Not long ago, I was asked a strange question. It was, as is often the way with these things, after a long happy evening at a local pub. A friend of mine by the name of Simon accompanied me along the way, and once the glowing warmth of the pub had been dispersed by the shadows of a moonlit night, the conversation turned to subjects of a more speculative nature. We were walking through the quiet streets towards my house in Cathcart, the way ahead lit by the famous orange street lamps which are still found throughout Glasgow. As our conversation wandered into macabre territory, Simon attempted to frighten me by telling a few local ghost stories. This was perfectly timed as we passed the old Cathcart parish Church tower and burial ground. When Simon was disappointed to see that a woman could roll her eyes at such stories as well as any man, he bemoaned that I was always too rational in my thinking to be able to enjoy a good old fashioned scare.
‘Doesn’t the thought of the dead coming back frighten you?’ he asked.
I kept my eyes focussed on the pavement ahead, which was dotted in places by the orange spotlights of each lonely street lamp. Discomfort from an old memory floated to the surface of my awareness, and as it did so I dared not look to my left, where tall headstones and tombs glared over the cemetery wall at me.
‘You’re no fun,’ my friend said, clearly tired of waiting for an answer.
Putting aside the fear of my memories, I replied: ‘I find most of these stories pointless. It’s always a friend of a friend who experienced something. When you do a little digging, the whole thing ends up being pure imagination conjured up to get a cheap scare.’
Simon was an insightful sort and immediately pounced on an involuntary slip. ‘Most of these stories? So, you do believe in some of them, then? Or...’ He laughed. ‘Don’t tell me someone as critical as you has actually seen a ghost?’
I did not answer my friend that night, quickly moving on to more lighthearted subjects to counter the dark evening and grinning gravestones. However, when I returned home and reached the comfort of my own bed, Simon’s words rattled around my mind, as did the thought of Cathcart burial ground and its occupants. They led to a memory. One which is still fresh enough to repeat on me like a recurring nightmare. It is a story I have never told. One I have never wanted to entertain. But something from that evening had finally awoken it. The memory was alive more than ever and, as a fervent devotee of the journal, I knew of only one way to banish the phantoms. Pulling my Lemome journal from my desk drawer, I curled my knees up towards me beneath my blanket and sat the book upon them. Then, I allowed that dark memory to have its way and to temporarily possess the tip of my pen. I will tell you this, the hour or two it took me to write was punctuated by fleeting glances to the corners of my room, where the glow of my dim bedside lamp failed to reach.
You see, the answer to Simon’s question of whether I had ever seen a ghost is complicated. Like many, as a child I saw things which should not be - flickering shadows on the wall which had a life of their own, a toy figure on my bedroom floor in a red dress which I am certain turned its head to look at me, and even something unseen shuffling around under my bed waiting to claw at my feet should I have been brave or stupid enough to leave the sanctuary of my blankets during the night. Those who are most sceptical will undoubtedly interpret such uncanny moments as the common machinations of a fertile childhood imagination, and I would be inclined to agree. However, though those early experiences fade into disbelief with each passing year, one occasion as an adult refuses to be so kind. It hangs around like stale breath in a car, where I dare not breathe in for fear of ingesting something both unnatural and unseen. To summarize this strange moment of my life, I can only characterize it as the one time when I encountered another presence. That night haunts me like no other. For I cannot simply discard its chilling revelations as mere memories shaped through the fog of childhood.
It happened to me when I was a student at Strathclyde University in Glasgow. I was in my third year and studying for the summer exams. Though I was lucky enough to have several friends in the same predicament, on this evening I was alone. At that time, the library was open all night to allow students to study late during the hectic exam schedule. My friends had left an hour or so earlier, but as was my poor habit, I had to stay longer in order to cram in the information required to pass the next exam. It was going to be a long night, though I told myself I would head home before 2AM come what may.
