My articles on HP Lovecraft for The Escapist managed to stir up their own controversy. They were also arguably my most popular. I've decided to move them all to the blog as well. Here is the final of 3 - Exploring the Necronomicon.
Welcome back, horror lovers! Continuing my series on the life and works of the man Stephen King once called the "father of modern horror," we dive back into H.P. Lovecraft by studying one of his most endearing legacies - the Necronomicon.
Although the idea of the Necronomicon is less than a hundred years old it has quickly become one of the most important symbols in horror and supernatural fiction around the world. There are so many misconceptions, myths, and superstitions about this fabled book that have endured, thriving in the darkest corners of our collective cultural imagination, that it would be all too easy to lose sight of where the book actually started, especially if you've never been properly introduced to Lovecraft's writing. It's hard to believe that even today, in the age of the internet and search engines, that there are people who still believe that the Necronomicon is an actual spell book written thousands of years ago. We'll start with the origins of the elusive tome.
In the first part of this series, I talked about Lovecraft's reclusive childhood, as well as his love for old books passed down to him by his grandfather Whipple. One of the books from the American businessman's extensive collection that captured the imagination of the young child was 1001 Arabian Nights. Lovecraft became obsessed with Arab culture after reading it. It's been said that he would run around the house as a child with a sheet belted onto his head claiming to be Abdul Alhazred - the character he'd later attribute as the author of the Necronomicon. Which means from an early age the idea of the Necronomicon was brewing in young Lovecraft's brilliant mind waiting to be born into our world.
So, let's get this out of the way first. For the record the Necronomicon is a wholly fictional grimoire created H.P. Lovecraft and propagated by his followers as part of the Cthulhu Mythos. It got it's first mention in the Lovecraft story "the Hound" which was written in 1922, though its alleged creator, Abdul Alhazred, had been quoted a year earlier in a story entitled "The Nameless City". The original version contained an account of the Old Ones, their history, and the means for summoning them. It also had illustrations of Cthulhu and Yog-Soggoth. Lovecraft was asked many times in his own lifetime about the veracity of the existence of a real Necronomicon and always swore that it was nothing more than a fictional creation. In a letter to Willis Conover, Lovecraft further elaborated:
Now about the "terrible and forbidden books" - I am forced to say that most of them are purely imaginary. There never was any Abdul Alhazred or Necronomicon, for I invented these names myself. Robert Bloch devised the idea of Ludvig Prinn and his De Vermis Mysteriis, while the Book of Eibon is an invention of Clark Ashton Smith's. Robert E. Howard is responsible for Friedrich von Junzt and his Unaussprechlichen Kulten.... As for seriously-written books on dark, occult, and supernatural themes - in all truth they don't amount to much. That is why it's more fun to invent mythical works like the Necronomicon and Book of Eibon.
Lovecraft went on to note that the name for the book came from an idea in a dream. Furthermore the author's name, Abdul Alhazred, is not grammatically correct in Arabic since "Abdul" means "the worshiper/slave of" and "Alhazred" refers to his place of birth instead of a traditional surname.
During his lifetime Lovecraft penned an essay entitled "The History of the Necronomicon" as a joke between him and his friends. It wasn't published until 1938, several years after his death. In this account, the book was originally called Al Azif, an Arabic word that Lovecraft defined as "that nocturnal sound made by insects supposed to be the howling of demons." Alhazred was portrayed as a "half-crazed Arab" (playing again into Lovecraft's xenophobic background, which has been the subject of great interest in this series comments) who worshipped Lovecraft's monsters Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu. Lovecraft claimed he was from Sanaa in Yemen. He imagined that Alhazred was visiting the ruins of Babylon, where he accidentally discovered the "nameless city" below Irem. In his final years on Earth, Alzared supposedly lived in Damascus, where he wrote the dreaded Necronomicon before his sudden and mysterious death in 738.
