Thursday, November 21, 2013

"The Ice-Demon" (1933) by Clark Ashton Smith

"The Ice-Demon"

© 1933


Clark Ashton Smith  

Quanga the huntsman, with Hoom Feethos and Eibur Tsanth, two of the most enterprising jewelers of Iqqua, had crossed the borders of a region into which men went but seldom — and wherefrom they returned even more rarely. Traveling north from Iqqua, they had passed into desolate Mhu Thulan, where the great glacier of Polarion had rolled like a frozen sea upon wealthy and far-famed cities, covering the broad isthmus from shore to shore beneath fathoms of perpetual ice.

The shell-shaped domes of Cerngoth, it was fabled, could still be seen deep down in the glaciation; and the high, keen spires of Oggon-Zhai were embedded therein, together with fern-palm and mammoth and the square black temples of the god Tsathoggua. All this had occurred many centuries ago; and still the ice, a mighty, glittering rampart, was moving south upon deserted lands.

Now, in the path of the embattled glacier, Quanga led his companions on a bold quest. Their object was nothing less than the retrieval of the rubies of King Haalor, who, with the wizard Ommum-Vog and many full-caparisoned soldiers, had gone out five decades before to make war upon the polar ice. From this fantastic expedition, neither Haalor nor OmmumVog had come back; and the sorry, ragged remnant of their men-at-arms, returning to Iqqua, after two moons, had told a dire tale.

The army, they said, had made its encampment on a sort of knoll, carefully chosen by Ommum-Vog, in full sight of the vanward ice. Then the mighty sorcerer, standing with Haalor amid a ring of braziers that fumed incessantly with golden smoke, and reciting runes that were older than the world, had conjured up a fiery orb, vaster and redder than the southward-circling sun of heaven. And the orb, with blazing beams that smote from the zenith, torrid and effulgent, had caused the sun to seem no more than a daylight moon, and the soldiers had almost swooned from its heat in their heavy panoply. But beneath its beams the verges of the glacier melted and ran in swift rills and rivers, so that Haalor for a time was hopeful of reconquering the realm of Mhu Thulan over which his forefathers had ruled in bygone ages.

The rushing waters had deepened, flowing past the knoll on which the army waited. Then, as if by a hostile magic, the rivers began to give forth a pale and stifling mist, that blinded the conjured sun of Ommum-Vog, so that its sultry beams grew faint and chill and had power no longer on the ice.

Vainly the wizard had put forth other spells, trying to dissipate the deep and gelid fog. But the vapor drew down, evil and clammy, coiling and wreathing like knots of phantom serpents, and filling nen's marrows as if with the cold of death. It covered all the camp, a tangible thing, ever colder and thicker, numbing the limbs of those who groped blindly and could not see the faces of their fellows at arm's-length. A few of the common soldiers, somehow, reached its outer confines and crept fearfully away beneath the wan sun, seeing no longer in the skies the wizard globe that had been called up by Ommum-Vog. And looking back presently, as they fled in strange terror, they beheld, instead of the low-lying mist they had thought to see, a newly frozen sheet of ice that covered the mound on which the king and the sorcerer had made their encampment. The ice rose higher above the ground than a tall man's head; and dimly, in its glittering depth, the fleeing soldiers saw the imprisoned forms of their leaders and companions.

Deeming that this thing was no natural occurrence, but a sorcery that had been exerted by the great glacier, and that the glacier itself was a live, malignant entity with powers of unknown bale, they did not slacken their flight. And the ice had suffered them to depart in peace, as if to give warning of the fate of those who dared to assail it.

Some there were who believed the tale, and some who doubted. But the kings that ruled in Iqqua after Haalor went not forth to do battle with the ice; and no wizard rose to make war upon it with conjured suns. Men fled before the ever-advancing glaciations; and strange legends were told of how people had been overtaken or cut off in lonely valleys by sudden, diabolic shiftings of the ice, as if it had stretched out a living hand. And legends there were, of awful crevasses that yawned abruptly and closed like monstrous mouths upon them that dared the frozen waste; of winds like the breath of boreal demons, that blasted men's flesh with instant, utter cold and turned them into statues hard as granite. In time the whole region, for many miles before the glacier, was generally shunned; and only the hardiest hunters would follow their quarry into the winter-blighted land.

Now it happened that the fearless huntsman Iluac, the elder brother of Quanga, had gone into Mhu Thulan, and had pursued an enormous black fox that led him afar on the mighty fields of the ice-sheet. For many leagues he trailed it, coming never within bowshot of the beast; and at length he came to a great mound on the plain, that seemed to mark the position of a buried hill. And Iluac thought that the fox entered a cavern in the mound; so, with lifted bow and a poised arrow at the string, he went after it into the cavern.

The place was like a chamber of boreal kings or gods. All about him, in a dim green light, were huge, glimmering pillars; and giant icicles hung from the roof in the forrn of stalactites. The floor sloped downward; and Iluac came to the cave's end without finding any trace of the fox. But in the transparent depth of the further wall, at the bottom, he saw the standing shapes of many men, deep-frozen and sealed up as in a tomb, with undecaying bodies and fair, unshrunken features. The men were armed with tall spears, and most of them wore the panoply of soldiers. But among them, in the van, there stood a haughty figure attired in the sea-blue robes of a king; and beside him was a bowed ancient who wore the night-black garb of a sorcerer. The robes of the regal figure were heavily sewn with gems that burned like colored stars through the ice; and great rubies red as gouts of newly congealing blood were arranged in the lines of a triangle on the bosom, forming the royal sign of the kings of Iqqua. So Iluac knew, by these tokens, that he had found the tomb of Haalor and OmmumVog and the soldiers with whom they had gone up against the ice in former days.

Overawed by the strangeness of it all, and remembering now the old legends, Iluac lost his courage for the first time, and quitted the chamber without delay. Nowhere could he find the black fox; and abandoning the chase, he returned southward, reaching the lands below the glacier without mishap. But he swore later that the ice had changed in a weird manner while he was following the fox, so that he was unsure of his direction for a while after leaving the cavern. There were steep ridges and hummocks where none had been before, making his return a toilsome journey; and the glaciation seemed to extend itself for many miles beyond its former limits. And because of these things, which he could not explain or understand, a curious eery fear was born in the heart of Iluac.

Never again did he go back upon the glacier; but he told his brother Quanga of that which he had found, and described the location of the cavern-chamber in which King Haalor and Ommum-Vog and their men-at-arms were entombed. And soon after this, Iluac was killed by a white bear on which he had used all his arrows in vain.

Quanga was no less brave than Iluac; and he did not fear the glacier, since he had been upon it many times and had noticed nothing untoward. His was a heart that lusted after gain, and often he thought of the rubies of Haalor, locked with the king in eternal ice; and it seemed to him that a bold man might recover the rubies.

So, one summer, while trading in Iqqua with his furs, he went to the jewelers Bibur Tsanth and Hoom Feethos, taking with him a few garnets that he had found in a northern valley. While the jewelers were appraising the garnets, he spoke idly of the rubies of Haalor, and inquired craftily as to their value. Then, hearing the great worth of the gems, aod noting the greedy interest that was shown by Hoom Feethos and Eibur Tsanth, he told them the tale he had heard from his brother Iluac, and offered, if they would promise him half the value of the rubies, to guide them to the hidden cave.

The jewelers agreed to this proposition, in spite of the hardships of the proposed journey, and the difficulty they might afterward encounter in disposing surreptitiously of gems that belonged to the royal family of Iqqua and would be claimed by the present king, Ralour, if their discovery were learned. The fabulous worth of the rubies had fired their avarice. Quanga, on his part, desired the complicity and connivance of the dealers, knowing that it would be hard for him to sell the jewels otherwise. He did not trust Hoom Feethos and Eibur Tsanth, and it was for this reason that he required them to go with him to the cavern and pay over to him the agreed sum of money as soon as they were in possession of the treasure.

The strange trio had set forth in mid-summer. Now, after two weeks of journeying through a wild, sub-arctic region, they were approaching the confines of the eternal ice. They traveled on foot, and their supplies were carried by three horses little larger than musk-oxen. Quanga, an unerring marksman, hunted for their daily food the hares and waterfowl of the country.

Behind them, in a cloudless turquoise heaven, there burned the low sun that was said to have described a loftier ecliptic in former ages. Drifts of unmelting snow were heaped in the shadows of the higher hills; and in steep valleys they came upon the vanward glaciers of the ice-sheet. The trees and shrubs were already sparse and stunted, in a land where rich forests had flourished in olden time beneath a milder climate. But poppies flamed in the meadows and along the slopes, spreading their frail beauty like a scarlet rug before the feet of perennial winter; and the quiet pools and stagnant-flowing streams were lined with white water-lilies.

A little to the east, they saw the fuming of volcanic peaks that still resisted the inroads of the glaciers. On the west were high, gaunt mountains whose sheer cliffs and pinnacles were topped with snow, and around those nether slopes the ice had climbed like an inundating sea. Before them was the looming, crenelated wall of the realm-wide glaciation, moving equally on plain and hill, uprooting the trees, and pressing the soil forward in vast folds and ridges. Its progress had been stayed a little by the northern summer. Quanga and the jewelers, as they went on, came to turbid rills, made by a temporary melting, that issued from beneath the glittering blue-green ramparts.

They left their pack-horses in a grassy valley, tethered by long cords of elf-thong to the dwarfish willows. Then, carrying such provisions and other equipment as they might require for a two days' journey, they climbed the ice-slope at a point selected by Quanga as being most readily accessible, and started in the direction of the cave that had been found by Iluac. Quanga took his bearings from the position of the volcanic mountains, and also from two isolated peaks that rose on the sheeted plain to the north like the breasts of a giantess beneath her shining armor.

The three were well equipped for all the exigencies of their search. Quanga carried a curious pick-ax of finely tempered bronze, to be used in disentombing the body of King Haalor; and he was armed with a short, leaf-shaped sword, in addition to his bow and quiver of arrows. His garments were made from the fur of a giant bear, brown-black in color.

Hoom Feethos and Eibur Tsanth, in raiment heavily quilted with eider-down against the cold, followed him complainingly but with avaricious eagerness. They had not enjoyed the long marches through a desolate, bleakening land, nor the rough fare and exposure to the northern elements. Moreover, they had taken a dislike to Quanga, whom they considered rude and overbearing. Their grievances were aggravated by the fact that he was now compelling them to carry most of the supplies in addition to the two heavy bags. of gold which they were to exchange later for the gems. Nothing less valuable than the rubies of Haalor would have induced them to come so far, or to set foot on the formidable wastes of the ice-sheet.

