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The Hierophant
  • March 01, 2013 : 09:03
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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.

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  • Anonymous
    just the cast of characters involved makes this story a must read.