The ivory tower has no top. Not many people know this. Colin Frye didn’t until very late, not until he’d reached the heights where the Earth’s atmosphere thinned and life suffocated and burned. It was up here, when there was no going back down, and there was no peak in sight, that he began to wonder, that he began to realize. Even then, there were a couple of revelations yet in store.
Just because the tower has no top, that doesn’t mean it goes on climbing forever.
The revelations started in Colin’s fifth year as assistant professor at the Dunfax University. He had climbed several floors of the tower by this point, from the lobby of undergraduate studies, to the mezzanine of grad school, to a mercifully brief stay in the servants’ staircase of sessional lectureships, to where he was now: on the first of the residential floors. This year, the gods of academe would look down from their homes in the clouds and decide whether or not to anoint him with the key to the penthouse: tenure.
Where the living was fine.
Trouble was, the keys were harder to come by these days. Colin was lucky to have landed a full-time position at all. The universities were dying slow deaths, scapegoats bled to appease the evil Babylonian deity Deficit. Even Business and Engineering were having to bow and scrape every time they wanted to hire, and English… Well, English did as English could, which was little enough these days. So yes, Colin was blessed already, and let’s not get greedy and ask for job security as well.
Publish or… Yes, Colin knew how it went. But among his peers it was considered in extremely poor taste to finish that sentence. Some things were better left unsaid, especially if they were true.
And so this was the last year of Colin’s race for the key. He would either get it, and the tower would be his oyster, or he would not, and face the prospect of a possible tumble back down the stairs. In the worst cases, the tower cast its unwanted supplicants all the way out, into the wasteland. If Colin didn’t want that to happen, if he wanted a key, then he needed to win a race that was more strenuous every year. He needed to publish.
He needed a book.
He needed a good one.
And the pressure had blocked him, turning his mind into an idea logjam. No movement, no flow, except the whitewater rush of time.
He had a travel allowance coming his way, so he took it, flying off to Paris in search of the eureka! that would free the jam and spill ideas onto a manuscript. To Paris, fountainhead of theory. That was supposed to be his area, after all: Contemporary Literary Theory in the Realm of Cultural Studies. That’s what it said, right there next to his name in the department handbook, so it had to be true.
It was high time he proved that it was.
He arrived late-morning, checked in at his hotel on the Boulevard St. Germain, and took the metro to the Richelieu site of the Bibliothèque Nationale. He was jet lagged, his brain was running on fumes, and it would have made more sense, given his field, to consult the primary collections at the François-Mitterand site. But he thought (perhaps dreaming on his feet) that if he threw himself into the library right away, if he surrounded himself with not just with books by with the architectures of history while in a highly suggestible state, maybe he would be open to inspiration.
He wound up with a seat near the steps leading down to the lower floor. He sat down, gazed up at the domed ceiling, and wondered where he should start.
Two minutes later he was asleep.
When he woke up, the library was closing. He was almost alone in the main room. He stood, too quickly, and purple blossomed over his vision. He closed his eyes, swaying. He reached out to grab a table for support, but a hand caught his elbow instead. Startled, he opened his eyes. The purple receded. An elderly man was standing at his side.
The man was dressed in a dark grey suit so worn and dusty it looked like the cover of an old book. Library camouflage, Colin thought. The man’s unlined skin was a yellowed and fading text. Colin couldn’t guess his age. “Old” was as specific as he could get.
“I’m sorry,” the man said in English. “I thought you were going to fall.” His accent was hard to place. It sounded like a blend of so many locales the colours had mixed and turned to mud.
“Yes, thank you,” Colin said.
The man held his arm just a fraction too long before letting go. His look was intense. There was something else in the eyes too, but Colin couldn’t place it. At this point, he hardly noticed it. That came later.
“You are looking for something,” the man said.
Christ, Colin thought. Is he hitting on me? “Um,” he said. It was the only thing he could come up with at the moment.
“A book, I think.”
“Well.” Not much better, but at least it was a word.
“An idea then.”
