Magick, Madness, and Outsider Art: The Lovecraftian Path to Happiness
A Search for the Heroic in Lovecraftian Fiction, Part Four
NOTE: This is the final part of a four-part series in which Stu Young explores the works and influence of H. P. Lovecraft in an attempt to tease out themes of heroism and optimism among the more familiar themes of horror, gloom, and despair.
Although Robert Anton Wilson claims that Sir John Babcock, the hero of Masks of the Illuminati, is “the typical Lovecraft narrator” and has him muse that “Encounters with death and danger are only adventures to the survivors,” Babcock does on occasion find himself getting a thrill from his exploits. Admittedly, he compares this to the novels of Conan Doyle and H. Rider Haggard rather than anything by Lovecraft, but then, in the year in which the story is set (1914) Lovecraft hadn’t had any tales published yet. (Not that this stops Cthulhu popping up for a quick cameo.) But despite Babcock’s vacillating feelings towards his adventures, Masks of the Illuminati ends happily.
Meanwhile, in The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, a visit to Miskatonic University turns up a John Dee translation of the Necronomicon, and shoggoths make several cameo appearances during the course of the story. Yog-Sothoth also turns up several times in Illuminatus! but is constantly trapped in various types of pentagons and eventually absorbs Hitler into itself, thus condemning old Adolf to eternal torment, which shifts Yog-Sothoth from villain to borderline hero, kind of like the T-rex at the end of Jurassic Park.
(Does anyone else feel weird about Yog-Sothoth being a hero? Even viewing him as an anti-hero seems wrong; it’s so out of character. Maybe he was having a midlife crisis and wanted to try a new direction in life. He probably bought himself a shiny new sports car as well. Just so long as he doesn’t start shagging younger women again, because we know that never ends well.)
Wilson liked mixing historical figures into his novels, blurring the lines between fact and fiction. Carl Jung, Albert Einstein, James Joyce, and Aleister Crowley, along with many other real people, all turn up at various points. For the purposes of this discussion, the most interesting cameo by a real-life figure come in Illuminatus! when one of the novel’s protagonists pays a visit to none other than Lovecraft himself, who scoffs at the idea that the monsters in his stories might be real. The protagonist then asks why, if Lovecraft doesn’t believe in monsters or magic, did he cut short a quote from Eliphas Levi’s History of Magic in his short novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Lovecraft replies, “One doesn’t have to believe in Yog-Sothoth, the eater of Souls, to realize how people will act who do hold that belief. It is not my intent, in any of my writings, to provide information that will lead even one unbalanced reader to try experiments that will result in the loss of human life.”
Such a response raises the question of how people really do fare when they allow the influence of Lovecraftian fiction to infiltrate real life. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the British ritual magician Kenneth Grant, who blended the Cthulhu Mythos into Typhonian magic.
Kenneth Grant’s Typhonian tantrums
Grant lived to be eighty-six and had a long career as a novelist and writer about the occult. This seems to suggest that he didn’t suffer any of the problems associated with a Lovecraftian hero.
That said, there are numerous claims that his accounts of his magical abilities were exaggerations, lies, or the result of out-and-out delusions. And not only that, but when he asked a friend of Aleister Crowley for an introduction to The Great Beast himself, he was refused on the grounds that he was “mentally unstable.” Personally, I’m not clear on whether it was the case that Grant was truly too unstable to cope with Crowley, the “wickedest man in the world,” or whether he was too unstable for Crowley to cope with him. Either way, this incident doesn’t bode well for the authenticity of his writings.
Still, Grant eventually did get to meet Crowley, and he even worked as Crowley’s secretary for several months. The fruit of this interaction was fascinating: Grant mixed Crowley’s magick with Kabbalism and the Cthulhu Mythos to create, among other things, a Lovecraftian Tree of Life.
According to Grant, his magickal workings often resulted in magical feedback that he called “tangential tantrums” and which he claimed caused members of his group to vanish, be killed, or be raped by Cthulhu-like creatures. As far as I can make out, most of these events took place in a mental realm, i.e., they were all imaginary. Even with the events that actually happened in the physical world, there’s still some doubt as to whether they were actually connected to the magickal rituals performed. Pointing to someone’s death as proof of a ritual’s magical energy when the death occurred fifteen years after said ritual isn’t exactly the most convincing evidence.
