Authors: James P. Blaylock
THE KNIGHTS OF THE CORNERSTONE
James P. Blaylock
In the last years of the twentieth century (as Wells might have put it), Gollancz, Britain’s oldest and most distinguished science fiction imprint, created the SF and Fantasy Masterworks series. Dedicated to re-publishing the English language’s finest works of SF and Fantasy, most of which were languishing out of print at the time, they were – and remain – landmark lists, consummately fulfilling the original mission statement:
‘SF MASTERWORKS is a library of the greatest SF ever written, chosen with the help of today’s leading SF writers and editors. These books show that genuinely innovative SF is as exciting today as when it was first written.’
Now, as we move inexorably into the twenty-first century, we are delighted to be widening our remit even more. The realities of commercial publishing are such that vast troves of classic SF & Fantasy are almost certainly destined never again to see print. Until very recently, this meant that anyone interested in reading any of these books would have been confined to scouring second-hand bookshops. The advent of digital publishing has changed that paradigm for ever.
The technology now exists to enable us to make available, for the first time, the entire backlists of an incredibly wide range of classic and modern SF and fantasy authors. Our plan is, at its simplest, to use this technology to build on the success of the SF and Fantasy Masterworks series and to go even further.
Welcome to the new home of Science Fiction & Fantasy. Welcome to the most comprehensive electronic library of classic SFF titles ever assembled.
Welcome to the SF Gateway.
The only way to come to know where you are is to begin to make yourself at home.
, George MacDonald
Once he heard very faintly in some distant street a barrel-organ begin to play, and it seemed to him that his heroic words were moving to a tiny tune from under or beyond the world.
—The Man Who Was Thursday
, G. K. Chesterton
alvin Bryson read the letter a third time, but for some reason it insisted on saying the same thing it had said the other two times. It was from his uncle, Al Lymon, who lived out in the desert along the Colorado River. Calvin was invited to drop in for a stay—as long as he wanted, the longer the better. He had last seen his uncle and aunt at his father’s funeral three years ago, and since then Aunt Nettie hadn’t been doing well. The letter was cheerful enough, but it had a last-respects tone to it, and its arrival was a little ominous, since he had never gotten a letter from his uncle before, only birthday cards back in his childhood, and then from both of them.
His last trip out to visit his aunt and uncle had been several years back. He had vivid memories of the Lymon house on its shady bend upriver from Needles, where the little town of New Cyprus lay hemmed in by a U-shaped range of barren hills appropriately called the Dead Mountains.
Embayed as it was by high cliffs and the green verge of the Colorado, New Cyprus was a half-moon of land isolated from the world, accessible only by boat or by a winding two-lane road through miles of rock-strewn desert wilderness. The house, built of locally cut stone and imported cedar back in the 1920s, had view windows looking out onto the river, and its own little sandy beach on the bay, just wide enough for two or three lawn chairs. He could picture his aunt’s antiques and Oriental bric-a-brac, some of it ancient, including a Saracen dagger supposedly from the Third Crusade and said to have belonged to Richard Lionheart.
He looked out through the front window at the street. Two boys played in the sprinklers across the way, just as he had done when he was growing up in this very house. The Eagle Rock neighborhood had taken care of itself over the years, and the old bungalows and Spanish-style houses, most of them built in the early part of the last century, were painted and repaired, and few of them had been renovated into the kind of characterless houses found in nearby neighborhoods. A big, messy carob tree shaded his yard, and he was struck suddenly with the memory of climbing the tree when he was a kid, of the musty smell of the carob pods and the feel of the rough bark on his hands. But he had no desire to climb it now, only a nostalgic regret for times that had passed away—nostalgia called up by the letter in his hand.
But the last thing he wanted to do was to drive out into the desert, especially under these sad circumstances. He picked up his sketchbook and looked at the cartoon he had been drawing when the mail had come in through the slot. It was a picture of two gangly-looking lunatic doctors standing in a doorway, very apparently insane, with tousled
hair and with their clothes askew. People on the sidewalk were similarly crazy-looking, with crossed eyes and propeller beanies and their pant legs tucked randomly into their socks. One of the two doctors was pointing across the street at a solitary man who looked like Cary Grant, neatly dressed in a three-piece suit. “That’s the one,” the doctor was saying. A magazine editor with any sense would buy it. So far none of them had exhibited any sense.
Calvin had gotten thoroughly used to doing nothing during these past months of being alone, unless you counted the cartoons and the book collecting. Elaine, the woman he had been engaged to, had accused him of being aimless, but in fact he wasn’t aimless at all. Tonight, for example, he aimed to finish cataloguing his collection of pamphlets from Futura Press and maybe read a book, and then he aimed to go to bed early. Elaine and he had fallen apart at Christmas—maybe the worst Christmas of Calvin’s thirty-four years.
