The Whisperer in Darkness: An Interview with the author of H. P. Lovecraft and the Black Magickal Tradition
Today I have a special treat for you, an interview with John L. Steadman, author of H.P. Lovecraft and the Black Magickal Tradition: The Master of Horror’s Influence of Modern Occultism.
This is a book I cannot recommend highly enough, whether you’re a Lovecraft fan, an occult practitioner or enthusiast, or all of the above.
Steadman approaches the subject with aplomb, interweaving Lovecraft’s life story, literary works, and influences, and creating an intimate tapestry that is then dissected and filtered through the eyes of a man that understands the esoteric societies that have sprung from and been shaped by the author’s weird fiction.
First, let me commend you on the terrific blurbs you garnered for H.P. Lovecraft and the Black Magick Tradition. Praise from such Lovecraftian luminaries such as S.T. Joshi, Nick Mamatas, and W.H. Pugmire, to name but a few, has to be not only flattering but rewarding. Tell me, when you began this project did you have any idea that it would be so well received?
I was (and still am) immensely flattered by the wonderful endorsements; this part of the whole book-making business has been very positive and rewarding, and I have made a vow to myself that if I ever achieve such a level of eminence that a young, unknown writer seeks an endorsement from me, then I will give him or her the most positive, inspired and useful endorsement that I can.
H. P. Lovecraft & the Black Magickal Tradition is the first book in a projected trilogy; currently, I am working on the second book and have finished, to date, just over 86,000 words, so it is nearing completion. Just as with the writing of the first book, when I undertake a project, I honestly don’t think too much about how it will be received; I simply do the best that I can with my thesis and my subject matter. If I do entertain stray thoughts about the possible reception from time to time, such thoughts never linger long and they never have any impact on my ability to complete the project or on my romantic inclination to admire intensely each and every one of my ideas and images.
I must admit, while reading your work I felt an immediate connection. We have similar interests, to be sure, and it appears we cut our teeth in the same manner. Tell me about your earliest influences and what led to your interest in the occult and magical traditions?
I can’t remember a time in my early life and childhood when I wasn’t fascinated by ghosts, vampires, witches, werewolves and occult subjects. When I was a student in elementary school, there were two books that I constantly checked out at the school library: The Thing at the Foot of the Bed (a collection of ghost stories compiled by folklorist Maria Leach) and the wonderful anthology, The Fireside Book of Ghost Stories. I also collected Famous Monsters of Filmland .
In Middle School, in the mid 60’s, I first read the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. It was around this time that I first discovered Lovecraft as well. I was shopping at a bookstore and was drawn to a paperback book with a particularly lurid cover. The book was The Colour Out of Space & Other Stories, by H. P. Lovecraft. The cover displayed a burning, orange-red skull against a black background and it was this lurid cover that compelled me to purchase the book. I took the book outside on a beautiful, cool autumn day and I read the title story. Quite literally, this story terrified me; I actually found myself shivering, even though the day was rather warm.
No other story that I had ever read before had such an immediate, disturbing effect on me. And from that point on, I was hooked on Lovecraft.
Unlike most Lovecraft admirers, I’ve always had a fondness for “The Horror at Red Hook,” it being the closest he ever came to writing an actual ‘occult detective’ story, though my favorite has always been “The Dunwich Horror”. It was the first Lovecraft story I read as a twelve year old boy and it has been with me ever since and I readily admit to an admiration for the Dean Stockwell, Sandra Dee film as well. What is your favorite Lovecraft tale and do you have a favorite film adaptation of one of his works?
I like all of Lovecraft’s stories, particularly those written after 1926, and I find that most of them are extremely well-written, even “The Horror at Red Hook”, which was written just prior to the advent of Lovecraft’s mature writing phase. My absolute favorite stories are: “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”, “The Dunwich Horror”; and “The Dreams in the Witch House.”
As a young boy, I was a big fan of the Arkoff and Nicholson film that you mention, The Dunwich Horror (1970). At that age, I was very impressed with Dean Stockwell’s portrayal of Wilbur Whateley; I thought that he was the ultimate ladies man; handsome, urbane and cool. Now when I watch the film, I find myself laughing; his performance is so campy and silly, but still very entertaining. At around the same time, I was likewise impressed by The Haunted Palace (1963), a film based on Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward; Vincent Price always struck me as the perfect actor to portray Joseph Curwen.
In the early 70’s, I also enjoyed the Rod Serling Night Gallery segments based on Lovecraft’s work, these included “Professor Peabody’s Last Lecture (1971); “Pickman’s Model” (1971) and “Return of the Sorcerer” (1972); this latter was based on the Clark Ashton Smith story, of course, but the story and the segment were heavily permeated with Lovecraftian elements and themes.
Nowadays, I am invariably disappointed by Lovecraftian films; they are always a little too over-the-top. Stuart Gordon did an adequate adaption of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” in his film Dagon (2001), but the film is spoiled by all the relentless violence and gore, and as usual, the unnecessary presence of a sexy girlfriend for the protagonist. The main character Paul Marsh (Ezra Godden) should have been content with his dream-fueled relationship with Uxia (Macarena Gomez), the high priestess of Dagon; tentacles are, after all, much more of an aphrodisiac than arms or legs.
Lovecraft is obviously a huge influence for us both. What other authors have you been inspired by?
