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.