Books

The Biography of Evil

Anything that gives me a glimpse of the soul inside the monster intrigues me beyond all measure. As a result, a number of my favourite books are told from the villain’s point of view. I’ve read one this weekend (Ed Brubaker’s The Books of Doom trade paperback, collecting his mini-series on the formative years of Victor Von Doom), and I’m currently re-reading another (Alhazred, the “autobiography” of Abdul Alhazred, author of the Necronomicon, written by Donald Tyson).

The first was very enjoyable, and did what books of this kind really should do – give us a new perspective on events we only know from one side. Brubaker shows us the young Doom and the events that shaped his life, though it seems that from his mother’s dabbling in the dark arts, Victor was already tainted with evil. Of particular interest is the section that deals with young Doom’s education in the United States; in keeping with post-Vietnam perceptions of the military-industrial complex, we find that Victor was recruited by the West partly for weapons research and partly to keep him out of the hands of the Soviets. As with al-Queda, we are shown to be at least partially responsable for the demons that plague us.

The second, Tyson’s Alhazred, is something I’ve been looking forward to for a while, ever since I was introduced to the idea of the Al-Azif in the writings of the Old Man of Providence himself. The problem with any such book is that, given the mystery and anticipation surrounding the mythology, any attempt to actually tell the tale is bound to be disappointing. Tyson has already produced his own version of the dread Necronomicon, which I own but have yet to read (because it’s sitting buried somewhere in our storage unit, dammit), and has followed it up with the life story of the man behind the tome, the legendary “Mad Arab”.

For such a central figure in Lovecraft’s mythos, remarkably little is known about Alhazred. We’re told that he lived around 700AD, and died in Damsascus, torn apart and devoured by an invisible monster in a crowded marketplace. With such a broad canvas to work on, Tyson is thus free to write pretty much whatever he wants, with the only caveats being that the tale must be weird, occasionally horrific and must feature Alhazred accumulating the arcane knowledge he later sets down in his book of ill-omen. This he does, in workman-like fashion. The writing is fluid, if not particularly compelling, and the character of Alhazred is well-formed with a distinctive voice. The narrative is related in a matter-of-fact tone that makes many of the horrible things Alhazred does to preserve his life and pursue knowledge even more horrible.

Though I enjoyed the book, I think it’s been done better by other writers. Lin Carter’s fragmentary tales of Alhazred’s desert wanderings and his encounters with terrible things (reprinted in Chaosium’s The Necronomicon: Selected Stories and Essays Concerning the Blasphemous Tome of the Mad Arab, edited by Robert M. Price) capture far more fully the slow disintegration of the Arab’s mind in the face of truths no man is meant to know, though the later chapters fall prey to the same trap that has caught so many other budding Alhazred biographers; that of turning the tome into a sort of supernatural recipe-book. It doesn’t help that Lovecraft himself and the various authors who came after him couldn’t make up their minds as to whether the books was a journal of discovery, full of maddeningly obscure hints and references, or whether it was a magical “how-to” book complete with “put left foot here to release Great Old Ones” diagrammatic instructions.

One for the completists, I think, though certainly not a waste of time. It’s made me want to go through the epic task of digging out Tyson’s Necronomicon, so in that respect it’s served its purpose.

For those who’ve read this far and are interested in other evocations of evil, my favourites are;

The Sandman – by Miles Gibson. Not the Lord of Dream, but the diary of a serial killer with aesthetic pretensions. Chilling, disturbing and absorbing.

The Holmes-Dracula File – by Fred Saberhagen. The start of his Dracula series, this is the “true story” of Dracula’s 1890’s incursion into the UK, told both by John H. Watson and by Dracula himself. One of my favourite comfort books.

I, Strahd – by P.N. Elrod. One of the few pieces of game fiction worth a damn, this is the tale of Count Dracula Baron Strahd von Zharovich, the infamous vampire lord at the heart of the original Ravenloft adventure module. There’s a second volume that’s just as good, IMHO.

Interview with Evil – by John Terra. Another piece of gaming fiction, this isn’t as brilliantly written as I, Strahd, but it wins points for the sheer unrepentant evil of its protagonist, TORG’s infamous Gaunt Man.

Empire – DC Comics, by Mark Waid and Barry Kitson. While not a biography, this graphic novel tells the story of a superhero universe where the bad guy (in this case a Doctor Doom-type called Golgoth) has won, and what happens next. It’s a chillingly Machiavellian tale of intrigue, betrayal and the ruthless, iron-willed application of power.

The Face of the Enemy – By David McIntee. A Doctor Who novel in which the Doctor doesn’t appear, in this tale UNIT must turn to the Master, currently imprisoned after the Devil’s End affair, to solve an apparently extraterrestrial mystery. Again, not a biography, but still an highly entertaining glimpse into the mind of one of the Doctor’s greatest enemies.

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