Content Warning: This episode may include themes of kidnapping + abduction, body horror, drowning, death and injury.
Intro - Things That Watch Me Sleep
Reading can transport you to other worlds. No matter how dismal your surroundings become, you can simply crack open a book and get lost in strange universes of fantasy, of mystery, of horror. The best books cannot be closed or put down. They pull you in and keep you trapped in their pages, thumbing through desperately as you search for an exit, unknowingly plunging deeper into their story. The classic ‘Things That Watch Me Sleep’ by Mary Strix has five hundred and fourteen readers who never returned from its covers. My favorite chapter begins with these words: Hello from the Hallowoods.
Right now I am sitting on a park bench, outside of a public library. A clearing in the forest is a strange place for a library, and with its locked brass doors and threatening stone lions, it doesn’t feel very public. Wars have been waged for the knowledge it contains—wars which have gone unrecorded and unremembered, except for in books found only in its ‘history’ section. The theme of tonight’s episode is Books.
Story 1 - Rain on Downing Hill
The sky was dark, and thick clouds roiled above the surface of the earth, and Olivier found it comforting. They were sure that most individuals in these woods would not feel the same, but to them it was a sign—a good omen. A reminder that above the everyday worries of life, greater forces reigned supreme. You could stop an anxious young person who read a lot of books, but you could not stop a thunderstorm.
They pushed open the huge brass doors of the Downing Hill Public Library and stepped into the impenetrable shadow beyond, darker than a moonless night or a cavern deep beneath the earth. They drew in their breath, and just as soon as the light had vanished, it returned, in gentle fluorescent buzzing and dreamlike yellow tones.
Rows of bankers lamps with green glass shades illuminated chairs and reading desks that stretched out before Olivier, lit the reception counter off to the side, and cast a glow at the feet of monolithic bookshelves that towered into darkness. Out of all the faces Downing Hill had, Olivier liked this one the most, and had spent many rainy days curled up in the leather chairs, buried in old words. There was no time for reading today. Olivier drew close to the librarian’s desk and whispered. “Hello, hi. I need to see the director.”
The librarian turned from sorting books, and her face was masked in a flickering obscurity that defied the warm light of the municipal hall.
“Do you need help finding a book?” she smiled.
“No, I have an appointment.”
She rolled back in her chair, pulling a thick volume of timetables out of the air and consulting it. “Olivier Song? Proceed.”
Olivier flinched as shadow swallowed them, rising up in amorphous waves to blot out the reading hall. They were falling, deeper than ever before into the abyss beneath Downing Hill. They knew they had arrived only by the end of the wind and the feeling of immense weight that accompanies the depths of the earth. There was another presence in this unutterable place, and it made a terrible sound, like carrion beetles crawling through flesh.
Then the light returned, and Olivier was sitting in a cozy office. Jazz music played softly in the background. There was a dish of peppermint candies on the desk. The details of the office struggled to maintain their clarity, seeming only to exist as long as Olivier was looking at them. Beyond the desk, watching through half-moon glasses, a woman with white hair and all-black eyes smiled. Olivier would have recognized her in any form—she had an aura about her that set off survival instincts. The brass plaque on the desk read ‘C. S. Blackletter, Library Director’.
“What are you today, Olivier?” she asked, with a voice inside Olivier’s head.
“They-them is fine.” Olivier whispered, avoiding her gaze.
“Very well.” She grinned, and licked her teeth with a black tongue, looking around the office. “I like the way you think of my library. Quaint, dignified. You have a talent for imagining rainy days.”
Olivier looked up at her, pushing blue hair from their face. “I’m very lucky to have learned here.”
Her eyes peeled away Olivier’s skin and stared into the waters of their soul. “You are more than lucky, Olivier. You have a gift—and now I need you to apply it to a most delicate opportunity.”
Olivier nodded implicitly. “Anything.”
