In the Mind’s Eye

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One of the posts last December concerned a short TV film by Alan Garner, To Kill a King, the final entry in the Leap in the Dark series which the BBC ran from 1973 to 1980. Each half-hour episode concerned the supernatural, presented in either drama or documentary form, which for me would have meant prime viewing but I don’t recall ever seeing the series. The Garner film was a strange piece of drama whereas In the Mind’s Eye (1977) is a documentary about ghosts presented by writer Colin Wilson. The film is almost more interesting for its production details than its subject, the Phantom Vicar of Ratcliffe Wharf, an alleged spectre whose murderous life is shown in a piece of unconvincing dramatisation. The Phantom Vicar was the invention of writer Frank Smyth who needed a supernatural story for the Frontiers of Belief section of Man, Myth and Magic during its publication as a part-work in the early 1970s. Smyth and friend describe hatching the tale then we hear a number of subsequent reports which show the story quickly became an East End legend. Between the interviews you get to see bits of the docklands area before the spirits of old London had been exorcised by redevelopment.

Previously on { feuilleton }
To Kill a King by Alan Garner
Dreaming Out of Space: Kenneth Grant on HP Lovecraft
MMM in IT
Terror and Magnificence

Spare things

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Cthulhu Cultus: The Sun is Sick (no date) by Austin Osman Spare.

I’ve been telling people about this drawing for years but I’ve not posted it here before. Spare produced this piece after Kenneth Grant gave him some of HP Lovecraft’s stories to read. I’ve never seen it dated but it’s probably from the mid-50s when Kenneth and Steffi Grant were corresponding with Spare and commissioning new artworks. What’s notable for me is that this is probably the first Lovecraft-derived drawing that wasn’t either a magazine or book illustration, or something done for one of the horror fanzines.

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The Call of Cthulhu (1987) by John Coulthart.

Lovecraft aficionados have never seemed aware of Spare’s drawing since Lovecraft studies tended until very recently to remain fixed on popular media and the often parochial world of genre fandom. When I came to draw the swamp scene for The Call of Cthulhu in 1987 I borrowed the faces from Spare’s pillar for the column in the centre of the picture.

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Bulldog Breed.

While we’re on the subject, and in the spirit of showing how all the obsessions here connect in one way or another, Phil Baker’s excellent biography of Austin Spare notes a surprising reference to the artist that predates Man, Myth and Magic via the psychedelic music scene. Bulldog Breed were a short-lived London group, one of many being promoted by the Deram label in the late 1960s. The group’s one-and-only album, Made In England, was released in 1969. The cover art is dreadful but the final song is a number entitled Austin Osmanspare [sic], a paean to the artist that turns AOS into a typical character from British psychedelia: an eccentric, oddly named, Victorian type with a sinister and mysterious glamour. According to Baker one of the band members had an aunt who knew Spare. It’s not a bad song, and the choice of magus gave them an edge over the Beatles who went for the more obvious Aleister Crowley. “They said he was before his time…”

Previously on { feuilleton }
Dreaming Out of Space: Kenneth Grant on HP Lovecraft
MMM in IT
Intertextuality
Abrahadabra
The Occult Explosion
Murmur Become Ceaseless and Myriad
Kenneth Grant, 1924–2011
New Austin Spare grimoires
Austin Spare absinthe
Austin Spare’s Behind the Veil
Austin Osman Spare

Dreaming Out of Space: Kenneth Grant on HP Lovecraft

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Going through some of my loose copies of Man, Myth and Magic recently turned up this article by Kenneth Grant that I’d forgotten about. I have two separate sets of Man, Myth and Magic: a complete edition in binders, and a partial collection of loose copies of the weekly “illustrated encyclopedia of the supernatural”. The partial collection is worth keeping for the unique articles that ran across the last two pages of every issue, all of which are absent (along with the magazine covers) from the bound edition. These articles formed the Frontiers of Belief series, a collection of essays of the kind one might find in magazines today such as Fate or Fortean Times. An earlier essay about Wilfried Sätty, Artist of the Occult, was reproduced here a few years ago; none of these pieces have ever been reprinted so it seems worthwhile putting another of the more interesting pieces online.

