Book: Black Wings

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Brian Stableford

 

Brian Stableford is an acclaimed British author of science fiction and horror novels, including The Empire of Fear (Simon & Schuster UK, 1988), Young Blood (Simon & Schuster UK, 1992), The Hunger and Ecstasy of Vampires (Mark V.Ziesing, 1996), The Werewolves of London (Simon & Schuster UK, 1990), The Angel of Pain (Simon & Schuster UK, 1991), and The Carnival of Destruction (Simon & Schuster UK, 1994). He has also edited The Dedalus Book of Decadence (Dedalus, 1990–92; 2 vols.) and is the author of such critical studies as Scientific Romance in Britain 1890–1950 (Fourth Estate, 1985) and The Sociology of Science Fiction (Borgo Press, 1987).

 
 
he doorbell didn't ring until fifteen minutes after the time we'd agreed on the telephone, but I hadn't even begun to get impatient. Visitors to the island—even those who've only come over the Solent from Hampshire, let alone across the Atlantic from Boston—are always taken by surprise by the slower pace of life here. It's not so much that the buses never run on time as the fact that you can't judge the time of a walk by looking at the map. The map is flat, but the terrain is anything but, especially here on the south coast, where all the chines are.

  "Do come in, Professor Thurber," I said, when I opened the door. "This is quite a privilege. I don't get many visitors."

  His face was a trifle blanched, and he had to make an effort to unclench his jaw. "I'm not surprised," he muttered, in an accent that was distinctly American but by no means a drawl. "Who ever thought of building a house here, and how on earth did they get the materials down that narrow track?"

  I took his coat. There were scuff-marks on the right sleeve because of the way he'd hugged the wall on the way down rather than trust the hand-rail on the left. The cast-iron struts supporting it were rusted, of course, and the wood had grown a fine crop of fungus because we'd had such a wet August, but the rail was actually quite sound, so he could have used it if he'd had the nerve.

  "It is a trifle inconvenient nowadays," I admitted. "The path was wider when the house was built, and I shudder to think what the next significant landslip might do to it, but the rock face behind the house is vertical, and it's not too difficult to rig a blockand-tackle up on top. The biggest thing I've had to bring down recently is a fridge, though, and I managed that on the path with the aid of one of those two-wheeled trolleys. It's not so bad when you get used to it."

  He'd pulled himself together by then and stuck out his hand. "Alastair Thurber," he said. "I'm truly glad to meet you, Mr. Eliot. My grandfather knew your. . . grandfather." The hesitation was perceptible, as he tried to guess my age and estimate whether I might conceivably be Silas Eliot's son rather than his grandson, but it wasn't so blatant as to seem impolite. Even so, to cover up his confusion, he added: "And they were both friends of the man I wrote to you about: Richard Upton Pickman."

  "I don't have a proper sitting-room, I'm afraid," I told him. "The TV room's rather cluttered, but I expect you'd rather take tea in the library in any case."

  He assured me, quite sincerely, that he didn't mind. As an academic, he was presumably a bibliophile as well as an art-lover and a molecular biologist: a man of many parts, who was prob ably still trying to fit them together neatly. He was, of course, younger than me—no more than forty-five, to judge by appearances.

  I sat him down and immediately went into the kitchen to make the tea. I used the filtered water and put two bags of Sainsbury's Brown Label and one of Earl Grey in the pot. I put the milk in a jug and the sugar in a bowl; it was a long time since I'd had to do that. On the way back to the library I had a private bet with myself as to which of the two salient objects he would comment on first, and won.

  "You have one of my books," he said, before I'd even closed the door behind me. He'd taken the copy of The Syphilis Transfer off the shelf and opened it, as if to check that the words on the page really were his and that the book's spine hadn't been lying.

  "I bought it after you sent the first letter," I admitted.

  "I'm surprised you could find a copy in England, let alone the Isle of Wight," he said.

