Friday, July 22, 2016

Slaves of Sleep - Chapter Two - A Big Genie Did It and Ran Away

The first sentence of the chapter does a great job of summing up our main character's existence: "Each evening, when the household was assembled at the dining table, Jan Palmer had the feeling that the entire table's attention was devoted to seeing whether or not he would choke on his next mouthful."  It's so darkly humorous and bluntly honest that I want to put a little gold sticker next to it.

We get about a page describing the difference between the former and current heads of the Palmer household.  Daddy Palmer bantered away with his family and guests before retiring to his study for the night, while Baby Palmer doesn't come close to filling his father's chair and presides over a silent meal, since he doesn't make conversation and everyone else keeps quiet as though "they all had secrets which they were fearful of giving away to each other."

And we also learn a bit about Palmer's economic situation.  The Bering Steamship Company isn't making much money, for reasons Palmer can't explain since he doesn't bother to look at its finances, while his share of its earnings mostly goes to his Aunt Ethel to cover "household expenses."  Green, the company's general manager, once again pesters Palmer to get some letters written this very evening, while also reminding him how things would be so much easier for everyone if he'd just give Green his power of attorney.  Palmer still doesn't agree to the latter, but is happy to work on the former.

It's not that Palmer loves to sit down at his desk and correspond all night long, he's much too important and rich to write letters by hand.  No, he rushes back to his room to take a quick shower because he's got a thing for Green's stenographer, a dame named Alice Hall who comes by a few nights each week to help Palmer handle the company paperwork.  Palmer is drawn to her not simply because she's pretty, but because she doesn't look down on him or make him nervous just by being around.  Which isn't to say that he didn't forget to breathe right the first time he met her.

Her large blue eyes were as impersonal as the turquoise orbs of the idol by the wall.  She was interested, it seemed, in nothing but doing her immediate job.  Still, there was something about her; something unseen but felt as the traveler can sense the violence of a slumbering volcano under his feet.  Her age was near Jan's own and she had arrived at the estate without leaving anything unlearned behind her.  There was almost something resentful about her, but that too was never displayed.

Er, right.  Not sure I'd be drawn to someone I think could explode on me at any moment and sear the flesh from my bones, or someone I suspected of well-hidden resentment, but to each his own.  Well, I say hidden, but Ms. Hall's true feelings towards Palmer come through as they talk about an upcoming conference.  Palmer's instinctive response is that he's much too busy to attend.

"I didn't think you would," she said unexpectedly.


"I said I was sure you wouldn't.  They asked you but Mr. Green will go instead."

"He would want me to go," said Jan.  "He... he knows much more about it than I."

"You're right."

Jan detected, to his intense dismay, something like pity in her voice.  Pity or contempt; they were brothers anyway.

So for two hours Palmer and Hall - mostly Hall - craft letters until she finishes and gets up to go home and properly transcribe everything.  Palmer asks if she'd like to stick around for tea, or maybe he could drive her home, but Hall declines his offers and exits the scene, leaving Palmer to get mad at himself for making her think he's nothing but "a weak mouse, holed up in a cluttered room," before realizing that she's entirely right in doing so and sinking into both a deep chair and a deep depression.  Sometimes it's tough being a weenie.  If only there was some way to get Palmer to man up and take control of his life, some fantastical experience that could drastically and rapidly transform his character from that of a zero into a Hubbard Action Hero...

Palmer broods in his chair until the clock rings "two bells," because boats are awesome and Hubbard is going to cram as much nautical stuff into this story as he can get away with.  Eventually our protagonist falls asleep, only to suddenly wake some time later, "aware of a wrong somewhere near him."  Despite not wanting to, he turns on a lamp and beholds an open window as well as Professor Frobish, carving at the lead seal of that copper jar with a knife.

Frobish's eyes were hot and his face drawn.  There was danger in his voice.  "I had to do this.  I've been half crazy for hours thinking about it.  I am going to open this copper jar and if you try to stop me..."  The knife glittered in his fingers.

If this surprises you, then you've obviously never played any sort of role-playing game.  Since a character's Intelligence statistic dictates how many skill points they earn each level, it only stands to reason that an academic would have ranks in stealth and other intrusion skills in addition to their class-relevant skills.  You can only sink so much in Knowledge: Arabianology per level, y'know?

Frobish tries to reassure Palmer that his honor is secure, since after all it's Frobish doing to seal-breaking, while Second Cousin Greg was trying to protect Palmer from harm.  But Palmer is hit by "a sudden spasm of outrage."  He already takes so much crap from everyone, but now this loony mystic has broken into his one sanctum to break into the thing Palmer swore would never be opened?  This will not do.

All his repressed frustrations come to the fore, and Palmer advances on the knife-wielding scientist, even causing Frobish to back away.  Frobish babbles stuff like "This research is bigger than either you or me," while Palmer promises that if Frobish leaves now he'll let the incident pass, otherwise... well, Palmer doesn't go so far as to make a threat, he just whines that "This is my house and that jar is mine" and tries to snatch it away-

And Frobish floors him with one blow to the chin.  Welp.

Before the wimp fight can escalate further, it's interrupted by a sound like escaping steam as black fumes billow out of the ruptured seal of the copper jar, gathering against the room's ceiling while growing darker and heavier, moving as though with breath, until

Something hard flashed at the top of it and then began two spiked horns, swiftly accompanied by two gleaming eyes the size of meat platters.  Two long tusks, polished and sharp, squared the awful cavern of a mouth.  Swiftly then the smoke became a body girt with a blazing belt, two arms tipped by clawed fingers, two legs like trees ending in hoofs, split-toed and as large across as an elephant's foot.  The thing was covered with shaggy hair except for the face and the tail which lashed back and forth now in agitation.

It's odd how Arabian art and text leaves out the thick hair covering ifrits' bodies, but maybe Hubbard was consulting an Arabianologist when he wrote this description.

The thing knelt and flung up its hands and cried, "There is no God but Allah, the All Merciful and Compassionate.  Spare me!"

Jan was frozen.  The fumes were still heavy about him but now there penetrated a wild animal smell which made his man's soul lurch within him in memory of days an eon gone.

Hmm, do the Palmers have some Middle Eastern ancestry?  'cause a European having an ancestral fear of genies would make as much sense as a Chinese having an instinctive distrust of domovoi.

Frobish, recovered now and seeing that the thing was wholly on the defensive, straightened up.

"There is no God but Allah.  And Sulayman is the lord of the earth!"

Now in the intro I wondered just how thoroughly Hubbard researched the subject of jinn and infrits, but I'm pretty confident that he at least read one story from One Thousand and One Nights, because this part is remarkably similar to "The Fisherman and the Jinni:"

But presently there came forth from the jar a smoke which spired heavenwards into æther (whereat he again marvelled with mighty marvel), and which trailed along earth's surface till presently, having reached its full height, the thick vapour condensed, and became an Ifrit, huge of bulk, whose crest touched the clouds while his feet were on the ground. His head was as a dome, his hands like pitchforks, his legs long as masts and his mouth big as a cave; his teeth were like large stones, his nostrils ewers, his eyes two lamps and his look was fierce and lowering. Now when the fisherman saw the Ifrit his side muscles quivered, his teeth chattered, his spittle dried up and he became blind about what to do. Upon this the Ifrit looked at him and cried, "There is no god but the God, and Sulayman is the prophet of God;" presently adding, "O Apostle of Allah, slay me not; never again will I gainsay thee in word nor sin against thee in deed."

But let's not call this plagiarism.  Maybe an homage, or perhaps this is just the script any jinn goes through after being freed from a jar after many centuries.

Frobish boldly states that "We care less than nothing about Allah, and Sulayman has been dead these many centuries."  Now that the genie has been freed, he expects goodies in return.  But the ifrit only laughs when he hears that Soloman/Sulayman is dead and gone, and introduces himself as Zongri, "king of the Ifrits of the Barbossi Isles."  He's had a lot of time to think about what'd he do if he were freed, you see, and decides to share it with Frobish.

"Mortal man, the first five hundred years I vowed that the man who let me free would have all the riches in the world.  But no man freed me.  The next five hundred years I vowed that the man who let me out would have life everlasting even as I.  But no man let me out.  I waited then for a long, long time and then, at long last, I fell into a fury at my captivity and I vowed - you are sure you wish to know, mortal man?"


"Then know that I vowed that the one who let me free would meet with instant death!"

Well that's gratitude for ya. And also strikingly similar to what the genie in the aforementioned story said about his own imprisonment.

[...] "There I abode an hundred years, during which I said in my heart, 'Whoso shall release me, him will I enrich for ever and ever.' But the full century went by and, when no one set me free, I entered upon the second five score saying, 'Whoso shall release me, for him I will open the hoards of the earth.' Still no one set me free, and thus four hundred years passed away. Then quoth I, 'Whoso shall release me, for him will I fulfill three wishes.' Yet no one set me free. Thereupon I waxed wroth with exceeding wrath and said to myself, 'Whoso shall release me from this time forth, him will I slay and I will give him choice of what death he will die;' and now, as thou hast released me, I give thee full choice of deaths."

I mean, there's differences - the classic ifrit promises wealth twice, never gets around to offering immortality, and at least gives his would-be victim a choice of which death he's won.  But still.

Frobish is none too pleased to hear this, and points out that it was Palmer and his stupid oath that kept Zongri imprisoned, while if it weren't for Frobish the jinn would still be stuck in a jar.  But the ifrit refuses to go back on his word, snatches the professor when he tries to run, grabs one of the Malaysian kris, and... huh.  Okay, so a kris is a knife, a stabbing weapon more or less.  Kris were occasionally used in executions, but to stab the condemned a few times under the ribs so they'd quickly bleed out.  But Hubbard thinks of the weapon as a "great executioner's blade" capable of cleaving Frobish's corpse until it's "Split from crown to waist."  Maybe he consulted an Arabianologist on that too.

Palmer is understandably startled by this development, and when the ifrit gets him in its clutches, he asks - well, tells - well, "said" - to be let go.  When Zongri asks why, Palmer says that he wasn't the one who freed the genie, and it'd be awfully illogical for the genie to "kill a man for letting you free and then kill another for... for not letting you free."  Zongri considers this before agreeing, then asks if Palmer is "Mohammedan."

The ifrit's imprisonment couldn't have been that bad if he had a little radio or TV or whatever in that jar to let him know about the rise of Islam between his capture and release.

Since Palmer isn't aligned with Sulayman or Zongri's enemies, the ifrit decides not to kill him - well, that and the fact that he made no vow to do so.  But he does decide to hit Palmer with a sentence, that of "Eternal Wakefulness."  And then, with a great rush of noise, Zongri disappears for Mount Kaf.

And this leaves Palmer standing in a room with a nearly-bisected corpse and the bloody knife greatsword that did the deed.  Which Palmer proceeds to handle "with some wild thought of trying to bring the man back to life," moving the weapon off the corpse and shaking Frobish's shoulder before realizing this probably isn't going to wake him up.  Then he decides that he might want some company after all, but as soon as he puts his hand on the door, it opens to admit "Two prowler car man," and all the ancillary characters save for Miss Hall.  Apparently the foremost are cops, because they immediately arrest Palmer with the comment that "It's open and shut."

Yes, Thompson apparently heard voices in Palmer's study, didn't investigate but immediately sent for law enforcement, and didn't notice the voice of the third person in the room but did hear "the sound of the knife and then silence."  So it was a knife.  That nearly cut a man in half.  While being wielded by a being so enormous that Zongri had to walk on his knees to fit in the room.  Huh.

Anyway, Palmer tries to babble an explanation about the jar and Frobish breaking in through the window, but the cops tell him to save it for the sergeant, while Aunt Ethel is quick to sob and ask why her "poor boy" did such a horrible act, and Green starts pacing and ranting about the negative publicity this is going to cause.  Sure enough, a whole swarm of reporters shows up, and Aunt Ethel is eager to talk to them about the awful crime and how thankless Palmer is for committing it after all she's done for him.  What's left of Frobish eventually gets hauled off in an ambulance while Palmer gets to take a ride in a police car.

It goes without saying that nobody will wonder how a meek little thing like Palmer was able to cleave through most of Frobish, while using a knife of all things.  This may be a better story than most of Hubbard's offerings, but that doesn't mean it won't require a good amount of stupidity to function.

Back to Chapter One

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