(Parts 1 and 2 here and here. This conclusion is a tad long but I decided to post it in one go rather than breaking it up.)
This is the conclusion of a series of essays about HP Lovecraft. In the previous instalments, we looked at Lovecraft as a proto-psychedelic author, noting similarities between certain of his tales and the experiences recounted by much later psychonauts under the influence of the powerful hallucinogen DMT, and suggested that perhaps psychedelic voyagers and writers of visionary fiction (imaginauts?) were accessing similar mental terrains via different routes. In this final instalment, we’re going to look at Lovecraft’s work in relation to two mythic archetypes much beloved of esotericists: the akashic record of the Theosophists and the Hall of Records fabled since the days of the “Sleeping Prophet” Edgar Cayce to be buried in a hidden cavern beneath the Great Sphinx of Giza. First, however, we’ll look at one more of Lovecraft’s deeply psychedelic tales, and return to that theme in the essay’s conclusion.
The feeling of doing DMT is as though one had been struck by noetic lightning. The ordinary world is almost instantaneously replaced, not only with a hallucination, but a hallucination whose alien character is its utter alienness. Nothing in this world can prepare one for the impressions that fill your mind when you enter the DMT sensorium.
Hypnos is perhaps one of the most intriguing of Lovecraft’s shorter and lesser known fictions. The germination of the story goes back to a succinct plot summary recorded in the author’s commonplace book which scooped the basic premise of Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street by several decades: “The man who would not sleep – dares not sleep – takes drugs to keep himself awake. Finally falls asleep - & something happens.” The story can be read as a combination of Lovecraft’s two preferred literary modes: Dunsanian dream fantasy and the author’s own brand of cosmic, visionary horror. The Decadent literary movement also provides a strong influence; as in Celephais and Ex Oblivione, we find a preoccupation with the idea that sleep and drugs can operate as doorways into other worlds and wholly separate planes of existence. Hypnos, however, is unusually sparse and vague as a tale. An unnamed narrator (who is a sculptor) encounters a mysterious man at a train station, and the encounter has a profound effect on him. He recognises both an ideal artistic subject, and a man with a deep knowledge of hidden and ineffable things: “ – for I saw that such eyes must have looked fully upon the grandeur and the terror of realms beyond normal consciousness and reality; realms which I had cherished in fancy, but vainly sought.” Our narrator thus adopts his new friend as a guru and guide in attaining states of non-ordinary consciousness. They move in together, the mysterious stranger modelling for the narrator’s sculpting by day, and the pair taking drugs by night in order to plunge deeply into alternate realities beyond time and space. They become essentially harbingers of a counterculture several decades yet to be born: a pair of boho acid heads, and perhaps, one might cheekily suggest, lovers.
Of course, Lovecraft nowhere directly implies a sexual relationship, but Hypnos is infused with a peculiar ambience of homoeroticism (any kind of eroticism, however subdued, being an unexpected departure from the norm of the Lovecraftian universe.) The narrator is rhapsodic in his description of the stranger’s physical aspect:
I think that he was then approaching forty years of age, for there were deep lines in the face, wan and hallow-cheeked, but oval and actually beautiful; and touches of grey in the thick, waving hair and small, full beard which had once been of the deepest raven black. His brow was white as the marble of Pentelicus, and of a height and breath almost godlike. I said to myself, with all the ardour of a sculptor, that this was a faun’s statue, dug from a temple’s ruins and brought somehow to life in our stifling age only to feel the chill and pressure of devastating years.
Afterwards I found that his voice was music – the music of deep viols and of crystalline spheres. We talked often in the night, and in the day, when I chiselled busts of him and carved miniature heads in ivory to immortalise his different expressions.
To make the whole thing rather like a blunt Freudian pun, the story is dedicated to Lovecraft’s friend, the homosexual New York poet Samuel Loveman. (Would it be cheap and obvious psychoanalytic blundering to suggest that Lovecraft’s profound sense of alienation and physical loathing may have stemmed from a deeply repressed homosexuality? Probably – although it is interesting to note that the only time Lovecraft seems to pay any attention whatever to physical beauty is in this particular instance.)
Anyway, after that digression, back to our main theme: tripping balls. Around this vague and suggestive premise, Lovecraft weaves some of his most otherworldly prose poetry and some of the most strikingly psychedelic ideas and images in his entire output. The image which completes the following paragraph reminds us again of William James and his nitrous oxide revelation of different modes of consciousness parted from everyday reality by the “filmiest of screens”:
Of our studies it is impossible to speak, since they hold so slight a connexion with anything of the world as living men conceive it. They were of that vaster and more appalling universe of dim entity and consciousness which lies deeper than matter, space, and time, and whose existence we suspect only in certain forms of sleep – those rare dream beyond dreams which come never to ordinary men, and but once or twice in the lifetime of imaginative men. The cosmos of our waking knowledge, born from such a universe as a bubble is born from the pipe of a jester, touches it only as such a bubble may touch its sardonic source when sucked back by the jester’s whim.
