A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Was H.P. Lovecraft's "Necronomicon" for real?

July 3, 2001

Dear Straight Dope:

As an avid H.P. Lovecraft fan, I'm aware that he is credited with the creation of "The Necronomicon," the dreaded book of the dead that has been featured in numerous movies (the Evil Dead series, The Dunwich Horror, etc.) as well as short stories by other authors. You can go into a bookstore in most shopping malls or any of the big book chains online and purchase a few volumes that claim to be the "real" Necronomicons, but apparently these are forgeries done by Lovecraft's contemporaries who wanted to give his monsters in the Cthulhu Mythos more legitimacy. But browsing around some of the web sites about the fabled book, I find quite a few reports that the book is real, and that there might actually be copies that pre-date Lovecraft by hundreds of years. Some of the older libraries in Europe and on the east coast of America are rumored to own copies, and there has even been talk that the Third Reich procured one in the 40's. So what's the deal? Is there any factual basis to this stuff? A lot of people claim that even the rituals contained in the "fake" versions actually work. Was Lovecraft on to something that even he didn't realize the magnitude of, or is all this just a big sham?

OK, cut to the punchline. Once and for all: the Necronomicon is fiction, pure fiction, invented by H. P. Lovecraft in his stories in the 1920s. There never was such a book, not nowhere, not no-how, before that.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) is recognized as one of the world masters of tales of the macabre. He was born in Providence, Rhode Island on August 20, 1890, and lived there most of his life. (To move away would have been, ah, tempting Providence.)

His father had a breakdown in 1893; it is now clear that he had syphilis, but at the time, diagnosis and treatment of the disease were unknown. He was deemed insane, locked up in a madhouse, and died five years later. This traumatized his wife, who began a mental decline that would land her in the same hospital twenty years later. His grandfather's death and the subsequent mismanagement of the estate lost the family fortune. He had nervous breakdowns in 1905 and again in 1908; he didn't graduate from high school, became solitary and an "eccentric recluse" for about five years (NOT for his entire lifetime, as some mistakenly have it).

Encouraged by friends, Lovecraft allowed two early tales to be printed in very limited circulation in 1917: "The Beast in the Cave" (1905) and "The Alchemist" (1908). He then wrote a few stories each year for the next several years. Weird Tales was founded in 1923. Lovecraft submitted five stories simultaneously, all accepted, and so began his career as a pulp writer. He was married from 1924 to 1929, then divorced. For a few years, he had a tremendous outburst of creative writing: "The Call of Cthulhu" (1926), "The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath" (1926), "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" (1927), "The Colour out of Space" (1927--Lovecraft's own favorite of all his stories), "The Dunwich Horror" (1928) and others.

He continued to write for the next decade, and died of intestinal cancer on March 10, 1937.

After his death, August Derleth and Donald Wandrei founded Arkham House, a publishing company devoted to preserving Lovecraft's fiction. Derleth wrote new stories, and continued to publish Lovecraft's works and "related" works of friends.

Lovecraft's stories were unlike anything that had gone before. According to S.T. Joshi (one of the leading authorities on Lovecraft), they depict "vast gulfs of time and space . . . huge monsters who rule the universe and who, far from being hostile to human beings, are utterly indifferent to them, and occasionally destroy them as we might heedlessly destroy ants underfoot. These entities are not to be taken literally (as occultists who now believe in the 'truth' of the Cthulhu Mythos do), but as symbols for the eternal mysteries of a boundless cosmos. They are worshipped as 'gods' by their human followers, but in reality most of them are mere extraterrestrials who are guided by their own motives and purposes."

Lovecraft had an "art for art's sake" attitude, akin to Poe and Oscar Wilde. He borrowed "trivial but colorful details" from other writers such as Poe, Lord Dunsany, Ambrose Bierce, and others.

