Welcome back to Reading the Weird, in which we get girl cooties all over weird fiction, cosmic horror, and Lovecraftiana—from its historical roots through its most recent branches.
This week, we start on John Connolly’s The Fractured Atlas, first published in 2015 as part of Night Music: Nocturnes Volume II, with Part 2: “The Djinn.” Spoilers ahead (for both this story and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell)!
“Maggs: no first name, or none that anyone could remember, or cared to use.”
Centuries after Couvret slipped into London, Maggs toils there as a book finder, smelling of damp clothes and old paper, quick to buy and quicker to sell. Though associates say he doesn’t love books, he could never destroy one and maintains a prized personal library.
“Only flies could beat Maggs to a bibliophile’s corpse.” He watches obituaries. He haunts estate sales. He’s not above taking advantage of grieving relatives ignorant of a collection’s value. His specialty is “esoterica,” both of the erotic and occult varieties; he has personal appreciation for neither and views his clients as similarly depraved, though the pornography hounds are less sinister. Still, certain occultists are willing to pay lavishly for rare books. He keeps a list, so when they die he can buy back what he once sold them.
Mr. Sandton’s “posthumous” collection contains mostly volumes of 17th and 18th century Asian art. Mr. Sandton’s son isn’t as gullible as hoped, but Maggs should still turn a tidy profit. He works late examining the books and finds a small cloth-wrapped volume that he doesn’t remember purchasing. For a 15th century work, it’s in excellent condition, bound in brown leather. The silver lock is marked with symbols, possibly Persian or Urdu, and Maggs can’t open it. He sets it aside and turns in, only to dream he continues fiddling with the lock.
The click is too quiet to wake him.
Next day he leaves Sandton’s collection with bookseller Atkinson for appraisal. Back home he finds the mystery book unlocked. He leafs through pages hastily written in unfaded purple-red ink. The script and language are unfamiliar; that the book’s a palimpsest with earlier writing on a diagonal will complicate deciphering. Perhaps Atkinson can find a buyer. Better, someone at the British Library might recognize the notebook of an Eastern da Vinci! Maggs goes to bed in hopes of a windfall. Before dropping off, he hears something like the pages of a book being turned. His window’s open—must be the wind.
He wakes little rested and forgets to bring the notebook to Atkinson’s shop. The dealer receives him coldly—what could Maggs be thinking, trying to foist vandalized books off on him? Maggs re-examines Sandton’s collection and is shocked to find every page covered in the purple-red scrawl of the mystery book. He knows they were perfect when he dropped them off—someone must have defaced them overnight in the shop! Offended, Atkinson ejects Maggs and the books.
At home, a worse shock awaits. Every book in Maggs’s personal collection has been pulled from its shelf and scrawled over. Also defaced are the walls, floors and ceilings of his apartment! He finds the mystery notebook in a corner far from where he left it. In a fury he tries to rip it apart, but its pages and binding resist destruction. Nor will it burn in his fireplace. This is no case for the British Library, but for Eliza Dunwidge, notorious even among occultists. Maggs has supplied her with some rare and foul books, but what she really wants him to find is the perhaps mythical Atlas Regnorum Incogniturum, aka The Fractured Atlas. If what he’s got isn’t that, it’s certainly strange and powerful enough to interest Eliza. At this point he’ll offer it for free.
Maggs wraps the notebook in a clean towel and carries it to Dunwidge & Daughter’s. When Eliza finally answers his ring, she refuses to open the door. She can smell and hear what he’s offering, and it’s too dangerous for her. Desperate for advice, Maggs describes what the notebook has done to other books in its proximity. Though outraged he’s brought the thing to her book-crammed house, Eliza advises that the notebook contains a djinn, set free by removing its original cloth binding. The book is the djinn and vice versa. He must rebind it in that protective hexed cloth, after the djinn has fulfilled its purpose with him—Maggs will know when that’s happened.
Maggs returns home and searches for the cloth. He catches it trying to creep into the fire’s embers. Before he can finish rebinding the notebook, lassitude overcomes him. He falls into bed and dreams fleas are sinking unnaturally long fangs into his skin. He wakes to see his true tormentor: a figure cloaked in its own skinless purple flesh, squatting beside him. Its eyes are lidless, its mouth a wound, its hands claws. One bony finger is tipped with a nib that cuts patterns into his belly. Seeing how it bursts a pustule in its own flesh for its purple-red ink, Maggs screams.
He wakes to find himself covered in blood. Under the blood are tattoos identical to the notebook’s script—only his face has been spared the djinn’s writing. Maggs tries binding the notebook again, this time remembering to fasten the lock. When he arrives at Dunwidge & Daughter, Eliza is waiting for him. She accepts the sealed notebook. The djinn, she perceives, is done with Maggs, and it won’t return as long as she keeps the notebook safe in her collection, far from careless hands like his.
So now that Maggs finally understands that there are books and more-than-books, she whispers in his ear to find her book. Find the Fractured Atlas.
This week’s metrics
What’s Cyclopean: The notebook is “palimpsestic,” with words written over words.
The Degenerate Dutch: It’s not clear why the creature in the notebook—not associated with fire other than its unwillingness to burn, no particular association with Islam or the Middle East—is referred to as a “djinn”. It would be just as easy to call it a kelpie or one of Lillith’s demons, and just as relevant to what it’s doing here.
Libronomicon: Books, books, everywhere. Bookstores and book carts and estate sales full of books. Maggs sells most of what passes through his hands, but does indicate particular fondness for Frank Norris’s The Octopus and Sketches by Boz. He also notes The Ten Bamboo Studio Collection of Calligraphy and Pictures as one of the valuable works vandalized by the notebook creature.
If any city should boast a truly Dickensian cohort of fictional bookpeople, it would be London, and in the second chapter of Fractured Atlas, we meet with two choice examples.
I don’t suppose Maggs’s parents were particularly doting, but they must have given him a first name. Say, Edward. Dear little Eddy, or Ned that miserable bastard. Ed the Magpie to his schoolmates, when they weren’t calling him something worse; with “Magpie,” however, the bird with a legendary (if not actual) eye for glittering objects, they’d have hit on the perfect nickname. Maggs lines his nest with shiny books but is willing to trade them for shinier coins. Why not? Those who disparage him as no book-lover mistake the matter by valuing sentiment over rational regard. Books may be an end or a means to an end, money or knowledge or aesthetic enjoyment or power. To Maggs’s credit, power’s not his goal. Power is what sinister occultists seek.
Returning to Maggs’s mononomic status. He doesn’t need a given name for a lover to verbally caress, as he’s “sexless,” or a Christian name, as he’s an atheist. To intimacy in general he appears indifferent. In business, he can be vulturine, descending on the collections of dead bibliophiles while their mourners are most vulnerable to lowball offers, even watching for steady customers to appear in the obituaries so he can gorge on their treasures a second time. Scavengers are low on most people’s lists of Instagram-worthy creatures. The name “Maggs” recalls not only magpies but maggots. Like a maggot, his appearance is unprepossessing at best and offensive at worst—the smell of old paper might not trouble another bookperson, but the odor of perpetually damp clothes?
Poor Maggs, I like you nevertheless, tramping about with parcels of books, and books in your capacious coat pockets, and books piled on your hand-trolley. I like that you leave even worthless books as foundlings on library steps. You wouldn’t destroy any book, except for the one that destroyed all your treasured volumes over which you wept bitter tears. I sympathize with your loss, and with the way most bookdealers look down on you as “an unfortunate necessity.” The “gentlemanly” ones who barely allow you on their premises. Who condescend in buying from you books they actually crave. The books you found by “sniff[ing] after treasures with all the grubby energy of pigs seeking truffles in a French forest.” Here’s to your grubby energy!
Poor old Maggs. Some book-hunters we’ve met have deserved bad ends, or at least invited them. Maggs is one of the accidental victims. Until he unleashed the djinn-haunted notebook, he didn’t understand about “more-than-books.” Certain books struck him as foul, vile, dark, transgressive. But he didn’t have the faith in evil to believe something like the Atlas could exist, as Van Agteren didn’t have the faith in good that lets Couvret contain the deadly book with a holy one.
Our second notable London Bookperson doubtless has powerful faith. Though accorded the secondary status of “Daughter” in the Dunwidge firm, Eliza is the firm’s boss. Other occultists call her a witch or demonist. Whatever name you give her paranormal abilities, she immediately supplies proof of them. She’s not to be tricked into taking a dangerous book off anyone’s hands, because she can smell its baleful potency and hear it whispering its desire for its current owner. “Plague rat” Maggs is lucky she just shrieks when he tells her how the notebook possesses other books, to their ruination. Because she could “see him burn.” Of course, if he can neutralize the djinn, she’ll be so good as to take it under her protection. Eliza’s a sweetheart. I like her, too, a lot.
