Dark Grimoire Tarot Review
© 2008 by Judith A. Johnston
That Bloodcurdling Guy and His Many Friends
Oh, I love a tarot deck that comes at things differently! Fresh artwork by a living artist, who does not appropriate and scan the artwork of others long-dead for “new” decks, plus a different way of thinking that is not a rehash of the same old Rider-Waite system.
Michele Penco, the artist of the Dark Grimoire Tarot, spent months doing storyboards and characterizations for the cards and sometimes featured them on his online blog. He seems genuinely interested in the stories of H.P. Lovecraft that provide the impetus for this deck. Once I saw that Michele had really captured the stories, I bought the deck, and felt it would be a terrific companion for the H.P. Lovecraft Tarot that features Daryl Hutchinson’s thoughtful, creative artwork. Daryl knows these stories very well, so he makes a perfect guide to the Lovecraft oeuvre. At the moment, his deck is out-of-print and hard to track down, but if you own one, it is a useful and beautiful comparison deck to the Dark Grimoire.
I have had fun comparing the two decks and each artist’s interpretation of character and story, and I have re-read several stories in H.P. Lovecraft anthologies. About four years ago I bought and read the following anthologies from Amazon.ca, which are also available in the States, and you can find similar anthologies in the UK, Europe, and Australia in slightly different editions. I also bought a selection of some of his early writing, which is often compared to that of Clark Ashton Smith, but Lovecraft soon developed his own style and characters that are individual to him. There is always the library for hunting up stories too:
The Transition of H.P. Lovecraft : The Road to Madness ISBN 0345384229
The Best of H.P. Lovecraft : Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre ISBN 0345350804
H.P. Lovecraft and Others : Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos ISBN 034542204X
Once familiar with the stories and the Dark Grimoire deck, people might like to branch out and see how Lovecraft influenced writers over the last 80 years. Several anthologies contain short stories by authors who were contemporaries of Lovecraft, as well as present-day authors like Stephen King or Neil Gaiman, who grew up reading Lovecraft and delight in bringing his characters or settings into their own work. My favourite of these is Neil Gaiman’s Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar which has wonderful references to H.P. Lovecraft’s story The Shadow Over Innsmouth that is so much a part of this tarot deck.
Admittedly, it takes a bit of time to “get” the references and familiarize yourself with all of Lovecraft’s stories, but that is the fun for me and one of the main reasons I enjoy Lo Scarabeo decks so much, you need to do some research but the delight in finding things for yourself is unending. You do not have to track down every single card in the deck either, they are quite evocative on their own. Lo Scarabeo decks are like beautiful puzzles that give pleasure to one’s life and provide food for the mind. They usually have a few interesting decks throughout the year that give me hope for the continuation of imagination and creativity in the tarot genre.
We Are ALL Mad, I Tell You
I read some of these stories when young, but did not really understand H.P. Lovecraft at the time. I have only come to appreciate him with reading a wider selection of his work and seeing one story tie into another. In these days of blood and guts horror, it is refreshing to read Lovecraft, who crafted wonderful stories of atmosphere and suspense without having any gore. Many of his characters go mad and cannot speak of the things they have seen, while other characters find them indescribable. Still, Lovecraft manages to convey a lingering disquiet and dreamlike quality that makes one half believe he is telling the truth. Welcome to his Eldritch dream-world.
The notes in the booklet accompanying the deck have clues to the stories for the Major arcana, but you will have to sift and read to find the references in the Minor arcana. I really found this interesting though, particularly when I discovered a scene that is also illustrated in the H.P. Lovecraft Tarot. It was fascinating to compare the cards. The first one I noticed was that they both used the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, who wrote the Necronomicon, on The Magician card. I have scanned a comparison of that to highlight the similarity and differences of the artists. They really bounce off each other, giving you different impressions of the words.
Those Demon Swords Are Out to Get Me
Do you have bulgy eyes and a strange-shaped head? Do you have any ancestors from New England? Watch out, or you will need to take a trip to Innsmouth and discover the real truth about strange old Aunt Heddy. Whatever you do, avoid a stay overnight in the Gilman House hotel, or you might end up in a situation like the fellow on the 7 of Swords. At least I think that is the scene depicted, since the gun was not in the story. As a Sword archetype, the idea of thought and demons comes through wonderfully in this picture of hovering menace. Michele Penco has taken some liberties with scenery and such, as is his right as an interpreter, but for the most part, these scenes are familiar enough to identify.
The 2 of Swords features another story called The Music of Erich Zann, which is a bit strange since Erich Zann was an old man in the story, but this might simply be an interpretation of the artist, or a reference to the younger man who is the story’s narrator, and the blindfold of course refers to the archetypal imagery on this card. Since the Swords are about demons enslaving the mind, this story fits perfectly with the obsessive Erich and his playing of music. Here is a visual of the artwork showing Erich Zann playing his “viol” compared to Daryl Hutchinson’s interpretation.
