The presentation had already begun when I arrived at the public screening room of the Film Institute and so I slipped unobtrusively into the comfortable shadows of the back row. The ghostly black-and-white images flickered in and out of focus as the projectionist carefully adjusted his lenses and the accompanying soundtrack swelled in crescendo, filling the auditorium with the relentless two-tone electronic war-drums of the original theme from Doctor Who.
The title of the serial–The Power of the Daleks–swam into life out of the swirling static. This meant nothing to me, but the reaction in the room was terrific. Whoops of joy erupted all around like a crowd at a football match. People were jumping out of their seats and punching the air, and one weak-minded fellow sitting next to me even seemed to be crying. I turned and asked him if he was all right.
“Tears of joy mate! Tears of joy!” he said, slapping my shoulder, but with his eyes still firmly fixed on the images unfolding in front of him. “The Power of the Daleks—it’s the Holy Grail for us Whovians—the first appearance of Patrick Troughton as the Doctor from the fourth series in 1966. They said the BBC wiped the whole lot, but they were wrong. Oh my God I can’t believe they’ve finally found a copy!” He grabbed me and gesticulated wildly at the screen. “Look! He’s regenerating! Oh My God! Oh. My. God!”
He started sniffling again and I quickly made my excuses and left.
Science fiction was never my thing and alone amongst my peers at school I had watched little more than a handful of episodes from this popular television drama, preferring instead to spend my idle hours reading Tarkovsky and Bresson or projecting obscure subtitled films onto my bedroom wall.
The presentation was part of an annual series of screenings undertaken by the Institute entitled ‘Missing Presumed Wiped’: a showcase for our archivists where any recent discoveries of lost television programs or motion pictures were paraded for the general public. The ulterior motive of course, was to raise our profile amongst the powers-that-be in the Department of Culture who held the purse strings for our annual grants. I had little interest in television and was merely showing up to provide some moral support for my colleagues in the hope that they would reciprocate in turn at the world premiere of my restoration of the lost film of Hieronymous Bak’s Life of Count Potocki.
My expectations of a ready quid pro quo for the screening of this lost masterpiece of Polish cinema were sadly premature, for later that afternoon, dotted amongst the row upon row of empty seats in the stifling projection room, were the lonely figures of the Polish cultural attaché, a somnolent (and undoubtedly well-soused on the free lunchtime wine) film critic from The Times and a handful of gormless film students. The event was not quite the succès d’estime I had envisaged. Instead, the next day’s newspaper headlines all trumpeted in unison: ‘Lost Who episodes discovered’ and even though I searched the ‘culture’ supplements assiduously, I could not find the slightest mention of my work.
And so, once the last dawdling members of the general public had ransacked the gift-shop and left the building, we began the arduous task of returning the screening rooms back to their workday use. A group of my colleagues were still congratulating themselves with rounds of mutual backslapping in the main room where the Doctor Who episodes had been left running on a continuous loop. It was then that I alone, it seemed, amongst all the people milling about, noticed something odd. There was a slight convex curvature to the projected image. It was not a direct transfer of an original and had clearly been filmed off a television screen, perhaps by an individual with a Super 8 camera. But, out of the corner of my eye, I thought I could detect something moving in some of the darker scenes, something not on the programme itself, but rather a reflection off the screen as it was being filmed.
Later that evening, when I had the editing suite to myself, I uploaded a copy of the film. Using some digital editing software I isolated the reflection and enhanced the contrast. Gradually the obscure figure resolved itself into a small child’s face gazing impassively at the events unfolding on the screen in front of him. I checked for the expected Super 8 camera which by rights he should have been holding—but nothing else was visible. This was odd, very odd. Exactly where the camera should have been was simply the reflection of the child’s inscrutable face cupped in his hands. Being an obsessive type (as most archivists are) I resolved to investigate this mystery further and tracked down my colleague who had unearthed the serial.
“Where do you find these old TV episodes?” I asked him, feigning a vague interest.
“Usually, by old-fashioned detective work,” he replied, “plus a good smattering of serendipity. Believe it or not, a lot of classic stuff was wiped back then simply to reuse the tapes. TV was regarded as an ephemeral medium like magazines or newspapers; it never occurred to anyone that these programmes might have some cultural value. Occasionally we find things in the State Television archives of former Commonwealth countries, mouldering remnants of unrecorded foreign sales, sometimes it’s illegal copies made by cameramen and directors, and sometimes the damn things just turn up unannounced on car boot sale tables from God-knows-where.”
“And your latest Doctor Who?”
“A most unlikely source. Real cloak and dagger stuff: a muffled phone call suggesting a meeting in a deserted car-park, a surreptitious handing-over of a DVD copy in a plain brown paper package with the promise of more to come. Didn’t ask for any money though, he told me that he was simply giving people back their childhood memories and that was reward enough.”
“So you have no idea who it was?”
“Not quite. I’m not in the business of stalking our donors, but in this case the handover was in a supermarket car park so of course there was only one exit. I simply loitered by some landscaping until I caught sight of him driving away. Posh executive car, a Lexus I think, and he had a parking permit for a hospital stuck to the windscreen–Addenbrookes in Cambridge. I reckon he’s a surgeon or consultant of some sort, he had that air of arrogance about him and an over-firm handshake, but where he could be getting old BBC tapes from is a mystery.“
“We need to track him down and get to the bottom of it all,” I said disingenuously, “there could be boxes of these lost tapes slowly decomposing in an attic somewhere, and we need to get them into a controlled environment and conserved as soon as possible.”
“I couldn’t agree more!” he grinned, “but I’m surprised at your sudden descent from your cinematic ivory tower to slum it with us television types!”
“Don’t get your hopes up,” I countered, “You won’t be finding me enthusing about lost episodes of Dad’s Army just yet. There is an ulterior motive. According to the BBC records they screened a short film of Bak’s: an adaptation of Grabinski’s Nuptial Flames in 1966, the same year as your serial. The film has been lost from the archives in Poland and if there is even the slightest possibility it survives I must pursue it to the bitter end.”
It was a simple matter to call up the hospital website and we scrolled through countless mugshots of academics and surgeons until my colleague jumped up and pointed at the image of a greying, bespectacled academic on the screen.
“There! That’s our man!”
“Mr Crawford Scarsdale,” I read aloud, “consultant neurosurgeon and member of the Cognition and Brain Research Unit. Speciality: the neurophysiology of memory.”
I remained silent about my discovery in the screening room. Could that be Scarsdale in the reflection? No, it was impossible. According to the short biography he must be at least in his early seventies, which would have made him a young med student back in 1966 and several years older than the child in the image.
Impulsively, and without informing my colleague, I telephoned Scarsdale’s secretary at his office and arranged a meeting for the following morning. Addenbrookes hospital was a swift ten-minute taxi ride from Cambridge station and I waited anxiously in his waiting rooms with a pitiful assortment of semi-paralytics and other randomly gesticulating sufferers of advanced neurological trauma. Once the final consultation had completed I was summoned by his secretary into a small, stuffy office, piled to the ceiling with papers and discarded scrips and centred on a large grey metal desk from behind which Scarsdale rose to greet me.
“Welcome, Mr… ?”
I gave him my card and he reciprocated with a distressingly firm alpha-male handshake. He was in his seventies but had the vigour and sharpness of a man thirty years younger.
“I’m from the Film Institute,” I stammered, “and we were very grateful for your donation. Perhaps you and your source may have something less err… populist. As for myself, I am particularly interested in Polish cinema. You have heard of course of the great director Hieronymous Bak?”
I proceeded to launch into my standard (and no doubt unendurably tedious to the uninitiated) eulogy on his works.
Scarsdale interrupted me mid-flow with a dismissive flourish.
“Sir, I must admit my ignorance on Mr Bak’s oeuvre. However, let me be frank with you. I am not interested in unearthing old movies. I applaud your amateur detection skills, but the Doctor Who episode was a mere jeu d’esprit of mine: a by-product of my experiments, an amusing test case, something to prepare the public for the full revelation of the fruits of my research which will come in due course.”
“And your research involves what exactly?”
“Induced hyperthymesia, or in layman’s terms: forensic recollection, the medical reconstruction of lost memories. Come, let me show you to the laboratory.”
I donned a white coat and visitor’s badge and followed him deep into the bowels of the hospital building. After descending several staircases below ground level we emerged into a large high-ceilinged room. The hissing of cooling gasses—liquid nitrogen and helium—punctuated the sombre electrical drone emitted by large banks of machinery which fed their convoluted piping into a vast toroidal centrepiece.
Scarsdale gestured towards this technological behemoth.
“Magnetic resonance imaging! This, my dear friend, is the most advanced functional MRI scanner in the world. The peak field is twenty Teslas—that’s stronger than the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland! If we were to proceed beyond this yellow line we would have to remove all metal objects as a matter of urgency, otherwise your watch would literally be ripped from your arm by the magnetic flux, indeed probably taking your unfortunate arm with it—hence our location deep in the basement. Standing where we are now, we are nearly five floors below ground level!”
Scarsdale called-up several traces on a large computer console which seemed to be the hub from which the whole device was controlled. He motioned me to sit beside him as he selected a recent brain-scan and zoomed in repeatedly. With each click of the keyboard, he was probing deeper and deeper; neural networks of infinite complexity were traced in rainbow colours before me and the rippling concentric waves of each thought pattern tracked to their source like a valley stream from its watershed.
“Thanks to the acute sensitivity of this instrument—the accumulation of forty years of research—we can now measure cerebral activity down to the neuronal level. It is well known to informed laymen such as yourself that different areas of the brain correspond to different processes, speech, memory and so forth. Would you be surprised if I told you that we can reconstruct visual and aural impressions in real time purely by transcription of the MRI activity patterns in the cortex? “
“What! Seeing into people’s minds? Reading their thoughts?”
“Hah! You would not believe the shallowness and banality of people’s thoughts—a jabbering internal monologue of utter triviality! One lump or two? Hair up or down? Eastenders or Coronation Street? That I will leave to the academic bean-counters in my department. I am not interested in reading people’s thoughts, rather in decoding their memories.
“Thanks to my new imaging tools I have now proved beyond doubt that the minute particulars of every visual and aural impression are permanently recorded deep within the temporal cortex and can be replayed endlessly if elicited in the correct manner. I have proved that memory-traces may be treated as an impersonal archive; indeed, neurologically-speaking we are simply living breathing videotapes, for no part of our lives has ever been truly lost to conscious retrieval. One’s personality is there merely as a prism through which external reality is diffracted, an aberration easily corrected-for.
“I see by you expression that you still disbelieve me? The crude results of my competitors have been in the public domain for many years, but they are dilettantes, tinkerers. They are content with abstruse papers to Nature on irrelevant minutiae. I solved the calibration problem within weeks; it was merely a matter of accessing the vast computing power of the University mainframe. You see, each point of activity in the visual field has a correlate in the brain, and these patterns are remarkably consistent between most human brains; the activity can be isolated, defined to a colour palette and then the image is reconstructed by a simple algorithm, similarly with sound. When a memory is evoked, it is replayed, not like a dream, but as a real experience in the patient’s mind which can then be viewed in real time on the monitor here.
“I began by taking my cue from a famous example in literature: Proust and his madeleine. In this instance, a suitable emotional stimulus was used to evoke a profound series of recollections. And so for my first series of experiments I invited my eldest son, who is a stout forty-year-old with a pronounced sentimental streak. I reclined him in the MRI unit, and then, when all the calibrations were perfectly adjusted, I handed him a favourite toy from his childhood. Slowly and ambiguously there emerged on the monitors in front of me a mist-enshrouded, impressionistic scene of our front garden circa 1978. But this memory was composite, fallible, I could see there were large areas of fantasy, displacement and compression; the memory was being warped by his unconscious neuroses. My greatest discovery was that this Freudian, as it were, tinkering with our processes of recollection, could be completely suppressed by placing the subject in a profound hypnotic trance and intravenously administering a powerful dopamine antagonist—in effect turning-off the unconscious censor.
“Once I had refined the technique I read about your institute’s appeals for lost footage and so to demonstrate the power and specificity of my technique one of my colleagues was regressed—with reference to an old copy of the Radio Times—back to a certain Saturday afternoon in 1966, where as a small child he was hopelessly addicted to a certain BBC science fiction series. “
“Of course! That’s why there was no camera in the image—he was the camera!”
“Precisely! Imagine the implications for policing: no more unreliable recollections, no more miscarriages of justice, or mistaken identities. The suspect’s own brain could be interrogated as an incontrovertible source of evidence. Just imagine, billions upon billions of living breathing CCTV cameras seeing all, recording all.”
Scarsdale beamed broadly and arrogantly at me.
His overweening smugness suddenly struck me as deeply supercilious and offensive, and a vile hatred welled-up within me like the overflow of some rancid sewer. His presence disgusted me; to kill such a pompous and obnoxious man would surely not be accounted as murder. My hands wrapped swiftly around his throat and began to squeeze.
He tapped me once on the forehead and I crumpled to the floor, where, after lying prostrate for a few insensible moments I recollected myself and struggled to my feet, spluttering a profuse apology.
Scarsdale patted me on the arm. “My fault! I have perhaps overstepped the mark, for which I beg your forgiveness. You are one of the most hypnotically suggestive people I have ever met. I hypnotised you back in the office, planting a suggestion that you should wait thirty minutes and then try to kill me—don’t ever believe the myth that an individual can’t be hypnotised to do things that are morally repugnant to them!
“However I had an ulterior motive. I need to have a highly suggestible test subject for my most intricate experiment yet. Somebody whose mind I can lay completely bare to the machine, with their personality utterly suppressed. I have booked a press conference for the beginning of next week in the Royal Cambridge Hotel to unveil my research to the world and as part of the presentation I thought I would do something melodramatic, something more universally relevant than an old Doctor Who recording. My grand idea is to furnish the assembled gentlemen of the press with a record of an individual’s birthdays, right back to the moment of his squalling entry into the bright lights of the maternity ward.”
“I’m not sure.” I muttered, still reeling slightly and wondering if he would merely hypnotise me again into compliance with his scheme.
“How old are you?” he asked.
He clapped his hands in satisfaction.
“Ideal. Just enough material for a short presentation. I know how limited the attention span of these Fleet Street types can be.”
And so, prostrated on a gurney, with my head firmly confined into a solid plastic framework with Velcro straps, I allowed myself to be conveyed into the vast, humming, porcelain-white circumference of the MRI coil. Scarsdale appeared beside me.
“Just a small injection of a hypnotic,” he said. Then he proceeded to mutter some incantation which had the effect of placing me into an immediate trance. I awoke to a beaming Scarsdale waving a series of printed screenshots at me which fell out of his grasp as he helped me off the gurney and fluttered to the floor.
“A triumph! An utter triumph!” he chortled. “Just look!” He gathered the papers together and handed them to me. I saw a bland expanse of kitchen table and remembered my lonely thirty-seventh birthday celebrations with a microwave meal-for-one after my divorce. Then came happier times: the smiling faces of my wife and children as I bent to blow out the candles on my thirty-fifth. I became emotional at the sudden onrush of recollection. Here was my dear old granddad helping me build a model plane at my twelfth birthday party. There was Scouser and Hardy my two best friends from primary school, running riot, giddy on fizzy pop and crisps in our back garden when I turned seven.
I paused leafing and turned to Scarsdale. “You are a genius,” I said. “This is a discovery of Nobel Prize significance!”
“There is more,” he said, “What is the earliest you can remember?” I closed my eyes and delved into the depths. Disjointed images of my third birthday swam back and forth. I had seen photos of a ridiculously happy little fool dressed in a cowboy outfit riding rodeo on a battered rocking horse, but how much was memory and how much was simply an interpolation from my mother’s photo album?
Scarsdale dealt out some more images. My third birthday, complete with rodeo chaps, my second, and then my first birthday, with images of my mother and father looming frighteningly over me and a monstrous cake which threatened to engulf my tiny world. Then, as if seen through a rose-red prism, the final image was an out-of-focus panorama of a group of individuals in surgical gowns.
“The origin of you sir!” crowed Scarsdale. “The moment of birth! Did you realize you were a caesarean baby? No? Well I’m sure you mother will confirm.”
We spent the next few hours reviewing the live recordings on a monitor. I offered to use my skills to edit the footage into something more concise which would wow the assembled critics.
“Finished!” I cried out in exultation several hours later as the final scene slotted into the sequence. It was past midnight.
“We are far from finished.” Scarsdale said quietly, in a tone of high seriousness. “Indeed, I believe we have barely begun.”
I looked at him to elaborate on this cryptic statement, but he remained strangely silent. Several times he launched forwards as if to blurt out some secret, but each time the movement resolved itself into a bout of introspective muttering and shoe-gazing. I was acutely aware that I was being assessed for a moment of confidence. Finally, he motioned for me to follow him back up the stairs to his office where we stood at the open window gazing out into the night.
“Now my dear archivist, before we proceed I have a rather philosophical question for you to ponder—do you have a soul?”
“The human body is the best picture of the human soul,” I replied, bemused at this unscientific tack, “not what you see in the mirror perhaps, but that which you see when you look into another person’s eyes, because the eyes are windows of the… well, you know. You can X-ray me all you want Mr Scarsdale, but I’m afraid you won’t find any ghostly aura lurking in a forgotten cranny at the back of my brain.”
“A hardened sceptic, I see. Rather than attempting some fruitless argumentation, let me instead illustrate my own reasoning. Remember I am a man of science, only the facts of my research have swayed my disbelief.
“It has never been fully understood why memories of early childhood are repressed—most individuals, including yourself, find it impossible to recall anything earlier than the second or third year. Why? Perhaps the faculty of long-term memory is not fully developed as some say, yet are not infants perfectly capable of remembering familiar faces and voices? Why then, this global amnesia? It is only now that I realise, with an utter clarity born from my many years of inquiry into the human brain, that it is simply a case of hypnotic suggestion—we have been programmed to forget. Programmed, hypnotised if you will—by a higher power.
We stood in silence, watching the starry night revolve above us as I pondered his bizarre outburst.
“The immortal Wordsworth,” he resumed, “wrote a very curious poem, with a ponderous title: ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’.”
“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home.”
Scarsdale finished this impromptu recital with a graceful bow and we were both suddenly illuminated by the beam of a questing torchlight as a bemused security guard arrived and checked our passes.
“Wordsworth noted the terrible melancholia that haunts our adult lives,” said Scarsdale as the guard continued on his rounds. “The lingering sense of a paradise lost in our childhood—as if we have forgotten our true birthright. If we look to an earlier age; Origen of Alexandria, one of the first theologians of the Catholic Church, was condemned as a terrible heretic—why? He taught of the pre-existence of souls. He taught that the human soul is not created by God at the moment of conception, but is rather the pre-existing spiritual peg upon which the fleshly body is hung. Yet millions today ignorantly profess, as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Holy Father entreat us, that the soul is some sort of infused spiritual essence; that somehow in Heaven, God is operating a 24/7 factory for souls, like one of those production-line machines for filling milk bottles?
“As spiritual creatures we are not born. We reincarnate, or perhaps more specifically, we transmigrate. Perhaps we are all fallen angels. What if we call the soul is merely a portal? What if we are both the door and what comes through it?”
“This all belongs to the realm of faith, not science.” I replied, “A place where your writ does not run, I’m afraid.”
“I beg to disagree,” said Scarsdale. “For with my discoveries, science will become the new theology! To put it simply, I believe like Wordsworth, that some memory-trace of our incorporeal pre-birth existence survives in the most primitive part of our brain. With your agreement, I propose to regress you to a point before your birth. And there, on our little video screen, we shall record something far beyond the poetry of Dante, surpassing even the most esoteric reveries of the mystical saints. The Beatific Vision will be unveiled before us. Just imagine, if you will, our beholding the gardens of Paradise, the shimmering glory of our angelic brethren, perhaps even the very face of God himself!”
