When Calvin Bryson decides to visit his aunt and uncle, he learns that their small town is harboring some strange secrets-including a modern- day incarnation of the legendary Knights Templar.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||4.10(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.00(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Winner of the World Fantasy Award and the Philip K. Dick Award, James P. Blaylock is the author of Winter Tides, All the Bells on Earth, Night Relics, The Paper Grail, The Last Coin, Land of Dreams, Homunculus, and The Digging Leviathan. He lives in Orange, California, where he is a creative writing instructor at Chapman University.
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Table of Contents
THE DEAD MOUNTAINS
THE TEMPLE Bar
TIME and THE RIVER
At THE COZY DINER
LIKE a Mill WHEEL
OVER THE RIVER
On THE PAYOLL
THE MEETING OF THE ELDERS
CLEARING FOR ACTION
ALONG THE RIVER
Finding THE RANGE
THE FOURTH SECRET
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Copyright © 2008 by James P. Blaylock.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Blaylock, James P., 1950-
eISBN : 978-1-101-02471-3
1. Secret societies—Fiction. 2. Relics—Fiction. 3. California—Fiction. 4. Colorado River Region (Colo.-Mexico)—Fiction. I. Title.
For Viki, John, and Danny
And this time for John Ciarcia and Karen King
Cha Cha and Karen: Here’s a book dedicated to the two of you, for years of New York hospitality. The Blaylocks thank you for your love and support. See you soon.
I’d like to thank some people for the help they gave me with this book, starting with my family, all of whom made sensible and useful suggestions when I needed them, and particularly Danny, who gave me the idea of making my main character a hopeful cartoonist and lent me some of his own cartoons to get me going. I’d also like to thank Tim Powers, Lew Shiner, Chris Arena, Paul Buchanan, and Dixie and Bull Durham.
The only way to come to know where you are is to begin to make yourself at home.
—Lilith, George MacDonald
Once he heard very faintly in some distant street a barrel-organ begin to play, and it seemed to him that his heroic words were moving to a tiny tune from under or beyond the world.
—The Man Who Was Thursday, G. K. Chesterton
Calvin Bryson read the letter a third time, but for some reason it insisted on saying the same thing it had said the other two times. It was from his uncle, Al Lymon, who lived out in the desert along the Colorado River. Calvin was invited to drop in for a stay—as long as he wanted, the longer the better. He had last seen his uncle and aunt at his father’s funeral three years ago, and since then Aunt Nettie hadn’t been doing well. The letter was cheerful enough, but it had a last-respects tone to it, and its arrival was a little ominous, since he had never gotten a letter from his uncle before, only birthday cards back in his childhood, and then from both of them.
His last trip out to visit his aunt and uncle had been several years back. He had vivid memories of the Lymon house on its shady bend upriver from Needles, where the little town of New Cyprus lay hemmed in by a U-shaped range of barren hills appropriately called the Dead Mountains. Embayed as it was by high cliffs and the green verge of the Colorado, New Cyprus was a half-moon of land isolated from the world, accessible only by boat or by a winding two-lane road through miles of rock-strewn desert wilderness. The house, built of locally cut stone and imported cedar back in the 1920s, had view windows looking out onto the river, and its own little sandy beach on the bay, just wide enough for two or three lawn chairs. He could picture his aunt’s antiques and Oriental bric-a-brac, some of it ancient, including a Saracen dagger supposedly from the Third Crusade and said to have belonged to Richard Lionheart.
He looked out through the front window at the street. Two boys played in the sprinklers across the way, just as he had done when he was growing up in this very house. The Eagle Rock neighborhood had taken care of itself over the years, and the old bungalows and Spanish-style houses, most of them built in the early part of the last century, were painted and repaired, and few of them had been renovated into the kind of characterless houses found in nearby neighborhoods. A big, messy carob tree shaded his yard, and he was struck suddenly with the memory of climbing the tree when he was a kid, of the musty smell of the carob pods and the feel of the rough bark on his hands. But he had no desire to climb it now, only a nostalgic regret for times that had passed away—nostalgia called up by the letter in his hand.
