Strangecraft, Part II—The Kudzu on the Ivory Tower—Mikael Thompson SpecGram Vol CLXX, No ν Contents Strangecraft, Part IV—You Old Indian Summer—Mikael Thompson


by Mikael Thompson

- III -
The Twisty Innards of Leviathan

The semester was on the whole uneventful. After a semester of habituating to the travails and arveth of the graduate school life, the next was almost pleasurable. In general my classes were rewarding, interesting, and ultimately forgettable; the last term could not be predicated of Gilmore’s class on group theory. Our first assignment after the usual sets of homework instilling in us the basics of group theory was to find several structure-preserving tone sandhi systems in the literature and determine which group described each. In every case, of course, the answer was none, because none of them formed a group, a point that Gilmore made in class and detail with much cackling and rubbing of hands. Indeed, by the end of the course it was quite safe simply to answer “none” whenever a question arose of the linguistic applications of the latest topic, whether to phonological rules, semantic change, sociolinguistic variation, or anything else that caught Gilmore’s fancy in faculty meetings and brownbag lunch talks. On the other hand, it is also safe to say that the subject matter proper was the most fascinating vacation from linguistics I had ever taken, and Trevor and I spent many enjoyable evenings trading Russian practice and help on the intricacies of group theory.

Many weekends Trevor and I still hiked all around; by then we had discovered all the local points of interest and had turned to more in-depth exploration of the surroundings. As we had suspected from our earlier hikes, the entire region around the Institute formed a gently-wooded, gently-sloped bowl or dinner plate about ten miles in radius, at the edge of which buckling tore up the ground; the outcroppings we visited on our first hike were not the only ones. Beyond the buckled belt the land was much wilder in all directions, even towards the Atlantic, at least once one got more than twenty yards from Bank Road. Forests grew thick in undergrowth and brush, much darker and ominous than the welcoming woods around campus, and few paths could be found. Only on rare occasions did we venture far in them, on the surface at least on grounds of prudence, but behind it from a vague but persistent trepidationat least on my part. A few times Trevor made allusions to areas further on that suggested he had hiked thither alone, but he never expanded on his hints. I left him to it, for I did not like the look or feel of those woods and felt the feeling was mutual.

The furthest we went that semester was about 20 miles up the Miskatonic past the ruins of Andover to a small town, Ensborough, founded after the Subsidence by survivors from throughout the region. The forest pressed hard against Bank Road once we passed the buckle belt, and when we stopped for a quick rest I said, “So this is what the primordial landscape was like.”


“Before colonization.”

“Oh no, certainly not. Before colonization this area was much like around campus. The natives here burned off the forests every year to make them more suitable to hunting. Before human habitation perhaps they were like this, but I suspect, just suspect, that these woods are unnaturally overgrown.”

“Unnaturally? How?”

“Bad choice of words. I think the Subsidence affected the vegetation here in an adverse way for humans.”


“Why not? It’s been millennia of sustained effort that have allowed us to shape the surface of our planet the way we like. Most changes away from that state will count as adverse, I warrant.”

I thought for a few moments and touched what was bothering me. “Trev, we have a bowl around MIT from the Subsidence.”


“But why isn’t there one around the crater in Andover?”

“Nobody knows, all theories aside.”

“What is the best theory to you?”

“There are some interesting relations between the extent of cratering and the underlying bedrock. No one has been able to make thorough sense of them, however.”

I thought for a few more moments and touched what else was bothering me. “Trev, you’re a physicist.”

“And a damned good one.”

“So why do you know so much about geology?”

“Family tradition. My parents are geologists.”

“And chemistry?”

He grinned wildly. “Chemistry is just applied physics. Ask any physicist. Don’t bother the chemists with the question though.”

We hiked on and reached Ensborough a couple of hours later. We walked around the outskirts to get a feel for its setting and then struck towards the town square to find an inn Trevor had read about. It was located a block from the square in a house centuries old, and while traffic was clearly a trickle it still managed to go beyond cleanliness to warmth and cheer. We each took a small single room; mine had a small bookcase with a few old books of antiquarian interest: Parkman, Bancroft, Channing, and Prescott I recognized by reputation, the local historians not at all. I glanced at Tatum’s History of the Settlement of the Miskatonic and saw that it was neither comprehensive nor sound, and so reshelved it for Bingham’s The Lore of the Miskatonic. An entertaining stickler for sound theology along the lines of an outré variety of Presbyterianism, Elijah Bingham outdid himself in his ability not only to distinguish witches from the common run of humanity, but to distinguish among their otherwise unsuspected schools and subschools.

I was especially impressed by his judicious treatment of the Salem trials, in which he saw the use of the power of the state as a coup by the Arkham covens against their Salem rivals that, he admitted, claimed a few innocent lives. However, a strongly forthright thinker, he did not excuse this on the grounds of the greater good, for even if the power of the state had been used objectively, that would not have excused doing the Great Deceiver’s work against Christian society, never mind that no greater good could ever excuse or justify the persecution of the innocent; but because the Salem witch hunters had been deceived by the minions of the Great Deceiver (for in line with his theology, that was the Enemy’s real power), he excoriated them as rash and unjust amateurs in matters graver than they could have handled. “For truly, I must write, men who do dare take upon them selves the Authoritie of bodilie life and death that belongeth proper to Our Lord alone must need tremble in fear of the reckoning to be render’d unto them by Their Liege, and alway holde before them that very fate, that unjustlie render’d to the Innocent, shall be as their owne on that day.”

