Blog Archives

Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories – A Review

Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories

 

Finished the last bit of China Miéville’s new collection, Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories, yesterday afternoon. I think the most succinct way I could explain how I feel is that I’ve been conned, but it was so effective that I don’t mind.

tmoae
I’ll unpack that a bit – the collection contains 28 pieces in all, which cover several styles of narrative. There are longer, self-contained stories, as well as short pieces that only run a few pages, and little vignettes or breakdowns of imagined film trailers which are shorter still. I say it’s a con because a lot of them read more like self-indulgent exercises, especially the short pieces. Whimsy, which is enjoyable enough to read, but not a whole lot to sink your teeth into.

The longer works are better – Miéville has an estimable rendering of different voices, by which I mean that choice of tone, of language, of which details to gloss or hide are in themselves an effective way of characterising the various narrators. The individual pieces are well researched – there is enough appropriately-placed jargon to make believable that these should be the recollections of a New York psychiatrist, that a bourgeois English Doctor, and these others a sectarian Leftist, and so on and so on. He is also able to make use of an efficient development of feeling – with space constraints tight, the ability to get the reader to feel for the protagonist and their relations within the first page is laudable. Miéville achieves this with an economical rounding of his characters – you get a good sense of who these people are, and are thus able to understand their motivations and their reactions, developing a sympathetic attachment to them. They are believable, and, despite some surreal or fantastical situations, they behave in a human way.

Even the longer works, though, generally leave you hanging. I might be wrong, but I think that this is likely by design. Without assuming too much about intention, I want to say that the lack of a satisfying resolution, the failure to draw back the curtain on the mystery, to offer up the background details of the weird and sometimes horrific circumstances, this is meant to mirror the frustrations of actual life. More often than not, reality fails to provide a satisfying, full explanation for the oddities of life, so why shouldn’t fiction mimic this? It’s challenging, it can be a bit of a let down, and, in less capable hands, would fall flat pretty quick, but when done right does a good job at pushing the form forward.

Miéville’s sociological training comes to the fore in several of the pieces. His interest in systems, in the organisation of communities of people and in the flotsam of dead civilisations is on display throughout. Despite the brevity of each of the sections, this stratigraphic depth, this clutter of hidden lives and times gone by broadens out the feel. Without wasting costly words, one gets a sense of breadth, of something beyond the horizons. As I said in my review for The City & the City, it’s a good job that Miéville keeps the lens tight – the more surrealist and weird pieces, they work because everyone is in on the oddity, or because the fantastical is hidden well enough that it doesn’t overturn most everyone’s lives. This works especially well in short fiction, where you don’t have to account for the knock-on effects in the wider world, quick and dirty, you can cut in and out. The lack of exploration of these ramifications is a large part of my earlier grievance – the stories usually cut out before you get the satisfaction of how this is all meant to work, or what it means on a larger scale. Human, thy condition is disappointment.

So, on the whole, pick it up if you’re a fan of China or of challenging fiction. You won’t find much satisfaction here, not of the mundane variety, but, if you’re looking for something that will tease you, will leave you wanting more, this is a solid bet. There are moments of humour, certainly, and some of the longer reads, whether they be apocalyptic, tragic, or horrific in tone, can leave you feeling a bit troubled – a definite sign of effective writing. I found it clipped along fairly well, despite refusing to render up the fulfillment of easier fiction – the bite-size portions break up the 430+ pages nicely. Good for something before bed or a light commute.

Advertisements

Scales

Scales

A gasp escapes your mouth as you shuffle a few feet forward on the dusty path, your arms straining against their load. It’s bulky form obscures your vision, and the angular, illogical lines strain your hands as you try to find a more comfortable way to hold it. The thought doesn’t even occur to you anymore, to put it down for a moment. You know from previous experience that you wouldn’t be able to.

Sky a troubled grey, dirty chalk of the path set in a dun field, there isn’t much to be said of the scenery. You look around, again, at the people alongside in the queue. It’s true, the mass you struggle with nearly blocks out all sight ahead – in fact, it towers a good few feet above your head – but, if you shift just there, and balance the weight against your hip for a second like that –

From around the side of the load, you can just make out the people immediately ahead of you. Their own objects, their presence just as obligatory as yours, look like they’re smaller, that they’re easier to manipulate and transport.

