I loveÂ the idea that there’s power in words, that writing can create or destroy. It’s a device I’ve seen used in some of my favorite works of fiction. Chuck Palahniuk exploresÂ the idea in Lullaby, a story involving a book ofÂ lullabiesÂ that when read aloud, killsÂ the listener. In Michael Cisco’sÂ The Divinity Student, a young man is struck dead by lightning, only to be cut open, stuffed with pages of arcane writing and resurrected. He goes on to search for the lost Catalogue of Unknown Words, words that describeÂ the very essence of creation and existence.Â
I wanted to write a story along these lines, and I did…
A Curious Book
by: Michael Phillips
You slide into a hot bath, it’s a white porcelain, brass claw-foot tub. Very 1940s, very curvy, it fitsÂ you perfectly, your shoulders rest nicely againstÂ the back of the tub. You’re a fellow of twenty-eight, tall and slender, with short black hair, worn to look messy. Your eyesÂ are a calm blue.
The room itself is black tile, it’s almost like floating in space.Â
Steam rises from the water, tickling your nose. You lie back a little further, submerged up to your chin. The room is dark, save for a full-moon, its beams of pale silver pouring in through an above skylight. You turn your head slightly, glancing at a shiny pair of twin razor-blades neatly stacked on the tub’s rim. Beads of sweat run down your forehead, stinging your eyes a bit. A small book bound in black leather rests next toÂ the glinting metal blades, a bright white hand-towel atÂ the end ofÂ the row. You smile a little at the book, you smile because what’s said to be written inside is so ridiculous. Yet, as ridiculous as this tiny book may be, you’re glad to add it to your collection.
You stumbled upon this particular tome at “The Rare Book Shoppe of London est. 1914.” It caught your eye because while it’s a very plain looking book, it was also the only book locked in a small, rather dusty display case, not in the front, but insteadÂ the very back of the store.Â The entire place smelled of old books, that musty smell of aged paperÂ you love so very much. BooksÂ are your passion, they’re your most beloved fix. You only ownÂ the most bizarre and obscure volumes, books on magick andÂ the occult being your favorites. You own them for value,Â you own them for their oddity, but above all,Â you own them to read them.
So, you found this small black book, imprisoned in a glass box to be most intriguing. You had to askÂ the store-clerk aboutÂ the possibility of purchase. He was a short, middle-aged man with a round face, blond hair in a ridiculous pony-tail. His dull green eyes peered out atÂ you through black wire-frame glasses, square and pretentious.
“Oh, that, we don’t sell that book,” he said. He said, “my great grandfather left us that book. It’s just a show piece, something forÂ the atmosphere.” That, of course, didn’t satisfy you.
“Atmosphere?” you questioned.
“Well, its history is rather outrageous. Apparently, it was written in 1911, by an unknown author. How our great grandfather acquired it, we don’t rightly know.”
“We?” you inquired.
“Yes, my brother and I inherited this fine establishment, and that book,” he answered.
“Well,” you said, “the book doesn’t sound particularly outrageous.”
“Of course not,” he said, “I haven’t gotten toÂ the outrageous part yet, sir.” He said, “You see, none of us has ever readÂ the book.”
“Why?” you asked smiling, waiting forÂ the pitch,Â the story, the sell.
“According to our father, his father, and his grandfather, our great grandfather, the book is never to be read, ever. It’s said that a writer, if they manage to write letters that form words that form sentences that form paragraphs in justÂ the right way,Â the writer is able to create reality forÂ the reader. This book, supposedly, creates a rather horrible reality.”
“And what reality is that?” you asked,Â you absolutely had to ask.
“It inspires suicide, sir,” he answered plainly.
Well, that did it, pitch successful, you had to have the book. Cost didn’t matter, nothing mattered but owning that book.Â The suicide book.Â You don’t believe it, of course, but the idea of such a book was too delicious.
You’re quite wealthy, old money, from your mother’s mother. Your father is also quite well-off and celebrated as, ironically, an author. They’re divorced like any modern couple, competing for their son’s affections. Needless to say, whether you’re working or not, mostly writing attempted poetry and prose, money’s never a concern. You immediately offered the man seven-thousand pounds on the spot.
