Friday, September 06, 2013

My brief, real-life search for vampires

I've never told anyone this story. It's not that it's a secret or anything, but more that I never thought it was much of a big deal. Still, the memory hit me recently, so I thought I'd share since the Halloween season is just around the corner.

Lo those many, many moons ago when I was an undergrad (1980s), I took part in a class on 19th Century literature. At the end of the semester, we students had to turn in something like a 20-page paper on the history behind a particular novel. At the time I thought 20 pages was a ton, as likely did most undergrads, but now I'd laugh and think, "Wow. 20 pages is nothing."

Especially given the novel I was handed for my report.

Dracula, by Bram Stoker.

I've never been the biggest fan of the novel. I've read it a few times over the years, and I do enjoy it, but I don't gush over it like so many others I've known.

It was also fortunate for me to have landed Dracula because at the time I already knew a fair amount about the real-life history of vampirism. I was still in a phase in which I wanted to be a horror novelist, so I was somewhat well read in all things horror, the supernatural, the occult, etc.

Keep in mind, this was in the days before the Internet. My knowledge had been gained almost entirely from books at that point.

As time drew near for my paper to be due, I did like every other undergrad and waited until the last minute. Or near abouts. Maybe a week before the end of the semester, I decided it was time to get serious about this paper because it wouldn't write itself.

I gathered and studied my personal books at home, the ones I thought would provide me with information and bibiliographical material, but I felt it wasn't enough.

I wanted to go deeper, to study in detail the rise of the idea of vampirism.

To that end, I made a trip to the main library in the city where I lived. It was in an old building even then, a building that now houses a historical museum. The aisles were tight, rooms were empty, and the lights didn't always work. It was a gloomy place, what one might think of as a spooky place.

I always felt myself alone there. More than alone. It was like being stranded in a world made of nothing but books. There easily were hours that would go by without me seeing another living person unless I glanced out a window to the surrounding streets, and even those streets weren't near as the building was surrounded by a sizable yard.

Anyway, I spent some time there doing my vampire research. And I came up with nothing. Yes, nothing. Available were very few books which had any indepth material, or at least there was no material I did not already have access to through my books at home.

Disappointed, I decided to give my university's main library a try. It wasn't as old, but it was much larger than the city's library.

There ... things got a little weird.

Going through the library's card catalogues (remember, no Internet, very few computers), I was glad to find there were indeed more than a few books pertaining to my subject, some of these books apparently quite deep into the history of vampirism, especially during the Middle Ages.

I broke out a trusty yellow pad and a pen and started up a list of all these books, along with the Dewey Decimal numbers to allow me to find the books. By the time I was finished, the first page of the pad was filled. I had something like 25 books to research, most of which I'd never heard of before.

Great. That got me going.

By the time I got a chance to begin my serious hunt for these books, and I wanted them all for my own purposes if not for the upcoming paper, night had spread its dark wings upon the campus.

Placement of the first book was supposed to be on the third floor. I went up to find the book. It was not there. I shrugged it off, figuring the book had been checked out. I went on to the next book, which was supposed to have been on the floor above. It also was not available.

I kept up my search. It took hours. Midnight was drawing near.

And none of the 25 books were to be found.


Especially considering these weren't mainstream reading materials. Some of the books were a century in age or older. I couldn't fathom that all of them had been checked out. A few of them, maybe even half of them, yes, I could accept that in the off chance some other student (there were 25,000 of us, after all) was also doing similar research.

As closing time neared, I decided to head to the ground floor. My plan was to ask one of the librarian assistants to run a computer check for me to find out what had had happened to all these books.

Hitting the stairwell in the oldest end of the building, I began to work my way down. I had started at the very top, the sixth floor, and kept plodding down and down and down. All the while, I never passed another living being, which was unusual. I shrugged it off due to the lateness of the hour.

When I reached what was familiar to me as the ground floor, I tried the door. It was locked.

Weird. I'd never known that door to be locked.

Even odder was that the narrow vertical window in the door through which I usually could see the front room of the library, it was covered by some kind of paper or poster. And I could hear nothing beyond. Usually there would be the hustle and bustle of students, librarians and assistants, even at this late hour. But now? Nothing.

Was my watch wrong and closing time had already come? Had the library's hours of operation changed without my noticing? Was I locked inside?

By this time I was becoming somewhat frustrated. I had spent hours trying to do research and nothing had come of it. Now I was possibly locked inside the library.

