The Necronomicon is a fictional book appearing in the stories by horror novelist H. P. Lovecraft. It was first mentioned in Lovecraft's 1924 short story "The Hound", written in 1922, though its purported author, the "Mad Arab" Abdul Alhazred, had been quoted a year earlier in Lovecraft's "The Nameless City". Among other things, the work contains an account of the Old Ones, their history, and the means for summoning them.
Other authors such as August Derleth and Clark Ashton Smith also cited it in their works; Lovecraft approved, believing such common allusions built up "a background of evil verisimilitude." Many readers have believed it to be a real work, with booksellers and librarians receiving many requests for it; pranksters have listed it in rare book catalogues, and a student smuggled a card for it into the Yale University Library's card catalog.
Capitalizing on the notoriety of the fictional volume, real-life publishers have printed many books entitled Necronomicon since Lovecraft's death.
Donald R. Burleson has argued that the idea for the book was derived from Nathaniel Hawthorne, though Lovecraft himself noted that "mouldy hidden manuscripts" were one of the stock features of Gothic literature.
Lovecraft wrote that the title, as translated from the Greek language, meant "an image of the law of the dead": nekros - νεκρός ("dead"), nomos - νόμος ("law"), eikon - εικών ("image"). A more prosaic translation can be derived by conjugating nemo ("to consider"): "Concerning the dead".
Lovecraft was often asked about the veracity of the Necronomicon, and always answered that it was completely his invention. In a letter to Willis Conover, Lovecraft elaborated upon his typical answer:
Now about the “terrible and forbidden books” — I am forced to say that most of them are purely imaginary. There never was any Abdul Alhazred or Necronomicon, for I invented these names myself. Robert Bloch devised the idea of Ludvig Prinn and his De Vermis Mysteriis, while the Book of Eibon is an invention of Clark Ashton Smith's. Robert E. Howard is responsible for Friedrich von Junzt and his Unaussprechlichen Kulten.... As for seriously-written books on dark, occult, and supernatural themes — in all truth they don’t amount to much. That is why it’s more fun to invent mythical works like the Necronomicon and Book of Eibon.
Reinforcing the book's fictionality, the name of the book's supposed author, Abdul Alhazred, is not even a grammatically correct Arabic name. The name "Abdul" simply means "the worshiper/slave of...". Standing alone, it would make no sense, as Alhazred is not a last name in the Western sense, but a reference to a person's place of birth.
In the History, Alhazred is said to have been a "half-crazed Arab" who worshipped the Lovecraftian entities Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu. He is described as being from Sanaa in Yemen, and as visiting the ruins of Babylon, the "subterranean secrets" of Memphis and the Empty Quarter of Arabia (where he discovered the "nameless city" below Irem). In his last years, he lived in Damascus, where he wrote Al Azif before his sudden and mysterious death in 738.
In subsequent years, Lovecraft wrote, the Azif "gained considerable, though surreptitious circulation amongst the philosophers of the age." In 950, it was translated into Greek and given the title Necronomicon by Theodorus Philetas, a fictional scholar from Constantinople. This version "impelled certain experimenters to terrible attempts" before being "suppressed and burnt" in 1050 by Patriarch Michael (a historical figure who died in 1059).
After this attempted suppression, the work was "only heard of furtively" until it was translated from Greek into Latin by Olaus Wormius. (Lovecraft gives the date of this edition as 1228, though the real-life Danish scholar Olaus Wormius lived from 1588 to 1624.) Both the Latin and Greek text, the History relates, were banned by Pope Gregory IX in 1232, though Latin editions were apparently published in 15th century Germany and 17th century Spain. A Greek edition was printed in Italy in the first half of the 16th century.
The Elizabethan magician John Dee (1527-c. 1609) allegedly translated the book — presumably into English — but Lovecraft wrote that this version was never printed and only fragments survive. (The connection between Dee and the Necronomicon was suggested by Lovecraft's friend Frank Belknap Long).
According to Lovecraft, the Arabic version of Al Azif had already disappeared by the time the Greek version was banned in 1050, though he cites "a vague account of a secret copy appearing in San Francisco during the current century" that "later perished in fire". The Greek version, he writes, has not been reported "since the burning of a certain Salem man's library in 1692" (an apparent reference to the Salem witch trials). (In the story The Diary of Alonzo Typer, the character Alonzo Typer finds a Greek copy.)
