Sunday, March 16, 2014

'Real' Magic in Horror Fiction

In a letter to a young Willis Conover, H.P. Lovecraft explains a great deal about 'real' grimoires, volumes of magic from past times. At the end of the explanation Lovecraft says,

   "But you will undoubtedly find all of this stuff very disappointing. It is flat, childish, pompous, and unconvincing-merely a record of human childishness and gullibility in past ages. Any good fiction-writer can think up 'records of primal horror' which surpass in imaginative force any occult production which has sprung from genuine credulousness."

   I've seen Lovecraft say the same thing in other letters and it's why, I suppose, he and those in his circle, made up their blasphemous books from whole cloth. Cultes des Ghoules, Nameless Cults, Mysteries of the Worm, and of course the fabled Necronomicon, are but a few of the grimoires created by HPL and the gang. It seems that Lovecraft basically thought that using 'real' magic books was a waste of time.
   William Hope Hodgson, the creator of Carnacki the Ghost Finder, apparently agreed. Carnacki is famous for his use of various lines of the 'Saaamaaa Ritual' from the 'Sigsand Manuscript', an ancient text created by Hodgson.
   On the other hand, horror legend, Manly Wade Wellman, enjoyed using real books in his stories, many of which he owned in his personal library. In the stories of John the Balladeer and other Southern fantasy and horror tales, Wellman liked to invoke 'The Long Lost Friend' which is a book of white magic. I have a copy of this and did reference it in the novel Congregations of the Dead.
   When James A. Moore and I were writing the novel Blind Shadows, I tried to pay homage to Wellman by having my occult detective, Carter Decamp, use some of the same books Wellman had referenced, including Spense's Encyclopedia of Occultism (Lovecraft DID own a copy of this one), Cotton Mather's Wonders of the invisible World, and of course the famous 1487 edition of Malleus Maleficarum, beloved by Witchfinders everywhere.
   I do think that use of such real books adds a bit of verisimilitude for those in the know about such things. I know I got a kick out of it in the John the Balladeer and John Thunstone stories.
   However I have also added my own fictional grimoire 'The Silent History' to the Cthulhu Mythos shelf. It contains lore so dangerous that it must never, ever, be read aloud. Remember, things are listening out there in the outer dark.


Tim Knight said...

I have to agree with HPL when it comes to referencing real books in fantastical literature.

My take, and I probably won't explain it well, is that while real grimoires are pure nonsense because, of course, there is no such thing as 'magic' in the real world, a fictitious one can contain powerful secrets capable of reshaping the world.

If you accept the Truth of the story you are reading (e.g. magic and monsters exist) then you can also readily accept the magical power of grimoires. However, putting in a real book and claiming it contains genuine magic spells, to me, can subvert the verisimilitude.

Unless, of course, the author says the 'real spells' are hidden in code, written in invisible ink or some such twist.

Paul R. McNamee said...

I'm the opposite of Tim and with Charles on this. I think blending the real titles with fictional titles gives the fictional ones verisimilitude. It anchors them to our world.

It's all about suspension of disbelief anyway, so I've never felt hung up on it.

I like how many wrtiers get to bring their own bit to the pot. Books, and even the stone "G'harne fragments" of Brian Lumley.

Handy wikipedia list of Mythos grimiores.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Tim, I think using the real books worked for Wellman because his heroes were fighting entities based in Christian religion and Wellman was a Christian. For him God and the demons were real. John the Balladeer often calls on the Holy spirit. I get what you mean, though.
Lovecraft was an atheist, so it was all made up for him.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Paul, yeah a mix is what I usually go with. Kind f depends on what the story requires.

Keith West said...

I've never read a real grimoire, so I don't know to what extent I can agree with Lovecraft.

I'd be curious in learning more about Wellman's beliefs. While Christians agree on the basics of our faith, let me tell you, there can be some real differences in the details.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

For real, Keith. I don't know Wellman's specific beliefs, but I do know that he wrote a prayer of protection and scribbled crosses all over his copy of one of Allister Crowley's grimoires to 'make it safe'.