The Lanternslide Girl
Early light came over Worley Copse from the sun of a russet autumn that only the mid-nineteenth century could produce. A young man about to feed his father’s pigs came to an abrupt halt as the rays of morning gave piercing flashes of silver and gold reflecting off something strange by the edge of the wood. So John Farmer put down his two large wooden pails full of butcher’s offal and windfall apples and shielded his eyes. Several long bars of intense light lay on the mass of leaves down between the Copse and his expectant animals, already sniffing at the damp air.
Leaving the pigs to their breakfast and with wet mud sucking at his boots, John plodded with difficulty to the fringe of trees. A few score dew-covered thick metal rods had been the cause of the sun’s reflections. He admired the precise straightness of the rods and was astonished by their length and great weight.
As he gazed at these things he had never seen before, several four-horse drays pulled up in nearby Colden Lane, loaded with more rods of the same length and thickness.
The workmen’s breath steamed like the horses’ as they unloaded the rods with block and tackle and took them into the fields to join the rods that John still gazed at in wonder. The sun went away with the increasing sound of men, horses, and machinery and the rods, now bereft of light, became lengths of chilled brown rust whose very sameness somehow terrified him. He could hardly imagine why people should want things of almost identical similarity. He himself had not seen one single thing in this world of his that was exactly the same as another and, as far as he knew, no one else in his village had ever seen such things.
To him, all things in the world were as different as all people were different. Anything and everything had individual faces and different characters. Even the very best workmen in the village could not produce an identical thing to save their very lives.
But these rods – they could not be distinguished from one another.
That the workmen did not themselves know what the rods were or what they were intended to do was another mystery. He had never met workmen who had no idea what they were doing before. The Foreman, one Samuel whom he knew slightly, spoke of a spitting, fiery entity that belonged to the rods, a thing more like dragon than anything else.
“A dragon? What does it look like?”
“You can’t see it.”
“You can’t see it?”
“As a whole, like. As a complete thing.”
“It’s spread around the country. Still growing, too.”
What was this being or beast that could not be seen as a whole? And it was growing, Samuel had added, and it had no body that was ever still.
“What’s its shape?”
“Doesn’t have one.”
“It doesn’t have one?”
“Changes every day, it does.” Waving his hands around, as if to try and describe what he was talking about, Samuel finally, seeing John’s bafflement, he laughed out loud and wandered off.
John Farmer gazed at the rods again—they were part of a thing with no body? Shapeless, yet growing, something thing that could not be properly described or seen? Whatever could such a thing do?
And still he did not understand. He picked up his empty buckets and he laughed at himself. What they called dreaming, he was at it again. He himself called it “thinking” but they didn’t like that. Laughable, that’s what dreaming was, laughable. “Thinking” was serious, was a serious threat, if only because most in the village were incapable of it. While young John, though barely literate, was a questioning man. He compared things. He asked strange questions. In the village this was not regarded as an asset: no one, not even the educated Squire or doctor, could or would answer his curious enquiries about the nature of the world and the vicar, the Reverend Aloysius Pratt, looked on his questions with what could only be described as fearful suspicion. He certainly could ask none of these people about such dragons as described by John.
His teacher, old Mr. Cranston, had been a little more sympathetic in his opposition. Creation was set in its course, said he. There was no need for questions, still less comparisons: there was only Worship and in time, said he, Worship answered everything and banished all thought of dragons, be they mechanical or not.
John’s furrowed brow and his often-brooding silence and baffled looks when he was prodded by cloddish tormentors, suggested to himself and many others that perhaps he had travelled quite elsewhere. His more subtle tormentors often offered kind suggestions that he might concentrate on the church services a little more than he did. Kinder souls reminded him there was no time for anything in the human community but simple hand and simple eye, still less for thinking about what made the fields tick.
He tried to measure things. Since there were no measuring things in the village (only the Squire had clocks and rulers) he fashioned crude instruments out of bits of iron and mended an old clock he had found in a hedge. Even whilst hand-ploughing the north pasture under heavy rain he felt he had the remnants of an exploded world constantly trying to reform themselves in his head. Unconnected with whatever he was doing, bits and pieces of this world broke into his consciousness like the remains of long-buried massacres.
Returning at evening, he saw his thatched roof home as a pantomime speeding into the past. He had been born and suckled under this sooty roof from which hung cured hams and cheeses with rinds as thick as a finger. In summer all the swallows nested there and burst into the sky whenever marauding squirrels arrived and tried to get at the cheese.
His elder sister came out to greet him usually, while her children played in the last autumn dust before the onset of the first hard winter rain. After passing by ponds and carts and hayricks and cattle with a lot of questions that he knew would not, could not be answered, he trod a path that hadn’t changed since what was still called the “Conquest,” though the Conquest concerned was well over seven-hundred years gone. Here was observation, hardly questions. He ate his food as his family talked about animals and arranged marriages, seasons, weather, and stockbreeding.
They were red-faced, noisy eaters, massive in body and the women had arms more muscular than his own. And the talk was of Pamela, the village girl-woman chosen by the family and the village to bear John’s children. Proud talk of her strength; joy that he was to marry a young woman strong enough to throw men over carts at the village fairs. This Pamela was a barrel-chested girl who knew how to construct a roof, plant a field of turnips and even strike terror into the hearts of savage, wandering gypsies.
When John finally asked about the rods he had seen, his father looked up and said that the rods were pathways. Pathways? But pathways to him were things full of birds and rabbits; they were guides when darkness fell, firm earth pressed by people and animals. How could he imagine a straight path, with the same rattling step after step such as his father rather painfully described?
He mentioned the rods to the Reverend Pratt, a clever man from Oxford, but Pratt told John not to think so much of things that he called abstract. At John’s puzzled brow, the Vicar flushed and apologised for the use of such a complicated word before John, which was some kind of word reserved solely for priests and those who controlled the world. At that moment the Vicar appeared to John to be unmasked, become a dark hooded figure coming from the tumulus entrance at Long Barrow, the place where he saw many workmen digging a long deep tunnel, though for what purpose he could not understand.
This village still gathered pine logs for winter fires; they drank water from the river; their excreta was carefully gathered in the night by shadows that were never acknowledged; they prayed, died, gave birth by candlelight and oil-lamp and they still paid a mediaeval tithe to a Poor House Beadle who doled out gruel from his cauldron with a very large spoon. Whenever darkness came, two ancient watchmen in fustian patrolled the streets with oil lanterns and rang the night hours with a hand- bell.
No one had ever heard the Vicar mention Rome, even in passing. The Green Man of ancient British folklore grinned from the top of the church door and the old crude-carved wooden statuettes of Jesus appeared to John to be things more from the depths of the old Barrow on Dealey Hill rather than Rome or Jerusalem. A smart young pair of newlyweds who once suggested that the statuettes might be painted didn’t stay in the village very long. They left for a far town, where it was said that the churches were full of incense and priests who could not marry.
There were no magazines or newspapers. The only printed material the villagers saw besides the usual demands for money from Above were pinned-up notices on the church door. Since almost none could read, these reminders from virtually the same Above were ignored, the times of church attendance being calculated by knuckle-rules old as old as Methuselah.
Apart from a few cheap engravings on thick paper of the sunset over the old Wiltshire brick kiln and cattle drinking in the shallows of the Medford (bought only by a handful of the better-off traders) no one saw reproductions of anything at all, apart from the man on the cross. These popular lithographs and sketches were hung in the darkest part of the parlour and quietly forgotten. Thus there were few reflections in their lives; there were few things fantastic or imaginative and certainly nothing virtual. The image of a man nailed to a cross turned their minds to such cloddish, chilled beef that they had hardly the courage to dare to dream at all. When they did manage to dream the images that formed were pretty much as things were in the conscious, external world: plain, undistorted and matter-of-fact, they suggested few things beyond themselves. Perhaps the man nailed to the cross had largely eliminated the need for questions. Time in the modern sense had therefore not yet entered their inner levels of perception. Hence models, plans, simulations, future possibilities had little or no part in their thinking life. Neither images as symbols, nor time as a series of projects and products had yet arrived; the water of flooded meadows was fit to drink, the beef and lamb walked down the street only a day before it was eaten and a man could pretty well build a house wherever landed his thrown stone.
Thus all was well until one bright spring morning, with the village looking like a painting from some primal English dream, Mannequin and Signor Brahmin’s Mystic Lantern Circus arrived and pitched its tent on the eternal village green.
Signor Brahmin, himself? Oh, he was a charming, talkative and persuasive man. He quickly had local unemployed worthies helping him to pitch his vast tent on the green without coin, an unprecedented achievement according to the Vicar. Appearing to be made of countless pieces of ancient carpet, the tent seemed to many to be a savage foreign thing from an unknown world. Many of the coarse-woven pieces were covered with faded and broken letters from an unknown alphabet – if alphabet it was at all. According to Mr Pratt the School Master, there were also designs that looked salvaged from the crumbled temples of worlds that existed long before even the old British stones and straight tracks. Christian souls trembled when they learned that tanned animal skins had been used to patch holes in the shredded carpets. Or, some asked, was that the other way around? Christian souls trembled yet again as some claimed parts of this dilapidated tent had been made before weaving even came about. The parts and patches sewn together with thick animal gut through jagged holes looked as if they’d been pierced with equally thick needles of bone.
