The grimoire sat on the table of a man selling books at a fete in his local high school. He didn’t know it was a grimoire, was in fact unsure as to what exactly it was, or where it had come from. It had caught his eye a couple of times throughout the morning, and each time had made him feel a little worried.
No, he didn’t know it was a grimoire. How could he have? It looked homemade (like someone had put it together using old printer paper from the 1980s), and it had been placed face-down on the table, so that its blank back page faced him. It was stained, dirty. There was also something oddly menacing about it, although the man, who was called Terry, could not have put his finger on what it was about the book that exuded menace exactly.
“Stop fretting,” he told himself. “And anyway, here comes a potential customer, so look sharp.”
“Hello.” He was now being addressed by Mrs Beryl Whyte, the school’s retired headmistress. She had waved goodbye to working life just over a year earlier. A month after that, Mr Whyte had passed away, with some suggesting that his death had been a lucky escape from the chores that Beryl had planned for his own imminent retirement.
“Mrs Whyte. Lovely to see you again,” was how Terry greeted her.
Now, at this point we must address Terry’s accent. He was from London (Peckham, specifically). He had moved to Scotland for love, and had resided there for the last twenty years. His accent had never deserted him, and he hoped it never would. He had often been told he spoke like his late father, and had no wish to lose this one remaining link to the old man, as he had always called him.
“Nice to see you, too, Terry. Keeping well?”
“Can’t complain, Mrs Whyte. Ah…you see anything you like, just let me know.”
She picked up the grimoire and began flicking through it.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“That.” It was the question he had feared she would ask. But, then, why was he afraid? All he had to do was be honest. He decided to give it a go. “Someone left that here, I think; it isn’t one of mine. Sorry.”
“It’s a curious thing.”
“Yes. The pages inside: they’re blank.”
“Are they now? That is odd. Curious, as you say.”
“The Grimoire of Alec O’Dea,” she said, reading the title. “Do you know what a grimoire is?”
Now she was looking directly at him, her baby-blue eyes seeming to be peering at him over non-existent glasses. She had recently turned seventy, but had always looked that age to Terry. Nowadays, he thought, it was hard to believe the age of some of the kids coming into the teaching profession. They all looked as young as his teachers had looked ancient.
“No idea,” he was saying now. “No, wait…Does it have something to do with cooking?”
“What?” She let out a tinkling little laugh. “No, it’s a book of spells.”
“Yes. But there aren’t any spells in here.” She opened the book at a random page and turned it towards him so he could see for himself. “Blank. See?”
“Weird.” He had a sudden flash of inspiration, one that he was confident was far more accurate than the one that had led to him guessing that a grimoire was a cookery book. “I’ll bet,” he said, “that this is someone’s little project.”
“Yeah. Someone’s into all this stuff, magic and the like, and they’ve started making a book to write spells in.”
“Possible,” said Mrs Whyte, nodding her head. “But why leave it here? And why were they carrying it about in the first place?”
“No idea. It’s definitely home-made though.”
“Oh yes, I agree. They might have invested in a better typewriter though. See the title? The “O” key clearly wasn’t working. They’ve had to use zeroes.”
“Yeah? I hadn’t noticed”
“It’s filthy, too,” she added, throwing the book back onto Terry’s table with something approaching disdain.
The book was, indeed, filthy. Coffee mugs had been rested on it on more than one occasion, leaving brown rings, some of which were more prominent than others. Just beneath the title, just to the left, was a drop of what Terry was pretty sure was dried-in blood. Grubby fingerprints were dotted along the outside edge of the front page, parts of which were frayed, while others had been completely torn and then taped back together.
“I’ll give you fifty pounds for it.”
The words seemed like they were being transmitted to him from some other reality. He was sure he’d misheard, and so did not reply straight away.
“Did you hear me?”
Terry looked up. “What?” he asked. “I mean…Sorry?”
“You might as well sell me it,” said Mrs Whyte. “No one’s coming to collect it.”
“What, the book of spells? You want to buy it?”
“Yes. Do you expect someone to come back for it?”
“I…No. I’ve got no idea. But why would you want to pay fifty quid for it?”
This was too much for Terry. He was about to laugh at what he thought must be some not-particularly-funny joke on Mrs Whyte’s part, when he looked at her very stern and business-like face and immediately thought better of it.
