Peter Levenda on Cthulhu, Kenneth Grant, and the ‘sinister forces’ in American history

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If you want the maximum bang for your book-buying buck, you could do worse than Peter Levenda. Aside from his probable authorship of the Necronomicon, Levenda has written something like a dozen books on occult history. His most ambitious work, Sinister Forces, is a three-volume set that details the dark side of the American story, from whatever happened to those pre-Colombian American civilizations to CIA mind control experimentation and beyond. Ultimately, Sinister Forces is an examination of America’s failure to acknowledge the existence of evil — and it does this through a relentless deluge of conspiracist high weirdness. The books are fascinating, and they’ve earned kudos from fellow authors Jim Hougan (who called it “one of the darkest and most provocative books that you are ever likely to read”) and Norman Mailer.

I interviewed Levenda a while back about these sinister forces, and about his book The Dark Lord: H.P. Lovecraft, Kenneth Grant, and the Typhonian Tradition in Magic. The transcript was edited for space and clarity, mostly because I had a fever when I did the interview, and really I wasn’t making all that much sense. This didn’t seem to bother Levenda, however. He’s able to be erudite and well-spoken with very little prompting.

In The Dark Lord, you discuss the occult significance of H.P. Lovecraft’s work — an idea that Lovecraft himself would disavow. When did you become interested in the subject?

It was the paradox that intrigued me initially. Lovecraft was a self-professed atheist, and someone of a very scientific bent. He started writing articles for an astronomy magazine, he had wanted to become a scientist and an astronomer. He just wasn’t able to do that because of his family situation, living at home and the fact that he was sickly through most of high school and had a very hard time graduating high school because of that. So, one thing led to another and he wasn’t able to gratify that urge that he had. But he considered himself a scientist. He had no patience with mysticism, occultism, or religion for that matter. Yet he is considered the father of modern gothic horror, which for him is based on a scientific appreciation of the fact of science, of the fact that reality as we know it, being at its heart composed of vast distances and vast amounts of time. He found that to be unsettling. He was totally opposed to any idea of their being any kind of spiritual forces or entities coming into this world from the outside. And yet, that’s all he wrote about.

The book is about the English occultist Kenneth Grant as much as it is about Lovecraft. Could you tell me a bit more about Grant? I’m curious about how he specifically made use of Lovecraft’s stories in his magical worldview.

Kenneth Grant began his career as Aleister Crowley’s secretary for a brief period, for about a year I believe. So he was working with Aleister Crowley towards the end of Crowley’s life. And he came into contact not only with Crowley, but with a whole bunch of people who knew him. People who were corresponding with him, and people who passed through Crowley’s life in his last years. Grant’s beginning was as an occultist within the tradition of Thelema, which was the name that Crowley gave to his own movement.

Grant’s framework was really based on a Judeo-Christian, quasi-pagan kind of thing that Crowley had adopted, or adapted from the Golden Dawn, the British secret society that was very concerned with Cabalah and Egyptian mysteries and that sort of thing. And Crowley sort of took that to the next degree. he never jettisoned any of the Cabalistic references, or the Tree of Life, all of these templates that the Golden Dawn had used. And he kept also the Egyptian references. So Grant has to be understood within that context as somebody working within that Cabalistic framework.

When Grant comes across Lovecraft, he realizes that Lovecraft is talking about an aspect of mysticism, of religion that the Golden Dawn was loathe to confront directly. There are references in the Golden Dawn material to ‘evil,’ to ‘the Dark Lord,’ as I call him, to Set — an Egyptian deity who is probably the oldest known Egyptian deity on record, god of chaos and foreign lands and disease, of storms and that sort of thing. Set is mentioned briefly in the Golden Dawn corpus of rituals, but never really focused upon. And I think Grant saw that as a weakness in the entire system. A Cabalistic system, to be worth anything, has to be totally encyclopedic. It must represent all of reality, and that means warts and all, so it’s got to represent darkness as well as the light.

What Grant saw in Lovecraft was a very coherent understanding of the darkness, what the darkness represented. This idea of the “other,” something just outside the realm of consciousness. Something that communicates to us in our dreams, that communicates to us through mediums and through spiritualists and occultists, as “The Call of Cthulhu” tells us. Grant saw that Lovecraft was really on to something. Grant saw all of this being played out in Lovecraft’s stories, and he found that it complemented what he felt was missing in the Cabalistic framework, that he had adopted from the Golden Dawn, from Crowley.

