If you have ever been assigned the thankless task of translating the dreaded Necronomicon, you know that the job can be risky business. Rendering the Medieval Arabic into Latin or English is complex and challenging. What if you get some of the archaic wording wrong? Or, more terrifying, what if you get it right? Translators play an important and underappreciated role in horror stories about the occult. Depending on the nature of the original text, longevity in the field is not a guarantee, even with considerable competence.
(Astute readers of H.P. Lovecraft will recall that the original title of the Necronomicon was Al Azif, an Arabic reference to the nocturnal sounds some insects make that are thought to be the howling of demons. Lovecraft, in his History of the Necronomicon (1927) records that Abdul Alhazred himself suffered the consequences of being a translator and compiler of forbidden texts. He was believed “to have been seized by an invisible monster in broad daylight and devoured horribly before a large number of fright-frozen witnesses.”)
One of Clark Ashton Smith’s best known and beloved stories is The Return of the Sorcerer (1931), originally published in Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror. With some modifications, the story was adapted for television by Halsted Wells for an episode of Night Gallery, (September 1972).
In the original story by Smith, the narrator, a man named Ogden, answers an ad seeking a translator of Arabic. He is quickly hired by John Carnby, a strange and reclusive scholar of the occult. As a condition of employment, Ogden must reside in the old man’s house, where he is asked to translate sections of the Necronomicon. There is some urgency; the old man needs two specific passages rendered in English as soon as possible. Carnby has a copy of the book originally compiled by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred—the complete version, not the abridged and erroneous Latin volume of Olaus Wormius.
As soon as Ogden begins his work of translating the key passages, Carnby grows increasingly agitated and distraught. There are strange, unidentifiable sounds just outside the door of the study, and Smith skillfully allows the reader to gradually piece together—literally—the horror that is coming into full view. It seems that being a sorcerer also brings with it certain occupational hazards, especially if one has an ambitious and talented twin brother.
What is in view here is an occult version of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. Here are the lines from Genesis that identify the source of evil Cain’s motivation: “The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.” (Genesis 4: 4-5) Here are the parallel lines in Clark Ashton Smith’s The Return of the Sorcerer: “I hated Helman, and he hated me, too. He has attained to higher power and knowledge, and was more favored by the Dark Ones than I…I feared him, and I could not endure his supremacy…”
Ogden’s work helps to illuminate the awful predicament that Carnby is in, but the translated sections of the Necronomicon prove to be too little, too late, and justice will be done. The translator escapes in the end, after being forced against his will to view the final handiwork of the aggrieved brother.
An interesting feminist twist on Clark Ashton Smith’s story is offered by the adaptation that appeared in a third season episode of Night Gallery, in September of 1972. Vincent Price plays both of the twin brothers, and Bill Bixby is the translator, Noel Evans. The plot is essentially the same—vengeance by way of superior sorcery skills—but there is a third character, the mysterious and beautiful Fern, played by Patricia Sterling.
She is the “indispensable” assistant who may also be the sorcerer’s lover—but which one? She also attempts to seduce Noel, the translator, right outside Carnby’s study, leading to all kinds of social awkwardness. A hint about Fern’s ultimate agenda is given over dinner in one scene: she remarks that there is only one female sorceress for every thousand male sorcerers. Price and Sterling have some fun with campy lines, but in the end, none of the men, not even the translator, are a match for the return of the sorceress.