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.”
“Love is the law.”
“Love? Is that how you feel about Jack Parsons?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.