“My own rule is that no weird story can truly produce terror unless it is devised with all the care and verisimilitude of an actual hoax.”
– H.P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith (17 October 1930)
In this article, I sought to expand further from my last more personal writing “Watching a Serial of Strange Aeons: Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence” on how Providence is a comic about the dissemination of Lovecraftian ideas and how it changes, or restores, their surrounding world. There is a rule in horror fiction: when you create a monster, it is generally bad form to reveal what that creature actually looks like. It can be far more effective to let the reader fill in some of the blanks that are left behind with a few dreadful hints as to what this terrifying beast or spectre resembles. You can also expand on this idea when you consider that places and objects can become characters in their own right. One of these objects are forbidden books: grimoires of spells and dark knowledge that can corrupt a person’s mind or drive them insane.
If we get right to the point I’m alluding to H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional book The Necronomicon: a repository of horrific lore and information inimical towards human beings and the world as we know it. But it’s not the book that people are afraid of: not really. No one is really afraid of cursed books, or monsters, or even ghosts. Rather, it’s the idea that that the ghost, the monster, and the grimoire can exist and affect reality as a person perceives it that can make someone feel great fear. And books are filled with ideas.
Alan Moore’s Providence plays with this. Moore understands the fact that books filled with ideas can influence and even change the minds of their readers, and that those same readers can go out into the world and do things that will affect other minds and other people. The book is only a starting point. In some cases, it’s just one other phase before the ideas it contains are transmitted. When H.P. Lovecraft created his recurring Necronomicon and its references in a few of his short stories, he purposefully placed a few details that would make the book’s existence seem plausible in his narrative. Certainly his History of the Necronomicon fulfils this role. Alan Moore does something quite similar when he attempts to trace the creation of his Necronomicon analogue the Kitab al Hikmah Najmiyya – the Book of the Wisdom of the Stars – from a dream and visions, through Arabic, Latin, and English written translations all the way into notes and ideas in the mind of one Robert Black before being shared with his correspondent H.P. Lovecraft.
What Alan Moore does is he attempts to create a fictional history for his Kitab, its successors, and what will be called Lovecraftian ideas by attempting to combine them with historical and cultural antecedents from our own history. It is a convoluted creative process: where Moore dissects Lovecraftian characters, objects, and events and creates the analogues they were supposedly inspired from, while reintegrating his fictional additions into Lovecraft’s fiction and fitting them into our world’s history with only a few minor changes. Certainly, this is no tall order.
According to the timeline of events that Moore provides throughout the narrative of Providence, the Kitab al Hikmah Najmiyya was recorded down by Khalid Ibn Yazid in Damascus in 703 CE. Unlike Lovecraft’s Abdul Alhazred, who was “a mad poet of Sanaá, in Yemen,” had died in 738 CE and had been Lovecraft’s own pseudonym created from childhood and inspired by the tales in his grandfather’s library, Khalid Ibn Yazid – who himself is made to be Moore’s analogue to Lovecraft’s “Mad Arab” – is apparently a historical figure: an Umayyad prince and alchemist who translated many books into Arabic and died in 704 CE.
Robert Suydam’s Pamphlet from Providence Issue #2 credits Khalid in drafting various treatises on alchemy and science, and possibly introducing gunpowder into the Middle-East as well. The comparison between Lovecraft’s Necronomicon and Alan Moore’s Kitab becomes even more interesting. When Lovecraft has mentioned the Necronomicon at all and the knowledge it possesses, he leaves its contents intentionally vague. Throughout all of his stories, readers get the original Al Azif title of the work, an infamous rhyming couplet from “The Nameless City” and “The Call of Cthulhu” while in “The Dunwich Horror” the Lovecraftian mythos gets reiterated in a passage from the text: outlining the fact that humankind is neither the first nor last of the ruling species of Earth, that the Great Old Ones are eternal and beyond space and time, that the entity of Yog-Sothoth is “the Key and the Gate,” a few other entities are mentioned including Cthulhu who gets downplayed compared to the others, how there are crossings in the world between dream and reality where rituals towards them can happen and so on. Sometimes, we even get mention of the Necronomicon in various other stories in different editions, but that is more or less about it.
Certainly, there are other forbidden books along the vein of the Necronomicon – with some of them even predating it – that also existent in Lovecraft’s literary world. Books and texts such as the Book of Azathoth, the Pnakotic Fragments or Manuscripts, Unaussprechlichen Kulten, Black Book, or Nameless Cults by Friedrich von Junzt, De Vermis Mysteriis by Ludvig Prinn, The Book of Eibon, Cultes des Goules by the Comte d’Erlette and others come to mind. Some of them, such as the latter, were created by collaborators such as Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch, Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth along with other writers and named or improved on by Lovecraft. However, Alan Moore only focuses on the Kitab as the antecedent to the Necronomicon in Providence: as though all the others are just derivative or independently made from Lovecraft’s ideas that ultimately come from “the real thing.”
