As always, it is a little odd writing this column at something of a remove, a matter of a week or two, sometimes as much as a month, though I try not to do that lest the world end and I’ve typed happily away about, say, an untranspired Halloween. But here I am, still in the doldrums of late September reaching longingly for that crisp taste of sour apple at the corner of one’s jaw, which I associate with autumn. I know what Eliot meant well enough about April being the cruelest month. Still, I would argue these days in September take the cake precisely because they promise The End. Of what? An unnaturally cheery, even hyper-manic (if that’s the term) season in hell. That is to say, a relentless ordeal thoroughly skated by the talking, coiffed heads of local TV weather personalities, those who insist on a truly deranged “breeeeeze!” instead of “a break in the life-sucking vacuum of Horse Latitude heat, stagnation, and the oppressive carbon-monoxide death gases forced into our lungs on day 53 of record-breaking and superheated asphyxiation here in this torturous irony we call the sun belt and San Diego.” Let’s call it what it is.
October is no guarantee either, is it? But the promise of it! Ah, the sheer blessed promise of pumpkin and sweater, ruddy-cheeked children, and cider steaming in cool starlight; it’s enough to keep one’s head out of the oven, not outside, but in our kitchens. And October also is blessed, for lo and verily it too promises The End. Mortality itself makes its appearance in the ether of fall.
“My, we’re in a maudlin mood,” my friend Bill commented to me recently on a Friday afternoon after a memorial service for a mutual friend. I had been contemplating the nature of grief demonstrated in all its variations by attendees and speakers at the service. What I had been contemplating were the words written by Samuel R. Delaney in his novel Dhalgren. He wrote, “The greatest part of grief is fear.” I said it aloud as Bill was trying to maintain some semblance of humor in the day. But it was too late.
I had just the night before been reading one of the most frighteningly diabolical short stories I have ever read, by, of all people, Aleister Crowley, the self-styled great beast, “The Most Wicked Man in the World,” so termed by a British newspaper, John Bull, at the early part of the last century. (This may have had something to do with the fact that he was more than rumored to have left a man to die while climbing the Himalayas and reportedly made his six-year-old daughter walk across the Gobi Desert.) The story is called “The Testament of Magdalen Blair,” about the telepathic wife of a mad academician who links her mind to her husband’s as he dies and enters hell.
The scene in which the man’s body enters the crematorium, he fully conscious and her mind joined with his, was running through my mind as we drove east on I-8.
“The first kiss of the furnace awoke an activity so violent and so vivid that all the past doubt that the cremation of my husband’s body cut short a process which in the normally buried man continues until no trace paled in its lurid light.
“The quenchless agony of the pang is not to be described; if an alleviation there were, it was but the exaltation…I had little of feeling that this was final.”
And a scene earlier, just before his death when he (and she) experience fevered dreams and premonitions:
“[T]he last of them occurred toward the end of the October term. He was lecturing as usual; I was at home, lethargic after too heavy a breakfast following a wakeful night. I saw suddenly a picture of the lecture-room, enormously greater than in reality, so that it filled all space; and in the rostrum, bulging over it in all directions, was a vast, deadly pale devil with a face which was a blasphemy on Arthur’s. The evil joy of it was indescribable. So wan and bloated, its lips so loose and bloodless; fold after fold of its belly flopping over the rostrum and pushing the students out of the ball [sic], it leered unspeakably. Then dribbled from its mouth these words; ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the course is finished. You may go home.’ I cannot hope even to suggest the wickedness and filth of these simple expressions. Then, raising its voice to a grating scream, it yelled:
“ ‘White of egg! White of egg! White of egg!’ Again and again for twenty minutes.
“The effect on me was shocking. It was as if I had a vision of Hell.”
The ride home continued in silence after my quoting of Delaney. Eventually Bill turned to me and said, “We didn’t get any of that food the caterer laid out. Are you hungry?”
I turned to him and gave him a smile I was inexplicably certain was not my own.
“What?” he pressed, grinning, I would say, gaseously. “What?”
“White of egg!” I whispered, employing the full bilabial fricative in such a way that it seemed, impossibly, to actually hiss. My voice rose, “White of egg! White of egg! White of egg!”
“Oh, my God!” He stared at me with horror, traffic honking behind us. “My God! What’s wrong with you? You’re creeping me out!”
“White of egg! White of egg! White of egg!” I repeated exactly 13 more times.