  "I didn't," I told him. "The public library at Ventnor has Internet connections. I go in twice a week to do the shopping and often pop in there. I ordered it from the U.S. via Amazon. I may be tucked away in a chine, but I'm not entirely cut off from civilization." He seemed skeptical—but he had just walked the half a mile that separated the house from the bus stop on the so-called coast road, and knew that it wasn't exactly a stroll along Shanklin sea-front. His eyes flickered to the electric light bulb hanging from the roof, presumably wondering at the fact that it was there at all rather than the fact that it was one of the new curly energy-saving bulbs. "Yes, I said, "I even have mains electricity. No gas, though, and no mains water. I don't need it—I actually have a spring in my cellar. How many people can say that?"

  "Not many, I suppose," he said, putting the book down on the small table beside the tea-tray. "You call this place a chine, then? In the U.S., we'd call it a gully, or maybe a ravine."

  "The island is famous for its chines," I told him. "Blackgang Chine and Shanklin Chine are tourist traps nowadays—a trifle gaudy for my taste. It's said that there are half a dozen still unspoiled, but it's difficult to be sure. Private land, you see. The path isn't as dangerous as it seems at first glance. Chines are, by definition, wooded. If you were to slip, it would be more a slide than a fall, and you'd probably be able to catch hold of the bushes. Even if you couldn't climb up again you could easily let yourself down. Don't try it at high tide, though."

  He was already halfway through his first cup of tea, even though it was still a little hot. He was probably trying to calm his nerves, although he had no idea what real acrophobia was. Finally, though, he pointed at the painting on the wall between the two free-standing bookcases, directly opposite the latticed window.

  "Do you know who painted that, Mr. Eliot?" he asked.

  "Yes," I said.

  "I knew the moment I looked at it," he told me. "It's not on the list I compiled, but that's not surprising. I knew it as soon as I looked at it—Pickman's work is absolutely unmistakable." His eyes narrowed slightly. "If you knew who painted it," he said, "You might have mentioned that you had it when you replied to my first letter."

  Not wanting to comment on that remark, I picked up The Syphilis Transfer. "It's an interesting thesis, Professor," I said. "I was quite intrigued."

  "It was quite a puzzle for a long time," he said. "First the Europeans argued that syphilis had started running riot in the sixteenth century because sailors imported it from the Americas, then American scholars motivated by national pride started arguing that, in fact, European sailors had imported it to the Americas. The hypothesis that different strains of the spirochaete had evolved in each continent during the period of separation, and that each native population had built up a measure of immu nity to its own strain—but not to the other—was put forward way back in the seventies, but it wasn't until the people racing to complete the Human Genome Project developed advanced sequencers that we had the equipment to prove it."

  "And now you're working on other bacterial strains that might have been mutually transferred?" I said. "When you're not on vacation, investigating your grandfather's phobic obsessions, that is?"

  "Not just bacteria," he said ominously—but he was still on vacation, and his mind was on Richard Upton Pickman. "Does it have a title?" he asked, nodding his head toward the painting again.

  "I'm afraid not. I can't offer you anything as melodramatic as 'Ghoul Feeding,' or even 'Subway Accident.'"

  He glanced at me again with slightly narrowed eyes, registering the fact that I was familiar with the titles mentioned in the account that Lovecraft had reworked from the memoir that Edwin Baird had passed on to him. He drained his cup. While I poured him another, he stood up and went to the picture to take a closer look.

  "This must be one of his earlier works," he said, eventually. "It's a straightforward portrait—not much more than a practice study. The face has all the usual characteristics, of course—no one but Pickman could paint a face to make you shudder like that. Even in the days of freak-show TV, when the victims of genetic disasters that families used to hide away get tracked through courses of plastic surgery by documentary makers' camera crews, there's still something uniquely strange and hideous about Pickman's models . . . or at least his technique. The background in this one is odd, though. In his later works, he used subway tunnels, graveyards, and cellars, picking out the details quite carefully, but this background's very vague and almost bare. It's well-preserved, though, and the actual face . . . "

  "'Only a real artist knows the actual anatomy of the terrible or the physiology of fear,'" I quoted.

