Posted on June 22, 2012 by Flames
It’s 1999 and the world is falling apart at the seams. The sky is afire, the oceans are rising—and mankind is to blame. While the spoils of the 20th Century dwindle, Jack Finnegan lives on the fringes in his decaying mansion, struggling to keep his life afloat and his loved ones safe while battling that most modern of diseases—AIDS.
As the New Millennium approaches, Jack’s former lover, a famous photographer reveling in the world’s decay, gifts him with a mysterious elixir called Fusax, a medicine rumored to cure the incurable AIDS. But soon, the “side effects” of Fusax become more apparent, and Jack gets mixed up with a bizarre entourage of rock stars, Japanese scientists, corporate executives, AIDS victims, and religious terrorists. While these larger players compete to control mankind’s fate in the 21st Century, Jack is forced to choose his own role in the World’s End, and how to live with it.
Originally published in 1997, Glimmering is a visionary mix of fantasy and science fiction about a world in which humanity struggles to cope with the ever-approaching “End of the End.” Flames Rising is pleased to present an excerpt from this new edition of Glimmering.
Glimmering, a Novel by Elizabeth Hand
Afterward he would think, We should have known it was coming. Should have seen it in the fiery darkness above the Palisades, or traced it in the flaming contrails left by disintegrating jets as they plunged into that watery cleft between the Battery and Liberty Island. Fingerprints upon a windowpane, etched in August ice; crocuses blooming in December, then November; peepers waking in the February mud to sing, too early by far, to sing again next spring, and then never to wake again.
We should have known, I should have known, he thought, a hole in the sky, the fabric of the world rent, and we the living should have known what would stream through that shimmering gap, we should have remembered before they returned to remind us: we the dying at the end of the world should never have forgotten the dead.
In June 1996, an emergency meeting of the United Nations World Council on Carbon Dioxide Emissions and Global Warming was held in Rio Gallegos, Argentina, to discuss the unpredicted and potentially disastrous rise in global temperatures during the previous eighteen months. In a desperate effort to stabilize the atmospheric concentrations of carbon gases, the European Union, allying itself with Trinidad, Tobago, New Zealand, and Australia, led the push for ratifying the 1991 UN climate treaty and the earlier Montreal Protocol. This revised treaty, very narrowly passed despite the vocal and hostile opposition of the United States, China, and Russia, provided for immediate worldwide implementation of an involuntary cap on emissions, as well as an international ban on CFCs and HCFCs.
In a concession to pressure from the conservative governments of the U.S., Japan, Russia, and China, the council also passed a bill that permitted limited industrial use of the experimental refrigerant and heating agent bromotetrachloride, or BRITE.
In the early 1990s, BRITE had been developed in Finland as a substitute for chlorofluorocarbons and hexachlorofluorocarbons, and had been used in experiments to mine gas hydrate in the Arctic. The polar regions’ vast deposits of gas hydrate, with their frozen stores of methane, held the potential to provide twice as much carbon energy as the fossil fuels that had helped cause the rapid degradation of the ozone layer. BRITE appeared to have no adverse environmental effects; unlike CFCs and HCFCs, it degraded in the upper levels of the atmosphere. It was also relatively inexpensive to produce.
By the end of 1996, BRITE was in common use throughout the industrialized world.
In March 1997, during an American gas hydrate–mining expedition off the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica, a massive series of ocean floor avalanches occurred, releasing a sudden, almost inconceivably vast store of methane from the hydrate reservoir. The Antarctic deposits alone contained over three times the amount of methane found in the atmosphere; methane has a greenhouse effect eleven times that of carbon dioxide. Along with the loss of life and scientific equipment in Antarctica, three thousand canisters of BRITE were destroyed, their contents voided into the atmosphere like smoke. The gas hydrate explosion had the misfortune to occur at the same time as a massive solar storm, predicted some three days earlier by NOAA’s newly launched Hermes X-ray satellite. Solar physicists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab cheered as the first images crept across their monitors: the sun’s corona disappearing as a billion tons of gas spewed forth. Three days later, this river of solar particles streamed into the Van Allen radiation belt like a celestial lava flow, even as the Ross Ice Shelf collapsed.
