Halloween story – the shop

This year’s Halloween post has been sent to us by Blanka Azdajic, Acting Head of Visitations at the Institute of Hermetic Research. It originated with one of the researchers who used to visit the Supplications Room at the Institute.

When I was a teenager, 15 or 16, I would go into town on Saturday mornings, buy a couple of meat pies from Blake’s and mooch around the few places that sold books and records. Or I might go to one of the tiny newsagents and ask to see the latest batch of American comics, usually Marvel which some of them kept in the back as there was very little room on the racks. Or I might go into the old Gothic market hall, a huge open space with a glass roof where, along with the clothes and food stalls, there was a place you could buy monster magazines.

 

On this particular day I had to stay at home in the morning for a visit by my Uncle James so I didn’t get into town until mid-afternoon. Blake’s had sold all the pies. I spent some time in a new record shop in Watergate Street in the Rows so when I got to the market it was already starting to close.

 

 

I rushed to the stall and quickly bought two issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland and one of Castle of Frankenstein, more than I could afford really after buying two LPs, but if there wasn’t enough change in my pocket for the bus I could always walk.

 

 

There was an exit at the rear of the market which I had never used but I could guess where it came out. I found myself in a yard behind what I assumed was a pub, rather run down. But there was an open gate so I carried on into a narrow cobbled street. There were a few of these near the cathedral so I was not too surprised. But although it was a bit overcast and there was a slight drizzle it didn’t seem like late afternoon, more like midday.

 

 

The street wound round a corner as I expected past a couple of shops. The first sold elaborate antique dolls and tin toys. One of the dolls was almost life size, slumped back like a person who had just passed out. It wore a shiny dress too big for it. A cat, also pretty substantial, dozed on the ends of the skirt. There were a number of small grotesque figurines on a shelf. They were strange enough for me to want to move on, especially as the next shop was a bookshop.

It was clearly full of antiquarian books, but visible through the window were two browser boxes full of colourful hardbacks and paperbacks which looked like my kind of thing and might not be too expensive. I went in, causing a bell to ring. No-one came immediately so I started looking and regretted it at once as there were several books I wanted, some quite reasonably priced.

 

A Panther edition of HP Lovecraft’s Dagon and other macabre tales with a marvelous cover in black and white showing a number of squirming demons. William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki the ghost finder (I loved the House on the Borderland and would buy anything by him).

 

 

William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch and Soft Machine with their mirrored covers which I knew would be beyond me but I wanted anyway. A small hardback by a woman called Hope-Elliott which I had heard of in an introduction by Lin Carter to a Lord Dunsany book.

I put the pile on top of the box and looked around. Near me was a shelf of illustrated books, featuring artists I had heard of – Aubrey Beardsley, Sidney Sime, Arthur Rackham – and a book called Sweet Gwendoline which I found riveting but knew straight away I could never contemplate taking home. As I hastily returned it to the shelf I heard a rustling sound and realised that someone had been sitting at the back of the room all the time I was there. The person wore a long old-fashioned dress like something in a costume drama. As I looked closer I realised she (or he?) was wearing a mask like a doll’s face.

 

I froze up as my eyes seemed to meet the living eyes visible through the eye holes. I was sure I was ready to bolt out of the door if the person spoke to me.

But it was someone else who spoke, a woman of about 30 I thought. She also wore a long dress but this was more like a modern maxi skirt, gauzy and brightly coloured.

“Have you found something? I normally put the boxes outside but the weather looks a bit treacherous.”

I showed her what I had selected.

“Oh yes, all good stuff here. This is my kind of thing too.”

She glanced across at the masked woman.

“Don’t let her bother you, she only does it for effect. Laura, take that thing off, you’re bothering the customers.”

Laura did as she was asked, revealing a pretty girl only a little older than me. She also removed her wig and showed her own hair, straight and black cut in a bob. She wore black make-up round her eyes, presumably to make them stand out through the eye holes of the mask. She still looked pretty, very pretty in fact. The two of them were beautiful but left me apprehensive as confident young women sometimes do when you’re a teenager.

Laura smiled at me in a friendly way but didn’t say anything.

“No one I know better for mysterious and enigmatic if that’s what you like” said the woman. “I’m Alice. Now I see you’ve picked out Travels to Faery. That’s a good one. That shows a degree of discernment on your part if you don’t mind me sounding a bit patronising.”

I told her where I’d heard about it.

“Oh Lin Carter! Always letting the cat out of the bag. Now if you fancy that, I think you would love this.”

She produced a small green hardback, obviously old, with an ornate design on the cover. I had seen a few books like that at Uncle James’s London flat.

“Helena Endicott. Impressions of the Hidden World. 1936. I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of her brother? No, probably a good thing. This is quite rare but I believe that books should find their owners.”

She named a price that was not outrageous for my pocket and I was so under her spell that I would have bought it at twice the price…if only I had the money.

I mentioned my lack of cash. She asked to see the LPs I’d bought and the magazines. I got them out and she looked at them closely. Laura picked up the Castle of Frankenstein and started reading it. I asked if she would keep the books till I could come back, maybe even the next day. She frowned a little at this and then seemed to come to a decision, smiling at me.

 

 

“What you should do is open an account with us and then you can take the books away today. Sit down, let’s just fill out a form.”

There was no form. She just wrote down my name and address and date of birth on a sheet of cream paper, with an expensive looking fountain pen. She got me to sign my name at the bottom, then wrote hers, Fletcher. She took a small lancet out of the desk drawer.

“There! Now just a drop of blood. Oh, don’t worry, nothing to be afraid of.”

