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The Necronomicon Files
The Truth Behind Lovecraft's Legend
By Daniel Harms, John Wisdom Gonce III
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2003 Daniel Harms and John Wisdom Gonce III
All rights reserved.
H. P. Lovecraft and the Necronomicon —Daniel Harms
As for the Necronomicon, it appears that Lovecraft used it as a back door or postern gate to realms of wonder and myth ...
The Necronomicon has become one of the most controversial books of the 20th century. People have debated its existence for decades, and there seems to be no end in sight to the confusion. In the middle of this controversy lies H. P. Lovecraft (1890–1937), a horror writer who gained unbelievable popularity after his death, and is even considered Poe's equal in the genre.
Despite the fact that Lovecraft left dozens of stories and tens of thousands of letters behind him, he is perhaps one of the most poorly understood authors of our time. Some critics have labeled him as "sick" and decadent, though he believed the only true way to cope with an uncaring universe was to follow traditional standards of morality and taste. Others have portrayed him as an occultist and magician, but he was an absolute materialist in every sense of the word. He has been criticized for his racist, almost paranoid, attitudes by those quick to forget that such views, if not particularly enlightened, were the norm for many in his time and place. In many ways, Lovecraft was the most human of humans. His unpopular stances and eccentricities are more than equaled by his literary gifts and the kindness he displayed toward others. Any consideration of the Necronomicon must begin with an analysis of this most unusual of men.
The Writer's Early Life
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born to Sara Susan Phillips Lovecraft and Winfield Scott Lovecraft on 20 August 1890. His mother was the middle of three sisters and came from one of Providence's most distinguished families. Winfield was a traveling sales representative from Rochester, New York, who worked for a silverware company. Howard was their only child. The couple had been married for a year when Howard was born, and they planned to build a house in Auburndale, Massachusetts.
This vision of domestic tranquillity was not to be. On 21 April 1893, Winfield had a nervous breakdown in a Chicago hotel room, running about and shouting that the maid had been rude to him and that his wife was being assaulted on the floor above. He was committed to Providence's Butler Hospital, where he died five years later. Though the cause of his illness is unknown, current medical knowledge has established a probable diagnosis of syphilis. Despite theories to the contrary, no evidence exists that he passed the disease on to Susie and Howard.
Lovecraft's father has become the center of an unusual rumor. According to an essay by Colin Wilson, Winfield Lovecraft had been a member of an Egyptian Freemason lodge that entrusted him with secret lore—including information about the Necronomicon. After becoming insane, Winfield allegedly spent a great deal of time at home, and in his ramblings, it is alleged, he revealed his secret knowledge to Howard. The young author supposedly later found some magickal manuscripts among his father's papers, and used them as inspiration for his writing. Wilson has since admitted that this is a fabrication, but it is one that has circulated for so long that it is generally accepted as true.
Can any of this be possible? It is not known whether Lovecraft's father was a Freemason. However, Lovecraft mentions that his maternal grandfather, Whipple Phillips, founded a Masonic lodge in the town of Greene (then Coffin's Corner), Rhode Island. This raises the possibility that Winfield was himself a Mason—though many businessmen throughout U.S. history could make that claim. Even if he had been a Mason, however, Winfield's age and undistinguished occupation (which required him to be out of town for great stretches of time) make it unlikely that a secret society trusted him with highly dangerous information. Even if we assume, for the moment, that Winfield had such information, he could hardly have passed it on to Howard, as he was committed to an asylum soon after his breakdown. Lovecraft later stated that he "was never in a hospital till 1924," even as a visitor, and his letters show that he did not know the nature of his father's illness. Finally, Lovecraft seems to have been unfamiliar with Freemasonry, and no one has found any link between his writing and its beliefs and practices.
After his father was committed, Howard went with his mother to live with her father, Whipple Phillips. Phillips became a father figure to Howard and did much to encourage his interests in literature and science. His mother became overprotective, even following Howard down the street when he rode his bicycle. Perhaps to please both of them, Howard spent much of his childhood reading his way through his grandfather's library. Those who expect Lovecraft's early reading fare to be filled with horror and black magick will be surprised. Lovecraft read a vast range of books, ranging from the Iliad to detective dime novels. He especially liked the works of such 18th-century authors as Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, and gained a love for that period that lasted for the rest of his life. Still, it may be possible to find the roots of the Necronomicon in his grandfather's library.