This disastrous confluence of events created a surging electrical current that altered the earth’s magnetic field. Transformers exploded; circuit breakers shut down; satellite transmissions were lost as an early night descended upon the world’s cities. Fifty kilometers above the earth, the sun’s ultraviolet rays began a complicated pavane with bromotetrachloride.
On March 26, 1997, the glimmering began.
March 26, 1997: At Lazyland
On the night of his fortieth birthday, John Chanvers Finnegan stood upon the balcony of his Yonkers mansion and watched the sky explode above the Hudson River. It was the end of March, an unusually warm and beautiful day in early spring; though all the days now seemed lovely and warm, bathed as they were in the vernal glow of a dying century. From the house beneath him came the sigh and hum of conversation, an occasional ritornello of raucous laughter—Leonard’s, Jack thought, and allowed himself a melancholy smile. He had come outside, not so much to be alone as to savor the notion that everyone he loved best in the world was there with him now: his surviving friends, his ex-lover, his grandmother, his brothers. From here he could listen to them all, see them even, if he leaned over the balcony and craned his neck to look back at the house.
But he didn’t do that. It was enough, to know they were there; enough to sip champagne from a crystal lily, and listen.
The house was called Lazyland. It had been built in 1884 by the department store entrepreneur Myles Finnegan, Jack’s great-grandfather. Just four years earlier, in 1880, Myles had worked in Stevens’s variety store on North Broadway in Yonkers, stocking shelves and sweeping the day’s detritus of torn paper, bent nails, and broken glass out onto the sidewalk. One rainy morning in September his employer, suffering from an attack of gout, sent Myles in his place to the import warehouse of a toy wholesaler in Brooklyn. There Myles was to inspect the company’s selection of new and unusual items to sell at Christmas.
“Here,” the importer said, pointing to excelsior-filled crates in which nestled papier-mâché crèches from Salzburg’s kristkindlmarket; porcelain dolls from Germany; English lead soldiers and French soubrettes of colored paper, with lace roses and spun-glass hair. There were boxes of tin flowers and images of the Christ Child cast in wax, silver-embossed cardboard animals from Dresden, and little metal candleholders to clip onto fragrant pine boughs. Myles, tall and dark
and lean, with an expression of perpetual surprise, had big bony hands more accustomed to handling cartons of dry goods than these fragile toys. He wondered aloud if there wasn’t anything new.
The importer turned, affronted, from admiring his painted lead battalions.
“These I just received yesterday.”
Myles shook his head. “Different,” he said. “I wonder now, haven’t you anything different? Unusual, I mean—” He fingered a doll’s tartan gown and tried to look
“Unusual?” The importer nodded eagerly, suddenly blessed with an idea. “I didn’t understand that your employer is looking for the unusual this season. Has Mr. Stevens seen these?”
He took Myles’s arm and led him to a darker part of the warehouse. Overhead a single gas lantern cast a fluttering light, but on the floor beneath there seemed to be myriad candles glowing within a row of wooden boxes: a cache of rubies and sapphires and golden orbs that made Myles suck in his breath, amazed. “What is it, then?” he whispered.
The importer tilted his head. “These are Christmas tree dressings from Sonneberg.” He stooped and very carefully removed a blown-glass dog, held it up so that it turned gleaming in the gaslight. “Lovely, aren’t they?”
“They’re beautiful,” breathed Myles Finnegan. He knelt beside the rows of boxes, took first one and then another of the brilliant confections from their paper wrappings, and raised them to the light.
“They reflect the candlelight, you understand,” the importer explained somewhat officiously. “It reduces the cost of buying many candles, which as you know are so expensive right now . . .” His voice trailed off. He did not offer to Myles Finnegan that the ornaments had been in the warehouse for some months, having proved impossible to sell. They were too expensive, too fragile; no one but German immigrants would want them, and who amongst the poor Germans could afford such frivolities?
Myles continued to gaze entranced upon the shining glass figures. He thought of the Christmas tree in his employer’s house, the only one he had ever seen.
Magical, with the sweet wild smells of wax and balsam, and Mr. Stevens’s children shrieking with delight as they pulled their gifts from the dressed boughs; but to see a tree glittering with such things as these! He drew a multicolored teardrop close to his face, saw within its glorious curve his cheeks streaked gold and green and crimson and his eyes like stars. “How much?” he asked.
The importer quoted a figure seven times what he had paid his business counterpart in Sonneberg. But Myles proved to be more astute than that; they argued and dickered for fifteen minutes before agreeing upon a price that Longfellow Stevens would not consider too dear.
Unfortunately, when the crates of ornaments arrived some weeks later, Mr. Stevens reacted much as the importer’s other customers had when shown the pearls of Sonneberg.
“I can’t sell these!” he fumed. “Glass! Mr. Finnegan, what were you thinking?” He kicked angrily at a carton, then turned a red face upon his employee. “I have no use for them. Send them back.”
“He—he won’t take them, sir.” Myles swallowed. “It was the agreement we made, we would take them at this price—”
“We? We?” roared Longfellow Stevens. “We agreed to nothing! As of this week your employment is terminated, Mr. Finnegan!”
Myles stared at him, too stunned to be angry. But when Mr. Stevens began talking of withholding his wages to pay for the shipment, Myles spoke. “I’ll take them, then. The Christmas boxes.”
“You will not.”
“In place of my wages.” He was already bending over the cartons, light as the egg panniers that came daily from Flatbush. “I’ll take the Christmas dressings.”
And he did. Late in November he took them in a borrowed wagon to Getty Square, and hawked them to the well-dressed shoppers along South Broadway.
In two days he had sold them all, and returned to Brooklyn for more, and then again a week later for the rest of the importer’s stock. By January of 1881, Myles Finnegan was well on his way to being a rich man. By January 1882, after the first of his many visits to Lauscha, where the glassblowers who supplied Sonneberg lived, he was a rich man. And by the following year he was very rich indeed, having purchased Stevens’s Variety and renamed it Finnegan’s: the flagship store of what was to become a vast American retail empire, built upon blown glass and candlelight. It wasn’t until the 1930s that Finnegan’s first Sparkle-Glo factory opened on Long Island, mass-producing Christmas balls; but by then the family fortunes were well in place.
While he was still in high school, Myles’s great-grandson Jack could look out from the attic window at Lazyland, across the Hudson to the Palisades, and read
atop the cliffs there the defiant legend emblazoned on the abandoned factory, like a thought untethered from a dream—Lazyland belonged to Jack now, even though his grandmother Keeley—Myles’s only child, who had been born there in 1899—still held formal title to the house. Upon her death the mansion would pass to Jack. The thought made him almost unbearably sad, even though his grandmother had only a few months ago celebrated her ninety-seventh birthday, and Jack himself had never expected to see forty.
“Hey, Birthday Boy.”
Jack turned, smiling, and raised his champagne flute. “Hi, Jule.”
“I wondered where you were.” Jule Gardino, Jack’s oldest friend and sometime legal advisor, ducked as he passed through the doorway. “Hey, nice night, huh?”
He propped his elbows on the balcony beside his friend, blinking at the muzzy violet light, then pointed in mock excitement. “Peter! I can see your house from
Jack laughed: the tag line from an old joke. “Here—”
He grabbed the bottle of Veuve Clicquot from beside his feet and handed it to Jule. Jule swigged from it, wiped his mouth, and took another gulp. “Whooee! Thanks—”
“Everyone behaving downstairs?”
Jule shrugged. “Leonard dropped trou and showed Grandmother his apadravya again.”
Jack took the bottle from Jule and refilled his glass, laughing. “I guess I better get back down, then.”
“No hurry.” Jule draped an arm around his friend and stared out across the sloping lawn. “Mmm. Daffodils?”
Jack nodded, gesturing with his champagne. “And hyacinths. And lilacs. And the apple trees are budding.”
