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From the bestselling author of The Mists of Avalon and The Forest House comes a novel of self-discovery for the modern age. Truth Blackburn, whose parents were killed in the 1960s, during a ceremony held by occultists determined to return the old gods to Earth, travels back to her family's estate--and finds it haunted by the spirit of her father.
“Thoroughly absorbing.” —Booklist
"An atmospheric gothic . . . . [A] tart touch of humor threads throughout the book." —The San Francisco Chronicle
“Colorful compelling writing . . . by a master storyteller.” —VOYA
WHAT IS TRUTH?
Beholding the bright countenance of truth in the quiet and still air of delightful studies.
NORTH OF NEW YORK CITY, ALONG THE EDGE OF THE Hudson River, there is a small estate lying between the railroad tracks of Metro North and the broad expanse of the river. Its main building was once a cider mill, and the mill—as well as the descendants of the original orchard—still occupies the site. Brick walkways cross the gently rolling lawns, and there is a yearly battle between the students and the deer for the produce of the trees.
Later buildings in the exuberantly classical Federalist mode complete the campus, but there has been no new construction on the campus for nearly a century. Its architectural conservatism makes the place so much the perfect image of an eighteenth-century college that the Dean must very firmly discourage the advances of several movie companies every year who wish to film here, but Taghkanic College guards its privacy—and that of its students and faculty—in the same stern fashion it always has.
In 1714 Taghkanic College was founded to provide education to the local Indians, mostly members of the Taghkanic and Lenape tribes, and to the free Blacks who had also settled in the area. Existing to this day on the terms of its original charter, Taghkanic College has never accepted one penny of government support to cover its operating costs, choosing to remain independent first from Crown and royal governor and later from the representatives of the fledgling United States.
Adherence to this policy has led, over the years, to a liberalization of its admission policies: In 1762 Taghkanic College opened its doors to "alle younge gentillmen of goode familie," and in 1816 to women, making Taghkanic one of the first institutions of higher learning in the United States to do so.
Even with such broad admission policies, Taghkanic College would not exist today save for two individuals: Margaret Beresford Bidney and Colin MacLaren.
Miss Bidney graduated Taghkanic College in the same year that the Insurrection of the Southern States turned her father's comfortable fortune into a large one. She never married, and in the last years of her life she was a disciple of William Seabrook, noted occultist.
It was perhaps inevitable that Miss Bidney's fortune should go to fund, at the college of her matriculation, what grew to become the Margaret Beresford Bidney Memorial Psychic Science Research Laboratory at Taghkanic College.
From its inception, the laboratory—or, as it came informally to be known, the Bidney Institute—was funded independently of the college through the endowment fund created by the Bidney Bequest. The trustees of the college had been attempting to claim the entire Bidney Bequest on behalf of Taghkanic College for more than fifty years and were on the verge of success when Colin MacLaren accepted an appointment as director of the Institute.
Dr. MacLaren had been known in parapsychological circles since the early fifties, frequently operating under a cloud due to his willingness to accept at face value what were dismissed by others as the ravings of charlatans and kooks. MacLaren maintained that there should be no distinction made between the fields of occultism and parapsychology when studying the paranormal, that, if anything, the occultists should have the edge, since they had been studying the unseen world for centuries and attempting to distill a scientific method of dealing with its effects. MacLaren's particular field of study was trance psychism, or mediumship, and his aggressive leadership was precisely what the moribund Bidney Institute needed.
Under his guidance, the Institute took the lead in the investigation both of psychic phenomena and its wicked stepsister, occult phenomena, and became an institution of international repute. The specter of its dissolution vanished like expended ectoplasm, and it became clear to the disappointed trustees of Taghkanic College that their rich but unwanted foster child would be around until the time when Hell froze over—an event that the staff of the Margaret Beresford Bidney Psychic Science Research Institute intended, in any event, to measure.
Truth Jourdemayne sat brooding in her tiny cubicle at the Bidney Institute in a Monday-morning stupor unleavened, as yet, by the healing power of coffee. Her short dark hair in its sensible crop looked faintly rumpled, and her white lab coat, open over a sensible cotton sweater and jeans, looked less crisp than usual. A pile of computer printouts six inches thick lay under her right elbow: Truth's work for the immediate future.
