Jun 9 2010 6:08pm

Walpurgisnacht, the handbook

In May I created a prop book for a movie currently in production. I’ve designed and created props for some big Hollywood blockbusters over the years, but this is decidedly not one of those, thankfully. It’s a small independent film by a first time writer/director named Steve Smith, starring unknowns. Hearing that was enough to get me intrigued, but when Steve sent me part of the script, I knew I had to work on this.

The working title for the film is “The House at the End of the Lane.” It’s set in the first half of the 20th century, starting out in 1918. It has elements of horror, occult, and mystery, but basically it’s a tragedy—the story of a man who has lost something so dear to him he will go to any lengths to regain it. He eventually sets in motion a series of events that leads to a catastrophe far worse than his original loss.

And this book is part of what brings down the pain. It’s believed to be 500 years old—although the knowledge in it is much older—and it emanates pure searing malevolence. Here are a couple of lines from the script:

At times, it has the smell of living death—like gangrene in a hospital ward. At other times, its leather binding seems new. I mentioned that the cover ... is leather. Well, that may be true—it may not. I believe the cover is human. Skin, Mr. Chambers

The description of the book in the script is fantastic. I wish I could share more.

The interior is filled with collages of images and text from period books. Most of the text is German, taken from 15th century books. Many of the images are from the same period, for the sake of authenticity. But for the sake of what looks cool, there are images from other periods as well. The ones on this spread include two diagrams from Georg von Welling’s 1735 Opus Mago-Cabbalisticum et Theosophicum, a number puzzle designed by Ben Franklin, a Celtic knot, a diagram of a microbe and a heraldic device. One other pages, there are bits of electronic schematics, some diagrams and handwriting from George Washington’s school notebook, and diagrams of crystals and fungi from a 19th century dictionary.

I also did a few dozen additional documents, inserted randomly in the pages. Letters in Old German script, diagrams, engravings from old anatomical texts, ancient Egyptian, Greek and Arabic mathematics scrolls, Sythio-Sarmatian inscriptions, tarot cards, and hoary scraps of every description. Doing the research for a project like this is easily half the work.

Here’s a closeup of the clasps and lettering.

I was all out of human skin, so goatskin had to suffice.

I made the clasps from thick copper heated and hammered to shape.

After the final shaping and oxidizing...

...I attached the clasps to the covers with brass pins, clinched on the back for strength.

The cover was treated with many thin layers of dyes, stains and waxes to give it the appropriate scrofulous air. The next step was to burn the lettering deeply into the leather.

After the cover was done, I bound the pages, aged and stained them, and then bound them into the cover. The book is huge - about a foot wide, 17 inches tall and 5 inches thick. It’s also heavy—just under 20 pounds, so the binding had to be bombproof to stand up to rough treatment on set and hold together.

Ross Macdonald is a letterpress artist, illustrator, and prop maker. This article also appears on

1. grilojoe77
Well done, sir! I love it. I like the prop itself, but I also really like what it makes me think of when I see it. I really dig the idea of the ancient forbidden knowledge collected into a tome like this. There's something mysterious and dangerous about it. Makes me think of Lovecraft a little. Again, very well done.
James Goetsch
2. Jedikalos
What an interesting conjunction of artistic skills to produce such a unique object! Thanks for letting us in on the process.
Bobby Stubbs
3. Valan
That's one of the coolest things I've ever stumbled upon. Thanks for the insights - and the movie sounds right up my alley as well.
Chuk Goodin
4. Chuk
That is excellent. Very authentic seeming -- I don't know if it actually looks like a 'real one' would look, but it certainly looks like one should look.
5. mbg
That is very cool! I love the photos of the process.
Clémentine Girbal
6. C.G
This is fascinating, and the story seems intriguing. This (human skin exepted) looks like the dream book every book nut wishes was real. Oh, and you wish you would find it in a dark corner of an old bookshop too :)
Tara Chang
7. tlchang
Coolest prop (and project) ever! Books like this make me totally salivate. In sort of the same vein, the 'spell' book used in the movie Practical Magic had some of this same feel, and I have so wanted one (or to build my own) ever since. This looks like another drool-worthy tome.
8. jefff
It looks awesome. I'm reminded of the Ildatch from the Wishsong of Shannara. Keep up the good work my friend.
Irene Gallo
9. Irene
I heart Ross!

A small group of us from got to visit him at his studio to make a letterpress poster for last year's Steampunk month. It's one of the highlights of my time (so far) at Tor. Ross was such a great and patient teacher. I'll do my best to encourage him to share more of his work here.
Mike Conley
13. NomadUK
Excellent work.

I just hope the film lives up to the prop.
14. Teka Lynn
That is one beautiful book. Wow.
15. Mithril Wisdom
This is so cool! I love the level of detail that's gone into it too. I'd love to make a semi hollow version of something like this for keepsakes.

Mithril Wisdom
YouDont NeedToKnow
16. necrosage2005
This is one amazing looking Necronomicon. I call it that only because it reminds me of it. Will we ever be able to see this movie? I'd love to see it on DVD. I might even stomach seeing it on Syfy(lys). Sounds like its right up my alley for an evening of entertainment. Congratulations on the hard work. It looks great.
Ross MacDonald
17. brightwork
Many thanks for all the comments - you all made my day. Working on this book made me itch to do some more. I came up with so many ideas when I was designing this, and there were only so many I could incorporate into one book.
18. scott hayes
Great work, incredible! You are a fantastic artist. Books for reading and just books in general are my favorite things. I have often wondered who or where books in films came from. Now I know! I would love to see some of your other book creations!

(Make me recall The Ninth Gate and the book The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows.)


19. Andrew
Wow, yet another masterpiece from Ross! I was first introduced to his incredible artistry and craftsmanship thanks to that Steampunk month post Irene mentioned above. Simply jaw-droppingly amazing! Checked out his site and have been a fan ever since. I must say I am really envious of him. To have such talent and moreover to get the opportunity to really go all out and have fun creating such iconic pieces of art for movies! While some of his hard work might only get mere seconds of on-screen time (which is why so few might know about it), its mere presence is sure to enhance our experience several-fold. And when someone really focuses on it, it's an indelible memory indeed. Simply beautiful, love it and wish I could have one of his works as a keepsake. :P

P.S. Irene, more such posts please. :)
20. Jeremy Tharp
I was asked by Steve to do some music for this film, and a very fortunate perk was to get to see this book in person. Let me tell you, the book is breathtaking. The detail is quite stunning ... there's no less cliche way to put it. It feels like a mass of time that draws you to it. Its weight extends far beyond its physical 20 lbs. of mass. Simply phenomenal.
21. Jeremy Tharp
The trailer:

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