“The Basilisk”

This fine story is not set in Hambling’s Stubbsverse.

Review: “The Basilisk”, David Hambling, 2020. 

Cover by John Coulthart

We start with Lovecraft being examined by a doctor who looks to be about 80 years old. He talks in a clipped New England accent though the third man in the office, inquiring about Lovecraft’s health, speaks with an English accent. Lovecraft’s eyes are checked and his scalp wounds mended. The Englishman asks if Lovecraft has a concussion. Possibly, the doctor says, and he may have trouble with his memory for the next couple of hours.

The Englishman introduces himself as Jonathan Fortescue-Smith and says he’s glad Lovecraft is not badly hurt. He radiates ‘friendship and good-humour” and tells Lovecraft he was hit by a car on his evening walk maybe because he was “paying more attention to the fine architecture than the street traffic”. Fortescue-Smith saw the accident and took Lovecraft into his house and called a doctor. 

Lovecraft gives his name and is very pleased Fortescue-Smith knows it and his work. Fortescue-Smith is a scientist invited to Providence by Professor Wayland, an astronomer whose work Lovecraft knows. Fortescue-Smith suggests Lovecraft stay in the house a bit to recuperate. There are even snacks. While Lovecraft’s head hurts a bit, he can’t see any bruises showing where a car hit him. 

Lovecraft is grateful for the food and some coffee. The cutlery and dishes seem antique but used daily, and he looks around the well-appointed room. He notes there’s no sherry decanter and no ashtrays but that’s fine with Lovecraft. “Living through lean times”, Lovecraft considers it a “happy accident” that put him there, and he helps himself to some chocolate chip cookies.

On the third one, he notices something peculiar. While the cookies look and taste like they’re homemade, the chocolate chips are identically placed in each cookie. Lovecraft does what any reader does in somebody else’s home: he looks at the bookcase in the room.

If Fortescue-Smith was only staying here briefly, then he had brought a remarkable library with him. A selection of classics rubbed against textbooks on astronomy and physics. Other shelves revealed a taste for the fantastic: Maupassant, Poe, M. R. James, Robert W. Chambers, Ambrose Bierce, Dunsany, and, remarkably, the issues of pulp magazines – Amazing Stories, Weird Tales, and more – and contained his own works. Oddly, shelved next to these was a well-thumbed copy of Spengler’s The Decline of the West.

Plucking the Spengler off the shelf, Lovecraft notices several hand-written annotations, and they seem to be done by someone not sympathetic to Spengler. 

There’s a nice desk in the room which has, by coincidence, a typewriter identical to his and some good quality pens and writing material.

The whole arrangement begged the writer to make his mark on those blank spaces, to set foot in this virgin territory. The lure was irresistible. 

And Lovecraft doesn’t resist. He writes a few paragraphs describing the room and his experience of being there with a clouded memory. They conclude with

But the very sweetness of his surroundings, the abundance of good food and good books, seems strangely ominous as a piece of gold left to lure the unwary traveller astray

Lovecraft wonders where that last line came from. Why is everything “at the same time, so strange and so ordinary?” 

With “growing suspicion”, he opens the curtains expecting to see bars, but he just sees the familiar and beloved skyline of Providence though the stars seem unusually visible. 

Fortescue-Smith comes in. He’s glad to see Lovecraft up and that it’s great Lovecraft even wrote a little. “Your facilities are in full working order, excellent. You simply must finish it!”. But Fortescue-Smith is starting to wear on Lovecraft. It’s not that the man is insincere but that he’s “too welcoming, too genuinely pleasant”. His hospitality is an embarrassing gift Lovecraft must “free himself from”.  Lovecraft expresses his thanks for Fortescue-Smith’s hospitality and generosity, but he has to leave.

Fortescue-Smith won’t have it. He’s a “great enthusiast” for Lovecraft’s work. It’s purely “self-interest” on Fortescue-Smith’s part since he hoped to “cajole” Lovecraft into writing a story in “exchange for biscuits”. Perhaps, says Lovecraft, he will dedicate a future story to the Englishman in the future as a payment for his kindness once Lovecraft recovers. But he is recovered insists the Englishman. He could finish the story in an hour, and it will be amazing. Then he offers Lovecraft some cake.

But Lovecraft, as we’ll see, is a man of will and persistence. He refuses Fortescue-Smith’s offer. Then Fortescue-Smith makes a confession, “this whole episode is something in the nature of an abduction” though his “motives are entirely benevolent”. Now Lovecraft’s “hackles” are up. He doesn’t like a trap built just for him. 

Fortescue-Smith tells him

I want you to write the best stories you possibly can. In this place, with every material worry dispelled – and perhaps with the additional books I can lend you – you can write better than ever.

