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Monday, July 19, 2010

Cookbook of the Dead

In these personality-driven times we tend to associate the word "conceit" with its adjectival cousin conceited, meaning (according to Merriam-Webster) "to have or show an excessively high opinion of oneself." In fact the first meaning of conceited is "ingenuously contrived." One could argue that conceited people have contrived ingeniously to think more highly of themselves than they should.

As applied to literature, a conceit is a fanciful idea or extended metaphor with its own logic that governs a passage in a creative work or the work itself. In this opening passage (of what, for lack of a better label, I'll call a sci-fi fantasy), the main conceit is that of a book as both narrator and protagonist.

As extended metaphors go, it's both bizarre and mundane—bizarre since, in the ordinary world, books are inanimate objects without volition or the power of speech; mundane, since, in a quite literal sense, all books narrate themselves. They "speak" to us in individual voices—or rather, their narrators do.

Here that notion—that conceit—is carried to an extreme, since the narrating book (or Tome, to use the given designation), isn't just a peripheral or detached narrator, but a main character in the story we are about to read, one whose plot turns on the rivalry between the narrator and his more accomplished brother. This brother is not—as one might reasonably expect—himself a Tome, but "the Necronomicon"—an apparently powerful entity who on the continuum between "might[y] demon lords" and "insignificant cultists" lies closer to the former.

That's quite a mouthful of conceits to swallow. In fact—for me, anyway, it's a few too many. Three paragraphs into this story and already I'm experiencing "conceit reflux."

Ideas (conceits) are wonderful, but unless sufficiently embodied in characters and actions they remain ideas. And ideas aren't what fiction is made of. Fiction is made of actions performed and experienced by characters.

Here, nothing happens. While the author takes pains to lay out his clever conceits, he neglects to provide us with any grounding in time, place, or event. Instead we're treated to rhetorical demands, explanations, and contradictions (inexplicably the narrator assumes we've heard of Necronomicons but never of Tomes). Nor is there any suggestion of a specific scene in the offing. As they say down in Texas, it's all hat and no cattle: all bluff and bluster but no bite—all set-up with no pay-off. In this opening the author does everything but tell a story. I'm reminded of the Great and Powerful Oz, of his thunderous voice and great balls of fire—all most impressive until Toto draws back the curtain.

Which isn't to say that this author is out to deceive us, or that he doesn't have a wonderful story to tell. But he'd better stop telling us how he's going to go tell it, and start telling it, soon, before all of his wizardry is exposed as humbug.


  1. Thank you for the critique, But I find myself at a bit of a loss. If you've ever read horror (or atched horror movies) You'll know that the necronomicon is, and yes. In my story it IS a tome.. that's why it's the brother of the cookbook. and the first page clearly says the protagonist is not the cookbook, but the dog. Did you read the whole thing?

  2. So—the Necronomicon is a Tome (or a grimoire: a textbook of magic), but the Tome isn't a Necronomicon. And both are brothers, fraternal Demons bound between covers. As for a dog, I've searched this first page and find no mention of one, none.

    I may be thick, but I'm definitely confused and I suspect other readers will be, too. I still think if you were to couch all of this in a dramatic scene rather than pile on explanations/exposition as here it would be clearer.

  3. .... I'm going to have to look again. The first page must have not passed the monologue. But at the end of the monologue, the book introduces the main character (the dog.)

    the Necronomicon is the name of a specific tome. (see pretty much any H.P. Lovecraft book or evil dead movie.) and it's the brother of the NecroNomNomNomicon (The cookbook of the dead, another specific Tome, and a play on a popular onomatopoeia nom nom nom the sound of eating)

    The reason It's not in a dramatic scene is that the Book is telling the story, but does not actually participate in it except as a passive role, the monologue is purely to set the cosmology of this travesty against readers. the book has no other narration in the novel.

  4. Felix: I think the confusion arises because books do not typically have *brothers*. Also, you use "he" and "him" to refer to the book, which is an it (at least, according to Lovecraft and most incarnations I've seen). Even if it has a will of its own, it's still not a he.

    I can definitely see why readers not familiar with the Necronomicon would become confused.

    Peter: I wonder if you're misreading the sentence that says "Everybody has heard of the Necronomicon, from ..." It's not putting the book on a scale of those things, but just connecting it to the other realm, or whatever.

    (Although I do agree: where's the action?)