The Director smiled, but there was no warmth in the lines of her face. She leaned in, and Olivier could not look away from the twin voids behind her glasses. “Good. Have you ever heard of the Instrumentalist?”
The day was dark, and heavy clouds loomed close to the earth, and began to pour down rain as Olivier walked out of the Downing Hill Public Library. It was comforting, they thought—a good omen. With eyes shining blue, they looked up to the heavens, and smiled, and as they ran past the great lions the rain scattered to keep them dry. Olivier gathered the weather in their fists, and clouds formed around their ankles as they lifted into the tumultuous sky. Greater forces reigned supreme in these woods, yes, but the storm that was coming would not be stopped, and thunder crackled around Olivier as they flew against the wind.
Interlude 1 - A Bibliotheca Est A Bellum
When you hear the word ‘library’, what first comes to mind? For some it is a large municipal building, possibly with marble pillars or great lions guarding the vaults within. For others, they are private, dusty rooms, with fireplaces and ceiling-high shelves full of books that are loved more than they are read. For others still, the primordial obsidian planes that float invisible before black holes, eternities of forgotten lore buried deep in their flawless vertices.
More than any of these archetypes, a library is a war—generations of curious souls trying to pass down a little of their wisdom in a vain struggle against the repetition of history. And yet, those who seek to learn, those who ask intelligent questions, and those who look with regret upon better worlds, hear the word ‘library’, and think of home. We go now to a library and a home.
Story 2 - The Good Diplomat
Two things troubled Violet Keene. Really, many things troubled Violet Keene, but she had a habit of forgetting about them as soon as the next one came along. Only two kept her up at night.
The first was that she’d never had a child, and it wasn’t that her life was meaningless or anything, she just wished she’d known what was coming.
The second trouble was that her wife, Bern, snored like an outback motor, and rose at the first light of dawn. Violet pulled the blankets over her head as Bern rolled out of bed, and wool stockings, trousers, and her old yellow polo went flying on. Bern tugged down the blanket a little and kissed Violet on the forehead, then went striding out to the yard to make coffee.
Violet curled up under the comforter, but her peace was ruined moments later by a blaring siren. She was no sailor, but she cursed as she clambered out of bed, hoping that all the cracking in her joints was normal. She accidentally kicked over a pile of books as she moved; they took up half the room these days. With as much speed as she could muster, she threw on her yellow jacket, the matching boots, and pulled the curlers out of her hair. No good diplomat showed up to the job half-dressed, and she fancied herself a good one.
“What have we got?” she hollered, fluffing out her hair as she marched into the daylight, glaring at the sun rising over the trees. “If it’s another griffocaugh I’m going to march right over to the froglin camp and give them a piece of my mind!”
Bern was standing on the rampart over the front gate with her crossbow in hand. “Better!” she yelled, grinning. She smiled at the worst times. “It’s Big Mikey!”
Violet and Bern walked side-by-side through the gate as it rolled open, leaving the jumble of houses and barricades they called home and stepping into the clearing beyond. Violet carried a heavy bundle of fabric, and they were flanked on either side by the combat scouts, who carried spears and slings, but kept them low. Even Bern kept her crossbow strapped to her back—it was best not to upset Big Mikey.
They stood in the clearing, watching the dark treeline obscured by the morning mist, and two green points of light glimmered through the fog. Then, slowly, he emerged—a huge dark shape, fading in from the wall of pines. At least twelve feet high, each step shook the earth as he loomed towards them, and now Violet could see his exposed, jagged teeth, his flared batlike nose, and the horde of dogs that walked soundlessly around him.
“Look at the bag over his shoulder.” Bern whispered. “That’s new.”
Big Mikey stopped as he entered the clearing, and his dogs prowled among the stumps. Hot breath emerged from his disfigured face in wet clouds.
Violet stepped forward towards him, raising a hand and hefting the bundle with the other. “Are you in a good mood today, Mikey?”
