In Part I of “Down A Dark Path of Bibliomancy: The Necronomicon in Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence” we looked at how Alan Moore incorporated and reinterpreted H.P. Lovecraft’s “History of the Necronomicon” and the fictional book’s contents into his own narrative, while comparing and contrasting the information contained, and the parallel timelines of the two texts. In this second and last instalment of my article, we will be examining how Hali’s Booke of the Wisdom of the Stars, the English translation of the Kitab al Hikmah Najmiyya came to America, how Robert Black is its ideal Messenger, and the dread power of its eternal ideas.
A copy of Hali’s Booke is brought to America in February 1686 from France by the fleeing Huguenot and occult scholar Etienne Roulet whose grandfather may have been Jacques Roulet of Caude: a man charged with lycanthropy in 1598 according to S. Baring Gould’s Book of Were-wolves, and later linked by Lovecraft to the family that once owned “The Shunned House.” Hezekiah Massey (the analogue of Keziah Mason of “The Dreams in the Witch House”), Etienne Roulet (Ephraim and Asenath Waite from “The Thing at the Doorstep”), and Japheth Colwen (Joseph Curwen from “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”) found the Worshipful Order of the Stella Sapiente: to continue practising the rituals in Hali’s Booke and undertaking a long term plan to bring about the coming of the Redeemer.
One of the coven’s first members is Captain Shadrach Annesley (the cannibalistic old man from “The Picture in the House”), commander of the vessel that brought Etienne Roulet and his wife to America. He and other sea captains probably spread the influence of the Stella Sapiente across America while sailing to other far off lands to gain more occult lore.
It is around 1890 that Hali’s Booke is given to the Catholic Benedictine liberal arts university St. Anselm in Manchester, Providence’s Miskatonic University analogue. Then, a few decades later in 1919, New York journalist Robert Black begins his journey to write his first novel with the working title Marblehead: An Undertow and unwittingly uncovers the lore of Hali’s Booke and the cults and secret realities that surround its existence.
As it turns out, Robert Black is the Messenger. There doesn’t seem to be anything particularly special about him. He isn’t part of the Stella Sapiente. He has no knowledge of Hali’s Booke or anything associated with it until his journey goes on. For the most part, Robert is somewhat self-centred and fairly ignorant about anything that doesn’t pertain to his own immediate situation. So what makes Robert Black so uniquely qualified to be the Messenger that instigates the Redeemer into changing, or reverting, reality back to what it was before the illusion of human rationality?
And this is where the masterstroke of Alan Moore’s Providence and the Stella Sapiente’s plans come into motion. I’ve mentioned, to some extent, what Alan Moore does with apocalypses in my last Sequart article on Providence: in that they are not necessarily about physical destruction as they are about enlightenment or changing the minds of all sentient beings that determine a form of consensual reality.
You begin to realize, as you follow Providence, that the Stella Sapiente is not interested in causing a more material transformation of the current world as they are about affecting the perceptions of the world that keep it divided from their conception of the spiritual. The Stella Sapiente, and possibly other cults in the world of Providence, deal in ideas and their dissemination into something that can cause change. This was why the Wheatleys, the Dunwich Whatley analogues of Providence, and even the unfortunate Salem, Massachusetts Deep One-Human hybrids and their Friends of Oannes surrounding the Boggs Gold Refinery, stand-ins for Innsmouth and the Marsh family and Refinery with their Esoteric Order of Dagon are failed experiments. They attempted to change their material reality without dealing with the overall psychic reality of the Earth. They stand out far too much or, if you prefer more religious terms, they translated the text of the Kitab and its oral elements far too literally. In storytelling terms their continuity is off is because they believed in taking their ancestral ideas as concrete and without interpretation.
At the same time, the Stella Sapiente is not without its flaws. For all the Order has branched into into literature, philosophy, ecclesiastics and the sciences, it is still a class-based society. With a few exceptions, it still conforms to a patriarchal structure like the human world around it while the Wheatleys and their direct hybrid children, and the Friends of Oannes are from “lower” social or different cultural familial orders. The Stella Sapiente seem to be an insular brotherhood of scholars and cultists: not unlike a literary clique or circle that keeps the lore and knowledge of a subject to themselves to share with others whenever they deem fit, if at all. Nevertheless, their main council, the original founders of their coven have almost stripped away their sense of humanity entirely and understand that it is really all about ideas, about dreams, that will bring about the reversion that they seek. Even so, it’s possible that what they actually bring about is beyond even their own wildest dreams and preconceptions: the old world evolving far past any illusion of their control.
Annotated by: The Facts in the Case of Alan Moore’s Providence
Even so, while they exist the Stella Sapiente, named after their book, is different from Lovecraft’s cultists. While the Wheatleys and the Friends of Oannes seem more in line with Lovecraft’s cults, the ones that attempt some ritual or rite, get caught, and are destroyed, the Stella Sapiente has been more patient. It has infiltrated institutions and looked at how the Kitab has influenced human culture: perhaps even helping it along the way behind the scenes.
