In most Lovecraftian fiction the cosmic horror is either played straight – and therefore horrific – or played for laughs, making amusements out of the mythos. This story is a rare beast which plays the concept straight while remaining reasonably light-hearted.
A shabby copy of the Necronomicon is found by Uncle Alvin. He gives it to his nephew, who owns a bookstore, to store for a few days before he can take it to the Library of Congress to get rid of the thing. The nephew hides it away in a box of miscellaneous books, among than a copy of John Milton’s poetry.
A few days later the nephew idly looks up his favourite sonnet of Milton’s, which ought to begin as such:
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
But the book says no such thing. Instead the opening of the sonnet reads:
When I consider how my loot is spent
On Happy Daze, afifth of darling wine,
The nephew looks up other copies of Milton in his shop, but all say the same. He even calls up a friend on the other side of the country to check books there. Somehow every copy of Milton’s work in the world has corrupted, and a short while later has become:
When I consider how my lute is bent
On harpyfates in this dork wolly-wold,
As the nephew discovers, the text of every book that was touching the Necronomicon has been distorted. Meanwhile the Necronomicon looks less shabby, and its previously indecipherable contents are gradually turning into readable English. It is at this point the nephew realises why the Necronomicon is also occasionally called the Adder: “first it poisons, then it devours.” And all written words are its prey.
Not your standard monster, then. And, for me at least, the more abstract nature of the Necronomicon’s threat means the characters can remain relatively light-hearted even as the story retains a creepy atmosphere.
Incidentally, the quoted text from the Necronomicon comes from ‘The Festival’ by H.P. Lovecraft.
The Adder by Fred Chappell
Availability: free online, print
Word count: 6,400
First published: Deathrealm #9, 1989
Where to find it: A PDF is freely available for download from Boson Books here
More Shapes Than One, collection, 1991, St Martin’s Press
Cthulhu 2000: A Lovecraftian Anthology, edited by Jim Turner, 1995, Arkham House
The Necronomicon, edited by Robert M. Price, 1996, Chaosium Fiction