The scene before them was like some frozen world of the outer void. Vast, unbroken, save for a few scattered mounds and ridges, the plain extended to the white horizon and its armored peaks. Nothing seemed to live or move on the awful, glistening vistas, whose nearer levels were swept clean of snow. The sun appeared to grow pale and chill, and to recede behind the adventurers; and a wind blew upon them from the ice, like a breath from abysses beyond the pole. Apart from the boreal desolation and drearness, however, there was nothing to dismay Quanga or his companions. None of them was superstitious, and they deemed that the old tales were idle myths, were no more than fear-born delusions. Quanga smiled commiseratively at the thought of his brother Iluac, who had been so oddly frightened and had fancied such extraordinary things after the finding of Haalor. It was a singular weakness in Iluac, the rash and almost foolhardy hunter who had feared neither man nor beast. As to the trapping of Haalor and Ommum-Vog and their army in the glacier, it was plain that they had allowed themselves to be overtaken by the winter storms; and the few survivors, mentally unhinged by their hardships, had told a wild story. Ice — even though it had conquered half of a continent — was merely ice, and its workings conformed invariably to certain natural laws. Iluac had said that the ice-sheet was a great demon, cruel, greedy, and loth to give up that which it had taken. But such beliefs were crude and primitive superstitions, not to be entertained by enlightened minds of the Pleistocene age.

They had climbed the rampart at an early hour of morning. Quanga assured the jewelers that they would reach the cavern by noon at the latest, even if there should be a certain amount of difficulty and delay in locating it.

The plain before them was remarkably free of crevasses, and there was little to obstruct their advance. Steering their way with the two breast-shaped mountains for landmarks before them, they come after three hours to a hill-like elevation that corresponded to the mound of Iluac's story. With little trouble, they found the opening of the deep chamber.

It seemed that the place had changed little if at all since the visit of Iluac, for the interior, with its columns and pendant icicles, conformed closely to his description. The entrance was like a fanged maw. Within, the floor sloped downward at a slippery angle for more than a hundred feet. The chamber swam with a cold and glaucous translucency that filtered through the dome-like roof. At the lower end, in the striated wall, Quanga and the jewelers saw the embedded shapes of a number of men, among which they distinguished easily the tall, blue-clad corpse of King Haalor and the dark, bowed mummy of Ommum-Vog. Behind these, the shapes of others, lifting their serried spears eternally, and receding downward in stiff ranks through unfathomable depths, were faintly discernible.

Haalor stood regal and erect, with wide-open eyes that stared haughtily as in life. Upon his bosom the triangle of hot and blood-bright rubies smouldered unquenchably in the glacial gloom; and the colder eyes of topazes, of beryls, of diamonds, of chrysolites, gleamed and twinkled from his azure raiment. It seemed that the fabulous gems were separated by no more than a foot or two of ice from the greedy fingers of the hunter and his companions.

Without speaking, they stared raptly at the far-sought treasure. Apart from the great rubies, the jewelers were also estimating the value of the other gems worn by Haalor. These alone, they thought complacently, would have made it worth while to endure the fatigue of the journey and the insolence of Quanga.

The hunter, on his part, was wishing that he had driven an even steeper bargain. The two bags of gold, however, would make him a wealthy man. He could drink to his full content the costly wines, redder than the rubies, that came from far Uzuldaroum in the south. The tawny, slant-eyed girls of Iqqua would dance at his bidding; and he could gamble for high stakes.

All three were unmindful of the eeriness of their situation, alone in that boreal solitude with the frozen dead; and they were oblivious likewise to the ghoulish nature of the robbery they were about to commit. Without waiting to be urged by his companions, Quanga raised the keen and highly tempered pick of bronze, and began to assail the translucent wall with mighty blows.

The ice rang shrilly beneath the pick, and dropped away in crystal splinters and diamond lumps. In a few minutes, he had made a large cavity; and only a thin shell, cracked and shattering, remained before the body of Haalor. This shell Quanga proceeded to pry off with great care; and soon the triangle of monstrous rubies, more or less encrusted still with clinging ice, lay bare to his fingers. While the proud, bleak eyes of Haalor stared immovably upon him from behind their glassy mask, the hunter dropped the pick, and drawing his sharp, leaf-shaped sword from its scabbard, he began to sever the fine silver wires by which the rubies were attached cunningly to the king's raiment. In his haste he ripped away portions of the sea-blue fabric, baring the frozen and dead-white flesh beneath. One by one, as he removed the rubies, he gave them to Hoom Feethos, standing close behind him; and the dealer, bright-eyed with avarice, drooling a little with ecstasy, stored them carefully in a huge pouch of mottled lizard-skin that he had brought along for the purpose.

The last ruby had been secured, and Quanga was about to turn his attention to the lesser jewels that adorned the king's garments in curious patterns and signs of astrological or hieratic significance. Then, amid their preoccupation, he and Hoom Feethos were startled by a loud and splintering crash that ended with myriad tinklings as of broken glass. Turning, they saw that a huge icicle had fallen from the cavern-dome; and its point, as if aimed unerringly, had cloven the skull of Eibur Tsanth, who lay amid the debris of shattered ice with the sharp end of the fragment deeply embedded in his oozing brain. He had died, instantly, without knowledge of his doom.

The accident, it seemed, was a perfectly natural one, such as might occur in summer from a slight melting of the immense pendant; but, amid their consternation, Quanga and Hoom Feethos were compelled to take note of certain circumstances that were far from normal or explicable. During the removal of the rubies, on which their attention had been centered so exclusively, the chamber had narrowed to half of its former width, and had also closed down from above, till the hanging icicles were almost upon them, like the champing teeth of some tremendous mouth. The place had darkened, and the light was such as might filter into arctic seas beneath heavy floes. The incline of the cave had grown steeper, as if it were pitching into bottomless depths. Far up -- incredibly far — the two men beheld the tiny entrance, which seemed no bigger than the mouth of a fox's hole.

For an instant, they were stupefied. The changes of the cavern could admit of no natural explanation; and the Hyperboreans felt the clammy surge of all the superstitious terrors that they had formerly disclaimed. No longer could they deny the conscious, animate malevolence, the diabolic powers of bale imputed to the ice in old legends.

Realizing their peril, and spurred by a wild panic, they started to climb the incline. Hoom Feethos retained the bulging pouch of rubies, as well as the heavy bag of gold coins that hung from his girdle; and Quanga had enough presence of mind to keep his sword and pick-ax. In their terror-driven haste, however, both forgot the second bag of gold, which lay beside Eibur Tsanth, under the debris of the shattered pendant.

The supernatural narrowing of the cave, the dreadful and sinister closing-down of its roof, had apparently ceased. At any rate, the Hyperboreans could detect no visible continuation of the process as they climbed frantically and precariously toward the opening. They were forced to stoop in many places to avoid the mighty fangs that threatened to descend upon them; and even with the rough tigerskin buskins that they wore, it was hard to keep their footing on the terrible slope. Sometimes they pulled themselves up by means of the slippery, pillar-like formations; and often Quanga, who led the way, was compelled to hew hasty steps in the incline with his pick.

Hoom Feethos was too terrified for even the most rudimentary reflection. But Quanga, as he climbed, was considering the monstrous alterations of the cave, which he could not aline with his wide and various experience of the phenomena of nature. He tried to convince himself that he had made a singular error in estimating the chamber's dimensions and the inclination of its fioor. The effort was useless: he still found himself confronted by a thing that outraged his reason; a thing that distorted the known face of the world with unearthly, hideous madness, and mingled a malign chaos with its ordered workings.

After an ascent that was frightfully prolonged, like the effort to escape from some delirious, tedious nightmare predicament, they neared the cavern-mouth. There was barely room now for a man to creep on his belly beneath the sharp and ponderous teeth. Quanga, feeling that the fangs might close upon him like those of some great monster, hurled himself forward and started to wriggle through the opening with a most unheroic celerity. Something held him back, and he thought, for one moment of stark horror, that his worst apprehensions were being realized. Then he found that his bow and quiver of arrows, which he had forgotten to remove from his shoulders, were caught against the pendant ice. While Hoom Feethos gibbered in a frenzy of fear and impatience, he crawled back and relieved himself of the impeding weapons, which he thrust before him together with his pick in a second and more successful attempt to pass through the strait opening.

Rising to his feet on the open glacier, he heard a wild cry from Hoom Feethos, who, trying to follow Quanga, had become tightly wedged in the entrance through his greater girth. His right hand, clutching the pouch of rubies, was thrust forward beyond the threshold of the cave. He howled incessantly, with half-coherent protestations that the cruel ice-teeth were crunching him to death.

In spite of the eery terrors that had unmanned him, the hunter still retained enough courage to go back and try to assist Hoom Feethos. He was about to assail the huge icicles with his pick, when he heard an agonizing scream from the jeweler, followed by a harsh and indescribable grating. There had been no visible movement of the fangs — and yet Quanga now saw that they had reached the cavern-floor! The body of Hoom Feethos, pierced through and through by one of the icicles, and ground down by the blunter teeth, was spurting blood on the glacier, like the red mist from a wine-press.

Quanga doubted the very testimony of his senses. The thing before him was patently impossible — there was no mark of cleavage in the mound above the cavern-mouth, to explain the descent of those awful fangs. Before his very eyes, but too swiftly for direct cognition, this unthinkable enormity had occurred.
Hoom Feethos was beyond all earthly help, and Quanga, now wholly the slave of a hideous panic, would hardly have stayed longer to assist him in any case. But seeing the pouch that had fallen forward from the dead jeweler's fingers, the hunter snatched it up through an impulse of terror-mingled greed; and then, with no backward glance, he fled on the glacier, toward the low-circling sun.

For a few moments, as he ran, Quanga failed to perceive the sinister and ill-boding alterations, comparable to those of the cave, whicb had somehow occurred in the sheeted plain itself. With a terrific shock, which became an actual vertigo, he saw that he was climbing a long, insanely tilted slope above whose remote extreme the sun had receded strangely, and was now small and chill as if seen from an outer planet. The very sky was different: though still perfectly cloudless, it had taken on a curious deathly pallor. A brooding sense of inimical volition, a vast and freezing malignity, seemed to pervade the air and to settle upon Quanga like an incubus. But more terrifying than all else, in its proof of a conscious and malign derangement of natural law, was the giddy poleward inclination that had been assumed by the level plateau.

Quanga felt that creation itself had gone mad, and had left him at the mercy of demoniacal forces from the godless outer gulfs. Keeping a perilous foot-hold, weaving and staggering laboriously upward, he feared momently that he would slip and fall and slide back for ever into arctic depths unfathomable. And yet, when he dared to pause at last, and turned shudderingly to peer down at the supposed descent, he saw behind him an acclivity similar in all respects to the one he was climbing: a mad; oblique wall of ice, that rose interminably to a second remote sun.

In the confusion of that strange bouleversement, he seemed to lose the last remnant of equilibrium; and the glacier reeled and pitched about him like an overturning world as he strove to recover the sense of direction that had never before deserted him. Everywhere, it appeared, there were small and wan parhelia that mocked him above unending glacial scarps. He resumed his hopeless climb through a topsy-turvy world of illusion: whether north, south, east or west, he could not tell.

A sudden wind swept downward on the glacier; it shrieked in Quanga's ears like the myriad voices of taunting devils; it moaned and laughed and ululated with shrill notes as of crackling ice. It seemed to pluck at Quanga with live malicious fingers, to suck the breath for which he had fought agonizingly. In spite of his heavy raiment, and the speed of his toilsome ascent, he felt its bitter, mordant teeth, searching and biting even to the marrow.

Dimly, as he continued to climb upward, he saw that the ice was no longer smooth, but had risen into pillars and pyramids around him, or was fretted obscenely into wilder shapes. Immense, malignant profiles leered in blue-green crystal; the malformed heads of bestial devils frowned; and rearing dragons writhed immovably along the scarp, or sank frozen into deep crevasses.

