Make a neon labyrinth that you can walk at night

Walking a labyrinth is very similar to meditation. You clear you mind and try to think of nothing except each step towards the centre. If you do it with a friend, one can lead the other and whoever is led can close their eyes. It shows trust but also it speaks to an inner child as we give up control to another which in turn allows us to focus on minute details in our environment.

There are many ways to make a labyrinth and I will cover some other, hopefully novel, ways in future posts. However, one of the simplest and most effective is the following set up.

Materials:

  • a box/tube of 100 glow sticks (you can buy them from Amazon for less than £10 –use 200 for a much brighter glow)
  • one beach
  • a stick to draw the labyrinth in the sand

 

Arrive at the beach just before sunset and begin to draw the labyrinth using one of the guides below. Quickly fill the grooves of sand with glow sticks, cracking them as you go. Don’t forget to take them away with you afterwards. Once it has got dark your labyrinth will glow like a technicolor vinyl record.

 

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If you construct a labyrinth like the one I’ve set out, or in fact any kind at all, I would love to hear from you and know more about your creation and also the motivation behind it.

 

 

 

We Move Along Never-Ending Tracks

Our earth had been scooped-out, scorched into powder and left bare-boned.

Only a changeless backdrop of black sands under a pink-flecked fugue of sky.

The bellows of heaven and earth, pressing together, and heaving great lungfuls of sharp glittering dust across the plains.

The last of us are fated to explore darkly in ships that cannot steer across this dry, but flowing tablet.

This world outside you have imagined many times over, adding layer upon layer of permutations. You test your little compositions with your brothers, adjusting them little by little, until the frieze is ready to be added to the wall, where the glass should be.

You were born on this ship that hovers above the metal rails driven through the sand. It is an island that broke away from the mainland many, many years ago. Your mother remembered the time before the evacuation, but she died just after your fifth birthday. You try to hold her face but it fell into the shadows along with everything else. You have one picture of her. A blank square you carry around in your pocket. Sometimes you rub it gently in between your fingers as if your fingertips could trace her.

On board there are just your two brothers and your cat Charlie. It is 7 am. You instinctively orientate yourself and then calculate the azimuth to walk in a straight line to the wardrobe, sliding back the panel and taking out a freshly laundered uniform. The same routine every day, as a flightless bird might use its compass. The shower drenches you in recycled water for exactly three minutes. Then it blows you dry and you like the feeling on your skin when it gets a little too dry.

You stand in front of the mirror for some time feeling the gentle curves of your face with a physical detachment; is it pretty you wonder? Ultimately this question is meaningless to you. Often you imagine yourself without a head at all, and in its place there is a ball of strobing light.

A low hum and vibration can be felt throughout the ship. It is always there. The ship hovers on electromagnetic fields, moving at a constant speed of ten knots across the railway. Through valleys, through mountains and onwards through the unrelenting desert.

You slide into your uniform and give your hair a quick tousle; it is long and billowing with a slight fringe. You cut the fringe yourself just because. Then you cross to your bed and reach up to the shelf. Your EL-band rests there. Without it the world is under an infinite shadow. The headband is pitted with echo locating transmitters and it fits over your eyes and around the back of your head. It links to implants that have been hardwired into your occipital cortex. The world lights up in electric-blue. You have tried to describe this world to your brothers, but it is undefinable until you swim within it. To you, walking from darkness into this atomic blue light is exhilarating. Every day it leaves you breathless.

Now you can move much more quickly; now you can be agile. Charlie is outside the door. You can hear him bleating in that electronic purr of his. Charlie is a bio-engineered cat. He is one metre tall at least, and equipped with sharp claws and teeth for no reason that you can fathom apart from, perhaps, an artist’s preoccupation with authenticity. He is part organic, part machine. You know he is black, but you see only his impressively arched back when he sits, the texture of his sleek coat and the laconic eyes that blink in electronic darkness. The door slides back and Charlie springs forward and jumps up putting his paws on your shoulders. Then you glide down the steps barefoot, taking a few at a time and you are counting because that’s how you learned to traverse the stairs in darkness.

The spiral stairs descend to the lower levels and the hub of the ship. Around you empty space is criss-crossed by a plasma of semi-organic wires. Crawling along these metallic vines are a seething mass of ant-like droids, all engaged in maintenance and monitoring. They are the ship’s immune system, and constantly test and inspect every part of it –they operate via a hive mind that has been left to evolve unchecked; you once observed them form a series of swaying columns in concentric circles that filled one of the storage bays before dismantling itself after three days. The tower and the viewing station at the top of the stairs poke up and form a broad, rhombus crown. This station houses your bedroom, several workstations and the medical unit.

 

89 – 90 – 91 –

 

You both hit the metallic deck and the door slides back automatically. You run into the dining and kitchen area which is one half of the entire level; the other half is the garden. As you cross a new horizon the room is automatically delineated in fiery lines of blue. One entire wall is glass, but to you it is barely different from the other walls. It is a blank slate only your imagination can cross.

Your brothers both sit slumped either side of the table in the middle of the glass wall. A pot of steaming coffee between them and a bowl of green porridge each. Their faces turn and smiles etch into their surface. Those faces are unique geographies that you have traced over and over; lines upon lines gathering into distinct paths, valleys and monuments. They are landscapes within landscapes that you call home.

 

Hey sis. Come and have some breakfast with us.

 

You dive under the arms of your younger brother and press your head into his chest. The world to your right goes blank. You feel his warmth enclose you and feel his chest rise and hear his heart counting. Closeness. Safety. Touch.

The coffee smells so good, and you pour yourself a cup. You have just discovered a taste for coffee; suddenly the bitterness and sweet caramel squeezed beneath the gummy walls of your mouth are pleasant tastes associated with mornings and puffy eyes: an adult ritual you have just joined.

Charlie jumps up onto the bench opposite and sits erect; a pose that his animal predecessors would never have adopted. It’s funny and you offer him some coffee and he sniffs it curiously. Brin, your older brother strokes Charlie on the nose.

 

What can you see? You ask.

 

Clem strokes your hair and begins to describe the scenery. Although it is usually the same flat expanse, occasionally there is something new. Sometimes they would pass giant fins sticking out of the sand as if some leviathan swam under them, its gills filtering the ash. On rarer occasions they would see one of the new forests that somehow rooted into the sand. Your brothers described them as great fungi with a wide drooping canopy pitched over a single pendulous stem. Once they even saw a fattened mushroom spore and said it was like a million parachutes that flew as gold dust over the black desert once the wind caught them.

But today was different again. Today they were in sight of a maze.

 

It’s about 10 clicks off. Do you think we should go in?

 

Yeah, couldn’t hurt. We’ll give it a couple of months and then retrace our route if we’re still lost.

 

Perhaps we should give it longer? We’re in no rush.

 

Yeah but I worry about the walls caving in, or the track being damaged.

 

Maybe. I know you don’t like being in there.

 

Just seems like the world closes in on you. Every day moving between two walls. I prefer being out in the open.

 

There might be a city inside. A safe place for us.

 

You haven’t seen a maze in six years. You spent three months exploring the last one before the track ran out and you were forced to double-back. Your brothers were silent for days after that. They still believe the myth.

In the aftermath of the wars the nations suffered a series of plagues and disasters. It was a time of Gods and Monsters.Chimeric pathogens followed closely on the heels of nuclear bombs and radioactive fallout. The viruses were programmed to distort the body in demonic creations: genetic ergotism led to population collapse. The railway was hastily laid out to connect the last remaining cities.

The desert ships became our arks, sealed up and self-sufficient, unlike our barren planet. As the cities died the ships were sent out to trawl the sands. It was hoped they might find places that had survived and were free from contamination. But many of the cities did not want to be found. In an age without flight the way to lock their doors was to invert the lock and turn it into a landscape. They built huge mazes around themselves with rails and walls. Nothing could get in, not unless it had time, a lot of time, to carefully plot out the maze and find the one path that gave entrance.

In the days when there was still radio contact with other ships a myth grew of a city in the West that was untouched. Your brothers had chosen to believe this myth, perhaps because there was nothing else to believe in and because motion was life; there was only forward.

You scoop down some porridge and enjoy the warmth as it gathers in the pit of your stomach. Here is the centre, a place you cannot see. The EL-band gives a 360 degree image as projected by your brain upon a toroidal screen.

 

I’m like a bat with eyes and ears all over its head.

 

What’s a bat? They both retort.

 

You need to read more books.

 

We leave that stuff to you; we have a ship to run.

 

And yes it’s true, they do. The mechanical and electrical parts of the ship mostly take care of themselves but the droids can’t tend the garden, where a nutrient-rich algae is grown out of huge vats. It forms the basis of most meals and if you put your fingers down your throat what comes up is generally more appealing that what went down.

There are several other varieties of plants in the glasshouse that were genetically-modified to both grow faster and produce more seed: varieties of radishes, bush beans and a type of sprout that was planted vertically up one entire wall. There are also larger trees planted here whose main purpose is to help convert CO2 into oxygen in case the biome units fail. The rest of the garden is a sanctuary, planted with the last remaining species in the hope they can one day be propagated into a fertile and forgiving soil outside.

The ship is moved by a silver sail that is several hundred metres high and split into two triangles, each tethered to an ultra-light metal boom. The pyramidal structure swings overhead almost soundlessly to capture the prevailing wind from the East. The outward side of the sail is covered with a fine skin of solar panels, and the base is given over to honeycomb clusters of wind turbines.

Below the kitchen and garden the lower levels contains machinery, generators, supplies and spare parts, a few printers and the housing of the colossal electromagnets which hug the track. You have never been in this level because it carries a greater risk of infection than the upper levels.

