Once I gloried in the smell of old books, their crumbling, mildew-stained pages reminding me of the ancient and forgotten mysteries I beheld nightly within their covers. But no longer, for it was my fate to survive the most primal of terrors, and to find myself beyond the shroud of ordinary existence for a while…a destiny I shall relate in this account.
In the small town of West Groves, Illinois, there stands to this day a shop, with ordinary brick walls and mundane oaken floors, upon which stand a great number of bookcases of the same wood, filled with the worlds of imagination. On those shelves can be found anything from the august fantasies of a Lord Dunsany to the mad flights of fancy of the poet Zelazny, not forgetting the star-spawned visions of the Master of the Protectors, the idylls and war-torn spheres of the prophet of the swords, and the revels of Rabelais. It is whispered that this particular shop contains other things less savory than that as well. The townsfolk when in confidence do not speak of such lesser texts and grimoires as those of the Satanists, but of older and more sinister volumes, which contained information that could blast the mind out of you where you stood. It is uncertain if any such remain within those walls, but I can affirm that such were present at one time.
Not willingly will I name those tomes, or speak of their contents. My best advice if you should encounter any volume which purports to be similar is to run in the other direction. Do not open the book, and especially do not cast your eyes upon the words within. For they are not in this language, but will make themselves understood after a time, if you read those words. The language they are written in is older than man, and will be used long after we poor apes have departed these spheres. The understanding of that language is written right into the being of every living thing. However it is exceedingly perilous to unlock those hoary and hidden chambers of the soul in order to comprehend the letters of the Old tongue. One must fight against the draw of the book and the language written into one’s own soul in order to escape, but escape you must, lest you suffer a fate similar to the one that befell me.
Though I would occasionally thumb through a sensational paperback from the bestseller list, and was familiar with some of the body of work in the horror, fantasy, and science fiction fields, I was not much of a reader. But I needed a job, and at the time I was employed by that shop, in the capacity of clerk, for a time. The front door of the shop is adjacent to the local train depot, and the shop stocked daily newspapers and coffee for commuters, of which there were quite a few. After a brief time in the period of my employ, it became my duty to open the shop, drag in the bundles of newspaper, and cut the bindings, and begin the first of the days batches of coffee in the giant percolator in a side room. These simple activities, and the pleasantries exchanged with the customers, often were the whole of the day. Visitors to the shop were rare other than that. Occasionally a seeker of strange visions would enter, and exit with one or more of the books, as always. There was a catalog mailed to others, and they ordered from that by telephone or mail. The books disappeared at a steady rate, and were kept replenished by the other employee of the shop, Bill.
Bill was a most taciturn individual, and performed his duties mechanically, working slowly, methodically sorting the books that arrived in huge cardboard boxes, and placing them on the shelves, using a library cart to haul them.
The boxes arrived each day in the same white van that brought Bill, and would return at the moment he completed his task, to take him somewhere else. I never knew what to make of that, for it was not always at the same time of day. Perhaps Bill called them when he was through. There seemed no point in pursuing the matter, since Bill was a man of so few words that he hardly spoke. The only thing I remember him saying at all was that once he needed help lifting a box.
“Help,” he had said simply, in a dusty whisper that issued from his throat. He left shortly thereafter, a few days or so, when I had to start helping with every other box. That loss of strength, and the increase in the darkness of his complexion, made me suspect that perhaps he was a patient at a hospital, with cancer or some other terminal disease. He had always seemed sane enough to me, a little slow perhaps, but the things he did seemed to fit his circumstances, his actions were normal enough. The white van that he arrived and left in had something to do with that surmise as well. I didn’t come face to face with the driver of the van or the other occupants, but I saw them through the window, and they wore the same vacant expression and sallow, hollow-eyed look that Bill bore.
Another guy came from the white van the next day, but he only came for that one day. The owner of the shop had left me a message concerning him…
“A new stocker will arrive this morning. His name is Walter. He is unable to speak. He will replenish the stock, put the rest away, and then will depart. Give him the large ledger from underneath the front desk to take with him when he goes. Tomorrow, you will assume those duties. The boxes will be there when you arrive. You have been granted a small increase in salary to perform this extra duty.”
That was all right with me. A box or two of new books came in every day, and the ones I boxed for shipping were taken away. A different guy came every day to pick them up, the van always parking in the alley next to the shop so all I could see was the front end through the side window, and then pulling away rapidly. There was some writing on the side of it, but I could never make it out.
I stocked the new books on the shelves, occasionally glancing through a volume of obscure science fiction edited by Groff Conklin or Tony Boucher, or an arcane anthology of horror provided by someone’s erudite and helpful agent, but more often leafing through one of the tomes covered in unusual letters that came through every few days. I had glanced at these in a cursory manner before, but never taken a look through one in depth, as it were. With Bill coming around, and then Walter, there just hadn’t been time. Now there was. One of these books in particular held my interest, and I soon abandoned all of the others in favor of it, undertaking a serious study. This book was most curious, bound in a strangely pale leather, and the leaves were not of paper, but another material, stiffer and darker in color, slightly thicker. The letters were done by hand, by a quill pen I imagined, after the fashion of the illuminated manyscripts that I had heard of, and the characters were not in any form I has seen previously, though oddly enough they looked familiar. I spent a considerable amount of time leafing theough this book, trying to establish why these letters looked familiar, turning the pages in an attempt to decipher the hidden meaning by sheer repetition, reading the contents over and over and over.
