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

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

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Reading: Darkness on the Edge of Town by Brian Keene (Leisure, 2010)

"I don't care where the light leads. I'd just like to see it one more time."

Darkness on the Edge of Town

by Brian Keene (Leisure, 2010) 

Walden, Virginia is a smallish town like many others. Until the morning its citizens wake to find the world gone: No phones, no radio, no TV, no water, and no power; no sunlight, no starlight, and nothing outside the town limits that means well for its inhabitants. 

"Walden," of course, is a watchword in U.S. history and culture. For Thoreau it was a place of hard work, retreat and reflection, a place where one could "live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." 

Keene's narrator, young Robbie Higgins, would not be mistaken for Thoreau, just as Walden, VA is a long way from Concord, MA and nearby Walden pond. But both, ultimately, tell their own story and tell it true.

Darkness on the Edge of Town displays Keene's passionate curiosity for how working class people confront and negotiate, along with their companions and friends, the end of the world. His characters are sharp, his prose is economical, and the first-person narration is carefully executed .

Even in the early chapters, when the extent of the crisis is still uncertain, Robbie and his comrades are on their guard. These are not fools, as we see when they approach the dark barrier at the edge of town.

     After I opened the door and got out of the Pontiac, Russ and Christy did the same. We shut the doors quietly and moved slowly. The air felt heavy. Oppressive, like before a summer storm. I'd parked the car so that the headlights were pointed into the darkness beyond the sign, but it didn't do much good. It was like the beams were hitting a wall. Just beyond the road sign, the blackness swallowed them up.

     It's hard to describe something that's not describable, but fuck it—I'll give it a shot. Imagine that you're sitting in a dark room at night with no lights or candles or anything else for a source of light. Imagine that there's darkness all around you. Total and complete darkness. Okay? Now imagine that just beyond that darkness is a different kind of darkness, blacker than the rest of the darkness around you. It seems to have substance, even though you know it doesn't. It's like tar or India ink. It ripples when you look at it out of the corner of your eye, or maybe it seems to shimmer. You can see the change with your naked eye—the razor line where mere gloom changes into obsidian.

     That's what it was like, standing there in the middle of the road.

     "Jesus…" Christy's whisper seemed to dissipate, as if the darkness were swallowing sound like it did the headlights.

     Russ clicked on his flashlight, shined it into the impenetrable blackness, and stepped forward. I grabbed his arm and pulled him back.

     "Don't go near it."

     "Why not?"

     "Because it's wrong. Don't you feel it?"

     Russ stared at me for a moment without responding, then shrugged me off and turned back to the curtain's edge. He moved the flashlight around, directing the beam at different angles into the gloom. Finally, he spoke.

     "This is some fucking weird shit, guys."

     Christy and I nodded in agreement. I was about to respond when Christy silenced us.

     "Listen," she said.

     We did.

     At first I didn't hear anything. But after maybe thirty seconds, I noticed that there were sounds in the darkness. They started out quiet but grew louder as we listened—slithering noises, growls and grunts and muted, warbling shrieks. All sounded as if they were coming from a long distance away. Some of the noises sounded human. Others didn't. But in addition to those sounds, each of us heard something else, too. The darkness spoke to us. It whispered to us with familiar voices long unheard. Later, when we compared notes, we learned that each of us had heard something different.

     The darkness spoke to Christy with her father's voice. He'd died of a sudden heart attack two years earlier. Secretly I'd always thought that his death had a lot to do with Christy's dependence on drugs and alcohol. I mean, we both liked to party, but for her, the partying had become something more after her father passed away.

     Russ heard his ex-wife's voice in the darkness, which was funny, he said, since before that moment, he hadn't heard from her in more than twelve years. He didn't know anything about her, other than she'd moved to North Carolina and started a new life without him, but now it was like she was hiding in the shadows and calling his name.

     For me, the darkness sounded like my grandfather. I never knew my dad, and my mom worked two jobs to provide for me, so my grandparents pretty much raised me. I didn't mind. They were both good people, and I'd loved them very much. Me and Mom lived with them. I slept in Mom's old room, and she slept on the couch. When I was little, my grandfather was my best friend. We built extensive, highly detailed model train dioramas on top of his workbench, outfitting them with little houses and trees and fake grass and tiny cars. When I was twelve, he took me on a trip to Norfolk to see the navy ships heading out to sea, and another time, he took me on a weekend visit to Colonial Williamsburg. In the summertime, he used to take me out on the back roads in his car. When we got to a place where there was no traffic, I'd sit on his lap and he'd let me drive the car. He'd work the gas and brake while I steered. I'd loved him, and still did....

         "Hello, Robbie," he said. "Come and give your grandpa a big hug."

     I tried to speak, but my mouth was dry. My tongue and lips felt like they were swelling. The smells grew stronger.

     "Come on," he insisted. "It's been so long. I've missed you."

     He held out his arms to me the way he used to, and I remembered how safe I'd felt with them wrapped around me, squeezing. I didn't feel that way now, and I imagined that if I went to him, the squeeze would be something less than tender or caring. I stayed where I was. In truth, I don't know if I could have moved even if I'd wanted to. My feet felt like they were ankle deep in cement. I glanced over at Russ and Christy. They both stared into the darkness, gaping in the same direction as I'd been, but judging from their reactions, neither was seeing what I saw. I wondered what they were seeing instead. Then I turned back to my grandfather and he smiled.

     "Go away," I whispered.

     "Come on, Robbie," he urged again. "At least come over here where I can see you better. You're all grown up now. All that blond hair and those blue eyes. You look like your mother when she was your age."

     He beckoned. The darkness seemed to flow around him like ripples in a black, oily pool.

     "Go away," I repeated, closing my eyes. "Please go away. You're not my grandfather. You're not real. You can't be. You died."

     "I'm real," he said. "Touch me, Robbie. Feel me. I'm solid."

     I opened my eyes. His eyes seemed to blaze with that cold light. It flared and sparked around his frame, billowing from his head and shoulders and fingertips. He still hadn't moved.

     But Russ had. While my eyes were shut, he'd shuffled toward the darkness. He stretched his arms, reaching for something I couldn't see. He had a shocked, confused smile on his face.

     "But why didn't you call?" Russ peered into the shadows. "If you had just let me know you were coming, I could have picked you up at the airport."

     I glanced in the direction he was staring. There was nothing there that I could see. I turned to Christy, but she seemed oblivious to us both. Weeping, she knelt in the middle of the road, wiped her eyes and nose with her hands, and repeated, "I'm sorry," over and over again.

     "Don't be silly," Russ said, smiling. "It's no trouble at all."

     "Robbie," my grandfather called. "Don't worry about them right now. I need you to come closer. It's hard to see you."

     Ignoring him, I ran after Russ. He was just a few feet away from that thin razor line where the darkness became the absence of light. His smile had grown broader, and he nodded in response to something I couldn't hear.

     "Sounds good to me," he said. "I missed you, too. You don't know how much. Let's go back to my place. The past is the past."


     He paused but didn't turn to face me. I hurried to catch up with him and grabbed his wrist. He turned to me as if half asleep. The confused smile was still on his face.

     I squeezed his wrist. "Where are you going, man?"

     "Robbie?" He blinked. "Hey, I want to introduce you to somebody."

     "There's no one there, Russ. It's a trick."

     "Are you nuts? She's standing right there. Look!"

     I did, and she wasn't. I told him so. Then I told him about my grandpa.

     "Robbie," my grandfather interrupted, as if on cue. "Hurry up now. Enough of this foolishness."

     "Shut the fuck up," I shouted.

     "Who are you hollering at?" Russ seemed puzzled.

     "My grandpa. You didn't hear him, right? And I bet that you can't see him either, can you?"

     Russ nodded, frowning. He glanced into the darkness and then back at me.

     "And I can't see or hear whatever it is you see out there," I explained. "They're not real, Russ. We're hallucinating. It's like a bad acid trip."

     "It's not…not real?"

     "No. It's just the darkness. Something in the darkness is fucking with our heads, man."

     "She's not there."

     It wasn't a question, but I shook my head anyway.

It's a harrowing moment so early in the novel. As readers we are still orienting ourselves to these characters, and we are relieved that Keene is not going to use his main protagonists as canon fodder; he saves that privilege for a couple of firemen in a 4x4 heading for the next town over.

Darkness on the Edge of Town gives us at least a dozen main characters: the mad, the bad, and the dangerous, most turning out to be dangerous to Robbie, Russ, and Christy.

After initial toing and froing in the first half of the novel, Keene gives us some very funny social interactions as Robbie, Russ and their neighbor Cranston try to form a group to probe into the darkness.

     There were five teenage boys hanging around the burn barrel on our street corner. Even though it was daytime, smoke and shadows obscured their faces until I got closer. One of them was occupied with a handheld video game system that still had power, and his attention was totally focused on that. But the rest of them looked up as Russ, Cranston, and I approached. One of them, a white kid whose baggy jeans hung low enough to expose three-quarters of his boxer shorts, stepped forward.

     "'Sup, dog? What you need?"

     I tried to hide my smirk. I had nothing against the dude's fashion sense or slang or intentional grammar-mangling. I've had plenty of friends who did the same thing. But two things were immediately obvious to me. One, if I wanted these guys to help us, I'd have to convince this de facto leader, and two, their leader was an idiot.

     "What's up," I returned the greeting. "You alright?"

     "We solid, yo. Just chilling. Know what I'm saying? Got to wonder who these three dudes are, steppin' to us on our corner, though."

     "Sorry for intruding."

     "So what you want? You here to break bad? Know what I'm saying?"

     "Not really," Russ said. "You sound like you're auditioning for The Wire or something."

     The leader scowled. "What you mean?"

     "I mean that I don't understand a goddamned thing you just said. What language are you speaking?"

     "The fuck you been smoking, old man? You looking to get your ass stomped?"

     I interrupted, before Russ could reply. "We need some help. I asked around and heard that you and your crew are some good people to have guarding your back."

     He grinned. "Word. People sayin' that for real? It's true. Our set rules this motherfuckin' street. Don't nothing go on without us knowing about it. Know what I'm saying?"

     I thought about pointing out that before the darkness came, the only place he and his friends ruled was maybe the high school—and even that was doubtful. I swallowed my laughter and tried to appear impressed.

     "I'm Robbie. This is Russ and Mr. Cranston."

