It was late one Saturday night when I first dared open the old, dark book. My time-worn grandfather had hobbled off to bed as soon as the daylight began to fade, for he told me that nothing good ever happened after midnight. I was left alone in his bleak farmhouse, without internet, electricity and barely a telephone line.
His farm was located near the contours of the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland. Because the country is so small in comparison to my native Canada, civilization is never far away. But it was hard to find his farmhouse and his fields were not recorded on any of my printed-out maps. By the time some neighbours pointed me in the right direction, and I drove down the winding lanes that pass for roads, I felt I might as well have landed on the dark side of the moon, or even dim Carcosa, where the shadows lengthen as the black stars rise.
At that point in my life, I was curious about my ancestors and the blood that flowed through my veins. My grandfather – my father’s father, who had apparently married his second cousin – was the only one of our clan that still lived in the old country. We had corresponded for a while by letter and he offered me a place to stay if I ever wanted to come over the ocean to explore. I said yes, and one month later, here I was, just in time for Halloween.
After some initial awkwardness, and the fact that there was a woman in his house again after all these years, we got on well, my grandfather and I. Neither of us were big talkers but we listened closely and were not afraid of silence. And, with both us, it was sometimes difficult to know where the seriousness ended and the dark humour began. I started to wonder in what other ways we were alike. Now he was in bed, I began to investigate the contents of the cabinets in his study to find out.
He was a strange man, my grandfather. Short but solid, easily tanned when his Ulster summers allowed it, never knowingly exuberant. He always wore scruffy black suits, as if at the end of a day full of funerals. I knew he served in the navy during the war and visited many strange, foreign ports afterwards as a merchant seaman before settling down to the family farm. But he seldom spoke of them, and when it did, his body trembled, but from what sensation, I could never tell.
What I can say for certain is that my grandfather was no secret scholar. Books of any sort were rare in his house. Most of the drawers held letters, legal documents, newspaper cuttings, or weird artifacts. One was locked. That was the middle drawer on the right-hand side of his ancient, oak desk. But below it was the alcove that interested me the most. It held a curved dagger, a paperweight in the shape of skull, and the old, dark book.
I took out each and examined it in turn. The knife was blunt and Arabic in aspect with red specs on its cutting edge, no doubt rust. The crystal paperweight could easily fit in the palm of my left hand, approximating the shape of a human skull, or at least, what I assumed was human. Yet it was the book that fascinated me the most. As a child of the new millennium, I was not accustomed to books at all, never mind thick, leatherbound tomes like this one. Most of my school textbooks had been light and bright, but even these increasingly found themselves obsolete in a world of tablets and cheap laptops.
The book itself was large and solid with uneven pages. Its sleeve was black and made of what looked like cow skin, which troubled my vegan principles somewhat. I found it difficult to touch for this and other less explicable reasons. The cover was stiff and refused to bend, as if reinforced with wood. I opened it from the beginning and saw strange symbols and numbers at the bottom of those pages. There was a set of fabulous animals, possibly a unicorn and lion, caught in some wild dance, with crossed sabers and writing in scrolls.
The next pages were written with a different hand than the rest of the book. The script was smaller and covered one side of the page to the other. If I had to guess, it looked to me like a letter from the translator, possibly with an explanation of what he or she had attempted and why. Maybe it contained a warning, a cautionary note for curious eyes to keep far away. Eyes like mine.
Then the old, dark book began in earnest. Each page contained a single worded title and two columns of writing. The writing was even for the most part. But every now and then there were letters all in capitals or slanted in what looked to me like ancient calligraphy. As I flicked through it, I came across images at random intervals, or sketches drawn by some later scribe to illustrate the sense. These often had a sinister, fearful quality that my imagination found hard to resist.
The old, dark book was written in an ancient tongue that I barely identified as English. It reminded me of the little Shakespeare I knew, but older, much older, and it wasn’t written in verse. The words were thick with ink and implication. Scattered throughout it, there were notes and letters in other languages, words with strange shapes that had an antique, eastern feel about them. They were hard for me to pronounce, which I tried, although I had no idea what meaning they might summon.
Many scenes described in the old, dark book were fearful and fascinating. The ground shallows up a group of mutineers and eats them alive. A heathen temple hosts a fight between two rival gods. An invisible army marches overhead before the slaughter of battle. An otherworldly sword slays thousands with plague. An ancient deity whispers to its friends and deceives its enemies. A nightmare with moths terrifies one man, while another dreams of a bottomless pit. A god-emperor thirsts for idols and incineration. A disembodied hand scratches indecipherable code on a wall. A hidden name is revealed by demon-possessed men. A ghost walks through the wind. And a dead spirit displays marks of torture.
But there were gory tales as well as spectral stories in the pages of that old, dark book.
