by Frank Roger
I discovered the Variant Readings bookstore on one of my long Saturday afternoon walks through the city center. I love browsing through old and used books, and whenever I stumble onto a shop I haven’t yet visited, I just cannot walk past. I like adding stuff to my ever–growing collection, and I often need birthday presents for book lovers, so I have sufficient excuses for spending too much time in bookstores.
Especially when I saw the sign reading “rare and special editions” there was no stopping me. I went in and the shopkeeper, a middle–aged man wearing a faded Wishbone Ash T–shirt, greeted me politely.
“Can I help you?” he asked. “Are you looking for anything in particular?”
“Tell me what you have,” I said.
“Rare and special editions over here, alternate editions at the back and down the stairs. Feel free to look around. Take your time.”
I wanted to ask him what alternate editions were, but as he had returned his attention to his laptop screen I didn’t bother. No doubt I would find out by myself. I glanced at the titles of the books spread out on tables and propped up on shelves bending under their heavy loads. Dusty hardcovers and faded paperbacks, old best sellers, some signed first editions, novels, non–fiction, poetry collections, travel guides, anthologies, a bit of everything. This looked like what a standard used books place offered, and was of little interest to me.
I went to the back, indeed labeled ‘Alternate editions’, and picked up a few paperbacks at random. I still didn’t get what made them ‘alternate’. They were titles you could find in any bookstore. I leafed through a worn copy of Dubliners, a story collection by James Joyce, and couldn’t spot anything that made it different from what I recalled. It wasn’t until I read the blurb on the back cover that I started to grasp what I had in my hands.
“Finally back in print, this story collection is the only work of fiction by a promising Irish writer who tragically died too young”, it read. Joyce’s only work of fiction? It started to dawn on me. Did this book come from a place where James Joyce had somehow died after publishing his Dubliners? Some alternate world? Where he had never had the chance to write A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? Had this alternate reality been denied the pleasures of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake? Was there no statue of James Joyce in that universe’s version of Dublin, as this writer had never come to fulfill his potential, producing merely a collection of short stories?
Did the shopkeeper of this place somehow have access to different realities, where he picked up what he called ‘alternate editions’ of well–known works? That sounded pretty incredible, but there was no other explanation for this special copy of Joyce, unless it was some elaborate hoax, a fake book produced to score a specific effect? But in that case it wouldn’t be offered at the modest price that was scribbled on the first page.
And what about the rest of what was on display here? Were all the books in this section from alternate realities? If so, the hoax theory had to be ruled out. No one would produce fake books in such massive quantities, and sell them at regular prices, that did not make sense. I would have to check more books, pick out a number at random and try to find what made them different from the versions in ‘my’ reality.
On a shelf labeled ‘classic American fiction’ I noticed a few dozen titles by J.D. Salinger, all unknown to me, apart from The Catcher in the Rye. I picked up a book titled The End of the Age of Innocence, saw Salinger touted as a New York Times Best–Seller List author. I opened the book, and found opposite the title page a list of ‘other works by the same author’, about thirty–five of them, without exception works I had never heard of that certainly didn’t exist in my universe.
These books had to come from an alternate reality where Salinger had kept writing and publishing successfully, instead of withdrawing from the literary world as he had in my world. This was quite incredible. I put the book back on the shelf and allowed my thoughts to roam freely.
This discovery had profound philosophical consequences. I could hardly imagine that if there were indeed alternate universes, the differences would be limited to books. There would undoubtedly be differences in all aspects of life. Would such an alternate universe be recognizable, or would the differences be minor ones? And was there only one other universe, or more? An endless variety perhaps? Was everything possible then, had everything imaginable happened somewhere? The very idea boggled the mind.
So why hadn’t I heard about this remarkable shop earlier? Certainly other people must have stumbled onto it, identified the true nature of its stocks and spread the news. But they hadn’t. Maybe I would find out. Perhaps I should buy some typical stuff here as evidence of what I had just discovered. But what? The selection of material was overwhelming. What should I take?
I picked up The Bottle–Weary Warrior, an autobiographical novel by Charles Bukowski about his life after he managed to quit drinking and filled his days with poetry, music, art, and relentless efforts to combat alcohol’s evil lure. Would this one do?
I also spotted a massive five–volume set titled Collected Poems by Jim Morrison, an omnibus edition of all his poetry, spanning the period from his leaving The Doors, disenchanted as he was with the music industry, until his death at age eighty–five. Now this would make a convincing piece of evidence, but it was too heavy to carry along.
In the art books section I picked up a superb hardcover edition of Vincent van Gogh’s work. I leafed through it and was surprised to see mainly abstract art. The book’s introduction briefly sketched the artist’s life, from his promising beginnings in impressionism through his highly successful career as a pioneering force in abstract art. Here again, history had followed a different course, yielding spectacular results. It was clear now that any writer or artist could be represented here with work from a universe where things had worked out in an unexpected way. This bookstore was a treasure trove, I could spend ages here going through piles of books and marveling at the alternate paths they showcased.
I was still looking around for material that would qualify as perfect evidence for the existence of alternate realities, neither too expensive nor too heavy, as I saw my own name on the cover of a tiny paperback. My heart leaped up – surely this was a mistake? Or a remarkable coincidence?
With trembling hands I picked up the book and read out the title aloud. The Short–Lived Immortal by Daniel Collins. I just couldn’t believe it. I read the opening lines and recognized them right away. This was indeed the short novel that I wrote in my younger days, when I still had literary aspirations. I had submitted it to countless publishers, but had never found a home for it. It had remained an unpublished manuscript, gathering dust in a drawer. I had tried my hand at writing again, but never finished anything and soon abandoned all hopes to be a published writer. I turned my attention to other endeavors, without ever looking back to those early writings.
But here I held it in my hands, my novel, published in paperback. So there was an alternate universe where I was a published writer, where I had perhaps other works in print. This was quite incredible. It was a dream come true. It might well rekindle my ambitions. I hadn’t felt so good in a long time.
I threw a glance at my watch. It was getting late. I had spent a lot more time here than I should have and had better head back home now. Well, which books would I buy so as to have some evidence for the news I would be happy to spread?
I chose my own novel and the Van Gogh art book, went over to the counter and noticed the shopkeeper now wore a Lynyrd Skynyrd T–shirt. That was strange. Had he changed T–shirts while I was looking around the store? I paid and left, and went home with my treasures.
The following day I talked to a friend on the phone about that weird art book I had found, featuring Van Gogh’s abstract art.
“What’s so strange about that?” he asked. I didn’t pursue the matter, told him it was a special edition and changed the subject. After our conversation I checked the internet – I realized I should have done that right away. Wikipedia and other sources listed a biography for Van Gogh that corresponded with the one in the art book’s introduction. I also found confirmation for the alternate careers of James Joyce and Jim Morrison.
Only the information on Bukowski was different – did that mean the book I had seen came from yet another alternate reality?
Anyway, it was obvious that I was no longer in my ‘home universe’. While browsing in that store, I must have crossed over to an alternate world. Perhaps Variant Readings was at the crossroads between universes, thus allowing the shopkeeper to buy material from a variety of places?
It would explain his change of T–shirt, as well as the fact that no one had spread the news of that bizarre shop. It didn’t explain everything, however. Where was the alternate version of myself in this universe? Had I somehow replaced him? Was he still around and was I bound to run into him? Or did the laws of nature prevent that, and had he moved on at the same moment I had arrived? It was clear I had only scratched the surface of this alternate reality phenomenon. What else would be different apart from those books? Would this world have surprises in store for me?
But I didn’t worry for too long. The most important thing now was the fact that I was finally what I always wanted to be: a published writer. I needn’t have bought that used copy of The Short–Lived Immortal, as I found my own author’s copy on the shelves in my study, as well as a few other novels and story collections of mine. I would really have to take a good look at those.
And then I would tackle new writing projects.
I decided never to set foot in the Variant Readings again. And never even to go to that part of town anymore.
On the one hand I was tempted to discover more about the place and unravel its mystery as the crossroads between the universes. On the other hand I was afraid to be thrown back into my old universe where I was an unpublished writer, a fate I was happy to have escaped.
I realized there might be alternate universes where I was a hugely successful writer, but as I had no control over the crossover mechanism, I wasn’t prepared to take risks and preferred staying in ‘my new home universe’. I was sure I would quickly adapt to my new life, and as my local alter ego showed no signs of turning up, I thankfully took his place.
And I kept writing. My publisher already expressed an interest and wanted to see a few sample chapters, even in first draft. I had work to do.
And so I happily wrote, convinced I was heading for a bright future. Until one day I found a manila envelope in my mailbox. It didn’t have a name or address on it – that meant the postman hadn’t delivered it. Someone else must have.
I opened the envelope and found it contained a book and a folded sheet of paper with some words scribbled on it. I quickly read them:
Look at this book I found. I guess you know where I picked it up. If you don’t want this to be autobiographical, then get the hell out of here. I want my life back. And I’ll make sure your death will pass unnoticed. I’ll be happy to take over.
The note was signed D.C.
Had my alter ego finally showed up? Where had he been all this time? Why this sudden reappearance? There were obviously things going on beyond my understanding.
The book was a novel titled The Hunted Man, by Daniel Collins. A future work of mine? I read the blurb on the back cover and almost dropped the book. The story of a man hunted by his alter ego, until one of them got killed – but it was never discovered which one. This could not be a coincidence. If this was a true story, I had better be the one who survived the clash. But no doubt my alter ego harbored the same ambition. So what were my options?
There were two possibilities. Either I complied, in which case I would have to go down to the Variant Readings bookstore and hope to find a way back home – or at least out of this place. Or I stayed where I was, in which case I would have to deal with a hostile alter ego bent on getting rid of me. And eager to reclaim his rightful place.
Frankly, I liked neither of these options. But did I have a choice? Would the laws of the universe allow both of us to stay in the same world? I had no idea how my alter ego had returned, but I understood that one of us had to go, and probably the sooner the better before things went haywire.
I realized that the place I occupied was not mine. I was an intruder here, I had no right to refuse my alter ego’s reclaiming his territory. I was truly sorry that this wonderful story had to stop here, but I felt it was my duty to take a step back. It had been too good to be true to start with.
Resigned, I went back to the Variant Readings and went in without really paying attention to the books, as my mind was focused on other matters. I picked up a few titles at random (Godot’s Arrival by Samuel Beckett looked like an interesting one), just hoping that by spending some time down here I might cross back over to my own world. Fifteen minutes later I left again, convinced I was back home.
It quickly dawned on me that something must have gone wrong. When I arrived home, I saw traces of someone else’s presence. Had I ended up in yet another alternate universe, where my alter ego was still around? In that case I had no right to be here and I had better leave the premises before I ran into the ‘real’ Daniel Collins. An encounter might lead to unforeseen results, and probably unpleasant ones.
In my (or ‘his’) study I found a small shelf with author’s copies of books that I (he) had written and published in this world. I picked up one titled No Laurels To Rest On, a satirical thriller. For a moment I was tempted to switch on my (his) computer and do some writing, perhaps continuing a story that my alter ego had already started. It would be the most remarkable collaboration in the history of literature. But I refrained from doing so – tampering with such events might have dire consequences.
So I left and hung around in a nearby park for a while, considering my options. I decided the best thing I could do was make another attempt to cross over, hopefully with more success, and take it from there.
I hurried back to the Variant Readings, but to my utter surprise the place was closed. This was impossible! I had been here a few hours ago! I looked through the grimy windows – the shop must have been closed for a long time, and probably wouldn’t reopen anytime soon. Now this was bad news. It meant that I was stuck here in a world where I didn’t belong. Was this how the laws of the universe prevented people from crossing over too often? Had I already caused too many ripples in the great pond, and was I now forced to solve my problem otherwise? I had no idea what the mechanics behind this system of alternate universes were. All that I knew for sure now was that I should never have set foot in that damned bookstore.
The thing was, there was no room here for the two of us. I had understood that very well in the previous universe where my alter ego had menaced to eliminate me. No doubt he was in some predicament similar to mine now. Probably he had no other choice. Nor had I in this universe.
It was clear to me now. My only possible course of action was to take my alter ego’s place. I would have to hunt him down and remove him.
Maybe I should write him a note, allow him the option to make way for me if he saw an opportunity.
So yes, The Hunted Man would turn autobiographical indeed. But this time the hunter would be me.
Frank Roger was born in 1957 in Ghent, Belgium. His first story appeared in 1975. By now he has a few hundred short stories to his credit, published in more than 40 languages. Apart from fiction, he also produces collages and visual art in a surrealist and satirical tradition.