Dr. G. Warlock Vance
The Dread and Portent of Lovecraft’s Necronomicon: Horror Fiction as Socio-historical Commentary
Amazon Digital Services, 2014
So, Mr. Hip Literate American, you think you know Lovecraft, do you? The weird fiction, the weirder personal life, and above all, his iconic creations, Cthulhu, The Elder Gods, and behind them all, the Book of Books, the dreaded Necronomicon.
But do you? Do you? Sure, you’ve seen the Cthulhu plushies and the T-Shirts bearing Lovecraft’s dour visage. But what do you know about the rotting roots of it all, the Necronomicon? What is it, where did it come from, and above all, what does it do?
Comes now one G. Warlock Vance, himself a horror writer, now engaged not in a search for eldritch secrets but a PhD. Rather than producing yet another mocked-up text, Vance has chosen to track down every reference to the Book in Lovecraft’s work, so as to discover its true nature.
Can your heart stand the shocking facts of the true story?
Books derived from, or consisting in, Ph.D. dissertations are famously dire, almost more so than the Necronomicon itself, but this is one exception, which can be recommended to anyone interested in Lovecraft (duh) or anyone who just wants to know what could possibly be so interesting about some pulp writings by an unknown long-dead guy.
Vance’s research reveals a Book that may have started out as just another mythical spell-book, but soon mutated at Lovecraft’s grasp into something far more . . . strange.
Consciously or perhaps subconsciously, the Necronomicon functioned as Lovecraft’s cultural lens, emphasizing the shortcomings he observed in society and his seemingly puritanical and too-often prejudiced and cynical ideas about humanity‘s decline. . . . The spellbook also functioned as an historical record, delineating what Lovecraft saw as mankind’s greatest achievements: the exploration of previously untouched areas around the globe, the discovery of new planets in the solar system, and the startling advancements in the fields of mathematics and theoretical physics.
It’s actually pretty interesting to see how Lovecraft, rather than just dreaming up the Book as a gimmick and sticking it in every story — apparently, the idea behind any number of Lovecraft “inspired” works — gradually evolved the concept and developed new uses for it.
Vance points out that Lovecraft’s involvement with the Necronomicon can be said to predate his formal literary activity; the name eventually assigned as “author,” Abdul Alhazred, the “mad Arab,” was actually adopted by the boyhood Lovecraft in his role as spinner of Arabian Nights-inspired tales. “The Statement of Randolph Carter” is a generic horror story, but its references to a vast occult library owned by the doomed Warren provide “direct antecedents, if not actual catalysts, for his creation of the Necronomicon.”
In “The Nameless City” occurs the first mention of Mad Arab and the first quotation, the famous couplet
“That is not dead which can eternal lie, / and with strange eons even death may die.”
In “The Hound” “the spellbook functions merely as a kind of biographical record of others who have used the occult for their pleasure (or doom).” But “as HPL’s style and level of sophistication increased, his conception of the grimoire continued to change.” He begins to employ the Book as “a means of revealing iniquity and a kind of signpost reading DANGER AHEAD.”
One might say — with apologies to a certain beer whose Mexican origins would have horrified Lovecraft — that Lovecraft created, in the Necronomicon, the Most Interesting Book in the World; he doesn’t always use it, but when he does, “the inclusion of the Necronomicon produces the greatest reflection of what HPL saw as the moral, physical, and spiritual erosion of society.”
Thus, in stories like “The Dunwich Horror,” Lovecraft expiates on his horror of not mere backwoods incest but, by introducing the longest quotation yet from the Necronomicon, projecting a vision of society subverted from within by the infiltration of monsters from without:
For all its heavy-handed biblical tone, this quotation represents the cyclic rise and fall of humanity in a manner that, at first glance, appears one of Lovecraft’s fairest, most unbiased appraisals. Upon closer inspection, the racial tension observable in so much of his work and readily apparent throughout the rest of “The Dunwich Horror“ comes through with the insistence on knowing the outsider/other
“in the features of those They have begotten on mankind“
This single line, perhaps, more than any other in the narrative, demonstrates HPL‘s insistence of the inferiority of the kind of “half-breed” Houellebecq mentions or “mongrel flesh” as Lovecraft himself would say. Also, the line,
“They walk serene and primal, unseen to us . . . ,”
shows the profundity of difference between humankind and those beings which seek to make the earth their own, representative of the waves of immigrants entering the United States. Joshi notes Lovecraft’s inability to accept that this “influx of foreigners” could “maintain the cultural standards [HPL] valued” (HPL: AL177-78). Similarly, in “The Dunwich Horror,” the “unseen“ or invisible alien walks unchallenged and ignored until it is nearly too late to eradicate its evil menace and perverted influence, an insidious presence which, as Lovecraft confides, leaves “legitimate natives of a place feeling like strangers on their own hereditary sod” (SL II71).