  He wasn't about to surrender the intellectual high ground. " 'The exact sort of lines and proportions that connect up with latent instincts or hereditary memories of fright,'" he went on, completing the quote from the Lovecraft text, " 'and the proper color contrasts and lighting effects to stir the dormant sense of strangeness.' "

  "But you're a molecular biologist," I said, as smoothly as if it really were an offhand remark. "You don't believe in latent instincts, hereditary memories of fright, or a dormant sense of strangeness."

  It was a mistake. He turned round and looked me straight in the eye, with a gaze whose sharpness was worth more than vague suspicion. "Actually," he said, "I do. In fact, I've become very interested of late in the molecular basis of memory and the biochemistry of phobia. I suppose my interest in my grandfather's experiences has begun to influence my professional interests, and vice versa."

  "That's only natural, Professor Thurber," I told him. "We all begin life as men of many parts, but we all have a tendency to consider ourselves as jigsaw puzzles, trying to fit the parts together in a way that makes sense."

  His eyes went back to the painting—to that strange distorted face, which seemed to distill the very essence of some primitive horror, more elementary than a pathological fear of spiders, or of heights.

  "Since you have the painting," he said, "you obviously do have some of the things that Silas Eliot brought back to England when he left Boston in the thirties. May I see them?"

  "They're not conveniently packed away in one old trunk and stowed neatly in the attic or the cellar," I said. "Any items that remain have been absorbed into the general clutter about the house. Anyway, you're really only interested in one thing, and that's something I don't have. There are no photographs, Professor Thurber. If Pickman really did paint the faces in his portraits from photographs, Silas Eliot never found them—at least, he didn't bring any back with him from Boston. Believe me, Mr. Thurber, I'd know if he had."

  I couldn't tell whether he believed me or not. "Would you be prepared to sell me this painting, Mr. Eliot?" he asked.

  "No," I said. "I'm sorry if that ruins your plan to corner the market—but who can tell what a Pickman might fetch nowadays if one ever came into the saleroom? It's not as if he's fashionable."

  The red herring didn't distract him. He wasn't interested in saleroom prices, and he knew that I wasn't angling for an offer. He sat down and picked up the second cup of tea I'd poured for him. "Look, Mr. Eliot," he said. "You obviously know more about this than you let on in your letters, and you seem well enough aware that I didn't tell you everything in mine. I'll level with you, and I hope that you might then be more inclined to level with me. Did your grandfather ever mention a man named Jonas Reid?"

  "Another of Pickman's acquaintances," I said. "The supposed expert in comparative pathology. The one who thought that Pickman wasn't quite human—that he was somehow akin to the creatures he painted."

  "Exactly. Back in the twenties, of course, knowledge of genetics was primitive, so it wasn't possible for Reid to entertain anything more than vague suspicions, but there was a time when colonial America was home to numerous isolated communities, who'd often imported sectarian beliefs that encouraged inbreeding. You don't expect to find that sort of thing in a big city, of course, but Pickman's people came from Salem, and had been living there at the time of the witch-panic. The people who moved into cities as the nation industrialized—especially to the poorer areas like Boston's North End and Back Bay—often retained their old habits for a generation or two. The recessive genes are all scattered now, mind, so they don't show up in combination nearly as often, but back in the twenties . . . "

  I felt an oddly tangible, if slightly premature, wave of relief. He seemed to be on the wrong track or, at least, not far enough along the right one. I tried hard not to smile as I said: "Are you trying to say that what you're actually looking for is a sample of Pickman's DNA?" I asked. "You want to buy that painting because you think it might have a hair or some old saliva stain somewhere about it—or even a blood drop, if he happened to prick himself white fixing the canvas to the frame?"

  "I already have samples of Pickman's DNA," he told me, in a fashion that would have wiped the smile off my face if I hadn't managed to suppress it. "I've already sequenced it and found the recessive gene. What I'm looking for now is the mutational trigger."

  I'd cut him off too soon. He was a scientist, after all—not a man to cut to the bottom line without negotiating the intermediary steps. He must have mistaken my dismay for incomprehension, because he continued without waiting for me to speak.

  "We all have numerous recessive genes of various sorts, Mr. Eliot," he said, "which are harmless as long as the corresponding gene on the paired chromosome is functioning normally. The ones that give us the most trouble nowadays are those that can cause cancer, if and when their healthy counterpart is disabled in a particular somatic cell, causing that cell to start dividing repeatedly, forming a tumor. Normally, such tumors are just inchoate masses of cells, but if the recessive is paired with one of the genes that's implicated in embryonic development, the disabling of the healthy counterpart can activate bizarre metamorphoses. When such accidents happen in embryo, they result in monstrous births—the sort DeVries was referring to when he first coined the word mutation. It's much rarer for it to occur in the mature soma, but it does happen.

  "Most disabling incidents are random, caused by radiation or general toxins, but some are more specific, responding to particular chemical carcinogens: mutational triggers. That's why some specific drugs have links with specific cancers, or other mutational distortions—you probably remember the thalidomide scandal. Jonas Reid didn't know any of this, of course, but he did know enough to realize that something odd was going on with Pickman, and he made some notes about the changes he observed in Pickman's physiognomy. More importantly, he also went looking for other cases—some of the individuals that Pickman painted—and found some, before he gave up the inquiry when disgust overwhelmed his scientific curiosity.

  "People were so anxious to hide the monsters away, of course, that Reid couldn't find very many, but he was able to observe a couple. His examinations were limited by available technology, of course, and he wasn't able to study the paintings in sequence, but I've got the DNA, and I've also pieced together as complete a list of Pickman's paintings as is still possible, along with the dates of composition of the later items. I've studied the progression from 'Ghoul Feeding' to 'The Lesson,' and I think I've figured out what was happening. It's not traces of Pickman's DNA for which I want to search your canvas—and any other Pickman-connected artifacts your grandfather might have left you—but traces of some other organic compound, probably a protein: the mutational trigger that activated Pickman's gradual metamorphosis, and the not-so-gradual metamorphoses of his subjects. If you won't sell me the painting, will you let me borrow it, so that I can run it through a lab? The University of Southampton might let me use their facilities, if you don't want me to take the painting all the way to America."

  I was glad of his verbosity, because I needed to think, and decide what to do. First of all, I decided, I had to be obliging. I had to encourage him to think that he might get what he wanted, at least in a superficial sense.

  "All right," I said. "You can take the painting to Southampton for further examination, provided that it doesn't go any further and that you don't do any perceptible injury to it. You're welcome to look around for any other objects that take your fancy, but I doubt that you'll find anything useful."

  I cursed, mentally, as I saw his gaze move automatically to the bookcases on either side of the painting. He was clever enough to identify the relevant books, even though none of them had anything as ludicrously revealing as a bookplate or a name scribbled in ink on the flyleaf. The painting was almost certainly clean, but I wasn't entirely sure about the books—and if he really did decide to scour the rest of the house with minute care, including the cellars, he'd have a reasonable chance of finding what he was looking for, even if he didn't know it when he found it.

  "It's odd, though," I observed, as he opened one of the glassfronted cases that contained older books, "that you've come all the way from America to the Isle of Wight in search of this trigger molecule. I'd have thought you'd stand a much better chance of finding it in the Boston subway, or the old Copp's Hill Burying Ground—and if it's not there, your chances of finding it anywhere must be very slim."

  "You might think so," he said, "but if my theory is correct, I'm far more likely to find the trigger here than there."

  My sinking heart touched bottom. He really had figured it out—all but the last piece of the jigsaw, which would reveal the whole picture in all its consummate horror. He began taking the books off the shelves one by one, very methodically, opening each one to look at the title page, checking dates and places of publication as well as subject-matter.

  "What theory is that?" I asked, politely, trying to sound as if I probably wouldn't understand a word of it.

  "It wasn't just the syphilis spirochaete that was subject to divergent evolution while the Old World and the New were separated," he told me. "The same thing happened to all kinds of other human parasites and commensals: bacteria, viruses, protozoans, fungi. Mostly, the divergence made no difference; where it did—with respect to such pathogens as smallpox, for instance—the effect was a simple loss of immunity. Some of the retransferred diseases ran riot briefly, but the effect was temporary, not just because immunities developed in the space of four or five human generations but because the different strains of the organisms interbred. Their subsequent generations, being much faster than ours, soon lost their differentiation. The outbreak of monstrosity that occurred in Boston in the twenties, as variously chronicled by Pickman and Reid, was a strictly temporary affair; it hardly spanned a couple of human generations. My theory is that the trigger lost its potency, because the imported organism carrying it either interbred with its local counterpart or ran into some local pathogen or predator that wiped it out. The reverse process might easily have occurred, of course—at least in big cities—but I believe that there's a better chance of finding the trigger molecule over here, where families like the Pickmans and the Eliots probably originated, than there is in Boston or Salem."

  "I see," I said. While he was leafing through the books, I went to the window to look out over the chine.

  To the right was the English Channel, calm at present, meekly reflecting the clear blue September sky. To the left was the narrow cleft of the chine, thickly wooded on both sheer slopes because the layers of sedimentary rock were so loosely aggregated and wont to crumble that they offered reasonable purchase to bushes, whose questing roots could burrow deep enough not only to support their crowns but to feed them gluttonously on the many tiny streams of water filtering through the porous rock. Because the chine faced due south, both walls got plenty of sunlight in summer in spite of the acute angle of the cleft.

  Directly below the window, there was only a narrow ledge— almost as narrow now as the pathway leading down from the cliff-top—separating the front doorstep from the edge. When the house had been built, way back in the seventeenth century—some fifty or sixty years before Richard Upton Pickman's ancestor had been hanged as a witch in Salem—the chine had been even narrower and the ledge much broader, but it had been no fit home for acrophobes even then. If it hadn't been for the vital importance of the smuggling trade to the island's economy, the house would probably never have been built, and certainly wouldn't have been kept in such good repair for centuries on end by those Eliots who hadn't emigrated to the New World in search of a slightly more honest way of life. The bottom had dropped out of the smuggling business now, of course, thanks to the accursed European Union, but I didn't intend to let the place go—not, at least, until one landslip too many left me no choice.

  By the time I turned round again, Alastair Thurber had sorted out no less than six of Pickman's old books, along with a mere four that just happened to be of similar antiquity.

  "That's about it, I think," he said. "Would you care to show me around the rest of the house, pointing out anything that your grandfather might have brought back from Boston?"

  "Certainly," I said. "Would you prefer to start at the top or the bottom?"

  "Which is more interesting?" he asked.

  "Oh, most definitely the bottom," I said. "That's where all the most interesting features are. I'll take you all the way down to the smugglers' cave, via the spring. We'll have to take an oil-lamp, though—I never have got around to running an electric cable down there."

  As we went down the cellar steps, which he handled with rigid aplomb, I filled in a few details about the history of smuggling along the south coast—the usual tourist stuff—and added a few fanciful details about wreckers. He didn't pay much attention, especially when we went down through the trapdoor in the cellar into the caves. He was a little disappointed by the spring, even though he was obviously relieved to reach the bottom of the parrot-ladder. He had obviously expected something more like a gushing fountain, and probably thought that the Heath-Robinsonesque network of copper and plastic tubing attached to the pumps wasn't in keeping with the original fitments. I was careful to point out the finer features of the filtration system.

