Unspeakable Horrors

Of all the sinister grimoires featured in horror fiction and dark fantasy, one accursed book is indisputably the most famous. This is, in the words of H.P. Lovecraft (no relation to the sex shops), "the dreaded volume kept under lock and key ... the hideous Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred".

Lovecraft translated Necronomicon as "Book of Dead Names", but his Greek was shaky: it's more like "Book of Dead Laws". In his stories, the tome contains soul-searing secrets of elder beings who dwelt on earth before us and (heavy, ominous chords on soundtrack) will come again. Like the "root races" of Theosophy, they are a ghastly and gelatinous crew, with double slime and a side-order of tentacles. They have cuddly names like Azathoth, Cthulhu, Shub-Niggurath, Tsathoggua and Yog-Sothoth ... and although Lovecraft died in 1937, others have been writing about this gang of heavies ever since.

All this is called the "Cthulhu Mythos", and the Necronomicon is its bible. Inevitably, some people feel this unspeakable book must exist: so much has been written about it. Even Terry Pratchett has spoofed it as the Necrotelecomnicon, alias the Liber Paginarum Fulvarum or Book of Yellow Pages....

Lovecraft himself simultaneously claimed the book was all a joke, and teased his readers by elaborating its bibliography. According to this, Alhazred or Al-Hazred (allegedly a pun on Lovecraft's mother's surname, Hazard) wrote the book in Arabic under the title Al Azif, around AD 730; as a natural result he was publicly devoured by an invisible monster in AD 738. Many translations of his life-work were supposedly made, notably Theodorus Philetas's Greek Necronomicon of AD 950 and Olaus Wormius's AD 1228 Latin version. (Wormius was a real person, but unfortunately of the 16th/17th centuries, not the 13th.) The never-published English translation was reputedly made by legendary wizard Dr John Dee during the reign of Elizabeth I. Every version contains dread formulae for opening gateways to the Old Ones, and lesser magical lore such as how to make the Voorish Sign – no doubt particularly dangerous to the soul if you make it at a policeman.

The historical Necronomicon, insist the sceptics, never existed. Yes, it's been listed in dealers' catalogues, but only as a joke. Yes, there was an index card for it in the Yale university library – smuggled in by pranksters. But the issue is clouded by several authentic Necronomicons. No one was seriously confused when H.R. Giger of Alien design fame used the title for a collection of his creepy "bio-mechanoid" art. At least four books, though, claim to be or to reconstruct the original Necronomicon....

The most difficult to trace is the alleged Necronomicon which (according to one of the tales that go around Internet) was privately published by Lyon Sprague de Camp in 1907, and plagiarized by Lovecraft. As noted in the excellent Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993) edited by John Clute and Peter Nicholls, this is the full name of the long-time sf writer L. Sprague de Camp, who was born in 1907. Do you smell a rat? And does the smell grow stronger with the information that de Camp's useful Lovecraft: a Biography (1975) says much about the Necronomicon without ever mentioning this edition?

The most audacious Necronomicon is the 1973 US art-book from Owlswick Press (a tiny sf/fantasy outfit). Its central 192 pages are based on eight calligraphed sheets of cod-Arabic or sort-of-Syriac script, untranslated and untranslatable – which are repeated 24 times to fill out the book. A work too dangerous to translate!

Then there's the 1977 Necronomicon edited by "Simon", which assembles a lot of apparently genuine translations of cuneiform tablets found by archaeologists in Iraq. So mostly it's straight Sumerian and Assyrian mythology, with the usual translation gaps – which "Simon" has cunningly filled in with references to Cthulhu & Co, plus some dreary material about ritual magic.

In 1978, a mostly British team led by George Hay published The Necronomicon: The Book of Dead Names. The title page is, allegedly, from Dr Dee's lost translation, published in 1571. Colin Wilson contributed a long and deadpan introduction; Robert Turner helped reconstruct magical rituals and signs from the dread work; L. Sprague de Camp (again) and Angela Carter provided footnotes about Lovecraft's life and work. And the use of a giant mainframe computer to decipher Dee's tables of magical symbols – and thus extract the Necronomicon itself – was described at tedious length by a cryptanalytical "expert" called, ahem, David Langford. Do you smell another rat?

Now it is time to reveal the truth. But wait! The horror, the eldritch horror! (Lovecraft's stories often end like this.) That blasphemous entity from the charnel pits, partly rugose and partly squamous, is coming up my garden path.... I can ... write ... no more ... Argh! Cthulhu! Ouch!