The highly anticipated thriller from internationally renowned author Sara Gran, author of Come Closer and the Claire DeWitt series
A mysterious book that promises unlimited power and unrivaled sexual pleasure. A down-on-her-luck book dealer hoping for the sale of a lifetime. And a twist so shocking, no one will come out unscathed.
After a tragedy too painful to bear, former novelist Lily Albrecht has resigned herself to a dull, sexless life as a rare-book dealer—until she gets a lead on a book that just might turn everything around. The Book of the Most Precious Substance is a seventeenth-century manual on sex magic, rumored to be the most powerful occult book ever written—if it really exists at all. And some of the wealthiest people in the world are willing to pay Lily a fortune to find it, if she can.
Her search for the book takes her from New York to New Orleans to Munich to Paris, searching the dark corners of power where the world’s wealthiest people use black magic to fulfill their desires. Will Lily fulfill her own desires and join them? Or will she lose it all searching for a ghost?
The Book of the Most Precious Substance is an addictive erotic thriller about the lengths we will go to get what we need—and what we want.
Release date: February 8, 2022
Publisher: Dreamland Books
Print pages: 284
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The Book of the Most Precious Substance
I first heard about the book from Shyman.
We were at the big annual book sale in the community college gymnasium on Lexington near Grammercy Park. Most book dealers specialized in an area of study: military history, revolutionary literature, modern first editions. I didn’t. I specialized in books that interested me and were profitable. I liked books that were beautiful, with unusual bindings or
remarkable illustrations. I liked obscure topics, like lesser-known religions or forgotten corners of history. I liked books about art. I liked counterculture. On my table at the moment were a dozen books from the 1800s with forgettable words and good bindings priced at fifty bucks each; a few bird and butterfly guides from the same era with original lithographs priced at two hundred each; a travelogue written by a Russian visitor to Tibet in 1901 (the only copy I’d ever seen or heard of) for five hundred; a little stack of British pulp fiction from the forties and fifties; another stack of perverted and wonderful Olympia Press editions in green paper wrappers (no Nabokov or Miller, sadly, the gems of the run); a handful of gossipy out-of-print paperbacks about groupies and musicians I’d found in a thrift shop a few weeks before; a book on Haitian voodoo from the 1930s with remarkable photographs; and a series of letterpressed pamphlets on Southern cooking published by the Charleston Junior League from the 1930s through the 1960s. My most expensive book was fifteen hundred bucks, a rare and beautiful survey of a little-known Swedish artist named Hannah Kline. My cheapest, the British paperbacks, were twenty bucks each.
Business was brisk. It was a week after Valentine’s Day. The fair itself was in the exact
dead center of the business, in the middle between thrift-store dollar paperbacks and seven-figure rarities. It had slowed the week before, and we were all worried the slushy mess outside would slow down sales, but our worries weren’t justified. Now we worried about all the moisture ruining our books. Book people aren’t exactly silver-lining types.
And then Shyman showed up at my table.
“Hey, Lily,” he said. “I was looking for you.”
“Hey,” I said. “How’s your day going? Selling anything?”
Shyman himself looked like the exact dead center of most book dealers: a fifty-something man with an irregular hairline and patchy, unbecoming facial hair, clothes that were somehow too big and too small at the same time, and a look on his face like he could very easily be persuaded to sit down and never get up again. Like most book people, there was a shadow in his face, a hollow echo in his laugh, that let you know he’d rather be around books than people. Who could blame him? It was why so many of us were in this business. People had let us down. People had broken our hearts. We liked books and animals and messy rooms full of things that weren’t people.
But you could also see, in b
etter moments, the man Shyman used to be: handsome, erudite, a scholar with a beautiful wife and a promising career ahead of him. The promise of which, obviously, had not come true. Shyman was very good at what he did, which was sell books about military history. As far as I knew, he wasn’t really interested in anything else. He had come to the book world through a handful of failed PhD attempts. He ended up with no degree and no job but with a library of military books that had increased in value threefold since he began graduate school. He lived on Long Island somewhere. Not the fancy part.
“Eh,” he said. “It’s OK. But listen. You know something called the Pretiosus Materia? Something like that?”
I thought it was Italian and I thought he was mispronouncing it.
“La Pretiosus Materia?” I said. Not that I spoke Italian. But I spoke a little French and a little Spanish, and figured it was something like The Precious Materials.
