Some recent discussion in Google’s Philosophy of Religion Community has focused on the veracity of Holy Scripture, and whether the Bible can be considered the literal Word of God. This question was first asked thousands of years ago, when the document we currently hold as canonical was being compiled from various “books” and translations. How accurate is the text? Who—if anyone—has the final say on which interpretations are authoritative? As a believer, it is heartening to see that this foundational text is still the subject of spirited debate, millennia after its creation, even among those who disbelieve its contents.
Thinking about the Bible reminded of another book, one that has also been difficult for many to comprehend in its entirety. Though fictional, this work has been enormously influential, despite various and incomplete translations, its numerous incarnations in horror literature and film, and the cosmic hazards it nearly always creates for its readers. I am speaking of course about the Necronomicon, H.P. Lovecraft’s glorious Anti-Bible.
Many years ago, in my misspent youth, I actually searched local book stores for a copy of the Necronomicon, hoping to find an inexpensive paperback edition—in English. At the time I did not know that the Necronomicon was originally called Al Azif, which according to H.P. Lovecraft, is “the word used by Arabs to designate that nocturnal sound, (made by insects) suppos’d to be the howling of demons.” I did not know that its principle author, the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred was “seized by an invisible monster in broad daylight and devoured horribly before a large number of fright-frozen witnesses.” (Had I known these things, I might also have wondered what became of the paperback publisher!)
Interested readers will want to peruse H.P. Lovecraft’s History of the Necronomicon (1938), a short piece originally written in 1927. The author traces the history of the book from Alhazred’s demise to its translation into Greek and Latin, its later suppression by church authorities, and its arrival in various university libraries, (most notably that of Miskatonic University). There is an unsubstantiated rumor that the Pickman family of Salem possessed a rare sixteenth-century Greek copy. Interestingly, Lovecraft believes that the Necronomicon was the inspiration for Robert W. Chamber’s excellent The King in Yellow (1895), a real book.
I was not successful in finding a paperback copy of the Necronomicon. I was probably not the only one looking. There was a soft cover book labeled “Necronomicon” that came out in the mid to late 1970s, full of obscure symbols and incoherent fragments of Latin and Greek, which a high school friend purchased for me. The spells and procedures it contained were quite ineffective—despite the bogus warnings on the back of the book.
What was I seeking? From the stories of Lovecraft and his colleagues I knew that the book—if I could find it—might say something more about such badass entities as Azathoth, Yog-Sothoth, Cthulhu, and my favorite, Nyarlathotep, the Lovecraftian Messenger God. There was also occasional reference to Him-Whose-Name-Must-Not-Be-Spoken—a name I most certainly wanted to utter, just to see what would happen. If I could find a way to open up a gateway into “black gulfs of chaos”—perhaps with the aid of a Shining Trapozohedron—it might enliven a tiresome routine of high school classes, working in a shoe store, planning for college, and mowing lawns under the broiling Floridian sun. It was all about boredom, but also power.
In his two volume biography of H.P. Lovecraft, Joshi notes that a number of occultists have refused to believe that the Necronomicon is a fictional creation, preferring to hold that the otherwise materialist author “saw the truth but couldn’t admit it even to himself”. One of Lovecraft’s collaborators, William Lumley, apparently took the Cthulhu mythos very literally. Other occultists have tried to link Lovecraft with Aleister Crowley, the famous English mystic. It seems that the desire to make the Necronomicon real and useable is attractive to the inexperienced, the gullible, or those whose mental health status may not be optimal.
Around this time in my young life I informed my mother that I would no longer be attending Mass on Sundays, (or Saturday nights, which had become our habit by then). I did not go into much theological detail, but my doubts about transubstantiation weakened my commitment to Roman Catholicism. Though an apostate to my childhood faith, I did not lose my interest in religion or religious experience. The Church had left me with an appreciation for the power of a book, a revealed scripture, as well as a sensibility about the supernatural. These are the elements—a book of mysteries and procedures, and an awareness of unseen forces—that inform the religious impulse to unite with the Good…or the Evil.
Or the horrifying, which can inhabit both of these spheres. Horror and religion are two halves of the same coin, rolling ineluctably toward the doom that we all share. It seems there ought to be a book, holy or unholy, that can offer guidance, encouragement and navigation through this darkening world. Although the Necronomicon remains fictional, it has no lack of potential readers, and who is to say that it won’t actually be written down some day?