If one were to accept that sentience was predicated on matter, and cities were some of the most complicated structures ever built, emergent properties were the inevitable consequence.
When I wrote on Christopher Slatsky's short story, Alectryomancer, I said if you aren't reading his work, you are doing yourself a huge disservice. Well, his short story, No One is Sleeping in this World, buttresses my statement. Slatsky is soaring higher and higher in the realm of Weird Fiction. He's a giant, casting a shadow over the literary landscape, quickly becoming synonymous with all things Weird and Horror. Slatsky writes truly unique and original stories, refreshing to anyone who has read their share of Weird Fiction. He is a gargantuan cornucopia of knowledge, consisting of archaeology, architecture, physics, biology, geology, mythology, religion, folklore, and so much more. He takes his broad depth of knowledge and infuses it with his writing, producing stories that leave you in awe, terrify you, turn the gears in your head, and chill you to the marrow.
A chapbook published by the consistently fantastic Dunhams Manor Press, No One is Sleeping in this World tells the story of Julia and Carla, two friends who are in the process of making a documentary titled, Landscape of Open Eyes. They are driving to a building that was designed by an architect named Alexei, whose designs were drawn from his dreams and knowledge of the occult. By no means a prolific architect, the majority of Alexei's buildings, following his mysterious disappearance, were demolished, rendering any existing building a highly rare find. Being labeled a decadent artist steeped in controversy amplifies the reward and excitement of being able to lay eyes on one of his buildings. As Julia and Carla get closer to their destination, things slowly spiral into the Weird and unknown, and their obsession and curiosity will open them up to things no one should have any business knowing.
Slatsky's story should be required reading for aspiring Megapolisomancers, and would make for a great companion piece to Thibaut de Castries' book, Megapolisomancy: A New Science of Cities. It's quite possible that Fritz Leiber was guiding Slatsky's hand in writing No One is Sleeping in this World, but it's all Slatsky's voice and uniqueness. A variety of themes and concepts are explored, creating a deep, complex, ambiguous tale that deserves to be read multiple times.
Obsession and curiosity, especially in Weird Fiction, have a tendency to get even the most intelligent protagonist into trouble, or, in some cases, much worse. Carla has been obsessed with architecture since her college days. Julia's obsession is film making. Their obsessions, coupled with their search for the Alexei building, lead them into dark, unknown territory, ultimately resulting in being subsumed by architectural integration.
Carla first begins to realize that all is not what it seems when she isn't sure if they are in the Central Industrial area:
The street was dominated by rows of corrugated metal warehouses, the pavement strewn with burst trash bags and discarded clothing. A woman pounded her palm against the car as we drove by, her face contorted with rage. Everything felt wrong- I knew the homeless weren't feral animals squatting in waste, I was certain the city hadn't always been so tainted or misaligned. Exhaustion whipped up my anxiety.
Carla and Julia have entered an alien landscape, unrecognizable especially to Carla. She knows this isn't right, something is way off, but they can't stop now; they've come to far to just turn around and give up. They need footage of what is possibly the only building left that was designed by Alexei. To help figure out where they are, Carla checked the map on her phone, but all it did was load something that looked like a "stain grasping for air." Additionally, all the street signs had plastic trash bags over them, duct taped to keep them there. They are on the outskirts of the unknown, about to cross the threshold into another world; a world they will find inside the Alexei building. Eventually, they find the Alexei building. Carla is disappointed at her initial viewing of it, but soon sees the tented roof and "ornamental mascarons on the cornice like the faces of the dead crawling through the structure itself." Now, no one is allowed inside this building, it's condemned; however, Carla and Julia's disappointment with the exterior of the building prompts them to find a way inside. Their determination to capture footage of Alexei's designs takes the further and further into the unknown. They find a rusty sliding shutter, and, strangely enough, it's the only surface on the whole building that's not covered in graffiti. Seems rather inviting, don't you think? As if the building wants them to enter.
