By Keith Phillips
Just last night, I was remarking to a friend online about her HP Lovecraft quote. It reads in full:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. ~Call of C’thulu
While this sentiment is not entirely unexpected from a master of dark psychological horror stories, I was “hitherto” unfamiliar with the quote. (Hitherto is a wonderful, old-fashioned word- Tolkien has Gandalf use it- meaning “up until now.” As an aside: I will note that Lovecraft was writing before WWII, hence the “harmed us little” was then accurate.)
I jokingly took exception to the first part with my friend, saying that as I got older, I found the ability to correlate increasingly useful. My mind has always worked in a “sparkly” serendipitous fashion, seeing correlations everywhere and zipping off to investigate them, usually to the detriment of my focus. But this strange ability gives me a particular facility with research and seems to be one I share with many writers, particularly writers of science fiction and fantasy. And it has showed me, time and again, that even the diverse notions can often have a common thread, which we ignore at our peril.
Shortly thereafter, I put away the computer, and settled down to a more relaxed and old-fashioned method humanity developed to share ideas- reading a book. Tonight’s read was The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge. Some of the stories in this collection date back to the early sixties, and the age of these stories provide the reader with an interesting perspective, given the many changes in the world since then. The collection, however, was published in 2001, and includes a new novella, Fast Times at Fairmont High (which I later found only mildly interesting- more on that in a forthcoming essay).
But I, with my sparkly brain, was drawn to a short story entitled “Gemstone,” first published in 1983. This amazing story turns out to be almost precisely what I needed to read! Correlations, “coincidences…” People throw that last term around incautiously, without understanding it has no meaning. Just a word to explain what has no explanation. Yet serendipity often blesses us with a meaningful correlation or “coincidence” that seems strangely tailored to our needs. Religious people assume the intervention of some helpful divine being. I don’t presume to know how it works, or why it happens… I’m just happy to use it! (And, unlike Lovecraft, thankful for it!)
My own novel in progress has a young teen as a protagonist, thrown into a strange home with an even stranger grandparent, and he must rise to a desperate challenge. Vinge’s “Gemstone” has almost the same premise! In 1957, Sanda, a girl of 13, is spending her summer with her wealthy, dotty old grandmother. The grandmother lives in a sprawling Queen Anne “gingerbread” house in Eureka, California, and shortly after she arrives, Sanda discovers her dream vacation isn’t to be as wonderful as she’d hoped.
For one, her grandma’s severity and rigid ideas (she’s a queen of OCD, this one) puts a damper on the pair’s relationship… but even worse, there’s an unseen presence haunting the upper floors of the house! It only seems to come out at night, leading Sanda to believe it may be a ghost, possibly the ghost of her deceased grandfather. Every evening, the girl is troubled by a dark foreboding of cold, endless cold, shadows and stillness- and terrible loneliness. Echoes of her grandfather Rex’s expedition to Antarctica seem to be “broadcast” nightly. Sanda is driven to sleep lightly on the balcony, as far from the presence as she can get without alerting her grandmother. She’s certain the old woman will dismiss her perceptions as the foolish fears of a child.
During those restless evenings on the balcony, she notices strangers in a white car watching the house on several occasions, always at night. The plot deepens! One night, a man surreptitiously prowls from the car to the house’s electric meter, then back to his Ford and drives away. Sanda’s fear grows, especially after she notices rocks and plastic flowers in her grandmother’s odd terrarium upstairs have moved about- overnight. Her dread is palpable, and lends the story its most credible note. This is how I want my own novel to progress- as if the reader were walking alongside the protagonist, feeling the same fears and worries as he. This story is my novel’s first part in embryo. Talk about correlation!
But as in any really good science fiction, what seems supernatural is not always so. The craft of writing this very modern form of fantasy is difficult, but highly rewarding, to both writer and reader, when done well, as Vinge manages in “Gemstone.” The best of SF plays with our expectations, and even in a short story of only 22 pages, Vinge is able to keep his readers delightedly guessing. What seems a fearful specter is neither a spirit nor a monster, but more of a friendly pet. While Grandma increasingly seems a mad harridan, once her secret is discovered, she is willing to risk everything for love. And as is often the case, the true villain is man himself, not the alien, nor the irrational, but the ignorant and the greedy.
Vinge has outdone himself here. “Gemstone” is a highly recommended short read. I will avoid the obvious clichés in describing it here. (“It sparkles!” “It’s quite a gem of a story!” Your groans are appreciated.) I will also keep the rest of the plot to myself, hoping to encourage someone to read Gemstone! In Vinge’s introduction, he refers to the story as the most unbalanced thing he’s ever written, but I quite disagree. Every element seems perfectly aligned.
The story’s serendipitous arrival into my life will continue to haunt me. At the very least, it confirms my rejection of “coincidence” as an easy excuse for dismissing those strangely apt correlations that sometimes manifest in our lives. Lovecraft may consider ignorance and inability to correlate a blessing, but I have a far more hopeful view of humanity. Let those who are so terrified of the truth of “our pieced-together knowledge” flee, I will stand in the light and rejoice at humanity’s newly correlated “vista of reality.”
Keith Phillips – An inveterate jack of all trades, Keith has been hoping to become a published writer for about 3 decades now. Some of his previous careers have included photographer, plumber, groundskeeper, forklift driver and bookstore manager. He has also “worked” for 10 years in the LARP field.