The Smell of the Weird: Sniffing Books

In going through our library and acquiring books for our reading for The Weird antho, I’ve noticed once again the smell of books, and in particular the smell of the weird. Herein I disclose Part 1 of my findings, with a relatively small sample.

Jean Ray’s Ghouls in My Grave dates from 1965, and thus there’s a full-on must surrounding this slim paperback. The cover’s foxed and there are a couple of peculiar gray stains on the binding that add to the ambiance. The scent surrounding the book like a mist is a subtle yet sharp melange of cigar smoke, mold, gravel, and something in the background I can’t quite identify no matter how long I sniff Ghouls. Dry earth? Anyway, this is a classic case of the aging of a book creating the perfect smell for its subject matter. Indeed, one might speculate from this sampling that some reading experiences will only have the appropriate tactile element after an aging process has occurred. (Taken to its furthest extreme, Kerouac would require steeping in years of cross-country buses and cars and anything by Bukowski would need to be marinated in a bar for decades.)

It was risky sampling The Unexpected edited by Bennett Cerf next, because it dates from a similar time (1963) and is in a similar format. Therefore, you might expect my experience with Ghouls might have compromised my power of analysis. However, the book has suffered more structural damage over the years, and this has allowed more retention of scent deep in its pages. It has a much thicker mustiness, minus any hint of cigar or cigarette smoke. There’s almost a kind of purple smell to it–I can’t describe it any other way–that’s redolent of the gothic. Yes, the mold smell, too, but there’re definite grass tones, yellowing, and a bitterness that’s almost like an aftertaste. I’m not sure where that aftertaste comes from–there are stories by Dunsany, Collier, and O’Henry in this anthology–but it’s really strong, and it comes on at the end in a wave. Because it’s deep in the book, the smell really comes out when you flip the pages.

This copy of T.E.D. Klein’s Dark Gods has been to Hell and back. Not only is it an ex-libris copy from Labor City (?!), it has stamps inside from more than one used bookstore. The cover is severely worn and there’s a line of weird green duct tape on the back. No stains, thank god, but all in all it looks like someone used it as a weapon in a bar brawl. Again, the ever-present must, but much more dustiness, too, and a peculiar scent of oak that might be whisky residue. It’s closer in smell to the Ghouls than The Unexpected.

Rawhead & Bloody Bones and Elusive Plato by the mysterious and mercurial (and lemurish) Rhys Hughes hails from 1998, and came to us directly from the author. For this reason, it lacks the must, but the corners of the spine show some wear from the constant rubbing of cat chins against them, despite our best efforts to relocate the book where it could not be reached. The smell is fresh and clean, as if in ironic counterpoint to the contents. The slightest hint of some petunia-like perfume seems to linger, but it’s very hard to tell for sure.

Laura Hird’s Nail and Other Stories, from 1999, has picked up a bit of creasing and foxing, but nothing too major. The glue of the binding has become a little more pronounced, like an old person’s gums, but this trade paperback is holding together pretty well. Strangely, the must of this book has a definite sweetness to it–like a white wine. This sweetness lifts through the must and grabs hold of your throat, creating a harshness that’s hard to shake. I wonder if I’ve now smelled my way into becoming a carrier for some horrible micro-organism. Only time will tell.

The most disturbing of the lot is Teatro Grottesco by Thomas Ligotti, from a couple of years ago. It doesn’t have that new book smell. It has no trace of must or mold. In fact, it has no smell at all, which is like having no shadow or no reflection. I wish I were joking about this, but I find this absence of scent quite unnerving.

Next week: I sniff Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side, and more.


  1. says

    Strangely, of all the odd endeavors begun and lived by you and the Weird writer cadre you keep with, this scent study might contain the finest output of prose as a result. My nose has always had the most peculiar hold on me, far above and beyond my other senses, despite being a visual artist. I’m trapped and held by the vivid and interesting descriptions you garner from the explorations of your booksmells, and it makes me want to sniff my library, too.

    I’ve also been wanting a copy of “The Other Side” for years, and have no end of trouble finding it anywhere, though I hear Google Books has it now, so maybe one day I can just order a copy printed. Can’t wait to read about the ambiance.

  2. says

    I have a copy of Teatro Grottesco and after reading this I felt compelled to pull it down off the stack and give it a sniff. I am forced to admit that on the surface, just flipping through the pages in an attempt to smell them, there was no smell. However, when pressed to move further into the book there was the faint, if unmistakable, odor of glue. It being a newer purchase, only a few months old and barely–not even fully–read, the absence of the new book smell is odd and, yes, unnerving.

    And I could have stopped there, but instead I moved about my room picking up books and smelling them, strangely unafraid of being walked in on. The majority of my books are newer, released in the last few years, so there is little to say of their scents, which consisted of little more than a vast array of woody scents in variable degrees of strength. The only one that stood out was The Other City by Michal Ajvaz, which did not give off that woody scent, but something else that I cannot put my finger on.

