Favourite Decks; Part V

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.

Portrait of Lovecraft (2012) by Juan Osborne, made up of the most frequently used words from his writings

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.

Lovecraft inspiration; encyclopedia illustrations of sea creatures by Heackel


About Le Fanu

Tarot collector in a far off land; loves ghost stories, magick, tarot, wistfulness, spookiness, Victorian spiritism, ectoplasm...
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14 Responses to Favourite Decks; Part V

  1. esssjay says:

    I’ve been undecided about this deck since before it came out: would I get any benefit, would it be beyond me, should I read the books? Lovely review and one that has enabled me to finally getting a copy.

  2. esssjay says:

    I’ve been undecided on this deck since before it came out. Very drawn to the artwork but unsure if I would get any benefit from it as I’ve never read any Lovecraft. I now am enabled to buy the deck and get one of his books too – that passage you quoted is wonderful. Thank you!

  3. vee says:

    Yess, one of my favorite decks and a beautiful summary of why it works so well. This and the Bohemian Gothic are my only *dark decks* (Well, I have the Place Vampire too, but I don’t consider it dark so much as a literary deck, go figure) because they aren’t flashy. I prefer my dread creeping, thank you very much.

  4. Le Fanu says:

    Oh yes, only this and the Bohemian Gothic grab me though I do have others. Essjay, I think you would love this deck; if you read only one Lovecraft story (they are freely available on the internet; see this site; http://www.dagonbytes.com/thelibrary/lovecraft/index.html ) you’ll get a sense of what atmospheres you’re dealing with. I honestly think it is enough; the deck can and does stand up on its own. You can read Dreams in the Witch House on this site. I also recommend the Colour out of Space. I loved that one… Before you know where you are, you’ll have read more than the deck references!

  5. Excellent post! I confess I’ve been a die-hard fan of Lovecraft’s work, all of it, most of my life. I discovered his short story “The Outsider” when I was 13 and never looked back. BUT I am even more a fan of the man himself. Almost ALL his stories came from within him, all actual dreams/nightmares he had, that he felt compelled to write out and embellish as an attempt to banish them or get some sense of control over them. Can you imagine having nightmares like what his stories entail? His story, his history to me is endlessly fascinating and I feel a great empathy with Lovecraft and all his quirks.

    What you said right here sums this deck up completely….”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”. Yep! Even tho as I said I’m a die-hard, this deck to me was never about which story was which, what street was where. All pointless. As you know now from reading some of his stories…to it’s always been about the mood, the atmosphere, the unexplainable eldritch horror that creeps up your spine at 4a.m on certain nights….that his writing is about, that this DECK is about. In its images, angles and perception…it conjures to precision the mood. Lovecraft was imo a God at invoking within his stories. The instant I got this deck and looked through the images I was ecstatic! For the 1st time in my life I saw that atmosphere I dreaded and loved so much from his stories before my eyes in visual form. Honestly, I do not see another artist capturing this elusive atmosphere of Lovecraft’s anytime soon. And this is what I meant when I advised people to just read a few of his stories so that they could know what I meant when I went on and on about this deck being the perfection in Lovecraft. You hit the nail on the head!

    And you’re so right. THIS is what is terrifying, what we all dread in the dark of night when we awake from some unknown eyes upon us. Not silly Vampires or zombies *meh*. And this too is why I almost worship Lovecraft, he tapped into something no other writer ever has, something almost without words. The ancient dread, the abyss looking back at you. The stark unending reaches of the cold dead universe. I truly DO think he was tapping into other planes of reality or planes of being when he dreamed. He was tapping into something so …forbidden.

    It was quite strange tho as I JUST started reading “The Dream world of H. P. Lovecraft” by Donald Tyson yesterday and see this blog post today! I really do HIGHLY recommend this book. It captures what Lovecraft was about in a very intimate, deep sense that I’ve never seen anyone do before….Mainly because he focuses on his dreamworlds, his nightmares where all his stories came from. It’s very enlightening to read about his childhood, his bouts with nervous breakdowns (both parents died in insane asylums)….how just an odd “out there” man he was in all respects. And the books explores in detail this sense that this deck has….Lovecraft’s own sense of isolation, his dread of the nightmares and what they meant…the book somehow captures for me this rich, stark atmosphere the deck captures so well. Mesmerizing read! I know it made me take the Dark Grimoire out again last night. Like you it’s a favourite but I tend to put it away then come back to it every few months loving it more fiercely than before.

    Thank you for the post. I loved it and you explain so much better than I could WHY this deck is THE best “dark deck”, it’s a masterpiece imo.

  6. Le Fanu says:

    Thank you for this thorough and enthusiastic reply! I agree with everything you say of course. I must check out that Tsyon book you recommend. I do not know it. I’m really just at the phase of reading his work. The way he builds atmosphere reminds me of M.R James. He must have been influenced by him; there is that same imperceptible sense of something creeping and set in a world of academics and librarians with discovered manuscripts and archeological artefacts. I really think he must have been heavily influence by him, but Lovecraft has a kind of prehistoric twist on the monstrosities. You know I was looking at the very collectible Lovecraft Tarot the other day (on ebay; I don’t have it) and I think this deck – the Dark Grimoire – captures the essence of Lovecraft much better and it’s a fraction of the price and easily available. I must read more biographical info about him, but I know I will go on loving this deck more and more.

  7. Felicity says:

    Wonderful review – I particularly like your take on the aces as “horror reined in”, the true extent of their power churning beneath the closed covers. I’m saving this deck for the holidays when I can spend the cold, dark, winter nights curled up in bed with my copy of Lovecraft’s Weird Tales, but it’s good to know that a knowledge of the books isn’t essential. You’ve got me excited to use it!

  8. One of my fav decks ever… didn’t have the time to read the (non-) review attentively, but bookmarked for later! 😉

  9. zezina says:

    So good to see such thoughtful credit given to this impressive deck. At first terrified by the Dark Grimoire, I was nevertheless compelled by it, so I gradually plucked up the courage to buy. I found the cards scary to a level I hadn’t encountered anywhere before, even in The Bohemian Gothic, as these images seemed to speak to my deepest fears, my darkest nightmares. Over time, working with Dark Grimoire has enabled me to look the cards more squarely in the eye, and I too have gained great admiration for the achievement of the artist.

  10. Le Fanu says:

    wow, zezina, that bad? What you say now makes me rate the deck even more! It obviously achieved what it set out to do.

  11. Jason says:

    I’m not down with the dark decks, so you can have my share. 🙂

  12. Pingback: Dark Grimoire Tarot | Herself's Tarot Notebook

  13. We have shared Favourite Decks; Part V | My
    Curious Cabinet on all my social media profiles.
    Awesome writing.

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