He took particular exception to such pronouncements as this: “now, altho’ our good God has hitherto generally preserved us, from the Abuse therein Design’d by the Devils for us, yet who of us can Exactly State, How far our God may for our Chastisement permit the Devil to proceed in such an Abuse? It was the Result of a Discourse, lately held at a Meeting of some very Pious, and Learned, Ministers among us, That the Devils may sometimes have a permission to Represent an Innocent Person, as Tormenting such as are under Diabolical Molestations: But that such Things are Rare and Extraordinary; especially, when such Matters come before Civil Judicature.” To this he offered the stern rebuke that once even the civil judicature be tricked and blinded by the deceits of the Enemy, of a course no justice might be expected to follow, and thereupon followed a sermon in miniature beginning with an Exposition on the text “Take heed what ye do: for ye judge not for man, but for the LORD, who is with you in the judgment. Wherefore now let the fear of the LORD be upon you; take heed and do it: for there is no iniquity with the LORD our God, nor respect of persons, nor taking of gifts,” followed by a Doctrine and Use offering a tedious reply to the apology herein quoted showing (or so Bingham charged) that the divine so defending the deeds of the Court of Oyer and Terminer was himself deeply deceived and deceiving; and remaining deceived he remained in the thrall of the Great Deceiver and would be undone and cast to his feet on the Day of Judgment, he warranted, “tho’ be it admitted, that no Man may escry the subtile Judgments of Our Lord, and — I pray — I too might be wrong as they; but learn ye and hearken to this well, such misdeeds, as they had done, will be punished in the fulness of days in the mete measure, so look thereon and look inward.”

Shortly after I was bemused and piqued by another passage quoted from his frequent boxing partner, “ ’Tis the Destroyer, or the Divel, that scatters Plagues about the World: Pestilential and Contagious Diseases, ’tis the Divel, who do’s oftentimes invade us with them. ’Tis no uneasy thing, for the Divel, to impregnate the Air about us, with such Malignant Salts, as meeting with the Salt of our Microcosm, shall immediately cast us into that Fermentation and Putrefaction, which will utterly dissolve all the Vital Tyes within us; Ev’n as an Aqua-Fortis, made with a conjunction of Nitre and Vitriol, Corrodes what it Siezes upon. And when the Divel has raised those Arsenical Fumes, which become Venemous Quivers full of Terrible Arrows, how easily can he shoot the deleterious Miasms into those Juices or Bowels of Mens Bodies, which will soon Enflame them with a Mortal Fire!”

After an hour immersed in the foreign past, I was startled as Trevor knocked on my door. “Haven’t you read enough this week?”

“Oh, this is purely for pleasure.”

He checked the book over with the look of a cat inspecting an entirely unsatisfactory morsel and said, “All yours, good man.”

We went down to the dining room for dinner and met the other guests, a married couple in graduate school in Lowell. We introduced ourselves and they shook our hands. “Sìtǔ Wén; call me Wendell if you like,” he said, and his wife said, “Eleanor Barton.” She laughed and added, “Call me Bái Yèlín if you like.”

I asked, “So tell me, why are you here? You’re in the wrong river valley, aren’t you?”

Eleanor chuckled, “In the sense that there’s nothing right with this river valley, that’s true.”

Wen added, “We’re actually working. We’re running a botanical survey of the area.”

This greatly interested Trevor, who had an insatiable appetite for knowledge of the local land, and for fifteen minutes he plied them with questions about the changes on the land since the last survey and the Subsidence. In turn he shared a bit of his geological and geographical gleanings, which interested Wen and fascinated Eleanor, who pulled out a notebook and asked several questions about the landscape. They were interrupted when dinner was served, a pot roast and rolls, and as we ate I asked Wen, “Are you from Huaibei or Chu?”

“I’m from Liáng.”

I thought for a second to locate it mentally and nodded. “Why did you choose Lowell of all places to go to graduate school?”

“They offered me a graduate fellowship.”

Trevor and I looked at each other in surprise. “What is Lowell doing going so far abroad to recruit talent?” I asked.

Eleanor replied, “There are actually long-standing ties between Lánzhōu and Lowell.”

I replied, “Really. Yet another thing one never hears along the Miskatonic.”

Trevor replied between bites, “Are there long-standing ties between MIT and anywhere?”

I said, “The Slappy McHappy School for Crappy-Nappie Scrappers,” which drew a painful snort from Trevor, followed by a prolonged fit of coughing.

“Please, Hugh, I beg of you, wait until I’m done swallowing. That hurt.

“Sorry, I’ve been inspired by my latest reading to try a little witchcraft. I’d say I was successful.”

Eleanor looked at me sharply. “Do you just read about witches or do you practice that stuff?”

“I’m reading about local history. There’s a book upstairs that has a lot about old witch ideas. This place was riddled with them. Ideas of witches, I mean. Whether there were witches is rather beside the point, really, since they didn’t write the books.”

She replied, “Good. There are too damn many nuts around this state who pretend they’re witches. It wouldn’t matter if that were all, but they’re just so nasty and anti-social. Refuse to pay above market price, they cast a spell on you. Tell ’em to clean up their dog crap, they cast a spell on you and your family. Let your subscription lapse and refuse to renew it, they cast a spell on you and your lineage for seven generations. Obnoxious obstreperous bullies is what they are.”

