From Lovecraft to Evil Dead: the history of the Necronomicon

With the Evil Dead remake on the way, Ryan looks back over the unholy history of its forbidden volume, the Necronomicon...

When a book comes wrapped in black plastic and barbed wire, it’s probably a sign that its contents aren’t safe to read. Unfortunately, the cast of Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead remake are cursed with more curiosity than sense, and thus, another group of young innocents falls victim to the dreaded Necronomicon – a mythical book of demonic power.

Legend has it that the Necronomicon was penned by a mad Arabian poet named Abdul Alhazred after a decade spent roaming the ruined cities of Babylon and Memphis. Having completed what he called the Al Azif, Alhazred descended further into insanity, before either disappearing or being devoured by an invisible monster, depending on whose account you believe. Thereafter, this unholy manuscript was translated into Greek by scholars in the 10th century, burned in the middle ages, before the last few remaining copies disappeared into dusty libraries, only to be discovered in the modern age by an ill-starred few.

Actually, the Necronomicon has a much shorter history than its true creator HP Lovecraft had his readers believe. Although inspired by real texts, such as the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Necronomicon was a product of Lovecraft’s fertile imagination, and mention of it first appeared in the short story The Hound, first published in 1924. The tale told of two grave robbers doomed by their theft of a jade amulet, which they recognised as ” the thing hinted of in the forbidden Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred.” 

Lovecraft was apparently unhappy with The Hound, but both it and The Nameless City, published in 1921, marked the beginning of the author’s endeavours to set his stories in one coherent universe. This Cthulhu Mythos, as it later became known, suggested that ancient, god-like beings once ruled the Earth, and could return to either destroy us or drive us all insane by anyone foolish enough to reawaken them. The Necronomicon tied directly into this mythos, since it was said to contain a lengthy account of the extra-terrestrial Old Ones, and to merely look upon its pages would be enough to inspire madness.

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This attempt to build a coherent world, with its own history, deities and forbidden texts, gave Lovecraft’s work a wonderful sense of the unknown, providing sci-fi and horror literature with the kind of rich storytelling Tolkien would later bring to fantasy with his Middle Earth books.

The Necronomicon and its related mythology also inspired a number of writers in Lovecraft’s circle, and its name is mentioned in the works of such authors as August Derleth (who tinkered greatly with the Cthulhu Mythos in his stories) and Clark Ashton Smith. In what became a lively exchange of ideas, this little coterie of storytellers constantly embroidered on Lovecraft’s myths in their own tales; Smith came up with The Book of Eibon for his stories, which Lovecraft readily mentioned in his own work. Robert Bloch, who would later write Psycho, came up with De Vermis Mysteriis, a book whose pages are potent enough to summon forth demonic beings from another dimension. This, too, was worked into Lovecraft’s stories, including The Haunter Of The Dark and The Shadow Out Of Time.

Lovecraft often talked about the Necronomicon in his letters – which rambled on about everything from Roman history to literature to his incurably sweet tooth – where he suggested that his inspiration for the book came from Gothic writing, which often featured ancient texts and forbidden literature.

It’s certainly easy to draw a line between the Victorian Gothic writings of Edgar Allan Poe (of whom Lovecraft was an open admirer) and the Necronomicon. Poe would go to great lengths to convince his readers that his tales were genuine, and his 1844 story The Balloon-Hoax was initially published as a genuine news story in New York’s The Sun newspaper. Although Lovecraft was never quite that mischievous, his constant references to both real works of academia and nonexistent books like the Necronomicon helped to blur the lines between fiction and reality – just as found-footage movies do in modern horror cinema.

When Lovecraft died in 1937, he was still largely unknown, except to the devoted readers of the pulp fiction magazines which published his stories. It was only in the decades after his death that his fiction was published in book form, and thus became more widely read. And as Lovecraft’s fame grew, so too did the strange influence of the Necronomicon.

Numerous authors, including such famous names Neil Gaiman and Stephen King have championed Lovecraft’s stories, and written elements of his mythos into their own tales. The Swiss artist HR Giger was so taken by Lovecraft that he called a 1977 collection of his erotic, occult art Necronomicon. This book – and in particular the illustration titled Necronom IV – would lead to Giger designing the Starbeast for Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979).

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Sam Raimi’s horror classic, The Evil Dead (1981) was clearly influenced by Lovecraft’s work. Although the author would probably have balked at the thought of writing about five teenagers in a woodland cabin (his stories more commonly revolved around scientists or other educated types), the tape recording of a long-dead professor is a first-person narrative straight out of a Lovecraft tale:

Here I continued my research undisturbed by the myriad distractions of modern civilization and far from the groves of academe. I believe I have made a significant find in the Candarian Ruins. A volume of Ancient Sumarian burial practices and funerary incantations. It is entitled Naturom Demonto – roughly translated, “Book of the Dead”.

According to The Evil Dead, the Necronomicon is bound in human skin, its pages written in human blood. Lovecraft always danced around the specifics of the Necronomicon’s appearance, but the fact that it could be found on the shelves of the British Museum or the fictional Miskatonic University in Arkham suggests that Lovecraft probably didn’t have roughly-stitched human dermis in mind. Nevertheless, the tome in The Evil Dead behaves in a singularly Lovecraftian manner, with the recital of its text summoning forth an ancient horror. 

The Necronomicon (or designer Tom Sullivan’s version of it) was a key plot point in the Evil Dead films, with the first film even called Book Of The Dead at one point. The volume makes an extended appearance in the third film, Army Of Darkness (1992), where it takes on a mischievous life of its own. The book returns, of course, in this year’s Evil Dead remake, its pages filled with hideous engravings and hurriedly-etched obscenities.

Just as the Necronomicon turned up time and again in Lovecraft’s stories, so the cursed volume continues to lurk on the peripheries of modern culture. A Brian Yuzna-produced collection of short horror film was released as Necronomicon in 1993, in which Jeffrey Combs plays Lovecraft, whose discovery of the dreaded volume leads to some predictably grisly deaths. Books have been published under its name (including The Simon Necronomicon, published in 1977, and 2004’s Necronomicon: The Wanderings Of Alhazred by Donald Tyson), and it’s regularly referenced or alluded to, along with the rest of the Cthulhu mythos, in movies, games and television.

Certain special editions of the Evil Dead films even come in a handsomely-modelled rubber facsimile of the book, complete with hollow eye sockets and mouldering teeth. And with the possibility that Sam Raimi may be planning a second Army Of Darkness movie, it’s likely that the Necronomicon will continue to wreck havoc for many years to come.

As Abdul Alhazred wrote himself, “That is not dead which can eternal lie…”

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