London Lies Bleeding – Prologue

Image: Derek Turner
GOMERY KIMBER introduces Justin Martello, “a new kind of hero”

‘No,’ I said. 

Saul Ruzo opened the cell door. 

‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,’ said Ruzo.  ‘Strip.’ 


At knifepoint, Ruzo’s thugs stripped me naked and bundled me inside. 

‘You like it, Martello?’ Ruzo asked. ‘I call it the torture cell.  It’s based on a design by Alphonse Laurentic.  You heard of him?  He fought for the good guys in the Spanish Civil War. Only we’ve made a couple of improvements, bring it into the twenty-first century.’ 

‘American progress – where would the world be without it?’ 

Smirking, Ruzo slammed the door shut on my remark. 

The torture cell. 

It was impossible to rest. The concrete bed sloped at an angle of twenty degrees. It was impossible to sit comfortably on it either. And exercise was out of the question because the floor of the cell was an obstacle course of house bricks fixed haphazardly into concrete. 

Painted on the cell walls were surrealistic patterns designed to disorientate the prisoner. The clock above the cell door ran either too slow or too fast, and there was no window, making it impossible to know whether it was night or day. 

Air con and cameras were two of Ruzo’s improvements, the lighting effects also. 

Sometimes the cell was tolerably warm, sometimes freezing, and sometimes so hot that the sweat ran down my bare legs. And at any moment, the space might be bathed in lurid green light, or pitch suddenly black, followed by strobe lights, daylight, dusk, dawn, then back again to green, or crimson, or puce. 

And all the time the phantasmagoria was accompanied by repetitive music and noisy sound effects: death metal, advertising jingles, vicious dogs barking, babies screaming, women weeping. Over and over and over again. 

‘It’s designed to send you crazy,’ Saul Ruzo confided when his men returned me to the chamber after the first mock execution. 

And it had. 

With a start, I opened my eyes and looked at my visitor. 

‘Lieutenant Mbweha is very pleased with the progress you’ve made, Justin,’ said Piers Wyvern. ‘She says you might be well enough to be discharged in a day or two.’

I was seated in the uncomfortable armchair beside the hospital bed. Piers Wyvern glanced at me to gauge my reaction, but I was so full of sedatives that I barely reacted at all. I wondered where I would go, now that my house had been sold. 

‘Pity about the rain,’ he said. ‘We might have had our picnic in the grounds.’ 

Piers opened the wicker basket that he’d brought to the military hospital where I was being held. He claimed he’d just returned from a week in Venice where he’d lost heavily at the casino but enjoyed some wonderful food. He was certainly plumper than the last time I’d seen him. His sandy hair was sun-bleached and his florid face tanned. He wore a reddish-brown suit, and not for the first time he put me in mind of a well-fed fox. 

‘Still,’ he said, spreading out the picnic blanket on the hospital bed, ‘cosy little room they’ve given you. We can have a nice chat.’ 

I made an effort to stir myself. 

‘Chat?’ I said. ‘About what?’

‘Why, the future, of course. Now, what would you say to a glass of wine?’ 

I didn’t respond. I sat slumped in the chair wearing military issue pyjamas and dressing gown feeling nothing at all, apart from the draught from the window. So far as I could see I had no future. 

Piers removed the bottle of Gambellara from the wine cooler sleeve and poured two drinks. As I put my glass down on the wooden bedside locker, I spilled some wine. Piers produced a paper napkin and fussily mopped up the drops. He needn’t have bothered. The stained old locker was defaced with many a scratch and cigarette burn. 

‘There’s roast beef with watercress and horseradish,’ said Piers, trying to tempt me. ‘And antipasto, kalamata olives – or one of these delicious miniature scotch eggs.’

His voice was thick with anticipation, for Piers was a greedy man, at his happiest when there was the prospect of not just three, but four meals a day. 

‘Pour me some water,’ I said. 

Reluctantly, Piers did so, from the two-litre plastic jug that stood on the locker. The medication made my mouth dry and I drained the plastic tumbler as soon as he handed it to me. Piers looked disappointed.  I was spoiling a treat. 

‘I don’t wish to appear rude,’ I said. 

‘Not at all, Justin. They’ve got you doped, haven’t they? Silly of me. I thought you might be fed up with hospital fare, it’s always ghastly. But perhaps you’d have been happier with a bowl of clear soup and a soft bread roll.’ 

Disappointed, Piers popped one of the miniature scotch eggs into his mouth and devoured it with relish. 

I looked away. Summer rain ran down the dirty windowpane, and outside in the gardens a gusty south wind whipped the rhododendrons. I didn’t care for Piers Wyvern, just as I didn’t care for the Royal Navy psychiatrist, Lieutenant Missy Mbweha. Before diagnosing me, she’d gone and fetched the official manual of psychiatric disorders and consulted it for some minutes before pronouncing her verdict. 

‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ she’d asked at one point. The question had made me burst out laughing. 

I looked at Piers. He was a confirmed materialist as well. As far as Wyvern was concerned, pleasure was the only thing of undoubted value, and it was around pleasure that he arranged his life. I watched as he decided what to devour next. 

‘Won’t you have something?’ 

‘Have you been discussing my health with Mbweha, Piers?’ 

‘Of course not. Patient confidentiality, and all that,’ said Wyvern, looking up sharply from the delicacies. He softened his tone. ‘The thing is, everyone’s concerned about dear old Justin, who’s come through a very rough time, who in fact has had a rough old life, all told.’

‘A very rough time,’ I repeated. ‘A rough old life.’

‘Your parents and everything,’ explained Piers with great kindness. ‘That sort of traumatic event in childhood, it’s bound to affect one in later life.’

The comment angered me. I wasn’t ‘traumatised.’ So far as I could see, the psychiatric profession pathologised any deviation from ‘normality.’ The only people considered ‘normal’ were those who posed no threat to the possessors of power. 

‘This has nothing to do with my parents’ murder, Piers.’ 

‘We just want what’s best for you,’ he went on, blithely. ‘I mean, you don’t want to be stuck in one of these places for the rest of your life, do you?’

So that was it.  I suppose I would have realised sooner if I hadn’t been doped. 

‘Where exactly are we, Piers?’ 

‘Thought they’d told you, dear boy. Rendlesham Hall, Suffolk.’ 

‘Yes, that’s what they told me, and I said I’d never heard of a military hospital of that name.’

‘Well, neither had I for that matter.’

‘It’s off the books.’

‘Now now,’ Piers chided me. ‘Don’t get upset. Why not try that wine? It’s Giovanni Menti.’ 

‘So, what is your plan for me?’ I asked. 

‘We thought you might like to do us the occasional service,’ Wyvern said, choosing one of the roast beef sandwiches. ‘Nothing too onerous, and nothing that will trouble your conscience, either.’

He bit into the finger sandwich. 


Hurriedly, Piers chewed so that he might respond. ‘There’s no need to decide right away. Have a think about it over the next few days.’

‘The answer is no, Piers.’ 

‘It will do you the power of good. The nine-to-five, there’s something to be said for it. Reason not to get hammered in the evening for one thing, or at lunchtime.’ With a smile, he raised his glass to me.  It was a thin smile and not entirely pleasant. ‘Ordinary life, more or less, keeps one grounded.’

Mounting anger was rousing me from my sedation. 

‘I flew too close to the sun, you mean.’

Piers regarded me sceptically. 

‘I intend to speak of forms changed into new entities,’ he quoted.   

Piers had no time for metaphysics, which was surprising given his ancestry (the Wyvern family had produced many an occultist and alchemist). I’d known him twenty years. As a green lieutenant, I’d been assigned to act as his bodyguard while on secret service in Iraq, and Piers had been delighted to learn I’d attended what he allowed was a fairly decent school and knew Latin and Greek. 

I intend to speak of forms changed into new entities

It was from Ovid, the opening line of The Metamorphoses. The poet’s unifying theme of transformation, I recalled, involved the hunter and the hunted, and more often than not, violence inflicted on the victim, as well. 

‘Come home, Justin,’ Piers said. ‘All is forgiven.’ 

I was feeling emotional.     

‘That’s right, drink your wine, there’s a good chap. Remember Thorne, your old Staff Sergeant? We thought he might act as liaison.’ 

I almost choked. 

‘What do you mean? I run my own ship.’ 

Piers frowned. ‘Not any longer, I’m afraid,’ he said. ‘Theresa thought it better you step down. After all, it was only on an interim basis, wasn’t it? And you’re not really a businessman, are you?’

I took the comment personally. True, I wasn’t a businessman, but I was a leader, and it was on that basis that I’d agreed to run the Seton-Glennie operation.   

‘Theresa spoke to you?’ I said. 

‘Mrs Seton-Glennie did indeed speak to me, icily admittedly, but she told me she wanted you to step down. I’m sure you’ll speak to her, in due course.’ 

‘Get out.’ 

‘Steady, Justin, steady.’ 

‘Leave me alone, you bastard.’

‘Now that’s quite enough! Need I remind you I was the one who rode to the bloody rescue after you were shanghaied by Ruzo?’ 

‘Shanghaied?’ I repeated. ‘Abducted, you mean, from the most secure police station in London, Paddington Green. Do you really think I believe you people didn’t have a hand in it?’ 

We did not, asserted Piers, red in the face.  Handing one of our own to the Yanks so that they could torment you? Absolute rubbish!’ 

I bit my lip and looked away. I was absolutely certain that the powers that be had indeed handed me over to Ruzo and his loathsome ‘gators, but saying so, even to my ears, sounded like paranoia. 

Piers regarded me as though with great concern.   

‘Justin,’ he said softly, ‘you’re my friend and I have your best interests at heart. What has to be has to be. You’ll come back to work for us, and that’s that.’


Wyvern was about to remonstrate but when he saw the murderous look on my face he decided that discretion was the better part of valour. I watched the smooth-talking cynic struggle to stand. 

‘I shall leave the picnic,’ he said, breathing hard, ‘for you to enjoy. Goodbye, Justin.’

After Wyvern left, it took me some time to calm down, and by then I was hungry. I stood up unsteadily and examined the picnic hamper. Amongst the food I discovered presents – Italian coffee and biscuits, a pack of Marlboro cigarettes (the brand we’d smoked in Iraq), a lighter, and a little box of Baci chocolates. On the back of a picture postcard Piers had written in his florid hand: ‘Dear Justin, trusting you’ll be on parade again very soon, much love from your DQ.’

DQ, Delta Quebec. That had been Wyvern’s call-sign in Baghdad, until the Americans learnt what DQ referred to, that is. 

I turned the postcard over and looked at the picture, not surprised to see the Botticelli self-portrait. When Piers first saw me in shorts he told me I had ‘Botticelli legs.’ 

Rejecting the nostalgia and the feeling I’d behaved discourteously to an old friend, I flicked the postcard aside, and helped myself to a sandwich. 

That was when I discovered the phone, in amongst the food.  It was of a special design, the kind issued to MI6 officers in the field overseas.  It contained only one contact number: Thorne’s. 

There was something else – my passport. But when I opened it I discovered it had been stamped ‘WITHDRAWN’ in red ink and the top corners of the pages clipped off. I supposed it meant I’d be working for 6 in the UK, MI5 territory, and therefore supposedly forbidden. I swallowed the food in my mouth, but without appetite. 

I remembered the time when I had dominated life, but for some time now life had been dominating me. 

Cutting the grass

That was the phrase Saul Ruzo had used. 

‘You got above your station, Martello, you need to be reminded who’s boss. You loused up my operation, Operation Eagle’s Nest! Well, now you’re gonna pay.’ 

Hands trembling, I cleared the picnic away, got into bed and tried to go back to sleep.

‘No Air Native, No Man Kindred’ – extract

Caino (bis) – Wilhelm von Gloeden (Wikimedia Commons)
This is Chapter 23 of GOMERY KIMBER‘s latest novel, No Air Native, No Man Kindred

August 1935. A young James Valentine pursues his cousin, Clarissa Wyvern, to Munich. Clarissa is the black sheep of the Wyvern clan, dishonouring the family name by joining the British Union of Fascists. She wants nothing less than to capture the heart of Adolf Hitler, in the belief that doing so will prevent war between England and Germany. But those closest to Hitler, such as occultist Professor Lustgarten, are certain she is a spy. It was Lustgarten who set Hitler on the path to dictatorship, and the Professor is determined that Clarissa will not ensnare the Fuehrer. But Lustgarten is distracted by the brilliant James Valentine, a young man of genius whose ambition is to become the foremost novelist of his generation. Lustgarten has a secret ambition of his own, nothing less than to become a god…


The Institute’s director lived in a secluded villa hidden amongst pine trees on the edge of the walled grounds.

It was hot and sultry when they arrived from the city in the early afternoon.  Lustgarten parked the Opel in front of the villa.  It was a rather ugly building, tall and narrow, with wooden beams and a steeply pitched roof, but its off-putting appearance was softened by the white roses climbing trellis work on either side of the front door.

Lustgarten led the way to a carved wooden gate, and James Valentine followed him round the side of the building and onto the terrace at the back of the house.  The French windows stood open.  They went inside.  On the dining-table was an arrangement of summer flowers in a vase.  The walls of the dining room were lined with glass-panelled bookcases on top of which were displayed a collection of primate skulls.  On a side table, James saw books – Ernst Juenger’s war memoir and a volume of pseudoarchaeology by Ignatius Donnelly.

‘Let me get you a drink,’ said Lustgarten.

‘Thank you.’


‘Yes, please.’

Valentine was thirsty and hot.  The prospect of a cold beer was delightful.

‘It is my housekeeper’s afternoon off,’ said Lustgarten, going through into the rear hallway which led to the kitchen.

‘You leave the doors open?’ said Valentine, following him.

‘Why not?  As you saw, the front gate is guarded.  This is a secure institution.  No unauthorised person can get in, or out.’

As he was speaking, Lustgarten removed bottles of Munich beer from the Linde refrigerator.  He was very tall with large feet, but as he went over to the dresser for the glasses he moved gracefully, like a dancer.

‘Here,’ he said, smiling at Valentine, offering him a glass and one of the bottles.

‘Wonderful,’ said Valentine, popping the porcelain cap.

He poured the iced beer into the glass, and as he waited for Professor Lustgarten to do likewise, he looked at the golden liquid foaming, and became quite enchanted with it.  He heard Lustgarten chuckle.

‘What?’ asked Valentine, looking at him.

‘You are like a child.  I am not being rude, it is merely an observation.  You have a poet’s sensibility, I think; or better yet, that of a mystic.’

‘I’d have to agree with you,’ said Valentine.

He was amused.  It was obvious that Lustgarten was taken with him.  At school, such an infatuation would have been called a ‘pash.’  Valentine had found it mildly ridiculous when it was a fifth former who had a passion for an angelic eleven-year-old, but the present situation struck him as even more absurd.  Lustgarten must have been over fifty, and he, Valentine, was no longer a pretty youth but a robust young man nearing twenty.  Was the Professor about to make a fool of himself?  Valentine hoped not.  He liked the man.  He was brilliantly accomplished and successful, even if he did have some strange ideas.  What could be more risible than falling for a man the way a man fell for a girl?

Lustgarten raised his glass.  ’Your very good health,’ he said, looking into Valentine’s eyes.

‘Cheers,’ said Valentine.  The beer was icy and refreshing, and Valentine almost groaned with pleasure after taking a draught.


‘I’ll say.’

‘Let me show you the experiment I mentioned,’ said Lustgarten, after a moment.

‘The planaria?  All right.’

Once again, Valentine followed the German into the hall.

‘Yes, they are interesting creatures,’ said Lustgarten.  ’Incredibly simple organisms, without brain or nervous system, they make for excellent laboratory subjects.  But I wondered, you see, how they could learn without a brain.  What I discovered is . . . well, let me show you.’

The laboratory was a large room with high windows at the front of the house.  It was warm in the room and Lustgarten crossed to the windows, raised the blinds, and opened them wide.  The flat worms were kept on a carved wooden bench at the back of the room.  Valentine examined the glass tubes in which they were housed.

‘They cannot survive without water,’ said Lustgarten, returning from the windows.  He pointed to one of the tubes.  ’Open the tap.’

‘Seems a bit unfair,’ objected Valentine, but he did as he was asked.

As soon as the water started to drain, the flatworms began to rush along the tube in search of water.  Quite soon they came to a fork in the tube.  One branch was of clear glass and therefore lighted, the other had been painted black.  It was the black tube that had been drained of water.

‘See what has happened?’ asked Lustgarten.

‘About half have found the water.’

‘Yes, that’s right.  But yesterday these same worms chose the water nine times out of ten.’

Valentine thought for a moment, considering the implications of this.  ’What you mean is, they aren’t stupid, but they’ve chosen the wrong tube deliberately?’

‘Exactly, even though choosing the wrong tube means no water, and death.’

‘Are you saying they’ve got bored?’

‘I am indeed, my young friend.  That is precisely what I’m saying.  They are bored to death.’


‘You see the implications of this experiment?’

‘If it is the same for humans, you mean?  Yes, I do.’

‘It is the same for human beings,’ Lustgarten insisted.  ’You said so yourself earlier at lunch when you spoke of the difficult beginnings of writers like Shaw and Dickens and H G Wells.  You said that this had made them artists of the first rank.’

‘Of course,’ said Valentine, delighted.  ’And you seem to have proved it, Professor.’

‘Not quite; not yet.  I have ordered new glassware for a further experiment to test the boredom hypothesis.  It will make the learning process more difficult.  If I am right, and I think I am, then only the very best of the planaria will be able to find the water, but because it is so difficult to do so they will not regress.  They will continue to find the water because they have had to put greater effort into learning how to do so, and therefore they will have achieved a higher degree of what you might call ‘imprinting,’ which I think is just another word for purpose.’

Valentine was excited.  ’This is marvellous,’ he said.  ’I can see why you made the experiment.  It has implications for the treatment of mental illness, hasn’t it?’

‘I think so,’ said Lustgarten.  ’So many of a psychiatrist’s patients suffer from what might be called discouragement, the feeling that life is empty, and, of course, so many of these people are members of the idle classes.  Depression is a symptom of an affluent society, as I am sure your father would agree.  I remember in August 1914 how cheerful everyone was.  It was a paradox.  We were going to war and might well be killed, but we were happy because we had a purpose, a difficult task upon which to concentrate our energies.’

Lustgarten was smiling distractedly.  Valentine looked at him in admiration.  Here in the flesh was one of Bernard Shaw’s ‘world-betterers.’

‘I’ll be sure to tell my father,’ he said.  ’In fact, I shall write to him this very afternoon.’

‘Why not this evening?’ suggested Lustgarten.  ’You aren’t about to hurry off?’

‘No,’ said Valentine, doubtfully.

‘Good.  Have another beer.’

‘But I haven’t finished this one.’

‘Drink up, drink up,’ ordered Lustgarten, cheerfully, heading for the door.  ’It is too hot in here.  I think we need to cool down.’

Puzzled, and once again amused that the older man was flirting with him, Valentine followed Lustgarten down the corridor, past the kitchen, and out the back door.  Beyond the terrace, the garden was laid to lawn, at the bottom of which was a wooden gate in an immaculately trimmed hedgerow, shadowed by tall pine trees.  It looked idyllic.

‘But tell me, James,’ Lustgarten was saying.  ’I may call you James?’

‘Of course.’

‘Tell me how you solved the problem.  Your father is a professor of medicine and so, presumably, if you’ll forgive me, your family is not impoverished.’

‘No, we aren’t poor.  But how do you know I’ve solved the problem, in any case?’

‘By examination, of course.  I have been observing you and thinking about what you’ve told me.  You say you are not a university student, you are merely here in Germany for a few months to study our language.  You have no profession, you are not a soldier, you are not in any sort of formal training.  Oh dear, I think to myself, the young man’s parents must despair of him, but then I make the observation that this youngster is no wastrel.  And the way he talks of men like Schopenhauer being second-rate, this shows some mental acuity, and a degree of self-confidence unusual in one so young.’

‘I think you are being too kind,’ said Valentine.  ’The natural conclusion must be that I am like most young men, arrogant, self-opinionated, and worthless.’

‘Oh no, not in this case.  My observations tell me otherwise!’

Valentine was prepared to be annoyed, but something told him that Lustgarten was not flattering him but speaking the truth.  By now they had reached the gate.  Like the gate at the front of the house it was carved and decorated with runes.  The handle was an iron ring which the professor turned while looking closely at Valentine’s expression.  Valentine inclined his head in acknowledgement.

‘All right,’ he said.  ’I solved the problem by taking a bed-sitting room near the British Museum.  My father wanted me to study medicine, but it didn’t interest me enough to make a career of it.  My mother on the other hand wanted me to go up to Cambridge and read English, which appealed to me slightly more.  However, I decided not to take the path of formal education.  It would have been too easy, that was my thinking.  I should have been given a generous allowance and taken up my rightful place as a prospective member of the governing class.  The idea repelled me.’

‘But why?’ asked Lustgarten.  They were still standing by the gate which was only partly open.

‘It’s difficult to explain.  Everyone I know takes life for granted.  Heidegger has a phrase which captures it entirely: the triviality of everydayness.  It is as if they are forgetful of existence.’

Lustgarten was nodding his long head in great seriousness.

‘Well, I’m not.  I don’t want to forget I exist, or rather, I cannot forget.  It’s like an itch I can’t scratch, and I can’t understand why everyone else doesn’t feel the same way.  How can you train for a career, even a worthy career like medicine, when there is this great unanswered question ignored by everyone around you?  No, I wanted purpose and meaning to my life.  I think if I’d taken the easy route to university, I would have ended up like the poor devils you and my father treat!  Sorry, I’m talking too much.’

‘Not at all, not at all.’

Valentine knew he wasn’t talking too much.  The problem was, the longer they stood there in the cool shadows by the gate, the more uncomfortable he became.  Lustgarten was standing close to him, and although Valentine was six foot three, the German appeared to tower over him.  Valentine wanted to move a step back but was determined not to do so.  The situation was becoming more ridiculous by the second, and he firmly decided that he would make an excuse and leave as soon as he reasonably could.

When Lustgarten asked, archly, ‘And what do you do in your bed-sitting room near the British Museum?’ for Valentine it was the final straw.

‘I write,’ he said, coldly.  ’Every day I cycle to the Reading Room at the Museum, and I write.  I write because I have the gift of finding words for divine truth.  I write because I am destined to be the greatest English author of the twentieth century.  Before I came to Germany, I sent a thirty-page letter to Bernard Shaw telling him I am his natural heir.’

Now it was Lustgarten’s turn to be amused.  He finally pushed open the gate and stepped through into the heat of a sun-lit wide-open space that contained a wooden changing hut and a swimming pool.

‘You think it funny?’ Valentine asked him.

‘No,’ said Lustgarten.  ’Please don’t be offended.  It was just your reaction that made me smile, not the grandeur of your life’s ambition.  That I can do nothing but applaud.  There are so many little people, and so few great men.  You have the makings of the latter.’

‘More flattery,’ said Valentine.

Lustgarten turned to face him.  ’Now you are going to tell me you have decided to leave,’ he observed, with a touch of mockery.  ’Believe me, you are quite safe.’

Valentine was angry.  It was an automatic reaction and one he had no intention of giving in to.  Annoyed, he said, ‘I suppose you have no swimming togs.’

Lustgarten began to take off his jacket.  ’On the contrary, you will find bathing shorts in the pavilion.’

‘Then I shall be quite safe.’

Lustgarten chuckled.  ’You will.  You have nothing to fear from me.’

And so, Valentine went into the pavilion, disrobed, put on swimmers, and dived cleanly into the pool, which is what he’d wanted to do as soon as he’d set eyes on it.  Lustgarten, also wearing trunks, came and joined him a minute later.  The Professor was wearing a white handkerchief tied around his head, and as the German raised a hand to shield his eyes from the sun, Valentine looked at him in surprise.  He wiped the water from his eyes and looked again.  It was remarkable.  For all the world, Lustgarten looked exactly like Bakst’s painting of Vaslav Nijinsky, at the Lido in Venice.  Lustgarten slipped into the water, and the moment passed.  Now that all that was visible was his head and the handkerchief, he looked almost prosaic, nothing like the dancer at all.

‘Ahhhh,’ said Lustgarten, with great pleasure.  ’How lucky I am to have the use of this pool.’

The water was sun-warmed, and both men luxuriated in its refreshing coolness, floating on their backs, and talking without constraint.  The comment about the pool had softened Valentine’s opinion of the Professor.

‘Do you know who you remind me of?’ James asked.



‘I am flattered.  I saw him dance in Paris once.  He was superb.’

‘Are you a dancer?’

‘Me?  Oh no.  In my youth, I climbed mountains.  I like to keep physically fit.  I swim, I use the gymnasium, and I row.  I also follow a special diet, eating no meat, only fish.  Now, do you know who you remind me of?’

James answered flippantly.  ’John Tanner?’

‘Oh no, greater than that: Wotan.  You remind me of Wotan.’

‘Wotan?’ James repeated, wondering if he had misheard.

‘Yes.  Haven’t you read Shaw’s book on Wagner?  He is mistaken in many respects, but he is correct in saying that Wotan is symbolic of the Godhead.  You remember what he said of those rare persons who in comparison to the dwarf Alberich might be called gods?’

‘Those whose aims extend beyond the satisfaction of mere bodily appetites and personal affections, you mean?’

Valentine thought that he had offended the older man, who now stood up in the shallows cupping a hand and looking up with a scowl at the brilliant sky.  ’What is it?’

Lustgarten made a growling noise at the back of his throat and violently washed his hand in the water.  ’Idiots!’ he said to himself.

Something floated past Valentine.  It was dark and sooty, and at first he thought it was a downy feather from a corvid.  It landed on the surface of the pool, and he examined it more closely: an oily smut.  Lustgarten was noisily climbing the ladder out of the pool.

‘Excuse me,’ he apologised, hurriedly.  ’I must go and telephone.’


‘It is forbidden to use the incinerator in the daytime or at weekends,’ he explained, picking up a towel and draping it around his muscular neck.  ’Against stupidity even the gods fight in vain!’

Valentine looked up at the sky.  It was spotted black by the smuts that floated on the gentle breeze across a serene ocean of white and blue.

It was half an hour before Lustgarten returned.  He was wearing a short towelling robe and carrying a camera.

‘I wondered where you’d got to,’ said Valentine.

‘My apologies.  Now, before you leave, I would like to take your photograph.  You don’t mind, do you?’

Valentine, who was drying off on a lounger, was surprised.  At lunch, Lustgarten had made the effort to get him to come alone to the Institute, and since they arrived he’d been intent on keeping Val there, so why the sudden change of heart?  For all his ambition and brilliance, in many ways James Valentine was an innocent.

‘Go ahead,’ he said.

Lustgarten raised the camera, focusing on him lying on the sunbed, and took the pictures.

Reluctantly, James got up.  The thought of returning to his lodgings was unappealing.  His room at the top of the house was hot and cramped.  At the villa, Lustgarten hurried upstairs to change, and Val took the opportunity to visit the downstairs lavatory.  When he came out, he noticed the door across the corridor.  It stood ajar at the bottom of a short flight of steps.  He was sure that earlier the door had been closed.  Curiosity aroused, he descended the steps, pushed it open a few inches and peered inside.  The basement room was lit by narrow horizontal windows shaded by blue blinds.  It was the strangely coloured light which had attracted his attention.

On a bench lay a leather apron and a horse crop, but it was the strange wooden structure against the wall which caught his eye.  He reached out a hand for the light switch.  The structure turned out to be a sort of box about six feet high, inside which was a wooden throne upholstered in plush purple cloth and decorated with runic designs.  The overall effect was somehow unsettling.  He narrowed his eyes, trying to figure out why, but no idea presented itself.  From upstairs came the sound of running water.

He glanced at himself in the mirror which hung on the wall above the bench.  There was a book half-hidden by the leather apron.  He looked at the title: it was a volume of de Sade.  There were other books arranged on a shelf beneath the mirror.  Deciding he ought to leave the room, he picked one at random and opened it.  What he saw repulsed him, and he snapped the illustrated volume closed.  But it occurred to him that he ought not be repulsed, and opened the book again, turning the pages until he found the photograph of the woman.  He read the description beneath.  The woman’s throat had been cut after she had been raped by Haarmann, the so-called ‘Vampire of Hamburg.’

Now that he had become used to the depiction of the gaping wound, he was able to think more clearly.  It was difficult to imagine that the woman had once been alive, and that she had met such a violent end.  The corpse did not seem real.  Once again, the familiar feeling of devastation came, a laying to waste of reality.

He returned the book to the shelf, thinking, why existence? Why something; why not nothing? Why am I here? There was the familiar feeling of imprisonment. But he knew that analysis was pointless, the intellect powerless before the problem.  It was infuriating.  He wanted to penetrate life, to see it from the outside.  There had to be a way to do it.  But if there was, he had yet to discover how.  If the intellect couldn’t help him, what could?  Emotion?  The body?  It seemed unlikely.  He was conscious that at lunch he’d been acting a role, pretending to be something he wasn’t, and he had lied to the Professor.

James had quarrelled so violently with his father over medical school that he’d been thrown out of the house, and it was only due to the kindness of his grandmother that he’d found somewhere to live.  He ought to have been happy.  He had got what he wanted.  A room of his own, books, a typewriter, enough money for food (his mother sent him a postal order fortnightly), but half the time he was bored and listless, incapable of creative writing, even of thinking.  It was quite ridiculous.  There was something fundamentally wrong with human beings.  To be free is nothing to us, but to become free everything.

That was when he became aware of the blue glow.  He concentrated on its source with a kind of relief: he had struggled with the devastation many times before, and its immensity had always defeated him.

The blue glow appeared to be coming from a wooden box that stood on a workbench at the other end of the room.  No longer worried about being discovered, he went over and examined it.  The box was decorated with runes.  He recognised only one with certainty – the life rune, Algiz, that looked like a stick man with raised arms.  The hooked cross immediately above the life rune was easily identifiable, to be seen everywhere in Germany.  He was about to lift the lid and discover the source of the blue glow when he heard footsteps in the passageway outside.  He moved away.  A moment later, Lustgarten’s head appeared round the door, and they looked at each other in the mirror.

‘There you are,’ said Lustgarten, amiably.  ’I wondered where you’d got to.’

‘The door was open,’ explained James.

‘I know, I opened it.  You suspect me of an ulterior motive, bringing you here?  Quite right.  You are a Wyvern like your cousin, Clarissa.  When I heard that name, I was determined to make your acquaintance.  Come along, I shall explain in the car.’

It was a twenty-minute journey back to town.  Lustgarten spoke without pause the whole way.  He spoke about his discovery of the very stuff of life, which he called Odinic energy, explaining that he had discovered it by considering Freud’s libido as a genuine physical phenomenon and not simply a metaphor.  He spoke of his investigations into the theories of Reichenbach and Mesmer; he spoke of his Odinic Energy Accumulator Apparatus, and of his search for a cure for cancer; but most of all, he spoke of his admiration for Valentine’s ancestor, Sir Edward Wyvern, alchemist of Bohemia.

‘In his work I have discovered some of the most advanced ideas about Odinic energy,’ said Lustgarten.  ’But there is something missing, something which he only alludes to, and which he never fully explains.  It is said that the Wyvern family have in their possession certain documents . . .’

Valentine at last understood.  By this time, they were in central Munich, and Lustgarten was parking the car near the railway station.

‘I have never heard of any such documents,’ said James, apologetically.

‘That is a pity,’ said Lustgarten.

‘I could enquire about them.  My uncle is something of an expert on Sir Edward.  He is writing a book about him.’

‘I know,’ said Lustgarten.  ’I have tried to contact him more than once, but he has not deigned to reply.’

‘I’m sorry,’ said James, automatically.

He noticed that Professor Lustgarten’s expression had changed.  No longer was he good humoured.  He looked defensive, almost resentful, as though on the verge of losing his temper.  Then Lustgarten laughed, and the air was cleared.

‘I have enjoyed our afternoon together,’ he said.

‘Me too,’ said James.  ’Thank you very much.’

‘Sex,’ said Lustgarten.

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Sir Edward’s secret doctrine.  It is something to do with the sexual impulse.’

9/11: premonition of disaster

Credit: Shutterstock
GOMERY KIMBER believes there really can be second-sight

On the afternoon of September 11th 2001 I was making notes for a story I planned to write about the ghost of a slave ship captain. I’d already named the ghost Noah, but I couldn’t think of a suitable surname. I sat there, pen in hand, awaiting inspiration.

Eventually, a name popped into my head: Shanks, Noah Shanks.  That sounded just right. I wrote it down, made a sandwich as I’d had no lunch, and turned on the TV.  When I saw what was happening in the USA that afternoon – real horror, real terror – making notes for work of fiction seemed not a little pointless.

It was two days later, while reading newspaper reports of the attacks on America that something strange happened.  As everyone knows, there was a fourth aircraft that never reached its hijackers’ target. Flight 93, a United Airlines Boeing 757, was carrying 38 passengers and seven crew. It crashed 80 miles south-east of Pittsburgh. Or to be more precise, 8 miles east of Jennerstown, near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I looked again. Shanksville? My first reaction was, now that’s unusual, that’s the same name as the character in my story. Then I noticed that Flight 93 had crashed at 2:00 PM Greenwich Mean Time – about the same time that the name Shanks had swum to my head.

Now for several months before September 11th I had been plagued by nightmares of explosions, nuclear warfare, and natural disasters; one particularly disturbing dream concerned a skyscraper in a city under air attack. In June 1996, the flat I shared with my girlfriend was blown up by the IRA bomb which badly damaged city centre Manchester. I had assumed the nightmares related to that traumatic event, but now I wasn’t so sure. I’d dreamed of a skyscraper (there were none in Manchester) in a city attacked from the air (the IRA used a lorry bomb); could it be possible that I had glimpsed the future, dreaming of a terrorist attack that had yet to happen? But how could I have been?

Everyone knows that time is linear, flowing from the past into the future. It is impossible to have prior knowledge of a future event. Or is it? I recalled reading about the journalist John Godley who dreamed more than once of future horse race winners; on the strength of his fame as a psychic punter he went on to be a racing correspondent1. So perhaps time is stranger than we think, perhaps all of us have precognitive dreams but forget about them as soon as we wake up.

In 1927, in his famous book An Experiment With Time, J W Dunne suggested exactly that. Upon waking, Dunne would write down what he had been dreaming about, and quickly discovered that he did indeed dream of future events. While reading about a combination lock, he realised he had dreamt about it the night before. On another occasion he dreamed that his watch had stopped at four-thirty and that a crowd was shouting, “Look!  Look!”  Dunne woke up and discovered that his watch had indeed stopped at four-thirty. He wound it up, only to find the next morning that his watch was showing the right time: his dream had woken him at the moment it had stopped.

Not all Dunne’s dreams were so mundane. In 1902, as a soldier in South Africa, he dreamed he was on an island threatened by a volcanic eruption. In the dream he “was seized by a frantic desire to save the four thousand (I knew the number) unsuspecting inhabitants”. Days later he read an account of a volcanic eruption in Martinique. 40,000 people were said to have died, but Dunne misread the figure as 4,000. It was fifteen years before he realised his error. “My wonderful ‘clairvoyant’ vision had been wrong in its most insistent particular!” he noted, concluding that his dream was of reading about the eruption in the newspaper, not of the event itself.

Illustration from the 16th century Augsburg Book of Miracles

Dunne is not alone in having prior knowledge of disasters. In October 1966, a coal tip slid down a hillside and buried the Welsh mining village of Aberfan, killing 144 people, 128 of whom were children. Following a visit to Aberfan, Dr J C Barker made an appeal in the London Evening Standard for those who felt they had foreseen the disaster to contact him.  Of the 76 people who came forward, Barker was able to confirm that 26 had spoken to others about their premonition before the event. The precognitions had affected people all over the UK, from five weeks before the disaster to within two hours of it. So vivid were the precognitive dreams that in some cases people woke in great distress, reporting that they had heard children screaming. Some claimed to have had premonition of other disasters; Doctor Barker called such people “human seismographs”.

Indeed, it would seem that the greater the reading on the psychic Richter scale, the greater the number of people who receive glimpses of the future.  It should therefore be no surprise that a rash of premonitions preceded the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912, which claimed 2207 lives. Ten days before he was due to sail on the ill-fated vessel, businessman J. Connon Middleton twice dreamed of a ship that turned keel upwards surrounded by frantic people in the water. Luckily for him, the conference he was due to attend in New York was cancelled and he stayed at home. Fortunate too was sailor Colin MacDonald. Three times he was asked to join the Titanic as second engineer, and three times he refused; he had a strong premonition that the ship’s maiden voyage would end in disaster. Newspaper editor W. T. Stead was not so prudent. Strangely, since he was interested in the occult, Stead ignored the advice of the fortune teller Cheiro (real name William John Walker) not to travel by water during April 1912, especially about the middle of the month (the Titanic sank on the 14th). Stead died in the disaster.

Perhaps the most uncanny of all the premonitions concerning the loss of the Titanic occurred in 1898. The American novelist Morgan Robertson was something of an oddity, in that he felt himself not a creative artist but a channel for the writings of someone else. Often Robertson was blocked and could only write when he felt himself possessed by his invisible partner. It was in this role as amanuensis that he wrote The Wreck of the Titan, the story of a ship designed to be unsinkable due to its watertight compartments. On its maiden voyage in April, the Titan, travelling at a speed of 25 knots, strikes an iceberg. The ship has only 24 lifeboats for its 3000 passengers and crew and sinks with huge loss of life. The parallels with the Titanic are remarkable. At the time it struck an iceberg on its April maiden voyage, the Titanic was travelling at 23 knots, and carried only 20 lifeboats. Like the 70,000-ton Titan, the 66,000-ton Titanic was sailing from Southampton to New York. 22,007 lives were lost, a death toll which would have been even greater at the ship not been two-thirds full . . .

But how is it possible to know about something that has not yet happened? Classical science, and common sense, revolts at such a notion. Newtonian physics tells us that all elements of the universe are isolated from each other, divisible, wholly self-contained and separate. We are Mind, sitting outside this mechanical universe, looking in. Strangely, this paradigm still obtains. I say strangely because discoveries in quantum physics should have caused its demise in the early part of the last century. In quantum physics, matter cannot be divided into discrete units, but is completely indivisible. The universe can only be understood as a web of interconnections. Things once in contact remain in contact throughout all space and time. Indeed, space and time appear to be nothing more than arbitrary constructs, and do not in fact exist.

Augsburg Book of Miracles

In The New Immortality, J. W. Dunne equates our lives to a strip of film which shows everything that happens to us from cradle to grave.  The ‘everyday you’, which Dunne calls Observer 1, travels along this film strip, totally engrossed in the mundane business of living.  But when the ‘everyday you’ relaxes, a strange thing happens: you become the ‘real you’, able to observe the strip of film from a distance and see into the future just as easily as you can see into the past. It was in such a relaxed state – trying to come up with the name for a character in a story – that the name Shanks drifted into my mind.

A similar state of mind, which we might call alert relaxation – is used by remote viewers, which is what the US military calls its clairvoyants. Astonishing as it may seem, during the Cold War, the Pentagon spent millions of dollars on the Stargate Programme, training military personnel as psychic spies, spies who were used to discover the secrets of the Soviet Union without ever leaving the USA. Stargate was disbanded in 1995, and since then former remote viewers have gone into business, predicting the future of the stock market for corporate clients and teaching civilians how to ‘’see at a distance’. One such RVer is Prudence Calabrese who claims to have had a vision of the attack on the World Trade Centre as long ago as 1997. Posted on her website are the ten pages of sketches and notes she claims to have made during a remote viewing session on 10 March 1997.

But is there any hard scientific evidence to support the theory that everything is connected, that time is not linear, that we can forecast the future? In fact, there is.

On September 11th, 2001, three hours before the first airliner struck the World Trade Centre, a machine at Princeton University in New Jersey predicted some major disaster. The machine is a Random Event Generator used to monitor completely unpredictable processes, such as the decay of a radioactive ingredient. The results it produces are down purely to chance and are recorded on a graph. Most of the time the graph shows a wavy line, with only a few minor variations, but occasionally the line peaks. That is what happened on the morning of September 11th. Between 9am to 10am Eastern Standard Time, as the attacks began and those infamous pictures were broadcast around the world, the graph peaked enormously.

In fact, the REG graph began to rise at 6am, three hours before the first strike on the WTC. Writer on the paranormal, Colin Wilson, believes that this was because many people around the world, Barker’s human seismographs, were experiencing premonitions of the coming disaster, and that this surge of fear and distress showed itself on the graph three hours before the attack began.

I was not alone in my premonition of disaster. Actress Nicole Kidman has described how she intended to fly to New York from Los Angeles on September 10th, but changed her mind because she had a premonition that things ‘would not go well there’. A British writer on the paranormal has related to me how she cancelled a trip with her mother to the USA after experiencing a vivid nightmare in which the plane on which they were travelling was deliberately crashed into the ground Mother and daughter had been recommended by a relative to visit the viewing deck of the World Trade Centre.  The only gap in their tight schedule for such a visit was on the morning of the 11th . . .

In America, countless individuals have contacted psychical investigators to report similar premonitions. Perhaps the most sinister of all concern followers of Osama Bin Laden. In a video tape found by US troops in Afghanistan, Bin Laden and his lieutenants make extensive reference to precognitive dreams about September 11th amongst their own followers.

In The Roots of Coincidence, Arthur Koestler quotes Oxford Professor of Logic, H. H. Price. Price believed that “telepathically received impressions have some difficultly in crossing the threshold and manifesting themselves in consciousness. There seems to be some barrier . . . which tends to shut them out of consciousness . . . and they make use of all sorts of devices for overcoming it. Sometimes they make use of the muscular mechanism of the body, and emerge in the form of automatic speech or writing [we are reminded of Morgan Robertson who believed himself merely the channel for another writer]. Sometimes they emerge in the form of dreams . . . And often they can only emerge in a distorted or symbolic form (as other unconscious mental contents do). It is a plausible guess that many of our everyday thoughts and emotions are telepathic or partly telepathic in origin, but are not recognised to be so because they are so much distorted and mixed with other mental contents in crossing the threshold of consciousness”

So, were my nightmares a premonition of disaster, garbled and distorted? I am inclined to think that they were. As for the name Shanks popping into my mind at the time Flight 93 crashed near Shanksville, was that coincidence or clairvoyance? I can’t prove it, but I think it was the latter.

  1. John Godley was the Irish peer, Lord Kilbracken, and the story of his dream winners are related in this documentary from the 1970s, introduced by Colin Wilson: Leap in the Dark – Dream me a winner – Paranormal – Documentary – YouTube []

The War Party – extract

‘Hypnos’, Wilhelm von Gloeden
This is Chapter Thirteen of GOMERY KIMBER‘s novel, The War Party, the second book of the Big Shilling trilogy. ‘Verity Clissold wants the whistle-blower terminated. But he’s taken refuge in a London embassy and not even the CIA can reach him. There is only one solution. Call in the most accomplished assassin in the world, the Big Shilling.’

After his shower, the Big Shilling lay on the bed and closed his eyes for five minutes. He’d opened the upstairs windows, and, along with the banal cacophony of the city – emergency sirens, incessant traffic, airliners sailing overhead – there came the sound of a party in one of the back gardens. Raucous Australians were preparing a barbie.

As he drifted in his natural element, that state of consciousness on the borderland between waking and sleep, BS could smell burning charcoal, and sensed anger. He ignored it, and concentrated instead on imagining the future, on imagining the best.

Fidel, eh? You shouldn’t have crossed me, you shouldn’t have crossed me, Fidel. You’ll get what for, you’ll get what for. You don’t suffer from hives, eh? You don’t, Del? Are you sure, my boy? Are you sure?

A few minutes later, raised voices disturbed his tranquil state. There was some kind of altercation underway outback. No longer drowsy, BS threw on some clothes and went to investigate.

From the window of the back bedroom he saw that the garden next door was thronged with people, not only Australians, but Poles as well. There were two barbecues pluming grey smoke, but food didn’t appear to be the main attraction for these young men and women: no, they had gathered to get slaughtered. A black plastic dustbin was brimming with ice and cans of beer, and the Poles were doing vodka shots. There was an amusing drinking game in progress as well: with the aid of a funnel and a tube, an Aussie girl in cut-off jeans and a bikini top was able to consume half a litre of lager in two seconds flat. The Big Shilling watched as the girl gripped the handle of an upright garden hoe and attempted to circle the implement as quickly as possible. To hysterical laughter, she spun out of control, and ended up on top of a heap of half-naked men.

It gave the Big Shilling an idea. Seeing that girl and the hoe, and the smoking charcoal and the booze, it gave him an idea.

‘Soma,’ he said, delighted, ‘polar. The goddess naked, surrounded by flames, her hair loose, wearing a necklace of skulls, and dancing on the still body of Shiva.’

The secret ritual. Why not attempt it? Why not indeed? The powers would come to him. He would have powers. Now, that would be something to put his biography, wouldn’t it, eh? Powers? Yes, it would.

‘This is not fair,’ the Big Shilling heard someone call plaintively from above. ‘This is not right, or fair.’

From the garden there were a variety of replies:

‘Stop your whingeing, mate.’

‘It’s the Owl Man, woo-woo!’

‘Come and have a beer, mate.’

‘Let your bloody hair down for once and have a laugh.’

The Owl Man, thought the Big Shilling leaving the bedroom, how interesting. He went up the narrow stairs to the second floor. The door to the balcony was ajar, and he could see the painter of owls leaning over the parapet, appealing to the good nature of the pissed partygoers below.

‘Peace and quiet, that’s all I want, a little bit of peace and quiet,’ said the young man. ‘You said there would be no more noisy parties. But all right, if you are to have a party at least let it not go on till the early hours – please?’

‘All right, mate,’ said the biggest of the Aussies, ‘no worries. We’ll call it a night before eleven.’

‘Thank you, Brandon,’ said the Owl Man, as though he actually believed what the rugger-bugger had said. ‘I’m going to go out now, so you can make as much noise as you want.’

‘Yeah, see you later, mate,’ said Brandon, sarcastically. ‘Remember to stand well back from the platform edge, won’t you? Don’t want you throwing yourself under a train.’

‘Brandon,’ chided a couple of the girls, but their voices were submerged in the general laughter.

The painter of owls turned away, brushing his unkempt chestnut hair out of his eyes, eyes which spoke of pain and confusion and angst. ‘Swine,’ he muttered, ‘why can’t they leave me alone?’ Then he saw the Big Shilling, who had been observing him from the shadows, and started. Amused, Shilling raised a hand in apology, but the boy was gone, scurrying inside like a rabbit down a hole.

After observing the party further, particularly the girl with the hoe, the Big Shilling went downstairs and finished getting dressed. He was planning a night out as well, and as he dressed, he sang himself some Sinatra, some Frankie, even going so far as to perform a few dance moves. But the noise from the garden put him off his stroke.

‘Better not keep me awake tonight, Brandon,’ he murmured. ‘That wouldn’t be a good idea, Brandon. Eh?’

When he was done, he collected the bag with the painting, and went downstairs. He was locking the front door when he noticed the Owl Man coming down the steps next door.

‘Evening,’ said the Big Shilling, not too loudly. ‘Sorry if I startled you.’

The Owl Man again looked startled, and it was obvious that he really didn’t want to be forced to converse.

‘It’s all right,’ he mumbled, before lowering his head and setting off down Sundheim Street, shoulders hunched, his hands in the pockets of baggy, paint-stained brown cords.

The Big Shilling took his time following, not wanting to spook the young man further. But it soon became apparent that their destination was the same: Notting Hill Gate tube station. The Owl Man went through the turnstile, while Shilling went to the window to buy a Lobster card from a West Indian. He paid in cash, two twenty-pound notes, and admired the artistry of the black lady’s nail technician which earned him a shy smile.

Once on the eastbound platform, which was practically deserted, he encountered the Owl Man again. They stood well apart in the tunnelled heat, Mr Shilling relaxed and smiling, the Owl Man fidgeting in a threadbare tweed jacket, pacing up and down aimlessly, never calm, never still. Three minutes later, they boarded the same Central Line train. And both got off, eight minutes after that, at Oxford Circus. On the busy escalator, with its faint breeze of lukewarm air, Shilling stood behind him. The Owl Man glanced back, nervously.

‘Are you going to see Aunt Mimi?’ Shilling asked him.

The Owl Man nodded gravely.

‘Me too. She owns both houses, does she?’

The Owl Man nodded again. The Big Shilling climbed up the escalator until he was two steps in front of him. Since the Owl Man was stooping, they were at about eye level. Shilling pointed a finger at him.

‘You’re a painter,’ he said.

‘Not a very good one.’

The answer was immediate, and, Shilling decided, characteristic.

‘I’ve got a painting you might like to see, in my bag.’

‘Oh yes?’

‘It’s by probably the greatest British painter of the twentieth century.’

The Owl Man’s interest was piqued. ‘Bacon?’

The Big Shilling smiled. ‘The one and only Francis,’ he said. ‘What’s your name?’


‘Well, Geoffrey, I’m very pleased to meet you, eh, very pleased indeed.’

They reached the top of the escalator and proceeded, side by side, to the exit.

‘Have you really got a painting by Bacon in there?’ asked Geoffrey, boyishly.

‘As God is my witness,’ said the Big Shilling with solemnity.

Geoffrey’s eyes goggled.

‘Lead the way or lead astray,’ said Shilling. ‘I’ve never been to Mimi’s club before.’

‘Haven’t you? I think you’ll like it. It can get quite busy on a Saturday night. Auntie is always there. It’s hot, isn’t it? I’m rather thirsty.’

‘Are you going to speak to her about Brandon?’

Like a child, Geoffrey’s emotions immediately revealed themselves in his facial expression. Now he was anxious again.

‘Not sure there’s much point,’ he said. ‘I’ve mentioned the parties to her before, and she talks to them, she does, and it’s a bit quieter for a day, or even two, but then it goes back to the same way it was before.’

‘Well, maybe I’ll have a word as well. I’ve just moved in, you see, and I don’t want to listen to a racket from next door.’

‘Would you?’ said Geoffrey, hopefully.

‘In fact,’ said the Big Shilling, ‘I’ll probably be having a word with Brandon myself, hey?’

‘Oh, I see. He’s a nice chap really, just likes to let off steam. They all work jolly hard, you know, twelve hour shifts six days a week. At least I don’t have to. I mean I can’t, really.’

By now they had exited the station and were heading into Soho. The hot streets of the megalopolis were packed and rammed, and Geoffrey kept getting in other people’s way, and had to dart and skip to keep up with the Big Shilling who ploughed through the throng in his usual energetic manner, letting others get out of his way.

‘Are you a painter?’ Geoffrey said suddenly. ‘I mean if you don’t mind my asking.’

‘No, I’m not. You could say I’m a psycho-therapist.’

‘Oh,’ said Geoffrey, ‘are you? I see. That must be really fascinating.’

The Big Shilling guessed that young Geoffrey had had more than his fair share of dealings with the psychiatric and psychological professions, and really didn’t want to be reminded of it.

‘You know, I think I’ve changed my mind. I might just go and get a coffee somewhere, or go for a walk, or something. Or . . .’

But the Big Shilling didn’t stop moving, and the indecisive Geoffrey was forced to keep moving as well.

‘And miss out on the chance of seeing a Bacon that has been out of the public eye for over thirty years?’ Shilling said, smiling amicably. ‘Come on, Geoffrey, I’m new in town. Everyone needs a friend.’

‘I suppose they do. Are you American, by any chance? I mean, your accent, sorry, can’t quite place it.’

‘No, I’m a cosmopolitan, Geoffrey my boy. I’m a citizen of the world.’

Geoffrey smiled shyly.

‘Oh, all right then, you’ve convinced me,’ he said, and pointed up the street. ‘It’s not very far now, up there on the left. Glasp Mews, it’s called. Oliver Glasp was a painter. A bit like Van Gogh, in fact. Do you know him? It’s busy on a Saturday. That’s why I only come on Sundays, or Mondays sometimes. Aunt Mimi doesn’t like it if I keep myself to myself. She says it’s not good for me to spend so much time alone.’

Geoffrey was right. The New Colony Club was busy. In fact, it was standing room only, but at least there was air-con, as advertised on the torched flyer. At the top of the stairs, after by-passing the bouncers and negotiating the foul-mouthed greeter, Geoffrey held open the door, looking inside in what was almost despair. The Big Shilling ignored him, running an amused eye over the signs instead: No vaping. It is against the law to smoke in these premises. This is a gay-friendly space – respect it. We are a member of Soho Door Watch. Anybody found using or dealing illegal drugs will be banned for life and the police informed. On and on they went, the rules and regulations. Yep, the New Colony Club might have been as busy as the old place Shilling remembered, but it could not have been more different.

‘Come on, Geoffrey. Piss, or get off the pot,’ he said, encouragingly, and pushed the young man through the door.

‘Are you a member?’ Geoffrey asked him, looking surprised. ‘If not, I can sign you in as my guest. It’s cheap to join, just a pound for life membership.’

The Big Shilling laughed. ‘Anyone can join, eh?’ he said. ‘No distinctions anymore. The inclusive economy, eh? Well, Mimi invited me in. I don’t need to be a member.’

But Geoffrey couldn’t hear what he said because a noisy group of Tamils or Sri Lankans was politely pressing around them, ferrying drinks from the bar. The Big Shilling walked through them, tugging Geoffrey along by the hem of his disgraceful tweed jacket. Have to take him to my tailor. Have to, eh?

‘Sorry,’ said Geoffrey, ‘so sorry. I do beg your pardon.’

Eventually, the crowd grew too thick to penetrate. After a moment, Geoffrey tapped the Big Shilling faintly on the shoulder.

‘Sorry, Mimi’s over there.’

‘Lead the way, Geoffrey, or lead astray. I can’t see a thing from down here.’

So Geoffrey led the way, inching between people, apologising, over and over again.

‘The Owl Man cometh,’ the Big Shilling heard Mimi say, and not in a friendly fashion.

‘Hullo, Auntie!’ Geoffrey cried. ‘I’ve brought a friend.’

Mimi was perched on a stool at the end of the bar, drinking gin. She did not deign to look at the puppyish young man, so her face was in profile and the Big Shilling was reminded of the famous optical illusion of the pretty young maid and the old hag. In profile, like the tips of a crescent moon, Mimi’s nose and chin arced to meet each other. It was only when she turned her head that she looked younger, and much more attractive. Now she saw him and, as though a switch had been thrown, her expression changed from frosty to delight.

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘so this is your friend, Geoff! Why didn’t you say?’

‘Yes, er,’ said Geoffrey. He didn’t know the Big Shilling’s name and was too shy to ask.

‘Hello, Mimi,’ said Shilling.

‘How lovely to see you! And you’ve met the wonderful Geoffrey. So nice to be neighbourly, isn’t it?’

‘Er,’ began Geoffrey, ‘Mimi?’

‘What is it, dear?’


‘Silly, it’s not your housemates been bothering you again?’

‘Geoffrey?’ said the Big Shilling. ‘Mimi? If I may, I think I can take care of this, eh. I’ll just have a little word with Brandon and sort it all out.’

‘Would you?’ said Mimi. ‘I’d be so grateful. You see, I have, in the past, but I think Brandon would respond better if . . .’

‘Say no more, Mimi,’ said the Big Shilling, sick of the sound of duplicity. The woman punched taxi drivers in the head, she could certainly cow a cretin like Brandon. ‘Allow me. Now, on the way over here I promised young Geoffrey a look at a painting.’

The Big Shilling pushed empty glasses out of the way with a forearm and laid his bag on the bar.

‘It’s by Francis Bacon,’ explained Geoffrey.

‘What!’ said Mimi.

‘Oh dear, sorry. Did I spoil the surprise?’

‘You’ve spoilt nothing,’ Shilling assured him. ‘First the photographs, eh? As you know, Francis didn’t like to paint from memory, let alone from life. He preferred to work from photos. These were taken by Carl Castering. You both know Castering, don’t you, the infamous thief and drunkard? Have a look, Geoffrey. Go on, open the envelope, it won’t bite.’

The young man opened the envelope with some reverence. The Big Shilling awaited his reaction.

‘No,’ he said. ‘This is you. Isn’t it? It’s you, when you were younger. I mean, is it? Yes, it is. Good Lord.’

‘What’s going on?’ asked Misha Bent, appearing from a mirrored door.

‘Bacon,’ said Mimi, excitedly taking the photos from the Owl Man. ‘Bacon.’

‘Uh?’ said Misha.

‘You’re a philistine,’ said Mimi, scathingly. ‘He’s a philistine, ignore him. Look at these, they’ve been retouched.’

‘By the master himself,’ said Shilling.

‘Oooh,’ said Mimi, ‘don’t keep us in suspense, I can hardly stand it.’

‘All right,’ said the Big Shilling, bringing out the painting, ‘feast your eyes, lady and gentlemen.’

He held up the master’s work for them to examine. It was Misha Bent who spoke first.

‘Hey,’ he said, ‘Bacon. Now I know who you mean. It’s the guy who did them screaming popes.’

‘Maybe he’s not so stupid,’ said Mimi, in passing. ‘Oh my God, is it real? Tell me it is.’

‘It is,’ said Geoffrey, reverently. ‘No one else could paint like this. The photos are obviously Castering.’

‘You know your art, my boy,’ said the Big Shilling.

‘I should hope so,’ Mimi interjected.

‘Big, contrasting blow-ups,’ said Geoffrey, ‘showing every pore and blemish.’

Overjoyed, the kid’s face gleamed with excitement.

‘That’s right, Geoffrey,’ said Shilling. ‘Hey, I’m proud of you, eh? You come alive, eh, you come alive when you’re in the presence of genius.’

Geoffrey blushed and briefly hung his head, a big smile on his boyish face.

‘Is there any label or a gallery mark on the back?’ asked Mimi, rubbing her hands together.

‘There’s a label,’ said Shilling, ‘but it was never exhibited. Francis gave it to me. He told a lot of people he painted that he’d give them the painting, but he never did. With me, he was different.’

He turned the painting round so that Mimi could read the label: ‘Study for a portrait of R.H. 1971.’

‘1971,’ Misha repeated, taking out his phone.

‘Why was he different?’ asked Geoffrey, solemnly. ‘With you, I mean? Sorry.’

‘Well, Geoffrey, I was a different man myself back then. I was a tough kid who only knew how to talk with his fists. As you know, Francis was a masochist, liked to be beaten up. Well, back then I liked to hurt people. Don’t look so worried, my boy, that was then, this is now. Now I like to help people. And Francis, well, let’s say he decided it was best if he handed over the painting. Shortly after, I went away, so to speak, and we stopped seeing each other.’

Geoffrey was goggle-eyed at this. He leaned back, away from the Big Shilling, as though in awe of him, and regarded him from a greater distance. Someone else was goggle-eyed as well: Misha Bent.

‘Well, whadda you know? The little guy wasn’t snowing us,’ he said, showing the screen of his phone to Mimi.

Mimi raised her voice, because the unveiling of the painting and the photographs had earned them something of a crowd, saying, ‘It’s genuine, everybody, it’s genuine! A real-life Francis Bacon, here in the New Colony Club! Never before been exhibited.’

There was a clamour of excitement.

‘Drinks on the house, Mimi?’ called a wag.

‘Any more talk like that and I’ll bar you for fucking life,’ said Mimi, to a gale of laughter.

‘Here,’ said the Big Shilling, preening himself, delighted to be the centre of attention. ‘Take it. Put it behind the bar.’

‘Really?’ said Mimi. ‘I can hardly speak.’

Misha, however, was looking at the Big Shilling like he was the biggest dumb ass he’d ever met.

‘You can display it for a few weeks,’ the Big Shilling went on, ‘while I’m in town.’

Mimi took the painting. ‘If you’re sure, dearie.’

‘Sure I’m sure.’

‘You know how much the portraits of George Dyer made, don’t you?’ she said, eagerly. ‘There were three of them, but they made something like twenty-five mill at auction. This must be worth six or seven at least.’

The Big Shilling reached across the bar and gripped the painting by the frame. ‘Maybe I’ll change my mind, Mimi, if you keep crowing about how much it’s worth. Maybe I’ll change my mind, hey?’

‘Oh no,’ said Mimi, quickly. ‘I didn’t mean anything by it.’

The Big Shilling was looking into her eyes as she spoke and he could see she was furious at being criticised, and in her own club as well, in front of a crowd of sycophants she doubtless called her friends.

‘Here, Misha,’ said the Big Shilling, ‘hang it.’

‘You sure?’ asked Misha, his voice surly. ‘You better change your mind now, because once I hang something, it stays hanged.’

Shilling grinned at him. ‘Go get your toolbox, Misha.’

Misha grinned back at him, humourlessly, and took the painting from him.

‘Geoffrey, I want you to have the photos.’

‘Oh no, really?’

‘To remember me by, my boy. You know, Castering said Francis Bacon could be tender, generous, and cruel? Well, me, I’m just tender and generous, these days anyway. Mimi, give this young man a drink. Can’t you see he’s dying of thirst here? Give him a drink with plenty of ice. His face is all red, he needs to cool down.’

‘Your money’s no good here tonight,’ said Mimi with a sniff.

The Big Shilling winked at her and, unnoticed, slid a twenty into Geoffrey’s top pocket.

And with that, the Big Shilling slipped away. He slipped away through the gossiping crowd because the idiotPhones had come out and people were asking if he’d pose with his portrait, and what was his name again? Also, he had spied his quarry, the Latina diplomat, unlucky Loretta. He’d spied her in the mirrors behind the bar, drawn to the Bacon portrait like a moth to the flame.

At the door he turned and looked back through the throng. Loretta was speaking to Geoffrey the Owl Man who had a cold glass in his nervous hand. Loretta was asking if she could look at the photographs, and in his eagerness to accommodate her, Geoffrey spilled them on the floor. Quickly, he gathered them up and the girl examined them, clearly fascinated.

‘I am the power,’ said the Big Shilling to himself. ‘I cause it to happen. I imagine the best, and I create the future. My imagination is a godlike power, oh yes.’

The Killing House – extract

Faun, 1898, by Wilhelm von Gloeden
This is Chapter 22 of GOMERY KIMBER‘s novel The Killing House, about a would-be hitman who finds he’s the one who’s in danger

Outline: American Troy has one ambition in life, to be an international hitman, so when he gets the chance to work for veteran assassin Rickardo Hanratty, he can hardly believe his luck. But Hanratty, also known as The Big Shilling, turns out to be the strangest of mentors. Tasked with killing a Russian oligarch on the island of Cyprus, American Troy innocently believes the hit will be like some uber-cool crime movie, but he quickly finds himself in a different kind of picture entirely – a horror movie – with his mentor, The Big Shilling, cast as the monster. If he’s going to escape Cyprus alive, Troy realises that he has to make himself indispensable. That’s when he remembers The Big Shilling’s weird mantra – ‘believing is seeing.’ As Shilling explains: if he wants to escape from the island, American Troy must imagine that he already has.

Chapter 22

‘It’s tight,’ said American Troy. ‘It’s real tight, but I think I can do it.’

The Big Shilling, dressed in the old lady’s frock, ushered him out of the camper van and into the blazing sunshine of a Nicosia noon.

‘We’ll sit down first and have a drink,’ said the Big Shilling in the high-pitched Irish-accented voice he’d adopted since arriving at their rendezvous.

The Brits were still seated at the little metal table, under the arbour beside the lay-by kiosk, a couple of miles outside the Cypriot capital. The old fat guy, who sounded like Sir Michael Caine, American Troy now recognised. He was the dipstick who’d been conducting the singing at the birthday party in the restaurant, near the Russian exile’s house in the Akamas. His wife, terminally wrinkled and the colour of oiled mahogany, bared her false teeth in a grimace.

‘No luck?’ she asked, ironically.

‘It’s no problem at all, it’s not,’ said the Big Shilling, encouraging American Troy to sit. ‘Brian, be a love and get the lad a drink, will you?’

The Brit lumbered to his feet. ‘Whatcher ‘avin?’ he seemed to say.

‘He’ll have a beer is what he’ll have,’ said the Big Shilling. ‘A Keo.’

American Troy sat down under the arbour of grape vines. Here, in the middle of the island, away from the cooling sea breezes of the coast, it was infernally hot, and American Troy felt enervated, not just sapped physically, but mentally and spiritually as well. All he had left was his will power.

‘I can do it,’ he told the Big Shilling.

A cop car cruised by, but the pair of leos didn’t even glance their way.

The Big Shilling was searching through the contents of his handbag. American Troy heard the rattle of pill bottles and the crinkle of foil-wrapped plastic trays being extracted from stiff cardboard packs. Doctor Shilling had brought his dispensary with him.

‘Here y’are, son,’ said the cockney, passing American Troy a bottle of not quite cold enough beer, ‘get yer larfin’ gear round that then.’

‘Thanks,’ said American Troy wearily. He tasted the beer. It was gassy and tasteless, and reminded him of home. Hicksville, Illinois, how he wished he were there right now.

‘Drink it,’ ordered the Big Shilling, glaring at him playfully from under false eyelashes.

American Troy drank, and when the Big Shilling dropped four or five white pills into his cupped hand, American Troy didn’t bother to look at them, he just tossed them into his mouth and washed them down with pulls on the bottle.

‘God love him,’ said the Big Shilling, ‘wasn’t he always my best boy?’

The cockney’s wife tittered at this, and sucked orange juice through the straw from her plastic beaker. The cockney winked encouragement and toasted American Troy silently with a bottle of water. Only the Big Shilling was without a drink. Instead, he was fussing with the corner of a tissue and a compact mirror.

‘I’m running,’ he said. ‘It’s terrible warm.’

‘Take yer knickers off,’ advised the cockney’s wife before emitting a cackle of laughter.

‘There’d better not be vodka in that OJ, Bet,’ said the Big Shilling, smiling dangerously.

That shut the old lady up. She cleared her throat nervously and puckered her mouth.

American Troy was suddenly feeling very, very relaxed. He sipped his beer with newfound pleasure. He had to admit it, now it tasted pretty darn good. The sunshine dappling the tables was beautiful, and he was no longer troubled by the intense heat, or by the noise of the traffic that kicked up dust and irritated his eyes. In fact, the dust itself appeared to be . . . friendly. American Troy experienced a loving surge of emotion. The Big Shilling and the two Britons were infinitely appealing, why hadn’t he noticed that before? People, man, they were beautiful, and connected, to everyone else and to everything else.

‘Well?’ asked the Big Shilling. ‘All right now are you?’

‘More than all right,’ said American Troy, the words catching in his throat.

‘You’ll be feeling a bit emotional,’ the Big Shilling went on, ‘but it’ll pass in a few minutes, then you’ll be feeling relaxed, very, very relaxed indeed.’

‘Relaxed,’ said American Troy, and the word seemed to be imbued with special meanings which he had never before apprehended.

‘I’ll have what he’s having,’ said the trouble and strife, Betty Blee, ‘bless him.’

‘Time to make a move?’ asked her husband.

‘There’s no hurry,’ said the Big Shilling. ‘Finish your drinks.’

‘Take your time,’ American Troy heard himself say, ‘and don’t hurry up.’

They had to help him up the steps into the campervan.

‘It’ll be like being reborn,’ said the Big Shilling, holding his hand as American Troy stepped into the coffin, the smuggler’s compartment hidden beneath the bench seat. ‘It’ll be like being unified, having a soul.’

‘Awesome,’ said American Troy, and meant it.

It was awesome. The prospect of being reborn was awesome indeed. How had he ever doubted? How could it have been any other way? The Big Shilling was Odysseus, navigating the way home across the wine-dark sea.

‘Beautiful,’ said American Troy, ‘you’re beautiful.’

Again, the words caught in his throat and he thought he was going to cry.

The false bottom was laid on top of him, and he listened to the turn of the Allen keys as the screws were fixed into place. Next came the clothes and innocent odds and ends to fill the storage compartment, then the seats fitted on top of that, the sounds growing more muffled now. American Troy, lying on his side in the foetal position, closed his eyes, a big, beatific smile on his face, and drifted off to sleep.

When he awoke, he remembered the sound of the engine and the noise of the moving vehicle, of being pushed against one side of the coffin then the other as the campervan negotiated bends and corners and traffic. He discovered he couldn’t move. It wasn’t confinement, he really couldn’t move: he was paralysed. He heard creaking above him as someone sat on the bench seat. Then he heard the Big Shilling speaking in that high-pitched Irish accent, or at least he thought he did. He wasn’t sure if he was truly conscious, or dreaming. The fact that he was paralysed did not bother him in the slightest and that made him think he was dreaming, listening to the Big Shilling speak.

‘Even the outlaw, even the murderer,’ the voice was saying, softly, distantly, hypnotically, ‘even the basest creature ever to have walked the earth, if he was initiated into the Mysteries then he was assured of everlasting life in the hereafter. That is what the normal person cannot understand. It has nothing to do with morality, achieving immortality, with being a good person, with doing good deeds, nothing whatsoever. It has everything to do with secret knowledge, with actual experience of that secret knowledge. Finding it hard to breathe? Yes, you are finding it hard to breathe. It’s getting hotter. Of course it is getting hotter. You are nearing the infernal regions. You are nearing the other side, and you cannot breathe.’

American Troy could not breathe. There was no air in the coffin. He tried to drag air into his lungs but his lungs did not inflate. With every exhalation his lungs grew smaller, tighter, harder. There was a pain in his heart. He could not move. Sweat leaked out from every pore. He felt like he was broiling in his own broth. Panic rose in him. Surely he was dreaming. A red mist filmed his sightless eyes and strange creatures, baleful, inhuman, rose from the darkness, disturbed by his presence. He’d seen them before, in Amsterdam: therianthropes, half-animal, half-men. One of them came closer, a dog-headed monster that seemed to examine his very heart, and was gone.

Again he heard the Big Shilling speaking with an Irish accent, but he could no longer understand what he was saying. He could not breathe. Make a soul? He was burning up. You are many? He wanted to scream, to thrash about, but his vocal chords were as paralysed as his limbs. Was this death? Was he dying? Was this the end? This time his life was not relayed to him backwards.

Then he heard the Big Shilling’s Irish brogue, saying, ‘A gift of unity.’

A great black wave welled up and engulfed him, and he fainted. And when he came to, American Troy underwent the strangest experience of his life. He was on the other side, in the absolute elsewhere. It was as though he were dead but still conscious. It was indescribable. Ultimate freedom, infinite joy – but the words meant nothing compared to the actuality. It began to fade, as though he were being dragged backwards by a silver cord. No! He wanted to stay, but the pull of life was too strong. Back he went, back into the coffin, back to the island, Cyprus, the island from which it seemed impossible to escape.

He could hear again, and breathe, and no long panicky. It sounded like the police were searching the van. This everyday reality appeared massive, solid, utterly mundane. The van was stopped, and it rocked slightly as heavy feet plodded through the cabin. Outside, men with official voices were speaking Greek. Michael Caine was having a laugh and a joke. Cupboards were opened and closed, drawers searched, walls tapped. American Troy realised he could move, and that his breathing had returned to normal. It wasn’t even that warm anymore. He had the idea that the van was parked beneath a sun-shade. Then he heard the bench seat cushion being removed and the contents of the storage tray being moved about. A sliver of brightness as a flashlight was shone.

Then it was over. The bench seat cushion was roughly replaced, and the customs officers or cops or whoever they were, disembarked. Shortly thereafter, he heard three people get aboard, the engine started up, and the van rolled forward slowly in bottom gear.

American Troy felt sick. He wasn’t sure how much more of this he could take. Had the drugs worn off? They couldn’t have, not yet. But at least he could breathe. He concentrated on that thought, and on the inhalation and exhalation his body automatically made. Calm, he told himself, stay calm, but an insistent inner voice started whining – why me, why me? Then he slipped into sleep once more, and not even the distant sound of men speaking Turkish could disturb him.

The next time he awoke it was because he was about to be released. The bench seat cushion was removed, then the clothes and assorted items, finally the tray was unfastened, and blinding daylight poured in along with humid fresh air.

‘Will you look at the state of him?’ said the Big Shilling in his Irish voice. Then, in his more familiar white-colonial accent, he said, ‘Like a real sweat box, hey? Here, my boy, drink this.’

American Troy chugged gratefully on a bottle of cool water, glugging it down his parched, sore throat until the bottle was empty. He gasped for air, his chest heaving.

‘Are we through?’

‘We’re through,’ said the Big Shilling, amused by the ambiguity of the question.

To American Troy, reborn from the smuggler’s coffin, the Big Shilling’s colonial accent sounded as fake as his Irish one. The Big Shilling was whatever he wanted to be, he was the man with a thousand faces. It seemed to American Troy that he knew nothing at all about the Big Shilling, that everything he thought he knew about him was a lie, was a fabrication, an act, and that it did not matter. The only thing he knew for sure about the little man was that he possessed the kind of knowledge that normies never even dreamed of.

This surreal experience continued for the next few minutes until it dissipated and American Troy was left feeling weary and disquieted. He had the impression that he knew things he had no right knowing, that he had glimpsed not only the future but some kind of strange afterlife as well. And then the rational part of him was telling him that was just a bunch of bullshit, a drug-fiend’s dream. But . . .

‘He’s not going to pay,’ he now said, seated on the bench seat opposite the Big Shilling, who was still dressed incongruously, and patently falsely, as an old woman. ‘We won’t get our money, whatever we do.’

Another insight accompanied this certainty but it stayed tantalisingly out of reach, as though it could only be accessed from inside the coffin and from within a drugged consciousness. American Troy clenched his fists in frustration. He had an inkling that Ahmet Bey was acting too, but in what way he couldn’t quite grasp.

‘It was never about the money,’ said the Big Shilling, the twinkle in his eye contrasting sharply with his grim visage.

American Troy averted his gaze. The make-up on the Big Shilling’s face was smeared and runny, the lipstick licked off by that sharp tongue, the mascara smudged, false eyelashes coming unstuck. It was a clown’s face or a joker’s, the kind of clown or joker who’d entice children into the woods, or criminals into a try-out, the kind of face of a man who’d soak a billion dollars in gasoline and negligently toss a lit match.

‘What we need is a better kind of criminal,’ said American Troy.

‘You saw it then?’

‘I don’t know what I saw.’

‘But you saw it.’

‘Yeah, I saw it.’

‘Are we through?’

‘Not yet,’ said American Troy.

‘No,’ said the Big Shilling. ‘Not by a long chalk, not by a long chalk, eh?’

It was never about the money. No, it had never been about the money. It had always been about domination. The Big Shilling had a will to power, a will to dominate everyone around him, a will to dominate life itself. And that was the prize he was offering American Troy. Overcome yourself, rise above your weakness, and you too can dominate. And now he had gone further still. Not only could you dominate life but you could, in some still undefined way, overcome death as well. That was today’s lesson. Why be afraid of death when death wasn’t the end?

What was that he said, back in the apartment? Something about men who are not afraid of death being infinitely superior to the most powerful temporal power?

But American Troy still wasn’t sure. He wasn’t at the end, but he had been helped along the way, that much was certain.

‘Here we are,’ said the Big Shilling from the cab of the camper van.

He was seated between the Blees, Brian was driving and Betty Blee was reading directions from the sat nav. American Troy began to take notice of his surroundings once more. The van was turning into a dusty suburban street, and from nearby came the roar of a passenger plane taking off.

Half an hour later and the Blees had left in the van. American Troy and the Big Shilling were drinking beer in the living room of Mrs O’Gurley’s rented villa.

‘Man, I’m tired,’ said American Troy. ‘I need to sleep.’

‘Good,’ said Shilling. ‘You can go and have a nap in a minute, when I’ve finished instructing you, so pay attention, eh. Are you paying attention?’


‘It’s all about visualising, of visualising the outcome, remember? I want you to visualise the successful outcome of our escape from this island, I want you to visualise it as you fall asleep. The question you must ask yourself is: what would I see? What would I see, eh, when I succeed? What would I see? What would I say? How would I feel? And once you’ve answered those questions, you write the scene, eh, the scene of fulfilment. But you must convince yourself absolutely, convince yourself to the point of self-persuasion. You must convince yourself that we’ve already escaped.’

‘Can’t you do it?’

‘We’re both going to do it,’ said the Big Shilling, getting annoyed.

American Troy pulled himself together. ‘Yes, right, I’m going to do it.’

‘What is the scene of fulfilment?’

‘The two of us, a bottle of tequila and the finest Havana cigars, drinking a toast: we did it.’

‘We did it,’ chimed the Big Shilling. ‘We did it. I like it. But how about, we made it? Wouldn’t that be better?’

‘Yes,’ said American Troy eagerly. ‘We made it!’

The Big Shilling was beaming with pleasure. ‘That’s my boy,’ he said. ‘Now, you get off and have a nap. I’ll wake you in a couple of hours, because I want you to make a phone call for me, a phone call to Ahmet Bey.’

‘What about?’

‘About how you’re going to betray me,’ said the Big Shilling, amiably, ‘about how you’re going to betray me, eh, in return for an obscene amount of cold hard cash.’

Colin Wilson redux

Eagles and Earwigs: Essays on Books and Writers

Colin Wilson, Eyewear Publishing, 2018, 412 pages, £16.65

GOMERY KIMBER welcomes a resurgence of interest in one of the cleverest ‘Angry Young Men’

If the novelist, philosopher and critic, Colin Wilson is remembered at all it is as one of the ‘Angry Young Men’, and for his first book, The Outsider, (1956) – “the definitive study of alienation, creativity, and the modern mind”, as it is described on the front cover of the Victor Gollancz paperback that lies on my desk. And if The Outsider made Wilson’s reputation, it was the media circus surrounding the ‘Angries’ which destroyed it. When his second book, Religion and the Rebel, appeared the following year, highbrow critics who had lauded The Outsider were quick to recant and declare Wilson a fraud.

But there is much more to Wilson than half-remembered newspaper publicity from the 1950s, as this republished volume, Eagles and Earwigs, attests. The book originally appeared in 1965, and Todd Swift, PhD of Eyewear Publishing is to be commended for producing such a handsome volume (I thought I’d purchased a paperback copy, and so was delighted to receive this well-designed, well-printed hardback).  It is worth quoting a paragraph from Dr Swift’s Introduction, as it both gives an overview of Wilson the writer and mirrors my own attitude to him:

As I have written elsewhere, I believe Colin Wilson to be a visionary thinker and writer of at least near-genius, whose reputation, like that of a fellow outsider fascinated by extreme states of consciousness, science, and mystery – Poe – has equally been side-lined.  He is a competent stylist, capable of writing exceptionally readable books, a brilliant collector of both facts and anecdotal wonders, but also a master analyst, able to distil and refine what he has read and thought about.

Eagles and Earwigs, a collection of essays of existential criticism, is indeed a showcase of Colin Wilson’s admirable talents. The book is divided into three parts, the first being titled, ‘Literature and Philosophy’, and containing essays on the modern hero, phenomenology and literature, and the existential temper of the modern novel. What, then, is existential criticism?

Gary Lachman, author of a biography of Wilson, explains in the Preface:

It is concerned with how a writer sees the world, his actual perception of it, and with his or her qualifications for making general assessments about that mysterious thing, life. As Wilson writes, for him, it is “…necessary to scrutinize the writer’s qualifications for imposing his vision on his contemporaries”

Existential criticism is an examination of that vision, to decide how much of reality it incorporates. Or conversely,

…it examines how far a writer’s attitude toward the world is parochial, based on some temperamental defect of vision

Existential criticism therefore differs from traditional academic literary criticism which concerns itself primarily with technique, style, and with the influence of writers on each other. When compared to more recent critical approaches, such as those of Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes, the difference is even greater. Postmodernism and deconstructionism see no merit in examining the life experiences of the novelist in order to throw light on the novel; the text is to be considered only in and of itself, as a self-contained entity.

Wilson’s brand of literary analysis is based on Edmund Husserl’s insight that perception is intentional, and since Husserl was the founder of the phenomenological school, Lachman suggests that existential criticism might more accurately be called “phenomenological criticism”. For Wilson, intentionality was of fundamental importance. Human beings not only have perceptions, but a “will to perceive”. Intentionality reveals reality. The stronger our intention, the more it reveals. It is the difference between the vision of a poet like William Blake and that of nihilists such as Samuel Beckett, who, like Oblomov, could see no reason to get out of bed in the morning.

The second part of the book is comprised of essays on writers who interested Wilson, and upon whom he employs his existential critical technique. Some, like Hemingway, Bernard Shaw, and Henry Williamson, are familiar names; others, such as L H Myers and David Lindsay, less so.

L H Myers, by William Rothstein

Myers was the author of The Near and the Far, the first novel of a tetralogy. For a while, Myers was regarded as a member of the Bloomsbury group, then became a communist and broke with most of his old friends. He committed suicide in 1944, which may have been due to a fear that he had cancer. According into his friend L P Hartley he was always something of a hypochondriac, a fact the traditional literary critic may disregard but which Wilson, the existential critic, does not:

The contemporary with whom he has most in common is Aldous Huxley, and even more than Huxley he is an intellectual essayist rather than a creative writer

 Wilson finds him a frustrating novelist.

In the early chapters of any of his books one has sense of being in the hands of a true novelist, but as the novels progress, they seem to lose direction, and the characters and their actions become more and more arbitrary; finally they peter out like a stream disappearing into the sand

Why then does Wilson hold Myers in such high esteem, regarding The Near and the Far as probably one of the half dozen great novels of the 20th century?  It is because Myers was tormented by the existential Lebensfrage, and his books are attempts to grapple with it. 

World-rejection is one of the fundamental constituents of [such a writer], even though he may eventually overcome it and become a life affirmer. Myers belongs to this . . . class, and all his work is a drama of world-rejection and the struggle to affirm.

The meaning of the novel’s title is explained on the first page of the novel. Prince Jali, Wilson writes,

…stands on the balcony of a palace and experiences the sense of delight and awe at the sight of the desert and distant mountains. The desert has always fascinated him; evidently it was a symbol for Myers as it was for T E Lawrence – a symbol of freedom from the sticky prison of one’s own humanity.

Jali reflects that

…there were two deserts: one that was a glory for the eye, another that it was weariness to trudge. Deep in his heart he cherished the belief that someday the near and afar would meet . . . one day he would be vigorous enough to capture the promise of the horizon. Then, instead of crawling like an insect on a little patch of brown sand, swift as the deer he would speed across the filmy leagues.

For Wilson, Myers had here

…found a symbol to state the most fundamental problem of human existence. Most human beings have had glimpses of ‘the promise of the horizon’; but when they investigate and discover that the reality is hard and dull, they usually assume that promise was an illusion.

Wilson believed the answer lay in a positive vitality.

If one were strong enough, healthy enough, it might not be necessary to trudge so painfully through the present. This is the answer that Nietzsche suggested in Thus Spoke Zarathustra – the idea of great health. If human beings could jar themselves out of the self-pity that is so fundamentally a part of the human condition, if they could cease to nurse a certain amount of weakness to furnish them with an excuse for opting out should life prove too difficult, there might be some chance of living in a present that is more like the poet’s vision of ‘the promise of the horizon’. The main problem so far has been that the poets have been weak and sensitive men, and have simply lacked the courage to start the work of self-discipline.

And here Wilson returns to Myers the hypochondriac: “one knows in advance that his quest will be a failure”. For all Myer’s independence in rejecting the Bloomsbury set,

…he was never able to rid himself of our modern tendency to identify strength with brutality and stupidity, and weakness with sensitivity and intelligence.

David Lindsay is another Wilson favourite. He believed that Lindsay’s “gnostic” fantasy novel, A Voyage to Arcturus, was nothing less than a masterpiece and its author a writer of genius. The traditional literary critic may well balk at this assessment since Lindsay’s prose is so amateurish. But to the existential critic this is of little concern. What matters is the sweep of the author’s vision. Wilson states,

Literature may be divided into two kinds: one accepts the values and limits of the ‘natural standpoint’; the other is always striving to get beyond them, to probe the question of existence itself.  For the existential critic, the first kind must always be regarded as of a lower order, even though most of the world literary masterpieces belong to it.

For Wilson, A Voyage to Arcturus is literature of the second kind, and David Lindsay is revealed as a master existentialist, seeing through the everyday world we take for granted to the reality beneath, a vital actuality that Lindsay presents to the reader with such skill that what we take for ‘reality’ is brought starkly into question.

Wilson’s initial reaction to Ayn Rand was dismissive, rating her as “a kind of modern Marie Corelli, much given to preaching and grandiose language”. But when he made a concerted effort to read Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, he changed his mind:

I had to admit I had done Miss Rand a considerable injustice. Atlas Shrugged, having a great deal in common with A Brave New World, is a tirade against collectivism and government interference with individual freedom, but the heroes of Huxley . . . are little men, modest souls [e.g. Huxley’s Gumbril: “I glory in the name of earwig”]. Ayn Rand’s book has a romantic sweep, and undeniable grandeur.

When Wilson attempted to contact Rand, sending her some of his books, he discovered that the grandeur extended to her person. Try as he might, he could not bypass her gatekeeper, Nathaniel Branden.

This kind of self-importance was foreign to Wilson himself.  The third part of the book relates how, after sickening of the media circus around the ‘Angry Young Men’, he left London for Cornwall. He bought a house there and raised a family, and over the next 50 years produced more than 100 books, including the seven volume Outsider Cycle. In The Age of Defeat (1959; retitled The Stature of Man in the USA) and The Strength to Dream (1962), he further outlined his ideas about existential criticism. Wilson liked nothing more than to be left alone to think and to write; trips to London brought on bouts of “people-poisoning”. But unlike Ayn Rand, he was easy to contact and happy to correspond with his admirers. He was certainly encouraging of this particular tyro.

Colin Wilson died, aged 82, in 2013. Since then, there has been a resurgence of interest in the man and his work. His books are being published in new editions, both at home and in translation. His bibliographer, Colin Stanley, has organised Colin Wilson conferences at Nottingham University, where Wilson’s manuscripts and books have been collected. His novel, Adrift In Soho, has been turned into a feature film by Pablo Behrens, and a documentary film of his life has recently been crowdfunded.

Wilson’s prediction, that in the future there would be more Wilsonian writers, appears to be coming true as well. Gary Lachman, David Moore and myself have all been influenced by him. Lachman and Moore, however, write factual books in the Wilson tradition, whereas I am an author of fiction, deeply indebted to Colin’s attempts to produce existential and evolutionary fiction more worthy of eagles than earwigs.