A scholar discovers some disturbing magic in an old book
| What historian doesn't love wandering in a library's stacks, surrounded by knowledge? At an early age, the musty smell of the old books became something that I looked forward to, even though it almost certainly triggers an allergic reaction in my sinuses. Now that I'm a professor, I could get books delivered to me, and sometimes do, but often I like to find them myself. On those occasions, I wander among the old books, reading titles at random just to see what people have taken the trouble to write about. Sometimes I find an interesting book that I add to my reading list; other times, I find only obscure titles at which I have to shake my head in wonderment that someone not only wrote such a book, but a collections manager at our library decided to purchase it.
It was on one of these times wandering through the stacks that I found an old manuscript that had almost certainly been misfiled. As a manuscript, it should have been with the rare books; but even in the stacks, it was in completely the wrong place, having nothing to do with the subject of surrounding books, which were all about social movements in 19th century Italy. It had a call number suitable for that shelf, but how the librarian came to assign it a call number in that range, I cannot imagine.
The title caught my eye: "Notes on Actual Magic From South Asia." The mere fact that it was out of place was enough to cause me to pull off the shelf, but I was also interested because I retained a childish curiousity in magic – not the sleight-of-hand sort, but the fanstastical magic of wizards and warlocks that didn't exist in the real world. The idea of "actual magic" seemed to hint at something of this sort, and though I knew it to be impossible, I couldn't help opening it up.
I skimmed a few pages. Much of it was written in some Indian language or other. I thought I recognized some Hindi characters, but there were passages in what appeared to be several different languages of which I had no knowledge: Kannada, perhaps, or Gujarati, or Tamil. The pages were filled with incomprehensible swirls. I did notice, however, that there was a lengthy introduction in English, so I brought the volume back to a table along with the history books that I was collecting so I could have a closer look at it.
When I sat down, I put my history books aside and went straight for this oddity. I was struck by the presence of a hand-written book in the library, and was curious to know its story. The author, Jeremy Wakefield, began his introduction with a dire warning: "I am recording this information for posterity, but I beg anyone who picks it up not to read any further unless he has some prior understanding of magical practices. I know from personal experience that this information, however harmless it appears, is very dangerous. do not read further! you will regret it!"
Obviously, I took this warning as a bit of puerile fiction, attempting to frame what I judged would be a fantastic story in the classic way that authors do. My heart sank with disappointment, because I assumed the rest of the manuscript would be equally immature. I continued reading anyway; partly, I have to admit, for the very reason I assumed the author wrote those lines – to find out what was so dangerous that it defied reading.
To my surprise, the author wasted no further time with creating a story, but instead jumped directly in to mundane instructions about the basics of magic. He went into a "scientific" explanation of how reading spells may be used to alter reality. He was not certain of their mechanism of action, but suspected that they were a form of prayer of supplication to some deity or other. I might have stopped there, as there seemed little of interest to me in this elaborate fiction, and in any case I could not read any of the languages in which the spells were written. The author indicated, however, that some spells in each section had been listed with the English translation underneath; and I thought, having gone so far, that I might as well read a spell to see what he had come up with. I flipped through the leaves until I came upon one of the ones with an English translation. The title of the spell was some gibberish word which I took to be a name, perhaps of a god. I began reading:
"Nameless, shapeless, formless void
Endless abyss of nothingness..."
At that point, a glint of light caught the corner of my eye and I turned my head sharply to the left, where I saw a small object glistening on one of the tables in the reading room where I sat. I turned back to finish the spell, but the light struck my eye again, more strongly. Looking over, the object on the table now appeared to have moved to the nearer side, and to have grown from the size of a quarter to the size of coaster.
My eyes occasionally do play tricks on me when I have been reading for a long time. This had happened after only a few minutes of reading, but I didn't think much of it and concluded that I was spending far too much time on this silly book when I should be doing serious research. I closed the volume, brought it to the return shelf, and checked out my other books, catching a glimpse of another small object just outside the reading room as I exited the library.