Again, as with From Beyond, there are striking parallels with the DMT experience. In the parlance of DMT users, no concept is as crucial as the “breakthrough”. In essence, the difference between properly breaking through and not is like the difference between foreplay and full intercourse. Fail to get enough of the harsh, burnt plastic tasting-DMT vapour into your system, and you’ll just experience a pleasant but mild display of the type of visuals typical of LSD and mushroom experiences. Get the full hit and you’ll experience the sensation of a full (in many cases out of body) breakthrough into a wholly immersive and astonishing audio-visual realm – a natural Virtual Reality tech which is aeons ahead of the synthetic variety. Here’s Terence McKenna describing the breakthrough sensation:
And this is taking, you know, thirty or forty seconds, and there’s this rising hum, this – nnnmmMMMM – that rising tone; the flying saucer tone of Hollywood B-movies.…you actually hear this thing. And then, if you’ve taken enough DMT (and it has to do entirely with physical capacity; did you take, did you cross the threshold?) something happens (McKenna claps) for which there are no words. A membrane is rent, and you are propelled into this “place”. And language cannot describe it - accurately.
Compare McKenna’s language to that of Lovecraft’s description of the sculptor and his muse’s drug voyages in Hypnos:
Human utterance can best convey the general character of our experiences by calling them plungings or soarings; for in every period of revelation some part of our minds broke boldly away from all that is real and present, rushing aerially along shocking, unlighted, and fear-haunted abysses, and occasionally tearing through certain well-marked and typical obstacles describable only as viscous, uncouth clouds or vapours.
A breakthrough, then. In fact, Lovecraft agrees with McKenna in both the metaphor of breaking through a membrane or veil, and in the essential inability of language to adequately encapsulate the experience. This is the defining characteristic of all peak psychedelic and mystical experiences: they elude the whole mental machinery by which the bulk of our experience is structured into a grammar of causality, continuity, and comprehensible meaning. In this realm, meaning is felt as already complete and fully self-sufficient; it does not and cannot be translated into words and familiar concepts. From Hypnos:
Among the agonies of these after days is that chief of torments – inarticulateness. What I learned and saw in those hours of impious exploration can never be told – for want of symbols or suggestions in any language. I say this because from first to last our discoveries partook only of the nature of sensations; sensations correlated with no impression which the nervous system of normal humanity is capable of receiving.
There was a night when winds from unknown spaces whirled us irresistibly into limitless vacua beyond all thought and entity. Perceptions of the most maddenly untransmissible sort thronged upon us; perceptions of infinity which at the time convulsed us with joy, yet which are now partly lost to my memory and partly incapable of presentation to others.
There is one other point about the astral voyaging in Hypnos which I note in passing. While in the midst of their trips, the narrator is unable to see the body of his teacher; however, he maintains an awareness of his presence by means of a peculiar invention which Lovecraft calls the “memory face”. Here Lovecraft’s astral realm begins to feel peculiarly like a computer-generated environment or Virtual Reality, as I think the “memory face” conceit would remind many contemporary readers of a computer avatar:
When we were together, my friend was always far ahead; I could comprehend his presence despite the absence of form by a species of pictorial memory whereby his face appeared to me, golden from a strange light and frightful with its weird beauty, its anomalously youthful cheeks, its burning eyes, its Olympian brow, and its shadowing hair and growth of beard.
To wrap up, then, we find in the ambiguous conclusion of Hypnos a version of the now familiar William Wilson/Fight Club twist. It appears that the mysterious stranger never existed at all, or at any rate, all that remains of his body is a sculpted bust which the narrator is assured is a likeness of himself at the age of twenty-five. Was he then a figment of the narrator’s imagination, his mind having gone febrile with exotic drugs and weirder ideas? It may be that for Lovecraft there is a complex, almost unconscious symbol at work here, the bust representing how the feverish interior journey into horror and madness finally solidifies into the balanced harmony of creation and art, or how the narrator’s daimon, having pierced the final veil and journeyed completely beyond matter and time, is now frozen as a timeless icon, a condition which must have held some appeal to Lovecraft. At any rate, for the present essay, it is sufficient to note once again the peculiar affinity of Lovecraft’s imagining of dimensions beyond time and space, and the actual experience of later psychonauts experimenting with strong hallucinogens. Also, there is the undeniably mystical compulsion, which infuses so much of Lovecraft’s stories, to escape from and transcend all the limits of the human condition: to go beyond the body and its narrowly circumscribed senses, beyond even the temporal/spatial dimensions within which the body assumes its morphing and frail form. In the conclusion of this essay we will explore the contradictory relationship of this mystical tendency to Lovecraft’s outward materialism and Schopenhauerian pessimism.
Nature’s Memory: Shadows Out of Time.
I recalled the awesome records that once lay cased in those rectangular vaults of rustless metal.
There, said the dreams and legends, had reposed the whole history, past and future, of the cosmic space-time continuum – written by captive minds from every orb and every age in the solar system.
H.P. Lovecraft, The Shadow Out of Time.
