One may as well begin with the moment I finished reading Howards End and E.M. Forster appeared in front of me.
“Did you like my book?” E.M. said.
Even though he didn’t himself introduce to me, I knew it was E.M. Forster. He was bookish, with a prominent nose and unavoidable moustache. He spoke in a British accent. Even if he hadn’t referred to the book I was holding as “mine,” I probably would have guessed that this was E.M. Forster within like three tries. Though one always wants to be eloquent when greeted by dead literary icons, this was not one of those moments.
“E.M. Forster?” I said, gawking.
“From the fourth dimension! Yes, yes, but let’s move past that shall we?”
“What are you doing here?”
“You have to answer my question first.”
(The question about whether I liked his book.)
“I liked it,” I said.
“Splendid!” he said. “Well, let me get to the point.” E.M. perched himself on top of my desk. “Here’s the thing. I’ve always thought Howards End shouldn’t be restricted to one novel. I think there’s more to it that can be expanded on. I’ve read your work, and I really like it, and I think you’re the perfect person to do this.”
“Do what, exactly?” I said.
“I want you to write Howards End 2.”
I leaned back in my chair, trying to comprehend exactly what he was telling me.
“Didn’t that story kind of wrap up?”
“Howards End isn’t about the story or the characters, it’s about the place — that’s why it’s called Howards End, not Helen and Margaret are Sisters and a Bunch of Things Happen to Them. The house, Howards End, had a meaning to it. It brought people together. It survived generations. There’s something about that concept — that places outlive people, that their stories are happening now, have already happened, and will continue to happen, into infinity — that can’t get captured in one book. It needs more. There has to be another book about this place.”
My first intuition was to say “no.” I wanted to do create something that I could call my own. Wouldn’t it be unfair to lean on a previously established book? I had to express my doubts to E.M. without sounding rude. After all, he seemed to have made an effort to get here.
“Howards End was so good,” I said. “I wouldn’t want to just lean on its success. It would probably be better for you if I wrote something original.”
“If it’s originality you seek, young man, you won’t be finding it. Stories pass along a consistent thread; everything you write is based on everything that has come before. There is no way from breaking from it. Our stories share words, diction — they come in the same packaging. To be a writer, you have to acknowledge that you’re part of a shared history. Every thing you write owes a debt to everything you have read. You just read Howards End and now it’s your duty to write about it.”
How can you turn down E.M. Forster? The guy wrote Aspects of the Novel — if he wants you to write one, you write one.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll work on it.”
“Jordan,” he said, leaning forward. “I love your work. You have to do this. You’re the only one who can do Howards End justice for a sequel.”
“Oh,” I replied. “Thanks.”
“Well, I’ll leave you to it!”
Then he disappeared.
Despite my affection for Howards End and E.M. Forster’s assurances that I was the best person to write a follow-up, I was having trouble coming up with a suitable story. After all, there was a lot of pressure. E.M. Forster asked me out of everyone to write a story. I had to do a good job. I figure one shouldn’t disappoint a dead author, or it might haunt me for the rest of my life.
So I called my writer friend Liz and asked her to read Howards End to see if she could gain any insights about what direction I should take the novel. I didn’t tell her why I was writing Howards End 2; I didn’t think she’d believe me. But then, a few days later, she phoned me back and said that the strangest thing happened: after she finished reading Howards End, E.M. Forster appeared in her room and said he was a big fan of her work and if she might be interested in writing a sequel because she was the only person who could do Howards End justice with a sequel.
“I think we have an E.M. Forster problem,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
I explained to her that the same thing happened to me. She agreed that something seemed fishy. After all, why would E.M. insist to both of us that we were the only ones who could properly write a sequel? Was E.M. Forster appearing when any writer finished reading Howards End, asking them all just to hedge his bets? To answer this, we came up with a course of action: we would talk to our writer friend Nic and get him to read Howards End, and we would be with him the moment he finished. Hopefully that would summon E.M. and we could confront him about his duplicity.
A few days later we sat in Nic’s living room as he finished the book. Liz had since uncovered a strange bit of information: Zadie Smith’s 2006 Booker Prize nominated On Beauty was “inspired by” Howards End. Did E.M. have something to do with that too? The three of us were nervous and excited to find out answers. Finally, Nic turned the last page and smiled.
“Not bad,” he said.
And then, at that very instant, E.M. Forster appeared in the corner of the room. Despite all of expecting this exact thing to happen, it was still startling.
“Did you like my book?” E.M. said — but then he noticed Liz and I were also in the room, and turned white as a ghost. “Oh crap.”
