The following story was originally published in Grimscribe (1991) but can now be found in a new collection from Penguin Classics called Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe.
Instructor Carniero was holding class once again.
I discovered this fact on my return from a movie theater. It was late and I thought, “Why not take a short cut across the grounds of the school?” This thought led to a whole train of thoughts that I often pondered, especially when I was out walking at night. Mainly these thoughts were about my desire to know something that I was sure was real about my existence, something that could help me in my existence before it was my time to die and be put into the earth to rot, or perhaps have my cremated remains drift out of a chimney stack and sully the sky. Of course, this desire was by no means unique to me. Nonetheless, I had spent quite a few years, my whole life it seemed, seeking to satisfy it in various ways. Most recently, I had sought some kind of satisfaction by attending the classes of Instructor Carniero. Though I had not attended his classes for very long, he seemed to be someone who could reveal what was at the bottom of things. Lost in my thoughts, then, I left the street I was walking along and proceeded across the grounds of the school, which were vast and dark. It was quite cold that night, and when I looked down the front of my overcoat I saw that the single remaining button holding it together had become loose and possibly would not last much longer. So a short cut on my return from that movie theater appeared to be the wise move.
I entered the school grounds as if they were only a great park located in the midst of surrounding streets. The trees were set close and from the perimeter of that parcel of land I could not see the school hidden within them. Look up here, I thought I heard someone say to me. When I did look up, I saw that the branches overhead were without leaves, and through their intertwining mesh the sky was fully visible. How bright and dark it was at the same time. Bright with a high, full moon shining among the spreading clouds, and dark with the shadows mingling within those clouds—a slowly flowing mass of mottled shapes, a kind of unclean outpouring from the black sewers of space.
I noticed that in one place these clouds were leaking down into the trees, trickling in a narrow rivulet across the wall of the night. But it was really smoke, dense and dirty, rising up to the sky. A short distance ahead, and well into the thickly wooded grounds of the school, I saw the spastic flames of a small fire among the trees. By the smell, I guessed that someone was burning refuse. Then I could see the misshapen metal drum spewing smoke, and the figures standing behind the firelight became visible to me, as I was to them.
“Class has resumed,” one of them called out. “He’s come back after all.”
I knew these were others from the school, but their faces would not hold steady in the flickering light of the fire that warmed them. They seemed to be smudged by the smoke, greased by the odorous garbage burning in that dark metal drum, its outer surface almost glowing from the heat and flaking off in places.
“Look there,” said another member of the group, pointing deeper into the school grounds. The massive outline of a building occupied the distance, a few of its windows sending a dim light through the trees. From the roof of the building a number of smokestacks stood out against the pale sky.
A wind rose up. It droned noisily around us and breathed a crackling life into the fire in the decayed metal drum. I tried to shout above the confusion of sounds. “Was there an assignment?” I cried out. But they appeared not to hear me, or perhaps were ignoring my words. When I repeated the question they briefly glanced my way, as if I had said something improper. I left them hunched around the fire, assuming they would be along. The wind died, and I could hear someone say the word “maniac,” which was not spoken, I realized, either to me or about me.
Instructor Carniero, in his person, was rather vague to my mind. I had not been in his class very long before some disease—a terribly serious affliction, one of my fellow students hinted—had caused his absence. So what remained, for me, was no more than the image of a slender gentleman in a dark suit, a gentleman with a darkish complexion and a voice thick with a foreign accent. “He’s a Portuguese,” someone told me. “But he’s lived almost everywhere.” And I recalled a particular phrase of reproof he used to single out those of us who had not been attending to the diagrams he was incessantly creating on the blackboard. “Look up here,” he would say. “If you do not look, you will learn nothing—you will be nothing.” A few members of the class never needed to be called to attention in this manner, a certain small group who had been longtime students of the instructor and without distraction scrutinized the unceasing series of diagrams he would design upon the blackboard and then erase, only to construct again, with slight variation, a moment later.
Although I cannot claim that these often complex diagrams were not directly related to our studies, there were always extraneous elements within them which I never bothered to transcribe into my own notes for the class. They were a strange array of abstract symbols, frequently geometric figures altered in some way: various polygons with asymmetrical sides, trapezoids whose sides did not meet, semicircles with double or triple slashes across them, and many other examples of a deformed or corrupted scientific notation. These signs appeared to be primitive in essence, more relevant to magic than mathematics. The in structor marked them in an extremely rapid hand upon the blackboard, as if they were the words of his natural language. In most cases they formed a border around a familiar diagram allied to chemistry or physics, enclosing it and sometimes, it seemed, transforming its sense. Once a student questioned him regarding what seemed his apparently superfluous embellishment of these diagrams. Why did Instructor Carniero subject us to these bewildering symbols? “Because,” he answered, “a true instructor must share everything, no matter how terrible or lurid it might be.”
As I proceeded across the grounds of the school, I noticed certain changes in my surroundings. The trees nearer to the school looked different from those in the encompassing area. These were so much thinner, emaciated and twisted like broken bones that had never healed properly. And their bark seemed to be peeling away in soft layers, because it was not only fallen leaves I trudged through on my way to the school building, but also something like dark rags, strips of decomposed material. Even the clouds upon which the moon cast its glow were thin or rotted, unraveled by some process of degeneration in the highest atmosphere of the school grounds. There was also a scent of corruption, an enchanting fragrance really— like the mulchy rot of autumn or early spring—that I thought was emerging from the earth as I disturbed the strange litter strewn over it. This odor became more pungent as I approached the yellowish light of the school, and strongest as I finally reached the old building itself.
It was a four-story structure of dark scabby bricks that had been patched together in another era, a time so different that it might be imagined as belonging to an entirely alien history, one composed solely of nights well advanced, an after-hours history. How difficult it was to think of this place as if it had been constructed in the usual manner. Far easier to credit some fantastic legend that it had been erected by a consort of demons during the perpetual night of its past, and that its materials were pilfered from other architectures, all of them defunct: ruined factories, ravaged mausoleums, abandoned orphanages, penitentiaries long out of use. The school was indeed a kind of freakish growth in a dumping ground, a blossom of the cemetery or the cesspool. Here it was that Instructor Carniero, who had been everywhere, held his class.
On the lower floors of the building a number of lights were in use, weak as guttering candles. The highest story was blacked out, and many of the windows were broken. Nevertheless, there was sufficient light to guide me into the school, even if the main hallway could hardly be seen to its end. And its walls appeared to be tarred over with something which exuded the same smell that filled the night outside the school. Without touching these walls, I used them to navigate my way into the school, following several of the greater and lesser hallways that burrowed throughout the building. Room after room passed on either side of me, their doorways filled with darkness or sealed by wide wooden doors whose coarse surfaces were pocked and peeling. Eventually I found a classroom where a light was on, though it was no brighter than the swarthy illumination of the hallway.
When I entered the room I saw that only some of the lamps were functioning, leaving certain areas in darkness while others were smeared with the kind of greasy glow peculiar to old paintings in oil. A few students were seated at desks here and there, isolated from one another and silent. By no means was there a full class, and no instructor stood at the lectern. The blackboard displayed no new diagrams but only the blurred remnants of past lessons. I took a desk near the door, looking at none of the others as they did not look at me. In one of the pockets of my overcoat I turned up a little stub of a pencil but could find nothing on which to take notes. Without any dramatic gestures, I scanned the room for some kind of paper. The visible areas of the room featured various items of debris without offering anything that would allow me to transcribe the complex instructions and diagrams demanded by the class. I was reluctant to make a physical search of the shelves set into the wall beside me because they were very deep and from them drifted that heady fragrance of decay.
Two rows to my left sat a man with several thick notebooks stacked on his desk. His hands were resting lightly on these notebooks, and his spectacled eyes were fixed on the empty lectern, or perhaps on the blackboard beyond. The space between the rows of desks was very narrow, so I was able to lean across the unoccupied desk that separated us and speak to this man who seemed to have a surplus of paper on which one could take notes, transcribe diagrams, and, in short, do whatever scribbling was demanded by the instructor of the class.
“Pardon me,” I whispered to the staring figure. In a single, sudden movement, his head turned to face me. I remembered his pitted complexion, which had obviously grown worse since our class last met, and the eyes that squinted behind heavy lenses. “Do you have any paper you could share with me?” I asked, and was somehow surprised when he shifted his head toward his notebooks and began leafing through the pages of the topmost one. As he performed this action, I explained that I was unprepared for the class, that only a short time before did I learn it had resumed. This happened entirely by chance, I said. I was coming home from a movie theater and decided to take a short cut across the school grounds.
By the time I was finished illuminating my situation, the other student was searching through his last notebook, the pages of which were as solidly covered with jottings and diagrams as the previous ones. I observed that his notes were different from those I had been taking for Instructor Carniero’s course. They were far more detailed and scrupulous in their transcriptions of those strange geometric figures which I considered only as decorative intrusions in the instructor’s diagrams. Some of the other students’ notebook pages were wholly given over to rendering these figures and symbols to the exclusion of the diagrams themselves.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t seem to have any paper I could share with you.”
“Well, could you tell me if there was an assignment?”
“That’s very possible. You can never tell with this instructor. He’s a Portuguese, you know. But he’s been all over and knows everything. I think he’s out of his mind. The kind of thing he’s been teaching should have gotten him into trouble somewhere, and probably did. Not that he ever cared what happened to him, or to anyone else. That is, those that he could influence, and some more than others. The things he said to us. The lessons in measurement of cloacal forces. Time as a flow of sewage. The excrement of space, scatology of creation. The voiding of the self. The whole filthy integration of things and the nocturnal product, as he called it, drowning in the pools of night.”
“I’m afraid I don’t recall those concepts,” I confessed.
“You’re new to the class. To tell the truth, you don’t seem to understand what the instructor is teaching. But soon enough he will get through to you, if he hasn’t already. You can never know. He’s very captivating, the instructor. And always ready for anything.”
“I was told that he recovered from the sickness that caused his absence, and that he was back teaching.”
“Oh, he’s back. He was always ready. Did you know that the class is now being held in another part of the school? I couldn’t tell you where, since even I haven’t been with Instructor Carniero as long as some of the others. To tell the truth, I don’t care where it’s being held. Isn’t it enough that we’re here, in this room?”
I had little idea how to answer this question and understood almost nothing of what the man had been trying to explain to me. It did seem clear, or at least very possible, that the class had moved to a different part of the school. But I had no reason to think that the other students seated elsewhere in the room would be any more helpful on this point than the one who had now turned his spectacled face away from me. Wherever the class was being held, I was still in need of paper on which to take notes, transcribe diagrams, and so forth. This could not be accomplished by staying in that room where everyone and everything was degenerating into the surrounding darkness.
For a time I wandered about the hallways on the main floor of the school, keeping clear of the walls which certainly were thickening with a dark substance, an odorous sap with the intoxicating potency of a thousand molting autumns or the melting soil of spring. The stuff was running from top to bottom down the walls, leaking from above and dulling the already dim light in the hallways.
I began to hear echoing voices coming from a distant part of the school I had never visited before. No words were decipherable, but it sounded as if the same ones were being repeated in a more or less constant succession of cries that rang hollow in the halls. I followed them and along the way met up with someone walking slowly from the opposite direction. He was dressed in dirty work clothes and almost blended in with the shadows which were so abundant in the school that night. I stopped him as he was about to shuffle straight past me. Turning an indifferent gaze in my direction was a pair of yellowish eyes set in a thin face with a coarse, patchy complexion. The man scratched at the left side of his forehead and some dry flakes of skin fell away. I asked him:
“Could you tell me where Instructor Carniero is holding class tonight?”
He looked at me for some moments, and then pointed a finger at the ceiling. “Up there,” he said. “Look up there.”
“On which floor?”
“The top one,” he answered, as if a little amazed at my ignorance.
“There are a lot of rooms on that floor,” I said.
“And every one of them is his. Nothing to be done about that. But I have to keep the rest of this place in some kind of condition. I don’t see how I can do that with him up there.” The man glanced around at the stained walls and let out a single, wheezing laugh. “It only gets worse. Starts to get to you if you go up any further. Listen. Hear the rest of them?” Then he groaned with disgust and went on his way.
But by that point I felt that any knowledge I had amassed— whether or not it concerned Instructor Carniero and his night classes—was being taken away from me piece by piece. The man in dirty work clothes had directed me to the top floor of the school. Yet I remembered seeing no light on that floor when I first approached the building. The only thing that seemed to occupy that floor was an undiluted darkness, a darkness far greater than the night itself, a consolidated darkness, something clotted with its own density. “The nocturnal product,” I could hear the spectacled student reminding me in a hollow voice. “Drowning in the pools of night.”
What could I know about the ways of the school? I had not been in attendance very long, not nearly long enough, it seemed. I felt myself a stranger to my fellow students, especially since they revealed themselves to be divided in their ranks, as though among the degrees of a secret society. I did not know the coursework in the way some of the others seemed to know it and in the spirit that the instructor intended it to be known. My turn had not yet come to be commanded by Instructor Carniero to look up at the hieroglyphs on the blackboard and comprehend them fully. So I did not understand the doctrines of a truly septic curriculum, the science of a spectral pathology, philosophy of absolute disease, the metaphysics of things sinking into a common disintegration or rising together, flowing together, in their dark rottenness. Above all, I did not know the instructor himself: the places he had been… the things he had seen and done… the experiences he had embraced… the laws he had ignored… the troubles he had caused… the fate that he had incurred, gladly, upon himself and others.
I was now close to a shaft of stairways leading to the upper floors of the school. The voices became louder, though not more distinct, as I approached the stairwell. The first flight of stairs seemed very long and steep, not to mention badly defined in the dim light of the hallway. The landing at the top of the stairs was barely visible for the poor light and unreflecting effluvia that here moved even more thickly down the walls. But it did not appear to possess any real substance, no sticky surface or viscous texture as one might have supposed, only a kind of density like heavy smoke, filthy smoke from some smoldering source of expansive corruption. And it carried the scent of corruption as well as the sight, only now it was more potent with the nostalgic perfume of autumn decay or the feculent muskiness of a spring thaw.