In "The Nameless City" (1921), a rhyming couplet that appears at two points in the story is ascribed to Abdul Alhazred:
That is not dead which can eternal lie. The same couplet appears in "The Call of Cthulhu" (1928), where it is identified as a quotation from the Necronomicon. This "much-discussed" couplet, as Lovecraft calls it in the latter story, has also been quoted in works by other authors, including Brian Lumley's The Burrowers Beneath, which adds a long paragraph preceding the couplet.
And with strange aeons even death may die.
The Necronomicon is undoubtedly a substantial text, as indicated by its description in The Dunwich Horror (1929). In the story, Wilbur Whateley visits Miskatonic University's library to consult the "unabridged" version of the Necronomicon for a spell that would have appeared on the 751st page of his own inherited, but defective, Dee edition.
The Necronomicon's appearance and physical dimensions are not clearly stated in Lovecraft's work. Other than the obvious black letter editions, it is commonly portrayed as bound in leather of various types and having metal clasps. Moreover, editions are sometimes disguised. In The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, for example, John Merrit pulls down a book labelled Qanoon-e-Islam from Joseph Curwen’s bookshelf and discovers to his disquiet that it is actually the Necronomicon.
In the Evil Dead series of movies, a similar book is described as "Bound in human flesh and inked in blood, it contains bizarre burial rituals and demon resurrection passages. It was never meant for the world of the living." Many commercially available versions of the book fail to include any of the contents that Lovecraft describes. The Simon Necronomicon in particular has been criticized for this.
The last institution holds the Latin translation by Olaus Wormius, printed in Spain in the 17th century.
Other copies, Lovecraft wrote, were kept by private individuals. Joseph Curwen, as noted, had a copy in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1941). A version is held in Kingsport in "The Festival" (1925). The provenance of the copy read by the narrator of "The Nameless City" is unknown; a version is read by the protagonist in "The Hound" (1924).
Similarly, the university library of Tromsø, Norway, lists a translated version of the Necronomicon, attributed to Petrus de Dacia and published in 1994, although the document is listed as 'unavailable.'.
In 1973, Owlswick Press issued an edition of the Necronomicon written in an indecipherable, apparently fictional language known as "Duriac." This was a limited edition of 348. The book contains a brief introduction by L. Sprague de Camp.
The line between fact and fiction was further blurred in the late 1970s when a book purporting to be a translation of the "real Necronomicon" was published. This book, by the pseudonymic "Simon," had little connection to the fictional Lovecraft Mythos but instead was based on Sumerian mythology. It was later dubbed the "Simon Necronomicon." Going into trade paperback in 1980 it has never been out of print and has sold 800,000 copies by 2006 making it the most popular Necronomicon to date. Despite its contents the book's marketing focused heavily on the Lovecraft connection and made sensational claims made for the book's magical power. The blurb states it was "potentially, the most dangerous Black Book known to the Western World". Three additional volumes have since been published — The Necronomicon Spellbook, a book of pathworkings with the 50 names of Marduk, Dead Names: The Dark History of the Necronomicon, a history of the book itself and of the late 1970s New York occult scene, and The Gates Of The Necronomicon, instructions on pathworking with the Simon Necronomicon. A hoax version of the Necronomicon, edited by George Hay, appeared in 1978 and included an introduction by the paranormal researcher and writer Colin Wilson. David Langford described how the book was prepared from a computer analysis of a discovered "cipher text" by Dr. John Dee. The resulting "translation" was in fact written by occultist Robert Turner, but it was far truer to the Lovecraftian version than the Simon text and even incorporated quotations from Lovecraft's stories in its passages.
With the success of the Simon Necronomicon the controversy surrounding the actual existence of the Necronomicon was such that a detailed book The Necronomicon Files was published in 1998 attempting to prove once and for all the book was pure fiction. It covered the well-known Necronomicons in depth, especially the Simon one, along with a number of more obscure ones. It was reprinted and expanded in 2003.
In 2004, Necronomicon: The Wanderings of Alhazred, by occultist Donald Tyson, was published by Llewellyn Worldwide. The Tyson Necronomicon is generally thought to be closer to Lovecraft's vision than other published versions. Donald Tyson has clearly stated that the Necronomicon is fictional, but that has not prevented his book from being the center of some controversy.
Historical "Books of the Dead", such as the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead or the Tibetan Bardo Thodol, are sometimes described as "real Necronomicons." They should not be confused with the Lovecraft Necronomicon, since their contents are meant to be read to and remembered by the dead, rather than to be used by the living to summon the dead. Lovecraft may have been inspired by these books.