The Thing in the Jar

Michael Cisco (1970 — ) is an American writer best known for his first novel, The Divinity Student, which was published by Ann VanderMeer’s Buzzcity Press and won the International Horror Guild Award in 1999. Since then, Cisco has published The San Veneficio Canon, The Traitor, The Tyrant, The Narrator, and The Great Lover. Taken together, these books represent the greatest oeuvre of any late twentieth/early twenty-first century writer of weird fiction — all the more remarkable because of the difficulty of sustaining the visionary quality of such narratives over the novel length. For our special 12 Days of Monsters, reprinting this brilliant piece from The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities seemed most appropriate… — The Editors

(image by Aeron Alfrey; all rights reserved)

The Thing in the Jar was presented to Dr. Lambshead by an African anthropologist specializing in the study of Europeans, one Prof. Manjakanony Ramahefajonatana, of the University of Antananarivo, Antananarivo, Madagascar, in exchange for some assistance rendered in accumulating a representative collection of items of contemporary everyday English use. The object was discovered by Prof. Ramahefajonatana’s principal research assistant, Vololoniaina Rasendranoro, who, owing to a condition of amnesia brought on by a clout she received on the head as she was escaping from a burning barn in Essex, was entirely unable ever to account for how she came across it. The only definitely known fact about the jar’s past is that it was found in England, and does not appear to have originated elsewhere.

            The object is a cylindrical glass jar, fifteen inches tall and six inches in diameter, weighing about twenty-five pounds, with a bronze base and lid. The bottom is wrapped in a fringed skirt of faded red velvet with gold tassels, and bears at its center an engraving of an owl in semi-profile and the legend “Griscyple Bros. — 1737.” The top is hermetically sealed with black wax.

            The jar contains an anthropic creature.

            This object is associated with a manuscript in Dr. Lambshead’s own hand, consisting of a great many sheets of different hotel stationery, contained in a manila file folder. The folder’s projecting tab is covered with a stack of adhesive labels, one laid atop another. The exposed, uppermost label had something written on it which was then aggressively scribbled over, and the rest of the folder is leopard-spotted with scribbled-out words or phrases. The only unmarred writing on the folder itself consists of three words inscribed in a column on the inner surface of the front, or untabbed, half of the folder. They are, from top to bottom: MUSHROOMS, BACON, OVALTINE.

            Not unlike the folder, the manuscript is also heavily emended, with many strikethroughs and insertions. The battered, fraying pages show signs of having been much handled. Not only are all the pages from different hotels, but they are written and marked in a variety of media, including ink, pencil, lipstick, crayon, pastels, and, in one case, a dry and crusty reddish-brown fluid that has the characteristics of blood. The alterations are, more often than not, written in a medium different from that of the older text. The implements used also must have been highly varied, ranging from rare and expensive Sheaffer or Pelikan fountain pens, to the quills of exotic birds, to ordinary run-of-the-mill ball point pens and number-two pencils, to sharpened fragments of bone, or medical implements dipped in ink or stain. In one case, a correction is actually cut into the paper with a sharp instrument, perhaps a scalpel, and there are minute discolorations around the incisions that suggest the scalpel had been in surgical use quite recently when the correction was made, or that, perhaps, Dr. Lambshead had been struck by an idea in the very midst of performing an operation, and had paused to make the change in the text using literally what he had in his hand just at that moment.

            In content, the manuscript consists of a list and seven fragmentary narratives or descriptions, all of which seem intended to account for the existence of the Thing in the Jar. All of them are, also, mutually exclusive, and it is impossible to ascertain which of them, if any, is the true explanation.

            The list reads, in part, as follows:

imp / witch’s brat

immature yeti

immature yama / yamantaka

buffalo spirit

buffalo minotaur

hoax by M.

motile fruiting body from enormous Kamchatkan mycelium

found in meteor / chrysolite

automaton replacement for lost child, abused, becomes monster

Japanese legend: pregnant mother murdered, stillborn child avenger

stillborn specimen, ankylopsoriasis

found blocking sewer drain under big city

infant gorilla raised by crocodiles

wandered into small German town in 1762 with note

discovered in exhumed coffin in place of body: cadaver changeling

conceit of insane taxidermist

small island North Atlantic where wrecked Vikings married wolves

mature specimen of gnome

            According to the first narrative, the Thing is a fetish, created for some religious purpose. A sentence to the effect that it was made by the Akimel O’odham people of the American Southwest is struck out, and somewhat ambiguously modified to mean something else that isn’t exactly clear. The intention seems to be that this fetish was found among or traded from, or possibly to, the Akimel O’odham, and/or might be Aztec in origin. The text does clearly state that the fetish was placed in the jar by a white American individual who came by theft. Many possible names for this recipient, or thief, are given, all of them crossed out: Buckwaldo Mudthumper, Eustace Bucke, Cornelius Abereustace, Haldernablou Yuchachev, Steven Williams, Shi Mu-ke, Beldu Terrance, Josephine Mouse, Melinda Postoffice, Macfitzhugh O’Donaldin, Wigberto Fuentes, Mustafa Mukhtar al Kateb, Bradford Frederic. The story breaks off after mention of this person, with no indication of its intended ending.

