16 Apr 2016
by Jeffrey Thomas
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Is it a con report? A story? A tribute? Let’s just call it one of the “Numbers of the bEast.”
Joe Pulver was holding court in his office, this being the sidewalk in front of the Biltmore Hotel in Providence, Rhode Island. In front of the restaurant McCormick and Schmick’s, housed within the hotel, to be more precise. When I walked up to him he was in conversation with some of our mutual writer friends, also attending the NecronomiCon, whom I had already met earlier in the day. Pulver was in animated conversation; I heard him say, as he stabbed the air with his cigarette for emphasis (causing Mike Griffin to take a cautious step backwards), “I just have one word. Cisco.”
Pulver and his wife Kat had just arrived, having flown in from Germany, and it was Kat who noticed me hovering behind him first. Pulver turned, and with an exclamation of delight gave me a hug. I joined the conversation at that point, which turned out to be anthologies. Pulver and the others were lamenting how the editors of mass market horror anthologies were not only inviting people from a limited circle of “go-to” people, but choosing rather tired themes for these books: zombies, ghosts, vampires, werewolves, the Cthulhu Mythos. (We didn’t complain too much about the latter, though, it being a convention in honor of Lovecraft, and all of us were guilty of mining that vein.) I praised Pulver for choosing much more imaginative themes for the indie press anthologies he had edited or was in the process of editing. The award-winning Thomas Ligotti tribute anthology, the forthcoming Ramsey Campbell tribute anthology, a bunch of others in the pipe. Caligari…Begotten…
“This is what I wanted to talk to you about, brother,” Pulver said, taking my arm. He drew me away, a little further down Dorrance Street. “Excuse us,” he said to the others in his distinctive baritone.
While our friends went on chatting without us, Pulver looked up and down the street furtively then passed me an object he had taken from his shoulder bag and secreted in his palm. It was small, hard, smooth, cylindrical. Having worked in a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant for years, I guessed a 5ml glass bottle.
I said, “Ah, Joe, thanks but I don’t partake.”
“No, no, no,” Pulver said. “It’s not like that. Look…consider that your invitation to the next anthology.”
“Oh man, thanks, Joe…I always appreciated that you invite me. So what’s the theme?”
“Everything you need to know is in there.”
So was there a message in the bottle? Clever. Was the theme castaways stranded on a tropical island? Genies unleashed from a magic bottle? Genies stranded on a tropical island? “How about guidelines? Word count? The anthology’s title?”
“Listen, you just put that under your pillow every night before you sleep, okay? Just don’t let your daughter near it…you put it away somewhere safe every morning. Okay?”
This was odd. Pulver was talking like a purveyor of the magical or mystical, and that didn’t seem like him, but I figured whatever this mysterious item was he meant for it to simply stimulate my imagination. It was a prop, that he maybe hoped would spark my creative engine on a subconscious level. After all, another friend, Ted Grau, had given me a chunk of Ray Bradbury’s demolished home and I kept it atop my writing desk in the hopes that it emanated creative vibrations, or at least generated a bit of inspiration.
Pulver said, “I’ve given those to the others I want in this book, but I don’t want any of you to discuss things with each other. You just dream on that thing, and whatever you write that comes from those dreams, well that’s the theme of the book. Trust me.”
“Well, okay. But how’d you get these…whatever they are into the country?”
“I have my sources, brother. Can’t say more, but…I have my sources.”
“Well,” I said, “I’ll definitely play along and see what comes to me, but in all fairness I’ve got to warn ya…I’ve been going through a bad dry spell. Writer’s block, lack of enthusiasm or discouragement or something.”
Joe said, “Well I have faith in you.”
In my room in the Biltmore that night I examined the bottle that Pulver had given me, and which I’d pocketed with an imitation of his secrecy. It was dark brown in color, a vial meant to protect its contents – say, vitamins – from the light. Since I couldn’t see through the dark glass adequately, I unscrewed the vial’s lid and shook its contents out into my palm.
