Deep Outside SFFH - Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror

back to main contents page of John Kenneth Muir's Transmission: Editorial at Deep Outside SFFH

July 2001

Horror Writers of America;
John T. Cullen's Time Machine

This article is by Deep Outside SFFH Author & Editor John T. Cullen

As I write this editorial, news arrives that Deep Outside SFFH has been accepted for Associate Membership in the Horror Writers of America (HWA). We feel highly honored, and look forward to our continued contribution to the field of horror and dark fantasy as well as science fiction. We are now in our fourth year of publication, with a growing membership on our reader list. We wish to thank all of our supporters for their enthusiasm and solidarity, and promise to continue to serve for many years to come.

Now about my time machine. I just returned from an exhilarating 30-day visit to Europe (and much-needed vacation), and there is not space enough in this column to fully recount all the stops we made, new and old friends we visited with, and even long-lost family members we encountered. For the moment, I'd like to reconsider our trip from the perspective of a writer of speculative fiction, from several angles, including the technological and the sociological. This may be a breathles babble, so hang on—even at that, I can only skim the highlights. But there are some definite sf/f/h angles here.

Much of speculative fiction deals with dislocation—in time, and in space. I encountered both during our trip. We normally think speculatively in terms of forward movement in time, into the future, but for those coming from the sanitized omni-Present of an American city to step into layers of history is a journey through time, a dislocation of cultures—especially when you know just enough about history to be dangerous, as they say.

To give you a quick idea: One quickly gets used to seeing statues and buildings that are hundreds of years old. At about 500 years old, what little wood remains tends to have a decidedly warped look (unless it's the wonderfully preserved timbers in some church ceilings) and stone starts looking very worn. But it's when you start seeing ancient stone, 1,500 to 2,000 years old, that you notice not only is it black with age—literally—but it actually seems to be melting with time. That is, it's not just worn, it's not just chipped—it takes on the look of sugar over which water has been poured. We saw this time and again, from the amphitheater in Arles to the Coliseum in Rome.

By way of a quick overview, my wife and son and I flew from San Diego to London direct via British Airways, rented a car, and drove around Europe along a loosely planned agenda with just enough plan to give it shape, but enough flex to make it a daily adventure. Luck was with us all the way, and it succeeded in being what it was meant to be—a sweeping learning experience for my son, and a nostalgic experience for his parents (I was stationed in Germany for 5 years during the 1970's and had a lot to revisit, including meeting an old Army friend in Paris for a wonderful afternoon of catching up on old times and friends). I was born in Europe, and rediscovered family in Luxembourg, some of whom I had not seen since my childhood. And I had the honor of meeting Clocktower Books author Robin Marchesi, author of "A Small Journal of Heroin Addiction," in London. As I say, we covered more ground than I can recount here.

Here's an odd little quirk: When you fly in a (crowded) 737 at nearly 40,000 feet altitude, doing a bit under the speed of sound, you're actually flying at roughly the same speed with which the line between night and day races around the earth in an eastward direction. We left San Diego and flew northeasterly over Canada, Greenland, Iceland, and into London; or from about 32 degrees North latitude to around 52 degrees (my estimates) North latitude, a distance of maybe 9,000ish miles. The Earth is turning westward, the plane is flying eastward, and for hours it is neither day nor night around our plane, but a kind of weird dusk that lingers and lingers endlessly. We go from 8:30 p.m. on a late summer evening in San Diego to 11:30 a.m. in London with almost no nighttime intervening, just that strange twilight on the horizon. Reminded me of Stephen King's The Langoliers. It's about a ten hour flight, and some nine time zones intervene. As we fly eastward, as each hour passes, the plane flies just fast enough so that each hour the clock moves backward one hour, and dusk just keeps coming...and coming...and coming...

Coming back, by the way, it's a similar science fiction in reverse: We fly out of Gatwick at 10:30 a.m. and land in San Diego about 11 hours later at 2:30 p.m. Four hours have passed on the clock, but 11 hours have passed in real time. As my wristwatch ticks forward each hour, the plane races another time zone backward, so my watch and the local times nearly cancel each other out. Don't try to figure this out with toothpicks or pennies, just take my word for it. By the way, the flight westward takes longer because the plane is flying against the prevailing planetary atmospheric movement, which tends to be counter-clockwise between North Pole and Equator (in the southern hemisphere the reverse is true: it's clockwise, between South Pole and Equator). In recent decades, since we've begun moving into space and looking back down at our little blue jewel in the universe, we see that it's a regular planet, with some similarities between the weather on our planet and the movement of poison clouds on gas giants like Jupiter and Neptune.

