I have never experienced the supernatural, but I know someone who has. Isn’t that always how it goes? In my case, it was a friend named Curtis. Curtis is a bookish fellow, by which I mean he’s the only person I know to have thoroughly exhausted the offerings of his local library. In fact, it was precisely this trait that led him into the following experience.
Work had kept Curtis late one Thursday evening, which would have been no great nuisance except that he had in his possession a library book which was due back by eight o’clock that very night. The potential embarrassment of a late fee would have been enough for Curtis on its own, but he also dreaded the boredom that might arise from returning to his apartment without fresh reading material.
Therefore, that Thursday evening found Curtis running through town. He entered the library, sweaty and breathless, with just ten minutes to spare.
The librarian—a small young woman seated behind the massive front desk—peered at him over the cover of a novel she was reading. “Bit late tonight, aren’t we?”
“Work kept me,” Curtis said as he deposited his book into the return bin. It was a well-worn volume he’d checked out many times before. “I won’t be long.”
“We close at eight,” the librarian reminded him as she returned to her novel.
Curtis surveyed the library. A large, single floor, occupied mostly by tall shelves so one had to wind their way through a narrow maze. On a busy day, it almost wasn’t worth the hassle, negotiating both the cluttered layout and the other patrons trying to navigate the literary labyrinth. Tonight, however, the building seemed empty. Just Curtis, the librarian, and the books.
Curtis passed most of the aisles without a glance. He knew what books they contained. He’d either read them or wasn’t interested. No, tonight he wanted something new.
The library was divided into three distinct sections. The front, where most patrons spent their time, had been recently renovated. Everything was bright and clean and crisp. The larger middle section, through which Curtis now walked, was dated. It had the feeling of something that had once been new, and still thought of itself as new, unaware that time had moved on without it.
And then there was the back section. The front was new and the middle pretended to be new, but the back made no pretense. It was old, it knew it was old, and it wallowed in its age. No plastic or metal here. The walls were stone, and the shelves were solid wood monoliths that wore their coatings of dust like imperial robes.
Curtis had never ventured far into this section. Much of it was reserved for reference material—dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases, and the like. Volumes that had largely been rendered obsolete by the advent of the internet. But, like the shelves on which they rested, these books seemed to know their place. Their time was over, and so they hugged their dusty cloaks tightly about themselves and watched the rest of the library change around them, proud in their own immutability.
Perhaps it was Curtis’ desperation for something different, something unfamiliar, that drew him to the back of the library that night. While he had no interest in encyclopedias, maybe there were other things hidden away back there. Forgotten things. Things to excite a fantastical mind.
Curtis wound his way through the aisles. The light grew dimmer as he ventured farther from modernity, farther from the careful attentions of the maintenance staff. Now and then he spotted something, an interesting spine nestled between series of atlases. Upon pulling it out, it invariably turned out to be just another dusty reference volume, mis-shelved long ago and never discovered. Nothing as exciting as Curtis hoped for.
He eventually reached the very back corner of the library. A dead-end aisle. The shelves here were bonded to the stone wall by thick cobwebs. The single lamp overhead was dimmed to near uselessness by the same. Curtis scanned the titles on the shelves, moving from top to bottom. When he reached the end of the bottom shelf, he sighed. Nothing of interest.
He was about to turn and head back toward the more modern sections of the library when something caught his eye. There, down in the farthest-back corner where shelf, floor, and wall all met; there behind the very last book on the shelf, was a dark gap. A suspicious gap, Curtis thought, since none of the books next to it had tipped over to fill it.
It was dark in that corner already, and as Curtis knelt down to investigate the gap, his shadow made it darker still. He reached in blindly—and pulled back with a gasp as something tickled the back of his hand. A spider. Curtis flung it away, then watched it crawl across the floor to be lost in the gloom. When it was gone, Curtis turned his attention back to the gap, for in the brief moment his hand was inside, he’d felt something else. He reached in once more, and—yes! There was something. A rectangular form, a leathery texture softened by dust. Curtis pulled it out, and there in his hand was a small black book, wound tightly about the middle with a delicate silver chain to hold it shut.
