Weapons with Free Will

With the ongoing development of artificial intelligence, robotics, and image recognition technology, it was only a matter of time—and not much time—before innovations were applied to military weapons. 

Already in March of this year a “lethal autonomous weapons system” was used by the government of Libya against rebel militia.  This was a Kargu-2, an intelligent drone, manufactured by a Turkish defense contractor.  The drone was able to follow and attack fighters as they fled a rocket barrage—it was unclear from reports whether people were still in control of the device at the time of its deployment.

Last year, in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, Azerbaijan used special attack drones against Armenian soldiers. These were able to hover in the air, awaiting signals, not from a human controller but from the assigned target, before initiating an attack.  The world currently offers numerous small regional conflicts that provide ideal opportunities to test and further refine the intelligence of increasingly autonomous war machines.

According to a report last October1, Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida announced that it will soon be the first to test-deploy Quadrupal Unmanned Ground Vehicles (Q-UGVs) for “enhanced situational awareness.”  Described as robot dogs, the machines will be used to surveil “areas that aren’t desirable for human beings and vehicles.” 

A Q-UGV designed by Ghost Robotics—featured at the Association of the United States Army annual conference this fall—sports a custom built “special purpose unmanned rifle”, developed to provide accurate fire from unmanned platforms.  The unit looks like a small tank, but with legs instead of wheels. The rifle mounted on top of the robot dog has a 30x optical zoom, thermal camera for targeting in the dark, and a range of 1200 meters.

So far, the robot dogs are still remotely controlled by human operators, but around the world, arms manufacturers are exploring ways to give these devices some degree of autonomy and decision-making ability, that is, free will.  It seems unlikely that these weaponized robots of the near future will abide by Asimov’s quaint “laws of robotics”.2 Perhaps civilian robots will.

These ominous developments prompted a recent meeting of 125 nations in Geneva to review the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, also known as the “Inhumane Weapons Convention”.3

Predictably, this U.N. sponsored event was unable to produce more than a vague statement of the need to restrict the development of this technology.  The U.S. and Russia were opposed to any curbs, and the “Inhumane Weapons Convention” does not currently address the use of killer robots.  The American government feels that existing international law is sufficient to regulate lethal autonomous weapons systems, and that banning the technology is premature—probably because it has already invested heavily in systems that apply artificial intelligence to long range missiles, swarm drones, and missile defense systems.

I haven’t thought much about killer robots since I was ten years old.  At that age, my peers and I would draw frenetic pictures of spacecraft and robots shooting missiles and laser beams, surrounded by flames and explosions.  “My robot can destroy your robot” we would insist, though this was often disputed.  At night our televisions would bring us images of the ongoing war in Viet Nam.  Since my Cold War childhood I have never heard any serious discussion of how our various nations and tribes will “…beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”4 In fact, quite the opposite.  Said spears and pruning hooks are now the innards of new and terrifying weapons systems.

Why not killer robots?  Concerned groups like Human Rights Watch and others have argued that “Robots lack the compassion, empathy, mercy and judgement necessary to treat humans humanely, and they cannot understand the inherent worth of human life.”  A related concern is that mass produced killbots may lower the threshold for war by taking people out of the decision tree in armed disputes. 

But these concerns beg the question:  How well historically have human beings done with these decisions?  And perhaps a more troubling question:  If war is terrible and unavoidable, will this technology at least make it more precise, efficient and short-lived?

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1”Weaponized robot dog makes debut appearance at US Army annual conference”, American News, 10/14/21.

2Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the order given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the first law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law.   

3“Killer Robots Aren’t Science Fiction.  Calls to Ban Such Arms Are on the Rise”, New York Times, 12/18/21.

4Isaiah 2:4

Paranormal Friends with Gadgets

In the last post I reviewed examples of technology used in early 20th century horror fiction to conjure egregore-like entities.  The basic plot of these stories involved a narrator whose doomed friend summons dangerous beings using an invention.  The device augments human visual perception, though other sensory apparatus may come into play. An underlying assumption in these stories seems to be that egregoric phenomena become hazardous only when humans become able to detect them, pay attention to them, and interact with them.  This is how they get stronger and become able to manifest their own agenda, often carnivorous in nature.1

Thinking of fictional characters like Crawford Tillinghast (“From Beyond”) and Jean Averaud (“The Devotee of Evil”) reminded me of a Wiccan associate of mine.  This is someone very passionate, nearly evangelical, about making contact with supernatural entities, a preoccupation of his since early childhood.  (Can this be some sort of archetype?  Don’t we all have a friend or associate who dabbles in more extreme ideas and behaviors than we would care to, yet fascinates us just for that reason?)

A frequent attendee at local occult conferences, he claims to have a gift, present since age five, which allows him to see “the other side”, including the beings that reside there.  It began with visions of enormous spiders that no one else could see.  He was certain these visions constituted visitations from a world beyond ours.  Sometimes when he and I would meet he would suddenly break off our conversation, point at a corner of the room and say “Did you just see that?” (I had not.)  “They’re here” he would conclude.  This habit of his was disquieting at first, though eventually became merely annoying.

To augment his natural talents, he has a wooden box of various devices that measure subtle changes in magnetism, air pressure, electromagnetic radiation, temperature and other factors that indicate the presence of them.  The devices are inexpensive versions of equipment one might see on TV shows like Ghost Hunters or SurrealEstate.  They are the descendants of sensory enhancements not unlike the devices that appeared in the stories by Lovecraft, Smith and Hodgson.

In this way the veneer of technology gives at least the perception of objective science being applied to what is subjective experience.  In a similar way, the stories by H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, William Hope Hodgson reviewed previously show the gradual absorption of a more scientific and materialistic world view into weird fiction circa the 1920s and 1930s—a process that continues today.  Perhaps authors at the time felt that the credibility of their stories needed ever larger doses of technology and scientific theorizing to remain convincing, in the decades preceding the Golden Age of Science Fiction. 