But the last thing he wanted to do was to drive out into the desert, especially under these sad circumstances. He picked up his sketchbook and looked at the cartoon he had been drawing when the mail had come in through the slot. It was a picture of two gangly-looking lunatic doctors standing in a doorway, very apparently insane, with tousled hair and with their clothes askew. People on the sidewalk were similarly crazy-looking, with crossed eyes and propeller beanies and their pant legs tucked randomly into their socks. One of the two doctors was pointing across the street at a solitary man who looked like Cary Grant, neatly dressed in a three-piece suit. “That’s the one,” the doctor was saying. A magazine editor with any sense would buy it. So far none of them had exhibited any sense.
Calvin had gotten thoroughly used to doing nothing during these past months of being alone, unless you counted the cartoons and the book collecting. Elaine, the woman he had been engaged to, had accused him of being aimless, but in fact he wasn’t aimless at all. Tonight, for example, he aimed to finish cataloguing his collection of pamphlets from Futura Press and maybe read a book, and then he aimed to go to bed early. Elaine and he had fallen apart at Christmas—maybe the worst Christmas of Calvin’s thirty-four years.
He had inherited enough when his father passed away so that as long as he didn’t spend his inheritance like a fool, he could live moderately well, and his only real duties nowadays were to himself, or to his collection of rare books and pamphlets, mostly what was known as “Californiana.” Over the years he had paid questionable sums for pamphlets printed on garage presses by cranks and crackpots, but there was an element of innocent wonder in the era that produced them that attracted him, and wonder was a commodity that had pretty much gone out of the world.
He didn’t like to think of the things that were going out of the world, but not thinking about them wouldn’t change the truth. You start coming up with excuses not to visit your old aunt and uncle, and then one morning you wake up in Hell, with your pajamas on fire. . . .
He reread the part in the letter about Aunt Nettie. It was impossible to say for sure what her condition was, but he assumed her cancer was out of remission. Although the letter revealed little about her troubles, it implied a lot about Uncle Lymon’s. Calvin had found that living alone wasn’t easy sometimes, but there were other things that were more difficult. The Lymons had been married for over fifty years, and Calvin could only imagine what that meant—a lifetime of companionship drawing to a sad close.
He flipped through the Rolodex looking for his uncle’s telephone number. Uncle Lymon was a potentate of some sort in a lodge called the Knights of the Cornerstone, which went in for secret handshakes and strange hats. Calvin half feared that the subject of his becoming an initiate in the order would come up again when he visited, as it had last time. If it did, he would demand a suit of armor and a pyramid hat with an eyeball on it. If they could meet his price, he was in. He took out the Rolodex card and reached for the telephone, but before he had time to make the call, the doorbell rang.
He parted the blinds and looked out again. It was a UPS driver at the door. Books! Calvin thought, his spirits lifting, but when he opened the door and took the box from the driver it was far too light to be books. The man wasn’t wearing a uniform, just a blue work shirt, and the van at the curb was the right color of institutional brown but was unmarked. The driver apparently saw him looking at it. “I’m warehouse,” he said. “Your box got left behind by mistake, so they asked me to run it out here in one of the out-of-service trucks. It’s an element of customer service.”
“I appreciate that,” Calvin said, signing his name on a list on a clipboard instead of the usual electronic gadget. He took the box back into the house, watching through the blinds as the van roared away in a cloud of exhaust. Not only was the box too light to be books, it in fact felt utterly empty. The return address was from Orange City, Iowa, from Warren Hosmer, his father’s ancient cousin—his own cousin, of some odd number and removal. This was puzzling, and if it called for him to drive out to Iowa, he would have to put his foot down.
He fetched a box cutter, and was on the verge of slicing into the multiple layers of tape when he noticed that in fact the box wasn’t addressed to him personally, but rather to Al Lymon, c/o Calvin Bryson. That beat all. It would have been identical postage for Cousin Hosmer to ship it straight to his uncle’s post office box in Bullhead City, Arizona. New Cyprus was unincorporated territory, and his aunt and uncle collected their mail across the river, taking the round-trip ferry ride a couple of times a week and shopping at the Safeway and the big Coronet dime store near the ferry dock while they were in town.
