Saturday, 29 August 2015


I've been playing around with this idea for a while, and it eventually cohered into this. I'm quite pleased with it, as I don't write fiction very often (hopefully none of you will get to the end of this and say 'I can see why!'). So, here it is, my first real crack at weird fiction. Enjoy.


The house was dark and cold. It was haunted by the smell of damp and cigarettes. The old soldier, wearing a thick jacket and wrapped in a heavy blanket, explained that he was behind on most of his bills, and had never really bothered to maintain the place anyway. The curtains were drawn, blotting out the grey late-evening sky. I shivered, and gratefully accepted the offered cigarette.

‘Mark told me you have an interesting story for me,’ I said. ‘I’m a collector of interesting stories.’

Mark was our mutual acquaintance. A conspiracy freak and self-described ‘guerrilla occultist’, he made a living from pulling together diverse threads of weirdness, tying them together into something interesting and selling them on. I made a point of sitting down with him every couple of months to see if he’d anything new for me. He could be easily plied with drink, money and a little flirting, and he never seemed to hold back much information. Two nights ago, in an authentically grim pub, he told me that he’d met someone who, he said, had been involved with the 70s-80s incarnation of a certain military unit, one that has a tendency of cropping up in conspiracy circles.

‘How the hell did you manage that?’ I asked.

He tapped his nose and grinned. ‘Can’t be sharing trade secrets with you, now can I?  I’ve mentioned to him that I’ve got this friend who’s very keen on meeting people who’ve had certain experiences. And he’s keen on relating those experiences to someone. If you’re interested, and I’m sure you are, I can let you know what his address is.’

Two-hundred pounds later, there I was, sitting in the living room of a man out of modern myth.

His drawn face, coated with several days’ growth of stubble, was briefly illuminated as he lit his cigarette, drawing from it deeply. He might have been handsome once. He looked at me intently, like he was examining me. There was a coldness in his eyes that frightened me a little.

‘Yeah. I’ve got a story.’ His voice was almost without accent, but I thought I detected a trace of the North in it. ‘What’s Mark told you?’

‘That you were in the special forces a long time ago.’

‘He say when?’

‘Late 70s, early 80s.’

‘That’s right. What else?’

‘Not much, just that you wanted to tell someone your story.’

‘He mention I’m dying?’

I drew on my cigarette for a moment. ‘No. Is that why you’re telling me this? A confession?’

‘Partly. Yeah. I guess.’

I put the digital recorder on the table between us. Mark had assured me that this guy was comfortable with me using it, though he regarded it with suspicion.

‘What are you going to do with that afterwards?’ he asked.

‘I’ll write up a transcript of this to store in my private archives. It won’t be published elsewhere, if you don’t want it to be.’

‘Not much fussed really, but wait until they’ve stuck me in the oven until you print it, if you’re going to.’

‘How do you want to do this?’ I asked. He shifted in his seat a moment, pulled the blanket a little tighter around him.

‘I’ll talk. You want to know something in particular, you ask.’

I nodded.

‘I dunno when this happened exactly. They gave us all a drug, you see, so it’s difficult to remember. My theory is, they didn’t kill us in case they needed us again. Me and the boys, we were a special unit. Not SAS or SBS or Royal Marines, but drawn from all three, as well as the regulars. Idea was that we were reliable, tough bastards. That wasn’t all of it though, we’d all…we’d all seen something, or been involved with something we weren’t meant to talk about. Difficult to remember any of it with much detail, but…yeah.’

‘Tell me about the drug.’

‘I think they gave it to us after this last one, the one I wanna talk about. They must have dissolved the unit afterwards, or kept it going with other people… I only started remembering this stuff in the last few years.’

‘How did that happen?’

He lit another cigarette. He didn’t offer me one this time.

‘I was out on a walk, in the countryside, out there,’ he nodded towards the window. ‘And I lost track of time, it got dark and I realised I didn’t know where I was. Still, wasn’t exactly the first time I’d slept rough, so I was looking for somewhere to kip, and I noticed a light in the distance, miles away it was, on one of them big hills. I’ve no idea what it was, but I knew there wasn’t anything on that hill, no antennas or nothing. Suddenly, things  started to jolt out of place in my head. That’s when it started.’ He was quiet for nearly a minute.

‘I started getting these dreams, but not just when I was asleep. About a light in the sky, something…something coming down out of the light…and then one day, I was in fucking Tesco’s getting my shopping when it happened, it just all came crashing down into my head again. They thought I was having a fit, called the ambulance, but I managed to get out and get home.’

‘How much had you forgotten?’

‘What do you mean?’ He seemed annoyed.

‘Did you remember being in the military at all?’

He nodded vigorously. ‘Of course I did, yeah. Thing is, they told me that I’d had a head injury and that I’d lost a couple of years of memory. Not likely to come back.’

‘How did you get involved in this unit?’

