We’re thrilled to reveal the cover for The Book of Hidden Things, the debut English novel from the Italian fantasy master Francesco Dimitri, and a story about the nature of mystery itself.
Editor Ella Chappell describes the novel:
This literary fantasy is set in the harsh and seductive landscape of southern Italy and follows the story of three old friends who return to their home town to find that the fourth of their group, the charismatic and enigmatic Art, has gone missing. As the friends investigate his disappearance, they begin to uncover strange and unexplained things; rumours of Art curing a young woman’s cancer, worrying evidence of his involvement in the local mafia, and a manuscript in a room piled high with books and notes: The Book of Hidden Things, a beguiling document that reveals Art’s apparent belief that he can access another world, a paradise of hidden things. This is a gripping thriller with a vivid vein of magic running through it, a story about friendship and landscape, love and betrayal.
The Book of Hidden Things publishes May 22, 2018 with Titan Books. Check out the full cover, and read an excerpt from the novel below!
When I try to explain Salento to Lara, my English girlfriend, I say: Italy is a long peninsula, and Puglia is a peninsula at the end of it. Puglia is a long peninsula, and Salento is the peninsula at the end of it. The world does continue beyond its crystal-clear sea, but it doesn’t feel like it. It feels like Salento is the end of the line, the end of it all. I promise her that one day I’ll show her, if she is so eager. We’ll drive down from London, and she will notice the landscape change, the urban civilisation of Europe and Northern Italy give way to the wilds of the south, and then the real wilds of the real south, this flat, lawless land, where on a bad year people still offer sacrifices to the saints begging them to make it rain, just a little, if they please, just enough for the cattle and the grapes to pull through. And then Lara and I will sit on the beach, and look at the Mediterranean, and she will feel what the locals feel: that this land is indeed finis terrae, the farthest end of the world.
That will happen in summer. I would never bring her here in winter. Winter in Salento makes you wish you were dead, with everything turning cold and bitter and even more hostile than usual. The wind, in particular, behaves like a psychopath. It bites and lashes at you, and when it blows from the sea, it crushes you with the stink of dead fish and a dampness that weighs you down like clothing when you are drowning.
It was winter, and we were fourteen, when something happened to Art.
At that age we weren’t spoilt for choice as to what to do with ourselves on long winter nights, other than watching horror films on telly or going to American Pizza. Our interest in girls was getting to its peak, but the girls our age were too busy with older boys to notice us, so we killed our time, like the other kids in town, walking up and down the main street, soldiering on with the cold seeping through our bones. The struscio, it is called, one of the bits of southern culture none of my English girlfriends ever got. So what do you do? Lara asked me once. You just walk back and forth? She couldn’t believe the answer was yes. You walk back and forth in a small pack, and every now and then you stop and talk to an acquaintance, or play with one of the stray dogs that seem to forever haunt Salento.
Art had got a telescope for Christmas.
It was entry-level, but good quality; his parents had saved for a while to buy it. Art was going through an astronomy phase, and they did what they could to support him, as always. After that, he went through his photography phase, which had such a momentous impact on my own life. Art went through more phases than I care to count, and I guess he still does. It is not that he gets bored with his old toys and shouts ‘Next!’ in a spoiled way. He does get bored, but only once he understands how those toys work (which, admittedly, happens quickly). When he takes a fancy to something new, be it astronomy or pick-up techniques, he gathers all the books, the tools, the knowledge he can put his hands on, he squeezes the juice out of them, and once he is satisfied that he has sucked the topic dry, he moves on. He would say, Specialists stick to one line, but I’m after patterns. I never knew if that made sense. Trying to understand Art has always been frustrating.
Anyway. He had this new telescope and he planned to christen it with the easiest target in the sky, the moon. Finding a bright night in Salento is easy—you just pick a night and it’s almost certainly going to be bright. Art picked the first Saturday after the Christmas holidays. ‘It’s a full moon,’ he said. ‘It’ll be grand.’ He wanted us to be with him. At the time, I didn’t understand why; none of us cared about astronomy. Now I realise that the telescope was the most precious thing Art had ever possessed, and he wanted to share it with us, for all the times we’d pay for his drinks, or his coffee, or cigarettes. None of us were bothered by any of that, not even Mauro, but Art is the sort of person who doesn’t like to be in debt, even if the debt is in his mind.
