Stories and movies abound with books that are harmful to their readers. There’s even a name for it, the “motif of harmful sensation.” From Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow to the 1999 remake of The Mummy, there are plenty of examples to pick from. Take the scene from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, in which Ron warns Harry of books that can burn your eyes out if you read them, or force you to speak in limericks for the rest of your life.
In real life, however, cursed books are harder to come by—but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist! Plenty of tomes have been regarded as cursed throughout the years, and there’s even a tradition that reading the entirety of The Book of One Thousand and One Nights can drive a person to insanity. What’s more, bookbinders and scribes used to place curses in books to warn off potential thieves, vandals, or plagiarists. After all, in the days before computers and automated printing presses, making a book was a heck of a lot of work. (It honestly kind of still is.)
“To steal this book, if you should try,” begins one curse, from a medieval manuscript, “It’s by the throat that you’ll hang high. And ravens then will gather ‘bout, to find your eyes and pull them out.” Slapping a curse into a book isn’t exactly the same thing as the whole book being cursed, though. Fortunately (or unfortunately, as the case may be) we’ve tracked down a few real-life books with suitably sinister reputations that have been rumored to be cursed, haunted, or otherwise unsavory over the years.
Caveat lector—let the reader beware!
Quite possibly the most famous fictional cursed book of all time is H. P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon. Frequently translated as “the book of the dead”—though it is more accurately “the book of dead names”—the Necronomicon has made its way into films like Friday the 13th and Evil Dead. It’s also been the go-to example of a cursed book for just about any horror writer since the Old Gent first name-dropped it in his 1924 story “The Hound.” Here’s the thing, though: the Necronomicon may not be real, but that hasn’t stopped plenty of real books from borrowing the title and pretending to be the real deal—especially in the years before the internet made it relatively easy to find out the truth. Perhaps the most notable of these was the so-called “Simon Necronomicon,” first published in 1977 and purporting to be a true translation of the real Necronomicon—even though no such thing ever existed.
The Orphan’s Story
By comparison to some of the other works on this list—which are often grimoires or volumes on demonology—The Orphan’s Story seems fairly tame, at least where its subject matter is concerned. It tells of the adventures of an orphan boy who travels from Spain to the colonies—and is believed to have been written by Martin de Leon Cardenas in the early 1600s.
It is in the book’s journey to publication that the curse comes in. Peruvian scholar Belinda Palacios finally edited and published the book in 2018 as part of her PhD, but not before being warned that “people who worked on it before have died.” Indeed, the curse proved not to be just a tale out of school. When Palicios dug into the accounts, she found that several people who had worked on the manuscript in the past had, indeed, died mysteriously, “one from a strange disease, on in a car accident and another of something else.” Yet, she pressed on, and—so far, at least—seems none the worse for the experience…
The Voynich Manuscript
Just what is the document known as The Voynich Manuscript? Nobody really knows, which makes this possibly the most mysterious book in the world. Believed to have been written in the early part of the 15th century, during the Italian Renaissance, the author and purpose of the book remain unknown, in no small part because the hand-written manuscript is penned entirely in a seemingly-unknown language sometimes called “Voynichese.”
The book is named for a Polish book dealer who discovered the manuscript in 1912. Since 1969, the only known copy of the handwritten, lavishly-illustrated tome has been kept in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, where it has been studied by countless scholars, cryptographers, and linguists in the hopes of cracking the code of this mysterious book. Besides frustrating innumerable experts, it has also been claimed that the mysterious manuscript brings bad luck to those who possess it or try to decipher it—which is probably bad news for Yale’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, though they seem to be doing okay so far.
Pow-Wows; or, Long Lost Friend
Plenty of claims have been made over the years about books that cause misfortune—or even death—for those who read them. Yet, few books have ever been as directly and unequivocally involved in a person’s murder as the Pennsylvania Dutch folk grimoire known as the Long Lost Friend. Written and published by John George Hohman in 1820, the book contains a variety of folk remedies, spells, and talismans from the folk magic tradition known as powwow (taken from the book’s other title).
While the book itself is intended to be benign—containing, as it does, “wonderful and well tested remedies and arts, for men as well as for livestock,” according to its original German title—the tome took on a rather sinister reputation following the so-called “Hex Hollow” murder committed by John Blymire, John Curry, and Wilbert Hess. The three men broke into the home of their neighbor, Nelson Rehmeyer, because they said he had put a curse on them and they were trying to find his copy of the Long Lost Friend and destroy it in order to end their affliction. Unable to do so, they instead killed Rehmeyer and attempted to burn down his house. Rehmeyer’s supposed copy of the book never turned up.
This one isn’t even a whole book—just a single poem. Yet, if you do a Google search for “Tomino’s Hell,” one of the first things that pops up is a creepypasta. The poem was originally written by Saijo Yaso and published in his 1919 book, Sakin. Over the years, the poem has attained an eerie reputation, with many claiming that to read it aloud is to invite calamity, including (but not limited to) illnesses, car accidents, a “feeling of evil” lurking around your home, and even death.
In 1974, avant-garde filmmaker Shuji Terayama made a movie called To Die in the Countryside, which was purportedly inspired by the poem. Within a decade, he was dead at the age of 47, a victim of cirrhosis of the liver—though some have claimed that he was actually a victim of the poem, and that this marks the genesis point of its supposed curse. So, is “Tomino’s Hell” really cursed? We guess the only way to know for sure is to find a copy and read it out loud—but maybe it’s safer not to.
Featured photo: Sierra Koder / Unsplash