On the World Fantasy Awards and HPL

I wasn’t even going to write about the controversy about the World Fantasy Award no longer being represented by a Lovecraft bust, but I seem to keep doing it anyway on Facebook.  I might as well do it properly.

Lovecraft was a racist.  You can argue that other authors were racist (and they often were).  You can argue that Lovecraft was reflecting the attitudes of many people of his time (and you’d be right, despite how enlightened we think the past was – check out this Gallup poll on interracial marriage).  You can argue that attitudes change, and that modern perspectives may one day be considered offensive (quite right).  You can argue that most of his work isn’t that racist (you can certainly make a case for it).  And after you argue all this, guess what?  Lovecraft was still a racist.

As more people encounter Lovecraft’s writing, they also encounter his racism.  I think there are three responses to it.  The first is, “He was racist?  Great!”  We can and should ignore those people.  The second is, “Even though Lovecraft is racist, I think there’s enough here to make him worth reading, or even inspiring my own creations.”  The third is, “Lovecraft is racist, and I’d rather not have anything to do with him.”

Now, I clearly fall into the second category, but I get the third.  Life is short, and if you want to not read an author due to their political views, I can’t really tell you not to.  I can say that it’s not the criteria I hope you’d use, but I once stopped reading a book because it used the phrase “Abramelin yoga,” so I can understand not wanting to participate in some activity due to a visceral response to one issue or another.  And I don’t mind you trying to convince other people not to read that author.  It’s only when the option of doing so is taken away that we have a serious situation.

So, people in the third category, including winners of the World Fantasy Award, expressed their concern – and outrage, in some cases – that they were being awarded for their writing in the shape of the head of a guy whose views are highly distasteful at this time.  They certainly had a right to do so.  The committee no doubt balanced the idea that this was an award for writers against the fact that it was an award in the shape of some guy’s head, and decided in favor of making an award any writer would be proud to get.   They also had a right to do so.

Now we have people in the Lovecraft community who are incensed that this change was made.  They also have a right to make their voices known, to protest, and to spend their money as they see fit, but…

There’s one aspect of my life I don’t speak about on this blog:  my involvement in what people might call “social justice” issues, and what I call “trying to make the lives of the people around me better.”  This picked up a few years ago, and I’ve been involved in educating others, trying to help people with problems, participating in protests, and just listening to the stories of others.

I’ve found that there’s a disjunction between this activity and the various fandom controversies that we’ve been seeing lately.   As I’ve said, we can debate issues such as the WFA award, and advocate, and spend our money and time as we see fit… but damned if it doesn’t make us look entitled sometimes.

There is no fundamental right for someone to have an award shaped like his or her head.  There is no fundamental right to be allowed to speak in a particular place, or to have a particular store sell your product, or to have a library purchase your book, or to have a piece of art appear in the Louvre.  You may be given a particular venue, or you may not.  People may have all sorts of reasons for making that choice, and they may change their minds.  As long as you still have venues open – and today, they exist in abundance – everything is working as it should.

Thus, this decision is not “censorship.”  Censorship is the suppression of a creative work, not a decision to not use a particular creative work in a particular way.  Using it in this sense trivializes the work of many writers who have indeed seen their works destroyed or kept from the public, and who have even endured imprisonment or death for seeking to share their ideas.

No one is being made to pack up their Awards and mail them back.  You can still view pictures of them online.  I’m sure that one consequence of this decision will be attempts to actually market the sculpture in question to people.  And I’m just talking about the Gahan Wilson sculpture – not the works of Lovecraft, which can be found in many different formats and in many different languages and adaptations across the globe.  Lovecraft’s popularity has escalated over the years, and even if that is temporary, he is in no danger of being censored.  In fact, this whole controversy is based on the fact that HPL wasn’t censored, and that people can find even the minor and occasionally highly offensive verse he wrote.

I know there’s people talking about decisions being “p. c.” or being made by “SJWs,” and I think we should prize free expression over imposing or silencing particular views.  Nonetheless, I also see some of the same people insisting that the award should have simply been turned down by those who didn’t agree with HPL’s depiction.  As I’ve said, it’s a writing award, people.  Stating that a decision was made for ideological purity doesn’t mean you also can demand ideological purity from others.

