“Erbach’s Emporium of Automata”

This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed at LibraryThing.

Review: “Erbach’s Emporium of Automata”, D. P. Watt, 2013.

Despite the steampunkish title and the presence of various clockwork automata (and things that don’t seem to be powered by clockwork springs), this is not a steampunk story. 

It’s set in a fairly specific real world place and time: England ca. 1955 in some seaside resort town like Worthing or Brighton. 

The narrator opens with the story describing how the kids gather around a woman at the end of a pier. They call her the “Rocking Horse” because she just rocks back and forth on her feet.

The narrator knows who she is: Ivy Wilkins. They used to play together as kids. 

We then get the back story of the titular pier amusement in 1955. 

The kids gathered there to watch the various toy automata and clockwork dolls, almost always unique, proprietor Erbach shows. Most of, but not all, the toys have sophisticated windup mechanisms. 

There are mysteries though. A six-inch bicycle wends through the other moving toys on a green table (probably an old snooker table) and stops when it reaches the end. 

The narrator and the other kids don’t want to go to the room beyond the curtain at the back of the emporium. That would spoil the mystery. 

But, one day, the narrator sees Ivy in the backroom. She is watching what seems to be sort of a miniature solar system, with green hills below it with and a dancing rabbit on those hills. There seems to be no mechanism by which the model planets rotate around the sun or how the sun blazes. The rabbit seems to respond to Ivy’s glee. Then the rabbit “sees” the narrator and the whole thing stops. 

Erbach gives a despairing cry in some unknown language. 

Ivy then goes to talk to narrator John. She says Erbach told her something, and she doesn’t think she will ever be the same. And then the narrator senses her looking into him and compares himself to some examined mechanism. 

Ivy is altered. Her parents eventually send her to the “funny farm”. 

The narrator marries, moves away, and then, when he comes back to town, sees Ivy on the pier. 

Watt seems to want to generate some effect by implying that Ivy, through Erbach’s strange toys, has received some mind-bending knowledge. At the beginning, we are told her staring eyes look into “an infinite expanse inwards, into the very mechanism of her soul”.  The narrator says that it was in Erbach’s Emporium where he learned about death. Ivy on the end of the pier seems to echo that bicycles that has reached the boundaries of his world.

I suppose we are to see humanity as existing as some sort of metaphorical clockwork toy under the gaze of greater entities just like the bicyclist exists for Erbach or the relationship of the toy solar system to Erbach. 

But Watt really doesn’t give us much affecting emotion. It’s a “microcosmic god” story with a bit of revealed self-knowledge that also reminded me of Philip K. Dick’s “The Electric Ant”. 

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