In subsequent years, Lovecraft continued, the dark book "gained considerable, though surreptitious circulation amongst the philosophers of the age." According to his joke essay in 950 the Necronomicon was translated into Greek and given the title by Theodorus Philetas, a fictional scholar from Constantinople. This version "impelled certain experimenters to terrible attempts" before being "suppressed and burnt" in 1050 by Patriarch Michael, an actual historical figure who died in 1059.
The History or the Necronomicon explains that after the attempted suppression, the book was translated from Greek into Latin by Olaus Wormius. Lovecraft's stated date of this edition was 1228, despite the fact that the actual Danish scholar lived hundreds of years later, from 1588 until 1624. In 1232 Pope Gregory IX supposedly banned both the Latin and Greek versions yet somehow copies kept randomly appearing over the next few hundred years in Europe.
Elizabethan magician John Dee was allegedly the first to translate a Greek copy into English, but Lovecraft wrote that this version was never printed and only fragments survive. Copies of the original Necronomicon were held by only five institutions worldwide: The British Museum, The BibliothÃ¨que nationale de France, Widener Library of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, The University of Buenos Aires, and the library of the fictional Miskatonic University in the also fictitious Arkham, Massachusetts, which also purportedly held Wormius's Latin translation printed in Spain in the 17th century. Private copies that may have existed in modern times have all perished in flames as well, including a notable wink to the Salem Witch trials, which fits perfectly into the book's dark history. According to "History of the Necronomicon" the very act of studying the text is inherently dangerous, as those who attempt to master its arcane knowledge generally meet terrible ends.
The truth is that Lovecraft created the Necronomicon to bind together his fictional worlds. Other authors such as August Derleth and Clark Ashton Smith later joined in the fun, to the delight of Lovecraft who understood that having other authors reference the fabled work would only build up what he called "a background of evil verisimilitude." In his own work he mentioned the book a number of times, including in his novellas "At the Mountains of Madness" and "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward." A couplet previously appearing in "The Nameless City" shows up in "Call of Cthulhu" as being attributed to the Necronomicon.
That is not dead which can eternal lie.
And with strange aeons even death may die.
Still the most famous Lovecraftian example of the Necronomicon's power and authority comes from his masterpiece "The Dunwich Horror" written in 1929. In the tale Wilbur Whateley visits the fictional Miskatonic University's library to consult an "unabridged" copy for a spell missing from his own inherited Dee edition, which has had the page ripped out. The passage reads:
Nor is it to be thought...that man is either the oldest or the last of earth's masters, or that the common bulk of life and substance walks alone. The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be. Not in the spaces we know, but between them, they walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen. Yog-Sothoth knows the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the key and guardian of the gate. Past, present, future, all are one in Yog-Sothoth. He knows where the Old Ones broke through of old, and where They shall break through again. He knows where They had trod earth's fields, and where They still tread them, and why no one can behold Them as They tread. By Their smell can men sometimes know Them near, but of Their semblance can no man know, saving only in the features of those They have begotten on mankind; and of those are there many sorts, differing in likeness from man's truest eidolon to that shape without sight or substance which is Them. They walk unseen and foul in lonely places where the Words have been spoken and the Rites howled through at their Seasons. The wind gibbers with Their voices, and the earth mutters with Their consciousness. They bend the forest and crush the city, yet may not forest or city behold the hand that smites. Kadath in the cold waste hath known Them, and what man knows Kadath? The ice desert of the South and the sunken isles of Ocean hold stones whereon Their seal is engraver, but who hath seen the deep frozen city or the sealed tower long garlanded with seaweed and barnacles? Great Cthulhu is Their cousin, yet can he spy Them only dimly. IÃ¤! Shub-Niggurath! As a foulness shall ye know Them. Their hand is at your throats, yet ye see Them not; and Their habitation is even one with your guarded threshold. Yog-Sothoth is the key to the gate, whereby the spheres meet. Man rules now where They ruled once; They shall soon rule where man rules now. After summer is winter, after winter summer. They wait patient and potent, for here shall They reign again.