Insofar as our faith in science remains stronger than our supernatural sensibilities—which seems less and less the case these days—we turn to science to ratify what we suspect and fear is already true.  The lure of the supernatural world beyond our senses, beyond objectivity, remains strong.  Maybe, as Colin Dickey suggests, this is a result of the relentless disenchantment of our world, now a century or two in progress, with the triumph of materialist and scientist world views. A temporary triumph perhaps, and one our restless hearts might seek to reverse.        

But I am sympathetic and respectful of some of my associate’s scientifically outlandish claims, on the principle of ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire’.  (Or where there’s indeterminacy, there’s an egregore forming.)  Why would these entities populate so much of our horror and fantasy literature if at some level we did not suspect, or at least hope, they might exist?

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1This trope is still very common.  I’m currently reading David Wong’s hilarious John Dies at the End (2009), a very lovecraftian take on the hazards of altering one’s perceptions to see what shouldn’t be seen.  The protagonist and “John” partake of the “sauce”, a hallucinogenic substance that may be an entity itself, making them both gateways for something outside that wants to come in.

2See Colin Dickey’s fascinating book, The Unidentified (2020)

Technologies of Conjuration in Weird Fiction

“What to my mind forms the essence of sound weird literature today is not so much the contradiction of reality as the hypothetical extension of reality.”

            —H.P. Lovecraft, in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, 1932

Ancient Examples

An interesting episode in Homer’s Odyssey is when Odysseus visits the Kingdom of the Dead.  He conjures the souls of friends, family and others, in particular the prophet Teiresias, to ask advice about how to get home.  Earlier, the sorceress Circe gave him a procedure for summoning the dead:

  1. Find the rock near the place where the River Pyriphlegethon, (blazing with fire) merges   with the River Cocytos, (resounding with lamentation, a branch of the hateful River Styx) to form the River Acheron, (the river of pain).
  2. Dig a pit one cubit square.  (A cubit is 18 inches or 44 centimeters, about the length of your forearm.)
  3. Pour into it a drink offering:  first honey and milk, then fine wine, and finally, water.
  4. Sprinkle white barley meal over this.
  5. Pray to the spirits and offer to sacrifice to them a young cow after you get home.
  6. Over the pit, cut the throats of a black ram and a black ewe.  Make sure their heads are turned toward Erebus, the offspring of Chaos, a personification of primordial darkness.
  7. You might need to ask where Erebus is located these days.
  8. Stand back.  Circe says that “the souls of the dead who have passed away will come in crowds”.
  9. Don’t let any of the souls near the blood until they’ve answered your questions.

About a century or two after the codification of Homer’s great epic, there is a passage in the Old Testament book of Samuel, in which Saul, the first king of Israel, contacts the sorceress of Endor1.  Saul wants to conjure the spirit of the prophet Samuel, and ask his advice on military strategy against the Philistines. 

But Saul himself has outlawed sorcery and banished all the mediums and spiritists from the country.  (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”2)  So he goes to the Witch of Endor in disguise and asks for her services.  She sees through his disguise, but agrees to help him anyway.  Scripture does not go into detail about the method she used—the practice was banned after all—except to say that she saw Samuel coming up out of the ground dressed in a robe.  The ghost gives Saul very bad news about the upcoming battle and then departs.  To cheer Saul up, the Witch of Endor butchers and roasts a fatted calf and bakes some bread for Saul and his men.

Technology for Conjuration?

Digging a small pit for ritual animal sacrifice, or dressing in disguise to illegally consult a medium seems a lot of trouble to go through to conjure spirits of the dead, or more generally to invoke egregoric phenomena that have been discussed here.  Is there a technological solution, some gadget that might expedite the process?

Certainly there is in weird fiction.  Readers can probably think of many examples, past and present, where some sort of device is used to detect or summon an entity not otherwise easy to observe.  I am more familiar with early 20th century horror literature, and will cite a few examples from that time period.

William Hope Hodgson       

In “The Gateway of the Monster” (1910), Hodgson’s psychic detective Thomas Carnacki is called upon to dispel an “Ab-Natural” that haunts an associate’s mansion.  Carnacki’s method, (outlined in a 14th Century document known as the Sigsand Manuscript), is easily twice as elaborate as that used by Odysseus.  Equipment includes measuring tape, hyssop broom, charred garlic, chalk, five jars of special water, a loaf of special bread, at least five candles, and an Electric Pentacle.  The latter is shaped like a five pointed star, emits a “pale blue glare from the intertwining vacuum tubes”, and runs on a battery. 

Not long after the equipment is set up and various occult precautionary measure taken—Hodgson goes into considerable detail about this3—the “Ab-Natural” appears, first as a cold draft,  then as “a moving shadow, a little darker than the surrounding shadows.”  Later, as it grows in strength and intensity, the entity resembles “a vast spider hung suspended in the air…”  Carnacki is unable to vanquish the entity, but does find a way to destroy the gateway—a talismanic ring—by which it enters the cursed room of the mansion.

Francis Stevens

Worth reading, though less well known, is Francis Steven’s “Unseen, Unfeared” (1919).  It often shows up in anthologies of early 20th century weird fiction.  Stevens, also known as Gertrude Barrows Bennett, was one of the first well-known women wriring in this genre.  In Stevens’ story, the narrator mistakenly inhales from a poisoned cigar and later has visions mediated by a device that makes visible the manifestations of evil that surround people.  These take the form of verminous arachnid monstrosities that include the human face as part of their anatomy.  The device is comprised of a lamp with an exotic membrane obtained from South America.  The membrane acts like a prism to divide the spectrum into a pale green light that illuminates the ambulating horrors.

While Hodgson, Lovecraft and Smith depict entities that are “from the outside”, Stevens proposes that the phenomena her character encounters are actually projections of people’s minds:  “Out of the ether—out of omnipresent ether from whose intangible substance the mind of God made the planets, all living things, and man—man has made these!  By his evil thoughts, by his selfish panics, by his lust and his interminable, never-ending hate he has made them, and they are everywhere!”

Unlike the other stories, Steven’s character survives the experience with a deeper insight into the human condition.

H.P. Lovecraft

In H.P. Lovecraft’s “From Beyond” (1934), the narrator is lured back to the laboratory of Crawford Tillinghast, (“my best friend”) for a demonstration of his “detestable electrical machine, glowing with a sickly, sinister violet luminosity.”  Tillinghast’s device creates waves that stimulate dormant and atrophied sense organs, especially the pineal gland, allowing people to see an invisible world of predatory life forms. 

