I’ve known Ross Lockhart, the driving force behind Word Horde Press, which published The Fisherman, for about a decade. When his wife contacted me the other month to ask if I’d write a little something for his imminent birthday, this is what I came up with:
Most of the errors in my books are my fault, either to begin with, or because I wasn’t paying sufficiently close attention during the proofreading stage and missed something. The majority of readers are pretty forgiving of such slip-ups; although it seems there’s always going to be someone to e-mail me explaining the difference between “insure” and “ensure” or between “principal” and “principle.” (I can’t decide if they’re taking pleasure in correcting the English teacher, or if they’re English teachers overly conscious of the scope of their powers and responsibilities.)
Without doubt the strangest example of this kind of e-mail appeared in my in-box about a month after the publication of my second novel, The Fisherman. Instead of identifying the usual sorts of errors, this writer (a Mr. Jyotisha of Seattle) took me to task for something new. The typography of page 85 of my novel was, he wrote, an utter and absolute disgrace, rendering the text all but indecipherable. Whoever had been responsible for laying out the page, he went on, appeared to have done so on top of another piece of printed material, an error he could not comprehend in this day and age of digital everything. Lest I think he was engaging in some form of bizarre jest, Mr. Jyotisha had attached a photo of the offending page of his book. Without considering whether it might be safe to do so, I clicked on the file. (In my defense, if this was a form of phishing or other e-scam, it was pretty specific.)
The image was pretty much what had been described, the words of my novel printed over other text. The resolution on the picture wasn’t great, but it looked as if what lay beneath this section of my novel was a mix of words and images, the former elongated characters too narrow to be runes (though that was what they reminded me of), the latter sets of concentric rings scattered around the page. The effect of the under-text on the sentences floating over it was weird, difficult to describe. Where the long characters intersected my words, they seemed to pull them into bizarre, semi-abstract patterns that reminded me of pictographs; while the rings under my words seemed to bend them into one another, blending them into strange new lexemes.
I closed the file and reached for my copy of The Fisherman. I’ll admit, when I turned to page 85, I was half-expecting to find the jumble I had been looking at repeated, an error of such magnitude I couldn’t imagine how I could possibly have let it slip past me. (The perils of the same overactive imagination that had led to me writing the novel, I suppose.) In my book, however, the page was fine. The best thing for me to do, I decided, was to forward the e-mail to my publisher, Ross Lockhart, and see if he could work something out with Mr. Jyotisha, maybe send him another copy of the book. This I did, cc’ing Mr. Jyotisha in my e-mail to Ross.
As I didn’t hear from either reader or publisher, I assumed the matter settled. At some point thereafter, I must have deleted Mr. Jyotisha’s e-mail, because when I searched for it this past month, it was nowhere to be found. The reason I had gone looking for the message had to do with another book Ross had published, Orrin Grey’s new collection, Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales, which I was reviewing for Locus. (From what I read of it, it’s terrific.) When I arrived at page 94, I initially thought that the weird page layout was part of the story I was reading. For I’m not certain how long, I stared at the narrow characters branching among Orrin’s words, making them parts of odd figures, the circular distortions warping his sentences into long curves of letters that almost cohered into new words, before I connected what was in front of me and the e-mail I had received a little more than two years before. When the lightbulb glowed over my head, I set the book down and turned to my computer. I was thinking I would compare what was on the page of my ARC with the photograph Mr. Jyotisha had sent me. But, as I’ve said, I could find no trace of the message.
While mildly annoying, this wasn’t an especially big deal (nor much of a surprise: the number of e-mails whose deletion I’ve had cause to regret is embarrassingly [and frustratingly] large). Still, I thought I should drop Ross an e-mail, in case what had seemed a one-time printing glitch was in fact a sign of a more systemic and sustained problem. If nothing else, I figured he’d be amused by the coincidence of my encountering the same problem twice.
In the past, it’s taken Ross a little bit of time to answer my e-mails, usually a few hours, once in a while as long as a day or two. On this occasion, his reply chimed in my inbox within five minutes. The subject line read, “Skype?” The message itself read “Give me ten minutes,” which was followed by a number. I hadn’t known Ross to engage in any form of video-conferencing, which is to say, I hadn’t known him to engage in it with me, so I didn’t see anything too unusual in his request. I propped my tablet on my writing desk (these days, my desktop’s too old and unreliable for much beyond word-processing and basic internet surfing), opened Skype, and waited.
The video feed, when I accepted it, was poor. The picture kept freezing, then lurching into motion that was a half-second or so behind what Ross was saying. “John!” he said.
“Hey Ross,” I said. “What’s going on?”
“These books of mine,” he said with a laugh. At least, I think that’s what he said: a buzzing echo made him difficult to understand.
“Yeah,” I said, “it’s pretty weird. Do you have any idea what happened?”
Ross’s eyes bulged, his face stilled. A long burst of feedback threatened to cohere into a sentence in a deep, rasping tongue. When the picture returned to motion, Ross was in the midst of speaking: “—from that church, or the one he found in the crypt beneath it.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I missed the first part of what you were saying.”
Another blast of noise, this one sufficiently loud to make me wince and lean back from the tablet. Ross’s face was caught in a rictus of either manic laughter or rage. Then he was talking, his features calm: “—because Norway doesn’t have a formal extradition policy with the US, so he thought he’d be safe there.” He shook his head. “You can file that one under irony.