In those circumstances, I often liked to find the most isolated part of the library. There are five levels to the building, two of which are beneath the streets of Glasgow. During the day, I liked being down in the very bottom level as it was quieter, and, for some reason, my fellow students did not enjoy the atmosphere which the countless rows of books offered up in that part of the building. Pockets of several desks and chairs acted as islands between the sea of literature, text books, and published journals. The shelves of the library spread out from each study area like tentacles of knowledge waiting to burrow themselves into my brain. For some reason down there in the lowest level, walking between the shelves felt a little more oppressive than anywhere else in the library. It was as though the shelves were closer together; taller, narrower; looming upward to the always inadequate dim ceiling lighting; fragile walls of old books ready to give up and collapse down upon an unwitting passing student at any moment.
I cannot be certain that I was the only person in the basement level of the library that night, as the room was vast in size, but for an hour or two it certainly appeared to be so. The only sound I could hear was the buzzing of a light somewhere nearby which droned on through the paragraphs and chapters I was vainly trying to absorb. Being alone down there suited me just fine. I had always enjoyed the feeling of being nearby people more than with them; not necessarily among them, but within reach. This could be in a large hotel sat in my room reading a book, in the cabin of a ship with the other passengers above enjoying themselves or, in this case, in the basement level beneath the students and staff of the library upstairs in the other parts of the building. I always enjoyed people being close and yet being quiet and isolated, to a degree, had often been a true comfort to me. Though after that night, I now much prefer the comfort of a living voice and the smile of a companion over a dim space or void.
It was for the previously stated reasons that I enjoyed having such a place to myself, sitting with my back to a wall in one of the smallest study areas of the library. In fact, there were only two desks and two chairs in that small clearing. I sat at one desk while the other directly faced me, the empty chair accompanying it a happy reminder of my solitude. The buzz of the faulty light somewhere nearby had become a comforting drone when my train of thought was then interrupted by a new sound. My mind was struggling to memorise one of Karl Jung’s archetypes, when the steady tread of feet on a staircase entered my consciousness. This was not out of the ordinary, the library was open to all the students of the University, but I must admit that I felt a self-indulgent sense of invasion at the sound. In those moments of quiet solitude, I often experienced a sense of territorial annoyance whenever someone should wander into my world.
The footsteps descended on the stairwell, though it surprised me that I could not quite place which stairwell. And it was the first time that I became aware of any sort of echo on the floor. When the sound of an obscured door being pulled open and then shut unceremoniously on squeaking hinges slammed across the large room, I became yet more aggravated by the person's thoughtlessness. People should be quiet in a library, though, like many, I was happy to hand out that advice while breaking it myself in conversation with friends occasionally. Hypocrisy comes for and from us all.
Returning to my books, I continued in my usual way of trying to memorise sections of text using mnemonics. This would often lead to me passing an exam but not excelling in it. And these memorisation techniques clearly became a crux for me as I mistook committing facts to memory for knowledge. Regardless, I continued on, alone but for the occasional sound of movement somewhere on the basement floor from my unseen companion.
Procrastination was also a skill of mine. When I felt boredom creeping in, which was all too regular an occurrence, I would leave the desk and peruse the books and the many shelves around me. As I left my desk on this occasion, it suddenly occurred to me that the reason the basement felt so isolated from the rest of the building was that it had no windows. The rows of bound paper and torrents of words, which I would never get around to reading, were lit by a mixture of pale fluorescence and the occasional yellow incandescence. Even if there had been a window to the outer world, it would have peered only into the darkness of subterranean Glasgow. A place that is best left unexplored in this account.
I wandered between the tall rows of books which nearly touched the ceiling above me; narrow causeways of reflection which meandered like a labyrinth. Kubrick's Overlook hedge maze came to mind as I occasionally stopped to read the spines of editions going back from the contemporary to the 1800s, hoping that something would catch my interest - something to justify avoiding study. Such a happy search was usual for me, but on this evening, I could not help but peer around me to ensure that I was indeed alone. My mind turned to the walker in the stairwell who had entered the level, and for some reason this thought brought with it a simmering sense of dread deep in my stomach. I thought about invisible footsteps, unseen ears listening to my own movements, and how I was alone with this person without having ever seen them. I even momentarily entertained the idea that if such a person were a threat, I was quite isolated in their wake.