Opening the shutter and entering, Carla detects the faint sound of singing, somewhere off in the distance. Singing? In a condemned building? Curiosity may tell you that you want to know who is singing, and where in the building it's coming from. Carla and Julia try numerous doors, all locked. The main corridor takes them to a room with a huge sliding metal door, locked with chains, and the faint smell of incense that reminds Carla of Mass. There also is a stack of pallets against the wall. Crestfallen, Carla believes there is nothing here in the way of Alexei's touch. Before calling it quits, though, they see a "wide lintel that ran the length of the room and ended at an Oeil-de-boeuf window above the imposing doors." Their determination renewed, they drag the pallets closer to the window, uncovering a hole in the wall. From the opening, they hear the singing and smell the incense. The opening appears to connect to the other room. Carla tells Julia she is not turning back. Would you turn back? I like to think I would, but I'm not so sure. Curiosity and obsession can get the better of us. Julia says, "Down the rabbit hole?" This isn't just an ordinary opening in some wall; This is the threshold that delineates the known from the unknown. Carla and Julia are entering a world that very few have seen; a world that, perhaps, shouldn't be seen. There are some things better left unknown.
Getting on their hands and knees and bringing a camera, Carla and Julia enter the opening, taking a sharp right that leads them all the way to grate, separating them from another room. What they see gives them pause:
At least thirty people kneeled in the center, chanting something that sounded vaguely Gregorian if not for an undertone of gasping. I was shocked to see they all wore torn yellow raincoats and plastic trash bags over their heads like a parody of Mantilla.
At this point, how can you turn back? Carla even says, "What the fuck?" Julia wants to make sure Carla is filming the whole thing. How many people can honestly say they have seen something like this? If this congregation of bag-heads isn't weird enough, what comes next is truly frightening, and Carla is the only one with enough sense to get out of there. A bag-head narrator says, "I offer you the prisca sapienta (rediscovering ancient knowledge that had been lost over the ages) of the Architect! I offer you the GREAT WORK!" Then, the truly unfathomable happens:
Shadows in the corner of the room closed in. Black tendrils dripped from the ceiling, from the chaotic architecture, across the cement floor to the center of the warehouse where muscular strands danced in anticipation of great things.
Carla could not comprehend what she was seeing. The black tendrils congealed into something ineffable. The best way to describe it:
A giant, its head a mass of billowing trash bags, each malformed bubble expanding and deflating repeatedly. Its arms were thick sheets of glass crudely cut into half moon shapes like scimitars, the surface stained and milky as slag glass. The head moved in such a manner it blotted out the space it occupied.
The monster feeds off the chanting of the bag-heads, and Carla finally decides it's time to leave, but Julia is fixated on the grotesque, disturbing scene. She's already lost, and even grabs Carla's arm with a "fanatics strength," indicating she is already one of them. Having no other thought but to leave, Carla elbows Julia and breaks her grip, fleeing from the awful scene. Julia's escape would prove to be futile, however. Slatsky does an excellent job of exploring what our obsessions and curiosities can do to us. How we have this innate ability to see something to the end, no matter the risks and consequences that may be involved, even if, in the end, they prove horrific. It's one of those instances where death is a much better fate than what Julia and Carla experience.
Slatsky also tackles the monumental concept of sentient cities. Cities that are god-minds; conscious, gigantic beings. Now, the story is told as Carla's recollection of how her soul was subsumed by architectural integration, but the beginning--the second paragraph--gives us a glimpse of the present:
An infinite array of cities swim through a sea of stars, megalopoli pass overhead adorned in streets and inhabitants and sputtering lights that inevitably blink into darkness. Klaxon horns scream with the enormous shriek of rusting metal, groan with the voice of split concrete. Ophanim wheels grind, propel existence into infinity.
Slatsky's clever introduction is enough to immediately suck you in. You wonder to yourself, how did it come to be this way? Sentient cities? What are we? Throughout the story, Slatsky slowly pieces together fragments of the how and why. Carla describes the idea of her and Julia's documentary as such:
We proposed that architecture was a brain template, cities neurons in the caudate. If one were to accept that sentience was predicated on matter, and cities were some of the most complicated structures ever built, emergent properties were the inevitable consequence. Aqueducts, avenues, sewers and axons; dendrite slopes, every street a glial cell. Infrastructure was just another ghost swarming with parasitic denizens, humanity a pack of animals dancing on the head of a flèche in the dreams of cities.
What we have here is a role reversal, of sorts. Humans dominate the earth, its landscapes and geography; however, our very structures, the mega-cities we created--complex systems--gained consciousness, becoming an organism and rendering us as parasites. Or, at the very least, we are simply part of its anatomy. It's another way of hitting on this whole idea of our insignificance. We are insects; tiny pinholes of consciousnesses engulfed by a greater consciousness. Julia also says (one of my favorite quotes from the story), "Ghosts are just how a city dreams about what it used to be." To even think that we are experiencing, LIVING, the dreams of a city, it's enough to shatter the most stable mind. Julia's quote is also key, because there is some debate as to whether or not the things that Carla sees are the result of her unstable mind, due to years of drug use and therapy, or is she really experiencing the dreams of the city. Throughout the story, Carla thinks she sees different faces floating down the streets, but then turn out to be bags, carried by the wind. Another scene that calls into question whether or not any of this is real, is when Carla and Julia are peering through the grate at the bag-head worshipers. From a dark corner, a movie projector is projecting images of various civilizations, maps, cuneiform tablets, and other images. Suddenly, a bag-head stands up from the crowd, book in hand, opens it and begins to read from it. One of passages reads:
Not only has this biological change been conclusively shown, the evidence also suggests that the bigger the city the greater risk for schizophrenia. The demiurge that constructed this architectural universe is intentionally altering the species to become conduits for dreams.
Not only does this passage seem familiar to Carla, but she suddenly sees footage of herself projected on the wall. Footage of her at five years old, standing at the foot of her bed. Now, I will tell you, I was convinced that this was all in Carla's head; however, it dawned on me: if the city is a god-mind, a colossal consciousness, then it is aware of the thoughts, ideas, and feelings of humans. More to the point, it's aware of Carla's thoughts and feelings. The city is aware of its body, its entire being. Carla is experiencing the dreams of the city. To further drive this home, when she flees Julia and the disturbing scene with the giant, she makes it outside, but witnesses an incredible change:
The street was no longer asphalt and traffic signs but an expanse of wet gavel stretching off into a horizon the color of a blood clot. Rivulets trickled through the rocks where crosswalks used to be. The stifling atmosphere felt like a sheet of clear plastic had been stretched across the sky.
By the time Carla comes to this startling, mind-shattering revelation, it's too late. Architectural subsumption is inevitable, and the only fate. This nicely leads into the next topic to be explored. The bag-head worshipers practice a sort of neo-religion. Sacred Geometry is referenced a couple times in the story. It's used in the design and construction of religious structures. Anything from temples, mosques, churches, to altars. It's even utilized in sacred spaces. Symbolic and sacred meanings are ascribed to the geometry and proportions of these structures. The Alexei building is a church for the bag-heads. A new church for a new age; a sanctuary. Was this Alexei's intention all along? To design a new church for an age he foresaw? The room the bag-heads are worshiping in, it has the Alexei touches, but it's also reminiscent of Piranesi's Carceri prints. Giovanni Battista Piranesi was an Italian artist from the 18th century. His Carceri prints depict enormous subterranean, labyrinthine structures, consisting of stairways and walkways that lead to nowhere, they dead end; distortions and chaos. The room serves as a place of worship, and to communicate with the demiurge, which is frequently mentioned in the story. The demiurge is the artisan--the architect--responsible for designing and constructing the physical universe. It's not the same as the monotheistic god. A quote I used above says the demiurge is altering the human species to become conduits for dreams. This would be the dreams of the city. Through worship, the bag-heads are conduits, making the city's dreams manifest. The amount of worshipers in the building also explain why Carla never saw anyone, especially homeless people, in a city block radius of the Alexei building; they have all been subsumed. Now, the demiurge may just be the only explanation humans use to explain these grand workings. To use Slatsky's other story Alectryomancer as an example, Rey and other people in the story have their belief in god, to some degree or another, but it's too simplistic when faced with the complexities of Phainothropus, the real puppet master in the story. There is something highly complex at work in No One is Sleeping in this World, and humans explain it to the best of their ability; the only way their feeble minds can express it. The cities are the real puppet masters of the humans; the god-minds that sail through oceans of stars. We are merely a fraction of their make-up.
There is yet another theme to be found in Slatsky's stories. You see, the majority of Weird Fiction places great emphasis on cosmic indifference. We experience the indifference of the cold, unforgiving cosmos. We look up to the stars and feel our insignificance. Slatsky, on the other hand, has us look inward, to the earth. Insignificance and indifference is right in front of us, or right beneath our feet. It also emphasizes the unknown and alien on our very own planet, the planet we think we have mastery over. It's one more reason why Slatsky's tales are so original and unique, and another reason why I cannot stress enough how amazing his stories are. I'm a full-fledged advocate of Christopher Slatsky. He is a name that should be on everyone's radar. He's a force of nature that cannot be stopped, nor should he be. He is shaking the foundation of the Weird Fiction world, making waves and dropping jaws. Slatsky is the future of Weird Fiction, and the future is now.