There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

On "Man-size in Marble" by Edith Nesbit (1886)

In the moments detailed below Nesbit gives us the heights of excruciating suspense as the story moves from thickening* to revel**.


This procedure recalls a point made by Jack Sullivan in his superb study Elegant Nightmares, that "terror and suspense grow not out of shock and surprise, but out of thickening inevitability."


I strolled out of the front door, leaving it unlatched. What a night it was! The jagged masses of heavy dark cloud were rolling at intervals from horizon to horizon, and thin white wreaths covered the stars. Through all the rush of the cloud river, the moon swam, breasting the waves and disappearing again in the darkness. When now and again her light reached the woodlands they seemed to be slowly and noiselessly waving in time to the swing of the clouds above them. There was a strange grey light over all the earth; the fields had that shadowy bloom over them which only comes from the marriage of dew and moonshine, or frost and starlight.


I walked up and down, drinking in the beauty of the quiet earth and the changing sky. The night was absolutely silent. Nothing seemed to be abroad. There was no skurrying of rabbits, or twitter of the half-asleep birds. And though the clouds went sailing across the sky, the wind that drove them never came low enough to rustle the dead leaves in the woodland paths. Across the meadows I could see the church tower standing out black and grey against the sky. I walked there thinking over our three months of happiness--and of my wife, her dear eyes, her loving ways. Oh, my little girl! my own little girl; what a vision came then of a long, glad life for you and me together!


I heard a bell-beat from the church. Eleven already! I turned to go in, but the night held me. I could not go back into our little warm rooms yet. I would go up to the church. I felt vaguely that it would be good to carry my love and thankfulness to the sanctuary whither so many loads of sorrow and gladness had been borne by the men and women of the dead years.


I looked in at the low window as I went by. Laura was half lying on her chair in front of the fire. I could not see her face, only her little head showed dark against the pale blue wall. She was quite still. Asleep, no doubt. My heart reached out to her, as I went on. There must be a God, I thought, and a God who was good. How otherwise could anything so sweet and dear as she have ever been imagined?


I walked slowly along the edge of the wood. A sound broke the stillness of the night, it was a rustling in the wood. I stopped and listened. The sound stopped too. I went on, and now distinctly heard another step than mine answer mine like an echo. It was a poacher or a wood-stealer, most likely, for these were not unknown in our Arcadian neighbourhood. But whoever it was, he was a fool not to step more lightly. I turned into the wood, and now the footstep seemed to come from the path I had just left. It must be an echo, I thought. The wood looked perfect in the moonlight. The large dying ferns and the brushwood showed where through thinning foliage the pale light came down. The tree trunks stood up like Gothic columns all around me. They reminded me of the church, and I turned into the bier-balk, and passed through the corpse-gate between the graves to the low porch. I paused for a moment on the stone seat where Laura and I had watched the fading landscape. Then I noticed that the door of the church was open, and I blamed myself for having left it unlatched the other night. We were the only people who ever cared to come to the church except on Sundays, and I was vexed to think that through our carelessness the damp autumn airs had had a chance of getting in and injuring the old fabric. I went in. It will seem strange, perhaps, that I should have gone half-way up the aisle before I remembered--with a sudden chill, followed by as sudden a rush of self-contempt--that this was the very day and hour when, according to tradition, the "shapes drawed out man-size in marble" began to walk.


Having thus remembered the legend, and remembered it with a shiver, of which I was ashamed, I could not do otherwise than walk up towards the altar, just to look at the figures--as I said to myself; really what I wanted was to assure myself, first, that I did not believe the legend, and, secondly, that it was not true. I was rather glad that I had come. I thought now I could tell Mrs. Dorman how vain her fancies were, and how peacefully the marble figures slept on through the ghastly hour. With my hands in my pockets I passed up the aisle. In the grey dim light the eastern end of the church looked larger than usual, and the arches above the two tombs looked larger too. The moon came out and showed me the reason. I stopped short, my heart gave a leap that nearly choked me, and then sank sickeningly.


The "bodies drawed out man-size" were gone, and their marble slabs lay wide and bare in the vague moonlight that slanted through the east window.


