Amphisbaena

Louise Meynor was dying. She had known this for months. Select associates had known it for weeks. The general public had known only since this morning. They had responded, as she expected, with the unique lack of sympathy of which only populations-as-wholes seemed capable. Her laptop had been regaling her with stories of jubilant responses for the past few hours. For the first time in many, many years, she was finding her gender to be a source of frustration. Contrary to what may have been expected, this was not due to the fact that her cancer was ovarian. Meynor knew perfectly well that cancer, the consummate opportunist, would have found a way no matter what. No, the particular burden of her womanhood stemmed in this instance from the sad truth that, despite all the strides she and her forebears had made to normalise women in politics, nobody had ever found a way to make people tire of using “Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead” whenever one of them died. She indulged in a rare smirk. It was only fitting that the people’s last expression of disapproval towards her be their most insipid yet.

She was treating this final stretch of her life just the same as the rest of it – calculated, disciplined, and with a point to prove. The ‘leak’ of her condition had been her own doing, of course. She had spent decades controlling the story, whatever the story was that day, and she wasn’t about to let something so trivial as mortal illness break that habit. Some had told her that it wasn’t worth spending the energy, “given the circumstances”. She didn’t appreciate the euphemism, nor did she agree with the notion. It was worth spending the energy precisely because she wasn’t dead yet. Professionally, personally and politically, she had always maintained that giving up was dying. She was already conceding her life to cancer. There was no reason to do the same with her principles.

She closed the laptop, set it aside, and reclined. Becoming immersed into her bed, she was besieged by a sudden urge to rest. She overcame it, as she had done on every other occasion. There was one last task to be done in the public eye, one final item on the list before she could exit the stage and spend her final weeks preparing it for the next in line. An interview – just another step in the media dance into whose rhythms she had been engrossed for so long. Her guest would be arriving shortly. Clementine Ogunsanya. It was desperately fitting that Clementine be the last writer to have her on the record. She was the correct choice, from a pragmatic perspective. Her voice was large, and her readership was likely to be extremely interested in Meynor’s death. An audience that had long despaired at her political invulnerability would relish this story, whether they were willing to admit it or not. In truth, however, Meynor would have picked Clementine no matter what. Call it sentiment, or the nostalgia of the newly mortal, but there was a weight of history that could not be denied.

Clementine had cut her teeth writing vicious thinkpieces at Meynor’s expense. This was not unusual. What made her stand out, more than the eloquence of her opinion or the force of her polemics (both considerable, of course), was the sheer, lunatic volume and focus of her work. From the senate to the oval office, Clementine had clung on, penning fresh invectives to meet every perceived evil. Meynor, in turn, had been glad to have a constant, embittered face of opposition against whom to frame her efforts. It had been observed on multiple occasions that Ogunsanya’s career, for all its outwardly destructive intent, had been a considerable boon to both of them. She had taken her parasitism to such a dogged extent that it evolved into something mutually beneficial.

Meynor found herself indulging in reminiscence when an aide ushered Clementine in. She strode over to the bedside chair that had been set out for her, sat down, and began extracting her materials. Only when content with her full journalistic regalia did she stop to look at her old muse. Meynor watched her face closely, checking for any hint of sympathy, or (god forbid) pity. Much to her relief, she saw in Clementine only a reciprocation of her own vague wistfulness.

“Ms. Meynor.”

“Louise. How many times do I have to tell you?”

“You know, I couldn’t help myself. Forgive an aging woman her habits.”

There was a pause.

“Anyway.” Clementine continued. “I’m tempted to ask how you’re doing, but I’ll spare you the offence. Ready to start?”

“Of course.”

Clementine shuffled into a more inquisitive posture. Meynor did not move.

“So, it’s hard not to look at this as something of a retrospective.  I think that the first question for most of us is going to be…”

“Let me interrupt you there, Clem. No. I don’t regret anything. I believed in everything I did, everything I tried to do. I appreciate that I couldn’t help everybody. That’s government. A lot of people don’t like to admit it, but it’s the way it is. The truth is, there’s no time to feel bad when you’re trying to do good. This is not a story about my deathbed redemption. I don’t need one.”

Clementine smiled. In spite of everything, this was familiar territory.

“Well, I’d like to get back to the notion that you’ve been trying to do good – you know a lot of people don’t agree with that. But first, do you remember my line from years ago about your two faces?”

“Of course. You said I had two faces, both of them ugly. You know I’m a big fan of your work, but I must admit that one was tacky.”

“A little catty, maybe, but you have to put some spice into these things. Anyway, as I’m sure you’re aware, I was talking about your methods of persuasion.”

“Dogma and pragmatism, if I’m to indulge your analysis.”

“Correct. A demagogue to the voters, a master rationalist to the professionals. And yes, both quite ugly.”

“What’s your point?”

“My point is, I’ve known you, one way or another, for a long time now. This is probably the last time we’ll ever talk. And even now, you launch straight into hard truths and the greater good. Immediately, you start showing the pragmatic face.”

