The book dust in the Edinburgh Central Public Library is nothing to sniff about. It's full of writhing, biting microcreatures that can drive you mad - or drive you to murder.
Dreich is the Scots word for our
interminably grey, dark and bone-
chilling Scottish winter. Freezing
rain turns to icy sleet and the
blasting wind slashes through the
streets of Edinburgh like a hail of
nails. A thousand sword cuts would
Bodies run bent and
hobbled, seeking shelter from
winter’s fury. This is the sullen,
hostile bleakness that the Arctic
wind drapes over Edinburgh’s pewter
-grey, deserted streets.
On nights like this, when the black
and grey buildings of Edinburgh are
obliterated in a swarm of frantic
whiteness, the old and homeless
huddle in the warmth of the
stairwell of the Edinburgh Public
Library. Even the stern custodians
don't have the heart to expel them
into winter's death grip. But at
8.30 p.m. the public must leave the
Edinburgh Public Library, and by
9.30, the staff must be gone too.
Library lights are switched off, one
by one, light by light, floor by
floor. The darkness descends deep.
Yet in the bowels of the Edinburgh
Public Library, the dust of
thousands of ancient books trapped
in the blackness continues to fall
in showers finer than the powdered
snow eddying and drifting through
On a cold cruel night such as this I
was working late in the bowels of
the Central Public Library. I was
eager to get home, but I was
starting to brace myself for the icy
blast that would rip at me on the
walk back to my tiny bedsit in
It was the winter of 1969. With
mixed feelings, I had taken the
library job in early November, after
spending the most beautiful and
memorable time of my young life as a
gardener on a private estate on the
outskirts of Edinburgh.
Over the summer I luxuriated in a place full
of trees, flowers, animals and insects. I would work stripped to
the waist, scything the long sensual grass or digging in the rich fecund soil. My body was toned, taut and
tanned and I felt wonderfully close to nature.
Autumn had passed in full majestic
colour, but as the cold winds
rustled the fallen leaves and frosts
began to harden and sugar the earth
I realized that my idyll was coming
to an end. Alas no more would I be
able to scythe a clearing and lie
naked, sunbathing while dreaming of
making love with a girl I had yet to
I would miss the scented air filled
with the flower pollens that rose up
in clouds on hot summer days, and I
would miss the breezes that bore
this fertility aloft. The only
thing I wouldn't miss were the
midges that bit and made me itch
like crazy on warm summer
I needed a job, so before the first wintry snarl of
wind and frost, I answered the
advert for temporary Library
Assistants in the Edinburgh Evening
News. I accepted the job with wages
of £5 per week. It wasn’t great pay
even in 1969, but it would cover my
meager expenses of rent and food
with a little left over to spend on
my motorcycle project, a 1959 A10
650cc BSA that I had been rebuilding
over the previous year.
My dad gave it to me in boxes
hoping that I would never put it
together. Despite his warnings of
the dangers of motorcycles, I was
obsessed and persisted when many
would have given up. Once the bike
was finished, it would take me off
on wild, freewheeling adventures to
England, Europe and beyond.
Fantasies of alluring French
mademoiselles, dark eyed Italian
ladies or brown skinned Spanish
gypsy senoritas sustained me while I
was rebuilding the engine.
Rumours of topless beaches and
nudist islands in France propelled
the paint job, while tales of
liberated sex and drugs in Sweden
and Denmark kept the project alive
when knuckles and patience got
skinned. I saw myself roaring down
some open road with a gorgeous semi-clad beauty on the pillion…
But now, on this dreichest
Scottish nights, I was confined to
Edinburgh’s Central Public Library,
sorting and cataloguing, stamping
and filing in the musk of dead men’s
The Library, gifted to the
City by the Scottish-American
philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, is
a huge Edwardian building with a
grand imposing entrance on George IV
Bridge. I entered the library by
crossing a small bridge leading to
the arched doorway, but in reality
the entrance is high above ground level.
The foundations of this building lie
200 feet down in the ancient rock of
the Cowgate. Floor after floor
descends down to the medieval
streets - these dark grime filled
skeletal spaces, which were once
Edinburgh’s original crowded
The Cowgate is a corruption of ‘Sou’gate’ or South Gate - the southern entrance to the medieval walled city. Once the haunt of Lords and Kings, by the late 1960’s it had become a filthy, menacing and forgotten space, filled with derelict and neglected buildings. Among the depressing decay lurked the night shelters and hostels for its sad and frightening denizens - alcoholics, the mentally ill, the homeless, tramps, down and outs, criminals and worn out prostitutes.
