In Sam Raimi’s 1981 horror film, The Evil Dead (Ash vs. Evil Dead premieres on Starz this Halloween, and you can read our interview with Raimi here), the protagonists accidentally summon a swarm of demons when they play a tape recording of someone reading out of The Book of the Dead, also known as the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis. Bound in flesh and written in human blood, the fictional book describes rituals to summon or detain evil spirits. It’s not the first time a book of that nature appeared in pop-culture. H.P. Lovecraft frequently inserted the Necronomicon into his works of fiction in the early half of the 1900s. What Raimi and Lovecraft were calling upon for inspiration in their stories is what’s generally referred to as a grimoire — a book embedded in the realm of occult literature. Rebecca Romney, Bauman Rare Books manager and frequent guest on Pawn Stars, spoke with Uproxx about the definition of a grimoire:
A grimoire, at risk of being too simplistic, is a text that teaches practical magic. As such, it is usually highly religious in nature, under the premise that the power to achieve supernatural results comes from supernatural sources (e.g. divinity or demons). The grimoire tradition is European, at least in the form to which we are referring when we use the term “grimoire”; however, its roots go back to ancient civilizations.
James Frazer’s landmark 1890 study on religion and magic, The Golden Bough, broaches the concept of the necessity for early civilizations to engage in magical processes relating to fertility and fruitful harvests, among other essentials. Frazer describes practical magic “as a system of natural law, that is, as a statement of the rules which determine the sequence of events throughout the world.”
Based on Frazer’s work, one could say that the need for magic derived from the hunger for natural human requisites — food, love, success. Grimoires promise that with the proper application, one can attain their goals through magic devices, animal sacrifices and even the summoning of the supernatural. Many of these texts contain spells, alchemic formulas, and some even contain instructions for exorcisms. One specific text allegedly claims that it can summon Satan himself. (More on that later.) But do any of these books really contain an inherent power, or even proper instructions, to tap into divine or demonic sources? Rebecca Romney has a simple answer for that question.
“No,” she told us.
William Dailey, of William Dailey Rare Books, an expert who’s specialized in occult literature for 45 years, doesn’t wholeheartedly agree. He told Uproxx:
I’m fairly practical when it comes to things like this. But I think occasionally, there can be potent powers. Just like I’ve been in a few houses that I felt were haunted. I don’t necessarily believe in ghosts, but I’ve felt it and seen it a few times. So, I think that there are spirits that inhabit locations, or in this case, might have inhabited a book. The theory that I like is that these are people, entities, that don’t know that they’re dead, and they’re hanging around our world and they don’t want to move on into what lies beyond.
Lou Donato of Amber Unicorn Books, specializing in occult and metaphysics, also has 45 years of experience in the business. He told Uproxx that he believes, without a shadow of a doubt, certain books can be portals into the paranormal realm:
Yes, I believe in serious supernatural because we’re just functioning in a three-dimensional world, and there are more dimensions out there than our senses are aware of. And if someone has a good receiver and transmitter they might be able to tap into it. That’s where you get into Rhine University (a parapsychology research institute) with the psych material. You can’t discount it. There’s been too many unexplained phenomenas that science just scratches their head.
Between the Lines
According to Dailey, “[Grimoires] have a long history — probably go back to preprinted versions, before Johannes Gutenberg’s [printing press, circa. 1436]. They really flourished, at least the ones that are available, in the 18th century.”