“I think I see where this is going.” Sighed Meynor. “But do go on.”

“What people want to know, with any politician, but especially with you, is what you’re like under all of that. Who is Louise Meynor before she puts on any of her masks? How do you speak when the world isn’t listening?”

“Clem, you’re testing my patience here. I know for a fact that you’re smarter than this. I also know for a fact that you’ve asked me essentially this exact question many times before. But I’ll indulge you, since this is the last time you’ll have the chance. As you well know, politics and journalism are all about communication. You have to speak the language that your audience understands. For you, that’s easy. You have one audience, and it never changes. People who hate people like me, but don’t have the guts or the brains to do anything about it. Talking to that audience means asking questions that you already know the answer to, questions that you’ve asked dozens of times before, as you’ve just done – and there, you’re showing your intelligence. For me, things are a little more complicated. One minute I’m talking to the Supreme Court, the next to a semi-retired plumber in Michigan. It’s not disingenuous that I use different voices to get my message across, no matter what you might like to think. It’s necessary. It’s honest. There are no ‘masks’ involved.”

Clementine seemed to smile. That had presumably been what she wanted.

“And when you’re alone? When you don’t have to communicate anything?”

“How could I tell you even if I wanted to? The private life is just that – private. No way around it.”

“That may well be. One more personal question before we move on?” She had the same wry inflection she always adopted before something blunt.

“Fine.”

“You’ve always been known for your force of will, your bravery, even if it’s often misapplied. Any fear of death?”

“Of course not.” The reply was instant. Too fast, if anything. She hoped that it was convincing. There was a sudden groundswell of pain in her pelvis. Raising her hand to indicate the need for a break, she tried to contain her wince. The effort was futile, of course. Clementine’s eyes made it readily apparent that she had observed the extent of Meynor’s frailty. There was neither pity nor pleasure in them, but a sort of melancholic recognition.

“Ready to continue?” She asked.

“Yes.”

“Then let’s talk politics. Nobody can deny how effective you’ve been throughout your career. But almost all of your biggest successes remain controversial. I’m talking about the multiple waves of privatisation, each more harmful than the last. I’m talking about the devolution of power from capitol to capital, taking from the poor and giving to the rich. I’m talking about refusing to legislate against the worst of human nature or in favour of the best.”

“Ah, yes. Your little army has been calling me evil for decades, Clem. I may be dying, but my skin’s still thick.”

“Don’t misunderstand – I’m not saying that you’re evil, although I wouldn’t disagree too strongly with anybody who did. I’m saying that you are somebody who was been very effective at allowing evil to win. Somebody who has exercised a tremendous amount of talent and energy towards making the world worse.”

“And here we go again. When you’re in power, when your choices matter, every action makes something worse and something better. For every person you help, somebody gets hurt. You can’t spend the same dollar twice. You’re caught in a world of dichotomies, trying to steer a ship that barely responds to direction. If your opponents want to dig up sob stories and point at flaws, they will always, always be able to. And hell, I respect your decision to do so. Clearly, it’s working very well for all involved. It’s what your consumers want, and what you are best at providing.”

She was forced to pause once more, again holding up her hand to indicate that she was not done with this train of thought.

“And to be sure, there are people who are only in it for themselves. I’m not one of them. Everything I do, I do out of belief. I believe in agency. I believe in the market. I believe that the balance of interests and possibilities demonstrated by our miraculous species will chart a course better than anything that can be forced into existence by small-minded regulation.”

Clementine, perhaps in response to Meynor’s own passion, was clearly beginning to fire up.

“It is shocking to me that the author of such an inhumane policy platform could have such blind faith in human nature.” She retorted, with nominal restraint.

“Is that it, then? Is that the root of all your liberal ideals? Mistrust? Misanthropy?”

“That’s not what I’m saying, and you know it.” Clementine was angry. Fine. A heated exchange had traditionally been good news for both of them. “I’m saying that simply leaving the powerful to their own devices does nothing to help humanity. And what’s more, I’m saying that you would have to be stupid, misguided, or wilfully ignorant not to see it. Louise, if you genuinely believe that you have acted in the world’s best interests, then you’ll have be one of those things. My money’s on ‘misguided’.”

Everything is a device of the powerful, Clem. Whether it’s the state, the private sector, the UN, or just plain old individual freedom, somebody is making a decision and something is changing to match it. My philosophy just presupposes that my decisions should only affect me and those who consent to them, and that the same is true for everybody else. Your end of the spectrum would let me force them on society.”

“Don’t be absurd. How can you dare to claim that your administration’s decisions to remove public services were inflicted upon a consenting public?”

“I should think that’s rather obvious. I’m an elected official. Short of anarchy, somebody has to make decisions for others. It’s imperfect, but everybody knows it’s the only way of doing things. The consent is implicit.”

“’The consent is implicit’. Come on. This isn’t you fucking your wife without asking first, Louise. This is you forcing yourself on an unconscious girl and saying that it was fine because she never fought back.”

Good, once again. These things always had more flair when somebody escalated the language. Clementine’s anger was no doubt legitimate, but so was her savvy.