An entire civilisation drowns in a mass extinction event. A good man plots to murder his only son, and a bad man swears to burn his only daughter. Brothers bury their youngest brother alive. A priest dismembers his lover. A king commands a living baby to be bisected. Mother bears maul a gang of juvenile delinquents to death. A pair of human mothers take turns at eating their own children. A hellish valley practices human sacrifice until there’s no space left to bury any more corpses. An army of dead bones comes to life, while another army dissolves into slime. A tyrant spills the blood of innocent boys. A seductress dances to decapitate her enemy. A traitor’s bloody entrails gush out. And smug politician is eaten alive by worms.
One story that struck me as I read it in the hours after midnight was about a sorceress and a shadow. A séance with a witch disguised as a woman, and a king disguised as a man. A mad king who would strip off his clothes, foam at the mouth, and prognosticate on the ground. An oppressed king who was troubled by a tormenting spirit and who tried to murder those that troubled him. The witch meant to conjure up a demon in the shape of a man, but instead called up a dead man who ascends out of the earth in the form of an old, robed god. The dead man foretells that tomorrow the king would join him in the underworld.
As I read on, I discovered that these were some of the tamest tales told by this old, dark book, if tales they were. For some took the form of fantastic visions, while others read like the recordings of a scribe, chronicling true histories from long, long ago. But, due to my lack of skill as a reader, it was sometimes difficult to tell one from the other.
The old, dark book spoke of a half-built city with a titanic tower that reached into the sky, almost touching the celestial spheres. I read of another tower that collapsed and crushed those below to their deaths. I read of a day of great slaughter, a day of vengeance, when spires fall and strongholds are pulled down. Palaces are deserted and bustling cities abandoned, their castles and forts made caves for wild animals. A day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of wasteness and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of the trumpet and alarm against every fenced city, and against all the high pyramid. A great city, fallen, now a dwelling for demons, a stronghold for every unclear spirit, a haunt for every hatful beast.
I read of a colossal statue in a city, dazzling in splendor, terrible in form. The head of the statue was pure gold, its chest and arms were silver, its belly and thighs were bronze, its legs were iron, and its feet were part iron and part clay. Then a boulder smashed into it and broke it all in pieces, before growing into a mountain that filled the earth. I read of another statue that fell from the sky, mummy-shaped, many-breasted, with mysterious symbols carved into a square column at its base.
I read of sacrifices to these ancient idols, idols of wood and stone, with their groves and poles. Sacrifices to gold idols, goat idols, and molten calves. Sacrifices to demons, to gods unknown, recently appeared, newly arrived, which the forefathers of those spoken about in the old, dark book did not fear. Sacrifices of blood, made by pouring out the red liquid as drink offering, or by priests slashing themselves with knives and lances, until the blood gushed over them. Sacrifices of their sons and daughters, who they made to pass through the fire in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom. Sacrifices of their own children, who they burned alive in the flames as burnt offerings to their gods in the Valley of Slaughter.
The names of these old gods are recorded in the old, dark book. Some of them I seemed to remember, but from where or when, I couldn’t say. Dagon, the god of war and death. Adrammelech and Anammelech, the gods of Sepharvaim. Moloch, the abomination of the children of Ammon, whose worshippers burn their own children to him in sacrifice. Asherah, with four hundred priests that feast at the table of queens. Baal and Ashtaroth, husband and wife, him with the head of a bull, her with the tale of a fish. Beelzebub, lord of the flies, their son. Chemosh, the horror of Moab, who demanded the sacrifice of entire cities in exchange for victory in war. Bel and Marduk of ancient Babylon. Tammuz, with women weeping for his death.
I read in the old, dark book of mysterious voyages to the place of the gods, maybe in the body, maybe out of it. One traveler was caught up beyond the sky and space, into another place, a third heaven, an alternative dimension, a paradise. There, he heard unspeakable words, inexpressible phrases, that no human is allowed to utter. Another, while sleeping, saw the celestial gate, terrible and unexpected, with a ladder resting on earth but reaching up to heaven, and cosmic beings moving up and down on it.
The old, dark book told me that his world of the gods overlaps with ours. It is filled with things from the heavenly plane and also from under the earth, entities visible and invisible, infesting this world and encircling that which is to come. The old, dark book called these Thrones and Dominions, Principalities and Powers. They are not made of flesh and blood, these cosmic forces of darkness, these evil spirits in high places. They hunt us like lions, sometimes roaring, sometimes stalking, always seeking to devour. They roam throughout the earth, watching, walking up and down and going to and fro on it.
Sometimes, according to the old, dark book, the world of the gods spills out into our world, producing horrors. I read of giant beings, the monsters and champions made famous in ancient tales. These were the offspring of the sons of gods and the beautiful women they chose as consorts. The Nephilim! The fallen ones, who fall on others as prey, who spread terror even among the mighty in the land of the living. The Anakim! Sons of the giants, rulers of men who wore golden necklaces but put their subjects in neck-chains of iron. Common men were like grasshoppers in their sight. Some had six fingers and six toes, and others took the form of wild lions. The Gibborim! Mighty heroes, hunters and soldiers.
