Some Thoughts on "H. P. Lovecraft & the Black Magickal Tradition" by John L. Steadman
Last week I received an email from occultist Peter Levenda, who was upset that a decade ago I had included in my 2005 book The Cult of Alien Gods the then-recent news that writer, conspiracy theorist, and occultist Alan Cabal had revealed in the New York Press in 2003 that Levenda was in fact the author of the infamous Simon Necronomicon, a hoax claiming to be the authentic ancient text of the book that otherwise originated in the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft. (My copy of the article was dated 2004, but the currently available version reads 2003.) According to later accounts, Cabal and Levenda both worked at the same occult bookstore at the time of the Necronomicon’s release and traveled in the same social circles. Levenda denies the claim, but so far as I know never demanded a retraction or accused Cabal or the New York Press of libel. Indeed, the U.S. Copyright Office lists Levenda as Simon’s real name and as the holder of Simon’s copyright for the Necronomicon’s 2006 sequel. Levenda says this is merely a legal formality to protect the identity of the intensely private Simon.
Despite a relatively pleasant conversation, Levenda declined to provide me with the name of the real Simon, or any other details that might confirm that Simon has a physical existence. I told him that my interest extends primarily to the claim, which he has sometimes seemed to endorse, that this Necronomicon is a genuine ancient text. No evidence of its authenticity was forthcoming either.
Anyway, Levenda said that he became upset about this decade old reference while he was doing research for a new project. Since his letter came only a few days after a different practitioner of so-called Magick, John L. Steadman, also wrote to me to take issue with my references to his views of magic (I decline to use the affected spelling with the “k,” designated by Aleister Crowley to separate “real” magic from entertainment), I figured there was bound to be some kind of connection. It isn’t every week that two practitioners of magic write with complaints. And indeed there is a connection: Levenda almost certainly learned of my book from reading the endnotes to Steadman’s new book, H. P. Lovecraft & the Black Magickal Tradition (Weiser, 2015), where I am quoted as a secondary source for Cabal’s article.
Steadman and I had a cordial and interesting correspondence, and that makes it difficult for me to have to inform my readers that I did not enjoy his book and felt that it had serious flaws.
I had written a bit about Steadman’s book earlier this year, and Steadman wanted me to know that I had misinterpreted him. I had assumed that when he claimed that magic had a real effect that this meant a literal, physical effect on material world. Instead, he said that the effects were mental, though after reading his book, which his publisher kindly sent me at his request, I must confess that this was entirely unclear. There isn’t any way to know from the book that Steadman considers magic basically meditation with more masturbation.
I am aware that this sounds dismissive of magic as a belief system, but it is frankly hard for me, even as someone who studied anthropology, to take seriously large groups of people who, in alleged earnestness, believe, as Steadman reports, that they can make contact with the Great Old Ones of Lovecraftian fiction by (and I wish I were making this up) furiously masturbating while fixating on the sigil of an Old One, or achieving orgasm by imagining one is being ravished by tentacles. Steadman describes occultist Kenneth Grant’s 1992 account of his so-called Rite of the Ku, in which he claims that a priestess named Li was penetrated by tentacles that materialized out of water and so achieved “the eightfold orgasm that finally convulsed her,” so powerful that it shook the room and revealed “the bactrachian minions of Cthulhu” hiding beneath hoods among Grant’s fellow worshipers. I find it difficult to believe that if a camera were present it would have recorded what Grant alleges to have seen.
My worldview and understanding of reality is so far removed from that of the magicians that I am simply not able to understand what Steadman has written, or what these magicians think they are doing. And this is my greatest challenge in reviewing this book: Steadman, who begins the book by explaining that he will explore the issue of Lovecraft’s role in modern magic as a scholar, is also a believer and practitioner of magic, and the latter worldview so overwhelms the former that the resulting book makes a number of assumptions that I simply cannot agree with, but which are essential in order to follow the argument. These break down primarily into the assumption that there is a dimension of reality to magic, the assumption that there are incorporeal entities that interact with human minds in altered states of consciousness, and the assumption that “occult scholars” are being honest in describing their supernatural experiences and in their scholarship on the occult. Some or all of these could be true, but no proof is offered, only faith.
