If such a thing as a “rock star” had existed in 19th century Britain, George Gordon, the 6th Baron Byron, would surely have been that individual. Born in 1788 to Catherine Gordon and Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron (who sounds like a supporting character from Pirates of the Caribbean), Lord Byron inherited his ancestral title, yet managed to earn wealth and eternal fame on his own merits as a best-selling poet (back before that expression became an oxymoron). He remains best-known for epic narrative poems of machismo such as Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan, and Byron’s own love life rivaled that of his legendary fictional libertine. His notorious sexual exploits and the sheer number of lovers—both female and male—he had during his short life would have put even Mick Jagger to shame.
No mere armchair adventurer, Byron lived as large as any of his heroes. Despite being born with a club foot, he became an outstanding swimmer. He even swam the one-mile breadth of the Hellespont, the narrow strait that leads from Turkey into the Aegean Sea, then composed a poem to brag about the exploit. (It’s a pity he didn’t teach Percy Shelley at least to dog-paddle.) He traveled extensively, partook of many and variegated cultures, and indulged in epic hedonism.
Eventually, his desire for real-life swashbuckling led to his downfall. Byron joined with Greek forces to fight for independence from the Turks. Before he could die heroically in battle, however, he contracted a terrible illness that was treated with an even more terrible remedy, a careless bloodletting that resulted in a lethal infection. He died in Missolonghi, Greece, in 1824, at the age of 36, which may not seem very old but is longer than Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain lasted, so for a rock star, he did pretty well.
On that tempestuous night at the Villa Diodati, Byron was the first to propose the ghost-story competition to the Shelleys and Dr. Polidori, yet his Lordship failed his own challenge. His own entry for the competition was a tantalizing “Fragment of a Novel,” which introduces the mysterious yet charismatic character of Augustus Darvell. Some readers believe Darvell may have been a prototype for Polidori’s “Vampyre,” although Byron’s sadly incomplete narrative leaves it open to question whether or not Darvell is a member of the undead.
But let us now imagine what might have been if, instead of a “Fragment of a Novel,” Byron had left us “The Novel of the Fragments.”
The Novel of the Fragments
(as channeled by Peter Atkins)
I am to tell you, or so the muse instructs me, of the curious adventure that befell me during my wanderings in that mist-shrouded region of hills and caverns—nestled between two neighboring kingdoms and long the source of their centuries-old enmity—which our unimaginative guidebooks call merely The Taviani Pass (after the Venetian botanist who first mapped it) but which is known to one of its reclusive mountain tribes in their strangely beautiful mongrel tongue as Draumestauch, or The Place of Gentle Misfortune.
I was descending a south-facing slope, aware already of how low the sun was to my right, when I grew conscious of a whistled air, high and lilting and tantalizingly faint. At first convinced it was naught but the wind itself, transmuted into accidental melody by its passage through crevice and crevasse, I was forced to revise my opinion when a sudden sour note in a trilling climb within the tune prefaced a pause and then a renewed attempt at the melodic ascent. Neither wind nor accident then, I realized, and was at once—distance and nightfall be damned—determined to find the mysterious whistler. For you see, the air was not unknown to me; it was in fact one of those ‘Hebrew Melodies’ composed by Mr. Nathan some years earlier as settings for lyrics of my own invention.
A turn or two within the rocky bypaths brought me ere long to the narrow mouth of a cave hidden from the casual glances of most who would brave the mountain, and a walk of but a hundred feet or so within its shadowed reaches brought me to the source of the whistled refrain:
Illuminated by the dancing flame of a torch mounted on the cave-wall, a solitary Hermit in monk-like robes and cowl sat beneath a primitive looking glass of polished obsidian fastened to the rocky surface behind him. As I stepped into the pool of light cast by the torch, the fellow stopped his whistling.
“Welcome, my Lord,” he said, and beckoned me forward.
“You have the advantage of me, Sir,” I said. “In whose company do I find myself?”
“I am the Guardian of the Fragments,” he said, with a certain haughtiness not generally associated with—nor, to my understanding, encouraged in—those of the monkish persuasion.
