After the chaos of the storms, there came a calmness, but no clarity. I remember that February as a supremely funereal month, with everything shrouded in a deep, milky whiteness. Think of the effects of clear blue sky and undiluted sunlight on the earth. The colour in the sky is everywhere absorbed on earth. Everything is brighter, clearer, more vivid, detailed, and more ineffably itself. Under the auspices of sunlight, operating on the senses like a drug, the ordinary can become an epiphany, for this sunlight, just as it goes into the pores, browning and brightening the skin, goes also into the mind, making it feel as though it has awoken from a long, dim sleep, rekindling the old passions, and resuming a sense of life’s quest, however opaque its ultimate object. We were not in that time of renewal yet, however, and winter, exhausted from its raging against the light, still clung on, like an old man holding fast, but with an increasingly tenuous grip, to an idea while he drifted off into sleep, the picture in his mind losing its context and fading, coming in and out of focus with the rise and fall of his breath. The whole world, or so it appeared to me, was that picture, its edges softened by sleep, its past and future diffused in a haze of forgetfulness, until it was only a blanched present, a tiny inlet bordered all around by oblivion.
Just as sunlight has its characteristic effect of making the world more substantial and alert, so its prolonged diffusion makes the world sleepy and disengaged, imparting to it the feeling of those mornings, or days, or sometimes weeks, where the gulf between waking and sleeping are never wholly crossed, and your daylight chores call to you from across a great distance, more soothing than alarming, like the low hum of a foghorn from shorelines so spectral they might not exist at all. Those February skies never stinted in the whiteness of their backdrop, the monotony broken only by little patches of grey that rolled sluggishly across the sky, like the last fleeing wisps of smoke from a drowned fire. The days, too, rolled along, each one having the sense of never fully dressing, of just pottering around in pyjamas and dressing gown, reading the headlines but barely scanning the text beneath. This was not simply my own private mind-set, but a general sense of suspension and hibernation. The weekdays all had that lazy, introspective ambience palpable of a Sunday: the hush, the sense of everywhere closed, the absence of things to do but ruminate on the sameness of how things stand relative to how they stood last week, the unspoken sorrow of those without families, drawn as they are to seek whatever embers of Saturday might still burn in the public houses. We were all bidding our time, waiting to be re-awoken in spring.
The whiteness of those days was nowhere more apparent than in the main square of the Quarter, where the mood of the great glass towers was always at the whim of the surrounding ambient light. I had anticipated that the view from my balcony would provide a cornucopia for the voyeur, now that the gales had subsided. Instead, I found myself surveying a scene of eerie stillness. Signs of life were present on the other decks – tables and chairs, potted and hanging plants, clotheshorses, bicycles, little ornaments and baubles that sought to offset the rigid and clinical geometry of the high rise – but it was as though their owners, having pledged those modest keepsakes of human habitation, then promptly conceded defeat, and left the rectilinear terrain to its preferred ambience of cool emptiness. I saw nobody else on the balconies that month. Lights went on and off, of course, and clothes were left out to dry – but the human hands which carried out those mundane activities remained invisible. It reminded me of the Fireplace Channel Conundrum.
When I was a student, people were having their first experience of the massive proliferation of television channels which became available with the advent of the satellite dish. Nothing epitomized the dazzlingly indulgent scope of the satellite epoch better than the fireplace channel. It was a channel – way out in the further reaches of the Sprawl, nobody could ever quite remember what number – which showed an uninterrupted close-up of logs burning on a warm, relaxing fireplace. Sometimes it had a yuppie satori New Age score piped over it, but most of the time the soundtrack was just the soft hiss and crackle of the fire. This, of course, was long before the days of Noosfeed, so the satellite channels were a very significant cultural outlet in many student households – especially those where marihuana was smoked in any reasonable quantity. This particular building that I was living in was one of those weird old family houses in which not a stick of furniture or lick of nausea-deco wallpaper had been altered since the ‘70s. The living room was a long, narrow little space, like a waiting room. We spent many dimly-lit hours there, seated on faded, aromatic old armchairs and couches, smoking weed and plugging ourselves into the entertainment multiverse of the Sprawl.
A Sprawl session usually began in the early evening, with the whole household sharing a smoke before going out on the town. One or two, however, would always remain behind – one who’d probably intended to go out, but inadvertently lost the will to become vertical much less mobile, and another who was of that mystical type which scorned the social sphere altogether, favouring from the outset the type of mental journeying facilitated by marihuana and the remote control, then known affectionately as the “Gadget”, the “Machine”, the “Thing”, or almost any moniker excluding that of the “Remote Control” itself, as though its magical efficacy would vanish forever once invoked by its True Name.
Having first drank a few beers and chatted for a while, the two stragglers would eventually reach a stage of marihuana intoxication characterised by a heightened intensity of immediate perception, coupled with severely impaired short-time memory, this condition signalling the optimum time to begin channel hopping. For the next few hours, they eased themselves into the shifting topography of the Sprawl, beginning in the Old World of what were then aptly labelled the “terrestrial channels”, weekend chat-shows so familiar and mundane they might as well have been beamed directly from the next room, nightly news parochial enough to be happening outside their kitchen window, gradually lifting off into the stratosphere, towards the edge of the ecliptic, where the archetypal forms of New World constellations swam past them in dizzying profusion, pioneering American chat-shows that mixed real-life voyeurism with ambiguous Wrestlemania spectacle, television judges, psychologists, shamans, gynaecologists, bounty-hunters, cops, all plying their professions on a public that might have been real people or actors playing real people, infomercial channels where actors shilled exercise equipment and actors playing real people shilled kitchen appliances that appealed to the miraculous New Physics of the Cyclonic Cutting Zone (not, contrary to the name, a sci-fi torture chamber), out further again, through a wormhole that fractured near and far, past and present, into an atemporal labyrinth, which opened here in an old kung fu movie, whose extraterrestrial dubbing and intergalactic punch-impact sound effects were a perennial joy to the stoned Sprawler, there into an 80s soft-core porn fantasia, whose impressionistic lighting and showy editing rendered its erotic content abstract and piecemeal, taking sideways turns into a portentous documentary detailing the professional and emotional upheavals of the musician and performer Meatloaf, and always, by some mysterious serendipity, landing at precisely the right moment in the midst of an episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, which, if luck held out even further, might turn out to be Mirror, Mirror, much beloved by Sprawlers for its evil, bearded double of Spock, or The Way to Eden, similarly cherished for its Space Hippie guest stars.
Although on the surface a lethargic and untaxing activity, this type of television viewing required the cultivation of certain sensitivities and instincts. When channel-hopping, it was important to know when to stop at a particular channel, and when to move on again; when to comment on some bizarre aspect of the viewing experience, and when to remain silent; when you had no choice but to go out to the kitchen to make toast, or when a few extra minutes might have caused your partner to crack, and volunteer to do the same. The cultivation of these instincts was aided by the fact, widely known but rarely discussed out in the open, that stoned satellite viewers generally developed a kind of close psychic rapport, sometimes suspected to extend into the circuitry of the television, or perhaps even out as far as the electromagnetic ether itself, where packets of information hovered like spirits of the departed, seeking proper mediums and suitably rapt audiences. In hindsight, it is possible to trace a definite lineage between satellite Sprawling, and the internet surfing which would come largely to replace it. Both involved trawling a non-linear, randomized network, and both emphasized a realignment of the mind towards modes of thinking which were fragmentary and episodic. Both seemed to place a particular currency in experiences which prompted either audible hilarity, or a kind of sheer befuddlement in the face of the inexplicable, bizarre, or utterly randomoid. Sprawlers, like acid trippers, often completely forgot earlier peak moments of a session, until they eventually returned as dreamlike flashbacks, prompting astonishment, and sometimes considerable doubt as to the veracity of the memory. (A couple of us retain the conviction to this day that we once hit on a movie which turned out to be a cross-over between the Elvis Presley Blue Hawaii cycle, and the Toho Company Godzilla franchise, although no evidence of its existence ever emerged in subsequent researches.)
Later on in the night, the others came back from bars and nightclubs, and some awareness of the world outside the living room was briefly and tenuously re-established, but it wasn’t long until the newcomers had smoked themselves into the Sprawl mind-meld. It was usually during these latter stages of the session, with the torch of the remote passed on to fresh hands, that we would sooner or later hit on the fireplace channel. It seemed at the time as though we spent hours watching those logs burn, but in reality, it was probably never more than ten or fifteen minutes at a turn. The fireplace channel could be very soothing, or more than a little sinister, depending on your mood. It was extremely hypnotic as long as the New Age music wasn’t playing, and with the stoner’s capacity for synaesthete blurring of categories, it was often easy to lull yourself into the illusion that you were looking at a real fire, to begin to feel actual warmth coming from it. (We’d all heard the cautionary tale of a particularly far gone Sprawler who’d actually attempted to stoke the fire with a poker, causing the destruction of the television set, and an ontological melt-down from which that household had yet to recover.) Our running trip with the fireplace was to ruminate on the central mystery, or Conundrum, of the channel: the fire never seemed to go out, nor was anybody ever witnessed adding new logs to it. Clearly, some law of thermodynamics was being violated here. We’d watch the fireplace channel for long (in Sprawl terms) stretches, trying to catch out the Hidden Hand that Changed the Logs, until we eventually tired of the wheeze, and moved on in search of a Magnum, P.I. rerun or Toho monster brawl. “We’ll catch him the next time,” somebody would say. However, one of our flatmates, an idealistic and slightly fragile young man called Simon, started to become obsessed with the fireplace channel.
“Seriously, though, how is it that the fire never dies down?” he’d say. “It stays the same strength, all the time. Somebody has to change the logs. I don’t know how they do it, but somebody has to change the logs.”
We tried to explain to him that the footage was surely playing on some kind of edited loop, but, whether due to his idealistic nature, or some profound ignorance of the capacity of editing to trick the eye, he refused to accept this.
“Who makes the channel, anyway?” he continued. “How is it funded? There are no ad breaks. No ad breaks! How does a television channel survive without advertising revenue? What function does it serve? Television serves just two functions: advertising and propaganda. Well, the fireplace channel doesn’t sell anything, so it must serve an exclusively propagandist function. But what message could it possibly have? What message is being subliminally communicated to us by this smouldering fireplace? What is its worldview?”
This was a side to Simon, normally sedate and even a little dull, which we hadn’t seen before. It was obvious that he was getting a little too preoccupied with the Fireplace Channel Conundrum, and some of us started to mutter that perhaps weed just didn’t wasn’t his thing. But he seemed to cool off on the subject for a while, so we didn’t give it too much further thought. That was until this weekend came around when everybody happened to be going home – everybody except Simon. Before we all left, we found him in the living room, preparing for an epic and unconventional Sprawl session. The ground was strewn with bags of potato crisps, in which the whole bestiary of the low-budget snack world was represented: Monster Munch, Meanies, Hot Lips, Banshee Bones, even (ominously) some jumbo-sized Space Raiders, a relatively obscure, pickled onion-flavoured corn snack whose packaging featured a quite accurate rendering of the feared Zeta Reticulan Grey alien. He also had a bag of weed, and his plan was to watch the fireplace channel continuously, until such time as he finally saw the Hidden Hand that Changes the Logs. Obviously, this was a very unhealthy course of action to undertake, and we really should have attempted some kind of intervention at that point. But – whether due a youthful inability to comprehend the gravity of the situation, or some streak of that malicious tendency which prompts some dopers to feed LSD to dogs and cats – we left him to chase down our buses, and go about our weekends.
We returned, and were more than a little relieved, to find Simon apparently none the worse for wear. There was an excited gleam in his eye, and a certain air of quiet accomplishment, almost smugness, in his manner, but other than that, he seemed no different than before. We quizzed him about the fireplace marathon, and found him oddly reticent on the subject. Eventually, he told us that he had finally experienced a breakthrough after twelve straight hours. He had seen the Hidden Hand, and alluded darkly to more besides, but refused, no matter how we prodded him, to elaborate any further. It was a subject which we were happy to let drop. In the weeks that followed, it became increasingly apparent that Simon simply wasn’t the same after that weekend. He had become distant, disengaged from life, secretive. He started to read voraciously, in a variety of esoteric and seemingly unrelated disciplines, and when he watched television, it was with a certain specialized, academic focus. You’d notice him taking frequent mental notes, or sometimes nodding sagely to himself, as though some abstract thesis had been confirmed by an incidental detail on the screen. The expression “away with the fairies” is much abused today as a synonym for the mildest levels of distraction from consensus reality, but must owe its origins to a very specific phenomenon in our agrarian and animistic past, whereby a person, having met some experience out in the fields or crossroads of night, was henceforth only a physical refugee in our world, and a mental denizen of that other world which the rest of us cannot see. This was an apt description for what had happened to Simon, except that his experience had occurred amid signals bouncing down from the edge of space, at the crossroad between standard channels, in the white noise interstices that wind their way like an adverse Qlippoth into the pathways between proscribed signals. In subsequent Sprawl sessions, whenever Simon held the remote, eerie and sometimes prophetic synchronistic linkages abounded in the segues from one channel to the next.
