Bewildering Stories

Robert M. Price, ed. The Necronomicon,
Cthulhu Cycle Book 12

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

The Necronomicon,
Cthulhu Cycle Book #12

Editor: Robert M. Price
Publisher: Chaosium, 1996
Paperback: ISBN 0-56882-070-4
Price: $13.57

How could a fan of those old horror classics, those overwrought, shivery gems of the classic pulp era of the 1930’s, resist a book entitled The Necronomicon? Those of you who are H. P. Lovecraft fans will recognize the name instantly. Lovecraft always claimed the name of The Book came to him in a dream. Upon awakening, he set about at once to determine its meaning, which he then translated from its Greek roots as, roughly, “An Image of the Law of the Dead.” This imaginary tome of forbidden knowledge was purportedly written by the mad Arab, Abdul Alharzred, and later translated into both Latin and the vernacular (the latter ascribed to the Elizabethan magus John Dee).

Lovecraft himself was far too astute to actually try to invent his sinister tome out of whole cloth, but others could not resist making the attempt. Such is the power of Lovecraft’s imagination that there are living persons even today who believe there truly is a Necronomicon: who, despite the warnings, continue to search for the mysterious occult work while the dread book, like the mysterious wall described in one of the stories in Price’s collection, continues to swim away from them in space and time, forever elusive.

Robert M. Price’s selections for this twelfth issue in Chaosium’s Cthulhu Cycle are, to put it mildly, eclectic. Part of the collection includes stories from pulp’s early days of glory (“The Terrible Parchment,” from the August 1937 edition of Weird Tales “The Settler’s Wall,” from the March 1942 edition of Stirring Science Stories, etc.). Most of those stories, while mildly interesting, read dated to the modern eye.

We have too Lin Carter’s tales of the mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred, which, though indisputably pulp in all of its overripe purple glory, belong to the wearisome yea and verily school of writing; I need not say more, I hope, because I could not read all of them, either.

The bulk of the book, unfortunately, is wasted with various writers’ attempts to actually re-create the Necronomicon itself. Worse, much worse than Carter’s baroque prose, is Fred L. Pelton’s attempt, supposedly from the Latin translation made by Wormius. I am afraid I must dub it unreadable. I quote the first line so you can get the idea: “First Book of ye great al-powerful Lord Cthulhu and of his legions, and of ye mighte Old Ones which cam down with our master from dark Yuggoth.” Well, I won’t quote more, because that sentence, and many of his other knotty Ye Olde English sentences, run to full paragraph lengths or half-pages all on their own before allowing the breathless reader the mercy of a period.

Fortunately, several stories do redeem the collection, and at least one is a “don’t miss” for Lovecraft fans. Who would have suspected that John Brunner, famous for his classic sci-fi gems, would unexpectedly produce a Lovecraft story? Yet he did, and his story, “Concerning the Forthcoming Inexpensive Paperback Translation of the Necronomicon,” is one of the gems of the collection.

Anyone who has read the original Lovecraft canon knows that HPL wrought his effects by adopting an apparently dead-earnest pseudo-scientific tone, recounted by a seemingly impeccably reliable narrator. His stories build slowly, as the reader is lulled into believing the narrator and his rationalistic approach.

Brunner, cleverly imitating the exact tone of a typical Lovecraft narrator, turns this device on its head. His story is side-splittingly humorous to those who understand exactly what he’s doing and how he subverts Lovecraft’s pseudo-real verisimilitude. I quote an example below, where the narrator, a socially inept, reclusive academic (he’s a fellow librarian, actually, I reluctantly admit), is forced to travel from his native England to that bastion of the crude and uncouth, America, which he refers to as “our former colony.”

“Over the yet further agonies inflicted upon me once my passport and visa did at last arrive, I shall pass lightly. Let me no more than animadvert upon the aeons that I spent among folk more devoid of hope than even I, trapped in the uncertainty of an anteroom to Hell, awaiting with sad countenance and weary limbs the call that would release them from one captivity to another; the succeeding prison-close confinement that I feared would never end, or if it did would terminate in tragedy; the strange unwholesome food, the cold and bitter drink that were the common lot of all us pitiable souls — surely such torments could only be hatched amid the primal source of evil in whose nature I and I alone in modern times had been vouchsafed a glimpse!”

Those of us who travel, of course, instantly recognize how he nailed confinement on a plane and subsistence upon airport food and drink as, indeed, an Evil Greater than Nyarlathotep!

Also worthy of mention is Robert Silverberg’s “The Demons of Cthulhu,” which, in spite of its title, is another humorous gem about a boy who calls up the Forbidden Gods to order a steak and onion dinner. The other modern story, Fred Chappell’s “The Adder,” is also good. Read those and enjoy them; skim lightly over the dated historic offerings, such as “The Settler’s Wall,” “The Howler in the Dark,” and as much of the purple-prose of the Long offerings as you feel inclined to. Skip, though, the annoying “The Terrible Parchment.” (What does holy water have to do with the thoroughly non-Christian cosmos of H. P. Lovecraft? Especially holy water that is actually supposed to work to exorcise a Lovecraftian horror. This writer didn’t get it, not at all).

And then chuck the rest of the book, unless you want to read Price’s mostly worthwhile if knotty Introduction. And if you have the time and inclination, write Robert M. Price a letter chastising him for filling his collection with so many unreadable offerings. H. P. Lovecraft had it right: what is hinted is more chilling than what is revealed; the mysterious Shadow more alluring than the illuminated object that proves to be nothing more than pure old awful writing. Necronomicon, Be Ye Elusive, or you will lose your power!

Copyright © 2005 by Danielle L. Parker

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