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The Unfinished Novels of Mandrake Fluke

by Matt McHugh
(Image from tama66 on Pixaba https://pixabay.com/photos/typewriter-tap-office-write-3711590/)

Editor’s Note:  The names of some participants in the following events have been altered to protect innocent parties.  I think the delivery boy’s real name was Stan.

– F.P.B.

September 17, 1958

Dear Mr. Fluke:

My name is Frederick Bardiss. I am a junior acquisitions editor at Marshall & Dunn, Publishers, and a colleague of senior executive editor, Zachariah Laughlin. As I believe you know, Mr. Laughlin has recently taken ill with a case of nerves and is on sabbatical. While we heartily wish him a speedy recovery, I have been tasked in his absence with assuming correspondence with his authors.

Though I am relatively new to M&D Publishers, I have a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Columbia University, with a minor in literature and criticism. I have read some of your recent works (“Through the Vortex of Space,” “The Broken Clocks of Faltramarode,” and “Savage Planet, Wild Women”) and I am immensely enthusiastic for the opportunity to work with you.

I understand you are currently under contract to deliver a manuscript this fiscal year, and that you had submitted several draft chapters of “The Crab-Men of Delta Centauri” to Mr. Laughlin. How is the project going? I greatly look forward to seeing the next installment of your book. If there is anything I can do to assist you, please do not hesitate to let me know.

Yours truly,

Frederick P. Bardiss

✸✸✸

September 19, 1958

Dear Mr. Bardiss,

I cannot tell you the pleasure receiving your letter has given me. Knowing I will be working with a junior fellow of M&D who is relatively new yet immensely enthusiastic while also greatly looking forward fills me splendiferroneously with joy. Please accept my kudos on graduating from Columbia, rather than succumbing to the hempen trap of Beatnikism that seems as of late to afflict that once-venerable campus, and do not despair over your failure to land a job in your original field of study. In the empyrean hierarchy of the academe, literature trumps psychology.  After all, Freud quoted Sophocles, not the other way around.

 

But I digress.

To the twofold matter of Mr. Laughlin’s departure and my manuscript: I fear they may be intertwined. Judging from his oh-so-liberal red pencil, it seems your predecessor took exception to my describing the shape of my Crab-Men’s claws with the word “phallic.” Furthermore, my account of a Crab-Female as having a carapace with “envaginated orifices that warbled to her mates in full-throated joy” elicited a veritable crimson tide of redaction. A man with such easily perturbed subconscious fixations was always destined for the inkblots, if you ask me.

However, keen to the sensitivities of the Laughlin’s of the world, I have purged my book of anything antithetical to mass-market palatability. It is now an arrow-straight adventure story, a ripping good yarn set in a rollicking strange realm. Enclosed please find three further chapters of “TC-MoDC” re-focused to fit this paradigm. I have no doubt it will even outpace my former best-sellers “The Golden Sepulchers of the Moon” and “Circe, She-Witch of Atlantis.” In light of this augmented revenue potential, I request you re-examine the contracted schedule of my advance payments and consider nudging the timetable forward a tidge. A writer such as myself has many expenses and the sooner I can dispense with the relentless distraction of creditors, the sooner I can deliver a nice, profitable potboiler into your hot little hands.

Yours adverbially,

Mandrake P. Fluke

 

P.S. – Below is a snippet from one of the pending chapters to whet your appetite.

Commander Cody raised his bloodied face from the dust and looked at the tiers of alien eyestalks encircling him, row after row in the colossal amphitheatre, all lusting for the spectacle of his death. To his left was the body of First Mate Taylor, befouled in the most sadistic ways. To his right lay Petty Officer Reynolds, the first to go, decapitated with a single stroke—the one mercy these abominable creatures had bestowed upon them since their arrival on this accurséd world.

The massive form of the arthropod champion loomed over him, blotting out the cold scarlet light of the twin suns. It bobbed mockingly on its six spindly legs and waved its scimitar fore-claws upward as if rousing the audience to cheer. Beyond it, Celestial Navigator Sabina Monsveneris was lashed to an altar, awaiting the unspeakable violations of the Crab-Men should he fall.

But far worse, after the ravaging of her body, they would inject parasitic lice into her brain—as they had done to ship’s doctor, and Cody’s oldest friend from their Academy days, Mac Cavalier. Agony and madness would follow and, in the end, the erasure of identity. Then she would reveal the secrets only she knew: how to reactivate their vessel’s disabled star drive and chart a course back to Earth. Then, humanity would fall. The history and future of his people would be but a footnote in the annals of the galactic conquests of the socialist Crab-Men.

No. He rose up, standing on his shattered femur, his pierced abdomen leaking black fluid. No. The line is drawn here. No quarter, no indulgence must be given to these monsters. He felt it in the core of his being, as if a higher power roused in him indomitable will. He picked up a broken lance and held it at the ready. For Reynolds. For Cavalier. For thousands of hapless planets devoured. Never again.

With a barbaric yawp, Cody launched himself, the low gravity giving him height and velocity no natural Earthman had ever known. There. The opening where the leg met the body, revealing the gill shaft and the soft organs within. He aimed the jagged point straight toward it as the hulking beast turned to face him.

✸✸✸

September 22, 1958

Dear Mr. Fluke:

I have read your manuscript and I am utterly drawn in. I have taken the liberty of sharing it with some colleagues, including Senior Executive Vice-President Thomas Dunn, and all expressed a great interest in seeing the next installment. You have our entire office on tenterhooks. Well done, sir!

As to the matter of your advance payments, I spoke to our Accounting Department and was able to secure an additional pre-payment of $215 dollars against advance sales of your work. Please find enclosed a check for the amount.

I very much look forward to your reply and await your next installment.

Yours truly,

Frederick P. Bardiss

✸✸✸

October 8, 1958

Dear Mr. Bardiss,

I will assume for the sake of gentility your enthusiasm over the sum of $215 tended to a writer of my caliber is a product of youth and inexperience, rather than deliberate insult.

Additionally, apologies for my delayed reply. Due to delinquent payments, the heat and light in my apartment was cut off by my landlady. I have, through the most shameful of wheedling, managed to persuade the widow Hubbins to reconnect my utilities, but—alas!—in the brutal chill of a New York September I was taken with the grippe and spent several subsequent days incapacitated. So it goes.

As to my work-in-progress eliciting a favorable reaction from Mr. Dunn, the man would not know good literature were it hand-calligraphed on virgin vellum and inserted northward during one of his bi-weekly, free-lance prostate exams (or so I have heard).

This makes me re-think my story. Why are the Crab-Men so evil? Why would a space-faring race need Terran star drive technology? What is the mysterious power that rouses the gravely wounded Cody in the prior scene? If we delve into the past of the Crab-Men, would we find parallels to both the darkest and brightest chapters in human history? These are the questions now quivering in my mind, the pathway to move the story from the childish territory of Flash Gordon into the emerging landscape of adult speculative fiction pioneered by such luminaries as Asimov, Bester, and Bradbury. Oh, if only I had adequate light and (*cough-cough* *sniffle*) heating to join them!

I appeal to your enlightened self-interest, Mr. Bardiss. Were you, a junior fellow of a middling publishing house, to bring in such a manuscript, think of the status it would bestow upon you. With but a few dozen paltry hundreds of dollars liberated from your Shylock bookkeepers, you can cross into the Land of Canaan.

As goes the motto of your beloved Columbia: “Mater resuscitavit non stulti.” Momma didn’t raise no fools. Think it over.

Enclosed please find two further chapters, with the below excerpt called out for your attention.

Forge on, Mr. Bardiss, with more imaginative ways to secure funding as I continue to ply my imagination in the service of your career advancement and corporate enrichment.

Yours fiduciarily,

Mandrake T. Fluke

 

Strapped to the stone slab, Commander Cody could do nothing but thrash and scream as the injection probe entered his temple. He felt the alien microbes flood into his brain and swarm across his hemispheres like pestilence. The unbearable pain silenced even his cries, and after what seemed hours, blackness descended upon him.

Then, a sliver of light.

A crack in the dark, like dawn coming over the horizon. Soon, a golden glow—warm and strange, but strangely familiar—enveloped him and he stood, erect and uninjured, on the precipice of an immense canyon, beholding a city below of indescribable, crystalline beauty.

“This is as we were,” came a voice at his side. He turned to behold a beautiful youth, flowing-haired and lean-limbed, with bronze skin wrapped in an ivory toga.

“Who are you?” he asked in pure wonder.

“I am Archtis, of the Crab-Men, as you call us. You see me not as my body is, but as your thoughts idealize my consciousness. I am in your mind now, Commander, through the agency of our microscopic emissaries. I apologize for the discomfort caused to you, but it was the only way we could communicate.”

“What do you want of us?” Cody demanded.

“As I said, this is as we were. Peaceful, enlightened, the savage arts of war and deception all but forgotten. But this made us blind, vulnerable to the manipulations of despots. There arose from our stagnant society those who craved power above all things and knew no bounds in its pursuit. They were as brutal as the conquerors of your history: Genghis Khan, Hitler, Stalin—yes, Commander, I know your memories as clearly you do—but equipped with our advancements, they were a thousand times more efficient. They destroyed not only lives but identities, eliminating even the will to oppose. We need you, Commander Jon Cody of Earth. We need the thoughts of your people, your independence, your love of freedom and justice, to lend the few of us still capable of resistance the resolve to fight.”

Cody looked out upon the golden valley, and peered deep into the mind of Archtis, and he saw the truth of it. The Crab-Men were prisoners of a tyranny they were powerless to oppose.

✸✸✸

October 11, 1958

Dear Mr. Fluke:

I have just finished reading your chapters and I have to tell you how excited I am. You have taken a simple science-fiction adventure and veered into a brilliant new direction. The crab-men are no longer villains but tragic figures, beings so gentle they had no defense against aggression in their midst. The way the fascist leaders inject mind-altering parasites into pregnant females, indoctrinating their children in utero, is both terrifying and heartbreaking. The ideas you propose about the manipulation of life as a form of technology, of consciousness as a realm of warfare, are utterly fascinating.

In particular, I loved the main battle scene. The physical combat is thrilling, but you add a whole new dimension as the Earthmen counter-attack the minds of their opponents through the telepathic parasites. The strategy they employ, instilling the enemy with a sense of honor to make them question their orders, is genius. But the moment when the female human connects and infuses the collective with compassion is stunning. Mr. Fluke, the philosophies you put forth—that a society is strongest when it protects the weak, that the unconditional love of a mother is not only the most moral but the most efficient form of government—are nothing short of revolutionary.

Please continue your work. This book must be shared with the world.

Yours sincerely,

Frederick P. Bardiss

✸✸✸

October 20, 1958

Dear Mr. Bardiss,

Oh, this is what I feared.

That a wet-behind-the-ears Ivy League whelp—no offense intended—would find my work philosophically revolutionary convinces me I am going in the wrong direction. I am not writing something to be roundtable fodder at your Trotskyite coffeehouses; I want a book ordinary people might want to, you know, read.

So, to accommodate a wide swath of ages and ideologies, I have concocted a new framing device combining epic fantasy and nursery tales in the manner of J.M. Barrie or C.S. Lewis.  “The Crab-Men of Delta Centauri” is now a bedtime story, told in nightly installments to a young girl by her father.  As they converse, they shape the story.

But the father is ill, stricken with the cancer. He diminishes as the girl blossoms, a physical reality but also a metaphor for the nature of parenthood. Finally, when he becomes comatose, she will enter the story, become a character on a quest in a fictional realm to save her father, dying in the real world.

Enclosed are new sections indicating where they are to be inserted into the extant manuscript, and I am rewriting and adding more with breakneck speed. Thank you, Mr. Bardiss, for helping me save my book from the pretentious jaws of middlebrow intellectual disaster. Only one such as yourself could have spotted the pitfall and I am in your debt, figuratively speaking.

Yours retroscribusly,

Mandrake B. Fluke

 

[insert btwn ms pp 87 and 88; strike pp 92 through 104]

A fit of coughing came over her father in mid-sentence.

“Are you alright, papa?” asked Lisette.

“I’m fine,” he replied, pocketing a dark-stained handkerchief. “Where was I?”

“The astronauts were being taken before the Imperial Council.”

“Ah, of course. Well, the royal hall of the Crab-Men towered above them like a great cathedral of translucent sea rock, carved over eons by legions craftsmen of single-minded devotion. However, it showed signs of decay, of neglect, of modification that marred its stately beauty and gave it an air of the sinister. The landing party stood at spear-point before the vast and vile Crab King.”

“Papa, do the Crab-Men have a queen?” the girl asked.

“No,” her father replied flatly.

“They don’t?”

“No. They need one. The male rulers banished the maternal dynasties and lost something they are not even aware they need: the balance of an equal opposite. Lisette, today you hear the second-sexers say things like ‘Women can do the same jobs as men!’ Hogwash. Don’t try to be like a man, my girl. Women bring life into the world. Women nurture. Women see others suffering and they weep, and men are so ignorant as to call that weakness. It is not weakness. It is the greatest strength. Empathy. The power to understand the mind of another. And the foolish men—both of this world and Delta Centauri—preoccupied with swords and empires, have forgotten that. The Crab-Men need a queen to heal their self-inflicted wounds.”

[insert after ms pp 245; strike pp 246 through 261]

Lisette stood at the edge of the Broken Desert, having come through the jagged rock ruins of the ancient city and faced the Trial of Questions. Now, before her, yawned the fetid, decaying mouth of a cave where a hint of wind, damp and foul-smelling, stirred the rotting vines that hung across its entrance.

“Is that where my father is?” she asked.

“Yes,” replied Archtis at her side. Archtis’ image flickered. Young then old, male then female, arms and legs, then claws and crawlers. She struggled in her mind to hold onto the presence, which had grown more and more faint as her journey progressed.

“We call this the Cave of Silence because none who enter are ever heard from again. We do not know where they go, what becomes of them. Some say they are reborn. Some say they become immortal. Some say they simply vanish, disappearing like a puddle in the sun. Do you still wish to enter?”

“I’m not afraid.”

“You should be, child. Do not let go of your fear. Do not become foolhardy, rushing where you should fear to tread. Continue if you must, but proceed with caution. Distrust that which gives false hope and embrace your uncertainty. It may save you. It may help you complete the journey that none of our kind ever has. I wish you all good fortune, Brave Lisette of Earth, but I can accompany you no further.”

With that Archtis faded, the calming voice in her head utterly gone, and she stood alone on an alien world facing the impenetrable darkness of a gaping tomb.

She gathered her courage and stepped inside.

✸✸✸

October 23, 1958

Dear Mr. Fluke:

The new direction you are taking with your book is very intriguing, and I found many of the scenes very poignant, but I have to ask: are you sure this is the best idea at this point? Don’t get me wrong, it is beautiful work, but I am concerned it may delay the completion of your manuscript. You were well on track with an adventure story that you have already enhanced with a much greater vision. Does this new aspect add a sentimentality that complicates things a bit much?

Might I suggest you reconsider and, perhaps, save the father-daughter storyline for another book and finish “The Crab-Men of Delta Centauri” in the vein you were pursuing before?

Yours sincerely,

Frederick P. Bardiss

✸✸✸

October 25, 1958

Dear Mr. Bardiss,

Thank you for your suggestion. Might I in turn suggest you dip your scrotum in a chocolate egg cream and sit on a fire ant hill?

What’s that? You’d rather not expose your most vulnerable self to mincing mandibles seeking only to shred you for sustenance? Imagine that.

I may seem to you a mercenary hack, pounding my Underwood like a cash register, but I have deeper motivations. If you must know, my son died when he was 9 years old, a tragedy I have spent decades failing to reconcile in my heart. This storyline and its sentimentality—as you choose to label it—flows from my ceaseless struggle to exorcise those demons in the only way I can: the way of the artist. If you and your taskmasters can make no allowance for the sustained wound of parental grief, then perhaps we should part ways.

Yours Finally,

Mandrake Z. Fluke

 

[Mr. Bardiss…

My name is Leon Fluke, son of Mandrake. I noticed this letter on a stack of papers by my father’s typewriter. I add this note to tell you I am very much alive and have no departed siblings. My father sometimes trots out the story of a lost child to invoke sympathy. Pathetic, really.

My father is a gifted raconteur, and if that brings your company profit so be it, but he is also a pathological liar and drunken reprobate. Perhaps they go hand-in-hand, but speaking as someone who has been repeatedly embarrassed by him, it’s hard to see much benefit in his gifts. I am mailing his packet to you now, before he wakes from his mid-day stupor. Do with this information what you will.

L.T. Fluke]

✸✸✸

October 28, 1958

Dear Mr. Fluke:

I feel I must make a good-faith effort to repair a damaged situation. This is the first major book project I have worked on and I feel terribly that it has gone so off the tracks. I became a junior editor because I have admired great works by many writers and, lacking the talent myself, wanted in some small way to be part of the process of bringing literature to the world. I apologize if that desire seems vain or foolish to you.

Please understand I have great regard for your work.  I realize, in the end, “The Crab-Men of Delta Centauri.” is just a pulp novel, but as I have watched it take shape in your hands, I have been truly thrilled. You have a gift I can only envy. Despite everything, including the fact that you seem to dislike me personally, it matters to me that I do whatever I can to show that gift its due.

I hope to hear from you soon so we can find a way to move forward.

Sincerely,

Frederick P. Bardiss

✸✸✸

November 9, 1958

Dear Mr. Fluke:

I hope you got my earlier letter, and that all is well with you. I am writing once again to see if you are willing to continue working with me. Either way, please let me know.

Sincerely,

Frederick P. Bardiss

✸✸✸

November 18, 1958

Dear Mr. Leon Fluke,

Hello, Mr. Fluke. My name is Frederick Bardiss and I am an editor with Marshall & Dunn Publishers. I was working on a manuscript with your father a while back. At one point, you mailed me some pages from it, to which you attached a note. Please forgive the intrusion, but I looked up your address and am reaching out to you for help.

I have not heard from your father in several weeks, despite multiple attempts to contact him. I recently sent a certified letter to his correspondence address. The receipt was returned, signed by ‘Mandrake V. Fluke,’ along with my letter torn to shreds in a manila envelope.

Again, please forgive me for bothering you, but if there is any way you can contact your father and help intervene—at least to convey my sincere apology that our working relationship ended so badly—I would be very grateful.

I hope you are well and I thank you in advance for any assistance you can offer.

Sincerely,

Frederick P. Bardiss

✸✸✸

November 22, 1958

Hello again, Fred.

The only thing I can offer you is advice, and a welcome as you join the legions of wives, offspring, bill-collectors, and bartenders my father has disappointed. Dispense with your apologies and any notion you done-him-wrong in any way. You saying “I’m sorry!” as he pulps you to the pavement with his steamroller is exactly the kind of sickening acquiescence he elicits that I have long-since lost my ability to stomach.

Here’s my advice: Give him up and move on. Take the well-aimed jabs he delivered to your ego as a kind of training to toughen up your weak spots and go forth a sadder and wiser man.

If, out of filial obligation I am unable to escape, I must go see my father—knocking on his door and waiting while he retches his paper-sack lunch and locates his trousers—I will convey your message as a stinging rebuke to a selfish child of a man who might have been decent had he not been so deft at ducking accountability.

Good Luck,

L.T. Fluke

✸✸✸

November 30, 1958

Dear Mr. Fluke:

This is Alistair Marshall of Marshall & Dunn, Publishers. Fred Bardiss has relayed to my attention your unhappiness and implored I contact you.

I have had the pleasure of working with such contemporary literary titans as Jack Kerouac, J. D. Salinger, and Ellery Queen and I assure you I have nothing but respect for the process of writers. It is that admiration which drove Mr. Dunn and myself to establish our imprint three decades ago, and it remains undiminished.

I implore you to reconsider preserving your relationship with us.  If you still feel the need to terminate your publishing agreement, I will make arrangements with our legal and accounting departments to initiate recovery of advance payments made to you by M&D, as per your contract.  Please let me know your decision.

Most Sincerely,

Alistair J.M. Marshall III, D.D.S.

✸✸✸

December 5, 1958

 

[insert after ms pp 310, prior to the heading “Chapter 23: The Return Voyage”]

Lisette stumbled through the impenetrable darkness of the Cave of Silence. True to its name, the space was bereft of any sound. Not a drip of water or whisper of wind. Even the sound of her foot scuffs and breathing seem to deaden in the oppressive air until all her senses knew were the rough textures on the wall and the ceaseless thuds of her heartbeat.

Soon, the walls parted and she walked on smooth, packed earth. The atmosphere thinned and she felt herself in the midst of an open space. Ahead, above, was a rumble. A growl, a clicking guttural ejaculation of pure malice and contempt.

“You do not belong here,” said a voice like a distant avalanche of rocky debris.

“Show yourself!” demanded Lisette, her defiance a paper-thin barrier between her and inarticulate terror.

“You do not belong here,” rumbled the voice again. “You will die.”

There was a hiss, a sizzling flare. On distant walls, sconces of embers cascaded to life, casting just enough sickly glow for Lisette to see she stood at the center of a colossal, perfectly hemispherical chamber. Before her, on a towering throne carved from a single stalagmite, sat the Crab Lord, as vast as a house, as vile as a corpse.

“Dispatch,” it said, with a wave of a claw the size of a canoe.

All about her came the sounds of scratch and skitter. Shadows moved like broken clockwork and a ring of Crab minions began to close in like a noose.

“Why!” she bellowed. She pivoted in place, assaulting her slowly advancing assailants with the indignant query. “Why!”

It was the cry of innocence witnessing injustice, of a child with fresh memories of daisy chains and sand castles, of forehead kisses that banished nightmares, facing for the first time the sadistic horrors grown men shrug off as normal. But it was also an indictment, a howl from legions of devastated generations, echoes from the lingering imprint of her telepathic link with Archtis, the leader of the rebellion. Death, destruction, suffering, and strife. The endless legacy of a monolithic greed that no longer sought riches or comfort, only absolute dominion built upon pain and fear. Why? Why … why … why?

The Crab-Men recoiled from it, from the force of her voice and the radiant pulse from her brain with their forgotten collective memory. They shrank back, parted, leaving a wide avenue of vulnerability to their Lord. Lisette ran. Slow at first, then mounting speed and momentum like a locomotive. She leaped, launching herself like a missile in the low, alien gravity.

The Crab Lord hissed as it raised its pincers, but slovenly and sluggish, failed to block the projectile assault of the young girl from Earth.

Lisette made contact with the putrid underbelly, the Crab’s lumbering claws and vestigial legs ill-positioned to brush her away. She sank her fingers into the mushy corpulence layered over its shell. From her mind, from her body, through her hands, driven by her rage, the telepathic parasites Archtis had placed within her flowed out, injecting their instinctive enemy with the infection of awareness.

“You will know,” whispered Lisette, barely audible, while her mind blared the message like coronets from a citadel, “You will know what you have done. You will feel the agony of every orphan you have made, every mother cradling infants you murdered, every trusting soul you betrayed and tortured. I bring you their thoughts. I bring you their despair. I bring you knowledge. I bring you justice.”

“No!” wailed the Crab Lord as bright and terrible epiphanies seared its festering consciousness. “Noooooooo!!!”

 

There you have it, Mr. Bardiss. Add that to the manuscript where indicated, toss out the maudlin Daddy Death Scene, send it to the typing girls to fuss over semicolons and Oxford commas, and—blammo—you have yourself a book.

Let me know when the first pass galleys are ready because, technically, that qualifies as a pre-print and I am due my last advance at that point.

We can work out the details during the ensuing holidays over a bowl of smoking bishop. Until then, onward to our next project. I have a doozy in mind, for which I’ll be sending you a treatment shortly. I think this one will merit a hardcover release, so you may want to start running P&Ls with stamped case and printed jacket variations.

Yours relievedly,

Mandrake G. Fluke

P.S. – Don’t believe anything Leon says. He bears me great bitterness for my, admittedly, haphazard fathering. Apparently, according to the latest annals of psychology, I should have spent more time playing catch-ball with him rather than trying to teach him self-reliance. My folly returns to haunt me.

✸✸✸

December 8, 1958

Dear Mr. Fluke:

It is very good to hear from you again. I have received your additions and was able to compile a completed manuscript according to your instructions. Indeed, I think we do have a book!

I spoke to Mr. Dunn and he agreed to proceed as per your original contract. The manuscript is being copy-edited now, and typographic and cover design is underway by M&D in-house creative staff. I’m afraid there can be no additional payments or commissions made to you at this time, but, if all goes well, you should be earning your incremental royalties before summer.

Thank you for your efforts. Despite some difficulties, I am proud to have worked with you and very excited to see “The Crab-Men of Delta Centauri” hit the shelves in just a few months.

Sincerely,

Frederick P. Bardiss

✸✸✸

December 11, 1958

To Fred Bardiss,

Leon Fluke here. I’m sorry I didn’t notice this sooner, but apparently the manuscript my father delivered to you is entitled “The Crab-Men of Delta Centauri.”  Several years ago, my father published a serialized story entitled “The Crab-Men of Venus Delta” in the magazine Gentlemen’s Inspector. I enclose an issue wrapped in brown paper, where I suggest it remains until you have the opportunity to peruse it privately in the lavatory, which is no doubt its most common destination.

I don’t know if what my father sent you differs substantially from what is enclosed herein, but I have heard the publishing conglomerate that owns the periodicals Gentlemen’s Inspector, Sailor’s Delight, and Master Peter’s Almanac is aggressively litigious in pursuing monetary claims for copyright violation (perhaps because of their rather limited opportunities to sell film rights). In any case, enclosed is a single discreet page torn from the issue where you can ascertain the tone of the work.

Sorry to bear bad news,

L.T. Fluke

 

Captain Cody was strapped, spread-eagle to a stone slab, stripped of his uniform and slathered with slippery gel. Electrodes embedded in his loins fed thrilling pulses of current into his body, stimulating him to uncontrollable, shameful arousal. Above him, the vast and vile Crab Queen hung in an apparatus of slings and chains.

Slowly, slowly, she was lowered toward him, winches clacking as her fleshy carapace descended inch by inch toward the quivering steeple of his manhood.

“Soon, my captain! Very soon!” cackled Ship’s Doctor, Bronson Gorge, his mind utterly controlled by the telepathic parasites the aliens had injected into his brain. “Soon the mingling of life from Earth and Venus Delta, the offspring of Man and Crab, shall be conceived and the hybrid capable of conquering both worlds will be unleashed upon the universe!”

Cody thrashed and writhed, but his struggles only increased the stimulating flow of electric pleasure. Above him, a vertical horizon opened in the underbelly of the Crab Queen, revealing glistening pink folds that slurped and gripped as they approached.

“Noooooooo!!!” screamed Cody.

✸✸✸

[Sent via Notary Public Courier on behalf of Marshall & Dunn Publishing. Receipt required]

December 11, 1958

Dear Mr. Fluke:

It has come to my attention “The Crab-Men of Delta Centauri” may be under copyright by previous publication. This is a very serious matter for Marshall & Dunn, potentially exposing us to costly legal action, not to mention the loss of funds already paid in advance to you as author. I’m afraid I must refer this matter to our Legal Department as soon as possible to minimize the risk to our firm.

This letter is to confirm you are aware of the seriousness of the situation, and to alert you that, pending advice from in-house counsel, recuperative action may be taken against you as well.

You have insulted and belittled me with your sarcasm, Mr. Fluke. Those are slights I can bear. This betrayal of yours will make me look like a complete fool in front of my employer and forces me to reevaluate my judgment of you at every turn. It is, to say the least, very disappointing.

Sincerely,

Frederick P. Bardiss

✸✸✸

[Returned via Notary Public Courier at the personal expense of M. Fluke]

December 11, 1958

Dear Mr. Bardiss,

You are right. I attempted to recycle something without proper disclosure. I have violated your trust and taken advantage of the financial resources of your company, and been a mean-spirited ass to you at every turn. Yes, I am guilty on all counts.

But, I implore you to try to understand for a moment. I have no skills, no experience, no ability at anything in this world but making up stories. It is my livelihood, my sole passion, and the core of my identity. Imagine then, if you will, the terror I feel when that well threatens to run dry. “Writer’s block” is a cliché to you; it is a blow to the core of my being that robs me of the only reason I have ever found to justify my largely pathetic existence. I have failed at everything I have put my hand to, save one thing. When I fail at that, I am utterly bereft.

But there is still time, Mr. Bardiss, to save both our situations if I can deliver to you a publishable manuscript by year’s end. I have many stories, many fragmentary aborted starts, that can be revitalized under the pressing urgency.  But I can’t do it alone. I need your input, your impetus, your guidance, to show me the direction in which I must sprint.

Here are three works I have in various states of completion. Pick one, give me your editorial blessing, and I will set upon it like a madman. This is the moment, Mr. Bardiss, you accomplish what you set out to do: help bring literature into the world.

 

#1 – “The Specter of Eden”

An other-wordly consciousness, observing the emergence of life on Earth for eons, executes a devious manipulation: It introduces to humanity the emotion of Shame. In a series of progressive vignettes, the book follows evolving concepts of Shame throughout history: sexual shame, moral shame, the shame of failure, the same of undeserved success, private shame, public shame, on and on. It will crawl through history, dramatizing life incidents from real and legendary historical figures. Moses and Rameses. Antony and Cleopatra. Hamilton and Burr. Galileo and The Inquisition. Catherine the Great and The Horse. In each episode, we see how Shame has impeded human progress and brought greatness to ruin. And, always, always, is that mysterious consciousness watching, watching the seed it planted take root and spread, all for its impenetrable, nefarious ends.

 

#2 – “Butterfly Dreaming”

A neurological scientist invents a process that facilitates the perfect recollection of deep memory. Combining psychotropic drugs and regressive hypnosis, the process allows one to re-live any moment in their life with absolute immersion, recalling every detail without conflation or omission. Think of the boon to human knowledge! Think of the potential to uncover truth! But, after repeatedly testing the procedure on himself, the scientist becomes lost—unstuck in time, if you will. Moment by moment, he cannot tell if he is living his life in the present or recollecting the past. And, is he merely reliving memories? Or, is he actually inhabiting the mind of his former self? Can he prompt actions in the past that change the future, and none but himself will ever know of the alteration? It is inspired by the allegory of Zhuang Zhou, who dreamed he was butterfly and awoke to find he was a man. How does he know which is real, when his perception is the sole judge? Is he a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly now dreaming he is man?

 

#3 – “Via Calestorum”

In the 1880’s, a Brazilian Catholic monk experimenting with Faraday generators discovers a method by which hundreds of electromagnets placed around a metal chamber can be synchronized to a series of complex modulations. A similar chamber, with identically modulated magnets, can connect directly to the first one—essentially the space inside the two chambers becomes the same space—creating a practical teleportation device. This leads to the complete social and economic domination of the world by the Catholic Church. All travel, all commerce, must go through their network of teleportation chambers, known as the “Via Calestorum” (Latin for “Road of the Heavens”); any other form of travel or technological development is deemed heresy. Steam-liner and air travel never happen. The Great War and the rise of the United States are aborted. The entire world devolves to a medieval theocracy. The story takes place in the 1930’s with the elderly monk on his deathbed recounting his life to a young acolyte, gradually revealing his heretical regret over inventing a device that granted so much power to one institution.

 

The clock is ticking… which one, Mr. Bardiss? I realize it’s a difficult decision. You shouldn’t have to make it alone. Tonight, let us meet for the first time (counter-intuitive as that seems) and, over pints,  speak of many things. Like Jefferson and Adams in the Boston taverns. Like Tolkien and Lewis in the pubs of Oxford. Like Hal and Falstaff at the Boar’s Head. We shall bicker and argue and resolve our differences like men. I will bring volumes of in-progress work; you will bring your education and enthusiasm. Together, we shall prevail.

9:00 pm. Tonight. East 7th Street.

Yours Conspiratorially,

Mandrake A. Fluke

✸✸✸

December 21, 1958

Dear Mr. Marshall and/or Dunn,

I hope this letter finds you both well. I have not heard from Fred Bardiss since the evening of our ill-fated meeting to discuss my manuscript. I am grateful your organization was able to post bail, but I’m afraid I must accept a share of responsibility for the incident.

Mr. Bardiss repeatedly protested to me that “he wasn’t much of a drinker” but I interpreted this as deceptive modesty. How could a strapping young lad pass muster in the Ivy League without being able to put away a few? I egged him on, with aspersions subtle and overt to his masculinity, figuring it was all just the usual pugilistic pas de deux of fermented male bonding. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.

For the record, Mr. Bardiss did not throw the first punch, nor any that I witnessed. He was, in fact, in fine spirits and animatedly holding forth on the relative merits of B.F. Skinner and Abraham Maslow… something having to do with the self-actualization of making dogs drool (to be honest, I couldn’t follow it). He even managed to capture the interest of an attractive woman of questionable repute with a summary of the Kinsey Report, but things went awry with his fumbled explanation of the Oedipal Complex to an off-duty fireman who I assume, judging by the strength of his reaction, was a committed Jungian. After Mr. Bardiss ricocheted off a group of steelworkers into a table of longshoremen, I felt it best to make a discreet exit. I heard from an old associate that he spent the remainder of the evening in the holding cells of the 9th Precinct which, as such accommodations go, really are top of the line.

But I digress. Enclosed please find a complete, typed manuscript for my latest book, “The Mole Civilization of the Deep Under,” about the discovery of a vast, underground race of men who have been subtly controlling the history of “Uplanders” (us) for hundreds of years. Where did they come from? How are we related? What influence have they exerted on our society? Were any famous men, in fact, Mole-Men? (Henry Ford, Vladimir Lenin, Chiang Kai-Shek … I will say no more!). It is a rousing tale, a mystery, a philosophical mind-bender wrapped in a rollicking adventure.

The delivery of said manuscript fulfills my end of contractual obligation to M&P, so now to your portion. I will expect uncorrected galleys shipped to me within sixty days, with an adequate stipend for return couriers, as well as notices of compensated speaking engagements arranged to promote my book.

We can address such details further after the New Year, when Mr. Bardiss is back at full steam. Until then, my best wishes to you and your families, and I look forward to future opportunities to collaborate.

Yours Merrily,

Mandrake Claus Fluke

✸✸✸

December 30, 1958

Dear Mr. Fluke:

I am writing to inform you that, even though my disciplinary leave of absence will conclude soon, I will likely not return to Marshall & Dunn. I have enjoyed much of the experience but, upon reflection, I feel a career in publishing may not suit me. I wish you all the best and look forward to reading your next book.

Sincerely,

Frederick P. Bardiss

✸✸✸

January 1, 1959

Dear Mr. Bardiss,

Fiddlesticks, boy!

You take one header over the bow into a distillery and you’re ready to pack it in? Never have I heard such thin-skinned twaddle. Is that the kind of pabulum being spoon-fed at Columbia nowadays? Pathetic. Just pathetic.

Pull yourself together, Mr. Bardiss. The rough-and-tumble world of publishing forgives and forgets all sins but despair. Buck up and be at your desk bright and early next week. I have a new work-in-progress to send you.

Aliens come to Earth, but not in ships or pods or any such nonsense. They are beings that exist in the spaces between atomic particles and manifest themselves as vast columns of statically charged vapor. They come offering a peaceful bargain: to explore the physical world as we know it, they require unspoiled human minds—minds untainted by experience—to bond with their collective consciousness. The only minds that qualify are those of newborn infants. The aliens wish to barter with us to purchase a select group of our children, whom they will, for all intents and purposes, elevate to godhood. What they offer is unimaginable. What they ask is unthinkable. What shall we do?

The synopsis will be on your desk a week from Monday, give or take, so be there. If you are not, I may have to invoke a clause in my contract that gives me final approval on binding and currency pricing decisions for “TMCotDU.” Typically, this is a perfunctory rubber-stamp for a 35-cent mass market paperback, but I may have to insist on a spiral-bound edition of hammered copper sheaves priced in the monumental stone coins of the Yapese Islanders.

That is, unless, you can distract me into taking up a new project.

We can discuss the details over sandwich and sarsaparilla at Sardi’s sometime. Till then, I’ll expect your comments on my treatment next week.

Sincerely,

Mandrake Fluke

 

This story previously appeared in Total Quality Reading.
Edited by Marie Ginga

 

Matt McHugh was born in suburban Pennsylvania, attended LaSalle University in Philadelphia, and after a few years as a Manhattanite, currently calls New Jersey home. Read more at his website Matt McHugh.