Friday, September 4, 2015

The Howardian Occult: 1932-1981

The Howardian Occult
Bobby Derie

As regards the hellish Black Book, if I can find some well-educated maniac, who hasn’t been crammed with conventional occult hokus-pokus, I may have him write it for publication.
- Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, 24 May 1932

Almost from the point they were first published, the artificial mythology crafted by H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and others was believed by some readers to be true. Farnsworth Wright received dozens of letters, asking after the Necronomicon and Unaussprechlichen Kulten, and eager fans and self-proclaimed occultists wrote to the authors themselves searching for this obscure and potent source of lore, only to be bitterly disappointed when the selfsame pulpsters admitted they had made the whole thing up out of whole cloth.

Lovecraft, in particular, would go on to see his Necronomicon incarnated in innumerable hoaxes. Many of these were well-meaning jests, like the George Hay Necronomicon: The Book of Dead Names (1978) or L. Sprague de Camp's Al Azif: The Necronomicon (1973). More were obvious works of fiction, or simply borrowed the name. Yet there remained a segment of the occult community that clamored for a "real" Necronomicon - and in 1977, this need was fulfilled when Schlangekraft published the Simon Necronomicon, which with Kenneth Grant's The Magical Revival (1973) sparked the birth of the nascent Lovecraftian occult movement - an occult tradition that continues to this day.

Robert E. Howard, for all his contributions to the Cthulhu Mythos, including the entire Hyborian Age, Unaussprechlichen Kulten, Stregoicavar, the Black Stone, Justin Geoffrey and the like, never inspired the same response from the occult community. For better or for worse, it was Lovecraft and his more immediate creations like the Necronomicon, Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Azathoth, Nyarlathotep, and Shub-Niggurath that captured the imaginations of both serious occultists and amateurs, while Howard's creations would go on to have more influence in the field of Sword & Sorcery fiction and comics. But that is not to say that there was not a Howardian Occult tradition, albeit a very small and tepid one.

It began in 1932, in a series of letters between Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft, each suggesting that the other might find it profitable to produce "real" versions of their respective fictional grimoires, the Necronomicon and Nameless Cults, with each man demurring for their own reasons. The idea was dropped, but the nucleus of the concept remained with Howard, who began collecting files of material for such a book, largely copied from his letters to and from H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and E. Hoffmann Price. From notes and marks found in the margins to certain of his surviving letters, we know that these passages largely concerned reincarnation, pre-historic peoples and civilizations, and Theosophical concepts (the latter mainly from Price), as well as related cuttings on such material.

The folder remained with Howard as he traveled across Texas, seeking care for his increasingly ailing mother. In early 1935, Robert E. Howard was staying in rented rooms in Marlin, TX where his mother was recovering at the nearby Torbett Sanitarium. The Torbetts were family friends of the Howards, and Robert was on good terms with Dr. Torbett's son, Thurston - an artistically-minded young man with an interest in the occult. Robert E. Howard himself remained rather skeptical of traditional occultism, seeing it as little more than nonsense designed to fleece money from the gullible, and found a like-minded feeling in Thurston Torbett's young friend Jonas Speer.

Speer was a long-standing fan of the pulp magazines and a subscriber to Weird Tales; he was also a "spiritual scientist" that felt a connection to the supernatural, yet had been repulsed by traditional occultism, with both its high-minded philosophies of spiritual advancement and grubby materialism unsatisfying. In Speer, Howard felt he had found at last the man that could write his Nameless Cults, and entrusted to him copies of the significant sections of the letters, cuttings from his folder. Both men reportedly agreed that the project was to be kept secret, so that when the book was revealed the hoax would be all the more convincing, with Howard supposedly going so far as to burn some of Speer's letters in the stove.

At this point, it should be noted that there is no surviving correspondence from either Speer or Howard mentioning the other; the events as related here were taken down long after the fact, when Speer was dying slowly in a cantina in a small town west of Tijuana in 1969. However, the facts do not contradict any of Howard's known movements or activities during this period either, so are assumed to be factual, at least until new evidence arises.

The death of Robert E. Howard in July 1936 meant that Speer was left on his own to develop the project. Speer himself claims that he had finished a rough draft of the book before Howard had died, but did not get an opportunity to post it before the event, and chose not to do so after he learned (from Torbett) that Howard had passed. The work was now, essentially, Speer's own. He took it to Hollywood.

Los Angeles in the late 1930s was a good place for a young man to get lost in, and records for Speer were very sparse during that period, though he kept in touch with Torbett, who had made friends in California when he himself had lived there in 1928-1929. Reportedly Speers worked as a set-dresser and apprentice prop production, paid cash under the table to avoid union fees, and attended courses at the University of California Southern Branch, his education being paid for by his parents back in Marlin. The product of these couple of years of industrious work and education were two books - the one, a forgery, painstakingly crafted to resemble an authentic tome, rendered mostly in Gothic (which Speers learned from study of the Codex Argenteus at the university library), with sections in various other antique scripts, including Egyptian hieroglyphs, Sumerian cuneiform, Sanskrit, and Han Chinese which Speer copied verbatim from various anthropological journals and studies; the other was a modern, neatly typed "translation" of the text - actually, the original manuscript that Speer had been working on for Robert E. Howard.

