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Authors: Dan Simmons

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In 1985, I received a phone call at my APEX office from my agent Richard Curtis.
Song of Kali
had finally sold. After being “Almost, not quite” rejected by Doubleday and Random House and Bantam and many other houses, a new publishing house called Bluejay Books, begun by a certain James Frenkel, was willing to take the risk on this dangerous tale by this unknown novelist. Bluejay would pay me $5,000 for the book.

When I got home that evening, Karen and I literally danced around the kitchen in joy. Three-year-old Jane, lifted up first by Karen and then by me, was part of the dance, whether she wanted to be or not. Life, I thought, doesn’t get much better than this.

The tease on the back of the 1990 Warner paperback of
Carrion Comfort
says it all and should have been a premonition and a warning to me in 1985—

All humans feed on violence. But only those with the Ability have tasted the ultimate power.

Ordinary vampires possess the body. But only those who use the living can violate the soul.

They gather their strength through the years. They plot their unholy games. They war among themselves. And the victor will stand alone against a world without defenses.

Mind vampires, you see, have infinite patience. They will wait and wait and wait and wait and then strike when you least expect them.

Song of Kali
didn’t sell that many copies but it received some critical attention and eventually it would be nominated for (and win) the World Fantasy Award.

This time the Great News from my agent was that Jim Frenkel wanted a second book from me. Knowing that the dream of the old woman in the forest, now recognized as the vampire Melaine Fuller in my long story, was still haunting me— the theme of people exerting their will over others without their permission has haunted me my entire life— I proposed a large novel also titled
Carrion Comfort.

James Frenkel agreed. This time, Bluejay Books would pay me an astounding $25,000 with half paid upon signing the contract. For Karen and me (and little Jane) who’d always survived on a single teacher’s salary, this was fantastic. This time the three of us danced not only in the kitchen but right through the tiny living room of our house and out the front door.

And then I got to work writing
Carrion Comfort
, the epic novel. (I had warned Jim Frenkel from the beginning that it would be a large, large book. I was young, at least as a writer, and I had a lot to say about violence and about those who impose their will on us. The tale would begin with the Holocaust and work its way right up into the violence of the terrible 1980s, a decade that began with the murder of John Lennon, as well as the shooting of the pope and the American president.)

Reader, which is the worst mind vampire you’ve ever encountered?

Was it a pettifogging boss who made your employment a living hell as he or she got off on exerting control over you in your work or profession, ruining your own plea sure in that work?

Was it a lover who turned the most sacred things in life into tools of leverage over your heart and mind and life and emotions?

Was it someone you were sure would be your mentor who turned out to be a monster?

Was it one of your own children who devoted his or her young life to controlling
your
life with demands and confrontations and scenes and tantrums?

Or was it someone you would never have expected to be of the mind-vampire variety— the lurker in the shadows, the stranger soul-drainer hiding and gathering its strength while it waited for you to enter its web?

I had less than a year to write
Carrion Comfort
in 1985–1986. For an eager young novelist, it seemed plenty of time.

I was still working eighty and more hours a week on APEX, of course, but that was no problem. evenings, weekends, watching TV with Karen and little Jane, going to movies, outings, trips, everything disappeared. I wrote the first draft longhand on yellow legal pads late into the night. In the morning I rose early— I often had to leave to supervise the APEX buses of kids before 6:30
A.M.
and classes started shortly after 7
A.M.
—and would madly type up the chapters finished the night before. My big expenditure at that time was a used and repaired IBM Selectric typewriter purchased from a rental place. It was a huge decision to spend that much money on technology, but my old, small Olivetti typewriter just couldn’t keep up with the demands of typing out multiple drafts of what became a fifteen-hundred-plus-page mega-novel.

The story for
Carrion Comfort
was so complex— at least for me— and the cast of characters so large, that for the first and only time in my writing career, the walls of my tiny extra-bedroom-turned-office were covered with long strips of brown paper on which I’d tracked the actions, interactions, and ultimate fates of the many characters in lines of different-colored magic marker. Melanie Fuller, I remember, was red. Saul Laski was blue. Nina Drayton was a brief yellow. Tony Harod was a billious green. The Oberst, Willi, was a thick Nazi black. Up and down all my study’s walls ran a riot of dozens of colored lines, crossing, crisscrossing, with scribbled notes at the junctions and important points. Sometimes the lines terminated with a terrible suddenness where the character died. The ceiling-to-floor strips of scribbled butcher paper looked like a seismometer’s readout run amuck.

All around me, day after day through that autumn and winter and spring, were growing stacks of filled yellow legal pads, taller stacks of reference books and maps, and growing mountains of multiple-typed drafts of
Carrion Comfort
. From time to time I kept Jim Frenkel apprised of how large the book was going to be. “No problem,” was the only response I got from my publisher-editor.

The book was due in the autumn of 1986. That summer, I hired our APEX secretary, Arleen, to work for me from her own home, daily typing up my revised revisions of the retyped and revised chapters I continued to churn out. I not only had fifty or sixty legal pads filled with scribbles and X-outs and revisions now, I also had four or more two-and-a-half-foot-tall heaps of my own typed manuscripts.

That summer I worked between sixteen and twenty hours a day on
Carrion Comfort
. Jane would come in to play on the floor of the study to be close to me, if she could find a bare spot on the floor of the tiny room. Karen would say good night to me at ten or eleven
P.M.
, knowing that I would be working another four or five hours into the quiet night. Every day Arleen would bring back typed pages of the next-to-final-draft, minus the last few hundred pages I was still writing, and I’d scribble more revisions on them and send them back to her while I continued to write the new pages longhand. It was exhausting chaos. It was madness. I loved it.

Karen and I were concerned about the expense of hiring Arleen as a typist, but we reassured ourselves. That $12,500 half of the payment upon signing was a fortune. And half of the other $12,500 would be ours upon acceptance, the final $6,250 upon publication of the hardcover early in 1987. So what if I had to pay the entire first half of the advance out in typewriter purchase, typist’s fees, and magic markers? We had a book to finish!

Late that summer, I finished
Carrion Comfort
. One thousand five hundred and thirty-four pages. The last I’d heard from James Frenkel and Bluejay weeks and weeks before, when I’d told him the final length of the opus, was—“That’s long, but don’t worry. We can handle it in one book.” (Frenkel hadn’t read a page of it, but he liked the verbal updates on the story.)

In the last days of my theoretical summer vacation before I went back to the eighty-to-hundred hours a week APEX teaching, I was spending days and nights madly typing up the last draft of some chapters. Arleen— much more speedily— typed up other chapters I gave her. We finished the day before school started again. I took the day off and went up to our town’s little public swimming pool with Karen and Jane. Lying in the end-of-summer sunlight (I was as pale as a grub), I looked around at the other families and swimmers and thought
This— these few hours

is my summer vacation.

It had been worth it.

Just as I was ready to send
Carrion Comfort
to Frenkel, I learned two things: my first novel,
Song of Kali
, had been nominated as one of the six finalists for the World Fantasy Award. And Bluejay Books had gone bankrupt.

“When shall we three meet again . . . ?” asked one of the three witches or Wyrd Sisters in Shakespeare’s
Macbeth
. The witch might have been talking about the three major parts of the human brain.

Decades ago, Paul MacLean, then chief of the Laboratory of Brain Evolution and Behavior of the National Institute of Mental Health, forwarded his theory of the human “triune brain.” The theory has been contested, debated, confirmed, and denied, but the essential anatomic and evolutionary facts of it are clear enough:

Our brains evolved over hundreds of millions of years, through a multitude of earlier species, and consist today of three major elements— the most recent and advanced and outward-lying neocortex, which we share (in size and near complexity) with certain advanced primates and whales and dolphins; the limbic system—so-called because there lies the control of our limbs among other things— which we share with all other mammals and partially with reptiles; and— most deeply buried— the reptilian complex, also called the R-complex, which evolved hundreds of millions of years ago and was
all
that the brains of early reptiles and dinosaurs had to work with.

Imagine a modern iPod that had to be built around (and depend upon) an old Commodore 64 that, in turn, had to be built around and depend upon (in all its actions and computations) a rusty abacus with only a few dull (but absolutely imperative) beads on its wires.

The R-complex reptile brain concerns itself with territoriality, with ritual and repetition, with fight or flight decisions, with rage, with violence, with aggression, and with hierarchy.

Always with hierarchy.

Carl Sagan reminded us that the term “cold-blooded killer” is almost certainly accurate, since so much of extreme human violence is a surrender to the constant reptilian aggressive-hierarchical kill-or-be-killed urgings of the R-complex at the base of the root of our brains. Machiavelli’s advice to the Prince, when all language and higher brain-function manipulations of others failed, was “knowingly to adopt the beast.”

The ancient Greeks never dreamt of equality and fraternity. Their view of the world was of a constant
agon
(yes, the root word for “agony”)—an endless competition to separate everyone and everything in the world into the three categories of
less than
,
more than
, or
equal to
.

But the R-complex reptile brain— present in all of us, always dominant in the mind vampires among us— knows no “
equal to
.” It allows only for the dinosaur-predator hierarchical imperative of
greater than
or
lesser than
and it will kill you, if need be, to establish itself in the former category.

In the modern human brain, the neocortex makes up about 85 percent of our brain mass, but much evidence suggests that the majority of our individual behavior, our social systems, our political systems, our sexual behavior, our bureaucratic behavior, and our endless wars are controlled by the reptile brain in us.

As G. K. Chesteron once wrote: “You can free things from alien or accidental laws of their own nature. . . . Do not go about . . . encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three sides. If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end.”

As a teacher (including as a BOCES-trained “resource room” teacher in New York state, assigned to test, diagnose, and remediate learning disabilities), I worked with children with borderline autism and psychotic children exhibiting such behavior as hebephrenic schizophrenia. As a classroom teacher for eighteen years, I worked with severely emotionally disturbed children, including two who were sociopaths.

All
children, especially younger children, when left to their own devices, show frequent and deep ritualistic behavior. With the mentally retarded and emotionally disturbed, this ritualistic behavior was often visible as what we called
perseveration
— the inability to stop a behavior, such as fanning a hand in front of one’s eyes or constant rocking or humming. With autistic children, the ritualistic behavior could become elaborate— homemade cardboard “machines” and string “wires” that had to go everywhere with the child just, he thought, to keep himself alive.

With all children in their natural state, the ritualistic behavior— most clearly among boys but more covertly among girls— included a constant sorting of themselves into hierarchies of acceptance and inclusion, with the losers being miserable and lonely as outsiders.

The neocortex in children is still developing and incomplete in its control.

The reptile brain is very alive in children. And sometimes it is frightening to watch it in action.

Montaigne, in his
Essays
(II-8) once wrote—“. . .
most commonly
,
we find ourselves more taken with the running up and down
,
the games
,
and the puerile simplicities of our children than we do
,
afterwards
,
with their most complete actions
;
as if we had loved them for our sport
,
like monkeys
,
not as men
.”

But it’s not monkeys that a trained eye will see when watching children playing among themselves. It’s male and female velociraptors.

Mind vampires may be an evolutionary example of arrested neocortal natal development combined with rare frontal-lobe overdevelopment that creates neuron spin axis perpendicular to physical polar magnetic field axis differenting their brains as a form of crude holographic
generator
rather than a mere wave-front collapsing interferometer, as is the case of the rest of us. The R-complex in mind vampires, in other words, can
project
sheer force of will to the more passive neocortical, limbic, and R-complexes of other minds, although whether on the electromagnetic spectrum or via some other range of energy is unknown at this time.

BOOK: Carrion Comfort
13.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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