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The Plot Running Like a Silver Cord: Channeling and Mediumship on the Margins of Literature

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(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. Read the rest of this entry