“Spare me your outrage. You’re saying that I raped the American public? That they were helpless before my unwanted advances? Did everybody not have the right to vote, the right to leave the country, the right to protest, the right to provide their own aid and services to their fellow citizens? That’s a lot of power for being ‘unconscious’.”

“The numbers don’t lie. Look at the wealth gap. Look at the gender and ethnic inequality. Look at the subjective quality of life stats, the approval ratings. You and your associates have brutalised this country. For all this good you claim to believe in, the record sure doesn’t back it up.”

“Yet.”

“What?”

“The record doesn’t back it up… yet. Anybody with half a brain knows that change hurts, and that it takes time. Any ideology that actually wants to do something with this mess, whether it’s mine or yours, is going to have to endure some hardships first. The problem is that nobody has the vision, the patience, to let the process happen. The numbers go up and down, and always so slowly that we lose faith and start interfering again. All we do is suffer the first hurdles in every direction, again and again, never reaching any destination. Stuck on this facile roundabout, lashing out at everybody else for failing to do something about it. The world I want, the world you want, the world some lunatic fronting a hate group wants, they all take time. They all take more time than we each have.”

With that, there was another rush of pain. Caught up in her speech, Meynor made no attempt to conceal it. No need to raise a hand this time – her grimace was a clear enough request for an adjournment. Its duration was a clear enough indication that they would not be able to continue.

“Off the record?” Asked Clementine.

“Sure.”

“Come November, it’s probably going to be Leichmann.”

“Yes.”

“He’s probably going to spend eight years putting back everything you took away.”

“Probably.”

There was another pause. No further physical pain, but there was a knot of directionless, insoluble frustration at the back of her mind. Meynor broke the silence.

“I won’t be around to see it. In my world, I’m dying, somebody else is picking up my torch, and they’re going to keep it going until the next person, and the next. And then things are really going to start looking better. You can keep Leichmann. For me, something’s finally happening.”

“Must be nice.”

“Yes and no.”

Clementine looked at her and sighed.

“Well, I don’t know what I’m going to do. You can’t get half the audience talking about the opposition.”

“Sounds tough.”

“Tell me about it. There won’t be another you in my time.”

“You’d better make this interview last, then. But I’ve got to sleep now. I’m not feeling too well, if you didn’t know.”

“I assumed you’d be trying to set up a surprise win. Fighting to the last, and so on.”

“I am, but fuck it. You can come back tomorrow if you like. Hell, take the whole week. Both of us want this getting read. Might as well make it a real epic.”

Both women smiled. There was no formal goodbye – it seemed pointless, and if nothing else a little awkward. Clementine simply left, for now. Exhausted but eminently awake, Meynor lay in thought. For all their tensions, some things never change.

The End.

Ego Dominus

It began, as so many things do, with a bad hand. Decisions are both the privilege and the burden of power, but the two edges of that sword were unknown to him. Born poor, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, he nonetheless believed himself the master of his own destiny. He had been told, innumerable times, that each would rise to the measure of their worth, been shown endless galleries of successes to praise and of failures to scorn. There was a war of all against all, and it was skill at arms, not Kriegsglück, that determined the victors. The great and the worthy stood impervious, untouched by the stray bullets and bombs that outrageous fortune, now modernised, counted in its arsenal. To bow was to be broken, to flee was to fail, and to pause was death. The humility of his origin was no excuse, for his merits were products of himself and not his birth. A strong arm clad in rags could seize riches, just as a weak arm in tailored sleeves could surrender them. This was his catechism, and he was a devout soldier of its faith, a crusader whose fervour would surely propel him ahead of the unaware and the impious. The men of modern legend had earned their status just as he would earn his – by baptism in the font of self, by genuflection to no symbol but that of their own design, by being the sole recipient of their own prayers. He set out into the world, armed with his own virtues, armoured with temerity, and all too eager to fight.

His philosophy could endure any amount of success, but was threatened by any hint of failure. How, then, to withstand the inglorious salvos that life would inevitably levy against those of poor, average, or even good fortune? For each perceived affirmation of his exceptionality, he was faced with multiple affronts to it. For each clear success, there were handfuls of weak or mediocre outcomes. For each suitably impressed observer or suitably bitter enemy, there were throngs of men who did not envy him and of women who did not desire him. Around him, he saw victories granted to those who had not earned them, those who were oblivious even of the battles they had won, those who mocked the faith that was his strongest weapon, who preached weakness as strength and strength as sin. Fuelled by anger, he fought on. To pause was death, and he would yet have his glory.

This motivating anger could only persist so long before slumping into bitterness. Trapped in a prison of mundanity, logic would dictate that either he was deficient, or else his perspective was. His dogma would afford him neither compromise. To flee was to fail. With this noose of paradox around his neck, the only path left was an imaginary one – as we know, a mirage is no different in effect to a truthful image until the traveller reaches it. Seeing two harsh desert expanses and one crisp oasis, he naturally ventured towards the latter, not knowing that his subconscious, parched for affirmation, was defining the image for him.