The man two spots ahead of your own, he can manage it with just one hand, though the arm that holds it strikes you as oddly stiff. He shifts, looking out into the barren middle distance, and you see what it is he is carrying – a block, about half-a-metre cubed, remarkable more than anything for its colour. The object is a mix of red and white, run through in irregular striations ten centimetres wide at points. The combination reminds you of a mint candy, the sharp division between the different bands, the concentration of the shade, but the sight of it leaves you faintly nauseous. Looking at it compulsively, drawn to it, you realise that you’ve seen the colours before – the white is the tint of brittle bone, the red that of raw meat. The bands themselves don’t look as if they’re composed of these materials, they both display a uniform sheen, smooth, maybe porcelain? You notice the hand that carries the object – too static. Wrong colour. Matte. Plastic. Startled, you pull your head back behind your own load.

Ahead, some unknown distance away, you can hear swells of noise, periodic. It is as if a great host raise their voices at once, then abruptly cut off. It is not a sound that carries with it an emotion, no victory yell nor shout of terror. Appropriately for this place, it simply is. Lacking more characteristics than the necessary, it simply is.

Flowing, congealing, with the queue, you clear more of the unremarkable, identical path. Always forward, sometimes a curve, but always forward. Like a tide, the tiredness you feel pulls in and out. There are times when your arms are set to shuddering, the struggle to keep the object aloft overwhelming all other consideration. At times like these, you nearly cast it aside, unburdening yourself in a dramatic and self-conscious single act. Even then, though, you know it would be impossible. It’s been tried before, why would it be different this time?

Those are the worst times, where you’re pushed to the breaking point, with every part of your body, your mind, enveloped in the struggle. And always, at the base of it, you know that it will go on and on, unending. Mercifully, the very severity of these moments is sourced from their rarity. More often than not, you experience a mild uncomfort, a burning in tired muscles and a nagging in the back of the mind. It is during one of these periods, more bored than driven, you decide to snatch another glimpse of your fellow travelers.

You have little desire to see the broken man and his strange cube once more – even in the depths of your boredom, you have little interest in the frightening oddity of that sight. Instead, you focus on your most proximate neighbour, a woman, directly ahead of you. To your surprise, she doesn’t appear to be carrying anything at all. In fact, though you’re not quite sure how to describe it, you get a sense of a sort of…absence…about her. Outwardly, she seems like anyone else here in this non-place – she walks at the same pace, eyes ahead, she is dressed in the same drab grey everyone else is. You’ve come to another slight curve in the road. Brought on by no discernible geographic feature, the road curves nonetheless. You can see others ahead, all of them have their own objects. The woman ahead of you is aberrant in her lack of a carried thing, something that sets her apart from the rest and consumes her attention.

Watching her more carefully now, you notice that she does seem to be weighed down by something – she periodically stumbles in her steps, her body looks like it has been pressed down, shoulders sloped, head lolling with tiredness. You realise she is carrying that strange nothingness, that absence, just as physically as you struggle with your own burden. You’re not sure what brought it on, you certainly uttered no sound, nor can you think of what else may have drawn her attention, but the woman in front of you turns her head, just as you’re looking at her. Only for a moment, a single motion in fact, does she look at you. Through you. Startled, you stop in your tracks. Luckily, this is during one of the intermittent ebbs in pace, and no one bumps you from behind. It takes several seconds to register what you just saw – the blankness of the woman’s expression, it was total. A complete lack of animation left it neither at rest nor showing any emotion you had a name for. All the right features were there, two eyes, nose, thin-lipped mouth, but it was more mask than face. There was no life in the eyes, no movement to nostrils or twitch in the mouth that might signal some inner awareness. Nothing. You were glad that the frozen thing was only directed at you a moment. Without knowing why, you found the lack of animation disturbing.

It looms ahead of you. The goal of this long slog, coming up at last. A set of scales, monstrous in proportion, big as a building. Inornate, they are of this place, belonging, as implacable as the passage of time. You can see the people ahead, each placing their burden onto the receiving dish. With the movement of the balance, the crowd beyond the scales lets out their deadened bellow, clipped short before it can swell to a roar.

Though the pace is unhurried, it is soon time those immediately ahead of you to test their pieces, their offerings. The plastic man approaches, ascending the graven stairs to the dull brass dish. The dish is huge, wider in diameter than the man is tall. Shallow, it hangs at about the man’s shoulders, forced up by the weight of the other arm. You look at the load of the other arm, the counter-weight exuding mass. A solid block of cast iron, larger than an automotive, rust flaking at the edges of its pyramidal form. Despite the way you’ve seen the man struggle with his strange cube, there’s no way it’ll shift that immense measure.

And yet, lifting it with clear effort straining his face, he heaves the white and red thing into the dish. Quickly, smoothly, the balance shifts. The brass dish closest to the man, the three slim chains supporting it gone taught, lowers, lowers, until it is just below the man’s midriff. It dips a moment, descending to his knees, and then bobs back up to its position below the waist. As it comes to rest, the crowd beyond the scale’s pedestal open their mouths in unison, and the anticipated, momentary, shout issues forth. Three nondescript members detach themselves from the larger group, gaining the plinth from the other side. The plastic man picks up his cube, and the others assist him with it, all four making their way down onto the path and off towards the horizon. Before he passes out of view beyond the crowd, you can see the change in the man’s expression – he still struggles with the unknown weight of the cube, but it seems less, as if the assistance of the others makes an easier going, despite the awkward manner of travel.

The woman with the inert face is the next to climb. Despite the scene that played itself out moments ago, you still doubt anything the woman has will shift the weight of the pyramid. If she herself feels similar doubts, nothing about her body betrays it. She sets her feet wide to gain leverage – she is short, about two and half feet shorter than the earlier man – and lifts the nothingness she’s carried all this way with both arms. The scene would be comic, absurd, if not for the seriousness to which all present attended it. The moment seemed to hang as she strained against this invisible weight, looking as if her arched back might break under the effort. Finally, she gained the lip, spilling whatever it was into the dish. Unlike the previous weighing, where the equilibrium was determined sedately, casually, the shift here was violently immediate. The iron pyramid shot up, as if it were the dish holding nothing, and set to swaying. The chains supporting it showed evidence of the tension they were under – it was clear that the counterweight did in fact have a ponderous mass. And yet, the opposing dish, empty to the eye, scraped the hewn pedestal beneath the woman’s feet. The customary yell is issued, perhaps a sliver longer than the last. This time, five of the nondescript, genderless individuals join the woman on the platform. Together, they gingerly lift the absence from the dish, which raises as they relieve the weight. Together, negotiating the steps down, they struggle off into the distance.
With the events that have run up to your own weighing, the comparative difference between your load and theirs, you approach scale with a degree of confidence. As you’ve already held your object at waist height this long time, it’s an easy enough job to tilt it into the dish. The relief as you set it down, even for the few moments of the weighing, is immediate and stark. You stand back –

and nothing happens. Not entirely true. As you look in disbelief at the scale, you see it shift, late, ever so slightly. Several centimetres, if that.
You look out at the crowd before you. The customary cry is absent. The faces staid. Not menacing, but neither are they merely neutral. The nearest to the scale lifts a hand, pointing to the right. You follow the appendage, noticing for the first time the road that runs perpendicular to the main. It bisected the road just after the scale, and, unlike the path you’d trodden this long while, made of some crushed unknown, white stone, this second road was dug into the ground, about a foot. It explained why you didn’t notice it before. Looking down at it now, from the added height of your vantage, you understood the unvoiced command of the pointing individual.
Stretched out along the road, much more intermittently than the ones who took the main route, were solitary figures, struggling along with the burdens that, you can only assume, were likewise refused. A sense of unfairness rises in your breast, but only for a moment. There is no one to complain to here – the crowd will not hear it, and the scale is as impartial a judge as ever there could be, even if it does behave idiosyncratically.
Stoically, you hoist your burden once more, descending the same set of stairs you climbed moments ago. As you set off down the sunken path, you can feel the old pains rising anew, the tired muscles returning to their accustomed ache. The object you bear is no lighter now, you reflect. But neither has it grown heavier.

The City & the City: A Review

C&C

The City & the City: A Review

Last night, or, more precisely, earlier this morning, I finished China Miéville’s The City and the City. I first heard about Miéville maybe a year or so ago, that he was the heir apparent to supernatural/horror fiction. I’ve seen a few interviews, recordings of a few talks that he’s given – not always the most eloquent, but clearly knows his stuff. His politics align with my own for the most part, so I may be giving him the benefit of the doubt. This is the first book I’ve read by him, and, on the whole, a job well done. Not too over-the-top with the supernatural (not that that is necessarily a bad thing) and, to his credit, he eschews some of the more ill-advised rhythmic efforts of his antecedent Lovecraft (H.P. may have been a racist hack in other respects, but the purple prose was purposive). I don’t know if this is indicative of his whole oeuvre, but I’m willing, off the back of it, to find out.

The plot of the book, The City and the City, is a fairly by-the-numbers murder mystery. Young woman, murdered horribly. Detective, just this side of too-old-for-this-shit, takes the case. Difficult to find her identity. Knowing the job’ll be better done by a higher authority, he tries to pass it up the ladder. Starts to look as if the crime may have taken place in another city, so he sets off and works alongside foreign equivalents. Only thing is, said foreign city actually occupies the same physical space as his own.

It’s a concept that, in less skilled hands, would have sunk suspension of disbelief immediately. Miéville pulls it off, narrowly. The reader is thrust into it – rather than a full explanation, this is this, this is how it works, etc., we sidle up to the weirdness – little things seem a bit off, why is he describing it like that – getting acquainted with the character’s perspective before we get a more robust exploration of the way this works. Your trust is won over, in small increments, in spite of yourself.

The setting of the story, some time in the early 21st century, is the twin-city of Besźel/Ul Qoma, located somewhere in Eastern Europe. At a point lost in the mists of time, the two cities split, occupying the same location, but with distinct populations, culture, history. There were times that they stood on opposite sides of wars, times when they went to war with one another. At the current moment in time, it is the city of Ul Qoma experiencing an economic resurgence – heavily modernised, plenty of foreign investment, even with a longstanding embargo by the United States. Besźel, by comparison, remains a backwater, stuck more in the 19th century than the start of the 21st. There are factions within each city, nationalists that take pride in their own culture, and unificationists, “unifs,” those that would combine both for the betterment of each. The majority of the population belongs to neither camp, and, like most people everywhere, just try to get by.

There is an extra element of difficulty in that for the good citizens of Ul Qoma and Besźel, though. The physical space that they share, it isn’t divvied down the middle, nor is it a complete overlap. There are slices of space, patches of air or buildings, where you can see, and move, from one city to the other. Crosshatched, these areas are called. There is a third force that operates outside the remit of either city, policing the conduct of both citizenries. Long ago, this force, this group, came about to moderate the bizarre overlap of these spaces. It is known as Breach.

Breach – one of those great multi-tense jargon terms that give a space, a story, its personal flavour. Breach is a place, a group of people, an action, a state of being. Breach, this thick concept, allows the reader to get a sense of what it means to be a native of either city: to get a hold on what the psychological space is, and to better understand their motivations. Each citizen is, from a young age, conditioned to not only disregard the “sites” they see, the noises they hear, the odours they smell through the crosshatched spaces but to mentally suppress them, as if they were never experienced at all. Failing to do so results in a Breach. When one Breaches, the agents of Breach descend upon them, removing them to Breach, for the good of both cities. Visitors to either must undergo a strict training regimen before being allowed to enter – leeway is given, but only just. Breach is a mysterious body, nominally accountable to an Oversight committee of the ruling bodies of both cities, but ultimately autonomous and opaque. Fear is one of their most potent weapons, the fear of the unknown. The layers of mystery are slowly peeled back as the narrative progresses, injecting an effective element of poignancy come the dénouement. Along the way, though, the presence of Breach, in all senses of the term, explains the simultaneous anxiety and reservedness of Besź and Ul Qomans alike.

 

Miéville will crush you with...the weight of his brain! No, really, dude has a PhD in International Relations.

Miéville will crush you with…the weight of his brain! No, really, dude has a PhD in International Relations.

The main plot interweaves with an archaeological dig and the Canadian Academics working it, a dig that goes back to the Precursor of both cities, the strata of which overturn all rules of the Harris Matrix. The items being unearthed there, a nearly incomprehensible mix of broken pottery, Antikythera-like machinery, crude lithics – may – hold extraphysical properties, the possibility of which is attracting the attention of powerful foreigners. The interactions of the students and staff are another effective world-building piece – an academic himself, Miéville knows these relationships, and the bureaucratic tape that tie them, intimately. This group also offers a counter-point to the native perspective on the oddity of life in the Cities, allowing the reader to insert themselves as foreigner.

The bizarreness of the overlap, the “Cleavage,” works – on the microcosm. If you allow yourself to abstract from the level of on-the-ground, you do start to wonder why foreign bodies, if interested in the possibility of supra-physical artefacts, wouldn’t already be pulling apart the mystery of just how in the world two cities can occupy the same physical space. Likewise, a force like Breach makes sense in the hi-tech, modern age, but the logistics of such an operation before the advent of CCTV’s or the Internet is difficult to swallow. As ever with Weird Fiction, I suppose that it is necessary to keep the camera angle tight – else, it becomes difficult to explain how a world could be plausibly different from our own. However, as I said earlier, Miéville handles these concerns adeptly. The incongruous elements of the setting are never such that they overshadow the narrative. The setting serves to augment, rather than railroad.

