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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

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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A man can go from being a lover to being a stranger in three moves flat…but a woman under the guise of friendship will engage in acts of duplicity which come to light very much later.  -  Anita Brookner

“We’re going to have to move soon; I really think Eleanor is beginning to suspect.”

“What makes you think that?” asked Hazel, handing him his drink and then moving behind him to rub his shoulders.

“Nothing I can really explain,” he said, then after a sip: “When you’ve been married to somebody for twenty-seven years, you get to know all her little ways, and you notice when they change.  You were married before, you know what I mean.”

“Yes.  But how do you know she isn’t cheating on you, too?”

Ted laughed.  “You don’t know Eleanor; she’s as cold a fish as there is.  We were both virgins when we got married, and once we were done having kids she just wasn’t interested any more.  I’ve already told you this more than once.”

“There’s no need to get testy,” she said reassuringly.  “I just want you to consider all the possibilities so you don’t start acting nervous and setting off her radar.”

“Like I said, I think I already have.  Oh, I’ve been very careful; before I met you I saw escorts for years, and before that I had cultivated a pattern of not really telling her much about my comings and goings.  And since she leaves the money to me, it’s always been easy to use as much as I want without her being the wiser.  But lately, she’s been requesting a lot more money for all sorts of things, as if she’s trying to probe the state of our finances.”

“Has she been questioning you or anything like that?” 2X

“No, she wouldn’t.  Eleanor is maddeningly indirect; she never makes a statement when an insinuation will do, and whenever she’s angry at me it always takes me days to figure out why.  I’ll never understand why so many women are like that; is it something on the X chromosome?”

“You have an X chromosome as well, Ted.”

“I know, but maybe something on the Y cancels it out.  Maybe real sneakiness requires a double X.”

“Oh, really!  Now you’re just being ridiculous.  I’m relatively straightforward, and you’re extremely sneaky; if quietly converting most of your investments to negotiable form so you can fly off to Tahiti with your mistress doesn’t qualify, I can’t imagine what would.”

Ted looked as though he had been slapped.  “I’m not leaving her destitute,” he said quietly; “In fact, as per your suggestion I transferred the house and several large investments into her name.  I just want to divide the money fairly rather than leaving it to courts and lawyers who would probably give her everything.”

“Oh, I’m sorry!” she said, hugging him closely.  “I didn’t mean to hurt you.  It’s just that I feel nervous, too, and dumb female stereotypes always get me irritated.  Please forgive me.”

“See, Hazel, this is what I’m talking about.  You know how many women would apologize like you just did?  Practically none.  That’s not a stereotype, it’s just the truth; men usually end up having to apologize no matter who was wrong.  I don’t think you really understand how different you are from most women.  I never believed I would fall in love with anyone ever again, much less want to live my life with her.  But you just make me feel so special, so safe.  I know I can trust you, and that we won’t end up being strangers sleeping in the same bed like Eleanor and me.”

“I promise you that will never happen,” she said through glistening eyes.  And then she kissed him, and for a while there was no more conversation.

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

airliner in flightA few days later, though, she brought up the subject again on the airplane.  “I just can’t help but feel guilty about what we did.  I know the two of you really shouldn’t have married in the first place, and that you haven’t had a sex life in over 15 years.  I know the kids are grown up, and we really do love each other, and there really wasn’t a home to break up.  But damn, don’t you feel bad about running off with all the negotiables as well as the stuff he put in your name?”

Eleanor shrugged.  “Not really.  I left documents donating the house back to him, and he’s still under fifty; he has twenty more years to build up again, and with no alimony that’ll be easy with his salary.  He’ll be a lot better off in the long run than I would’ve been had he been the one to run off with you as he thought would happen.”

“I suppose you’re right,” sighed Hazel.  “But I still feel bad about playing him like I did.”

“No worse than he thought he was playing me,” Eleanor huffed.  “He got what he deserved.”

