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Authors: James P. Blaylock

The Digging Leviathan

BOOK: The Digging Leviathan
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James P. Blaylock

Enter the SF Gateway …

In the last years of the twentieth century (as Wells might have put it), Gollancz, Britain’s oldest and most distinguished science fiction imprint, created the SF and Fantasy Masterworks series. Dedicated to re-publishing the English language’s finest works of SF and Fantasy, most of which were languishing out of print at the time, they were – and remain – landmark lists, consummately fulfilling the original mission statement:

‘SF MASTERWORKS is a library of the greatest SF ever written, chosen with the help of today’s leading SF writers and editors. These books show that genuinely innovative SF is as exciting today as when it was first written.’

Now, as we move inexorably into the twenty-first century, we are delighted to be widening our remit even more. The realities of commercial publishing are such that vast troves of classic SF & Fantasy are almost certainly destined never again to see print. Until very recently, this meant that anyone interested in reading any of these books would have been confined to scouring second-hand bookshops. The advent of digital publishing has changed that paradigm for ever.

The technology now exists to enable us to make available, for the first time, the entire backlists of an incredibly wide range of classic and modern SF and fantasy authors. Our plan is, at its simplest, to use this technology to build on the success of the SF and Fantasy Masterworks series and to go even further.

Welcome to the new home of Science Fiction & Fantasy. Welcome to the most comprehensive electronic library of classic SFF titles ever assembled.

Welcome to the SF Gateway.

“—from the negative point of view, I flatter myself this volume has a certain stamp. Although it runs to considerably upwards of two hundred pages, it contains not a single reference to the imbecility of God’s universe, nor so much as a single hint that I could have made a better one myself. I really do not know where my head can have been. I seem to have forgotten all that makes it glorious to be man. ‘Tis an omission that renders the book philosophically unimportant; but I am in hopes the eccentricity may please in frivolous circles.”

An Inland Voyage

Home Is the Sailor

Man’s a strange animal, and makes strange use

Of his own nature, and the various arts,

And likes particularly to produce

Some new experiment to show his parts;

This is the age of oddities let loose,

Where different talents find their different marts;

You’d best begin with truth, and when you’ve lost your

Labour, there’s a sure market for imposture.

Don Juan


In the silver light of the midnight moon the mangroves looked animate. Twisted roots arched out into brackish water at the mouth of the Rio Jari, stretching away north in tangled profusion toward Surinam where pipid frogs chirped and paddled in slack water. South, not five miles distant, rolled the black silent expanse of the Amazon, nearly forty miles across. The night was warm, and the moon seemed to cover half the sky, bathing yellow mangrove blossoms in watery beams and playing across the mottled bark of an enormous orchid-hung trunk that lay half submerged in the river.

Basil Peach gripped the ragged end of a broken limb, steadied himself, and flung a weighted net into the river. A paraffin lantern burned on shore, but the dirty yellow glow was lost almost at once in the opalescent moonlight.

William Ashbless wrote poetry and watched Peach fish. Peach hadn’t said anything for three hours. Above, on a bit of sandy bank, slept Professor Russel Latzarel and the lepidopterist, Phillip Mays. It was nearing two in the morning. Ashbless would have been asleep himself, but the moonlight was conducive to poetry, and he had suspicions about Basil Peach.

A week past they’d fished the Peewatin River in French Guiana for cichlids, then had come south on a Coastline ferry bound for Belem and Recife. It was slow going. Basil Peach always had one eye on the jungle; it drew him as a fish is drawn to the shadows of a submarine cave. At Macapa he didn’t leave the ship, but lay in his cabin for three days, sweltering in air so humid that it threatened to melt into vapor.

Professor Latzarel hired a boat at Macapa and, to the astonishment of the fisherman who owned it, floated up and down the bank of the Amazon, sounding deep pools with a five-hundred-foot line hung with a lead weight the size of an orange. A week later at the mouth of the Rio Jari, he ran out of line. The weight plummeted down and down into the dark river, yanking out yards of rope until there wasn’t any more beyond the eight or ten inches tied to the peculiar little fiddlehead of his hired coracle. Professor Latzarel cursed himself for not having another five hundred feet—but it was an ambivalent sort of cursing, since he knew, or at least hoped, that a thousand feet wouldn’t have been enough. The pool, he was certain, was bottomless. In the following days he caught seventy-four tetras, each about as long as his thumb. The fish were an unusual luminescent blue—blue tinged with the springtime colors of salmon and pink and violet. Professor Latzarel was entirely satisfied.

But Basil Peach was restive. His fishing was pointless. His long, hairless face was still fleshy white despite the tropical sun. Day and night he wore a visored cap with a transparent green bill about a foot long, with a high-collared shirt, the flaps of the collar turned up to hide his neck and the two rows of crescent-shaped vestigial gills that rose to a point almost behind his ears. Basil Peach was peculiar, Ashbless had to admit. His father and grandfather had been peculiar, too. They could quite easily have been fish themselves, or pale anthropoid amphibians. Basil was certainly more at home in the mangrove swamps and the jungles of the Amazon Basin than in the streets of Los Angeles five thousand miles away.

Peach cast his net again, pulling on a leader line to bring it around through the current. Ashbless scribbled in his notebook and smoked his pipe. He considered titling his sequence of poems
Amazon Moon
in honor of his old friend Don Blanding. What he wanted more than anything else was a glass of Scotch and a bottle of beer to chase it with. In the corner of his right eye he could see the bottom arc of the moon, enormous in the sky. It seemed to Ashbless that he was sitting in a bowl formed of mangroves, and that the moon was a lid settling down over him. He could see shadows, perhaps of mountains, on its surface, and along the eastern hemisphere flowed what appeared to be winding swerves of an old dusty riverbed across dry plains, a shadow river that would have dwarfed the
Amazon. The whole thing was a leering ivory face, an ancient Japanese netsuke that swallowed the stars. Basil Peach was oblivious to it. He stood among waterweeds cocking his head.

There was a tremendous splashing upriver. Peach dropped his seine, and it lay for a moment slack on the water before coining abruptly to life, wriggling and flopping and sweeping down over the submerged log, finally catching on a limb. Upriver the water was alive with silver fire. A million glints of reflected moonlight shone from the churning surface, spreading out across the dark river. Little arcing glimmers appeared and disappeared as if someone were casting out handfuls of blue diamonds. It was teeming with fish, thousands of blue tetras glowing in the phosphorescent light of the impossible moon.

A moaning filled the air as if the very atmosphere were being stretched by the pull of tides, and countless fish rose in a cloud of iridescence over the jungle, whirling into the moon as it fell back through the heavens. Silver stars blinked on around it, seeming for all the world to be the fish themselves, and the river was silent and dark except for the furtive splashing of the thing in the net.

When Ashbless left off watching the moon and picked up his pen, Basil Peach was twenty yards upriver, sloshing through shallows, bound, perhaps, for the moon himself. Ashbless watched him disappear, waited for an hour, then fell asleep in the sultry night, waking in the morning when the sun peeped up over the mangroves. Peach had not returned.

A splashing in the river reminded Ashbless of the fish in the net. He and Mays pulled it in and rolled it onto the shore grasses. To Latzarel’s wild surprise, it was a marine coelacanth, black and scaly and dying in the sun, some night creature having ripped into its underbelly in the early morning. Latzarel dissected the fish, bottling its organs, convinced, predictably, that it wasn’t a member of the living genus
. In its stomach he found shell and tentacle fragments of a straight-chambered cephalopod, possibly a late Devonian squid.

Basil Peach never returned. Four months later Latzarel received a postcard mailed from Lake Windermere in central England.

Chapter 1

Hot winds had blown down out of the Santa Ana Canyon for three days, charging the air with static electricity and the smell of the desert. The Hollywood Hills and San Gabriel Mountains were full of fire. It seemed likely that before the first of November the entirety of the Los Angeles basin would be burned to cinder. Plumes of black smoke clouded the horizon, and fine black ash and soot drizzled like dead rain when the winds fell and left off blowing the smoke away to the northwest. The evening hills flickered with patches of orange flame, and the night air was full of sirens screaming away up the boulevard. Serious reporters chattered from the car radio, mouthing suspicions of arson. But to Jim Hastings, who rode along in his Uncle Edward’s Hudson Wasp bound for the ocean, speculations about arson seemed immaterial. He was fairly sure that even if all arsonists suddenly disappeared from the earth, the scrub-covered foothills, feeling the sweep of hot autumn winds, would set themselves ablaze in the tradition of Mr. Krook of the rag and bottle shop.

There was a stupendous low tide, a negative eight feet. The rock reefs along the shores of the Palos Verdes Peninsula were exposed two hundred yards seaward at three o’clock in the afternoon. Onshore breezes that had sprung up in late morning kept the skies above the shoreline clear as rainwater. The sun shone on little wavelets in sharp glints, and from the top of the cliffs Jim Hastings and his best friend Giles Peach could see Catalina Island floating mythically. It seemed as if every bit of chaparral and gnarled oak on the distant island were visible and
that the Santa Barbara Channel had, mysteriously, awakened to find itself a part of the Aegean Sea. The two scrambled down a steep dirt trail to the beach, leaving the unloading of the old Hudson to Jim’s uncle, Edward St. Ives. Jim, a romantic, claimed to have heard that wild peccary and cyclops lived in caves in the cliffs and wandered out onto the beaches on deserted winter days. Gill, a pragmatist, said he supposed that was a lie.

The two of them wandered from one long shelf of rock to another, finding successively larger tidepools that contained successively stranger fish. Tiny octopi and violet nudibranchs hovered in the shadows of eel grass and blue-green algae. Little schools of silver opaleye perch darted across the expanse of larger pools, and in one, guarded by two lumpy-looking orange parents, hovered ten thousand baby garibaldi, shining like blue fire when they darted out of the shadows of rocks and into the sunlight.

BOOK: The Digging Leviathan
3.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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