His toothy grin split from ear to ear. “I’m in a very good mood.”
Violet smiled in much the same way she had smiled waiting tables a lifetime ago. “I’m happy to hear that, Mikey. Have you brought us more dogs today?”
The giant shook his head, beady eyes glowing in dark sockets. “I’ve got a surprise for you.”
Violet exchanged a nervous glance with Bern. “What’s the surprise, Mikey?”
“You have to pay first, that’s how the surprise works!” Mikey shouted, and Violet tried not to register the smell of his breath. He took the sack off his shoulder, and whatever was inside thudded against the ground.
“Right. Okay. How many for the surprise?” The Scouts were on edge, but Violet beckoned them back.
“Five!” Big Mikey roared victoriously. Violet thought a moment, then nodded.
“Okay. It’s five. I’m going to walk out and let you pick, okay?”
Big Mikey made an awful barking noise, and his dogs cleared out of Violet’s way as she walked across the clearing, alone. She laid out the bundle of fabric on the grass, spreading out the dozen books wrapped inside it. Big Mikey stepped closer, and towered above her. He smelled of swamp and rotting flesh, and he stooped down until his great toothy face was at Violet’s level. He reached out with a massive hand, fingers knotted like violin scrolls.
“What’s—what’s this one about?” he whispered, picking up a yellow title printed with a cheerful boy on a raft.
“Oh that’s a good one. It’s about a boy who goes on an adventure down a river with his friend—he has a father who tries to kidnap him, but he escapes. The writing is a little old—it may be above your reading level.”
Big Mikey looked over it thoughtfully, and took it, along with several easier titles at Violet’s recommendation. Finally, he stood up.
“Alright, you have your books. Can I see the surprise now?” Violet asked sweetly.
Big Mikey grinned, stashed the books in a tattered pouch, and pulled free the knotted rope from the mouth of the burlap sack. “Okay. Look what I found!”
He emptied the sack of its contents, and let a bound girl with no hair and a black leather vest fall onto the earth.
Marketing - Old Friends
Lady Ethel: Hello dreamers, and welcome back to ‘Old Friends’, a Botco production. I’m Lady Ethel Mallory, and our special guest today was found when an existing dreamer activated our ‘Recommend a Friend’ program! Please show your love for lead singer of the Stonemaidens and queen of early 20’s rock, Valerie Maidstone!
Valerie: Hello Ethel, and a shout out to any Stonemaids in the crowd tonight! It’s been a long time, it’s nice to see you.
Lady Ethel: Stonemaids?
Valerie: Our groupies, back in the day. It was a whole thing. You never listened to our music much, did you?
Lady Ethel: You did say some terrible things about Botco at the time, but that’s all in the past. Tell me, Val—can I call you Val?—do you plan to return to music after all these years?
Valerie: No—I don’t think you’d let me say what I want to say—and what I’ve always said is that you can’t sleep through life. Do your dreamers know that they can’t get out?
Lady Ethel: You were found in such a dangerous area. If not for our Reunion Organizers, something terrible might have happened to you or your daughter...
Valerie: Riot, if you’re out there honey, keep running and don’t stop. Don’t go back to the bunker.
Lady Ethel: Oh dear, it sounds like you’re missing someone. Maybe you should try our Recommend A Friend program!
Valerie: To anyone who’s ever listened to my music, do not trust Botco and do not trust Ethel. They are not entertaining you. They are using you.
Lady Ethel: Anti-establishment propaganda has always been a part of the Stonemaidens brand. It’s great to see that you’re still…
Valerie: Don’t stop fighting. The Dreaming Box is a prison, but they can’t stop all of you. Burn these boxes from the inside out. Tear these dreams apart. Wake up. Wake up.
Lady Ethel: We’ll be right back after these messages.
Story 2, Continued - The Good Diplomat
Dreamers, it has come to my attention that the Botulus Corporation has found a way to interrupt my little broadcast. I do not know where they acquired the power necessary to do this. I ask you not to ignore their messages, but to consider them. Find their faults. Recognize them for who and what they are.