Stopping next to a collection of books on neuroanatomy, I pulled one out with a red spine from its home and opened it up randomly. Enjoying the texture of the paper and the smell of aged ink more than the words themselves, I would have been engrossed happily for 10 to 15 minutes, but for the noise my fellow anonymous student was making. It was coming from only a few rows away. The sound was unmistakable: someone was pulling at the books and then dropping them on the floor. At first I tried to ignore it, thinking that a fellow student must have simply pulled a few books off a shelf by accident. But with each rhythmic sound of bound paper thumping on carpet, I grew aggrieved by the disturbance and decided to investigate.
Walking between several rows of books ahead of me, dimly lit from above, the noise of a shelf being pulled to the ground suddenly rang out. A loud bang which startled me. I began to consider retreating back to my desk and perhaps even leaving the floor altogether, when I walked around the corner and was immediately faced with a pile of books lying on the floor, and one of the large shelves toppled to its side leaning against another. But there was no one else apparent.
Looking around me, I expected to see the culprit, but instead all I saw were the books which had been unceremoniously dumped, and not another human being in sight. What perplexed me was that as I listened, I could hear no footsteps. Having been so close to the shelf as it fell, I was certain that I should have been able to hear the other person moving away through the basement.
Perhaps they are still here.
That thought lingered for a moment and then dissipated as I peered around the corner of that specific row and still saw nothing but the emptiness of the library. Leaning over, I looked at the books on the floor. Most of them were printed in the last 20 years, and they seemed to cover a range of topics from biology. I thought about placing them back on the shelf, but instead I picked the books up and neatly arranged them in small columns of their own, thinking that I would alert the night librarian when I went upstairs so that they could place them in the correct order. The shelves were another matter. When I attempted to put them back onto an even keel, they would not move, remaining crooked against several rows of books. I must confess that I persuaded myself that they were just too heavy, but I had moved a shelf once before when helping one of the librarians. Yet these shelves were held in place and unnervingly resisted.
After this, I wandered back through the rows until I came out at the small clearing where the two tables and chairs of my study area sat. Returning to my chair, with my back against the wall, I explained to myself that the books had been dumped on the floor by an agitated and frustrated student. Nothing more. I sympathised with their frustrations and continued on with memorising the text in front of me. I must have sat there for another half an hour. As the minutes passed and the silence of the library grew in nature, I felt as though something on the periphery of my awareness required attention. This at first manifested itself as an uncomfortable sensation, but that discomfort was quickly replaced by unease when I realised what was causing it. The seat and desk which faced me directly had changed. I was certain that the chair had previously been neatly tucked underneath its desk, but now the chair was sitting out from it. It was as though someone had pulled the chair back and sat down in it while I had been away vainly trying to right the fallen shelves. Then I noticed that the surface of the plastic and metal chair had an unusual appearance. When I shifted in my seat or moved my head, I could see that whatever was covering the chair, glistened beneath the ceiling light above.
Standing up, I looked more closely, and instinctively reached out, touching the seat. From the glistening appearance I expected to feel a stickiness but, instead, the plastic of the chair felt clammy and cold, like a garden chair left outside overnight and smeared with morning dew. Pulling my hand back, I looked around, feeling as though someone were staring at me. But I quickly sighed in relief when I once again heard the footsteps which moved off to the other side of the library level. The building was so large that this might as well have been in another room, but I still wondered where the clamminess on the chair came from. As one often does when presented with the unusual, I began to second-guess myself. Perhaps the chair has always been sitting out from the desk, the alternative was unnerving. I preferred to think that the chair had been that way rather than that someone had come over and sat there, leaving behind something clammy and muculent.
I took this moment of unease to once again head towards the bookcases and rows for some much-needed procrastination. This time, I headed to a different part of the library from where the books had been deposited on the floor and the shelves toppled. After a couple of minutes of reading some passages from a treatise on solipsism, I then heard the same damned noise again - the thumping of books on the ground. This time I tried to ignore it completely, but with each rhythmic thump, I felt my pulse race, and it was then that I noticed how much the dropping of the books sounded like that of a human heart, slowly struggling. A bead of sweat dribbled down from my temple, and a nauseous feeling then grew within me.
