Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s original stories.
Today we’re looking at two stories: “The History of the Necronomicon,” written in 1927 and first published in 1938 by The Rebel Press, and “The Book,” probably written in 1933 and first published in Leaves in 1938.
“I remember when I found it—in a dimly lighted place near the black, oily river where the mists always swirl. That place was very old, and the ceiling-high shelves full of rotting volumes reached back endlessly through windowless inner rooms and alcoves. There were, besides, great formless heaps of books on the floor and in crude bins; and it was in one of these heaps that I found the thing. I never learned its title, for the early pages were missing; but it fell open toward the end and gave me a glimpse of something which sent my senses reeling.”
THE HISTORY OF THE NECRONOMICON
Lovecraft notes that the original title of the tome of tomes was Al Azif, an Arabic word for the nocturnal buzz of insects often heard as demonic howling. Its author, the mad poet Abdul Alhazred, came from Yemen but traveled extensively, stopping by the ruins of Babylon and subterranean Memphis before sojourning for ten years in the vast and haunted emptiness of the Arabian deserts. In Damascus he penned Al Azif, in which he evidently recorded the horrors and wonders he’d discovered in the ruins of a nameless desert city, where had dwelt a race older than man. Nominally a Muslim, he claimed to worship Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu. In 738 AD he died or disappeared. Ibn Khallikan records he was devoured by an invisible monster in broad daylight before numerous witnesses.
Next Lovecraft discusses the convoluted history of the Necronomicon‘s translations and suppressions. In 950 AD Theodorus Philetus of Constantinople did the Greek translation and gave the grimoire its current title. Olaus Wormius followed with a Latin version in 1228. John Dee, the Elizabethan magician, did an English translation never printed, of which only fragments of the original manuscript survive. Victims of religious purgation, the Arabic and Greek versions are apparently extinct; Latin versions remain in Paris, London, Boston, Arkham and Buenos Aires. However, who knows what copies and bits lurk in secret libraries and mysterious bookstores? An American millionaire is rumored to have scored a Latin version, while the Pickman family of Salem may have preserved a Greek text. Public service announcement: READING THE NECRONOMICON LEADS TO TERRIBLE CONSEQUENCES, like madness and consumption by demons.
Unnamed narrator exists in a state of dire confusion, shocked, it seems, by some “monstrous outgrowth of [his] cycles of unique, incredible experience.”
He’s sure of one thing—it started with the book he found in a weird shop near an oily black river where mists swirled eternal. The ancient, leering proprietor gave him the book for nothing, maybe because it was missing its early pages (and title), maybe for darker reasons. It’s not actually a printed book but a bound manuscript written in “uncials of awesome antiquity.” What drew narrator was a passage in Latin near the end of the manuscript, which he recognized as a key to gateways that lead beyond the familiar three dimensions, into realms of life and matter unknown.
On his way home from the bookshop, he seems to hear softly padded feet in pursuit.
He reads the book in his attic study. Chimes sound from distant belfries; for some reason he fears to discern among them a remote, intruding note. What he does certainly hear is a scratching at his dormer window when he mutters the primal lay that first attracted him. It’s the shadow companion earned by all passers of the gateways–and he indeed passes that night through a gateway into twisted time and vision. When he returns to our world, his vision is permanently altered, widened: He now sees the past and future, unknown shapes, in every mundane scene. Oh, and dogs don’t like him, now that he has that companion shadow. Inconvenient
He continues to read occult tomes and pass through gateways. One night he chants within five concentric rings of fire and is swept into gray gulfs, over the pinnacles of unknown mountains, to a green-litten plain and a city of twisted towers. The sight of a great square stone building freaks him out, and he struggles back to our world. From then on, he claims, he’s more cautious with his incantations, because he doesn’t want to be cut off from his body and drift off into abysses of no return.
What’s Cyclopean: The Book is found amid Scary Old Houses. Fungous, even.
The Degenerate Dutch: Describing Alhazred as “only an indifferent Moslem” (sic) is a bit rich.
Mythos Making: Here, as advertised, we get the history of Lovecraft’s most infamous volume, its equally infamous author, and its various ill-fated editions. We also get a call-back to Chambers’ The King in Yellow, formally pulling it into the Mythos—as fiction inspired by mere rumors of the Al Azif.