The former glories of another age,
such as Tailors Hall lay as weed-
strewn, boarded up hulks, while the
old Magdalene Church, filled with
Medieval Guild emblems, was now
visited only by tourists who came to
see the knife marks on the execution
table. That dismal, black and bloody
bench where criminals and dissenters
were drawn and quartered after being
hung from the gallows in the
The weak winter Scottish sun never,
ever touched the Cowgate’s cobbled
streets. To look up from them was to
see black, soot-encrusted tenements
and the ugly rear ends of the
university, law courts and the
library closing in to exclude the
Near the Edinburgh Public Library
lay the haunted Greyfriars Kirkyard
where three centuries before,
hundreds of Covenanters
were imprisoned and murdered.
Arrayed around the stark bleak Presbyterian
Kirk are the ghoulish and macabre
tombs of Edinburgh’s rich, pompous,
vain and famous, even yet in death
vying for attention.
The basement of Edinburgh's huge
Central Public Library lies at the
same level as the dust-filled
coffins and tombs of this ancient
Kirkyard. Here was a sense that the
ooze and stoor of thousands of years
of human suffering and cruelty had
gathered and congealed.
It was clear in my mind from the
first days in the library job that I
wasn’t staying long. As much as I
treasure books, I didn’t see myself
spending my life with them. The dry
overheated dusty book halls were
claustrophobic. I rejoiced at the
end of a shift when I could breathe
fresh air once more.
There were a few young people like
myself working as temporary
assistants here, some working a gap
year before going on to further
education, and some training for a
career in library science. On rare
occasions, I was able to have some
fun and laughs with some of the
younger staff, but laughter and
noise were not welcome in the
hallowed halls of Central Lending.
The majority of the staff were older
spinster ladies, hair in buns,
dressed in tweed skirts, cardigans,
high-necked blouses and sensible
brown lace up shoes. Kindly,
friendly yet reserved, they were
helpful to me. But I discerned a
certain disapproval and prudishness
in them and a feeling that they were
just waiting out their time before
retirement to their tidy house in
the suburbs with cats and flower-
arranging classes for diversion.
Mr. Graham, the Head Librarian whom
I had met at the job interview,
struck me as a stiff and
authoritarian man. It would become
abundantly clear that he had a
general contempt for young people -
and for me in particular with my
long hair and ‘bumfreezer’ leather
Mr Graham was of the old
school of disciplinarians.
Punctuality, reliability, dedication
and devotion to books was his credo.
He ran the library with a style that
would have made a German S.S.
He issued commands such as -
“Pockets! Young man, take your hands out of your pockets!”
and “Take this book to Lending now –Jump To It!” that must never be challenged, only obeyed.
He stood at the door of the
library every morning, with his
pocket watch in hand, checking the
arrival times of his staff. His
silver hair immaculately slicked
down, his hawkish eyes peering out
through gold rimmed spectacles, his
perfectly creased and tailored dark
suit, polished shoes, stiff white
shirt and darktie. The picture of
efficiency, authority and precision.
I had a big problem with time-
keeping and would invariably arrive
late, after a long night tinkering
with my motorbike. The black
oiliness under my fingernails gave
testament to my hobby. After a couple of years messing about
with oily engines, the grime would
not wash off.
One morning Mr. Graham
pointed out the state of my hands,
as if I were on parade in the army:
“You must wash your hands more
often, and clean under your nails.
We don’t want oily fingerprints all
over our nice new books, do we?
You’ll never get a girl friend with
such filthy hands.”
We were so different Mr. Graham and
I. With my long shoulder-length hair
swinging around my shoulders and my
flared trousers and denim jacket, I
was a 19-year-old dreamer with a
head full of sexual fantasies. I got turned on reading ‘Catcher in the Rye’ and heavier stuff like ‘Madame
Bovary,’ ‘Germinal’ and macabre
stuff like ‘Rosemary’s Baby.’ But
best of all I liked reading D.H
Lawrence and John Steinbeck.
To Mr. Graham I was a regressive and
errant employee who needed to be
brought to heel, and it was with
smug delight that he repeatedly
caught me trying to slip in late,
unnoticed behind some members of the
Mr. Graham instituted a
penalty system on me, deducting five
shillings for every quarter of an
hour I was late and giving me extra
late shift duties. This only built
my resentment and increasing dislike
of the older man.