"Man-size in Marble" by Edith Nesbit


*     *     *


*THICKENING

Thickening begins after the uncanny afflatus of SIGHTING begins to fade, and the future adumbrated in the terrorizing flash of Sighting begins to come true. In the prescriptive four-seasons model of the narrative structure of HORROR which governs most of the entries in this lexicon, THICKENING comes second: the full model comprises Sighting, Thickening, REVEL and AFTERMATH ; the moment of Sighting may be conveyed in a sentence, but the process of Thickening normally occupies most of any text being considered. Thickening, taken alone, can of course be thought of as simply another way of pointing to the kind of plot-complicating common to much fiction; but even here, if Thickening is focused on deeply, an effect similar to that of Horror - unresolved Horror - may be felt: the greatest novel focused on Thickening alone may be Samuel Richardson's Clarissa; Or, the History of a Young Lady: Comprehending the Most Important Concerns of Private Life (1748), a tale of extraordinary and suffocating intensity (but whose subtitle marks it off from Horror as understood here).


Stay, John Clute P. 231




**REVEL Revel is both a noun and a verb. As a noun it describes a formal event bound in time and place, an event in which the field of the world is reversed: good becomes evil; parody becomes jurisprudence; the jester is king; Hyde lives; autumn is the growing season. As a verb, Revel refers to actions which create and animate such an event, actions of telling which catch revelation on the wing; it also points to the subversive nature of story itself: because, as it is being told , every story about the world threatens to transport us out of our previous understanding of the world. In this lexicon, therefore, Revel as noun and verb represents the third of four successive stages - SIGHTING, THICKENING, Revel and AFTERMATH - that describe those works of HORROR which seem most completely to exhaust the potentials of the form. Revel comes after the thickening rind of appearances is peeled away at last, when the truth of things glares through the peeled MASQUE or DANSE MACABRE ; and resolves into the exhausted latency of AFTERMATH.


Stay, John Clute. P. 222


Terminology from The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror by John Clute. I am using the version in Clute's 2014 ebook collection Stay.


Jay

31 March 2021







Was Count Magnus A Vampire?

    'Mr. Wraxall, I can tell you this one little tale, and no more—not any more. You must not ask anything when I have done. In my grandfather's time—that is, ninety-two years ago—there were two men who said: "The Count is dead; we do not care for him. We will go to-night and have a free hunt in his wood"—the long wood on the hill that you have seen behind Råbäck. Well, those that heard them say this, they said: "No, do not go; we are sure you will meet with persons walking who should not be walking. They should be resting, not walking." These men laughed. There were no forest-men to keep the wood, because no one wished to hunt there. The family were not here at the house. These men could do what they wished.

     'Very well, they go to the wood that night. My grandfather was sitting here in this room. It was the summer, and a light night. With the window open, he could see out to the wood, and hear.

     'So he sat there, and two or three men with him, and they listened. At first they hear nothing at all; then they hear someone—you know how far away it is—they hear someone scream, just as if the most inside part of his soul was twisted out of him. All of them in the room caught hold of each other, and they sat so for three-quarters of an hour. Then they hear someone else, only about three hundred ells off. They hear him laugh out loud: it was not one of those two men that laughed, and, indeed, they have all of them said that it was not any man at all. After that they hear a great door shut.

     'Then, when it was just light with the sun, they all went to the priest. They said to him:

     '"Father, put on your gown and your ruff, and come to bury these men, Anders Bjornsen and Hans Thorbjorn."

     'You understand that they were sure these men were dead. So they went to the wood—my grandfather never forgot this. He said they were all like so many dead men themselves. The priest, too, he was in a white fear. He said when they came to him:

     '"I heard one cry in the night, and I heard one laugh afterwards. If I cannot forget that, I shall not be able to sleep again."

     'So they went to the wood, and they found these men on the edge of the wood. Hans Thorbjorn was standing with his back against a tree, and all the time he was pushing with his hands—pushing something away from him which was not there. So he was not dead. And they led him away, and took him to the house at Nykjoping, and he died before the winter; but he went on pushing with his hands. Also Anders Bjornsen was there; but he was dead. And I tell you this about Anders Bjornsen, that he was once a beautiful man, but now his face was not there, because the flesh of it was sucked away off the bones. You understand that? My grandfather did not forget that. And they laid him on the bier which they brought, and they put a cloth over his head, and the priest walked before; and they began to sing the psalm for the dead as well as they could. So, as they were singing the end of the first verse, one fell down, who was carrying the head of the bier, and the others looked back, and they saw that the cloth had fallen off, and the eyes of Anders Bjornsen were looking up, because there was nothing to close over them. And this they could not bear. Therefore the priest laid the cloth upon him, and sent for a spade, and they buried him in that place.'


