“Lovecraft, Howard, and the Rest of Us, or: Is It Wong To Be Pulpy?”

 

Bailed out of DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON, 1931, with Anna May Wong and Werner Toland, which kicked off a TCM tribute to Wong, and this led to some thoughts about racism, pulp, and quality.

Toland played Charlie Chan, most famously, or notoriously, but in this film he played Sax Rohmer’s arch villain, Dr. Fu Manchu.  He was Swedish.

Wong facially resembled Mae West.

This movie is badly lighted.  Overexposed, too.  Could be a bad print.  Stagey acting, too.  It’s amazing how varied in quality 1930s could be.

They sure smoked pipes back then.  Also had those statuettes on their desks, often with inpots or ink wells attached.  Brass lamps.  Humidors.  Books.  Letter openers.  Pens.  Cups.  Quite a clutter.

I shouldn’t talk about desk clutter.  Mine’s beyond ridiculous.

Toland was too fat for Fu Manchu.  He should be, according to the books, tall and slender, and sinister, not chubby-cheeked and placid-looking.  Christopher Lee portrayed him much more accurately.  Even worse, Toland failed to wear a Fu Manchu mustache-and-beard combination, the facial hair named for that character.  Stupid.

Not worth watching.

So many of those old-fashioned mysteries, especially the ones full of racism, end up being crap anyway, with no redeeming qualities.  While Toland’s Charlie Chan mysteries are good mysteries, the underlying tone of mincing racist mockery places those movies beyond tolerance these days.  You have to watch with a grain of salt in your gaze.

Often such movies wasted talent, which is the bad side of studio systems forcing otherwise good people into filler projects, just to keep them busy to earn their salaries.

Even Val Lewton, from a producer’s position, and his director Jacques Tourneur, ran up against this misuse, although they prevailed by transforming iffy projects into art.

Akin to pulp fiction.

Most was dreck.  Some rose above the low-tide stain where it sloughed.

I’ve lately been impressed by the work of Robert E. Howard.  Much of his Lovecraftian fiction has the advantage of clarity, for instance.  Where Lovecraft affects a dated, even antiquated narrative tone so often, REH avoids density and gets on with it.  Driving his plots are Lovecraftian tropes and topoi, to be sure, straight off the standardized checklist, but they are not mimicry, they are glimpses confirming outré claims.  They’re outsider testimony affirming how well this stuff works.  Yes, the strange books, cults, and places exist, it shouts.  It’s not only Lovecraft saying so from his Providence attic, it is explorers, adventurers, and obsessed scholars.

Howard’s stories are fun to read, entertaining first and foremost, but REH usually adds the gentle caress of serious underlying themes, too.

Brings back echoes of my discover of Lovecraft in a couple Lancer paperbacks my Aunt Polly gave me on my twelfth day of nativity.  It was a revelation.  One of the books was a collection of Lovecraft’s own stories, The Dunwich Horror being the titular tale.  The other book was an anthology by August Derleth of his own and others’ Lovecraftian stories, so I got a new writer and the awareness that his work had spawned a school, all in the same gift.  I asked my aunt how she knew I’d so adore those books.  “I just picked out the weirdest-looking covers I could find,” she said with a laugh.

People view me in many ways, it seems.

Oddly, I did not at once emulate HPL or begin writing in the Lovecraftian School.  That was a brief phase that came later once I began collecting the monthly Ballantine mass market paperback editions of HPL’s collected work.  It quickly boiled off for me, too, but the influence lingers.

A friend, Brad, got into Lovecraft’s fiction, too, and believed his uncle Ras, a scary old man out of central casting, brother to Brad’s religionist grandmother, who was keeping him alive after he’d been kicked out of his father’s house, had written a madman’s diary full of Lovecraftian hints about buried treasure and keys to opening the gates for the Great Old Ones.

Was Brad nuts?

He did show me the diary, in a tin box, masses of spidery scrawls that seemed to be the gibberish of a madman sprinkled with dire warnings and encoded hints.  It was fascinating, but inter dimensional portals?

Lovecraft would’ve eaten it up.

Still, seemed outré to me, teetering on crazy, to think it meant the kinds of things Lovecraft wrote about.  My inner sanity gyroscope told me Brad probably craved significance and an adventure.

Ras’s diary partly drove a wild visit to an abandoned farmhouse on the Griffiths’ farms, where I and others mocked Govaccini’s “instant obey” bullshit and got chased away by irate farm kids intent on pounding the pudding out of us.  It’s now a chapter in one of my novels.

Lovecraft used empty farmhouses, lonely woods, and creepy old places city-dwellers generally avoided as his settings.  This transferred to places like that in real life, so they too became Lovecraftian.

In the imaginations of his readers, such places transformed into potential dwellings for toad-like creatures, scenes of cult activity none could witness while retaining sanity, and realms of lurking, ancient horrors.  Lovecraft found such places fascinating and evocative, as well as repellent.  His crawling, chaotic horrors were his, written into tales of pulp excess, often in the purplest of prose.

Or so it seemed.

Reading HPL’s work as a literate adult reveals he was better and more varied than we perceived as kids.  Than we were told by smug, dismissive academics.  Ask Ramsey Campbell.  Lovecraft was an accomplished writer nearly forgotten, saved by his friend August Derleth, who founded the small press imprint Arkham House to preserve Lovecraft’s fiction for future generations.

Yes, Lovecraft used self-conscious, excessively ornamented prose in antiquated phrasings, with archaic vocabulary, to give pulp editors and readers the flair they demanded.

Robert E. Howard did the same.  As did Sax Rohmer, Talbot Mundy, and other weird tale writers.  It was part of that style and sub-genre.

Compare other flavors of pulp, Westerns for example.  REH wrote them and adhered to their general elements:  terse dialogue, stoic heroes, lots of manly gunplay and confrontation, and much macho posing.

Lovecraft wrote no Westerns.  He did write Science Fiction, Horror, and Fantasy of the Lord Dunsany type.

REH pioneered heroic fantasy, inventing Conan the Barbarian, (or Cimmerian), and the Pictish King Bran Mak Morn.  He also delved into historical hero fantasy with the Puritan apostate Solomon Kane, who foreswears redemption in order to thwart evil and maybe, just maybe redeem his own sins.  It’s a heady mix.

Howard was always alive to history, even as, alas, he, as did Lovecraft, honed close to racism with a razor’s edge of tone in much of his fiction.  “Not of our race,” they often wrote, or “…degenerate, filthy primitives”.  They set their enthralled groups of cultists apart from the rest of us, in other words, by pointing at a lack of evolved traits.

Yes, I think the Nazis would have liked, and warped — as they did with Nietzsche — his work, and Lovecraft’s, had they ever been literate enough to discover the writers’ personal correspondence.  It is that cache of letters causing today’s hollow reassessment of much pulp fiction, as art is conflated with artist, as flaws are sough to justify dark accusations of racism that might fuel boycotts, even suppression.

Think of Two Black Crows or Little Black Sambo, or the distaste aimed at Disney’s JUNGLE BOOKS, DUMBO, or SONG OF THE SOUTH.  All those works contain racist sequences, references, or elements.  By contrast, Lovecraft and Howard, racists in real life probably more consciously than Walt Disney, who was more like Paula Deen in being oblivious, can be held responsible only for “subliminal” or “encoded” or “possible” racism.

This tendency to cite race does not spoil the stories; nothing overt shows itself in the texts.

Neither HPL nor REH were trying to preach racism.  Neither included blatant racist cant in their fiction.  They kept that kind of natter in their private, personal lives, where it should remain.  Yes, it’s valid for scholars to examine and discuss such matters, but to see it where it is not, in the fiction, is disingenuous.  It’s axe-grinding without a whet-stone.

Yes, REH especially was aware of race in history.  He often cites the migrations and conquering, the invasions and wars between this or that group.  He ascribes noble attributes to some, discredits other groups.

He believed evolution to be hierarchal, a common misapprehension.  He therefore thought humanity in ancient times must have been inferior to us as we are now, since we are “more evolved”.  This is essentially a Victorian viewpoint, inherited via a slow-to-change education system.

Since Lovecraftian fiction deals with ancient ETs seeking to regain access to our dimension of reality, it was inevitable that REH and HPL would deal with ancient people, especially their fictional ancient cultists enslaved or enteralled by the Great Old Ones.  Being ancient, they were portrayed as inferior, and modern avatars of such peoples were called degenerate, having regressed, in these writers’ view, to a more primitive state.

We, more evolved, (as they’d put it), might be superior enough, if we’re  lucky, to stop these ancient inter dimensional ETs and their cosmic conspiracies.  Against this backdrop, Lovecraft especially took pains to remind us of Earth’s and mankind’s utter insignificance when confronted with the unimaginable vastness of the cosmos.  It’s chilling stuff.

That framework, under Derleth’s aegis, became the famous, or notorious, Cthulhu Mythos.  Lovecraft never meant for this to happen.  He wrote only four tales solidly within this so-called mythos, and admitted he’d tossed in a few arcane references to give the stories a bit of a zing, not to bind them together into a shadowy hint at some deep state intricate cabal.

Derleth extracted tropes and topoi, cobbled up a set of extended references, and used what he came up with as a story engine to prompt a stable of writers, most of them correspondents or acquaintances of both Derleth and Lovecraft, as was Howard remember, to contribute to this shared world.  It encouraged writers and sales.

It proved powerful and persuasive enough a set of images and notions that genuine occults adopted references into their esoterica.

Derleth called Cthulhu and his ilk gods, but in HPL they are portrayed obviously as extraterrestrials, of inter-dimensional origin and great age, who are regarded as gods only by their human underlings, who perform rites to “open the gates” for them to return to control of Earth.  They are seen as space-faring, devious, and devoted to crushing other life forms.

Gates puts one in mind of Star Gates, the Ancient Egyptian concept of portals in the sky through which one’s spirit moved on.  In fact, the Great Old Ones parallel the Greek Titans, or the Norse elder gods, just as many of the Lovecraftian names, such as Azathoth, echo Ancient Egyptian and Greek names and references.  Necronomicon, the mysterious book that might be used to conjure manifestations of the Great Old Ones, breaks down as Necro = Dead, Nom = Names, Icon = Images.  The book of dead names and faces, perhaps.  Another echo:  The Egyptian Book of the Dead.

So we see today endless pastiche of generally Derlethian view and interpretations of Lovecraft’s hints, winks, and nudges.

Aside from creepy old places, Lovecraft, and Howard with him, used dreams as fodder for his fiction.  HPL’s Dunsany-style high fantasies, (high meaning set in imaginary worlds, as opposed to low, meaning set in suburban or modern venues), are eerily beautiful and definitely dream-like, from “Celephais” to “The Cats of Ulthar”.  Lovecraft’s novel The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, found complete but never submitted in a drawer after his death, is a brilliant surreal masterpiece of imaginative dream-world exploration that ranks with A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay and Star of the Unborn by Franz Werfel for sheer sustained invention.

It’s breathtaking.

“The Dreams in the Witch House” mingles nightmare, inter-dimensionality, and the remnants of witchcraft in the form of non-Euclidian angles from a witch long dead, which hints at ghostly goings-on, too.

In “The Music of Erich Zann” he uses discordant music and etheric, atonal sounds to transport a man into a mysterious disappearance.

In “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, (often cited as racist due to his portrayal of the insular denizens of that town as “batrachian horrors with webbed hands and feet” — yes, tailless amphibian human hybrids), we’re shown a colony of hybrids continuing ancient rites hidden in poverty’s shade.

The point is made that Lovecraft’s fiction, using old places and dreams, shows more variety, and gains its inspiration from, a wider range of referents than simply Cthulhu and his fictional brethren.

To realize how deeply Howard Philips Lovecraft has affected literature after being nearly forgotten is to see how arbitrary influences in the arts can be.  Fates seem whimsical, irrational even.

Did other geniuses vanish down the memory hole because they lacked a friend like August Derleth, or Max Brod, who refused to burn Kafka’s manuscripts as requested?  Seems certain.

Was Lovecraft artificially elevated to his current status by dint of stubborn boosterism among fans?

Harder to answer, really.  Certainly without Derleth, Lovecraft would likely have been either forgotten or, at best, lesser in effect for being remembered only as one of the pulp writers of the 1920s and 1930s.  Derleth gave HPL the promotion that made him famous, sure, but the product had to be solid.

Lovecraft’s work proved good enough to bear academic scrutiny as well as fan enthusiasm.  As did Robert E. Howard’s work.  Howard, though, created Conan the Barbarian, a character as famous as Tarzan, if not quite to the Dracula or Sherlock Holmes level.  He’d be remembered when HPL would probably be forgotten, with no help.

REH’s other work can be taken onto the screen to good effect.  He’s not only Conan.  There was, in fact, a Solomon Kane movie recently, which was acceptable but not focused enough to sustain the start of a new franchise.  Yet.  A new take on Solomon Kane could kick in the embrace of the fans.  Who knows?

Howard’s short fiction should definitely be mined for new, exciting TV and movies.  Using just his Lovecraftian stories would offer many excellent variants on an already-popular motif.

His work begs for a serious, adult approach.  Give it the treatment received by, say, The Alienist by Caleb Carr, or the production values and talents found in RIPPER STREET or other BBC series, and new franchises would no doubt be born.

One short REH piece was produced, in 1961, for Boris Karloff’s THRILLER TV program, a story Howard wrote called “Pigeons From Hell”, a good pulpy title behind which hides one of the creepiest, scariest horror stories ever written.  It has also jumped to graphic novel format, with Joe R. Lansdale contributing.

Robert Ervin Howard’s first-published story came in 1925, when he was 19, and he committed suicide upon word that his mother was dying at age 30, in 1936.  Eleven years of publishing, that’s all.  He left a tremendous amount of work in such a short time.  He wrote more maturely over a wider range of genres and with more authority than anyone would’ve expected of so young a writer.  Had he lived, he’d have been one of our greats, period, instead of being one of our great pulp writers.

He had a great start but never got to finish.

Howard Philips Lovecraft lived longer, to age 46, dying of stomach cancer.  He published from 1916 to 1937, the year he died, one year after REH’s death.  Arguably the more influential, HPL left a substantial body of work that continues to sell and to give scholars fodder for papers.

We’re all the better for their fiction enlivening our reading and distracting us from the real horrors.  Pulp turns out to be quiet a good literary impulse, for those who swing it right.

As for Anna May Wong, her acting was better than the material and rose above the mediocrity of both racism and banality in Hollywood.  Her presence was second-to-none.  Again, we’re enriched.

What else is entertainment in all its forms to accomplish, if not elevating our mental lives?

Go pulp or go home.

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Our Future Will Be An Avalanche

Brick and mortar stores are closing everywhere.  Even big retailers can’t sustain their physical stores.  Cost-effectiveness and newer consumer habits drive this change.  Soon, a store will be obsolete.  They’ll go to centrally-located warehouses from which they will make deliveries to the individual, via a USPS or UPS surface-truck model.  Drones will replace trucks if Amazon has the leverage.

This will affect trucking and other transportation industries.  Infrastructure will change, making return to our old box store or strip mall scene unlikely.  If a return is pursued it will be costly beyond prudence.

More industries will go under with nothing replacing them.

Social mores will change, too.  No more ‘going shopping’ for entertainment or therapy.  No more out-let malls.  Dwindling boutique stores.  Continued drawing inward.  Isolation will become a bunkered body with a mind liberated only via internet experiences.  If the Net Neutrality is not killed.  If it is, each key stroke will cost, every nanosecond of access.  Only the 1% rich will afford the online world.  E-elite will develop.

Meanwhile the Have-Nots will starve literally and intellectually.  They’ll become even worse in superstition and in being uninformed.  Think isolated mountain villages.  Think hillbillies feral in their mountain hollows.

We’re close to that now in many states.

Retailers will lose markets entirely.  Others will have to consolidate to survive.  Add-on and after-market will shrink.  Industry will evaporate.  It will shatter to millions of delivery-on-demand mom-&-pop specialty shops, each making one small part, or part of a component.

Corporations surviving will own countries and governments will be small corporate subsidyies.  CEO elites will be protected in fortress enclaves and upper-echelon workers will vie  to live in armored, guarded, and isolated corporate arks.

We the People will be kept well back.  Think of our current bunkered White House, then think of vast pyramids mostly underground, surrounded by wastelands and desert mine-fields, guarded by killer robots and lethal booby-traps.  Think of Area-51 but more seriously guarded.

Underground cities are already built and expanding.  They are being supplied for full-scale use, soon.  The 1% are aware of our seething, roiling anger.  The 1% are, they think, prepared for our collapse and inevitable uprising.

MAD MAX was prescient.  Much of the transition from fossil fuels will be that kind of crazy competition and anarchic redistribution by violence.  It may come from the Water Wars, too.  Or the Food Riots.  No city is more than three days from running out of food.  Water is worse.  Utilities are as fragile as soap bubbles.  Without power, cites explode.

Now think about all those fucking guns.

The 1% wants us shooting and looting each other instead of going after them.  Far too many of us are now chomping at the bit, driven by empty pulp dreams and celluloid flickers.

A time-bomb, primed.  A village sleeping under a snow field or glacier seconds from releasing mountains of ice.  That’s what we are now.

History’s ending.  Extinction infects this generation.

Go ahead.  Run.

No one will get far.

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Or Else

Cooper, Thomas Sidney; Landscape with Cattle and Sheep; York Museums Trust; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/landscape-with-cattle-and-sheep-8203

Melodrama in Pulp stories focuses on conspiracy, unspeakable cults, and nefarious plots to control the world.  What strikes me is how accurate such excess can be.

Look at trumpers; Putin’s oligarchs; gangsters; the Tongs; the GOP; white supremacists; survivalists; ISIL/Daeth; Boko Haram; the Likud; Zionism; corporatism; Nazism; etc.  Each is a conspiracy to rule the world.  Each is responsible for atrocities.  Each exploits dupes and uses minions.

The GOP is an ideological cult masquerading as a political party.  This mirrors the Nazis.  Dominionists and NRA gun nuts, tea baggers, and FOX News dupes, haters and hackers, all such marginalized, invalid losers are eager to advance or tolerate any cause that lets their causes advance.

In SABOTEUR, 1942, Robert Cummings plays a factory worker blamed for an explosion at Stewart Aircraft.  He runs afoul of the true conspirators.  He is taken to a rich, urbane grandfather on a beautiful ranch, where he and his ideals are sneered at from an arch-GOP view.  Democracy and We the People are to be despised and exploited, the old man says; Hitch and his screenwriters Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison, and Dorothy Parker, knew full well who the fascists are in our society:  The would-be aristocrats.  We call them the 1% rich now, and the wanna-be rich.

Cummings’s character uses the fascist’s toddler grand-daughter Susie as a shield to let him escape the ranch alive, setting him free to thwart the nefarious plot against the Allied war cause.

Ah, romance.

In real life, 9/11 happens ON TV for most and we sit gaping, aghast.  We become ersatz witnesses, we are told to feel like participants, and we are manipulated shamelessly.

No one does anything, not even investigation.  We’re not permitted.

Anyone who asks quests is at once swarmed by ridicule and dismissed.  the insane insistence that even asking questions marks one as a crazy conspiricist is itself a conspiracy to quash investigation.  It is criminals insisting there is no such thing as crime and demonizing the very notion of crime.  It is a colluder and traitor repeating endlessly that there was no collusion, and let’s ignore treason altogether, it’s a silly notion.

This, by reason alone, affirms a tangle of covert agendas. This, by logic alone, affirms effort, (conspiracy), not accident, (chance), determines much of our history’s pivotal moments, and almost all the consolidation that follows in the pattern we call civilization.

Stay inside the fence and chew your cut.  Moo.

We’re being told this constantly.  Here’s a bright shiny distraction.  Gossip is golden.  Violence is golden.  If it bleeds it leads.  Buy this.  Eat that.

Don’t look up.  Baa.

Eat your feed and don’t look up, OR ELSE.

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REH, HPL, ERB, & Me

 

Started reading a collection of Robert E. Howard stories and must say, he was better than I’d recalled.  I’ve always liked his work, from Conan, Solomon Kane, and Bran Mak Morn and beyond.  The variety, depth, and the bravura authority with which he wrote moves him past Lovecraft, in my estimation, and the authenticity he managed to convey moves him past Burroughs.

All wrote in the 1920s and 1930s C.E.

REH committed gun suicide in his car over word his mother was dying in 1936 at age 30.  HPL died in 1937 at age 46 of stomach cancer.  ERB died in 1950 at the age of 74 of a heart attack, to be buried, where else, in Tarzana, CA, the town named for his creation.

Their influence is stronger than ever.

Pulp fiction told STORIES, primarily.

ERB signed his first finished, submitted ms ‘A Normal Bean’, intending to assure the publisher he was a regular guy despite how wild a fantasy he’d written in A Princess of Mars.  The publishers mistook his jest as the name A. Norman Bean, but ERB quickly reverted to his own very specific, fully resonant name.

Point being, he write for pulp editors, who above all wanted STORYTELLERS.

Tall tales, wild fantasies, bald-faced exaggerated lies, it made no difference as long as you spun a good yarn.  That phrase refers to keeping a narrative thread going to draw readers through the pages.  Pulp fiction relies on narrow escapes, breathless chases, and dire danger.  It’s all about cliffhangers.  Pulp storylines are fraught.  Pulp presentation is suspenseful and atmospheric.  Reading pulp is exciting; never a dull moment.  There term ‘action-packed’ is a Pulp descriptive.

Heroes and Villains added an important element:  stark conflict.  The modern usage of calling megalomaniacal despots Bond Villains shows Ian Fleming had the opponents of 007 steeped in Pulp tradition.  Consider Fu Manchu, Sax Rohmer’s consummate global threat; now think of Dr. No.

Interestingly, REH in correspondence cited Rudyard Kipling, Talbot Mundy, (whose work was refreshingly anti-colonial and inclusive toward Asian belief systems), and Jack London, which meant his fiction, while sprinkled with the 1920s East Texas sexism, racism, and empire arrogance, aren’t dated so much as quaint.

Even better, although obvious if repressed latent gay aspects roil just beneath the surface, there are clear, well-drawn, strong and intelligent women in REH’s fiction.

His storytelling is vigorous and sure-footed.  He deploys research deftly.  His characters act rationally but not omnisciently.  REH knew how to plant and later reveal telling details.  His compelling tales often pivot on surprises stemming from widened context or connecting earlier dots.

L. Sprague de Camp, in his biographical critiques of REH found in the introduction to Conan Of the Isles, (a pastiche of Howard at novel length de Camp and Lin Carter wrote), as cited also on the REH Wiki by the way,  (yes, I’ve read both), praised REH’s storytelling as vivid, gripping, and unmatched for headlong action.  Of storytelling itself, he wrote:  “If the writer has this quality, we can forgive many other faults; if not, no other virtue can make up for the lack”

My paraphrase:  Storytelling lets many literary flaws slide but without it, the flaws win.

Too many current writers forget this to their work’s detriment and to their readers’ loss.  Literary fiction eschews plot, for example.  To the academics, storytelling itself is suspect, a mark of weakness.

By making prose an artifact to be sniffed at like a stature of manure, plucking out hay straws to examine, finding a corn kernel here or there to effuse over — by making prose an artifact, academics remove the one aspect of fiction that lasts longest and best:  story.

A good story told well becomes part of, and perhaps stemmed from, was condensed from, humanity itself.  It’s a part of us all. We know it when we hear it, we see it when we sing it, we tell it when we need it.

This is the Pulp tradition’s legacy.  It is to be embraced.

Telling good stories well is my goal, using my own voice.  All else is pastiche or putzing around.

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Is Hollywood Losing Itself?

Kate Winkler Dawson’s Death in the Air is one of the books I spotted today at Half Price Books.  It recount the 1952 killer pea-soup fog in London, England, and the serial killer who stalked it.  It’s a case nearly forgotten but worth preserving in the annals of true crime and history.

Dawson is a documentary journalist.  This means she turned to a book when unable to fund a documentary about this topic, or as a way of drumming up interest.

I’ve read several true-crime or historical crime books written by documentarians.  They know how to gather facts and organize them for the most-effective presentation.  They’d do well in court.

Historical true crime is a favorite of mine, a realm filled with great stories to mine or rejuvenate.  Books are the key transmission form.  Movies are too costly and collaborative to guarantee even the most compelling stories will make it to the screen.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson is a prime example. Superb book and no one has yet produced a coherent script or found a producer to commit to a film.

Perhaps it needs to be a small movie done for love and with high quality, but it’s owned by big money Hollywood.  Options are beneficial to Mr. Larson but they also keep it churning in production limbo.  Names such as Burton, Depp, and DiCaprio have been linked to it; who can get backing if that level of star can’t?

It’s likely because they can’t figure out how to make it about a hero.  To focus on Herman Webster Mudgett, who went by the moniker H. H. Holmes as he went about his appalling, almost unbelievable crime spree, is to make it anti-heroic.  To focus on the detectives who eventually chased him down is disingenuous and far less interesting.  How can someone create a script using that material to let the big name actor triumph?  They can’t bend H. H. Holmes toward sympathy, let alone to fit their childish patterns.

A smaller production company, an independent dedicated to fealty to the original material, could ignore all that Hollywood stuff.

So books will remain the best source for the best historical true crime tales.  This seems inescapable…

HOWEVER:  Cable and digital content providers such as Hulu, Amazon, and Netflix are revolutionizing Audio/Visual entertainment.  They have no censorship, no time or budget constraints.  Big names gladly work with them.  Their productions need no approval from advertisers or ratings boards and routinely win wards.

If good properties can be released from production spirals in big money Hollywood, then digital providers can get hold of them and make them properly.

We’re seeing The Alienist by Caleb Carr on Hulu now.  It never made the big screen.

“All of us labor in webs spun long before we were born.”

/ Wm. Faulkner

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“An Unnoticed Disappearance”

Untitled Nude, sculpture by SLE

“An Unnoticed Disappearance”
by
Gene Stewart

Marta drove onto the cape alone. She parked, cut the engine, and sat watching the sunset. She would miss the office party. Her absences had begun defining her more than her vibrant presence in those days.
As the Pacific choked down the sun, an off-shore breeze rippled sawgrass growing in the dunes. Marta nodded, stepped out of the car, and stood for a moment shivering. “Okay, okay.” She got a coat from the back seat and put it on. Bundled, with a scarf across her face, she locked the car and trudged through the clumps of sawgrass, thistle, and dead Queen Anne’s lace to the down-slant of sand.
Wind had chewed apart her foot prints by the time anyone looked for them.
#
Marta never meant to disappear. As she gained years, pounds, and debts in the course of life, she faded; invisibility came like grey hair, wrinkles, and single-piece swim-suits.
She saw her husband now and then, in passing. She was no longer sure how he spent his days or evenings. Friends, she guessed.
Her kids had grown and gone. They had lives, kids, and concerns of their own now. Holiday visits became calls. Cards came late now, sometimes not at all. Rare visits sufficed for them but seemed ad hoc, hasty, and crammed-in to Marta. So it seemed to her. She would rather see them more often for longer, or every day really.
No one asked her.
#
It occurred to her neglect could be privacy, or used that way. Her craving for privacy had never been strong. Nor had she shenanigans to pursue when on her own. No antics or frolics in mind meant solitude was wasted on her.
#
Marta liked to read. She was smart but did not think of herself as an intellectual. Her favorite writer was John Brunner. His science fiction wrung remarkable stories from science, myth, and intelligent imagination. His books, largely forgotten, were almost entirely out-of-print now but she’d inherited mass-market paperbacks from her cousin, a completist who’d collected a wide range of genre fiction in its cheapest editions. “That way they’ll die with me, or just about,” he’d say.
Brunner had adopted various styles to match the voices and tones of given stories. His work ranged through literary realms in a disciplined way. They were not mere ideas presented hastily for a penny a word.
To Brunner, via his forgotten work, Marta owed a love of chess viewed as a life pattern, layered awareness of social commentary in people’s words and deeds, and spectacularly accurate, eerily prescient trend analysis of near- and mid-distance futures.
Using these skills, she’d examine her own life over and over, spotting futures that varied only subtly.
None looked hopeful.
#
Between precedence and subsequence lurked anticipation. Sequence kept the arrow of time flowing, like the blood, blood from countless unnoticed wounds that pooled, psychologically if not in reality, and Marta looked neither forward nor back as she sank deeper into crimson emotional inertia. How bad could drowning be, really? When breathing burdened, a gasp of STOP NOW appealed strongly to her.
She paced her long walks to a surf’s rhythm echoed in her sea-blood.
#
Marta’s maternal grandmother had loved music. Her tastes had ranged from pop classical such as Boston Pops, with avuncular Arthur Fiedler, to the suave, slightly sexy jazz-tinged smarm of Henry Mancini, even reaching, or leaching as with capillary action, to the Vegas lounge lizard sounds of Ferrante & Teicher and their twin grand piano onslaught. Liberace, run.
Marta learned classical pieces this way and absorbed musical structure. She grew up responding to The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Yes. From The Nice to ELP proved a seamless slide on Keith Emerson’s flying fingers, while King Crimson opened her to Bowie and even, somehow, to The Who.
It was a mix she took refuge in, a chromatic fortress in which even discord added color and eventually balanced into a whole.
Opposite of her life.
#
On many of her long beach walks she carried a miscellany of songs along, a soundtrack that kept her apart from harsher truths. Disharmony worked best for her as a part of a composed, performed whole conducted on the cold steel tracks of musical theory. She dared not face discord in silence.
#
Her clothes, never fashionable due to a lack of money, grew gradually more comfortable. She wore practical shoes. Showing off her shape never entered into her considerations. She used LL Bean and Land’s End catalogues if she needed anything new. Such mail-order clothes fit and wore well, all without having to face sneering arch clerks or funhouse mirrors.
She did not stand out. Glimpsed at a distance, she was sexless and unremarkable. Her walks went unnoticed, gazes passing over her as wind caresses sand, as clots of fog bob by like ghosts past moaning.
She was ignored like yet another gull.
#
Marta kept her hair short, easy to manage. It more or less mirrored a standard male haircut. She trimmed it herself, allowing a visit to a barber or salon once or twice a year.
She let grey seep into her mouse-brown hair. Had she gone bald she would’ve worn a hat outside to keep her head warm but would otherwise have counted it as good riddance, as one less annoyance.
Her legs and arm pits she trimmed if she noticed them. She removed what bothered her, otherwise ignoring such chores as mere grooming, an affectation of the vain.
A sexless marriage of passing in the hall with a nod, of finding piss on the floor, the toilet seat up, dirty dishes, of she or he entering or leaving via doorways gaping like mindless empty eye sockets in discarded skulls, all this cemented her apathy and reinforced her occasional approach to personal hygiene as eccentric, perhaps neglectful, but comfortably so.
What did it matter, until it mattered to her?
#
Marta stood 5’8” and weighed 210 lbs. She was not the kind of petite woman targeted by most male predators. Or so she figured. A pretty face with no makeup and proportionate curves from long walks joined a desultory appetite to keep her solidly slender. She had a belly and could defend herself but did not flirt or accept attentions. Her main skills combined avoidance with fending off notice, ducking past perked ears, evading bushy tails.
Many predatory species favored larger females, she knew; it was the males at risk in such a hierarchy.
#
Define compassion, Marta had once thought, watching three other high-school girls bully a fourth for having clothes no worse than Marta’s own. Yet they had left Marta unscathed.
Marta had felt sorry for the bullied girl had not not moved to help the smaller girl.
Size matters, but not how they think, she told herself.
Now define compassion.
#
She conceded the rhythm to gain the pitch, or switched melody for counterpoint. Adjusting life to her idiosyncratic music theory. It still felt off-key, off-kilter, bounced off unseen edges. She’d lost the knack for living.
Drummer’s off, she thought.
#
Every step became a trip or a divot dive, a stub or a plunge, even walking on a beach newly smoothed by an out-going tide. Were her hips cockeyed? Had one of her legs grown or shrunk? She’d reach for a pocket and slap a rib instead of a hip, all body geometry lost to her for a moment. She’d miss third steps on two-step stairs. Less clumsiness than a lack of sympathy with reality afflicted her. Syncopation from other dimensions invaded at irregular intervals.
#
December the First surprised her with the realization that she’d missed Hallowe’en and Thanksgiving both, along with Black Friday’s flails and frenzies. It seemed others had, too.
“They broke it.” She heard many saying this in lines at grocery stores or gathered to pluck their coffee from a counter.
“They broke everything,” would come the knowing affirmation.
Marta knew what they meant without knowing to whom these mysterious strangers, who belonged to tribes Marta never saw, referred.
#
“Doctor My Eyes” could be a Steely Dan song.
But it’s Jackson Browne.
I know, but it COULD be.
#
Much of what she heard when she forced herself to buy food, get gas for the car, or otherwise expose herself, as obliquely as possible, to those people-things made neither sense nor impression. People pursued and apparently captured invisible pocket monsters with their smart ‘phones. Everyone began saying, “Dilly-dilly,” for awhile.
What did any of it mean? Was it as meaningless as its jargon babble?
Marta had no clue and did not care. That she lacked such social referents made her feel free. She was the empty cargo plane doing acrobatics in a gaping cerulean sky.
It hit 75° Fahrenheit on the first of December. “Even in the midwest,” the weather girl wearing the revealing blouse chirped.
Marta wondered if her parka would be needed that year at all. It felt too difficult to drag the plastic box out from under the bed just to be warmer.
Rain came, as it always does, a condensed opprobrium. Vicious storms avalanched from the Pacific to hammer the North West coastal cities with tons of pounding rain. Some of the cities flooded.
Marta had read that rain drops averaged bigger now. No one knew why but she figured it was climate change due to global warming.
Glaciers cringed and crept back up their mountains.
#
Marta left a mess she wasn’t sorry for. Her conscience had fled along with her feelings and most of her memories. By the time anyone wanted to catch up with her, even she wouldn’t be able to find herself. Traces faded fast, she knew. Trails ate themselves.
Great White sharks were one of the species in which the females were much larger and more powerful than the males. Trivia clung like jellyfish to her sea-level thoughts.
She took what she wore, which included smears of his blood, spatters of his inertia. Who noticed details when swapping world for world?
She’d promised always to take care of him, so she had taken care of him before finally looking to taking care of herself.
#
That morning via the car radio a DJ had been excited to announce to Marta a way out. Great White sharks had been spotted in significant numbers close to shore near a few popular surfing beaches. People were warned to stay out of the water. Even sea lions took this advice, clustering on rocks, wharfs, and bobbing boats like giant barking bewhiskered slugs.
Marta decided to hitch a ride out of her life with a Great White mama shark. All she’d have to do would be to swim out and say hello to one of them. I’m one of you, she’d tell them. Hunger would do the rest.
Hers, and theirs.
#
As she stood beside the car, Marta spotted a dorsal fin break the ocean’s turbulent surface. She nodded. “Okay, okay.”
She locked up and walked to the beach, then out toward invisibility.

/// /// ///

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pp 159, 160 of Fair Copy, The Official Version by Gene Stewart, excerpt:

…She’d tumbled to confusion.  Tracing welts and scars back to bright edges and shiny slices of fear made her clench.  She skittered awn from such memories the way like repelled like in magnets.

“I never wanted anything enough to go get it.  I was content to accept what came my way, except it wasn’t contentment.  It was more like inertia and I think — no, I know now, I’m sure — I took steps to rouse my will, to break out of my old patterns.  Only now I’m afraid I’ve gone wrong, or failed.”

Chesney’s pen lifted to her lips.  She chewed the pen, shrugged; it read, this letter, like a confession.

She started crumpling it, then stopped.  She smoothed the note and stood.  Folding the note once, she slipped it into a library book in the stack on her kitchen counter.  She would return the books that afternoon, leaving the note to be carried by chance, delivered by fate.  There was no name on it, and no date.  Anonymous communications with strangers; to what desperate sad insignificance was she reduced?

///  ///  ///

Posted in Sample Fiction | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off on pp 159, 160 of Fair Copy, The Official Version by Gene Stewart, excerpt:

Snow Cry Tarot by Gene Stewart

 

A graffito cartoon of a man with a shovel over his shoulder walking a T-Rex on a leash caught Lesser’s attention as he strolled through a district of gentrified brick factories and warehouses near the Missouri river. The Tyrannosaurus was fifty feet high and sported a Donald Trump wig. Tiny Little Hands, a caption said. Lesser smiled, shook his head.
Omaha, unofficial capital of Flyover Land, birthplace of the legendary Conor Oberst, a poor man’s drunken Dylan with Bright Eyes, no Nobel on his horizon, was the largest city in sparsely-populated Nebraska. It sprawled in a drift-zone straight from a 1940s atomic bomb chart, following the rads of money. As the city’s center moved westward, fleeing the Missouri River and the bluffing threat of Iowa, its old hub had first been abandoned, then ruined, then homesteaded, then bought up by developers, then reborn as upscale, atmospheric Old Market apartments, roof-top garden restaurants, and walking-only shopping streets paved with bricks. Some of those ankle-daring bricks still bore embossed maker’s marks. In season, a farmer’s market was held each Saturday in a lot across from a brewery.
Visitors called it quaint but locals took it in comfortable stride that often bordered on a complacent stumble.
Quaintness kicked in big-time in winter, when snow and Dickensian carolers added ambience to the sparkling covered walkways and Old Town decorations. Lesser lowered a shoulder and ducked past a clot of singers, cringing as one of them shouted, “Jingle bells,” into his ear as if she alone were responsible for clearing the area so another bomb could streak down upon them.
Not that one ever had, outside the metaphorical.
At least that strident quarter-tone-off note had loosened his sinuses, he told himself. Always look on the bright side of Monty Python, after all.
Lesser’s thoughts kept him on an edge between a hair-raising past and a truncated future. Imagining fat, wobbly atomic bombs arcing down from the bare-aluminum bellies of B-29s practically defined a large part of his personality. Writers of fiction, as he was, who wanted to earn even a pittance, as he did, learned melodrama was one of the tarnished brass keys of the abandoned amusement park called publishing. Melodramatically imagining atomic bombs falling toward his head struck Lesser as a fine allegory for life in general, from his view.
Now there was Trump and Kim Jun-On of North Korea to worry about.
He ducked around a railing, painted black each spring without bothering to remove old pain, which made it lumpy. He trotted down a flight of stairs, entering a door into the Passageway, a covered alley lined with shops and cafés, some straining for upscale, others embracing toadish underground shadiness.
Two-thirds of the way northward along the Passageway, to the left of Belcher’s & Gravy’s Canteen, a kind of restaurant for those with boozier appetites, a door cowered, its windows painted black, its door residential rather than commercial and painted a bloody crimson. Most took it for a service entrance and ignored it. Its bright color gathered shades of green from the moldy milked-glass ceiling three stories overhead. This murk made the door both less bright and more sinister. Brass fixtures painted black, in the form of exposed hinges, with a black iron latch handle and an ornate lock to match the black brass bracket had been mounted askew above the door. From a black iron rod with a leaf-spear tip dangled a British-style Pub sign. It was cut out and painted flat black as a silhouette of a black cat, back arched, tail straight up. Under the cat, as if providing a perch, was a word in Black Letter, painted gold: ARCANA.
Lesser heard a little boy in round spectacles, his hand tugging on his mother’s coat as she scanned for Christmas gift ideas, ask, “Mommy, look, is that a Harry Potter shop, mommy?”
Oh, child, he thought. If only you knew.
It pleased him that only the imaginative ever seemed to notice ARCANA’s door. This kept out the mundanes, as he thought of literalists and worse.
He pulled the red door open, thinking the name Harry Haller as he entered, noting again how counter-intuitive it was to open a shop door outward. It forced once to step away from the shop, not into it. Gave time for second thoughts.
Even the dim light from the Passageway blinked into darkness when the door nicked shut, as if embarrassed by the lack of invitation or even decorum.
“Major?”
“Here, back here.”
Lesser followed the gruff voice down a narrow aisle between shelves of old books, glass boxes holding such things as stuffed ravens, the skulls of raccoons, and other curios, and scrolls, endless scrolls, some on parchment, others on vellum, most rolled and tied with fraying ribbons and stacked in seemingly-random pyramids. There were ornate daggers, clay marbles said to date older than the United States, and bowls of Japanese, Navajo, and Unearthly design. There was incense in stick and cone form, there was an array of essential oils, and there were jars of dark, tangled things thought to be insects used in potions. Bundles of sage, copper pots and pitches in grotesque and arabesque, and stones tumbled, polished, carven, and plain. It was a shop and a collection, it was a grab-bag boxed in neglect, in short, a cabinet of curiosities on a cash-and-carry basis.
The Major, Maks Welle of Cøpenhägen, OxBridge, and now UNO, a professor of abstruse maths and engineering analysis for Omaha’s Kiewit Institute, glanced up from a vintage journal that lay open on the counter before him. A heavy-set man, squat, solid, and strong, with a full mane of white hair swept back from his bespectacled face, he glanced at Lesser, tapped the journal, and raised a finger, indicating a moment of listening.

#
“Birth is death, life is dying.
“Fact is fiction, truth is lying.
“Welcome home, we burned it down;
“It’s Samhain now, you killer clown.

“Kick off those shoes, it’s flooding here,
“We need canoes; our course is clear:
“We’ll boat your shoes to a better shore.
“We’ll prove that nothing is always more.

“‘Trick or treat’, you shout in glee;
“You’ll take what’s given or cop a plea.
“A night for blood — Sabbath’s delight:
“Flock to dark thoughts shining bright.

“Cut a swath, renew a vow,
“Confirm it while we’re all here now,
“Attend and learn the why and how of
“What the Snow Cry Tarot will allow.”

/ W B Kek, bard & prophet, poet & proclaimer of esoterica
#
“What do you think of that? Found it in this journal, Kek’s own, one of many. No one knows how many journals he filled. So many gems.”
Lesser thought it doggerel but did not say so. “Was he local?”
Welle nodded. “Bellevue resident for much of his life. Likely in hiding. In fact, he lived there longer than anywhere else.”
“Explorer, world traveler?” Lesser leaned on the counter and looked at the journal; strong, clear hand-writing, not the spidery script he’d expected. A man of competence and confidence had written these lines.
“An Air Force spouse and kept man, a true poet, mysterious but his influence is found in so many places. His work’s influence is ubiquitous, although unacknowledged, from the late Twentieth Century on. Influence both literary and otherwise. Socio-political. Esoteric. Mystical. Been tracing his work for years.”
Major Maks Welle’s rank came from the Danish military; he was retired from upper-echelon brain-soldiering and semi-retired from academia and corporate consulting. Occasional jobs brought breath-taking sums into his coffers but he needed no such pay-days to get along nicely. His hobby, more avocation if compulsion were factored, was finding esoteric items and references to let him further decode reality, to reveal hidden hints, patterns, and truths.
Such insights he wrote in journals of his own.
Lesser, aware of all this, nodded. “I recognize the name Kek, yes. That poem was both accessibly banal — the opening couplet, for example — and topical — referring to killer clowns, which seems modern with the clown scare going on again.”
“It flares up now and then. As we’ve discussed, it could well be cover used by a fraternity or cult of some kind. Distraction from the drownings.”
“The smiley-face murders, yes. Pure urban legend. Like Slenderman. Or that ridiculous Pizzagate.” Lesser’s endless conversation with his partner and mentor, Welles, kept him well-versed in fringe exotica and the darker shadows of society’s ragged edge. “Is that what we’re after today? Shadowy pedophile rings and satanic ritual goofs?” Lesser tended to side with Umberto Eco’s stance, taken from Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum, concerning conspiracy: Conspiracy revolved around a still-point that could be anywhere.
Welles turned the journal’s pages. “This is what we must find.” He turned the old Pentalic notebook so Lesser could read it, holding it open as it proved reluctant to stop closing like a slow-motion Venus Fly-Trap.
Lesser could read the clear words easily, but did not understand them. “The Snow Cry Tarot. What’s that mean, snow cry? What’s a snow cry?”
“Part of what we must—“ Welles stopped speaking to pull his iPhone from a pants pocket. He glanced, smiled, and poked at the screen, then said, “Hail, Ayesha.”
Ayesha, Lesser knew, was She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, which Rumpole of the Bailey called his wife in mock terror in John Mortimer’s insouciant, sardonic Rumpole stories. Ayesha was also a referent from She by H. Rider Haggard, a novel of lost civilization and mysterious, mystical matriarchy.
By all this, Lesser knew the call was from Welle’s wife, Pernille.
She was asking if he’d ordered a crate of something from Peru.
“What’s in it?”
“I’m not to open it. Only you.”
“Have you called EOD?”
EOD meant Explosive Ordnance Disposal, the bomb squad, a joke, or so Lesser hoped.
“It weighs a ton? If it’s from Peru, as I said, I’d have to. Yes. No, my love. Have you pissed off the Shining Path again?”
This, Lesser hoped, was a joke to counter his silent one about a bomb. With their globe-trotting background and many international connections, not to mention the dark spots in their resumés, it was often hard to tell how deep the sardonic references went, or how serious the threats they often bandied about, when it came to Max and Pernille Welle.
“Bill of lading? Oh, yes, yes, those will be my Cuzco relics. Entirely slipped my mind. I’m to examine them for possible inclusion in. Yes. Yes, I know, my love. Yes. Okay, I understand, yes. Have the crate placed in my study, in that corner we cleared.” He listened for a few seconds. “Already done? Good, good. What? They’re saying we owe them money?”
Welle began pacing behind his counter, an area allowing only three paces each way. He bit his lower lip.
“The delivery people? No, they’ve been paid. Don’t hurt any of them, dear wife. They’re just working men. Put the foreman on.”
Lesser, who ordinarily found Maks Welle approachable, affable, and kind, heard military steel in the older man’s tone now, as Welle stated clearly that the delivery had been paid for and tips were not negotiable. He ended by stating that his wife would speak to him now. “I’ve set them straight.”
“Everything okay at home?” Lesser leaned on the counter and fiddled with a set of fountain pens carved from human bone in elaborate Islamic patterns.
Welle nodded. “Yes, they’re leaving. They claim it’s a mix-up. I know full well it was sexism; they saw a woman and decided to extort lunch money.” Into the phone he said, “I’m just glad you called me instead of rendering them unconscious and bruised. I should be home for supper; will let you know if we’re delayed. I love you, too. Soon.”
Lesser found their interplay charming and slightly intimidating. Pernille Welle was tall, slender, and deadly, a black belt in several martial arts and an ex fighter jet pilot. Her name meant “stone” and it fit; she was harder than rock. She’d met Welle at a college, he teaching, she learning, and they had been inseparable since, according to the tale they told. For Lesser, it was a lesson in match-making. Not only was the gap between their ages at least 16 years but their bond was palpable; he could not imagine either with anyone else. Together, they were truly One, and that counted for Lesser as one of the many esoteric discoveries he’d made since meeting Welle in, what else, a symposium on UFOs held by Jack Kasher at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Kasher and Welle got on splendidly, the former a professor emeritus in Physics, the latter a Maths & Engineering professor at the same school, both drawn to the outré and the eerie, the quirky and the odd. Kasher’s blunt assessment of many UFO examples as most likely of extraterrestrial origin meshed well with Welle’s knowledge of MIB and links between military, government agencies, and the realm of occult societies. They shared an in-depth knowledge of black budget research and other hidden pursuits, too, with some hints from Welle’s quarter that he’d perhaps benefitted from such hidden funding now and then.
Having then been a graduate student working with Welle at the Kiewit Institute, using the wetware AI unit to analyze sub-molecular and atomic patterns that promised to increase tensile strength and flexibility in a wide array of materials, including a matrix of Buckyballs earmarked for a possible Space Elevator, or at least for the cable to connect the two capsules in a bolo centrifugal gravity set-up for a Mars mission, Lesser had been the third guy at the table at the pub later as the two white-haired older men delved deep into beer, the paranormal, and friendship. It was that very night, as Lesser gallantly escorted Welle on foot back to his house in Dundee and a worried Pernille, who he met for the first time then, he became first Welle’s personal assistant, then his partner in his extracurricular investigations from the shop Welle owned and often ran in his spare time, Belcher’s & Gravy’s ARCANA.
Lesser’s first impression of Pernille was that Welle had a lovely daughter. His immediate replacement impression was that she was obviously Welle’s wife and inamorata, and a sharp, decisive woman; she thanked Lesser by name, proving she knew who he was, and told him to come by next morning around nine for any tasks Welle might have for him then. Thus he’d become the PA, and after a few weeks of that arrangement, Welle, at the shop, one day said, “We should act more like what we are, you know. A team. Partners in these endeavors.”
By endeavors, he meant searches and researches, digging and sifting, looking for esoterica’s spoor in a mundane world. So Lesser had become half of Welle & Lesser, or, to use the Tarot reference, Major and Minor Arcana, the recherché being their business, Arcana their shop appellation.
Pocketing his phone, Welle picked up their conversation as if it had not been interrupted. “Part of what we must uncover, although with W B Kek, we may be looking at a poeticism.”
“If it’s a metaphor, it’s not well-rooted in experience.” Lesser, who’d briefly studied fiction for extra credit one semester under a guest-lecturer ironically named “geste”, lower case and all just like e e cummings, knew his way around metaphor, simile, and even tropes and topoi. His one short story, written for that class, concerned vagina dentata and revenge against an arrogant lawyer from the rape culture. He’d gotten an A from geste but after having it rejected even by an editor who’d specifically called for the most transgressive, outrageous, and raunchy manuscripts possible, Lesser had trunked it in a bottom drawer. He stuck with writing the occasional précis of research done for their arcane enterprise.
So now they ran a business the business of which was to hear about in the first place, then learn about, then begin looking for books, letters, and other ephemera left by researchers into occult matters. They worked for wealthy clients and, often, for Welle’s curiosity.
Try explaining any of that on a tax form. They called it a curio shop. It sufficed for the IRS and, to cut down on accidental foot-traffic or tourists looking for a goof, they did not advertise. Those who did not need to find the place rarely did. The few who blundered in usually stumbled out quickly, appalled by some of what they’d seen on those tilted, crowded shelves.
Welle scratched his right elbow where one of the dead insect mandibles had given him what Lesser instantly dubbed a zombie bug bite. “Fool the eye, you’ll know why we cry.” He said this like a mantra or a snippet of lyrics running idly through his head but Lesser knew better and quipped, “Trumping again?”
Trompe l’oeil art was among both their favorite kinds of art, fine and low both, along with anamorphic and other hidden or emergent image styles.
Welle looked up and smiled. “Just hounding a bit.”
If Welle ever had a dog, he’d name it Arcanus, barking on the pun, Lesser thought. “So you think it’s encoded?”
A shrug. “I was reading some of the word patterns vertically, to see if he’d left any near-clear messages for us. Nothing of much import so far.”
“It may be just a poem.”
“This is Kek. His work is never simple, remember. Precious at times, twee now and again, even supercilious, but usually deep, entangled, and encoded, so that grasping it becomes revelatory. Part of the Ficta Mystica school of writing.”
Lesser nodded, knowing about such layered, nested writing and art. He stepped back, glanced up and to the left, then frowned. “You know, another word for ‘cry’ is ‘squall’, which is another word for a blast of snow.”
Blizzards were common in the midwest, especially so in Nebraska, where the interstate highways were closed at least a few times each winter. Or had been, until climate change brought a cycle of low-snow winters to the midwestern plains.
“Snow squall leads us where?” Welle placed both hands on the counter and stretched his back, having been hunched over the journal studying the poem for a bit longer than comfort allowed. “Perhaps a year? Was there a particularly large, fast snowfall in the past two or three decades?”
Lesser whipped out his iPhone and began asking Siri, Google, Alexa, and doing his own searches. “Two major contenders. January twelfth, 1888, started unseasonably warm, then a huge storm hit, trapping schoolchildren at schools and people at work or in homes. Few had sufficient coats with them. Two-hundred thirty five died trying to walk to safety or froze in their places. Then, on the second of January, 1949, a massive blizzard buried several Nebraska counties under drifts as high as thirty feet. Only 76 died but the National Guard dropped supplies and saved two-hundred thousand people and four million head of cattle.”
They leaned on the counter contemplating blizzards in silence for a few minutes. Welle said, “I don’t think it’s that.”
Lesser began to agree, then his eyes got wide. “I do. Look at this.”
On his iPhone a site had come up showing images from what was labeled a ‘legendary Snow Cry Tarot set of cards, now thought lost’. It showed images echoing standard Tarot card iconography, except each figure or pose was depicted as a dead victim in ice and snow. The brief description stated that rescuers were tortured for years after by the cries they’d heard as they searched in futility through the frozen dead for survivors. “It’s 1888.”
“Jack the Ripper,” Welle said at once. “Same year.”
Whitechapel and white death, Lesser thought; hold the sharks. “Different country,” he said aloud.
“Probably. Saucy Jack may have come stateside.”
“And died in a blizzard in Nebraska, as chronicled in the legendary Snow Cry Tarot, which this poem will lead us to, once we find the key to the code, end of story, case solved, what’s for supper?”
Both laughed. “If only it were that easy.”
#
Welle & Lesser.
That’s what the business card said. That and the single word under the names, ARCANA. “It’s simple.”
“Too simple?” Pernille seemed pleased. Black script on dark grey flecked stock, with an embossed frame, the business cards could, she thought, be given out at the shop to potential clients as a reminder.
“No phone number or address.” Welle examined a card the way he’d studied the W B Kek journal, as if it might hold a secret.
Pernille touched his shoulder. “If they have a card, they’ve found you once and know what you represent.”
Lesser nodded. “True. I can see only one mistake.”
She looked at him with amusement. “And what would that be?”
“Names are reversed. Should be: Lesser & Welle. Alphabetical.”
“I ordered half that way, half the proper way.” She plucked a card from the middle of the box and sure enough, it read Lesser & Welle. “I know how you think, and order matters little. In this instance.”
“In this instance,” her husband echoed, as they both laughed.
Lesser smiled. It felt good to be so accepted.
That feeling instantly made him insecure.
#
Lesser paid for the veggie dog and strolled to a corner, to get out of the wind. He ate slowly, taking big chomps as he gazed at passers-by, the buildings, the bricks, the essence of Old Town. The cart vendor was doing brisk business in the crisp Autumn weather, even though it was the first week of December. No snow, no hard frost, and no sign of an actual Omaha winter had yet driven the vendors or food trucks in for the season. Suited them; they were having a great year, and everyone knew snow and cold would come soon enough.
As he ate, Lesser thought about pursuing things that chased him. That’s how hunting down esoterica and arcana felt. You spent years of focused effort to find the few small things that haunted you, that chased your dreams. Haystack needles and the glitter of fool’s gold, those were his stock-in-trade.
A collector’s fever, like a miser’s illness, some called it.
That others paid him to do this fringe job on their behalf amazed him at times, disgusted him at others. It depended on if the client was a sane collector or mad hoarder, a reflective seeker or a driven fanatic. Superstitious twats pretended magic was real while cynical twits swore magick was not. Ignorance reigned, and many had more money than mind in the game. They wanted keys to unlock treasure chests that did not exist.
Were he and Welle falling into this sort of folly by looking so hard to confirm the existence of the Snow Cry Tarot?
H. P. Lovecraft had invented the Necronomicon, a lost book of forbidden knowledge, in an off-hand aside to prop up a mere four of his stories, yet many believed it a real volume. HPL had named it after the Egyptian Book of the Dead, with Necro meaning dead, Nom meaning name, and Icon meaning image or face. The Book of the Dead Faces or Names, or the Dead Name Image book, or something like that, would be the loose translation. Pulp era confabulation, yet people insisted it was real, somewhere, somehow. Several spurious editions had been written and sold, some fun, a few keyed to mysterioso gullability, and at least one full of serious esoterica but still thought to be a higher-level joke to amuse the cognoscenti. That there were such struck Lesser as increasingly unlikely.
The faked Necronomicons were money-makers, too, of course. Suckers bought dreams and treasure maps and secrets to power. It defined the sub-genre of publishing that sustained this cottage industry of sucker bets to offer the quick, the easy, the cheat.
So why not the Snow Cry Tarot as yet another cobbled con?
An artist could be found easily, to draw or paint Snow Cry Tarot imagery, using a standard Tarot deck as a foundation for elaborated blizzard deaths to stand in for the people of the Fool’s journey. As for the suits, coins still worked, staves could easily become arrows or spears from the Plains tribes, cups could be wooden bowls, and swords could be either cavalry swords or Bowie knives.
As he contemplated faking such a thing, it seemed easier with each idea, until he’d talked himself into thinking the chances of it being real had to be perishingly small.
Lesser carried his doubts mostly in silence, kept them mostly to himself, venting slivers of steam only when the pressure inside his worry box became too much to bear. Welle had once told him, when confronted by Lesser’s fear of being made a fool, “It is The Fool on which the entire Tarot is founded. We are all on a fool’s journey, after all. We stride happily along, unaware of pitfalls and warnings. To be reminded now and then is not a bad thing. To feel foolish, it’s a good thing. It refreshes our zeal. It keeps us focused.”
#
“Where others see blush, she sees blood.”
Lesser glanced at Welle as they walked through the hushed, expansive library on the UNO campus. Relatively new, the building offered breadth and depth for serious researchers, in comfortable, well-lighted surroundings, and this change from Wells’s own cramped aisles zig-zagging through crammed shelves had brought out the mutterer in Welle.
The older man smiled. “It’s the first line of a story by Samuel Gyre. ‘Whisper Bite’ is the story.”
“Tells me almost nothing,” Lesser said, “but speaking of whisper, keep your voice down or we’ll get booted out of here.”
Questing, Welle called it. Seeking unknown things. They were at the library with special permission to see a restricted collection of papers from a local donor known as the Sage of Omaha, no less than Warren Buffett of Berkshire-Hathaway fame, the richest man in the world. Actually, he was richest some years, second or third other years, depending on which other billionaire’s current assets buoyed and bobbed up or down. Consistently, Buffett beat them all over a long view.
Among other things he and fellow Omaha billionaire, Walter Scott of Peter-Kiewit construction, collected art, letters, journals, and other items relating to the Pioneer Days, when Nebraska was being settled. Among the items gathered were personal accounts of the Great Missouri earthquake of 1811-1812, when the New Madrid fault had let go in what many seismologists think was the strongest quake on record, perhaps a 9 on the Richter Scale. It was felt in many states, including Nebraska, and some of the accounts tell of entire towns subsumed by earth that churned like turgid water. Many died, although exact numbers are unknown due to lack of census for those places and years.
Welle hoped that, among the material, later items might reach as far forward as 1888, and reveal accounts of the blizzard from that year. “It’s a cache we haven’t examined, and it’s worth the effort, given how random luck determines the contents of these collections.”
They had already checked with the Joslyn Museum in Omaha, where Walter Scott’s fine, wide-ranging collection of western art dominated the core contributions, along with a set of rare Monet paintings and a Degas statue of the skirted bronze ballerina superior to its more famous cousin in the Louvre. The Joslyn proved to have little to help with Lesser & Welle’s quest.
They spent the day going through accounts written in decorative Spencerian, rounded Copperplate, or loopy Palmer hands, jotting down a few notes. Wearying, with strained eyes, they stretched as they stood to depart. “Think we should come back tomorrow and keep at it?”
Welle shrugged. “We’ve looked at the most recent papers. Older won’t help us, as far as I can see.”
“I might take one more shot.” Despite striking out for the most part, having gleaned only faint descriptions of people found frozen in positions that might have resembled the poses in a Tarot deck, or inspired a warped artist to create a deck from such horror, despite it seeming futile, Lesser had a tingle of anticipation, as if that cosmos-bending beautiful woman were right around the next corner, as if his lotto number was about to come up, as if lightning were about to blast sense into him from on high. He could not explain it but it was synchronicity, or perhaps the Chapel Perilous, where stars align at the gazer’s risk.
He did not need to understand the feeling to follow it, and Welle, on their short drive home, spread his hands in a gesture of generous apathy. “If you want to continue digging in those papers another day, I will accede to your wishes and accompany you. I have a hunch you have a hunch, and hunches are ignored to our detriment.”
#
It was during the next day’s sifting through journals and letters dated far earlier than 1888 that Lesser came across an explicit mention of the Snow Cry Tarot itself. “Professor, look.” His hands trembled as he handed over an 1811 letter from an Alma DeLatre, apparently a Pioneer wife who’d lived through a devastation from the Missouri quake. She described how they’d fled into open fields, fearing trees or their farm buildings falling, only to have the ground crack open as if trying to swallow them. She had seen several cattle fall into such crevasses, their piteous screams endless as they seemed to fall to the Earth’s core.
Her hand, a rounded, even Copperplate, was clear, easily read. She speculated for half a sentence about the Hollow Earth theories she’d heard the men discuss, then picked up her tale of wandering away from their destroyed farm, at first to round-up scattered animals, later to find others, to see how bad it had been over a wider area. It was during that trip to what they hoped was still a town that they came upon a pit. She said it resembled a crater, which she’d seen as a girl on a trip to Arizona, but this one was pointed downward at the bottom, an inverted cone. Along the sides, debris clung as if refusing to be sucked down.
Within arm’s reach was a traveler’s writing desk, a wooden box with compartments inside, with a slanted top, on which one could write. It sported a leather-padded handle. Many used them on laps when riding in trains or wagons. Inside would be ink,pens, pen-knives, and extra quills or nibs, depending on its age. People used them both when traveling and at home, held on a lap in bed or while sitting in an easy chair, or set upon a desk or table to provide a raised, slanted, comfortable writing surface.
It was Alma herself who dropped flat on her belly, as she described it, and stretched down her arm until the tips of her fingers managed to snag the leather-clad handle. She pulled the writing desk up.
She described it as neither scratched nor staved in, and said the latches were of either brightly-polished brass or some gold alloy. It was, she said, a gentleman’s, and she speculated perhaps a fine coach and fours carrying such a gentleman had been taken by the conical sink-hole. His last act, she imagined, was to hurl the writing desk out, in hopes of preserving his work.
Lesser smiled. “She’s thinking of Dickens, I would bet.”
Welle chuckled. “Too early for Dickens. He was born a year after the Great Missouri Quake.” He clapped Lesser’s shoulder. “Probably thinking of a lawyer or man of business. She was responding mostly to how fine the item itself was.”
Alma’s account then came to the part that had raised Lesser’s hackles when he discovered it. She wrote that, upon opening the writing desk, she found many papers, pens, jars of ink, and so on, as expected, but had also found a linen sack cinched at the top with a black ribbon. Opening it, she found the sack was lined with silk, and inside, a deck of cards much larger than those the men used to play whist. She then described her increasing horror as she realized the images on the cards showed icy death in all its forms, faces in rictus, limbs distorted, eyes gone.
She called it a picture book of a blizzard’s gloating, a phrase Welle quite liked. Both Welle and Lesser found her last line concerning the deck of cards literally and figuratively chilling. She wrote, “On the reticule one word had been embroidered, that word being LISTEN.”
#
“It’s the Snow Cry Tarot.” Lesser wanted to giggle and cry.
Welle frowned, probably to keep from being giddy. “Yes, it certainly seems to be. But, so early.”
“Seventy-seven years before the Nebraska blizzard.” As he said this, a thought made Lesser shudder. “What if it wasn’t inspired by the blizzard’s aftermath. What if it was a curse.”
Welle tilted his head, the way a dog will do at a puzzling sound. His frown deepened. “It’s not possible. Is it?”
Lesser warmed to his idea. “Tarot readings often predict future events, why can’t they prompt or even control them?”
Welle stood and began pacing. His study, lined with books, had enough floor space for him to take several steps before having to turn around. “We must avoid magical thinking,” he muttered. “No jumps to cause.”
“It makes sense, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t be the first documented prediction.”
“Surely you don’t refer to Nostradam—“
“No, no, Professor. I’m thinking more of Poe, Richard Parker.”
“Ah.”
Both knew Edgar Allan Poe had written, in 1838, The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym, his only known novel, focused on a mutiny, then a counter-mutiny aboard a whaling ship that ventures to Antarctica and is lost due to mysterious influences and a storm. Starving, the survivors, including one Richard Parker, only still-living original mutineer, draw straws to see who’ll be eaten, cannibalism having been an unwritten law of the sea. Parker loses, and is eaten.
In 1884, in real life, four men on a yacht were capsized by a rogue wave while en route from England to Australia; the down-hill run, as it’s known.
They managed to survive for awhile adrift, eating stored turnips and a captured sea turtle, but they had no water, and resorted to drinking their own urine. The cabin boy refused, drank seawater, and got much sicker and passed out. At this time, they drew straws, including drawing one for the unconscious cabin boy, who surprisingly lost the draw.
His name was Richard Parker.
He was killed and eaten, and the others survived, only to be tried and convicted in R vs. Dudley, Stephens.
Many of the details, along with the actual victim’s name, Poe got right in his story from forty-six years prior. It is one of the well-known literary mysteries, or coincidences, if one is inclined to believe in such things.
Welle referred to resonance.
#
Welle unfrowned his face and raised his brows. “You’re suggesting this Snow Cry deck anticipated the blizzard, all blizzards being similar, is that it? A kind of remote viewing of the then-future?”
Lesser did not know if that’s what he’d meant. “Well, that, I guess, and maybe more. Maybe Poe glimpsed a future event that would get a lot of newspaper coverage and somehow, I don’t know, attracted it. Drew it into realty. So why not the artist who drew this Snow Cry Tarot catching a glimpse of a terrible blizzard and what it brings to the people? Or, well, what if using the Tarot in some way brought the blizzard?”
Welle continued pacing but was now also touching the spines of books, picking up knick-knacks, and swiping dust from flat surfaces. “Or more, you say. Caused the blizzard, you’re suggesting. Magical thinking. The running rabbit causes the chasing dog fallacy. Yet think: If the Snow Cry Tarot existed, why were there not blizzards happening from its creation, at its inception? Why seventy-seven years of nothing?”
“Maybe the deck has to be used in a certain way to cause the effect.” Even as he pursued his thought, Lesser knew Welle had muttered Magical Thinking again, and he’d been right to do so. A deck of cards, no matter how imbued with symbolism and human intent, did not control weather or anything else. The weather-cock did not control the winds, merely spun to them. It was a tool to make the unseen visible. Still, the notion struck Lesser as somehow correct, in some way he could not nail down. “All I’m sensing, Professor, is that there’s power in those cards. The Snow Cry Tarot is more than folk art.”
#
The Tarot Deck was sometimes called a Book of Life. It offered a set of situations, abstracted into symbols and placed into five categories of life, common and royal. It offered a way to sift the patterns of reality into a coherent reading of the current moment, with a link to both past and future probabilities.
Tarotiers, those who uses the Tarot, interpreted the cards as they were revealed in various patterns representing past, present, and future situations clustered on the person asking for the reading.
It worked along the lines of the I Ching, or Book of Changes, in which hexagrams were used as patterns, and elliptical advice linked to what hexagram was revealed by tossing yarrow sticks or coins to produce the pattern. Randomizing was part of the process, as was interpretation.
People swore by both methods and results could indeed seem uncanny, eerie, or downright frightening. The visionary, erudite writer Philip K. Dick had plotted his most admired novel, The Man In the High Castle, using I Ching coin tosses.
No one but the most superstitious thought the Tarot or I Ching coins in any way controlled weather, life, or “the future”. They did not address destiny, only likelihood. Probability assessment might be a phrase to better describe the function of these old forms of taking stock of one’s life, although naturally Gypsy Fortune Tellers tended to portray it all as divination, along with their crystal gazing balls or scrying bowls, palm reading, and tea leaf dregs. It was really just a way of accessing one’s subconscious, of getting the monkey mind of consciousness out of the way to allow a genuine self-aware insight.
What Lesser had proposed, and what he felt increasingly might be true, however outré, weaponized an old method of taking stock.
Could that explain W B Kek’s poem, with its cautionary tone and dire imagery? So many of this obscure poet’s works held such contrasts.
#
During an NPR segment on whether changes in American sexuality were more superficial than profound, a brief discussion of what one’s first time was like, then versus now, prompted Welle, to Pernille’s amusement, to say, “An exercise in clumsy ignorance and eager stupidity.”
“Who was she?” Pernille, wife and breakfast companion, buttered a wedge of toast and studiously did not glance at her husband.
“If only I knew.”
This prompted a barked laugh from Lesser and, inadvertently, from the waitress, who’d been pouring coffee.
They sat in a restaurant overlooking the section of town they would search that morning for signs of occult activity. Or so Welle had promised. “We are looking for symbols in chalk, or perhaps small stickers placed on the backs of street signs, or arrangements of solid things forming interesting patterns.”
Lesser thought it a likely waste of research time but did not mind a good walk in the morning’s cool air, and the neighborhood was older, with more ornate architecture and only some eye gloss of gentrification. Much to his taste were the patterns in brick at the top edges of windows and along the tops of buildings. He’d learned, too, that bricklayers used patterns to sign their work. “In Britain you can find whole walls set with interesting diagonal patterns that tell you company and even individual bricklayers. Some of that tradition was carried on here.”
Welle had nodded during this part of their talk, as they ate eggs, toast, and coffee. “Some also hint at guilds and other hidden societies.”
They hoped to find hints of what groups had been active but not advertised back when the blizzards happened, back when the Missouri quake might have knocked some Omaha buildings flat.
Precious few buildings dating back that far survived.
One, a schoolhouse in Bellevue, a town that was being subsumed into a suburb of south Omaha, dated to the 1700s. Bellevue had been the first town founded in the Nebraska territory, and was home to Fort Crook and more recently to Offutt Air Force Base.
Welle referred to it as Offset Airforce Base, which made Lesser smile.
Pernille, having joined them for breakfast, kissed Welle goodbye and headed for UNO, where she would do follow-up research at the library to see if the hidden history of the region mentioned any Tarotiers. They knew already of the famous hermit magician, a designer of stage illusions considered by many working illusionists as a genius and the best ever at certain conjurings, such as the levitating ball. He’d died not too many years before and many a famous stage illusionist either appeared at his funeral or sent various manifestations of their debt of gratitude and inspiration.
Welle, Pernille, and Lesser had often sought the more esoteric sort of occult folks, those chasing philosophical insight rather than ways to awe audiences, but this delving into the past was proving a challenge.
Lesser followed Welle on foot from the restaurant across the through street and past the commercial strip. Soon it was old warehouses changed into loft apartments for rent, brick and stone houses with elaborate floor-plans and decorative façades, and a few clapboard houses that strained to be Victorians from years just before or just after that era.
“Look, there.” Welle pointed to a triskel, the three-lobed loop Celts used to indicate Brigid’s three aspects. It appeared on an enamel disk set above a front door’s lintel, under a triangle of decorative brick that mimicked a roof. “Not sure it’s original, but isn’t it lovely?”
They strolled, Welle explaining the joys of being a flaneur, as they kept their gazes flitting over buildings of many kinds and ages. Welle, despite age and dimmer vision, spotted chalk marks, runes, and other symbols, some of which he could interpret for Lesser, who always suspected such ephemera were simply Hobo Marks, to indicate which houses to avoid and where a meal or handy-work might be obtained. He was impressed that Welle looked beyond such things and found Old Norse, Astrological, and Esoteric symbology subtly displayed all around them.
At a corner, waiting to cross another commercial street, a man in a suit, younger than Welle but prosperously plump, stood alongside them. When the light changed, just as Welle and Lesser stepped off the curb, the man said in a clear baritone: “Reality is a solid.”
Startled to hear such a phrase, one from esoterica that came even as he and the professor sought hints, Lesser glanced at the man, only to find no one there.
There were two women who gave Lesser the impression of co-workers out for a brunch, a teenager carrying a dozen or so vinyl records in sleeves bound with cord, and Welle, but no successful-looking man in a suit.
There was nowhere such a man could have gone to be out of sight so fast.
As they reached the other curb, Lesser stopped and scanned the area, tapping Welle’s arm. “Did you see—?”
Welle smiled. “Yes I did.”
“What’s it mean? Are we attracting ghosts now?”
Welle’s smile wilted. “Perhaps so, in a manner of speaking.”
Leading Lesser around a corner into another residential area, Welle considered. “Attention. That’s what we seem to be attracting. And perhaps from the right people. Or perhaps not. Hard to tell, with spooks.”
#
Their meandering walk through the Blackstone District, (“Did you know the Reuben Sandwich was invented in a restaurant at that hotel?” Welle asked as they walked by, making Lesser’s belly growl), and through the Dundee District, (Welle pointed. “That’s Warren Buffett’s house. They say he answers his own door; shall we knock?”) eventually took them to the Scottish Rite Masonic Building on Douglas Street in what had once been West Omaha but was now East Central Omaha. As they stood before the imposing ediface, as a Victorian writer might have described it, Lesser said, “We could’ve gotten here more directly,” meaning by car.
“Nice day for a stroll, through.” Welle all but winked.
They entered, Welle being welcome there despite not being a member because he’d consulted with them and had done some work for them of a private nature a few times. They wended their way through the forest of columns inside, on the black-and-white checkered floor tiles, and climbed to the second of four floors, to inquire about the Snow Cry Tarot.
Ornate, the building dated to 1914 but Scottish Rite Masonry had come to Omaha in the 1850s and began thriving in the 1880s along with the city itself as the stockyards, railroads, and mercantile commerce along the Missouri River flourished. Lesser had never been in so fine a building. He could not help but gape at the seemingly endless examples of detail work and quality materiel used throughout the 47,000 square feet.
“Feels like a church or bank or something.”
“A little of neither,” came Welle’s wry response.
They met with an older man, heavy to the point of being ponderous. He had white hair, gold-framed glasses, and a light, airy voice accompanied by much panting. He seemed so fat his lungs had no room to expand, Lesser thought.
He sat at ease behind a desk clear of papers, his puffy hands folded, several rings subsumed into his flesh.
Lesser wondered about the possibility of gangrene, yet found the man’s face, though flushed, animated and happy. “Mr. Welle, how good to see you again.”
“Bernard. Thank you for seeing me.”
Lesser glanced at Welle, suspecting some sort of invisibility humor, but found Welle’s expression sincere. Perhaps this giant man was a pope or chief of some sort, whose audience had to be granted. He had no idea who Bernard was, what rank he may have held, or why specifically they’d come until Welle spoke.
“Bernard, we’re looking for something called the Snow Cry Tarot, have you ever heard of it? I’m hoping a thirty-third degree Mason might help a widow’s son.” At this, Welle held up his hand and displayed a ring Lesser had not seen his professor and partner wear before. It had a Cross of Lorraine on it, in silver set into onyx. Beside it, Welle’s usual oval flat blank onyx ring in gold.
What’s next, Lesser wondered, a secret handshake?
Sure enough, the two older men shook hands.
“I’m told reality’s a solid.”
“By compassed circle and closed square, it is.” Bernard nodded.
Lesser thought of call-and-response in liturgical churches. Such formality, such ritual, struck him as both antiquated yet somehow dignified, yet he also knew Masonry had been revealed as bigoted against QUILTBAG folks, for example, and steeply leaned toward certain streaks of Christianity despite a nondenominational public stance. It was a group he himself would not join.
Lesser also had read books claiming that the Great Secret protected by Freemasonry had been lost. This secret itself supposedly came from the Knights Templar, after they had been shattered on that Black Friday by the gold-greedy French King. The king had been in great debt to the Knights, who’d invented credit banking, so the king had simply ordered them slaughtered and their treasure seized. Nine ships, it was said, escaped, even as Jacques DeMolay and the others burned at the stake.
Those ships sailed, it was said, to Scotland, where, at Roslyn Chapel, some of the treasure was hidden, the bulk having been sent on to America, there to be lost to history. Merica, incidentally, was a Masonic term, the name of a mystical land of Freedom, Liberty, Equality, and Justice where they hoped to found such a society. Many thought the Templar treasure ended up in the notorious Money Pit on Oak Island, Nova Scotia. Others claimed it lay in caches and hordes scattered across the entire North American continent.
Myth, legend, and foggy history kept things lively for the cottage industry of treasure hunters, sketchy archaeologists, and other prowlers of the fringe.
Lesser thought about all this and listened as Welle and Bernard talked about who might know something about an icy Tarot. “Millicent Caprielli might know something of use to you.” Bernard said this as if it had popped into his head unbidden, then blinked, as if amazed at himself.
They were directed to the third floor, to Ms Caprielli’s office, in which they found a young man in tee shirt and jeans renovating a section of plaster on a wall showing exposed lathing. “Oh, she’s over at the Joslyn,” this worker told them. “She’s a curator there, lower floor.”
#
Welle stepped through the large, well-lighted workroom into a short dark hall, then into an office illuminated mainly by a desk lamp shining on paperwork. He smiled as Ms. Millicent Caprielli, a small, slender woman with a strong face and graceful hands, glanced up. “What is it about folies-a-deux that so often turns their fancies and fantasies dark?”
“A turning away from the world.” She smiled and stood, reaching her right hand across the desk.
He stepped closer, took her hand, then turned to gesture at Lesser, whom he introduced. “We are here to quiz you about an Ice Tarot.”
“The esoterica or the treasure map puzzle?”
Lesser chuffed out a breath, feeling as if he’d been punched in the belly. He glanced at Welle, who sat and said, judiciously, “Both?”
#
She knew scattered facts about the artist who’d done the uncolored pencil sketches, which had later been painted into colorful images by others. “He was destitute, stranded in Omaha, and trying to work up enough money to let him travel back to Boston, where he had family. That’s the story, anyway.”
“His name?”
Lesser pulled out a notebook and prepared to jot notes.
Ms. Caprielli frowned, then rifled through a few desk drawers before standing and heading for the door. Crossing the office, for a person of normal size, would have been a tight squeeze with the two men there, one sitting on the only guest chair, the other standing hunched over his notebook near the door. As it was she slipped by them like a stray thought of sex or food, saying something about fetching a book. Lesser thought it not unlike encountering a pixie.
She entered talking. “He’d worked as an anonymous illustrator for a publisher in Boston, Ticknor, Fields, Miller, no relation to the more famous Ticknor & Fields apparently. Deceptive naming, no doubt. They probably aped their competitor’s books appearance, too. In any case, anonymously or under many house names, he produced most of the interior illustrations, in many styles, until he was let go, charged with pilferage.”
“He stole from them?” Welle seemed to find that significant.
She squinted at the battered, tattered Moleskine. “Can’t read my own scrawl. Oh, okay, it could have been something as petty as taking a pencil home with him accidentally in his jacket pocket. Apparently he gambled, and wasn’t much liked. Drank, too. Typical artist, hm?” She laughed.
Lesser chimed in with a chuckle. He wondered what the point of any of this was, but Welle and Caprielli seemed to be on a wavelength, communicating beyond or past or under the words somehow, so he played along, refraining from interrupting with his own harder-edged questions.
“I took these notes during a seminar. Visiting scholar, very informed about nineteenth and early twentieth-century artists. Their migrations, there peregrinations, and their limitations. That’s actually one of my notes; nice phrase, huh?” She laughed again, with Welle, enjoying the ribbing she was giving herself.
“Pomposity becomes you.”
“It will if we let it take root. Okay, so. He did the so-called Snow Tarot after the blizzard of —“
“For whom? I take it he’d been hired.”
Caprielli and Welle both blinked at Lesser as if he’d been forgotten. His question he’d intended as a sharpening of details but instead it derailed her train of thought and scattered the cars over a wild strawberry patch as she and Welle huddled together giggling and whispering.
Welle stood and hugged Caprielli, who squeezed back hard enough to lift her feet from the floor. Glancing at Lesser, Welle said, “Okay,” and strode out of the office without a backward glance.
“Nice meeting you,” Lesser could not help saying, scurrying after his fearless leader. He wished he’d thought to list questions ahead of time, to make sure at least one of them stayed sober enough to gather useful details.
She’d never said the artist’s name, he realized.
Welle he found at the end of the hall, studying a Monet temporarily displayed near the base of the basement’s public stairs, pink marble matching the exterior of the building. “It fascinates me how he manages to imply so much detail without providing it.”
“Yeah, I’m beginning to feel the same way.”
Welle ignored Lesser’s pointed remark and up the stairs and outside they went, for a scuttle to the car in a light rain. “Where’d that come from?”
Once in the car, Welle told Lesser to start the engine and warm up the interior, to clear the steamed windows. He also put on the radio and, uncharacteristically, chose a hard rock station, which he turned up. As he met Lesser’s surprised expression, Welle raised a finger to his lips. In a low voice, he said, “We are being watched.”
“Should I kiss you or something?”
“Doubt that’d accomplish much. Why don’t you drive us back to the shop? We have some things to look up and discuss.”
“She managed to convey information to you?”
Welle smiled. “Of course. We have both lived under harsh regimes and know how to dissemble and talk past and around important things.”
Lesser thought he was learning but knew he was way behind the curve when it came to living in an informant’s society of surveillance, eavesdropping, and oppressive intrusions into privacy. He was not yet in spy-world mode.
The light rain had passed by the time they reached the Old Market area. It felt as if the rain had been a signal of some kind. Lesser thought of French movies and the smell of stale popcorn, a girl’s soft hands and gasps in the dark.
#
Light shines
On an upturned face,
Emphasizing
Darkness engulfing us.

Light shines
Down on us
From unreachable heights
To blind us.

Dark holds us
Secure in eternity’s
Inescapable embrace,
Our only certainty.

/ W B Kek

#

“This can’t be right.”
Welle looked up from the item he was studying, a hollow billiard ball from the Nineteenth Century in which Civil War messages had been hidden. “What?”
Lesser tapped his iPad screen. “I was researching a set of clay marbles found in Western Pennsylvania in the 1970s. Turned out to be maps on them, incised or embossed into, or onto,” he shook his head, “the clay. Possible maps of ambuscades, stashed munitions and supplies, travel routes, battle grounds—”
“Marbles.”
“Yep. Fired clay. They could’ve had little kids carrying them and never suspect information exchange and spying was going on. We’re thinking they were Union, from the few actual places we’ve managed to cross-reference.” He heaved a sigh. “Anyway, I was researching them when I came up with—“
“Wait.” Welle held up a palm. “How were these marbles read, used?”
A blink. “Oh. Well, you find the divot, and put your finger on it. That’s the top. You either ink the marble, or press it into clay or compressed soil. Then you roll the mable in increasing concentric circles, and it prints out a map.”
“That’s ridiculously complicated.”
Lesser grimaced. “I see clay balls and a mess in our near future.”
“Empirical testing is the only way to be sure.”
Another sigh, louder, more decisive, escaped Lesser. “Okay. Fine. We’ll make map marbles and test them. But listen, all right? When I was researching them I came across a mention of the Snow Cry Tarot.”
#
Like the marbles, the Snow Cry Tarot was said to be in the possession of one Pauline Elder Smeal, of Altoona, Pennsylvania, a one-time railroad town and home of the Boyer Candy Company, once bigger than Hershey’s. It was famous now for the Horseshoe Curve, the PRR Railroad Museum, and the “world’s best Big Mac” made at the McDonald’s at the Station Mall in Logan Valley, where once Logan Valley Boulevard, with miles of entrances and exits to stores and malls and plazas, had been the single most dangerous strip of road in the United States.
Among the art and artifacts collected by Mrs. Smeal, heiress to Elder Lumber fortune, had been the contents of the Altoona History Museum, which had gone under once the vaudeville circuit cut Altoona out of its loop. She bought the contents and sorted through them, finding one item of historical value in particular, a secretary desk with bookcase. A fine quality piece of tropical hardwoods would fetch upwards of two to five thousand dollars, but this one was ill-made of scrap pine, somewhat battered, and badly varnished.
It had, in fact, been a hotel piece, hard-used. Put together with both square black-iron nails and square dowels, with a dovetail-joint drawer and obviously hand-made scalloping that did not quite remain consistent, and crystal handles, with holes on top for some sort of faux Chippendale crown, it featured a sloping front for writing on. This lifted to reveal a large compartment with the pigeonholes missing. It all looked amateurish, a barely-able cabinetmaker’s attempt to copy a finer piece. Rustic described it.
The hotel it had come from, according to provenance papers, had been the Ebensburger, in Ebensburg, PA, a county seat thirty miles or so from Altoona, atop the third of the three highest peaks in the area, Cresson, Munster, and Ebensburg, with Anderson’s hill between the latter two. Being a county seat with a huge, fine Stanford White courthouse, Ebensburg’s hotel was large and, for the times, lavish, meaning the best available in that area.
It was to this place none other than Mary Todd Lincoln, sudden widow of Abraham Lincoln, 12th President, first to be assassinated, came by train in shock and mourning, and she was put into the suite of rooms that featured, among other furniture, the crappy writing desk. She used it while she was there, claimed the provenance papers, to write letters and perhaps diary entries.
It was of tremendous historical, if very little intrinsic, value.
In the flat, wide drawer, shoved into a back corner, a small wooden box, thought to be of cedar, silk lined, was found. On the silk lining lay a beautiful Tarot deck showing scenes of a blizzard, desperate heroism, pathetic failure, death, and revelation. The Snow Cry Tarot had been left in that desk.
#
“You think Mary Todd Lincoln left it?”
Lesser shrugged. “Can’t tell. But it makes sense that she’d have such a thing, given her overt superstition, and the deep shock of her husband being killed that way, right beside her. She likely caught blood, brain, and bone spatter.”
“He died in a house across the muddy street, in a back bedroom, on a bed far too short for him. He lingered almost twelve hours.”
Lesser nodded. “But he was shot right beside her, and she watched the assassin severely wound the brave military officer who was sitting with them. Booth used a large knife before he leaped to the stage. He’d fired a single-shot derringer of large caliber. Why he hadn’t used a revolver for extra shots, I never understood, but I suppose he was at pains to sneak in the weapon. Had to be small, so he could hide it.”
They contemplated things for a few moments, Welle tapping his fingers on the hollow billiard ball. “Guns, always guns,” Welle muttered. “But not always. Sometimes it’s snow.”
#
Welle broke a strained silence. “If we can trace the artist to this Ebensburg hotel.”
“The Ebensburger.” Lesser said it deadpan, mocking Welle’s oblique evasion of saying one extra syllable.
“Yes. Then we might be able to prove they could have crossed paths, Mrs. Lincoln and our artist.”
“Who’d be a lot easier to trace if we had his name.” Lesser was exasperated to be so temptingly close, yet so far. It was more maddening than the Jack the Ripper or Black Dahlia cases. Or Zodiac, for that matter.
Welle smiled. “I think his name is known to us.”
Lesser took a deep breath, trying to control his annoyance.
#
“Her name, not his.” Welle smiled as he let Lesser drive them back to the Freemason temple. “Sara Payne Beckwith. Illegitimate daughter of Susannah Payne, noted artist, mostly portraits. Her mother had a miserable, abused life mostly in Boston. Apparently a sympathetic comforter impregnated her and she gave the child away to Charles Allerton Beckwith, who may have been said provider of tea, sympathy, and sperm. He raised the infant as Sara. Sara took the name Payne when she ran off at fifteen, probably having heard the truth of her lineage. She headed west as so many did then. By all accounts she was a tomboy if not a mannish woman, and dressed in trousers. She made a living at various small-town newspapers as illustrator, having inherited an artistic bent.”
Lesser, swerving in to do a three-point park job, sighed. “How do you know all this?”
Welle held up his cell phone. “Pernille texted me some files. Her research paid off, and some folks at the Joslyn museum helped pin it all down. Apparently they have some of Sara Payne Beckwith’s sketches there, although not on display.”
Lesser felt superfluous. Had his time been wasted, trying to be of help in this inquiry? Remove him from the calculations and Welle would still have ended up cracking the case. “I just wish I could’ve—“
“Stop it.” Welle’s voice snapped sharply, a whip near the ear. He opened his door and struggled to get out despite the high curb. He used both elbows to lever himself onto his feet, grunting with an old man’s effort and succeeding before Lesser could hurry around the car to help him.
They entered and once again Welle was met with deferential welcome and escorted to the illustrious, ponderous Bernard. “A pleasure to see you again so soon, my friend.”
They went through other niceties, another handshake, and this time Welle introduced Lesser as his “assistant”, making Lesser wince and think Oh, an upgrade from Mere Slave, then.
Welle and Bernard spoke partly in code, but Lesser followed the gist, which amounted to Welle demanding Bernard come clean and hand over the goods, more or less. What goods, Lesser could not tell.
Bernard, showing great reluctance, waddled to his desk and pressed a button on a many-buttoned telephone console. “Sir?” chirped a young man’s voice.
“Enter, please.”
“Yes, sir.”
In a few seconds, via a door that Lesser had taken for a book case until it opened, came a slender, fit-looking man in his twenties, who walked with a spring and gazed at them as if daring them to find the slightest fault. No doubt he’d pounce to a vicious defense if one had such temerity. He wore a tailored dark suit, white shirt, and muted gray and yellow tie.
“Lysle, please.” Bernard withdrew an envelope from a desk drawer and handed it to his secretary, personal assistant, and amanuensis. “Give these gentlemen all due assistance, on my word.”
“Sir.”
Lesser swore Lysle clicked heels as he gave a perfunctory bow and accepted the envelope with both hands. All he lacks, Lesser told himself, is white gloves.
Lysle broke the red wax seal, its black ribbon rippling to show it was of silk, then opened the envelope, a rich, thick paper of #10 size, and took out three sheets of creamy vellum. A spiky hand written in fountain pen with an italic nib left margins ten centimeters on all sides, as if pooled into the center of the paper.
Conspicuous consumption, wasteful excess, and impressive quality all in one, Lesser thought, giving Welle a glance and feeling a toe or two out of his depth. It was as if he’d been transported back in time to some court intrigue.
Welle, for his part, stood watching, calm but alert, even as Bernard lolled in his creaking leather swivel chair, looking disinterested.
Reading the document, Lysle did not so much as fidget a lip or flutter an eyelid. Waxed to the third sheet a key-like item waited. Having scanned the third sheet’s scribbled instructions, Lysle re-folded the papers, put them back into the envelope, and slide the packet into his inside jacket pocket. He gazed directly into Welle’s cosmic soul for the smallest fraction of obligated time, clicked heels softly again, and pivoted. He led the way to the door.
Welle followed, gesturing for Lesser, who, wanting out of there, did not have to be told or encouraged.
They entered a gilded cage-type elevator set into an alcove Lesser hadn’t noticed. They descended silently but for the mechanism’s sensuous groans past the ground floor to a garage level. Lysle led them to a Lincoln town car, opening the back door and gesturing.
Welle shooed Lesser in first, who ducked through and scooted over. Both men could have brought dates and still had plenty of elbow room on that back seat, which was upholstered in black leather that showed no wear or cracking.
Lysle drove them smoothly, professional chauffeur duties apparently not outside his wheelhouse. Up a ramp, into an alley, and onto a dedicated lane that gradually merged with Dodge. He drove them only a short distance, turning onto Farnham at 13th Street, to the Gene Leahy Mall area, a park with a canal at the bottom of a ravine, a plank bridge, a big permanent three-slide play area for kids in the shadow of the Burlington building, and walkways around both upper street level and lower canal level. It was a pleasant bit of greenery right in the middle of old downtown Omaha. High buildings loomed south and west, while older, shorter buildings stood like proud dowagers to the north as if guarding the Hollings Performing Arts Center, and the larger Mall of the Americas park and the Missouri River sprawled to the east.
At the center of the north side of the Mall’s three block length stood an arch, a salvaged architectural folly, one of two grand arched entranceways from a U S Bank building remodeled in 1979, that now served as a grand gateway into the lower areas of the park. Ohio Blue Stone, twenty feet tall, with a squat column at eye level on either side, weather-worn yet dignified, the arch is impressive and gives ambience to a comfortable public area for families to stroll and take some shade. An ice cream vendor often set up a cart by the arch but was not there that day, as dusk began to fall and a chill took possession of the breezes.
Under the right-hand column a bronze plaque told the history of the arch’s origin and dedicated the park. Lysle parked the town car near this arch, then got out, followed by Welle and Lesser. Approaching the bronze plaque, Lysle glanced left and right. Seeing no pedestrians particularly near-by, the Mason took out the envelope, opened the document, and with a bit of difficulty prized the metal object from the third sheet’s wax.
It proved to be a key, which fit a hole in one side of the plaque, which could then be slid out like the front of a drawer. Behind it, in the drawer, lay a metal box wrapped in newspaper itself covered in thick wax. Lysle took this out, handed it to Welle, and slid the drawer back into place. A faint click was heard.
“Listen,” a man’s baritone said as a large man in a black suit, wearing a bowler, strolled by. When Lesser looked toward the man’s face, he found him gone, as if he’d ducked into one of the cars, or had scrambled down the grass slope toward the canal, or had simply vanished.
Welle, holding the wax-covered box with both hands, ignored the dark man. Once back in the town car, being driven back to the Masonic Lodge, Welle said to Lesser, who was now examining the box, testing its heft, shaking it gently, “Listen can mean to pay attention to what one is hearing, or it can mean to obey.”
This gave Lesser a shiver and he handed the box back to Welle.
They walked out of the cage elevator and left the Masonic Lodge by the route they’d followed to reach Bernard’s office. No one escorted them and Lesser did not notice where Lysle went once they left the elevator.
In their own vehicle, Lesser felt a kind of pressure around him lessen, as if a storm front had come through. “That’s the Snow Cry Tarot in that box, isn’t it?”
“I presume so, yes. We will know when we open it, which we’ll do carefully. Slowly. After we eat some dinner, which I imagine Pernille is fussing over now.”
“She takes great care of you.”
“As do you, my friend. Colleagues do such things.”
#
Welle’s wife did indeed have supper waiting, a meal of vegetarian meat loaf, scalloped potato slices, haricot vert, and a dessert of sliced peaches, pears, apples, and cherries over a small piece of shortbread.
After coffee, they all three went to Welle’s study, where the wax-covered box waited on his cleared desk, on the green blotter.
As they entered, they found Lysle sitting in an easy chair.
Welle did not act surprised. “Shall we?”
Lysle did not so much as nod, but he stood and stayed well back, observing.
Welle sat and used an X-acto knife to slide the wax so it could be opened by pulling apart the top and bottom halves. After this, he unwrapped the newspaper, which was dated to 1893. It was pliant and as-if fresh but quickly began yellowing and going brittle. Inside this wrapping lay a rose-wood box, inlaid with mother-of-pearl in a checkerboard pattern, with a triskel design in silver on its clasp.
“This is it.” Welle’s fingers trembled slightly as he opened the box.
Inside, a black velvet bag lay, cinched at the top. He opened it. It was lined with red silk that held a large Tarot deck depicting all Major Arcana cards in a blizzard motif.
It was Pernille who noticed there was an extra card, one depicting a dog crouching in obvious frozen misery under a pine tree, icicles descending from its mouth like extra fangs, its ribs visible, its eyes rimed, the tail tucked under. It was vivid and appalling. “You can feel how it’s suffering,” Pernille remarked.
Welle’s voice held less pity, more academic detached interest. “That means either there is another card missing or there are seventy-nine in this deck, making it very unusual indeed.”
“It’s the dog that’s warning the Fool of the cliff in the first card,” Lesser said.
Perhnille nodded. “It is. Same dog. Alone now, suffering, taking insufficient shelter.”
Kings, queens, knights, and knaves all twisted in frozen agony, each delineated so delicately, with such artful and telling detail, that the illusion of life, or at least of photography, kept flickering in each observer’s mind’s eye, even though the art itself was obviously ink and paint. Coins, Sticks, Bowls, and Knives were depicted as frozen, snow-covered, or blown in icy wind.
On the back of each card an eye-confusing repetitive pattern of diamonds, triangles, and circles wove a spell all its own. “You could use this as a mandala, it practically drags you by the face into meditation.” Pernille blew a puff of air. “Makes me dizzy, even.”
It was Lesser who pointed at the window and said, “Look.”
Feathery flakes of snow the size of a baby’s palm drifted densely through the night air to touch the ground with infinite lightness.
Welle nodded. “Please, the good camera.”
Pernille crossed the study, opened a wall cabinet, and took out a .35mm Pentax with a straight lens. She also fetched a metal stand.
They arranged the camera so it faced the desk from the stand’s grip, at a distance of a foot. A desk lamp shined light from an angle, and each Tarot card was set under the lens, which was adjusted to capture each card in precise focus.
They took two pictures of the front and back of each card.
Once finished, they repeated the process with a digital SLR Pernille used for her art preservation and inventory work. She also insisted upon video of the deck being fanned, then each card being dealt.
Welle stopped her when she wanted to throw a spread and do a reading.
#
When the cards had been catalogued and recorded, Welle, still wearing his cotton archive gloves over a set of silicon kitchen gloves, put the deck back into its silk cocoon, then into the rose-wood box. “We’ll use today’s newspaper.”
Lesser fetched that day’s copy of the Omaha World-Herald from the den. He also took on the duty of videoing the process of re-sealing the package.
Welle let Pernille, who declared herself much better at it, to wrap the box in the front page. Once that was done, they discussed covering it in paraffin wax. They decided to do so, and Pernille first wrapped the newspapered box in a layer of plastic wrap, then a sealed plastic bag, before lowering the whole thing into the pot of heated paraffin. They waited for it to solidify, then prized it from the pot and shaped it into a rounded rectangle.
“Not bad at all.” Welle was pleased with the result and took some pictures.
“Now what?”
Lysle, all but forgotten, stepped from a shadowed corner and held out the key, which Welle accepted. “Thank you.”
A slight click of heels, a brief hint of a bow.
#
As they stepped outside Lesser’s left heel went out from under him. He caught himself on the railing. “Whew, slick. Getting deep out here already.”
“It will keep snowing until we put this back.” Welle said this as if to himself, a musing pleased inadvertently as a small cloud of condensed breath.
Pernille accompanied them.
Lysle once again became unaccounted for, leaving no footprints.
This time Lesser drove, with the other two in the back seat. It made Lesser feel like a chauffeur and he tried to emulate Lysle’s smooth driving. On the slick streets it was hardly possible. He never lost control but never felt fully as if he had much, either. Their city lay under an unseasonably early blanket of fluffy snow that lifted into flurries and swirls with the slightest breeze.
Remembering the Snow Cry Blizzard, Lesser shivered.
#
They stood before the arch. As Welle placed the key and gently jiggled it to figure out how the lock mechanism worked, Lysle appeared from around the back of the arch. Lesser swore there must be tunnels riddling Omaha’s foundations, for him to get around so quickly and silently. Beside him, Pernille held the box.
When the plaque loosened, Welle began to pull it.
“Remove the key first.” This from Lysle.
Welle started, nodded, and took the key out, which Lysle immediately took.
Pernille stepped up and set the box into the revealed drawer.
A sound fell from the sky, at first distant and soft, but swelling until they heard children, dozens of them, maybe hundreds, crying out in fear, lost in terror, wracked by pain. It lasted for a few seconds, so withering a sound that Welle nearly toppled, to be caught by Pernille, while Lesser covered his ears and crouched down, as if expecting a chunk of night to fall on them.
Welle’s shaking hand pushed the drawer closed. It shut with a faint metallic click that silenced the crying from above.
At the same instant, the last of the snow fell.
All stopped, silence pausing reality to take a breath, and then the normal murmur and susurration of city sounds returned, flocking like the Monarchs that used a nearby town, Papillion, as a migratory rest stop.
#
Welle arranged for a facsimile Snow Cry Tarot deck to be printed by one of the major game-card manufacturers, on a standing small-lot order, and ARCANA became the only shop known to carry such an item.
So few knew of it that Welle had to renew the order only every other three years, which was fine by him. He’d retrieved a bit of esoteric history, revived a version of it to be proliferated, and contained its secrets inviolate.
For her part, Pernille wrote a treatise on the art, and researched the mysterious artist further, discovering a full, rich, varied life well worth a full biography.
Lesser contented himself with writing an account of their quest to be included in each deck sold, a personal contribution to a larger, more subtle, more complex unseen world.

/// /// ///

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Lovecraft at the Beach by Gene Stewart

Oliver Hollis Howich, archaeologist
Trevin Moore Auster, crank preacher
Janet Hampton (Howich), student
Olive Jane Howich, illustrator, artist

#

Howich squatted between the door jambs picking at the rotten wood saddle, on the threshold. How many people had trodden on that piece of wood? Scraped mud off their boots? Was it stubborn as a result? Did it resent his prodding, his prying, his efforts to excavate it?
He wanted to get a crowbar and pry the thing free. Whether he smashed it or not, time was running out. Every aspect of this project had to be done in a hurry, yet the old oak plank, fibrous and stubborn, was taking too long to detach from its interlocking mortis-and-tenon joints.
He intended to slip one end out from under the door jamb, to see if his theory held true. It refused to let him do it with the care and patience even urban archaeology under time constraints demanded. Worse, the back of his neck and scalp kept tingling. He felt watched. Rushed. Pressured.
Around him students from three local colleges performed the tasks he’d assigned them to varying degrees of care and skill. A couple of their professors were pitching in, too, perhaps sniffing out a chance for co-authorship on a paper, should one result. Their assistance was appreciated. They kept the students in line. Howich had no time for grad-school hijinx, let alone academic rivalries or scholarly sparring.
This project was do it now or not at all.
#
Two weeks from that moment, the tilted old house, thought but not proven to have been the abode of a woman accused of witchery, who had vanished mysteriously only to haunt local legends, would be torn down. Land for several hundred meters in all directions, including a root cellar that had been there since Pilgrim times, would be graded flat. Trees would be cut, chopped, chipped, and burned. Zoning and boundaries would be readjusted. Destruction of environment and negation of history would wreak havoc so some self-important corporate concern, having bribed the city council for permits, could erect another lucrative strip mall to help blight the suburban landscape. That root cellar alone might yield textbook-changing artifacts were its floor to be excavated professionally. Imagine how many small items or broken pottery jars of preserves had been dropped there over decades.
He’d argued strongly for an archaeological dig on the whole area but had been granted only limited permissions, and very limited time. “Gotta get things going before the first hard frost,” one downeaster had proclaimed, sounding like Walter Brennan at his most officious.
Howich’s rational explanations, followed by impassioned speeches, had not dissuaded the council members, most a lot of well-off business types from the same cul-de-sac. They called the old cabin the Shack, ignoring local lore that had always referred to the place as the Witch’s Cabin. Contempt for any chance at an interesting history won the day and the vote. “This ain’t about tourism, they got that up t’Salem.”
Not that the rickety structure did much for aesthetics, unless Samhain dominated one’s general mood. Howich had retreated from the fight with just a few weeks in Autumn to perform a quick-and-dirty inventory dig, tossing most of the tenets of archaeology over his grimy shoulder. It felt like reverting to the old days of tomb robbers and outright looting by thieves. “At least you got us that much, Icy,” one of his colleagues had told him, reaching up to deliver a manly-if-tentative pat to his shoulder.
Icy was a nickname used carefully on Howich. It meant I.C. and stood for Ichabod Crane, Washington Irving’s gangly school teacher character from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Most figured the referent used more often among Howich’s colleagues was the Walt Disney animation, not the literary reference, but either served. In that bumptious cartoon depiction, the satire, which Irving had aimed as much at vanity and intellectual pride as ectomorphism, came through vibrantly.
It was a cruel nickname.
Now he decided to be icy in fact. He would become cold-blooded, heartless, and unemotional in order to ramrod this truncated project so it gained as much information as feasible. Embrace and transform the insult.
A tall, slender, Saturnine man, lantern-jawed, with a heavy brow, deep-set eyes, and large, competent hands, Oliver Hollis Howich still winced when he caught the stray name Ichabod Crane mentioned by a gaggle of passing students. “Ichabod Crane over there said we should,” was all he tended to hear but he knew they referred to him; he’d gotten it all his life, after all.
He lived the dark side of Disney cartoons, he often joked. Washington Irving might have been amused at the staying power of his caricature, along with the sting of his observations, but Howich was not. It reminded him how often he’d been left in the lurch by girls he’d liked, who found more human-looking male things to be with. It reminded him he did not fit in anywhere. If he entered a tavern, all heads swiveled, all mouths twitched. “They’ll even need to dig a special grave for you,” one uncle had brayed. “So you fit.”
That uncle he left in the past, a suicide by shotgun who’d blown his own head off in a shallow grave he’d dug one rainy night, in his own back yard, having squabbled with his wife. He’s shown her.
With such pyrrhic victories many lives ended, he knew. History had taught him that. Grand gestures history found petty, sweeping actions viewed later through a lens of character belittlement brought it all to human scale.
Digging into the past suited Howich, though. Decoding the safely dead fascinated him. He became an archaeologist who specialized in what were called urban digs but which actually focused more on small town New England and other East Coast villages. Not urban, not suburban, so much as the edge of pastoral; terminology wrestled him to a draw in most of his monographs. He knew labels did not change contents.
Feeling cursed to such a life had not drained joy from it.
#
This door saddle, just a piece of wood to mark the threshold between outside and inside, proved sullen. Worse, it was delaying him. He imagined hands under it, clinging with a woman’s desperation to save her child.
He decided to put aside his nut-pick and brush, abandon gentle archaeological training, and give it a tug. This devolved into a long pull with a few yanks tossed in. He wondered if the term Yankees referred to them always pulling at things, always trying to seize things.
Howich grunted, wiggling the old wood, trying to tilt it so the tenon would slip free of the mortis. As he did so he kept looking behind himself, or into the cabin, sure someone disapproving was looming over him.
No one stood or squatted or worked nearer to him than a dozen meters.
Coming loose unexpectedly, the door jamb flew out of his grasp while Howich rolled backwards, sprawling onto his back with a cry of surprise. The plank clunked and slid away from him, almost as if kicked.
He ignored the laughter and catcalls. While on the ground, he rolled to perch on his left shoulder, examining the rectangular hole left by the jamb’s absence. It went down deeper than he’d expected. It looked bigger, as if the jamb had served as a lid for a hidey-hole.
“Ah.” He reached into a shirt pocket and took out an LED flashlight in the form of a pen. Holding it into the hole, he found a cavity big enough for a footlocker. “Treasure chest.” He whispered this like a spell, a mantra of hope. Squinting revealed a book in one corner, a shoe in the opposite corner, and in the center of the space’s floor a large wooden spatula or spoon. The kind of thing you’d call a spirtle to stir a cauldron with, he thought, gooseflesh erupting. Treasure indeed, from an antiquarian’s view.
Leaning down, he held his iPhone at awkward angles, almost dropping it a few times, in order to take a series of quick-and-dirty in situ shots for documentation. He made a mental note to back his telescoping selfie-stick among his equipage. “Oh, Gela,” he whispered into the hole, before pushing himself to his feet and waving some students over to share his find and to begin excavating it immediately. “Thank you.”
#
Gela, the woman who’d lived in the shack, had been Angela Woodstone, widow of John Woodstone. She’d been beautiful, young, and happy for only three years before her lumberman husband was killed in a logging accident. Another logger’s tree had fallen at the wrong angle and John Woodstone had be crushed. From that point on Gela eked a living selling her services as seamstress, occasionally as a midwife, and generally doing anything she could to make an honest, if hardscrabble, living even as she continued to plant, tend, and harvest crops and livestock, tote water, gather firewood from deadfall, and other of the endless chores necessary to sustain life in a damp, cold, unforgiving environment.
Being part of a small settlement in New England did little good for her, and arguably did her harm in the long run.
Gradually the townsfolk, most likely envious competitors for the scant business to be had by women in those days, along with sexually-frustrated men and jealous wives, all lusting for more land so they could grow more, started rumors that Gela, as she was called, was a witch. Must be, to stay so young-looking, so pretty, and so vibrant when all around her struggled to make any kind of life for themselves.
That she struggled right along with them, and alone, seemed never to cross their dark, narrow minds.
That Gela was a redhead did not help. That her pale skin glowed in moonlight as she was glimpsed attending errands late into the night did not help. “Oh, look, the ghost lady, out stealing baby breath from unattended cradles.” Men watched, responding more silently to her slender figure and cascade of coppery locks.
Most of all, what did not help was her heritage as a hearth witch, which her mother and grandmothers had taught her back in what ever home-country she claimed. Most likely Scotland or Ireland had been her place of origin; the colony’s records for that time had been destroyed in a flood and not even her maiden name was known.
Gela disappeared one stormy night, never to be seen again, and villagers whispered that she’d been called to Hell by the Devil Himself; turned into a raven to fly off for a witch’s gathering; blasted by lightning as she danced naked under the storm-riven Moon; carried off by God’s vengeful angels, who had grown weary of her witchy ways.
Blood found on her bed, in droplets leading to the door, and smeared on the door jamb, were taken as proof of her witchery, as obvious signs of dark conjuring and the random hurling of curses. Gossip took over, further blurring fact into the shape of legend.
Further obscuring and excusing rape and murder.
Had she cursed them? Had she planted one last seed in their ignorance and superstition? Howich hoped so as he read the scant account of her life.
#
In the box-shaped hole under the doorway they found Gela’s Book of Shadows, a hand-written compendium of recipes, spells, observations, schedules, calculations, confessional poetry, diary entries, and other writings presented in an educated hand, with concise word choice, in sepia ink on low-acid linen paper that had survived remarkably well. Foxing from molds and lichens had marred some of the edges and corners of pages but most were intact, with only a few worm holes. It was surprisingly supple, and could be leafed-through, had anyone dared.
The bookmark was a raven’s feather quill, ink still staining its sharpened tip. The ink was rust-colored and Howich imagined it blood, a bubble of romanticism he burst instantly, remembering his promise to be icy cold on this dig. Efficiency brooked no wool-gathering.
Also from the threshold compartment came a wooden spatulate spoon, a spirtle used to stir porridge and anything else cooked in a cast-iron cauldron, the common way to warm food back then, other than a griddle or frying pan. Howich remembered his own grandmother using a cast-iron skillet and a spatulate spoon of similar design to make him scrambled eggs or oat cakes. He wondered if Gela had been able to afford a skillet.
In the corner opposite the Book of Shadows they found a shoe, a simple slipper design, made of now-shriveled leather. In its toe they found half a coin, broken so its center was jagged. Howich wondered how it had been broken so cleanly without leaving either a clamp mark or a hammer smear.
#
Howich knew old shoes were often placed in walls or under thresholds in houses built around Gela’s time as charms to ward off bad luck or to attract good luck. Often they were children’s shoes, thought to be a charm for fertility. Having lots of kids was a necessity back then, or the family would not survive long. Smickling, when a barren woman tried on a mother’s shoes to attract a pregnancy, also accounted for some of the hidden shoes.
Spiritual caches or middens, his profession called them, or in plain talk concealed footwear. Most scholars, being dour types, figured shoes in walls or under floors or above ceilings to be wards against witchcraft or demons. It was thought the evil spirits would fly in and be caught, drawn by the scent of a good worn shoe. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of concealed shoes had been discovered over the years, usually during refurbishment of dilapidated historic structures.
Few had been found with anything in them, so this was a significant find for Howich’s dig. He suppressed a thrill of excitement and pride, feeling validated in his arguments for digging there.
By the time they’d carefully extracted and examined the items, Howich discovered he’d been working 19 hours straight. Yawning, he declared victory and headed for his bunk in his tiny trailer, pulled by his wheezy but reliable 17-year-old Volvo station wagon. The war wagon, most called it, with his trailer given the sobriquet of Coffin Hotel. Watching a man as gangly as he climbing in and out of it amused those lucky enough to observe it. Others merely imagined, and laughed the louder.
As others had done with Gela, they looked past his poverty any way they could, as if to guard against inadvertent compassion.
#
Howich woke, startled by a nightmare. Something about him as a child, unable to keep up with his family as they hurried through a crowded airport in a country he did not understand. A sad-eyed, beautiful woman with amber hair had taken his hand in her icy grip, leading him to an edge…
Anxiety dreams preyed on his sleep at least three nights a week so he tried to roll over and go back to the realm of Morpheus but realized a trickle of dawn shivered him, despite it being still dark outside. He could sense birds stirring, leaves fluffing in a morning breeze as the land inhaled fresh scents from the sea. He decided to get up.
Time corroded accomplishment with every second his project sat unattended. It demanded to be finished as best he could.
He did not count the skeleton crew on night shift as much more than guards, to keep local kids from pilfering or vandalizing the site. This made him eager to get back, kick in some genuine effort, even if only his own.
#
“Gela?” The reporter, a hefty young guy with a beard, wearing shorts and a tee shirt emblazoned with Black Sabbath’s 13, pronounced it “hee-lah” as in Gila Monster. Others used a hard g, as in garbage.
“JELL-uh,” the patient intern said. Pert but falling short of perky, blonde in a natural way, with calm brown eyes and compact curves, the intern, one of the college student volunteers, added, “Short for Angela.”
“Oh, of course. Angela Woodbine. Duh.”
“Woodstone.”
#
Howich thought about the scant media coverage his dig had received. Usually, urban digs got some TV cameras. Local stations needed filler. Local egos needed reassurance that it wouldn’t take long, wouldn’t impede things, wouldn’t in short affect them in any way beyond annoyance. Local gawkers needed to see, to trample, to pilfer.
This time ‘round, one local newspaper reporter had shown up. One single reporter, and from print no less. He’d watched the intern give her interview without identifying himself and she’d been sharp enough not to point him out. The reporter went away half smitten and perhaps three-quarters informed. An hour after filing a column inch, he’d forgotten all about it. How many eyes would spot the filler item did not concern him.
Now, walking from his 1960s vintage aqua-and-white Scotty trailer, parked at the periphery of the dig in a beach visitor’s lot, a gravel oblong grudgingly conceded by the township from otherwise precious (undeveloped) scrubland at the edge of a drainage ditch, from the culvert of which dire smells wafted when the wind changed. Great place to camp, he thought.
Howich approached the shack, the Witch’s Cabin, a leaning parallelogram looming in pre-dawn dark. A student, probably male, slumped with his back against one of the door jambs, forehead on knees, snoring heartily. Howich smiled and nicknamed him Private Slovik, a referent most wouldn’t get. He was about to whisper something spooky into the kid’s ear as a prank when a gleam of light caught his peripheral vision. It looked to be up the hill by the root cellar, or maybe further.
Was someone prowling around?
Suspecting locals, if not a pair of his volunteers doing a little New England sparking before work, he left Slovik asleep and hiked at a stroll toward the glimmer. Muted, it glowed faintly green or sky blue, like one of those glow-sticks kids used at Hallowe’en.
As he walked he kept hearing voices in the surf muttering just beneath comprehension. This susurrus plucked at his nerves, a warning unheard.∂
He reached the root cellar and found no one there. He poked his head in, using his iPhone’s Flashlight feature to scan the cramped interior. It was empty so he went dark again before exiting.
As his eyes re-adjusted, he caught another glimpse of the glow, this time near the tree-line. Had an intruder retreated into the woods? He decided to push his pursuit a little further, walking farther up-slope, his gaze on the trees. They stood still in pre-dawn hush as wind held its breath and birds and insects ceased making noise, as if to avoid disturbing the sunrise, or scaring it away. It would remain dark where Howich walked because, although he faced east, he had a series of hills casting shadows over him. This made it a good place to hide, were one wont to do so.
A gleam caught his attention again, beside a tree that stood alone seven meters beyond the forest’s edge. Called the Hanging Tree by locals, it was a twisted Chestnut Oak, black and green with age, a blanket of moss carpeting where its shade fell, gnarled roots in a death grip. The roots reminded Howich of arthritic fingers clasped in dire worry. The ground was littered with spiny green and brown chestnut husks, like sea urchins rolled from the sea to worship a Druidic deity. Most were split in half, their nut gone to squirrel or chipmunk stashes or bellies.
As he approached this place, Howich saw a slender woman leaning against the tree trunk. She was nude and her pale skin reflected the last of the stars as they unhurriedly winked off at the advent of dawn.
“Are you okay? Can I help you?” Howich was not sure if he’d interrupted a tryst and stayed well back, so no companion would leap out to attack him. He peered at her face, trying to see if she might be stoned.
She had long auburn hair and ethereal green eyes. Ethereal because they held a glint despite the dark, because they held his attention so that the rest of her, although lovely, remained undefiled in his mind by detail.
Dryad? he thought.
Gela?
She smiled at him.
He wavered, dizzy.
She pointed down between two particularly arthritic gnarls of root. Her gaze never left his.
He blinked and she was not there anymore.
A sound of loud surf was the first noise to return, followed by leaves and branches trembling in breezes, birds, the distant sound of traffic and occasional snippets of people’s voices.
Thinking she’d ducked behind the trunk, Howich ran around the tree three full times, his left shoulder scraping mossy bark when he tripped repeatedly on roots. He glanced toward the woods; she could not have reached them that quickly, he would have seen her running. He fell once, sprawling onto soft moss, and thought to roll onto his back, to gaze up into the branches, to see if she’d perhaps climbed up. No sign of her showed and the lowest branch was twice his height from the ground.
Getting up, he brushed himself off and frowned. She’d pointed to a specific spot. Now that she was gone he wondered why.
He marked the spot with a quarter from his pocket. It gleamed like molten silver. He strolled down the hill to the cabin, where his sentry now stood smoking a cigarette, in direct defiance of the rules. At least he’d stopped snoring. “Put it out and pocket the butt,” he told the kid, striding toward a van-load of students just arriving with their teacher to start a crack-of-dawn stint. He greeted the teacher and discussed briefly an offer to borrow battery lanterns to make the dig 24/7, then assigned everyone to various grids. He tried to keep comfortable couples apart, to cut down on distractions, conversation, and potential squabbles.
Two of the students, a pair of girls with fashionable plastic glasses and serious demeanors, he held back. “You two get a special project. Grab your stuff.” Without explanation, he crooked a finger and led them up the hill past the root cellar to the tree. He showed them the coin, gleaming frozen now in the fresh sunlight of another day. “Excavate that and let me know if you find anything. Let me know right away.”
He knew digging where a dream remnant had led him — he’d been sleepy and had projected a dream image, he’d decided — was anything but scientific, but he knew, too, how many of his colleagues, in search of buried shards and scraps of civilization past, had used dowsing, divining, and pendulums. Any edge they could get was worth trying, they figured. Failure was commonplace but the rewards for success could be tremendous, so a gamble on mumbo-jumbo, or a quiet inner conviction of one’s ESP, was worth a chance. Some spent budget money on Remote Viewers; all he’d done is see a naked woman by a tree.
One of the girls in glasses came running up to him a few hours later, breathless and excited. He’d kept an eye on them, gazing up the hill every few seconds it seemed, even as he supervised the main dig around and under the floor of the cabin, which actually had a floor, unlike most from that time frame. No dirt floors for lumbermen.
As for the tree dig, as he thought of it, the two unauthorized students, he’d watched both stand, do a small dance, and part as one of them bolted toward him down the slope, stumbling and nearly going ass-over-teakettle in her haste. She was obviously elated at having found something.
His heart started hammering, his mouth got dry. Glancing up at the other girl standing guard, he blinked. Two figures stood there, or so he’d initially thought. As he looked closer, there was only the student.
The runner came straight at him full-tilt and smashed into him, grabbing his arms to hold them both up. She was out of breath and smiling.
They’d found, she announced, a skull. “And something else,” she squealed, delight overwhelming her for a moment as the other diggers gathered to see what the thrill might be.
#
It was not just a human skull, it was female, she was sure of it, she’d studied osteology, and inside its mouth, half a coin.
It matched the half from the shoe perfectly. She was sure of it.
Had Gela been hanged from the oak? Had she slid her identifying half-coin into her mouth just before the noose slipped over her head, to tighten around her throat and prevent her from swallowing ever again?
Or had she fled the village’s cruelty, only to find a hardscrabble existence in the wilderness until she succumbed. Had someone found her bones in the forest and buried them under the ostracized oak, which stood beyond the forest itself, forever isolated?
Howich tried theory after theory, always returning to the beautiful green eyes and slender, glowing body leaning against the tree, smiling at him, pointing to the skull’s hiding place. “We might never have found you, Gela.” He wished DNA tests could prove a link with surviving descendants but she had died without issue. Nor did they know her maiden surname. No family members could be located without that connection.
Too bad, he thought. It would have sealed the likelihood that the skull was Gela herself, even as the coin linked skull to cabin.
He kept coming back to murder, though. Social justice or privately administered, her death and burial under the oak had not been her own doing. Despised as a witch, she had been a target.
Susurration from the surf seemed to affirm his thoughts.
Then there was the coin, cut or broken in half. Who had worn or owned the other half? Why had it been buried in the shoe? Had she perhaps lost a love child, for whom the half-coin in the shoe stood? Were there in fact descendants after all?
Or was it a lover’s token, or a link to another like herself, an outcast and witch. Had she used it the way teenaged BFFs wear halves of broken lockets that, when joined, form a heart charm?
That seemed far too shallow for the Gela of his imagination.
Archaeology was less the study of the past as an attempt to conjure lives lost to our collective memory. The more vividly such lives could be reacquired, the more complex and sound our culture became. Or so Howich kept telling himself, frustrated by the lack of story in the scant details.

II

“You have opened the lock and joined the coin.
“You have disturbed the sleep of the witch.
“You are to blame for the foetid curse
“That shall fall upon us all.”

#

That was the message Howich received from the small protest group that showed up just after news of his finds made the rounds. Local, eccentric, and scruffy, the dozen or so people, instantly dubbed The Coven by the students, had a self-educated bumpkin arrogance as they stood silently glaring from a strictly-legal perch at the edge of the gravel parking lot.
They reminded Howich of those Bible-smitten protestors who’d gather to stare and pray down abortion clinics or pagan shops. If looks could set fires, he thought, there’d be a town-threatening bonfire.
The message had been hand delivered to Howich in hand-written letter form, in an envelope handed over by a child of eight or so who had an unsettlingly mature gaze. Howich had at first hoped it was a small contribution to their dig fund; perhaps an invitation to speak at a local elementary school assembly.
Not hardly, he saw at once, reading the spiky works.
They’d been written in a reddish-brown ink no doubt intended to bring blood to mind. It recalled the ink dried on the raven quill tip he’d found in Gela’s Book of Shadows. It had been scrawled in barely-contained anger on a greasy-feeling fake vellum that must have cost them a few meals to purchase. He almost felt sorry for them.
So hungry for something, he thought, but what do they pine for? Power? An imagined link to some made-up deity? The significance of being right in a world their hate and fear found so wrong? Not even the Amish went this far as they grimly pretended to refuse to participate in modern life despite being integrally a part of it, one of several billion facets.
Howich felt a cosmic chill ripple through space-time, like the laugh of a madden beast of chaos at the core of it all.
#
Their leader was The Reverend Trevin Moore Auster, as the signature on the letter made clear with a flourish of swoops and whirls. The wavering lines shrieked both self-importance and insecurity poised on the point of collapse.
Tall and ramrod straight, eyes fiercely black in iris, as black as his scowl, with big farmer hands, a frown that could wreck a semi, and a full if patchy salt-and-pepper beard, Auster put central casting to shame in looks. It was wardrobe that failed him. He wore torn jeans and a Hawaiian shirt in tones of fuchsia, magenta, and lime green. He wore white socks and sandals. With unblinking stark staring contrast, his hair was cut like a TV news anchor’s, a coif under which to deliver doom in dulcet tones. The medallion he wore resembled the Sherwin-Williams Paint logo, a globe with something dripping over or from it. Puking World, one of the students called it.
Howich figured Auster for a house painter gone mad from fumes and did not send a reply. Ignoring such fringe rebukes served science best.
Didn’t it?
#
Another envelope was delivered to Howich as he walked among the dig sites during change to a night shift. It was handed to him by a student, a shy red-head with big glasses, as so many seemed to sport at the time. Fashion, he mused, was a cruel, unimaginative echo; she’d be cute if not for the windshields she wore. Nice green eyes, transformative smile, saddled with birth-control glasses. Self-sabotage.
“This was on one of the sifting screens.”
Thanking her, he slipped the envelope into the cover of his iPad and continued on his survey of the grid sites, making sure transitions were smooth between crews, ensuring all knew what to do, and answering any questions that arose. We left off here, continue there. Watch out for this shard of pottery, it’s flaking.
Howich had quite a few scattered digs, none much bigger than a bathtub, covering spots where rumor, legend, or old survey maps marked spots Gela’s life might have touched. He had also used a ground-penetrating radar unit on loan from a local university to scan for clusters of artifacts.
At the well, no longer there, no sign of water remaining, they’d found a semi-circle of stones. “Must’ve been filled in.” That had been the initial assessment; wells were sometimes filled in when moved. Now it looked as if part of the stone lining had collapsed. “Wonder if the earth shifted,” someone mused, prompting another student to sneer, “No earthquakes around here.” Howich paused to explain subsidence, the motion of seams underground, and other possible causes other than an earthquake for ground to move.
Standing on solid ground was a delusion, like most of life. He thought about the excellent historical, genealogical mystery novel, The Search For Joseph Tully by William H. Hallahan; the classics exploring memory such as Proust or James Joyce; even the eerie stories of H. P. Lovecraft with their appreciation of the past’s present pressure. Literary seismology understood what many of these students found so difficult to grasp.
Hiking to the root cellar, set into the side of the low hill, he flipped open his iPad cover to check his dig site map. He wanted to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anyone. He caught the second envelope when it slipped free. Mildly impatient, he slid the envelope into the back pocket of his jeans and began poking and stroking the iPad screen as he walked, nearly tripping on a stone once. He was reminded of the Pokémon hunting craze and smiled.
At the root cellar he was informed they’d found an intact clay pot or jar. He examined it, holding it in cupped hands. Nestled on a cheap white cotton handkerchief one of the colleges had handed out to each student, to be used to wrap any delicate artifacts, the small pot-bellied jar had a faint pattern on it. Of white clay, the pottery seemed both delicate and significant.
“Is that lettering?”
One of the students activated the flashlight feature of his cell phone and held it over the jar for Howich. “We wondered that too.” A perky boy with a swoop haircut, the light-holder was almost bouncing with excitement, a regular Prometheus before the chains.
Both squinted, then concluded lab analysis would be needed before they decided on the motif.
Howich congratulated that team, making Mr. Prometheus Swoop whoop with enthusiasm. Chatter erupted, and it took several minutes to get them back to work sifting and searching in the dirt.
Before walking back downslope to the main dig sites, Howich glanced up at the oak. He remembered what he now thought of as the dryad’s ghost of Gela luring him, pointing. He found himself walking up, touching the tree. “Toi, toi, toi,” he muttered, German for “touch, touch, touch,” their equivalent of Knock Wood in America or Touch Wood in Britain.
Howich closed his eyes. He imagined feeling luck ripple through him, a cthonic static flow of electrons pulsing from deep underground, through the roots and branches, made dynamic by his human contact. He turned to look down at the dig, entering its final days now as the inevitable hammer of so-called progress, really a mask for greed, swung closer to smashing it all flat.
He thought of the wrecking ball in The Search for Joseph Tully, eradicating a past no longer appreciated by anyone considered important.
He turned to look down on the night workers, his back touching the oak’s trunk. He thought of Pickman’s Model by Lovecraft, the ghouls painted from life.
Soft arms seemed to draw him closer. He lowered himself to the moss, sitting not wearily but like a bird-of-prey perching, searching.
Spread below him in gathering dusk, with lanterns flickering on and the inevitable glow of cell phones flashing like rectangular fire-flies, the site took on a primitive look, like a village before electricity.
A mood of peace came over Howich.
As he shifted on soft moss, he felt the envelope in his back pocket. With a sigh, he pulled it out, opened it, and, squinting in day’s final glow, caught by the hill’s top, read: Professor Howich,
You may not remember me, I’m Janet. I’m the one who ran the news of the skull find down to you. Anyway, I’ve really liked working with you, for the good of the project. I’m graduating this year and wondered if you could use an intern. I’d really like to work with you more, or again, where ever it may take us. Anyway, I’d like to talk about this and maybe other things, and I’ll be eager to hear from you. If you don’t remember which student was me, don’t worry. After my shift you can always find me at Menton Cove, not at the café, though. I’m the ginger reading Lovecraft at the beach.
Sincerely, Janet Hampton.
#
He frowned, trying to recall the face of the girl who’d handed him the envelope, which he’d taken for another burning-coal screed from the crazy protestors. He remembered auburn hair and big glasses. A dazzling smile. Shy green eyes.
Gela?
He shook his head at such fancies of concordance. A sappy Hallmark Channel romance movie wouldn’t even dare such a stretched link. Janet Hampton was no ghost-imbued stand-in for a long dead outcast, witch or not.
As he stood, he looked around one last time and thought he glimpsed motion at the tree-line. Although it was still light, barely, where he stood, the trees made a solid wall of darkness. Along it, for just an instant, drifted the hint of a wispy shape, seeming to glow, slender and vertical. A deer, he figured, ignoring the gooseflesh that erupted all over his body.
Because it might well have been a faint reflection of his thoughts, ne nodded and said, “Thank you, Gela. We will remember you well.”
#
He hiked to the shore, negotiated a clump of rocks locals called The Drowned Sisters, then hiked up the curved pebble beach of Menton Cove from the south. This let him avoid the main road, the light and raucous relaxation going on at the café, and meeting any clumps of tipsy dig-workers eager to pick his brains or, more likely, cop a few drinks off the older man. He did not want to run into any of his colleagues, either. They’d want to go over the finds of the day, endlessly rotating the ramifications like jewelers seeking flaws in a hot diamond, like clockmakers trying to puzzle together a single working pocket watch from a thousand smashed wrist watches.
The crunch of his tread made her look up as he approached her. She had one of those swan-necked reading lights that clamp onto the book cover. In its glow, a large tome, an annotated edition of the fiction of near-local H. P. Lovecraft, born just up the coast a bit. “Never read much of him,” Howich said, sitting beside her when she patted the blanket.
Janet Hampton shrugged, dowsing the reading light. “No reason you should have, unless you wanted to figure out modern horror fiction.”
“Is that what you’re doing?”
She ducked her head, still not looking directly at him, as if embarrassed to have been caught at so juvenile an activity by such a serious man. “My minor was English Lit with a focus on Modern Genre Fiction. Thought it might be fun to write eerie stories during the down times at the digs.”
“Ah.” He smiled. “That’s not a bad idea, really.”
Ghosts everywhere, he thought.
She set aside the book but he examined it, turning to a frontispiece portrait of Lovecraft, Edwardian collar stiff, visage somber.
“You resemble him.” Her voice was hesitant.
“Good-looking guy.”
She looked at Howich. “I think so.”
They sat comfortably in silence for awhile, listening to the surf, watching occasional traces of star and moon light on the water. The sky offered mottled clouds and patches of clear sky that seemed to move.
“Did you see her, too?”
She looked at him in the dark for the first time. “Who?”
“Angela Woodstone. Gela.”
“Oh.”
Neither said anything for a long while.
Janet broke the silence by laughing. “You’re not married or anything, are you?”
“No.”
“Good.”
More silence, still comfortable.
“Always wanted to see you folded up inside that tiny trailer of yours.”
He chuckled until she added: “Naked.”
She leaned over and kissed him.
“I’d give you an internship anyway.”
She hit him and laughed. “I’d kiss you either way.”
They walked holding hands back along the dark pebble beach.
#
The self-styled reverend Trevin Moore Auster, fists trembling at his sides in fury, stood riven in outrage. He’d waited for hours by the rogue interloper’s car-and-trailor camp, intending to confront him, to convince the moronic professor of his grievous error in digging up an evil past to feast again on the innocent souls of the living. Now there came the tall, gangly academic cretin, finally, and he had one of the whore co-eds with him.
Well, Auster told himself, that’s why they let young women into the schools, so they have skirts to chase, although this one seemed to be wearing jeans, as they all did these days, the better to show their wares to potential customers, whores all. He shuddered, gagging at how the tight denim showed off her curves so luridly, so shamelessly.
In shadows just past the egregious man’s Volvo, Auster clutched his book and glared. He cleared his throat, tasting the universal corruption.
As they reached the trailer, Howich paused, glanced over, and stood straighter, letting the girl’s hand drop. “What do you want?”
No fake charm here, Auster noted. No melodious greeting, no harmonious pretension of manners, oh no. No use of honorifics. Just a challenge, and challenge he would have. “Do you know what you’ve done?”
“I’m not really in the mood for this discussion. Let’s take it up tomorrow, okay? Or maybe just let it drop?”
“How dare you sweep in like a storm of ignorance and dig up a past evil once put to rest and kept down all these many years? How dare you unleash on us this kind of predatory witchcraft? Is she one of your rewards?” Auster pointed, as he so often did from the pulpit in his group’s chapel in the abandoned strip-mall’s last remaining store front, melodramatically at the cowering little girl this defiant sinner had dragged here to ravish, the disgusting pedophile, the vile academic Classicist. Auster shivered to contemplate the wild pagan orgies those kinds of people got up to. His minds’s eye filled with writhing flesh twisting and straining to merge into one gelatinous mess of lustful sin.
“You don’t have to get insulting.ß Go away or I’m calling the police.”
“Police? You think their authority extends to the unseen? You think their bully tactics mean anything to the spiritual malaise and demonic ire of witchcraft roused to rampage?”
“You’re going to have to leave. Now.” Howich stood even taller and took a step toward Auster as Janet, behind him, gave a soft whimper and whispered, “He’s wearing a Cthulhu medallion.”
Auster heard her and one side of his mouth snaked upward into a smile squeezed by torture from a lifetime’s suffering. “So your slut understands,” he hissed, charging the professor, head lowered, fists swinging as his holy book fell forgotten to the ground.
#
Howich caught Auster as if the loon had been hurled at him in some mockery of an otherwise-dignified drunken dwarf-tossing contest. Both tumbled to the ground, the minister pummeling, the professor writhing to evade blows and get away from the frenzied assault.
Auster rolled off Howich when Janet kicked the attacker in the side of his head. He howled more in anger than in pain and turned to lunge at her, hands in claws.
On his feet, Howich tackled Auster, having played football exactly once in a pick-up game at age 11, when he discovered, under a dog-pile, he was claustrophobic. Fortunately, he’d played high school and some college basketball, until competition got too serious; the physicality came back to him sufficiently to let him thwart the lunatic’s attack on Janet.
“Call nine-one-one,” Howich grunted.
“Already on it.”
The two men rolled around and kicked, spat, and maybe bit, their punches ineffectual, their struggle ludicrous, until two town cops pulled them apart with the bored efficiency born of expert experience with drunks.
They were both charged under a Mutual Affray statute put in place to quell the many blustery battles tipsy college students tended to get into on weekends, the town and its beach being a hub for several small colleges. Janet posted Howich’s bail and he was surprised to find she’d unhitched the Volvo to drive it for fetching purposes. “Where’d you get the keys?”
“Timmy and Freddy both drive old Volvos. For years they only made five keys. I figured it was a good chance one of them would work. Tim’s won, and here I am.”
“You’re kidding.”
“No, she’s not,” a male voice said from the back seat.
Howich turned to find another of his dig volunteers sprawled on the back seat, a seat belt casually across him even though it was not tightened, holding a glowing laptop. “Hi, professor.”
“Hi.” Turning back to Janet, who was driving, he frowned. “Why didn’t you just use his car?”
“No gas. No money.”
College student logic.
“Besides, I knew about trailer hitches from my dad.” Janet looked proud. “He always took us camping when I was little. I’d help him hook up the lights and everything.”
“Huh.” Howich heard a voice in his head say She’s a keeper, and smiled. His mother, long dead, always came to him in such circumstances, not that there had been many.
Howich repaid Janet for the bail, gave Tim a twenty so he could gas up, and finally got to show Janet how he managed to fold himself clown-car-like into the trailer. She pronounced it, “Cozy.”
#
Trevin Moore Auster, last seen with a bruise on the left side of his face, retreated to the shade of what ever rock he’d crawled out from under and did not pester the rest of the dig. Perhaps his elder gods were displeased.
#
Janet and Howich became an item, prompting much envy, gossip, and good-natured teasing. What Janet knew even then but what Howich found out only a few months later, in a town near their latest dig site on the outlying farm-fields around the Cahokia Mound complex in Illinois, was that they would become engaged, then married, within a year of meeting. In her family it was the tradition that the women always knew, the men rarely.
#
When asked about it in later years, they referred to their marriage as the Blessed Curse of Gela, rarely explaining further, the reference being their own special sweet joke.
#
The Angela Woodstone dig produced artifacts and observations that deepened local appreciation for their story of a persecuted woman. It was generally thought by then that waspish gossip and sniping by envious wives, probably prompted by their over-attentive husbands “helping” the pretty young widow get through her first winter, eventually boiled over into outright violence, or a serious threat of it. It was considered that Angela had fled into the woods from a mob. She had either been caught, killed, and buried in the forest or had evaded them, only to succumb from exposure. Her remains had later been found or, for some reason, moved to be buried under the oak, probably because of folk superstition, some thought.
Others said no, she’d been taken by a mob and hanged at the tree, then buried under it in an profane grave. The town had kept this shameful lynching a secret, hence Auster’s strange cult, mixing Lovecraft’s fiction with ancestral guilt. An academic debate continued about such details but DNA analysis on descendants of Angela Woodstone relatives could not be done; the skull and bones found under the tree were those of Angela Woodstone, woodcutter’s widow and accused witch, in tradition only, although it certainly made sense to identify them as such.
It was considered too much of a coincidence to ascribe the bones to anyone else, that close to the Woodstone property.
This confirmation tended to strengthen the hanging theory.
#
The so-called Reverend Auster, of no accredited or acknowledged denomination, and his followers, in numbers unknown but certainly fewer than one hundred, vanished from all histories. Locals talked of the storm that had taken them one night as they’d cavorted and raved on a beach around a bonfire, while others whispered of darker, slimier things taking them one-by-one in shadowy alleys and cold, dark rooms.
“What evuh, they got the HPL treatment, those bastids,” was the downeaster version, pithy and to the point.
#
Although he never achieved much fame, Oliver Hollis Howich made many solid discoveries and advanced archaeology’s understanding of many mysteries. When asked how he managed to find so many artifacts others could not locate — the implication being that he planted them — he never angered, but would say only, “You have to use the right kind of light.”
He never explained what he meant but there are hints in the fiction of Janet Hampton Howich’s short stories, which tended to be published in low-paying, small-circulation horror magazines, remnants and dregs and faint echoes of the type called pulps in Lovecraft’s era. She used the pen name J. H. Howich to write of mysterious glowing female figures, wraiths, fetches, kelpies, selkies, ghosts, revenants, specters, and apparitions that manifested to intercede into human affairs, drifting from an unseen realm to point to things, to uncover things, or to bring things, or people, together.
Art imitates life, as those who knew her explained.
One of her best-regarded stories, a minor classic among horror aficionados and fans, is entitled, “The Lady of the Oak,” and features a dryad’s ghost that guards a talisman that can bring both doom and love, even as it wards off ichorous eldritch horrors from beyond the infinite. It is dedicated to Howard Philips Lovecraft, Caitlin Rebekah Kiernan, and Angela Woodstone. No explanation has been offered.
Janet and Oliver Howich had a daughter, Olive Jane, who currently attends a school in New England studying antiquities and art, intending to become an archaeological illustrator. For spending money she draws pictures for her mother’s books and for weird pulp publications.
She favors her father in looks, her mother in outlook, and is over two meters tall, with auburn hair, piercing icy blue eyes, and a look of pure wonder, as if she’s able to see the unseen.

/// /// ///

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Cemetery Stroll, a tale of espionage & love; first draft, opening

“Cemetery Stroll”
by
Gene Stewart

Stained stone angels guarded their walk from other people’s beliefs. They held hands at times or paused to kiss. Their talk came pinesap slow and honeycomb sweet. Sere leaves swirled at their feet in happy-puppy frolics. Incised letters and numbers caught morning dew that ran like tears. Symbols signaled unseen deities. Last expenses for lost ones studded acres with a final gap-toothed smile of relief. A quiet breeze wafted muffled chirps from huddled birds; sparrows, feathers puffed, shivered on stoic motionless alert as crows, imperious, plotted murders, flight. Branches rattled, snowflakes played cage with light touches.
He told her what he’d done. She told him what she’d lived through. They held hands, gazing into the valley below.
#
The first bullet broke his spine at the hips, thrusting him into her arms in a sprawl as if to tackle her, as if to hug her into submission. The second bullet took out her throat, baptizing both in red, sending both to the ground, where they lay embraced. Breeze stilled, birds fell silent, and the cemetery waited as the valley began its day.
#
“Shame.”
“Finished, at least.”
Two men paid by others shouldered rifles and walked deeper into the trees, local hunters seeking early-winter deer to top off a family pantry. Good venison smoked and gnawed through bitter cold kept many village people going. So did occasional jobs requiring marksmanship.
One did what one could to survive.
#
“He must’ve known.”
“Retirement is a permanent term. He knew that much.”
“But meeting her, after all this time. Mindless risk.”
“Final statement, I’d say.”
“Call it what you will, at least it’s done.”
“Is it? I wonder if it’ll ever be done.”
#
Hidden files came out of hiding to flutter open. Papers shuffled. Stamps, signatures, and initials added minuscule weight. Slapped shut, files slipped back into hiding.
Lives ended. Time shifted. Lives remained unchanged. Time shrugged off personal details cuddled and coddled like mushroom spoors awaiting the chance to fruit. Lives changed.
State secrets fenced with the state of secrecy. Those on guard lunged to touch deeper, each point probing for heart’s blood, each slash satisfied with a scar left for the opponent to contemplate.
Wet work soaked, stained.
“This will never come out.”
Holders of secrets hoped that were true while bearers of stains complained that it was. Clandestine, destiny of the clan; all for one and one for all or else. Confidential, confided lack of confidence, a doubt planted, slanted words a talus of scree to send one sliding over hidden edges.
Uncertain ground underfoot. Shifting loyalties. Climbing to a peak obscured by clouds of lies, goals always moved, summit a cynical term of negotiation and concession instead of a place.
Grand game, some said.
Dead serious, others countered.
Check and mate, friendship forfeit.
#
Caton came into it late, uninformed, and without top cover. This was often the way in pivotal cases of espionage.
Lancashire, its forests, his accent, all cast shade on Caton’s purposes. Ostensibly he’d been recruited for his professorial familiarity with Victorian fiction. This gave him excellent cover. He could move from school to school, none the wiser to his ulterior identities, motives, and actions.

 

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