After moving out of the house at the end of that college semester, I lost track of Simon for a few years. Much later on, when I had developed a penchant for aimless street rambling, I started to bump into him from time to time. In the ensuing years, he’d dropped out of the regular flow of life altogether. He didn’t work, and lived in a tiny bedsit, whose tasteless and decrepit furnishing suggested a compressed version of our narrow old living room – only the television was gone, replaced by a laptop. I didn’t think he had too many friends, and imagined him striking up conversations with strangers outside cafes, another one of those eccentrics who introduce themselves with some idle chit-chat about the weather, before lurching abruptly into a geopolitical manifesto of apparently infinite scope and duration. Nevertheless, he seemed quite content, in his own way. I went back to his flat occasionally, to smoke some dope. He devoted most of his time – and most of the limited space offered by the bedsit – to the study of labyrinthine conspiracy theories. He seemed particularly enamoured of the notion that global events were controlled by a cadre of secret societies, whose guiding hand was made apparent in the recurrence of certain qabalistically significant numbers and images in newspaper headlines and artefacts of the popular culture. He had compiled detailed analyses of what he called “cluster events” – terrorist attacks, mass shootings, plane crashes, natural disasters, NASA press announcements – and how they corresponded with Hollywood blockbusters, music videos, awards ceremony set-pieces, and trending topics on Noosfeed. His underlying thesis was that reality was an infinitely malleable mathematical construct, and could be manipulated by feeding certain numerical and archetypal patterns into the collective psyche, like a malicious computer code.
“Have you ever wondered why Frazer’s Golden Bough remained so popular and influential in the 20th century, even to the present day?” he asked me once, “A turgid, almost unreadably prolix compendium of unsupported, outdated armchair anthropology? It’s because its readers knew intuitively what Frazier sought to suppress – that the modern global village is exactly the same as its ancestral precursor – the same indivisible web of sympathies and correspondences, the same dense network of conscious and unconscious sorceries, the same dim shapes weaving destiny in the hidden places of fields and forests, weaving destiny from a thread of placations, sacrifices, and ancient curses - the irony of Frazer was that his book was infused with the energies of the very magic he sought to consign into history, and offered its readers a glimpse at the hidden web of intentional and symbolic forces which underscore the façade of the modern world - ”
It was difficult to navigate the cramped space of the bedsit without knocking over a book-pile or two. I was gathering books from the floor one evening when a familiar cover gave me a start: Pendleton’s Circuitous Path. It seemed that Simon, too, was much preoccupied with the enigmatic motif of the bird out of space and time. The bird, according to his researches, was an ambiguous symbol of immemorial provenance, whose appearance sometimes denoted regeneration, and sometimes damnation. Its ancient analogues included the Melek Taus, or Peacock Angel, of the Yazidi religion, the phoenix of Greek mythology, and the Firebird of Slavic folklore, whose peacock-like plumage burned with the effulgence of a bonfire always on the cusp of waning. In more recent times, Simon found an echo of the archetype in the eponymous symbol of happiness sought by Mytyl and Tyltyl in Maurice Maeterlinck’s 1908 play The Blue Bird; he believed that certain verses of Crowley’s abhorred Book of the Law referred elliptically to the bird out of space and time; and that the “rough beast” of Yeats’ apocalyptic Second Coming was another oblique reference.
“It’s strange,” Simon noted, “that all these echoes cluster around the early part of the twentieth century. First Crowley channelling the Book of the Law in Egypt in ’04.....then Pendleton’s European travels in ’05 forming the basis of The Circuitous Path…..Maeterlinck, operating in the same Symbolist milieu as Pendleton, writing The Blue Bird in ’08…..Yeats, a few years later, working from the same Golden Dawn tradition as Crowley, producing visionary poetry which is enthralled by the idea of gyres, by the circuitous turning of vast wheels of time, kalpas, yugas, aeons….ideas which are pretty similar, if you think about it, to the sense of eternal recurrence which seemed to drive poor Pendleton to distraction in the Paimio Sanatorium…..”
At this point, Simon veered off into a conspiranoid digression regarding the mythical lost album of Charles Manson:
“It’s fairly common knowledge that Charles Manson desperately wanted to be a rock star, right? Also that, in order to further this ambition, he somehow managed to insinuate himself into the company of record producer Terry Melcher and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson. Actually, the connections between the Manson Family and LA music scene went much deeper than this - deeper, perhaps, than we will ever know. The sheer preponderance of weird coincidences swirling around the case – the unshakeable sense that each player in the drama was somehow intimately and secretly connected with every other – has led some to speculate that the Manson murders were merely the visible manifestation of some vaster SATANOID conspiracy which engulfed the entertainment world during the Age of Aquarius. Anyway, to say on the subject at hand….”
“….Wilson arranged for Manson and his entourage to spend a couple of days recording in L.A.’s prestigious Gold Star Studios. This was the same studio where a young Phil Spector had developed – or, as some vinyl Platonists insist, discovered – the Wall of Sound. The Manson sessions were first commercially released in 1970 as Lie: The Love and Terror Cult, and have been in the public domain ever since. This much is known. However, it has been persistently rumoured that another recording session took place in Brian Wilson’s home studio. The fruits of this session were said to embody a ‘vibe which was too heavy and evil for this world to bear’, and the tapes were apparently destroyed. Or so the official story went.”
“However, unofficial, subterranean sources have always insisted that the master tapes of Manson’s lost album were never destroyed. Around the period of the trial, they claim, the tapes were in the possession of Dennis Wilson. He really wanted to destroy them, but just couldn’t do it. Like many involved in the case at that time, he was caught in a tailspin of hyper-paranoia, frozen by the sense that all of his actions were somehow enmeshed in a nexus of black magic and dire, unexpected consequences. So the story goes that he passed the tapes on to Terry Melcher, figuring he’d have the nerves to do what needed to be done.”
“Except Melcher also gets the FEAR – sheer, crippling, paranoiac terror. What if Manson gets out, and comes looking for the tapes? Or sends some of his glassy-eyed jailbait militia out to collect them? What if burning the tapes succeeds only in releasing their evil vibes, dispersing them into the ether until the L.A. smog itself becomes thick with contagious Mansonoid lunacy? WHAT IF THAT WAS MANSON’S PLAN ALL ALONG? Melcher knew there was only one person he could turn to - his mentor, and the man whom he credited with a greater affinity to the arcana of sound recording and black magic than any other living soul: Harold L. Zarkoff, better known in the music world as “Professor” Buzz Zarkoff.”
“Though largely unknown today, outside of the narrow subculture of Surf & Drag/Hot Rod music enthusiasts, Buzz Zarkoff made a big name for himself in the early 60s, arranging and producing hit records in the genre sometimes nicknamed the “death disk” or “splatter platter”, and later categorized as the teen tragedy song. Zarkoff specialized in that particular song-cycle within the genre, best exemplified by Jan and Dean’s Dead Man’s Curve, Ray Patterson’s Tell Laura I Love Her, and the Shangri-Las’ anthemic Leader of the Pack, wherein pious teen devotion is thwarted by fatal vehicular misadventure. Following the lead of Shangri-Las production visionary George “Shadow” Morton, Zarkoff incorporated elaborate vehicular sound effects into the mixes of his hormonal melodramas. The actual provenance of these sound effects has been the subject of persistent rumour in the Surf & Drag subculture, many believing that Zarkoff employed a cadre of brylcreemed, speed-obsessed fatalists to cruise the Hollywood hills at night, often traversing certain stretches of Mulholland Drive reputed to be haunted by malevolent entities, with the intention of deliberately precipitating accidents, whose screeches and crashes a helmeted Zarkoff would record from the backseat, believing that the risks taken on their side balanced the karmic debt of injuries (and automotive repairs) on the other. Whatever the truth of these rumours, the scream which climaxes the spoken-word bridge of Now She’ll Never Tell Me to Slow Down Again by Ricky Danube (of Ricky and the Rubes) still chills to this day.”