The akashic record and the Hall of Records are two great, closely related occult mythologies. They are quintessential occult archetypes because they speak to what is by general agreement the greatest spur to the occult imagination: the idea of a massive trove of hidden, forbidden, and preferably ancient knowledge. Like gnostics and conspiranoids in their divergent fashion, occultists are always looking for the motherlode of information which will result in the ultimate unravelling of the established order of the world – which will make, even if only in the mind of the recipient, the whole world utterly anew. The akashic record and the fabled Hall are vast libraries, then, with the first being immaterial or metaphysical in nature, and the second having an antique and long hidden physical form. They are both frequently presented as a means of acquiring knowledge of mankind’s hidden pre-history, and even, in the case of the akashic record, of his distant future existence. The origins of the idea of the akashic record go back to the Astral Light theorized by Eliphas Levi: “...an agent which is natural and divine, material and spiritual, a universal plastic mediator, a common receptacle of the vibrations of motion and the images of form, a fluid and a force which may be called in some way the Imagination of Nature…..the existence of this force is the great Arcanum of practical Magic.”
Perhaps what was appealing to later occultists about Levi’s “universal plastic mediator”, vague as the concept was, was its capacity to absorb and record the psychic contents of our widely dispersed and transitory minds; in the hands of the Theosophists, the Astral Light became the Memory of Nature. In essence, the idea of the akashic record is that some property of nature records all the thoughts, desires, and ideas of living beings as a kind of condensed visual/immaterial library or database. If this weren’t grand (and crowded) enough, for many theosophists, this database was trans-temporal – it records not only those thought-forms which stretch back into the distant past, but also those which are yet to realized in the future. Nobody has ever accused Theosophists of dreaming small. According to Alice A. Bailey:
The akashic record is like an immense photographic film, registering all the desires and earth experiences of our planet. Those who perceive it will see pictured thereon: The life experiences of every human being since time began, the reactions to experience of the entire animal kingdom, the aggregation of the thought-forms of a karmic nature (based on desire) of every human unit throughout time. Herein lies the great deception of the records. Only a trained occultist can distinguish between actual experience and those astral pictures created by imagination and keen desire.
However one is to take this idea (and Theosophical notions rarely cry out for a fully literal reception) there is something undeniably intriguing at work in it. Levi’s Astral Light and the Theosophical akashic record have always reminded me a little of the internet, or perhaps it would be more apt to say that the internet always reminds us of some its grander theoretical precursors: James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, and particularly Teilhard de Chardin’s planetary exo-consciousness the Noosphere. It seems that the yearning has been in our minds for a long time to externalize and immaterialize a vast quantity of information; to make of the world a mind in the same way that the world made of our brains a mind capable of surveying things vaster than itself. In some respects, the akashic record scoops contemporary posthuman dreams of preserving individual consciousness by means of conversion into potentially immortal digital memory.
From the akashic record we move to a more tangible yet still elusive library. Edgar Cayce is yet another chapter in the fascinating history of American grassroots religion and spirituality, the same history which produced Joseph Smith, the Fox sisters, L.Ron Habbard, and so many more, plucked from the obscurity of a bustling continent by visions, feints, and skulduggery. But Cayce doesn’t appear to have been a scoundrel, and, unlike Smith and Hubbard, didn’t really start a new religion. Instead, he preached a sometimes uneasy mixture of conventional Biblical piety with the more contemporaneous notions of Theosophists and occultists – trance mediumship, the reading of the akashic record, reincarnation, and the ubiquitous preoccupation with Atlantis and the lost antediluvian civilisations of human pre-history. To his supporters, Cayce was a trance healer (whose clients included Woodrow Wilson), a clairvoyant, and a prophet. Most famous among his prophetic utterances was the assertion that Atlantis (or is it Ry’leh?) would rise again, and that a library of Atlantean history would be discovered in a cavern beneath the Sphinx. According to Cayce, the Hall of Records contained a “record of Atlantis from the beginning of those periods when the Spirit took form, or began the encasements in that land; and the developments of the peoples throughout their sojourn; together with the record of the first destruction, and the changes that took place in the land; with the record of the sojournings of the peoples and their varied activities in other lands, and a record of the meetings of all the nations or lands, for the activities in the destruction of Atlantis; and the building of the pyramid of initiation, together with whom, what, and where the opening of the records would come, that are as copies from the sunken Atlantis. For with the change, it [Atlantis] must rise again.” (The Sources of channelled wisdom have never been accused of elegant prose.)
Among Cayce’s followers, the search for the Hall of Records still casts a potent millenarian spell. It was been discovered that cavities do exist under the Sphinx, and Cayce’s Association for Research and Enlightenment (A.R.E.) are a significant component of the nexus of interested parties that hover around the Giza Plaza and contribute to its perpetual air of intrigue. The full story of these shenanigans – involving Cayce devotees, Egyptian authorities, Alternative Egyptologists, Freemasons, John Michel Jarre, and the Devil or Tsoukalos knows who else – would probably weave a history every bit as tangled and bizarre as anything contained in the putative Hall, were it to be known in full. However, for the purposes of this essay, we are simply examining the power of the idea of the Hall of the Records, which is again a mainstay of esoteric mythology: the idea of an ancient knowledge which has been preserved, this time in a physical form, for a much later generation to rediscover. The rediscovery of this lost knowledge may be of initiatory import to the individual, or, in the case of lost pre-histories like the Hall of Records, of millenarian or apocalyptic import to the society as whole; apocalyptic because the “un-covering” or disclosure of the true past annihilates the false world as it is conceived in the present.
