"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

"The Last Days of Earth" by George C. Wallis (1901)

....They thought of the glorious, yet now futile past, with all its promises shattered, its ideals valueless, its hopes unfulfilled; and seemed to feel in themselves the concentration and culmination of the woes and fears of the ages. They saw, as in one long vista, the history of the millions of vanished years — "from earth's nebulous origin to its final ruin;" from its days of four hours to its days of twenty-six and a half; from its germinating specks of primal protoplasm to its last and greatest, and yet most evil creature, Man. They saw, in mental perspective, the uneven periods of human progress; the long stages of advance and retrogression, of failure and success. They saw the whole long struggle between the tendencies of Egoism and Altruism, and knew how these had merged at last into an automatic equilibration of Duty and Desire. They saw the climax of this equilibration, the Millennium of Man — and they knew how the inevitable decay had followed.

     They saw how the knowledge of the sureness and nature of life's end had come to Man; slowly at first, and not influencing him much, but gaining ever more and more power as the time grew nearer and sympathy and intellect more far-sighted and acute; how, when the cold itself began, and the temperate zone grew frigid, and the tropic temperate, and Man was compelled to migrate, and his sources of heat and power failed one after the other, the knowledge of the end reacted on all forms of mental activity, throwing all thought and invention into one groove. They saw the whole course of the long fight; the ebb and flow of the struggle against the cold, in which, after each long period, it was seen that Man was the loser; how men, armed with powers that to their ancestors would have made them seem as gods, had migrated to the other planets of the system, only to find that there, even on Mercury himself, the dying sun had made all life a fore-known lost battle; how many men, whole nations, had sought a premature refuge from the Fear in the Ultimate Silence called Death. They saw how all the old beliefs, down to the tiniest shreds of mysticism, had fallen from Man as a worn-out garment, leaving him spiritually naked to face the terrors of a relentless Cosmos: how, in the slow dissolving of the ideal Future, man's duties and thoughts were once more moulded with awe and reverence to the wishes of the Past.

     They saw the closing centuries of the struggle; the discovery of the Red Metal; the building of the Spheres that none dare venture to use, but which each succeeding and lessening generation handed down to the next as a sacred heritage only to be put to test in the last resort; they remembered, in their own childhood the Conference of the Decision, when they two had been chosen, as the only pair of sufficient vigour and health and animal courage to accept the dread legacy and dare the dread adventure of seeking a fresh home in the outer vastness, so that haply the days of Man might not be ended; and they remembered, only too well, how the rest of humanity, retiring to their last few houses, had one and all pledged each other to seek the Silence and trouble the chilly earth no more. They knew how well that pledge had been kept, and in the darkness and silence of the room clutched each other closer and closer.

     And at last they heard the Time Indicator in the uppermost room ring the peal of the completed hour, and knew that in their own lives they must act the final scene in the long life-tragedy of the earth....

Steampunk Prime: A Vintage Steampunk Reader edited by Mike Ashley (Nonstop Press, 2010)

"The Last Days of Earth" by George C. Wallis (1901) is a strange story overflowing with belatedness and the tragic humanist emotion that also ends "The Time Machine" with a vision of cooling sun and a dying earth.

The action begins at a quarter to thirteen in the afternoon of Thursday, July 18th, 13,000,085 A.D. 

    "A whole degree, Celia, since yesterday. And the dynamos are giving out a current at a pressure of 6,000 volts. I can't run them at any higher efficiency. That means that any further fall of temperature will close the drama of this planet. Shall we go tonight?"

     There was no quiver of fear nor hint of resentment in his voice, nor in the voice that answered him. Long ages of mental evolution had weeded all the petty vices and unreasoning passions out of the mind of man.

     "I am ready any time, Alwyn. I do not like to go; I do not like the risk of going; but it is our last duty to the humanity behind us — and I must be with you to the end."

     There was another silence between them; a silence in which the humming of the dynamos in the room below seemed to pervade the whole place, thrilling through everything with annoying audibility. Suddenly the man leaned forward, regarding his companion with a puzzled expression.

     "Your eyelashes are damp, Celia. You are not crying? That is too archaic."

     "I must plead guilty," she said, banishing the sad look with an effort. "We are not yet so thoroughly adjusted to our surroundings as to be able to crush down every weak impulse. Wasn't it the day before yesterday that you said the sun had begun to cool about five million years too soon for man? But I will not give way again. Shall we start at once?"

     "That is better; that sounds like Celia. Yes, if you wish, at once; but I had thought of taking a last look round the world — at least, as far as the telegraph system is in order. We have three hours' daylight yet."

Careful diction and close observation of the domestic banalities quickly gives way to a globe-spanning summation.

     The side wall became opaque; the globe ceased to be luminous. A moving scene grew out of the dullness of the disc, and a low, moaning sound stole into the room. They looked upon telegraphically - transmitted view of a place near which had once been Santiago, Chili. There were the ruins of an immense white city there now, high on the left of the picture. Down on the right, far below the well-defined marks of six successive beach-lines, a cold sea moaned over an icy bar, and dashed in semi-frozen spray under the bluff of an overhanging glacier's edge.

     Out to sea great bergs drifted slowly, and the distant horizon was pale with the ice-blink from vast floes. The view had scarcely lasted a moment, when a great crack appeared on the top of the ice-front, and a huge fragment fell forward into the sea. It overturned on the bar, churning up a chaos of foam, and began to drift away. At the same instant came the deafening report of the breakage. There was no sign of life, neither of man nor beast, nor bird nor fish, in that cold scene. Polar bears and Arctic foxes, blubber-eating savages and hardy seals, had all long since passed away, even from the tropic zone.

     Another lever pressed down, and the Rock of Gibraltar appeared on the disc. It rose vast and grim from the ice-arched waters of a shallow strait, with a vista of plain and mountain and glacier stretching behind it to the hazy distance — a vista of such an intolerable whiteness that the two watchers put on green spectacles to look at it. On the flat top of the Rock — which ages ago had been levelled to make it an alighting station for the Continental aerial machines — rose gaunt and frost-encrusted, the huge skeleton framework of one of the last flying conveyances used by man.

     Another lever, and Colombo Ceylon, glared lifeless on the disc. Another, and Nagasaki, Japan, the terminal front of a vast glacier, frowned out over a black, ice-fining sea. Yet more levers, and yet more scenes; and everywhere ice and snow, and shallow, slowly-freezing seas; or countries here black and plantless, and there covered with glaciers from the crumbling hills, No sign of life, save the vestiges of man's now-ended reign, and of his long fight with the relentless cold — here ruins, on the ice-free levels, of his Cities of Heat; here gigantic moats, excavated to retard the glaciers; here canals, to connect the warmer seas; here the skeletons of huge metallic floating palaces jettisoned on some ice-bound coast; and everywhere that the ice had not overcome, the tall masts of the Pictorial Telegraph, sending to the watchers at Greenwich, by reflected Marconi waves, a presentment of each sight and sound impinging on the speculums and drums at their summits. And in every daylight scene, the pale ghost of a dim, red sun hung in a clear sky.

     In the more northern and southern views the magnetic lights were as brilliant as ever, but there were no views of the extreme Polar Regions. These were more inaccessible than in the remote past, for there lakes and patches of liquid and semi-solid air were slowly settling and spreading on land and sea.

Alwyn and Celia prepare to leave the earth for another star.

"....Are you sure, Alwyn, that it will carry us safely? — That you can follow out the Instructions?"

     For generations the Red Sphere and all appertaining to it had been mentioned with a certain degree of awe.

     "Don't trouble yourself on that point. The instructions are simple. The necessary apparatus, and the ten years' supply of imperishable nutriment, are already inside and fixed. We have only to subject the Red Metal to our 6,000 volt current for an hour, get inside, screw up the inlet, and cut ourselves adrift. The Red Metal, thus electrified, becomes, as you know, repulsive to gravitation, and will so continue for a year and a half. By that time, as we shall travel, according to calculation, at twice the speed of light, we should be more than half-way to one of the nearer stars, and so become subject to its gravitation. With the earth in its present position, if we start in a couple of hours, we should make F. 188, mag. 2, of the third order of spectra. Our sun, according to the records, belonged to the same order. And we know that it has at least two planets."

     "But if we fall right into F. 188, instead of just missing it, as we hope? Or if we miss, but so closely as to be fused by its heat? Or if we miss it too widely and are thrown back into space on a parabolic or hyperbolic orbit? Or if we should manage the happy medium and find there be no life, nor any chance of life, upon the planets of that system? Or if there be life, but it be hostile to us?"

     "Those are the inevitable dangers of our plunge, Celia. The balance of probabilities is in favour of either the first or second of those things befalling us. But that is not the same as absolute certainty, and the improbable may happen."

Wallis then strikes a Decadent, fin-de-si├Ęcle note:

     "It will be cold while the Sphere is being prepared," said Alwyn.

     "Yes, but we shall be together, dear, as we have been so long now. I remember how miserable I felt when I first knew my destiny; but when I learned that you were chosen to share it with me, I was glad. But you were not, Alwyn — you loved Amy?"


     "And you love her still, but you love me, too? Do you know why she was not chosen?"

     "Yes; I love you, Celia, though not so much as I loved Amy. They chose you instead of her, they said, because you had a stronger will and greater physical vigour. The slight curve we shall describe on rising will bring us over the Heat-house she and her other lover retired to after the Decision, and we shall perhaps see whether they are really dead, as we believe. Amy, I remember, had an heretical turn of mind."

     "If they are not dead, it is strange that they should not have answered our Marconi and telepathic messages after the first year — unless, of course, as you have so often suggested, they have retired to the interior of the other Red Sphere. How strange that it should have been left there! If they have only enough food, they may live in it till old age intervenes, secure from all the rigours that approach, but what a tame end — what a prisonment!"

     "Terrible. I could notoot endure the Red Sphere except as we shall endure it — travelling."

This triangulation of Amy, Celia, and Alwyn will shape a "human, all too human" epitaph for the planet as the last humans depart. 


27 April 2021

“Can this be A.D. 2O16?” The Plunge (1916) by George Allan England

Though the month was June, and the stupendous aero-liner Imperatrice had only half an hour before demagnetized its electromagnetic disks and cleared from the Pacific Transport towers at Honolulu, the thin, cold atmosphere of more than two miles aloft nipped keenly....

"The Plunge" (1916) by George Allan England ends the anthology Steampunk Prime on a spectacular note. None of the dying-fall pathos of "The Last Days of Earth," or the space-going Tsushima of "An Interplanetary Rupture." 

"The Plunge" opens with a nighttime meet-cute between Jeanne Hargreaves and novelist Norford Hale on the Imperatrice. (A wag might say Imperatrice is an aero version of Titanic).

The world of Imperatrice and its passengers is a future Max Nordau would hate:

     "....Now that China and India and Thibet are weekend excursions, on tourist schedules, what can be left to wonder at or be romantic about?" He stifled a yawn, with difficulty. "Not one uncivilized or semi-civilized place in the whole world — even the very Esquimaux and Patagonians sophisticated and selling postcards — bah! In these days of motive power drawn from the sun or from polar currents streaming to it, these days of synthetic foods, etheric energies, and all-embracing mechanism, what part is left for the personal equation?

     "Civilization? Ugh! I detest it! I'd give a year of my life — five years — for a touch of the real, the raw, the primitive! Life has become as dull as men and women themselves. Are there any real women in the world to-day? "I've never met one. That's why I've never married — "

     He gestured outward with his hand, despairingly. She smiled with certain bitterness.

     "Real women?" The girl exclaimed. "Show me a real man first! Extinct! I've always thought so; but until tonight I've always been too polite to say so. Somehow, with you, politeness and subterfuge seem as stupidly unreal as all the rest of this super-civilization. I wonder, now — "

Never fear, though. "In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too."

     A sudden flare of light, far outshining the moon, interrupted her speech. The brilliance flooded the whole sky, dazzled upon the spinning clouds below, and for a second glared with noonday radiance. Every minutest detail of the ship stood out in startling relief.

     A wailing, screeching note cleft the high air, grew swiftly louder as the light brightened, then ended in a thunderous crash that shook the liner from lookout to extremest rudder-plane.

     Then, instantly, the light glared below. The novelist, leaning over the rail as the staggered liner heeled sickeningly far to port, saw a swift streak of bluish flame — flame that roared, that coruscated — plunge like a rocket into the enveloping fleeciness of the clouds, and vanish.

       A DULL concussion shuddered through the Imperatrice, then two more in quick succession. Flames gushed, aft. Confused cries, shouts, and tumult rose on the night. Everywhere echoed that most terrible of all sounds; the shrieking of women. Came the trampling of feet running along the decks, which already — as the stupendous aerocraft slowed, drunkenly swaying — had begun to slant at a perilous angle....

Imperatrice does not sink like a stone, but does turn over in mid-air as fire spreads and machinery fails. Passengers who cannot figure out how to work their anti-gravity life belts fall into the Pacific with other liner debris.

     A gust of incandescent gases puffed from the liner's bow. The gigantic craft seemed to empty herself in a second. She staggered, rolled slowly over, and gathered momentum downward. In a vast and rushing spiral she plunged; roaring into white heat; shot swiftly off to the left, and — violently exploding — leaped into twisted wreckage.

     A stupendous concussion rolled its echoes over the sea as the shattered, glowing skeleton of metal surged into the waves.

     Up leaped a Vesuvius of steam, writhing in snowy belchings under the moonlight. Hissings of tortured waters drowned the seethes of the waves and the death-cries of the struggling wretches annihilated by the hulk.

     Then, for a moment, silence, while Norford — cradled upward on the breasts of the sea — dimly perceived a boiling, spuming writhe of brine that marked the liner's grave.

     A column of gaseous blue flame belched from the waves, writhed aloft and vanished.

     Impassive, the sea covered all. The Imperatrice was dead.

Author England spends little time on the technology of aero-liners. Like Kipling's treatment in two magnificent tales, "With the Night Mail" and "As Easy as A.B.C.," he simply presents it and keeps going.

Jeanne Hargreaves and Norford Hale are popular magazine fiction characters, dissatisfied with the modernity of their world and its complacency. George England gives them the privilege of facing death close up, which concentrates their minds wonderfully.

     Night wore on; and now the moon, dimming as the east began to glow, had dropped almost to the vague mists that pearled the horizon. The stars blanched and died; but, watching them, the man saw one star moving on the edge of the sea — a star that waxed, that mounted on the sky — a star that spoke of life.

     "Look,'' cried Norford, pointing. "A kinetogram was sent, after all! See there — rescue!"

     The girl, all disheveled, wet and shivering, raised her eyes to the swift-approaching searchlight of the aerocraft. For a moment she peered at it in silence; then she smiled.

     "Can this be A.D. 2O16?" She asked wonderingly. "Things like this happen only in books — books of the old days — "

     "Books of life!" Said Norford, with his arm about her. "Don't you see — this plunge has been a plunge back into life, real life, for us? Romney mine, a story like this can have only one ending! And was it you, Romney, was it you, who told me that Romance was dead?"

     She bowed her head, yearning against his breast. His arms made home for her.

     "I told you that," she faltered, "before I knew what a man could be — before either of us had drunk the wine of primitive emotion — before I owed you the life that's yours now, if you want it!"

     He slid the eagle ring from his finger.

     "Give me your left hand, Romney," he bade. "The air has made us one; the symbol of these wings shall always bind us!"

     Her answer was to kiss the ring that he had put upon her finger. Kisses and tears, together, sanctified it.

     "You would have died that I might live!" He whispered. "You are my woman, Romney girl!" He put her head back from his heart, turned up her face, and crushed her mouth to his. "Mine, mine!" Said he. "You are my woman now!"

Arguably a happier ending than drowning.


27 April 2021

Sunday, April 25, 2021

"Within an Ace of the End of the World" by Robert Barr (1900)

The 1900 story "Within an Ace of the End of the World" by Robert Barr (1849-1912) finds its drama in the sci-fi premise of industrial exploitation of nitrogen for food production by the Great Food Corporation (Limited).

....Although the company proved one of the most lucrative investments ever undertaken in England, still it did not succeed in maintaining the monopoly it had at first attempted. In many countries the patents did not hold, some governments refusing to sanction a monopoly on which life itself depended, others deciding that, although there were certain ingenious novelties in Bonsel's processes, still the general principles had been well known for years, and so the final patents were refused. Nevertheless, these decisions did not interfere as much as might have been expected with the prosperity of The Great Food Producing Corporation (Limited). It had been first in the field, and its tremendous capitalization enabled it to crush opposition somewhat ruthlessly, aided by the advantage of having secured most of the available waterpower of the world. For a time there was reckless speculation in food manufacturing companies, and much money was lost in consequence. Agriculture was indeed killed, as Bonsel had predicted, but the farmers of Western America, in spite of the decline of soil tilling, continued to furnish much of the world's food. They erected windmills with which electricity was generated, and, drawing on the soil and the air, they manufactured nourishment almost as cheaply as the great waterpower corporation itself. This went on in every part of the world where the Bonsel patents were held invalid. In a year or two everyone became accustomed to the chemically compounded food, and even though a few old fogies kept proclaiming that they would never forsake the ancient wheaten loaf for its modern equivalent, yet nobody paid any attention to these conservatives; and presently even they could not get the wheaten loaf of bygone days, as grain was no longer grown except as a curiosity in some botanist's garden.

"Within an Ace of the End of the World'' looks forward to later UK sci-fi catastrophe  masterpieces by Wyndham, Ballard, and John Christopher. But what struck me most was the similarity to M. P. Shiel's sublime 1901 imagination of disaster, The Purple Cloud.

I HAVE now to speak of my great-grandfather, John Rule, who, at the beginning of the twentieth century, was a science student at Balliol College, Oxford, aged twenty-four. It is from the notes written by him and the newspaper clippings that he preserved that I am enabled to compile this imperfect account of the disaster of 1904 and the events leading to it. I append, without alteration or comment, his letter to the Times, which appeared the day after that paper's flippant references to the conduct of the Prime Minister and his colleagues.



       To The Editor Of The Times:

       "Sir, — The levity of the Prime Minister's recent conduct; the levity of your own leading article thereon; the levity of foreign reference to the deplorable episode, indicate but too clearly the crisis which mankind is called upon to face, and to face, alas! under conditions which make the averting of the greatest calamity well-nigh impossible. To put it plainly, every man, woman, and child on this earth, with the exception of eight persons in the United States and eight in England, are drunk-not with wine, but with oxygen. The numerous factories all over the world that are working night and day, making fixed nitrates from the air, are rapidly depleting the atmosphere of its nitrogen. When this disastrous manufacture was begun, 100 parts of air, roughly speaking, contained 76.9 parts of nitrogen and 23.1 parts of oxygen. At the beginning of this year the atmosphere round Oxford was composed of nitrogen 53.218, oxygen 46.782. And here we have the explanation of the largely increased death-rate. Man is simply burning up. Today the normal proportions of the two gases in the air are nearly reversed, standing-nitrogen, 27.319, oxygen 72.681, a state of things simply appalling: due in a, great measure to the insane folly of Russia, Germany, and France competing with each other in raising mountain ranges of food products as a reserve in case of war, just as the same fear of a conflict brought their armies to such enormous proportions a few years ago. The nitrogen factories must be destroyed instantly, if the people of this earth are to remain alive. If this is done, the atmosphere will gradually become nitrogenized once more. I invite the editor of the Times to come to Oxford and live for a few days with us in our iron building, erected on Port Meadow, where a machine supplies us with nitrogen and keeps the atmosphere within the hut similar to that which once surrounded the earth. If he will direct the policy of the Times from this spot, he may bring an insane people to their senses. Oxford yesterday bestowed a degree of D.C.L. on a man who walked the whole length of the High on his hands; so it will be seen that it is time something was done. I am, sir, yours, etc."

       JOHN RULE

       "Balliol College, Oxford."

       The Times in an editorial note said that the world had always been well provided with alarmists, and that their correspondent, Mr. Rule, was a good example of the class. That newspaper, it added, had been for some time edited in Printing House Square, and it would be continued to be conducted in that quarter of London, despite the attractions of the sheet-iron house near Oxford.



       THE coterie in the iron house consisted of the Rev. Mr. Hepburn, who was a clergyman and tutor; two divinity students, two science students, and three other undergraduates, all of whom had withdrawn from their colleges, awaiting with anxiety the catastrophe they were powerless to avert. Some years before, when the proposal to admit women to the Oxford colleges was defeated, the Rev. Mr. Hepburn and John Rule visited the United States to study the working of co-education in that country. There Mr. Rule became acquainted with Miss Sadie Armour, of Vassar College, on the Hudson, and the acquaintance speedily ripened into friendship, with a promise of the closer relationship that was yet to come. John and Sadie kept up a regular correspondence after his return to Oxford, and naturally he wrote to her regarding his fears for the future of mankind, should the diminution of the nitrogen in the air continue. He told her of the precautions he and his seven comrades had taken, and implored her to inaugurate a similar colony near Vassar. For a long time the English Nitrogenists, as they were called, hoped to be able to awaken the world to the danger that threatened; and by the time they recognized that their efforts were futile, it was too late to attempt the journey to America which had long been in John Rule's mind. Parties of students were in the habit of coming to the iron house and jeering at the inmates. Apprehending violence one day, the Rev. Mr. Hepburn went outside to expostulate with them. He began seriously, then paused, a comical smile lighting up his usually sedate face, and finally broke out into roars of laughter, inviting those he had left to come out and enjoy themselves. A moment later he began to turn somersaults round the iron house, all the students outside hilariously following his example, and screaming that he was a jolly good fellow. John Rule and one of the most stalwart of the divinity students rushed outside, captured the clergyman, and dragged him into the house by main force, the whirling students being too much occupied with their evolutions to notice the abduction. One of the students proposed that the party should return to Carfax by hand-springs, and thus they all set off, progressing like jumping-jacks across the meadow, the last human beings other than themselves that those within the iron house were to see for many a day. Rule and his companions had followed the example set by Continental Countries, and had, while there was yet time, accumulated a small mountain of food products inside and outside of their dwelling. The last letter Rule received from America informed him that the girls of Vassar had done likewise.


       THE first intimation that the Nitrogenists had of impending doom was from the passage of a Great Western train running northward from Oxford. As they watched it, the engine suddenly burst into a brilliant flame, which was followed shortly by an explosion, and a moment later the wrecked train lay along the line blazing fiercely. As evening drew on they saw that Oxford was on fire, even the stonework of the college seeming to burn as if it had been blocks of wax. Communication with the outside world ceased, and an ominous silence held the earth. They did not know then that London, New York, Paris, and many other cities had been consumed by fire; but they surmised as much. Curiously enough, the carbon dioxide evolved by these numerous and widespread conflagrations made the outside air more breathable, notwithstanding the poisonous nature of this mitigant of oxygenic energy. For days they watched for any sign of human life outside their own dwelling, but no one approached. As a matter of fact, all the inhabitants of the world were dead except themselves and the little colony in America although it was long afterwards that those left alive became aware of the full extent of the calamity that had befallen their fellows. Day by day they tested the outside air, and were overjoyed to note that it was gradually resuming its former quality. This process, however, was so slow that the young men became impatient, and endeavoured to make their house movable, so that they might journey with it, like a snail, to Liverpool, for the one desire of each was to reach America and learn the fate of the Vassar girls. The moving of the house proved impracticable, and thus they were compelled to remain where they were until it became safe to venture into the outside air, which they did some time before it reached its normal condition.

     It seems to have been fortunate that they did so, for the difficulties they had to face might have proved insurmountable had they not been exhilarated by the excess of oxygen in the atmosphere. The diary that John Rule wrote showed that within the iron house his state of depression was extreme when he remembered that all communication between the countries was cut off, and that the girl to whom he was betrothed was separated from him by 3,000 miles of ocean, whitened by no sail. After the eight set out, the whole tone of his notes changed, an optimism scarcely justified by the circumstances taking the place of his former dismay. It is not my purpose here to dwell on the appalling nature of the foot journey to Liverpool over a corpse-strewn land. They found, as they feared, that Liverpool also had been destroyed by fire, only a fringe of the riverfront escaping the general conflagration. So enthusiastic were the young men, according to my great-grandfather's notes, that on the journey to the seaport they had resolved to walk to America by way of Behring Straits, crossing the English Channel in a row-boat, should they find that the shipping at Liverpool was destroyed. This seems to indicate a state of oxygen intoxication hardly less intense than that which had caused the Prime Minister to dance on the table.



       THEY found the immense steamship Teutonic moored at the landing-stage, not apparently having had time to go to her dock when the universal catastrophe culminated. It is probable that the city was on fire when the steamer came in, and perhaps an attempt was made to board her, the ignorant people thinking to escape the fate that they felt overtaking them by putting out to sea. The landing-stage was packed with lifeless human beings, whole masses still standing up, so tightly were they wedged. Some stood transfixed, with upright arms above their heads, and death seemed to have come to many in a form like suffocation. The eight at first resolved to take the Teutonic across the Atlantic, but her coal bunkers proved nearly empty, and they had no way of filling them. Not one of them knew anything of navigation beyond theoretical knowledge, and Rule alone was acquainted with the rudiments of steam engineering. They selected a small steam yacht, and loaded her with the coal that was left in the Teutonic's bunkers. Thus they started for the West, the Rev. Mr. Hepburn acting as captain and John Rule as engineer. It was fourteen days before they sighted the coast of Maine, having kept much too far north. They went ashore at the ruins of Portland; but embarked again, resolved to trust rather to their yacht than undertake a long land journey through an unknown and desolated country. They skirted the silent shores of America until they came to New York, and steamed down the bay. My great-grandfather describes the scene as somber in the extreme. The Statue of Liberty seemed to be all of the handiwork of man that remained intact. Brooklyn Bridge was not entirely consumed, and the collapsed remains hung from two pillars of fused stone, the ragged ends of the structure that once formed the roadway dragging in the water. The city itself presented a remarkable appearance. It was one conglomerate mass of grey-toned, semi-opaque glass, giving some indication of the intense heat that had been evolved in its destruction. The outlines of its principal thoroughfares were still faintly indicated, although the melting buildings had flowed into the streets like lava, partly obliterating them. Here and there a dome of glass showed where an abnormally high structure once stood, and thus the contour of the city bore a weird resemblance to its former self — about such as the grim outlines of a corpse over which a sheet has been thrown bear to a living man. All along the shore lay the gaunt skeletons of half-fused steamships. The young men passed this dismal calcined graveyard in deep silence, keeping straight up the broad Hudson. No sign of life greeted them until they neared Poughkeepsie, when they saw, flying above a house situated on the top of a hill, that brilliant fluttering flag, the Stars and Stripes. Somehow its very motion in the wind gave promise that the vital spark had not been altogether extinguished in America. The great sadness that had oppressed the voyagers was lifted, and they burst forth into cheer after cheer. One of the young men rushed into the chart-room, and brought out the Union Jack, which was quickly hauled up to the mast-head, and the reverend captain pulled the cord that, for the first time during the voyage, let loose the roar of the steam whistle, rousing the echoes of the hills on either side of the noble stream. Instantly, on the verandah of the flag covered house, was seen the glimmer of a white summer dress, then of another and another and another, until eight were counted....

