Fiction

The Ghost Writers (excerpt)

Chapter 1

A Quasquicentennial Celebration and a Promise of Adventure

1.

I had been a fan of the writings of Victor Peter Hobbs from the first moment I had seen one of the author’s pocket paperback books unceremoniously displayed on a nickel rack down at Darlene’s Used Books in the Village square. The lurid cover featured a many-eyed creature with scaly, gray skin and a dozen long tentacles each ending in three hooked talons. The strange, terrifying (at least to a boy of eleven years of age) lurked in the shadows of a darkened, primordial wood—one that bore some vague similarity to the forest surrounding Adelaide Village. High above, in the mountains clawing and scratching to take hold of the approaching night, stood the vague outline of a black castle that shone like glistening obsidian in the fading light. It clung to the mountain as if part of it, uncovered and carved from the rock rent heavenward by the subduction of the lands beyond. In his lifetime, Hobbs published many of these short, sensationalized novels, taking as his inspiration the penny dreadfuls that had been popularized in mid-eighteenth-century Victorian England. However, Hobbs did not serialize his narratives, as was common for the penny dreadful market of old, at any time throughout his career. He merely took the many tropes of the genre and weaved them into his own works, creating a collection of lurid literature reminiscent of—yet wholly separate from—the base, tawdry stories that one may have sought out in the desire for some perverse arousal and witnessed on the stages of the Grand Guignol theaters of old. I had always been fascinated with how his plots were cosmic in scope while his characters remained intimate in nature. His legacy would be the collision of a mysterious and grand unknowable, imagined universe with the deeper, darker truths and desires that drove the hearts and minds of men. Or so I had once though.

~  ~  ~

I was not a native of Adelaide Village, having grown up in the outskirts of Portland. But my aunt, at a young age, settled in the Village and never left. We visited often, my mother and I, and Aunt Molly took every opportunity with which she was presented to try and convince her sister to take the plunge and move to the Village. My father had passed away while I was still an infant, and though raising a son as a single parent was undoubtedly a challenge, mother believed her place was in Portland. She would tell Molly that, perhaps, when I had grown and ventured out on my own, she might revisit the invitation.

In time, Aunt Molly took over administration of the local historical society, after years of working as a librarian and archivist. I received a scholarship to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where I earned a bachelor’s degree in literature with an emphasis on the British medievalists, and subsequently gained a spot in the Library Science master’s program.

I loved books, especially those antiquarian in nature, and I wanted to be a writer. But I was also realistic and did not entertain illusions as to the likelihood of my being able to earn a living wage as a fiction writer. I could have tried other types of writing—marketing, grant, technical—however, I feared that if I turned my passion toward those pursuits, my creative fire might extinguish from lack of fuel. Sometimes, it wasn’t the best idea to turn what you love into your day job. And frankly, if I wrote in any of those fields, I feared I would be bastardizing my passion, but moreover, I worried that after eight hours each day of churning out soulless content, I might not have the will or desire or even ability to write what I loved. As a trade-off, I settled on becoming an archivist and special collections librarian, envisioning myself working in a dark basement in some gothic institution of learning where I was custodian of treasured, and even forgotten, manuscripts filled with arcane knowledge from a distant past, one I would only ever know through the writings in those tomes.

There is a convincing argument in favor of nepotism, at least as far as I am concerned. Mother had already relocated to Adelaide Village to live with Aunt Molly, who as head of the historical society and library, invited me to come work with her (was how she framed the invitation, mind you, not for her) upon my graduation. Though I experienced some reluctance—I did harbor desires for continued independence and opportunities to see and explore the world at large—I relented and agreed, with the caveat that I might take a few months after graduation to do a small bit of traveling. Without hesitation, Aunt Molly approved, and despite my initial reservations, I had felt almost as excited as she about returning to the comforting embrace of family.

2.

The temperature of this part of the library was maintained at a brisk 67 degrees and humidity at a steady level of just 32 percent—the public areas were kept as close to the same temperature as possible, but winter months often demanded a more comfortable, warmer space so as not to freeze out the patrons. This back room was where the oldest, most significant manuscripts and archival records were housed when not included in one of the many rotating displays the library frequently promoted. There was nothing elegant or auspicious about this particular repository of lesser literary achievements and collected papers of modestly influential people that made up Adelaide Village’s storied history. Here, one might stumble across forgotten letters and ephemera left behind by little-known or forgotten figures, often of the ever-dimming past, who had turned a flickering spotlight of celebrity upon themselves in their time, and who finally arrived in Adelaide Village with little intention of staying any considerable length of time but having succumbed to the charm of the people and the rustic appeal of the town itself, ultimately made the Village their home.

Adelaide Village was a small community nestled within a hollow kissing the border of Mt. Hood National Forest in the upper western foothills of the Cascade Mountain range in northern Oregon. The nearest town of any significant size was Mt. Hood Village itself, which boasted a population of around five-thousand souls. Adelaide Village was home to just about a quarter of that number and lacked the posh resorts and vintage bed and breakfasts to attract a great many tourists. It was a quiet, tight-knit community, and that’s how its residents liked it.

The remoteness of the Village posed a challenge with regard to establishing a vibrant and diverse library and archives collection that appealed to more than the local residents. However, Adelaide Village Historical Society and Library had acquired many rare documents from one of its most famous residents, and for the time being it was enough to encourage some visits by those beyond the Village’s borders. Over the years, the historical society received a significant portion of its collection as a gift from, before his untimely demise, pulp fiction author Victor Peter Hobbs.

~  ~  ~

It was only after I settled in Adelaide Village did I learn that Mr. Hobbs was a resident and had been for the past eight years. He was known to keep to himself on most days, often recruiting his daughter, who lived with him in his expansive estate on the northern outskirts of the Village, to run his errands, which included almost daily visits to the post office.

For all the while I had been in Adelaide Village, I had so desired a meeting with the reclusive author. But I was not one to simply one day show up on his doorstep and ask to engage in friendly conversation. The few times I met Rachel, his daughter, when our paths periodically crossed, as one would expect in such a small town, the extent of my courage in speaking with her was little more than the exchange of warm greetings and off-hand observations on the weather. She seemed nice enough and of similar age as myself. Moreover, she was a beauty to behold, and I was smitten the first time I saw her. Sadly, I expected she had no clue as to who I was, even though she did occasionally visit the historical society. Whenever we met, when our comings and goings intersected, she always seemed to consider me with a stranger’s eyes.

I never was able to meet Mr. Hobbs before he passed away. Little did I know, as it had been a tightly-guarded secret between father and daughter, that for the several months before his passing—by then, I had been a resident of the Village for little for than a year—Victor Hobbs had been in the most ill of health.

His passing was a somber occasion for myself and many of the Village’s residents. However, there were some that displayed what I could only describe as relief at the author’s passing. Any other time, I would have taken such relief to mean they were grateful that Mr. Hobbs no longer suffered. However, since the illness was, as far as anyone knew, not known about beyond father and daughter, this explanation seemed unlikely. The subtle behavior of these people confused and unnerved me, but there was little I could do short of direct confrontation. And I avoided confrontation at all costs.

In the end, the people of the Village endured and life returned to normal, even though it hadn’t drifted that far from it in the first place. Rachel was less of a presence in town, but I certainly could not begrudge her desire for privacy during her time of grief.

~  ~  ~

I continued to make my way down the single aisle in the backroom, hedged on either side by shelving that reached nearly to the ceiling and stood perpendicular to the walls. The shelves, sadly little more than half-filled, shared an arrangement common to many bulk-item retailers. Really, this area was more akin to a warehouse than what one might imagine the backroom of a library or museum to be. It was also not very big, as the Adelaide Village Historical Society and Library was home to a collection unexceptional at best, and surprisingly sparse at worst. Apart from those items donated by Mr. Hobbs before his death, the remaining collection was narrow in scope. Aunt Molly was always trying to build and expand the library’s offerings, but convincing donors outside of the Village to contribute for preservation and research purposes their valued papers and manuscripts was difficult when the donors wanted informal (and even formal) guarantees that their collections would reach an ever-widening audience. Of course, this was something Aunt Molly could not provide as the Village was small and remote and the very purpose of soliciting outside donors was to bolster the library’s collection with hopes of enticing more patrons and researchers to seek out the institution and take advantage of what it had to offer.

Today, I was looking for several boxes belonging to one of the Village’s prominent elders who had been instrumental in securing the charter for Adelaide Village. As an archivist, my job was to ensure the original organization of this particular collection, and where such organization did not exist, arranging the collection’s contents—determining who created them (when a collection contains the papers of more than one individual such as letters and correspondence among friends and colleagues), identifying the purpose for their creation (recording of deeds, tracking financial transactions, capturing thoughts and memories, sharing life’s moments with friends and family), and ordering them in a way that facilitated research but also knitted together a loose narrative of that individual’s life based on the documents left behind. Once arranged, I would set about describing the contents of the collection. Here, I got to involve my love of writing and storytelling, using words to paint for patrons and researchers pictures of the lives and works contained therein, though always adhering to the archivist’s duties of providing accurate and factual descriptions, since they would become that collection’s finding aid, which researchers and the curious alike used to locate within the collection the specific items they sought.

In truth, a collection such as this should have undergone this process a while ago given its provenance, but the reality is that no library or archives can claim to be entirely current in its processing of materials. Furthermore, Aunt Molly had finally acknowledged the truth of the twenty-first century and the arrival of the digital age, so much of our work focused on creating an electronic catalog and digitizing items deemed of considerable interest for access on the library’s newly-created website.

