Books are good. Free books are even better! FangirlNation and Sky Pony Press are holding a giveaway where two lucky people can each win a copy of the delightful The Ministry of Ghosts. To enter, post a comment below on what kind of ghost you’d like to meet. The conest begins now and ends June 19 at 12 PM PST. We will use Rafflecopter to choose a random entry and notify the winners by email. Open only to US residents–sorry!
The Ministry of Ghosts was one of those obscure, unknown, tucked-away places that you only usually ever come across by accident, if you come across them at all.
If you were you looking for the Ministry of Ghosts, or making inquiries in that direction, the chances are that you would never find it. But if you were searching for somewhere else entirely, you might easily stumble across it, quite unexpectedly and out of the blue.
And then there you would be: looking with awe, maybe with bafflement, perhaps with incredulity and the feeling that some hoax—or trick—was being played on you, as you gazed at the unpolished and seriously tarnished nameplate by the door.
If you glanced to the windows, you would see cobwebs in their corners, long unbothered by draughts and feather dusters, as if inside were a vacuum of the undisturbed past.
On a summer’s day, a sense of chill radiated out from the Ministry building, as if the place were a fridge. In winter, its offices seemed at one with the cold, bitter streets. It would be a hard place to keep warm in, you would think, as you wrapped your scarf around your neck and buttoned your coat tighter against the cold. And yet . . .
There was also something intriguing about the place; something that bade you to loiter, to scrutinize its elegant, if ancient, facade; something that drew you in; some curiosity that would have you lingering, peeking in through the dusty windows, pressing your nose to the cold glass in an effort to see inside.
But what would you see there in the Ministry of Ghosts? Not much, apparently. Not, at least, if that look through the front window was anything to go by.
There was just a big, uncomfortable-looking room, lined with obscure and seldom-read books: old, misshapen, leather-bound volumes, many with shabby spines that looked as though they would simply fall apart if opened. But others seemed as though they might never have been opened at all and could be just as pristine inside as on the day of their creation.
Some of those books were in Latin; some in other languages. Most were in English, but even then, often of an ancient and complicated kind, unfamiliar to a modern eye.
The more legible of the books bore curious titles. Ghosts and How to Catch Them. A Ghost Catcher’s Manual—Written by a Person of Great Experience. Poltergeists— Detection and Laying to Rest. Apparitions from the Other Side—by a Gentleman. Memoirs of a Lady Psychic. And so on. Books written with a straight face and a fancy pen by authors who took themselves very seriously—and who expected their readers to do the same.
Yes, there were useful books on every aspect of ghosts, except on one particular point, for not one line in one paragraph of those dense and innumerable pages ever questioned whether ghosts actually existed. It was taken for granted that they did and that only a fool would think otherwise.
Because ghosts had to exist, or there was no point in the Ministry of Ghosts existing. And then those who worked there would be out of a job. Which would be highly inconvenient for them. So there was every reason and incentive for them to go on believing the unprovable and contestable assertion that ghosts were real.
Yet ghosts, like many other supernatural matters, are more items of faith than demonstrable fact. People of a logical mind tend not to believe in them; people of a more spiritual inclination often do.
Some people swear that they have seen them, felt their presence and proximity, been bothered by them, terrified by them, that ghosts have chucked their furniture about and flushed the toilet incessantly in the middle of the night. Others put these phenomena down to bad dreams brought on by eating cheese and pickle sandwiches before bedtime, or attribute them to magnetic and electrical forces or to overactive imaginations, or to watching the wrong movies. People say they’ve got ghosts in the attic or they’re living in the faucet. But ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it just turns out to be bad plumbing or squirrels.
Yes, most people believe what suits them. Faith conquers reason. It often even boldly defies logic and plain common sense. Once, for instance, it was thought shocking to believe that the earth revolved around the sun, and not the other way around. Yet, now, thanks to astronomy, the fact cannot be denied.
But faith in the spiritual, or supernatural, also has another powerful enemy: money. Or rather, the lack of money and the necessity of paying one’s way, of making ends meet, and of balancing the books.
And all this brings us now to a man clad in a drab suit and carrying a leather briefcase, who was currently making his way toward the Ministry of Ghosts on that Monday morning. He had a map and directions with him and so was unlikely to get lost.
His name was Franklin Beeston and, like the current occupants of the Ministry, he was a government employee, a civil servant no less. Franklin Beeston was neither young nor old, ugly nor handsome, fat nor thin. His briefcase contained a few official papers, but its main purpose was for the transportation of his lunch, which was sandwiches in a plastic, resealable container, and a thermos of tea (milk, no sugar). Mr. Beeston was not a man for cappuccinos and other such expensive extravagances. By making his own sandwiches and bringing his own tea, Mr. Beeston estimated that he was saving one thousand pounds a year in lunch money alone. No small sum, either. Not to a man with a family to support. Even though Mrs. Beeston also worked in the civil service and brought in a good salary of her own. Mr. Beeston took care of the pennies and the pounds, perhaps a little too much. But then, while his work was steady and secure, more one to remain contented in for the next thirty years until he finally retired on a decent pension.
