In the 1920s and 30s in the United States of America, erotica was technically illegal—groups like the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice worked hand in glove with the police and the government censors of the United States Post Office to crack down on anything that smacked of smut, from James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934) to Tijuana bibles, nudist magazines, or explicit works on birth control.
This did not stop the production or distribution of erotic works, but it drove it largely underground. Ambitious but shady individuals placed ads big and small in pulp magazines like Weird Tales, coding their books as works of medical or anthropological interest to skirt the laws. Pulp magazines with sex interest like Spicy Mystery and its sisters skated a thin line between being permissible or being deemed obscene and taken off newsstands and sometimes crossed it.
It took decades for the legal standards to loosen. Landmark cases like United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, 5 F. Supp. 182 (SDNY 1933) and Grove Press, Inc. v. Christenberry, 175 F. Supp. 488 (SDNY 1959) opened the door for people in the United States to publish and possess such works as Fanny Hill (1748) without fear of the books being seized and burned, and the publishers fined and imprisoned. With the new legalization of erotic literature came availability, as old classics were reprinted openly to meet a curious demand.
The artificial restrictions on publication had helped to create a kind of erotic canon; works like The Golden Assof Apuleius, Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, Leopold von Sader-Masoch’s Venus in Furs (1870), and the anonymous The Way Of A Man With A Maid(1908) weren’t necessarily the most transgressive or well-written erotic works, but in the grey market of erotic books, certain titles had by dint of age, popularity, or literary quality stood out above the rest and became a part of the culture.
It is this loose canon that many writers continue to call back to. Pluto in Furs (2019) and Pluto in Furs 2(2022), anthologies of weird explicit fiction, is a deliberate reference to Venus in Furs. Peter H. Cannon’s jocular short story “Asceticism and Lust: The Greatest Lovecraft Revision” (1988) imagines a collaboration between Lovecraft and Henry Miller that results in “Tropic of Cthulhu”—a tongue-firmly-in-cheek reference to Miller’s censored novels Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn (1939). Lovecraftian erotica, by the way, took a few decades to really get going in no small part because of the legal restrictions outlined above. The freedom to read Ulysses also brought with it the freedom to appreciate all the further extrapolations of sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.
So when a reader picks up the Nookienomicon and leafing through those austere pages reads the title of one story is “Lady Chatterly’s Blowhole” by Beth W. Patterson, there is a certain expectation that they will get the reference, even if they haven’t read the book. Like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn or Shakespeare’s plays, a certain amount of cultural osmosis is assumed to have occurred.
The world is supposed to be full of possibilities, but they narrow down to pretty few in most personal experience. There’s lots of good fish in the sea…maybe…but the vast masses seem to be mackerel or herring, and if you’re not mackerel or herring yourself you are likely to find very few good fish in the sea.
D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterly’s Lover (1928)
The intention of “Lady Chatterly’s Blowhole,” however, is not to be a pornographic episode along the lines of “The Flower of Innsmouth” (2011) by Monique Poirier or an erotic paranormal romance novel like Tide of Desire (1983) by Sheena Clayton. The Nookienomicon promises “Bawdy Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos,” and Patterson delivers in a double-entendre-laden comedy that is more sizzle than steak. Working in the tradition of the period works that often had to couch any eroticism in euphemism to get past the censors, this honeymoon in Innsmouth tiptoes the fine line between discussing marital relations—and Innsmouth lore—openly and hinting at it as strongly as possible.
[“]Such is the way of people touched by the Old Ones.”
“Touched by the Old Ones?” Fannly looked delightedly aghast. “In what way? Can you show me on a doll?”
Beth W. Patterson, “Lady Chatterly’s Blowhole” in the Nookienomicon71
To spoof something properly, you have to love it, and there’s a lot of love on display here. Patterson doesn’t just make the obvious jokes (although the stream of sexual innuendos and nautical euphemisms is relentless), and does more than just tease eldritch revelations.
“Is it normal for men to have five of those?”
“Not human men,” replied her husband. “His trousers must fit him like a glove…darling, are you disappointed?”
Beth W. Patterson, “Lady Chatterly’s Blowhole” in the Nookienomicon 68
Aficionados of the Cthulhu Mythos will have read any number of escapes, successful or attempted, from Innsmouth that have been published over the decades, but I can fairly guarantee that they haven’t read one quite like “Lady Chatterly’s Blowhole.”
Who hath desired the Sea—the sight of salt-water unbounded? The heave and the halt and the hurl and the crash of the comber wind-hounded? The sleek-barrelled swell before storm—grey, foamless, enormous, and growing? Stark calm on the lap of the Line—or the crazy-eyed hurricane blowing? His Sea in no showing the same—his Sea and the same ’neath all showing— His Sea that his being fulfils? So and no otherwise—so and no otherwise Hill-men desire their Hills!
Rudyard Kipling, “The Sea and the Hills” fromKim(1900)
There are weird things out in the water. We still thrill to every strange creature that washes ashore, or is dredged up from the depths by a storm; the exotic, almost alien lifeforms that we glimpse through submarines or haul up in nets. The great depths of the ocean remain unexplored territory where wonders and terrors may yet reside: shipwrecks, volcanoes, lost cities. Nautical tales often contain elements of mystery, survival, adventure, and horror…and have left their mark on science fiction and fantasy. Krakens, Cthulhu, and Godzilla are all part of the lore and mystery of the ocean; sailors were the first great explorers who have lent their terminology to starships and space marines.
