First nine chapters of ‘After You, the Night.’
by R.L. Robinson
He found Paulson in a rundown spire on the trailing edge of Mare Cognitum. Taking the stairs, Evans saw Technipol’s sprawl flickering in the near distance. It put up a good front, but the city was ringed with places like this: spire developments that folded when the money ran out and the debts went toxic. Some things never got old. Luna security was famously lax and Paulson hadn’t bothered with even the cheapest facial surgery. He just hoped to vanish into the moon’s long shadows.
Made sense; when Paulson stuck his head up it would be to jump system. The free ports were inundated with military, civilian and corporate transports; even the odd Drifter ship happened by. No one here cared who or what you’d been. Passage paid in cash and the Tycho Port Authority took its cut.
The spire had air and power after a fashion. The higher Evans climbed, the more evidence he saw of habitation. He made the next landing and turned left down a door lined hallway lit with old glow strips throwing out dirty grey light. A fading sign clinging to the wall announced mezzanine, the barely discernible company glyph hung beneath. Coat trailing in the dust, he caught faint sounds behind each of the doors he passed; scratchy broadcasts sounded like. Some voices lacked distortion; what sounded like three or four people in each room talking among themselves.
True to its word, the mezzanine floor opened up. Overhead was void toughened glass meant to afford sweeping views of the stars above and city lights below. At least it would have, but it’d been sealed whenever the spire had been let go and taken off grid. The several dozen people sitting at a collection of mismatched and battered tables didn’t seem to mind the lack of a view.
To Evans, it looked like someone had salvaged the nose cone of an Akula drone and jammed it into the far corner to serve as a bar counter.
The only person who seemed to be working was a long limbed Luna native. A woman, by the faint swell of her breasts, though taller than Evans by half a meter. The spire was under standard grav and she needed an old mobility-frame for ease of movement.
He caught her eye as she came to the bar, depositing a small basket clinking with glasses.
“Whisky, if you have it.”
She stuck a hand amid the small forest of bottles lining the back bar, popped a cork and poured three fingers worth. Setting his drink down, she gave him a quick once over.
Nodding, Evans slipped the port authority credits from his wallet, tucked a twenty dollar note into the mix and pushed it across. The move was obvious enough so she saw it, but no one else.
“You can keep that.” Evans swallowed a third of his drink, enjoyed the marshy, cut grass scent and warmth that crawled back up the inside of his chest. He couldn’t hide mild surprise at the quality and wondered where the bottle had been snagged from. “I’m looking for someone.”
“You’ll need to be more specific.”
“About a head or so shorter than me, receding hairline and thin with brown eyes. Might go by Paulson or Paul.”
“No first name?”
“None he’d use.”
“Freelance.” Not a complete lie.
“What’d he do?”
“Nothing that will get you in trouble.”
That seemed to satisfy her.
“He comes in here from time to time.” She nodded towards a free table in the corner opposite the bar. “Sits there, drinks a couple and sometimes tries to have a conversation with one or two people he seems to know.”
“Any of them here now?”
Another head movement over his other shoulder; Evans lifted his glass and made a slow appraisal of the patrons, found the one she meant.
“No trouble,” she stated, sudden shift in her tone.
Evans faced her, smiled around the rim of his glass.
“How’d you end up here?” he asked. “Gravity difference must be hell on you.”
Her smile was plastered on.
“My guild took issue with some things and kicked me out.”
“We all have to try and live with what we do.”
Her smile became less forced.
“You read that in a book?”
“No.” Evans palmed her another clutch of notes, more dollars than pacs this time. She refilled his glass and lingered for an answer. “A friend told it to me. You know. Not being able to go back and all that.”
Moore had been the one to tell him, back near the end of the war.
I’m sick of this.
The thought trotted after his own memories like a faithful dog, reminding him of something he had failed to do.
Will never do, because what else are you good at?
Taking his drink, Evans offered her a parting nod and crossed the room to where Paulson’s acquaintance sat, staring hard into a mug of something cloudy and probably home made. He didn’t look up until Evans hooked out the unoccupied chair at his table.
“Mind if I sit here?”
“Won’t bother you long.” He smiled and drank. “You know Paulson, or Paul. Whatever he calls himself. I need to know where he is.” Under other circumstances he might have tried to finesse it, but this wasn’t one of those times.
Evans shook his head and raised a hand to forestall him.
The eyes staring at him became hard, but in a desperate kind of way.
“What you going to do if I don’t say?”
“Hurt you until you do.” Evans reached inside his coat, took some satisfaction watching Paulson’s friend flinch as he did so. “Or, I could give you this.”
He tossed a clear plastic packet about the size of a lighter across the table, where it bounced into the other man’s lap. Hands came up in reflex and he managed to spill some of his drink.
“Sell it or snort it, I’m sure you’ll get your money’s worth either way.” Evans leaned across the table, hands cupped around his glass. “Where?”
Three levels up from the bar, Evans found the room he needed. This high up, the corridors almost stripped clean with lack of care. Pieces of plasteel framing stood stacked on either side of Paulson’s room, a few discarded instant meal cartons. Crouching, Evans brought his ear close to the door, caught faint shuffling on the other side.
A card reader was fixed to the wall, the key slot scored black where it’d shorted out. Stepping back, Evans tensed and brought his boot down. The door remained on its hinges, but caved all the same.
Paulson had enough time to turn from the small stove he was hunched over, eyes widening in surprise, before Evans took hold of one arm and then his jaw. Voice hard and flat, he locked his leg around the back of Paulson’s. The smaller man seemed in danger of falling, with only Evans keeping him upright.
“Where is it?”
Despite being at a disadvantage, Paulson struggled to free himself. Evans squeezed his jaw in response, gave him a shake. That got a squeal and Paulson’s free arm flailed for balance that refused to take.
I’m tired of this.
“Where is it, Jay?”
“What?” His grip on Paulson’s jaw slackened.
“In my eye,” Paulson gasped.
No lie there, Evans could see that.
“All right, so give it to me.” He let Paulson go, allowed him a moment to steady himself and clear his throat.
“Martin send you?”
“Thought I’d be okay here.”
“Everyone thinks that.”
“Wasn’t gonna leak it on the net or anything, just hang onto it.”
“It’s not yours to leverage.” A brief moment held itself still between them and popped. Evans felt tired and idly wondered when he’d last slept. “You know, if you’d just given it to Martin in the first place we wouldn’t be here now.”
“I’d be dead, you mean.”
“No, probably have a bonus and a department of your own. When you ran, you became a liability.”
“So tell them you didn’t find me.”