Apart from these imaginary forms that were assumed by the ice itself, Quanga saw, or believed that he saw, human bodies and faces embedded in the glacier. Pale hands appeared to reach dimly and imploringly toward him from the depths; and he felt upon him the frost-bound eyes of men who had been lost in former years; and beheld their sunken limbs, grown rigid in strange attitudes of torture.

Quanga was no longer capable of thought. Deaf, blind, primordial terrors, older than reason, had filled his mind with their atavistic darkness. They drove him on implacably, as a beast is driven, and would not let him pause or flag on the mocking, nightmare slope. Reflection would have told him only that his ultimate escape was impossible; that the ice, a live and conscious and maleficent thing, was merely playing a cruel and fantastic game which it had somehow devised in its incredible animism. So, perhaps, it was well that he had lost the power of reflection.

Beyond hope and without warning, he came to the end of the glaciation. It was like the sudden shift of a dream, which takes the dreamer unaware; and he stared uncomprehendingly for some moments at the familiar Hyperborean valleys below the rampart, to the south, and the volcanoes that fumed darkly beyond the southeastern hills.

His flight from the cavern had consumed almost the whole of the long, subpolar afternoon, and the sun was now swinging close above the horizon. The parhelia had vanished, and the ice-sheet, as if by some prodigious legerdemain, had resumed its normal horizontality. If he had been able to compare his impressions, Quanga would have realized that at no time had he surprised the glacier in the accomplishment of its bewildering supernatural changes.

Doubtfully, as if it were a mirage that might fade at any moment, he surveyed the landscape below the battlements. To all appearances, he had returned to the very place from which he and the jewelers had begun their disastrous journey on the ice. Before him an easy declivity, fretted and runneled, ran down toward the grassy meadows. Fearing that it was all deceitful and unreal — a fair, beguiling trap, a new treachery of the element that he had grown to regard as a cruel and almighty demon — Quanga descended the slope with hasty leaps and bounds. Even when he stood ankle-deep in the great club-mosses, with leafy willows and sedgy grasses about him, he could not quite believe in the verity of his escape.

The mindless prompting of a panic fear still drove him on; and a primal instinct, equally mindless, drew him toward the volcanic peaks. The instinct told him that he would find refuge from the bitter boreal cold amid their purlieus; and there, if anywhere, he would be safe from the diabolical machinations of the glacier. Boiling springs were said to flow perpetually from the nether slopes of these mountains; great geysers, roaring and hissing like infernal cauldrons, filled the higher gullies with scalding cataracts. The long snows that swept upon Hyperborea were turned to mild rains in the vicinity of the volcanoes; and there a rich and sultry-colored flora, formerly native to the whole region, but now exotic, flourished throughout the seasons.

Quanga could not find the little shaggy horses that he and his companions had left tethered to the dwarf willows in the valley-meadow. Perhaps, after all, it was not the same valley. At any rate, he did not stay his flight to search for them. Without delay or lingering, after one fearful backward look at the menacing mass of the glaciation, he started off in a direct line for the smoke-plumed mountains.

The sun sank lower, skirting endlessly the southwestern horizon, and flooding the battlemented ice and the rolling landscape with a light of pale amethyst. Quanga, with iron thews inured to protracted marches, pressed on in his unremitting terror, and was overtaken gradually by a long, ethereal-tinted twilight of northern summer.

Somehow, through all the stages of his flight, he had retained the pick-ax, as well as his bow and arrows. Automatically, hours before, he had placed the heavy pouch of rubies in the bosorn of his raiment for safekeeping. He had forgotten them, and he did not even notice the trickle of water from the melting of crusted ice about the jewels, that seeped upon his flesh from the lizard-skin pouch.

Crossing one of the innumerable valleys, he stumbled against a protruding willow-root, and the pick was hurled from his fingers as he fell. Rising to his feet, he ran on without stopping to retrieve it.

A ruddy glow from the volcanoes was now visible on the darkening sky. It brightened as Quanga went on; and he felt that he was nearing the far-sought, inviolable sanctuary. Though still thoroughly shaken and demoralized by his preterhuman ordeals, he began to think that he might escape from the ice-demon after all.

Suddenly he became aware of a consuming thirst, to which he had been oblivious heretofore. Daring to pause in one of the shallow valleys, he drank from a blossom-bordered stream. Then, beneath the crushing load of an unconsciously accumulated fatigue, he flung himself down to rest for a little while among the blood-red poppies that were purple with twilight.

Sleep fell like a soft and overwhelming snow upon his eyelids, but was soon broken by evil dreams in which he still fled vainly from the mocking and inexorable glacier. He awoke in a cold horror, sweating and shivering, and found himself staring at the northern sky, where a delicate flush was dying slowly. It seemed to him that a great shadow, malign and massive aod somehow solid, was moving upon the horizon and striding over the low hills toward the valley in which he lay. It came with inexpressible speed, and the last light appeared to fall from the heavens, chill as a reflection caught in ice.

He started to his feet with the stiffness of prolonged exhaustion in all his body, and the nightmare stupefaction of slumber still mingling with his half-awakened fears. In this state, with a mad, momentary defiance, he unslung his bow and discharged arrow after arrow, emptying his quiver at the huge and bleak and formless shadow that seemed to impend before him on the sky. Having done this, he resumed his headlong flight.

Even as he ran, he shivered uncontrollably with the sudden and intense cold that had filled the valley. Vaguely, with an access of fear, he felt that there was something unwholesome and unnatural about the cold — something that did not belong to the place or the season. The glowing volcanoes were quite near, and soon he would reach their outlying hills. The air about him should be temperate, even if not actually warm.

All at once, the air darkened before him, with a sourceless, blue-green glimmering in its depths. For a moment, he saw the featureless Shadow that rose gigantically upon his path and obscured the very stars and the glare of the volcanoes. Then, with the swirling of a tempest-driven vapor, it closed about him, gelid and relentless. It was like phantom ice — a thing that blinded his eyes and stifled his breath, as if he were buried in some glacial tomb. It was cold with a transarctic rigor, such as he had never known, that ached unbearably in all his flesh, and was followed by a swiftly spreading numbness.

Dimly he heard a sound as of clashing icicles, a grinding as of heavy floes, in the blue-green gloom that tightened and thickened around him. It was as if the soul of the glacier, malign and implacable, had overtaken him in his flight. At times he struggled numbly, in half-drowsy terror. With some obscure impulse, as if to propitiate a vengeful deity, he took the pouch of rubies from his bosom with prolonged and painful effort, aod tried to hurl it away. The thongs that tied the pouch were loosened by its fall, and Quanga heard faintly, as if from a great distance, the tinkle of the rubies as they rolled and scattered on some hard surface. Then oblivion deepened about him, and he fell forward stiffly, without knowing that he had fallen.

Morning found him beside a little stream, stark-frozen, and lying on his face in a circle of poppies that had been blackened as if by the footprint of some gigantic demon of frost. A nearby pool, formed by the leisurely rill, was covered with thin ice; and on the ice, like gouts of frozen blood, there lay the scattered rubies of Haalor. In its own time, the great glacier, moving slowly and irresistibly southward, would reclaim them.



Truly did the mad Scotsman sing:

She wore a black tiara
Rare gems upon her fingers
And she came from distant waters
Where northern lights explode
To celebrate the dawning
Of the new wastes of winter
Gathering royal momentum
On the icy road.

Capturing black pieces
In a glass-fronted museum
The white queen rolls
On the chessboard of the dawn
Squeezing through the valleys
Pausing briefly in the corries
The Ice-Mother mates
And a new age is born.

and truly does Clark Ashton Smith warn of Her who destroyed Polaris and Mhu Thulan and in the end Hyperborea, crushing their ancient cities beneath her mass, just as one day she will crush London and New York and Chicago.  The turning Earth tilts on its axis as the millennia wear and the convergence of the Milankovitch cycles approaches, and when the stars are right Borea, the Lady of the Ice, the Forgotten Enemy whom we forget at our peril, will come rumbling down from the Cold Wastes again.



(1) - Ian Anderson, "Something's On the Move" (1979)

(2) - Arthur C. Clarke "The Forgotten Enemy" (1948)

Friday, November 15, 2013

"The Coming of the Ice" (1926) by G. Peyton Wertenbaker, with Notes and Commentary

"The Coming of the Ice"

© 1926


G. Peyton Wertenbaker

It is strange to be alone, and so cold. To be the last man on earth....

The snow drives silently about me, ceaselessly, drearily. And I am isolated in this tiny white, indistinguishable corner of a blurred world, surely the loneliest creature in the universe. How many thousands of years is it since I last knew the true companionship? For a long time I have been lonely, but there were people, creatures of flesh and blood. Now they are gone. Now I have not even the stars to keep me company, for they are all lost in an infinity of snow and twilight here below.

If only I could know how long it has been since first I was imprisoned upon the earth. It cannot matter now. And yet some vague dissatisfaction, some faint instinct, asks over and over in my throbbing ears: What year? What year?

It was in the year 1930 that the great thing began in my life. There was then a very great man who performed operations on his fellows to compose their vitals—we called such men surgeons. John Granden wore the title "Sir" before his name, in indication of nobility by birth according to the prevailing standards in England. But surgery was only a hobby of Sir John's, if I must be precise, for, while he had achieved an enormous reputation as a surgeon, he always felt that his real work lay in the experimental end of his profession. He was, in a way, a dreamer, but a dreamer who could make his dreams come true.

I was a very close friend of Sir John's. In fact, we shared the same apartments in London. I have never forgotten that day when he first mentioned to me his momentous discovery. I had just come in from a long sleigh-ride in the country with Alice, and I was seated drowsily in the window-seat, writing idly in my mind a description of the wind and the snow and the grey twilight of the evening. It is strange, is it not, that my tale should begin and end with the snow and the twilight.

Sir John opened suddenly a door at one end of the room and came hurrying across to another door. He looked at me, grinning rather like a triumphant maniac.

"It's coming!" he cried, without pausing, "I've almost got it!" I smiled at him: he looked very ludicrous at that moment.

"What have you got?" I asked.

"Good Lord, man, the Secret—the Secret!" And then he was gone again, the door closing upon his victorious cry, "The Secret!"

I was, of course, amused. But I was also very much interested. I knew Sir John well enough to realize that, however amazing his appearance might be, there would be nothing absurd about his "Secret"—whatever it was. But it was useless to speculate. I could only hope for enlightenment at dinner. So I immersed myself in one of the surgeon's volumes from his fine Library of Imagination, and waited.

I think the book was one of Mr. H. G. Wells', probably "The Sleeper Awakes," or some other of his brilliant fantasies and predictions, for I was in a mood conducive to belief in almost anything when, later, we sat down together across the table. I only wish I could give some idea of the atmosphere that permeated our apartments, the reality it lent to whatever was vast and amazing and strange. You could then, whoever you are, understand a little the ease with which I accepted Sir John's new discovery.

He began to explain it to me at once, as though he could keep it to himself no longer.

"Did you think I had gone mad, Dennell?" he asked. "I quite wonder that I haven't. Why, I have been studying for many years—for most of my life—on this problem. And, suddenly, I have solved it! Or, rather, I am afraid I have solved another one much greater."