It was as I drove home that I first began to worry. I kept seeing things in my peripheral vision: sparkling, silvery things with flashes of a rainbow of colours mixed in. It was the same kind of thing that I saw in the library, but larger, and now it seemed to move. It sort of flowed over the landscape, not like water that spreads out, but like a drop of mercury that rolls across a countertop. Not like mercury either, really, since it was constantly changing shape, elongating, contracting, accumulating, dispersing. I can't give a better description because I was driving; and, besides, any time I turned to look at it, it was gone. In fact, it appeared on the right or left side of the road indifferently, at varying distances, so that I never knew where to expect it.
At this point, I had completely forgotten about the book and I was instead worried about my vision. The minor problems I had experienced in the past were nothing like what I was going through then, but I knew it was a degenerative condition and I expected it to get worse as I got older. I figured I needed to get to an ophthamologist soon, but at that moment, I just wanted to get home and lie down. The one consolation was that I could still see the road in front of me with perfect clarity; it was only in my peripheral vision that phantasms haunted me.
When I finally pulled into my driveway and got out of the car, I was not surprised to see the familiar shimmering off to my left. What was different this time was that it remained there when I turned my head to face it fully. There, a few hundred yards up the street, was a pulsating metallic patch, something like an oil spill with its rainbow of colours, but with a silver background. It appeared to be about two feet high and covered the road from side to side, inching forward like a slow lava flow.
I stood where I was, leaning against the car, and observed it, trying to make out what it could be. It answered to nothing I had ever seen before, either in shape, colour, or motion. It seemed to swell and contract like a living organism, but it also seemed to be growing larger as it moved slowly in my direction. Then the colour changed from silver to blue, from blue into a dark purple, and from purple into red. The red became orange, and then darkened until it turned to a muddy shade of brown. This seemed reassuring in one sense, because the mass did remind me somewhat of mud, although far more viscous than any mud I had ever seen, as it all adhered together and left nothing behind as it advanced. At the same time, it was more watery, more motile than mud, because I've never seen mud flow like that. I suppose it could flow down a hill in something of the same way, in a big storm, but this was a dry (although overcast) day on flat ground.
The fact that it began to look, if not behave, like an ordinary substance, emboldened me to approach it. I was anxious, but intensely curious to get a closer look. It was still coming in my direction, but at an extremely slow rate, so I walked halfway down the street before I got within ten feet of it. By then, I was convinced that it was neither mud nor any other substance that I had ever seen before. I wanted to approach closer, but I noticed that little rivulets started to flow faster than the rest, going past where I was standing. I retreated a few steps to stay out of reach. The rivulets then swelled up in a way that a liquid never could, becoming thick and round without spreading out. It was something like watching an octopus reform after having squeezed through a narrow opening.
And then the rivulets became tentacles, with suckers running all along one side, and the whole mass changed suddenly from brown to a very deep black colour. I felt ice cold, as though reality had suddenly been pulled from beneath my feet and I was in a world where none of the rules applied any longer. I retreated further on my now-shaking legs, but one of the tentacles suddenly expanded and wrapped around my right leg. The other continued its slow approach.
I was horrified, but my survival instinct kicked in and I grabbed the tentacle, squeezing and beating on it with my fists. When this didn't work, I reached in my pants and pulled out my pocketknife, deployed the blade, and began slashing madly at both tentacles (as the other had now reached my left leg). Back and forth I swiped, and watched as I cut the tentacles more and more, leaving them only attached by a small – muscle? There was no blood to indicate that I was cutting a living thing, just the bare substance, identical inside and out. This frightened me even more, but before I had time to separate the tentacles completely from the rest of the ooze, they suddenly disappeared. I mean, they didn't vanish, but rather they sort of melted back into a viscous liquid form and flowed back into the mass of mucilaginous black mire.
Again, my own survival instinct saved me, for I was conscious of making no decisions in the midst of my terror: I ran without thinking back to my house and locked the door after I had entered. As I looked out of my window, I saw the form progressing slowly up the street toward me. It was almost maddening how slowly it moved, sometimes as though flowing gradually, other times expanding and contracting in a sort of crawl or slither. It now changed colour inconsistently but continually, sometimes fading gradually from one colour to another, and sometimes spontaneously switching to a different colour instantaneously. It would return to the shimmering silver colour periodically. Tentacles would form occasionally, either from small outcroppings such as the ones that had seized me, or else right in the middle of the ooze a tentacle would grow to ten or twelve feet and then melt back whence it had come.
