From the author: A young librarian makes his way to a backwoods, New England town to take his first job. His clientele, though, is . . . odd. What kind of books do they want? How is he to serve?
Nothing pleased me more than Essex County putting me in charge of the children’s collection at Kingsport Public Library as my first job after grad school. Most of my classmates at the University of Arizona hadn’t found positions, but I could have lucked out because I’m male. I’m an oddity. Several times I was the only man in my classes. It didn’t matter to me. I believed what the university said, that my job was to “empower and motivate young people.” Librarians have missions to fulfill.
I exited Route 128 and then lost time deciphering the confusing road signs and shoulderless two-lane blacktop that took me toward Kingsport before parking my over-packed Volvo on a scenic overlook that encompassed both the Atlantic, a grey seething mass that matched the clouds overhead, and the town itself that spread across the Miskatonic River valley. What a glorious view, so different from Tucson’s bare mountains and cactus-strewn desert: high pitched colonial houses, steep narrow streets, dispirited trees that should have been brilliant with late fall colors but instead had turned blotchy brown, long wharves lined with boats, their bare masts gently swaying in the bay’s swell; and on top a low hill that rose over the rest, a church and steeple that seemed like a land-locked ship with its own mast pointing skyward. Seagulls floated on a breeze that swept up the cliff. Their lonely, repeated cries played counterpoint to the ocean’s sad lapping against the rocks below.
My GPS lost its signal before I crossed the city limit. Fortunately, I had printed a map to the cottage I had arranged to rent. The landlord wasn’t there, but he’d left the key in the mailbox. The living room was small, and the bedroom not much bigger than a walk-in closet. I didn’t care. It was my first home of my own after years in dorms. Painters had left masking tape on the trim, but acrylic couldn’t cover the ocean’s smell. I threw open the bedroom window that looked into a tiny, weedy yard. On the other side of the fence, twenty feet away, two little dark-haired girls played in a sandbox, one child with her hair cut short, and the other wearing it long. Both wore short-sleeve shirts despite a steady, cold wind. Beyond them, their huge house cast a long shadow. I suspected my cottage might have once been its servants’ quarters.
Maybe the girls would come to the library, and I could show them the picture books. Children were my clientele. Through them I would advance my mission to “promote and nurture the habit of reading.”
The short haired one piled sand in a mound with a plastic, yellow shovel. They giggled when they sat back and watched. The sand moved, then slowly, painfully, a bedraggled animal dug its way free. It might have been a hamster. The long-haired girl grabbed it, shook sand from its fur, then held it down. They both dug a new hole to bury it in.
I turned away, sickened by the children’s casual cruelty.
“We are really a branch for the Miskatonic University Library upriver in Arkham,” said Delilah Mason, the head librarian. I’d talked to her on the phone about the position, and imagined her as tall, severe and dressed in black, but she was petite and wore a brightly colored print blouse and blue jeans. “We get quite a few calls for books from their collection, mostly genealogy and local history, while their students ask for whatever bestsellers we’ve added. They don’t have a popular fiction section at MU. Sometimes they’ll request work from the children’s collection. Picture books for faculty with families, mostly.”
We sat in the children’s section in child-sized chairs with our knees above our hips. The previous librarian had covered the walls with framed elementary school artwork. Book bins at kids’ height filled the floor’s middle. One wall devoted itself to chapter books, and another to young adult. A separate room labeled “Teens Only” held beanbag chairs and computers in a row. The entire library, a new building surrounded by a rundown neighborhood of 17th and 18th Century houses, shone like a glass and steel beacon in a wilderness.
“We have Saturday story hour with adult volunteer readers, and I expect you’ll work closely with the elementary school teachers. They don’t have a library at the school since the budget cuts.” I smiled. Collaborating with educators was on my list from the university. Delilah handed me the November activities calendar. They’d scheduled presentations and clubs most week days too: Preschool Story Time, Kids Game Club, Infant and Toddler Story Time, Little Artist Café, Puppet Show Thursday, Jr. Scientist Science Entertainment Night, Charlotte’s Web Tea Time, and several others. I’d written a paper on children’s library interactive learning, and had ideas that I was eager to implement. Every library had a unique population with unique needs. I wondered what Kingsport’s unique needs would turn out to be.
Delilah left me with a large key ring, library procedures in two binders, and a tutorial for inventory and reordering.