I would be remiss to not highlight the allegorical element at play throughout – the Situationist-esque concept that we ourselves live in a dense, multiple space, just as do the Besź or the Ul Qomans. How much of our own daily experience do we actively un-see, scrub from our minds? How often do we purposefully ignore the beggars in our streets, the sight of gross inequality, the superstructure of our politics and economics made physical? Do not we, too, self-police our thoughts? Do we not go about our lives, knowing, if only in the back of our minds, that we are constantly watched, examined by a silent, generally unaccountable force? In a certain sense, our cities are just as crosshatched as those of The City & the City, and it is left to us, at the end, to determine whether it be best to Breach or not.

Dead Spaces

Dead Spaces


Erin and I were both Egyptophiles. We used to joke that we had been born too late, and in the wrong country. That we ought to have been born French, back in the Napoleonic era. So, it made perfect sense that, for our honeymoon, we should travel to Egypt, to tour the Antiquities. We were so foolish.

We flew into Cairo right after our wedding, and were immediately staggered by the heat – which we were so unused to given our temperate home climate and sheltered city-living. Luckily, we got into our hotel pretty quickly – we were staying the night there, and heading up-country come the morning. As you can understand, we were both eager for the next day, and got hardly a wink of sleep. Rather than spending the first night of our married lives as most couples, well, as they usually do, we re-read for the hundredth time our manuals, the memoirs of Champollion, the reports of Carter’s expedition, the somewhat off-the-wall musings of Freud. Suffice to say, we were whipped into a feverish pitch!

Instead of starting our explorations at Giza, we elected to travel to Thebes and work our way back down the Nile. The Valley of the Kings did not disappoint! While we could have, with our broad knowledge, conducted our own expedition, the newly opened tourist centre was an effective jumping-off point. We found another group of Americans there, much less learned than we, but still, it’s nice to have company and to be able to share your eagerness and enjoyment with others, isn’t it? Jim and Tara, their names were. We became fast friends. Things were off to a good start.

Hussein, our guide for the Royal Necropolis, began by explaining some of the basic elements of the Ancient Egyptian religious customs to Jim and Tara. I can only assume that he was new to the job, because he stated that the Ancient Egyptians were entirely polytheistic. When Erin called him on it, pointing out Akhenaten and the state shift to the worship of Aten, the man dug in heels. I guess, from his perspective, it makes sense – here he is, a native Egyptian, being told by a bunch of white Americans that he doesn’t know his own history! All the same, Erin didn’t let up, and, fortunately, we had on us a copy of Freud’s Moses and Monotheism. That shut him up pretty quickly! Furthermore, we also had a new manuscript, by a professor friend of ours at the College, indicating by way of the archaeological record, that Akhenaten’s monotheism pre-dated, by a good few centuries, the advent of the Abrahamic faiths. Jim and Tara were quite impressed! Hussein spent the rest of the day in a rather sullen mood, only providing us the bare-minimum in commentary and guiding duties. Fortunately, we could have done without him anyways!

Following our rather abortive day at the Royal Necropolis, we elected to forego the guide services on hand for the remainder of our time in Thebes. Jim and Tara, impressed by our show of independent scholarship, decided to travel with the two of us, rather than rely on the demonstratedly shoddy services from the tourist centre. By a stroke of what we’d later know for ill-luck, Jim had a connection with the American embassy, and we were able to secure the use of a car and the clearances to travel the country-side ourselves. We set out in great eagerness, to hunt down the mysteries of yesteryear.

It was at this time, as you’ll no doubt recall, that the Lost Temple complex of Gar-Sutekh was said to have been rediscovered. It made international news, there’s no way you could have missed it if you were paying attention. At any rate, you can imagine our excitement – here we were, in Egypt, during a period of new discovery! It was our dream come true. No need to travel back to the 19th century – discovery was still possible in the 21st!

The location of the complex was, at that time, still being kept as a secret – academics wanted first crack at it, and it was a matter of some national security to set up the appropriate measures to handle the inevitable tourists. Jim got in touch with his contacts once again – I never did find out how it was that he so well-connected – and, glory of glories, we learned of the location!