How does Lovecraft’s work relate to Aleister Crowley?

In studying Kenneth Grant I found a fascinating conversation of sorts between him and H.P. Lovecraft, and lurking behind all of this was the rather arcane figure of Aleister Crowley.

As I mentioned in The Dark Lord, one of the things that struck me when I started to deconstruct the Lovecraft stories was that Lovecraft was oddly specific about dates in his writings. More so than other writers I’ve come across. He will give you the day, month, and year when something bizarre took place in his writing.

In his famous story “The Call of Cthulhu,” Lovecraft specifically mentions a ritual taking place in New Orleans in 1907 on Halloween. And when I compared that to Aleister Crowley’s own life, on that precise day Crowley was ‘transcribing,’ you might say, or just writing down some of his most arcane work. And the similarity between the Lovecraft tale and Crowley’s own writings, even down to some of the same terminology, was striking to me. And I made notice of that in The Dark Lord. How is it that these two guys who evidently did not know each other, write about the same things on the same month, day, and year? It was just stunning to me. And it seemed to me to be evidence that there was something darker and deeper at work.

And these are the currents you write about in Sinister Forces?

I felt that sometimes coincidence is the evidence that there is something — there’s another force at work in nature, another force at work in reality that we only come across when we look at synchronicity or coincidence. When that happens, someone’s trying to tell us something.

In the very first episode of Twin Peaks, the famous TV series by David Lynch, Kyle Maclachlan’s character is talking to his tape recorder, he’s talking to Diane, the invisible secretary back at the office, and he says “whenever two events occur simultaneously, particularly pertaining to the same subject, you must pay very close attention.” And he’s talking about coincidence, and Twin Peaks is all about that sort of juxtaposition.

Ioan Couliano (author of Eros and Magic in the Renaissance) used to have a club, like a book club, where they’d watch Twin Peaks when it was on TV every week.

Couliano’s a major influence of mine, I find his work sympathetic to my own worldview. And here’s a man who was murdered in the bathroom at the University of Chicago by agents unknown. People, when they get involved in this stuff, there’s many individuals who met untimely ends when they’ve started to delve that deeply into these things.

I find it interesting that Couliano had some of the same interests that I have. Couliano was very involved in the whole Twin Peaks thing, and so was I. Twin Peaks was very profound. It was quirky to a lot of people, but there’s a dark humor to it. When you’re involved in this subject, humor is necessary. It really is.

Before you called I was reading an article in The Humanist magazine, and the author was saying that he found the Cthulhu mythos — the pantheon of gods and so forth — to be a very coherent system for understanding the dark side of human nature. I find that interesting that a writer with the American Humanist Association finds value in Lovecraft for the same reason that Grant does.

It’s very coherent, which is why a lot of people don’t like it. Like I say there’s not much humor in Lovecraft’s stories, there’s no distance from this material. It is what it is all the time. I mean, you can go from “The Call of Cthulhu” to “The Dunwich Horror” to “At The Mountains of Madness,” you can go through all his stories and find the same atmosphere is repeated story-by-story-by-story: the sense of dread, the unnameable, the invisible, the thing that’s going to bite us on the ass. I mean, it’s there in every single thing. It is so consistent and so coherent that a lot of people are turned off, because it’s “too much of a muchness.” It’s just one theme repeated endlessly, in different forms and variations. And sometimes with some very interesting data and some very interesting means of explaining what’s going on, and trying to put it in frameworks that are vaguely anthropological or ethnographic at times, or historical / archaeological. He uses all this material, mostly from a lot of old books that he comes across. But it’s still remarkably consistent. I think that’s what will turn some people off, but that’s what attracted a lot of teenage readers, people like that, to Lovecraft—this enormous emotion that’s in his stories, this idea that we have found something. This idea that there’s something really dangerous in the world, that we have to wake up to the danger of what’s about to happen or what might have already happened.

Soren Kierkegaard I think has this line: “the Dreadful has already happened.” It’s not something that we have to anticipate, it’s something that’s already transpired. I think to Lovecraft, in some of his stories anyways, he feels that this Dreadful thing has already happened, this gate has already been opened, and this thing has already slithered through.

