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Authors: Dan Simmons

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BOOK: Carrion Comfort
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Carrion Comfort
finally came out, we invited the two publishers, Paul and Scott, to our publication party. Since Paul and Scott refused to fly, they drove from Chicago to Colorado to help us celebrate. Our tiny little house had about sixty guests in it and it was crowded. Karen arranged to have a cake made with the
Carrion Comfort
cover replicated perfectly in colored frosting. I’d just invested in a small black-and-white photocopy machine (to save in copying the final MSS, even though it took me many hours to copy my long manuscripts one page at a time) and I remember we had a party game where the writers, artists, friends, publishers, and other guests went alone into my little study and came out with a work of photocopy “art” to be judged later, after we’d had a few more drinks.

And I remember that our seven-year-old daughter Jane, who’d been watching the party from the staircase until then, won the voting by popular acclaim with her photocopy of “Teddy,” her teddy bear.

It was a good day. It was a good year.

As the years passed, I watched a strange thing happen to my early chosen field of horror. My former editor lived up to her goal of creating an “empire” of horror fiction. She and other editors working for other publishers simply published so much of the stuff, under the assumption that readers couldn’t get enough of it (since they seemed not to be able to get enough of Stephen King’s work, was the reasoning, or Dean Koontz’s) that after a few years Gresham’s Law kicked. The bad drove out the good. The market was oversaturated. The readers were first satiated and then wary as they realized the low quality that was being sold in such vast quantities.

I watched horror all but die as a genre for a while. Some chains eliminated the “Horror” section of their bookstores. Many writers of horror in the late 1980s and early 1990s— myself included— moved on to other things.

When horror finally returned as a viable category, it did so through the work of a few excellent writers who helped redefine the genre yet again.

Thanks to the friendship of Herb Yellin, the publisher of the private Lord John Press (beautiful books, beautifully made, for collectors, featuring authors of personal interest to Herb), I once spent an evening in L.A. with Herb and his old friends Robert (
) Bloch, the comedian/radio star Stan Freberg (author and voice of the hit 1960s comedy LP
The United States of America
), and Ray Bradbury. Yellin and Bloch and Freberg and Bradbury were old friends and had been meeting one night a month to chew the fat for decades.

It was a totally unforgettable night.

Robert Bloch warned me before the talking started that once it started I wouldn’t be hearing from him again, and he was correct. (I loved Robert Bloch.) Freberg and Bradbury held the floor all night, late into the night, and the topic they stumbled across that night was “Mentors in Our Lives Who Were Also the Monsters in Our Lives.”

For Freberg, it was his boss Bob Clampett when he wrote and puppeteered for the Emmy Award–winning TV show puppet show
Time for Beany
in the early 1950s. Clampett was so cheap that he’d put his writers to work in “a friend’s car” along the curb in L.A. only for Freberg and the other writer to discover that it had been a stranger’s car. Once Clampett set them up in their new “writing office” in an empty house up on blocks and Stan Freberg and his equally underpaid writing partner Daws Butler, to save money, moved into the house to live there, despite the fact that it had no electricity or running water.

And then one morning they woke up to find their “office” and home being moved down the street to its new location.

But Freberg’s ultimate mentor/monster was the Broadway impresario David Merrick, and the tales of that love/hate relationship made me cry with laughter one minute and simply cry the next.

Then Ray Bradbury joined in to discuss his ultimate mentor/monster, John Huston.

In 1953, the young and rather innocent SF writer had been in Long Beach looking for dinosaur books with his friend Ray Harryhausen when he got word that Huston wanted to talk to him. The next day Ray went to the hotel in L.A. where Huston was staying and was flabbergasted to learn that the director had chosen young Bradbury— who’d never done a screenplay— to write Huston’s screen adaptation of
Moby Dick.
And John Huston insisted that Bradbury and his wife come to Huston’s estate in Ireland to write the script.

Bradbury admitted to Mr. Huston that he’d never been able to read the whole book. “Well, go home to night and read it and come back tomorrow and tell me you’ll help me kill that goddamned whale,” boomed John Huston as only John Huston could boom.

The next hour or two of Bradbury’s tale, liberally added to and heckled by Stan Freberg, was one of the funniest/saddest things I’d ever heard, perhaps equaled only by Freberg’s tales of his relationship with David Merrick.

Bradbury described how Huston would bait and parody the innocent young writer, embarrassing him in front of the famous people who trooped through Huston’s Irish estate. One night it would be famous writers and directors at the long table, the next night Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, but when Huston drank, he got mean.

“I had a habit of blessing people when we part,” said Bradbury that night in L.A. “I still do, I guess. But one night outside an Irish pub, I gave the blessing sign to friends that were leaving and Huston just rounded on me and screamed, ‘
Who do you think you are, the fucking bloody pope
!’ ”

When the torment reached its climax, Bradbury and his wife would secretly phone for a taxi, order it to meet them at the end of the estate’s long driveway after dark, and reserve tickets home on the next flight back to America. To hell with “
Moby Dick
.” No one deserved this kind of abuse.

But, as mentor/monsters tend to do, Huston always sensed young Bradbury’s breaking point.

That night in L.A. I watched Bradbury act out that night almost more than forty years earlier when Ray and his wife tried to rush through dinner, despite the famous faces at the table, so they could sneak their luggage out to the taxi and escape. But then— and Bradbury could perform a perfect John Houston booming voice— Huston hushed the table and announced, “There’s much talent here to night, but only one genius at our table. I want to introduce you to that genius. This young man wrote an incredible storrrrreee about a light house and a foghorn and a DINE-OHSAURRRR.”

And then John Huston acted out the entire tale of Bradbury’s story “The Foghorn,” becoming the light house keepers, the bellowing foghorn, and the bellowing DINE-OH-SAURRRR. At the end, Huston made young Bradbury stand for the applause of all the people at the table.

And then Ray Bradbury and his wife Maggie (Marguerite) went back upstairs and unpacked their bags and cancelled the taxi and cancelled the flight back to America.

This mentor/monster dance went on for eight months.

I had a mentor after all, although he was invisible to me at the time.

It turns out, I discovered later, that a certain Dean Koontz had been one of the five judges for the 1986 World Fantasy Award. (Ellen Datlow had been another.) Koontz had seen something in
Song of Kali
and had bent the arms of a few of the other judges to read the huge tome and take it seriously, even though some were reluctant to give the prestigious award to a first-time novelist.

Then, even as
Carrion Comfort
was appearing in its brief hardcover stint as a special edition from Dark Harvest . . . (one young speculator in California sold his mother’s insurance so that he could buy up one thousand copies of the book— a full one third of the print run, but I got him back for it. Besides throwing him and his lackeys out of an Orange County bookstore when he dragged in all one thousand copies for me to sign, I later learned from a friend that the fellow had fallen behind on his payments on the California storage shed where he stored the one thousand volumes, waiting for them to reach a certain high collector’s price before selling, and the storage owner seized them . . . and sold them at cover price. I bought as many as I could. But I digress.) . . . even as the Dark Harvest hardcover of
Carrion Comfort
was quickly appearing and disappearing, Dean Koontz, totally without my knowledge (I’d never met him), was convincing Warner Books to publish it as a nine-hundred-plus-page, small-print paperback.

The paperback came out in 1990, the same year as my Bantam Doubleday Dell novel
The Fall of Hyperion
, my long novella
Entropy’s Bed at Midnight
from Lord John’s Press, and my first collection of short fiction,
Prayers to Broken Stones
. (I told you I was keeping busy.)

Finally, thanks to the efforts of a bestselling writer I hadn’t yet met and had never spoken to, simply because he thought it was a book worth reading, readers could find and read
Carrion Comfort
. . . in its complete form.

When shall we three meet again?

In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

When the hurlyburly’s done,

When the battle’s lost and won.

That will be ere the set of sun.

Reader, I hope you enjoy this Twentieth Anniversary Edition of
Carrion Comfort
. I wish you good luck in avoiding the real mind vampires in this life who wish to play with you as if they were the cat and you a ball of yarn. And, finally, Reader, I wish you luck in vanquishing the monsters you do have to meet . . . and in celebrating the mentors who have and will again fill your life with unanticipated joy.


Colorado, July 2009

“Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee; Not untwist— slack they may be— these last strands of man In me or, most weary, cry
I can no more
. . .”



Chelmno, 1942

aul Laski lay among the soon-to-die in a camp of death and thought about life. Saul shivered in the cold and dark and forced himself to remember details of a spring morning— golden light touching the heavy limbs of willows by the stream, a field of white daisies beyond the stone buildings of his uncle’s farm.

The barracks was silent except for an occasional rasping cough and the furtive burrowings of Musselmänner, the living dead, vainly seeking warmth in the cold straw. Somewhere an old man coughed in a wracking spasm which signaled the end of a long and hopeless struggle. The old one would be dead by morning. Or even if he survived the night, he would miss the morning roll call in the snow, which meant that he would be dead before morning ended.

Saul curled away from the glare of the searchlight pouring in through frosted panes and pressed his back against the wooden mortises of his bunk. Splinters scraped at his spine and ribs through the thin cloth he wore. His legs began to shake uncontrollably as the cold and fatigue worked at him. Saul clutched at his thin thighs and squeezed until the shaking stopped.

I will live
. The thought was a command, an imperative he drove so deep into his consciousness that not even his starved and sore-ridden body could defy his will.

When Saul had been a boy a few years earlier, an eternity earlier, and his Uncle Moshe had promised to take him fishing at his farm near Cracow, Saul had taught himself the trick of imagining, just before he fell asleep, a smooth, oval rock upon which he wrote the hour and minute at which he wished to awake. Then, in his mind’s eye, he would drop the rock into a clear pond and watch it settle into the depths. Invariably, he would awake the next morning at the precise moment, alert, alive, breathing in the cool morning air and savoring the predawn silence in that fragile interval before his brother and sisters woke to break the perfection.

I will live
. Saul squeezed his eyes shut and watched the rock sink into clear water. His body began to shake again and he pressed his back more firmly against the rough angle of boards. For the thousandth time he tried to nestle more deeply in his depression of straw. It had been better when old Mr. Shistruk and young Ibrahim had shared the bunk with him but Ibrahim had been shot at the mine works and Mr. Shistruk had sat down two days before at the quarry and refused to rise even when Gluecks, the head of the SS guards, had released his dog. The old man had waved his bony arm almost merrily, a weak farewell to the staring prisoners, in the five seconds before the German shepherd ripped his throat out.

I will live
. The thought had a rhythm to it that went beyond the words, beyond language. The thought set a counterpoint to everything Saul had seen and experienced during his five months in the camp.
I will live
. The thought pulsed with a light and warmth which partially offset the chill, vertiginous pit which threatened to open wider inside him and consume him. The Pit. Saul had seen the Pit. With the others he had shoveled cold clods of black soil over the warm bodies, some still writhing, a child feebly moving its arm as if waving to a welcoming relative in a train station or stirring in its sleep, shoveled the dirt and spread the lime from bags too heavy to lift while the SS guard sat dangling his legs over the edge of the Pit, his hands soft and white on the black steel barrel of the machine-pistol, a piece of plaster on his rough cheek where he had cut himself shaving, the cut already healing while naked white forms stirred feebly as Saul poured dirt into the Pit, his eyes red-rimmed from the cloud of lime hanging like a chalky fog in the winter air.

I will live
. Saul concentrated on the strength of that cadence and ignored his shaking limbs. Two levels above him, a man sobbed in the night. Saul could feel the lice crawling up his arms and legs as they sought the center of his fading warmth. He curled into a tighter ball, understanding the imperative which drove the vermin, responding to the same mindless, illogical, incontestable command to continue.

The stone dropped deeper into the azure depths. Saul could make out the rough letters as he balanced on the edge of sleep.
I will live

Saul’s eyes snapped open as a thought chilled him more deeply than did the wind whistling through ill-fitted window frames.
It was the third Thursday of the month
. Saul was almost sure it was the third Thursday.
came on the third Thursday. But not always. Perhaps not this Thursday. Saul pulled his forearms in front of his face and curled into an even tighter fetal position.

He was almost asleep when the barracks door crashed open. There were five of them— two Waffen-SS guards with submachine guns, a regular army noncom, Lieutenant Schaffner, and a young Oberst whom Saul had never seen before. The Oberst had a pale, Aryan face with a strand of blond hair falling across his brow. Their hand torches played over the rows of shelflike bunks. Not a man stirred. Saul could feel the silence as eighty-five skeletons held their breath in the night. He held his breath.

