Hell, 12 FeetOriginally printed in what claimed to be the 431st issue of The Gafiate's Intelligencer, which was produced immediately following the 1983 Worldcon but never distributed. It was then published in Prevert #14, 1986, edited by John Jarrold, and reprinted in Making Book by Teresa Nielsen Hayden, published by NESFA Press, 1994. Copyright 1986 by Teresa Nielsen Hayden.
It’s dawn, and Claude has shown up again, sitting on the floor next to my mattress. I can barely see him in this light; only his whispery voice comes across clearly. "You could, you know," he’s saying. "You could."
Could what? That’s the question. Because this is Cosmic Claude, mad prophet of Poplar Bluff, voyager into the unknown, hemisemidemigod of grossly dubious notions, Our Claude of Infinite Sorrow, BNF schizophrenic and example to us all:. Claude Degler.
Or rather, he says he’s Degler. I don’t feel inclined to believe him; uncharitable of me, but in a night spent staring at the ceiling, a week after attending the Worldcon, there’s altogether too much time to think about too many things. I can always write him off as just another sleepy hallucination, I realize. Besides, even if he really is Degler, I still don’t have to believe anything he says, Claude being after all the main proselytizer for breeding camps in the Ozarks, underground cities beneath New Castle, Indiana, and the Cosmic Circle. Not the sort of person you’d go to for sound advice.
"Thane of Glamis and Cawdor, and king hereafter," he suggests.
"No go, Claude, I’ve already heard about that one. Get lost."
I suspect that my soul may be in danger. The last time I listened to Claude I wound up working on the Iguanacon committee. No, that was the time before last. Never mind what I was doing last time.
"...bid again? Do the publications right this time? Not like Iggy, no more fixing other people’s crummy work, and the job is finished before the con even starts. Not that hard, really..."
"Claude, no! Never again! I promised myself after the last one. I do fanzines and go to cons. I don’t do cons."
Dammit, where’s Patrick when I need him? —though in fact I know exactly where he is: curled up behind me, looking like a lump of bedding. The lump stirs and emits a sinusoidal click from time to time, but I know from experience that he can’t be awakened this side of half a pint of coffee, and thus is no help at all.
Claude is an interesting problem. I’ve had proposed to me, out on the street and during waking hours and everything, the notion that seizing control of my pages of the universal playscript, amending my feminist-/consumer-/planetary consciousness, will bring forth complementary macroscopic changes; that filling out little pledge cards for Werner Erhard’s World Hunger Project will somehow end world hunger; and that if I have faith in the American Economic System prosperity will come back again. I say: maybe. I used to know a guy who believed that his various marginal enterprises would always turn up sufficient income to live on. Some months the money practically had to fall out of the ceiling in time for him to make the rent, but it always arrived. On the other hand, a couple of years later someone shot him (nonfatally). Buying a ticket in the state lottery and Believing Real Hard is probably inadequate all by itself, no matter how optimistic you feel about it, but perhaps you really can re-imagine the universe and have the universe co-operate with you. Belief works wonders, and if everyone will clap their hands there’ll be printing on the other side when you turn the page.
Trouble is, turn that particular strategy inside-out like a sock to show its pattern in reverse and you’ll find Degler waiting for you there:. Muncie Mutants. Planetary Fan Federation, all fandom plunged into war! How far can you take this game?
It is recorded that Victor Neuburg—friend, disciple and catamite of Aleister Crowley—once went round to all their London acquaintances, indignantly telling anyone who would listen that Crowley had turned him into a camel. I imagine Neuburg held himself to have recovered by the time he did this. Anyway, the question I take as one of the great koans of Western mysticism is: Did Aleister Crowley really turn Victor Neuburg into a camel? Only possible answer: Victor Neuburg said so. He was there, after all. A little-known fact of nature is that trees falling in forests never make noise, but since enough people believe that they do, the fact of the matter is immaterial.
In the meantime, Claude is still at it. "Let’s talk fanzines, then," he murmurs. "Third-best fanwriter in the File 770 Poll. Beaten out by Dan Steffan by a single vote for the Pong Poll’s ‘Number One Fan Face’. And you only missed a Hugo nomination by some few votes..."
"Really? How many?"
"That’s confidential information, sweetie. Now, next year, if you got a little more exposure—wrote articles for some other fanzines, perhaps—plus, given the new fanzine rules in the WSFS constitution, you could—"
"I could shake Mike Glyer’s hand after he picks up his Hugo for File 770."
