My pal Jim loaned me a movie, Dead Birds, a nifty little low-budget horror film, and I watched it this weekend. It's definitely a creeper, and it shows what someone can do with a limited budget. It's set during the Civil War and concerns a bunch of deserters who rob a bank, kill some innocent bystanders, and then hide out in an old mansion deep in the Alabama woods. Things don't go well. It actually made me jump a couple of times. (Though the DVD box art gives away one of the big scares. duh.) Jim figured I would like it because it has echoes of Robert E. Howard's Pigeons From Hell in its abandoned Antebellum mansion setting and because it pays homage to H.P. Lovecraft in that all the horrific happenings are set in motion by a book of spells. The late plantation owner was attempting to bring his wife back from the dead using the book, but instead he opened a gate to a bad bad place and let some things cross over to our side.
As soon as I saw the book I knew it would be at the root of the problem. It's strange how often spell books, scrolls, and Grimoires of arcane knowledge turn out to be the main plot point of so many horror stories. I think we can blame H.P. Lovecraft for most of that since the majority of these books are shadows of Lovecraft's fabled Necronomicon. And knowing the gentleman from Providence, I think he would be pleased. Back when Lovecraft was writing his Cthulhu mythos stories for Weird Tales, he encouraged other writers such as Robert E. Howard, Clark Aston Smith, Robert Bloch, and August Derleth to join in the fun. These writers came up with their own tomes of dangerous lore, such as Nameless Cults, The Book of Eibon, Mysteries of the Worm, and Cults of the Ghouls. Other writers over the years added more volumes to the library of Cthulhu.
But it doesn't stop there. There have been other dangerous books invented over the years, most at least partially influenced by the Necronomicon. F. Paul Wilson created the Compendium of Srem for his Repairman Jack series, an ancient volume of eldritch Lore. The Compendium of Srem is probably the most cooperative evil book out there, as it translates itself into whatever language you happen to read.
Terry Brooks' entire Tolkien-ish Shannara series was set into motion by a sentient grimoire called the Ildatch. It was reading this book that would eventually transform the Druid Brona into the Warlock Lord. Even a single page from the Ildatch posed a threat to the world in the novella Indomitable. A very bad book.
The movie In the Mouth of Madness, which I reviewed last month, revolves around a horror writer whose books drive his readers mad and eventually allow a doorway to the outer dark to open into our world.
Over in Marvel Comics we have the Darkhold, kind of a Necronomicon equivalent for Marvel's Cthulhu knockoff, Chthon. Various Lovecraft inspired tomes of terror have turned up on TV shows such as Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hercules and Xena, and many others. It's a powerful trope. (I used it myself in my story The Silent History. The titular book must never, ever be read aloud.)
So where did Lovecraft get the idea for his blasphemous book? Obviously there have been real (Real in the sense that they existed, not that they were magic) spell books over the years. John Dee supposedly had quite a collection. Lovecraft was aware of several books about the occult but he considered most of them boring and useless as fodder for his fiction. He preferred to just make everything up. The most probable inspiration was Robert Chamber's book The King in Yellow, which features a story about a play called the King in Yellow, which drives mad anyone who reads it. I suppose it was never performed. Lovecraft mentions The King in Yellow in his pseudo essay The History of the Necronomicon, saying that King in Yellow was probably influenced by the actual Necronomicon. More likely it was the other way around.
(It just occurred to me that a fun Cthulhu mythos story would have some idiot scanning the Necronomicon and uploading it to Google Books. Feel free to steal the idea. Just send me a copy.)
Anyway, somewhere in the vast library of books that were never written is a section kept separate from the rest of the library. A dark corner with one blinking overhead light, where the shelves tilt and the geometry seems wrong. Here are housed those blasphemous books of arcane knowledge and eldritch lore.