"Tell me about it, but for God's sake don't be technical."

"Right," he said. Then he paused. "Dennell, it's magnificent! It will change everything that is in the world." His eyes held mine suddenly with the fatality of a hypnotist's. "Dennell, it is the Secret of Eternal Life," he said.

"Good Lord, Sir John!" I cried, half inclined to laugh.

"I mean it," he said. "You know I have spent most of my life studying the processes of birth, trying to find out precisely what went on in the whole history of conception."

"You have found out?"

"No, that is just what amuses me. I have discovered something else without knowing yet what causes either process.

"I don't want to be technical, and I know very little of what actually takes place myself. But I can try to give you some idea of it."

It is thousands, perhaps millions of years since Sir John explained to me. What little I understood at the time I may have forgotten, yet I try to reproduce what I can of his theory.

"In my study of the processes of birth," he began, "I discovered the rudiments of an action which takes place in the bodies of both men and women. There are certain properties in the foods we eat that remain in the body for the reproduction of life, two distinct Essences, so to speak, of which one is retained by the woman, another by the man. It is the union of these two properties that, of course, creates the child (1).

"Now, I made a slight mistake one day in experimenting with a guinea-pig, and I re-arranged certain organs which I need not describe so that I thought I had completely messed up the poor creature's abdomen. It lived, however, and I laid it aside. It was some years later that I happened to notice it again. It had not given birth to any young, but I was amazed to note that it had apparently grown no older: it seemed precisely in the same state of growth in which I had left it.

"From that I built up. I re-examined the guinea-pig, and observed it carefully. I need not detail my studies. But in the end I found that my 'mistake' had in reality been a momentous discovery. I found that I had only to close certain organs, to re-arrange certain ducts, and to open certain dormant organs, and, mirabile dictu, the whole process of reproduction was changed.

"You have heard, of course, that our bodies are continually changing, hour by hour, minute by minute, so that every few years we have been literally reborn. Some such principle as this seems to operate in reproduction, except that, instead of the old body being replaced by the new, and in its form, approximately, the new body is created apart from it. It is the creation of children that causes us to die, it would seem, because if this activity is, so to speak, dammed up or turned aside into new channels, the reproduction operates on the old body, renewing it continually (2). It is very obscure and very absurd, is it not? But the most absurd part of it is that it is true. Whatever the true explanation may be, the fact remains that the operation can be done, that it actually prolongs life indefinitely, and that I alone know the secret."

Sir John told me a very great deal more, but, after all, I think it amounted to little more than this. It would be impossible for me to express the great hold his discovery took upon my mind the moment he recounted it. From the very first, under the spell of his personality, I believed, and I knew he was speaking the truth. And it opened up before me new vistas. I began to see myself become suddenly eternal, never again to know the fear of death. I could see myself storing up, century after century, an amplitude of wisdom and experience that would make me truly a god.

"Sir John!" I cried, long before he was finished. "You must perform that operation on me!"

"But, Dennell, you are too hasty. You must not put yourself so rashly into my hands."

"You have perfected the operation, haven't you?"

"That is true," he said.

"You must try it out on somebody, must you not?"

"Yes, of course. And yet—somehow, Dennell, I am afraid. I cannot help feeling that man is not yet prepared for such a vast thing. There are sacrifices. One must give up love and all sensual pleasure. This operation not only takes away the mere fact of reproduction, but it deprives one of all the things that go with sex, all love, all sense of beauty, all feeling for poetry and the arts. It leaves only the few emotions, selfish emotions, that are necessary to self-preservation. Do you not see? One becomes an intellect, nothing more—a cold apotheosis of reason. And I, for one, cannot face such a thing calmly." (3)

"But, Sir John, like many fears, it is largely horrible in the foresight. After you have changed your nature you cannot regret it. What you are would be as horrible an idea to you afterwards as the thought of what you will be seems now."

"True, true. I know it. But it is hard to face, nevertheless."

"I am not afraid to face it."

"You do not understand it, Dennell, I am afraid. And I wonder whether you or I or any of us on this earth are ready for such a step. After all, to make a race deathless, one should be sure it is a perfect race." (4)

"Sir John," I said, "it is not you who have to face this, nor any one else in the world till you are ready. But I am firmly resolved, and I demand it of you as my friend."

Well, we argued much further, but in the end I won. Sir John promised to perform the operation three days later.

... But do you perceive now what I had forgotten during all that discussion, the one thing I had thought I could never forget so long as I lived, not even for an instant? It was my love for Alice—I had forgotten that! (5)

I cannot write here all the infinity of emotions I experienced later, when, with Alice in my arms, it suddenly came upon me what I had done. Ages ago—I have forgotten how to feel. I could name now a thousand feelings I used to have, but I can no longer even understand them. For only the heart can understand the heart, and the intellect only the intellect.

With Alice in my arms, I told the whole story. It was she who, with her quick instinct, grasped what I had never noticed (6).

"But Carl!" she cried, "Don't you see?—It will mean that we can never be married!" And, for the first time, I understood. If only I could re-capture some conception of that love! I have always known, since the last shred of comprehension slipped from me, that I lost something very wonderful when I lost love. But what does it matter? I lost Alice too, and I could not have known love again without her.

We were very sad and very tragic that night. For hours and hours we argued the question over. But I felt somewhat that I was inextricably caught in my fate, that I could not retreat now from my resolve. I was perhaps, very school-boyish, but I felt that it would be cowardice to back out now. But it was Alice again who perceived a final aspect of the matter.

"Carl," she said to me, her lips very close to mine, "it need not come between our love. After all, ours would be a poor sort of love if it were not more of the mind than of the flesh. We shall remain lovers, but we shall forget mere carnal desire. I shall submit to that operation too!" (7)

And I could not shake her from her resolve. I would speak of danger that I could not let her face. But, after the fashion of women, she disarmed me with the accusation that I did not love her, that I did not want her love, that I was trying to escape from love. What answer had I for that, but that I loved her and would do anything in the world not to lose her?

I have wondered sometimes since whether we might have known the love of the mind. Is love something entirely of the flesh, something created by an ironic God merely to propagate His race? Or can there be love without emotion, love without passion—love between two cold intellects? (8) I do not know. I did not ask then. I accepted anything that would make our way more easy.

There is no need to draw out the tale. Already my hand wavers, and my time grows short. Soon there will be no more of me, no more of my tale—no more of Mankind. There will be only the snow, and the ice, and the cold ...

Three days later I entered John's Hospital with Alice on my arm. All my affairs—and they were few 
enough—were in order. I had insisted that Alice wait until I had come safely through the operation, before she submitted to it. I had been carefully starved for two days, and I was lost in an unreal world of white walls and white clothes and white lights, drunk with my dreams of the future. When I was wheeled into the operating room on the long, hard table, for a moment it shone with brilliant distinctness, a neat, methodical white chamber, tall and more or less circular. Then I was beneath the glare of soft white lights, and the room faded into a misty vagueness from which little steel rays flashed and quivered from silvery cold instruments. For a moment our hands, Sir John's and mine, gripped, and we were saying good-bye—for a little while—in the way men say these things. Then I felt the warm touch of Alice's lips upon mine, and I felt sudden painful things I cannot describe, that I could not have described then. For a moment I felt that I must rise and cry out that I could not do it. But the feeling passed, and I was passive.

Something was pressed about my mouth and nose, something with an ethereal smell. Staring eyes swam about me from behind their white masks. I struggled instinctively, but in vain—I was held securely. Infinitesimal points of light began to wave back and forth on a pitch-black background; a great hollow buzzing echoed in my head. My head seemed suddenly to have become all throat, a great, cavernous, empty throat in which sounds and lights were mingled together, in a swift rhythm, approaching, receding eternally. Then, I think, there were dreams. But I have forgotten them....

I began to emerge from the effect of the ether. Everything was dim, but I could perceive Alice beside me, and Sir John.

"Bravely done!" Sir John was saying, and Alice, too, was saying something, but I cannot remember what. For a long while we talked, I speaking the nonsense of those who are coming out from under ether, they teasing me a little solemnly. But after a little while I became aware of the fact that they were about to leave. Suddenly, God knows why, I knew that they must not leave. Something cried in the back of my head that they must stay—one cannot explain these things, except by after events. I began to press them to remain, but they smiled and said they must get their dinner. I commanded them not to go; but they spoke kindly and said they would be back before long. I think I even wept a little, like a child, but Sir John said something to the nurse, who began to reason with me firmly, and then they were gone, and somehow I was asleep....

When I awoke again, my head was fairly clear, but there was an abominable reek of ether all about me. The moment I opened my eyes, I felt that something had happened. I asked for Sir John and for Alice. I saw a swift, curious look that I could not interpret come over the face of the nurse, then she was calm again, her countenance impassive. She reassured me in quick meaningless phrases, and told me to sleep. But I could not sleep: I was absolutely sure that something had happened to them, to my friend and to the woman I loved. Yet all my insistence profited me nothing, for the nurses were a silent lot. Finally, I think, they must have given me a sleeping potion of some sort, for I fell asleep again.

For two endless, chaotic days, I saw nothing of either of them, Alice or Sir John. I became more and more agitated, the nurse more and more taciturn. She would only say that they had gone away for a day or two.

And then, on the third day, I found out. They thought I was asleep. The night nurse had just come in to relieve the other.

"Has he been asking about them again?" she asked.

"Yes, poor fellow. I have hardly managed to keep him quiet."

"We will have to keep it from him until he is recovered fully." There was a long pause, and I could hardly control my labored breathing.

"How sudden it was!" one of them said. "To be killed like that—" I heard no more, for I leapt suddenly up in bed, crying out.

"Quick! For God's sake, tell me what has happened!" I jumped to the floor and seized one of them by the collar. She was horrified. I shook her with a superhuman strength.

"Tell me!" I shouted, "Tell me—Or I'll—!" She told me—what else could she do.

"They were killed in an accident," she gasped, "in a taxi—a collision—the Strand—!" (9) And at that moment a crowd of nurses and attendants arrived, called by the other frantic woman, and they put me to bed again.

I have no memory of the next few days. I was in delirium, and I was never told what I said during my ravings. Nor can I express the feelings I was saturated with when at last I regained my mind again. Between my old emotions and any attempt to put them into words, or even to remember them, lies always that insurmountable wall of my Change. I cannot understand what I must have felt, I cannot express it.
I only know that for weeks I was sunk in a misery beyond any misery I had ever imagined before. The only two friends I had on earth were gone to me. I was left alone. And, for the first time, I began to see before me all these endless years that would be the same, dull, lonely.

Yet I recovered. I could feel each day the growth of a strange new vigor in my limbs, a vast force that was something tangibly expressive to eternal life. Slowly my anguish began to die. After a week more, I began to understand how my emotions were leaving me, how love and beauty and everything of which poetry was made—how all this was going. I could not bear the thought at first. I would look at the golden sunlight and the blue shadow of the wind, and I would say,
God! How beautiful!" And the words would echo meaninglessly in my ears. Or I would remember Alice's face, that face I had once loved so inextinguishably, and I would weep and clutch my forehead, and clench my fists, crying,
O God, how can I live without her!" Yet there would be a little strange fancy in my head at the same moment, saying,
Who is this Alice? You know no such person." And truly I would wonder whether she had ever existed (10).

