“You should stop blaming your parents for your quarrel with reality,” said Dr. Carnes, casually.
He leaned back nimbly in his chair, hands behind his head, framed diplomas on the wall behind him. For a second I thought he was going to prop his feet up on the desk in front of him. My psychiatrist looked to be around thirty, not much older than me.
“I’m not blaming my parents,” I said. “I’m just telling you what happened.”
“Well, go on. You say your mother gave you paregoric?”
I studied the pastel Aztec pattern in the arm of my comfortably stuffed armchair. Nice texture.
“You know what paregoric is, right?” I asked, still looking down.
“They stopped making paregoric in the late fifties,” Dr. Carnes answered correctly. “It was a medicine made from camphor and alcohol with a small amount of opium. They used it mainly to treat diarrhea and as cough medicine.”
“Very good,” I said, looking at him. “Well, my mother says that when I was a baby, she used to rub paregoric on my gums when I was teething.”
“Because it hurts when your teeth are coming in,” the shrink inserted.
“See? You should have become a pediatrician,” I said sarcastically.
“Right now I feel like one,” he reposted. “Do go on.”
“Well,” I said. “I have this memory of lying in my crib in my bedroom, looking up at these cartoon pictures on my wall. Eight pictures – two on each wall, spaced evenly. They were Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. You know, Happy, Sleepy, Doc…”
“Yes, I’m familiar with the dwarfs,” said the shrink, a bit impatiently, I thought. “But you were very young. You actually remember this?”
Ignoring his question, I continued, “So I’m lying there, and I look at the picture of Grumpy, and he seems to be scowling at me. It was scary. His eyebrows bristled and writhed and he blinked his eyes. I looked at Happy, and watched his grin spread and stretch, wider and crazier, until it curved up into his pink cheeks, and his red nose started to stretch and bend like one of those balloons they twist into animal shapes. His big eyes were crossed and his tongue stuck out! It scared me so much I looked away and closed my eyes.”
“Were you traumatized?” said the doctor, stifling a laugh.
“I think so, but I felt so good I didn’t care. I kept my eyes closed and laid my head sideways, with my ear pressed into the pillow. That’s when I heard those quiet, far-away noises I told you about before.”
“I’m not saying they were miners, but that’s what it reminded me of. Muffled clanging, faint rumbling, almost like vibrations more than sound. Once in a while, I thought I heard a voice.”
“What did it say?”
“I don’t know. It was usually just deep, indistinct syllables.”
“But, Whit,” the shrink tilted his head skeptically. “You were too young to even know what paregoric was. How can you possibly remember that?”
“No, listen,” I said. “Years later, my mother found those pictures of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs when she was cleaning out the attic. She said, ‘Do you remember these?’ and I said, ‘Yeah’ and she told me how, when I was a baby, teething and crying, she rubbed paregoric on my gums. After that, she said, I stopped crying and just looked up at those pictures. She said I would get the most peculiar looks on my face until I fell asleep.”
“What about the miners?”
“I didn’t think of them as miners until I got older, but I heard the sounds, off and on, throughout my childhood. Months would go by when I didn’t hear anything. I would almost forget about it, but then for some reason, just playing around, I would press my ear against the walls, or my pillow, or the floor, and I could hear it. You know how, when you hold a seashell against your, and you supposedly hear the ocean roar?”
“But it’s not really the ocean,” said Carnes as if I needed reassuring.
“I thought maybe it was electricity in the wiring,” I continued. “You know, the wiring in the walls, humming. But sometimes it didn’t hum. It was a muffled thumping and clinking. I got scared once and told my dad. He said maybe I was hearing my own pulse in my ear, but that was not it. I did feel my pulse, but this was different. When I was in the fourth grade, the noise woke me up in the middle of the night. I saw a dark shape of somebody, hunched over in the hallway, just outside my bedroom door.”
“What did you do?”
“I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep. Even when I felt something touch me, I never opened my eyes. I heard the metal grate rattle in the hallway.”
“The house had an oil furnace in the basement. The heat came up through a metal grate in the hallway.”
“Maybe the furnace made noises in the middle of the night?”
“No, we actually didn’t use that furnace anymore. My parents had already replaced it, because I burned my hand on the grate.”
“Burned your hand?”