"Count Magnus" (1904)



What do the following fine anthologies have in common?


Voices from the Vaults: Authentic Tales of Vampires and Ghosts ed. Devendra P. Varma (1987)


Classic Vampire Stories: Timeless Tales to Sink Your Teeth Into ed. Molly Cooper (1996)


Blood Thirst: 100 Years of Vampire Fiction  ed. Leonard Wolf (1997)


The Vampire Archives: The Most Complete Volume of Vampire Tales Ever Published ed. Otto Penzler (2009)


Dracula's Guest: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Vampire Stories ed. Michael Sims (2010)


In the Shadow of Dracula: Classic Vampire Fiction 1816-1914 ed. Jeff Conner, Leslie S. Klinger (2011)


First, I own copies of all of them and use them regularly. Some cast their story-collecting nets wider than others, and naturally there are multiple repeat selections, but the notes and bibliographical material are always useful and thought-provoking.


Second, all include the 1904 short story "Count Magnus" by M. R. James.


But what was "Count Magnus" a vampire?



The story "Count Magnus" presents the tragi-comedy of Mr. Wraxall, traveller and Peter Pan who waited too long before joining the Victorian rat-race. He spends his last days on earth in Sweden researching local nobleman Count Magnus De la Gardie (himself something of a traveller). 


Wraxall makes several remarks about wishing to meet the long-dead landowner. Sadly for Wraxall, they are all made within earshot of the count's tomb. The count rises to greet him, but Wraxall flees the scene.


Magnus and his familiar pursue.


....Arrived at Belchamp St. Paul, he was fortunate enough to find a decent furnished lodging, and for the next twenty-four hours he lived, comparatively speaking, in peace. His last notes were written on this day. They are too disjointed and ejaculatory to be given here in full, but the substance of them is clear enough. He is expecting a visit from his pursuers—how or when he knows not—and his constant cry is "What has he done?" and "Is there no hope?" Doctors, he knows, would call him mad, policemen would laugh at him. The parson is away. What can he do but lock his door and cry to God?


No blood drinking, no restriction on movements in daytime. No ability to fly like a bat. Just some harmless poacher face-sucking.


Wraxall has travelled to Sweden not on business, but out of ennui. Unlike the ambitious Jonathan Harker, Wraxall has already slid down several rungs on the ladder of adulthood. He is now simply trying to shape something socially respectable (a tour guidebook!) out of aimless toing and froing.



Count Magnus did not need vampirism to become powerful. By birthright he was a feared landowner, by temperament an accomplished scholar of black arts. 


He did not need to become a physical vampire because he was a minatory epitome of a social class whose reach made such tropes of folkloric melodrama superfluous.


In the end Magnus could rule his demesne even beyond death. No "crying to God" or fainting coroner's juries for him.


Jay

30 March 2021



Andrey Tarkovsky, Stalker, 1979.













Sunday, March 28, 2021

Reading five stories from The Second Cthulhu Mythos Megapack edited by Shawn Garrett (2016)

The editor of Second Cthulhu Mythos Megapack has spread their net widely, finding few gems but many competent attempts at cosmic horror.


The Isle of Dark Magic by Hugh B. Cave


....I have said before that the thing was a woman. It was. Now, as I advanced fearfully toward it, fascinated by the almost life-like manner in which it studied me, I could not repress amazement at the uncanny perfection of it. If Jean Lanier had made this, then Jean Lanier had been truly an artist! For the woman was a creature of marble, so delicately and expertly sculptured that every portion of her exquisite form could have been mistaken, even at close range, for living reality. Naked she was, and sitting in an attitude of meditation, with her extended hands holding the metal dish which I had seen before. And I knew intuitively, even as I wondered at the uncanny loveliness of her, that there was something terrible, something wrong, in the way she was sitting there.


***


Skydrift by Emil Petaja


Two small time crooks fight over found treasure of unknown origin. Petaja does a solid job here pushing the drama forward with dialogue. This is a slick, competent tale  ready for Night Gallery or Outer Limits.


"....What makes you think it ain't just another chunk of drift out of the sea, eh?" Aino's eyes approached the thing in Big Tom's hand timidly, but once there they clung, pupils dilating. His mouth curved and then he spoke, with a new dignity.


