" In this universe the night was falling; the shadows were lengthening towards an east that would not know another dawn. But elsewhere the stars were still young and the light of morning lingered; and along the path he once had followed, Man would one day go again"

Arthur C. Clarke Against the Fall of Night

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

"The Whispering Well" by Clifford Simak

 Our neighbourhood has many little libraries where one can exchange books.  I do partake, although I am better at taking than replacing. I have a large number of books earmarked for them; I simply don't get around to it. (Pause while I fill the backpack for the next walk with the dogs.)  The latest acquisition was a horror anthology, no surprise there, called Dark Forces edited by Kirby McCauley. I approached it as I usually do by reading the introduction. Then I looked for favourite authors.  

Spoilers coming

Bingo a Silver John story by Manly Wade Wellman "Owls Hoot in the Daytime." I had never read this one, and it was not bad. It reminded me of a comment I once heard about Robert Howard's heroes. I can't remember if it came from Howard himself or not. You know that Solomon Kane, Conan or Kull etc., will be captured or surrounded at some point in the story. To avoid a lot of mental gymnastics Howard keeps the mechanism by which they escape simple.  They burst their bonds, hack their way through or are released by a heroine. Silver John has a slightly more extensive tool kit but not by much. There is silver, usually the strings on his guitar, a passage from John  George Holman's book Pow-Wows; or, Long Lost Friend or brute strength combined with pluck and luck.

I enjoyed this, but it did not cover new ground. The third story I read was longer "The Mist" by Stephen King. It might be the first King I have read. I don't read a lot of modern horror, preferring Edwardian or Victorian stories or mythos fiction. "The Mist" is about a group of people trapped in a grocery store by monsters that come through an inter-dimensional rift. The narrator is trapped in the store with his young son. The assumption is his wife, who stayed home, has been claimed by the mist. So you have family stuff and group dynamics. This is pretty everything I dislike in a horror story (yeah there is sex as well so we are covered). In my universe the narrator should be alone or possibly with a few companions. They should be an intrepid polar explorer, occult investigator, unwary academic, luckless tenant, or the doomed beneficiary of a distant relative's largess. If the codicil says burn the book, house, mummy, etc., it is probably a good idea. I may or may not look at King again. So many books, so little time. 

The story I want to discuss is "The Whispering Well" by Clifford Simak. Thomas Parker is a professional non-fiction author. His recent books include works on palaeontology, Egyptology, ancient trade routes and folklore. As the story begins, he has been summoned by an eccentric but well-off aunt to write a family history. He agrees, and the story then jumps to his last stop. He is visiting the site of the farmstead of Ned Parker who settled there after the Civil War. This location became Parker's Ridge. It was not the best land available, but there was timber and a stream for hunting and fishing. Ned was worried, however, that the stream might dry up and had a well dug. The water table was so low that a huge windmill was installed to raise the water, and the whistling well was born. The locals say the ridge and the well has a "bad reputation" but can supply no specifics. However, Thomas feels a certain attraction to it and drives up to spend a few days in his camper. He immediately finds gastroliths, the gizzard stones of a dinosaur. All the time spent in museums has come in handy. There is a problem, however, because there is an undecipherable symbol engraved on it. After examining it closely, Parker comes to believe the engraving dates to the same period as the dinosaur which swallowed it.  There are also huge shapes that move around in the dark beyond his campfire, and he begins to feel uneasy. He remembers a discussion he had with an old black preacher while researching his book on folklore. The unnamed preacher talks about an ancient evil, one that predates our belief in the devil. An evil that predates humanity itself. ( Here, the story is marred by the typical racism of the genre/period) " You white folks don't know. You don't feel it in your bones. You're too far from the jungle. My people, we know. Or some of us do. We're only a few lifetimes out of Africa." (221)

I will insert a plug of Lost Kingdoms of Africa, details here, 


While this passage is jarring today, I loved the concept that Simak introduced. "You're saying that there was evil before man. That figures of evil are not man's imagining?" (221) Here I think, Simak is not talking about the evil men do, but the archetypes that inform our concept of evil or rather the supernatural. His work often contains trolls, ghosts, banshees, and the devil himself. See The Goblin Reservation or, better yet, Out of Their Minds

This story is typical Simak with rocking chairs, a lone protaganist and a farm on a timbered ridge overlooking the river. But even more, large parts of it seem drawn from Simak's own life. 

"He walked the ridge, so high against the sky, so windswept, so clean, so open, so far-seeing. As if the land itself, the soil, the stone, were reaching up, standing on tiptoe, to lift itself, stretching toward the sky. So high that one, looking down, could see the backs of the hawks that swung in steady hunting circles above the river valley." (209) "The Whispering Well"

"This stems, I would suspect, from my boyhood, which was spent in the rural areas of southwestern Wisconsin. The impression made upon me by that country has stayed with me throughout my life. It is a picturesque country, with great high hills, deep wooded ravines, a couple of good sized rivers, the Wisconsin and the Mississippi, and any number of smaller streams running down almost every hollow or valley. As a boy and young man I hunted the hills and fished the valleys and was never  happier than when tramping through the woods. There was a peace and an understanding there I have found nowhere else." (64) Clifford Simak interviewed by Paul Walker in Speaking of Science Fiction

Parker and Simak have both produced non-fiction books on similar topics. I have three of Simak non-fiction titles here, he also published Prehistoric Man (1971), which is both outdated and expensive on ABE. Since I have several shelves on hominid evolution, I have given it a pass.  