“Yeah. One winter when I was three years old, my mother was babysitting Nancy, who was about the same age. We were just playing around – I was chasing her down the hall - and I fell palm down on the hot grate.”
“I screamed like a banshee. It burned a little tic-tac-toe pattern on the palm of my hand. See?”
Dr. Carnes leaned forward, squinting.
“I can barely see it,” he said.
“Yeah, it showed up better when I was younger. I was sorry to see it go. Used to show it off to my friends. I thought it looked cool.”
“So, your parents replaced the heater in the basement?”
“They installed a new space heater, right outside my room, recessed into a hall closet. They covered the metal grate with a rug and sealed it off from the basement with a sheet of plywood. Oh, and I think they gave me paregoric for the burn.”
“Did you use any other drugs when you were a kid?” asked Dr. Carnes.
“I had bad hay fever.”
“Allergic to pollen?” the shrink clarified unnecessarily.
“Yeah,” I said. “It made my eyes itch. I sneezed a lot. I had to take antihistamine for years. Sometimes the antihistamine allowed me to dream these amazing Technicolor dreams if I took it at night.”
“I’ve dreamed in color,” said the shrink. “Some people say we only dream in black and white, but I’ve dreamed in color.”
Whoop-de-doo, I thought.
“I think it’s a myth,” I said. “That people dream in black & white, I mean.”
“A myth that we do or don’t?” asked Carnes.
“You just said you’ve dreamed in color.”
“True, true,” he said. “Of course.”
“What about dogs?” I asked.
“I’ve dreamed . . . what? Dogs?”
“Dogs,” I said, making up some bullshit. “You know, that dogs can only see in black & white, but they dream in color.”
The shrink frowned and averted his eyes for a moment.
“Not my field,” he said. “Tell me about your allergies.”
“Sometimes,” I said, “When the pollen was extra bad, I had to stay indoors. While other guys were playing baseball, I was inside drawing pictures and writing stories. Our kitchen had a Formica countertop, 1950’s style, with squiggly designs in it, dark shades of green, red, and black. If I stared at those squiggles I saw faces and other things.”
“People do the same thing looking up at clouds,” said the doctor. “One time I saw a cloud shaped like…”
“I’ve seen shapes in clouds,” I interrupted. “Everybody has. But it’s more intimate when faces emerge from the Formica.”
“Is that why you are so interested in Richard Shaver’s art?” asked Dr. Carnes.
I should stray from this fascinating therapy session to provide some background on Richard Shaver.
Richard Sharpe Shaver was, by all accounts, a strange man. Primarily a science fiction writer, he also created some unusual art. He split rocks open and saw patterns in the grain, then used paint and ink to enhance the images so that other people could see them. He called these “rock books” and said that an ancient civilization had created them.
Shaver made his writing debut in a magazine called Amazing Stories. Created in 1926 by Hugo Gernsback, Amazing Stories is arguably the first science fiction magazine. In the 1940s, Richard Shaver sent a story to the magazine about a race of evil mutants, called Dero, who lived in underground caverns and sometimes captured humans to torture and eat. According to Shaver, aliens from another planet had abandoned these subterranean creatures on Earth, back in ancient times, and centuries of inbreeding underground had made them insane and sadistic. Shaver also claimed that the Dero were using some kind of energy beam to send disturbing voices into his own mind. He called this mental harassment “tamper.” The most remarkable thing about Shaver’s entire body of work was his claim, in all apparent seriousness, that it was all true!
It was never clear whether Ray Palmer, the magazine’s editor, believed that Shaver was serious, but Amazing Stories continued publishing Shaver stories because it increased their sales and thousands of letters poured in. Some of the letter writers claimed that they, too, heard strange voices in their heads. This annoyed the more serious science fiction fans, who looked upon the “Shaver Mystery” as a ridiculous hoax.
Years later, in an interview, Editor Ray Palmer admitted that Shaver, like me, had spent some time in a mental institution.
I’m tired of talking to Dr. Carnes.
Let’s move on, shall we?
Soon, I’ll explain why Roger and I broke into the study of writer Olsen Archer, and how we later flew to the island of Malta to investigate the freaky underground catacombs known as the Hypogeum.
First, some background. I arranged the following events into a “four seasons” motif, but you know how memories overlap and become tangled. These childhood tales are probably not in chronological order.