Oddly enough, it’s the occultists that protect us from this. It’s the people dabbling in the occult that are able to close the gate and get rid of the thing, you know. It’s not men of science doing it, oddly enough. This is another aspect of Lovecraft’s mythos that to me is fascinating, considering Lovecraft’s own bias.

In his foreword to book one of Sinister Forces, Jim Hougan quotes a late Pier Paolo Pasolini article, “Is this a Military Coup D’Etat? I Know,” which I think speaks to the uncertainty that a lot of us feel when confronted with political and social events that seem to defy rational understanding, something like 9/11 or the assassination of JFK.

[Here is the passage that Hougan quotes:

I know the names of those responsible for the slaughter…
I know the names of the powerful group…
I know all these names and all the acts (the slaughters, the attacks on institutions) they have been guilty of…
I know. But I don’t have the proof. I don’t even have clues.]

Many Americans feel adrift, as if they don’t know who really controls the country — or what the agenda is. But without the proof of this (or even the clues) they don’t have anything to grasp on; there’s just the Dreadful that you mentioned. Do you feel like you’re any closer to finding the proof? Or the clues?

Not in a satisfactory, scientific way. No.

To refer back to Hougan, he talks about dietrologia, “the science of the left-hand,” as the Italians call it. This is a great term, with no real English equivalent.

In our western world, we have our science of the right hand. It’s the logical, it’s the cause-and-effect type of scientific worldview that we got from the time of Galileo and Giordano Bruno, and all those guys who started to put the sun at the center of the universe. So we have this kind of scientific approach that we take, and it’s the science of the right hand. But the Italians, among other people in the world, understand that there’s also a science of the left hand. Or at least an understanding of the world that’s “left” or “sinister.” And this is an understanding that transcends — or at least exists outside of — normal, rational thought.

The world is in the state it’s in because of irrational thought warring with rational thought. So we have two worldviews that are constantly at each others’ throats. I think the mystic or the occultist tries to bridge that gap and make them both work, balance the two forces — the left and the right. And I think that what Grant was doing, he was attempting to do just that. He could not grasp the sinister side without really focusing a lens on it to understand it, to anticipate what might happen if people did focus on the left.

If you don’t consciously focus on the sinister side, on the dark side, there’s no way to balance the psyche, the “bicameral mind,” to use one idea. There’s no way to do that without understanding both sides. And I think that this kind of western dualism is what is probably at the root of our anxiety in the west, where the east is concerned, for instance. We have an anxiety about it, we either eroticize it or we find it savage and horrible and dangerous. We don’t know what to do with it.

The understanding that I’ve come to is that there is a left side to the universe, to understanding reality. We sometimes have to suspend disbelief, we have to suspend the rational framework to get deeper into what’s happening to us.

When you’re confronted with life or death situations, Carl Sagan talked about lighting a candle in the dark. Sometimes I think that’s “whistling in the dark.” And this is the thing that bothers me, because I think that on your deathbed, you’re not going to be consoled by the first law of thermodynamics. You’re going to be consoled by something that’s inexpressible, maybe. Something you really can’t put your finger on. It’s going to be a human connection, or it’s going to be some innate desire — that there’s something beyond death. There’s something beyond this life. You’re going to hold on to that, because you’re afraid of losing your identity and you’re afraid of losing consciousness, and losing yourself forever.

I know it’s kind of a new age cliche, and I’m really self-conscious about talking about balancing the dark and the light, and balancing the good and the evil, and all the rest of it. But it’s just as good a way as any right now of trying to explain what I understand this mess to be.

There can be a real arrogance to materialism, or atheism.

There’s an arrogance on the other side as well. There’s definitely arrogance within religion, too. Especially sectarian concerns, where each religion is at the throat of the neighboring religion, which is really funny because science prefers to believe that scientists are all one big happy family — which of course is not true. Scientists hate each other just as much as different religions do. There’s jealous, and there’s mistrust, and there’s superstition. They’re human beings, and we’ve always been this way.

When you ask the question, “do we have the seeds of our own destruction?” It’s not only within the scientific or materialist framework, the seeds of our own destruction are in the fact that we cannot reconcile these two points of view. At some point we need to reconcile them. Science needs to address the spiritual in some way.

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