Do you know me? Probably not. During the fantasy boom, I wrote a trilogy about a young potato farmer who defeats a Dark Lord. Memorable? I’d hoped so, but no one seemed to remember it. At conventions, when I mentioned my work, people frowned throughtfully. ‘Not sure I’ve heard of that one…what happens in it?’ they’d ask. So I’d give them the gist and they’d ask if I was that Terry fellow, or David, or that other Terry fellow, or Stephen – not King, of course – or that other other Terry fellow?
Soon, I was dropped by my publishers. I returned to my old job as an English teacher in a boarding school. I donned the seedy tweeds and heavy-framed glasses of that pedantic caste, assumed the dusty inflections and chalky complexion expected of what would now be my lifelong role and I tried to forget my brief flirtation with literary fame and fortune.
I might have succeeded, except for those movies based on the Oxford codger’s books. The movies became a craze among my pupils and I tried to interest them in the books. They would have none of it. They did tell me that if I was so keen on the books (I hastened to add that I only suggested them out of an allegiance to the printed word over the projected image) there were places online for people like me. ‘What is this ‘on line’ you speak of?’ I asked one of my pupils, and so began my descent into madness.
For the internet was indeed filled with places for people like me, or like any variety of human being you might care to imagine. I found places for people who obsessed over obscure fantasy stories and authors. People who spent hours reminiscing about their favourite moments and characters from the books they loved, arguing over plot points, deciding who should be cast in cinematic adaptations, writing their own ‘fan fiction’. But try as I might, I could not find a single mention of my own work. I scanned the ‘book search’ sections, where readers helped each another recall the titles of books they’d read long ago. Even here there was no mention of my work – most of those amnesiac atavisms were trying to recall the names of stories by Lewis or MacDonald that every schoolboy has read. Or used to, when schoolboys were still taught to read.
I pretended to be an ordinary fan who had read one of my own books, oh, twenty years back (surely someone had!) and was trying to remember what it was called. I posted my request. I waited for days. Weeks. Months. Three whole years of desperately refreshing pages and reposting the same pathetic requests on various forums in all my spare time. It drove me a little mad and that was when the unfortunate incident with the schoolboys and the potatoes happened. The one when I tried to subdue the former by pelting them with the latter. It didn’t go well with the school management and I was fired.
No matter, I found that I could get by writing term papers. Since schoolboys were no longer taught to read, the very act of turning in a paper earned them high grades, and myself surprisingly substantial wages. As long as I avoided situations in which schoolboys were juxtaposed with tubers, I was safe. Eventually I purchased my own computer and home internet connection. I checked to see if my queries had received an answer. Not a single one. After the third hour spent reading a debate over which Terry might have written my book, I could take no more. If the combined wisdom of the internet could not uncover traces of stories I had written, I would see how they would fare with the stories neither I nor anyone else had ever written.
So I posted a request for the name and author of a book about a schoolboy-wizard who carved replicas of King Arthur and his Knights out of potatoes rather than do his homework and was eventually banished to Hades . Ten minutes later, someone replied with the name, cover scan and ISBN of just such a story. Incredulous, I clicked through to a bookseller’s website and sure enough, found a used copy of this book. I ordered it and received a tattered paperback which contained a poorly-written but funny novel based on my theme.
I submitted another request – this time for a tale of a group of far-future schoolboys who built a potato-powered spacecraft and adventured across the galaxy. It turned out that there was such a book, and a copy could be had on an online auction site. I secured the book and sure enough, it contained an episodic but not uninteresting story based on my premise.
I tried a few more summaries, to find they all existed. Finally, I wrote about a story in which a failed fantasy author, unable to find mention of his own works online, writes to various forums about imaginary books, about all the stories he has nurtured in his imagination alone ever since a callous word gave his literary career the finger. Someone always unearths stories identical to these imaginary stories. Finally, driven to desperation, he writes about a story about a writer in the same predicament as him.
I posted this message and waited. Soon, I had my answer. ‘The story you’re looking for is ‘The Story No One Wrote’ by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy. I’d point you to it, but it hasn’t yet been published, and indeed it hasn’t been finished let alone submitted to a publisher. It will eventually be published, posthumously; in a collection called ‘Aranya’s Last Voyage & other fantasies’, marking the writer’s first publication other than some obscure derivative fantasy works written in his youth. As a matter of fact, this particular story was the last thing the author ever wrote, shortly before his death. Hope this helps.’
So now I'm working on those stories. Aranya's Last Voyage and the rest. I'm not writing 'The Story No One Wrote' just yet. Definitely not. This is not the story no one wrote, and I am not writing it, and that is not a growing numbness working its way through my body from my toes, up my legs, seizing my thighs, paralysing my midriff, freezing my chest...