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

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

Thursday, October 28, 2021

"Late one night, I would find out just how wrong I was." Beyond Stranger U.S: True Paranormal stories from across North America

 "....There are aspects of the Paranormal I intentionally avoid and always suggest others avoid. If you go looking for the darker side of the paranormal, you may find it.  But opening a door, when you have no idea who or what is on the other side of it, should frighten you—my suggestion will always be not to play with fire."

-- from the author's introduction

"Ed, why do you keep asking me where it went?"

--from Chapter 4 Hunting Monsters

Beyond Stranger U.S: True Paranormal stories from across North America (2021)

By John Olsen 

For the last five years my late-summer/early-autumn tradition has been to read the latest book by John Olsen.

My Stranger Bridgerland review is here.

Beyond Stranger Bridgerland, here.

Stranger West, here.

Stranger U.S., here.

John's uniqueness is that his books only contain stories that he has found for himself via email, personal interviews, and site visits. Another appealing fact is that most of his stories (including those about his own youth) happen in the "Bridgerland" region of the Western US.

This August, Olsen published Beyond Stranger U.S: True Paranormal stories from across North America. Like previous volumes in the series, it is of modest length, but well organized. A standout feature of the book is original artwork by Kate Walker, sketches that are alone worth the purchase price.

Whether or not these tales relate something that "really happened" or not, their direct style and brevity, their plain-spoken yet uncanny power, are effortless and very appealing.

Below are excerpts from a few chapters that struck me and raised the gooseflesh.

* * *

1. My Mothers story

Olsen recounts an anecdote from his mom about their family home, which has given the Olsen family a lifetime of odd experiences. "....she could hear a woman crying uncontrollably," Olsen reports.

....What I find interesting about this is I know my mother has hearing difficulties, and if she could hear it, it was certainly loud.

* * *

2 Appalachian Trail Ghost

....When we got to a nice spot in the late afternoon, we set up camp. We made a nice dinner and sat by the fire. It was getting late so we went to bed in the tent. In the middle of the night, I woke with a start. I lay there in my sleeping bag, not sure what had woken me up.  I was a bit disoriented. As I lay in my sleeping bag trying to go back to sleep, I began to hear footsteps. I could hear heavy boots walking around our camp. I was so terrified, I had no idea who might be at our campsite. The footsteps walked around our tent and stopped.

....I was just about to say, "let's go to bed" when the sound of footsteps started.  I heard them coming up the trail towards our camp. I grabbed Jason's hand and arm hard. We both looked into the dark towards the sound, but we couldn't see anything. The footsteps walked right up to the edge of the firelight and stopped. We stared for the longest time, but nothing happened.  Just as I was about to look away I started to see something strange. The outline of a man began to form in the light. Almost like the man was growing out of the smoke of the fire. Then the dark form walked forward into the firelight. It was a tall man with long dirty hair and an old weather-worn face. He had a gray wide brim hat and a long scruffy beard. His shirt was pale under a dirty coat. He had old-style pants and heavy boots. As he stood there, I was fixated on him. He walked almost to the fire, then he hunched down on his heels and looked into the fire.

  I had a horrible feeling of dread and fear sweep over me in waves like the heat coming off the fire. After a moment, he looked up from the fire and right at me. A horrible, toothless smile came to his face. Then just like that, he vanished into the smoke and was gone.

....We packed up our things and we hiked out that night.

* * *

3 Black Eyes in Moose Jaw

....As soon as he finished talking that deep chill came over me again and I started to get a dreadful fight-or-flight sensation. Who was this kid?  What was he doing out at 3 AM?  Why am I so terrified right now?

...."I'm sorry you are sad Alesha, but we can help. Just let us in," he said calmly. Another wave of terror rushed through me as I realized they knew my name.  I hadn't given my name to these kids, and I didn't know them.

...."Alesha, we can stop Greg from ever hurting you again. Just take us back home with you."

* * *

4 Hunting Monsters

....As I cleared the brush, I came into the canyon bottom, and it was a deep round bowl shape. As I took my first steps out of the brush into the quaking aspen trees, a deep sense of fear washed over me. It hit me like a rush of wind and seemed to penetrate right into my core. It was a warm day, and till now, I was fighting not to overheat as I hiked, but this feeling made me much colder than I should have been. I stopped to assess my situation. It was about 100 yards to the trees' edge before I was out and on the next ridge. It was a tight group of quaking aspen with three big old pines near the middle. My gut was telling me I should backtrack and walk around this area, but there was a well-worn trail right through the middle, so I brushed the feeling off.  I told myself I would head quietly but quickly through and save myself the effort of walking around.

....I had taken about ten steps into the trees when I heard it. It was that deep metallic hum we had heard on the hills earlier in the morning.

....Everything seemed much darker than it had a moment before as if a huge cloud had blocked the sun.

....Directly in front of me, about 35 yards, was a large pine tree, and from behind it, something had stepped out into my path. It was about 8 feet tall and shaped like a large man, but it wasn't anything like any person I’d ever seen. It was a shiny black, almost like oil. I could see where the head was, but the only detail other than the shimmery deep black color was two enormous red/orange eyes. The eyes were almond-shaped, and the red/orange color was a mixture of bright brake lights and those of a cat's eye caught in a high beam light. The eyes seemed to glow from deep within. The deep black of its shape was a moving fuzz at the edges, almost like snow on an old TV set, just along the creature's outline. It didn't seem to have legs, it was almost like it was being poured into the ground.

* * *

5 Quake Lake Ghosts

....It was early evening when we passed West Yellowstone, and my Dad decided to head north. He wanted to see Quake Lake. When we got to the lake, it was around 7 pm.

....Dad told us about what happened the night of the slide. He talked about the people who had lost their lives that night and how scary it must have been.

....There was a large bright light in the trees.

....Over the years, we didn’t share this with many people. It seemed like a gift to have seen the orbs, or whatever they were. To this day, I believe it had something to do with the people who died there, but I don’t really know.

* * *

6 Alaska Sasquatch

....I had heard a lot about Sasquatch growing up, but thought of it mostly as an old wife’s tale or just a Native legend. I didn't know it was really a real living breathing creature. Late one night, I would find out just how wrong I was.

* * *

8 The Warning

....I thanked her and walked away. This is when I finally realized what was actually happening at my house, and to my kids!  I instantly knew I needed to stop ghost hunting. When I got home, I put all of my equipment in storage until I could sell it, and then I contacted my Priest.

* * *

9 Lake Powell Lights

....it had gotten dark, and there was no moon. I had to sit at the front of the boat and point which way to go. Lake Powell is a very large lake that sits at the bottom of Utah and runs into Arizona.  It’s known for its gigantic, towering rock faces. Some of these steep walls jet off the main lake into long maze-like canyons.  It's easy to get lost back in these narrow waterways in the daytime, and so you can imagine how much easier it is to get turned around at night.

....The area where Lake Powell is located is well known for Native American pictographs and strange visions in the desert.

* * *

10 My Night on Route 666

Teresa and her high school friend have a bizarre late night road encounter.


..... I’ve learned that this section of road is now called Route 491 (the name was changed to avoid the stigma of the number 666).  However, it is still considered one of the scariest 200 miles sections of road in the world. What Teresa and her friend Jill experienced late one night on Route 666 is strange, but definitely not unheard of, along this ominous highway. 

* * *

11 It Was Not My Brother

....Just as I walked into the store I got lightheaded and disorientated for a moment.  I was in my mid 20's, and in great shape, so it took me by surprise. I sat down on a chair near the front of the store for a few moments and got my bearings.

....As my head started to clear, I looked around and noticed the store seemed different than it had when I visited just a week earlier. The registers were on the right side of the store, but I remember them being on the left.  I shook off my feelings of discomfort and started to focus again on the task at hand. I got up slowly and walked back to the medicine aisle. I was briefly frustrated again, it was taking me a minute to find what I needed because the aisle was not in the same spot as the last time I had visited. As I scanned over the medicine bottles, I noticed someone approaching me on my right. I glanced over towards the person standing next to me, then back to the meds. Suddenly, the realization hit me, and I turned around to see that the man that was shopping next to me was my brother Sam.

....He whipped around and stared at me with an irritated, almost evil look. Then he poked me firmly in the chest with his finger, and a low growl he said, "I don't know you.  Now get the hell out of my face!"

....The cashier was a haggard-looking lady, probably in her 50's. She gave me the total, and I handed her cash from my wallet.  I thanked her and looked up at her as I grabbed my bag to leave.  Without another word, she just snarled at me like a dog. I was completely perplexed.

* * *

12 UFO over Cart Creek

....I began to realize that this wasn't a fire, but I was still confused about what might be producing this type of bright red light just under the canyon's rim. Something came into view and I instinctively slammed on my brakes!  I quickly skidded to a halt.  About 200 yards from my car, was a big craft. It was shaped like a smooth walnut round on the top and bottom, but it had a visible seam around the edge. It was glowing red, like molten metal. I stepped out of my car, amazed at the sight. As I stood there, staring. I could tell the craft was massive in size. It slowly floated up and out of the tree line.  Then it moved slowly from the left of my view to the right without a sound.

* * *

13 Woman in Blue

....One Saturday in August, I was working the closing shift.  It was a hot, muggy night.  I moved slower than usual as I cleaned up the kitchen. My coworker Tammy was cleaning up the front area.  She finished up about the same time as me.  She helped take out trash and we locked up. When I finally got my Buick started and headed down the road, it was around 12:30 am.

  The area I grew up in was very rural, and the road I took to get home was a curvy two-lane that didn’t see much traffic even in the middle of the day.  At night it is dead quiet. I might see one other car on the road during my fifteen-mile drive home at night. I was about halfway home and I headed around one of the bends in the road.  Just as I rounded the turn, I nearly jumped out of my skin. There was a woman standing in the middle of the road. I slammed on my breaks and slid to a stop. The woman appeared to be young, maybe in her early 20’s.  She had dark hair and was wearing an old-style light blue dress and a white hat. I recognized the style of dress from very old pictures in my family's photo album.

....My dad looked shocked as I spoke, then he told me the story he had heard as a teen. Growing up in the area, my dad said he had heard the story of a young couple who had driven off the road in that area in the 1920’s. Both of them died when their car hit a tree. Legend has it that a few people have seen the woman's ghost in a blue dress pointing out the accident. My dad hadn't even thought about the story since high school.  Confused, I finally just went to bed and fell asleep.

* * *

14 Lost

....I was an early morning driver who delivered the uniforms to various businesses. I would start at about 5 am and work till noon.

....No one had complained about my route, so I took my regular shortcut to my next stop. I moved to the entrance of the first subdivision heading west. As I approached my turn, I got a strange feeling and a cold sensation seemed to immediately fill the entire cab of my truck. I reached my turn and started my left-hand turn. As the truck turned, it felt like I was being dipped in ice-cold water. As I finished my turn, I could literally see my breath in front of me.  I was scared to death by this overwhelming feeling hanging in the air.

  I pressed my gas pedal to get back up to speed. I take this drive three times a week. I know it like the back of my hand, but something today was different; something was wrong. All of a sudden, I didn't recognize anything on the street. It was 6:30 am and the sun hadn’t completely come up. There was a lit little light, but not much. I stared in awe...what used to be typical two-story houses built in the 80s and 90s were now round-top igloo-shaped houses. They were all the same size dome-shaped gray houses with two windows and strange vehicles in the driveway. I slowed down to look, and I had a sick, lost feeling in my stomach. I was confused and anxious.

  Had I turned down the wrong street? Had I missed my turn? Where in the hell was I?


....I got about 100 feet down the road and stopped. I was sitting in front of one of the dome houses, and it had a light turned on. Someone was peeking out the window at me. I looked at the vehicle in the driveway. It was so strange, and it looked like a big jeep or hummer with a plexiglass bubble around it. It almost felt like an encapsulated lunar lander, out of a 50’s space movie.

* * *

15 Mujer en Verde (The Woman in Green)

....“My mother told me her grandmother had told her of the Cihuateteo. They were the spirits of women who died in childbirth. Not all women who die in childbirth turn to Cihuateteo.  However, some women are so distraught in death they become malevolent spirits. Some old cultures compare them to male warriors who died in violent battles because childbirth was, in some civilizations, considered the same as a battle.  She told me that Cihuateteo comes back to walk the earth, trying to steal small children from their mothers.”

* * *

17 Upstate Monster

Moving from New York City to a small farmhouse in the country was a big shock for me. One thing that really bothered me at first was trying to sleep with no ambient city noise.  It was way too quiet for me, and when there were sounds, they were the sounds of birds and animals, not the buzz of the city.  I just couldn't wrap my head around it. Needless to say, I didn't sleep well for a couple of weeks.

....I was listening to the sound of a raccoon rustling through our moving boxes, trying to get in the garbage. I was about to get up and chase it off when a loud crash came from the tree line.  At the sound, the Racoon quickly scurried off, I heard it run around the house.

....I sat quietly listening and soon realized all the normal sounds of the forest had stopped. There was an eerie stillness surrounding the house. I listened, waiting for the familiar sounds to come back.  The next thing I heard was one of the trees bending and creaking as if it was holding a considerable amount of weight. I slipped out of bed and quietly moved to the window. Our bedroom was on the second floor, and our window faced out the back of the house towards the forest. It was a light night with the moon almost full. I scanned the scene around the backyard. At first, I couldn't see anything, but then some movement caught my eye. A large dark figure was standing at the edge of the trees. It was an enormous black figure.  Based on the trees and things nearby, it was standing almost 12 feet tall. The shadow was skinny, gangly, and all black.  It was standing just behind the brush with a long slender black arm pushing a large limb out of the way so it could look at the house.

...."What are you doing?! I told you not to go near those woods." Travis looked at me with a confused face and then scowled. "The man wanted us to follow him!" I got down to Travis's level and asked him, "What man?!" He turned and pointed into the woods. "The Tall man we wanted to play with us."

* * *

The men and women Olson interviews are pursuing everyday lives when they have their experiences. These are working class people, mostly on the way to or from their job, or out camping or hunting. Others are simply trying to get some sleep at night, including Olsen's own mother in the story that opens the collection.

I think this everydayness is why I find his pieces so interesting.


28 October 2021

“There is another world, but it is inside this one.”

--Paul Eluard

Sunday, October 24, 2021

A Wrinkle in the Skin (1965) by John Christopher

     "A doctor," Matthew said. "I should have thought that would—well, carry some weight still."

     "Weight? With whom? The yobbos? You're still overrating them."

     "The more primitive people are, the more impressionable, surely. And dependent on the mysteries of authority."

     Lawrence shook his head. "It's a question of scale. There was a paper in the Lancet not long before it happened. A study of the psychological effects of the South Island quake, linking up with previous catastrophe reports—the Skopje earthquake, the bombings at Dresden and Hiroshima. Much the same results. Something like three-quarters of the population that survived showed mild mental disturbances of various kinds, about one in ten more seriously ill but little lasting psychosis, and what there was occurring among people apparently predisposed to it. The effects of the Bust seem to have been a bit different. I could do a nice little paper on it myself. In fact, I dreamed the other night that I had done it and that it was published in the B.M.J. Funny thing, I can remember the papers immediately before and after it, too. One on a new technique for nephrectomy and the other on strangulated piles. I'd called mine 'The Anthill Syndrome.' Rather a neat title, I thought."

     "Why anthill?"

     "Because I read somewhere once about the way ants behave when the anthill's taken a beating. Up to a certain level of damage, the pattern's not unlike the one reported in the Lancet: initial disturbance and confusion but fairly rapid recovery as the survivors—or the more enterprising ones amongst them—get over the shock and set about putting things to rights. But it's quite different when the damage exceeds the level. Then, as far as the survivors are concerned, there's no recovery. Their behavior becomes more and more pointless and erratic and destructive."

     "Because the queen's dead, I imagine."

     "I have an idea that wasn't the operative condition, though I can't be sure. But isn't our queen dead, too? I don't mean the person—the guiding force in our society, the source of purpose and identity. It's an interesting speculation. The point is that we're behaving like the second category of ants. There's a mass psychosis, which it would be absurd to try to influence. I suppose there may have been a few relatively sane ants, too. It made no difference. They died with the rest."

     "Don't you think you might be generalizing on the basis of special local conditions? It wasn't like this back on the island. One or two individuals were off their heads, but the rest got together and were doing things."

     Lawrence smiled. "My dear man, you'd better do a paper, too! It could well be different in a small isolated community; in fact one would expect it to be. A few survivors in a tiny place surrounded by sea—or by seabed, anyway—can re-establish identity. I hope they'll prosper. Perhaps our salvation will come out of the islands and the Highlands. By our, I mean human, of course. In a generation or two, perhaps."

Christopher's middle-aged protagonist Matthew Cotter has a successful business growing greenhouse fruits and vegetables. He lives on Guernsey. He is divorced. His daughter is at college in London. His is a quiet and modestly successful life. Like all his friends, he takes a mild interest in the sudden crop of earthquakes in various parts of the world.

But that all seems impossibly far away for a man whose fortunes depend on sales to Covent Garden vendors.

But Matthew will "learn better". 

John Christopher strikes a nicely uncanny note early in the opening chapter:

....Matthew got himself supper, a casserole of pork steak which had been simmering all afternoon in the Aga oven, watched television for an hour and, after making a final round of the vinery, went early to bed. He read for a time, and fell asleep easily. In the early hours he was awakened by a dog barking, and sat up and switched on the light.

     He kept a couple of dozen hens on free range, to provide a supply of non-battery eggs, and there had been trouble with a dog disturbing them at night. It was apparently a small dog which got into the henhouse and chivvied them off their perches. Matthew had got up one night and heard it dash away as he approached. That had been over a week ago, and since then he had kept a shotgun in his bedroom. It would do no harm, he thought, to give it a peppering. He put on socks and shoes, and trousers and a guernsey over his pajamas. Then he loaded the gun and, picking up a torch, went out quietly in the direction of the henhouse.

     It was a clear, fairly cold night—no clouds, a quarter moon, and light sifting out across the sky from the great arc of the Milky Way. He heard the dog again as he went down the path, and stopped short. It was not barking any longer but howling, and he could tell that it was not in with the hens. It sounded like the crossbred collie on the Margy farm. But there was a disturbance among the hens, all the same, a nervous clucking which was, at this time of night, more unsettling than a positive sound of outrage would have been. Matthew tightened his grip on the gun, and went on toward them.

     He became aware of other noises, carried on the still air. A second dog took up the howling of the first, and he thought he heard a third, more distant. Cows lowing, and the bray, hideous and earsplitting even at a quarter of a mile distance, of one of Miss Lucie's donkeys. The sounds, familiar though they were, had a touch of horror in their present context: this otherwise quiet night, with no breath of wind, the sharply delineated peace of the middle hours of darkness. Then came another sound, as mild, as well known, but now the eeriest of them all. The chatter of birds, awakening from their sleep. One or two first, and then more and more, until Matthew felt that all the birds in the island were awake and shrieking their unease. He stopped again, abreast of the canebrake at the end of his kitchen garden.

     Then, after one swift, barely perceptible shudder, the earth heaved beneath him, slammed him like a rat against itself and, heaving again, tossed him bruised and winded through the air.

Globe-girdling earthquakes (too polite and modest a term for the earth changes John Christopher describes herein) wipe out the old human civilization. A new age dawns, born in blood and filth. Those who work cooperatively fare no better than the gangs of 'yobboes' who rape, beat, steal, kill and generally pursue marauding as a way to engage in what Marx called primary accumulation.

A Wrinkle in the Skin is a tour of the initial weeks of this new dispensation. Matthew and Andy, a boy he rescues from the Guernsey rubble, meet a variety of groups and individuals, some madder or more dangerous than others. 

"Were they all boys?"

     April nodded. Her eyes were steady on his. "Five, and seven, and ten. That was Andy. Dan had wanted him to go away to school, but I prevented it. It was the only thing I remember our fighting about. We compromised, in the end. He was to stay at home till he was thirteen."

     He would have thought there might be awkwardness in listening to her talking about them, but there was none. Her mind was open to his, in trust, and in her voice there was valediction as well as love for those she had lost.

     He said, "I saw their graves."

     "Yes. One goes through stages. There are bad moments still, but not so often, and so bad, I think. And one knows there can never be anything as bad as filling the earth in over them." They began to walk back toward the grotto. April's hand was near his, and Matthew took it; their fingers linked in warmth and reassurance. She talked about the foraging—they would have to go rather farther afield, she thought, to find anything worth while. Although she did not say so in words, he got the impression that she was ready, or almost ready, to accept the fact that it made no sense for them to go on living here.

     He said, keeping it in general terms, "At the moment, we're scavenging on the past. That means there are better pickings where there have been more people. But more risk of the yobbos, of course, too. This is a kind of in-between territory, isn't it? Isolated enough to make foraging difficult, but not far enough off the beaten track to be free from occasional visitors."       

She shook her head. "They don't matter."

     "I doubt if Archie would agree."

     "We were fools to have all our eggs in one basket, and then to hide the basket. I agree there. But we've cleared that up. There won't be any cause for heroics if it happens again. Archie can take them to the well."

     "It's not only that, is it?"

     "What else?"

     "If we'd got back later …"


     Her obtuseness surprised him. He said, "Two women, one of them at least very attractive. There's more to it than the question of losing supplies."

     She stopped and stared at him. There was incredulity in her face, and the beginnings of something else which he could not identify.

     She said, "You don't think you arrived just in time to prevent our being raped, do you?"

     "I think that might well have happened."

     She gave a short gasping laugh. "But didn't? What made you think—? Because we didn't talk about it? Or perhaps because they let us pull our trousers up? That was considerate, but by that time they had decided to amuse themselves with Archie." He heard her voice grow more bitter as she spoke, and knew that part of the bitterness at least came from what she read in him: bewilderment, the shock of realization and, although he fought against it, something of revulsion. He was horrified, not only by what had happened but by the way she spoke of it, casually and brutally.

     Not meeting her eyes, he said, "I didn't know. I'm sorry."

     "You don't know anything," she said, "do you? But what did you expect happens nowadays when a gang of men find unguarded women?"

     He asked, unwillingly but compulsively, "It's happened before?"

     "Look at me!" Her face was angry. "Do you want to know about the first time? The day after I found Lawrence, two days after I dug those graves. I saw them first. I called to them, because I thought the most important thing was that those who were left should make contact. I suppose I thought that if people had been changed they would be more human, not less. I couldn't believe it when they got hold of me. I fought, of course. I hadn't learned how stupid it was to resist. That was the only time it was really painful."

     "And Lawrence?"

     "We'd split up, covering as much ground as possible. He was within earshot, but even though I fought I didn't cry out. They were both strong and under thirty. He could only have got hurt, one way or another. When they left me, I crawled away and found him again. It creates quite a bond, you know, when a man comforts a woman after two other men have knocked her about and raped her."

     Matthew said, 'I've said I'm sorry. You don't have to talk about it."

     "Don't I? Are you sure? The point is, it wasn't just comfort. Lawrence could offer practical help. He had some of those foreign-body contraceptives in his surgery. We dug them out, and he fitted me. It's a coil of stainless steel and nylon, with a funny tail. A terribly cute little gadget. And he fitted Sybil and Cathie when they joined up with us."

     He was trying not to show anything, but she was watching him closely.

     She said, "Yes, Cathiel Which was just as well, because it happened to her a couple of days later. There were eight that time, and two of them couldn't wait for me and Sybil to be free. That was one of the times the men had to watch. The good thing about the ones you saw was that they left Cathie alone. Three of them had me, and the other two Sybil. I'm generally popular. One of them took me with him once, as far as Southampton. I made the mistake of talking, and he liked my accent. I got away in the night, and came back here."

     Matthew said, "If it helps …"

     "All this," she said, "it isn't even the beginning. I haven't told you anything. That man I kicked—the one who was badly wounded—you remember?"

     Matthew nodded. "Yes."

     "He spat in my face while he was in me. Do you think you have the remotest idea how that makes you feel—about yourself, and about men?"

     "No. I know I haven't."

     "There have been five times all together. I don't know how many men—sometimes the same man more than once. The secret is to cooperate because then it's over quicker and less … less hideous. As an extra precaution we have sponges as well as the gadgets. Its not a great deal worse than going to a dentist used to be, if you have the right mental attitude, and the odds are pretty high against conception. But there's always the possibility, of course. Have you thought what that would be like, Matthew? Pregnant, in these conditions, by a beast on two legs who's used you the way a dog uses a bitch? And the other little possibility—of V.D.? The odds are not so high there. So far we've been lucky. At least, I think we have. It's too early to know about the latest episode."

     He felt he must stem the flow of this wretchedness and misery which was pouring from her. He put his hand on hers, holding her, feeling the bone under the flesh. "I didn't know," he said. "I ought to have done. It was stupid of me."

     She turned away. "Not that. Your look when you realized." "It's happened. Bad things come to an end, as well as good. You'll forget about it in time. What you do counts, not what's done to you."

     She stared at him, her face full of pain. "You still don't know anything. I had one man, my husband. I was proud of my body, because he loved it. Now … Lawrence wanted me, so I let him take me. It didn't mean as much as being raped, but it meant as little. I was sorry for him, and I despised him." Matthew said, "That was generous."

     "Generous! My God! And Charley? A boy only a few years older than my son was. And knowing it was the sight of other men using me that had excited him? Do you call contempt generous?"

     He was silent. His hand still held hers, and as though suddenly aware of this, she took it from him. She said, her voice lower but harsh, "Sex and motherhood are the centers of being a woman. Now they mean nothing but disgust and fear.

     Little Archie … no, he hasn't had me, but only because he hasn't asked." She glanced at him, and away. "I'd learned fear of most men, contempt for all of them. Then, when I was washing at the pool, I looked up and saw you watching me. And I had the insane idea that there might still be strength and goodness—in a man, between man and woman. It was my illusion, and not your fault."

     "I don't think it is an illusion."

     She ignored the remark. "I'm sorry about the outburst. You listened very patiently, Matthew."

     The anger and bitterness had gone, but he could almost have wished them back. She was a long way away.

     "Listen," he said. He sought her hand, but she moved from him. "Surely you don't fear me?"

     "No." She sounded tired. "I don't fear you. But I despise you. I despise you as a man. As a person, I think I envy you. What I said when I was bandaging your ankle—I didn't realize how true it was. Nothing has changed for you except the scenery. For the rest of us it was God bringing our world crashing down about our ears, but for you it was—what? An epic in Cinemascope, Stereosound and 3-D. Jane is still alive, and you can amble your way toward her through the ruins. Do you know what? I think you'll find her. And she'll be dressed in white silk and orange blossoms, and it will be the morning of her wedding to a clean young man with wonderful manners, and you'll be just in time to give her away."

     He said, "I want to stay here."

     April shook her head. "You can't do that. I can tolerate the others, but not you."

     "In time, you could."

     "No. You remind me of everything that's finished. I would have to go myself, if you stayed. I don't think you would force me into that."

     There was a response, if he could find it, which would break through the meaningless tyranny of words, which would restore the early morning moment of recognition. But even if he found it, he wondered, could he afford what it would cost?

     April walked away from him, toward the garden and the grotto. After a time he followed her, but he did not try to catch her up.

A Wrinkle in the Skin is a fine, fierce novel, more bitter than bittersweet, more cold than cozy. 

For Christopher's protagonists, plangent emotions are an expensive luxury. Ahead of them there's at least a thousand years of barbarism.


24 October 2021