Eric Basso (1947– ) is an American poet, novelist, playwright, and critic, and also a perennial favorite of the staff at Weirdfictionreview.com. Despite being criminally overlooked in contemporary literature, his writing is important to the development and possible futures of weird fiction. His novella “The Beak Doctor,” long a cult favorite among avant-garde gothic writers, was reprinted for present-day readers as part of The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories and makes for a great entry point into the staggering bibliography of this writer.
What follows is an excerpt from a rare, long-gestating work of Basso’s, his novel-in-progress Anonym. This is a large, sprawling work of fine craftsmanship and boundless imagination, leaping across time and space to explore a mysterious game so fathomless and strange, it takes generations to play. As of now, Anonym only exists in the form of eight chapbooks, which in turn were printed in limited editions of sixty copies each; the planned final four chapbooks, meanwhile, have yet to be written. However, Basso is currently at work returning to those final chapters, and we plan on serializing the original chapters of Anonym on WFR.com at regular intervals starting later this year. – The Editors
The cadaver under watered silk, bone crumbling into sand, like a dying mistress in his arms.
For Magus VII it was more a matter of topological dislocation. Something, or someone, had changed the forests and the grasslands on his estate. There were fewer hills, trees where none grew before, valleys instead of plains. Meadows evolved into marshlands. Though the soil had been seeded, only weeds, spaded from the earth, made a pyramid for burning. A vast, funereal mound bristled in the shadow of the hedgerow under a leaden sky. Strange as it was, it was all too familiar. He ordered the pyre to be set ablaze, and waited, crouched by a dormer, behind the immense façade of his Tudor mansion, in a room set aside for the storage of useless valuables. Scarcely daring to breathe, he waited till the rain had washed away the ashes.
No one was about. When he came to, it might have been a birdless morning, dusk or break of noon, for all the difference it made to the louring clouds. He’d expected to find charred remnants of the pyre from the night before, and took his coffee black to set the mood, never turning his eyes toward the window where, through a gap in the muslin curtains, he could have viewed the location of the mound’s remains against the rise of a hill foxed with sprays of buttercup. He had figured on a heap of charcoal, and felt no need to verify his assumption by peering through the lattice to ponder. It would have covered a broad area, roughly the shape of an ellipse, and faced the manor house like black bones from some fallen star, threaded with acrid smoke. The coffee sloshed in a shallow pool at the bottom of his cup. The dregs at center formed the pupil of a lifeless eye. He crushed a half-eaten biscuit. Crumbs dropped on the unblinking “eye.” He stirred the mixture to a mush and drank it down. The servants, perhaps were still asleep, or in the cellar tending to the sacks of grain — more likely, nipping into the hogsheads that held their master’s private stock, stretched out beneath the taps with gaping mouths, eyes shut to the vault of cobwebbed laths and the beetles dangling above. This time he would not go down, candle in hand, to rouse the overseer and his corpulent spouse from their torpor. He would not take horse to seek them out in some dark corner of the estate, where they might likewise be, sprawled beneath the conifers by a bubbling gully stream. Today, after his crouching sleep, there were no servants, or none to be recognized as such, for all was still. Only the wild grass moved, shivering in pale waves.
Above the tall blades, where yesterday a dolmen stood behind the mound of burning weeds, a totem rose, wide enough for a man to enter at its base. He had come upon it suddenly. Wherever he left the manor house, he made it a special point, for his private amusement, never to look beyond the toes of his boots. He drew near enough to where he knew the rise of grass to be crowned by the dolmen. For weeks he had heaped uprooted weeds before this primeval gateway, whose slabs of speckled stone were overgrown with moss and ivy. The dolmen, disguised by the undergrowth, had become an impenetrable arbor. Its ancient powers of magnetism seemed irretrievably lost. Perhaps some weak spark would have remained, to be ignited when the right words were spoken of the proper gestures made. But now the dolmen and the wild thicket that surrounded it had unaccountably vanished. Magus VII looked up from his boots to see a towering monolith in its place.