“Anyway, Melcher meets Zarkoff in a parking lot on Sunset, and explains his predicament. ‘Don’t worry about it, Terry,’ Zarkoff reassures, ‘I know just exactly what to do with this.’ As it happened, he did know precisely what to do with the cursed recording. Zarkoff’s plan was flawless. He would first erase the Manson material from the tape, and then record a banishing ritual over it. Next, in order to ensure that the negative vibes had been forever erased, he would drive out to Joshua Tree, find a certain “power spot” where he had frequently tripped on peyote, and bury the tape there. Zarkoff knew that this was the right place to bury the tape because once, during a particularly lucid and revelatory part of his trip, a spirit guide appeared at his right ear, and whispered: “Whatever is buried here – whether good or evil – will bear no further fruit.” With the benefit of hindsight, this was clearly higher-dimensional advice, designed to become useful in precisely this crisis.”
“The plan then was flawless, fool-proof – but it never happened. Zarkoff kept looking at the tapes – all ready to be erased, to be banished forever for the good of mankind – and some instinct took over. Call it morbid curiosity, the imp of the perverse, whatever. He starts to think to himself: I could listen to a few seconds of it, right? A few seconds would satisfy my curiosity. What harm could it do? A song. One song. One song isn’t going to kill anybody, right? So he procrastinates, spending a few hours every evening just looking at the tapes, his mind swinging like a pendulum between yin (It’s just a recording, for Christ’s sake, what harm can listening to it do?) and yang (Its evil vibes are worming their way into my brain as we speak, forcing me to play it!) until eventually, inevitably, he cracks, and plays the tapes - gazing, as it were, with his Third Ear open, into the Mansonoid abyss……”
“Six months later, Harold L. Zarkoff was found dead in his Whittier Drive home. His house was a short distance away from the North Whittier Drive dead man’s curve, immortalized in the song of the same name by Jan and Dean, and just a few blocks away from the very spot where Jan Berry, by one of those peculiar quirks of destiny which is by no means innocent or coincidental, suffered a near fatal car crash himself - driving, as in the song, a Stingray. Zarkoff’s cause of death was autoerotic asphyxiation, reputedly the result of a sex magick ritual – in which he was costumed as the Egyptian deity Osiris – gone wrong.”
“The significance of this to our story is that the lost Manson album was never destroyed. After Zarkoff’s death, it fell into the hands of Clarence “Butch” Spiv, the saxophone player with Zarkoff’s hard-rocking Surf & Drag house-band The Bloody Pink Slips. After “Butch” Spiv, it passed on to road-manager, groupie groomer, and general mid-level sleazoid Marty Ballinger. And so it has travelled ever since, a morbid talisman in the tarnished underbelly of the L.A. music scene, another illicit and extreme experience offered in a world of dreams gone awry and hedonism run rampant, from one owner to the next, from skid-row hotels to mansions in the hills, from the generation of hippie star children aging into cocaine gypsy-millionaires, to the era of yuppies and bouffant glam rockers, to the present, always being played in the early and weird hours of epic bacchanalias, in the too-bright and vivid hinterlands between ecstatic night and morning’s come down, played as a last resort when an immunity to amyl nitrate had been attained, and the desire to say out of it will court any madness, leaving a trail of bad luck, mysterious reversals of fortune, and death by hedonistic misadventure in its wake.”
“I was on this Noofeed forum recently, where an anonymous – apparently a former child-actor – claimed that he had seen the master-tapes of the lost Charles Manson album. He said that he was at some glitzy, debauched weekender in a house in the Hollywood hills in the early 90s – Timothy Leary, River Phoenix, and some or all of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers were also in attendance. At some point, he and a handful of other revellers were exploring a recording studio in the house, and they found this really dusty old tape in a box, which was labelled Hymns to the Cosmic Bird Out of Space and Time, and just as they were about to play it, somebody rushed in and told them it was an old Charlie Manson recording which was supposed to be cursed.”
“You mean, you think Manson read The Circuitous Path?” I interjected.
“Yes, I think Manson must have read Pendleton, and associated the bird out of space and time with Paul McCarthy’s Blackbird on the White album: Blackbird fly, blackbird fly/ Into the light of the dark black night.”
