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The Unknown Book (A Christmas Ghost Story)

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Author's Notes

"Ghost stories at Christmas are something of a tradition in England. It is usual for our national TV Company (The BBC) to broadcast stories by M. R. James on Christmas Eve. This is my humble attempt at writing such a story."

I’d known Martin for over thirty years, since I was a boy, in fact. He has always been like an uncle to me. There is no blood relation between us; he just kind of took me under his wing, so to speak. Perhaps I should explain. I live in a small village, Altham, in the county of Kent, England. Having moved here with my mother shortly after my father died. I was ten at the time. My father worked for the financial sector in London. My mother was working as a secretary at the time, for the same firm. They met, married, and I was born in London. As my mother had strong family ties to Kent, she decided to return to her roots after my father’s untimely passing. This is where my story begins.

It wasn’t long after moving to Kent that I first met Martin. There wasn’t much for a young child to do in a small village. My only outlet was reading. We only had a few shops in Altham, one of which was a bookshop. That is where I first encountered Martin. He was about the same age as my dad was, maybe a little older. He, too, had a passion for books, and he was pleased to see a young person taking an interest in books. Like me, Martin was a regular visitor to the shop. At the time, I couldn’t afford to buy many books. That was a shame as I could read at least one book a week, perhaps two depending on size. Fortunately, the shop owner was quite happy for me to borrow books for a week at a time, just as long as I bought them as and when I could. Over time, Martin grew to treat me like a son.

Moving on, thirty years later, I was at home with my wife, Nancy. It was sometime in the late afternoon. I received a call from Martin, he was excited about a book he had recently purchased and wanted me to have a look. Although Martin had a passion for books, it was unusual for him to get so excited over one. This sparked my curiosity. He didn’t give any details over the phone, he just wanted me to go around and have a look for myself. As he only lived a short walk across the village green, I went straight away. Mary, his wife, greeted me at the door. I had known Mary for as long as I’d known Martin. She too was very kind to me over the years. She had even taken to addressing me as, son.  “He’s in the study.” She said, rolling her eyes. “He’s got this thing about a book. You had better go and calm him down. He only listens to you.”

As I opened the door to the study, Martin was already on his feet, waving the book around. In a very excited voice, he said, "Look at this book; isn’t it marvellous? I can hardly believe it; just look." Martin passed me the book. It looked very old. The dust jacket was fading and had a picture of a man standing in a field. The title was torn away. "Well," he said, "What do you think?" I wasn’t sure what to think—it was just an old damaged book, and I told him so. He appeared agitated by my answer. "The book, man, look at the cover. Who does it remind you of?" I looked again at the torn and faded cover but failed to see why Martin was so animated. "It’s me; can’t you see it’s me?" I looked again at the cover. I wasn’t sure what Martin meant. Admittedly, it did bear a passing resemblance to Martin, but nothing more. The cover illustrations on old books are quite generic in nature, they could look like anyone. I’m sure that was the whole point.

Martin shook his head in disbelief and said that I was just as bad as Mary. It seemed that she also failed to make any connection. At that point, I was starting to get a little worried. Was Martin having an episode of some sort? This was truly out of character. “Okay, okay,” he said. “Forget about the picture for a minute. It’s the contents my boy, the contents.”

As I sat down, Mary brought in a tray of drinks. “Have a word with him, will you? He’s been going on about that bloody book for the past few days. He’s obsessed with it. He thinks it was written about him.”

As she left the room, Martin leaned forward from his chair. “It is about me, it knows things that nobody else would know. Explain that if you will.” I was at a loss for words; I’d never seen Martin like that before. He turned to see that the study door was fully closed. In an almost whispered voice, he told me about a time when he was in the army.

He got into a fight with some locals one night while out on the town with a few army buddies. Martin was a kind and gentle person by nature and was thusly embarrassed about the incident. He hadn't told anyone about the fight since leaving the army, not even Mary. As far as Martin was concerned, that was a mad moment from the distant past. He thought it strange, almost spooky, that the book exactly outlined the events as they had occurred. I tried to convince him that it was nothing more than pure coincidence. Given all the books he had read over the years, he was bound to find a line or two that matched a lived experience of his. It was almost inevitable. My words held little weight with Martin. He was convinced that the book was written about him. He told me that the army story was not the only one. The book was full of anecdotes that could only apply to him.

It was a little upsetting to see my friend and mentor acting in such an irrational manner. I had always looked up to him as a man of high intellect and analytical reasoning. He had no time for ghosts, spirits, or things that went bump in the night. For Martin, everything, no matter how strange, had a logical explanation. I wanted to know what it was about that particular book that had caused him to abandon those standards. My first question was how he came across the book. He said that he just happened upon it at the village charity shop. Someone had donated it, but he didn’t know who. He was initially attracted by the front cover, as the picture looked a lot like him. It was only when he started reading that he realised that it was more than the cover that reminded him of himself. The more he read, the more he became convinced that it was about him. I asked him if I could take another look at the book.