Unfortunately, these alterations are permanent.  Tillinghast becomes physically changed by his use of the machine and what it reveals—more monomaniacal and less human, too.  This aspect is emphasized in the 1986 movie of the same name, where several characters become progressively more monstrous the longer they are exposed to the machine.  

Lovecraft’s “The Evil Clergyman” (1939) was not originally a story intended for publication.  It was the author’s description of a dream included in a letter he sent to a friend, and appeared in Weird Tales a couple years after his death.  I mention it here because it contains another example of technologically mediated conjuration. 

In the story, the narrator finds a small box shaped object that he activates with a special kind of flashlight.  It emits “a hail of small violet particles” and summons a kind of Lovecraftian alter ego, which later subsumes the narrator’s physical form.  “For all the rest of my life, in outward form, I was to be that man!”  

Clark Ashton Smith

Phillip Hastane is a character created by Clark Ashton Smith who appears in a number of his stories.  Hastane is a horror writer, like his creator, and resembles Lovecraft’s Randolph Carter and perhaps Hodgson’s Carnacki to a degree.  Hastane is a frequent observer, if not participant, in the demise of his more adventurous occult associates.  

In “The Devotee of Evil” (1933), Hastane befriends an eccentric he meets in a library, a Creole gentleman from New Orleans named Averaud.  Averaud is an occultist who wants to use a haunted house to test a device he has invented, a machine which detects and illuminates the presence of evil.  (It is perhaps an early version of the contraptions used by the SyFy network’s Ghosthunters.)     

Averaud proposes an interesting conceptualization of the nature of evil as an entity:  “I regard it as an all-controlling power; but I do not think that the power is personal in the sense of what we know as personality…What I conceive is a sort of dark vibration, the radiation of a black sun, of a center of malignant eons—a radiation that can penetrate like any other ray—and perhaps more deeply.”

His device is a kind of musical instrument, composed of precisely tuned dissonant bells and gongs.  When played, it acoustically deadens extraneous vibrations except for those emanating from the source of evil, allowing a purer, more absolute evil to manifest itself.  Although the device operates acoustically, the effects, as in the stories by Hodgson, Stevens and Lovecraft, are primarily visual.  As in Lovecraft’s story, the entity has a seductive quality which alters its “devotee” across several encounters, bringing about his doom.

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These stories share a number of similarities. In each, a fanatical acquaintance of the narrator invents a device that enhances perception, and thereby summons a predatory entity. None of them constitute science fiction or contain actual science other than gadgetry.  They occupy a transitional period roughly a decade or so before the “Golden Age” of Science Fiction.  It is interesting that the underlying assumption about how egregoric entities manifest seems to be that ordinary human perception is insufficient.  It must be augmented by ritual or technological means, or both.  Such beings only become dangerous when humans are able to pay attention to them.

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11 Samuel 28:7-20.  This passage is troublesome for fundamentalists.  Did the Good Lord really allow an anointed king of His to seek counseling from the pagan competition?

2Exodus: 22:18.

3A common element of conjuration procedures appears to be complexity; an increased number of steps, paraphernalia and ritual incantations may confer credibility.

Nonbinary

Our local sci-fi book club recently discussed Tillie Walden’s On a Sunbeam.  Originally a webcomic, it was published in book form in 2018.  This is an interesting graphic novel, both visually—a very spare palette is artfully used—and in terms of content.  In 2017 it was nominated for an Eisner award for Best Digital Comic.  Well worth perusing, a free version of the work is available here:  ON A SUNBEAM 

On a Sunbeam is described as a “lesbian space opera”, though themes of family and friendship are emphasized over sexual orientation.  Elements of science fiction imagery serve chiefly as a backdrop to what is essentially a coming of age tale about Mia, the principle character, as she navigates various relationships at an interstellar boarding school, and later on as a “vo-tech” student assisting with the repair of crumbling buildings in space.

There are no male characters in Walden’s story, save for a cat named “Paul”.  All of the characters have two parents, though both are mothers, and there is no backstory explaining the absence of males, or how the humans that populate this world sustain their numbers.  But these factors may be irrelevant to the overall focus.  Walden writes that her initial goal was “to create a version of outer space that I would want to live in. So of course that includes tons of queer people, no men (did you notice?), trees, old buildings, and endless constellations.”  Why not?

On a Sunbeam received mixed reviews in our book group.  An older member felt that its interjection of queer ideology, while not objectionable in itself, was awkward and didn’t serve the narrative.  Two of our members, experts on graphic novels, were intrigued with the gorgeous artwork, (heavily influenced by Manga), and her effective use of a minimalist color palette.  One member, a strong advocate of civil rights, appreciated the book very much and could relate personally to its depictions of “found families”. 

As a traditional, cis-gendered male Boomer, I found the text challenging but also intriguing—an experiment in manipulating typical expectations about male and female character traits in a science fiction story. I tended to agree with the general criticisms of my fellow group members.  There was little backstory to help readers understand the unique world depicted in the novel, the romantic elements seemed superficial and predictable, and the use of various science fiction tropes appeared nonsensical at times. Despite my bias, I was still impressed with the author’s cleverness and creative playing with gender assignment.

My admittedly amateur approach to literary criticism often involves looking for examples of inconsistencies or incongruences, not central to the story, which nevertheless stand out as interesting, to me at least. ‘Which of these is not like the other?’  What is absent, that should be there?  On a Sunbeam focuses on relationships among the characters, both familial and romantic.  There are conflicts, but almost no violence, and conflicts are eventually resolved, with relationships showing healing and growth among the female characters, perhaps in keeping with the author’s ideology and optimism.

And yet, there is a solitary “nonbinary” character named Elliott, who never speaks until the very end of the story.  Elliott, though singular, is referred to as “they”, in keeping with a convention advocated by progressives.1 How is it that there is a “nonbinary” in a world where female is the only gender? This adds an element of tension or ambivalence. So does the author’s use of character names like “Sydney”, “Jules” and others that can be assigned to males or females, further emphasizing gender fluidity and obscuring traditional, habitual assignment of gender.     