I guess the djinn is literally a Bookperson. The djinn is the book and the book is the djinn. No wonder its blood and the notebook ink are the same reddish-purple. The djinn is also the writer of the book which is itself, the scrawled content of which it either copies or expands upon on most flat surfaces. Or surfaces not so flat, like Maggs’s body. I think of Omar Khayyam’s verse:
“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”
Here the Moving Finger is a nib-nailed claw, and no piety nor wit nor tears (as far as we’ve seen) can erase its scribbling from paper, plaster, wood or skin. Book hunter Maggs has become himself a Book, like Vinculus in Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, on whose body is inscribed the fabled book of the Raven King. What kind of magic might Maggs’s body art restore to England?
A parting question: How did the notebook end up among Maggs’s acquisitions? Did Sandton’s son sneak it in, as Van Agteren snuck The Fractured Atlas into Couvret’s chest? Did it plant itself? It is self-mobile. By the way, the Atlas’s other (official?) name is more straightforward: Atlas Regnorum Incogniturum, Atlas of Unknown Realms.
I await chilling revelations about the connection between Maggs’s notebook and the Atlas, and just what Eliza means to do with the number one title on her Tomes Bucket List.
The Fractured Atlas is itself fractured, and the connections between this week’s section and Part 1 seems at first glance tenuous at best. Different people, different setting, and a different book. I think. Eliza also must think we’re dealing with two distinct creepy books, clearly, since she sees Maggs’s experience with the notebook as a gateway that makes him more likely to find the Atlas in the first place.
Except, are we sure they’re different? How many books can be floating around that summon destructive entities when opened? Aside from that one play… and that book in the back-alley porn shop… okay, maybe it’s a more common phenomenon than bookstore browsers would like to think. The “djinn” in the notebook is less deadly than the MESS was last time. As a book-lover myself, I find its contagious desecration stranger and in some ways more frightening. Lots of things can kill you. The library-scale equivalent of opening a file and discovering only random ASCII characters, on the other hand, is something most people might reasonably avoid, with potential losses scaling up to “Library of Alexandria” and beyond.
Although this isn’t random ASCII. What is the notebook’s dweller writing on every available scrap of paper and skin? Could that be fragments of the Atlas? I’m reminded, like Anne, of Susanna Clarke’s Vinculus and his pride in being a book of magic. Maggs seems considerably less likely to appreciate the experience, and the experience in question seems considerably more difficult to appreciate.
And here, at the end of the section, we tie back to Part 1 with the question of faith. Faith—and the willingness to use “good” books practically—protects Couvret, letting him escape the Atlas’s depredations and walk out of the story to be lost in London’s crowds. Maggs’s lack of faith is, according to Eliza, a barrier to finding the really terrible stuff that she craves. We are told that “to conceive of the reality of the existence of a book like The Fractured Atlas required a faith that he simply did not have.” He knows that books have power, but the power of reading changing the reader. Imagining any change beyond the cognitive effect of the words is too much of a reach, until he sees such change for himself.
Before that revelation, Maggs takes little responsibility for the changes that may be wrought by his work. He sells books that disgust him to people who disgust him, and doesn’t distinguish strongly between erotica and occult tomes. It’s not clear whether this should be taken as insight into the kinship between sin and blasphemy, or ignorance of the depravity found in rare tomes of magic, or both.
Speaking of that depravity, we also learn for the first time the Atlas’s full name: The Atlas Regnorum Incognitorum, which translates as the “atlas of unknown realms”. That… kind of fits what we saw last time, the unfamiliar stars if not the photorealistic images of convenient offices. “Unknown realms” sound pretty cool, unless you know the specifics. Or unless you already believe that the unknown remains that way for a reason, that there are things man was not meant to etc.
In fact, neither of the books we’ve seen so far imparts knowledge per se. Eliene may have seen worlds, but doesn’t get to do much exploration. Maggs doesn’t get to read what’s written on his skin, ceiling, and preexisting bookshelves. The transformations they force on their “readers” involve a very different sort of power—and what holds that power, we don’t yet know.
Next week, we cover a pick from Black Cranes, winner of this year’s Shirley Jackson anthology award. Join us for Grace Chan’s “The Mark.”
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is available from Lethe Press. You can find some of her fiction, weird and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is online on Twitter and Patreon, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.