Yet for all the weird inspiration that the seas and oceans of the world have lent to H. P. Lovecraft and other weird writers, actual nautical weird fiction is a distinct and often overlooked subgenre. William Hope Hodgson, who was himself a sailor, was no doubt the greatest master of the weird nautical tale with his Sargasso Sea stories, “The Island of the Ud” (1907), and the unforgettable “The Voice in the Night” (1907), which inspired the Japanese film Matango(マタンゴ, 1963). H. P. Lovecraft would dabble in the genre with “Dagon” and the final chapter in “The Call of Cthulhu,” Frank Belknap Long, Jr. would contribute “The Ocean-Leech” in Weird Tales.
Nautical fiction has not gone extinct, but like railroad fiction and zeppelin stories, cultural and technological shifts have made such tales less common than before. Fewer people travel by water over long distances, with motors and electronics making it easier for ships to travel and stay in communication. Many of the tropes of nautical fiction are readily adapted to space travel stories—Event Horizon(1997) is essentially a ghost ship story set in space—and vice versa, as shown by films like The Abyss(1989) and Underwater (2020), so it might be more accurate to say that nautical fiction is undergoing an evolution as it finds its place in a changing culture.
Sometimes evolution tries something weird.
As the title might indicate, I was informed by a fellow author that every series absolutely must stay within a well-defined genre. Being a contrarian, I promptly set out to write a series in which each subsequent story is set with the same characters in a wildly different genre. I would love to hear your thoughts as I write this series as to which genres I should tackle next. Space Opera? Cozy Mystery? Amish Romance? The fun of me posting series as I write them is that it provides you, the reader, with an opportunity to shape and guide the results!
“Sailing Downwind to the Cthulhu Call” by Lisa Shea is Book 4 in an ongoing series about Samantha, a Black bisexual woman with a Mythos artifact and dire premonitions of Cthulhu’s emergence, and her friend-and-romantic-interest Gabriel. Strictly speaking, it might be better to regard these as chapters in a serial: while each attempts a distinct genre (1 – Horror, 2 – Mystery, 3 – Science Fiction, 4 – Sea Stories, and 5 – Romance), none of them is quite a standalone story in itself. Nor does the narrative seem complete; presumably more books are forthcoming at some point to carry Samantha and Gabriel’s story onwards, hopefully to some kind of conclusion.
Lisa Shea is a prolific author who is game for anything, and the decision to specifically try and do a nautical story with the Cthulhu Mythos has a lot of potential. While “Cthulhu,” “Dagon,” or “The Shadow over Innsmouth” might seem the obvious candidates for maritime adventures, one could just as easily imagine a sailor of any time period coming across a ghost ship crewed by Mi-Go brain canisters, or an Antarctic cruise ship that hits a frozen shoggoth. Sailing has such a rich and fascinating history, has been such a constant in human life even to the present day, that a story could be set almost anywhere or anytime.
Shea was slightly constrained in that she was keeping the same characters and continuing an overall narrative; “Sailing Downwind to the Cthulhu Call” starts out with them aboard ship, has a bit of light-hearted fun with nautical terminology, and tries to stay on topic…which is kind of where it begins to fall apart.
“I suppose, if I’m going to be reciting lines from doomed naval incidents, the Titanic shouldn’t be my first choice. Seems only two men of color were even on the ship, out of its 2,224 passengers.”
How many people can recite the exact number of passengers on the Titanic off the top of their heads in casual banter? Keeping in mind that at no point in the proceeding does this character demonstrate that she is a Titanic fanatic. The point is driven home in the next paragraph when she begins to go into the details of the Port Chicago disaster, without any real prompting. It is not that this is information she couldn’t know, or have looked up at some point, but for a character that doesn’t know port from starboard it feels very out of character, and almost like the kind of filler used to fluff out historical romance novels for which page count is more important than pacing.
The point of bringing up the Port Chicago disaster specifically appears to be to prompt a discussion between Samantha and Gabriel on the issue of historical racism and the historical racial diversity of sailing crews, e.g.:
“When I was a boy, our neighbor was African-American. Elderly. Wrinkledlike a raisin. He’d served on the U.S.S. Mason in World War II. It said out of Boston, you know. The entire crew was African-Ameircan. At the time, our Navy wouldn’t mix those types with the white sailors.”
His brow furrowed. “Can you imagine, caring about something like that while the Nazis were slaughtering Jewish people by the trian-car-load?”
If this was a single bit of conversation in a longer novel, it might stand out less. Perhaps it might even help establish elements of their characters better and explain their romantic rapport since they both appear to be WWII naval buffs. However, the interaction doesn’t really drive the plot of the chapter or the story forward at all. It’s fascinating as trivia and in another context it might provide an interesting line of inquiry—how did changing racial politics affect the dynamics of sailing ships?—but in this story, the question has to be asked: what is the point? Because neither the Titanic, the Port Chicago disaster, or the U.S.S. Mason figure into Samantha and Gabriel’s little sailing cruise to Nantucket Island.