The 10 of Swords most certainly deals with The Dunwich Horror and Wilbur Whately and his farmhouse. Likewise, IX The Hermit depicts Henry Armitage deciphering the horrifying diary of Wilbur using several esoteric books to help him, under an electric light with his hands shaking at the monstrous revelations. Be wary of the whippoorwill’s call and strange, malign odours near Sentinel Hill; Great Cthulhu has many cousins in forest belts. Dunwich is a crumbling little town, not used to visits by outsiders, with furtive, solitary residents, much like Innsmouth. “By Their smell can men sometimes know Them near.”
As I mentioned, The Shadow Over Innsmouth is featured many times in the deck, including XVIII The Moon, and the 5 of Swords. I am not sure if the 9 of Swords also refers to this story, because I first I thought it was related to Arthur Jermyn, one of Lovecraft’s early stories. I have noticed this familiarity in several cards, since Lovecraft used common themes in disparate stories. Writers often take an idea and write several different stories with it, in the same way that visual artists work an idea out in a series, and Lovecraft is a good example of this.
Cthulhu Calls While In Your Cups
There are quite a few cards showing scenes from The Call of Cthulhu. The 7 of Chalices seems to be artist Henry Wilcox, dreaming of “great cyclopean cities of titan blocks and sky-flung monoliths” which fits in with the general description of dreams representing emotions and the element of water in this classic Cups suit. It is interesting to note that Lovecraft himself was often troubled by dreams and nightmares and had a nervous collapse in his teenage years. I like to think that his writing saved him from such nervousness as he worked out nightmares, characters, and situations in his writing, and thus dispelled any physical problems he had experienced when young.
The 8 of Pentacles also shows Wilcox, who was a sculptor, bringing to life in clay and marble the images from his dreams, an interpretation in the earthy materials of the Pentacles suit. I really liked the way Penco tied that earth element into his image. Similarly, another artist, Richard Pickman, from the story Pickman’s Model, is drawn on the 3 of Pentacles in his earthy cave-like basement, painting one of those lovely ghouls that had a great appetite for flesh.
The 4 of Chalices could be Inspector Legrasse contemplating the statue of Cthulhu or perhaps Professor Angell, or even poor Robert Blake from The Haunter of the Dark contemplating the steeple of the church on Federal Hill through his window while he tries to decipher the book he took from the church, (although there is no small statue of Cthulhu in that specific story.) I also think The Fool might be Blake after his breakdown, sitting under a light to dispel the burning eye, the steeple, the amorphous dancers of Azathoth, and the robed, hooded figures of the Starry Wisdom sect. He doesn’t wear a strait jacket in the story though. The 6 of Chalices also reminds me of that story, although it is a woman on the card, because Blake used to sit and watch the roofs of the town below his windows and the sunsets that flamed behind them.
The scene on The Wheel might refer to a sect in the swamps of New Orleans. According to Lovecraft, many white-robed Cthulhu Cults are found around the world in Haiti, Africa, Australia, China, the Philippines, and North America, so this is obviously one of the cults on the 5 of Pentacles, with the tentacles of Cthulhu shadowed on the wall. The fictional cults were often thought to be practicing Voodoo, but that was only because Cthulhu was a closely guarded secret, almost unknown to people who were not initiates. This Voodoo aspect is referred to on the Justice card, which I rather like, since as well as being serious or severe and weighing things in judgment, it means to me that Justice, to retain equilibrium, can also separate from the disturbing practices and rituals of others, and their dark evocations.
The door on the XIII Death card appears to be the door to the city of R’lyeh where Cthulhu and the Old Ones wait to arise when the stars are right. There is a scene in The Call of Cthulhu describing some seamen who find the city rising in Australian waters and they investigate and find this massive door and inadvertently let Cthulhu out when it is opened. The smoke of long-undisturbed darkness is described, although unlike the card there were no other people.
Women, Women, Everywhere
I am lost to explain the women on several of these cards as Lovecraft did not often feature women, except peripherally, in his stories. The “Lady” on the Empress seems to be of the artist’s imagination, since Cthulhu alone was the priest who held the incantations and ability to conjure and bring back the Old Ones and cause R’lyeh to resurface. Perhaps the goddess is simply an addition to fit in with the familiar tarot archetype? The 8 of Swords suggested to me the Mi-Go brain cylinder from the story The Whisperer in Darkness, although the characters in that were men, so this woman on the card would seem to take the place of Henry Akeley, that lone fighter of aliens and holder of the Black Stone.
The woman on the Strength card holds up the Shining Trapezohedron to ward off a monster, but in the story from which the Trapezohedron comes, The Haunter of the Dark, there is no woman, so I think the artist is again inventing a female balance for the deck. The Wands suit is about lights defeating the darkness, but I generally feel after looking at some confusing scenes on cards that Penco has amalgamated scenes and characters to fit cards as he saw fit, and used women instead of the men Lovecraft wrote about. And why not? We are not adhering to rigid formulae set down by equally rigid tarot experts, WE are imagining!
