Sunday, March 31, 2013

Volubilis Ex Chaosium by S. Ben Qayin

Dark Harvest Publishing 2012.  133 pages.  Octavo.  Black and white illustrations.

Available in two editions:

Chaosium Edition: Trade hardcover limited to 478 hand-numbered copies.
Deluxe Priesthood of Irem Edition: Full goat skin, limited to 37 signed copies. Sold out at publisher.

Volubilis Ex Chaosium is the most recent edition to an ever-growing library of occult works inspired by the writings of legendary American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft.  For nearly forty years occult writers have used Lovecraft's works as a foundation for esoteric exploration.  One of the earlier examples is Anthony Raven's The Occult Lovecraft, published in 1975 (a slim booklet limited to 990 numbered copies).  The author makes note of occult references throughout HPL's fiction and explores the depth of HPL's knowledge was on the subject.  This was followed by the infamous 'Simon' Necronomicon in 1977 and another so-called Necronomicon edited by George Hay shortly after in 1978.

 Since then there has a been a near-constant stream of occult Lovecraftiana.  The works of Kenneth Grant draw heavily from the cosmic horror of HPL, often comparing HPL's trans-dimensional alien gods to grim qliphotic entities.  More recent additions to the ever-growing corpus include Liber Yog-Sothoth by John J. Coughlin, Cthulhu Cult by Venger Satanis, and a number of others.  These books range from delightfully creative to utter nonsense.  There are even, not one, but TWO, different Lovecraft inspired tarot decks available.

A number of these writers (though not all) believe HPL's stories are not entirely fiction and that his works contain a hidden and very ancient magical current.  This notion is particularly popular among Chaos Magic practitioners who often find HPL's colorful pantheon of gods and monsters irresistible, as it lends a gleefully eldritch veneer to their workings.  In fact, in my experience, it is one of the most popular paradigms utilized by chaotes.  However, the concept can be somewhat problematic considering HPL did not believe in magic or the supernatural, as can be seen clearly in this quote from one of his letters,
“All I say is that I think it is damned unlikely that anything like a central cosmic will, a spirit world, or an eternal survival of personality exist. They are the most preposterous and unjustified of all the guesses which can be made about the universe, and I am not enough of a hair-splitter to pretend that I don't regard them as arrant and negligible moonshine. In theory I am an agnostic, but pending the appearance of radical evidence I must be classed, practically and provisionally, as an atheist.” -- H.P. Lovecraft
Even so, there is of course the possibility that HPL was an unwitting accomplice.  Many of HPL's best works were directly inspired by dreams.  Thus it is theorized the contents and themes of some of his stories may have been the product of transmissions sent by alien intelligences and received unconsciously, making some of his works (particularly those considered part of the Cthulhu Mythos) to be considered received texts.  According to the introduction of Volubilis Ex Chaosium, author S. Ben Qayin shares this view.

There have been a number of very good cases made to support this theory.  To my knowledge, the best arguments supporting the hypothesis are given by David Geall in his essays, "A half-choked meep of cosmic fear: Is there esoteric symbolism in H.P. Lovecraft's The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath?" and "In a Mirror, Darkly: A comparison between the Lovecraftian Mythos and African-Atlantic mystery religions" published in The Journal for the Academic Study of Magic volumes 3 & 4 respectively.  The former essay is especially convincing.  Geall reveals a number of astounding qabalistic synchronicities found within HPL's "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath".  It's well worth the read.

Yet HPL maintained he knew very little about the occult.  When asked about specific occult details in his stories and what he knew about black magic, HPL stated,
"As for Black Magic--I fear I'm not any such expert as you suppose!  In fiction I prefer original horrors to flat transcripts from folklore, and my knowledge of actual medieval formulae and practices is really abominably fragmentary."
On the surface his stories support this.  HPL borrowed terms (at times erroneously) from the works A.E. Waite and Eliphas Levi, what he called "rather dry and pompous treatises", with poor understanding of their meaning and usage.  In perhaps his most overly occult tale, "The Horror at Red Hook", it is obvious that HPL simply chose esoteric words and phrases he felt would make good literary props.  In a letter to fellow horror writer Clark Ashon Smith he mentions that he decorated the tale with incantations found in the 9th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica under the entry "magic".  Of course believers theorize HPL's errors are simply a "blind" or that he didn't fully understand the arcane information presented to him via dream.

