[I’ve always loved used bookstores. How about you? I love their towering stacks, their musty shadows, the constant hope of discovering a treasure in some hidden nook. Here’s a tale about a writer facing discouragement and endless rejections (remind you of anyone?) and his visit to a used bookstore where he finds a treasure unlike any other.]
DOWN FROM OZ*
That did it: yesterday’s rejection was the last straw! Halting on the sidewalk, Jason Creed raised the sheets of paper he’d clutched almost constantly since the day before and read them again.
“Dear Mr. Creed:
Thank you for allowing us to see your novel, Down From Oz. Now, allow me to share with you my thoughts. I have never seen such a hopeless, poorly conceived plot in all my life. Cliches, inconsistencies, and clumsy dialogue abound, and if there’s a guiding purpose, I am unable to see it.”
The letter went on for two full, single-spaced pages, taking up specific scenes and passages only to rip them apart. Like a masochistic lamb to the slaughter, he let himself be led down its sentences to the final, killing blow: a suggestion that he find something more suitable to his talents.
Clenching his teeth, Jason squeezed the sheets into a tight ball and thrust them in his pocket.
That’s it! I finally, at long last, get the point! I have no talent as a writer and I’m never going to write again!
Breathing deeply, he struggled for calm, but the heartbreak he had endured since receiving the letter yesterday let him climb no higher than a dull despair. God, it hurt! Of all the rejections, cruel and otherwise, which he had received down through the years, this was the absolute worst. It was the critical coup de grace, the death knell of all his hopes.
Jesus, he thought, I even think in third-rate purple prose. I must stop feeling sorry for myself and find something else to do with my life!
The trouble was, there was absolutely nothing else he wanted to do as much as write. His job at the post office was a paycheck, and except for reading he had no hobbies, unless he counted writing, which he had always considered his life.
What could he do that was meaningful to fill the endless void ahead of him? Go fishing? Watch sports?
He shook his head and continued along the street, then paused when he saw a yellow brick building with ornate letters stenciled on a window: Book World.
Oh yes. His wife, knowing he was addicted to old bookstores, had mentioned there was a new one on their street. He sighed, remembering how she had tried to comfort him when she learned about the rejection letter, only to have him shut her out.
Hunching his shoulders, he walked past, determined to make things up with his wife and to have nothing to do with books and writing ever again. But after only a few steps, his pace slowed. He turned back and studied the shop.
What the hell?
Above Book World‘s door, an elaborate wood sign displayed a globe whose continents were pages filled with fancy cursive writing. Quills, suspended above the globe, dripped ink into its oceans.
God, it’s pretentious. Just another crummy hole-in-the-wall. But he found himself going back anyway, eyes fastened on the sign.
A bell tinkled quaintly as he entered. He closed the door behind him, inhaling the beloved dusty smell of old books and old wood floors. A stack of ancient tomes with moldy leather covers sat on the floor nearby, waiting for shelving. On top of them stood an imposing hourglass like the one the witch had used in The Wizard of Oz.
Well, he thought, the name might be pompous, but this place is real. It isn’t Barnes & Noble, and there ain’t a Kindle or e-book in sight.
A bald, slender man in his mid-thirties puttered behind the counter to his right, looking as used and obsolete as the wares he handled. Jason gave him a nod and headed toward the back, passing an old-style sewing press used for binding books.
He found the familiar, nicked and dented wood shelves holding tattered books packed cheek by jowl, some piled high overhead in towers that threatened to topple. Moving around a small platform ladder customers could use to reach loftier treasures, he peered at handwritten labels on the shelves. Mystery. Science Fiction. Biology. Occult.
He himself was a fantasy writer, with three unsold novels. Fantasy—it was appropriate, wasn’t it? What else was his whole life but fantasy? As a writer he was a brainless scarecrow, and the earthly Oz he had created was no more than a cheap, uninspired ripoff. He deserved that editor’s contempt for presuming to think he was anything else but a hack!
Suddenly, as he reached the back, a weird, ghostly green light flashed on. Blinded, he shielded his eyes. What the hell—?
The light faded. Lowering his hand, he blinked spots and after-glare away. Where had that damned light come from? He peered about, but could see only a cabinet before him.
It was a nice cabinet too, the kind with old, rich, polished wood and handsome, glass-paneled doors you opened with a key, though there didn’t seem to be one. He stepped close and squinted at the books displayed. On the middle shelf he saw Twain and Walter de la Mare, a copy of Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. The leather-bound volumes all looked costly and impressive. First editions, perhaps?
He checked the shelf above it, and saw other beautiful volumes. Edgar Allan Poe. Harlan Ellison. Albert Finney . . .
