The Hierophant

By Jake Arnott

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<p>When Larry's crush is bewitched by a handsome rocket scientiest and his swinging occultist friends, can he win her over?<br></p>


The Mañana Literary Society. There was an impressive group of writers at Robert and Leslyn Heinlein’s house in Laurel Canyon on that fateful night when Mary-Lou and I attended. Jack Williamson, my great idol, shy and diffident in person; Leigh Brackett, one of the few women writing SF back then and a great inspiration for Mary-Lou; Cleve Cartmill, a newspaperman crippled with polio who had just started writing for Astounding; Anthony Boucher, who was more of a mystery writer; and L. Ron Hubbard, a prodigious jack-of-all-trades of the pulps who, it was said, could write 2,000 words an hour without revisions. Looking back, I’m liable to put aside the sense of how starstruck I was in the presence of all this talent. Me, Larry Zagorski, a 19-year-old kid who had just sold his first full-length story to Fabulous Tales. I even tend conveniently to forget the miserable way (for me at least) the evening eventually concluded. Now I’m inclined to remember it as the first time I ever met Nemesio Carvajal.

He was a young and very earnest Latin American science-fiction writer who had just come from Mexico. He had contacts with the radical circle that Robert Heinlein was still part of in those days. Tony Boucher was fluent in Spanish and able to translate for us, but I recall Nemesio Carvajal as having pretty good working English even then.

“Nemesio?” L. Ron Hubbard asked when they were introduced. “That’s a hell of a name, kid. But then you Latinos have a bit of a flair when it comes to baptism, don’t you? You know the joke? If Jesus is Jewish, how come he’s got a Mexican name?”

“Well, you’re one to talk,” Heinlein interjected. “Isn’t your first name Lafayette?”

“Yeah.” Hubbard sighed. “That’s why I use Ron.”

Glasses were poured of cheap white sherry, which I soon discovered was the propulsion fuel for those evenings. A toast was proposed.

“To all the stories that will be written tomorrow.”

“Then this is the Tomorrow Literary Society?” asked Nemesio.

“No, kid,” Hubbard told him. “Mañana, no translation needed. As you know, the word has another meaning. A lot of these hacks aren’t as good as me at meeting deadlines.”

Nemesio frowned. Boucher tried to explain that English speakers used the word more to mean “procrastination.”

“It’s a bit of a gringo thing, Ron,” he added. “You know, this easygoing Latin, always putting off today what he can do tomorrow.”

“Well, excuse me,” Hubbard said. “You know, I once tried to explain mañana, in my own gringo way as you have it, to an Irishman. He told me that there was nothing in the Gaelic that conveyed the urgency of such a term!”

Hubbard paused for some sporadic laughter and then tried to continue to hold the room by launching into an improbable story of a recent expedition of his to Alaska. It was clear that he liked to dominate any assembly and to portray himself as an adventurer, a fearless explorer. He had written so much outlandish pulp fiction that he was already finding it hard to distinguish it from fact.

But he wasn’t allowed to get away with it for long. The imaginative competition was far too much for him. The conversation turned to the concept of parallel worlds and alternate futures, the notion of time being nonlinear, the possibilities of precognition. The world was ripe for the speculative genre with all the uncertainties of war, the bewildering potential of new discoveries in science and technology. But amid all these great events I couldn’t help thinking that my personal life was on the brink of something, that this was a crucial night in my own history.

Heinlein began to hold forth on the curvature of space-time, of world lines and points of divergence. Nemesio intervened to speak of an Argentine writer who had just published a collection of stories. In one, a character is described as attempting a novel that would describe a world where all possible outcomes of an event occur simultaneously, with each one leading to further proliferation.

“It is titled ‘El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan,’” he explained.

Boucher offered a swift translation. “The garden of paths that bisect?”

“Yes. You see, in the story there is a novel and a labyrinth. It turns out that the novel is the labyrinth and the labyrinth is the novel.”

“Sounds interesting,” Boucher said. “What’s this writer called?”