The reason for the following is not clear to me, but at that moment I felt a strange compulsion to head towards a specific row of books, as though my subconscious was leading me there. I meandered between the shelves, the carpeted floor barely registering my footfalls. When I stopped in a section unknown to me, I placed my finger on the spines of the nearest row of books and moved my hand along them as though guided, until it rested upon a book of fiction. The book was thick, a thousand pages or so. It was an old anthology: "A Century of Thrillers". Its green hard cloth cover was slightly darkened in places, and on its front was a strange illustration of what appeared to be a dagger thrust through a death mask of some sort, the facial expression one of pain.
Opening the book, I glanced at the contents and saw the names of many old macabre writers - a selection of strange tales from various authors including Edgar Allan Poe and M.R. James. I knew some of the stories well and thought the book extremely familiar, as though I had seen it on a bookshelf somewhere before. The memory alluded me, though I had an inclination that some long since passed member of my family had owned the same edition of the book; that I had touched that cover before, perhaps even read from the pages between. Not the same exact book as far as I knew, but nonetheless, it was a collection I had seemingly encountered before. Having a taste for such old anthologies, and given the feeling that I had held such a compendium of tales in my hands once before, I decided that I would borrow this edition from the library. It was with that decision, that I then heard the sound of something brushing up against the bookshelves in front of me.
Looking up, my mind took a moment to convey what was there. Through the gap behind the book I had removed, on the other side of the shelves, someone was staring at me. I saw only one eye, and it never blinked. Indeed, my first thought was that it had no eyelid of any sort. The skin around it was pale and jaundiced, like that brought on from a long illness. The person’s gaze was intense yet unfixed in a way, as though it were glazed over slightly. Not looking at me, but almost through me.
‘I'm sorry, you scared me’, was all I could say in stuttering fashion.
But the unblinking eye continued to stare past me. Looking down to the rows of books below, I then noticed something which has forever perplexed me. Though I could see a chunk of the face and one eye in front of me, I could see no other part of the figure through the gaps in the book case beneath. No appendages, limbs or otherwise. It was as though the gaze hung there, suspended by some unseen force. Beneath it, light crept in between the books underneath as though the fearful watcher had no body at all.
The eye then pressed forward against the frame of the bookcase and the face pushed through the gap left by the book. Then, the outline of a wrinkled cheek and the corner of a withered mouth moved towards me, the skin wrinkled further as the face desperately tried to get at me through the narrow space, squeezing and heaving. Stumbling back, book in hand, I recoiled in disgust and fright, and immediately retreated through the maze of books. As I did so, I heard the footsteps again. They followed quickly behind me, but then, confusingly, they overtook and rushed ahead. It was only a moment before I knew where they had ended. Turning a corner, I saw my desk, my textbook still laid upon it. But now the chair and desk opposite were occupied.
The student in the chair had his back to me. I think it was a man, but it was hard to say. The back of the head was white, and about it were wisps of grey hair which looked to be covered in a fine white dust. A musty smell of old paper accompanied him. For a moment, I stood there in disbelief. A silence fell, though this time it was not the usual quiet of the library, but instead an unnatural blanket of dead sound. The figure in the chair remained as still as the books around us until it suddenly turned to look at me. It then stood up and stepped towards me, and all reason was abandoned.
I must have made it to the stairwell, for I was found on the top floor gasping for air and shivering, clutching between my hands the old green book I had taken from the shelf. The poor night librarian who had to deal with my gibbering nonsense in that moment was kind enough to lead me back to the ground floor, though with each step nearer to the basement, dread filled me. I was happy when our descent ended at the library lobby, and that the basement levels would remain vacant beneath, if they could ever be considered empty.
The night security guard then joined us and I was given a cup of tea which gave me some comfort. When I told them that there was someone in the basement who had terrified me, the librarian offered understandable reasoning. He said that I had simply panicked due to the quietness and the stress of exam time. It was not the first occurence of such a psychological break inside Strathclyde Library. However, I would not accept this explanation. I explained that I had abandoned all reason at the sight of the thing when it looked at me. Describing it proved difficult. If I say that its eyes were misplaced with an unnatural wideness to them, and that its skin was like white ash and yellowed paper which the decades had dried up and withered, then I might approximate it, but I could never adequately describe the unnatural quality of that face.
