The Darkling Plain
(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
We all called him, among ourselves, the
Madman. Not to his face; there the Madman was always the Professor, or if one
of us was in the mood to be facile, the Doctor Professor. He never realised it
The Madman wasn’t really mad; he just lived
in a kind of world of his own, incredibly disconnected from the rest of us. He
hadn’t the faintest idea – or interest – in such things as food or politics or
sports. It wasn’t as if he was totally immersed in some esoteric branch of
science, like one of those absent-minded professors of history; he had strange
and intense interest in subjects like pharmacology and neurology, but also in
demonology and mythology. Sometime I felt the worlds of chemicals and demons
were much more immediate and real to him than the food he ate and the clothes
he wore. But he was unmarried and apparently without all interest in the
opposite or even his own sex; he lived alone and worked as it suited him to
He was tall, thin, dark and bushy-haired,
with buck teeth and thick spectacles. Nobody quite knew how he earned his
livelihood. He always seemed to have enough to live well, in his old house with
the floor-to-ceiling bookcases and the laboratory where he performed strange
experiments which none of us quite understood, despite our own varying academic
Once or twice a month, summer and winter,
he would summon a few of us for a Kaffeeklatsch at his house, and
because the food was good and the drinks (including coffee) excellent, we’d go
and sit there while he held forth. Some of us actually even listened to him,
and it was these few that would get return invites, which proved that he
actually noticed whether people were paying any attention.
Then one evening, while we were leaving, he
said something that stopped us in our tracks. “I won’t be holding these parties
for a while,” he said, peering at us through the thick spectacles like the
bottoms of bottles. “I’m working on something...anyway, you’ll know when I’m
ready to tell you.”
It was many weeks before the Madman called
again. “Come without fail,” he said on the phone, and he sounded strange. “I
have something to say that you ought to hear.”
There were only three of us that night with
him – all three had been re-invited for every session, right from the beginning.
It was the smallest party he had ever invited. “Sit down,” he said, pointing.
He looked thinner than ever, and tired. “Coffee’s on the table. No alcohol
tonight. You’ll need your concentration.”
He sat down opposite us, locked his hands
round one knee, and began.
You know (the Madman said) all about
my interest in the lore of demonology. You might even say it’s not so much an
interest as an obsession. I think you – all three of you – think of demons as
imaginary, even more so than gods and angels, all of which none of you believe
in. And by your reckoning you should be right.
I knew different though. I knew, and the
more I read and researched the more certain I grew, that the world of demons
lies right beside ours, so close indeed that we do not see it only because we
choose not to, or because our senses are crippled in such a way that we can’t
notice it even when it’s there. The ancient books that spoke of summoning up
demons with rituals, I grew convinced, were only a thinly disguised prescription
for enabling our senses to see what was already there...for a time.
I grew, as you may imagine, determined to
I experimented. I tried to find the
essences of the chemicals that would release the consciousness and let us see
what there was to see, for of course I knew that the rituals were all window
dressing. What really mattered were the chemicals, whether inhaled or injected
or applied as an unguent to the genital mucous membrane. And of the chemicals,
most were undoubtedly unnecessary and even harmful. So I set out to find the
chemicals and the doses that actually worked.
It wasn’t easy. I had setback after
setback, and made blunder after blunder. Twice chemical mixtures I thought
would work failed unexpectedly, but i never gave up, because I knew, was
completely certain, that I was on the right track.
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