Alan Moore’s Kitab, while keeping the gist of the Necronomicon’s content, incorporates other elements from the Lovecraftian mythos with a few more additions. The snippets that Alan Moore provides from the Kitab and its English translation Hali’s Booke of the Wisdom of the Stars – the former referred to from Providence Issues #1-2 and the latter in #6 – not only refer to the Great Old Ones, or something like them, being beyond space and time, but on a reality that functions as such as well. In Robert Black’s notes in his Commonplace Book from Hali’s Booke, we even see what seems to be a series of banishing rituals that utilize the swastika against aquatic beings, and the pentagram against earth and air based entities as well as an Aklo alphabet and series of phrases that play with cultural and philosophical contexts of tenses, nouns, and verbs attempting to capture something that encompasses all of space-time.
But Alan Moore’s Necronomicon analogue displays more information than this. In addition to explaining that there was once no difference between dreams and material reality, and that some weak spots still exist in the world to be exploited, he adds a prophecy to the book: that of the Messenger and the Redeemer. The Redeemer is a figure who will restore the world to its primordial state in a retroactive manner: making it as though the Great Old Ones and their minions have always existed throughout its history, whereas the Messenger is an individual who will pass on this lore to the Redeemer in order to make it possible. This is a nice play on that rhyming couplet mentioned earlier in Lovecraft’s stories: “That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even death may die.” Moore takes the idea behind this couplet and feeds it back into the notion that the Great Old Ones will return to rule the world and will do so by interacting with the people in that space.
Moore also goes on to add more mystical lore into the Kitab and its translations: outlining the four different ways that human beings, through the right procedures and rituals, can cheat death. What is even more fascinating about this is that each method exists in both Lovecraft’s stories and Providence: “The first of these is food, for that which hungers for its own kind is not swift in its decline. The second is of warmth or cold, for there is no true death save in material decay. The third such method lies in the revival of the flesh with philtres and decanted fluids, or else with subtly acquired preserved essential salts of man. The fourth means is most terrible, and rests on the eviction of a soul so that a new inhabitant might occupy the emptied vessel, with its former occupant alike interred within the sorcerer’s unwanted former residence.”
Lovecraftian fans can see where each of those methods come from and what characters utilize them. The first method, of cannibalism, is used by Lovecraft’s unnamed old man in “The Picture in the House” and also Captain Shadrach Annesley of Providence. The second method, of cold, is utilized by Doctor Muñoz and his late predecessor Dr. Torres of Valencia in “Cool Air” and his Moore analogue Dr. Alvarez as well as his equally late colleague Dr. Estes. The third method of reanimating the dead is something infamously undertaken by Dr. Herbert West and his unnamed narrator assistant with his reagent in his “Reanimator” short stories, and Joseph Curwen with his “essential saltes” in “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” along with their analogues Dr. Hector North and James Montague and Japheth Colwen respectively. Finally, the last method, of transferring one’s consciousnesses generally against a recipient’s will is something that “Kamog” or Ephraim Waite does through the shell of his daughter Asenath Waite from “The Thing at the Doorstep” along with their analogue Etienne Roulet does through his latest form Elspeth Wade. Coincidentally, Alan Moore has his antagonist the magician Oliver Haddo, an Aleister Crowley analogue, utilize this transference of minds in his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume III: Century.
What is even more interesting is that there is, unofficially, a fifth method of cheating death: which would technically be entering another dimension by accepting non-Euclidean geometry. This is something obliquely mentioned in the Kitab and referenced as one of the elements in the Necronomicon that the nervous young scholar Walter Gilman studies, and undertaken by Keziah Mason of “The Dreams in the Witch House” and her analogue Hezekiah Massey. In the plot of Providence, the American coven known as the Stella Sapiente, named after the Latin translation of the Kitab use the book’s methods to prolong their existences in order to facilitate the Prophecy of the Redeemer’s coming to pass.
These are the similarities between the Necronomicon’s beginnings and contents as H.P. Lovecraft’s Al Azif and Alan Moore’s Kitab al Hikmah Najmiyya respectively. However, this becomes the part where the differences become more pronounced before they become similar again. While the Al Azif aren’t even two Arabic words, or at least ones that translate into “the sound of insects” that Lovecraft claims they are in his fictional “history” of the book, Alan Moore takes the time to attempt to have the Kitab al Hikmah Najimiyya mean exactly what it is supposed to in Arabic: “The Book of the Wisdom of the Stars.”
But even its creators, the first fictional one and his equally fictional analogue are inspired by different sources. Abdul Alhazred is a poet, possibly of an old oral tradition, and known wanderer and peripatetic that travels many dark and dangerous places, some of them the remnants of non-human civilizations to gather the lore that he needs to craft the Al Azif. Khalid Ibn Yazid is a scholar of royal status who receives messages from a “star-headed people,” possibly Providence’s analogues to the Elder Things from “At the Mountains of Madness,” and uses his family’s resources and his own scholarly stature to procure materials to create a black mirror where he can continue to communicate with his unearthly patrons and investigate other worlds in order to have the Kitab dictated to him.
