Occult Fiction in Translation
by Rachel Cordasco
Issue 5: Occult | 734 words
Given the relatively small amount of speculative fiction translated into English (SFT) each year, it’s not surprising that examples of occult-related SFT are rare. Nonetheless, such stories have come to anglophone readers from around the world at various times, with novels, such as those by Gustav Meyrink and Honoré de Balzac, that explore mystical transcendence as well as black magic (see bibliography below). The most recent translation of an occult-themed work comes to us from Spanish speculative fiction author Rodolfo Martinez. Martinez’s La sabiduria de los muertos (Los archivos perdidos de Sherlock Holmes), translated by the author himself and published this year as The Wisdom of the Dead (The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes), is a striking novel that brings together the world of Sherlock Holmes with that of the Cthulhu mythos, fusing them into a creation that could only be done this well by the father of Spanish cyberpunk.
The Wisdom of the Dead is a book about a fictional book—the grimoire known as Al Azif or Necronomicon—and, perhaps even more interesting, it is a translated book about a book that’s been said to have been translated many times over. These multiple metafictional layers call our attention to the act of writing and translating, suggesting the power of language to bring into being not just characters and plots, but also belief systems and communities built around particular stories. Translation, in particular, involves bringing over style and content from one language to another, bridging different cultures and histories, but also creating new texts.
Martinez draws upon detective fiction tropes, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, and real-world occultism to tell the story of Sigurd Sigerson, a mysterious Norwegian explorer who has come to London to give a talk about the “tribal customs of African Bushmen.” This explorer also piques Sherlock Holmes’s interest because, well, Holmes was once Sigurd Sigerson. After his supposed death at the hands of Professor Moriarty, Holmes had traveled around the world as this Norwegian explorer to hide his identity. When he resurfaced in London and gave Dr. Watson the shock of his life, Holmes abandoned the name. How strange to then find someone using that very same name, walking around London as if daring Holmes to confront him.
What follows is a complicated tale about the efforts of Sigerson, whose actual name is, of course, Winfield Scott Lovecraft, to fulfill his mission from the American branch of the Egyptian Freemasonry to acquire the only complete copy of Al Asif (owned by John Dee’s heirs) in England. People intimately involved with the real-life Golden Dawn appear throughout The Wisdom of the Dead: Samuel Liddell Mathers, who founded the Golden Dawn with William Wynn Westcott; Aleister Crowley (a member of the order with literary interests); and Arthur Conan Doyle himself, who became interested in late nineteenth-century Spiritualism and the occult and joined the British Society for Psychical Research in 1893. Martinez’s novel thus reveals its multiple and overlapping layers. Fictional characters mingle with historical figures; a work of occult-fantasy-meets-detective-fiction focuses on the journey of an apocryphal grimoire (the Necronomicon) written in reality by H. P. Lovecraft; and Sherlock Holmes speaks directly to Arthur Conan Doyle who, in the world of Martinez’s novel, is not Holmes’s creator but Watson’s literary agent.
Why, though, was Sigerson/Lovecraft sent to London in the first place at that particular time? According to Holmes, “the Egyptian Freemasonry, in particular its American branch, knew the rumor of the prince who had abdicated; they also knew that if true, the Necronomicon, instead of being a dangerous book, would then become a source of power. Until then, whoever had tried to use it to gain control of a certain kingdom had failed: its rightful ruler had not allowed it; but if he indeed had abdicated, there was no longer any impediment.” Here it becomes clearer that the Necromicon is not simply a text, but, like The Wisdom of the Dead itself, a multi-layered vehicle for yet other stories and histories.
Martinez’s The Wisdom of the Dead is ultimately a fun-house mirror reflecting various genres, characters, books, and actual people; a kind of time machine that works best when its internal workings are not dissected but rather allowed to do their job without interference. Here Holmes fans and Lovecraft fans, who may never have thought they had something in common, can meet in a shared appreciation of an entertaining and engaging literary creation.
Occult SFT Novels
– Honoré de Balzac’s Séraphita (1835; translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley, 1998)
– J. K. Huysmans’ occult fantasy Là-Bas (1891; translated by Keene Wallis as Down There, 1924)
– Rodolfo Martinez’s La sabiduria de los muertos (Los archivos perdidos de Sherlock Holmes) (2014; translated by Rodolfo Martinez as The Wisdom of the Dead [The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes] 2019)
– Gustav Meyrink’s Der weiße Dominikaner (1921; translated by Mike Mitchell as The White Dominican, 1994)
– Gustav Meyrink’s Der Engel vom westlichen Fenster (1927; translated by Mike Mitchell as The Angel of the West Window 1991)
Rachel Cordasco has a PhD in literary studies and currently works as a developmental editor. She also writes reviews for publications like World Literature Today and Strange Horizons, and translates Italian speculative fiction. For all things related to speculative fiction in translation, check out her website: sfintranslation.com.