Monday, April 8, 2013

Cthulhu Occultism Pt 3: What's A Nameless Cult When It's Home?

So, this 'essay' on HPL and the occult is taking a long time. I'm over ten thousand words with no signs of stopping. Rather than delay posts here, I"m going to post one installment under this topic monthly or so, and do other stuff as well. Other stuff in the pipe. This series *will* end up with a fairly comprehensive review of modern Cthulhu Occultism publications etc, but that's still a while off. Hope you enjoy this. I am certainly enjoying writing it, so if you don't enjoy it, you can feel good for me : ).
A central horror gimmick of the Cthulhu Mythos is often the survival of the worship of dangerous and eldritch beings as outlaw cults. These cults may be limited to human worshippers but often come to include members of the several non-human races which also serve the GOO. Some stories are mere bad luck in which a hapless protagonist meets an indescribable horror. The tales that influence the occult world are those about the conscious use of Mythos magic and/or science I want to spend some time in this article examining the places where Lovecraft’s stories actually meet traditional occult practices.

However it is perhaps equally important to examine a pop-cultural source of HPL’s ideas. One remarkable bit of history is what might be called America’s first ‘Satanic Panic’. Many readers will remember the Satanic Panic of the late 20th century. Beginning in the late 1980s, media and some law-enforcement groups became convinced by the propaganda of conservative Christians who claimed that underground cults of Satanists were regularly sacrificing babies, housepets and grown-ups in a regular cycle of ritual worship of their demon-gods. As clich├ęd and unlikely as this seems, the media was busy selling the notion, from occasional trumped-up news stories to a wave of horror entertainment. Simon’s book was an occasional player in all that, but not as common as old Anton’s.

The whole business was the usual sort of mob-fear, Fighting The Evil Enemy sort of nonsense, supported by occasional fake witnesses. The counseling community became complicit. Many progressive, feminist therapists bought into the now-discredited notion of ‘repressed memory’ and used half-baked hypnotic techniques to support their assumption that sexual abuse was as common as hugging in patriarchal homes. Many young people were led to generate ‘memories’ of abuse, which wounded families and produced occasional Police flurries.

Here in Ohio I recall, back in the late 1980s, the county sheriffs over in the North-west corner of the state digging up a couple of fields on a tip that they would be filled with the corpses of sacrifices. Toledo had a deserved reputation as a source of witchery in Ohio, but it was modern witchery – no baby sacrifices. The blustering sheriffs and their backhoes found not a dolly for their trouble. That was, in general, how the whole wave of panic ended. Serious police investigations produced no evidence of generational Satanist cults, no caches of bodies or bones were ever discovered, no kidnappings or disappearances were found relating to claims of Satanic cult activity. (We’ll leave aside Scientology and/or folks like the Krishnas – they aren’t part of ‘the occult’.) The FBI closed its investigation on ‘Satanic Ritual Abuse’ in 1992, concluding that nothing had ever been going on

What surprised me in my reading is that this had happened beforebeginning back in the very decade central to HPL’s career. In the 1920s the new theories of Margaret Murray pointed at the idea that ancient religions had survived in secret into relativley modern times, preserving their atavistic rites and practices, including human sacrifice and ‘unspeakable’ sexual rites. (Lovecraft wrote in the vocabulary of missionary jungle adventures, in which the unclad dances and fertility symbols of traditional religions were ‘unspeakable’ or ‘abhorrent’.)

It is possible that the times actually saw a rise in criminal cult activity, (The KKK was rising, for instance) and real occultism, in the form of Thelema and possibly proto-neo-witchcraft was thriving, but one could say the same, and draw the same conclusions looking at selected newspapers from the 1980s. More likely the Satanic Panic of the 1920s and 30s was a literary and ideological spasm. If so it is fair to say that HPL played a role in it.

