Circulation 2023

Ever since my parents died when I was sixteen, I found myself spending every afternoon at the library. Though I felt like I could take care of myself well enough, the law had other ideas, and my grandmother had moved in to look after me. Feeling resentful that she dared to take my parents’ place, I tried to spend as little time at home as I could. So after school let out I would bike over to the dilapidated building on the edge of town to look for a book I could escape into.

The library was always very quiet. While shiny new subdivisions sprouted up like weeds in town, the library itself had clearly not been kept up since the late 1800s. It had been built in what I can only imagine was an attempt at Gothic Revival, but it seemed they never fully completed it, so about half of the building was lined with stone arches while the rest was just made of shoddy wooden planks. It therefore wasn’t surprising that I never knew anyone else to go there, and I intentionally avoided mentioning it to the other kids at school, for fear of being teased more than I already was as an ‘orphan’.

The only soul I regularly saw at the library was Mr. Pym, the librarian. To my young eyes he looked so wizened that I couldn’t even imagine that someone could still be alive after so many years. Yet every day he sat there, at his desk, leafing through stacks of dusty books. Whenever I would approach with a question he would give me a glare icy enough to chill me to my bones. He’d quickly cover up whatever he was looking at and spew forth in a raspy growl, “Can I help you?” After that I would meekly turn away and go back to hiding at a table in the corner.

Despite my being, as far as I could tell, the only person to have set foot there in decades, Mr. Pym didn’t seem to take any interest in me. Not really understanding the strange ways of adults, I didn’t really think too much of this at the time, yet knowing what I do now I certainly should have given it more heed. It was only after several months that I summoned up the courage to respond to Mr. Pym’s query, which seemed to completely shock him.

“Yes, sir,” I said one day, in a quiet voice. Realizing that I had actually responded, his eyes bulged open, and I saw some kind of yellowish mucus drip out of them. I shuddered and was about to turn back again when he said, “What are you looking for?” Immediately regretting my decision, I nonetheless couldn’t back away now. I told him that I was bored with the books and authors I had already read, and couldn’t he suggest something more interesting.

“More… interesting?” he repeated, with a strangely ghoulish grin. “Yes, I have just the thing. My favorite author… indeed I was just about your age when I first discovered him.” He leaned down and reached into the back of a lower shelf nearby and pulled out an ordinary-looking tome. Wordlessly, he thrust the book towards me, as if to stab me with it. I grabbed it and looked at the cover. Tales, it said in dark block letters on the cover, and below that, “by Edgar Allan Poe”.

We had read “The Raven” in school, though the only thing I recalled was how my classmates butchered the meter when they read it aloud. I had never delved into his stories before, but now that I had hours in the library with nothing else to do, I gave them a chance. As I started reading, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Mr. Pym was watching me. Whenever I would look to check he didn’t seem to be looking directly at me, but I couldn’t stop feeling like he had some way of knowing.

I dove into the Tales and quickly forgot about Mr. Pym, the library, and my dismal home life. Despite the archaic language, Poe transported me into a dark, grim world that felt right at home to my teenage mind. I appreciated that it wasn’t merely the cheap horror of zombies, but rather a more psychological torment that pervaded the psyches of all his characters. I couldn’t put it down until three hours later when I reached the end of the penultimate tale. Eager to see what would happen next, I turned the page, only to find that the end of the book had been torn out. Someone had completely ripped out the last story.

Indignant, I marched over to the front of the library, ready to confront Mr. Pym and demand from him an answer as to why the book had been so damaged. Yet when I approached the desk I found, to my complete amazement, that Pym wasn’t there. In all my months of going to the library I had never seen it without him. I don’t know if it was the tales I had just read or the thought that, for the first time, I was alone in that dark room, but it suddenly took on a sinister air. Cobwebs dangled from the corners of the building, and I was immediately aware of every slight sound, most of all my heart beating fast.

Were this any other day I would have instantly fled and returned home, perhaps never coming back to that awful lair. Yet I had just been imbued with the magic of Poe’s tales and hadn’t yet had my fill of them. Cautiously, I approached the desk and peeked behind. Not that I had expected it, but this confirmed that Mr. Pym wasn’t hiding underneath. I hopped over and tried to remember where it was he had pulled the book from. Perhaps he had additional copies hidden? I saw some cabinets near where he was sitting and pulled on the handles, but they were locked. Nearby there was a small bookshelf filled with old tomes that looked similar in design to the Tales. I reached out and grabbed one in the middle. But instead of pulling out the book I felt it rotate downward and heard a loud clang. Turning around, I saw the shelves in the back of the library begin shifting sideways. After a moment the movement stopped and before me lay what could only be called a hidden passage.

Now my curiosity was far too intrigued to resist. Mr. Pym must have known about this passage, and the secrets it was hiding. Was this where he lived (for I had never seen him outside of the library)? I approached the passage and looked inside. It was far too dark to make anything out, so I looked around for a light switch. Instead, I found a torch inside a sconce. From the burnt smell it emitted, I gathered that it had been used recently. There was a box of matches attached to the sconce, and I took one and used it to light the torch. It emitted a warm glow, and I saw the passage was made of a different material than the rest of the library, as if it had been built in a whole other era.

I picked up the torch and walked forward. The passage was lined with small stones held together by cement, and they were dark enough that the torch’s light didn’t reflect very far. Still, I walked quickly, knowing that at any moment Mr. Pym would return and find me here. He never explicitly forbade me from coming here but I knew that would be unlikely to appease him.