We return now to Violet Keene.
Violet sat in the infirmary, rocking in the golden light of the afternoon with a book in her lap. It was a comfortable space, with green plants and fresh flowers that belied the death these beds had seen. She watched the face of the girl, whose brows were furrowed even as she slept. Sleeping was an improvement—she had been wild when they brought her in, and the healers had only been able to approach after she was under sedative. From the bruising it appeared that Big Mikey had kept her compliant with a lot of blows to the head, although she did not appear to be starving, and Violet could not imagine what Big Mikey considered a meal.
When Violet looked at the girl’s face again, her blue-grey eyes were open, staring back.
“Bern! She’s awake!” Violet called, and her stocky partner was immediately inside. Violet turned her attention to the girl, who was lifting a hand to her head.
“It’s okay dear, you’re safe here. It’s alright.” Violet held up her wrinkled hands. “What’s your name? We have water and hot food.”
The girl regarded her without an ounce of familiarity, and pulled herself upright.
“Riot. My name is Riot. And I’m fine. I need to go.”
Violet tried not to look confused. “Riot, honey, this is Lurch Lake—people call it the Scoutpost. The closest settlement is sixty miles away.”
“Sixty-seven point two.” Bern interjected, standing over the bed with her arms crossed.
“Yes. Where did you come from?” Violet continued. Curious scouts were trickling in to meet the new arrival.
Riot shook her head, looking agitated. “I can’t do this. I can’t be out here. Please let me go.”
“Listen,” Bern interjected, with a hand on her crossbow, “we’re on your side, alright? Now I’m worried about people in here, I’m sure you’re worried about people out there. We want to help you. That starts with knowing how you got strung up by Big Mikey.”
“Well,” Riot smiled, “I was pretty busy outrunning the Instrumentalist.”
Violet looked at her in disbelief, and Riot looked confused. “What’s wrong?”
Bern’s eyes were wide. “I want double guards on all ramparts,” she barked to the gathered audience, “and two sentries in the nest at all times—use your eyes and ears, people!”
She stormed out, and Riot looked to Violet. “I don’t understand. What’s her problem?”
Two things troubled Violet Keene. More than the day to day trouble managing rations or approving community events, but the kind of trouble that costs lives. The first was her wife Bern, whose caution had kept them both alive, and who was a deadly mark with a crossbow.
The second was the child in front of her, who was still looking around in confusion. “It comes back, you know.” Violet whispered, trying to explain something terrible to a child as gently as she could. She was not good at it; she’d never had the chance to practice. “Once you hear that music, it’ll keep coming back for you, again and again. We’ve lost so many folks that way. We tried everything. And if you’re here,” Violet winced, “then the Instrumentalist is on its way.”
Interlude 2 - Don't Do Omniscience
As this broadcast seeps into the nightmares of sleepers across the earth, many other worlds, and even a couple of extradimensional spaces, it is my responsibility to share important messages to the many unwitting subconsciouses who listen. I must remind everyone to ‘Just Say No To Omniscience’.
The concept of unlimited knowledge may be tempting, and your peers may say “I tried omniscience, and now I know everything”, but do not do it. Knowledge is power, and to be all-knowing is to be all-powerful, and most living things will either be atomized or horribly disfigured.
For an example, look no further than the Nameless One. He looks very funny, stumbling around in the Grand Archives of Zelkryzelk. His skin-covered eyes burn white, and eons of clutching his mind in agony have caused his fingers to grow into his skull. He is contemptible, and his name has faded along with all memory of him. He got what we wanted. He got omniscience. Don’t be like the Nameless One. Expand your mind safely with avenues like books. We go now to a mind that is expanding.
Story 3 - Are You My Friend?