Continuing with his rational approach, the librarian offered that it could have been someone with a skin disease and that I had potentially deeply offended them. But it was then that I noticed that the night security guard, who was still sitting with us, had gone strangely quiet. In fact, at my description of the man in the basement level, her face had lost its colour. It was clear that she thought more of it than the librarian.
‘I hate that basement,’ she said with a nervousness creeping into her voice.
‘One thing I won't tolerate is vandalism of library property,’ said the librarian. ‘Exams or no exams, I’ll make sure anyone throwing books from their shelves is permanently banned. Shouldn’t we go down there now to put a stop to it?’
The security guard shook her head. ‘No, not until morning.’
Clearly losing patience with us both, the librarian pressed: ‘But, surely you don't believe…’
The security guard interrupted as she looked at the book under my arm. ‘Is that what he's been looking for down there all this time?’
I loosened my grip on the volume, which I had up until that point held close to my body as though the pages contained therein were precious to me. ‘I... I don't know... Maybe.’
‘May I see it?’ asked the security guard in a reassuring tone.
Handing the book to her, she perused it and then handed it back to me. ‘I wouldn't hold onto that if I were you.’
‘This is nonsense,’ the librarian interjected before standing up from her chair. ‘I'm going down there to see what's going on.’
But the security guard stood her ground. ‘I'm in charge of security tonight, and I say we leave the basement level until the morning, understand? I’ll keep an eye on the stairwell and make sure no one else goes down there.’ This time, a grim forcefulness underpinned her words.
Before handing the book back to the librarian, I felt my hand move and open it. There, on the inside of the cover and onto the first page, was a handwritten inscription which I had oddly not previously noticed. It read:
Ghost stories, ghost stories, ghost stories. I have read them all, many of my favourites are included in this volume. But what of reality? I know of your experimentation and your deep commitment to probing whatever, if anything, lies beyond the veil. Given your illness, I understand and lament that you will soon know the truth firsthand. Despite your assurances, the thought of nothingness does not leave me. It haunts my waking hours. I beg of you, if something persists of us after, please leave proof of it somewhere within these pages, so that I may seek comfort from what comes next after you are gone. The paper has been appropriately treated as you instructed, and so I await your message from the abyss. Journey well, my dear brother.
‘Do you think that thing down there is this Thomas?’ I asked the security guard.
‘I've never seen it, but I've heard it down there walking about. So has another guard, and it's always at night. I don't know what it is, but you're the first to see it as far as I know, and I think it's looking for that book. So, I wouldn't get in its way if I were you.’
I took the guard at her word, and so I left the book at the library. The librarian remained skeptical and happily took the book from me. He was curious about the inscription, though he acquiesced with the guard’s instructions that no one should return to the basement level until morning, when the sun rose. Exhausted and still deeply affected by my encounter with the figure downstairs, I agreed to collect my belongings the next day, and so left the building well into the night. The darkened streets outside for once felt welcoming when compared to the darkness I had experienced in the library, though when I finally got home, I put the security chain on my door and left all the lights on as I slept. Neither of which I normally did.
My story could be easily explained as a hallucination brought on by stress, which I would be inclined to agree with if not for one fact. When I returned to the library the next day to collect my things which were waiting for me at the front desk, I was handed a note. It had been left for me by the librarian from the previous night. It read:
I wish I had listened. I stupidly tried to put the book back last night when the guard was on her break. When I did, it was waiting for me down there, and it got its horrid hands on the book. I stood still and watched as it wrote something inside. The description it left does not bear thinking. If what it says is true, we should all fear death each and every one of us. As much as it goes against my beliefs, I left with the book after Thomas or whatever that thing is disappeared, and burned it. I won't be coming back here, and you should do the same. That man should not be.
Part of me wishes I knew what the inscription said, but I cannot verify its existence now that the book is gone forever. All I can say is that these events have stayed with me, and now that I have written them down, I do not feel the lessening of that night’s effects as I had hoped. Perhaps I will let Simon read my account. No doubt he will try to make light of it, but they say a burden shared is a burden halved. Does this also ring true for fear?