"Within an Ace of the End of the World" is available in the anthology Steampunk: Extraordinary Tales of Victorian Futurism, edited by Mike Ashley.


25 April, 2021

Friday, April 23, 2021

At the noon of night: Four stories by Vincent O'Sullivan

In his book Weird Fiction in Britain 1880–1939 (2018), James Machin mentions Vincent O'Sullivan at the beginning of his chapter on Shiel, Stenbock, Gilchrist, and Machen.

….one could easily include Vincent O'Sullivan's A Book of Bargains (1896), advertised in the Savoy as a collection of 'Stories of the Weird and Fantastic […] with Frontispiece Designed by Aubrey Beardsley', a collection that fell into immediate obscurity with the notable exception that one of the component stories ('When I Was Dead') was included by noted weird fiction writer Robert Aickman (1914–1981) in his The 4th Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories (1967), where he advises his readers to seek out further work by O'Sullivan with the combined caveat and recommendation that 'the quest is difficult, but the product distinctive' (Symons 1896, 95; Aickman 1967, 9). All these works therefore represent a synthesis of Decadent writing with supernatural and/or horrific themes presented in the short story form, and furthermore were recognized by both their contemporaries and later critics as being produced by writers who operated in the weird mode. However, it should also be acknowledged that in the case of Shiel, Gilchrist, and Stenbock, the short stories anthologized in the above collections do not uniformly incorporate the supernatural and yet, despite this, they remain 'weird'.

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O'Sullivan's fiction is a challenge for the online hunter after strange stories. Most of the collections are out of print, but have not graduated to Project Gutenberg or Internet Archive. 

I did find this very useful piece by Jessica Amanda Salmonson. Another article, "Vincent O'Sullivan: Unstrung Second Fiddle," can be found here

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Will (1899)

"Will" is a brief, highly stylized fantasy on the "woe of marriage" theme. The husband (no background given, all motivations wonderfully arbitrary) spends the days with his wife, steeping himself in dislike.

....At sunset the river became for him turbulent and boding — a pool of blood; and the trees, clad in scarlet, brandished flaming swords. For long days they sat in that room, always silent, watching the shadows turn from steel to crimson, from crimson to gray, from gray to black. If by rare chance they wandered abroad, and moved beyond the gates of the Park of the Somber Fountains, he might hear one passenger say to another, "How beautiful she is!" And then his hatred of his wife increased a hundredfold.

     ....he was poisoning her surely and lingeringly — with a poison more wily and subtle than that of Caesar Borgia's ring — with a poison distilled in his eyes.

....With exultation he watched her growing weaker and weaker as the summer glided by: not a day, not an hour passed that she did not pay toll to his eyes: and when in the autumn there came upon her two long faints which resembled catalepsy, he fortified his will to hate, for he felt that the end was at hand.

...."Do you think I do not know? For days and months I have felt you drawing the life of my body into your life, that you might spill my soul on the ground. For days and months as I have sat with you, as I have walked by your side, you have seen me imploring pity. But you relented not, and you have your will; for I am going down to death. You have your will, and my body is dead; but my soul cannot die. No!" she cried, raising herself a little on the pillows: "my soul shall not die, but live, and sway an all-touching scepter lighted at the stars."

     "My wife!"

     "You have thought to live without me, but you will never be without me....Through long nights when the moon is hid,through dreary days when the sun is dulled, I shall be at your side. In the deepest chaos illumined by lightning, on the loftiest mountain-top, do not seek to escape me. You are my bond-man: for this is the compact I have made with the Cardinals of Death."

     At the noon of night she died....

The remainder of the story shows the working-out of the wife's predictions with economy and eloquence. O'Sullivan's skill at telescoping, his clear and confident style, never releases the reader as the story works its way toward the grotesque denouement.

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The Burned House (1916)

"The Burned House" has an arresting club-story opening:

     One night at the end of dinner, the last time I crossed the Atlantic, somebody in our group remarked that we were just passing over the spot where the Lusitania had gone down Whether this was the case or not, the thought of it was enough to make us rather grave, and we dropped into some more or less serious discussion about the emotions of men and women who see all hope gone, and realize that they are going to sink with the vessel. From that the talk wandered to the fate of the drowned: was not theirs, after all, a fortunate end? Somebody related details from the narratives of those who had been all but drowned in the accidents of the war. A Scotch lady inquired fancifully if the ghosts of those who are lost at sea ever appear above the waters and come aboard ships. Would there be danger of seeing one when the light was turned out in her cabin? This put an end to all seriousness, and most of us laughed. But a little tight-faced man from Fall River, bleak and iron-gray, who had been listening attentively, did not laugh. The lady noticed his decorum and appealed to him for support.

     "You are like me — you believe in ghosts?" she asked lightly.

     He hesitated, thinking it over.

     "In ghosts?" he repeated slowly. "N-no; I don't know as I do. I've never had any personal experience that way. I 've never seen the ghost of any one I knew. Has anybody here?"

     No one replied. Instead, most of us laughed again, a little uneasily, perhaps.

     "Well, I guess not," resumed the man from Fall River. "All the same, strange-enough things happen in life, even if you cut out ghosts, that you can't clear up by laughing. You laugh till you 've had some experience big enough to shock you, and then you don't laugh any more. It's like being thrown out of a car —"

The phrase "like being thrown out of a car"  is very well done.

The remainder of the story is the "little tight-faced man from Fall River" recounting his experience, an anecdote that recalls Machen's phrase "Future events cast their shadows behind."

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The Interval (1919)

The story's interval is in the life of Mrs. Wilton: the time between her husband's death and her own. The story is free of bathos; emotional weight is achieved through carefully observed behavior.

     Mrs. Wilton was not exactly ill last winter, not so ill, at least, as to keep to her bedroom. But she was very thin, and her great handsome eyes always seemed to be staring at some point beyond, searching. There was a look in them that seamen's eyes sometimes have when they are drawing on a coast of which they are not very certain. She lived almost in solitude: she hardly ever saw anybody except when they sought her out. To those who were anxious about her she laughed and said she was very well.

     One sunny morning she was lying awake, waiting for the maid to bring her tea. The shy London sunlight peeped through the blinds. The room had a fresh and happy look.

     When she heard the door open she thought that the maid had come in. Then she saw that Hugh was standing at the foot of the bed. He was in uniform this time, and looked as he had looked the day he went away.

     "Oh, Hugh, speak to me! Will you not say just one word?"

     He smiled and threw back his head, just as he used to in the old days at her mother's house when he wanted to call her out of the room without attracting the attention of the others. He moved towards the door, still signing to her to follow him. He picked up her slippers on his way and held them out to her as if he wanted her to put them on. She slipped out of bed hastily...

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Master of Fallen Years (1921)

I found "Master of the Fallen Years" on Gutenberg in the anthology The Best Short Stories of 1921. It is a challenging story. I have read it twice and cannot pretend I have sounded its depths.

The narrator recounts the strange transformation of a banal clerk, Augustus Barber, after severe illness. Barber, though an individual with no curiosity above his own narrow horizons, sometimes seems to be "taken over" by what he calls the Other.

     One foggy evening in January, about eight o'clock, I happened to be walking with Barber in the West End. We passed before a concert hall, brilliantly lighted, with a great crowd of people gathered about the doors, and I read on a poster that a concert of classical music was forward at which certain renowned artists were to appear. I really cannot give any sort of reason why I took it into my head to go in. I am rather fond of music, even of the kind which requires a distinct intellectual effort; but I was not anxious to hear music that night, and in any case, Barber was about the last man in the world I should have chosen to hear it with. When I proposed that we should take tickets, he strongly objected.

     "Just look me over," he said. "I ain't done anything to you that you want to take my life, have I? I know the kind of merry-go-round that goes on in there, and I'm not having any."

     I suppose it was his opposition which made me stick to the project, for I could not genuinely have cared very much, and there was nothing to be gained by dragging Barber to a concert against his will. Finally, seeing I was determined, he yielded, though most ungraciously.

     "It'll be the chance of a lifetime for an hour's nap," he said as we took our seats, "if they only keep the trombone quiet."

     I repeat his trivial sayings to show how little there was about him in manner or speech to prepare me for what followed.

     I remember that the first number on the programme was Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. This work, as is well known, is rather long, and so, at the end of the third movement, I turned and looked at Barber to see if he was asleep. But his eyes were wide open, feverish, almost glaring; he was twining and untwining his fingers and muttering excitedly. Throughout the fourth movement he continued to talk incoherently.

     "Shut up!" I whispered fiercely. "Just see if you can't keep quiet, or we shall be put out."

     I was indeed very much annoyed, and some people near by were turning in their chairs and frowning.—

     I do not know whether he heard what I said: I had no chance to talk to him. The applause had hardly died away at the end of the symphony when a singer appeared on the stage. Who he was, or what music he sang, I am utterly unable to say; but if he is still alive it is impossible that he should have forgotten what I relate. If I do not remember him, it is because all else is swallowed up for me in that extraordinary event.

     Scarcely had the orchestra ceased preluding and the singer brought out the first notes of his song, than Barber slowly rose from his seat.

     "That man is not an artist," he said in a loud and perfectly final voice, "I will sing myself."

     "Sit down, for God's sake!—The management—the police"—

     Some words like these I gasped, foreseeing the terrible scandal which would ensue, and I caught him by the arm. But he shook himself free without any difficulty, without even a glance at me, and walked up the aisle and across the front of the house toward the little stairs at the side which led up to the platform. By this time the entire audience was aware that something untoward was happening. There were a few cries of "Sit down! Put him out!" An usher hastened up as Barber was about to mount the steps.

     Then a strange thing happened.

     As the usher drew near, crying out angrily, I saw Barber turn and look at him. It was not, as I remember, a fixed look or a determined look; it was the kind of untroubled careless glance a man might cast over his shoulder who heard a dog bark. I saw the usher pause, grow pale and shamefaced feel like a servant who has made a mistake; he made a profound bow and then—yes, he actually dropped on his knees. All the people saw that. They saw Barber mount the platform, the musicians cease, the singer and the conductor give way before him. But never a word was said—there was a perfect hush. And yet, so far as my stunned senses would allow me to perceive, the people were not wrathful or even curious; they were just silent and collected as people generally are at some solemn ceremonial. Nobody but me seemed to realize the outrageousness and monstrosity of the vulgar-looking, insignificant Barber there on the platform, holding up the show, stopping the excellent music we had all paid to hear.

     And in truth I myself was rapidly falling into the strangest confusion. For a certain time—I cannot quite say how long—I lost my hold on realities. The London concert hall, with its staid, rather sad-looking audience, vanished, and I was in a great white place inundated with sun—some vast luminous scene. Under a wide caressing blue sky, in the dry and limpid atmosphere, the white marble of the buildings and the white-clad people appeared as against a background of an immense blue veil shot with silver. It was the hour just before twilight, that rapid hour when the colors of the air have a supreme brilliance and serenity, and a whole people, impelled by some indisputable social obligation, seemed to be reverently witnessing the performance of one magnificent man of uncontrollable power, of high and solitary grandeur.—

     Barber began to sing.

     Of what he sang I can give no account. The words seemed to me here and there to be Greek, but I do not know Greek well, and in such words as I thought I recognized, his pronunciation was so different from what I had been taught that I may well have been mistaken.

     I was so muddled, and, as it were, transported, that I cannot say even if he sang well. Criticism did not occur to me; he was there singing and we were bound to listen. As I try to hear it, now, it was a carefully trained voice. A sound of harps seemed to accompany the singing; perhaps the harpists in the orchestra touched their instruments.—

     How long did it last? I have no idea. But it did not appear long before all began to waver. The spell began to break; the power by which he was compelling us to listen to him was giving out. It was exactly as if something, a mantle or the like, was falling from Barber....

The narrator is nonplussed by the incident.

I could not help feeling sorry for him. The poor creature evidently suffered from megalomania—that was the only way to account for his pretentious notions of his own importance, seeing that he was just a needy little clerk out of work.

Later, the narrator and another of Barber's friends, Mr. G.M., go to see him at the house where he is lodging.

....It was a shepherd's cottage, standing quite lonely. Far down below the village could be seen with the smoke above the red roofs.

     The woman told us that Barber was in, but she thought he might be asleep. He slept a lot.

     "I don't know how he lives," she said. "He pays us scarce anything. We can't keep him much longer."

     He was fast asleep, lying back in a chair with his mouth half open, wrapped in a shabby overcoat. He looked very mean; and when he awoke it was only one long wail on his hard luck. He couldn't get any work. People had a prejudice against him; they looked at him askance. He had a great desire for sleep—couldn't somehow keep awake.

     "If I could tell you the dreams I have!" he cried fretfully. "Silliest rotten stuff. I try to tell 'em to the woman here or her husband sometimes, but they won't listen. Shouldn't be surprised if they think I'm a bit off. They say I'm always talking to myself. I'm sure I'm not.—I wish I could get out of here. Can't you get me a job?" he asked, turning to Mr. G.M.

     "Well, Gus, I'll see. I'll do my best."

     "Lummy!" exclaimed Barber excitedly, "you ought to see the things I dream. I can't think where the bloomin' pictures come from. And yet I've seen it all before. I know all those faces. They are not all white. Some are brown like Egyptians, and some are quite black. I've seen them somewhere. Those long terraces and statues and fountains and marble courts, and the blue sky and the sun, and those dancing girls with the nails of their hands and feet stained red, and the boy in whose hair I wipe my fingers, and the slave I struck dead last night—"

     His eyes were delirious, terrible to see.

     "Ah," he cried hoarsely, "I am stifling here. Let us go into the air."

     And indeed he was changing so much—not essentially in his person, though his face had become broader, intolerant, domineering and cruel—but there was pouring from him so great an emanation of power that it seemed to crack and break down the poor little room. Mr. G.M. and myself had no desire to thwart him, and it never occurred to us to do so. We should as soon have thought of stopping a thunderstorm. We followed him outside on to the space of level ground before the house and listened humbly while he spoke.

     As well as I can recollect, he was lamenting some hindrance to his impulses, some flaw in his power. "To have the instincts of the ruler and no slaves to carry out my will. To wish to reward and punish and to be deprived of the means. To be the master of the world, but only in my own breast—Oh, fury! The ploughboy there is happy, for he has no longings outside of his simple round life. While I—if I had the earth in my hand, I should want a star. Misery! Misery!"

     He leaned upon a low stonewall and looked down on the town, over the pastures blurred with rain.

     "And those wretches down there," he pronounced slowly, "who jeer at me when I pass and insult me with impunity, whose heads should be struck off, and I cannot strike them off! I loathe that town. How ugly it is! It offends my eyes."

     He turned and looked us full in the face and our hearts became as water.

     "Burn it," he said.

     Then he turned away again and bowed his head in his arms on the wall.

     I don't remember anything clearly till a long time afterward, when I found myself walking with Mr. G.M. in the wet night on a deserted road on the outskirts of the town. We were carrying some inflammable things, flax, tar, matches, etc., which we must have purchased.

     Mr. G.M. stopped and looked at me. It was exactly like coming out of a fainting fit.

     "What are we doing with this gear?" he said in a low voice.

     "I don't know."

     "Better chuck it over a hedge.—"

     We made our way to the station in silence. I was thinking of that desolate figure up there on the hill, leaning over the wall in the dark and the rain.

     We caught the last train to London. In the carriage Mr. G.M. began to shiver as though he were cold.

     "Brrr! that fellow got on my nerves," he said; and we made no further allusion to the matter.

     But as the train, moving slowly, passed a gap which brought us again in sight of the town, we saw a tongue of flame stream into the sky.

That instant when the narrator and Mr. G.M. realize they have been about to set fire to the village at Barber's command, and are carrying the tools of arson, is a show-stopper. O'Sullivan's unemotional handling serves perfectly to magnify the moment's power.

"Master of the Fallen Years" ends on an apocalyptic note: "we saw a tongue of flame stream into the sky." The full implications of the story are only suggested in that statement; it epitomizes the tale's shock of terror.


23 April 2021