The Book Of Gnats

By request, or possibly cajoling, from a few readers, here is the complete text of The Book Of Gnats, first published in Massacre 4 : An Annual Anthology Of Anti-Naturalistic Writings (Indelible Inc, 1993), edited by the esteemed Roberta Mock. I have taken the opportunity to mop up a handful of infelicities in the text, but otherwise it’s pretty much as written sixteen long and tempestuous years ago. I have mixed feelings about some of these old pieces, written before my Wilderness Years, and I can identify a difference in my method, given that then I was writing for the page, whereas now I am ever conscious that I will be reading aloud. Anyway, here it is. Make of it what you will. Oh, and please note that Dobson, the private detective who appears here, is by no means to be confused with his namesake, the titanic, albeit out of print, twentieth century pamphleteer.

Originally published by Thwack & Rudder Ltd in 1926, The Book Of Gnats was written by the noted aviatrix and explorer Maud Glubb (1873-1958). Well-known for her countless newspaper articles, travelogues, and often indiscreet prefaces to other people’s books, Glubb wrote this – her only work of fiction – by the sputtering light of blubber candles during the ill-starred Bilgegrew Antarctic Expedition of 1911.

Captain Gervase Bilgegrew of the Royal Scrofulous Hussars was, according to the Dictionary Of National Biography, “perhaps the most incompetent person ever to lead a polar expedition”. On the very day the explorers set out from the sprightly little port of Mobster, Bilgegrew burned all the charts, broke the compass, contaminated the pemmican supply, and blinded the medical officer. At the Commission of Enquiry held in 1913 upon the expedition’s return, he first insisted that these were unfortunate accidents, later changing his story under cross-examination to plead that he was only trying to run a tight ship and to instil a sense of discipline into his crew. The full story of the disastrous expedition is told in Curwen’s Polar Hebetude : To The End Of The Earth With A Halfwit, to which the reader is referred.

Glubb herself did not return to her homeland until 1919, for reasons which remain shrouded in mystery. Some reports have her leading rebel troops in the Tantarabim Revolution of 1915, but they are unsubstantiated. Glubb herself never spoke of this missing period in her life. Her biographer Gravel Slobber, despite years of prodigious research, finally conceded that “we are unlikely ever to learn precisely what happened to Glubb during this period”.

Slobber notes that the great aviatrix never intended The Book Of Gnats for publication. The manuscript was stored in a huge mahogany casket in the belvedere of a country house in which Glubb’s friend Laburnum Bails worked as a piano-tuner.  Interviewed shortly before her death in 1968, Bails said that the text would have remained forever locked away had it not been for the intervention of Crocus Thwack, sister of the notorious publisher, toad-collector, and sot Wenceslas Thwack. Like her brother, Crocus was both an alcoholic and a kleptomaniac. At a weekend party hosted by Bails’ employer, she jemmied open the casket in the mistaken assumption that it contained a hidden supply of negus. Finding instead the manuscript of The Book Of Gnats, she stole it and later passed it on to her brother in exchange for a crate of grog.

Why was Wenceslas Thwack interested in a virtually illegible stack of pages, each one blackened by blubber-smoke? Neither Bails nor Slobber can offer an adequate answer. Of course, Glubb was a public figure, and the newspapers often carried reports of her latest exploits, but Thwack & Rudder Ltd had never published any fiction before. In those novel-choked years, they had gained a reputation for issuing only ecclesiastical tracts, bell-ringing manuals, and massive, erudite, unreadable multi-volume works on the obscurer by-ways of ichthyology.

Whatever his reasons, Thwack wrote to Glubb seeking her permission to publish. By return of post, he received an extraordinary reply, thanking him profusely, commending his almost superhuman literary judgement, allowing him to edit the manuscript as he saw fit, and instructing him to pay all the author’s royalties to a charitable institution for retired skindivers. Glubb always insisted that this letter was a forgery, and pursued Thwack through the courts. In February 1928, two years after the book was published, she won her case. Thwack & Rudder’s remaining stock was pulped. Glubb herself employed a private detective named Dobson to track down and destroy all other copies of the book.

A lesser man would have blanched at the prospect, but not Dobson. Within hours of accepting the job, he burgled the publisher’s offices, coming away with sales ledgers, files, invoices, receipts, and threatening letters. His agents fanned out across the country, burning down bookshops, terrorising librarians, and breaking into houses at dead of night. They staked out junk shops, bazaars, and jumble sales. Week by week, Dobson stuck pins into the enormous map on the wall of his office, as more and more copies were traced, purloined, ignited, and obliterated. He sent to Glubb regular monthly reports, detailing successes, setback, near-misses, and red herrings. When her money ran out, and she could no longer pay him, Dobson financed the operation himself.

By November 1934, the task was complete. Thwack & Rudder had printed ten thousand copies of The Book Of Gnats, and there were ten thousand pins in Dobson’s map. A celebration fireworks party was held, Glubb and Dobson personally thanking all the agents who had been so unstinting in their efforts. As they sipped cocktails and exchanged anecdotes, reliving the high points of the great pursuit, one agent remained strangely quiet, preoccupied. Ned Mudbag harboured a terrible doubt. One morning in July 1931, waking up in a grim hotel in Pugwash Magna, Mudbag had an attack of the jangles. He was barely able to make it to the lobby. The standard procedure, with jangles, was to send Dobson a coded telegram, explaining that the agent would be out of action for a couple of days. Dobson was an understanding man. Usually, he would arrange for a bouquet of nasturtiums to be delivered, accompanied by a sympathetic note. On the other hand, if for any reason there was a particular urgency in the case, he would have another agent move in, flamethrower at the ready.

That hot and agonising morning, Mudbag had not sent a telegram. Instead, his brain befuddled, he subcontracted the work to a complete stranger he met on the pavement outside the hotel. It was madness. It was contrary to all his instructions, to everything Dobson had ever taught him. Three years on, poor Mudbag could still not understand what on earth had made him do it. Yes, the stranger had seemed trustworthy. Yes, he had cradled Mudbag in his arms and helped him back up to his room. Yes, he had spoon-fed him custard and mopped his fevered brow. But there was no excuse, and Mudbag knew it, and he had never had the courage to admit what he had done. The worst thing was the nagging doubt. He could never be absolutely certain that the copy of the book he was tracking that day had actually been destroyed.

Ironically, in view of what happened, the stranger was trustworthy. He listened attentively as Mudbag babbled the details of the task at hand. He swore that he would tell no one, and he never did. He even gave away the crumpled banknote which Mudbag thrust into his hands as payment, to a pockmarked mendicant loitering outside the hotel. The stranger had only one flaw – he was severely myopic. He nearly missed the library, entering the municipal baths by mistake, but a passing Jesuit steered him in the right direction. After an hour of squinting and peering along the shelves, the stranger located the book – or so he supposed – deftly concealed it under his mackintosh, walked out of the library, caught a bus to the town dump, and, unnoticed by the superintendent, tossed on to a blazing bonfire the stolen tome – a 1912 reprint of Schmidlapp’s The Ambiguity Of Indigestion.

And so the sole surviving copy of The Book Of Gnats remained, unborrowed, on the shelves of the Pugwash Magna Public Library until 1952, when it was withdrawn from stock and donated, together with some forty other books, to the Cardinal Preen Mercy Home For Demented Paupers. When that institution was closed down in 1966, its library was auctioned off, and The Book Of Gnats was part of a job-lot bought by Grimes Pugh, a secondhand book dealer with a shop in Hooting Yard. Pugh died in 1973, and his business was taken over, after much wrangling, by Dr F X Duggleby MD, who had been struck off the medical register in the same year for the illicit prescription of nose-drops. Duggleby’s new career as a bookseller was not a success, and on New Year’s Eve 1976 he closed up the shop, drank four pints of stout in a seedy tavern, threw himself into a canal, and drowned. The shop was boarded up and the property condemned. Three days before demolition, a big van pulled up outside, and took away the mildewed and rotting books which were piled in tottering heaps in the store-room.

Most of the stock ended up in a furnace, but sharp-eyed scavengers plucked out the few books which were salvageable. The Book Of Gnats was one of them. Eventually, by who knows what twists and turns, it found its way to a charity shop in Pancakes, where, on the fourteenth of January 1987, I bought it for tuppence.

When, some weeks later, I read the book, I was thunderstruck. It seemed to me to be a work of art of the highest quality, tantalising, majestic, profound, and valiant. Since that first, delirious reading, I have not shifted one jot from my opinion. At that time I did not know the curious history of Maud Glubb’s masterpiece, but it did not take me long to discover that the book was long out of print, and unknown to seemingly all my literate and well-read cronies, who are legion. I should explain that I am, like Wenceslas Thwack, a publisher.

I think it was during the foul autumn of 1988 that I decided to issue a new edition of The Book Of Gnats. The previous summer had seen two of my titles sell in unexpectedly high quantities, and for once I was flush with money. I envisaged a deluxe edition, bound in some exotic, and possibly illegal, animal hide, with a cover design by the noted gouacheist Scrimgeour, a learned introduction by myself, and an exhaustive commentary by Glubb’s biographer Slobber.

I am a woman of considerable integrity, and I did not wish to tempt the fate of Thwack’s edition by neglecting to seek permission from the copyright holders. Like most people, I was aware that Maud Glubb had met her death on the sixth of February 1958. She had accompanied the Busby Babes to their European Cup tie against Red Star Belgrade, and on the return journey, she perished, along with the flower of postwar British football, in the Munich Air Disaster. Apocryphal it may be, but I have heard that Sir Matt Busby’s first words after the crash, on coming to in the hospital ward, were “Glubb… Glubb… Glubb”.

Glubb had died intestate, and she had no close relatives. The lawyers discovered that she appeared to have no distant relatives either. Despite the publicity surrounding her death, and a series of public announcements, notices in the press, and radio bulletins, no on ever came forward to lay claim to her estate. No one, that is, except patent frauds, such as a twelve-year-old boy from Idaho named Biff, or Chump, or something like that, who was swiftly revealed to be the victim of an experiment in mesmerism, his actions controlled by a sinister mastermind bent on world domination. This shadowy figure was apprehended and sentenced to a term of imprisonment. Biff, or Chump, freed from his entrancement, returned to Idaho and when last heard of was a “soda jerk”, although quite what such a trade involves is  not known to me.

Control of Glubb’s literary estate fell, by who knows what arcane legal mechanism, into the hands of a Dutch businessman named Jan Van Der Strob. There! I have written down the name of the monster who has reduced my life to misery, and – worse, far worse – has deprived the world of the opportunity to read The Book Of Gnats in its entirety. The three fragments reproduced below, to which this essay forms an introduction, are all that remain of this work of towering genius. How so? Read on, and I will tell you.

On Christmas Eve 1988 I received, via a telephone call, the information I had been awaiting, impatiently, for weeks. Tracking down Glubb’s literary executor had been ludicrously difficult, but now at last I had a name and address. I fired off a letter to Van Der Strob at once, introducing myself, outlining my credentials, and proposing terms for the right to publish Glubb’s only work of fiction. It was a polite, businesslike letter, and I popped it in the postbox on Christmas morning.

On New Year’s Eve, a sniper perched on a rooftop across the street shot me in the leg as I dandled my grandchild on my knee. Seconds later, almost before I began to howl, I heard the unmistakeable sound of a helicopter, whirring above my house. It disgorged a troop of black-clad commandos who shimmied down rope ladders, kicked in the window, already shattered by the sniper’s bullet, and tumbled into my sitting-room, panting and snorting like hogs. In my mind’s eye I see dozens of them, but I suppose there can only have been four or five. My grandchild scuttled for safety behind a large armchair. I was curled up on the floor, wailing hysterically and making rather a spectacle of myself. To my surprise, the commandos ignored me. Instead, they rampaged about the place, overturning furniture, smashing my ornaments, and hurling books across the room.

“Gnats?!” shouted one, in a foreign accent. This was the first indication that the mayhem was in any way connected to Maud Glubb’s masterpiece, but I was in too much of a state to notice it at the time. The commandos spent another half-hour laying waste my house before departing through the windows, haring up their rope ladders into the helicopter, which whirled them away as suddenly as they had come.

This extraordinary circumstance remained a mystery to me until some days later. The gunshot wound, though bloody, was superficial, and I was discharged from hospital after a few hours. I spent the first days of 1989 clearing up the mess of my home. Then, on the fourth of January, I received another visit. This time, at least, my caller used a more conventional means of entry – he knocked at the door and waited to be allowed in. He even had a visiting-card, an old-fashioned touch of which I approved. As he stood, snuffling, in the porch, I read it:

Gulliver Whitlow. UK agent for Van Der Strob International Enterprises GmbH.

Still with no thought in my head that the influenza-wracked gentleman in my porch had any connection with snipers or commandos, I invited him in to my sitting-room. How engaging, I remember thinking, for Van Der Strob to send a personal emissary! I was to be rapidly disillusioned. Whitlow refused to sit down.

“Madam,” he said thickly, “I believe you are in possession of a copy of The Book Of Gnats by Maud Glubb, published by Thwack & Rudder Ltd in 1926. Is my information correct?”

I nodded.

“Our crack squad of commandos, augmented by a sniper, failed to discover this book when they called on you some days ago. Hence my visit. I must insist that you hand over to me the book, together with any photostats and what have you, this very instant.”

You will have little difficulty imagining the pirouettes which took place in my brain. Let us leap forward a minute or two. I have regained my composure, at least outwardly.

“The book is not in my possession, Mr Whitlow,” I announced.

“Do not dally with me, madam.”

“The book is not in this house. If it was, sir, surely your band of thugs would have found it?”

“Commandos, madam, not thugs. Commandos.” He sneezed.

“Bless you,” I said. I have always set great store by politeness.

“Very well,” spluttered Whitlow, holding a surprisingly dainty handkerchief over his mouth, “Where then is The Book Of Gnats?”

“In a safe deposit box in an important bank,” I replied.

I did not intend to divulge any further details, and half-expected Mr Whitlow to start behaving like a comic-book villain, threatening me with unimaginable violence unless I spilled the beans. Instead, still snuffling, he asked me if I had such a thing as a mentholated lozenge. I told him that I allowed no suckable medicaments into my house.

“In that case, madam, I must bid you farewell,” he said. I showed him to the door, and he was gone.

In the next three days, every important bank in the city was looted by a gang of skilled thieves. The police were mightily puzzled by the fact that safe deposit boxes containing gold, jewels, cash, treasures and compromising documents were emptied, but their contents left strewn in heaps in the vaults. Nothing at all, it seemed, was actually stolen. The newspapers hushed up this bizarre series of non-robberies, so I did not find out about them until it was too late. On the third day, of course, Van Der Strob’s criminal minions located my box, found my copy of The Book Of Gnats, and made off with it. To this day, I have failed to recover it. I am a woman bereft. You, who tragically have not read this magnificent work, may sympathise with my plight, but you cannot truly understand it.

One day in February, I received a letter from Van Der Strob himself. All innocence, he wrote that unfortunately he was unable to grant me permission to reissue Maud Glubb’s book, for reasons bound up with the legal intricacies of her estate. Then, pencilled in as a P.S., showing his true colours, the Dutch hellhound added, “As for the manuscript, I personally incinerated it. Heh heh heh!” The wretch! One day, ah, one day I shall pay someone to assassinate him.

After a prolonged stay in a Home for the Bewildered, I set about rebuilding my life. I published books on ducks, spinets, and the Great Dismal Maroons. But Glubb – or rather, her book – continues to haunt me. If only I had a good memory! I could recreate her timeless words in my head, and damn Van Der Strob to perdition. But all that remains of The Book Of Gnats are three paragraphs which, for some forgotten reason, I copied out on to the crumpled wrapper of a boiled sweet in miniature writing during a thunderstorm in the summer of 1987. This scrap evaded the clutches of Van Der Strob’s brutish pack, shoved as it was, unregarded, in the tiniest drawer of my escritoire.

I transcribe the sorry fragments below, and I weep.

I – So was a tempest loosed upon the city, and its very fabric uprooted from the mud. Whirling and howling, the city was dispersed upon the firmament, coming to rest none knew where. And the mud spawned all manner of noisome pests, squirming and wriggling to escape the gigantic puddles which were left in the wake of the storm. These were not puddles of water, no, nor of any liquid known to the human mind. And then my eyes saw, standing fiery on a wooden plinth ringed by scum-pools, the obscene figure of Winckelmann. In his left hand he brandished aloft a scrap of burning linoleum. His right hand was made into a fist. As, dribbling, I watched, the fist was slowly opened to reveal a….. I cannot say. I do not know. For just at the moment my peering, watery eyes would have seen that… that thing, I was startled by a toad, which leapt up at my face, and thwacked me on the forehead, leaving an imprint which remains there to this day, like a brand.