But there were greater monsters than these in the old, dark book, creatures that could swallow a man up and spit him out. Leviathan, monster of the sea! Scales of armor, nostrils of smoke, making the depths seethe like a cauldron. Behemoth, monster of the land, with a tale the size of a cedar and bones of bronze. Monsters covered with eyes, front and back. Monsters with four faces and four wings. Monsters like locusts with the faces of men and the hair of women, with lions’ teeth and scorpion’s tales, that descend as a plague upon the earth.
I read about the greatest monster, a wonder in heaven – a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. It arose from the sea, covered with blasphemous names. Its tail drew the third of the stars out of heaven and cast them upon the earth. There was war in heaven, but the dragon did not prevail or maintain his place. Then this great dragon was cast out onto the earth, with his legions, and took the form of an old serpent, deceiving the whole world. Woe to us inhabitants of the earth and of the sea, said the old, dark book! For the dragon comes down upon us in great wrath because he knows his time is short.
I read of a divine assembly to discuss this conflict between the gods. The foundations of the earth were put out of course. The pillars of the world were shaken to their core. The judge of the earth presided over this council. He stood up and pronounced punishment. He told them that their hearts were proud because of their splendor and wisdom. But they knew nothing, wandering about in darkness. He told them that they may be immortal beings and sons of the highest. But they will die like men and fall like so many other princes of old. He will cast them to earth like falling stars and make them a spectacle before kings.
I read of stars that move and serve as signs in the heavens. There is one great star called Wormwood, burning with the brightness of a billion lamps, that falls from the sky on the oceans and rivers, poisoning them and slaughtering entire populations. I read of wonders in the heavens and in the earth – a great earthquake, and fire, and pillars of smoke. The stars of heaven fall to the earth. Every mountain and island are moved out of their places. The sun and moon are smitten and darkened. The sun becomes as black as sackcloth, and the moon as blood before that great and terrible day comes.
If this day was described in the old, dark book in terrible terms, then the one returning on that day was more terrible still. Appearance like lightening. Eyes of blazing fire. Voice thundering like mighty ocean waves. Countenance like the sun shining at its brightest. A sword, sharp and two-edged, flashes from his mouth. An iron mace in his hand to smash in pieces anyone who opposes him. Those who see him approach beg the rocks and mountains to fall on them, to save them the wrath of his face. Soon, soon, he says. Mine is the kingdom. Behold, I come quickly.
And at the back of it all, behind all the giants and monsters, the towers and the stars, the old, dark book told of a laugh. It was a terrible laugh, a scornful laugh. It was a laugh of derision down from the one who sat in the highest heavens. His enemies plotted and gnashed with their teeth but he laughed because he saw their day was approaching. He laughed at their calamity and mocked as their deepest fears came true. He instructed the readers of the old, dark book to laugh with him, and rejoice with trembling.
I too had started to shudder at the contents of the old, dark book. And there was very much more in it that made me shake harder. It so affected me that I couldn’t discern if the sound I heard was hail hitting the wooden shutters of the study windows or if it was the sound of heavy teardrops beating the house and the gnashing of teeth cast into the outer darkness.
It was then that I decided I should close up the old, dark book and put it back in its place in case it came true. But each time I tried to close it, my fascination fought with my fear so that my eyeballs could never peel themselves away from those pages and the stories they told. And my face ever moved closer and closer to those ancient pages until it seemed we were one thing, one new creature, that old, dark book and I.
Then the study door opened.
“You’re up early,” said my grandfather. Despite his ancient years and the fact that he’d sold off most of his farm animals by now, his habit of rising with the sun remained unchecked.
“I’ve been reading,” I admitted. There was no point denying it now. He had caught me in the very act.
“So I see,” he said and gave me a curious look. “That book has been passed down from parent to child in our family since forever. But I have no children.”
I nodded awkwardly and prepared myself to change the subject.
“You must have seen strange things in your voyages as a lad, grandad,” I said.
“I did, I did,” he replied. “But there are stranger things happening in that book that are right at my front door!”
I didn’t know how best to reply to this, so I closed the old, dark book with the intention of placing in back where I found it.
“You can keep it, if you like,” said the old man. “I’ll be dead soon and it’ll give me peace to know it’s in good hands. You can keep on the family ways.”
“I don’t know those ways,” I confessed.
“You’ve made a good start,” he said. “As the book says, ‘Thy words were found, and I did eat them.’ But that doesn’t mean we can’t eat breakfast too.”
We both laughed at that, my grandfather and I, and as we laughed together, over the old, dark book, we shared a tremble.