I have a thing for books. Especially old books. Are you shocked? Surprised? I didn’t think so.
I get enormous brain boners in the vicinity of the Strand bookstore in New York, or, indeed, any bookstore anywhere. Here’s how bad it is. I wrote that sentence about the Strand, and then had to go to their website to poke around. It’s chronic.
There are books in almost every room of the house, on almost every flat surface. And it’s better than it once was, because after moving into my last apartment, but before moving into this house, I did a great unburdening of books. That’s what I call it, but all in caps and boldface type THE GREAT & PAINFUL UNBURDENING OF BOOKS, because after moving them the last time, I vowed to never move them again. But it hurt, boy did it hurt. It was second only to the FIRST GREAT UNBURDENING OF BOOKS that happened when I moved from Philadelphia back to my home town, and possibly THE GREAT UNVINYLING OF 2001*, when Conor McGuigan and others made off with my vinyl collection that, like the books, I never wanted to move again.
*THE GREAT UNVINYLING OF 2001 was not especially painful at the time, except that many of the albums being given away belonged to my late partner who had been a DJ. Much disco-y goodness went away that day. The pain boomeranged in 2015 when my brother died, and many of those albums had been his, too. I didn’t even have a turntable any more, but still. Ouch.
But I digress.
The point of these “Spooked!” posts is to explain the big beardy weirdo I’ve become, and this lust for books has a lot to do with it. If you will recall from Episode Two, my mother was fairly liberal in what she allowed me to read–including comic books [Marvel, thanks for asking] and overnight sensations like The Exorcist–and there were always books for birthdays and trips to the library, pretty much on demand.
Library trips were of two sorts. We had one library within walking distance of the house, the smaller Green Ridge Branch of the Scranton Public Library [now named the Nancy K. Holmes Branch]. It was literally around the corner and up the hill from where I went to grade school, so I could stop there any time after school, and I did. I had a crush on the librarian, who let me work behind the desk with her, checking books in and out like the wordy-nerdy little nerd boy I was. She also didn’t bat an eye when I dared to abandon the Children’s Room for the Adult section. Here’s where I checked out a copy of Hamlet [no, really] along with My Side of the Mountain and Call of the Wild. I burned through all the so-called “boy’s adventures,” and I still think of the kid in My Side of the Mountain trying to soften deer hide by chewing it, particularly when I eat jerky.
However, our local branch was small. If we needed to do serious research for that 1000 word school report on Chile, we had to head downtown to the main branch (which involved cars and my dad or my grandmother), to the Albright Memorial Library, or as we liked to call it, “Stately Wayne Manor.” It has a basement full of fiction, and a cast iron spiral staircase for fuck’s sake. What’s not to love? In fact, as a kid, I dreamt of buying it, kicking out the library [but keeping the books], and moving in. [Honestly, I still have that fantasy from time to time, as I drive past in the morning, on my way to the day job.]
Whereas the Green Ridge branch of the library was around the corner from my grade school, the main branch was a mere three blocks from my high school, so much time was spent there in my mutant teenage years. Here’s where I discovered [dun-duh-dunnnn] the OCCULT section–bringing me that much closer to actually becoming Doctor Strange, and increasing my personal creepy factor +10.
The 70s being what they were, with all the rumors of covens of witches sacrificing babies in the backwoods of PA, the selection was pretty slim. A lot of the books had been stolen by Satanist wannabees, leaving your average teenage weirdo with no other choice but to go looking for used copies in the neighborhood used book shop.
I think it was called Mostly Books, on Linden Street in Scranton. [In a later incarnation, it moved around the corner onto Adams Avenue and became Prufrock’s, but I was living in Philly by then.] Mostly Books was filthy and full of that glorious musty smell of old books and bindings, and probably whatever microscopic critters were feasting on their spines. I found some beautiful books in there–some have survived the GREAT UNBURDENING: my four volume complete Shakespeare; Colin Wilson’s The Occult; Different Dances by Shel Silverstein and assorted other oddities. None of them put the fear of god into my quite like the one I found as a freshman in my Roman Catholic high school.
I wish I still had it. It was a book on the Kabbalah, in Hebrew, with the most tantalizing illustrations of the tree of life, seals of Solomon, and all sorts of mystical, therefore irresistible, mumbo jumbo. But, again, in Hebrew, so who knew what it was or what I could learn from it. This was the 70s, remember, so no smart phone, no Google, and no internet from which to glean equal parts information and misinformation.
I felt like a teen-aged Wilbur Whateley getting my hands on the Necronomicon at Arkham’s good old Miskatonic U.
First thing I did was bring it to a priest at school. His recommendation? Burn it. I knew I was on to something good here!
Next, I took it to a rabbi. He tried to take it from me. “This is no good for you,” he said. “Give.” I didn’t, but I started having dreams about the book. Real Dunwich Horror dreams that scared the shit out of me.
After I woke the house up [that may be an exaggeration, it may have only been my mother who was always a light sleeper where her kids were concerned], she took the book off of me and did something with it. Threw it away, burned it, buried it. I don’t know. I’m sure it was something thoroughly mom-like and Irish, like drowned it in holy water before throwing it in the bin. I wish I still had it, though.
That book, and that experience, is what solidified by belief in the power of symbology, belief, and in the written word. Even though I couldn’t read the words or interpret the symbols, my imagined interpretation haunted my dreams. We are such suckers for the mysterious and the unexplained. Even now, 40 years later, I feel a little tickle at the back of my neck when I think about it, event though I know now that the mystical implications of the Kabbalah are, as Douglas Adams might say, mostly harmless, it left its creepy little mark on my psyche that affects both me and my writing to this day.