Herman Melville Prefers Morlocks

The following chapter is a draft from my novel-in-progress, Outré:

The chase. Second day.

Curd poured himself 5 oz. of pinot grigio and stared into space.

He couldn’t get a clear view. Every satellite he jumped to was blocked by the tendrils or the hull of another satellite.

He went to Sputnik-98, a good one.

From Sputnik-98 he observed Fobos-12, an even better one. Russians made the best satellites.

He jumped back and forth between Sputnik-98 and Fobos-12, noting elements of wear-and-tear. Then he turned off the screen and got out his compact cassette tape player.

It was old. Older than him. A Califone International 3132AV Desktop Full Size Cassette Player Voice Recorder. He wished he had a ghetto blaster, the kind you walked around with on your shoulder. But those were virtually impossible to come by, and whenever he did find one, it cost too much.

The cassette tape, also an antique, was transparent and made of non-biodegradable plastic.

He inserted it.

He rewound it.

He played it.

The voice of Herman Melville said, “A. Gordon Pym? Sounds made up.”

It might not have been Melville’s voice. Another voice said, “It is made up.” It might have belonged to Edgar Allen Poe.

Melville (if it was Melville) said, “Shut up and let me read this thing. Is that thing working? Fine. All right what chapter?”


“Twenty-two. Why?”

“I don’t know. There’s action.”

“I don’t care. All right here we go. Chapter twenty-two.” He cleared his throat. He cleared it again, hawking up phlegm. He spit out a phlegm-ball. Cleared his throat. “Our situation, as it now appeared, was scarcely less dreadful than when we had conceived ourselves entombed forever. We saw before us no prospect but that of being put to death by the savages, or of dragging out a miserable existence in captivity among them. We might, to be sure, conceal ourselves for a time from their observation among the fastnesses of the hills, and, as a final resort, in the chasm from which we had just issued; but we must either perish in the long polar winter through cold and famine, or be ultimately discovered in our efforts to obtain relief.”

There was a long, crackling pause.


“I don’t know. I guess it’s bad. This isn’t action. It’s exposition. Do you know the difference?

“Yes. Of course I know the difference.”

“I don’t think you do. And savages? What’s a savage?”

“I don’t know. A black person?”

“That’s too abstract. If you turn off the lights, I’m black. Right? Look, you ought to put some Morlocks in there. I mean, this is a science fiction piece, right? Morlocks would be great. They live underground and are like these devolved hairy supercreatures—the products of mankind’s technological ‘dark side,’ as it were. Every now and then they climb up to the surface and eat people. You should have them eat your protagonist halfway through the book. Nobody would expect that. Then you’d have to replace your protagonist, of course, but that’d be easy enough. Then you could have the Morlocks eat him. You could keep doing it. Keep making your readers comfortable with somebody new, and just when they relax and kick up their feet, unleash the Morlocks. That’s good storytelling.”

“Morlocks,” intoned, allegedly, Nathaniel Hawthorne. “That sounds familiar.”

“Melville” replied, “No it doesn’t. It can’t be familiar if it hasn’t happened yet. Understand?”

“I think it’s an allegory,” said “Hawthorne.”

Blast of laughter. Possibly choking. Disdainful in either case. “Melville” said, “Allegory? What are we, two years old? Grow up.”

“Well I like it like it is,” said “Poe.”

A crinkling and flapping of papers. “That’s fine. I’m not sure why you wanted me to read it. I suppose you simply wanted me to say it’s good. Well it’s not. Savage? That could be anything. Pym is a weak name too. Weak and little. Pick something strong. The Narrative of A. Gordon Blackpool or something. Jesus.”

The voices came out of the recorder’s holes like wet, shredded reeds, as if from a cave, or the grave, or another dimension. In a sense, they were from another dimension, “lost” recordings of the nineteenth century American authors, twenty minutes of idle conversation that Curd purchased at a flea market. The vendor provided him with a certificate of authenticity that was itself authenticated despite the fact that recording technologies didn’t exist during the time when the tape was purportedly made. The vendor underscored the authors’ relationship with various mechanical engineers and other technicians who had been secretly manufacturing ghetto blasters for government use, but Curd didn’t care. Disavowal would suffice. The cassette was probably a forgery. He elected to believe it was genuine. He hadn’t bought it as an investment, after all. He had bought it for his own piece of mind. Specifically, he had bought it to get closer, in some capacity, if only by way of the illusion of a real, bona fide voice-text, to the man and his whale.

Unfortunately there was little if anything about Melville. Mostly he just read from Hawthorne and Poe’s works-in-progress and told them what he didn’t like about them. At one point, however, near the end of the recording, he read from his own writing, a passage from a novel-in-progress entitled The Clockwork Man, which later came to be called The Confidence-Man, Melville’s final novel, although it bore no resemblance whatsoever, in form or theme, to the work-in-progress from which he presently read, an entirely different book with the exception of its traumatic kernel.

“Poe” was blubbering about something and you could tell he just wanted to start drinking and “Melville,” bored, interrupted him. “All right that’ll do. My turn. Christ. All right so I’m going to begin in the middle of things. Intermezzo. In medias res. Nothing begins at the beginning.”

Twenty seconds of static.

Then: “But that would be impossible. The Clockwork man was the realization of the future. There was no evading that. The future. Man had evolved into this. He had succeeded somehow in adding to his normal powers some kind of mechanism that opened up vast possibilities of action in all sorts of dimensions. There must have been an enormous preparatory period before the thing became finally possible, generations of striving and failure and further experiment. But the indefatigable spirit of man had triumphed in the end. He had arisen at last superior to Time and Space, and taken his place in the center of the universe. It was a fulfillment of all the prophecies of the great scientists since the discovery of evolution. Such reflections flitted hazily through the Doctor's mind as he strove in vain to find a practical solution to the problem. What was the clock? He knew, from hearsay, that it was situated at the back of this strange being's head. Tom Driver had seen it, and described it in his clumsy fashion. Since that episode the Doctor had visualized something in the nature of an instrument affixed to the Clockwork man's head, and perhaps connected with his cerebral processes. Was it a kind of super-brain? Had there been found some means of lengthening the convolutions of the human brain, so that man's thought travelled further and so enabled him to arrive more swiftly at ultimate conclusions? That seemed suggestive. It must be that in some way the cerebral energy of man had been stored up, as electricity in a battery, and then released by mechanical proc—“

The tape came to an end and the cassette player stopped.

As Curd rewound it, he fretted about his audition, which was only days away. If he didn’t get the role he would probably have to kill himself. And he probably wouldn’t get the role.

The sound of the authors’ voices, especially “Melville”’s, soothed him. In fact, they were like a drug. He listened to them and his anxiety escaped him, fading into the wallpaper.

Curd hit the stop button. He hit the play button.

For an indefinite time, he faded into the wallpaper.