One Nation under Many Gods: In a Fractious and Fractured Political Age, New Age Mysticism Still Unites Americans
A version of the reverse of the Great Seal of the United States printed in a 1909 U.S. Government booklet on the Great Seal. According to Henry A. Wallace, this was the version that caught his eye, causing him to suggest to President Franklin Roosevelt to put the design on a coin, at which point Roosevelt decided to put it on the back of the dollar bill.
A newly published article at Salon by Mitch Horowitz is typically insightful and well-written, and well worth your time. And despite the headline, it’s not really about Steve Bannon. I mean, yes, it does contain the revelation that Horowitz knows Bannon, and that his view of the man diverges sharply from the widespread popular one that reigns in the mass media:
Although the media have characterized Bannon as the Disraeli of the dark side following his rise to power in the Trump administration, I knew him, and still do, as a deeply read and erudite observer of the American religious scene, with a keen appetite for mystical thought.
But the article’s overall topic is much broader, as indicated in the provided editorial teaser: “If you think New Age alternative spirituality is solely the domain of lefty hippies, you don’t know your history.” In just under two thousand words Horowitz discusses such things as the influence of Manly P. Hall on Ronald Reagan, Madame Blavatsky’s promulgation of the idea of “America as the catalyst for a revolution in human potential,” Donald Trump’s association with Norman Vincent Peale, FDR’s decision to put the eye-and-pyramid of the Great Seal of the United States on the dollar bill, Hillary Clinton’s visioneering meetings Jean Houston (who once told Bill Clinton that he was an “undeveloped shaman,” at which point he got up and walked out), and more. Horowitz’s basic point is that none of this represents a conspiracy, notwithstanding the claims of the paranoid conspiracy theorizing crowd:
Rather than fomenting secrecy or subterfuge, America’s embrace of esotericism is often characterized by a chin-out earnestness, something that many observers and conspiracy-mongers miss.. . . . Today, cable television producers and radio hosts often urge me to postulate some kind of occult “pact” between the Bushes and the dark side (cue up Skull and Bones). But such things are fantasy. The truth is, Americans have always been, well, a little strange. As a historian, I feel affection for that aspect of American life. Shadowy figures have long hung around the fringes of power in many nations; but rarely have they done so with the ingenuousness and transparency of those I’ve been considering.
And to cap it off, he ends on a note that is positively eloquent and inspiring:
If there is a central principle in American life, one valued across our political spectrum, it is a belief in the protection of the individual search for meaning. The presence and persistence of esoteric and unusual religious ideas in our political culture, including in its most conservative quarters, serves as evidence that that core principle is still working. In the U.S. military, religiously observant service members and veterans can now choose among more than 65 “emblems of belief,” including pentagrams, druidic symbols and every variety of mystical insignia. We are truly one nation under many gods — a fact that unites us across our fractured political divide.
The Starry Wisdom Library, to be released some time this year by PS Publishing, is a unique anthology project, and I’m happy to say that I will have a story — or rather, an essay or sorts — featured in it. The project is the brainchild of rare books expert Nate Pedersen, whose rather brilliant conceit is to publish an authentic-looking facsimile reproduction of the original 1877 “lost” auction catalogue for the library of occult books that Lovecraft once described as residing in the abandoned Church of Starry Wisdom in Providence, Rhode Island:
In a rear vestry room beside the apse Blake found a rotting desk and ceiling-high shelves of mildewed, disintegrating books. Here for the first time he received a positive shock of objective horror, for the titles of those books told him much. They were the black, forbidden things which most sane people have never even heard of, or have heard of only in furtive, timorous whispers; the banned and dreaded repositories of equivocal secrets and immemorial formulae which have trickled down the stream of time from the days of man’s youth, and the dim, fabulous days before man was.
— H. P. Lovecraft, “The Haunter of the Dark”
Each “story” in The Starry Wisdom Library is written in the form of a (completely made-up) scholarly description of, and essay on, one of these fictitious texts. The full list of them was determined by Nate and gleaned from the entire bristling universe of Lovecraftian fiction. For my part, I wrote the entry on the Daemonolorum, a tome of “nightmare arcana” invented by Robert Bloch for one of his stories.
The book with its faux facsimile design will have quite a charming and handsome appearance, as evidenced by the title page:
Here’s the full list of contributors, along with the titles of their respective entries. As you’ll see, Nate has managed to assemble a pretty amazing roster of Lovecraftian and weird horror writers.
