagery of Hyperborean civilizations. I’ve never had much of an interest in that realm of speculation, so it was odd that its concepts would be so recognizable, almost palpable, to my mind’s eye. It took me a few days to realize that this was because much of the narrative and imagery had already been put into my consciousness by a youth spent reading the works of Robert E. Howard. As one of the founding writers of the “swords and sorcery” genre, Howard portrayed his Hyperborean heroes Conan, Kull, and Bran Mac Morn all traveling through worlds enlivened by Theosophical and speculative archaeological theories of prehistoric civilizations.
The author of a more muscular strain of weird tale than what was written by some of his fellow pulp titans, Howard seems an unlikely host to some of the fae notions of Theosophical cosmology. However, after doing a bit of research I found that his interest in history, which gave his historical fiction an air of reality, was paralleled by an equal interest in the occult. His initial letters to H.P. Lovecraft contain inquiries into the esoteric truths behind the Cthulhu Mythos and imply a seeking curiosity similar to what might be found in a letter sent to the outer representative of a secret occult order.
This really should not come as a shock, since we find Howard writing marginalized fantasy fiction at one of the high points of America’s occult revival. The pulp magazines were one of the prime markets for organizations like the AMORC and the mail order mysticism popularized by publishers such as de Laurence, Scott and Company. And naturally, writing in the genres that he did, Howard found the imagery of Theosophy and the occult provided the raw framework from which to work. Although Conan, Kull and Co. are among the most earthy examples of the swords and sorcery genre, Howard’s cosmic vision sneaks through in stories like “The Tower of the Elephant,” which features a transcendent vision of the cosmos where lines between the celestial, the earthly, and the extra-dimensional blur into a frictious mix.
Jeff Shanks’ article “Theosophy and the Thurian Age: Robert E. Howard and the Works of William Scott-Elliot” (in The Dark Man: The Journal of Robert E. Howard Studies, Vol. 6, Nos. 1 and 2) provides a historical analysis of some specific Theosophical influences that went into framing the landscape of Howard’s work. But it seems to me that one of the more important aspects of this subject, and one that is a bit more ephemeral and subtle to trace than the mere origins of his influences, is the question of how Howard’s writing interacts with the esoteric tradition itself. These interactions are so prevalent in his work that in many instances he seems to utilize some of the same processes used by Theosophists such as C.W. Leadbetter in hopes of gaining an authentic vision of antediluvian worlds. Howard gives us a surprising opportunity to examine the strange chemistry that occurs when a certain psychology, no matter how seemingly mundane, acts as a catalyst to a potent stream of occult influence. His example also leads out to the realm of other authors who experienced something similar, and eventually to a general insight about the relationship of channeling, mediumship, anomalies, and visionary trance states to the creative imagination.
LET ME CHANNEL YOU THE DAYS OF HIGH ADVENTURE
During the heyday of the pulps, what was surfacing in the subliminal atmosphere of the magazines’ advertising pages, where practical engagement with the esoteric was proffered through mail order mysteries, was also percolating in previous encounters between Howard and popular writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Jack London, whose work he greatly enjoyed in his youth. Doyle’s active participation in psychical research, along with his interest in secret societies, suffuses his work even when the traces are not very evident, and London was on hand for the Golden Age of San Francisco, participating in the Eastern steeped occulture of the early Bohemia Club. Another of Howard’s favorite authors, the adventure writer Talbot Mundy, was deeply steeped in Theosophical lore, as well as in direct experiences from a youth spent traveling through North Africa, the Middle East, India, and Tibet. In processing and appropriating these respective influences, Howard was bringing forward a sensibility and set of ideas plugged directly into the mystical and occult.
Whereas science fiction is able to explore the ethical, philosophical, and experiential elements of technological progress, works like Howard’s allow us access to a vision of Plato’s republic in action, where the unseen hand of philosophy, or in this case, sorcery, guides the swords of more material men to change the fate of nations. While this would be developed more deeply, and with more of an eye towards complex critique, in the works of Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, Glenn Lord, and some of the authors who followed Howard’s example, we find in his stories the raw seed, a sort of medieval illustration providing the compositional outline for the more developed visions of later writers.
