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Poe Pourri

This is a story I wrote many years ago, having spent too long reading too much of Edgar Allan Poe's science fiction:

The manner of my uncle’s death came as a shock to us all. That he had experimented on himself we found not at all surprising, it was the gruesome nature, and uncertainty that experimentation was the cause of his death that disturbed us. That disturbed me.

The police report was unenlightening: two dead, caucasian males. One, Prometheus Oakes, aged 67, of Bradwell Heights died, apparently, at the hands of Handel Schreck, also of that address. Mr Oakes’ cranium had been opened above the ear and his brain removed. The body was found drained of blood. Mr Schreck was found to have asphyxiated due to his trachea being blocked with vomit. Forensic tests confirmed that the vomit was of his own production, this being the result of an excess of a non-prescription, morphine-based medication. Their housekeeper, Mrs Benjamin, who discovered the bodies, states that she had regularly seen Mr Schreck take medication from the bottle found at the body’s side to relieve his neuralgia. Whether this overdose was unintentional or symptomatic of extreme remorse on Mr Schreck’s part is unclear. The traces of matter underneath Mr Schreck’s fingernails were found to be the blood and brain tissue of Mr Oakes, his clothes were also stained with Mr Oakes’ blood, although there was no sign of a struggle between the two men. The remainder of the brain and blood has not been found.

I had met Mr Schreck some years before. He and my uncle had visited for Christmas, and had brought presents from their recent trip to South America. For a few days, I was held in great esteem by other thirteen-year old boys, being the only one of them, in my neighbourhood, in possession of a blowpipe that had definitely been used to kill actual monkeys. Within a few days an older boy stomped the pipe into the ground, piqued, no doubt, that he owned nothing that had ever been used to kill anything like a monkey.

On that occasion, as my father and uncle sat up late arguing, as they always did, in voices just raised enough that each of their cleverly prepared barbs was audible throughout the house, but just soft enough that it would have been rude to have asked them to be quieter, I found Mr Schreck on the stairs. I had decided a few days earlier that even if my light had to be turned out at a certain time, it was feasible that I might have to use the lavatory after this point, and had thus been able to spend the last couple of nights reading in the bathroom, until my father noticed the light, and until I could no longer feasibly claim to be answering a call of nature, without being in need of urgent medical attention. That night, as I padded down the hall, I saw Mr Schreck, his head in his hands, sitting on the top stair.

Being a young man sensible to the distress of others, I politely ignored him, and pretended to be deeply absorbed in “The Adventures of Hans Pfaall” as I navigated the corridor. Had Mr Schreck been crying, and I was not suggesting he had (after all, this was a man who, although bespectacled and slight, was nonetheless fully grown), had he been crying his eyes could not have been more red and moist than they were when he looked up. I nodded and made my way toward the toilet with renewed vigour.

As I passed behind him, he said: “Your uncle is a very clever man.”

“I believe so,” I replied “At least he has always struck me as being very clever, and that is the important thing.” I had heard this phrase, and was eager to try it out in real life, thinking it would suit me very much to say it fairly regularly in the course of many conversations.

“I’m not entirely sure that your father feels the same.”

“Oh, Father.” I said, hoping to convey the deep mysteries of the man with that. I wasn’t sure that I had quite achieved the effect I wanted, so I added: “Well, with Father, of course, you never can tell…”

He looked at me and smiled the smile of a true conspirator, and said: “You’re a good boy.” And promptly withdrew a pound from his pocket and pressed it into my palm. This was my first experience with the rewards of philosophy, and, needless to say, served to ingratiate Mr Schreck to me to no mean extent.

Thus I found it difficult to believe that he would have butchered my uncle. It seemed most ungracious to kill someone with a nephew as brilliant as me. It smacked of a cavalier attitude to genius.

Since that Christmas visit, my uncle had not come to see us, and my father, far from telling me of his younger brother’s latest escapade over the breakfast table, now occasionally alluded to “your mad uncle, and that friend of his” with a snap of his newspaper, and this only when some piece of news had profoundly disturbed him.

In all then, I was glad my father had not had to attend the funeral, cocoonned, as he was, in an oxygen tent on the South Coast. Being in a coma, the circumstances of his brother’s death could no more disturb him than could the lack of sunshine at his seaside retreat. I had also delayed the event until a time when we could be sure that father would not surprise us with a sudden bout of consciousness, and until the torrential storm that had plagued the country looked as if it was abating. It would have been a shame to let rain spoil the mood of the occasion. So it took place a week after my uncle’s demise.

I declined to speak at the funeral, a eulogy composed of things misheard through the floorboards of my bedroom, or misremembered through the attics of my mind would have been inappropriate, I thought. The minister did a sterling job anyhow, a little “all-purpose” for my liking, but he almost managed to avoid any reference to the circumstances of my uncle’s death, which was tactful of him. It was, indeed, a tragedy, but he had led a full life, and Death was just another room, or some such, and that was all there was to be said on the matter. The dearly beloved heartily agreed and filed out of the crematorium.

As I made my way past the placques bearing the names and dates of when people had ceased to be, I was stopped by a smooth man with a tan briefcase.

“Samuel Oakes?”

“So I’ve been told.” He didn’t smile.

“Andrew Barnett, your uncle’s solicitor. About his will…”

“Oh?”

“Well, you’re his sole heir. He has left you his house and effects, his laboratory equipment and his beach house on the Riviera. I am, of course, joking about the beach house, Mr Oakes, your uncle was not a rich man.”

“No, he never struck me as being such.”

“Various academic stipends and so forth.”

“Of course. I quite understand.”

“Quite. Quite. Well, if you’ll just sign here…” And, as if by sorcery, Andrew Barnett produced what looked to be legal documents and a pen from about his person, and bent over, that I might use him as a desk.

“Should I not read these, and then post them to you?”

“As you can see, Mr Oakes, I have to witness your signature, and I would be most obliged if we could settle this as soon as possible.”

“As you will.” Reader, I signed it, only causing Mr Barnett mild discomfort in the process, although I must confess to adding an extra flourish to my signature that I might poke this man, once, in the kidneys.

“Thank you very much, Mr Oakes. And now the will expressly demanded that I give you this.” He withdrew from his jacket pocket an envelope, with the imprecation “ONLY TO BE OPENED IN THE EVENT OF MY GRUESOME DEATH” printed upon it in stark, black letters.

“Am I to suppose that this is from my uncle, Mr Barnett?” I inquired, raising a healthily sceptical eyebrow, only to find that Mr. Barnett had removed himself, noiselessly, whilst I had examined his little gift. The eyebrow was not entirely wasted, however, for a passing squirrel was caught in its full beam, and scuttled away looking vaguely disgruntled.

Still, I had a train to Epsom to catch, with little enough time to worry about envelopes or squirrels. I would have read the contents of the envelope on the train, had my attention not been caught by a glossy men’s magazine, promising to “Find Her Secret Hot-Spot! We teach you what she wishes you already knew, INSIDE!” When I got home, therefore, I was in such urgent need of some time alone that I dashed upstairs, leaving the envelope on the kitchen table, without a second thought.

Having completed my meditations on the magazine article in question, I drifted, very shortly, into a deep and meaningful sleep. If I had the chance now, I would read what was in the envelope straight away, and act on it without hesitation; it is at times like these, I put it to you, that the devil makes work for idle hands.

On my descent, late that evening, feeling vaguely light-headed, the first thing I spied as I entered the kitchen was that neglected, morbid envelope from my uncle. Knowing that these things cannot be rushed, I brewed some coffee and settled deep into an armchair before breaking the seal. Inside was a letter. I found this not unusual, my experience with envelopes had, on the whole, to a great extent tended towards an outcome of that nature.

The letter was addressed to me, and ran as follows:


Dear Sam,

It is almost ten years since I last saw you, and wish to explain that it was your father’s wish that I not be allowed access to you, not mine own. Your father has a great many admirable qualities, but, as is so common with men of great standing in the community, he combines this with an illimitable intolerance of all that he does not instantly comprehend. I had the fortune to be exempt from his beliefs until, as you may remember, a visit I paid him at Christmas eight years ago. You may also remember a native blow-pipe I gave you then, which you were greatly impressed to learn had been used to kill monkeys. I must now confess that on our trip to South America the year before Handel and I had found no natives with a suitably aboriginal culture to provide such a pipe, the chipping which I told you had occurred as a result of its owner’s death at the hands of a neighbouring tribe was simply that where I had removed the legend “Greetings from Rio de Janeiro! Fiesta!”, and the only monkeys killed by it were those beaten to death with it by a Colobus in my possession, when it discovered it, unattended, on a table in my laboratory. I apologise for any distress this news may cause you.

It was on that visit that I told your father that I now knew how I was going to die. During my experimentations, I had discovered that I had contracted an incurable wasting disease, with the details of which I shall not now disturb you. Suffice to say that it would cause my death, and this could only be staved off by regular injections of a serum I adapted from one used by some of our primitive brothers and sisters. I also told your father what I wanted done with my body after my death. It was this that caused the rift between us. Your father had never liked my laboratory assistant, Handel Shreck; I found his enmity for the man who was a vital part of my life and work irrational, to say the least, and strongly objected to the terms in which your father described him.

News has just reached me of your father’s collapse. I understand your discomfort, my boy; to lose him as a brother was more painful than I can describe. Still, the manner of your father’s continuing, artificial life has made me determined to describe to you…

I am currently suffering the most tormentuous of agonies [here the hand becomes a little unclear], as my entire body is racked with the spasms attendant upon this disease. The candle-light is very dim for me now, I find it difficult to write, but I shall finish, as I do not know when or if I shall have the chance to write to you again.

O futile and depressing heart, that can kill a spirit by ceasing to beat. All that is good and noble in mankind is dependent on the vague rustlings of a fragile organ. Body, I abjure thee! Man is raised thus high in spirit, only to be lain low by flesh. The vulgar kills the pure. The bard is silenced with thee, and the athlete is stilled when you grow cold. Is it the fate of all genius, that it must perish when a tiny, feeble muscle fails to perform its duty? I ask not for infinity, or impunity from the needs of my body, but I must demand my dignity from it! The earthly must not continue to hold such power over the sublime!

It is here, Samuel, that I must ask you to keep whatever you read here as secret and dear to you as a memory of unrequited love. I shall speak of what might be. You deserve to be told.

I have developed a system whereby my brain is to be kept alive after my apparent death. I shall live whilst my body lies lifeless. The transplant of a human brain has never before been successfully achieved, but I have learnt its secrets. I know how it can be done. I have developed a system whereby a rudimentary body has been prepared for my brain. As the body’s movements are entirely controlled by electrical impulses, so is this housing for my being. My brain will be connected to it, but I will lose my senses of smell and taste, I have not yet had time to discover their intricacies, and, I fear, I never will. Still, in this “body” I shall be able to perform all reasonable motor functions, see and hear all that goes on around me, and have a basic sense of touch. Textures will be beyond my scope, but my being will be highly attuned to pressure. The heart and the brain, these are the human, we live inside the rest, and tell it how best to serve us, and I have removed the need for a heart.

Which brings me to my masterpiece, how I am to keep my brain alive. I am simply substituting a mechanical pump for my heart, and a series of vessels to carry blood to and from the brain, the rest of my body is controlled entirely by electricity, and is synthetic, it needs no blood to support it. I have developed a solution, and a membrane which are attached to this “heart”; this operates much like a placenta, ensuring a foetus gets the nutrients it needs, for the better oxygenation of, and restoration of life-giving fluids into my blood. The vital substances from this solution osmose into the blood I have running through my brain across the membrane I have developed. Given this basic set-up I shall have the ability to continue my work, until I can devise the ultimate system for the support of human life indefinitely.

I have ordered Handel to remove all my blood, as, although we only need a very small amount to keep the brain refreshed, it is always helpful to have some in case anything goes wrong. Handel will perform the experiment very soon, and intends to commit suicide afterwards, he says that his life would be utterly empty if he cannot help me fulfil my dreams. I find this perfectly understandable, but have informed him that, in my improved state, I shall no longer need for his help. I think he is being very sensible about the whole thing.

You may ask why I do not create such a body for Handel as well. The truth be told, even had I the time at this late stage, I fear my new fingers would be far too clumsy to complete the sensitive brain surgery without crushing the contents of his skull. There is also a philosophical reason, however. This technology must not be given out willy-nilly to those of questionable worth. What would the world be like had Napoleon been unkillable, had Attilla the Hun had access to these machines? Handel Schreck is a good man, entirely worthy of living indefinitely, but he dies as an example that there are some who shall die, who must die.

After my “death”, I intend to test my new body about the extensive grounds of Bradwell Heights. I shall hide my extra blood in the cold store in the shed I have maintained as a refuge for when the world grew too demanding. Then, I shall wait until the police have gone (I intend they be there very soon after my death, Mrs Benjamin will be cleaning here in the morning, I hope, when faced with my empty skull, something sensible occurs in hers, and she calls the police straight away), and I can be fairly sure that you know that you are the new owner of the property.

I fear the reaction of the world to my longevity. My new form, it must be said is not conducive to a welcoming reception. I have tried to construct as close a semblance to myself as is at all possible. I fear that, despite all my efforts, I shall look like Tom Baker. This, however, is just a minor setback, I shall be the prototype and the vanguard of a new humanity, not dependent on frail flesh for life, but livers of a life full, ethereal and eternal.

I need you, then, to prepare my passage into the world. I need you to be a conduit for my genius. The world despises what is ugly, and I shall be ugly, although the necessity of carrying large vials of vital solution has led me to incorporate them into the design of my body, and I think they lend a certain 21st-century feel to my appearance. I need you, Samuel, on this voyage of discovery.

I know that you are your father’s son, but I have always thought of you as seeing much further than he ever could. If you cannot see the benefits of this plan I shall know that humanity can never accept it. You are the benchmark…

The pain grows worse, I must finish, the time for the operation approaches. In short, you are my last hope. If I haven’t heard from you by midnight, a week from my apparent death, I shall know that I am mad, stricken with a madness induced by the knowledge and proximity and irrefutability of my own non-existence. In that case, I shall not replenish my vital fluid that night, but let myself sink into oblivion. I hope. For I also find within myself the urge to destroy, I feel it, dark and festering, within me. If the world cannot accept my existence, it must pay the price with its own. I add this not as an intention of mine, but rather as a fear. Save me, Samuel.

Your Uncle,

Prometheus Oakes,
Emeritus Professor of Micro-biology at the University of Tillingham


I looked at the clock. I had forty minutes to speak to my uncle, to try and reason with him. Telephony struck me as the obvious way to contact him, but when I attempted this I was told that the number had not been recognised. The telephone company had disconnected the service to his house, simply because he was dead. It was almost unthinkable!

Essex is not the prettiest of counties. It has no mountains, no lakes, nothing much in the way of forests. Even moles, when constructing their earthy tundra feel ashamed at the showiness of their constructions in this flattest of all counties. The marshes of Essex are broad and empty, and the bicycle I had hired from a local, having got the train to Southminster, seemed to have gained little advantage from its constant use on these rutted tracks, and behaved just as perversely as one would have expected a city bicycle to have done.

I was late, of course, despite having been immensely fortunate with the trains. It was approaching two when I reached the gates of Bradwell Heights. I wove through them, and made my way to the large front door. There was no response to my frantic knocks, but the door opened when I turned the handle, heightening my suspicions that something was amiss. As I stepped inside, I stepped into utter blackness.

The next thing I remember is awakening, and having to spend a good half a minute ascertaining where I was. The chandelier was unfamiliar, the dining table well-apportioned but not one I recognised. Who, in fact, was I? As disparate memories jostled in my mind to make some sort of order from themselves, I heard a rustle at the far end of the room, and some banging came from behind a screen. I was tied to a chair in my uncle’s dining room! This madness had to stop, he had obviously completely lost his mind.

Then emerged from behind the screen a creature the likes of which I never wish to see again. A creature, nonetheless, which bore a striking resemblance to Tom Baker. So, this hideous monstrosity was my uncle! This strange agglomeration of rags, and body parts that moved in small jerks. He looked at me, and I looked back at him, and heard the whirring of innumerable tiny motors in his body. At length, he tapped on a machine in front of him and words seemed to issue from his mouth.

“You are too late, Samuel.” He tapped again for a moment. “Ah, the voice confuses you. Well, despite all my preparation, I neglected to account for the fact that respiration, as well as ensuring that the blood is oxygenated, also allows us to speak. So I have had to construct a small speech computer to talk to you. I hope you won’t find this unnerving.”

“Uncle, this is monstrous! You must let me go!”

“And have you prevent me from fulfilling my destiny?” This was all said after a brief interval of tapping. “I don’t think so. You see, Samuel, I have realised that writing to you was a mistake.” More tapping. “Do try the quinces, Handel grew them.”

“Handel Schreck?”

“Yes, he didn’t want to die you know. I wrote that in your letter so that you wouldn’t be too shocked. I simply upped his dosage because, well, if he could do the surgery for me, he could do it for anyone, do you see?”

“Uncle, you mustn’t do what it is you are going to!”

“Dear boy, I knew you would say that. But I have to. Handel’s death convinced me of that.”

“This madness must stop!”

“Yes, I quite agree with you, it must. I am utterly insane. We have, at least, established that. The corpse of my only friend is silent testimony to it.”

“Uncle, we all deserve to benefit from your scientific genius!”

“The price, Samuel, is too high. I wanted to preserve my genius, and in the process I destroyed it. You are too late. I dare say that you could have convinced me three days ago, yesterday, even this morning, but not now.”

I struggled against the bonds that tied me to the chair and found that there was a weak link at back, towards my left. I had never felt so grateful for my ambidexterity.

“Goodbye, Sam”

And as the rope fell about me, and I saw my uncle unplug the tubes that led to the vessels on his back, committing that most unnatural of acts, I knew that we had lost something more valuable than we could know. Something irretrievably precious was being destroyed before me, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I tried to reattach the plugs, but they simply sprayed me with a gummy, blue substance, as the motors whirred slower and slower. A high-pitched buzzing filled the air as I knelt by the limp form of my genius uncle and cursed the madness that had killed him.

Critique

I really liked the story. Unlike the previous critiques, I don't take issue with the 'excess' of words. You seemed to be trying to reproduce a style of writing similar to Poe's. I thought that your effort to this goal was fairly well executed, except towards the end, when you seemed to suddenly be in a hurry to wrap things up.

Also I think there was uneven use of humor. I thought in the first 3/4th's you used a wry humor which was well handled; I would've liked to have seen a similar wry, yet dour humor applied equally well to the end, which seemed to take a sudden serious turn.

What I was kind of expecting was that Samuel was going to have to talk his uncle out of similarly outfitting him with an 'immortality rig,' and that he was going to have to figure a way to avoid that fate.

Thanks for a very entertaining read.

Thank you

Thanks very much for your comments, they were very helpful (and I agree with you about the end). I shall take them on board for the next thing I write...

This may be a problem with

This may be a problem with me more than the story, but I found it difficult to read and overly wordy. Even Poe could have found things to cut here I think.

However, to the good, this is a real story with actual conflict. Well done!

Agreed with jwb

jackwilliambell- that was my exact reaction as well. Loved the story, the flow, everything. But it is a tad wordy. I know what the author is trying to do at a technical level but it's not quite there yet.

Still a very entertaining read. Definitely enjoyed it!