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Friday 8 October 2021

Friday Faction: The Madman’s Library

One of the pleasures of visiting the home of a friend or acquaintance, is the opportunity to peruse his shelf. Does he have the same titles as you, suggesting that you share interests and friendship in common? If so, does he possess titles you have never seen before, perhaps books you want to read or simply never heard of? Or do his shelves hold titles on subjects you have no interest at all, revealing a point of divergence? Perhaps he will allow you to browse their contents or even take them home with you to read them at your leisure? Author Edward Brooke-Hitching is highly unlikely to allow you to do either. He barely mentions the titles he has in his own collection, let alone on his shelves, but in the pages of The Madman’s Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts, and Other Literary Curiosities From History, he explores the weird world of books that are mad, bad, and dangerous to handle (and even eat!), and which he would like to have in his library.

Open up the pages of The Madman’s Library and within moments you will be astounded by the vibrancy of the colour illustrations from Louis Renard’s Fishes, Crayfishes, and Crabs, of Diverse Colours and Extraordinary Form, that are Found Around the Islands of the Moluccan and on the Coasts of the Southern Lands from 1719, if not intrigued by the scientific inaccuracies and wild imaginings, been offended by a nude depiction of the demon Asmodee from the Compendium of Demonology and Magic, and hopefully amused by He-Gassen, a Japanese scroll depicting men in flatulent competition with each other. You will also have learned that in 2010 Google estimated that there were approximately one hundred and thirty million titles in print—or at least available, and that Google planned to scan them all; the eponymous dictator commissioned the Blood Qur’an of Saddam Hussein, a copy of the holy book written using fifty pints of his own blood as ink; and that the art of binding books in human skin is known as ‘anthropodermic bibliopegy’. The practice is more common than you would have thought, and so deservedly receives its own chapter devoted to ‘anthropodermic bibliopegy’ in The Madman’s Library. It is also as fascinatingly ghoulish as you would expect.

Other chapters explore ‘books that are not books’, such as Chinese oracles bones, carved with predictions and forecasts, which were often mistaken for dragon bones and ground up to be used in medicines; ‘demon bowls’ containing spiralling protective incantations on the inside and buried in houses as supernatural protection; and hollow books which contain a secret cabinet of poisons; and 20 Slices, whose bright yellow binding contains exactly that number of Kraft American cheese slices. There are also the aforementioned ‘Books Made of Flesh and Blood’—thankfully not made from us, along with ‘Cryptic Books’, which takes the reader all the way from secret messages written on eggs and only revealed on the white of the egg is boiled to Kit Williams’ infamous Masquerade via the incomprehensibly mysterious Voynich Manuscript, followed by ‘Literary Hoaxes’, ‘Curious Collections’, Works of the Supernatural’, ‘Religious Oddities’; there are hoaxes, like the Fortsas Affair, which was announcement in 1840 of the sale of the magnificent library of the late Comte de Fortsas, which included fifty-two previously unknown works and which brought bibiophiles and collectors scurrying to the Belgian town of Binche, and which of course was an enormous joke; and a whole lot more.

Throughout, The Madman’s Library is delightfully luxurious in its presentation. No page goes without the image of a cover of, or of pages from a book, presented in exquisite detail and beautiful colour. These bring each and every book mentioned in the text to life—and short of having the titles in front of him, they are the next best thing.

As engaging and as entertaining as The Madman’s Library is in bringing its many books to life, the writing does sometimes feel as if it is skating over several of its subject matters. For every Grand Grimoire, a guide to summoning the Devil’s prime minister of Hell, Lucifuge Rofocalé or If We Can Keep a Severed Head Alive…, a patent of 1987 which discusses the technological, scientific, religious, historical, and ethical issues of decapitation and afterwards, there is a prayer-book pistol—owned by the Duke of Venice, Francesco Morosoni—which could be fired when the book was closed and the silk bookmark pulled as trigger, that only merits a mention. However, this still leaves several shelves’ worth of books to discover in reading The Madman’s Library.

Our fascination with books is also carried over into our gaming. Not just the fact that many of the games we play are actual books, but that the books play a role in our games. They are sources of knowledge, MacGuffins to be chased, secrets to be found, and more. Straight away, The Madman’s Library is excellent source material for almost any roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror. Both Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu both share numerous Mythos tomes, but so many of the esoteric titles described in the pages of The Madman’s Library would sit alongside them or even make their way onto the shelves of the Orne Library’s Special Collection at the renowned Miskatonic University. Of course, the contents of The Madman’s Library are perfect for Bookhounds of London, Kenneth Hite’s campaign setting for Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu, since it specifically casts the Investigators as bibliophiles. Many of the titles mentioned work in earlier periods too, whether that is the aforementioned Grand Grimoire or prayer-book pistol for The Dee Sanction or Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay, or even earlier for The Design Mechanism’s Mythic Babylon or Mythic Rome.

As good as a potential source of inspiration for your gaming as this book is, it is simply a good read. Engaging and eclectic, entertaining and enjoyable, with something interesting to discover on every page, The Madman’s Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts, and Other Literary Curiosities From History is a delight to read from end to end.

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