Authors: Ramsey Campbell
The most famous Victorian rarity may be a stamp—the Penny Black—but it is several times more common than the rarest Victorian book. It is possible that no copy of
The Revelations of Gla'aki
still exists anywhere in the world.
The only printed edition was published in nine volumes in 1865, by the Matterhorn Press of Highgate in London. A spurious "Liverpool edition" is unrelated to it, and consists of text fabricated by modern gamesters for use in role-playing games. The Matterhorn set was published for subscribers, supposedly numbering fewer than two hundred, most of whom are thought to have belonged to cults or occult fellowships. It appears to have been the only work published by Matterhorn Press. The founder of the publishers may have been connected with the Ghost Club of Cambridge University, revived in London in 1862.
The nine volumes are described as "edited, organised, and corrected by Percy Smallbeam." The name is almost certainly a pseudonym. The text is reputedly founded on the contents of eleven volumes composed over an indeterminate period by members of an obscure cult founded at Deepfall Water near Brichester in Gloucestershire. While the original text is said to have been understandably haphazard, it is uncertain how much the Matterhorn edition was rewritten rather than simply reorganised. For instance, the occult writer John Strong claimed that Smallbeam dropped the apostrophe from the name Gla'aki to make for ease of reading.
The original content was apparently provided by an unidentified defector from the Gla'aki cult, though some sources maintain that the man responsible had been charged with propagating the material. He appears to have approached the Ghost Club for help with publication but was turned down by religious members of the society. Among its founders was E. W. Benson, later Archbishop of Canterbury and father of several writers of supernatural tales, including E. E and A. C. Benson. In his
of his father, A. C. comments that he "was more interested in psychical phenoemna (sic) than he cared to admit, but would have no truck with the dissemination of occult secrets. A dupe who approached him for aid in the publication of a grimoire or the like was swiftly shown the door." Some have cited this as a reference to the cultist from Brichester.
The Matterhorn edition attracted no significant comment at the time. It would not be noticed by the public until the 1920s, when the campaign against Aleister Crowley ("the wickedest man in the world") by
was at its height. A set of the books had been observed in Crowley's library, and Crowley described it as "an inspiration, the source of many secret truths."
proceeded to attack it as "the most evil book ever published" while the
exhorted its readers to burn every copy they could find. While the attacks were very largely if not entirely speculative, showing no acquaintance with the content of the books, the journalists were able to condemn the titles of two volumes,
On the Purposes of Night
(which was reviled as betraying the furtiveness of anyone associated with the books) and in particular
Of the Uses of the Dead.
Most of the edition may have been destroyed as a result of the campaign. Subscribers who were still alive no doubt felt vulnerable and could have been easily influenced, and few if any descendants of the original owners would have cared to be associated with the books. Since then no copies have come to light, and in an unrelated incident the set held by Brichester University was among the volumes destroyed by a student at the turn of the last century. The most evil book, or a lost contribution to the literature of occultism? Like the contents of the Library of Alexandria, it may have passed into legend.
As the coast road brought him in sight of Gulshaw, Fairman thought this was how a writer must feel: you never knew where anything you wrote might lead you. The fat grey bricks of the small town looked as though the September sky had settled to the earth and grown solid. Beyond a wide church with tall thin arched windows and a squat tower, a line of stocky hotels overlooked a half-mile curve of beach. Behind them houses crowded uphill towards a wood, both ends of which reached down almost to the shore. At the near end of the promenade a town sign stood on stilts over an arrangement of large shells embedded in the pavement. WELCOME TO GULSHAW—SO MUCH MORE THAN SEA! There certainly was, Fairman thought, for him.
Just now the town seemed to be slumbering. A few families lay on towels on the beach as if they were hoping to bring out the sun. Old folk in wheelchairs drifted along the promenade while parents pushed children in buggies at the pace of the somnolent waves. At the ends of several pedestrian crossings Belisha beacons exchanged somnolent blinks. A Crazy Golf course was in use, though the players weren't much livelier than the statue that appeared to be shading its eyes to watch them as it gazed stonily out to sea. Beyond the hotels Fairman saw amusement arcades jittering with multicoloured lights, souvenir shops wearing bunches of hats, a fish standing as tall as a man to hold a menu in its fins. Close to the far end of the woods a string of cars crawled up the incline of a roller coaster, and a big wheel turned sluggishly for a few seconds before reverting to stillness.
Fairman slowed down as he passed the Church of the First Word. Though he hadn't been speeding, he felt as if he had, and in any case he needed to find his hotel. There was the Staymore, the Toprooms, the Seaside Dreams, the Kumbak... Eventually he located the Wyleave, a hefty structure with three storeys and a stained-glass awning, near the middle of the row. Across the road graffiti were attempting to bring a Victorian shelter up to date. Fairman drove around the Wyleave to the car park, where half a dozen vehicles took up almost half the space, and trundled his overnight bag into the hotel.