It must just be that cults are scary. Stories of dangerous conspiracies of magically-powered beings go back into the mists of history, long before Christianity reframed them into God and Satan. Criminal conspiracy is scary in itself, implying that paranoiac notion that nearly anyone could be an agent of evil. Ally human malefactors with non-material beings who can strike in secret, or with powerful material monsters with their own resources and abilities, and you begin to get a sense of what whole villages may have felt like under the spell of medieval anti-witch preaching. You also get a sense of what a Lovecraftian protagonist comes to feel as he realizes that he Knows Too Much, and has come to the attention of Certain Others.

So we can locate Lovecraft’s horror writing firmly in the headlines and cultural fears of his time. He needn’t have drawn on sources more arcane than New England newspapers to have a head filled with satanic cults and human sacrifices. Of course HPL was bored to waking death by Satan, Jesus, etc. To him the authors of the Bible, the grimoires, even AlHazred himself were primitive screw-heads unable to separate the realities of the multi-dimensional cosmos from their cultural tales and symbols. His characters might begin with such notions in their heads, or they might develop some mythic explanation for the strange phenomena they begin to experience. In the end it is always some manifest power capable of material destruction (at least) that they meet at in the deep places hidden behind myth.
We’ve covered the forbidden books with which the cultists transmit their ideas. Now let’s have a look at Lovecraft’s ideas of nameless and unwholesome cults. While the monsters of popular gothic fiction were discarded by Lovecraft (he never wrote a vampire, or werewolf) he was fascinated by the notion of human contact with non-human intelligence. He drew freely upon the European witch hunts, and the lore of medieval witch hysterics, mentioning various books of church demonology in his book-lists. In the same way he remained interested in the lore of Other races of beings, both material and dwelling on the edges of the real. We’ll deal with those below.

From the very first depictions of the Necronomicon HPL’s horror involved the unwilling or unprepared contact between the human mind and alien or daemonic intelligences. The temptation is to refer to these beings as ‘demonic’; they are seldom pretty, often hungry for human flesh or minds, and either relatively or vastly more powerful than the humans they deal with. However Lovecraft always depicted them as outside of any human notions of good and evil. The material races had material motives – sex, cheap labor and food. The Great Old Ones had no agenda that could be comprehended or co-opted by humans. They would answer human calls, made the right way, but could seldom be effectively compelled according to the magician’s will. Cultists who hoped to gain some personal good were almost always disappointed.
Often an initial contact with one of these alien minds was enough to short-circuit the free will of the protagonist. Lovecraftian horror often depicts the conscious mind of the victim, puzzled and frightened, as the mounting influence of some entity leads them into a creepy finish. It is actually less frequent for this to arise from willed occult or cult activity than from being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or even being from the wrong family.

Lovecraft begins depicting cults of the Great Old Ones as early as 1923, in “The Festival”, putting him quite in time with the sensational news stories of his day. In that surreal, dream-like narrative he depicts the worship of the Old Ones in a tiny New England seaport town. This was in keeping with the 1920s stereotype of degenerate backwoods Satanism. It is also the first time that HPL depicts the Necronomicon as a kind of scripture or holy book, rather than simply a scholastic oddity.

Then I saw the lurid shimmering of pale light, and … suddenly there spread out before me the boundless vista of an inner world- a vast fungous shore litten by a belching column of sick greenish flame and wasled by a wide oily river that flowed from abysses frightful and unsuspected to join the blackest gulfs of immemorial ocean… Fainting and gasping, I looked at that unhallowed Erebus of titan toadstools, leprous fire and slimy water, and saw the cloaked throngs forming a semicircle around the blazing pillar. It was the Yule-rite, older than man and fated to survive him; …

However the next cult tale, “The Horror at Red Hook”  moves the action to New York City, with the degeneracy moved from Lovecraft’s favorite anglo hillbillies to the teeming masses of Mediterranean immigrants that filled his New York living experience.  Lovecraft’s New York City year, and the year following his return to Providence, were the most creative and productive of his short career.  Many of the most influential uses of the construct mythos appeared in stories of that time. It also marks the most ‘occult’ period of his writing, before it began to turn toward a more science-fiction avenue.