“Hello, E.M.,” Liz said, trying to sound like a detective.
“Hello Jordan and Liz. I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“What are you doing here, E.M.?” I said.
“Did you think Nic would be the perfect person to write Howards End 2?”
“I suppose I have some explaining to do,” he said. “Come with me.”
We didn’t have a choice. In an instant, the four of us had transported somewhere entirely different than Nic’s basement bachelor apartment. We were standing on the landing of what seemed to be an immense library. There were bookcases lining all six walls — there didn’t seem to be an entrance or exit anywhere. We weren’t even on the bottom, only on one of the landings. I went over to the bannister and looked down. There didn’t seem to be an end in sight. I looked up and the same.
“Welcome to my Library of the Infinite,” E.M. said.
“Where is this?” Nic asked.
“Nowhere that you would understand,” E.M. replied. “One thing you discover as a trans-dimensional omniscient being is that linear time and concrete space are inventions of the human form.”
“What is this?” Nic clarified.
E.M. walked over to one of the shelves and plucked a book at random. He passed it to me and I stared at the words on the cover: Howards End 2 by Ernest Hemingway. He took another and passed it to Nic: Howards End 2 by Jorge Luis Borges. Then another, and passed it to Liz: Howard End 2 by Robertson Davies.
“Canadian Content,” E.M. explained.
“Are you telling me that these people wrote a Howards End 2?” I asked.
“Of course,” E.M. replied. “That’s what this library is! Every writer has written a Howards End 2, every writer will write a Howards End 2. It’s so beautiful, my library. Every book is merely a different order of letters to form different words in different orders with different placements of the spaces between them — an infinite series of differences but with one connection: Howards End. Every time a writer finishes reading Howards End, I go down and ask them to write a sequel, and when they do, I bring it back here and add it to my collection. Isn’t it…grand?”
“So you asked Zadie Smith?” Liz asked.
“And she went and got it published before I could grab it!” he shouted. “Sometimes you think you trust someone. Zadie liked the idea — she wanted to write a story about Howards End, but then pride got the best of her. She thought she’d make it her own story and then she went and got it published. The shrew.”
“Isn’t that her prerogative?” I asked. “She wrote it, after all.”
“No!” shouted E.M. “Don’t you see? It’s mine — all the Howards End stories are mine! They belong to me in my fourth dimension library with me! Me! Me! Me! I’m the only person that can read the Howards End sequels! They’re MINE! I WROTE HOWARDS END AND I DESERVE THIS!”
His voice was getting louder with each word. Spit was flying from his mouth in rage. Nic, Liz and I felt very uncomfortable.
“We’d like to go back now,” I said. “We’re not going to write a sequel.”
E.M. burst into maniacal laughter. “Oh aren’t you?” he said, walking over to the shelf, inspecting it closely, and then picking a book out. “Look at this and tell me what you think about that clever little pronouncement of yours.”
I took the book from his hand and read the cover: Howards End 2 by Jordan Moffatt. My name. “How is this possible? I haven’t written it.”
“You haven’t written it yet. I exist outside of what you call time, Jordan. Your version of Howards End is here, all versions of Howards End are here. You’re going to write it. From my perspective, it’s happening right now, it’s already happened, and it’s going to happen.”
I felt powerless and overwhelmed. Oh how I wanted the bookcase to fall on him and kill him once and for all just like Leonard Bast!
“You’re a monster!” I yelled.
E.M. laughed even louder than before.
“There’s nothing you can do, Jordan!” he shouted, grabbing the book from my hand and jamming it back onto one of his infinite shelves. “You’re going to write Howards End 2. Just like everyone else!” E.M.’s laugh got louder and louder, more mad than ever, with each “ha” ringing out through the Library of the Infinite, cutting deep into my soul, crushing my spirit, and resigning me to defeat.
That laugh haunts me still, seven months later. It echoes through my head whenever I sit down to write anything. Have I started writing Howards End 2? No, not yet. But I held the book, and I know the truth: some day I will write it. There is no escaping Howards End. It is a place that binds us all. My fate is sealed, but yours may not be — I’m writing this as a warning: never read Howards End.
Jordan Moffatt is a writer and improviser living in Ottawa. His short fiction has appeared in many places on the web, has been printed in (parenthetical), and is forthcoming in Matrix Magazine and The Feathertale Review. He recently received an honourable mention for the 2016 Blodwyn Memorial Prize and was shortlisted for the 2016 Lit POP award.