Monday, 13 February 2012

The Unsubtle Cages (2001)

This tale was first published in 2004 in my NEW UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF INFAMY book, in a section featuring stories supposedly written by other authors. The author falsely accredited in this particular case was Thomas Ligotti, but the truth is that I was too unfamiliar with his work to write a proper pastiche. Nonetheless there's a flavour in the bleakness of what follows that is at least partly on his wavelength.

Alone in a new city, the traveller decided to visit the zoo. It might be a place to find conversation, if not with people then with animals. He had not spoken for almost a week. He took a tram to the relevant suburb. The houses and factories were low and decayed. Dunes of rust drifted down the alleys, covering abandoned machinery. The wind was cold and constant. Newspapers from the previous century flapped across the wider streets, full of yellowing politics and adverts which could not be answered. They roosted with angry vibrations on the sagging telephone lines which conveyed static, sniggers and deep breathing from the hub of the metropolis to its rim. He had already come far but this short journey seemed much greater. An adventure.
         He was the only passenger who dismounted outside the gates. They were neither closed nor open, but broken just enough to provide a means of entry. He climbed through. The zookeeper introduced himself. His name was Rotpier. He was not a malformed dwarf, but he acted as if he ought to be. He led the traveller past the compounds of lizards and worms. A few withered birds stood in groups on the tin roofs. Even Rotpier could not say whether they were part of the display or not. They were indeterminate. At last, the final cage was reached. It contained many other cages, all of different sizes. They stood idle, stacked in corners or on top of each other. They were worn and dented but perfectly serviceable.
         "What is the meaning of this?" asked the traveller.
         Rotpier blinked. "They have to be kept locked up for their own good. If they escaped, they might start caging beasts and people at random or according to their own tastes. Then they would return to the zoo with their new charges. The result would be an undisciplined collection, arbitrary and unplanned. Spontaneous, possibly automatic."
         The traveller stroked his chin. "I wish to buy one."
         "This is a very unusual request. I must consult my memory. Yes, I believe there is a precedent. Many years ago, a man called Belperron purchased a cage and took it back to his apartment, where he experimented on it. There are no laws against that. They are not expensive."
         The traveller removed his wallet and counted out the notes. Then the zookeeper hooked one out with a long pole. It was heavy but responsive. It could be dragged or strapped to a back with equal inconvenience. Perhaps it might be rolled, in the manner of dice, end over end. The traveller left the zoo and waited for the tram with sore hands. It came and he paid a double fare. He sat opposite the cage, looking through its bars at the sombre view beyond the window. If the environment was trapped there, he must be free. The illusion comforted him to his destination. He pushed his new possession up the stairs of his hotel. He positioned it in the centre of the room. And this space which was not really his, this rented volume of continued existence, already resembled a new zoo. And he its keeper.
         He waited for his first visitors.
         It seemed an original method of defeating his isolation. His previous attempts to meet people had failed. The nightclubs were shut, the parks and subways deserted or unbearably strange. But now he had created a solution through the medium of business. Men and women would pay to tour his little zoo. They might bring children with them. Also laughter. It was almost feasible. He paced the floorboards for an hour before he realised that he needed a live exhibit to display in the cage. The answer was to lock himself inside. He would be fed and enjoyed until he achieved satisfaction. He did not swallow the key, but squatted over it. He removed his shoes and curled his toes. It was even more lonely in this simple cell, an outcome he had not anticipated. He licked his lips anxiously.
         There was a rumbling from afar, as if a crowd was shuffling down the street toward his hotel. He imagined many outcomes. The authorities were coming to grant his zoo a licence or to close it down. The police were hurrying to arrest his prison and free him: a miscarriage of justice. He wondered why his cage did not return to the real zoo as Rotpier had predicted, with him as its trophy. The door of his room was closed. Possibly that was the reason. Or else it accepted the hotel as its home, validating the traveller's hopes. Then he imagined that the giant cage, the cage of cages, had detached itself from its location and was hunting its lost brother. He stood and gripped the bars facing the window. He was able to peer down onto the street. Rust dunes were shaken apart, settling evenly over the cobbles like the grains of a powdered sunset.
         All his guesses were wrong. He saw rooms, dozens of them, sliding over this new desert, a caravan of cubes, misshapen, humped domiciles with grimy windows and flapping shutters like eyelids. Through each pane of glass, the unwashed outline of a traveller congealed. They were equally lonely, but the sum of all their feelings was still a single loneliness. One at a time, the rooms entered the hotel, passed through the lobby and up the stairs. He heard them in the corridor, squeezing between the walls. Now he felt the hotel swelling, an ego of brick and rotting joists and tattered curtains. The rooms were adding themselves to the collection. The symbolism was too obvious. He closed his eyes in the knowledge that each exhibit was its own visitor. And he experienced a relief so slight it bordered on monstrous despair.


Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Below the Carnival (1997)

This was an attempt at writing a tribute story to D.F. Lewis, the creator of incredibly dense little texts that make no sense in terms of plot but are driven inexorably by their unique atmosphere. I photocopied a selection of Lewis' pieces, cut them up and re-arranged them at random: the result was general nonsense with a few startling phrases of bizarre coherence that I took as my inspiration for what follows. 'Below the Carnival' first appeared in Psychotrope #6 in 1998 and was reprinted in my collection, THE LESS LONELY PLANET, ten years later.

Sam picked empty pockets.
         The people in the square had adopted him as a mascot, smiling indulgently when he dipped his hand into the cul-de-sacs sewn onto their coats. They thought him harmless and closed their eyes so he might enjoy an unobserved rummage through nothingness. But Sam was sly: he collected absences.
         He was so far beyond childhood his maturity smelled like a kennel. He lived in a doll's house thick with cobwebs, which he treated like hammocks. Once a month a lady came up from the underground, connected to his lounge by a series of diminutive ladders, to brush away his resting apparatus.
         His abode was full of folded maps and the more absences he collected the more space there was for his charts and atlases. His ambition was the size of a small broom cupboard. He wanted to overlay a paper reconstruction of the world on his domesticity. At night he dreamed of rustling continents.
         There were no doll figures inside the house; they had long since crumbled to dust like soft-coloured cakes. Their remnants swirled at his feet, pouring down the stairs from the landing, puffing into his nostrils whenever a gust of wind burst open a window. An itch gurgled on his neck, an enormous boil leaking fetid vapours. His diseases were normal sized and they covered his entire body, with plenty to spare at the margins, like a hand over a spider.
         One evening, the woman from the underground left her newspaper behind. He picked it up and scanned the headlines. He saw that the carnival was in town. He hastened into the pre-dawn dark, tiny feet clattering on the pavement, a bag clutched to his chest. Sodium lamps blazed, promoting his shadow to giant .

"I've come about a job."
         His tongue flopped thickly in his wooden hoop of a mouth, like an ugly girl stuck in a manhole.
         The booth-keeper batted an eyelash. He was a yellow man, with the spectrum of deceit flickering over his face. Turning his head sideways he regarded Sam with avuncular malice.
         "Ain't much call for midgets these days."
         "You don't understand. I can turn myself invisible. Fired from a cannon, I can vanish without trace."
         The boothkeeper scratched a nose bristling with hairs. "Show me how it works." Beneath his stale breath he added: "Crazy cack-handed mother you must have had, hair like pink fevered scribblings. Go on, you fork prong! Disappear right now!"
         "But I can only do it once."
         "Am I still standing here talking to you? I despair, I really do. What's the use of an invisible midget anyhow? You're halfway there already, don't need much trickery to finish you off..."
         "Please, I need employment. I can no longer afford to pay the woman who comes up from the underground." Sam jumped and gripped the fellow's shirt by its buttons, like a lecher undressing a tea urn. Marked cards fell from the boothkeeper's sleeves as he flailed at his assailant. Blood crusted like marmite .
         "Okay, let me go, I'll give you a chance!"
         He straightened his collar and emerged from the rear of his booth to usher Sam inside a marquee smothered on all sides by other tents. It was dark: all the light fittings (except for a hole to let in the Pole Star) were grimy with thumbprints. Crates and boxes were stacked to form the walls of a maze, dividing the interior into a gross of trapeziums. The edges of Sam's lungs were stubbed with scents — fruit jams, bug poison, elephant dung.
         "Here's an empty space and a loaded cannon. I'll arrange chairs in a crescent and paint a sign. When you attract enough suckers, you can do your thing. You pipe leak!"
         "Suckers?" Sam frowned. The booth-keeper sighed, peeled off his false sideburns and mopped his nostalgia .

The first customers wore flared slacks. They seemed to have an active interest in the past. A few men had brought their wives, but there was only one child: huge and sullen, with nineteen chins. The sign above them, hanging from the rafters by chains, announced shrilly: The Non-Existent Midget! (Roll up and not see!)
         Sam thought that was a funny expression, a humorous idea, like a giant tablecloth full of second-hand bookshops, antique with High Tea, or like a sunny day moving about in a cellar.
         When his audience was settled, he paced his makeshift stage and tried to speak. The infection on his neck had spread to his throat, silencing him with chiding tingles. His customers grew impatient and cracked knuckles. A wife coughed. Her pretty new moon fingers squatted in the plangent nostrils of a man not her husband. In desperation, Sam decided to make use of gestures.
         He lifted his bag and pulled it open with the drawstring, pouring its contents down the mouth of the cannon. Then he lit the fuse with a borrowed match and hunkered down to indicate he was going to vanish. Leaning forward to peer more closely at his trick, the motley audience received the blast in their faces.
         The absences, collected over many years, stolen from businessmen, tourists and students, tramps and local politicians, riddled them like sharpened playing cards. Their astonished expressions were gouged out of existence. Now they were invisible and therefore blind, as photons passed through their eyes instead of reflecting onto the optic nerve. The remaining absences punched a hole in the fabric roof, bursting and settling on the exterior crowds.
         Small as Sam was, and lovely as a casserole , he was able to dodge the shrapnel and preserve his opacity. He flitted between tents, happy as a bayonet , delving into desks and cupboards. Finally, in a portable basement below the booth-keeper, he found his desire — a sheet of paper more creased than the Holy Ghost.
         His gratitude, manicured like his anxiety , broke his illness and released his voice. This was the only map in the entire world he did not own; a schematic of the carnival's route across the land. Wrapping the diagram around his shoulders (a cape of bad hope?) he departed the unfair fair. His steps were precisely cut. All through the city, the houses were winking out.

The woman from the underground was burning her mops. The hearth was full of crackling handles and brass nails. The smoke sucked up the powder of the decayed doll figures, hurling them out of the chimney. Without a smile, she returned to her subterranean domain, to ride the escalators and mind the gap. As she went, she tugged the diminutive ladders down after her and they fell apart, so that the raining rungs knocked off her horns and tail.
         Sam regarded the new world, the crisp tectonic plates fixed to his walls with string. Reality always adopted the easiest position. He had reproduced the planet in his house, the smallest detail lovingly marked, so there was no need for it to continue existing out there. It had come inside, revolving around him.
         More importantly, now she had to clean the whole world instead of just a doll's house, the woman from the underground had gone away. Sam filled his pipe with the remaining dust.
         Later, he would stick pins in the people in the square. Settling onto his favourite cobweb, he puffed.