I’ve also heard complaints that this change is an insult to Lovecraft fans, and that it tars all of them with the brush of racism.  To help understand why this itself is a problem, I’ll insert a quick comparison:

Problems for people of color:  Enduring centuries of slavery, violence, injustice, segregation, and discrimination.

Problems for Lovecraft fans:  Being denied award sculpture in shape of author’s head.  Some people might think they’re racist.   Bad movies.

Do these arguments make people want to read Lovecraft, or interact with their fans?  Certainly people can advocate on behalf of a Lovecraft-shaped award, but portraying fans as victims in this situation is going to play very badly.  It doesn’t make us look racist, but it sure as hell comes across as insensitive and trivial.

Let me end on this note:  If what makes you hopping mad, or compels you to write angry letters to all sorts of people, is anything having to do with a writing award, you need to seriously rethink your priorities.  There’s a number of ways to do that, one of which might be to put aside Lovecraft and read something along the lines of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass for a little while.  After that, maybe we can start more of a dialogue about how we read and discuss Lovecraft and other authors who might not always have been the people we wish they were.

UPDATE:  … and in the morning, it looks even less relevant.  My deep sympathies to the people of Paris.

Published in: on November 13, 2015 at 5:37 pm  Comments (2)  

On the Three Ladies at the Table

Many readers will be familiar with the famous ritual in the Grimorium Verum (Peterson or Stratton-Kent editions) to call three spiritual ladies or gentlemen to a table to gain their favor.   A similar ritual appears in the Book of Oberon, as well as in Sloane MS. 3853, and we have several other rituals among the literature of ritual magic that are along the same lines.  Those who are interested in other such examples might check out my article in The Faerie Queens anthology from Avalonia.

Enough links to books!  I’ve made a discovery, via Katherine Briggs’ Anatomy of Puck, of another piece with a similar procedure that predates most ritual magic by centuries.  In the mid-thirteen century, Adam de la Halle, a playwright of Arras, composed a comedy entitled Le jeu de la Feuillee.  It consists of a number of short vignettes surrounding life in the French city – including a visit by three supernatural ladies.

We have very little setup for their appearance, but it would appear that Adam – a character in the play as well as the playwright – and his friend Rikeche have put a table out for the fairies.  Although they are not present, others watch from the sidelines as three women – Morgan, Arsile, and Maglore – appear and take up their seats at the table.  All of them are enchanted by the preparations, save for Maglore, who notices that her knife at the table is missing.  The other two fairies engage her in some playful jesting, but Maglore will have none of it.  The sisters next talk of how the two should be rewarded.  Morgan and Arsile grant Rikeche success at business and riches, and give Adam happiness, fame in love, and a reputation as a poet.  Maglore, still put out, grants Rikeche baldness and condemns Adam to spend his time with his wife instead of running away to Paris.  The whole matter rapidly descends into farce from here.

What is particularly interesting here is one detail from earlier in the poem:  a description of the back of Adam’s wife, “Ke manche d’ivoire entailles / A ches coutiaus a demoisele,” which the editor translates as “Sculpted like the ivory handle / Of those knives for noble maidens.”  He then draws a parallel between this phrase and the knives on the table of Morgan and the others.  It bears noting that some manuscripts, including Sloane 3853 and e.Mus 173, specify that white-handled knives should appear on the table to which the three mysterious women are called.  Admittedly, it could be a coincidence, but the sheer number of correspondences are enough to make one wonder.

(You can find an English translation of Le jeu in The Broken Pot Restored, edited by Gordon D. McGregor.  I should note that the translation has been modernized and might not be accurate at all points.)

