Start at the End
by Ed Blundell
And then you will end at the beginning.
I will start at the beginning and report what I suppose won’t be read. It is important to me, though, that it be recorded, even if no one sees it. In fact I fervently hope no one does but, nonetheless, I must write this account if only for myself and my own sanity.
I suppose I should say first who I am and what happened to me. Who I am is not something you need to know in great detail. Suffice it to say that I am a middle-aged professional, British citizen who lives in the north of the kingdom. I had a fairly ordinary, uneventful life without any remarkable incident until that matter that I am now recording occurred. How it happened I don’t begin to understand; when it happened I remember vividly.
I have always been an avid reader, a devourer of books of any kind: fact, fiction, it matters not. I acquired the habit in childhood, encouraged by my mother who dubbed me her bookworm, although in the light of subsequent events that was perhaps an unfortunate, if prophetic, sobriquet.
Be that as it may, my love of reading developed as I grew up. In my teens, I read a great deal of science fiction and, perhaps, through that gained a taste for the fantastic, the bizarre in literature. Horror fiction, in short.
Of course, I also continued to read mainstream literature and loved the classics like Austen, Thackeray, Dickens, Hardy and more modern giants like Huxley, Waugh, Orwell, Lawrence and modern authors in a range of genres: Rankin, Mantel, Achebe and O’Brien. But I did not intend to produce a reading list of favourite authors. I could add many others, including those in the horror genre, Poe, Lovecraft, King. There, I’m starting to list again.
I make lists the way I sometimes recite verses from poems in my head or chant the phonetic alphabet: “Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo..” I do it to discipline myself, to keep control and stop my mind from wandering and slipping away.
To the point. That is what I must constantly do. Stick to the point. Focus. Keep my mind under my control. There is a stream of consciousness that we follow, a flow of ideas, you will have followed it in Virginia Woolf, J. P. Donleavy, James Joyce, but it is our own stream of thinking that makes us ourselves. My problem, my tragedy, my illness perhaps is that the stream of consciousness I follow isn’t always my own.
Like one that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread
And having once turned round walks on
And turns no more his head
Foxtrot, George, Hotel, India, Juliet..
There I recite, I chant. I chose the poem. I continue with my stream of consciousness:
Because I know a frightful fiend
Doth close behind me tread.
It happened one day some weeks ago. It was a blue sky day, warm with a gentle breeze and not a hint of the rain that marks or can mar the English summer. I was in town, drifting from place to place without a clear plan or purpose.
I had caught an early train and walked round the busy streets drinking in the atmosphere, listening to the buzz and watching the bustle. As is my wont, I visited my favourite bookshops and the second-hand bookstalls where I love to browse.
I don’t know why I bought the book. I usually pick up a paperback or two, easily read pulp fiction, or a book to add to my collection, the complete poems of Whitman or Browning or whoever I don’t have in my library.
This was an old book, its cover worn with the passing of many years and a lot of readers. Its title was too faded to read. I opened it and perhaps that was the mistake. Maybe I should have put it down at once, back onto the pile it came from and selected something else. I didn’t.
Inside the cover I could read the title: Tales of a Bookworm. There was no author’s name, simply “by a Gentleman.”
Perhaps because my mother had called me her little bookworm, perhaps because I love old books, perhaps because I felt an air of mystery and the unknown about it, perhaps — I don’t know why — I bought it for a pound. I took it home and, as with all my new purchases, put it on the pile to read later.
Later was only that evening. I had three or four other new purchases but somehow I was drawn to that particular volume.
On opening it and examining it more closely, I realised it was a collection of short stories. Further scrutiny revealed that in the manner of many old books, the pages were not cut but the paper was still joined at the edges. Except for the first story in the book. The pages of that first story, entitled “The Bookworm,” had been cut and, therefore, I presumed that story, but no other, had been read. I was intrigued. Before I cut open the other pages, I decided I would sample the first tale, “The Bookworm” which presumably had given the book its title.
There are watershed moments in your life. Times when you choose which is the road taken or not taken. I would never have dreamed that reading a story might be one of them. There are stories that you read that can significantly influence you, perhaps change the way you think, behave: 1984, Catcher in the Rye, Wuthering Heights. I could name many more books that had a major influence on me when I read them for the first time. This short story, in this old volume, written by an anonymous gentleman, was to have a bigger influence on me, was to cause a seismic change in my behaviour, in my very nature.
It was a simple enough story to begin with. About a man, the gentleman who I presume was the author, who was like me, a lover of books. He purchased an obscure volume and on reading it, found that there was something in the tale, some incantation in the words, some sinister spell that cast a worm, an insidious writhing creature into his mind.
This was not an earthworm of the common variety. This was a wyrm of the mystical, magical, dragonseed form, a creature that once inside him could shape and control his thoughts and therefore his actions.
Even as I read the story I could sense the similarity of our situations and yet there was nothing I could do to stop. I think — I really believe — that I wanted to put the book down, but I just could not. It was compelling like the books you read that lure you on from intriguing chapter to exciting chapter. As you finish one section you are relentlessly drawn into the next.
However late it is, however much you feel you should do other things, whatever the tasks awaiting you, you know you have to read on until you come to the conclusion. That was the unquenchable thirst, the terrible hunger that was seeded in me.
By the time I reached the end of the story, I knew that, like the author, I was infected. The worm was in my brain, wriggling its way around my head, sliding, slipping into my thoughts. I was addicted, contaminated, diseased.
I never cut open the remaining pages or read further in that book. The volume and the story were merely the vehicle the creature used to spread itself. I found myself thinking differently. I would do things in ways I had never done them before. I changed my opinions on many matters. I used different vocabulary, I wanted different things. In short, I was a changed man.
I was no longer master of myself. My orderly, controlled world fell apart, was out of control, at least out of my control. I was open, exposed to ideas and concepts I had never entertained before. The safe security of my ordered world gave way to a riot of innovative dreams, a riotous cascade of imaginative madness. A madness I could only restrain, can only constrain by concentrating, chanting my mantra, by reciting:
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw.
Zebra, Yankee, X-ray, Whisky, Victor.
Once upon a midnight dreary
As I pondered weak and weary...
I got rid of the book. I could not bring myself to burn it. I gave it to a charity shop, aware that it would no doubt infect others. But I was driven by a compulsion to be rid of it, to pass it on, driven with a determination I had never known before.
I knew also that I must write a story myself describing what had happened. Even as I was writing it, I knew that the mindworm was seeding itself into every word and sentence and that on reading my story others would be contaminated by the virus as I had been.
With a supreme effort of control and self-discipline...
Whisky, Oscar, Romeo, Mike.
I took my story and its polluted lines and inserted a caution, a warning at the very beginning to potential readers to prevent them from reading and a clear instruction at the end.
If you didn’t heed my warning, by now it will be too late. You will soon begin to feel that strange stirring in your mind, that unease, that restlessness as the worm begins to control you. You will experience new insights, an anarchy of ideas that assail you. Words will torrent, rush, race, stream through your head. You will read, read, read and need to write some infectious story of your own. You will know why I asked you to start at the end and why it is important that you...
DO NOT READ THIS STORY!
Copyright © 2021 by Ed Blundell