Needless to say — in this forum, at least — although Vance is to be commended for highlighting this element of Lovecraft and his use of the Necronomicon to promote it, his inability to think outside the limits of today’s PC environment and take seriously what he dismisses as, for example, “HPL’s sadly priggish superiority concerning purity of bloodlines,” that the book disappoints.
There is entirely too much amateur psychological speculation (which doesn’t become professional just by quoting professionals) about the “sources” of Lovecraft’s unacceptable ideas in some childhood trauma or hereditary disease — oh, the irony! Apart from being nugatory and irrelevant, they contradict the other means of exculpation; that Lovecraft was, alas, a man — I mean, person — of his times.
As I pointed out in my review of Harman’s Weird Realism, Lovecraft’s protagonists are not hoisted by the petard of their “racist” ignorance but rather are precisely men of the very latest science, eugenics though it may be. Too many — all? — of Lovecraft’s literary critics seem to just not get that his “racist,” “anti-immigrant,” etc. and other “awful” views were simply common wisdom of the time, and leave it at that. Or are modern readers, even “educated” ones, so ignorant of the past? Is there any other field of “scholarship” where one’s predecessors, the very founders, are routinely subjected to the childish abuse and taunting of the self-styled “enlightened”?
Vance even drags in Michel Foucault, who
describes how the cost of knowledge increases the more one learns. The critic notes how knowledge “detaches man from feeling and “a sensibility that is no longer controlled by the movements of nature, but by all the habits, all the demands of social life” (Madness & Civilization, 218). Lovecraft exemplified such detachment in his cosmicism views, in his relationships with others, and in his narratives.
One might well turn the tables here: it is HPL who is the man of feeling, in touch with reality; the multicultis are the men of ideological abstraction and obsession, “controlled by the demands of social life” — i.e, the need to conform in order to keep one’s job, especially in academia.
Again, as hinted at in the reference to “fairness” in the quote above, Vance seems to think — in trying to exculpate HPL — that there is some inconsistency in holding to both cosmicism and “racism.” Again, we see the perils of viewing the past through the limiting lens of PC; far from being inconsistent, such “racism” is, to paraphrase Baron Evola, simply the common sense of educated people prior to about 1965, the inevitable result, from Manu to Plato to the Theosophists, of applying cosmic wisdom — “the cyclic rise and fall of humanity” –to the earthly sphere. As with evolution, there is no contradiction between authentic Tradition and genetics, only between Tradition and PC-inflected “scientism.”
But we can leave such disagreeable topics behind, because as HPL reaches his ultimate level of proto-sci/fi, the Necronomicon mutates again:
In works like “The Call of Cthulhu,“ “The Whisperer in Darkness,” and At the Mountains of Madness, the Necronomicon takes on the added roles of historical record and oracular chronicle, predicting the latest astronomical findings and mathematical models. The spellbook also proposes new ideas concerning the origins of life on earth.
Perhaps most intriguing of all, as Lovecraft’s literary output slows down and declines in quality, so does the use of the Necronomicon, finally becoming just another spell book. Cause, or effect? Maybe there is something to the “Lovecraft as hidden initiate” meme after all.