Published in: on November 6, 2015 at 5:37 pm  Comments (2)  
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Delta Green Kickstarter Final Days

We’re coming to the end of the Delta Green Kickstarter, with only 38 hours remaining.  For those who are wondering what they get, here’s a breakdown:

  • For $1, you get the free PDFs that come to all backers, including pieces on the King in Yellow, Atlach-Nacha’s minions, and body disposal, plus the CONTROL GROUP introductory campaign.
  • For a $20 pledge, you can get the Agent’s Handbook (player’s guide) in PDF, along with a bunch of PDFs, including at least one complete book of scenarios.
  • For a $150 pledge, you get the player’s guide in print, along with PDFs of the GM’s guide, the GM’s screen, Kenneth Hite’s Trail of Cthulhu campaign set in Vietnam, a King in Yellow campaign (with my writing), the CONTROL GROUP campaign, a Majestic-12 sourcebook, and (we’re about $400 away) a sourcebook on the British paranormal organization PISCES, plus a whole bunch of backer PDFs.
  • For $300, you can get all of the above in print, save the backer PDFs (still PDFs).  That’s 7 books and a GM screen, which is not bad for a bunch of gaming books these days, with a lot of bonus scenarios and other material.

Yet… if we could get another $40K, this would unlock:

A while back Dennis Detwiller, the creator of the Fate, told Scott and me that he figured that at some point after 9/11, Stephen Alzis vanished. There was no fanfare, no coup, no maneuvering. He just stopped showing up. And naturally all his followers started taking each other down, each of them wanting to be top boss.

So, Scott and I at Gen Con were talking about that. We started laughing at the thought of Delta Green agents in New York realizing what had happened, and how rabid they would be to jump in the middle of all that and take another shot at the Fate.

The more we imagined it, the more it sounded like a pretty bad-ass campaign to play.

That’s Delta Green: Falling Towers. 

If this runaway project hits $340K, we’ll publish it.

Falling Towers will be two things. First, a series of scenarios where Delta Green agents in the 2000s turn every available resource toward rooting out the fractious Network and destroying it. Second, a sourcebook for the mysteries and threats Delta Green faces in New York today. You can run a Fate-hunting campaign in the 2000s and use that as a launch point for an ongoing New York campaign today. The primary writers will be me, Daniel Harms, and Dennis Detwiller. Dennis will illustrate it.

So, if you’re on the fence , that might appeal to you.

Published in: on October 27, 2015 at 8:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

Review – Sorcerer’s Screed

Recently, along with practically every other sort of magic under the sun, we’ve seen a revival of interest in Icelandic magical practices.  I’ve already examined two books that came to us via the Museum of Icelandic Witchcraft and Sorcery.  Now we have a new release that provides us with more examples of such texts – Sorcerer’s Screed:  The Icelandic Book of Magic Spells, by “Skuggi,” the pen name of Jochum Magnús Eggertsson.  The book was recently featured in a story on Mental Floss, so the time has come for a review.

Unlike the grimoires from Iceland we’ve examined previously, Sorcerer’s Screed is a compilation of spells from many different texts, compiled by “Skuggi” and first published around 1940.  I had some qualms about a twentieth-century grimoire compilation, but based upon comparisons with the materials in other works, most of it seems accurate – although I still have questions about the sphinx on page 172.  The individual items are not sourced, so if you were hoping to track a particular ritual back to its origin, you won’t have an opportunity.  A list of different manuscripts does appear near the end.

Most of the rituals within are based upon staves, so we receive a book full of beautiful illustrations.  Most of these have been redrawn from the original manuscripts, and redrawn again by a graphic designer, which does raise questions as to how accurate they are.  Nonetheless, all of them are reproduced in red, and many of them are quite elaborate, which makes for a striking book.

The staves within are used for a good number of purposes – victory over enemies, catching thieves, winning at legal cases, and healing injuries.  These contain a mixture of Christian and pagan elements.  The work also features a number of short rituals to create magical helpers, including the tide-mouse and a “speaking spirit.”  My personal favorite is the tilberi, a magical helper made out of a human rib wrapped with wool that drinks your blood in exchange for stealing milk that you can make into butter.

Perhaps the main draw of the book is the complete procedure to create the infamous necropants.  Stephen Fry can explain these for you, if you don’t know already:

What really scares me, however, is the epilogue, in which the author claims he is also preparing another book (never completed, to my knowledge), on black magic.  The fact that this procedure turned up in the book of good magic should trouble all of us.

