Literary Archaeology: Books within Books – Part 2

Jon Black

This is the second part in a series I began back in March ( examining real books that may be useful for writers of HistFic or other genres.

Not only are books excellent vehicles for exposition and an intriguing element of stories in their own right, they play on the inherent bibliophilia of most readers. We love not just good stories in books but good stories about books.

I contrasted this with classic fictional tomes such as the Necronomicon, Unaussprechlichen Kulten, or Cultes des Goules. There is nothing wrong with using such devices (I recently submitted a shorty that prominently features the later tome). The purpose of this series is to highlight the existence of actual works which offer backstories, mysteries, and possibilities every bit as rich as their fictional counterparts.

My first article focused on three works largely academic or scholarly in nature: Frazer’s Golden Bough, Murray’s Witch Cult in Western Europe, and Fry’s Pantographia. This time, we will examine three texts that are more esoteric: Donnelly’s Atlantis, Jung’s Red Book, and the anonymous Voynich Manuscript. As a caveat, these books may be better suited for historical fantasy or weird tales and pulp with a historical setting than conventional HistFic.

Atlantis: The Antediluvian World

Ignatius Donnelly’s Atlantis: The Antediluvian World

Author: Ignatius Donnelly. Congressman and Lt. Governor from Minnesota. Author of a variety of unconventional works on topics ranging from Atlantis, to the Great Flood being caused by comet colliding with Earth, to Shakespeare’s plays actually being written by Francis Bacon.

Publication: 1882, Second Printing 1920.

Summary: The book sets forth Donnelly’s theories about the O.G. of lost continents. Much of the “New Age” conception of Atlantis originates in this book with Donnelly’s ideas of Atlantis as a cradle of lost ancient wisdom as well as an imperial power whose subjects (including Mayans, Egyptians, and all the usual suspects) retain “hidden” evidence of their Atlantean colonizers/overlords. He uses archeological evidence that was groundbreaking (pardon the pun) in the late 19th century but now appears highly suspect. Donnelly theorized the catastrophe destroying Atlantis was the same one responsible for the Biblical Flood and that the Irish are decedents of the original Atlanteans.

I probably don’t need to add that nearly every word in Atlantis has since been dismissed as pseudoscience.

TANGENT ALERT: The inside covers of my copy of Atlantis are stamped with “Grace Baptist Church,” making me wonder that particular place of worship was getting up to back in the day (Was there a Grace Baptist Church in Innsmouth, MA?).

Possible Uses in HistFic: The tomb becomes a source of inspiration (or places to insert interesting information) for stories about sunken continents and civilizations, kaiju, Cthulhu, R’yleh, Deep Ones, and underwater weirdness in general. The various works of the British explorer, occultist, and eccentric James Churchward are the usual go-to in this capacity. Donnelly offers writers a fresh alternative.

Text Online:

The Red Book

Carl Jung’s The Red Book

Author: Carl Jung (yes, that one)

Publication: Compiled circa 1915-1930, not published until 2009.

Summary: The Red Book began in the years following Jung’s final split with Freud. During that association, Jung actively suppressed his mystical bent and fascination with myths and mythmaking. Finally free from his domineering Austrian mentor, Jung’s interest in dreams, myths, and mysticism returned with a vengeance.

In addition to carefully recording his dreams, Jung actively plumbed the deepest depths of his psyche through exercises which combined aspects of meditation, guided visualization, and actual auto-hypnosis. Scholars often tamely refer to these exercise as “imaginative journeys” but, based on Jung’s descriptions, it seems appropriate to describe them as mystical journeys or even vision quests.

Frequently, Jung met “beings” on these journeys and would not let them go without asking who they were and what the purpose of their crossing paths was. The results of many such encounters were recorded in the Red Book.

The book is also remarkable for its physical characteristics. Arguably, nothing like this folio had been created since the popularization of the printing press. The text was hand-written on sheets of parchment by Jung in elaborate calligraphy using German, Latin, Green, and English. It is hand illuminated with multi-colored inks and gouache paints. Jung’s original Red Book was bound in hand-stitched red (obviously) leather accented with actual gold.

Possible Uses in HistFic: Any sort of mystical, occult, or illuminated secret might be concealed within the Red Book. Jung’s elaborate illustrations could include clues to magic spells, the lost temples of the masters, or even something as prosaic as a cache of Swiss gold. Through stories of Jung’s encounters, information about who knows what beings might be available. Finally, parallels between Jung’s journeys preserved in the Red Book and Lovecraft’s Dreamlands are self-evident. As such, it may contain practical “how-to” information on entering the Dreamlands or similar parallel realms.

Text Online: (scroll to bottom of page).

The Voynich Manuscript

A page from the Voynich Manuscript with its mysterious language and distinctive illustrations.

Author: Unknown (possibly Wilfrid Voynich)

Publication: Unknown. Materials carbon dated to early 15th century. First mention, early 17th century.  Continuous provenance from 1870. Purchased by Voynich in 1912.

Summary: The Voynich Manuscript may be the most mysterious book in existence … assuming the whole thing isn’t an elaborate forgery or hoax.

The codex is handwritten using an unknown alphabet or cipher. A translation or decryption remains elusive, despite a century of attention from linguists and cryptographers. This leads some to speculate that the characters may be a written form of glossolalia (the technical term for the phenomenon known as “speaking in tongues”) and have no actual meaning. That interpretation is far from universally accepted.

The Voynich Manuscript is equally known for its elaborate, colorful, and diverse illustrations that include plants, astronomical or astrological images, animals, mythological creatures, images suggestive of occult themes, and, of course, a considerable number of nude women.

Many believe the manuscript is a pharmacopeia, medical text, or treatise on natural science. Though why such a text should need to be made so inaccessible remains unexplained. As an interesting twist, a few experts allege the codex depicts New World plants that should have been unknown at the time of its composition. Conversely, plant illustrations combined with astrological imagery might make it a grimoire or book of magic. Certainly, that would better explain the author’s need for secrecy.

Possible Uses in HistFic: Almost anything could be contained within the codex. An actual grimoire is an obvious possibility for historical fantasy. Preserving a record of pre-Colombian contact with the New World is another. It may contain information about forgotten herbs or medicines offering a “miracle cure” for a medical crisis confronting the modern world. The manuscript might be full of information deemed dangerous, damaging, or heretical but the Church a la Dan Brown. Or maybe the whole thing is just an elaborate red herring.

Text Online: or, if you really want it, on .pdf at