Colin blinked. “Yes,” he said, the truth startled out of him. The man’s eyes were making him uncomfortable. Piercing, yes, but not like lasers. They were too cold.
The man had a bound manuscript under his arm. He held it out to Colin. Its colours made it seem like the man’s twin. “Here,” he said. “You must read this.”
Now Colin had his number. Crackpot. He’d been accosted by this type before. Mad poets who tried to sell you their handwritten rants while you waited in line, trapped, for your turn at the box office. Sad neurotics who sat at the adjacent table and explained why you should care about their self-destructed lives. Subway prophets blessed by illumination as desperate as incomprehensible. Colin really wasn’t in the mood for this right now. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Maybe some other time.” He tried to edge past.
The man blocked his path. “No. Now.”
“I can’t read the whole book now. The library is closing.” He began to glance around for staff. The man’s glare and aggressiveness were pushing him out of the crackpot category and into the nut slot. Nuts could be dangerous.
“Just the first page,” the man insisted.
”Did you notice I knew you spoke English?”
Well, sort of. He’d taken it for granted. He was embarrassed now.
“Just the first page.”
“All right. The first page.” Colin put his briefcase down and accepted the manuscript. He wrinkled his nose at its smell: old beyond musty. There was nothing written on the cover. Colin opened it and started to read the first page.
He had to sit down before he’d made it three sentences in.
The manuscript was in English. Or at least, it was now. For a moment, just as he had started to read, Colin had thought that it was in French. But no, English. Definitely English. It was hand-printed, and the prose style would remind him vaguely, when he had time to think back, of Samuel Johnson on a particularly good day. But that wasn’t what he was paying attention to right now. Right now, he was too busy dealing with his synapses suddenly going into fever strobes.
Everything he knew and thought about criticism and theory withered in the blast of that single page. Ideas connected in configurations he could never have imagined, but now could not picture in any other way. Concepts tumbled out of paragraphs, even the throwaways sailing over Colin’s head as they glinted with the steel of absolute truth. If criticism had a fountainhead, this was it. But there was so much on this one page he couldn’t comprehend. He needed to understand, though, like he needed to breathe.
He glanced up at the old man, speculating. If theory had a muse…
“Is it what you were looking for?” the man asked.
Colin’s mouth formed shapes but not words.
The old man reached for his manuscript.
“No!” Colin clutched at it. Having been handed the Philosopher’s Stone, he couldn’t bear to see it leave him.
“The library is closing.” The voice was gentle, but under the caress was hard bone.
“No,” Colin pleaded. He felt tears well.
The old man took the book. His strength shocked Colin.
“Please,” said Colin.
“I need…” To know? To understand? The words were inadequate to the point of blasphemy.
The man nodded, smiling at the surface. “Don’t worry,” he said. He reached into his vest pocket at pulled out a card. “Here,” he handed it to Colin. “Come and see me at this address tomorrow evening.” Then he turned and strode off.
Colin blinked after him for a few moments, then stumbled to his feet and tried to catch up. He hurried through the closing library and out onto the street. The old man had vanished.
No surprise there.
The streetlight was on by the time Colin located Rue Furstenberg. It was a minuscule street, more like a square, nestled in the maze just north of the church of St. Germain des Prés. The streetlight was old: wrought iron and shining globes. It stood, surrounded by trees, on an island in the middle of the street. Its light turned the leaves into a shield of green against the night. Though the Boulevard St. Germain was only a couple of blocks away, the city here was silent.
Colin had taken several wrong turns times trying to find Furstenberg, but now that he was here, he spotted the address right away. He buzzed. The building door unlocked without query. He walked up to the top floor, where the old man was waiting in his doorway, a flickering silhouette.
The apartment was very dark. Candles lit a path to a sitting room. Colin had expected to find the walls lined with books, but they were bare. The sitting room was empty except for a table with two chairs. The manuscript lay open on the table.
“Sit down,” said the old man.
“Thank you.” Colin eyed the manuscript, feeling hunger, thirst, need. He made one stab at niceties before running with the temptation. “Excuse me, I never did catch your name.”