It was a tiny, organic-looking object, a translucent yellowish color like amber but soft and rubbery. Two conjoined bulbs and a little bit of stem. “What is this?” I asked myself aloud. “Mouse testicles? Dr. Strange’s pituitary gland?” I decided it was some kind of seed. Ultimately, like I said, probably just something innocuous serving as a prop. Pulver was hoping his weird fiction friends would find unique interpretations for it, but didn’t want us influencing each other by putting our heads together.
I returned the amber, rubbery object to the bottle and slipped it under my too soft, too bulky hotel pillows.
Well, I did have a weird dream that night, if that was Pulver’s hope, but in the morning I wondered if it had less to do with his enigmatic seed and more to do with the bottle of scotch Jack Haringa had brought to the party in Laird Barron’s room, which I’d attended before staggering back to my own.
I dreamed that I was standing on a sunbaked mud pan that extended to the horizon, though I couldn’t turn to look behind me (I couldn’t tell if I actually had a physical body in this dream). The cracked floor of mud or clay, however, was of a distinct yellow color, which in fact reminded me of the yellow-painted chunk of stucco from Ray Bradbury’s home that rested atop my desk. When I woke I wondered if that souvenir had contributed to my dream, based on my thoughts of the night before. In any case, just before I woke up (feeling queasy and disoriented from, I assumed, the scotch) a wind across the shattered plain – a wind I couldn’t feel – started to stir up a dust devil right in front of me. It grew tall, taller than me, and began to form a kind of column like a tornado’s funnel spout. I remembered feeling anxious…no, downright afraid…even as I took note that the dust that composed the column had an odd quality, glinting yellow like dust motes swimming in a slant of afternoon sunlight. Like flakes of gold shed over centuries from a strange, gilded idol.
I woke up before the column could thicken. Before it could solidify, I thought oddly as I contemplated the dream.
When I caught Pulver standing alone in front of the Biltmore that morning, a cigarette in one hand and a Styrofoam cup trailing an Earl Grey tag in the other, I whispered to him, “Hey Joe, I tried that thing under my pillow last night. Man, yeah, I had this funny dream…”
He held up his hand with the cigarette to stop me. “Good, good…but try it at home, after the con. In your own bed, brother. See what it brings you then.”
So Pulver and Kat returned to Germany, the rest of our friends also sadly scattered to the winds, and I drove back to Massachusetts.
About a week after the convention, after most of the fond reports of it had circulated on Facebook, I sent Pulver an email…even though I had sensed, at the con, that he not only didn’t want me to discuss his mysterious anthology with the others he’d invited, but – for now, anyway – him either.
My email detailed the dream I’d had at the Biltmore Hotel, and then two that I’d had back home when I’d resumed the ritual of putting his vial under my pillow at night. I wrote:
In the second dream, the twirling column of golden dust started to take on the beginnings of form, a translucent sort of outline hovering just off the desert floor and looming over me, and I remember being gripped in terror looking up at it…but then I woke up. I had such a headache that morning that I called in sick at work. (Of course, I’d had a couple of glasses of gin the night before but I’m sure *that* had nothing to do with it…heh.)
No dreams for the next few nights – none that I recall, anyway – but in the third dream of the mud pan the towering shape manifested again, and this time, as one might now predict, it was somewhat clearer in its outlines. The thing looked to be made of long draped layers, like cloaks upon cloaks, but not so much made from cloth as from a translucent, amber-colored and glistening material. Organic membranes? Still, the top of this tall, mostly formless shape had a cloaked kind of aspect, like a hood or cowl, black inside, out of which streamed long black hair. I felt an intense burning gaze on me, from within that black space. A fearsome mind was beaming at me…trying to control me, *direct* me. But then…yes, I woke up.
No more dreams of the mud pan since.
So…am I on the right track, here?