You follow your brothers into the garden and Charlie hangs a few steps behind. You enjoy the rich hubris of the air, the humidity and the springiness of the plants under your sweeping hand. You move away from your brothers into the sanctuary, where crystal bees dip in and out of the flower-heads, pollinating them artificially. There are thin paths snaking through the taller plants, the orchard and some of the other crops preserved here. You let your mind wander the space, exploring the exotic forms and delicate movements of the bees.

Charlie pretends to chase them, extending a paw to bat at the humming procession. You think about this strange bell jar you live inside, so different from the jar of light. You describe it this way:

 

Floating into this thick liquid I feel my head breaking through the surface into a dome carved from blue light. Squirts of neon show objects in a haunted aspect, sometimes giving off smudges of stray luminescence at the edges. The nearer faces are brighter, dipped in white, while the areas that do not answer are impenetrably black. The light is mine, and I feel it whispering from my skin. There is an overpowering detachment from my other senses; it is hard to focus on the compass points normally provided by a body. Forward, in terms of a straight line emerging from between my eyes, becomes an irrelevant coordinate when your brain is processing a continuous image that wraps itself around you. But in order to navigate the bottom of the sea, not to endanger myself, I’ve learnt to orientate my body to the contours of inner-light, the sounds and smells. Now my senses work together, allowing me to walk through the maze without touching the walls.

 

Your attention is arrested by a particular plant almost hidden under some fig trees. It looks as if it is crouching. The flower head tilts up slowly at you, making you start. It appears to be some kind of orchid, but you don’t recognise the species. You decide to ask your brothers. They are in the production area of the garden and have been checking the plants for signs of disease; they move carefully and bend down close –any disease could prove fatal for all of them. Before you can ask anything Clem is shouting but he is not looking at the plants, he is staring at a screen on the wall. Brin joins him briefly and then they both run into the kitchen. You follow nervously. The kitchen is deserted and you guess that they’ve gone up to the observation deck. You mount the stairs quickly listening to your rising heartbeat.

 

What is it? Tell me. You say insistently.

 

We’re approaching the entrance to the maze.

 

What side is it on? Your imagination places it there, inside.

 

The left. There’s another ship just past the turning into the maze. It isn’t moving and the sail looks damaged. But that’s not all. There’s a man standing outside, in front of the ship. He’s hung up a sign.

 

Brin had been looking down at a screen on the panel in in front of him, he made a few deft movements with his hand and then said:

 

The sign says ‘I have a map’.

 

Everyone was silent for a few seconds.

 

What the hell do we do Brin? 

 

He’s outside. He must have the virus.

 

But he’s alive; he could be immune. We could screen him; then study his immune system. And if he has a map… He let the words hang in the air.

 

So it was decided. The ship would pause and the sail let out for the first time in twenty years. The man would be let into the decontamination chamber. His blood would be checked by a droid and then tested for the virus. They would then decide what to do.

The only door to the ship, a huge airtight plug, opened out onto the plain at 10.35 am. Your brothers try to narrate what is happening, so you aren’t in the dark, but as he approaches the door their attention is diverted to the screens. He is now in the chamber.

 

You hear Clem say: His eyes. What’s wrong with them? They’re black. Completely black. He must be blind.

 

Those words stir you. Your brothers are asking him about the other ship through the intercom: What happened?

 

You hear him speak for the first time. His voice reminds you of the wind and sand; it is rasped and rough and ragged like his vocal chords are two palm leaves rubbing together.

 

Ship ran out of power. No food and something wrong with the thingymduds. I dunno about this technical stuff. I thought the Bots took care of that but they left like rats from a sinking ship.

 

The droids left? I didn’t think that was possible. Says Clem.

 

Anyone else on board? Asks Brin.

 

Nope. Rest of ‘em died a long time ago. Just this old man here, blind as a bat.

 

The console bleeps and Clem runs his fingers over the screen.

 

He’s clean. I don’t get how but his body shows no sign of the virus.

 

Sir. You’re not carrying the virus. We’re still going to have to decontaminate the rest of you. Please remove your clothes and give them to the Bot. Then use the shower on your left. We’ll be seeing you in about 30 minutes.

 

That’s fine son. Just fine.

 

Brin turns to Clem: When he comes on board I’m going over to the other ship. We need to check out his story but we’ll tell him I’m looking for supplies. If his story checks out I’ll see what we can salvage. I want you to keep an eye on him and ask him to show you the map.

 

You are eager to meet the old man. This is the first person you have ever met. You can’t tell anything about his eyes, but he walks confidently into the room without stumbling or pausing. Then he takes a long drag on the air and carefully moves to a chair placed out for him in the centre of the room by Clem. Then he raises his head slightly, and sniffs the air. Brin has already left to explore the other ship in a pressurised suit.

 

There’s someone else here. He says quietly.

 

That’s just my sister. She’s also blind, like you.

 

He looks almost towards you and smiles. His form emerges in your mind and your brain fills in the corners it can’t see, even rotates it around for study: he is tall and rakish with hair down to his waist, some of which is in braids. He has beads and other jewellery on both wrists and hanging from his neck; a large stone hangs from a single piece of rope around his neck. There are strange abrasions on parts of his skin in long lines. He is hairless apart from the long locks, and he has rather smooth features for such a gravelled voice.

 

You sure move around easily for a blind man. Says Clem.

 

I can see more than you think son. These eyes may be baked out, but I don’t need ‘em. I have my other senses.

 

Where’s this map you spoke of?

 

The man reaches down to his satchel which was still wet from the decontamination sprays. He pulls open the main compartment and slides out a huge folded mass of wrinkled and dry paper and unfolds it carefully on the floor. You can’t see what’s on it.

 

Clem bends down to inspect it. What the hell is this; it’s not paper.

 

It’s skin. There was a man once who had this tattooed on his back. Story goes that he lived in the city once but was exiled. Before he left he got this put on his back, so he could return one day.

 

How’d you get hold of it?

 

It was given me.

 

Clem eyes him suspiciously.

 

What’s it got on it? You ask earnestly.

 

It’s a map of the whole maze. It’s a complex one too. I’ve never seen the designs, but this one could take years to solve by trial and error.

 

Brin’s voice comes over the speaker. He has reached the other ship and is entering the lower level. He is reporting the power down and no sign of droids anywhere.

 

No signs of biological contagions here. The virus isn’t present here Clem.

 

Clem turns on the old man, almost shouting: Why don’t you show signs of the virus? You’ve been outside –it’s in the wind; it’s everywhere.

 

I think you’ve been cooped up in here too long. It’s been a long time since the outbreak; how long did you think it would last? Anyhow, there’s something else you should be more worried about.

 

What do you mean?

 

You’ll see. Go take a look at your garden. Look for a plant like an orchid with a face.

 

Clem slowly turns to you and locks his gaze.  Go upstairs. You too Charlie.

 

The man falls into a babble, conversing with something or someone, then he stops and says:

 

Who will inherit the earth? The meek or the snake? He repeats this over and over in a mantra.

 

Brin’s voice says: I’m in the control room. I’m accessing the log for the last 30 days. There’s something wrong in the garden; I’m going to go back down and check that first. I was hoping we could take their seed-bank.

 

Now you are climbing the staircase and the voices are obfuscated by the tin-clamour of your feet on the paper-thin metal steps. You rush forward wanting to turn the intercom on in the tower and listen in. When you reach the console and flick it on there is nothing but dark silence. Then there is a screech of metal as a chair is pulled violently across the floor. Then you hear a sound that you didn’t think it was possible for a human to make: an empty howl, inhuman, beastlike; a cry of pain that makes you feel sick and brittle; acid sprays up into your mouth for a second and you bend over and breathe deeply. Was that the old man or Clem? It was hard to tell.

 

Charlie. You need to go downstairs for me and take a look. When you come back give me a sign that it’s ok.

 

Charlie trots to the door immediately and then disappears as soon as the gap is wide enough to slip through. You hear him descend for a few steps. Then you wait. Nothing comes over the intercom except a desperate breathing sound, and a faint whimper. You feel helpless. There was no contact from Brin. You try to raise him from the tower but there is nothing. Then there is a loud crash and something slams against the floor. There is a hacking sound. Time passes like skin being pulled through teeth. Ten minutes? Maybe more. Charlie has not returned. You sit on the floor, slip off the headband and try to think in darkness. You need to find out what is happening? If you wait it could be too late? You are quick and aware of everything around you. No one can sneak up behind you. All you need to do is get a few steps into the kitchen and you will see it all.

You quietly leave the tower, and descend as quietly as possible, trying to steady your breathing. You notice that the droids have stopped working. There is an eerie silence permeating the airy space. The doors approach; they will open automatically when you are a certain distance. At that point you need to sprint forward, but at the same time be careful in case he is waiting on the other side. They open and you take a breath and charge forward, head low. As soon as your head passes the jamb of the door the room is alive around you. The old man is standing over your brother and he turns to face you, smiling. Clem is strapped to the chair. Something is growing out of him; something plant-like. It is embedded in his stomach and sprouting many tendrils that are dancing wraithlike in the air.

As you watch, transfixed, it shudders and then tries to burrow deeper and Clem’s head and body arch back into an impossible shape of pain: his entire skeleton snapped back and then doubled over in spasms. On the floor to your right Charlie lays, in two pieces. His head and part of his torso, including his two front legs, has been hacked from the rest of his body.  Fluid pools into and runs in rivulets between the floor panels.

 

Stop. The word barely passes you lips. You try again.

 

Please. Stop. Why?     

 

It’s not me. These things have their own designs. Creation out of our own neglect and the radiation from the bombs I s’pose. I been watching them for some time and I kinda marvel at it. I even seen a man walk o’er the desert, willed onwards he was, until he lay down and roots burst out of him, down into the sand. Guess I’m just admiring the great tapestry of nature when she’s allowed to reinvent herself.

