The Word short story

by John Thieme

In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan discovered the global village; in the 1980s, David Lodge invented the small world; in the year 2000, ushering in the new Millennium with just a little help from his friends, Eugenius Growpe created The Word. And in the beginning the Word looked pretty good. Not that it was known as “The Word” to start with. Initially it was called “The Afro-Caucasian Dracula Society”.

I was sitting on the floor in my flat in Singapore, dreaming of England and playing Monopoly with my young son, when the fax arrived from Whitby: “Come immediately. Inaugural meeting of Afro-Caucasian Dracula Society. Whitby tomorrow. World domination of field likely. Everyone will be there. Your turn to bring garlic. Felicitations, Growpe.” Loftily disdainful of the world of cellphones, Growpe knows nothing of texting, but never wastes words. His genius has been to use the language of the telegram in the age of the e-mail.

When Growpe calls, I obey. I abandoned dreams of putting hotels on Park Lane and Mayfair – to be candid, I was losing badly – and rang for a taxi. A cab, a plane, a pair of trains and I was there. The smell of Whitby, a subject on which I can wax lyrical for hours. Earth has not anything …. But I digress. Suffice it to say, I arrived and everyone was there, “every known superstition in the world … gathered into the horseshoe” of the little hall that would house our momentous meeting. We chatted animatedly about the impact of the new physics on the North Yorks Moors Railway. Opinion was divided. Or, to be more exact, opinion was all over the place. There were those who believed that the time-table ceased to exist in the distance between the eye and the page; those who philosophized about the distance between steam and the trains of today; and those who bemoaned the distance between the seats they had occupied and the toilets at the ends of their carriages. Meanwhile we awaited Growpe.

But everyone else was there. Margaret Motherill with her violet eyebrows, previously only glimpsed across a smoky room in Montana in the third triennial meeting of the Rocky Mountain Consortium of the Living Dead, was there; the legendary Eustace R. Likely, Founder President of the Finnish Association for Vampiric Enquiry, popularly believed to have been dead for many years (and still believed to be so by some, though he had appeared, hanging from the rafters, at the 1991 Pan-Antipodean Bat Symposium in Perth) was there; and the Sri Lankan string quartet that had serenaded us at the opening session of the second Japanese Dracula Noh Theatre Convention was there – complete with fangs. Everyone was there: acolytes came with their gurus; new blood was transfused into the old. Those of us who were veterans of many such meetings marvelled at Growpe’s powers of attraction and exchanged reminiscences of outrageous papers heard in Rio in 1978, scandals in the igloos we occupied during the first Inuit Dracula meeting; and most recently Growpe’s spectacular coup in bringing the Transylvanian Dracula Circus to Portsmouth (UK not NH), reputedly its first performance west of the Carpathians. And, we reflected, the work goes on. Ars longa, but when art is good to one it can be very good indeed.

At last Growpe arrived. A descent from a corner stairway. Almost invisible beneath the glow exuded by his phosphorescent cloak. A hand in the air to call the meeting to order. “Let us begin.” And we began. An agenda distributed. Simple enough in appearance. Who could have anticipated the debate that was to follow?

Items 1 and 2 passed me by. I was still glancing around the room, awestruck at the crowd Growpe had brought together at such short notice and basking in the reflected glory one achieved simply by being present at such an occasion. I began to take an interest when we came to Item 3: “Finance.” Finance always fascinates me, both in the abstract and when it finds its way into my grubby little hands. Here it was in the abstract. In fact it was very, very abstract. It was so abstract that it could not be seen at all and yet one knew that, however insubstantial, it had a reality, lurking somewhere beneath the meeting’s surface of agendas, motions and minutes. Our Chairman, a portly Franciscan monk whom I had not met before but was immediately impressed by, thanked Growpe – on behalf of Yorkshire, Britain and the E.U. – for bringing the Afro-Caucasian Dracula Society into being. It was, he said, difficult to account for earlier neglect of this aspect of the field, with its important linkage of Caribbean vodun vampirism and its “better-known” European manifestations. At this point the monk was interrupted. A figure, invisible to me, but with a voice to move mountains, boomed out that Haitian religious rites had nothing to do with vampirism and that this was a popular Western misconstruction. History was in the making, but I had not come prepared to take notes. I missed much of the specialist evidence he cited in support of his argument, while trying with my right hand to wrest a pencil free from an entanglement with loose threads in my left inside jacket pocket. But I have preserved some of his bon mots for posterity, among them “Atlantocentrism”, “dismissappropriation”, “Dennis Wheatley hegemonies”, “Fourteen-ninety-two-ophilia” and “yoghurt”. Would that I had recorded more, but then, like deconstructed vampirologists, we reconstructed doyens of the discipline love lacunae.

