Criminal Necromancy

I am penning this post on the first full moon of the year, it is a blood moon and an eclipse is scheduled to happen this evening as well. The temperature has dropped precipitously so we now have that ultra-crisp clear January sky that almost makes the cold worth it. It is the evening, kids are quiet and winding down, wife is home from work, the furnace is working, and I have tomorrow (MLK Day) off.

I had to take the day off, mind you, the kids don’t have school and the wife will be enjoying her newish job. The usual pressure of getting uniforms and everyone to bed at a reasonable time is alleviated. I used to work for a Jesuit university and we always had MLK day off and then I moved to private industry. It has irked me every year I have had to work. I’m not African-American, I am as white as one of those winter nights out there beyond my window are long. The fact that it bugs me that I have to work also bugs me… are my feelings legitimate? I have been thinking a lot on that, and race in general, having been wrestling with the literature of a documented racist.

What I don’t want to do is to end my research project into the Lovecraftian oeuvre with a bunch of hand-waving and stage smoke, attempting to cover up or (worse) ignore the author’s racism. The general premise throughout the project has (sort of) been the later, as I have been communicating directly (and very specifically) with the text using a reader-response theory set and ontological brackets around the author as a person. I have actually never agreed with the approach that most conventional literary criticism takes — a biographical / historiographical lens that centers the text in the authors life. This project is no different and besides, that has been done to death in Lovecraft’s case, there is nothing new under the sun down that road.

Nevertheless, there are enough examples of racism in the text that those brackets I placed around old HPL are growing thin. Working directly with the text, those occasions of racism are almost always from a previously announced materialist/imperialist ‘protagonist’ that always ends up recanting their materialism in the face of the truth of Lovecraftian spirit-forms. This means something. To me, it means that there is a gate that has been left in the text. Through that gate is a jailbroken Lovecraft that will at last be useful to the 21st century magic-user that wants to wrestle with the systems embedded in his corpus and isn’t comfortable hand-waving away the racism in the text.

The deer path I think I can spot in the brush, the path that I think will lead me to the Palace of the Nine Frontiers where the ideas begin to sync together and make sense. That path is one paved with decolonization. As is my way, I refuse to use a word like that without fully understanding all of its nuance. I picked up ‘Decolonization: A Short History’ by Jan Jansen and Jurgen Osterhammel from the library and proceeded to bash away. From the beginning of the text:

“‘Decolonization’ is a technical and rather undramatic term for one of the most dramatic processes in modern history: the disappearance of empire as a political form, and the end of racial hierarchy as a widely accepted political ideology and structuring principle of world order… Accordingly, decolonization is 1) the simultaneous dissolution of several intercontinental empires and the creation of nation-states… linked with 2) the historically unique and, in all likelihood, irreversible delegitimization of any kind of political rule that is experienced as a relationship of subjugation to a power elite considered by a broad majority of the population as alien occupants.”

Which is a very technical definition and one not exactly helpful for building a foundation for a magical system, save for the bit about creating an irreversible delegitimization of any kind of ruling imperial paradigm. When coupled with the proceeding quote:

“Decolonization… has a structural and a normative side. It means a radical restructuring of the international order. And by proscribing colonialism — and the racism that accompanies it — decolonization simultaneously means a reversal of those norms that shaped the relationship peoples and states to each other through the middle of the twentieth century. In that way, decolonization sent shock waves that went far beyond the dissolution of formal colonial rule.”

We have a definition of decolonization being any method that delegitimizes imperialism, and reverses the normative state of xenophobia and racism established by colonial rule. These are early thoughts, subject to change, but I see a decolonization of Lovecraft as necessary to wrest the work from the author and employ it to reverse the norms of racism. Further, colonialism is often spoken about in Lovecraft’s tales. This is especially true when the tale is set in New England for scare a word is uttered without mention of the East India Company, that funnel of exploited goods and pirates that British imperialism grew fat on. The authors of ‘Decolonization,’ when addressing the true nature of colonialism, state that:

“Only across a temporal distance of several decades was it possible for postcolonial studies to merge. They arose from the disturbing observation that ‘colonial’ habits of thinking have not automatically gone away with the loss of colonialism’s importance as a political institution… imperialistic patterns of behavior by the strong toward the weak still exist and have even reappeared in new shapes, adjusted to a world of formerly sovereign nation-states; imperialism after empire is being revived in attenuated form…”

It is those ‘habits of thinking’ that persist past the temporal boundaries of colonial rule, that we are concerned with. Without giving away too much of my early theoretical stance, in my reading of Lovecraft I see not only a historical author that is writing during the last upsurge of overt colonialism in the early twentieth century, but a body of literature that employs a strong hypernostalgia to a time one hundred years before when Providence, RI was sitting atop the shoulders of colonial wealth via the East India Company. The interior theming of Lovecraft’s tales, as has been mentioned, is the dismantling of these colonial forces through their confrontation with pre-historical animist truths. This is the thread I hope to pull on.