When Lovecraft was five, he encountered the Thousand and One Nights. Inspiredby its tales of Arabian thieves and sorcerers, he declared himself a Muslim and convinced his mother to buy a number of Middle Eastern objects. During this period, he adopted the name "Abdul Alhazred," either through his own invention or that of Alfred Baker, the family lawyer. Some say that this name was inspired by the Hazards, an old Providence family known to Lovecraft's relatives. It could also be that "Alhazred" was a pun on "All-Has-Read," which seems fitting, given Lovecraft's precocious reading. It should be noted that "Alhazred" is not even a proper Arabic name and means nothing in that language whatsoever. Lovecraft was, nonetheless, so taken with it that, twenty-five years later, he named the Necronomicon 's author "Abdul Alhazred."
Donald Eric Kessler has suggested another source from this library as an inspiration for the Necronomicon. The key may lie in this passage from Lovecraft's letters:
When I was 6 or 7 I used to be tormented constantly with a peculiar type of recurrent nightmare in which a monstrous race of entities (called by me "Night-Gaunts" ...) used to snatch me up by the stomach ... and carry me off through infinite leagues of black air over the towers of dead and horrible cities ... The "night-gaunts" were black, lean, rubbery things with bared, barbed tails, bat-wings and no faces at all. Undoubtedly I derived the image from the jumbled memory of Dore's drawings (largely the illustrations to Paradise Lost) which fascinated me in waking hours.
For more than a year, Lovecraft was terrified of the night-gaunts, and desperately attempted to stay awake each night to avoid them. These nightmares eventually tapered off by the age of eight and ceased entirely when he was ten or eleven, but the terror remained with him for years afterward. His dream-monsters later appeared in such works as the sonnet "Night-Gaunts" and "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath."
The illustrator of this book, Gustave Doré (1832–83), was tremendously popular and known for his woodcuts. Cassell and Company of London published his edition of John Milton's poem Paradise Lost in 1866. The origin of Lovecraft's night-gaunts may be seen in such plates as "Satan's Council," which depicts a horde of winged demons with their faces averted from the observer's view. This book, which both fascinated and horrified Lovecraft, may indeed have served as a template for the Necronomicon.
This possibility aside, Lovecraft's first experience with the darker side of fiction came at the age of eight, when he discovered Edgar Allan Poe (1809–49). Not only was Poe's vision compelling to Lovecraft, his interest must have been strengthened when he found that Poe had lived in his beloved Providence for a short time. Lovecraft's attraction to Poe continued throughout his life.
Those looking for the Necronomicon may find more hints of it in Poe's work. As Lovecraft himself observed in Supernatural Horror in Literature, the Gothic tradition, in which old crumbling manuscripts were important plot elements, was amajor influence on Poe. In The Fall of the House of Usher, the narrator and Roderick Usher spend much of their time reading a library of forbidden lore:
We pored together over such works as the Ververt et Chartreuse of Gresset; the Belphegor of Machiavelli; the Heaven and Hell of Swedenborg; the Subterranean Voyage of Nicholas Klimm by Holberg; the Chiromancy of Robert Flud, of Jean D'Indagine, and of De la Chambre, the Journey into the Blue Distance of Tieck; and the City of the Sun of Campanella. One favorite volume was a small octavo edition of the Directorium Inquisitorum, by the Dominican Eymeric de Gironne; and there were passages in Pomponius Mela, about the old African Satyrs and Aegipans, over which Usher would sit dreaming for hours. His chief delight, however, was found in the perusal of an exceedingly rare and curious book in quarto Gothic—the manual of a forgotten church—the Vigiliae Mortuorum secundum Chorum Ecclesiae Maguntinae.
All of these books are real, yet this reads much like one of the libraries Lovecraft later described in his fiction. The last book is especially interesting, as one author has translated its title as "Vigils for the dead according to the use of the church of Mainz." Indeed, the narrator remarks on "the wild ritual of this work, and of its probable influence" on Roderick Usher. A book dealing with the dead that contains strange rites—could this be the inspiration for the Necronomicon? There is no way of telling, but Lovecraft did consider the story one of his favorites.
Coming of Age
Lovecraft's grandfather died in 1904, and Lovecraft, his mother, and his two aunts were forced to leave their ancestral home. The family entered a state of genteel poverty, living off a few of Whipple Phillips's investments and their dwindling bank account—going to work would have cost the survivors the respect of their peers, a commodity that was all-important for the family. Lovecraft considered this as his fall from Paradise, and it left him feeling aimless and depressed. Though Lovecraft later claimed he completed high school, he never did so due to a series of physical and emotional "breakdowns." He did write during this time—mostly poetry with a few short stories—but it was not until he joined the amateur press in 1914 that his literary career took off.