It was only then that I realised that something was off. It didn’t matter that the missing part of the jacket concealed the full title of the book, as it would be repeated inside. Strangely enough, it wasn’t. On opening the book, the very first page was chapter one. No title, foreward, or printer's information was present. The pages at the back of the book were also unable to shed any light as to its author, date, or origin. I had never seen anything like it. I could only conclude that someone had removed them. The reason for this was a mystery. The pages themselves had a slight yellowing around the edges, and the book smelt musty; it was clearly quite old. The wear on the edges of each page showed that it had been read many times. As I passed the book back to Martin, I noticed something odd. The man on the front cover now appeared to look a bit like me. The more I looked at it, the more it looked like me.

Of course, there is no logical explanation as to why this should be. I convinced myself that Martin’s enthusiasm had somehow rubbed off on to me. In a way, it’s a bit like watching a horror film late at night. Your mind starts to play tricks on you. Every sound is now a ghost or some nefarious spirit out to get you. Sounds that are always there in a house suddenly become something they are not. Time was marching on and I needed to get home for my supper. Martin informed me that he was down to the last two chapters and would call me again once he had finished. I didn’t know then, but that was to be the last time I saw Martin, alive.  He passed away three days later from a massive heart attack. Mary was understandably devastated, as were we all. I mourned Martin’s death more so than that of my father. For one thing, I had known Martin for longer. He really was like a second father to me.

His funeral was held two weeks later. He was a popular and well-liked character around the village. The church was as packed as I’d ever seen it, even at Christmas. It was without a doubt the largest funeral I had ever seen in the area. As you would expect, it was quite a sombre affair. Martin had been snatched from us too soon. It was after the funeral that my story entered a realm of unbelievable supernatural events. As I was treated as part of the family, Nancy and I were invited back to the house for drinks. It was only then that Mary opened up about the manner of Martin’s death. She took me into the study. "It was there," she said, pointing at his high back chair. "He was sitting right there with that wretched book in his hand." I looked over at his chair. The book was sitting on a small table to the side. It was the same book he had shown me days earlier.

I walked over and picked up the book. I just wanted to know if the cover picture still looked like me. Before I could examine it fully, Mary spoke up. "Take it, son, burn it, bury it. Do what you like, but please just take it. That bloody book stole the last few days I had with Martin." I understood what she meant; Martin did get rather obsessed with it. I quickly slipped the book into my jacket pocket before giving Mary a hug. Later that evening, as I arrived home with Nancy, the book fell from my pocket as I was hanging my jacket in the hall. Things started to get really strange from this point on. Nancy picked up the book and asked me who the woman was on the cover. As I mentioned before, the man on the cover was quite generic in nature, but a man nonetheless. As she passed me the book, I have to say, for a brief moment, it did indeed look like a woman. However, on second glance it was as before, a man. I put this mild confusion on my part down to auto-suggestion. My wife said it was a woman, so for one brief moment, I saw a woman.

Nancy was tired and wanted to go straight to bed. My mind was still buzzing, so I decided to make a cup of tea and read a chapter or two of the book. I found the first chapter rather puzzling. It spoke about being born in London to parents in the banking business. I couldn’t see how Martin would have thought it was about him. So far, it had more in common with me. It even went on to say how I lost my father at an early age and moved with my mother to Kent. This was truly uncanny. It may have been that I was overtired, or perhaps had one or two more glasses of cherry than I should have, but I swore at that moment that the words in the book were changing as I read. Whatever was going on, it made me feel uneasy. I decided that a good night’s sleep would be the best solution. And so I went to bed with the book weighing heavily on my mind. I had a most disturbing sleep. I was still tired in the morning, unusual for me. I decided not to tell Nancy about the book. I wanted to read more in the cold light of day before making any rash decisions.

After breakfast, Nancy went shopping. That would leave me alone in the house for a couple of hours. I returned to the book. The more I read, the more it seemed to have in common with me. I was over halfway through before Nancy returned. So far, there had been no mention of any incident that occurred in the army, or of anything that resembled the Martin I had come to know. I couldn’t understand why he thought it was about him. Was this even the same book? Of course, it was. The torn jacket and yellowing, tatty pages told me that. I wanted to tell Nancy about the similarities between the individual in the book and me. However, having seen what that had done to Mary, I decided it was best not to. After a short lunch with Nancy, I decided to return to the book. The more I read, the closer the details in the book mirrored my own life. By late afternoon my eyes were starting to get weary. I put the book down for another day.

I placed the book in my desk drawer and continued about the rest of the day as usual. Even so, I could not get the book out of my mind. Nancy noticed that I seemed a little distracted. I put it down to feeling a little tired. After another night's restless sleep, I once again returned to the book. It felt almost as though the book was compelling me to finish it. After an hour or two I was down to the final chapter. The previous chapter had more or less brought me up to date with my life as it now was. This was worrying. Was there a volume two out there somewhere? Would the final chapter have me dying at such a young age? I put the book back in my desk drawer and locked it. I didn’t want to read the final chapter until I gave myself a good deal of logical thought. Part of me knew it was silly to think that a book could change its contents to suit the current owner. Yet there it was, a book that Martin was convinced was about him. At the same time, I too believed it was about me.

