Before springing too quickly into an occult consideration of the Necronomicon, I want to take some time to discuss its fictional and literary context. This won’t be anything fancy (though it will be long), just some descriptive account of how it tends to appear, the way those uses change over time, and some biographical / historical context for those changes.
It first appears in story Lovecraft wrote in 1922 (published in 1924), “The Hound.” In the 21 works he writes after “The Hound,” the Necronomicon appears in 11 of them. We can divide these mentions neatly between their function in the text which undergoes clear transformation over time. This give us a basic division between early and late uses of the Necronomicon. The early references fall within the 1920s while the later uses occur in his 1930s work.
In the early appearances, it features prominently. The 1920s texts have it serve as the lynchpin for key plot developments. By the 1930s, its appearances serve a more indirect narrative function. While the early appearances are often accompanied by extensive quotations from the Necronomicon, the later appearances do not.
Early works spend a good deal of time describing the encounter with the book. The location and security of the book, the nature of its binding, its size (in excess of 750 pages), the startling images and words contained within it. In “The Festival,” the book itself plays a central role in unholy rituals, treated much like an unholy Bible: the cult leader lifts the volume high and the members kneel down before it.
The later work de-emphasizes the distinctiveness of the Necronomicon. Not only do the stories spend less time describing the volume, but frequently make mention of it alongside other occult texts of ill-repute. While it often retains its singular reputation alongside many of those texts, Lovecraft begins to introduce other texts whose relationship to the Old Ones equal, or perhaps even exceed, the Necronomicon’s (i.e., the Pnakotic Manuscripts and and the Book of Dzyan).
In the early works, the Necronomicon appears most often as a potent thing in and of itself, containing disturbing images and savage symbols. In the later works, the Necronomicon is more often described as alluding to horrors. The narrators of these late texts have often read the Necronomicon but are not deeply affected by it until confronted with realities to which the text can only allude.
Mirroring this, the early works focus on the grimoiric functions of the Necronomicon, often explicitly on its necromantic operations. The later works shift the focus increasingly away from the practical operations to consideration of the cosmic history it outlines and the implications it has for discoveries made in the narrative.
In the early works, the Necronomicon is ready-to-hand and embedded in the local New England world Lovecraft lives within. The copies examined are in the possession of either individual collectors living in the area or to be found at the local Miskatonic University. The action of the piece often transpires within that world. Its very first appearance in “The Hound” relates to the unnatural sympathy of a wizard’s body with the land where it is buried. Many others develop the connection of a wizard to his descendents.
In the later works, the action becomes increasingly remote from New England. At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Out of Time describe action in distant regions. While “The Dreams in the Witch House” is reminiscent of his local pieces, the action of the plot opens onto alternate dimensions of space and time. With this increasingly distant action, the local nature of the Necronomicon is emphasized by its marginalization from the action.
While the text reports on mysteries outside of the Middle East (e.g., the plateaus of Leng), the Necronomicon‘s connection to the Middle East predominates. The Necronomicon is rarely mentioned without its author, the “mad Arab Abdul Alhazred” and in its appearance in bookshops underlines this tie. In “The Descendant” it is an “old Levite” who provides the main character with the volume and in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward it appears in a shop where the volumes of “Mediaeval Jews and Arabs were represented in profusion.”
As Lovecraft spends less effort to describe the Necronomicon itself in the later works, so too does its connection to the Middle East wane somewhat. While he continues to tie the text to the “mad Arab,” he gives the author’s knowledge an increasingly otherworldly basis. In “A History of the Necronomicon” and “The Shadow Out of Time” Lovecraft implies that Alhazred’s book derives from his contact with the remains of time-traveling Great Race’s ruins that just happen to be in the Middle East.
A similar shift occurs around elements the Necronomicon mentions, like the plateaus of Leng. In “The Hound,” the plateaus are located in central Asia and it is indicated that Alhazred spent time there, implying that Lovecraft modeled his early necromantic cult on sensational accounts of Tantra and Tibet. By the time he is writing At the Mountains of Madness the plateaus lie within the unexplored Antarctic and knowledge of them derives from visionary dreams or hallucinations.
Some Interpretive and Biographical Observations
As a literary device, the Necronomicon owes much to Gothic and Romantic literature. The use of fragments, the claustrophobic family life into which it is often projected, and the fevered unreliability of characters associated with it, have roots in these literary practices. His debt to Poe on these points is well-known. Lovecraft’s de-emphasis of the Necronomicon is part of a broader transformation in Lovecraft’s style.
That transformation can be characterized by an increasing interest in contemporary science. References to archaeology, biology, and physics increasingly replace the philological speculations associated with the early Necronomicon works. Lovecraft’s philological interests remain important, though, often structuring the way in which he models scientific research.