And while both Lovecraft and Moore say that their Arabic writers are torn apart by invisible monsters, even their postmortem affect on their work is different. Unlike the stereotypical “Mad Arab’s” death, in which most people shun both his life and his end, the Caliphate after Khalid’s death embraces his previous work and achievements, while eliminating what they can of his Kitab manuscript and pretending that the whole thing had been created as one slanderous lie against one of their greatest and most venerated minds. Johnny Carcosa, possibly an avatar, aspect, or living message from Nyarlathotep later tells Robert Black in Providence Issue #10 that even isn’t the end for Khalid: that as a reward for seemingly becoming the first known Messenger of the Great Old Ones he has become something of a sentient gas cloud. Khalid has been incorporated into their story, into the narrative that they want to retroactively, or “retcon” into reality. But one thing at a time.
It’s only fitting that it’s hard to write a linear path for Alan Moore’s journey of the Kitab into the Necronomicon and the ideas it represents given how he has made it clear that all of space and time is something that recurs, that it is a solid self-containing circle. In talking about how he takes Lovecraft’s ideas and adapts them, it becomes harder to distinguish how, in his own narrative, his own mythology taken from Lovecraft influences Lovecraft in the similar but different world to our own. It seems here that Alan Moore’s Roman favourite hand puppet god Glycon becomes something of an ourboros: an eternal serpent eating its own tail that simultaneously creates and destroys itself.
Perhaps it’s easier to look at the rest of Alan Moore’s Kitab timeline from the standpoint of something close to the aforementioned concept of non-Euclidean geometry, or at least a series of parallels that make an eternalist bird’s eye circle that we can look down on. In Lovecraft’s “History,” we have mention of Abdul Alhazred having a twelfth century biographer named Ebn Khallikan who reports on his ultimate fate. But in Moore’s Providence, we find out that Ahmad Ibn ‘Ali Ibn Yusuf Al-Buni – a historical Sufi Muslim scholar of mathematics, sorcery, and philosophy – is the one who secretly revises the manuscript of the Kitab with his own commentaries and insights in 1203 CE.
We take it further. The Necronomicon gets its all too familiar name in Lovecraft’s “History,” in 950 CE in Constantinople by Theodorus Philetas when he translates the Al Azif in secret. Supposedly, it is roughly translated into Greek as “an image of the law of the dead,” but there are various permutations and, like some of Lovecraft’s Arabic “translations” the meanings of the words do not necessarily add up. It’s interesting to note that Alan Moore’s Kitab never seems to get a Greek translation and it takes centuries for the text to get a translation in another language. In other words, it remains in the Orient or the Middle-East for some time, as opposed to Lovecraft’s Necronomicon that comes into Western thought, even as a forbidden book, much earlier.
The Kitab itself is supposedly translated into Latin circa 1250 CE: allegedly by order of Christian King of Castile Alfonso the Wise at Toledo: taking advantage of Judaic, Islamic, and Christian intellectual coexistence and cooperation in medieval Spain.
Around 1228, after copies of the Necronomicon have been hunted down and burned whenever found, and having already been circulated in secret amongst particular scholars even before this, Lovecraft’s Olaus Wormius creates a Latin translation that ends up getting banned in 1232 by Pope Gregory IX, which in turn gets printed in fifteenth century Germany, and possibly by seventeenth century Spanish printers. There is supposedly an English translation created by John Dee, but only it is never printed and only fragments of the original document remain in existence. The original Al Azif is pretty much lost, and the Greek translations have become rare to find: especially after the destruction of Joseph Curwen’s library. But the Latin versions of the Necronomicon remain prevalent and under lock and key at specific universities and colleges: particularly the American Miskatonic University.
In Alan Moore’s Providence, we see that the Kitab may be one of the earliest experimental works reproduced in Venice during 1498 by Aldus Manutius: the creator of the Italic script. It is in 1501 that the Kitab printed and renamed the Liber Stella Sapiente: a name adopted by an early American coven formed around their copy of the book. Unlike its Lovecraftian counterpart, this book gets an official English edition. It is translated during 1651 during the regime of Oliver Cromwell and entitled Hali’s Booke of the Wisdom of the Stars: translated by one Robert Turner. In a lot of ways, it is reminiscent of a King James version of the Kitab. Robert Suydam, from his own reading in his Pamphlet, notes that the Aklo passage in Hali’s Booke is reminiscent of the English mystic John Dee’s Enochian alphabet.
It is at this point that both Lovecraft’s and Moore’s chronologies completely diverge as Alan Moore focuses particularly on Hali’s Booke and its presence and effect on America: both as a collection of colonies and its existence as the United States in post-colonial times.
In Part II of this article, we are going to look at the place where Lovecraft’s “History of the Necronomicon” and Alan Moore’s early account of the Book of the Wisdom of the Stars ends, and its affect on the United States and its transmission through Robert Black as its Messenger into America’s future begins.