I had no idea what to think. The colours, I suspected, could have been my eyes playing tricks on me; but the substance was real, as I had felt it around my ankles. It wasn't clear what the tentacles would have done with me if I had not fought them off, for I could see nothing like a mouth amidst the oozing slime. I hoped that it would continue advancing down the street, bypassing my house and going elsewhere; and I would eventually find out that it wasn't real at all, but was just some harmless vision that I had misinterpreted. Alas, I had no such luck. The ooze began creeping across my front lawn when it reached that point in the street, and I could have no doubt that it was coming for me, inside the house.
Imagine the terror of watching this unknown, unthinkable object (animal? creation?) slowly picking its way across my lawn to devour me in some way that I couldn't even imagine yet. It infiltrated my car through cracks, leaving the interior a gooey mess and twisting the steering wheel into a pretzel. The car alarm started going off at the first penetration and continued unabated during the invasion, finally stopping after the ooze had managed to destroy it (by crushing? by removing the electrical wires?). I wasn't surprised that no one came to the sound, but it did make me think that the investment in a car alarm was a poor one, at least among my current neighbours.
I had nowhere to go and no plan to avoid my fate. Even if the car had been functional, it would not have helped me escape since the ooze had followed me all the way home. (I was pretty sure at this point that the things I had seen at the library and on the way home were the same as the thing that was threatening me now, although, logically speaking, this made no sense.) The stuff advanced slowly enough that I could have walked away from it, let alone run; but it was also persistent, and I felt certain that eventually it would wait until I wore down and then catch me, like the Terminator. Perhaps I could have gotten on an airplane and flown over the ocean, but that was a theoretical that didn't occur to me at the moment. All I could think of was the inexorable, excruciating, slow advance of the ooze and how I was doomed.
I watched out the window as it crept up to the house, spreading out in all directions to surround it. It reminded me a bit of a slug, sliming its way forward in disregard of all the beautiful things it was destroying. As it began climbing up the outside walls, little trickles of it crept under the front door. I thought of getting a knife from the kitchen, or perhaps sweeping it out with a broom since it was in a more liquid form, but there was no need. Before I could act, the trickles withdrew and left me alone.
I sighed in relief, feeling that I was secure in the house, but still somehow with a sense of my approaching doom. My uneasiness grew as the ooze covered the outside walls and windows a little at a time. It did not try to penetrate them, but it submerged the interior in a deep darkness as it blocked all light from outside. I was terrified of being in the dark, so I quickly turned on lights in several rooms. It occurred to me that this might attract the beast, but I figured it was coming regardless, and in any case I was not willing to wait in the pitch black to see what developed.
The house must have been completely enveloped, because I could see no hint of sunlight, nor hear any of the usual outside noises. The only sound was a vague squishing noise as of a slimy substance working its way across a smooth surface. This was the crisis point, I figured. If it didn't find a way in, perhaps it would leave me alone. At least I would have some time to think of what to do, to test my sanity (as this all still seemed impossible) and perhaps to contact someone else who could help me. I waited anxiously.
The only hint of movement was that the squishing sound grew louder over time, faintly and very gradually. At first I dismissed it as my ears becoming accustomed to the sound, but it seemed closer and closer until I could not ignore it any longer. I started to walk around, looking everywhere for signs of the ooze having invaded the interior space. I didn't have to look long. From the chimney, several tentacles were already flailing about, almost like an insect's feelers, trying to sense what was around. I wanted to hide in a corner, but the survival instinct again took hold, as I knew that it was only a matter of time before the beast would have covered every part of the interior just as it had the exterior. I ran to the kitchen and grabbed the largest knife I could find, then approached the tentacles and began hacking at them wildly.
The tentacles dodged and withdrew beyond the reach of my blows, but as one withdrew, another would advance around the side. Within moments, two of the tentacles had me firmly around the left leg and waist, squeezing me like a boa constrictor. This, however, gave me a fixed target, and I struck with my knife at the parts wrapped around my body, heedless of whether I wounded myself in the process. Two, three hard whacks almost severed the arm around my waist and appreciably reduced the pressure on my breathing. I turned to the one on my leg and severed it entirely with two savage blows, delivered with a strength that I'm sure I had never known before in my life.