To continue my synopsis: we spent the first third of our time around London, the middle third around Luxembourg, and the last third around Rome. I say "around" because we hit lots of fascinating spots inbetween. From Rome we flew back to London, and thence to San Diego. End of synopsis. Now about that time machine.

One of our themes was "visiting the Roman Empire." I'm a history buff and a language enthusiast. Luckily, my son is a bright chap and keenly interested in just about everything, so he soaked up a lot of what I wanted him to experience. The Roman Empire has been, in many ways, one of mankind's most successful macroventures. As far as I know, only the British Empire at its height exceeded the geographic extent of the Roman Empire. The Romans for several centuries from just before the time of Jesus Christ until around the middle of the fifth century A.D. controlled an enormous swath of land from northern England to the Persian border, from almost the North Sea down to almost the equator. You could travel from Cardiff to Carpathia, from Belgium to Ethiopia, and never cross an international border—an accomplishment the world has not seen even with the new European Union...although, if we keep jailing the world's Idi Amin Dada Milosevics, we may get there yet. Imagine, a Pax Romana without Caligula. Sounds too good to be true.

Thus, our travel from England to Belgium to Luxembourg, through a bit of Germany, through France, and into Italy, effectively took us along a thin slice of the once vast Roman domain. Everywhere we went, people have been unearthing Roman ruins. In Arles, for example, stands the Maison Carrée, or Square House, one of the world's few intact buildings from ancient times. When we visited, local authorities were just exhibiting inside it the remains of a mosaic floor discovered while they were repairing some fountains in a local park (which itself dated back to an ancient Roman garden). In London (which properly is a one-square mile swatch of land inside Greater London, bordered by the Thames on its south side, and by the Houses of Parliament on its southeasterly corner) you'll drive by ancient baths situated in the middle of a busy modern street. In Dover, you'll wander along a quiet harbor park barely six miles from where Julius Caesar landed with the first exploratory legionnaires...and see the recently unearthed frescoes from a newly discovered Empire-period Roman villa. This is a theme you pursue everywhere, from Calais to Brussels to Luxembourg to Trier to Kaiserslautern to Speyer to Verdun to Paris. All along the way, people are speaking what amount to dialects of ancient Roman. No, English is not a Romance language, but something like 75% or better of our vocabulary is Latin. English is a Germanic language, mainly because the monosyllabic words that form its backbone (eat, sleep, walk, go, come, fight, run, fly, and so forth) are virtually all Anglo-Saxon. But try and express a complex thought in English or German, and you'll be using Latin, with a smattering of Greek. Whether you are ordering soup in a Roman restaurant, or asking directions in a German city, or studying a train schedule in Britain, you are essentially using a dialect of ancient Rome.

We made many fascinating side trips, including to the Bock and Casematten in Luxembourg, the world-class comic book museum in Brussels, the enormous cenotaph of 130,000 dead soldiers in Verdun (over a million lives lost there in World War I), Ft. Hackenbourg on the Maginot Line, a perfume museum set amid fields of lavender and sunflowers in Provence, as well as Avignon of the Babylonian Captivity of the popes...but our real find was Orange, a small city located just north of Marseille. We might later wander through the rediscovered streets of ancient Ostia, with their fine mosaics and taverns in which you can still see signs advertising fruits, fish, wine, and other delights—amp;in pictures rather than words, for a multilingual society—amp;but Orange had its special charms.

We were on the most unplanned leg of our trip, it was getting dusk, we had just driven south from Paris, and we didn't know where we were going to spend the night. We were planning to visit Arles and Nimes the next day before driving through Monaco into Ventimiglia and on to Rome, but now our main concern was to find supper and a decent place to spend the night. It was hot and humid, and we were not enchanted with Orange at first glance. It seemed small and somehow foreboding as we cruised along its small, twisting streets. It's difficult to slow down in Europe—people tend to pass at high speed or lean on their horn and yell obscenities. The European driver may be chronologically an adult, but behaves very much like an immature, violent child who must always go at top speed and have his or her way in every situation—amp;God only help anyone who gets in the way or drives too slowly. In this atmosphere, having been chased out of a parking space by a rather threatening looking individual, we were just about to leave Orange when we noticed a sign: "Hotel Clima." We decided to give Orange one last chance...and it turned out to be one of the luckiest finds of our entire trip. Like our random discovery of the wonderful perfume museum (which is a supplier of all the major houses like Givenchy and Chanel), once again the principle of striking out randomly issued its rewards.

