an old, buckled leather-bound book

Weird #19: “The Book” by Margaret Irwin (1930)

Margaret Irwin

Margaret Irwin’s “The Book” is considered both a ghost story and a weird tale. These two genres do not always coincide. In “Supernatural Horror and Literature,” H. P. Lovecraft says that the true weird tale goes beyond the ghost story’s formalism to give a certain atmosphere of breathlessness and unexplained dread of “outer, unknown forces” (“Introduction”). Irwin’s ghost story accomplishes this mood and atmosphere. Not only does the protagonist become aware of the haunting, despite his sceptism, but he comes to see his ordinary world as an illusion. His very rationality becomes twisted, supporting his fall into madness.

The formalism of the ghost story was explored by the Russian formalist Tzvetan Todorov in his famous analysis of “The Black Cat” by Edgar Allan Poe. In his analysis, the reader of the ghost story bandies continually between being convinced that the haunting has a supernatural origin and justifying a natural explanation for the phenomenon. A ghost story can thus achieve three effects by time the tale achieves closure:

1) the reader reaches the conclusion that it definitely has a natural explanation, in which case it is known as an “uncanny” story;

2) the reader concludes that the haunting must truly be supernatural, in which case it is a case of the “marvellous”;

and 3) a perfect balance of ambiguity between the natural and the supernatural is achieved, in which case it is an example of what Todorov calls “the fantastic.” It is fantastic because the reader cannot decide whether it has a natural or supernatural explanation.

Very few stories achieve a perfect fantastic ending. But most ghost stories do play with the reader’s uncertainty of whether the haunting has a natural and supernatural explanation. It is this interplay that can be thought of as defining the form of the ghost story.

Irwin’s story, like many ghost stories, performs this Todorovian game with the reader. But it also establishes a mood–essential both to the weird tale and the effective ghost story.

The story begins when Mr. Corbett, filled with ennui upon reading a detective story, returns to his library to pick up another book to entertain himself. For one reason or another, a cynical, moribund mood has overcome him, and it colours his reading of every book he picks off the shelf.

Corbett cannot read even optimistic literature without seeing the skull beneath the skin. He sees Charles Dickens’ “revolting pleasure in cruelty and suffering,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s “sickly attraction to brutality,” and calls Jane Austen “a prying, sub-acid busybody in everyone else’s flirtations” (184-5). No explanation is given for this mood–he might have just become tired of the optimistic rationalism found in commercial detective novels.

When he replaces the Dickens book, he realizes that there is a larger gap in his bookshelf than there had been before. “This is nonsense,” Corbett thinks. “No one can possibly have gone into the dining-room and removed a book while I was crossing the hall” (184). It is the first sign of a haunting, of something potentially marvellous, in Todorov’s sense. Of course, he does not believe in ghosts, and he has no reason to suspect that there could be one in his house. However, the gap torments his mind once he goes to sleep. It becomes “the most hideous deformity, like a gap between the front teeth of some grinning monster” (184). By the time he awakes, the gap has disappeared. He thinks nothing of it.

Later, he seeks out an old Latin tome in the theological library. As he sets about interpreting it, he reads about the horrible rights of devil worshippers and falls sick. He returns to his family, who seem to be “like sheep”: “nothing in his appearance in the mirror struck him as odd; it was their gaping faces that were unfamiliar” (186). This passage is uncanny in the Freudian sense of unheimlich, or “unhomely.” Corbett sees his own family as other; what is homely and familiar becomes unhomely and strange. The mood conjured by the Latin book has made him see the unreality of his mundane existence, conjuring a mood that goes beyond that of the ghost story into weird tale territory.

It’s this combination of the ghost story form and the weird tale mood that makes Irwin’s “The Book” such a “weird” ghost story. The ghost is not only haunting Corbett; his experience of the ghost alienates him from his very sense of reality.

But the story’s strangest turn has yet to happen. Corbett notices that a few lines of Latin text are being added to the book every night. No one in his family is writing this text; it simply appears. He comes to read these lines as if they were words from an oracle, or a prophet. A practical man, when he reads the line “Ex auro canceris / In dentem elephanits” (“Out of the money of the crab / Into the tooth of the elephant”) (188), he invests his money in the African ivory trade. He makes a killing on his investment.

Due to this turn of good fortune, he learns to trust the book to tell him what to do. Every night he interprets new lines from the text. However, it takes a turn for the worst when he reads “Canem occide” (“Kill the dog”). He attempts to murder the family dog, Mike, who he does not like, with rat poison.

Fortunately, he fails, but his young daughter has a dream that night of a disembodied hand crawling among the bookshelves and picking out a particular volume. Corbett comforts her as the ominousness of the dream settles. Then that same night, he reads the next command: “Infantem occide,” or “Kill the child.”

In one disturbing moment, he resolves to use the rat poison to kill his own daughter:

Jean had acquired dangerous knowledge. She was a spy, an antagonist. That she was so unconsciously, that she was eight years old, his youngest and favourite child, were sentimental appeals that could make no difference to a man of sane reasoning power such as his own. Jean had sided with Mike against him.

(191)

In this passage, Corbett rationalizes his paranoid delusions much like Edgar Allan Poe’s narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” His rationalism, which has affected his taste in literature and his scepticism of ghosts, is now precisely what drives him into unreality. Furthermore, his patriarchal rejection of sentiment (gendered female) as non-rational drives him to reject his common sense and commit the unthinkable.

However, in the end, he cannot bring himself to kill his own child. He throws the cursed tome into the fireplace. As a result, his body is discovered later. He is assumed to have committed suicide due to a sudden plunge in the ivory stocks. But the strangling finger marks discovered around his throat suggest a final, supernatural explanation for his death and all the preceding events: the severed hand from his daughter’s dream has killed him for disobedience.

What is so horrible about this story is not so much the supernatural itself as the all-too-willingness of human beings to obey such heartless commands. The second half of this ghost story bears certain similarities to “The Spider” by Hanns Heinz Ewers in how the void seems to whisper dark commands to the protagonist, commanding absolute obedience.

From a politico-economic standpoint, I also find it interesting that Corbett invests in the African ivory trade, which likely means he invested in the Congo, where the Belgians were responsible for genocidal abuses at the beginning of the century. The Belgian atrocities included cutting the hands off slaves engaged in the rubber and ivory trade. It is interesting that a severed hand then murders Corbett, who likely invested in this same industry. It is interesting to imagine the hand as the severed revenant of an African slave. Though the text itself may not support such a reading, the imagery is suggestive.

Next week, I’ll be discussing Flemish writer Jean Ray’s “The Mainz Psalter” (1930). Ray is one of the few authors in this anthology to have been published twice in The Weird.