The Hellfire Club

On my return from the 1994 International Popular Culture Society’s Annual Congress in the handsome old city of Barcelona at which I had the honor of accepting my fourth Elmer J. Atwood Award from the marmoreally pale, slender, long-fingered, in every way aristocratic hands of the Contessa Fabiana Paloma Therese de Ribas Loupo-Mondeale Allegro-Gonzaga y Gonzaga, the guiding spirit and generous patroness of our Mid-Iberian Chapter, I took advantange of Planet Hollywood Airline’s overbooking my New York-Akron flight by the exchange of my seat for the delightful sum of $500 and a voucher for one night’s lodging plus complementary sandwich and soft drink at the Reebok Airportland Hotel and Gift Shop. After rescheduling my return flight for three days hence, I telephoned Casa Straub and received the expected invitation to “come and set a spell,” as we Midwesterners have it, for as long as I wished. The ointment was not without a complement of flies.

The note of resignation in Susan Straub’s voice did nothing to soften my sense of having replaced a gracious environment with one distinguished by abrasiveness. The contrast between the Old World and the New, initially embodied in the Third-World chaos of John F. Kennedy Airport, was to be heightened by another exposure to the unpleasant rigors of Peter’s comfortless dwelling, in effect an Alp made completely of staircases, after my recent experience of the welcoming chambers, galleries, ballrooms and other interiors of the dear Contessa’s Palazzo, one of six such splendors located here and there about the world, or so I gleaned from an offhand remark my hostess whispered in the general direction of my awaiting ear while approving the Castilian flair with which her manservant Emiliano, a dangerous-looking, silver-haired chap whose air of ferocity was not quite domesticated by rimless spectacles, opened the latest but not last bottle of Dom Perignon upon the conclusion of her lavish opening night Reception for our Congress.

During the taxi journey from the airport, the sense of immersion into a dystopic favela was reinforced by the torrents of hostility projected backwards, once I had ventured a mild comparison between his vehicle and a public toilet, from the hunched shoulders, corrugated neck and misshapen head of the serial killer at its helm. After endangering my life during our charge into Manhattan, this thug, a Haitian conducting his life of crime under the unlikely “handle” of Labrousse St. Jean Labrousse, greeted with murderous rage my payment of the artificially-inflated fee of $34.50 and the generous tip of a voucher guaranteeing him free of charge one night’s lodging at the Reebock Airportland Hotel and Gift Shop, not to mention the lagniappe of a complementary sandwich and soft drink. What a falling-off from the urbanity of Sigismundo Palp, Contessa Fabiana’s chauffeur, whose drolleries had enlivened our forays in her Rolls Royce brougham (prounounced “broom,” I had been advised, and of an intruiging brownish-red not unlike the color of Tobasco sauce)! The Haitian criminal refused to assist me in the removal and transportation to the curb of my bags, one of them bearing a nasty, still-glistening oil stain.

A distracted Susan Straub observed the Herculean effort of conveying my three weightiest, most essential suitcases up the torturous five flights to the barren “guest room” without offering assistance of any sort, and when I had staggered back down to the kitchen, attended fitfully to my tales of Spanish adventures and the Contessa’s largesse. I believe Susan never quite grasped the magnitude of honor represented by my fourth “Atwood,” especially when it was given to me by the Contessa herself, although I had gone to the trouble of carrying that splendid trophy downstairs with me and placing it on the kitchen table right in front of her eyes.

Such inhospitality of the part of my hostess may in nearly all cases be laid at the feet of her spouse, and when I inquired of Peter’s state of mind and general well-being, the rule again proved true. He was suffering under a deadline, he was working night and day, he was grievously distressed. I love the way authors fret over their “deadlines.” A deadline is an arbitrary matter, a convenience, and no one in the world of publishing, least of all authors, takes them seriously. Yet mention the approach of a deadline in anything less than, say, two years to one of these children, and he will begin sweating bullets. So it was with my old friend.

After eighteen months of drifting aimlessly behind his characters as they enjoyed elaborate meals, watched television, bickered, picked at their exhaustively-described navels, in short conducted themselves as his marionettes always do in the absence of any real function, Peter had at last recognized that a plot of even the most minimal order had failed to surface and thereupon entered into a panic. No one can wring the juice out of a panic like Straub, and he had clutched at a loathsome minor character absurdly named “Dick Dart” and forced him to commandeer the novel. Dart would rescue the book, he told me, well, he had to, there was no other way out. The deadline, the deadline, the deadline. There was no time to lounge about on his overpriced furniture and watch soap operas while permitting his characters to lounge about on their own overpriced furniture and watch the same soap operas to which he was addicted (“All My Children” and “One Life to Live”), until some sort of story announced itself. No, no, this time he was desperate.

I wish my readers to know that Peter decided upon relinquishing his novel to the psychopathic Dart mid-point in his family’s first-class flight to a luxurious resort in Puerto Rico. There, in the intervals between meals, he daily consolidated his plans by jotting notes while tanning himself in the comfort of two lounge chairs, one beside the resort’s vast pool and the other on its even vaster beach. Many would be grateful to experience this version of desperation!

All of this Peter explained during those paltry hours, invariably so late at night as to be beyond any sensible person’s bed-time, during which I was given access to the holy of holys, his “office,” located on the top or fifth floor of his house and at the other end of the book-littered corridor from the guest room in which this old and valued friend had been installed. No doubt in jealous imitation of her husband, Susan Straub had compounded the inconvenience by claiming the so-called “guest room” as her own “office” and stuffing it with such a magnitude of computer equipment, files and stacks of reference materials that in the darkness of night the unfortunate guest could scarcely make his way to the adjacent bathroom without suffering painful bruises to hip, ankle, buttock, and other tender regions, not omitting those unmentionable in polite society.

During these few hours I was given – after Peter had detached himself from his computer, navigated his way downstairs to join Susan, his children and myself for an evening meal in a state of disorientation so profound that at least once a night he referred to each person present by every other person’s name, so that I was “Ben,” “Emma” and “Susie,” Susan was “Ben,” “Emma” and “Putney,” Ben was “Emma,” “Putney” and “Susie,” Emma was “Putney,” “Ben” and “Susie,” and all of us were likely at any moment suddenly to be “Rainbow,” the ponderous family cat, then plodded back upstairs gripping an enormous glass brim-full with an amber narcotic fluid to complete with many a groan whatever it was he imagined he had to complete that day and, then and only then, permitted me entry to the messy sanctuary – during the brief periods of coherent speech still left to him, he described the ghastly project.

THE HELLFIRE CLUB, I learned, was to replicate the labyrinthine structure of a fantasy novel penned by one its own characters. Each of its parts would bear the part-titles of, and echo the actions of, the corresponding section of the fantasy novel, NIGHT JOURNEY; the fantasy novel would also provide hints, clues, suggestions and answers to the problems and mysteries of the novel which incorporated it. Many, though not all, of these problems and mysteries were directly related to the underlying fantasy novel, especially those related to its true authorship and the disappearance during the Pleistocene Era or thereabouts of a young female poet from a second-rate literary colony.

I tried, that’s all I can say. I did my duty. I gave it my best shot. The man was too far gone to take heed. No matter how forcefully I drew his flagging attention to the incompatibility within the same narrative of his savior, Dick Dart, and these arid games, in spite of the eloquence I summoned when I jumped to my feet, leveled my index finger at his bloodshot eyes and condemned the absurd conjunction of thrillerish murders and literary investigation he proposed to set before the public, he would not correct his course. Peter met my denunciation of intertextuality with the innocently arrogant remark, “Put, that’s what I like about the book.” That, finally, is that, and no more can be said. The infection had reached the bone.

What, in the end, do we have here? From the general wreckage, might anything be salvaged? THE HELLFIRE CLUB is one of those frustrating failures which contain passages of vitality sufficient to lift the glum reader’s spirits over long stretches of text. After the languor of the first hundred and fifty pages, Dick Dart’s kidnap of the heroine strikes like a bolt of lightning, and for a dizzy time we delight in the illusion that our author has cast his pretentions overboard and resolved to tell a story in the manner of his betters, honest entertainers such as Dean Koontz, John Saul, Frank Herbert and Mr. King. Alas, almost immediately one finds oneself swimming upstream against our author’s usual flood of complexities, texts within texts, ancient secrets, inside jokes and jerry-built if not actually improvised constructions. The pace slows to a halt whenever food is put upon the table. Not only does the lazy novelist throw in a remote country house, a confusion of birth and a resolving storm, he cynically exploits every last cliche, as these particulars indicate, of the gothic genre the novel takes pains to ridicule. Unlike SHADOWLAND or FLOATING DRAGON, this book is not even good enough to be destructive. No, we must conclude, nothing can be salvaged from the wreckage. But one may conclude with the bittersweet observation that my old pal discovered at last how to write decent dialogue precisely when his other gifts abandoned him.

The dear Contessa Fabiana Paloma Therese de Ribas Loupo-Monreale Allegro-Gonzaga y Gonzaga, a fast friend, perhaps said it best after skimming through the copy of The Hellfire Club I had sent her as an ironic jeux in commemoration of our shared hours. The sophisticated reader will have little difficulty in hearing the nuances of her delightfully approximate English:

The Dearest Professor Putney, I have been reading all the way to the end the book written by your friend. This book is difficult for me on the account of my seldomness in reading fiction in English, except for the bon-bons of Mr. Herman Melville, Mr. Paul Auster and Mr. Thomas Pynchon, which so happily remind me of the tales I read in childhood. I think it is in your friend’s book sometimes of more importance what is not said in the middle of so many words than what is said. Do you remember my chauffeur, Sigismundo? He has taken the book most eagerly away, but Sigismundo will be unhappiest to see no pictures. Could you send me now NIGHT JOURNEY? So sad, I will be in Mozambique when you tell me you can again represent yourself in Barcelona. In farewell, Contessa Fabiana

After reading a few pages, she gave the book to her chauffeur. The significance of the unsaid, indeed.

Putney Tyson Ridge