Beyond the texts themselves, as we feel deeper into the phenomena of Howard’s writing, we find that there is more to his esoteric dalliance than simply repurposing archetypal imagery, for it is apparent that this interest also led to his use of visionary techniques for inducing creativity. In reading through his correspondence, we see him referring quite often to seeing these prehistoric narratives play out before his mind’s eye. As he puts it in the introduction to Etchings in Ivory, “my dreams have leaped into my brain full-grown.” Howard felt that through the use of the creative imagination, he was actually viewing scenes from past lives, and his fragmentary writings, outside of his published work, are written as memories rather than fictional narratives.
As his friend Novalyne Price-Ellis recalled in her memoir One Who Walked Alone (the basis for the Howard biopic The Whole Wide World):
He described the land, the colors of Jenghiz Khan’s robes, the horse he rode. As I listened, I knew what Jenghiz Khan experienced and thought. But I understood as one who plays a part in a play; you study the man … You study the role … You try to understand and experience him; then you try to reveal him to an audience. But in the final analysis, on stage, you create the illusion of reality. Bob was not acting. He was there. At that moment, he was Jenghiz Khan, the barbarian, conqueror of an empire.
It overwhelmed me. “How do you know so much about him — Jenghiz Khan? History books don’t tell you these things. History books don’t describe. They recount.”
“I was there, girl.” Exultantly. “I rode with Jenghiz Khan.”
At first, I didn’t know what to think. Then I reasoned about it. I thought: We must talk about reincarnation someday. I don’t believe it, of course, but we must talk about it. He probably doesn’t believe it either. No wonder a few people in Cross Plains don’t like him. They don’t understand him. His preoccupation with history and with writing instead of the price of corn and cotton is something they could not understand. Could I? I liked to talk about books…History…Writing. Well, this was an opportunity to listen to a very interesting storyteller! Did I want this?
I listened to the saga of Jenghiz Khan.
– Novalyne Price-Ellis, One Who Walked Alone: Robert E. Howard, The Final Years (1986)
Howard never claimed any veracity for these visions, so couched in fiction he brought them forward as questions and misty scenes from the realms outside “the trend of reality,” and his experience of this dissociation took on nearly clairvoyant overtones. These visions formed a part of his critique of the contemporary setting he was writing in. He was very aware of what might be considered the escapist nature of his stories; as quoted by Price-Ellis, he said of his readers that
the people who read my stuff want to get away from this modern, complicated world with its hypocrisy, its cruelty, its dog-eat-dog life. They want to go back to the origin of the human race. The civilization we live in is a hell of a lot more sinister than the time I write about. In those days, girl, men were men and women were women. They struggled to stay alive, but the struggle was worth it.
Importantly, I am in no way implying that Howard sat down in an active, ritualized way to invoke these visionary states. Instead, whether through suffusion of influences or simply the circumstance of feeling bored and trapped by the complexity of contemporary life, he was able to tap into the same vein of experience that, when framed differently, appears as mystical accounts. Godwin, in his work on Atlantis, details the numerous clairvoyant “visions” of antediluvian worlds that have been proffered throughout history, showing how they possess a social and personal efficacy that often belies their veracity in light of any orthodox historical narrative.
VISIONS, ANOMALIES, AND “OBSERVERS OF THE INTERNAL FILM”
To draw wider lessons that can be applied to the fusion of creativity and mystical matters, we need to ask two questions of all this: How does the case of Robert E. Howard lead us to understand the act of writing effective short stories or performing any other creative artistic work? And what, generally, is happening in trance-based methods of acquiring information?
Starting again from Howard himself, another example from his correspondence shows how these processes can even slip beneath the notice of those who experience them. After harshly dismissing Sir Richard Francis Burton’s poem The Kasidah in a letter to a friend, Howard later reflected, “Maybe I was too rough on the author of The Kasidah. That is a really great poem even though it does merely (as far as I’ve read) uphold and expound facts I reasoned out for myself years ago.” What, we might ask, were these facts?
