Nightshade and Damnations

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NIGHTSHADE AND

DAMNATIONS

GERALD KERSH

With an introduction by

HARLAN ELLISON

VALANCOURT BOOKS

Nightshade and Damnations
by Gerald Kersh

Originally published Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett,
1968

First Valancourt Books edition
2013

Copyright ©
1947, 1948, 1953, 1954, 1957, 1958, 1962, 1968
by Gerald Kersh

Introduction ©
1968
by Harlan Ellison

Reprinted with the kind permission of Mr. Ellison and the Estate of Gerald Kersh

Published by Valancourt Books, Richmond, Virginia

http://www.valancourtbooks.com

All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without prior written consent of the publisher, constitutes an infringement of the copyright law.

INTRODUCTION

Kersh
,
the Demon Prince

Nightmares
,
phantasmagoria, horrors that lurk in the streets of today, the corrupting weaknesses of men; these are the bones and gristle of what this book contains.

The flesh is the talent of Gerald Kersh.

In England, Kersh is a much-revered author. His books are seldom out of print. They honor and respect him. Which is a bit unusual, when one considers that Kersh is an American, and that here in America we barely know his work. In ugly point of fact, his brilliant novels
Night and the City
and
A Long Cool Day in Hell
cannot be obtained, and the very best of his works,
Fowlers End
, has never been reprinted.

It gives one pause. Why should it be so? Almost any hack who can write in something that approximates the English language can get published these days. Lady novelists unfit to carry Kersh’s pencil box sell millions in paperback. Non-novelists who rearrange the facts of contemporary history in narrative form find themselves lionized. Rock singers mislabeled poets scatter the pearls of their illiteracy across the bookstalls and get lotta pieces green paper in return. Then why should it be true that a man who has been captivating audiences with his of
f
beat and penetrating stories for over a quarter of a century should find it close to impossible to reach a wide American audience . . . ?

I’ll be nice today. I won’t castigate the American reading public. It is too often led to the literary slaughter for me to kick it in the rump while it waits for the butcher’s hook. I’ll offer instead a totally specious reason for Kersh’s unfamiliarity to most readers, and thereby work into a rationale for this book having been edited by a man who has never met Gerald Kersh.

Burn your newspaper!

Shut your door and slip the police latch!

Sit with lights out in a darkness that deepens!

Now . . .

Now
you begin to live in the dark night of the soul.

And in that endless night you meet Kersh.

Kersh, damn him, the Demon Prince. Who speaks thus:

“We hang about the necks of our tomorrows like hungry harlots about the necks of penniless sailors.”

Kersh, who can describe the indescribable:

“A man has a shape; a crowd has no shape and no color. The massed faces of a hundred thousand men make one blank pallor; their clothes add up to a shadow; they have no words. This man might have been one hundred-thousandth part of the featureless whiteness, the dull grayness, and the toneless murmuring of a docile multitude. He was something less than nondescript—he was blurred, without identity, like a smudged fingerprint. His suit was of some dim shade between brown and gray. His shirt had gray-blue stripes, his tie was patterned with dots like confetti trodden into the dust, and his oddment of limp brownish mustache resembled a cigarette-butt, disintegrating shred by shred in a tea-saucer.”

Damn thee, Kersh, bastard! How many times have I tried to describe such a man and crumbled the paper into my waste basket? How many times have I sought the images, and never found them? Damn you, Kersh, for showing me, and all of us who strive to capture magic in a shot glass, how much better you are, how much more easily you can do it! For someone who has never tried to write, it looks simple. But like all great art—like the dancing of Fred Astaire and the silken sculpture of Calder—its complexity is best expressed by its appearance of simplicity.

No, I’ve never met Kersh. But I’m editing Kersh, because it takes one to know one.

It takes somebody who writes about households filled with
L
S
D hippies who turn into vampires to know somebody who writes about a man who is pursued by men without bones. It takes somebody who writes of the soul of a hooker trapped in a slot machine to know somebody who writes of the man who found the Lid to the Under World. It takes somebody who knows the face of nightmare to truly introduce somebody who deals in nightshade and damnations.

As you may have gathered, I admire Gerald Kersh and his work almost shamelessly. His stories have intrigued and stimulated me for many years. When I was asked to put together this marvelous group of stories, I considered it a rare privilege and honor.

Then I set about reading everything I’ve ever read by Kersh, not to mention half-a-hundred others that had slipped past me somehow. From those stories I’ve selected what I consider to be the very finest, most memorable pieces Kersh’s endlessly inventive mind has let escape.

But in the selection, oh what serendipity! what side benefits! what extra treasures I found:

A phrase of such penetrating rationality, that I had it printed on big yellow cards, which I give to my friends, that reads:

“. . . there are men whom one hates until a certain moment when one sees, through a chink in their armor, the writhing of something nailed down and in torment.”

A random chance phrase that captured my imagination wholly; stopped me, stunned, at the perfection of the imagery:

“A storm broke, and at every clap of thunder the whole black sky splintered like a window struck by a bullet—starred and cracked in ten thousand directions letting in flashes of dazzling light, so that I was stunned and bewildered.”

A special character, who lumbered or flopped or hurled himself across the pages of a story so unforgettably that he became a real person, someone added to my list of authentic acquaintances.

But it is not merely for the terror and strangeness and breath-holding qualities that I commend these Kersh fables to you. Each of them says something potent and immediate about the world in which we live.