And so, increasingly, he sought out and claimed signs of his own dominance where none existed. He turned his individualist fervour away from the pursuit of victory and towards the denial of defeat, shifting his war chest from armament to propaganda as so many outmatched belligerents before him had, never giving a thought to surrender or peaceful alliance. He married, to a woman who did not love him, but who was timid enough that he could convince himself otherwise. He barked at the weak (in his eyes) to convince himself of his strength, and quarrelled with others who were similarly disposed to him, each walking away the virtuous conqueror in their own histories. He found solace in others who had walked his same path, but only because he could maintain the belief that he was their leader. To bow was to be broken. He ignored the failings that would, in the past, have been abhorrent to him (and still were, when evident in others), denying their existence outright or else claiming them as successes according to his own, superior metrics.

The doctrine of the past was all but gone. He no longer acted on its commandments, and was dependent upon self-deception in order to keep faith in its veracity. Still, the mirage remained, and he was its devout pursuer.

It was in this desperate state, this continued flight from heathen compromise, that he would allow one final heresy, this time disguised as a miracle. He invited an usurper to take his throne, beseeched a saviour that was not himself, praised the words and symbols not of his own design but of a new hierophant’s. Envisioning an indomitable army of one, he took up arms once more as a pawn to the new king.

And so, defeated and in subjugation to this new master, he believed himself the hero of his phantom war.

On the Threshold of Liberty, 1937 by Rene Magritte

The End

Safehouse

Vibrations rippled in my ears, and slowly, foggily, I responded. With no sense of time or location, my mind instinctively grasped for memories that were no longer there. In that moment, I knew nothing. This blank slate received only minimal etchings from my surroundings. It was dark, it was warm. I was lying on something soft, pinned down by the residual weight of torpor from what must surely have been a long hibernation. The air was completely still, oppressively devoid of animation or odour, although there was a faint saccharine hint that stuck uncomfortably in my nostrils. For maybe ten minutes (although it was impossible to judge), this was all that I had. Then, the room observed my wakefulness and began in turn to stir. Staccato clicks and whirrs came from the walls as long-dormant mechanisms resumed their operation. Sympathetic to my confusion, the lights that covered the ceiling sparked dimly at first, revealing more and more of the room in their slow crescendo.

I was in the middle, wrapped up tightly and with alarming precision, in the sheets of a single bed. The room was fairly small, no more than twenty feet across, with a yet smaller antechamber ferreted away in one of the corners. I guessed (correctly) that this would contain a shower and latrine. In the opposite corner was a small console attached to some kind slot in the wall. I recognized this as the kind of food and drink dispenser typically seen in cheap housing, where space was a concern and luxury was not. The wall facing me as I groaned into a seated position was dominated by a large screen, currently inactive. Once the lights had reached the full extent of their powers, I could make out some detail on the walls. They had clearly been a pristine white at some point, but were now maculated with thick, grey patches of damp. This was most prevalent on the ceiling, where the beginnings of mould were emerging from the diameter of a hefty metal hatch, the only apparent point of in- or egress from the room. Also of note were a series of tally marks that had been scratched into the wall, although my eyes were still too gummy with rheum to enumerate them properly.

As I sat, dazed and bewildered, the room took it upon itself once more to assist me. The screen flickered into action, tinting my field of view with a placid blue light. There was another flicker, and then there appeared a nondescript human figure, clearly digital. It ‘spoke’ directly into my ears with a voice that was just as flat and artificial as the rest of its design.

Greetings client, and welcome to your VIP Safehouse experience. We offer the ultimate in personal security and comfort. I will be your host during your stay with us. Refreshments are available from the console in the back-left corner of the unit. Entertainment is available on demand through the main screen or your aural implants. As a lifetime subscriber, you have unlimited days remaining on your plan. I will alert you when the danger has passed. My script is capable of processing all common queries and requests, so please do not hesitate to alert me if you need anything. Enjoy your stay.

I was dumbfounded, momentarily, before I took the computer up on its offer and started bombarding it with questions. I cycled through the expected permutations of who, where, what, why and when, trying in vain to extract any small measure of understanding from my only available source of information. My attempts were met with stubborn monotony, the host replying in each instance as follows:

To ensure your psychological wellbeing, certain harmful pieces of information have been redacted and withheld in accordance with my calculations. Safehouse offers the ultimate in mental and physical wellbeing for these trying times.

The times were apparently so trying that “certain harmful pieces of information” extended to virtually everything. I eventually realised that any further questioning would be pointless, and resigned myself, for now at least, to ignorance.