In his concluding chapter, Vance offers another survey, this time of some of the innumerable examples of the Necronomicon’s memetic presence in genre fiction, ranging from fan pastiches such as “H. P. L.” (1990) by Gahan Wilson to Fred Chappell’s “wonderfully strange new versions of Southern Gothic” such as “The Adder” (1989) and Dagon (1968), as well as “some less likely examples of the spell-book‘s influence on serious contemporary fiction,” such as Wonder Boys (1995) by Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon, House of Leaves (2000) by Mark Z. Danielewsk, and The Shadow of the Wind (2004) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.
For writers of both modern genre fiction and serious contemporary literature, the Necronomicon continues to function as a morbid means of self-analysis. The dark dreams prophesized in its forbidden pages reflect not only their creator’s pessimistic vision but the attitudes of today’s society—our realization that Lovecraft’s horrors of identity loss, cultural degeneracy, and the inadequacies of scientific understanding to cure such ills are all too much our own.
An appendix nicely collates each Lovecraft work containing a reference to the Necronomicon, providing publication details and the supposed quote from the spell-book, if any. It’s a handy little checklist for the Lovecraft fan, and comprises, in effect, an anthology of authentic quotations from the spell-book — a surprisingly small canon for a work whose influence has been so widespread.
Vance, of course, devotes much attention throughout to the text themselves, and I can only find one place to disagree with his factual exposition. Regarding the climax of “The Whisperer in Darkness,” Vance writes that
Wilmarth finds only a pile of discarded clothing, a mask, and a pair of gloves. The latter items were “perfect to the last, subtle detail of microscopic resemblance—or identity . . . the face and hands of Henry Wentworth Akeley” (722). Wilmarth realizes he has not been speaking to Henry Wentworth Akeley, but to his disembodied consciousness, [my emphasis] Akeley‘s brain having been surgically removed and placed in a special cylinder so that it may be transported to “Yuggoth.”
I’ve always read the story this way:
Wilmarth reveals the discovery that drove him out was a disembodied face and hands. We are led to conclude that it was not Akeley who had sat in the chair and conversed with him but one of the Mi-Go in disguise, as Akeley’s brain was in the named cylinder.
Specifically, disguised using Akeley’s own hands and face, which have been “removed” somehow (not “disembodied,” the term Wikipedia weirdly uses, while Vance correctly uses it for Akeley‘s consciousness). This accounts for the odd, buzzing sound, characteristic of the Mi-Go, that Wilmarth hears behind Akeley’s titular “whispering.” The horrifying reveal at the end is the cliché “shock” ending, missing only the italics. Rather than speaking through the impersonator, “Akeley’s cylinder was connected to the vision and hearing instruments, so he was a witness to Wilmarth’s conversation with pseudo-Akeley.”
One might be tempted to suggest that Vance seems to have been confused by memories of the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society film version:
at the end of the film the audience discovers that Wilmarth has been narrating from a machine attached to the cylinder in which his brain now resides. This differs from the original story in which Wilmarth flees in the middle of the night and safely returns to Arkham.
except, that Vance was writing in or before 2010, a good year or so before the film was released. How’s that for weirdness?
The kindle presentation is rather slipshod, with no linking of footnotes and no active table of contents; basically, just the (presumably revised) text of the dissertation, as if it were only a pdf. This is particularly irritating in a scholarly work, making it almost impossible to check the endnotes while reading the relevant text.
Despite these cavils, the book remains a useful introduction and guide to the greatest creation of one of America’s greatest writers — the Necronomicon of the “Mad Arab” H. P. Lovecraft.
1. “For a self-proclaimed ‘Non-Entity,’ HPL would certainly be surprised to learn that what he considered his ‘homely’ (SL 1 136) face is one of the most recognizable among fans of genre fiction.” — Vance, op. cit. On being a non-entity, compare our remarks on Coomaraswamy’s desired epitaph, “Here Lies Nobody,” in our review of The Rack, here.
2. “First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing, ask what it is it itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek?” — Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs. “Mostly I don’t try to teach the piano like a serial killer, but often I have found myself imitating Lecter, and asking students: What is this passage of music doing, what does it seek? And they reply ‘mysterious,’ or possibly ‘this is the second theme’ — either an epithet or a piece of learned jargon. No verbs anywhere. It makes me want to eat their livers with some fava beans and a nice Chianti. Instead, I just reiterate ‘but what does the phrase DO?'” — “Hannibal Lecter’s Guide to the Goldberg Variation” by Jeremy Denk, March 20, 2012, here.
