Last update: 23 December 2016.
“Bulldozer” was first published in SCI FICTION, an online magazine edited by Ellen Datlow and published by Syfy (then SciFi) from 2000 to 2005. It appeared on 25 August 2004. SCI FICTION is no longer on-line, but the story can still be found in various web archives.
It was reprinted in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 18 (St. Martin’s Press, 2005), and Lovecraft’s Monsters (Tachyon Publications, 2014), both also edited by Datlow. It is available in audio format as part of the unabridged production of Lovecraft’s Monsters (Audible Studios, 2015).
Artist John Coulthart's illustration for the story, which appeared in Lovecraft's Monsters, can be found on his website here.
The story was collected in Laird's first collection of short stories, The Imago Sequence and Other Stories (Night Shade Books, 2007).
It has been translated into Czech (as ‘Postrach’, in Trochu divné kusy 2 [Laser Books, 2006]), Russian (as ‘Бульдозер’, in Лучшее за год 2007 [ABC, 2007]), and Italian (as ‘L’intimidatore’, in Hypnos No. 2 [Edizioni Hypnos, 2013]). To the best of my knowledge, “Postrach” means “terror”, “Бульдозер” is “bulldozer”, and “L’intimidatore” is
either “the intimidator” or “the intimidating”.
It was nominated for an International Horror Guild Award for work in 2004 in the Mid-Length Fiction category. It lost to Daniel Abraham’s “Flat Diane”.
There are a few reviews and articles about the story available on-line.
Tangent Online reviewed the story when it originally appeared.
Author John Langan wrote “”Bulldozer” by Laird Barron: An Appreciation” for the Ellen Datlow SCI FICTION project.
“EATEATEATEATEAT: An Interview With Laird Barron” by Stu Horvath is a discussion with the author which centers on this story in particular. It was written for Unwinnable magazine.
As you (re-)read "Bulldozer", watch for these Barronisms:
- Odour of rank decay
- Shadows behaving strangely
- Doomed protagonist
- Isolated setting
- Fatal fascination
- Mental fugue
- Distorted perception of time/space
- Time is a ring
- They who wait
- Immense alien intelligence
- Grotesquely enlarged body parts
- Unnatural abilities
- Physical corruption reflecting moral corruption
- Secret history of the world
- Fungus among us
- Absorption of experiences/memories
- Loss of control of bodily functions
- Anthropophagy (general)
- Anthropophagy (child eating)
- Red light
- The Devil
NOTES ON THE TEXT
Page numbers used throughout refer to the paperback version.
BULLDOZER (p. 77)
The vehicle we know as a bulldozer ("a tractor-driven machine usually having a broad horizontal blade for moving earth", Merriam-Webster) takes its name from the original meaning of the word, which is "one that bulldozes" (MW). More informatively, bulldozing consists of "coerc(ing) or restrain(ing) by threats", of forcing one's way in a situation, likely derived from bully ("a blustering, browbeating person") and bull, an animal with an imposing physique (to a human) and few options other than brute strength for getting its way.
The first known use of bulldozer was in 1876. The presidential election was bitterly fought that year, and there were attempts made at preventing black voters from reaching the polls by the use of intimidation. The Janesville Gazette (Wisconsin, November 1876):
“Bull-dozers” mounted on the best horses in the state scoured the country in squads by night, threatening colored men, and warning them that if they attempted to vote the republican ticket they would be killed.
The term entered the common vernacular by the early 1880s. To bulldoze was to intimidate or coerce using violence, and a bulldozer was one who did such a thing.
-Then He bites off my shooting hand. (p.77)
In English, with the exception of "I", personal pronouns are not capitalized. In Christian texts, personal pronouns referring to God or Jesus are capitalized, and this may be the effect that Laird is aiming for here. Consistency might dictate that "you" also be capitalized (not to mention the "Thou" in the fragment of the Lord's Prayer (see note)) in this section, but these are minor quibbles. This capitalization in reference to Hicks is only used in this section and and the last one, but not in the rest of the text.
I'm a Pinkerton man. (p.77)
The Pinkerton National Detective Agency was established in 1850 by Allan Pinkerton At its height it was the largest private police force in the world. It was frequently hired, in the period described in this story, by businessmen to infiltrate unions and break strike. See Discussion for information about Dashiell Hammett, a former Pinkerton detective who turned to writing, and whose stories influenced this one, albeit indirectly. [Wikipedia]
I've got a gun, a cold blue Colt... (p.77)
Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company was founded in 1836 by Samuel Colt. The finish on the colt pistols of the period had a distinct blue tinge, due either to the inclusion of ferrocyanide in the salts used in the process, or to the finer polishing discs used by the company. [Source] [Source]
...and a card with my name engraved beneath the unblinking eye. (p.77)
The logo of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency was an open eye above the caption ‘we never sleep’.
I'm a dead shot, a deadeye Dick. (p.77)
Deadeye Dick is the title of a Kurt Vonnegut novel (1982). Deadeye Dick was also the name of a character in many dime western novels written by William Wallace Cook. I've been unable to find the title or publication date for any of these. There was a black cowboy (Nat Love) nicknamed Deadwood Dick, which was also the name of a fictional character who appeared in a series of dime novels published between 1877 and 1897. There may be confusion between the two names. [Source] [Source] [Wikipedia]
I was on the mark in Baltimore when assassins went for Honest Abe. (p.77)
This is a reference to the Baltimore Plot, in which the Pinkertons prevented a plot, real or exaggerated, to assassinate president-elect Abraham Lincoln. It provided national publicity for the agency and made Pinkerton's reputation. There was no gunplay involved -- Lincoln was merely ushered through Baltimore rapidly in the dead of night in order to avoid the possibility of assassins. [Wikipedia]
Abe should've treated me to the theater. Might still be here. (p.77)
Lincoln was famously assassinated in 1865 by John Wilkes Booth while attending a performance of Our American Cousin at the Ford Theatre.
Might be in a rocker scribbling how the South was won. (p.77)
A reference to the American Civil War, fought between 1861 and 1865. Lincoln died in April. The war ended (by proclamation) in May.
That's right you sorry sonofabitch you chew on that you swallow like a python (p.77)
The pythonidae are among the largest snakes on the planet. They are ambush predators, found in Africa, Asia, and Oceania. Falling upon their prey, they use their gigantic teeth to immobilize them and their muscular body to constrict and ultimately suffocate them. The prey is then swallowed whole and digested over a number of days. It is worth noting that they do not in fact chew.
Belphegor ain't my FatherMother... (p.77)
See On Belphegor.
Founder and "discoverer" of Christian Science Mary Barker Eddy uses the term "Father-Mother God" in her book Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (1875) to encompass both the masculine and feminine nature of the deity. Ann Lee, the founder of Shakerism, a religious sect founded in the 18th century, also used the term, as did Order of the Cross founder John Todd Ferrier, in his 1916 book The Logia, or Sayings of The Master. Numerous other spiritual writers have reused the term, either to refer to the Christian godhead or to a vaguer universal generative principle.
"Father-Mother" as an epithet for the entity Belphegor parallels the use of "Mother" for the entity Croatoan in "Old Virginia". Additional parallels are explored in the Discussion section.
...Father thou art in Heaven... (p.77)
The line is adapted from the Lord`s Prayer, found in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4 (in slightly different forms), originally written . The archaic language identifies it as likely inspired by the King James Version [KJV], which reads "Our Father which art in Heaven" (Matthew 6:9 and Luke 11:2). "Thou" is the second person singular pronoun ("you" is the second person plural pronoun), but its use is now considered archaic, having been replaced by "you" in almost all instances. It appears 4,953 times in the KJV, but not in the Lord's Prayer. [source]
...Jesus loves me. (p.77)
"Jesus loves me" is a popular hymn written by Anna Bartlett Warner in 1860, and set to music by William Batchelder Bradbury in 1862.
If I make it to the window I'll smash the glass and do a stiff drop. (p.77)
In a stiff drop the knees are kept extended, while in a soft drop the knees are flexed. I feel like I've heard/read this in the context of stunt work or military exercises, but was unable to find a definite source for a use prior to the 20th century. [source]
I'm glad the girl hopped the last train. (p.77)
"Last Train" is a song by Arlo Guthrie, which start "I want to hop on the last train in the station". [source]
Hope she's in Frisco... (p.77)
Frisco is a reference to San Francisco, a Californian city located on the Pacific coast. Purdon, the setting of this story, is described in The Imago Sequence as being located "several hours northeast of San Francisco" (car travel in the early 2000s, it is implied). Sacramento, the capital city of California, is presumably closer, but perhaps less attractive as a destination even then.
She's whip smart she's got gams to run (p.78)
Gams is slang for women's legs, especially attractive ones. The term first saw use (with this meaning) in the late 18th century, but really came into its own in the hard-boiled detective stories of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and imitators. [source]
Who's laughing now you slack-jawed motherfucker (p.78)
If Belphegor is the "FatherMother", and communion with it has overt sexual connotations (as will be explored in subsequent notes), then the use of the term here may be extremely apt.
Let me just say kapow-kapow. (p.78)
The onomatopoeia kapow, associated with comic books (more precisely: associate with articles reporting on comic books) was used as a "sound effect" title card in the 1966 Batman television series. It's actual use in comic books is more difficult to track down. It's use in literature prior to the 1960s even more so. "Pow" can be traced back to a 1881 issue of Scribner's Magazine and "Ka-boom" to a 1876 doggerel poem about a typesetter. [source]
I rest my case, ladies and gennulmen of the jury. (p. 78)
The rote phrase "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury", familiar from its use in fictional depictions of American jury trials, is derived from the standard (or pattern) jury instructions used in many courts. Jury instructions are a relatively recent invention, the need for which was recognized as early Colonial times in the United States, where the bullying of juries by judges was sufficiently frequent to warrant intervention in the form of restraints on what the judge could say and how he could address the jurors. The earliest standard jury instructions appear to date from 1938 at the earliest, but these would be based on existing jury instruction practices. [source]
Ladies were not only allowed to serve on state juries in the United States prior to 1890. In 1870 Wyoming Territory allowed women jurors; they did not from 1871 to 1890; they did again from 1890 to 1892 after Wyoming became a state. Washington Territory allowed women jurors from 1883-1887. Utah allowed women jurors in 1898, but women were not regularly called upon before the 1930s. No other states allowed them until 1911 (Washington State), with Mississippi holding out until 1968.
As will become more and more apparent, Koenig's story is being told in a slightly a-historical vernacular, and there may be good story reasons for this, as we'll examine in more detail in the Discussion.
The engineer, a greasy brute in striped coveralls (p. 78)
Train engineers wore coveralls made of a thick type of seersucker (a cheap all-cotton fabric, frequently striped or chequered) known as “hickory stripe”. It was comfortable, inexpensive, and easily washed. The fabric is woven so that the threads bunch in certain places, creating a rippled appearance, which keeps it away from skin and helps to keep the wearer cool, which was helpful in the engine room of steam-powered locomotives. The thin coveralls were worn over “street” clothes. The fabric was also used to make the peaked caps that complete the outfit associated with train engineers of the Victorian era. [Source] [Source]
Then he spat a stream of chaw (p. 78)
Chaw is slang for chewing tobacco, typically made from shredded tobacco leaves, and sweetened or flavoured. Homes and public buildings were provided with spittoons during the late 19th century, the peak of the popularity of the product.
Never heard of my man Rueben Hicks (p. 78)
Rueben is a variant form of the Hebrew רְאוּבֵן. Reuben was the first son of biblical patriarch Jacob (son of Abraham). The name means “behold a son”. [Source]
The name, and the surname Hicks, are meant to evoke an ignorant man. From the book Wicked Words: A Treasury of Curses, Insults, Put-Downs, and Other Formerly Unprintable Terms from Anglo-Saxon Times to the Present:
rube A resident of a rural area, a rustic, especially a dim-witted one; from the personal name Reuben . The expression is an Americanism, dating to the [19th] century. "If I had time I'd go over to that church and make a lot of them Reubs look like thirty-cent pieces" (George Ade, Artie , 1896) The term was popularized by traveling circus and carnival workers, who extended it to include townspeople as well as farmers, typically in the cry Hey, Rube!, a call for help when one or more rubes , realizing that they had been cheated, threatened to get even with their fists. See also HICK.
How this characterization can be both accurate and false is one of the central mysteries of the story.
narrow gauge spur (p. 78)
A spur track is a short side track that connects to the main track of a railroad system. The term is also used to designate a secondary route like a branch line which ends without connecting to another through route. Narrow gauge railways are narrower than the standard gauge railways. The smaller size makes the lines less costly to build and maintain, especially in difficult terrain. Because of the lower cost, it was used on railways where the traffic potential was too low to justify the expense of a standard gauge line. [Source] [Source] [Source]
rolled up to the wretched outskirts of Purdon (p. 78)
As far as I could determine, there is no Purdon, California. There is a Purdon, Texas. It is a British surname with no clear etymology, and has no slang meaning that I could find. Laird reveals that he named it after "a local Seattle band called the Purdons". [Private communication]
From The Imago Sequence:
Purdon was a failed mill town several hours northeast of San Francisco
It is implied that this is car travel time in contemporary California. Sacramento, which is directly NE of San Francisco, is just under two hours away. Going further NE would put Purdon in or near the Sierra Nevada Range, which is where most of the California Gold Rush took place (see map and note below).
Dull lamplight warmed coke-rimed windows (p. 78)
Rime is an opaque coating of tiny ice particles. Coke is (in this context) the solid product resulting from the distillation of coal; it was used as a source of fuel for industrial processes, such as iron refinery. [Source] [Source]
Just another wild and wooly California mining town (p. 78)
The California Gold Rush (1848-1855) brough 300,000 people to California (which became a state in 1850) from the United States and other countries. It led to the rapid growth of San Francisco (from 500 inhabitants in 1847 to 150,000 in 1870), and the establishment of over 40 mining towns, many of which ultimately became ghost towns once the mining operations ceased.
The continent has existed as a separate entity since 80 million years before present, when it split from Eurasia due to plate tectonics. The age of the different components of the continent vary, with the oldest being the Laurentia craton, the rocks of which are up to 4 000 million years old. The earth formed roughly 4 560 million years before present. [Source]
an ancient continent freshly opened to white men. (p. 78)
The first European men to visit the area were Spanish. Cortez explored southern California in the 1530s. Sir Francis Drake in the 1570s. It was colonized by Spain in the 17th century, ruled by Mexico from 1821 to 1846, then by the United States from 1846 onward. [Source]
Sawbones (p. 78)
Sawbones is a slang term for surgeon or physician.
A whole bunch of barrelhouses. (p. 78)
A barrelhouse is a cheap and disreputable saloon. [Source]
Light of the Lord Baptist Temple (p. 78)
I found a “Light of the Lord Community Church” in Santa Clara, California, part of the Central Coast Baptist Association, but no others. The phrase "Light of the Lord" appears in the Jewish Scripture: O house of Jacob, come ye, and let us walk in the light of the lord. (Isaiah 2:5).
Baptists believe that the sacrament of baptism should only be performed for "professing believers" (as opposed to infant baptism). This is relevant insofar as the communion undergone by Hicks (and others) is analogous to this sacrament in many ways. [Source] [Source] [Source]
decided this was a raw deal. (p. 78)
The first known use of the expression dates to 1911. [Source]
I signed Jonah Koenig on the ledger (p. 79)
König is king in German; König and its variants Koenig or Kœnig are reasonably common surnames in Germany and in countries to which Germans have emigrated, including the United States. It's conceivable that this is a reference to American horror writer Stephen King (b.1947).
Jonah is a name of Hebrew origin. The word means "dove". It is the name of one of the "books" of the Hebrew scripture (the Christian Old Testament), in which the eponymous minor prophet has a quarrel with Yahweh, who causes him to be swallowed by a great fish. [Source]
at the Riverfront Hotel (p. 79)
I was unable to determine whether this hotel has a real-world referent.
oil paintings of Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant and the newly anointed Grover Cleveland (p. 79)
Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) was the seventh President of the United States (1829-1837).
Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) was eighteenth President of the United States (1869-1877).
Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) was twenty-second and twenty-fourth President of the United States, the only one to serve two non-consecutive terms (1885-1889 and 1893-1897). This information and other references in the story helps us situate the story in time, though not as precisely as I'd like. See Discussion for more on this matter.
since the affair in Schuylkill (p. 79)
See (upcoming) note on the Molly Maguires affair.
mention the brand on my left shoulder (p. 79)
Branding is the application of a heated metal design to flesh, used to mark property or criminals, and as part of the initiation into a religious or criminal organization. Repeat offenders who violated the vagrancy laws in the United Kingdom were branded with an R on the left shoulder, and while there were vagrancy laws until the 1930s in the United States, I could find no record of branding. It remains unclear what brand Koenig is sporting, and why.
the old needle tracks (p. 79)
As implied later in the story, Koenig is a recovering morphine addict.
the field of puckered scars uncoiling on my back (p. 79)
I'm not certain what this is meant to imply. It could be due to injury or disease. One can find suggestive references to "logger's smallpox", which are scars inflicted by spiked boots. They may also be due to regular smallpox, which is an infectious disease caused by the virus variola. The virus causes a profusion of small lesions all over the sufferer's body, which can leave scars.
a dear chum of mine as went by Rueben Hicks. Or Tom Mullen, or Ezra Slade (p. 79)
See previous note on Rueben Hicks. If the other names refer to any real-world people, I'm ignorant of that fact. There is an author Thomas Mullen from Rhode Island, but his novels were published after this story was written, and Laird makes no mention of him that I could find. There are many other significant "Toms" in Laird's stories, including "the shade of Tommy Tune" and Tom the security guard (Hallucigenia), Tommy (Mysterium Tremendum), Tom L (Thomas Ligotti, "More Dark"), Agent Tommmy Crane (The Croning), and Tom Mandibole (Xs For Eyes). There are two other "Ezra"s: Ezra Navarro (The Light is the Darkness) and Ezra Bannig ("Blood and Stardust"). Chalk it up to coincidence, but of those stories, Hallucigenia, Xs For Eyes, and The Light is the Darkness fall somewhere on the "Belphegor" continuum.
Sheriff Murtaugh was a stout Irishman of my generation (p. 79)
If there is a pattern to the names of the secondary characters in the story, it could be that they are borrowed from major characters in detective fiction. If so, Murtaugh could be referring to Barbara Paul's detective Lt. James Murtaugh (Kill Fee and other novels). There is otherwise no significance that I could find to the name.
I let Doc Campion have a peek (p. 79)
Perhaps a reference to Margery Allingham's Albert Campion, who appeared in 18 novels and 20 short stories.
Supposedly there was a camp full of Chinese nearby; Supposedly there was a camp full of Chinese nearby; the ones who'd stayed on and fallen into mining after the railroad pushed west. (p. 79)
The first great immigration wave of Chinese occurred in the California Gold Rush (1848-1855), followed by a second wave when the Central Pacific Railroad recruited a large number to complete the first transcontinental railroad, during the 1860s. Both these events happened in the general area where the story takes place. [Source]
At the end of the room was the lockup, dingy as a Roman catacomb and vacant but for a deputy named Levi sleeping off a bender in an open cell. (p. 79)
Laird's language is always carefully chosen. It is no accident, I believe, that we're introduced here to the idea of a cell in catacomb, or that Butler later describes Belphegor's cave as "a cell in a black honeycomb". There is surely a precise literary term for this sort of thing, but I'm sadly ignorant of what it could be.
I showed Murtaugh a creased photograph of Hicks taken during a P. T. Barnum extravaganza in Philadelphia. (p. 80)
P.T. Barnum (1810-1891) was a businessman and showman, founder of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. He entered the circus business in 1870, establishing P.T. Barnum’s Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome, which had several name changes and merged in 1881 with James Bailey and James L. Hutchinson’s show to form the “Greatest Show on Earth”. His death in 1891 throws something of a kink in the timeline of this story. More about this in the discussion section.
Thanks to the Circus Historical Society, we can find out exactly when Barnum’s various circuses were in Philadelphia between 1870 and 1890.
22-27 April 1872
29 September – 04 October 1873
12-22 April 1875
31 Oct – 3 Nov 1877
22-27 April 1878
29 Sep – 11 Oct 1879
25-30 April 1881
24-29 April 1882
30 Apr – 5 May 1883
21 Apr – 3 May 1884
27 Apr – 2 May 1885
Statistically speaking, that photo was likely taken in April.
Hicks was lifting a grand piano on his back while ladies in tights applauded before a pyramid of elephants. (p. 80)
There is a well-known pyramid of elephants in the Disney movie Dumbo (1941). The actual name of the elephant in that film is Jumbo Jr., named after a real elephant, Jumbo, exhibited by Barnum from 1882 until its death in 1885. It was struck by a locomotive in St. Thomas, Ontario, while on tour.
Unlike the performance depicted in the film, in which elephants physically climb on top of each other to form a stack of elephants -- a “pyramid” in name only – real elephants cannot support the weight of another adult elephant. The routine consists merely of elephants standing on their hind legs and resting their front legs on the backs of other elephants. [Source]
I'd combed every two-bit backwater within six hundred miles (p. 80)
Not literally true, as Purdon is presumably less than 600 miles from San Francisco, and it certainly qualifies.
at the Gold Digger Saloon (p. 80)
I could find no trace of a real “Gold Digger Saloon” in San Francisco, in any period. There is a Gold Digger Saloon in Angels Camp, located east of San Francisco in Calaveras County, but this appears to be a recent name change for the venue. [Source]
There was a trace of hash mixed with the tobacco. (p. 80)
Hashish is a resinous extract of cannabis which contains the same active ingredients as marijuana, in higher concentrations. Pharmaceutical and recreational use of the product was almost entirely unrestricted until the passing of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act.
Year and half back, some murders along the East Coast (p. 80)
I believe this would be circa April 1894. Or 1890 (see discussion). In either case, I was unable to determine if this is a reference to real-world events.
Cedar Grove may not be pleasant (p. 80)
This may be a reference to Overbrook Hospital, and later Overbrook Asylum, in Cedar Grove NJ. It opened its doors in 1896, and was converted to a mental institution in the 1920s. It closed in 2007 and is reputedly haunted.
We recovered everything except the original translation of the Dictionnaire Infernal by a dead Frenchman, Collin de Plancy. (p. 80)
Jacques Albin Simon Collin de Plancy (1793-1881) was a French occultist whose best known work is the Dictionnaire Infernal (1818) referenced in the story. It is a treatise of demonology in which de Plancy describes and organizes the various demons who reside in Hell, and other related topics. The skepticism of his first edition was replaced by a growing credulity in later editions. The illustrated one from 1863 which is the most widely known. Plancy is mentioned briefly in The Croning.
y'might want to check with the Honeybee Ranch (p. 80)
The Honeybee Ranch is called Bumblebee Ranch later on in the story.
And Trosper over to the Longrifle (p. 80)
I was unable to determine the origin or signification of these names, if any.
Hicks was born in Plymouth (p. 80)
Presumably Plymouth, Massachusetts.
P. T. squires him to every city in the Union. (p. 81)
The implication appears to be that Barnum’s circus was the first one he joined. That would put his running away to join it at 1870 at the earliest. Hicks senior dies in 1867, however, and Hicks appears to run away from him.
might be consumption or syph (p. 81)
Consumption is caused by the mycobacterium tuberculosis. Before the advent of antibiotics, the disease killed 50% of active infections. Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum.
America's Jack the Ripper. (p. 81)
Jack the Ripper was a serial killer who murdered 5 or more women in London in 1888. The implication may be that Hicks’ victims were also women.
"You're the fellow who did for the Molly Maguires." (p. 81)
The Molly Maguires were an Irish secret society active in Ireland and the United States. They actively worked to unionize Irish-American coal miners in Pennsylvania, and came into violent conflict with both management and law enforcement forces. The Pinkerton agency was hired by mine representatives to break the strike. Many people on both sides of the conflict were beaten and murdered, property was destroyed, and the strike organized by the miners eventually broken. The Molly Maguires were accused of organizing most of it, and men associated with them were sentenced and executed. [Source]
Sixteen years and the legend kept growing (p. 81)
Everybody in Schuylkill (p. 81)
durin' a faro game (p. 81)
Faro (or Pharaoh) is a 17th–century French card game. It spread to the United States in the 19th century and was the most popular form of gambling, due in part to its ease of play, communal betting, and low house edge. [Source]
He smelled right foul (p. 81)
Corruption in Barron’s stories is frequently a physical as well as mental process. It is synonymous with decay, rot, and decomposition. Decomposition is a process by which organic matter is ultimately broken down into simpler substances. Bacteria are the main agents of this process. They derive nutrition from this matter, and produce gas as a byproduct. Rotting food, cadavers, morning breath, and excrement are foul-smelling because of bacterial action, or corruption.
He had fits—somethin' to do with his nerves, accordin' to Doc Campion (p. 81)
A fit or seizure is caused by abnormal neuronal activity, which may in turn be caused by a great number of conditions, including lack of sleep, nutritional deficiency, fever, hypoglycemia, head injuries, and genetic abnormalities. Koenig himself will be subject to a similar seizure. [Source]
I allow most of 'em would plug you for a sawbuck (p. 81)
A sawbuck is a device made for holding a log to be sawn, consisting of two pieces of wood in an “X” shape. It became slang for a US $10 bill due to the similarity between the Roman numeral X (10), which appeared on older bills, and the device. [Source]
"Billy Cullins might be fittin' him for a pine box, I suppose." (p. 82)
The undertaker’s name may be a pun, since a “culling” is the reduction of a population by a selective slaughter.
In the unmade bed, a phallus sculpted from human excrement. (p.82)
See On Belphegor for more on the reputed relation between the historical divinity and excrement.
In Lubbock, a partially burned letter (p.82)
"O FatherMother, may the blood of the- (indecipherable)-erate urchin be pleasing in thy throat. I am of the tradition." (p.82)
The content of these letters appears to be liturgical, meant to be read aloud during “worship”. I’m very curious about the adjective modifying “urchin”. Illiterate? Confederate? Degenerate? As for the rest of the letter, I was unable to find their real-world source, if any such exists.
Come Albuquerque, the deterioration had accelerated. (p. 82)
Albuquerque, New Mexico.
among vermiculate designs scriven in blood—"worms, godawful! i am changed! (p.82)
Designs curved in shapes reminiscent of worms (from the Latin vermis). Please see On Worms (editor's note: forthcoming) for more about worms, real and figurative, in Barron's fiction.
Finally, Bakersfield in script writ large upon a flophouse wall— (p. 82)
First words out of his egg-sucker's mouth, (p.82)
McGraw-Hill's Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions defines “egg-sucker” as “a flatterer, a sycophant”.
The banty roosters always got me. (p.83)
Banty is a form of “bantam”, which are miniature domesticated fowl. Figuratively, it applies to a small but aggressive person. [Collins English Dictionary] [American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language]
Give the Chinaman a music lesson or shove off, pig. (p. 83)
A British euphemism for urinating (tinkling) in a toilet bowl (made of China porcelain). Trosper seems to intend it to mean “have a drink”, unless I'm mistaken. [Source]
A regulator, a bullyboy. (p. 83)
i.e. A bulldozer, or “one who intimidates by violence”. [www.dictionary.com]
"He told you to drink or get on shank's mare." (p. 83)
To use one’s own feet for walking. The expression is Scottish in origin, and makes reference to the part of the leg between knee and ankle (the shank) and a mode of transportation (the mare, nag, or mule depending on the form of the expression being used). [Source]
Played cards with some of the boys from the Bar-H. (p. 84)
Cattle ranches are frequently referred to by the symbols used on their livestock brand. “Bar H” describes a brand with a short horizontal bar either above, through, or in front of the letter H. A bar after or below would be “H Bar”. [Source]
"Uh, huh. A particular girl?" (p. 84
If any genre of fiction can be diagnosed from two syllables, the hard-boiled detective story is a prime candidate.
Compare Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep (11 occurrences in all):
«He liked Rusty. I suppose you know who Rusty is?»
Dashiell Hammett (Glass Key):
"You remember the night the Henry kid was pooped?"
Ned Beaumont's "Uh-huh" was carelessly uttered.
Ross Macdonald (The Galton Case):
Sable said in a neutral tone, without looking at me: “I won’t apologize for my wife. You know how women are.”
“Uh-huh”. I didn’t really want his confidences.
Robert B. Parker (The Godwulf Manuscript):
“My husband had to go into the office for a bit; he should be back soon.”
I said, “Uh huh.”
I ain't his keeper. (p. 84)
Genesis 4:9 “And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?” (King James Version)
He's got the Saint Vitus dance. (p. 84)
Saint Vitus (c. 290- c. 303) was Christian martyr whose feast day was celebrated with dancing. Outbreaks of “dancing manias” in the middle ages were thought to be curses sent by a saint, and were therefore called Saint Vitus’ Dance, or Saint John’s Dance. By extension, the name St. Vitus’ Dance was also given to a neurological disorder, now known as Sydenham’s Chorea, which is characterized by jerking, uncoordinated movements of the feet, head, and hands. Additional symptoms can include behaviour change, facial grimacing, and slowed cognition. It results from a childhood infection with Streptococcus leading to the destruction of cells in parts of the brain. [Wikipedia]
See discussion for more about Hicks’ symptoms and their causes.
Saw him fall down once; twitched and scratched at his face somethin' awful (p.84)
Seizures may be caused by a wide-variety of conditions, including epilepsy, infections, tumours, brain trauma, strokes and alcohol consumption.
when I flopped on a plush divan in the parlor of the Honeybee Ranch (p.84)
Belphegor’s cave is described later as “a cell in a black honeycomb” and Koenig describes his morphine trip as “reality melt[ing] into a slag of velvet and honey.” Honeybees produce honey from the nectar of flowers. They have been doing so for 34 million years. Our species is approximately 200,000 years old, which is 0.5% of that time.
The Madame, a frigate in purple who styled herself as Octavia Plantagenet, (p.84)
Octavia may be a reference to science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006), a supposition which is supported by the fact that Langston Butler is another important character in this story. Her short story “Bloodchild” won Nebula, Hugo, and Locus Awards. Wikipedia describes it as a story set on an alien planet which “depicts the complex relationship between human refugees and the insect-like aliens who keep them in a preserve to protect them, but also to use them as hosts for breeding their young.” Her Xenogenesis trilogy pursues these themes further, and consist of the novels Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago. I have not yet read any of these works, but the descriptions and titles are suggestive to the alert reader.
Plantagenet was the house of some English Monarchs, the name originating in France. Whatsignificance there could be to the name, or whom it could be referencing, is lost on me.
quirking suggestively as she worked the barrel between her fat red lips. (p.84)
To quirk is to move or twist one’s eyebrows and/or mouth to express surprise or amusement. [The Free Dictionary]
The Honeybee swam in the exhaust of chortling hookahs (p.84)
A hookah is a middle-eastern apparatus for vaporizing and smoking flavoured tobacco or cannabis.
and joints of Kentucky bluegrass (p.84)
Kentucky bluegrass (poa pratensis) is a species of common meadow-grass, but this is presumably not what is meant here by the term. It could be a reference to tobacco, which Kentucky produces, or to some other substance. The movie Caddyshack (1980) references joints made from a blend of grasses which include Kentucky bluegrass, but I believe this is a joke:
Carl: I invented my own kind of grass, too. Did you know that? Look at this. This is registered: Carl Spackler's Bent.
Ty: I've felt grass like this before. I've played on this stuff.
Carl: This is a hybrid. This is a cross bluegrass, Kentucky bluegrass, featherbed bent, and northern California sinsemilla. The amazing stuff about this is that you can play 36 holes on it in the afternoon take it home and just get stoned to the bejeezus-belt at night on this stuff. I've got pounds of this stuff. [hands his joint] Here, take a puff on this big ole' Bob Marley joint.
Ty: Oh, I couldn't possibly, well maybe one.
[Starts coughing uncontrollably]
A swarthy fellow plucked his sitar in accompany to the pianist (p.84)
The sitar is a stringed instrument from the Indian subcontinent, where swarthiness is widespread.
Not too rough on the merchandise, if he did have breath to gag a maggot. (p.85)
In halitosis the bad odor is most frequently caused by excess bacteria lurking in the mouth. One possible cause in Hicks’ case may be tonsilloliths, or tonsil stones, which are clusters of calcified material (see note on calcium deposits below) that form in the crevices of the tonsils, and on which food particles may collect. His dietary habits, and the "infection" he is saddled with, are no doubt also to blame.
Lord, he hasn't been by in a coon's age. (p.85)
While it is considered offensive due to its association with the racial epithet “coon” which has rightfully fallen out of favour, “a coon’s age” refers to raccoons, to which folk-beliefs attributed long lives. Raccoons have a life expectancy in the wild of approximately 3 years. Those who live in captivity have been known to live up to 20 years. [Source]
I said I'd wait and accepted four-fingers of cognac in King George's own snifter. (p.85)
Hennessy sells a Privilege blend cognac which was reputedly originally created for King George IV (of the United Kingdom), who reigned from 1820-1830. Queen Victoria was on the throne during the period in which the story is set (1837-1901). King George V (reigned 1910-1936) and King George VI (reigned 1936-1952) were alive, but were not yet monarchs, so the reference must be to George IV, an earlier monarch, or to something else entirely. I assume the expression refers to the size of the snifter, but could find nothing definitive to support this assumption, and the Hennessy connection may be a coincidence.
Tinkling notes from Brahms reverberated in my brain (p.85)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was a highly-regarded German composer, often grouped with Bach and Beethoven as the Three Bs.
how I infiltrated the Workers Benevolent Association (p.85)
This should be the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association of Schuylkill County, a labor organization consisting principally of coal mine workers. The Worker’s Benevolent Association was a pro-Communist fraternal society established in Winnipeg in 1922. [Source] [Source]
The fact I'd recently ventilated a drover at the Longrifle (p.85)
A drover is a person who moves livestock over long distances.
Deduction was for the highbrows in top hats and great coats; (p.85)
Given the period, this is no doubt an allusion to Sherlock Holmes who wore what all Victorian gentlemen in London wore: top hat and great coat. The association with the deer-stalker hat with which he is stereotypically depicted is an unfortunate result of the 1939 Basil Rathbone movies.
I performed my detecting with a boot and a six-gun. (p.85)
As a thesis statement, this sentence perfectly illustrates the difference between the "English" school of detective stories and the "American" one which developed in the 1920s. Raymond Chandler's excellent essay "The Simple Art of Murder" (which can and should be read here) expounds on this idea. An oft-quoted passage is particularly relevant to this story:
Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes.
Hammett was very influential on this story, if only by influencing all the crime writers who in turn influenced Laird, a topic to which we will return in the Discussion section.
mother if that's what it took to hunt you to ground and collect my iron men. (p.85)
Slang for US dollar which seems to date from 1908, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang. Hammett uses it in Red Harvest (1929), as Ian Tregillis notes in his Hardboiled Slang dictionary.
It's also a pun, since Koenig is on the hunt for "Iron Man" Hicks.
Not much of a stretch as I never was impressed with that brand of idolatry. (p.85)
Idolatry is the worship of idols, which are physical representations of gods. The statement is ironic since those who worshipped Ba'al-Pe'or were among the first idolaters explicitly mentioned in Jewish scripture (see On Belphegor), and Koenig is mere days away from encountering Ba'al-Pe'or Him/Her/It-self.
Taylor Hackett, bespectacled owner of the Bar-H cattle ranch (p.85)
The referent(s) for this name elude(s) me.
Norton Smythe, his stuffed-suit counterpart in the realm of gold mining; (p.85)
Norton Sound “between Koyuk and Elim” (in Alaska) makes an appearance in the later stories "Black Dog" and "Frontier Death Song". If Norton Smythe refers to anyone or anything else, I am ignorant of that fact.
Ned Cates, Bob Tunny and Harry Edwards, esteemed investors of the Smythe & Ruth Mining Company, (p.85)
Maddeningly,the referents for these elude me as well.
An Eastern Triad (p.85)
Is this a reference to Chinese transnational organized crime (Triad), or to the biblical Magi? The latter were a group of Wise Men or Kings who came from the east to visit the newborn Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel of Matthew, the only one to mention them, does not specify, but tradition has set their number at three, making them an “Eastern Triad”. Given the next line, I favour the latter interpretation.
I asked them if they ate of The Master's sacrifice, but nobody appeared to understand (p.85)
I`m not sure that I understand either. It sounds vaguely masonic, but I could find nothing definitive in that direction. Koenig may be referring to the death by crucifixion of Jesus Christ, which has been written about in those (capitalized) terms. The Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation of wine and host into blood and body of Christ would then explain the reference to eating, and makes an interesting thematic counterpoint to the cannibalism and transformation of blood and flesh into pleasures for the consumption of an alien deity, but I`m not certain that this interpretation is correct. Finally, it could simply be a reference to the Hicks’s partially destroyed letters, "O FatherMother, may the blood of the- (indecipherable)-erate urchin be pleasing in thy throat. I am of the tradition." There is no explicit mention of a Master or sacrifice therein, but the existence of both can at least be inferred.
Philmore Kavanaugh, journalist for some small town rag (p.85)
I was unable to determine if this refers to a particular person.
Dalton Beaumont, chief deputy (p.85)
I was unable to determine if this refers to a particular person. The name Dalton recurs in Hallucigenia.
John Brown, a wrinkled alderman (p.85)
There is a mention of the song "John Brown's Body" in "The Men From Porlock". This refers to abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859) who was hanged after attempting to start a liberation movement among enslaved African Americans. I was otherwise unable to determine if this refers to a particular person.
Michael Piers, the formerly acclaimed French poet, (p.85)
I was unable to determine if this refers to a particular person. Russell "Mad Dog" Piers is the antagonist in "Proboscis", the next story in the collection.
judging from the violence of his cough and the bloody spackle on his embroidered handkerchief. (p.85)
These are symptoms of tuberculosis, a deadly bacterial infection whose cure had to wait until the discovery of antibiotics in the 1940s.
More the noise of an aroused hive. (p.86)
More bee imagery. Bees are eusocial insects, which collect nectar and pollen and return them to hive where they are processed into honey and other substances essential to the function of the colony. The parallels to Belphegor, which lives in a "black honeycomb", and its agents, who collect experiences and return to the entity to "disgorge the red delights of his gruesome and sensuous escapades", are probably not entirely coincidental.
"First Holmes, now Stevenson. (p.86)
This appears to refer to the deaths of the fictional Sherlock Holmes and author Robert Louis Stevenson.
Sherlock Holmes was killed by his author (Arthur Conan Doyle) in the story “The Final Problem”, published in December 1893 in the Strand Magazine.
Stevenson died on 3 December 1894, likely from cerebral haemorrhage. He had retired to the island of Samoa in 1890. Stevenson is best known for his novels Treasure Island (1883) and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hide (1886). He wrote a dozen novels and published five collections of short stories, some posthumously.
The story would therefore be set some time after December 1894. See Discussion for more about a possible timeline for the story.
the Ancient Order of Hibernia gets you your goddamned Molly Maguires (p.86)
The Ancient Order of Hibernians is an Irish-Catholic fraternal organization, founded in 1836 in New York City, which was implicated in the Molly Maguires affair. Many members of the latter were also members of the former.
doped out of their faculties on coolie mud. (p.86)
A slang term for inferior grades of opium, good only for “coolies”, which was a derogatory term used for Chinese labourers imported to work on the railroads. The expression dates from the 1920s.
Worse than the red plague (p.86)
I was unable to determine what this refers to with any specificity.
The railroad gobbles up its share and I get the pieces with promising glint. California is weighed and measured, my friend. (p.86)
Presumably a reference to mining rights and the emerging railroads in the state in that period. If this references something more specific, I could not find it.
He's bangin' the gong at the Forty-Mile Camp (p.86)
Slang for opium use.
the Professor's on the hip? (p.86)
Slang for opium use, from the position of opium users who frequently smoked while lying on their side.
I thought he sailed across the pond— (p.86)
Slang for crossing the Atlantic Ocean by boat.
As quoth The Bard:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety; (p.86)
From Anthony and Cleopatra, Act II, Scene II:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety; other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her, that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.
Chi-Town is where the action is. Isn't Little Egypt a pistol? Hoochie-koochie baby! (p.87)
Little Egypt was a name used by several belly-dancers, including Fahreda Mazar Syropoulos, who performed at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The hoochie coochie is a catch-all term used to describe sexually provocative belly dances, popularized in the wake of the 1893 fair. Chi-Town is a nickname for Chicago.
Red lights. White faces. Shadows spreading cracks. (p.87)
Three common Barronisms, succinctly evoked.
A bawdy ragtime tune. (p.87)
A musical genre popular from 1895 to 1918 which consisted of piano compositions with syncopated rhythms. Instantly familiar to most people are the songs of composer Scott Joplin, who came to public attention with the Maple Leaf Rag in 1899. Have a listen here.
Chemosh. Baal-Peeor. Belphegor. No big deal, the Moabites are dust. (p.87)
Chemosh was the national deity of the Moabites. Baal-Peor was a deity (ba’al) worshipped on Mt. Peor, as described in Numbers 25. Belphegor is a Latinization of the latter. Moab was a kingdom in present day Jordan which vanished circa the 7th century BCE. We know of all these mainly from Hebrew Scripture. For much more on the topic, please see On Belphegor.
"We're a fair piece from Moab."
"Belphegor speaks many tongues in many lands."
"A world traveler, eh?"
"That's right, Pinky." (p.87)
I’d give my first-born to know whether we’re dealing with the migration of one entity from the Old World to the New, or the local growths of a literally globe-spanning network of connected roots. Circumstantial evidence favours the second interpretation, I think. While we're speculating, I suspect that Belphegor does not speak a given language so much as communicate directly with the neural structure of the mammal in its thrall.
"This friend of yours, he speaks to you through the shitter?"
"Interesting. Seems a tad inelegant." (p.87)
I am nothing if not curious about what this process entails.
"Corruption begets corruption, Pinky," (p.87)
See previous note on corruption.
Gila monster's eyes. (p.87)
The Gila monster is a venomous lizard native to the southwestern United States. Gila monsters are referenced in The Light is the Darkness (“He sat and smoked, impassive as a Gila monster”) and “LD50” (“Flicked me a Gila monster glance as he limped into the yard.”), always in the context of an unreadable, inhuman stare. Sharks’ eyes are used for a similar effect in The Croning. One wonders whether it is the beady eyes themselves or the lack of recognizable facial expressions which indicts these predatory creatures.
Calcium deposits mar his fingers, distend from his elbows not unlike spurs. (p.87)
This appears to be a form of tumoral calcinosis. Calcium deposits form in the soft tissue surrounding articulations, primarily fingers and shoulders, hips, and elbows. They can pierce the overlying skin, as with Hicks. Horrifying images await the curious on the internet. See previous note on tonsilloliths.
There is a suspicious lump under his limp hair, near the brow. (p.87)
Compare with The Imago Sequence: “The dent in Fulcher's brow drew my gaze. I sighed again, saddened by wisdom acquired too late in the day.” Fulcher’s brow is concave, whereas it seems convex in Hicks. Both have experienced communion with the entity Belphegor, but the marks on their brows may be coincidental.
"What's more lunatic than fallin' down before the image of a man tacked to a cross" (p.88)
Hicks echoes here Koenig’s statement that he is "unimpressed by that particular brand of idolatry".
Yet it yawns, slightly yawns, as if my captive strongman was victim of a palsy, or the reverse of lockjaw. (p.88)
Palsy refers to various forms of paralysis. The loss of muscle tone in the face can lead to a perpetually slack-jawed expression. Lockjaw (trismus) is a condition in which spasms in the muscles of mastication lead to an inability to open the mouth.
Holes close. Holes open. I'm an Opener. (p.87)
Roger Zelazny's 1993 novel A Night In Lonesome October features Openers and Closers working at cross-purposes to complete a magical ritual on October 31st. Sherlock Holmes is one of the thinly disguised characters in the story, which is told from the point of view of the animal familiars of recognizable though unnamed characters from Victorian Era gothic fiction (Dracula, Jack the Ripper, Victor Frankenstein, etc) and horror stories (Wolfman, Witch, etc.). The story is set in roughly the same time period as Bulldozer.
They Who Wait live through me. (p.87)
This capitalized phrase recurs in a vision in The Light is the Darkness:
“The hunter who most resembled Conrad was sideswiped and folded double under curved strokes of black-splattered ivory; head askew, he grinned at Conrad and said, “They Who Wait have always been among us, brother!”
It seems likely that these are the same entities also referred to in “Old Virginia”:
“Don't you think the time is coming?"
"When mankind will manage to blacken the sky with bombs and cool the earth so that Mother and Her brothers, Her sisters and children may emerge once more!
From the context, we can also guess that they are also They Who Dwell in the Cracks, mentioned in Hallucigenia.
One wonders how the capitalization was conveyed to Koenig in Hicks' speech.
"I'm an atheist." That was a half-truth, but close enough for government work. (p.88)
An atheist is one who believes in no gods. What higher power does Koenig believe in, if any? Perhaps he means that he is agnostic, and believes that the question of the existence of divine beings is not one that can be answered conclusively at the moment.
“Close enough for government work” is an expression which appears to date to WWII.
"...And here's Tuttle." He indicates a prim lawyer in a crisp suit. (p.88)
Tuttle is perhaps a reference to writer Lisa Tuttle (1952-present). See notes on Procession of the Black Sloth.
I fell into the amber and drowned. (p.88)
Amber is tree resin which has fossilized over millions of years to a semi-translucent and rock-hard material. It is notable for the occasional inclusion of fossil specimens with an unparalleled degree of preservation – capturing things, like soft tissues and animal behaviours, which would otherwise be lost in other modes of fossilization. As such, it is a form of lagerstätte, and therefore a Barronism worthy of in-depth analysis in a future article. For the moment, let us note that descriptions of Belphegor (and analogues), filtered as they are by fallible human senses, return frequently to the image of a gigantic mass of amber/crystal/ice/honey/jelly which holds creatures/things/thoughts in suspension.
We’ll have occasion to return to this image when we look at The Imago Sequence.
Jake shits himself, screams soundlessly as my boot descends, hammer of the gods. (p.88)
Band names and lyrics occasionally creep into Laird’s stories. The phrase “hammer of the gods” (a reference to Thor’s hammer from Norse mythology), was popularized by Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”, to the extent that it is very difficult to discover whether it was ever used prior to 1970. It came to be used to describe the band’s sound generally, and as the title of the 1985 biography of the band. Led Zeppelin is mentioned by name in Tomahawk Park Survivor's Rally and "In a Cavern In a Canyon". The story "Black Dog" shares a title with a song by the band.
Lincoln waves to the people in the balconies. His eyes pass directly over me. I'm twenty-two, I'm hell on wheels. In three minutes I'll make my first kill. (p.88)
This appears to be a reference to the Baltimore Plot, as noted previously, but no would-be assassins were killed in the real-world event. In any event, this would make Koenig 22 in February 1861, and therefore puts his date of birth somewhere in 1848-1849. If the story takes place in October 1895 (see Discussion), then Koenig is 56.
Late bloomer. (p.88)
In a subset of Barron's stories, "blooming" is used as a metaphor for a metamorphosis from human to supra-human. The process is usually initiated by exposure to a "trigger" and accompanied by a consistent triad of symptoms: fevers, migraines, and nightmares. See The Imago Sequence, and The Light is the Darkness, for more explicit examples.
I once was lost. Now I'm found. (p.88)
Words drawn from the Christian hymn Amazing Grace:
I once was lost, but now am found
The Soldier's Friend, Sister M, had a hold on me, yes sir, yesiree. (p.88)
The Soldier's Friend was slang for a brand of metal polish used by soldiers, but in this context I suppose it and Sister M both refer to morphine.
Never had a wife, never needed one. I took up the traveling life, got married to my gun. (p.88)
If Koenig’s improvised doggerel is drawn from another source, I was unable to find it.
A glossy pink labium quakes and begins to yield, an orchid brimming with ancient stars. (p.88)
Bees pollinate flowers, which bear a passing resemblance to female genitalia, and the metaphor gains a strange resonance when considered in the context of this story.
Sun eats stars. Moon eats sun. Black hole eats Earth. (p.89)
Black holes are regions of space where gravity is so strong that nothing can escape it. This includes electromagnetic radiation, i.e. light, which accounts for its name. The possibility of “dark stars” was formulated in the 18th century, but it was not until Einstein formulated his theory of general relativity in 1915 that the possibility of their existence began to be taken seriously. The term “black hole” (in reference to these regions) was first used in print in 1964. It may be Koenig is talking here merely about a hole which happens to be black, but the context suggests otherwise.
When the sackcloth of ashes floats to oblivion and I can see again (p.89)
“Sackcloth and ashes” refers to the ancient practice of wearing clothes made of rough cloth and dusting oneself with ashes to publicly mourn or atone for misdeeds. From Matthew 11:21 (King James Version):
Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.
The precise meaning here escapes me. Is Koenig referring to regret, drink-induced blindness, sleep, darkness?
I learned her daddy was a miner who was blown to smithereens. (p.89)
Dynamite, invented in 1867 by Alfred Nobel, quickly replaced black powder in mining and quarrying operations. This is still its main use today.
coattail relation (p.89)
A coattail relation appears to be one who is dependent on others for their success or renown. The idiom is hard to pin down.
from the boondocks (p.89)
Rough or isolated countryside, backwater. From theTagalog word “bundok”, it was introduced in English by American soldiers returning from the Philippine-American War (1899-1902). [Wikipedia]
my Latin version of the Pseudomonarchia Daemonum (p.89)
A grimoire of demonological lore, it was originally the appendix to Johann Weyer’s De praestigiis daemonum (1577). Long out of copyright, it can be found online here.
In the United States, the practice of claiming the exclusive right to extract minerals from a parcel of public land began with the California Gold Rush in 1849. Once a person has staked a claim (literally marking it out with wooden stakes) he must file the claim with the proper authorities. Claim- jumping is the practice of claiming land already claimed by another party by alleging that the first claim was invalid in some way; that it was improperly filed or exploited, for example.
unpleasant and rather florid illustrations. (p.89)
I could find no trace of an illustrated latin edition of the Pseudomonarchia Daemonum. Present-day illustrated editions frequently borrow the illustrations from the later editions of Collin de Plancy's Dictionaire infernal mentioned earlier.
a gaunt satyr loitering (p.90)
From Greek mythology, a woodland creature depicted with pointed ears, full beards, goat horns and /or hooves, and a perpetually erect phallus. Associated with pipe playing (see On Piping). The word has come to be used for any lecherous man, and satyriasis is an uncontrollable sexual urge, the male counterpart of nymphomania.
from Langston Butler (p.90)
See prior note on Octavia Plantagenet for a possible source for the name Butler. Langston is possibly a reference to American poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967), mentioned by Laird in his introduction to Michael Shea’s collection The Autopsy and Other Stories. [WP_140303]
This was my best suit and I sure didn't want to get any holes in it. (p.90)
This gives a more prosaic meaning to the earlier exchange with Hicks.
Forty-Mile Camp was not, as its appellation suggested, forty miles from Purdon. (p.90)
Forty Mile is a town in Yukon, formerly a prospectors’ camp, located on the Fortymile river which runs through Alaska and Yukon. It was named such because the river’s mouth was forty miles (67 km) from Fort Reliance. It attracted prospectors from across the continent, as evidenced by this 1895 article from the San Francisco Call newspaper. Whether Laird had this town in mind is a matter of conjecture.
Hung Chan's supply wagon (p.90)
I was unable to determine if the name is a reference to a particular person. If the fictional detectives naming scheme theory has any value, this might be a reference to Charlie Chan, detective for the Honolulu police, a character created by Earl Derr Biggers who appeared in six novels and four dozen films, starting in the 1920s. It may also be a reference to Hong Kong action cinema stars Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan, but this is not supported by any evidence.
lasted under three hours by my pocket watch (p.90)
I`ve found references to average speeds ranging from 2 to 6 miles per hour for horse-drawn wagons. Walking speed is about 3 miles per hour. This would put the camp at between 6 and 18 miles from Purdon, a distance that could reasonably be walked by Koenig after his encounter at the cave.
Anderson Creek Canyon (p.90)
As noted previously, there is an Anderson Creek which is a tributary of the Navarro River, which empties into the Pacific Ocean northwest of San Francisco.
He ushered me through a thick curtain and into a dim, moist realm pungent with body musk and opium tang. (p.90)
Not the first nor the last of the sexually suggestive images used in the story.
Butler lay on a pile of bear pelts (p.91)
California was home to grizzly bears until their extinction from the state in 1922. The bears persist elsewhere on the continent. Black bears are the only species of bear still living in California.
in a Navajo blanket (p.91)
The Navajo are a Native American people from the Southwestern United States. Their woven textiles have a distinctive style which uses geometrical designs in white, red, black, and orange.
a chunk of anthracite (p.92)
Antracite is a variety of coal with a metallic sheen.
His dark flesh had withered tight as rawhide (p.92)
While it isn't explicitly stated, I think it can be inferred that Butler is of African descent.
fossilized anthropoid at repose (p.91)
There is recurring preoccupation with ancestral hominids in Laird's work which will be explored further when we look at other stories. Compare the scene here with one in The Croning:
A placard indicated the fellow was unearthed from a cave in upstate New York in 1949. Impossible, and thus this was a hoax, a PT Barnum special calculated to impress the rubes.
Barnum's House of Curiosities (p.91)
This is a probably a reference to Barnum’s American Museum, which displayed curiosities, many of them hoaxes such as the Feejee mermaid. He did not, to my knowledge, operate a business called "House of Curiosities".
a toothless crone with an evil squint (p.91)
See Old Virginia for a toothless crone more central to the action.
Mama die? (p.91)
媽媽 “mama” is Mandarin for “mother” and 爹 “die” is Mandarin for “father”. Take from that what you will.
didn't offer to cook me a pill. (p.91)
When smoking opium, small `pill` of the substance is placed in a pipe and heated (not burned) by placing the pipe over a source of heat. This vaporizes the active alkaloids in the opium, and the vapor is inhaled by sucking on the pipe.
"You would've made a wonderful Templar." (p.91)
The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon were a Christian military order rose to prominence during the crusades. They managed a large economic infrastructure, an early form of banking, and grew rich from shrewd management of their properties and businesses across the continent. Support for the order was very strong while the crusades persisted, but fell away sharply when the Holy Land was lost. It made powerful enemies, including the pope and the king of France. The order was messily dissolved following the arrest of its leaders and members on charges of heresy. Their considerable assets were seized. An aura of mystery shrouds the order, whose swift and total dissolution has led to no end of mystery-mongering. No self-respecting theorist with a “secret history of world” to peddle can avoid drafting them as key players.
Chopping down Saracens for fun and profit, that I could've done. (p.91)
The meaning of the word saracen has evolved over the centuries (it was first used as early as the 2nd century). By the Medieval era it was equated with Arabs, then with enemies of Christianity in general. The reference here is to the multiple crusades undertaken by European Christendom to liberate the Holy Land from the hands of non-Christians.
"Harvard, don't you know." I pronounced it Hah-vahd to maximize the irony. (p.91)
Harvard University is a prestigious university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near Boston. The region is also home to the Boston accent, which is non-rhotic: the rhotic consonant (R-like sounds) is not pronounced, i.e. Hah-vahd.
I fear Rueben will swallow you alive (p.92)
Jonah 1:17 (King James Version):
Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
"We were introduced in '78. I was in Philadelphia (p.92)
As noted previously, Barnum’s circus was in Philadelphia from April 22 to April 27 1878.
fabulously schnockered (p.92)
Drunk. The origin of the term is traced to mid-20th century.
to employ the argot (p.92)
Argot is a secret language used by a group to keep their conversation opaque to outsiders.
We were eating mushrooms. A mysterious variety... (p.92)
Possibly psilocybin mushrooms contain psychedelic compounds psilocybin and psilocin. They have been used since prehistoric times to induce hallucinogenic episodes for ritual or entertainment purposes.
queer fellow who dealt in African imports (p.92)
I don't know if this is a reference to a particular character or real-life person. It feels like it probably is.
I hallucinated that Rueben caused a window to open in the bedroom wall, a portal into space. (p.92)
Phil Wary, stage magician and self-proclaimed sorcerer, uses a very similar trick in "Jaws of Saturn".
a whole colossal bell-shaped galaxy of exploded gases and cosmic dust (p.92)
This is a remarkably modern perspective. While the word “galaxy” was in use in 1892, it still referred only to the Milky Way, which was considered to be the entire universe. The discovery that nebulae were actually clusters of stars comparable to the Milky Way, and were located outside of, and far distant from, it, dates to the 1920s. The term galaxy came to be used for these “island universes”.
Spectroscopy was used as early as the 1860s to determine that stars were composed of the same elements as those on Earth. It wasn't until the start of the 20th century that astronomers determined that there were obscuring bodies in areas that seemed devoid of stars, and it took until nearly mid-century for the physical and chemical nature of the interstellar dust to become clearer. [Source]
The sight would've driven Copernicus insane. (p.92)
Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) was a Polish mathematician and astronomer. The Copernican Revolution, a monumental shift in humanity's self-perception, which displaced the Earth as centre of the Solar System for a more accurate heliocentric model, is owed to the publication of his treatise De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On The Revolutions Of The Heavenly Spheres) in 1543. Further advances in scientific knowledge has further pushed our planet (and humanity) to the periphery. We now understand it to be one planet of many orbiting a star which, with 100 to 400 billion others, is part of a galaxy that, in turn, is one of the 1 to 2 trillion galaxies which forms the visible part of the universe.
His face . . .there was something wrong. Too rigid, too cold. For a moment, I thought he'd put on an extremely clever mask and I was terrified. And his mouth . . (p.92)
Humans are hyperattuned to human faces. The features of other animals vary just as widely as human faces do, but it is our particular attunement to the latter which drives our belief that mouse faces (for instance) are difficult to tell apart while the same is not true for human ones. No doubt murine writers would reverse those statements. While all parts of the body are loaded with information, primate faces are particularly expressive, communicating consciously and involuntarily.
The trope "mask of humanity worn by inhuman monster slips in a moment of inattention", which occurs with regularity in Barron's stories, is premised on the idea that involuntary facial expressions require a sustained effort to fake, or can only be faked imperfectly. Neurological impairment and medical conditions are often associated with distinct facial expressions and, not coincidentally, with ideas of possession, altered states, and the monstrous.
He claimed to be more than human, to have evolved into a superior iteration of the genus. A flawed analysis, but at least partially correct. (p.93)
Evolution through natural selection was first seriously proposed by Charles Darwin in his 1859 book On The Origin of Species. The Darwinian Revolution, second only to the Copernican one, if only chronologically, removed homo sapiens from the realm of angels and relegated it to that of animals. The proportion of humans who refuse to accept this displacement is surprisingly, and distressingly, high.
Rueben suffers from a unique breed of mycosis (p.93)
Mycosis is any fungal infection of animals. In humans, this usually manifests as infections in cracks or wounds on the skin, or in the lungs following the inhalation of spores.
you've perhaps seen the tumors on his arms and legs, and especially along his spinal column? (p.93)
Candida is the most frequent cause of fungal infections worldwide – genital yeast infections. There is a persistent (and dangerous) myth that cancer is caused by chronic candida infection. It lives in the gut flora of many mammals, including humans. It does not, however, cause cancer. Whatever infects Hicks does not appear to be candida however, and it seems to be responsible for the calcinosis mentioned in previous notes.
It's consuming him as a fungus consumes a tree. (p.93)
This seems an appropriate place to introduce the honey fungus, or armillaria, a parasitic fungus that lives on trees. It spreads from tree to tree by following roots underground with its rhizomorph (root-like structures). Fruiting bodies (the above-ground parts that we visually identify as mushrooms, which bear the spores with which it reproduces) grow on the afflicted trees.
Relevant to the story is the news in April 2003, a year before “Bulldozer” was published, that a honey fungus specimen was discovered in Oregon that qualified as the largest orgnanism on the planet. It covers nearly 9 square kilometers, could weigh as much as 605 tons, and is estimated to be 2,400 years old. The vast majority of it is undeground rhizomorph. Oregon is bordered by California, where "Bulldozer" is set, in the south and Washington state in the north. It seems likely that this organism has provided some inspiration for the entity described in this story.
Evolution via slow digestion. (p.93)
See the section on metamorphosis in the discussion.
I might've figured he was a fakir (p.93)
Fakirs are ascetic Sufis or Muslims who have taken vows of poverty and worship. The word refers to self-sufficiency: fakirs need nothing more than faith to sustain them. The term has been used idiomatically since tbe 1500s to describe Hindu or Buddhist ascetics, and more generally to describe holy men with miraculous abilities.
or Jesus' little brother (p.93)
The New Testament names several brothers of Jesus of Nazareth (and mentions several sisters). There is considerable debate over whether these are biological siblings or people with positions of honour in the early church.
"Scoff as you will. Ignorance is all the blessing we apes can hope for." (p.93)
In this story, and elsewhere in Barron's fiction, there is a sort of moral algebra which equates ignorance, innocence, purity, and contentment, and opposes these to curiosity, enlightenment, and corruption. In a very literal sense, what you don't know can't hurt you.
He warned me, albeit such caveats were mere inducements (p.93)
Caveat is from the Latin phrase “caveat emptor” (“let the buyer beware”). I wanted to note here that "albeit such caveats" has a beautiful rhythm, and the misreading of caveat as "cave eats" is thematically appropriate for the story at hand.
A Satan-worshipping dope fiend. (p.93)
Satan is in contemporary popular culture the Christian bogeyman, the antithesis to the Abrahamic deity. A future article, On The Devil, will examine this figure more closely.
Behold the reward of hubris. (p.93)
Hubris is foolish pride, arrogance, and over-confidence, the result of a lack of humility. In ancient Greek dramas, it involved transgressions against the social mores or, more gravely, the gods. Transgressors could be brought down by the goddess Nemesis, who gave them what they were due. In the modern era, hubris is frequently expressed as a refusal to acknowledge that there are limits to one’s knowledge or understanding – unknown unknowns, things we do not know that we do not know – and the role of Nemesis is played by secular “unexpected consequences”.
descended completely into the womb of an abominable mystery (p.93)
See the discussion for a more or less complete accounting of the sexual imagery used in the story.
I tasted the ichor of divinity (p.93)
Ichor, in Greek mythology, is the blood of the gods, golden-hued and ethereal. There are echoes of the Christian Communion (about which, see later note) and the Judaic myth of the Garden of Eden, and the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Genesis 3:5:
For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. (King James Version)
"Rueben has come home because he must, it is an integral component of his metamorphosis. Surely you've detected his quickening purpose, the apparent degeneration of his faculties, which is scarcely a symptom of decay, but rather a sign of fundamental alteration. Pupation. (p.94)
Metamorphosis is a biological process undergone by many species of animals, most notably insects. It often involves dramatic changes in form and behavior. Pupation refers to the pupa, one of the four life stages of some insects, which go from embryo to larva, to pupa, and finally to imago (adulthood). Given the name of the collection (and the story contained therein), and the material presented here, we can naturally draw some inferences about the process of transformation, which we will do in the discussion section.
He has returned to this place to commune with his benefactor, (p.94)
Communion (“sharing in common”) is a Christian sacrament which commemorates the Last Supper, a meal shared by Jesus Christ with his disciples before his arrest, crucifixion, and purported resurrection. Wine and bread are consecrated and consumed, transformed by the ritual into the symbolic (or literal, through transubstantiation) body and blood of Jesus. See previous note on "ichor".
Communion has come to mean “the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially when the exchange is on a mental or spiritual level”. It is my contention that Barron plays with those two levels of meaning, presenting a materialist version of the sacrament which subverts the first and embodies the second. We’ll look at these ideas in more detail in the discussion.
Certain monstrous examples of cryptogenetics serve the function of godhead well enough. (p.94)
It isn't entirely clear what is meant here by "cryptogenetics", and this is no doubt intentional.
The modern understanding of genetics developed mostly after the events of the story. In the 1890s,researchers were only just rediscovering the idea, first described by Gregor Mendel , that inheritance of characteristics had a physical basis which could be described and predicted. The first use of “genetic” as a noun (as an adjective, deriving its meaning from “genesis” (origin), it was used earlier) dates to 1905. DNA was only confirmed as the structure underlying the concept of “genes” in the 1950s.
Cryptogenetic, as an adjective, can refer to something (a medical condition, for instance) for which the origin or cause is unknown. I could find no record of its use as a noun. It is equated to "these organisms", so it may be supposed that Barron intends to use as a sort of synonym for "cryptids", unknown or hidden animals.
He lay coiled in his nest, a diamondback ready to strike. (p.94)
The Western diamondback rattlesnake (croatalus atrox) has a range which covers much of Texas, Mexico, New Mexico, Arizona, and eastern California.They are one of the most aggressive species of rattlesnakes in the United States, and are likely responsible for the second-greatest number of snakebite fatalities in that country.
I established communion with a primordial intelligence, (p.94)
Primordial, from the Latin primordialis ("of the beginning"), refer naturally enough to something which is the first, earliest, or original of its kind.
a cyclopean plexus rooted below these hills and valleys (p.94)
Cyclopean refers to the cyclops of Greek mythology; figuratively, it refers to something massive in stature. A plexus is a branching network of vessels or nerves, from the Latin for “braid” or “weave”. This description supports my contention that the honey fungus (see previous note) might have played some part in the genesis of this story.
An unclassified mycoflora that might or might not be of terrestrial origin. (p.94)
Mycoflora refers to the fungi in a given region, the way that flora refers to the plants therein and fauna to the animals. It is worth noting that Butler several times refers to the organisms in plural terms.
A variety of osmosis (p.94)
Osmosis is the spontaneous movement of molecules through a membrane from a region of high concentration to one of lower concentration. It is a process central to many biological processes, not the least of which is digestion. As food travels through the tube that starts at your mouth and ends at your anus, your body absorbs the nutrients it requires to function properly through osmosis.
as the sediment men first crawled from. (p.94)
Ancestral humans can more properly be thought to have “crawled” out from East African plains. We need to go considerably further up the phylogenetic tree to find an ancestral species that may have crawled out of the primordial sediment. The best candidate at the moment is tiktaalik, a transitional species between lobe-finned fish and amphibians which likely lived in shallow stream systems and may have occasionally moved in muddy stream-beds, taking the first tentative steps on land which would lead, 375 million years later, to our particular twig on the bush of life.
Christ, you've got holes in your brain (p.94)
Cognitive impairment plays a significant role in The Light is the Darkness and The Croning, where it appears as “holes in the brain” or “worms eating your brains” as a result of exposure to dark forces.
too much of the black O. (p.94)
No doubt a reference to opium.
Next thing you'll tell me is Oberon came prancing from under his hill to sprinkle that magic fairy shit on you. (p.94)
Oberon was king of the faeries in medieval and Renaissance literature, and is perhaps best known in that role from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream. A major character in Roger Zelazny’s Amber series also bears his name. He gets another mention in Oblivion Mode.
Tell it to Charlie Darwin when you meet in hell. (p.94)
As mentioned in another note, Charles Darwin (1809-1892) was the English naturalist whose work On the Origin of Species (1859) first proposed a mechanism (natural selection) to explain the phenomenon of evolution. Many Christians initially refused to accept the theory, and suggested that its proponents were bound for eternal torment in hell, a place Christians imagine exists in the afterlife and to which unrepentant sinners are consigned. The overwhelming evidence for the theory is such that few educated Christians today still oppose it; those that do tend to be Biblical literalists, who prefer the account of special creation found in that book.
Rueben's visited infrequently since late spring. (p.94)
This is consistent with Sheriff Murtaugh’s assertion that Hicks “Came in 'bout June”. Summer starts on June 21 in the Northern Hemisphere.
not here in his demesne. (p.94)
A demesne is a "domain, a place belonging to a master or lord." [Wiktionary]
Perhaps wallowing in the Presence (p.95)
Butler, in Koenig’s mind at least, is another capitalizer of Belphegor’s many titles. Maybe it's a trick of pronunciation.
His ambit is wide and unpredictable. (p.95)
An ambit is a circuit around a property. Demesne and ambit both imply that the area around Forty-Mile Camp belongs to Belphegor, or Hicks.
Time is a ring, and in the House of Belphegor that ring contracts like a muscle. (p.95)
First occurrence in print of the phrase “time is a ring”, which appears at least a dozen more times in Laird’s fiction (to date). The meaning isn’t entirely clear. On its own it seems to imply that time loops back on itself, cyclical, without beginning or end. The Light is the Darkness in particular seems to support this interpretation. At other times, such as here, the ring is presented as a sphincter instead of (or in addition to) a loop, and that image is a little more difficult to interpret.
A cell in a black honeycomb. (p.95)
Honeycomb is used half a dozen times in Laird’s stories to refer to a network of caves, which may be all that is being implied here. Comparison with a similar passage from X’s for Eyes may lead to different inferences:
"Suffice to say, the probe pierces the membrane between this particular universe and a larger, blacker cell of the multi-galactic honeycomb."
The chamber existed before the continents split (p.95)
The idea that the continents were different in their positions in the past had been suggested by a few writers prior to the 20th century, but it gained no traction as there was little evidence for it and no theory to explain it. Alfred Wegener, in 1912, suggested that the continents once formed a single landmass (Pangaea) but the idea was not taken seriously until the 1960s, when tectonic plate theory was developed and provided a mechanism for continental drift.
Magnetic surveys of the Atlantic seafloor undertaken in that decade showed bands of alternate polarity radiating on either side of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The magnetic polarity of the Earth has reversed numerous times in its long history. The polarity of minerals in newly solidified stone reflects the polarity of the Earth's magnetic field, and the bands of alternate polarity showed conclusively that new ocean floor was being formed continuously over a period of tens of millions of years, leading to "splitting of the continents" and consequently the creation and widening of the Atlantic Ocean. It`s highly unusual for Butler to discuss the idea so casually. [Source]
and the ice came over the world (p.95)
The ice age theory gained wide acceptance during the 1870s. There have been several ice ages (we have been in one for the past 2.58 million years) each consisting of multiple glacial and interglacial periods. The last glacial period lasted from approximately 71,000 to 12,000 years before present. We have been in an interglacial period since then. Global warming is likely to spell the end of the current ice age.
The people that built it, long dust. (p.95)
The existence of these people is highly unlikely. The North American landmass split from Eurasia and Africa during the early Jurassic period, some 200 million years ago. Our direct ancestors at this time were small, nocturnal insectivores -- mammals as a group had yet to fully separate from the synapsid line. Butler may be using "people" more generally, and may be referring to a non-human sapient species, from Earth or elsewhere, whose existence the general public does not yet suspect.
but I humbly suggest you wait here for your nemesis. (p.95)
See prior note on hubris.
"No harm in looking," I said.
"Oh, no, Mr. Koenig. There's more harm than you could ever dream." (p.95)
The fatal consequences of curiosity is a theme to which Barron returns frequently. As a reader, we are complicit in the fates of these characters, since in a real sense it is our desire to continue reading which dooms them -- were we to stop reading at this point in the story Koenig, like Schroedinger's cat, would exist as a cloud of potential outcomes.
"Enlighten me anyhow." (p.95)
Here's a theme that will be expressed more explicitly in The Imago Sequence. To quote Mrs. Chin, from that story:
Enlightenment isn't necessarily a clean process. Enlightenment can be filthy, degenerate, dangerous. Enlightenment is its own reward, its own punishment. You begin to see so much more. And so much more sees you.
Long-suffering Hung Chan and his younger brother Ha (p.95)
I could find no referent or significance to Ha Chan’s name.
We essayed a thirty-minute hike through scrub and streams (p.95)
Average hiking speed through rough terrain is 2-3 miles per hour, which would put the cave at 1 to 1.5 miles from the camp.
a limestone cliff face split vertically (p.95)
The vertical split we will simply note without comment, deferring our investigation of its sexually suggestive nature for the discussion section. There is a lot of limestone in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada range of mountains, which does not help situate the fictional Purdon or Forty-Mile camp. [Source]
The Chan brothers informed me through violent gestures and Pidgin English (p.95)
Pidgin languages develop wherever two groups with no language in common have prolonged contact. It is typically a grammatically simplified version of one of the languages which may incorporate elements from the other language. Pidgin originally referred only to Chinese Pidgin English, but it has since been generalized to refer to any such language.
I approached cautiously, in case Hicks was lying in ambush, rifle sights trained on the rugged slope. (p.95)
Koenig is stubbornly clinging to the hope that he is in a straight crime story.
Immediately I noticed bizarre symbols scratched into the occasional boulder. Seasonal erosion had obliterated all save the deepest marks and these meant little to me, though it wasn't difficult to imagine they held some pagan significance. (p.95)
Tantalizingly vague. There are many First Nations petroglyph sites in California, including the Ring Mountain site (north of San Francisco), the Yellow Jacket Petroglyphs site (east of SF, near the Nevada border), and the Petroglyph Point, a site in the northeast part of the state which features carvings which may be up to 6000 years old. If by "pagan" Koenig means non-Judeo-Christian, then any petroglyphs as old as these purportedly are will be pagan simply by virtue of pre-dating the invention of those religions.
Also, whole skeletons of small animals—birds and squirrels—hung from low branches. (p.95)
Bones are held together by ligaments, tendons, and muscles, relatively soft tissues full of nutrients which are consumed by scavengers, including insects and bacteria, very rapidly except in rare conditions -- extreme heat or cold, extreme aridity, acidity, or a lack of oxygen can inhibit bacteria growth and thus halt or prevent decay. The skeletons of dead animals will fall apart without the connecting tissues -- unless it is present here, I fail to see how the whole skeletons could naturally hold together in a recognizable shape. Hallucigenia presents an identical phenomena in the area around the Choates' barn.
The stench of spoiled meat, of curdled offal, emanated from the fissure; a slaughterhouse gone to the maggots. (p.95)
Meat spoilage is caused by bacteria and fungi breaking down the animal tissues and releasing odoriferous compounds. This is consistent with Butler's characterization of the entity as a mycoflora.
The soft moan of wind sucked through a chimney of granite. (p.96)
My cheeks burn, scorched with salt. (p.96)
I`m not sure what the significance of the salt could be. East of the Sierra Nevada mountains there are numerous salt deposits caused by the evaporation of the glacial lakes formed after the last ice age. The few salt lakes that are still wet (the Salton Sea is perhaps the best-known example in California) may have tributaries which ultimately drain into the Pacific ocean, and this may be what is referenced here. All streams and rivers are to some extent “salty”, as minerals are dissolved by water and transported by it.
I keep staring at the sky, enjoy the vibration of my tongue as I hum. Tralalala. (p.96)
There is a blurring of the lines between drug- and alcohol-induced states of altered consciousness and that induced by contact with the entity in the cave. Euphoria, disjointed time-perception, loss of consciousness, and hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli are features of both, as presented here and in the party scene in section 7.
But my knife my Jim Bowie special (p.96)
The Bowie knife was (probably) created by James Black for Jim Bowie (c.1796-1836), a pioneer who played a part in the Texas revolution. Bowie gained international fame for disembowelling an enemy during a duel with a large knife, after having been shot multiple times and pinned to the ground by a sword-cane.
Why am I so happy. (p.96)
Why no question mark? Euphoria is “an intense feeling of well-being, happiness, and excitement”. It is caused by as-yet poorly understood but entirely physical processes in the brain. It can result from neurological disorders, and it can be induced by exercise, and by many psychotropic substances. This accounts for the addictive properties of recreational drugs, which offer are a relatively affordable way of producing a state of unmitigated joy. That the result is of increasingly short duration, habit-forming, and, to some, a dereliction of the duty to earn one's happiness, is generally of little consequence to the user. [Wikipedia]
colloidal iris (p.96)
This iris could be a flower, but in the context of the previous line, it seems more likely that the reference is to the structure found in the eye, a ring-shaped membrane which contracts in order to control the amount of light which reaches the retina. Colloidal refers to an intimate mixture of two parts, one in suspension in the other. This may be a poetic rather than literal description, but how this relates to an iris is beyond my comprehension.
the pillar of faces (p.96)
In Hinduism, Shiva is symbolized by the Mukhalinga, a linga (a phallic column) with one or more faces. Whether this is what is being referenced, or something else entirely, I cannot say for certain. The protagonist from "Shiva, Open Your Eye" seems to be of a kind with Hicks, as the note on "Mouth" below attests, so the connection with Shiva may be significant, or one more example of my seeing patterns where none exist.
migrant spores (p.97)
Spores are units of asexual reproduction used by fungi, plants, algae, and protozoa. Spores are unicellular, unlike seeds, which contain a multicellular nucleus. The interstellar context of the next few lines, and the description of the entity by Butler as mycoflora of possibly extraterrestrial origin, may imply that migrant spores are what brought it to this planet.
Maggots are fly larvae, hatched from fly eggs laid on or in suitable source of nourishment. These are often dead or wounded animals, whose tissues the maggots will consume. The maggot pupates and becomes the imago, or final instar, which is the adult insect. As with everything else in the story, there are multiple layers of meaning one can derive from the mention, not least of which is the fact that the bodies thrown to the entity in the cave may be shared with other scavengers such as flies and bacteria. Another is that Hicks, as a maggot, fed on meat and transformed into a more advanced instar of humanity, and that this cycle is what awaits Koenig.
glows my ecstasy in a sea of suns (p.97)
Another reference to the euphoria mentioned previously? sea of suns is a good description of a galaxy, an interpretation supported by the next sentence.
galactic parallax (p.97)
Parallax is the difference in the apparent position of an object when seen from two different lines of sight. Our binocular vision allows for an easy demonstration of this: merely hold a finger up approximately one foot in front of your eyes. Alternate closing one eye, keeping the other open, then switching. The apparent motion of the finger is the parallax. In astronomy, parallax can be used to calculate the distance of far object such as stars and galaxies, using trigonometry and measurements taken at different points in the Earth`s orbit around the Sun. It`s not entirely clear what Koenig means here. Perhaps it is an abstract reference to the distance travelled by the entity to reach Earth. Parallax is also the title of another story in this collection.
I had been eating leaves. (p.97)
Pica is an eating disorder in which the sufferer develops an appetite for non-nutritive substances such as dirt, stones, ice, glass, feces, or leaves. The latter are non-nutritive for humans, who are unable to digest cellulose, but do provide nourishment for some animals and insects.
My shirt was starched with ejaculate, (p.97)
Launderers applied starch to shirts in order to make them stiff after ironing. Seminal fluid consists mainly of fructose and proteins, with trace amounts of "ascorbic acid, cholesterol, creatine, citric acid, urea,
uric acid, sorbitol, pyruvic acid, glutathione, inositol, lactic acid, nitrogen, B12, various salts and enzymes". There is no starch in semen. It consists of approximately 8% dry weight. As it dries the water content is lost and the proteins bind together, forming a hard residue which will make fabrics on which semen has been applied stiff. The same is true of blood-soaked clothing, since blood also contains proteins. [source]
Spermatorrhea is a condition of excessive, involuntary ejaculation. It is impossible to say whether the ejaculations Koenig “suffered” were involuntary however, since he himself does not remember the details of the encounter.
My hands were shiny as metal on a casket. (p.97)
The sheen may be due to the semen residue mentioned above, dried blood, or some other substance.
Butler chortled from a spider-cocoon in the green limbs, (p.97)
Spiders weave cocoons out of spider-silk to protect their eggs and captured insects. It’s not clear whether Butler is prey or offspring, or both. See "Shiva, Open Your Eye" and Hallucigenia for similar hanging masses.
"Now you're seasoned for his palette. (p.97)
I believe this is a mistake which, after a half-dozen readings, I've only just noticed. It appears in the electronic and paperback editions. I think it should read “Now you’re seasoned for his palate”. A palette is a a colour-mixing board used by an artist (literal) or and a selection of colours (figurative) while the palate is the roof of the mouth (lit.) or and a person’s appreciation of taste and flavour (fig.). The sentence makes more sense with the latter.
Chewed up and shat out. (p.97)
See Discussion for more about digestion as a metaphor for communion with Belphegor.
And if you live, in twenty years you'll be another walking Mouth. (p.97)
Considering the capitalization, and the implication that there are multiple such individuals, it`s hard not feel that this puts the final line of “Shiva, Open Your Eye” in its proper context:
I know, because I am His Mouth.
Musty roots the girth of sequoias. (p.97)
Sequoias are redwood coniferous trees found in northern California and Oregon, the ancestors of which can be traced to the Jurassic. The trees live for 1,200-1,800 years or more and have grown to more than 150 m (380 feet), making them the tallest living organisms and among the oldest living.
Gargantuan statues embedded in wattles of amber. (p.97)
See previous note on amber and The Imago Sequence for more on the "statues".
The cave mouth a seam of brightness that rotates until it is a blurry hatch in the ceiling.
My boots losing contact with the ground, as if I were weightless.
Floating away from the light, towards a moist chasm, purple warmth. (p.97)
This is almost identical to Cortez' experience in the final section of the The Imago Sequence. Whether this is a weird trick of gravity, levitation, psychokinesis, or "other" is never fully explained. The sexual imagery of the last sentence will be dissected at length in the Discussion.
Nor when I hefted a rusty spade and padded into Butler's hut to pay my respects. Not even when I emerged, winded, (p.98)
I think it's clear that Butler is murdered in the space between those two sentences. I note it merely because I did not catch this the first time I read it.
a girl named Evelyn (p.98)
If there’s any significance to the name, I’m not aware of it.
Evelyn said she'd lit a shuck from the Bumblebee Ranch for parts unknown. (p.98)
Cowboy slang for a quick departure. A shuck is the husk or shell around grain, such as corn. To light a shuck is to set it on fire in order to create an intense but brief source of light, which requires rapid use and therefore a hasty leave-taking. [Source]
"Back to the Old States?" (p.98)
The Eastern States of the United States were the first ones to be formed, and consequently the oldest. The saying can be found on nearly every list of "old west slang" that Google can conjure up which, hindsight informs me, I should have consulted when I started writing the notes for this story.
that I was fixating again, (p.98)
Visual fixation can be a symptom of impaired brain function, and can be induced by drug/alcohol use or trauma.
A fugue state (p.98)
A dissociative fugue or fugue state is a psychiatric disorder in which a patient temporarily suffers a loss of memory and personal identity.
the chain of humanity shuttered rapidly from the first incomprehensible amphibian creature to slop ashore, through myriad semi-erect sapiens (p.98)
Few fossil intermediaries between our "ape" ancestors and modern humans were known at the time. Neanderthal fossils were first discovered in the 1850s but it was originally believed that these were diseased humans. Java Man (Homo erectus) was discovered in 1891, and was recognized as a possible "missing link". The iconic image of the ascent of man ("The March of Progress"), reproduced here, and clearly referenced in the text, dates from 1965. Later versions included previous forms of life (fish, amphibians).
A lovely early version (titled "Man Is But A Worm") which did not catch on as an icon of evolution could be found in the satirical magazine Punch in 1882:
Was that me, pitching like Samson before the Philistine army? (p.99)
Samson is a character with prodigious strength in the book of Judges in Jewish scripture. In Judges 15 he breaks free of his Philistine capturers and slays 1,000 of them with the jawbone of a donkey. In Judges 16:28-30 he destroys the temple of Dagon in which the Philistines mean to sacrifice him by pulling it down around him. The act kills him, and 3,000 Philistines. It seems more likely that Barron is referencing the latter event given the thematic similarities.
"Glynna heard (p.99)
I couldn’t find any significance to the name.
He did for the young 'uns as got themselves with child. (p.99)
In the millennia of human existence before widespread use of contraceptives, pregnancy was the natural outcome of sexual encounters between fertile humans. Unwanted pregnancies, and children, were a common professional hazard for prostitutes. Abortions could be effected using various methods including “the administration of abortifacient herbs, the use of sharpened implements, the application of abdominal pressure" and others. [Source]
All those whores' babies tossed into a pitchy shaft, tiny wails smothered in the great chthonian depths. (p.99)
The child eater is a recurring character in Barron’s stories and in traditional folk tales. In the latter, the pedophagy may serve a pedagogical function: children who wander away from the safety of home risk being killed. Fear is a powerful motivator. In Barron’s stories, the child eater also serves to elicit strong feelings: disgust, outrage, helplessness (as we are unable to affect the outcome), and fear. What remains to be discovered is what precisely the child eaters get out of the act. For the entity Belphegor, it appears that this is sensory information, and the emotional charge which in humans is frequently paired with it. It`s difficult to imagine that the confused mess experienced by newborn infants is particularly delicious, but what it lacks in depth of content may be made up by intensity of feeling. It may simply be that, while inferior to adult specimens, they are more easily procured. See The Light is the Darkness for another salient examples of child eating.
Chthonian means "pertaining to the underworld". [Wiktionary]
That's plain loco, mister. (p.99)
Loco is the Spanish word for crazy.
I listened for the ticktock of transmogrifying cells (p.99)
Transmogrification is a transformation which suggests “a strange or preposterous metamorphosis”. [Merriam-Webster]
Is ticktock, which is the sound a mechanical clock makes, meant to convey a sense of time passing, or a sequence of discrete (e.g. quantum) changes? It's a puzzling, but oddly compelling, phrase and one which is repeated in almost precisely the same context in The Imago Sequence:
Ticktock go the mitochondria -- a nova in bloom.
(For more insightful and better written takes on the story, to which I am indebted, please see:
John Langan's “”Bulldozer” by Laird Barron: An Appreciation”, and
Stu Horvath's “EATEATEATEATEAT: An Interview With Laird Barron”.)
Laird plays with the structure and organization of the story, in order to heighten dramatic tension, and perhaps also in order to convey information about Koenig’s ultimate fate.
Time is a ring. We “end” the story where we began, and this forces us to consider what perspective the story is imposing on the reader. It is natural that we would assume it is Koenig’s, but it seems equally possible, if not more likely, that the perspective is that of alien intelligence which has consumed Koenig and his memories. As Stu Horvath writes in his article:
Perhaps then, “Bulldozer” isn’t told from Koenig’s perspective at all. Perhaps we are merely experiencing his memories, recalled in a loop, by the ancient entity that absorbed them.
Reinforcing the sense that we are outside time, both as readers and as Koenig- (or Koenig-in-Belphegor-) surrogates, are the anachronisms which pepper the story. I’ve highlighted a number of these in the notes, not because they represent flaws but rather because they represent keys to understanding the story. Butler’s decidedly modern understanding of cosmology and anthropology and Barron’s eschewing of XIXth-century idioms for more modern ones serve a story in which the characters, through communion with the underground alien intelligence, are no longer bound by historical time.
There are hints of this in “Shiva, Open Your Eye”:
Stark recollection of a time predating the slow glide of aeons in the primeval brine. The images would alight unasked; I would glimpse the red truth of my condition. Purple dust and niveous spiral galaxy, a plain of hyaline rock broken by pyrgoidal clusters ringed in fire, temperatures sliding a groove betwixt boiling and freezing. The sweet huff of methane in my bellowing lungs, sunrise so blinding it would have seared the eyes from any living creature . . . and I knew there were memories layered behind and beyond, inaccessible to the human perception that I wore as a workman wears boots, gloves, and warding mantle.
Laird returns to this concept of individuals gradually or suddenly absorbed by a super-entity (which I confess holds the same awful fascination for me), and the attendant loss of agency and humanity, in the other stories that deal with Belphegor (The Imago Sequence, Hallucigenia) or Belphegor-class entities (“Old Virginia”, “Shiva, Open Your Eye”, The Light is the Darkness, X`s For Eyes). Others, such as “Gamma”, offer different, but no less nightmarish, takes on the idea.
The action described in the story takes place over a fortnight (or so) in October according to what can be inferred by the textual evidence.
Hicks arrived in Purdon in June (“Came in 'bout June.”) and has been visiting Butler in Forty-Mile Camp since late Spring (May-June). Koenig requests “a list of deaths and disappearances in Purdon and environs over the past four months”, presumably since Hicks’ arrival, putting the date of the request sometime in October (or thereabouts). On the day of his encounter with Hicks, Koenig remarks that “It was raining again; be snowing in another week or so.” In northern California, snow typically starts in late October or early November.
The year is more difficult to pin down.
The reference to Jack the Ripper places the story squarely after 1888.
The Pinkerton involvement with the Molly Maguires occurred in 1875, with criminal trials beginning in 1876. Allowing “sixteen years” for the legend to grow would put the date in 1891 or 1892, at the earliest. Barnum died in April 1891, and Koenig is ostensibly working for him when he arrives in Purdon (in October), so it cannot be much later than 1891.
However, reference is made to the “newly anointed Grover Cleveland”. Cleveland was elected in 1884 and 1892, taking office in 1885 and 1893. Benjamin Harrison was president from 1889 until 1893. The comment only makes sense if the year is 1885 or 1886, or after March 1893.
The references to “First Holmes, now Stevenson. Wretched, wretched” and “a tragedy about Robert Louis; a step above the penny dreadfuls, but my hero nonetheless” imply knowledge of the death of the fictional character and the author, which took place in December 1893 and December 1894 respectively, moving the date up to the October following that, in 1895.
The inconsistency has a ready narrative explanation: Koenig, who is narrating or reliving the story, has communed with an alien entity that is in some mysterious way “outside” time. Anachronistic knowledge may simply have been absorbed by him, and injected into his memory of the story, in a manner similar to what has happened to Butler. Laird returns to the idea in “Gamma”, among other stories.
"You're a sexy algorithm looping for eternity." (Screaming Elk, MT)
ANOTHER MOUTH TO FEED
The idea that humans can be transformed and be made greater in awful, monstrous ways is one that occurs with regularity in Laird fiction. It would be quicker to list the stories in which this is the case. The methods and results vary, but exposure to something from the Great Dark. Often visual and audio patterns serve as triggers. Here the exposure is more direct – direct communion with an entity living in a California cavern.
Metamorphosis of the kind described in these stories is biologically impossible, but the millennia-long tradition of stories about human and near-human monsters gives it a plausibility that can hardly be denied. It is given an air of scientific verisimilitude by invoking mind over matter, mitochondrial, atavistic traits, quantum physics, et al. In “Bulldozer”, the dramatic transformation of caterpillar into butterfly, during which the caterpillar body is entirely dissolved before the imago is assembled from the formless goo, serves as a biological benchmark against which we can measure the fictional “evolution via slow digestion”.
The transformation in “Bulldozer” produces a “mouth”, which is a sensory organ in addition to being the gateway to our digestive system (more on this shortly). Similar human-shaped monsters have already been encountered in “Shiva, Open Your Eye”, and “Old Viginia”:
"Don't be afraid, Roger." Virginia rasped, a bit short of breath. "Mother wants to meet you. Such a vital existence you have pursued! Not often does She entertain provender as seasoned as yourself. If you're lucky, the others will have sated Her. She will birth you as a new man. A man in Her image. You'll get old, yes. Being old is a wonderful thing, though. The older you become, the more things you taste. The more you taste, the more pleasure you experience. There is so much pleasure to be had." (“Old Virginia”)
MATTER AND METAPHOR
There are four main metaphors which are used throughout the story (and in other, related, stories, as we’ll see when we turn our attention to them) to explicate the interaction between the entity Belphegor and individual humans. These are: religious communion, animal digestion, sexual reproduction, and insect pollination. One result of this interaction is described in terms of insect metamorphosis.
The purpose of these metaphors is to provide an understanding of the nature of this interaction without having to go into the physical details. The reasons for this are self-evident: for one, this is an imaginary, alien creature for which there are no direct analogues on this planet; for another, omitting the details gives the author room to create and maintain an aura of mystery around the entity; finally, it relieves both the author and the reader from the requirement of having specialized scientific knowledge.
Despite this vagueness, I think that there are specific points which the reader is meant to infer about the entity, its biology, and its goals. We will return to these once we have examined the metaphors a bit more closely.
Religion, in addition to providing a frame narrative for their existence and that of their world, is the organized means by which humans interact with purportedly divine beings. Communion means a sharing in common, and it can be applied to many different religious activities. Prosaic examples include the sharing of bread and wine in Christian rituals, and communal activities such as prayer and song. Spiritual communion is understood to be a sharing of thoughts and feelings – a non-verbal or non-physical communication -- between human brain and divine beings.
It stands to reason that communion in this latter sense is only truly possible insofar as divine beings exist. Feeling that one has experienced a spiritual communion with the divine, on the other hand, requires no such thing, and leaves no evidence by which it can be distinguished from actual communication with the divine.
The entity Belphegor, regardless of its origin, appears to be a physical being. It is found in a precise location in time and space, and can be interacted with physically. Non-verbal communication with it appears to be possible, albeit an overwhelming and dangerous proposition. Butler, Hicks, Hicks Sr., and Koenig succeed in communing with it, and it leaves them with physical sequelae which, until the last two centuries, were associated with religious experiences: epileptic seizures, visions, euphoria.
The entity appears to possess intelligence, which is an attribute that we as a species have historically reserved for humans (of our group) and divine or supernatural beings. It has capabilities which are mysterious and, to some extent at least, transcend the limits of that of which humans are capable, which is another attribute we have posited for our divinities. It seems natural therefore to conceive of the alien entity as divine, as the Moabites did, and to described communication with it in terms reserved for the divine.
“Commune”, in addition to being the action undertaken in the story, can also refer to a rural community organized on a communal basis. In the context of the united states of the 20th century, communes are associated with religious groups desirous of solitude or privacy. Punnily enough, just such a community is established at Forty-mile camp between the events of “Bulldozer” and those of The Imago Sequence.
Butler chortled from a spider-cocoon in the green limbs, "Now you're seasoned for his palette. Best run, Pinkerton. You've been in the sauce. Chewed up and shat out. And if you live, in twenty years you'll be another walking Mouth."
Animals sustain themselves by ingesting other organisms. Digestion is the process by which animals extract nutrients from the ingested organic matter. Most animals are more or less elaborate versions of a tube: things go in one end and come out the other. Digestion is what happens in between.
There are rites to effect this dialogue. A variety of osmosis ancient as the sediment men first crawled from.
There are many story elements which implicitly refer to digestion. Most prominent among these are the many references to excrement, which is the end product (pun intended) of digestion. Excrement is what remains once a bolus of food has wormed its way through the digestive tract. The ingested food is transformed by the process – it is crushed, secreted upon, squeezed, and subjected to bacterial action; nutrients are extracted by osmosis through the semi-permeable membranes that form the intestines, into the bloodstream and distributed throughout the body.
The characteristic smell(s) of excrement (and bad breath) are by-products of the gut bacteria breaking down food particles.
Hicks has been through the process and has emerged transformed, stinking of shit. Hicks is described as a Mouth, but the cavern opening can also be read as a mouth, the cavern itself as the guts and bowels. Bodies are thrown in, or walk in, and are digested inside. Belphegor may be more analogous to the bacteria residing in the animal gut, with Hicks and/or the cave as the animal.
BIRDS AND THE BEES
Sexual language is used throughout to describe the relationship between the alien entity and humans. Homo sapiens are arguably among the most phallic of animals: erect posture, relatively hairless, swollen with pride and self-importance. Caves are womb-like. Grotesquely swollen males penetrating the dark, moist, musty cavern to “disgorge the red delights of [their] gruesome and sensuous escapade” speaks for itself. As in many species, the male is left spent by the encounter, and may be consumed afterwards.
The sexual metaphor shades into the insect pollination one, since the latter is used as a euphemism for the former.
Belphegor functions as the hive, or the queen – it generates workers, which are sent out to collect the sensory equivalent to nectar and pollen, which in turn is brought back to “a cell in a black honeycomb” to feed (or amuse?) the queen. The amber-like substance can be read as a honey-analogue, a form of long-term storage for sensory delights – the text of The Imago Sequence strengthens this reading, in my opinion.
AN UNCLASSIFIED MYCOFLORA
What is Belphegor, truly? It’s difficult to say with any degree of certainty, beyond stating that it is an alien intelligence, or at least that it is alien and that it contains intelligence.
Is it one of the elder organisms dwelling in the depths, the much larger Other of which the Mouth is a part (“Shiva, Open Your Eye”). Conceptually, without a doubt. A malicious shard calved off from a pop-culture-obsessed extradimensional entity during the trilobite era (X’s for Eyes)? Signs point to yes. The reason the dinosaurs went extinct? A planet-spanning underground fungus which absorbs and traps sentience (“Gamma”)? Ask again later.