Kenneth Grant was the only active occultist among Man, Myth and Magic‘s roster of very serious and well-regarded writers and experts. Grant wrote several of the encyclopedia entries although not the one about Aleister Crowley, as you might expect, that entry going to Crowley’s executor and biographer, John Symonds. Grant was also a lifelong champion of HP Lovecraft’s fiction which explains this article; many of Grant’s later occult texts have a distinctly Lovecraftian flavour, and they often refer to Lovecraft and Arthur Machen as being the unconscious recipients of actual occult emanations or presences. Grant’s belief that the authors channelled these emanations into their fiction is central to this piece, a belief that Lovecraft would have dismissed even though several of his stories (not least The Call of Cthulhu) concern exactly this process. Grant connects Lovecraft with another artist whose work he championed throughout his life, Austin Osman Spare. It was Grant’s involvement with Man, Myth and Magic that put one of Spare’s drawings on the cover of the first issue, and further drawings inside the magazine, introducing the artist’s work to a new, highly receptive audience. The drawing below (Were-Lynx) appears in the magazine behind Grant’s text so I’ve scanned a text-free copy from Grant’s Cults of the Shadow (1975).

DREAMING OUT OF SPACE by Kenneth Grant

Malevolent powers are lurking in wait to project themselves into the sleeping minds of men: this terrifying idea is a recurring theme in the stories of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, who claimed that they came to him in nightmares. But were they simply bad dreams, or was he in fact receiving communications from an unknown source, as Kenneth Grant here suggests?

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“I have watched for dryads and satyrs in the woods and fields at dusk”; illustration by Austin Osman Spare, who sensed the forces looming behind Lovecraft’s work, and was inspired to illustrate these presences.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft died in 1937; but the myth-cycle which he initiated in unrivalled tales of cosmic horror now raises the question whether it was a mere fiction engendered in the haunted mind of an obscure New England writer, or whether it foreshadowed a particularly sinister kind of occult invasion.

According to a well-known occult tradition, when Atlantis was submerged, not all perished. Some took refuge on other worlds, in other dimensions; others “slept” a willed and unnatural sleep through untold aeons of time. These awakened; they lurk now in unknown gulfs of space, the physical mechanism of human consciousness being unable to pick up their infinitely subtle vibrations. They lurk, waiting to return and rule the whole earth, as was their aim before the catastrophe that destroyed their corrupt civilization.

This tradition was a major theme in Lovecraft’s work. Until quite recently people read his stories and shuddered (if sufficiently honest and sensitive enough to admit their uncanny impact), not suspecting for a moment that such things could be.

Few know that Lovecraft dreamed most of his tales. And he sometimes thought that these dreams, or rather, nightmares, were caused by misdeeds in remotely distant incarnations when, perhaps, he had aimed at acquiring magical powers. These dreams were memories of the past and prophecies of the future, for he said that “nightmares are the punishment meted out to the soul for sins committed in previous incarnations—perhaps millions of years ago!”

In his life as Howard Phillips Lovecraft he tried again and again to bring himself to face squarely the ordeal through which he knew he would have to pass, if he were finally to resolve his spiritual difficulties. The issue is brought to the surface perhaps more clearly and urgently in his poems than in his stories. He is on the brink of making the critical discovery, of surprising the secret of his inner life, and he is forced back repeatedly by the dread, the stark soul-searing fear which he bottles up in his work and which he communicates so successfully—in neat doses—to his readers.

One of Lovecraft’s most vivid creations is the ancient book of hideous spells composed to facilitate traffic with creatures of unseen worlds. He ascribed its authorship to Abdul Alhazred, a mad Arab who flourished in Damascus about 700 AD. This grimoire, during the course of its mysterious career, is supposed to have been translated by the Elizabethan scholar Dr John Dee, into Greek, under the title of Necronomicon. It contains the Keys or Calls that unseal forbidden spaces of cosmic sleep, inhabited by elder forces that once infested the earth. The Keys are in a wild, unearthly tongue reminiscent of the Calls of Chanokh, or Enoch, which Dr Dee actually obtained through contact with non-terrestrial entities during his work with the magician, Sir Edward Kelley, whom Aleister Crowley claimed to have been in a previous life. It is possible that the “evil and abhorred Necronomicon” was suggested by the clavicles or Keys of Enoch, which Dee and Kelley discovered, and which Crowley later used to gain access to unknown dimensions.