The paradigmatic tale of the Cthulhu Mythos is “The Call of Cthulhu”. In this long and complex tale Lovecraft lays out several of the central mythos notions. The protagonist receives a bundle of scholastic materials from his uncle, who has recently been killed under obscure circumstances. The story then unfolds as the young man investigates each of his uncle’s files in turn.
In ‘Call’ we discover one of the primary ways in which the imprisoned or unloving deities of the mythos reach out to mortals. Great Cthulhu, the minor Old One who lies dead in his prison-tomb beneath the sea, still dreams, and his dreams send waves of images, ideas and impulses into the mortal world. These images inspire weird artists like Lovecraft and his circle to produce sculpture, poetry, painting and, undoubtedly, ritual. In less refined subjects the impulse-waves of the Dreaming God produce crime and violence, and encourage savagery in those already involved in the cult.
As is often discussed in Lovecraft studies, the Old Gent held traditional New England views about race, especially early in his career. While maturity moderated his views he still employed traditional stereotypes when describing a Louisiana cult that mingled ‘voodoo’ with the worship of Cthulhu.
“In a natural glade of the swamp stood a grassy island of perhaps an acre's extent, clear of trees and tolerably dry. On this now leaped and twisted a more indescribable horde of human abnormality than any but a Sime or an Angarola could paint. Void of clothing, this hybrid spawn were braying, bellowing, and writhing about a monstrous ring-shaped bonfire; in the centre of which, revealed by occasional rifts in the curtain of flame, stood a great granite monolith some eight feet in height; on top of which, incongruous in its diminutiveness, rested the noxious carven statuette. From a wide circle of ten scaffolds set up at regular intervals with the flame-girt monolith as a centre hung, head downward, the oddly marred bodies of the helpless squatters who had disappeared. It was inside this circle that the ring of worshippers jumped and roared, the general direction of the mass motion being from left to right in endless Bacchanal between the ring of bodies and the ring of fire.”
‘Call of Cthulhu’ depicts the tentacles of the cults of the Great Old Ones as penetrating every corner of the human world. What is not carried by secret inheritance or initiatory lineage is re-kindled by the direct psychic impulse of the Old Ones themselves. In this way the cult is never merely theological, not about ‘belief’. The cults of Cthulhu happen to their worshippers, not by them.
My personal favorite occult-Lovecraft tale is The Dunwich Horror. In this ripped-from-the-headlines thriller an isolated family of cultists is busy pursuing their goal of bringing the Great Old Ones back into the world. They have a little land in the hills of Massachusetts, and have maintained a fingerhold grip on literacy in English, Latin and Greek, that allow them to utilize the family collection of moldering books, including an incomplete and damaged copy of the Necronomicon. The family Magus succeeds in certain unwholesome works, to no particular benefit. ‘Dunwich’ is one of the few HPL tales in which occult power is successfully used against the GOO, though luck seems to have played a role in the outcome of the tale as well. We will return to Dunwich in other categories here, but in any case the Whateley cult makes a direct pact with one of the Old Ones, the enigmatic but apparently-horny Yog-Sothoth.


It is in ‘Dunwich’ that we get the clearest glimpse into the mind of an offspring of a mythos cultist. We are shown a page of Wilbur Whateley’s diary:

Today learned the Aklo for the Sabaoth (it ran), which did not like, it being answerable from the hill and not from the air… Grandfather kept me saying the Dho formula last night, and I think I saw the inner city at the 2 magnetic poles. I shall go to those poles when the earth is cleared off, if I can't break through with the Dho-Hna formula when I commit it. They from the air told me at Sabbat that it will be years before I can clear off the earth, and I guess grandfather will be dead then, so I shall have to learn all the angles of the planes and all the formulas between the Yr and the Nhhngr. They from outside will help, but they cannot take body without human blood. That upstairs looks it will have the right cast. I can see it a little when I make the Voorish sign or blow the powder of Ibn Ghazi at it, and it is near like them at May Eve on the Hill. The other face may wear off some. I wonder how I shall look when the earth is cleared and there are no earth beings on it. He that came with the Aklo Sabaoth said I may be transfigured there being much of outside to work on.
The tale in which Lovecraft makes the most direct use of the ‘pact with the devil’ motif is “Dreams in the Witch House.”   In that tale our protagonist moves into a crumbling rooming house in Lovecraft’s fictional town of Arkham, which was once the home of famous mythos witch Keziah Mason. Mason never appears as a speaking character in the tale, but becomes a psychopomp who leads the hero through the visions and dreams of the title. Along the way the hero is enticed, and eventually summoned, to come to an alien sort of witches’ Sabbath, and there to sign his name in the Black Book of Pacts. The story makes it clear that this is part of the witch-cult, a shadowy New England version of a mythos cult that participates in older European images of diabolism and Satanic worship. 

Nevertheless the witches conjure by the names of the GOO, with the central place of horror occupied by Lovecraft’s ‘demon sultan’ Azathoth. This figure is based on Lovecraft’s Lord Dunsany period, and is always left undefined and chaotic, surrounded by an eternal revel of toads and demons. In joining this revel, the human witches participate in the usual newspaper evils – child-sacrifice, sexual unconventionality and forbidden worship. The Black Man of the European witches’ Sabbath also appears, one of the masks of the Great Old One called Nyarlathotep. Finally we meet one of Lovecraft’s spookiest small inventions, the little demon that serves the witch as a familiar. ‘Brown Jenkin’ is a rat with the face and hands of a human, recalling one of the core ideas of the European witch-hunts.
We see Lovecraft’s witch-cult again in the story “The Thing On the Doorstep”. Here we find another family lineage of cultists, the Waites. Set once again in ‘witch-haunted Arkham’, the tale centers on a student at Lovecraft’s fictitious Miskatonic University. A young poet meets the daughter of this family, and becomes entangled in the cult, eventually calling upon the story’s protagonist for rescue.
“I had to save myself - I had to, Dan! She'd have got me for good at Hallowmass - they hold a Sabbat up there beyond Chesuncook, and the sacrifice would have clinched things. She'd have got me for good…  I'll tell you something of the forbidden horrors she led me into - something of the age-old horrors that even now are festering in out-of-the-way corners with a few monstrous priests to keep them alive. Some people know things about the universe that nobody ought to know, and can do things that nobody ought to be able to do. I've been in it up to my neck, but that's the end. Today I'd burn that damned Necronomicon and all the rest if I were librarian at Miskatonic... My brain! My brain! God, Dan - it's tugging - from beyond - knocking - clawing - that she-devil - even now - Ephraim - Kamog! Kamog! - The pit of the shoggoths - Ia! Shub-Niggurath! The Goat with a Thousand Young!...  The flame - the flame - beyond body, beyond life - in the earth - oh, God!"

The New England cults of the Great Old Ones lead us to another Lovecraftian tale. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” concerns the importation of a Cult of ocean demons from the South Pacific to New England via a greedy whaling captain and his crew.