Elliott, or “they” is markedly different from the other characters in the story.  “They” was drawn with a different skin complexion, is utterly mute throughout most of the story, is the most technically proficient of all the characters, and also, later on, the most skilled in hand to hand combat.  “They” is the only character known to have killed one of the elder beings that inhabit the “Staircase”, an unusual region of the galaxy where Mia later goes to rescue her love from a disapproving family.  (A hint of class warfare here.)

Near the end of the novel Elliot is hunted down by the citizens of the Staircase–“they” had earlier been sentenced to death for the murder of an elder being, considered an act of sacrilege.  Elliott is mortally wounded with weapons that resemble arrows or spears, though the character recovers by the end of the book. The wounding of “they” is the only instance where weapons are actually used to inflict physical harm and death.  Why is this in the story?  The level of violence is a significant departure from the boarding school drama of much of the book.

It was hard for me not to refer to Elliott as ‘he’, as my brain has been programmed up till now to use markers like those above to assign such a character a masculine identity.  Berger, Luckman1 and other sociologists would call this process “typification”, assigning fellow people to categories based on social consensus on a set of identifying traits.  The novel made me wonder how primed are we as readers to assign gender, (or other categories) to characters based on some set of preordained markers, and how this can change over time.

Though there were no males in On a Sunbeam, masculinity of a kind is present, manifested in the sprinkling of male names and one very typical male taunt referring to genitalia that is uttered by a friend of Mia’s to encourage her—why is that in the story?  It’s as if despite the author’s ideological focus, the violence and chaos of traditional masculinity still manages to creep in. 

(Something similar happens in more conventional science fiction, when religious and even biblical sensibilities show up in the work of officially agnostic or atheist writers.  For example, H.P. Lovecraft’s preoccupation with hilltop circles of stones and forbidden incantations seems imbued with the Old Testament horror of idolatry and foreign gods.  It’s as if certain archetypes—aggressive masculinity, the motif of salvation, the heathen practices of “the other”—are impervious to the ideologies of authors, and so emerge no matter what.)

The absence of male characters in On a Sunbeam gave me as a male reader the opportunity to be mindful of how perceptions and expectations of gender influence the understanding of characters and their motivations.  The author has taken a stab at this (literally) in her first science fiction graphic novel, creating a visually arresting, heartfelt narrative, freed of conventional expectations about masculinity and femininity.  Ours is a society that is still being built, and like the frames of Walden’s graphic novel, is filled with incomplete landscapes and architecture still under construction.

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1I don’t begrudge adults selecting the pronouns by which they prefer to be identified.  The problem with “they” in this instance is that it is a plural pronoun assigned to a singular case, which causes grammatical confusion in subsequent discourse.  In France they have recently introduced “iel”, though not without controversy.  A combination of “il” (he) and “elle” (she), “iel” does the work of a singular, nonbinary pronoun.  Could English speakers come up with something similar to resolve the plural/singular issue?

2The Social Construction of Reality (1966, 1989), by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckman.

Receptivity to Egregoric Influences in Lovecraft

“The Haunter of the Dark” is one of H.P. Lovecraft’s most memorable stories. Sadly, it was one of his last.  When it was published in the December 1936 issue of Weird Tales, Lovecraft was having second thoughts about his career as a writer.  S.T. Joshi, in his two volume biography of the famed horror writer1, describes how, only a few months after Lovecraft finished writing the tale he “was already speaking of his fictional career in the past tense.”

Joshi goes on to quote Lovecraft writing in a letter that “fiction is not the medium for what I really want to do.”  According to the biographer, Lovecraft’s dismay over his accomplishments as a writer was apparent in early 1936. 

Another biographer, L . Sprague DeCamp2, was less charitable.  DeCamp ascribed Lovecraft’s disappointments to an impractical attitude—he describes it as a “feudal-aristocratic view”—toward writing for commercial success.  Per De Camp, “It [the modern world and publishing specifically] is not set up to care for those who, though physically and mentally able, lack the normal drives towards self-preservation and self-advancement.”

Lovecraft died about a year later, in March of 1937.  It is an interesting coincidence—Jungians might call it an example of synchronicity—that a fictional version of Lovecraft meets his gruesome end just a year or so before the actual tragedy.   His swift demise follows the conjuring of an exsanguinating entity—this is what happens in Robert Bloch’s “The Shambler from the Stars”, published in the September 1935 issue of Weird Tales

Though not explicitly named, Bloch describes his character as “a mystic dreamer in New England”, who lives in “an ancient, and quaintly Georgian” house in Providence.  Other details about the character—a love of obscure books, among others—clearly identify Lovecraft as the model.  In response to Bloch’s story, Lovecraft then produced “The Haunter of the Dark”.  It is a postmortem on the unusual death of one “Robert Blake”.  Each author dedicated his story to the other, and both works are considered part of the Cthulhu Mythos.

The autopsies of both fictional characters differ.  Bloch’s character is left a “shrunken, wizened, lifeless” corpse after attack by a vampiric entity, the “shambler from the stars”.  In Lovecraft’s story, the “haunter”—a version of the shapeshifting Nyarlathotep—leaves Robert Blake sitting rigidly at his desk by a window, with “glassy bulging eyes, and the marks of stark, convulsive fright on the twisted features…”  The cause of death is assumed to be electrical discharge combined with nervous tension, but who knows?

Both characters die as a consequence of a conjuration, a very frequent trope in horror literature.  In Bloch’s story, the process is straightforward and traditional:  his Lovecraftian character reads aloud a Latin incantation from De Vermis Mysterriis, and voila!3  Death immediately follows. 

Lovecraft’s “The Haunter of the Dark” is longer and more elaborate.  The author’s focus is on the slow, relentless possession of Blake’s psyche.  He inadvertently conjures an avatar of Nyarlathotep after fumbling about among occult books and paraphernalia in a desecrated church.  Here he discovers the treacherous “Shining Trapezohedron”.  