This week we will open for investigation ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.’ Right from the beginning, we are offered a potent piece of necromantic theory in the form of an opening quote.

“’The essential Saltes of Animals may be so prepared and preserved, that an ingenious Man may have the whole Ark of Noah in his own Studie, and raise the fine Shape of an Animal out of its Ashes at his Pleasure; and by the lyke Method from the essential Saltes of humane Dust, a Philosopher may, without any criminal Necromancy, call up the shape of any dead Ancestour from the Dust whereinto his Bodie has been incinerated.’


Lovecraft is quoting the words of Pierre Borel, a seventeenth century alchemist. Pierre Borel (is we are to fulfill our natural magical tendency to create correspondence charts) is also an experimental jazz composer and saxophonist from Berlin, the role of experimental music in Lovecraftian Magic has been spoken of before in the course of this project. The tale continues, giving us a glimpse of the title character’s qualities:

“Charles Ward was an antiquarian from infancy, no doubt gaining his taste from the venerable town around him, and from relics of the past which filled every corner of his parents’ old mansion… With the years his devotion to ancient things increased; so that history, genealogy, and the study of colonial architecture, furniture, and craftmanship… crowded everything else from his… interests. These tasts are important to remember in considering his madness… The gaps of information which the alienists notices were all related to modern matters…”

Is our tale another instance of time travel magic or of transference, as in ‘Thing at the Doorstep’? The text continues:

“The beginning of Ward’s madness is a matter of dispute among alienists. Dr Lyman, the eminent Boston authority, places it in 1919 or 1920, during the boy’s last year at… Brown… when he suddenly turned from the study of the past to the study of the occult, and refused to qualify for college on the ground that he had individual researches of much greater importance to make…”

Offering us another reinforcement of a common theme, the rejection of academia, which in Lovecraft’s time was a very active extension of the colonial materialist network across the planet. In this context, to reject academia for the occult is to simultaneously reject materialism and impart the same legitimacy that academia holds to the study of the occult. Lovecraft, as is his way, begins to layer narratives inside each other and play with time, offering us a glimpse of Ward as a youth:

“One must look back at Charles Ward’s earlier life as at something belonging as much to the past as the antiquities he loved… His walks were always adventures in antiquity, during which he managed to recapture from the myriad relics of a glamorous old city a vivid and connected picture of the centuries before…”

He is showing us a bit of tech here related to the exercise from last week, the ‘wander’ as a magical act. That is, the half-conscious act of walking meditation in an urban environment. Accompanied by the appropriate research it can transport you to a place decades or centuries before. The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, almost more so than The Call of Cthulhu and The Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath, is the pinnacle of Lovecraftian fiction. We are offered all of the primary aesthetics:

“Graveyards held for him no particular attraction beyond their quaintness and historic value… Then, by insidious degrees, there appeared to develop a curious sequel to one of his genealogical triumphs of the year before; when he had discovered among his maternal ancestors a certain very long-lived man named Joseph Curwen, who had come from Salem in March of 1692, and about whom a whispered series of highly peculiar and disquieting stories clustered… Ward’s great-great-grandfather Welcome Potter had in 1785 married a certain ‘Ann Tillinghast, daughter of Elisa, daughter to Capt. James Tillinghast’… in 1772 a Mrs. Eliza Curwen, widow of Joseph Curwen, resumed, along with her seven-year-old daughter Ann, her maiden name of Tillinghast…”

The Tillinghast name connects this tale with both ‘From Beyond’ and ‘The Shunned House’. It is at this point that we are introduced to the archetype for this portion of Charles Dexter Ward:

“Joseph Curwen… was a very astonishing, enigmatic, and obscurely horrible individual. He had fled from Salem to Providence… at the beginning of the witchcraft panic… He was a colourless-looking man of about thirty… Joseph Curwen… did not seem to grow much older than he had been on his arrival. He engaged in shipping enterprises, purchased wharfage near Mile-End Cove, helped rebuild the Great Bridge in 1713, and in 1723 was one of the founders of the Congregational Church on the hill; but always did he retain the nondescript aspect of a man not greatly over thirty or thirty-five… It was held, for the most part, that Curwen’s incessant mixings and boilings of chemicals had much to do with his condition. Gossip spoke of the strange substances he brought from London and the Indies on his ships…”

Joseph Curwen’s alchemical longevity would not have been possible if it weren’t for the spread of colonialism into the Indies, supplying him with the raw materials he required. The fact that he is also a merchant means that he benefited financially from the resources found in colonies as well. He is an archetype of exploitation of both natural and human-made laws. Lovecraft reinforces the aesthetic of the graveyard, placing it as a power point at multiple different points in the stories timeline:

“Joseph Curwen [also possessed] a passion for graveyards… he was glimpsed at all hours and under all conditions… On the Pawtuxet Road he had a farm, at which he generally lived during the summer, and to which he would frequently be seen riding at various odd times of the day or night…”

I have had a new association with graveyards this week, myself. My schedule and the late sunrise has historically wreaked havoc with daily planetary prayers. I am typically dropping my kids off at school at the time when the first hour of the day begins. I have tightened up my timing using the Time Nomad app on iOS that gives me exact notifications when the planetary hours begin — and through paying this close attention I realized that I have around ten to fifteen minutes left in the ruling planets hour after dropping off the kiddos. There is a cemetery directly adjacent the school so I have been pulling in there after drop off, saying a prayer for the dead and then completing the hour with a planetary prayer. I have yet to feel that palpable calm that I felt last year after returning to the cemetery in San Fransisco after having prayed for the very old dead there and making an offering, but I do not feel rejected in anyway. The aesthetic of the graveyard is a potent one, when done correctly.