He quite enjoyed the view. It was the same, and had always been the same, and probably would be forever. Most of the time it was dark, and there was nothing to see, but he liked it when the cold light glimmered far above, and he could see the weeds all around.
When little fish would dart through them, or hover right in front of his face, opening and closing their mouths, he liked that the most. He gave them little names, but he was never sure if the names belonged to the right fish. Occasionally, they would dart around each other as if in petty disputes, or he would watch in horror as a bigger fish would blot out the sunlight and snap up his friends. That was the worst, but by and large, he could not complain.
Then, something else happened, forever dividing his memory into a before and after. There was an orange glow from beneath his vision, and he felt himself moving, and realized that he had a body. It was strange—he was never certain of that before, and he caught glimpses of it as he was wrenched out of the silt. As he rose the roots of the seaweeds tore from around him, and this upset him. Everything was wrong. He moved through the darkness for a long time, and then he was drawing closer, closer, to that cold light that rippled above him, and he could not stop himself.
His view changed dramatically then, and it was so incredibly bright that it burned to look at. He was looking out on a huge expanse of water, cold and black, and as his vision pivoted, he saw pavement. Huge crumbling shapes he recognized as buildings leaned into the water, hollow and abandoned. Standing on a pier that had not yet sunk, there was a man wearing a crisp suit decorated with florals. One hand held an open book, and in the other a raised umbrella, beckoning him closer.
He touched down gently onto the pier, and it rocked under his weight. Things were falling off of him—tangles of weeds, lengths of rusted chain, pieces of mud and silt, pouring away with a great volume of water. He realized he had a hand of his own, and one big claw, like the crabs that had sometimes scuttled by. He looked at it in awe—when he thought about it moving, it did just as he thought, and the sharp points could pinch together or go wide apart.
“Hello.” the voice said from beyond, and the man in the suit was stepping towards him, tucking the book into his jacket. The man was speaking words. “My name is Polly. What’s yours?”
He understood the words, and they were the first that he had ever heard. He knew he was supposed to answer with a word of his own, but he did not know it, and this made him very sad. He looked around in vain for words—there were some on the buildings behind, like ‘shop’ and ‘gift’ and ‘mort-u-ary’. One would have to do.
He thought of a name, and a voice he did not recognize spoke it. “Mort."
“A bit on the nose, don’t you think?” The man grinned as he bent down, right in front of Mort’s face, and his teeth were as white as the sun on the ocean. “I hate to disturb your rest, but I’m in need of a little security. Do you know how to use that thing?” He tapped Mort’s big claw with his umbrella, and Mort opened and closed it.
“Good.” Polly said, and stepped away. Mort felt compelled to follow, and looked down to realize his body was sitting, and willed it up and to move. It did, and it hissed and steamed as it lurched into motion. He had so many questions, but one came unprompted from his voice, as soon as he had even thought of it.
“Are you my friend?”
Polly stopped, looked back, and laughed. “Yes, Mort. I am your friend.”
He kept walking, and Mort went after him, and his body followed, and only for a moment did he stop, catching a reflection in a shop’s broken glass window. The reflection showed a skull in a dome of black water, a huge metal body with articulated joints and pipes, and a claw with sharp blades. There were eyes in the skull, eyes that glimmered green like the sun through seaweed. Mort did not enjoy the view at all, and left it to walk with his new friend into the woods.
Outro - Books
Books. They are sacred to humans in a way that transcends religion and creed. To hold one is to touch a life not your own, to learn directly from the mind of someone else. They also smell nice.
To burn one represents the demise of pigment and plant product, but also the destruction of thought, a desperate bid to stop those who might have gained knowledge, or courage, or acceptance, from their printed letters.
Books speak to the mind in ways that the spoken word cannot. They are a catalyst for perspective, a fire that burns for change and for better. Thankfully ideas are not destroyed as easily as books. For ideas now and future, I am your host, Nikignik, waiting patiently for you to return to the Hallowoods.