“What kind of book?”
“It’s about the size of a magazine, I told him. Bound in leather. Thirty sheets of what I thought was vellum. I estimated it as late eighteenth century, but wasn’t certain. That I could detect, the cover, the pages, were devoid of any text.”
He drew in a breath, said something like,”So you’re the one.” Then he said, “What has it done to you?”
Books have always been a big part of a lot of Lovecraft stories. Specifically, old books, forbidden books, books best left forgotten. One of Lovecraft’s most enduring creations was the Necronomicon, a book appearing in several of his tales to different ends, but always speaking of unnameable secrets and eldritch lore. It was supposedly authored by someone called Abdul al-Hazred, whom HPL dubbed, “the mad Arab.” He did such a good job inventing this book, reputed to have been bound in human skin, that many people have believed it to be a real book. I remember rejoicing as a teenager when I thought I had found it on the internet. (I printed it out, in case it disappeared from the site…cause you know, the Necronomicon would be something you could just print out from the internet) In any event, this sort of tome has been such an important fixture of the Lovecraft world that it is unsurprising that we would find post-Lovecraft stories also about strange volumes and lost lore.
John Langan’s “The Supplement” is just such a story. I came across it in Ellen Datlow’s third Lovecraftian anthology, Children of Lovecraft, published by Dark Horse Books in 2016. In this scholastic yarn, a junior library employee at SUNY Huguenot’s Harriet Jacobs Library encounters by chance in the grocery store a recently retired colleague from the same. Only, when she retired six months ago, she did look like she does now. “Had twenty, thirty years elapsed since our last contact, I might have believed the woman hunched in front of me was the same one who had been my boss for the better part of five years. Wrinkled, liver spotted, the skin hung loose on her arms, around her neck. Beneath a dingy Mets cap, her hair was white, wild. A pair of thick reading glasses balanced on the end of her nose. Her lower jaw jutted forward, pushing her lips up and out in a way that reminded me of my grandfather, in the latter stages of his dementia. Everything about her suggested a collapse of catastrophic dimensions.” As the narrative unfolds we learn of the book this woman has recently acquired, the forbidden properties of which it is possessed, and the tragic reasons this aging librarian would risk it all.
Part of this story is wrapped up in an Odin legend which details how Odin lost his eye. Langan goes on to let us know where said divine orb ended up and how, to form the pages of this verboten volume, someone once carved razor thin slices from what remained of the Allfather’s eye. That’s great stuff! This was the part of the story that had me most sucked in (see what I did there, readers?) and you have to admit, it’s compelling lore. When I looked up the myth, the moral it apparently attempts to pass along is that no sacrifice is too great for wisdom, for knowing. This made perfect sense, given what we come to learn about the librarian’s tragic family history. She lost her daughter to a heroin overdose, and she and her husband, unable to navigate the choppy waters of grief, soon divorced. But with the book, she can live two lives, both her life in reality, and her life as it might have been, with her family intact. Yet not without paying a terrible cost. I honestly thought the explanation for her aging was going to be different that what it ended up being. I’ll leave what actually happens to your reading, but I thought that it was going to end up being that because she was living essentially two lives, she was aging at some sort of exponentially accelerated rate. But alas, once again, I was wrong.
There’s some beautiful writing in here, particularly when Langan talks about the devastation of losing a child. Take a look: “The adage about your child being a kind of immortality is true enough. But she wasn’t alive. What remained of my daughter was her death, the space she’d left in the world.” That’s writing you can feel. I actually had to stop when I read that and collect myself as I sympathized with this character (I’ve been around a lot of other people’s grief). I remember reading a reflection once by a man who’s son was killed in a car accident. He wrote that it was in the small, unexpected, sneak-up-on-you things that it was the worst, like when you address a maître d’, “Five for dinner. No. I’m sorry. Four.” The loss this character in our story feels is at times palpable, and you understand why she makes the choices she does, unlike in a lot of horror writing when you just want to scream, “Why would you do that!”
Langan’s an accomplished writer of weird fiction. He knows his craft. In fact, his recent novel, The Fisherman was listed among NPR’s Top 100 Horror Stories. So, I have to wonder, why in the world did he name this short story “The Supplement”? All I can think of is a bottle of vitamins! It just doesn’t do it for me and I think there were probably a few other better choices out there. Maybe, “The Appendix,” or even something like, “A Life Not Lived.” I don’t know that those are any better, but at least they don’t make me think of vitamins.
Thoughts linger after this story comes to a close. Would I make the same choice? Would I be able to even think of it as a choice? Is there some wisdom out there that is worth paying any price for? Some knowledge of what might have been, or what will now never be? Would I even want to know? While the last story I reviewed made me shudder a bit, this one has made me think. There are no Lovecraftian baddies here, no cosmic horror or nihilism. There’s a reference to an ancient God, but he doesn’t play all that big of a role. So, what’s Lovecraftian about this morality tale? Perhaps it is this. Some books are best left shut. Just because we can have all knowledge doesn’t mean that we ought to, or that we were meant to. Beyond the Lovecraftian themes, this story speaks to me of how you can’t go backwards, and the emotional toll it can take on you if you try. You can only live one life and when that life moves you on, positively or devastatingly, you have to go with it, as difficult or unpalatable that might be. To do otherwise, to try to fight that current, will age you at best, and destroy you at worst.
I think that does it for this story, my little shoggoths.
Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,
Most eldritch words: “She was holding the book in both hands, tilted upright, her neck inclined toward it. From my position, I could see that the pages open before her were indeed blank. They trembled, as if composed of a substance less solid than paper.” (And the next line is even better, more eldritch, but too terrible to print! Besides, I couldn’t possibly spoil your supper.)