Wen added, “They’d never get away with that in Liáng.”

“Do you have witches in Liang?”

“Until the state puts them to death, yes.”

Trevor and I looked at each other in surprise. “You actually have laws against witches?”

“Against all wū, yes.”

Eleanor explained, “Shamans, witches, wizards.”

Wen continued, “There were many who were caught doing harm during the Subsidence. They caused it, many say even to this day. Many of them were killed by the people, and the rest were tried and executed for treason. It didn’t help save the unity of the state, of course, but they were a useful scapegoat anyway.”


“The Subsidence was widely seen as the final sign of the loss of the Mandate of Heaven. The old state was very wary about anything that could be taken that way. Astronomical oddities were classified as probable alien spacecraft, for example, so they wouldn’t seem like traditional signs of the judgment of Heaven. And so the were banned as subversives who tried to profit by the misfortunes of the people, and who probably used foreign technology to damage the underlying geology of many of the greatest Chinese cities. Russian henchmen, the judges mostly said, since the Russians were too busy killing each other to protest. But that prolonged the life of the state perhaps one year.”

Eleanor added, “The might have been scapegoats executed on trumped-up charges, but they are thoroughly reviled in any case.” (“And rightly so,” interjected Wen, to which Eleanor nodded.) “Many tens of millions of people died during the Subsidence, and to try to profit by it in any way was grotesquely inhuman.”

I said, “This is quite new to me. I mean, I knew the basic history of the Subsidence, how it knocked the props out from under the most advanced nations, how this helped the rise of the second tier of nations, but I only knew about the strictly political history, the revolutions and the stabilizations.”

Trevor nodded agreement and said, “In any case, where are you two travelling after here?”

“We’re here for another three days,” said Eleanor, “and then we’ll work our way down the Miskatonic to the road to Bolton, then we plan to take a boat back to the Merrimack Valley.”

“We’ll be going back to MIT tomorrow, but if you have no objections, I’d love to go meet you when you’re surveying at the edge of the Pursleyville Bowl. I’m very curious about the flora there.”

Wen and Eleanor nodded. Wen said, “If you know so much about the geology of the area, we’d be eternally grateful for your company,” and Eleanor added, “We should be there in six days.”

Trevor looked at me; I shook my head. “It would be fun, but I have a paper to do for Group Theory.” They made arrangements where and when to meet, and over dessert we talked of our travels in New England, then went into the sitting room for the evening. I brought along Bingham’s curious work while Trevor found an old book of wildlife tales and Wen and Eleanor put their notes for the day in order. About ten I tired of experiencing Bingham’s view of the world and took my leave of the rest; I slept soundly despite a dream about getting lost in the wilderness around Ensborough and wandering into a miasmal salt marsh in which pestilence was the least of my worries. After a quick breakfast, Trevor and I bid Wen and Eleanor adieu, settled up, and made good time back to campus.

While Trevor was off meeting Wen and Eleanor for their survey the next weekend, I was filling in the details of an assignment for Gilmore. We had examined the matter of the group character of structure-preserving tone sandhi systems, and Gilmore had asked us to expand on that point if and as we wished. I started by stating the following basic facts: (1) tone sandhi, the change of a tone under the influence of a neighboring tone, could be structure-preserving (all basic tones changed to other basic tones) or not; (2) this reflected the more general difference between phonetic and phonological rules, the latter of which are structure-preserving; and (3) only structure-preserving rules could conceivably have a group character, for the nature of a group is that one element is mapped onto another in the set. I then adduced the fact that many phonological rules are neutralization rules; these too by their nature violated group character by requiring a many-to-one mapping. This left a narrow class of phonological rules that could be candidates for groups. I then considered the special case of a structure-preserving tone sandhi system with four tones, conditioning from left to right, and full group structure, and considered discovery procedures for recovering the underlying tone of each toneme.

I was quite excited by my paper and wrote it with the most rigor I could manage. I turned in my dictapross file with a good deal of satisfaction and was a bit irked when Gilmore gave the printed paper back with an A- and serious, telling criticisms against my unstated assumptions, and then I blanched when I read his note pointing out two non-fatal but bothersome shortcomings in my discovery procedures. He had attached a copy of a series of lecture notes from an advanced seminar in mathematical linguistics that treated the same matter, from which I learned that I had been far bettered at least thirty years earlier. I shook my head, laughed, and made a point to reread the lecture notes with close attention that very afternoon.

The three of us were seated around our table positioned near the window to catch the late rays of the sun. When I reached the crucial pages, Finley snorted and Trevor and I looked up.

“Oh, this story I’m reading for late 21st century American folklore,” he said.

“What about it?”

“It’s about a man who killed his wife, and then her body kept coming back until he jumped out a window of a tall building.”

I pursued, “And?”

“Oh, he kept trying to dispose of it, but it never worked. First he buried it in the backyard, but his dog dug it up, so he got rid of his dog and buried it in the lot across the street, but it appeared in his bathtub that night. So he threw it off a cliff and found it in his armchair, and so on.”

“Sounds like a fourth-rate plastivid,” I said, “and just nasty to his poor wife. Does it refer to her body as an ‘it’ all the way through?”

“But it’s supposed to be a true story, see? That’s what makes it fascinating for a folklorist.”

“You actually have to read that as a true story?”