After just a few minutes the hallway ended and to the left a set of stairs led down into a murky abyss. If only I had been scared enough to go back, I might still have had time to close the secret passage and go home without Mr. Pym ever finding out. But Poe had made me inexplicably courageous and so I started down the stairway. With each step the torch flickered a little, as if to warn me, but I heeded it not. And soon enough, I had reached the bottom.

I found myself in a large underground chamber, the floor lined with the same stones, but the ceiling filled with wooden rafters. Based on the size and location I guessed that I was now under the library, in its basement. There were additional torches lining the walls. I walked over to them and lit them with mine, then I turned around and surveyed the room. It looked like how I might have imagined Dr. Frankenstein’s lab. There was a table in one corner fitted with restraints, a set of tables covered in various medical equipment, and a large bookshelf in the far corner.

I approached the bookshelf to get a closer look and saw that, while the first few shelves did indeed have books, most of it was filled with labeled glass jars. I felt a heavy feeling in my stomach and walked closer to the jars, bringing up my torch to see them more closely. Immediately, I dropped the torch in shock. For inside each jar was a preserved human heart.

Again, I could have left, and ask yourself–would you have had the fortitude to continue after that sight? Today I don’t think I would have, but on that day I was younger and perhaps more foolish. Gathering myself, I picked up the still-lit torch and held it close enough to read the label. It was faded but I could just make out a name–N. Reynolds. I looked at the next one and it had another name–W. Caruthers. All the hearts were labeled with what I can only assume was the name of their former owner. As I moved down the shelves the writing became less faded. These hearts must have been collected more recently.

Feeling a sense of apprehension, I quickly stepped over to the very bottom end of the last shelf, where I guessed the most recent hearts would be. I brought my torch forward to read the labels on the last two jars and, just as I saw them, I heard a loud sound behind me. I quickly turned around and, in my panic, let the torch fall again. This time the fire went out. Expecting to see the light of the torches on the wall I realized suddenly that they had also gone out. My eyes weren’t used to the pitch dark, and I couldn’t see anything. Hoping to relight it, I started fumbling on the ground for the torch. As I was on my hands and knees I heard the sound again, and this time I realized what it was–a footstep. Then I felt something hit the back of my head and everything was dark.

I came to with a powerful headache that made it hard to understand where I was. I tried to touch my head to feel if there was a wound, but I realized I couldn’t move my hands. I tiled my head down and saw that I was lying on the table I’d noticed earlier, but now my limbs were tied fast in the restraints. The torches had been relit and in their dim glow I saw a shadowy figure approach me. As it got closer, I heard Mr. Pym’s familiar raspy voice.

“You’re awake, boy? Most unfortunate. This next part would have been a lot less unpleasant for you if you had stayed unconscious.”

I tried to scream but my mouth was gagged. Mr. Pym leaned over me and his grotesque face stared straight into my eyes. I turned my head away and closed my eyes. I heard him take a few steps away, then the sound of clanging metal, and finally the metal-on-metal sound of a knife being sharpened. The sound stopped and he resumed speaking as he walked back towards me.

“After all, I am glad you found this place on your own. I didn’t plan for you to come here so soon, but I prepare for every eventuality. And it saves me the trouble of coming up with a pretext to get you down here. I was going to mention something about knowing your parents and having some more information on how they died. But it seems you beat me to the punch.”

I tried to say something in response, but it came out only as an unintelligible mumble. Mr. Pym continued, “Ah yes, they told you it was a car accident. With children it’s often easier to lie, especially when the truth is far too gruesome. The police around here aren’t competent enough to deal with such matters. I suppose that’s why I’ve made it my home for so long. Even after I collected so many specimens, they never realized what was really going on.”

He leaned over me and I saw in his hand a sharpened scalpel. He brought it down and used it to cut open my shirt, then moved it out of the way, revealing my chest. He put his other hand on top and traced an outline with his index finger. “Your heart is right here,” he said. “I’m quite good at finding them. I’ve had a lot of practice.” He brought the blade down in the spot he had traced and pressed it against my skin. I felt the sharp pain and it triggered some ancient survival instinct in me. Gathering strength from some unknown reserve, I struggled furiously and felt the restraints give a little. I felt my left arm able to move and started to pull it out. Mr. Pym looked over and saw my arm was almost free. Quickly, he dropped the scalpel and, just before I could pull it out, he grabbed the strap and pulled it much tighter. He looked straight at me, his face filled with the sinister smile of a madman.

As he started to move back, I shifted my body weight hard to my left side and felt the old table creak. After a second push, the legs of the table gave out. It crashed over onto Mr. Pym, and we all toppled to the ground, the table pinning him. On contact the restraints broke and I pulled my limbs free and jumped clear from his grabbing arms. I pulled the gag out and flung it at his still wide-open mouth. He started to say something, but I was already moving away, my footsteps drowning out his rasps. I stumbled over to the bookshelf and pulled it down, toppling those hideous hearts to the floor. The jars made a tremendous crash as the glass shattered and the formaldehyde escaped, covering the floor in a river of horrific sin. I ran back towards the stairs and stopped for one moment, looking back at Mr. Pym passed out amidst the chaos. I took down two of the lit torches, intending to use one to light my path out of there. The other one I threw behind me as I started up the steps.

The fire department was on the other side of the town from the library. By the time they showed up it was too late to save anything. There were no bodies discovered in the rubble, and Mr. Pym was nowhere to be found, so they decided he had caused the fire himself and fled in shame. The whole town kept talking about that night for the next month. And although none of them had ever gone there they would constantly say how tragic it was, the loss of all those books. Yet only I knew that the loss wasn’t absolute. For as I left that dreadful night, I took with me the only good thing to have come from that forsaken place–the copy of Poe’s Tales.