Last week a man named John Steadman published his first book, on H. P. Lovecraft & the Black Magickal Tradition. (Forgive me for spelling the word in a way that doesn’t offend my spell checker; I’m not a huge fan of the twee “magick” spelling, no matter how much Lovecraft would have approved of the intentionally archaic form.) Steadman says that he is a practicing magician who works with various covens, as well as a professor of English in Michigan. He works at Lansing Community College, where he teaches writing. The biography provided by his publisher says he teaches at Olivet College as well, but he is not listed on their faculty page.
I have not read the book, so I can’t say whether it is good or bad. (Disclosure: I’m mentioned in the endnotes, according to an Amazon keyword search.) Although press materials for the book describe it as suffused with claims about the magical and the occult, I gather from S. T. Joshi’s review of it that the book is less sensational than its publicity makes it sound: “John L. Steadman’s book is a welcome contribution to an important and neglected subject. Much nonsense has been written about Lovecraft’s involvement with occultism, and Steadman brings a refreshing dose of reason and sanity to the discussion. His thorough understanding of Lovecraft’s life, work, and thought, and his impressive grounding in all aspects of the occult tradition, make him the ideal scholar to address this controversial topic.” The table of contents is not terribly promising, surveying black magic and organizing the volume by its various expressions, from Voodoo and Wicca to Satanism and Chaos Magic.
I’m not sure what really there is to discuss in terms of Lovecraft’s involvement with the occult, given that he didn’t really have much of one. Steadman explores whether Lovecraft received powerful occult insight through his dreams, a claim that goes back decades, to Kenneth Grant, but this is just another way of recycling Theosophy founder Helena Blavatsky’s post hoc rationalization in the Secret Doctrine for why Theosophists should accept the mystical vril of Bulwer’s Coming Race science fiction novel as real: Science fiction writers, she said, received unconscious communications from the spirit world because their minds were so open, even if they didn’t know what they were doing.
As I am sure Steadman knows, Lovecraft used black magic mostly as coloring in this stories, lifting material from the Encyclopedia Britannica, that well-known occult tome. Many occultists don’t know that, which is one reason that in 13 Gates of the Necronomicon (2010), occultist Donald Tyson presented as Lovecraft’s own invention the famous chant of “Gorgo, Mormo, thousand-faced moon” from “The Horror at Red Hook,” even though the text is in reality a translation of the rites of Hecate reported in Hippolytus’ Refutation of All Heresies 4.35, as translated in the Britannica’s ninth edition article on “Magic.” According to a Google search of Steadman’s text, he doesn’t know about the “Gorgo” material’s source either, and he attributes Lovecraft’s magical material in “Red Hook” to the books of Arthur Edward Waite.
Steadman believes that he has personally altered the material world through invoking Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones, despite the fact that they are fictional. As he says on his website:
But the Great Old Ones have been “created” and as such, they have reality as well, and they gain power, substance and influence as archetypes, or perhaps more accurately, egregores, when they are accessed and interacted with by magickal practitioners, and also, by the countless fans, readers and students of Lovecraft’s work. Consequently, magickal rituals based on the Great Old Ones do yield viable results, a fact which I can attest to myself, and which is supported by the magickal experiments of many other occultists.
Note carefully that Steadman described the Old Ones as egregores, a term coined in the nineteenth century in France and used by the occultist Eliphas Lévi to describe the Watchers from the Book of Enoch, as he wrote in The Great Secret: “These colossal forces have sometimes taken a shape and have appeared in the guise of giants: these are the egregors of the Book of Enoch.” The word derives from the Greek for Watcher, and it appears in 2 Enoch (as Grigori), in the Greek Enoch fragments of Syncellus, and in other medieval Greek texts. In modern usage, egregores are a type of collective unconscious.
Yes, of course there is a connection to the Watchers. Isn’t there always? At least here there is a decent parallel: Both the Watchers and the Old Ones descended from the sky, taught humans idolatry and magic, and disappeared into the far corners of the earth and the dimensions beyond time. This isn’t entirely a coincidence; Lovecraft was familiar with Islamic derivatives of the Watchers story, as applied the djinn, from his study of the Arabian Nights, the Quran, and Arabian mythology. He also makes mention of entities from Lévi, who had incorporated the Watchers myth in another form. But we needn’t propose overly elaborate origin stories; Lovecraft knew Lévi through translations made by Arthur Edward Waite, and stories of the fallen angels could be found in a rich variety of sources, not least those of Theosophy, which came to Lovecraft secondhand. Allusions to the story also occur in books Lovecraft is known to have owned, such as Scott’s Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, and especially Sabine Baring-Gould’s books on mythology and Lewis Spence’s Encyclopedia of Occultism, where a serviceable summary of the Book of Enoch can be found.
So today we have self-described magicians invoking the Watchers in the guise of the Old Ones, to perform the same magic that the ancients attributed to the Watchers in the first place. Man, those Watchers sure get around for beings bound in hell dimensions for all of time.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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