Mr. Beeston’s department was “Cuts.” That was not its official name, but such was its purpose. It was there to affect economies, to bring down unnecessary government expenditure, to reduce the burden on the taxpayer and the public sector’s wages bill. Politicians had made promises, and had been elected on such promises and now they were going to implement those promises, to keep faith with their voters.
Significant cuts had been slated (for cuts, when politicians speak of them, are always significant and never anything less). Red tape was going to be slashed. Dead wood was to be axed. Bureaucracy was to be reduced. Unnecessary expenditure was to be trimmed. All government departments would need to “justify their existence” or they would be on the chopping block. Redundancies would no doubt (sadly and regrettably) be inevitable, but necessary, for the public good. Times were hard. It was an austerity budget, and nothing would stand in its way.
Thus Mr. Beeston was heading for the Ministry of Ghosts, to determine to what extent—if any—its continuing existence could be justified. If no justifications could be made (and while not wishing to prejudge the case, he thought it highly unlikely) then closure would be inevitable. Those who worked in the Ministry of Ghosts would be redeployed in less exciting and less esoteric roles, or they would find themselves on the scrapheap.
Mr. Beeston did not consider it likely that those who had spent years working at the Ministry of Ghosts would find it easy to obtain or to adjust to alternative employment. Indeed, their past experience might even weigh against them. For Mr. Beeston was of the opinion that ghosts did not exist and never had.
“There are,” he would tell anyone prepared to listen, “no ghosts. There never have been and never will be. There are people’s imaginations, that’s all. And ghosts are but figments of the imagination.”
The Ministry was a relic of another age, he felt— one of those government agencies that had long since outlived its usefulness. It had become an irrelevance, an outmoded, outdated institution, along the lines of the Department of Horse-Drawn Vehicles or the Ministry for the Subjugation of the Colonies or the Department for the Inspection of Steam Engines.
Why the Ministry of Ghosts had not been closed down years ago was something of a mystery to Mr. Beeston. He could not think how its existence had ever been allowed to continue or how it had so long escaped the axe of financial constraint.
Maybe it was because the place was so well hidden and buried away, down a warren of narrow, antiquated streets full of buildings of equally antique appearance. It was like another world here, a place that time had forgotten. Here went on trades, which you might think had long been rendered obsolete. Here were small shops with weather-faded signs outside, boasting dates of origin going back hundreds of years. Deglemann and
Sons—Hatters and Milliners, for example. Or Spiegler & Co.—Sword Makers to the Gentry. Or Thoroughgood and Partners—Bespoke Tailors. Wortinbrass and Fanglewood—Shoe and Bootmakers and Stockists of Finest Spatterdashes. And Mrs. Runciward—Supplier of Ladies’ Corsets, Whalebone Reinforcements a Speciality.
Yes, here, Mr. Beeston decided, as he made his way along the ever-narrowing alleyways, was, in a word, yesterday. This part of the city was the “yesterday” area. It reeked of nostalgia, of old-world charm, and equally, old-world discomforts. He even—hard as it was to believe—saw a horse-drawn cart pass by. It must have been a brewer’s carriage, he thought, glancing at the old-fashioned lettering of the unfamiliar name, kept on as a public relations and advertising gimmick. Maybe it was stabled down here somewhere, and it trotted out every now and again to entertain the public and promote the sale of beer.
Mr. Beeston noted with distaste that the carthorse had left some droppings behind it. He stepped around the mess, on the one hand considering that it would be good for his tomato plants; on the other thinking that if dog owners had doggie bags then why didn’t horse owners have horse ones?
Then he looked at his map again and, despite all his best efforts and logical dimensions, found himself slightly lost. He reoriented himself, turned to the left, and headed down Casement Way, which, he felt confident, would lead to Bric-a-Brac Street, and there he would find his fellow civil servants—colleagues in a way and yet strangers, too—at their desks and at their labors (were there any, and he doubted it) in the Ministry of Ghosts.
The horse and the carriage turned a corner and were gone with a clopping of hooves and a rattling of ironclad wheels.
Yet, the instant the cart disappeared from view, so did the sound of it vanish from earshot. Almost as if the cart had been an illusion, a figment of someone’s imagination, or, perhaps, even an apparition—some kind of a hologram maybe, a specter, a trick of the light, even a ghost.