Lovecraft’s story contains all the aforementioned elements of summoning an egregoric entity4: forbidden texts, ritualistic behavior, powerful talisman and socialization into the cult of worshippers.  (The latter occurs indirectly as Blake pores over historical material about the Starry Wisdom cult and decodes the group’s record book.)  

Well before Blake’s encounter in the desecrated church, Lovecraft describes the doomed character’s receptivity to the influence of entities like Nyarlathotep.  “For after all,” Lovecraft writes, “the victim was a writer and painter wholly devoted to the field of myth, dream, terror and superstition, and avid in his quest for scenes and effects of a bizarre, spectral sort.” 

A little later, and still well before Blake physically investigates the church, Lovecraft describes how Blake “…had a curious sense that he was looking upon some unknown, ethereal world which might or might not vanish in dream if he ever he tried to seek it out and enter it in person.”  Gazing compulsively at the church from the window of his apartment, “…at length he began to fancy curious things.  He believed that a vague, singular aura of desolation hovered over the place, so that even the pigeons and swallows shunned its smoky eaves.”

What is coming into view here is the nebulous, indeterminate base material from which human consciousness fashions an egregoric entity.  Blake is drawn to it like a moth to a flame. The phenomena needs a human being—at least one—to focus its attention on it, energize it, bring it into being, give it agency.  Luckily for humankind, this symbiotic relationship between Blake and Nyarlathotep dooms both of them at the very end of “The Haunter of the Dark”—but the latter only temporarily.

Are certain people more susceptible to the influences that create egregores, either in literature or in real life?  The element of receptivity will be explored in future posts.  Most of us are fortunate in not having a “Shining Trapezohedron” handy to gaze into compulsively.  But we all have cellphones that we ritually consult throughout the day.  Shouldn’t you check yours right now for the latest updates from the void? What is taking shape there?

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1I Am Providence (2013) by S.T. Joshi

2Lovecraft, A Biography (1975) by L. Sprague DeCamp

3Bloch’s story can be read as a gentle parody of Lovecraft’s style.

4See the earlier post on 11/18/21, “Revisiting Lost Carcosa”.

Kenosha

When I began writing this post, I was following the Rittenhouse trial in Kenosha, as was much of the nation.  The jury deliberated for several days, a measure of the gravity of their task.  (A sign of the times: the judge had to instruct the jury to ignore what President Biden and President Trump each said about the boy.)  The crowd outside the courthouse was ready to take to the streets, depending on the verdict, and there had already been several arrests as partisans attacked each other and members of the press. 

A major news network was banned from the courtroom because one of its employees allegedly followed the jurors home and attempted to photograph them.  Meanwhile, the defense was claiming a mistrial, because the prosecution apparently withheld a considerable amount of high quality drone video that might have been critical to their line of argument.  Mercifully, the jury announced its verdict November 19th, Rittenhouse was acquitted of all charges, and the matter seemed concluded, at least for the moment.

Well before the jury delivered its verdict, partisan media had already done so, and without any need for review of the evidence, formal testimony, or court proceedings.  How people viewed Mr. Rittenhouse, his victims and the surrounding events was likely determined by their preferred news source, their favorite media brand—and whatever ideological agenda they ascribed to. Wasn’t it striking to see how differently Mr. Rittenhouse and his victims were portrayed across the different news media?  

It was as if our focus was drawn to two completely different individuals. Was Rittenhouse a cold-blooded, murderous white supremacist?  Or was he an innocent young man railroaded by a corrupt media, soon to become a martyred patriot?  To be fair, we were all watching a trial, with inherently competing visions of reality on display.  We were to pick one, and then confirm our respective biases with any useful facts, discarding the inconvenient ones.  We saw two images of Rittenhouse which didn’t line up at all, an uncorrectable double vision because as a society we were not all looking through the same set of lenses.

Watching the closing arguments of the defense was the most riveting court reporting I have ever seen, mainly because the defense showed detailed video clips of all the key events the night of the shootings.  The scenes where Rittenhouse is attacked and then shoots back, killing two and wounding another, were played at slow motion, or stilled, or rewound and played again and again.  All around him were people running, property on fire, objects being thrown, people screaming—and no police.  It looked like a horror movie.  It was a horror movie.

Such a dark and divided view of reality, combined with the murkiness of the facts—alternative and otherwise—the fog of culture war—created excellent conditions for the projection of partisan fear and hatred.  In that nebulous cloud of anger and confused motives and desperation an image took form, no longer the person himself, no longer connected with the reality of the event, whatever that might originally have been.  It was an image shaped and sustained by the fearful and worshipful attention its followers gave it.

This image, no longer Rittenhouse but something else, may still grow and acquire agency of a kind, may begin to control subsequent events.  It may yet ignite riots and further bloodshed.  Already in the minds of partisans on both sides this image has fostered apocalyptic visions of the near future.  Will Rittenhouse’s acquittal embolden dangerous right wing vigilantes?  Will the outcome of the trial lead to legislation curtailing 2nd amendment rights or the right of self-defense?  Does the decision strengthen the position of white supremacy and systemic racism?  Will liberal news and social media continue to subvert our nation’s laws and undermine our system of justice?

The events in Kenosha and their perception by different groups of people are indicative of an ancient cognitive malady:  the inability to see people or events clearly through the fog of culture war.  In the absence of facts, wisdom, understanding, compassion—or even civil dialogue—what will form in that darkness to take their place?

Revisiting Lost Carcosa

A prized possession of mine is a 1902 Harper & Brothers edition of The King in Yellow, by Robert W. Chambers.  Much has been written about this book, a collection of short stories linked by the appearance and impact of a forbidden text, a play called “The King in Yellow”.  The stories remain influential over a century since their publication.  Chambers, along with Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James, Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, William Hope Hodgson and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, was among the generation of horror and fantasy writers who preceded “the big three”1 at Weird Tales in the 1920s and 1930s.  Chambers and his colleagues developed many of the concepts that still appear in horror and fantasy entertainment today.  

H.P. Lovecraft used some of Chambers’ ideas in his fiction: certain place names, but also perhaps the concept of a forbidden text or knowledge that is hazardous to possess. In “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1931) Lovecraft’s narrator rattles off a list of “…names and terms that I heard elsewhere in the most hideous of connections…” These include Hastur, the Lake of Hali, and the Yellow Sign, all from Chambers’ book.  Readers can think of other examples, past and present, where imagery from Chambers’ book is borrowed or further developed. 