I climbed another flight of stairs, which ascended in the opposite direction from the first, and reached the second floor. Each of the four stories of the school had two flights of stairs going in opposite directions between them, with a narrow landing that intervened before one could complete the ascent to a new floor. The second floor was not as well-lighted as the one below, and the walls there were even worse: their surface had been wholly obscured by that smoky blackness which seeped down from above, the blackness so richly odorous with the offal of worlds in decline or perhaps with the dark compost of those about to be born, the primeval impurity in which all things are founded, the native putridity.
On the stairs that led up to the third floor I saw the first of them—a young man who was seated on the lower steps of this flight and who had been one of the instructor’s most assiduous students. He was absorbed in his own thoughts and did not acknowledge me until I spoke to him.
“The class?” I said, stressing the words into a question.
He gazed at me calmly. “The instructor suffered a terrible disease, a monumental disease.” This was all he said. Then he returned within himself and would not respond. There were others similarly positioned higher on the stairs or squatting on the landing. The voices were still echoing in the stairwell, chanting a blurred phrase in unison. But the voices did not belong to any of these students, who sat silent and entranced amid the scattered pages torn from their voluminous notebooks. Pieces of paper with strange symbols on them lay scattered everywhere like fallen leaves. They rustled as I walked through them toward the stairs leading to the highest story of the school.
The walls in the stairwell were now swollen with a blackness that was the very face of a plague—pustulant, scabbed, and stinking terribly. It was reaching to the edges of the floor, where it drifted and churned like a black fog. Only in the moonlight that shone through a hallway window could I see anything of the third floor. I stopped there, for the stairs to the fourth were deep in blackness. Only a few faces rose above it and were visible in the moonlight. One of them was staring at me, and, without prompting, spoke.
“The instructor is holding class again despite his terrible disease. Can you imagine? He is able to suffer anything and has been everywhere. Now he is in a new place, somewhere he has not been.” The voice paused and the interval was filled by the many voices calling and crying from the total blackness that prevailed over the heights of the stairwell and buried everything beneath it like tightly packed earth in a grave. Then the single voice said: “The instructor died in the night. You see? He is with the night. You hear the voices? They are with him. And he is with the night. The night has spread itself within him. He who has been everywhere may go anywhere with the disease of the night. Listen. The Portuguese is calling to us.”
I listened and finally the voices became clear. Look up here, they said. Look up here.
The fog of blackness had now unfurled down to me and lay about my feet, gathering there and rising. For a time I could not move or speak or form any thoughts. Inside me everything was becoming black. The blackness was quivering in my bones, eating away at them, making everything black within my body. It was holding me, and the voices were saying, “Look up here, look up here.” And I began to look. But I aborted my gesture before it was completed. I was already too close to something I could not endure, that I was not prepared to endure. Even the blackness quivering inside me could not go on to its end. I could not remain where I was nor look up to the place where the voices called out to me.
Then the blackness seemed to exude from my being, washing itself out of me, and I was no longer inside the school but outside it, almost as if I had suddenly awakened there. Without looking back, I retraced my steps across the grounds of the school, forgetting about the short cut I had meant to take that night. I passed those students who were still standing around the fire burning in an old metal drum. They were feeding the bright flames with pages from their notebooks, pages scribbled to blackness with all those diagrams and freakish signs. Some of those among the group called out to me. “Did you see the Portuguese?” one of them shouted above the noise of the fire and the wind. “Did you hear anything about an assignment?” another voice cried out. And then I heard them all laughing among themselves as I made my way back to the streets I had left before entering the school grounds. I moved with such haste that the loose button on my overcoat finally came off by the time I reached the street outside the grounds of the school.
As I walked beneath the streetlights, I held the front of my overcoat together and tried to keep my eyes on the sidewalk before me. But I might have heard a voice bid me, “Look up here,” because I did look, if only for a moment. Then I saw the sky was clear of all clouds, and the full moon was shining in the black spaces above. It was shining bright and blurry, as if coated with a luminous mold, floating like a lamp in the great sewers of the night. The nocturnal product, I thought, drowning in the pools of night. But these were only words I repeated without understanding. My desire to know something that I was sure was real about my existence, something that could help me in my existence before it was my time to die and be put into the earth to rot, or perhaps have my cremated remains drift out of a chimney stack and sully the sky—that would never be fulfilled. I had learned nothing, and I was nothing. Yet instead of disappointment at my failure to fulfill my most intense desire, I felt a tremendous relief. The urge to know the fundament of things was now emptied from me, and I was more than content to be rid of it. The following night I went to the movie theater again. But I did not take a short cut home.
“The Night School” by Thomas Ligotti. From Grimscribe. Copyright © 2015 by Thomas Ligotti. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted by arrangement with The McIntyre Agency.