“Sailing Downwind” is technically a sea story because it takes place at sea, on a small sailboat, and most of the content is explicitly related to sailing in some fashion—even the discussion about why rum and why alcohol is measured in proof, which makes me wish Shea had consulted And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktailsby Wayne Curtis. Yet it feels like a missed opportunity. The sailing is a little too smooth. Samantha never really learns anything about how to help out around the ship in her brief time on it. Long car trips have been planned with more care and contained more incident and excitement. For a single chapter in a longer novel, this wouldn’t be a complaint, but in a chapter trying to bill itself as nautical fiction, it just feels like so much more could have been done with the idea…a storm. Rough waves. Shark attack. Man overboard. Lost at sea. Sneaky Deep One stealing the rum. St. Elmo’s fire. Pirates (off Nantucket? Perhaps not.)
The Cthulhu Mythos material is a continuation of the story from previous books. Readers who skipped those can get the gist of the idea rather quickly; Samantha has a crystal, a piece of alien technology which is somewhere between a palantir and a browser for extraterrestrial webcams, and it’s safer to use it far away from land just in case Cthulhu decides to make a guest appearance.
I murmured, “The Chinese government would love to get their hands on this. It seems the cameras are simply orbs of energy. There’s one currently by a mountain range. I remember it from last time. I can even see how the clouds driftingby get caught in its peaks and drag a bit. It’s quite lovely.”
The Mythos material is slight. That isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, Lovecraftian mood and ideas are more important than quotes from the Necronomicon and eldritch entities with tongue-twisting names. Unfortunately, there isn’t much of that mood either. In trying to make this a “sea story,” “Sailing Downwind” gives short shrift to also being a Mythos story. On paper, there’s no reason why it can’t be both—the nominal reason for the cruise is grounded in using the Mythos device, the Mythos device is used, and Gabriel uses sailing lore to try and interpret some of the information retrieved—and maybe it would have worked, if there was more story there.
If the essential goal of “Sailing Downwind” was to write a work of nautical fiction that mentions Cthulhu in ~25 pages, then it technically fulfills that goal…but only technically. There are some real missed opportunities here, as far as what could have been done with the same characters and the same premise with the same word count. Shea could have made this much more dramatic, much more focused on the sailing experience, emphasized the nautical horrors of the Mythos…but, Shea misses the boat. The overall impression is less of a sea story or a Mythos story, but a bridging chapter between the science fiction chapter (#3) and the sweet romance chapter (#5).
But more wonderful than the lore of old men and the lore of books is the secret lore of ocean. Blue, green, grey, white, or black; smooth, ruffled, or mountainous; that ocean is not silent.
While he was with me, the wonder and diabolism of his experiments fascinated me utterly, and I was his closest companion. Now that he is gone and the spell is broken, the actual fear is greater. Memories and possibilities are ever more hideous than realities.
In 1922, before Weird Tales had ever hit the stands, H. P. Lovecraft’s first commercial work went into print: six brief tales of gruesome mad science, for which he was to be paid five dollars an episode. Commercial hack work, and Lovecraft knew it; it would not be published again until Lovecraft was safely dead and beyond objecting. From there it entered the domain of reprints, and it became the basis for the 1985 film Reanimator. The film, with the iconic performance by Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West and the glowing green reanimation agent, was a smash success. It inspired a franchise of movies, a novelization, comic books, merchandise, and stories chronicling the further adventure of the reanimator, his foes and rivals.
Herbert West has become one of Lovecraft’s breakout characters.
It is harder to pin down when the queer interpretations began. The basic building blocks were always there, from the beginning: West and his unnamed partner’s close homosocial bond, like Holmes and his Watson; Lovecraft’s typical asexuality and lack of romance in the story; the allegorical implications of men trying to create life without women, especially via the Freudian technique of injecting some of their special serum into the body. One might also add the loneliness of the outsiders, forced to hide their actions from the world, forced out onto the fringes just to be themselves without discrimination.
For queer folk, reading into the text or the adaptations something of their own experience, maybe Herbert West was always queer too. He just wasn’t out about it yet.
Brian McNaughton may have been the first to really play with the idea in “Herbert West—Reincarnated: Part II, The Horror from the Holy Land” (2000), published in Crypt of Cthulhu #106 and his collection Nasty Stories. Molly Tanzer certainly brought in the open with “Herbert West in Love” (2012). The erotic appeal was made manifest in “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) by Lula Lisbon. Alan Moore & Jacen Burrows expressly coded West and his companion as queer in Providence (2017), which played off against their own queer protagonist…and there are more. The constellation of Reanimator-derived works continues to grow; some are more explicitly queer than others. Each of these interpretations is different, both in their understanding and in their depiction of what being queer means, and in what they drew from Lovecraft or what they borrowed from other media; the glowing green reagent being a common element in most stories written after 1985.
The fluid was fluorescent and green as I gently tipped the vial. A single bead of he concoction caught on the lip of the tube and then fell, splashing into the beed’s mouth.
