Strangecraft, Part I—Ruffles and Blood—Mikael Thompson SpecGram Vol CLXX, No ν Contents Strangecraft, Part III—The Twisty Innards of Leviathan—Mikael Thompson


by Mikael Thompson

- II -
The Kudzu on the Ivory Tower

On the morn I rose early, and after ablutions and a breakfast of eggs and bacon I checked out at 8:55 to be at the bank when it opened. I opened an account with most of my funds and a large cashier’s check drawn on a reliable heartland bank with branches in New York and New Haven and made arrangements for them to receive a check every month from my account through New Haven. I gave thanks that although the Subsidence had kicked New England backwards a long way, its economy had almost entirely remonetized and most major American legal tenders were accepted there. I then strolled inland to the gates of the Miskatonic Institute of Technology. The sky was cleara special boon the small gods of the place had granted to seduce us into liking the locale, and far from representative of the climeand as Phoebus inspected the leaves already yellowing at the tips, I inspected the specimens of the populace I passed. Scowling and sour, they glanced up occasionally from their paths to glare at any interloper in their way, however familiar, and in the aspect of each was an oddness hard to pinpoint, but never of a piquant novelty to suggest the way of the world might lead somewhere interesting beyond dung and death. Phlegmatic, imperturbable, even slightly menacing, such were my impressions, but seemingly a solider, more dependable sort than the canaille of Boston.

The Institute was about a mile and a half past the edge of town to the northwest. It was fronted by a stone wall of ashlar masonry about ten feet high that ran back about ten yards on the ends to join the walls of campus buildings. I passed through the gates in the middle of the front wall and looked around to orient myself. Ahead of me stood a tall tile-roofed stone building of three stories in a spare Georgian style current in American academia a few centuries before, and between it and the gate gravel paths crossed a grassy green (in many places brown despite the name) amid forbidding, thick-barked oaks. On my right inside the gate post was a small map; as I compared my information sheet to the list of buildings, I noticed a large ugly tortoiseshell cat watching me from atop the wall. As I walked towards Flegel Hall, the cat jumped off the wall and marched ahead of me. Suddenly she stopped and focused her attention on a squirrel walking across the grass twenty yards ahead of us. The squirrel looked around and ran away when it caught sight of the cat, who launched herself after it around a building to my right. Shortly I heard a loud death screech. I looked around and saw a squabbish groundskeeper with a squamiform achor on his scalp. I walked over to him and said, “I would have thought a full-grown squirrel more than a match for any cat.”

He looked at me unblinkingly for half a minute and said, “The cats here are possessed,” and he stopped to cough up and spit out a massive ball of phlegm before continuing, “of great persistence and vigor.”

“I see,” I said, and walked on to Flegel Hall. My advisor, Dr. Gilbreath, was expecting me at ten in Room 207, which turned out to be the departmental lounge, and when I entered, he looked up from the chair where he had been reading and said, “Harvey Gilbreath. You are Hugh Viner?”

“Yes, Dr. Gilbreath, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Likewise. How was your trip?”

I gave him a brief retailing, and he smiled, “It sounds like a true adventure. I’m glad you’ve gotten something of a feel for this place. It’s certainly quite different from the heartland, but it does have a few sallow and sickly charms to its credit.”

“I hope you’ll be so good as to introduce me to them some time.”

He laughed, “It’s all uphill from Boston, I assure you. —I do hope you didn’t drink the tap water in Arkham.”

“I had a little. It was not of the freshest.”

“Yes, it’s drawn from the reservoir, and no matter what they do to it, it’s got a funky taste. They fluoridate it, chlorinate it, iodize it, and even brominate it, but none of it does any good.”

I smiled, “Do they astatinize it?”

“No, it already contains significant concentrations.”

I stopped smiling. “We don’t take water from the reservoir here, do we?”

“No, our water supply is drawn from the Miskatonic.”

After a moment of pondering I asked, “Does it really contain significant concentrations of astatine?”

He laughed, “Of course not, the half life of any isotope is much too short. It does contain traces, just barely detectable, but that’s amazing in itself.”

He sat again and bade me do the same, then turned to business. “So you want to work in dialectology or sociolinguistics?”

“That is correct.”

“Tell me more about your undergraduate career.”

We discussed my classes and the research thesis I had done my senior year, and he said, “So, in brief, your results were that you had no meaningful results.”

“That’s correct.”

“At least you don’t deny it! Don’t fear, you had a good idea that didn’t pan out. It happens to all of us.”

He then questioned me closely on my language training. At one point he said, “A structure class on Seri?” I nodded, and he said, “You should keep up with it. It’s a language that deserves much more attention from linguists than most have given it. We of course can’t offer it, either in a structure class or field methods, but you’ll find our library is quite rich. Our departmental library, that is. The main library is a godawful mess. They finally started a program to clean up some of the clutter, but I swear, the last head librarian and his staff were like monks in a scriptorium. They strictly enforced a policy of closed stacks and were as obstructionist and obscurantist as a bunch of monks too. It took a prolonged struggle in the faculty senate to get that gang of reprobates turned out the door.”

We then discussed my classes for the semester. “You’ll want to get the basics out of the way as soon as possible. We always set it up so introductory phonology and syntax don’t conflict. You are very strongly urged to take both. In fact, you would have to give me a compelling reason to allow you to avoid taking one, and I’m afraid a compelling reason is logically impossible, so don’t even try.”

I nodded, “That’s fine.”

“You’ll have to take one more research language; unless you have any preferences otherwise, I’d urge you to do German since you already have French and Russian.”

“My German is only a little rusty, so it shouldn’t be too much work.”

“That’s the spirit. How crazy are you?”

“I beg your pardon.”

“You’re getting a PhD in linguistics, so you’re demonstrably not fully sane, but are you merely severely neurotic or do you hear voices, as any true linguist should?”

I smiled, “I’m as crazy as the department needs me to be, but why do you ask?”

“I’d allow you to take five classes if you like, but you probably won’t like it.”

“Well, I want to take the course on Philosophical Problems of Sociolinguistics...”


“...and your course on dialectology looks very good too.”

He smiled. “A man after my own bent. Just as I expected. You’ll suffer, but I think it’ll be worth it. Remember, though, if you can’t handle the load by the end of your third week, drop one. They’ll only get tougher.”


We then went to the departmental office to fill out the paperwork for registration, and he said, “Welcome aboard.” He gave me a photocopy telling me where to take the forms to have them stamped, signed, and delivered, and said, “We’re having a departmental meet and greet tomorrow lunchtime. Be sure to be there. You’re living in grad housing?”


“Well, no outside distractions at least.”

“I see.”

We had left the departmental office and soon came to his office. “Come in for a minute.”

I sat down in front of his desk and he said, “You remember your orientation material mailed to you over the summer?”


“Any questions about it?”

“What is the ‘enhanced oneiric learning environment’ it went on about?”

He nodded. “This is a strange place, Hugh. Dreams are very vivid here.”

“Like Boston?”

He shuddered. “No, not that bad. Nothing like that. But when this place was being outfitted as the Institute, it was discovered that the capacity for dreaming is greatly enhanced here. There’s quite a strong degree of semiconscious control by the dreamer, and dreamers’ dreams...overlap. You’ll discover communal dreaming here.”

I stared at him. “So other people will be rummaging around in my head?”

“No, not even if you try to invite them in. It’s like a common dream world in which the dreamers interact much as in real life. We find it makes for a useful learning environment for further study. It’s odd at first, but you’ll soon find it perfectly normal. Very boring, most likely. It’s very good for independent language study, and starting your third year you’ll be strongly encouraged to pursue that along with field methods.”

“I see.”

“In any case, you should get going if you want to take care of that paperwork before lunch. You have new grad student orientation at two.”

“Thank you.”

“My office hours are posted, but just knock if you have any questions at any time, within reason, of course.”

I took my leave and rushed off to finish the drudgery of registration, and was at orientation ten minutes before it started. Right on the dot, a too-friendly young man at the front of the room stood up from chatting quietly with a man in a black suit and red tie and said, “Welcome! I’m glad to see all of you here. We usually meet in small groups with all the incoming grad students who will live in campus housing to give you a short overview of things before you go to your rooms. I’m Clement in Sysadmin, and I’d like to welcome you to the Miskatonic Institute of Technology. As you probably know, we were founded as MIT back in 2047 as a joint venture between Miskatonic University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As both folded after the Subsidence,” and here someone who had seen the remains of both chuckled hollowly, “Ho ho ho”no, not meand Clement smiled even more broadly and nodded, “we like to think of ourselves as the heirs of the best of their respective traditions. What you probably don’t know, however, is that the campus is much older than that. These buildings were originally a prep school founded in 1803 around an old theological seminary that had been founded in 1723 but closed due to violent strife and assorted hangings over arcane theological matters in 1801 that took out half the student body and two-thirds of the faculty. The prep school, Dunford Boys School, had to be liquidated in court for unmet obligations and went into receivership in 2039, and was saved from the wrecking ball by the farsighted efforts of two of the state’s leading universities. So we have a long history here of scholarship, education, public service...”

“...civil discontent, failed educational endeavors, religious strife, and bankruptcy.”

Clement sighed and said, “Well, yes, but we prefer to focus on the positives.”

“Those are the positives, man!”

He smiled giddily and said, “Aaaanyway. You’ll be living in the Vincent Farnsworth Memorial Graduate Student Dormitory. It’s a historic landmark beloved by generations of students...”

“Oh, crap, you mean we have to live in a 350-year-old dump without electricity, hot water, or a working crapper?”

“Yeah. Why don’t you just call it Heritage House or Servants Quarters or Ye Olde Barne or something?”

“The university will charge us for our candles, won’t it? The chiseling bastards.”

Clement held up his hands palm out and said, “Please, please, it’s been thoroughly renovated with the latest in green design to meet the highest environmental standards...”

“Oh, shit, it’s solar-powered! We will have to use candles! Ecologically-friendly candles, I’ll bet, so they’ll be overpriced as f...”

Clement interrupted, “I assure you, ma’am, you’ve got to do your part to save the earth.”

“Uh huh. Are the labs solar-powered?”

Clement paused and said, “Of course not. They require reliable power, so they’re run off a thorium-fueled reactor.”

“Can I switch to being housed in a lab?”

He replied, “What’s your department?”


“Oh, don’t worry, you’ll be spending 20 hours of every day there anyway.”

“Up yours, you sissy admin tool.”

He sighed and said, “Any more questions of course not it was a pleasure to meet all of you and please enjoy your stay at MIT for the next four to eight years. Bye. Out. Now.” As we filed out I heard him mutter to the man in the suit, “God, the undergrads eat it up. These guys bitch for practice.”

When we exited to the green, a pale youngish woman was waiting for us and said, “Hi, I’m Betty Fuller. Since I’m a second-year and I didn’t escape in time, I was kind of forced to, um, no, let’s see...,” and here she looked upwards for a second, “...oh yeah, I was assigned to come here of my own free will to meet you and get you guys and show you to your rooms or else, so let’s get going. I have important stuff to do, and you’re not it.”

One guy said, “Baby, you sure?”

She looked him up and down. “Yes, so shut up.”

Someone else asked, “Hey, Betty, what do you study?”

“None of your goddamn business, so shut up.”

“You’re not very friendly.”

“No I’m not, so shut up.”

After that, everyone shut up. We walked quietly with our bags across the green and around a building, then turned left and walked quietly a half-mile to an old three-story red brick building whose tile roof had been replaced by solar panels interrupted by numerous chimneys. “Oh, Christ,” one fellow breathed out mournfully, and the rest of us just winced quietly. “You’d be lucky to get four hours of decent lighting around noon in June. It’s gonna be a cold, dark winter.” Betty said, “Three hours. Now shut up.”

We walked in the main door and Betty said, “You’re here. I’d tell you where your rooms are, but you’re all adults so find’em yourself.” She turned without another word and walked back out the door. As nobody was an undergrad, we all knew she was right and dispersed.

I knew from my materials over the summer that I was in Suite 108 with two other fellows. I soon found it. Suite 108 consisted of a small common room with two tables, a couch, three chairs, and doors to three bedrooms, two down a small hallway to the right of the door to the suite, the other opening directly to the common room on the left. One man was already there, a thin, wiry fellow with unruly red hair and blue eyes reading a pamphlet and map. He stood up and said, “Hi! Are you Finley Andrews or Hugh Viner?”

“The latter. That makes you Trevor Malford.”

“The one and the same. So, you’re from Texas. Which part?”

“Born in San Antonio, studied in Houston, but I lived many places as a boy. My father is an astronautical engineer, so we spent a lot of time in Kazakhstan, Brazil, and Kenya before I was fifteen. ...Let’s see, you’re from Iowa.”

“Yes, though I went to school in Ciudad de México.”

“What do you study?”

“Physics. Theoretical, not applied, so Mexico was a better choice than Texas.”

“True, and even if you went into applied physics later, you could go into Mexican or Texan industry. Best of both worlds. So why in the hell did you come here for grad school?”

“There’s still a very good program in non-equilibrium thermodynamics here.”

“Ah, good to know.”

“What about you?”


“In New England?! Isn’t that...a dead end?”

“Only if you want a career in the real world, yeah, but I took a vow of poverty and this seemed the best way to fulfill it.” He laughed and I continued, “It’s a passable education here, and there’s enough interest in New England ideas to make it no great drawback, so long as I keep the basics covered.”

At that moment the door of the common room opened and a young man with black hair and brown eyes in a round face looked in. “Hi, I’m Finley.”

“Pleased to meet you. I’m Trevor.”

“And I’m Hugh.”

After he came in, Trevor pointed and said, “I’ve picked my room. Shotgun. There, it’s official.”

Finley and I looked in the other two rooms, then looked in Trevor’s, then looked in the other two rooms again. “How’d you decide on that room?” Finley asked.

“Coin toss.”

“How’d you use a coin toss to pick among three rooms?”

“I tossed it up in the air and picked the room it rolled into.”

“Well, they’re all crap.”

I pointed, “Then I’ll take this one”

He smiled, “I wanted that one.”

“But it’s crap. You said so yourself.”

“It smells like better-digested crap.”

“I’m not sure that’s a plus.”

And so we settled into our suite and our new lives as grad students. After we had unpacked, we sat around the table; Finley had found the dining room, which had cold coffee, stale muffins, and sugary traces of donuts, so we were having a cup of coffee before dinner was to be served in an hour. Finley told us about his trip from California to Pursleyville with a boyish enthusiasm for his first plane flight. Next to him, Trevor furrowed his brow as Finley expounded, “I think I might even have seen the Grand Tetons. They’re called that because they were named after Ulysses S. Grant.”

I maintained an affable expression and asked, “Really. I’d heard something else, but perhaps I misunderstood. Where does the second part of the name come from though?”

“That’s not clear. Etons seems to be the word for ‘round mountain’ in Dakota.”

I managed to forebear any comment except to gently say, “Lakota.”

Trevor finally managed a quiet, “Well, the rounded part is right,” and I shot him a short frown to keep from cracking up.

“So, Finley,” I then asked, “what are you going to study?”

“I’m in the folklore department.”

Trevor spat out a little coffee and coughed. “Sorry, sorry, I think there must be some grounds in this.”

“So...what brand and make of folklore do you study?”

“I worked on American folklore as an undergrad, and I plan to specialize in Canuckistani folklore now. I am very interested in tracing out all the information about the Subsidence preserved in the folklore of both New England and Canuckistan.”

Trevor had been about to take another sip of coffee, but sitting motionless with the coffee cup near his lips, he thought better of it and put it down on the table. In a sudden fit of mischief I asked, “Finley, tell me, since you’re so familiar with Canuckistani folk customs and lorethese are interesting surroundings I passed through on my way here. Everyone I met had a rather froglike appearancebulging unblinking eyes, a green cast to the skin, bumpy with warts, wide mouths with little chin or nose...I was wondering, since I’m a bit unfamiliar with the history of this region, was there an influx of Québecois into this area a few generations ago?”

“Ah, yes, I noticed that myself. No, no, you see, that term is only connected with Québec culture, not physiognomy...well, apart from the warts. It comes from their custom of serving snails in gravy over fried potatoes and curds; you see, that’s pretty much all that can be produced in such an agriculturally bereft region. You have to understand, the frogs in that region are reputed also to have subsisted primarily on snails, and it was the fact that snails seem to have formed the basis of the ecosystem before overfeeding eliminated them from most inhabited areas that is thought to have given rise to the legend that every human in the region is partially amphibian.”

“Is that so? I’d heard it was from French customs originally.”

After a painfully extended pause, Finley replied, “That’s a commonly accepted theory, yes, but accounts differ, and there are numerous lines of evidence suggesting an indigenous origin for the terminology.”

“Anyway,” Trevor interrupted, “dinner’s soon. Let’s go get our seats. We have the graduate matriculation ceremony tonight. They say it’s quite a spectacle. The prez might even sacrifice a sheep.”

Finley said, “Oh, no, there have been no confirmed records of sacrifices of sheep in this region for the past 70 years.”

After Finley walked out into the hall, Trevor grinned, rolled his eyes, shook his head, and said quietly, “You have proved yourself. From this day forward, Hugh, you sit facing him. Do you have any blood in that ice stream of yours?”

I replied, “Oh, his speech has some fascinating dialectal features. I could give you a full catalog if you like.”

“I never thought an interest in observing people’s pronunciations could ever be anything but a major social liability.”

“You’d be surprised.”

We walked into the dining room just as a loud voice finished, “ ‘No, really, I swear it’s just ice cream.’ ” Most of the people there broke into happy laughter as a few groaned. Trevor looked around rapidly and motioned me to follow him. We stopped at Finley’s table, which had two empty chairs, and were introduced to five of our new neighbors: Hal Smith and Hal Jones, who we were told usually just went by their last names, were a pair of roommates studying German literature under the same professor; Benjamin Friedman was a third-year biologist specializing in early vertebrate evolutionary history; and Angela Crease and Felicia Gomez were second-year history students. After we had gone through the line and returned to the table with our dinners, we learned more about each other. Without paying less attention to anyone else than left them fully pleased with their new boon companion, Trevor soon had a conversation going with Felicia that made it abundantly clear that it was not only in theoretical physics that he had specialized in Ciudad de México.

“Trevor do likes him some etons,” I said quietly.

He smiled and muttered back, “Specta accipeque, parvule.

After dinner we walked back to campus and found the concert hall. The three of us sat in the back near the middle. Several dignitaries were dressed in robes near the stage, and a podium stood on the left side of the stage in front of the curtains. At the designated hour, a spindly woman walked out to the podium and said, “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, we are here to celebrate your matriculation to one of the finest universities of New England, your new home for the next several years, Miskatonic Institute of Technology. I am the Dean of Students, Priscilla Volecat.” She stared down the snickers popping up here and there in the audience and said, “So, enough of that. I am honored to introduce your provost, William Fenistry.”

After a short speech saying nothing in particular and nothing much in general, Fenistry said, “And I in turn am honored to introduce your president, Dr. Lampyrid.”

The president of the university came to the podium and gave a short nullity welcoming us to the Miskatonic Institute of Technology; it might have sounded more cordial had he not yawned loudly several times. A squat balding man with vaguely amphibian features, Rufus T. Lampyrid clearly had burrowed his way up the administration hierarchy through a mixture of low cunning and (one quickly inferred) either blackmail or black magic. He ended, “This is MIT. You’re welcome to it,” and returned to his seat.

Provost Fenistry returned to the podium. After clearing his throat, he said, “Well, yes, quite. We are pleased to welcome you, our latest class of graduate students, and wish you full wind and fair weather to your goals. And without further ado, let us turn to the highlight of the evening. We at MIT pride ourselves on our unflagging support for the long heritage of musical art in the Miskatonic Valley, and so please, sit back and enjoy. The following work, the Via Mundi by Arkham composer Isaiah Scudder, has been the matriculation cantata for MIT graduate students for forty-seven years.” He returned to his seat and the curtains rose on the student orchestra and choir.

The conductor looked out on the audience, nodded, and turned to face the orchestra, baton raised. As it came down, an unholy crash on cymbals ushered in a drunken lurchiness in the winds, which was quickly taken up by the strings as the brass provided a soothing pedal point. Soon they had launched into a five-part fugue that sounded rather like three sober men escorting two drunks but ended with all five three sheets to the wind, and I heard Finley gasp, “How invigorating!” After the fugal prelude, the first choral section started.

Aere, qui terras circum diffunditur omnes,
Qui nobis sese insinuat per corpora ubique
Suetus et has generi viventum immittere pestes.
Aer quippe pater rerum est et originis auctor.
Idem saepe graves morbos mortalibus affert,
Multimode natus tabescere corpore molli,
Et facile affectus capere atque inferre receptos.
Nunc vero, quonam ille modo contagia traxit,
Accipe, quid mutare queant labentia saecla.

Finley was bopping his head from side to side and humming along, while Trevor on the other side of me muttered, “What the hell is this crap?” After another short orchestral interlude, the orchestra played a zippy tune rollicking along like a bubbling pot of water as the soloist sang,

Forsitan et tempus veniet, poscentibus olim
Natura fatisque Deum, quum non modo tellus
Nuuc culta aut obducta mari aut deserta iacebit,
Verum etiam sol ipse novum (quis credere possit?)
Curret iter, sua nec per tempora diffluet annus:
Ast insueti aestus insuetaque frigora mundo
Insurgent, et certa dies animalia terris
Monstrabit nova, nascentur pecudesque feraeque
Sponte sua, primaque animas ab origine sument.

Trevor looked at me at the end of the movement and shook his head. I frowned and nodded. After two more arias, the chorus ended the cantata on a rousing note as the orchestra played a triumphal march.

Quae quum perspicias, nihil est, cur tempore certo
Admirere novis magnum marcescere morbis
Aera, contagesque novas viventibus aegris
Sidere sub certo fieri et per saecula longa.

Afterwards there was an odd mix of enthusiasm and reluctance as half of the audience (including Finley) tried to start a standing ovation and the rest of us sat on our hands. The conductor bowed, the orchestra bowed, the soloists bowed, the choir bowed, the soloists gave a second bow to the frowns of the conductor and orchestra, and Lampyrid yawned loudly and stalked out of the auditorium without a backward glance. With the illusion of success broken, the conductor motioned for the curtains to fall and we all filed out of the concert hall in a pensive mood.

Most of us, rather. “Man, I need to find a chip strip of that!” Finley gushed.

“Use your headphones,” Trevor retorted.

We returned to the dorm and as we passed the door to Suite 106, Smith and Jones invited us in to help kill off a couple of bottles of wine in the ecologically friendly semi-dark of a whale-oil lamp.

“Most neighborly of you,” Trevor said, and I added, “Don’t mind if I do.”

“How’d you like the ceremony?”

“Real piece of work,” I said.

“Don’t worry,” Smith said, “the Via Mundi will grow on you.”

“Like a fungus,” Jones added.

Trevor frowned, “I notice you weren’t there, Jones.”

Allergic to fungus here, Trev.”

The next morning the three of us woke up about the same time, 8:30 or thereabouts, and walked single file to the bathrooms. I turned the shower handle to the hot side of things and screamed as a blast of cold water hit me. Shortly I heard Trevor screech slightly and Finley growl, “Cold!” After very short showers, the three of us dressed and walked into the dining room just as the same voice as yesterday said, “ ‘Roast beef sandwich on a hard roll,’ ” to the laughs and groans of several people. We filled our plates with homogenized breakfastlike products and sat down together, soon to be joined by Felicia Gomez, bright-eyed on seeing Trevor, and her two suitemates. As they monopolized Trevor’s attention, much to his obvious delight, I chatted with Finley.

“So, Finn, what do you have set for today?”

“Departmental meeting at lunch.”

“Of course, of course. Me too.”

“There are a number of professors I want to meet! Billingsley is the greatest expert on the social ways of excrement since Dundes, and Kerns could tell me folktales all day long.”

About that time, Smith and Jones came by with a tall fellow. “Hugh, Trev, Finn, we’d like you to meet Vince Purnell.” I recognized him as the fellow speaking when we came in. Purnell asked us about ourselves, and after a short chat he said, “Welcome aboard. Like the dining hall?”

I said, “Oh, it’s just great. I knew this snazzy bistro once, warm and friendly, with the best food ever. This isn’t it. I think there’s some baked-on grit from a pan in this, um, is it supposed to be a pancake?”

“Good to know. I’m the dining hall manager. All residents have to pitch in an hour a day five days a week, seven days a week during summer unless you get a campus job, in which case you make arrangements with me. It’s in your residence contract on page 6, the part nobody ever reads to, right? Wondered why the food service is so cheap here? Now you know. So your name is Hugh? I’ve been looking for a strapping young man to clean the pots and pans at dinner. I can tell you’re concerned about proper sanitary standards, so I’ll pencil you in. No, no, no need to thank me.”

Finley said, “I think it’s a great dining hall!”

“Yeah, suck-ups handle the trash. Trevor, any preferences?”

“No, not really, whatever you need me to do.”

“Okay, I’ll see where I can fit you in once you get your course schedule. Good to meet you three.”

After he left, Smith shook his head, to which all three of us shrugged. “You actually don’t mind?”

I said, “I washed the dishes every single meal growing up. I like it.”

Finley said, “It’s just trash.”

Trevor said, “Work’s work. Beats getting up at two in the morning to bake bread halfway cross city.”

Finley added, “But really, it’s a great dining hall! All you can eat, and it’s all so good!”

Trevor turned to Felicia and asked, “What do you work?”

She smiled winningly and said, “I sweep up after breakfast, bus the tables, all that. It’s supposed to be an hour shift, but we always get done in less than half an hour. You know, Trev, I do have a slot that’s wide open. I’d love to take you on board!”

Her first suitemate, Anne Finch (an entomologist), grimaced and said, “Or, Trev, you could serve lunch with me,” to which the second suitemate, Judy Gallagher (another entomologist) retorted, “You’d enjoy it so much more as a line cook! Deep in winter, when everything else is cold and dark and unpleasant, you’d get to keep warm and toasty next to me,” to which Anne and Felicia gave her a pointed look.

Trevor smiled suavely and merely said, “Ah, such a wealth of fine opportunities! It’s like being offered every job you applied for after graduation,” to which I rolled my eyes. The three suitemates rose, all smiles for Trevor, and Anne said, “We have to get to work. Your schedule starts next week. We already have one, of course. See you at dinner?”

“Not lunch? Ah, of course, I have to be at a departmental meeting,” said Trevor, and Anne smiled and said, “Smart boy.”

After they left, I said, “So, Trevor, you don’t have your schedule set yet?”

“No, I want to scope out a professor at lunch today. There are three classes I want to learn about before I choose one of them.”

“How many classes will you take?”

“Four. I have E&M, classical dynamics, and Russian set up. There are two math courses I should take this semester or a year from now, but there’s also an advanced course on classical thermodynamics I’ll probably take unless the professor is a total clown.”

“That sounds like no free time at all this semester.”

He shook his head, “No, I did all three of those classes at the graduate level down in Mexico year before last. The department here is persnickety about transfer credit though, and I wouldn’t mind a quiet semester to work ahead and find a good lab position. Russian should be the hardest class, actually.”

I said, “Why don’t you take a fifth course like I’m doing?”

Just then, Angela Crease sat down at our table and smiled at Trevor with sparkling eyes, and when he smiled back I just said, “Ah.”

As I walked across the green to the lunch meeting, I saw the same ugly tortoiseshell cat I had run into my first day. She saw me and came over immediately with a happy meow and walked beside me as I went to Flegel Hall. I saw a groundskeeper watching me, and I said, “She’s decided she knows me.”

He nodded, “Ay, she’s a familiar...” and here he hacked up a massive ball of phlegm, “...beast, that’s a certainty.”

The linguistics department held its meet and greet for new grads in the same lounge where I met Dr. Gilbreath, and when I came in he waved me over. “Hugh, good to see you. There are ten of you this year. Just about the right size.”

He took me over to where the couches had been put together and introduced me to the chair, Selena Aylesworth. When she heard my name, she replied loudly, “Ah, you’re the Texan. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a heretic in our midst! Burn him! Burn him!”

Gilbreath smiled and said, “Hugh, don’t worry, she’s just a syntactician,” to which she smiled unpleasantly. I said a few pleasantries and sat down to the curious stares and glares of the other members of my class.

Aylesworth stood and said, “I’d like to welcome all of our new graduate students. I’m glad to see all of you here. Don’t get used to the couches, they’re ordinarily for faculty.” Half of the other professors grimaced and half nodded. “Now, why don’t our new graduate students introduce yourselves to the room? Let’s start with Hugh Viner,” a name she enunciated in ways a pragmaticist would have found fascinating.

I said, “Hi, that’s me,” to which Aylesworth said, “No, please, stand up.”

I stood up and said, “I graduated back in Texas and plan to work in dialectology or sociolinguistics.”

One of the other students asked, “Texas? So why are you here?

Aylesworth perked up and asked with a cruel grin, “Yes, Hugh, why are you here?”

“Umm, safety school?” Most of the students laughed and Aylesworth just muttered, “Mm hmm, right.”

“Seriously, I’m interested in learning about linguistics from a different point of view.” Even to me it sounded lame.

The rest of the class consisted of five syntacticians, all of whom had had second majors in philosophy for which four had written senior theses on the metaphysics of Plato and one on the epistemology of Kant, three phonologists, and a budding historical linguist, Sarah Prickle. Aylesworth smiled cheerfully and said, “I’m glad to see we have the most balanced class in years! I’m simply disappointed that the philosophy departments still give Descartes such short shrift.”

The professors then took turns introducing themselves and their research. Besides Aylesworth and six other syntacticians were Gilbreath, who was a dialectologist; Fast, a phonologist; Gilmore, a mathematical linguist; and Flandry, a semanticist.

Afterwards they served coldcuts, rolls, and tea and I asked Gilbreath, “Isn’t there a phonetician?”

“There are two in psychology. It’s not real linguistics, you know.”

“Oh yes, they still have that silly superstition up here?” I asked.

He shook his head warningly and said, “You wanted linguistics from a different point of view.”

“So this is the most balanced class in class in years?”

“Yes, last year we only had three syntacticians, and four the year before that.”

I looked around at my fellow classmates, who when thinking themselves unobserved all seemed to mentally polish their knives as they took the measure of each other but were all smiles when catching each other’s eye, except that when they caught my eye they didn’t bother sheathing their knives. Gilbreath said quietly, “Welcome to grad school, Hugh. Enjoy the company.”

After the meeting ended, the rest of the class set out for a local pub, leaving only me and Prickle out. The aptly-named Sarah Prickle glared at me when I asked, “How are you?”

After a pause she replied, “Fairly well, thanks.” After another pause she asked, “How are you?”

“I’m told I’m terrific.”

Ordinarily with a wary audience this would get a chuckle, but she rolled her eyes and responded, “Who by, your stupider teachers in special ed or women you hired for the evening once they saw your credit card cleared?”

I grinned and replied, “Oh, I have many fans.”

“No accounting for taste.”

“They have highly refined tastes.”

“More likely they only have a taste for highly refined sugar.”

I laughed and said, “Shall we start over?”

“Why? I’m bored and it’s no reflection on me. Bye.” She turned on a dime and walked off.

As I walked out the exit opposite the one I had entered, I found a path leading through a thicket of metal sculptures amid old tree stumps to a small gate in a wall a little taller than my head. A small sign announced it as the Jacobson Memorial Sacred Grove, and off to my left a small group of students was sitting on the grass and a couple of tree stumps as they argued about something or other deeply syntactic; in one corner a small garden gnome stood on a pedestal. I walked on to the gate and pondered the sculptures I passed. All of them were made of long steel rods increasingly thin as one looked higher in the sculpture, all paired in up-opening v’s at increasingly acute angles. They would have attained a pleasing symmetry had they been more balanced, but as they were heavily lopsided, crowding up to the left or the right, they instead impressed the viewer with an awkward top-heaviness.

I wandered back to the dorm and read until dinner. As I entered the dining hall, Purnell finished, “ ‘I give up, you can have the duck,’ ” and much laughter ensued. He saw me and came over. “Ready for work?”

“Yep, just point me where.”

“Eat first. Your shift starts at 6:00, so come get me at five till.” I nodded and stood at the end of the line. Soon I was served something meatlike with broccoli and carrots, and at the end of the line an angular woman handed me a sheet of paper. “Questionnaire about the meal,” she said. As I ate, I looked over it and saw that it asked increasingly intimate questions about the texture, taste, aroma, and color of the meatlike product, with detailed questions about the response of each part of our tongues. Trevor sat down then with Anne and said, “Hi, Hugh, look! it’s your first exam in grad school!”

“Who put this together? It wouldn’t even make a good parlor game. ‘What numerical value would you give to your salivary response?’ Oh, I don’t know, 4.37? π + e?

Anne said, “Get used to it, Hugh. They hand them out three nights a week, and if you’re a statistical outlier they invite you in to eat while you take an EEG.”

I asked, “So, Trev, what’s the verdict?”

“Lunch line,” at which Anne grinned happily.

“No, no, classes.”

“Oh! Classical thermodynamics it is. The prof actually specializes in non-equilibrium thermodynamics and teaches the class to prepare us for it. I should really enjoy it. He said he’d even let me do extra-credit work on non-eek.”

“Good to hear. Anyway, I have to go to work now.”

“Have fun,” they said.

I found Purnell, who ushered me into a small room with two sinks, one full of pots, under the windows on the left side of the room and racks on the opposite wall; against the wall opposite the door were shelves and pegs with dishwashing supplies and aprons. He said, “You know what to do. Finish early and you can go; but you can’t go until you finish. But you only have to do these; no more will be coming in.” I nodded and set to, and finished by 6:45.

After work, I went to find Trevor, who was entertaining and being entertained in Anne’s suite. When he saw me, he said, “Ah, Hugh! Please come in.” Anne looked at me curiously, Felicia blandly, and Judy disappointedly, as if afraid of being fobbed off on me. We chatted briefly about classes, and then Trevor said, “Anne, it was good to chat with you today. Felicia, Judy, always a pleasure. Hugh, I’m going for a walk. Want to come with?”

“Well now, that does sound good. I need a good stretch.”

We went out and walked off roughly parallel to the edge of campus for about two miles until we came to a small creek. Trevor looked around and pointed at some rocks. “Want to sit over there?”

I walked over and sat on one, and Trevor sat on another. “I like these woods,” he said. “I plan to explore this whole region over the next year. You hiked your way here from Boston, so I think you can keep up, and just to be safe, it’d be good to have someone with me. You feel up for it?”

“Yes, of course. It sounds like a good break from work.”

“Damn right it does. Tomorrow I’ve got a whole day of hiking planned. I’m leaving right after breakfast. Anne arranged for me to get some sandwiches to take along. You bring the thermoses, I’ll bring the first aid kit.”

“Where do you plan to go?”

“There are some outcroppings about 10 miles to the northwest.”

“Three and half hours out, the same back, sure, that’s doable.”

“Three and a half? Are you in your dotage? Three max.”

“You’re on, Trev.”

The next morning we left about 9:30 and soon made our way into the woods. Around the university the woods seemed cultivated, but about five miles further the going was harder. The undergrowth was thicker, the ground was rockier, and the trees larger. Nonetheless, we were able to find traces of others’ paths much of the way and had little trouble reaching the outcroppings. A cluster of large rocks pushing out of the forest like breaching whales, they rose anywhere from thirty-five to sixty-five feet above the surrounding woods, and after we climbed to the top of the easternmost rock and looked back I saw that they marked the northern edge of a gently sloping bowl receding back to and across the Miskatonic. Looking north we saw a wilder country with hills and gullies, mostly covered by darker woods, and apart from gleams off the surface of the reservoir on the northeastern horizon bereft of signs of human habitation. Trevor spent a good half hour closely inspecting the lay of the land as I lay back and watched birds fly overhead. Finally he pulled out a pair of binoculars and surveyed the scene for a full circle, with frequent stops to check an old Geological Survey map.

Finally he shook his head and said, “I didn’t realize the Subsidence affected things this far north. There’s been a good deal of change to the land. Now I’m really eager to hike this place.”

I came over and took my bearings on the map, then looked around for five minutes or so. “That is odd. The differences seem to be stronger south of where we are though.”

“I noticed that. But then again, look up there,” and here he pointed northwest to a high hill. “The hill is marked as being less steep on the map; that small cliff on the side is new for sure.”

“I’m not sure that’s too out of place for just over a century. You’d need a geological map to say more. The hollowing out south of here is what’s strange.”

We sat and ate our sandwiches, and he said, “I’d like to hike east a ways to see the hills along the edge of this bowl, over to that spur there. Three miles, maybe? Then hike back to the dorm.”

I nodded. “Let me digest for fifteen minutes and I’ll be ready to go.”

We sat and drank some coffee from our thermoses and talked briefly of hikes of the past, and neither of us thought or cared to mention the curious fact that the center of the bowl seemed to be located somewhere on campus. After picking our way through the boulders around the outcropping, we stood for a couple of minutes in a saddle between the outcroppings and the hills we wanted to track. The woods to the north came almost to the top of the saddle and showed no sign of path or track. Trevor said, “I think we can hold off hiking further north until we have a full weekend planned for it. You could waste a lot of time that way without a machete.”

We turned east again and walked along the southern faces of the hills. The woods were a bit thicker here than what we had walked north through but passable enough. Twice we passed long-abandoned houses; Trevor and I peeked in them but saw no signs of human disturbances. When we left the second, he remarked, “Notice how the foundation of the house is at an angle to the horizontal.” I mentally subtracted the shrubs tight around the sides and saw he was right; the foundation had subsided in the south to leave the house leaning at an angle of about 10 degrees, which on first sight I had simply attributed to the walls starting to give way.

I muttered, “What the hell happened?”

“Something well-named, I’d warrant.”

We continued hiking until we reached the small southward spur of the hills and turned south. We made good time back to the dorm, though not the breakneck speed Trevor had goaded me towards, and for the short time before dinner pondered the map Trevor had sketched. He had excellent cross-country surveying skills and a reasonably accurate grasp of scale for all the features he had noted that we compared to the GS map. “I think we can fill in the gaps the rest of the semester. I’m pleasantly surprised by how tame the woods are in the bowl here. I could wander them at night without too much trouble, I think, on moonlit nights, at least for the three or four miles right around us.” And with those innocent pronouncements our leisure time was already set to be devoured.

That first week also saw my first experience of the enhanced oneiric learning environment, or as we called it, the Nightly Grind. Each weekday night our sleep cycles would align about 3:15 AM and a vivid dream would start with a knock on the door. Opening that, we would find a richly appointed classroom in which the instructor would test us for an hour on what we had learned. Dreams are often lovely or terrible, but we discovered they could also be tedious and frustrating. In any case, the instruction that could be offered was a bit limited: While helping to reinforce knowledge we had already pieced together for ourselves, it could not properly speaking provide much new information; it would appear that the neural pathways involved were too unreliable and low-capacity. In my case, three nights a week I was drilled in German (as Gilbreath had said, the dream environment was ideal for certain aspects of language study), and the other two were devoted to one of the other four classes on a biweekly schedule.

Although our night classes were tiresome, it was curious to observe our fellows in the dream world. Whether we saw them as they saw themselves or as we knew and feared them was unclear; perhaps there were elements of both. In any case, my classmates presented the aspect of the blood-thirstiest Verbrecherherberge this side of the resurgent student dueling societies of the Rhine, and I hoped the guise I tried to train myself into of a seven-foot-tall Texas Ranger carrying nunchucks, an epée, brass knuckles, and a machete in addition to the standard weaponry imposed itself forcefully on their consciousnesses.

The communal dreaming was limited to an hour a night for obvious reasons of mental health and restfulness, but it invariably leaked over into our other dreams, in which occasionally one of my suitemates would peek in and chat with me. Usually the conversation was something surreal that provoked chuckling at breakfast the next morning (such as Finley once telling me, “Come on, put on some pants, Hugh, someone’s got to be king”), or the interloper would say something like, “Oh, sorry, I didn’t know you two were seeing each other...Wait, she’s over there...Oh my, sorry old chap, bye.” For while in general no one could come into our minds even invited, this was rigorously true only in the classroom environment; in extracurricular dreams, the focus of one’s private dream might express itself to someone dreaming in close proximity in real life. Frequently of a morning one of us would come into the dining hall and sit down to the furious blush of another of our circle, and to save social health nothing would be said of a wild, often flattering surmise. On rarer occasions (perhaps once a month, but varying widely by dreamer and month) the blushes rose on both sides, and such occasions followed peculiarly vivid complementary dreams that sometimes led to assignations later that were not always a disappointment after what had come before. Quite often, though, even then nothing eventuated outside the dream realm, for the dream libido is a curious beast that often fixated on one or two things out of the entirety of our personalities and bodies, leaving our waking selves shaking our heads at our other selves inside our heads rather than leering at each other. Having some experience of life after puberty, we were happy to be closer to 26 than 16, for even those without strong moral qualms saw eminent wisdom in restraint.

More uncomfortable were those who had paired off, for even the most faithful lovers roamed raucously in their dreams. Often a new relationship would be less than a week old when one of the pair would blush and the other would frown in baseless feelings of betrayal, often mixed with guilt for dreams of his or her own. Some pairs weathered such mornings, while others lasted less than two weeks together despite each being well-suited to the other. A system of tacit understandings quickly settled in on the dorm our first week, and after another two weeks social life was relatively normal and even outré blushings were taken in stride.

For one thing that never faded for almost anyone was the reflex of blushing on seeing a partner from a dream the night before. Each of us received a pamphlet about the side effects of the enhanced dream realm that stated that for almost everyone experiencing it, blushes were automatic and inevitable in such circumstances, and counselors were available at the university clinic for those needing understanding, absolution, or (for an added fee) punishment. I have to add though that I soon came to suspect Trevor physically incapable of blushing or embarrassment, despite the fact that at one time or another every woman in our circle blushed when he sat down, occasionally two or three on the same morning. Whether he was possessed of perfect self-control, sang froid, and savoir faire or was simply frigid was unclear and really of little interest to me. My experience was far from his, and I suspected that the dream environment encouraged dreaming that had been rather rarer for me before. Or perhaps it merely made more vivid and connected what had been disjoint and forgotten before by morning, for while I crushed (as we naturally referred to it when necessary) heavily in dorm dreams, I rarely did so beyond the normal limits of my tastes and assorted fixations.

And this fact, which many of us sometimes discussed in private chats notable for discretion, delicacy, decorum, and punctilio, added another strain to the tacit understandings undergirding our common residence, for it was best to take in stride that which ridiculing or resenting might provoke mutually assured destruction of everybody’s self images and mutual regards, be it blushing at someone of the sex opposite that to which one was accustomed or committed, more than one person at once, or the like. Short-lived sallies of wit or acknowledgements of the humor of a situation were acceptable within bounds, but it was only the nonsexual idiosyncrasies that would leave permanent traces, as with Anne’s odd penchant for dreaming the sight of her latest beetle of study in close-up even in the most passionate throes before release in dreams she shared with at least three different partners, or my reputation for sweet talk in Russian or what turned out when recollected in the light of morning to be Seri vocabulary for different types of rounded foodstuffs.

Rather, it was the other dreams each of us experienced deep in the dark that we never were able to take in stride. Alas for me, Boston had left a trace in my subconscious that resurfaced in times of particular stress, and like a doomed fox I found that no matter which way I turned, death lay in wait. Other dreams secreted themselves until just before daybreak to cast ill shadows over the whole of the day, leaving sickly vivid afterimages of tentacles reaching up inexorably from the inky deep below me or vistas of broken cities on barren plains in which some heard but unseen predator took pleasure in my fear. And once I had recourse to the counseling services of the university clinic.

One Friday morning towards the end of our first semester, I sat exhausted and stretched thin at breakfast. Anne sat down as Finley blushed and marched off for a refill of coffee, and I greeted her as usual, “Привет, гибкая красавица жуков,” to which she smiled and said, “Morning, Hugh, did you sleep well?” Just then, Felicia sat down and I blushed as I heard Anne whisper to Trevor, “Oh, I guess he did,” to which he said, “Hush. Hugh, are you all right? I’ve never seen anyone blush green before.”

After I collected myself, I said, “Really rough dream this morning. Really rough.” Felicia started to flush in anger and I said, “No, a later dream. Not you,” which mollified her, and as Finley sat down she blushed a bright red. Anne whispered to Trevor, “Ooh, think we’ll see a full rondelet this morning?”

He smiled in acknowledgement and said, “Hugh, maybe you should see a counselor. If it’s really bad they might have something they could give you. You don’t want a pattern to set in if it’s that bad. That could make your life hell; you might even have to move out or leave school. There are stories...”

Finley added, “Yes, one of our professors specializes in the folklore of enhanced dreaming. There was one guy who dreamed about werewolves and became one just a few years ago. They had to shoot him with silver bullets right out on the green.”

I grimaced, “Not helping here, Finn, sorry.”

Trevor said, “Go to the clinic when you have time today. At least you’ll have someone outside to talk to,” a clincher among us since any talk of bad dreams within the dorm could pass the dream from dreamer to dreamer like a cold, and just as cold sufferers were polite to quarantine themselves, so bad dreams were only to be discussed in detail with an outsider.

I said, “I have time now. I’ll see you all at lunch.” As I left, Judy came to sit down and blushed as she saw me; simultaneously Anne blushed and I winked at her, “Rondelet.” She smiled and looked away.

The clinic was on the other side of campus fairly close to my first class at 10:30, and as they opened at 9:00 I would have enough time to hash out the disinterment with a disinterested observer. I was the only one there, fortunately, and was immediately shown in to meet an affable older man. “Hello, Hugh, I’m Bob Jenkins. Please have a seat. I understand you had a troubling dream this morning?”

I said yes, and he asked me to describe it. “Let’s see, it was at the tail end know, the usual...with...anyway, her name doesn’t matter. We were lying there dozing off, and someone scratched on the wall. I woke up, but she just rolled over on her side away from me and faded away...”

“Yes, that’s normal. Oneiric disentanglement, we call it; the brain fills in the sudden loss of connection with what is customary in wakeful intercourse.”

“It wasn’t a joint dream, just me dreaming of her. What do you mean by ‘connection’?”

“In communal dreaming there are degrees of focus. Your full focus goes to one person or group, but you’re still aware of the focus of others. The reason’s unknown, but the phenomenon’s real all the same. Surely you’ve felt a click of recognition when someone else has blushed at you, slight faded memories of some of the action of the dream.”

“Well, yes, a slight flicker.”

“And you’ve had others walk in on you in your dreams and recognize the two of you, right?”


“Similar phenomenon. Major focus in full awareness, subconscious awareness of the focus of others, only not just awareness of focus on you yourself but on another dreamer. It’s a bit like seeing the light of an old motion picture from the side. You can’t see the image on the screen but you can see where the beam is aimed; if the beam is aimed at you, you can make out little bits of what is playing. The sleeping mind is a wondrous thing.”

“That actually makes some sort of sense. —Anyway, I got up to find out what was making the noise, but my door was gone. I was walking through the streets of Boston...”

“Excuse me, Hugh, have you dreamed in Boston?”


“That’s an important thing to know. How much of the dream you had this morning replicated your dreams from Boston?”

“The setting was similar at the beginning, but it diverged completely pretty quickly.” I told him the basic outline of my Boston-inspired dreams, and he shuddered and said, “Boston dreams are always horrible things. Please continue.”

“I heard Jameson in the street behind me and suddenly a new alleyway opened up to my right. There was a pale light around a corner at the end, a lively green that promised safety, so I rushed there and through a green curtain. I had to hurry before Jameson saw it and followed me. Anyway, once I passed through the curtain, I was in a strange place with living, sentient crystals growing on the walls that refracted all the colors of the spectrum and others besides. Bob, I saw two new colors.”

He snapped to attention. “Ulfire and jale?”

“Huh, what?”

He relaxed. “Good. Please continue.”

“I didn’t like the look of the place, but when I turned around, the curtain was gone. Instead, there was a dark tunnel there, and I knew I had to get away from it.” I paused. “Just a tunnel, you know. It makes no sense. I’ve gone spelunking many times. I love tunnels, but in dreams they’re not entryways to special places where few have come before. What would Freud say, eh?”

“Something stupid in German. Now tell me about the rest of your dream.”

“The rest of the dream was much of the same, just over and over and over until the very end. Something came out of the tunnel after I had turned the corner, and we played hide and seek in a maze that kept expanding as I walked in it. It was endless. I knew it was endless, and I knew the thing behind me had infinite patience. And different parts of the maze were lit in different colors, all of which were sickly and threatening but called up different...memories. Fears. Pains from the past. My mother’s death, especially. But at the end I saw a white light around a corner and turned that way, and the floor fell out from under me. I fell into a room with twelve people standing around me. They all had masks on and held long knives, and the air reeked of patchouli, and two of them grabbed me and fastened me to a table. They started chanting, and I could see out through a window on the wall at my feet. It looked out over Arkham. The university was there, with that tower they built in the late 2040s, and it was all vivid and perfectly photographic in every detail. They were using me to...summon something, and I heard a trembling in the earth as they raised their knives above me, and I could do nothing but watch the reflection of the tower in their knives as they got ready to thrust them into me to the hilt. That’s when I woke up.”

Bob shuddered. “Oh, I hate patchouli dreams. I’m allergic to patchouli. That’s why I couldn’t become Unitarian even though my wife is.”

I simply looked at him fixedly, eyebrows raised, until he said, “Sorry, I got distracted. I take it then you spent time in Arkham?”

“Yes, I saw the museum for the old university. I know that’s where the image came from, but it seemed more vivid and realistic in the dream.”

We then discussed my classes and my stresses, my hobbies and my other dreams. “Hugh, I know it was a rough dream, but I don’t think you should worry about it too much. Worrying could make it much worse. What you need to do is spend a couple of nights off campus and well out of the dorm. Rent a room in Pursleyville and relax there after classes tomorrow and Saturday. Read something extracurricular and listen to some good music before you go to bed. I’ll give you a couple of pills to sedate you and reduce your dreaming. You don’t want to take them very long; in some cases a dreamer can become psychologically dependent on them in a serious way very quickly. But two nights should be enough to ensure the dream doesn’t lay down a rut. You should be fine after that. If the dream recurs, come back and see me immediately. —Do you have any questions?”

“I have a couple of general questions.”

“All right, if they’re quick. I have an appointment at 10:20.”

“So, why do we have this wretched communal dreaming anyway? It’s really intrusive.”

“It’s something about the area, and it requires a certain density of dreamers. It centers somewhere around the edge of campus near Farnsworth Dorm, and it sets in strongly whenever there are more than between 30 and 60 people in close quarters. It drops off entirely on the far side of Pursleyville, but it is reported rarely within the town in any case.”

“Is there any way to control it?”

“Of course. That’s how we’re able to have enhanced dream learning.”

“No, I mean not being able to do it at all.”

“No, sorry, Hugh, it’s part and parcel of the university grounds.”

I said, “I see. Well, thank you, Bob, you’ve been very helpful.”

He handed me a small pillbox and said, “Take one before bedtime on a full stomach, and no alcohol.” I took the pillbox and shook his hand and walked off to class deep in malneirophrenia, but the prescription worked and there were no other such experiences my first year at MIT. In sum I can only say it was good that it happened after I had gotten used to the Nightly Grind, whose peculiarities shaped so much of what followed. In any case, it was only one part of the general cultural milieu infesting the place, permeating not only our personal relations but the art and discourse of the Institute.

Saturday after the first week of classes I woke up at nine and rushed off for breakfast before camping out in my chair at the window and reading until lunch, then returned to reading until dinner. Trevor sat in his room ciphering away at his desk (at one point I heard him say, “Just what the hell kind of scientific calculator doesn’t have Bessel functions?”) and Finley sat opposite me reading through several photocopied articles. Very little was said all day and much progress was made. At 5:30 we rose and stretched as one and marched quietly off to the dining room; as we entered, Purnell finished, “ ‘How many bars do you work at anyway, man?,’ ” and much laughter ensued.

After dinner, Finley, Trevor and I wandered over to the concert hall for the first regular concert of the year, the first in a series devoted to the most outstanding works of generations of Miskatonic Valley composers. The first work, “The Passing of the Old World,” a song cycle for tenor and chamber orchestra by Pickney Scofield, consisted of four songs that started in beneficent European style and ended on some other shore entirely. The first song was a wholesale appropriation, “Arkham Beach,” and after the first few words I heard Finley say “Wow, this is nice!” and Trevor, “Good God, the gall!” While the text had been altered to suit the perverse vision of the composer, Barber’s music was unchanged in the first part, so it was easy to ignore the verbal oddities at the outset:

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the murk lies foul
Upon the straitsnear the far coast a ship
Sinks and is gone; the cliffs of Arkham stand,
Gloom-soaked and vast, around the tranquil bay.
Oh, close the damn window, rank is the miasmal air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea eats the eroding land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which tentacles draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
A sense of cosmic terror in.

Certainly it was a greater artistic statement than anything I had heard in Boston, if no more original.

The next song started violently,

Thunder rolled by the rolling stars
Simulates triumphal cars
Deployed in constellated wars
Scorpion fights against the Sun
Until the Sun and Moon go down
Comets weep and Leonids fly
Hunt the heavens and the plains
Whirled in a vortex that shall bring
The world to that destructive fire
Which burns before the ice-cap reigns.

Scofield had the clever touch of quoting the beginning of Rebel’s Éléments but dashing it back to chaos every time it threatened to resolve into a dance. During the catalog of vacating vacancies the strings echoed Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary, then against “The houses are all gone under the sea/The dancers are all gone under the hill,” which Scofield had postposed to the end, the instruments faded out one by one in a plangent theme all his own, leaving an English horn to sink slowly into silence.

The third song was a verse I couldn’t place about the hills bursting asunder to release all the nightmares of humanity, stored under the ground in the unforgetting memory of a malevolent earth; the music was a howl of aleatory tremolos, crunching, and insectoidal noises. One sensed the work was very dear to the composer’s heart, and I was glad he had predeceased me so I would never make his acquaintance. The cycle ended with a text in a language that one could scarcely credit coming from a human throat, but the singer managed it (I smiled when his first act as the applause started was to pop a cough drop in his mouth, and considered finding a score in the library); the music was otherworldly, slippery, elusive, and yet marchlike in a tricky meter that seduced the listener and left him ill at ease, as if from too much cough syrup.

The rest of the concert was a wash, Ellen Lemuel’s Sinfonia Scrofulosa and a suite from Gerald Akeley’s opera Carpenter’s Gothic, both in a thorny 20th century American academic style that cribbed heavily from Powell and Babbitt, respectively, without a scintilla of creativity, beauty, joy, or indeed any emotion at all apart from a grim-minded determination to get to the end even if it killed composer and listener alike, just so long as it counted towards tenure.

As we walked back to our suite, Finley yawned (he had snoozed throughout much of the concert) and Trevor said, “Those were supposed to be the masterworks from the Miskatonic Valley. I think I’ve already conceived a deep hatred for this place.”

I replied, “I’ll forgo the pleasure of the rest of the series.”

“The sonata form started as a song structure, the suite as a set of dances. To think the ass end of their historical development in this land is the complete absence of song or dance as we trudge off to the abattoir!”

“Welcome to grad school.”

That night I dreamed I was running across the green to escape dozens of rabid squirrels. Suddenly, loud meows rose in unison like a lion’s roar and an army of cats charged in from all sides to devour the squirrels in a flurry of fur and blood. After the carnage ended with many satisfied purrs, the ugly tortoiseshell cat meowed “Attention,” then “At ease.” The cats sat up and then lolled on the ground. I saluted the tortoiseshell, who saluted with her tail. Suddenly a crazed gleam came into her eyes and she jumped forward and sank all her fangs in my left knee and all her claws in the back of my shin and mauled me for five seconds or so. I screamed, “What the hell, cat?” Although a few cats looked up from their asses, most kept grooming or sleeping, and the tortoiseshell said, “It’s your own fault, you know. You must have twitched a muscle or something.” She turned her back on me, twitched her tail in dismissal, and scraped the grass with her left hind paw, a rude gesture I knew all too well from my boyhood cat.

I walked on and soon found myself next to a willow on the bank of the Miskatonic. A woman sat in the shadows underneath, and when I peeked inside I saw Anne beckoning me to sit next to her. As I did so, I saw every freckle on her nose as if in real life, and her blue eyes twinkled in the shade as she brushed her brown shoulder-length hair out of her face. As I started thinking, as one sometimes does in dreams after reading too much Husserl, “If this were really real, there would be an unchanging presence to every detail,” I looked closely to see if any of her freckles had shifted, but that ended when she said, “Hugh, what happened to your leg?”

“Cat attack.”

“Well, what do you expect when you walk across campus completely naked?”

“I wasn’t.”

“You are now. Let me take care of that for you,” and pulled off her top, seemingly to use as a bandage.

“The wound’s fine.”

“No, this,” and soon we were deep in our first joint dream.

At breakfast the next morning, Anne and I blushed beet red on seeing each other; talk stopped but soon resumed, and we made what was actually a fair success of breakfast conversation until I had to leave. Anne walked out with me for a few private words, and after an hour and a half or so I returned to the suite. I was reading the first of four chapters in as many books when I heard Trevor making a hash of elementary Russian. I walked to his door and said, “Сталь.”


“No, it’s written with two letters but it’s one sound. Сталь.”


“Say l. Say lean.” He did so and I said, “That’s a lot closer. Push your tongue even further towards a y sound,” after which he made a passable ль. “Now say the other word.”


“That’s a good start, but it’s darker in Russian. Almost like it’s mixed with w. Стал.”




“Much better!”

“Stall. No. Стал.”

“And the other.”

“Staly. No. Сталь.”

“Now both.”

“Стал. Сталь.” He repeated them several times with increasing reliability and confidence.

“Good. Okay, just a second here.” I drew a stick figure on a scrap of paper and held it in my left hand. “This is Marie Curie.”

“In what universe, Hugh?”

“It’s abstract art, okay? —Anyway, she was полька,” which I wrote underneath it.

“Polka? The dance?”

“A Polish woman. Also the name of the dance. —And your bookshelf here is a полка,” which I wrote out for him.

“You’re cruel, Hugh.”

“Me cruel? You’re the sadistic butcher.”


“Of the Russian language.”

He laughed and said, “Okay, it doesn’t take much brains to see what I have to do.” He pointed to each and said, “Polka.”

“You live in a strange universe in which all women are shelves. Russians are more romantic than that. Now remember how you said стал and сталь. The l’s are the same way here.”

After a few tries he got them down fairly reliably, and after a few minutes of practice in which I pointed to one or the other as the spirit moved me I said, “Now do that for all the other consonants.”

“I have to do that for all of them?”

“All but five, yeah.”

“Ugh, why?”

“Because the Russian language says so.”

“No, why did I agree to study this tongue-twister? I’ll probably accidentally bite my tongue open and bleed to death.”

“Funny, that’s what beginning Russian students say about English.”


“Hell if I know.”

“Thanks, Hugh. Care to help me out this semester?”

“Of course, be happy to.”

“So why did they adopt this crazy alphabet with two letters for every sound?”

“Because about 1200 years ago they were two sounds.”


“That little letter at the end, the soft sign, was originally a very short i sound, [ɪ]. It made the l in front of it soft, like the l in lean versus loon. Light versus dark l. Eventually the final vowel was dropped, but most preceding consonants retained a trace of it by remaining pronounced soft.”

“So, these words were pronounced [stal] and [ˈstalɪ] long ago. That makes sense, I guess.”

“Um, not quite. They didn’t have final consonants at the time the alphabet was adopted. Every word ended in a vowel. So the first was [ˈstalɯ], roughly. And that vowel [ɯ] was written with a different vowel sign, which is now the hard sign, and that vowel was dropped too at the ends of words in speech. They kept writing it out of tradition, but after the first Revolution they stopped writing it word-finally since there was no point to keeping it.” I forbore going into the treatment of loanwords.

He said nothing for a few seconds. “How do you remember this stuff?”

“It’s easy. How do you remember vector calculus identities?”

He laughed, “But that’s easy.”

That first semester each of my classes was a bear and no mistake, but the only one worth much discussion was the course on the philosophical problems of sociolinguistics offered by the sociology and anthropology departments and only grudgingly cross-listed by linguistics. There were eight students in the class, of whom only one other was a fellow budding linguistand Carla was of the mainstream New England view that the whole field was a problem of performance rather than an issue of competence.

The other students were an even mix of sociologists and anthropologists fascinated by the socio side of thing but a bit wary of the other part. The class began with a close reading of three of the classics of the field, paying close attention to the shortcomings and drawbacks of the social analysis implied, and the following week began with a historically rich survey of the concept of social class. In particular, attention was paid to the special features of the Marxist category of class defined by the supposed uniform socioeconomic interests of every one of its members due to their socioeconomic position, or so sufficed for the purposes of our class; and while historical research had shown that such an analysis was fatally flawed historical bunk even for the periods for which Marx and Engels claimed it explained everything, the view remained influential in various watered-down forms because its vast eviscerating oversimplification of reality allowed for the clever yet mindless application of a whole body of received ideas and religious beliefs to prove anything the investigator wanted. And so, we were challenged to discuss in our first paper the socioeconomic analyses undergirding the papers we had read. Could “socioeconomic status,” however defined, stand on its own, or did it draw tacitly on idealizing views of class?

After that sharp challenge to the linguists in the class, the next week required the others to work overtime as we turned to the processes of measurement and analysis of sociolinguistic variation and launched into involved technical discussions of instrumental limitations, unconscious regularization through the investigator’s selection bias, and the vast panoply of statistical tools that had for so long been my daily bread but everyone else’s too-rare treat.

The meat of the course was served next: What did sociolinguistic variation imply about various views of human language? And here the other students had the not-so-rare treat of watching Carla and me spar endlessly. Her view of the nature of language slid languorously from the uniform mental principles or structure underlying the speech of all the speakers of a speech community to an abstraction away from the tiresome profusion of idiolectal features to their common core and back again as needed for the point under discussion. Even in New England terms her arguments were crude and lacked a century and a half of development, but it was not clear that such developments had propped up the unsupported equation in her view against all demur.

For one of our papers in this part of the class, I was seized by a spirit of mischief and wrote roughly as follows. “The true nature of language can be best understood from the application of computational theory to linguistic theory. Language is not only describable as a system of cellular automata, it is a system of cellular automata. Literally. Language is the first artificial life humanity has managed to create, and it lives in a symbiotic relationship with our own species. As a first step, we might view each language as a separate species, but it is a misapplication of biological metaphor to refer to life forms that undergo Lamarckian rather than Darwinian evolution as ‘species,’ for they readily interbreed and share features as the hosts to different strains interact.” There then followed five pages of brilliantly skewed and increasingly erratic applications of biological ideas to sociolinguistic variation, in which I posited that the speech of an individual speaker is analogous to the biological individual and evolution acts on it during its lifespan rather than being a process applying on the generational scale, all stitched together with connective tissue lifted wholesale from Samuel Butler.

At the end of the next class, Professor Denholm told me to come to her office, and when we sat down she held up my paper and said, “Are you serious?

“Oh, heavens no, I was having some fun.”

“I see. I was going to give you a D if you meant it, but as a humorous essay it was the most enjoyable read I’ve had all semester. It shows a solid grasp of the issues and has the most entertaining bibliography I’ve ever seen in a class paper, so I’m giving you an A. I showed it to Dr. Gilbreath and he said for me to tell you that he believes SpecGram is still publishing. Does that mean anything to you?”

I laughed and said, “It’s an old linguistics joke. Nobody knows where the term comes from, but it’s what linguists say when someone has a stupid idea.”

Apart from Denholm’s appreciative audience for my occasional sally at windmills, however, my courses were uneventful but successful. In late November I had a brief meeting with Gilbreath to choose courses for the spring semester. There was little wrangling over me signing up for phonetics, historical linguistics, semantics, and German (the chances were good I’d place into the fourth semester), but I bridled a bit when he urged me to take a fifth course again.

“Hugh, you’ve demonstrated you can handle the load. You’re doing very well in dialectology and I hear you’ve done equally well in your other classes. It would be useful for you to take a bit of mathematical linguistics.”

“Yes, but Applications of Group Theory to Linguistics?”

“You never know what good that might do you a few years down the line.” After some further discussion, I agreed to sign up for it and we signed my forms. “Lunchtime,” he said. “Care to join me?”

As we walked out the exit into the Jacobson Memorial Sacred Grove I asked Gilbreath, “What’s the story behind this place?”

“This was an orchard established by the bequest of one of our old professors about 70 years ago. He wanted to put in some fruit trees for people in the department to study and relax under. The department thought it was a fine symbol and appointed an arborist to maintain the orchard. Unfortunately, the demands of the department made the job onerous. The first arborist was a former student who found it the best-paying job in the contemporary market, but alas, she refused to adhere to the requirement that all trees have only binary branching; she said something about apposition and was fired. The next arborist refused to trim the trees so that the branches were confined to a plane; he said it was unnatural and the department overruled him on the grounds that you can have real growth and development only if you institute a series of severe constraints from the ground up, so he quit. The third arborist did as he was told, but the trees died over the winter. So after that,” and here he swept his hand around at our surroundings, “the department commissioned something more permanent.”

About that time my preparations started for the winter break. As my funds were hardly overabundant I would not be leaving the state, but I would be leaving the Miskatonic Valley, a relief even if to some place far worse; I often pondered whether hell would be tolerable if it were variegated, or if heaven would be hellish if unchanging, but either place would be preferable to permanent rustication on the Miskatonic.

I had kept in touch with Pamela and Veronica as promised. Once upon a time, of course, that would have been too easy to bear mention, but one consequence of the Subsidence was a bizarre disruption of the old systems of computer networks. While communication remained reliable over small distances, say the size of a university or a small city, over longer distances untraceable random noise and distortions set in on the order of 10–20 dB per mile that had destroyed several sectors of the economy and smashed wide swathes of the social infrastructure at the time of the Subsidence. It was just one of the many ways the world outside human society had seemingly expanded to burst so many former bonds to leave a diverse congeries of small communities thrown back on their own resources and cowering in the new wilderness where once there had been a transcontinental union, and even after nearly a century of rebuilding, the traces of the Subsidence reached deep to the roots of every institution in modern society.

However, the mail ran again, and had done so reliably if slowly for over forty years throughout most of the continent, including New England. Similarly, in many places telephone networks had made a painful advance, though in many other places, New England in particular, inter-town telephony stalled in abeyance, unable to surmount the same obstacles that killed the computer networks. As for cellular communications, different distortions played hob with speech transmitted further than about 20 miles within New England, with the range increasing the further you were from New England, until once you reached the heartland it was possible to call from Texas to El Salvador with only moderate miscommunication. (And no such effects were discernible above the lower atmosphere, a fact that made my father’s career a solid earner. On the other hand, interference with aviation electronics was serious enough to restrict plane travel beyond the Hudson to quite primitive aircraft.) While the heartland had recovered to roughly the level of 2020, much of New England remained stuck back a century earlier. Indeed, it was only after coming to New England that I realized fully just how devastating and pervasive the Subsidence must have been and how swiftly it had knocked out the props of what had been on the verge of becoming the home world of an interplanetary society. Their hands were slapped away jealously from those little wandering lights in the sky, once almost in their grasps but now as mockingly inaccessible as the fixed lights behind them. I had been habituated to the recoveries we had made; it was shocking to be faced with how far we had been pushed down.

I wrote Pamela and Veronica a short letter the first week and received a warm reply a week or so later. On both sides the letters became longer and less formal. One evening Pamela would write a page or so, then the next Veronica would write a terser but much more pungent paragraph or two, and so trade off once or twice until finished. Similarly, I would write a page or so every other day between classes as work permitted, and mail it off a week later. For the most part Pamela and I would trade news on our work and wrangle over all the many ways biological and linguistic variation and evolution worked themselves out to such different ends, while Veronica would provide me beginner’s tips for looking at paintings or interesting disquisitions on nonsense I had written earlier about art, as she so often convinced me it had been. For a woman who worked in a field based on illusion, I teased her once, she certainly had no stomach for illusions of any sort, and so started a dialogue on the nature and ways of art, about which I had few settled ideas and she an overabundance.

In November, their letter opened by reminding me of my promise to visit them over winter break, and over the next two weeks we made arrangements for me to come down to Boston for three days. I had informed them of the circumstances surrounding my swift exit a few months before, and they advised me of a good inn located in one of the less debased parts of the city fairly close to their home. Two days after classes ended and communal dreaming faded away as everyone trickled away, I was able to get a ride to Lynn from John, a grad student in botany whose boyfriend in Lynn allowed me to crash on his couch, and I hiked to Boston the next morning.

After lunch, I spent the early afternoon at two art museums Veronica had assigned me to visit, then checked in at the inn and met them at a nearby restaurant. After an early dinner we went to the bar of the inn, where we were allowed to use what was mockingly called the VIP room. “Vast Improvements Prescribed,” Pamela decided after we were served.

“Venereal Infections Possible,” said Veronica, and I replied, “Voluptuaries Irritated Perpetually.”

“You lose, Hugh,” said Pamela. “That was incredibly lame. First round’s on you.”

“My pleasure.”

“So, you seem very happy. From the tone of your latest letters, we thought you’d be a stress-ridden haggard.”

Veronica added, “All your fingernails chewed off, and maybe even an arm.”

“It’s a strange place. It’s very wearing. I’m just so relieved to be out of it for a while.”

I told them some of the oddnesses of the region, and mentioned the communal dreaming.

“Communal dreaming? That sounds fun,” said Pamela brightly, but Veronica had a darker streak to her that went to the nub of the matter.

“Wouldn’t that mess up your sleep schedules? And do you have people tramping through your brain at all hours? I’d commit dreamland mass murder if that happened to me.”

I explained the way it worked, and Pamela said, “So, basically you have classes and lots of wet dreams with each other.”

“And nightmares all by our own little lonesomes. —In some ways it’s like suffering intrusive thoughts, but with the added pleasure that they can be broadcast.”

“Man. I can see the shine coming off that fast. And the other people actually know you dreamed about someone because of your blushing?”


“And if you two dream about each other...?”

“It’s very vivid, like real life almost.”

“So even though you didn’t, you did. Sounds like it saves a lot of time.”

“But you often don’t want to in real life, not really. It can be very awkward. It can leave you feeling like you completely betrayed yourself the next day. Even at best it’s like you learned a lot of private things about someone else that they didn’t want you to and that you didn’t want to either.”

“Okay, I can see that. But surely it must be something you want sometimes, right?”

I blushed, but only moderately, and said, “Well, yes, of course.”

“So,” and here she grinned with a slightly wicked leer, “did you ever get with any of those women afterwards? —They were all women, right?”

“Well...joint dreams, yes. And yes. Three times.”


“Nothing permanent, no.”

“So it was uncomfortable afterwards? Disappointing?”

“No, not at all, just not something we wanted to pursue. In that respect, I suppose it’s just like everywhere else. It was fine, once it was even great, but that’s all it was. And besides, even if you do decide to pair up, your subconscious does whatever it wills. It’s a nominal pair with four partners, two of whom are not bound by any promises.”

“Oh. Oh my, I see.”


“So, please don’t mind my asking, but just how vivid are the dreams?”

“Alone, a regular vivid dream. Together, like I said, a real clincher.”

“So does it...have...lead to...?”

“The expected physical responses in every event and every respect, yes.”

“So it’s basically icky more than fun.”

“Well, there’s a lot of ick to it, yeah.”

Veronica interposed, “So what you’re actually saying is it’s just like real-life dating with lowered inhibitions. Basically hooking up at a kegger.”

“Not quite, no,” I smiled. “But if you have no further questions, I’d be more than happy to change the subject.”

Pamela smiled, “Oh, I have dozens that I might ask you when we know each other better. Vertebrate physiology fascinates me, you know.”

Veronica said, “Pam might still be curious, but it sounds just dreadful. I’d be a townie after one night.”

“You’d still have classes at night.”

“That’s tolerable from what you say, but this fluid mixing of boundaries is just the herd imposing itself on you on a more conscious level.”

“No, I don’t think there’s anything herdlike about it. We retain our individuality; it’s just that our subconscious reactions are more public, and that does not conduce to going along with the crowd uncritically or unthinkingly.”

She thought for a bit and said, “Okay, point taken. I grant that. But it is still an assault on your privacy.”

“Yes, it certainly is that.”

“So we are in agreement that it is not a Good Thing.”


Pamela said, “Thirded.”

Veronica continued, “So, tell us about your friends. I assume their dreaming proclivities are secret? If not, make them so.”

“Oh yes, that sort of thing goes no further.”

“You wrote you’re in a suite with two other guys.”

“Trevor and Finley, yes.” I told them some facts and stories about them, and Pamela said, “Oh, I’d love to meet them. They sound like a fun pair. We could really have fun with Finley.”

“Yes, we probably could, but he’s my friend so I wouldn’t let you.”

“Well, good for you!”

Veronica interposed, “Oh, and you wrote that you and Trevor do a lot of hiking on weekends. Now that sounds fun.”

“Yes, it’s keeping us sane, I think. We choose a different direction each time. If the weather’s good, we take sleeping bags and go 12 miles or more and explore the region. Other times, if it’s supposed to rain or if we’re busy, we do a short day trip, 6 miles at most. Trevor and I know a lot of the woods and hills around the university as well as a native. We’ve had to stop the last month though. It was getting cold and it was the end of the semester.”

“So since you’re off campus there’s no dreaming either.”

“Just normal dreaming.”

“Normal dreaming, yeah, sorry, that’s what I meant.”

We finished our drinks and they bade me goodnight, for it was already fairly dark out and they had a walk of three blocks or so. We agreed to meet the next morning for brunch at a neighboring restaurant, followed by a tour of the interesting parts of the city. I went upstairs to my room and read until bedtime, for I had no desire to sample the local sensorvision wares again. My dreams were pretty much as expected and no worse, and I awoke only slightly worn.

They arrived fresh and rested at 10:30 sharp. Pamela hugged me and asked, “Hugh, good morning! Did you sleep well?”

“That’s a relative term.”

“Do you feel like you slept well?”

“Well enough, I suppose. In Massachusetts terms, probably a little better than average.”

Veronica gripped my upper arm and said, “You sound happy enough. It amazes me to think that Boston might be a change for the better for anyone.”

“Oh, I’m sure it’s just a minor reversal in Boston’s fortunes. Check with me tomorrow after the city has rallied.”

We laughed and ordered some coffee drinks, and as we looked over the menu for solid fare they asked me about my classes.

“I’m sure I did well.”

Veronica asked, “Which classes were they again?”

I told her, and she said, “Yes, you mentioned that, but it’s not a subject I know enough to keep straight.” I told them briefly about the point of syntax and phonology, and Veronica said, “Introductory courses, you said.”

“Yes, intro grad level.”

“German, of course, fine language. And the other two? The ones you seem less dismissive of?”

“Introduction to dialectology, that’s the study of dialects. And sociolinguistics is the study of language variation in society.”

“Your hobby horse.”

“Yes indeed, that’s a fair assessment.”

“So that’s where they teach you to subvert good English.”

I laughed. “If you read my syntax textbook, you might rethink that charge.”

After they finished chuckling, she continued, “All joking aside, what’s the point of it?”

“What’s the point of anything? To learn more about that aspect of human life. It’s crucial for understanding how language changes.”

“I can see that, yes, but what else?”

“It helps us understand how social factors influence language.”

“Does that include ignorance and sloth, or are they brushed under the rug?”

“Well, since it’s focused on the spoken language, you’d probably conclude those are its chief subject matter.”

“I don’t see the attraction. So some people learn their language poorly in school, it doesn’t mean that’s worthy of study.”

“But language is always changing, even the standard language, and the principles governing the spreads of those changes are apparently the same. And besides, people learn much of their spoken language before they go to school.”

“Your point being?”

“That even you should see the value of learning how their spoken language gets set.”

“It’s still a deficit.”

“As was every feature of the contemporary standard language at one time or another.”

“The standard was polished by generations of conscious artistic choice.”

“In great part polished by ratifying or vetoing changes from the spoken language.”

“Ratified or vetoed on grounds of elegance and logic.”

What logic? Have you ever tried to analyze the logical structure of English? Even the most elevated form of standard English is so full of logical holes that no one has succeeded in getting close to that goal in two centuries of trying. No variety of logic describes a natural language well, whether predicate, propositional, modal, epistemic, temporal, or what have you.”

“But we have grammars that describe the logic of the language for students.”

“They give rules that work well enough much of the time, but that’s not logic, it’s the codification of a description.”

“So are you claiming language is illogical?”

“I’m saying logic is a different beast. It can be expressed in language, so clearly language is not illogical, but logic only describes some parts of language, so it’s misguided to argue that any variety of a language should be judged by abstract logic.”

“Seems to me you’re trading on ambiguities in the word ‘logic.’ ”

“Which I couldn’t do if language were eminently logical now, could I?”

She paused to think. “Touché. But language can also be used to disambiguate what you say.”

“I agree. You can regiment language to better suit it to any purpose you have, but that’s only one kind of language use.”

“And that is the importance of the standard language.”

“I agree, that is one importance of a standard language, but that means you’re excluding all other uses of language from consideration.”

“Which is where elegance comes in.”

“Elegance to whom?”

“To an educated speaker.”

“Try to get two teachers of English composition to agree on ten sentences they haven’t learned the party line on and see how much agreement you’ll find on what is ‘elegant.’ Elegance is a slippery standard that for most speakers probably includes a number of different factors that might not even be internally consistent. Nor is elegance always coherent with logic, however you take that word.”

“You just gave me the word. Consistency. A standard language is standardized on grounds of consistency.”

“Is it now? How consistent is it to condemn hisself because it’s formed on the pattern of myself and yourself?

“It’s more elegant.”


She thought for a while and said nothing, and I added, “It’s not more elegant in any objective sense I can see and it violates grammatical consistency. If a construction cannot be credibly described as ‘logical,’ then its illogicality is excused by calling it ‘elegant,’ but what is actually meant is that the usage is accepted. It won out, to the victor go the spoils and the honor, a revolutionary is a rebel who won, and so on. It’s pure tradition, and the standard language is the standard because it is the tradition accepted by the educated.”

“And this is some sort of elitism that bothers you, right?”

“No, it doesn’t bother me in the least. You need a written standard for communication across dialects, throughout the countries the language is spoken, and across the centuries. It’s an essential tradition for any culture; writing gives continuity around the world and between the generations. Just don’t fancy that it has any deeper justification than tradition. It’s a necessary tradition and it should be defended precisely on that ground, but remember too that all traditions have to change as the needs of the speakers of a language change.”

“Then why do you want to pay attention to uneducated speech?”

“Writing grows out of speech.”

“It’s the bleating of the lowly herd.”

“As opposed to the bleating of the educated herd. Its whole purpose is to be the bleating that holds the herd together; if you condemn it for being of the herd, the same is even truer of the standard bleat, which is used by a vaster, more widespread herd. If you want to study the nature of human communication, you need to study all its varieties, not just focus on the standard variety and dismiss all the others because of the content of their communication.”

After a pause she said, “But the standard language is what opens the world of writing and learning to anyone, no matter who or where they are, and allows anyone to draw from and contribute to the great heritage of humanity.”

“I agree, and that makes it the subject matter for English departments, or French departments, German departments, or whichever language you want, not linguistics.”

“Humane letters are essential for making us fully human.”

“No, spoken language is part of what makes us fully human; humane letters make us humane.”

“Humane letters cultivate reason.”

“And spoken language makes its exercise possible.”

We had argued to an impasse, both sides clearly enjoying themselves, and Pamela interrupted, “I enjoy seeing my wife get as good as she gives, but tell me more about that other class.”


“Yes, it sounds like a fancy word for a mundane subject.”

“That’s partly so.”

“So basically you go around listening to how people talk and note the differences.”

“That’s the basis of it, yes.”

“So it’s kind of like your other subject.”

“They’re related, yes. They use many of the same techniques too.”

“So what’s the difference?”

“Well...good question. Sociolinguistics looks at all types of language variation. Dialectology looks at geographic variation. There are special features to studying dialects because many of their features tend to homogenize over a region but fall off at the edges, so long as there’s constant communication throughout the region, and especially if the dialect gets a written standard. But even there, you’ll find other kinds of language variation based on, oh, age, occupation, social status, sex, and so on. But partly it’s a separate field for historical reasons. Dialects are new languages of the future in embryo...rather, languages of the future start out as dialects, though a lot of dialects just die out, get merged with a more powerful standard. You can understand a good deal of the history of languages by looking at their earlier dialects.”

“So how do you look at dialects? I’m asking about methods here. I wonder how much it’s like evolutionary biology.”

I smiled, “Actually, if you look at the tools of the trade, it’s a lot like meteorology. Isoclines on maps and all that. Dialectology looks at the isoclines and sociolinguistics focuses on the gradients, so they’re perpendicular in a way.”

She grinned slyly, “So since you’ve studied both, does that mean you look at language cross-eyed now?”

I laughed in complete surprise and nodded. We had finished breakfast by this time, so we settled up and walked around for several hours, stopping for an early seafood dinner before heading back to my inn for some drinks. Pamela ordered a bottle of wine and secured the VIP room again, and when we entered I said, “Vermin-Infested Pesthole.”

Pamela nodded, “Better, better...a tad redundant...Velvet-Inundated Purgatory.”

Veronica said, “Interesting image. Hmm...Vomit-Inducing Plague.” After a pause she said, “Oh, never mind, I’ll get the first round.”

After the wine had been opened and we had toasted ourselves, I asked Veronica, “So what was your college education like?”

“Me? It was a bit dull. I don’t like marching in lock step and didn’t fit with anyone’s program. I loved working in the studio and I loved my art history classes. I hated the theory they forced us to swallow.”

“The content or the fact that it was theory?”

“The fact that it was stupid brain-dead theory imposed on art by pretentious non-entities who were more interested in gaining the respect of non-artistic minds than in actually looking at the subject. So, not the content but its lack, I guess.”

“So what is a good theory of art?”

“I don’t care. For me it doesn’t matter.”

“You don’t know what art is, but you know what you like.”

“I know what art is, Hugh, I just don’t care that much about why it’s art.”

“Do you paint much?”

“Not so much any more. I mostly draw. It’s more austere, more challenging; you can’t hide your mistakes as well by distracting the viewer with color or the texture of the surface.”

“Austere or abstract?”

“Austere, Hugh. All art is abstract in some sense. It has to be or it’s just a random hodgepodge you can see on any street corner. There has to be some selection involved, and that means abstraction of a sort.”

“So what is wrong with abstract art?”

She laughed, “Ha! I knew you were aiming at that. First, I freely admit there’s a matter of taste involved; a goodly amount of it I just don’t like. Some I like very much, so wipe that smirk off your face. Most of it is an exercise with a very restricted range of techniques for oversubtle ends not worth the effort. Great art shows us something about the world; a lot of abstract art, and a lot of representational art, shows us a very small sliver of a very small part of the world, and I tire of that very easily. I’m not a patient woman, Hugh, as you might have noticed. Impress me or piss off.”

“So what do you think of the claim that the history of art is just the story of increasing abstraction?”

“If I could pick and choose among the entire history of the subject, I could just as easily prove it’s the story of increasingly subservient worship of household pets. The thing is they smuggle in the biases it relies on in the way they teach art history, or fail to teach it, and those biases reflect exactly those bogus theories imposed on art by the ditzerati.”

“Such as?”

“Oh, there are examples everywhere. At every time. The subservient worship of positivism giving naturalism in the arts, the subservient worship of bastardized physics giving all sorts of dead-ended nonsense two centuries ago, generally the imposition of whatever shopworn intellectual fad has trickled down to the latest generation of pseudo-intellectuals trying to get out of honest work. And the whole insinuation of the virtue of the bandwagon.”

“The virtue of the bandwagon?”

“That because a piece of art fits in a certain movement, it has greater or lesser value as a result. Historical significance or whatever, which is a far different thing from artistic significance. And those movements only rarely owe their existence to genuinely new techniques. Bright new types of paint, improved perspective, yes, those all are genuine accomplishments, but most artistic movements are just fads. But you can guess my view, Hugh, the bandwagon’s just a fancy name for the trampling of the herd. Everyone who counts is going the same way, so anyone who doesn’t gets trampled. Non-representation is the wave of the future, so say the soothsayers, so hop on or be ground underneath. It’s cowardly, since all you have to do is go along to get along, and it’s false and it feeds on laziness and it robs a generation of any alternative view of things that might have suited them better. At worst it kills technique, sheer technical ability, and leaves its victims stuck in some ghetto, for that’s where the bandwagon always ends up.”

“So why do you praise the bandwagon of the standard language?”

After a long pause, she said, “Well. That’s a richly loaded question, Hugh. Language isn’t art. It’s a medium. It’s common to all literary schools. I guess, digging down into it, you shouldn’t compare the standard language to an artistic school or movement; it’s more comparable to the capacity for art, or something on that level.”

I nodded and said, “Yes, it was a half-assed question. We’re trading metaphors more than anything now.”

She grinned, “Oh, is that what you’re doing?”

I smiled, “Happens when the wine starts going to my head.”

“And in Boston that ends in nightmares. Serve you right too.”

I lifted the bottle and said in surprise, “That went quickly,” and we both looked at Pamela, who said blandly, “Listening to you two is thirsty work.”

I had been worrying at some thread of thought that I couldn’t isolate when sparring with Veronica and realized that pursuing it was futile and not conducive to a relaxed meeting with friends, so we talked of other things over the next bottle of wine, after which they had to leave. I downed two big glasses of water and went to my room. I sat in a chair in the gathering dusk and tried to think through my thoughts, but they went nowhere. Finally I got up to turn on the lights and read, and after a chapter I fell asleep.

It was a bright March morning in the 2060s, and I stood in a crowd watching a parade in a shattered region of Boston since renovated to something habitable. Lots of green, white, and orange on the floats, I noticed, though looking around and down I saw I was wearing the only orange shirt in a sea of green, which was drawing ugly looks from my neighbors. A grizzled trio near me surreptitiously unsheathed long knives and I gulped and ran through the crowd as quickly as I could push; soon I was in the street. The musicians on the float bearing down on me played a debased phlegethontic jig conducted by a tentacle, and as I ran past to cross the street the float veered to follow me. The crowd on the other side spread aside to let me through, and I found myself in a dark alleyway. I looked back to see the float following me with about two inches to spare on each side. I pushed on into the shadows as the alley narrowed, but when I looked back ten yards further, the float had similarly narrowed. Soon the alley was wet and the air pungent with brine and unwholesome fishy smells that made me squalmish, and looking back I saw that the float was only slightly closer. I looked up; nothing but bare brick walls thirty yards high. I trudged on and after a few seconds was surprised by waves around my ankles. The float was noticeably nearing me; the tentacle had stopped conducting and stood at attention as the musicians played a cocytidic dirge. Soon the water was chest high and the stench overpowering, yet I pressed on, and as a high surf rose I looked over the crest of a wave to see a cluster of other tentacles rising out of the water five yards ahead of me.

I awoke in a sweat, bladder near to bursting, and quickly turned on the light; ominous shadows resolved into furniture as if backing away from a flame. After necessary ablutions, I lay down exhausted and grim on the bed and soon slept again to tiresome dreams of a fruitless search for orange beer instead of green. I emerged from this fiasco in time to wash my face and go downstairs to meet Pamela, who was to have breakfast with me and see me off.

She was already in the dining room and looked up from her watch as I came in. We kissed cheeks and she said, “I was about to have the front desk call you.”

“I’m not late, am I?”

“No, but I was afraid you might have overslept. I doubted you slept well, and your look confirms it. You look awful.”

“I thought St. Patrick’s Day is supposed to be happy in Boston.”

“Oh, you had a Paddy Dream? They’re really something, aren’t they? Just goes to show you, from even the greatest of ironies horror is seldom absent.”

“You mean it’s a recognizable dream type?”

“Oh yes, there’s at least one for every holiday.”

“But it’s December.”

“Doesn’t matter, really; they come at any time as your spirit seizes them. It’s the closest this city gets to a sense of community. I especially hate Arbor Day.”

For a split second I thought of tentacles waving in the breeze and said, “Let’s just order, shall we?”

We each ordered an omelet, sausage, and coffee, and I said, “I hope I wasn’t too pushy with Veronica last night.”

“Did you see her crying? She loved it. Too many people talk down to her or ignore her, at least here in Boston. She said it’s just a shame you’re not any smarter.”

I laughed and said, “I don’t know, there’s something I was trying to figure out, but I lost it overnight.”

“In an alleyway with your peace of mind, no doubt.”

I nodded and said, “Ah well, probably nothing.”

“Now that you’re awake and wineless, I want to know a bit more about what I asked you last night. How exactly do you do your work? What do you measure and how do you analyze it? How do you distinguish different...I want to say species and subspecies, but I guess it should be dialects?”

“Varieties. That includes dialects.”

“So what would be analogous to biological taxonomy?”

“Well, basically dialects and languages, and families of languages, but there’s no absolute, 100% clear dividing line between dialects and languages. Species are distinguished by the ability to bear fertile offspring, right?”

“Yes, notionally, though you usually can’t test that.”

“For language, it would be mutual comprehensibility, but that’s fuzzy. It isn’t always transitivespeakers of A might readily understand speakers of B but not vice versa. Some speakers are better at understanding other dialects than others. And so on. And there’s no genetic code to make your job easy. So you have to take a broad view of the common features of a variety of language that are different from other varieties, but of course the features you choose aren’t absolute genetic traits, as it were; they’re the traits useful for your particular analysis. If you dig deeper you find further variety down to the individual, indeed almost to the time of day for a given speaker, and higher up you look for other features that are common with other dialects.”

“I see, and what sorts of features do you look at anyway?”

“Features that speakers can recognize. But it could be features of pronunciation, choices of words, grammatical constructions, anything in spoken language.”

“How do you measure them?”

“Depends on what you’re measuring. Might be an acoustic measurement, or it might be proportions of use of a particular form versus other forms, or something binary like use or non-use of a particular construction.”

She nodded. “Eminently sensible. So what do you learn from it?”

“How people talk.”

She chuckled, “Yes, but what about how they talk?”

“Directions of change, the factors that might make change spread or stay stable, things like that.”

“Directions of change?”

“Yeah, like say one dialect has a difference between e and ɛ and a neighboring dialect doesn’t. If one of the dialect changes, and they might not if there’s little contact between speakers, but if one of them changes, it’s much likelier that the dialect with the difference will lose it. Spread of mergers, it’s called.”

“Okay, so these distinctions will all be lost. Why would you still have different dialects after, what, a century?”

“If there’s a lot of contact, then yes, the dialects will even out, get absorbed by the most prestigious variety, culturally speaking. Rather, the most prestigious dialect will spread at the expense of less prestigious dialects, which in turn will spread at the expense of even less prestigious varieties. But there’s also change within each dialect or variety that might spread too. And prestige can change, society can become less integrated in a nation, and so on.”

“So you get distinctions arising too? Is that how you phrase it?”

“Yes, and in interesting ways. Secondary split’s a big way. Pretty neat way, too.”

“And what is that?” she smiled coyly as she motioned for refills of coffee.

“It’s a split that develops due to a merger.”

“A merger...that’s the loss of a distinction you mentioned?”

“Yes. Sounds are pronounced differently depending on other sounds in the word, in general. So like if you have s getting pronounced ʃ before a y sound. Happens all the time, very natural. Now suppose the y disappears after ʃ, which happens all the time too. If there wasn’t a ʃ in the language beforehand, you lose some instances of y but gain a new sound entirely. That’s secondary split.”

“I see. Not a problem we have in zoology, I’d say. And so I assume you analyze all this in the way we do in biology?”

“Yeah, to some extent. Lots of statistical analysis, cladistic analysis, and so on.”

“Okay, thanks, I was wondering how much of what you do is like what we do. I’ll probably pester you with questions in my letters, but at least I know how to ask them. —How are you getting back?”

“Bus to Lynn, hike to campus.”

“Bundle up, Hugh, I don’t want you dying of pneumonia before you answer all my questions.”

“It’ll be a fine walk.”

“Have you seen the latest forecast?”


“Bundle up tight.

We settled up and she waited outside my room as I quickly packed my backpack and checked for any left items, then after I checked out she walked me to the bus stop. “Have a safe trip, Hugh, and Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!”

“What will you two do for the holidays?”

“Stay in and listen to summer music.”

“I’ll be on campus working ahead for classes next semester. We’ll have a nice Christmas Mystery Slab and get drunk on potent potables and wake up hung over.”

“Ah, reminds me of my college days. Don’t miss ’em.”

Just then the bus hove round the corner and she hugged me. “Buy an extra sweater in Lynn, Hugh, please. It’ll be cold tomorrow.”

After I boarded the bus, she waved and went off to work. We quickly pulled off and soon enough I found myself in Lynn. I checked the forecasts, which due to the peculiarities of the environment were quickly devised from satellite data in the mid-Atlantic weather centers, transmitted to New York, and then dispatched by messenger to the major towns of New England. Naturally the forecast was four days old; taken by relative surprise, I invested as she had urged in another sweater and a thick hat, but still suffered mightily the last three hours of my trudge through a snowstorm accompanied by stiff northerly winds. Fortunately, by that time I was walking west and I was less frozen than I had feared.

After that those of us stuck on campus for the holidays settled in to a gloomy, freezing, dismal week, followed by the dullest winter holidays I had ever passed. Trevor arrived on the 4th and Finley on the 6th from adventures at scientific conferences and travelling around, respectively, and their arrival made me less anxious for classes to start.

Strangecraft, Part I—Ruffles and Blood—Mikael Thompson
Strangecraft, Part III—The Twisty Innards of Leviathan—Mikael Thompson
SpecGram Vol CLXX, No ν Contents