"It isn't drift, Tom. It came out of the sky, not out of the sea. It came down in the storm. Sometimes they send something down, or come down themselves in different shapes. Charles Fort calls the things from outside thunderstones. He knew about them, but he didn't know that—"


Big Tom interrupted with a snort. "So now you're smarter'n them guys who wrote them books, eh? Think you're pretty cute, don't you, jerk? Pretty smart, eh?"


***


The Intruder by Emil Petaja


A shopkeeper talks to a stranger on a park bench.


"Were you ever told, as a child, that you must not attempt to count the stars in the sky at night—that if you did you might lose your mind?"


"Why, yes. I believe I've heard that old superstition. Very reasonable, I believe—based on the assumption that the task would be too great for one brain. I—"


"I suppose it never occurred to you," he interrupted, "that this superstition might hold even more truth than that, truth as malignant as it is vast. Perhaps the cosmos hold secrets beyond comprehension of man; and what is your assurance that these secrets are beneficent and kind? Is nature rather not terrible, than kind? In the stars are patterns—designs which if read, might lure the intrepid miserable one who reads them out of earth and beyond…beyond, to immeasurable evil.…Do you understand what I am saying?" His voice quivered metallically, was vibrant with emotion.


***


Marmok by Emil Petaja


Verse whose anatomy of influence goes back to Tennyson's "Kraken."


***


The Terrible Parchment by Manly Wade Wellman


More fan-service than serious fiction. Narrator and wife receive a square of parchment in the latest issue of Weird Tales magazine. The parchment initially carries indecipherable script, but helpfully it soon turns into English: a formula to recite to recall Cthulhu & Co. to life.


"What if the holy water had not worked?



Jay

23 May 2020




Piece of Cake by Derek Robinson (1983)

Piece of Cake by Derek Robinson (1983) is a kaleidoscope of characters and events, some hair-raising, some comic, mostly both. The novel covers the fortunes and (mostly) misfortunes of an RAF squadron in 1939-1940, from the collapse of Poland and France and into the Battle of Britain. Characters we think will be heroes get killed (including the C. O., then the bloody-minded replacement C. O.), while others who might never have amounted to anything in civilian life excel at the art and science of killing with an airplane.


The scene where pilot Flash Gordon is sent for a psychiatric evaluation has stuck with me for thirty-one years. Flash is having a hurricane-force nervous breakdown, and the only thing keeping him flying is the use of industrial strength banality.


....The doctor was a chubby, friendly, middleaged squadron leader called Hubbard. He had a large yellow notepad and several pencils but he never wrote anything. "And what do you think of the war?" he asked. He shut one eye and cocked his head as if he had put a tremendously tricky question.

     "Oh, gosh," Flash Gordon said. He was in his best uniform, sitting up straight, his eyes wide with interest. "Well, I agree with the Prime Minister, sir. The Battle of France is over. I expect the Battle of Britain is about to begin. That's what he said, and I think he's right, don't you?"

     "You've seen quite a bit of the war already, haven't you? Is it what you expected? Tell me your impressions."

     "Mmm." Flash chewed his lower lip and concentrated hard. "If you ask me, sir, the whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war."

     "And personally? How do you respond to the prospect of such bloodshed?"

     "If we can stand up to him," Flash declared, "all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad sunlit uplands."

     "After all," Hubbard said sensibly, "the German pilots you blow to bits are probably just men like you, aren't they?"

     "But if we fail," Flash told him, and shook his head grimly, "then the whole world will sink into the abyss of—"

     "What I meant was—"

     "If I might finish," Flash said, leaning forward and raising a finger, "because I do think that this is a pretty crucial point: the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister by the lights of perverted science." He sat back.

     Hubbard fiddled with his pencils. "I'm no expert on fighter pilots," he lied, "but I'm told that sometimes … well, the strain gets a bit much, and then a chap might need a spot of help … Mmm?"

     Flash nodded. "I'll keep a weather eye open, sir," he said. "Anybody starts acting funny, you'll be the first to know."



Jay

28 March 2021



Better Out Than In: Think Yourself Lucky by Ramsey Campbell [2014]

Ramsey Campbell's 2014 novel Think Yourself Lucky is a comedy of manners. And lack thereof.