I remembered the evening I brought the book home. How it fell from my pocket, and how Nancy believed that the cover picture was that of a woman. Was the book about to rewrite itself to mirror Nancy’s life? The very notion was too frightening to comprehend. After much careful thought, I decided to rid myself of the book before finishing it. It was too early in the year to light the fire, so burning it would not be possible. Putting it in the bin also had its hazards. What if Nancy found it and started to read it? The only option appeared to be to dispose of it somewhere in the village, somewhere nobody would find it. I told Nancy that I had a bit of a headache, something a walk out in the fresh air would resolve. She offered to accompany me, but I insisted on going alone. I slipped the book into my jacket pocket and left. I walked around the village several times, looking for a likely place to dispose of the book safely.

Try as I might, nowhere appeared suitable. Perhaps the only option left was to bury it. Something I could do the next day under the guise of gardening. I often had a little potter around the garden. It would be quite easy to give that book a burial in a shallow grave without drawing any suspicion from Nancy. A week or two of summer rain would easily turn the book into compost. So that was it, decision made, I actually felt good about it. On the way home I passed the village pub. I went in to have a little celebration drink. As I was nursing my brandy at the bar, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Billy Knight, my one and only nemesis. From the very first day I arrived in the village, he was trouble. At school, he was known by some as Billy the bully. And he was a real bully. He singled me out for punishment simply because I was an outsider. He didn’t like the attention I was getting as the new boy. Like all bullies, he didn’t want to share attention with anyone. He was the king, the top dog.

Even when I left school, he bullied me. I would occasionally run into him. He was always quick to embarrass me in front of others with one unpleasant anecdote or another about my school life. I avoided him as best I could, but it being a small village, encounters were inevitable. And here he was, in the pub. My drink was almost finished, so I was about to leave and head home. As I stood up, he noticed the book sticking out of my pocket and snatched it out. He stared at it for a few moments before asking me why I had a book with a picture of him on the cover. It appeared as though all my suspicions about the book were true; the book was adapting itself to him. I should have just taken the book and left without comment, but I didn’t. In what I can only describe as a moment of madness, I told Billy that I didn’t realise that the man on the book resembled him. I went on to say that I had finished the book and he could have it if he wanted. At which point he hit me on the head with the book and said that he was keeping it anyway.

At that point I left the pub and made my way home, smiling all the way. When I arrived home, Nancy remarked that I was looking a lot better after my walk. I felt a lot better now that I’d managed to part company with the book. After a week or two, I had almost forgotten about it completely. Unfortunately, that was not to be the end. On returning home from work one evening, Nancy informed me that there had been another death in the village, it was Billy Knight. Apparently, he was the victim of a freak accident at his workplace. Accounts vary, but it looked like he was electrocuted whilst attempting to change a light bulb. Something he wasn’t paid to do. My immediate thoughts turned to the book. Did he read it? Was his demise predicted in the final chapter? I guess I will never know.

One thing did occur to me though—where was the book now? By all accounts, his wife was a good person. Certainly not someone I would wish harm on. Retrieving a book from a person I barely knew would be difficult in the extreme. Nonetheless, I couldn’t rest knowing that the book could fall into the wrong hands. I had spent days racking my brain to find a solution, but none was forthcoming. It was a chance encounter with Billy’s wife, several weeks after his funeral that gave me the answer I needed. I was just walking down the main road when I met her coming out of the local grocery store. I told her how sorry I was for her loss. Furthermore, I explained that I had seen Billy only weeks before his death in the local pub. Or course, I didn’t mention that our meeting was in any way acrimonious or that he took a book from me. Instead, I told her that we had a good chat about the old days and that I had loaned him a book.

I had hoped that by saying that I loaned Billy the book that she would return it to me. At least then I could bury it as originally intended. Instead, she apologised and said that she had boxed up all his books and had given them away to charity. She expressed great sorrow that my book must have been among them. She went on to say that it had been a while since she donated the books and the chances of finding mine were quite slim. The charity she donated them to was near her workplace in the city. From there they distribute them to their various shops around the country. My book could literally be anywhere by now. I put her mind at rest as I informed her that the book was of no importance to me, I merely mentioned it in passing.

I could never say with any degree of certainty whether or not the book had any influence on the sudden deaths of my good friend Martin or Billy the bully. Neither can I explain how the book’s cover appeared to change depending on who was looking at it. Martin had read the book with the strong belief that it was all about him, just as I had believed it to be about me. Whatever way you look at it, this was no ordinary book. The only questions I have are: has the book found a new owner to haunt, or is it sitting in wait on some dusty shelf in a forgotten part of an old bookshop somewhere? All I can say is that if you should happen to come across this book, my best advice is to leave it alone.

Written by Brad_Naylor
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