The forgery was designed to lend credence to Speer's claims regarding the book to a publishing house - and perhaps he might have done so, if he had not run into L. Ron Hubbard in 1939 or 1940. Speer was having difficulty establishing a successful provenance for his tome - nicknamed the Black Codex - and had quietly approached Hubbard, then working as a screenwriter in Hollywood, to help him with the project. The events that followed are confused; apparently the journalist who tracked Speer down in Mexico received various answers, but the effect was that Hubbard "borrowed" the typed manuscript and never returned it, flying off to New York one day and leaving Speer on his own. Without much other recourse, Speer produced a second copy of the manuscript, somewhat altered as he had to re-translate portions of it back from the Gothic forgery where his own notes were faulty or incomplete.

No copy of the translated Codex has appeared in any of Hubbard's papers, and inquiries to the Church of Scientology have not thus far been answered satisfactorily. Independent investigators who have compared Speer's second manuscript to the various Scientology teachings that have been made public claim that there are distinct parallels in phrasing and philosophy between the two works, sometimes amount to borrowing in the matter of the reincarnation of Thetans - but they also point out that both works obviously borrow from similar sources, in Theosophy and the pulp fiction of the period.

Speer, left to his own devices but still unsure of his ability to sell the manuscript as authentic, began to quietly attempt to profit on it. He advertised a correspondence course in his "scientific spiritualism" and a night course where he reputedly used the prop book repeatedly during "classes." The outbreak of war thwarted even these modest efforts, and Speer sold all of his belongings - including the Black Codex forgery - and fled to Mexico, where he remained and eventually died in 1972.

The Black Codex found a second life as a prop; the large, leather-bound tome with its imposing, and nearly unreadable Gothic script and vellum pages, stained dark with tea, was useful on the shelf in a library scene, or whenever a witch or warlock needed a particularly impressive prop to weave their incantations from. It's most notorious appearance, among those in the know, was as the prop Necronomicon in the 1970 production of The Dunwich Horror! The Property Master of the film, C. Randall Berkeley, reportedly purchased the book from a studio auction for use in the picture, making some cosmetic alterations to satisfy Director David Haller and Roger Corman. It served in the background in a few more pictures, and then disappeared from the studio inventory, probably as a result of theft.

The financial success of the Simon Necronomicon in '77 apparently encouraged similar efforts, and in 1981 the Thetonite Press of Washington produced a few copies of The Black Codex - apparently a copy of Speer's second manuscript, assembled from his correspondence course, and issued as an oversized paperback in a ridiculous orange cover, with faded photocopies of the original foreign-language segments, without translations. These copies, rare as they are, form the nucleus of the small Howardian Occult tradition, such as it is.

The '81 edition of the Black Codex consists of 13 chapters, and while scrubbed of names that would immediately identify it to pulp fiction fans as connected with the artificial mythology of Robert E. Howard & co., the contents are relatively predictable: the purported translation of several ancient documents and histories, passed down by various cults and secret societies, purporting to be the secret history of the world, or at least a portion of it, which existed before the recorded histories, civilizations, and peoples known today. These histories discuss lost continents and forgotten races - not all of whom are entirely human, but fantastic cousins of humanity and strange, degenerate survivals of older intelligent species - are interleaved with stretches of metaphysics and philosophy, utterly unlike most occult trappings, and in fact the book openly denounces "sorcery" as a path of lies for false prophets, and touches only lightly on any form of super-science; the parallels with Theosophy are thus clear, but it remains distinct.

However, the book does hold with a form of reincarnation, and the potential - though only the potential - immortality of the spirit, which may be re-embodied repeatedly throughout the ages, from its unknown source to its ultimate end, a sort of eternal radio signal for which the material body is only a temporary receiver. The actual occult segment eschews many of the typical spells and ceremonial practices, but includes "dreaming guides" and automatic writing exercises (with some obvious parallels to self-hypnotism and guided meditation) designed to "tune" yourself in to past lives. These dream meditations thus form the primary magical practice of the individuals and groups that have used the Black Codex, or incorporated its material into their own traditions and workings.

Most remarkable about the '81 Black Codex is perhaps that entire sections were copied almost verbatim from Howard's letters, such as this section from a letter to Lovecraft dated 24 May 1932:

There is to me a terrible pathos in a man’s vain wanderings on occult paths, and clutching at nonexistent things, as a refuge from the soul-crushing stark realities of life. One of the tragedies of Man, mounting to almost cosmic heights, it seems to me, would be for a human, having spent all his life groping in the shadows, to realize on his death-bed, that his gropings and imaginings were vain, and that his visions of “something beyond” were mere self-induced phantasies — to have all his props and stays of mysticisms and dreams and fancies and beliefs, blown suddenly away like smoke before the hard wind of reality, leaving him writhing feebly on the jagged rocks of materiality, dying as any other insect dies, and knowing that he is no divine spirit in tune with some mystic infinity, but only a faint spark of material light, to be extinguished forever in the blackness of the ultimate abyss.

In our next article, we will examine the development of the Black Codex tradition from 1981 through 2014.



  1. Isn't this the text said to be partly plagiarized by cult leader Roland franklyn of Brichester?

    1. No, there's no evidence the Black Codex made it across the pond. However, some of Franklyn's writings were later combined with material from the Codex in various post-New Age occult groups.