For a moment it seemed that the whole evening would be engulfed by the booming voice, but fortunately our admirable Chairman, properly concerned that we should return to the main business before us, namely money, suggested that we could rectify any possibly unfortunate associations in the Society’s name simply by dispensing with the “Afro-“ element. A vote was taken. In a trice the “Afro-” was gone, nem. con. I have always been impressed by the alacrity with which we settle these matters, whatever the circumstances under which we are meeting. But more was to follow. Hilda Slingsby, a redoubtable veteran of the early Dracula Convention Wars, rose to her feet, sighed the sigh of those eternally condemned to live in déjà-vu nether-worlds, and delivered one of the great modern vampire polemics. My pencil broke at this point, but I re-sharpened it in time to record her concluding words: “… and I for one do not wish to be a member of the Caucasian [the word was pronounced with a monstrously impressive theatrical sneer] Dracula Society.” Another motion. Another vote. Another nem. con. It would have been unanimous, but Growpe never descends to the vulgarity of voting. “Caucasian” was dropped. Out Chairman was about to steer us back towards “Finance” when the distinguished Athenian vampire librarian, Konstantinos Panayiotis, pointed out that, while he had been pleased to see us divest ourselves of first “Afro-“and then “Caucasian,” we now faced a situation where, as “The Dracula Society,” we would be confused with seventy-three other leading organizations in the field, at least eleven of which (to his certain knowledge) bore exactly the same name. How I admire the bibliographic mind! At this point Bertrand Reek, mysteriously afflicted with amnesia since the 1985 Waikiki Undead Surfing Regatta, was heard to say “The Word” (though perhaps I should interpolate here that those of us near him thought that what he actually said was “the turd”). In any case, Growpe nodded and the matter was decided. It was not the first time I had seen this all-powerful alliance carry the day. Reek proposes, Growpe disposes. We became “The Word”. Surely, I reflected, nothing could deflect us from finances any longer.

My instinct was correct. At this point a trim Icelandic stranger – strange not only to me, but also to all the longstanding aficionados among us and, in fact pretty strange by anybody’s standards, and I hasten to add unlike any other Icelander I have met before, during or since that fateful day in Whitby – rose languidly to his feet, waving copies of a document aloft. He explained that it had been intimated to him that we were to discuss finance and so, “on the spur of the eleventh hour” and “without wishing to rush in where the devils feared to smoke” and much more in that vein, he had prepared a discussion paper. I was riveted, spellbound, agog with … whatever one becomes agog with. Our meetings have never lacked drama, but I had the sense that a coup de théatre which would surpass even the Tooth-Fairy song at the 1983 Nairobi gathering was imminent. We old-stagers have a nose for this kind of thing. I was not to be disappointed.

“There are those,” the Icelander waved a magnanimously vague hand in the air to suggest he did not know exactly who or what they were or exactly where they were to be found but they definitely were and they definitely were somewhere all the same, “ – those who do not have the best interests of the cause at heart.”

A voice from the audience, which made me feel that its utterance might be an orchestrated part of the performance we were witnessing, muttered “Scarborough.”

The Icelander continued in measured tones, “And so we must take all measures to see that the administration remains in the best possible pockets. Should funding, whether it be from the city, the county, the country, the union or the world, fall into the wrong hands, all will be down the drainhole and beyond explanation, reclamation or inclination.”

“The union, the union. Down with Scarborough,” intoned my suspected “plant” in the audience.

The Icelander’s languor began to desert him, an affectation that could not, it seemed, be sustained as his speech accelerated towards its climax: “Fellow devotees, there is only one man who can stop this creeping paralysis of the organisms, this threat to everything we hold dear” – he was now talking at a gallop – “and I propose that we elect Eugenius Growpe our Treasurer, as well as our President, and charge him with disbursing our …”

“Seconded!” screamed a closed-eyed Bertrand Reek. An utterance from the spirit-world, the cry of a man far beyond mortality. It pre-empted any further debate. Another vote; another nem. con.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I call upon Eugenius Growpe to address us,” said the now misty-eyed Icelandic stranger. I was never to discover his identity. Only Growpe appeared to know him. Growpe moves in mysterious worlds as well as mysterious ways.

Growpe strode to the front of the hall, thanked us profusely and expressed his gratitude for the honour that had been accorded him, particularly since it meant he now had sole responsibility for the administration of a sum of three million euros. “Rest assured,” he told us, “that, whatever causes this grant serves, they will be Whitby-based. Eager though I am to cooperate with the Scarborough chapter and respectful though I am of the sterling work they have undertaken, no infiltrators will be allowed into our inner circle.”

At this point, my friend Andrea Mundelstripe, who was sitting next to me, said she needed fresh air and I left with her. So, like a lieutenant vacating the scene of a battle half won, a famous victory imminent, I missed the rest of the proceedings. Andrea and I strolled through the lanes of Whitby. Like me, she was impressed by everything we had witnessed, but she asked me to explain exactly what we had seen and heard. I, though, was far away, intoxicated by the odours of Whitby on a balmy autumn evening. Could I have “explained,” had I wished to? Never answer speculative questions.

Climbing a steep ascent towards the abbey, Andrea reminded me that Whitby had been one of the first towns to have street-lights, fuelled by whale-blubber. And tonight illumination was everywhere. A poster outside a small hall announced another convention: the annual meeting of the British Lighthouse Movie Society. We wandered into the unreality of a film-screening: The Day of the Triffids. So far removed from the politics of our own magnificent society. And, sitting there amid those whose fantasies are served by celluloid lighthouses, I pondered the existence of alternative worlds. We achieve greatness in one field, but are not even novices in another. I had wriggled masochistically through disaster movies, incarcerated myself in prison movies, stolen moments in heist movies, howled at animal movies and raced out of chase movies, but I knew nothing of lighthouse movies. In my specialist field I remain unsurpassed. I can recite the entire credits of every Hammer Horror film ever made. But this, I am sure, watery memories of an undergraduate encounter with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Ramsay and Lily Briscoe notwithstanding, was my first lighthouse movie. Since then I have seen Lighthouse Keeping, Lighthouse Mouse, Lighthouse Love and – once seen, never forgotten – Rin Tin Tin in The Lighthouse by the Sea, but this to my shame was my first lighthouse movie. We live in parallel universes. Minutes before, the Word had seemed everywhere, but now we were outside the Word.