Friday, June 21, 2013

Books Sensible People Avoid

In several of his stories H.P. Lovecraft provided a bibliography of forbidden books, all filled with arcane and terrifying contents.  At the top of the list is the dreaded Necronomicon, but also worth mentioning is the Comte d’Erlette’s Cultes des Goules, Ludvig Prinn’s De Vermis Mysteriis, and von Junzt’s Unaussprechlichen Kulten, among others.  These are primarily reference books, filled with horror how-to and some interesting, if odd, history.  They have obtained a small but devoted readership over the centuries.

Not in this list—not even named—is the volume described in Margaret Irwin’s short story, The Book (1930).  She published this tale a year after Lovecraft published The Dunwich Horror.  Both stories involve the use of books containing fearsome and blasphemous knowledge.  (The Necronomicon is consulted often in the famous Lovecraft story.)

Irwin is an English writer of ghost stories who was active in the first half of the 20th century.  She sets her tale in an upper middle class household, amidst familiar domestic settings and routines.  Mr. Corbett, the patriarch of the household, is an avid reader, but lately his attitude towards his favorite books has grown critical and jaded.  The children, too, begin to abuse their books.  The family’s various reading materials are all stacked in the book case near the dining room, along with “a few dull and obscure old theology books that had been left over from the sale of a learned uncle’s library.”  One of these attracts Mr. Corbett’s attention, and he begins reading it daily.

The book apparently has no title and is comprised of pages handwritten in Latin, with blank pages at the end.  He becomes obsessed with reading this book, which becomes easier to read as he spends more time with it.  Disturbing personality changes ensue, and he discovers that when he picks up the book the next day, new text is being added to the blank pages at the end.  He finds the book invigorating, and experiences increased success in his business enterprises, but also nagging guilt and disintegrating family ties.  His obsession becomes possession, as the book leads him into greater evil and darkness.  

For readers' convenience  I have compared and contrasted the Necronomicon and ‘The Book’ in the helpful chart below.

Book Title
‘The Book’
Intended audience
Older eccentrics, reclusive loners
Suitable for all ages
The mad Arab Abdul Alhazred
Attributed to Satan
Difficulty Level
High due to coded archaic language and strange symbols
Moderate with Latin dictionary and “study helps”
Obscure, abandoned ruins; Miskatonic University Library
Family bookcase near the dining room.
Purpose of Book
Bring the Old Ones back to rule the Earth.
Encourage mischief and murder on Earth; bring about eternal damnation for the reader.
Author Insights
“…we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
“I died with my purpose unachieved.  Continue, thou, the never-ending studies.”
Famous Quotes
“That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die.”
“Ex auro canceris, in dentem elephantis.”
“Canem occide.”

The Book by Margaret Irwin is marvelous in its use of detail to create ominous foreshadowing. Its subtle, suspenseful documentation of the psychological breakdown of the lead character is compelling and disturbing.  We have all known people like Mr. Corbett.  The story is often found in anthologies of old school horror.  One excellent collection that features the tale is The Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, (2011, Tom Doherty Associates, LLC).

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