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Fiction Horror

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

“Collecting for the library! Collecting for the library!” shouted Gretham as the shire horses rounded the corner into the biggest slum in Pannegul. “Come on, don’t be shy, any story or talent accepted. Collecting for the library! Human books wanted!”


Gretham lifted his scarf over his mouth and nose, but rotting market vegetables and rancid animal dung seeped through the fabric. His ears were assaulted by the chatter, the dogs barking, the slopping mud and the clanging of makeshift, metal doors.


A small boy approached the cart with his hands held out. “Please Sir, will you take me? My mam passed away last night, I’ve no one.” Only his eyes and lips were lacking a thick layer of grime, and he was clothed in a single rag. There was a hole cut in it for his head, the cloth tied at the waist with string.


“What skills have you got?”


“I can boil rice, sweep, and sing.”


“Sing then, let’s hear ya.”


The boy took a deep breath and widened his stance. He opened his mouth, and the most beautiful melody came out.


“The sun shone over the ocean of my life,

The day you were brought to my side,

And it set for the last time, forever went down,

The day my true love died.

I’ll never forget the touch of your hand,

The beauty of your voice,

With every memory of you,

My sad heart will rejoice.”


His voice rose and fell like a swallow in flight. The whole alleyway stopped chattering to listen. Even the dogs were quiet. By the time the child had finished, Gretham had forgotten to breathe for a full ten seconds.


“Get in lad, get in. We’ll make a book out of ya.”


The boy climbed the wooden ladder into the back of the cart and fell gratefully onto the dry straw inside. He didn't know that, for him, becoming a book meant becoming a castrato; and becoming one with no warning or explanation - probably no anaesthetic.


When the cart pulled up between the fountains in the library courtyard, there were four small children in the back. A song book, a cookery book, a gardening book and a story book. Gretham wasn’t entirely convinced by the story book, he’d heard better and seen prettier. More and more these days, kids would have to do. On the bright side, they were cheaper to keep and could sometimes be sold for a good price when they outlived their usefulness. But the library had rich members paying high fees, and they always wanted something new for their money.


Last week, Gretham had picked up two adults, a tattooing book and a beauty book. One of the perks of being the librarian at the Library of Lives was that he got the services of the books for free. He’d always wanted a tattoo of the library crest on his back. As for the beauty book, she should be cleaned up and suitably dressed by now.


Gretham snapped himself out of his lewd thoughts as a uniformed messenger approached. They always bothered him with details he didn't want or need. The messenger bowed and prattled off a few lines about something as the librarian opened the back of the cart and beckoned the new books out into the courtyard. He was still talking when the 'ostler took the cart to the stables. Gretham picked out a few words, but nothing of interest.


"I have four new books to shelve. I suggest ya find something useful to do too." The librarian pushed the messenger into the fountain and walked away laughing.


The ink and needle stung a lot more than Gretham had expected. But he knew the equipment was clean and the book was talented. After a couple of hours, he came away with a five-inch shield on his right shoulder. It showed an open book with a face on each page, looking inwards, one male, one female. Six stars surrounded the book. They represented Fiction, Fact, Fun, Faith, Favour and the Forbidden. The six themes of human book collected by the library. He had taken a Favour in getting the tattoo, now it was time for some Fun.


The newest beauty book hadn’t exactly volunteered. Gretham had spotted her picking roses from the palace hedgerow and, though that wasn’t strictly illegal, had decided that a citizen’s arrest was an appropriate way to detain her. She was lithe and blonde with sky-blue eyes and she smelled like summer. She never made it to the Law House. Gretham knew a talent when he saw one, and this book would make men happy. Very happy.


She was held in an individual bay in the east wing of the library, on the top level corridor, with the other seven. It was Gretham’s most visited part of the building. There was space for two more beauty books before he had to start choosing his favourites and letting others go. He looked forward to making those decisions – how hard would those from the slums work to stay in the library? Or how much would those from the cities give of themselves to get out?


Gretham strode down the east wing corridor, ignoring the shapely women in the first three pairs of cubicles and stopping between 7 and 8. A small, leather sofa faced the glass front wall of each bay. Beauty book 7 and Beauty book 8 had both appeared from behind their screens as Gretham’s footsteps echoed towards them. The librarian cast his eyes over each one. Until now, 7 had been his solid favourite, but this time he reached up and switched off the light in her bay. She retreated into the darkness with a look of relief.


