Some books end on a cliffhanger, while others are more likely to leave you hanging off a cliff. Be it an important grimoire or a MacGuffin, books of verisimilitude have frequently figured into pop culture narratives, binding up characters on a pursuit for pages that may save the world, or end it.
And if there’s any character who knows that print isn’t dead, but is pretty damn deadly, it’s Ashley J. Williams.
In the first season of Ash vs. Evil Dead, our boneheaded -- and chainsaw-handed -- hero Ash (Bruce Campbell) unleashed Evil once more from the pages of the magical book of the dead, the Necronomicon. He then spent an entire season trying to use the book to recapture evil forces, only to eventually strike a deal with a Dark One, and cede the tome to its supposed author, Ruby (Lucy Lawless).
Now, as the second season of the Starz series kicks off Oct. 2, the Necronomicon is Necronomic-gone. Or, it appears to be. Since Ruby has lost control of her deadite children, Evil is once again on the rise, and Ash & Co. are hot on the pursuit for the book.
While we should all be concerned about the future of humanity if Ash doesn’t retrieve the book -- especially if it lands in the hands of the ancient demon and Season 2 baddie Baal -- there’s plenty of other books within our favorite genre universes that belong in the stacks of the devil’s bookshop.
What follows are some favorite tomes in fiction that prove reading is fundamental, but also sometimes fundamentally dangerous. Note: This isn't the first time I've tackled this topic, so apologies if you see overlap with a previous article; it just means some books are eee-vil enough to be mentioned more than once.
This is perhaps the most famous “fake” book within fiction, and predates Ash’s encounters with it by nearly 60 years.
Long before it became a main edition within Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead-verse, the Necronomicon was first introduced in the 1924 H.P. Lovecraft short story, “The Hound.” This book was wholly a creation of the author, but within his fiction, it is written by the “Mad Arab” daemonologist Abdul Alhazred, and recurs throughout Lovecraft’s works.
He intended the book of magic, to be a pseudo-authentic work that could appear believable. It was originally called the Al Azif, a word Lovecraft intended to mean “that nocturnal sound (made by insects) supposed to be the howling of demons.” Meanwhile, “Necronomicon” is (incorrectly) translated by Lovecraft to mean, “an image of the law of the dead.” Although the book has been described as being bound in human skin, that depiction is likely confused with a portfolio also described in “The Hound” as “bound in tanned human skin, held certain unknown and unnamable drawings.” But beyond being leather-bound with clasps, Lovecraft never really dished on the book’s appearance, instead preferring to leave it to the reader’s imagination.
The creation has been confused as a real work, and has shown up in other fiction (including the Afterlife with Archie comics; Friday the 13th, part nine: Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday; and is paid homage to in a book H.R. Giger’s images). Publishers have also released editions purporting to be the actual translation of the “real” deal. The most famous is 1977’s “Simon Necronomicon,” which was based more on Sumerian myth than Lovecraftian tales. This version picked up a little more publicity in 1996, when it was introduced as evidence in “vampire clan” murders, and it was claimed the book was used in cult rituals.
If you want to check out the unabridged copy of Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, simply head to Miskatonic University in Arkham, Mass.
The King in Yellow
The King in Yellow is a fictional play in book form created by Robert W. Chambers as a device for his 1895 book of short stories of the same title. Within the Chambers narrative, the play, supposedly published in 1889, drove the author to suicide, and all who read it to suffer a tragic fate, or go mad from irrestible revelations. "Excerpted" in Chambers' short stories, set in an imagined 1920, there are at least two acts within the play, with the first being fairly innocuous before the second makes you lose your grip on reality.
This play within Chambers' book of stories is named after a supernatural figure, casually known as the Yellow King. The king bears a glyph known as The Yellow Sign -- which isn't fully described but was interpreted as a swirly, question mark-esque symbol (or triskelion, evoking a beast with tentacles) in 1989 by Kevin Ross for the roleplaying game The Call of Cthulu. Oh, and I forgot to mention one teensy important note: Bearing witness to the sign leaves you open to possession or mind control by the king, or his offspring.
Speaking of Cthulu, although some believe his Necronomicon was influenced by Chambers' work, experts don't believe H.P. Lovecraft read the The King in Yellow until 1927. Meanwhile, the author wrote "The Hound" in 1922, where he first introduced his Necronomicon. However, Lovecraft was a fan of Chambers, and mentioned The Yellow Sign (and the deity Hastur, and Lake of Hali) in the 1930 short story "The Whisperer in Darkness." Other Lovecraftian creators, such as author and publisher August Derleth, have since more directly connected the play with Lovecraft's Cthulu Mythos.
Chambers' creations gained a bump in mainstream attention in 2014 when the HBO series True Detective named its serial killer The Yellow King (and mentioned "Carcosa," a fictional city created by author Ambrose Bierce, but used by Chambers, along with Hastur, and Hali). George R.R. Martin likewise pays tribute to Chambers in The World of Ice & Fire -- a 2014 companion book to his A Song of Ice & Fire series -- with a mention of a Yellow Emperor sorcerer who once ruled over the city of Carcosa.
Necronomicon Ex-Mortis aka Naturon Demonto aka Book of the Dead
This is the book that has made life decidedly less groovy for Ash for 35 years.
In the original version, The Evil Dead, Bruce Campbell’s Ash and his crew of Michigan State University students head to cabin in the Tennessee woods for a little fun, a little lovin’, and a whole lotta death and demonic possession. They find the Sumerian version of the Egyptian Book of the Dead (a real thing, but this book of spells was largely for funerary purposes in aiding someone cross over into the afterlife), which sports a cover made of a skinned face. Demons are released from this Naturon Demonto when a tape recording of the spells is played.
A similar scenario plays out in 1987’s more comical remake/sequel Evil Dead II, except this time with the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, or Book of the Dead. The cabin in the Michigan woods in this version also establish Professor Knowby, whom Ruby claims is her father in Ash vs. Evil Dead. In fact, the Starz show is a direct sequel series to the events in this movie.
The Necronomicon Ex-Mortis returned in 1992’s Army of Darkness, where Ash – now transported to 1300 A.D. -- has to find the book in a haunted forest and recite the incantation “Klaatu barada nikto” (or was it “Klaatu... verata... necktie, nectar, nickel, noodle”?) in order to return to his own time. By the way, the name of Naturon Demonto returned in the 2013 reboot of Evil Dead, directed by Don’t Breathe’s Fede Alvarez.
The Egyptian collection of funereal rites to facilitate a person’s journey into the afterlife and popped up as a magical text in other films, such as 1999’s The Mummy. There is also a Tibetan Book of the Dead.
Book of the Vishanti / Eternity Book
If you don’t know the Book of the Vishanti, now is a good time to make a note since it will be appearing in November’s Doctor Strange (and this looks to be a peek of it off a featurette from the Captain America: Civil War home release). The Vishanti are magical deities within Marvel Comics, and the book is an indestructible collection of spells and source of white magic.
Typically held by Dr. Stephen Strange in his Greenwich Village townhouse (aka the Sanctum Santorum, where he has the Window of the Worlds, sporting the Seal of the Vishanti design to guard against supernatural forces), the book was introduced in 1964’s Strange Tales, and has been in the hands of Atlanteans and a Babylonian god.
Even though it is a repository for “good” magic, it can be used with negative consequences and evil results. The book is also something of an uber-encyclopedia with always updated information events and people.
The Darkhold, or the Book of Sins, is the dark magic counterpart to the Book of the Vishanti. It was introduced in 1972 in Marvel Spotlight – and not to mention, it was authored by an Elder God. The Darkhold is technically a magic equal to Vishanti, but is less popular in comic lore, giving the latter a bit of an edge as the book that might be able to stir up more trouble. Update: It was also name dropped by ghostly scientists in the second episode of Season 4 of ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and might connect it to Doctor Strange on the big screen.
“To Serve Man” Kanamit cookbook
The danger of To Serve Man – from the 1962 The Twilight Zone episode of the same name, written by Rod Serling from a short story by Damon Knight - lies in shoddy, incomplete translation. When the alien race of the Kanamits land on Earth, they do the human race a solid by transforming deserts into oases, ending world hunger, providing cheap energy and eliminating nuclear weapons.
But when one of the Kanamit race leaves behind his plain black, space-leather bound book behind at the United Nations, a group of U.S. cryptographers working to decipher the alien language (and apparently the only ones in the world doing so) give up after decoding the title of the alien book: To Serve Man.
It is only after much of the human race is zipping off to the Kanamit homeworld “paradise” that one lone decoder figures out the book is actually a cookbook that reduces humans into “an ingredient in someone's soup.”
It is never quite explained why the Kanamit, played by Richard Kiel, was carrying around a cookbook everywhere he went – maybe the dude was really friggin’ hungry, or hangry by Kanamit standards, and couldn’t wait to go all Terminus on Earth. Then again, us humans were probably asking for it for being such slackers and not even trying to translate the Table of Contents. But I digress.
Among the most iconic episodes among Zoneys, “To Serve Man” was paid homage to in The Simpsons’ very first "Treehouse of Horror" episode, which introduced the Rigel VII aliens Kang and Kodos in the vignette, “Hungry Are the Damned.” In the episode, Lisa basically ruins The Simpsons' shot at paradise, being treated like gods, and living forever in beauty -- not to mention, she made Serak cry -- when she fails to blow off all the space dust from a cookbook on "How to Cook for Forty Humans."
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Although this electronic repository for all knowledge and wisdom suggests any reader to “Don’t Panic” in “large, friendly letters,” there is indeed a good deal of reasons to panic if you consult it.
Introduced in author Douglas Adams’ sci-fi comedy series of the same name in 1978, with the prop from the 2005 movie shown here, “The Guide” is riddled with devastating typos, errors and gross understatements.
To rely entirely on it is to ensure destruction since most of the editing staff remain on permanent lunch break. Its information is basically often as credible as those shared Facebook links from your ultra-political uncle -- even though its advice on towels has proved helpful.
Published by Megadodo Publications, "The Guide" itself has a sarcastic tone and looks like a small, thin, flexible laptop computer within a sturdy plastic cover.
Grays Sports Almanac
Look, no sane person wants to live in a timeline dominated by a bloviating, sexist, cretin whose idea of good business is to put his name on casinos and hotels. And while casting a vote is one way to avoid that, another is to not screw with time travel for profit.
So tread carefully when picking up Grays Sports Almanac: Complete Sports Statistics 1950-2000, as seen in 1989’s Back to the Future Part II. Though an innocuous piece of sports memorabilia while on sale at the Blast from the Past antique store in 2015, the almanac was used to upset the balance of the entire space-time continuum.
The softcover, red almanac contained 50 years’ worth of results from football, baseball, boxing, horse racing and more. Used by a time traveler motivated by greed (Marty “Don’t call him chicken” McFly), the almanac can be the key to fame and immense fortune, but also creates a dark alternate timeline involving a Biff Tannen led reality.
Grays had been publishing sports almanacs since 1923, but the 1950-2000 volume was the first to alter reality.
Fun fact: Back to the Future co-writer and producer Bob Gale told me that the screen-used Grays prop was actually filled with real sports statistics.
Appearing in the 1998-2006 supernatural soap Charmed on The WB, The Grimoire is a compendium of evil magic and information. The Grimoire, which is actually a general name applied to textbooks of magic, provides a counterbalance to The Book of Shadows (shown here) used by good witch heroines, the Halliwell sisters.
A brown book emblazoned with a skull and upside down pentagram, the Grimoire is a destructive force that can reject the powers of white magic. Even though The CW, the network that replaced The WB, features a grimoire in The Vampire Diaries, I don't think it packs as much of a punch as The Grimoire or The Book of Shadows.
Book of Eternity
Similar to the Book of Vishanti is the Book of Eternity, which exists within the DC Comic universe and contains the secrets of existence.
Seen first in The Demon in 1972, it is depicted as red with gold clasps and a red seal, and is the personal spell book that once belonged to Merlin. To use it is to know the history of the universe and to gain immense magical powers.
It was also one of the 12 magical items the heroes sought in the JLA/Avengers crossover in 2003. As the DCEU expands into the world of the supernatural (via Enchantress in Suicide Squad, and a Justice League Dark movie -- not to mention the more mystical elements within Atlantis and Themyscira), it seems entirely likely that this book of magic could make an appearance in a live-action tale.
The Occido Lumen (or Silver Codex)
As seen in The Strain books by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan – and in the TV series of the same name – the Occido Lumen (subtitled “A complete account of the first rise of the Strigoi and full refutation of all arguments produced against their existence”) is a 17th Century translation of ancient Mesopotamian clay tablets. Bound in solid silver, it details the rise and history of the strigoi (vampires), and presumably offers advice in destroying the creatures.
All who have possessed the cursed book have met with corruption or death, and it leaves a wake of destruction. But don’t worry, it ain’t cheap to acquire the book, which re-appears in modern-day New York City on the show; at an auction of sorts, the book sells for $323 million.
Book of Vile Darkness
While this book contains a “detailed look at the nature of evil” within the world of Dungeons & Dragons, the supplemental sourcebook itself was also a focal point of controversy.
The promised darker content was supposed to return the 3rd edition of D&D to the dungeon feel, but the first “Mature Audiences Only” book included an adventure at a sacrificial orgy held at a harem. The 2002 sourcebook was also decried by some as justifying the Satanic Panic fears surrounding D&D (and heavy metal) in the 1980s.
The book itself is a supernatural guidebook of evil within the game. It contains rules about ritual sacrifice, possession, vile feats, corrupt spells, and included 18 new prestige classes. Demon lords and archdevils got an update, and the Mature label was eventually dropped in reprints (after all, the rules for drug use in the game, which stirred up concern, had previously existed).