How much did H.P. Lovecraft actually know about real-world occult literature and practices?

Originally published at: How much did H.P. Lovecraft actually know about real-world occult literature and practices? | Boing Boing


How much did H.P. Lovecraft actually know about real-world occult literature and practices?

I really don’t care, considering the hardcore racism of both him and his work. :person_shrugging:


For me, watching Dr Justin Sledge discussing esoterica is like watching Adam Neely discussing music theory. The details are opaque for me; but I love the atmosphere of the exposition. I keep expecting to see a copy of the Tractate Middoth on the shelves behind Dr Sledge.


I know, I’ve seen apologists say, “Well, he was just a product of his time.”; however, at the time, his friends and colleagues commented on how racist he was; and even HP himself said how his xenophobia cut him off from the world. It really seems to have been pathological.


Oh, I love to see stuff like this. It’s interesting that the French seem to be the first to really cop to the importance of Lovecraft - they seemed to be decades ahead of general elite opinions in the U.S., anyway, and it’s nice to see someone doing a deep dive on this particular influence on Lovecraft.

Way back during uni (and during high school, a bit), I’d get the brush-off from the self-professed literati when trying to write about him as a topic. A high school teacher told me to pick another topic, because she was not familiar with the topic - I kind of thought that was the point of writing about a topic, but okay. And this was a class dealing with literature.

As a frosh, one professor screwed up his face in utter contempt, LOL. The only professor that seemed keen on him was a professor that was commenting/grading my paper in which I compared the writing of King, Poe and Lovecraft. Maybe it was the contrast to King - being a person who was quite well-read, he was not a fan of King, LOL.


Whoa. Lovecraft was a racist?! :astonished: Who knew?

I mean, besides people in every single comment thread under any article that even alluded to his name in the history of the internet?

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They do that with other people too. Like, how come nobody ever wants to talk about Leni Riefenstahl’s other influences? It’s almost like they think racism is really important or something.


Still worth pointing out, because some people are indeed unaware of the depth of his racism or they even believe it does not matter. It, in fact, does matter, given how much he influenced genre fiction later in the century. :woman_shrugging: It matters to think about the context and roots of our modern genre fiction (given just how central it is in modern pop culture), and I’m unsure why you felt the need to be dismissive to @milliefink for pointing out a fact that some might be unaware of or believe does not matter.


When I finally read Lovecraft’s tales, what I got was that the only real horror was the horror of the WASP getting stuck into Douglas Adams’ most cruel invention, the Total Perspective Vortex. It seemed like poor Howard took his being knocked off of the pedestal pretty hard.

I never got the feeling that he actually knew anything about the occult other than what his writing colleagues told him, or what his pastor might have railed against in Sunday sermons. He was just better at the purple prose.


Funny, I didn’t receive any responses of the sort to my post that it would be great to have a video game with Octavia Butler punching Lovecraft endlessly. :man_shrugging:


Are you just following me around the youtubes, @garethb2 ?

I just found his works through his Satanic Panic breakdown (with his own personal story)

Been listening to his other vids on the subject of the arcane - quite the accessible scholar.


:thinking: :face_with_hand_over_mouth: :laughing: :laughing: :laughing: :laughing: :laughing: :laughing: :laughing:


Purple? It was positively heliotrope, amaranthine, violaceous even.


“Normie evil.”

Season 3 Nbc GIF by The Office


It’s pretty clear from his stories that his knowledge was paper-thin at best and his “occult” expertise was confined to names of books, with the exception of Cotton Mather’s work (where there are a few stories that rely on knowledge of some of Mather’s narratives to make any sense). His references to mythology are confined to superficial name-drops of Greco-Roman and Middle Eastern deities. (coughDagoncough) It’s not at all surprising that the encyclopedia was a major source of information for him.

Somewhat ironically (given how we’re supposed to see things), I see the basis for more of his “occult” lore being Christianity and children’s stories. There’s some slightly warped versions of stories about saints (and Jesus) in the Nyarlathotep narrative, for example. There’s parallels between Cthulhu and King Arthur - ancient mythological magical rulers, now both dead and sleeping on islands that can’t be found, waiting for the conditions to be right so they can come back to life and rule again… The Arthur story isn’t entirely original, granted, but shares more with the Cthulhu story than those of other sleeping kings/gods waiting for the stars to be right (and would have been the one Lovecraft was familiar with).

Yep, some people haven’t read Lovecraft. I mean, if you have read him, it’s impossible to be unaware of it, but we’re in this weird point now where’s he’s widely influential and, I suspect, most of his “fans” have never read any of his actual work (because it’s… largely unreadable, frankly).
I’m heartened to see that even the Providence Necronomicon, the convention that ostensibly celebrates his work, seems to pretty much have as its unofficial motto, “fuck Lovecraft,” with official statements denouncing bigotry (both his and modern flavors) and a lot of emphasis on the authors who are queer women/non-binary people of color that are prominent in that genre. As it should be.

Yeah, there’s a core of “Oh no, the universe is cold and uncaring and we’re [I’m] not the center of it! Teh horror!” which feels really quaint. Although I also find that Lovecraft’s racism causes an interesting thing to happen in his stories, causing them to be completely inverted from the intended reading, thanks to his obviously bigoted narrators being clearly incredibly unreliable. Now I can only read them as stories about oppressed groups of humans and non-humans joining together and able to fight back by allying themselves with sympathetic great, alien intelligences and through them creating their own liberation theologies that they’re enacting on Earth. (Frankly some of Lovecraft’s stories read that way even without seeing the narrators as unreliable. Lovecraft’s racism caused him to find horror where there was none.) The stories then, ironically, become quite hopeful.


I’ve also enjoyed all the works that have leaned into criticizing his work by pointing out that the real eldritch horror was people who held the views of Lovecraft and sought to build a society that enforced racial hierarchy (Lovecraft Country, the Ballad of Black Tom, etc).


I discovered him as a teenager and at the time the racism didn’t really register. It was only later that it occurred to me that, for example, The Dunwich Horror and The Shadow Over Innsmouth were both fundamentally about the horrors of miscegenation.


He’s no John Constantine.


During Lovecraft’s lifetime scientific understanding of the physical universe changed radically, from a deterministic, Newtonian understanding, to the discovery of quantum mechanics, general and special relativity, subatomic particles, radiation, and whole new forces (weak and strong nuclear forces). Heck, according to Einstein, gravity isn’t even a real thing, but the effects of mass on the curvature of space. Things we take for granted now would have been disorienting to the lay-person in the 1920s and 1930s.

When I read Lovecraft, I am always fascinated by the reaction of the protagonists to the discovery and knowledge that the universe is impossibly bigger, weirder, and bizarre than previously understood; a glimpse into how some people were reacting to rapid discoveries of modern physics. (And possible other sciences — I’m just less familiar with histories outside physics.)

It’s still woefully racist, but the stories are also a snapshot into a time when our fundamental understanding of the universe changed radically in a way we haven’t experienced since.


I think that’s the problem… with all the new knowledge appearing, he was still so obsessed with the idea of racial and ethnic difference and racial hierarchy, that he often made it the center of his narratives. He couldn’t handle the change in understanding, so he leaned into hate instead. :woman_shrugging: