|The Willie Button Series|
Albert J. Manachino
Willie stared in fascination as his dining companion dumped six heaping spoonfuls of sugar into his coffee and stirred vigorously. A waitress placed a large bowl of ice cream in front of him.
"Your order will be ready shortly," she informed Willie.
"Most obliging of you to share your table, Mr. Button." He thanked Willie after sampling the ice cream.
"My pleasure," Willie responded.
The diner was crowded to capacity. They had known each other less than twenty minutes. In a quaint, old-fashioned manner, the stranger had pressed an introduction upon him.
They were seated on the opposite sides of a tiny booth.
"You're a traveling salesman, Mr. Button? Not idle curiosity; just practicing deduction a - la Sherlock Holmes."
Willie nodded. "In a manner of speaking, I'm a book salesman." His companion did not seem to notice his emphasis on the "a".
Bit of a coincidence that. You sell them; I write them. Perhaps some day you will be selling my stories."
"I hope so, Sir."
"Tell me, Mr. Button, what kind of books do you sell? Religious? Educational? Technical?"
Willie thought before replying. "You probably would consider it in the field of religion ... perhaps the macabre ... perhaps fantasy."
His listener appeared interested. "Another coincidence. I specialize in the field of horror fantasy. Have you ever read any of my stories?"
"No, Sir. I'm very sorry to say that I haven't." Willie was genuinely regretful. In a burst of uncharacteristic tactlessness, he added, "I've never heard of you."
"There is no need to apologize," he was assured. "I'm not very well known. I've barely begun to write for publication."
They were interrupted by the reappearance of their waitress. Wordlessly, she placed Willie's order in front of him and left. Willie broke several crackers into his bowl.
His dining companion wrinkled his well-developed nose in distaste. "Forgive me for my seeming ill manners. I have a deep aversion to sea food in any form. To me, it smells spoiled."
Willie sampled cautiously. "That's too bad. This chowder is quite passable." He added pepper.
"You see, Mr. Button, to me the sea is the ultimate fount of all horror. What do we poor, puny surface dwellers know of what transpires under its illimitable surface? True, we know of shark and octopi and eels but what horrors lurk in stygian depths?" Willie did not know.
"I take it then when you say you write fantasy you do not mean traditional fantasy?"
"I've tried to write in the styles of Poe and Dunsany, Mr. Button. To date, I have been able to produce only poor and uninspired imitations. Barely passable ... oh, I don't mean in the technical structure; I mean in the effect. They induce no more horror than that pepper shaker you just were using." Willie regarded the pepper shaker reproachfully. "I've come to the conclusion that ghosts and graveyards and vengeful skeletons are not a true inspiration to fear. After all, these things are all either a part of man's tradition or folklore. True horror must lie outside the familiar."
"Then you feel that fear is what lies outside the recorded experience?" Willie put the statement forward timidly.
"Not fear, Mr. Button, horror! We know what causes fear. Wolves. Fire. Plague and so forth. I'm speaking of pure, unadulterated horror." He pointed his spoon at Willie. "Not only unrecorded but also unsuspected. To me, true horror lies in the completely alien concept. That is, a being to whom all of mankind's philosophies and ideas are completely incomprehensible. A being to whom honor, cowardice, social order, intellectual process, emotions ... even curiosity are ideas that have never even been conceived. If I could get into the mind of such an alien and write as he would observe us, Mr. Button, that would be true horror."
Willie disagreed. "Or true incomprehensibility. There would be no way for a reader to equate such a story with what he can understand. There must be a standard of reference. Otherwise, what you write would be an intellectual chaos. After unsuccessfully attempting to sink his teeth into it, the reader would cast your story aside."
"Then, what is your idea of horror, Mr. Button?"
"I think that the greatest horror lies within the realm of the familiar." He tapped the pepper shaker. "Something very ordinary. Something we see every day that is so taken for granted that often it does not even register on our consciousness. You would need a slight twist, for the horror would lie in the distortion."
The thin man regarded him speculatively. He had ceased eating. "For instance, Mr. Button?"
"You are familiar with the black mass, are you not, Sir?"
This time the nose wrinkled with disdain. "Of course. Who in the field of fantasy is not acquainted with such a traditional hackneyed and overworked literary prop?"
"What if such a black mass were offered to God instead of Satan?"
The thin gentleman laid his spoon aside and studied Willie. Then slowly and quietly he said, "Yes, I see what you mean." There was a long, pregnant silence during which even the background noises of the diner faded before he spoke again. "I've read everything that Poe and Dunsany ever wrote so that I could imbue myself with their construction of atmosphere and suspense. I'm afraid that I would not even know where to find such a book as your idea suggests. A book in which the familiar is so utterly alien."
Willie indicated a battered blue canvas bag on the seat beside him. "I have just such a book. If you could transcribe onto paper even a fraction of the nightmares you will experience after studying it, you will be the greatest horror writer of all times."
"May I see it?"
Willie undid the zipper and reached into the bag. The book he produced appeared to have been bound in a poisonous yellow felt. It was so incredibly old that even the brass lock and hasp that secured it seemed on the verge of disintegrating. A tiny key was fastened to the hasp by a very fine chain.
His dining companion was visibly impressed. "I have a slight knowledge of books." He took the key and inserted it into the lock. The book opened at random.
Willie observed his reaction with something akin to sadness. The thin gentleman's normally pallid complexion became even whiter.
"Yes, Mr. Button, if I could absorb the atmosphere of this book, I indeed would be the master horror writer of the ages. What do you want for it; I have very little money."
"Please use it as long as you feel the need to. There is no charge." Willie picked up his bill and prepared to depart.
"Thank you, Mr. Button. Goodbye."
"Not 'Goodbye', Mr. Lovecraft. Au-revoir."
Albert J. Manachino
Kevin D. Duncan
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Willie Button Series