These victories were only a mirage, however. While I was chopping at two tentacles, ten more had sprung out and spread themselves on all sides of me. They were long and thin, but again I had trouble hitting them effectively because the ones in danger would dodge while others approached more closely. They seemed to be subsiding when I noticed that the floor was covered in a liquid form of the ooze. They had evidently melted down and begun assaulting me in this alternate form. They were already up over my ankles and halfway up my calves by the time I realized what was happening. I tried to turn and get away, but I couldn't move. I don't think I was stuck or held in any way, however; it felt rather that my muscles would not respond to my commands. I was effectively paralyzed there as the ooze crawled ever so slowly up my body.
This was perhaps the worst moment of all. I knew I was doomed, yet I couldn't act in my own defense. I was like an insect paralyzed by a spider. And I didn't even know what was going to happen to me, since I felt no pain. I was only certain that this gelatinous goo was going to annihilate me forever, but slowly, while I observed and fretted.
The tentacles did not return. Instead, the ooze inched slowly up my sides, covering my arms and pinning them to the sides, and then reached my neck. I worried about my mouth and prepared to bite or spit anything that came in, but it did not approach immediately. Instead, it went up the back of my neck and covered my hair. My scalp tingled with the odd sensation. Next it flowed in my ears, and I could hear nothing. It covered my eyes, which I was able to keep closed, but I was in complete darkness. Finally, from under my chin, the substance seeped slowly into my mouth. It was not an unpleasant taste or sensation as I had feared, but neither could I stop it, in spite of the violent moves I made with my jaw and tongue. It just kept moving, filling my mouth like a giant wad of chewing gum, then slowly working its way down my throat. I was still able, barely, to breathe through my nose when it covered my upper lip and invaded my last openings to the outer world. Within moments, I couldn't breathe. I couldn't gasp or choke. I tried to swing my body around, but nothing happened.
Suddenly, as death was upon me, I woke in my bed. I immediately sat up and looked around to see if there was any reality to what had just happened to me, but I could find none. Other than panting as though I had just avoided suffocation, there were no visible signs of what seemed to be a horrible nightmare. No visible signs, I say; but it had made a permanent mark on my psyche. I was still frightened, and after my breathing returned to normal, I lay in bed shaking with fear for a long time.
I could not sleep for the rest of that night; in any event, I would not have tried for the world. The next day found me still nervous, still anxiously checking my peripheral vision repeatedly for signs of the ooze. The thing that made no sense to me was that I could not separate the dream from reality. Although the experience had ended with my waking, the rest of the day had been as real as anything I had ever experienced, and the two blended together seamlessly. I had no recollection of falling asleep; no recollection of anything except for the horrible events that I have just related. I could not dismiss it as a dream, and yet, with each passing day, it seemed more like one.
After a week, I was able to go about my normal activities, timidly still but without panicking. After a month, I had stopped looking to the sides constantly, and would only occasionally glance one way or the other without remembering consciously why I did so. I was trying to put the whole incident behind me, and it seemed that I was doing so successfully.
That optimistic period – the only relatively sane one I have had since – ended abruptly when I was browsing videos on the internet and saw a harmless cuttlefish. I cannot describe the intensity of the emotion that swept over me at that instant. Rather, it didn't so much sweep over me as drop on me like a piano, crushing my spirit instantly. It was not the cuttlefish itself, which was cute and showed no signs of aggression; I could separate it from the feeling that it awakened in me. The feeling was this: that something was the case that absolutely could not be the case. Something that violated reality's most fundamental nature as I had come to understand it in my 47 years of life appeared before my eyes, or in my soul, and I could not ignore it any more. The relatively peaceful period I had experienced for the past several weeks suddenly seemed to be a fraud, one in which I was deliberately avoiding looking at something awful, which I could now no longer avoid; not now, and not ever again.