Holding the material under one arm, I surveyed the children’s collection. Ten o’clock on a Thursday. A mom pushed a baby in a stroller while showing books to her three-year old son. A ten-year old wearing wire-rim glasses took notes from a history text open on his lap. At the computers, two boys played games. One of our missions was to “introduce children to electronic resources.” It would take a while to wean them off the games. I wandered the stacks, familiarizing myself with the organization. The first time I’d come to a library, the librarian had been so helpful. She issued me my first library card—made a bit of a production of it, really--and I felt as if I’d been given the keys to a castle.
A door by my office said, “Local and Regional Authors’ Special Children’s Collection.” Underneath that a small typed notice said, “See the main desk for access.” None of my keys fit the lock.
It was good to see my old friends, Dr. Suess, Susan Cooper, Madeleine L’Engle, J.K. Rowling and the books on dinosaurs and spaceships and deep sea creatures. I met several children during the day, pointed adults toward leveled readers, collaborated with a team leader for a home-school community, and read an Amelia Bedelia story to a preschooler whose mother was in the adult section looking for books on home canning.
After closing, I surveyed my domain. My first library! I didn’t realize how keyed up I’d been until the last patron left and I breathed easily. The windows were dark. Lights switched off in the main library. For the first time, I really looked at the art my predecessor left on the walls. Little kids’ drawing. Lots of crayon and colored pencil. Mostly trees, boats and stick figures, not all that different from Arizona in style, although desert kids drew mountains and cactus for their stick figures to live in.
A more sophisticated picture drew my attention. A forest on one side crept down to the sea on the other. The child used black crayon and purple, a bilious combination that made the forest a brooding presence. In the forest, the outlines of a house peeked out, also in black and purple so as to be nearly invisible except for a tinge of light seeping from a single window. The child’s boldness in strokes struck me, as if she’d drawn the scene quickly with a strong hand. A single figure, also in black, stood near the ocean, looking into it. The ocean seethed, not like a wave, but as if something was about to emerge. I stepped back. It was repugnant. The repulsive power of it startled me, the ichor of its imagination. A child with nightmares might draw such a picture, if she could render her nightmares so vividly.
“I try not to look at that one,” said Delilah. She leaned against the children’s library door, wearing a heavy coat. “Amazing the creepy things a kid will draw.” She bounced her car keys in her hand. “Come on. I’ll buy you a beer and you can tell me about your first day.”
I sat at my desk when a little girl named Allison suffered a seizure the next morning. Her scream rose into the library’s quiet like a siren. The short-haired brunette girl who lived next to my house rushed away, a picture book tucked under her arm.
Allison lay on the floor beside the puppet theater, arching her back, gasping now and gurgling. Her mother tried to hold her, but the little girl had grown rigid, her eyes wide open. “She wasn’t doing anything. She was just reading!” the mother cried. I didn’t see a book on the floor.
Delilah rushed in and knelt beside the hysterical mother and child. “I’ve called 911,” she kept saying.
Other children formed a semi-circle and watched. A weeping kindergartner held his mother’s hand. Some children looked blankly, as if this were television, but a couple leaned in and smiled. Maybe one of them had drawn the black forest and the looming sea. My neighbor girl wasn’t in the crowd.
I shepherded them back. “We need to give her room to breathe.”
When we closed in the evening, the hospital reported she hadn’t regained consciousness yet.
I took two books home with me, both local histories. I needed to know more about where I lived.
Fog eddied through Kingsport’s streets as I walked. My Arizona coat failed to match a New England November. Its chill air seeped through everything. To my left, the old buildings rose, black and poorly lit. Side streets were cobblestone and too narrow for cars to pass each other. I imagined Kingsport in the 1700s, before the American Revolution, when people walked or rode horses, and nothing wider than a fish cart traveled the town. To my right, the hill sloped to the wharves where rooftops and crooked chimneys poked through the mist, but grey shrouded the sea. I held my coat close. Something skittered away in the gap between two houses, and a figure walked down the sidewalk toward me, his hands jammed into this pockets. When he passed, he didn’t acknowledge my nod. His eyes reflected the hazy streetlight as he looked my way. I thought for a second he was deformed. His face seemed strangely long, as if his head had been squeezed in a vice, pushing his features forward. He parted his lips, revealing pointed teeth.
A half block further, I dismissed my perceptions as an illusion of bad light.
The first book didn’t tell me much. Lots of chamber of commerce type pictures of sunsets and picturesque fishing boats along with a cursory history from colonial times about the costal trade, ship building, fishing, and the challenges of farming rocky land. The only item of interest was a one-paragraph mention of the Salem witch trials and four witches who were hung in Kingsport. When dawn leaked into my window ten hours later, I reached the end of the entertaining but ridiculous second book, Mysteries and Legends of the Miskatonic River Valley, which contained as much fact about this little section of north-eastern shoreline as a book called Famous Sightings of Chupacabra in the Southwest would tell me about Arizona and New Mexico. The author footnoted extensively, referencing diaries, journals, oral histories and private letters held in Miskatonic University’s special collections. Surely all fake, of course, but I made notes to look up some of the more interesting titles to see if at least that part of the fiction was valid.