“Latin,” he said. “Not Italian. The Precious Substance. You know about weird stuff. I thought you might’ve heard of it.”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Well, if you can find it,” h
e said, “I got someone offering six figures for it.”
“Six figures?” I asked.
“High six figures,” he said, “and I strongly suspect he would go to seven if he had to. He wants this book. Of course, if you can find it—”
“If I find it,” I said, “we share.”
“If you find it,” Shyman went on, as if I hadn’t spoken, “you or whoever finds it, I’m willing to give twenty percent. That’s fair.”
“Fifty percent,” I said.
“OK,” I said. “Thirty-five.”
“Let’s make it interesting,” said Shyman. “Thirty-three percent. If you find the book for
me, I buy it for my client, I give you thirty-three percent of what I make from it. If I make anything.”
“OK,” I said. “Deal.”
We shook on it.
I needed money.
I started that night.
Before I could start looking for The Precious Substance, I had books to sell. I sold all my Olympia Press books to a man around my age, early forties, with an armful of thousand-dollar books I would have liked to spend the day with. I sold the butterfly books to a woman with a small tattoo of a heart on her cheek. We talked about butterfly guides for a while; she was an entomologist and a book collector.
Then Lucas Markson approached my table. Lucas was a regular customer who had become an acquaintance, or maybe a friend. I still wasn’t quite sure which. Lucas was the head of the rare books department at a big university library uptown with a big acquisitions budget. I’d known him for more than five years but Lucas was still, in many ways, a mystery
to me: He always seemed to have money and always looked decent—both rarities in the book world. He was close to six feet tall with an appealing face and a kind of charm that was unusual in book people. He was handsome, with a pleasantly prominent nose that added some character. He dressed well: tailored shirts, slim jackets, blue jeans worn just right. The only stain to mark him as a book person was a strange little nervousness that sometimes led him to make eye contact, or fail to, at unexpected moments. Other than that he was suspiciously normal.
Lucas’s father had been some kind of wealthy finance person; he’d mentioned once that his father had never loved him or his mother, and that he was sure this lack of love was what had led both his parents to an early grave. Like many, he claimed to be native New Yorker, but was really from a wealthy part of Westchester. He’d moved to the city for college and never left.
But as we kept running into each other at book fairs and auctions, I found out Lucas was more interesting than he first seemed. Lucas had an unexpected warmth that made him easy to spend time with, despite occasional awkwardness. He could form a little bubble of shared
space that seemed both private and true with nearly anyone, almost instantly. From the first time we met, at a small reception for a rare book fair in Brooklyn, we had an easy rapport, even though we had almost nothing in common. Nothing except books. Lucas was arch and funny without ever being cruel. He was remarkably quick. I wasn’t sure if he was intelligent, but he was astoundingly clever. Maybe we liked each other because we could keep up with each other.
Now he would call me looking for books for the library or I would get in touch when I had a book I thought he’d want for his collections. We had a nice little Venn diagram of shared areas of interest: counterculture, bibliographies, and books about books. If he was upstate, near the town where I lived, he’d come by and look at stock and usually buy a few titles. The area had become popular with tourists over the past few years; Lucas made regular visits in the summer and occasional ski trips in the winter. I lived in a small Victorian town a few miles east of the Hudson River, about a hundred and fifteen miles north of the city. Settled by the Dutch, stolen from the Iroquois. I owned about an acre and a half, which held a small house that we lived in and a large barn where I kept my books.
I used to live in Manhattan. I used to live in Brooklyn. I used to live in Oakland. In Taos and Sedona and Phoenix. All that seemed like a lifetime ago.
“Lily,” Lucas said. I stood up and he gave me a brief hug. He smelled good, like expensive, masculine soap: sandalwood, sage, clean laundry.
“Good sale?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Very good. How about you? Buy anything?”
He had bought plenty: a little sheaf of letters from Doris Lessing to her editor, a rare hardcover on the first European visit to Papua New Guinea, and a bibliography of illuminated manuscripts from Portugal.
“Hey,” I asked, “have you ever heard of a book called The Precious Substance?”
“No,” Lucas answered. “The Precious what?”
“The Precious Substance,” I said.
“What’s the substance?” Lucas asked.
“I have no idea,” I said. “But the book is worth a lot of money if I can find it. You know Shyman? He’s looking for it.”
“Huh,” Lucas said.
“Yeah,” I said.
