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Review: The Necronomicon Files

I finally finished reading The Necronomicon Files: The Truth Behind the Legend by Daniel Harms and John Wisdom Gonce III (Boston: Weiser, 2003), 2nd edition, and wow was it worth my time. Aside from needing one more edit to eliminate some redundancy, it was a great read. The authors are walking a tightrope here, and not the one you might be thinking of. The Necronomicon is in danger of being a serious subject, because in some cases Necronomicon hoaxes have literally been a matter of life and death, so the subject merits a careful, academic, scholarly, serious and detailed analysis. On the other hand, let's face it, the subject matter itself is ridiculous, and fortunately neither Harms not Gonce lose sight of this for a minute. So what you get when you read this book is a primary sourced, meticulously footnoted set of historical proofs ... that are a laugh a minute to read.

If you don't already agree with any of the following points, then I don't expect you to change your mind because I said so. Nor do I expect you to change your mind because I say that their book absolutely proves these points. However, before you contradict them on any of these points, you need to read this book. Attempting to argue to the contrary without having done so will instantly lower my opinion of you.

Most scholars are just as wrong as most Lovecraftian occultists are about what sources influenced Lovecraft when he wrote about the Necronomicon. What Lovecraft wrote about the Necronomicon, what it was like and how it could be used, was something that changed and evolved over the course of Lovecraft's stories. What's more, there are a lot of people out there who would like to prove that H.P. Lovecraft copied his ideas for the Necronomicon from all kinds of sources, not least of which because those sources are part of historical magical traditions, and that would lend credence to the idea that there could be a "real" Necronomicon even if Lovecraft had only heard rumors of it. Sorry. Not true. Lovecraft was demonstrably a materialist, thought occultists were flakes, and had so much contempt for Decadent movement/Satanic occultists that if he had met them, they would have been the last sources he would have consulted. And he didn't. In particular, Harms beats the "Lovecraft/Crowley axis" and "Lovecraft family and irregular freemasonry" legends to death with a big club of fact checking. On the contrary, the primary source for the Necronomicon is ... Burton's translation of the Arabian Nights. Most of the rest of it came from encyclopedia articles.

Lovecraft admitted that his dreams and nightmares were a source of inspiration to his stories. Some occultists insist that Lovecraft was a natural born "dream adept" who consulted the "real Necronomicon" in the akashic records. If that were so, wouldn't it be really odd that nobody else had dreamed of the Necronomicon before he did?

"The primary method by which [Miskatonic Alchemical Expedition] members 'projected outward' was by means of a drug/sacrament called the 'entheogenic elixir,' usually concocted of a concentrated grain-alcohol distillate of Psilocybe Mexica (hallucinogenic mushrooms) diluted with Chambord raspberry liqueur and Coca-Cola. Sometimes cannabis infusions in ethanol or a drop or two per person of liquid LSD (1000-2000 mcgs!) would be added to the cup, as well as human 'kalas' -- consecrated sexual fluids." (page 117)
Every single Necronomicon that you have ever seen, or that anybody you've even met claims to have ever seen, is a hoax. How do I know? Because Harms and Gonce put years of effort into tracking every single rumor down. In the process, they found what Gonce calls (in the title of chapter 6) "a plague of Necronomicons" -- the "Faraday review" copy (a hoax by Donald Wolheim), Cultus Maleficarum aka the Sussex Manuscript (a hoax by Frank Pelton), the hoax used book ads by Phillip Duschnes, the Heavy Metal magazine excerpt by Phillip Druillet (an artistic homage, not from a real book), the 1967 Mirage Press Necronomicon (an early scholarly study that almost nobody has seen and thereby has an awesome reputation, but if you read it, it admits the hoax inside the book itself), the L. Sprague de Camp hoax Al Azif, the Necromantic Grimoire of Augustus Rupp (a hoax by Anthony Raven), the Robert Culp/Esoteric Order of Dagon Necronomicon (a hoax), the H.R. Giger Necronomicons (unrelated artwork named in tribute to Lovecraft), Necronomicon: Book of Dead Names (a hoax by Colin Wilson, Robert Turner, and George Hay), the Colin Low hoax Necronomicon Anti-FAQ, several Italian hoax Necronomicons (all of which have been demonstrably sourced to be very, very recent hoaxes) and most importantly, the Avon Press "Simon" Necronomicon -- more on that one in a minute. It took real legwork and detective work, but in every single case they were able to track each Necronomicon rumor to one or more of those books, and they were able to trace each of those books back to the original hoaxer(s). In nearly all cases, when confronted, the original hoaxers freely confessed, and expressed surprise that anybody ever fell for it.

Of all of the hoax Necronomicons, unmistakably the most important one is the paperback you can find in almost every bookstore in America, the Simon Necronomicon, and Harms and Gonce dedicate a lot, and I mean a lot, of study to it. The best chapter in the book has nothing to do with the Necronomicon, it's back story. They refer to the history of medieval grimoires and to various magickal traditions enough times that before even starting in on the Simon Necronomicon, Gonce provides a slender chapter of only 14 pages on the history of western magickal traditions and spell books, and it left me with my jaw on the floor. I'm pretty good at getting straight to the point and simplifying when I try hard enough, but even I couldn't have written such an incredibly cogent and coherent summary. But once they get that out of the way, he tackles the really important questions:

Where did the Simon Necronomicon come from? Step by step, page by page Gonce peels away the carefully built-up veneer over the Simon Necronomicon, and reveals its authorship, origin, and intent. The Simon Necronomicon was a drunken party joke gone awry. Herman Slater and a bunch of his friends at a drunken late night party were talking about the infamous "booby traps" that Crowley wove into some of his spellbooks, namely, important safeguard steps that are left out but that any sensible and studious magician would notice instantly were missing and fill in. There's always been the (unsubstantiated) rumor that Crowley did this on purpose, to weed out the unworthy. The drunks were arguing about whether or not this would work, and on a dare they decided to write a spellbook that was so booby trapped, so obviously stupid, so obviously dangerous that anyone capable of using it would notice instantly that the spells were dangerously out-of-whack. Then Slater did what Slater did to lots of authors, supposedly: stole it and published it. And to the group's vast disgust and embarrassment, it did in fact turn out that no, there really are people so stupid that they wouldn't notice the booby traps all over it, and those people revere these spells as authentic powerful chaos magick.