Office worker David minds his manners so much he becomes convinced his doppelganger Lucky Newless is killing the people who offend him with their abrasive lack of patience and consideration. Lucky also seems to be bragging about it online on a blog called Better Out Than In.

Are the killings really murder, or simply coincidental fatal accidents?

David has grown up suppressing his anger at the way people treat each other. His parents are social workers dealing with juvenile delinquents.

Chapters centering on David are told in third-person passive-voice. Every conversation he has with family and coworkers seems also to comment on buried facts and events David is struggling to ignore and forget. Lucky's chapters are told first-person, and Campbell really bends the stick in these to implicate readers in Lucky's fury, contempt, and violence.

Most of the killings are ghastly deadpan comedy. Who could laugh at the sight of an obese obnoxious blowhard on a mobility scooter being driven at top speed into traffic? Turns out we could, because that's how effective Campbell is in making us Lucky's accessories. Raging fury at the rude arrogance of one's fellow man is everywhere just below the surface.

Especially for someone like David, who denies himself expression of his own frustrations, and denies himself a synthesizing artistic outlet to aesthetically transform his fury.





"When I turned adolescent I was afraid I'd start being like the teenagers my parents had to cope with, so—"


"Poor David. You ought to have been able to let go at that age." With a smile not entirely free of wistfulness Stephanie said "You could a bit more now and then."


"That sounds like a complaint."


"Don't let it spoil our day. Just forward it to the appropriate department. Anyway," she said to return him to his subject, "you were being a teenager."


"Yes, and so I wouldn't be the wrong kind I brought him back."


"Your friend Lucky."


"I wouldn't call him that. More like bad company. You'll laugh, but I must have been trying to make myself think he wasn't a childish idea, so I gave him a last name."


"What did you call him?"


"Mr Newless, and don't ask me why. It didn't seem to have anything to do with me." For no reason he could think of David wondered if this was the first time he'd ever spoken the name. "I ended up using him when I was tempted to do anything I thought my parents mightn't like," he said. "He caused all sorts of mayhem, but only in my head. In a while I convinced myself I was what they wanted, and that got rid of him."


"So why were you thinking about him last night, do you think?"


"What I've just told you about, that wasn't the last time I called him up.


"You're making him sound like some kind of demon, David."


"Well, he wasn't." David stiffened so as not to yield to an unexpected shiver. As he pulled the quilt around them both he felt like a child trying to take refuge in bed. "He was just something I made up," he insisted. "And I did again while I was at university."


"I'd have thought you would have broken out of yourself there at least."


"I had fun, don't worry. It's a good thing I did, considering how hard I worked as well and where I've ended up."


"We have to take the best jobs we can get, don't we, even if there's more to us."


"There isn't that much more to me." He hoped Stephanie realised he wasn't saying the same about her. "The problem was," he said, "maybe I had a bit too much fun."


She made a joke of looking apprehensive. "What am I going to find out about you, David?"


"It was the only time I got into drugs."


"Well, they're out of your system now, and you needn't think I didn't. I shared a few bongs back then and ate the odd mushroom."


"I did all that too. I even had a year on cigarettes. You wouldn't have known that, would you?" For a moment David managed to feel he was sharing a secret, but he was too aware of keeping another. "Only once I went too far," he said.


"You're back now, though. What did you do?" Stephanie murmured and inched closer.


"I don't think any of us even knew what it was called. Give us a pill and we'd swallow it if it was something new that was going round the campus."


"Maybe that's how we had to be to grow into who we are now. So what happened, David?"


"I still don't know exactly what it did. Maybe someone at the university designed it, but we never found out who. It wasn't around very long. Maybe whoever made it panicked because they were afraid of being found out."


"What happened to you, I was asking."


"I know." David was aware of fending off the memory. "A few of us took it one night in somebody's room," he said. "Everyone else was happy just to lie around and have visions, but it didn't work that way for me. I had to get out."


"You aren't claustrophobic now, though. I suppose some drugs can make you feel you are."


"It wasn't just that. I was trying to get away from what I'd done."


"You couldn't just let go and enjoy it."


"It made me feel I couldn't, so I wandered off the campus on my own."