He suspected that the wallpaper along the corridor leading to Reception had been there before he was born. It was embossed with a pattern of fish leaping out of equally stylised waves, an image no doubt meant to evoke the seaside. The pattern flocked into the lobby, where a woman with silvery curls and a long heavy suntanned face sat behind a massive counter of dark wood. For an instant she looked drowsy, and then she stood up from her desk, her pearl necklace emitting a tiny chatter as it shifted on her embroidered white blouse. "Mr Fairman?" she said, and with a widening smile "I'm Mrs Berry. Call me Janine. Welcome to the Wyleave."
She held out a hand that proved to be soft and moist and possibly frail, so that Fairman refrained from taking too much of a grip. "I've given you a view," she said. "Can you put your details down for us?"
He was surprised by how much the registration form required: not just his name and address and the registration number of his car but date of birth, occupation, even next of kin and where to phone them—his father's name and the number of the retirement home. "Such a lot for just one night," Janine Berry said. "Won't you give us more of a chance?"
"I'd be happy to, but my holiday's arranged."
"So what's brought you to us?"
"Of course," she said as though it had been less a question than a joke.
"We librarians do have other interests too, you know."
"I expect so," she said, though with a blink that looked a little puzzled, and slapped the nipple of a bell on the counter. "Tom, can you show Mr Fairman up to six."
The porter was a pudgy youth whose tan put Fairman in mind of batter on a fish, quite possibly a staple of Tom's diet. As he carried Fairman's luggage up a staircase enclosed by the omnipresent wallpaper Fairman tried asking "Been away for some sun?"
"Not likely," Tom said without turning to him.
Did Fairman sense resentment? Perhaps the tan was artificial. Tom was silent until he unlocked a room on the first floor. "We've got you here."
As soon as the door opened Fairman could see all the way to the watery horizon. Heavy purple velvet curtains scragged by bands of the same material framed the extensive window. A mauve plush chair sat by a dressing-table surmounted by a wide oval mirror, which was flanked by massive wardrobes of the same dark wood as the reception counter. The double bedspread and the plump headboard kept up the empurpled look. At least the wallpaper was pale blue, and decorated with stylised waves but no fish. While Fairman could live with all this, he was taken aback by the absence of a bathroom. Perhaps the porter saw him frown at the sink in the corner, because he pointed along the corridor at a pair of doors marked WC and BATH. "You'll not be sharing long," he said.
Once Tom had dumped the case at the foot of the bed Fairman pressed a pound coin into his hand. The clammy palm yielded so much that he thought he'd been too forceful, but the porter didn't react. "Call us if you need us," he muttered before retreating into the corridor.
Fairman sat on the bed, which emitted a creak and a scent of lavender. As he took out his mobile he heard the sea, a sound like a great protracted sleepy breath. The breath was held while a phone rang somewhere in Gulshaw, and then a mellifluous male voice said "Home of the Gulshaw Players. How can we help you?"
"Could I speak to Mr Lunt?"
"I'm your man and no other, and I believe I may be speaking to Mr Fairman."
"That's so," Fairman said, wondering if he had more of an accent than he imagined. "I'm in town. When might it be convenient for me to come by?"
"No better time than now. Toddle over whenever you're ready. Anyone will tell you where we are."
Fairman rather hoped the fellow wouldn't prove to be even more effusive in the flesh. He let himself out of the room and dawdled on the stairs to search for a pocket that might accommodate the brass baton attached to the key. "Don't go lugging that about with you," Mrs Berry protested. "We're always here. If you need us, wake us up."
"Could you direct me to the Shaw Theatre?"
"Our only one. Along the front and turn up by the Goodnight. You're on your mission, then." As Fairman granted that, she said "You'll have a look round too, won't you? There's so much more to see."
Was that a joke about the town slogan or a slip of her tongue? Fairman forgot about it before he reached his car. He couldn't recall having passed a Goodnight, and he found it at the far end of the row of hotels, on the corner of a street that separated them from the amusement arcades. The theatre was halfway up the street, which it divided into lanes that passed on either side. As Fairman parked below it, a couple leading their children by the hand plodded uphill towards him. The boy and the equally sleepy-eyed girl watched him feed coins into a machine that performed a routine of clicks and whirs before producing a coquettish ticket. The children even seemed to find him worth watching while he stuck the ticket inside the windscreen, and he wasn't unhappy to leave them behind as he made for the Shaw.
A dormant neon sign identified the squat grey building, but not by its original name. The lingering outlines of letters betrayed that it had once been called the Gulshaw.
On either side of the glass doors a poster advertised THE GULSHAW PLAYERS
FOR YOU TO SEA, which Fairman thought made no sense. As he tried to open the nearest door a young woman crossed the foyer to admit him, miming more speed than she achieved. "Mr Fairman?" she said with a smile that multiplied creases on her plump tanned face. "Mr Lunt is ready for you. You're to go straight through."
Beyond the ticket counter a corridor was decorated with posters older than Fairman. He'd squinted at just a couple—the grudging light and the befogged glass within the frames blurred the outlines of the faces—when the door at the end of the corridor swung inwards. "Mr Fairman," the manager boomed. "Frank Lunt. Welcome to the Shaw."