So, slowly, the old emotions were shed away from me, and I began to joy in a corresponding growth of my mental perceptions. I began to toy idly with mathematical formulae I had forgotten years ago, in the same fashion that a poet toys with a word and its shades of meaning. I would look at everything with new, seeing eyes, new perception, and I would understand things I had never understood before, because formerly my emotions had always occupied me more than my thoughts.

And so the weeks went by, until, one day, I was well.

What, after all, is the use of this chronicle? Surely there will never be men to read it. I have heard them say that the snow will never go. I will be buried, it will be buried with me; and it will be the end of us both. Yet, somehow, it eases my weary soul a little to write....

Need I say that I lived, thereafter, many thousands of thousands of years, until this day? I cannot detail that life. It is a long round of new, fantastic impressions, coming dream-like, one after another, melting into each other. In looking back, as in looking back upon dreams, I seem to recall only a few isolated periods clearly; and it seems that my imagination must have filled in the swift movement between episodes. I think now, of necessity, in terms of centuries and millenniums, rather than days and months.... The snow blows terribly about my little fire, and I know it will soon gather courage to quench us both ...

Years passed, at first with a sort of clear wonder. I watched things that took place everywhere in the world. I studied. The other students were much amazed to see me, a man of thirty odd, coming back to college.

"But Judas, Dennell, you've already got your Ph.D! What more do you want?" So they would all ask me. And I would reply;

"I want an M.D. and an F.R.C.S." I didn't tell them that I wanted degrees in Law, too, and in Biology and Chemistry, in Architecture and Engineering, in Psychology and Philosophy. Even so, I believe they thought me mad. But poor fools! I would think. They can hardly realize that I have all of eternity before me to study.

I went to school for many decades. I would pass from University to University, leisurely gathering all the fruits of every subject I took up, revelling in study as no student revelled ever before. There was no need of hurry in my life, no fear of death too soon. There was a magnificence of vigor in my body, and a magnificence of vision and clarity in my brain. I felt myself a super-man. I had only to go on storing up wisdom until the day should come when all knowledge of the world was mine, and then I could command the world. I had no need for hurry. O vast life! How I gloried in my eternity! And how little good it has ever done me, by the irony of God.

For several centuries, changing my name and passing from place to place, I continued my studies. I had no consciousness of monotony, for, to the intellect, monotony cannot exist: it was one of those emotions I had left behind. One day, however, in the year 2132, a great discovery was made by a man called Zarentzov. It had to do with the curvature of space, quite changing the conceptions that we had all followed since Einstein. I had long ago mastered the last detail of Einstein's theory, as had, in time, the rest of the world. I threw myself immediately into the study of this new, epoch-making conception.

To my amazement, it all seemed to me curiously dim and elusive. I could not quite grasp what Zarentzov was trying to formulate.

"Why," I cried, "the thing is a monstrous fraud!" I went to the professor of Physics in the University I then attended, and I told him it was a fraud, a huge book of mere nonsense. He looked at me rather pityingly.

"I am afraid, Modevski," he said, addressing me by the name I was at the time using, "I am afraid you do not understand it, that is all. When your mind has broadened, you will. You should apply yourself more carefully to your Physics." But that angered me, for I had mastered my Physics before he was ever born. I challenged him to explain the theory. And he did! He put it, obviously, in the clearest language he could. Yet I understood nothing. I stared at him dumbly, until he shook his head impatiently, saying that it was useless, that if I could not grasp it I would simply have to keep on studying. I was stunned. I wandered away in a daze.

For do you see what happened? During all those years I had studied ceaselessly, and my mind had been clear and quick as the day I first had left the hospital. But all that time I had been able only to remain what I was—an extraordinarily intelligent man of the twentieth century. And the rest of the race had been progressing! It had been swiftly gathering knowledge and power and ability all that time, faster and faster, while I had been only remaining still. And now here was Zarentzov and the teachers of the Universities, and, probably, a hundred intelligent men, who had all outstripped me! I was being left behind (11).

And that is what happened. I need not dilate further upon it. By the end of that century I had been left behind by all the students of the world, and I never did understand Zarentzov. Other men came with other theories, and these theories were accepted by the world. But I could not understand them. My intellectual life was at an end. I had nothing more to understand. I knew everything I was capable of knowing, and, thenceforth, I could only play wearily with the old ideas (12).

Many things happened in the world. A time came when the East and West, two mighty unified hemispheres, rose up in arms: the civil war of a planet. I recall only chaotic visions of fire and thunder and hell. It was all incomprehensible to me: like a bizarre dream, things happened, people rushed about, but I never knew what they were doing. I lurked during all that time in a tiny shuddering hole under the city of Yokohama, and by a miracle I survived. And the East won. But it seems to have mattered little who did win, for all the world had become, in all except its few remaining prejudices, a single race, and nothing was changed when it was all rebuilt again, under a single government (13).

I saw the first of the strange creatures who appeared among us in the year 6371, men who were later known to be from the planet Venus (14). But they were repulsed, for they were savages compared with the Earthmen, although they were about equal to the people of my own century, 1900. Those of them who did not perish of the cold after the intense warmth of their world, and those who were not killed by our hands, those few returned silently home again. And I have always regretted that I had not the courage to go with them.

I watched a time when the world reached perfection in mechanics, when men could accomplish anything with a touch of the finger. Strange men, these creatures of the hundredth century, men with huge brains and tiny shriveled bodies, atrophied limbs, and slow, ponderous movements on their little conveyances (15). It was I, with my ancient compunctions, who shuddered when at last they put to death all the perverts, the criminals, and the insane, ridding the world of the scum for which they had no more need. It was then that I was forced to produce my tattered old papers, proving my identity and my story. They knew it was true, in some strange fashion of theirs, and, thereafter, I was kept on exhibition as an archaic survival (16).

I saw the world made immortal through the new invention of a man called Kathol, who used somewhat the same method "legend" decreed had been used upon me (17). I observed the end of speech, of all perceptions except one, when men learned to communicate directly by thought, and to receive directly into the brain all the myriad vibrations of the universe (18).

All these things I saw, and more, until that time when there was no more discovery, but a Perfect World in which there was no need for anything but memory (19). Men ceased to count time at last. Several hundred years after the 154th Dynasty from the Last War, or, as we would have counted in my time, about 200,000 A.D., official records of time were no longer kept carefully. They fell into disuse. Men began to forget years, to forget time at all. Of what significance was time when one was immortal? (20)

After long, long uncounted centuries, a time came when the days grew noticeably colder. Slowly the winters became longer, and the summers diminished to but a month or two. Fierce storms raged endlessly in winter, and in summer sometimes there was severe frost, sometimes there was only frost. In the high places and in the north and the sub-equatorial south, the snow came and would not go.

Men died by the thousands in the higher latitudes. New York became, after awhile, the furthest habitable city north, an arctic city, where warmth seldom penetrated. And great fields of ice began to make their way southward, grinding before them the brittle remains of civilizations, covering over relentlessly all of man's proud work.

Snow appeared in Florida and Italy one summer. In the end, snow was there always. Men left New York, Chicago, Paris, Yokohama, and everywhere they traveled by the millions southward, perishing as they went, pursued by the snow and the cold, and that inevitable field of ice. They were feeble creatures when the Cold first came upon them, but I speak in terms of thousands of years; and they turned every weapon of science to the recovery of their physical power, for they foresaw that the only chance for survival lay in a hard, strong body. As for me, at last I had found a use for my few powers, for my physique was the finest in that world. It was but little comfort, however, for we were all united in our awful fear of that Cold and that grinding field of Ice. All the great cities were deserted. We would catch silent, fearful glimpses of them as we sped on in our machines over the snow—great hungry, haggard skeletons of cities, shrouded in banks of snow, snow that the wind rustled through desolate streets where the cream of human life once had passed in calm security. Yet still the Ice pursued. For men had forgotten about that Last Ice Age when they ceased to reckon time, when they lost sight of the future and steeped themselves in memories. They had not remembered that a time must come when Ice would lie white and smooth over all the earth, when the sun would shine bleakly between unending intervals of dim, twilight snow and sleet (21).

Slowly the Ice pursued us down the earth, until all the feeble remains of civilization were gathered in Egypt and India and South America. The deserts flowered again, but the frost would come always to bite the tiny crops. For still the Ice came. All the world now, but for a narrow strip about the equator, was one great silent desolate vista of stark ice-plains, ice that brooded above the hidden ruins of cities that had endured for hundreds of thousands of years. It was terrible to imagine the awful solitude and the endless twilight that lay on these places, and the grim snow, sailing in silence over all.... (22)
It surrounded us on all sides, until life remained only in a few scattered clearings all about that equator of the globe, with an eternal fire going to hold away the hungry Ice. Perpetual winter reigned now; and we were becoming terror-stricken beasts that preyed on each other for a life already doomed. Ah, but I, I the archaic survival, I had my revenge then, with my great physique and strong jaws—God! Let me think of something else. Those men who lived upon each other—it was horrible. And I was one.

So inevitably the Ice closed in.... One day the men of our tiny clearing were but a score. We huddled about our dying fire of bones and stray logs. We said nothing. We just sat, in deep, wordless, thoughtless silence. We were the last outpost of Mankind.

I think suddenly something very noble must have transformed these creatures to a semblance of what they had been of old. I saw, in their eyes, the question they sent from one to another, and in every eye I saw that the answer was, Yes. With one accord they rose before my eyes and, ignoring me as a baser creature, they stripped away their load of tattered rags and, one by one, they stalked with their tiny shrivelled limbs into the shivering gale of swirling, gusting snow, and disappeared. And I was alone.... (23)

So am I alone now. I have written this last fantastic history of myself and of Mankind upon a substance that will, I know, outlast even the snow and the Ice—as it has outlasted Mankind that made it. It is the only thing with which I have never parted. For is it not irony that I should be the historian of this race—I, a savage, an "archaic survival?" Why do I write? God knows, but some instinct prompts me, although there will never be men to read (24).

I have been sitting here, waiting, and I have thought often of Sir John and Alice, whom I loved. Can it be that I am feeling again, after all these ages, some tiny portion of that emotion, that great passion I once knew? I see her face before me, the face I have lost from my thoughts for eons, and something is in it that stirs my blood again. Her eyes are half-closed and deep, her lips are parted as though I could crush them with an infinity of wonder and discovery. O God! It is love again, love that I thought was lost! They have often smiled upon me when I spoke of God, and muttered about my foolish, primitive superstitions. But they are gone, and I am left who believe in God, and surely there is purpose in it.

I am cold, I have written. Ah, I am frozen. My breath freezes as it mingles with the air, and I can hardly move my numbed fingers. The Ice is closing over me, and I cannot break it any longer. The storm cries weirdly all about me in the twilight, and I know this is the end. The end of the world. And I—I, the last man....

The last man....

... I am cold—cold....

But is it you, Alice? Is it you?



(1) - There are certain properties in the foods we eat that remain in the body for the reproduction of life, two distinct Essences, so to speak, of which one is retained by the woman, another by the man. It is the union of these two properties that, of course, creates the child.

