The Reality Principle, by Ross Mallin
When people started killing themselves and we needed a place to hide, Morris and I barricaded ourselves in a tall white Victorian building facing the harbour. It had once been a hotel called ‘The Hotel Excelsior’. We slept on the top floor in the hotel’s function room, which had presumably been hired out for business conferences and small wedding receptions. The carpets were thick and green and smelled of cigarettes, woven though with a pattern of vines and leaves like the floor of a tangled forest. There was a cheap electric and glass chandelier hanging from the ceiling, all covered in cobwebs, and a fireplace connected to a chimney where we built a half-hearted fire on cold nights.
By July, after the fifth and final wave of suicides, it seemed we were the only two people in the world. I remember that night because it was the first time that ours were the only lights in the city. The last few survivors had finally succumbed to the despair, the sleepless desperation, that had visited the city these last, withering weeks, and now, as I stood at the back window, I saw only darkness – a graveyard of empty buildings pelted with rain.
A smile appeared beside me, reflected in the glass.
“All gone,” said Morris. “All dead. We survived, you and I. We won!” A delighted titter escaped his teeth. His orange hair was greased upwards in points like tongues of flame, and he wore a threadbare suit and tailcoat which he’d found on a costume rail in the basement of an abandoned theatre. The lack of sleep had shadowed his eyes with puffy crescents of darkness, and there was something of the goblin in the pointiness of his smile. A skinny brown cigar smouldered between his teeth.
“So what now?” I asked. I did not share his delight.
Morris snorted and clapped his hands as if I’d said something incredibly funny. “Hah! ‘What now?’ Oh ye of little imagination! Now we do – whatever we like!”
As if to demonstrate, he hopped up onto one of the tables where he kept the items he’d collected on his prowls through the city – a silk opera glove, a plastic trumpet that blew bubbles, a set of panpipes, a box of framed butterflies – and scattering his toys, he sprung from the table and caught hold of the dusty chandelier that hung by a chain from the ceiling. He swung there whooping and kicking his pointy black shoes.
“We can have chocolate for breakfast! We can drive fast cars and piss from the top of tall buildings! We can wear the finest suits, the finest gowns! We can run through museums with hammers! We can put bubblebath in fountains and swimming pools, and have champagne with every meal! We can be Kings – Kings of the Wasteland! And there’s no one around who can stop us!”
At that moment an ominous boom echoed through the hotel. It was the knocker – the heavy iron knocker – that hung on the front door. Someone was downstairs, knocking, waiting to be let inside.
“Ignore it,” said Morris. He had stopped swinging, and was now simply hanging there somewhat ridiculously on the creaking chandelier. His mirth was gone, and like a cat he dropped in a crouch to the floor. “It might be a terrible enemy come to destroy us.”
“Terrible enemies do not knock on the front door.” I replied. “We must find out who it is.” I took out my torch and led the way to the door at the far end of the room.
“No good will come of this,” said Morris, following me out into the hall where the dark had bloated and sprawled like some untended tangle of thorns. The stairwell was steep, and plunged down through the empty building in a deep, spiralling shaft. A skylight in the roof dripped a faint illumination from above so that the veiny shadows of raindrops writhed across the wallpaper like insidious snakes. The knocking rapped again. I ran with Morris in my shadow, the torch beam swinging wildly across the walls, our footsteps tumbling one after the other down the stairs.
Then we were by the desk at reception where the front doors were barricaded with a dining table. Quickly I moved to unblock them. Morris didn’t stop me – he simply shook his head, very slowly, with that smile of his starting to sharpen like a scythe on a grindstone. I ignored him, and when the table was dragged away I put my hand on the door handle. A strange conviction seized me that when I opened the door no one would be there. I paused, but when I threw it open, daring the night to come tumbling in… only an old man stood there, hooded and cloaked and trembling with the cold.
The colour of his robes was of slate – grey, purple, blue and black all at once, modulating by sinuous degrees through all the shades of midnight and of darkness. Behind him poured the rain in glimmering sheets.
“I saw your lights burning in the high window,” he said in a voice like a broken harmonium. “I am old and in need of shelter from this terrible storm. Will you help me, boy?”
Morris stuck his head over my shoulder. “We have no interest in the plights of crooked old men.” he sneered. “Come back when you’re more handsome.”
I elbowed Morris out of the way, and stepped aside to allow the stranger to enter.
“Come on in,” I said. “It’s a bad night to have nowhere to go.”
So I showed the old guy upstairs and put him in the wingback chair in front of the fireplace. There was a fire going – we were using broken up bedroom furniture for firewood, and the flames were jumping high in the chimney where the wind blew in a long ceaseless howl. We had some soup cooking in a pot over the fire, so I poured out a bowl and gave it to him, which seemed to help with the shivering, and after a while he seemed revived.