I quite enjoyed the Screed, although it does have properties noted above that might annoy people approaching it from one angle or another.  I’m on the fence about which book I’d recommend for those who only wanted to have one – perhaps the Two Books would be the best choice?  If you like Icelandic magic, though, this is a definite buy.



Published in: on October 16, 2015 at 4:12 pm  Comments (2)  

Review: Of the Arte Goetia

I’m always happy to receive a new release from Teitan Press, and what follows is a review based upon a copy Teitan was kind enough to send me.

Colin Campbell, editor of A Book of the Offices of the Spirits (review here), has brought us another esoteric exploration, this time of the incantations and list of spirits known as the Goetia.  Of the Arte Goetia provides us with the full text of this magical manual as given in Sloane MS. 3825, along with commentaries and comparisons with other texts, including Munich CLM 849 (Kieckhefer’s Forbidden Rites), Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft, Weyer’s Pseudomonarchia Daemonum, and Folger MS. V.b.26 (a.k.a. The Book of Oberon).  With this we have a lengthy history of the Goetia, two appendices including the texts of the Pentaculum Salomonis and Vinculum Salomonis, and a bibliography – but no index, unfortunately.

This may be a longer review than usual, as I have mixed feelings about this book.  The list of spirits will be of great interest to many, as Campbell places all similar descriptions from Weyer, Scot, and the Goetia together, so that a reader may compare and contrast them.   All of this is available online, but this makes the process considerably easier.  Also of interest will be the notations as to the links between the Goetia incantations and those from such sources as the Heptameron and the Pentaculum Salomonis.   All of this should be deeply appreciated by those who work with the Goetia, including scholars and practitioners alike.

At the same time, however, we also have a number of mistakes.  For example, Weyer’s description of the spirit Pruflas includes the line “partim ex ordine Throni, partim Angelorum.”  As this appears in the section on the legions, it is logical to assume this refers to his servitors being partially from the heavenly Thrones and part from the Angels.  This is the explanation on one page of Arte – but on the facing one, Campbell states that it is the spirit himself who is of mixed nature, which makes little sense in the hierarchy.

We also see some smaller errors:  The magical and alchemical manuscripts of General Charles Rainsford are in the possession of the University of Pennsylvania, not Penn State.  Later, the author insists that the use of astrological symbols for metals was a blind, even though only seven metals were known at the time it was written.  Also, if one is to cite Crowley’s Goetia introduction, “On the Initiated Interpretation of Ceremonial Magic,” one should bear in mind Crowley’s revision of his position in his Confessions.

We also have theories that, while not provably wrong, are nonetheless very unlikely.  One puzzle for those who examine Weyer, Scot, and Goetia is why similar spirits appear in quite different order in their lists. Campbell’s explanation is that some unlucky scholar must have accidentally shuffled a manuscript before copying.  Unfortunately, given how those lists break down (scroll down for Peterson’s chart), we’d have to assume that the author only covered one spirit per page, front and back.  The manuscripts we have usually have multiple spirits on the same pages.  It may be better to assume that multiple traditions were at play here – especially as the Goetia includes spirit seals that the other two books lack.

Also in this category:  Campbell insists that an angel’s admonition to Edward Kelley not to summon evil spirits could indicate he owned the Goetia, without mentioning that any number of other manuscripts had similar rituals.  The author maintains that Folger V.b.26 mentions Agaros riding not on a crocodile, but on a cockatrice – although the word in question, “cockeadrill,” is a variant spelling of the Middle English word for “crocodile,” and only rarely used for cockatrices.

Finally, a question emerges as to the book’s audience.  On one hand, we have lengthy descriptions of pseudo-Dionysus’ hierarchy and the Biblical allusions in the Goetia‘s second conjuration – all of which are readily available from other sources.  On the other, we have the material from Weyer and the two appendices, which are entirely in untranslated Latin.  What person will be able to access one, but not the other?