The importance of nucleic acid, and specifically the structure of DNA, would not be discovered for another generation.  The theory being expressed here is a biochemical version of Henri Bergson's elan vital, from Creative Evolution (1907).  It is of course wrong in detail, though it does generally anticipate the roles of DNA and RNA in the cell.

(2) - "... It is the creation of children that causes us to die, it would seem, because if this activity is, so to speak, dammed up or turned aside into new channels, the reproduction operates on the old body, renewing it continually ..."

This is a restatement of a very old theory, dating back at least a couple of thousand millennia, to the effect that the vital essences are drained off by sexuality in general (and reproduction in particular), and that therefore sexual self-denial would preserve life indefinitely.  It is quite true that frequent childbirth under pre-industrial conditions is likely to shorten a woman's life, and the energetic pursuit of sex for reasons of danger and disease to shorten a man's.  However, the existence disproof of this theory is that the celibate are not, in fact, immortal -- nor are they exceptionally long-lived save by the operations of the aforementioned factors.

(3) - The idea that stopping the sex drive would also stop all other aesthetic, creative and indeed positive emotional impulses is very much a product of Freudian psychological theory, and is almost certainly untrue.  Not ony isn't sex that central to even human psychology, but our affectionate emotions almost certainly derive from primitive mammalian ancestors, and specifically from maternal love and the desire to huddle for mutual warmth and protection.  In many mammals, affection and sex are entirely divorced, and asexually-oriented humans are certainly capable of appreciating art or loving their friends and family:  they lack sex drive, rather than lacking all positive emotions.

(4) - "... And I wonder whether you or I or any of us on this earth are ready for such a step. After all, to make a race deathless, one should be sure it is a perfect race."

This of course assumes that a "deathless" race could not change, or would never have the desire to change arising from purely rational motives.  Both assumptions strike me as dubious, though they well might be true as regards John Granden's specific procedure.

(5) - Mmm, so you've just had it explained to you that Granden's process will not only destroy your potency and your sex drive, but also all aesthetic and affectionate emotions, and it doesn't occur to you that going through this procedure might mess up your marriage plans?  Ah, those stiff-upper-life British types with their utter lack of common sense ...!

(6) - ... And Alice instantly perceives the obvious point which Dennell has missed. 

(7) - Alice loves Dennell perhaps more than he deserves.

(8) - Here we see the limitations of any philosophy of positive affect in the time before the development of game theory.  First pioneered by John von Neumann and outlined first in  On the Theory of Parlor Games (1928) and then in greater scope in a paper, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (1944) co-written with Oskar Morgenstern, game theory gained wide acceptance in the 1950's.  Its significance is that it shows why, in purely and coldly-logical terms, benevolence and cooperation are wise strategies.  A lot of early science fiction assumes that utterly-rational beings would also be amoral and might be utterly-uncooperative:  it is thanks to game theory that we now know that this is improbable. 

(9) - Truly a diablos ex machina, and one which obviously acts to reduce Dennell's emotional connections with the rest of the human race.

(10) - Dennell is incapable of understanding his old emotionally-tinged memories of Alice, or indeed of anything else which produced postive emotional affect in him.  This is one of the reasons why I wouldn't volunteer for this process:  immortality without emotional pleasure would be personally-meaningless.

(11) - This seems to assume that people are eternally-limited by the assumptions they first learned, which actually makes little sense if one has essentially unlimited wealth (a coldly-rational immortal could easily save enough money to invest in such a way as to become wealthy in half a century) and can continuously study.  A more plausible explanation is that the very regenerative powers of the Granden Process are limiting the ability of Dennell's mind to form new neural connections and specifically to prune old ones.  This would pose especial problems for an immortal, and note that by this point Dennell is something like 200 years old.

(12) - It's a bit surprising, though that in over 200 years of medical progress, nobody has figured out how to duplicate, improve or reverse the Granden Process, even though Dennell knows the Process is possible and could presumably tell other scientists.  This is of course a necessary assumption for the narrative.

(13) - This is something of a Take That to the Yellow Peril theories then very common, and popular in Interwar Era science-fiction.  Wertenbaker (correctly, in my opinion) points out that after centuries of globalization, the very racial differences which frightened the theorists would have long since vanished as the races of Man merged into one.  Even the cultures of East and West have by this time become one, to the point that the change of management is meaningless from Dennell's admittedly-cold point of view.

(14) - Much Interwar Era science-fiction deeply overestimated the difficulty of inter-planetary travel.  It is of course possible that a civilization thousands of years in advance of our time would either be unable or uninterested in the situation on the closest major terrestrial planet to their own, and of course 4500 years is enough time for two whole cycles of civilizations rising and falling.

(15) - The notion of men of the future as giant-brained creatures manipulating the physical world entirely by machinery dates back to the early 20th century, and can also be seen in Stapledon's Last and First Men (1930) and. Hamilton's "The Man Who Evolved" (1931) (which I once reviewed here).  The idea derives from the observation of human evolutionary changes from the other great apes, and is decades older even than "The Coming of the Ice" (which, however, pre-dates my other two examples of its application). 

(16) - The irony here is that Dennell, who has been rendered emotionally-flat by the Granden Process, is emotionally-horrified by the cruelty of the 7th Millennial culture -- because he remembers a kinder and more sentimental civilization.

(17) - At this point humanity has well and truly passed by Dennell, because Kathol has reinvented the Granden Process.  Dennell meant to be a god among men, but is now simply an archaic survival.

(18) - The development of universal human telepathy may have been the last flowering of the culture of the super-intelligent cyborgs, because if the Kathol Process works exactly like the Granden Process, it would logically freeze their further cultural development, probably in no more than a millennium.

(19) - From Dennell's point of view.  Since he has only a very limited understanding of the culture of the telepathic super-intelligent cyborgs, who are far his intellectual superiors, this may be the apparent "perfection" of the human world as viewed by a domestic cat.

(20) - It seems obvious to me that the Perfect World has become highly-decadent -- as the events of the next section strongly imply.

(21) - Notice that the supposed "Perfect World" of ultimate technological development is unable to engage in large-scale climatological engineering?  Or colonize other planets, or even handle a terrestrial migration competently.  And they've forgotten about the last Ice Age, despite the fact that they could simply ask Dennell about it.  As I said, highly-decadent.

(22) - This is more than a mere Ice Age.  It is a Snowball Earth event.  It is quite likely that the actions of the men of the Perfect World, as they lost their records and their science became myth, severely damaged the planetary atmosphere in such a way as to prevent the climate from stablizing at merely Pleistocene levels of temperature.

The last such event was the Marinoan Glaciation, which lasted from 650-635 MYA.  Neither this event, nor its timing, nor the very possibility of Snowball Earth events, were known in the early 20th century when this story was written.

(23) - I would call it a surrender to an inevitability which became inevitable first largely through the arrogant ignorance of the men of the Perfect World, and then through their repeated underestimation of the threat until matters had gone too far for reversal.  This is hardly "nobility," it's more like a tantrum at the unfriendliness of the Universe to the intellectually self-blinded.  But then, Dennell is cold in more than one sense of the word, as indeed were the super-intelligent cyborgs.

(24) - What, no one ever founded successful inter-planetary or inter-stellar colonies in hundreds of millennia?  And remember, the Kathol Process was not discovered until around 200,000 AD, so Mankind had lots of time before they froze their intellectual development.  Though of course it's possible that the other descendants of the men of today are far more alien to Dennell than were the super-intelligent cyborgs.  And of course Dennell has no way to actually contact them at this point:  he's freezing to death somewhere near Earth's Equator.


This is the story of a quest for Transcendence gone horribly right.  John Granden sought immortality because it is an obvious medical goal.  Dennell wanted to become immortal, despite the drawbacks of the process, because he was fascinated by the future and wanted to become a god amongst men.  And he indeed got to live for hundreds of thousands of years, eventually becoming the last man on Earth.

The price of this was literally his humanity.  He lost the ability to have sex, to love, even to experience much in the way of any emotional affect.  His mind -- merely-human despite his flattened emotions -- was unable to adapt much after a mere two centuries of life.  He spent thousands of years hiding his true nature as the world around him grew increasingly alien, and finally became a sort of museum-piece, valued by the posthumans around him largely for his rarity.  And he witnesses the (protracted and depressing) end of the human race on Earth.

This is clearly meant as a cautionary tale.  Had Dennell not undergone the Granden Process, he would have had a normal and perhaps happy life in the 20th century.  Becoming immortal destroyed most of his ability to experience happiness and eventually resulted in him living for hundreds of millennia in  a world more alien to him than the 20th century would have been to an earlier human species.  And there is a strong hint that when humanity as a whole became immortal telepathic super-intelligent cyborgs, they lost their drive, leading to their ultimate extirpation on Earth (and possibly extinction in the Universe).

The nature of Dennell's life strikes me as nightmarish.  He doesn't describe it that way, but then he has trouble experiencing any emotions at all.  Consider this:  he enjoys something like 200 years of actually being able to understand the discoveries of the future.  This is followed by more than 4,000 years of finding himself in an increasingly-alien world which he cannot really understand no matter how hard he tries, surviving mainly because he got very good at survival over that first two centuries.  Then, when he has to reveal his true identity and nature (because Earthly culture has evolved into something so cruel that it would kill him merely for being different) he spends well over 200,000 years as a curiosity, living in a world that is now almost completely incomprehensible to him.  He doesn't even seem to fully-grasp just how decadent the Perfect World has become until it is wiped out by a Snowball Earth event, probably because he only has the vaguest possible notion of how any of it works.

From a modern point of view, it is interesting and a bit puzzling how Earthly humanity manages to reach such a dead-end of development.  By 6371 AD, Earth humans are far more advanced than are the Venusians, who are able (with an essentially 20th century culture) to carry out an (admittedly-unsuccessful) interplanetary invasion of the Earth.  Yet at no point does Dennell mention human expansion beyond the Earth (though it is of course possible that the Venusians are themselves the descendants of human colonists from one of the preceding civilizational cycles, and humanity is now omnipresent in the Solar System and perhaps beyond, which may be why the Earth-humans can't easily expand beyond the Earth). 

Dennell also seems to take the claims of the Perfect World to its own ultimate perfection at face-value, despite the fact that at the time of narration he is completely aware that Earth-humans are extinct or very close to extinction.  Part of this may be that he never really understands much of any culture much beyond the early 3rd millennium.  Part of it may be that Dennell, while well-educated, doesn't seem to have much common sense at all.  (Things might have been different for him had Alice become his fellow-immortal).  And a big part of it is that writers of the Interwar Era had only very vague ideas as to the difficulty or ease of space travel compared to other possible future achievements.

In any case, this story is well-written, evocative, and packs a lot of Big Ideas into a small space while having great emotional impact.  This is an excellent example of early Interwar Era science-fiction.


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

"A Question of Etiquette" (1942) by Robert Bloch, with Commentary

"A Question of Etiquette"

© 1942


Robert Bloch  


The house was old, like all the rest of them on the block. The gate squeaked as I pushed it open. That was the only, sound I heard. My shoes had stopped squeaking, hours ago. Taking the census takes the squeak out of shoes very quickly.

I walked up the steps of the porch. I was tired of walking up steps. I rang the bell. I was tired of ringing the bell.Feet sounded, inside., I was tired of feet sounding inside.

Just the same; I braced myself, ."Here it comes," I thought. "Another nose!"