“(UN)Bury Your Gays” is a spiritual sequel to “Herbert West—Reanimator”; one that retreads a little familiar ground (it is a reanimator story, it would be more shocking if there wasn’t a reanimation), but is overall smaller, more focused: the protagonists are not simply repeating the Herbert West/unnamed assistant dynamic, but are exploring a much more complicated, nuanced, realistic friendship as the only two queer kids in high school. There is a sensibility in the story reminiscent of “Pale, Trembling Youth” (1986) by W. H. Pugmire & Jessica Amanda Salmonson; a weird sort of universality to the outsider experience which makes the characters much more sympathetic than West and his nameless assistant ever were.
Waters sets the action in the current day, and a certain pop-culture sensibility flows through the scenario: like the genre-savvy characters in the Scream films, they can picture themselves in a horror story and sometimes try to interpret what’s happening through that lens, riffing on vampirism and flesh-eating zombies in a way that Herbert West & his assistant in 1922 couldn’t. Less directly and less obviously, the two teens also approach their sexuality and relationship through the same lens. This is far and away from a Lovecraftian interpretation of Brokeback Mountain, but there are shades of the same relationship dynamics at play. What the leads have isn’t sexual, but they are tied together by their sexuality. A shared intimacy, but not exclusivity.
In a lot of ways, Waters flips Lovecraft’s script. Instead of a nameless protagonist talking about his relationship with Herbert West, we have the great-grand nephew Humphrey West telling the tale of his best friend. Where Herbert West is focused on reanimation practically to the exclusion of all else and seems to take his relationship with the unnamed narrator for granted, in “(UN)Bury Your Gays” the focus is all about the relationship between Humphrey and his friend, with reanimation a catalyst for a shift in their dynamic, and that is what the story is ultimately about.
Of Daniel “Danny” Moreland, I can only speak fondly. He was my closest companion. My champion. My single greatest achievement.
A key point in Waters’ approach is that it is a queering, not the queering of “Herbert West—Reanimator.” This is one interpretation, one take, one possible iteration of the infinite possibilities of exploring Lovecraft’s original narrative, characters, or concepts through a queer lens. Rather than repeating what Molly Tanzer or Alan Moore wrote, Waters is presenting a different permutation on the same idea—one that is more inspired by Lovecraft’s original than a strict revisitation of the same familiar story and characters.
Because there is more than one way to be queer, and more than one way to reanimate the Lovecraftian corpus.
Lavinia was one who would be apt to mutter such things, for she was a lone creature given to wandering amidst thunderstorms in the hills and trying to read the great odorous books which her father had inherited through two centuries of Whateleys, and which were fast falling to pieces with age and worm-holes. She had never been to school, but was filled with disjointed scraps of ancient lore that Old Whateley had taught her. The remote farmhouse had always been feared because of Old Whateley’s reputation for black magic, and the unexplained death by violence of Mrs. Whateley when Lavinia was twelve years old had not helped to make the place popular. Isolated among strange influences, Lavinia was fond of wild and grandiose day-dreams and singular occupations; nor was her leisure much taken up by household cares in a home from which all standards of order and cleanliness had long since disappeared.
There is a small cycle of stories involving Lavinia Whateley, spinning out from “The Dunwich Horror.” W. H. Pugmire & Robert M. Price suggested her survival in “The Tree House” in The Dunwich Cycle; Alex Picchetti went into explicit detail about her conception of the twins in “When The Stars Come” in Whispers in Darkness: Lovecraftian Erotica; Edward Lee was no less explicit in describing Lavinia’s relationship with her sons in The Dunwich Romance.
Yet these stories are all more or less unsympathetic—perhaps not surprising as they were all written by men, and accept that Lavinia was a more or less willing participant in the events leading up to the Dunwich Horror; a cultist who finally grew afraid of her children and quietly disappeared off the page when her part in the story was over. Few of them focus on what it was like to be Lavinia Whateley. Albinos don’t have it easy in life, even when they’re not uneducated and living in rural poverty under the will of a demented wizard intent on using her as a broodmare for a pair of cosmic horror antichrists. There is little of the realism of that hard life in their characterizations. As Smith puts it:
Also, as a fellow disabled New England woman living in poverty, I felt there was something beyond affinity forming between my eyes and the words on the page. I wanted to hear her, imagine her as more fully-formed than Lovecraft had made her.
Lovecraft’s model of Lavinia Whateley was Mary from Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan”—a young woman raised to be the subject of an experiment by an older, learned man, who gives birth to an enfant terrible, inhuman in aspect. Mary is barely there in Machen’s story, and Lovecraft gave her both more background and characterization—but not very positive characterization, and even the description of Lavinia is unflattering. Lavinia was “a somewhat deformed, unattractive albino woman of thirty-five,” a “slatternly, crinkly-haired albino,” with “misproportioned arms” and the Whateley chinlessness.
Some of Lovecraft’s descriptions are particular: why the misproportioned arms? Why an albino? Why crinkly hair? Readers and writers might gloss some of these: making Lavinia an albino helped to heighten the contrast with her “black brat,” Wilbur Whateley; crinkly hair can be a sign of dryness, suggesting she doesn’t wash it, which would go along with the idea that Lavinia was “slatternly” or unkempt, dirty, a common characteristic of poor whites in Lovecraft’s fiction. Yet Farah Rose Smith looked at these pieces of the puzzle and went a different way…
Ma was born in the back of a show wagon to a dyin’ hottentot (that’s what Barnum called ’em, she said, but said she’d slap me cross the cheeks top and bottom if I ever said it myself) and “New England’s tallest Negro.” When she was a little gilr, they told her to get out when she could, or else Barnum’d put her on display like them and even take out her body parts fer exhibition after she was dead.