Curtis’ heart beat swiftly as he stood to gain some better light. This was exactly the sort of thing he’d been looking for. He turned it over in his hands, but could discern no title on the spine or cover. Next, he moved his attention to the chain and began to unwind it. As he did, he thought briefly of the time. The library would be closing soon—but Curtis couldn’t have been there more than five minutes yet. And besides, he thought he heard someone talking a few aisles down, so he wasn’t the only patron visiting the library so late. He still had time to investigate his discovery.
His discovery, which now lay open in his palm. The silver chain dangled between his fingers. The pages were yellow and ragged; some threatened to come loose from the binding. The text was handwritten in black ink, but Curtis couldn’t read any of it in such poor lighting. He carefully flipped through some of the pages, then paused.
He’d come across an illustration. It seemed to be of a human figure, but again the dim light made any detail impossible to discern. It appeared only as an indistinct outline, like a shadow burned into the center of the page.
A noise caused Curtis to look around. What was that—someone coughing? Or laughing? Or the both of them together? An odd sound, certainly, much like a…but no, it couldn’t have been a scream. It was too quiet, and why should someone be screaming in a library of all places? Perhaps something outside…
But now Curtis became more seriously aware of the time, and of how little the lamps in this part of the building aided in staving off the evening gloom. They seemed to generate more sound than light, filling Curtis’ skull with an awful buzzing noise. He shivered, closed the small black book, and rewound the chain. Then made his way back toward the front of the library. It became very quiet as he walked. The place seemed emptier, somehow, than it had when he’d first arrived.
He came to the front desk and handed his discovery, along with his card, to the librarian. As she checked him out, Curtis looked back toward the old section of the building. From here at the front, where the sun still shone in a golden haze through the large windows, the back corner seemed like an alternate world, impossibly distant, set apart by an invisible pall.
Then something caught his eye. Something in the middle section. A sensation of movement along one of the aisles. A shadow passing behind the shelves. Behind the books. Indistinct as of yet, but about to step out of the aisle and into view—
“Took you long enough,” said the librarian, handing the book back to Curtis and pulling his attention away from whoever it was. “Was about to come fetch you.”
“What do you mean?” asked Curtis.
“I can’t leave until all the patrons are gone. It’s past eight, you know. You’re the last one.”
“But surely I’m not…” Curtis began, but he trailed off as he glanced back into the library. An illusion, it must have been. A passing car intervening between sun and window. “Never mind. Sorry to keep you. Goodnight.”
The wind picked up as Curtis left the library. Clouds flapped through the sky like rags, set alight by dying flames as the sun fell from sight. Curtis hurried home—although he had no reason to hurry. He only felt that he had to move quickly, that something…but perhaps it was just the cold wind at his back and the excitement of discovery that drove him. Still, he could not help but glance over his shoulder now and then. At times, during lulls in the traffic, Curtis fancied he heard a second set of footsteps close behind his own. But whenever he looked, he saw no one. Only the shadows that swelled and deepened as the sky darkened to a crimson shade filled with tattered black shapes.
By the time Curtis reached his apartment building, night had fully closed over him. He hurried inside, up to his apartment, and heated a quick supper before finally sitting down to properly examine the book.
First he unwound the chain that bound it shut. It wasn’t as tight as he’d found it in the library, nor was it sealed by cobwebs. It slipped off easily, and Curtis set it on the coffee table in front of the sofa. Then he carefully lifted the black leather cover.
The first yellowed page showed only a title and byline, handwritten in faded black ink:
Luther M. Dreher
Curtis turned the page delicately; the paper seemed ready to crumble beneath his fingers. The first sentence read thus:
Whitaker is dead, and so my experiment may begin.
It was a novel, Curtis surmised as he continued reading, written in an epistolary format. It seemed to take no small inspiration in subject matter from Mary Shelly’s seminal work. The prose was poor, the pacing was dreadful, and in some places it seemed the author had neglected to include some crucial details. Yet one thing Curtis had to commend: the same clumsiness that degraded the writing also lent the story an air of credulity. If not for the nature of the anonymous narrator’s experiment, Curtis could have believed he was reading the lost journal of a real scientist.
The gist of the story can be understood from the opening line and a few select passages:
The materials are prepared. I need only steel my nerve for the process itself, which I shall perform tonight. This is no mean task. I have wondered, for several nights now, if the process is strictly necessary, for at times I fancy…
But these are exactly the thoughts I must banish. I must not lose heart during my work tonight, for that would prove most disastrous.