“Then you get sloppy and get spotted and them I’m a liability. We both know there’s nowhere you couldn’t be found.”
Paulson’s lips compressed to a thin line, parted and then closed again. There was nothing more to say. He slipped his fingers in at the temple and his right eye became defocused, some inner light went out and it glazed over; dead. Leaning forward, a transparent chip dropped from the empty socket. Evans caught it, frayed edges of gland-ware whiplashing his hand out for Paulson’s head. Took more force than he would’ve liked in order to avoid hitting the man.
“So what now?” Paulson looked at him, expression hard to read with one eye missing.
“I’m not that stupid. The chip would’ve transmitted its location once it locked to a terminal.” He smiled to himself. “Need corporate ‘ware for that.”
Evans dropped the chip into a polythene bag, pulled the tab so it vacuum sealed and returned it to the depths of his coat.
“Can I ask how you found me?”
“You passed through the Phobos Arkology.”
“You’re altered, aren’t you?”
“Volunteered for the program when the war started.”
“Not many FirstGens left, so I hear.”
Where the fuck is this going?
“No, there aren’t.” Evans turned his back on him.
Here it comes.
“What happens to me now?”
The shadows seemed to reach for Evans when he came to the threshold. Paulson stood almost half crouched, one hand reaching for his empty eye socket and Evans shot him once through the throat. Not clean, but serviceable. His hand trembled around the gun, not a good sign; he’d need to see about that.
A message alert flashed in the lower left of his field of vision when he arrived back at the mezzanine. Not Martin, an external connection, but with a prefix Evans recognised.
‘Arbiter Station, contact once en-route.’
A quick search of ship registry gave him Kestrel Night, outgoing from Cognitum dock and on schedule for a direct mid-system burn. It gave Evans more than enough time to square things with Martin and draw funds.
Reaching the spire’s base, he broke the gun into its constituent parts and dropped them down a waste chute. Arbiter was a tighter port than Luna, but that didn’t matter.
Nothing does, Evans thought and made his way towards the mag-lev terminal.
Further reading from the Settled Worlds
Winter Deck: http://goo.gl/ZYp0XC
Station Keeping: http://goo.gl/gHcAKi
Jarosite Run: http://goo.gl/zpVE7X
The door chime woke Andrew. Stumbling to the panel, he saw Sylvia’s face on the monitor.
Thumbing the lock-key, he opened the door and stepped aside.
“Marshal.” Andrew greeted, walked to the kitchenette. “Coffee?”
Sylvia shook her head and sat at the small plastic table, lifted a half empty vodka bottle.
“Helps me sleep.”
She took a soft pack of cigarettes out of her coat pocket, took one and shook the other onto the table.
“Maybe you should have that coffee,” she suggested.
Shrugging, Andrew flicked the pot on and waited, picked up the cigarette and lit it. He noticed a thin sheen of condensation on the sleeves of her jacket.
“What do you want, Marshal?”
Sylvia sighed, exhaling a thin cloud of smoke Andrew hadn’t noticed she’d held so long.
“Martin’s suit tore in the grayving dock,” she explained. “Couldn’t get him inside fast enough.”
“He’s on Winter Deck.”
“Does Joanne know?”
“It’s you he wants to see.”
“He wouldn’t say.”
Andrew met him on a hill, the rolling land around devoid of features. Martin was sitting when he arrived, arms on knees staring out at nothing.
“You’re still drinking,” Martin said, standing.
Andrew had heard stories about constructs, how the version of you they rendered wasn’t the same as the you on the outside. Saw through the self-deception.
“It’s getting better.” Andrew tasted the lie before he finished speaking.
“I’m sorry, man.”
Looking at Martin, he thought of Joanne. How coming out here was the last in a series of bad breaks. Sometimes when he woke, his hands still stung from it.
“Wasn’t your fault, just me.”
Andrew caught a flicker over Martin’s shoulder; the construct compensating for degrading brain patterns. There wasn’t much time left.
“Why not Joanne?”
“I could’ve done more, helped you both maybe. Things…just sort of happened. By the time I had the chance to think, it was too late.”
“It was too late for me and her a long time ago.”
Martin smiled, but it was nervy rather than warm.
“Much of me left out there?”
“Yeah,” Andrew lied for the second time.
“Company’ll take care of things, right?”
“They know you’re not liable; death benefits pay out in full.”
Andrew tried to remember when Martin last called him that, couldn’t and offered his hand.
“Catch up sometime,” Martin said.
He walked the station for a while, the hallways darkened during the night cycle. Once unplugged, he’d waited with Sylvia until the monitors went flat. No one spoke, just stood with their breath fogging the air.
Joanne lived closer to the station spine, near what Andrew thought of as the swanky end of life onboard. He chimed the door, stood worrying his hands for lack of anything to hold.
The door slid open and he stood staring at his ex-wife for a long minute. He hadn’t seen her in three years. She was a little grayer near the roots maybe, had a little sag under her chin, but otherwise the same.
“It was quick.”
“Do you want a drink?”
Andrew thought he should kiss her, but pushed the idea aside. Reached over and brushed Joanne’s arm instead.
“He loved you; more than I could manage at the best of times.”
“Are you going to stay here?”
“Yeah, gotta pay the bills somehow.”
“I think I’m going back to Earth, maybe Mars.” Her mouth turned up in something like a smile. “Stay in touch?”
“Yeah, of course.” He knew they wouldn’t. Too many things had been said or unsaid, which left nothing for either of them to say.
Joanne lingered on the threshold as Andrew walked away, passing into the nighttime light. She wiped her eyes and closed the door.
Settled Worlds (Reading Order)
Station Keeping: http://goo.gl/gHcAKi
Jarosite Run: http://goo.gl/zpVE7X
Doesn’t matter where you look, there’s nowhere to toss the knife. Even this late into the station night cycle there are still people about and the waste chutes aren’t an option. Once they find the body, that’s where the Marshal will look first. She’s not stupid.
Over the crowd’s din and hustle, sirens flash and wail. Coming from the airlocks; someone having a bad time of it.
Not the only one.
Greg finally cut you in on the uppers the night crew was using: meant more hours, overtime pay and maybe a way to clear a chunk of debt. Instead Greg’s gone and you’re walking the station at three-am local time, a bloody knife tucked in under your sleeve. Anyone who looks too closely will notice dark stains on your fatigues, maybe a spot or two here and there on your face. No idea why the guy flipped like that.
First Greg was talking to him, counting out a roll of bills. Then the dealer looked at you again. You remember seeing the tremor of a nerve ruffling the skin under his left eye, the way his gaze narrowed. Then his fist was coming up, the money scattering like confetti and Greg yelling on his way down to the deck.