 

Please save him; I’ll do anything.

 

Actually there’s something I need from him first. Something the plants will take if I give ‘em enough time.

 

His hand comes out of his pocket holding a short knife; you recognise it as one from the kitchen inventory. He bends over Clem and pulls his head back by his hair and then, without pause, slides it into Clem’s eye socket and begins a swift exenteration of the eyeball. After slicing off the eyelid he works fast and methodically around the glutinous parts and muscles. You can’t move and bile is seeping up into your mouth. Then he turns to you and extends his fist towards you while opening his fingers to reveal the eyeball. With his other hand he reaches up to his right eye and gouges out the black pebble inserted there and drops it onto the floor. Clem’s head has flopped back down and blood is streaming onto the floor from the empty cavity.

The old man groans with delight and begins to jump around declaring with glee:

 

And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.

 

You are inching towards Clem, your arms outstretched. You want to take him into your arms, whisper that it will be ok. He will survive this. They will all be together again, a family, sharing the days. You need him; your whole being needs him here. As you stumble forward in this fog, you have not been aware of the old man: your inner vision is all your can hear. But it’s already too late and now you feel the band being slipped off your head; it’s gone and darkness falls and Clem has gone with it. You place your hands on the cold metal floor and feel the grooves. There is a scratch along one side in every panel. You crouch and try to still the gyroscopic spin inside.

 

Now I have his eyeball I think I’ll take a trip up to that medical unit of yours in the tower and have the droids transplant these organs. They can stimulate and regrow all that dead tissue in this hollow cave. A few nips, some grafting and hey, presto, I got me a new eye. Then I can read that map and take us all to the centre of the maze. We’re all going, one big happy family. ‘Cept Brin of course. The plants over there will be working him over; he’ll be more vegetable than human by now …

 

Sat in darkness, but tensed and ready, your mind is parlaying between options. That’s when you hear him speak. First it’s just a croak, but the second time it is loud and insistent.

 

Run!

 

The scratches in the floor panels were put there by your parents. You used them when you were small to orientate yourself. You spring to your feet and run towards the door. When you hear it open the sound allows you to make a few quick alterations to your course. Then you make four long strides and dive up the stairs. You used to do this as a child; you used to practice. You can do this.

Behind there is a clatter of steps, and then weightier echoes as he chases you. At eighty steps you should hear the door open.

 

78 – 79 – 80 – 81…

 

The door clicks and slides back. You hit the top and stumble slightly and then dive towards the left side, feeling for the edge. The old man sounds about half-way up; he is quicker than you expected. Sliding around the opening you feel for the touchscreen. This is the risky part. You quickly brush your fingers across the top to gauge distance. Then you try to tap in the correct code, guessing the distance with your fingers. It beeps an error. He is nearing the top, moments away. You try again and the door hisses and slides shut just as a weight crashes into it from the other side. You slump to the floor with your back to the door while he pounds at it from the other side screaming.

Sadness grips you now, and for a while you succumb to it. Your world has forever changed. And now your life is in danger, Charlie is gone and you don’t know how to save your brothers or if you can save them. For now you are not in immediate danger. The observation deck has water and some rations. The old man can’t get through the door, although he will try and smoke you out. You listen to the ship: sometime soon you should feel it following the rail to the left, turning towards the gaping mouth of the maze.

You are exhausted and decide that some rest wouldn’t hurt. Staggering into the bedroom fatigue ebbs throughout, and so, locking the door behind, you collapse under the duvet, wrapping yourself in the folds like the layers of the maze.

You wake from a fitful sleep at 5 am. The ship would seem to be moving in a straight line: the vibrations are different. You splash water on your face and reassess your options.

Your thoughts are interrupted by a slight tapping sound on the door. It continues unabated. Putting your ear to the metal you get the impression of only a dull thud, insistent and occurring just a few inches from the floor. It doesn’t make sense. The only source you can imagine is a Bot. But why would a Bot be knocking? It could be a trap of course but when the sound doesn’t let up you decide it’s a necessary risk; it could be that Clem has crawled up the stairs and then collapsed outside. You key in the code and flex your muscles, ready to move fast.

As the door opens you are on your knees and are feeling with your hands and listening. Your hands immediately recognise the soft fur and you grab hold of him and pull him across the threshold and then rise quickly to lock the door again.

Charlie. Somehow he got to you. He pulled himself forward with two legs and his head. It took him all night but he ascended one step at a time, never giving up. His electronic purr breaks the silence. Just like your brothers, you have no idea how long he has left, not knowing enough about what is keeping him alive.

 

Thank you Charlie. I can’t do this on my own.

 

Then you feel Charlie wriggle as his legs scrape the floor and he scrambles half-heartedly towards the door. Then he stops and you feel his head nuzzle into and then prod you. Then his legs scramble forward again.  He’s awkwardly trying to signal an idea. Then his legs wrap around your neck and he hangs down with his head facing forward, upside down. He lightly strokes your neck with an upwards motion and you assume this means walk forward. You do this and he purrs in acknowledgement. Then he taps you sharply with his nose and you stop and again he purrs. Then you feel a slight pressure on your left shoulder and you respond by stepping to the left; then the same on the right.

 

Ok, I think I got it. Forward, backwards, left and right? We ready to go? I hope so because you’re really heavy; even half of you.

 

His nose strokes upwards and so you walk steadily forward and key the door code. You wonder then if Clem was tortured in order to try and make him give up that code. It seems likely. The base of the tower is filled with an electronic symphony.

Something has changed again with the droids; they are crackling like a swarm of locusts –you’ve never heard them like this. Something is on the horizon.

Near the bottom of the stairs you pause. Any further and the door will open automatically, alerting the old man. This hadn’t occurred to you until now. As you pause, and consider retreating to the tower, you begin to hear Bots falling to the stairs like metal rain –first it’s just a few then they fall like hailstones. They are surging forward, around your feet, and the door opens anyway. Then you realise that the scraping and din made by their metal pincers is the perfect cover. The old man seems to have a hyper-sensitive sense of hearing, and perhaps smell, but this moving tide should make you invisible.

 

What the hell is that! You’re leaving too!! You hear him scream.

 

The droids are in a frenzy and seem to be evacuating the ship; what is it that they sense? Charlie is guiding you forward amidst the swarm. The old man is raving; he must have seen this before. Charlie is tapping to go right, and you assume he means you to hide behind the counter on the right-hand side in the food preparation area. You follow his delicate tapping and your hands grasp the edge of the slab. For a second you almost crouch down behind it, forgetting this won’t make any difference. The droids are streaming down the stairs to the next level.

 

Where are you going!!! Get back here!!!

 

He scrambles down the stairs after the horde, shouting and cursing. And then you are on your feet and shuffling your way over to Clem. You wrap your arms around him and kiss his face, but keeping away from his stomach where you can still hear something suckling, gurgling and moving.

 

Sis. Oh my God you’re alive. I wasn’t sure. 

 

What can I do? Tell me. How can I get this thing out of you?

 

You can’t. I’m sorry. I’m sorry this happened; it’s our fault. We should have been more careful. Both of us. We love you; we love you so much but it’s time for you to take over. You have to find the city. The virus isn’t the threat anymore: it’s us. Me. Brin too.

 

What do you mean? I’ll go get Brin. There has to be a way. We can get you up to the medical unit.

 

No. And don’t go after Brin. Promise me. I don’t want you to see his body; I’ve already seen what will happen to me, what is happening right now. Sis, look at me. Don’t try and fight him. Go outside. Follow them.

 

I won’t leave you. Your hands begin to shake as you say this.

 

All parents have to say goodbye to their children one day, and you’re both my sister and the closest I ever came to a child. I watched you grow up strong. Here, take this.

 

You feel a fist brush past you and you find it and it presses your EL-band into your grasp. You stretch it and pull it on and the world unfurls around you like shoots pushing up into light. Clem strokes your face, following the contours with his rough fingertips.

 

Keep us alive Sis. You are our future.

 

He pauses and then says: Charlie, it’s time.

 

You feel Charlie stretch across and then is a loud, violent snap and you realise with a recoiling horror that he has just broken Clem’s neck. His head goes immediately back to you and buries itself under your chin. Tears gurgle up from within, and your dam breaks; your head flops forward while tears drop and pool into a tiny mirror to trap you in.

Then you hear the footfall behind you and a huge wedge of hatred drives you up onto the balls of your feet. You stand still gently flexing your muscles; there is a confidence rooting you to the spot that was not there before. You sling Charlie further around so that he becomes a sort of backpack, his legs still slung around your neck.

 

Nice little speech he gave wasn’t it. Very sentimental. Unfortunately these times of suffering call for a harder resolve; we need practical thinking, not emotions. He didn’t quite tell you everything about the virus though, did he? Shall I tell?

 

…Oh I can’t resist. There were two viruses you see. One of them was programmed to infect men only, and it killed them pretty quick. The other, strangely, only affected women. Made ‘em blind. Funny isn’t it, men we kill, women we condemn. They always been our vessel for sinfulness.    

 

How did you survive the virus?

 

He cackles and throws his head back and then changes his posture in a way that suggests a different category. Come on. Use some deduction.

 

You’re a woman.

 

Ha ha ha. Obvious now isn’t it. And with that she runs her hand over her chest and down to between her legs. Not much of a woman I must admit, but enough to be thankful for the life it’s given.

 

You do realise killing your brother isn’t gonna help you much. I can take your brother’s left eye and I can get into the medical unit now. I have a special finale planned for you though. There’s something in the garden that’s just dying to meet you.