The significance of these ideas should be reasonably apparent in relation to Lovecraft’s literary creations. In roughly the same time period that Cayce was making his as yet unrealized prophecies, the wreckage of antediluvian cities was rising out of the ocean, and libraries of long lost human pre-history were re-emerging from the mists of the deep past – in Lovecraft’s stories. Dagon (1917) is the first truly “Lovecraftian” tale in the cannon – an oddity in that the author seemed abruptly to discover his specific voice and vision, and then lose it again until the much later “Mythos” stories. In this early tale, we find two crucial motifs: the return of the pre-historical repressed in the form of fragmented Cylcopean masonry, and the discovery of a kind of pictographic record of earth’s long lost and scarcely guessed at history. The shipwrecked narrator finds himself on a slimy spit of putrid earth which he conjectures to have been spewed up from the ocean floor by volcanic activity, “exposing regions which for innumerable millions of years had lain under unfathomable watery depths.” Later on, upon investigating a “vast and singular object”, he experiences that characteristically Lovercraftian emotion: the shock of profound terror mixed with a kind of awe upon the realization that the deep past of our planet is not at all as we imagined it. Cue Also Sprach Zarathustra:
That it was merely a gigantic piece of stone, I soon assured myself; but I was conscious of a distinct impression that its contour and position were not altogether the work of Nature. A closer scrutiny filled me with sensations I cannot express; for despite its enormous magnitude, and its position in an abyss which had yawned at the bottom of the sea since the world was young, I perceived beyond a doubt that the strange object was a well-shaped monolith whose massive bulk had known the worship of living and thinking creatures.
Carven on the monolith is Lovecraft’s first tentative expression of the Hall of Records motif, and his first foray into forbidden history: “The writing was in a system of hieroglyphics unknown to me, and unlike anything I had seen in books; consisting for the most part of conventionalized aquatic symbols such as fishes, eels, octopi, crustaceans, molluscs, whales, and the like. Several characters obviously represented marine things which are unknown to the modern world, but whose decomposing forms I had observed on the ocean-risen plain.” Lovecraft’s earth, then, is like a person a shouldering a series of repressed memories; the memories keep coming to the surface, bubbling up from an unconscious in the watery oceanic depths and dark, cavernous inner-earth. That Lovecraft would return again and again to these core images and ideas so briefly sketched out in Dagon – with an obsessive, repetitive, almost monomaniacal intensity – plays no small part in the existence of many occult readers of the author, who interpret his work as transcribed vision rather than mere literary invention. Without taking a firm stance on this issue, there is certainly an odd compulsiveness about Lovecraft’s art, and it is arguable that the idea of some kind of race or genetic memory lies at the centre of his thematic obsessions – that the many visions of primeval architectures and vast bas-relief histories in his stories constitute an effort to access some kind of genetic or akashic database in a pulp fiction shorthand.
We next encounter the Hall of Records motif in The Nameless City, a 1921 tale in which an explorer in the Arabian desert discovers the remnants and records of a not quite extinct reptilian civilisation. Not knowing that Lovecraft had replaced the largely anthropomorphic visions of the Theosophists with a teeming bestiary of biological and metaphysical alienage, the explorer at first takes the reptilians to be allegorical depictions of primeval man: “Now that the light was better I studied the pictures more closely, and, remembering that the strange reptiles must represent the unknown men, pondered upon the customs of the nameless city. Many things were peculiar and inexplicable. The civilisation, which included a written alphabet, had seemingly risen to a higher order than those immeasurably later civilisations of Egypt and Chaldea, yet there were curious omissions.” The Nameless City, of course, was little more than a dry run for Lovecraft’s grand elaboration of the Hall of Records motif in the centrepiece of At the Mountains of Madness: the long, visionary section where Dyer and Danforth decipher the history of the Elder Things through their perusal of an elaborate sequence of hieroglyphic murals. Here is the Hall of Records as apocalyptic revelation: all traditional western worldviews crumble, as man is found neither to be made in God’s image (as the Christians supposed), nor to stand at the intellectual summit of terrestrial evolution (as the humanists of the Enlightenment supposed.) Dwarfed by Cyclopean dimensions and the span of incalculable aeons, man becomes the measure of very small things indeed. Unless, of course, he find some means to extend the scope of his vision in time and space.