A normal boy would have just stuck the tripod in the fields behind his house, but not Art. Art had worked out, through some maths that was well beyond my grasp (and might easily be bullshit) that the best moon-gazing spot around Casalfranco was an area a few miles inland. From there, he assured us, the visibility was optimal, and we were bored enough to actually let him drag us there. We brought with us a bottle of wine, tobacco, weed and some food. The weed was a recent discovery. Art hadn’t started growing it yet.
We got there on Mauro and Tony’s Vespas, Art and me riding on the back, awkwardly balancing the telescope. With no helmets, of course, because in the nineties you wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a helmet down here. Tony had been driving a Vespa since he was ten, well before the legal age of fourteen. Mauro had just started and was still thrilled by the novelty of it.
The spot Art had picked was in the back of beyond. The last proper house was a good ten minutes from where we eventually stopped. We had passed by a few dark, solitary huts, blocks of bricks with no heating, electrics or water. Almost nobody lived in those huts anymore. Almost.
We found ourselves in an expanse of scrub—clay-red earth and spiky bushes, criss-crossed by drystone walls marking the boundaries of fields. We were surrounded on all sides by the gnarled silhouettes of olive groves in the distance, as if the trees trapped us in the middle of a secret henge. It was a desolate, unforgiving place.
‘We’re lucky the wind calmed down,’ Mauro commented.
Art whispered, ‘Look at the moon.’
The moon was immense. I am aware this is in part my imagination. Memory is like Alice’s medicines; it makes things bigger and smaller at whim, and that night looms so big that everything is oversized. But part of it is true. By some trick of perspective the moon did look immense, a luminous hole in the night sky. Mauro and Tony left the Vespas at the edge of the unpaved road and we walked on into the open countryside.
There are no marked paths in Salento, no kissing gates or gracious stiles, only drystone walls, with occasional openings in them, either made on purpose or caused by a collapse. This countryside is not made for walks. It ravages you with wind in winter, it burns you down in summer, and the only reason why one would possibly want to walk here is toil—or to follow a crazy friend with a telescope. It had not rained for almost two months, and what little moisture there was in the dirt came from the sea. The moon gave the thirsty land a purple hue. Art had forbidden the use of torches (he said our eyes had to get accustomed to the dark, to make the most of the telescope), so we had to rely on moonlight to negotiate our way between brambles and rocks. It was easier than I thought it would be; I hadn’t realised how bright a full moon can be.
It made me jump. ‘Fuck you.’
‘Why, don’t you want to call in the werewolves?’
I was uneasy. Without factoring werewolves in, Casalfranco had its share of flesh-and-bone unwholesome characters, and, honestly? That night, in that place, I wasn’t so sure I would count them out.
‘Here,’ Art said.
We were on a comparatively elevated position. Ahead of us, after miles of scrubland and drystone walls, was a little deserted road, the only sign of the modern world in sight. After that was the sea, moonlit and speckled with waves. Art and I started immediately to assemble the telescope, while Tony and Mauro rolled a joint, opened the wine and got out the food. The joint had been smoked and a new one had been rolled by the time the telescope was ready. It was a stocky white tube on a tripod, with a smaller tube on top of it, and a panoply of wheels.
‘The small tube is the finderscope,’ Art explained. ‘It has a broader field of view than the main body. By rolling this wheel, you see, you align the finderscope with the main body. Then you use the finderscope to find what you want to look at, and only then do you look into the telescope.’
Tony said, ‘The moon is bigger than Mauro’s mum’s ass. Can’t be that difficult to aim at it with the big tube.’
‘Yeah? Here, try without the finderscope.’
Tony plastered his eye on one end of the telescope. He shuffled it around a bit, then said, ‘Okay, I give up.’
Art took his place. ‘An object as big as the moon, you could find it, but it’s quicker with the finderscope.’ He shuffled the telescope towards a clump of olive trees. ‘To align finderscope and telescope, you aim them at a terrestrial object and…’
Art lifted his head, still looking at the olive grove, and frowned.
‘What’s wrong?’ Mauro asked.
‘I thought I saw something.’ Art squinted into the telescope again. ‘A movement.’