The Germans took five strides into the barracks, the cold air billowing ahead of them, their massive forms silhouetted against the open door while their breath hung in icy clouds around them. Saul pulled himself even deeper into the brittle straw.

!” came the voice. The torch beam had fallen on a capped and striped figure crouched in the depths of a lower bunk six rows from Saul.

“Komm! Schnell!”
When the man did not move the SS guards dragged him roughly into the aisle. Saul heard bare feet scraping on the floor.

“Du, raus!”
And again.
Now three Musselmänner stood like weightless scarecrows before the massive silhouettes. The pro cession stopped four bunks from Saul’s row. The SS guards turned away to play their lights up and down the center row of bunks. Red eyes reflected back like startled rats staring from half-opened coffins.

I will live
. For the first time it was a prayer rather than an imperative. They had never taken more than four men from a single barracks.

The man with the hand torch had turned and was shining the light full in Saul’s face. Saul did not move. He did not breathe. The universe consisted of the back of his own hand centimeters in front of his face. The skin there was white, grub white, and flaking in spots. The hairs on the back of his hand were very dark. Saul stared at them with a deep sense of awe. The torch beam made the flesh of his hand and arm seem almost transparent. He could see the layers of muscle, the elegant pattern of tendons, the blue veins softly pulsing to the wild beating of his heart.

“Du, raus.”
Time slowed and pivoted. All of Saul’s life, every second, every ecstasy and banal, forgotten afternoon, had led to this instant, this intersection. Saul’s lips cracked open in a mirthless grin. He had long ago decided that they would not take him into the night. They would have to kill him here, in front of the others. If nothing else, he would dictate to his murderers the time of his murder. A great calm descended over him.

One of the SS men screamed at him and both stepped forward. Saul was blinded by the light, smelled wet wool and the sweet scent of schnapps on the man’s breath, felt the cold air against his face. His skin contracted waiting for their rough hands to fall on him.

snapped the young Oberst. Saul saw him only as a black simulacrum of a man against the white glare of light.
The Oberst took one step forward as the SS men stepped quickly back. Time seemed frozen as Saul stared up at the dark shape. No one spoke. The fog of their breath hung around them.

!” said the Oberst softly. It was not a command. It was said softly, almost lovingly, the way one would call a favorite dog or urge one’s infant to take his first tottering steps.
“Komm her!”

Saul gritted his teeth and closed his eyes. He would bite them when they came. He would go for their throats. He would chew and rip and tear at veins and cartilage until they would have to shoot, they would have to fire, they would have to fire, they would be forced to. . . .

The Oberst tapped his knee lightly. Saul’s lips drew back in a snarl. He would leap at the fuckers, tear the motherfucking son of a bitch’s fucking throat open in front of the others, rip his fucking bowels out of his. . . .

Saul felt it then. Something
him. None of the Germans had moved, not so much as an inch, but something struck Saul a terrible blow at the base of the spine. He screamed. Something hit him and then it

Saul felt the intrusion as sharply as if someone had rammed a steel rod up his anus. Yet nothing had touched him. No one had come close to him. Saul screamed again and then his jaws were clamped shut by some invisible force.

“Komm her, Du Jude!”

it. Something was
him, ramming his back straight, causing his arms and legs to spasm wildly.
him. He felt something close on his brain like a vise, squeezing, squeezing. He tried to scream but
would not let him. He flopped wildly on the straw, nerves misfiring, urinating down his own pant leg. Then he arched wildly and his body flopped out onto the floor. The guards stepped back.

“Steh auf!”
Saul’s back arched again so violently that it threw him up on his knees. His arms shook and waved of their own volition. He could
something in his mind, a cold presence wrapped in a blazing corona of pain. Images danced before his eyes.

Saul stood up.
There was heavy laughter from one of the SS men, the smell of wool and steel, the distant feel of cold splinters underfoot. Saul lurched toward the open door and the white glare beyond. The Oberst followed quietly behind, calmly slapping a glove against one thigh. Saul stumbled down the outside stairs, almost fell, was righted by an invisible hand that squeezed his brain and sent fire and needles racing through every nerve. Barefooted, not feeling the cold, he led the pro cession across the snow and frozen mud toward the waiting lorry.

I will live
thought Saul Laski, but the magical cadence shredded and fled before a gale of silent, icy laughter and a will much greater than his own.

BOOK: Carrion Comfort
7.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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