Martin Llewellyn is a graduate of King’s College in London, UK, where he studied literature and earned his doctorate. His novels include House of the Missing and Necronomicon: A Manual of Corpse Eating, which I was fortunate enough to chat with him about.
Necronomicon is a metafictional representation of Abdulah Alhazred polarizing medical practices as he evolved into ritualistic religious practices which eventually drove him insane during his pursuit to communicate with the Old Gods and achieve life beyond death.
Join Martin and I as we discuss teachings and inspirations surrounding his newest book, poignantly illustrated by the award-winning wood engraver, George A. Walker.
(Interview conducted by Rick Hipson)
CEMETERY DANCE: Martin, you mentioned in your introduction to the book how you first came upon the source material. Indeed, the truth is often far stranger than fiction, but could you elaborate on your chance discovery and what was going on in your mind during the initial stages of your dive into the” book of the dead”?
MARTIN LLEWELLYN: The book that is cited in the first footnote — Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians by Richard Sugg (2011) — was my primary source for the factual material within this Necronomicon. My initial concept for the story remained unchanged throughout, which was to provide/invent a historical background for a lost — and rediscovered — book. I used the example of pages being found secreted in another book, which is how John Dee discovers the Necronomicon.
Shortly after I’d finished the writing, I read about an instance when pages of a mediaeval book from the 13th century — on Arthurian legend — were discovered within the spine of another book, in the library of the University of Bristol, which I felt validated my narrative choices. This trope might be analogously familiar to horror film audiences in the device of “found footage,” of which one of the best examples is the first Blair Witch film (The Blair Witch Project) from 1999. Another, more notorious example, would be Cannibal Holocaust (1980). Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (first published in 1621), interweaves the history of psychological maladies and their corporeal symptoms and, despite its avowed scientific perspective, contains much about spirits and spells. In its early modern context, it is a fascinating insight into the tension between folk, occult lore — magic and alchemy — and the institutional knowledge of philosophy and monotheistic religion. The Necronomicon is therefore a, very brief, account of how magic used to function as the precursor of the scientific method and also, even now, of how powerful superstition can be.
Where did your fascination with the Necronomicon and Abdullah Alhazred first begin?
In terms of H.P. Lovecraft’s writings, I read his short stories a few years ago but I’m not really a fan. I prefer (Edgar Allan) Poe or M.R. James’ writing; Lovecraft’s writing is often purple prosed, and his stories are melodramatic, lacking the restrained ambiguity of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, or the films of Val Lewton, for example. I admire those stories that are potent projections of imaginary worlds such as “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” rather than his better-known stories, such as “The Colour Out of Space.” Lovecraft’s writing is most effective when his stories frame this new form of horror as unknowable — the things that drive his protagonists mad often remain unseen — and there is no consolation or prospect of any metaphysical resolution. In this sense, it moves far beyond the familiar and formulaic genres of vampire or werewolf legend or zombie sci-fi dystopia and closer to the pure nightmare of Frankenstein, in that absolute difference can never be tolerated, let alone approached or understood. This difference could be attributed to Lovecraft’s well-known xenophobia, which arguably serves his fiction well — as most horror is ultimately based upon a fear of the Other — but, otherwise, diminishes his reputation as a human being.
How did you and George come to work together on this fascinating book?
We were friends beforehand and, during a conversation at some point, George and his wife, Michelle, came up with the idea of working together on a book that would explore notions of truth and involved obscure, Faustian figures who had strayed beyond the borders of conventional science or had been corrupted by their occult methods. I don’t remember much more, except we agreed to agree to work on it during an evening of red wine, cheese and sacrifice (jk). George is a brilliant and talented artist and teacher and so I was honored to be asked to collaborate on this project. Additionally, George’s own work on the art and craft of book making oriented my research on the historical background in the first part of the Necronomicon, particularly in the details on the vanished book production industry; not everyone could afford to have their books bound, for example. I enjoyed the task of writing on commission as I found writing within predetermined conceptual structures and characters made the creative process easier.
Regarding your interest in corpse medicine and other such macabre approaches to science and philosophy, what’s your background regarding this subject matter and how might it have lent its support to the content you compiled for this book?
My background is in literature rather than medicine (my doctorate was on the poetics of Georges Bataille, a 20th century Surrealist writer). What I found most enjoyable in writing this book — as well as being able to assist George in some picture research — was considering how science, medicine and religion, the visual arts and literature are not hermetic disciplines but have often reflected one another and informed each other. While I was new to the history of medicine, however, Bataille’s philosophy explores the act of transgression, which is often dramatized in the ritual of sacrifice, and which is central to the second part of the book. This affect of witnessing sacrificial violence (one might still experience watching bull fighting, for example) transmits a shock of horror and forces the individual to consider how we, as “limited” beings, can authentically engage with a universe that is unlimited or unknowable. Religion, or the “sacred” in Bataille’s term, offers a glimpse into the otherwise impossible task of knowing the universe through sacrifice and — in non-religious contexts — either in violence or erotic abandonment. Having this academic background made developing the concepts in the book relatively straightforward, as well as helping me gauge the tone and language for the first, historical part of the book; nonetheless, all the difficulties of writing took me back to those days of procrastinating in libraries.