So much has been written about “The King in Yellow” that it is unnecessary to go into detail, except to highlight a few elements related to egregoric phenomena.  These are drawn from the key stories in The King in Yellow, including “The Repairer of Reputations”, “The Mask”, and “The Yellow Sign”.2 The last is probably best known, often appearing in horror anthologies.3

Chambers’ book suggests a list of typical paraphernalia and procedures for conjuring entities like the eponymous King in Yellow.  These include:  a forbidden text, ritualistic behavior, a talismanic emblem, (the “Yellow Sign”), and a social group initiated or socialized into worshipful attentiveness to an egregrore.

Forbidden Book

In the “Repairer of Reputations”, Castaigne, the doomed and delusional narrator, has already read the play cover to cover.  He describes the world-wide impact of “The King in Yellow” in this way: 

“It is well known how the book spread like an infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred out here, confiscated there, denounced by press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced of literary anarchists.”  He later adds:  “It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in “The King in Yellow”, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked.”

These days we might consider such a phenomenon a dangerous meme, or reckless bit of disinformation, or a popular conspiracy theory, (Q’Anon comes to mind).  But the model for this trope may be the Bible, or perhaps any holy or revelatory scripture, regardless of religious tradition.  What other literature would be imbued with the power to alter a life, a society or even the perception of reality? Chambers’ The King in Yellow is one of many examples of the intersection of religious sentiment with horror literature.

Reading the play accelerates Castaigne’s demise, though the story implies he already struggled with mental instability.  The three characters in “The Mask”, who form a romantic triangle, only read portions of “The King in Yellow”, but still succumb to its malevolent influence.  In the third story, Tessie and Mr. Scott eventually read the entire play and then quote it to each other, which hastens their end, though a series of dreams and premonitions has already foreshadowed this.

In the first story, Castaigne is an active reader of “The King in Yellow”, having purchased the book during his “convalescence”.  However, in the other stories, the characters just happen to discover the book on a shelf. Initial curiosity leads them to destruction.  Perhaps the work appears at a time in their lives or relationships when it will have the greatest impact. 

Compare this to Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, which is actively consulted by its temporary owners, who then fall prey to various eldritch consequences.  And while the Necronomicon is only known to a handful of scholars and occultists, the play about ‘The King in Yellow’ is known worldwide and shunned.

Ritual 

A disturbing element in Chambers’ work is the passivity of several of the characters.  Their exposure to the forbidden text is like a viral infection they are powerless to avoid.  As they read the play, characters begin to engage in ritualistic behaviors that magnify the impact of the entity they are invoking. 

Castaigne, the megalomaniacal victim in “The Repairer of Reputations” repeatedly dons a crown he keeps in a safe, and regularly visits the evil Mr. Wilde, a fellow cult member, to review a document called “The Imperial Dynasty of America”, which confirms his delusions of grandeur. 

In “The Mask”, there is increasing focus on a room “built of rose-colored marble, excepting the floor…in the center was a square pool sunken below the surface of the floor; steps led down into it…”  This is a kind of baptismal font, filled with a magic liquid concocted by one of the artists—it has the power to turn living things into marble sculptures.  In this story the imagery of a Christian ritual is borrowed to symbolize something else entirely.  Petrification and suicide soon follow.

Finally, ritualistic behavior of a kind appears in “The Yellow Sign”, as Tessie and Mr. Scott tell each other their weirdly parallel dreams, recite passages from the play, and repeatedly go to the window to look down on the mysterious man in the church courtyard, the one who resembles “a plump, white grave-worm.”

All of these activities effectively summon the approach of the shadowy, nightmarish King in Yellow, whose appearance and manifestations spell psychic and physical doom.

Talisman

A religious talisman appears in “The Repairer of Reputations” and is explicitly identified in “The Yellow Sign”.  Castaigne gives his copy of the sign, scrawled on a piece of paper, to a homeless person on the street, and later shows it to his cousin, whom he is threatening to murder to protect his accession to the throne.  Earlier in the story, he and Mr. Wilde, apparently part of a large conspiracy, decide not to give the Yellow Sign to those who might oppose their secret rebellion, though it has already been given to thousands of confederates:  “…every man whose name was there had received the Yellow Sigh, which no human being dared disregard.  The city, the State, the whole land, were ready to rise and tremble before the Pallid Mask”.   

In the third story the mysterious night watchman of the church ominously chants “Have you found the Yellow Sign?” as Mr. Scott passes by.  He later receives it as a gift from Tessie.  It’s described as “…a clasp of black onyx, on which was inlaid a curious symbol or letter in gold.  It was neither Arabic nor Chinese, nor, as I found afterwards, did it belong to any human script.”  Tessie gives it to him as a keepsake—it was an item she happened to find in her travels around town.  He has given her a gold chain with a cross.  Tellingly, the cross does not prevent her inevitable demise.

It’s not clear what the significance of the Yellow Sign is.  In some situations it appears as a harbinger of disaster.  In others it is protective, or identifies one as a member of a secret organization.  (Could it look like the letter Q?)  The idea that a remnant of some chosen group will survive a coming conflagration by being marked in some special way is ancient and troubling.

Socialization

All three of the stories indicate that many are generally aware of the evil play and the effects of reading it—it is part of the culture that the author creates for his characters.  This is especially the case in “The Repairer of Reputations”, where Castaigne and Mr. Wilde are members of a larger group marked with the Yellow Sign and prepared to overthrow the government.  (However, this idea could be part of the grandiosity and delusional beliefs of the narrator, who may be an unreliable reporter.)

The book, ritualistic behavior, and yellow sign operate on the doomed characters by changing their consensual reality, and replacing it with a new and terrifying perception.  Though the stories describe the individual effects on various readers of the book, it is clear in the book that the impact of reading the play is or could soon become a mass phenomenon.  In this way, Chamber’s The King in Yellow continues to be a relevant depiction of how “forbidden” knowledge, ritual, talismanic symbols, and mass socialization can summon egregores.  