Introduction by S. T. Joshi
ANIOLOWSKI, Scott David — Massa di Requiem per Shuggay
BARRASS, Glynn — The Book of Azathoth
BERGLUND, Edward P. — Cultus Maleficarum
BIRD, Allyson — The Book of Karnak
BRENTS, Scott — Lewis Carroll / Charles Dodgson Letter
BULLINGTON, Jesse — Il Tomo della Biocca
CAMPBELL, Ramsey — The Revelations of Glaaki
CARDIN, Matt — The Daemonolorum
CHAMBERS, S. J. — Remnants of Lost Empires
CISCO, Michael — Liber Ivonis
CUINN, Carrie — Image du Monde
FILES, Gemma — The Testament of Carnamagos
GAVIN, Richard — De Masticatione Mortuorum in Tumulis
HANSON, Christopher — The Pnakotic Manuscripts
HARMS, Daniel – The Book of Dzyan
JONES, Stephen Graham — The Ssathaat Scriptures
LANGAN, John — Les Mystères du Ver
LEMAN, Andrew – Practise of Chymicall and Hermetickall Physicke
LLEWELLYN, Livia — Las Reglas de Ruina
MAMATAS, Nick — The Black Book of the Skull
MORENO-GARCIA, Silvia — El Culto de los Muertos
MORRIS, Edward — The Book of Invaders
NICOLAY, Scott — The Ponape Scripture
PRICE, Robert M. — The Book of Iod
PUGMIRE, W. H. — The Sesqua Valley Grimoire
PULVER, Joe — The King in Yellow
RAWLIK, Pete — The Qanoon-e-Islam
SATYAMURTHY, Jayaprakash — The Chhaya Rituals
SCHWADER, Ann K — The Black Rites
SCHWEITZER, Darrell — The Nameless Tome
SPRIGGS, Robin — The Dhol Chants
STRANTZAS, Simon — The Black Tome of Alsophocus
TANZER, Molly — Hieron Aigypton
TAYLOR, Keith — The Book of Thoth
TIDBECK, Karin — The Cultes des Goules
TYSON, Donald — Liber Damnatus
VALENTINE, Genevieve — The Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan
WALLACE, Kali – The Tablets of Nhing
WARREN, Kaaron — The Book of Climbing Lights
WEBB, Don — The Black Sutra
WELLS, Jeff — Observations on the Several Parts of Africa
WILSON, F. Paul — Unaussprechlichen Kulten
Rare book cataloging for the anthology conducted by Jonathan Kearns of Adrian Harrington Rare Books.
Featuring six original woodcuts by Liv Rainey-Smith
Dust jacket cover by Andrew Leman of the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society
Here’s a treat for fans of classic occult horror in the vein of Dennis Wheatley (author of the iconic/legendary novel The Devil Rides Out):
Teeming Brain columnist Stuart Young has edited a volume of five stories in this vein for Hersham Horror Books. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Hersham Horror Books presents five original stories from the minds of Peter Mark May, Thana Niveau, John Llewellyn Probert, David Williamson, and Stuart Young. The fourth anthology in our PentAnth range brings you five more satanic and demonic tales that hearken back to an age when Dennis Wheatley was the king of horror.
Here are the contents:
- Introduction by Stuart Young: “Devilish Inspirations”
- “The Abhorrent Man” by Peter Mark May
- “Little Devils” by Thana Niveau
- “The Devil in the Details” by John Llewellyn Probert
- “The Scryer” by David Williamson
- “Guardian Devil” by Stuart Young
Here is some praise:
“Featuring five stories based around the sadly neglected sub genre of Black Magic and Demonology from some of the best writers working today, Demons and Devilry captures the very essence of what makes for a great horror read. . . . A brilliant anthology, one which manages to perfectly balance stories of a lighter tone with more dark and heavy tones. If you are looking for some demonic fun, then this book is the ideal book for you.” — Ginger Nuts of Horror
“If Demons and Devilry sounds like your particular chalice of virgin’s blood, then you’ll find plenty to satisfy here. Despite the old-school theme, these tales aren’t dated or stale, they’re contemporary homages to the cause of all things arcane and infernal. And with such a stark appearance and title, it’s also a fun book to brandish in public. Dig out the black candles and enjoy.” — Matthew Fryer
“I’m a sucker for stories about demons and devils; they just draw me in and captivate me for some reason. . . . Every story in Demons & devilry is written well and flows at a nice pace. The authors go to great lengths to convey a lot of story in such a small space, and they each do a first-rate job. And as with Hersham’s previous titles, the quality of writing is superb. Each tale is carefully crafted and each writing voice unique. . . . An excellent collection of stories.” — Shattered Ravings
Also of interest: a blog post that Stu published about his experience of editing the anthology, bearing the ominous title “Why I Hate Editing (aka I’ve Edit Up to Here).”
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. Read the rest of this entry