“Maybe,” she replied.  “But I guess he was right about women being the sneakier ones, after all.”

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This world of imagination is the world of eternity.  -  William Blake

In a place that is not a place as material beings understand the term, on a plane of existence several levels above our own, three friends came together to share stories of their travels since the last time they had met.  I shall refer to them as Red, Green and Blue, but what they actually call themselves (if indeed they use a concept as crude as “name”) I do not know.  As was their custom they eventually lapsed into a philosophical discussion, debating various ideas in much the same way as sentient beings everywhere in the multiverse do, and one of the topics they touched upon was the ephemeral nature of the societies created by material beings.  Soon the conversation turned to a comparison of these societies, and they began to speculate about which of these had the lowest likelihood of still existing in a recognizable form by the time they got around to visiting it again.

colors“I visited a world whose inhabitants were expending its resources at a shocking rate,” ventured Red.  “They had developed technological means of improving their physical conditions, but made not the slightest effort to calculate the probable supply of the raw materials consumed in the process, nor even the most basic contingency plans for the eventual depletion of those materials.  Though enough of them were skilled in the development and use of technology to maintain and even improve their control over their environment, the majority of the population was fixated on an irrational belief system which pretended that beings from higher planes like ourselves had nothing better to do than to watch over them constantly, protecting them from the consequences of their own foolish actions.  Though they believed such beings could transcend the laws of nature and violate conservation of energy, they simultaneously imagined that the beings were obsessed with the tiniest details of their behavior, and would dole out reward or punishment based upon how closely each individual could adhere to a set of arbitrary, pointless and mutually contradictory rules.  So rather than prepare themselves for the ultimate necessity of modifying their procedures to maintain or improve their current standards of living, they instead devoted tremendous effort to asking nonexistent benefactors to somehow materialize favorable consequences for them, and to spying on each other to ensure nobody was breaking any of the silly rules which they imagined their incorporeal benefactors to care about above all else.

“Surely, such a misguided sense of priorities must eventually result in catastrophe; if they fail to think ahead they must eventually reach a point where their resources run out, and when that happens their society must either collapse or decline into barbarism.”

“That is indeed a sorry situation,” replied Green, “but I think we must all agree that whatever the chances of such a civilization’s survival, they would be lower still if those hapless creatures were burdened with even more deficiencies.  I visited a world very like the one you just described, but in addition to the resource depletion, irrational belief system and refusal to face reality, they were also incredibly violent.  A large fraction of their already-limited means was expended in the infliction of harm upon one another, and when they could find no sensible reason to do so they invented ridiculous ones.  Like the beings you visited, they were obsessed with monitoring each others’ mindless obedience to foolish regulations, but they further believed that they had the right to inflict violence upon each other for even the smallest and most inconsequential violations of those regulations.  They even selected from among their number a designated group whose entire purpose was to go about not only looking for rule-breaking, but to actually deceive their fellows into breaking rules so as to provide an excuse for the infliction of violence.  Nor was this violence limited by some principle of proportionality; these special agents were allowed to inflict grievous, even fatal harm upon their victims for even the tiniest transgression of the most obscure rule.  And when they could not discover a large enough number of rule-breakers to satisfy their assigned quotas, they would simply pick victims at random, falsely accuse them and inflict harm just as though they had actually done whatever it was they were accused of.”

“Incredible!” rejoined Red.

“There’s more.  Though there were already so many rules it was totally impossible for any of them to ever learn them all, they designated another group whose entire function was to invent even more of them, and to ensure they were too complicated for the ordinary individual to understand; they were written in a form of code so that none without special training could even hope to comprehend them.  And if these rule-makers failed to make enough new rules to satisfy certain other individuals, they were criticized for inefficiency.