He didn’t say a lot. He would only cackle occasionally for no apparent reason, but it was a relief to have someone around who wasn’t Morris. I’d been with Morris since the first of the suicides, but I didn’t really know who he was any more, or how I’d met him. He was simply there. What I’d done, or who I’d been, before the suicides I can no longer remember. The narrative of my life has shattered and I am left only with fragments. Thinking he might help me to remember what had happened, I asked the old man who he was.
He laughed at this. “Me, boy? You want to know who I am? Heh-heh-heh! An excellent question.” He slurped down the last of his soup and tossed the bowl carelessly over his shoulder where it smashed into pieces on the empty floor. “I am a tale-spinner, a dream-merchant – a purveyor of nightmares!” He smacked his lips and declared, proudly: “I am a storyteller.”
“Pah!” sneered Morris, who had been lurking in the shadows with a glass of Chartreuse. “A storyteller. Pur-lease. What use are stories? What use are dreams? They are spiders’ webs. They take us out of the world – and the world is glorious.” He danced over to the window looking out over the city and gestured grandly at the darkness. “I don’t know if it’s escaped your attention, old man, but the world is somewhat dreamless these days. The stories are dead! They were a passing madness. We have been liberated from their dusty ways. We are free!”
He peered down into the streets, where dripping corpses hung from the lampposts like Halloween decorations.
“Those people out there,” he said, “those festering masses, they glutted too long on the lies they found in stories. It made them weak and it made them stupid. They were pitiful and now they are dead. Your power is revoked, old man. You are nothing.”
Morris threw back his head and tittered delightedly. His laugh was high and demented, and like a mischievous spirit escaped from a bottle he pranced away into the vastness of the chamber. The storyteller sucked his teeth. He sunk deeper into the armchair and seemed somehow less definite, less there. The humour that had stirred him had faltered.
“Well I want to hear a story,” I said to him. “It’s been so long since I heard one. I’ve forgotten what they’re like.”
The storyteller waved his withered white hand.
“Your friend is right, boy. It is an ill season. The world has diminished. The stories have left us. They don’t submit to the telling no more.”
“But you are a storyteller,” I said. “You must tell us a story or you have no claim to the title.”
The old man coughed at this, his eyes sparkling with what I thought was anger. But then he laughed. “Aha!” he cried. “Fighting talk from the idiot! At last!” He squirmed in his seat. He was excited now. “Aye, boy, there is a story I could tell you – the last story remaining in this godforsaken world – but it’s too much for the likes of you. Your head’s too full of the world, like his. You aint got the stones for it.”
“Try me,” I said.
He looked at me, shrewd and amused like an old crocodile. I had his interest now. His eyes were shining. And joining us again, as if scenting blood, Morris appeared by the mantelpiece. He and the storyteller looked at one another, their smiles mounting. The challenge hovered between them.
“Yeesss,” said Morris. “Stories by firelight. Why not? Let’s see what you’re made of, storyteller.”
The storyteller grinned. “Very well,” he said. “A story it is!” He clapped his hands, and the cackle bubbling in his throat rolled out into the empty room like marbles spilled from a bag.
“Once upon a time there was a story, and in this story there was a great Magician whose magic was unrivalled in all the Kingdoms of the Earth. He was a wise man, and powerful. He could summon titanic storms to crush his enemies. He could sculpt diamonds from gravel, and bind the base elements of the physical universe to his will. It was a time of wonders and of miracles – a time of magic.
“Yet the Magician was unsatisfied, as all great men are, for he perceived there was a power he did not command – a power even greater than his own. He could feel it in the passage of destiny, dictating to him the passions of his heart and his mind. It was the power called Fiction, and the Magician sought to gain mastery over it, that he might control the dreams of men.
“And so for forty days and forty nights the Magician locked himself in his laboratory and embarked upon a vision quest into the deepest depths of his mind. He achieved a shamanic trance through the burning of certain incenses, the ingestion of certain chemicals, and through long hours of meditative drumming. When at last, on the seventh day, his consciousness ascended the astral plane, the Magician opened his eyes and found himself in a vast forest on the outer frontiers of the Dream-Realm. He wandered between the silver trees, ignoring their whispered invitations to stay and eat of their fruits, which they promised would grant him the power of flight.
Soon he came upon a stream blocked by an immense pile of broken toys. On top of the pile, licking its paws with a pink, clean tongue, there was a fox.
“‘I seek to know where dreams come from.’ the Magician declared. ‘Do you know where I may find them?’
“‘Indeed I do,’ said the fox. ‘For I have been to the source in the heart of the great mountain and talked with the man who rules them.’
“‘You must show me the way,’ said the Magician.
“‘Why should I?’ said the fox.
“‘Because if you do,’ said the Magician, ‘and I gain mastery over their power, I will make you the Hero of a great adventure.’
“The fox thought on this for a moment, and its smile seemed to grow brighter.
“‘I will help you,’ said the fox. ‘I have no love for the Dream-Master. He is a tedious bore who never lets me have any fun so I will help you to steal his power.’
“The fox and the Magician walked for three days. They left the frontiers and made their way to the centre, where the great mountain stood in loneliness, a towering nexus of crags and mutilated rocks. The fox revealed a hidden opening in the mountainside, and the Magician, following, was led through strange passages down into the mountain’s heart. There, in the stony entrails, in the cavern deep beneath the worlds, he found the Source – the place where dreams are birthed in blood and screaming. Smoke poured in shimmering veils from a chasm of blue and purple fire. Sparks whined, and an ancient face floated in the smoke.
“‘So here you are’ said the Dream-Master. ‘At the end of your journey. Come to steal the dreams and gain autonomy from them.’
“‘I will be their slave no more’ said the Magician. ‘I will command them and I will be their master.’
“The Dream-Master was amused by this. ‘Oh you think so?’ it said. ‘You actually think any of this is your idea? You think you get a say in this? You are a shadow, little Magician. You are the expression of a form of a dream. You are a story.’
“‘Maybe so,’ said the Magician. ‘But that will change.’ He produced then an empty wooden box carved all over with signs of power and containment. The face sneered.
“‘As you will,’ it said through a huge, mocking smile.
“Suddenly the Magician was uncertain, but the fox appeared at his side.
“‘Go on!’ it urged him. ‘What are you waiting for? Take the dreams! Rule them!’
“Poised now on the brink of the chasm, the Magician held high the wooden box.
“‘With this box I bind you!’ he cried. ‘With this box you are mine!’
“And with a last great shout he cast the box into the fire. All became thunder as the cavern roared and shadows screamed in the deep wells like burning rats. The smoke fused into prismatic spears of light, and the Magician knew no more.”
In the fire a chair leg hissed and withered into flame. The storyteller stared into the white heat without blinking, and it seemed that the entire world had shrunk to the range of the firelight. Morris paced somewhere in the darkness, his heels clocking emptily on the floor.
“So then what happened?” I urged.
The storyteller looked at me, and the reflections of embers smouldered in his eyes.
“Well,” he said, “when the Magician awoke from his trance, pale and haggard and covered in sweat, he found clutched in his arms the carved wooden box he had cast into the fire.”
Here, the storyteller got up from his chair. He went over to the mantelpiece and, sweeping aside a great heap of Morris’ junk – a silver cigarette case, crystals from a New Age shop, nude playing cards, a plastic dog poop, a glass ballerina – he took down the box that had been hiding there quietly amongst the overflowing items. The wood of the box was slightly charred, and carved all over with intricate grooves that had become smoothed by time. The storyteller opened it. Inside there were three partitions, each containing a stack of beautiful hand-painted cards edged with gold.
“Within that box,” the storyteller continued, “the Magician had succeeded in distilling the latent psychic essence of the universe into a set of magical cards. The cards were much like the ones you see here now. They contained all manner of powerful symbols – every character, every situation, every cosmic principle – and between them they could represent all possible permutations of every story imaginable.”
The old man took a handful of cards from the box and spread them in a fan across the carpet. Each one had a different picture – Scarecrow, Tower, Serpent, Tree, Wheel, Banquet, Old Woman, Hermit, Book, Moon, Garden. There were hundreds of them. Each was so beautiful that I wanted to hold them, I wanted to touch each one, but for reasons I couldn’t explain, I was too frightened. I cowered in my chair in unremembered terror, my hands and feet running with icy sweat.
“With his cards, the Magician believed that at last he commanded unlimited power over the dreaming subconscious of the world. Frantically he seized the cards from the box, and in a wild madness, on the floor of his laboratory, he shuffled them together. He muttered spells of creation, calling on the disparate elements to combine in new ways to form a tale, a glittering, jewelled story he might rule and possess unchallenged.”
As the storyteller spoke, the deck flickered through his ruined fingers. In a snap he slapped down three cards on the floor, and leaned leeringly over them.
“But when he looked upon the cards he had drawn,” said the storyteller, “and saw the story the pictures had formed, the Magician understood that he had been fooled.”
With a flourish the storyteller turned over the cards:
All three were blank.
“The story they told, you understand, was his story. The Magician looked upon the cards and saw reflected the tale of the Magician who looked upon the cards and saw reflected the tale of the Magician who looked upon the cards… The story was a paradox! It negated itself like a mirror reflecting a mirror reflecting a mirror!” He laughed then, a long wheezing cackle. “The story was broken! It could exist as a story no longer. And what is a story when it is not a story?”
