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The Gardens of Tantalus and Other Delusions

The Gardens of Tantalus and Other Delusions

by Brian Stableford

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The stories contained herein deal, directly or indirectly, with manifest delusions. By representing the delusions they feature as delusions, they promote the delusion that delusion can eventually be undermined by the strong-minded, who will thus be enabled to avoid the "bad faith" of which some existentialist philosophers seem to have lived in mortal terror.


The stories contained herein deal, directly or indirectly, with manifest delusions. By representing the delusions they feature as delusions, they promote the delusion that delusion can eventually be undermined by the strong-minded, who will thus be enabled to avoid the "bad faith" of which some existentialist philosophers seem to have lived in mortal terror. Included are historical mysteries, fantasies, and science fiction.

The tales in this collection include: "The Gardens of Tantalus," "The Lost Romance," "Lucifer's Comet," "The Miracle of Zunderburg," "The Cult of Selene," "Ice and Fire," "Self-Sacrifice," "To the Bad," "Riding the Tiger," "Curiouser and Curiouser: A Kitchen Sink Drama, by Carol Lewis," "Quality Control," and "Worse Than the Disease."

Never before collected into book form.

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Wildside Press
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.44(d)

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Delusion is an enduring conviction that the world is other than it really is. It is arguable that conscious life would be unendurable were it not for the human capacity for delusion, and that existential angst would destroy us if we were not able to mount various kinds of pretended defense against the knowledge that our lives are utterly futile and bound to end in ignominious and painful death. Just as there are two kinds of people in the world--people who think that there are only two kinds of people in the world and people who don't--so there are two kinds of fiction: fiction that collaborates in the business of delusion and fiction that pretends not to. I write "pretends not to" rather than "doesn't" because, of course, the idea that fiction can somehow opt out of the business of delusion is itself a delusion. At the end of the day, there is no defense but pretence--although, by virtue of that very fact, it is not only useful but virtuous to pretend otherwise.

Most of the stories contained herein deal, directly or indirectly, with manifest delusions. By representing the delusions they feature as delusions, they promote the delusion that delusion can eventually be undermined by the strong-minded, who will thus be enabled to avoid the "bad faith" of which some existentialist philosophers seem to have lived in mortal terror. The ostensible purpose of this introduction is to remind readers to treat that implication with due skepticism--but the pretence that one can penetrate the pretence that pretence is penetrable, thus to reach a clearer conceptualization of the snares of delusion, is merely to advance into an infinite regress ofself-delusion, and is probably best avoided. Sensible readers are, therefore, advised to skip this introduction altogether and take what meager comfort they can from the stories' earnest but ironic conviction that it is possible, even in a world as cruel as ours, to become a little wiser and a little more honest than the mediocre human average, merely by thinking cynically. If only....

Four of the stories included here first appeared in Interzone, "Self-Sacrifice" in issue number 53 (November 1991), "Riding the Tiger" in number 68 (February 1993), "Lucifer's Comet" in number 111 (September 1996) and "Worse Than the Disease" in number 113 (November 1996). "Riding the Tiger" had been written as a sequel to "To the Bad", which first appeared in The Weerde: Book 1 (Roc, 1992), edited by Mary Gentle & Roz Kaveney, but it failed to make it into the second Weerde anthology (thus saving me the bother of lamenting the fact that no third one ever appeared). "The Gardens of Tantalus" first appeared in Classical Whodunnits (Past Times, 1996), edited by Michael Ashley. "The Lost Romance" first appeared in The Chronicles of the Holy Grail (Raven, 1996), also edited by Michael Ashley.

"The Cult of Selene" and "Ice and Fire" both appeared in Albedo One, the former in issue number 14 (1997) and the latter in number 18 (1999). "Curiouser and Curiouser: A Kitchen Sink Drama by Carol Lewis" and "The Miracle of Zunderburg" both appeared in Redsine 4 (February 2001). "Quality Control" first appeared in The Mammoth Book of Dracula (Robinson, 1997), edited by Stephen Jones.