My first library duties were working
in Central Fiction, tidying books,
stacking shelves, filling out
membership forms, filing tickets,
stamping dates on books, taking
fines. The atmosphere was dry,
reserved and humourless. The
visiting public was much more
interesting than the library staff.
My favourite characters were the
short-sighted old ladies who fought
each other over a large-print Agatha
I once had to separate two old dears who were
hitting each other with umbrellas
"It's mine!" cried one.
"No, I saw it first!" yelled the other.
The book was in imminent danger of
being pulled apart. When I had
rescued it I noticed that the last
page of the mystery novel had been
torn out ‘in revenge’ by one of the
old ladies. If one couldn’t have it,
the other wasn’t going to find out
Another memorable character was the
lecherous drunk who wanted to read
Ulysses and discovered it was kept
in an ‘Annexe’ with lots of other
lewd and libidinous novels.
“An Annexe!” he bellowed to the
prim librarian. “You keep one of
the finest pieces of literature in
an Annexe. What’s that about?”
Her blushes and embarrassment as she
tried to explain and justify the
contents and rationale of the Annexe
stuttered. “Some of our readers
might be offended if they
accidentally opened certain books on
certain pages….. and then there are
the children and young people to
She looked to me for support, as I
was just about to explode with
mirth. I knew what she was talking
about. The books fell open by
themselves at ‘the naughty bits’ and
the relevant pages were all dog-
eared and grubby.
“So, what else have you got down
there?” the drunk leaned over the
counter craning his neck to get a
look at the small hoard of censored
books kept out of public sight.
"I can seeCatcher in the Rye
and is that Sons and Lovers
and Old Lady Chat. But I don’t see
anything by the Marquis De
Sade….haven’t you got Justine?”
“Emmm no, but if you would like to
borrow any of these books,” she
lowered her voice, “May I see your
“Ah, bugger, didn’t bring it with
me, maybe next time. I’ll tell you a
A man walks into a library and asks in a very loud voice.. ‘Can I have some fish and chips.’
The librarian replies,’ Sir, this is
a LIBRARY. You must speak quietly
OK, says the man. Then lowering
his voice to a whisper he asks,
‘Can I please have some fish and chips?’"
We all laughed. The joke broke the
ice. It’s why people stay in
Scotland – for the humour.
The drunk man shrugged his
“I’d better be going before last orders. Thanks anyway. I
know where I can get a bit of the
raunchy stuff now – eh lad?”
He winked at me, smiled and stumbled
out of the door and out into the
dour Calvin-encrusted streets of
The library attracted such wonderful
characters and eccentrics. There
was the old man who lived in the
Salvation Army hostel and came into
the library every single day. He told me that he was reading his way through the fiction library - every
single volume of it from A to Z.
After five years of daily reading he
had reached the letter E.
I wondered if this old man would ever
make it to L let alone Z. He was
quiet, a gentle person, educated and
I often wondered what personal
events had brought him to this
strange task. He didn’t appear to be
alcoholic but I now wonder if he was
using the reading as an addiction
transfer. A means of escaping the
call of the chemical addiction or
maybe a way to forget, by immersing
himself in the imaginings of
writers, he could temporarily forget
some dreadful reality, some terrible
trauma in his past?
He was to me the ‘Bookworm,’ burrowing his way
through the library. He may have
been the only person alive to have
read some of the books there.
Week after week many shelves in the library would not need tidying. Many of the books were never asked for and the dust collected on their edges. Romances, ‘who dunnits’ and horror stories were ever in demand. But Bookworm was the only person who read systematically and relentlessly, without discrimination or pre-judgement. I admired him and imagined that he was a professor of literature who had had a breakdown and was repairing himself by this means.
There were other members of the public who loitered in the toilets - they now call them ‘gay’ but I knew them as ‘queers’ and ‘poofs,’ and in that era they were despised and persecuted.
Derelicts and tramps wandered in and out trying to get free heat before the attendant would usher them back out into the freezing Edinburgh night. These men and women bundled in ragged clothing, hunched, carrying bags full of rags and scavengings from rubbish bins. They stank of urine and alcohol and would ask in whinging voices ‘Can you spare a shilling for a cup of tea, son?’
My first few days at the library I gave generously, then I realized the only tea they drank was in whisky or from a bottle of cheap red wine which they would share in the basement toilet of the library.
Then there were all the attractive
young schoolgirls who came in the
afternoons bringing with them the
fresh smells of youth and flowers. Their laughter, giggles and smiles always made me blush, embarrassed by
the arousal their shapely bodies
created and the exciting imaginings
running through my mind.
