A Scary Story-Within-A-Story by John Crowley

Many readers will know that I have a peculiar interest in the story within a story. Part of it comes with the discovery of “The Grand Inquisitor” in my early days. It remains my favourite nested story. I’ve blogged the story of Cosmo in George MacDonald’s Phantastes (1858), a story with a tinge of the dark and supernatural–perfect for Hallowe’en. It’s also fun to read The Horse and His Boy (1954) as a sort of Pevensie court tale.

Last year when I was reading Little, Big by John Crowley (1981), I blogged the nested postmodern fairy tale, “The Meadow Mouse Story.”  This World Fantasy Award winner is both highly literary and perversely disorienting. The reader slips through a 20th century version of Alice’s rabbit hole—indeed there are a number of obvious references back to Alice–but we descend slowly, tumbling further and further down the imaginative portkey. We discover that the grand descent lands us not into Alice’s dreamland, but to faërie, with all its dangers and intrigues and intricacies. As is always the temptation in fairlyand, Crowley’s wonderland warns of the danger of rooting oneself too much in fairyland rather than the real world. But, like Alice, the reader struggles to get a grip on the reality within the story. It’s a book that I am fighting with, but a battle I intend to win. Eventually.

Unlike our early fairy tales, Little, Big is about character development and psychological complexity, adding to the spinning feeling the reader gets. The secrets in the story also add to the disorientation. The characters are never certain of reality, so it isn’t surprising if the reader is a little uncertain. I talked last fall about the problems of chronology: there is no time baseline that helps us keep the story straight.

But it also doesn’t help that some of the characters have the same name. The narrative slides from the past to a chronologically unravelling present without much help from the author. So it takes the context of the story to know whether we are talking about Auberon Barnable or Auberon Drinkwater—both are merely “Auberon” in the story. Sometimes “Lilac” is Auberon Barnable’s sister who is also or really a cousin, and sometimes it is his imaginary friend, also named Lilac. And it is uncertain whether the real Lilac is really the real Lilac. And there is Lily, another sister. And it might be that the imaginary friend is not exactly imaginary.

At one point in the story, Auberon–the son, the latest Auberon–finally realizes the truth of the world in which he lives and so he seeks out George Mouse. As they meet again, George finally tells a story to help clear up the question of how many Lilacs there are, and how Auberon is really related to the real one, which is Sophie’s daughter (so, theoretically, Auberon’s cousin, since Sophie is Auberon’s aunt). Smoky is Auberon’s father, married to Alice, Sophie’s sister.

It is a thrilling story within a story, perfect for Hallowe’en. The story begins with Auberon’s realization that George Mouse had been a fireworks specialist.

Three Lilacs

“You were in fireworks?” [Auberon asked].

“Sure. You didn’t know that? Hey. The biggest. Name in the papers, man. It was a lot of laughs.”

“It wasn’t ever mentioned at home,” Auberon said, feeling the familiar exclusion. “Not to me.”

“No?” George looked at him strangely. “Well, it all came to a kind of sudden end. Just about the time you were born.”

“Oh yeah? How come?”

“Circumstances, man, circumstances.” He stared into his coffee, a pensiveness odd for George having fallen on him. Then, seeming to come to a decision, he said, “You know you had a sister, named Lilac.”

“Sister?” This was a new idea. “Sister?”

“Well, yeah, sister.” [George said.]

“No. Sophie had a baby, named Lilac, that went away. I had an imaginary friend, named Lilac. But no sister.” [Auberon] pondered. “I always kind of thought there were three, though. I don’t know why.”

“Sophie’s baby’s the one I’m talking about. I always thought the story up there was . . . Well, never mind.”

But Auberon had had enough. “No, uh-uh, wait a minute. No ‘never mind.'” George looked up startled and guilty at Auberon’s tone. “If there’s a story, I want to hear it.”

“It’s a long one.”

“All the better.”

George pondered. He got up, put on his old cardigan and sat down again. “Okay. You asked for it.” He thought for a time how to begin. Decades of odd drugs made him a vivid but not always a coherent story-teller. “Fireworks. Three Lilacs, did you say?”

“One was imaginary.”

“Shit. I wonder what makes the other two. Anyway, there was one in there that was false: like a false nose. I mean exactly like. That’s the fireworks story: that one.