Another weakness is that Steadman is a professor of English, and as such he seems to lack the deep background in history and science that would help him to sort between true and false claims. Thus, for example, he identifies the Knights Templar as Satanists who participated in the Western occult tradition, even though no reputable historian would agree, and he claims that the Eleusinian Mysteries were African in origin and devoted to Dionysus, without mention of Demeter or Persephone, or the Near Eastern influences on its Mycenaean progenitor. Similarly, Steadman’s approach leads him to accept as fact a number of ideas that are highly debatable. For example, he assumes that ancient and medieval people recognized a fundamental and oppositional difference between Apollonian and Dionysian forms of interaction with the supernatural (“magic”). This division, however, is a Germanic philosophical concept from the 1700s, best known from its later use in Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, but which Steadman takes over from Camille Paglia, with all her gendered and biological claims about a natural and objective reality to the division. The ancients recognized a difference between the Olympian and the chthonic, but it was nowhere near as absolute or ubiquitous as the modern view asserts. (Dionysus himself was both Olympian and chthonic, for starters.) Using this as the framework for understanding Lovecraft’s role in magic is unsatisfying, especially when we must first assume agreement with Paglia.
The worst of it comes in his discussion of the Simon Necronomicon, where he tries to present an argument that its critics’ arguments against its authenticity are flawed, and it becomes painfully obvious that he is not familiar with the Sumerian literature the book claims to represent, particularly when he informs us the Shub-Ishniggarab was a genuine Sumerian god. He waves away many of the problems with the text—a confusing mixture of Sumerian and Babylonian divine names, for one—as the result of Greek translation of an Arabic recension of a Babylonian version of a Sumerian original. He accepts the book’s pseudo-Lovecraftian made-up god names like KUTULU as legitimate (and criticized me for pointing out that they are badly spelled Lovecraftian names jammed fake into Sumerian forms), and explains that too little Sumerian literature is available to prove they aren’t genuine. He’s never seen the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, for one; he simply takes Simon’s pseudo-scholarly introductory notes to the Necronomicon at face value, for another.
This also illustrates how Steadman also relies almost exclusively on occult scholars—magicians, really—for his historical research, despite the fact they have a, shall we say, loose relationship to objective truth. “Magicians” are essentially ancient astronaut theorists if the latter had the courage of their convictions and actually worshiped their alien gods rather than simply profited from them. His trust in these “scholars” leads him to accept claims that mainstream historians do not: namely that modern “magick” is a direct and unbroken continuation of an occult tradition dating back to Stone Age Africa, and second that Wicca is a direct and unbroken continuation of a pre-Christian pagan faith. The first claim rests on some trendy Afrocentrism, but there is no evidence that paganism (as we know it) spread from Africa to Europe—certainly not in its Indo-European form—or that the Europeans learned magic from Egyptians who had learned it from sub-Saharan Africans. (This claim originates in Arabian lore, based on Late Antique Egyptian Christian assertions about the magical potency of Egypt, but the sub-Saharan African origins are a modern innovation; traditionally, the magic of Egypt was said to come from the Watchers.) Modern magic emerged out of the occultism of the late nineteenth century but was a self-conscious creation, not a secret and ancient cult. The second claim he takes wholesale from Margaret Murray’s Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), a book of great interest to Lovecraft but which nearly all modern scholars (except for some feminist thinkers) reject as unfounded and lacking evidence. Wicca itself was invented in the twentieth century and only claims to continue the imagined witch-cult.
The upshot is that Steadman ends up reading into Lovecraft confirmation of his magical worldview that I simply can’t find in the text, sometimes conflating Lovecraft’s views on fact and fiction to produce more magical results. He argues that H. P. Lovecraft, while a professed materialist, believed that dreams “may represent a valid, and thoroughly real, supplementary source of knowledge to humanity.” This audacious claim he bases on the following letter of Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long of February 27, 1931 (Selected Letters III, p. 293). I will place in bold the passage he quotes to show how he deceptively edited the letter:
I really agree that Yog-Sothoth is a basically immature conception, & unfitted for really serious literature. The fact is, I have never approached serious literature yet. But I consider the use of actual folk-myths as even more childish than the use of new artificial myths, since in the former one is forced to retain many blatant peurilities & contradictions of experienced which could be subtilised or smoothed over if the supernaturalism were modelled to order for the given case. The only permanently artistic use of Yog-Sothothery, I think, is in symbolic or associative phantasy of the frankly poetic type; in which fixed dream-patterns of the natural organism are given an embodiment & crystallisation . . . But there is another phase of cosmic phantasy (which may or may not include frank Yog-Sothothery) whose foundations appear to me as better grounded than those of ordinary oneiroscopy; personal limitations regarding the sense of outsideness. I refer to the aesthetic crystallisation of that burning & inextinguishable feeling of mixed wonder & oppression which the sensitive imagination experiences upon scaling itself & its restrictions against the vast & provocative abyss of the unknown. This has always been the chief emotion in my psychology; & whilst it obviously figures less in the psychology of the majority, it is clearly a well-defined & permanent factor from which very few sensitive persons are wholly free. . . . Reason as we may, we cannot destroy a normal perception of the highly limited & fragmentary nature of our visible world of perception & experience as scaled against the outside abyss of unthinkable galaxies & unplumbed dimensions—an abyss wherein our solar system is the merest dot . . . The time has come when the normal revolt against time, space, & matter must assume a form not overtly incompatible with what is known of reality—when it must be gratified by images forming supplements rather than contradictions of the visible & measurable universe. And what, if not a form of non-supernatural cosmic art, is to pacify this sense of revolt—as well as gratify the cognate sense of curiosity?