"Or in the fanwriter category —"
"Yeah, sure. I can hear my acceptance speech now: ‘It is indeed an honor to stand here in the position so recently vacated by Richard E. Geis...’ Besides, if Geis doesn’t get it, Langford certainly will. Besides, it’s essentially meaningless and anyway I hardly ever even think about it most of the time. It’s trivial."
In the darkness I can hear Claude chuckling to himself, and very irritating it is too. "Damn your eyes, Degler, and the rest of you to boot and the Hugoes and the polls and egoboo and everything else," I say peevishly, realizing just how tired I am. "It’s been a good year for fanning, if nothing else; Izzard was the best, almost the only fun I had all year, and the egoboo was more than sufficient. But this chasing after improbably fannish glory—Claude, what good would that do? Would it find us an apartment and jobs in New York City, or make me well enough to work again? Would it get our household kipple out here from Joanna Russ’s basement? I went to the Worldcon and the fannishness was thick and heady indeed, but what got me through the con was massive and systematic abuse of my medications. Don’t tell me about all the splendid things I could do if I only tried a little harder."
Silence. After a while I heard faint sniffling noises. "Claude? Don’t cry, Claude. I’m just tired and feeling sorry for myself."
"I’m sorry too," he says. "I never tell anybody things they haven’t thought of already."
"I know." I meditate upon this. "Claude, did I ever tell you about Henry Argasinski? No? I didn’t think so. It goes like this..." And I tell him.
The first reported sighting of Henry Argasinski was in 1975, when he turned up in one of Mike Glicksohn’s high-school math classes in Toronto. At that time he was sixteen or so, the only child of two extremely weird offspring of exiled pre-WWI Polish aristocrats. Henry asked Mike about fandom, Mike directed him to OSFiC, and Henry draped himself like an albatross around the collective neck of the Toronto Derelicts.
Given to talking loudly to himself, and long spells of hysterical laughter in restaurants, Henry struck the Derelicts as irritating, not to mention mentally unbalanced. In the summer of 1975 Taral hatched a hoax with Tony Cvetko’s help, and shortly thereafter Henry received a letter from "Claude Degler" postmarked from Cleveland, inviting him to found and head up the Canadian branch of the Cosmic Circle. Henry immediately struck up a furious correspondence with "Claude" and started sending out Cosmic Circle publications profoundly similar to Degler’s own 1940s CC zines in their incoherence and their tendency to unilaterally appoint unsuspecting fans to high positions in the Cosmic Circle, and profoundly unlike Degler’s in their tidy execution. A brick shy a load or not, Toronto fans pay attention to good reproduction.
After about a month of this Taral revealed the hoax to Henry, prompted by mercy or, perhaps, by alarmed second thoughts about how enthusiastically the bait had been swallowed. Unfortunately, Henry refused to believe him, citing among other things the fact that the letter from "Claude" had been typed on a Selectric, and Taral didn’t own such a machine. Victoria Vayne did, but Henry was adamant. He kept writing to "Claude" and sending out Cosmic Circle publications, but "Claude" stopped responding and after a few months Henry apparently ended his Deglerian phase. He stopped hanging around the Derelicts but remained in OSFiC, and became very active in his high-school science fiction club as well. It’s suspected that this club was composed half of Henry’s vivid imagination and half of some very confused students at his school.
I’ll skip another couple of Henry Argasinski stories and run this forward to late 1977, when Henry entered himself in the non-partisan Toronto mayoral election on the Cosmic Circle platform. He proposed to make Toronto the Cosmic City; I’m not sure what all that entailed. His opponents in the race were the very popular incumbent (David Crombie, I think it was?) and a candidate fronted by the Western Guard, Canada’s indigenous brownshirts. They’re for racial purity and Canada for the Canadians, and hate blacks, Asians, Jews, Catholics, and people who speak French; their candidates poll a few thousand votes at most.
When the votes were counted the incumbent won with several hundred thousand to his credit, and the guy from the Western Guard collected his few thousand. Amazingly enough, though, Henry placed third. Three or four thousand people had voted the Cosmic Circle ticket. No one knew what these voters had been seeking, so far from their normal hunting grounds.
By the time I finish my story it’s almost daylight outside. My visitor is no more visible than he was before; instead, he’s slowly faded out as the light has come up. In a moment he’ll vanish entirely.
"Pretty good performance there," he says, "but none of that was my doing."
"I know," I say. "It never is."
And then he was gone.