As a side note, when we were in London a few weeks earlier, we finished our (wonderful) tour of the Tower of London complex, and rather than follow the beaten trail, we struck out in the direction of an old church we'd noticed, All Hallows, which is a treasure trove in itself...and then an hour's walk through nearby city streets took us to not only a construction site in which Roman baths were being unearthed, but to a wonderful little park which has been made of a medieval church bombed out during the Blitz and never rebuilt: St. Dunstan In The East. One finds mention of St. Dunstan in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral, on the special cope (mantle) of the Archbishop of Canterbury, displayed there). A thousand Pre-Raphaelites in search of a theme embodying ruination, sanctity, peace, and natural beauty could not have engineered a finer work. It is the only place in London where we casually encountered several palm trees. Ivy and other greens enshroud the gutted Gothic vaults of the church's windows, and a fountain splashes in a green garden where once parishioners prayed. Instead of a ceiling, it is open to the sky, which is generally blue except for London's hourly blusters of rain. So much for the virtues of the unplanned trip; now back to our random find in Orange, Provence...

Yes, we found a wonderfully airconditioned, large room in a sprawling hotel with a gourmet's kitchen...but we also found an amphitheater and a fallen giant, and a triumphal arch that you see in just about any guidebook to significant Roman ruins. The amphitheater in Orange is one of the better intact structures of antiquity, and it has been used by various regimes in recent centuries for theater and opera. French Bourbon kings praised the sprawling structure's perfect acoustics. The Divine Sarah Bernhardt performed there to thunderous applause in the late 1800's. When we wandered through its halls and stone seats, a trombonist was practicing in a rear arcade, and the sound carried perfectly through every inch of the stadium-sized building. Huge faux-Egyptian Anubises were just installed, along with a rectangular reflecting pool on the stage, for a series of performances, Aïda, I believe...with spectacular light show effects.

Off to one side lies a giant of polished stone, about 30 feet long, and split across the waist from his fall during the middle ages. He wears a loincloth (of stone) and has his feet lightly crossed at the ankles, so that he has often been mistaken for a religious representation, but scholars tend to think he was a giant advertisement from ancient times. His hands alone must be about a yard or more long.

This well-preserved building, occupying a city block and easily about five or six stories tall, startled us. The fallen giant, in the growing twilight as we stumbled upon him in a strange and foreboding city, transported us as few structures in our trip did...back thousands of years, to a different world. The more we study the Romans, the better we think we know them...the more they tend to slip just out of our grasp. They were different in subtle ways. Since they cremated their dead, we have only in recent years begun to be able to study dead Romans found around Mt. Vesuvius. It's almost as if they were hiding from us, laughing just around the next bend.

One of the coups of our trip was that, just a block from the Hotel Clima, is a triumphal arch dating to 37 B.C. At that time, during the reign of Augustus, the Romans were expanding into Northern Africa. The Second Gallic Legion fought in Egypt, and Augustus decided to build a retirement colony for them in Provincia (Provence). In typical Roman fashion, the engineers displaced the local people, and laid out a strictly Roman city with major north-south and east-west avenues, with a triumphal arch near the center of town for imposing parades. One of the first sights the soldiers had seen on arrival in Africa was that of a crocodile chained to a palm tree along the Nile, which one could gawk at for a few coins, and they were so amazed by this sight that they made the picture a part of their legionary insignia. The same scene is still today part of Orange's city crest. Only today, it's the French Foreign Legion that's stationed there instead of the Second Gallic.

Orange turned out to be a thoroughly charming little city that we will want to revisit some time. It's got all the scenic charms we love, including cobblestone square, old churches, and of course fine food. For us, it was a sweet little town haunted by its long past. We were thrilled to walk in the evening around the triumphal arch where, thousands of years ago, veterans of Augustus's African campaigns settled for their well-earned reward...the Romans' version of the Veterans' Department.

Travel expert Rick Steves says that a city as ancient as Rome has a right to a certain amount of craziness. After a number of unpleasant moments on European roads, I concluded that "driving in Europe is an act of violence." I had to amend that a bit to say that "driving in Rome is an act of insanity." People there don't drive—they hurtle. That applies not only to cars and buses and trucks, but myriad madly humming Vespas that weave in and out among the larger vehicles with a million near-hits a day. Everywhere, we found the blackened walls covered with graffiti, sometimes mimicking U.S. gang culture, at other times with cryptic signs in red or black reflecting perennial tensions between fascists and communists.

