Ex Libris Miscitonicii

Back Originally for Elder Gods' Rave #13, in the Gothik APA
December, 1998
Very often, Cthulhu Mythos stories discuss the forbidden knowledge that is hidden in rare and restricted books. These books, the legendary Necronomicon, De Vermis Mysteriis, and other infamous, spurious tomes, contain ultimate knowledge; information on the races and entities that predate mankind’s tenuous ascension from hunter-gatherer. It is only armed with this knowedge that the erudite may prevent disaster. The inference is clear; knowledge is power, and rare knowledge to be sought after all the more so because it is rare. Lovecraft never questions the appropriateness of book learning, but his stories serve as a warning against learning by those unprepared for what they uncover. Knowledge is like fire and government; a useful tool, but something to be watched, for they can become monstrous and terrible.

Unknowingly, yet appropriately, Arkham House has bolstered this almost fetishistic view of dark books. Their editions of Lovecraft's work and Lovecraftian pastiches have been uniformly black, cloth bound books. In these editions, we find echoes of the forbidden books HPL wrote of. These books are not to be found in the chain bookstore in the local mall, but in small bookstores tucked into dark alleys, or through direct contact with the publisher. These are books that you have to be in the know to get. Although Doubleday has begun releasing trade paperback editions of Lovecraft and collected volumes of his imitators, these books seem flimsy, transitory things compared to the sturdy, clothbound volumes of Arkham House and Fedogan & Bremer.

Such was the intellectual curiosity and erudition of Lovecraft that he not only created a history for his dread Necronomicon, he created a history of it. It is this detailed, plausible that has given the Necronomicon so much life after Lovecraft's death—surely something this detailed, and lodged in history could not be imaginary. And as might be imagined, Lovecraft's imitators dutifully followed suit, creating their own nefarious books with fictitious histories.

It is the histories of these poisonous books that Joan Stanley has set out to codify in her pamphlet Ex Libris Miskatonici—A Catalogue of Selected Items from the Special Collections in the Miskatonic University Library. Ms. Stanley is obviously both a student of literary history as well as a great appreciator of Lovecraft. Her footnotes cite references from Lovecraft's fiction and his letters, to Mossiker’s The Affair of the Poisons (in reference to Les Cultes des Goules) and K. C. Wu’s The Chinese Heritage. Stanley has added a great deal of credibility to these fictional books by placing them within a historical context—no easy task.

Although the placement of fictional books within a credible historical background may sound relatively simple, it is more difficult than many would think, especially since she is cataloging a fictional university’s collection, and that many, many books have been attributed to this university. Fortunately, Stanely keeps to the more famous tomes in the Special Collection, tracing the publishing histories of sixteen volumes.

Each book has a story attached to it. Like a real book that has been translated many times and passed from culture to culture, lost and rediscovered, these fictional books have fascinating, yet plausible histories. And while the books creators often came up with origins, seldom have they created their full histories. What follows is an entertaining and fascinating work on the history of books.

Especially interesting is the section on the Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan. The Seven Books has always been a sort of background book, one that showed up in lists of horrible books, and generally adopted by Lin Carter. As such, they really are blank slate, as very little has been written specifically about this book. Stanley has placed them in the fascinating turmoil of the Imperial China, giving us hints and nibbles of history, but only as it related to books. She refers to the Burning of the Books, in which many of the books of China were destroyed by Imperial decree, only to be reconstructed later from memory. In the description of the infamous French Les Cultes des Goules, Stanley refers specifically to an aristocratic scandal called “"he affair of the poisons," which occurred at approximately the same time the foul book was supposedly written, and links the two. Again, there are delicious hints as to the actual nature of the affair dropped, enticing the reader to learn more about this fascinating piece of history.

Apparently, Ex Libris Miskatonici is based on the catalog of Brown University’s special collections. But like all good pieces of Mythos fiction, Ex Libris entices the reader both with elder horrors from the stars, but also shares with us a fascinating piece of real life.