I considered climbing back up to the second floor to try the door there. Even if I was locked in the library, perhaps I could find an assistant working late or a security guard. If worse came to worse, perhaps I could find a phone to call the campus police and let them know about my situation.

But I didn't do that.

To this day, I'm not real sure why I didn't do that. It would have been the logical thing to do.

Instead, I continued my way down the stairs.

I knew there were lower levels to many of the major buildings on campus, including the library, but those basements were not my true goal.

Most students at the time were not aware of it, but my university had an underground tunnel network that connected most of the major buildings on campus. The tunnels were mainly for employees to use, to quickly allow them to move from one spot to another without wading through the throngs of students that often filled the grounds. I happened to be aware of this tunnel system because being a journalism student and reporter and editor for my college newspaper, I had a few connections not readily available to most other students. I had even been down in the tunnels once, but that had been in another part of campus. The portion of the tunnels I had seen had been quite modern looking, mostly concrete block, clean and lit well.

I suppose my thinking was that I would head down to the tunnels and try to find my way to another part of campus. But I really don't remember giving it any thought at all.

I just headed down and down.

At the first sub-level landing, I noticed the steps and the landings were not as clean as the levels above. There was grime and grit built up on the walls and at the sides of the steps. The flourescent lighting was dimmer, weaker, and there was even an old plastic bucket sitting in a corner with dirty, grayish water floating about within.

Ah, well. Students and staff didn't come down here, so the custodial staff probably didn't care so much.

There was a door on this level, metal and thick looking. It was locked, and there was no window through which to see.

Inexplicably, I continued down.

The next basement level was even dirtier and darker. The single flouresenct bulb flickered off and on. The walls were nearly black with grime.The door here was also locked, and grungy looking.

I kept going down.

On the third landing, I could barely see. The light here did not flicker, but it barely burned. You know when a flourscent bulb has nearly died and only glows a very light purplish color kind of like a blacklight hung over a '70s rock poster? Yeah, it was like that. Also, there was so much gunk on the floors that my steps were tacky, and I was afraid to touch the walls for fear of coming away with who knows what.

But, thankfully, there was another door. Another big, thick, heavy metal door.

I tried the cold, round handle.

And it opened.

I gave a sigh of relief.

But then I stopped. There was no light beyond the door. I only opened it a few inches, but I could see nothing inside but a flat blackness. And the chill. It felt like waves of cold were rolling from the room beyond. I remember having a jacket on, and I still shivered.

The better part of valor gave me caution at that point, and I decided to close the door.

Glancing around, I saw the stairs went even further down, but there was no light there. More blackness lay ahead of me if I continued along my path.

Standing there, I felt a bit foolish. I told myself I wasn't going to go through a dark door into someplace with which I was not familiar, and I would be an idiot to go down a stairwell into darkness, but deep down there was more to it than that. I was beginning to feel as if I was caught up in something ... unusual.

The search for the books. The eerie stairwell. The door that opened into a black darkness. It was kind of like something a Lovecraft character might experience, and I was well aware of Lovecraft even at my young age.

I decided it was time to head back up the stairs, to try the door at the ground floor again, or perhaps to continue to higher levels in search of an open door or a person or a phone or anything.

My way was not retarded. Nothing slowed me in the least, other than my growing fatigue at the lateness of the hour and all the walking and climbing I had been doing.

It seemed to take forever, but eventually I reached the ground floor again. Oddly, the window in the door was no longer covered, and beyond I could see the familiar well-lit main room of the library, plenty of people floating around there and the sounds of their hustling and bustling coming to my ears. I was most gratified to find the door opened easily at my touch.

By this time it was near one in the morning, and the library staff were preparing to close up for the night. Still, I had to finish my paper, and I wasn't giving up yet on my hunt for those books. I had a few minutes left, so why not make the best of them?

I proceeded to a desk, one of those long and tall and wide and giant desks you see only in old libraries, and told the lady behind it of my general situation. She asked to see my list of 25 books, so I handed it over to her. She spent a couple of minutes tapping away at the keyboard to the computer in front of her, then frowned and called over a younger person, a guy about my own age and obviously a student. Apparently the older woman had felt her computer skills weren't up to the task, so she was seeking help. The newcomer tapped away for a couple of minutes himself, then he began frowning.

Finally he looked up at me through his glasses. He seemed a little worried. "All of these books are missing."

"Missing?" I asked.

"Yes," was the response, with no qualifications.