The dealer’s mouth seemed to open far too widely, like it might break and distend enough to swallow your head. Aside from the debt you brought from home, the knife is the only thing you can really call yours.
“No, don’t!” Greg screamed. You know he screamed, but at the time he sounded far away.
Took the dealer right in the neck, stuck fast inside his skull where it cut the brain stem. He fell like someone’d cut his strings.
Greg gathered up the cash, ignored the body and skipped out without a backward glance. How long did you wait there? A few minutes or an hour; does it matter?
Greg took his money, but he never checked the man was dead. You did and then you patted down his jacket, came up with an opaque plastic packet sealed with tape. Felt like chunks of grit inside, uniform in shape; the pills you came to buy. More than you could take safely.
You can’t say you weren’t thinking at least part ways clearly, because you had the wherewithal to take the packet and more to palm one of the capsules. Tasted like iron and ash before kicking you in the back of the head. That’s why you’ve been walking the station, mind running so fast you think up and discount possibilities and scenarios almost simultaneously.
It’s why the knife is still in your hand, the blood dried to a rust tinged crust on the blade. You’re aware of the stickiness, like your palm’s glued to the hilt.
Somewhere on the lower levels, close enough to the station’s spine you think you’re able to feel the deck moving beneath your feet, you sit in a pool of darkness afforded by busted fluorescents. The gloom feels warm and the metal thrums to itself; a vibration skinning your teeth. They’ll find you here come morning. Blood probably dripped from the knife and this place, while large, is finite. Stepping outside isn’t an option.
Somewhere in the dark your back shapes itself into a corner; like you could fit right into and maybe through it, merge with the metal, which seems to be breathing. Would being locked up be that bad? No more debt to worry about, no need to grind yourself to bits against the machinery to pay back what should’ve been yours anyway.
Life’s done its best to corral you. Now you’re in a literal floating box far out in the darkness where no one can breathe unassisted. Being thrown into another one feels about right, so why fight it?
Your head’s not entirely clear when you wake, the station still locked into its night cycle. Raising a hand to your temple, the knife slips clear of your sleeve and clatters to the deck, bouncing into the light just beyond your little sanctuary.
A rinsed out feeling scratches behind your eyes, making the blade suggestive of a smile where it’s caught the light. Reaching inside your fatigues, your fingers squeeze the bulge inside your pocket. No one’s found you yet, but that isn’t going to last.
Greg. Find Greg, the packet your feeling up will get his attention. The Marshal might not be stupid, but she doesn’t police this station alone. There’s always someone to make a deal with out here. Everyone’s in the same boat trying to get by and like you, they’ve told themselves this is the last tour they’ll do before heading home.
Standing, legs wobbly, you bend and scoop up the knife. There’s still no way you can get rid of it, but the darkness hid you for a spell. The knife is much smaller. Extending your arm into the shade, you lay it in the corner. It’ll keep there for a while; long enough to get a story straight and toss your fatigues. Cameras; aside from being seen, you were caught on one last night for sure. Just one more blurry drunk going somewhere or nowhere; nothing you can’t work around.
You turn and begin retracing your steps, careful about the blood dried onto your right sleeve. For some reason, you’re unable to shake the sense of disappointment that creeps up on you. Mingled with the come down, it makes you think you’ve cheated your way out of something tonight, or maybe into something or somewhere you have no place being.
The lights begin to brighten in sequence down the corridor, the station waking itself up, seeming to beckon you forward without the chance to turn back.
*Settled Space, continued.
by R.L. Robinson
There were no animals on Mars, nothing to catch Vikander’s scent while he bled out. The bike took most of the damage, saving his life for the most part. After scrabbling around in the side compartment, Vikander noticed he was gut-shot, felt a wave of nausea and settled down against the wreck. Should’ve known better than to head into Aram Chaos, but it was paying job on a colony with few of those; like a lot of people found out when they arrived.
Vikander’d no notion of who might’ve shot him and his bike; another guy like him or one of the Kocovny gangs who scratched a living out here. Take your pick, really; probably Kocovny.
They seemed in no hurry to pick his load clean. Ochre dust covered his parka, mixed with the blood pouring from his stomach. The sun, always faint, was setting fast; cold seeped up from the ground and bit into the air.
Vikander tightened his grip on the pistol, considered the choice between bleeding or freezing to death or else turning it on himself. He’d be square if he checked out, his life for the one he’d taken; the one that had brought him here.
You never did have much character. His father’s words, said any number of times, often between or after beatings.
Sliding the magazine clear, Vikander counted the rounds and slotted it back in. Twelve; but one was enough. The barrel was cold under his jaw, scraped against his stubble.
“Shit.” He jerked the gun away, thought about tossing it, but didn’t.
An engine growled on the other side of the ridge. Vikander caught the glow of running lights.
He remembered stories about the Kocovny, how they wasted nothing, even digging bullets out of those they killed. They didn’t strike him as the sort to concern themselves about the person was dead before they did so.
You’re a fat pussy, Vik. His father again.
A battered rover trundled into view, frame stripped down to a bare skeleton. Vikander went still, kept his hand loose on the pistol grip. It stopped and four men got out, bundled in mismatched cold weather gear, they carried an assortment of weapons between them.
You’re going to die anyway. Why fight it?
Vikander felt the anger coiling tight in his chest; the rage at the unfairness. He’d asked for none of it, tried to make the most of each hand he’d been dealt and come up short every time.
They were twenty meters away, ambling and in no hurry. One of them said something and the one next to him laughed.
Vikander made up his mind.
The joker pulled his hood down, exposed a bearded mouth to the cold Martian air.
The gunshot was loud, the flash blinding. Eyes stinging, Vikander blinked away tears, saw the lower half of Joker’s face disappear in a bloom of blood. He fell, his friends already moving.
Vikander fired twice more, missed with both.
His hand trembled, a bullet spanked into the side of his crippled bike. A head and shoulders hove into view and Vikander fired. The shooter convulsed as though punched, went to one knee before falling onto his side.
Two left…how many bullets?
Bullets tore into his arm and shoulder. The pistol fell from Vikander’s hand, landed in the dust within arm’s reach, if the wrong arm in his case.
They’ll strip you clean and leave you for the dust. About the end you deserve.
Fuck you, dad.
Stretching brought pain, left hand groping for the gun. He saw two figures moving in the periphery of his vision.
Snagging the pistol, Vikander dragged it close and managed to wrap his hand around it. He fired, missed; watched the Kocovny dart left and right. One stumbled, landed hard. His head seemed to turn slowly as Vikander pulled the trigger.
One left. Maybe he’d cut and run and maybe Vikander would let him go with no hard feelings.
So he can come back with his friends. Soft, you fat pussy.
Movement behind a rock outcropping, a bang and a flash; the bullet felt icy going in, soon warmed as blood pooled in the new hole in his chest. Breathing hurt, ribs tightening around his lungs. He kept hold of the gun this time, only he couldn’t make his arm work properly.
The Kocovny rose from cover, rifle tucked in against his shoulder, head crooked to aim. He stood like that for a while, daring Vikander to try and shoot. Satisfied that wouldn’t happen, he slung the rifle and started walking.
Lotta bullets to dig outta you. Dad’s voice was slurred with drink. Vikander saw his dopey smile, glass swaying when he waved his arms for emphasis.
On cue, the Kocovny reached behind and drew a long bladed knife. Vikander noticed a gurgle creeping into his breathing, willed his hand to tighten on the gun. It went off, brought the Kocovny up short, but the bullet went into the ground.
Closer now, but moving with care, he didn’t even flinch when Vikander fired again and with the same result as before.
His arm flailed, next round careening somewhere into the depression.
Crouching, the Kocovny made sure to plant his boot on Vikander’s gun hand. The pressure helped him pull the trigger, blew away his boot and part of the heel underneath, sent him onto his backside in the dust.
The last shot was far from clean; took him in the throat. Vikander watched his boots drum on the ground, blood spraying from his mangled foot. Drowsy as he was, Vikander thought it took him about five minutes to die.
Faster than you.
That was true, but he was going out if not on his terms, then close to them. He’d chosen this run and he could’ve ended it or else let the Kocovny do it for him. If the choices you had were limited to the bad, did you have a choice at all?
The sun completed its descent, more stars winked into view overhead. Looking skyward, Vikander felt like he was drifting or floating; couldn’t tell anymore. If nothing else, the sun would find him next morning, even if he never saw it.
by R.L. Robinson
I tried to stop. The knife glinted in the flares popping overhead. It slid into his neck, cutting until it grated against bone. I brought him down slowly, warm blood covering my hands. He convulsed once and went still. A flare ignited, revealing his dead eyes staring up at me.
I squeezed Claire’s hand too hard. Light from the sodiums outside filtered through the window blinds, picked out the tousle of her dark hair pooled on the pillow.
“Again?” she asked, drowsy.
“Not your fault.”
Except I volunteered. Over Claire’s shoulder, the digital clock blinked one-thirty.
“I’m gonna head out, be back before you leave for work.”
I stared at my face in the bathroom mirror. Hair reached for my shoulders and my beard was close to the point of tangling. I tugged on my jeans and shirt, wet my hand and ran it through my hair. Pulling on my dad’s jacket, I killed the light and slipped out.
I drove to Munroe Corby’s; the old barn set back from the farmhouse in overgrown woods. Out of the truck, I saw Munroe’s niece sitting next to a cooler; brown bottles floating in icy water. A folding table stood nearby, crowded with jars and paper cups. I paid five bucks for a cup of some hill-folk brew and another ten for admission. She barely took her eyes off the hologram she was toying with.
Men and women hung around third or fourth generation pick-ups and older model cars, chatting and smoking. A couple talked about Nathan Locke.
“Mayor’s fixin’ for this low-end housing,” one woman said, cigarette drooping from the corner of her mouth.
“Up in them hills?” a man scoffed. “The sheriff ain’t runnin’ ’em off, no matter how much Locke pays him.”
“Last two deputies went up that way came out on their backs,” another put in.
Inside the barn was a square of wire fence big enough to hold my truck. I drifted to a corner and laid my bet when Munroe’s husband came by. Two men lingered outside the ring, seeing to their birds. Munroe appeared, took a wafer from each, which he ran through a battered looking terminal hooked to his belt. Genetic licensing in order, he returned the documents and waved them to their corners. Swinging a fat leg over the wire, Munroe chopped his hand down and stepped back.
The cocks rushed each other, screeching as they danced and clawed, kicking up dust as they leaped. Blood spattered the dirt, the handlers shouting at their animals until Munroe called time. The loser was scooped up, its owner swinging the dying bird by its legs as he stalked out.
Munroe ambled over, counting out a roll of bills.
“Still can pick ‘em, Paul.”
I took my winnings.
“Never found it that hard.”
“You been back long?”
“A month, stayed out of people’s way.”
“Imagine things look the same round here.”
“Not so much.” I finished my drink. “You seen Lena?”
“She come by day before last.”
“Still out in her cabin?”
Lena’s cabin sat at the end of a dirt track, faint light burning through the window. I saw a shadow pass across the glow and Lena stepped out before I reached the porch.
“No need to call me that now.”
She took me in a hug. Up close, her face seemed haggard; greyer hair, black skin almost washed out.
Inside, Lena poured two cups of bourbon, giving the fire a poke on her way to sitting.
“You keepin’ okay?”
“You been seein’ that girl.” Lena grinned over her cup.
“Don’t know how serious it is.”
“Give it time.”
“How you been?”
“Tickin’ over, nothin’ to write home ‘bout.”
“Heard Locke’s eyeing things up this way.”
Lena huffed, swallowed some of her drink.
“Jonah Locke was a piece o’ trash and his son ain’t much better.”
“Why you here, Paul?”
I stared at the bottom of my cup, swirled the smoky liquor around.
“Having bad dreams…things I can’t shake.”
“Imagine what you been through, it’s to be ‘spected.”
“You boys went through a lot together, even before you left.”
“You need work, you come to me.”
I set down my bourbon and stuck the money underneath.
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Go and see your friend.”
A month home after de-mobilization and I began to wonder about Andy. He’d never fit, except with me. The program and the war deepened the place he curled up into when we were kids.
Andy used the last of his army pay and bought a self-assembly ‘fab, ended up sticking it along the main highway outside town. When I got there, he was sat in the doorway, rifle leaning against the side.
“Hey.” He waved with a bottle of beer. “Can’t sleep?”
“Got a job.”
“Contracting, it’ll pay the bills.”
Couldn’t imagine who would hire him or me. He nodded at the rifle.
“Sure, why not?”
Feeling the roughened texture of the stock, the urge to fire scratched the back of my head. Everything fell away. My eyes felt sore; the C/e gland near my thyroid twitching. The world stayed dark though; the ‘ware worn threadbare through lack of care.
Andy set up a flashlight, the beam picking out a paper target pinned to a stack of crates twenty yards off.
“Not the same, is it?”
“Don’t think it should be, Andy.”
He shrugged. You couldn’t talk about shooting other people. Handing him the rifle, I saw iridescence around his pupils; side effect of the ‘ware. I thought about Claire. My second week back, in bed together, her fingers tracing the outline of one or two scars; palms pushing down against my chest and stomach.
How’d it get there?
Implanted and cultured so it grew together in a lattice.
Did it hurt?
Not really, I lied.
There were a lot of things you couldn’t explain even if you tried.
Claire left me a note on the side table.
I showered, threw my clothes back on. It was past nine, the road into town busy with scattered traffic. I parked round the back of Parton’s and lit a cigarette. Food crossed my mind, but I didn’t know what I wanted.
I took a booth in the Corner Diner and tapped my smoke into the ashtray. Joanne–another classmate Andy and I knew–came over and poured thick coffee into a white china cup.
“How you keeping, Paul?”
“Not bad, thanks.”
“Heard from Claire you was back. You stayin’ away on purpose?”
“Just keeping to myself.”
“Fair enough, you hear about Andy?”
“Heard he got a job, yeah.”
“You shout when you’re ready.”
“I will, thanks.”
I glanced at the few patrons at the counter or tables. Munroe was right; things looked the same. I was different; couldn’t see things how they used to be.
I ordered eggs and hash-browns, ate most of it and left too big a tip on my way out. Fifty yards from the diner I heard my name called from across the street.
“Paul!” Nathan Locke waved, looked both ways and jogged across. No small feat for a man of his girth. He shook my hand.
“Hi Nathan.” I slipped my hand free, shook out a Camel and offered it.
I took one for myself and lit both.
“Not seen you around. Andy’s been in and out of town and he never said if you were back or not.”
“He’s quiet like that.”
“Yeah, always was. You got something lined up work wise?”
“Not yet, taking some time.”
“Good, you should, you deserve it.” Nathan looked around; probably paid dividends glad handing a veteran in public.
“Swing by one night, Nora’d be happy to see you.”
Hadn’t seen Nora in years. I shipped out the week before she married Nathan. Heard the ceremony was a big to-do at the Half Acre Hotel; Nathan and his buddies drinking the bar dry.
“I will, be nice to see her again.” It wouldn’t and I had no intention of swinging by.
“And if you can’t get something fixed, call me. Government dropped a lot of money into you, might be a use for it.”
I managed a smile and held it until he disappeared from view.
The park was full of kids. Claire spread our lunch on a picnic table: cooked chicken and potato salad, a bottle of orange juice with some paper cups, plates and napkins.
“Where’d you go last night?”
“Just drove around, went to see Andy.”
“How is he?”
“Got a job.”
“He say what kind?”
“Not really and I didn’t ask.”
“Okay. Might be a place at the bank coming up.”
“Greg’s being moved to Concord end of next month.”
I couldn’t see myself in a suit and tie working next to Claire, but I told her to bring me a form.
“Met Nathan Locke today,” I added.
“What’d he want?”
“Shake my hand and talk shit. Said I should swing by the house.”
“You plan to?”
“Dunno, maybe, no.”
“You can, you know. I’m not the jealous type.” She reached across the table and took my hand. “You need to do things, Paul. It’s good for you being in that motel room all alone.”
“I’m not alone for long,” I pointed out.
“You know what I mean. Even if you have to stand Nate Locke’s company, it’s a start.”
I thought of the itch in the back of my head, how it dropped away around Claire. There were things she wanted to know. Not now, but somewhere down the line the questions would come.
She kissed me on the cheek in front of the bank, ran her fingers through my beard.
“I’ll see you tonight?” I asked.
“Yeah, no plans tomorrow.”
I watched her disappear into the bank, lit my last Camel, turned on my heel and stopped.
She hadn’t changed; auburn hair cut short, a simple yellow dress and shoes, no jewelry on show. Only the quality of her hair cut told me she’d moved up.
“Got another one of those?” she asked.
“Wanna get coffee?”
Parton’s Bar was empty save for the two of us and Ruth Parton flicking through the public net newscasts. Nora took a Lone Star and I stuck to coffee.
“What was it like?”
“What was what like?”
“Being over there?”
“What’s it like being married to Nathan Locke?”
“Scary, fun, kinda boring.”
“There you go.”
“Your face is different, stronger. You look a little gangly.” Her eyes moved down my neck. “It true what the news says, you got other parts inside you?”
“Yeah, they don’t work so well these days.”
“Need medication, government has a monopoly on it.” A stupid part of me wanted to do something about that look in her eyes, slip out with her and drive back to the motel. I squashed the idea and sipped my coffee.
“You ever hear from Sylvia?” I asked.
“Maybe a year or so ago. She made it as far as mid-system. Arbiter station, I think.” Nora tipped back her bottle. “Andy seems to be doing okay.”
“You spoke to him?”
“Yeah, he came to Nate’s office and we had a drink together.”
“Nathan spoke to him?”
“I suppose so.”
I left the balance of the bill and stood.
“Where you going?”
“Just want to check on something. Nice seeing you again, Nora.”
This time of day, Leith Parker would be in the garage his daddy left him. He didn’t know a thing about engines, so his nephews ran the place.
“He here?” I asked the eldest nephew.
Leith glanced up from the tablet he was skimming and offered a hand I ignored.
“What’s Andy doing?”
“Working, like the rest of us have to.”
“What kind of work?”
“Something Nate’s got going.”
“Lena,” I said. “The land the hill-folk work?” I remembered conversation outside Munroe’s. “What’s goin’ on, Leith?”
“Shit.” He rose and closed the office door.
“What’ve you got him doing?”
“Nathan wants the land.”
“Yeah, for low-end housing. How does Andy figure?”
“Guess he got tired of sitting out there alone in his trailer.”
“Tell Nathan to cut him loose.”
“You think he’ll do that just because I ask? Weren’t my recommendation got him hired.”
“You’re the middle man, figure he’ll take your advice.”
“C’mon, Paul, you know them hill-folk been a pain in the ass for years. No offence to your aunt.”
“She’s not my aunt.”
Leith took out a bottle of Wild Turkey from his desk and drizzled it into a dirty glass.
“Time was Nathan would’ve let things lie. Room enough for everyone to make a living.”
“Times change, no space for the freelance set-up these days.” He stifled a belch. “What’s the problem? Andy’ll run ‘em out, Lena’ll see sense and up-sticks.”
“Buy Lena out, offer her some stupid amount of money. Still be cheaper than this.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“Jesus Christ, you don’t get it.”
“Explain it to me, then.”
I couldn’t and that was the problem.
The rifle was in pieces at Andy’s feet. He didn’t look up when I arrived; eyes focused on the task before him.
“Spoke to Nora, Andy.”
“Oh?” He slotted the bolt into place with a click.
He looked up, eyes not iridescent, but de-focused.
“Took the job, gettin’ paid Paul, doin’ what I’m good at. Feels nice.”
“We gave that up when we came back on-world. War’s over.”
“I dunno. I’m sure Nora could put a word in for you like she did for me.”
“How you mean?”
“She met me when I was gettin’ groceries in town. Said Nathan had somethin’ goin’ and she’d speak to him.”
“I don’t need this kinda work, Andy. Neither do you, we gave it up.”
Andy dug into his pocket and took out a brass cartridge, stuck it into the chamber.
“Gave my word, Paul. Didn’t you always say that mattered when we was kids?”
Claire sat with me while I smoked on the bench outside my room. The street lights flickered on, adding to the orange already tinting the sky.
“What’s wrong?” It was the third time she asked.
“Stuff with Andy, Nora too.”
I thought about how I had opened up more to Nora in our brief meeting than I had to Claire in a month.
“Andy’s caught up in something and I can’t make him stop. Something with Nathan.”
“I know what Nathan Locke gets his fat hands into. You can talk to me Paul.”
“He’s going to hurt people, kill them maybe.”
Claire didn’t even blink.
“Can’t talk him down?”
“Then talk to Nathan.”
“It might not be that simple.”
“What else are you going to do, hurt him to make him stop?”
It would take more than hurting.
“I’ll talk to him.”
Claire smiled, reached over for my cigarette and took a drag.
“You’re not a simple man, Paul.”
“Sometimes I wonder.”
The one thing I could never forgive Nathan for was his freedom from consequence. His father ensured the family had a safety net which would never run out; the Locke clan would never have to worry about their actions.
“Mind if we talk?”
“Sure, ‘course we can Paul.”
“Just work, seems like my daddy had it better. Never remembered him stayin’ up all night.”
“I’m sure he did.”
“What you want to talk about?”
“Andy. I need you to let him go.”
“Why would I do that?”
“As a favor to me, I can get Lena to move out.”
Nathan pursed his lips, made a show of sucking his teeth.
“Dunno, Paul. Things ain’t never as simple as we get to thinkin’ they are.” His hands cupped his swelling gut. “See, Nora said Lena’s got a stash up there. Says money don’t matter to her.”
“Yeah, she does.” No sense lying.
“Way I see it, either Andy can do it or someone from out of town can. I made it clear he don’t need to kill no one, not if he can avoid it.”
He wouldn’t and Nathan didn’t get that; no one did.
“Was Nora spoke up for him.” Nathan smiled. “Your friend’s good at a lotta things, but women ain’t one of ’em.”
“You need to re-think this.” I grabbed tugged Nora’s arm.
“Whatever you’re wrapped up in with Andy.”
“He works for my husband.”
“That’s not all.”
“That is all, Paul.”
“What happens after?”
“After you and Andy have Lena’s money. You drive away into the sunset?”
Of all things, Nora looked embarrassed.
“Jesus, Paul! No, Andy knows that can’t happen.”
“Why wouldn’t he?”
“You want to leave, you leave. Don’t take him down with you.”
Her expression hardened.
“Andy doesn’t need you doing everything for him.”
“You screwing him?”
“You may as well be.”
“We’ve known each other since we were kids, Jesus.”
“None of us are the children we used to be.”
I sat in Parton’s in the back, smoking and staring at the table; a bottle of Michter’s and a glass near my arm. I considered calling Claire, called Leith instead. He arrived just after six.
“You know about them?” I filled my glass and pushed it across the table. “Andy and Nora.”
“Heard somethin’ about it.”
“Nathan doesn’t know.”
“If he’s heard, he laughed it off. Like anyone around here would.”
“What you know about the program, Leith?”
“Just what I heard on the news once or twice.”
“If that’s what it means.”
“Some men came through it different, others just stayed the same or went deeper into whatever kind of personality they had before. There was this guy called Dyer. Came out the same schlub he always was.” I tapped my temple. “Not smart or even funny. We were deployed on Sabinov when a round took his head off. Funny thing was he kept going for about a full minute before falling into the mud. No reason he should have, but that’s what he did.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Andy does.” I moved the bottle so Leith could help himself. “I need a gun.”
“Not from me you don’t.”
“You can give me one, or I can take one from somebody.”
“They’re goin’ for the money and then they’re going to skip town. Andy thinks it’ll help him, thinks she’ll help him, but it won’t.”
“I told you.”
“I know.” He sank a shot, refilled. “This’ll fuck Nathan up, Federal grant money riding on this land deal.”
“Think his wife skippin’ town with Andy’ll fuck him up more.”
In the garage’s office Leith fished out a strong box. Inside was a revolver with a skeleton grip and a cut-down barrel almost flush with the chamber.
“You bring that back to me.”
“Thanks, better to have it and not need it.”
Leith looked as convinced as I felt.
Andy cradled his rifle like a mother might her child. A bandolier hung off his right shoulder and he’d a knife strapped to his thigh. Just like in the war; when we were about to do something quick and dirty.
“You here to talk me out of it?”
“No, I’m goin’ with you. You want Lena’s money, she’ll give it to me. You won’t need to kill her.”
“What makes you think I was gonna?”
I pointed to his rifle.
“Just in case.” Andy started for my pick-up.
“We can walk, got some things to talk about.”
We stayed off the trail climbing hills leading up and away from the highway.
“She likes you, you think?”
“Nora? Sure, we like each other, why wouldn’t we?”
“You never speak about much Andy, haven’t in all the years I’ve known you.”
“That’s true, as it goes. Never had much to say about anythin’.”
“Plenty to say about killing when we were off-world.”
“That was work.”
Work. I heard it in his voice; the detachment brought on by the glitching ‘ware. Some kind of misfire; a remnant of the biology we were given.
“You were always zealous about it.”
“Only thing I was good at.”
“Would you have killed Lena?”
“Plan was just to take the money, figured she wouldn’t put up much of a fight.”
“Remember when Reese and his brother chased us all the way to her front door and she kicked six shades of shit out their dad in broad daylight.” A laugh crept into my voice at the memory. Andy half turned, faint smile on his lips.
“I forgot that.” His smile dropped a fraction. “Wasn’t gonna hurt her none, Paul.”
I told myself Andy didn’t know he was lying.
The path sloped to an overgrown cane field. The grass tangled around our shins. For a moment we were back in the war, creeping through churned up farmland. The buzz of mosquitoes shifting an octave, making me scan the horizon for drones.
Andy’s cheeks caved in under the half-light, eyes sunk back so he lost twenty pounds in the span of a step. The gun tucked into my jeans felt heavy.
Andy must’ve caught my change in step, because he turned as my hand found the revolver. Rifle was no good this close, so he threw it. I kept hold of my gun, but the rifle hit and knocked my aim aside.
Andy held his blade in a fencer’s grip, drove in straight. Cold slipped into the space between two ribs; faces close enough our noses touched. Hammer cocked, I pressed the revolver to his temple and pulled the trigger.
We bore each other down, Andy hanging onto the knife. Gently I pried his fingers loose, the cold around the wound warmed by blood.
I left him there. Not what he deserved, but the best I could manage. By the time I removed the knife, the blood had clotted; all those passive changes left over still doing what they were supposed to.
Nora was waiting in her car next to my truck. It was dark enough she hit the headlights when I staggered into view. The beams picked me out, the gun in my hand and blood soaking my shirt.
We stared at each other for a long while before she started the engine and tore out in reverse. I watched until she disappeared out of sight, tires screeching when she hit asphalt.
I killed my friend and I felt nothing. My blood was heavy; chunky with what was left of the ware. My head swam, but I figured I’d make it to Leith’s.
Claire only stared at me. I wasn’t limping, but my walk was off; probably pale from blood loss.
I took the cigarette she smoked and sucked in a lungful. Made my head swim, knees weak for a second; like the first time you take a drag.
I left the door open, waiting to see if she would come in. She kept her seat, puffing smoke the only sign she was there. I didn’t notice when she left, never heard her shoes clicking on the concrete, but I left the door open all the same.
Army CID came down and Andy’s body was taken away, what with no one around to claim it.
Of course they questioned me, brought me into the sheriff’s office. Two suits; the one asking most of the questions gave his name as Hill.
I sat alone on my side of the bare metal table; the only decoration the loop where you’d be cuffed during questioning.
“Sergeant,” Hill began. “What can you tell me about Andrew’s state of mind before his death?” He tossed a cigarette across to me.
He never came home.
“I’m sorry?” Hill was half way to lighting his own smoke.
“Nothing, never mind.”
I got the chance to sit down with the author of one of my favourite recent novels. Here, Tim Jarvis speaks about his work ‘The Wanderer’, weird fiction and the writing process.
When did you first realize you wanted to write and what drew you into weird fiction?
I didn’t begin writing in earnest till I was in my early twenties. I’d taken a Creative Writing option as part of my final year at university, because, if I’m honest, I thought it would be easy. Needless to say, it wasn’t. But the frustration I felt when I realized that not only was writing hard work, but that, no matter how much effort I put in, the ideas I had in my head wouldn’t take form on the page, that all I could get down was a pale shadow, spurred me to begin to try and figure out how the language of fiction worked. I found it a compelling puzzle and have stuck with it, though I’m barely any closer to working it out…
The fiction I was reading at that time, in large part inspired the direction my first stories took; in fact my first stories were mis-creations: shoddily sewn together out of parts of works by writers I admired and but feebly brought back to life – derivative, lumbering, coming apart at the seams. But those writers I was feebly imitating, butchering and reanimating, were writers whose work had a strangeness that lent itself to such a process, and it almost, at times, worked. My influences were diverse, but united by a quality of the odd: writers from Cormac McCarthy to Angela Carter, Borges to M. John Harrison, books from childhood, Susan Cooper and Alan Garner, and the late trilogy of William Burroughs. So I ended up with stories that, while of the fantastic, didn’t respect genre boundaries and mixed sf, fantasy, and frontier violence. At the time, I’d not read much that could be called core weird fiction, just a couple of Lovecraft’s tales and Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, which I’d picked up because of Harrison’s allusions to it, and which I had loved. It was only afterwards that I read more extensively in weird fiction. So I suppose my writing was, in the beginning, weird only in the sense of hard to parse, fragmentary, slippery, bizarre, and at times silly, rather than the Weird, which I take to be a more earnest mode concerned primarily with exciting that subtle attitude of awed listening for dread sounds Lovecraft describes in Supernatural Horror in Literature. I have after in my work aimed more at producing that particular affect, as I have a strong sense it is an important one for understanding something about the nature of our place in the world now, and I have hopefully learnt to cover up the joins in my writing a bit, make the stories my own, but I still like the idea of my fiction as chimera, as freakish hash, as odd and weird, rather than Weird with a capital ‘W’. I’ve called my writing ‘antic’, and, for me, this term sums up the mingling of grotesquery, absurdity, and dread I aim for.
Your first novel, ‘The Wanderer,’ has been described as a horror/sf/weird fiction mash up. How did the idea first come to you for the novel? And why a story about a character who writes stories?
I’d been thinking about writing some kind of strange portal fantasy for a while. I had this whole scene visualized in which someone on a train out of London goes through a long tunnel and comes out on the other side into a dark fantastical space that they responds to blankly, as if it were quite ordinary.
I was obsessed with that sense of dislocation, and the terrors and adventures it brings with it. This came from a childhood love of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger tales, in particular the 1912 novel, The Lost World, and fantastical colonial romances more generally. Sometime in my early teens, I realized – to paraphrase McArdle, a newspaper editor in The Lost World, possibly paraphrasing Marlowe, the protagonist of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – the big blank spaces on the map had all been filled in, that there was no room for romance left anywhere, and also that such imperial adventures belied darker truths, and I turned away from them. But I still had that hankering after the unknown.
I came, though, to realize that my portal fantasy idea, which was, in large degree, inspired by Kafka’s Amerika, was played out, not particularly interesting anymore. It was then I read Edgar Allan Poe’s novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. I’d long been captivated by his short fiction, but had been put off the novel by the critical concensus it was a mess and the idea that Poe himself hadn’t liked it.
I wished I’d read it sooner. Its strange story of exploration took me back to the tales I’d loved as a child, and started me thinking about where a writer could set an adventure as bizarre as Pym’s in a world in which even the wildest and most desolate places have been explored and tamed, new means of transport and telecommunication technologies have elided distances, and globalized culture has eroded difference.
But I didn’t come up with a solution until I read Charles Robert Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer. Maturin’s bizarre tale of a diabolical pact that grants supernatural longeivity, gave me the central premise of The Wanderer. My solution was a dislocation, not in space, but in time. By making my protagonist immortal and setting much of the story in the far-flung future, I felt I could open up a different kind of space for adventure.
And the convoluted plots and jarring mood shifts of both Melmoth and Arthur Gordon Pym chimed with my sense of weird fiction as a mode of storytelling in which the pieces don’t quite all fit together, and gave me my structure and tone.
I was drawn to the idea of a narrative about a character who tells stories, because it allowed me to present the book as possibly being the narrative of things that had actually happened. I wanted to blur the lines between fact and fiction, partly to give the thing a reason to exist in this age in which we’re buried beneath strata upon strata of stories, and partly to suggest to the reader the fearful possibility that what they’re reading is, in a resonant phrase I borrowed from William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland, more account than story.
What do you think it is about weird fiction which continues to endure, decades after the death of people like Lovecraft? What in your opinion draws people to the genre and how is it distinct from horror?
It has been argued that weird fiction is a pulp form of the modernist writing that emerged around the same time. Both literatures enact a reaction to a rapid change in circumstances in the western world, to mechanisation, to increasing alienation, to a changing understanding of the nature of science, to a general loss of faith combined with an increasing interest in esoteric spiritual practices, to the mass deaths in the trenches of the Great War. Some of these texts and authors shudder away from change, some embrace it, but all react strongly. This is why we can find a rough mirror to Lovecraft’s reprehensible reactionary stance in the politics of writers such as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.
It is also why the techniques and basic tenets of weird fiction have survived, just as those of modernism have survived. We still haven’t come to terms with the great epistemological shift that happened at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth, still feel alienated and isolated by the conditions of modern life, still pine for the certainties of the Enlightenment era. Modernist and then post-modernist movements have used fragmenting and transgressive aesthetic strategies to convey the conditions of life now. Weird fiction has exploited the reader’s reaction to occult transgression and to the awful category errors that are the monsters of the weird.
I think the draw of weird fiction is that it recreates for a secular age the shock of an encounter with the diabolical or numinous. It’s a fiction of revelation, it reveals things as having been always-already weird. This is the weird’s appeal, but also its dreadful aspect; in the face of the weird revelation there is only dissolution, we can either lose our minds or ecstatically give ourselves to the weird. I think this is also how weird fiction differs from horror – horror shows us what happens to those stray across borders, in order to evoke fear and to reinscribe those boundaries with a firmer hand. Weird fiction is far more ambiguous.
Living in the UK, would you say you’re inspired by your location?
Absolutely. The rich British, and Irish, tradition of supernatural lore and literature feeds my work. And I’m particularly influenced by London, where I live and have lived for most of my adult life. I walk the city’s mazy streets constantly, and many of my stories come from attempts to make sense of its ravelled ways. I’m particularly inspired by Machen, who uprooted a rural tradition of folk Gothic and replanted it in London’s urban setting; in his work, he can make an alleyway in Holborn provoke the same atavistic shudder and wonder as an ancient sacrificial altar.
Villains are often the most difficult thing for any writer to pull off. Can you tell us something about how you created yours?
The Wanderer was always going to have a troubled antagonist – part of its inheritance from Maturin’s Melmoth. But I wasn’t at all sure what form this villain would take. Melmoth’s motivations are confused, but it would appear he’s made a pact with Lucifer – he’s been granted extended life and preternatural powers, but must corrupt others or forfeit his immortal soul. I couldn’t, at first, think how to make a character like this work in a contemporary novel. It was pondering the idea of weird fiction as a kind of profane supernatural that gave me the answer. It occured to me to ask myself what a secular Melmoth might look like. And it came to me – an immortal, without faith or hope, not even really evil, but driven to cruelty by boredom.
‘The Wanderer’ is dark and unsettling. Did you have worries about delving into such uncomfortable territory?
Not really. I don’t want to censor my fiction, but to see where it leads me. In 1974, Angela Carter wrote, ‘We live in Gothic times,’ and I think that is as true, or possibly even more true, today. Writing dark fiction is a way for me to investigate what concerns me about the world I live in. Indeed, I feel, counterintuitively, that weird fiction, descended from the Gothic, is better able to carry out that analysis than realism.
For anyone wishing to write in the weird fiction genre, could you give us your top five books or films which you think are essential for a budding creator.
This is tricky. There’s so much rich literature that could be described as weird that choosing just five books is near impossible. But I’ve picked five that are key texts for me. None are Weird in that core Lovecraftian cosmicist sense, not all are horror, but they all have a deeply weird affect.
Isidore-Lucien Ducasse, the self-styled Comte de Lautréamont, apparently composed his Les Chants de Maldoror at night, while sitting at a piano, wildly striking the keys, hammering out dissonant chords. It’s a strange irreverent book that combines passages taken from scientific and medical treatises with nihilistic philosophy and dread reveries. In it the biological world is in revolt and tending to nauseous fungoid dissolution. It includes some memorably weird scenes: in one, the various parts of Maldoror’s body are usurped by lower life forms – a viper takes the place of his penis, a pair of hedgehogs, having thrown his testicles to a dog, curl up in his scrotum, and a crab blocks his anus; in another, Maldoror witnesses the sorrowful and revolted diatribe of a divine pubic hair, left behind by the Creator in a brothel.
In Arthur Machen’s late novella ‘N’, a fragment of Edenic creation is glimpsed in Canon’s Park, in the north London suburb of Stoke Newington. It’s a vision that can drive those who see it to ecstatic delirium. Machen’s story develops spirally, through the investigations of a character who is fascinated by the tales that are told of the paradisal remnant. It never resolves any of its implications.
Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman is an lurid erotic picaresque, that ferments a mash of desire and sadism, lyricism and critical theory into a potent and very weird brew.
The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington starts off loosely realistic, then gets stranger and stranger. It ends with the kind of bizarre apocalypse you often get in decadent fiction, in Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side, Gustav Meyrink’s The Green Face, and Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland, but in Carrington’s novel the end of days is oddly and infectiously joyous.
In M. John Harrison’s The Course of the Heart, there is little joy. It is a book both relentless and devastating. Three loners attempt to come to terms with the traumatic aftermath of a occult ritual practiced as students. There is resignation, but no resolution. It’s brutal, but also sublime. No one hones this kind of affect to a keener edge than Harrison.
Finally, tell us something about your upcoming projects.
I’ve been getting back into writing short stories since The Wanderer came out, trying to get my head around how the form works – it offers very different challenges and advantages to the novel. I’m also working on a strange tale of city in decline following the sickening of its protective, tutelary daemons.
You can pick up ‘The Wanderer’ here, I highly recommend it.