A tale of an inspired literary sojourn that turns into something far more sinister.
Straub delivers an unusually taut, dynamic, spooky display of horror expertise, and his story is deftly told.”
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By Peter Straub
Pegasus Books LLCCopyright © 1990 Peter Straub
All rights reserved.
Take a line. What is it about? What is it referring to? What picture can I think of to replace it?
It is as if it doesn't care about me but just stares. (He, She,—.) (Trees, Rocks, Planets, Stars.) Still, I am inside it as much as under or across. I stare back at myself. —CHARLES BERNSTEIN, Content's Dream
Standish had not realized how tense he was until the jet finally left the ground and his body, as if by itself, began to relax. Nothing could call him back now, neither Jean's anxiety nor his own reservations. It was settled; he was on his way. The startlingly graphic map of lights that was New York City appeared in the window to his left, then slipped out of view. They were at some alarming, dreamlike attitude to the earth that would have meant certain death during Isobel Standish's day—but what might she, in whose name her almost-grandson had ditched both home and seven-months-pregnant wife, not have done with the experience of being revolved above the earth in a metal tube?
The anxiety of the past months continued to ebb from him. Like sweat or semen, anxiety was a physical substance that poured from a self-replenishing well. Of course he was right to go, even Jean had eventually agreed that Esswood was a wonderful opportunity for them both. Three or four weeks at Esswood could lay the groundwork for his tenure, for a book about Isobel—his almost-grandmother—for the whole next stage of his life. When he returned he ought to be carrying in his briefcase the germ of a secured future as surely as Jean once again carried another kind of future life within her womb. And to put it crudely, his would pay for hers.
On the strength of that comfort, he ordered a martini from the stewardess. Of course some of his anxiety had been caused by Esswood itself. Esswood had been known to withdraw its Fellowships, occasionally at times very awkward for the prospective Fellow. The Seneschals, Esswood's owners, appeared to be almost fabulously remote from the details of American academe, but Standish had known two men who, after a period of discreet crowing about being accepted for a term at Esswood, had abruptly ceased to speak about it at all. They had been thrown out before ever getting there.
Ten years ago the first of these, Chester Ridgeley, had been one of the tenured faculty at little Popham College in Popham, Ohio, where Standish had begun his academic career—a stiffly eccentric, prematurely aged fixture of the English Department, Ridgeley had been invited to spend a sabbatical semester in Esswood's famous library going over notes and drafts of poems by the obscure Georgian poet Theodore Corn, who thirty years before that had been the subject of his dissertation. Theodore Corn had apparently been a frequent guest at Esswood, and once had actually said that no one who had not seen Esswood House and its grounds—"the far field and lazy mill beyond the plangency of pond"—could fully understand his poetry.
"There's nothing quite like it," another faculty member, at the time still thought to be a friend, had said to Standish—the trusting young Standish. "The place is nearly a secret, in spite of everything they're supposed to have in that library. It's still privately owned, and the Seneschals accept only one or two researchers every year. Apparently it's changed a good deal from the glory days when Edith Seneschal ruled the roost and artists made merry in the West Wing, not to mention the hayloft. The family still lives there, but in straitened circumstances—even rather odd circumstances, one gathers." He was in every sense a great gatherer, this treacherous so-called friend. Slyly, foxlike, he gathered and gathered. "Ridgeley was lucky—six months to putter around in that great library, discovering crates of unpublished stuff by that ninny Theodore Corn. He'll be able to soak up the landscape around Esswood House, which is supposed to be stunning. And maybe he'll discover the secret. For there is supposed to be a secret, you know. Very clever of our Chester."
Because he had not yet been certain, Standish had not replied to this sly supposed friend, his name and his person both redolent of cough lozenges, that his own grandmother's sister, his grandfather's first wife, had been a guest of the Seneschals at Esswood. He could not even be certain that it was not the allusion to secrecy and a secret that put the notion in his mind. But he thought he remembered that his grandmother's sister had died at an English country house whose name was similar to that of Ridgeley's benefactor; he made no more connection than these two dim coincidences. In those days at Popham, coincidence was still possible.
Just before the end of the fall semester, Standish saw Ridgeley in the English Department office and had to suppress an involuntary gasp of dismay. Ridgeley's scholarly stoop was a positive hunch, his fallen cheeks looked gray, and his eyelids sagged to reveal hectic pink linings. Never truly steady on his feet, now he shuffled like a sick old man. According to Standish's informed hypothetical friend, Ridgeley had sublet his apartment and arranged to store his goods only to be informed that the Seneschal family had learned of certain indiscretions in his history and were regretfully impelled, as they had put it, to withdraw for the immediate future his invitation to join them as an Esswood Fellow.
Indiscretions? Standish asked. Ridgeley?