--Brian Stableford

Reading, England

* * * *


We live, it seems, in an Age of Miracles--or lived in one, at any rate, for the miracles about which the young men always seem to be talking all took place in their grandfathers' time, when Claudius, Nero, or Vespasian was emperor in Rome. Strange to relate, I--who am certainly a grandfather, born in the seventh year of Nero's rule--heard little or no talk of miracles at the time, when the word on all men's lips, in Corinth at least, was philosophy.

One rarely hears that word nowadays; it seems that men have a greater appetite for miracles.

My ignorance of the Age of Miracles through which I lived seems all the more remarkable when I recall--as clearly as if it were yesterday, although fifty years and more have passed--that I was present when one of the most widely-rumored miracles took place, and am named in all accounts as the benefactor of that miracle.

Lest any Christian should read this--although that seems unlikely, given that a literate Christian is almost a contradiction in terms--let me hasten to say that it is not one of the miracles of their beloved Jesus to which I refer. His crucifixion must have taken place near thirty years before I was born. The miracle-worker I was privileged to meet was a very different man: Apollonius of Tyana, whose associate Damis of Nineveh produced the memoir of his life that proclaimed him a great magician. What Damis sought to prove by this I do not know, but I do know that Apollonius would have despised him for it, for Apollonius was a true philosopher, who had no truck with magic, omens or gods.

So far as I can tell, the principal effect of Damis' fantasies has been to call forth hymns of hate from the followers of Jesus, whose instinct is to damn all miracle-workers save their own as black magicians and addicts of the sinister. Apollonius has already been attacked in this wise by one Moeragenes, who never knew him at all. But I am only a white-beard philosopher, in a world where age and wisdom count for nothing. For all I know, the lies that Damis tells might secure the memory of Apollonius until the end of time, so that in a thousand years men will know nothing of his life except that he once wrought miracles, and saved a fool named Menippus from the wiles of a lamia.

Perhaps he did; perhaps it is I, Menippus, who am deluded into thinking the world a humdrum place, which might be understood if only men would put aside their silly obsessions with the naming of imaginary gods and the everpresent threat of demons.

* * * *

I will admit that there is much in the memoir of Damis with which I can pick no quarrel. It may be revealing, however, that most of what seems to me to be true relates to matters of which neither Damis nor I had any direct knowledge, merely repeating the account that Apollonius gave of his own history.

Apollonius was born during the long reign of Augustus, at Tyana in Cappadocia. He was well-schooled and showed great precocity in the art of rhetoric. He became a philosopher of the school of Pythagoras and soon became notorious for preaching, according to the creed of that school, that animal sacrifice is a useless evil. He refused to eat meat, never wore any sandals save those made of bark, and wore no clothing save for that made of linen. He renounced his patrimony, refused all use of money, and once took a five-year vow of silence while he traveled the world.

This vow of silence added greatly to his reputation for holiness, which was responsible in its turn for the fact that so many people sought him out as a healer--but he told me that the reason for the vow was to make of himself a distanced observer, that he might use his eyes and ears all the better as he traveled west through Persia to India, then south through Phoenicia and Palestine to Egypt.

"I suppose it was a foolish notion," he said to me once, "but I was young then, and young men are always ready to think in absolutes. I would never have kept the vow had I gone to Egypt before I went to India and there encountered the Gymnosophists--the naked philosophers of the Thebaid. Contemplation of their state cured me of any further wish to take the business of living to its imaginable extremes."

"But you did not begin eating meat," I pointed out to him, "nor wearing animal relics upon your body."

"You could not think that an extreme," he chided me, "were you not a young man, and one who has never known poverty."

As to the reputation that Apollonius had as a healer and an exorcist, I believe that he was as clever as any man of his time--which is to say that the advice he gave to all men who were sick in body was to avoid meat and medicines, and the advice he gave to all men who believed themselves possessed was to avoid meat and magicians. I have offered the same advice throughout my own long life; by my reckoning, it leads to the recovery of three suffers in every five, which is at least one more in five than regain their health after consulting doctors or wizards. Damis, of course, gives a different account--but doubtless he has his reasons.

Which brings us to my own sad case, which Damis calls bewitchment--although I remember it as nothing worse than love-sickness.

* * * *

Apollonius visited Corinth in his sixtieth year, or shortly thereafter. He was welcomed into the household of the Cynic philosopher Demetrius, an avid follower of his doctrines, among whose pupils I was to be counted. I was twenty-five years old, and even Damis concedes that I was handsome and athletic.

Damis misstates the case when he says that I was betrothed to a foreign woman who represented herself as a wealthy Phoenician. I was certainly enamored of a foreign woman, but she was an Egyptian servant named Nauma, a minor adjunct of the household of a Phoenician widow called Galanthis.

Galanthis had been some months a guest in the house of a rich merchant named Aradus, who had known her for many years through her husband, with whom he had had commercial connections. Aradus was the father of Bassus, a man of my own age with whom I had grown up, although some strain had been placed on our friendship by virtue of the fact that he too was inclined to think of himself as a philosopher, although he was an unrepentant hedonist. I used to think of our arguments as a kind of sport but Demetrius took a dimmer view of them and regarded Bassus as a malign influence who threatened his authority over all his pupils.

I must confess that I was by no means the best or most faithful pupil of Demetrius. I had found, while under his tutelage, that I had little heart for the ascetic life towards which Demetrius was continually urging me. Although I recognized that they were mostly excuses for conscienceless self-indulgence, I was not unattracted by the rival doctrines of Bassus. I was firmly committed to the ideals of philosophy, but I was at that time quite uncertain as to which set of ideals was to be preferred. Should it not be possible, I wondered, for a man of wisdom to enjoy life to the full? Should it not be permissible to eat good meat, drink good wine, wear good shoes and love women--marry, even--while still cultivating the art and authority of the mind? Demetrius said that it was not, but Bassus said otherwise.

Such was the antipathy which grew up between Demetrius and Bassus that Bassus became increasingly determined to steal me for his own fledgling school. He might have succeeded in doing so before Apollonius arrived in Corinth, had it not been for the fact that, when I visited the house of Aradus in the month before the fateful visit, time spent with Bassus always seemed to be time that ought to have been spent with Nauma. Paradoxically, it was not until I was well away from the house that the words of Bassus began to exert their grip upon me--by which time Demetrius was usually on hand to refute the arguments in the strongest possible terms.

Quite without meaning to, I became the most significant prize that had ever been put at stake in the war of ideas waged between the two men--and Nauma became involved, in spite of the fact that she had not the slightest interest in philosophy. Her one and only vocation was dancing; Galanthis had acquired her on account of her skill in that art--and, I hasten to add, for her skill in that art alone. Even Damis of Nineveh does not dare to allege--as my master Demetrius sometimes did--that my beloved was no more than a common whore.

"She may be a servant," I told my master, aggrievedly, "but Nauma is far too precious to be sold in that manner."

"Only because Galanthis intends to wed Aradus herself," Demetrius insisted. "She dangles her serving-maids before him as a cunning fisherman displays the lure, but you may be sure that he shall not touch them--yet."

"Bassus says that his father is perfectly content as a widower," I told Demetrius. "He has slave-girls of his own."

"If Bassus says that, it is hope speaking," Demetrius retorted. "He fears for his father's fortune, should the Phoenician ever get her greedy hands upon it, and he has extended his debts to the limit with every moneylender in Corinth. Aradus may be a prince of fools, too long retired from the marketplace, but even he knows better than to pay his son's debts. You may not see what Bassus is, but Aradus does--he knows that an appetite such as that, once unleashed, is likely to devour wealth as a plague of locusts devours a field of green wheat."