“Well, yes and no. We have to think about what you’d use to explain it if you believed it was true. How the wife’s body kept coming back?”

“But how could she pop in like that? It makes no damn sense, Finn.”

He grinned triumphantly, “Through the fourth dimension!”

I shook my head and Trevor leapt into the fray, “Why would a fourth dimension solve anything, Finn?”

“Trevor, take a piece of paper with two dots. If you have to go along the paper it’s a certain distance, but if you fold the paper just so and go across from dot to dot, it’s very short.”

He sighed, “I hardly know where to start, Finn. First, you’re just introducing arbitrary foldings in some arbitrary four-dimensional imbedding of three-dimensional space. You can’t just fold space like paper like that, and even if you could, the energy required would be astronomical, literally.”

“Maybe it just happens to be folded like that.”

“Such luck for the minuscule part of our space next to the fold, somehow despite all the odds right next to the Earth! And is it just at that split second, or is it moving along with the Earth? —In any case, assuming you had higher-dimensional curvature sufficient to do you any good at all, its dynamical effects would make themselves felt in our space in ways we don’t observe.”

Finley sighed and pondered the thing with some perturbation. “But fourth-dimensional slippage is commonly accepted in folklore studies...”

“So you admit you guys just copy the silliness of early 20th century popular culture without thinking any of it through? You guys take as the framework of your study what should be an object of it.”

“What do you mean?”

“If you read a lot of the surviving stories in which that sort of explanation is offered, the overwhelming majority of them just use some vague ‘fourth dimension’ as a place filler for magic. That’s all it is, scientific-sounding magical thinking. Just jump through the fourth dimension to a planet in another system or, hell, another galaxy! Problem solved without any regard for the very fact that as it’s a fourth spatial dimension, that means there’s a distance formula involved that would reduce your distance and travel time to the human scale only in vanishingly rare circumstances that are ruled out by the very theories of relativity whose names they used to paper over the gaps. Or they dispense with that by turning it into fantasy, leaping into different universes that in most cases are just our universe with cosmetic rather than cosmic changes. It’s fun stuff, Finn, but as a folklorist you should be interested in the way its authors simply ripped off contemporary scientific terminology to allow themselves to fantasize in the same way people used to who dreamed of magic or told fairy tales to their children or made up allegories.”

“So the fourth dimension is out?”

“The way you were using it, it’s right out.”

“So it’s not scientific?”

“Not the way it was usually used, no. It was one of a whole slew of domesticated magical devices certain people of that culture would use to allow themselves to tell the old stories in a new way. The fourth dimension, faster-than-light travel, time travel, thought transference, psionic powers, all of those are just old-time magic in then-modern guise, and let’s not start with the botch most of them made of thermodynamics.”

“So it’s all crap?”

No, Finn, it’s all folklore, at least in part. Don’t you get that? It’s part of one of the many ways humans have always told each other stories to make sense of the world or just to play around in the world. You have to see that what’s significant here is the way its practitioners felt the need to clothe it in scientific respectability; that tells you a good deal about the ideas of their times. And some of it was just retellings of old myths in alien garb, and some of it was artistically new, creative and intelligent, and some of it was scientifically as precise as the men and women of the day could make it while others of it fell damn far short. Mind you, some artists have always been inspired by the latest knowledge of their times to project the consequences of the new ideas, so in that respect it’s eminently human, but there’s a special coloration to a lot of it. People accepted that stories had to be perfectly objective, meaning in practice they had to reflect the ideas of what life is like that their creators had absorbed twenty-seventh hand from their teachers’ teachers’ teachers’ teachers’ insistence that true literature is merely highly refined gossip. If a piece of art didn’t reflect that minuscule slice of the world consisting of the doings of the self-styled intellectuals who created it in a drab middle-class environment like that that they lived in, it was dismissed as an escape from reality, so people writing in that vein of scientific folklore tried to borrow the mantle of the latest findings of science even when they didn’t really understand it or find the real stuff any use.”

“So a scientist like you would say it’s all just silly myths?”

Trevor smiled, “No, Finn, I’m not the kind of scientist who’d dismiss anything beyond the world he sees full in his face as merely worthless myth. Ideas are part of the human world too, Finn, and one important part of human life, part of culture, is to explore the world of ideas, or our mental worlds, if you like. Art’s one way of doing that, and I like art based on how well it does it. Our mental worlds start with the physical world, but they can’t be completely reduced to it. Reducing art to a faithful chronicle of the physical world, or at least that tiny sliver of it that’s important to your social circle, misses most of what’s fresh and unique in art.”

I sat there listening, taking mental notes to think about and hash out later with Veronica, while Finley finally gave up and asked, “Are you talking about folklore now or art?”

Trevor sighed, “Either. Both. What’s common to them. Take your pick, Finn.”

I asked, “Old paper?”

Trevor laughed, “No, it was an editorial I wrote for a newspaper in college. It sounds better in Spanish.”

“It’s a far sight better than anything in our school paper. The editorials there just regurgitated unexamined nullities.”

“Oh, it wasn’t for the college newspaper. A few friends and I put together a weekly rag devoted to our cultural commentary. We proposed to offer a different view of things, but we delivered far more than we promisedthere were at least nine different views on display among the seven of us in every issue. We even got a printer and ran off copies to attract subscribers. Truly old-fashioned we were! Alas, subscribers didn’t bite and we came to blows every issue on editorial policy. I think we lasted seventeen issues. I wrote on science and culture, which my colleagues considered utterly unrelated. Mind you, I left after the twelfth issue over matters of orthographic principle, but it really came down to serious disagreements over the merits of Cortázar.”