She glanced up at the clock on her wall, shoving her horn-rimmed reading glasses up on her brow as she did so. Eight forty-five, and when she'd gotten here fifteen minutes ago Meg had just been starting to fill thepercolator. It was large, and old, and took its sweet time to boil; there wouldn't be coffee for a while yet. Truth sighed, and pulled the printouts over to her. Might as well get some work done while she waited.
Davy had finished the last of the runs just yesterday. It was part of an experiment Truth had designed; nothing out of the ordinary, merely an attempt to establish once and for all a statistical baseline for incidents of clairsentient perception. It was necessary work, but collecting the data to validate the experiment was a mind-numbing labor: ten individuals aged twenty to twenty-five, in good physical health, who were willing to participate in 100 double-blind machine runs of 100 Rhine cards each—and at that Truth thought her findings might be challenged on the grounds of being based upon too small a statistical sample.
But the experiment would have been impossibly unwieldy with more volunteers, even if she could have gotten them. It had taken over a year to amass the data as it was. And the preliminary work was sound enough. The experiment met all the International Society of Psychic Research guidelines: Responses were recorded electronically, symbols were chosen randomly by machine; there was no possibility that a human researcher could accidentally communicate the symbols to the subjects through body language.
Or even telepathy. It was hard enough having to design an experiment that would generate baseline statistics by which clairvoyance could be measured without having to design one that excluded other psychic talents—such as telepathy or precognition—as well. Still, Truth thought she'd managed. Since the computer in some sense already "knew" the order of all the symbols it would choose, that event lay in the past by the time the subject entered the experiment, so that any ability to see the future—assuming any of their subjects possessed such, which Truth hoped for the sake of her experimentthey did not—would not be involved in guessing the symbols on the cards.
Welcome to the glamourous world of statistical parapsychology, Truth thought wryly to herself, and picked up a pencil.
She'd forgotten entirely about coffee when Meg came in an hour later.
Meg Winslow was the Parapsychology Department's secretary, short, cheerful, round, and efficient. She entered with an armful of mail and a steaming coffee cup held perilously steady with three fingers.
"I lost track of the time," Truth admitted sheepishly.
"Lots of lovely mail," Meg announced decisively, "and Dyl brought in some currant shortbread he made over the weekend. I saved you a piece."
Dumping the mail carefully on the desk, Meg set the cup down and dove into her jacket pocket to retrieve sugar and cream packets and a tile of shortbread wrapped in a paper napkin.
"You're spoiling me," Truth protested laughingly. This service wasn't part of Meg's job description.
"If I don't, you'll starve to death, and be buried in a pile of statistics," Meg said promptly. "I'd better get a move on—today's the start of classes, and we're sure to have a dozen lost freshmen wander in here before noon if I don't keep 'em out." Meg swept out again, carefully closing the door behind her, in obedience to Truth's preference.
As one of the nonfaculty researchers at the Bidney Institute, Truth was entitled to an office with a door, just as if she were a full professor, and she kept it shut, whether she was in the office or not. The professors whose offices flanked hers kept their doors closed only, Truth suspected, as a vacuous show of status, especially since most of them popped up and peered out at the slightest footstep from outside.
But when Truth closed her door, she meant it. Truth kept her door shut so she could keep people out. Especially now. Truth Jourdemayne hated September with a passion more often reserved for the holiday season; she hated the flocks of returning students, the bewildered new arrivals, the graduate students.
It was not so much that she disliked any individual student, she told herself unconvincingly. It was just that taken all together they were too many—too noisy, and too energetic.
Well, after all, they're just arriving, while you've been here all summer, toiling away in the vineyards of statistical analysis, Truth told herself mockingly. The Institute did not follow Taghkanic's academic year—a good thing, as they'd never get any work done—and so September was just another month for her, and not the end of a long vacation.
She sighed, and reached for her coffee—Meg really shouldn't do things like this; if the professors notice they'll all want her to fetch and carry for them and she'll never get anything done—and only then realized how stiff and sore her muscles were.