From that point, I began to see the substance in my peripheral vision again on a regular basis. Not at every moment, but once and again every few moments, as though it would come back just as I was forgetting about it. Mostly it seemed to be just hallucinations, but sometimes, too, actual objects would trigger me. A bit of water on the driveway; soap foam on the kitchen sink; mud, even, or ordinary beverages. Once I held a glass of milk to my lips and threw it down suddenly because I thought I was about in pour the ooze into my mouth.
My anxiety was evident to everyone, even though most people avoided mentioning it. The department chair pulled me aside and asked if I was drinking. At that point, I realized that I had to do something, so I accepted his generous offer of a sabbatical for the rest of the semester and I thought about what my options were.
After the first few minutes when I had thought the hallucinations were the result of vision issues, I had no doubt that the book I had started to read was related to my ongoing problems. Part of me wanted to read more, to see if it would unlock some secret, but I was also afraid that it would only make my situation worse. I wondered about the person who had written such a book, so I checked up on him and found this encyclopedia entry:
Jeremy Wakefield was a historian of the Mughal empire. He was born in 1887 and wrote his first major work on Mughal engineering projects in 1913. By the 1920's, he had become the pre-eminent scholar in his field and the author of half a dozen books on various aspects of Mughal India, ranging from military organization to popular beliefs. During a research visit to Mysore in 1924, he became intrigued with Indian magical practices and spent the rest of his life studying them. He never published his findings, however, in spite of urgings from his department to show some results from his years of research. In 1935, he resigned his post as lecturer at the University of Newcastle in order to devote full time to his magical studies, but he was committed to an asylum within a few months. Two years later, attendants found him hanged in his quarters. He left a note that read only, "destroy the book." This is assumed to refer to a manuscript on Indian magic that he had been writing, as evidenced from some of his correspondence, but no such text has ever been found. His insanity and death is considered a great loss for Indian historians.
Evidence seemed to suggest that what I had seen was the very lost manuscript of Jeremy Wakefield, although how it came to be in an American library I can't imagine, considering that there is no evidence that Wakefield himself ever visited the states. One thing was clear to me, though: I had to destroy that book. It might be too late to save my own sanity, but it would be irresponsible for me to leave it intact for some future scholar to discover and go mad. I wondered why Wakefield himself had not destroyed it. It is possible that he could not bring himself to eradicate the work of his own hands; or perhaps his insanity prevented him from doing what the rational part of him saw was right. Perhaps, too, he simply no longer had access to the manuscript after he had been committed. Whatever the case, I was not going to rest until I had fulfilled his last wishes.
I had a brief struggle with the idea of destroying such a fascinating work. All my life had been devoted to scholarship, and this was certainly a work that had involved some extremely difficult research in a series of difficult languages. Should I assume that, because I was losing my insanity, it was the fault of the book? How irrational was that? Far better, I thought, to bring it to a scholar with training in the field and let him decide what to do with it. Most likely, it contained many important bits of information that could inform future scholarship.
This doubt persisted, but my will remained firm. I admit that the main cause was certainly a selfish one: the idea that I might recover my own sanity if I could destroy the manuscript. On the other hand, it had been Wakefield's dying wish, and it hardly seemed like I could be committing too great a crime by giving him that little bit of satisfaction.
Once I decided what I had to do, I got in my car immediately and drove to the library. On the way, I wondered how I would destroy the book. I could drop it in the river, which would certainly ruin the writing and gradually rot the pages. This seemed somehow insufficient, however. I wanted the book to cease to exist immediately, not after a period of time. I would gladly have blown it up if I had had explosives to hand, but that was not an option. After contemplating other means, such as crushing or wasting with acid, I decided that the simplest and most effective solution was to burn the book. It hurt me even to think of burning a book, with all of its historical connotations of intolerance and zealotry, but it was both the obvious method and the only sure way to accomplish my goal.
I immediately began wondering where I would find a fire suitable for the task. I could, of course, build a fire in my own fireplace, or dig a fire pit in the backyard, but my previous experience caused me to shudder at the thought of bringing the book to my own house. I wanted to be in possession of it for as short a time as possible. I smiled at the thought of my own simplicity, attributing such powers to an ordinary material object, but the irony did nothing to change my mind.