Otherwise my class work was routine and I started thinking ahead. In March I started looking around campus for a job that could last through the summer. At about the same time, the university settled on a temporary plan to make headway in restoring the library to full academic use and allotted modest funds to hire any workers among the student body who were worth what they were paying. As most students considered themselves rather worthier, the competition was virtually nil and I was one of only two grad students taken on. The project was set to start Monday following the last day of tests, and in the interim we had a couple of orientation sessions, new employee workshops, and the like, the usual deadening afflatus of technocrats who took the view that humans were their resources and peddled mutated variants of the viruses of the year before, different in detail but infecting us to the same tiresome, depressing ends as had held true for the last two centuries or more. For in the modern world, only four things are inevitable: death, taxes, new strains of colds and flu, and new verbiage from otherwise unemployed and unemployable middle managers. Around the same time Trevor and Finley sought more academic work on campus and were reasonably satisfied with their pickings.

I met with Gilbreath about that time to discuss my progress. “You did an excellent job your first semester. Even Selena tolerates you now, alas. She’s so much more fun when she’s irked. That’s the major reason most of the syntacticians agreed to let you in, you know. We had fun for days afterwards.”

“While I’m pleased to have a foretaste of the pleasures of tenure, I need to finish first.”

“Yes, of course. Next year I’d like you to take an independent study with me. It’s a fine language called [maˈnæːxɪɬ],” which I mentally spelled as Manæhill from then on, “that I think you should be exposed to. You’ll have a couple of hours of dream classes a week and three hours during the waking week.”

“That sounds like a great opportunity! I’d love to. Thank you for asking me.”

“But what do you plan to take besides that? With the course load you’ve taken, you’ll have your MA by next winter; I have every expectation that you’ll do us proud this semester too. You’ll have another two years of coursework so you can take it a little easier after that, but next semester is no time to let up. How is German coming?”

“I should have an A this semester, and it should be a breeze to test out as proficient.”

“Excellent. You know, Gilmore is offering a follow-up course on Galois theory in linguistics that you might consider taking.”

“Why, so he can spend a whole semester proving there’s another entire branch of mathematics that cannot be usefully applied to the study of language?”

“The well-prepared mind, Hugh.”

“A mind well prepared for everything except the task at hand might as well have been untrained at all.”

“It’s important to see the subject from a wide range of outside viewpoints. You should be educated so that you can go back and fill in the details on your own.”

“So what you are saying is that ideally, your mind should be so empty of the actual details of your own field that it’s fallow.”

“Well-fertilized, rather.”

“That’s the nature of interdisciplinary worktaking a crap in your neighbor’s field to fertilize it.”

He laughed and said, “Yes, yes, that’s often true. In general I agree with you, Hugh, but there is still a consilience of knowledge that a little outside work will help you see when it comes time. It’s like a neural net, you know, knowledge of one thing is spread out over several disciplines, some intensively, some only a little.”

“Consilience, neural must be well loved by your colleagues.”

“Where a ruler cannot cultivate the love of his subjects, he must cultivate fear.”

“And what betide a ruler whose subjects refuse to recognize his rule?”

He laughed, “A man can dream, anyway.”

“So why is Gilmore in linguistics anyway? All he is is a mathematician.”

Gilbreath said, “In times of severe budgetary constraint, it is sometimes necessary to stretch the rules for the greater good.”

“So basically he couldn’t get a job in the math department and they fobbed him off on linguistics with the promise that he could learn mathematical linguistics on his own? Does he have a joint appointment at least so you get subventions from their budget? No?! What, do they have compromising candid pictures of Aylesworth?”

“Oh, Hugh, you make it sound so crass.”

“So yes.”

“Yes, but he actually has done good work on mathematical linguistics. It’s not his fault group theory is about as useless for linguistics as underwater basket weaving or ranch management. —Anyway, think about it. Any other classes interest you?”

“I suppose I should do an advanced syntax class to keep persona grata with Aylesworth.”

“That would do well.”

“And an acquisition class.”

“Also a wise choice. There are some good offerings this time around.”

I glanced again through the catalog, and he asked, “Will you take any summer classes?”

“No, I have a job.”

“Oh, very good. I’ll give you a reading list and some papers if you like. What will you be doing?”

“I’ll be working on cleaning up the library. I’ll probably be in the group that works through all the old manuscripts.”

“I see. Don’t take the job too much to heart, Hugh. We’re training linguists here, not philologists.”

However, while the prospect of paying work and a summer without communal dreaming was making me impatient for the end of classes, I was more concretely looking forward to spending some time in Boston with Pamela and Veronica, who invited me to stay with them this time. As Pamela expressed it, “We can’t cast such a fine young man out into the Boston wilds without at least giving him a sword, and we don’t have a sword, so you have to stay with us,” while Veronica sent a terser, “You passed muster. Perhaps I can talk some more sense into you in my own home.” I also received a letter from a friend back home who would be visiting Boston for a conference inviting me to meet for coffee; I set a day and time and mailed her back.