That morning from my desk, the door next to my office clicked open then closed. I’d forgotten to ask Delilah about it.
Whoever had gone in locked the door behind them, but voices murmured on the other side. I knocked, and they fell silent. After a moment, I knocked again. The door cracked open. A middle-aged woman with dark hair streaked in grey, peered at me, half her face hidden by the door. “We have the key,” she said defensively, and held out a key attached to a wooden plate, like a key you’d get to a gas station bathroom. The two dark-haired neighbor girls looked around her legs at me.
I didn’t know what to say to that. “I’m the children’s librarian,” I finally offered. My name badge hung in plain sight from its lanyard around my neck. “May I come in?”
“You have to have the key.” She shut the door.
Delilah sat at the main checkout counter, scanning codes from the backs of returned books and then putting them in the reshelve cart. Her face darkened when I asked about the room. “Oh, I forgot to talk to you about that. It’s not used much.”
“What is it? Why is it in the children’s section?”
“I’ve been in Kingsport for seven years now, and I’ve learned that there’s weird stuff about this part of the country. Did you know the town started in 1689?”
“I read up last night.”
“I’ll bet your reading didn’t tell you the old families who go back over three hundred years have an . . . undemocratic . . . amount of influence. They get what they want. This library, for instance came about because the Kingsport families didn’t like that MU’s library was the region’s book and research center. It’s simple jealousy.”
“So what about the room by my office?”
“MU’s library doesn’t have a children’s collection. That room holds children’s books by local authors. Some are the only copies in existence. Others are long out of print. I don’t go in there much. Not to my taste. The old families check them out occasionally for their children. Mostly we just hold them. Not much scholarly research on kids’ lit. Still, it’s something Kingsport has that MU does not.”
“My next door neighbor and her daughters are in there now. They’re darned territorial.”
“I was going to ask if you’d met her yet. That’s Emiline Smith-Armitage. She donated half the collection. Emiline’s a single mom, great-grand daughter of Henry Armitage, the head librarian at MU back in the day. She’s estranged from the Arkham Armitages”
“I’ve seen the daughters.”
Emiline Smith-Armitage marched from the children’s library, the room key in hand, her daughters following. A short woman with a narrow face and firm stride, she slapped the key to the counter, gave me a dismissive look, then left.
A minute later, Delilah opened the mysterious door. “As I said, we don’t come in here often. Most of the books are on loan.”
The room smelled fishy, like bad salmon left out too long. One wall held books and a document bureau, while three reading desks, each with a hard plastic chair and reading lamp took up the other wall. A long, narrow space, it looked like a converted janitor’s storage area. A row of thin, similarly bound books took up the highest shelf. I pulled the first one down: The Founders Parade, written and illustrated by Amias Basil, 1882, reprinted in 1927.
“I believe we have the only complete set of those,” said Delilah. “He was popular in the region for a while. I don’t see the appeal myself.”
The leather cover had a slimy feel, and the image on the front had nearly worn off.
I have always loved children’s picture books. Polar Express, Owl Moon, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, Knuffle Bunny, the classics. My first editions of Where the Wild Things Are and The Mysteries of Harris Burdick are my most treasured possessions, but The Founders Parade appalled me. A hand-colored wood cut appeared at the top of the first page with the text below.
The Founders found our marshy shores
And built their homes from stones of black.
They sealed the walls with oaken doors
And dreamed of oceans that they lacked.
The picture felt unbalanced, as if Basil drew from an unfamiliar geometry. It’s hard to explain the unease that arose from his illustration, and each page after was as disturbing. The story told about the founders celebrating a holiday. Snow appeared in some pictures, and the sea revealed its grey, stormy look when it appeared, but it wasn’t a Christmas book. One picture showed fish-faced children with webbed fingers holding seaweed or entrails—I couldn’t tell—while a shape watched in the background, a tentacled shadow with too many eyes and a mouth that fell away deeper than the page. I shuddered when I closed the book, and what terrified me, what woke me up that night with my heart pounding and my sheets sweat soaked, was the impulse not to close the book. To keep staring until the eyes stared back, until the mouth moved to swallow me and everything I loved. I wondered if Allison, the girl who’d had the seizure, had seen something from the special collection.