“I don’t know” I whispered.
The storyteller grinned his pumpkin grin. “Reality, boy! Reality!” he cried. “With the cards freed from the Dream-Realm, and with the Magician unable to control them, the story escaped and infected reality. Unable to resolve itself, it dragged the world into narrative entropy. No more dreams. No more stories. Only cold, unending reality.”
His words rolled to a finish in the empty chamber. Carefully, the old man put the cards back in the box, and dropped the box into the folds of his cloak. The tale, it seemed, was over.
“That was a terrible story,” said Morris, gleefully, stepping forward into the firelight. “What a waste of time. It doesn’t even end properly!”
“No,” the storyteller agreed. “No it doesn’t. But that wasn’t quite the end.” He drew his cloak tighter around his shadowy frame. “The end hasn’t happened yet.”
Morris twitched. Whatever restraint he had been exercising until then was suddenly abandoned.
“I’ve had enough of this silly old man.” he declared. “Let’s cut out his eyes and throw him in the fire.”
Smiling, smiling, he leaped over to the fire and seized an antique rapier from the mantelpiece. Junk tumbled onto the floor, and the blade swept around, pointing death at the storyteller.
“En Garde!” Morris cried.
But the old man was gone.
“The chair was empty,” said a voice. “And now a bodiless voice was slithering through the gloom like the coils of a gigantic snake.”
Morris’ smile became a snarl.
“He cast around uselessly with his sword, but there was nothing to fight, nothing to kill – only a voice, dancing out of reach.”
Morris spat. But as he tried to escape to the door...
“…something snagged at his feet. Looking down, he saw the vines in the pattern of the carpet were suddenly moving, twining out of the floor, over his shoes and around his ankles. He slashed at them with his sword, but they grew too quickly. Soon they had wrapped around his legs and were swarming over his body. Tendrils licked at his arms, pulling them to his sides. His sword clanged to the floor. He was trapped.”
By this time Morris was subsumed within a writhing, leafy cocoon. Vines reached from the carpet like guy ropes, tethering him in place. And now the storyteller reappeared at his side, condensing from the shadows.
“It’s over,” he chuckled. “But I must say, of all the tricks I’ve watched you play over the aeons, this, I think, takes the cake. Well played, Trickster. Well played.”
He pulled away the vines covering Morris’ mouth, and Morris expelled a great mouthful of leaves.
“Why thank you,” he said, his face beaming amongst the foliage. “It turned out rather pleasingly, didn’t it? It would have been nice if the game went on longer, but it was fun while it lasted.”
“Yes.” the storyteller agreed. “It was an amusing tale, to be sure. You must be congratulated for being extra troublesome – it is rare indeed that I have to involve myself personally in these matters. But all stories must end.”
He waved his hand, and the vines binding Morris turned brown and shrivelled away. Morris brushed off his suit, straightened his bow tie, and the storyteller beckoned to him, lifting a great swathe of cape, soft and fluid as mercury.
“Until next time,” said Morris, bowing theatrically. Then he was running, running, and like an arc of electricity he dived into the cape and vanished. The storyteller dropped the cape fold. He dusted off his hands, striking away tiny white sparks. He then turned to consider me. Throughout all this I had been cowering beside the fireplace with a poker.
“You must be very confused,” he said stepping closer, looming in the liquid darkness. “You escaped me for a time, little Magician. Now you must return.” His cape dripped shadows. I waved the fire poker to ward it away, and I noticed that the poker had somehow become a wooden baton carved with snakes. But I was already engulfed – I was falling into the cape. The light of distant stars glittered in its deep, blue-purple folds –
And then I remembered – everything.
Alone once more, the Storyteller crosses to the window. Around him the room is slowly unravelling, converting to dreamstuff. The wingback chair softens and darkens, resembling itself less and less until it is merely the idea of a chair. Above it, the chandelier melts lazily into the ceiling.
The windows open onto the night. As he stands there, glorying in the sky’s cold black endlessness, the Storyteller rolls three gold-edged cards over his knuckles. The first depicts a Magician, proud and ambitious, holding aloft a wooden baton. The second depicts a fox, a smiling Trickster, sat atop a heap of broken trinkets in a wilderness of ruins. The third card remains blank.
Then, as if conducting a vast symphony, the Storyteller lifts his arms. Wind begins to pour from his cape, and in the wind there are cards, hundreds and hundreds of cards, spiralling out of the window and into the sky. He throws the Magician and the Trickster into the wind, and then he, too, is gone. The cape evaporates, a pall of empty smoke. The blank card is released into the sky, except it is now no longer blank – the Storyteller smiles upon it, shrouded in paint.