It was, indeed, hope rather than faith that determined Bassus' opinion. On the same day that Demetrius was told to expect Apollonius in Corinth, Aradus announced that his betrothal to Galanthis would be marked by a sumptuous feast. This was the "wedding-feast" to which Damis refers in his memoir; it was not mine, although I and my beloved were certainly there--and so was Apollonius.

* * * *

Damis claims that Apollonius used magic to unmask my beloved and expose her as a lamia--a serpentine demon whose intention was to drink my blood and feed on my flesh. He also claims that Apollonius proved that all the gold and silver at the wedding-feast was mere illusion. He did neither of these things, and I am certain in my own mind that he never told Damis exactly what did happen, although Damis seems to have learned more about the matter that he perceived at the time. Apollonius did recognize a serpent, which the other diners could not see, and he did unravel a strange web of illusion in order to assist in the awkward business of my education--but the "magic" he used was no more than memory and philosophy.

My first meeting with Apollonius was not a happy one, for Demetrius was in a very sarcastic mood when he introduced me. "This," he said, "is Menippus. I do not know whether he will be a member of my school much longer, for he dwells in the gardens of Tantalus, fascinated by the luxury of his dear friend Bassus and mesmerized by the allure of an Egyptian temptress, who dances--or so I am told--like a snake bewitched by a charmer's pipe."

I remember that Damis of Nineveh laughed aloud at this. Perhaps that is why he records in his memoir that his master advised me there and then that I was "cherishing a serpent". In fact, Apollonius said no such thing, and looked at me with a certain sympathy when he saw how hurt and embarrassed I was by my master's unkind words.

"It is good that a man should pass through the gardens of Tantalus," Apollonius said. "How else is he to learn that their promise is false, their reward an illusion? There will be time enough to judge Menippus when he has made his own judgment as to the worth of what is dangled before him."

I had a speech of my own prepared. "I met the merchant Aradus yesterday," I told the great sage. "He asked me if the world-renowned Apollonius of Tyana were indeed expected to arrive in Corinth today. When I said that you were, he told me that his dearest wish was that the enmity between his son Bassus and the Cynic Demetrius might be set aside for the day of his betrothal. Aradus would be greatly honored if you and Demetrius would come together to the feast, and give your blessing to the union between himself and Galanthis. He knows that you will not eat meat and do not like finery but he says that there will be fruit and bread a-plenty, and that such finery as he intends to display is not intended as an insult to the poor, but merely as a celebration of his own good fortune. He would dearly like Bassus and Demetrius to be friends again, and he hopes that your benign influence might serve to ease the bitterness between them."

Demetrius scowled, but he dared not make any response until the great man had spoken.

"You may tell Aradus that I will come," Apollonius said, "but you must warn him that I cannot settle other people's quarrels with honeyed words. I am a philosopher, not an envoy of Rome. The purpose of my arguments is to arrive at the truth, not to negotiate settlements."

"I will tell him that," I promised. "He will be very glad that your presence will dignify his betrothal feast."

"So he should be," said Damis of Nineveh--although Apollonius frowned at his impoliteness.

"There is no possibility of any reconciliation between the ideas of Bassus and those of better men," Demetrius said, pointedly. "His answer to the question of how men should live is that they should feed their appetites without restraint; the better answer is that men should become masters of their appetites. Luxury is the greatest barrier to the path of enlightenment."

Demetrius looked to Apollonius for support, and I could see that he expected it; he saw the invitation to the feast of Aradus as one more phase in his battle with Bassus for the prize of my allegiance, and he trusted Apollonius to win the battle for him--but all Apollonius said in reply was: "There is more than one path to enlightenment, and there are many barriers that might blind a man to the truth."

Damis of Nineveh was enthusiastic to lend his support to these words, but I am sure now that he never understood their meaning.

* * * *

The day of the betrothal-feast was beautiful and clear; the most superstitious of men would have searched in vain for any omen of what was to come.

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