“It seems inconceivable that such a civilization could even last long enough to run out of resources; surely they must destroy themselves well before that point.”

sperm & egg microphotographBut then it was Blue’s turn.  “I fear that the world I visited must come to a bad end even more quickly still, for its inhabitants were afflicted by all of the behavioral flaws the two of you have described, and another which I consider still worse.  Like many material life-forms, they reproduced sexually and the biological drive to mate was a strong one.  But though the act of reproductive union was so pleasant to them that they would use every opportunity to engage in it, even when biological conditions did not allow impregnation, they simultaneously believed that the act rendered them ritually impure.  A very large fraction of their arbitrary rules were dedicated to restricting the act of mating, and infractions of these rules were held to be among the most serious of all, and subject to some of the harshest penalties in the society.  Furthermore, mated pairs were supposed to be exclusive despite the fact that one of the biological sexes tended to have a much stronger and less selective drive than the other, and though transgressions against that exclusivity were extremely common they all pretended that their own mates would never behave so.  An entire profession was dedicated to allowing the expenditure of such urges in a controlled fashion so as to reduce the potential harm resulting from transgressive mating; without this profession the long-term pair-bonding upon which their entire social structure was built would undoubtedly fail far more often than it did.  Yet those who practiced it were vilified and stigmatized by most of their societies, even by those who used their services, and the dedicated rule-enforcers spent wildly disproportionate amounts of time and effort in their persecution.  Furthermore, they seemed to labor under the delusion that if they could only cage everyone they discovered in this transaction, the biological basis for it would vanish without affecting their rate of population replacement.

“Given that such a large fraction of their racial energies was expended upon a wholly futile task which, if they could somehow succeed at it, would totally destroy the foundations of their society, I cannot believe that this culture still exists in the form I perceived it.  Such mass derangement must surely prove disastrous within a relatively small number of generations.”

The friends agreed that the world Blue had visited must indeed have fallen into chaos by now, and was therefore the worst of all those they had seen.  Perhaps they were wrong; it may be that as astral entities they had an imperfect understanding of the tenacity and adaptability of material life.  Or perhaps the time-scale on which they functioned was so protracted that nearly any society of material beings would perish quickly by their standards; it may be that “soon” to them would be twice ten thousand years by the way we measure time.  Conversely, it may be that my poor, ephemeral brain of matter was unable to grasp the true nature of their conversation, and that upon awakening from this vision I filled in the gaps with my own mortal preoccupations.  And really, in all likelihood, Red, Green and Blue exist only in my imagination (and now in yours), and this entire tale is but the idle fancy of a tired and cynical mind.

We’d better hope so, anyway.

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An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not the invasion of ideas.
-  Victor Hugo

Gene usually got dressed quickly, gave Katherine some kind of rough estimate of when she should expect him to call again, asked her what she had planned for dinner and then told her what a lovely time he’d had before heading out the door.  But when he fumbled with his shoes, tied his tie unevenly, and otherwise delayed leaving while making no conversation at all, she knew he was nervous about something.

“Kathy, I just wanted to let you know that I saw Victoria Tate, but I won’t again,” he finally blurted out.

She took his hand and smiled.  “I think you sometimes forget that I’m not your wife, Gene; you don’t owe me fidelity.  You can see Victoria or any other escort you like, and you don’t have to report it to me or seek forgiveness.”

“Well, usually I don’t; I mean, you know I’ve seen other girls before, and that I always come back to you.  But somehow, it just seemed different with Victoria, like I was betraying you or something.”

“That’s silly; how could seeing Victoria be any more a betrayal than seeing anyone else?”

The Wish by Theodor von Holst (1841)He paused for a moment, then: “Because we both know she’s marketing herself as a younger alternative to you.”  If the statement hurt her feelings, she gave no outward sign.  The situation was obvious to everyone in town:  Victoria used similar advertising copy, presented herself in the same general fashion, even provided the same kind of amenities at her incall.  Both women were tall, charismatic, classically-beautiful brunettes, both well-educated and well-spoken, both endowed with that indefinable quality known as “class”.  But while Katherine was well over fifty,  Victoria was still under twenty-five.  And while Katherine had never really learned to take full advantage  of the marketing possibilities the internet offered, Victoria knew every last one.