“Borges,” Nemesio replied. It was the first time any of us had heard that name.

“So what’s his genre?” Hubbard demanded. “Mystery or fantasy, or what?”

“Those things, yes,” said Nemesio with a smile. “And more. He is also an important poet.”

Hubbard huffed indignantly.

“We’re definitely at a place where the paths are diverging,” said Cartmill.

“But surely,” Brackett interjected, “in the world, in our world, whatever that is, there will be one reality if totalitarianism goes on unchecked and another if it is defeated.”

“Not necessarily,” Heinlein argued. “It could be that different worlds can coexist. In the past as well as the future. That’s why this kid’s story is so important.” He nodded over at me. “‘Lords of the Black Sun’ shows us the worst that will happen. By imagining it perhaps we can avoid it in our own reality.”

Feeling foolishly pleased with myself, I caught Mary-Lou’s eye across the room. She smiled at me, and in that moment I imagined our future together. Then Jack Parsons walked in.

There are many images that can attest to the dark and passionate features of the glamorous rocket scientist. Parsons was undeniably photogenic, so one can still appreciate those deep-set eyes, that quizzical mouth, the thick curls swept up into a crowning mane. But none of these portraits can ever do justice to his charisma, that delicately soulful presence one felt when he entered a room.

His voice was soft and slow, his manner hesitant. His gaze was open, searching. He looked romantically disheveled in a fine flannel suit that needed pressing and an open-necked shirt ringed with grime. There was a light sheen of sweat on his brow. With scant introduction and a gentle insistence, he joined in the conversation.

“We’re certainly approaching a crucial moment,” he said.

“In your rocket experiments?” asked Heinlein.

“In that, yes,” Parsons replied. “But in the greater work too.”

“You mean this mystical stuff?” Jack Williamson demanded.

“Look, I know you think it’s all a bit far-fetched, but didn’t you say once that science is magic made real?”

“I did, yes,” Williamson conceded.

“There must be any number of ways to break through the space-time continuum. We should experiment with them all. Soon there will be a chance to test some of this unseen wisdom. The hierophant has ordered a special mass that might just help change the course of the war.”

“Wow,” Mary-Lou murmured, her eyes wide and bright.

I realize now, of course, that he was talking about Aleister Crowley and that perhaps Jack had some knowledge of Operation Mistletoe. All I noticed then was the way Mary-Lou looked at him.

“What’s a hierophant?” asked Leigh Brackett.

“It’s a fancy name for a high priest,” Hubbard explained.

“So you’ve finally joined this Order,” said Heinlein. “I hope you haven’t given up on the science.”

“Oh no,” Parsons replied with a smile. “I’m following both paths now.”

The fact that Jack Parsons was actually quite shy and nervous only seemed to add to his charm. He appeared to be channeling an enchantment from another dimension. And there was a reticence in how he described his experiments that was intriguing for all us fantasists. He had to be discreet, he explained. The U.S. military had become interested in missiles and jet propulsion and was now funding the California Institute of Technology’s rocket group, which was testing secret prototypes out in the desert. He gave a vague account of the group’s activities that conjured visions of mystics raising fire demons in the wilderness. The desert as an empty stage beneath a theater of stars, a limitless temple of research. He was equally obscure about this occult sect of his, the Ordo Templi Orientis. He was living a strange double life, one of wild asceticism and divine exhaustion, toiling beneath the harsh sun by day, enacting sacramental rites at the Agape Lodge of the OTO by night. He embodied a weird fusion of modern science and ancient wisdom, part hip technocrat, part Renaissance wizard.

He certainly cast some sort of spell over the room that night. It was an energy that seemed to split the discussion into waves and particles. No one voice could hold all the attention after that point. The party began to fracture and oscillate. Hubbard was in one corner detailing an improbable jungle adventure to Cleve Cartmill. Anthony Boucher was exchanging rapid Spanish with Nemesio. Heinlein and Williamson were circulating. Leslyn Heinlein went into the kitchen for olives and more sherry. I had already noticed a buzz of attraction between Parsons and Mary-Lou. I watched with dread as she slowly, inexorably began to gravitate toward him.