But how well does it "really" work? Look, if you're a hardcore unshakable scientific materialist, you're going to have some rough sledding in chapters 7, 8, and 9, because as far as you're concerned, none of this stuff works. But Gonce isn't, and neither are the people who snap this book up and then brag about how powerful they've become now that they have the "real" magick. So he nitpicks the pathworkings and spells in the Simon Necronomicon to death, step by step, symbol by symbol, word by word. For example, the spells start with the Summoning of the Watcher, the entity it encourages you to summon or psychically create to protect your body while you're astrally traveling. It's a shoggoth. The weed you're supposed to offer to it as a "sacrifice" once it appears is one that's famous as an allergen to spirits. And having summoned a being that's famous for murderous rage and hatred of being summoned, and then gassed it with fumes that it's probably allergic to, you're supposed to sit down without a magical circle or ward of any kind around yourself, trance out, and leave your body to its tender care. Having done so, you're instructed to summon a long list of Sumerian gods incorrectly, in the wrong order, in a manner inconsistently with Sumerian religious practice as it's known to archaeologists. Once you have "successfully" summoned or traveled to each of these gods, the book then carefully provides you with something insulting or stupid to say to or ask from each of them. Having thus attained wisdom, you are provided with a short list of spells and potions to be used afterwards, all of which are designed in such a way as to guarantee that they magically or physically back up on you. By the time you get done with these 3 chapters, you'll be aghast ... and your sides will hurt from laughing yourself sick.

Gonce isn't entirely amused by this. He thinks the book should come with a mandatory warning label. He compares selling this book as a magical grimoire to selling used motor oil in a can labeled as food. He's got some pretty appalling stories to back it up, too, because he got brought in by police as a consultant on several cases involving Satanist criminal rings. In the cases that he documents, separate teenager boys who were each looking to build a destructive, manipulative cult found the Simon Necronomicon the perfect tool for manipulating their followers. As the authors warn early on, "this is a hoax with a body count."

And of course, nobody who's read any Lovecraft can mistake the Simon Necronomicon for anything related to Lovecraft's fictional Necronomicon, and in studying Necronomicon hoaxes and Cthulhu cults, one thing that both Harms and Gonce kept bumping their noses up against was the fact that none of either the hoax perpetrators or the people who kept falling for this stuff were consulting Lovecraft as a source. So the valid question comes up -- what were they using as sources? The obvious, sad answer: pop culture. And it is in part for the sheer fun of MST3K'ing horror films and TV, but also partly to show what people are expecting and looking for when they fall into any Necronomicon hoax, that they dedicate two whole chapters to reviewing every reference to the Necronomicon they could find in the history of television and the movies. I was amused by how kind they were to the awful Dean Stockwell/Sandra Dee movie version of The Dunwich Horror. On the other hand, it left me with a vague urge to track down a hentai Lovecraft parody called The Exorsister, and a powerful urge to track down a copy or BitTorrent of one episode of The Real Ghostbusters cartoon that I'd somehow missed, "The Collect Call of Cthulhu," which they describe as all things considered the best video adaptation anybody's ever likely to make of Lovecraft's original "The Call of Cthulhu." It also left me with an even more desperate urge to track down a copy of a Canadian made-for-TV movie called Out of Mind: The Stories of H.P. Lovecraft.

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
nancylebov
Oct. 12th, 2004 05:48 am (UTC)
I'm not sure whether your list of hoax Necronomicon includes one that I think came out in the middle 70s--all in Arabic, and iirc it was an oversized but not huge book with a black cover. IIRC, the calligrapher's name was Robert Dills--he described it as Arabic laundry lists.
(Deleted comment)
thesigother
Oct. 12th, 2004 05:22 pm (UTC)
I remember you...
Tee hee hee. I remember that book as well. I remember looking at the spells and laughing and laughing. Get thee away from me demon. Get your hands off of me, get your toes off of me. Do not touch my person. Do not force me to write bad checks...etc. I knew what the source work was, so I was not surprised. In fact I was surprised they got away with publishing it without the Lovecraft foundation if there was such a thing going Stop! Cut it out!

They got upset with TSR for publishing the Cthulhu stats in the dieties sourcebook that I am surprised that more people were not aware of what this was.

But now, knowing that this was a great big book of how not to do it, I almost feel obliged to run out and find a copy, and a copy of the necro files as well.
neph
Oct. 13th, 2004 08:15 am (UTC)
Hmm.. I definitely need to get that. I've been amused by fake Necronomicons for years, especially when "Chaos Magicians" go on about them.

Adding you, btw.
(Anonymous)
Apr. 22nd, 2010 03:55 pm (UTC)
Necronomicon
I am always amazed at how many people join the Simon necronomicon bashing bandwagon without reading and researching the information for themselves. This is definitely a one-sided discussion. What I can't understand is why so many people are concerned with proving the Simon Necronomicon as a hoax. With regards to the Text's authenticity, more can be read here:

http://warlockasylum.wordpress.com/interview-with-denny-sargent-a-friend-of-the-authors-of-the-simon-necronomicon/
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )