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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

The 1920s and ’30s were the heyday of the pulps, cheaply-produced magazines crammed with new fiction in almost every genre imaginable.  They were the forerunners of comic books and, in a way, of television and video games in that they provided affordable entertainment and tried to reach every possible niche market.  Like their modern successors, they were often condemned by critics as lowbrow, but had a certain undeniable charm; many of the best stories are still read and anthologized today.  This story was based on a dream I had on my first night in New Orleans at the end of my recent tour; perhaps it was inspired by a poster of sci-fi pulp covers Denise had on the wall of the guest room.  Though modern science has rendered its setting highly dubious, I ask that you approach it as readers approached those old tales from nearly a century ago:  as an imaginative tale of adventure on a fantastic world.

Saturn as Seen from Titan by Chesley Bonestell (1952)Every time I looked up at that spectacular view of Saturn, I congratulated myself on having had the good sense to invest in topside property.  Though it had meant a heavy mortgage, the expenditure of every penny I’d made my first year on Titan, and the calling-in of every favor I had accumulated, it was totally worth it; nearly every visitor to the colony preferred my club to the ones down in the red-light district, as did every local with any poetry in his soul.  Sure, it meant I had to charge more for drinks and house fees, and to maintain a more discreet atmosphere than the anything-goes places in the backstreets.  But you know what?  I never liked working in that kind of place, and I’ll be damned if my name was going to be attached to one.  I could never have afforded the rent or the bribes to own a place this classy on Earth, but here it was still wide open for a gal with a little bit of business savvy and a lot of what Mama Nature gave her.

That’s not to say that I didn’t breathe a little sigh of relief every time I sat down with my books and saw loads more black ink than red.  While it’s true that there are few things more dependable than gents’ desire for booze and female company when they’re months away from population centers with a more even distribution of the sexes, it’s also true that hospitality is always a precarious business and a proprietor always needs to be aware of developments that might queer the whole deal faster than sunset on Ceres.  And on the particular night of which I’m about to tell you, one such development walked through my door and none-too-politely requested my company.  Well, demanded is maybe a better word.

Said development was about 190 centimeters tall, wore a badge and a blaster and looked a helluva lot like Fred McMurray; I mean the young Double Indemnity Fred McMurray, not the old Disney-comedy one.  Which is kind of a funny coincidence, because I’ve often been told I look a lot like the young Barbara Stanwyck.  By the time I excused myself from mingling and reached the office, he was looking through my file cabinet.

“Didn’t your mama ever tell you it’s not polite to riffle through a lady’s drawers without her permission?” I asked from the doorway, projecting a nonchalance I did not feel.

“You’re required to keep these available for inspection on demand; I’m demanding.”

I shrugged.  “Suit yourself.  You’ll find they’re all in order; I pay my lawyer and my CPA to make sure they are.  In fact, I could’ve delivered ‘em to your office and saved you the trouble of coming all the way across town.”

“I wanted to look the place over for myself.  You know this sort of business isn’t supposed to be operating on the surface; you appear to have been grandfathered in somehow, but I want you to know that I’ll be watching, and if this place becomes a nuisance…”

I was sitting at the desk by this point.  “Pleased to make your acquaintance too, Marshal,” I said, blowing smoke in his direction before stubbing the cigarette out in the ashtray.  “I get the feeling we’ll be seeing a lot of each other.”

“Count on it,” he said, slamming the door on his way out.  I will not record what I said the moment he was gone, because I don’t want you to get the idea that I’m unladylike.

Though I learned long ago to keep control of my temper when dealing with men, I was boiling inside and knew it would be a mistake to go back to the floor right then.  So I left things in the capable hands of my assistant Frances, put on my thermal suit and decided to go for a walk along the lakeshore.  Now, if you’ve never been to Titan (and let’s face it, that’s probably a safe assumption), I should probably explain that the lakes, rivers, swamps and seas here aren’t made of water but of a liquid hydrocarbon mixture; it would probably smell like tar or gasoline, but since you need a helmet to go outside I can’t be sure.  If you absolutely have to know, ask a chemist.  Anyhow, the native life seems to like it all right; the shallows of the lake swarm with bugs during the day, and even at night you can hear lots of things moving around in the water.  Oil.  Benzene?  Oh, you know what I mean.

McMurray & StanwyckI was plenty mad when I left the dome, and by the time I had cooled off I had walked about three kilometers beyond the end of the well-travelled path.  Not that I was worried, mind you; humans are by far the largest animals on Titan.  The second-largest is a kind of giant slug massing about 30 kilos, and I suddenly realized I had walked right into the middle of a much larger aggregation of them than I’d ever seen or heard of.  They like to lie in the mud sunning themselves during the day, in groups of maybe a few dozen at a time, but it was rare to see ‘em at night.  Yet here I was, surrounded by hundreds of the slimy things; though they are usually very shy and always flee the approach of humans by sliding into the lake, these weren’t moving at all and I bet Doc Robinson would’ve given a month’s pay to trade places with me right now because what had made me stop and wake up to my surroundings was nearly putting my foot in one.