“When I left to start Word Horde, I assumed I’d be okay, which seems pretty stupid, now. But at the time, I still didn’t believe what he’d told me, not really. I was more concerned about money. I had the job at the bookstore to help pay the bills, but that might not be enough, depending on what happened. Anyway, there was one night, my last month working for the two of them, I stayed late to finish the cover design and layout for a book I was pretty sure wasn’t going to be published. For a moment, I was positive there was someone staring at me through one of the windows. I looked up, and saw a face…”
“A face?” I said.
“I don’t know,” he said at last. “There was no way anyone could have been on the other side of the window, because we were four storeys up. At least, that was what I thought. Now…”
“Wait,” I said, “what did you see?”
“It could have been a mask,” Ross said, “made out of some kind of paper, vellum or something. The surface was faded in spots, smeared with dirt. There was moss growing on one cheek, into one eye. The other eye was dull, cloudy. The face was wrinkled…” He glanced away, exhaled. “All of it was…wrong. The worst part—” A humming buzz replaced whatever he was about to say next. The video feed stuttered, Ross’s face shuttling among half a dozen expressions. The sound went on for so long, I thought I was going to have to end the call. The connection righted itself in time for me to catch him saying, “—with a sacred book, any kind of textual mistake would have a real world effect. Think of this thing as a kind of errata made flesh or…whatever.
“Like I said, though, I didn’t believe any of what I’d been told. I took the face at the window for a trick of the light, a consequence of too much time staring at Nick Gucker’s cover art. If a little part of me wondered whether there might be some truth to Jason’s story, I assumed I was safe. I mean, he was the one who’d removed the page from the book, not me.
“I’m still not sure how he…transferred the thing to me. I did have to fill out some paperwork when I left. I flipped through the packet, but I didn’t read all of it. Who does? Maybe some page in there assigned the thing to me. How trite, right? I can’t believe I would have fallen for something so hackneyed, so clichéd. I mean, it’s a digital era: come up with something new. Whatever, it was a hell of a severance package.
”It took me a while to figure out what was happening. I had to see that vellum face another—” Although his mouth continued moving, a low buzz replaced the next several sentences.
“Ross,” I said, “I’m having trouble—”
The audio cut back in, Ross going on as if he hadn’t heard me (which made me wonder if the problems with the connection went both ways). “The idea was to disperse it,” he said, “spread it among dozens, hundreds of books. The effects on the individual reader would be negligible. As long as they weren’t exposed to more than one of the exits, they probably wouldn’t notice anything.”
Struggling as I was to assemble the fragments I had heard into a coherent narrative, Ross’s words sent ice water down my spine. “Wait,” I said. “These exits—what if someone saw two of them?”
“That could be a bit of a problem,” Ross said with an apologetic smile. “Each successive exit has an exponential effect on the one before.”
“I don’t understand what that means,” I said.
A tumult from the closet to my right made me jump out of my chair, heart leaping. The lower portion of the closet is crowded with stacks of books, overflow from my office’s five bookcases. Three of those paper towers had fallen over, in the process dragging a pair of brown slacks and a white shirt down from the clothes rack above them, pushing open the closet door. Shirt and pants formed a flat, headless figure that looked as if it had lunged out of the closet toward me. A coincidence, but unnerving all the same.
When I glanced back at the tablet, the screen had gone black. Ross’s voice said, “I’m really sorry,” and cut out. I pressed the power button a couple of times, to no effect. (Later, the repair guy in town would tell me the device was hopelessly dead, its circuits melted. “What’d you do to this?” he asked; I had no good answer for him.)
Since then, despite numerous attempts, I haven’t been able to contact Ross. He hasn’t replied to my e-mails, my Facebook messages, or my direct messages on Twitter, this despite him maintaining a relatively active presence on social media, posting pictures of his dog, his day job at the bookstore, the books he’s going to be publishing. I made an attempt to locate Mr. Jyotisha, which was no more successful. I couldn’t bring myself to finish Orrin’s collection, which is a shame, because what I had read, I enjoyed. But I couldn’t bear to open the book again, even if what Ross had told me was patently ridiculous, impossible. There’s a bookcase in the lobby of our local post office where you can donate and pick up used reading material. I contemplated recycling Guignol there, only to decide against doing so, my excessive imagination prompting me to place the book in one of my bookcases, between my copy of Laird Barron’s Occultation and M.R. James’s Selected Stories.
The same overactive faculty must be why I saw the face in the bathroom window two nights later, as I was rinsing my toothbrush. It was as Ross had described it: dun-colored, the left cheek and eye furred with moss, the entire surface mapped with wrinkles. He hadn’t mentioned the tremendous rage, the sheer hatred the thing projected through the glass—my addition to the text, I suppose. The window was empty almost the moment I registered the face, but the resulting shock was enough to send me hurtling out of the bathroom and upstairs to bed without performing my usual nightly duties, rinsing whatever dishes remain in the sink and setting up the next morning’s coffee. When my wife remarked on this the next morning, I didn’t know what to tell her. I’d seen a scary face at the bathroom window?
A day or so after that, I received an e-mail from Arley at Locus headquarters, asking if I’d like to have a look at a couple of Word Horde’s forthcoming titles. Something thumped in the hallway outside my office door. Heart in my throat, I stood to check it. Of course, the hall was empty. Although I had been eagerly looking forward to Carrie Laben’s first novel, I wrote Arley that I would have to pass.
For Fiona, as always, and for Ross, Happy Birthday!