We stood there staring at one another for what felt like long seconds. Eventually, I asked, "Well, were they stolen or checked out?"

"Yes," he said, which didn't exactly answer my question, "but none of them have been returned."

The woman looked as if she should add something to the conversation, so she said, "They've been gone for at least a year. All of them were checked out within a matter of days of one another."

Flummoxed, I still wouldn't surrender my quest. "Well, can't you see who checked out the books and contact them to return the books?"

The guy glanced at the screen again, then back to me. "That's the thing, though, it doesn't say who checked them out?"


He turned around the heavy computer monitor so I could see its glow of bright orange on black. Then he pointed to a digital row of the list of books I had been seeking, his finger coming to rest at a specific blank space next to one of the books.

"Normally there's a name here telling us the person who checked out the book," he said. "But as you can see, there's nothing. And when I checked for the card number of the last person to rent the book, there was nothing there either. I've never seen this before."

Both of them stared at me confused.

At this point, I lost my cool a little. I didn't curse, but I do think I stomped a foot.

Glancing around, I'm sure with frustration clear on my face, I said, "Man, I've spent hours in this place, and it's been a waste. I've climbed from the top of the building all the way down to the third sub-basement, and I've got nothing to show for it."

They looked at one another, then looked back at me, their confusion all the greater.

"But, sir," the guy said, "this building only has one basement level. It's the cafeteria."

I stared back at him. "Can't be. I was just down there."

The woman provided a grin and a "tch," then added, "Honey, I've worked here nearly 30 years. I can tell you, there's nothing below us but the cafeteria."

It was then I remembered the library's cafeteria. I had only been down there once before, but I did remember it.

I muttered something, thanking them while retrieving my written list of the 25 books, then shuffled my way out the door and into the winter night, which wasn't as cold as that chill I had felt coming from behind that basement door.

Nothing more came of any of this. I finished my report with the books available to me at home. I seem to recall getting an "A."

Now, it has been about 25 years since those events happened, so my mind might not be perfect about all the details. A while back I found that hand written list of 25 books on vampirism. It was stuffed into one of my old notebooks on Roman history (yes, I kept them, all six). I thought I might try to find those books today, especially since I have the power of the Internet at my fingertips. But alas, I have misplaced the list again, and will have to search for it.

I would like to add that I am not a believer in the supernatural. But I'm also not a disbeliever. A few strange things have happened to me in my life, things which I can't readily explain, but none of them were so odd that I couldn't imagine some natural reason behind them. The little tale I've told above is all true as I recall it, but I'm not sure it bordered on the supernatural. Perhaps I was overly tired. Perhaps my memory is incorrect. Perhaps there was just a series of misunderstandings.

I don't know.

But sometimes, every once in a while when I think about that little situation, I can't help but feel that something was giving me a warning, something was saying, "Stay away."

Whatever the matter, I'm glad I didn't go through that basement door.


Paul R. McNamee said...

Strange, indeed.

Another Van Helsing at the school?

Someone trying to hide their tracks?

A vampire aficionado made off with everything?

Still doesn't explain the Twilight Zone aspect of extra floors, though - unless the staff didn't want to admit there were tunnels to a mere student.

Ty Johnston said...

What I should have done is gone back over to look down the stairwell, but it was late, I was tired, and they were closing. After that, it was the end of the semester, and I was busy.

Then again, maybe it's better I didn't look down that stairwell.

The building is still there, though it's no longer the university's main library, which is now elsewhere in a new building.

Charles Gramlich said...

Very interesting indeed. I have once had a similar phenomenon happen to me, although it was in the woods and was "just a feeling." I was hunting and came out on the top of a cliff, maybe 300 feet high and looked down into a small hollow. It was shadowy there but not truly dark. I could clearly see a way to go around the cliff and down into that hollow, but I could not make myself move. The thought of going into that hollow frankly terrified me, although I'd been through plenty of similar places in that forest, which was in the Ozark Mountains. I tried to convince myself I was being silly, but I finally just turned and walked back the way I came, and for the first couple of hundred yards I kept looking over my shoulder toward where that hollow lay.

Charles Gramlich said...

btw, this is a great story in it's own right. Definitely would be of interest to many readers.

Ty Johnston said...

Charles, your Ozark adventure is another one that sounds of Lovecraft, though one of his characters would not have heeded the mental warning.

And yeah, I've considered making my "vampire story" into a short story, or possibly part of a novel. Might do so yet. Just waiting until I have something that feels right for it.