Thus did the tent stand, moaning and struggling with the winds, like some lost soul tethered to Earth. To many the rarefied atmosphere inside was intensely sexual, somewhat perverse, even dangerously mystical, which of course ensured that long queues formed for the first performance on the hottest June night anyone could remember.
Inside, the smell was remarkable. To the Vicar, it smacked of old incense (he hated incense) and the damp rock catacombs he had visited once whilst on an archaeological dig. To yet others it was an enigmatic mix of exotic perfumes with the timeless scent of horse-trading, zoos, camel markets; with the bouquet of rubbish tips and human waste-disposal methods of the ages of iron and bronze. To a handful of the more fastidious secret thinkers, it was a stench of many communities they’d known before they were born (although they didn’t dare say as much in a devout Christian community).
The infinite nostalgia aroused by this drug-like air induced dreams of carnivals and circuses past in many, but such were not of the country they lived in. A few were secretly disturbed by such thoughts and dreams. They did not appear to be generated by any simple external stimulus they could name, of wind or rain, vegetation, foliage, or seasons—was not all experience formed by tangible things alone? They questioned how extra-personal sensations not of their time or life could exist within themselves, and mentally, questioning did to them what the discovery of dinosaur bones did to Christianity.
Gossips soon found out that the Mystic Lantern Circus, now performing nightly between the duck-pond and the mullioned-windowed shop of a man still called the Apothecary, had nothing to do with traditional fairs, patent medicines, bare-knuckle boxing matches, or Christian Union choirs. Mouths yammered again when Signor Brahmin’s “Mannequin” arrived, a tall, lovely young woman with long black hair who appeared to be his assistant, although what some said about her relationship to the Signor was not repeatable.
By the early evening Signor Brahmin announced that his Mystic Lantern Circus was now open for business. Before the tent entrance, flanked by flaming torches, Mannequin pirouetted and turned cartwheels in peach tights, sequined bodice, and feathered tiara. This was guaranteed to materialise a line of young, half-drunk stragglers and what the Vicar called “unlettered serfs” from The Dancing Bear, most of whom had never seen female legs above the ankle. With his face charcoaled, and that long, black coat and greasy straggling hair, to some Signor Brahmin looked like the devil himself, as he accompanied Mannequin’s dancing with—no less—a spectacular fire-eating act. Swinging his torch, with Mannequin clashing cymbals, he beckoned people into the entrance of the “show.” That combination of fire, drums, and an almost naked woman dancer was certainly a devilish enough appeal to fill the tent completely. Mannequin and Signor Brahmin gave thanks in strange tongues as entrance fees aplenty were paid to what became known thereafter as The Lantern Slide Show.
The first so-called lanternslides were hand-tinted photographic prints etched in tints on a ground-glass screen. The usual arrangement was a clip of four scenes arranged horizontally and inserted in a slot between a light and a lens. The lens could be adjusted to bring the images into sharp focus on a stretched white sheet hung vertically against a wall. It was crude alright, but it all looked and sounded much more interesting than horse shows and Morris dancing and, after a few jars of home-brew at The Dancing Bear, John and his roistering friends paid their pennies. They sat in muttering rows not knowing what on earth would happen and gazed at what looked like a white bed sheet stretched taut, suspended in mid-air.
Calling for silence, Signor Brahmin fiddled with a smoking lantern attached to the glinting machine that looked to John like a large-calibre tin cannon he’d once been given as a Christmas present.
A sigh of drawn breath now greeted … the appearance of a young girl on the taut white sheet.
Underneath could be read the words, Lucy’s Day.
In that short breath of innocence and wonder, the utterly astonished audience entered the first seconds of the emerging twentieth century. This something made of nothing called Lucy was to change everything. In the colour-tinted slides, she had red lips and dark eyes and an elegant grey dress that hugged her body in a way that made talkative lusty fellows men either side of John silent for several of the days that followed her visit, not to mention the secret thoughts of a few equally lusty girls who were present.
In a trice, and in complete knowledge of the psychological state of the audience, the long fingers of Signor Brahmin adjusted the infernal machine and Lucy stood out again before the astonished crew in yet further superb clarity of focused detail.