So what does the book actually look like? No one really knows that either, since Lovecraft never specified the Necronomicon's appearance or physical dimensions. Sometimes the book is bound in leather but older editions show it with various kinds of metal clasps. There are even cases where the book is disguised as another book, such as in "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" where it is intentionally mislabeled as an Islamic study guide, no doubt another wink to the "Mad Arab" who penned it. But that hasn't stopped plenty of people from being fooled into believing the book is actually real. Over the years librarians have received countless requests for it. Pranksters have listed it in rare book catalogues, prominent libraries, and book sales. According to urban legend a Yale undergrad went so far as to smuggle a card for it into the University Library's card catalog years ago that's still listed to this day.
Several people have attempted to cash in on the notoriety of Lovecraft's fictional creation. The most famous of these modern versions came out in trade paperback in 1980, with a glossy black cover marked with a strange sigil emblazoned on the front. The book claimed to be a translation of "the real" Necronomicon but had little if any connection to Lovecraft's original creation, relying on Sumerian mythology instead. It came to be known as "Simon's Necronomicon" - named after the forward written by the mononymous author himself. This was a wholesale re-imagining of the dark book. Instead of focusing on Elder Races, Old Gods, Cthulhu, or how aliens accidentally created humans, Simon's version focused on demons and incantations, dark spells and summoning terrifying creatures from the darkest pits of hell. Lovecraft, whose writings clearly depicted his views as a rational, science loving atheist, would surely have found the turning of his beloved creation into a battle between the forces of good and evil a repugnant idea. The general public however ate it up - including me! I remember picking up my copy as a teenager at Walden's books in the mall and thinking it should be more difficult to get my hands on a copy of a real book of black magic than walking in and forking over a crumpled fiver.
Simon's version of the Necronomicon has never been out of print and has sold nearly a million copies to date, making it far and away the most popular Necronomicon in print. Despite its contents, the book's marketing boldly focused on the nonexistent "Lovecraft connection" and even made sensational claims about the book's magical power, stating that it was "potentially the most dangerous Black Book known to the Western World!" Owing to it's enormous success three related volumes were later published - The Necronomicon Spellbook, a book of pathworkings with the 50 names of Marduk; Dead Names: The Dark History of the Necronomicon, a history of the book itself and of the late 1970s New York occult scene; and The Gates Of The Necronomicon, instructions on pathworking with the Simon Necronomicon.
But Lovecraft's biggest boost, the thing that put the Necronomicon on the map as a cultural symbol of evil, would be the 1981 cult classic horror film Evil Dead by Sam Raimi, which depicted a darker version of Simon's incantation and summoning filled rituals. Raimi's Necronomicon was bound in human flesh and written in blood. It was unlike anything Lovecraft had envisioned 60 years before. Evil Dead would eventually go on to become a trilogy, and have a kick ass remake I might add, with the Necronomicon being the single most important symbol of the four films.
After Evil Dead's success the Necronomicon would show up in movies like Friday the 13th, TV shows, comic books, video games, and even kid's cartoons like Fanboy and Chum Chum on Nickelodeon, where Kyle the pre-teen "conjurer" possessed a talking version with a human face. Like other elements of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, the Necronomicon can be freely interpreted by the user so long as it maintains it's obscure history as a dark book of summoning. It can be a text book describing the impending end of the world, a spell book used for evil purposes, or an old journal that details creatures beyond human understanding - to name just a few manifestations. "The Cold" - a recent short story I published in my charity anthology "At Hell's Gates 2: Origins of Evil" - features a nod to Lovecraft's Necronomicon when a bastard son inherits his fathers old house, along with his belongings, which include a handwritten book of spells, demons, summonings, and incantations his ailing father had been using to attempt to stave off death. In fact many of the stories in the anthology series make reference to the works of Lovecraft. You can check it out and help wounded soldiers and their families at the same time.
Well, that concludes my three part series on H.P. Lovecraft. Thanks for reading. I hoped you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it. Until next time, stay scared!
Originally published on The Escapist
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