Dead Names: The Dark Story of the Necronomicon
(Subterranean Press, 2007)

December 22, 2007, will mark the 30th anniversary of the publication of a book that some people, its editor especially, claim is a translation into English of an ancient Greek text -- the only copy known -- that was itself probably a translation from Arabic of a grimoire collection of rituals concerning the Sumerian's concept of the Underworld, the original title of which might more or less mean "dead names" and sound in its birth language (if anyone alive today can truly be said to understand how that sounded) a lot like the title that H.P. Lovecraft used for the fictional book of ultimate evil in his Cthulhu Mythos tales -- the Necronomicon.

Confused? Try reading Dead Names, in which the same pseudonymous occult expert Simon who translated and provided an introduction to the "real" Necronomicon back in the Gerald Ford/Jimmy Carter era returns to give a rambling, too-unbelievable-to-not-be-true, behind-the-scenes explanation of how the crumbling manuscript he worked from (now seemingly lost to history) came into his hands long enough for him to apply his linguistic skills to it and get the results published only to face great challenges from detractors regarding its authenticity. This explanation of that arduous process, and many events related to it -- however flimsily -- does not make for a tome that considers linear thought and clear explanations to be virtues, but a few gems of knowledge are the reward for readers with a lot of patience and the ability to forgive some pretty deep forays into conspiracy theories and tangential references to every cult slaying and assassination that anyone remotely connected to the Necronomicon (the real one, not the fictional one) ever had the merest brush with fame from.

I'm truly sorry about that last paragraph, but getting through it in one piece will prepare you well for reading Dead Names, should you care to. It's partly a defense of the author's work against a variety of sources that have mounted highly illogical attacks against him (largely characters who consider themselves true practitioners of the black arts, most modern forms of which Simon makes a good case are themselves quite artificial, and who seem offended that anything claiming to be an authentic grimoire would dare to become available in a cheap paperback edition), partly a history of the pair of eccentric Bronx boys who somehow -- the record is vague, but "illicitly" covers the gist of it -- came into possession of the Greek manuscript without knowing exactly what it was they had their hot hands on, partly a treatise on the nature of Wicca as interpreted with widely divergent degrees of respect by modern adherents, and partly a reminiscence on the rise and fall of alternative religion book-and-paraphernalia shops and their shopkeepers in an era when nonJudeo-Christian leanings were much more suspect than the millions who love a certain fictional boy wizard (warlock?) would give credence to considering today's innocuous, soft-cell world of New Age stores, do-it-yourself spirituality and homogenized Renaissance faires for the urban set.

But whatever you do, don't pick this book up thinking you'll learn anything terribly interesting about Lovecraft or his Necronomicon -- not so much as a shred of solid reasoning can be summoned to explain why the late, great horrormeister would have come up with that name for a make-believe book when the purported facts behind the "discovery" of the text that Simon translated four decades after Lovecraft's death suggest that most members of the earliest cadre of those involved in the sometimes-sordid events that brought it to light knew no more about Lovecraft than Lovecraft could reasonably have known about the volume they were struggling to make sense of. And therein also lies the rub of many of Simon's detractors -- they are looking for connections between fact and fantasy that have no more substance (not that Simon ever claimed otherwise) than the scrawled screams of Lovecraft's doomed narrators at the ends of his over-the-top schlockfest tales.

Once again, I'm so sorry about the turgid syntax in that preceding blob of verbiage. Simon seems to have brought it out in me, much like Lovecraft brings it out in so many of his devotees. Indeed, on first impression and for much of its protracted length, Dead Names is one of the most frustrating pieces of nonfiction that I have ever slogged the whole way through. But selective revisitation for closer understanding yields passages stuck deep within where Simon, who once was a practicing Eastern Orthodox priest, ponders in his more spiritual mode on the nature of otherworldly powers into which one might, in sober fear, dare to tap by using the "real" Necronomicon, and where he gently lays out the wounded but sometimes wonderful lives of the aforementioned Bronx boys for our examination, and darned if he doesn't triumph over his wont to obfuscation and deliver the righteous, clean prose of a true believer in the value and uniqueness of a project that seems to have brought him a bit of fame and a lot of tempest-in-a-teapot hassle. If his latest work helps those who have read the Necronomicon, whether as long ago as the '70s or as recently as the '00s, see it openly in a new light instead of just furtively under a blacklight, then Simon's efforts to bring the dead names of the many beside himself who played roles, knowingly or not, in the depth of its penetration into popular culture will be vindicated.

review by
Gary Cramer

3 November 2007

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