            The second manuscript bluntly identifies the Thing as an aborted minotaur. This is cancelled and replaced with the phrase “reverse minotaur,” meaning not the offspring of a bull and a woman, as in the fable, but of a man and a cow. A partial list of the less well-known of the Greek islands is included; most likely, Dr. Lambshead intended to select one of these as the setting for his story, but abandoned it altogether before doing so.

            The third and longest fragment is a rambling narrative, based on documented events, of an expedition to Saibai in the Torres Strait, and the Biak-Numfoor rain forests of the Schouten Islands. After many pages of laborious description mainly devoted to detailing their efforts to capture a living specimen of the Biak Naked-baked Fruit Bat (Dobsonia emersaa), Dr. Lambshead turns his attention to the island of Saibai and the Zaman Wislin cargo cult he and his companions discovered there. One practitioner in particular, a “pariah” who was compelled to live apart from the other inhabitants of the island, was rumored to have made strange use of an infant for magical purposes. Deleted segments of the story made this person a member of the cult in good standing at first, then “a demented European convert,” but in the end Dr. Lambshead chose the native pariah variant. It was said that this man [woman was written first, then struck out] used to put a baby in a pot of boiling elixir [water had been written first, then struck out]. There is a careted phrase for insertion that indicates this was to be after incantations had been chanted over the baby for … and then this is followed by only a blank, presumably to be filled in later, but which remains empty.

            When the enchanted baby would be placed in the pot, the boiling fluid would recoil away from the baby’s body. Unharmed in any way, the baby would go to sleep in the warm pot, “in a kind of magnetic bubble” that prevented the fluid from injuring it. Meanwhile, “the crazed practitioner would solemnly open an elaborately-carved box, and, with many gestures of sanctification and holiness, take out from the box a battered, ramshackle pair of aviator headphones. Handling them with exaggerated care, he would insert the plug at the end of the headphone cable into a crude, jury-rigged jack, basically just a hole cut into a large, hollow nut, affixed to the side of the pot by a stinking lump of coal tar. Then, placing the headphones on his own head, this man would pantomime efforts to ‘tune’ the pot by turning knobs he’d fashioned out of spools, and attached to a board. Through these headphones, the man claimed to be able to hear the voices of ancestral spirits, and of the gods themselves, talking to him. When asked what they sounded like, he raised his voice to a high falsetto and faintly repeated distinct phrases, much separated in time. While some were in Kalau Kauau Ya [the native language], most were American English. I plainly heard him say, ‘I am the one who does not come when called.’ What could be discerned of the remainder in English consisted of fragments. ‘… the water of skulls …’ ‘… too much is happening when I try to sleep … sleep … sleep … in my sleep …’ ‘… anyone dead must be treated or they may do more …’ With this last, he began to shake violently, and threw a fit that seemed to me to have no obvious somatic cause.”

            The rest of the account slides back and forth; in some passages, it seems the doctor continues, as in the above quotation, to put himself on the scene observing the practitioner at work. In others, however, he comes to the island only after the death of the outcast, and receives the entire story secondhand. In both versions, however, the infant is initially normal, becoming less and less normal, more and more inhuman as the rituals are repeated, finally dying of an excess of mutation, at which point it is collected or traded for by Dr. Lambshead.

            The fourth story is the outline of a work that, had it been written, would have run as long as a good-sized novel. It was set on a farm in Indiana around the first few decades of the twentieth century, and was permeated with “a bittersweet air of nostalgia, the haunting poignancy of remembered youth, the amber radiance of sanctified recollection, the gentle grief of hindsight softened by the passing of time, the tender longing for bygone scenes, the pathos of enduring love devoted to people and things that have yielded themselves unto the Destroyer, the ghostly romance of innocent boyhood fantasy, the eerie melancholy of brooding and incommunicable childhood secrecy, and the wistfully spectral yearning for unseen and beautiful things that abide beyond the limits of life.”

            The main character, a boy of about nine, has an imaginary friend who “may be more than mere imagination,” and which corresponds in description to the Thing in the Jar. Interspersed among typical domestic and rural scenes, “tinged ever with a foreboding of darker things,” and described in lofty, high-minded prose poetry, are a series of lethal mishaps that would appear to be revenge for slights against the boy, although he is always obviously innocent of any connection to these suspiciously frequent and numerous accidents. Whatever his other reasons for not undertaking the composition of this novel, the notes show clearly his indecision about the outcome of the story. The imaginary friend is now a disowned, disfigured twin brother — presumed dead, now a creation of the boy’s own mind — a figure so intensely visualized and otherwise invested in by the boy as to take on physical, independent form, as a kind of projection of the boy’s unconscious; yet now the imaginary friend is an alternate personality, and yet now it is a demon, now a ghost.