On the morning I handed in my last paper (fortunately my German test was on the first day of tests, and I had all but finished my papers the week before in preparation for a long break), I got a ride from Smith and Jones as far as the Charles. I walked a while until I reached a coffee shop near one of the relatively few remaining colleges in Boston and went inside. “Hello, Phyllis,” I said to a slender woman in a green and red sweater and skirt ensemble with matching conservative ankle ruffles, who smiled back.

“Hello, stranger! Pilgrim! Voyager in the wilderness!” She hugged me and we sat down together. “So, how are you doing, Hugh?”

“Nothing fit for complaining,” I said.

“You know, you still get occasionally missed back home. At the end of the evening when everyone’s running low of funds, mostly.”

“Tell that band of soaks and lowlifes they need to get jobs.”

We then discussed our classes for a few minutes, and she filled me in on some of the recent happenings among our old gang; a few significant gaps I left unfilled with questions.

“Now tell me about your life up here, Hugh. What are your suitemates like?”

As I told her, I discovered a little to my surprise that even in absentia Trevor seemed able to provoke the warm interest of women; Finley, rather less. After a pause she asked, “Will you be coming back soon?”

“What? No.”

“Isn’t an MA enough?”

“It’s interesting here, actually.”

“I don’t see how.” She leaned over and said quietly after looking around, “This is a dreadful place! How can you stand it here?”

“I made a commitment, Phyl.”

“But why? You really didn’t have to leave, Hugh.”

“I had my reasons.”

“Yes, we all know what your reasons were.”

“Probably not.”

“Probably yes. You probably thought you were being noble or admirable. Nobody else thinks that, Hugh. You just slunk off like a wounded armadillo, they say.”

“Then it’s a good thing I don’t have to listen to them.”

After a pause she said, “Listen, I’m sorry I said all that. Everyone reacts differently to...And I know you’ll find someone else, don’t worry. Anyway,” and here she suddenly smiled, “Glenda says hi.”

“Oh yes, Glenda. How are her students this year?”

“Not as good as the last couple of years.”

“Thanks for reminding me, by the way. I have some mail going your way. Could you carry it with?”

“Oh, sure. Happy to. Best-looking, smartest mail lady in Texas I am.”

I smiled at her smiles and handed over some letters. She looked through them. “Letter for Glenda, ’, your father...” She ruffled through the rest. “I’m disappointed! No secret lovers, no cloak or dagger, not even a postcard to the Coast Guard. Just what looks like a check for a storage unit?”

To my nod she laughed, and I asked, “Why would I mail the Coast Guard?”

“ ’Cause your ship has sailed, my boy, and struck the rocks.”

“Good thing I’m a high flyer, eh?”

I then asked her about the conference, which sounded quite dull, a sentiment she readily echoed. We reminisced a few minutes, though a couple of times she pulled herself up short in a story and changed the subject. Finally I said, “Don’t worry about it, Phyl.”

“Oh, let’s just change the subject. Tell me some new stories!”

She enjoyed hearing about my hikes with Trevor and was mildly curious about the New England places I had passed through. A few minutes later she glanced at the clock and said, “I have to get back.” She looked to her purse and I said, “My treat, Phyl.” She kissed me goodbye on the cheek and waved as she went out the door. I sat there for a while thinking about what she had said and finally shook my head and settled up.

I then hiked all the way to the Subway Museum. As I walked in, Pamela was bent over at the window doing her damnedest to stare down Barney, and I glanced at my watch to keep track. After two minutes and 37 seconds, she finally gave up. Three seconds later, he looked away with what seemed a feline look of disdain. “You nearly had him,” I said. “If he only had eyelids, I’m sure he’d have blinked.” She laughed and hugged me. I asked, “Any new and exciting fish?”

“Always, but not in this section. We close in 30 minutes, so till then tell me about your trip.”


“Now we close in 29 minutes and 54 seconds, so tell me about something not dull.”

“I have a new job.”

“Ah! Great! Tell me all about it.”

“I work in the library.”

“Now we close in 29 minutes and 42 seconds. I said not dull.”

“No, seriously, it’s a bit interesting.”

“Up Arkham way it might well seem so.”

“Okay then, you tell me something interesting. I just spent several months out in the woods twenty miles from Arkham, so I’m not picky.”

She told me about some of the research she had been doing on various organic material gradients in the tunnels until the clock read 5:00, and we walked to their apartment. When we entered, she showed me around; they had six spacious rooms and a fine view beyond the curtains. “How in the world are you two able to afford this place?” I asked, and she smiled.

“We live in a dying city. Shortly after the Subsidence the population dropped off fast to 700,000. That with the massive destruction destroyed property values. We bought it cheap, but I figure if we leave we’ll have to take a pretty loss even with the renovations.” We entered first into a sparsely furnished dining room and passed into a hallway with two bedrooms on the left and a kitchen and bathroom on the right. She pointed to the first bedroom, “Our bedroom,” and to the next, “Our library. I assume you’ll want to look around in there before dinner. Now come along.” She took me to the end of the hallway and through a vestibule that had formerly been a pair of back-to-back closets into what had once been a separate apartment. The living room had been converted into a comfortable study, which we went through to reach the other hallway. She opened the first door on the right and said, “You’ll sleep here. As I said, it’s really no inconvenience putting you up. You can even snore if you like. The bathroom is here. The old kitchen’s our laundry now, and a very nice one too, so feel welcome to do a load before you leave. The other bedroom is for storage, so don’t bother going in.” She opened the door to let me see a boring assortment of furniture and piles of boxes.