“Fragments?” said I. For, I confess, curiosity had triumphed over my disdain for his cheap Mummers’ Show theatrics.
“Fragments of Time, my Lord,” he said. “Glimpses of worlds that were, worlds that will be, and even worlds that are.”
Well, the damned fellow had my attention. I had to give him that.
“Do we see them in the glass?” I said, nodding at the obsidian pane behind him.
There was a pause before his reply—“Alas, no,” he eventually said—and I realized I’d inadvertently knocked a chip out of his self-importance. Missed a trick there, he was probably thinking, while no doubt planning a quick bit of redecoration before the next punter wandered in.
Making the best of it, however, he reached within the copious folds of his robe and removed a document.
“From the distant past,” he said, and held the thing out for me to take, which I did.
It was a single sheet of a fine antique parchment and it was folded in half. On the outside of the fold, as one addressing an envelope, someone had written a three-word title in a decent copperplate while the inside, once unfolded, contained a prose passage of some two or three hundred words:
ONLY DEATH, SIR
When the King of all the lands that were fair asked for berries, berries were brought. When his thirst sought sweet water, sweet water was found. So when he asked for wisdom, it was not long before his courtiers brought to him a man of whom no question had been asked for which he had not found an answer.
And the King made the man his servant and bade him walk with him all his days so that wisdom was ever at hand.
And the Servant showed him all the pleasures of the world and how to partake wisely thereof.
And many years passed and the King, grown old with wandering, spoke again to his servant.
“And after this, what then? After flesh and fruit and song, what more remains?”
And the Servant made him an answer and the answer was kind.
And the King, who by now was not himself unwise, accepted the answer but, seeking consolation, went to his window and looked out at his people below.
“That sweet girl who runs eagerly, summer on her cheek, to find a faithful lover: Who will receive her embrace?”
And the Servant made him an answer and the answer was the same.
“And that young man whose heart seeks glory, be he poet or soldier: What will he find?”
And the Servant made him an answer and the answer was the same.
“And those trees, those flowers: To what end do they blossom? Those birds: To what end do they sing?”
And the Servant made him an answer and the answer was the same.
And the King looked at his Servant and saw him for the first time and his heart was heavy in his chest and all his joys were ash. And he gave to his Servant one more question.
“And who are you, o most faithful servant, who has shown me all these wonders, who has walked always beside me, thy footsteps planted next to mine down all my days e’en like those of my own shadow?”
The Servant smiled. And he made him an answer and the answer was the same.
I refolded the paper, handed it back to the hermit, and watched it disappear into the hollows of his monkish robe.
“A lesson the learning of which is hardly the exclusive prerogative of the past,” I said. “Nor one reserved solely for Kings.”
“I know nothing of lessons, my Lord,” he said. “I am merely the Guardian.”
His routine could plainly benefit from better dialogue and I felt a moment’s temptation to offer my services in that regard, but I feared it might bruise his feelings. He was, in any case, getting on with the show.
“From the distant future,” he said, producing the second fragment for my perusal:
THE LAST TIME I ALMOST WENT HOME
The guy we’d actually been hired by, the guy who rounded us up from the club, was just some flunky in a tough-guy suit, spending government money. Nicer than he needed to be, though. “Ladies,” he’d said, as he held the limo door and waved the three of us into the back seat. Not a trace of spin on it. You learn to appreciate the little things, believe me.
The guy we’ve been hired for is quiet, naked, and not great on eye-contact. It’s hardly surprising that he doesn’t understand the subtleties, that his hand is limp and unresponsive when we shake, that he answers honestly when Brigid asks if he likes her hair. It’s hardly surprising at all. I mean, how far has he come?
The guy with the clipboard and the ugly machine had tried to explain, but I couldn’t even. I’m like, “Wait, what?” Mind blown.
“C’mon, Caitlin,” Jeannie says to me, like she hears this sort of shit every day. “Like David Bowie. You know, in that movie.”
And Brigid’s like, “Right, the one where his eyes are weird.”
And Jeannie, very offended, is all, “Those are Bowie’s actual eyes, Brigid.”
But she’s forgetting the scene with the tweezers, I think, and besides, that was a metaphor. This is a man.
The ugly machine can’t make up its mind about its numbers.
Jeannie’s tongue is at the corner of her mouth and none of us are sure what to do now.
“Perhaps you could dance,” Clipboard says. “Perhaps he’d like that.”
Fragment, indeed. Somewhat shorter, even, than the first. And certainly more perplexing; full of words which one could understand singly but which, woven together, produced a tapestry so baffling as to court madness. I would not, however, have this fellow—of whom I had come to think, for all his affectation of a monkish spiritual rigour, as being too pleased with himself by half—believe me to be without opinion or insight.
“A machine that works with numbers,” I said. “A sophistication, I assume, of Herr Leibniz’s Stepped Reckoner?”
“Were Herr Leibniz to fall asleep and dream himself into a world of mechanical wonders unguessed-at in our present day and then, within that dreaming world of splendours, to fall asleep and dream of a world whose inventions put those of the first to shame, he would still be some distance from comprehending the …”
Good God. I know that I’ve been accused of as much myself, but it seemed to me that my monastic friend was making his point with an inordinate amount of excessive elaboration. I pretended to stifle a yawn but hints, it appeared, were not to be taken.
“… enormous strides in computational capabilities that await us in—”
“That’s as may be,” I said, finally cutting him off. “But I suspect two and two will probably still make four. In any case, there’s a far more important lesson to be learned from this little curiosity of yours.”
“Indeed?” said the Hermit, raising an eyebrow.
“Indeed,” said I. “It appears that, in the future, ladies shall still dance?”
“It appears so,” he admitted.
“Then the world shall not entirely have gone to Hell,” I said, and held out my hand for the third fragment.
“Past. Future,” I mused. “This next will, I take it, enlighten me regarding the present?”
A solemn nod was his only reply as he placed the document in my hand.
As with its companions, it was a single sheet of paper folded in half. As before, a title was on the outer fold:
HOW LONG DOES THE MAYFLY LIVE?
But the paper, once unfolded, was completely blank.
For a brief moment, I felt a chill of fear, its source unclear to me and its strength disturbingly disproportionate to the circumstance.
My second thought was that this was merely some ill-judged whimsy of the Guardian and that, upon renewed demand, he would provide the real document.
And then I understood. Or thought so, at least.
“The present is not ordained,” I said confidently, as one who has understood a clever puzzle. “It is ours for the writing.”
I looked to my cowled companion for what I fully expected to be an approving nod. But neither word nor gesture escaped him. How could it?
The Guardian was a statue. Man and robe alike hewn by some masterful ancient hand from the very walls of the cavern that appeared to be its home.
I snatched up the flaming torch from its niche in the wall and held it near my former companion. With every second, the thing seemed to be less well wrought until I began to wonder how I could ever have thought it the semblance of a man. A series of natural folds in the rock, and nothing more.
The flicker of the flame’s reflection in the obsidian panel above drew my attention to the looking glass. Holding the torch aloft and close to my own face, I stared into the glass’s darkling surface.
There was absolutely nothing to be seen within.
© Peter Atkins 2016
For those unfortunates who have been living under rocks for the past few decades and may not be familiar with him, PETER ATKINS is the author of the novels Morningstar, Big Thunder, and Moontown and the screenplays Hellraiser II, Hellraiser III, Hellraiser IV, and Wishmaster. His short fiction has appeared in such anthologies as The Museum of Horrors, Ghosts, Hellbound Hearts, and Cemetery Riots, and has been selected eight times for one or more of the various ‘Year’s Best’ anthologies. His recent book, Rumours of the Marvellous, a collection of his short fiction, was a finalist for the British Fantasy Award. He blogs at peteratkins.blogspot.com.
The author of this blog wishes to offer his obsequious thanks to Mr. Atkins for embodying the immortal Byron for this Villa Diodati recreation.
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Thank you all for joining our party at the Villa Diodati! In the spirit of that fateful evening in June of 1816, I hope we have given you a few memorable shivers for a stormy night. I would love to hear what you think and whether you have suggestions for future features you would like to see in this blog. Until next we meet…HAVE A VERY GOTHIC HOLIDAY SEASON!