This puts, to pun a phrase, an entirely different complexion on the matter. Lovecraft gives no attention to Lavinia Whateley’s maternal line except to say that Mrs. Whateley died violently when the girl was twelve years old. He has nothing to say about Wilbur Whateley’s maternal grandparents. Human zoos and human oddities were real—and often very exploitative—enterprises in the late 19th and early 20th century, as famously depicted in the 1932 pre-Code horror film Freaks. Making Lavinia mixed-race highlights a heritage of discrimination…and a life she didn’t want for her sons.
Like “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle, Lavinia Rising is an alternate point of view for “The Dunwich Horror,” but largely follows the plot of Lovecraft’s story. This changes the story from a horror to a tragedy; readers know what is going to happen, more or less, and the difference is that we get Lavinia’s point of view as she grows up, dealing with her illnesses and disabilities, the discrimination and misogyny of a rural New England town and a patriarchal household ruled by a twisted madman that sees her as no more than a means to an end. There is little happiness in that life, and we know how it is going to end.
Yet what Farah Rose Smith offers readers is one thing more: what happens after the end. A brief epilogue to “The Dunwich Horror” which focuses on her actions to understand what happened to her children, as opposed to what happened to Mamie Bishop or Wilbur Whateley. The domestic drama and very human grief may be completely counter to Lovecraft’s idea of cosmic horror…but that is rather the point. Lovecraft did enough damage to Lavinia’s reputation; it’s time to hear her own story in her own words, and her point of view makes her an outsider in her own family of outsiders.
The only book really comparable to Lavinia Rising in the corpus of weird fiction is Helen’s Story (2013) by Rosanne Rabinowitz—and while the stories are very different in how they turn out, there is a similarity in that both of these works revisit women in weird fiction who have been ill-served by the rather patriarchial attitudes of the late 19th and early 20th century. Both Machen and Lovecraft were fully capable of writing fiction from the point of view of women, and capable too of imagining them as sympathetic and intelligent beings—Machen’s “The White People” and “The Man of Stone” (1932) by Hazel Heald & H. P. Lovecraft showcase that, at least a little—but they rarely did so. In focusing on their supernatural horrors, Lovecraft and Machen largely overlook or choose not to detail the domestic horrors and psychological horrors of those women’s lives, except by inference…or, in the case of Lavinia, a single desperate conversation:
Through all the years Wilbur had treated his half-deformed albino mother with a growing contempt, finally forbidding her to go to the hills with him on May-Eve and Hallowmass; and in 1926 the poor creature complained to Mamie Bishop of being afraid of him.
“They’s more abaout him as I knows than I kin tell ye, Mamie,” she said, “an’ naowadays they’s more nor what I know myself. I vaow afur Gawd, I dun’t know what he wants nor what he’s a-tryin’ to dew.”
Smith retains Lovecraft’s dialogue verbatim, but expands on the scene and the thoughts and events behind them. Like Rabinowitz, the main point of departure is the part of the story where the woman died or disappeared—and their survival marks the transition from the familiar to the unfamiliar. This is all about the parts of the story the reader never got to read about…and, it has to be said, Smith does it well. It is a compelling story, and if there are a few inconsistencies here and there, those might as easily be chalked up to an unreliable narrator and unreliable transcription as error.
Plus, we get to learn the name of Wilbur’s brother.
Occult readings of Lovecraft’s fiction began while he was still alive, with correspondents like William Lumley and the unnamed Salem witch descendent and “Maine wizard” expressing interest or belief in the reality of the artificial mythology and lore that Lovecraft and his contemporaries concocted. As Lovecraft put it:
[William Lumley] is firmly convinced that all our gang—you, Two-Gun Bob, Sonny Belknap , Grandpa E’ch-Pi-El, and the rest—are genuine agents of unseen Powers in distributing hints too dark and profound for human conception or comprehension. We may think we’re writing fiction, and may even (absurd thought!) disbelieve what we write, but at bottom we are telling the truth in spite of ourselves—serving unwittingly as mouthpieces of Tsathoggua, Crom, Cthulhu, and other pleasant Outside gentry. Indeed—Bill tells me that he has fully identified my Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep ……. So that he can tell me more about ‘em that I know myself.
Lovecraft, as an ardent materialist, always disabused those who wrote to him asking for the reality of the Necronomicon or for occult lore; while he was happy to play the game of terrible incantations and rites in fiction and in his letters, he did not wish to actually misinform or mislead anyone. The interest generation in such works did, however, present an interesting possibility:
I dont wonder that you recieve letters inquiring about the Necronomicon. You invest it with so much realism, that it fooled me among others. Until you enlightened me, I thought perhaps there was some such book or manuscript sufficiently fantastic to form the basis of fictionized allusions. Say, why dont you write it yourself? If some exclusive house would publish it in an expensive edition, and give it the proper advertising, I’ll bet you’d realize some money from it.