Before I could object she was holding one of my finger in one hand and pricking it with the lancet, squeezing a tiny drop of blood into a small wine glass filled with water, or what I assumed was water.

“No problem, was it?”

She was applying pressure to the finger. The whole business was incredibly strange but I tried not to show any alarm. Alice produced a plastic bag with a complicated design on it, but no name or logo, and put both the books and the magazines into it.

Laura held up one of the LPs. It was the Black Widow album, Sacrifice, the one with Come to the Sabbat.

“I’d quite like to hear this. Can I borrow it?”

“Never refuse a pretty young woman” said Alice. I had no intention of arguing.

She looked up at a framed print on the wall. I recognized the street as local.

 

 

She put on a raincoat and walked me to the door, saying she would show me the best way back to the Town Hall square. As we went out, Laura waved to me and said bye. The last thing I saw was her drinking the water in the glass in one go and starting to replace her mask.

It seemed like early evening again outside the shop. Alice took my arm and walked me down the street. It seemed like a long way to me but as we emerged into familiar territory she waved to a taxi and ushered me into it. She handed the driver some money and off I went.

I let myself in and was immediately surrounded by my parents, my sister and Uncle James. There was a lot of fuss about where I had been and how long I’d been gone. It was about 10 in the evening which seemed unlikely to me but apparently true. It wasn’t until the next day that I learned the reason for the panic. Two teenage boys and a girl had been injured by falling masonry leaving the market the day before, one of them quite seriously.

I went back to the shop early the following Saturday. I couldn’t find it. I couldn’t even find the street or even the rear entrance from the market. I went back on several occasions at different times and tried to approach the rear of the market from every possible angle but it was never there again. I have no explanation. I never told anyone about it.

I had the books of course. I consulted books at the library and later at other libraries in London and elsewhere. The paperbacks were mass market editions and could be bought elsewhere and I found the book by Hope-Elliott in several libraries and archives. But I never found the Endicott book in any list or bibliography, or any biographical details about the author. There was an American artist called Endicott but I could never confirm if he had a sister.

The book itself was fascinating and quite unlike anything I’d ever read. In my opinion it should have been famous. I half expected to find it in Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Fiction essay which is in Dagon but it seemed to have escaped his notice. You could perhaps have described it as a book of short stories but most of the “impressions” were just brief anecdotes or vignettes, some of them overtly supernatural, some not. There were mirrors and dolls and disappearances, which was all quite appropriate. The one that stuck in my mind concerned a narrator who watches a cat trying to stalk a squirrel. He imagines himself intervening to save the squirrel if the cat got lucky and then tells a story of a young woman “of the 1860s walking in an ornamental garden at dusk wearing a crinoline dress, proceeding in a stately fashion, when a lady vampire happens by”. Just at the point where the vampire has seized the young woman another watching presence “masked as if for a carnival” suddenly appears and pulls the vampire away, gripping her by the neck like grasping a cat. The young woman pulls up her dress and sprints away. The narrator wonders how often God, or some other spiritual entity intervenes in small events.

There is also a story involving premature burial. By coincidence it was in Castle of Frankenstein that I first saw the Harry Clarke illustrations for Poe.

 

You would think a series of half-realised narratives like that would not amount to much but I found the book highly absorbing and it became one of my most treasured possessions, as if the author was a close friend. Perhaps because of that I never made a big thing about it to anyone else, although I carried on trying to find out more about it and its author.

More than 40 years have passed since that incident. I came to London, made a career and have lived for a long time in a flat inherited from Uncle James. My parents are dead and my sister lives in Australia. Today I went to see a consultant at the Chelsea Westminster Hospital and got some bad news about a set of test results. Not the end of the world, said the doctor. Let’s line up a few tests, an MRI, a colonoscopy, some more blood work. But I hadn’t been expecting anything good that day and didn’t feel optimistic. I walked out of the hospital in a bit of a daze and found myself going through one of the revolving doors thinking of Tom Cruise, who goes into the same building (masquerading as a New York hospital) late at night in “Eyes wide shut”. A nurse wearing the distinctive blue uniform with a mandarin collar under a padded coat walked with me.

“You never did come back and pay Alice for those books, did you?” she said. I looked at her properly and realised it was Laura, the girl who wore a mask all those years ago. She laughed at my shock. Naturally she barely looked a day older.

“Oh don’t worry about it. She’s used to waiting. Shall we get a coffee?”

A few minutes later we sat in Starbucks looking out of the window. She pointed up Hollywood Road where I could see a pair of shop fronts which looked familiar. I couldn’t remember if they’d always been there.

“It’s mainly that Endicott book we’re interested in. You don’t happen to have it with you, do you?”

I did. I had taken over the years to carrying it around with me whenever I was expecting something significant to happen.

“That’s good. We could go over and see her now. You know, she’s looking for some help in the shop? It might mean starting again at the bottom, but really, who wouldn’t mind being 16 again?”

She smiled at me in that same way, friendly but a little bit scary.

“Take your time.”

Just like in one of those supernatural stories which end with the opening of a door or something as the narrator keeps up the story to the bitter end leaving only a series of dots…

I opened my IPad where most of this narrative was already stored and added a few lines.

Laura takes a mask from her bag and puts it on. She zips up the coat and pulls up the hood. The expressionless face looks at me and her gloved hand reaches out to take mine. I save the document and attach it to an email. I’m ready to press send as soon as she says, shall we go?

 

Normal service will resume next week. DW

Venice Carnival photographs by Peter Hhuck. Book and magazine covers copyright by their publishers.

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