Lovecraft conveyed "the utter mystery of a cosmos of which we can grasp only the smallest fraction in our tiny solar system," Joshi says. That's not to say he was a mystic--on the contrary, he was a firm materialist. Joshi continues, "given the vastness of the universe in both space and time, the human race (now no longer regarded as the special creation of a divine being) is of complete inconsequence in the universe at large." Lovecraft's own words (1927): "All my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the universe-at-large." And in 1921, "Man's relations to man do not captivate my fancy. It is man's relation to the cosmos--to the unknown--which alone arouses in me the spark of creative imagination."

There is a common (but mistaken) belief that Lovecraft posited two sets of Old Ones--good guys and bad guys. This misconception arises mainly from Derleth, from his introductions to compilations of Lovecraft's work, and from several stories that he wrote "in collaboration with" Lovecraft (sometimes based on one sentence of Lovecraft's).

But you asked about the Necronomicon.  "The Call of Cthulhu" (1926) sets forth definitively what has become known as the "Cthulhu Mythos." (By the way, that term was not coined by Lovecraft, but by Derleth.) Lovecraft did not consciously try to create a mythic world; he was simply repeating plot devices and references. What is now called the Cthulhu Mythos are simply stories that use similar plot devices such as a pantheon of ancient gods (called the Old Ones, such as Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth) and mystical books of occult lore (like the Necronomicon); or similar locales, like a fictitious New England geography (cities such as Arkham, Dunwich, and Innsmouth).

Lovecraft used the same references in 13 stories that one might classify as contributing to the Cthulhu Mythos. His friends, such as Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard (of Conan fame), August Derleth, Robert Bloch, and Henry Kuttner, added almost a hundred more, using the same reference names and expanding them--all of this, mind you, while Lovecraft himself was still alive and turning out stories of his own.

Readers of the pulp magazines were amazed at the same names appearing in stories by different writers, and so began the notion that they were "real." Dan Clore writes: "This [multiple referencing] creates the impression, amongst naive readers, that author A and author B are not borrowing from each other--or even from the same source, but are instead borrowing from sources which had in turn borrowed from earlier sources, which in turn were ultimately derived from a single ur-source and which reveal the traces of evolution over time, much as the variant versions of real myths do."

Lovecraft enjoyed it enormously. He wrote to Robert E. Howard, in 1930, that "I think it is rather good fun to have this artificial mythology given an air of verisimilitude by wide citation." And in a letter to William Anger, in 1934: "For the fun of building up a convincing cycle of synthetic folklore, all of our gang frequently allude to the pet daemons of the others--thus Smith uses my Yog-Sothoth, while I use his Tsathoggua. . . . We never, however, try to put it across as an actual hoax; but always carefully explain to enquirers that it is 100% fiction."

The Cthulhu Mythos (thanks largely to what S.T. Joshi calls "Derleth's rabid enthusiasm") took on a life of its own and "inspired a legion of hacks to produce unwitting parodies of the writer they were misguidedly attempting to honor."

Some critics have foolishly suggested that Lovecraft took the Mythos seriously. His letters make it clear he did not do so--in fact he depicted "degraded cults and covens" (Joshi's words) with scorn.

One of the recurring plot devices was the "terrible and forbidden" book, The Necronomicon, an all-purpose book of demonology, occult lore, and magic, written by "the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred." Lovecraft first made reference to The Necronomicon in "The Hound" (1922), and earlier to Abdul Alhazred in "The Nameless City" (1921).

Lovecraft claimed the Greek term Necronomicon is derived from nekros (corpse), nomos (law) and eikon (image), hence the book title is "The image/picture of the Law of the Dead." Unfortunately, this derivation is not consistent with ancient Greek grammatical constructions. There have been several other attempts to interpret the term, the most satisfactory (IMHO) being: nekros (corpse), nemo (to divide, classify, or study) and -ikon (neuter adjective suffice), hence "A Classification of the Dead."

Whatever the etymology, the name vividly conveys a sense of death, dread, and ancient lore.

Lovecraft said that he invented the name Abdul Alhazred after reading Lang's Arabian Nights as a child; but elsewhere he said that, as an adult, he asked the family lawyer to make up an Arab name. BTW, the Arabic is wrong: the -ul of Abdul is redundant with the Al of Alhazred. A better rendering would have been Abd-el-Hazred although Joshi calls that "much less charismatic."