Continuing on with our tale, we are, blissfully, given another esoteric booklist. Lovecraft’s knowledge of the sources of magical and alchemical thought was profound. Those that argue that he gained all of his knowledge from an encyclopedia are ignoring the very real evidence of his occult expertise as evidenced by these descriptions of imaginal libraries:

“More definite, however, was the reason why another man of taste and breeding avoided the… hermit. In 1746, Mr. John Merritt, an elderly English gentleman of literary and scientific leanings, came from Newport… Hearing of Curwen as the owner of the best library in Providence, Mr. Merritt early paid him a call, and was more cordially received than most other callers at the house had been. His admiration for his host’s ample shelves, which besides the Greek, Latin, and English classics were equipped with a remarkable battery of philosophical, mathematical, and scientific works including Paracelsus, Agricola, Van Helmont, Sylvius, Glauber, Boyle, Boerhaave, Beche, and Stahl, led Curwen to suggest a visit to the farmhouse and laboratory whither he had never invited anyone before… the titles of the books in the special library of the thaumaturgical, alchemical, and theological subjects which Curwen kept in the a front room were alone sufficient to inspire [Mr. Merritt] with a lasting loathing… The bizarre collection… embraced nearly all the cabbalists, daemonologits, and magicians known to man… Hermes Trismegistus in Mesnard’s edition, the Turba Philosophorum, Geber’s Liber Investigationis, and Artephius’ Key of Wisdom all were there; with the cabbalistic Zohar, Peter Jammy’s set of Albertus Magnus , Raymond Lully’s Ars Magna et Ultima in Zetzner’s edition, Roger Bacon’s Thesaurus Chemicus, Fludd’s Clavis Alchimaiae, and Trithemius’ De Lapide Philosophico crowding them close… Mr. Merritt turned pale, when, upon taking down a find volume consipcuously labelled as the Qanoon-e-Islam, he found it was in truth the forbidden Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred…”

Our tarot match for Ward’s ancestor, Joseph Curwen, is the Two of Coins. Etteilla offers us two keywords for this card. ‘Embarrasment’ and ‘Letter.’ At first glance, embarrass might seem a strange choice, for old Joseph Curwen — let’s look a bit deeper.

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Embarrass, from the 1670’s, the word’s original meaning relates to being impeded, obstructed or entangled, to throw into doubt. This stems from an older meanings. The PIE root *en- is the hypothetical sense for the term ‘antara-‘ in Sanskrit, meaning the ‘interior’ of a space. This is coupled with the vulgar Latin term *barra, which relates to a beam, barrier, or gate. And gates, as we know, are a primary (and magically actionable) theme in Lovecraftian Magic. Place these two terms next to each other and we have a definition of embarrass that is closer to ‘inside the gate’ or ‘past the barrier.’ Joseph Curwen, as we are introduced to him, has certainly passed through several alchemical and necromantic gates to achieve his longevity.

Part of the journey of moving through those gates is related to our second keyword, ‘letter.’ From the 13th c., letter connects to definitions such as ‘graphic symbols,’ ‘literature,’ ‘writing,’ and ‘learning.’ The primary portion of this word comes from the PIE root *lē-, which means to ‘slacken’ and is the hypothetical source of Latin term ‘lenis,’ which describes someone or something that is mild, gentle, and calm. The subtext surrounding Joseph Curwen is one of menace, but he presents himself to the world, as in the example of when he invited another man of letters into his home, in a mild and calm way. Criminal necromancy, as it relates to Joseph Curwen, is a solitary pursuit that involves the quiet of graveyards and the focus of the library and laboratory. There is a lesson here for the modern practitioner. The perception of the town, in the case of Joseph Curwen, is first curiosity. This curiosity eventually evolves to distrust when the alchemist’s power finally becomes apparent. The 21st century magic-user is in a similar position. If it is just tarot cards and astrological remarks, the colonized society we all live in responds with curiosity and humor. When our power, that is, our trafficking with the spirit-world and communication with the dead, is revealed, a colonized mindset rejects us. Joseph Curwen has stepped past the gate, but waits at the threshold, one foot in a colonized society and one foot in a world of personal sovereignty.

It is 10:45 PM here in Milwaukee. The Blood Wolf Lunar Eclipse is in its totality. Eclipses are times when less effort is awarded, so I will leave off for now, as we will spend more time with Joseph Curwen and his criminal necromancy in the weeks to come.