The amateur press movement is a minor footnote in literary history, yet it attracted a large number of members. Through the amateur press, aspiring authors could publish their work—whether essays, articles, fiction, or poetry—in a number of member-edited journals. In doing so, they hoped to receive praise and advice on improving their writing, most often in that order. Lovecraft was invited to join after a spirited defense of his literary tastes in the letters column of the fiction magazine Argosy, and he quickly became friends with many of its members, including the poet Samuel Loveman and the political activist James Morton. Lovecraft was soon publishing his own journal, The Conservative, and publishing a few short stories in others' magazines.
One of these stories, "The Statement of Randolph Carter" (written in 1919), has been hailed as the Necronomicon 's first appearance. The title character is a student of the mystic Harley Warren. Warren owns a "friend-inspired book ... written in characters whose like [he] never saw again." Though George T. Wetzel proposed that this book is the Necronomicon, S. T. Joshi points out that the book came from India and, according to the narrator, cannot be in Arabic, Greek, Latin, or English—the four languages in which the Necronomicon is found in later sources. As a result, his book is not the Necronomicon, but it may have been a literary ancestor of sorts. Warren and Carter find horror when they follow the book's hints to a graveyard in the dead of night.
In the same year, Lovecraft made an unusual note in his commonplace book. As do many authors, Lovecraft kept a notebook of facts, anecdotes, and brief plots he might use in his stories. On looking over a reprint of this book, I found an entry dated 1919 that said simply, "Book or MS. too horrible to read—warned against reading it—someone reads and is found dead. Haverhill incident." Haverhill is a town in Massachusetts, and Lovecraft is known to have had a friend there. I have yet to hear, however, of any event or rumor fitting this description. It is of arguable significance, as no one in Lovecraft's stories dies from reading the Necronomicon, but it is an intriguing possibility that bears investigation.
The Necronomicon itself is first quoted in "The Nameless City," which appeared in the amateur press magazine Wolverine in November 1921. Here, an explorer makes a solitary journey to a lost city in the Arabian desert. Following low-ceilinged tunnels deep underground, he finds a number of mummified reptilian beings and murals depicting the decline of the city as the desert grew around it and outsiders attacked its people. The explorer denies what is obvious—that these beings built the city—until he reaches the lowest level, where he spies the ghosts of its former inhabitants.
As our narrator approaches the city, he observes that
... it was of this place that Abdul Alhazred the mad poet dreamed on the night before he sang his unexplainable couplet:
"That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die."
Though Lovecraft never mentions the Necronomicon by name, he does build up an atmosphere of mystery and horror around its author—in actuality, Lovecraft's play-name brought to life.
While exploring the city, the narrator remembers passages from his outré reading, including "sentences from Alhazred the Mad Arab, paragraphs from the apocryphal nightmares of Damascius, and infamous lines from the delirious Image du Monde of Gauthier de Metz." Damascius and de Metz are real authors, while Alhazred is Lovecraft's creation. This demonstrates one of the keys to Lovecraft's success as a horror writer: his ability to blend reality with fiction so thoroughly that readers are unsure which is which, making them willing to accept his creations as facts. Lovecraft later told his fellow writer Clark Ashton Smith why he did so:
My own rule is that no weird story can truly produce terror unless it is devised with all the care & verisimilitude of an actual hoax. The author must forget all about "short story technique," & build up a stark simple account, full of homely corroborative details, just as if he were actually trying to "put across" a deception in real life ... as carefully as a crooked witness prepares a line of testimony with cross-examining lawyers in his mind. I take the place of the lawyers now & then—finding false spots in the original testimony, & thereupon rearranging details & motivations with a greater care for probability.
As other authors have demonstrated, this is not the only way to write a horror story, yet Lovecraft mastered this technique. This is why the Necronomicon has taken such a hold on so many people's imagination.
The Creation of the Necronomicon
While the death of Lovecraft's mother in 1921 saddened him, Lovecraft was ready to move on. The many friendships he had formed in the amateur press circles heartened him considerably. His stories and articles garnered him considerable status in these circles, and soon his friends encouraged him to become a professional writer. The market for Lovecraft's preferred subjects was much smaller than it is today, but, in 1923, Lovecraft found his niche at Weird Tales. Weird Tales was one of the first magazines to specialize in science fiction and horror. It would later attract many rising stars in the field, including Ray Bradbury and Robert Bloch. Though Lovecraft later submitted stories to other magazines, he gave most of his business to Weird Tales. In April 1923, Lovecraft sent five stories to the magazine. One of these was "The Hound," the first story to feature the Necronomicon.
Excerpted from The Necronomicon Files by Daniel Harms, John Wisdom Gonce III. Copyright © 2003 Daniel Harms and John Wisdom Gonce III. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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