I think they fancied me, but like me they
were shy and inexperienced.
Still, I could imagine kissing and
caressing a true, loving virginal
girl friend, maybe in that secret
clearing among the rosebay willow
herb, or on a deserted beach on a
It was on my third day in the library, that I first learned about the strange phenomenon of ‘book dust.’ I must
have been exposed to it the very
moment I entered the library, but
with the confusion and strangeness
of a new job I hadn’t really noticed
It was when I was tidying the
bookshelves that I became fully
aware of it, sticking to my hands
"Once you have made sure that the
books are in proper decimal order,
put one hand behind the books, pull
them forward and then with your
knuckles tap them back until they
are nicely lined up with the front
edge of the shelf,” said Miss
Paterson, demonstrating this tidying
“Carry on putting away any returned
books, ordering and tidying all the
way through the library from A to
Z," continued the ever-prim
"That should keep you busy
for an hour or so.’ She added with a
I had reached H when I noticed my
hands had become covered in some
kind of very fine, slightly greasy
substance, a slightly slippery dirty
cream-coloured dust. Not as greasy
as motorbike grease, with which I
felt very comfortable, but this made
It reminded me of the greasy dust
that clings to cookers, but much
finer, more penetrating and
adhesive. It clung to my fingers and palms, it
got up under my nails and mixed with
the bike grease.
It stuck to my shirt and corduroy
trousers. The dust was so fine that
it filled my pores and made my skin
feel like smooth porcelain.
When I put my hands to my nose, they
smelled of rotten meat - the foul
smell of putrescence, just like that
clawing stink that was released
when, as a gardener, I had stepped
on a long dead rabbit in the long
grass at the estate.
I'll never forget the maggots wriggling under
my boot and the sick queasy feeling
the stench brought on. I had to sit
down for a moment to fight off the
When I had finished tidying the book
shelves I asked the librarian what
this sickening powdery stuff was.
“Don’t you clean around here? I’ve
got this greasy dust all over me.
What is it?”
“Oh, that is book dust, young man.”
Miss Paterson replied in a matter-
of-fact tone. “It’s everywhere in
the library. No matter how much we
dust and clean, it keeps coming.
"It fills up the corners in the
bookcases, forms a fine film over
the books. It’s in the air, between
the cracks on the floor, it gets
into your clothes, into your hair,
and we must be breathing it in all
"But don’t worry, my young man. It’s
harmless, unless, of course, you are
allergic to dust. There have been
several people who had to give up
working here on account of their
dust allergies. One or two got it
quite badly and I believe that it
may have caused the death of one of
my former colleagues.”
“Death?!!! How was that?’ A shiver ran down my spine.
Suddenly the library seemed more
“Well Hamish McKay, he worked here
for 25 years, then one day it seems
that he opened an old book and began
sneezing. He didn’t stop sneezing.
He became quite ill, started to come
out in big red welts and oozing
sores. He was scratching and itching like a
dog with fleas. They took him into
the Royal Infirmary and pumped him
full of drugs, changed all his
blood, but none of it was any good.Old Hamish got more and more swollen up until he couldn’t breathe and he
died a horrible choking, agonising
death, poor chap.”
The librarian related the story,
relishing all the details and as if
to taunt me, mimicked the choking
death by putting her hands to her
throat, sticking out her tongue and
rolling her eyes.
My mind was racing, contemplating
the horrible death of a librarian
and the weird idea that a book could
kill someone. Intriguing and
fascinating, but was it really true?
“I hope that you’re not winding me
up Miss Paterson. You’ve got me
quite worried. I’d better watch out
for that book he opened. Do you
remember the title?”
“No, my young man, it’s a long time
ago…I think it was some kind of
The queerest thing of
all was that there didn’t seem to be
any disturbance to the books in the
shelves where he said he had been
working. After he died I looked
everywhere for the book but couldn’t
“You really are winding me up now,”
Miss Paterson smiled weakly, raised
her eyebrows and looked straight at
me and said, “Now would I make up
something like that? But I haven’t
heard of anyone else having such a
severe reaction to book dust.
"Strange," she continued. "Old Hamish worked down in
the bowels of this building in
Accession and you would have thought
he would have been immune to book
dust after 25 years.”
“What is ‘Ascension?”
“Accession, dear boy, is where books
“Acceded?" I stammered.
“You’ll see soon enough,’ said Miss
Paterson. “All temporary staff are
required do a stint down there, to
cover when permanent staff go on
holiday. Accession is in the
basement of the library.
