“The Book”

This week’s weird fiction discussed over at LibraryThing is something fairly unique.

Review: “The Book”, Margie Irwin, 1930.

This story mixes a lot of things together. Part ghost story, part tale of demonic possession, and definitely a contaminated text story though of a different sort than Mark Samuels’ “A Contaminated Text” or Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “Ex Libris”.

The story opens one November night with protagonist Corbett looking for something to read after stopping his reading of an unsatisfactory detective novel. In the dining-room bookcase are some books, mostly “dull and obscure old theological books” inherited from his late uncle’s library. They are mixed in with cheap novels bought at railway stalls by Corbett’s wife and “respectable nineteenth century works of culture” that Corbett bought in his Oxford days, and children’s books. The uncle’s books have an “air of scorn that belongs to a private and concealed knowledge”. 

A fancy takes Corbett (in his “vaporous and fog-ridden” Kensington living room?) that a “dank and poisonous breath” is exhaled by some of the volumes. He grabs a Dickens’ work then goes back for a Walter Pater book. He notices a gap left by the Dickens The Old Curiosity Shop which seems too large. That seems strange. Corbett hurriedly leaves to return to his bedroom. He almost feels like his house is haunted. 

But the old pleasures of Dickens aren’t there this time. It seems sentimental, to take pleasure in cruelty and suffering. The humorous is now diabolic. The peculiar thought comes to him that there is “something evil in the austere worship of beauty for its own sake”. 

He wakes up two or three times from strange dreams of trousered devils torturing women, gods and heroes of “classic fable” acting out deeds of crime and shame. He goes for another book, and the gap in the shelf is still there. 

At breakfast the next day, he asks his two daughters and son Dicky about the gap. Jean, his eight year old daughter, asks if he hasn’t noticed that, no matter how many books you take out of the second shelf of the bookcase, there’s always a gap. Nora, the other daughter, notes Jean was crying over the pictures in The Rose and the Ring. Dicky pronounces a book from that shelf “filthy stuff” and kicks it across the room. The book is Boy’s Gulliver’s Travels. Given his school reports, Corbett is surprised his son perceives the “underlying cynicism” of Swift’s story.  (Corbett only feels that way from “critical books” he’s read, not from reading Swift’s text.)

Dicky is off reading now, and so is Corbett. The “old and familiar” books Corbett likes to read in his library now seem depressing “in some obscure way, disgusting”. The authors’ hidden pathologies are revealed. For instance, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island now seems like an “invalid’s sickly attraction to brutality”. Then he starts to read works specifically to find those pathologies. Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë now seem “two unpleasant examples of spinisterhood”. Wordsworth’s love of nature now seems a “monstrous egoism” born of isolation. 

Corbett’s attitude towards his work changes too. He is a solicitor and not a very successful one, and he begins to resent that he doesn’t have money to invest. He’s convinced now he could invest better than his wealthier colleagues. He begins to skip lunches with them and reads alone more. 

He realizes his wife has always bored him. He begins to disklike Dicky as a “impudent blockhead”. His two daughters are now “insipidly alike”. He feels relieved when his family goes to bed and leaves him to his reading in his bedroom. He begins to sense that, in his reading, he will find “some secret key to existence” to transform his dull life into one “worthy of him and his powers”. 

He even starts to read some of his uncle’s theological books. He finds one that is actually a hand-written manuscript in Latin. His Latin is very rusty so he gets his son’s Latin dictionary and goes to work to decispher the book and its many drawings. There are referenes to a Master and his wishes and commands. One horrible passage surely can’t be a ceremony of the Master but the account of a “savage tribe of devil-worshippers”. 

He copies the signs. He feels a “sickly cold” come on him. This happens when his family is in the drawing-room, and he’s at a desk in corner of it. He goes to look in on them. His wife is concerned about his expression and asks him what’s wrong. To him they look like so many placid and stupid sheep. Mike, the family dog, snarls at him and backs up. Nora asks her father what the red mark is on his face. Dickey says it looks like a fingerprint. Corbett excuses himself and goes to bed. 

The next day he feels great. That day he gets lucky and is asked by a client, Crab, to administer a large sum of money. At last, he will have more money than his colleagues. That night the only thing he wants to read is the manuscript. There is, he notices, a pleasant smell of corruption about it, the “smell of ancient and secret knowledge”.

This night the meaning of the manuscript becomes clearer. He decides he’s going to translate the whole book. It depicts a secret society with rituals so “vile and terrible” they scarce seem human. At the end of the book, he notices the ink seems fresher than the rest and in a 17th century style script. 