Seemingly, the regulation of the Nile, since the building of the dam at Aswan back in the ‘60’s, has dried out the surrounding areas in ways that no-one anticipated. Much like Abu Simbel, also tied inextricably to the dam, the complex had been caught in the shifting sands, and, slowly, inch by inch, lost to history. The periodic floodings kept the sand wet enough to not blow off, but, after several decades of relative dryness, it had done just that, and the statuary, the temples, the pillars had been restored to the land of the living. No one alive at the time knew to save the complex from the shifting sands, and it was lost to us – until now.
You can, I assume, imagine the excitement which gripped Erin and myself – a newly re-discovered city, unexplored for at least several hundred years, if not more! We had to get there, no matter the barriers, no matter the impediments. Were we not the match of any University-funded Antiquarian? Were we not the equal, in learning, of any living Egyptologist? We certainly thought we were. And we set out to prove it.
Alongside the rental of the car came a GPS unit, a properly bulky affair, probably a decade old, but with enough kick to zero in on the location. Following a stint on the highway, it was off-road for a number of miles – to be expected. Thankfully, or so we thought at the time, Gar-Sutekh was seemingly abandoned. After driving some four hours to get from Luxor to the complex, the sun was setting.

Much like Abu Simbel, Gar-Sutekh was built into a cliff of sandstone. By the time we arrived, a gibbous moon was rising behind the escarpment, and, at our backs, the Sun was laying itself to sleep in desert sands. Its last rays painted the complex in ruddy, warm tones. Jim parked our Jeep on the periphery of the compound, and we busied ourselves with getting our flashlights and the like ready. By the time we were set, the scene had changed dramatically – the flushed, broad-strokes cast by the setting Sun had been replaced by austere, cool blues and whites of the Moon, now a hands breadth above the monolithic rock, black now against the backdrop of the night sky. The temperature began to drop precipitously, though the hot sand and worked stone still radiated.

I remember feeling a sense of reservation grow, an unexpected desire to pack up and head back to the city. So out of place – the whole trip, Erin and I had been, I’ll confess, near-giddy at the prospect of what awaited us. But, standing there, flashlight in hand, looking into the gathering chill, I could’ve given it all up. I was just about to say something when Tara made some off-hand comment about not bringing a jacket, not thinking it’d be so cold in the desert. That snapped me out of it – here we were, about to explore buildings that hadn’t been properly seen in millennia, and I wanted to just give it up over nothing? A niggling doubt? What would it look like to Jim and Tara, especially after the good show we had made at the Necropolis days before? I strode purposefully towards the ruins.

The complex itself was designed in a T-format, a central avenue that lead towards, and eventually inside of, the sandstone escarpment, while two others branched out before the front of the mound and lead each into secondary temples. Flanking the sides of the central avenue were, at regular intervals, statues of some 15 feet or so. The first two, though the head was missing off one, must have been Pharaoh Tjesh III and his prime consort, the reigning monarchs of the period, and those that must have ordered the building of the mighty compound. Or so say the scanty sources remaining.

Erin, shining her flashlight onto the oversize head of Pharaoh Tjesh, revealed a startling scene: his features had been chiseled away, clearly the work of human hands – no desert winds, no matter how rough, could have left such brutal gouges. The historic vandal had paid particular attention to the eyes of the Pharaoh, leaving the stony sockets deeply gashed.

“Oh!” exclaimed a startled Tara. “Why would anyone do that?”

“Well,” Erin said, sounding as surprised as I felt, “defacing the memorials of a person, their statues and,” she directed her light to the cartouche on the plinth of the statue, it too had been attacked, “their names, it was seen as a way of scrubbing them out of history. Of removing them from both this life and the next. It was only done to criminals, and then only rarely, for really heinous offences.”

“What’d he do, then, to get this?” Jim inquired. A puzzled Erin turned to me.

“I dunno,” she said. “The sources on Tjesh III have always been patchy. He’s rarely mentioned. I guess this is why. It’s also likely why Gar-Sutekh hasn’t ever really been looked for before.”

“Looks creepy,” Tara said, “eyes all gouged out like that.” She shivered, though it was still at least 70 degrees.

We carried on down the avenue, its paving stones fitted tightly in some places, swamped with desert sand in others. It made the going somewhat treacherous – you’d take a step and come down on hard stone at one point, and the next you’d be tripped up by an unseen dune, stumbling in the thick drift of it. Of course, we had our flashlights, but they were directed up to the statues for the most part.

“Who’s this guy, the one with the weird head?” Jim said, indicating another weather-beaten statue, which had a snake winding across the torso.

“From the looks of it, I’d say it’s the god Set,” I answered. “Set was meant to be god of storms and disorder, and later became an enemy of Osiris and his son, Ra, who were thought of as Pharoahs of the gods. I’m not sure what that snake is all about, though – Set was supposed to have fought Apophis, wasn’t he?”