The memory was growing as vivid as any of the visions he'd wished he hadn't had. The old buildings of the university had glowed like bones in a fire, but he'd seen that the new blocks lit by white globes on stalks were fossils of the future. As he crossed a road, the cars that glared at him with their great eyes had seemed poised to multiply their speed the instant he stepped off the kerb. He'd had to walk through far too many streets composed of display cases furnished with a selection of people, unless the images within the frames were arcade games, since the figures didn't move until he stared at them. Despite the January chill, he'd felt his sweaty feet squelch at every step. At last he'd come into the open on the far side of a stile, which was as cold as metal and transformed his hands on it into wood. The electric amber sunset of the town had faded from the sky he'd left behind him, and eventually he'd lain down in the middle of a field that frost had turned into enormous spiky half-buried ribs. He'd felt the skeleton splinter beneath him, and then he'd been aware of nothing except the sky, where the moon had sharpened the edges of clouds as it crept from behind them. "Where did you end up?" Stephanie said.


"Somewhere out in the country, I can't tell you anything else."


"Is that where you met your Mr Newless?"


"I didn't meet him. I never have and I wouldn't want to."


"Gosh, I've never heard you sound so fierce. I was only thinking you might have thought you did when you were out of your head."


"Not even then," David said, which felt like trying not to put the memory into words. He'd lain on the icy shards of the world and gazed up at the moon, the half that shone like snow and the rest that he couldn't be sure he was seeing, a rounded segment of the night like a denial rendered solid. The frigid light had gathered all around him until he'd started to believe that nothing was alive except him—that nothing else was even real. The notion had closed around his mind, eating away at his sense of his own reality, a threat that had terrified him so badly that he'd clutched at the only solution he could think of. "It's exactly what I didn't do," he told Stephanie. "I managed to imagine everything was happening to him instead of me."


"Did it help?"


"It must have." All the same, for a moment if not longer—it had felt like the rest of his life—he hadn't known where or even who he was. Until he'd succeeded in recalling his own name he'd felt as if he had left his body, which had frozen beyond his ability to revive it, unless the dead light had entirely erased it. At last he'd rediscovered the use of his muscles and had jerked the shaky puppet to its feet, and it had jittered slithering across the blanched field towards the false dawn of the town—the amber glow that, however artificial, had seemed less dead than the moonlight. As he'd run back to the room he'd set out from, the breaths in his ears had sounded like the world returning to life. When he'd fallen back into his chair nobody had bothered wondering where he'd been, and he'd found his insignificance unexpectedly reassuring. He must have been over the peak of the drug by then, since he'd been able to close his eyes and dream in great detail of countries he wanted to visit even though he never would. "It got rid," he said.


"Or you thought it had."


David shifted uneasily, and the quilt slipped off their shoulders as if somebody were tugging it away from them. "Why only thought?"


"Weren't you dreaming about him last night?"


"He's never in my dreams that I'm aware of." David was conscious of having far too much still to tell. "Do you want a coffee?" he found he would rather ask. "We ought to be moving if we're going for a drive before you've got to head for work."





When a new plateau of balance is eventually achieved, the narrative moves from past-tense to present-tense, Campbell's sharpest stylistic tool.

I was reminded of Waugh's works, like A Handful of Dust, "Mr. Loveday's Little Outing," and The Loved One. The same unappeasably distant tone of classical voice, the same emotional seduction of the reader into taking joy at the meting-out of just desserts.


Jay
6 July 2019






Hawksbill Station by Robert Silverberg (1967)

"Hawksbill Station" (1967) is a lovely prose novella by Robert Silverberg. It creates an entire world-rationale and then reverses it, all in about fifty pages.


Plot: Rulers in the early 2020s get rid of their incorrigible political agitators by sending them on a one-way trip to 1 Billion B.C.


....There were no harmful physiological effects to time-travel, but it could be a jolt to the consciousness. The last moments before the Hammer descended were very much like the final moments beneath the guillotine. 

     The departing prisoner took his last look at the world of rocket transport and artificial organs, at the world in which he had lived and loved and agitated for a political cause, and then he was rammed into the inconceivably remote past on a one-way journey. It was a gloomy business, and it was not very surprising that the newcomers arrived in a state of emotional shock. 

     Barrett elbowed his way through the crowd. Automatically, the others made way for him. He reached the lip of the Anvil and leaned over it, extending a hand to the new man. His broad smile was met by a look of blank bewilderment. 

     "I'm Jim Barrett. Welcome to Hawksbill Station. Here —get off that thing before a load of groceries lands on top of you." Wincing a little as he shifted his weight, Barrett pulled the new man down from the Anvil. 

