“The Adder”

This week’s weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Adder”, Fred Chappell, 1989.

Cover by Bob Eggleton

There’s lots of reasons not to keep a copy of the Necronomicon around your house or business.

Cultists may show up to read it or steal it. (I wonder if that makes it an “attractive nuisance” under tort law?) And, of course, reading the thing can lead to death, insanity, or the destruction of civilization.

Fred Chappell’s story adds one more reason not to keep the thing around – especially if you’re not dealing with the Latin of the Necronomicon but the pure quill of the Mad Arab’s original Al-Azif.

Our narrator is in the antiquarian book trade, and so is his beloved Uncle Alvin. One day Alvin shows up at the narrator’s shop with a book bound in pink leather, its gilt lettering almost completely worn off, and the text faded to a gray barely visible on the page.

It’s the Al-Azif, and Alvin does not want it in his shop. He’s off to talk to the Library of Congress about buying it. (After all, they probably have the Necronomicon already – even if it’s not cataloged.) He wants the book safe until then.

The two, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” decide to hide it in plain sight with the unrare books in the shop.

Before he goes, Alvin tells his nephew that there’s another name for the Necronomicon in the book trade, The Adder; it poisons and devours other texts. Alvin suggests hiding the book with the cheap paperbacks.

The narrator puts it in a box of unrare and damaged books that includes a collection of John Milton’s poetry. When he checks on Al-Azif the next day, he finds that the book now is bright red, its gilding bright, and the text clear and in multiple colors.

Then he checks some of his favorite Milton poems. They seem unaccountably different to him. (Chappell as a poet gets to present his corrupted versions of Milton’s verse.) He checks other Milton editions and calls friends to check their copies of Milton. He comes to the conclusion that Al-Azif is feeding off the power of Milton and that Milton’s work, wherever it exists – printed copies, manuscripts, and in people’s heads – has changed.

(Spoilers ahead)

Alvin returns and is told what happens. He says this has happened before (including to the texts of H. P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, Robert Price, and Clark Ashton Smith), and there’s a spell to reverse it.

They check the copy of Al-Azif. Now there are passages in English and not just Arabic, and they seem to have the grandeur of Milton.

Alvin puts a book next to Al-Azif. Its title is carefully not stated. It’s the life of a saint. Alvin says the work is so adamantine in its goodness that The Adder will not be able to absorb it and will be weakened and return to its original state.

The spell works, but a fly was crawling across what seemed like fresh ink on the then vigorous Al-Azif (as I recall, Al-Azif’s very title alludes to insects). It picked up the poisonous nature of Al-Azif and will carry it, as will the fly’s descendants, into the world.

The implication is that the cultural works of man, as represented in books and the memory of them, will become corrupted and the Necronomicon’s corruption will be everywhere.

So, it seems like the end of the life as we know it.

A clever and novel Cthulhu Mythos story.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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