My favorite authors, and those authors who inspire me the most, are (arranged in the order of most inspiring to least inspiring): Ray Bradbury, M. R. James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Aickman and J. K Rowling.
The so-called Simon Necronomicon has always been a fascination of mine. What are your thoughts on it as a pop-cultural gateway drug into the occult?
I don’t much like statements such as the one you have quoted above; these are negative statements and negativity has no place in genuine magickal practice. The desire to perform magick derives from an earnest wish on the part of the magickal practitioner for establishing an original relationship with the universe; this is, in fact, the goal of magickal practice and in pursuit of that goal, the practitioner expects to find meaning and purpose in his or hers life. But the goal itself is entirely positive, not negative. Indeed, I would argue that there really isn’t such a thing as negativity at all; negativity, like evil, is simply an instance of mistaken perception.
Certainly, the Necronomicon is not any kind of pop-cultural drug, any more than the OTO USA is merely a McDonalized illumination, with Aleister Crowley as the Ronald McDonald of occultism, which P. R. Koenig argues in his very negative article “Halo of Flies”.
The Simon/Schlangekraft Necronomicon, though more efficacious in terms of its rites, is essentially as authentic (or inauthentic) as the other Necronomicons, the “spurious” texts that I examine in Chapter 3 of my book, provided, of course, that it is used for the positive purpose of helping magickal practitioners accomplish the goal referred to above.
As a member of the O.T.O, I wonder if you’d care to weigh in on the debate around Bill Breeze’s fill/kill Liber AL edit?
I should clarify that I was a member of the Thelema Lodge for many years in my youth; I took the following degrees: II° in New York on 3/79; I° on 11/20/77 and the 0° in California on 5/70; subsequently, I allowed my membership in the order to lapse as of 11/27/84. Therefore, technically, I am not an active member of the OTO and consequently, the reader should view my comments and opinions on issues such as the fill/kill debate as the comments and opinions of an educated, reasonable person who is not necessarily a Thelemite.
My favorite book by Crowley is The Book of Lies, and in Chapter 16, “The Stag-Beetle”, Crowley has these remarks about death: “Death implies change and individuality; if thou be THAT which hath no person, which is beyond the changing…what hast thou to do with death?……The birth of individuality is ecstasy; so also is its death…Love death therefore, and long eagerly for it. Die daily.” The implications of these important words are evident when one considers Part III, Verse 37 of Liber Al vel Legis.
Now, I don’t see any need to involve myself in any discussion of how or when Crowley made final corrections to the manuscript of The Book of the Law, and I’m certainly not going to bother about whether he wrote in pencil or pen, or whether the changes were written by him personally or in Rose’s hand, or with any of the other issues raised by those involved in this rather silly controversy. But when Crowley/Aiwaz states: “The ways of the Khabs run through/ To stir me or still me!/Aum! Let it fill me!”, he is clearly referring to death in the same way that Death is referred to in the above citation from The Book of Lies, i.e. as a change and as the birth of a genuine individual. Thus, whether the word “fill” or “kill” is used, the sense of the line remains exactly the same. In fact, death is implied in the previous line- “to still me!”, and so, perhaps, “kill” might be a more accurate transcription.
Any final words you’d like to share regarding Lovecraft’s influence on modern occultism?
I think that as the new millennium progresses, magickal practitioners, whatever their denominations, will likely make even more extensive use of Lovecraft’s pantheon of extra-terrestrial entities and Lovecraftian elements and themes in their own ritual workings. This is already happening today, in fact.
The artist and writer Scott R. Jones, in his book When the Stars are Right (2014), suggests a rather benign apocalypse, i.e. the widespread adoption of a R’lyehian spirituality on the part of earnest seekers after truth and knowledge.
Donald Tyson, in The Grimoire of the Necronomicon, has established a white magickal organization that allows initiates to pair up astrally with Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones, choosing one or another of these beings as mentors to assist them in their spiritual growth. Again, this is a relatively benign occupation.
But there are, of course, more aggressive approaches.
For example, Gavin Callaghan, in an article written for Fate Magazine, refers to an organization named the Cult of Cthulhu in Wisconsin, led by Venger Satanis, whose members are actively working to evoke the Great Old Ones and literally bring about a fully-realized, Biblical apocalypse, an entirely negative goal. So there are good Lovecraftian practitioners, distilling positive energy and productivity, and there are, unfortunately, evil practitioners who are fostering negativity and distilling hate.
From my own personal standpoint, I tend to embrace the good. And I can’t help but be convinced that Lovecraft’s influence on occultism and on western culture will end up being largely positive. In fact, I believe that Lovecraft’s work will ultimately have much broader of an influence on science in the future than on western occultism. To date, contemporary physicists posit the existence of a universe which is very much in alignment with the views of the universe articulated by magickal practitioners. What scientists lack, however, are the methods necessary to quantify their speculations. And thus, in their search for methodology, scientists will ultimately be forced to undertake the study of magickal texts and this will, in turn, bring them back to the roots of culture and civilization itself.
H.P. Lovecraft and the Black Magickal Tradition by John L. Steadman is published by Weiser Books and available wherever books are sold, so please, whenever possible, support your local bookstore or, better still, order directly from Red Wheel/Weiser. Of course you can always confirm your allegiance to the Dark One and drop your money here :)