They were in deep discussion about astronomy and astrology when Heinlein pulled me into his orbit. He announced he was going up to his study to show Jack Williamson his “Timeline of Future History” and insisted I join them. We went upstairs. Heinlein had on his wall a chart that mapped out a chronology of all the futuristic stories he had written and was planning to write. I stared at it blankly as Williamson made enthusiastic comments. When I think of it now I see the strange comment “The Crazy Years—mass psychosis in the sixth decade” next to the 1960s, but perhaps that’s because it was the one prediction Heinlein really did get right. At the time I’m sure I simply looked dumbfounded by the imagined course of the next two centuries as if searching for some clue as to what was going to happen that evening.

I excused myself and went back downstairs. I was beginning to feel the effects of the sherry. I took a wrong turn and found myself in a utility room. I felt as if I were trapped in the labyrinthine tesseract of Heinlein’s story. I eventually found my way back to the lounge and looked around like a lost child. Hubbard caught my eye.

“She’s outside, kid,” he drawled with a cruel smile.

I went to the door and spied Mary-Lou by the front porch, standing close to Parsons. He was pointing up at the sky, tracing a constellation as he talked in a low, intense drone. I felt as if I was losing my footing and I held on to the door for support. I went back inside, walking in an absurd crouching posture. Leslyn frowned as she handed me another glass of sherry and asked Nemesio about Mexico. He said that he was actually from Cuba. I tried hard to concentrate as he told me his story. Like many young men he insisted on a pattern to his as yet unformed life. He was always late, he concluded. He had planned to go to Spain to fight with an anarchist militia. Two days before he was due to embark from Havana, Franco marched into Madrid. He then went to Mexico to study, with the intention of meeting Leon Trotsky. He finally obtained a letter of introduction, only to arrive at Coyoacán four days after Trotsky was assassinated by Ramón Mercader.

“I think this is why I started writing about the future, so as not to be late,” he explained with a grin. “But I am also interested in technological utopianism.”

He had come to L.A., making contact with a disparate group of American radicals: Trotskyists, members of the technocracy movement and libertarians like Heinlein, who had been involved in Upton Sinclair’s End Poverty in California campaign back in the 1930s.

The party was beginning to break up. Mary-Lou came back into the lounge.

“Larry,” she said, somewhat breathlessly, “I’m getting a ride with Jack.”

“But—but, Mary-Lou,” I slurred. “I thought I was driving you home.”

“It’s okay, Larry. You’ll want to talk some more.” I remember the way her eyes sparkled as she said, “Hasn’t it been a wonderful evening?”

Then she was gone. My recollection of the evening after that begins to jump around. Leaps in time and space. I was in the kitchen helping myself to another drink. Joining in with a dirty limerick recitation. (“There once was a fellow McSweeney/Who spilled some gin on his weenie./Just to be couth/He added vermouth/And slipped his girlfriend the martini.”) Throwing up in a plant pot. Collapsing onto the couch in the lounge.

The following morning’s hangover was ghastly, augmented by wretched feelings of guilt and humiliation. I apologized to the Heinleins for my behavior. Leslyn was certainly annoyed with me, but Robert just laughed it off and plied me with strong black coffee. Nemesio had also stayed over, sleeping in the spare room in a more planned and civilized fashion. I gave him a ride downtown to where he was staying with an elderly couple who worked for the League for Industrial Democracy.

When I confided to him about Mary-Lou, he gave a long sigh.

“Siempre,” he declared. “With love it is always hard.”

Nemesio always seemed older than his years. He was actually a few months younger than me, but from the start he assumed a sense of seniority in our friendship. I never minded this. He was, after all, far more mature than me in so many ways. He gave me a political awareness and something of a sentimental education. We had experiences in common that acted as a kind of emotional bond: We had both grown up without fathers. We agreed that we would see each other at the next Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society meeting at Clifton’s Cafeteria.