For example, Robert Black through his lover Lily reads Sous le Monde or “Under the World” a French novel written by Claude Guillot in 1887 that is influenced by the Kitab. Sous le Monde, a fictional book made by Alan Moore in the narrative of Providence, is also said to have influenced some of the core stories in Robert Chambers’ 1895 The King in Yellow: whose story “The Repairer of Reputations” predicts or even inspires the creation of the exit gardens – where people can legally choose to kill themselves – in New York city. Lovecraft’s own “History of the Necronomicon” ends off by stating that Chambers’ The King in Yellow must have been inspired by the Necronomicon, while it has been said that Lovecraft in turn was inspired by The King in Yellow later in his career. The serpent eats its own tail again. The important thing to note here, however, is that Robert Black’s knowledge of Sous le Monde and The King in Yellow are literary gateways by which he first hears about the Kitab and begins his journey to find out more for his own novel.
In this way, along with the short stories of Ambrose Bierce that Johnny Carcosa, a character obviously inspired by the ancient city in the equally fictional The King in Yellow play that drives everyone to insanity, mentions are manifestations or experiments to see just how the ideas of the Kitab and the forces behind it can be spread into the human collective unconscious. Basically, the Stella Sapiente and others attempt to figure out how to take an idea and spread it from a closed-in literary clique or selective series of cults and have it mutate into mainstream popularity: until it gains an extended life of its own.
Robert Black is one part of the solution for a few reasons. Aside from the fact that prophecy in Providence is part of an inevitable, almost Calvinist cycle, Robert has the perfect background. One issue with ancient ideas is that, often, they need to be translated or retold in a certain way to fit into the contemporary time in which they are revealed to the populace. Robert Black is a literary journalist. He knows how to take dictation and research once a tidbit of information or the proper motivation is given to him. Moreover, he has developed during the dawn of literary modernism and can state many ideas plainly, while still being well-read enough to appreciate heightened diction.
But there is more to Robert Black than that. Robert is Jewish. While this affects his social standing in America of the 1900s due to more overt prejudice, it also gives him some background into understanding the Kitab. Jews, Christians, and Muslims have been known throughout history as “the People of the Book” and there are literary traditions shaped around the Book in the form of the Old and New Testaments, The Quran … and their Commentaries.
It is no coincidence that Alan Moore goes out of his way to write the Kitab as something of a holy text, complete with poetry, prophecy complete with a Redeemer, and a testament of personal enlightenment. He attaches commentary in the form of Ahmad Ibn ‘Ali Ibn Yusuf Al-Buni’s input to the Kitab and its subsequent translations. Most tellingly, Nyarlathotep’s name is blocked out in one passage of the Kitab as would a Rabbinic scholar would remove the vowels of God’s holy name. Even the language of Aklo, whose concept Lovecraft borrowed from Arthur Machen and Alan Moore introduces as a mode of reality in his Courtyard and Neonomicon stories, included in the book as an alphabetic grid resembles Hebrew or Aramaic characters.
Robert even mentions at one point that he remembers his grandfather studying Kabbalah and it might not be too much of stretch of the imagination to consider that he knows about the Talmud and the Midrash: oral commentaries written down about the Torah and its contents. Robert also goes on something of a peripatetic journey: from his beginnings in Milwaukee to New York and all the way to New England to find his destiny much in the way that his, Abdul Alhazred’s and even Khalid’s Semitic semi-nomadic ancestors have done. In a way, Robert takes after Abdul Alhazared in his physical journey to discover dark and unknown places to write about more than even Khalid seems to do. So while Robert himself may be a lapsed Jew or an unobservant and secular one, this is an alternate literary background that he may have more than a passing familiarity with understanding and with which he can interact. Also, the fact that the Kitab has many Judeo-Christian resonances is something that can be relatable to the popular American cultural consciousness, while possessing the ability to adapt and change over time once its ideas take root.
Yet this is just another part of Robert’s usefulness to the transmission of the Kitab. There is another part of Robert Black’s identity that comes into play: something that he has to bury deeply until his ultimate revelations. Robert Black is gay. His sexual orientation forces him to move from his family in Milwaukee, closet himself and spend time with some societies and people that also have influences on the art and politics of 1919 America. In fact, it is his place in that time period’s gay subculture that gives him an understanding and a need to communicate what it is like to be a part of a secret society that isn’t accepted by mainstream society, even if its art and achievements are adopted by the latter. This is what inspires him to create Marblehead: An Undertow, this and the death of his lover Lily/Jonathan Russell due to having rejected him in order to protect his job and social standing. But this makes him more sensitive to recording secret signs and symbols that others might take for granted. It also makes him more open to the literary mores of the time.