I put my bag in my room and went into the study, which clearly served as the living room of the household. “So when will Veronica be home?”

“Probably an hour or so. I’ll start dinner, so make yourself comfortable. As I said, the library’s right there. We’ll be having some whitefish and veggies, and probably far more wine than your young head can handle. Just a warning.”

“Sounds a treat.”

She smiled. “Now let me make myself comfortable while you do the same.”

She went in her bedroom and shut the door while I looked around the library. It was a mishmash of biology books and many classic works of natural history, art books, mysteries, assorted literary fiction ranging from dull to drab, popular science, and odds and ends of social history. I chose a beautifully illustrated volume on the life of the circum-Antarctic waters and was reading about fish with antifreeze in their bloodstreams when Veronica came home. I heard her sweet-talking Pamela hello, then she came in to the study and said, “Well, hello, traveler. Good to see you again. How are things?”


“I’ve heard that about the Miskatonic Valley.”

“Every word is true.”

“So you went from Dullsville to Babylon. Sorry there’s no happy medium up here.”

“Oh, I met a happy medium just a month and a half ago. She lied through her gold-capped teeth and overcharged me into the bargain.”

“What did she predict?”

“ ‘You will find wealth and fame within a week, and die within a month.’ She could barely keep a straight face too. I knew I should have waited till afterwards to pay her.”

“Live and learn, my friend. Look on it as a second lease on life and thank her for the added perspective.” She squeezed my upper arm and said, “Now please excuse me, I have to get out of this suit before I turn bourgeois.”

Over dinner we talked about their work and my classes, then went into the study for wine and more chatting. After an hour we were tired of talking, so Pamela took requests for music, overruled every one, and put on Bartók’s Fifth Quartet. Veronica said, “Pam, you need to broaden your tastes beyond elevator music.”

“Oh, shush. You know you like it too.”

As we listened, each of us started reading, and near the beginning of the last movement Pamela said, “Ver, care to rub my feet?” I glanced up at them from several microphotographs of krill and went back to reading. I glanced around a couple more times pondering the circulation of fresh water and salt water northward from the edge of the ice sheets, and when the quartet ended noticed that the two were watching me with slight smiles.


They laughed and I said, “What?

Pamela said, “This is what I love about Texans and any other normal people of the world. You do realize that for the past ten minutes we’ve been subjecting you to the ultimate in Boston hard core porn, and you haven’t even noticed.”

I said “Huh?” before a light dawned.

Veronica said, “Yes, we’ve been walking around without ruffles for hours. Bare ankles since dinner.”

Pamela added, “When Ver rubbed my feet and my ankles, you didn’t even notice. The whole time we’ve known each other, you’ve never even tried to steal a peek at our ankles.”

Veronica added, “Just our tits.”

“Oh, Ver, play nice. You’re making him blush.”

“I like making him blush. A blush is as rare as a bare ankle in Boston.”

I asked, “What. The. Hell. Is. It. With goddamned. Ankles. In this wretched cesspool?”

Veronica said, “Oh, it started a bit after the Subsidence. With all the vast changes going down, the ‘better folks’ swerved hard into neo-Puritanism. The New Puritan Church is still an influential denomination here. Anyway, they were nostalgic for the good old days when women knew their place, which was of course under many layers of swaddling and preferably deep indoors. For some reason, they took as a rallying cry an event back in the early 20th century when a travelling revue or suchlike had a racy, racy act in which thanks to the rain, some ladies had to show their shoes when lifting their skirts to keep them dry. One of the actors said something about how he hoped the waters rose, the idea being that ankles were not shown in public by good women. The police arrested the actors for obscenity and shut the show down as a threat to public morals. And so their latter-day sons and daughters put through the Renewal of Public Morality Act of 2063 that required all women to keep our ankles covered at all times upon pain of three years’ imprisonment. The damned thing’s still on the books.”

Pamela added, “And you know humanity. When something natural is banned as immoral, it curdles into a fetish. Of course, the neo-Puritans lost most of their political influence by the late 2080s, but that was long enough for a generation to imbibe their sickness about ankles. So yes, Boston high fashion consists mostly of rummaging around in the possibilities of partial female nudity, but ankles are always covered and Bostonians are sick and hot on the subject. And of course, the women are just as sick as the men. They regiment themselves and each other viciously and make sure their daughters are as twisted as their sons.”

Veronica said, “If you were a Bostonian, you’d never have been allowed in here. Our home might be in Boston, but it is assuredly not of it. I will never go out of my way to cover up my ankles inside my own home. And if you were to live long in Boston, you’d start getting the sickness too. It’s like a virus permeating the air here that seeps into outsiders over the space of a year or two. We’ve seen it so many times, men move here for work and after eight, ten months start taking drooling peeks at your ankles. Within a year and a half they just stare at your feet. It’s sad.”

I protested, “That can’t be. You’d have to grow up in it, surely? Past puberty, surely you can’t change that much.”

“Are you the same as at age 16?”

“Well, no...But that’s such a sea change.”

Pamela said, “That’s what you’d think, but it happens all the same.”

Veronica added, “People are herd animals, remember, and sexually they’re the stupidest herd animals on the planet. Show them a cow’s ass regularly and within a year they’ll not only follow it unthinkingly, they’ll consider it the height of beauty.”