“Sir, really, it’s not for sale, it’s been in my family for over one-hundred years,” he said flatly.
“I’m offering you seven-thousand pounds right now, without even having the book authenticated.”
With a raised eyebrow, he quickly retorted, “I imagine authentication would be rather dangerous.”
“Yes, I don’t doubtÂ the book,” he said smiling.
Regrouping, gathering your composure, asÂ you found yourself frustrated and excited by the bargaining, “fourteen-thousand and my attorney will draw up papers stating that upon my death, your family will retainÂ the book,” you said.
“Sir, I don’t think you understand.”
“No, I definitely understand. I need this book.”
The shop-owner lowered his head, his resolve weakened, he sighed, “are you going to read it?”
You grinned and said, “of course.”
“Are you insane?” he questioned sincerely. To whichÂ you replied, “possibly.”
“Could I buyÂ the book?”
“No. If it is what I think it is, no. I couldn’t possibly. Still…” he trailed off.
“Still?” you pressed.
“Well, I have to admit, I am curious to know one way or another about that fucking book,” he said. His voice tired, defeated, yet, you heard something else. Hope, there was hope in his voice. “I have an idea that could satisfy us both. Let me go with you when you read it. You give meÂ the fourteen-thousand, read the book. If you decide to do something horrible to yourself, I’ll safely collect the book and possibly save your life. If you don’t, well, I go home and you own a strange little antique book.”
“And your brother?” you asked.
“Are you trying to politely escape, sir?”
“No, of course not.”
“Then, let’s not worry about my brother,” he replied with smirk.
So, here youÂ are in a hot bath, a strange man sipping brandy in your living-room.Â You findÂ the entire affair absurd. This book, this fiction, is not going to cause your suicide. You’re going to read it in your nice bath, slip on your robe in a few hours, walk into your living-room, and sendÂ the bored, probably drunk shop-owner home. You’re absolutely certain. You don’t, however, doubtÂ the book’s age, you knowÂ the scent and texture of such things.Â
You look toward the book, andÂ the razors, and the book, andÂ the bright white hand towel. You dry your hands before picking up your leather-bound indulgence.Â The first page is blank.Â The second page, blank. Third, blank. Blank blank blank blank, everything Goddamn fucking blank. Blank, untilÂ the last page…
“Life, full and beautiful, but never to last. AllÂ withers, all dies. Better to burn than fade away.”
For a moment, your entire world spins, you feel sick and giddy. You no longer see words on the page, but images in your head. A steady, overwhelming flow of images, sensations, memories.
Hazel eyes smiling at you, loving you. Her lips against yours, nails digging into your chest, the heatÂ you feel inside her. Pleasure. Pain.Â PleasurableÂ pain. Climax. Dance clubs, music so loud you feel it in your chest. Grey eyes, cool grey eyes, peaceful grey eyes. She’s flowing, dancing, happy. Vodka, a beautifully warm feeling in your face.Â A gentle kiss on your forehead.Â Gorgeous brown eyes, inviting brown eyes, brown eyes you know and so want to know more. Tattoo needles, words and images etched into your flesh. You’re a book yourself, you’re reading yourself.
Then, nothing, absolutely nothing. In an instant, in a blink, everything’s gone, you’re empty.Â The words on the pageÂ are clear again.
You calmly returnÂ the book to its resting place,Â you pick up the razors. Without a thought, without a care, you run one razor, vertically, down your right wrist.Â You drop this razor. WithÂ the other you slice, again vertically, your left wrist. Warm, thick fluid runs toward the palms of your hands, the tips of your fingers, intoÂ the water.Â The water goes pink, then red. It’s beautiful, and you feel sleepy.Â You feel sleepy, and you wonder where you’ll wake up.Â You wonder, then wonder, and wonder a little more.Â You sleep.
It’s the longest piece of fiction I’ve ever written that I don’t find astonishingly bad.