The old man smiled. His eyes warned a receptive, animal instinct in Colin not to ask that question again, in case it was answered. “Tonight you will read the second page. Then you may ask me questions.”
Colin bent his head and started to read. As he did so, he felt the whisper of a tickle on the back of his neck.
He thought it was a draft.
Knowledge as drug. Not as means to power, but as an end in itself, a high with heroin hooks. Colin knew the monkey was on his back, realized that he was addicted after only a couple of days, and realized just as clearly that there was nothing he could do about it. Part of him wanted to. This was a part that resented the return to abject apprenticeship. That objected to being taken by hand and led up the ivory tower’s stairs with no real effort, no real discovery, only thoughts that belonged to someone else.
Oh, but those thoughts. Far beyond the sorry mundanities of epiphany and revelation, they buzzed Colin’s mind, setting up new neural pathways, triggering massive endorphin rushes by the force of their originality alone. And there was more. There was the writing. It was definitively elegant. Colin would have been hooked even if the ideas themselves had been absent. Criticism had always had an inferiority complex, stigmatized as the product of writers who could not be artists in their own right. There were exceptions, examples held up as art, but acknowledged more out of duty than love. The same was true for theory. But this manuscript… Its beauty and its function as art were as undeniable and necessary as the sun.
It was a high he was loathe to give up.
But he should. He knew he should. His health was not taking to the new thought very well. His mind might be in ecstasy as he read faster and faster, his ears might be exulting in the murmured music of the old man’s explanations, but for all the good studying the manuscript was doing the rest of his body, he might as well be mainlining the text.
At first he thought it was just jet lag. The fatigue was dragging on longer than usual, but he figured it would pass. It didn’t. It grew worse. After a week, it was all he could do to stagger out of the hotel to the nearest café for a meal. He always had enough energy come the evening, but it was his craving for the drug driving him on.
He was worried, but the worry couldn’t distract him from the manuscript and its blossoming worlds.
Until the pink.
It was the tenth night. He was bent over the text, letting the words wash through him. He was near the end of the book. By now, he had mastered the theory’s essentials (unless it was the other way around). The rest of the book seemed to be final illuminations of individual works. He glanced up as he turned a page, and caught a hint of pink out of the corner of his eye.
Colin blinked. The pink didn’t go away. Well that’s it, he thought. I’ve finally used myself all up. He turned around in his chair to tell the old man he needed to take a rest.
Either he turned too quickly or the old man wasn’t worried about being found out anymore. Colin faced a pink haze. He felt his jaw loosen. Confusion shaded quickly into fear. There was movement in the haze. It was flowing from Colin to the old man’s right palm. The man’s eyes shone cold and bright, and Colin finally placed the element he had seen but not understood before: the eyes held a hunger somewhere in the night beyond malevolence. The old man showed his teeth in the grin of truth, and now there was no mask, and the steel was at the surface, and it was a blade, and Colin would bleed
He was bleeding. He saw the haze for what it was: a mist, a vapour of blood, evaporating by droplets out of him. He couldn’t see where they were coming from, but then he felt the tickle at the back of his neck, a sensation so familiar now he had forgotten it.
He jumped up from the chair, knocking it over. He staggered backwards under the glare of the smile.
“Where are you going?” the old man asked. “We haven’t finished tonight’s lesson.”
“Yes we have,” said Colin. “We’re finished.” He stumbled from the sitting room, trying to remember how to run. As he did, he saw the old man shaking his head, enjoying the joke.
“No,” the man said, “I don’t think we are finished.” But he didn’t try to stop Colin from leaving. He didn’t even bother to get out of his chair.
He didn’t need to.
The old man was right, Colin realized even before he was out of the building. They weren’t finished. The blood mist was still drifting out of him. It stretched out behind him, thinning but unbroken. It was with him as he ran for the Boulevard St. Germain. It was with him, leeching, as he reached the hotel. It was with him, sinister enough to be a smile, as he collapsed in bed. He lay in the dark, wheezing, watching the line of mist snake out the window, Ariadne’s thread, only leading not out of the maze, but to its centre, to Furstenberg.
