Dark decks; why? This is something I have often asked myself when faced with the steady Japanese water torture drip of tarot decks that are supposed to scare us or (even more bemusingly) be used for the euphemistically termed “shadow work.” There are dark decks in the same way that there are dark books, dark films or dark clothes and yet I question these less. I find myself suspicious of tarot trends in a way I am not suspicious of other trends out there in the “real” world (as I call it to myself). Not sure why that is, but there you go. These dark decks, however, cannot be ignored. They are now everywhere. Do they make tarot cravings sound infantile? We are all children scared of the dark and so need some fake dark to get the adrenalin going? It really is pointless to analyse it and I don’t intend to do so here. I just wanted to write about a favourite deck which happens to be considered dark, The Dark Grimoire Tarot with artwork by Michele Penco and published by Lo Scarabeo in 2008. I bought it when it first came out and immediately loved it, got a back up copy, then found I didn’t use it quite as much as I thought I would. I subsequently got rid of the back up but – like all the best tarot decks – I come back to it repeatedly with intervals of up to 6 months or more and then love it intensely all over again.
It has been tarred by its Lovecraft associations, I fear. I suspect they exclude a large number of people who might otherwise love the deck but worry that they don’t have the inside information to get the most out of it. I had never read the Weird Tales of H.P Lovecraft and so always felt that the greater part of the iceberg was missing for me. I tried reading some in a horror anthology and found his writing style cumbersome, but recently I got myself a well-reviewed compendium, dived in and realised that you don’t need to know the complete works of Lovecraft to get the most out of this deck, but if you read some and start getting a sense of his peculiar atmospheres, then the deck will mean so much more.
Unnamed horrors pervade his universe and this is where his creations (and the deck itself) are a step ahead from all the vampires. I have to say, I am of the opinion that vampires cannot possibly scare us anyway; we know what they are; they have a name, a genre. We know what they look like, what they want from us, we even know how to keep them at bay so all the fun is taken out of it. How can deck designers possibly use vampires to tap into unconscious fears when they’re so comic? With Lovecraft, and that facet of Lovecraft which the Dark Grimoire Tarot deck transposes so well, we see horrors that we cannot quite fit into any neat category.
It’s the oddness that grates, an imperceptible oddness. Like The Strange High House in the Mist, we cannot quite work out how to approach it, where the entrance is, and yet we know that something we cannot identify might come out of it. With this deck – in answer to so many reservations about it – there is no real point in trying to tick boxes, identify Lovecraftian characters, know which exact moment in which exact tale is being depicted (when you do it is interesting, though I don’t think it adds anything vital). Oddness, tentacles, pyramids and obelisks, the observation of ancient and sacred rites, academics poring over found manuscripts, unidentified archeological artefacts; these are some of the things which figure in the Lovecraft universe and which resurface in the deck. After reading The Call of Cthulhu, I recognised that this was the monster from the Devil card. I also noticed that many cards depicted characters stumbling upon weird, nocturnal rituals of worship (again, something which happens in The Call of Cthulhu), but I’m not sure any of these expanded significantly upon my readings with the deck. It’s a question of getting into the mood of his very particular weirdness, while the place of a scene within the overall narrative doesn’t matter hugely in my opinion, though there will always be those who feel a certain satisfaction in knowing. But it’s a kind of dead end to be honest. We know, then what? What is important is that true horror is unidentifiable, unknowable, unnamed. It lunges at us or perhaps is always in our midst, in harmless places like libraries, a busy city sidestreet, or is in our own minds when we sit at our desks in the morning thinking we have a grasp on things. It skids over the rooftops as we lie asleep in our beds with the window open on a hot summer night. It comes upon us when we listen to a poignant violin solo (see the Two of Swords below, centre). True horror is unknowable, unnamed and creeps upon us in pensive moments.
That is what I love about this deck; it has images which capture inner and outer tension well and taps into a kind of primordial exoticism (see The Empress card above left for example). The Aces all feature closed books; elemental forces that could be unleashed and we remember the famous grimoires referenced by Lovecraft; Necronomicon by Abdul Alhazred (who also features in the Magician card which is used on the box), the Book of Eibdon, the suppressed Unaussprechlichen of Von Junzt. These are the grimoires that the title of the deck refers to and whose contents we do not fully understand; all we need to know is that a closed grimoire can be horror reined in. But, seriously, for the record, the deck can be used and contemplated without knowing all the stories of Lovecraft. I enjoyed the deck for a few years before I set about reading his works and even now – after having read a few stories just this year – I don’t feel it has made a huge difference. I like the deck more, but when reading his writing, in certain moments, I find myself thinking “this atmosphere is in the deck”. For example;
“At night, the subtle stirring of the black city outside, the sinister scurrying of rats in the wormy partitions and the creaking of hidden timbers in the centuried house, were enough to give him a sense of strident pandemonium. The darkness always teemed with unexplained sound – and yet he sometimes shook with fear lest the noises he heard should subside and allow him to hear certain other fainter noises, which he suspected were lurking behind them.” (Dreams in the Witch House.)
The cardstock is standard, high quality Lo Scarabeo cardstock. The backs (featured on the box illustration, top photograph) show a grimoire with stylised vignette portrait of Lovecraft clutching a grimoire. The card images blend nicely into grey borders and the titles are discreetly placed on small unfurling banners. Penco’s art style here is moody and expressionistic with sepia tones predominating and fine attention to detail. Strange creatures loom out of the darkness, or is it our own paranoid imagination? This is a truly wonderful deck, one of Lo Scarabeo’s triumphs which I hope will continue to be loved and used even after the tarot fad for all things dark has long since passed.