If you watched the Yesterday TV (UK) and American Heroes Channel (US) series Forbidden History, you probably saw frequent commentator Andrew Gough, the publisher of Heretic magazine. If you did not watch this series, chances are you have never heard of Andrew Gough or Heretic magazine. Anyway, the newest edition of the Heretic is out and in it the British writer Mark Oxbrow, author of a book on the history of Halloween, has a piece on “Lovecraft, Scientology, and the Black Pilgrimage” that I think overstates its case a bit.
Oxbrow’s thesis, which is not dissimilar to my own in The Cult of Alien Gods, is that Lovecraft’s work served as a springboard connecting modern fringe believers with nineteenth century material that they then reused and recycled. In this case, he wants to connect L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology to M. R. James’s “Count Magnus.” In this instance, there is a relatively thin thread that connects the dots, and there doesn’t seem to be a direct impact on the beliefs or claims of the participants, suggesting only a borrowing of language rather than a shaping of ideas.
Oxbrow’s argument runs something like this: In the 1904 collection Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, James alludes to a hideous journey that the villainous Count Magnus undertook to the city of Chorazin, the biblically cursed town (Matthew 11:20-24; Luke 10:13-15) referenced in Pseudo-Methodius as the birthplace of the Antichrist. However, James never describes this adventure: “You will naturally inquire, as Mr. Wraxall did, what the Black Pilgrimage may have been. But your curiosity on the point must remain unsatisfied for the time being, just as his did.” H. P. Lovecraft had read the story and liked it very much, calling it “assuredly one of the best” of James’s works in Supernatural Horror in Literature. It is often cited as a key influence on The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. It is probable that Lovecraft borrowed from James the “dubious name of Chorazin” to apply to the town Alonzo Typer visits in his 1935 revision of William Lumley’s “The Diary of Alonzo Typer” (in reality almost entirely original composition).
According to S. T. Joshi, Lovecraft did not read James until 1925, when he discovered one of his books at the New York Public Library and first read “Count Magnus.” Therefore, Oxbrow’s comparison of James’s made-up evil book Liber nigrate peregrinationis (The Book of the Black Pilgrimage) with the Necronomicon, invented in 1924, is little more than coincidence.
Anyway, the remainder of his article parallels almost point for point The Necronomicon Files (2003) by Daniel Harms and John Wisdom Gonce, repeating the section pages 125-126 in which the authors try to untangle the connection between “Count Magnus” and the Black Pilgrimage that L. Ron Hubbard performed as part of black magic rites inspired by Aleister Crowley in the 1940s.
Both the Necronomicon Files and Oxbrow allege that the key figure involved is Jack Parsons, a rocket scientist and occultist who invented the magical ritual Hubbard performed with him in 1946, called Babalon Working, the misspelling referring to an imaginary goddess of Crowley’s. Crowley himself found Parsons to be a fool, and Harms and Gonce quote Crowley to the effect that Parsons was too eager to fold into magic any pulp fiction trash he read in weird fiction. The authors perhaps overstate the degree to which Lovecraft influenced Parsons, arguing that his pursuit of sexual union to produce a Moon Child may have derived from the rituals used to impregnate Lavinia Whateley with “The Dunwich Horror.” They offer no evidence of this, nor of their claim that Parsons borrowed the name Chorazin from “Alonzo Typer.”
Both the Necronomicon Files and Oxbrow agree that Parsons borrowed the name “Black Pilgrimage” from “Count Magnus,” and Oxbrow would attribute Chorazin to that source as well. Oxbrow makes one (marginally) original contribution not found in the older account, in which he suggests that Parsons read The Acolyte, a small-press Lovecraft fan magazine that had carried an essay on M. R. James in a 1945 number, just a few months before Parsons and Hubbard began their “Black Pilgrimage.” This might have been more convincing had Oxbrow offered evidence that Parsons had read the magazine, but he simply lets a paragraph break lead the reader to conclude that he did through juxtaposition. He might well have, but Oxbrow doesn’t prove it. Others have suggested that Hubbard, a pulp fiction writer himself, provided Parsons with “Count Magnus.”
Now, it happens that this material is no original to Oxbrow, and he actually reproduces a big chunk of material from a 1998 article by Rosemary Pardoe and Jane Nicholls, which a comparison of the two articles makes plain. Both, for example, oddly italicize Pseudo-Methodius’ name as an abbreviation of the full title of the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius. Pardoe and Nicholls suggest (and Oxbrow forgets to include) that Parsons and Hubbard were members of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, as was Samuel Russell, the FBI agent who wrote the Acolyte article on James. Pardoe and Nicholls suggest that Parsons learned of James at the LASFS, from group discussions, from Russell, or through Hubbard. There is no known documentary evidence, though, to demonstrate exactly how Parsons acquired “Count Magnus,” though the popularity of James’s fiction hardly makes it an unfathomable mystery. “There is no actual evidence that he ever read the story,” Pardoe and Nicholls said.
Either way, there is nothing directly derived from Lovecraft in Parsons’s Black Pilgrimage or Babalon Working, and the allusions to “Count Magnus” seem to be superficial coloring Parsons stole because they referred to the Antichrist, whom he considered himself to be. It’s quite possible that Parsons mistook the Black Pilgrimage for a real occult event because James wove in other real-life material, including the references to the biblical and medieval legends of Chorazin. Similarly, I demonstrated a long time ago that Hubbard’s Scientology bears only the slightest resemblance to the Cthulhu Mythos, and its literary parallels are closer to the space operas of Golden Age science fiction than to Lovecraft’s Gothic vision.
Gough describes Oxbrow’s piece this way:
Heretic regular Mark Oxbrow continues to dazzle with his wide range of well-researched historical conundrums and mysteries, and his latest article, Lovecraft, Scientology and the Black Pilgrimage, is no exception. You will be shocked to discover what Mark has uncovered about H.P. Lovecraft, and much more.
I’d say that there’s a little less to this article than meets the eye, and it looks like Lovecraft is more or less a bystander in this weird incident.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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