This left me with the burden of time, and the question of how best to spend to it. My first thought was to eat, and so I spent some time wrestling with the refreshment console. However the device sourced its materials, it seemed that the chain of supply had collapsed somewhat. This was evidenced by a rather basic selection and a large number of blacked-out options. In the final analysis, my choices boiled down to nutrient-rich gruel (with or without additional sugar and a handful of dried flavour packages), and water (with or without additional stimulants or depressants). Bowl of sweetened gruel in hand, I decided to explore the entertainment options. This was achieved, upon experimentation, by gesturing towards the screen. Each of the various categories of media provided ended up directing me to the same garish error message, which seemed to grow increasingly disingenuous in its apologies the more I saw of it. I was forced to reach the conclusion that access to this data had been permanently lost, and my VIP Safehouse unit was in a state of considerable disrepair. Still groggy from my long sleep, I decided that it would suffice for now to drink the day away. I used my gruel spoon to mark an additional tally on the wall, then lost myself in flask after flask of depressant-enriched water. The effect was actually quite pleasant.

After a while, the lights began to dim. I took this as my host’s way of informing me that it was night-time outside, and obligingly stumbled back to bed. My extemporised inebriation proved sufficient to see me off, and within a few minutes I was asleep, numb and unaware once again.

Sadly, this condition did not last. I was awoken by a piercing scream from somewhere outside, shrill and lurid enough to stop my heart for a moment even through the walls of my cage. I lay frozen in the dark for a second, unable to move for instinctual fear of revealing my presence. There was then a riot of shuffling, like the movement of hundreds of feet through wet soil. This prompted another scream, more vivid than the last, and there followed a cacophony of braying and squealing, a ceaseless, glottal violence that threw me into a blind panic. I rushed into a corner and huddled with my sheets, shouting urgently for lights and sounds to distract me from whatever was going on up above. The host, following my orders, turned the lighting to full power and attempted to fill my ears with music that no longer existed, resulting instead in a fuzzy white noise. The brightness allayed my fright to some extent, and the drone was almost enough to smother the din. Still, it remained at the back of the soundscape, now distant but no less present. I slept timidly, one proverbial eye open at all times even as the lights tapered out once again.

The next day, I was understandably shaken. I felt vulnerable, confused, and afraid. I asked what the source of that commotion had been (in slightly more colourful terms).

To ensure your psychological wellbeing, certain harmful pieces of information have been redacted and withheld in accordance with my calculations. Safehouse offers the ultimate in mental and physical wellbeing for these trying times.

The answer was as expected, and continued to be so for the next dozen or so questions. The host was single-minded in its determination to keep me from harm, and no amount of tantrum could sway it. At last, I asked if I would be allowed to leave, if I chose.

Clients are free to leave the Safehouse unit at any time. Please be advised that the current danger level outside of the unit is: critical.

Any mind that I had to instigate my own release was immediately quashed by the memory of those sounds, still fresh enough to make me shiver and shrink back into the corner. My inquisitive fire now decidedly cold, I returned to my life of gruel and drugged water. I marked another tally on the wall, and paced fretfully around the room, observing as I did the growth and darkening of the moist patches. They were almost imperceptibly slick to the touch. Above, the patch of mould on the ceiling had spread overnight, and was now releasing a slightly fruity aroma that never quite seemed to fade into the background. Starved for diversions, the time passed slowly. This consuming boredom was a double-edged sword, in that my eagerness for time to pass was tempered by my dread of nightfall. I asked the host regularly for updates on the time, counting down the minutes until the unseen sun went down and embracing the blurring effects of my ‘water’. At last, the lights started to dim. By this point I was too drunk to be anything but tired, least of all afraid, and so had little trouble getting to sleep.

It was not long before the unknown grotesquery outside reminded me of my causes for distress. There was no scream that night, but it otherwise began as it had before. The shuffling of feet, this time more and with greater frenzy, and then the disgusting choir, a wall of animal grunts and rasps, screeches and tortuously extended, retching breaths. I lay sweating and disoriented, until I finally demanded that the always-observant computer mute the world again. The white noise returned, still not quite loud enough. I was determined to sleep, though, and pushed my head into the pillow, doing my best to ignore the nauseating assault, becoming all the while more and more sure that I was the intended target of this invasion. I was safe within my walls, albeit imprisoned, and that would have to do. Just as I was beginning to believe myself on that front, my thinly waxing security was shattered by the striking of metal. Something was pounding against the safehouse walls with inhuman force and vehemence. My chest leapt with fear, and I was overcome with terror so intense as to be completely paralysing. Unable even to make the pretence of an escape, I cowered, listening with ever greater alertness to each clang and scrape, hoping against hope for a cessation, one way or another. A miracle, some other victim to take my place, or else a quick and final success for my tormentors.

The night dragged on, until artificial daybreak marked the start of my artificial relief. Some of the lights now flickered in and out of life, presumably having been damaged during the siege. Their electric crackle merged with a stochastic dripping from the mould to form a sort of maddening, unstable polyrhythm. Stretched over the course of hours, this proved so nettling to my already over-taxed brain that I asked the host to keep the white noise constant until I instructed it otherwise. The supply of depressants had run out, and so I was forced to consume my gruel sober. I moved in and out of corners, swaying and cursing to myself, desperate but lacking the direction either to act or to implode. I added two tally-marks, forgetting the first after a protracted bout of morbid fantasy in which the walls were finally torn down, and I was exposed. In summary, I was disoriented and disconsolate, in dire need of a solution but in no state to find one. All thoughts of escape lead to the hatch, and all thoughts of the hatch lead to suffering and danger. This safehouse was the only difference between me and that scream on the first night, and I would not discard it for all the possible freedoms in the world.