While neither Lovecraft or Howard pursued the idea, long after their death others acted on the idea. Two of the earliest and most prominent of these were the Necronomicon by Simon, first published by Schlangekraft in 1977 and in 1980 as an affordable mass-market paperback (which has never yet gone out of print) and in 1978 The Necronomicon: The Book of Dead Names edited by George Hay. These two books were both hoaxes that claimed to derive their text from a genuine manuscript; the Simon Necronomicon took as its inspiration Sumerian mythology and a dash of Aleister Crowley’s Thelema, while the Hay Necronomicon riffed off the European medieval grimoire tradition.
Of the two, the Simon book was more “serious” and aimed at fooling students of the occult, while the Hay book (with a lengthy introduction by Colin Wilson) was more fun. However, both books were embraced by burgeoning occult communities in the 1970s and 80s, were referenced by Kenneth Grant (a successor to Aleister Crowley) in his occult workbooks The Typhonian Trilogies (1972-2002), and continue to influence contemporary works of occultism such as Necronomicon Gnosis: A Practical Introduction (2007) by Asenath Mason. For more on the complicated Lovecraftian occult scene, see The Necronomicon Files by Daniel Harms & John W. Gonce III.
Nor were they the only such works; many occult Necronomicons have proliferated over the years…and not all of them in English. Many non-English language Necronomicons are, in whole or in part, translations of the popular Simon and Hay Necronomicons, sometimes with their rituals and imagery mixed together, sometimes interpolated with original material. Other works are largely original. Two particular works from Italy are good examples to compare and contrast how the occult Necronomicon tradition functions.
Magic of Atlantis: Sauthenerom: The Real Source of the Necronomicon (1985) by Frank G. Ripel
This Work is essentially divided into two parts. The first reveals the Text “Sauthenerom” whose source is lost in the Night of Times, and the other is an essay on particular esoterical matters that are related to the Ordo Rosae Misticae (The Order of the Mystic Rose) and connected with the Current of Occult Knoweldge that reaches back 4,000 years to the end of the Stellar-Lunar Cults and the beginning of the Lunar Cults. […]
I can assert that the Sauthenerom (The Book of the Law of Death) is the Text of the Real Necronomcion (The Book of Dead Names), i.e. the Text out of which later on the Necronomicon had developed.
Frank G. Ripel, “Introduction” to Magic of Atlantis 7
Frank Giano Ripel is an Italian occultist whose works primarily derive from Aleister Crowley’s system of ceremonial magic, whose best-known practitioners are the Ordo Templi Orientalis (O.T.O.). This system of ritual magic in turn grows out of the teachings of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which in turn attempted to distill, codify, and systemize various occult practices such as the Western grimoire tradition such as The Sacred Book of Abramelin the Mage, Christian Kabbalah, and tarot (for more on which, see Eldritch Tarot (2021) by Sara Bardi).
After Aleister Crowley’s death, his last secretary Kenneth Grant sought to expand the system of Thelema through a series of books, starting with The Magical Revival (1972), which began to incorporate fictional elements—particularly the Lovecraft Mythos—into the already complicated system of occult correspondences. Other occultists picked up on this thread, and the Simon Necronomicon in particular included a table of correspondences suggesting that the Necronomicon and the Lovecraft Mythos were associated with Crowley’s teachings; Grant referred back to this in his later books, and like how the Cthulhu Mythos grew up from different authors pursuing their own writing goals and referencing one another’s work, the Lovecraftian occult began to expand. Ripel was part of that expansion.
As with many occultists and groups, the background is a little hazy. It appears that in the 1980s Ripel began self-publishing his own occult works for a relatively small and select audience; the principal volumes of these are the Sabean Trilogy which consists of three books, with the titles Magic of Atlantis, Red Magic, and Stellar Magic in English. Various translations of some of these were made in English, Spanish, and Serbian by small presses, and today several editions are available as ebooks, but the early English translations Magic of Atlantis are quite rare and it isn’t clear if the other books in the trilogy were ever translated into English, so Ripel’s influence on English-speaking Lovecraftian occultists appears to be minimal.
Ripel’s Magic of Atlantis is a sort of hybrid between Kenneth Grant’s and Simon’s approaches. The first part of the book, called the Sauthenerom, is implicitly a “received text” on the order of “The Book of the Forgotten Ones” (1977) by Nema Andahadna—or at least, unlike The Book of Dzyan (1888) by Helena Blavatsky there is no suggestion that Ripel was pretending to work off of a physical manuscript he had discovered. This Necronomicon ur-text borrows rather liberally from Lovecraft, though not without its original changes:
The Old Ones Are, the Old Ones Were and the Old Ones Will Be. From the Dawn of Times, in the Primordial Chaos, in ever Centre of the Infinite called Naxyr, the Gods Were and Were-Not; They were floating in the formless Waters of Darkness, in the Void of Naxyr. […]
At the Centre of Naxyr resideth his Manifestation in the form of that Protoplasmic Chaos, that Boiling Energy; the Manifested Father who is also the Son, the Projection of the Mother.
His Name is Azathoth,the Blind God who Explodes with no End, and out of his Death, the Manifested Worlds are born; and Planets and Stars and Suns and their inhabitants. He is the One that sits on the Double Throne. He is the One that clothes Yog-Sothoth of his Mother.