  "The water's as pure as any mains water by the time it gets up to the tank in the loft," I told him. "Probably purer than much mainland water, although it's pretty hard. The real problem with not being connected to the mains is sewerage; the tanker that comes once a fortnight to drain the cesspool has to carry a specially extended vacuum tube just for this house. They have to do it, though—regulations."

  He wasn't interested in sewerage, either. In fact, he lost interest in the whole underground complex as soon as he realized how empty it was of artifacts that might have been brought back to the old country from the home of the bean and the cod. The smugglers' cave left him completely cold; there obviously wasn't a lot of romance in his soul.

  He didn't notice anything odd about the kitchen, but he scanned the TV room carefully, in search of anything un-modern. Then I took him upstairs. He didn't waste much time in the bedroom, but when he got to the lumber room, his eyes lit up.

  "If there's anything else," I said, unnecessarily, "this is where you'll find it. It'll take time, though. Help yourself, while I fix us some lunch."

  "You don't have to do that," he said, for politeness' sake.

  "It's no trouble," I assured him. "You'll probably be busy here all afternoon—there's a lot of stuff, I'm afraid. Things do build up, don't they? It was a lot tidier when I last moved back in, but when you live alone . . . "

  "You haven't always lived here, then?" he said, probably fearing that there might be some other premises he might need to search.

  "Dear me, no," I said. "I was married for ten years, when we lived in East Cowes, on the other side of the island. This is no place for small children. I moved back here after the divorce—but anything that came back from the U.S.A. in the thirties will have stayed here all along. Couldn't rent the place, you see, even as a holiday cottage. It was locked up tight and nobody ever broke in. Not a lot of crime on the island."

  I left him alone then in order to make the lunch: cold meat from the farmers' market and fresh salad, with buttered bread and Bakewell tarts, both locally baked, and a fresh pot of tea. This time I used two bags of Earl Grey to one of Brown Label, and I ran the water from the other tap.

  "What I don't understand," I said, as he tucked in, "is where the anatomy of the terrible and the physiology of fear fit in. What do cancers and trigger molecules have to do with latent instincts and hereditary memories?"

  "Nobody understands it yet," he told me. "That's why my research is important. We understand how genes function as a protein factory, and the associated pathology of most cancers, but we don't understand the heredity of structure and behavior nearly as well. The process controlling the manner in which the fertilized ovum of a whale turns into a whale, and that of a hummingbird into a hummingbird, even though they have fairly similar repertoires of proteins, is still rather arcane, as is the process by which the whale inherits a whale's instincts and the hummingbird a hummingbird's. Most of human behavior is learned, of course— including many aspects of fear and horror—but there has to be an inherited foundation on which the learning process can build. The fact that Pickman's recessive gene, once somatically activated, caused a distinctive somatic metamorphosis rather than simple undifferentiated tumors indicates that it's linked in some way to the inheritance of structure. It's a common fallacy to imagine that individual genes only do one thing—usually, they have multiple functions—and the genes linked to structural development routinely have behavioral effects too. I suspect that the effects Pickman and his relatives suffered weren't just manifest in physical deformation; I suspect that they also affected the way he perceived and reacted to things."

  "You think that's why he became an artist?"

  "I think it might have affected the way he painted, and his choice of subject-matter—his understanding of the anatomy of the terrible and the physiology of fear."

  "That's interesting," I said. "It took your grandfather differently, of course."

  Mercifully, he wasn't holding his tea-cup. It was only his fork that he dropped. "What do you mean?" he asked.

  "Art isn't a one-way process," I said, mildly. "Audience responses aren't created out of nothing. Mostly, they're learned— but there has to be an inherited foundation on which the learning process can build. It's right there in the story, if you look. Other people just thought that Pickman's work was disgustingly morbid, but your grandfather saw something more. It affected him much more profoundly, on a phobic level. He knew Pickman even better than Silas Eliot—they, your grandfather, and Reid were all members of the same close-knit community. It must have been much easier for you to obtain a sample of his DNA than Pickman's, and you already had your own for comparison. Are you carrying the recessive gene, Professor Thurber?"

