Necronomicon (Gothic Dreams) by Sammy Maine (book review).

‘The Necronomicon’ was, of course, a fictional book first used by HP Lovecraft in a short story, ‘The Nameless City’, published in 1921. Part of the ‘trick’ was to name-check ‘The Necronomicon’ alongside other real books, which lent it a certain plausibility. Lovecraft and his peers enjoyed these sharing their inventions and other writers, such as Clark Ashton Smith and L. Sprague de Camp, mentioned the book in their stories. Occasionally, readers would extend the joke, slipping a counterfeit card into library catalogues, confusing others who came across the card and supposed the book to be real.

Necronomicon (Gothic Dreams) by Sammy Maine

As a result, ‘The Necronomicon’ has acquired an aura of reality unusual for a fictional item, to the degree that some practitioners of magic believe the thing to be real.

Such delusions aside, ‘The Necronomicon’ crops up in popular culture all over the place, including films and video games. As Lovecraft scholar ST Joshi says in the foreword, ‘The Necronomicon’ has ‘taken on a life of its own’ that would have ‘fascinated’ Lovecraft himself. What Sammy Maine does in this beautifully illustrated book is to tell the story of this most notorious of books, both within the stories Lovecraft wrote and outside them, in the stories, films, games and other artworks created afterwards.

Necronomicon (Gothic Dreams) by Sammy Maine
p7: © Bryan Reagan

After a short introduction to Lovecraft, cosmic horror and the Cthulhu Mythos, author Sammy Maine gets things started with the biography of the supposed author of ‘The Necronomicon’, Abdul Alhazred. To be fair, Lovecraft only hinted at the life and times of Alhazred, writing mainly on the ten years spent in the Arabian Desert, apparently communing with various evil spirits and demons. This is the period when ‘The Necronomicon’ is written and he himself called the book ‘Al-Azif’, an onomatopoeic reference, apparently, to the sound made by the insects of the night. Alhazred then leaves the desert, travelling about Arabia until he is finally ripped apart by invisible monsters in a marketplace in Yemen.

Lovecraft invented a whole history to the subsequent translations as ‘The Necronomicon’ was supposedly discovered, suppressed and then rediscovered at various times through medieval times. But where he actually got the inspiration for the book is something Maine briefly discusses. Among other antecedents, he suggests ‘The King In Yellow’ by Robert Chambers as one key source. This short story involves a fictional play, also called ‘The King In Yellow’, that contains two acts. The first is harmless enough, but reading the second act is enough to turn a person mad.

Necronomicon (Gothic Dreams) by Sammy Maine
p52: Public domain
p53: © Dan Verkys

Where things get really interesting is with the publication of a supposedly real ‘Necronomicon’ in 1977. Often referred to as the ‘Simon Necronomicon’ to make its identity clear, this book of unknown authorship blends arcane rituals with ancient Middle Eastern mythologies. Whereas other authors using ‘The Necronomicon’ had done so in the same playful way as Lovecraft, the ‘Simon Necronomicon’ book took itself seriously or, at least was intended to be taken that way by whoever wrote it. It’s a bit of a shame that Maine doesn’t really discuss this book at any great length. Appearing at a point when people were both fascinated by occultism but anxious about cults, the ‘Simon Necronomicon’ is very much a part of that moment when New Age spirituality of all sorts was becoming a part of popular culture.

Instead, Maine chooses to press on with the fictional developments of ‘The Necronomicon’, through authors like Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and even Terry Pratchett with ‘The Octavo’, for example, being a good example of a book that is dangerous to read.

Necronomicon (Gothic Dreams) by Sammy Maine
p76: Public domain
p77: © Francois Launet

‘The Necronomicon’ also turns up in the visual arts, starting with yet another supposed ‘Necronomicon’, this time by Swiss artists HR Giger. His unique and unsettling artwork brought Giger into the mainstream. Other artists who were inspired by ‘The Necronomicon’ include Dave Oliver, Jason Engle, and Francois Launet and, unlike Giger, some of their work is featured here, alongside numerous other artists. Indeed, most of the artwork featured in the book is recent and primarily digital art, which isn’t a bad thing, but has limited the sampling somewhat.

Taken as a whole, the book is attractive, but perhaps less compelling than the ‘Cthulhu’ volume in the same ‘Gothic Dreams’ series. It doesn’t quite manage to tell a satisfying story, skipping almost entirely the role of ‘The Necronomicon’ in occultism. Instead, it’s more of an overview of fiction and digital art inspired, to varying degrees, by Lovecraft’s conception of ‘The Necronomicon’ as a fictional grimoire. Entertaining, for sure, but not particularly useful as a reference book or Lovecraft scholarship.

Neale Monks

August 2021

(pub: Flame Tree, 2015. 128 page hardback. Price: £ 9.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78361-320-5)

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