Frank G. Ripel, Magic of Atlantis 11
This mythological section borrows fairly heavily from Theosophy…too much, in that it reproduces some of the inherent racism of the “root races”:
There were divisions among the Races caused above all by climactic conditions. For example, the South Race developed the faculty of enduring the bruning Sun’s Rays through the emission of a substance which darkens the skin. In the span of Ten Generations, this factor became hereditary.
Frank G. Ripel, Magic of Atlantis 25
References to Lovecraft’s Mythos aside, the Sauthenerom section is relatively brief (26 pages) and divided into 13 chapters with a combination of myth, cosmology, and ritual. The bulk of the book is the second section, which details the magickal practices and beliefs of the Ordo Rosae Misticae, which presents itself as a splinter of the O.T.O.; Ripel both criticizes Grant’s publications while borrowing from them—like Crowley and Simon, Ripel borrows in Lovecraft’s creations to his system, though much of the Magic of Atlantis involves “correcting” Grant’s errors:
Talking of the relation between Lovecraft’s Cult and that of Crowley, we must point out an erroneus assertion of Kenneth Grant (see The Magical Revival) that Lovecraft did not know the Work of Crowley. Lovecraft’s letters, instead, demonstrate precisely the contrary. Besides, Grant’s comparative table between the Two Cults contains considerable mistakes.
Frank G. Ripel, Magic of Atlantis 56-57
The third part of the book is devoted to the grades of Ripel’s order, and the actual magickal operations are described in part four; these mostly involve fairly typical instructions for how to create various ritual tools and spaces, and variations of familiar Thelemic rites—in place of Crowley’s “Mass of the Phoenix,” for example, is given instructions for the “Host of Satan”:
To prepare the Host of Satan (Lucifer’s Bread of Light) various types of Blood could be used, the best is that of the Moon, that is the Menstrual Blood. One will have ot burn the Blood making cakes out of it.
Frank G. Ripel, Magic of Atlantis 179
There is little to nothing of Lovecraft in this “operational” portion of the book, and that rather reveals Magic of Atlantis for what it is: a handbook for by and for practicing Thelemic magicians working within Ripel’s particular interpretation of Crowley and Grant’s system.
The fanciful pseudo-Lovecraftian material that fronts the book ultimately gives way to almost prosaic repetition of standard Hermetic ceremonial matters in the back half; despite grand claims to have at his access ultimate secrets, at least in this book Ripel’s imagination falls far short of expectations. Would-be Lovecraftian cultists may be disappointed not to find anything as weird or grand as in the Simon and Hay Necronomicons…but actual serious-minded occultists will probably appreciate Ripel’s criticisms of Grant (provided they agree) and his efforts at magical scholasticism.
Necronomicon: Il Libro Proibito di Abdul Alhazred (2022) by Miranda Gurzo
La versione di Hay e Wilson, ad esempio, è interessante per tutta la parte introduttiva, che tesse un intricato mistero attorno alla figura di John Dee e alle sue “comunicazioni angeliche”, ma il testo vero e proprio del libro maledetto è piuttosto breve e modellato senza tropa fantasia sull’impronta dei manuali magical medievali.
Hay and Wilson’s version, for example, is interesting throughout the introductory part, which weaves an intricate mystery around the figure of John Dee and his “angelic communications”, but the actual text of the cursed book is rather short and modeled without too much imagination on the imprint of medieval magical manuals.
Where Magic of Atlantis is a book for magicians by magicians, Miranda Gurzo’s Necronomicon is plain about being a work of fiction more in the vein of the Hay Necronomicon—but to go it one better and try and produce a work of fiction that is more in keeping with the spirit and scope of the Necronomicon-as-medieval-grimoire. Rather than overly concerning itself with contemporary Lovecraftian occultism, Gurzo focused on creating something closer to what the Necronomicon in Lovecraft’s stories might have looked like, if it was a real book.
There have been a few other books with similar approaches, but most of them are ultimately prop books—works that look the part, but without a particularly coherent or interesting original text. Italian publisher Libri Prohibiti for example creates beautiful, functionally unique works of book art, but the texts of these imaginary-books-made-flesh aren’t original, being often taken from some public domain text, sometimes with alterations to reflect the theme. Efforts to actually write the Necronomicon in whole or in part tend to run up hard against a lack of effort, lack of creativity, or both. L. Sprague de Camp, for example, famously published a version of the Al Azif in 1973 that consists only of a long narrative introduction and eight pages of the same pseudo-Duriac text.
It looks the business, but you can’t actually read it.
Many other authors have tried to write pieces of the Necronomicon, as collected in the Chaosium book of the same name, but the results usually fail to meet expectations. In part, that has to do with the reputation that the Necronomicon was attributed by Lovecraft in his early fiction, and which has only grown over subsequent generations. It’s pretty much impossible to distill something sufficiently shocking, terrible, revelatory, occult, grotesque, and weird into a single book…and if you did manage that feat, it would still fail to live up to expectations, because the whole point of the Necronomicon is a book which is literally defined as being beyond your imagination. If you can pick it up and read it, how could it ever compare to that ancient, moldering tome kept under lock and key in the Miskatonic University library?
In a sense, Gurzo tries to get around this by tempering expectations.
Ma io, Abdul Alhazred, ho potuto con i miei stessi occhi scrutare i mistici caratteri delle Cronache di Nath, la cui antichita’ supera quella del nostro cosmo, e la cui origine si situa nel mondo da cui Quelli di Prima vennero in principio, che i mistici conoscono come Nath dei Tre Soli.
