By Steve Vernon
Donald Tyson lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Early in life he was drawn to science by an intense fascination with astronomy. He began university seeking a science degree but became disillusioned with the aridity of a mechanistic view of the universe and shifted his major to English. After graduating with honors he has pursued a writing career that embraces all aspects of the Western esoteric tradition. The author of two novels and more than a dozen nonfiction books on Western occult subjects such as divination, Kabbalah and ceremonial magic, he is also the creator of rune dice, power glyphs and a Necronomicon Tarot deck.
Tyson’s latest release is a study of the Necronomicon, written from the voice of the Mad Arab himself. This interview and the accompanying Necronomicon review was originally written for an online website but is reprinted here for your reading pleasure.
1. So tell us a bit about Donald Tyson.
When I was younger, I was fascinated by science, particularly astronomy. Lovecraft and I have that in common. It was only when I attended university that I came to realize that while science would always remain an interest, I was born with a natural gift to write, and I damn well better use it, or the gods would be annoyed with me.
About the time this shift of focus occurred, I experienced my Great Awakening, if I may so call it. The view of reality I had blindly accepted all my life was not inherent in human nature or in the fabric of the world, and was not anything I had arrived at by the use of my own intelligence – my reality had been imposed on my mind by other human beings.
I realized I was not seeing the world as it was, but as I had been taught to see it. Here I am not talking about social issues, or political issues, but about reality itself. I had never actually looked at anything in an original way in my entire life, because I had not known that any other way of viewing reality existed. This was a profound revelation. I spent the next several years freeing myself from my cultural indoctrination, while at the same time teaching myself how to write.
Occultism had always appealed to me, but I had regarded it as nothing more than a source of amusement, because it was unreal. When I started to see the world with original eyes, one of the things that became evident was that mysticism and magic were no less real than science.
2. It’s been about 66 years since H.P. Lovecraft died. Why do you think that his fiction is still so popular?
Lovecraft was a talented writer. Some of his early stories, and a few tales that were carelessly dashed off for friends as stunts, are second-rate, but there remains a large body of his fiction that is of the highest quality, as good as anything that has been written in the area of supernatural literature.
He knew how to develop a mood of growing apprehension, and did it so gradually that it seems to creep like a shadow over the emotions. By the time his readers realize it is there, it has its hands around their throats.
His supernatural fiction evolved out of his nightmares. If you read some of the little fiction fragments of his that have survived, it is evident that they are descriptions of disturbing dreams. The very name “Necronomicon” was given to Lovecraft in a dream. He did not invent it – the name was given to him.
As a child he was sickly, dreamy, emotionally and perhaps mentally unstable. These are common aspects of those who experience spontaneous astral projection. Such projection often occurs through the gateway of lucid dreams – dreams during which the dreamer becomes conscious and achieves a measure of independent action.
Lovecraft’s fascination with the dream worlds of Lord Dunsany was a natural response to his lucid dreaming and spontaneous astral projection. He may not have understood that his experiences were anything more than uncommonly vivid dreams. However, it is easy to tell that Randolph Carter, the dream explorer in several of his tales, is Lovecraft himself.
Lovecraft’s stories about the Old Ones, the Elder Race, Yuggoth, the Plateau of Leng, sunken R’lyeh, and other strange beings and distant dimensions, are so resonant because he drew them from within himself, from his own living nightmares. It has been suggested that he was psychic, and that he tapped into a kind of occult history of the world that may never have existed in our space and time, but did exist in some elsewhere. I will go further than this, and suggest that he traveled to other dimensions astrally while asleep, and brought back into our waking reality distorted reflections that served as the basis for many of his stories.
3. Why are you fascinated by the writing of H.P. Lovecraft?
His works resonate within me, as they do with so many others. The overall cosmic conception that he formulated of his Old Ones and their universe has a grandeur and force on the imagination that can only be achieved by something evolved naturally over a span of many years. The Cthulhu Mythos, as August Derleth called it, has its roots deep in the unconscious of the human race. It exists alongside the myths of primordial giants and Titans, of dragons and leviathans, of Father Dagon and Mother Hydra, of vast underworlds writhing with damned souls and demonic abortions of the earth.