He had inherited enough when his father passed away so that as long as he didn’t spend his inheritance like a fool, he could live moderately well, and his only real duties nowadays were to himself, or to his collection of rare books and pamphlets, mostly what was known as “Californiana.” Over the years he had paid questionable sums for pamphlets printed on garage presses by cranks and crackpots, but there was an element of innocent wonder in the era that produced them that attracted him, and wonder was a commodity that had pretty much gone out of the world.
He didn’t like to think of the things that were going out of the world, but not thinking about them wouldn’t change the truth. You start coming up with excuses not to visit your old aunt and uncle, and then one morning you wake up in Hell, with your pajamas on fire….
He reread the part in the letter about Aunt Nettie. It was impossible to say for sure what her condition was, but he assumed her cancer was out of remission. Although the letter revealed little about her troubles, it implied a lot about Uncle Lymon’s. Calvin had found that living alone wasn’t easy sometimes, but there were other things that were more difficult. The Lymons had been married for over fifty years, and Calvin could only imagine what that meant—a lifetime of companionship drawing to a sad close.
He flipped through the Rolodex looking for his uncle’s telephone number. Uncle Lymon was a potentate of some sort in a lodge called the Knights of the Cornerstone, which went in for secret handshakes and strange hats. Calvin half feared that the subject of his becoming an initiate in the order would come up again when he visited, as it had last time. If it did, he would demand a suit of armor and a pyramid hat with an eyeball on it. If they could meet his price, he was in. He took out the Rolodex card and reached for the telephone, but before he had time to make the call, the doorbell rang.
He parted the blinds and looked out again. It was a UPS driver at the door.
Calvin thought, his spirits lifting, but when he opened the door and took the box from the driver it was far too light to be books. The man wasn’t wearing a uniform, just a blue work shirt, and the van at the curb was the right color of institutional brown but was unmarked. The driver apparently saw him looking at it. “I’m warehouse,” he said. “Your box got left behind by mistake, so they asked me to run it out here in one of the out-of-service trucks. It’s an element of customer service.”
“I appreciate that,” Calvin said, signing his name on a list on a clipboard instead of the usual electronic gadget. He took the box back into the house, watching through the
blinds as the van roared away in a cloud of exhaust. Not only was the box too light to be books, it in fact felt utterly empty. The return address was from Orange City, Iowa, from Warren Hosmer, his father’s ancient cousin—his
cousin, of some odd number and removal. This was puzzling, and if it called for him to drive out to Iowa, he would have to put his foot down.
He fetched a box cutter, and was on the verge of slicing into the multiple layers of tape when he noticed that in fact the box wasn’t addressed to him personally, but rather to Al Lymon, c/o Calvin Bryson. That beat all. It would have been identical postage for Cousin Hosmer to ship it straight to his uncle’s post office box in Bullhead City, Arizona. New Cyprus was unincorporated territory, and his aunt and uncle collected their mail across the river, taking the round-trip ferry ride a couple of times a week and shopping at the Safeway and the big Coronet dime store near the ferry dock while they were in town.
Then it occurred to him that UPS didn’t ship to post office boxes. But why use UPS at all? Why not just mail it? Calvin shook the box, which made a swishy sort of sound, as if there were tissue paper in it, or some other ethereal thing—a million-dollar bill, maybe, or a chorus line of angels dancing on the head of a pin. He was half tempted simply to cut it open and claim not to have looked at the address till it was too late. Except it would be a lie, and there was no use taking up that vice after having mostly avoided it for so many years. Sometimes it seemed to him that if he eliminated human contact entirely, he could rest easy in regard to that particular crime—unless he counted lying to himself, which was admissible because it had its own built-in justice: later on you were sorry for it, or so people said.
A curious thing struck him—the coincidence of the box arriving on the same day as his uncle’s letter—and he wondered if he were being invited into a plot perpetrated by the old-timer end of the family, which had always been a mysterious crowd, although there weren’t a lot of them left these days. He recalculated the likelihood of waking up in Hell as he went back to the Rolodex and found the number for Warren Hosmer, which he jabbed into the phone. Being lured into other people’s mysteries didn’t attract him. A couple of well-conceived phone calls would likely solve all problems, or at least shift them to some indeterminate date in the future. The phone rang ten times before anyone picked it up.
“Hosmer,” a man’s voice said.
“It’s Calvin Bryson,” Calvin said as heartily as he could.
“Cal! Good! Good! Good! You got the package?”
“I did,” Calvin said. “How did you know?”
“Why else would you call?”
“Right. Anyway, I signed for it, and it’s sitting on the dining room table. I guess I was wondering whether I shouldn’t just take it downtown to the post office and send it on out to Uncle Lymon’s RO. Box.”