Tension. I really hate this place in September. A cross between a lunatic asylum and a three-ring circus—and at that, enrollment's down again. Everywhere but at good old Maggie B. There were not many places in either the United States or Europe that offered a degree program in parapsychology and the services of a first-rate research lab to boot. If not for the Bidney Institute, Taghkanic would probably have closed years ago, just another liberal-arts college caught in the money crunch.
And where would you work then? Truth took a moment to work the kinks out of her neck and shoulders before proceeding to her mail.
Most of what Meg had brought her was thick professional journals and catalogs. A book for review; another book, a publisher's blind solicitation of quotes; parapsychologytextbooks mostly, but one on statistical analysis that looked interesting. A quire of letter-sized envelopes, embossed with return addresses she knew.
And one she didn't. Rouncival Press.
Frowning, she tore it open.
And tore it. And tore it, until the envelope and three sheets of heavy paper were in postage-stamp-sized tatters on her desk. Her hands shook. How could they? How dare they?
" ... since you have also chosen a career in the occult ... valuable service ... intimate glimpses of a great pioneer of magic ..."
They wanted her to write a biography of Thorne Blackburn.
Her hands were still shaking as she scooped the pieces of paper into her wastebasket. She was a scientist—she had a master's in Mathematics! Write an eulogistic biography of Thorne Blackburn? She'd rather bury him with a stake through his heart—and he was already dead.
And what was worse, he was her father.
Truth stared unseeingly at a poster of the Olana Historical Site on her cubicle wall. Thirty years ago Thorne Blackburn had been at the forefront of the occult revival that went hand-in-hand with the free love and antiwar movements of the 1960s. As sexy as Morrison, as fiery as Jagger—and as crazy as Hendrix—Blackburn had claimed to be a hero in the Greek sense, a half-divine son of the Shining Ones, the Celtic Old Gods. Though such declarations later became commonplace, with people claiming to be the children of everything from space aliens to earth angels, Thorne Blackburn had been the first.
He'd been the first to do a number of other things, too, from appearing on national television to conduct a ritual for his Old Gods to touring with rock bands as the opening act. Half heretic, half fraud, and all showman, Blackburn was one of the brightest lights of the occult revival during his brief, gaudy, public career.
And he'd made it pay, Truth thought angrily. While publicly he claimed to be founding an order of heroes and working magick to bring the Ancient Gods of the West into the world again and inaugurate the "New Aeon," Blackburn had somehow managed to amass the cash to buy a Hudson River mansion where he and his special followers could practice the rites of his so-called Circle of Truth in an atmosphere of free love, free drugs, and wild excess.
Among those followers had been Katherine Jourdemayne.
Truth felt the faint stirrings of a headache as she contemplated the old, familiar betrayal. Her mother had been Blackburn's "mystical concubine." Katherine had died in 1969 in one of his rituals, and Blackburn hadn't had to pay for that, either.
Because that same night—April 30, 1969—Thorne Blackburn had vanished from the face of the earth.
Truth had been raised by Katherine Jourdemayne's twin sister, Caroline, and Truth felt she had inherited much of her emotional self-sufficiency from the taciturn woman who had weathered the horrible death of her twin sister so stoically. Aunt Caroline had told Truth who her father was when she was old enough to understand, but in the seventies and early eighties it didn't seem to matter much. When the first journalist contacted her, Truth had even been surprised to discover that anyone still remembered Thorne Blackburn; he seemed to belong to the past, like LSD, the moon landing, and the Beatles. She had been courteous, though brief, telling him she had nothing to say, because her father died when she was two.
It was the last time she was ever that polite, because once the "gentlemen of the press" had found her, her life quickly became a nightmare of letters and telephone calls—and worse: visits from bizarre individuals who claimed they were followers, and in one horrible instance, the reincarnation—of Thorne Blackburn.
And every Halloween since she was eighteen Truth had suffered through the various calls from a particular breed of grave-robbing yellow journalist who wanted an interview with the daughter of the notorious "Satanist" Thorne Blackburn to spice up a story.
The requests from the literary lunatic fringe to write about Thorne Blackburn had fortunately diminished over the years, although they'd never quite stopped. She might even have been willing to write a book—publish or perish, after all, even for those who weren't academics on the tenure track—except that the publishers all made it very clear that they were not looking for accuracy, rather for a credulous panegyric they could pass off as gospel to their equally addled readers.