“Wal, Sir, Obed he 'larnt that they's things on this arth as most folks never heerd about - an' wouldn't believe ef they did hear. lt seems these Kanakys was sacrificin' heaps o' their young men an' maidens to some kind o' god-things that lived under the sea, an' gittin' all kinds o' favour in return… Them things liked human sacrifices. Had had 'em ages afore, but lost track o' the upper world after a time. What they done to the victims it ain't fer me to say, an' I guess Obed was'n't none too sharp abaout askin'. But it was all right with the heathens, because they'd ben havin' a hard time an' was desp'rate abaout everything. They give a sarten number o' young folks to the sea-things twice every year - May-Eve an' Hallawe'en - reg'lar as cud be… Cap'n Obed an' twenty odd other folks used to row aout to Devil Reef in the dead o' night an' chant things so laoud ye cud hear 'em all over taown when the wind was right? … Obed was allus droppin' heavy things daown into the deep water t'other side o' the reef whar the bottom shoots daown like a cliff lower'n ye kin saound? Tell me what he done with that funny-shaped lead thingumajig as Walakea give him? Hey, boy? An' what did they all haowl on May-Eve, an, agin the next Hallowe'en? An' why'd the new church parsons - fellers as used to he sailors - wear them queer robes an' cover their-selves with them gold-like things Obed brung? Hey?"
The cult that becomes the town religion of Innsmouth Mass is centered around the local fraternal order, The Esoteric Order of Dagon. This name continues to recur in modern occultism, as well as Lovecraft fandom used by various groups at various times. The several families of Innsmouth turn up in various Lovecraftian tales, usually still keeping their cult, or exploring even stranger and less wholesome avenues of secret knowledge. The Innsmouth tale is essentially more a biological horror than a spiritual one, yet it provides one of the few examples of public, organized worship of the GOO.
Another is found in “The Haunter of the Dark” This late tale (one of HPL’s last) tells of an occult writer and historian’s investigation of an obscure Providence sect in the 1870s. Lovecraft draws on his knowledge of Providence to recast an abandoned Catholic church on the side of the hill as the Starry Wisdom Church:
“There were very few people in the square, but Blake saw a policeman at the northerly end and approached him with questions about the church. He was a great wholesome Irishman, and it seemed odd that he would do little more than make the sign of the cross and mutter that people never spoke of that building. When Blake pressed him he said very hurriedly that the Italian priest warned everybody against it, vowing that a monstrous evil had once dwelt there and left its mark. He himself had heard dark whispers of it from his father, who recalled certain sounds and rumours from his boyhood…
There had been a bad sect there in the old days- an outlaw sect that called up awful things from some unknown gulf of night. It had taken a good priest to exorcise what had come, though there did be those who said that merely the light could do it.”
We never see any of the Starry Wisdom’s ritual, but we learn that they made pact with the Great old One called Nyarlathotep, and we watch the results of modern meddling with their remains. The tale suggests that mythos cults occasionally make it onto the street-corners.
While the wild revels of the witch-cult interested Lovecraft he was always fascinated with the figure of the self-driven investigator into the secrets of nature and of un-nature. The solitary magus in his secret laboratory gets the full treatment in the novella “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” We’ll return to this tale when we discuss necromancy in Lovecraft. For now let’s point out that the solitary wizard at the center of Lovecraft’s tale of colonial sorcery, Joseph Curwen, is part of a network of occult practitioners who serve the Old Ones even as they seek their personal goals. In Curwen’s correspondence with his co-conspirators we encounter a turn of phrase which has become something of a by-word in modern occult circles.
I have not ye Chymicall art to followe Borellus, and owne my Self confounded by ye VII. Booke of ye Necronomicon that you recommende. But I wou'd have you Observe what was told to us aboute tak'g Care whom to calle upp, for you are Sensible what Mr. Mather writ in ye Magnalia of ------, and can judge how truely that Horrendous thing is reported. I say to you againe, doe not call up Any that you can not put downe; by the Which I meane, Any that can in Turne call up Somewhat against you, whereby your Powerfullest Devices may not be of use. Ask of the Lesser, lest the Greater shal not wish to Answer, and shal commande more than you.
In this tale we don’t see cult activity so much as a network of individual practitioners, however they salute one another in the names of the GOO and are clearly involved in some way in cult activity.
In Lovecraft’s horror cosmos, magic is accomplished almost entirely with the aid of various interdimensional beings, from cosmic impersonalities and ruling daemon-gods to more local spirits and monsters, to fully intelligent non-human races who share the earth with humans and who also worship the Old Ones. Cult activity is a process of contacting these unhuman beings, gaining their aid (or surrendering one’s will to theirs) and then either working one’s will in the world or slowly dissolving into the Other existence.
While Lovecraft made every effort to dress his cult activity in exotic clothes, creating totally unique deities, monsters and props, he drew on standard thriller tropes for his notions of ritual activity. Circles, chants, sigils, arcane languages and alphabets, and sexual deviance all are recast in mythos terms. In this way HPL achieves a verisimilitude for his hints at Cthulhu Mythos occultism that makes it ripe for imitation. However we are never shown any fully-depicted ritual or practice.