After dropping him off I went home and spent the rest of the day trying to ease a blinding headache and to placate my mother, who, having waited up for me in vain, had spent the previous night phoning hospitals and police stations, certain that I had become the victim of some gruesome incident.

For the next few days I stayed indoors, struggling to write but mostly brooding about Mary-Lou and Jack Parsons. I found myself rereading an article on his rocket experiments that had appeared in Popular Mechanics the previous fall. His handsome face taunted me as it stared out of photographs between illustrations of test sites and diagrams of launch trajectories. Thursday came around and I went along to Clifton’s. I tried to clear my mind of it all, but before long I was talking about Parsons. And there was plenty of gossip about him. It was said that he was married, though he and his wife took other lovers; that he was actively recruiting for the Ordo Templi Orientis, hosting discussion groups on literature and mysticism at his home in Pasadena. There were stories too of parties at the Agape Lodge, tales of spiked punch, near-orgies and invitations for all to join in the gnostic mass in the attic temple.

Luckily Nemesio turned up and managed to distract me from my wild imaginings. He had already acquired the nickname Nemo from the LASFS crowd, and it would become his name from then on.

“It’s a good one,” I told him. “Like Verne’s submariner in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.”

“It also means ‘no one,’” he replied with a shrug.

He then went on to recount his theory of how Verne had based his Captain Nemo on the 19th century submarine inventor from Barcelona, Narcís Monturiol.

“Narcís?” I retorted. “Hubbard’s right, you know. What is it with these Spanish names?”

“Well, he was Catalan, actually. But you know, Monturiol was a visionary, a true exponent of liberational technology. He had written many pamphlets on socialism, pacifism, feminism even. He supported the setting up of utopian communes in the New World. When that failed he became interested in science and technology. His was the first fully functional submarine.”

“Well, a lot of guys on the Atlantic convoys won’t thank him for that.”

“Yes, but his was a craft for exploration.” Nemesio began to sketch the design of an underwater craft on a napkin. “A pilot ship for mankind’s journey into the unknown. And his ideas then were still in advance of what the Nazis have now. He developed an independent underwater propulsion system, with a chemical fuel that could generate enough energy to power the vessel and produce oxygen as a side product. It was truly remarkable.”

Nemo showed me his drawing. It was of a fish-shaped craft with a row of portholes along its side.

“It looks like a spaceship,” I remarked.

“Yes,” Nemo agreed. “Maybe that’s what it was. Maybe that is the answer. If you can’t change the world, build a spaceship.”

When I walked out of Clifton’s that night, Mary-Lou was waiting for me. She was wearing slacks and a windbreaker with the collar turned up. She looked like a fugitive.

“Hi, Larry,” she said. “Can we talk?”

We found a bar on South Broadway. We ordered beer and I went to the pay phone to call Mother.

“She gets worried if I’m late home,” I explained.

“You’re such a good boy, Larry,” she said.

I know now that this was meant tenderly, but at the time it was like a jab in the gut. I made my call and then we found a quiet booth. Mary-Lou looked different, her face pale and ethereal, her eyes intense. All at once she began telling me of the strange new things she had learned, about the Ordo Templi Orientis and its peculiar English hierophant, Aleister Crowley. She spoke of the power of the will and the gaining of universal knowledge through symbolic ritual.

“Remember that night when I said that I wanted to know everything?” she said, her eyes burning beneath the neon light. “Well, now I think I can.”

“But that’s crazy, Mary-Lou.”

“You see, every man and every woman is a star. Everyone has to find their own destiny. The law of the strong is our law and the joy of the world.”

“The law?”

“Love is the law.”

“Love? Is that how you feel about Jack Parsons?”

She sighed.

“Oh, Larry——”

“But he’s married, Mary-Lou.”