In 1927, Lovecraft wrote the "History of the Necronomicon" as a tongue-in-cheek history of his mythical book. He said he did it to give "a sort of air of verisimilitude." Doubtless also to be sure that all the other writers who were making reference to the Necronomicon would be consistent.

According to Lovecraft's "History," the Necronomicon was written in the 8th Century AD by the "mad Arab" Alhazred, and was translated into Greek under the title Necronomicon by Theodorus Philetas in AD 950, then into Latin by Olias Wormius in 1228. (The real Wormius--a Danish doctor--lived from 1588 to 1654.) An "imperfect" English translation was supposedly made by Dr. John Dee (1527-1608), an English mathematician and astrologer. And so on. Lovecraft thus created a detailed background for his imaginary book.

When fans wrote Lovecraft in the 1930s to ask if these books were real, he replied truthfully (as quoted above.) In a 1936 letter, for instance, he says, "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."

Could he have been lying? Doubtful. Joshi says that he seems to have been a very truthful person. It would have been a long-standing and consistent lie. But more telling is that there is simply no other historical reference to a "Necronomicon" or to "Alhazred" until Lovecraft started writing about them. Nor to the various Old Ones (like Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth)--no mention anywhere before Lovecraft's.

Long after Lovecraft's death, several books appeared, sold privately or in bookstores, purporting to be new translations (or rediscovered copies) of the Necronomicon. Most of these are clearly spoofs or in-jokes. There are just under a dozen versions floating about, including one by Lin Carter and one by L. Sprague DeCamp, famous science fiction writers in their own right. All of them have an initial appearance that post-dates Lovecraft, usually by over 35 years.

There is the "Necronomicon of George Hay" (first published in 1978), claiming to be the English translation by John Dee, taken from a copy in the British Museum. Joshi calls it "one of the most exquisite hoaxes of modern times." Critic Colin Wilson (who wrote the intro to the Hay Necronomicon) admitted in a 1984 fanzine that it was a joke, concocted by him and a few friends.

The most commonly found version nowadays, and the only one that is not openly admitted by the author to be a joke or spoof, is the "Simon Necronomicon," published in 1977. The introduction claims it to be a translation of a Sumerian original, but it mentions gods and stories that are much later. There are other internal inconsistencies as well. Dan Clore says, "These hoax Necronomicons frequently display an utter lack of verisimilitude [in their content and in their introductions] where a little research would have provided a much more convincing story."

These books all include common, conventional recipes and rituals for doing "ceremonial magick." Wilson described writing the Hay Necronomicon: "the first thing to do was to find someone who really knew something about magic, and persuade him to concoct a book that could have been a perfectly genuine magical manuscript."

Apparently, Lovecraft himself considered writing a hoax Necronomicon. However, he rejected this because, as he says in a letter to James Blish and William Miller dated May 13, 1936: "If anyone were to try to write the Necronomicon, it would disappoint all those who have shuddered at cryptic references to it."

Aside from the ten or so Neconomicons, there are also ads (usually in college newspapers) for the sale of a "only slightly used" Necronomicon, bogus card catalog entries at a number of university libraries, and in-joke entries in assorted bibliographies, among other joke references.

Now, your last question: So why do so many people believe these books are real, and that the magic in them works? Beats me. I guess it's like Dumbo's feather--if you think the books can do magic, then perhaps they can, and if you don't think so, then surely they can't, but any "magic" is more in you than in the book.

Nor is it to be thought that man is either the oldest or the last of earth's masters. . . . 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. . . . They walk unseen and foul in lonely places... 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 hasth known Them, and what man knows Kadath? . . . 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, and after winter summer. They wait patient and potent, for here shall They reign again."

--A quote from the Necronomicon, cited in "The Dunwich Horror."

Tell me that Ghostbusters didn't lift from this. Gotta love it.

Sources:

The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi, Dell Publishing (1997)

More Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi and Peter Cannon, Dell Publishing (1999)

Website: www.geocities.com/SoHo/9879/necp age.htm (The Dan Clore Necronomicon Page)

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