In The Shadow Out of Time, on the other hand, we discover a library which contains elements of both occult myths we have been discussing, and a race who have achieved precisely this expansion of vision. Like the Hall of Records, the library of the Great Race is a physical structure which is now hidden underground (“a colossal subterranean structure near the city’s centre”, “this titan repository surpassed all other buildings in the massive, mountain-like firmness of its construction”); like the Akashic Record, it is trans-temporal, in it that encompasses knowledge of both past and future, accumulated by means of telepathic projection across the aeons:
This, they indicated, was the greatest race of all; because it alone had conquered the secret of time. It had learned all things that ever were known or ever would be known on the earth, through the power of its keener minds to project themselves into the past and future, even through gulfs of millions of years, and study the lore of every age. From the accomplishments of this race arose all legends of prophets, including those in human mythology.
In its vast libraries were volumes of texts and pictures holding the whole of earth annuls – histories and descriptions of every species that had ever been or that ever would be, with records of their arts, their achievements, their languages, their psychologies. With this aeon-embracing knowledge, the Great Race chose from every era and life-form such thoughts, arts, and processes as might suit its own nature and situation.
The Great Race had collectively attained to a condition destined only to the few solitary voices raging in the ephemeral wildernesses of every subsequent civilisation; the condition of Blake’s Bard in the Songs of Experience, who “Present, Past, & Future sees.” They have also achieved that mystical goal which we find in so many Lovecraft characters – the impulse to transcend utterly one’s present space-time moorings – and they do this, as every mystic must, not with their physical bodies but only with the mind alone (“their senses could penetrate all material barriers, their substances could not…”). It is interesting to note in this mystical connection that we find in The Shadow Out of Time a very rare acknowledgement in Lovecraftian fiction that expanded knowledge of the universe, despite its horrors, constitutes an intensely exalted experience. Of the minds held captive in the era of the Great Race, Lovecraft notes that they were allowed to “delve freely into the libraries containing the records of the planet’s past and future. This reconciled many captive minds to their lot; since none were other than keen, and to such minds the unveiling of hidden mysteries of earth – closed chapters of inconceivable pasts and dizzying vortices of future time which include the years ahead of their own natural ages – forms always, despite the abysmal horrors often unveiled, the supreme experience of life.”
Conclusion: “The long telephone wire of history, which goes back two billions years, and which is buried somewhere inside your brain and mine.”
I recognise a distinction between dream life and real life, between appearances and actualities. I confess an overwhelming desire to know whether I am asleep or awake – whether the environment and laws that affect me are external and permanent, or the products of my transitory brain.
H.P. Lovecraft, A Letter On Religion.
H.P. Lovecraft has had a perhaps suitably weird posthumous legacy. His American Gothic predecessor Poe has been canonized and made respectable, and hence his presence in popular culture now feels a little like a dusty heirloom or museum piece. Lovecraft, however, penniless and ignored during his own lifetime, now has a more vital pop culture profile than almost any other pulp writer of his era. The Cthulhu Mythos, for whatever reason, is part of the lingua franca of the internet, and Cthulhu, to his dubious honour, has become a mainstay of the daily distraction stream; what incongruous Cthulhu-related thing will the internet show us today? The result of all this is that not only is Lovecraft widely read today, but his ideas and iconography have saturated culture to the point where they are immediately recognisable to many people who have never and probably will never read him. The internet, I suppose, brings previously marginal and underground material to the foreground; not, however, without breaking them down into a sometimes trivial byte-size.
Perhaps more interesting than the scale of Lovecraft’s readership is the type of readings the stories have accrued through the years. Lovecraft identified himself during his lifetime as a staunch materialist and atheist (he is included, for example, in Christopher Hitchens’ anthology The Portable Atheist), and yet no fictional writer as had such a major impact on the contemporary occult world. Though the vortices of ancient astronaut theory and chaos magic, Lovecraft has engendered a comparatively rare type of reading whereby many have felt that his fictions contained some essential truth. This is different, to an extent, from the normal kind of obsessive fandom whereby devotees behave as though the worlds of Tolkien and Star Trek were real. This is the widespread belief that the author was, in that nebulous but perfectly comprehensible expression, Tapping into Something. To square this with his publically stated philosophical views, one would have to conclude that either a great many people were misreading Lovecraft, or that Lovecraft’s stories were expressing a fundamentally different sensibility than he himself did in everyday life.
There are some more obvious reasons why Lovecraft’s fiction should have moved into this liminal, speculative territory. Positioned where he was historically, Lovecraft was ideally situated to tap into two contrary cultural streams. On the one hand, he was absorbed in the modernising tendency of the empirical sciences, which were themselves becoming considerably exotic and mind-bending during that period. On the other, the real bread and butter of Lovecraft’s inspiration came from a contrary, anti-modernist cultural tendency, best represented by the Occult Revival, Ignatius Donnelly, the Theosophists, and Charles Fort’s serio-comic philosophical assault on the orthodoxies of both science and religion. Now, all of these influences taken together sowed the seeds of various cultural manifestations that would explode in the postwar period of the twentieth century, becoming major popular preoccupations and quasi-real entities at the speculative edge of mainstream reality: UFOs, the still reverberating Ancient Astronaut craze, Alternative Archaeology, and so forth. Lovecraft not only pre-empted these soon to be widespread cultural fascinations in his fictions, but he also captured perfectly their ambiguous nature precisely as quasi-real entities. This is because he was a truly Fortean writer. The supernatural or extraterrestrial could not be taken for granted in his stories; it produced ambiguous evidence in the form of blurry photographs, footprints, tape recordings, and anomalous historical discoveries whose veracity, meaning, and implications had to be carefully considered by sceptical academics. As in the case, for example, of John Keel’s Fortean classic The Mothman Prophecies, we have to remain alert to the possibility that an unreliable narrator may be misinterpreting the overall pattern into existence from a perspective of heightened paranoia. Hence, anybody who had first read a much later book on UFOs or speculative archaeology would instantly recognise that Lovecraft’s stories were written in a similar mode of quasi-realism, or what Pauwels and Bergier labelled “fantastic realism” in their Fortean masterwork Morning of the Magicians.