‘Sorry love, I need to take a piss before we carry on.’ He pulled away the blanket and dragged himself up out of the chair, stumbling out of the room. While I was on my own, I had a quick look around. He wasn’t a quiet man, so I was confident I wouldn’t be taken by surprise. There were piles of old newspapers, mostly tabloids, littered around the room, along with conspiracy and paranormal magazines, and notebooks. Dozens of notebooks. I picked one at random and leafed through it. It was full of scrawled writing, impossible to decipher in the light, and drawings, little sketches: flying saucers, stars, churches, symbols from some occult alphabet I didn’t recognise. I slipped it into my coat pocket as I heard the toilet flush.

I was sitting down again as he came in. He sat down heavily.

‘Me and some boys, we were out on patrol. Peacekeeping thing in Africa. We saw this light shining, deep in the jungle. We advanced towards it, and…I don’t know what happened next. I…I remember being able to remember it but I don’t…I don’t know, now, it was too long ago.’ His voice was becoming pained, sounding almost as if he was going to weep with sheer frustration. I kept quiet. He smoked another cigarette silently. I was about to speak when he began to talk again.

‘After that, I remember training in this camp somewhere cold, I think it was on an island off the north coast somewhere, Scotland way. Then there’s bits of memory. Missions all over. Middle East, Australia, Eastern Bloc, America. Can’t remember too much about any of it. Just fragments. Little snapshots. Something getting washed up on a beach somewhere, that did…did something to the town near. A mine, somewhere, where they’d found a skeleton that was too old, too far down. No details. More like when you half-remember a dream from the night-before. There’s one though, one I remember more than the others. I think it was probably my last one. It’s that one I want to talk to you about.

‘It happened here, in the UK. I know that. I have a feeling it was in the South East somewhere. We were on guard duty, on a base. Had this big warehouse thing in it off to one side, to try and make it look a little out of the way. But that was where it was really happening. They brought us in rather than having the usual boys there, that night. I mean, the usual boys they had on the base, on guard. I don’t think they really knew what was going on, and the high-ups knew they could rely on us not to freak out. We’d…some of the things we’d seen, that I remember…no one should see that kind of stuff. Violence, killing, that’s one thing, I saw plenty of that before Africa, but…some of the things, out there, that they know about…’ I could see tears in his eyes. I stayed silent for a while.

‘Do you want to stop?’ I ventured.

‘No! Just…just be a bit patient, alright?’

I nodded. He didn’t smoke this time. He just sat and stared at the curtained window. He got up suddenly, walked over to it and opened the curtain. There was only a suggestion of light now. He sat down again without drawing it.

‘In this warehouse, they’d been digging.’ His voice was perfectly steady now. ‘There was a circle of stones, about ten metres down. They’d only half-dug them out, they stuck up out of the soil. Looked a little like teeth. There was this big antenna tower in the middle of it, like one of those big TV or phone antennas you see. Really tall, came out of the pit. All covered in gadgets and stuff, and big cables running all over the place, to machines around the pit, to bits of metal looped around the stones. There were two dishes. Satellite dishes, one on the top, pointing straight up, the other underneath it, pointing down.

‘I was stationed on the top edge of the pit when it happened. They didn’t tell us what to expect, just to be ready. They opened the roof of the warehouse, it slid open and you could see the stars. It looked wrong, really wrong, but I couldn’t tell why at first. Then I realised the sky was too bright. There wasn’t a full moon, and it was nearly midnight, but it looked too bright, like it was only just past sunset. There were too many stars. It was like someone had taken a picture of the night sky and scattered salt on it. A humming sound started. It was coming from everywhere, all at once. The stars I was familiar with started to fade out and then there were just these other stars, different stars, and they were shinning bright, so bright.

‘That’s when they brought this kid out. He looked about sixteen. He was dressed all in white, clinical like. His head was shaved. He wasn’t struggling or anything, they just took him down this little metal staircase they had going down the side of the pit.’

‘They?’ I asked.

‘Two men. Not soldiers, just wearing suits. They held his arms and lead him directly under the antenna, beneath the dishes, in the middle of the stone circle, and left him there. He just stood still.

‘The humming was getting louder, it was more like the roar a machine would make. The sky was very bright now, and one of the stars in particular was glowing like a spotlight. Right above the satellite dish. Then the humming just stopped. It was silent for a moment, and then there was this shrieking sound, not like anything I’d ever heard before. I looked down at the kid in the pit and he stood rigid, his head tilted back slightly. It was too bright to look at the star anymore, it was as bright as the sun. But…then I saw something, it was like a heat haze, and it just rushed down, out of the sky, down the antenna and onto the kid, and it was gone. And that was that.’

When he didn’t speak for a moment, I asked: ‘That was that?’

‘The sky was normal again. No lights, no funny stars, no noise, no nothing. It was over. The kid was standing there, the two men came back from above the pit to collect him. And then I heard one of them say something about “the transmission.”’

‘What happened next?’

‘I dunno really. My memory fades out again there. Guess that must have been around when they decided to get rid of us, give us the drugs and retire us. See, I think that maybe they’ve got another drug or a hypnotising machine or something that could snap us out of it, make us remember again. In case they need us, you see?’

He didn’t speak for nearly five minutes. I was about to thank him and head on my way when he spoke again. ‘You see, I think I know what was happening that night. Not all of it, but what I think is, they called something down, but it wasn’t a demon or something, like you read in those horror stories, a star-demon. What they got, and I don’t know where from, or from who, but what it was: I think it was information. Knowledge. Buggered if I know what it was knowledge of, or why it took a kid who looked comatose to receive it. I think they’d scrubbed all his memories out, see? Like how they’ve played around with mine.’ He tapped his head.

I didn’t know what to say for a moment. Then, on immediately regretted impulse, I asked: ‘How do I know you’re telling the truth?’

He smiled. ‘I don’t even know if I’m telling the truth. All I know is that these things,’ he waved at the cigarettes on the table, ‘have caught up with me, and I’ll be gone before the year’s out. And I’m ok with that.’

I turned off the recorder, thanked him, and left.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Russian Cosmism: A (brief) Summary

I finished George Young's superb little book on the Russian Cosmists a couple of days ago. The Cosmists will be the subject matter of the first episode of a podcast a friend and I are working on, so I thought I'd get the ball rolling and present a summary of them here.

Only known portrait of Nikolai Federov
Cosmism is the name given to a broad intellectual tradition in Russia that was initiated by Nikolai Fedorov in the 19th century. Understood at its broadest, Cosmism is the belief that humanity can and should actively take control of its evolution. The eccentric librarian Nikolai Federov is present in the background of virtually every development of Cosmist thought. Fedorov was a philosopher and Orthodox theologian who advocated the use of advanced science and technology to subjugate and direct the forces of nature to be in the service of humanity, and in so doing perfect the Fallen world. This is to occur in the context of a grander project, the 'common task': the resurrection of the dead. Federov advocated the progressive revitalisation of all previous human generations, going all the way back to Adam and Eve (who he believed where buried in the Pamir mountains). The subjugation of nature and, indeed, the very literal conquest of the universe was a necessary step on the path to completing the common task, in order to deal with both the increase in population size as the dead return to us, and to spread life throughout the lifeless cosmos.

Federov's techno-utopianism also carries within it a distinctively reactionary and authoritarian quality. The common task can only be initiated after the unification of the nations of the world under the benevolent autocracy of the Tsar and the leadership of Orthodox Russia (Russian Orthodoxy has often been noted to have a peculiar messianic concept of nationalism- the Russian Empire as the only legitimate successor to the authority of Rome and Constantinople, and thus the last imperial bastion of the true Christian religion). Indeed, a major theme in his conception of the resurrection of our ancestors is that this would involve a return of true, patriarchal authority. Humanity would collectively rediscover its roles as sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, in the true human family with the return of each lost generation, and find freedom in obedience to proper authority.

Pavel Florensky (in white) and Sergei Bulgakov
For Federov, this is the fulfilment of God's mission for His Church and for mankind. What is offered in the liturgy of the Church is of vital importance, but it is not sufficient to bring about of God's Kingdom. The symbols of resurrection used in liturgy should motivate us to action outside of the walls of the church. There is no conflict between 'science' and 'religion' for Federov, though he is extremely wary of the risks of scientific developments that do not go alongside religious/spiritual developments (and vice versa). A strange fusion of spirituality and high technology runs through the entirety of the Cosmist project: notable Cosmists Pavel Florensky and Sergei Bulgakov were both ordained priests of the Orthodox Church (though Bulgakov had to dodge accusations of heresy); Vladimir Solovyov was a Christian mystic devoted to Divine Sophia; although the secular Cosmists were often hostile to established religion, many, especially Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, may be not-unjustly characterised as Gnostics.

Cosmism after Federov branches in many directions, but always maintains the broad theme of perfecting the world through spiritually enlightened science. Emphasis does shift at many points though: Solovyov had little interest in science and was more concerned with utilising the occult to create a new form of androgynous human, and Bulgakov writes not of conquering nature but of developing a spiritual 'economy' of all things, understood more in the sense of husbandry than ownership and control. The overtly religious characteristics of Cosmism were essentially dismissed or actively down-played during the Soviet era, with more focus being put on the idea of engineering a new form of socialist human and perfecting the environment through central control and mass labour projects. Florensky's religious convictions were tolerated largely due to his technical brilliance, playing an important role in the electrification of Russia, though he'd ultimately be executed.

Contemporary Cosmism is still substantially more secular than it was in the past, but there has been a revived interest in the spiritual and occult writings of the Cosmists; this is perhaps because so much of their scientific thought can now be falsified (for example, Federov calls for us to build great cones that would allow us to direct the Earth's electro-magnetism and pilot the planet around the universe in pursuit of the dust of our ancestors), while the esoteric dimensions of Cosmism are something that can be taken as being 'beyond reason', and thus outside the clutches of positivist science.

The sheer optimism and vitality of Cosmism, and the surprising ease with which it combines ancient tradition with futurism, science with spirituality, is deeply appealing. It is difficult to not be thrilled by Cosmist thought, even if this is only in an aesthetic sense. In particular, the utopian (though often totalitarian) ideal of taking complete control of our own destiny and environment is intoxicating, even if it is misguided in many ways. Ultimately, the foundational ideal of Cosmism is that life can conquer death, and even if that isn't an ideal we can ever accomplish, it is very difficult to resist the urge to try.