cambridge book review

Ghosts in the Library

Jack Lehman



My name is Camembert. Yes, like the cheese. I hate it, just like my father hated our last name, Rock. He thought it conjured up a wrestler or, for older people, a football coach. So he named me Camembert. “With a first name like that, no one will ever bother about your last,” he told me proudly. I hate my first name, so go by Cam. I’m Cam Rock. Now let me get on to the library. It is a rainy afternoon and I have volunteered for an hour a week reshelving books. I do this because for years I have taken books down and just left them on the table when I didn’t check them out. Time for a little payback. An hour a week, anyway. Besides, you get first shot at DVDs that have been returned. I have an armload of books in reverse Dewey Decimal System order, when my way between the stacks is blocked by a strange man. He is small, with a lopsided face, black hair, black eyebrows, black mustache.

It is Edgar Allan Poe. A little drunk, he asks, “Do you have something on the supernatural?”

You’re reading a book. It is the most exciting part of the story when your phone rings. The call is boring. You speak politely; the relative drones on. You are between worlds. Finally you manage somehow to end the call. But now the book seems to have disappeared. You can’t believe that this has happened to you. You are searching frantically. Then you lift a pillow on your bed and there it is. Only this is more like a chess game when someone moves a pawn to uncover an attack.

“Where are we going, Annabel Lee,” the swaying figure taunts me, as we make our way down the dark aisle toward the creepy back of the library. “To our kingdom by the sea?”

Suddenly, everything is clear (at least to me). I am playing chess hustlers, ex-cons, drug dealers, Russian pimps, foul-mouthed gamblers, big jokers, crafty players who lure passersby into a game for fifty-cents or a dollar in Washington Square Park. And my gambit? “The Cask of Amontillado.” My objective is simple: to attack and destroy. I drop my armload of books to be restacked.

“It’s just a little farther to go,” I tell my unsteady friend. “But observe the white spider webs that gleam from this cavernous passage.”

He turns and looks at me with eyes of rheumy intoxication.

“How long have you had that cough?” I ask.

“Ugh! ugh! ugh!—ugh! ugh! ugh!—ugh! ugh! ugh!”

The poor man finds it impossible to reply for many minutes.

“It is nothing,” he says at last.

“Come,” I reply, “we must go back, your health is important. You are respected, admired, beloved; you’re happy, as I should be. You are a man to be missed.”

“Enough,” he says, stumbling on. “This cough won’t kill me. I shall not die of a cough.”

“True, true,” I answer. “Drink.”

He pulls a pint bottle out of his back pocket and brings it to his lips. “I drink to the authors adorning these shelves.”

I, an unpublished author, remark, “See how the webs hang like moss upon a vault beneath the river and drops of water trickle along the walls.” I offer him my arm. He leans upon it heavily. We continue on. The remote end of the library is crypt-like. The walls are solid granite. The little man, finding his progress arrested by stone, stands bewildered. And then, in a drunken stupor, he slumps to the floor.

“Let me once more implore you to return,” I whisper to myself. “No, then I must leave you, but first…”

Here is when I begin taking books off the shelves and tier by tier build a wall. A wall that blocks him off from the rest of the world. Then I hear a low, moaning cry.

“The supernatural!” he screams.

When at last he stops, I resume the fifty-first, fifty-second and fifty-third levels of books. There is a succession of loud and shrill sounds bursting from the throat of the nearly-spent form. I hurry to complete the last tier of books. There comes a sad voice. The last words of Edgar Allan Poe.

“Ha! ha! ha!—we will have many a rich laugh over this at the palazzo—ha! ha! ha!—over wine—ha! ha! ha!”

“Over the Amontillado!” I say, then finish quickly. My heart grows sick. I force the last book in place. It is then I hear a woman’s voice and see her silhouette. Not Joan Behm, the librarian, but someone who looks and sounds like a librarian. Someone who might ask me how I’m coming reshelving books, but doesn’t. Instead Emily Dickinson says: “This is the Hour of Lead—Remembered, if outlived, As freezing persons recollect the Snow—First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—”


John (Jack) Lehman is the founder and original publisher of Rosebud, as well as the editor and publisher of Lit Noir. A nationally published writer and poet with twenty-five years experience teaching creative writing, Lehman grew up in Chicago but now lives with his wife, Talia Schorr, and their many dogs and cats in Rockdale, the smallest incorporated village in Wisconsin.

June 20, 2013 Posted by | short story | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment