Saturday, 22 February 2014
"Real" Magick in RPGs: The Lovecraft Loons
In previous installments of this series, I’ve talked about a lot of different magical groups or movements; there’s a few lesser ones I haven’t covered, and one in particular I felt I should. That is, a small but not insignificant number of people involved in magick who really believe that the Cthulhu Mythos as published by H. P. Lovecraft in his series of shorts stories are really real, and true to boot!
I know your first thought will be how ridiculous that is, and your second might be about how it probably isn’t less ridiculous than talking about Gods and Demons like those were true as well. Only in magick, there very much is a difference. First, because in magick “archetype” is a very important power and concept, and something that is identifiably (and very recent) fiction, will not have that power of “archetype”, at least not yet. Second, because most serious magicians aren’t actually talking about Gods or Demons the way a protestant preacher or religious soccer mom might; they address Gods and Demons as symbols, currents or forces (only knowing from experience that symbols have a life of their own) that represent and are situated on very real levels of reality, and reflect very real concepts.
On the other hand, the people who think they can summon Nyarlathotep, many of them really do want to believe that they’re literally talking about the god of crawling chaos that old Howard Phillip described. So we’re not saying “the things they believe are silly and the things we believe are serious” the way a Lutheran missionary who believes in the holy trinity (despite never having seen it) would mock a south pacific savage for believing in animal spirits (which he has seen). What we are saying here is that the very way we “believe” these things is different, and they’re silly for believing in that kind of way in the first place (similar to the way its silly for the Lutheran missionary to believe in a holy trinity without ever having seen it or experienced it; only considerably sillier because at least the Lutheran isn’t faced with incontrovertible proof that the holy trinity was invented by a neurotic pulp writer 80 years ago).
Anyhow, there are two kinds of Lovecraft-morons to be found on the occult scene. The first we would call the “amateurs”: goths, self-styled “satanists”, people obsessed with looking and acting “dark” in front of others who’d probably shit their pants if they ever so much as caught a whiff of a real goetic experience. These guys will claim the Necronomicon is real, contrary to any evidence you present to them to the contrary, because they think its cool and want it to be real and that’s that. Many of them feel exactly the same way about vampires, and I’ve had at least two separate occasions when one of these guys has tried to claim to me, in all and absolute seriousness, that Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice was actually a real and true account. This was some time ago, and I have since in recent years wondered if the same crowd these days (which I’m mercifully more distant from now) have the same adamant insistence about the veracity of Twilight?
Some of them will even be certain that the Necronomicon is real because they have it on their bookshelves. There have been at least 4, possibly more, “versions” of a Necronomicon printed by small-press occult publishers (and one by at least a medium-press publisher). They’re all garbage, some are utter drivel, a couple are laughably “nice” (one contains several jewish qabalistic prayers to God/IHVH, and I always laugh at the thought of some teenage goth thinking how badass he is while he unknowingly recites “For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, o lord my God”).
Probably the least bad of a really bad bunch is the Necronomicon by “Simon”, which contains extremely little Cthulhu and a great deal of stuff dealing with babylonian gods; it might be the only commercial version of the Necronomicon that has any real magick in it at all.
In any case, this group of fans will refuse to listen to any argument based on reality, they don’t want reality. And if you scratch the surface, it becomes very evident that they also don’t want the Cthulhu stuff to be real either; I occasionally tried to argue with one of these guys that no, the Necronomicon isn’t real but its based on a real idea of medieval grimoires, and that if he wanted to he could look at those, like the Goetia which is a book of demon-summoning, or the apocalyptic angels of the Enochian system of John Dee, or the corpus hermeticum with its material for summoning demons to be your servants or guides. His response was something like “who’s ever heard of that?!”, and I figured out at that point that what these guys are doing is just a kind of act, like they’re imagining themselves participating in a CoC LARP in real life. And they know its all bullshit, they just want to pretend it isn’t once in a while, and hopefully freak some of the mundanes.
Obviously, this group of people doesn’t do any magical work and would be of no utility to Occult Investigators in a “real” occult RPG; but it could be funny to involve them in a scenario where, say, one of them insisted to the PCs that he’d found out about a “real” Necronomicon and try to lead them on some wild goose chase for his own edification (maybe with the twist being that there’s really something, not the necronomicon but some other and genuine ancient magick around, that poses a real threat).
There is another, slightly more serious kind of Lovecraft-loon in the modern “occult” scene. These are guys who I guess were faced with the fact of Cthluhu’s fiction and decided to double down. They have a more “pseudo-scholarly” approach, accepting that Lovecraft was a writer of fiction and that that the necronomicon he mentions in the stories was not a real book on earth; but they want to claim that somehow Lovecraft “tapped in” to something real (which of course he did, he tapped into real philosophical and symbolic concepts of the shadow-side of our nature as human beings, our real primordial fears, and lots of other awesome stuff, all of which makes for really great fiction… but that’s not what these guys mean). They insist that his writings about Azathoth and Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep were in fact “transmissions” being sent to him from these real entities, that the Necronomicon does not exist as a historical book but it exists in the sense of an “astral grimoire”, and all sorts of other nonsense.