Then it occurred to him that UPS didn’t ship to post office boxes. But why use UPS at all? Why not just mail it? Calvin shook the box, which made a swishy sort of sound, as if there were tissue paper in it, or some other ethereal thing—a million-dollar bill, maybe, or a chorus line of angels dancing on the head of a pin. He was half tempted simply to cut it open and claim not to have looked at the address till it was too late. Except it would be a lie, and there was no use taking up that vice after having mostly avoided it for so many years. Sometimes it seemed to him that if he eliminated human contact entirely, he could rest easy in regard to that particular crime—unless he counted lying to himself, which was admissible because it had its own built-in justice: later on you were sorry for it, or so people said.
A curious thing struck him—the coincidence of the box arriving on the same day as his uncle’s letter—and he wondered if he were being invited into a plot perpetrated by the old-timer end of the family, which had always been a mysterious crowd, although there weren’t a lot of them left these days. He recalculated the likelihood of waking up in Hell as he went back to the Rolodex and found the number for Warren Hosmer, which he jabbed into the phone. Being lured into other people’s mysteries didn’t attract him. A couple of well-conceived phone calls would likely solve all problems, or at least shift them to some indeterminate date in the future. The phone rang ten times before anyone picked it up.
“Hosmer,” a man’s voice said.
“It’s Calvin Bryson,” Calvin said as heartily as he could.
“Cal! Good! Good! Good! You got the package?”
“I did,” Calvin said. “How did you know?”
“Why else would you call?”
“Right. Anyway, I signed for it, and it’s sitting on the dining room table. I guess I was wondering whether I shouldn’t just take it downtown to the post office and send it on out to Uncle Lymon’s P.O. Box.”
There was a lengthy silence. “I wanted to avoid that,” Hosmer told him.
“Ah!” Calvin said. “I see. Okay. Sure. Why?”
“It’s that damned address of Lymon’s. You never know how many hands the package will pass through or what kind of curiosity it’ll stir up by the time he picks it up.”
“All right. I guess I can take it out there myself if—”
“Good. We thought that would be best.”
“Like I was saying, I’m not sure how soon . . . Did you say ‘we’?”
“Lymon and me. He said you’re taking a little trip out to New Cyprus. He and Nettie are looking forward to it like nobody’s business.”
“It’s in the... planning stages,” Calvin said. This was inscrutable. He picked up Uncle Lymon’s letter and looked at the three-day-old postmark.
“The sooner the better,” Hosmer told him. “I won’t sleep much till it’s out there safe.”
“That suits me,” Calvin said. “It’s none of my business, really, but what’s inside? The box feels empty.”
“Well, it’s an heirloom, a family heirloom. It’s a veil, I guess you could call it. A gossamer scarf. Belonged to your aunt Iris. Maybe you haven’t heard of her. She’s been dead these many years.”
“That would explain it,” Calvin said. “Like her wedding veil or something?”
“No. The veil she wore when she was calling up spirits. Her séance veil.”
Suffering Judas, Calvin thought. He had never heard of any Aunt Iris, let alone that there’d been a spiritualist in the family, and now he was under orders to haul her magic veil out to the desert in a cardboard box. “When did she pass away?” he asked.
“Nineteen ten. The family got the idea that her ghost was in the veil. It sounds crazy, but things happened with it. It kept rising up and sort of floating in the air. They’d open Iris’s old steamer trunk and it would drift right out, and no way in hell it wanted to go back in. The thing has a mind of its own, apparently. They’d have to snag it with a butterfly net. I can’t tell you much about it, because it was before my time. Thing is, it wouldn’t give them any rest till they boxed it up and tied down the lid of that trunk.”
Calvin found that he couldn’t speak without laughing, which would insult the old man. Unless of course Hosmer was joking, which he had to be, although it didn’t sound that way.