‘It’s the weed,’ I said.
Art shook his head and drew back from the telescope. ‘I’ll be right back.’ He started towards the olive grove. ‘You guys stay and watch the gear.’
None of us went with him. Why? I have been asked over and over again. Isn’t it obvious? We were all too scared. Three is company. Two, not so much. Art didn’t mind being alone, but Art was used to living in open countryside. We considered ourselves townies.
‘Go!’ Tony shouted behind him, as Art half walked, half ran towards the olive grove. ‘Show the werewolves who’s boss!’ His quips fell flat.
Mauro was trying to adjust the telescope. ‘This damn thing,’ he muttered. ‘Can’t make it work.’
I didn’t need the telescope to see Art get to the tree line, hesitate one moment, and then step into the grove and out of sight. I squinted to make out what he could have seen. I have gone through those moments a million times, both on my own and during the investigation, but honestly: I only saw Art, until I didn’t see him anymore.
We all sprang back.
‘Art…?’ Tony said.
‘Art!’ Mauro called.
Art didn’t reply.
Tony said, ‘What the fuck…?’
We looked at each other. My skin was turning into scales. If I was uneasy before, I was rapidly sliding down towards full-fledged terror. ‘We should…’ I started, then I stopped. We should go and see what happened, I was going to say. We all knew that, but no one wanted to make the first step.
Tony whispered, ‘He’ll get bored.’
‘You think it’s a prank?’ Mauro asked.
I was tempted to call out Art’s name one more time, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to call attention to myself, even though I didn’t know whose attention I didn’t want to call. If only we were braver, or more generous, we would have moved sooner, and perhaps we would have found Art before it was too late. We were very young, that is all I can say. As you grow up, you stockpile a lot of if onlys.
Eventually we managed to unfreeze. Tony put the cork back on the wine bottle and brandished the bottle as a club, and, thus armed, we walked cautiously towards the grove. Olive trees live for centuries, and the older they are, the more twisted they get; these ones were positively ancient. Thick and warped, they looked like the damned in Gustave Doré’s illustrations to Dante’s Inferno—one of my father’s favourite books.
We stood on the tree line, as on the threshold of a temple, not daring to enter.
‘Art?’ Tony called. ‘We left your telescope behind. Unattended.’
Mauro gestured for him to shut up. Listen, he mouthed.
I could hear my heart thumping. I could hear my friends breathing. But no noise came from inside the grove. In that perfect silence, I would have heard Art, or anybody else, in there. Or would I? I had no inclination to step inside and see for myself. The grove gave off a sense of danger, and not the sort of Hollywood danger you defeat with some wit and a brawl. It was a stranger crawling into your bedroom, a priest forcing a boy to his knees and not to pray; it was real danger, the one that takes something away from you.
And suddenly I couldn’t stand it anymore. I turned around and dashed towards the Vespas, running with all the energy I could gather, running running running. Mauro and Tony ran behind me. We arrived at the mopeds short of breath. While Mauro and Tony fumbled for the keys, I cast a glance at the olive grove: it was motionless; not bigger, not stranger, not darker than any other clump of trees. I have been asked by so many people to explain what happened that made us run, and I always give the same answer: nothing. We didn’t see anything, we didn’t hear anything, and yet we were afraid. No, not of ghosts, I had to say endlessly to smart-asses with or without a uniform. Whether ghosts exist or not, you know what they are supposed to be; they have a name, a definition. But we didn’t know what we were afraid of; we were just afraid, and our incapacity to put a name on that fear made it infinitely worse.
I don’t know the reason why we were afraid, but I will swear, until the day I die, that it was a good one.
We rode back to the last house we had passed, and called the Carabinieri from there. They thought it was a prank at first, but finally they accepted they had to move their ass out of the station and come have a look. They wouldn’t find Art that night, or the next day—or, in one sense, ever. The world as we knew it was turned topsy-turvy. Casalfranco was on the news; townsfolk discovered a hitherto unheard-of reserve of love for Art; and when the hope of finding him alive started dimming, a local crook hinted not so vaguely that we, his friends, might have killed him. It was madness.
It lasted seven days.
Excerpted from The Book of Hidden Things, copyright © 2017 by Francesco Dimitri