Those Horrible Academics
By Cheryl Morgan
It would have been a sad thing indeed if the last issue of Emerald City had come and gone without a review of a book by an Australian writer. That was, after all, one of the major impetuses for the magazine in the first place. Fortunately I happened to have, on my "to read" pile, a book that is not only by an Australian, but which was up for an International Horror Guild Award (the awards were presented at World Fantasy Con Ė see Miscellany for the winners). Iíd actually been trying to get to this book for ages, but the vast flood of new material kept pushing it down the list. Now that flood has more or less ceased, it immediately popped up the stack.
The book, The Stone Ship by Peter Raftos, begins with its central character, Shipton, about to commit suicide. As it turns out, he doesnít have the courage to carry the job through. As he is sitting there pondering the fact that he is such a failure at life he canít even manage to kill himself, he sees a stranger approach. They strike up a conversation, and it soon turns out that the stranger is more strange than he looks.
"What are you doing on this island?" I asked this fellow, Finch.
He half-smiled at that, a rueful look. "The same as you."
Silence. If telling the truth, he too had come to the island to suicide. And he had watched me fail.
Finch took a deep breath, and looked into the fire, both longingly and morosely. "But unlike you, I succeeded."
In common with many ghosts, Finch is a vengeful spirit. He soon has the hapless Shipton signed up to help him get revenge on the man who ruined his life and drove him to suicide. This involves a long journey to a place known only as The University, upon arrival at which we discover that we are no longer in Kansas.
Forget the ghost. Lots of books have ghosts in them. You can write mainstream novels with ghosts in them and no one will turn a hair. But the minute we get to The University we realize that we are closer to the mind of Mervyn Peake than of any ordinary writer. We know now why Raftos (or his publisher) chose Pieter Bruegelís magnificent painting of the Tower of Babel for the front cover. The University is immense, labyrinthine, and packed with the sort of characters that one would expect to find in Gormenghast, and possibly in the mustier corners of Oxford or Cambridge, but never in Stanford or Berkeley. Of course that doesnít mean that they donít behave like academics everywhere else.
Once again, I had found myself in a conversation in which I understood many ó although not all ó of the words used by the other person, while the order of presentation of those words rendered the whole thing gibberish.
Getting into The University is a challenge in itself, involving hefty bribes to grizzled and grotesque functionaries, lengthy journeys through ancient corridors, and an inordinate amount of form-filling. Eventually, however, Shipton finds himself employed by the eccentric Professor Margolis, an intimidating and predatory woman of boundless ambition and monstrous ego.
"Now," she said, "for the most part you will take dictation for me. My thoughts are free, unfettered and original and very important. I cannot be expected to both have thoughts and write them down. No, thatís just not acceptable. It will be your task to write my thoughts as I have them. I will lie on the couch and tell you what to write. Is that simple enough for you?
And if you think sheís bad, wait until you meet the Librarians. Think Vernor Vingeís Rainbows End where the belief circle is centered on the Furies from Greek mythology. Letís just say that you do NOT want to get into a dispute about where a book should be shelved.
Eventually, of course, Shipton finds the man he is supposed to kill. He also finds out more about The University than men (or at least students) were meant to know. But then there would not be a story otherwise, would there?
You may well find that when you get to the end of The Stone Ship you find yourself asking, "What was that all about?" Donít ask me. Besides it being an amusing satire of academic life (Raftos claims to have been an "academic in-training" and the book is published by an academic press), I havenít a clue. It does, however, have some startling imagery and some nicely grotesque characters. It is, I think, the sort of book I would like to have up for horror awards, although I suspect that it is not anywhere near disturbing enough for the average horror reader.