Mannequin now played an ancient piano, rattling the slow-paced drama with fast and slow themes as a new tableau of robbers in black masks chased Lucy. She was rescued by running constables of corpulent frontage with faces glowing like full moons. Though the piano appeared to be a wreck it was perfectly in tune and Mannequin played with really phenomenal skill. Signor Brahmin’s violin playing was equally skilful so that together they raised oceanic chords for a thousand and one sleepless nights of limitless inspirations; the themes stirred thighs yet again, together with mysterious nostalgias, a sense of seas and stars and loves beyond the sun and moon as the dazzling slides of Lucy were quickly inserted and re-inserted by Signor Brahmin in the flicker of an eye whilst Mannequin pounded on.
When during the short interval the nervous School Master asked Mannequin what music they had been playing, she (lowering long lashes before the poor man, boosting his agitation) in a voice that might have been calculated to raise men to suicide or battle (the School Master resisting both options, as was his wont) she replied, “Originals”.
Later, during many discussions in The Dancing Bear, Mr Fidget the Choir Master (whose red face had been as white as a sheet at the show) claimed the chord structure of this music he‘d heard was not of this Earth. It had no link, it appeared, to any kind of historical development, said he; he could not recognise Palestrina, Mozart, or any other genius. Since the villagers had no means of recording its strains, thus, as the days followed most of them experienced a disturbing sense of loss. What “originals” had they heard, indeed? Mr Fidget tapped at his organ keys, wrote down what he could recollect, what others sang to him or hummed. With this uncertain material he tried to piece together a kind of crude orchestral. The Vicar, hearing these experimental discords from every open window in the village, warned that Mannequin and Signor Brahmin were “imposters” and nothing else could be expected from the “swarthy races.”
Although what the pair were “impostering” about, no one could say.
Now a few folk shot up from their seats, afraid, staring at the images of Lucy as at some devilish piper about to vanish them away to a place beyond all Christian help. Others drew back as if she were a ghost. Yet others stood and cried out against idolatry, declared what they were seeing was the work of the Devil.
With all those screaming about witchcraft gone away, only John and a couple of dozen excited young swains were left, breathless, expectant. Muscular men with granite faces of slave and labouring time now became a row of mere pantomime elves as Signor Brahmin performed impressive conjuring tricks with rabbits, doves, and cards. As the Signor appeared to transfer Mannequin (dressed in seamless silver) from one sealed cabinet to another, where in a trice she appeared clothed in clouds of blue net and peacock feathers, they gave great applause.
Now the ever-smiling Brahmin, with the help of a Mannequin now sheathed in black, placed a circular machine on a small table before the white sheet. Eyes widened as what appeared to be curious arrangement of mirrors and lenses was rested atop this apparatus. Signor Brahmin attached wires to the odd-looking machine. Mannequin attached the other end of the wires to terminals fixed in the lids of what looked like large jam jars full of a green liquid. What an acrid smell from these early acid batteries joined the scent of animal-circuses and slave-sweat of aeons past!—as candles were snuffed out, and expectancies soared.
Breath was drawn all around the tent as images of Lucy, after a few sparking stops and starts from the electric machine, now revolved with greater speed and regular rhythm. This sequence stopped only for Mannequin (in breath-taking skin-tight green and silver fish scales) to change the circular tray holding thirty slides or more. Here was Lucy by the sea, young children on her arm. With the added speed of image-progression, her life now projected many more sets of fantastic possibilities to an audience watching the emergence of a new form of time and space where rapidly processed images would become a kind of universal structure.
As a new species of live information, Lucy was already breeding within the systems-nets of mind created by these streaming images. Within those magic Music Halls of suggestion called consciousness, clusters of images as a form of life were beginning to gather, to ask questions, form possibilities. Who were the children? Where was the manor house? And another sequence: Lucy with her dog at the grocers’. Dog tethered outside, happy with a beef bone. Now Lucy mixing a huge batter pudding in a kitchen whose iron oven had not changed much since the Conquest.
And now Lucy shopping again: tea and rice served from a rich mahogany drawer and from sacks by silver scoops. Flick. Cheese cut with wire, hand-wrapped and weighed to a fraction of an Imperial Ounce. At the back of the grocer, glazed tiles showed paddle steamer tugs pulling three-mast cutters in and out of oppressively humid harbours of the Empire. But who was she cooking and shopping for? Was the dog hers? Flick. Now Lucy stood with tea tray in an infinite Victorian summer.
Oh, he knew his trade, Signor Brahmin did. After just a few hundred sequences these young men were having adventures with Lucy of their very private own.
And the twentieth century was only a few score image frames old.