So then, to sceptical readers of the Lovecraft phenomenon, the author had simply plundered the works of the Theosophists for exotic story ideas (siphoning off all their cosmic optimism in the process), and in a final riposte from fate, a generation of posthumous readers simply didn’t get the position of rationalistic materialism which he was really espousing. This would certainly be the view of Joyce Carol Oates, who writes in The King Of Weird that weird fiction “can only be a product, Lovecraft saw, of an age that has ceased to believe collectively in the supernatural while retaining the primitive instinct to do so, in eccentric, atomized ways. He would hardly have been surprised, but rather confirmed in his cynicism regarding human intelligence, could he have foreseen how, from the 1950s onward, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of purportedly sane Americans would come to believe in UFOs and “extra-terrestrial” beings with particular, often erotic designs upon them.” (It seems doubtful that Oates has read much Kenneth Grant.) Or Jason Colavito, who, in The Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture and elsewhere, has written extensively on the influence of the Cthulhu Mythos on the popularity of ancient astronaut and alternate archaeological theory. Although I haven’t read Colavito’s work, the gist of his argument I take to be an attack on the latter on the basis that it derives, in some part, from the ideas of a fiction writer who did not himself take the ideas in his stories seriously. However, how seriously Lovecraft did or not take the content of his stories, and to what extent his publically espoused position of rationalistic materialism is an accurate representation of his inner life, seem to me to remain an open question. Looking closely at the stories as a kind of psychological autobiography, we find instead a figure deeply preoccupied and enthralled by the power of his subconscious imagination, and possessed of an uneasy and even contradictory philosophy pitched somewhere between a mystical idealism and a materialistic despair.
Much of Lovecraft’s writing addresses itself to the crisis of modern consciousness which Huysmans expresses so beautifully and succinctly at the end of A rebours (Against Nature):
‘Lord, take pity on the Christian who doubts, on the unbeliever who would fain believe, on the galley-slave who puts out to sea alone, in the night, beneath a firmament no longer lit by the consoling beacon-fires of the ancient hope!’
What is one to do in a world which seems no longer fashioned for man to exist in? A world, in fact, where man’s existence appears like a tiny, transitory accident that might as easily never have happened, with no lasting or discernible effect on the whole? Lovecraft examines these questions throughout his fictions, and a consistent enough reply emerges. Again and again, we see a figure that finds life in the modern world utterly unbearable, and constantly seeks escape. This recurring character can find solace and meaning in neither religion or science. Instead, he finds peace only in a motion towards the past, both in the sense of his own childhood and the deeper, wider past of the species, a motion which is facilitated by dreams. It is, in fact, always only dreams and the imagination which provides sure escape from the emptiness of modern life, and engenders a sense of solace, harmony, and purpose where everything else leads only to cul-de-sac. We find this figure etched out in the dream piece Celephais:
The more he withdrew from the world around him, the more wonderful became his dreams and it would have been quite futile to try to describe them on paper. Kuranes was not modern, and did not think like the others who wrote. Whilst they strove to strip life of its embroidered robes of myth, and to show in naked ugliness the foul thing that is reality, Kuranes sought for beauty alone. When truth and experience failed to reveal it, he sought it in fancy and illusion, and found it on his very doorstep, amid the nebulous memories of childhood tales and dreams.
Again, in the fragment The Descendent we find the would-be gnostic escapee who can find no peace in either “formal religion” or in the “close vistas of science”:
During the ‘nineties, he dabbled in Satanism, and at all times he devoured avidly any doctrine or theory which seemed to promise escape from the close vistas of science and the duly unvarying laws of Nature. Books like Ignatius Donnelly’s chimerical account of Atlantis he absorbed with zest, and a dozen obscure precursors of Charles Fort enthralled him with their vagaries.
