Review: The Infernal Dictionary

Having looked at the False Hierarchy of Demons from Abracax House, we turn to their publication of the Infernal Dictionary (link via Amazon).  I believe this is now out of print, but I managed to get a copy of it at Treadwell’s before leaving England.  I think it’s fair to note that I did pay a good price for it – though well below that listed on Amazon – and hauled it back in my suitcase for England, which might affect my review.

The Dictionnaire Infernal by Collin de Plancy, with different editions released from 1818 to 1863, is perhaps one of the most famous reference works of the occult.  I discussed it in my Spirits in the Library posts, and I’ve wanted to see a full – not partial – translation from the French for some time now.  Thus, I was happy to see the Abracax edition, especially since I missed the initial print run.

The publication is an attractive two-volume work, slipcased and bound in imitation leather.  We have not only translations of de Plancy’s original articles, but also reproductions of the original woodcuts, footnotes – both those of de Plancy and the editors – the texts of the various introductions to the book over its history, the approval of the bishop of Paris, a biography of de Plancy, an index, and other items.  Many of the demons are illustrated in full color by modern artists.  This does make for a magnificent book.

Nonetheless, this comes with a few caveats.  We are not given the French text, although this is readily available online.  I have a greater concern:  the editors’ decision to update and correct the text along with the rest of the process.

I can understand the impulse that compelled them to make the decision, Nonetheless – and I speak here as an author of an encyclopedia – simply updating the entries in a reference book, without also considering the shape of the work, what entries should be added and deleted, etc., is not really a sufficient way to update a work.  Further, the places where changes have been made do not seem to have been noted consistently.

To me, there are two options with a work such as this.  One of these is to build upon the previous one, revising the whole, adding and subtracting and rethinking until it becomes a fully modernized work.  The other is to preserve the original as closely as possible, with some modernizations in terms of spelling and arrangements, to bring a work that provides us with insights into a particular time and place to today’s readers.  To be clear, this would be my preference.

For me, the Infernal Dictionary ends up being a book that fulfills neither of these potential purposes.  I’m reluctant to say so, because the editors did a great deal of work to make the book the way it was.  I’m also aware of how sometimes you make an editorial  decision with a book that is nigh-on irrevocable, simply because it’s so much work to go back and change, and I wonder if that was ever the case here.

Nonetheless, this book has many admirable qualities that should not be overlooked.  Is it worth $180?  Those interested in an artisanal book to grace their shelves will likely find it so.  If you can read French, there are many cheap untranslated copies available in print or online that you can consult.  As a reference work, I wish it could have been less expensive – although you could say the same for many of the expensive reference works for sale by much larger publishers.  What works for your collection?

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Published in: on August 31, 2016 at 3:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

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