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The Book

In which a banker falls under the influence of a sinister book capable of writing itself.

By Margaret Irwin

First published in 1930

Anthologized in The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

Although she might not have appreciated the simile, it can be said that dark fantasy was to Margaret Irwin what the Mob was to Michael Corleone: just when she thought she was out, it pulled her back in.

For most of her career, Ms. Irwin was a historical novelist, and quite a respected one.  By thoroughly researching and re-researching the period when most of her historical fiction is set, she became an authority on English history during the 16th and 17th centuries, the era of the Tudors and the Stuarts. Her novel Young Bess, about the early years of Elizabeth I, was turned into a Technicolor extravaganza in 1953, starring Jean Simmons and Charles Laughton.  Ms. Irwin’s biography of Sir Walter Raleigh, That Great Lucifer, was also highly regarded.  All in all, there’s nothing of the Gothic or spooky about the bulk of her work.

Ms. Irwin had caught the supernatural fiction bug when she was quite young,  however, and she never got over it.  Her first novel, Still She Wished for Company (1924) is a timeslip fantasy, and still in print. She also published two collections of ghost stories, Madame Fears the Dark (1953) and Bloodstock and Other Stories (1953).  A number of her stories have been anthologized, but none more so than “The Book,” which Ms. Irwin wrote in 1930.

The protagonist of “The Book” is a banker named Corbett, who one night tires of the detective novel that he’s been reading and decides to make a midnight raid on his home library, in search of more congenial reading matter. We know almost immediately that Mr. Corbett will not have an easy time of this in the second paragraph:

“The fog had crept through the closed and curtained windows of the dining room and hung thick on the air in a silence that seemed  as heavy and breathless as the fog.  The atmosphere  was more choking than in his room, and very chill, although the remains of a large fire still burned in the grate.”

The fog is in the house? Damn, that must be creepy. It would be bad for the books, too. I would talk to a ventilation firm about that tout de suite.

Corbett notices an unexplainable gap in one of his shelves, wide enough to accommodate a large book. Strangely, this begins to prey upon his mind:

“It was a very wide gap to have been left by a single volume, for the books on that shelf had been closely wedged together.  He put the Dickens back into it and saw there was still space for a large book.  He said to himself in careful and precise words: ‘This is nonsense.  No once can possibly have gone into the dining room and removed a book while I was crossing the hall. There must have been a gap before in the second shelf.’ But another part of his mind kept saying in a hurried, tumbled torrent: ‘There was no gap in the second shelf. There was no gap in the second shelf.'”

Corbett tries to make light of this the next day, only to be told by one of his daughters that there’s never a gap in the second shelf — whenever books are taken from it, the shelf always remains fully packed, in defiance of logic and common sense.

At this point, were I Corbett, I would start removing books, in preparation for chopping said bookshelves into kindling.  I would also look in the Yellow Pages under “Exorcists.” As I have noted before, however, the characters in these stories have powers of shrugging-off that I could never hope to possess.

In any case, Corbett seems to undergo a general souring process shortly after this.   Books that pleased him before now disgust or bore him, and his cynicism threatens to attach itself to his family.

In searching for something that’ll take him away from this state of mind, he happens upon a handwritten Latin text among “the decaying remains of his uncle’s theological library.”  No title or author is given, and there are several blank pages at the end of the manuscript, as if the writer had been forced to break off before finishing.  These blank pages become more important as the story unfolds, because they become less blank: the book is capable of writing itself.

In a odd way, “The Book” reminds me of Stanley Milgram‘s experiments with obedience — the book makes decrees, and Corbett moves to execute them, making rationalization after rationalization as he goes.  In fact, Corbett has an excuse for everything he does, no matter how evil.

This leads me to one of the most distinctive components of “The Book,” namely, the way that Ms. Irwin puts us inside Corbett’s head. It’s not, strictly speaking, stream of consciousness, but the approach is reminiscent of that.  When Corbett fixates on a small detail — such as a gap in his bookshelves — it’s uncomfortable, because all of us have done the same thing at some point.

This is what makes “The Book” so disturbing.  We can identify with Corbett readily enough at the beginning; by being privy to his thoughts we can see how similar we are to him. But when he begins to change under the influence of the book, we balk.  After all, our willpower is stronger than that.  In a similar set of circumstances, we would resist. There can be no doubt of that.

Can there?