Gretham took a seat on the sofa facing Beauty book 8, and switched off the corridor lights so that only her bay was illuminated. He ran his eyes across all of her best features. They were scarcely hidden under flimsy silk.


Instead of dancing for him, she tapped on the glass and cleared her throat.


“I think there must be some mistake, Sir.”


“Do you know who I am?” Gretham straightened up but did not stand.


“The librarian, Sir.”


“Yes, indeed. And do you know how I got to be the librarian?”


“Well, no Sir, no, I don’t.”


“I had several roles, in the country and the town, before I came here." he scratched his chin and relaxed back into his seat. "I can be very persuasive, I know when to request and when to demand. My tongue is my most valuable tool. I’m loyal, hardworking and I know this city, and the three closest to it. I know the gentry and the slums. I keep secrets. But most importantly, I understand the skills and the talents of others. Books get nothing past me.”


The librarian slid down into a slouch and slipped his hands under his tunic as the music started.


As always, Gretham found the dance unsatisfying. As his excitement failed to reach its peak, he took a key from a chain on his belt and stood, opening the door to bay 8. He grabbed the book by her delicate wrist and pulled her out into the corridor.


. . .


“Gretham! Gretham! What are you doing?”


It was the nightwatch, Berkley and Frog, running down the corridor towards him.


“We’ve been looking for you. There’s been a mistake.”


There were more footsteps in the corridor, two sets, heavy and deliberate. The lights above Gretham’s head clicked on. Gretham grabbed a handful of long, blonde hair, yanked the book’s head from his lap and rearranged his clothing. He pushed her back through the open door into her bay. She staggered backwards as he locked her in.


“That book is part of the Forbidden collection! She should have been sent to the King’s Corridor. How did you miss the messenger?” said Frog.


Gretham looked towards the doorway at the end of the hall. His heart stopped. His hands clenched. His eyes widened. The King and his aide!


Berkley and Frog turned to face His Majesty and took deep, low bows, their right hands extended, almost touching the stone floor. Gretham, a second behind them, joined the line-up and showed his respect too, though his clothing was untidy, and his cheeks were red.


King Nangan’s measured steps approached with painful slowness until they stopped a few feet away.


“Leave us.” Said King Nangan, gesturing to the nightwatch.


Berkley and Frog respectfully straightened to a stand and marched away towards the doors.


“Librarian! Explain yourself.”


Gretham remained in his bowed position. “Your Majesty, I am your humble servant.”


“Are you not the librarian? Do you not manage the books? That book is Forbidden. Were you unaware of this?”


“Your Majesty, yes, completely unaware. I was not advised.”


“Is it not your job to find out? Your duty to look after my interests?”


“I am so sorry, Your Highness, I am so sorry. It was a genuine mistake.”


“Haramath!” the King addressed his aide. “I have no time for this. Escort the librarian to the dungeons and have this book taken for questioning. She’s no good for my collection now. Find out what other skills she has. If it’s anything useful put her to work, otherwise dispose of her.”


. . .


The book found herself in a small, stone cell with a barred hatch in the door. She paced as she considered her fate. After some time, the door creaked open and Haramath, the King's aide, entered the cell. He brought a stool for himself to sit on, but nothing for the book.


“I assume you had a name? Before you came here?” said Haramath.


“Marlan,” replied the book, with a curtsey.


“And what was your skill before you arrived here? How did you make a living?”


“I had several roles, Sir, in the country and the town, before I came here.”


“How can you be useful in the Library of Lives? Given that the King will not touch you now.”


“I can be very persuasive, I know when to request and when to demand. My tongue is my most valuable tool. I’m loyal, hardworking and I know this city, and the three closest to it. I know the gentry and the slums. I keep secrets. But most importantly, I understand the skills and the talents of others. Books would get nothing past me.”


“Interesting. And, as librarian, what would you advise me to do with our friend Gretham?”


“He’s in the dungeon just now? Is that right?”


“That is correct.”


. . .


Marlan pinned back her hair, bared her shoulder, and allowed the tattooing book to start his work. The ink and needle stung a lot more than Marlan had expected. But she knew the equipment was clean and the book was talented. After a couple of hours, she came away with a five-inch shield on her right shoulder. It showed an open book with a face on each page, looking inwards, one male, one female. Seven stars surrounded the book. They represented Fiction, Fact, Fun, Faith, Favour, the Forbidden and Freaks. The seven themes of human book collected by the library. She had taken a Favour in getting the tattoo done, now it was time to visit the Freaks.


Making the dungeons accessible had boosted membership enormously. Marlan had proven herself to be a keen businesswoman and an excellent librarian. She had already won great favour with the King.


As she skipped down the stone steps, into the dim light of the underground bays, she recalled the story of how she got her job. A story that the Freak book in bay one would have told to the dungeon visitors, if only he still had his most valuable tool. 

April 20, 2022 21:02

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29 comments

Shea West
01:11 Apr 27, 2022

Katharine what a wild ride! I would love to know how this idea came to you more than anything. Because it reads sort of like a Grimm's Fairy Tale, dark and foreboding as if you'd tell it as a warning story to little kids. But clearly there's some merit in the warning of it all. I would be outright shocked if this didn't take the win for the uniqueness alone.

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17:17 Apr 27, 2022

Hi Shea, thank you for reading and for your comments. I am a fan of dark fairytales, and horror in general. This idea came out of a brainstorm I had for the library prompts, the original idea was to have a human library where the books were forced to interact and combine their skills to the advantage of an evil librarian, but it would not fit in the word limit in a way that made the story satisfying to me (now THAT was a dark idea). But when I started writing the opening and thinking about the character of Gretham, I decided I wanted him to...

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Shea West
17:47 Apr 27, 2022

My goodness, thank you for sharing all of that! I love how your brain works to allow your words to find their way to the page. I woke up today still thinking about your story, because it was that good. My process: Panic that I have zero ideas to write about. Self-deprecate about my actual ability to write. Write down a few words that are bouncing around in my head...and like, I'm talking 5, a sentence at best. Listen to all the music because my inspiration comes from there more often than not. Then do a little research if the story warr...

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Alex Sultan
06:34 Apr 22, 2022

Hi Katharine - I hope you're well. I think this story is very unique! I haven't read anything like it, and I thought the whole referring to people as books, and keeping them like a collection in a human library was twisted, and captivating to read about. A really cool concept that fits your writing style. I liked the introduction a lot, with Gretham going through the city looking for new talent/books. I really didn't find too much for line notes - mostly just comma stuff. I hope it is helpful nonetheless: but rotting market vegetables and...

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21:59 Apr 22, 2022

Thank you Alex! I have made numerous changes based on your comments. I really appreciate your time.

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Alex Sultan
19:34 Apr 27, 2022

Hey Katharine - I hope you are well. I'm looking forward to seeing this story shortlist this week. I wrote a piece for this week's prompts, and I tried something completely new with it. If you had the time by chance, I'd appreciate your insight on it 🙂

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19:36 Apr 27, 2022

Hi Alex, I'm a bit tied up tonight but plan to crit for you and Jon tomorrow after work. Thank you for the encouragement on this story, it's much appreciated.

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Andrea Doig
07:41 Apr 29, 2022

WOW! That is a fabulous take on the theme and an extremely well-written and captivating story. The best I have read for this theme. Damn, and I thought my idea was original and different haha! I think this is a winning story ... and who doesn't love a good twist AND a baddie getting his comeuppance! Loved it. Thank you for sharing x

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Sharon Hancock
01:37 Apr 26, 2022

Oooo I love this! I really love freaky horror and twisty ironic dark comedy. Such a unique idea and it’s fantastic! excellent use of the prompt. Happy to have found a fellow dark-writer. 😻

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16:00 Apr 26, 2022

Thank you Sharon, I'm glad you liked it!

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L.M. Lydon
23:38 Apr 25, 2022

What a truly different concept. I enjoyed reading your story and thought this was a clever way to interpret the prompt. Don't feel at all bad for the first librarian, by the way, but I like how power corrupts, as evidenced by your ending.

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16:01 Apr 26, 2022

Thank you so much for reading and for the kind comment.