  A typical academic, he answered the question with a question: "Would you mind providing me with a sample of your DNA, Mr. Eliot?" he asked, reaching the bottom line at last.

  "You've been trampling all over my house for the last two hours," I riposted. "I expect you probably have one by now."

  He'd picked up his fork automatically, but now he laid it down again. "Exactly how much do you know, Mr. Eliot?" he asked.

  "About the science," I said, "not much more than I read in your excellent book and a couple of supplementary textbooks. About the witchcraft . . . well, how much of that can really be described as knowledge? If what Jonas Reid understood was vague, what I know is . . . so indistinct as to be almost invisible." I emphasized the word almost very slightly.

  "Witchcraft?" he queried, doubtless remembering the allegation in Lovecraft's story that one of Pickman's ancestors had been hanged in Salem—although I doubt that Cotton Mather was really "looking sanctimoniously on" at the time.

  "In England," I said, "they used to prefer the term cunning men. The people themselves, that is. Witches was what other people called them when they wanted to abuse them—not that they always wanted to abuse them. More often, they turned to them for help—cures and the like. The cunning men were social outsiders, but valued after their fashion—much like smugglers, in fact."

  He looked at me hard for a moment or two, then went back to his lunch. You can always trust an American's appetite to get the better of his vaguer anxieties. I watched him drain his tea-cup and filled it up again immediately.

  "Is the ultimate goal of your research to find a cure for . . . shall we call it Pickman's syndrome?" I asked, mildly.

  "The disease itself seems to be virtually extinct," he said, "at least in the form that it was manifest in Pickman and his models. To the extent that it's still endemic anywhere, the symptoms generally seem to be much milder. It's not the specifics I'm interested in so much as the generalities. I'm hoping to learn something useful about the fundamental psychotropics of phobia."

  "And the fundamental psychotropics of art," I added, helpfully. "With luck, you might be able to find out what makes a Pickman . . . or a Lovecraft."

  "That might be a bit ambitious," he said. "Exactly what did you mean just now about witchcraft? Are you suggesting that your cunning men actually knew something about phobic triggers—that the Salem panic and the Boston scare might actually have been induced?"

  "Who can tell?" I said. "The Royal College of Physicians, jealous of their supposed monopoly, used the law to harass the cunning men for centuries. They may not have succeeded in wiping out their methods or their pharmacopeia, but they certainly didn't help in the maintenance of their traditions. A good many must have emigrated, don't you think, in search of a new start?"

  He considered that for a few moments, and then demonstrated his academic intelligence by experiencing a flash of inspiration. "The transfer effect doesn't just affect diseases," he said. "Crop transplantation often produces new vigor—and the effect of medicines can be enhanced too. If the Salem panic was induced, it might not have been the result of malevolence—it might have been a medical side-effect that was unexpectedly magnified. In which case . . . the same might conceivably be true of the Boston incident."

  "Conceivably," I agreed.

  "Jonas Reid wouldn't have figured that out—he wouldn't even have thought of looking. Neither would my grandfather, let alone poor Pickman. But your grandfather . . . if he knew something about the traditions of cunning men . . . "

  "Silas Eliot wasn't my grandfather," I told him, unable this time to repress a slight smile.

  His eyes dilated slightly in vague alarm, but it wasn't the effect of the unfiltered water in his tea. That wouldn't make itself manifest for days, or even weeks—but it would make itself manifest. The contagion wasn't the sort of thing that could be picked up by handling a book, a damp wall, or even a fungus-ridden guardrail, and it wouldn't have the slightest effect on a local man even if he drank it . . . but Professor Thurber was an American, who'd probably already caught a couple of local viruses to which he had no immunity. The world is a busy place nowadays, but not that many Americans get to the Isle of Wight, let alone its out-of-theway little crevices.