Looking still higher, he scrutinized the top shelf. Ah. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin. And what was that almost folio-sized one in the center? He leaned close. Let’s see. Jason Creed’s Down From . . .
He blinked, rubbed his eyes. Looked again.
Jason Creed’s Down From Oz.
He stepped back. Was he dreaming? Having an hallucination? Surely, it couldn’t . .
He leaned closer. Down From Oz by Jason Creed. Yes, that’s what it said all right. It WAS Down From Oz, which a haughty New York editor had just crapped on at close range. He choked off a laugh, then gasped as he saw the title beside it. The Master of Marisol by Jason Creed. Christ, that was his first book, the vacuous, relentlessly spurned piece of garbage he had once foolishly thought might one day rival Lord of the Rings. And beside it, Oh Jesus, Oh My God, was The Time Merchants, his one foray into soft science fiction which fifty-two publishers, including the smallest of small presses, had unanimously used for toilet paper.
They—all three—stood right there before him, occupying the same shelf as the works of masters.
I’d better sit down, he thought. All this depression—it must have unhinged me. But that weird, blinding light . . .
Footsteps, coming his way. Dazed and confused, he peered into the gloom between the tall bookcases, half-expecting to see a row of Munchkins appear.
A crown of pure white hair materialized, accompanied by an equally white mustache. Both seemed suspended in air, but as they moved directly toward him between the stacks of books, Jason saw that they belonged to a man in a black cloak.
The man stopped a few feet away. His narrow face smiled, and he nodded at the cabinet. “Are you surprised, Mr. Creed?”
“What . . .” Jason stopped. “How do you know my name?”
The old man chuckled. “They’re your books, Mr. Creed, some of the classics that the whole world will one day read. Just a few of the things that are to come.”
Jason felt as if he had been hit by a cyclone. That weird ghostly light . . . this strange old man who spoke such impossible words and seemed to know him. He rubbed his eyes, hoping it would make the stranger vanish, but he remained right where he was.
“What are you talking about?” Jason finally managed to bring out. “Do you have a crystal ball, or have I gone mad?”
“I assure you, you’re completely sane, and what I’ve said is perfectly true,” the man said. “That’s why you must not even think of giving up writing. It would be a tragic loss to posterity.”
Jason’s head spun. Could this creature read his mind? His confused thoughts fixed on one word. “Posterity? How could you know what’s going to happen?”
“Because I come from the future!” The old man glided forward, turning Jason gently toward the cabinet. “Consider me a fan who, uh, just hasn’t been born yet. A lover of your work who doesn’t want it lost.”
Jason gazed at two large, exquisitely-bound volumes he hadn’t noticed before. Dreamfarer and The Eagle and the Sun, both by Jason Creed. Oh Christ, he thought, I haven’t even written them yet!
“T-Time travel,” he whispered. “You expect me to believe . . .”
“Do you mind if I call you Jason, Mr. Creed?” the old man interrupted. “I assure you, it would be a great honor!”
He blinked. “M-Mind? No. But . . .”
“Fine! Now . . . Jason, is time travel so hard to believe? After all,
Dreamfarer explores that very possibility. You are a master of the realms of fantasy and magical realism, not to mention some truly cosmic, mind-stretching concepts.”
“But it’s fiction. I made it up.”
“Are you sure, Jason? Remember how you felt when you wrote The Master of Marisol? The words just poured out of you and you felt like all your readers will one day—alive and filled with magic! Don’t tell me it’s just make-believe, that it’s only fiction. You have actually lived it in your mind! You have actually breathed the fragrant and magical air of Marisol, walked its myriad, labyrinthine streets!”
How does this man know that? How does he know what I’m feeling when I write? Unless—Oh my God, could it be true?
But just as he felt hope stir, Jason remembered the vicious rejection letter he had received, the letter which had been the latest of so many.
He stepped back to get some space, and as he did, his head cleared a little. He heard the floor creak, smelled the faint bite of Lysol. And the dim, looming shelves of books, however haunting, did not belong in a fantasy. They were real, he could touch them. Just as he could touch that damned letter.
He reached in his pocket, brought it out. “Look,” he said hoarsely, “I don’t know what this is all about, whether I’m confused or you are.” He unfolded the crumpled sheets. “Whoever you are, though, you’ve got the wrong guy. This witch of an editor says—”
“I know what she says, Jason,” the man said. He raised a slender finger and smoothed his white mustache. “Your readers, those who are to come, are intimately familiar with it.”
Jason gaped. “They are?”
“Yes, because you will take care to preserve that letter. You will publish it someday as an inspiration to other writers never to give up!”
Suddenly, his black cloak swirling, the man moved forward and seized Jason’s forearm in a powerful grip. “Don’t you realize it was just a slush reader, a witch on a broomstick who read Down From Oz and wrote that piece of garbage? It wasn’t the editor, just an underpaid, semi-literate fool jealous of your genius and vision. Check her letter again, Jason.”