“Do you remember Melinda Van Doren?  She was the most highly-regarded escort in the city when I started working in 1975.”

“No, I didn’t try the hobby until after my first wife and I divorced in ’81, and I don’t remember the name.”

“That’s because she retired in ’79.  Well, you know it was all services and word of mouth in those days, but I had new ideas.  When I first started it was just to pay my way through school, but by the time I graduated I realized I wanted to make a career of it.  So I paid bribes, placed private ads, offered spiffs to every concierge in town, and slowly began to win Melinda’s clientele from her.”

“I can’t imagine you being so…”

Ruthless is the word,” she laughed.  “I was a different person then, an awful, hungry little upstart intent on invading and capturing my rival’s territory.  It wasn’t until Melinda confronted me that I changed.”

“What did she say to you?”

“Oh, it was so long ago…suffice to say she made me see the error of my ways.  She retired not too long after; moved to one of those countries where American dollars go a long way.  Costa Rica, I think it was.”

“Well, I’m glad you changed; I don’t think I’d have liked you like that.  I know I don’t like Victoria.  Hey, maybe you need to talk to her like Melinda talked to you.”

“Yes, maybe I do.”

After Gene had gone, Kathy opened up the email folder where she had saved all the other messages on the subject…and there had been several, both from clients and from escorts.  She was very popular and respected, and a number of people were upset about Victoria’s tactics…which had in the past few months gone from mere competition to character assassination, rumor-starting and, last week, a poorly-executed attempt to get her arrested (which might’ve succeeded if she hadn’t had an informant in the vice division).  Clearly something had to be done, and soon.  She picked up the phone.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Victoria, this is Katherine Nolan.”

“How did you get this number?”

“That’s not really important.  We need to talk.”

“About what?”

“I think you know the answer.”

“Look, I really don’t have time right now…”

“Yes, you do.  In fact, I think you’ll be very interested in what I have to say.  I’ve been thinking about retiring for a long time now, but putting it off because I needed someone to take care of my gentlemen for me.  And I think you just may be the woman to do it…”

An hour later, Victoria opened the door to usher Kathy into her incall.  Though she had been understandably suspicious of Kathy’s motives, the offer had been too good to pass up:  the older woman had said she was tired of drama and felt it was better to bow out gracefully rather than contribute to strife in what had previously been a largely-harmonious community.  A few hours of small talk, a few empty promises, and the field would be clear; if there was any chance at all Kathy was being honest, Victoria had no choice but to risk it.  And so they chatted over coffee, and after a while Victoria actually found herself beginning to like the veteran courtesan, and to feel a few pangs of regret for her unscrupulous tactics.

“Think nothing of it, my dear,” said Kathy; “you’re young and determined to succeed, so it isn’t surprising you might overstep the bounds of propriety from time to time.  Why, when I first started working, years before you were born, I was just as ambitious.  But then I had a meeting with the older lady with whom I was in competition, just as you and I are meeting today, and after that day everything was all right.”

Possession“So she made you the same offer that you’re making me?”

“Yes, that was how she got me to invite her over, just as it got you to invite me.”  Kathy’s voice suddenly sounded different – cold, strange and very, very old.  Victoria was transfixed by her gaze and felt a sudden wave of inexplicable terror wash over her; she tried to scream but the sound was strangled in her throat, and though she tried to struggle it was as though she was held fast by the tentacles of some invisible nightmare.

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

“You know, I really need to compliment you on your exquisite taste; some of these pieces are really fine,” Roger said as Victoria walked with him to the door.

“Thank you, but I’m afraid I can’t take credit; an older escort helped me find a lot of it.  You may remember her, Katherine Nolan?”

“No, I only moved here two years ago, but I think I’ve seen her name mentioned on the boards.  She’s out of the business now, isn’t she?”

“Yes, she retired in 2010 and moved to one of those countries where American dollars go a long way.  Costa Rica, I think it was.”

.

(Inspired by a comment made by Dr. Laura Agustin about a statement made by Gloria Steinem.)

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Righteousness…seems but an unrealized ideal, after all; and those maxims which, in the hope of bringing about a Millennium, we busily teach to the heathen, we Christians ourselves disregard.  -  Herman Melville, White-Jacket

The Second ComingIt was the day for which humanity had been waiting for so long:  the Millennium, the arrival of the Kingdom, the day religions had awaited for half of recorded history.  But when the saviors arrived to usher in a Golden Age of peace and prosperity, they were neither gods nor angels nor prophets, nor even the odd fetus-like entities so many movies and books had depicted for decades; they were people, very much like ourselves.  Oh, there were some obvious differences; they were taller, and more symmetrical, and their skins were as white as alabaster, and there was not a sign of disease or deformity or developmental difficulty amongst them:  in more primitive times they would most certainly have been taken for gods.  But, they hastened to assure us, they were as mortal as we, and really not very different except for being more technologically advanced.  Furthermore, they had come to share their wisdom and technology with us so that we, too, might achieve the level of perfection and happiness they had achieved.

At first, people had thought the video was a clever fake, a hoax that was sure to go viral and thereby promote some new Hollywood film.  But as the weeks went by and no trickster appeared, and the free goods people sent for via their website were revealed by scientists as having no earthly origin, the truth began to dawn:  this time it was real.  Later, the Visitors explained that because they had no wish to frighten us by a sudden arrival, they had observed us for some time and decided that this was the best way to introduce themselves.  It also, some pointed out, conveniently bypassed the possibility that governments approached via diplomatic channels might deny them permission to contact the citizenry, or even hide the fact that they existed, and thereby keep all the goodies the Visitors had to offer for themselves.

And what goodies they were!  Little sticks that plugged into computers or phones and protected them from all hazards, from viruses to surveillance to power surges.  Easily-installed devices that allowed a car to get 100 km per liter of gasoline without producing any hazardous emissions.  Keychain-attachable “panic buttons” that rendered the user impervious to unwanted physical contact.  Filters that silently scrubbed the air in a building of all known pollutants without rendering it stale.  Stylish clothing that fit anyone and never got dirty or wore out.  Nonstick cookware whose surfaces couldn’t be scratched by utensils or eroded by washing.  Everlasting batteries for low-power devices.  And many, many more, all for the asking.  Once they had established their goodwill, they announced that these “trinkets” (their word) represented just the tip of the iceberg, those aspects of their technology which we could use directly and without special instruction; there was plenty more which their trained personnel would be happy to use on our behalf, and to teach our professionals to use also:  weather control.  Super-light, super-strong materials.  Anti-gravity.  Ways to boost immune response so the body could fight off any infection, and a means of healing any injury.  Teleportation.  Synthesis of any substance, no matter how rare.

Of course, there were objections from those whose businesses were undercut or even eliminated by the alien’s gifts, but they responded by launching a program to retrain professionals and give grants to convert factories into producing the new goods…all for free.  As you might expect, some people objected to that as well; they hinted darkly at devil’s bargains, hidden price tags and bills mankind might be loath to pay when they came due.  But there was no enslavement, no cookbook,To Serve Man no looting of Earth’s resources; the Visitors explained that their religion taught them to help others, and that the payment for which they hoped was spiritual, not economic.  That announcement was the tipping point; most of the remaining resistance evaporated afterward, and most of those who still grumbled were atheists and clergymen who were unhappy with the throngs converting to the alien’s religion (for which temples were springing up like mushrooms).  Them, and the people who profit from human misery:  with both want and mental illness eradicated, cops and prosecutors had at first turned toward enforcing victimless crimes with a vengeance, only to find the new technology made that nearly impossible; the Visitors offered them pensions under their “displaced professions” program.

My first glimpse of the big picture came less than two years after they arrived; it started with my skipping a period, and learning to my chagrin that I was pregnant despite having been on the pill since high school.  My gynecologist knew better than to suggest that I had done something wrong, so she wrote it off as “one of those things” and directed me to her new partner, who was handling the obstetrical side of the practice now.  It was the first time I had been in a room with one of them alone; she was as tall as any man I ever dated, and though her voice was gentle and her mouth smiling, her golden eyes pierced me and I was seized by a fear I could not explain.

“So, the nurse tells me congratulations are in order!” she beamed.

“Congratulations?  How do you get that?  I didn’t exactly plan this, you know.”

“Life is full of happy surprises; your people didn’t know we were coming until we arrived, either!”

Under the circumstances, that statement seemed vaguely menacing.  “Yeah, well, that would be fine if I wanted a baby right now, but I don’t.”

“Oh, don’t worry; we have a program to support mothers-to-be with financial difficulties.”  I tried not to recoil from the hand she had placed on my arm; its cool, pale, long fingers made me feel as though some sort of reptile had climbed up on me.

“It’s not that; I have a good job.  It’s just that I’m only twenty-five; I’m not ready to settle down with a baby yet.”

“Oh, but you’re at almost the ideal age!” she cooed reassuringly.

“I would think your science would make considerations like that moot.”

Was that a flicker of hostility in her eyes?  “Well, of course, but isn’t it better to have fewer complications even if those complications can be corrected?”

“You’re changing the subject.  I’m not worried about complications; I’m just not ready to be a mother yet.”

“I understand.  Well, don’t worry, we have an adoption program, too.”

“No, you clearly don’t understand.  I don’t want to go through a pregnancy and then endure the emotional wrench of giving it away; I just want an abortion.”

The eyes registered horror, but just for a moment.  “Oh, well, we don’t do those here.”

“Yes, I know that, but I thought you could recommend a good facility.”

“Well, there aren’t as many of them as there used to be, you know; now that we can save babies down to sixteen weeks, a lot of women are just opting for fetal adoption instead of abortion.”  In response to my “What the hell?” look she continued, “at sixteen weeks we schedule an appointment to transfer the fetus to an artificial womb, from which it can be adopted either immediately or after birth.  Here, you can read up on it,” she said, pressing a pamphlet into my hand; “we’ll schedule a follow-up for next week so you can have time to think.”

From there, I went straight to the lab where my friend George works, and handed him a package from my purse.  “Can you test these and tell me what’s in them?”

“They’re birth control pills; I don’t have to test them.  We can just look it up.”

“Humor me.”

Birth Control Pill ContainerHe looked exasperated for a second, then suddenly brightened.  “Hey, I can use this new analyzer we just got from the Visitors; it’ll give us their exact composition in seconds!”  He put one of the pills into the analysis chamber, followed the menus to set everything up, and then frowned again as the results came up.  “Damn, I must’ve done something wrong.  Cholecalciferol, pyridoxine hydrochloride, cyanocobalamin, calcium pantothenate, ascorbic acid…this is the formula for a multi-vitamin, not a hormonal contraceptive.”

“A prenatal vitamin, I’ll bet.”

“Beg pardon?”

“Nothing.  You didn’t do anything wrong.  But tell me, could these have been manufactured by the Visitors?”

“Well, in a plant using their machines and personnel, very likely.”

“Thanks, you’re a doll.”

“What’s this about?”

“Later,” I whispered.  “The walls have ears.”

I was able to take care of my problem without the doctor’s help, but it wasn’t easy; in fact, the nearest open clinic I could find was three hours away.  And then I started investigating, and though what I found did not really surprise me, it certainly scared me.  Pregnancies in most of the world way up, but those in certain areas way down; I couldn’t see what the low-birthrate areas had in common, but I suspect it’s a high prevalence of some bad genetic trait.  Same-sex marriages down, same sex divorces way up.  Occupancy in psychiatric hospitals and substance abuse programs dramatically down…as are sales of beer, liquor, tobacco and cannabis.  And fast food.  And sweets, pastries, potato chips, ice cream and everything else Puritans had long condemned as “unhealthy”.  Movie and fiction sales way down, self-help book sales way up.  Attendance at the Visitor temples way, way, way up.  And so on, and so forth; the world is turning into a prohibitionist’s idea of paradise.

How are they doing it?  My guess is that if they’re willing to give women placebo birth control, they’re not above slipping mind-altering chemicals into food, water or whatever else they can get their sterile white hands on.  And if they can turn people off to booze, weed and chocolate, they can probably shape the human mind any way they like; I’m sure those who remain unmoved can be “cured” by more intensive therapy, just like they’re “curing” gay people and women who didn’t want children.  As for why, well, isn’t it obvious?  They’re more like us than we imagined.  The word for someone who crosses vast distances to help and enlighten primitives is “missionary”; the Visitors have come to save our souls, whether we like it or not.

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There’s nothing constant in the world,
All ebb and flow, and every shape that’s born
Bears in its womb the seeds of change.
  -  Ovid, Metamorphoses (XV, 177-8)

hollyThe holiday season just isn’t like it used to be any more; in fact, I’m rather beginning to dread it.  When I was a little girl I looked forward to it with great anticipation; I suppose all children do.  The food, the presents, the shows, the excitement, the new clothes, the break from routine, the visits from relatives…by the beginning of December I’m sure I was quite insufferable, counting down to the Big Day.  But now it always seems so disappointing.

I guess part of it is just that I’m not a child any more, and therefore unable to see things uncritically as children do.  And certainly, the world has changed in the past twenty years; we are not as innocent as we once were, and things are getting so commercial.  I know that probably sounds like hypocrisy coming from one who sells that which other women give away, but there’s a time and place for everything; just as there are times when I won’t work and men I won’t trade with, so I think an ethical merchant should not view the holidays solely as a means of enrichment.  Obviously, I’m not against business, and clearly food and gifts and decorations and everything else aren’t going to drop out of Heaven.  But isn’t there a difference between making money from what is supposed to be a religious holiday, and replacing the true meaning with a purely economic one?

Maybe that’s what’s bothering me; things are changing as things are wont to do, and I simply haven’t adjusted yet.  That will never work; I have to get myself out of this way of thinking before I end up like my grandmother, trapped in a world she barely recognizes.  She goes on and on about all the immigrants, and how their foreign ways have ruined what used to be a god-fearing country, and how all of our troubles derive from losing our traditional morality.  At this time of year she’s especially insufferable; why, just yesterday she was complaining that nobody even calls the holiday by its proper name any more.  “Sol Invictus!” she said; “Who’s that supposed to be?  Some combination upstart god!  When I was a girl the holiday was called Saturnalia, and it went on for a week, not one day as it is now!  We knew what was right then, and even though we still had barbarians bringing in their outlandish gods from all over the Empire nobody was confusing them with the true gods of Rome.  But now what do we have?  A Greek emperor ordering Romans to worship the Jewish god!  It’s madness, the world turned upside-down!”  Mother and I tried to explain to her that the Emperor had done no such thing, and everyone was free to worship whatever gods they chose, but it was no use; she just kept mumbling about “keeping Saturn in Saturnalia.”

Perhaps Granny has done me a favor by showing me how not to think.  After all, I enjoyed the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti of my youth just as much as Granny enjoyed her Saturnalia, and even if my grandchildren turn Christian will they not enjoy the festival as well, even if it has some new name and a new rationale?  Though I can no longer embrace the holiday as a child I can embrace it in another way, accepting the change rather than fighting it.  Perhaps the specific reason for the season isn’t actually important, as long as there is one; maybe it’s the celebration itself that actually matters, rather than any single reason any given group of people try to impose upon it.  And if I can only keep that in mind, maybe I’ll enjoy my holiday this year after all.

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