 

You watch her move carefully over to the glass doors. He releases them and starts moving backwards. Something sinewy and hulking staggers into the room. It bristles immediately and turns in your direction. Three feet of cleaving root nodules act as primitive feet. Further up its thorny trunk there is a sort of rib-cage of blunt sticks. Above this there is an oily mucous with heart-shaped leaves protruding and then several stalks upon which hang a large serpent-flower. Stamens thrust-out like a mocking tongue, and the head, which looks like a giant gaping mouth, is unfurling into a huge three-point star. It is the orchid you noticed yesterday, but gone through a final metamorphosis into this perverse horror. Tendrils appear out of the wide grin, thin and wavering upon the air. They stretch out towards you, lashing about.

 

I found out these things love high frequencies. It would love to embrace you.

 

The leafless sticks at the base begin vibrating against each other and this disrupts your vision by jamming the echo pattern. You can see nothing but interference, a blizzard in the snow globe. Your last glimpse is the plant being about four metres away, swaying now in a frenzied excitement. You stagger backwards and fumble with Charlie. Is there time to use his eyes? In less than twenty seconds you will be cornered. You crouch down and summon your concentration.

The EL-band is set to automatically modulate between high and low frequencies, sending out fixed wavelets, but you can also intervene and manipulate it; it’s tricky and you’ve not been able to master it. You pick out the interference, and then visualise yourself as the wave-mother, calling out to sea. It is a complicated interference pattern, smaller and smaller waves, but they radiate from a single sun. You push the frequencies of the EL-band to the lowest end of the spectrum, and scramble them with their own unique signature. The world flips back into focus, and the approaching silhouette of the plant burns into your vision. Now you can judge the distance perfectly, feel it even as your bathe yourself in the soundscape.

You step back carefully and then circle away from the plant. It pauses again, confused now that you’re sending out lower frequencies. It begins to swivel around on its tripod feet. You defly duck away from and under the tendrils, spinning around as you do this, while your vision remains perfectly orientated. Then you simply face the old woman and walk directly in front of her while she continues to jig around in excitement. She still has the map, and you know she will soon be able to restore her sight; but that is no matter. You remember what Clem said: ‘Follow them’.

You descend the stairs to the lower level. The air-lock is to your left, along a metal gangway. You hear a wail of frustration from the top of the steps as she realises her prey has vanished. Will the plant trap her or does she have a way to control them? Quickly you run to the door and key in the code so that the door swings open and you step into the chamber. It bolts and seals itself behind you and then the outer hatch, the final seal before the outside world rushes in, is released and opens outwards.

You feel warmth on your cheeks and then your forehead, and you taste dry salt on your tongue. Then the wind whips up and sand blasts your face causing your to shield your eyes and ears. The EL-band scans the desert floor, detecting a grainy slate passing underneath which extends outwards to your horizon. You feel like a barnacle, your armour exposed to obliterating forces and inside the brine of your ancestors sloshing about. You slide Charlie back round to the front, and hold him in your arms and caress his head. He purrs.

 

Ready to go Charlie?

 

The big cat leans his head forward and licks your cheek. The steps go down beneath you and then stop, suspended some three metres above the earth. It feels as though you about to dive into the abyss. You’ve listened to audio descriptions of astronauts leaving their space stations and free-divers floating down into the murk; and now you are about to leave your home, the terrestrial capsule that reared you in its own private Eden, and insert yourself into an unknown frontier which may not support you. Now you are a spore delivered on the wind.

Rung by rung you go down until your legs are hanging and being jostled by the wind. First you shout to Charlie to let go and you feel his limbs loosen and then the wind takes him. With thoughts of your brothers stinging your eyes you release your grip and the wind throws you further back, and spins you, and for a moment you are flying into this new world arms outstretched. The next sensation you feel is the gravelly slick of sand against your palm and then the hard slump and a painful twist of your limbs as the sand catches you. You lie prostrate and motionless. You hear a bird of some kind wheeling overhead and wonder if it is one of the carrion chasers, keeping one eye on you.

You sit up slowly and without turning, beam your light onto the ship. It is moving away, the reflective surfaces making it an obscured mountain passing across your horizon and into the night. Then it is just noise, the hum of electromagnetic field generators and the coiling sound of the track.

 

Charlie!!

 

Nothing. Fear jolts you.

 

Charlie!! Please, Charlie!!

 

You stagger around in circles, firing out pulses in all directions and hoping something comes back. Then there is a form sprawled out; the fur muffles the echo, and you see a kind of black sinkhole in the blue sky of the floor. Running in choking strides and then he is there below you. You scoop him up and bury your head into the soft warm fur; he is the last of your former life, your friend, your mirror. He wriggles slightly and you hold his body up so his head is level with yours: his seeing eyes opposite your unseeing eyes. His mouth opens. He yawns. He blinks. You hold him close and feel his purring.

 

Thank God you’re ok. I don’t know what …. You let the sentence trail in the wind.

 

Swinging Charlie over your back you head in the direction of the ship in order to follow it into the maze. You put your hand against one of the vast feet supporting the track above you, and walk along, keeping one hand ahead of you through the sandstorm. Your world has been reduced to these two featureless surfaces: the metal feet that appear at intervals on your right and the flat expanse of the desert in every direction under your feet. Every time the wind rings over the flat terrain your mental image is torn up and thrown into a hall of mirrors.

The stinging winds rise and fall in tides, and your feet beat out the time. Your visible world is so diminished that you decide to take off the EL-band and follow the rail. Then a sound you don’t recognise seems to reach you through the howl of the wind; it seems to be in front of you. As you get closer you recognise the bleeps and crackle of the droids. Are they waiting for you?

When you get closer they swarm around you and the clicking and bleeping heightens. You wonder how Clem knew what to do. Was it just a theory? What happens now? As you crouch down and feel around you, tracing the various abdomens and thoraxes of this motley crew, recognising some but unsure about others (are they from the other ship?), you feel something being pushed into your hand. You realise it’s a bottle of water, and then a packet of rations is being offered to you by another Bot. Then they start making a racket again and begin to totter off towards the maze.

You follow in a stupor, trying to figure out what this means. At the edge of the maze they pause and become silent. You approach and they part allowing you through. You take out your EL-band and place it over your eyes. Featureless concrete walls disappear out-of-sight upwards, to either side and in front of you. The huge rail continues forwards. Ahead you can hear the ship making a sharp turn to the left, and the huge boom poles supporting the sail are swinging around to capture the wind, giving out a singing high-pitched tone. You walk forward into the cool shade of the maze and stop. The inner walls are covered in strange crenulated fungi, and at that moment fronds flap outwards and shake off wisps of pollen that are immediately carried up on the rollercoasting winds. What next?

It is impossible to navigate the maze. Even if you had the map you wouldn’t make it –it could take months or even years; you have no idea how far it is to the centre. But where else could you go? Perhaps there was a life to carve-out in here? Could you live off the organic matter encrusted on the walls? It seemed doubtful, but you would have to try. You walk forward again, and focus your beam forward, seeking out the forking path. It eventually replies, and a fuzzy definition emerges from the blank square in front. As you scour it for information something irregular jumps out at you. You concentrate harder, sending batches of modulating pulses. There is something rectangular set into the wall.

When you reach it you brush aside the fronds and hanging vines. The rectangle is vertical, and when you touch it you feel cold metal. Then the answer hits you. Your hands move outwards in sweeping arcs and eventually find a handle. It’s rusty and it takes several attempts but eventually it moves and the door creaks open. You leave it open for the droids and walk through. You emerge into another path of the maze, running in both directions. Directly opposite you is another door, the same as the first. You walk under the rail and open it. And after this door there is another, and another, and another. After walking for several hours a thought occurs to you: this is the solution to the maze. The maze is a fortification against the sand and infection and attack; and also a way to keep the ships from ever reaching the city. The only way to get there is on foot. Because the virus takes between 48-72 hours to kill, anyone who walks to the centre must be…

And the solution again strikes you for it providence. The only ones who can reach the centre are women, delivered by the ark and chosen by the systems on board. They must travel, blind and on foot: pilgrims of a new age. You laugh out loud at this realisation. The old woman is doomed to wander the maze and her map is a worthless rune. The maze is in fact a labyrinth: an endless journey designed to obscure its centre. The true path is hidden behind a myth that mankind keeps telling itself: to go forward, to survive, to reproduce and pass on our selfish genes.

How far you have to walk now is unknown. But you have only to keep walking, one foot in front of the other in a straight line. Days and nights mean nothing to you. The droids occasionally pass you food and water, and you stop frequently to check on Charlie; ensure that his power source is still keeping him alive.

On the fourteenth day the door opens onto a grassy plain and the first thing to hit you is the smell. You have listened to descriptions of grass and lawns. It captured your imagination and you listened to encyclopaedic entries, descriptions of paintings and Walt Whitman. In your mind’s eye it might be more beautiful: the blue sea on which you stand that peels back and bows under the wind in thousands of breaking waves. Your sight scans forward, but only sees more grass flickering downwards into a large circular valley. Tired and on cracked and bruised feet you summon the strength to carry on.

In the distance a bell tolls and then more bells erupt in the distance. Is this an alarm? The droids continue to follow like geese and Charlie tries to turn his head to face forward, his large head pushed under your armpit. Is there life here? Will you finally be safe?

Perhaps sensing the end of the journey your knees buckle and you sink into a posture of benediction. You surrender to it and lean forward to sniff the grass. It is so soft and fresh; you can’t remember smelling anything like this, even in the garden. It is wondrous and seems to trigger some deep genetic memory inside; you feel like you have crawled back inside your mother’s womb and everything that has sunk will float again. The world will not exist; you will not be born; there will be no end, only a forever beginning. And then you hear a voice, and hear feet flattening the swaying grasses.

There are several voices, all muffled. The droids come to a halt near you. You pull Charlie up so that his head is next to yours, and you kiss his face and put your nose on his. The feet have stopped, and then one pair comes forward. Charlie is partly blocking your vision, but you don’t worry. You have surrendered to the wind. Then there is a single voice, a woman. It is warm and kind. You hand reaches for the picture of your mother and you hold it tightly. The voice repeats itself.

 

You will be alright now. We’ll look after you. What’s your name?

 

You stay silent for a while, wanting to sink into the grass, let it swallow you whole. Then something brings you back; a face. A face you thought you had lost. You float back up to the surface.

 

Selina. My name is Selina.

 

We’re very happy to have you here Selina. It’s been a long time since anyone found us; we had almost given up hope.

 

Are you all women here?

 

Yes we are. We might be the last that’s left.

 

But if that is so, we are doomed.

 

The droids erupted then into one of their symphonic choruses. Were they communicating something?

 

Maybe not Selina. You are a very special visitor. There is something I ought to tell you now although there are many things that need explaining. Selina, it is no accident that you have come here. It was planned, in a sense. You are pregnant.

 

You sit bolt upright and your eyes open wide; a reflex action, despite its lack of utility.

 

That’s impossible.

 

It’s not, believe me. The ships sent across the desert have an ulterior motive. They were intended to save the last healthy females so we could start again. When the ship came within range of the maze the droids waited for the right moment to inseminate you. You would have been drugged one evening, and then during your sleep had your eggs fertilised. It is rather unpleasant I know, and done without your permission. The fact that women are accustomed to being vessels doesn’t make it right. But it was done and the survival of our species may rest on you, and others like you that may still be out there combing the desert.

 

But who then is the father?

 

Your eggs will have been fertilised with your own chromosomal material. Our race is currently limited to a form of asexual reproduction.

 

Would my brothers have known about this?

 

No. This would not have been disclosed to anyone on the ship, although it’s possible your mother knew and signed the papers. 

 

Emotions are forming deafening waves inside, but strength resides there too; walls to resist the impact. You pull yourself to your feet and face the colony. The future may lay wide and open before you, but you can’t see it. The wind blows gently through your hair and you gather yourself into an arrow. You will survive, no matter what.

 

First things first … I need you to fix my cat.

We Will Not Let You Escape This Labyrinth (Part 1)

PLEASE NOTE: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS

Cube Farms

My heart lives between silence and hope […]
strong, fearless, bold and never beaten,
in the middle of a horrific labyrinth
desires a lot, hopes too much and is not afraid of anything.

 

I want to talk about the postmodern maze as a gradual evolution of the labyrinth as both a metaphor and a physical structure. The postmodern maze is Kafkaesque and often warps time and space. Memory, of a lack of, often plays an important part in the process of navigating the spaces. The postmodern maze is usually three dimensional and may be analogous to a network: a branching of lines that interconnect in complex ways. The internet is, currently, the ultimate manifestation of the postmodern maze.

This type of maze is often a type of prison which entraps and tests its victims, and it may have a kind of sentience, technological or supernatural. The Overlook hotel is an example of a timeless evil taking over the minds of men (albeit weak-minded and violent men), and it creates its own labyrinths through this slowly pervasive influence. These labyrinths trap and doom their victims to an inward spiral, a walk of madness.

Let’s take, for an example, the environment of Cube (1997), a low-budget indie horror film made in a single room on a Toronto sound-stage. Imagine this scenario:

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You wake up in a room measuring 14ft by 14ft. There is nothing but cold steel walls and a hatch in the centre of each face of the cube. Each hatch opens onto an identical cube, the only difference being that sometimes the lit panels have a different colour hue: red, white, green or blue. You can’t remember how you arrived in this place, but you are wearing a uniform that bears a name. You move from cube to cube randomly or perhaps you decide to move in a straight line. Then, in one of the rooms, as your boots hit the floor you are aware that something is different. A metal net, almost invisible to the naked eye, slices your body into neat cubes which remain stacked, in a grotesque child’s play of form, before toppling to the floor.

You have died.

You wake up again as another character. The stages of realisation and decisions made are similar to before. However, this time you discover you are not alone in this maze. There’s an escape artist, a teenager, a policeman, a doctor, an office worker and a savant. Together you will try and find an exit: it seems reasonable to assume that any maze has an exit.

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Cube has no dead-ends –the maze is provided by the traps, which the occupants must avoid, while getting to the edge of the cube. Each cube has a nine digit number, split into three sets. Eventually, through trial and error and the photographic memory of the young girl, they realise that the numbers are significant. By the end of the film they have solved the riddle: the numbers are coordinates of starting positions of the cubes along an x, y and z axis, and the cubes move through a cycle of positions according to permutations of the numbers. One cube, in its starting position, bridges the gap between the entire cube superstructure and the outer shell and it aligns with the exit for a short period of time.

This rat maze is like a giant Rubik’s cube filled with mechanical minotaurs. It moves around you, constantly creating new mazes, the navigation of which requires huge computational power. Like the maze in A Solar Labyrinth, only a master game player can solve it although it is possible to get a certain distance on luck and instinct.

The Cube is really a mirror of the real minotaur.

The minotaur is you.

As desperation, hunger and thirst all take their toll, the characters begin to unravel and one, the chosen one, takes on the role of Jack Torrance –he becomes the hunter. The Cube is, on one level, simply a physical manifestation of our inner drives, of the paths we can take, and since they can realign and reset, we can all be the hero or the villain. The Cube, possibly running on algorithms amassed from big data, is silently calculating, and like the director who controls the fates of his characters, it knows who will win as soon as the characters wake up. Or perhaps it nudges the story from time to time, setting off a trap here and there to bring the narrative back under control –we don’t know. However, the Cube allows for a winner, and like the virgin girl in horror films, the victor is an innocent.

The only one not fouled by the human condition, and thus doomed to walk in purgatory, is permitted to leave the maze. What lies outside hell may just be another version of it however, and it is hard to believe in the white light that beckons in the final seconds of the film.

Very few of us believe in heaven, or any utopia. Our worldview, influenced by two world wars and the doom-game of the media, is framed by dystopia. The characters struggle to understand why anyone would build the Cube, but it is like the house that Jack built –it is indirectly linked to all the contents of the world. It is the hedge-maze at the end of The Shining: a metaphor that passes through the eye of a needle into the world.

If enough people will it, then it will be.

The Maze of the Enchanter Redux

Clark Aston Smith is a largely forgotten fantasy writer who, along with H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard (author of Conan the Barbarian), were the major contributors to the influential Weird Tales magazine established in 1923. His work, along with Lovecraft’s, is often categorised under the term ‘Weird Fiction’, a nebulous genre that roughly describes a story which has a supernatural element blended with fantasy or science fiction, but is sometimes more of an aesthetic: a suspension of reality, sometimes speculative, sometimes schizophrenic, often uncanny; these stories feel like a waking dream.

Smith is possibly in a category of his own, and he created a number of story cycles that take place in fantasy worlds that include a medieval French province, a continent in a future dying Earth, a prehistoric civilisation and even Atlantis. His fantasy is dark and his stories are often populated by evil and power that bends and breaks others.

One reason why his writing may not have fared well over the years is that it has a very antiquated style, full of long descriptive sentences that are weighed down by Latinate words and heavy-handed metaphors. Harlan Ellison described it as “prose so purple it sloshes over into ultrviolet”. It is not to everyone’s taste, and to be honest I find it can get in the way of Smith’s soaring imagination. He is a first-rate world-builder, and most people assume it his language –the code– that makes his worlds so alluring. Personally, I think it is his originality and weirdness that grabs us and the language is often a stumbling block.

One of my favourite Smith stories is a brilliant reworking of the Cretan labyrinth myth, and it fits the ‘eternal wanderer in the maze’ trope I described in my post about The Shining. In fact, given that evil is such a presiding force in both stories, this is a fitting extension to that post. I read The Maze of the Enchanter more than ten years ago and its imagery still lingers. However, reading it again I found the verbose language even more distracting and so I set myself the task of rewriting the story in a much simpler prose. It would be sacrilege to even suggest my version improves on the original, but it has allowed me to get closer to the kernel of the story, and also it might be more accessible to those not accustomed to the genre. It is, in essence, a dark fairy tale, and it deserves to be read.

Note: I have also changed the story from third person to second person. I did this because I want the reader to feel the entrapment of the character, and to experience the limited perspective of the maze (not the God-view of third person).

 

The Maze of the Enchanter Redux

With only the skinny light from the four crescent moons, you cross the bottomless swamp where nothing dwells except that heaving mass of ooze that breathes with a breathless sentience. You carefully avoid the high causeway of white crystal walls, and instead thread your way across each gelatinous island, each step a sinking-second before you shift your weight to the next crust.

When you reach the solid shore you avoid the pale-pink staircase that winds upwards like a needle piercing the sky, and crosses floating peninsulas and steep clefts cut into the gleaming rock. Eventually that winding and convoluted path reaches the terrible enclave of Maal Dweb.

The staircase and the causeway are guarded by iron giants who mindlessly serve their master. Their arms are long crescent blades whose tempered edges deal swiftly with trespassers.

You have smeared your naked body, from top to bottom, with a juice that is toxic to all fauna on this planet. With this protection, you hope to pass, unharmed, all the ape-like creatures that roam through the cliff-hung gardens and halls of Maal Dweb. You carry a coil of root-fibres weighted at one end with a brass ball for the purpose of scaling this impossible mountain. Your only weapon is a poisoned knife.

Many before you have tried to hunt down Maal Dweb in his fortress. None have ever returned. You hope to reverse that fortune. Hand over hand you scale the sheer heights, finding slithers of crystal as footholds and hurling the weighted coil around projecting angles of rock. Finally, you manage to attain a narrow buttress beneath the final cliff face. From here you can just reach, with your coil, the crooked and sinewy branch of a tree from Maal Dweb’s garden.