"It's where all new books are
catalogued and prepared for lending,
and where all the sole remaining
copies of the library books are
kept. The place is stacked floor to
ceiling with unusual books, some
rare, some odd, some beautiful, some
astonishly strange. And yes, before you ask,
it’s filled with book dust.”
I scratched my hand, an annoying
itch. I reminded myself that I must
wear gloves when using fiberglass. I
had been making a seat base for the
bike the night before.
On my seventh week at the library I
was told that I would be required to
work in Accession. Two of the three
ladies who worked there were taking
holidays. I would report on the
coming Monday at 3.00 p.m. for the
I felt an irrational creeping dread
about the prospect, partly due to
the seeds of concern that Miss
Paterson had planted in me, and
partly because some of the young
temps had told me how awful it was
down in the basement - stuffy,
boring, depressing and dusty.
The front of the Edinburgh Public
Library appears solid and robust
like any normal building, but behind
these normal public areas is found a
strange disconcerting space. Here
lies a world of annexed books,
withdrawn stock and administrative
and service functions.
This rear section of the building
was specially built to support the
weight of millions of books, all
stacked in heavy wooden shelves.
The Edwardian designers had devised
a massive steel frame with floors of
cast iron grids to support the
stupendous load, of row upon row...
tier upon tier... shelf upon shelf
Each floor was a grid form, a criss -cross of pierced metal, a suspended latticework that allowed views upwards and downwards. Down and down, level after level into the darkness to finally end at Accession.
A strange kaleidoscope of black
grid work and bookshelves, staggered
and aligned - a ‘cage of books’ -
where books are imprisoned, held in
suspension, with their potent and
dangerous content of knowledge,
ideas and power.
Between the shelves bare lightbulbs
swing, casting long eerie shadows
through the stillness. All sounds
become muffled, dampened and
deadened by the acoustic absorption
of the mass of paper stored in this
Footsteps make no sound, and uttered
words are swallowed in the darkness.
It is so still I once imagined I
could hear the books reciting their
contents, a low babbling drone.
There are no echoes, no
reverberations, just whispers from
disembodied voices, and in the
distance the dull thud of a closing
Everywhere glinting and sparkling in
the still air, illuminated by the
shafts of electric light, hang
drifting clouds of book dust,
falling down imperceptibly from
level to level to settle finally in
Every surface is coated with the fine talc; like a woman’s face powder - fine oily stickiness that clings to the hair, the clothes and clogs the nostrils, the lungs and the bloodstream. It has a smell, a slightly sweet pungency. The stench of decay and miasma.
Here, on my first night working in
Accession, strange thoughts obsessed
me. What exactly is book dust? Is it
the bits of book paper rubbed off by
fingers or something more complex?
Is it the decay and the rot of the
paper in the damp Edinburgh air; the
defoliation of the paper, its
Or is it the spores of some fungus
feeding upon the pages?
Could it be the excrement of minute
living creatures, the crumbs from
the dust book mites and bookworm’s
meal of words?
What is a bookworm?
Has anyone ever seen one outside of
Or is there something demonic at
work, hell bent on the destruction
of human knowledge, information and
beauty by insidious means?
Out of curiosity, I look up book dust in the encyclopedia but there is no such entry.
When I look under ‘Dust’ another world is revealed to
me – a terrifying micro-underworld
dominated by Pyroglyphidae -a nightmarish fat bloated body with
tentacles and legs.
Fortunately, these spidery horrors
are minute. Three of them would fit
on a pin head. They feed on skin fragments and sheddings
and other biological effluvia.
The average human sheds 1/5-ounce of
skin fragments per week; one ounce
every five weeks; over ten ounces a
When I multiplied this by the number
of people working and visiting the
library my imagination could see the
huge feast awaiting these invisible
And since the dust mite
excrement has been accumulating here
for all these centuries, I wondered
if there were bits of medieval
murderers or hanged men in the
furthest corners of Accession;
powdery vestiges of their gruesome
Some people can develop toxic
allergic reactions to the powdery
excrement of these creatures which
becomes airborne at the slightest
There were cases of people dying
from an anaphylactic shock reaction
to dust mites excrement. Did this
happen to poor old Hamish McKay?
I now knew something about the composition of book dust but I also wondered if there had been a mutation, a specialized creature which now lived only on the paper that books are made from?
The hundreds of people coming and
going from the library every day and
handling the books, would leave a
feast of dead skin for the invisible
My further reading led to
discovering The Itch Mite Sarcoptes
scabiei a relative of the spider 1/3
mm long which lives in the skin. Its
burrowing hooks and talons cause
intense itching and blisters.
