Hidden Secrets

Story ideas I'll probably never get around to writing, number 5,271,009: What if Edgar Allan Poe deciphered the Voynich Manuscript?

He'd certainly have loved to try. Poe was fascinated by cipher messages – look at his story "The Gold-Bug". In his 1839-40 US magazine column, he challenged readers to submit a cryptogram he couldn't crack. One man defeated him ... or so it seemed, until Poe scholars started wondering whether this mysterious master-cryptographer "WB Tyler" was a pseudonym of Poe himself. But that's another story.

One good reason why Poe never tested his skill on the Voynich Manuscript is that, although the latest radiocarbon dating places it in the early 15th century, it didn't come to light until book-dealer Wilfrid Voynich got hold of it in 1912. Shame.

The manuscript, written in an unknown alphabet, is a prime example of historical weirdness. What language is it in? What are all those unidentifiable plants and cosmological diagrams? Who are the naked ladies bathing in green gunge that flows through Heath Robinson lash-ups of arcane plumbing? Before the date was nailed down, many people hoped the author was famed proto-scientist Bacon – either Roger the futurologist monk (13th century: too early) or Francis the essayist and cipher fan (16th century: too late). Is the MS alchemical? Complex insanity? Could it be science fiction?

A useful, entertaining round-up of theories is The Voynich Manuscript (2004) by Gerry Kennedy and Rob Churchill. They report that crypto expert William F. Friedman, who famously broke the Japanese "Purple" code in World War II, decided the manuscript was an experiment in creating an imaginary language. Just like Tolkien, really, except that Tolkien's illustrations are sadly deficient in naked ladies bathing.

(By the way, Friedman and his wife Elizebeth also wrote The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined, mercilessly dissecting efforts to extract the secret messages – usually from Francis Bacon – hidden in Shakespeare's plays. Like so many attempted Voynich translations, the results tended to be surreal gibberish.)

My favourite book inspired by the Voynich MS is Luigi Serafini's amazing Codex Seraphinianus, also written in an unknown script and even more crammed with bizarre illustrations. But I first read about the Voynich codex in Colin Wilson's novel The Philosopher's Stone, a heady mix of Lovecraftian and paranormal themes. What else, said Wilson, could the ancient, undecipherable Voynich text be but H.P. Lovecraft's Necronomicon, the dread grimoire whose merest semicolon is a shuddering threat to sanity?

One thing led to another. Some Voynich scholars had suspected the manuscript was a modern hoax, and some Lovecraft scholars thought it would be fun to, ahem, reconstruct the Necronomicon from first principles. Which is how I found myself working on this mighty project with George Hay (whose idea it was), Robert Turner and Colin Wilson. My contribution was a Poe-like essay on cipher-breaking, which cited Francis Bacon and other pioneers of secret writing, and "explained" how the Necronomicon had been cunningly encoded in the occult book Liber Logaeth by another 16th-century savant: Doctor John Dee. Who, until the 15th-century dating was established, was frequently suspected of having perpetrated the Voynich Manuscript. "Our" version of the Necronomicon appeared in 1978, and is of course definitive. Unless it turns out to be a 15th-century hoax.

One last true fact. Colin Wilson – once misleadingly lumped together with Kingsley Amis and other 1950s UK novelists as the "Angry Young Men" – will be 80 around the time this SFX appears, in June 2011. I've enjoyed his writing for many years. Happy birthday!

David Langford, though undecipherable, is always ready to raise a glass.

Later: My own title for this one was "Unbreakable Code". I have no idea why SFX changed it to the equally uninspiring header above: maybe the original contains a filthy innuendo that I missed.