the occult

December 4, 2019

A major component of cosmic horror in general, and of Lovecraft’s work in particular, is the element of the occult. In many ways, Lovecraft’s occult aspects are true to the origins of the word: much of what various characters in his stories seek is that which remains hidden or concealed from view. By uncovering and practicing secret rituals and speaking ancient words, these characters reveal powerful knowledge and cosmic truths, both awesome and terrifying in their implications and scope. For decades, scholars have explored Lovecraft’s real-life connections to the occult, based on his fiction, his correspondence, and his personal life, in order to unravel whether he had some truly esoteric link to realms beyond ours, or was simply an imaginative dreamer from Providence. He may very well have been a little of both.

Lovecraft’s correspondence with others in his circle of friends suggests that, while he was well-read on the subject, he was not a personal practitioner of magick. Much of his knowledge of the occult seems to have come from books on European witchcraft, written by people outside those witch-groups and coloured by the perceptions of non-Christian religions during his time, as well as colonial American witchcraft, as described by witch hunters of Salem like Cotton Mather. Some of these latter sources contain alleged accounts from accused witches, although the credibility and interpretation of such accounts would necessarily be, at best, somewhat questionable. A movement toward freer expression of religion in the 1970s has given us some insight, however, into magickal systems. We have come to see that while some of the details of actual occult practice, both modern and traditional, are often misrepresented in Lovecraft’s work, there is much that Lovecraft incorporates that is, surprisingly, close enough to give actual practitioners pause. An examination of the specific words used by Lovecraft suggests that he was not intimately aware of actual occult practices for raising demons or demonic gods, since his language in the rituals more closely resembles protective spells, which include the invocation of various names of the Judao-Christian God (or slightly altered versions of those names), such as Hel, Heloym, Emmanvel, Tetragrammaton, and Iehova, as well as names of archangels, such as Sother and Saboth, referenced in “The Horror at Red Hook.” These names are generally used in protective sigils by practitioners of magick against entities summoned against their will for service or information. Such usage would seem counterproductive in the raising of those entities themselves. Further, in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” his titular character references elementals (sylphs, gnomes, and salamanders) in one of his invocations, which is suggestive of pagan worship rather than anything satanic. However, many aspects of the rituals, such as the drawing of protective circles,  the directions in which said circles lie, the placement of candles, and certain substances used,  are more or less accurately portrayed.  Furthermore, Lovecraft’s incorporation of geometry into magick (such as in “Dreams in the Witch House”) is a notion that has been historically present in magick systems for ages.

Mary SanGiovanni
Lovecraft and the Occult