**********

1H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith.

2There are 6 other stories in the book, a couple of which contain supernatural themes, but these seem unconnected to the King in Yellow mythos of the first three.

3Hastur appears in the fourth story, “The Demoiselle D’Ys”, but only as a minor character, and does not appear related to the “Hastur” mentioned earlier in the book.

Vox Populi

I’ve recently discovered nextdoor.com, a social media platform similar to Facebook, though smaller and more focused on local concerns.  Each neighborhood in my town has their own nextdoor group, comprised of nearby households and businesses.  Every third post is an advertisement; interspersed among these are notices of lost dogs and cats, used items for sale, complaints about city council, and alerts about suspicious activity in the neighborhood. 

It is all vox populi, mostly uncluttered by claims of expertise or authoritativeness, whether legitimate or feigned.  Here is what was in my newsfeed this morning:

  1. From the state department of health and human services, an update on the safety of Covid-19 vaccines for women who are pregnant or nursing.  Also, an announcement that a version of the vaccine is now recommended for children ages 5-11.
  2. Two free wooden garden frames are available to anyone who needs them.
  3. The big ten championship banner was raised at a nearby sports arena.
  4. Why is there a helicopter circling over the intersection of T—Road and M—Road?  Are they looking for someone?
  5. Thank you to the construction workers who recently dropped what they were doing and rushed over to help break up a dogfight.
  6. This morning there will be a special service at a local university honoring all veterans.
  7. The women’s university basketball team opens the season next Tuesday night.
  8. Does anyone know what the “explosions” are that occurred southeast of town earlier this evening and again around 10:00 pm?
  9. Our parent teacher organization will be discussing “equitable PTO funding” at the end of this month.  “Did you know that the highest and lowest per student elementary PTO spending vary by a factor of five?”
  10. Next week there will be a “warrant resolution, expungement and eviction prevention event” in the next town over.  The event is entitled “Warrant Resolution Day.”

Occasionally there are substantive discussions of broader issues.  I recently participated in a debate about “confirmation bias”.  This is the tendency we all have to seek out data that support our points of view, while discarding any facts—true or “alternative”—that challenge our opinions.  (The original post was a response to a story featured on NPR.) 

Confirmation bias is a big deal right now as we approach the 2022 and 2024 elections.  The country is already busy slicing open old wounds and preparing to revive our culture wars and political competitions.  Confirmation bias is currently aggravated by the absence of a common source of authoritative information, a shared understanding of reality. Science–but whose science? 

News and social media have served as catalysts for this predicament.  They have weaponized “intersectionality” and sorted us all into categories by race, gender, class, ethnicity, locale, religion, political orientation, and so forth.  This is a boon to partisans who rely on divisiveness as a means to seek power.  It is also driven by marketers who seek ever more efficient ways to target consumers who will purchase their products, services, and world views.  Two halves of the same coin.

However, nextdoor is different from Facebook, Twitter and other platforms in important ways.  Anonymity and distance are considerably reduced.  Because you are interacting with neighbors and people in your home community, it’s risky business to troll someone who may live two doors down, or the next street over.  As a result, dialogue so far is markedly less snarky and combative than what is seen on the bigger platforms.  The civility of nextdoor is reassuring in these troubled times.

In earlier posts I described how social media platforms help create and sustain egregoric phenomena.  It’s too early to tell whether nextdoor can support the kind of entities described previously.  The platform seems to be too small and diffuse to generate the kind of energy and focus that leads to the formation of egregores, at least of the kind that shamble among the traffic on Twitter and Facebook. 

In my town, nextdoor currently hosts 936 households, of which 70% have established accounts on the platform.  (We are exhorted to invite additional neighbors.)  Is there a critical mass of social media interaction needed in order to produce egregoric phenomena? 

Insofar as large organizations and institutions generate thought forms that oppose the voice—and will—of the people, it may be that nextdoor is our local hedge against an out of control federal government or the tyranny of globalists—but I repeat myself.  Or perhaps it will eventually become their servant.  I hope not.

Egregoric Imagery in Clark Ashton Smith’s “Genius Loci”

Even without the benefit of hallucinogenic drugs, many of us perceive—in the random arrangements of clouds, trees, rocks, grass—faces and figures both familiar and strange.  If the breeze is a bit more spirited, we may even see, up in the tree tops, animals stalking each other, faces conversing or grimacing, and oddly distorted figures standing over us or even approaching.  

As daylight begins to smolder on the horizon, rocks and shadows may combine to form gods, or demons, or ghosts.  These are probably illusions, an attempt by our minds to impose order and form on the chaotic stimuli that nature presents us.  These playful illusions are mental projections, inseparable from the thoughts and perceptions that create them. We hope.

If we maintain the distinction between the operations of our minds and what is realistically present in the fluttering leaves or rippling water, these visitations can be intriguing and entertaining.  This is especially the case when the experience is shared, as for example in “the man in the moon”.  Yet with an increase of imagination—or, some would say—a decrease in mental health, these illusions may become independent of our minds, and exist on their own, waiting for us or the next person to observe them in the swaying of grass or the rolling of clouds overhead.  These visitations need not be visual; much is heard before it actually can be seen.

It is a small step from here to understand that a place may contain its own spirit, an entity which may use chance arrangements of landscape, architecture and atmosphere to reveal its presence.  Which landscape will be typically unkempt, its architecture, decrepit, and its atmosphere nearly always misty or clouded.  The ancient name for this is genius loci, and it is a key element of both religious sensibility and horror entertainment.  (I fear I may have left some of my more materialistic readers behind at this point.) 

There are many examples of horror fiction and film that make use of this principle, beginning with the gothic writers of the 18th Century on up to the present day.  Why do the Ghost Hunters on SyFy set up their equipment in old run down psych hospitals, prisons, or castles, if not to detect the residual genius loci?  Why is it nearly a rule that ghost stories take place in locations where murders have occurred?  H.P. Lovecraft was masterful in creating this weird sense of place.  He understood that horror resides as much in the setting and atmosphere of story as it does in the characters and their personal experiences, if not more so.    