Having located the items I sought—four boxes slightly smaller than those commonly filled with reams of printer paper—I moved them to my normal workstation at the far end of the room. They were fairly light, so the task required a mere two trips. As I was beginning to appraise the contents of one of the boxes, Aunt Molly entered from the public space without and came bouncing between the twin-rows of shelves arranged like a line of dominoes ready to topple and stopped beside me with a short hop. Though thirty years my senior, Aunt Molly still exuded a level of energy and charm I had and never would know.

“Slow today?” I asked, turning my gaze up at my aunt. Like my mother, Aunt Molly was still quite lovely with her cherubic face and wide, innocent brown eyes gazing at you as if no one else existed in the world. With the body of a ballet dancer, Aunt Molly was slighter than my mother, her frame all elegant lines that flowed with simple grace whenever she moved. I never understood why she never married and displayed on the rarest of occasions mere passing interest in only a select few men. She seemed quite content and comfortable with herself, and she so enjoyed having her older sister with her. After having lived with them since coming to Adelaide Village, I believed that mine was the more consistently mature character.

“Like molasses,” Aunt Molly said. “How goes it back here?”

“What’s slower than molasses?” I said.

Aunt Molly smiled and ruffled my brown hair, which had grown a bit too long for my taste and always felt to my touch like the driest straw. “Are those the Friedman papers?”

“Yeah,” I said turning back to consider the boxes on the workbench. “I thought it was about time to get these finished, especially with the Village’s quasquicentennial celebration approaching. It seemed appropriate.”

“How and why, in God’s name, do you know the word quasi-what? You are certainly your father’s son.” Her smile faltered then. Still, after all of these years she worried about hurting me with talk of my father, like she feared her words would fester in a still-open wound. She knew better, but she still tied herself up in ropes of undeserved guilt. A lot of people who knew me still did the same. But the loss had been so long ago, and I never knew the man directly. Truth was, yes, I wished with all of my heart that I had had the chance to know my dad, to be his son, but that wound had long ago become a thick, hardened scar. Sometimes, people held on to the misguided impression that I might take it as being hurtful whenever they spoke of their own fathers or alluded to mine. However, nothing could be further from the truth. I had long ago come to terms with the experiences I would never share with my dad, but I was confident in the love he had had for me, and that became enough.

“Come on,” I said. “Turn that frown upside down.”

She did after a moment’s pause and then said, “Sorry, I sometimes forget that you’re a man and not the fragile boy I knew so long ago.”

“Lady,” I said, using my best Bronx accent, which really wasn’t good at all. “I mighta been a lotta things when I wassa kid, but fragile ain’t one of ‘em.”

I knew that would make Aunt Molly laugh, and I was right. Soon she doubled over in tears. She really was the easiest person to make laugh. Her laughter always made me happy.

When she had regained her composure, wiping the tears from her eyes and face with both palms, she said, “Anyway, I came in here to tell you that we have a potential donor out in Portland. While the weather is holding, I wanted to get out there and secure the donation before she has any second thoughts. Her great-grandfather actually grew up in Adelaide Village, and she apparently has stacks of his writings about our quaint town. And the man went on to become a single-term congressman in the state legislature. How about that?”

“Sounds just like what we are looking for? What’s his name?”

She waved her hand as if to dismiss the question and said, “Oh, I’ve already forgotten that.” I knew she hadn’t, but I played along.

“I hope you do a little brushing up before you meet the donor,” I said. “It would be quite unprofessional to refer to her revered relative by the wrong name.”

“’Twould,” she said, looking off rather pensively. A few seconds passed and she clapped her hands together. “But that’s not the best part,” she whispered.

“What’s the best part?” I responded with my own whisper.

In her normal voice, she said, “Your mother is going with me, and we’re going to make a weekend of it.”

“Weekend? It’s only Tuesday.”

“Oh, hush. Don’t complain. You’ll have the house to yourself for a whole week.”

“You mean I won’t have to stay chained in the basement like every other day?”

“Nope. Run wild, run free, my boy. Throw a raging party. Invite all your friends. Be an immature young adult for once.”

I couldn’t help it. I snorted. That got us both laughing until we were breathless and fighting for oxygen.

After we calmed down, Aunt Molly said, “I’m closing up shop early. No one’s coming in today, by the look of things. Stay as long as you like, but not too long. And lock up when you leave.”

I rolled my eyes in mock exasperation.

Aunt Molly kissed me on the forehead. “Love you, kiddo,” she said.

“Love you, too. Don’t follow mom on any of her adventures.”

Aunt Molly flashed a final mischievous grin before returning to the public area. I sat motionless for a long while as I listened to the faint noises of Aunt Molly preparing to leave and then finally exiting the building. All that time, I was lost in thought, but I’d be damned if I could remember what occupied those thoughts.

I turned once again to the boxes containing the Friedman collection and with deliberate purpose began the work ahead.

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