I shivered with repulsion at the
illustration. Certainly this
parasite would inhabit some of the
books returned to the library. The
thought made me scratch my arm.The
itching seemed to move.
Reluctantly, and late for work as usual, I reported to the Accession department on Monday at 3.15pm. The single elderly librarian pointed to the clock and said “You are 15 minutes late, young man. I have made a note. I hope you will be punctual in future. I am Miss McDougal and this is the Accession department. What is your name by the way?”
My name is Alasdair Gordon, Miss.”
Very well, Alasdair. I’ll show you
the work we do here in Accession.
Firstly, Accession is where all the
new books acquired by the library
service are labeled, covered,
catalogued, coded and distributed to
the various branch libraries and
Secondly, it is also a huge store of
books which have been withdrawn from
circulation from lending departments
and libraries, and which are rare,
valuable, or last copies.
Your job is to make out a catalogue card for each new book you see in those trolleys,” said Miss McDougal pointing to a large three-bay wooden bookcase on wheels.
“Give each book an allocated number
and ticket then assign it to its
destination department or branch
library. Those other trolleys have the
withdrawn stock. With them we look
through the catalogue”- she pointed
to a wall of oak drawers labeled
alphabetically by author and title -
“to see if it is a last copy.
If it isn’t, it goes in that bin for
disposal. If it is, a last copy it
is placed in the shelves for
“So it’s a bit like the birthplace
and the graveyard for books,” I
"Yes, I suppose you could say that,
or perhaps the graveyard of young
men’s big ideas,’ Miss McDougal
laughed strangely at her own black
In Accession the book dust lay thickly on the infinite array of books and shelves that filled the huge space at the bottom of the gigantic building.
Shelf after shelf of old, long
neglected books in leather jackets
or worn cardboard covers. Here and
there a petrified finger mark or
hand print showed that long ago the
dust had been disturbed by a book's
removal and replacement.
The thickness of the dust was
testament to how seldom these books
were ever requested. Das Kapital...Mein Kamph...Norton
Dominator Maintenance Manual...Austin
7 year book...Good Housekeeping 1951...
How To Survive a Nuclear Attack...The
Best of Scottish Cookery...The Beano
Annual 1965. A kaleidoscope of the best and worst
in human experience and knowledge
cascading down to the lowest.
Here rested books and ideas that had
changed the world, propelled
revolutions or sent armies to war.
Here the ideas of heroes and
villains; the theories of Einstein
set beside those of Adolph Hitler,
the poetry of Shakespeare beside the
doggerel of ,
Scotland’s - and the world's - worst
poet: William Topaz McGonagle.
The geology of James Hutton, the philosophy of David Hume, the genetics of Mendel, the voyages of Captain Cook, Lord Franklin and Charles Darwin’s Journal from the Beagle; Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations all languishing in this limbo, waiting to be requested by some impassioned student of history.
Or... were these tomes only waiting to
be devoured by time and decay?
Their ideas superseded by modernity?
Would their contents ever be
fashionable or respected again? Or
were they kept merely because they
were the last of the line, the last
of a dynasty?
Whatever the past usefulness of
these books, they now served as the
food supply for an invisible host of
munching creatures that cared squat for ideas
The cold, bleak Scottish cycle of
sleet, freezing rain and Arctic
winds repeated itself over the
next few days. I struggled more
than ever to get out of my rented
room and to my job at the Edinburgh
The Head Librarian warned me that if
I continued with lateness I would be
disciplined. For every quarter of an
hour that I was late I would lose a
half hour's pay. That week I
suffered the loss of a whole hour’s
Day by day my dread of Accession
increased. The place was eerie and
spooky, especially at night when
Miss McDougal went home and I was
left all alone for four and a half
This solitary confinement was
probably my punishment for
continually being late and for
leaving some oily finger-marks on a
new book. The itching had traveled
to my back and sides, and I was
making myself quite raw with
Maybe I’ve picked up a flea or
developed an allergy, I thought to
myself. I'd better see the doctor
about this, it’s driving me mad.
Irresistibly, in those long strange
hours, my thoughts kept turning to
book dust, its ingredients and the
creatures which created it. I took
to placing it under the desk lamp
and looking at it through the
On close inspection I could see that
it contained a small quantity of
black particles amongst the white
Were these the remains of
printed words- pieces of text, or
parts of leather bindings?
