In continuing John Carpenter week, here's a little oddity- originally published in the New York Times on October 31, 1988, this short story is extremely derivative of H.P. Lovecraft, but is certainly enjoyable enough as a miniature horror yarn designed to complement your bowl of Count Chocula or what-have-you on a Halloween morning. It recalls most readily Lovecraft's "The Outsider," one of his most famous short stories (which in turn, is rather indebted to Poe).
Carpenter additionally injects the theory of Schrodinger's Cat into the narrative, which imbues it with a touch of Science Fiction. He peppers the story with references to Lovecraft, from "Dr. Necron," to the asylum frame story, to simply the language itself- and, as such, it feels more like a mere pastiche than, say, Carpenter's Lovecraft-inspired films like IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS or PRINCE OF DARKNESS (or to some extent, THE THING), which take on distinct lives of their own. In short, it's not a piece of any literary significance, but an interesting curiousity for the Carpenter (or Lovecraft) fan. The original story appears below:
The Ghost Maker: A Halloween Tale
© 1988, John Carpenter and The New York Times.
I live my days in silence, behind the barred in windows of this asylum, in a cell of shadows. Until this moment I have spoken to no living person of the events of that Halloween night five years ago - because I could neither ask for nor expect belief.
But today, my doctor has given me paper and a pen, as he hopes I shall be compelled to write out my tale of horror and madness - once and for all expelling the demons that hold me in their catatonic embrace. I know this horror shall never leave me. So my purpose, Dear Reader, is to finally put before the world the events of Oct. 31, five years past, as I experienced them, that no man may follow me to this hideous darkness in which I dwell, awaiting the only mercy I shall ever know - my release - the moment of death.
It was a bitterly cold night and I welcomed the warmth of the hearth in Howard Necron's study that All Hallow's Eve five years ago. I settled myself comfortably into an armchair by the crackling fireplace and waited as Necron poured two large snifters of brandy. He then turned to me with the oddest smile...
"I suppose, William, that you wonder why I have asked you here this evening," Necron said as he poured the amber liquid.
I admitted that I had been somewhat curious, as for the last 15 years we had been bitter professional rivals. We had once been partners in science and the closest of friends as well, but a dark schism had developed over our opposing research ethics. Necron had always wanted to prove that which should have, to my mind at least, remained in the ephemeral world of mathematics and theory. Disagreement had turned to debate, which in turn had become cold enmity.
"What would you say, William, if I told you that using universally accepted scientific principles, I could create a ghost?"
"I would say, Necron, that you were as mad as a March hare." My smile of derision must have been obvious, for he turned quickly away, pausing for a moment with his back to me before he slowly crossed the study to hand me the brandy snifter.
"To science, eh, William?" As he raised his glass to mine, his gaze seemed to burn into me, as if a shrewd smokey secret passed behind his eyes. I nodded and took a sip of the brandy. It had a sharp undertaste, and as I started to mention something about it, Necron settled himself closer to me on the ottoman at my feet.
"What is Schrodinger's cat?" he asked in a whisper.
"There's no need for this. We both know what it is." I suddenly felt unfocused. Drowsy. Probably the heat from the fire, making me sleepy. "It is a... a... thought experiment used to demonstrate the paradox of observer-created reality," I answered.
Necron seemed unbearably close to me now, his face but inches from my own.
"Yes," he said, "Nothing is real until you observe it."
Necron now stood, staring down at me with triumph and ice, the fire flickering on his face, shadows squirming like mad, devouring insects. A wave of dizziness washed through me.
Necron continued: "Imagine a box. The size of a coffin. Inside it is a radioactive particle with a 50-50 chance of decaying in, say, one minute. Also in the box is a glass bottle containing cyanide gas, and a Geiger counter. And, finally, into the box, is placed - an unconscious man."
"A cat, wasn't it?" I broke in. I was having a difficult time maintaining any line of reasoning, but there was a chill to his words.
His eyes began to drift strangely above me, as I sipped once again from my drink. That metallic undertaste assaulted me again. What had he put in my brandy? Could Necron be that insane? I tried to focus on his face. His features seemed to melt in the heat of the fire.
"If the radioactive particle decays, the Geiger counter so records it, trips a hammer, smashes the glass bottle, thus allowing the cyanide gas to escape and kill the man."
Necron's words were running all together.
"You mean... the cat," I mumbled weakly.
"Or," he said, "if the particle does not decay, the Geiger counter is silent, the hammer not tripped, the man allowed to live."
The room was spinning like a child's music box. The heat from the fireplace... Necron looming above me... My eyes bobbed open, closed. "What did you put... in my drink?"
But Necron ignored my slurred question.
"Don't you see, William? I could be either a murderer or a savior, because until human eyes see inside the box, the man inside is both dead and alive at the same time - a complex, linear combination of the two. The man in the box is a ghost of all possibilities of dead and alive, condemned to live in a limbo until the box is opened and he is observed by human eyes." His voice had dropped to a sibilant rasp, eyes glowing with a fury.
The snifter of brandy suddenly fell from my fingers. As I lost consciousness Necron's face was the last thing I saw.
"I am the ghost maker," he said, grinning. Then there was nothing. Blackness. Silence.
I awoke. I was lying down. Enclosed. Trapped. I couldn't move. Listening. Trying to breath. Then suddenly I threw up my arms. Touched a solid surface above me, no more than a foot away from my face. A lid. I was buried. In a coffin. A box.
I pushed up the lid a fraction of an inch.
A sliver of morning sunlight appeared as the lid opened, illuminating the inside of the box.
I suddenly saw the thing above me. It was hovering, just a foot away. Its body prone, it was staring down at me. Fuzzy. Indistinct. Its arms reached for me and at the same time another pair of arms lay at its side.
It was a blurred composite. A living transition. A contradiction. All possibilities, dead and alive. It undulated. Gazing eyes. Dead eyes. Living eyes. Blue decaying flesh.
In the fraction of a second before it disappeared I saw the creature's shape crawling, diffracting - indefinite, exploding anew out of rippling flesh.
A leering death's head began to scream down at me, disintegrating, crumbling and decomposing, growing and rejuvenating, humanity degraded and corrupted, dead and alive, revealed in an instant.
And then it was over. The thing disappeared. Its features settled, collapsed into definition. I looked around - the glass bottle at my feet was unbroken, the cyanide gas contained. The Geiger counter at my side was silent.
My mind raced frantically. Dead plus alive. Alive minus dead. Dead plus the square root of minus alive.
And then, as I continued to push upward, the impact of Necron's experiment hit me. As my fingers lifted the underside of the lid, the thing made man stared back at me in horror, screaming a long, sustained shriek of utter annihilation. Touching the unfeeling surface of a mirror - I realized the hideous image had been a reflection - it was I.