But Lucy the tea-tray girl was a fast breeder, although not very fast at all by later standards. She was, however, sufficient as a resonant frequency to induce image-flow in those score or so secondary circuits who were seated on oak benches either side of John. These great slabs of oak were made from the same ancestral trees that had given birth to the ships of Samuel Pepys’ Royal Navy of the Restoration. And the lovely Lucy, as a new form of time and experience, was the primary circuit. From here on, after her primal moments of induced suggestion by light and shade alone, her countless ghost-children would be absolutely in charge of everyone.
John caught Mannequin’s face in the smoky half-shadow. She was looking at him intently. His fellows giggled and gave him the amused nudges of unlettered serfs. He looked again. Certainly, there was the Gioconda smile and the arch glance. It was a snake-like glint she had in her green eyes, and his loins stirred mightily. But he was afraid. In the half-light she was hardly human: he had a feeling that she’d eat him alive, spit out what was left, and move on. He was himself surprised to realize that he was more interested in Lucy than Mannequin, who was indeed more beautiful and had the advantage of being full flesh and blood. But with Lucy, he was in command. Lucy was an escape to the future. He could model and plan and, unlike Mannequin, Lucy would never leave him, never betray him. Mannequin would be costly and troublesome and, with her dark goddess looks, the object of many powerful affections against which he could hardly protect her or indeed himself. Yes, she would succumb to her power. Flesh was always betrayal, sorrow, loss—already, John knew he was nothing much in the world’s measure and thus Mannequin would wipe him out.
He felt of as much value and substance in the world as the pig muck that still stuck to his boots and added to the mix of aromas in the tent.
Mannequin looked even more intensely at him. Something burst in his brain, the instant blossoming of a flower. He was a pig farmer’s son who could hardly read or write, but he was thinking impossible thoughts. Just one impossibility he considered was that perhaps the whole and entire show was for him alone. Of a sudden his oaf-like friends, sniggering either side, simply didn’t matter. They were not special, bless them, they were storage units: they would fart and burp and gossip and think simple-minded peasant thoughts throughout all their simple-minded peasant lives. The great nineteenth century philosopher who happened to be on his death bed some forty miles to the south of John might have said that, as distinct from John, the serfs either side of him were not mutating. Perhaps evolution has to start with an individual rather than a species. In the terms of one hundred and seventy five years ago, what John was seeing on the screen wasn’t a show so much as a means by which the odd swarthy pair seeded this village with carefully constructed impossibilities.
The show persisted. All that flickering Lucy did in this slow-pulsing image-world was to buy a hat, give her mother a Christmas present, and play with children. But as the warming sun of an accelerating time shone on these new-born sea shallows of the image world, strange energies began to form and gather. Many males other than John had noticed that Lucy had a trim ankle, a visible bust, and wore carmine. The salt-shallows swarmed with cloned life ready to run for the beach of almost-creation. Lucy was not like anything the ploughmen and butchers and bakers and apprentice blacksmiths had ever seen. Even as she played bat and ball, her movements provoked the Vicar later to subtle warnings about such images as a threat to worship.
By this time John knew that something had happened to him. Just like those glowing images before him, his reasoning was now staccato, pulsing like the episodes of the “show”—a new word to the village at the time. Now, he felt that what he thought was only partly his own—another sheer impossibility. His thoughts came certainly from the brain he was born with, but he was frank with himself: he could not have formed them alone, given his mental resources and his extremely limited education. There were voices inside his head now, many voices: they came through in fragments, in moments of intense mental clarity, flashing through him like the light he’d seen coming from those shining rods on the outskirts of the Copse. These voices did not use his vocabulary; when he tried to imitate them his very jaw and lips protested, as if not designed for the fast verbal exchanges he heard. Whatever it was, it reasoned in metaphors. Seeds, hatching eggs, the birth and death of animals and seasons; natural enough images for a farmer’s boy. Except that these voices were not his own – or rather, were a fragmentary part of him that hardly existed as yet. Other voices came near, voices ancient, foreign – new voices not of the past but carried by clicks, sparks, and echoes.
We ask ourselves, what did this new John now want? Was it sex, money, was it power?
It was none of these things.
What John wanted had nothing to do with social class or economics or the adventures of the Id and Ego to be written up later in the century by a Viennese Jew who had only just left the University of Vienna Medical School.
No, John wanted something back that had been lost a long time before he was born.
John wanted his ancient birth right.
To this end a new John was emerging, as sure as a chicken’s blinking eye sees through a fissure in a cracked egg. In our own time we talk of viruses and programmes, of re-invention of the self, and deconstruction of experience. One thing was certain: as pieces of pure disembodied information, these images and voices had travelled a long way in time and technology to get to trembling John, in response to his call.
The chattering in his head became incessant as the images of Lucy continued their development. It wasn’t an unpleasant feeling, for he was with friends. A lost bushman scans the hills for smoke rings. In a similar way, John had rediscovered his community. They protected him. In modern terms: we might say that John had a kind of B-feature subtext bursting through his conscious processes. The voices were really no more than live forms of organization, broadcast and caught momentarily through a very noisy channel, even when such things as channels or broadcasts were impossibilities of the far future. His village in such terms was become momentarily an experimental farm, induced by new technology in action before him on the screen. A live process was searching for a suitable host, a receptor ready for the images and themes as presented here in this crazy stinking tent with its magic lantern slides.
A host? John muttered to himself. What was that? The only thing he knew about the word was that the Rev. Mr. Pratt didn’t like it. He half-spoke out loud again as the fragmented thought came out of the mental dark. People nudged each other. John, talking to himself again. It was that Mannequin’s smile, that’s what it was. Seeding? Laying eggs, more like, said John to himself. Some rare form of a kind of mental egg he had conceived, some kind of information-animal that he alone would someday hatch out. Like a Chinese flower dropped into a glass, this new creature would live in a world vastly extended and elaborately developed in history and time as compared with his own.
John didn’t know it, but he was being carefully prepared for his escape from the pigs by friends he did not know he had. He had certainly the eerie impression that somehow he was one of the first chosen to see and absorb images which were not religious in any sense. In the village there were very few pictorial representations of anything at all. A few paintings he had glimpsed at the squire’s mansion and some gargoyles on the church so decayed that the faces could hardly be made out. Other than that he had seen a few children’s illustrated books kept by a teacher in a locked cupboard. Of illustrations, newspapers, sketches of things, photographs, he had seen almost nothing that was not some raw version of itself. He knew, therefore, hardly anything that could not be touched, eaten, stroked or kicked or fed. This early image-time of evolving consciousness was so slow that it was possible to reason from image to image, just one frame at a time—possible to see the connections between image development and the development of those image-clusters called products. This slowness kept visual impressions at a distance and therefore some kind of control over them was just possible.
But the rapid sequence of the Lucy pictures was designed to break out of any such control. The Vicar said this was the reason he didn’t like such things. He didn’t like depictions; he was suspicious of endless versions of things that suggested yet further things beyond themselves. These were a new kind of evil to him. There was no end, said he over dinner with the Squire, to the imagining they brought about. That devilish, maze-like dimension he called the unreal. This clever construction consisted of a mass of suggestions inherent in the crude Lucy drama. And, said the Reverend Pratt, none of this could be controlled, which made the making of images still somewhat idolatrous. Lucy (as what we in our own day would call the very first film star) was not evil in herself, but imagining that you could go on adventures with Lucy in the mind was evil. Already Lucy and her image-kind were spreading. Other villagers and other Vicars reported the arrival of Signor Brahmin and Mannequin and the spreading of countless Lucy clones in cloned adventures. Short and tall, blond and brunette, the warm and friendly dolls and their colourful doll adventures were taking over lives used only to gales and rain, snow and animals; lives coarse and brutal and simple-minded and impoverished were not only thinking (a dangerous thing to the Vicar’s mind) but imagining, which was a much more dangerous thing altogether.
Thus was born a new moral dilemma; the Vicar over roast turkey, plum pudding, and mulled wine, saw Satan, Temptation, and the Fall. This new immorality involved Satan’s latest clever device: virtual (yes, the Vicar used that word) sin.
The Squire agreed, broke wind, and bawled for more wine.
All of which together caused the Vicar to create an idea of a new form of matter and spirit which he called, on the spur of the moment, controlled hallucinatory substance. Pleased with that description of Lucy, and with the Squire snoring in his sleep, he decided to take his leave and go home to write to the newly formed Society of Psychical Research in London.
But Victorian mechanisms were only part of the story. Technology launches a state of mind. Its finite self falls away like the blocks underneath a launched ship. Just outside London, over one hundred miles away from John, Charles Darwin was thinking of random mutations as cause and effect. In Paris Karl Marx was thinking about economics as causation. Both were wrong. Instead, John was being reconstructed by a carefully crafted ideology of light and shade. This was the future. In the burgeoning politics of the imagination, in media as Entertainment State, there was to be no OFF switch for escapes of all kinds.