Don’t get the wrong impression from the above litany of complaints – I’ve certainly read far worse books.  Nonetheless, I find most frustrating books that are good, but that could have been much better, and this is one of them.  I’d say it’s a definite buy for anyone interested in the Goetia, but it is also a source that should be used with caution and consideration when it comes to endorsing particular points.  It does bear mentioning that, given the collectible nature of Teitan’s books, one who is on the fence should consider purchasing it sooner rather than later.

Published in: on October 11, 2015 at 7:50 pm  Comments (1)  

Delta Green Announcements

A couple of items just came up relating to Delta Green, the setting of espionage and covert battles against the Mythos.

First, I’ve just had my short story “Dark” published in the anthology Delta Green:  Extraordinary Renditions.  For the low price of $9.99, you can get a book with that story and a number of others by Kenneth Hite, John Tynes, Adam Scott, Glancy, James Lowder, Cody Goodfellow, and others.

Delta Green itself is getting its own tabletop game, and the Kickstarter has already funded to the tune of $130K.  US folks can get a print copy of the new corebook, with a PDF and a bunch of other free PDF releases, for $70.  When the Kickstarter reaches $180K, I’ll be helping out on Dennis Detwiller’s Impossible Landscapes, an entire campaign based upon the King in Yellow and Carcosa.  If you’re interested, please head over to the Kickstarter page and help out.

Published in: on October 5, 2015 at 7:28 pm  Leave a Comment  

New Release – Campbell’s Of the Arte Goetia

The latest from Teitan Press:

A significant new study of the Goetia, by Colin Campbell, author of “The Magic Seal of Dr. John Dee.” In this work Campbell examines the evolution of the text known as Goetia, from the proto-Goetia of Wier’s “Pseudomonarchia Daemonum”, through the first English translation in Scot’s “Discoverie of Witchcraft”, and finally to the English language manuscripts from which most modern editions are drawn. Campbell reproduces the significant passages of each of these sources side-by-side, highlighting their differences, and allowing him to correct a number of errors, lacunae or redactions that the comparisons reveal. His researches also shed light on a number of obscure internal references, the meaning of which only becomes apparent when the viewed in the context of the historical development of the texts. Whilst largely an historical/textual exploration, Campbell also includes a short chapter in which he reflects on approaches to working with the forces of the Goetia.

A review copy is on its way to me.  For everyone else, there’s a special price for launch week, so it makes sense to order it sooner rather than later.

Published in: on October 2, 2015 at 6:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

Review – Trolldom: Spells and Methods of the Norse Folk Magic Tradition

We’ve had a good number of books lately, but I’ve been working on them steadily over the summer.  I knew I’d eventually have to get to Trolldom, Johannes Björn Gårdbäck’s work published by the Yronwode Institution for the Preservation and Popularization of Indigenous Ethnomagicology.

Trolldom, as Gårdbäck reassures us, does not specifically refer to trolls, but rather to the gamut of supernatural forces with which a person may treat to earn good fortune or ward off bad.  Such magical procedures, whether native or transplanted from Germany or surrounding lands, were used throughout Scandinavia for centuries, and made their way to North America via immigration.  Folklorists in their home countries have collected an astounding collection of trolldom, although most of it remains untranslated.

Gårdbäck’s goal seems to be to create a book intended for practitioners of folk magic, whether that be those interested in Norse practice or a more eclectic approach.  Although the book does include introductory discussions of the history and principles of trolldom, but the bulk of it consists of individual charms, mainly Swedish, but also including material from Norway, Denmark, and western Finland, translated from various works into English.  These are organized upon the basis of purpose, and include labels identifying the country and century from which it originates, as well as explanatory notes covering unusual concepts or contemporary usages.

All of this is admirable, and yet I think that this book is not as good as it could be, simply due to the organization.

One of my deep frustrations with the book is the lack of attribution for particular sources.  Trolldom‘s bibliography is stunning in the amount of material it covers.  Yet, when it comes to actual entries, we aren’t often told which book or article includes them.  I found myself frustrated, as I’d find a great piece on wax images or witch bottles that I wanted to track down, only to find I had no idea where to begin that search.  This might be less of a problem for the main audience, save that it closes off the potential for interested readers to explore particular sources.