Twenty-one books made the Founders series: The Founders Friends, The Founders Happy Day, The Founders Hold a Dance. The worst was called The Founders Feast. I almost dropped it in disgust.
I swallowed hard. “Kids read these?”
Delilah nodded. “We also have children’s diaries, children’s artwork.”
“Like the stuff on the walls?”
“Oh, some much worse. Therapists use children’s art to reveal trauma. There’s damaged psyches in those drawers.” She looked at the document bureau.
“Do you know a book called Mysteries and Legends of the Miskatonic River Valley? There’s illustrations in there that look like the Founders imagery.”
“I’ve read it, yes.” Delilah ran her finger down a book’s spine. “I thought it was silly. Of course, that was before I’d spent a year here.”
“How many children use this room?”
“Fifteen or so. They don’t come in often. All old family kids. All home schooled. There’s probably another hundred I never see. They don’t get out much.”
“Could you make a list?”
It took courage to travel the long walk to Emiline Smith-Armitage’s front door. Her house stood three stories tall, and the poor illumination from the street lights revealed that her windows were open despite the thirty-degree temperatures and a steady breeze off the harbor.
She clearly had no interest in inviting me in, but when I didn’t take her obvious hints, she held the door wider. Soon, I sat in her dining room, a broad space with a long, bare table in the middle. A candelabra turned low suspended from the high ceiling provided the only light so that shadows dominated in the freezing room. Now that I could see her close up, she was much more peculiar than she seemed from our brief encounter in the library. I thought she was about forty earlier, but up close she appeared younger. No lines on her narrow face. No color either in her lifeless pallor. When she wasn’t talking, her lips parted every few seconds with a slight pop.
“I understand that your family has been in Kingsport for generations,” I said.
I wondered where her children were. A set of heavy footsteps crossed the ceiling. Not a child’s. She lived in a huge house. Delilah said she was a single mom. Several doors opened into the dining room, all black pits beyond. Something could be standing just out of the light in anyone of them, watching us.
“As the children’s librarian, part of my mission is to provide engaging activities for young people.”
She looked at me, but I couldn’t read curiosity in her eyes or any human emotion. Her expression remained blank, her only sound the steady pop, pop, pop of her mouth opening and closing. Deep in the house, someone laughed, but it didn’t sound sane, and it cut off abruptly.
No one knew I had come to visit. I hadn’t told Delilah of my plans. I wondered if I could find my way from the house if the candelabra went out because it seemed to me that Emiline Smith-Armitage would have no trouble in the dark. I was sure she preferred it.
I said, “I’m glad to see your children use the library, but I understand that there are other children, children of Kingsport’s oldest families who never visit.”
The mention of her children caused a flicker of interest. She turned toward me, and I explained my plan.
When the library closed at 9:00, two weeks later, I walked the building to be sure no patrons remained. I unlocked the children’s special collection door and went from table to table, leaving two or three picture books on each. Not just the Founders books, but the other ones with illustrations just as disturbing as the ones I’d seen. The language in some wasn’t English or formed from English letters.
At 9:30, Emiline Smith-Armitage’s children arrived with their mother. “Thank you for coming,” I said.
Soon, other parents walked up the stairs into the library. I greeted them. Many were odd looking as if they were related to the man I’d seen walking in the dark the first night I’d arrived. Many shared Emiline Smith-Armitage’s odd habit of popping her lips, but the children they brought were eager. They ran from table to table, peering at the books, opening them, turning page to page.
I met with the parents to announce the new after-hours reading program for their children. They could read the books and not worry that someone who shouldn’t see them might catch a glimpse, someone like Allison. Their children too could enjoy the library.
I went to the children’s section, sat in the storyteller’s chair, and gathered the children around. That sat at my feet like any other group I’d ever read to would. The book I chose, The Founders Name the Stars, was a big hit. I showed them the pictures on each page, the awful, mind rending pictures that hurt my eyes to look at. They sat rapt. The tiniest child, a two-year old, sat near me, and as I read, he grasped my pants cuff in his little fist. He sucked his thumb and watched me read, hanging onto my words.
When I finished they begged for another. Their parents stood behind them, watching it seemed as if in judgment. When I finished the second, I felt that I’d been exonerated, and I didn’t even know I’d been on trial.
“How many of you need a library card?” I asked.
Hands went up. Some were webbed. Some were clawed. It took until midnight to give them all their cards. I thought about my mission as the last child left, to help the children develop as learners. The library would be a part of their growth.
Every library had a unique population.
I’m here to serve.
This story originally appeared in Tales of the Miskatonic Library.