The Plot Running Like A Silver Cord – Channeling & Mediumship on the Margins of Literature

“I one day got the advance pages of Wolfshead which was about to be published. Reading it over I was so depressed and discouraged that I went and got a job jerking soda in a drug-store.”

– Robert E. Howard in a letter discussing his first story published in Weird Tales

Kenneth Grant made the observation that the work of H.P. Lovecraft was an unconscious form of communication with extra-dimensional entities.  Many have looked askance at this idea, considering Lovecraft’s atheism and his well documented rejection of the supernatural it seems odd to think that he would be some sort of unknowing psychic medium. However, this is assuming that what we call the paranormal, supernatural, or preternatural is actually outside of the normal course of events.

It’s important to understand that at the core of any anomalous phenomenon is very simply an experience, and that these experiences are codified through the cultural discourse to bring out some kind of linear meaning within the social narrative.

An orb in your house is a ghost, an orb in the forest is an elemental, fairy or Will o’ Wisp, and an orb in the sky is a UFO. Is there really any difference in the phenomenon itself? Or are these differences merely narrative devices that have grown out of a heavily mediated understanding of the event.

What is the difference between visualization techniques used by authors and artists and the visualization techniques used by someone trained in remote viewing?

During the tests at Stanford there were instances where remote viewers claimed to be able to see events on Mars, or to see UFO’s, through the application of their skills. Can this be separated from the work of an author like William S. Burroughs who remarked that the best writers are merely observers of an internal film, and that the more successful authors are the ones who are better able to capture and guide in words the narrative structure of what they see?

“Let no man read here who lives only in the world about him. To these leaves, let no man stoop to whom Yesterday is as a closed book with iron hasps, to whom Tomorrow is the unborn twin of Today. Here let no man seek the trend of reality, nor any plan or plot running like a silver cord through the fire-limned portraits here envisioned.

But I have dreamed as men have dreamed and as my dreams have leaped into my brain full-grown, without beginning and without end, so have I, with gold and sapphire tools, etched them in topaz and opal against a curtain of ivory.”

– from the introduction to Etchings in Ivory, by Robert E. Howard

When we go back and read accounts of mediumship from the late 19th and early 20th century, such as From India to the Planet Mars, Theodore Flournoy’s study of the psychic Helene Smith, we find that there really is little difference between her accounts and the science fiction of the time. Flournoy even makes a point of this, demonstrating how many of Smith’s ideas seem to have emerged from speculative scientific writing on the nature of alien worlds.

While, on the whole, therefore, it is probable that its roots extend back as far as the childhood of Mlle. Smith, it is nevertheless with the Martian romance, as well as with the others, not a mere question of the simple cryptomnesiac return of facts of a remote past, or of an exhumation of fossil residua brought to light again by the aid of somnambulism.

It is a very active process, and one in full course of evolution, nourished, undoubtedly, by elements belonging to the past, but which have been recombined and moulded in a very original fashion, until it amounts finally, among other things, to the creation of an unknown language. It will be interesting to follow step by step the phases of this elaboration: but since it always, unfortunately, hides itself in the obscurity of the subconsciousness, we are only cognizant of it by its occasional appearances, and all the rest of that subterranean work must be inferred, in a manner somewhat hypothetical, from those supraliminal eruptions and the scanty data which we have concerning the outward influences which have exerted a stimulating influence upon the subliminal part of Hélène.”

– from From India to the Planet Mars, by Theodore Flournoy (1900 – Trans. Daniel B. Vermilye)

Smith, according to Flournoy, was viewing narratives played out in her mind that were shaped by her reading, but brought alive by her unconscious emotional and mental activity. In other words her visionary states were filtered through her social narrative.

Authors such as Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and W.B. Yeats were well versed in occult philosophy and actively pursued this process. Their writing is informed not only by occult narratives, but in many cases come out of experiment and practice in visionary techniques.

The difference between the errant psychic medium and the established author is their ability to maintain a socially acceptable narrative for their own life. It is their ability to control this process, or at least their awareness of it’s basic nature, that allows them to maintain a stable personality while tapping in to the same forces that turn someone like Smith into a curiosity of science. Blackwood and Yeats were also firmly entrenched in the establishment, were eccentricity is mitigated by family standing and wealth, most psychic mediums are not so fortunate.

When looking at American fiction, which has so distinctly separated the “pulp” narrative from a respectable place in the canon, we find a similar dynamic. What marks “pulp” fiction is the fact that it’s authors are a part of, or are willing to write for, the general public, they are also less tied to technical devices.  The raw emotional undertones of their writing is rarely concealed, it breaks forth unbidden, often against their attempts at controlling it through genre constraints.

Establishment novelists are marked by their staid prose, and formulaic attention to structure. Heavily schooled, their writing technique sits on the surface, barely concealed by brief flights of inspiration. Even at its best establishment literature has a sense of something dead, those who break this mold often find themselves on the margins, or have their breakthroughs when faced with losing their social standing.

Statistics show that while belief in the paranormal is equally distributed across society, experience of the paranormal (at least as reported during surveys) has a higher percentage of occurrence in marginalized groups. So where better to look than marginalized literature to find a much less hidden use of mediumship in the creative process.

While reading Jocelyn Godwin’s recent work, Atlantis and the Cycles of Time, I was struck by how familiar the concepts of Hyperborean civilizations were to me.  I’ve never had much of an interest in that realm of speculation, so it was odd that it’s concepts would be so recognizable. It took me a few days to realize that this was because much of the narrative had already been put into my consciousness by a youth spent reading the works of Robert E. Howard.

After doing a bit of research I found that Howard’s interest in history, which gave his historical fiction an air of reality, was paralleled by an equally deep interest in the occult. His initial letters to Lovecraft contain inquiries into the esoteric truths behind the Cthulhu Mythos. As one of the founding writers of the “Sword and Sorcery” genre, Howard’s Hyperborean heroes Conan, Kull, and Bran Mac Morn all travel through worlds enlivened by Theosophical and speculative archaeological theories of prehistoric civilizations.

Going back to his work it became apparent that this interest also lead to his use of visionary techniques to induce creativity, and in his mind to actually see these prehistoric narratives play out before his mind’s eye.  As he puts it  “dreams have leaped into my brain full-grown.”  Through the use of the creative imagination Howard felt that he was actually viewing scenes from past lives, and his fragmentary writings, outside of his published work, are written as memories rather than fictional narratives.

These visions formed a part of Howard’s escape from the reality of his life. As the opening quote shows, even after being published he was still pursuing marginal jobs. This is not to discount his experiences, but the motivation to pursue them, and the ability to more openly explore their meaning, was an allowance afforded him by living on the fringes of society.  If he was willing to take a job at a soda fountain, he certainly was less likely to be afraid to open himself to the unknown and unproven.

Howard never claimed to know the veracity of these visions, so couched in fiction he brought them forward as questions and misty scenes from the realms outside “the trend of reality.” If we consider the fact that the line between psychic medium and talented creative is a very thin, and perhaps non-existant, line we can see how Grant’s statement about Lovecraft’s mediumship might not be so far off.  It’s not that Lovecraft wasn’t a medium, it’s that to him lucid dreaming and visionary states were perfectly normal, the word “supernatural” didn’t fit into his narrative.

For more on the relationship between art and mediumship, the speculative fiction author Matt Cardin has a fascinating series called A Course in Demonic Creativity:

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