I had posted this here because I see Simak as primarily a science fiction writer; that said, the Horror Writers Association made him one of three inaugural winners of the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement. I enjoyed this story. It has all the right elements for me, a lone bemused protagonist, existential angst, revelations out of deep time, dinosaurs and a certain amount of H.P.L. cosmicism. In my earlier post on Ray Bradbury's The Halloween Tree, I stated.

"And I realize now it had continued to be my life. Reading Bradbury, I understood that the things that interested me as a child are largely the things that interest me today. I still love rocket ships, dinosaurs, and books with mummies, witches and werewolves on the cover." In Simak work, I again find an author who speaks too many of my lifelong interests. I do wonder, as I have with several other Simak's works whether he could have done more with this concept. But that is probably best discussed in another post.

I will be revisiting "The Whispering Well" again sometime soon. 

Cover credits;

Dark Forces jacket design by One + One Studio

Gobin Reservation by Gray Morrow

Out of Their Minds by Richard Powers

The Solar System jacket design by Joan Wall

Trilobite, Dinosaur and Man jacket design by Mina Baylis

Wonder and Glory jacket designby Angela Pozzi 

Monday, November 2, 2020

Nov. 2nd, 2020, Today

“But you can't make people listen. They have to come round in 
their own time, wondering what happened and 
why the world blew up around them.”

from Fahrenheit 451
by Ray Bradbury

Sunday, November 1, 2020

The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury, slight spoilers and this will appear on my HPL site as well.


I was reading Roger Zelazny's A Night in Lonesome October as my Halloween read, but as always, I could not read a chapter a day. Instead, I rushed ahead then read all the short stories based on this theme from the various Lovecraft eZine Megapacks. This meant that once I had decorated and left out Wagon Wheels and hand sanitizer for the little ghouls and goblins (about 12 kids and assorted parents), I needed something to read. 

Ray Bradbury was one of the most formative authors I read as a child/young adult. And there on the shelf was a title I had never read before The Halloween Tree. No one does Halloween, autumn or childhood like Bradbury. And no one illustrates Bradbury like Joseph Mugnaini. 

"Shrieking, wailing, full of banshee mirth they ran, on everything except sidewalks, " (4)

The story itself is simple; eight boys go out trick or treating in a small Midwestern town, pure Bradbury. But the boy Pip (Pipkin), who is the most vital, energetic, of the group, the very image of unbridled boyhood is missing. He has told them to go ahead, and he will catch up. But it is obvious something is not right with Pip. As loyal friends, the group follows Pip's instructions and visit the biggest, scariest, spookiest house in town.

"So, with a pseudopod thrust out here or there, the amoebic form, the large perspiration of boys leaned and made a run and a stop to the front door of the house which was as tall as a coffin and twice as thin." (19)

 Here they meet Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud, probably the scariest, creepiest, spookiest person in town. They see the Halloween Tree hung with strange jack-o-lanterns and embark on a tour of Halloween's history on a giant kite formed from old carnival posters. 

"And then down they sailed off away deep into the Undiscovered Country of Old Death and Strange Years in the Frightful Past..."(54)

"And the million tiger-lion-leopard-panther eyes of the autumn Kite looked down, as did the eyes of the boys."(55) 

One and on, I read past cavemen and mummies, both Egyptian and Mexican. The Druids appeared the Roman Legions attacked, witches stirred black cauldrons and burned for it. The great cathedral of Notre-Dame appeared resplendent with gargoyles. 

And finally, '"Quiet as milkweed, then, soft as snow, fall blow away down, each and all."

The boys fell. 

Like a bushel of chestnuts, their feet rained to earth."(81)

This was my childhood, not the reality of it but some of the sense and feel of it. The books I read, the stories I was told, the movies I saw. The paper decorations, the pumpkins, cats and cornstalks decorating the houses I walked past. The autumnal sound of dry leaves underfoot, the smell of apples and the first cold brush of winter buried amid the horse chestnuts and multicoloured Indian corn. And I realize now it had continued to be my life. Reading Bradbury, I understood that the things that interested me as a child are largely the things that interest me today. I still love rocketships, dinosaurs, and books with mummies, witches and werewolves on the cover. I have been fortunate that Helen shares many of these interests; we have visited Hadrian's Wall, York Minster Cathedral., Saint Mark's in Venice. When I finished, I felt grateful that in a trying year, I had the joy of reading this book and this author. I became aware that I can enjoy my life, the people around me and my pursuits in peace and security and how rare that is. 

Having finished The Halloween Tree, I looked for another Bradbury work to at least flip, though before bed. Obvious choices would have been his collection The October Country or short stories like "The Illustrated Man" or "The Pillar of Fire." But the images in one of my favourite books called to me instead. 

"The autumn leaves blew over the moonlit pavement in such a way as to make the girl who was moving there seem fixed to a sliding walk, letting the motion of the wind and the leaves carry her forward. Her head was half bent to watch her shoes stir the circling leaves. Her face was slender and milk-white, and in it was a kind of gentle hunger that touched over everything with tireless curiosity. "(3) Fahrenheit 451

I am posting this on both Jagged Orbit and Beyond the Walls of Sleep, cause I can.