As such, Robert Black keeps a Commonplace Book. It is a notebook that his late lover gifted him where he writes down all of his personal and authorial observations. It’s in this notebook, with the inclusion of Pamphlets and pictures on his journey through “the secret societies of America” that he records his notes taken from Hali’s Booke. But when you read the Commonplace Book as the back-matter of Providence, it reads less as notes and the jotting down of ideas and more like an epistolary novella or novel: something very much in the style and combined ancient and modern content of Bram Stoker’s Dracula written about a decade or so before it.
The thing about epistolary fiction, narratives cobbled together from fictional diaries, notes, correspondence and sometimes other written excerpts and drawings is that while they straddle the line between ornate heightened diction and modernist “concrete” writing and may be harder for contemporary audiences to read as such, they are usually rife with ideas. Even if you argue that Alan Moore’s relatively more modern Watchmen and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen also fit the epistolary form due to their combination of comics panels, newspaper clippings, prose story segments and the latter series’ back-matter, they are still scattered ideas but they make a powerful whole on a comprehensive reading. And this is why Robert Black was chosen as the Messenger. His Commonplace Book is a new commentary of the Kitab that, ultimately, is lent to the Redeemer: a man who already has background in literature, social philosophies, and the sciences. He is someone whose grandfather was the previous head of the current Stella Sapiente, Whipple Van Buren Phillips whose own apprentice, Winfield Scott Lovecraft was directly influenced by Yog-Sothoth to impregnate his daughter Sarah Susan Phillips with the being who becomes Redeemer.
Change happens when ideas are spread, and combined with other ideas to become something new. Robert Black remarks to Randall Carver, Randolph Carter’s analogue and often Lovecraft’s own literary stand-in, in Issue #8 of Providence that while Lovecraft’s prose isn’t as refined as Carver’s, his ideas are powerful. Robert lends Lovecraft his Commonplace Book in 1919 based on all of his research and mostly subconscious experiences.
Robert even suggests that Lovecraft read The King in Yellow: which he does somewhere before 1927. This transmits the ideas of the Kitab and Lovecraft adapts other fictional books, particularly The Necronomicon, that he created to fulfil this same purpose in his stories. It wasn’t an uncommon practice. Lovecraft and his literary circle of corresponding friends shared and even borrowed elements of each other’s universes all the time while Lovecraft liked to give writing advice. Robert Black might have become part of that circle if he hadn’t “correlated the contents” of his experiences and attempted to end his mental anguish in an exit garden.
Issue #11 of Providence goes on to show the Kitab‘s ideas being passed on through Lovecraft’s short story publications at Weird Stories, and the terrible fates of Robert Barlow who had been left his estate to archive and eventually committed suicide, Robert E. Howard who collaborated with him and then took his own life during the upcoming death of his own mother, and even Lovecraft’s own death by cancer. In the meantime, we also get to see August Derleth publish Lovecraft’s works, watch them influence authors such as Jorge Luis Borges, and eventually even William S. Burroughs.
We see its ideas transforming and mutating throughout the popular consciousness with creation of several texts: Mark Ownings’ meta-fictional 1967 The Necronomicon: A Study, Kenneth Grant’s 1972 The Magical Revival where he attempts a graft of Aleister Crowley’s occultism and Lovecraftian mythos, Lyon Sprague de Camp’s 1973 Al Azif (its title derived from Lovecraft’s “Arabic” name of The Necronomicon), and another attempted graft in 1977 of Lovecraftian lore and Sumerian mythology in the form of The Magickal Childe and Peter Levenda’s “Simon” Necronomicon: minus the presence of any meaningful banishing rituals.
Ironically, in addition to those mystical texts and ideas the ideals of the Kitab in Alan Moore’s Providence are spread through popular culture by fiction such as the stories in Weird Tales, and August Derleth and Robert Bloch’s Lovecraftian tributes and even fanzines such as the one made by the Esoteric Order of Dagon’s February 1976 mailing Culp’s Necronomicon. And then, in the spirit of From Hell, these “Lovecraftian rituals” — either influenced by books or unconsciously tapping into the zeitgeist thereof — are enacted by serial killers and wannabe cultists such as in the 1998 case of Glen Mason and his accomplices’ murder of Shevawn Geohagan, the fictional 2004 murderers in The Courtyard, and the so-called Cult of Dagon of 2006 in Neonomicon. These acts and influence further cement and spread these ideas into popular and geek consciousness and we even see how it ties back again into The Courtyard and Neonomicon with Aldo Sax and Merrill Brears: to the point where the remnants of the FBI are examining Robert’s Commonplace Book in an attempt to avert the oncoming apocalypse.
