Monday, 7 October 2013

Weird Tales:
Jess Franco meets The Elder Gods.

Creating a timeless story or a memorable literary character is one thing, but in instigating the legend of Abdul Alhazred and the Necronomicon, H.P. Lovecraft went one step further, birthing an idea that tore itself free from the pages of his fiction almost immediately, rampaging off into the real world against its creator’s wishes, never to return.

Even during his lifetime, correspondents were apt to besiege Lovecraft with queries about the nature and history of his forbidden tome, prompting him to pen numerous missives stating in no uncertain terms that he had INVENTED both the book and its author, weaving together a few fragments from his (always highly imaginative) dreams into a unique modern myth. One such disavowal originally prefaced Lovecraft’s official ‘History of the Necronomicon’, written in 1927, but not published until after the writer’s death in 1938. An ingenious bit of faux-scholarship, this ‘history’ of course only served to fan the flames of speculation even further, with its evocations of distant antiquity, suppressed medieval translations (throwing in the name of genuine 17th century scholar Olaus Wormius was a neat touch, even if HPL placed him in the wrong century), and of the Mad Arab himself – exiled wonderer of cursed lost cities, torn apart by invisible demons in a public marketplace.

Despite of the author’s repeated assertions that the book had no basis in reality though, and in spite of the complete lack of any reference to a ‘Necronomicon’ or ‘Al-Azif’ anywhere in the world’s library catalogues, bibliographies and sundry collections of antiquarian material, the damned thing just refused to die. Alongside the inevitable avalanche of hoax editions that began to appear once widespread Lovecraft fandom took off in the 1970s, unsubstantiated rumours of ‘authentic’ editions have proliferated ever since – a kind of bibliographic bigfoot, with just as many clueless hunters in pursuit.

As teenaged Lovecraft fans, my brother and I both knew perfectly well that Lovecraft claimed to have invented the Necronomicon, but did that stop us visiting the reception desk at the British Library on a trip to London, to politely enquire as to the whereabouts of their copy? Of course it didn’t. Back in the early days of the internet, one of the first things I can remember downloading (god knows from where) was a mammoth text file containing what purported to be a series of instructions for ritual workings transcribed from the Necronomicon – an incompressible mass of cabbalistic ascii derangement, broken up at intervals by dire warnings about the perils of messing with the black arts, and of the mental health-related dangers awaiting anyone who should so much as glance at this material without the aid of proper magickal purification procedures. Where the hell did this thing come from..? (And where did it GO, for that matter – I’m pretty sure I’ve got most of my other files from that era archived away, but this eye-sight endangering compendium of .txt blasphemy is nowhere to be found.)

Even today, in the darker recesses of the internet, you can find those who will remind you that H.P. Lovecraft’s father was a keen collector of antiquarian books, as well as a high-ranking Free Mason. And we all know what THOSE guys are like, right..?

Could the young Howard Philips not have chanced across some mysterious volume on his father’s shelves – a copy perhaps of a work so obscure and terrible as to have been excised from all official records? And could the contents therein not have fried his brain good and proper, inspiring not just the cosmic excesses of his later fiction, but also his blackly paranoid view of the universe in general, not to mention his subsequent ill-health..? And, when subsequently pushed for details re: his source material, could he not have simply laughed off the suggestion that any of it had any basis in reality, denying the existence of his dread tome so as to not lead others down the same sorry path..? (1)

Well, no - probably not, to be honest. Obviously such ideas are nothing more than wildly unfounded speculation. But nonetheless: the get-out clause for Lovecraft’s denials is established. And as the lore surrounding his book becomes ever more convoluted in the hands of subsequent writers, ‘researchers’ and random internet yahoos, HPL’s insistence that he invented the Necronomicon out of thin air will never be filed as anything more solid than a “PROBABLY”. Personally, I think it is extraordinarily unlikely that the Necronomicon had any kind of life prior to Lovecraft, but look how even I started this paragraph.

And that leads us, eventually, to Jess Franco. On the surface, his 1967 film Necronomicon may seem to have taken absolutely nothing from Lovecraft’s tome beyond a snazzy title, but that’s not the way the director himself remembered it.

The following screengrabs are taken from the Franco interview accompanying the Blue Underground DVD release of ‘Succubus’/’Necronomicon’:



Whatever you make of his claims, Franco’s reminiscences here are clearly pretty garbled. As every Lovecraft nut knows, Abdul Alhazrad died in Damascus in around 738AD. I think we can safely assume that he wasn't Jewish, and that he never went anywhere near Spain or the inquisition. And none of that stuff about German monks and the University of Vienna has any basis whatsoever in either fiction or reality, as far as I'm aware.

Assuming we take Franco at his word though (because life’s usually more fun that way, right?), and assuming he was just getting the details mixed up as his memory faded, it then begs the question of precisely what the hell kind of book he and Pier Caminneci thought they were consulting on that fateful night in 1967, as the J&B flowed and a rare Chico Hamilton side spun on the hi-fi...

The first commercially published ‘hoax’ Necronomicon was the L. Sprague DeCamp "gobbledygook" edition, produced by Owlswick Press in 1973. Prior to that, no book – at least, no officially recorded book – is known to have carried the name.

Could Caminneci - by Franco’s account a rather boastful and pretentious individual – have been conned by some nefarious bookseller proffering another mouldy old volume of esoteric lore, or even a specially prepared forgery? Anything’s possible I suppose.

But then - doesn’t Lovecraft’s ‘History..’ state that the last known printed version of Wormius’s Latin text circulated in Spain during the 17th century…? And does it not seem that the details of this edition, and of the fates of the volumes produced, are vague at best, based on little more than unsubstantiated rumour..?

Could it not be that, somehow…

Well I’ll leave you to finish that thought yourself.

Or of course, it's equally likely that Franco, always a wily old devil, was just bullshitting on a heroic scale here – stringing the interviewer along with some off-the-top-of-his-head crap in an attempt to add his own footnote to the Necronomicon myth, and to give his public something a bit more meaty to chew on than that he just grabbed the word randomly out of a Lovecraft paperback and thought it would make a cool name for a movie.

I know which explanation my money’s on, but nonetheless – as soon as a concept as endlessly malleable and irresistible as the Necronomicon has got its foot in the door of reality, we can never escape it. That ‘probably’, that ‘maybe’, just keeps making it stronger as it spreads and mutates, nourished by that unquenchable idea that somehow, somewhere, it sits on a shelf where you’d least suspect it, ever-lurking.


(1) Heading even further toward the edges of way-out-there-land, the late occultist Kenneth Grant wrote at length about his belief that the Necronomicon exists as an ‘astral book’, unwittingly accessed by Lovecraft during his dreams, and also drawn upon more consciously by Alastair Crowley, whom Grant speculates may have been in telepathic contact with HPL.

1 comment:

Kev D. said...

A lot of Franco's work feels like an astral book. But I don't care about that.

Great read, man.