Below them stretched the grounds of the little estate, two acres upon a hillside overlooking Untermeyer Park and, below that, the Hudson. The park had years before fallen into decay. It was haunted now by crack dealers and fellahin, teenage runaways who drifted to the City, then north, until they reached the no-man’s-land that was Yonkers and the southernmost reaches of Westchester County. From Jack’s balcony at Lazyland one could glimpse the ruins of other estates, mansions that had belonged to Van Cortlandts and Van Rensselaers and McGuires and Phillipses. All had been abandoned. Those who could afford to had fled. Those who could not had been driven out by the gangs, by the drive-by shootings and random bombings, the murderous attacks of fellahin and cranks; or by the sight of mange-ridden coyotes staggering north from the wastelands of the Bronx, and south from the woodlands bordering the Saw Mill River and the Sprain Brook parkways. Two months ago the house nearest to Lazyland, a shingle-style Victorian whose elaborate dormers could once be glimpsed through the new green of oaks and tulip trees, had been forsaken by the maharani who bought it only five years earlier. Jack had watched her go, and the sad small parade of sons and housekeepers who followed the stooped middle-aged woman in her yellow sari and high-heeled sandals. The men got into their cars, the housekeepers clambered into three rented Ryder trucks; the maharani and her eldest son and his wife stood for several minutes staring up at the gilded silhouette of their manse.
Then they left, for Canada, Jack thought. Two nights later their house burned to the ground; only one fire truck responded to the emergency call. Now Lazyland stood alone upon the hill.
Jack sighed, poured the last bit of champagne into Jule’s glass. All about them trees rustled in the gentle night wind from the river. The air was fragrant from the flowers blooming in the grass below; but there was also the fishy reek of the Hudson, the charred damp smell of all those other ruined mansions, and the omnipresent scent of marijuana smoke and carrion from the fellahin encampments. Overhead a few faint stars shone in the deepening violet sky; far below the Hudson stretched, a swath of black and indigo flecked here and there with gold.
“Nice,” Jule murmured, sipping his champagne. He looked at his old friend and nodded. “You oughta do this more often, Jackie. Get out more. Or have people in.”
Jack smiled sadly. “All the people I used to have in are dead, Julie.” He turned and leaned against the balcony rail, stared for several minutes at the twilight. “Do you remember my fourteenth birthday?” he finally asked. “At Saint Bartholomew’s?”
“Was that when you and Leonard—”
“That was sixteen. No—don’t you remember? The world was supposed to end,” Jack said wistfully, turning to stare down at the unruly patches of daffodils that were like a yellow mist settled onto the lawn. “A two-headed cow was born somewhere, Mahopac, I think, and there was something about a baby born with a caul. The Herald Statesmen had a big article on it, about how everyone thought the world was going to end on Good Friday. March 26, 1971. And that was my birthday.”
Jule shook his head. “I don’t remember. Did we do something? I mean, was there a party?”
“No.” Jack tapped the rim of his glass against his lower lip. “That was the whole thing. It was this beautiful, beautiful day—like today, actually—and I was with you and a couple of other people. Don’t you remember? We all had to go to afternoon Mass in the auditorium, because it was Good Friday, and afterward there was like fifteen minutes before the next period started, and so we sat outside on that little hill overlooking the lake. Everyone was there, I mean, practically the whole school was outside, and we all just lay on the grass. I don’t really remember anything about it at all, except that someone gave me a Hostess cupcake with a candle in it and we were talking about how the world might end. But I thought, You know, this is it—I am perfectly happy. Right now, on my birthday, on this beautiful day with my friends—if this really is the end of the world, I don’t even care, because right now I am perfectly happy.”
“And was it?” asked Jule. “The end of the world?”
Jack smiled. “No.” He set his empty champagne flute on the broad railing and turned to leave. “And I’ve always been kind of sorry.”
The darkened glass of the doorway threw back his reflection. Jack caught a glimpse of Jule gazing at him fondly. He dipped his head slightly in embarrassment, knowing what his friend saw: a tall spare figure, with the Finnegans’ ridiculously patrician Celtic profile—straight sharp nose, a strong chin deeply cleft (legacy of a childhood bicycle accident), high broad forehead with its sweep of blond hair yielding at last to gray—so at odds with the melancholy cast of his pale blue eyes and his boyish, rather mannered, swagger. Those big knotted hands jammed into his pockets, his head always tipped a little to one side, as though he were listening for something. Larksong, a distant train, the dying strains of “Telstar”: one of those dreamy sounds that would keep Jack long awake when he and Jule and Leonard were all boys of a summer night, lying side by side by side in a rope hammock beneath the stars.
Now there was nothing so nostalgic as that to hear. Only a far-off drone, the weary exodus of buses and automobiles from the City, the sound of broken glass echoing up from the fellahin’s thickets of sumac and brambles. Jule smiled reassuringly, as though Jack had said something that needed a reply. Then he set his empty glass upon the balcony and started back inside. He didn’t notice that Jack had taken a step back out onto the balcony, and was standing there with his head cocked. Jule ran right into him.
“Owff! Christ, Jack—”
Jack stood, frozen. One hand clutched the jamb above him; the other bunched into a fist inside his pocket. “Did you hear that?”
Jule shook his head. “Uh-uh.”
Jack strode back out to the railing. Dimly he was aware that something was wrong; the way he had once felt when there had been a fire in his dorm at Georgetown, and he had to be carried from his room in a smoke-thick stupor. An abrupt tingling in his hands and face, a sort of psychic shiver. As though every nerve in his body was firing, trying desperately to send him terrible news, and for this one split second he had not yet heard.
There it was again. From somewhere down the hill toward the river, a girl’s voice, screaming.
“Oh, shit.” Jule groaned. “Here we go again. I’ll call 911—”
Jack shook his head. “No—”
His mouth was dry, his eyes unfocused. What’s wrong, there’s something wrong— “No, Jule. Wait. There! It’s—”
And now Jule felt it, too, Jack could tell. His friend stood in the doorway with his head thrown back, eyes rapt as he stared up at the sky. From down the hillside came a man’s voice—“Fuck! Jesus fuck—”—and a sudden burst of sirens: home systems, car alarms, car horns, police sirens, a whooping shriek from Saint Joseph’s Hospital. Voices everywhere, from every direction: like the wind rising before a hurricane, an approaching storm of wings. Jack thought of the night Harvey Milk was murdered: it had been like this, all of San Francisco yelling and guns being fired, car horns and heaved bricks and breaking glass.
But now there was no outrage; not even fear. Just amazement, a sort of horrified disbelief. And, after a moment, distant explosions—first one, then another, and still more, like a string of demonic firecrackers; and then flames streaming upward from electrical power plants in Bergen County. Jack clutched the rail and stared out across the river. For an instant he saw burning towers, transformers and blazing pylons like lightning poised between sky and the familiar pointillist array of lights upon the Palisades.
Then the lights went out: everywhere.
From downstairs, Jack heard Jule’s wife Emma cry out for her husband, and Leonard’s fey tones abruptly gave way to a howl.
“Jack? Where the hell are you? Jackie!”
Jack Finnegan said nothing; only stood, and stared.
On the western horizon, above the Hudson and the dark shelf of rock that was the New Jersey Palisades, the sky was erupting into flame. An immense molten globe, brighter and huger than anything he could have imagined. And Jack could imagine many things. Nuclear disaster, gas explosion, stray weather balloons, terrorists bombing Bear Mountain, 757s shot from the sky like geese, forest fires, mustard gas—
This was none of these. This was—
Jack shook his head, out of breath, heart pounding though he hadn’t stirred.
What? A star? A nova? The Northern Lights? But Jack had seen auroras, boreal and hyperboreal; auroras and Saint Elmo’s fire and the magnetic image of his father’s brain, the tumor pulsing there like a candle flame.
But not this, never this! A rapture of gold and black and emerald green, sheets of flame leaping from the cliffs as the vast globe grew, flattening as it stretched across the horizon, as though it were an inconceivably huge and swollen camber being crushed by an even huger hand. Within twenty-four hours the news would start to drift in, garnered from shouted conversation with fellahin and Jack’s ancient shortwave radio: the terrible confluence of a solar storm and the collapse of the Antarctic ice shelf, the atmosphere ignited like grease—but now Jack only stared at the spectral sky, the coruscating heavens, and knew it had come at last. What they had all been waiting for, consciously or not—the whip coming down, the other shoe dropping, the sound of sixteen hooves beating measured and far off upon the tarmac, still distant but not for long. The sound of something chipping at the earth as though it were an egg; the sound of the fabric of the century being torn.
The world had changed, changed utterly, and was no longer his, or humanity’s.
It had been occupied, they had all been seized, were all possessed, strange particles charged by what loomed above them; all now shivering beneath the severed
heavens; all now aglow, and glimmering.
* * *
Glimmering is now available at Amazon.com.
This excerpt was provided by and is being published with express permission from the Publisher, Underland Press.
Tags | modern-horror