“You’re skeptical,” Hosmer said. “That’s good. It’ll keep you from trusting the wrong people. This kind of thing with the veil is a matter of belief, if you follow me—like having surefire numbers for the lottery. Once it comes into your mind to play the numbers, you’ve got to play them. They might as well be a fact. You understand belief, don’t you, son?”
“Sure,” Calvin said. “Like not walking under a ladder, even if you don’t believe—”
“I’m not superstitious,” Hosmer told him flatly. “I don’t hold with that kind of thing—ladders, black cats. It’s a lot of rubbish. I’m talking about matters of the spirit here.”
“Of course,” Calvin said. “I was just making a—”
“Well, cut it the hell out. When can you leave?”
“What?” Calvin said. “I don’t know.”
“Don’t put it off another minute. We’re all going to be a little bit nervous until Iris is interred in the crypt out there in New Cyprus, God bless her. You feel that way, too, I suppose. You’re family.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
James Blaylock's latest work "Knights of the Cornerstone" is set at odds with his earlier tongue-in-cheek young-adult works such as "The Land of Dreams" or "The Magic Spectacles", being more in line with "Night Relics" as a sort of surreal-slash-horror genre. Those expecting light-hearted pokes at contemporary life-styles will be rewarded with all-too-brief flashes of traditional Blaylock, but the majority of the work is altogether of a much darker nature. The hero of the work is Calvin Bryson, an unhappily idle would-be cartoonist living on the proceeds of an inheritance who receives a strangely timed request to visit his Aunt and Uncle in a small mythical town in the Four-Corners area. It soon transpires that his role as a courier for a family artifact is merely a smoke-screen; he is to be wooed as a possible candidate for a Templar-like organization - the "Knights of the Cornerstone" alluded to in the book's title. While the book does include strangely incongruous bits of local color (Blaylock's specialty), it rarely engages the reader with either dread or humor. Blaylock is clearly feeling his way into a new genre, and should not be despised for straying from a proven formula. That said, the villain is both despicable and sufficiently evil to merit his ultimate comeuppance, but his venal greed and stupidity rob him of some of the necessary menace one would credit a worthy antagonist. This tends to suggest that a new adversary will be invented for the next work (the hooks into a possible sequel are blatant and forgivable), but in so doing the author sheds some of the essential audience identification with both the plot and the primary characters. Despite these short-comings, Blaylock is no amateur at the writing game. The "Knights of the Cornerstone" has the necessary heroism, death-defying action/drama, romance and character development you'd expect from authors more accustomed to this style. Only the emotional distance of the protagonist from the impending death of his aunt and uncle, the love of his new-found girl-friend and even the villainy of the bad guy and his cadre of brain-dead evil-doers robs the work of its poignancy. [If the hero doesn't care viscerally about the outcome, why should we?] I'd still recommend this volume if for no other reason that it clearly defines a transitional work for Blaylock. Subsequent books in this genre will no doubt be tighter, more engaging, and less wedded to intellectual abstractions which have only tenuous ties to plot-development. Read this book first - it will almost certainly heighten your appreciation of whatever follows from this prolific and beloved author.
I read this book in a single sitting, which is rare for me to do with a novel. But it grabbed me from the first page, and kept me riveted throughout. This shouldn't have been a surprise, since it was written by James Blaylock. Great small-town setting, fascinating secrets, and some wonderful, off beat characters make this book a definite winner.
For some reasons, I found myself comparing this to "The Last Coin", another story where a character is slowly drawn into a full understanding that a great deal more is going on in the world then they imagined. But, I found the characters in "The Last Coin" and the overall story much more compelling. This was a fun read, recommended for any Blaylock fan, but not top 5 Blaylock story.
This book is REALLY terrible. The characters are boring and lifeless. The plot is really lame. The author appears to switch from the 3rd person to the 1st person unexpectedly and disconcertingly several times.
In short, it is not a good story; it has no "likable" characters, and is somewhat poorly written.