He also notices that things have been added to the last pages since the last time he looked. The penultimate sentence says “I died with my purpose unachieved. Continue, thou, the never-ending studies.” 

Corbett puts the book in a desk drawer, stepping back from it warily, briefly panicked when he encounters the door which he forgot he locked. He goes to his bedroom and acts “the way he had lost his head after losing his innocence when a schoolboy of sixteen” (meaning, I assume, his virginity). He buries his head in his pillowing crying about how he won’t do it again. 

But his words remind him of other words. He starts to pray. But his prayers come out backwards (a notable feature of Satanic rituals). Then he laughs so loudly he wakes up his wife in her bedroom who says it sounds like the “laugh of a devil”. He settles her down without confessing it was him. 

Before anyone else is up the next morning, Corbett eagerly looks at the book. Two more lines have been added: 

Out of the money of the crab

Into the tooth of the elephant. 

From then on, his colleagues notice the changes in the formerly rather mediocre, “rather flab” Corbett. He uses Crab’s money and invests in African ivory. 

Every night, he hurries home to look at the book which continues to have new lines each morning. But, with the commands, are other lines of a “meaningless, childish, yet revolving character” as if written by an imbecile.

He becomes afraid when the stock tips drop off when the book’s orders aren’t followed. Corbett begins to fear for his reputation and safety implying that he has, perhaps, been embezzling Crabl’s money for his own investments. But he doesn’t hesitate to “obey blindly” because he knows more than “mere financial failure” is at stake. He also realizes the book exerts other influences. Some force moved it into the bookshelf’s second shelf. He notices children never taking any books out of that bookshelf. He has money now, but all the things he planned to do with seem “insipid”. 

One evening, the book’s instructions are simple: “Kill the dog”. He’s happy to obey because, ever since that mark showed up on his face, Corbett hasn’t gotten along with Mike. He puts some rat poison in Mike’s water dish. 

Jean wakes up that night from a bad dream. Corbett learns that Jean sometimes has nightmares that wake her up. This one had a hand passing backwards and forwards over the bookcase and taking a certain book out of it. 

Corbett, going downstairs, notices Mike’s water dish is overturned, water on the rug.

Trying to comfort Jean after his wife goes to bed, Corbett is annoyed she no longer likes to sit on his knee. At first, he feels clever reassuring Jean, but then he suddenly feels very protective towards her. He learns from Jean that his daughters have taken to having Mike sleep in their room. 

After her nightmare, Jean woke up and noticed Mike was gone. She went after Mike and started to pull him away. It was then she felt a hand clutching her arm. She then ran up the stairs screaming. Corbett now knows the water dish was upset before Mike could drink it. He retreats, agitated.

He reassures himself that he’s not a bad man, he’s “never done anything actually wrong”. His clients have made money. He didn’t undertake debaucheries with the money he made it. And he wasn’t wrong to try and kill Mike. “It might have bitten Jeannie.” Then he notices he never thought of his daughter under that name. 

He’s going to have to forbid her from further meddling and leaving her room at night. Then he gets fearful again. Maybe he should send the kids to boarding-school. He opens his door and stands outside Jean’s and Nora’s room. He is fearful because he hears no sound.

In the dining room bookshelf is another gap that hadn’t been there. On the desk is the book, open, with new orders. 

The newest command horrifies him: “Infantem occide”, kill the child. 

The book smells of corruption. Corbett tells himself he is

no sniveling dotard, but a man stronger and wiser than his fellows, superior to the common emotions of humanity

with “ancient and secret powers”. The command makes sense. Jean has “dangerous knowledge”.  She’s a spy. She may be his youngest and favorite, but sentimentality shouldn’t stop a sane man like him. Mike and Jean need to go with the rat poison. 

He resolves, a sensation of cold about him, to do it tonight. 

As he opens the door to the dining room, he is suddenly flung backwards and stumbles. He seizes the book and tosses it into the fireplace. He suddenly feels choked, strangled, and collapses on the floor.

The maid finds him dead the next morning. The view in “the City” is that Corbett committed suicide when his speculations collapsed. However, as the final paragraph notes, there are the marks of a finger on his throat. 

So, was Corbett’s uncle involved in black magic? Is the story a ghost tale with the Master haunting Corbett’s home through the book? Is the book itself an embodied force of evil? 

I particularly liked how the book corrupts all of Corbetts feelings towards books, his family, and colleagues.

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