     Barrett beckoned to Mel Rudiger, and the plump anarchist handed the new man an alcohol capsule. He took it and pressed it to his arm without a word. Charley Norton offered him a candy bar. The man shook it off. He looked groggy. A real case of temporal shock, Barrett thought, possibly the worst he had ever seen. The newcomer hadn't even spoken yet. 

     Barrett said, "We'll go to the infirmary and check you out. Then I'll assign you your quarters. There's time for you to find your way around and meet everybody later on. What's your name?" 

     "Hahn. Lew Hahn." 

     "I can't hear you." 

     "Hahn," the man repeated, still only barely audible. 

     "When are you from, Lew?" 

     "2029." 

     "You feel pretty sick?" 

     "I feel awful. I don't even believe this is happening to me. There's no such place as Hawksbill Station, is there?" 

     "I'm afraid there is," Barrett said. "At least, for most of us. A few of the boys think it's all an illusion induced by drugs. But I have my doubts of that. If it's an illusion, it's a damned good one. Look." 

     

     He put one arm around Hahn's shoulders and guided him through the press of prisoners, out of the Hammer chamber and toward the nearby infirmary. Although Hahn looked thin, even fragile, Barrett was surprised to feel the rippling muscles in those shoulders. He suspected that this man was a lot less helpless and ineffectual than he seemed to be right now. He had to be, in order to merit banishment to Hawksbill Station. 

     They passed the door of the building. "Look out there," Barrett commanded. 

     Hahn looked. He passed a hand across his eyes as though to clear away unseen cobwebs and looked again. 

     "A late Cambrian landscape," said Barrett quietly. "This would be a geologist's dream, except that geologists don't tend to become political prisoners, it seems. Out in front is Appalachia. It's a strip of rock a few hundred miles wide and a few thousand miles long, from the Gulf of Mexico to Newfoundland. To the east we've got the Atlantic. A little way to the west we've got the Inland Sea. Somewhere two thousand miles to the west there's Cascadia; that's going to be California and Washington and Oregon someday. Don't hold your breath. I hope you like seafood." 

     Hahn stared, and Barrett, standing beside him at the doorway, stared also. You never got used to the alienness of this place, not even after you lived here twenty years, as Barrett had. It was Earth, and yet it was not really Earth at all, because it was somber and empty and unreal. The gray oceans swarmed with life, of course. But there was nothing on land except occasional patches of moss in the occasional patches of soil that had formed on the bare rock. Even a few cockroaches would be welcome; but insects, it seemed, were still a couple of geological periods in the future. To land-dwellers, this was a dead world, a world unborn. 

     Shaking his head, Hahn moved away from the door. 

     Barrett led him down the corridor and into the small, brightly lit room that served as the infirmary. Doc Quesada was waiting. Quesada wasn't really a doctor, but he had been a medical technician once, and that was good enough. He was a compact, swarthy man with a look of complete self-assurance. He hadn't lost too many patients, all things considered. 

     Barrett had watched him removing appendices with total aplomb. In his white smock, Quesada looked sufficiently medical to fit his role. 

     Barrett said, "Doc, this is Lew Hahn. He's in temporal shock. Fix him up." 

     Quesada nudged the newcomer onto a webfoam cradle and unzipped his blue jersey. Then he reached for his medical kit. Hawksbill Station was well equipped for most medical emergencies, now. The people Up Front had no wish to be inhumane, and they sent back all sorts of useful things, like anesthetics and surgical clamps and medicines and dermal probes. 

     Barrett could remember a time at the beginning when there had been nothing much here but the empty huts, and a man who hurt himself was in real trouble. 

     "He's had a drink already," said Barrett. 

     "I see that," Quesada murmured. He scratched at his short-cropped, bristly moustache. The little diagnostat in the cradle had gone rapidly to work, flashing information about Harm's blood pressure, potassium count, dilation index, and much else. Quesada seemed to comprehend the barrage of facts. After a moment he said to Hahn, "You aren't really sick, are you? Just shaken up a little. I don't blame you. Here—I'll give you a quick jolt to calm your nerves, and you'll be all right. As all right as any of us ever are." 

     He put a tube to Hahn's carotid and thumbed the snout. The subsonic whirred, and a tranquilizing compound slid into the man's bloodstream. 

     Hahn shivered. 

     Quesada said, "Let him rest for five minutes. Then he'll be over the hump." 

