Autodidact: self-taught



by V. L. Craven

‘The Exiles’ [From The Illustrated Man]
001. Twenty nights I was stabbed, butchered, a screaming bat pinned to a surgical mat, a thing rotting underground in a black box; bad, wicked dreams. Our whole crew dreamed of witch-things and were-things, vampires and phantoms, things they couldn’t know anything about. Why? Because books on such ghastly subjects were destroyed a century ago. By law. Forbidden for anyone for own the grisly volumes.
002. ‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination, by Edgar Allan Poe. Dracula, by Bram Stoker. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving. Rappaccini’s Daughter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, by Ambrose Bierce. Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll. The Willows, by Algernon Blackwood. The Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum. The Weird Shadow Over Innsmouth, by H. P. Lovecraft. And more! Books by Walter de la Mare, Wakefield, Harvey, Wells, Asquith, Huxley,”all forbidden authors. All burned in the same year that Halloween was outlawed and Christmas was banned! But, sir, what good are these to us on the rocket?’
003. He was like a satan of some lost dark cause, a general arrived from a derelict invasion.
004. ‘We can always hope for one of their atomic wars, dissolution, the dark ages come again. The return of superstition. We could go back then to Earth, all of us, in one night.’ Mr. Poe’s black eyes brooded under his round and luminant brow. He gazed at the ceiling. ‘So they’re coming to ruin this world too? They won’t leave anything undefiled, will they?’
Poe swayed angrily, faintly drunk with wine. ‘What did we do? Be with us, Bierce, in the name of God! Did we have a fair trial before a company of literary critics? No! Our books were plucked up by neat, sterile, surgeon’s pliers, and flung into vats, to boil, to be killed of all their mortuary germs.
005. They moved down the echoing throats of the castle, level after dim green level, down into mustiness and decay and spiders and dreamlike webbing. ‘Don’t worry,” said Poe, his brow like a huge white lamp before them, descending, sinking. ‘All along the dead sea tonight I’ve called the others. Your friends and mine, Blackwood, Bierce. They’re all there. The animals and the old women and the tall men with the sharp white teeth. The traps are waiting; the pits, yes, and the pendulums. The Red Death.’ Here he laughed quietly. ‘Yes, even the Red Death. I never thought–no, I never thought the time would come when a thing like the Red Death would actually be. But they asked for it, and they shall have it!’
006. Outside the castle they advanced through a watery space, a tarn that was not a tarn, which misted before them like the stuff of nightmares. The air filled with wing sounds and a whirring, a motion of winds and blacknesses. Voices changed, figures swayed at campfires. Mr. Poe watched the needles knitting, knitting, knitting, in the firelight; knitting pain and misery, knitting wickedness into wax marionettes, clay puppets. The caldron smells of wild garlic and cayenne and saffron hissed up to fill the night with evil pungency. “Get on with it!” said Poe. “I’ll be back!” All down the empty seashore black figures spindled and waned, grew up and blew into black smoke on the sky. Bells rang in mountain towers and licorice ravens spilled out with the bronze sounds and spun away to ashes.
007. At a sign which read SCROOGE, MARLEY AND DICKENS, Poe gave the Marley-faced knocker a rap, and there was Bob Cratchit and Little Dorrit and Tiny Tim and Mr. Fagin himself, and a man who looked as if he might be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato—who else but Mr. Marley, chains and all,
008. “I am a frightened and an angry man. I am a god, Mr. Dickens, even as you are a god, even as we all are gods, and our inventions—our people, if you wish—have not only been threatened, but banished and burned, torn up and censored, ruined and done away with. The worlds we created are falling into ruin. Even gods must fight!” “So?” Mr. Dickens tilted his head, impatient to return to the party, the music, the food. “Perhaps you can explain why we are here? How did we come here?” “War begets war. Destruction begets destruction. On Earth, a century ago, in the year 2020 they outlawed our books.
009. Oh, what a horrible thing—to destroy our literary creations that way! It summoned us out of—what? Death? The Beyond? I don’t like abstract things. I don’t know. I only know that our worlds and our creations called us and we tried to save them, and the only saving thing we could do was wait out the century here on Mars, hoping Earth might overweight itself with these scientists and their doubtings; but now they’re coming to clean us out of here, us and our dark things, and all the alchemists, witches, vampires, and were-things that, one by one, retreated across space as science made inroads through every country on Earth and finally left no alternative at all but exodus. You must help us. You have a good speaking manner. We need you.” “I repeat, I am not of you, I don’t approve of you and the others,” cried Dickens angrily. “I was no player with witches and vampires and midnight things.”
010. Mr. Poe hurried along the midnight shore of the dry sea. By fires and smoke he hesitated, to shout orders, to check the bubbling caldrons, the poisons and the chalked pentagrams. “Good!” he said, and ran on. “Fine!” he shouted, and ran again. People joined him and ran with him. Here were Mr. Coppard and Mr. Machen running with him now. And there were hating serpents and angry demons and fiery bronze dragons and spitting vipers and trembling witches like the barbs and nettles and thorns and all the vile flotsam and jetsam of the retreating sea of imagination, left on the melancholy shore, whining and frothing and spitting.
011. The rocket came down—steadily down, with the shriek of a damned spirit! Poe raged at it! He flung his fists up and the orchestra of heat and smell and hatred answered in symphony! Like stripped tree fragments, bats flew upward!
012. Burning hearts, flung like missiles, burst in bloody fireworks on the singed air. Down, down, relentlessly down, like a pendulum the rocket came. And Poe howled, furiously, and shrank back with every sweep and sweep of the rocket cutting and ravening the air! All the dead sea seemed a pit in which, trapped, they waited the sinking of the dread machinery, the glistening ax; they were people under the avalanche!

“The snakes!” screamed Poe. And luminous serpentines of undulant green hurtled toward the rocket. But it came down, a sweep, a fire, a motion, and it lay panting out exhaustions of red plumage on the sand, a mile away. “At it!” shrieked Poe. “The plan’s changed! Only one chance! Run! At it! At it! Drown them with our bodies! Kill them!” And as if he had commanded a violent sea to change its course, to suck itself free from primeval beds, the whirls and savage gouts of fire spread and ran like wind and rain and stark lightning over the sea sands, down empty river deltas, shadowing and screaming, whistling and whining, sputtering and coalescing toward the rocket which, extinguished, lay like a clean metal torch in the farthest hollow. As if a great charred caldron of sparkling lava had been overturned, the boiling people and snapping animals churned down the dry fathoms.
014. “Kill them!” screamed Poe, running. The rocket men leaped out of their ship, guns ready. They stalked about, sniffing the air like hounds. They saw nothing. They relaxed.

Something Wicked This Way Comes
001. 29: The trouble with Jim was he looked at the world and could not look away. And when you never look away all your life, by the time you are thirteen you have done twenty years taking in the laundry of the world.
002. 62: Mr Cooger, somewhere behind the eye slits, went blink-click with his insect-Kodak pupils. The lenses exploded like suns, then burnt chilly and serene again.
He swiveled his glance to Jim. Blink-click. He had Jim flexed, focussed, shot, developed, dried, flied away in dark. Blink-click.
003. 63: Flick. The nephew made an X-ray of both, showing them, no doubt, as cold bones trembling in warm flesh. He stuck out his hand.
004. 66: … ticking away to himself… [means lying around, thinking]
005. 146: We love what we know, we love what we are. Common cause, common cause, common cause of mouth, eye, ear, tongue, hand, nose, flesh, heart, and soul.
006. 148: …cat-fight marriages where folks spend careers ripping skin off each other and patching it back upside around,
007. 149: “Why, most men jump at the chance to give up everything for nothing. There’s nothing we’re so slapstick with as our own immortal souls. Besides, you’re inferring that’s the Devil out there. I only say it’s type of creature has learned to live off souls, not the souls themselves. That always worried me in the old myths. I asked myself, why would Mephistopheles want a soul? What does he do with it when he gets it, of what use is it? Stand back while I throw my own theory over the plate. Those creatures want the flaming gas off souls who can’t sleep nights, that fever by day from old crimes. A dead soul is no kindling. But a live and raving soul, crisped with self-damnation, oh that’s a pretty snoutful for such as them.
008. 156: Your King James and his literary version of some rather stuffy poetic materials…
009. 204: Evil has only the power that we give it. I give you nothing. I take back. Starve. Starve. Starve.

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