The Necronomicon rests within a matrix of local and inherited knowledge, finding its basis in ancestry, place, possession, and incarnation. Its rites are cannibal (i.e., matters of incorporation) and crude. While it speaks of great mysteries, those mysteries are often concealed within the text itself and derive from the experience of ancestral forces.
The exotic semitic associations aren’t entirely out of place here. The early 20th century was awash with Orientalist-inspired exoticism and secret knowledge was commonly associated with access to that material. Organizations like the Shriners were influential in this process and had been in existence for half a century by the time Lovecraft starts thinking about the Necronomicon. Freemasonry had been around even longer and played a similar role. The Necronomicon adopts some of these trappings, fusing them to the local land through the figure of the figure of the wizard.
As a fusion of the alien into the local, it can serve as a dangerous initiatory vehicle for characters involved with it. It transforms them and, through, them threatens to transform the land itself, opening it to mysterious stellar forces. As Lovecraft himself explores the world of the city, he finds a concrete image for the alien world, but it exceeds all sense of boundary, no longer even requiring invocation to summon. As he directs his writing to portraying that alien world, the Necronomicon necessarily becomes less important.
The Necronomicon is most threatening when local because it has those ties to the wizardly forces in the blood and land. Anchored to wizard, land, and ancestry, it is a key that opens a terrifying door. As key, though, it can also be hidden and the door left shut. The stories increasingly turn to a world that is full of terrors, where there are widening cracks rather than comfortingly concealed doors.
The Necronomicon plays the role of a transitional object in the later fiction, except in Lovecraft’s work the transition is never achieved. The movement from local to cosmic is unstable and the story collapses back onto the local as a refuge. The exotic, but tame, racist figures dissolve in the face of uncontrollable alien forces.
The appearance of the Necronomicon in Lovecraft’s work overlaps with his experience of the city. While “The Hound” and “The Festival” precede his move to the city, the remainder of the the stories in which the Necronomicon appears are written after his time there. The wizardly becomes increasingly (weird / pseudo) scientific, the horrors of home replaced with cosmic horrors that make necromantic terror downright cozy.
On this point, I want to mention an interesting detail. Prior to his time in New York, Lovecraft used the word ‘Cyclopean’ only three times in his fiction (1, 2, 3). Afterward? At the Mountains of Madness alone contains, by my quick count, 90 instances of the word primarily applied to architectural elements. While the skyscrapers like the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building were not yet built, New York nonetheless presented an imposing cityscape to residents and visitors.
The Necronomicon appears in Lovecraft’s writing as early modernism takes root, in the wake of World War I. The very year Lovecraft first writes about the Necronomicon, T. S. Eliot publishes “The Waste Land” (much loathed by Lovecraft) and James Joyce publishes Ulysses. By the 1930s writing, there has been a sea change in physics. Relativity (which Lovecraft also disliked, but grudgingly accepted) is well-accepted and quantum mechanics is rapidly gaining attention (Lovecraft includes mention of it “The Dreams of a Witch House”).
At least some of the transformations that Lovecraft makes to his writing relate to his effort to accommodate this changing intellectual world. The failure of the Necronomicon to sustain a transition into that world forms part of the failure of 19th-century science fiction he depends upon to translate into the new understandings of 20th-century science.
Lovecraft is writing science fiction across a Kuhnian paradigm shift, and it shows. While works like “The Descendent” wouldn’t be out of place next to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the contemporary content of pieces like “The Dreams of a Witch House” would clash with it. Works like At the Mountains of Madness, with its proto-laser weapons and proto-genetic engineering and planetary-wide warfare and mimicing of contemporary scientific reportage, is quite a different thing entirely.
What place does a book about raising the dead have against that sort of backdrop? If the Necronomicon’s science of the past is obsolete how do you accommodate (as Lovecraft’s fiction does) that there is something efficacious about the book? Lovecraft’s answer is quite clever and foreshadowed in his piece “The Festival.”The book becomes a tool for beings on this world who have never left, whose influences exceed our own, and which threaten to overwhelm our world. There are cargo-cultish fragments of those alien beings’ knowledge within the text.
And, in At the Mountains of Madness, he pushes the point even further. The technologies hinted at in the Necronomicon and found real in the alien histories discovered in Antarctica are themselves not enough to hold at bay an even greater chaos that cyclically manifests and wipes away whole worlds of civilization. That chaos, too, is already inscribed within the volume’s dark binding though cloaked in allusion.
The inconsistency between past and present knowledge becomes embodied in the Necronomicon as the prophetic awareness of scientific advancement’s innate limitation. However, it is displaced from its particular context (e.g., the limits of Newtonian physics) and projected onto the movement of human civilization itself. It’s forbidden knowledge is the knowledge of evil, of the evil to which all things are doomed, the ways of manipulating that evil for private benefit, and the means to achieve an ecstatic obliteration and union with that evil.
Through the Necronomicon, Lovecraft joins personal decline, societal decline, and cosmic decline in a wicked destiny that slowly draws the entirety of existence into its harmony.