Steadman here takes “cosmic phantasy” as something other than what Lovecraft plainly meant it to be: weird fiction. He seems to view it instead as something like dreaming of other dimensions. In this letter, Lovecraft is saying that weird fiction can help us to contemplate the vastness of the material universe, but Steadman asks us to focus on the last lines, arguing that Lovecraft’s reference to the “normal revolt” against the material world refers his belief in the possibility, however remote, of the real and actual interaction with extraterrestrial gods. But as you can see from the sections that Steadman purposely omitted, Lovecraft was specifically referring to the fact that weird fiction is the only way for a reasonable mind to transcend the limits of our perception, in an aesthetic sense, and thus approach (material) reality in something close to its true form. Through omission, Steadman makes it seem that Lovecraft was speaking of reality rather than fiction.
Lovecraft explained this much more concisely in his essay “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction”: “I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination best—one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which for ever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis.”
All of this is a long way around saying that this book was strange and confusing. In a strictly literary sense, it doesn’t seem to have a very strong through line. It begins with a history and theory of black magic, followed by a sketch of Lovecraft, and then a look at the different fake Necronomicon texts that have been published over the decades. A chapter examines the Lovecraftian pantheon, and then five final chapters give the history of different occult movements (Vodou, Wicca, the Typhonian O.T.O., the Church of Satan, and Chaos Magic) and their use of Lovecraftian material. The most important figures, in sheer volume of mentions, are Kenneth Grant and Donald Tyson, both of whom devoted much of their careers in “magic” to defending the proposition that Lovecraft’s entities have some objective reality outside of Lovecraft, possibly due to some unspecified psychic contact.
The longer the book goes on, the more the author’s fascination with the politics of the magical community overtakes direct reference to Lovecraft. The vast majority of the book is a series of discussions of various confusing branches of black magic and the occult and their disagreements about the best way to meditate their way to self-improvement. A disturbingly large amount of black magic seems to involve sex, including uses of vaginal “secretions” to contact Lovecraftian creatures and the aforementioned masturbatory technique to contact astral beings.
Steadman maintains a distance from all these goings-on, but he is not a critical observer of them. He occasionally offers a mild rebuke, particularly of those whose claims are objectively false on even cursory examination, such as Grant’s false claim that Lovecraft was well-schooled in black magic. Steadman rightly notes that Lovecraft gained his knowledge primarily from the Encyclopedia Britannica, though oddly Steadman is silent on how Lovecraft’s supposedly native intuiting of black magic might have been influence by Theosophy, the specter that hovers over much of the book, unseen and un-evoked. The allegedly surprising coincidence between black magic and Lovecraft’s pantheon can easily be explained through the fact that both twentieth century magicians and Lovecraft were drawing on the same nineteenth century occult literature, particularly Theosophy, not to mention Lovecraft’s use of Lewis Spence’s Encyclopedia of Occultism. The differences are far more interesting, for Lovecraft took the sources in a very different direction, for very different purposes. To make a case that Lovecraft did anything special, one would need to also examine his contemporaries and predecessors, many of whom also described fictitious black magic and various monstrous beings, to show that somehow their weird fiction doesn’t have the same reflections of the “genuine” occult.
I’m not sure what more to say about the book; if the reader does not believe in magic, than most of the claims are interesting only in an anthropological sense, as a record of what a small but committed group of people profess to believe—though it’s never clear how many of them actually believe the things they say they believe in. Here the book might have benefited from interviews with some actual current practitioners of Lovecraftian magic to help place what is essentially a series of book reviews of twentieth century magical books in context and give us a sense of what these magicians actually believe “on the ground,” not just in their books, which tend to straddle the line between fact and fiction.