Once more into the dark. Shuffling, then the scrabbling of prying digits through loose dirt. The expected cacophony followed, hoarser, more bestial, and closer than before. Even with my ears shielded by a constant assortment of random signals, the sounds seemed to crawl in through obscured fissures, drawing nearer until the trill of each howl and wail could be felt against my skin. The hammering of unknown tools or appendages against my walls, this time frantic and all-surrounding, a promise of harm to me and me alone, a percussive reminder that my defences were only as stubborn as my assailants. I cried.

Exhausted and despondent, I stumbled listlessly around the room for the first few hours of the next day. The decay had proceeded hurriedly overnight, the walls now gleaming slightly across their wet patches, the mould now dangling in mucilaginous strands. I could hear only my life-preserving white noise, but the sight and scent of the place where just as upsetting to me as its sounds by this point. I took my gruel with stimulant, mumbled, shouted, and paced. It would not do. I had to open the hatch. I ordered my host to remove my sonic blanket, and it obliged. I asked what the situation was like, up above.

The current danger level outside of the unit is: -critical-.

A newfound energy building inside me (whether chemical or legitimate courage), I demanded to be told more. I needed details. I needed the truth, no matter how gruesome.

To ensure your psychological wellbeing, certain harmful pieces of information have been redacted and withheld in accordance with my calculations. Safehouse offers the ultimate in mental and physical wellbeing for these trying times.

Shaking with what I told myself was righteous vigour, I demanded my release. A ladder descended unceremoniously from a hidden panel bordering the exit hatch, and in numb ardour I began to climb it. The rungs were icy cold, in painful contrast to a room that I now realised was perfectly clement. They had not escaped the clutches of the mould, and my fingers threatened to revolt each time I commanded them to wrap around a new layer of oily, unwelcome life. Determined, I fought through until I had my hand clasped around the dial that would, if turned, grant my freedom. I paused. The stench was thick, filling my nostrils with nauseating, virile sweetness. The hatch permitted only the faintest threads of air through, but from this proximity their icy gossamer could be felt with upsetting clarity. I strained my ears, hoping to make out some sign of the danger above, something to justify a delay. This appeal to my senses invited a flood of recalled noise, a vivid, horrifying replay of all that I had heard, the braying and squealing closer and more intimate than ever before, emanating from my own mind. My limbs failed me, and I fell to the floor. In unspoken triumph, the ladder ascended back into its moorings. Defeated, I marked another day on the wall and resigned myself to another night.

Trapped in the dark, choking in a world of savage percussion and animal song, amygdala burning with threat, ganglia thrashing wildly, holding myself in a comfortless, scraping embrace.

Critical stress levels detected. Do you wish to activate emergency wellbeing procedures?

Yes, without a single thought.

There was an electric snap in my skull, and everything was calm, null and comatose. Another hibernation.

The Listening Room, 1952 by Rene Magritte

The End

Better Half

I am a twin. None but my parents know this about me. My family doesn’t discuss it, and I rarely have any cause to bring it up myself. I was born first, then my brother. His passage into the world, however, was barred by some cruel obstruction. I do not know the exact details of the matter. In any case, the doctor’s clumsy hands failed the recovery effort, and my brother died. It was a complicated thing for my parents to reckon, being blessed with one child and losing another in the same stroke. Too complicated, in fact. They ended up taking solace in revisionism, and my poor baby brother was stricken from the family record. Perhaps in the fullness of time they have actually come to forget about him. I cannot say for sure.

He hasn’t left me, though. The bond between twins is a strong one, and he has always been with me. My eyes and ears have given him windows into life, and through them he has grown alongside me. We learned to read and write together, to talk. Through my senses he could experience an education. We have been two beings nurtured in one place and time. And yet, we are different. My mind is that of a living man, and his, if it can even be called a mind, possesses the wisdom of the dead, the great hindsight of all who have failed and fallen. He is emancipated from the concerns of the body and all things physical. Having died at the first moment of lfie, all the falsehoods and stupidities of the mortal world passed him by. He is a will within me separate to my own that has never known error, a voice of perfect moral and intellectual reason.

This is no great advantage to me – it is a curse, and a tortuous one at that. It is still my baseless, fallible whims that put guidance to our vessel. My ignorance and naïveté still shackle my judgement, even though I hear the cries from the other side, telling me my errors with every act. All who live are prisoners to their own fallibility, but I, perhaps alone, am condemned to be able to see just how dark and squalid a dungeon that is. Even as I write this, I can feel my brother’s cold hands putting the same thoughts to words with far greater artistry and articulation. I can see in this way the perfected form of all that I do, the perfect course through each challenge that I face. But there is a river between our wills that cannot be forded, and no matter how I struggle against it, how I yearn to follow the great wisdom of the infant dead, my own errors and sins have the final say. It is they who pull the strings, they who give the sinews motion.