“Well?” she said, impatiently.
“No, sorry, Mrs Whyte, no-can-do. Take the book if you want, but I won’t take money from you for it. I certainly won’t take fifty quid.”
“I can well afford it, if that’s the issue.”
“It’s isn’t; I know you can. It’s just the principle of the thing.” He lifted the book. “Here. Take it. Enjoy.”
She placed her navy blue purse, which she had produced in readiness for the transaction, back into her matching handbag.
“No, it’s fine,” she said, solemnly.
“No offence, Mrs. W.”
“None taken, I assure you.”
“Sure? Want to see anything else? Do you like Agatha Christie? I have loads of them here. What about the grandkids? They like Harry Potter? Got a full set.”
“No, they don’t read. Good day, Terry.”
“OK, Mrs. Whyte. Good day to you, too. Give my regards to Mr…”
She shot him a wounded glance.
“To the grandkids,” he quickly corrected.
She smiled and wandered off, leaving Terry feeling very bad and very odd. Outside, the weather had taken a turn for the worse, with the rain that had been forecast for the afternoon arriving early, robbing the sky of all traces of blue, accompanied by a whistling, January wind.
The rest of the day was a wash-out in every respect. No one came near Terry’s table, making him wonder, gloomily, whether it wasn’t just Mrs Whyte’s grandchildren who no longer read. Then, for the last hour, as the rain battered the windows, all he could think about was having to haul all his books back out to the car, and then from the car back into the house. What a waste of time it had been.
Four o’clock arrived, and he put the books carefully back into their plastic crates. He placed the grimoire into a crate too, and wished, as he did so, that he had let Mrs Whyte buy it. At least, then, he would have something to show for the day.
He drove home to the two-bedroom house on the outskirts of town that he had been so happy in with Joan. Yes, he had indeed moved to Scotland for love, but the woman he loved had been taken from him by cancer. Nine years had passed since her death, and he still couldn’t really talk about it, because it made him feel sick. He wondered, often, if there was more he could have done. Not about her death (no, nothing could have been done about that), but while she was alive. He had loved her, but could, he knew, have been more to her. The little regrets, when accumulated, could be summed up in one word: guilt. He suspected it was a guilt most widows and widowers felt, or at least that was the thought he tried to comfort himself with when trying to get to sleep at night.
Having put the crates of books away in a cupboard in what had always been the spare room (a room meant for a long-wished-for child that had never materialised), he sat in the darkening living room, watching television and drinking a bottle of wine, until he dozed off.
He woke to noises from upstairs. It was just after midnight, and the television was showing what looked like a pornographic movie. He pressed the remote just to check, but it wasn’t a porn channel he was watching. Then he recognised one of the actors, and then lost interest entirely as he heard the noise again, and decided that he would have to investigate.
Now, Terry was not a man who believed in ghosts. However, most sceptics, when challenged, will admit that a noise like the one Terry was now hearing, while alone just after midnight will give them pause. They might remember a book they once read, or a story they once heard, or a childhood fear or recurring nightmare. Few people, sceptical or not, will race upstairs with gay abandon to investigate the noise. Most will hesitate, take it slowly, and they will certainly be afraid.
Terry crept up the stairs, pausing whenever the noise started again. It sounded like furniture being moved around, which he knew it couldn’t have been. This was interspersed with whispering. The notion that it might be burglars flitted through his mind, and he dismissed it, although he wasn’t sure why.
Up, up he went, reaching the door to the spare room without incident.
“Hello,” he said. But he hadn’t spoken in hours, and so his voice wasn’t much more than a croak.
The whispering began again. It was coming from inside the spare room. What was it actually saying? He put his ear to the door, half-expecting some horror movie jump-scare in the form of a thud on the other side of the door. “Fuck”, he thought, “maybe quite literally from the Other Side.”
Then he thought: “Just open the fucking door.”
And so he did.
Joan stood in the middle of the spare room, waiting for her husband, cradling the tumour-baby. She was naked, and bleeding from the birth, and her long, red hair clung to the side of her face with sweat, but still she stroked the baby and loved it more that she had ever loved anything. More than she loved Terry, even. That was only natural though; this, she knew, was the way it was meant to be.
