Last update: 21 April 2017.
"Proboscis" was first published in the February 2005 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, edited by Gordon Van Gelder. It was subsequently included in Laird's first collection, The Imago Sequence and Other Stories (Night Shade Books, 2007).
The story was nominated for an International Horror Guild Award (2005, mid-length fiction), but did not win.
The story was included in three "best of" compilations for stories published in 2005: The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 19 (St. Martin's Press), Best New Fantasy (Prime Books), Horror: The Best of the Year 2006 edition (Prime Books).
It's been translated in Russian (Darker Magazine) and Czech (Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine).
As you (re-)read "Proboscis", watch for these Barronisms:
- Alpha male unmanned
- Government conspiracy
- Poorly-synched lips/speech
- Unreliable recordings
- Human disguises
- Lizard brain
- Make Out Fake Out
- Eerily apt dream/vision
- Predator toying with prey
- Lights flicker/die
- Washington State
- Isolated setting
- Fatal fascination
- Secret history of the world
- Anthropophagy (general)
NOTES ON THE TEXT
Page numbers used throughout refer to the paperback version.
PROBOSCIS (p. 101)
Pronounced "pro-boss-is" (more or less). A proboscis is a long flexible mammalian snout (such as those possessed by elephants, tapirs, and, handily, proboscis monkeys) or "any of various elongated or extensible tubular processes of the oral region of an invertebrate", c'est-à-dire a long flexible insect snout, used for feeding or sucking. Worms and molluscs also bear proboscises, as can be clearly seen in the gruesome picture appended below, titled "Kelletia kelletii are feeding on a dead fish using a long, prehensile proboscis."
After the debacle in British Columbia, (p. 101)
British Columbia is the westernmost province in Canada. It sits atop Washington and Idaho, forming their northern borders, and part of Montana. A thin sliver of south-eastern Alaska rests on the western flank of the province. The population is concentrated in Greater Vancouver, which holds 2.5 million of its 4.5 million inhabitants. The capital, Victoria, holds approximately 350,000.
we decided to crash the Bluegrass festival. (p. 101)
Bluegrass music is a style of American folk music related to country. It draws influence from Appalachian, Irish, Scottish, and Irish traditional music, and borrows elements from African-American jazz music.
If the festival is inspired by a real one, it may be the Merritt Mountain Music Festival (2002-2009) which had a record attendance of 148,000 in 2005. There are a great number of other Bluegrass festivals which are candidates for the one these men attend, even excluding the ones held in Vancouver or Victoria, which are far from rural.
Not we—Cruz. (p. 101)
The name may be a reference to author Martin Cruz Smith, whose detective novel Gorky Park Laird has expressed admiration for on numerous occasions. [LJ070414][Lj081126][Lj090130]
Cruz was the alpha-alpha of our motley pack. (p. 101)
The alpha in an animal social group (human or otherwise) is the highest ranking individual, a position that may be achieved through physical superiority or social alliances. It was previously believed that normal wolf pack dynamics resulted in one alpha male and female pair dominating the rest, but studies on wild wolves (as opposed to captive groups consisting of individuals thrown together) has changed this understanding. A wolf pack typically consists of a breeding pair and its offspring from the past few seasons. Popular beliefs lag behind the scientific view on this and many other subjects.
A bit farther out, they'd built a bonfire, and Dead-Heads were writhing with pagan exuberance (p. 101)
Dead-Heads are fans of the Grateful Dead, an American psychedelic rock band formed in 1965. A community of fans traveling from show to show formed in the 1970s, some selling food or memorabilia at each venue to raise capital for future trips.
The brisk air swirled heavy scents of marijuana and clove, (p. 101)
Clove cigarettes seem to be associated with certain liminal sub-cultures, described in The Light is the Darkness:
She’d grown fond of cloves in college when she prowled coffee houses, dating the musicians, the painters, and the nihilistic poetry majors, whatever cliché with a pulse was handy. Clove was the watchword of cool people.
As signifiers, they make appearances in The Imago Sequence, The Broadsword, and here.
The amplified ukulele music was giving me a migraine. (p. 101)
I suspect that this and other descriptions of the music (“hi-fi jug band”) are wry observations on the bluegrass music scene or references to specific acts, but I’m too ill-informed on the topic to offer anything more insightful than this note.
and I found myself dancing with some sloe-eyed coed (p. 101)
A nice turn of phrase. “Sloe-eyed” means having dark and/or almond-shaped eyes.
who'd fixed her hair in corn rows. (p. 101)
Cornrows are a traditional African hairstyle where hair is braided very close to the scalp in long straight rows, reminiscent of corn fields. The hairstyle was adopted (appropriated?) by certain segments of Americans of non-African heritage, controversially for some.
Her shirt said MILK. (p. 101)
The capitalisation here seems like a clue that a specific shirt is being referenced, or a specific instance of such a shirt being worn, but I was unable to find it.
Last of the Mohicans. (p. 101)
The title of a historical novel by James Fennimore Cooper, written in 1840 and set in 1757. It has received multiple film adaptations, including one in 1992 starring Daniel Day-Lewis.
The girl grinned and patted my cheek. "You ain't got no friends, Ray-bo." (p. 101)
Is this a quote from a movie, television show, or song? The grin and the uncharacteristic slang hints that it is. It is maddeningly familiar, but I can’t place the reference. Ray is the protagonist’s name, last name unmentioned.
Sure enough the stars were on parade; cold, cruel radiation bleeding across improbable distances. (p. 102)
The cosmic horror seems a bit heavy for someone like Ray, but his encounter (related later) seems to have deeply affected him, and this (or the migraine, or the coed knowing his name) is our first clue.
I guessed Cruz and Hart would be nearby (p.102)
I’m unable to determine if Hart is a reference to anyone in particular.
It was either etymologist or entomologist. (p. 102)
Entomologists study insects while etymologists study the history, and changing meaning, of words.
"Right through your meninges. (p. 102)
Meninges are the three protective membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord: the dura mater, arachnoid mater, and pia mater. Something, a proboscis say, piercing the meninges would reach the brain itself.
Sorta like a siphon." (p. 102)
Siphons refer generally to any device that involves the flowing of liquid through a tube, and specifically to a u-shaped tube (inverted) in which liquid flows from a receptacle and out through the tube due to a poorly understood combination of gravity, atmospheric pressure and the cohesion between the molecules of the liquid. It appears to be the general meaning that is employed here.
Another Laird story, collected in The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, is titled "The Siphon"; it has many elements in common with this story, which we will examine in more detail in the discussion section.
They say it don't hurt much, (p. 102)
While the meninges and scalp have pain receptors, there are none in the brain. Injuries (or surgeries) affecting brain tissue are not felt – only the surrounding tissue is sensitive.While the meninges and scalp have pain receptors, there are none in the brain. Injuries (or surgeries) affecting brain tissue are not felt – only the surrounding tissue is sensitive.
"I'm goin' to the garden. Want a beer?" (p. 102)
A beer garden (mentioned explicitly a little later), derived from the German biergarten, is an outdoor area where beer and food are served. In the United States, beer gardens historically offered pastimes such as shooting galleries, bowling alleys, and live classical music. Live music festivals, such as the one in the story, refer to the area serving beer as a beer garden.
I tried to call Sylvia, wanted to reassure her and Carly that I was okay, but my cell wouldn't cooperate. Couldn't raise my watchdog friend, Rob in LA. (p. 102)
I was unable to determine if Sylvia, Carly, and Rob refer to particular people.
Dreamt of wasp nests and wasps. And rare orchids, coronas tilted towards the awesome bulk of clouds. The flowers were a battery of organic radio telescopes receiving a sibilant communiqué just below my threshold of comprehension. (p. 102)
Reminiscent of the bee/hive theme in “Bulldozer” and the “wasp nest” in Hallucigenia. Flowers and insects are recurring images throughout the stories in this collection, as are the related ideas of metamorphosis into an imago (adult instar of an insect), and blooming. The latter two are ciphers for the transformation or evolution of a human into something post-human following exposure to a trigger, some manifestation of the Great Dark. The encounter in Donkey Creek appears to have been such a trigger for Ray. Symptoms include migraines (check) and dreams filled with story-relevant images (check).
A mosquito pricked me and when I crushed it, blood ran down my finger, hung from my nail. (p. 102)
Symbolic, no doubt. Mosquitoes are parasitical insect with a tube-like mouthpart (the proboscis) which is used to pierce the host’s skin to consume blood. Blood is used in animal bodies to convey dissolved proteins, glucose, minerals and gases to and from all other cells in the body. This makes it a concentrated source of nutrients, and therefore a prime food source for all the hungry things in the world.
He said, "I wanna see the Mima Mounds." (p. 102)
Mima mounds (pronounced MY-ma) are domelike mounds of dirt ranging in size from 3 to 50 metres in diameter and up to 2 m in height. They are found in groups as dense as 50 per hectare. They are found in Washington State, approximately 18 miles south-west of the capital, Olympia. Similar mounds can also be found in other parts of the northwestern United States, and in California, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and in many other countries, though it is unclear whether all such mounds were formed by the same processes. This is because there is no agreement about what natural processes are responsible for their formation. Theories include pocket gophers, wind-blown sediment, seismic activity, volcanic activity, tsunami, spatial patterning of plants, and water-swollen pockets of clay. European settlers to the region once believed that they were Native burial mounds. Their excavation revealed that they contained nothing but their. Their uncanny uniformity in size and distribution, in some areas, and the uncertainty surrounding their formation, has led many mystery-mongers to promote supernatural and other less-than-credible explanations: extraterrestrials, vortices, ley lines, and world-spanning ancient civilizations have all been implicated. An interesting but down-to-earth overview of the Mima Mounds mystery can be found on the Archaeological Fantasies podcast, episode 32: Mima Mounds.
This is the first time that Olympia, and the geography of the Olympic peninsula, is introduced in Laird’s stories. The region will feature in over a dozen additional stories, many of which also share specific characters, locations, objects, and creatures.
He rubbed the keloid on his beefy neck. (p. 102)
Keloids are firm, rubbery lesions or shiny, fibrous nodules, composed mainly of collagen. They usually form where skin trauma has occurred—the collagen normally present in scar tissue overgrows in the area, forming fibrotic tumors over an area larger than the original wound. The keloids may also form spontaneously. They can be painful, itchy, and cosmetically problematic. They are much more frequent in people of African compared to European descent.
Keloids recur in a few other Barron stories. Keloid scars appear on Wallace and Helen after their encounter in the barn in Hallucigenia. Keloid scars on multiple "women" encountered by Conrad in The Light is the Darkness serve as a warning signal.
Someone had scratched R+G (p. 102)
It’s not clear whose initials these might be. Ray is a possibility. As are Reagan and Gorbachev, given the other graffiti.
That was where we'd parted ways with the other guys—Leon, Rufus and Donnie. (p. 102)
I’m unaware of any significance to these names. The name Leon reappears a few times, in similar professional contexts. Leonard is a senior bodyguard to Jacob Wilson in Jaws of Saturn. Leon Berens is a pimp in Olympia in The Imago Sequence.
Donnie was the one who had gotten nicked by a stray bullet in Donkey Creek (p. 102)
There is no town or city of that name in British Columbia, though there is a creek with that appellation, near Clearwater (a district municipality with a population of 2300) about 400 km (240 miles) from the US border. I'm not sure where the name comes from, or what real municipality, if any, it masks.
Scotch broom reared on lean stalks, fire-yellow heads lolling hungrily. (p. 103)
There could be something symbolic about this invasive alien species (it is native to the Mediterranean areas of Europe) slowly taking over the landscape. It reappears in “Parallax", in "The Royal Zoo is Closed" (where the ubiquity of Starbucks is likened to it) and "Catch Hell", all set in Washington State.
Scotch broom was Washington's rebuttal to kudzu. (p. 103)
Not one of Lovecraft’s entities but an invasive plant spreading across the southern United States. The vine is native to Asia and was introduced to the U.S. in the late 19th century, where it now covers 7,400,000 acres, spreading at a rate of 2,500 acres a year. It damages other plants by smothering them under a blanket of leaves. It grows quickly and outcompetes other plants in many environments.
Hart was sour about the battle royal at the wharf. (p. 103)
A fight involving many combatants that lasts until only one is left standing. The term may first have been used to describe free-for-all boxing matches and/or cockfights with multiple contenders entering the arena at once. It survives in the modern era in professional wrestling promotions.
He figured it would give the bean counters an excuse to waffle about the payout for Piers' capture. (p. 103)
Russell Piers, given the fondness Laird has demonstrated over the years for generational sagas, may be a relative of Michael Piers, the poet last seen in “Bulldozer” in the 1890s. Besides the shared patronym, which is uncommon, there is no indication that this is the case. There is otherwise no significance to the name that I could uncover.
Cruz rolled down the window, squirted beechnut over his shoulder, (p. 103)
The fruit of the beech tree, the beechnut, is edible, but I suspect that this is a reference to Beech-Nut chewing tobacco.
He twisted the radio dial and conjured Johnny Cash confessing that he'd "shot a man in Reno just to watch him die." (p. 103)
Johnny Cash (1932-2003) was an American singer-songwriter and musician. He sold 90 million records over a career spanning 50 years, had a recognizable deep baritone voice, and performed a mixture of Country, Rock and Roll, Rockabilly and Gospel. The song referenced is “Folsom Prison Blues” (1955), one of his signature songs. Cash is referenced in two others stories.
"Real man'd swallow," Hart said. "Like Josey Wales." (p. 103)
A reference to the chewing tobacco Cruz spat out the window. Josey Wales was a fictional character created by author Forrest Carter and portrayed by Clint Eastwood in the 1976 film The Outlaw Josey Wales. According to online sources, he “has a habit of chewing and spitting chewing tobacco with accuracy.” A fan of the film has compiled a list of instances where he spits (20) and notes that on one occasion he swallows instead. This may explain the reference in the story.
My cell beeped and I didn't catch Cruz's rejoinder. (p. 103)
This sets the story in the late 1980s at the earliest, and probably closer in time to the date when it was written (2004?).
I hadn't mentioned that the Canadians contemplated jailing us for various legal infractions and inciting mayhem. (p. 103)
An empty threat. Mayhem and the verb “maim” come from the same Old French source. Mayhem, as a criminal offence in the U.S., is defined as causing a permanent disabling injury. There is no Canadian equivalent. Mayhem also has the colloquial meaning of “going on a rampage”. They could however be charged with any of the following, depending on the precise circumstances: causing a disturbance; common assault; assault with a weapon; assault causing bodily harm; aggravated assault; attempted murder.
Here was my chance to play Lancelot. (p. 104)
Sir Lancelot du Lac is one of the Knights of the Round Table in Arthurian folklore, first appearing in Chrétien de Troyes’ Le Chevalier de la Charette in the 12th century. He is presented as the bravest of the knights, and saintly, but flawed, as he has an adulterous relationship with King Arthur’s wife.
Took a while—she was busy flirting with Hart and Cruz, who'd squeezed themselves into a booth, and of course they wasted no time in regaling her with their latest exploits as hardcase bounty hunters. (p. 104)
Bounty hunters, professionals who capture fugitives and criminals for money, are found almost exclusively in the United States. The activity is proscribed by the laws of most other countries. They are usually employed as or by bail bondsmen or bail recovery agents. Individuals or agencies who have pledged money (bail) to ensure the court appearance of an individuals, and who will therefore lose it if the individual fails to appear, have a financial incentive for hiring bounty hunters and remanding the fugitive to the authority of the court. Rewards offered for the capture of escaped criminals are the other main source of bounty.
We finally caught the desperado and his best girl in the Maple Leaf Country. (p. 104)
The maple leaf is the most widely recognized symbol of Canada. It features on the national flag. Species of maple trees can be found in northern temperate zones across North America, Europe and Asia.
The girl was Penny Aldon, (p. 104)
I could find no significance to the name, other than noting that "all done" might be a pun.
They fled to a river town, were loitering wharf-side , munching on a fish basket from one of six jillion Vietnamese vendors when the team descended. (p. 104)
Cities in B.C. large enough to sustain a six jillion fish and chips vendors, located on rivers large enough to warrant a wharf, include Kamloops, Kelowna, Chilliwack, and multiple municipalities in the greater Vancouver area.
Piers proved something of a Boy Scout —always prepared. (p. 104)
The Boy Scouts of America, founded in 1910, is the largest Scouting organization in the United States. The Aims of Scouting are moral character development; citizenship training; and development of physical, mental, and emotional fitness. The motto of the organization is “Be prepared”.
he went down under a swarm of blackjacks, Tasers and fists. (p. 104)
The Taser is an electroshock weapon (or “stun-gun”) sold by Taser International. These weapons incapacitate the target by delivering an electric current which disrupts voluntary muscle control, overstimulating sensory and motor nerves and causing extreme pain.
Cruz and Hart had starred on Cops and America's Most Wanted; (p. 104)
Cops is a long-running documentary / reality tv series. It first aired in 1989, and continues (on a different network) with new episodes, and in syndication, to this day. The unscripted show follows police officers as they go about their duties, with a focus on arrests interventions, and altercations.
America’s Most Wanted was another long-running semi-documentary show (1988-2012). It profiled cases involving fugitives and suspects wanted for serious crimes, offering a toll-free hotline for information.
Unmentioned, but apropos, is the reality series Dog The Bounty Hunter, which first aired in August 2004. The series starred the eponymous Dog, a bounty hunter, going through adventures similar to, but less supernatural, "Proboscis", which was published in February 2005. If the story was written before the series debuted, it was uncannily prescient.
Sylvia tried to warn me; she'd known what her brother was about since they were kids knocking around on the wrong side of Des Moines. (p. 105)
Des Moines, Iowa, gets a mention here and in Hallucigenia, where it is described as “a tough town”. The author’s relationship with the city remains unclear.
"C'mon, Sylvie, there's a book in this. Hell, a Movie of the Week !" (p.105)
The ABC Movie of the Week was an anthology series which aired made-for-tv-movies from 1969 to 1976. The network would continue to air new movies every week until 2005.
The waitress, a strapping lady with a tag spelling Victoria, (p. 105)
Victoria is the capital of British Columbia. Whether this has any bearing on this name is unresolved, as is the possibility that there might be some other significance to the name. None come to mind.
"Hey! You were on that comedy, one with the blind guy and his seein' eye dog. Only the guy was a con man or somethin', wasn't really blind and his dog was an alien or somethin', a robot , don't recall. Yeah, I remember you. What happened to that show?" (p. 105)
Rex, the cyborg dog with a positronic brain, is the protagonist of Laird’s short stories “Ears Prick Up” and “Soul of Me”. He gets an origin story in "Screaming Elk, MT".
"Milk of magnesia !" Cruz said. (p. 105)
Synthetic magnesium hydroxide Mg(OH)2 is known as milk of magnesia because of its milky white appearance. A mild base, it is a common component of antacids and laxatives.
She even dragged Sven the cook out to shake my hand (p. 105)
A Sven Haugstad, probable werewolf, walked into the mountains near Poger Rock earlier in the 19th century. Poger Rock is mentioned in the next section ("The Carrion Gods In Their Heaven"). A Sven the Norwegian worked at a logger camp on Mystery Mountain, in the Olympic peninsula, in the 1920s ("The Men From Porlock"). They may be related, or Sven might simply be a name Laird likes to assign to Norwegian men.
A B-movie prosthesis? (p. 105)
B-movie refers to low-budget movies produced to order, with little or no artistic merit. The term originally referred to movies distributed as the second feature in a double-bill. Not heavily promoted, their main virtue was their affordability.
Victoria changed the channel to All My Children. (p. 106)
All My Children was a soap opera that aired on ABC from 1970 to 2011. It was aired, Monday to Friday, at 1PM Eastern (10am Pacific), from 1977 to 2011, and rerun at various times during the week and week-end.
Cruise on through Poger Rock and head west. (p. 106)
Poger Rock is fictional. “Old Poger” is a nickname for the Devil, first found in the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (Francis Grose). Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English proposes that this is a “ghost word” (a word published in a dictionary that has rarely if ever been used in practiced),possibly an error caused by mingling “old peg” and “old Roger” (a more widely attested name for the Devil). Another possibility is that it is a misprint for old poguer=poker, since Old Poker is another name for the Devil with more currency. No matter which mistake resulted in its entry, its subsequent use has secured its position in the long catalogue of nicknames for Old Scratch.
The town is also described in “The Carrion Gods In Their Heaven”:
Lorna fueled the car at a mom and pop gas station in the town of Poger Rock, population 190. Poger Rock comprised a forgotten, moribund collection of buildings tucked into the base of a wooded valley a stone’s throw south of Olympia. The station’s marquee was badly peeled and she couldn’t decipher its title. A tavern called Mooney’s occupied a gravel island half a block down and across the two-lane street from the post office and the grange.
It makes a brief appearance in Laird’s novel The Croning.
I-5 wasn't far from the site (p. 106)
I-5 is Interstate 5, a 276 mile highway that crosses Washington state, stretching from the Canadian border to Oregon. Vancouver (B.C.), Seattle, Olympia and Portland (OR) are located on the highway.
we could do the tourist bit and still make the Portland night scene. (p. 106)
Portland is the largest city in Oregon, and located across the Columbia river from Washington State.
He was a NASCAR and Soldier of Fortune magazine type personality. (p. 106)
NASCAR is the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, which sanctions and governs auto-racing events, primarily in the United States. Races are frequently televised and are second only to the National Football League in terms of television viewership of franchise sports. Culturally, there is a sharp division in level of interest in NASCAR between "coastal elites" and blue-collar, redneck, white-trash Americans from flyover states and/or the south.
Soldier of Fortune, "the Journal of Professional Adventurers", is a monthly magazine published continuously since 1975. It is purportedly aimed at mercenaries, though the readership includes a high percentage of armchair tough guys. It featured classified ads for murder-for-hire services until lawsuits in several states resulting from the hiring of said services led to the removal of ads explicitly selling murder.
The boys debated cattle mutilations (p. 106)
Animal corpses with “unusual” or “inexplicable” features” (Skeptic's Dictionary) attributed to alien visitors, satanic cults, and cryptozoological creatures by proponents of these ideas. The lack of credible and conclusive evidence for the existence of a widespread pattern of unexplained animal deaths is typically attributed to a conspiracy rather than the absence of such a phenomena pattern. Inexplicably, the inexplicable details of individual cases tend to resolve themselves in explicable ways when examined carefully.
and the inarguable complicity of the Federal government regarding the Grey Question (p. 106)
This a big one to unpack, and it will get its own article, eventually, but a government conspiracy to keep the existence of alien entities active on earth a secret is the basic premise behind a great deal of Laird's stories. It provides a neat answer to a crucial question: If we're to believe (for the sake of the story) that these things are real, and have been active on earth since before our species rose to prominence, why have we never heard about them?
Greys are the "real aliens" most frequently portrayed in popular culture. As cultural products, they have a long and convoluted history that is beyond the scope of these notes. What is more pertinent is how that Laird varies the spelling of gray/grey throughout his stories. There are 138 occurrences of "gray" (including the "gray hand" at the end of section 2 of "Proboscis") vs. 14 occurrences of "grey" in his fiction (to date). Two of the "grays" are references to the aliens (Hallucigenia and An Atlatl) and three of the "greys" are ("Proboscis", "Parallax", and "Andy Kaufman Creeping Through the Trees"). In the latter three stories, "gray" is used to refer to colour. My conjecture is that Laird prefers "gray" for colour and "Grey" for aliens (and "greyhounds", which occurs twice), and that editorial preferences and/or inattention account for from the deviance from this preference.
Another question of interest is the phrase "Grey Question", which is capitalized. Is this in reference to a book on the topic with that title? If so I was unable to trace it. It could simply be that its importance as an issue (in some circles) has elevated its status sufficiently that capitalization is justified.
the moon landing was fake (p. 106)
A perennial favourite of the fringe. Its inclusion signals to the informed reader that these capital-C Conspiracy Theorists, with all the cultural baggage that entails.
that flick from the 1970s, Capricorn One, (p. 106)
Capricorn One (1977) is a “government conspiracy thriller film about a Mars landing hoax”. In the film, the fraudulent landing, faked because the real one would have failed disastrously, leads to multiple murders and is ultimately uncovered by a diligent reporter.
goddamned if O. J. wasn't one of the astronauts (p. 106)
O.J. Simpson, football player turned actor turned notorious alleged murderer. The comment implies that the story after the 1994 deaths of his ex-wife and her friend.
"Reduviidae—any of a species of large insects that feed on the blood of prey insects and some mammals. They are considered extremely beneficial by agricultural professionals." (p. 106)
Reduviidae (common name: assassin bugs) are a large family of insects, most of which are ambush predators who feed by injecting digestive fluids into its prey, liquifying its insides which are then sucked out. Some are ectoparasites which subsist on blood, as described here. I was unable to find the source of the description quoted, if it wasn't invented. They are considered beneficial by agricultural professionals because they control (through predation) the population of insects which feed on agriculturally important plants.
Her voice was made of tin and lagged behind her lip movements, like a badly dubbed foreign film. (p. 106)
One from the toolbox of scary things, poorly synched lip movement (as distinct from instances where speech occurs without lip movement) can also be found in "The Siphon", and The Croning.
The indices of primate emotional thresholds (p. 106)
It’s a fool’s errand to try to make sense of fictional scientific jargon, but I'm a fool so here goes. "Emotional threshold" has some currency in some psychological circles. It is "the intensity that your feelings must reach in order to enter into your awareness" (Downs, 2007). Primates has a clear meaning: human beings are primates, as are chimpanzees, gorillas, the other apes, monkeys, and prosimians such as lemurs and tarsiers. Implied in the term is that the scholarly research under discussion was undertaken by non-humans, as humans are typically keen to distinguish themselves from other primates. An index is a composite measure or scale, a quantitative way of measuring the phenomena being discussed. Translation: the measure of what triggers emotional responses in primates.
the [click-click] process is traumatic (p. 106)
The clicks are positioned to allow the reader to imagine something more frightening than anything Laird could conjure. The source of the horror here is the inference that primates (humans) are being objectified, like fur-bearing, milk-producing, or egg-laying animals, or those unfortunate enough to be made out of meat. Whatever is being discussed here is apparently harvested from humans, who naturally bristle at the prospect of being treated as animals.
As an X haplotype (p. 106)
Haplotypes are groups of genes inherited together from a single parent. Haplogroups are groups of similar haplotypes that share a common mutation / ancestor. Chromosomes are the package which contains the DNA which codes for the genes. Because the genetic material in the X-chromosome and autosomes get mixed up every generation, it is difficult to track mutations in these chromosomes through time. This is not the case for the Y-chromosome, or for mitochondrial DNA, and so two different sets of haplogroups have been developed using these two sets of genetic material. The Y-chromosome haplogroups are lettered A to T, while the mitochondrial DNA haplogroups are lettered A to Z, so the X haplotype refers to mitochondrial DNA haplogroup X. More on the X group in a note in section 4.
Mitochondria seem to be implicated in the process called “blooming” through which (some) humans become superhuman, and mtDNA haplogroups are a way of sorting humanity into groups based on mitochondrial genetics.
"It has you, I see. Ticktock go the mitochondria—a nova in bloom. Marvelous, marvelous." (The Imago Sequence)
I listened for the ticktock of transmogrifying cells that would indicate my descent into the realm of superhuman. (“Bulldozer”)
"Jesus!" I muttered (p. 106)
Barron’s characters are not, as a whole, traditionally religious. Given the North American setting of most of his stories, it is not surprising that Christianity and Christians are most frequently encountered (7 and 5 mentions, respectively). Jesus and capital-G God get 87 and 100 or so mentions respectively, the majority of the occurrences being, like this one, verbal flourishes used to add emphasis rather than discussions of the religious characters. Other traditional religions are rarely referenced: one character is Jewish (Hallucigenia), and multiple stories have allusions to Old Testament stories; Islam is mentioned in passing only twice; Buddhism three times and Buddha four; Hindu deities figures abstractly in “Shiva, Open Your Eye” and as a decorative element in The Croning. None of the supernatural elements in the stories can be said to offer much support for the literal interpretation of any traditional system of religion (save perhaps the Moabites -- see On Belphegor). "Pagan" myths, folk beliefs, and fringe cults have a better track record than traditional cults in Barron's universe(s).
Are you talkin' to me? I stared at too many trees while Robert De Niro did his Taxi Driver schtick as a low frequency monologue in the corner of my mind. Unlike De Niro, I'd never carried a gun. (p. 106)
Actor Robert De Niro starred in the movie Taxi Driver (1976) as Travis Bickle, a former U.S. Marine making a living as a taxi driver in New York. A famous scene involves him repeating the phrase “are you talking to me?” at himself in the mirror with varying intonations.
When it was safe I hit the playback button. Same scene on the view panel. This time when Penny entered the frame she pointed at me and intoned in a robust, Slavic accent (p. 107)
We’ve encountered unreliable recordings in Procession of the Black Sloth (written after this story), and recordings/photographs depicting situations that could not have been recorded (by human technology) in multiple stories.
Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is Latin for a death god of a primitive Mediterranean culture. (p. 107)
A word made famous by the song of the same name from the 1964 Disney film Mary Poppins. The word itself is a nonsense word used by children – the writers of the song remembered it from their childhood – to express “fantastic approbation”. A less well-known song was released in 1951 using a variant spelling: "Supercalafajalistickespeealadojus". It is not, to my knowledge, Latin for any deity.
Their civilization was buried in mudslides caused by unusual seismic activity. (p. 107)
This could be more nonsense, or a reference to the Bronze Age Nuragic civilization of Sardinia, which some posit was afflicted by a tidal wave caused by a comet strike in the Mediterranean circa 1175 BC. The unavoidable comparisons to Plato’s story of Atlantis have been made. [Source]
those three-dee poster illusions where the object changes depending on the angle. (p. 107)
Lenticular printing uses lenticular lenses – an array of magnifying cylindrical lenses – so that a surface viewed from different angles will produce a different image. This is accomplished by cutting each image into thin strips and interlacing them beneath the sheet of lenses to produce the illusion described above.
like Gregorian monks chanting a litany in reverse. (p. 107)
Gregorian chants were developed in western and central Europe around the turn of the 1st millennium. There are no Gregorian monks, because there is no Gregorian order – it is the chants which are Gregorian, legend crediting them to Pope St. Gregory the Great. The chants were traditionally sung by choirs of men and boys in churches, or by men and women of religious orders (including monks).
So, yeah, Horatio, it was possible someone had screwed with the recording. (p. 107)
Horatio is a character in Shakespeare's play Hamlet who is skeptical of the supernatural.
Act 1, Scene 5: HORATIO
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!
And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
It was Rob Fries from his patio office in Gardena. (p. 107)
A city in California, in the Los Angeles region.
what Miami vice cops might've worn in a bygone era, such as the '80s. (p. 107)
Miami Vice was a popular American television program which aired from 1984 to 1989. Its glamorous portrayal of vice cop casual wear was highly influential in its time; it is credited with the “invention" of the t-shirt under an Armani jacket style.
"Hola, compadre. (p. 108)
"Hello, friend," in Spanish.
which is a quote of the Calgary rag. (p. 108)
The Calgary Herald and The Calgary Sun are the main newspapers in that city, which is in Alberta, the Canadian province directly to the East of British Columbia.
Mucho dinero, Ray (p. 108)
"Much money," in Spanish.
Some schmuck from Central Casting (p. 108)
A “schmuck” is a foolish person, a word derived imported from the Yiddish shmok. Central Casting is a casting company located in Burbank, California (near Hollywood). It specializes in extras, body-doubles, and stand-ins. The name has developed into slang for a purveyor of generic or stereotypical character type.
The muckety-mucks are p.o.'d. (p. 108)
A muckety-muck is an "important and often arrogant person" (Merriam-Webster). "p.o.'d" is "pissed off", presumably.
I was having lunch with this chick used to be one of Johnny Carson 's secretaries, yeah? (p. 108)
Johnny Carson was the host of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson from 1962-1992.
an exec who just frickin' adored you in Clancy & Spot. (p. 108)
We can infer that this is the name of the sitcom with the cyborg dog mentioned earlier. A fragment of a story (?) entitled "Snorre & Spot Approach the Fallen Rock" can be found on Laird's Official Site. If there's any significance to Clancy, I could not find it.
Lemmesee—uh, Harry Buford. (p. 108)
Not a real person, as far as I can gather. I could find no significance to the name.
He floated deals for the Alpha Team, (p.108)
Possibly a reference to the ¬A-Team television show (1983-1987). I could find no other significance.
Looks like the Elephant Man's older, fatter brother, (p.108)
Joseph Merrick (1862-1890) was an English man with severe deformities who was exhibited in a freak show as “The Elephant Man”. He had three younger siblings, including two brothers -- both died very young, from scarlet fever (Willian, age 4) and smallpox (John, age 0). Vaccinate your children.
Burial grounds, huh? (p. 108)
From this article: Capt. Charles Wilkes, leader of the U.S. Exploring Expedition that charted the Northwest, happened upon them in the mid-1800s. Wilkes thought they might be Native American burial sites, but he found only earth inside.
"Earth heaves, I guess. They've got them all over the world—Norway, South America, Eastern Washington—I don't know where all. I lost the brochure." (p. 108)
"Your buddies wanna see some, whatchyacallem—?"
"Glacial deposits." (p. 109)
Earth heaves and glacial deposits are two of the more reasonable hypotheses proposed to explain the mounds.
Well, I'm just happy the Canucks didn't make you an honorary citizen, eh. (p. 109)
When stereotyping Canadians, the three most frequently employed verbal exaggerations are: apologies, politeness, and the addition of “eh” to the end of sentences. Honorary Canadian citizenship is bestowed on foreigners of exceptional merit. There have been only six recipients to date, including Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and two other Nobel Peace Prize recipients. Rob Fries need not worry.
Cruz, on the other hand, accepted the news of Russell Piers' "early parole" with a Zen detachment demonstrably contrary to his nature. (p. 109)
Zen is a school of Buddhism that emphasizes rigorous self-control and meditation. The core tenet of Buddhist philosophy (expressed by The Four Noble Truths) is that “we crave and cling to impermanent states and things, which is … incapable of satisfying and painful”. Detachment, or non-attachment, is one of the goals of Buddhist practice, understood broadly.
Poger Rock was sunk in a hollow about fifteen miles south of the state capitol in Olympia. (p. 109)
The town appears to have been inspired, at least in part, by Littlerock, which is located 14 miles south-south-west of Olympia, a few miles east of the Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve. The two main streets run parallel to the winding Beaver Creek. It is an unincorporated community, named after a rock formation close to the original town site. A post office has been in operation there since 1879.
Only the elementary school loomed incongruously—a utopian brick and tile structure set back and slightly elevated, fresh paint glowing through the alders and dogwoods. (p. 109)
From the Littlerock Elementary School website: "In the 2003-04 school year our multipurpose building received a seismic upgrade and modernization. This extensive work was made possible by the passage of our local bond issue supplemented by a Federal grant." This is more evidence for dating the events of the story at or near the time of writing (c. 2005 or so).
Cruz filled up at a mom-and-pop gas station with the prehistoric pumps that took an eon to dribble forth their fuel. (p. 109)
Did'ya know Cruz studied geology at UCLA? (p. 110)
Geology is the study of rocks and the processes by which they change. Given the prevalence of caverns in his stories, it is no surprise that geologists occasionally appear as characters. The female team member in “–30—“, and Don Miller in The Croning are the most prominent, Geologist Chuck Doolitlle plays a minor, offscreen role in Hallucigenia, while generic geologists are mentioned in Tomahawk Park Survival Raffle, "Nemesis", and Mysterium Tremendum. Glaciers would fall under the purview of physical geography, which is the study of the lands, features, and phenomena that shape the Earth and its landscapes.
UCLA is the University of California, Los Angeles, which is referenced only here and in the story “Andy Kaufman Creeping Through the Trees”.
It had been the University of Washington for me. The home of medicine , which wasn't my specialty, according to the proctors. (p. 110)
The University of Washington is located in Seattle, Washington. UW is mentioned in Hallucigenia, The Imago Sequence, The Croning, “Ardor”, Mysterium Tremendum, “Termination Dust”, “Gamma”, and “Shiva, Open Your Eye”.
The medical school was opened in 1946.
he fired the engine and rumbled the one-quarter block to Moony's Tavern (p. 111)
The Little Rock Tavern is located one-quarter block west of the gas station on Maytown Rd SW. I was unable to determine when the establishment started operating under this name, and whether it had ever operated under a different name. I could find no significance to the name Moony’s Tavern.
I walked along the street, past a row of dented mailboxes, rust-red flags erect; an outboard motor repair shop with a dusty police cruiser in front; the Poger Rock Grange, which appeared abandoned because its windows were boarded and where they weren't, kids had broken them with rocks and bottles, and maybe the same kids had drawn 666 and other satanic symbols on the whitewashed planks, or maybe real live Satanists did the deed; Bob's Liquor Mart, which was a corrugated shed with bars on the tiny windows; the Laundromat, full of tired women in oversized tee-shirts, and screeching, dirty-faced kids racing among the machinery while an A.M. radio broadcast a Rush Limbaugh rerun ; and a trailer loaded with half-rotted firewood for 75 bucks! I finally sat on a rickety bench under some trees near the lone stoplight , close enough to hear it clunk through its cycle. (p. 111)
Sadly, this series of locations, and the stoplight, are absent from present-day Littlerock. They may be imported from another rural town in Washington, or may have been present c. 2005, or are entirely fictional; I could not determine which.
Rush Limbaugh (b. 1951) is a conservative political commentator who has been on the radio since the late 1960s. He found success as a talk show host in the 1980s.
There was even one of him and a younger brother standing in front of the Space Needle. (p. 111)
The Space Needle is an iconic observational tower in Seattle, Washington. It was erected for the 1962 World’s Fair, and was for a time the tallest structure west of the Mississippi River.
Penny Aldon, the girl from Allen Town. (p. 111)
Perhaps a reference to Allentown, a neighbourhood in greater Seattle? Allentown is also a steel town in Pennsylvania, referenced in a Billy Joel of the same name, which in turn is mentioned in the story “–30--“
A flower child with a suitably vacuous smirk. (p. 111)
A Hippie. The dark side of hippie culture and communes forms the backdrop for the stories The Imago Sequence, and "—30—".
Something cold and nasty turned over in me as I studied the haphazard data, the disheveled photo collection. I felt the pattern, unwholesome as damp cobwebs against my skin. Felt it, yet couldn't put a name to it, couldn't put my finger on it and my heart began pumping dangerously and I looked away, (p. 111)
Compare with this passage from The Imago Sequence:
“I stared for a bit, turning the photo this way and that. Concentration was difficult, because my fingers shook. I sorted the papers again, including the pile on the floor, examining the various photographs and postcards that were salted through the general mess. Some framed, some not. Wallet-sized, to the kind grandma hangs above the mantle. This time I actually looked and beheld a pattern that my subconscious had recognized already.”
I was in Spain with some friends at a Lipizzaner exhibition. (p. 111)
Lipizzaner is a breed of acrobatic show horse.
Waiting for cars to drive past so I could count them, I had an epiphany. I realized the shabby buildings were cardboard and the people milling here and there at opportune junctures were macaroni and glue. (p. 112)
Compare with the continuation of the previous passage from The Imago Sequence:
"Each picture was warped, each was distorted. Each was a fake, a fabrication designed to unnerve the viewer. What other purpose could they serve?"
I mulled that as a brand new Cadillac convertible paused at the light. (p. 112)
Possibly a Cadillac XLR Convertible. American cars are slightly more prevalent than foreign ones in Laird`s stories. Compare Cadillac (23), Chevrolet/Chevy (14), Chrysler (7), Jeep (7) Ford (6), Oldsmobile (1) with Honda (8), Jaguar (6), Volkswagen (5), Toyota (4), BMW (3), Mercedes (3), Lexus (2), Citroên (2), Mini Cooper (1), Audi (1), Peugeot (1), and Porsche (1).
a woman wearing a floppy, wide-brimmed hat like the Queen Mum favored. (p. 112)
The title of Queen Mother is given to the mother of the reigning monarch. The reference here is likely to Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (1900-2002) who was Queen (of the United Kingdom) from 1936-1952 when her husband George was King. Upon his death, their daughter was crowned Queen Elizabeth II, and she became the Queen Mother, a title she held for 50 years.
"Comanche ," I said. (p. 112)
A Native American nation from the Great Plains.
Sign on the door said the evergreen state college. (p. 112)
The Evergreen State College is located in Olympia, Washington. Washington is unofficially nicknamed the Evergreen State due to the vast forests of evergreens and the abundant rainfall and relatively mild climate which keeps vegetation green year-round.
Am I eligible for some reparation money? (p. 112)
The establishment of the Indian Claims Commission after the second World War allowed tribes to file grievances against the federal government and receive monetary compensation for territory loss (among other things), a process which is not fully resolved in some cases.
Did I inherit a casino? (p.112)
Gambling, illegal or tightly controlled in most states, is permitted on Native American sovereign land, leading to the establishment of numerous casinos on reservations. In 2001, there were over 400 such establishments with combined revenues of over $12.8 Billion.
Great-grandma. (p. 112)
Having a great-grandmother who is “full” Comanche would make him one eighth (1/8) Native American. For the math to work, she would have had to have been only one quarter Comanche herself – that is, only one of her grand-parents (one of Ray’s great-great-great-grand-parents) would be full blooded.
Turns out this X haplogroup has to do with mitochondrial DNA, genes passed down on the maternal side—and an X haplogroup is a specific subdivision or cluster. The university wags are tryin' to use female lineage to trace tribal migrations and so forth. Something like three percent of Native Americans, Europeans and Basque belong to the X-group. Least, according to the stuff I thought looked reputable. Says here there's lots of controversy about its significance. Usual academic crap. Whatch you were after? (p. 112)
The Basques are indigenous ethnic group found in north-central Spain and south-western France, around the western end of the Pyrenees. Their language, Euskara (or Basque) is not related to any other European language, or indeed to any other known language. This, and some genetic particularities, have assured them a role in multiple fringe historical theories. Recent DNA studies have dispelled the idea that they represent an undiluted (Laird would say atavistic) strain of early humanity.
Haplogroup X is found in 3% of Native Americans, 7% of native Europeans, and 2% of the overall population of Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia. It is one of five mtDNA haplogroups found in indigenous Americans and, unlike groups A, B, C, D, it is not strongly associated with East Asia. This slightly anomalous result, indicating a stronger genetic kinship of some Native Americans with a haplogroup found mainly around the Mediterranean, has been used to support many alternative historical theories, including the Solutrean hypothesis. This hypothesis, which further research and evidence seems to have entirely discredited, posits that people of the Solutrean culture of Europe were the first migrants to America, 21,000 – 17.000 BP, during the most recent Ice Age, when they would have traveled by boat along pack ice in the North Atlantic. Current understanding seems to be that the X haplogroup was present in a group who migrated from the area around the Caucasus Mountains to East Asia, and then to North America, like the current Altai people of Siberia (who also have a disproportionate number of X haplotypes).
See also the previous note on the topic.
Cruz's dad was Basque, wasn't he? Hart was definitely of good, solid German stock only a couple generations removed from the motherland. (p. 112)
This perhaps explains why the Jersey Shore contingent of the hunting party were not compelled to travel to the Mima Mounds with Cruz, Hart, and Ray.
Stop me if you've heard this one—a Spaniard, a German and a Comanche walk into a bar (p. 112)
Jokes are humorous stories wherein “words are used within a specific and well-defined narrative structure to make people laugh”. One such well-defined structure is the “rule of three”, where three repetitions, with variation, of an event is thought to be funnier or more interesting. This accounts for the popularity of setups including “a rabbi, a priest, and a minister”, “an Englishman, a Scotsman, and an Irishman”, “a Canadian, an American, and a Newfie”, and other regional variants. Two of the characters in these jokes are fools, while the one that happens to match the joke teller’s religious, ethnic, and/or linguistic background is wit and wisdom personified.
The sinister shape of the world contracted around me, gleamed like the curves of a great killing jar. (p. 113)
A killing jar is used by entomologists to kill captured hard-bodied insects rapidly without damage. A killing agent (ether, chloroform, and ethyl acetate are commonly used) is doused on a hard layer of plaster of paris placed inside a jar. Insects are placed into the jar, which is hermetically sealed, and thereby exposed to the killing agent which promptly kills them.
If I were doing anything besides playing out the hand , (p.113)
To play the hand one is dealt is an idiom, taken from card games, which means “to accept, deal with, and make the most of one’s current situation or circumstances”. [source]
I would've gone into Olympia and caught a southbound Greyhound. (p.113)
Greyhound Lines is a long-distance bus transportation company, in operation since 1914, with bus stations and routes crossing the entire country.
George was a retired civil engineer. (p. 113)
A name likely chosen for its bland and unremarkable character. The name has been on a constant decline in prevalence in the United States since 1880. That year 4.3% of male (and 0.02% of female) children were named George, making it the 5th most common name. In 2015, those numbers were 0.15% and 0%, giving it the rank of 135. due in part to changing demographics. [source]
He kept NPR on the radio at a mumble. (p. 113)
National Public Radio, a privately and publicly funded media organization which produces content for a network of public radio stations across the United States. It has been in operation since 1970. It is stereotypically associated with left-wing political audiences, which contrasts with the stereotypically right-leaning rural setting of the story.
He seemed familiar—a figure dredged from memories of scientists and engineers of my grandfather's generation. He could've been my grandfather. (p. 114)
Ominous when read in the light of the their upcoming discussion of assassin bugs: "They camouflage themselves and sneak up on hapless critters to do their thing." (p. 115) That remark also puts an earlier one into sharper relief: Cars passed us head-on, but not often, and usually local rigs—camouflage-green flatbeds with winches and trailers, two-tone pickups, decrepit jeeps. Nothing with out-of-state plates. (p. 103)
He told me the mounds were declared a national monument back in the '60s ; (p. 114)
They were declared a National Natural Landmark in 1966. The program was established in 1962, and recognizes “the conservation of outstanding examples of the natural history of the United States”. There were 599 such landmarks in November 2016, including 18 in Washington State.
He hoped I wouldn't be disappointed—they weren't glamorous compared to real natural wonders such as Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon or the California Redwoods . (p. 114)
Niagara Falls (New York) is both a National Historic Landmark and a New York State Park, established in 1885. The Grand Canyon (Arizona) was designated a U.S. National Park in 1919. Redwood National and State Parks (California) were established in 1969.
George rustled, his clothes chitin sloughing. (p. 114)
Chitin ("kai-tin" or "kay-tun") is the fibrous material of which insect exoskeletons are composed. It's unclear how literally we are meant to understand this sentence, which is probably the point.
"X marks the spot." (p. 114)
A double-entendre all but designed to unsettle a protagonist already on edge. The origin of the phrase can be traced back to a letter by novelist Maria Edgeworth in 1813: “The three crosses X mark the three places where we were let in.” It may have entered the American vernacular in the 1930s when newspapers published crime scenes photos with x’s to mark the spot where the bodies lay. The X also brings to mind haplogroup X, previously discussed. [source]
It poked the beetle with a razor-sharp beak thingy—"
"A rostrum, you mean."
"Exactly. A rostrum, or a proboscis, depending on the species. (p. 114)
The title of the story is brought into clearer focus. It would be an interesting exercise, eventually, to determine what percentage of Laird's stories include the title in the text. At a guess, I would say more than 60%.
Then the assassin bug injected digestive fluids, think hydrochloric acid, and sucked the beetle's insides out. (p. 114)
The saliva of the assassin bug contains at least six different proteins. 10-12 mg of saliva (0.01 mL) are injected into the victim, whose weight may be 400 times greater than the assassin bug. Soon after injection the victim is paralyzed by the secretion, which liquefies the cellular walls of the victim’s internal tissues, turning it to soup. These liquefied cells represent 40-60% of the prey’s live weight. The saliva is toxic to a wide range of insects, but their own species is immune. The saliva is only effective if injected into the body cavity – it has no effect if applied to the exoskeleton, or ingested orally. Human scientists have found that dried saliva is an irritant to eye and nose membranes, because human scientists also like to have fun.
Bites to humans can be very painful, as the same salivary secretions are injected into the site, resulting in the death of a small area of cells. The closely-related kissing bug feeds on vertebrate blood, and is so-called because it frequently targets the soft tissue surrounding the mouth and eyes of humans. [source]
Nearby was a concrete bunker shaped like a squat mushroom—a park information kiosk and observation post. (p. 115)
It seems very likely that this is the structure described. The Mima mounds are clearly visible to the right and left of the kiosk.
I mounted the stairs to the observation platform and scanned the environs. (p. 115)
The photo above shows the stairs and platform very clearly, along with the sign that reads:
Here you can explore the history, geology and ecology of the Mima Mounds.
Puzzle over the ideas scientists have proposed to explain the mounds' origin, and come up with your own explanation.
The photo above provides a shot of the platform in use, the view on display, and the isolation on offer.
As George predicted, the view wasn't inspiring. (p. 115)
This is debatable. The panoramic photo above certainly makes an argument for inspiration, as does this entire story, which was no doubt in part inspired by the view.
My skull ached. (p. 115)
A typical symptom of exposure to weirdness, in Barron’s stories. Fevers and nightmares/hallucinations usually round out the symptoms.
My sluggish daydreams were phantoms of the field, negatives of its buckled hide and stealthy plants, and the whispered words Eastern Washington, South America, Norway. (p. 115)
It has not been definitely shown that the mounds which are found in various locales, including the ones mentioned here, have the same causes. Occurring in different climatic and geological environments, similar-looking mounds may be produced by different (natural) processes. It does however make the story more effective to imply a single horrifying cause.
The connection was weak, a transmission from the dark side of Pluto. (p. 116)
Pluto was, at the time of writing (c. 2005), the farthest planet from the Sun, and more generally appears to be shorthand for “the limits of the Solar system” in several of Barron’s stories. See ON PLUTO for more on the dwarf planet in Barron's stories.
The cell phone began to click like a Geiger counter that'd hit the mother lode. (p. 116)
A Geiger counter is an instrument for measuring ionizing radiation, such as alpha, beta, and gamma particles. It does so by measuring the change in the conductivity of an inert gas in a Geiger-Müller tube – particles of incident radiation colliding with the gas ionize it (freeing electrons from its atoms) which briefly makes the tube conduct electric charge. A readout will display the number of such incidents, and the instrument can optionally produce audible clicks in order to permit the operator to focus on manipulating it.
A lode is a vein of mineral ore, and the mother lode is the principal vein in a region.
Deep sea squeals and warbles began to filter through. Bees humming. A castrati choir on a gramophone. Giggling. Someone, perhaps Cruz, whispering a Latin prayer. (p. 116)
Gregorian chants, mentioned earlier in a similar surreal context, were in Latin. Latin remains the liturgical language of the Catholic Church, and was once the lingua franca for Western Europe, a status it retained for scholarship into the twentieth century. These historical associations with religious orthodoxy and scientific knowledge may explain its current associations with “evil”, understood either religiously (the demonic) or scientifically (forbidden knowledge).
The lizard subprocessor in my brain urged me to sprint for the highway, (p. 116)
The lizard part of the brain appears frequently enough in Barron's stories to warrant its own eventual article. I'm here merely highlighting it for those playing the drinking game.
I took root a few yards from the car, noting that the engine was dead, yet the vehicle rocked on its springs from some vigorous activity. A rhythmic motion that caused metal to complain. The brake lights stuttered. (p. 117)
Predatory activity mistaken at first for amatory activity (a "make-out fake out", for those playing at home) occurs in a few stories, most notably “In A Cavern, In A Canyon”:
“The Viking lay on top of somebody. This somebody was super skinny and super pale. Lots of wild hair. Their arms and legs were tangled so’s you couldn’t make sense of what was goin’ on. I thought he had him a woman there in the weeds and they were fuckin’. Their faces were stuck together. The young biker leaned over his buddy and then yelped and stumbled backward. The skinny, pale one shot out from under the Viking and into the darkness.
Didn’t stand, didn’t crouch, didn’t even flip over—know how a mechanic rolls from under a car on his board? Kinda that way, except jittery. Moved like an insect scuttling for cover, best I can describe it. A couple seconds later, the huge biker shuddered and went belly-crawling after the skinny fellow.” (…) He got a real close look at what happened. Said that to him, the gurglin’ was more of a slurpin’. An animal lappin’ up a gory supper. Then he looked me in the eye and said his buddy got snatched into the darkness by his own guts. They were comin’ outta his mouth and whatever it was out there gathered ’em up and reeled him in.
Look for examples in "The Siphon", X's for Eyes, and "the worms crawl in,". It is interesting to note that "In A Cavern, In A Canyon" and "The Siphon" both also seem to deal with similar creatures to the ones (barely) described in "Proboscis". More on this in the discussion section. See also the brief digression on kissing bugs in an earlier note.
gave me the absurd sensation of lying on a sound stage with the kliegs shut off. (p. 117)
Klieg lights are intense carbon arc lamps used in film productions. They were bright enough to simulate daylight during filming.
He drove way too fast for comfort, if I'd been in a rational frame of mind, and dropped me at the Greyhound depot in downtown Olympia. (p.117)
The Olympia Bus Station Located at 107 7th Avenue SE is a beautiful art deco building erected in 1937. It was listed in 2008 on the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation’s Top Ten Most Endangered Buildings List.
In thinking about how this story fits into the broader Barron canon, we first need to address narrative reliability.
The story is implicitly presented a true narrative being related by someone who has lived through the events. The other witnesses to the events are dead or missing, and there is little to corroborate the story. The details provided are internally consistent, and their combined weight, when correlated with other stories by the author, give the narrative its power. We trust that what he is relating happened the way he tells it; that he is not dishonest, mistaken, deceived, or confused about the order of events.
The insect metaphor serves to naturalize the monstrous creatures at the heart of the story. They appear to be animals, adapted for preying on humans using mimicry and ambush hunting methods. It isn’t clear from internal evidence only whether they are terrestrial animals which evolved in the dark corners of the planet, or whether they are extraterrestrials. I think both readings are justified.
In support of the latter interpretation, one could point out that Laird uses the word “alien” three times in the story, albeit in contexts divorced from the creatures. In section 2, in reference to a television show: “and his dog was an alien or somethin', a robot, don't recall.” In section 4, it is in reference to a school: “Aliens might have landed and dedicated a monument.” In section 5, in reference to the mounds: “What were they? Breeding grounds, feeding grounds, shrines? Or something utterly alien, something utterly incomprehensible…” In section 3, extraterrestrials are mentioned explicitly, but not in reference to the creatures in the story: “…the inarguable complicity of the Federal government regarding the Grey Question…”
The creatures don’t align perfectly with any of the better defined creatures we encounter in other stories. They aren’t entirely dissimilar from the Children of Old Leech, who are also mound-dwellers, voice-mimics, and wear human guises, but they lack the mocking cruelty and boldness which characterize the Children. The closest fit seems to be the Help Me Monster from “In A Cavern In A Canyon”, which mimics human voices to attract unwary humans into the woods, and has a human form, but which does not integrate human society to the extent that a “George” does.
Adding to the difficulty of parsing the elements in this story, Piers seems to be cast as another Mouth, in the mold of Rueben Hicks and Anselm Thornton. As in those stories, the protagonist’s exposure to weirdness triggers headaches, nightmares, and flashes of insight into the greater mysteries of the universe. A deadly curiosity, or compulsion, leads him to seek answers in the lion’s den. He manages to escape, unlike the doomed heroes of the other stories cited. It’s a story in the Imago mold, but with creatures that seem more aligned with the Old Leech stories.
This is an early story, still, and a large world full of dark places. It would be foolish to suppose that all Laird’s stories are part of a consistent multi-verse, and that there are definite answers to all questions raised in them. The Proboscis creatures clearly share genes with other creatures in Barron’s literary landscape – we may not be able to determine ancestry with any degree of precision, but we can nevertheless see the family resemblance.