Now, on to the book....

Volubilis Ex Chaosium (meaning, whirling or spinning out of a place of chaos) begins with a brief foreword by Dr. Robert Ing followed by an introduction by S. Ben Qayin.  It is here that the author makes his case for his belief that HPL was a prophet and unsuspecting mouthpiece for the Great Old Ones.  The author writes, "When conceiving this text, it seemed apparent that since Lovecraft had been the unwilling victim & medium receiving these nightmare messages from The Old Ones, that they are the ones to be contacted and worked with."  He continues by comparing HPL's dream contact as analogous to Golden Dawn founder Samuel MacGregor Mathers' experience with the "Secret Chiefs".   Quite frankly, I felt this was the most fascinating part of the whole book.  His analysis is intriguing, and he supplied a number of interesting facts to support his stance. I wish the author had expounded more on this in greater detail.

The rest of the book is devoted to the construction of magical tools and rites designed by the author  (not HPL) for contacting specific entities from the Cthulhu Mythos.  These sections stuck me as rather uninspired.  For example, in the section regarding magical tools, S. Ben Qayin remains disappointingly conventional by falling back on default implements of ceremonial magic; ones we are all familiar with: wand, cup, mirror, crystal ball, black candles, incense, etc.  When compared to the other-worldliness of HPL's creations, traditional magical tools seem tragically ill-suited and trite.  The godlike entities that populate the Cthulhu Mythos are so utterly alien and unlike anything in Classical mythology (or demonology for that matter) that one would think they would require an entirely different set of tools and practices from what most Western occultist are accustomed to.  In fact they do, and it's right there in the stories.

Throughout all HPL's stories he makes it abundantly clear that the means to contact The Great Old Ones is though a state of altered consciousness, whether achieved ritualistically or artificially.  It is certainly not through repackaged goetia, unless one is going solely by the misappropriated Encyclopedia Britannica phrases used in "The Horror at Red Hook".  For example, in the story "From Beyond" the protagonist creates a machine that affects the pineal gland of the brain, much like DMT, making other dimensions and their inhabitants visible.  I'm not suggesting the author invent a fictitious device, but why not utilize something already in existence, like Brion Gysin's 'Dream Machine', to help create a trance state?  This isn't complicated: you can even download a Dream Machine app for your iPhone HERE.

HPL also hints at using entheogens to alter one's perception and access the trans-dimensional realms of the Old Ones.  Blogger Chris Bennett makes a convincing arguement, in his article "H.P. Lovecraft and the Origins of 4:20" that HPL's "mirage-plant" is actually marijuana.  Read it HERE.   Other tales suggesting chemical assistance to transcend into the unknown include "Hypnos", "Ex Oblivione", and "Celephais".

In the story "The Dreams in the Witch House", contact is made through mind-altering exploration of occult geometry including non-Euclidean calculus and quantum physics.  Author S. Ben Qayin does include elements of geometry, but it is limited to the ubiquitous magic circle and Triangle of Arte.  One would think that when trying contact multi-dimensional beings one would be better served meditating on a geometric form like a hyper-cube, a.k.a. a tesseract.  It should be mentioned the author does include one element that is directly from HPL, a trapezohedron from the tale "The Haunter of the Dark" and recommends that it be used as a scying device and portal; beyond this, little instruction is given.

Furthermore, in "The Call of Cthulhu", the namesake of the Cthulhu Mythos, barbarous cults achieve altered states of consciousness, or trance states, through ecstatic dance, drumming, and through "nameless rites and human sacrifices".  In "The Dunwich Horror" Wizard Whateley offers up his own daughter to be impregnated by Yog-Sothoth.  These are extreme acts of cultural transgression that are known to trigger altered states of consciousness.  While I'm certainly not insinuating the author recommend ritualized murder or cannibalism, it must be said that lighting black candles, waving a wand around, and reading darkly poetic evocations seems incredibly pedestrian by comparison.  The works of HPL suggest that a certain degree of boundary-crossing and trance is needed, a subject the author mostly avoids.  Granted, a few rites require one to make a small cut on one's arm, but this is as 'edgy' Volubilis Ex Chaosium gets.

Image by Chaosium Inc.
The rest of the rituals are simple evocations with directions about how to arrange the props.  The book does not strike me as being very serious.  More than a few sections seemed rather tongue-in-cheek, such as stating a specific size/height requirement for black candles. (???)  The book would likely prove more useful for those who engage in Lovecraftian 'live-action role-playing' and perhaps should have come with its own d20.  In fact, this may very well be the book's intent.  The standard 'Chaosium Edition' may be a clue.  Chaosium is also the name of the game company that makes the role-playing game Call of Cthulhu.  Either this book was intended for "gamers" as a prop or the author (or publisher) chose a very unfortunate name for the standard edition.  As such, it is difficult to take it seriously.

None of the entities' attributes, symbolism, or background are explored in depth, leaving me wondering why I would want to call up any of them in the first place.  In the 'Evocation of Shub-Niggurath' S. Ben Qayin states, "She is evoked to help one see their present circumstances and the possible 'paths' at hand.  She cannot advise the Magician on which course to take, only show him the possible routes."  Now, please take a moment to look at an artist's depiction of Shub-Niggurath (see pic below).  Am I to believe Shub-Niggurath 'The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young' is to be used as a guidance counselor?  Really?  Lovecraft clearly portrays Shub-Niggurath as a proto-fertility goddess (using gender very loosely here), but not in a good way.  It is more akin to the fertility of flies on a corpse.  The author makes no mention of this -- a significant oversight.  I see no reason one would want to implore the unclean blessing of Shub-Niggurath unless one is looking to birth abominations.

Image by Zarano

The author lists a number of "sacred days" that should be observed, listing Imbolc (Feb 12th), May-Eve (April 30th), Good Friday, and Samhain/Halloween (Oct 31st).  However, he gives absolutely no reason why.  Nor does he explain where these dates are found within HPL's work.  Why not equinoxes and solstices?  HPL specifically mentions Yuletide (winter solstice) as a sacred night in the tale "The Festival", yet the author completely omits this.

"It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind. It was the Yuletide, and I had come at last to the ancient sea town where my people had dwelt and kept festival in the elder time when festival was forbidden; where also they had commanded their sons to keep festival once every century, that the memory of primal secrets might not be forgotten." -- H. P. Lovecraft  "The Festival"

Volubilis Ex Chaosium is a brief work.  The author managed to stretch out the book's page number by including a number of full-page chapter titles, one-sided pages, and very large text size.  Technically the book has 133 pages, but it likely has less than 100 pages of actual content.  Pages containing incantations are difficult to read.  The author, or perhaps publisher, made the perplexing and unfortunate decision to include an underlay of symbols beneath the text (presumably some invented form of 'Alko' script).  It adds a creative flair, but is not very practical.  When reciting in low-light (candle-light or moonlight, as the author suggests) it becomes a garbled mess.  Or maybe it's just my old eyes.

The Priesthood of Irem edition is bound in full green goatskin.  The shade of green is perfect; a hue that Lovecraft himself would probably call a leprous green.  Acquiring specific colors of leather can be a difficult task, so congrats to the binder (Mr. Coughlin at Waning Moon, I suspect) for his deftness in securing such befitting materials.  The leather feels quite nice, being smooth and supple.  The cover is blind-stamped with a triangular device, the same configuration of triangles recommended for evocation within the text.  The spine contains four raised bands and topped with white & green head/tail bands.  This edition has solid black endpapers which are nice.  However, I prefer the black moire endpapers of the standard edition which have an appropriately worm-like pattern.  The Priesthood of Irem edition includes and a black silk ribbon bookmark.  Here again I prefer the standard 'Chaosium Edition', as its bookmark has 'Alko' script in gold running its length -- a nice touch.  The only drawback is that it is laid in and not attached to the book itself.