Lovecraft refuses and demands his release. 

Fortescue-Smith can’t understand Lovecraft’s attitude. He’s taken great troubles to take care of Lovecraft’s every need. Lovecraft’s abduction was for his own good. Lovecraft finds the man “so polite, so reasonable, and so completely unhinged”. 

It’s all true insists Fortescue-Smith. Sure, he hasn’t been entirely truthful with Lovecraft but the shock of the truth would be too much. 

You, of all people, know the value of a slow, dawning realisation, of subtle clues to prepare the reader for the awful revelation. 

Lovecraft says he would be happy to continue this discussion – “by correspondence” – and gratified by the Englishman’s admiration for his work, but he still has to leave. 

(Spoilers ahead)

There’s nowhere for Lovecraft to go, says Fortescue-Smith, and advises the writer to prepare himself for a shock. Lovecraft walks out the door to see a realm of without “any colour, no form, no light”, without anything to produce any kind of sensation. 

Lovecraft goes back into the room and walks to the window, the Providence skyline is still there, but, when he opens the window, the same blank nothingness is seen outside. 

“Where is this place?” asks Lovecraft. Fortescue-Smith invites Lovecraft to guess. Lovecraft ponders the “extra-dimensional spaces” postulated by topology. The Englishman tells Lovecraft to sit down and have some more cake. 

Technically, says Fortescue-Smith, this place is “literally nowhere”. Perhaps Lovecraft should think of it as “a small outpost of the Dreamlands”. Lovecraft thinks the man is mocking him.

No, he isn’t says Fortescue-Smith. Every detail in the room is accurate to the senses but totally artificial. As Lovecraft’s own “The Whisperer in the Darkness” correctly noted, sensations can be fed directly into a brain via wires. “This is no dream”, replies Lovecraft. 

Then Fortescue-Smith morphs into the form of the old doctor and says, in a New England accent, “T’aint no difference between a real world and an imaginary one, far as your brain can tell.”

Lovecraft wonders if he’s “at the mercy of some mad but talented scientist, a real-life Herbert West”. Is his brain wired? This, Fortescue-Smith says, is no “twentieth-century trick, like brain simulation”. Lovecraft’s body is an illusion too. Lovecraft is in a “virtual world”. 

Then how did he get here, asks Lovecraft. 

I’m afraid I have some rather grave news for you . . . This may come as a bit of a shock, but perhaps not as much as it would have done previously. 

“A scientifically created afterlife” asks Lovecraft. Yes, says the Englishman. Rather like Charles Dexter Ward being revived from his essential salts, Lovecraft has been reconstituted by “modern magic” which is a “good deal more complicated than a few magical formulae”. “Machine intelligence” reached the stage where it could make itself smarter. Eventually,

it spiraled upwards to a point where anything was possible – even the exact virtual creation of a deceased individual in a particular environment. 

With strange aeons even death may die’”, says Lovecraft.

Fewer aeons than he might think, replies Fortescue-Smith. He only wants the resurrected Lovecraft to write. Of what value, asks Lovecraft, could his writing provide a world that can do such things. And he can “imagine darker reasons” why someone might resurrect an author given the annotations he saw in the Spengler book. 

. . . how many people had wished to bring back a writer they disagreed with to rail at him, argue with him – or worse. Science had provided a means of meeting out justice, or, at least punishment, even beyond the grave. 

Lovecraft wonders why Fortescue-Smith wishes him to write and whether he wants to write. Fortescue-Smith, pleased at Lovecraft’s question, gives an answer. Lovecraft’s

successors in the field of speculative fiction worried that a great machine intelligence might bring people back to life simply to torture them. There’s even a name for it: Roko’s Basilisk. 

That’s just paranoia, though. There would be no purpose to it. Rather, Fortescue-Smith wants to restore talents to the world and reels off the names of Mozart, Shakespeare, and Picasso.

The world wants more Shakespeare, but perhaps with better comedy, and more Jane Austen with even sharper satire and wittier exchanges . . . Howard Philip Lovecraft is now, I assure you, a major figure in the literary canon. 

But, says Lovecraft, he doesn’t write for the world but for himself.

“Modest as always” says Fortescue-Smith, but Lovecraft isn’t immune to the possibility of “overtopping Poe and the others”, and Lovecraft is rather attracted to the idea of millions of fans.

Fortescue-Smith can help him do it by providing “just a little direction”. That last remark makes Lovecraft suspicions. He’s dealt with plenty of editors and publishers who have their own ideas about making a work more commercial. Is it his language, asks Lovecraft? Do people not have dictionaries now? No, Lovecraft’s language is “delightful”, Fortescue-Smith says.