I was near the library by that point, but I did not want to go it because I still didn't know how I was going to dispose of the book. Instead, I took a turn and drove around the city more or less at random, half brainstorming for ideas of where to find open fires and half looking around to see if something might suggest itself. In one popular street near the university, there were several restaurants with outdoor seating, and one of them even had a sort of moveable fire pit to keep its customers a little warm in the cool autumn air. I wouldn't find anything closer at hand than that, but I didn't think it would be a good location. What would people think of a professor burning a book in public? And the book was fairly large, so it might not even fit in the aperture of the fire pit. I could just imagine myself tearing the book into pieces and feeding it in gradually. No, that would not do at all.
Surely there must be an incinerator somewhere? Perhaps a hospital would have one? But then how would I get to it to put the book in? I could slice the book up in case the opening were small, but this still seemed far too complicated for what I wanted. I was getting frustrated and started thinking of returning to my house to build a fire – only then to fetch the book once the fire was ready – when I went under an overpass and saw some people in rags standing around a burning trashcan. That was perfect. It was a large container, easily capable of holding the whole book, and also probably hot enough to burn it quickly. And the gentlemen around it would probably not think twice about my dropping a book in it. My only concern was that I would never, in normal circumstances, be around such people for fear of my money and my life. But I was far more afraid of the book, so I did not hesitate to adopt this plan immediately.
A few minutes later, I bounded into the library with more energy that I had shown for months. I had one gnawing fear, which was that I would not be able to find the book again. It is possible that it had not been returned to the shelf yet; and, even if it had, I had not recorded the call number so I couldn't be sure where it was. There was also a small nagging doubt that the book was truly magic and would "hide itself," so to speak, so that I could not destroy it. But my fears were groundless: the book was right there where I remembered it, amidst 19th century Italian social movements. I wondered again if I was suffering from hysteria, but I pulled the book off the shelf after only the briefest hesitation. Even if it was hysteria, I would not be able to rest until the book had been eliminated.
I would have gladly paid for the privilege of destroying a library book, but I did not like the idea of having my name on record as having checked it out. I don't know why; I just didn't want to. So, instead, I carefully separated the spine and pulled out the magnetized metal strip that would have triggered the buzzer when I exited. I also picked up a few other books to check out as a sort of cover, although I grabbed them randomly from the shelf and didn't even read the titles before stuffing them in my bag.
I felt a brief flush as I exited the library with the stolen manuscript. It was contrary to my life's work to take this step, but I felt I had no choice. I sped back to the underpass, parked my car by the curb, and hurried toward the burning trashcan. I was quite an oddity, and I began to get the expected mocking from the other men as soon as I was within earshot. "Hey, what do you need?" -- "We charge for this fire, you know" – "What'd you bring that book here for?" and more along the same vein. I thought of pulling my wallet out and offering them my money, because I honestly didn't care about it as long as I could carry out my task. But I was too focussed for that. Instead, I walked quickly without speaking right up to the trashcan, held the book above the opening, and dropped it in.
Was it my imagination, or did the fire blaze up and turn multi-coloured for a few moments after the book fell in? I'm not sure, but I stayed around staring into the trashcan for a while afterward, watches the pages curl up and turn black. The men kept taunting me, but I didn't hear what they said. My attention was entirely on that book, and I wasn't going to leave until I saw that it was destroyed.
It felt like an eternity staring into that fire. It was hot, too, and I think the men began to wonder about my sanity. I heard a few people ask if I was okay; I nodded slowly, but I'm not sure if it was noticeable. When the book was gone, I turned and walked slowly back to the car. "Thanks man, you can burn your books here any time you want," someone said. I guess they were grateful for the extra fuel. I was grateful to be done with that horrible book, which had cost me my sanity.
I say it had cost me my sanity, but that isn't entirely true. After the book was destroyed, my life again began to return to normal. I was extremely nervous for weeks afterward, and I was terrified of going back to teaching the next semester. However, gradually the routine normalized and I went back to being the person I was. I still occasionally thought I might have seen a shimmer out of the corner of my eye, but it may have been just a memory of my past horrors.
It still bothers me to have lost that book and its knowledge. I have considered doing some research myself, but the thought of learning all those languages keeps me from acting on it. For now, I am content to go back to being an ordinary historian. And I very rarely wander in the stacks in search of interesting books like I used to.