A woman across the room was trying to get Lucas’s attention and finally he gave it to her. A dealer named Jenny Janes. She was holding up a long, slim book. I didn’t recognize it, but Lucas’s eyes grew wide at the sight of it.
“I’ve gotta go,” Lucas said. “Think maybe I could help? With the book?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Maybe.”
Jenny gestured again.
“Dinner tonight?” Lucas said.
“OK,” I said.
“Perfect,” he said. “I’ll text you.”
He walked away. Another man approached, a tall, thin man with a sour face, and I went back to work.
At the end of the day I packed up my books, trusted the security guards to protect them from thieves and other dealers, and went to the apartment I was renting for the weekend in
Chelsea, a few blocks crosstown from the fair, to shower and change before dinner. Books were a dirty job, one of the black arts, along with witchcraft and printing.
I hadn’t planned on dinner so I hadn’t brought anything nice to wear. Also, I didn’t own anything nice to wear. I put on clean blue jeans and a clean denim button-down shirt. I looked in the mirror. I vaguely remembered that people used to enjoy looking at me. I took off the denim shirt and put on a dirty camisole I’d slept in the night before. Better. I put a cardigan, also dirty, over the camisole, put on a swipe of lipstick that would probably be worn off before I got to my entrée, put a big fat parka and wool hat over it all, and walked to the restaurant Lucas had picked out in the West Village.
It was dark. The sidewalk was wet and slushy, while the air was sharp and clear. Lucas had picked a jewel box of a restaurant on West Tenth Street. It was down a few steps. Lucas was waiting for me at a table by the window. A waitress was smiling as she took his drink order. They flirted a little.
I went inside. It was warm and perfectly lit with warm yellow light. Lucas stood up to kiss me on the cheek. His own cheek was warm and dry. I knew he was paying for dinner, or his
library was, and I ordered steak and good wine.
“Lily,” he said. “You look beautiful.”
I didn’t agree, but thanked him nonetheless. Over dinner we gossiped about the fair and the book world in general for a while before we got to talking about The Precious Substance. At the book fair, in between customers, I’d poked around online for the book. There was surprisingly little on the internet about it, and none of it useful. On a blog about rare books, The Precious Substance was on a list of books that may or may not be real. It was in a Reddit discussion on magical books that had ruined people’s lives, with no explanation given. I found out that its full, correct title was The Book of the Most Precious Substance: A Treatise of the Various Fluids and Their Uses, and that was about all.
On one obscure occult forum called Dark Triad, there was a small discussion that included someone who claimed to have actually seen a copy.
I happen [sic] to know one of the richest men in the world. He swears, up and down, that his fortune os [also sic] due to the practices in a book called THE BOOK OF THE MOST PRECIOUS SUBSTANCE. But he will not share his copy with me. Does anyone know where I
can find one? Or have one I can borrow?
One response: Ha, yeah. It’s the rarest, most sought after book in the entire bibliography of the occult. So no, asshole, I don’t have one you can borrow.
That in itself was strange. It was 2019. Generally, you could type the name of the rarest alchemical text into Google and download a PDF of it to your phone in about five minutes. Not this book.
“I don’t think Shyman knows anything about it at all,” I said.
“Doesn’t sound like anyone does,” Lucas said.
Then I realized why Shyman had asked me, of all people, for help: I was a rare generalist in a world of specialists. If Shyman had known for sure that the book was about the occult, he could have called up Jonathan Fracker in Rhode Island. If he knew it was about ships, he could have called Sonya Rabinowitz in Bodega Bay.
He had no idea what it was about. That was my outstanding quality as a bookseller: I was a dilettante.
“I’ll ask at work,” Lucas said. “Poke around. Someone should know.”
“Cool,” I said. “Call me if you find anything.”
“I will,” he said. We paused for a minute before he asked: “So. How’s…? Is he…?”
“The same,” I replied, as quickly as I could. “How about you? You seeing anyone?”
Lucas said, “Yeah. I’m dating this woman at school. A professor.”
I figured that meant Lucas would sleep with her a few times and then find an excuse to never speak to her again. As far as I could tell, that was how all his relationships went. When we first met I thought it was a phase he was going through. I knew he’d been married, briefly, long before we knew each other, and it hadn’t worked out. At the time, I’d thought he would soon be married again—he was handsome, bright, friendly, and somehow always seemed to have money. But now I knew all his relationships were brief. There was a fear of depth in Lucas, a resistance to real connection. In truth, that made him a little more attractive, to me and I suspect to the women he dated. All the fun, none of the vulnerability.