“That’s just a superficial institution, Larry. We’re living in a new age. Monogamy is redundant. If we get rid of jealousy we can really set ourselves free. I mean, look at you.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you. You’re so goddamn buttoned-up and neurotic. You should come to the Lodge, you know. It would be so good for you.”

“Er, I don’t think so, Mary-Lou.”

“Well,” she said with a curious smile, “think about it.”

And then the conversation turned to more or less small talk. We asked each other about our writing, of course. She told me that she had outlined the whole of her space opera Zodiac Empire for Superlative Stories. She was working through the planets toward a final installment that would center on the sun. Nemo had told her about a Renaissance heretic and revolutionary called Tommaso Campanella who had written a utopian book titled The City of the Sun, and she planned to base it on that. We finished our drinks, and I dropped her off on my way home.

I hadn’t exactly been looking forward to my next appointment with my psychoanalyst, Dr. Furedi, but even I could not have foreseen such a difficult session. I tried to explain what had happened in the previous week, but such was my agitated state, I must have appeared manic and obsessive. And the details, well, I suppose that they did seem a little too much like the demented fantasy of someone who read too many pulp magazines. It soon became clear that my analyst was treating it all as the delusional ravings of some paranoid condition. The good-looking, diabolical scientist was, of course, merely a symptom of my hysteria. Dr. Furedi became particularly interested in my reference to “rockets,” obviously interpreting them as the phallic objects of my repressed imagination. I left his consulting room a gibbering wreck.

And the worst thing was that there was an element of truth in his distorted perception of my problem. I was irrationally obsessed with Parsons. And though I was jealous of him for having taken away the presumed object of my affections, I was also jealous of Mary-Lou, in that she had become the focus of his attentions. I was pretty sure this was not sexual jealousy, but with scant practical experience in these matters, I felt in serious danger of having some kind of breakdown. It was with a sense of desperation that I decided to face my anxieties head-on.

The Agape Lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis was in a large wooden house on Winona Boulevard. I persuaded Nemo to come along to an open meeting with me. I was a little scared, to tell you the truth, but I wanted to find out what all this was about. The first part of the meeting was very informal. We were shown into an upstairs lounge buzzing with a bohemian crowd, a mix of young and old, some flamboyantly dressed, others theatrically solemn. I spotted an ancient silent-movie actress chatting with a man whose catlike face was dusted with powder and rouge. We were offered punch. I’d already decided that if this stuff was drugged, well, it would all be part of the experiment. I took a tentative sip. It tasted dark and sweet with a licorice aftertaste. Suddenly Mary-Lou was next to me.

“Glad you could come, Larry. Go easy with that stuff,” she said, nodding at the cup in my hand. “It’s got a kick to it.”

I stared at her for a second and then drained the rest of the punch in one gulp.

“I’m feeling adventurous.” She laughed.

“That’s good. Because if you come up to the mass, you’ve got to take communion. That’s the rule.”

A gong sounded and the party began to make its way up a wooden staircase through a trapdoor. As Mary-Lou went on ahead she turned back to me.

“See you later, Larry. Stick around. We’re going to Pasadena later. There’s going to be a special party.”

The attic temple was small and gloomy. Wooden benches faced a raised dais where two obelisks flanked a tiered altar lined with candles. There was a hushing of voices as the congregation settled. A trill of soft laughter ran along the pews and a sharp scent of incense filled the air. There came a low drone of a harmonium playing the slow chords of a prelude, though I’m sure I heard in counterpoint the melody of “Barnacle Bill the Sailor.” At the time I thought this was my febrile imagination, but I later found out that the organist liked to improvise around a jaunty tune slowed to a funereal pace.

The priest and the priestess entered and the ceremony began. It was not what I had expected. I had imagined some brooding satanic ritual, but this seemed almost lighthearted. There was certainly nothing demonic about it. The ceremony had much medieval symbolism: swords parting veils, lances and chalices—Freud knows what Dr. Furedi would have made of it all. My mind began to spin very slowly. The drug was taking hold. It was not an unpleasant feeling. The mass became a long, monotonous chant punctuated by sudden moments of exuberant gesture or astonishing verse. Images of burning incense beneath the night stars of the desert, of the serpent flames of rocket launches. Alien dialogue in some far-flung adventure. And I was somehow part of it. I felt relief flood through my usually anxious self. I figure now that it was probably mescaline that had spiced up the punch.