Polyphemus Thrashes Euclid
Dagon the Fish-God is referred to as “Polyphemus-like, and loathesome” in the story Dagon. In mythology, Polyphemus was the giant one-eyed son of Poseidon and chief of the Cyclopes. In Homer’s epic Odyssey, Ulysses (or Odysseus) blinds this Cyclops in order to escape his cave. Many things in H.P. Lovecraft’s writing are referred to as “cyclopean” or gigantic, particularly buildings or monuments, and this enormous architecture is hinted at on the cards.
Several references are made by Lovecraft to architecture that is “non-Euclidean.” Euclidean geometry uses basic principles of points and straight lines and conformity, or equality of counterparts. Everything is balanced in angle and line and relationships are preserved between things, no matter which way they turn. Non-Euclidean geometry would then be “not quite right” as Lovecraft labels it. Angles and relationship of measurement would be skewed, relating the parts would be confusing, chaos would enter the equation. It reminds me of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, where the house was so “off” that doors would not stay open. You expect weird things to happen in such places.
There are several scenes in the Dark Grimoire of lumpen cities of block and stone, with great monoliths, but nothing unusually non-Euclidean. This seems to be a fancy that can only be worked out in the individual reader’s mind, like conjuring up the miasma of fog and off-kilter smells. Michele has many cards with pyramids on them, suggesting aged civilization and mystery, but not in any way non-Euclidean, yet his buildings do suggest the unexpected and unfamiliar, which remains true to Lovecraft.
Here are cyclopean buildings with Dagon’s head and others drawn beside the main figure on XXI The World card: we are all a-tumble in the clouds and steppes of imagination.
What IS the Shining Trapezohedron ?
Hey, that is a good question to haunt us in the dark. Fortunately, there are some printable models of polyhedra on the Internet, and I found two types of trapezohedron available to craft. The smaller one is a Square Trapezohedron, and the larger, more pointed one, is a Pentagonal Trapezohedron. Trapezohedrons have kite shapes making up the facets, and in these two examples, the square one has four kites, like the four sides of a square, repeated on the top and bottom for a total of eight sides. The pentagonal one has five kites like the five sides of a pentagon, repeated for a total of ten sides. The basic models range from trigonal trapezohedrons to decagonal trapezohedrons and the more sides they have the sharper and more pointed they get, which I think you can see if comparing my two models.
I coloured the sides of my models in Photoshop by sampling colours from scans of the Dark Grimoire cards. I love to try different artsy things while studying decks, and this familiarized me with both the story and the wonderfully subdued colours of the deck. If you look on the 7 of Wands card, you can see that Michele Penco has rendered the trapezohedron very well, with its shining light bouncing off its many sides to horrify the dark beasts and cause them to shrink back.
The Esoteric Order of I Read Lovecraft
Dagon as The Devil was a bit puzzling as I had not at the time read Lovecraft’s story Dagon, and did not understand the reference. Upon reading that, the secret society called the Esoteric Order of Dagon, described in the story The Shadow Over Innsmouth, finally fell into place for me. Reading the stories out of the order of their publication can be a bit confusing, but that too is part of fitting the puzzle together. I claim no expertise, but the effort made to understand this deck and the writing of Lovecraft really is a joy for me; I am keen on the adventure of the hunt, just as I was with the H.P. Lovecraft Tarot when I first received it.
The stampeding horses and buggy on VII The Chariot are straight from The Colour Out of Space, although the rider is not. Several waterfalls and lakes are shown in the deck, referring perhaps to the waterfalls near Innsmouth or the waterfalls described in The Doom That Came to Sarnath. The court cards could refer to many kings and rulers described in various stories. The search remains for each deck owner to track these charming landscapes from the cards in the words of H.P. Lovecraft. Remember to search in attendant writings from other authors, a clue being the story The Dweller in the Tomb by Lin Carter as hinted at in V The Hierophant in the Dark Grimoire.
Some cards highlight scenes from Lovecraft’s novella, At the Mountains of Madness, a lyrical enchantment of travel, archaeology, the huge Old Ones, and demonic Shoggoth. I thought that the 4 of Wands and maybe the 10 of Wands and XIX The Sun, might refer to this longer story. As I said, many of these works tend to have similar elements.
Part of the challenge of H.P. Lovecraft lies in keeping his pantheon of demons and gods straight in your mind. There are many sites on the Internet that have alphabetical dictionaries of characters and their relation to each other, so I would encourage people to browse: a few keywords and the name “Lovecraft”in a search will bring up relevant sites for further clarification.
H.P. is Such a Reasonable Chap
Ever in search of empirical evidence of my devotion to reason, I recently bought a comic representation of stories by Lovecraft. I could see myself tracking down other comics with Lovecraft stories in them, sort of akin to my hot pursuit of postcard bundles dealing with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels. It is born of keen interest, my interest as a human wrapped up in the human condition, verifying statistics and trends and such; a necessary, and understandable, function of rationality.
[Actually I just like comics. Shhh, don’t tell.]
I am not greatly interested in the obsessive “fandom” of horror or science fiction, I echo William Shatner’s attitude in that I think people need to “Get a life,” but there is something compelling about winding your way through decks and art and writing in relation to Lovecraft. I have found it so, although I would never use Lovecraft-speak or anything.
Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.
Darn, that just slipped out.