“Cool,” I said. “What’s she teach?”
“Math,” Lucas said. “Like weird math philosophy stuff.”
“Cool,” I said again. “She must be smart.”
“Yeah, incredibly smart,” Lucas said. “How’s upstate? Other than—”
“OK,” I said. “I’m thinking about opening a store. The town is getting kind of fancy, as you know.”
The waiter refilled our wine and brought our steaks. The steak was just how I like it: pink in the middle, a spot of red in the dead center, almost crisp on the outside. It was the best meal I’d had in ages. I felt the tension in me start to unwind a little.
“Did you hear about May Baron?” Lucas asked. “Found a Gatsby in a thrift shop in Ohio.”
“Oh, Jesus Christ,” I said. “May, of all people. How’s your steak?”
“Excellent,” Lucas said.
I guessed Lucas was a good cook. I’d sold him a few cookbooks over the years, and you could just see him in the kitchen, throwing together a little Italian-type meal—something green and bitter, some lean protein with lemon, something starchy with butter. Jazz on the hi-fi. A woman leaning against the counter drinking wine and eating an impromptu amuse-bouche. She’d be between thirty and forty and a catch: attractive, accomplished, sane, sense of humor, some free time, some money. Single. Childless. Ideally family-less altogether. It
wouldn’t be as attractive if she were busy with the actual living of life—birth, death, children, old people, illness, bodily woes. Within ninety to three hundred days he’d be making up a reason to leave her.
Lucas and I finished dinner and went outside together.
“Cab?” Lucas said.
“No thanks,” I said. “I’ll walk for a little— Oh, we forgot to talk about work.”
“Oh, right,” Lucas said. “I’ll walk with you for a while, if that’s OK.”
We walked north on Seventh Ave. It was slushy and cold. A typically unpleasant New York winter. The leftover snow was hanging around in dirty little dregs; the air was sharp and cold. Lucas walked close to me and brushed against me a few times as we walked, coat against coat. I couldn’t tell if it was intentional or not. Lucas had always been a little flirtatious with me. I figured he was like that with everyone. I would be too, if I were him. Why not open every door? Might get a lady. Might get a tiger.
The first time I’d met Lucas, he told me he’d read everything I’d ever written—one book,
six short stories, eight personal essays. I felt a little rush of something forgotten and valuable. Later, I learned that moment wasn’t as meaningful as I’d imagined: Lucas was extraordinarily well read. But at the time I’d felt pleased with myself, especially after Lucas and I talked for a while. I liked him: He was strange and funny and bright.
Then that year’s girlfriend—a smart, interesting woman who worked in an art gallery—came over and put her arm around Lucas and, with perfect friendliness and charm, introduced herself to me. I liked her right away. I soon realized Lucas had a new girlfriend every eight or twelve months, and he soon realized that I didn’t really want to talk about my old life as a writer, and after that first conversation we stuck to rare books and book dealer gossip and got along very well.
I would not have believed it, if you’d told me that night, when I met Lucas, that I wouldn’t publish anything again. That five years later, my life would be exactly the same.
Intentional or not, the tiny points of contact between us as we walked down the street had a strong effect, fueling a little spark of desire in me, and an equal one of sadness. I moved away from Lucas and pushed both feelings away.
“We’re looking to expand in bibliographies,” he said. “I’m pretty much buying everything I can in books about books. Also, a student pointed out to me that our travelogues are pitiful.”
“What kind of travel?”
“Firsts,” he said. “Early stuff.”
I knew he didn’t mean first editions, but accounts of the first person from one place to visit another: first American in Nigeria, first Nigerian in France, and so on.
“Nice,” I said. “Come by my booth tomorrow after the first hour or two. I have a few things—I’ll put them aside for you.”
We talked some more about his wants and desires. When we reached the corner of the block where I was staying, Lucas thanked me and we said good night and kissed on the cheek. His face was warm and soft and forgiving. Maybe it was my imagination, but I was almost sure he hesitated for a sliver of a moment before he turned away. I chalked it up to awkwardness.
“See you tomorrow,” I said brightly, and I turned and left before I felt anything else.
I walked back to the apartment I’d rented. It was a little one-bedroom, pleasantly messy and comfortable, crowded with textiles and pillows and wall hangings from Asia and Central America. In the apartment I poured myself a glass from a bottle of good wine that likely was not intended for me to drink, changed into a T-shirt and pajama pants, ...
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