If I had a microscope would I find
flecks of cardboard, strands of
string or goldleaf from page edges
and embossed titles?
Did book dust have any narcotic
properties? Would it inspire a novel
if it were sniffed like cocaine?
I amused myself with thoughts of
dissolving it in alcohol and
Like Byron, Shelly and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did with opium. Would it inspire poetry, a travel saga, a crime novel, a work of science, history or a horror story?
I thought that if I listened
attentively, I would hear the book
mites munching and digesting the
great works of men and women. Those
little creatures mindlessly
prospering and procreating on the
words of genius and fools. Munching oblivious to content - through learned texts, poems, cant, dogma,
humour and prose.
It seemed as if this huge library
was filtering down high lofty ideas
- to reduce in this book-retort the
fractional distillates of words and
concepts. The filter, sieving, straining and slowly resolving what should live and endure; what should
die and what should be embalmed and
entombed; what should turn to dust.
My late nights in Accession were giving me nightmares. In one, I was in a strangely distorted library and a tall man in a black coat handed me a small package of white powder.
Snort that,” he said. “It will make
you feel good.”
I did what he told me; he seemed to have some power
over me. I sniffed the powder up
into my nostril, but it wasn’t
powder - it was a mass of wriggling
squirming worms. . .parasitic worms that
began eating me alive.
I vowed to stop reading those books
about insects and parasites. Sometimes in those long boring hours in the deadened quiet of the library
basement it was easy to slip into a
trance or doze off.
One night a strange noise made me start and my
Get a grip I told myself. What
are you afraid of?
I heard a rustle. Was someone there,
in the darkness among the
Was some down-and-out
soul taking refuge from the cold -
or was it the custodian?
I heard a scuttling sound. Was it a rat?
I reassured myself that I was
imagining things and went on with my
cataloguing until again, like some
poor soul out of an Edgar Allen Poe
tale, I was again compulsively drawn
to the books on parasites. I took
down one and began to read.
Parasites make up the majority of
the Earth's species...Every living
thing has at least one parasite, and
many, including humans, have far
more. ... Often the parasites
themselves have parasites, and some
of those parasites have parasites of
Some are capable of taking over the
cerebral functions of their hosts.
Others completely shut down the
hosts' immune systems. Scientists
now believe that parasites may have
been the dominant force in the
evolution of life.
Pages later, I met Sacculina carcini. What she could do made my blood chill...
Through a microscope,
the tiny crustacean looks like a
teardrop equipped with fluttering
legs and a pair of dark eyespots.
The female larva is the first to
colonize its host, the crab. ..She
crawls along the crab's arm until
she comes to a joint where the hard
exoskeleton bends at a soft chink.
Here small hairs sprout out of the
crab's arm, each anchored in its own
She jabs a long hollow dagger
through one of the holes, and
through it squirts a blob made up of
a few cells.
The injection, which takes only a
few seconds, triggers a premature
molting that crustaceans and insects
go through in order to grow.
Reading this makes me gasp in the stifling silence, as if microscopic eyes are peering over my shoulder.
...the larvae plunges into the depth of the crab. In time it settles in the crab's underside and grows, forming a bulge in its shell and sprouting a set of rootlike tendrils which spread throughout the crab's body, even wrapping around its eyestalks.
..these fine tendrils draw in
nutrients dissolved in the crab's
blood, yet what is remarkable is
that this gross invasion into the
crab's body fails to trigger any
immune response in the crab. So it
continues to wander through the
surf, eating clams and mussels.
Eventually, the text explained, the crab is changed by the parasite into a new sort of creature, one that exists to serve the parasite. The crab can no longer do the things that would get in the way of Sacculina's growth.
It stops molting and growing, which
would funnel away energy from the
parasite. Crabs often escape from
predators by severing a claw and
regrowing it later on. But crabs
carrying Sacculina cannot grow a new
claw, nor can they mate and
reproduce. . And while other crabs
mate and produce new generations,
these crustaceans have been spayed
by the parasite and simply go on
eating and eating.
E A T I N G... and E A T I N G . . . and ...E A T I N G ! ! !
Sacculina is only one of many such parasites which transform their hosts into seemingly different creatures...and even alter its behavior.
We are collections of cells that
work together, kept harmonized by
chemical signals. If a parasite can
control those signals then it can
control us. Therein lies the
The idea that a parasite could take control of another creature, becoming its puppet master, fascinated and appalled me.
If a human were infected, how would
he know? Would he be aware of losing
control or doing strange things?