I am powerless. My brother’s eyes see every coming misfortune, and yet I walk towards each one, unable even to protect myself against what pains I know I will suffer. Each moment is filled with a dread that cannot be quashed – it cannot even be expressed or acknowledged. It is the weight I must bear for wisdom upon which I cannot act. When I fail, I am aware of the steps that would have taken me to success. When I succeed, I am aware of the steps that I will soon be walking to failure, even should that path be months or years in the travelling. You cannot know the anguish of dedicating yourself in full to works that will never see fruition, to loves that will end only in dejection, in full awareness that all does not end well. An infant might burn itself, not knowing the dangers of an ember. My life is that of a grown adult who sits before the fireplace, constantly gripping on hot coals with all my strength though I know that I will suffer harshly and gain nothing.

I am damned too to know that the torment is not mine alone. Already in the slow death-march of time, I have heard my brother’s voice turn from one of passivity, to surprise, to anguish and frustration as I misguide our shell away from the light of proper judgement and facility. I fear that he will come to scorn me, to loath the failed and wretched thing that tethers him to a world full of such failed and wretched things, when he is half-submerged in more pleasant waters.

But onward I must trudge, hoping only beyond hope that I might be the beneficiary of some great stroke of fortune that none could foresee, or that my days of hardship might be ended before their time by some equally unknowable calamity. Blessed is the blindness that hides our ugliness, and blessed too is the ignorance that clouds the path ahead. A human’s eyes are at their best half-shut and bleary. Wakefulness is too great a burden for so flawed a beast.

The Lovers 2, 1928 by Rene Magritte

The End

Divinity

I rule the world. The words I utter are commands, and the masses beneath me are contracted to obey them. But my dominion, they tell me, is false. I am no ruler. I am but a voice through which a higher power speaks, indirectly and from the beginning of all creation. I am not even the corporeal viceroy. I am a whole cosmos beneath the power, a cosmos that belongs in its entirety to another. The hierarchy that exists within is as nothing to the lord above. All temporality is flat and even when viewed from heaven, they say.

I reject their lies. I am a God, in any true sense.

What is the mark of divinity? Let us consider the church’s falsehoods. By their terms, a god is defined by absolutes, by infinitudes. Absolute knowledge, absolute presence, absolute capability, absolute love. Well enough, for a different reality, one exempt from the tensions of compromise. Not so for our existence. The very fabric of our universe is impermanent and imperfect. Nothing absolute can be woven from such thread. Everything ends, and perfection is just as fleeting. I, a god, will die, just as the gods before me have passed into nothing. Leave this talk of absolutes to the mathematicians and theologians. Let them theorise their own perfect objects, if it comforts them. The true deities will still be here. We populate this tarnished, entropic world just as you do.

A god is not absolute. It is not infinite, or axiomatic. These ideas are but the fantasies of expansive minds. A god is merely that which we cannot stop. It is not exempt or apart from the anomalies and infelicities of the universe, from its mysteries. It is their exact manifestation. It is death and birth, war and love. It is the sun, the moon and the stars. It is the ocean, the sky and the land. It is storm, calamity, thought and fortune. Anything that is greater than us, that operates far beyond our consent and understanding, anything that cannot be fully gripped by mortal minds or fully conquered by mortal hands. These things are gods. So it has always been, and so it always will be.

And what of myself?  It is true that I am but flesh and blood. I will not claim that each human is a divinity unto themselves. Each is inscrutable, it is true, but this is nothing more than an artefact of the universal imperfection that I have described. Communication and comprehension will always fail us, to one extent or another. But a god must be further beyond our grasp than the thoughts and deeds of fellow humans. Not even the most hardened of solipsists would refute this. I was born human, and if I were the last of our breed left alive, I would be human again. I am a god because of the power that is embodied in each word I speak and each action I take. It is hierarchy, law, politics, currency. I am the state, and the state is a pantheon of forces that we cannot stop. Their origins may lie in human minds and deeds, but they are far beyond us now. They have become gods, and I have become them.

The Son of Man, 1946 by Rene Magritte

The End

Lovecraft =/= Tentacles

Disclaimer: Against my best intentions, this runs the risk of becoming disgracefully elitist, purist, or even (pardon my French) prescriptivist. I’ll do my best, but if I do accidentally err from the path of virtue, please be considerate. I’m only human.

The work of H.P. Lovecraft has, I believe, met with the same terrible fate as so many other instances of work with vision that had the simple misfortune of being genre-defining.

