Writers all begin as readers, readers who love the thrill of a story that grabs us and refuses to let go. I started writing to chase that feeling, and the pleasure of being in thrall to a great tale is one of the forces that gives life to my novel, The Angel of Losses [Ecco, $25.99].
My heroine Marjorie is a reader, a scholar of literature, but she puts her research aside when she discovers her late grandfather's notebook containing a fairy tale about a reluctant sorcerer, the White Rebbe, and the Angel of Losses who grants him his power. The notebook suggests the existence of additional stories, and Marjorie embarks on a mission to assemble the missing stories. She wants to read to the end -- to learn the White Rebbe's fate and the Angel of Losses' secrets -- but she's also looking for a project to distract her from her feud with her sister, who has converted to an obscure Jewish sect and married to a controlling man whom Marjorie hates. But in the end, the White Rebbe stories lead Marjorie to confront exactly what she hoped to avoid, and she puts the books aside in order to protect her sister's new family from the consequences of their grandfather's past.
While I was writing, I thought about siblings and children and how our relationships grow and fray over time; I thought about magic and religious longing and the fate of the world; and I thought a lot about the nature of storytelling too. But it was only after finishing that I realized that Marjorie's path dramatizes what we all experience when we engage with a great book. Stories take us on journeys; the best stories take us on journeys that lead us back to our own lives with new understanding of ourselves and loved ones.
I'm far from the only writer to tell a story driven by other stories. There is a wealth of novels that revolve around mysterious manuscripts, and they all, I think, testify to the nearly magical power of a great book. Here are a few of my favorites:
Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin
A classic of 18th-century gothic, Maturin's tale of a man who sold his soul to the devil and is looking for someone to assume his curse takes the form of several stories within stories. At the center is the Tale of the Indians, a manuscript transcribed by a fugitive from the Inquisition as he hides in an underground passage, surrounded by the skeletons of his helper's -- or captor's -- family.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potocki
Another 18th-century gothic, this one by Polish nobleman and Renaissance man Potocki, this novel was written in French and unpublished until after the author's death (making the manuscript of Manuscript a bit mysterious itself). Its hero, a French soldier serving in the Napoleonic Wars, discovers a Spanish manuscript full of tales of bandits, gypsies, Moorish princesses, hermits, demons, and mystics.
The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers
This 19th-century collection uses "The King in Yellow," a play that drives all who read it to madness, to connect its tales of the macabre and supernatural. The book was a big influence on existential horror (think Lovecraft), and everyone's talking about it again since HBO's True Detective borrowed its Yellow King and city of Carcosa.
Foulcault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco
Eco's novel is a mix of pulp and philosophy, and a near encyclopedia of occult history. Three bored editors create their own manuscript using a computer program that pieces together elements of the occult- and conspiracy-themed texts under review. Their game yields a theory about a centuries-long revenge plan by the Knights Templar, and a lot of trouble, when the editors become convinced that the story they thought they invented is true.
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
This 21st-century horror novel centers around The Navidson Record, a documentary about a Virginia house that defies space and time and the family that lived in it. The book itself is oversized and crafted with different fonts, colors, and spacing to incorporate several different texts responding to one another and the mystery of the Navidson family.
The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte
A Spanish novel that inspired the Roman Polanski-Johnny Depp film The Ninth Gate, Perez-Reverte's smart thriller describes an antiquarian bookseller's quest to authenticate an alleged Alexander Dumas manuscript. His journey takes him across Europe, and maybe to Satan himself.
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
A reader begs a secretive author to reveal the thirteenth tale hinted at, but not printed in, her story collection. The author agrees -- if the reader will give her three secrets in return. Setterfield's story involves family secrets, country estates, and angry ghosts -- all tropes that Charles Maturin would have recognized.