Review: “Dearest”, H. Beam Piper, 1951.
Piper scholar John F. Carr, in Typewriter Killer, says that this is one of Piper’s strangest stories. It’s his one and only fantasy work and its publication in the March 1951 issue of Weird Tales marks his only contribution to that magazine.
For a life-long atheist, he wrote a number of stories about life after death and reincarnation. I suspect Piper longed for some greater purpose to life, than material existence and survival, but never found a religion or belief system that he could believe in. Or one that would measure up to his rigorous intellect.
The story centers around Colonel Ashley Hampton at his Wyoming Ranch of Greyrock.
Hampton’s career reminds us of what a professional army officer would have experienced during a certain part of American history. He fought in the last part of the Indian Wars, in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, battled guerillas in the Philippine Insurrection, commanded a regiment in World War One, a
Home Guard company of 4-Fs and boys and paunchy middle-agers through the Second World War.
Hampton is wealthy, and the story opens with him 78 years old and gathered with five of his enemies at Greyrock. They are his nephew Stephen Hampton and his wife Myrna. For them, he feels “implacable hatred”. The rest of the party are merely their tools. There’s T. Barnum Powell, “an honest man, as lawyers went; painfully ethical.” There’s a psychiatrist, Doctor Alexis Vehmer with a “Viennese accent as phony as a Soviet-controlled election”. And there’s Vehmer’s goon, an unnamed “attendant and bodyguard”.
The purpose of the meeting is to see if the Colonel should be committed to an insane asylum. Stephen suggests Ashley tell them about his “invisible playmate”.
We then get the back story. About a year ago, the Colonel started hearing a voice in his head. It’s a girl’s voice that tells him (after asking what the Colonel’s cat is named) “You can’t see me, or touch me, or even really hear me, but I’m not something you just imagined.” The cat, Smokeball, seems to sense an unseen presence.
The voice tells him it belongs to an entity that’s not really material, that is thinking inside his brain. It doesn’t really think it’s a spirit. Children can sometimes sense it, but the Colonel is the first adult it’s been able to contact in a long time.
The Colonel wonders if he’s entered a “second childhood”. The voice reminds him it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Both Christ and Lao Tze praised a “child’s simplicity”. The voice says it’s been around a long time and, if the Colonel doesn’t mind, wants to stick around and talk. Back at the meeting, Dr. Vehmer notes that this is a classic sign of schizophrenia.
The back story continues with the Colonel eventually coming to believe in the reality of the voice as an independent entity. He starts calling her Dearest.
The Colonel starts cautiously, even though Dearest tells him it’s not necessary to vocalize his part of the conversation, to speak aloud to Dearest. He does this when alone, but he senses that his black orderly, Sergeant Williamson, can sense the entity too. Once, when the Colonel’s explaining to Dearest the layout of an army camp in the late 1890s, Williamson comes upon him and says “There’s room enough for both of us here”.
In addition to Williamson’s speech being rendered in dialect, I’m sure many a modern reader would gnash their teeth at the Colonel saying “Colored people are usually scary about ghosts and spirits and the like.…” He directly asks Williamson if he can sense Dearest. Williamson replies,
Why, yessuh, Cunnel; Ah don’ know ’zackly how t’ say hit, but dey is som’n, at dat. Hit seems like… like a kinda… a kinda blessedness.
Back at the meeting, Powell asks the doctor if the Colonel is of unsound mind or not. While we get the Colonel’s reminisces of dealing with Dearest, he actually refuses to speak at the meeting. His nephew argues his uncle is crazy. He mumbles to himself. He steps aside when he opens a door as if waiting for something invisible to pass through. Just then, Myrna gets a pained expression on her face.
We then go back to the Colonel’s memories of Dearest. In the past January, there was the “Miracle”. The Colonel was walking by himself about three miles from his ranch house when he slipped on ice and broke a leg. He pretty much thinks it’s all over. He’s going to freeze to death. Dearest suggests he crawls to some pine trees. He does, and Dearest tells him she will get help. Sure enough, Williamson, guided by what he calls an angel, shows up with a jeep and the ranch’s gardener.