Rome is a treasure trove of archeology. It's seen its share of destruction over the centuries, including the Sacks of 410 and 1527, and the massive clearing of ancient structures under Mussolini. It has not, however, seen a tremendous fire of the order that gutted virtually all of London in 1666, or the clearing done by Baron Hausmann in Paris under Napoleon to create wide avenues along which cannons could conveniently fire on unruly crowds...or for that matter the huge gunpowder explosion that leveled much of Luxembourg City in the 1500's. Well, for a huge fire you'd have to go back to Nero's time, just before Christ, when he reputedly torched most of Rome so he could build one of history's largest—and most insane—palaces in his honor. We found the age-blackened columns and buildings of Rome gripping, as if voices from history were speaking to us. We found this particularly in the Forum, where the Senate house is still intact, and nearby a monument from ancient times marks the spot in the Forum where Julius Caesar was murdered by the senators. We found the ancient Mamertine Prison to be gawkworthy and oppressive.

There is a list a yard long on a wall in the Mamertine Prison (a single round chamber under the earth, above an ancient sewer pipe) of some of the famous people including Jugurtha and other ancient kings who were variously beheaded, starved to death, or strangled by wrestlers in there. The most famous name associated with the place is that of St. Peter, a man who most likely was never held in there, though there is an altar in there with an upside down cross inside in reference to Peter (whose tomb on the ancient Circus racetrack is now surmounted by the 2nd St. Peter's Basilica). The Mamertine easily ranks as one of the world's five most famous prisons, and it was a major draw for this history buff...another one of those little dislocations in time and space for me. But the most overwhelming by far is the Flavian Amphitheater.

Probably the most profound experience is one that I quietly underwent in the Coliseum or Colosseum (the Flavian Amphitheater). This is the vast structure rivaling many modern sports stadia—in fact, probably their inspiration. Today, there is an excellent museum in its upper stories, dedicated to both the fascination and the horror of the culture of violence surrounding the gladiatorial blood sports. The museum includes statuary, helmets, swords, greaves, and other artifacts, many of them unearthed in splendid condition from Pompeii. Particularly grotesque are the various types of helmets that made their often doomed wearers look like men from another planet.

On an oppressive, humid summer afternoon, I stood overlooking the ancient arena. The sun had gone for the day, hiding behind steamy gray clouds. For once, I was not overwhelmed by the awesome size of the place. I barely heard the laughter and chatter of tourists around me, and I hardly noticed the thousands of tons of broken stone hanging all around me where the bleachers had once been, where tens of thousands of Romans of all classes had once bellowed for blood and death. What closed in around me was a very strange sensation, and I wonder if many others have experienced this in the Coliseum. It was, really, one of those rare moments, when one is transported in time. It was a magic moment, like the time in Pompeii, when I walked along a cobbled street in the VII sector and, hearing children laughing someplace nearby, wondered if I had been transported 2,000 years into the past. It was a much more intense moment than that I spent with my family around the legionaires' arch in Orange. This was a magic moment, but a dark one. I leave you now, offering only this insight, this personal moment of truth, and no moral platitudes or philosophical observations. I leave it to you to ponder what I experienced in this ultimate moment in my time machine. I leave it to you to ask: what does this trip backward in time tell us about our future?

What impressed me about the Coliseum at that moment was not its size, but its intimacy. I was not conscious at that moment of its enormous size, but of the smallness of distances in its heart. For a moment, I thought the sun would burst forth orange or red, the color of blood in the sky. I felt a sick yet somehow satisfying feeling in my gut that is hard to explain, and it only lasted a moment, but I will never forget it as long as I live. Where I stood was just beyond the wall separating spectator from arena, about 20 feet from where the sands once were, imported by barges from as far away as Egypt and brought in via the port of Ostia. These sands were refreshed hourly or more often to dilute the stench of death and decay as many gallons of spilled blood and torn flesh congealed in the hot sun. Today, of course, the floor is gone, exposing the stone guts of an underworld, where humans and animals alike waited their turn to come up fighting for their lives. Many of the humans, of course, committed suicide quietly in their dark subterranean cells rather than face a painful, humiliating death under the laughter and jeering of a vast throng of gawkers.

There I was, just 20 feet away from where men and women were torn apart by lions, or one man killed another, thousands of times, over and over again for centuries. For just a moment, I understood something I'd never known before. For just a moment, I was in touch with a part of my soul that I'd never known existed—a savage, merciless mask inside each of us, in our nature as humans, that makes us slow down at accident sites to gawk, that makes us relish the combat of blood and understand the savage joy of the ultimate fight for survival. No wonder the Romans came back day after day, year after year, for centuries. I am sure the blood sports were among the most addictive things experienced by man, releasing chemicals in our brains, sending a horrid thrill through our bodies that I experienced for one fleeting instant, which almost made me sick to my stomach while it gave my heart a thick speedy new gallop, and I sensed an echo of enjoyment about it like a rich musky wine. It spoke of a truth that must date back to our origins in the mysterious Ice Age, when we emerged victorious as the only fighter left standing, and our prehistoric opponents like Neanderthal vanished from the earth without leaving a trace.


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