Pulver wrote back, but his response – while encouraging – was not exactly illuminating, being written in Pulverese:
YAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY It’s working! YES!!!!!!!!!!!!! OVERmoon to hear this. Can’t wait to see what you come up with. THXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
All my bEastly BEST!! !
Well, it seemed obvious to me what was gradually materializing in my dreams, but I had hoped Pulver would confirm it for me without me having to spell it out…which I was afraid to do because it seemed too obvious. Pulver being the biggest fan of Robert W. Chambers and the King in Yellow around, this was to be a King in Yellow anthology. But he’d already done one of those (though I hadn’t been a contributor on that one): A Season in Carcosa.
Still reluctant to ask Pulver to lay it out for me, I thought I’d try to get into his head a little from an oblique angle, to see if I was missing something between the lines. I had been the editor for his collection A House of Hollow Wounds, but I revisited a few stories from another collection of his called The King in Yellow Tales: Volume 1 from the Lovecraft eZine Press. The following Sunday I also participated in the Lovecraft eZine’s live web chat broadcast to listen to Pulver speak, as he was a regular guest on the program. Maybe he’d drop a few hints, either consciously or unconsciously, as to where he was at artistically right now…what his focus or inspiration might be.
When I joined the chat I caught him in midsentence, looking a little murky via his web cam and waving his cigarette around, saying, “I just have one word for you. Kiernan. Strantzas. Barron.”
“That’s three words, Joe,” I said.
“Thomas,” he said.
Though I enjoyed the show, nothing clicked into clarity in my mind, but that night with the brown bottle under my pillow and not a drop of alcohol in my system I had another of the vivid, strange dreams.
The looming shape formed from the shimmering golden pollen, stood over my body or disembodied consciousness like the specter of a robed giant, this time almost corporeal but still floating a little off the cracked desert floor. This time I felt that the seaweed-like streamers lashing out from within the hood, as if ripped by a fierce wind, were not strands of hair after all but…something else.
Something emerged from the membrane-like yellow folds, and I saw it was like a hand but just as much like a misshapen and charred tree root. The gnarled hand lowered toward me on what must have been an impossibly long and multiply jointed arm secreted within the glossy living folds.
In the palm of the giant’s hand was a tiny object. It was of a translucent yellowish color like amber but soft and rubbery. It looked like two conjoined bulbs and a little bit of stem.
I closed my hand around the thing, and I woke up.
Having sat up in bed with a thudding heart, I immediately twisted around to reach under my flattened old pillow to take hold of the bottle there. I unscrewed its lid, tilted its mouth toward my palm, but nothing came out. I shook more vigorously. The vial was empty.
I hadn’t unscrewed the lid to examine its contents since I’d been at the hotel, but I knew I hadn’t dropped the seed-thing there, I knew I hadn’t, and if it had withered or decayed inside the vial there would still be some kind of residue.
I showed the bottle to my six-year-old Jade and asked if she had played with it, but she said she hadn’t touched it and I believed her.
It was a work day, and there was a fair amount to do when I got in, but I couldn’t help myself…almost as soon as I reached my work station that morning I pulled up a fresh word doc. and started writing a new story. My peripheral vision was the only thing really working that day as I kept an eye out for my boss or nosy coworkers. I type with one finger but that finger was flying. I had been going through a torturous spell of writer’s block for weeks at that point but today it flowed…it just flowed, unstoppered.
When I was home that night, after having banged out 2,400 words at work, and having reread what I’d written and polished it up besides, I sent Joe Pulver an email. I told him about my most recent dream, and my earlier conjecture about his mystery project, and I said:
That thing that visited me wasn’t the King in Yellow after all, was it, Joe?
I kept my eye on my email, and shortly before I turned in that night – with the bottle no longer under my pillow, now standing empty atop my writing desk alongside the yellow chunk of Ray Bradbury’s house – I received an email back from Pulver in reply.
No, he wrote. That was your muse.
Love ya brother!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!