Monday, February 6, 2017

A Glass of Darkness - Philip K. Dick

Motionless--but alive. This was no stone image, no frozen statue. This was life, but life outside of time. There was no change, no motion for him, as men comprehended change and motion. He was eternal. The averted head was his most striking feature. It seemed to glow. It was clearly a radiant orb, apulse with life and brilliance. 

His head was the sun.

Satellite Science Fiction, 1956 - Cover by Kelly Freas
Whoa, man...that's cosmic! Well, yeah, it is kinda cosmic just like the really cool cover by Kelly Freas indicates. Some Philip K. Dick fans will know that A Glass of Darkness was later reprinted as The Cosmic Puppets in 1957 by ACE Books. I have the Vintage Books edition that was published much later. I don't have to read it, since I've now read the original Satellite Science Fiction version, thanks to picking up a bunch of old Sci-Fi digests not long ago.

Back in the early 80's, after seeing Blade Runner in the theater, I went out and picked up a bunch of PKD's novels in paperback and went on a binge. I still wish I had them. I had no idea that good clean used copies of his books would be so hard to come by in later years.

As you can see by the date, this is early Dick, when he was still working out the themes that would come to dominate his later novels and stories. Here you have something closer to The Outer Limits, or the Twilight Zone, wherein our hero Ted Barton takes his wife Peg on a detour into the hills of Virginia to see his old hometown Millgate. Peg couldn't give a rip, and is more interested in knocking back cocktails in the city than having to endure a tour of Millgate. Peg is kind of a shrew, but an interesting character in that she seems so unlike the type of woman that would marry Ted Barton. I was curious who she was in Philip K. Dick's imagination, and why she was introduced beyond getting descriptions of her legs and breasts whenever she's on the page. But sadly, she's dispatched off to some hotel in Martinsville to cool her jets for the rest of the story. Clearly Dick want her around bitching about how boring Millgate is and how crazy Ted has become.

You see, Millgate is definitely not the Millgate that Ted remembers from his childhood. Gone is the park, the school, the stores, the streets, even his own house. Instead they've been replaced by different streets, buildings and businesses. No one Ted talks to admits to ever knowing anything about the places he remembers. A research in the local paper reveals something even more disquieting for Ted. That instead of moving away at the age of 9, he's reported to have died of Scarlet Fever as a child! Is Ted Barton someone else? a man with false memories? Or is the town locked in some kind of mad hypnosis? To make matters even worse, Ted discovers that he can no longer leave Millgate, as all roads out of town are now blocked.

So you have a good setup here, but then things get really weird. In Millgate, you have this odd kid named Peter Trilling who is able to make clay figures come to life. You also have another kid name Mary Meade who can verbally communicate with bees and cats and moths. You also have these strange figures referred to by the locals as "The Wanderers." The Wanderers are ghostlike apparitions, beings, that can walk through walls. It's all very upsetting for Ted Barton, who probably should have taken Peg's advice and ditched Millgate for a bar in D.C.

Ted takes up room and board in Mabel Trilling's home, where he meets the strange kid Peter. Peter right away senses that Ted is an outsider, that somehow he's managed to cross into the town when others could not. Ted also meets Dr. Meade who runs a private hospital named Shady House. As things progress in the novel, Ted encounters the town drunk, William Christopher, who seems to be the only person in Millgate that remembers "the change" that occurred 18 years in the past. It's now Christopher's mission to return the town back to its real version, something he can only manage in small doses,

So what's the deal with Millgate and all weirdness? Well, it turns out that there is a cosmic battle of sorts between to godlike entities Ahriman and Ormazd and Millgate is the terrestrial arena. Yup!

Yeah, it all kind of goes a bit bonkers and sort of lost me at that point. I found myself thinking more about Peg and her heaving breasts back in a dingy hotel bar in Martinsville while the cosmic battle is playing out in Millgate. But, as far as pulp novels go, it was cool. You can see the early makings of Philip K. Dick's talent for unsettling paranoia and what is the nature of reality going on. I think most fans of mid-century science fiction would dig it.

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