Forbidden Knowledge

I. The Plan
“Knowledge wants to be free!” The increasingly impassioned assistant professor defended his plan to the chief librarian who had summoned him to this awkward and unpleasant meeting in a room filled with dust that seemed to have collected slowly and inexorably since slimy, tentacled tetrapods first evolved to crawl from water onto land. The librarian listened calmly and impassively, allowing the younger man to vent his frustration, something the older man had learned through long experience was often the best course of inaction.

After a lengthy pause to make sure the younger man was finished, the librarian finally answered. “Nevertheless, it has long been the carefully considered policy of this department to restrict access to the Kitab al-Azif only to legitimately accredited scholars. Placing it on a computer where it could be viewed by anyone who walked into the library, as you suggest, would be, one might say, unwise in light of its, one might say, unusual history.” The librarian’s emphasized words expressed profound disquiet. Frank H. Pabodie IV was ambitious and a bit adventurous after the manner of his distinguished great-grandfather, who even a century after his most notable discoveries and accomplishments was still held in awe within the Miskatonic University Engineering Department for his contributions to polar exploration. Like his forebear, he was not a man easily refused. Now, as an assistant professor at that same august institution of learning, he was fighting to let out into the fresh air what both scholarly and popular reputation regarded as the most notorious holding of the university library, a Fifteenth Century Latin translation of a Tenth Century Greek translation of an Eighth Century Arabic book written by the mysterious Abd al-Azrad, who had inexplicably gone mad and disappeared.

“I could go to the Widener Library at Harvard and ask to use their copy as my source, but that would entail political embarrassment if the request came from Miskatonic,” Pabodie bluffed, knowing that Harvard was even less likely to agree to his proposal. “But you have no grounds to say no. The restrictions against access were intended to protect the physical copy, which is of course completely reasonable. By digitizing the book for the computer, I would be helping you protect it.”

“What you say is true, and if you insist then as you know I must permit you to do it, but I fear repercussions,” the librarian said. “Men of science have refused to follow my advice. Some things the human mind is not equipped to comprehend.”

“Surely, you don’t believe there could be any truth to the ridiculous stories that the book is cursed?!” Pabodie blurted out.

The librarian said nothing.

II. The Work

Pabodie was allowed to photograph the book, but he was a computer scientist, not an expert in ancient languages. To make the digitized content truly useful, he needed a research assistant who could transcribe the text from its uniquely esoteric conglomeration of linguistic glyphs. Although the book was primarily in Latin there were annotations usually in Greek but occasionally in Chinese, and there were some characters that were suspected to be in the Hyperborean language lost to history. One candidate was repeatedly recommended to him, a graduate student in the Languages Department, Abigail Rice.

At first, she shared Pabodie’s enthusiasm for the project, but after only a few weeks her work grew erratic. He gave her several days off when he found that she had entered the same sentence multiple times, the puzzling “Omnis labor et nullus ludus Iohannem puerum obtusum facit.” It was clearly Latin, but it seemed out-of-context nonsense and one of his colleagues knowledgeable in Latin said he was baffled as to its significance.

“Ms. Rice, I’m becoming concerned. The stress from the pace of this work seems to be taking a toll on you,” Pabodie told her.

“I don’t understand why I’ve been so distracted, professor. I know this is an important project and its visibility will be helpful to my academic career,” she said. “I know you’re especially anxious to get the text of the first volume onto the computer as soon as possible, and I’ve almost completed work on that.”

One week later, he found her slumped at the computer workstation, alive but unresponsive. He called for medical assistance and she had to be taken to Arkham Hospital. Numerous examinations could find nothing physically wrong with her, despite the use of the most up-to-date diagnostic technology, miraculous but ultimately useless.

On her computer screen were the last words she had typed: “The horror! The horror!”

III. The Celebration

Professor Pabodie was disturbed by the unfortunate circumstances with Ms. Rice, and he felt tremendous guilt for having worked her so hard that she collapsed in a state of nervous exhaustion. She had just barely finished encoding the first volume, and her medical situation made him even more motivated to publish it so that her contribution would not be wasted.

He scheduled a small ceremony in the Computer Science Department conference room, nothing too showy or fancy, to unveil the computer kiosk to be placed in the library. Much to his amazement, reporters from Providence and Boston newspapers came, as well as a reporter and camera operator from one of the local television stations.

Pabodie began, “Ladies and gentlemen, I am honored to present for the first time publicly, the digital version of the Kitab al-Azif, or as it is more commonly known by its Greek name, the Necronomicon. One of the most important holdings in our library, researchers could gain access to this extremely rare book only by arduous in-person visits to the few publicly known extant copies: here, at Harvard, in London, in Paris, and in Buenos Aires. Now, for the first time, its images and text will be accessible with a mouse click.”

He let that sink in, but the reporters seemed almost totally uninterested. He continued, “In order to accommodate the complicated and unprecedented nature of the handwritten manuscript containing elements from Latin, Greek, Chinese, Arabic, and in some cases yet undeciphered script, it was necessary to design a completely new system of artificial intelligence for storing and organizing this information. When I push the power switch, it will turn on what I call, in proud memory of my great grandfather, ‘Project Shoggoth.’”

Almost as an afterthought, he said, “Are there any questions?”

All of the reporters took that as their signal to wake up from the speech, and they all wanted to know the same thing: Was there any truth to the rumor that a research assistant had been driven mad by working on the book?

“Such allegations are utterly ridiculous!” sputtered Pabodie. “My assistant was working long hours under time pressure, and she had an attack from overwork. She is being treated in the hospital.”

The reporter from the Providence newspaper followed up, “So your assistant is resting and has recovered?”

Pabodie had not expected anything of this line of questions. He hadn’t really expected the press at all. “She is still hospitalized, but I’m optimistic that she will soon be able to return to work. Now, please allow me to demonstrate the system.”

He pushed the power button. Lights lit on the front panel and cooling fans started turning. Soon the machine was ready to accept and answer queries. Pabodie began displaying the pages of the book.

IV. The Result

Project Shoggoth came alive. In images and text, in Latin, Greek, Chinese, and Arabic, for the first time in the great and majestic sweep of human history, the Necronomicon was no longer locked up in a few library vaults. The software began reading, cross-referencing, and trying to make sense of the work.

Pabodie was embarrassed as the computer became unresponsive, but a few such problems were to be expected in these situations. The only option for him was to turn the power switch off and on again in front of a room full of reporters, and he dreaded how foolish this would look on the television news. As the computer restarted and an image of the Necronomicon appeared on the screen, a stunned Pabodie, devoted man of science, realized that it had caught fire. Before he could react, someone had obtained a chemical extinguisher and was emptying it onto the infernal machine.

Could it have been exposure to forbidden knowledge too horrible and beyond comprehension that caused the artificial intelligence to go as mad as Abd al-Azrad and Abigail Rice? The answer to that question must remain unknowable, subject to the varied interpretations of the witnesses – and the viewers of the television news.

As the fire quickly subsided and before anyone thought to unplug it, no one but Professor Pabodie saw on the frozen computer screen a plaintive, mournful cry from the dreaded Necronomicon that would make him rather sorry that he had ever looked into that monstrous book:

“That is not dead which can eternal lie. And with strange aeons even death may die.”

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