Doc could’ve saved his money, though, because I’d have gladly traded places with him for free.  Yeah, they were harmless…but this was a much larger grouping than anybody had ever seen in one place, and at night to boot; it gave me the heebie-jeebies, and I decided that even the company of the new marshal would be preferable right now.  But as I turned back, I realized that there was no place to go; the slugs had slithered onto the path behind me, and I couldn’t move from the spot where I was standing without stepping on one.  I don’t scare easy, but let me plop you down alone on another planet, surrounded entirely by shapeless aliens, and let’s see if you do any better than I did.  I was totally terrified, and I guess I must’ve had my oxygen valve turned a bit too low for the combination of exertion and excitement because when they started closing in and actually crawling up my legs I passed out.  Aw, who am I trying to kid?  Like the heroine of a Victorian melodrama, I fainted.

By the time I opened my eyes again, my radiophone’s readout said 23:14; I had only been out for maybe half an hour, but my surroundings were completely different and I shuddered when I realized the slugs must’ve dragged me here.  I wasn’t sure where “here” was, exactly, but it looked like a cave and the rocks were wet with slime.  The entrance was above, so there was plenty enough Saturn-light for me to see that the group which had captured me was only a small fraction of the number here; there must have been thousands.  Though I was still petrified they hadn’t actually harmed me (except for the nice new grey hairs I had probably sprouted), and in fact were giving me a wide berth; the only bad thing was the unshakeable feeling that they were looking at me (despite the fact that they lack any visible sensory apparatus at all).  After about ten minutes of calming myself, I decided to risk the radiophone; Frances answered.

“Hiya doll.  Keeping things together over there?”

“Janet?  Where in blazes are you?  You’ve been gone for over two hours!”

“No time to explain now.  Is Doc Robinson still there, and sober?”

“Yes and mostly.  You want me to get him on the phone?”

“Please.”  The slugs hadn’t moved; could they hear, or detect radio waves, or both?  If so, they didn’t seem overly concerned.

(What do the slugs want with Janet?  And even if she escapes them, how will she deal with the new marshal?  Be here tomorrow for the exciting conclusion!)

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Beauty depends on size as well as symmetry.  –  Aristotle

Maeve resisted the urge to hurl the abacus against the far wall of the library.  It might have given her a little momentary satisfaction, but it would do nothing to remedy the situation and would, in fact, make it slightly worse because she would then have to buy another abacus.  She had carefully checked her figures three times, and found no errors; for the first time since she had become a courtesan, her expenditures for the month had exceeded her income.  And given that she had been cutting back on those expenditures for over a year now, that was a very bad development indeed.

She hastened to her looking-glass and closely examined her face in it.  She was still a very beautiful woman, but the encroaching signs of age were unmistakable and even the expensive cosmetics she purchased from a talented alchemist could only delay the inevitable.  Sooner or later she would begin to display the grey hair and wrinkles she had evaded for decades, and then her income would dry up along with her body.  Maeve sighed deeply; she was not an especially wise woman nor a frugal one, and though she had known for half her life that this day would eventually come, she had failed to make even the most rudimentary investments for her retirement.  And while most women could count on children and grandchildren to support them in their dotage, Maeve had traded away her ability to have them many years ago, in a bargain that seemed sensible at the time.  Her only hope was the Potion of Youth that the alchemist said he could make for her, but its price was so high she dared not spend the money unless she was absolutely certain it would buy her many years of good income again.

No, she was in a fine stew indeed, and thinking her way out of things had never been her strong point.  So she instead retired to her private shrine to Venus and began to pray for either divine inspiration or (preferably) a new and generous patron who would consider her maturity a plus rather than a minus.  When she was finished with her prayers, she found her maid Elise waiting for her in the anteroom with a rather odd look on her face.  “Ma’am, you have a visitor downstairs.”

“How wonderful!  Perhaps the goddess has answered my prayer already!”

Elise’s mien grew even stranger, but Maeve did not notice; she was already halfway down the stairs in less time than it takes to tell, and her maid appeared in no rush to keep up with her.  Reaching the door to her parlor, she took a moment to check her hair and teeth in another glass, then swept gracefully into the room in a way calculated to impress any but the dullest of clients.  It is a testament to her years of experience that she did not gasp out loud when she saw who was waiting for her in the room, but no mortal could have kept at least a momentary reaction from being reflected in her visage.  Because seated on the couch, drinking her tea and eating her cakes, was someone she at first took to be a very small boy until she realized that he had a beard.

He immediately stood up and bowed deeply; even though he was standing on the couch, his head was yet below the level of her bosom when he returned to an upright position.  “Allow me to introduce myself, dear lady; I am Ulwin O’Meglyn.”

The room grew quiet for a moment; Maeve was completely at a loss for words.  And even when she found her tongue at last, what came forth would not have won marks for elocution.  “Unless I very much miss my guess, good sir, you are a leprechaun.”

“I am not!” he said with controlled indignation.  “I am a brownie.  Leprechauns are about six inches taller and generally dress in tasteless green outfits, though I must admit they make some very fine shoes.”

Maeve was beginning to wonder what she could possibly have done to offend her goddess enough to deserve this joke being played upon her.  “Good Sir Brownie…”

“Ulwin, please.”

“Ulwin.  I apologize for my reaction, but, ah, I expected a different kind of visitor.  If you are seeking a position here, I would be happy to have you under the traditional arrangement.”

