From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Book Review: The Necronomicon

I’ve heard a lot of things about this book throughout the SF community and decided to check it out. After a quick search on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Borders and other online bookseller sites, I came to the conclusion that this book is not only out of print, but also very rare. Odd to think that a book that has been referenced in stories all the way back to the days of an obscure author named Howard Phillips Lovecraft until present would not remain in print. After all, James Joyce’s Ulysses is still in print, and I am not sure anyone in recorded history has ever finished reading that book.

Other books bearing the same title were published fairly recently as first editions, so I knew they couldn’t have been anything but crude imitators. One such book was an art book, bearing strange pictures that were very grotesque and often alien. I’m not sure what species of fauna these animals and indescribable creations were supposed to represent anyway. So far, my luck was not holding out with the usual venues for finding books. I even did the unthinkable, and visited my public library. The horrors that I saw in that place! Cyclopean stacks of shelves bearing dusty tomes, shambling creatures I later learned are called “retirees” picked through the stacks of arcane volumes. In a faint, distant corner of the library, a place few have ventured into, past the self-help publications, the back issues of Outdoorsman and Ranger Rick, I discovered a certain book, the horrors of which, dear reader, I cannot begin to explain. It was, of course, Ulysses, by James Joyce.

Having found nothing at the library, I decided to try Craigslist, and found a copy of the Necronomicon being offered locally. What a stroke of luck! The only stipulation was that I also take with the book as set of broken lawn chairs and a slightly chipped garden statuary. The owner stated that he had come by the copy during his years of research at an obscure Massachusetts university I had never heard of. I was happy to oblige, especially since I recognized the garden statuary as a rare antique, which would fetch a handsome sum amongst garden statuary enthusiasts. Though clandestine, garden statuary enthusiasts are legion, for they are many.

The first thing I noticed was the nice binding of the book. The cover was constructed of some sort of fine, smooth leather. The pages were a thin vellum, hardly yellowed with time. I considered having the book assessed to ascertain its age, fearing it to be a hoax. Barring that, I decided to continue reading. A dedication at the beginning read “To Sally: That is not dead which can eternal lie. And with strange aeons even death may die.” Special thanks were then given to the author’s agent and a list of people who made the writing of the book possible. A few of the names sounded familiar, but for the most part they sounded foreign, and essentially unpronounceable in my native tongue.

Right away, I could see how this book might have influenced many writers and artists throughout its existence. The opening lines of the narrative were so tuned into literary archetypes and storytelling that I couldn’t help but be drawn into the book. It begins, “Once upon a time, it was a dark and stormy night…” When I got to the chapter entitled “Cellar Door,” I was amazed at how much this book has touched the works of others, even beyond the genre of late Victorian or Pre-World War II American schlock horror.

The contents of the book were very esoteric, the script reminding me more of Ralph Steadman illustrations from early Hunter S. Thompson articles written during the heyday of Rolling Stone. I was almost giddy with excitement and could hardly contain myself. I continued reading, trying to decipher the cryptic details of this tome. The fonts within the book often made for difficult reading and some of the passages seemed to be written in a weak brown ink of some sort.

I soon became despondent when the book revealed itself to be unreadable. I grew tired of the hieroglyphs, the strange notations in the margins, such as “Eureka! The answer lies in Antarctica!” Seriously, this is why I never bought used books in college. I hate when people write in the margins. I came to find the book’s language to be stilted and archaic. The dialogue, whenever present, was unintelligible, often with slanderous misspellings and syntax. The exclamation of “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!” throughout suggested some importance, yet the glossary at the back did not explain what this meant. I suspect it was a mistake made by the publisher.

The illustrations depicted human beings in various states of undress, cavorting around with creatures of dubious biological taxonomy. Some drawings were so scandalous that I was forced to close the book for a time before continuing on. Even Internet images could not duplicate these acts without some serious photoshopping. I pressed on, determined to unlock the secret of why this book drove so many towards inspiration and madness.

Eventually, I uncovered a section of text I realized was familiar from my undergraduate work at University. After some googling, I discovered the text to be a snippet of narrative from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. It raised the hair on the back of my neck.

The rest of the book was easily glossed over, much like the chapters on whale physiology found in Moby Dick. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was another oblique reference to the Necronomicon. In which case, I believe Melville’s attempt to evoke imagery from this book fell flat, since the most boring parts of Moby Dick and the Necronomicon all deal with strange marine creatures.

After completing the book, I felt I had accomplished no mean feat. Though essentially lacking pathos, a central protagonist, or a comprehensive notations guide to the strange terms and Escher-esque illustrations that boggled the mind, I found the book to be a triumph of the spirit. A warning at the end states quite ironically, that the reader of this book will be driven mad and be compelled to spread dissent and evil upon the world. It appeared to be an afterward by a gentleman of some significance at the time of the book’s publication, though I have never heard of anyone called Abdul “The Mad Arab” Alhazred before. But then again, I am less well-read than I like to admit.

It would be interesting to see a reprint of this book, sheerly for archival purposes, though I doubt any publisher would be willing to tackle the complexity of the book, due to its tactile nature and the way that the narrative interacts with the reader. Since the book is out of print, and the author long-dead, I suspect that the copyright of this book is long past due, thus making it public domain. I have sent my copy to the publishers of popular books such as Wizardology and Dragonology in hopes that they may offer this obscure book as a companion to their series of children’s books. This book could make a fine addition to any child’s library if properly edited.

As it stands, however, the book remains a novelty and though influential, I can see little worth in perusing its pages other than a simple curiosity. It is far from the key to the workings of some hellish domain or instruction manual to the end of Creation. It is a fun, romping read, yet too vague and obscure in places to make much sense. As far as first novels go, the author could have done worse, but really the best thing I could see going for it at this point was the free lawn chairs and garden statuary I got with it.

Speaking of which, the garden statuary is already up to $17 dollars on eBay! Who would have thought that such an abstract cross between a bat and a squid would already have started a bidding war? But who am I to question the motives of statuary enthusiasts?

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