The film-like progression of images clattered on. It kept the raffish audience interested, but they were getting near the point of complete exhaustion. Never before had they had to support such a concentration span brought about by a mere play of light. It was an experience that confounded both the night and day they knew. It interfered with natural rhythms and the patterns of time as toil and trouble. But the problem was that they were enjoying themselves. That had not happened before. The man nailed to the cross had seen to that.
But if what they were seeing was the future, then they welcomed it. Yes, they were pleased no end. History (or some such thing) had had the wit to invent pleasure and relaxation. Usually peasants only sat on benches for any considerable length of time in a police station or in a church, neither were enjoyable. The only other benches they’d known in the past were the whipping bench, the stocks, or the benches in the public house. On the latter they drugged themselves to get ready for another day of backbreaking toil, usually so hard that they died young, if they were not killed or injured among the furrows.
By contrast the slide show was an experience that offered no threat at all. And it was more subtle then the circus, vastly more interesting than the boxing and wrestling they saw on the village green. Such things as the two-dimensional Lucy were new in history. She was the very first light-driven Lara Croft of history. As such, she penetrated the thickest skull. And if the truth were told, the slide show was fresh and new, clever, and sexy, though nobody dare say such things—even if they knew the latter word, which was in the process of being coined. It was magic and intrigue, it was thrilling and exciting. The crudely tinted show in the darkness rediscovered a long dormant sense of mystery. It raised also unprecedented emotional excitements, most of them illicit, and some certainly morally questionable within any terms they knew. Lucy was seen against the glamour and sophistication of town and city life. They saw quite independent women, smart looking fellow-me-lads with a twinkle in their eye, wearing some real sharp clothes that were cut by no shears in this village. But they were passive viewers. They were not like John. They merely received, they didn’t analyse.
John now was the very first confirmed viewer-addict and channel surfer of all history. Already he was matching, collating, and absorbing images and themes. Most important of all, he was assessing possibilities. Only ten minutes into Lantern Slide Time and the coming new century had arrived well before its scheduled appearance. One hundred and fifty years later we might say that John the Pigman had entered The Matrix.
One thing was certain: like most of the village, within a week John would be buying the new technology.
His concentration was now briefly interrupted. Peter Painter lurched from the tent to spew out nine pints of Old Brinley’s Home Brew Stout on the celebrated village milestone, on which was carved “Canterbury 100 miles.”
But John hardly noticed. The flicker-process was talking to him. That was far more interesting. Flicker, flicker. He had been selected. It was done. John was the One. He was now as alien to the village as some little green man from a fairy mound. Flicker again. With a flash of mercury, Lucy had entered him as a cuckoo enters a nest. Now he certainly had an aerial on his head as drawn by cartoonists—or at least, one inside his skull as drawn by scientists. Now he would begin a life in time which, like the shining, stretching rails being laid all around him, would lead him to adventures in spirit and gut beyond sun and moon.
With a little help from friends he never knew he had, John was being reconstructed. Within him, Lucy was now pure radiation on the shallow beach pools of a primal sea.
What would struggle out from the pool and make a break for the shore was yet to be seen.
John came home as one of the first citizens of a new time, his mind reeling with countless images of skies filled with sketches of guesses at possible flying machines, beautiful ladies, imperial adventures, fairy tales. Moreover these images could be bought, stored, and brought out for further repeats. In the years to come they were to enter even the poorest of homes as a bristling plague of mind-locusts who controlled almost everything. They were swapped, re-sold, repaired here or there. Indeed, there were whole series of slides made of episodes in the life of ordinary families: their births, marriages, deaths, added episodes each month. Repeatability and storage, repeatability and storage, it was the rhythm of the dragons he’d heard were coming along those shining steel rails.
Within a very short time John realized something strange had happened to the village. The most unlikely folk (dour, humourless, silent) now talked of non-existent things; they laughed and smiled at things they hadn’t touched or seen. They bought lanterns, projectors, and batteries until most, like John, began to live their lives in the lantern-world. Whilst he was chopping wood, feeding pigs, the doll-folk were now ever-present in his head like a plague of elves he had once heard his great-grandmother speak of. He would laugh and cry with these phantoms in a way that he had never laughed or cried with the things of his previous world. He imagined them talking back to him, helping him with his daily round, commenting and suggesting until, alone in the field, he was surrounded by a thousand and one voices and presences, as if by dozens of helpers from a huge common family, hosts he could summon up at any one time if he was uncertain or afraid.
Eventually within a few months the steaming dragons came as predicted, speeding along the laid rails, raising further wonders in the now-flickering minds of the villagers. The brute engines drew carriages with people in them now but the passengers did not yet stop. Hands all waved to the men working in the fields, and children screamed with delight from the carriage windows at John’s fat pigs.
