An Associate Professor at OCAD University of Toronto, George A. Walker is an award-winning Canadian wood engraver, teacher, book artist, author and illustrator who resides in Toronto, Ontario. Elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Art for his contribution to the cultural area of Book Arts, George has exhibited his wood engravings and limited-edition books internationally for over twenty years through such presses as Cheshire Cat Press, Porcupine Quill Press, and Biting Dog Press. George has also created highly collectable, revered works such as The Mysterious Death of Tom Thompson (2011), Book of Hours: A 9/11 Story (2008) and The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe (2005) among many others. George continues to carve his visionary style and prowess into the woods of Canadian Maple, often making his paper by scratch, and inspires awe and wonder with every groove of his engraving tools.
Most recently, I sat down with George to discuss his design work on Necronomicon: A Manual of Corpse Eating, written by Martin Llewellyn. Originally published in 2019, it’s promotional push was interrupted by our current pandemic, but a proper launch party is planned for the near future. Sit back and enjoy as George and I discuss what drew him to this morbid and fascinating world of sacrifice and scientific controversy.
(Interview conducted by Rick Hipson)
CEMETERY DANCE: George, although you’ve designed and illustrated books for such titles as Brian Keene’s The Life and the Resurrection, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, and Neil Gaiman’s The Rhyme Maiden, I think it’s safe to say that Necronomicon: A Manual In Corpse Eating is a far cry from several of the other books you’ve designed, several of which celebrate Canadian artists and iconic figures. I’m curious what brought you to work with Martin Llewellyn on this project and what you found to be of particular interest about it to you.
GEORGE A. WALKER: I was hanging out with my lovely Michelle at our local café where I met Martin, and he mentioned he was a writer. I got a copy of his book House of the Missing, and was immediately engaged with Martin’s style of writing. He has an aptitude to create atmospheric and vivid narratives that keep the reader absorbed. We decided that it would be fun to work together, and Michelle suggested something on the theme of Lovecraft’s author Abdul Alhazred and the Necronomicon. We thought Lovecraft’s portrayal of the fictional Alhazred as a “Mad Arab” was unfair and that perhaps Alhazred was indeed a scholar of esteem in his time and was misunderstood by the opaque lens of colonial eyes. It was in jest at first… then we became engaged in the story.
In 1927, Lovecraft wrote a brief pseudo history of the Necronomicon. This is where we found the biographical springboard to Alhazred’s fifteen-hundred-year-old manuscripts that revealed who he really was, a scientist and scholar.
Why only thirty-five copies? What does that number signify?
Abdul Alhazred was an accomplished mathematician and we thought we should reflect this in the number of copies we made. Thirty-five is the highest decimal number one can count to on one’s fingers using base six in the positional notation method of finger counting. The human hand being a divine appendage, we thought ten or twenty copies was too few. It is sometimes known as the Angel number in numerology.
Along with so many other things our current Covid-19 pandemic has managed to interrupt, I understand it also played a part of ensuring that the initial launch of this book was one of them. What can you tell us about any future plans you may have for giving the book the promotional push it deserves?
We initially launched the book at the Arts & Letters Club here in Toronto before Martin moved to Ottawa. Then COVID hit! We are terrible promoters of our publications in the best of times — we are even worse when we can’t meet with people face-to-face to tell them about our process and unique publications. We will plan a launch at the Merril Library in Toronto.
What can you tell us about your process for selecting which images you would create blocks for and how they were transferred into the book?
This book was printed digitally except for the frontispiece which was a hand printed wood engraving that I based on the famous 1888 Camille Flammarion wood engraving of a man of the middle ages who had found the point where the sky and the earth touch. In my version I have added a skeleton to represent death and the limits of the human experience. Where Flammarion has the man at the point of where the earth and sky meet I have him at the edge of knowledge where existence and death meet.
The other images in the book are taken from the great museums and archives of the world and represent the fragments of knowledge that we have retained from antiquity.
Throughout the entire process of sifting through the material, designing your work and ultimately immersing yourself in the world of the quintessential diary of a madman (referring to Abdullah Alhazred, not Martin), was there anything that either surprised you or jumped out at you as a most fascinating aspect within all that gruesome content?
As gruesome as the passages may seem, the exercise is really about the quest for the fountain of youth and immortality. Alhazred was no more a madman than any of his peers of the time. Dissecting bodies was for many centuries illegal, but the practice led to discoveries in science that changed our understanding of anatomy. Cannibalism is another matter. One could argue that we still use human remains in medicine. Think of stem cells and their use in pharmacology or the vaccines that we have developed such as Plotkin’s rubella vaccine that has been criticized for its use of human cells. In Alhazred’s time it was unthinkable in Europe to use human remains for scientific research. I think Wade Davis mentions in his book on Haiti that one of the main ingredients in the zombie drug was human brain cells. The pharma giants were looking at the zombie drug to anaesthetize patients for heart surgeries. The question then becomes was Alhazred working on the fringes of the science of his time, or was he a madman?
What do you expect or hope readers of this book will take away from their experience of having read such a profound and controversial publication?
We hope that our readers will understand that history is always told through the eyes of the teller and that there is always a bias. Our modern eyes interpret the past through the lens of the present, which we cannot escape. Scientific discoveries are always changing our understanding of truth in our mutable world. Lovecraft’s colonial and at times racist view of history is ripe for reinterpretation and scrutiny.
Where’s the best place to learn more about the bookmaking you do and find out what you’re currently working on at any given time?
And what’s the best way to get a hold of this book before it’s gone forever?
U.S. readers can contact Kelmscott Bookshop in Baltimore. Canadians can email us directly through our website!
Rick Hipson is a Canadian genre journalist living in Kitchener Ontario with his partner in crime, young spawn and two cats who insist they aren’t vying for world domination. For over twenty years Rick has written for a variety of small press publications in print and online which no longer exist through, assumably, no fault of his own. He continues to share his love for dark culture entertainment through his film and book reviews, interviews and articles, which can be found through Rue Morgue Magazine, Cemetery Dance and Hell Notes.