Jason obeyed, squinting at the signature as his mind babbled that he wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Yes, the man was right. He had forgotten about that. Still . . .
“What difference does it make?” he said. “I’ve had plenty of real editors trash my work. Hell, I could wallpaper my room with rejection slips. They can’t all be wrong, can they?”
The man leaned closer. “Yes, they can. They can be just as wrong as they’ve been about so many other geniuses. Don’t you know that Dune, one of science fiction’s supreme masterpieces, was rejected over twenty times before it was accepted? That John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces was endlessly turned down before he took his life, and then it won the Pulitzer Prize? Hell, man, don’t let them beat you! Don’t give up!”
“But . . . Herbert and Toole were great writers.”
“So are you!” The man was right in his face now, his breath hot, his expression fanatical. “In times to come, you will be recognized by many as the greatest fantasist and stylist of your age! The author of dozens of books, most of them masterpieces!” He gripped Jason’s arm harder. “Listen to me! I consider it a great, great honor for me to meet you! Your works have inspired and delighted me, and I assure you they will do the same for generations of readers. Why, the streets and towers of your Marisol chronicles alone will be as familiar to readers as those of their own neighborhoods. Marisol’s geography and terrain will be mapped and charted and labeled in separate best sellers just as the realms of Tolkien and McCaffrey are in your own time! You cannot— you must not— stop writing!”
Jason trembled in the blasts of the man’s passion. Was it possible . . . could it be? He lurched away and found himself staring again at the books he hadn’t even written yet. Dreamfarer. The Eagle and the Sun.
“Could . . . could I look at them?” he whispered, pointing through the glass door.
The man sighed. “I’m afraid I can’t let you do that. If you read even a little of these works, it could affect the whole course of your career. It’s even possible that you might become so confused that some of these treasures might never be published.”
“Well, what about those books I’ve already written, like Down From Oz?”
The old man shook his head. “No, Jason, you will extensively revise those too. I’m sorry, but we simply cannot take the chance.”
“But . . . ” Jason moaned, filled by intense yearning. “Could I at least hold one of them in my hands? Feel it?”
“I’m sorry. Even that would entail a risk.”
Swallowing, Jason ran his fingers along the cool glass of the cabinet. He wanted to smash it, reach in and seize his books, experience the wonder of actually reading his own words in such luxurious volumes. The need to feel their pages, smell their scent rose till his whole body trembled with it. Then he felt the stranger press his arm and reluctantly turned away.
“Listen,” Jason said, “I have to know. This isn’t an illusion? It’s all actually going to come true? I’m not like Dorothy who knocked her head and only dreamed she wore magic slippers? I—I’m actually a good writer?”
The man stroked his white mustache. “Trust me, Jason Creed, and have courage. You are the best, the King of the Forest. Now, why don’t you go and start revising your old books and writing new ones so that one day, we can all read them?”
Jason straightened, the man’s words filling him like fire. His heart began pounding with excitement. Suddenly he wanted to dance, sing, but most important, write all the books this man had praised. Never before had he felt so wonderful, so inspired, so truly and completely alive! Dreamfarer, he thought, already making plans. Yes, I know exactly what I’ll do with that!
“Thank you!” he said, seizing the man’s hand and shaking it in both of his. “Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!”
Laughing, shouting for joy, Jason Creed left the bookstore and ran all the way home, bursting with the need to shape new worlds.
# # #
The next day Angela Creed entered the store, beaming at her old friend.
“Isaac, can I talk to you?”
The owner glanced at browsing customers, then led her to the storeroom in back. There, Angela clapped her hands. “Isaac, it worked!”
“It did? Jason still believes? Man, for a failed actor, I did all right. I thought I was waaay over the top!”
“Well, those blank books you bound must have convinced him. Isaac, he’s never been so happy! He came home and started a new novel. And this morning he went off to work whistling! He didn’t mention you, but you must have been a wizard.”
“In a way I was. Turn ’round and close your eyes.”
When she did, he busied himself behind a curtain. “Okay,” he said.
Turning, she stared. “Isaac, is that you?”
He swirled his cloak, patted his white hair, twisted his mustache. “The Wizard of Oz, at your service!”
*Originally published in Brutarian, 1998.
A retired English professor from Norfolk State University in Norfolk, Va., John has published three hundred stories in The Speed of Dark, Weird Tales, Whitley Strieber’s Aliens, Galaxy, The Age of Wonders, and elsewhere. He is the author of The Turtan Trilogy, the first three novels of his Scifi-Adventure series, available at lrd.to/Turtan-Trilogy/