            The fifth story is a terse, telegraphic account of an earthquake in Mexico, and is the only really complete piece in the folder. The setting is an ancient Olmec ritual center, only recently uncovered by archaeologists. Twenty minutes or so before the earthquake hits, the carvings ornamenting certain of the site’s structures begin to come to life. They flee the site, crawling, flying, hopping, slithering, burrowing, throwing themselves into a swiftly-flowing river nearby, flapping off among the clouds, or creeping hurriedly away toward the distant mountains. The carvings all escape except one, which is killed when a piece of debris dislodged from a hillside falls, striking it. This creature, collected by the archaeological team, is the Thing in the Jar.

            The sixth item is lengthy and so extensively revised that it is very difficult to read. In it, Dr. Lambshead, or his source, lays out a theory of modified reincarnation redefining the idea of the “bardo” condition, originally found in the spiritual teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. By tradition, the bardo is a sort of pause between incarnations, where the souls of the dead linger for a time. The theory set down by Dr. Lambshead is that, under certain circumstances, some souls enter into a physical bardo condition involving the organic remains of their former bodies, although the process often introduces strange alterations in these bodies, coupled with some kind of machinery. Neither the provenance of the machinery nor the details or causes of the “process” alluded to can be made out in the garbled text of the description. The result is a hybrid being, part cadaver, part machine, which houses the soul during its bardo period. Dr. Lambshead calls these beings “sarkoforms.” The only further information that can be extracted from this text is that the Thing is believed to be a bungled sarkoform, consisting of weirdly mutated and miniaturized remains drifting through time until they find their correlative machinery.

            The seventh and final manuscript in the folder is included here in its entirety, as a sample of the general condition of the whole of the folder’s contents.

The Seventh Manuscript

Once upon a time there was a man who loved volcanoes. From birth or not. At first, his instincts were innocent. His father his mother his uncle Brobisher his father had told him once of a volcanic eruption of Kraka of Herac Pomp of Krakatoa, and he’d done a book report in school in grammar school that had been well received that had won him his first real praise in school. He became a vulcanologist. Amateur. When he went to university he devoted himself to the study of vulcanology and in time became a professor of that subject, although his chief love was not in teaching about volcanos in the classroom nor even of lecturing on volcanoes or conducting most forms of research into, for example, the history of volcanoes of volcanic of vulcanic vucl vulcanism and humans in human history. His great love was in visiting volcanoes and it was during one such visit that he realized his interest was sexual. When in the presence of erupting volcano he would experience all symptoms of intense arousal, including tumescence, tension in the groin, shortness of breath, an increase in temperature, a flush in the face, anxious nervous excite intension tension in the thorax. He often found that he’d be so lost in amorous contemplation of the gushing crater that he had made no observations of any scientific use utility. But only had penned such empty chestnuts as magnificent, breathtaking, beautiful, thrilling etc.

            Finally taken aside by so-called “friend” and colleague.

            “You had better be careful,” his friend said. “Now, you wouldn’t want to be catching ‘volcano fever.’ ”

            “Why is now a bad time to catch ‘volcano fever’?”

            “It happens to every vulcanologist, sooner or later,” he added muttered a moment later after a long pause hastily. “The intellectual intelligentsual passion spontaneously develops a sensual dimension, the dense, shielding foam that protects the gem facet of eroticism lamentably dissolves to expose the bare and tinglingly sensitized surface to the polyfluous exagamies of hermitanical and phantasmic erotimoids …”

            “I gather your meaning — [Here is interposed a long list of possible names for the interlocutor of the stricken vulcanologist. In the interests of economizing our use of space, only a few examples will be given: “Earthflounder … Soildozer … Marldozer … Dozemarl … Claybeater … etc.”] — Your prognosis is a fetishistic transference a common, everyday fetishistic transference.”

            “I’m glad we had this little talk, DAQUIRI.” [‘DAQUIRI’ being the name attributed to the afflicted vulcanologist, in this line only. The paper shows signs of a name that was written, erased, and rewritten again and again, until the name DAQUIRI was allowed to remain on the smudged and badly roughened paper.] 

            Finally, on occasion of witnessing eruption and heavy flow at close hand, perfectly understandable given the circumstances loses all self control and experiences spontaneous orgasm deliberately gets no accidentally –somehow ejaculates copiously into lava torrent before dragged away by hysterical, over-reacting and narrow-minded assistant who’s too busy prying into other people’s affairs to mind his own bloody business.

            Few years later stories local legends begin to be told about a curious little man-like figure observed gamboling on slopes. Volcano’s slopes. Thought to be a child in outfit. Costume. Very young. Too young for costumes really. At play unattended, dangerous locations. Virtually in the flames at times, untroubled. Found eventually curled in blazing hot alcove, in softened recess, sucking at unusually rounded stalagmite tite mite TITE damn stalagTITE. Netted. Snared. Resemblance. Faint. Distorted. Yet, somehow plain. Unmistakable. Creature radiates fantastic heat. Handler must wear aluminium suit.

            Recognition mutual?


            Winter. Volcano enters less active stage, coincidence.

            Child found dead. Hypothermia.

            Cools to room temperature.

            Transferred to jar. Former contents, a salted lammergeier chick, sent to taxidermist [seven pounds ten shillings] for stuffing never retrieved. Jar sent to the farmhouse in Essex.

            Grief of the father.