And I was particularly tired of counting noses.

You understand how it is. Walk all day. Ring doorbells. Lug a heavy portfolio under your arm. Ask the same stupid questions over and over again. And when you finish, you haven't sold anybody a vacuum cleaner. You haven't sold a Fuller brush, or even a package of shoe laces. All you get out of it is four cents a nose taking the census. There's no chance for advancement. Uncle Sam isn't going to call you~into^ffirprivatT office, hand you a cigar, and say, "Well, now! I hear you've been doing a mighty fine.job of this house-to-house work. From now on you're going to sit at this desk.. No more nose-counting for .you."

No, all you get out of this census business is a new list of noses-to count tomorrow. Four-cent noses. Big ones and little ones, pug noses and hooked noses, and red, white and blue schnozzles—until you develop a case of nasal allergy. You feel that if the door opens on just one more nose you'll slam it back and go away after tweaking or punching that nose.

So here I was, waiting for this particular nose to stick out. I braced myself, and the door opened.

A sharp pinched beak appeared, the advance guard for a nondescript face and an ordinary housewife's body. The nose sniffed the air and hovered there somewhat uncertainly in the protecting shadow of the door.


"I'm from the U. S. Government, madame. I'm taking the census."

"Oh. Census-taker?"

"Yes. May I come in and ask you a few questions?"

This kind of sparkling' dialogue went on all day. Just one great big exchange of personalities after another.

"Come on."

Down a dark hall, into a dark parlor.

A lamp flared up as I set the bulky portfolio down on the table, opened it up, and drew out the form.

The woman watched me. Her solid face was expressionless. Housewife's face. Used to watching encyclopedia salesmen and bill collectors, with one eye kept on the kitchen stove.

Well, thirty-five questions to wade through. Routine. I filled in the MALE or FEMALE. bracket, and the RACE bracket, set down the address. Then,


"Lisa Lorini." , .

"Married or single?"



"Four hundred and seven."


 "Four hundred and seven."


"Four hundred and seven."

All right, so I work all day, so I run into a half-wit. I looked into the blank face. Well, hurry on, get it over with.

"Your occupation?"

"I am a witch."


"I said that I am a witch."

For four cents it wasn't worth it. I pretended to write it down and skipped to the next question.

"Who do you work for?" ' •

"I work for myself. And, of course, for my Master."


"Satan Merkatrig. The Devil."

For ten cents it wasn't worth it Lisa Lorini, single, four hundred and seven years old, a witch, working for the Devil. Oh, no, it wasn't worth while for fifty cents.

"Thanks. That's all. I'll be going now."

The woman wasn't interested. I folded up the sheet, jammed it into the portfolio, grabbed my hat, turned around, and headed for the door.

The door was gone.

Well, I can't help it. The door was gone.

It had been there only a minute ago, just a plain, ordinary door in an ordinary sitting room. There, was an armchair at one side of it and a small table at the other.

Well, I saw the armchair and I saw the table. But there was no door in between.

I started off in another direction. Over here, perhaps. Still no door. No door anywhere in the room.

Walking around in the hot sun all day isn't good for anybody. Brooding about noses is the first sign, Then you begin to hear voices answering questions in a crazy way. After that you can't find doors. All right. I turned to the woman.

"Madam—would you show me the way out of here.' I must have—"

"There is no way out."

Funny. I hadn't noticed the quality of her voice. It was pitched evenly, but low. Resonant. And there was no tiredness in it. I sensed something else. Was it— amusement?


"I should like you to stay here with me for a while. It was fortunate that you dropped in."

"Dropped in," from a witch! But she wasn't a witch, damn it! There are no witches.

There are no doors.

Now I hadn't seen the fireplace behind me. I hadn't seen the flame. But the fire was burning, and there was a pot on the hearth , irons. She stooped over, and a shadow fell across the wall.

It was a big, black shadow. Big and black, in the way that a frightened child says the words. A big, black shadow of a woman, creeping, across the wall.

I stared at Lisa Lorini. She still looked like a housewife. Black hair, plaited and the middle. A slim figure, un-bent by years.

Four hundred and seven years—

A good thought to skip. Her face now; the nose was sharp, the mouth taut, the eyes slightly slitted. But the features were quite ordinary. Quite ordinary, except that the trick of firelight lent them a vulpine cast. A red face grinning as it bent over a pot.

"You will share a cup of tea with me."

"Really, I must be—"

"It is prepared. Sit down, young man, please do. I'll just take it off the fire."

No, she was feeble-minded. Feeble-minded, like the old hags they used to burn at the stake in medieval days. Hundreds of thousands of crones and beldames burned at the stake. All of them feeble-minded. Millions of them. All feeble-minded. Not a sane one in the lot. Of course not. Witches were a myth. All of the millions were merely crazy in the same way, with the same story. Millions of lunatics. There were no witches. Only—

Only I was afraid.

She was smiling at me. One claw—one hand, I mean—held out the cup. Steam spiralled up from a brownish, liquid. Tea. Witch-brew. Drink it and—

Drink it and shut up! This was foolishness, I tried to look around again for the door, but it was dark in that room.

The fire flickered so. If was quite red, that fire. I couldn't see clearly. Besides, it was hot in here. Drink the tea and get out.

She had a cup too. It wasn't poison. She hadn't dropped anything into it. What is it witches are supposed to drop? Herbs, I guessed. And all that stuff you read about in .Macbeth. They believed it in those days. Lunatics!

So I drank the .tea. Maybe she'd let me out then,. Or rather, I'd humor her'and drink it and then get out. That, sounded a little better.

"I don't have many visitors,"

Her words came softly. Across the table I felt,her eyes watching my face. I imitated a man smiling. '

"I used to. But business has fallen off."


"Witchcraft. Sorcery. It's no good any more. So few people believe. They don't come to me for love-philtres, or little things' like that, let alone the big,things.

I haven't made a poppet for years."


"One of those little wax dolls shaped like a man. The kind you stick pins in when you wish death upon your enemies. Men don't hate any more. They don't want a witches' curse. I have not killed for years. Biisiness has fallen off."

Sure, sure. Kill anybody today? No? All right, let's clos? the office up, our business has fallen off.

Just a tired business woman. A career girl, no less.

But my hand, trembled so I nearly dropped my tea-cup.

"All of my beautiful spells and—but you're not drinking your tea."

The condemned man and his hearty breakfast. Eat your cereal, it's good for you!

"Drink your tea."

Quite a spot. My head told me that I must drink it. Drink it to prove that she was crazy, or that I was crazy, that there were no witches and nothing would happen. My hands didn't want me to drink it, though. It took quite a bit of maneuvering to get the cup to my lips. She watched me as I sipped.

The tea.was bitter, acrid but warm. A ,foreign brew, but it, wasn't Oolong. It went down easily enough, except for that tart .taste.. .. .

"I am surprised, young man; that you evinced so little interest in my occupation. One does not meet a witch every day."

She had to tell me.

"I'd like to talk about it," I said. "Some other time. But really, I've got a lot of names on my list, and I have to be going. Thanks for the tea." -

I kept looking around for the door. The fire made a sort of red pattern in the room — but not wholly there. The red pattern was in my head, too. It flamed and danced.  The.tea had been hot and now heat shimmered through my head. Shadows mingled with the red pattern in the room, and they too seemed to invade my brain. Dark shadows from the dark brew of the tea. Shimmering red and shadows in my head, before my eyes, blocking the vision of the door. I couldn't" I had the illusion that if I concentrated hard enough,
and long enough, I could find it.  It was there, somewhere in the room, somewhere amidst the redness and the shadows. It had to be there. But I couldn't see it.

I could see her, though, quite clearly. Her nondescript features were stronger now. That grim, ironic smile held an ancient wisdom. She didn't need wrinkles. That smile was older than a mortal lifetime could engrave on a face. It was as old as the grin on a skull.:. ^

Yes, I could see her, eveii if I couldn't see the door for lights and shadows.

"I must go now," I said. My voice sounded far away. Only her eyes were close. Her eyes, holding the red light and the black shadow.

I stood up.

I tried to stand up.

Once I drank nine vodkas in a hot tavern, then rose to go home and found myself lying on the floor.  Now I had drunk a cup of tea and when I rose—'

I rose.

Floated. My feet weren't touching the floor. They were resting on air—solid air, made up of red firelight, dark shadow-blur. My limbs tingled with something stronger than vodka. Little needles pin-cushioned my body. I weaved in air.

"Don't leave yet." Her voice didn't notice my position. Her smile did. She understood, all right. "Don't leave yet," said Lisa Lorini. "I have so few guests. You must come with me tonight:"

"Come with you."

"I am going—out."

"A party?" Always the stiff upper lip, ready retort, mustn't realize where I was, how I was. '

Her smile deepened, yawned, engulfed the thought. "Yes, you might call it that. And I need you as a matter of etiquette."

A witches' etiquette. Beezlebub and Emily Post! I was crazy, definitely. Floating in air, and talking etiquette.

"You see," said Lisa Lorini, "I must obey certain—rules. Just as you, holding a dinner party, must not seat thirteen at dinner. I must not hold a Sabbath unless there are thirteen present. A full coven..He wouldn't like it."


"Satan Merkatrig." Again the smile.

I began to, dread that srmle, prepare for it — like a convict lashed to a post, waiting for the next cut of the whip.

"And so you mu^t come with me to the Sabbath tonight," said Lisa Lorini.

"A witches' Sabbath?"

"Exactly. We hold it on the hills. We have far to travel, so you must prepare."

"I'm not going."

Yes , and a three-year-old kid isn't going to bed when its parents tell it to, either. I knew what good my refusal was when I wobbled there in the air. I knew it when I saw her eyes. She didn't have to emphasize it with her laugh, though.

I was learning fast. An hour ago it was lunacy. Now that chuckle crept up and scraped at my heart. Witchcraft, Black Magic, ancient dreads in a room of black and red. It was real; just as real as when thousands died screaming in the flames to expiate their evil in an age when men were wise enough to dread man's blasphemy before the laws of God and Natiure.

"You are going. Maggit shall prepare you."

Maggit appeared. There was no door, so I don't know how Maggit got into the room. I don't know exactly what Maggit was, either. Maggit was small and furry, like a weasel with human hands—very tiny—and a face. It wasn't a human face, although Maggit did have eyes and ears and a mouth and nose. But the evil in that face transcended humanity—the evil, peering out from a tiny hood of animalfur, and grinning with a wisdom neither animals or humans should possess.

Maggit crawled across the floor and piped, "Mistress Lisa?" in a detestably shrill little voice that somehow shocked me more than anything else.

Maggit was—what was the term—the witch's familiar. The animal thing, given to a witch or sorcerer by the Devil, when the Black Bible of the Sabbath was signed in the coven. The little fiend, the'familiar spirit, servant of Satan.

Only such things don't exist, save in the laws and the writings of every civilized nation for thousands of years. Such things cannot be.

So it was imagination that crawled up my floating body as I wavered, powerless to move a hand against that'hideous, furry pattering that chilled my flesh. It was hallucination's tiny paws that began to rub my chest and throat with a yellowish paste or salve Lisa, Lorini gave to it from a jar on the table.. It was,legend that chuckled and rubbed the burning ointment on my limbs. It was nightniare that perched on my shoulder, chattered in my ear, and lisped unspeakable vileness as it rocked with glee.