That this is Lovecraft speaking autobiographically is confirmed, I would suggest, by the fact that we find the same basic character and ethos elaborated upon in the figure of Randolph Carter in The Silver Key (1926.) The Silver Key is the closest thing in Lovecraft’s stories to a philosophical autobiography, and his most direct tackling of the problem of modernity – perhaps unsurprisingly the readers of Weird Tales “violently disliked it.” Here Lovecraft, through a Randolph Carter sliding into middle-aged ennui, surveys all conceivable adaptations to the modern condition, and finds all wanting. Religion, despite its mythical charms, is a done-deal, dodo relic; the “popular doctrines of occultism” show themselves to be as “dry and inflexible as those of science, yet without even the slender palliative of truth to redeem them.” Interestingly, though, the scientific worldview proves to be as futile as the rest of them:
When he complained, and longed to escape into twilight realms where magic moulded all the little vivid fragments and prized associations of his mind into vistas of breathless expectancy and unquenchable delight, they turned him instead towards the new-found prodigies of science, bidding him find wonder in the atom’s vortex and mystery in the sky’s dimension, and when he failed to find these boons in things whose laws are known and measurable, they told him he lacked imagination, and was immature because he preferred dream-illusions to the illusions of our physical creation.
Here we find a kind of idealism creeping into the picture, in that Carter asserts that both real life and dream life consist only of sensations (“pictures in the brain”) and there is no reason to privilege one set of sensations over the other: “Wonder had gone away, and he had forgotten that all life is only a set of pictures in the brain, among which there is no difference betwixt those born of real things and those born of inward dreamings, and no cause to value the one above the other.” Yet, oddly, Carter continues to maintain Lovecraft’s dour doctrine of the “blind cosmos” that “grinds aimlessly on from nothing to something and from something back to nothing again.” Why, one would wonder, does this particular speculative idea of the cosmos hold a privileged status among the set of “pictures in the brain”, since it is presumably derived from “real things”, and as such, according to Carter’s earlier assertion, holds no special significance or value over and above things belonging to the imagination and the dream-life? In the same paragraph, Carter critiques the “superstitious reverence for that which tangibly and physically exists”, and yet continues to maintain in the same breath Lovecraft’s putative materialistic philosophy of the blind and meaningless cosmos. There is clearly something very contradictory afoot here. The two ideas – idealistic privileging of the imagination, and materialistic despair in the face of the universe’s pitiless intransigence – only barely hold together.
My personal feeling is that Lovecraft was in his essential nature a mystic (and even Joyce Carol Oates concedes this to an extent: “Despite Lovecraft’s expressed contempt for mysticism, clearly he was a kind of mystic, drawing intuitively upon a cosmology of images that came to him unbidden, from the “underside” of his life….”), but was drawn to a pessimistic variety of materialism because of the contingent emotional and psychological circumstances of his life. The death of his father in an asylum owing to untreated syphilis when Lovecraft was seven; the difficulties of his relationship with his mother; the fact that, for whatever reason, he seemed to possess little or no sexual drive to render the physical dimension of his existence purposive and meaningful; all of these factors made the idea of a blind, meaningless material cosmos emotionally appealing to Lovecraft. The bleakness of his emotional existence would make sense in such a cosmos. Yet his mystical tendency drew him in a different direction, and out of these contradictory impulses emerges the specifically Lovecraftian creation of cosmic horror, that is, the mystic part of the brain seeking vast, mind-expanding epiphanies, and the despairing materialist part colouring those epiphanies decisively with a sense of deep inadequacy and physical loathing and disgust. Lovecraft becomes a negative gnostic for whom the flash of true awareness only cements the despair of imprisonment; he becomes what Huxley in The Doors of Perception calls a negative visionary:
And then there is the horror of infinity. For the healthy visionary, the perception of the infinite in a finite particular is revelation of divine immanence; for Renee (a schizophrenic), it was a revelation of what she called ‘the System’, the vast cosmic mechanism which exists only to grind out guilt and punishment, solitude and unreality.’
For them, as for the positive visionary, the universe is transfigured – but for the worse. Everything in it, from the stars in the sky to the dust under their feet, is unspeakably sinister or disgusting; every event is charged with a hateful significance, every object manifests the presence of an Indwelling Horror, infinite, all-powerful, eternal. (The Doors of Perception.)
Bearing these contradictions in mind, it seems to me that however one feels about Kenneth Grant’s occult reading of Lovecraft, he was surely right that the author was enthralled and terrified by the power of his subconscious imagination. In fact, it isn’t difficult to see a distinct autobiographical echo in the predicament of Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee, the narrator of The Shadow Out of Time. Like Lovecraft, Peaslee is haunted by vivid, alien dreams which he desperately wants to be nothing more than figments of his imagination: “the glimpses still seemed damnably like memories, though I fought off this impression with a goodly measure of success.” Haunted by the vividness and consistency of the alien world of his dreams, Peaslee must console himself with rational explanations which ultimately make his dreams insignificant delusions:
Suppose I did see strange things at night? These were only what I had heard and read of. Suppose I did have odd loathings and perspectives and pseudo-memories? These, too, were only echoes of myths absorbed in my secondary state. Nothing that I might dream, nothing that I might feel, could be of any actual significance.
Hence, in The Shadow, we find both the culmination of Lovecraft’s fictional art, and the perfect expression of the myth of Lovecraft: the artist as dream-haunted pedant, bitterly conflicted between the modern, daylight realm of reason, and the deeper wellsprings of the unconsciousness, which show him visions of puzzling consistency and vividness, and draw him always further back along a vast ancestral stream.