Depending on how you want your mind bent, “Whatever Happened to Corporal Cuckoo?” once and for all demolishes the myth of military nobility . . . or solidifies it for all time.

“The Queen of Pig Island” says something new and terrible about the nature of love. “The Ape and the Mystery” indicates a rational size for the cap-A in Art. “A Lucky Day for the Boar” might well be printed as a small pamphlet and included in any orientation kit given to young executives starting in at advertising agencies. “Voices in the Dust of Annan” and “The Brighton Monster” comment with a kind of hideous clarity on war and where it leads us.

And I’ve included “Busto Is a Ghost, Too Mean to Give Us a Fright!” because of the sheer unexcelled brilliance of the descriptions therein. There are others, as well, that make salient points about what is happening to you today . . . but mostly they’re here because they are whopping good yarns.

Kersh still writes, and better than ever, I’d venture. But he isn’t a bright-eyed, bushy-quilled writer of twenty any longer. As Kersh is so painfully persistent in reminding us, we all die. But most men die, and no one knows they have passed this way. It can never be so with Kersh. He is leaving a legacy—expanding with each impact of a typewriter key—that has influenced, and is still influencing, generations of younger writers.

By the excellence of what he has done, Gerald Kersh infuriates and spurs other writers to try and beat him at his own game.

Perhaps one day, one of us will realize that it is impossible to beat a Demon Prince. The sonofabitch uses magic. No mortal can write this well.

Harlan Ellison

New York City

September
5
,
1967

Harlan Ellison
(b.
1934
) is a prolific American writer best known for his short stories and screenplays in the science fiction genre. In over fifty years of writing, he has created over seventy books, ten screenplays, numerous television scripts, and seventeen hundred short stories. The
Washington Post
called him “one of the greatest living American short story writers,” and the
Los Angeles Times
proclaimed him the “
20
th Century Lewis Carroll.” He has won the Hugo Award nine times, the Nebula Award four times, the Bram Stoker Award five times, including its lifetime achievement award, the Edgar Award twice, and the World Fantasy Award twice, among many other awards. He lives in California.

NIGHTSHADE AND DAMNATIONS

The Queen of
Pi
g Island

T
he
story of the Baroness von Wagner, that came to its sordid and bloody end after she, with certain others, had tried to make an earthly paradise on a desert island, was so fantastic that if it had not first been published as news, even the editors of the sensational crime-magazines would have thought twice before publishing it.

Yet the von Wagner Case is commonplace, considered in relation to the Case of the Skeletons on Porcosito, or “Pig Island,” as it is commonly called.

The bones in themselves are component parts of a nightmare. Their history, as it was found, written on mutilated paper in Lalouette’s waterproof grouch-bag, is such that no one has yet dared to print it, although it happens to be true.

In case you are unacquainted with the old slang of the road: a grouch-bag is a little pouch that used to hang about the necks of circus performers. It held their savings, and was tied with a gathered string, like the old-fashioned Dorothy-bag. This was necessary, because circus-encampments used to be hotbeds of petty larceny. So, on the high trapeze, the double-back-somersault man wore his grouch-bag. The lion-tamer in the cage of the big cats might forget his whip or lose his nerve—he would never forget or lose his grouch-bag, out of which could be filched the little moist roll of paper-money that was all he had to show for his constantly imperiled life.

Lalouette carried her grouch-bag long after the gulls had picked her clean. It contained
6
,
700
dollars and a wad of paper with a scribbled story, which I propose to make public here.

It is at once the most terrible and the most pathetic story I have ever had to tell.

At first the captain of the ship who landed on Porcosito, who subscribed to a popular science magazine, thought he had discovered the missing link—the creature that was neither man nor ape. The first skeleton he found had a sub-human appearance. The thorax was capacious enough to contain a small barrel; the arms were remarkably lon
g
, and the legs little and crooked. The bones of the hands, the feet, and the ja
w
, were prodigiously strong and thick. But then, not far away—it is only a little island—in a clump of bushes, he found another skeleton, of a man who, when he was alive, could not have been more than two feet tall.

There were other bones: bones of pigs, birds, and fishes; and also the scattered bones of another man who must have been no taller than the other little man. These bones were smashed to pieces and strewn over an area of several square yards. Wildly excited, happy as a schoolboy reading a mystery story, the captain (his name was Oxfor
d
) went deeper, into the more sheltered part of Porcosito, where a high hump or rock rises in the form of a hog’s back and shelters a little hollow place from the wind that blows off the sea. There he found the ruins of a crude hut.

The roof, which must have been made of grass, or light canes, had disappeared. The birds had come in and pecked clean the white bones of a woman. Most of her hair was still there, caught in a crack into which the wind had blown it or the draft had pulled it. It was long and fair hair. The leather grouch-bag, which had hung about her neck, was lying on the floor in the region of the lower vertebræ, which were scattered like thrown dice. This human skeleton had no arms and no legs. Captain Oxford had the four sets of bones packed into separate boxes, and wrote in his log a minute account of his exploration of the tiny island of Porcosito. He believed that he had discovered something unexplainable.

He was disappointed.

The underwriters of Lloyd’s in London had, with their usual punctiliousness, paid the many thousands of pounds for which the steamship
Anna Maria
had been insured, after she went down near Pig Island, as sailors called the place. The
Anna Maria
had gone down with all hands in a hurricane. The captain, officers, passengers, cargo, and crew had been written off as lost. Faragut’s Circus was on board, traveling to Mexico.

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