II – The man with the toad-mark flapped his shattered wings. In vain, in vain. Perched on the rock, beaten by harsh winds, encrusted with seaweed, sightless, he was of a sudden assaulted by a voice, roaring at him across a thousand continents. “Man with the Mark of the Toad! Know ye the Song of the Boll Weevils? Aye? Then sing, damn ye, sing!” Whence came that monstrous voice? What hideous nursery had cosseted its owner, what kitchen fed it? “Man with the Mark of the Toad!” it screamed again, pulverizing universes, “Hare ye to me now, leave your drab rock! Shed your cracked wings! Sprout fins, smack the boiling sea with your flippers, come to me! I hold in my gnarled, gnarled hands many gifts for you! I hold anconeal bowls! I hold strangled curlews! I hold pods and gum and pitchblende! Spring forward now! Go from your dour perch! I hold magnification instruments, Coddington lenses, and towels for you! I hold pigeons’ blood, crayons and isinglass! The crayons are of colours no human eye should ever contemplate! The isinglass gleams in a charming handmade jar! The jar has your mark upon it, Man with the Mark of the Toad! Come….” There were hours upon hours of this wretched gibberish, enough to make an ant die. The man with the toad-mark beat his useless wings against the wind and turned his head away. His brow was crawling with gnats. The gnats had come a long way, from barely imaginable puddles of slop where once a city had stood. The City of Gnats.

III – Winckelmann strode importantly through the boulevards of the walled city. He chucked trinkets and baubles to beggars and cripples, holding a vermilion cravat over his nose as he did so. Worms slithered up his dainty anklets, only to be torn away by scrofula-ridden flunkies. Imposing but haphazard, Winckelmann relied upon his most trusted attendant to lead him in the right direction. These boulevards all looked alike to him. He could be going anywhere, were it not for Sigismundo’s genius. As a factotum, he was a treasure. Save for his inexplicable habit of pissing on coinage, Sigismundo was faultless. In this warren of pestilent streets, he knew precisely what to do. Turn right by the trough; ignore the screeching placardists; beat the pedlars insensible with their own clubs; smartly avoid the motorbikes. Before long, Winckelmann and his retinue stood in the courtyard of the Impossibly Huge Building. The stink was repellent, but Winckelmann knew etiquette if he knew nothing else. With an effort, he removed the cravat from his nose and, at a signal from Sigismundo, pushed an envelope stuffed full of flies into the grubby hand of the waiting serjeant-at-arms. A ludicrous ballet of bows and scrapes took place, Sigismundo taking photographs the while. After what seemed like hours, Winckelmann was ushered into an inner chamber. His attendant was not allowed to accompany him. Without his trusted lackey at his side, Winckelmann was a little nervous, but his discomfiture did not last long. No more than fifteen seconds passed before he was greeted by his hosts – a swarm of gigantic gnats, whose thrashing wings knocked Winckelmann mercifully unconscious before they devoured him, every last bit of him, grinding him to dust between their powerful biting jaws. It was over in a flash. Then, buzzing and twanging, the swarm left the chamber as it had entered, through a chute, through a chute, through a chute.

8 thoughts on “The Book Of Gnats

  1. This reminds me that I can’t seem to find another of the Massacre stories in the podcast archive. Have you ever read ‘The Accidental Deaths of 12 (was it 12? Cartographers: Ken Buttercase’ on the show?

    It came between this and the earlier Gigantic Bolivian Architectural Diagrams I think.

  2. Mr Jennings : It was indeed twelve cartographers. At some point, I retitled that story “He Tripped Over A Peewit”. As far as I recall, it has never been resurrected, either here on the blog or as a recital on radio. Perhaps I ought to dig it out…

  3. Perhaps you ought indeed. It has always been a great favorite of mine.
    I take it that the other 11 cartographers went the way of the many, many ships captains whos pen portraits….

  4. Mr Jennings : Well, yes. The only evidence we have for the fates of those other eleven cartographers is in pictorial form, in the Hooting Yard Calendar 1992 (out of print). As for the ships’ captains…

  5. What about the alphabetical series of poet biographies which both began and ended with “Maud Abdab” – we could probably make an entire series out of Frank Key stories which were intended to be a series but instead petered-out after a single episode.

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