Pamela smiled and said, “Ver’s really quite convinced of that. Don’t bother arguing with her. I’ve been trying for nine years now and the only victory I can claim is that I still disagree with her.”

She smiled back, “That’s only ’cause you’re the most obstinate woman I’ve ever met, dear.”

“But it really is true of Boston and ankles. If we lived someplace more human, maybe she’d realize she’s too one-sided, but living here it’s just one confirmation after another.”

“Oh, please, it’s true. Why would a woman play the cello?” She switched to a high-pitched voice as needed for quotative purposes: “Ten years ago they used to say, ‘A cello has the shape of a man, so it’s as if I’m making love on stage.’ Now it’s even worse: ‘Any woman would be happy to give pleasure to thousands with what she’s got between her legs.’ I don’t want to hear what they’ll say ten years from now.”

I said, “Wait, did you see her too?”

Veronica frowned. “Almost certainly not. That’s the shtick-in-trade of every Boston cellist and her sister anymore. Let’s see who can most debase herself in front of a depraved audience. There is no bottom.”

After a pause, we all laughed. Pamela said, “Of course there isn’t, darling, that’s not the side cellists show the audience.” After another pause, she continued, “I asked a cellist once why she loved the cello. She said because it has the timbre of the human voice. She said it was like singing a glorious song.”

Veronica retorted, “And I asked a cellist once why she loved the cello. She said she was forced to choose an instrument to learn as a child. She started with the violin, but her parents forced her to switch to the cello because it sounded a bit less like a scalded cat when she practiced, so she learned how to play the cello the best to inflict pain on all listeners. So in fact she loves the cello because it allows her to inflict pain on thousands with what she has between her legs.”

We laughed and Pamela said, “Cindy?”

“Yep.” Veronica turned to me, “She was a cellist in a punk bank for a while, but they kicked her out for antisocial behavior.”

I laughed, “What could punks consider antisocial?”

“Listening to old punk records and taking notes, for one thing. A sense of musical history is not strongly encouraged in that subculture. Being in bed every night by 11, nothing but a glass of merlot at dinner, and pink ribbons in her hair on occasion. Oh, and she shot two other band members in the kneecaps after they complained about her playing. They threw her out after that. Apparently punk’s only supposed to preach anarchy and violence.”

She went to open another bottle of wine while Pamela put on some Zelenka. After Veronica refilled our glasses, we returned to reading and soon started dozing off. When the recording ended, Pamela said, “Bed time, I think. You can stay up if you like, Hugh, but I’ve had a long week.”

“No, I’m beat too.”

The three of us quickly turned in, and I was soon asleep and for half the night slept well; the nightmares started about three.

The next morning was dull and cloudy, and even with strong coffee I felt as drab as the weather. As we sat at the dining room table quietly eating and avoiding each other’s gaze, I asked, “Were your dreams as bad as mine?”

Pamela just looked balefully at me and Veronica said, “Most likely.”

We didn’t discuss the matter further and slowly our moods improved, but the rest of the day we were quiet and thoughtful. I read while Veronica sketched Pamela, who sat curled up in her chair listening to whatever struck her fancy at the moment.

The rest of the six days with them that break were much less subdued. Most of it was a warm time of good food and wine, chatting, and relaxation that did not remain firmly in the memory but could not be dimmed even by the stream of nightmares that poured into my sleep like blood running into my eyes from a gash in my forehead. My last evening there, we sat in the study exhausted after a day of desultory window shopping; I had bought a present for each of them, a couple of sets of chip strips for Pamela and a couple of books Veronica had picked out for herself at my behest. Pamela said, “I want to try my music out. I don’t know these fellows.”

“They were famous once.”

She looked at the first box. “Nielsen?”

“Never as famous as he should have been.”

“What should I listen to first?”

“Try the 3rd, I guess.”

At the end of it, she said, “Thank you, Hugh, that was very good. Very distinctive, and in a good way.”

“It always made me think of Schubert myself.”

“How so?”

“It’s filled with dance, so it reminds me of Schubert’s 9th in a way. Very indirect connection, I know. The horns too, I guess.”

“I’m not sure I hear it myself, but that doesn’t matter.”

She then put on part of her second set, a well-performed collection of some of Françaix’s concertos, and sat smiling and tapping her feet while, as usual of an evening, Veronica sketched her for an hour. I watched them off and on as I drank wine and read about Pacific atoll life. That night I dreamt little, almost as if Boston knew it had driven me away again and felt no need to waste energy on a done deal.

In the morning we had a large breakfast together and we sat in the study chatting for an hour before I was to catch a bus to Lynn. “Hugh, what would you do if you didn’t have us to visit in Boston?”

“Hell, I don’t know. Probably spend all my time going to New York or someplace civilized like that.”

“What will you do for summer?”

“I have a lot of reading ahead planned for next semester. It’s shaping up to be a killer.”

“You’re welcome to come stay with us again next winter break. You won’t be going home for Christmas, will you?”

“I’m much too poor for that.”

“You’re always welcome here.”

“I’ll take you up on that.”

“Good. We’re all strangers here ourselves. We need to stick together.”

I soon left with them to the bus stop. I arrived on time, as did the bus, so after a quick farewell I started my return trip.

Strangecraft, Part II—The Kudzu on the Ivory Tower—Mikael Thompson
Strangecraft, Part IV—You Old Indian Summer—Mikael Thompson
SpecGram Vol CLXX, No ν Contents