What is more problematic is the lack of a structure for finding  particular incantations and usages.  Although these are classified by function, the labels in the table of contents are often quite wide.  The author includes subsidiary tables of contents at the beginning of each section, which does help somewhat, but the section on divination in particular does not include those.  A more robust table of contents, or an index, would have been a greatly appreciated addition.

Nonetheless, this is only troubling because we have so many riches in the book.  There are brief sections devoted to the årsgång, or year walk, various supernatural helper spirits for the household, and extravagant curses that take up entire pages.  One simply cannot dislike a book in which spells are given accurate but evocative titles such as “Liver Slap against Stuttering,” “Cause a Scandal Using a Mushroom,” and “Smacking Blood Sucking Elves with a Hammer.”

One obvious question is how this book stacks up to the late Thomas K. Johnson’s dissertation.  I prefer Johnson’s work, but that’s because it’s much better sourced.  Those looking at it from a different angle might prefer the new book.  Trolldom does not refer to Johnson’s book, but it’s far too much work to determine whether there might not be overlap between the procedures described in each.

Please note that ordering from YIPPIE itself is, unfortunately, highly expensive ($10 shipping US), as the Institution does not provide a media mail option.  I hope they will make adjustments to their rates for future publications, especially given the impressive quality of this one.

Published in: on September 5, 2015 at 9:25 pm  Comments (2)  

Spirits in the Library – Lilith

queen of the nightFor the next contestant in our series, let’s look at Lilith.

Lilith first comes to our attention in Sumerian times, where she appears as a hostile spirit known as “Lilu.”  Biblical texts are often ambiguous about her, but the oral tradition of Judaism establishes her as the first wife of Adam and develops her character as a night-spirit who kills infants due to her own lack of children.  Lilith shows up rarely in grimoire, but she has since been largely rehabilitated in contemporary literature.

(Note: I’ve included a picture here of the “Queen of the Night” stela at the British Library, even though there’s little scholarly support today for the figure depicted being Lilith herself.)

Bane – A two-part entry, dividing a two page entry for “Lilith” from a short one of “Lilith the Lesser.”  It deals with the Mesopotamian and Judaic lore in some length, as well as an impressive list of alternative names for her.  Bibliography includes a number of good sources on the topic.

Belanger – Oh, this is nice.  A column and a half on Sumerian and Babylonian mythology, a little less on the Jewish folklore than I’d expected, and a bonus mention of the Munich Handbook.

de Plancy – Now, this is weird.  Just a short paragraph, covering her mythology as an attacker of infants, and her presence in Wierus and other works.  There’s a great deal more that could have been said here, even given that some of the Mesopotamian material was not available to them.

Gettings – Rather surprising here, this entry includes not only the material and other sources, but also “Gnostic and Rosicrucian medieval traditions,” which sounds a bit dubious, as well as fictional appearances.  It also has a depiction of Lilith as a demon from a Hebrew amulet.

Guiley – This is quite the good entry – over two whole columns, dealing with various religious and magical sources.  She could have probably pushed back to Sumerian mythology a little harder, and one set of statements about Lilith appearing in other belief systems – including Mexican and Native American – is highly suspect.

Lurker – A brief paragraph covering her appearances in the Old Testament, the Talmud, and Babylonian belief.

Mack – A four-page section, which deals with a broad range of folklore from Pagan, Jewish, and Christian sources, including a strange tale about Solomon using a mirror to unmask her.

That should do it.  Next time, my summary and recommendations.


Published in: on September 2, 2015 at 9:22 pm  Comments (1)  

Coming On-Line Radio Appearance

Lots of writing going on, just not here.

I’ll be appearing from 3-5 AM EDT (have fun, West Coast people!) this Saturday morning on Richard C. Hoagland’s “The Other Side of Midnight” program, on the Dark Matter Digital Network.  I could talk about Lovecraft, or grimoires, or something else entirely.  I don’t know if there’ll be call ins, but it should be fun.

Published in: on August 31, 2015 at 4:56 pm  Comments (2)  
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