“We’ve retitled your course this semester, Reginald,” said the dean. “Take a look.”

Reginald took a copy of the catalog and blanched. “This is too much, Fred,” he said. “It really is. Do we really want to reduce British literature to something so glib?”

“You’ve mentioned it in class before,” said the dean, bristling. “I’ve read the evaluations.”

“Only to keep the kids from sleeping,” Reginald continued. “Only as a low-rent, bargain-basement entry in the the greater world of literature. They have been producing fine literary works in Britain since the reign of Claudius, Fred. That canon has Beowulf and Chaucer and Spenser and Milton.”

“Well, who’s to say this won’t be in the canon?” the dean asked.

“It’s a bit early for that, wouldn’t you say?” snapped Reginald. “There were books considered absolutely essential a hundred years ago that no one reads now. I’m sure a deacon at Oxford would have thought teaching The Water-Babies was a good idea in 1914, but who remembers that soggy moralizing tripe now, popular as it was?”

“Well, when people forget about this, we can change the name of the course back,” the dean said icily. “Until then, in this climate of cuts for arts and humanities, hitching your carriage to something popular is the only way to keep teaching this course. Unless you’d like to take 5 sections of English 101, of course.”

“Welcome to ENGL 433: Harry Potter and Friends,” Richardson grumbled to his class six weeks later. “In this course we will look at British literature through the lends of boy wizards, and read texts that J. K. Rowling may have been influenced by, referred to, owned, or seen on a bookstore shelf at one time or another.”

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There was very little in the room–all the clothes were neatly packed away, suitcases in the closet. Not so much as a wrinkle in the cover. But then, that was Jane for you…fastidious to a point.

The only thing askance in the entire room was a brightly-colored paperback on the nightstand. The Popular Tree. It was a sentimental story about a big-city girl finding herself by returning to her home town for a funeral, and a New York Times bestseller. It was easy to see why the title had appealed to Jane; she had been back in town from far-off Hopewell for only about a month. Her small home, with its lakeside view and sliver of golden sand beach, was more like a hotel room, with all the major items still in storage.

But that book…touching it, fanning the pages, one couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the sense of it, before reading a single word. The cheap paperback pages had sponged up every scent of Jane’s month-long beachside stay. The aroma of sunblock, of water, of fish…shampoo, clean cotton, even a hint of nail polish. The Popular Tree had absorbed them all, and to be near it was to have those sweet memories of blissful afternoons unlocked.

It was a bauble too bright and too intoxicating for the house as it now stood. All the warmth and memory in the world couldn’t wash away the bitter truth behind Jane’s book.

It had been the last thing she ever read.

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Fawn Delacroix Pivec owned a small library of books about the little chinks through which magic might seep into our otherwise mundane world. Lewis and Lewis, C. S. and Carroll respectively, were first and foremost in the collection, and her peers in school had long grown tired of endless book reports and dioramas on they and their literary successors.

So, when standing longingly in a fairy ring at the very edge of the Pivecs’ five acres, Fawn was delighted but unsurprised to spy a fairy flitting back and forth among the stinging nettles and wild raspberries tumbling over the old fence.

“Take me with you,” she whispered breathlessly, at once afraid to cry out and scare the delicate being away and unable to contain her joy upon seeing it.

The tiny fairy cocked its head and regarded her.

“Take me with you,” Fawn said again. “Don’t be afraid, I won’t hurt you. I’m ready to see your world. I always have been.”

“Oh, child,” said the fairy, in a voice that was birdsong and cicadas, summer rain and running water. “My poor precious child. You dwelt in our world for an aeon and verily became our most beloved friend and queen, ere you returned. But mortal memories cannot hold that where we dwell and dance, so it has already slipped away from you like sand in a spring tempest.”

From an idea by breylee.

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I found that I could not rid myself of the horrid book, no matter how hard I tried. It continued to record my every action, thought, and word upon its pages as they occurred, in a hand and tone not unlike what I used for my diary. The librarian had warned me of this, but my curiosity and foolishness were now manifest…and I could not bring the text back without angering the Hexagon Library, which is most unwise.

Seeing my entire life’s activity laid out is both intoxicating and horrifying. Perhaps I find myself unable to part with the book because I keep hoping to look forward in its diabolical pages, to see what has yet to happen. I have never been able to do so, but the tantalizing prospect is astonishingly seductive.

But I must have succeeded. I must have, if you are reading this. For I kept no diary, and these words can only be read between the covers of that most dire tome. So I must have rid myself of it for you to be able to read it now.

And that can only mean that my future is laid out for you to read pages on.

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Late in his life, playwright Richard Cawnpore became convinced that he’d lost his wellspring of inspiration. He was soon obsessed with the idea of chance as an impetus to creativity, and would sit in his study and endlessly roll dice to match together plot points he’d written out beforehand. Cawnpore wrote reams and reams every day, but according to his housekeeper every sheet that he wasn’t satisfied with wound up in the incinerator.

In the nearly seven years of his retirement, not a single sheet escaped the fire until the final weeks of Cawnpore’s life.

A letter to his ex-wife, dated July 1979, claims that an obsession with “chance theater” has yielded a breakthrough. Cawnpore’s housekeeper later confirmed that no more pages were sent to the incinerator after Independence Day. The playwright contacted a local law firm to hire clerks, who he had assist him in collating a large body of information sourced from local libraries and universities. Southern Michigan University filled many of the requests, and their records confirm that 90% of the loan requests received on behalf of Cawnpore were about bees–generally honeybees.

The clerks who gathered the information never spoke out about its contents; by 1982 they had all died of unrelated illnesses and accidents.

In his final letter, the playwright mentioned finishing a grueling composition process, and plans to celebrate with his traditional bottle of aged port.

After Cawnpore died of a cerebral hemorrhage in January 1980, his manuscripts were handed over to his estranged family despite a living will asking that they be destroyed. The works from earlier in his retirement were anthologized and still occasionally performed, but the Cawnpore family refused to public or produce or even allow scholars to read the author’s final play. Other than a title in a list of personal papers–An Apiary–the final work of the artist who had dazzles audiences with the likes of Roaring Against Babylon and The Tidewater Mark has remained completely obscure.

The mere rumor that a copy of the play was mailed to an international address before Cawnpore’s death set off a frenzied international hunt among scholars. The trust that inherited its house reluctantly allowed parts of it to be dismantled in hopes that a copy might have been secreted away. Nothing.

It didn’t help that the legal status of An Apiary was murky. None of Cawnpore’s family, even his children, lived to see 1985, and more distant relations generally refused to disturb the playwright’s papers. The last known person to view An Apiary was Cawnpore’s great-uncle Hiram who agreed to be interviewed on its contents for a considerable advance sum.

He died in a traffic accident one week before the scheduled broadcast.

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Her poem “Of the Labyrinth-Women” remains highly anthologized, with its haunting and lyrical language oft-quoted:

for they are the labyrinth-women
twisted within as twisted without
bent inwards upon a mockery of a path
forward to dark and darkward to death

– M. Alethia Markridge, Of the Labyrinth-Women (1935), third stanza.

For all the success and fame that her poetry brought, Alethia Markridge did not live a happy life. She increasingly turned to alcohol and isolation, to the point that her daughter Olive was all but abandoned with her parents in Montauk. “I feel a husk,” she wrote in a 1937 letter, “squeezed-out dull as the name I hide behind full-stops before my true self.”

In the later years of her life, and especially after the publication of A Thousand Strands to the Present in early 1938, Markridge became increasingly obsessed with her first name, Marie, by which she had rarely been called but upon which her devoutly Catholic grandmother had insisted. She called it her “true self” in many letters, and wrote of her fear that it presaged a domestic mundanity to which she was doomed. “To return to the washboard and the oven, the husk-party and gossip-mongery…that is what I fear the most,” she confided in a 1939 note to her sister. “I say return because I feel that all I have ever done and will ever do is but a postponement of the destiny inherited by a million Maries, the destiny they’ll pass on to a hundred more.

Markridge’s final collection, tentatively titled Love-Serenade to the Maries of the Universe, was never completed.

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227. If you think the book was bad, you should have seen the query letter.

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