John Collier, the author of that seminal collection Fancies and Goodnights, is a magical name for fans of fantasy. Few are his equal for acerbic satire, wondrous imaginings, and purely original plots. Roald Dahl and Avram Davidson, sure, and there must be few others but none come to mind as I write this at 6:30 in the morning.
One of Collier's most elusive books is No Traveller Returns, a 56-page volume that was released in a limited edition in 1931. Limited to 210 copies, signed and numbered by the author, with numbers 1-25 being printed on indescent Japanese vellum and numbers 26-210 printed on hand-made paper. To my knowleged the story has never been included in any of the author's collections, nor has it been reprinted elsewhere. So when the book recntly became available at luministarchives.com, I jumped at the chance.
We begin with an amusingly witty and prolix introduction -- or, An Apology, as the author has it: "Two, among the many orders of men who merit the contempt and hatred of their fellows, are undoubtedly these: the grovelling minds which have never aspired to fancy a Utopia, and those ardents who have had the generosity to conceive a plan of our future good, and cannot refrain from afflicting us with a presentation of it."
Aha! the savvy reader may say, this is to be a tale of a Utopia or, at the very least, a dystopia. Far from it, mon frere, far from it.
Something popped up from the ground in front of Professor Wilkinson's lodgings. It happened in the early of the morning in an area where road construction had been ongoing, so nobody paid much attention to it. Indeed, the professor himself did not notice it for several months, being far too busy with his mathematical ruminations. Wilkinson, we learn, is a dry old stick, but eventually he concentrated on the strange railings from the something (an edifice? an erection? a builinding?) that were visible and his mind went to fancy a scientific experiment. He woiuld establish whether there is any truth that the number of people who exit from places is equal to the number who enter. He would then publish the results and establish Wilkinson's Law of Equality or Variability, whichever the case may be,
He immediately began work on a marvelous instrument (with a grant from the Pockhealer Research Fund, which was readily given, of course) that composed of two complicated lenses that would transmit rays of light to a plate so sensitive that no physical body could pass over it without being recorded. Thus science provides a simple solution to a problem that would work almost as well if he were to count them himself.
At the end of the firt day, the professor eagerly developed the plates and learned that, although many people entered the edifice, none were recorded leaving it. That was a bit disappointing but soon his scientific rigor rose to the challenge. Improvements were made on the lenses and Wilkinson decided to let the experiment run full week. When the week was up, however, the results were the same. Many people entered, none left.
The following day, he left his house, "crossed the road, and descended promptly into the grotto, whence he also never came up."
When the professor reached the bottom step, there was a twisting sensation, and he found himself in an unfamilar cavern. He was immediately pounced up by a number of men, stripped of all his clothing, and tossed in a cell. His cell was one in a long row of cells, each with its own prisoner. There was a similar row of cells on the cavern wall opposite, as well as what appeared to be many large ovens. The ones who had grabbed him appeared to be cowboys and there were other men in pointy hats with sticks that poked and hit the prisoners if they got too close to the bars. By the ovens there was a chef.
For food he was served a bland paste which made him very thirsty. On the mossy floor of the cell there ws a small pool of water and he drank mightily from it. but the water made him desire the paste once again. He noticed many of his fellow prisoners attempting to vomit after eating the paste.
A man was led to view the cells and he fixed his attention on the person in the cell next to Wilkinson -- an obese person who could not hide his corpulence, no matter how hard he tried. The fat man was chosen and he was dragged out of his cell to another room which blocked off his screams. Shortly the door to that room opened and the fat man was wheeled in on a metal cart, fully dressed -- fully dressed as in ready for cooking, not fulling dressed as in clothed. Into the oven he went.
Professor Wilkinson, whose body resember that of an egret sans feathers, spent the next couple of weeks watching his fellow prisoners be selected by the cavern's "customers," then prepared and cooked. Because there was little meat on his bones, the professor was never selected, unlike some who were selected within two hours of their arrival -- M. Ch*st*rs*n and M. B*ll*c, for example. Others, such a Lord B**v*rbr**k, spent days bemoaning their fate before heading to the ovens. At last came the day when Wilkinson was chosen.
He had been etching some mathematical designs on the floor of his cell when a customer approached. When Wikinson heard the customer speak, he responded. (In the cavern everyone spoke a bastardized version of Esperanto which he precticed, although none of the prisoners or guards would speak to him.) The customer was amazed and paid for the professor immediately, demanding that he be dressed. Dressed that is in clothing, not dressed for the oven. It happened that a new arrival M*x B**rb*hn was being stripped and it was his clothes that were given to the professor. who had been purchased to be put on exhibition.
And then things get really weird.
This may well have been John Collier's first story, published the same year as his noted "Green Thoughts;" I don't know which was written first. Collier's talent is nonetheless blazingly brilliant here. His sly approach and his judicial jousting at academia and at noted figures of the time is both refreshing and appealing.
Highly recommended, especially for John Collier fans. And if you are not one of those, where have you been hiding?