Well, said his friend, apparently there was some talk about Ridgeley a long time ago. This man, this false pseudofriend whose named evoked the humble lozenge, a corrupt and musky forty-six to Standish's dewy twenty-four, had heard in his first years at Popham only the last echoes of an ambiguous, long-dead situation too vague to be called a scandal. Ridgeley might have mishandled an affair with a student; the student might have chucked her studies and returned to a bleak hometown and died, perhaps even in childbirth. Nothing was certain. For his part, Ridgeley had denied everything and then wisely refused to speak about the situation. The question was, said the treacherous pseudofriend, how had the people at Esswood learned of this musty old affair? Did they hire private detectives? Ridgeley's term at Esswood had not been withdrawn absolutely but only for an unspecified number of terms—maybe they learned no more than Standish. You have to grant, said the foul seducer, that they take themselves very seriously.
Of course Ridgeley had survived, had been able to cancel his sabbatical and keep his apartment and his job; but as far as Standish knew, the summons to Esswood had never been renewed.
The other case came after a fantastic act of betrayal that resulted in bloodshed, real bloodshed, though the blood in question was neither Standish's nor the serpent-friend's, also after the loss of a certain THING, a THING never to be regarded as human but lost indeed, most powerfully and irrevocably lost, wrapped in the bloodied sheets and discarded, burnt or flushed away into psychic oblivion. The other consequence of the act of betrayal had been Standish's eventual removal and appointment to a far, far superior college: Zenith College, in Zenith, Illinois. Standish never understood how Jeremy had managed to get invited to Esswood in the first place—Jeremy Starger, a naive untrustworthy twenty-five-year-old instructor in English, fresh from Ann Arbor with a Ph.D., often literally reeling from drink in the early afternoon. Jeremy's bright little eyes popped and jiggled above his rufous beard as he discoursed inordinately, unstoppably about D. H. Lawrence, the subject of his "research" and the object of his passion. Lawrence had spent several weeks at Esswood, his visits timed so as not to coincide with those of Theodore Corn, whom he detested. (Lawrence had called Corn a "beetle" and a "maggot" in letters to Bertrand Russell.) Standish was surprised that Jeremy knew of Esswood's continuing existence, even more surprised to be buttonholed in a corridor of Zenith's Humanities Building and told that he, Jeremy, had been "taken on" as an Esswood Fellow. Three months, beginning in mid-June. Standish, who was under considerable pressure to complete his own Ph.D., had become acutely aware of Esswood by this time.
After this news Jeremy became increasingly erratic. He often canceled or failed to meet his classes. One day Standish had seen a slim gray envelope in Jeremy's departmental mail slot, its printed return address—at which Standish peeked—only Esswood Foundation, Esswood, Beaswick, Lincolnshire. He had taught a class and returned to the office just as Jeremy, flushed and jubilant, opened the envelope and pulled out the letter. Standish lounged nearer and noticed that it was handwritten. Jeremy glanced at the letter, then sat down heavily in another man's chair. When he saw Standish's inquiring look, he flushed even more darkly and said, "They've reconsidered."
"Oh, no," Standish said. "I'm very sorry, of course."
"Sure, I just bet you are," Jeremy said. "The only emotions you feel, Standish, are—" He stopped talking and shook his head. "I'm sorry. I'm upset. I can't believe this. Maybe it's a mistake." He reread the letter. "How could they do this?"
"I gather they can be unpredictable," Standish said. Jeremy's attack made him feel stiff and formal. "Do they give any reason for withdrawing your Fellowship?"
"It has become necessary for us to reconsider your appointment," Jeremy read. "We apologize for the undoubted inconvenience this must cause you, and offer our sincerest regrets that we shall not be seeing you in England this summer." Jeremy crumpled the letter into a ball and tossed it into his wastebasket.
"I don't really suppose you know anything about this, do you, Standish?"
"What could I know?" Standish asked. "If someone wrote to the Seneschals that their D. H. Lawrence scholar might spend more time in the local public house than the famous library? I don't know anyone who would do that."
Jeremy bared his teeth at him and stormed out, undoubtedly on his way to the Stein, the bar most favored by Zenith's faculty.
A year later the effusive Jeremy had exiled himself to an Assistant Professorship in central Oklahoma, and William Standish had begun to realize what Esswood could do for him. His investigations into the poetry written by his grandfather Martin's first wife had led him to believe that this restless, impatient woman, completely unknown, had been an important precursor of Modernism—a lost talent, minor but significant. If she had spent weekends at Garsington, if she had died at Garsington, where half of Bloomsbury plus T. S. Eliot would have celebrated her, taken her under its angelic, malicious wings, above all promoted her, she would now be a famous poet. But Isobel Standish had spent weekends with Edith Seneschal instead of Ottoline Morrell, and had died and remained obscure. (Theodore Corn spent entire months at Garsington, but compared to Isobel, Corn was a mellifluous blockhead.)
Isobel Standish had published only one book, the slender Crack, Whack, and Wheel, Brunton Press, 1912. Half of its five hundred copies had been donated to libraries or distributed to friends. The remainder, unnoticed, unreviewed, was left cased in the basement on Brunton Street in Duxbury, Massachusetts, of Martin Standish, who had paid for the publication of his wife's odd little book. It must have looked very odd indeed to unliterary Martin. To William Standish's more educated eye, the poems were astonishingly original, using speech rhythms, nonsense passages, irregular lines, gnomic diction. This poetry implicitly rebuked sentimentality and celebrated its own off-center gravity. Isobel Standish deserved to take her place among Stevens, Moore, Williams, Pound, and Eliot. She was in some ways the Emily Dickinson of the twentieth century; and she was William Standish's private property.
By this time he had come to realize that his dissertation on Henry James had quietly expired. He was still married, and though he and Jean were again now able, after all their trials, to think about trying to become parents, his career at Zenith was growing more imperiled year by year. Two books about Isobel Standish, an edition of her complete work edited by himself and a consideration of her place in contemporary poetry, would satisfy the tenure committee and enable him to keep his job. He could make an end run around the ghastly corpse of his dissertation and then fly free of Zenith altogether—to come to rest in some far more suitable, even ivied, world.
Nine months before the committee had informed him that publication of some kind would be an absolute requirement of his staying on at Zenith, he had written to Esswood inquiring if in fact Isobel had enjoyed the hospitality of the Seneschals, if she had worked at Esswood—above all, if she had left papers in the celebrated library. If so, might this letter be considered an application for a Fellowship of whatever duration Esswood might deem most appropriate for a thorough study of her work? He had not neglected to describe his enthusiasm for Isobel's work and his sense of its importance, nor to allude to his odd relationship to the poet.
Esswood had returned a prompt acknowledgment signed with the initials R. W. His application would be decided upon "in due course." Standish informed the members of the committee that he expected to have news for them soon and allowed them to conclude from that what they might.
Three months went by without word from England. In January, the fifth month, Jean Standish learned that she was pregnant again and that the child was due in late September. In the third month of her pregnancy Jean developed alarming symptoms— high blood pressure, one unaccountable instance of vaginal bleeding—and was ordered into bed for four weeks. She dutifully took to her bed. At the end of this time, eight weeks after his application, Standish finally received another letter from Beaswick, Lincolnshire. He had been accepted. For a period of three weeks, he was to be given free access to the Isobel Standish papers and whatever else he might find helpful. ("We do not believe in unnecessary circumscriptions on scholarly work," wrote R. W., now revealed as one Robert Wall.) Robert Wall had added a bland sentence of apology for the delay, which went unexplained. Standish thought that they had offered the Fellowship during August to someone else, and the other person had eventually turned them down. Or they had withdrawn their appointment, as with Jeremy Starger and Chester Ridgeley. This seemed more likely. Someone else's failure had been his salvation.
For salvation it was. Standish's chairman agreed to postpone for a year any decision about his future at Zenith College. Within that time Standish was to prepare his edition of Isobel's work, write a lengthy introduction, and arrange for publication of the volume.
Jean had been the last obstacle. How do you know they won't withdraw it at the last minute? Maybe they do this all the time. (Unfortunately, Jean knew all about Chester Ridgeley and Jeremy Starger.) Have you ever known anyone who actually went there? Maybe the whole place is a fantastic practical joke, maybe it's just another one of your crazy fantasies, maybe they'll find out about you. Don't you think about that, Bill? Why do you need them, anyhow? Flushed, fearful, Jean woke him at night and drilled questions at him until she, not he, broke down into tears of doubt. The next day she adopted an uncharacteristic meekness, barely speaking when he returned to the apartment after school—she was a walking apology.
When he said that he was taking the appointment for the sake of their shared future, she said, "Don't pretend that you want to go for my sake." During the final months of the semester, Jean wavered between a meek deceptive acceptance of his plans and an increasingly violent opposition to them. By June, she wept whenever either of them mentioned the trip. It was impossible for him to leave—especially now. There were other colleges besides Zenith. And even if no other colleges would hire him, weren't there always high schools? Would that be such a disgrace?
And what if I lose this baby? Don't you realize it could happen?
But she never said, And what if I lose this baby too? And she never blamed him, except perhaps once, for the loss of the THING wrapped in the bloody sheets and flushed away into null-world, oblivion.
Sometimes during these weeks Standish looked at his obese wife, her hair hanging in loose damp disarray around her red face and wondered who she was, who it was that he had married. He reminded her that she was healthy, that he would be back three weeks before the birth.
Excerpted from Mrs. God by Peter Straub. Copyright © 1990 Peter Straub. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
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