The baby groaned (growled) in her arms. Its body was a tumour, a wet, purplish mass, with darker lines scoring its surface, like veins. There were some areas of raised, bloody tissue, like cuts only just beginning to heal. It looked a little like a haggis looked before you cut it open. She giggled at the comparison she’d made, and the baby groaned (growled) again.
It had no head. The face protruded up through the membrane of the tumour, and where it did, a milky-looking substance oozed out. It had longish arms that were forever reaching out to her. These arms looked fairly normal, as did the legs. She hoped the rest of the tumour-baby would one day follow suit.
The light was switched on, and in came Terry. She had heard him ascending the stairs, edging warily towards their reunion like he had something to fear from it. Perhaps he was afraid of the whispering. She could hear it too, as she had heard it in life. They had both heard it. Then it had come from the shadow that had briefly haunted their house. Tonight there seemed to be no source, or many; it seemed to be coming from the walls, like the low buzzing of masonry bees, and making about as much sense.
Terry said: “Joan,” and he began backing out of the room.
“Please, no,” she pleaded.
He was looking at the child in horror. Naturally, it was horrific to him. Subtract the maternal love and you were left with nothing more than a groaning (growling) tumour-baby. It needed a mother’s warmth and nurturing to be anything else. It needed all the hopes that a mother imprinted on it. In the eyes of anyone else, it was repulsive. It was a nightmare.
“Wait. The baby,” she added anyway.
He was no longer backing away, but looked like he might faint or throw up.
“It’s ours, Terry. I’ve come back. We’re to raise it together. Please, darling.”
“Joan, you’re dead.”
“No,” she replied; and then added, in a quieter, less certain voice: “Yes.”
Terry managed to glance at the child.
“We’ve both come back to you,” she told him. “Won’t you hold me? Won’t you love us?”
Able to take no more, Terry turned and left the room, and Joan wondered what that meant for her return.
By the time he reached his own bedroom, Terry had convinced himself that what he had seen had been nothing more than the hallucination of a man who had never properly dealt with his grief, who had accepted with civility the advice of friends, had said yes, yes of course, he would think about counselling, and had then disregarded the notion as being foolish, as being something a man would never consider.
He took off his clothes, feeling real terror wash over him suddenly. Real or not, he had seen her, and he had seen it, too.
It had happened like this: Joan had become sick. Ovarian cancer. She had been told she had five years left. Maybe.
Probably a lot less.
Joan had been a practicing Wiccan since leaving school at sixteen. Terry hadn’t believed in it at first. However, three years into their marriage, he had witnessed some things that had changed his mind: just little spells; things made to happen that would not (could not) have happened otherwise.
Upon receiving the diagnosis, Joan had immediately accepted her fate. One night, as they lay in the dark and spoke of what was to come, she even claimed to have dreamt of this long ago, as a teenager. It was the first time in years that Terry hadn’t believed her.
He, on the other hand, refused to accept.
But she died anyway, whether he refused or not. Death was like that. It was the inevitable train, whistling down the black night-time tracks towards you. If you were meant to board it, then you would. It really was as simple as that.
He got into bed, switched off his bedside lamp, hesitantly accepting the darkness, fearful of it for the first time since childhood. Outside, a fox agreed that the dark was, indeed, a terrible thing as it cried its wild, desolate cry.
Pulling the quilt up over his shoulders, Terry rolled over, and pressed all of his weight against the tumour-baby, which groaned (growled), clawed and seeped.
“Be careful of the baby,” said Joan.
Terry leapt out of bed, screaming. He ran downstairs, where someone was standing at his front door, rapping the letterbox.
As he walked towards the front door, he knew who it was that was visiting him at such an ungodly hour.
He knew, but he could not have said how he knew.
“Hello,” said his visitor, when the door was opened to her. “So sorry to bother you. You have a lot on your plate already, I know. I can help with that, of course; I can send them back to where they came from. All you have to do is sell me the book.”
“I will. I’ll do anything.”
“I know. May I come in?”
“Of course, Mrs Whyte.”
They had been sitting in the living room, drinking tea that Terry had reluctantly offered and prepared, when he felt he could no longer resist the urge to ask the question.
“Are they still there?” He glanced up at the roof.
