In 2002, Greg Ketter, the owner of Minneapolis’ DreamHaven Books, published the original anthology Shelf Life: Fantastic Stories Celebrating Bookstores. The anthology includes one of my favorite stories, P.D. Cacek’s “A Book, By Its Cover.” It also included sixteen other stories, and, while I have re-read Cacek’s story over the years, I haven’t necessarily re-read many of the other stories since the book was originally published. While the book includes work by major names such as Neil Gaiman, Gene Wolfe, Charles de Lint, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, and Harlan Ellison, it also contains stories by less well-known names, including Marianne de Pierres, who had only published a handful of stories when Shelf Life came out, although she has proven to be more prolific in the years since.
Her contribution of Shelf Life is the story “In the Bookshadow,” which explores some of the more marginal customers at a bookstore. Anyone who has worked in retail knows that there are a variety of customer types. Most come and, make their purchases, and leave, the presence only noted by the brief exchange at the cash register. Others are star customers. The staff knows them and looks forward to their visits. They are personable, spend a lot of money, and make the employees feel as if they are doing a real service. De Pierres’ protagonist is the employee who takes care of the marginal customers who give everyone else the willies.
When she begins to start seeing things out of the corner of her eye in the bookstore, she points them out to the customers, who don’t confirm her visions, but also appear to be doing something to protect her from the strange entities that seem to appear when nobody else is around.
Although de Pierres doesn’t spell out exactly what is happening in the bookstore, allowing her hints and the impact on the characters to inform the reader’s expectations of what is happening. Even as the story takes a twist into dark fantasy, de Pierres plays the reality of what is happening close to her chest, focusing on the narrator’s own perceptions of what is happening to her and, recognizing that it is impact her at work, having to worry about her manager’s perception of her.
No explanation for the oddity happens. It is simply a fact of life in the bookstore where she works. Although the story’s inclusion in Shelf Life seems to indicate that fantastic forces are at work within the story, the story can also be read as a psychological exploration of the narrator if the reader elects to believe that nothing supernatural is taking place. In some ways, they idea that the visions and subsequent actions are all internal to de Pierres’ narrator rather than the work of an outside malefic force is more horrifying than any fictitious being, since it means that what happens to her could theoretically happen to anyone.
De Pierres would begin publishing novels in 2004 with Nylon Angel and has since written novels in multiple urban fantasy and dark fantasy series. In 2010, she collected three stories that shared a setting and added a fourth story to publish the collection Glitter Rose. The collection also contained a reprint of the unrelated “In the Bookshadow.”
Steven H Silver is a nineteen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW, NESFA Press, and ZNB. His most recent anthology is Alternate Peace and his novel After Hastings was published in 2020. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 6 times. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7.