But how does this all relate back to the Necronomicon? Well, one of the reasons that Robert Black is so effective as the Messenger is because his writing and method of recording the ideas of the Kitab fit the times. H.P. Lovecraft is also, conversely, ideal as the Redeemer due to his idea-oriented writing and his own powerful connection to his dreams while, as an artist, he is also sensitive to the black tides of prejudice and fear underlying New England and the America of his birth: allowing him to tie those ideas to America’s anxiety for itself. Yet how did it go further than those two, through the literary Lovecraft Circle and beyond?
There is an English literary scholar and Jesuit priest named Walter Ong who created a book called Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. It is in this work that Ong not only explains how oral culture and storytelling uses techniques that make its narratives ever-present, he also identifies a term called secondary orality: a form of writing that is transitional from and coexists with oral culture by making use of contemporary media.
Alan Moore in the documentary The Mindscape of Alan Moore explains that information in the late twentieth to early twenty-first century has rapidly expanded at an unprecedented rate in all known human history: to the point where information is stream-lined and more easily accessible. In a paraphrase of Alan Moore’s words information has made our culture transition from a state of fluidity into “a culture of steam.” You can argue that secondary orality happens through media such as popular culture through film, television, the Internet, and even something like the comics medium.
Aklo itself, the non-Euclidean language that allows its speakers and thinkers to see another dimension of reality, has been adapted from Machen and Lovecraft and introduced in Alan Moore’s The Courtyard and Neonomicon. It is a language and perception of eternal state of reality dictated to the fictional Khalid Ibn Yazid and others that brings second orality a place between the spoken and written word, into a whole other level of self-conscious existence: perhaps even the Plateau of Leng of total and constant motion – a Platonic world of constant becoming – and being as a series of moments, actions, and verbs. You can even say that it might help facilitate a greater epistolary state of existence.
As such, it’s much easier, to paraphrase Lovecraft, to correlate all the contents of the human mind: perhaps in a way that would make the Castalian Order in Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game or Magister Ludi burn with envy, or become utterly terrified by the Age of the Feuilleton (conveniently French for a “book leaf” and supplementary information at the back of a newspaper, or “serial stories” in English media culture) – an era of obfuscating “superficial” trivia and a “degeneration of critical thinking” consuming the minds of all people.
This is the true horror of the Necronomicon. Like I said at the very beginning of this article, a horror story is never about the monster, or the ghost, or the book. Even in Providence, Henry Annesley (the analogue to Lovecraft’s Crawford Tillinghast “From Beyond”) tells Robert Black that the Stella Sapiente had other editions of Hali’s Booke by 1889, while other characters gained notes and transcriptions from the volume that aided them in their studies and their agendas. It’s not about the book. It was never about the book. Rather, it is more about what the book contains: its ideas. It’s about what those ideas can do to your mind and your perception of reality.
In this, Alan Moore’s Kitab, has shed its body to unleash its curse, its memetic viral spirit into the imaginations of all humankind in all perceived reality. Or you can always think about it from a comic book genre perspective. In the cinematic universe at least, think about Marvel’s HYDRA. Everyone always believed that HYDRA was dangerous because of its ties to the Nazis, its powerful super-science weapons, its monstrous leaders such as the Red Skull, and even its extensive spy network that infiltrated SHIELD and the world for seven decades. But a villainous organization like HYDRA is never dangerous because of any of these things. Those are just symptoms. The true reason why HYDRA is so deadly is because it’s an idea: an idea that has linked itself to humanity’s need for control while, at the same time, its inclination towards greed and power. So long as these urges exist in sentient beings, HYDRA will always survive. It will always be reborn.
This is why the Kitab, the Necronomicon, even Providence itself are so utterly horrifying: because as books they are harmless, but in the minds of others they are old and eternal ideas that mutate and adapt and take on new life. They will change the world. They will make you look at the world differently. And, even with successful or real banishing rituals, in true Lovecraftian style no one will ever truly recover or be the same from the revelations with which they have already been exposed. Once you read a book, just like journeying through the cracks of a forgotten place, you will always be changed and, like Robert Black, you might realize that you are all part of some sleeping, terrifying force’s dream … some being that only partially communicates with you in living words in the form of an avatar that might, and will, one day wake up once more.
When it comes down to it, as you journey through a book, through an immortal and indestructible idea, you will realize that you have come full circle and become a part of it, forever, that and it will never let you go: even if you somehow you still want it to do so.
I would like to thank my fellow Sequart writer David Whittaker, The Facts in the Case of Alan Moore’s Providence, and my fine fellow commentators on that Blog site for allowing me the time, place, and discussions to formulate the ideas that turned into this monstrosity. May we see how this series ends, and begins, together.
[CORRECTION: Robert Derie has kindly pointed out that Mark Ownings' The Necronomicon: A Study is not an occult text, and the murders -- real or fictional -- didn't use rituals from any version of The Necronomicon. Just so you know.]