Think, Colin told himself. For once, think for yourself, think your own thoughts. It was hard, though. Even now, even with his blood gently dancing away from him, he still wanted to play with the thoughts of the manuscript.
Maybe that was it. His addiction was the hold, the link the old man needed. So how could he break the link? He thought about their master-apprentice relationship. He thought about how apprentices finally leave that state. How they begin their own climb up the ivory tower. He sat up. With a huge effort, he moved to the little table by the window, opened a notebook, and picked up a pen. He started to write.
Write as a scholar, he thought. That’s what you’re supposed to be. A scholar doesn’t swallow a theory whole and regurgitate it unchanged. A scholar builds. A scholar takes the theory as a medium and works in it.
Sometimes, a theory needed to be expanded. The old man’s manuscript was a Last Word. There was no way its theory could be contradicted. But it only dealt with classical literature.
Colin’s area was Cultural Studies.
He smiled as his notes took form. He could see where he was going. He could make his own theory, subsuming the old man’s and expanding it, applying it across languages and centuries and media.
The Theory of Everything.
The Last Word on Art.
Around two in the morning, when his idea finally took a complete shape in his head, the mist stopped flowing. He barely noticed. He kept writing.
He had his book.
This is how Colin discovered the final truths about the ivory tower:
He didn’t see the old man again, and though he felt freed and renewed, he was still afraid. What if the old man tried to reclaim his theory? Colin had to make it his own.
He wrote the book in a white heat. Less than a month after he returned to Dunfax, it was ready. He fired it off to Routledge, and crossed his fingers.
The book was accepted and published in record time. It caught on like wildfire. Colin became bigger than huge. Derrida was a faint trace of the past, Badiou forgotten, Kristeva a footnote. Colin wasn’t running up the tower stairs, he was taking the express elevator. He felt great.
Top of the world.
Hold it, though. Just wait:
He didn’t know why it took so long to happen. He knew still less why he hadn’t seen it coming. Not that it mattered. It happened anyway.
He was in Paris again, on a book tour this time. He was staying at the Georges V, no expenses spared. He was lying in bed, relaxing, when the blood mist came back.
Only it wasn’t leaving him.
It was flowing into him.
And it wasn’t the delicate pink of a single human’s spray. It was a red so dark, so concentrated, it shone rich black. The power charge knocked the scream from him. The force of the vast addiction, the blood from a million readers, lit him up like a supernova.
He lay there, paralyzed by his own power, tears evaporating as they formed, and that was when he saw the final truth. Yes, the tower has no top. But it isn’t endless. Past a certain point (and oh, he had passed it now), you start going down again. Not back the way you came, but to the tower’s other base. Here the tower does not rise from a landscaped campus. It plunges into a charnel plain, a horizonless vista hell-deep with the bones of your readers.
The blood flow intensified. Soon, frozen, screamless, all Colin could see was a wall of crimson black.
And he wondered how he would face the silence when it all stopped.
A David Annandale writes Warhammer 40,000 and Horus Heresy fiction for the Black Library, including the recent novels Yarrick: Imperial Creed and The Damnation of Pythos. He is also the author of the horror novel Gethsemane Hall (Dundurn Press and Snowbooks). For Turnstone Press, he has written a series of thrillers featuring rogue warrior Jen Blaylock (Crown Fire, Kornukopia, and The Valedictorians). His short fiction has appeared in such anthologies as Kaiju Rising: Age of Monsters and will be in the forthcoming Occult Detective Monster Hunter: A Grimoire of Eldritch Inquests. David’s non-fiction has appeared in Black Treacle and such collections as Roman Catholicism in Fantastic Film: Essays on Belief, Spectacle, Ritual and Imagery and The Meaning and Culture of Grand Theft Auto. He writes film reviews for The Phantom of the Movies® VideoScope. He teaches film, creative writing and literature at the University of Manitoba. His website is www.davidannandale.com and you can follow him on twitter @David_Annandale