Since we started by drawing comparisons between Lovecraft stories and DMT trips, it’s time to wrap things up by looking at the story of an anthropologist who consumed a large dose of ayahuasca, and experienced something peculiarly like a HP Lovecraft story. In 1960-61, Michael Harner was living with and studying the customs of the Conibo Indians in the Peruvian Amazon. Attempting to better understand the religious traditions of the Conibo, Harner drank something in the region of a third of a bottle of ayahuasca. After several intense visions involving a “carnival of demons” and “large numbers of people with the heads of blue jays and the bodies of humans, not unlike the bird-headed gods of ancient Egyptian tomb paintings”, Harner became convinced that he was dying. What follows is pure Lovecraft, and worth quoting at length (from Jeremy Narby’s The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge):
Then he saw that his visions emanated from “giant reptilian creatures” resting at the lowest depths of his brain. These creatures began projecting scenes in front of his eyes, while informing him that this information was reserved for the dying and the dead: “First they showed me the planet Earth as it was eons ago, before there was any life on it. I saw an ocean, barren land, and a bright blue sky. Then black specks dropped from the sky by the hundreds and landed in front of me on the barren landscape. I could see the ‘specks’ were actually large, shiny, black creatures with stubby pterodactyl-like wings and huge whale-like bodies….They explained to me in a kind of thought language that they were fleeing from something out in space. They had come to the planet Earth to escape their enemy. The creatures then showed me how they had created life on the planet in order to hide within the multitudinous forms and thus disguise their presence. Before me, the magnificence of plant and animal creation and speciation – hundreds of millions of years of activity – took place on a scale and with a vividness impossible to describe. I learned that the dragon-like creatures were thus inside all forms of life, including man.”
Narby’s thesis in The Cosmic Serpent is worth dwelling upon for a moment. He concluded that when in trance, shamans “take their consciousness down to the molecular level and gain information related to DNA.” The idea in essence, however, was not entirely new. Timothy Leary had come to more or less the same conclusion after experimenting with mushrooms and (copiously) with LSD. In a television interview from the Millbrook days, Leary spoke of gaining access to “the long telephone wire of history, which goes back two billion years, and which is buried somewhere inside your brain and mine….we are neurologically and biochemically in touch with thousands of generations that came before us, and the record of these previous evolutionary attempts are there, it’s just that our mental/symbolic minds can’t decode these messages.” In the idea of an accessible database of genetic memory contained in our DNA, we find a new quasi-scientific metaphor for the major idea which has recurred throughout this essay, be it the Platonic Mind At Large of Huxley, the occult Akashic Record of the Theosophists, or the Indiana Jones-like lost temple of Cayce’s Hall of Records. In his treatment of Leary’s eight circuit model of consciousness in Prometheus Rising, Robert Anton Wilson calls this the Collective Neurogenic Circuit, which “processes DNA-RNA-brain feedback systems and is “collective” in the sense that contains and has access to the whole evolutionary “script”, past and future.” All of this speaks to a fascinating notion which is perhaps preeminent among the religious ideas of the modern west: that our minds contain something far older and smarter than ourselves, and with which we attain a fleeting communication in the shared register of myths, dreams, and the fantastic or weird. To attain communion with these deeper strata of consciousness is perhaps the shared heretical goal of Jungians, surrealists, psychedelic voyagers, and a certain type of fantastic or popular artist who embodies elements of all of the above, sometimes unconsciously. Philip K. Dick observed that the symbols of the Divine appear first in the trash stratum. William James conceded that many religious manifestations and visions could be accounted for by appealing to the individual's psyche and unconscious, but he left it open that the unconscious might itself be precisely designed to receive the influx of higher transmissions: "The notion of the subconscious self certainly ought not at this point of our inquiry be held to exclude of notion of a higher penetration. If there be higher powers able to impress us, they may get access to us only through the subliminal door".
Whether such vast storehouses of ancestral and possibly futuristic knowledge actually exist or not, and whether it happened that a Providence misanthrope of dubious literary reputation was tapping into one due to nightly soakings of DMT from his overactive pineal gland, I leave as usual to the reader to decide. Interestingly, though, the idea of the Hall of Records within seems to have occurred to Lovecraft, as we find in the conclusion to the earlier quoted fragment The Descendent:
Whether such vast storehouses of ancestral and possibly futuristic knowledge actually exist or not, and whether it happened that a Providence misanthrope of dubious literary reputation was tapping into one due to nightly soakings of DMT from his overactive pineal gland, I leave as usual to the reader to decide. Interestingly, though, the idea of the Hall of Records within seems to have occurred to Lovecraft, as we find in the conclusion to the earlier quoted fragment The Descendent:
There rose within him the tantalizing faith that somewhere an easy gate existed, which if one found would admit him freely to those outer deeps whose echoes rattled so dimly at the back of his memory. It might be in the visible world, yet it might be only in his mind and soul. Perhaps he held within his own half-explored brain that cryptic link which would awaken him to elder and future lives in forgotten dimensions; which would bind him to the stars, and to the infinities and eternities beyond them.