And Katherine Jourdemayne's daughter was damned if she was going to gild the reputation of a fake, a fraud, an Aquarian Age snake-oil salesman. Why couldn't all those people see what a huckster Blackburn had really been?
It was, Truth supposed, part of the reason she'd gone into parapsychology: find a way to debunk the frauds before they could hurt anyone. But sometimes she was so ashamed.
Why couldn't I be the daughter of Elvis instead? Truth thought forlornly. Life would be easier.
She ran a hand through her hair, still trembling with repressed emotion. Why couldn't they all realize that the only thing she wanted was never to have to think about Thorne Blackburn ever again? He haunted her life like the ghost at the feast, poised to drag her into his lunatic world of unreason.
"Hello? Anyone home? Ah, my esteemed colleague, Miss Jourdemayne." Without giving her a chance to pretend she wasn't there at all, Dylan Palmer slid in to Truth's office and closed the door.
Dylan Palmer—Dr. Palmer—was a tenure-track academic, a member of the teaching faculty at Taghkanic aswell as a fellow of the Institute. He was a professor in the Indiana Jones mold, being tall, blond, handsome, easygoing, and occasionally heroic. Dylan's particular parapsychological interest was personality transfers and survivals—in more mundane parlance, hauntings.
"How's my favorite number-cruncher today?" he asked cheerfully.
Dylan leaned over her desk, looking more like one of the students than one of the teachers in his flannel shirt and baggy jeans. The small gold ring in his ear winked in the light.
"How was your summer project?" Truth asked.
She could feel herself withdrawing, and knew that Dylan could see it too, but Truth found his zest for life as daunting as it was exhilarating.
"Wonderful!" If Dylan was hurt by her coolness he didn't show it. "Twelve weeks in the draftiest Irish castle you ever saw—just me, three grad students, and seventy-five thousand dollars of cameras, microphones, and sensors. Oh, and the IRA."
"Just kidding. I think that's who the locals thought we were, though—they did everything but cross themselves when we'd come into town to buy supplies." He straightened up, looking pleased with himself.
"That's just the sort of thing you'd think was funny." Truth said. "This isn't a game, Dylan—psychic investigation is a serious business, even if you treat it lightly." She heard the condescension in her voice and winced inwardly, hoping Dylan would go away before she embarrassed herself further.
"Ah, Halloween coming early this year?" Dylan asked lightly.
Truth stared at him blank-faced.
"I couldn't help but notice," Dylan said, looking downward ostentatiously. "Thorne Blackburn time again, is it?"
Truth followed the direction of his gaze, and saw asmall snowstorm of torn paper around her feet. Dylan bent down gracefully and retrieved a scrap. Truth snatched at it, but to no avail. Dylan brandished it theatrically and began to declaim.
"When the frost is on the pumpkin, and Blackburn time is near/Then the ghoulies and the goblins, do jump about in fear/For Truth—"
"It isn't funny!" Truth cried furiously. She jumped to her feet and snatched the scrap of Rouncival's letter out of Dylan's hand. "Do you think I enjoy being reminded that Thorne Blackburn is my father? Do you think it makes me happy?"
"Well it could be worse; he could still be among us. As it is, he's strictly my department. Lighten up, Truth—it isn't like Thorne's Jack the Ripper or anything. Professor MacLaren thinks he's a pretty interesting figure, actually, worth studying. Maybe you ought to consider—"
Truth felt unreasonably betrayed. Although most of the people at the Institute knew she was Thorne Blackburn's daughter—his bastard daughter, in fact—anyone she knew at all well knew better than to bring it up. Certainly Dylan did. Or should.
"Well, I don't have your sainted Professor MacLaren's tolerance for cheats and monsters!" she interrupted hotly. "Maybe you ought to consider people's feelings before marching in with your fund of good advice!"
Dylan's easy smile faded as he studied her face. "I didn't mean ..." he began.
"You never mean anything!" Truth shot back viciously, conscious only of a desire to strike back at someone, anyone. "You're just some kind of freelance superhero, playing ghost-breaker and not caring what you do so long as it gives you a dramatic exit line and a cheap laugh. Well, I'm not laughing." She closed her hands into painful fists, willing herself not to cry.
"You're going to get awfully lonely up there on your pedestal," Dylan said softly. Before she could think ofanother thing to say he was gone, closing the door quietly behind him.
He killed my mother, he killed my mother, he killed my mother—
Truth sat at her desk, her eyes tightly shut against the tears she would not permit—because they were useless, because they were childish, because they would change nothing at all. Why didn't anyone understand what Thorne had done to her? He'd taken everything, everything ... .
She hadn't expected Dylan of all people to take Thorne's part. She should have, Truth told herself. He was obviously another Thorne fan—and why not? They were two of a kind.
But even as upset as she was, Truth knew that wasn't fair. Dylan was just ... too happy, Truth finished lamely. Dylan Palmer did not seem to ever have internalized the knowledge that life was a horrible business filled with nasty surprises, in which the best you could hope for was not to be hurt too badly.
But how could he possibly take Thorne Blackburn at face value? The man—Thorne—was a self-confessed fraud!
Truth managed a grimace of wry humor; honestly, sometimes psychic researchers were the most gullible people on earth. Every event was genuine until proven otherwise; from crop circles to Uri Geller, people like Dylan approached them with boundless credulity.
She drew a quavering breath, slowly regaining her self-control. It was just as well they did, she supposed, or else the disenchantment of discovering only fakes and coincidences year after year might be too hard to bear. She shook her head. Dylan had been a little out of line, but his bad manners hadn't warranted the response he'd gotten from her. She'd have to apologize.
I need a vacation. As her mind formed the words, Truth realized how tired she was. She'd spent the summershepherding her project through to completion on top of her regular workload—why shouldn't she get away from Taghkanic while the first rush of fall term was going on? She could come back when it was quiet—well, as quiet as it ever got, anyway.
The phone rang.
Truth stared at it with guilty fascination. It was probably Dylan, phoning from his office to finish telling her off. But when she looked down at the phone, she realized that it was one of the outside lines that was ringing. She picked up the phone.
Truth felt a sluggish pulse of alarm. Caroline Jourdemayne was a very self-contained person, and the two of them weren't really close. What could have happened that made Aunt Caroline feel she needed to call? "Is there anything wrong?" Truth asked.
"You might say that," the familiar, dryly unemotional voice said. "I'm sorry to bother you at work, Truth, but you're going to have to come home as soon as possible."
Home was the small house situated in the wilds of northern Amsterdam Country over seventy miles away, where Truth's childhood had been spent and where her memories really began.
"Come home?" Truth echoed, baffled.
Aunt Caroline was not an outgoing woman; since Truth had gotten her apartment here on the Taghkanic campus, visits to Aunt Caroline had been infrequent—usually occurring around Thanksgiving, since in December the roads near the cottage were treacherous except for vehicles equipped with four-wheel drive.
"I trust you still remember where it is?" Aunt Caroline said.
"Oh, yes, of course. But—"
"How soon can you come?" Aunt Caroline asked.
Truth frowned, juggling schedules in her mind. Fortunately she didn't have any teaching commitments to consider. She was supposed to spend a certain amount of time in the lab assisting the teaching researchers with their projects, but this early in the academic year there wasn't much of that; she could easily find someone to cover for her.
"Tomorrow," Truth said. "I'll be there tomorrow. Aunt Caroline, can't you tell me what this is about?" She could think of no secret so lurid that it could not be mentioned over the phone, and the Jourdemaynes were not a family for lurid secrets—at least, not what was left of the Jourdemaynes.
She glanced idly up at the clock on the wall as Aunt Caroline began to explain the reason for the call, and as the distant voice continued Truth's gaze became fixed and staring, and eventually the shocked irrelevant tears began to spill down her face as Aunt Caroline continued to speak.
Copyright © 2002 by Rosemary Edghill
Posted June 21, 2000
this story was interesting but not M.Z.B best. sometimes you have to wonder if Truth is really so stupid that she can't figure some of this stuff out until the very endWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 30, 2009
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Posted November 5, 2009
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