“Does delving into Lovecraft’s world inevitably lead to madness? Victoria Nelson suggests that Lovecraft used his writing as a way of exploring insanity without actually succumbing to it. She says his tales of madness, body horror, and cosmic terror inoculated him against real horror.”
So, how many of these “tangential tantrums” are lies — a deliberate attempt by Grant to titillate his readers — and how many are delusions on Grant’s part? It’s difficult to say, especially as his fiction contains references to real people and his non-fiction treats fictions by authors such a Lovecraft and Arthur Machen as fact.
What was Grant even writing? Fiction? Faction? Crazy as a loon-tion? It’s difficult to say. But Grant himself lived to a ripe old age and had a successful career as an author, so even if he actually was totally bonkers, he didn’t seem to have let it bother him too much.
Magick and madness
In “Kenneth Grant, Crowley, and Dr. Black: Magick, Smoke, and Mirrors” (Journal of Thelemic Studies Vol, 2, No. 1, PDF), Dr. Dave Evans reported that while immersing himself in a study of the Lovecraft-inspired slime-and-tentacles imagery of Grant’s work, he one day stepped out of his house to find a dead squid lying just outside the front door. Although there was a rational explanation for this — he lived near the English Channel in a spot frequented by night-fishermen, so the squid had probably just fallen out of someone’s bait box — the freaky nature of the synchronicity made Evans laugh out loud “in very much the maniacal fashion of a doomed hero in a Lovecraftian novel who, despite his best efforts to save himself and his colleagues, is about to be consumed or torn to pieces by demonic entities from beyond the stars.” But obviously he wasn’t really all that bothered, because he still nipped out to do his shopping.
Evans returned home to find the squid gone, which suggests that its appearance outside his door had just been a coincidence. Either that, or Cthulhu had manifested himself in such a feeble state that he could be picked up by a street cleaner or eaten by a passing seagull.
Chaos magician Phil Hine raises the point in his book Prime Chaos that, as all magical activities could potentially drive the practitioner mad, why shouldn’t a person go all out and practice Cthulhu Mythos magic? Speaking for myself, the obvious answer is that if I’m going to go mad either way, then I’d rather skip the kind of madness that involves being attacked by slimy, tentacled monsters and go instead for the kind of madness where I think I’m a handsome genius who’s loved by everyone. (Wait a minute, I do think I’m a handsome genius who’s loved by everyone. Um. . . )
But does delving into Lovecraft’s world inevitably lead to madness? In The Secret Life of Puppets,Victoria Nelson suggests that Lovecraft used his writing as a way of exploring insanity without actually succumbing to it. She says his tales of madness, body horror, and cosmic terror inoculated him against real horror. However, she also feels that Lovecraft never fully engaged with the madness of his own stories. She says his famous use of the trope of the “unnameable” horror, along with the strict formulaic structure of his fiction, caged the madness he feared without actually defeating it, leaving it as “an enchanted beast that can never have its curse lifted, can never be humanized, by the insights of art.” She points out, though, that this reading is disputed by Lovecraft scholar Maurice Lévy, who argues that “because the sick man recognizes these images of horror as his own, he is in a position to assume them fully and thereby overcome them.”
I don’t really know enough about Lovecraft’s life to say which interpretation I side with here, but Nelson does seem rather to undermine her own argument when she ends her chapter on Lovecraft with this statement: “Not the least of his virtues, finally, was personal bravery, the tenacious spirit of the Outsider who managed to win his own mental stability and life as an artist against all odds of upbringing and family circumstance.”
I think this highlights one of the problems with determining the levels of heroism and optimism in Lovecraft’s stories: so much of it is a matter of interpretation. One person’s idea of heroism is another person’s idea of futility; one person’s happy ending is another person’s doomed despair.
Eldritchly ever after
Although happy endings may not be the norm within the Lovecraftian framework, I think I have proved with this series of columns devoted to Lovecraft that they are at least possible. But if you still don’t believe me, just consider the fact that the series has now reached its end.
Now doesn’t that make you feel happy?
Posted on August 19, 2013, in Arts & Entertainment, Paranormal, Religion & Philosophy, Sparking Neurones and tagged A Search for the Heroic in Lovecraftian Fiction, Aleister Crowley, h. p. lovecraft, horror, kenneth grant, literature, magick, occult. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.