His eyes were shining and I realised that he had passed beyond legitimate enthusiasm, that forty years of straining to realise his scientific dream in this airless basement had unhinged him. I saw the chances of winning a Nobel Prize evaporating into nothingness and his inevitable relegation by the scientific community to the lonely ranks of those heretical prophets of cold fusion, homeopathy and ESP.
“I’m afraid, Mr Scarsdale, that I cannot follow you in your idle flights of speculation.” I said. “But for the sake of science I will humour your request if only to disabuse you of this ridiculous notion.”
I returned to Cambridge the following day and met Scarsdale at his laboratory. After some desultory small talk, I lay back on the gurney and allowed him to strap my head firmly into the rigid framework which was designed to keep it as still as possible during the MRI acquisition.
“You know,” said Scarsdale, once I was tightly secured, “I’ve been pondering if there is not an ulterior purpose our photographic memory-record? The mystical Swedenborg said that when we die our souls undergo a dreaming back: an enforced recollection where every minute of our lives is judged on the scales of eternal justice. Well, we shall soon see, shan’t we!”
He rigged a cannula in the back of my hand.
“I’m just going to give you a short infusion of Haloperidol, it will probably make you feel slightly woozy.”
I lay back and his soothing voice purred from the speakers above my head.
“When I count to zero you will sleep. Three, two, one—and relax.”
My pliable mind must have obeyed his instruction for the next thing I remember is coming-to with a start, screaming at the top of my voice. My head was straining against the straps of the headpiece and my throat and tongue had adopted a twisted and unnatural conformation in order to utter the unintelligible guttural shrieks which were from no earthly language I had ever heard.
My hand reached up blindly and tore the straps away. Sweat poured from my brow and the tunnel felt impossibly claustrophobic. The gurney was moving outwards and I emerged blinking into the harsh fluorescent light where a wild screaming figure was waiting for me.
“The eyes! The eyes!”
Scarsdale was swinging a fire extinguisher around his head with the clear object of bringing it down murderously upon my skull and I managed to wriggle myself free just in time to stay his desperate blow. The metal extinguisher was caught by flux of the magnetic field and ripped from his grasp where it thundered violently past my head and embedded itself into the depths of the apparatus. A crimson sparking of short circuits caught light and a brown column of smoke began to pour forth around me, soon followed by the dull heat of a gathering flame.
Scarsdale grabbed my collar and pulled me towards him, his demented face racked by a raw unformed terror that seemed to be born of something internal, some dreadful landscape within his skull that he alone could see.
“The eyes!” he groaned. “The eyes!”
He staggered back and worming his fingers into his eye-sockets he pulled both eyeballs outwards until they were stretched to the end of their quivering stalks and then, with a flourish of blood, he yanked them free. A flux of crimson tears poured from the raw, sightless cavities as he groped his way and began to blindly smash the remaining computer equipment with his fists. The fire in the MRI unit was burning out of control and the curtain of brown choking smoke started rapidly descending towards floor level. It was then, with a mad onrush of fear, that I realised Scarsdale had locked the door.
I wrapped my sleeve over my mouth and dived beneath the smoke. I grappled desperately with him at the console as I attempted to wrestle the keychain from his bloody fingers. For a man of seventy he was impossibly strong and it was only after I had repeatedly slammed his pitiful face several times into the monitor that he finally became still. Scattered beneath him were the screenshots of our final MRI session: my arrival at home from the hospital, the kindly faces of the midwives from the birth suite, the untimely ripping from the womb. Scrawled across the next image: birth minus 6 months, it showed nothing except a warm roseate glow from inside the womb. Then followed birth minus 10 months: a formless darkness, no shapes or images, maybe just textures of obscurity, surely revealing nothing untoward except to the promptings of a deranged mind. Then Scarsdale’s unconscious body slumped down from the console monitor, revealing the last image replaying in a loop, the image that had been recording as I awoke—my minus first birthday.
It was impossible; a monstrous cyclopean eye was filling the screen; somehow its dimensions seemed beyond measure—galaxies-wide. An eye which was not that of any wholesome Christian deity, but rather of some lower organism: bestial and profane. The horizontal slit of a goat-like pupil rhythmically dilating and contracting at the centre of a mottled and cadaverous iris: an inhuman gaze that pierced into the very depths of my newly-discovered soul. I had been seen. Impulsively, I stabbed the keyboard to take a copy and ripping the emerging paper from the teeth of the printer I frantically scrabbled Scarsdale’s keys into the lock on the laboratory doors until they swung open.
A fireman in full breathing apparatus and Hazmat gear was standing outside the lab and I stumbled into his arms. We danced in this unlikely embrace for several seconds, then without warning, he hurled me down the steps of the stairwell. A split-second later, a massive backdraft exploded from the MRI suite with a deafening, thunderous roar, incinerating everything inside and blasting us both to the bottom of the stairs. I was bruised and burnt, but I survived.
Even in the ambulance they could not pry the smouldering picture from my fingers and once I was patched-up I evaded the police and retreated back to the comfortable darkness of my editing suite at the Institute where I could study it in more detail.
Scarsdale had seen further, deeper, into my memories, but memories of what? Or perhaps it was something else’s memories. Was my trivial personality just a telescope, a lens for some alien consciousness beyond time and space which wore me like a coat?
I stared dumbly for hours at the picture of the eye, feeling its baleful gaze burn though me. And it was then, just as in the Doctor Who footage, that I noticed a small fleck of light in the corner of the eye—a reflection.
Using the same techniques as before, I scanned-in the picture and waited as my painfully slow computer ran the image-intensifying software. The swirling sea of grey dots gradually resolved themselves and I fell to the floor, choking-off the screams with my fist.
For the reflection was a face. And to my horror, despite its utter removal from all that was recognisably human, it bore a certain familiarity. In the deepest reaches of my brain a whispering, primordial recollection bore witness to the appalling implications of this obscene simulacrum and I realised, with the sure, cold knowledge born of despair, that there was no hope of holy redemption after death for myself or any other part of the human race—for our petty lives were merely the excrescence into the material world of an infinite and eternal abomination.
I was not the innocent victim of an ancient cosmic evil. Instead I bore the essence of that evil genetically within my soul and had done so throughout countless incarnations. My cries on waking were merely echoes of the insensate ululations of a foul and bestial monstrosity from timeless aeons beyond the visible universe.
Scarsdale had realized this too late and yet what had he achieved except merely to hasten his return to the fathomless horror that had birthed his tortured consciousness into this hostile and pitiless world in the first place?
I raised my eyes to the face again—refracted, anamorphic, frozen in a rictus of guttural, blasphemous voicings—and I felt its sovereign darkness rise within my soul. I no longer needed Scarsdale’s machine to prompt me, for I knew the face reflected in the eye was my own face.
The face I had before the world was made.
Derek John grew up in Dublin where, on the shelves of Fred Hanna’s bookshop, he first discovered the works of LeFanu and Stoker which sowed the seeds of a lifelong passion for weird fiction. His stories have recently appeared in ‘Supernatural Tales’ and ‘The Ghost and Scholars Book of Shadows’.
If you enjoyed this story, let Derek know by commenting below — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.
Story illustration by Peter Szmer.
Wonderful weaving of Gnostic/Hermetic ideas and Lovecraftian themes. “What is the face you wore before you father and mother gave you life…” An old Cha’an/Zen Koan. Mr. John’s answer? An indifferent cosmos, with an alien, and (to modern humanity) hostile and inimical ultimate being. A word to the wise: sometimes the universe isn’t as nice as we would like it to be…
Someone’s got to stop Scarsdale before it’s too late! 🙂
“for our petty lives were merely the excrescence into the material world of an infinite and eternal abomination.”
so very Lovecraftian. Nicely done.
Was well done right up to the end which didn’t quite seem to fit in.
I liked the story, although the ending was. a bit over blown. I was really curios to understand the primodial beginnings, is it really all a nightmare. I think that part left me wanting more. And isn’t that what a good story actually does. leaves you wanting more.
Very well.done and maybe above my intellectual.capacity
I liked it–had a nice 1930’s feel to it, even though the exploding lab at the end wiping out all evidence has been overdone (Hamilton’s “Fessenden’s Worlds” comes immediately to mind.)
This is amazing. It would have been really cool if he had been able to grab the tape. very well done.