In Haunt

The Portico Library is an independent subscription library and exhibition space, first opened in the city in 1806. Writer Catherine Fox reflects on how it has inspired some of her particularly dark fiction…

The Portico Interior

I wish I could tell you I was the sort of child who adored libraries.  But when I was growing up, it was my mother who adored them.  My sisters and I used to hang around whining ‘Can we go now?’ while Mum spent ages choosing new books.  We were far more interested in spending our sixpence pocket money on sweets.  Things only got worse when Mum trained to be a local librarian.  We’d be stuck there for hours while she was on duty at the desk issuing books.  I can still hear that snickerty-snickerty sound of the stamp, while from upstairs came the thumps of the ballet class. 

But I will admit, there’s something magical about libraries.  Every book is a portal into another world, a link to another mind.  They are treasure troves of knowledge, and knowledge is power.  Maybe this is why libraries—especially old ones—feature so often in fantasy tales.  It is certainly why I set a story in Manchester’s Portico library, when a group of MA students and lecturers collaborated to produce an anthology of children’s stories, Crimelines, in 2014.

The Portico Library

By then, I already knew the Portico a little.  I’d brought groups of creative writing students to hear about the history, be introduced to some of the more interesting books in the collection, and to sit and soak up the atmosphere of ‘Polite Literature’.  ‘It’s like Hogwarts!’ was the most common reaction.  The tall dark bookshelves, the mysterious wind dial with a golden hand that seems to spin by itself, the domed glass ceiling, and all those old books—with that unmistakable old book smell.

It was one book in particular—Nomenclatur Aquatilium Animantium—that caught my imagination.  This is part of Conrad Gessner’s 4,500-page encyclopedia of animals that appeared in Zürich in 4 volumes between 1551 and 1558.  This huge leather bound tome seems, yes, to belong in the restricted section of Hogwarts library.  You almost expect it to scream at you when you open it.  Inside you’ll find dense Latin text, and woodcuts illustrating a curious mix of real and mythical beasts.

My protagonist, Milly, is as bored by libraries as I ever was myself as a child.  Milly wants to go shopping, but is dragged to the Portico by her history lecturer mother instead.  ‘“You can sit here quietly and do your homework.”  Off mum went to the Reading Room, which is like a mini-library at the other end of the big library, which in olden times the Private Members of the Portico would sit in and totally die of boredom,’ explains Milly.  I was fortunate enough to be granted temporary membership rights by the Portico staff while I was writing the story, and sat in that room myself as un-bored as you could wish (They serve a very good lunch, too).

The Portico Library Books

I don’t know why it is, but old libraries seem to inspire some of my grisliest imaginative jaunts.  Milly makes the mistake of nicking a small book she finds tucked inside the Gessner volume.  She’s then caught up in the machinations of an evil blue imp with a Shakespearian turn of phrase and a penchant for eating human hearts.  And the moral of that tale, boys and girls, is never steal library books.

By comparison, I’ve always been remarkably well-behaved in libraries.  No exciting library-based adventures have ever befallen me in real life.  But in the world of my fantasy writing, I can’t help noticing that libraries feature prominently.  In my novel Wolftide, the detective protagonist is given the task of locating lost books.  She stumbles on an illegal slave ring operating under the university library, and gets hunted through the underground stacks by criminals with crossbows.  Interestingly, one of the librarians ends up eviscerated and impaled on iron railings.  Which just goes to show that you should never allow small children to get bored in libraries.  They may grow up to become novelists and have their revenge.

Dr Catherine Wilcox is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University.  She writes as Catherine Fox.  Her YA Fantasy novel, Wolftide, is available here. Crimelines anthology is available here.

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