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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.

**********

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.

**********

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.

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Published by Sean Eaton

If you have arrived here, you may share my interest in horror, religion, dream psychology and the literature of the fantastic. This blog is a continuation of earlier work I did at The R'lyeh Tribune. I hope you will find something useful and edifying. Comments and suggestions are appreciated.

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