At times I found myself enthralled by the drama in the temple and at others almost oblivious to the proceedings. The priest and the priestess appeared to show real passion for each other as they enacted a strange, sensual fertility rite. The woman spoke urgently of pleasure, pale or purple, veiled or voluptuous, of a song of rapture to arouse the coiled splendor within, and for a moment I was utterly enchanted. Then the priest began to chant an unintelligible dirge and my thoughts diffused. I drifted into a trancelike state, and before I knew it the mass was at an end and we were all summoned to a communion of wine and rust-colored wafers. As we filed out the organ played a recessional of ominous chords with a slow ditty over it that sounded a lot like “Yes! We Have No Bananas.”

Back in the lounge I was talking with Nemo. The conversation seemed urgently heightened and languidly casual at the same time. There were moments when we seemed to be having the same thoughts simultaneously. We felt sophisticated, wildly intellectual.

Our eyes locked and I noticed that his pupils were as sharp as pencil leads. We both agreed that this mass would not seem out of place in a pulp fantasy, that so many of the stories we had been exposed to appeared to hark back to a warped idea of the Middle Ages, with knights, maidens, quests and supernatural revelation. Nemo spoke of how so much space opera seemed to be a rendition of some interstellar Holy Roman Empire. We had begun to speculate on what kind of religion a science-fiction writer would come up with when Mary-Lou came over to join us.

“You took the host then,” she said to me. “You know they’re prepared with animal blood.”

I shrugged, not knowing what to say but determined not to be as shocked as she thought I would be. I noticed Parsons at the far end of the room, holding court amid a small circle of people. The priest and priestess stood near him, touching each other with a casual intimacy.

“The priestess seems to be in love with the priest,” I said to Mary-Lou.

“Oh, that’s Helen Parsons,” she retorted. “Jack’s wife.”

“You mean…?”

“I told you, Larry. We have to reject hypocritical social standards.”

I felt my face flush at the thought of it. I let out a peculiar giggle.

“Larry?” said Mary-Lou.

“Mary-Lou,” I replied.

I wanted to say that I loved her. Love! To call it out just as the celebrants had done in the gnostic mass.

“Are you coming to Pasadena with us?” she asked.

I nodded and my teeth clenched in a manic grin. My head raced with curiosity and delirious expectation.

The May evening was warm when we reached the Arroyo Seco, the dry ravine that cuts through the San Gabriel Mountains. The scrubland at the edge of Pasadena was then a suburban wilderness, a homely arcadia thick with chaparral, sycamore and tangled thickets of wild grape. The Caltech rocket group had the lease on three acres that had been cleared as a launch site. There was a group of corrugated sheet-metal huts, a sandbag bunker and an arcane assembly of test apparatus. These were the beginnings of the famous Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Some kind of party had already begun. There was wine and beer and a sense of pagan revelry. I was passed a thin, hand-rolled cigarette. Marijuana, I thought with an exuberant sense of sinfulness. I took a puff and broke into a spluttering spasm. Nemo took it from me and inhaled the drug with casual expertise. He had tried it in Mexico, he confided to me. Mary-Lou explained to us that tonight was a ritual to influence the space-time continuum. This was the special mass that Jack Parsons had spoken of that night at the Heinleins’, the one ordered by the hierophant to change the course of the war.

Parsons arrived in white robes, clutching a spray of mistletoe in one hand, a sickle in the other. The party started to form itself into a circle around him. It was then that I saw the rocket on its stand. Taller than he was, it seemed to tower above us, a totem, a faceless idol. On the ground around it were scorch marks and what looked like runic markings. Parsons began an ululating invocation to the god Pan. Drunk and drugged, my mind reeled but my body assumed its tranquilized equilibrium. I felt a wonderful balance: my weight on the earth, my head in the sky. I turned to Nemo and he nodded to me, wide-eyed and smiling.