The little man looked at her with a rather annoyed expression.  “Madam, it is clear that you are rather ill-informed about developments in the relations between our races over the past several generations.  While it is true that in the past most of my people worked as servants in human households and refused to take formal payment, that has long since ceased to be the rule; I am the owner of an agency which places brownies in service in the very best households in the kingdom.  And as you can see, I have done quite well for myself.”

Now that he mentioned it, Maeve noticed that his clothes were impeccably tailored and his hat, boots and walking-stick new and of the finest craftsmanship.  “Pardon my ignorance, Sir Brownie…”

“Ulwin.”

“Ulwin.  I’m not especially interested in hiring additional paid servants at this time, but if I change my mind…”

“Dear lady, at the risk of being indelicate…I am not here to offer the services of those I represent, but to hire your services.”

Maeve could not help but laugh, though she had no desire to offend the polite little gentleman.  “You must forgive me, sir, but…well, it seems the difference in our statures might make that sort of activity rather difficult.”

“You disappoint me, madam.  Surely you do not think me a schoolboy who considers mere coupling to be the be-all and end-all of the time a man spends with a woman?”

For the first time, she realized he was absolutely earnest; exactly three seconds later, she began to consider his proposition.  She cautiously sat down beside him; he was still shorter than her despite the fact that he was standing on the seat.  “You’re serious?”

“Utterly.”

“But, don’t I seem…well, rather huge and grotesque in your eyes?”

“I would not be here if I felt that way.”

“I suppose not.  But why…I mean, how…that is…”

“I hardly thought I would have had to explain the strange mysteries of humanoid desire to an expert in the field.”

teacupMaeve knew he was right; there was no predicting what strange permutations would arouse the ardor of one man or another, and in her many years of experience she had found that no less true of dwarves, elves or other near-human people.  And it was obvious he had a great deal of money; perhaps Venus had heard her prayer after all.  “Your suggestions intrigue me, Ulwin,” she purred in her most charming manner; “Let me pour you some more tea and we’ll discuss it further.”

His smile let her know that she had already dispelled whatever bad feelings her clumsy and unprofessional reactions had engendered, and as they chatted she envisioned a profitable association with him and perhaps other little men who might share his tastes.  Nor was that the limit of the possibilities his visit had opened her mind to; one of her regular gentlemen had told her that only two days’ ride into the mountains, there was a village of friendly giants.

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Weave again for sweet Eurydice life’s pattern that was taken from the loom too quick.  –  Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book X

After more than eighteen hours of struggle, during which half a dozen different solutions had been developed and tried, Tanya finally had to accept the fact that the mission for which they had trained so long was a failure.  Their orbit was decaying; already the heat resulting from atmospheric friction was too much for the climate control to handle, and her clothes were plastered to her body with sweat.  Richard was pale when he should have been flushed, and she knew that he, too, grasped the full import of the situation:  they were going to die when the ship broke up, and there was absolutely nothing either they or Mission Control back on Earth could do about it.

“Orpheus One to Mission Control,” he said calmly into the mike.  “Request permission to initiate protocol six-seven-four.”  She did not let her face betray her sinking feelings; though she well understood that the self-destruct mechanism would be far less awful than waiting as many as twelve or fourteen more hours for the inevitable end, this was being televised to the whole world and she was unsure how the authorities were explaining it to the viewers.  “Repeat, protocol Six.  Seven.  Four.”

Venus“Request for protocol six-seven-four received and understood.  Stand by, Orpheus One; will advise shortly.”  Then, more quietly on the private channel:  “Hang in there, Rich, we’ll get an answer for you ASAP.”  Richard smiled bravely at her and squeezed her hand.  The two of them had been selected for compatibility; they both believed passionately in the project and had trained together for two years even before embarking on the months-long voyage to Venus in the cramped quarters of the seeding ship.  It would have been a miracle if they hadn’t fallen in love.  But there was no time to talk about it now when there were still dozens of tasks to perform; even if they were doomed, the telemetry and their reports would make Orpheus Two’s descent into Hell much less likely to fail.

The response from Earth came back with surprising speed; obviously Mission Control concurred with their assessment of the situation.  “Orpheus One, you are cleared for protocol six-seven-four once the commanding and biology officer’s reports are filed.”  And on the private channel: “I’m sorry, Rich, Tanya.  Whenever you’re ready.”

Though they had hoped it would never be necessary, they had drilled this a dozen times.  Tanya had already filed her final report; since the engineering problem had developed before they even started to seed the clouds, there was very little to report.  She checked the valves that would release the anesthesia gas into the cockpit, then opened them once Rich gave the all-clear; as soon as the computer registered that they were completely unconscious, the self-destruct device would automatically engage and the shattered fragments of Orpheus One and her two human occupants would soon come to rest on the surface of the hostile world they hoped to one day make fit for human habitation.

“I love you,” he whispered, embracing her for the last time.

“Oh, I love you so!” she answered through tears, as she slipped into sleep.

***************************************************************

The next thing Tanya was aware of was that it was very cold and much too bright; she thought she must only feel cold because it had been so hot before, but that begged the question of why she should feel anything at all when she was dead.  Eventually her drugged brain concluded that she must not be dead, however impossible that seemed; she started to make out fragments of conversation that seemed to be about her, and then understood that someone – a doctor or nurse? – was telling her that she was safe.  She ventured a complaint about the light, but it was ignored until she had repeated it several times; she then asked for a blanket and that was granted much more quickly.  Then it was a dizzying and unpleasant trip by gurney to a quieter, darker room, strong arms lifting her into a soft bed, and oblivion again.

The next time she woke her mind was instantly alert and full of questions; the attending nurse claimed not to know anything, and called for help when Tanya responded to her advice to lie calm with a string of profanity and demands to talk to someone who “Does know something goddammit!”  That succeeded in getting a hospital administrator there, and he assured her that he didn’t know much more than she did, that he was under orders not to discuss the little he did know, and that a VIP would be there to explain things to her in a few hours.  She used the time to eat, to take her first proper shower in months and to ascertain that wherever she was, it was definitely on Earth (judging by air and gravity) but had no windows.  After an interminable amount of time an orderly brought her one of her own uniforms (freshly laundered) and bade her dress, and then she waited still longer.

Finally, she was ushered into a briefing room, and the VIP turned out to be no less than the Undersecretary of Space Exploration himself.  He had visited the project many times during the training period, and Tanya felt she knew him well enough to be blunt with him; after he greeted her and shook her hand, she responded with “No offense, Mr. Secretary, but what the hell is going on here?”

He sighed and steepled his fingers.  “Tanya, I know you may find this hard to accept at first, but your mission didn’t fail; it succeeded.”

“How so?  The hull design turned out to be unable to withstand the conditions in the upper Venusian atmosphere, and its integrity was compromised before we could even begin the seeding run.”

“Didn’t you find that at all suspicious?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean we’ve studied Venus for decades; we’re almost as familiar with its atmospheric conditions as we are with Earth’s.  We’ve sent dozens of unmanned probes there; don’t you think we should know how to build a ship that would stand up to it by now?”

“I’m not an engineer,” Tanya retorted, but she inwardly felt very foolish; of course they could.

“The ship didn’t break up, Tanya; it did exactly what it was designed to do, which was to simulate a doomed terraforming mission.”

“Simulate?” she asked weakly.  “But there was a real ship.  We saw it several times a week for two years.”

“A real mockup.  When you entered the cockpit module, the crane transferred you into the simulator instead of the dummy ship.”

“But why?  What was the point?  I mean obviously you wanted to put on some big survival drama for television, and you didn’t tell us…was Richard in on this?” she asked angrily.

“Richard was as much in the dark as you were.  We wanted your reactions to be authentic.”

“WHY?” she exploded.  “For the love of God, what was it all for?  It must have cost billions!”

He sighed more deeply this time, and seemed to let his practiced poise drop a little.  “Tanya, there are twelve billion people on the planet now; thanks to advances of the past century hunger is a thing of the past, and the number of people in dire poverty is so low it’s barely worth mentioning.  Automation handles all of the jobs that are too dangerous for humans, and we’ve banned all dangerous sports and unhealthy activities; the average person now lives to be one hundred and eight, and spends most of his non-working hours immersed in unproductive fantasy.  Depression is epidemic, and our whole society is drowning in ennui; the population needs a great adventure they can experience vicariously, something they can believe in.  Because when people have nothing to look forward to, they have no reason to go on living.”

“Richard and I often wondered why the government was sending humans on a dangerous mission a robot ship could’ve handled just as well.”

“Now you know.  The point of the mission wasn’t to terraform Venus, which won’t be technically feasible for decades yet despite those bogus figures you were taught; the point was to get the world excited about a huge adventure, to give them heroes to root for and love and cry over and mourn for.  Tomorrow I’m going to a ceremony to unveil plans for a giant memorial for you and Richard.”

“But we’re still alive!”

“A technicality.  We couldn’t allow two such talented scientists to be lost, especially with all the training the state has invested in you; you’ll be given new faces and new identities, and retrained for other work.”

“So we don’t even get to enjoy being heroes,” Tanya said bitterly.

“This isn’t about you.”

“Obviously not.”

“Look, Tanya, I understand you’re upset; the rug’s just been yanked out from under you and everything you thought you knew has been turned upside-down.  I’ve authorized a 50% salary increase plus a very generous bonus package, and I’ve had all your baggage moved from the training center to a secure residence facility near here; soon you’ll be discharged from the hospital and moved there, and you can take as much time off as you need.  We won’t start your retraining until you’re ready, OK?”

“Yeah, great.  Thanks.”

When Tanya was left alone in her new quarters hours later, she proceeded to nervously dig through her bags, hoping to find something which had been among her toiletries at the training center.  At last, she found it; the housekeeper had apparently received no instructions other than to collect all of her things, because if anyone had given it some thought this bottle would almost certainly have been confiscated.  She carefully counted out the pills, allowing four extra to provide a margin for error; she had always had almost textbook reactions to medicine, so she was certain it would be enough.  For the first time since they had embarked on their fake voyage, there was no telemetry taped to her body; by the time anyone checked on her tomorrow, she would already be cold.  As she swallowed the pills in small handfuls with a glass of filtered water, she reflected that the secretary was right about one thing:  she had believed in Project Orpheus with all her heart, and was fervently dedicated to the goal of opening another world up to human colonization.  But that had all been ripped away from her in the last 24 hours, along with her name, her identity, the man she loved and her entire life history.  She had nothing left, except whatever the state decided to magnanimously dole out to her; given the way she had been used without her consent, she had absolutely no faith that her new life would be anything worth looking forward to.  And when people have nothing to look forward to…

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If you’ve just started reading my blog since last summer, you may be unfamiliar with Aella the Amazon; if so, this story will make little sense to you unless you first read “A Decent Boldness“, “A Haughty Spirit” and “Glorious Gifts“, in that order.

Wise to resolve, and patient to perform.  –  Homer, Odyssey (IV, 372)

To My Dearest Friend Phaedra, May Tethys Protect and Enrich Thee:

I pray this letter finds thee well, and that thou wilt forgive my poor grammar and worse penmanship.  I have written it in Tarshi because it is of the utmost importance that its contents are kept a secret between us, and I know that no one in my country and few in thine can read it.  My people already believe me to have become somewhat erratic due to my years spent in Man’s World, and I fear if they knew what I was planning I might not escape as easily as I did that unpleasantness about the spring festival six years ago.

youth with cattleThou wilt remember that I conceived by the wealthy Scythian who gifted me with the beautiful kine, and bore a healthy son; thou wilt also remember that by the ancient pact between their people and ours, sons go to live with their fathers while we keep the daughters.  Most of my people see a son as no more than bad luck, a necessary but unfortunate side effect of the lottery which might also produce a daughter.  But somehow I could not be quite so unconcerned; even in the three months between his birth and the Spring Festival I had become very attached to him, and though I spoke it not aloud I gave him a secret name in my heart, Asterios.  I suppose my Aunt Laomache is right, and I have been contaminated by outlandish ideas; I’ve known so many good men, both in Tartessos and during the months I spent at thy mother’s in Knossos, that I can no longer think of them merely as a necessary evil (no matter how bad most of them may be).  Furthermore, his father Niall and I have mated every year since at the festival, and he always makes me a present of more kine; I thus see my son (whom his father named Hemek) every spring, and again on the occasions when our clans have met for trading after harvest, and every day (or so I fancy) in the faces of the two daughters I have borne since, who strongly resemble their brother.

So though it is not considered proper among my people to care about the fates of sons, the heart cannot be commanded by mortal woman.  I know not why I feel such a powerful concern for his health and happiness, but feel it I do, and I have come to the conclusion that it is wrong to deny him the advantages his sisters will have.  The Scythians are great warriors and horsemen, but they are not civilized like we Amazons; they spend most of the year roaming the steppes, living in tents and grazing their herds hither and yon.  They have no writing and little in the way of art, and even their music and poetry are crude.  So though my son is already strong and skilled for his five years, I want more for him than to be a mere herdsman.  If wandering be the way of his father’s people, so be it, but let him wander among the cities of the West rather than the endless seas of grass in the East.  Let him go forth and learn about all the wonders of the world as I have, and come home a wealthy, important and learned man, perhaps one able to bring culture to his noble but naïve race.

I have spoken to Niall about this, and we are in agreement; he is very impressed with the knowledge I gained in my travels, and he would like his son to have similar learning.  If it meet with thy approval, we will send Hemek to thee two springs hence with the same captain who bears this letter; in the years I have known him I have found him to be an honorable man, and I believe I can trust him to deliver the boy safely into thy keeping in Knossos.  I also know thou hast important kin who can secure the necessary seals and papers to doubly insure that he not be abused or sold into slavery before he reaches thy house.  I charge thee to love him as thou lovest me, and to rear and educate him alongside thine own son; once I receive confirmation of his safe passage I will also pay the same captain to carry thee a sum of gold sufficient to pay whatever sum his teachers demand, and a like sum every year until his education should be complete.

Though I am a loyal Amazon and love my family and my mother country, I am no longer the pigheaded provincial I was when we met so long ago; I have learned that there are many ways for men and women to relate to one another, and have grown wise enough to understand that our ways are not necessarily the best.  Legend says our first queen established our laws so that we would never be dominated by men, and while I saw the kind of society she wished to avoid in several of the places we visited, in Crete I saw men and women living together as equals.  Perhaps thy people are morally superior to all others, yet I know them to be just as mortal; I therefore assume this to be the result of superior teaching and wiser laws.  That is the other reason I wish my son to be educated there; perhaps he can bring that wisdom back to his father’s people, and his mother’s people can in turn learn from them.  I do not believe that even a son of mine can create a new Golden Age singlehandedly, nor that such a thing is even possible.  But if change is to happen it has to start somewhere, and who better to start it than one of Amazon blood?

With Sincere Love and Gratitude, Thine Own True Friend Always

Aella sealed letter

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Since I left home for my book tour today, I thought this would be a good day to answer questions about the book and the tour.  Some of these are actual reader questions, while others are questions I anticipate I might get or information I think you could use in Q&A format.  If you have another I didn’t include, please ask it in the comments below and I’ll get to it tonight in the hotel.

Is this book wholly composed of stories which already appear on the blog?  If so, why should I buy it?

detail from Ladies of the Night coverAll of the stories except the last, “Nephil”, already appear on the blog (if you’re wondering what the title means, here’s a hint).  There are a number of reasons why you might want to buy it besides that story, though.  If you’re anything like me, you just like paper books and enjoy the experience of holding one in your hands, turning the pages, being able to lend it to a friend, etc.  You might give it as a gift to someone who would enjoy my stories, but isn’t much of a blog reader.  You might just like having all the stories in one place, bound together and topped off with fabulous Chester Brown cover art of yours truly.  Or you might just want to support my work, in which case you could think of the book itself as the gift you get for donating to a Kickstarter or public TV pledge drive.  Even the Kindle edition fulfills all of these but the first; I selected the setting that allows you to share your copy.

My favorite story isn’t in the book!  What’s up with that?

I wanted to keep this one as close to the whore theme as possible, though I did make a few exceptions, including the aforementioned “Nephil”.  Most of the stories that weren’t included, or that have been published since last November, will be in the next collection (currently scheduled for January 2016 and entitled The Forms of Things Unknown) along with a couple of older stories I haven’t shared with you and at least two or three new unpublished ones.

When will you release a book of your essays?

I’m going to start compiling Whore’s Eye View after I get back from my tour; it will include some of my favorite essays in their original forms, others in revised and/or expanded forms, still others in combined and rewritten forms and others which I originally published elsewhere, assuming I can get permission to reprint them.  I’m going to try to get it out by the end of January.

Will you be visiting my city on your tour?

Here’s my tour schedule; if your city isn’t on the list, but it’s within about four hours’ drive of another city which is on the list, just send an email asking me to visit.  Your request will have even more impact if you can suggest a specific place I could do a book reading or give a talk, and it’s virtually assured if you can actually make the arrangements yourself (in other words if it’s your store, club or whatever).  Notice that the calendar is still in flux; check back when I’m getting close to you for details of local appearances.

What if you aren’t coming anywhere near my city?

Seattle skylineUnfortunately, I had to plan this to be doable with the time and money allotted, which meant leaving out large sections of the country (especially the North and Northwest).  However, as I explained I’ll be doing another book quite soon, and since I’ll be better at this tour thing by then I will probably be able to do a better job next time.  Seattle will definitely be on next year’s tour, and if you’d like me to come by your city as well, read the question above for suggestions on how to make that happen.  If you represent an organization well-funded enough to pay for my travel and accommodations, you needn’t even wait for next year; just email me with the details.  But it’ll have to be by train or rental car; I fear and despise air travel.

Why aren’t you visiting anyplace outside of the US?

Beside the problem with air travel mentioned above, there are currently issues too complex, boring and ridiculous to explain (nutshell version: bureaucratic incompetence) that prohibit my getting a passport until I can afford the lawyer to clean it up.  Maybe one day, but not in the next few years.

Are you dedicated to self-publication, or do you plan to use a traditional publisher later?

I don’t take rejection well, and I’m not really good at asking people to do things for me, so I couldn’t handle finding either a publisher or an agent.  The whole “proposal” and “sample chapter” thing is also anathema to the way I think and write; I can’t do something halfway.  In other words, if I’m going to write a book I just write it, and once this one was written I had no desire to waste months or years shopping it around.  Now it’s out, and if a publisher sees it and wants to do a new edition or suggest a deal for my next book (or books), I’m certainly interested in hearing the offer.  But I’m much more comfortable with someone approaching me and asking, “Would you do x for me if I pay you?” than with having to approach someone and ask, “Will you pay me to do x?”  The former sits much better with my harlot’s soul.

Will you ever publish your memoirs?

Almost certainly, but not until at least five years down the road; I want to do the other books I’ve mentioned first, plus one tentatively entitled Dear Maggie and an analytical history of the “sex trafficking” hysteria once it starts to die off (that one will probably appear in 2018 if my predictions hold true).  I think it would be premature to do my memoirs before I know how well all the other stuff will sell, and how well-known I’ll be after publishing those.  Gossip fans take note:  I have absolutely no intention of naming any names in my memoirs.

(Have a question of your own?  Please consult this page to see if I’ve answered it in a previous column, and if not just click here to ask me via email.)

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I wrote the original version of this story (which, by the by, was based on a dream) around 1990, but like “Spring Forward” it was lost due to computer and filing problems during my “year of disaster”.  I’ve been thinking about rewriting it for some time now, but I was finally inspired to do so by a certain column published early last month; after you read the tale, you’ll probably be able to guess which one.

All right, Doreen, you win; I’ll tell you the truth about how it all happened.  But don’t forget, I already said you wouldn’t believe it, and I still don’t think you really will because I only half believe it myself.   And if you start arguing with me and telling me I must be wrong, or it couldn’t have happened that way, or maybe I need a long vacation, I’m going to hang up on you and forever deny I said any of it.  Deal?

It all started last September when I went on that camping trip with one of my clients, remember?  He owns a big sporting goods store, and he’d been practically begging me to go on a camping date with him for years; at first I held him off by saying that wasn’t really my style, but that excuse wouldn’t hold water any more after he got to know me.  Anyway, he bribed me with a week-long booking and a whole new wardrobe of cute hiking wear, and eventually I caved in under the condition that if I really hated it we’d come out of the backwoods and rent a cabin for the rest of the week.

campsiteWell, at first it actually turned out to be kind of nice.  A sleeping bag isn’t exactly the ideal place to work, but I’ve done it in worse places and it was only for half an hour a night; the rest of the time we were hiking and fishing and all that sort of thing.  The time went quickly and pleasantly, and in fact it was on track for being one of my nicest professional dates ever until the sasquatch showed up.  Yes, Doreen, I said “sasquatch”, as in Bigfoot.  What?  I don’t care what your damned husband says, that thing was no goddamned hoax!  Hey, are you going to shut up and listen or am I going to hang up?  All right then.

As I was saying before I was so freaking rudely interrupted, I know damned well it was no dude in a suit because he picked me up with one arm and slung me over his shoulder, so I got to see him plenty close enough.  And the smell made me want to vomit.  Yes, I’m serious; what a stupid question!  If I was going to make something up it would be a helluva lot more believable than this.  Anyway, it’s a good thing my date wasn’t too far away because he leaped to my rescue, shouting to get the sasquatch’s attention and then shooting him with bear spray.  He dropped me like a kid throwing down his book bag and headed off in a rush, making this awful howling noise.  I was pretty badly bruised and shaken up from being dropped seven feet onto hard ground, but other than that I was OK; it was all over before I even had time to get scared.

Obviously, that was the end of the trip; I said I was all right and maybe we could just relocate our campsite to someplace less remote, but he wouldn’t hear of it and brought me back to town immediately.  Nothing was broken and in a week or so I wasn’t even sore any more, and if it wasn’t for the fact that someone else had seen it all I might’ve put it down to bad drugs or whatever; it was just so surreal that by the time a couple of months had gone by it seemed more like something I had seen in a movie than something which had really happened to me.

And then I started getting the presents.

BigfootAt first it was only once or twice a week, then later every day.  They were always left sometime during the night at my back door:  nuts, wild honey, game, all sorts of things.  Some of the offerings were things that could’ve been found in the woods, while others clearly originated in town.  Or more specifically, on the edge of town;  both the nursery and the farmer’s market from which several of the gifts seemed to have come were, like my house, within sight of the edge of the forest.  What’s that?  Yeah, it was definitely creepy, but I learned long ago never to call the cops unless you’re dying, and probably not even then.  And I didn’t really get scared until the first time it snowed…and I saw a trail of eighteen-inch-long bare footprints leading up to my door and returning to the woods.

Though this had been going on for months now, seeing that was just too much; that was when I called you and made up that dumb story about getting my house fumigated so I could stay at your place a couple of nights.  Oh yeah?  Well, you didn’t seem to find it suspicious at the time.  Anyhow, when I went back there was nothing at the door but a piece of scrap cardboard with four letters crudely printed on it: S – O – R – Y.

I suddenly felt weak, and would probably have passed out right there had I not quickly sat down on the stoop.  The only conclusion I could come to was that a sasquatch had fallen in love with me at first sight and attempted to carry me off, but after being foiled at that decided to woo me with presents instead.  Go ahead and laugh, I know how ridiculous that sounds; the place I had first met him was over a hundred miles from here, so how in the world could he have followed me, and how could he have figured out where I lived?  How had he avoided being seen for months in a far more populous area than the one where he normally lived?  Why had the gifts gradually shifted from apparently-random offerings to things I genuinely like?  And how the hell had an ape-like monster learned to write?

There were no more presents after that for a long time, and eventually my curiosity about the creature overpowered my fear; I began to wish he’d come back, reasoning that if he could write even a little we could learn to communicate, and I could solve the mystery.  But all through the winter I saw nothing of him, and by April I figured he had gone back wherever he came from…and then one morning there was a metal strongbox on my stoop.  The lock had been smashed open, and inside I found over forty thousand dollars…yet it had been left outside as casually as those first offerings of acorns and dead fish had been.  Well, of course I kept it, wouldn’t you have?  The bills weren’t marked, the strongbox looked pretty shabby and there was nothing in the news about a stolen box full of cash; maybe he ran into drug dealers or something.  The important thing was that he was still in the area, and had clearly learned that money is something I value.

And then it hit me: if he kept bringing me money, trouble would surely follow.  A merchant might ignore a missing sack of potatoes, but people don’t leave cash lying around…somebody was bound to get hurt, and sooner rather than later.  I had long since decided he must be able to read my mind; how else could he have tracked me, fine-tuned his gifts and learned about human culture?  Oh, get real, Doreen!  You’re telling me that a lovesick Bigfoot with ESP is really that much more absurd than a lovesick Bigfoot without?  All right then.

So anyway, I knew I had to nip this in the bud before he turned into a full-fledged criminal; that night I set up a picnic table in the backyard, put a bunch of different foods on it, made myself a pot of coffee and sat down in a lawn chair to wait for him.  How do you get that?  You didn’t see him; none of my doors could’ve stopped him if he had really wanted to get inside, and he hadn’t ever tried, so obviously being alone outside was no more dangerous than being alone inside, which I had been the majority of nights since this started.

figure in woodsI didn’t have to wait long; about 1 AM he came out of the woods, stopped just inside the range of the floodlights and sat down on my lawn.  The smell which had been so pronounced at our first meeting was gone, and his long, shaggy hair was both clean and – don’t laugh – brushed.  I asked him if he could understand me, and he nodded, so I explained that while I appreciated his gifts, it wasn’t right for him to take things that didn’t belong to him.  I guess the concept of private property was a new one to him, but he’s really very bright so he grasped it that very first night.  Well, of course I did; after he went through all that trouble to meet me it was the least I could do.

Hang on a second, Doreen, a car just pulled into my driveway…it’s you?  Wow, I really wasn’t expecting you to come over today.  Ummm…no, I guess it’s OK, I was just training my new driver, Hank, so you might as well come in and meet him.  I’d better warn you, though, he’s really huge and kind of scary, but he’s really just a big teddy bear.  And he’s a lot smarter than he looks.

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Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies.
  –  Robert W. Chambers

Tomorrow is May Day, and today May Eve; though the tradition has waned in the past century, it was once viewed in the same way as Halloween: a night for ghosts, haunts and dark doings.  In my first column for the occasion I shared my list of the ten scariest short stories, and in last year’s column the scariest TV show episodes I’ve ever seen.  This year, I present thirteen main selections (five movies, two poems, one television miniseries, four short stories and a fairy tale) plus a few lagniappe items, ranging from the fun to the beautiful to the horrifying; most can be described by two or even all three of those adjectives, and I doubt many of you will be familiar with all of them.  I’ve provided PDF copies of all the tales and poems, and links to view or buy the shows.

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)  A group of ambitious Lovecraft fans asked themselves, “What if his most famous story had been adapted for the screen shortly after it was published in 1928?”  The result may be the best of all Lovecraft film treatments, especially if you can appreciate silent film.

ChristabelChristabel (1816) is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s sadly-unfinished poem of a lesbian vampire.  Though it has other complexities of theme, it is this overt meaning which has had the strongest resonance; J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” (1872) is basically a prose adaptation of it, and the lesbian vampire motif has appeared in many movies from Dracula’s Daughter  (1936) to the present.

The Kingdom (1994) Lars von Trier wrote and directed this bizarre Danish miniseries of ghostly, psychic and otherwise-weird goings-on at a super-modern hospital built on what was once a haunted bog.  Steven King adapted it for American television a decade later, with predictably piss-poor results; the Kwaidanoriginal is much, much better.

Kwaidan (1964) is Masaki Kobayashi’s gorgeous film version of four Japanese ghost stories translated by Lafcadio Hearn.  The word “unforgettable” is badly overused in movie advertising copy, but this is one time it’s richly deserved.

Man-size in Marble (1893) by Edith Nesbit used to be very common in horror anthologies; it was one of the first horror tales I can remember reading, certainly before the age of ten.  But since it isn’t as commonly collected as it used to be, some of my readers may be unfamiliar with this chilling little example of the traditional English ghost story.

The Monster Club (1981) is one of the strangest and most uneven films ever made.  Vampire Vincent Price brings horror writer John Carradine to a London nightclub whose members are all humanoid monsters, and there tells him three stories: one sad, one absurd and one horrifying.  There’s also music and a stripper.  Don’t take this one too seriously; just enjoy the weirdness.

The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)  Though Vincent Price’s performance as the mad sculptor in House of Wax (1953) was superior to Lionel Atwill’s in this original version of the story, this two-strip Technicolor gem is better than the remake in almost every other way.  I especially love Fay Wray as Lois Lane prototype Charlotte Duncan, the ambitious and hardheaded “girl reporter” whose curiosity leads her to the brink of a gruesome fate.

Psychomania (1973) is another oddball British horror movie in which a sorcerer’s son turned motorcycle gang leader discovers how he and his followers can become undead, and after they do they embark on a reign of terror only his mother can stop.

The Tongue-Cut Sparrow was my favorite fairy tale as a wee lass; I must’ve asked Maman to read it to me hundreds of times.  You may wonder why a fairy tale is on a horror list, until I tell you it’s a Japanese fairy tale; if you still don’t get it, read the story.  Yes, I was a strange child.

The Vampyre (1819) is the only other surviving product of the famous “ghost story” contest between the Shelleys and Lord Byron that rainy summer on Lake Geneva.  Though Frankenstein eclipses it in every way, Dr. John Polidori’s entry (based on a plot by Byron) is the first known vampire short story in English, and influenced all which came after it.

Pauline and the MatchesThe Very Sad Tale of the Matches (1845)  Germany is probably the only country whose children’s literature is more horrific than that of Japan; I’m sure most of you are aware of what the original un-Disneyfied Grimm’s fairy tales are like.  Heinrich Hoffmann was a psychiatrist who wrote a cheery little book (originally for his son) named Der Struwwelpeter, in which minor childhood misbehaviors (such as nose-picking) precipitate horrific punishments (like having the offending fingers cut off by a man with gigantic shears).  This selection from the book has, in my opinion, the most striking disconnect between the tone and language and the awful goings-on therein.

What Was It? (1859) Fitz-James O’Brien wrote only a small number of tales before his untimely death in the American Civil War, but they reveal a talent which might have made him one of the greats had he lived to develop it.  This is the very first example of a story in which there is a creature who is invisible, yet tangible; it is not a ghost but a living being, and its invisibility is ascribed to an undiscovered scientific principle rather than a supernatural one.  If anything, the tale is even creepier because of that.

The Yellow Sign (1895) If you have watched the television series True Detective, you’ve heard references to the Yellow King and the city of Carcosa; both are borrowed from this story and others by Robert W. Chambers, which revolve around a mysterious play called The King in Yellow which brings madness to all who read it (or even own a copy).  Chambers’ work is of very uneven quality, but this one and “The Repairer of Reputations” (also included in this PDF) are outstanding.

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