Who among us would not casually thumb through the Necronomicon, were it to hand when no other reading material presented itself? (The alternative would be not reading!) However, a moment’s entertainment could come at the cost of a dreadful, unforgettable revelation—one from which madness would be no escape.
The world is filled with information that can only leave the learner less happy. Authors have long been aware how plot-friendly such dreadful revelations can be. Consider these five examples.
Vintage Season by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore (1946)
Oliver Wilson can sell his mansion for a princely sum—if only he can convince the peculiar visitors to whom he rented the house to move out before the end of May. Omerie, Kleph, and Klia Sancisco are determined to remain in their rented mansion. The odd trio did their research and of the domiciles available to them this May, only Oliver’s will do.
Oliver is not the only person trying to strong-arm the Sanciscos out of their rented home. Several other parties are determined to enjoy that particular vantage point. Enchanted by the intriguing Kleph, Oliver makes the terrible mistake of getting to better know her and her reasons for visiting his town this particular May. What he learns is intensely disquieting… not that he will have long to live with the knowledge.
A Voice Out of Ramah by Lee Killough (1979)
Centuries ago, Bussard ramjets granted humans access to alien worlds. More recently, the shuttlebox has been developed. One can travel instantaneously between shuttleboxes… but first the shuttlebox at one’s desired destination must be delivered, after traveling the long, slow way via an Intergalactic Communications sublight ramjet.
One such ramjet arrives at planet Marah, where liaison officer Alesdra Pontokouros and her very unfortunate colleague Thors Kastavin make some unpleasant discoveries.
Marah’s native civilization eradicated itself ages before human religious pilgrims arrived. The viral means by which the aliens eliminated themselves is still quite lethal to 90 percent of human males once puberty occurs. Exit poor Thors.
Given that the colonists have lived with the virus for five centuries, one might ask why male humans descended from the 10 percent that survives the virus have not evolved higher rates of resistance. The answer is that of course they have. However, the Church in its wisdom sustains the 10:1 female to male ratio by randomly poisoning nine out of ten boys at puberty. This is information the Church very much wants kept secret. Unfortunately for Marah’s patriarchal society, Thors’ painful death is the catalyst that will inspire one guilt-ridden cleric to share what he knows.
Lycanthia: Or, The Children of Wolves by Tanith Lee (1981)
Christian Dorse returns to the Dorse family chateau, planning to die of a self-diagnosed terminal disease in suitably funereal surroundings. He takes to the mansion and the perquisites that come with it like a man donning a favourite overcoat.
Even dying aristocrats require diversion. Luc and Gabrielle de Lagenay become such for Christian. Living in a nearby hut, the siblings and the wolves that live near them are thought by local peasants to be one and the same. An ancient curse is involved, one for which Christian’s own ancestors were responsible. Christian’s curiosity leads him to no end of revelations, the most terrible of which is that secret knowledge should never be trusted to a man who, like Christian, is utterly bereft of a moral compass.
The Atrocity Archive by Charles Stross (2004)
Luckily for computer expert Bob Howard and the entire population of Earth, the Laundry is ever vigilant. Bob was exploring certain esoteric mathematical principles, a quest which attracted Britain’s occult oversight agency. They stopped him before he could unleash catastrophe. Then they recruited him. Bob became a key element of Britain’s arcane immune system, tasked with delaying doomsday one day at a time.
A foray to the United States is more than a meet-cute for Bob and his future partner Mo O’Brien. It’s the first step on a twisted path to an alternate world where Nazi occult research succeeded all too well. The frozen ruins in this alternate world hint at what waits for Earth should the Laundry ever fumble the ball. Returning home without bringing the entity responsible for the dead world along for the ride could be tricky. One mistake on Bob’s part won’t just doom humanity… it will result in an unsatisfactory quarterly job assessment!
Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, translated by Julia Meitov Hersey (2018)
Farit Kozhennikov recognizes genius when he sees it. Sixteen-year-old Sasha Samokhina has unrealized potential that few can match. Believing that such potential must be developed, Farit orchestrates Sasha’s recruitment by the obscure Institute of Special Technologies. To ensure Sasha’s full and energetic cooperation in this unexpected education detour, Farit makes it clear that the price of failure will fall not on Sasha, but on her family. Not wishing to be the sole survivor of her kin, Sasha complies.
Brief glimpses of more advanced students suggest that even success has its price. The products of this training command eldritch knowledge beyond mortal comprehension. Whether an illuminated Sasha will still qualify as human is very much an open question.
If experience teaches me anything, it’s never use a lit match to see if there’s still gasoline at the bottom of the jerry can assume a five-book list will come close to covering the full expanse of such a useful concept as forbidden knowledge. No doubt for each of the stories above, readers can name ten works that explore similar themes. Comments are below.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and the 2022 Aurora Award finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award, is eligible to be nominated again this year, and is surprisingly flammable.