The totem resembled nothing he had seen in his books and travels. It seemed, at first, to be a random, and completely senseless, combination of abstract, vegetable and mineral concretions wedged one into another so that the borders of each became a zone of metamorphosis, a limbo of transitional substance which bled its branching framework along the length of the monument in an endless variety of solidified eruptions. A ruff of honeycombed windows girdled the summit of this lighthouse far from the sea. Its panes bellied out a froth of convex bubbles, shrinking, as the eye followed them down, into dingy egg-yolk larvae from whose turgid veils emerged the contours of coiling foetuses, ragged snails and sea urchins. Beneath them, small covered porches jutted, screened by scalloped windows which threw the blinding glare of the sun back on his eyes. As he walked, his shadow stretched before him, undulating over the rise to the smoky ellipse where the weeds had been consumed. Held in place by facets of blue mica, leaning prows nodded their ornamental heads from the next level of the totem. Below them, nested within a crust of lichens, the dead ends of a few coffered galleries were thrown into dark relief, counterfeit recessions in depth, leading nowhere, cloistered by the limaces that slid across their inner walls. He mounted the hill toward toward the monolith’s base. Its fringe of skeleton wings gave him shade in which to scrape the mulch and ashes from his boot heels.
Then he turned, and rapped twice with his knuckles on the burl of the totem door. Waiting, he felt a breeze lift his tremoring collar, never daring to look back for fear that the charred remains of the weed mound had, like the dolmen, disappeared. Wind flattened the acres of grassland behind him. As he listened for a footfall to sound from within, he studied the patterns in the grain of the wooden door, hoping to discover in its terraced “land-scapes” some key to the enigma of what he now understood to be the Second Tower Move. He ransacked his memory for all that pertained to the Mad Player and the tragedy of the Ruined Tower. Many of the same elements could be found here, but in reverse. The burning of the weeds had been his own idea — an offering to what or to whom, of whom or of which, we know nothing. He continued to stare at the door. Not even its immobile flight of severed heads, human and animal, or the moveless passage of androids toward an abyss of whirling seas could provide a clue. And no one had come to answer his knock, to open the knobless door.
He pushed at it with the toe of his boot. The door fell open, without a squeak. Though the canopy’s shade had accustomed his eyes to murk, the blackness within was so dense all light appeared to stop at the threshold. He hesitated, expecting at least a slight change. Impenetrable blackness persisted. Taking a deep breath, he gripped the lintel overhead, for some bottomless gulf might yawn a step away, and planted first one foot, then the other, inside the totem.
The floor seemed solid enough, but was so riddled with abrupt hollows and protuberances that, after letting go of the lintel, he had to step gingerly to avoid falling. For a while, he groped without aim or method. No outside light, however diffuse, could penetrate the interior of the totem. Now and again he looked back at the doorway, which had become a dwindling frame for muddy fields, and saw the crest of the distant hill, the sky and trees, set as in a lifeless porcelain miniature. He looked for a sign of movement there, and tiptoed back toward the open door. The landscape seemed to flatten more with each step forward. No new stretch of grass lay beyond the foreground. The laws of perspective had suddenly come to nothing.
He was afraid to leave, afraid that if he were to step outside the doorway without having solved the totem’s riddle he would be lost or become a faceless figure in the landscape He knew, somehow, that he needed to discover the hidden stair which led to the false galleries he had glimpsed on his approach, and proceed from there to the turret honeycombed with a thousand concave windows — the eye, or perhaps the brain, of the totem. He stood beneath a species of whisper whose warm breath echoed from the upper blackness, dying in oscillations of air and silence. Not a twitch of movement, and yet that brief death of the whisper, scarcely reaching a level of sound, touched a deep nerve in his ear and caused him to lurch into an obstable which, happily, prevented his fall.
A bannister. His fingers ran along the curve of varnished wood till they were stopped by a wall. A wall, mossed with velveteen or some fuzzy mould. As he groped around the newel post, his foot made contact with the bottom step. Slowly, he began to climb. Seven steps up, his palm grazed another mossy wall. His fingertips strayed to its corners. Tapping gently with his knuckle, he found this second wall to be hollow, and hoped to spring a catch that would make it open. This time he did not have to wait.
He heard a rustling on the other side, and felt a sudden yielding of the wall to a surge of violet light. It pitched him onto a willowy carpet. When the spots faded from his eyes, he saw a form standing in a furry nimbus. A silhouette against a curtain of purple flame.