    Ah, but not all of my books are new. I quickly located a copy of The Most of P.G. Wodehouse, published in the late sixties. This copy, which I prefer to use as an example of why you must be careful when ordering from used booksellers, has surpassed yellow pages and settled for a nice orange-brown. When bent, the book’s pages crack and break and what I can only guess was once glue now mists down from the spine whenever the book is held vertically. The book need not come closer than a foot for the must, mold, and years of collected dust to assault one’s nose, it need only be open. But then assault is too strong a word. While the must and mold is strong, when past it finally and close enough to the page, the book smells of vanilla and, oddly enough, just a hint of cigar smoke.

    My copy of Borges’ Labyrinths printed in 1964 (and in excellent shape, I must add) has just the slightest tinge of mold amongst its woody scent while flipping through the pages, but I was somewhat distressed to find that, much like Teatro Grottesco, the true scent of the book lay closer to the spine. Distressed, very much so, because unlike the scent of glue the aforementioned possessed, Labyrinths smelled of pickles. And believe me, I wish that was a joke.

    Unfortunately, having lived with smokers all of my life, my sense of smell is almost as poor as my eyesight (very poor). As such, my attempts at olfactory analysis leave much to be desired.

  3. Hellbound Heart says

    i love this post….it broke my heart in a big way a few years ago when i was moving house (and i was kinda dead-flat broke) and i had to sell 99% of my book collection……the memories and the wonderful aroma of well-loved books…..

    peace and love….

  4. says

    Ah, the smell of books…

    It seems strange how language doesn’t seem to have many words to describe smell. I’ve a book that smells like cut grass that was left out in the rain, dried and then left for a few months, one that has this most peculiar odor of dry sand and salt, another that has something earthy underneath the musty odor (the book is about a pilot), and another that actually smells faintly sweet and citrus-y without a trace of mustiness.

    I would guess that the longer one hangs around books, one’s olfactory centers become finer tuned to the nuances of the smells of bindings, pages and covers.

  5. says

    My copy of Bulwer-Lytton’s Days of Pompeii, printed in the 1890s, smells of dry, overly-done dust, fungus, and dark and stormy nights.

  6. moth says

    This post brings back the memories of working in a book repair during college. The library at my school had some rule that they HAD to keep all of the books they acquired and repair them or something. We’d end up working on really random thing like veterinary journals from the late 180s0 that had never been checked out. So they’d get their hinges repaired, covers resewn on, and little custom boxes were made for the ones that couldn’t be helped any other way. I love that smell.
    Still jealous of that jean ray book. :) Think they’ll ever reprint it?

  7. James Kenyon says

    I have a second edition of Poe’s Tales of Mystery, bought years ago in Oxford, and I swear it smells of linen pillowcases and camphor.

  8. says

    How wondrous and strange. Like a previous commenter, this breaks the heart a bit, as it reminds me of the few years I spent managing my step-father’s rare & occult business. I always thought the older copies of Kenneth Grant’s books had a particular sharp, sour smell, whereas the ages-old grimoires…le Dragon Rouge or something like that smelled like …playdoh. The Picatrix just smelled like a pile of legal documents, which I thought was a little disappointing!

  9. Tim Jeski says

    If you want to smell a book that has an unusual aroma, take a whiff of Reggie Oliver’s The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler. It has a strange, almost tangy smell. I don’t know if it’s the stock, the binding, the boards, the ink, or a combination of all or some of the above, but it’s got a special something in terms of aroma, never mind the stories within. The problem is finding one to smell…they are exceedingly rare.

  10. Tim Jeski says

    Just for the record, I have a Vanguard edition of Marshall McLuhan’s The Mechanical Bride printed in 1951 here with me, and in light of the discussion, I decided to pick it up and smell it. It has that absolutely fabulous smell of aged books, you know, that smell of a used book store or the stacks in a university library. It’s always been one of my favorite smells, especially having grown up in a 200 year old house with a library in it that was full of books and that exalted aroma. It’s a smell I would categorize as sublime.

  11. Jake says

    A few years ago, I picked up a copy of White Apples by Jonathan Carroll. I was absolutely convinced that it had been suffused with the scent of apples by either the publisher (ridiculous as that is) or some other mysterious benefactor. I would thrust it in the face of friend after friend, demanding they sniff it and tell me what they smelt – the answer was always the same: book.

    Writing this has spurred me into digging it out from the depths of my bookshelf. Though it does maintain a lightness and delicacy of scent unusual in a book, I have to concede that it categorically and undeniably does not smell of apples.

  12. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Oddly enough, I just got a copy of The New Gothic in the mail and opened it up, and a kind of uprising of spores poofed off the top of it. It was the strangest thing. They kind of swirled like an inverted tornado.

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