Burton’s poem sought to express what he had discovered regarding the philosophy of the Sufis he encountered on his travels through the Middle East and North Africa during the 19th century. If we look at Howard’s response, we see that he doesn’t give any preference to Burton, but refers to him simply as “the author” and claims that whatever Burton tried to express in that poem is something that he himself “reasoned out…years ago.” This seems a typical response from a Texan unimpressed with social niceties and eager to get down to the matter at hand. And while I would not suggest that Howard was a Sufi adept, his professed familiarity with the ideas in The Kasidah shows that his meditative practice, even if haphazard and occurring by nature rather than active discipline, had given him a sense of reality that enabled him to dialogue with a line of mystical philosophy that was carefully developed over centuries of more active engagement.
We find a similar situation in author and occultist Kenneth Grant’s infamous claim that the work of H.P. Lovecraft represents an unconscious communication with extra-dimensional entities or forces. Much of the occult tradition that Grant worked within is based on the development of visualization techniques and meditative states that enhance the interaction between the practitioner and these forces through the medium of the art. In the case of Lovecraft, Grant suggests that, through his attentive relationship with his dream life, Lovecraft was unknowingly transmitting visions of a reality that lies behind the visible order. Many have looked askance at the idea that someone like Lovecraft, with his well-documented atheism and total rejection of the supernatural, could be a naive psychic medium. However, such criticism presumes a transcendental explanation for the inner interaction in question, and ignores the fact that what Grant is suggesting is based on purely practical concerns.
The quaint notion of an “occult science” is based on the nature of magical practice, which suggests that to achieve certain results, certain actions need to be taken. If the proper action is taken, then the practitioner is assured results, just as in chemistry we know that the interaction of properly measured solutions will achieve repeatable reactions. Disagreements and arguments come in when we start trying to hash out what exactly these results mean — an issue that properly forms the work of more advanced practitioners who are experiencing the states in question, and that becomes somewhat useless when approached from the outside.
“What is the difference between visualization techniques used by authors and artists and the visualization techniques used by someone trained in remote viewing?”
It is important to understand that what sits at the core of any anomalous phenomenon is, very simply, an experience, and that such experiences are codified through cultural discourse to bring out some kind of linear meaning within the surrounding social narrative. The act of cultivating these experiences is the core of what Grant is talking about, and is in fact exactly what Lovecraft did with his dream life, even if the ontological status of the results he obtained remains a matter of disagreement among commentators. If we look at what Lovecraft actually wrote, it becomes apparent that the wonderful uniqueness of his work is in large part predicated on his dream practice. Even when we factor in the knowledge that he was deeply influenced by a number of other writers, this still doesn’t yield a definitive answer to the ontological question, because most of these major influences, including Arthur Machen, Edgar Allan Poe, Algernon Blackwood, and Lord Dunsany, were themselves either working with trance states, involved in an occult order, involved in 19th-century Freemasonry, or some combination of all three.
Scholars such as Jeffrey Kripal and Patrick Harpur have demonstrated the critical potency of stepping back for a moment and considering these obfuscated areas of human consciousness with sympathy. Consider, for example, the case of orbs and the various interpretations to which they have been subjected. On a very simplistic level, an orb in your house “is” a ghost. An orb in the forest “is” an elemental, fairy, or Will o’ Wisp. And an orb in the sky “is” a UFO. But is there really any difference in the phenomenon itself? Or are these differences merely narrative devices that have grown out of a heavily mediated understanding of the event? One of the most fascinating factors in an area like — for instance — UFOlogy is seeing how so many divergent phenomena can become enmeshed in a single cultural event. Natural occurrences, military tests, pranks, mistaken identification, and truly anomalous events all intermix as elements in a complex and ever-developing story.