There’s an interesting aside about how Williamson feels about all this which points to Piper’s atheism and, perhaps, that longing for an afterlife:
Most Africans are, even five generations removed from the slave-ship that brought their forefathers from the Dark Continent. And Sergeant Williamson could not find the blessedness at the church. Instead, it seemed to center about the room where his employer and former regiment commander lay. That, to his mind, was quite reasonable. If an Angel of the Lord was going to tarry upon earth, the celestial being would naturally prefer the society of a retired U.S.A. colonel to that of a passel of triflin’, no-’ counts at an ol’ clapboard church house.
Back at the meeting, the Colonel cannot feel the presence of Dearest. The doctor suggests shooting the Colonel up with sodium pentathol to get at the truth of things. The lawyer points out that such testimony won’t be admissible in court. The doctor says he’s just trying to make a diagnosis. Myrna seems in pain, moaning, and “overwrought”. The Colonel isn’t going to submit to any objection, so the attendant holds him down.
Just then Myrna shouts for them to stop and shouts “You are all devils!”. Then she goes to the Colonel’s desk, pulls out a .45 automatic, and chambers a round. The attendant and Stephen spring at her, and Myrna puts a round through Stephen’s chest. She puts another one in the doctor’s leg. As the attendant closes in on her, Myrna shoots herself in the heart.
The Colonel smashes the hypo and asks the lawyer if he has any first-aid training and to look after the doctor first. The doctor tells the lawyer to look after Stephen first. Then the Colonel assumes his old air of command. He’s not Dearest’s Popsy. He’s Slaughterhouse Hampton, his old Army nickname.
Sergeant Williamson comes in the room, and the Colonel tells the doctor he doesn’t realize how fast a man shot in the leg can bleed to death. (The Colonel also grabs his cane which is actually a sword cane. Piper himself carried one for most of his life.) The local police are called with an explanation of what happened and a request made for a doctor to come.
The Colonel orders a drink for himself and the lawyer. Dearest is back in his mind and explains that, as she made the Sergeant see an angel, she made Myrna get the pistol. When the police show up, the Colonel tells them that Myrna has been borderline crazy a while and got her husband to trump up an insanity charge against him because the Colonel was going to testify as to her mental state. One of Piper’s heroes is alluded to here when Dearest quotes General Patton, “Grab ‘em by the nose and kick ‘em in the pants”.
The Colonel says this wasn’t the first time his nephew questioned his sanity. He said the Colonel was crazy when he sold his stocks in September 1929 and sold his “munition shares” and invested in baby food in December 1944 when his nephew thought the war was going to last years more.
The Colonel states that his nephew’s story was just a half lie. He does believe in spiritualism. The lawyer agrees that that is not, by itself, evidence of insanity, just “merely misevaluating evidence”. The Colonel does believe himself to be in contact with
the spirit of a young girl killed by Indians in this section about a hundred and seventy-five years ago. . . . I trust both of you gentlemen will remember the ethics of your respective professions and keep this confidential.
The Colonel will pay for Stephen’s hospitalization and Myrna’s funeral. To have some fun, Dearest relates the physical description of the arriving doctor, and the Colonel passes it on. When the prediction comes true, the doctor and lawyer have some stiff drinks.
The story has a couple of points of interest. One it’s yet another Piper plot where things are resolved by violence. Second, Carr points out, by way of another Piper scholar, John Anderson, a line applicable to the way Piper conducted his own life when Dearest says: “When bigger and better lies are told, we tell them, don’t we, Popsy?’ In Carr’s words,
That may well reflect some of Piper’s own internal dialog, with Col. Hampton representing Beam himself, and Dearest representing his conscience (although I’m sure he didn’t call himself ‘Popsy’).