Howard Barton came to Mendocino in search of a folded scrap of paper. Not just any old scrap of paper, but one bearing what might be a sketch by the legendary Japanese artist, Hoku-sai. But Howard, unfortunately, is not the only one who wants the sketch . . .
There’s old Heloise Lamey, whose lush and noxious garden is watered with blood, ink, and stranger substances.
And the enigmatic Mr. Jimmers, the owner of a workshop that holds a bizarre invention designed to raise the dead.
Even Howard’s Uncle Roy, a builder of haunted houses and founder of the Museum of Modern Mysteries, has an interest in the sketch.
In Northern California, nothing is what it appears, but everything is connected— and Howard is led to a mysterious private war between secret, underground societies. Now he just needs to figure out whose side he’s on in the quest for the Paper Grail.
“Blaylock redeems the familiarity of his plot with a gift for drawing characters who are eccentric in delightful and original ways, whichever side of the war they are on.” —Publishers Weekly
“Blaylock ventures into the realm of magical realism as eccentric matrons and failed entrepreneurs assume mythic proportions in this witty and intelligent metaphysical novel. This crossover novel belongs equally well in literary and fantasy collections.” —Library Journal
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THE SKYWRITING IN his dream wasn't a word or phrase; it was five white clouds drifting in a blue sky. There was no airplane gusting out smoke, only the five clouds very gradually appearing, exactly positioned, like a constellation growing visible in evening twilight. This time there was the heavy, rhythmic sound of the ocean in the distance, and Howard confused it with the sound of the seasons turning like a mill wheel. He knew in the dream that it was autumn. The pattern of the cloudy skywriting was always the same, and always suggested the same thing, but the seasons kept changing, following the course of the waking year.
In the dream, Howard walked into the mill, which was built of stone, and he stood before the fire in the hearth. A cold wind off the ocean blew at his back. There was no heat in the fire at all, and so he stirred the coals with a stick that he found in his hand, only half surprised that leafy green tendrils sprouted from the stick and twined up his arm in the few moments that he held it.
The fire popped and leaped, throwing embers onto the hearthstones. He knew he was dreaming, and he knew that in a moment he would kneel on the hearth and burn his knee on a hot ember, and that he would feel the pain of the burn even though it was a dream and the fire was cold. And then he would touch the clear fluid that seeped from the burn and taste it, only vaguely surprised that it had the piny smell and flavor of tree sap. There would be a message in the five clouds now, spelling out his fate, but when he walked back outside to read it, the mill wouldn't be a mill any longer. It would be a stone house on a cliffside with the ocean pounding on rocks below and the sky above dark with impending rain.
He woke up this time to the sound of waves breaking along the Point Reyes coastline. It was just dawn. He had slept that night in the back of his camper, parked at Stinson Beach, having driven the few miles from the campground at Mount Tamalpais yesterday morning. Already the dream was fading from his mind. As always, he couldn't remember why it had seemed so vastly important to him, but it had left him with the ghostly suggestions of urgency and dread, and with the peculiar certainty that the five white clouds hadn't been real clouds at all, but had been painted by some unseen hand on the sky above his dream.
AFTER DRIVING NORTH out of Point Reyes, Howard stopped at Inverness for breakfast and then used up the rest of his half-frozen anchovies fishing in a big tide pool north of town, throwing chunks of bait at wheeling sea gulls and thinking about his job as assistant curator at a small and dusty museum in southern California. He had come north to pick up a single piece of artwork — what he understood to be a nineteenth-century Japanese woodcut sketch, perhaps by Hoku-sai.
He remembered the sketch as having been faded, with heavy crease lines where some idiot had folded it up, trying to construct, or reconstruct, an origami object. That had been nearly fifteen years ago, when he had spent a rainy weekend at the cliffside house built by Michael Graham, the old man who owned the sketch. Graham had kept it in a curious sort of box, hidden behind the stones of the fireplace, even though there had been prints on the wall, in plain view, that were more valuable.
Howard's cousin Sylvia had been there, too. She had guessed that the rice paper sketch had actually been folded into any number of shapes, and had wondered if a person could refold it, using the creases as a sort of road map. Every now and then, and especially lately, after his dreams about the mill wheel and the fireplace, it occurred to Howard that the road map metaphor fit better than either he or Sylvia had guessed.
Hanging from the rearview mirror in Howard's truck was an origami flower, a lily that had yellowed to the color of old ivory. It was dusty and torn, but too delicate by now to clean up or reshape. Young and romantic, he had given Sylvia a lily on the night they decided against making love, and she had given him the paper flower the following morning, folded up out of paper pressed from linen and leaves.
They were just twenty years old then, and the fact of their being cousins meant that they had very nearly grown up together. It also meant that when their feelings for each other began to grow romantic, there was something that made such feelings troublesome, if not impossible. In her junior year at college Sylvia told him she had decided to move north to Fort Bragg, where her parents lived, and against his own desires he had let her go without arguing.
A month ago he had found the paper lily in a box full of old college memorabilia, and had hung it in the cab of his truck. It turned out to be a sort of catalyst, suggesting Sylvia to him, stirring in him the desire to travel up the coast after all these years and pay her a visit. He told himself now that when he arrived in Fort Bragg today or tomorrow he would take it down before she saw it and misread his intentions — or, perhaps, read them correctly. Who could say what either of them would feel these many years later? Nothing had changed, really.
He thought about this as he fished in the pool above Inverness. Either there weren't any fish in the pool or else he was a lousy fisherman. A pelican landed on a nearby outcropping of rock and watched him with a dreadful eye. Howard said hello to it, and the bird clacked its beak open and shut, then cocked its head and fixed its eye on the remaining anchovies. One by one Howard fed them to the pelican, finally showing it the empty carton. The pelican stood there, anyway, watching him past its ridiculous beak, until Howard reeled in his line and picked his way across the rocks toward where his truck was parked on the roadside. Then the bird flew north, following the coast, disappearing behind grassy bluffs and then reappearing out over the ocean, skimming along a foot above the swell, while Howard followed in the pickup, driving at erratic speeds in order to keep the bird in sight and trying to remember whether signifying seabirds were good omens or bad.
He wasn't due in Fort Bragg until tomorrow, but there was no reason at all that he couldn't drive the few hours north today, maybe stop at Graham's house this very afternoon and get business out of the way, after which he could head on up to his Uncle Roy's house and get on with his vacation. He wondered idly whether Sylvia still lived there or had gotten a place of her own, and whether she still saw anything of the man she had very nearly married. What had he called himself then? An animal name of some sort — skunk, maybe, or weasel. Stoat, that was it. Howard had got the news roundaboutly, through his mother, and had insisted to himself that he was happy for Sylvia, that there were no hard feelings. How could there be, after all these years? He was a good deal happier, though, when he heard that Sylvia hadn't married, after all. So much for taking the long view.
On Highway One, above Point Arena and Elk, the road was cut into the cliff face, barely wide enough for two cars to edge past each other. He slowed down, hugging the side of the highway, occasionally looking for the pelican, holding out hope even though he hadn't seen it for two hours. Tangled berry vines snaked down almost onto the asphalt, massed around the bleached pickets of rickety hillside fences. Above him the hills were dry and brown except for stands of cypress and Monterey pine and eucalyptus. Below him were hundreds of feet of rock-strewn, almost vertical cliffs that disappeared into the fog that was drifting ashore now. Here and there, when the road skirted the cliff, he could see the gray Pacific churning below on cathedral-sized rocks.
Occasional mailboxes appeared along the ocean side of the road, marking the driveways to isolated houses on the bluffs. Uneasily Howard started watching for Graham's house, matching landmarks along the highway with the little symbols on the pencil-sketched map on his dashboard. He remembered the house fairly clearly from his stay there years ago, and even more clearly from his dreams, where, because of some trick of dream architecture, Graham's house and the old stone mill were in some subtle way the same thing.
He drove straight past it, not seeing the fence-post mailbox or the weedy gravel drive until it was too late. Immediately the highway twisted around and began climbing, making it impossible to turn around. Somehow, missing the driveway didn't bother him. It was almost a relief, and he realized that the house filled him with an indeterminate sense of foreboding, like heavy weather pending on a muggy and silent afternoon.
He slowed the truck, though, and turned off the highway, up Albion Ridge Road, stopping at a little grocery store with a pair of rusty old gas pumps out front. Far below the ridge, the Albion River wound down out of the coast range. The north coast was in the middle of a long drought, and the river was a muddy trickle. On the bank sat a campground, nearly empty, with a dirt road running through it, leading beneath the bridge and down to a deserted beach that was strewn with driftwood and kelp. It looked like a good place to go shelling, especially this time of the year, when the first of the big north swells dragged the ocean bottom and threw seashells and long-sunken flotsam onto the rocky beaches.
He thought about spending the night at the campground. Maybe it was too late to stop and see old Graham that afternoon, anyway. The old man might easily be doubtful about strangers in pickup trucks appearing out of the fog so late in the day. Howard would call back down to the house in order to make an appointment — for tomorrow noon, say. He felt grimy and salty, and his clothes smelled like fish bait. Tomorrow morning he could find a laundromat in Mendocino, and then backtrack the ten miles to Graham's house. The plan sounded fine to him, very rational, except that he knew he was simply avoiding things, and was beginning to feel as if the north coast, like the two poles of a magnet, was conspiring to attract and repel him about equally.
The gas station was actually a sort of country store, covered in rough-cut redwood planks and with a few chain-sawed burl sculptures out front that had turned gray in the weather. Old macramé and bead curtains covered the windows, which were dusty and strung with cobwebs and dead flies. The junk food in the rack on the counter was a little disappointing — carob brownies and sticky-looking granola bars in plastic wrap, all of it sweetened with fruit juice instead of sugar. It was guaranteed to be organic, put together by a local concern called Sunberry Farms. It certainly looked organic, especially the carob, which might as easily have been dirt.
There wasn't a Twinkie in sight, so he grabbed a pack of gum and one of the brownies and laid them on the counter. Gas was nearly a dollar and a half a gallon, and his old Chevy Cheyenne drank it like champagne. The attendant stood out by the truck, talking to a man carrying a tackle box, who set the box down and held his hands apart, obviously telling a fish story. Nobody was in any hurry up here, which satisfied Howard entirely. It seemed to be the first time in months, maybe years, that he wanted to be exactly where he was, drunk on the weather and the solitude and the sound of the sea.
He found a wire rack of postcards and window decals, and he sorted through them, pulling out a half dozen decals that advertised north coast sights — the Skunk Train, Shipwreck Aquarium, the Winchester Mystery House, Noyo Harbor. It didn't matter to him that he hadn't been to most of these places. What he wanted was to glue decals all over his truck and camper shell windows. He had a couple dozen of them already, from places in Arizona and Nevada and New Mexico. Soon he'd be out of room, and would have to start layering the decals, perhaps covering just the inessential edges and corners at first, and then ultimately losing one after another of them altogether. Once he had gotten started on it a couple of months ago, it had become a sort of compulsion, and he had come to believe in the virtues of excess, almost as if someday he would reach a sort of mystical decal threshold, and something would happen.
Normally he avoided any decal that didn't advertise a place. He didn't want slogans or political statements or any indication that he meant anything consistent. Obvious meaning would subvert the entire effort, and he'd have to scrape the whole mess off with a razor blade. Up until now he never bought too many at one time. The thing shouldn't be rushed. There was something about the air up here, though, that overrode that instinct, and he found that within moments he was holding a whole sheaf of the things. He picked out one last decal of a comical pelican, which he bought as a souvenir of the bird he'd shared his anchovies with. If there was any meaning in that, no one except him would be able to guess it out.
He wandered up the center aisle of the little store, toward a display of fishing tackle and rental poles on the back wall. Thumbtacked to a piece of corkboard beneath the carded fishing tackle was a faded and dog-eared bumper sticker advertising a local roadside attraction. It had holes in the corners so that it could be wired to your bumper while you weren't looking. In small letters it read, "Honk if you've seen," and then below, in larger letters, "The Museum of Modern Mysteries." Alongside was a sketchy illustration of ghosts flitting through a redwood grove with a shadowy automobile running along below, the front end of the thing lost in the foggy night. Howard unpinned it, instantly losing interest in his hand full of decals.
There was the scraping of shoe soles at the door, and Howard turned to find the attendant sliding in behind the counter. The man looked doubtfully at the brownie, pushing it with his finger. "This yours?" he asked, as if he couldn't quite believe it.
Howard nodded, suddenly regretting it. The thing cost nearly a dollar, the price of two decals. "Is this bumper sticker for sale?" Howard held it up for the man to see.
"Oh, that," the man said, sitting down on a stool. "That's a couple years old. It ain't no good. Place went broke."
Howard wondered for a moment whether his question had been answered and then decided that it hadn't been. "Don't want to sell it, do you?" He tried not to sound too anxious. The man was right, from his point of view, and was clearly having a hard time putting a price on a scrap of old faded paper.
"Used to have a decal, too." He leaned heavily on the first syllable of the word and nodded at the wire rack.
"Don't have one now, do you?"
"Nope," the man said. "Place went bust."
Howard widened his eyes, as if in surprise that such a place as a spirit museum could go bust. "People don't much believe in ghosts anymore," he said, trying to make it sound noncommittal, as if he were ready to believe in whatever the attendant believed, and blame the rest of the world for believing something else and causing trouble.
"People don't know from ghosts." The man switched on a portable television behind the counter. A game show appeared on the screen — a family of six wearing funny hats and jitterbugging furiously in front of a washer and dryer hung with enormous price tags.
The sound of the television ruined the atmosphere, and Howard was suddenly desperate to leave. He set his credit card down on the counter along with the decals and made one last try at the bumper sticker. "I'd be glad to buy the sticker," he said.
"Won't do you no good." The man stared hard at his credit card, as if Howard had handed him something inexplicable — a ham sandwich or a photograph of the Eiffel Tower. He read the name several times, looking at Howard's face, and then checked the number against a little book of bad-risk numbers shoved in alongside the cash register. "Barton," he said. "You ain't any relation " He looked closely at Howard's face again and then smiled broadly. "Sure you are!"
"He's my uncle," Howard said. "On my father's side." It was no good to lie. Now he would have to pay triple for the bumper sticker. Howard's Uncle Roy had founded and owned the Museum of Modern Mysteries and then had gone broke with it. Howard had never even been there, although he had always loved the idea of it. And now, these years later, here was a long-lost bumper sticker advertising the place. Clearly he had to buy it as a memento. The man knew that now. He sat there as if thinking about it, about soaking Howard for the rectangle of sun-faded paper.
"Roy Barton," he said, shaking his head. "That old son of a gun. Hell, take the damned thing. You going up to his place now?"
"That's right," Howard said, surprised. "I'm up here on business, mostly."
"Roy Barton's, or your own?"
"My own, actually. I haven't seen Roy for a few years. I don't know what kind of business he's in now."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Paper Grail"
Copyright © 1991 James P. Blaylock.
Excerpted by permission of Jabberwocky Literary Agency, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Blaylock weaves masterpieces of magic in modern life. The Paper Grail has it all, sympathetic characters, historical allusions, myth and magic! Wonderful.