Importantly, this ambiguity goes beyond phenomena like UFOs, which ostensibly have some type of objective/external existence, to encompass more inward states as well. What is the difference between visualization techniques used by authors and artists and the visualization techniques used by someone trained in remote viewing? During some formal remote viewing tests, there have been instances where the viewers claim to be able to see events on Mars, or to see other off-world events. Can this be separated from the work of an author like, say, William S. Burroughs, who remarked that the best writers are merely observers of an internal film, and that the more successful are those who are better able to capture and express in words the narrative structure of what they see?
When we go back and read accounts of mediumship from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we sometimes find striking similarities with the science fiction of the time. For instance, in From India to the Planet Mars, Théodore Flournoy’s enormously popular and influential study of the psychic Helene Smith, Flournoy actually makes a point of this by emphasizing that many of Smith’s channeled ideas seem to have emerged from speculative scientific writing on the nature of alien worlds:
While, on the whole, therefore, it is probable that its roots extend back as far as the childhood of Mlle. Smith, it is nevertheless with the Martian romance, as well as with the others, not a mere question of the simple cryptomnesiac return of facts of a remote past, or of an exhumation of fossil residua brought to light again by the aid of somnambulism. It is a very active process, and one in full course of evolution, nourished, undoubtedly, by elements belonging to the past, but which have been recombined and moulded in a very original fashion, until it amounts finally, among other things, to the creation of an unknown language.
It will be interesting to follow step by step the phases of this elaboration: but since it always, unfortunately, hides itself in the obscurity of the subconsciousness, we are only cognizant of it by its occasional appearances, and all the rest of that subterranean work must be inferred, in a manner somewhat hypothetical, from those supraliminal eruptions and the scanty data which we have concerning the outward influences which have exerted a stimulating influence upon the subliminal part of Hélène.
– Theodore Flournoy, From India to the Planet Mars (1900), Trans. Daniel B. Vermilye
Smith, according to Flournoy, was viewing narratives played out in her mind that were shaped by her reading, but that were brought alive by her unconscious emotional and mental activity. In other words, her visionary states were filtered through her social narrative.
This is something that leads us beyond the domain of critical theory or even phenomenological concerns over the interaction of anomaly and fiction, and into an area of practical application that needs to be considered if we are to explore the meaning of the phenomena in question. It may also help us to understand in some way what divides effective from ineffective speculative fiction.
The difference between the errant psychic medium and the established author is the latter’s ability to maintain a socially acceptable narrative for his or her own life. It is the ability to control the inner visionary process, or at least an awareness (whether partly or fully conscious) of its basic nature, that allows such people to maintain a stable personality while tapping into the same forces that turn someone like Helene Smith into a curiosity of science.
OF ARTISTS AND MEDIUMS
To understand just how deep the connection really is between what we call psychism and what we call artistry, it is important to understand why the word “medium” is used in psychical research. We often think of anomalous experiences in terms of their relationship to individual identity, but the term “medium” is used very specifically to describe a person’s relationship with the phenomena of channeling. A medium is so-called because he or she is one through whom “channeled” information or entities are realized in the material world. Whether we talk about psychics claiming to channel messages from the dead and visions of ancient worlds or authors channeling inspiration into written stories, we are talking about a relationship between an amorphous, immaterial vision and its realization in materia by a human agent. Again, an awareness of the process, and a kind of distance from it, and some minimal level of irony directed at the vision’s claim to objective truth, is what aids in separating the artist from the medium.
“The line between psychic medium and talented creative is very thin, and perhaps non-existent. That which we call psychism in one realm of discourse is simply subsumed under the mantle of creativity in another.”
This is also where we come up against the question of marginality. Although someone like Algernon Blackwood could couch his experiences as a metaphysical explorer in the guise of fiction, he was writing from a place firmly entrenched in the establishment, where eccentricity is mitigated by family standing and wealth. Most psychic mediums are not so fortunate. Most authors are not so fortunate, either, and so the “pulp” narrative emerges to express these experiences in the sphere of the general public, where critical reception is not based on abstract metrics.