Just as befell Tolkien, Gothic Literature and the Bible (I’ll don my armour), popularity has reduced a rich body of work, full of creativity, commentary, thought, and a unique way of presenting all of these things, into a chassis bearing the same branding but with none of the machinery intact. And to be clear, that’s secretly fine. The merits of the originals remain, and the language gains a handy little term used to refer to something of superficial similarity. It’s just a little upsetting – for me, it’s not all that conducive to great fiction. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Fantasy has reached peak Lovecraft. From the characteristic works of one author, the skeins have spread, worming their way into a state of complete global saturation. Now we have a substantive, recognisably ‘Lovecraftian’ element in a whole slew of Sci-Fi/Fantasy’s major vectors. Images will be interspersed throughout, but let’s start off with Warcraft:

Image result for c'thun

Hearthstone

Now, I have a great appreciation for the works of my close personal friend Howard, so this widespread popularity is theoretically the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin monotonous whine of accursed flutes to my blind idiot ears. My issue is that what is presented as, and is understood to be, ‘Lovecraftian’, really has only a passing similarity to the contents of this beauty:

Displaying IMG_0048.JPG

Bonus Cactus.

Rather, what we are given is a potpourri of surface-level elements from H.P.’s aesthetic, with little to none of the theme and philosophy that gave these stories their distinctive spice in the first place. Generally, this means that where will be some outlandish tentacle creatures, some insanity, some unconvincing pretence at crypticity, perhaps some imagery of a cosmic nature, and almost certainly at least one instance each of the words “eldritch” and “abomination”. Finish your drink and then weep openly if the two appear next to one another.

Of course, this isn’t inherently bad. I enjoy all of those things greatly, and will respond with delight whenever I am presented with an outlandish tentacle creature (even if it’s just a small octopus). What I enjoy more, however, is being shown something that is actually about more than just the imagery being thrown about. Rogue One, for example, whilst perfectly enjoyable on its own merits, really didn’t communicate much to me apart from “Look at this Star Wars stuff”. I like looking at Star Wars stuff, and I liked watching Rogue One, but it didn’t give me the kind of full-bodied enjoyment that drives me to consume fiction in the first place. It’s a popcorn movie of a pure and noble breed. The same rules apply to Lovecraft-lite. There is nothing inherently wrong about it, but on its own it’s really just the co-option of Lovecraft’s language for what amounts to small talk, which feels like a wasted opportunity.

Magic: The Gathering

Lovecraft’s brand of horror, at least as I read it, is fundamentally about pessimism and bewilderment. Well, it’s fundamentally about being a set of enjoyable horror stories, but you get the idea. The strangeness and moral non-valence of his signature cosmic entities and weird scenarios are reflections of a society that has moved beyond traditional Manichaean narrative. He was writing at a time (and all this still applies today) when humanity’s ‘understanding’ of the universe was sufficient to make traditional sources of meaning like ethics, theism and humanism appear irrelevant, leaving the modernised intellectual living in a material world where nothing really mattered. At the same time, the best available (and only remaining) tool in the search for meaning, namely science, is clearly insufficient. As any self-aware scientist knows, the actual mystery of the universe is beyond its grasp, the most that can be achieved being a working approximation. There is (again, in my eyes) a reason why so many of H.P.’s inevitably unsuccessful protagonists are academics, and why his descriptions of the indescribable tend towards a scientific or anatomical tone. So, you find yourself in a universe where nothing is true except for comfortless objectivity, and even that doesn’t hold up to inspection. Enter the outlandish tentacle creature.

Dungeons, not to mention Dragons. Both of them! Wild.

What I see more and more of these days is a nominal attempt at the first two hundred and four of those words, followed by a whole lot of the last five. Pretty much as soon as the style was out of Howard’s hands, ‘Lovecraftian horror’ started trending towards something that was much more compatible with conventional sci-fi/fantasy storytelling. The next biggest name is probably August Derleth, who immediately set about introducing moral duality, heroic victories, and codification to a setting that was defined by the marked absence of precisely these things. The thematic backbone becomes lost as soon as you start offering anything more than intentionally unsatisfactory explanations and intentionally disheartening cynicism. But the temptation to do both of these things has proven inescapable, especially when it comes to the insertion of ‘Lovecraftian’ elements into existing settings in which they would not otherwise be congruous.

The Elder Scrolls

This proceeded until ‘Lovecraft’ was something that you could slot into basically any franchise for a slightly darker story arc, but one that is still more or less about heroes beating up on villains. Those villains just happen to be oozier and less human-like than usual, and maybe the eventual victory will come with a few additional question marks. And there will be at least one insane wiseman dishing out cryptic warnings.

The core of the matter is that Lovecraft created a compelling atmosphere and library of visual ideas that have deservedly gained a measure of prominence. However, the beating heart of his work, the struggle of accepting an apathetic and unknowable universe, doesn’t have nearly the same broadness of applicability, not to mention being conceptually more challenging, and so has fallen out of the modern conception of the genre that it conceived in the first place. What we have now is Lovecraft in taxidermy – the form remains the same, but the innards have been replaced with cotton.  Which, to re-iterate, is all fine. Many of these stories are very good, and many of their tentacle creatures are very evocative. It’s just an enjoyable irony to me that somebody looking for a fresh shot of Lovecraft is probably better served staying away from anything Lovecraftian.

And, if nothing else, Lovecraft’s modern prominence has given us Bloodborne and some truly excellent death metal.

The End