The moment has passed, and I am left wondering. Certainly something happened. I felt it in a chilling of the air. And yet, whatever it was, it was not what I expected. I wonder if I should have brought a medium into my confidence…no, that would have been too dangerous. I believe deep down that my experiment was a success. Perhaps I must give it more time.
He walks the house after dark. As yet I have not seen him, but I hear his steps.
And then Curtis came across the illustration he’d glimpsed in the library. It was a human figure, although better lighting did little to clarify it. The center of the form was black, and the edges were hazy, as if intentionally smudged while the ink was still wet. What Curtis hadn’t noticed before was the faint caption beneath:
The reason I lock the door to the library each night.
The story then continued for a few more pages:
He will not communicate with me.
Tonight was most infuriating. I interrogated him for as long as I could stand, but who can bear to remain long in the presence of such a thing? My courage failed me in the end, and I…
Did I remember to lock the door?
No more. I’ve tried all I can to undo it. The chain seems to help, but I still cannot rest. Each night is blacker than the one before. I must get rid of it. Somehow I must. Perhaps fire.
But if destroying it doesn’t work, what then will I do? What then could I do?
I must try. Nothing else has worked.
Fire. Yes, that might just
The sentence ended mid-page. Curtis stared at it for a moment, then turned to the next. Blank. Was that the end? If so, the whole work barely covered a quarter of the book. There had to be more. Curtis rifled through the pages, but found nothing but sheet after yellowed sheet of blank paper.
And then something fell out from the middle of the book, tumbled free and came to rest scattered on the floor at Curtis’ feet. Curtis bent down to see what it was.
A small pile of gray, grainy dust. Curls and wisps of dark hair. Pale, translucent crescents that Curtis could not at first identify, then he recoiled with a gasp. Fingernail clippings.
Curtis’ eyes darted from the uncanny collection at his feet to the book from which it had fallen. The book that still lay open in his palm. The page was blank like most of the others, save for a few dark brown spots in the center.
The rough texture of the cover’s dusty black leather now felt to him like an unwholesome thing. Curtis threw the book down in disgust.
In the minutes that followed, as he sat there on the sofa wondering what exactly he’d discovered in the library, Curtis became aware of a noise. A noise from somewhere in his apartment. A shuffle. The whisper of something dragging against the carpet. Now and then, a heavy impact.
Curtis leapt to his feet and spun in search of the noise’s source. From his post in the living room, he couldn’t see anything. The sounds came from down the hall, down near his bedroom. But slowly coming closer.
Curtis’ mind flew first to the book; to its hazy illustration; to the caption, “The reason I lock the door to the library each night.”
Then a shadow, cast by the hall lamp, eased into view. A formless patch on the carpet that gave no clue to the shape of its owner. Curtis, shivering, remembered that moment in the library, the impression of movement hidden behind rows of bookshelves.
The shadow advanced. Stretched. Reached around the corner. Any moment now, the owner would step into view—
But Curtis threw himself down behind the sofa. Icy fear gripped his chest; a deep buzzing filled his ears; and beneath that, still the shuffling, thumping tread of something crossing the living room, approaching the sofa…
Curtis’ eyes met the macabre pile of hair and fingernails on the floor next to him. Then the book, lying facedown on his other side. Driven more by instinct than reason, Curtis scooped up the pile, then reached for the book. He could hear his unseen visitor shuffling closer. The buzzing in his skull swelled, became painful. He placed the dust, hair, and fingernails onto the stained page. Shut the book. Then he looked up toward the coffee table, where the silver chain lay in lazy coils.
The footsteps were so close now. Curtis knew he must be exposed, but still he dared not turn to look. He rose to his knees and reached for the chain.
In that brief moment, Curtis saw his own hazy reflection in the glossy finish of the coffee table, blurred beyond recognition into a flesh-colored cloud.
And behind him, looming up and over and all around, something utterly black.
Curtis wound his hand furiously around the book, pulling the chain tight, wrapping round and round until there were no more links left to wrap. Only then did Curtis turn.
The apartment was empty. The footsteps were gone. The buzzing in his head had stopped.
Curtis returned to the library the following morning. After apologizing profusely to the librarian, he paid the lost book fine and went on his way. To this day, Curtis refuses to tell me what exactly happened to the book, but he insists that it was the best bit of money he ever spent.