We can cobble together some sense of what the cultists of the Great Old Ones thought that they were doing. Contact with the hidden realities of existence – the true beings lurking behind the masks of common religion, mythology and even science – produces unique mental states. Human minds are turned away from common things, directed toward cosmic mysteries that render merely human society negligible, laughable and even contemptible. 
The unwilling recruit in Dreams In The Witch House feels his gaze magnetized to the heavens – his eyes following certain star-clusters across the sky even when they are invisible in daylight. This is surely a metaphor for the sense of cosmic wonder that lies within all of Lovecraft’s horror. To enter into the secret knowledge of the Old Ones is to learn the secrets of reality – which have the most likely effect, in Lovecraft’s equally pessimistic horror, of driving mortals mad.
Mythos cultists are invariably insane, to some degree or kind. Contact with alien minds leads to alienation, and retreats to lonely basements, woodland redoubts and slum-hidden studios is the norm. Sometimes an alpha type will rise to lead a public outreach, sometimes a family patriarch or matriarch will forge pacts that determine the fate of generations. The question of what they hope to gain remains.
The GOO seem to have one clear agenda – to return and rule where they have ruled in the past. The question for the human cultist is whether and how they will be allowed to exist in the New Order that the Return will bring. Walter Gilman is offered the kind of immortal, interdimensional existence that the witch Keziah seems to have, and his rejection of it leads to his common death instead. The sailors of old Ephraim Waite’s ship became rich for a while, and watched strange things happen to their children. Some of them will survive Dagon’s rise. 
As always we see most clearly into the mind of a cultist through the diaries of young Wilbur Whateley, last mortal scion of that line of hillbilly wizards:
“I wonder how I shall look when the earth is cleared and there are no earth beings on it. He that came with the Aklo Sabaoth said I may be transfigured there being much of outside to work on.”
Wilbur hopes to shed, at last, his semblance of humanity and dwell among the horrific wonders of the rule of the Great Old Ones.
If I were to summarize the ‘hope’ that the cult of the GOO offers it would be that. The Return is inevitable – the stars will turn again, the bonds will be broken, the sleepers will wake. The only choices that humans have are to struggle to postpone that Return until after their deaths, to be cattle for the shepherds when the Return comes, or to join with the monsters, hoping to shed merely mortal form and law for a new form, and a new law, under the Court of Azathoth.
Fhtagn, dude… but not forever.
Next time we’ll approach from another angle and have a look at just what Cthulhu Mythos ritual and magic looks like.

1 comment:

faoladh said...

So, the odd connection that occurred to me as I was reading this was with John Michael Greer's ongoing contention that we (meaning Western society in general) cannot, absolutely cannot, maintain the world we think of as "normal" in the face of diminishing energy resources. Wilbur Whateley wants to shed "normal" society and put on the new society of the Great Old Ones. So, the process of "clearing the Earth" can be used as a metaphor for the necessary (and inevitable) changes that we will have to undergo in order to become a society that won't dissolve entirely in its own wastes and irrelevance, or else of that dissolution itself and rebirth into a new society that doesn't overreach its physical limitations.

Just a random thought that came up that I thought might be worth sharing.