Pages are of above-average quality paper and pure white.  The book includes four, black & white, glossy full-page illustrations by Lucas Pandolfelli that greatly enhance the text. Regrettably their titles are not given.  Some of the book's graphics, particularly the chapter title pages, are of questionable quality and appear slightly pixelated.  Higher resolution images should have been used.  This appears to be a common problem with many small presses.

Another common problem in the small press, and even among large publishers, is over-reliance on SpellCheck.  Dark Harvest Publishing is no exception.  I noticed a number of glaringly obvious typos.  For example, the word "altar", meaning a sacred table or pedestal, is spelled "alter" with an "e" -- a totally different meaning --  throughout the entire book.   Naturally this is an error that SpellCheck will not catch, nor did the editor apparently.  Another example of poor editing can be found in the section devoted to incense.  Here the passage, "Nyarlathotep: Frankincense, Blood, Sage, Cinnamon, Sandalwood." is printed twice consecutively on page 123.

A note on the section devoted to incense: No explanation is given explaining why certain scents are applicable to various entities.  Nor does the author explain how he arrived at his correspondences.  The reader has no idea whether he found them in HPL's tales (he didn't), divined them, or just pulled them out of the air.  I can only assume the author is using a vaguely elemental structure when assigning incense.  I found this more than a bit odd, as the author specifically states, "Old Ones added by authors who worked within Lovecraft's structure or 'Yog-Sothery', such as August Derleth, Frank Belknap Long and others, will not be included or worked with here."

The author's theory is that these authors were not "chosen" as Lovecraft was, relegating their Cthulhu Mythos tales to apocryphal texts.  Yet it was Lovecraft's protege August Derleth, not HPL, who first proposed the elemental theory behind HPL's creations.  Noted Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi points out the elemental theory's logical errors in Icons of Horror and the Supernatural stating, "he [Derleth] maintained that Nyarlathotep was an earth elemental.  This is already problematical, especially as Cthulhu is said to have come from the stars and is imprisoned under water making it unlikely that that is his natural element."  Yet S. Ben Qayin follows the elemental model by assigning the watery scents: "Cedar, Willow, Bark, Water Lilly, Dried Seaweed" to Cthulhu.  Perhaps he feels it is permissible to use other author's theories, just not their gods.

It is my opinion that Volubilis Ex Chaosium was published prematurely.  It is far too brief to present any kind of workable system.  It has the beginnings of a very interesting book but lacks depth and any kind of thorough analysis, either of HPL's work, or of the author's Lovecraft-based system.  It amounts to nothing more than qliph notes.  It follows the same tired template found in dozens of other recent occult titles that are equally disappointing.  There seems to be a notion among some of today's occult writers that they can create their own magical system by simply swapping out a few god names, inventing a series of correspondences, and replacing traditional formulae with their own poetry, all while keeping the underlying format and mechanics the same.  It is a theatrical overlay; the magical equivalent of adding food coloring, a practice I feel is creatively and intellectually lazy.

As for Lovecraftian magic, HPL set the bar very high.  If contemporary occult writers are serious about using his bleak cosmic model for more than just stage lighting, or exotic window-dressing to give stale rituals spice, then they desperately need to look beyond conventional Western magical practices and traditions.  The last thing the occult publishing world needs is yet another regurgitation of Agrippa, Barrett, Levi, et al. with green tentacles added for drama.

Even so, S. Ben Qayin has potential.  In the book he alludes to plans for publishing future books devoted to individual gods of the Cthulhu Mythos.  The first will be The Book of Smokeless Fire followed by Nyarlathotep: Spirit of the Desert.  One hopes that he will not make the same mistakes and instead provide longer works with adequate analysis, well-reasoned insight, and original ideas.  If not, they will amount to nothing more than further volumes of fan-fiction.