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Spellbinding, Part II: Books of Power on Screen

Inspired by Eleanor Boba’s recent guest post on spellbooks and books of power in literature, I thought I’d post a follow-up with a focus on similar books onscreen. It is, perhaps, a little sillier than our usual posts, but hey, it’s Halloween month!

The first errant fool that touches the page shall loos’th himself in the image therein and shall be cursed to live the death that is therein depicteth. Yet, he who utters the dying breath may then be spared the errant death, but breath be spoke before the flame or death shall take him all the same.

— WAREHOUSE 13, Season 3, Episode 1: “The New Guy”

There are many options for notable books and books of power. Though tempting to includefrom:'s_diary because of the TARDIS-like binding, River Song’s diary on DOCTOR WHO is not in itself a book of power, so I had to set it aside. The storybook in THE NEVERENDING STORY is an appealing choice – a book that changes its story with every reading, in large part to suit the needs of the reader/hero, is certainly a book of power. But I haven’t seen the movie and this post isn’t about literary versions of stories. Another tempting option is pretty much the entire library of books used on BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.

However, I’ve settled on books featured in two shows, one still on the air, and one recently finished.

The first is the storybook in ONCE UPON A TIME. Though seemingly stuffed with limitless classic tales (the loose definition of “fairy tales” used by Disney properties is a conversation to be had in another time and place), the child Henry immediately notices when an unexpected story has been added, and also knows when a character appears in town who isn’t in the book. It’s an interesting combination of characters’ life stories existing in a status of already-written and being-written simultaneously. Extra pages appear at times in the show, while others are rewritten or destroyed. For characters during the first curse, touching the book, hearing their story, or seeing an illustration of themselves can cause brief, confusing visions of their previous life. Eventually, doing so is what convinces Emma Swann that the curse is indeed real, rather than her son’s imagination at work.

The second show I’d like to reference has a few different and interesting books of power featured at various times. WAREHOUSE 13 proposes the premise that when exposed to heightened emotion, everyday items can become imbued with certain properties that affect humans in a way related to the object’s original exposure. These Artifacts, as they are known, range from relatively harmless (Marilyn Monroe’s hairbrush turns your hair platinum blonde, the original snowglobe can make things, like drinks, cold) to the downright deadly (Gandhi’s dhoti makes you so peaceful that you stop breathing, a piece of the Parliament building rubble from the Blitz works as a hate-fueled bomb).

There are two books featured that come to mind when thinking of WAREHOUSE 13 and books of power. In one episode, a bookseller receives a copy of an Edgar Allan Poe notebook. When he reads it, the words become literally embedded in the skin and lead to loss of sanity. The characters eventually find that it can be temporarily deactivated by the presence of “good stories,” which they accomplish by reading the victim’s own unpublished manuscript to him, which was full of personal passion and emotion. In a later episode, an early folio of Shakespeare is used as a murder weapon: the victims touch the page illustrating of one of the death scenes in a play and then themselves die that way, speaking the “last words” from the play. If they manage to speak the last words before the page’s spontaneous flames consume it entirely, they can survive the attack.

These two shows feature books that create, consume, and destroy in turns. And once you start looking, you can’t help but notice books of power are featured in stories on both page and screen all the time.