“Yeah,” he said. “We’re going to make contact, man.”

I nodded back. I had no idea what he meant, but at that moment it all seemed to make sense. The sky darkened and Parsons motioned for the circle to widen. At nightfall the rocket was launched. There was an explosion of thrust, an exultant rush of energy into the heavens. The crowd gasped as one.

“Yes,” Nemo hissed as the vehicle reached its zenith.

The rocket released its payload, a parachute flare that floated like an angel of grace over the Arroyo Seco. As it descended, Nemesio pointed to something beyond it high up in the firmament.

“See?” he implored. “They’re here, man!”

I couldn’t tell what he was gesturing at. All I could see were some dim stars that were just making themselves visible.

“Come on,” he said and began to make his way toward the San Gabriel Mountains. “They’re coming in to land!”

I went after him for a while, but he moved like a man possessed, following a track up into the canyon. I called after him as he began to climb the hillside. Then he was gone.

I went back to the party. A bonfire had been lit and shadow figures danced in the convulsive firelight. My once-benign mood of narcosis began to fade and the evening’s saturnalia now seemed harsh and sinister. My anxiety returned, unwelcome but familiar. I wandered about, trying to find Mary-Lou. I thought I caught a glimpse of a wild goat gamboling in a darkened glade. I followed and found myself in a clearing. There was a trickle of laughter and by the flickering light I could make out bodies cavorting in this sacramental grove. Yellow flames licked at the pitched gloom, and here and there naked flesh glowed amber or albescent. A bright flare from the pyre lit up a face, which turned and caught my gaze. It was Mary-Lou. She smiled as she saw me, her eyes brimstone, her mouth a lewd grimace.

“Come on, Larry,” she implored in a harsh whisper. “Join us!”

I froze. My whole body clenched into an apoplectic spasm but for a heart that hammered away in a wild palpitation. I felt a terrible sadness. The image of the twisted bodies was already seared on my memory, my timid desire overwhelmed by a dreadful sense of loss. This was the death of love, I suddenly thought.

Perhaps Mary-Lou caught my look of dismay. I don’t know. Her face went blank for a second and then she turned away from me, into the embrace of Jack Parsons and two or three others.

I stumbled away unsteadily and out of joint, coldly sober but reeling about like a drunken fool. I lay down in the dust and felt the world spin against my back. Looking down at the starry depths, I felt the lonely vertigo of the universe. My own sorry little space opera stretched out into infinity. Eventually I regained enough balance to pick myself up and walk to my car. I clambered onto the backseat and fell into a troubled sleep.

I woke to Nemo gently shaking my shoulder. I got out of the car and adjusted my eyes to the powdery haze of morning.

“What happened to you?” I asked him.

He shrugged and stared back at me with dead eyes. He looked as if he had been dragged through a forest.

“It’s hard to explain, Larry,” he said. “I saw something.”

I never got the whole story of what he witnessed that night. Over the years he would refer to the time when he had seen “something from another world,” but he always seemed reluctant to elaborate further. For a while I thought he worried that I might think he was crazy. But maybe he just wanted to keep it to himself. To save it for his fiction. And the influence of this experience can certainly be found in his work, in stories such as “Interstellar Epiphany” and “The Uninvited Guest.” At the time neither of us really wanted to talk about the previous night, so we drove back to L.A. mostly in silence.

Mother was predictably upset when I turned up at the house looking wild-eyed and disheveled, and I was unnecessarily blunt with her when she asked after my whereabouts, loudly declaring that I had been at an orgy.

“Larry!” she chided me.

“Oh, don’t worry, Mother,” I called out as I went up to my room, “your precious son is still a virgin.”

Excerpted from The House of Rumor, to be published by Amazon Publishing/New Harvest.


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