Libronomicon: Reading the Necronomicon, we hear, leads to terrible consequences—but we meet many people throughout Lovecraft’s oeuvre who’ve done so with little more than a shudder. The unnamed book in The Book, on the other hand…
Madness Takes Its Toll: Maybe you don’t want to know the secrets of the cosmos after all.
“The Book” reads like an abandoned fragment. For me it’s full of echoes. The overall idea of travel through gateways, into other dimensions of time and space, life and matter, is reminiscent of the Randolph Carter/Silver Key stories. The last bit of extramundane travel brings to mind the Dreamlands with its pinnacles and plains and towers and great square buildings that inspire terror—maybe because of some masked priest lurking within? But the strongest echoes issue from “The Music of Erich Zann.”
We’re never told exactly where the narrator lives. At first I thought London, or Kingsport. Doesn’t really matter—whatever the city, it seems to boast a sister neighborhood to the Rue d’Auseil. It has a rather unpleasant sounding river, oily, mist-ridden. The waterfront’s a maze of narrow, winding streets, lined with ancient and tottering houses. The narrator’s house looks out from high upon all the other roofs of the city, and he’s doing something that attracts a shadow, and he listens for spectral music to sound among the chimes from everyday belfries. The shadow comes to his high window, and scratches, and accompanies him away on a mind-spirit trip to the outside—such a journey as Zann takes, while his body automatically fiddles on?
Anyway. “The Book” is a case-study in why one should not read mouldy tomes of uncertain origin. In fact, it’s better to stay right out of bookshops that carry such tomes. Is the “Book” in question actually our next subject, tome of tomes, the Necronomicon? It doesn’t have to be, but maybe, say a copy of the Wormius translation scratched down in the dead of night by an errant monk, constantly looking over his shoulder for Pope Gregory’s tome-burning goons.
But the Necronomicon, now. And Lovecraft’s “History” thereof. It’s a nice bit of canon-organization, stuffed with specifics both factual and invented. The Ommiade (or Umayyad) caliphs were real, as was Ibn Khallikan, author of the biographical dictionary Deaths of Eminent Men and of the Sons of the Epoch, compiled between 1256 and 1274. Real, too, were patriarch Michael and Pope Gregory and John Dee. Theodorus Philetas was made up, as was the Olaus Wormius accused of the Latin translation of 1228. There was, however, a Danish scholar of the same name, who lived from 1527 to 1624. The Arabian deserts mentioned, Rub-al-Khali and ad-Dahna, are real, and Irem City of Pillars is at least the stuff of real legends, including one in which a King Shaddad smites a city into the sands of the Empty Quarter, where its ruins lie buried–at least until Abdul Alhazred explores them, to be followed by the narrator of “The Nameless City.”
Lovecraft may be laying down the law about some aspects of his great literary invention, but he leaves plenty of wiggle room for his friends and all Mythos writers to follow. Yeah, it seems that various religious groups destroyed all copies of the Arabic and Greek versions of the Necronomicon. Yeah, there are only five “official” Latin copies left to scholardom. But wait, “numerous other copies probably exist in secret.” Yes! Just two possible examples, that American millionaire bibliophile with the 15th-century Latin version—maybe it was Henry Clay Folger, and maybe he wasn’t just interested in Shakespeare folios. Maybe there’s a super-top-secret basement annex to the Folger Library dedicated to the Necronomicon and other occult delicacies! I say we delegate Ruthanna to check this out.
Then there’s R.U. Pickman, whose ancient Salem family may have sheltered a Greek version. R.U. is Richard Upton to us, the infamous painter with ghoulish tendencies. I doubt he would have taken a priceless tome into the Dreamlands underworld—too humid and dirty. So if we can only find that North End studio of his in Boston!
If Ruthanna takes the Folger, I’ll take the North End.
But anyway. It’s interesting that Lovecraft concludes with the speculation that R. W. Chambers was inspired by the Necronomicon to invent his madness-inducing play, The King in Yellow. When actually it could be the other way around. The King was published in 1895, and Lovecraft read it in 1927, the same year he penned his “History.” Have to note that the Necronomicon itself first appeared in 1924 (“The Hound“), Abdul Alhazred in 1922 (“The Nameless City.) It’s a cute detail, at any rate, making our fictional grimoire all the more real in that it could have influenced Chambers as well as wizards through the ages.