Somehow I thought that would work. Each day I would return to the shop from my decrepit little apartment nearby, and open the book to the page I had left off at the night before, reading while I drank my first coffee of the young day. Then I would go out back and bring in the boxes of books and the bundles of newspapers, checking each book off against the provided list, and putting it in the storeroom unless it was needed to replace a display item. Most of the older ones went in the storeroom. That would take me through the second and final cup, and I would stand out in front, testing the weather and smoking. By then the morning regulars would arrive for a coffee and a paper, and I would cheerily greet them, fetch the required items, and go back to my reading. The phone didn’t ring very often then, and I had a lot of uninterrupted time in which to indulge this strange investigation.
Once I began with the book, I forgot about taking time for lunch, and worked right through til closing. Once or twice I had gotten so absorbed in the task that I couldn’t hear a client enter. I began to make progress, I thought, in understanding what the alien text meant.
The first of these customers arrived on a wet Tuesday, one of a series of rainy days in a damp year overall. The day was remarkable only for his arrival. This party wore a bulky black raincoat, one with a hood that overhung his face in front and obscured his features, save the tip of his pointed nose and the glitter of his eyes. The sound of his heavy footsteps on the short stairway that led from the foyer into the main floor of the bookshop made me aware of his presence, and I hastily slid the volume I was absorbed in under the desk as he ascended.
He approached me, not speaking, and came close enough for me to see the specks of dirt that flecked his coat, turning to rivulets of mud. He had left a trail of muddy footprints behind, which I would have to mop up after he had left. Before I had time to respond to this, he presented me with a list of books.
“Please have these sent to me,” he said, in a voice that simultaneously rumbled and buzzed. He handed me a business card. “Thank you.” He turned on his hell and left, his smell, so like that of the moldering books in the shop, wafting toward me from the small breeze in the wake of his going. There was a credit card number on the business card, and an address. The card checked out okay at the phone center, and we had the books on the list, so I packed them up in a box, left them outside, and went back to the book. It was starting to make sense to me more and more as I went along.
Though I didn’t know much Latin beyond random phrases, I understood that the title was the “Vox Arcanum”, and that it had been written many long years ago by a priest in a land called “Leng”, which called to mind pictures of ancient plains, with robed people strolling through garlanded boulevards, their prayerful hands together as they promenaded through the endless benighted streets of their land, their faces hidden by masks of chartreuse and scarlet, their robes of lemon or persimmon brocaded with the finest spun silver, and always the scent of smoke in the air from the constantly burning braziers that hung outside each pentagonal dwelling, and from the joss sticks that each carried between their folded hands.
Once that picture occurred to me, on the afternoon of the day when the client arrived, I believed I had the key to the whole thing, and began taking the book home with me, where I curled up in the corner of my overstuffed couch under the reading light with the book and a sandwich that I soon forgot, reading until the small hours of the morning. The characters that the book was written in were as pictographs to me, I understood completely.
Each night I would read until my eyes closed, never seeming to get far. I had started over when I had my small epiphany, and read avidly the tales of the daily life of Leng, with the constant awareness of the closeness of the gods lending a reverence to each act. The gods were about in those times, not imprisoned or driven away yet, and their awesome countenances were sometimes seen from afar as they went about their business. A tremendous cephalapod head could be glimpsed as the god strode across the mountains that surrounded the land, or a congeries of gigantic metallic spheres could be seen traveling through the sky, dwarfing the moon and casting shadows even in the perpetual gloom of Leng.
And there were others in the Plains of Leng besides the priests and their acolytes, sallow hollow people that fetched and carried and did not speak, that carried from cords around their wrinkled necks copies of the same book I was reading, and left patches of their rotting flesh behind them as they marched on into the arms of the final chaos, moving ever more slowly as they performed their duties until they could no longer, whereupon they were set upon by their fellows and consumed, their knowledge passed on in that manner and the slaves renewed. New replacements arrived daily from over the mountains, naked, starving, their ribs showing through what remained of their skin.
They would wander aimlessly about the mighty avenues, until they were able to participate in the feeding frenzies that occurred frequently. Then their movements gained purpose, and they would proceed at the bidding of the priests, toting censers and bowls and urns to the central pentagon, and carrying large cones of incense to be burned in the eternal ceremonies that occurred there.
Eventually I stopped going home at all, and lost almost all interest in eating. The book became my sole means for existing. I read and read and read, though the leaves seemed scarcely to turn at all.
When the van came for me, I wasn’t at all surprised. I offered no resistance as they sat me in the back with the others, nor did I resist as they laid me in the earth, with my folded hands clasped upon my breast, and the leather strap around my neck, and heaped the clay upon me. I wasn’t disturbed at all until I discovered that I wasn’t breathing, and began to claw at the dirt then with my hands and pound at it with my feet. It took days to do so, but I had time enough. Eventually I broke through to the surface, and re-entered the van with the dirt of my unquiet grave still upon me, and was taken to fabled Leng.
Once I was taken back to the store, to aid the man who had replaced me. I tried to warn him not to read the book, but it didn’t work. I couldn’t get the words out if I approached him. I had to concentrate in order to get my job done.
The van stopped in lots of places, brightly-lit stores and convenience centers in little strip malls, laundromats, everywhere help was needed from the graveyard shift. We moved slowly and carefully through our duties, and rejoined the throngs that moved spasmodically and patiently on the Plains of Leng, outside and over the mountains from the Cold Waste, in the endless night.