The Latin phrase is often interpreted literally as ‘the spirit of the place’, but the phrase genius loci also contains such related meanings as the character or atmosphere of a location, its resident deity, its distinctiveness.  This presiding spirit may be protective, or tutelary—that is, a guardian or a teacher.  But what if the genius loci is also a spiritus malus, a spirit of evil?  This is the premise of Clark Ashton Smith’s story of the same name.

In Smith’s story, the narrator is an author who has invited his friend Amberville to stay with him as a guest.  Amberville is a landscape painter, and while his host works on his novel, the artist begins to sketch and paint a dreary little pond at the edge of an abandoned farm.  As an artist, Amberville must visually concentrate on the scene he is trying to render, and soon becomes aware of a ghostlike figure in the periphery of his vision.  The writer and the artist become increasingly aware of something supernaturally evil about this place, and the backstory—the previous owner was found mysteriously dead near the edge of the pool—is horribly suggestive. 

The narrator becomes alarmed as Amberville’s personality and health begin to deteriorate.  In a ploy to break his friend’s obsession with the place, the narrator invites Amberville’s fiancé, Avis to visit.  However, all three people soon find themselves being drawn to the banks of this queer shallow pool.  As the genius loci becomes more visible to the characters, its power over them grows.  In some sense this evil spirit is created or perhaps recreated whenever humans give it their attention.  This is a version of the notion that the world—for us individually as well as collectively—is created by what we attend to.

One reviewer interpreted the author’s emphasis on tree imagery as simply reflective of our ambivalence and even anxiety about nature—insofar as we feel separate from the natural world and do not truly understand it, much less control it.  Smith’s story does not explicitly state that the evil presence actually exists outside the perceptions of both the narrator and his guests.  Perhaps it is all in their imaginations.  But with a body count of “three” going on four at the end of the story, it seems that more than perception is at play.  In my humble opinion, it is because we are in fact so inextricably linked with nature, inseparable from it, that genii locorum all over the world can have such power over us.

Genius Loci was originally published in the June 1933 issue of Weird Tales, along with Paul Ernst’s The Iron Man, Robert E. Howard’s Black Colossus, and August Derleth’s Nellie Foster.  It often appears in anthologies of early 20th Century horror and fantasy fiction.

[Originally posted at The R’lyeh Tribune on 7/18/14 as “When Your Genius Loci is a Spiritus Malus”.] 

Isms and Egregores

The suffix “—ism” is a useful word ending, transmuting all kinds of words into abstract nouns—names for things we cannot experience through our five or more senses.  Think of all the isms you know or have heard of in academia, in media, in politics, in religion.

Webster’s1 offers numerous meanings for this familiar word segment, a measure of its utility.  An –ism can identify an act, practice or process, (hypnotism), or denote a kind of action or behavior that is typical of a particular person or thing, (conformism).  The suffix can be applied to specific human attributes to signal prejudice and discrimination, as in racism, sexism, classism, and so forth. 

An ism can also refer to a state, condition or property of some item, or to an abnormal or excessive expression of some trait connected to that item, as in the word alcoholism.  Finally, an ism can be attached to a doctrine, theory or cult, and refer to adherence to the principles or expectations that are involved with these.

Although all the uses of –ism have relevance to the formation of egregores, this last sense—as referring to doctrines, theories, cults and their accompanying social expectations—seems most important.  Isms of various kinds create the conditions in which these troublesome entities can emerge.  In the foreward to Mark Stavish’s book on egregores2, James Wasserman makes the point that powerful egregores can be generated by patriotism, consumerism, communications media, religion, and even bad habits.  All of these fields of human social endeavor can be the source of new or traditional isms of various kinds.

The suffix provides a linguistic means for us to name the entity, which allows us to conjure it, attend to it, and facilitate its growth.  Naming an egregore helps it emerge in a social group, and perhaps helps the social group itself to form.  The name provides a focus and a category to which devotees can belong.  It gives adherents something on which to perseverate—to pray to or worry about. 

If you replace the ‘m’ in ism with a ‘t’, you often transform the abstract noun into an individual title.  “I am a/an _______ist.” (And you are not.)   In this way the name may reduce anxiety among the egregore’s members by giving them a clearer identity and sense of self.  They are something; they are not something else.  This can be comforting.

Try on some of the isms listed below by filling in the blank above. How does it feel to be a/an ______ist?

Optimism, Collectivism, Behaviorism, Polytheism, Herbalism, Masochism, Spiritualism, Capitalism, Materialism, Conformism, Rationalism, Fundamentalism, Socialism, Evangelism, Relativism, Pessimism, Narcissism, Globalism, Pragmatism, Monotheism, Nationalism, Journalism, Pacifism, Supernaturalism…

We cannot leave out antidisestablishmentarianism3.

There are thousands more where these isms came from.

Something interesting—and troubling—occurs when a general ism becomes personified with a proper name.  For example, when the broader term “communism” morphs into Stalinism or Maoism.  Here the egregore acquires an image that empowers it, a “cult of personality”4 that ratchets up the devotion of its followers.  It seems that the personification of an ism is a metaphoric process that assigns human attributes to an abstract idea—“the father of his country”—making the egregore more relatable to its followers.

A recent example is the transformation of populism, a recurring American political movement, into Trumpism.  What are we to make of that golden Trump idol at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last week?

It appears that nearly any kind of “-ism” can become an egregore, especially if one observes the emergence of ritualistic behaviors, orthodoxy, a personified figurehead, and an “us/them” perspective determining group membership. 

A lack of critical thinking, self-awareness, and shared world view helps explain divisiveness and upheaval in society right now.  We are seeing intense, at times violent competition between two or more worldviews—egregores—that have captured the minds of their respective followers.  Membership does not require critical thinking, empathy, self-awareness or even much education–only fervent belief and devotion, all that idolatry requires.

1Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, (1994).

2Egregores, The Occult Entities that Watch Over Human Destiny (2018), by Mark Stavish.

3The longest word in the English language is not found in Merriam Webster’s.

4An excellent, if over-the-top expression of “cult of personality” can be found in the 1988 song of the same name by Living Color Videos of cult of personality, song.

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