Central to it all is his great creation, the Necronomicon, the book that stands as the most famous of all the grimoires of black magic, even though it never had physical existence in this dimension of space and time. I am not prepared to say that it never existed elsewhere, since Lovecraft heard its name murmured in a dream, and on many occasions saw the book in old houses or dusty libraries during his spontaneous excursions into the astral world. Indeed, he glimpsed the book in his nightmares repeatedly even before he conceived the idea of creating such a book for his tales, or learned its name. There never was a Necronomicon published in Europe during the Dark Ages, it is true, but who is to say that it had no reality on some other level of existence accessible only to dream travelers? And if the Necronomicon is real, the Old Ones must be real as well, though not in the way we usually understand reality.
Almost as potent as the Necronomicon itself is the personality of its author, the mad Arab poet Abdul Alhazred. Here again we have a case where Lovecraft received the name long before he knew what to do with it. He was never sure where the name Alhazred originated – he thought in later years that when he was a very small child, fascinated with the Arabian Nights, one of his relatives might have called him that, but this was really no more than a guess. Lovecraft didn’t remember where it came from, but it resonated so powerfully with him that when he had to come up with a name for the author of his forbidden book, he drew Alhazred up from his childhood. Alhazred, who worshiped Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth, who wandered the demon-haunted wastes of the Empty Space, who searched through the catacombs of Egypt and the ziggurats of Babylonia looking for black magic.
When I came to write my Necronomicon, and later my novel Alhazred, which will soon be published by Llewellyn Worldwide, I expanded on Lovecraft’s brief history of Alhazred, but tried as far as was possible not to contradict what Lovecraft had written about him. What makes my Necronomicon so different from all the other editions that have come out over the years is that it was written from Alhazred’s point of view. Even though he is not a character in the events described in the Necronomicon, his presence can always be felt, standing just out of view. He made so powerful an impression on my imagination, I had to write his story again, this time telling it with his own voice as it was happening around him. The novel Alhazred was the result.
The Necronomicon and my novel Alhazred are two parts of a single artistic concept. In a sense, the Necronomicon acted as the outline for the novel, which is a much larger work, but there is material of a practical nature in the Necronomicon that is not mentioned in the novel, just as there is much in the novel that could not be fully elaborated on in the briefer scope of the Necronomicon. They are designed to be read together, and compared together, as two parts of a single work.
4. I enjoyed your interpretation of The Necronomicon. Very comprehensive, and put together in a pleasing fashion. I’ve also read your book on 1-2-3 Tarot, and enjoyed it thoroughly. It seemed a fine handbook for someone who wanted to begin simple readings immediately. What other books have you written?
The book 1-2-3 Tarot is an attempt on my part to create a completely original method of divination using Tarot cards. I am glad you enjoyed it. I started a deep study of the Tarot while at university, and for many years it was my main preoccupation. I did little else for the best part of the day but play with the cards, arranging them into patterns and thinking about their meanings, both individually and in groups. It was only after I had meditated on the Tarot in this way for a long time that I began to read books that had been written about it, to learn what others had understood about the Tarot. I filled a dozen or so loose-leaf booklets with pages of hand-written notes on the Tarot. I still have them – they stack about a foot high when piled together.
The odd thing is, for twenty years and more I wrote almost nothing concerning the Tarot. It was my main preoccupation as a practicing magician, but I did not feel ready to express myself on the subject. However, over the past few years my writings have finally turned themselves to the Tarot. I have written a great deal more than has as yet been published. In addition to 1-2-3 Tarot, Llewellyn will soon bring out a new book titled Tarot Magic, that deals with the Tarot cards as a mechanism for practical ritual magic. Two original decks of Tarot cards are in the design stages, one of which is the Necronomicon Tarot, which will form the third part of my Necronomicon group of works. The other deck is a professional re-rendering of my own original occult Tarot that I designed and painted by hand so many years ago, for my own use. I have taken the opportunity with the publication of this deck to present all my original thoughts about the structure of the Tarot and the Tree of Life.
Tarot Magic is quite an unusual book. Almost no one has given even the most basic instructions about how to use the Tarot cards as ritual instruments, for works of practical magic. They are always used either for divination, or for meditations of various kinds. In some of my earlier books, such as New Millennium Magic (Llewellyn, 1996), I dropped a few hints as to how the cards could be employed in a more active way, but Tarot Magic lays out the complete system I evolved over many years in my own studies. It is very simple, very compact, but effective.