3. Why I can’t imagine, since he already has such a sweet name for a weird fiction writer.
4. E.g., The Simon Necronomicon (Avon, 1977) as more recently and generally the same (?) author’s Dead Names: The Dark History of the Necronomicon (Avon, 2006). Colin Wilson contributed semi-seriously to the foolishness with his contribution to George Hay’s The Necronomicon (Skroob, 1993).
5. If you’re playing at home, the fourteen tales in which HPL refers to the magical text by name are as follows: “The Hound” (1922), “The Festival” (1923), “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926), The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927), “The Descendant“(1927), “The History of the Necronomicon” (1927), “The Dunwich Horror” (1928), “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1930), At the Mountains of Madness (1932), “The Dreams in the Witch House” (1932), “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (1933), “The Thing on the Doorstep” (1933), “The Shadow Out of Time” (1935), and “The Haunter of the Dark” (1935). It’s a surprisingly small list, although it is, as Vance notes, about a quarter of Lovecraft’s already small output.
6. “You are interested in the unknown, the mysterious, the unexplainable. That is why you are here. And now, for the first time, we are bringing to you the full story of what happened on that fateful day. We are giving you all the evidence, based only on the secret testimonies of the miserable souls who survived this terrifying ordeal. The incidents, the places, my friend, we cannot keep this a secret any longer. Let us punish the guilty. Let us reward the innocent. My friend, can your heart stand the shocking facts about grave robbers from outer space?” — Plan Nine from Outer Space (Ed Wood, 1957), Prologue by Criswell.
7. You can access the original dissertation, Dread and Portent: Reading H. P. Lovecraft’s ‘Necronomicon’ as Social Criticism (University of North Carolina, Greensboro, 2011) here, though those who approve of courtesy (at least) to living authors are advised to get the kindle. As for being long dead, Vance notes that in Gahan Wilson’s “H.P.L.,” “it turns out that Lovecraft did not die in 1937 as most believe, but was granted a reprieve by the great Old Ones.”
8. “Two or three years ago it was just another snake cult, now . . . those cursed towers are everywhere.” — Conan the Barbarian (1982), based, of course, on the work of Lovecraft’s two-fisted pal, Robert E. Howard.
9. “But his pathology is a thousand times more savage and more terrifying.” — Silence of the Lambs.
10. I discussed this quotation in the context of my review of Dark Albion here.
11. Reprinted in The Eldritch Evola . . . & Others (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2014).
12. For some reason, the appendix includes a fragmentary piece, “The Descendant,” which I don’t recall ever reading or hearing about, and which Vance doesn’t mention in his main text. Here the Necronomicon “functions as a societal lens through which Lovecraft “reveals his anti-Semitism when his protagonist visits “the squalid precincts” of the Jewish neighborhood to purchase the ‘infamous’ (618) book.” These, and a note about his “confirmed anti-Semitism” being modified by his “marrying a Jew,” are the only references to the vexed question of Lovecraft’s antipathy to Jews. One wonders why they are hidden away like this, given his willingness to waggle his finger at Lovecraft’s “unacceptable” ideas. Of course, they hardly amount to anything; the one is the hoary tradition of seeking wisdom damned by the Church among the Jews — and what if the precincts were, in fact, squalid; if the ghetto wasn’t squalid, whence the outrage at confining Jews to it? — and the other suggests no more than Lovecraft’s acceptance of fully assimilated Jews rather than the kaftan-wearing, pipe-tootling Syrians and other immigrants that raised his gorge in New York.
14. Comment by Jim Barrett here. According to Joshi, in his notes to the Penguin edition, it’s Nyarlathotep in the shape of a Mi-Go masquerading as Akeley.
15. Wikipedia on the movie. “Lovecraft’s twist about “the whisperer” is revealed shortly after one-hour mark, and the remaining 30 minutes or so offer events, action, chase sequences, creatures, horrors and visual concepts completely invented by the makers.” Temple of the Ghoul, review.