For a long time, these people have tried to tie in Lovecraft to Crowley, to try to amp up the occult-cred of Lovecraft (and thus of the Mythos); after all, both men were alive at the same time, were very roughly of the same social class, Crowley had visited America on two occasions, surely there could be a connection? Some people have even managed, through thorough research, to be able to confirm without question that there were certain general acquaintances of Lovecraft who were also acquaintances of Crowley’s, as if this proves anything at all. The fact is, the two men never met, and recent very thorough biographical research on Crowley pretty much makes it impossible that there’s any doubt of this; and Lovecraft himself is known to in fact have been highly skeptical of any kind of “real occultism”.
But part of the reason these serious Lovecraft-loons have been able to harp on about this notion for so long is because one of Crowley’s students, Kenneth Grant, himself became a Lovecraft-loon later in life (long after Crowley was dead, and even longer after Lovecraft was dead). Grant was Crowley’s last secretary (in the 1940s, when Grant was a very young man, and Crowley very old), for a short while his heir in the OTO in England, wrote a number of important books on Crowley (and republished a number of Crowley’s own writings, helping to bring Crowley back into the public eye and prevent his being forgotten), and outlived Crowley by decades. In fact, he only died in 2011, one of the last people alive to have actually studied under Crowley.
In some ways a remarkable man, Grant was also an utter nutcase for at least the last four decades of his life. He had, after Crowley’s time, gotten himself very deep down a rabbit-hole of lunacy due to his own obsession with dark stuff. Had he not had any training in magick or somewhat less ambition, he’d be no different than those modern hipster-satanists I mentioned earlier in the essay. But Grant had received a bit of magical training, and a bit of magical training can be a dangerous thing. He had clearly gotten very deep into goetic-style work but operating without any sense of discipline or safeguards; and I think his mind snapped to the point where he had no idea what he was doing anymore.
His lodge collapsed, he was kicked out of the OTO, though he continued with his own version of the order that did not in fact have any real activity and a completely different structure from Crowley’s (that is, no real structure to speak of). He started writing books about a variety of wild and crazy conjectures, including a number of things where he would name-drop Crowley but then misrepresent him as having been an active participant in Grant’s own craziness. He became, at least to me, a textbook example of the kind of Delusion (the partner of Obsession and Paranoia, the other two frequent maladies of the magician) that its very easy for a magician to fall into when they cease to be very careful about being honest with themselves and maintaining a healthy discipline with safeguards.
And along the way, he published some books with names like The Nightside of Eden, Outside the Circles of Time, Outer Gateways, etc. where he claimed that not only was Cthulhu a real thing, but that summoning up these entities was a really cool idea because.. reasons. That’s the thing about Kenneth Grant, and most of these more hardcore Lovecraft-loons: none of them seem to understand why the fuck one would actually want to summon up these kinds of things even if they were real. Grant’s books are long rambling drivel with a great deal of intentionally complex terminology and a considerable amount of very very bad kabbalistic numerology, and even worse etymology (and no actual magick ritual or theory to speak of); and the closest he can get to a reason for why you’d want to summon these is when he argues that it would expose you to a kind of “pre-human Gnosis”; that is to say, you’d get to feel like a non-earthly entity… which is a kind of neat parlor trick, but you can do that for real by other means, and its not really something worth devoting your life to, when the whole point of magical-spiritual practice ought to be how to fulfill your humanity.
One critic of Grant’s stuff put it best: “the best evidence for the argument that the Cthulhu Mythos is not real in spite of the claims of some occultists who try to “work with” those gods is the fact that said occultists are still alive.”
These sorts of guys, in an occult RPG campaign, would probably be great fodder for a very crazy, possibly dangerous sect; I mean, let’s face it, you’re talking about people who desperately WANT to be the cultist guys in a lovecraft story! But the “danger” of them would be in how they’d be deluded, and obsessed, and probably vulnerable to any number of real “shadow-side” spiritual influences that they would gleefully allow to wreak havoc with their psyche and lives (and the lives of others) so that they could pretend they were chit-chatting with Yog-Sothoth. They would be a cautionary tale.
And that’s the kicker when you’re talking about trying to run a “real occult” game: it would be one where the lovecraft-stuff is NOT real for a change, and those evil cultists trying to summon cthulhu could be the bad guy but the real surprise spin for all the players would be that the “cthulhu” part would be a total dud, because he’s bullshit. The ultimate bait-and-switch for players who’ve gotten used to a lot of CoC adventures.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of freaky incomprehensible things out there; what Crowley called “Praeterhuman intelligences”, or demons (what the kabbalists called the Qlippoth, the “empty shells”, the refuse of the universe that exists only as a byproduct of reality’s fracturing away from Oneness in its emanations). Or, for that matter, getting a real glimpse of what we could call “angels” (which are a far cry from babies with wings) or Gods (which are a far cry from Marvel’s Thor or Supply-Side Jesus). Firsthand experience with almost any of these kinds of things can be a freakier experience than anything to do with Cthulhu, because they are connected to our human universe, and also because they are real forces and archetypes, while Cthulhu is fiction. Experiences with any of these things have the power to change your reality, while nyarlathotep only has, at best, the power to reinforce your current nonsensical ideas. Remember: it was wallowing in the Qlippoth and allowing them unfettered feasting on his psyche (what you could call “unsafe evocation” in magic-lingo) that fucked up Kenneth Grant; not old tentacle-mouth. Grant’s Cthulhu-gibberish was just the product of the magically-shattered husk of mind that was left after the fact.
Currently Smoking: Brigham Anniversary Pipe + Image Latakia
(originally posted January 9th, 2013; on the old blog)