“Yeah, that’s what I recall,” answered Erin. To the other two, who were looking on confusedly: “Apophis was the embodiment of Chaos, and Set was said to have defeated it, working with Ra, to prevent the sun from being consumed by the snake. Look at that the way Set is shown holding Apophis here – doesn’t really look as if they’re in the grips of combat, does it?”

“If this is what it looks like, there was definitely something weird going on here,” I said. “It runs against hundreds of years of received mythos to have these two depicted as comrades. It’s an aberration as large as Akhenaten’s.”
“If this is so weird, this presentation of these gods,” asked Tara, “then why weren’t they attacked the way the Pharaoh was, y’know, with a defacing and stuff?”

“While many Pharaohs were considered to be gods after they passed into the next life, gods with the stature of Set were held to be ‘above’ them, sort of. It really wasn’t until the Old Kingdom that the Pharaohs were thought to be reincarnations of Horus. Until that point, they were just men, if kings. So, while Tjesh may have been punished for whatever sort of sins he committed, Set was still considered above the justice of mere mortals,” Erin responded.

The moon was well and truly above us when we had gotten to the end of the avenue, blanketing the area in a cold white light. As it had ascended, the temperature had fallen. Our breath puffed out in clouds as we exhaled. More of the strange statues of Set and Apophis had awaited us as we travelled towards the temple buildings, depicting the unusually close relationship between the two in various ways. Unlike the memorial to Pharaoh Tjesh, there had been no cartouche or any other hieroglyphs to dissipate the mystery.

I feel like I should stress, at this point, that we didn’t notice anything odd –well, beyond the bizarre and unsettling statuary, and the total absence of any other living person – when we went into that main temple. It’s true, it was getting colder, to the point where I regretted not having brought my coat, but the moon was still high and, aside from the glare of the flashlights, you could make out the surroundings pretty easily.

So, we went in, me first, followed by Erin and Tara, and Jim taking up the rear. The gate, whether of stone or something less permanent, had been lost at some point over the millennia, and the doorway, flanked by two more of the strange statues of Set, yawned open before us. Once inside, casting our flashlight beams about, we saw that this main room was the majority of the temple building that we could see from outside, at least above ground. A double line of pillars ran down the length of the hall towards the back of the room. Unlike the delicate pillars you’d find in and around Grecian temples, or even the more ornate, fluted variety that cropped up in later Egyptian works, these were bulky, and solid. Rather than a single piece of carved stone, or several pieces joined seamlessly, these were formed by broad cylinders, a good arm span in diameter, stacked one atop the other. The effect they granted the room was one of great gravity, as if this hall were located fathoms below ground, rather than at surface level.

Because the main doorway stood open to the elements, small drifts of sand accumulated every few feet for the first dozen yards. The room smelled dry, as if it were as much a part of the desert as the miles of trackless waste. That was the first thing that seemed a bit off – it was Tara that noticed it.

“It feels…I dunno, old in here,” she said. “Like, I get that it’s, y’know, old, that it’s ancient, but it feels really old.”

“Yeah,” Erin says from beside her, inspecting some of the hieroglyphs on the first set of pillars, “I get what you mean. But I don’t really know how to express it, either. It’s almost as if it feels older than it should be, if that makes any sense.”

“Are you able to read any of those?” Jim said, indicating the hieroglyphs. “Whadda they say about this place? Sure gives me the creeps.” He swept his flashlight about, scenes of bare rock and ossified brick appearing and fading in its arc, till it came to rest on another of the pillar.

“Well, the problem with this, of course,” started Erin, “is that we’ve never had a direct translation of hieroglyphs, and these, well, if I’m not mistaken, these are really quite ancient. You guys know about the Rosetta Stone, right? Well, that only got us a rough translation of the language, from the Greek to the Demotic, a sort of Egyptian in cursive form, and then to the more formal hieroglyphs,” she said, poring over the graven symbols. “When the French found it, only Ancient Greek was still known, so, at each stage of the translation, meaning was lost. It’s been the work of Egyptologists ever since to try and get the semantics back, the turns of phrase. It’s like trying to read Old English if modern English was your second language, reading this stuff.”

At this point, I noticed that my breathing had become labored – not as if there weren’t enough air, but rather as it had a heaviness to it, as if the gas had become syrupy, almost. Once I had realized what was going on, I looked over at the others and noticed that they too were having a tough time, every breath a subconscious struggle. I put my hand out, to steady myself against the nearest column. I could feel the rough-hewn symbols under my palm, their primordial edges still jagged to the touch.