But I, Abdul Alhazred, was able with my own eyes to scrutinize the mystical characters of the Chronicles of Nath, whose antiquity surpasses that of our cosmos, and whose origin lies in the world from which Those who First came in the beginning, which the mystics know as Nath of the Three Suns.
Basically, the Gurzo Necronomicon is a kind of pseudo-medieval occult textbook, combining aspects of fantastical geography, cosmology, theology, metaphysics, and “functional” occultism. It is written in a pseudo-archaic style—as far as tone and format—although the actual language is contemporary Italian rather than another dialect (such as Venetian), and all the proper names (Abdul Alhazred, Shub-Niggurath, Cthulhu, etc.) are in recognizable contemporary forms. In this, it probably more closely resembles translations of actual medieval grimoires into contemporary languages than it does a genuine medieval product…but you can actually read it (or, if you don’t read Italian, translate it by hand or via an app).
If the Gurzo Necronomicon doesn’t promise the most terrible secrets of the universe, it does at least present a reasonable and readable facsimile of what a medieval occult textbook based on the Mythos might actually have looked like. It is relatively long (356 pages of text), detailed, and certainly a labor of love to gather bits and pieces of Mythos lore from across dozens of stories and try to weave them together into something like a coherent narrative. This goes beyond just Lovecraft, but borrowing from Clark Ashton Smith and other Mythos writers as well:
COmpresi allora aldila’ di ogni dubbio che quello che avevo veduto altro non era che l’Idolo dei Ciechi, il simulacro di un mostruoso Essere venuto dall’Esterno; Egli dimora nel lago sotterraneo del deserto di Chaur, e nelle tenebre tartaree e’ adorato e servito da una razza degenerata di Aihai chiamati Yorhis, i quali sono costantemente mantenuti dall’Abitatore dell’Abisso in uno stato di oblio e inconsapevolezza, cosi’ che non possano ribellarsi alla tirannia del loro Signore.
I understood then beyond any doubt that what I had seen was none other than the Idol of the Blind, the simulacrum of a monstrous Being who came from Outside; He dwells in the underground lake of the desert of Chaur, and in the Tartarean darkness he is worshiped and served by a degenerate race of Aihai called Yorhis, who are constantly kept by the Dweller of the Abyss in a state of oblivion and unawareness, so that they cannot rebel against the tyranny of their Lord.
Probably the closest equivalent in English would be Necronomicon: The Wanderings of Alhazred (2004) by Donald Tyson, which was part of a series of Necronomicon-related works of dubious merit for the new spirituality shelves at your favorite local chain bookstore. Tyson’s books are almost the definition of cheap pop-occultism, utterly unambitious and aimed at a reader that doesn’t know much of anything about either magic or the Mythos. Gurzo at least delves deep into Mythos lore, to the point where you might want to keep the Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia handy to look up an obscure reference or two.
Gurzo hasn’t neglected the Lovecraftian occult elements, but the incantations, magic circles, and other instructions tend to be interspersed through the text; to give the flavor of it:
E le labbra degli stregoni, e con loro le mie, iniziarono a cantilenare le Parole proibite del Rituale Nero di Yaddith:
Like the Hay Necronomicon, the Gurzo Necronomicon is not attempting to be a complete magical system or text in the sense of the Simon Necronomicon or Ripel’s Magic of Atlantis. What it is trying to do, more than the other books, is to present a Necronomicon that is reasonably accurate to the contents of the Necronomicon as Lovecraft and his contemporaries and heirs described it, with explicit and frequent reference to the Mythos entities, places, books, and magical operations that you can read about in Mythos fiction.
Which probably won’t stop some eager cultists from trying out a few of the tongue-twisting incantations on their own. The nature of the Lovecraftian occult is to spur the imagination of practitioners, who tend to borrow from myriad sources as they explore the weird world of magick. Ripel and Gurzo are coming from different perspectives, and in different ways: Magic of Atlantis is a relatively slim hardback that was published in a single edition in limited numbers, and the main illustrations are a series of line-diagrams of the Tree of Life and poorly-reproduced black-and-white photographs; Gurzo’s Necronomicon is a fat hardback published print-on-demand with relatively more diagrams…but the images show loss of resolution, blurring and pixelization. Both are primarily products of single creators rather than corporate products, but the publishing environment has shifted vastly in the nearly 40 years between the two books.
Ripel is attempting to appeal to occultists, and Gurzo to weird literature fans—but they have ended up in practically the same place, both of them crafting new recensions in the Necronomicon occult tradition. The line between “real” occultism and fiction is blurry, and the two influence one another all the time; the Necronomicon quotes that Lovecraft came up with in “The Dunwich Horror” have been assimilated into these fictional grimoires, and some of those practices have in turn inspired new Lovecraftian fiction like Trolling Lovecraft (2021) by V. McAfee.
How much influence these particular works will ever have on English-language Mythos fiction or the Lovecraftian occult is hard to say; the language barrier can be difficult to pass. Plus, the market is saturated: we are in the fifth decade of Lovecraftian occult publishing, and there is no end in sight, and would-be practitioners have a lot of raw material to choose from.