Who among us wouldn’t flip casually Necronomicon, was it close at hand when no other reading material presented itself? (The alternative would be do not reading!) However, the entertainment of a moment could be done at the cost of a terrible and unforgettable revelation, from which madness could not escape.
The world is full of information that can only make the learner less happy. The writers have long known how plot-friendly such ghastly revelations can be. Consider these five examples.
Vintage season by Henry Kuttner and CL Moore (1946)
Oliver Wilson can sell his mansion for a princely sum, if only he can convince the particular visitors to whom he has rented the house to move out before the end of May. Omerie, Kleph and Klia Sancisco are determined to stay in their rented mansion. The strange trio have done their research and of the homes available to them in May, only Oliver’s will do.
Oliver isn’t the only person trying to force the Sanciscos out of their rented home. Several other parties are determined to take advantage of this particular vantage point. Enchanted by the scheming Kleph, Oliver makes the terrible mistake of getting to know her better and the reasons for her visit to her city this May. What he learns is extremely disturbing… not that he will have long to live with the knowledge.
A voice of Ramah by Lee Killough (1979)
Centuries ago, Bussard ramjets gave humans access to extraterrestrial worlds. More recently, the shuttlebox has been developed. One can travel between Shuttle Boxes instantaneously… but first the Shuttle Box to the desired destination must be delivered, after traveling the long, slow path via an Intergalactic Communications sublight ramjet.
One of these ramjets arrives on the planet Marah, where liaison officer Alesdra Pontokouros and her very unfortunate colleague Thors Kastavin make unpleasant discoveries.
Marah’s indigenous civilization was eradicated centuries before the arrival of human religious pilgrims. The viral means by which the aliens eliminated themselves is still deadly enough for 90% of human males once puberty has occurred. Goodbye poor Thors.
Given that colonists have lived with the virus for five centuries, one wonders why the male humans descended from the 10% who survive the virus have not developed higher rates of resistance. The answer is that, of course, they did. However, the Church, in its wisdom, maintains the female to male ratio of 10:1 by randomly poisoning nine out of ten boys at puberty. This is information that the Church absolutely wants to keep secret. Unfortunately for Marah’s patriarchal society, Thors’ painful death is the catalyst that will inspire a guilt-ridden cleric to share what he knows.
Lycanthia: or, the children of the wolves by Tanith Lee (1981)
Christian Dorse returns to the Dorse family castle, planning to die of a self-diagnosed terminal illness in a suitably funerary environment. He takes on the mansion and the perks that come with it like a man donning his favorite overcoat.
Even dying aristocrats need diversion. Luc and Gabrielle de Lagenay become so for Christian. Living in a nearby hut, the siblings and wolves living nearby are considered by local peasants to be one and the same. An ancient curse is involved, which Christian’s own ancestors were responsible for. Christian’s curiosity leads him to endless revelations, the most terrible of which is that secret knowledge should never be entrusted to a man who, like Christian, is utterly devoid of a moral compass.
The atrocities archive by Charles Stross (2004)
Luckily for computer expert Bob Howard and everyone on Earth, the laundry is always on the lookout. Bob was exploring some esoteric mathematical principles, a quest which attracted the British occult watchdog agency. They stopped him before he could unleash a disaster. Then they recruited him. Bob has become a key part of Britain’s dark immune system, tasked with delaying the apocalypse one day at a time.
A foray into the United States is more than a cute encounter 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 has been all too successful. The frozen ruins of this alternate world hint at what awaits Earth should the laundry ever fumble the ball. Coming home without taking the entity responsible for the dead world with you could be tricky. A mistake on Bob’s part will not only doom humanity…it will result in an unsatisfactory quarterly job evaluation!
Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, translated by Julia Meitov Hersey (2018)
Farit Kozhennikov recognizes genius when he sees it. Sasha Samokhina, 16, has unrealized potential that few can match. Believing that such potential must be developed, Farit orchestrates the recruitment of Sasha by the obscure Institute of Special Technologies. To ensure Sasha’s full and energetic cooperation in this unexpected educational detour, Farit makes it clear that the price of failure will not fall on Sasha, but on her family. Not wishing to be the sole survivor of her family, Sasha complies.
Brief glimpses of more advanced students suggest that even success has its price. The products of this formation command eldritch knowledge beyond mortal comprehension. Whether an enlightened Sasha will still qualify as human is an open question.
If experience teaches me anything, it’s never use a lit match to see if there is any gasoline left in the bottom of the container suppose a list of five books will cover almost the full breadth 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 the TexasAndroid Wikipedia editorprolific and lively literary critic Darwin Award Nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability”. Her work has been published in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on her own websites, Reviews of James Nicoll and the Aurora Prize 2022 finalist Young people read the old SFF (where he is assisted by the editor Karen Lofstrom and internet user Adrienne L. Travis). He’s a four-time finalist for the Hugo Best Fan Writer Award, is eligible to be nominated again this year, and is surprisingly fiery.