Speaking about my work more generally, it is centered around the history and practice of ceremonial magic in the Western tradition and involves related subjects, such as the grimoires, Kabbalah, runes, scrying, spirit communication, Kundalini energy, and Enochian magic. Presently I am working on a book about astral projection.
5. Do you think the writing of Lovecraft can be successfully captured on film? Has it been done, in your opinion?
I am probably not enough of a film buff to give an informed opinion on this topic, but I have yet to see any film associated with Lovecraft’s work or with the Necronomicon that really impressed me. Then again, there are many films, such as the recent black and white, silent version of the Call of Cthulhu that I have not seen. I found the film Out of Mind entertaining, in the way it blended various themes from Lovecraft together, and for the brilliant capturing of the personality of Lovecraft himself.
My forthcoming novel Alhazred would make an interesting film, although it would be difficult to reduce in scope sufficiently so that it would fit into a single movie. Who knows, maybe Peter Jackson will do a trilogy.
6. Your coverage and interpretation of the Necronomicon was intensely comprehensive. What sort of research did it involve? How long did it take you to put the book together?
After conceiving the idea to approach the Necronomicon from a completely different direction than other writers – interpreting it as a kind of travel book of the ancient world combined with a traditional book of wonders – I immediately read everything I could get that had been written by Lovecraft. This included all his stories, the stories he worked on in collaboration with other writers, most of his poetry, and a selection of his essays and letters.
I made a comprehensive extraction of all the passages from his fiction that had anything to do with the Cthulhu Mythos or the related Dream Cycle. The reason I did this was so that I would have a single searchable text file to refer to on matters of detail. I tried to track down explicit references Lovecraft had made to the Necronomicon in his fiction or letters, and recorded all the passages Lovecraft had presented as quotations from the text of the Necronomicon, so that I could incorporate them into my book.
Naturally I studied very closely Lovecraft’s brief biographical note on the life of Alhazred, and his short history concerning the Necronomicon. My main purpose was to avoid, as much as I could, contradicting Lovecraft. My secondary goal was to incorporate as much of Lovecraft’s understanding about the Necronomicon into my own work as was possible, without allowing it to limit my freedom to move the work in new directions.
As you know, there is a huge volume of Mythos fiction that started being created by other writers who knew Lovecraft during his lifetime, and it has been continuously generated down to the present. It would have been impossible for me to make my Necronomicon harmonize with all of it – if only because this body of Mythos fiction is not consistent in itself. I decided to concern myself only with what Lovecraft had written, and not worry about the additions to the Mythos by Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, Henry Kuttner, Frank Belknap Long, and a host of others. I did make one exception, when I referred to Smith’s god Tsathoggua, but I felt justified in so doing because Lovecraft himself refers to this god on a number of occasions.
After completing the first draft of the book, I sent it off to an expert on Lovecraft and the Necronomicon, Daniel Harms, co-author of the Necronomicon Files with John Wisdom Gonce (Weiser, 2003), and Dan was kind enough to read it over and point out a few errors I had made, and references I had missed. His criticism was taken into account when I wrote the finished draft of the book.
7. Was this book your idea, or did Llewellyn hire you to write it?
Completely my own project. I had no idea whether Llewellyn would be interested in publishing it until it was finished and sent off for their editorial scrutiny. Most of my books are written on spec, as they say. I get an idea and turn it into a book, then set about trying to sell it. Fortunately, most of my work is well received by Llewellyn. There have been exceptions over the years. My book Liber Lilith, which is overdue to be published by Starfire Books, Kenneth Grant’s English publisher (Liber Lilith should have been on the racks before now), was initially rejected by Llewellyn as a little too exotic and hard-edged for their list.
It can be dangerous for a writer to work on spec, which is why so few established professionals do so. They prefer to have a contract, or at least a verbal deal, before they begin. For example, I spent two years working on a Tarot book that I consider my Magnum Opus as a writer – that is the say, the greatest book I will ever write. It is around 3,000 pages long in manuscript, and concerns a detailed comparative analysis of the symbolism of the major esoteric Tarot decks throughout the history of the Tarot. It was finished a couple of years ago, and it is still sitting on my computer’s hard drive, and I guess also in hard copy in a storage locker at Llewellyn in the basement somewhere. Maybe it will eventually find its way into print, maybe not. My annotated edition of the Three Books of Occult Philosophy by Henry Cornelius Agrippa was almost as large a work, and it almost did not get published, simply because editing and publishing it was such a daunting undertaking.