In the end, the reader doesn’t really get much of a sense of how Lovecraft influenced magic as much as one senses that the magical community is willing to bring in anything—UFOs, demons, Old Ones, ancient astronauts—that catches its fancy and revolves around the constellation of ideas that all share a common heritage in nineteenth century occultism, and through it, ultimately, the myth of the Watchers and the Pillars of Wisdom. Steadman had an interesting topic, but his treatment of it was too credulous to have much to say beyond description.
12/27/2015 11:47:47 am
"Steadman describes occultist Kenneth Grant’s 1992 account of his so-called Rite of the Ku, in which he claims that a priestess named Li was penetrated by tentacles that materialized out of water"
12/27/2015 02:34:42 pm
Japanese tentacle porn mishmashed together with the Ecstasy of St. Theresa.
12/27/2015 11:56:06 am
There are loads of gullible people who think superstitious mumbo jumbo magic practices really grant incredible powers, like the Tibetan monks immunity to cold. Mos of them could benefit from paying attention in school.
12/28/2015 07:13:11 am
That was a trick comment..... https://www.vice.com/en_uk/video/iceman
12/27/2015 12:10:42 pm
looking at the .pdf of the necronomicon, i'm reminded how evil things in fantasy/RPG gaming/heavy metal lyrics/magick etc. always have a plethora of k, z, thoth and a few other syllables.
12/27/2015 02:20:12 pm
I've long suspected that modern ceremonial magic was a self-aware case study in William James' philosophy of religion, but it's interesting to hear Steadman admit it. I'd love to know what a cross section of magicians/occultists think about the objective vs. subjective reality of their beliefs.
12/27/2015 02:21:26 pm
Just wishing you a nice belated winter solstice (i don't believe in all other crap based on it), and in my inebriated state i thank you for your voice of reasoning throughout this last 6 months.
12/27/2015 05:44:59 pm
I don't know a lot of Lovecraft, but if he's using Cthulhu, that is one of his more obvious mysterious races and obvious to any science fiction fan. It could be like including Vulcans in the story, or Jedi, or Sith.
12/27/2015 07:53:00 pm
No, Wicca was invented in the 30's, actually. But it did enjoy a new surge of popularity in the 90s, thanks to Magic the Gathering. Also, many of the names in that game are drawn from various mythological sources--and some of those sources were Wiccan.
12/29/2015 07:13:49 am
Witchcraft must have existed before the 1930s because Matthew Hopkins burnt them at the stake during the 17th century and Wiccans claim their traditions date from that period.
12/28/2015 01:04:58 pm
South Park did a whole thing on Cthulhu where Cartman got the great beast to help him take over the world.
12/27/2015 06:14:17 pm
I think I asked this before, but have you read the work that came out of Woodman's dissertation?
12/27/2015 10:27:58 pm
Funny you bring that up since I just listened to those lectures. I actually really liked them. I stumbled on Woodman's work via his post on Tracy Twyman (who Jason discussed in the past) and Nicholas de Vere (a character that I would like to see Jason discuss). Here's the link for anyone who's curious: http://ghooriczone.blogspot.com/2011/09/nazi-occult-royalty-are-spawn-of.html
12/27/2015 10:57:31 pm
I tried to listen to an episode of Binnall of America with Twyman. I really did. I may have finished the first one, but it was enough that I couldn't take the followups.
12/27/2015 10:30:00 pm
Also, when I was browsing his blog, I stumbled on a link to your blog post on Alex Jones' rant and the shifting of Ufology to the more ultraterrestrial theory. Awesome stuff!
12/27/2015 10:53:16 pm
Huh. I'll be damned. I haven't been to his blog in a while, and I was moving at that time.
12/28/2015 12:29:52 pm
Publishers are Red Wheel/Weiser - these titles can be useful but the potential reader needs to be aware from what perspective these books are written and what is omitted from them.
12/28/2015 06:38:03 pm
If you're really feeling like an act of self-flagellation, you could wander through miles of this sort of fast-and-loose junk with the magician crowd.
12/29/2015 07:10:30 am
12/29/2015 08:59:58 am
There's a guy in Vermont who gives Druid training so you can become a Grand Wizard of the Master Druidic order, or some such line of BS. He too claims to have been granted secret knowledge in the Welsh Druidic orders that, for a price, he will impart to his disciples. The truth is, nobody knows what the Druids did because they didn't write anything down, although we have some accounts from the Romans as they ran through England and Ireland killing the Druids as they went along, nothing survives from the Druids themselves.
12/29/2015 08:41:00 pm
all this hanging onto european traditions. l ron hubbard has to be a much truer american for inventing his own sci-fi religion, and making it an entrepreneurial enterprise too. now there is a man who let go of the old-world apron strings.
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
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.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.