And then, as suddenly as it had descended, it was gone. Letting out a breath of palpable relief, I asked the others, “Did anyone else feel that?” Though I had seen them struggling, they eyed me with a quizzical expression.

“Feel what?” asked Jim.

“Ah, don’t worry about it, got a bit light-headed for a moment, I guess,” I responded sheepishly.

Erin was still trying to read the initial pillar – she had always been better with the hieroglyphics than me – while Jim and Tara had fanned out deeper into the dark room.

“What’s that, down there?” Tara asked, indicating the back of the hall with her flashlight. The beam illuminated what looked to be a waist level bench, or altar. There was little else around, save for two squat pedestals, one on either side of the stone slab. Tara rushed forward.
“Hey, wait!” I cried, taking off after her.

“What, I just wanna take a look!” she said, once I had met her at the altar.

“You worried about curses of something? You don’t actually believe in that, do you?” Jim said presently. Of course, I did know better, but, well, I was still worried. This place was getting to me.

“Well, no, of course I’m not worried about any curse, but, the floor could have been damaged, or something,” I responded lamely. “This place hasn’t been checked out, like the other tourist spots, right?”

We turned our attention to the work table in front of us, we could see now that that is what it was.

“The Egyptians, they didn’t, y’know, they didn’t do human sacrifice or anything, did they?” Tara asked, looking at the depressions in the stone surface, quite reminiscent of the human form.

“No, not in any of the records we have. While the Egyptians venerated the dead, there’s no indication that they…helped anyone along. Not like that. If I’m not mistaken, this would have been a part of the materials used to create a mummy.”

“But where is everything else?” asked Erin, joining us. “And why is this here, of all places?”

“You’re right, there should be other equipment, proper beds for the submersion in naptha and the canopic jars for the organs,” I said, agreeing with her. “Really, mummification was done in a craftsman’s building, for all the respect they were accorded. To see something like this in a temple is…very strange.”

Erin, meanwhile, had been looking at the pedestals on either side of the table. From their design, they looked as if they had, at one point, acted as lamps. The flame that they gave off must have been quite impressive, given their own size. The angled faces of their pyramidal bodies were, much like the rows of columns, saturated with hieroglyphics.

“Huh,” said Erin, “I think, I think I can make this out…but that doesn’t make any sense!”

“What doesn’t make any sense?” asked Tara.

“Well, if I’m right in deciphering this, I think, I think they used this table to…to harvest the dead.” Erin responded, face grim. The heaviness of the air I had experienced before returned, and I could see from the looks on their faces that, this time, the others were aware of it as well.

“Let’s get out of here!” Tara said, gripping the sides of the macabre altar to stop from falling down. She got no argument from the rest of us, and we, feebly, slowly struggled our way out. Tara started leaning on Jim as he helped her to walk, and Erin and I, we supported one another down the main aisle between the cyclopian pillars. By the time the four of us had reached the end of that path, we were all of us on our hands and knees. We fell out of the temple under the gaze of those twinned statues of Apophis and Set. They looked down on us with what seemed a new glint in their stony eyes, as if they knew we were aware of the dark secrets they had borne witness to.

We could breathe again. We gained our feet, none of us saying anything, only thankful that we had made it out of whatever madness had descended upon us. Then, Erin looked at the sky. The way she screamed, it was as if had been ripped from her, it was as if forced against her will.

We all looked up – the moon, though we could only have been in the temple for, at most, twenty minutes, was gone. The stars, though, the stars! There we stood, amidst the statuary thrown into stark relief, and the stars, they looked a thousand thousand times closer. They dominated the sky, vast whorls of cosmic gasses, visible to the naked eye as never before.

Jung, Campbell, Leary, they talk of the ego death, the subsumption of the self in the face of the sublime. If that is not what we experienced then, I have no name for it. We were lost, lost under the weight of that alien sky.

This was not the place that we had left so short a time ago, this was not our land, the land of the living. Some change had been made, and nothing would ever be the same.

-:-

We carried it away with us, a piece of that strangeness. I don’t remember how we made it back to Luxor. All I can recall is being under that swirling, nightmare sky, and then suddenly back in our hotel room.

I’ve not heard from Tara or Jim since. Nor did I ever come across any report regarding the exploration of Gar-Sutekh, despite my fevered searching.

Erin and I, of course, separated last year. The weight was too much to bear.
And still my dreams, my waking moments, are haunted.

 

Oh, that must be the nurse now. I guess you have to go.