The Most Horrible Story In The World – John W. Jakes

The room was a very plain room. It had four walls, a ceiling. a floor. But it was new to Thompson because he had never seen it before. He stood in a relaxed fashion, studying it. There was a desk in the center of the room. It was gray, but Thompson could not identify the material from which it was made. A very old man with a clipped beard sat behind the tlesk. A candle flickered in a brass holder on top of the desk.
“Pardon me,” said Thompson.
The old man looked at him. He had been looking at Thompson for a long time. In fact, Thompson could not remember a time when the old man had not been looking at him.
“You like horror stories. I take it,” the old man said, “That’s why you’re here. Everybody in the world like a good horror story, at least once in their lives.”
“Yes,” said I hompson, filled with vague relief, “I guess that’s why I’m here.”
“Fine.” said the old man. He reached into the desk. Where, Thompson couldn’t tell. Just out of sight. No drawers slid. But his hands came out. and they held a white card. Again they vanished. This time they held a metal-pointed pen. There was ink in the pen. It shone with a night-blue luster in the candle flame.
“Name,” said the old man.
“James Thompson.”
Thompson thought a minute. “March third, nineteen oh two. Is all this necessary?”
The old man seemed annoyed. “Of course. We must have all the records, in order that you may become a fulltime member.”
“Full time member of what?” Thompson asked. He noted that the pen seemed always full of ink.
“The Horror Book Club, of course,” the old man replied. He scratched on the card, writing down the information Thompson had given him. Then he put both card and pen out of sight under the desk. His hands came back up, empty.
“Everything has been taken care of,” he said, smiling. “You’ve been admitted.”
“Is that right.” Thompson said aloud. He had begun to wonder whether membership in this club was exclusive. The candle kept on burning, but it stayed the same size.
“Er . . . what kind of books do you have? I mean, could you let me have an idea of some of your titles? Dracula, Frankenstein, The Turn of the Screw, things like that?”
The old man laughed again, this time like he was chiding a small and extremely foolish child. “Oh no, Mr. Thompson. We deal in actual, stark horror. We never use second-rate products.”
The hands dipped down again. Thompson wondered if it was some kind of game. They came back up. They put a book on the desk. It was a thin book, roughly a foot square. It had a whitish cover. The old man’s fingers rasped on the cover when he put it down on the desk.
“Human skin,” the old man said cheerfully. “Very good binding.”
‘Um . . . yes,” said Thompson. He glanced at the cover. In square letters the cover said, The Most Horrible Story in the World. Smaller type down near the lower right hand corner, said. “James Thompson, February 3, 1955.”
“Why, that’s today,” Thompson said.
The old man waved. “A formality. We always record on the books when a new member enters the club. Keeps the records straight.”
“Oh,” Thompson said. “Do I . . . just start reading?”
The old man shook his head and got up. He took the book in one hand, the candle in the other. “I’ll conduct you to one of our reading rooms. We provide special reading rooms for the use of members.”
Thompson did not comment. He followed the old man. They went through an opening in the wall that he had not seen before. But it was in a dim corner, difficult to see clearly.
They walked down a long hall. On each side of the hall were closed doors. The candle made shapes move on the walls.
“What’s that screaming?” Thompson asked, a bit puzzled. “It seems to come from behind these doors.”
“That’s right,” the old man said over his shoulder. “This is the Horror Book Club, you know. All of our members take an active interest in their reading. They participate. They get horrified. It’s really a horrible book, you know.”
“Is it?” Thompson felt a slight tingle of expectancy run along his back. He felt somewhat masochistic at the moment. A new thought struck him. “Is that the only book you carry?”
“Yes,” said the old man. “We’ve had many editions made. It’s the most horrible story in the world, you understand. The most horrible one ever conceived. That’s why all our members read it.”
The hall seemed to stretch on endlessly. Doors marched by. Screams faded, new screams took their place. “How late are you open?” Thompson asked.
“I stay here all the time,” the old man said. “Members are always coming in. They usually stay for a long time. The book is irresistible.”
“Must be,” Thompson said.
Finally they came to a door. The old man stopped. He seemed to pull at the door and it opened, although there was no handle on it. He motioned Thompson inside.
The reading room had one chair and one table. An unlit candle stood on the table. The old man applied flame from his candle.
“Severe,” he said, indicating the room, “but functional. All you really need to enjoy a good horror story.”
“Well, thanks,” Thompson stammered. The old man put the book down on the table. “Do … er … is it customary to pay, or tip?” Thompson said awkwardly.
“Ob no. Tlte Founders take care of that.”
“Um. Founders. Still alive, eh?”
“Oh, certainly.”
“Must like horror stories, to set up a place like this.”
“They do,” the old man assured him. “Well, I hope you like the book.”
He walked out and closed the door. Thompson said, “Well,” a couple of times, saw that no one was listening, laughed foolishly and sat down on the chair. He picked up the book, feeling the tingle on his spine once more. Ne opened the book. He began to read.
It was a very short story. He finished it almost immediately. And it certainly was horrible. Almost too horrible. He closed the book and got up. His face felt very pale. He went to the door. He tried to open it. It would not open.
“Old man,” he yelled. “Old man, old man.” He was so insistent in his yelling that he did not stop to think about the other screaming out in the hall. He expected the old man to come, and he did.
The old man’s voice said through the door, “Yes?”
“I don’t like this book,” Thompson said.
The old man said nothing.
“And the door’s locked. I want to leave.”
“You can’t.”
“What do you mean I can’t? What kind of a place is this anyway?” His tone was threatening, belligerent. And weak.
“You’re a member now.” It was very final.
Thompson felt that the old man was gone. He shouted, “Old man, old man.” There was no answer. He went back to the table. His stomach seemed to be gone. He opened the book. He read the story again. He couldn’t help reading it. It had a kind of fascination. He began to see the true horror in the tale.
When he had re-read it for the fifth time, he started to scream. Everybody else screamed, why shouldn’t he? After all, he was in the mood, his stomach felt icy. The candle kept on burning, but it stayed the same size.
He alternated between periods ot screaming and reading. And each time he read the book, it became more horrible. The infinity of horrible horror was something too vast to contemplate.
He felt no need for food or water or sleep, the story was so horrible. Thompson stopped screaming again and opened the book, perhaps for the thousandth time. He anticipated it now, anticipated the screaming it would cause.
The candle kept on burning. Thompson read the story from the book of skin with his name on it. He read it rapidly. It was a very short story:
You’re dead.