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18:46 Apr 25, 2022

I really enjoyed the novelty of this - the idea is original, and eerily scary (the more so as you think about it), and the addition of freaks at the end was perfect. Am a newbie here - is fantasy your go to genre or do you dabble?

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19:18 Apr 25, 2022

Thank you for reading and for the comments. I'm glad you liked it. Welcome to Reedsy! I hope you like it here! I do write bits of fantasy, but fantasy or not it's usually (though not always) dark. What's your genre of choice?

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20:15 Apr 25, 2022

My fav series of all time is Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen (by a long way) - but I read most genres and my limited reedsy foray is to try and figure out what, if anything, works. I find myself in awe of most books - I re-read Catch 22 recently and still enjoy it as much as when I first read it. Same with Orwell and lot's of classics. Dark is great - dark is required.

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L. Maddison
13:15 Apr 25, 2022

Still reeling from this read. You’ve delivered an extraordinary concept in a thrilling and intriguing way. I feel conflicted about cheering for Marian- so very quick witted of her- but what a ghoulish role she has taken on.

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19:23 Apr 25, 2022

Thank you! Yes, I liked the idea that neither librarian would fit the stereotype. I like a twisted ending, a I love a bit of conflict.

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15:32 Apr 24, 2022

Katharine, this was astounding! I loved it so very much! The approach to a library was hauntingly unique, and the ending was so very clever! I was captivated from start to finish! Well done 👏👏👏

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15:44 Apr 24, 2022

Thank you Hannah, that's very kind. I'm glad you liked it.

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Andrew Krey
11:27 Apr 24, 2022

Hi Katherine. I really enjoyed this story. It was an excellent premise to have people be the books that are used to entertain the patrons of the library. I think you handle the explanation of how the library worked extremely well with the initial interaction with the song book. You skilfully avoided an info dump for the reader. I felt the ending was very satisfying (as Gretham was so detestable) and also due to your use of repetition between the beginning and ending as a technique to give the story a sense of coming full circle, and therefo...

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13:49 Apr 24, 2022

Thank you Andrew, those are very kind comments. I'm really glad you enjoyed it.

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Howard Halsall
22:20 Apr 23, 2022

Hello Katharine, I loved reading your story and enjoyed exploring the gruesome world you described in such detail. I had no idea where this was leading or what to expect and that’s exciting in many ways. I couldn’t find any technical issues and scanning your other comments, it seems you’ve fixed a couple of errors already etc. I hope you get some recognition for this story, it’s very different from what I’m used to reading. It really feels like you have a firm understanding of the characters and the situation. However, I’d like to know a bi...

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08:17 Apr 24, 2022

Thank you Howard, I really appreciate you reading and commenting. Please don't worry about your thoughts coming across as criticism, I love critique, it's really why I'm here. I find I learn a lot from other people's opinions of my work. Your point about Grethams back story is interesting. In an earlier draft I had a bit more information in the speech he makes about how he came to be the librarian, but I took it out. I was hoping to make the speech easier to transfer to when the beauty book repeats it later on. But perhaps it lost something ...

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Jon Casper
13:13 Apr 21, 2022

I regret that Reedsy will only permit me to like this story once. This has to be my favorite from you to date. More wonderful world building. Tight prose and vivid descriptions. Just superb storytelling. What a clever take on a library, and referring to people as books. The touch of repetition with the librarian's skill set, with the change from six stars to seven, was excellent. Satisfying conclusion with her revenge against the former librarian. Phenomenal work!

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21:05 Apr 21, 2022

Thank you Jon, that's very generous, I'm flattered. I've given it a bit of an edit if you are interested. Hopefully it hasn't taken away from what you liked.

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Jon Casper
09:43 Apr 22, 2022

It was a gem before, and now it's a polished gem! I think the changes were fantastic. There is more clarity to everything. Quite the masterpiece. I hope it does well in the contest.

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10:25 Apr 22, 2022

Thank you Jon 😊 I want to add one more thing. To make the librarians tongue more important to him for some reason before the end. Maybe he is obsessed with food or something. I'll have to figure it out today!

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Jon Casper
15:50 Apr 29, 2022

I'm so disappointed that this was not selected for the shortlist. It surely deserves recognition. Such a great story.

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15:55 Apr 29, 2022

Thanks Jon. Maybe it wasn't quite library enough.

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