Saturday, June 25, 2016

Feeling Peake-y


Of pygmies, palms and pirates,
Of islands and lagoons,
Of blood-bespotted frigates,
Of crags and octoroons,
Of whales and broken bottles,
Of quicksands cold and grey,
Of ullages and dottles,
I have no more to say.

Of barley, corn and furrows,
Of farms and turf that heaves
Above such ghostly burrows
As twitch on summer eves
Of fallow-land and pasture,
Of skies both pink and grey,
I made my statement last year
And have no more to say.

--Mervyn Peake

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Last Contact

Perhaps the most merciless aspect of the whole affair has been my total inability to forget the incidents of that night in that lonely house off Gabode Road, and the nightmare habit that unrolls the entire event before my mind's eye when any chance association recalls it to my febrile mind. Most horrible is when I recall the last words of Herman Gatzman, and the precise voice in which they were uttered, and can only speculate about what was the truth of the matter. Speculate, but never know.

Let me begin by saying that I work on the staff of a small-town newspaper in Texas. Anyone familiar with operations of this sort will know that papers like the one I work with are mostly compilations of social events, weddings, and graduations, and the minor and trifling awards that are the Holy Grail of small town fame. As such they are monitored and edited by the socialite wives of a few local leaders of men.

It fell to me to report events that they were too delicate or unable to cope with--fires and floods and violent crimes--and in between times drum up stories of local interest to fill in my byline. It was during a particularly dry period that I received a letter from Herman Gatzman.

I did not care to pass along stories about flying saucers and spacemen to my readers. Such things smacked of shopping mall journalism, and at first I was not inclined to accept Gatzman's offer to interview him. But as my deadline drew nearer and my notepad looked barer and barer, I came to persuade myself that perhaps I could turn it into a local color piece, and at the very least make an ironic article at the expense of the extraterrestrial believers.

So it was that I found myself cruising late one afternoon through the under-developed no-man's-land that stretches for miles between town and town, in search of Gabode Road and the house of my potential interview.

To really see what Texas is like, one must see it near twilight on a quiet country road. It is then, in the cool of the day, that the long light gilds the dense low forests of mesquite and scrub oak, and casts a dim blue gloaming that is balm after the burning midday sun. In that shady gloom one can catch glimpses of animals picking their silent way through the sun-bleached grass: white-tail deer raising their flags at the sound of your approach and fleeing, coyotes slinking into the underbrush, or buzzards coming to rest in their dead and blasted trees, and one can hear the low of cattle or the far off, dying call of an owl as it starts its nightly hunt.

In that great primordial calm, far from the lights and the noise of the towns, the only signs of man's hand is the rocky, unpaved road, the inevitable phone lines, and the occasional sight of a weathered farmhouse, placed back from the road and swathed in trees. In that solitude even the sound of your tires seems hushed and lonely.

It was after turning down many of these country lanes that I followed the penciled-in instructions that an old gas-station attendant had marked on my map, and turned off onto a road where the telephone lines did not go. It was unusually potholed and uneven, but I had not gone a hundred yards along it when I saw the sun-bleached, worm-eaten sign: Gabode Road.

The house at the end of the trail was surrounded by a fence of cedar posts that had had little shaping from the trees from which they were cut, strung with ancient and rusty barbed wire. I backed my car around to the gate, then got out and let myself in through the simple latched railing and walked up to the house.

By now it was almost dark, and the hushed evening air was full of the hum of cicadas and the whir of grasshoppers, which would leap buzzing from the disturbed grass and land with a tick and a tiny puff of dust if they fell on the dirt path. The house seemed so still and deserted that I felt sure that I had wasted my time and come on a prank errand.

But as I stood some paces from the porch, trying to make out the dim outlines of the house, the front door suddenly swung open to reveal a tall and lanky old man, carrying a hefty, rust-covered flashlight in one hand and an axe-handle in the other.

He glared suspiciously at me, his red rheumy eyes in violent contrast to his white, tobacco-stained beard. Although his frame was stooped and his hand shook a little as he held the light, he had an air of stringy, leathern strength about him that suggested that he could so some serious business with the axe-handle if he chose.

"Well?" he asked. I assumed my best journalist's manner, designed to disarm and overawe potentially troublesome customers.

"Mr. Herman Gatzman? I'm William Eldridge from the Weekly Clarion, and I'm here in response to your letter in which you claimed you had an interesting experience that you believe newsworthy. Is now a good time for me to hear your story?"

He frowned, but relaxed his grip on the handle a bit. "Y'took y'time," he said. "I thought y'weren't gone to come at all." He gave a disgusted snort, then spat on the porch. "Come on in," he said. "I'm just about t'eat supper."

Once inside the he flicked the flashlight off, and turned a low-burning kerosene lamp up brighter. I had a chance to examine his home more closely. It was a simple board house of the type built sixty or seventy years ago, without insulation or wiring and protected by a corrugated tin roof. The large front room he showed me into had a wood burning stove in one corner, and obviously served him as both kitchen and living room.

Gatzman sat me down in a plain wooden chair next to a deal table that was laden with what I considered an inordinate amount of food for one solitary old man. One whole haunch of venison, a vast pot of boiled potatoes, another equally huge pot of green beans, and two loaves of bread next to a block of butter all shared his end of the table with a six pack of beer.
He offered and I accepted one of the beers, but I declined to eat with him, instead urging him to tell me his story while he ate. He grunted, and began to tell me about his adventure, at first sullenly, then with growing excitement and animation.

"I've lived out here all my life," he began. "And believe you me, things could happen out here and nobody would ever know about it. They's places up here and round about that a whole city-load of people could disappear in and nobody would ever find 'em. I know my way around most of my own land, and a lot of what ain't mine, and sometimes I hunt wheres you can't see nothin' human for miles about.

"It was about a week or so ago, and I was out huntin' for coons with my hound. There ain't no ways out there but deer tracks, but I know 'em all, and know how to find the way by moon and stars as well. I was rangin' pretty far from home, must have been ten miles or so from where I usually go out, when all of the sudden my dog goes stiff, pointin' off to the left of the path, her whole body just shakin' like she had a fever
"I said 'Go get it girl!' and she took off bayin' into the woods. I could hear somethin' big go crashin' off through the brush, but I couldn't figure out what it was. I just followed the barks for a mile or so when I hear her yelp out like somethin' hit her. I listened for a few minutes then went ahead pretty slow.

"All of the sudden she comes runnin' up to me, tail atween her legs and her eyes rollin' white in her skull. I thought she might of run into one of those big cats, and I was soothin' her when I start hearin' this strange sound. Once I stepped by accident on a big old hive of bees that had set up in the side of a bank, and this sound was like that, an angry hum, but real loud. I looked up in the direction she come and saw a light way off in the trees.

"I figured there was somebody out there, and I wanted to have a word or two with 'em for hittin' my dog, so I set off that way. At first the hound didn't want to come with me, but I drug her on, though she was shakin' all the way.

"I got closer and closer t'the light, and I started t'see that it was a lot bigger than I first thought. I couldn't figure what the hell it was, so I went up a lot quieter until I come right up on it in the trees. Even when I could see it clear I din't know what the damn thing was."

I looked up from my notes. "Can you give me a detailed description of how it looked?"

Gatzman took a deep swallow of his beer and wiped his beard.

"Hell, that ain't too hard. There weren't no detail to it at all. I heard tell of these flying saucers before, but this one didn't look like no saucer. It was round like a ball, and I suppose it was about as large as a pretty big house. It glowed inside itself but it didn't shine, and it was a kinda milky color. The ground under it was all black and burned, with some charred stumps.

"It wasn't standin' on nothin', it just sort of floated there. I was scared, but kinda curious too, and I just stepped into the clearin' to get a good look at it when I saw somethin' else comin' out from under the trees."

"The alien?"

"The first one. God, I don't know how to describe it so y'could really know what it was like. It was all black, for one thing, and shiny and hard like some kinda bug. It's body was like a snake, but it's head weren't much bigger than it's neck, so first I didn't think it had one. It had four long spindly legs and was just about seven foot high or so, but it must of been at least twice that long. It came stalkin' into the clearin' like a cat sneakin' along, and it saw me right away.

"It hissed at me, in surprise I guess, then yowled, and that's when I first saw where its head was. I didn't have time t'even raise my gun when a whole bunch of other ones come boundin' out of the trees and surrounded me. The first one hitched back onto his hind legs and pointed at me, and I felt like I was stung all over. That must have knocked me out, cause when I come to I was in the ship.

I couln't move and they had me up on this table and were pokin' and shinin' all sorts of godawful stuff at me, and all I could do was lay there and watch as they worked. They was hinged in the middle somehow, and could stand up or run around on all fours, just as they liked, and they had hands or somethin' like 'em on the end of their front legs.

"At last one comes up and pokes this long needle in from here---" he pointed to just above his collarbone--"right down to it felt the bottom of my back. I thought I was gonna die the pain was so bad, but when he pulled it out there weren't no blood, not even a mark where it gone in. They let me alone a bit and the pain went down, then they carried me to another room.

"I suppose the one in that room was some kinda leader. I don't remember the others wearin' much of anything, but this one had silver wires laced up its arms and things that looked like diamonds set along its back. They must know our language or read minds or somethin', cause this one talked to me."

"What did it say?"

Old Gatzman's face had an insane look of senile conspiracy as he leaned eagerly forward. The flickering lamplight cast deep shadows across his furrowed cheeks. He spoke with barely contained gleeful vanity.

"He said I was lucky to be the first to come across them on their trip, and that they were sorry that they had to hurt me. He said than now I am a part, an important part, of a new relationship between his race and ours, and that I'd be famous. I told him I was too old to do anythin', but he said that they'll make me young again and take me to learn the wisdom of the universe. I'm to be a go-between, a bridge, for both sides. He said for me to go home till they come back for me again, and that I'd know the time to return to them at that spot.

"Those others come back in and took me to another room, and next thing I know I'm out in the woods again, and I see a light streakin' off in the sky. I looked around for my dog and called, but she didn't come, and when I went up the trail I tripped over her body. Died of fright, I guess. There weren't a mark on her. After that I come home and just been waitin'."

I made a few last notes, careful to avoid his eye. I thought I could read his entire story: age, loneliness, and obscurity had combined to make Gatzman a little crazy. His madness had supplied him with what he felt he desperately needed: attention, importance, a new life. I was sympathetic, in a way, but distinctly uncomfortable to be in a distant country house alone with a man who so obviously believed in his unbalanced imaginings.

With studied neutrality, I asked him, "Why do you think people should be told about this now? I mean, wouldn't it be better if you waited until these aliens returned to announce your story? Without any physical evidence most people won't consider this revelation easily credible."

"Folks oughta be tole, y'know," he said pleadingly, with a sweep of his arm. "Something this big that's gonna change all history gotta be prepared for, whether some folks believe it or not. When I'm young again I'll..."

His last words were choked with a croaking gargle. His frame stiffened and he tried to rise from the table convulsively, as his arms jerked and his eyes screwed up in anguish. I leapt up in alarm, just in time to avoid the crash as he overturned the table and fell to the ground in a writhing heap.

"Oh, God!" he whimpered. "The pain--!"

I hastily righted the table and tried to lift the agonized man up on it. I had scarcely succeeded in getting him placed when his entire body shuddered violently, then went perfectly still. His mouth howled, the expression totally devoid of mind, in a long painful wail of expiring breath, and his eyes sank deep into their sockets.

Frantically, I tried what few life-saving techniques I know. Ten minutes of heart massage and nauseating mouth-to-mouth resuscitation failed to evoke the slightest signs of life. Finally I gave up and slumped into my chair, and began to recite to myself what I would have to do to contact the proper authorities.

I sat a while, gathering my wits about me, and trying to calm myself down. After Herman Gatzman's bizarre tale and horrible death the little house seemed more ominous than ever. Outside the night insects still played their idiot tunes and the black windows gaped like mouths of darkness. Deep in the woods an owl called.

Finally I felt able to leave. As I got up to go I glanced once more at the body on the table, and was startled to see movement.

In the open mouth the tongue, black and swollen, was moving to and fro over his cracked lips. In a flash I remembered that epileptic fits could lower the body's vital signs so low that only expert instruments could detect them. I recall some vagrant part of my mind thinking fleetingly that epilepsy could explain his weird visions. Mr. Gatzman still lived, and certainly needed medical attention.

I rushed to his side and bent close to his face.

"Mr. Gatzman!" I shouted, trying desperately to reach him. "Mr. Gatzman! do you have any medication!"

As if in response the tongue pushed out--and out, and out, foot after slimy foot of it. I stood transfixed in horror and disbelief as what I had thought was Gatzman's tongue oozed across his chest and onto the table beside him. It seemed finally to have stopped, when his throat bulged under his stained beard and disgorged a pair of limbs with long, splayed fingers that feebly groped the air about them, then found purchase on the old man's shirt and strained to pull more of its long black body from the recesses of Gatzman's corpse.

I backed numbly from the table until my back hit the wall of the little shack. I watched in shock the hypnotically slow struggle as the creature pulled itself free, being born backward tail-first, and could only think frenetically that Gatzman had told me the truth, but that the aliens had not told him the truth. They had planted this thing inside him like a monstrous tapeworm for their own hideous purposes, and now that it had killed Gatzman it would soon leave the corpse and be free to do whatever it wanted. And I was alone in the house with it.
I looked wildly around. For the first time I noticed that I was next to the old wood stove. And there in the corner next to it, partly covered by kindling, was an ancient axe.

The sight of that axe filled me with resolve. That monster thing may have killed Herman Gatzman, eaten him out from the inside like a worm in a bean, but it wouldn't get away with it. And it certainly wasn't going to get me without a fight. I reached over and took the weapon in a double-handed grip, steeled myself, and cautiously but steadily approached the table and its loathsome occupant.

By now the long and sinuous neck had emerged, and I saw it raise its head totally free from the dead body; it glistened wetly with thin yellow slime. It began to smack its lips and blink its eyes as it gazed near-sightedly around the room.

I tried to get closer before it could get totally oriented, but my movement must have caught its eye. It immediately fixated on me, and its eyes opened wide. They were flat yellow eyes, without iris or pupil, and they held a terrible awareness.

I raised the axe and lunged forward. It bellowed in a voice like a malborn goat, but it was too late. The blade caught it near the second pair of legs, almost cutting it in half. It coiled and lashed like a struck snake, spewing black blood.

As its convulsions lessened I drew near to deliver a second and final blow. It looked at me with one yellow eye and said the words that haunt my darkest nightmares.

"Y'fool!" it gasped. "Y'damn fool! I'm Herman Gatzman!"

The yellow eyes glazed, the spasms ceased; Herman Gatzman had died a second and permanent death.

The rest is plainly told. I burned the house and the two bodies that may have both been Gatzman. As I sped over the hill I looked back and saw two lights. One flickered like flame and was certainly my handiwork. The other was steady and much farther out in the brush than any wires or electrician ever went. About that light I have a definite theory that is not too hard to divine.

About other things I am not so sure. I am not sure if I have damned mankind's chances with the only intelligent race that has ever deigned to contact us, or if the aliens ever meant us any good at all. I cannot be sure whether I have done right or wrong, but I do know that for me, since that day, neither the memory nor the horror have faded, of the death of Herman Gatzman.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Dream a Little Dream

So, the other day I woke up and wrote down a dream I just had. This was not unusual. I've been recording, on and off, strange dreams that have impressed me for years, at least since the middle 1990's. I had, in fact, written down two more during the past week. What was unusual was that I then read an article at Brain Pickings about Graham Greene and his dream diary.

Near the end of his life, Greene put together over a quarter century's worth of the most interesting of his dreams and published them in a book. Here is what he says in the introduction:

"It can be a comfort sometimes to know that there is a world which is purely one’s own — the experience in that world, of travel, danger, happiness, is shared with no one else. There are no witnesses. No libel actions. The characters I meet there have no memory of meeting me, no journalist or would-be biographer can check my account with another’s. I can hardly be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act for any incident connected with the security services. I have spoken with Khruschev at a dinner party, I have been sent by the Secret Service to murder Goebbels. I am not lying — and yet, of all the witnesses who share these scenes with me, there is not one who can claim from his personal knowledge that what I describe is untrue." -- A World of My Own: A Dream Diary, by Graham Greene.

I thought of other author's who kept dream journals, like William S. Burroughs or Stephen King, and all the people who did it as a form of therapy. Suddenly it struck me that I had over twenty years of my own recorded dreams, scattered here and there in my files. I always wanted to collect them, put them in some cohesive order. Just now, I have plenty of down time. Why not do it at last?

That is what I've been doing for the past two weeks. I had most of the dreams gathered in a paper file. Some were typed, some hand written. There were detailed accounts, and cryptic notes. They were recorded on all sizes of ruled paper, on typing paper, and on folded tray liners from work.

I kept finding more. I recorded five "primordial" dreams that I had in childhood. I had finished typing up everything in the folder and numbering them, in chronological order, when I discovered a new cache in my journals. The numbering had to be re-done. I cursed myself every time I had not dated a dream, and even now I'm not entirely sure of the order. I kept tweaking refinements to the format, made titles for quick identification of the dreams, made an index of title and number. And most mornings would bring new dreams.

A big part of the joy of this exercise has been simply editorial. I've cut big gobs of run-on prose (my usual dream writing style) into more easily handled slices. I've removed countless "seems like"s and "kind of"s, but had to insert quite a few "that"s for clarity's sake. Also, I replaced a few unclear pronouns with definite nouns. But mostly I didn't cut or add anything to the original recounting.

One thing I've realized is that, as I've written dreams over the years, I've gotten better at recording a readable dream. You can't just write down the bare facts. You've got to put down the atmosphere, what you were feeling, the point of view. Perhaps because of all the books and movies I've consumed, my point of view isn't always me. A lot of times I'm looking at things from third person limited, or through another person. And what adventures we've had.

I've seen aliens, sasquatches, and sea monsters. I've met J. R. R. Tolkien, Ursula K. LeGuin, C. S. Lewis, Mark Twain, Quentin Crisp, and the Queen of England. There were fairies, ghosts, and wizards. I have met (and been) Gandalf, Goku, and the Scarecrow. I've encountered family and familiar places in crisis situations, from floods, volcanoes, and robbery, to crashing space stations.

I've been to my grandmother's haunted (and haunting) house more times than I can remember. I've visited labyrinthine cemeteries, lost valleys, vast wooded back country, and monolithic cities, and I've wandered dark, winding streets. I go to stores with no money, find prizes that slip through my fingers, try to get a ride home, and plunge along highways out of control.

I've flown on my own, and in a surprising number of hovercars. I cast spells, perform exorcisms, and have done incredible feats of martial arts. I've changed form, both at will, and not. While I'm personally involved in most dreams, some are perfectly contained little tales of their own that I observe from afar. I've got the skeletons for at least a dozen short stories here.

Well! It's been fun collecting all these dreams into a uniform, active document. Patterns have emerged, and old times have been recalled. None have been far. I just added a new one today. This brings the count up to one hundred and sixty-nine, and there is no end in sight. I'm sure that, as in the past, I will grow weary of recording them, or things will get too busy. But I'm also sure that eventually, given the chance, I will come back to them. And the Dream will continue.