     "'Sup." He nodded at Russ and Cranston, then motioned to his buddies. "I'm T. This is Irish, Stan the Man, Mad Mike, and Mario."

     All of them mumbled greetings, except Mario, who didn't look up from his game. T slapped the back of his head, and he almost dropped the unit.

     "Where your manners, dog? Say hello, motherfucker. Be polite and shit."

     "Yo, Tucker! You gonna make me blow this level! Been trying to get this shit for two days."

     "Fuck that game. And how many times I got to tell you? Out here on the street, you call me T. You feel me? Do I call you Phil? No, I call you Mario, motherfucker. So don't be calling me Tucker anymore. Tucker is dead. Know what I'm saying? Tucker was my slave name."

     Russ cleared his throat. "Slave name?"

     "Damn straight."

     Cranston seemed bewildered. "But…you're white."

     "Shit." T snickered. "You think I don't know that, yo? Hell yeah, I'm white."

     "Don't you think that calling yourself a slave might be disrespectful to those who are actually descended from slaves, man?"

     "See, you thinking in terms of color, old hippie dude. We need to move beyond that."

     "But you're talking about slavery," Cranston persisted. "You're making light of one of the most horrendous things ever perpetrated by mankind."

     "Slavery don't know no color, yo. And I ain't making light of it either. I was a slave to my parents and shit. A slave to my motherfucking school. A slave to all their fucked up rules. Know what I'm saying? But my parents ain't come home from work, and school's out forever, so now I'm free. I ain't a slave no more."

     Cranston opened his mouth to respond, but then he shut it again and simply stared at the teen. He looked bewildered. Russ looked annoyed. I thought it was funny, myself.

     T turned to Mario. "We got visitors. Say hello, stupid. Don't be a dick."

     "'Sup." Mario, aka Phil, turned back to his game.

     "We need your help," I repeated. "You interested?"

     "Yo, we for hire, if the price is right. Know what I'm saying? What you need done? And, more importantly, what you paying?"

     "All in good time. First, I need to round up a few more people."

     "For what?"

     "You'll see."

The probe into the darkness by Robbie's band of volunteers ends in a deadly fiasco. Lives are lost and Robbie takes the blame. This sets the novel's denouement in motion: as supplies dwindle and the darkness itself accelerates every argument among individuals to the point of homicide, Robbie, Russ, and Christy decide on one last strategy that may permit escape.

The fact that the rest of the world may no longer be there only underscores the weight of this choice.

Near the end of Walden, Thoreau noted, "No face which we can give to a matter will stead us so well at last as the truth. This alone wears well."

The modest truth of fiction in Darkness on the Edge of Town wears very well indeed.


28 August 2021

Friday, August 27, 2021

Celebrating: In a Lonely Place by Karl Edward Wagner (Warner Books, 1983)

In a Lonely Place by Karl Edward Wagner

(Warner Books, 1983)

In a Lonely Place contains many lonely places, populated by protagonists who come to realize just how isolated they are, and what this isolation has cost them.

Like Ramsey Campbell, Dennis Etchison, and T. E. D. Klein, Karl Edward Wagner was a writer's writer whose reading of horror was curious, deep, and profounding historical. It's a pleasure to revisit this flawless collection.

In the Pines (1973)

Gerry and Janet rent a house in very rural Tennessee. They are fleeing loss of career, bankruptcy, and the death of a child.

Gerry comes to realize that the property throbs with several layers of uncanny history. He also discovers he is not the first renter to have these experiences.

     Lonzo Pennybacker gave directions to the house of the elderly Baptist preacher. Eventually Gerry found the right dirt road and drove up to a well-kept house at the head of a mountain cove. Flowers bloomed in the yard, and dogs were having a melee with a pack of noisy children. The house presented a clean, honest front—a far cry from the squalor Gerry had expected in a mountain home.

     Rev. Billy Banner sat in a porch rocker and rose to meet Gerry.

     He was an alert man in his seventies or better, lean and strong without a trace of weakness or senility. His eyes were clear, and his voice still carried the deep intonations that had rained hellfire and damnation on his congregation for decades.

     After shaking hands, Banner motioned him to a chair, politely waited for his guest to come to business. This was difficult. Gerry was uncertain what questions to ask, what explanations to offer—or what he really wanted to find out. But Banner sensed his uneasiness and expertly drew from him the reason for his visit. Gerry explained he was staying at the old Reagan cabin, that he was interested in the artist Enser Pittman who had killed himself there.

     "Enser Pittman?" The old man nodded. "Yes, I remember him well enough. He paid me a visit once, just like you today. Maybe for the same reason."

     Plunging on, Gerry asked about the history of the cabin and was told little he had not already learned. Rev. Banner spoke with reluctance of the old tragedy, seemed to suspect more than he was willing to put into words.

     "Do you have any idea what might have driven Pittman to suicide?" Gerry asked finally.

     The preacher kept silent until Gerry wondered if he would ignore the question. "Suicide? That was the verdict, sure enough. They found him mother-naked in bed, his throat tore open and a razor beside him. Been dead a few days—likely it had been done the last of July. No sign of struggle, nothing gone, no enemies. Artists are kind of funny anyway. And some claimed he had cancer. So maybe it was suicide like the coroner said. Maybe not. Wasn't much blood on the sheets for a man to be cut like that, they tell me. All the same, I hope it was suicide, and not something worse."

     "I thought suicide was the unforgivable sin."

     "There's things worse." Banner looked at him shrewdly. "Maybe you know what I mean. The Bible talks about witches and ghosts and a lot of other things we think we're too wise to believe in today. That Renee Reagan was a daughter of Satan, sure as I'm sitting here remembering her. Well, I'm an old man, but no one's ever called me an old fool, so I'll just stop talking."

     Feeling uncomfortable without knowing why, Gerry thanked the preacher and rose to go. Rev. Banner stood up to see him off, then laid a sinewy hand on his shoulder at the edge of the porch.

     "I don't know just what sort of trouble you got that's bothering you, son," he began, fixing Gerry with his keen eyes. "But I do know there's something about the old Reagan place that gets to some kinds of people. If that's the way it is with you, then you better get back to where it is you come from. And if you do stay on here, then just remember that Evil can't harm a righteous man so long as he denies its power and holds to the way of Our Lord Jesus Christ and his Gospel. But once you accept Evil—once you let Evil into your life and permit its power to influence your soul—then it's got you body and soul, and you're only a plaything for all the devils of Hell!

     "You've got that lost look about you, son. Maybe you can hear that Hell-bound train a-calling to you. But don't you listen to its call. Son, don't you climb on board!"

*     *     *

Where the Summer Ends (1980)

This rereading of the collection In a Lonely Place was prompted a few days ago when I reread "Where the Summer Ends" for the first time in thirty years. I initially read it in paperback in Dark Forces October 1989. "Where the Summer Ends" was so obviously a masterpiece that I reread it as soon as I finished the story the first time. It epitomizes Ramsey Campbell's dictum: "Explanation is the death of horror."

The plotting is as meticulous and fair-play as anything concocted by Ellery Queen or John Dickson Carr.

     The storm was holding off as Mercer loped toward Gradie's house, but heat lightning fretted behind reefs of cloud. It was a dark night between the filtered flares of lightning, and he was very conscious that this was a bad neighborhood to be out walking in with fifty dollars in your pocket. He kept one hand shoved into his jeans pocket, closed over the double-barrelled derringer, and walked on the edge of the street, well away from the concealing mounds of kudzu. Once something scrambled noisily through the vines; startled, Mercer almost shot his foot off.

     "Who's there!" The voice was cracked with drunken fear.

     "Jon Mercer, Mr Gradie! Jon Mercer!"

     "Come on into the light. You bring the money?"

     "Right here ." Mercer dug a crumpled wad of bills and coins from his pocket. The derringer flashed in his fist.

     "Two shots, huh?" Gradie observed. "Not enough to do you much good. There's too many of them."

     "Just having it to show has pulled me out of a couple bad moments," Mercer explained. He dumped the money onto Gradie's shaky palm. "That's fifty. Better count it, and give me a receipt. I'll be back in the morning for the mantel."

     "Take it now. I'll be gone in the morning."

*     *     *

Sticks (1974)

I first read "Sticks'' in the early 1990s. By then it already had a strong, insistent reputation. Even before the internet, the story emitted a buzzing power that attracted horror readers. I think the reason for this is that "Sticks" is a knowing insider work that flatters horror fans: shining a light on figures at the time (1974) still seen as on the genre's margins. 

Had Wagner avoided turning this strange and uncanny story into a pastiche, he would have been the author of a sublime piece of disquieting art.

Everything after the lines "Leverett finally turned back to his car. His step was lighter" only diminishes what preceded it.

     The following week brought a letter postmarked Pelham, Mass.:

     A mutual friend, Prescott Brandon, forwarded your fascinating account of discovering curious sticks and stone artifacts on an abandoned farm in upstate New York. I found this most intriguing, and wonder if you can recall further details? Can you relocate the exact site after 30 years? If possible, I'd like to examine the foundations this spring, as they call to mind similar megalithic sites of this region. Several of us are interested in locating what we believe are remains of megalithic construction dating back to the Bronze Age, and to determine their possible use in rituals of black magic in Colonial days.

     Present archeological evidence indicates that ca. 1700- 2000 b.c. there was an influx of Bronze Age peoples into the Northeast from Europe. We know that the Bronze Age saw the rise of an extremely advanced culture, and that as seafarers they were to have no peers until the Vikings. Remains of a megalithic culture originating in the Mediterranean can be seen in the Lion Gate in Mycenae, in Stonehenge, and in dolmens, passage graves and barrow mounds throughout Europe. Moreover this seems to have represented far more than a style of architecture peculiar to the era. Rather, it appears to have been a religious cult whose adherents worshipped a sort of earth-mother, served her with fertility rituals and sacrifices, and believed that immortality of the soul could be secured through interment in megalithic tombs.

     That this culture came to America cannot be doubted from the hundreds of megalithic remnants—found and now recognized—in our region. The most important site to date is Mystery Hill in N.H., comprising a great many walls and dolmens of megalithic construction—most notably the Y Cavern barrow mound and the Sacrificial Table (see postcard). Less spectacular megalithic sites include the group of cairns and carved stones at Mineral Mt, subterranean chambers with stone passageways such as at Petersham and Shutesbury, and uncounted shaped megaliths and buried "monk's cells" throughout this region.

     Of further interest, these sites seem to have retained their mystic aura for the early Colonials, and numerous megalithic sites show evidence of having been used for sinister purposes by Colonial sorcerers and alchemists. This became particularly true after the witchcraft persecutions drove many practitioners into the western wilderness—explaining why upstate New York and western Mass. have seen the emergence of so many cultist groups in later years.

     Of particular interest here is Shadrach Ireland's "Brethren of the New Light," who believed that the world was soon to be destroyed by sinister "Powers from Outside" and that they, the elect, would then attain physical immortality. The elect who died beforehand were to have their bodies preserved on tables of stone until the "Old Ones" came forth to return them to life. We have definitely linked the megalithic sites at Shutesbury to later unwholesome practices of the New Light cult. They were absorbed in 1781 by Mother Ann Lee's Shakers, and Ireland's putrescent corpse was hauled from the stone table in his cellar and buried.

     Thus I think it probable that your farmhouse may have figured in similar hidden practices. At Mystery Hill a farmhouse was built in 1926 that incorporated one dolmen in its foundations. The house burned down ca. 1848-55, and there were some unsavory local stories as to what took place there. My guess is that your farmhouse had been built over or incorporated a similar megalithic site—and that your "sticks" indicate some unknown cult still survived there. I can recall certain vague references to lattice devices figuring in secret ceremonies, but can pinpoint nothing definite. Possibly they represent a development of occult symbols to be used in certain conjurations, but this is just a guess. I suggest you consult Waite's Ceremonial Magic or such to see if you can recognize similar magical symbols.

     Hope this is of some use to you. Please let me hear back.


     Alexander Stefroi

*     *     *

The Fourth Seal (1975)

A perfect piece of paranoid affect horror: Wagner never did a finer job using dialogue as action. This story is a craftsman's masterclass.

     Dr Thackeray's secretary was not present when Metzger entered the Department of Medicine offices the following morning—his nerves jagged after a sleepless night. Since he knew he was expected, he knocked and entered the Chairman's office. Sanctum sanctorum, soul of the Center, he thought with a tinge of hysteria.

     "Dr Thackeray, I've been trying to get in touch with you all night..." He halted, startled to find the Chairman of Surgery seated within.

     "It's all right, Dr Metzger," pronounced Dr Thackeray. "Dr Lipton is a party to... this matter we have to discuss."

     Numbly Geoff dropped into the room's vacant chair. The two older men faced him with carefully composed mien—eyes alert as birds of prey.

     Geoff thumped a fist against the black vinyl folders in his lap. "God, it's all here!" His eyes were feverish. "Everything I've done, all I'd hoped to establish—a number of aspects I'd never considered!" Dr Thackeray nodded, eyes unblinking.

     "Well, Christ, where did you get this? If you knew someone else was working in my field, why didn't you tell me earlier? Hell, this is too important for professional jealousy. I'll gladly share any of my data with these researchers. To hell with who gets official credit!" His voice began to shake. "This research—this information! My god—it means a definite cure for almost every form of human cancer! Why, this delineates each etiological factor involved in cancer—pinpoints two definite stages where the causative agent can be destroyed, the disease process completely arrested! This research marks the triumph of medicine over leukemia, most of the systemic dysplasias—individual organ involvement will be virtually eradicated!"

     "Quite true," Dr Lipton agreed. His long surgeon's fingers toyed with the silver-and-onyx ring he wore.

     "Well, no more suspense, please! Whose work is this? Where's it being done?" Geoff's excitement was undiminished by the coolness of the other two physicians.

     "One paper was prepared from the work of Dr C. Johnson Taggart," Dr Thackeray told him.

     "Taggart? No wonder it's... But Taggart died ten years ago—brain tumor! You mean they've taken this long to piece together his notes?"

     "The other paper, as you've noticed, is considerably older. Most of it was the work of Sir David Aubrey," Dr Thackeray concluded.

     Geoff stared at them to determine whether they were playing some horribly sick joke. "Aubrey died at the turn of the century."

     "True again. But he was responsible for most of the pioneer work in this field," Dr Lipton added with a tone of reproof.

     The overweighted shelves of accumulated knowledge seemed to press down on Geoff's soul. A windowless room in the center of the complex, like a chamber of the vast heart of some monstrous entity. "I don't understand," he whispered in a choked voice. "Why hasn't this information been used before now? Why were millions left to die?"

     "Perhaps the world wasn't ready for a cure to cancer," Dr Thackeray replied.

     "That's... that's insane! I don't understand," quavered Geoff, noticing now that Dr Thackeray wore a ring similar to Dr Lipton's. There was a seal set into the onyx. He had seen it before. It was stamped on the spines of the black binders.

     "You can understand," Dr Thackeray was saying. "This will be strange—traumatic perhaps, at first. But think carefully. Would it be wise to circulate a total cure for cancer just now?"

     "Are you serious? You can't be! The lives, the suffering..."

     "The price of power, Dr Metzger. The price of power—just as every empire is built upon the lives and suffering of the expendable." Dr Lipton's voice was pitiless as the edge of his scalpels, excising without rancor the organism's defective tissue.

     "Think of cancer in more rational terms," Dr Thackeray went on. "Have you any conception of the money invested every day in cancer research, in treatment of cancer patients? It's incalculable, I assure you. Do you think the medical profession can sacrifice this wealth, this enormous power, just for a humanitarian gesture?"

     "But a physician's role is to heal!" screamed Metzger, abstractly noting how thoroughly the endless shelves muffled sound.

     "Of course. And he does heal," put in Dr Lipton. "But where would a physician be if there were no sickness to be healed?"

     They were mad, Geoff realized. Or he was. He had been overworking. This was a dream, a paranoid fantasy.

     This knowledge made him calmer. He would follow this mad logic—at least until he could be certain with whom the insanity lay. "But some diseases are eradicated," he protested.

     "When they become expendable," Dr Thackeray told him. "Some, of course, simply die out, or fall victim to non-medical intervention. Others we announce a cure for—makes the profession look good. The world has restored faith in medicine, praises its practitioners, and pours more money into research. The prestige a physician enjoys in the community is an essential factor to us."

     Lipton's frown furrowed into his close-cropped hair where it grew low on his brow. "And sometimes we slip up, and some fool announces a major cure without our awareness. Thank God, there's less of that now with the disappearance of independent research. As it is, we've had some damn close calls—took a lot of work to discredit a few of these thoughtless meddlers."

     Geoff remembered some of them. And now he knew fear, fear greater than his dread of insanity; fear that these men were all too sane. "I suppose something can happen to some of these researchers who might cause difficulty."

     "You make it sound like a line from a gangster movie, but yes," Dr Thackeray acknowledged. "Quite a number of them die from some sudden illness, and the scientific community regrets that they left their brilliant promise unfulfilled."

     "It's a way of avoiding other dilemmas as well, as I think you'll follow me," Dr Lipton growled. "Meddlers who become aware of our existence. Fools who would destroy the medical profession with Communistic laws and regulations, endanger the social structure with ruinous legislation.

     "And don't look shocked, young man. Think instead just what kind of doctor you might be right now, if some of these late and unlamented wild-eyed liberals could have done all they intended to this country and to the medical profession."

     "Murder... " breathed Geoff weakly.

     "Not actually," Dr Thackeray broke in. "After all, as physicians we have to see human society as a living organism. The social organism is subject to disease just like any other entity. To be trite, it isn't murder to excise a cancerous growth. Regulation treatment—sometimes drastic treatment—is essential if the organism is not to perish. This is the rationale behind all forms of government; the alternative is chaos. I think you'll agree that an educated elite is best suited to direct the social destiny of us all. After all, an epithelial cell is scarcely suited to handle the functions of a nerve cell. It functions smoothly, dies when its time comes—all because the brain, of which it has no conception, directs its course. How else would you have it?"

     "You can't suppress medical knowledge indefinitely" Geoff returned defiantly. "Someday someone will eradicate cancer. They were aware of its etiology as far back as Aubrey..."


     "In fact, it's amazing that Aubrey understood cancer so thoroughly—considering the relatively crude apparatus of the day." Dr Thackeray smiled. "Ah, but we've talked earlier about the possibility of what I believe you termed 'recondite scientific knowledge.' And besides, Aubrey had several advantages over moderns as to the matter of his starting point."

     Horror was damp on Metzger's face. The air was stifling, charged with hideous revelation. "You said he was a pioneer... "

     "Yes," Lipton rumbled impatiently. "A pioneer in the development of the disease process."

     "Oh my god," whispered Geoff. "Oh my god!"

     "I know this is a great deal to comprehend," Dr Thackeray offered sympathetically. "But use your intelligence. To have significant power, a physician must have an essential role—and what is more compelling than the power of life and death? If there were no diseases, there would be no need for physicians. Therefore at certain times throughout history it has been necessary to develop and introduce to the general population new forms of disease."

*     *     *

.220 Swift (1980)

".220 Swift" seemingly depicts the loneliest of places: uncharted underground caves. Sadly for Wagner's protagonists, they are not empty, but teeming with life.

Wagner's surface-dwelling archeologists Dr Morris Kenlaw and his assistant Brandon each have secrets they hide from the world, and each other. Wagner salts his clues carefully, and the story's crescendo is fruitful, many-sided, and haunting.

     Brandon seemed to be swirling through pain-fogged delirium—an endless vertigo in which he clutched at fragments of dream as a man caught in a maelstrom is flung against flotsam of his broken ship. In rare moments his consciousness surfaced enough for him to wonder whether portions of the dreams might be reality.

     Most often, Brandon dreamed of limitless caverns beneath the mountains, caverns through which he was borne along by partially glimpsed dwarfish figures. Sometimes Kenlaw was with him in this maze of tunnels—crawling after him, his face a flayed mask of horror, a bloody geologist's pick brandished in one fleshless fist.

     At other times Brandon sensed his dreams were visions of the past, visions that could only be born of his obsessive study of the folklore of this region. He looked upon the mountains of a primeval age, when the boundless forest was untouched by the iron bite and poisoned breath of white civilization. Copper-hued savages hunted game along these ridges, to come upon a race of diminutive whiteskinned folk who withdrew shyly into the shelter of hidden caverns. The Indians were in awe of these little people, whose origins were beyond the mysteries of their oldest legends, and so they created new legends to explain them.

     With the successive migrations of Indians through these mountains, the little people remained in general at peace, for they were wise in certain arts beyond the comprehension of the red man—who deemed them spirit-folk—and their ways were those of secrecy and stealth.

     Then came a new race of men: white skins made bronze by the sun, their faces bearded, their flesh encased in burnished steel. The conquistadors enslaved the little folk of the hills as they had enslaved the races of the south, tortured them to learn the secrets of their caves beneath the mountains, forced them to mine the gold from pits driven deep into the earth. Then followed a dream of mad carnage, when the little people arose from their tunnels in unexpected force, to entrap their masters within the pits, and to drive those who escaped howling in fear from that which they had called forth from beneath the mountains.

     Then came the white settlers in a wave that never receded, driving before them the red man, and finally the game. Remembering the conquistadors, the little people retreated farther into their hidden caverns, hating the white man with his guns and his settlements. Seldom now did they venture into the world above, and then only by night. Deep within the mountains, they found sustenance from the subterranean rivers and the beds of fungoid growths they nourished, feeding as well upon other cave creatures and such prey as they might seek above on starless nights. With each generation, the race slipped farther back into primordial savagery, forgetting the ancient knowledge that had once been theirs. Their stature became dwarfish and apelike, their faces brutish as the devolution of their souls; their flesh and hair assumed the dead pallor of creatures that live in eternal darkness, even as their vision and hearing adapted to their subterranean existence.

     They remembered their hatred of the new race of men. Again and again Brandon's dreams were red with visions of stealthy ambush and lurid slaughter of those who trespassed upon their hidden domain, of those who walked mountain trails upon nights when the stars were swallowed in cloud. He saw children snatched from their blankets, women set upon in lonely places. For the most part, these were nightmares from previous centuries, although there was a recurrent dream in which a vapid-faced girl gave herself over willingly to their obscene lusts, until the coming of men with flashlights and shotguns drove them from her cackling embrace.

     These were dreams that Brandon through his comatose delirium could grasp and understand. There were far more visions that defied his comprehension.

     Fantastic cities reeled and shattered as the earth tore itself apart, thrusting new mountains toward the blazing heavens, opening vast chasms that swallowed rivers and spat them forth as shrieking steam. Oceans of flame melted continents into leaden seas, wherein charred fragments of a world spun frenziedly upon chaotic tides and whirlpools, riven by enormous bolts of raw energy that coursed like fiery cobwebs from the cyclopean orb that filled the sky.

     Deep within the earth, fortress cities were shaken and smashed by the Hell that reigned miles above. From out of the ruins, survivors crept to attempt to salvage some of the wonders of the age that had died and left them exiles in a strange world. Darkness and savagery stole from them their ideals, even as monstrous dwellers from even greater depths of the earth drove them from their buried cities and upward through caverns that opened onto an alien surface. In the silent halls of vanished greatness, nightmarish shapes crawled like maggots, while the knowledge of that godlike age was a fading memory to the degenerate descendents of those who had fled.

     How long the dreams endured, Brandon could not know. It was the easing of the pain in his skull that eventually convinced Brandon that he had passed from dream into reality, although it was into a reality no less strange than that of delirium.

     They made a circle about where he lay—so many of them that Brandon could not guess their number. Their bodies were stunted, but lacking the disproportion of torso to limbs of human dwarves. The thin white fur upon their naked pink flesh combined to give them something of the appearance of lemurs. Brandon thought of elves and of feral children, but their faces were those of demons. Broad nostrils and outthrust, tusked jaws stopped just short of being muzzles, and within overlarge red-pupiled eyes glinted the malign intelligence of a fallen angel.

     They seemed in awe of him.

*     *     *

More Sinned Against (1984)

"More Sinned Against" is a brilliant short story about damnation and worse: self-damnation. It reveals a prurient curiosity and knowledge of misogyny. The story's plain, clipped and unadorned style, as well as its brevity, usher the reader to a beautifully orchestrated climax.

*     *     *

The River of Night's Dreaming (1981)

Cassilda Archer (if that is her name) escapes the riverene bus wreck while being transported back to the asylum. She finds her way to a mansion where a maid is reading The King in Yellow out loud to her employer. They offer her shelter.

     "How lovely, Cassilda!" Mrs Castaigne approved. "One would scarcely recognize you as the poor drowned thing that came out of the night!"

     Cassilda stood up and examined herself in the full-length dressing mirror. It was as if she looked upon a stranger, and yet she knew she looked upon herself. The corset constricted her waist and forced her slight figure into an "S" curve—hips back, bust forward— imparting an unexpected opulence, further enhanced by the gauzy profusion of lace and silk. Her face, dark-eyed and finely boned, returned her gaze watchfully from beneath a lustrous pile of black hair. She touched herself, almost in wonder, almost believing that the reflection in the mirror was a photograph of someone else.

     Camilla selected for her a long-sleeved linen shirtwaist, buttoned at the cuffs and all the way to her throat, then helped her into a skirt of some darker material that fell away from her cinched waist to her ankles. Cassilda studied herself in the mirror, while the maid fussed about her.

     I look like someone in an old illustration—a Gibson girl, she thought, then puzzled at her thought.

     Through the open window she could hear the vague noises of the city, and for the first time she realized that intermingled with these familiar sounds was the clatter of horses' hooves upon the brick pavement.

The story is more A. N. Roquelaure than Robert W. Chambers, but Wagner is canny enough to braid the elements into a fiction of real authority. 

*     *     *

Beyond Any Measure (1982)

"Beyond Any Measure" underscores the reader's apptreciation of Wagner's skill in conveying the sensual, erotic, and decadent "Euro-aesthetic," first encountered in "The River of Night's Dreaming." 

"Beyond Any Measure" is a devil's brew of stolen souls, ageless and seemingly supernatural predation, and what seems at first like serial reincarnation.

     The crowd in the study had changed during her absence. Just now it was dominated by a group of guests dressed in costumes from The Rocky Horror Show, now closing out its long run at the Comedy Theatre in Piccadilly. Lisette had grown bored with the fad the film version had generated in the States, and pushed her way past the group as they vigorously danced the Time Warp and bellowed out songs from the show.

     "'Give yourself over to absolute pleasure,"' someone sang in her ear as she industriously snorted a line from the mirror. "'Erotic nightmares beyond any measure,"' the song continued.

     Lisette finished a second line, and decided she had had enough.

     She straightened from the table and broke for the doorway. The tall transvestite dressed as Frankie barred her way with a dramatic gesture, singing ardently: "'Don't dream it—be it!"'

     Lisette blew him a kiss and ducked around him. She wished she could find a quiet place to collect her thoughts. Maybe she should find Danielle first—if she could handle the ballroom that long.

     The dance floor was far more crowded than when they'd come in. At least all these jostling bodies seemed to absorb some of the decibels from the blaring banks of amplifiers and speakers. Lisette looked in vain for Danielle amidst the dancers, succeeding only in getting champagne sloshed on her back. She caught sight of Midge, recognizable above the mob by her conical medieval headdress, and pushed her way toward her.

     Midge was being fed caviar on bits of toast by Fiona while she talked with an older woman who looked like the pictures Lisette had seen of Marlene Dietrich dressed in men's formal evening wear.

     "Have you seen Danielle?" Lisette asked her.

     "Why, not recently, darling," Midge smiled, licking caviar from her lips with the tip of her tongue. "I believe she and that rock singer were headed upstairs for a bit more privacy. I'm sure she'll come collect you once they're finished."

     "Midge, you're a cunt," Lisette told her through her sweetest smile. She turned away and made for the doorway, trying not to ruin her exit by staggering. Screw Danielle—she needed to have some fresh air.

     A crowd had gathered at the foot of the stairway, and she had to push through the doorway to escape the ballroom. Behind her, the Needle mercifully took a break. "She's coming down!" Lisette heard someone whisper breathlessly. The inchoate babel of the party fell to a sudden lull that made Lisette shiver.

     At the top of the stairway stood a tall woman, enveloped in a black velvet cloak from her throat to her ankles. Her blonde hair was piled high in a complex variation of the once-fashionable French twist. Strings of garnets entwined in her hair and edged the close-fitting black mask that covered the upper half of her face. For a hushed interval she stood there, gazing imperiously down upon her guests.

     Adrian Tregannet leapt to the foot of the stairway. He signed to a pair of maids, who stepped forward to either side of their mistress.

     "Milords and miladies!" he announced with a sweeping bow. "Let us pay honor to our bewitching mistress whose feast we celebrate tonight! I give you the lamia who haunted Adam's dreams—Lilith!"

     The maids smoothly swept the cloak from their mistress' shoulders. From the multitude at her feet came an audible intake of breath. Beth Garrington was attired in a strapless corselette of gleaming black leather, laced tightly about her waist. The rest of her costume consisted only of knee-length, stiletto-heeled tight boots, above-the-elbow gloves, and a spiked collar around her throat—all of black leather that contrasted starkly against her white skin and blonde hair. At first Lisette thought she wore a bull-whip coiled about her body as well, but then the coils moved, and she realized that it was an enormous black snake.

     "Lilith!" came the shout, chanted in a tone of awe. "Lilith!"

     Acknowledging their worship with a sinuous gesture, Beth Garrington descended the staircase. The serpent coiled from gloved arm to gloved arm, entwining her cinched waist; its eyes considered the revellers imperturbably. Champagne glasses lifted in a toast to Lilith, and the chattering voice of the party once more began to fill the house.

     Tregannet touched Beth's elbow as she greeted her guests at the foot of the stairway. He whispered into her ear, and she smiled graciously and moved away with him.

     Lisette clung to the staircase newel, watching them approach. Her head was spinning, and she desperately needed to lie down in some fresh air, but she couldn't trust her legs to carry her outside. She stared into the eyes of the serpent, hypnotized by its flickering tongue.

     The room seemed to surge in and out of focus. The ma91qsks of the guests seemed to leer and gloat with the awareness of some secret jest; the dancers in their fantastic costumes became a grotesque horde of satyrs and wanton demons, writhing about the ballroom in some witches' sabbat of obscene mass copulation. As in a nightmare, Lisette willed her legs to turn and run, realized that her body was no longer obedient to her will.

     "Beth, here's someone you've been dying to meet," Lisette heard Tregannet say. "Beth Garrington, allow me to present Lisette Seyrig."

     The lips beneath the black mask curved in a pleasurable smile. Lisette gazed into the eyes behind the mask, and discovered that she could no longer feel her body. She thought she heard Danielle cry out her name.

     The eyes remained in her vision long after she slid down the newel and collapsed upon the floor.


27 August 2021