"The flying ointment." Lisa Lorini's voice came through a burning wave that caused my tingling body to tremble. "Now we can depart."

I scarcely noticed her nakedriess. The black hair, swirling how, covered her like a cloak.

Or a shroud. A shroud , for long-dead wickedness to wear. Her slim hands rubbed the yellow paste upon her limbs. Her body floated upward, joined mine.

"No broomsticks?" I thought, hysterically. From some popular magazine I remembered an' article on the "delusions of flight." Witch-ointment, rubbed on the limbs to give the illusion of flying through space. Popular fancy had transformed the ointment to broomsticks. But the salve was real enough. Pov/erful drugs. Aconite, belladonna, others. Giving rise to these hallucinations. Any chemist could prepare it. Run down to your neighborhood druggist tonight and—

I had to stop that.

I couldn't.

"Hold my hand." She grasped it. Two electric wires met. Tingling shocks ran through me. We were rising. Was that a door? Floating out. Darkness. Night. Floating along. She held me.

Superman, the cartoon character. Stop that .hysteria! Up into blackness, her naked white body curved^ like the ivory horns of a half rfioon.

The cottage below. Witches' cottage. "Let me live in a house by the side of the road and—" Yes, very funny. "And be a fiend to man." Hysteria again. 'Who wouldn't be hysterical, floating through air with a Sabbath hag?  And Maggit, chittering as it rocked on her shoulder, its tiny, paws locked in her raven hair. '

And then we swooped. I held on. The burning was gone now. The wind was rushing, by. Below, the city twinkled. Cities always, twinkle. Little lights, built to ward off the great blackness of night. The blackness where wolves howl and owls screech, the blackness where the, dead dwell, and the things that are not dead. Lights to guard,, lights .to hide a fear. And we, above, flying through tliat fear, into its blackest depths.

I don't know how long, how far. I don't know how we descended. There was the dark, domed hill, and the fire flaring at its peak. There were the crouching figures — white against the shadowed hillside, black against the .flaming fires. A horde of furry creatures scampered at the feet of the presences. There were eight, nine, ten—no, eleven.

Plus Lisa Lorini and myself.

Thirteen in a coven.

Thirteen—and the- sacrifice.

I didn't look at the faces. Tliey were not meant to be looked at, only dreamed.

Lisa Lorini's own' face was masked by exultation. It was she who prepared the sacrifice. The black goat was led to a rock before the fire. One of the other crones wielded the knife. A third held the bowl.
And when the bowl was filled, all drank. Yes, I said all.

That ointment burned. Even on my feet it held me^ in a burning web. I couldn't run, I couldn't riiove out of the circle. of firelight. And when the drum began to pound, I joined the circle. The furry things were lapping at the empty bowl, and their chattering was drowned in the drumming din, the howling.

"Lisa has acolyte," wheezed one of the hags.

'Tis in place of Meg, who could not come," called Lisa Lorini.

Those are the last intelligible words I heard, the last intelligible thought I managed to retain.

Because the howling rose and the fire rose, and it became revival meeting— voodoo—bedlam, only worse than any of these prosaic terms. Tlaey were calling on somebody.

Somebody came.

No burst of flames. No lightning. No theatricals. That was all done by the crones. It meant nothing, really; no more than any savage cavortings about a stone idol.

It was pure business. He stepped out from behind one of the rocks, carrying a large book under his arm, for all the world like a bank examiner coming to examine balances.

But bank examiners are not—black. He wasn't negroid, liot in the least, but—black. Even the eyeballs, the fingernails. A black shadow, a limping shadow. Whether he wore a cloak, or whether a deeper shadow draped his figure, I don't know.

They were quiet when he entered the circle. He opened his book and they crowded around. Their mumbling rose in the night. I crouched down next to the rocks.

Lisa Lorini was talking to him, pointing rny way. He didn't turn his head, but he was aware of me. He didn't smile, or nod, or exhibit a single movement. But I felt him do those things. He handed out orders. He heard reports.

It was a business meeting. Satan and Co., holding a Board Meeting on a hilltop. Souls bartered, dark deeds recorded. And the black man scribbled in his book, the beldames babbled, and I crouched there trembling in the night while the little furry creatures skulked about my ankles. I shouldn't have trembled, for the black man's actions were very prosaic after all.

Prosaic—as hell.

Then it happened. The white figures screamed down out of the dark sky. The clinging figure at its breasts dropped to the ground. There was a cry.

"Meg! Meg has come!"

Meg, the missing witch.

They turned as she advanced, breathless.

The black man spoke then. I won't attempt to set down the soimd of it. Something of rusty locks and the primal grumbling of volcanoes. Age and depth, mingled in a sort of loathsome hissing, as though articulate human speech could not frame the concepts of daemonic thought

"There are fourteen at coven."

They all were shaking. White jelly figures in the firelight. The voice did it.

Lisa Lorini whirled. She dragged me into the circle before I could attempt resistance.

"I—I thought Meg wasn't—"

"There are fourteen. Fourteen."

The voice hinted. Just hinted its anger.


."There is a Law. There is a Punishment." .

The voice capitalized the words.

"Mercy—" ;

You don't ask him for mercy.

.1 saw it happen. I saw her clutch at her throat when his black paw grazed.her wrist. Lisa Lorini writhed to the ground, wriggled for a moment like a white slug impaled on a stick, and then lay silent.

The black eyes, the black pupils turned to me. ,

"There must be thirteen. That is the Law. So you shall sign and take her place."


You don't question him, either.

Somebody was holding the bowl. Another, guided my hand, opened, the book he gave to her.

I felt the clinging, furry form of Maggit move swiftly over my chest: It was at my neck—nibbling. A trickle of blood fell in the bowl. A sharpened stick dipped in. it. The- stick was placed in my hand.

"Sign," said the voice of. the black man.

You don't disobey him—not when you hear the voice.

And then his hand, his black hand, reached out and gripped mine. I felt a surge, a blinding wave of redness, blackness, voice-depth, wind. ..

Something was lying on the ground now, but it wasn't Lisa Lorini. I glanced at the body because it looked familiar. It was my own body that lay there.

"I unbaptize thee in the'name of—"

Maggit led me away. Maggit whispered, "Fly."

I didn't hear. The soaring journey back was instinct—instinct born in another's body, another's brain.

I slept in that house, slept in the darkness, slept in the conviction that when I awoke the dream would be over.

I awoke.

I saw the mirror.

I saw Lisa Lorini, witch, with my own eyes—peering out of her„body.

Maggit chattered at my feet.

That was a.week ago. Since that time I've learned to listen to Maggit. Maggit tells me things. .

Maggit showed me her books, and her stock of herbs; Maggit told me make the philtres and the potions, and what to do to keep this body of mine from aging. Maggit told me how to brew the tea, and compound the paste. Maggit says that the coven meets again on the hilltop tonight.

I remember the rest, of course. I know that now I've signed the book and taken Lisa Lorini's place, I can't escape. Unles's I use her method. Bring another to the coven, and let—etiquette—have its way.

That's the only solution.

Today, after a week, they must be looking for me. Census headquarters must have sent out another man on,my route. Herb Jackson might take it over. He's in this district. Yes, Herb Jackson might knock on my door late this afternooni and come into ask Lisa Lorini some questions'about the census.

"When he comes, I should be. ready. ,

I think I'm going to get busy and brew up a pot of that tea.




This is a story about a very ordinary guy who falls into an extremely-terrible situation through little apparent fault of his own.  He's obviously meant to be a little bit smarter and better-educated than are most people (notice his awareness of the legends of the witch-cult, which were essential to permit auctorial exposition in a strict first-person story in which every other character was hostile) but not much stronger-willed than most.  Note that he drank the tea without question and then was unable to break through any of the illusions, commands or other spells that he found himself under.

The tone of the tale is very much like a dream turned into a nightmare.  The story starts very prosaically, with a census taker knocking on a door, moves into strangeness when Lisa Lorini claims to be a 407-year-old witch, then begins building toward nightmare when the protagonist realizes that he can't find the door.  The full nightmare is reached when the census-taker is flown off to a hill to partake in sacrifice and sign away his soul into the Black Book, with the climax being the death of Lisa Lorini and the protagonist's soul transferred into her own form.

Bloch's handles this transition well.  The story starts with very matter-of-fact narration, with the style mounting to a mad delirium.  We especially get to see the transition in the narrator's own mental state:  at first bored, then calmly-dismissive of the witch's claims, then increasingly unnerved, frightened and ultimately terrified.

The "escape" which Lisa may have made refers to escape from serving the Devil, and one wonders about the effectiveness of this "escape," since she has certainly done much evil since becoming a witch.  The census-taker's body may have died; certainly Lisa's spirit is no longer in Lisa's body, if this WAS her original form (since there is no guarantee that this is the first time that this body-swap has happened).  Likewise, the census-taker must be assuming that his life on Earth will be over should he "escape" the same way:  it is a matter for debate whether or not the Devil would take him anyway, since his trick would be inherently evil.

The body-swapping is right out of Lovecraft's The Thing on the Doorstep.  If this is supposed to be a Mythos tale (there is, however, no obvious reason why it should be taken as such).  It's not obvious who did this.  My guess would be that Lisa deliberately chose to swap into the dead (or dying) body of the census-taker to escape her service to the Black Man.  One possibility is that the census-taker's body isn't truly dead (or that if it is the witch can re-animate and preserve it from decay) and that Lisa has thus made a complete escape.

The description of the cult and the Black Man come straight out of H. P. Lovecraft's "Dreams in the Witch House."  In that story, the Black Man was identified with Nyarlathotep.  Of course, Lovecraft was himself inspired by actual European legends of witchcraft and witch-cults, which included the concept of the Black Man (including his description as being genuinely "black" rather than merely Negro) so it's debatable whether or not Bloch was cribbing from Lovecraft, or both from medieval and early modern mythology.

Lisa Lorini is an interesting variant on the cliche Wicked Witch, in that she is neither a crone (like Keziah Mason) nor a Hot Witch (like Ephraim Waite in Asenath Waite's body):  she looks and acts exceedingly normal, until she chooses to reveal her true nature.  She's scary because of what she says and does, and the increasingly-sinister expressions on her face, as she reveals her true nature.  She seems an altogether interesting character, and it's too bad that we don't get more insight into her personality and motivations.

One thing that a modern reader will surely notice is that Maggit -- a classic familiar of the Satanic variety -- is treated as all the creepier because it has a vaguely human-like face, hands and voice.  This is based on accounts of witchcraft going back to the 16th century, and very directly based on Brown Jenkin (who was Keziah Mason's familiar).  The point is that a character of this sort might well today be seen as rather cute (even if still evil):  our modern attraction to furries runs very much against an earlier concept of them as horribly unnatural.

All in all this is a good horror tale, the more so because where Bloch borrows from Lovecraft he does so using totally-different characters -- even Maggit is not physically the same sort of creature as Brown Jenkin -- and hence made the concepts his own.  The strong focus on the narrator's internal mental state is also very much Bloch's, and a characterization technique Bloch would raise to his own heights in the intensely-psychological tales he would write in the 1950's and 1960's.

Well worth running, and well worth the read.