However, the good news is that spending two years working on my Magnum Opus focused my mind strongly on the subject of the Tarot, and resulted in 1-2-3 Tarot, Tarot Magic, the Necronomicon Tarot, and the Tarot book based on my own esoteric deck of cards. I do not mean that these books were extracted from the larger work, but only that my attention was directed to the Tarot, so I decided to write a few smaller books on the Tarot that had until then been idling in the back of my mind.
8. Your bio mentions that you have at one time assisted the US Department of Defense in decoding rune symbols. Tell us about that, if you would?
That was an odd incident. Out of the blue, a forensic pathologist connected with the US military wrote to me asking for help with a murder investigation he was working on. It seems that a young man who was murdered had a set of runes marked into the back of his leather jacket. I was asked to explain what they meant.
After assuring myself that they had no ritual or cult significance, I was able to transliterate them into a brief phrase that appeared to ask that work be sent to the bearer of the runes. I told the pathologist that I believed the young man had marked the runes on his jacket as a ritual charm, with the hope that it would attract work. A few of the runes were incorrectly shaped, which is often the case with those who use the runes for magic without knowing exactly how to shape them, so I could not be absolutely certain about my interpretation.
I heard nothing back concerning the matter. Whether my analysis of the runes was useful, I have no way of knowing.
9. Have you written any fiction?
Written, yes, I have written quite a bit of fiction. A lot of it remains unpublished, and indeed, unread except by me and in some cases, one or two editors to whom it was submitted. This is true of most of my short fiction. I have found it easier over the years to get my book length nonfiction published than my short fiction, so I have tended to take the easy route and concentrate on my books. I still write short fiction now and then, or revise an existing story when the mood hits me, but I seldom try to have them published.
There are so few outlets for short fiction that pay anything, and I am disinclined except under unusual circumstances to give my work away. The exception was a submission I made around the time I was working on the Necronomicon of a Cthulhu Mythos story to a man who made it known in a newsgroup that he was about to publish a collection of new Mythos stories. I sent him the story, he accepted it, and I never heard from him again. I assume it was not published.
As for novels, I have had published two novels previously with Llewellyn, The Messenger (1993) and the Tortuous Serpent (1997), the latter of which concerns the adventures of John Dee and Edward Kelley. The Necronomicon: The Wanderings of Alhazred should be considered a work of fiction, although it is one that is very difficult to classify. The same is true of Liber Lilith, another book that is fiction, but intermingled with fact to such a degree that it becomes hard to determine if it concerns things real or unreal. My new novel Alhazred is due to be published shortly.
I enjoy writing novels, and intend to do more of it in future. I have another John Dee occult adventure in mind that I will probably begin when my current project on astral projection is completed. It would be nice to see a collection of my short fiction in print. If the opportunity arises, and a publisher expresses an interest in my stories, that could well happen.
10. Tell us about your future projects.
A book on astral projection, a new John Dee occult adventure novel, my Necronomicon Tarot which will require a revision of the book once the artwork is completed, and the publication of my personal esoteric Tarot with the accompanying book describing innovations in the Tarot structure and the paths on the Sephirothic Tree of the Kabbalah. Those are my immediate projects presently in process.
If Alhazred proves to be popular with readers, I am sure that a second novel describing his adventures will come forth. Writing Alhazred was an uncommonly rewarding and enjoyable experience, because I got a chance to steep myself in the Muslim Empire at the end of the 7th century, an extraordinarily dynamic period in human history. Alhazred lived only a few decades after the prophet Mohammed completed his conquest of the Middle East. Strict Muslims were living side by side with defiant Christians and unapologetic pagans in the same communities, and to a large degree the darkness of ignorance that fell across the face of Europe spared Islam, allowing it to usher in a golden age of learning.
As a writer, I have never had difficulty trying to find a new topic to write about. Just the opposite, the press of work has caused me to lay aside interesting ideas that I would love to develop. These ideas are never forgotten, and in future years I will turn many of them into books.