The raw emotional undertones of existence are rarely concealed in pulp fiction. They break forth unbidden, often against the controls of genre constraint. Establishment novelists are marked by their staid prose and formulaic attention to structure. Heavily schooled, they employ a writing technique that sits on the surface, barely concealed by brief flights of inspiration. Even at its best, establishment literature has the sense of something dead. Those who break this mold often find themselves inhabiting the margins, or else they experience their breakthroughs when faced with losing their social standing.
Statistics show that while belief in the paranormal is equally distributed across society, experience of the paranormal (at least as reported during surveys) has a higher percentage of occurrence in marginalized groups. So where better to look than to marginalized literature to find a much less hidden use of mediumship in the creative process?
To return to the author with whom we started, the alienation of Robert E. Howard is obvious. In a letter to a friend relating his first publishing experience, he wrote:
I one day got the advance pages of Wolfshead, which was about to be published. Reading it over I was so depressed and discouraged that I went and got a job jerking soda in a drug-store.
Such marginalization provides the impetus to step further inward instead of seeking some relief in the outside world. Rather than try to work toward some material success, Howard went for a job with the least possible amount of outward responsibility, which therefore allowed time for daydreaming and focusing on the mental realms in which he found a more favorable atmosphere. In the process, he gained access to the same type of anomalous perceptions of the inner world that any occultist would encounter while pursuing the same journey through the mind’s eye.
In regarding these areas of experience as “supernatural,” we miss how mundane the process actually is. One of the greatest American metaphysical philosophers, Manly P. Hall, did little more than Howard in terms of following a formal meditative practice. Ronnie Pontiac, who knew Hall intimately, writes in a recent piece for Newtopia Magazine that those seeking some deep esoteric secret behind Hall’s prolific influence were often sorely disappointed:
Hoping for exotic revelations, some have asked me what his practice was, or did I receive from him any esoteric techniques. He approved of my twice a day meditation regime but with a hint of good-humored contempt so I asked him about his own meditation practice. He told me that the studying and writing he did each day, his work on the PRS journal, and several book manuscripts at once, and his meetings with visitors were a constant meditation. He talked to me about Zen and the kinhin, the walking meditation, but he used it as a metaphor, explaining that choosing your daily activity carefully is the key to a life of meditation, yet any activity would do. He also recommended the Pythagorean recollection. When ready to fall asleep the day is pondered in reverse, starting with the most recent action, working back to the first experience upon waking, with an eye to improvement.
– Ronnie Pontiac, “The Maestro and the Boy: The Kindness of Manly P. Hall,” Newtopia Magazine, December 15, 2012
If we consider the fact that the line between psychic medium and talented creative is very thin, and perhaps non-existent, then we can see how Kenneth Grant’s statement about Lovecraft’s mediumship might not be so far off. It’s not that Lovecraft was necessarily a medium, but that to him lucid dreaming and visionary states were perfectly normal. The word “supernatural” didn’t fit into his narrative. Similarly, we find Robert E. Howard, whose work is far less mystically inclined than Lovecraft’s, accessing a far more active visionary practice without the same atheistic restraints. His work is so steeped in its influences that, years after having read it, when faced with Joscelyn Godwin’s exposition of Atlantean mythology, the pictures I found called to my mind were provided in part by Howard’s writing. That which we call psychism in one realm of discourse is simply subsumed under the mantle of creativity in another, and rarely do we stop to look at how closely the two are related, and how strange visions can creep into even the most material mind.
Note: For more on the relationship between art and mediumship, Matt Cardin’s fascinating ebook A Course in Demonic Creativity provides a wonderful exploration of these ideas.
Posted on January 14, 2013, in Arts & Entertainment, De Umbris Idearum, Paranormal, Psychology & Consciousness and tagged Channeling, Creativity, esotericism, h. p. lovecraft, manly p. hall, Mediumship, occultism, Pulp Fiction, Robert E. Howard, Sword and Sorcery. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.