My encounters with Simon always left me with mixed feelings. Every time we met, our conversation started in relatively mundane and everyday territory, so each time I would begin to suspect that perhaps he’d finally left aside the thrall of his solitary obsessions, and set his mind to things more fruitful to the everyday existence. I might have hoped for this outcome, owing to a lingering sense of guilt, a feeling that we should have looked out for him a little bit more when we were flatmates. His conversation, however, would inevitably turn back to the exotic fringes of the possible, and the theme of all-pervasive occult conspiracy. I never knew exactly how to feel about this. I felt sorry, I suppose, for the lonely and spartan nature of his life, its sense of disconnection from the bustling world which the majority lived in. And yet, at the same time, it was hard not to acknowledge that these subjects, at least on the surface of things, made him happy. When he spoke about them, a look of conviction, even transportation, stole over him. He assumed the quiet joy, the strange personal light, of a religious ecstatic.
As time wore on, and I began to have problems with work, and at home with Catherine, it sometimes occurred to me that perhaps to live as Simon did wasn’t really that bad. At that time, I was beginning to suspect that simply to exist in the professional world, to provide for oneself some slight measure of luxury above bare necessity, required an extraordinary sacrifice of energy – a diminution of the energy to create, to be inspired, to be enraptured by the very fact of one’s existence. Simon, for whatever he lacked, didn’t suffer those intrusions into his personal pursuits and interests. There was, however, also something in his look of religious transportation which deeply unnerved me. This world as he perceived it was the unholy text of a demiurge – a web of information whose careful unravelling raised him to a sensation of intimate connection with the hidden wellsprings of reality itself. This was appealing to me, but there was also something frightening in that appeal – some intimation of the close proximity between total revelation and total madness, between gleaming godhead and annihilating vacuum. When he became most animated in the explication of his ideas and theories, a light entered his eyes, but when I looked closely enough, I saw only the coals of the satellite fireplace, and even began to hear the sound of its low hiss and crackle, drowning out his words, and filling the cramped space of the bedsit like a quietly malevolent presence. Faces appeared to swim around the light in his eyes, mesmerised and empty.
The same mystery seemed to surround the Quarter that February – the mystery of a fire which burned untended. I could never catch any glimpse of my neighbours, only the indirect evidences of their continued presence. Paranoid scenarios occasionally suggested themselves – the idea, for example, that I was in reality the only tenant of the Harrington/Sheldrake Quarter, with the whole complex serving as a laboratory space, in which I was to be first isolated, and then subject to various psychogeographical experiments. I could proceed, for example, by attempting to befriend some of the supermarket staff, or the people I occasionally saw loitering tensely around the offices during the day. But I would have to suspect that they were also part of the experiment, feeding me misinformation, liable any day to vanish without trace like the other tenants of the high rises.
Occasionally, these paranoid ruminations were interrupted by a light streaking down from above, which my eyes quickly registered as a still-burning cigarette tossed from one of the higher balconies. This was perhaps the definite proof that I wasn’t alone in the Quarter, but it still seemed possible to me that the falling cigarettes were in fact merely ones which I had tossed from my own balcony, perhaps a day or a week ago, returning to their point of departure by way of some localized quirk in the curvature of space/time.
Of course, these were merely fancies, but anybody following the Noosfeed accounts of my neighbours that February, and indeed the accounts of many individuals scattered across the city, would also have noticed a peculiar quietness and reticence descending on the network. Many had stopped posting altogether, and those who continued to update their status did so in a kind of perfunctory manner, as though trying to withdraw from the community without soliciting undue attention to themselves. Large sections of the population had become abruptly and mysteriously secretive; and, far from abandoned, the Harrington/Sheldrake Quarter was a hotbed of hidden and subversive activity which would only become apparent in due course.
Then, however, I knew nothing of this, and was only wondering where everybody had gone.
Top image: Ivan Bilibin's illustration to a Russian fairy tale, via wikipedia.
Toho image: Shinto priestess performs purification ceremony prior to the filming of Terror of Mechagodzilla, via wikipedia.
Gold Star Image: Jack Nitzsche, Darlene Love, and Phil Spector, recording A Christmas Gift To You, at Gold Star Studios, 1963, via TV Guide.