Just what could the parasite make
One evening in Accession I woke startled from a momentary doze. A wave of panic swept over me. I felt something in my ear. Wriggling and burrowing.
I ran to the toilet to look in the
mirror. A trickle of blood dribbled
from my ear. I screamed and hammered
on my head to dislodge whatever had
crawled in there. Whatever it was
could go straight through my ear and
into my brain - like
I needed help. I rushed out of the
library and ran up George the IV
Bridge past the Greyfriars Bobby
statue, knocking some American
tourists over in my frantic rush.
I tore up Forrest Road and onto
Middle Meadow Walk until I saw the
Royal Infirmary and the entrance to
the Accident and Emergency
Department. I barged in and demanded
A startled young doctor with thick spidery mascara examined me, poking in my ears. With an icy smile, and a toss of her head, she said that she couldn't see anything.
I demanded an X-ray. I waited for
ages, getting more and more
frightened and angry.
Finally, I was taken into the
radiography room and they took
pictures of my head.
About an hour later the tarantula-eyed doctor came and showed me the x-rays.
"There's nothing in your ear or head
that shouldn’t be," she said with a
But I could feel it
taking control, wrapping its
tentacles around my brain.
"You're just imagining things," she
huffed." But I'll admit you for
observation and give you an
injection of antibiotics...just in
I remember the cold needle going into my
arm and sinking into an icy drowsiness.
I realised she had drugged me. I
began arguing with her and feeling furious but after that I don't remember much.
Some time after my treatment ended I got another job
in another library; not as grand or imposing as the Edinburgh Central Library, but one just as
important. I’ve been here for four
years and the library has come on by
leaps and bounds.
Two years ago the library won an
award - 'The Changes Lives Award'
from the Chartered Institute of
Librarians. Many of the readers here
are voracious fans of action books,
fantasy and horror but we also have
a video and CD library.
When I started work here we opened
at first, two hours a day, four days
a week but the library is now open
five hours a day, seven days a week.
It aims to provide something for
everyone - relaxation, support for
lifelong learning and recreation. It
caters for those with learning
disabilities and those unwilling or
unable to come in person.
Reading groups, visits by
storytellers and creative writing
sessions provide pleasure and
opportunities for achievement for
The library users group is a
mechanism to make things happen, and
jobs as library assistants offer
opportunities for worthwhile
occupation. I was an obvious choice
to become a library assistant.
Staircars is a small drab town in
central Scotland. Its plain grey
solid houses sit hard onto the road
with no nice floral gardens or soft
high summery grasses to sythe.
Near the town is the 16 foot-high
perimeter fence trimmed with razor
wire surrounding the hard concrete
of the State Hospital. It is the
ugliest assemblage of
constructions I have ever seen. I am lucky because I will never
have to look at it again.
Arriving at the State Hospital you
get an instant feeling for the
calibre of psychiatric patients
behind these walls. Everyone
connected with Staircars stresses it
is not a prison, although it is easy
to see why the public perception is
Most people only hear of this
institution when a judge sends
someone here after a horrific crime.
Like the woman who murdered her
mother and father because - she explained -
they refused to let her have a baby
with herself, that is, mate with
She thought that you could get the
white stuff to make babies at the
Tesco Supermarket. Her parents said
no. This made her very angry,
because she really wanted to be a
mother. So she stabbed her parents
The town of Staircars has no
library, but the hospital has a
large and beautifully equipped
facility to rival any university,
and I now spend as much time as they
will allow working and reading in
I have written all of this, my
story, from the Staircars State
Hospital library. Our library has a
wonderful collection of books on
psychosis, one of my favourite being
The Identification and Diagnosis of
Delusional parasitosis was first
described by the French
dermatologist George Thibierge in
1894. Before 1946, the condition was
known by a variety of names,
including acarophobia, dermatophobia
Patients are convinced they are
infected by parasitic creatures
which only they can see. When
doctors do not confirm the presence
of parasites the patient can become
violent and may have to be
Doctors have been murdered by their
patients. Prospects of recovery are
good if the condition is correctly
diagnosed as a psychotic condition
and not a dermatological one and
with modern drug and psychological
techniques most patients can
They expect that eventually I will
make a recovery of sorts. But I’ll
never be released. Not after what I
At my trial they said I strangled my
doctor at a follow-up visit one
morning, and stuffed her mouth with
some kind of white sticky dust, then
rampaged through the Edinburgh
Library stabbing the Head librarian
and a policemen before I was
But what none of them
understand - the doctor, the police,
the judge - they simply don't
understand - it wasn't me.