book reviews by Althea

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Alhazred: Author of the Necronomicon – Donald Tyson ****

Has any horror reader not heard tell of that tome of blackest occult knowledge, the Necronomicon? Invented by H.P. Lovecraft, and referred to in his ‘Cthulhu mythos’ stories, the fictional grimoire has achieved a mythic status, even acquiring its own rabid fans, self-styled ‘occultists’ who insist that the book, written, according to Lovecraft’s tales, by the ‘mad Arab’ Abdul Alhazred, must truly exist. Indeed, two books entitled ‘Necronomicon’ do exist – one written in the 80’s by an occultist associated with the now-defunct Magickal Childe shop in NYC, and one more recently by the author of ‘Alhazred,’ Donald Tyson.
Even during H.P. Lovecraft’s tragically short lifetime, he ‘shared’ elements of his mythos with friends and correspondents. The list of writers who have written stories influenced by his work is long and contains names not insignificant to horror fans. Among the classics are Ambrose Bierce, Robert Bloch, August W. Derleth, Robert E. Howard, Henry Kuttner and Clark Ashton Smith. More recently, contemporary horror and science fiction authors have also turned their pens to pay tribute to the master: Gene Wolfe, Ramsey Campbell, Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny: Poppy Z. Brite, Joanna Russ, Bruce Sterling, Esther M. Friesner, Thomas Ligotti and more were all featured in Arkham House Publishers’ tribute anthology ‘Cthulhu 2000.’
But by far the most ambitious and significant work of fiction based on Lovecraft’s work published to date must be ‘Alhazred: Author of the Necronomicon.’ Although the book is presented by a company known for their non-fiction New Age titles, Llewellyn, and its author, Donald Tyson, has written well over a dozen non-fiction works in the genre, ‘Alhazred’ is purely a work of fantastic horror fiction, with no pretensions toward occult revelation. Unlike Lovecraft’s output, which consisted mainly of short stories, ‘Alhazred’ is, itself, a significant tome, mysteriously weighing more than most books its size (Good-quality paper? Or something more inexplicable?), and numbering 667 pages (Why not 666? – Now that’s a wasted opportunity).
The book tells the story of Lovecraft’s ‘mad Arab’s early years, before his writing of his book of black magic. The background given by Lovecraft is skimpy enough – in his ‘History of the Necronomicon’ he wrote:

“mad poet of Sanaá, in Yemen, who is said to have flourished during the period of the Ommiade caliphs, circa 700 A.D. He visited the ruins of Babylon and the subterranean secrets of Memphis and spent ten years alone in the great southern desert of Arabia — the Roba el Khaliyeh or “”Empty Space”” of the ancients…. In his last years Alhazred dwelt in Damascus.”

Tyson follows this outline, starting with Alhazred’s beginnings as a talented youth under the patronage of a wealthy caliph, and following him through many wanderings and quests to Damascus – but he fleshes out the story in many ways, some of which may delight Lovecraft purists, others which may raise quibbles. Alhazred’s illegal studies of necromancy and occult knowledge are tolerated – until he angers the caliph by conducting an illicit affair with his daughter. Grotesquely punished and mutilated, he is cast out and begins his life as a wanderer. Falling in with a tribe of flesh-eating ghouls in the ‘Empty Space,’ for the rest of the story, he self-identifies as a ghoul, not a man. He becomes, unwillingly, the tool of the mysterious Dark Chaos, Nyarlathotep, who repeatedly visits him in dreams. He encounters a djinn, who takes up residence in his body, and later acquires a partner in crime, a girl, Martala, from a family of grave-robbers. From a writer’s perspective, the inclusion of Martala makes sense. Alhazred is a remarkably non-sympathetic character, completely amoral and without any feelings except those conducive to self-preservation and the gain of necromantic knowledge. He isn’t someone that the average reader can easily connect with. Even though she has few ethical standards, Martala is still human, and acts as a foil to his character.
Lovecraft purists may also object to the literary style of the book. Tyson is an accomplished writer – but his style is nothing like that of Lovecraft. Lovecraft loved antiquarian words, and intentionally created a very 18th-century feel to his stories, using phrases and terms which were already out-of-fashion when he was writing. He also is frequently lauded for his ability to conjure an atmosphere of terror and fear without coming right out and telling the reader. His horrors often happen off-screen, as it were. His writing is full of things that cannot be named, monsters which the mind cannot encompass, gods whose visages cannot be described… Tyson, on the other hand, can be compared more accurately to stylists such as Clive Barker. He has no problem coming right out and telling his readers every disgusting and gory detail – there are several scenes in the book which are not for the faint-of-stomach.
Still, for any reader who doesn’t mind imagining exactly how it might feel and taste to consume a human brain straight from the skull… and who appreciates Lovecraft’s mythos, this homage to his work is a respectful tribute – as well as an entertaining novel with a good mix of adventure and horror.

Biographical note:

Althea spent several of her formative years in Providence, Rhode Island, home of the master of horror H.P. Lovecraft. After school, she would often hang out in Swan Point Cemetery, site of his final resting place, where her friend did at one point in time encounter a giant and rather horrific slug with her bare foot – but the Elder Gods never made themselves manifest.