But nothing tangible had changed otherwise, despite the chattering abstractions that haunted John’s head, until one morning builders and carpenters started constructing what they called a Waiting Room.
When the Waiting Room was complete, with its warm fire, its cakes and sandwiches, its hot tea and coffee, the trains stopped beside John’s pigsty for the first time. Doors clanged open and John saw women the like of which he had never set eyes on. Women and girls with delicate arms, coral lips, and powdered faces in clothes that made them things from fairyland. The impression of the ethereal was strengthened by the racketing speed of their arrival and departure, which changed them like the lanternslides of Signor Brahmin. One minute the fairies were on the screen, the next they were jerked away. Quicksilver educated voices in accents he’d never heard and using long words just like the Vicar. What impressed him most was the rapidity of their chatter, the bird-like movement of their lips. John knew that, come night, he would return to the slow-witted carcasses who ate like beasts around him and whose massive frames and slow minds were erected stone by stone, he imagined, to protect the hunter-gatherer kings buried deep in the mounds and heavy tumuli around his hamlet.
They caught other trains, the women, from other intersecting tracks. Disappeared under hills and over mountains; they shot along great speeding straight lines over fields and rivers to be vanished by those towns and cities John could imagine only dimly in the country of his skull. They were gone like Lucy herself, flashed up to be remembered as just part of a momentary doll-show. But he wanted to climb into those images as others climbed into trains, and escape to another world, just like men in a great balloon he had once seen.
It was with such urgings in mind that one day, whilst feeding his sucking pigs immediately by the Waiting Room, he saw Lucy herself stepping off a newly arrived train aided by a reverent porter. She had just travelled on the first train from Bartley, thirty miles east of the village.
Though covered in mud and mire from top to toe, John was a fine tower of a man and despite herself, the girl looked hard at him. She then lowered her eyes to the pig muck that rose from his boots to his neck, gave him a Mannequin smile, and disappeared into the Waiting Room. Ten minutes later John watched as she stepped into quite another train, and disappeared under Stroud Hill like a goddess of the old landscape.
Light grey smoke followed her like the fumes of an old sacrifice.
The smoke vanished the church, the magistrate, and the Vicar. John’s pigs, his family, future wife were all gone forever, summoned out of time by the horns of Elfland. The images John had seen were the initial stages of his miraculous escape and, for the first time since the blessed Conquest, John would leave his village. Starvation, illness, death, and nameless suffering no doubt to come would never erase that image quest in his head. He was in love with Lucy forever; using all strength of body, mind, and soul, he would find her somewhere in the mystery of the new cities whose charcoal smoke rings he’d seen on the new industrial horizon. He would meet some version of her, some adulteration of her form and shape.
He would call her his Lanternslide Girl.
As for the villagers, they were left with a curious memory. After Mannequin and Signor Brahmin departed from the village with their cart and horses it was reported that they stopped for a while outside the Poor House—with a rumour that they’d handed over all their takings to the astonished Beadle.
After that they vanished into the infinity of the coming day, never to be seen or heard of again.
In a later era that was as separate from John as Rome was from Babylon, Morris Farmer, a handsome young guy in chinos and Estelle, his pretty new angular wife, slid out of an ochre taxi in old New York. Morris was John’s great, great grandson. As the multi-millionaire owner of a major film corporation, Morris was responsible for flooding the world with countless images every fraction of a second.
The newlyweds were on a merry scavenge for curiosa to lend some interest and character to their as yet unfurnished triplex. Floating through a splinter of an old outlet owned by a Mr Kee, quite apparently the oldest Chinese man in the world, they found a box of lanternslides, slender as pinned butterflies. Some of the slides were cracked, and all were obscured by the greenish dust and grease of nearly one hundred and seventy years.
Brim-full of themselves on honeymoon, prosperous and speeding and successful, neither was in the mood to notice that the young girl with the long dress and carmine lips, whose adventures featured in the cracked, blurred slides, resembled completely the new Rolex-wife on Morris Farmer’s arm.
Yet, full of countless excitements in a world that transformed every milisec, they could not make up their minds and, wafting promises to return the next day, they left the sharp sliver of real estate.
Morris and Estelle did make it back a week later but awaiting them was that rare incident, a disappointment. Mr Kee said an Italian man and his younger companion, a tall slim woman with long black hair who was maybe his daughter, had snapped up the slides and spirited them away. This odd couple appeared not to understand money or prices at all, Mr Kee added: they’d handed him a shocking amount of money for the slides and, before he could pretend to protest, the pair vanished into the infinity of the coming day.The Lanternslide Girl