Continue reading “Dreaming Out of Space: Kenneth Grant on HP Lovecraft”

Abraxas: The International Journal of Esoteric Studies

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A welcome arrival in the post recently was two issues of Abraxas, the book-format journal of esoteric studies from Fulgur Esoterica. I’ve always observed the contemporary occult scene from a distance, being more interested in cultural spin-offs whether those happen to be music-oriented—as was the late, lamented Coil—or art-oriented. Something I always enjoyed about Kenneth Grant’s books was the amount of unique art material they contained, much of it by his wife, Steffi Grant, or previously unseen work by Austin Osman Spare. Fulgur have for many years continued this artistic focus, starting out by reprinting Spare’s books (and publishing new ones, such as the revelatory Zos Speaks!), and more recently turning their attention to the work of contemporary artists following similar paths.

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Study for Salome (2012) by Denis Forkas Kostromitin.

Abraxas is a venue for the latter group, especially in the most recent issue, no. 3, which features a wealth of new art, photography, essays and poetry. In the past I’ve complained about the misunderstandings Austin Spare’s work used to generate among otherwise intelligent and sensitive critics when faced with the artist’s occult obsessions; the usual response would be to lazily dismiss this side of his work as “black magic”, and therefore either kitsch or nonsense. Things have improved in recent years but it’s taken a long time for critics and curators who would show the greatest respect to a minority belief from South America, say, to offer the same respect to equally sincere artists who happen to be working in London or New York. One of the values of Abraxas for artists such as Jesse Bransford and Denis Forkas Kostromitin, both of whom are interviewed here, is that they can have a conversation with someone who won’t treat their work or their interests in a condescending manner. I’m particularly taken with Kostromitin, a Russian artist whose work I only discovered recently.

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M L K (Moloch) (2011) by Denis Forkas Kostromitin.

Elsewhere in Abraxas 3 there’s a feature on the recent exhibition of Aleister Crowley’s extravagant daubs, an article by Francesco Dimitri about tarantism in southern Italy, a piece about Dada by Adel Souto, and text by Paracelsus with illustrations by Joseph Uccello which is printed on a different paper stock. The production quality is as good as any art book but then that’s standard for a Fulgur publication. Mention should be made of the interior design of this issue which far exceeds the often perfunctory layout of many publications from smaller publishers. Tony Hill is credited on the masthead as Creative Director so I’m assuming he’s the person responsible. Abraxas is an essential purchase for anyone interested in contemporary occult art. The hardback of no. 3 is a limited edition that includes a signed and numbered lithograph by Denis Forkas Kostromitin.

Previously on { feuilleton }
I:MAGE: An Exhibition of Esoteric Artists

Murmur Become Ceaseless and Myriad

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Efflaration (1952) by Austin Osman Spare.

The Austin Spare revival continues with another exhibition, Murmur Become Ceaseless and Myriad at Flat Time House, London, curated by Mark Titchner. Unless I’ve missed something this is a significant moment since it’s the first time Spare’s work has been paired with that of a more contemporary artist, the late John Latham (1921–2006) whose former home provides the exhibition space.

Biographically, the artists have a lot in common: a reticence to engage with the art establishment or the commercial art market; superficial correspondences with the work of their contemporaries but isolation by force of their ideas. The artistic genius of both these artists was, in the main, recognised by their peers, even if the subject of their work was not entirely understood.

In spite of this, discussion of Spare’s practice has largely related to arcana and magic, despite his training in fine art and early mainstream successes. Conversely, Latham’s work has been understood primarily in relation to the conceptual art practices of the 1960s and 70s. This exhibition broadens these perspectives, presenting their work in the context of two parallel experimental practices. (more)

There’s also a somewhat tenuous connection between the pair in the figure of Alan Moore, a Spare enthusiast who in 1992 appeared with John Latham and a number of other literary and artistic types in The Cardinal and the Corpse, a TV film by Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit which really ought to be on YouTube but isn’t. It’s worth a watch if you can find a copy. Murmur Become Ceaseless and Myriad runs until 30th October.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Kenneth Grant, 1924–2011
New Austin Spare grimoires
Austin Spare absinthe
Austin Spare’s Behind the Veil
Austin Osman Spare