The Fifth Fedora: Weird Noir and Stranger Tales in Honor of Stephen T. Vessels is now published by Borda Books and Wilder Utopia, and is available on Amazon or in our bookstore. "From the Journal of Dr. Eduard Charivari" is an integral part this collection of tales told in Stephen's honor. The following, for your enjoyment, is an excerpt of Monte Schulz's story.
I am writing this from the desk of a century-old walnut secretary in a dark limestone room just behind the crystal arcades of Myrlea Cavern. I live underground, forty-four feet below Hausmann Rail Station in the Beuiliss District of the metropolis less than one mile from where I once taught class in a grand lecture hall. Trains rattle and rumble above me day and night. Customers out front haggle over tulip vases and champagne tipples. The noise has no purchase on my dedication to a new journey. This is the office where I work. Not what I once had with a large oak desk of many drawers, a dozen glass-front bookcases holding my ten-thousand volumes of collected wisdom and curiosities. My square wooden seminar table and chairs. My secret shelves for maps and charts. That sturdy iron lock on my office door. I have none here. Just a pair of oil lamps, this old secretary and chair, a metal cot with a brown thread-worn cotton blanket, and a slop bucket for collecting water at night.
I do not complain. Fortune is a blind god unable to discern need from necessity. I have my necessities. My needs are trivial. Paper and pen or pencil to write with. A book or two to read in my leisure hours at day’s end. Friends and former colleagues to peek in on me now and then. Life’s pleasures can be enumerated easily enough when we are truthful with ourselves. We persevere.
What point am I making? Why am I underground? Let’s begin there:
The noxious odor of eugenics has stifled the advance of civilization in our time. Its putrid fog has permeated every closet and corridor of society and laid low the best foundations our Republic had created and developed over these many centuries. Of course, that hideous pseudo-intellect Adolphus Varane must be acknowledged as the spear point of its intrusion, yet he alone could never have perpetrated such a colossal disaster. There were basic truths evident in this play of fools and monsters, puppet masters dangling the strings of too many prominent figures. Some you must know, while others hide yet in the shadows behind the crime. I was a professor of Cultural Philosophy at the Holborne Institute when I was too young to perceive the distinction between moral necessity and progress. Of course, I am not so old as to remember the zeitgeist of the Great Separation, that hideous obscenity. Might I have summoned the courage to intervene with the disastrous decisions that fully poisoned our society and led to the ruinous Desolation and a field of graves reaching from Prospect Square to the gates of hell itself? If I am truthful at all, I should say, no, I do lack that requisite bravery one needs to stand before the avalanche with arms held high.
Still, even these days, eugenics permeates the air we breathe from Simoni Hill to the odious streets of East Catalan and a hundred miles underground. No one is exempt. My colleagues had admitted this, even over coffee and pastries at the Bistany Café where lies were profound, and whispers of sedition ignored. We were a club of dissenting intellectuals, or so we had defined ourselves. Dr. Leonardo Profuma, who had taught Scientific Engineering since Noah stepped off the boat, offered this opinion on our trajectory: “Never in the history of the world have so many fools struck gavels in the halls of government. Deluded are they who are certain in the rectitude of decisions that have blighted the future of millions. Do we truly imagine they are convinced of their own crusade? There are two pathways here to be considered: Either these men and woman have the utmost faith in a morality that punishes those of varied cultural origins and distinctions - not to belabor the wickedness of gassing the infirm and mentally debilitated - or they are so thoroughly obsessed with their own tower-touted prestige that suffering endured in the basements and muddy fields of our Republic is entirely irrelevant to them. In either case, one day we’ll see our ceilings tumble down on top of us and, caught in the rubble, our cries for help will be ignored by survivors whose allegiance to humanity has long since been whittled away by our own instruction.”
His esteemed colleague, the eminent Social Biologist, Famber Massot, suggested a third opinion. “Among certain constituencies exists such a virulent sociopathy that caring enough to abuse or ignore the agony of one’s fellow human beings is simply beyond daily considerations. That brand of mental illness is subject only to whim and coincidence. So long as the life of the sociopath is not disturbed, the deaths of others isn’t worth the blink of an eye. That’s what we have here now, and I believe we’re stuck with it unless there should be some heavenly intervention.”
“In other words,” I said, “we’re doomed.”
I held the Chair of High Culture for fifty-four years at the Holborne. In my opinion, I was well liked and greatly respected by my peers and those students who matriculated through my department. Of course, no one in academics is universally loved. There are far too many avenues of conflict and worry involved to expect such things. Notwithstanding, I organized weekly quorums in the sunlight and bird gardens of Pallanteum Plaza for my students whose enthusiasm for intuiting and thereby bettering society produced the most engaging dialogue. Happiness reigned in spirited debate. Learning became a tool for constructing that new foundation we yearned to see. Dispensing with the shattering effects of eugenics became our goal and I still believe our achievements were profound, regardless of how it all fell to ruin.
Because even that life of the mind has its limitations, its political boundaries. Put simply, we were too successful, too popular, too admired about campus. My students were quick and clever with more ideas for societal organization than there are stars in the firmament. More quorums were organized and those gave birth to more still, students debating eugenics in the basements of Pradier Hall and Notomi where the pipes rattled and screeched, and rats scurried about. By candlelight, the world was deconstructed and rebuilt, night after night, in reverence of things to come.
Many years ago, I had a student by the name of Gayley Ames whose singular intellect led us to that dark hall of shadows we faltered into. He was quite handsome, tall and fit, an athlete in the spring contests of football and javelin, with a sly, devilish smile and a demeanor our dazzling co-eds apparently found quite irresistible. Not a great scholar but neither a mediocrity by any means. One late spring afternoon, he knocked at my office door and entered with the insouciance only the young possess. Pausing from my labors at grading papers from the lower academy, I offered him the chair before my desk and invited his questions.
And Mr. Gayley Ames had questions, many questions.
“Sir,” he began quite innocently, “in your opinion, has eugenics improved the life of our Republic? Are we truly better off now than we had been before Adolphus Varane began his crusade to improve our lives?”
“That would depend upon whose point of view is being observed.”
“Well, is it true that our most troublesome districts saw a rising good in the Great Separation, once those infamous streets and alleyways were cleaned and cleared away of the rot and refuse we called our fellow citizens?”
“As in those sad words of the barbarian, Calgacus, had we made a desert and called it peace? Certainly, a table never set, won’t need to be cleared, but is that dinner?”
“I can’t speak to that, sir, but I hear orators in Immanuel Fields refer to we who support eugenics as monsters. I don’t feel like a monster. Should I?”
“Young man, often in this life, we wear our identities like a suit of clothes and become so used to its fit, we cannot imagine wearing anything else. Our look in the mirror is so comfortably familiar, we go out the door each morning convinced that the way we dress is every bit as good and natural as the sun crossing those blue skies above. Therefore, when we are informed that our clothing is a shabby imitation of elegant, that our taste is poor and unfortunate, we choose to regard our critics as miscreants, even criminal in their evaluations.”
“In other words, I may be a monster and not recognize myself as such, is that what you’re telling me?”
“I’m only offering you my opinion that our society is blind to the possibility that we may have been wrong all those years ago in pursuing the supposed rectitude of eugenics and using that cudgel to torment millions unnecessarily.”
“You believe we are criminals?”
“Perhaps we are.”
“And our punishment is the Desolation? War without end?”
“Or some other moral adjustment to our futures. No lasting good comes out of ignoring a bad suit of clothes in the belief that our preference is correct in all things at all times. Perhaps a new tie or a coat of a different fabric would be in order now.”
Monte Schulz has published six novels; his latest, Metropolis, was released in July 2022. He earned his M.A. in American Studies at UCSB, and has taught writing and literature there in the College of Creative Studies. He owns the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, and lives in California and Hawaii.