These trees bear sharp metallic leaves which seem to slash the air when the wind catches them. Rumour has it that Maal Dweb, with no human aid, carved his fortress into the rock, fashioning walls, cupolas and turrets and then levelled this great space around the mountain. On this mesa he placed loamy soil in which he planted these curious trees and also many toxic and carnivorous flowers which he gathered from his exploration of the outlying planets. His garden of earthly delights was full of colour and rich perfume, but everything here was bent sinister: bleeding orchids, tendrils that shot out like a frog’s tongue and wet with a saliva that stuck your eyes and blocked your airways, giant throaty leaves that snapped shut and slowly grew over you, huge flutes in the mossy soil that you might slide down –landing in a bath of acid– and many strange vegetable animals; spongy and clumsy copies that were attached umbilically to their host plants and moved by various sacs of air that were crude pistons. Some had teeth and others poisoned fangs; others still would explode in a cloud of spores that once inhaled would later grow and lead to an excruciating death from inside.

This labyrinth of traps upon traps was the safest way into the palace grounds but it was only the first and most loosely designed labyrinth. It was said that on the opposite side of the mountain, bathed in light from three suns, a lush topiary had been formed into an almost infinite maze which contained an even greater variety of capricious traps designed by Mal Dweb himself.

You crouch in the shadows and listen to the thick silence produced by this hungry and patient forest. You take in the nightmare around you, this mish mash collage of forms: roots like giant, hairy spider’s legs, roots that slither through the undergrowth and then seem to stop and sniff the air, flowers that chirp and shake excitedly as you get near and then rise up suddenly to head-height to reveal a monstrous leering face made from thick wads of petals, vines that hang down and occasionally lash from side to side exposing a seam of tiny mouths. You pass through all of this with careful calculation and by stopping frequently to adjust your path.

You are driven by a consuming hatred. A girl was taken from you. Her name is Athle, the rarest and most beautiful person you know. Strong and kind and intelligent –she was to become the leader of your tribe and you have sworn protection of her. You love her selflessly. You caste cannot marry hers. It is forbidden, and perhaps she doesn’t share your deepest feelings. You spend your days with her, learning from her, and she is your closest and only friend.

Maal Dweb, a man or demon or something else, is, like many powerful tyrants, a collector. His tastes, not uncommon for those with power, focus on the asthetics of women, and he summoned the splendor of tribes across many planets to his lair. His iron-like voice could be projected limitlessly, and came down among the cosmic radiation –it cut through the wind and sandstorms, flew through walls and stone and echoed across plains. His made his decrees and the women, no less that fifty in the three decades of his imperium, came voluntarily –to refuse would mean certain destruction for their homes.

They came one by one, and they ascended the porphyry staircase and the doors to the palace opened and they were never seen again.

Athle was engaged to a man chosen as her suitor. He was from the upper caste and had all the spoils of education and refined sensibility. His name is Mocair. When you learned that Athle had been spirited away, you did not announce your intention to follow her since Maal Dweb has eyes and ears everywhere, and it is said that he can see through the eyes of beasts. Morcair was not present during the lamentations of the tribe, and it is not unlikely that he left before you on the same mission.

Now you stand in the final grove of the forest and peeping from the darkness are the saffron lights from the lower windows of the palace. A dense throng of domes and turrets blots our the night sky. Suddenly you are emboldened and you leap out into the garden, dodging the knife-like leaves, and cross the lawn that squirms underfoot like a carpet of worms.

To one side of the path you see a discarded coil of rope and know that Morcair has preceded you. The whole building is as still as a mausoleum and lit by windless lamps. No shadows can be seen behind the yellow frieze of windows. You mistrust the solitude and lack of sentries and so you follow the bordering paths for a while before approaching an entrance.

Then you spot movement. Out of the gloom shuffles an apish monster: hairy, bulky and with a long, sloping forehead. Some run on four-feet while others maintain the upright posture of anthropoids. They go forward in a single-minded fashion and if they see or sense you they slink away, whining like a dog. You presume this is due to the foul extraction coating your body.

You come to a dark portico with crowded columns. There are many silent fountains and banks of marble all about. The blue veins of the marble remind you of pale skin, and you feel again, as you have done all along, that you are walking on something alive and dimly conscious of you.

You enter the palace through a large door stood open. A hallway stretches out in front of you and ends in darkness some twenty metres ahead. The silence here is thicker than ever. The air stings you with the scents of various strong perfumes mingling together. The darkness seems alive with breathing and unseen movement. You move inwards, deeper and deeper into the complex.

Slowly, like the opening eyes of the palace, the yellow flames rise  one by one in copper lamps hung along the wall. You hide behind a heavily embroidered arras but minutes later, looking out, you see that the hall is still deserted. You continue onwards.

The doors on either side of the hall are all closed. Out of the shadows at the end of the hall emerges a double arras. Parting it slightly you peer into the next, brightly lit, chamber. Inside is a large circular room that appears, at first glance, to be the harem of Maal Dweb. There are perhaps all the girls summoned by the enchanter, all in various poses and some pressed against statues of bulls and other animals. They are all wearing the same two-piece, metal, heavily-jewelled garment. They are all painted in exotic make-up and their skin oiled, shining wet in the sharp light that poured into the chamber from some unknown source. None moved. They seem frozen and yet alive.

You approach the nearest statue, a girl with long flowing black hair, almost to her knees. She is kneeling on the floor, her body arched backwards in some spasm of pain or ecstasy –it is impossible to say which. You put your hand on her arm and it feels brittle, as if made from coloured glass. Her face is locked in an expression of absolute terror, the eyes fixed ahead. There is something about the eyes –they have a depth rather than reflecting the light. You lean in to examine them closely and while you stare into those black holes, the pupils dilate suddenly and move a fraction. You feel a small puff of stale air on your cheek. She is somehow alive, but trapped in a glass cage.

You stagger backwards and can only think of Athle. Where is she? Has this been done to her too? You search the room frantically but she is not among the glass mannequins. Mirrors hung everywhere, on the walls and on various frames, multiply the images of these women into infinity.

You cross the room, anger and despair knifing you forward. On the opposite side there is another exit covered by a double arras. Peering through first, you see a twilight chamber illuminated by two censers that give forth a variegated glow and blood-red fume. The censers are set on tripods in the far corners, facing each other. Between them lies a purple couch underneath a gauzy canopy of metal birds. On the couch a man reclines, as if weary or asleep. His face was very calm and placid. You have no doubt that this is Maal Dweb, the occult and omniscient scientist or sorcerer who is the unseen overlord of the galaxy.

Your rage consumes you then and you take silent steps forward and draw your blade. The man seems more in meditation than sleep, as if he wandered in a waking dream. The vapour from the censers had some hallucinatory effects, and your head swims in the shallow light. Mastering the vertigo, you raise your heavy arm and strike downwards towards the tyrant’s heart.

In mid-air above the vessel, your blade hits some impenetrable glass and the point breaks off and falls to the floor, breaking the silence. The impassive face seems to be touched by a faint and cruel amusement. You reach out and touch a vertical plane, a highly polished surface between the censers –a mirror that reflects the whole unbroken scene. You tried to kill a perfect image. Strangely, you are not reflected in this surface.

You whirl around and at that same moment the draperies on the walls pull back with an evil whispered rush and the chamber is flooded with light. Naked giants stand all around, each with hungry eyes and holding an enormous knife from which the point has broken off. It takes you a few minutes to realise that this is your reflection.

You turn again. The couch and canopy have gone and now the chamber stands empty. A candid laughter rises up from somewhere and envelops you. It peels off the walls and reverberates around the room.

“What do you seek Tiglari? Do you think to enter my palace with impunity. Many others have tried but all have paid a certain price for their temerity.”

“I seek my friend, Athle”.

“Your friend? The one who came before said ‘wife’. Does he not have a greater claim on her? Why take such risks Tiglari for friendship? I do not know whether to feel scorn or pity.”

“My love is greater than his.”

“It makes no difference to me. I have no need for emotions; they cloud my mind. They are a thing for beasts who live in shadows.”

“What have you done with her?”

“She has gone to find her fate in my labyrinth. Not long ago the prince, Mocair, went out at my suggestion to pursue his search amid the threadless windings of my maze. Go now Tiglari and seek her also. There are many mysteries and fortunes in my maze and perhaps there is one you are destined to solve.”

You see a door has opened in the mirrored wall. If Athle is lost in the maze then you will follow. You will not let her suffer alone. You walk out into the burnished sunrise and hear the doors clash behind.

The entrance to the fabled maze is right ahead. Its green walls rise ten metres or more and run in a straight line, to either side, until the sheer cliffs of the mountain. This single hedge must be at least ten miles long in each direction. Stepping inside you hear yourself take a short breath. This place holds such a mythological grip over so many countless tribes and cities and planets. You are now inside, waiting in the cool shadows; and yet you could still turn back. A few steps backwards, and you could follow the wall and quickly skirt the palace. Perhaps the metal servitors might even let you pass. But Maal Dweeb is no fool. Over generations men have come here following honour and duty. He resets the trap and we come for our nectar, and we fall on our swords, like bees stinging and dying to save their queen. We deem this a noble sacrifice, but he sees nothing but beasts, driven by lust and clouded by our self-love for the immortal warrior.

You walk forth into the maze, believing a moment that your true heart, your selfless love for Athle might spare you. Why do we still believe in fairy tales? The outlying districts of the maze are not as you expected. They are quaint, full of topiary animals and lush hedgerows that look smooth to the touch. The paths wind, taper until they almost touch and fork repeatedly but there are no dead ends. Sometimes you appear in a garden from which many paths radiate, with a fountain in the centre. The water is fresh and cold. The next time you find one of these fountains you presume you have doubled back, but on closer inspection this fountain differs from the first in that the statues are the mirror-image. You choose paths at will but after a few hours, having returned to the outer wall on one side you begin to pull leaves from the hedge and scatter them behind you. It is not until you find a thin trail of leaves meeting a solid wall that you finally understand. The walls are moving, changing the path of the labyrinth and you are being watched and toyed with.

Anger and humiliation are sometimes a useful spark. You begin to match the maze, becoming unpredictable. You increase your pace, and frequently double back, using your knife to strip off foliage as you go. Sometimes you double back several times. The walls begin to tremor and waves unfurl down their length as they attempt to block you in. You doubt your chances of actually cutting through the thickness of the walls, but you eventually try another path. You attempt to scale the walls and grab fistfuls of light twigs to stay your balance and try to ascend these thrashing, vertical gardens. It is only through your vice-grip, mastered as a climber –your tribe lives on top of a sheer escarpment–  that you hold on and finally reach the summit of the hedge. Then all goes quiet, the walls still and you gaze out over the maze.

It leads impossibly to the horizon, and is build on many levels, some winding up and around spires and others tumbling down various plateaus. There are even some entrances underground and it looks as if there are subterranean parts to this continent of bizarre confusions. How can you ever find her in here?  It is beautiful and overwhelming to the eye. You walk along the top of the hedge walls and gradually find your way deeper and deeper into the maze. Then the leafy and dense hedges begin to change in form. The leaves gradually give way to long snaking thorns and their number increases until you walk on a bed of snakes lined with teeth. You slip once and receive such lacerations that you realise it is impossible to go on. You backtrack and climb down, returning to the ground and a loss of perspective. From hereon in the maze darkens like it has been poisoned. There are no gardens or flowers, but instead there are enormous fungi with swelling bulges that hum with inner life, fetid pools full of leeches as big as your hands, cacti that spit out their spines as you pass close and even turn to face you, strange fruits and blossoms that mimic body parts or seem to contain them as if the dead here were dismembered and their limbs reconstituted by the cruel trees. The path went downward or scaled great heights. Sometimes you were in tunnels or walking on a narrow ledge around a needle-like spire, only to find the path then continued on a suspended forest to yet more anomalous growths and plants that looked like flesh and bone, metallic, chiming roots and channels of slime that you waded through up to your waist. Things moved and suckled your body in those depths and once a tail or tentacle grasped you and you felt patches of flesh ripped off but somehow you cut yourself free from those cupping mouths and got out of the trench before it dragged you under.

Somewhere among those blind paths you met one of the ape-like creatures, sleek and glistening like a wet otter. It passed you with a hoarse growl and recoiled away. It seemed driven forward, eager to keep moving. You hear a chorus of flute-like voices and then a series of quartz bells and gongs tolling out across the maze. Then, not long after you find yourself on a pavement of onyx and the maze seems different again –more ordered and yet much stranger. You are surrounded by towering bronzed stems that end in a long mouth of petals, like the heads of chimeras. You have finally, found a dead end. It is too late.

From the base of each of the chimera-plants a tendril shot out and fixed around your ankles. More followed and began to pull you off your feet. Despite your struggles your knife won’t cut the metallic skin and so you concentrate on finding purchase between the smooth stones and trying to get out of their leash. Those carmine mouths of flowers began to tilt down toward your body and then dip their heads over your knees. From their thick lips a clear, hueless liquid begins to drip –slowly at first and then running in rills. It covers your feet, and ankles and then slowly moves up your body.

Your flesh crawls from it and after a peculiar numbness passed your skin erupts in a furious stinging and burning. You watch in passivity as your legs undergo a horrifying change; becoming thicker and covered in a thick mat of hair, the feet longer and the toes thick and splayed out. You scream and thrash about but nothing can release you from their net. The heads are carefully and assiduously doing their work and now set to laving your hips and thighs in their thin slaver. Your whole body is in revolt to itself.

Then you hear the cry of a woman. Through the open gap in the hedge the walls seem to part swiftly and reveal a larger section of pavement on which stood a raised dais and altar. Climbing the steps to the centre with a hypnotic step is Athle. She is dressed as were the glass mannequins in the hall of mirrors. At the top she pauses and out of the dais rises a great circular mirror held upright. On it’s reverse side, visible to you only is the relief of a monster -an ugly, brutal face rendered in bronze. She seems captivated by some image in the mirror and steps toward it, her hands reaching forward. Her eyes widen in disbelief and the disc flashes for a moment and then flashes again in such a burst that you are temporarily blinded.

When the swirling blots clear from your vision you see that Athle is in a pose of statuesque rigidity and is still regarding the mirror with startled eyes. At that moment the chorus of voices sweep up again from nowhere and though you try to call out to Athle you realise she can’t hear you and she never saw you –she was alone when the end came.

Now the tilted blossoms are laving your arms and body and the transformation continues. You realise that the beast you passed earlier was probably Mocair and the other ape creatures were all those lost souls who had entered the maze. You wait for the end of the transformation, for the salve to cover your head but they seem to halt at your neck and retract.

Maal Dweb, in long purple robes, enters the space and the flowers retreat further, blending into the hedge. He looks over your body with the pride of an architect.

“I had intended to deal with you precisely as I dealt with Mocair and many others. However, I find that my whims are not always the same and I am getting bored of this enterprise. You, Tiglari, unlike the others shall remain a man from the neck upward, and you are free to resume your wanderings in the labyrinth and escape from it if you can. I do not wish to see you again, and my clemency arises from another reason than esteem for your kind. Go now, the maze awaits.”

You watch him disappear back into the maze and a strange volition holds you there, prevents you from rising to your feet. It passes moments later and when you get back on your feet and try to pursue him he has already vanished. Then, overcome with melancholy you retrace your steps to the onyx pavement only to find that the maze has sealed this entrance and now you only have your memories of Athle and her fate lies close to you but out of reach.

You slouch onward, toward a horizon that will forever twist away from you. It will be no recompense to you that this will be the last time a woman is summoned by Maal Dweb. Even he has tired of this artifice and in wariness of power, will retreat further from the world until he is at last forgotten and his palace will be lost to myth until some distant time when an explorer ventures here and finds the hall of mirrors and the ape-men in their labyrinth still searching for their humanity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Solar Labyrinth vs Stalker

PLEASE NOTE: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS

Gene Wolfe, an American science fiction and fantasy author, who is also linked to inventing the frying process that makes Pringles, and whose writing is strongly flavoured by his Catholic faith, released a collection called Storeys from the Old Hotel. This contains work written over a span of twenty years and the genres vary from historical, science fiction, fantasy and many blendings of all three. Hidden among the lot is a labyrinth story that should be better known. It is a multi-layered, fractal masterpiece, in cahoots with Borges certainly and it tips its hat knowingly.

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The premise is quite simple and rather light. We are told that a wealthy man referred to by the pseudonym Mr Smith has a mansion somewhere in the Adirondacks and has built himself a very unusual maze as a folly for his guests. He has placed many historical objects, some fake some real –the guests at least are never sure– in such an arrangement that the shadows thrown form a moving labyrinth. As the sun rises the paths appear and move throughout the day, so that the solution can only be found as you move along its tracks, and being in the wrong place at the wrong time might leave you cut off from the correct path, or perhaps you can rejoin it later on as parts are opened up to you. How long you play this maze might determine your success, but the only way to truly master it would be, like its master, to play it regularly and learn its shifting trenches of ink. At midday the maze disappears and by this time most of the guests have drifted off and only Mr Smith, this rarified Willy Wonka, is left because only he sees that it is all a game, one that we continue indefinitely whether our eyes are open or closed.

The story is clearly about artifice, our perception of time, and, of course, the moving landscape of history –how we literally excavate the past and place it in a mock-up of something that may never have existed in the first place. His maze (or labyrinth) includes the real and the mythical, and the importance of those objects –Arthur’s sword, the minotaur, a Toltec sun-god, a barometer speak of the many forces that create new lines of sight and yet each path means that another is obscured from us.

Our sight always includes blindness.

Reality and identity are so many labyrinths in one. Culture and society shape what we can think or see. The culture that worshipped a sun-god could not see the world the way we do today, but we are no more enlightened about its ultimate meaning. We record civilisation for the future, a long shadow thrown backwards than nudges forward toward the light: but as Mr Smith knows, this is just a game.

Stalker is a 1979 Russian science-fiction film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. It is based on a book called Roadside Picnic, but it veers away from its source material and becomes something mercurial, brooding and more philosophical. In both the book and the film a trio of men approach someone known as a Stalker, a person who can guide them safely into the Zone.

The Zone is an alien crash site and it is guarded closely by the government. There is an illegal trade in alien artifacts gathered from the site and it is said to be very dangerous because inside the Zone the rules of reality have been warped. There is also a myth surrounding a room somewhere in the Zone where your innermost desires are granted. The three strangers, the Stalker, the Writer and the Scientist are lured into the Zone by a desire for forbidden fruit. The Writer wants to find inspiration and the Scientist claims that scientific curiosity is his only motivation.

After getting past the soldiers and using a railway cart to enter the Zone, the film shifts from rich sepia tones to colour. They are in an Eden-like splurge of grasses and an apocalyptic wasteland of human debris that clogs up the rivers. Fog rolls by. It is completely silent. The Zone is not that strange in essence, and looks like any number of war zones, but Tarkovsky elevates it to the sublime with his long takes and his use of water as a kind of life-giving blood and sentient well of memory, dredged by the litter of human objects, gurgling through this dream-like labyrinth.

Stalker hands one of the men some strips of white gauze and instructs him tie to each one to a metal nut. After a lengthy dialogue and more obliqueness they descend towards the stone house in the distance and Stalker throws one of the bits of gauze forward and then tells the professor to go first and walk towards where it fell. Stalker always goes last. They continue like this, picking up the gauze and throwing it again. When one of the men starts pulling at some plants, Stalker scolds them saying that the Zone wishes to be respected: it punishes those who do not show respect. He says that, in the Zone, the convoluted path always poses less risk.

Eventually the Writer, like the viewer, finds it all too ridiculous and storms ahead. He is stopped by a command which he assumes came from one of the others, but they each thought it was the other who spoke. Stalker explains how the Zone comes to life when there is a human presence, old traps disappear to be replaced by new ones. Safe spots become impassable. The labyrinth is capricious, but most importantly it depends on them. The human conditions is tied to its very structure.

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Here then we have a metaphysical labyrinth. A sentient landscape, a quest, philosophical anti-heroes, the ‘way’ determined by your actions and motives. The film seems to be a deconstruction of the hero’s journey –a path for the wretched rather than the valiant. The magical object is a kind of Aladdin’s Lamp, but one that reads your buried desires, rather than simply obeying your commands. Everything here is turned inside out, and it is what flows inside that matters. Heroes are men of deeds and words, but we rarely see their interior life. Here you may enter as an empty shell, but if you gain something along the way you might reach your goal, only it won’t be what you expected. Things change every minute inside the Zone. The only permanence is your faith.

Both of these labyrinths have a metaphysical element. Both are ephemeral, and contain invisible walls. The walker/stalker must believe those walls exist and pay respect to them. In the first story, the walker is free to abandon the game at will, although many choose not to because that belief has a piece of the sacred in it –the ability to construct a social reality is part of learning to live with others, to participate together in a game so that winners and losers all feel connected to each other: the child that wields a stick as a sword to defeat a monster is really not that different from an adult walking into a store to buy milk with a handful of metal counters. Near the end of Stalker, all three men lay defeated, huddled together. They are too afraid to enter the Room and discover their innermost desires. Their faith has settled on each other, and it is with this bond they reject the fairytale ending and leave the centre of the maze and return to their ‘beginning’ with nothing more than they started with.

Sometimes not getting to the centre is the way to complete the journey.

Sometimes the shortest distance between two points is not the path.

Mole People

The Burrow (1931) and Dark Days (2000)

PLEASE NOTE: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS

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Kafka’s unfinished short story puts us into the first person document of a paranoid mole-man who has, against the odds, constructed a labyrinthine network of tunnels under the earth, mainly by using his ‘perfect instrument’ of a forehead. He exists in his tunnels in a heightened state of emergency, constantly driven my the need to re-shape or change his fortress to prolong the inevitable day when it falls into the hands of an intruder.

The tunnel system is not described accurately by Kafka, but we learn that it contains a variety of tunnel shapes, some wide and some extremely narrow, some slant upwards, some descend and others are vertical. There are numerous rooms which are rounded out, little pods, and they also vary in size but are often nothing more than a place to sleep. In the centre is the Castle Keep, a large room hammered out of sandy soil by thousands of blows from that impressive forehead.

Take a moment to try and visualise those tunnels. Kafka never describes a light source so he probably spends his days in complete darkness. He says at one point that he knows every room by the feel of its wall. He has a complete map in his head, and navigates by smell and touch. Imagine crawling through this lair, on your hands and knees, perhaps even squirming on your stomach. The rich smell of humid earth fills your nostrils. It is silent, but due to your heightened senses you hear a liminal background noise, the scurrying of the ‘small fry’ and the passage of air as it circulates. Imagine whole days spent like this, the hours stretching out unmarked.

The documentary Dark Days follows the inhabitants of train tunnels in New York City in the 1990s. One man describes how he came to live down below. He says no one hassles him down there, no one is after him. Another man talks about the free electricity: he can leave his TV on all night if he wants. Freedom. We see a number of hand-build shacks and re-purposed buildings: wooden walls, a balcony, chicken wire. Sofas and electrical appliances are salvaged and brought below. The director keeps cutting back to the ‘small fry’, the rats, as if to remind us that this is not a cosy children’s den with clothes heaped high and endless barbecues into the endless night.

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The burrow isn’t quite self-sufficient. The mole-man must return to the surface for hunting raids, and possibly to acquire water (it is not clear where he gets his drinking water). These foraging missions are a source of great anxiety for he must risk being seen leaving or returning. For this reason, his hideaway has a number of defences. The entrance is hidden first by a wall of moss and then a cave, from which there is an opening, and then a maze that is intended to deter anyone away who gets this far. Occasionally he gets lost in his own maze and this encourages him, but only for a moment. His anxieties about flaws in his design always return, and he slides between a proud father and a realist who accepts the imperfections of his castle:

Now the truth of the matter — and one has no eye for that in times of great peril, and only by a great effort even in times when danger is threatening — is that in reality the burrow does provide a considerable degree of security, but by no means enough, for is one ever free from anxieties inside it? These anxieties are different from ordinary ones, prouder, richer in content, often long repressed, but in their destructive effects they are perhaps much the same as the anxieties that existence in the outer world gives rise to.

The mole people too are chased by their demons. Dee, a woman in her fifties, lost both her children when a fire ravaged her apartment. Ralph was serving a prison sentence when his five-year-old daughter was raped and mutilated. But while the sense of community and the friendships born in those tunnels may have lifted up the people there, the mole-man suffers under his own microscope. His great monument to freedom, the burrow, is also his prison. He tackles his anxieties with logic, but those buttressing-sentences collapse immediately as they divert, but do not diminish, his compulsive energy and this leads to either exhaustion, ritualised behaviour or a grand project intended to dissipate the fixation; but each plugged hole only leads to another appearing: the burrow becomes the stage for his demons.

In the last act of the story he hears a whistling sound which seems to come from everywhere at once. He tears up his burrow, digging here and there with abandon. His mind reels from one theory to the next until it settles on one narrative: another burrower, just like him, is encircling and closing in. It is the trope of the superior other, the double that seems to know each of your moves before you make it. Since the story is unfinished we never witness the end to the mole-man’s nightmare, and we are forced to stop and leave him in the tunnels, leave him to dig his labyrinth because, like the black swan, not seeing the beast doesn’t mean it can’t exist.

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Reading the story alongside the film shows up some interesting counterpoints. We watch as a man sets up a trap outside his den, using a piece of string as a tripwire, with one end tied to a frying pan placed on a wall. Many take pride in their homes, painting the walls and clearing the rubbish away. They also return to the outside world for what they can’t get below. Some collect cans for the local authority, others trawl through bins and skips for anything they can use or sell. Tommy says that he thinks 80% of the mole people are addicted to crack. They live in their own piss and shit because they need to retreat even further: we say ‘spiral into addiction’ for a reason. Kafka never tells us where the mole-man shits and his highly over-wrought sentence structure, with maze-like clauses, might distract us from the true physical nature of this bestial man: a naked, pale, gaunt, dirt encrusted, piss-ridden, half-blind, stinking thing with claws and a long, flat forehead.

Dark Days has a conventional ending. A city scheme to provide housing allowed for all the mole people to be moved out and given cheap accommodation. We see them on their final day in the tunnels smashing up their homes with glee. They are destroying the physical memory of their past in order to destroy the past itself. Finally, there are some short clips showing them in their new spic-and-span environments. It is strange to see them in the light and not the dark. Imagine if the mole-man ended his days on the surface and our last view of him was standing in the sharp sunlight; a beast cowering before the sun.

 

Still to come:

A Solar Labyrinth (1983) vs Stalker (1979)

The Stanley Parable (2011) vs The Helmet of Horror (2007)

Here (2014) vs Millennium Actress (2001)

Takanori Aiba vs Pierre: The Maze Detective (2015)

 

The Labyrinth as Purgatory

PLEASE NOTE: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS

The ending of Stanley Kubrick’s only horror film features a conceit not featured in the book: a chase through a snowy hedge maze at night. It is an iconic piece of cinema, merging claustrophobia, tension and despair. Every time I watch it I marvel at the brilliance of the child doubling back and covering his tracks. He outwits his psychotic father, turning the tables so that the killer ploughs deeper and deeper into the convoluted trap of his own death-drive.

Jack Torrance may freeze to death in the maze, but he fulfils a classic trope: the prisoner of the maze who wanders for all eternity. Often a maze will have a monster to mop-up these lost souls and bring the story to a close. Or there may be a time limit: Jennifer Connelly has thirteen hours to solve the labyrinth and rescue her baby sister. In The Maze Runner the high stone walls roll back during the day and close again at night; anyone trapped inside is attacked by strange mechanical-biological creatures.

The lost soul or purgatory element is still present in all these narratives. It is a powerful and enduring symbol. None of us can see our future, and so the ever-present turn of the labyrinth, obscuring what lays in front of us, is a haunting metaphor for our own sense of displacement. We are trapped in bodies which are trapped in an unravelling present. Our memories offer fading pictures of how we got to here. Omnipotence becomes a way of imagining a divine power that has the ability that we wish to have: seeing the past and future together as one meaningful tapestry. To see the whole might reveal to us an order to things that crystallises out of the chaos that we must navigate.

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The last shot of The Shining makes it clear that we’ve been here before. We see an old black and white photo in the lobby dated 1921 that includes Jack Torrance among the guests, dressed for the period, beaming toward the camera. Evil repeats itself, replicates and finds new hosts. Jack Torrance has made a pact and is bound to it. When he enters the maze it is simply a symbolic gesture: he was already there, following its twists and turns blindly.

The killer is lost to himself, a man of contradictions and impossible futures. He follows an internal path that spirals downwards towards an inverted flame: it has no end, because evil is an event horizon and passing over it leads to an endless reconstruction of the crime.

The damned soul destroys reality over and over, until the cracks in the mirror are so numerous that he can never be pulled out by a thread. Instead he resides as the only guest in his infinite hotel.

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