The power of words

I love 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 explores the idea in Lullaby, a story involving a book of lullabies that when read aloud, kills the listener. In Michael Cisco’s 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 describe the very essence of creation and existence. 

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 fits you perfectly, your shoulders rest nicely against the back of the tub. You’re a fellow of twenty-eight, tall and slender, with short black hair, worn to look messy. Your eyes are a calm blue.

The room itself is black tile, it’s almost like floating in space. 

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 to the glinting metal blades, a bright white hand-towel at the end of 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 instead the very back of the store. The entire place smelled of old books, that musty smell of aged paper you love so very much. Books are your passion, they’re your most beloved fix. You only own the most bizarre and obscure volumes, books on magick and the occult being your favorites. You own them for value, you own them for their oddity, but above all, 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 ask the store-clerk about 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 at 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 for 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 to the outrageous part yet, sir.” He said, “You see, none of us has ever read the book.”

“Why?” you asked smiling, waiting for the pitch, 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 just the right way, the writer is able to create reality for the reader. This book, supposedly, creates a rather horrible reality.”

“And what reality is that?” you asked, 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. The suicide book. 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 doubt the book,” he said smiling.

Regrouping, gathering your composure, as 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 retain 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 which you replied, “possibly.”

“Could I buy 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 me 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 you are in a hot bath, a strange man sipping brandy in your living-room. You find 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 send the bored, probably drunk shop-owner home. You’re absolutely certain. You don’t, however, doubt the book’s age, you know the scent and texture of such things. 

You look toward the book, and the razors, and the book, and the bright white hand towel. You dry your hands before picking up your leather-bound indulgence. The first page is blank. The second page, blank. Third, blank. Blank blank blank blank, everything Goddamn fucking blank. Blank, until the last page…

“Life, full and beautiful, but never to last. All 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 heat you feel inside her. Pleasure. Pain. Pleasurable 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. A gentle kiss on your forehead. 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. The words on the page are clear again.

You calmly return the book to its resting place, you pick up the razors. Without a thought, without a care, you run one razor, vertically, down your right wrist. You drop this razor. With the other you slice, again vertically, your left wrist. Warm, thick fluid runs toward the palms of your hands, the tips of your fingers, into the water. The water goes pink, then red. It’s beautiful, and you feel sleepy. You feel sleepy, and you wonder where you’ll wake up. You wonder, then wonder, and wonder a little more. You sleep.

It’s the longest piece of fiction I’ve ever written that I don’t find astonishingly bad.

12 comments on “The power of words

  1. Ah, the much underused second person! That scores points right from the get-go! It’s a notoriously tricky perspective but actually having read it I can’t imagine this tale being told in any other way. In a sense it complements the idea of words controlling ‘you’ – in the second person, the reader’s sort of a silent passenger in ‘their’ own body, doing and saying things they have no control over.

    I’m also very fond of the idea of words having power, one that goes beyond our conscious interpretation of them – Robert E. Chambers’ ‘King In Yellow’ stories feature a similar idea, the text of a play that sends the reader insane. Also in ‘House Of Leaves’, Zampano’s manuscript has a certain power over Johnny Truant (and also by extension the reader as we’re reading it too). Another one is the ‘Buscard’s Murrain’ entry by China Mieville from Jeff’s own ‘Thackery T. Lambshead’s Guide’ – a neurolinguistic virus of sorts, a piece of bad code for the brain that can be contracted by reading a certain word aloud and is spread when others hear it.

    In ‘A Curious Book’ I particularly like the way that the book is blank apart from the last page. It’s open to a lot of interpretation and it really struck me.

    It seemed almost as if it wasn’t the book that made the protagonist kill himself, but that since it had been his intention all along it was just an excuse, or rather something to give him the final push from the precipice he’d climbed to of his own accord – or perhaps been cornered into…

    I guess the book’s power is that it shows you all that life can be and then takes it away again leaving only the sense of loss and the cold finality of the last page’s words?

    I really enjoyed the story in any case, thank you for sharing it with me

  2. Sorry by the way, it’s “Robert W. Chambers”. I’ve had Howard on the mind lately so that might account for the slip!

  3. Cool story. Kind of harkens back to H. H. Munro, with a Chuck Palahniuk edge.

  4. Oh, and by the way, I took note of your previous reference to the Golem, which, according to Jewish legend, was a clay statue brought to life by either inscribing words on its forehead, or writing words on a slip of paper and placing the paper in the Golem’s mouth. So, again, the power of words.

  5. Alex: Thank you! I really like writing in the second person, I’m trying to do it decently. The first time I saw it was in Veniss Underground, and Lucius Shepherd used it in Abimagique. You definitely nailed how the “book” works, that it creates a profound sense of loss.

    Bill: Excellent point about the Golem.

  6. If you’re interested in the power of the word to destroy, I recommend you check out PONTYPOOL CHANGES EVERYTHING by Tony Burgess (and a new movie entitled PONTYPOOL). A rogue word causes zombie goodness. Good, grim insanity ensues.

  7. Corey: That sounds great!

  8. KJ Bishop says:

    I’m interested in your writing process here, Michael. Were you certain that the character was going to commit suicide? Did the character himself decide to have that ending? I’m always curious about the autonomy of characters, and I wonder how writing in the second person might increase or decrease that, if it has any effect at all.

  9. KJ: Yes, I always knew he was going to commit suicide, but he didn’t, not until he read the book. I wanted to illustrate how a profound sense of loss can break a person. The idea is that the book shows you the absolute best parts of your life, then it takes everything away, in a blink, and you feel completely empty.

    I’d always felt empathetic toward suicide. I always felt really awful that someone could feel so depressed that dying seemed like a good idea, but I didn’t really understand suicide until I felt like doing it everyday for weeks on end. After things ended with my girlfriend the second time, the sense of loss was amazing, and I had to write about it.

  10. KJ Bishop says:

    I sometimes get paranoid fears about highly unlikely scenarios of loss, when I read things like the recent story about the chimpanzee that ripped off a woman’s face, including her eyes. Loss is a scary theme. And you know more about it first-hand than most people.

    I find it really interesting that you went for the second-person. Was there a desire, do you think, to push the reader as intimately as possible into the experience of loss?

  11. KJ: I definitely wanted the story to feel intimate, which is why I went second-person. I’ve seen it used right twice, and I loved it both times. I keep trying it myself, hoping that eventually I’ll write something decent.

  12. sinema says:

    At first I thought you told Google to call the library, and it did, and that blew my mind.

    Then I realized that you actually called the library, and my mind became unblown.
    I’ll get back to work…

    If you ask my opinion about this topic I really like. Thank you for sharing your friends. Hope to see you another day.

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