“See, a long time ago, one day, Sophie and I. . . Well, it was one winter day when I went up to Edgewood, and she and I . . . But I didn’t think anything came of it, you know? Sort of a crazy fling. I wrote it off. I mean she had me fooled. Meanwhile, I knew there was a thing between her and Smoky.” He looked at Auberon. “Common knowledge, right?”

“Wrong.” [Auberon, Smoky’s son, said.]

“You didn’t . . . They didn’t . . .”

“They never told me anything. I knew there’d been a baby, Lilac, of Sophie’s. Then she was gone. That’s all I knew.”

“Well, listen. As far as I know, Smoky still thinks he’s Lilac’s father. So, you know, mum is definitely the word on this story. Wazza matter?”

Auberon was laughing. “No, nothing,” he said. “Yeah, sure, mum’s the word.”

“Anyway. This is—what?—twenty-five years ago maybe. I’d gotten heavily into fireworks, because of Act Theory. Remember Act Theory? No? Jesus, things don’t last long in that line these days, do they. Act Theory, dig—God, I don’t know if I remember now how it worked myself, but it was this idea about how life works—how life is acts, and not thoughts or things: an act is a thought and a thing both at once, only it has this shape, see, so it can be analyzed. Every act, no matter what kind, pick up a cup, or a whole life, or like all of evolution, every act has the same shape; two acts together are another act with the same shape; all life is only one big act, made up of a million smaller ones, follow?

“Not really.”

“Don’t matter. It was the reason I got into fireworks though, because a rocket has the same form as an act: initiation, burning, explosion, burning out. Only sometimes that rocket, that act, sets off another initiation, burning, explosion, and soon, get the picture? And so you can set up a display that has the same form as life. Acts, acts, all acts. Shells: inside one shell you can pack a bunch of others, which go off after the big one, packed in like a chicken is packed inside an egg, and inside that chicken more eggs with more chickens, and so on odd infinooty. Gerbs: a gerb has the same form as the feeling of being alive: a bunch of little explosions and burnings going on all the time, burning out, initiating, burning out, that all together make a picture, like thought makes pictures in the middle of the air.”

“What’s a gerb?”

“A gerb, man. Chinese fire. You know, that makes a picture of two battleships shooting at each other, and that turns into Old Glory.”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Yeah. Lancework we call those. Just like thinking. A few people got that, too. Some critics.” He said nothing for a time, remembering vividly the river barge where he’d set off The Act Entrained and other shows. Darkness, and the slap of oily water; the smell of punk. And then the sky filled up with fire, which is like life, which is light that ignites and consumes and goes out and for a moment traces a figure in the air that can’t be forgotten but vihich, in a sense, was never there. And he racing around like a madman, shouting at his assistants, firing shells from the mortar, his hair singed, throat burning, coat motheaten from cinders, while his thought took shape above.

“About Lilac,” Auberon said.

“Yeah? Oh, yeah. Well, I’d been working for weeks for a new show. I had some new ideas about garnitures, and it was—well, it was my life, man, night and day. So one night . . .”


“Garnitures are the part of the rocket that goes blooey at the end, like a flower. Y’see, you got your rocket, and here’s your case with your composition that burns and gets it aloft; and up here you got your, what you call your cap, and that’s where your garniture goes—stars, pinched stars, pumped stars—”

“Okay. Go on.”

“So I’m up on the third floor in this workshop I had fitted out up there—top floor, in case anything went, you know, the whole building wouldn’t go—it’s late, and I hear the bell ring. Bells still worked in those days. So I put down the case and stuff—you can’t just walk away from a roomful of fireworks, you know—and all the time the bell’s going, and I go down, who is this wise guy leaning on the bell. It was Sophie.

“It was a cold night, raining, I remember, and she had this shawl on, and that face in the shawl. She looked about dead, like she hadn’t slept for days. Big eyes like saucers, and tears, or maybe it was the rain on her face. She had this big bundle in her arms in another shawl, and I said what’s up and so on, and she said, ‘I’ve brought Lilac,’ and she pulled the shawl away from this thing she had.”

George shuddered, deeply, the shudder seeming to start at his loins and work upward till it flew off the top of his head, making his hair rise—the shudder of one whose future grave, they say, is somewhere stepped on. “Remember, man, I never knew about any of this. I didn’t know I was a daddy. I hadn’t heard from up that way in a year. And suddenly there’s Sophie, standing on the stoop like a bad dream saying Here’s your daughter, man, and showing me this baby, if that’s what it was.

“Man, this baby was in trouble.

“It looked old. I guess it was supposed to be about two now, but it looked about forty-five, a little withered bald guy, with this sly little face like some middle-aged furrier with troubles.” George laughed, a strange laugh. “It was supposed to be a girl, remember. God, it gave me a start. So we’re standing there, and the kid puts out its hand like this”—palm up, flat—”and checks the rain, and pulls the scarf over its head. Hey. What could I say? The kid made itself clear. I brought them in.

“We came in here. She set the kid up in that high chair. I couldn’t look at it, but I like couldn’t look away. And Sophie told me the story: her and me, that afternoon, strange as it may seem, she’s figured the dates blahblahblah, Lilac is my kid. But—dig this—not this one. She’s figured it out: the true Lilac got changed, one night, for this one. This one isn’t real at all. Not the real Lilac, not even a real baby. I’m stunned. I’m reeling around saying What! What! And all the time”—he started laughing again, helplessly—”this kid is sitting there with this attitude—I can’t describe it—this sneer on its face like okay, okay, I’ve heard this tripe a million times—like it was bored—and all I could think was that it needed a cigar in its mouth, just to complete the picture.

  “Sophie was like in shock. Shivering. Trying to tell me all this stuff at once. Then she stopped, couldn’t go on. It seems the kid was all right at first, she never knew the difference; she couldn’t even tell what night it was when it happened, ’cause she seemed so normal. And beautiful. Only quiet. Real quiet. Like passive. Then—a few months before—it started to change. Very slowly. Then faster. It started to sort of wither. But it wasn’t sick. Doc checked it at first, all okay, big appetite, smiling—but getting old, like. Oh God. I put an afghan around her and started making tea and I’m saying Calm down! Calm down! And she’s telling me how it dawned on her what must have happened—I just wasn’t convinced yet, man, I thought this kid should see a specialist—and then how she started hiding it from everybody, and they started asking hey, how’s Lilac, how come we never see her around anymore.” Another fit of unwilled laughter. George was on his feet now, acting out the parts of the story, especially his own bewilderment, and suddenly he turned wide-eyed to the empty high chair. “Then we look. The kid is gone.

“Not in the chair. Not underfoot.

“The door’s open. Sophie’s dazed, she lets out a little cry—Ah!—and looks at me. See, I was its daddy. I was supposed to do something. That’s why she’d come and all. God. Just the thought of this thing running around loose in my house gave me the willies. I went out in the hall. Nobody. Then I saw it climbing up the stairs. Stair by stair. It looked—what’s the word—purposeful: like it knew where it was going. So I said, ‘Hey, wait a second, buster—’ I couldn’t think of it as a girl—and I reached for its arm. It felt weird, cold and dry, like leather. It looked back at me with this look of hate—who the fuck are you—and it gave a pull away, and I pulled back, and—” George sat again, overcome. “It tore. I tore a hole in the god damn thing. Rrrrip. A hole opened up near its shoulder, and you could look in, like into a doll—empty. I let go fast. It didn’t seem to be hurt, it just flapped the arm, like damn now it’s busted, and crawled on; and its blanket was coming off, and I could see there were some other cracks and splits here and there—at the knees, you know, and the ankles. This kid was falling apart.

“Okay. Okay. What could I think then? I came back in here. Sophie’s bundled up, with these big eyes. ‘You’re right,’ I said. ‘It ain’t Lilac. And it ain’t mine, either.’

“She broke down. Like dissolved. That was the last straw. She just melted, man it was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen—’You’ve got to help me, you’ve got to’—you know. Okay, Okay, I’ll help; but what in hell am I supposed to do? She didn’t know. Up to me. ‘Where is she?’ Sophie asked me.

“‘Went upstairs,’ I said. ‘Maybe it’s cold. There’s a fire up there.’ And she suddenly gave me this look—horrified, but just too tired to do anything or even really feel anything—I can’t describe it. She grabbed my hand and said, ‘Don’t let her go near the fire, please, please!’

“Now what’s that about? I said, ‘Look, you just sit here and get warm and I’ll see.’ What the hell I was going to see I didn’t know. I picked up the baseball bat—be prepared, you know—and I went out, and she was still pleading: ‘Don’t let her get near the fire.

George mimed creeping up the stairs, and entering the second-floor drawing-room. “I go in, and there it was. By the fire. Sitting on the whatchacallit, the hearth there. And I can not believe my eyes: because as it sits there it’s reaching into the fire—yes!— reaching into the fire and picking out, you know, glowing embers: picking them out, and popping them into its mouth.”

He came close to Auberon, this could not be believed unless he gripped Auberon’s wrist in pledge of his truthfulness. “And crunching them.” George made the gesture: like eating a walnut. “Ca-runch. Ca-runch. And smiling at me—smiling. You could see the coals glowing inside its head. Like a jack o’lantern. Then they’d go out, and it’d pick out another. And boy, it was getting a lot livelier behind this, Chipper, you know, a little refreshment; it jumps up, does a little dance. Naked now, too, Like a little broken evil plaster cherub. I swear-to-god nothing: nothing has ever scared me like that. I was so scared I couldn’t think, I just moved. You know? Too scared to be scared.

“I went over to the fire. I picked up the shovel. I dug up a whole lotta hot stuff from deep inside the fire. I showed it: mmm mmm good. Follow me, follow me. Okay, it wants to play this game, hot chestnuts, very hot chestnuts, come on, come on, we went out and up the stairs, it keeps reaching for the shovel; uh-uh, no no, I keep leading it on.

“Now listen, man. I don’t know if I was crazy or what. All I knew was that this thing was evil: I mean not evil evil, because I don’t think it was anything, I mean it was like a doll or a puppet or a machine, but moving on its own, like awful things in dreams that you know aren’t alive, piles of old clothes or mounds of grease that suddenly get up and start threatening you, okay? Dead, but moving. Animated. But evil, I mean an awful evil thing to have in the world. All I could think of was: get rid of it. Lilac or no Lilac. Just. Get. Rid of it.

“So anyway it’s following me. And up on the third floor across from the library is my, you know, my studio. Okay? Get the picture? The door is closed, of course; I closed it when I came down, always did, can’t be too careful. So I’m fumbling with it, and the thing is looking at me with these eyes that weren’t eyes, and oh shit any minute now it’s going to figure out the scam. I shove the shovel under it’s nose. The damn door won’t open, won’t open, then it does—and—”

With a mighty imaginary gesture, George heaved the shovelful of live coals into the studio filled with charged fireworks. Auberon held his breath.

“And then for the kid—”

With a swift, careful kick, side of the foot, George propelled the false Lilac into the studio also.

  “And then the door!” He flung shut the door, staring at Auberon with the same wild horror and hurry that must have been in his eyes that night. “So done! Done! I flew down the stairs. ‘Sophie! Sophie! Run!’ She’s still sitting in that chair—right there—paralyzed. So I picked her up—not exactly carried her, but like a bum’s rush, because I can already hear the noises upstairs—and get her out into the hall. Bang! Blooey! Out the front door.

“And we stood out there in the rain, man, just looking up. Or anyway I looked up, she just sort of hid her head. And out the studio windows comes my whole show. Stars. Rockets. Magnesium, phosphorus, sulfur. Light for days. Noise. Stuff is falling all around us, hissing in the puddles. Then blowey! Some big cache goes up, and puts a hole right through the roof. Smoke and stars, boy we lit up the neighborhood. But the rain had got a lot worse; and pretty soon it was out, about the time the cops and the fire-trucks got there.

“Well, I had the studio pretty well reinforced, you know, steel door and asbestos and stuff, so the building didn’t go. But by God if there was anything left of that kid, or whatever it was . . .” .

“And Sophie?” Auberon said.

“Sophie,” George said. “I told her: ‘Listen, it’s all right. I got it.’

“‘What?’ she says. ‘What?’

“‘I got it,’ I said. ‘I blew it up,’ I said. ‘Nothing left of it.’

“And hey: do you know what she said to me?”

Auberon could not say.

“She looked up at me—and man I don’t think anything I saw that night was as bad as her face just then—and she said: ‘You killed her.’

Fairy rings are said to be the result of fairies dancing on the grass, leaving behind...well, mushrooms, I guess. Fairies are another form of elves, but usually small, with wings. Think Tinkerbell....“That’s what she said. ‘You killed her.’ That’s all.”

George sat down, weary, depleted, at the kitchen table. “Killed her,” he said. “That’s what Sophie thought, that I’d killed her only child. Maybe that’s what she still thinks, I don’t know. That old George killed her only child, and his too. Blew her up, in stars and stripes forever.” He looked down. “Man, I don’t want to see somebody look at me the way she did that night, not ever again.”

“What a story,” Auberon said, when he could find his voice again.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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3 Responses to A Scary Story-Within-A-Story by John Crowley

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