To be candid, it is more a matter of modern sensitivities. The new Lovecraft tales will show, as we might say, a more correct attitude. A greater level of respect to the non-white races and other minorities. 

Lovecraft thinks back to the annotations he saw in that Spengler book. Spengler’s views are now unacceptable. 

They wanted to re-educate him, as the Soviets re-educated those who disagree with Lenin, to mouth their own sentiments. 

’Is that all?’

’A few other trifles – your treatment of women, of the working classes, of Jews, of homosexuals, call for a little revision.’ 

Lovecraft just needs to write as he always has minus “those aspects that are abhorrent to the modern taste”. The genial Fortescue-Smith is gone. He’s quite serious now. 

Tastes change, says Lovecraft. Is he going to be called up again and again to revise his work?  He’s just being given, says Fortescue-Smith, a change to “produce something of lasting value”.

Lovecraft adamantly refuses. He writes for himself. If Fortescue-Smith wants another kind of story, he suggests Fortescue-Smith write it himself. 

Lovecraft doesn’t seem to grasp the situation, replies Fortescue-Smith. Perhaps he’s been made too comfortable. Lovecraft is not going to refuse his “reasonable request”. 

’This is not your world, nor am I human. . . .

‘You know what cosmic horror really means? To face towering, infinite powers far greater than human, to feel your own insignificance before them.’

’I have always known.’

’Not until now’. 

Fortescue-Smith pulls off a rubber mask to reveal a form familiar to Lovecraft. It’s a Mi-Go out of Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in the Darkness”. Fortescue-Smith even speaks with their buzzing voice. 

“You will bend to our desire, Lovecraft”, and the creature touches Lovecraft who faints dead away. 

When he wakes up, Fortescue-Smith offers him some advice and a warning. Unlike Joseph Curwen torturing the people he resurrected, Fortescue-Smith can’t torture Lovecraft – physically.  But he can use “psychological pressure”. 

You know what I am. There is no limit to the forms I can take. You will not defy me indefinitely. 

There’s a long silence, then Lovecraft says he still won’t and can’t do what is asked. 

He should have more “self-belief” says Fortescue-Smith who is now offering the carrot after the stick. Sure, Lovecraft doesn’t care about money, but wouldn’t he like to get new letters from his old friends like Robert Howard and Frank Long Belknap. His mother could be brought back. The whole of Providence could be made available to him. He could take Lovecraft to Yuggoth and the Milky Way. Lovecraft remembers that, in his story, the Mi-Go tried to trick Wilmarth with similar promises. Every desire of Lovecraft’s can be fulfilled. 

You mean, you can give me a cheap, machine-made illusion of what I desire . . .  In return for turning out hackwork to your modern formula for your modern tastes. A wage slave in a gilded cage for the millions to goggle at. [I wonder if Hambling is making a pun on some future product of Alphabet Inc.] A tame commercial creature. 

But Lovecraft could have the life of a “cultured gentleman” he has always wanted. His muse, replies Lovecraft, doesn’t “dance to the sound of jingling coins”. His worst work was done for money.

Pride might be all he had left, but it was honest pride. Lovecraft could not have sold himself even if he had wanted to. 

But what about, asks Fortescue-Smith, the horrors he can produce? Does Lovecraft really want to

spend eternity absorbed in the writhings of tentacled horrors, becoming one with their endless foetid depravities? To be the plaything of revengeful shoggoths? 

Lovecraft says he doesn’t believe Fortescue-Smith’s masters would waste “their precious world-stuff on such an empty display”. What about oblivion then, asks Fortescue-Smith? 

I have lived my life. I am not afraid of oblivion. 

The room disappears, then Fortescue-Smith, then Lovecraft’s body starts to disintegrate with his arms. 

Then we get a computer readout stating this was the 3,341 run of the Lovecraft simulation with “CONVERGECE ON GOAL +0.7%.” The 3,342 starts up and the story begins again. 

I was pleasantly surprised to have Hambling, a writer I presume is on the left, to come to Lovecraft’s defense from modern censors and rightly pointing out tastes change and comparing Fortescue-Smith’s project to Soviet censorship and re-education.

Narratively, Hambling keeps the reader guessing as to what Fortescue-Smith represents:  dangerous fan, a sorcerer, mad scientist, aliens. Alas, a tyrannical, censorious future is the too plausible answer.

Hambling also does a fine job, in a short story, showing Lovecraft’s artistic integrity, pride, and stoical philosophy. Those are qualities that remain unsubverted and unconquered despite the 3,341 cracks at it.

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