And Abdul Alhazred! He has an incredible backstory, doesn’t he? It deserves more than a note by Ibn Khallikan. Mythos cognoscenti! Has anyone ever written a full-scale biography in novel form of our mad poet? If not, or even if so, I’m putting it on my list of books to write, after much research into those caves and subterrane labyrinths that lie beneath the limestone of the Summan Plateau in ad-Dahna. I’m sure an inveterate insane traveler like Alhazred could have found a link through them into the secrets of pre-human civilizations, probably reptilian.
Books, man. They carry knowledge unpredictable from the cover. They leave ideas and images seared in your mind, impossible to forget, reshaping your reality in spite of your best efforts, and yet you crawl back for more. Here you are reading this, after all. (What is the internet if not the world’s largest book, endlessly unpredictable and full of horror in unexpected corners?)
That conflict, between knowledge’s irresistible lure and its terrible consequences, is at the heart of Lovecraft’s most memorable creations. And who here hasn’t picked up a book knowing it would give them nightmares?
Our narrator in “The Book” certainly has that problem. At the end, he promises to be much more cautious in his explorations, since he doesn’t want to be cut off from his body in unknown abysses… which is exactly the situation from which he narrates. It’s an effectively disturbing implication.
“Book” suffers primarily from its place in Lovecraft’s writing timeline—it’s his third-to-last solo story, and the last that can merely be described as pretty decent horror. Immediately afterwards, “Shadow Out of Time” and “Haunter of the Dark” will take vast cosmic vistas and terrifying out of body experiences to a whole new level, this story’s shivers expanded and supported by intricately detailed worldbuilding. No blank-slate white room opening is necessary to make Peaslee’s experiences unfathomable, and his amnesia draws away like a curtain.
It’s not merely that “Book” tries out themes later expanded to their full flower. Not long before, “Whisperer in Darkness,” “At the Mountains of Madness,” and “Dreams in the Witch House” also build out these ideas to fuller potential. In “Whisperer” in particular, much is gained by having the sources of tempting, terrifying knowledge be themselves living and potentially malevolent. So this story seems more a resting place, a holding pattern playing lightly with the themes that obsessed the author throughout the early 30s.
“History of the Necronomicon,” meanwhile, is not really a story at all. It’s a couple of pages of narrativized notes, the sort that I imagine most authors produce around any given project. (It’s not just me, right?) It’s still fun to read, and I rather wish we had more of these—for starters, the bits of alien culture that don’t make it into the final drafts of “Whisperer” and “Shadow Out of Time” and “Mountains.”
Some of “History” does appear elsewhere. I know I’ve seen that line about Alhazred being an indifferent Muslim before; it makes me roll my eyes every time. But there are also the details about the Necronomicon’s different editions (and very, very limited non-editions), along with an answer to last week’s question about rarity. Five copies are known to exist, representing two of the book’s four editions. Others are supposed to exist in private collections: in our readings so far we’ve encountered—among others—last week’s original Arabic, a disguised copy belonging to Joseph Curwen, and the one held by worms on the dreamward side of Kingsport. “A certain Salem man” once owned a copy of the Greek edition. Plenty of people throughout Lovecraft seem to have witchy Salem ancestors, but I can’t help suspecting that must have been another belonging to either Curwen or one of his associates.
Lots of people still seem to have read the thing, suggesting that rumors of terrible effects don’t often prevent those five libraries from loaning it out. No surprise—the urge to share is probably almost as strong as the urge to read.
Next week, Lovecraft teams up with Duane W. Rimel, and probably also Shub-Niggurath, to explore the unlikely geography of “The Tree on the Hill.”
Ruthanna Emrys’s non-Hugo-nominated neo-Lovecraftian novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com, along with the more recent but distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land and “The Deepest Rift.” Her work has also appeared at Strange Horizons and Analog. She can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal. She lives in a large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com, and her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen. The second in the Redemption’s Heir series, Fathomless, will be published in October 2015. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.