  I really didn't mean him any harm, but he had got too close to the truth about Pickman, and I had to stop him getting any closer—because the truth about Pickman had, unfortunately, become tangled up with the truth about me. It wasn't that I had to stop him knowing the truth—I just had to affect the way he looked at it. It wouldn't matter how much he actually knew, always provided that the knowledge had the right effect on him. Pickman would have understood that, and Lovecraft would have understood it better than anyone. Lovecraft understood the true tenacity and scope of the roots of horror, and knew how to savor its aesthetics.

  "You're not claiming that you are Silas Eliot?" said Professor Thurber, refusing to believe it—for now. His common sense and scientific reason were still dominant.

  "That would be absurd, Professor Thurber," I said. "After all, I haven't got the fountain of youth in my cellar, have I? It's just water—it isn't even polluted most of the time, but we have had a very wet August, and the woods hereabouts are famous for their fungi. Some poor woman in Newport died from eating a deathcap only last week. You really have to know what you're doing when you're dealing with specimens of that sort. The cunning men could probably have taught us a lot, but they're all gone now—fled to America, or simply dead. The Royal College of Physicians won; we—I mean they—lost."

  The trigger hadn't had the slightest effect on him yet, but my hints had. He looked down at his empty tea-pot, and he was already trying to remember how many taps there had been in the kitchen.

  "Please don't worry, Professor Thurber," I said. "As you said yourself, the disease is very nearly extinct, at least in the virulent form that Pickman had. The attenuated form that your grandfather had, on the other hand . . . it's possible that you might still catch that—but what would it amount to, after all? You might become phobic about subways and cellars, and your acrophobia might get worse, but people mostly cope quite well with these things. The only that might be seriously inconvenient, given your particular circumstances, is that it might affect your attitude to your hobby. . . and to your work. Jonas Reid had to give it up, didn't he?"

  His eyes were no longer fixed on me. They were fixed on something behind me: the painting that he had mistaken, understandably enough, for a Pickman. He still thought that it was a Pickman, and he was wondering how the mild fear and disgust it engendered in him might increase, given the right stimulus. But biochemistry only supplies a foundation; in order to grow and mature, fears have to be nurtured and fed with doubts and provocations. Pickman had understood that, and so had Lovecraft. It doesn't actually matter much, if you have the right foundation to build on, whether you feed the fears with lies or the truth, but the truth is so much more artistic.

  "Actually," I told him, "when I said that I knew who'd painted it, I didn't mean Pickman. I meant me."

  His eyes shifted to my face, probing for tell-tale stigmata. "You painted it," he echoed, colorlessly. "In Boston? In the 1920s?"

  "Oh no," I said. "I painted it right here in the chine, about twenty years ago."

  "From memory?" he asked. "From a photograph? Or from life?"

  "I told you that there aren't any photographs," I reminded him. I didn't bother shooting down the memory hypothesis—he hadn't meant that one seriously.

  "You do carry the recessive gene, don't you?" he said, still the rational scientist, for a little while longer.

  "Yes," I said. "So did my wife, unlikely as it might seem. She was Australian. If I'd known . . . but all I knew about then was the witchcraft, you see, and you can't really call that knowledge."

  His jaw dropped slightly, then tightened again. He was a scientist, and he could follow the logic all the way—but he was a scientist, and he needed confirmation. Our deepest fears always need confirmation, one way or another, but once they have it, there's never any going back . . . or even, in any meaningful sense, going forward. Once we have the confirmation, the jigsaw puzzle is complete, and so are we.

  "The chance was only one in four," I said. "My other son's body is a veritable temple to human perfection . . . and he can drink the water with absolute impunity."

  Now, the horror had begun to dig in, commencing the long and leisurely work of burrowing into the utmost depths of his soul.

  "But I have a family of my own at home in Boston," he murmured.

  "I know," I said. "They have the Internet in Ventnor public library; I looked you up. It's not really that contagious, though— and even if you do pass it on, it won't be the end of the world: it'll just engender a more personal and more intimate understanding of the anatomy of the terrible, and the physiology of fear."

 
 

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