When you began your research into this morbid and intriguing world, what questions were you most eager to try to find answers for and what, if any, answers did you receive from your research?
I wanted to create a mystery surrounding this book and investigate how it could hold such power and inspire such terror. I listened to some Coil, Chelsea Wolfe, Leonard Cohen and Tasseomancy to set the ambience and thought about this character Lovecraft invented as the author of the fictional Necronomicon (which has subsequently become its own pop-cultural object). Alhazred embodies both medical learning and religious faith and, essentially, this Necronomicon is the story of his character being tormented by contradictory epistemologies; Alhazred must cope with an unbearable loss, and, subsequently, with the catastrophic results to which his desperation leads him.
Insofar as our thinking on the Necronomicon went, we considered how magic fulfilled the role of medicine before it was characterized as occult and satanic in the later mediaeval period and how ideas originally seen as transgressive become adopted yet repressed by institutions; for example, the mass in Catholicism is essentially reconfigured and sanctified cannibalism. The perceived failure of medical science is, unfortunately, finding, a new echo in our contemporary COVID catastrophe; now that skepticism — although itself a necessary stance in the scientific process — forms the basis of anti-scientific views, it has become ill-informed and unfounded, predicated in irrational fantasies of conspiracy and suspicion of authority. This originary and forbidden knowledge of witches and alchemists and other superstitious associations has arguably left traces in contemporary perceptions of medical science. In the suspicion of stem cell medicine, for example, as well as anecdotal stories of mysterious figures using blood transfusions to maintain their vitality — where do they procure this blood?
What was, for you, the most profound takeaway from your exploration into the minds of these mad alchemists?
Using the word “mad” is interesting and raises questions of what madness really is. In literature and film it is often depicted through a character behaving without social inhibition, or, for example, it is presented as a performance of absurdity in the oneiric landscapes of Lewis Carroll’s stories and poems. Or, to paraphrase Foucault, is it “the already there-ness of death”? Lovecraft seems to imply Alhazred went mad because he approached total understanding in communicating with the Old Gods. Alhazred, in this Necronomicon, may appear mad to the reader but I try to inscribe a reason, or method, into his apparent madness, or at least, a motivation. However, for all our scientific method and progress, disaster still happens and while science and statistics may offer comfort and, to some extent, an insulation against the red teeth of nature, Lovecraft was right in that it is random chaos that will always, ultimately, be unstoppable, unknowable and unforgiving. Madness might, then, just be a perfectly reasonable response to this reality.
On the flip side of that question, 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?
Given Lovecraft’s original Necronomicon is itself an intertextual creation, our approach grew from this idea of a “real” fake book. In visual terms, readers may notice many of the images in the book have been altered and have had text inserted into them. During the Trump presidency, the concept of fake news became popular, although it is not a novel idea — one precursor is the medieval trade in holy relics, for example — and we decided to investigate the notion of falsehood presented as truth. What might readers believe to be real in a fake book? Alhazred rejects (human) religion in favor of science but ultimately becomes the negation of science. Therefore, the reader is confronted with the question of how much they can sympathize with someone who is rejecting their humanity, through his willingness to commit transgressive acts, yet is doing so because he believes he might save those he loves. Sacrifice has been part of human culture since recorded time began, therefore readers may want to think about how the nature of sacrifice has changed from appeasing God/s, to living in contemporary society where the sacrifices that are demanded of us now, like staying at home or using paper straws, are perceived by many as an affront. What would readers be willing to sacrifice to save someone they loved?
Any plans to revisit this strange and fascinating world with any more related work in the future?
If I am asked to (and handsomely paid) then yes; otherwise, no. Lovecraft is, ultimately, not really to my taste, although there are some intriguing themes in his writings. I would be more interested in looking at John Dee and his unorthodox theology, his belief in angels (as well as his Celestial script) and other alchemical beliefs. Dee is a fascinating figure who was friendly with William Cecil, who was the power behind the throne of Elizabeth I.
The themes of the Necronomicon however — religion (and faith and belief/delusion), art, history, memory and trauma, and metamorphosis — are ones that appear in all my writing, including the projects I’m currently working on.
What’s the best way to learn more about you and get updates on more of your work as it comes available?
Is there anything else you might like to mention about the Necronomicon that we haven’t yet discussed?
It is dedicated to my daughter, Maya, who was two years old at the time of publication, and, as such — while every reader will have their own response — for me, this Necronomicon is about the fear of losing the people we love and the desperate measures one might take to wrench them back from death. All horror is, ultimately, the fear of being unable to save those you love, or the price you pay for failing to do so.
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.