[Short Story Review] The Book by Margaret Irwin

I'm currently in the slower-than-I'd-like-it-to-be process of reading Modern Ghost Stories by Eminent Women Writers, an anthology from the early 90s edited by Richard Dalby. It's going slowly because the first two stories were, to my tastes, duds; the second was more interesting but not at all what I'm looking for in a ghost story. The fourth tale in the collection, though, is Margaret Irwin's "The Book", and god damn did it deliver!

Here's what I said about it over on Goodreads:

Margaret Irwin's "The Book" is the first actual horror story of this collection. Unlike the morose and boring "The July Ghost", the unremarkable "With and Without Buttons", and the quirky-ghostly "Don't Tell Cissie", "The Book" has some real teeth to its plotline. The story dates from 1930, but its genuinely creepy plotline is a forebearer of modern horror stories. It's got Satanic undertones, features some mind-screwiness that wouldn't be terribly out of place in anything from a Lovecraft tale to a NoSleep story, and presents a genuine, bloody threat to its characters. Unlike most older ghost stories, the danger isn't that someone will see a ghost and die of fright; here, the characters might find themselves poisoned as their patriarch slowly goes insane.

To sum up--mostly for my own recollection, because I really want to make sure I mention this story in the eventual review for the [anthology]--the story involves an aging family man discovering that something weird is going on with his bookshelf. He picks out a book, changes his mind, and goes to pick out a different one--only to discover that there's now a larger gap in the bookshelf than he can explain. (It's all very House of Leaves, and I adore House of Leaves.) Anyway, in reading these perfectly ordinary books from this less-than-ordinary bookshelf, the MC starts to see [a] perversity and wickedness in the stories that was never there before. Illustrations are twisted and evil; characters are malicious and pathetic; authors are sad little liars or cruel literary gods. More frightening, though, is that the gap in the bookshelf has disappeared by morning, even though the books the MC took have not been replaced.

When he brings this [oddity] up to his family, his little children nonchalantly agree: books taken from that shelf are bizarre and frightening, and the bookshelf is always full when you return to it, no matter how many books you take. (It's creepy and I love it!) And then, after getting more and more obsessed with reading books from this bookshelf, the MC finds one he probably shouldn't have. It's a handwritten thing in Latin with margins full of unrecognizable symbols, and that's never a good sign, is it? The MC begins translating it and eventually discovers cryptic commands in it. Following them brings him hitherto elusive financial success.

The guy's mental health is clearly suffering--and he likes his family less and less with every passing day--but so far, things are going pretty well! And then the commands get... yikes. The newest command is to kill his dog, and, well, his dog's been growling at him lately, so why not bump the furry little bastard off? In other words, bro's gone nuts & doesn't realize it. (His family's terrified.) Fear not, though, as the daughter quite accidentally saves the dog's life. Except she's grabbed by a ghostly hand while she does so, which is a little terrifying. The MC comforts her, and for a moment, he almost actually likes the poor kid again. And then he goes back to his book. And reads that the next command is to kill her. And he immediately talks himself into it, because he's just that far gone. Except he changes his mind at the very last second. He flings the book into the fireplace... and is immediately choked to death by ghostly hands. In the morning, he's discovered, and it's assumed that he committed suicide because of the sudden collapse of his financial enterprises (which he couldn't have known about yet, but what other logical explanation is there?)

It's a good story. The mind-screwy, House of Leaves-y elements of the bookshelf are to die for, & while the "evil book promises hidden knowledge while compelling the reader to evil" thing is a bit overdone now, that's not the point. It's a fun trope, and seeing an iteration of it from ninety years ago is awesome. "The Book" alone makes this collection worth reading, even if no other story does.

I really hope there are some more gems like this one lurking in the later pages of this anthology, but even if there aren't, I think I'm satisfied. This story hits tropes that I just genuinely adore, and I'm so happy that I came across it! I'm definitely putting Irwin's short story collection in my to-read list; I don't know if she's got anything else quite as good as this, but I'm very interested in finding out!

And, hey, if you know any more creepy, mind-screwy stories in the vein of "The Book" and House of Leaves, be sure to drop me a line about them. I love that shit, and I'm always on the lookout for more.

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