The Wanderer – Foreword
On the 18th December 2010, Simon Peterkin, a British Library archivist and writer of weird tales with a small, if cultic, following, disappeared from his Highgate flat. The event wasn’t widely reported in the popular media at the time, for, though the circumstances were bizarre, it was not deemed newsworthy: there was no human angle, no one left behind – Peterkin, who was sixty-three years old at the time of his disappearance, was a man of lonely habits, was estranged from his family, had few friends. It did, however, attract the notice of some horror and strange fiction journals, including The Shambles, for which I’d written a number of articles. The editors asked me to investigate and write up Peterkin’s vanishing; being intrigued, I readily agreed.
The residents of the mansion block where Peterkin lived gave strange accounts. At about seven in the evening, not long after he was seen entering his apartment for the last time, the sounds of a struggle and a high-pitched nasal yawping were heard from within. The building’s porter was alerted. When this elderly Scotsman entered, he found the flat empty, no sign of violence. The only things obviously untoward were a lit cigarette, burnt down almost to the filter, extending a withered finger of ash, reeking in an old tortoiseshell Bakelite ashtray on the desk in the study (Peterkin had never smoked; the ashtray had been used to hold the boiled sweets he sucked on while writing). And a revolting stink.
A short while later, two police officers, whom, as they happened to be walking past the block, the porter had hailed from a window, entered the flat. Tracking the stench to its source, they opened the door of the wardrobe in Peterkin’s bedroom to find the shoes and belts heaped untidily on its floor spattered with vomit and diarrhoea. The toilet in the bathroom was also in a state, and there were empty packets of laxatives and emetics in the bin.
The wardrobe was large enough to hold a man, and the initial conclusions of the police investigation were that Peterkin had hidden inside while the porter made his quick search of the flat, then somehow stolen out. As to his subsequent whereabouts, it was suggested he might have taken his own life; friends and colleagues testified he’d been stricken by bouts of misery in the months preceding his disappearance. No attempt was made to explain the more antic features of the case.
To my mind, this interpretation of events is lacking. First, the porter, who seemed to me highly reliable, claimed he had remained outside the door to Peterkin’s flat till the police officers arrived, had only turned his back for a few brief moments while he called out to them. Besides, even if he had, for some reason, lied, Peterkin couldn’t have passed through the mansion block without one of its other residents, many of whom, curious, were either milling about in the lobby, or standing in the doorways of their flats, spotting him, and all swore they didn’t see him leave. Second, the idea he left the apartment through a window can be discounted; they were all fastened on the inside by security bolts. In any case, the flat is on the fourth floor, and there is no external fire escape, or anything of the like. It has been proposed by some that Peterkin might have shinned down a drainpipe, but that’s absurd; the climb would have been arduous enough for someone young and fit, and he had long suffered stiff and painful joints.
It seems, then, Peterkin simply ceased to be, slipped out of existence, or passed into some other realm of being. Uncannily, certain of his macabre tales describe similar disappearances.i
Here my researches reached an impasse. Then, a month or so after Peterkin vanished, I was attending a horror convention and got talking to an acquaintance, Fiona G Ment, the editor of the magazine Gore. Our conversation turned to the Peterkin case, and it emerged that Ment and Peterkin had been good friends, had met following Ment’s favourable review of Peterkin’s novel, Ilona Joo (1998), and subsequently collaborated on a novella, ‘In the Teeth of Winter’ (2002).
Like me, Ment felt the official account of the disappearance unsatisfactory, that the investigating officers must have missed something. She did, however, share their belief Peterkin had committed suicide. She related to me how, about a year before, while in Glasgow, visiting an old university friend and researching a short story,ii Peterkin had undergone some harrowing experience. He’d refused to talk about it, but Ment had gathered, from details let slip, it was in some manner eldritch. Whatever it was, it blighted Peterkin’s cast of mind, turned him morose and suspicious; afterwards, he’d even been seized, on occasion, when drunk, by episodes during which he turned delusive and strange, ranted that he was being persecuted, then, with a cunning look in his eye, mumbled low about how he’d best his tormentor.
When I explained I was looking into the disappearance for an article, Ment told me she’d been trusted with a spare key to Peterkin’s. And so it was I found myself, six weeks after he’d vanished, inside that eerie flat. It was much as I’d expected, as the dwellings of lonely fastidious men often are. Still, Ment and I searched it thoroughly. We were rewarded, discovering, in a box file, inside a suitcase, on top of the wardrobe in Peterkin’s bedroom – placed there, we supposed, for concealment – a bundle of papers bound up with string. It was a typescript, of some length; we presumed it to be something Peterkin was working on at the time of his disappearance. I was, of course, anxious to examine it. But Ment persuaded me we ought to appeal to the appropriate authorities first.
It took some weeks, but eventually word came back that the typescript had been looked at by the coroner and deemed of no relevance to the inquest,iii and that Maureen Peterkin, Simon’s sister, as executor, had approved our request. It was sent to me.
I opened the parcel, untied the knots securing the string, then settled down to look over the document. The machine on which it had been typed was presumably well-worn; many of the characters are blurred, partial, or faint. It is in a very poor condition: mouldering, water-stained, most of its sheets crumpled, some marked by darkish smears. A title on the first page identifies the text as The Wanderer: A True Narrative. On the next there is an epigraph, taken from the North American folktune, ‘Going Down the Road Feeling Bad’, and a dedication, the first of many addresses to a hypothetical, but fervently desired reader. On the page following that, the narrative begins. I skim read it first, skipping those sections that are difficult to make out, due to the bad state of the typescript. Then I called Ment up to tell her I thought it an unpublished novel written by Peterkin, perhaps his last work. She expressed interest in putting it into print, if it had any merit, but said I could hold onto it for a time, if I wished.iv I then settled down to peruse it more carefully. It took me a fortnight or so to read it through; many of the pages had to be scanned and digitally enhanced, so obscured was much of the text. During this time, I became less and less sure about its status. There are a number of things that intimate it is not the fiction I first took it for: first, there is the matter of its prose style, which is very different from that Peterkin usually wrote in; second, there is a general air of it being more account than story; third, is the fact that there are things stated in the text which resonate with the strange manner of Peterkin’s disappearance; fourth, there is the condition of the typescript in places, which accords with things told in the narrative; fifth, and perhaps most compelling, is a text I discovered, while looking over the typescript that second time, which appears independent confirmation of some of the things described in it (I’ve given this text, in this volume, in an appendix). Of course, all of these apparent validations could simply be coincidences, or otherwise rationally explained; perhaps Peterkin planned the whole thing as an obscure hoax. But I can’t simply reason them away.
I leave it up to the reader, then, to decide what nature of thing The Wanderer really is.v Even merely taking story as story, there are certain thrills to be had from it, for all that its style is somewhat rebarbative. And it is my belief its depths will intrigue those with an interest in the weird. It is for these reasons I present it here.vi I should warn, however, I’ve rarely been able to banish it from my brain since that second read-through and no longer often sleep easy.
i See ‘The Brass Ferrule’ and ‘The Glass Eye of the Stuffed and Mounted Bream that Hangs Over the Mantelpiece in the Old Stainer Place’, both collected in The Seven Circles (1994), and ‘Loathstone’ from The Black Arts (1999).
ii ‘Necropolis’, which appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of Hauntology.
iii It must have been a fairly cursory examination.
iv As, very sadly, Fi Ment died in the summer of 2011, it fell to me to seek The Wanderer’s publication.
v Some will find it reassuring that certain events described in the typescript do not accord with historical fact, but I find the concluding pages offer an explanation as to why this does not preclude its being a true account. Another element which may be taken as pointing to The Wanderer’s being a fiction is the title’s apparent reference to Charles Robert Maturin’s Gothic novel of 1820, Melmoth the Wanderer, a work that was an avowed favourite of Peterkin’s. The influence of Melmoth would seem, certainly, to reverberate throughout The Wanderer: in its narrative structure, its prose, its depiction of diabolically prolonged lifespans, and its denouncements of the mechanisms by which institutions compel belief. But, for me, this is too flimsy a circumstance to ward off my disquiet.
vi And also because, if The Wanderer is a true tale, to publish it might aid in thwarting an evil. I am indebted to Maureen Peterkin for permitting me to offer the work to the public in its entirety.