Over many centuries, there have been countless magic books promising to help conjurers summon spirits. And among the many pleasures of reading Davies' book is the simple, shiver-producing enjoyment of scanning the rich, ominous-sounding titles that he catalogs in the course of charting their historical development:
* "The Clavicule of Solomon"
* "The Black Pullet"
* "The Grimoire of Pope Honorius" (yes, that's right, some Catholic clergy were said to dabble in the black arts. This book was popular in 18th century France -- one of its spells involved using a cat's head to attain invisibility.)
* "Dragon Rouge" (shades of novelist Thomas Harris)
* "The Black Raven" (associated with the legendary Faust)
* "The Satanic Bible" (of Anton LaVey, who was a San Francisco-based sorcerer supreme in the 1960s and '70s)
The one title, though, that I sought in vain in Davies' book was "The Book of the Vishanti." Have you heard of this one? It is an extremely elusive text: Only one copy of the book is said to exist, and it is kept in the library of Stephen Strange, the great sorcerer from the house of Marvel Comics. Oh, OK. That must be the reason why I couldn't find it.
And yet, "The Book of the Vishanti" was my first experience of a grimoire, spending summer days in the '70s in the smelly used bookstore around the corner. The owner didn't care if I read everything cover to cover, and I'd spend hours reading copies of "Strange Tales," "Daredevil" and "The Fantastic Four" as I tried to figure the best way of maximizing the five bucks in my pocket. That was when I encountered Dr. Strange, master of the occult arts, opening an enormous book and reciting a long, ominous incantation that would open a doorway from this world into another dimension:
In the name of the dread Dormammu,
In the name of the all-seeing Agamotto,
By the powers that dwell in the darkness,
I summon the hosts of Hoggoth!
Lead me to the source of evil!
Obey the words of Doctor Strange!
And then, in the next frame, a swirling cloud appears and takes the shape of a portal! The spell produces an instantaneous result.
After reading Davies, however, one sees a more serious implication in all this comic book playfulness: Here is a shadowy magician, a recluse; he possesses a secret knowledge; and there is that obscure, pretentious language in the book -- all suggestive of the exclusivity that Davies says the clergy and nobility wielded to keep power out of the hands of the people.
"The history of grimoires, as told in these pages, is not only about the significance of the book in human intellectual development," he explains, "but also about the desire for knowledge and the enduring impulse to restrict and control it."