     They left Hahn in his cradle and went out of the infirmary. In the hall, Barrett looked down at the little medic and said, "What's the report on Valdosto?" 

     Valdosto had gone into psychotic collapse several weeks before. 

     Quesada was keeping him drugged and trying to bring him slowly back to the reality of Hawksbill Station. Shrugging, he replied, "The status is quo. 

     I let him out from under the dream-juice this morning, and he was the same as he's been." 

     "You don't think he'll come out of it?" 

     "I doubt it. He's cracked for keeps. They could paste him together Up Front, but—" 

     

     "Yeah," Barrett said. If he could get Up Front at all, Valdosto wouldn't have cracked. "Keep him happy, then. If he can't be sane, he can at least be comfortable. What about Altman? Still got the shakes?" 

     "He's building a woman." 

     "That's what Charley Norton told me. What's he using? A rag, a bone—" 

     "I gave him surplus chemicals. Chosen for their color, mainly. He's got some foul green copper compounds and a little bit of ethyl alcohol and six or seven other things, and he collected some soil and threw in a lot of dead shellfish, and he's sculpting it all into what he claims is female shape and waiting for lightning to strike it." 

     "In other words, he's gone crazy," Barrett said. 

     "I think that's a safe assumption. But he's not molesting his friends any more, anyway. You didn't think his; homosexual phase would last much longer, as I recall." 

     "No, but I didn't think he'd go off the deep end. If a man needs sex and he can find some consenting playmates here, that's quite all right with me.  But when he starts putting a woman together out of some dirt and rotten brachiopod meat it means we've lost him." 

     Quesada's dark eyes flickered. "We're all going to go that way sooner or later, Jim." 

     "I haven't. You haven't." 

     "Give us time. I've only been here eleven years." 

     "Altman's been here only eight. Valdosto even less." 

     "Some shells crack faster than others," said Quesada. "Here's our new friend."


***


All the inmates at the station have deviated from the beam of sanity. Some more than others. Most are middle class left super-sectarians. Silverberg seems to know the type intimately.


All the exiles experience the poignancy of this predicament. Some adjust. Others cannot. New inmate Hahn disturbs all their semi-sane (or not) routines.


....Hahn sniffed. "Why does the air smell so strange?"


"It's a different mix," Barrett said. "We've analyzed it. More nitrogen, a little less oxygen, hardly any CO2 at all. But that isn't really why it smells odd to you. The thing is, it's pure air, unpolluted by the exhalations of life. Nobody's been respiring into it but us lads, and there aren't enough of us to matter."


Smiling, Hahn said, " I feel a little cheated that it's so empty. I expected lush jungles of weird plants, and pterodactyls swooping through the air, and maybe a tyrannosaur crashing into a fence around the Station."


"No jungles. No pterodactyls. No tyrannosaurs. No fences. You didn't do your homework."


"Sorry."


"This is the Late Cambrian. Sea life exclusively."


"It was very kind of them to pick such a peaceful era as the dumping ground for political prisoners," Hahn said. "I was afraid it would be all teeth and claws."


"Kind, hell! They were looking for an era where we couldn't do any harm. That meant tossing us back before the evolution of mammals, just in case we'd accidentally get hold of the ancestor of all humanity and snuff him out. And while they were at it, they decided to stash us so far in the past that we'd be beyond all land life, on the theory that maybe even if we slaughtered a baby dinosaur it might affect the entire course of the future."


"They don't mind if we catch a few trilobites?"


"Evidently they think it's safe," Barrett said. "It looks as though they were right. Hawksbill Station has been here for twenty-five years, and it doesn't seem as though we've tampered with future history in any measurable way. Of course, they're careful not to send us any women."


"Why is that?"


"So we don't start reproducing and perpetuating ourselves. Wouldn't that mess up the time-lines? A successful human outpost in One Billion B.C., that's had all that time to evolve and mutate and grow? By the time the twenty-first century came around, our descendants would be in charge and the other kind of human being would probably be in penal servitude, and there'd be more paradoxes created than you could shake a trilobite at. So they don't send the women here. There's a prison camp for women, too, but it's a few hundred million years up the time line in the Late Silurian, and never the twain shall meet. That's why Ned Altman's trying to build a woman out of dust and garbage."


***


The tale in full, and worth reading, can be found here




Jay

30 April 2020