“No,” she replied, sipping her tea from Joan’s old mug, “but they haven’t been sent back yet; they’re in Limbo.”
“Are they real?”
“Yes, Terry, that was your wife and the child she bore. I brought them back from the dead. I can do that. However, being able to do so pales into insignificance when set against the power of Mr. O’Dea’s grimoire. You are the owner of said grimoire, and so only you can sell it. And only in owning it can I wield its power. This is very basic stuff.”
She placed the mug down on the coffee table and clasped her hands over her primly crossed legs.
“Shall I tell you how you came to own it? Shall I tell you how you came to forget?”
Not waiting for Terry to reply, she continued: “You refused to accept. That was where it began. However, like a man lost in a forest who prays for a way out but cannot find one, you searched in a panic, trawling the internet for an answer, the light in the darkness that would show you the path you craved. As is so often the case, the answer came when you had convinced yourself you would never find it. You visited a fete one day, and there it was, as it would be again nine years later. These mischievous artefacts enjoy their symmetries, their little ironies.
“You struck up a conversation with the woman at the book stall. Not all of her books were to do with magic, but there were enough that you could establish a common interest. No one else was coming near the stall, so you had time to talk. You saw the grimoire, and she told you all about it, how it listened to your wishes, translated them upon its blank pages into the gibberish of Alec O’Dea, and then made those wishes come true.”
“How do you know all this?” asked Terry.
“I’ve been looking for that book for a long time. I have crows. They aren’t everywhere, but they are perched in a lot of high places, soaring over a lot of cities and towns. There was one on a windowsill outside the fete. It saw the book, and I saw what the crow saw, but I was too late. That day, you bought the book, and I could only watch as you took it home.
“Of course, I knew why you wanted it. I would wait until you had used it to cure your wife, and then I would offer to buy it from you. However, I did not foresee (although I should have) what happened next.
“Did you ever see the crow, I wonder? Perched on your windowsill, or on a branch or a fence, it saw what transpired: your poor wife was cured, but then came the twist…
“It is that kind of artefact, you see. Why didn’t I take that possibility into account? I’ve known of them before. They are wilful, cruel things that turn on their owners, turn their magic against them.
“When the whispering shadow appeared a few days after the cancer had gone into remission, I didn’t understand at first what it was I was seeing. Then your wife woke one morning, inexplicably and heavily pregnant, and gave birth a few days later to that thing.
“You don’t remember any of this. However, you cut the umbilical cord, held the thing that was more tumour than child, as Joan bled and sweated and screamed.
“And then she died. As I understand it, the shadow is the herald of the curse of Alec O’Dea, and you and Joan were that curse’s latest victims.
“You ran a bath and drowned the child, watching its submerged face as it flailed and splashed and, eventually, died.
“You buried it in the garden that night, and then you climbed into bed beside Joan, and you must have made a final wish.
“The world saw only the result of that wish, as reality was adjusted to make it come true. A small adjustment, unnoticed by all except myself and a handful of other occultists.
“You woke to a new truth: Joan had died in the hospice, peacefully in the end. You had refused to accept her death. Refused, but she had died anyway.
“You did not recall the reality that had been cancelled by your wish, did not recall ever owning the book, which then took it upon itself to vanish.
“Ah, but it needed to be sold. When it reappeared, as I knew it would, it fell to me to compel you to sell it.”
She got up, and Terry got up too.
He felt fatigue wash over him.
“It’s yours,” he said. “It’s upstairs.”
“Thank you, Terry. I’m sorry it had to come to this.”
“And I was being cruel before when I offered you what I did.”
Outside, the dawn birds were beginning their song. Terry had never liked the sound, but today it was sweet, and he was looking forward to listening to it as he fell asleep.
He hoped that he wouldn’t dream about Joan. You might think that to dream of a loved one is as sweet as birdsong, but when that loved one is gone such dreams only lead to bitter awakenings.
“So,” said Mrs Whyte: “name your price.”
Mr. Laverty notes:
“I am currently working on new horror fiction while editing various other pieces and trying to place them with publishers and agents. I live in Scotland and have two daughters. My main horror influences are M.R. James, Sheridan Le Fanu, William Peter Blatty and David Lynch.”
If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine.