Augustus von Nostrilman tossed down his blunted Eberhard-Faber #2 with a sigh of satisfaction. The manuscript of his latest story lay before him; a glossy coating of pencil lead glazed the sheaf of newborn pages, much as the mare's rich waters bathe the foal freshly sprung from her innards. Von Nostrilman always wrote his stories in pencil, each delicious stroke of graphite on creamy bond conveying a subtlety, a sensibility, that the high-tech precision of typewriter or word-processor inevitably rendered sterile. This story had coaxed from him, had gone so far as to demand of him, his finest emotions. Make no mistake, the Act of Writing exacted a grievous toll from von Nostrilman. That harsh taskmaster, the Story, marched up and down on his head, then imperiously commandeered the full depth and span of his creative resources --- with barely a ``Good day to you, sir'' to let him know what it was doing. He pled guilty to his heart's accusation that the love he lavished on the fruits of his imagination cost him dearly. Work, strenuous work, brow-moistening work... without this passionate labor, how could his Muse nurture the fledgling characters suckling urgently at the teat of his mind? And how could it midwife the embryonic relationships drawing tenuous sustenance from the placenta of his soul? If you can stomach one more tedious and fulsome metaphor, Gentle Reader, then von Nostrilman's text was his fiefdom, and he served it as both lord and peon: master of the fates of his characters, yet slave to the incessant demands of auctorial parentage. But the Story was worth it.
The Story was always worth it.
This particular story, ``Gramps and the Little Ones Grow Closer Together,'' described the beautiful bonding of an elderly man with his grandchildren. Crafting his narrative with the warmth, the good humor, and the wisdom which informed his outlook on life, von Nostrilman had sketched a moving portrait of the bridge that Caring can erect between the generations. A wistful tear glittered in the corner of his eye as he reflected anew on the vignette's closing line: ``Awash in the hope and the freshness of youth, Gramps gathered the children around him; the cheerfully crackling fire seemed to symbolize the essence of their vibrant voyage of mutual understanding.''
Von Nostrilman had written a series of stories over the last several years, and many of these had been published in the local journal/newspaper, ``The Big Buick''. The day after he finished ``Gramps'', von Nostrilman submitted the piece to the journal's editor, Morton Hastings. Hastings read the neatly-penciled manuscript, then glanced up at von Nostrilman and addressed him as follows: ``I say, old fellow, this is frightfully fine work you're turning out for us. You certainly have a knack for shedding light on the human condition. Sadly, many people these days simply don't appreciate the finer, the more understated, elements of the glorious saga of life. The modern man wants a dash of spice in his story. He wants a little something to make the blood race, eh?'' Hastings grinned at von Nostrilman in the most winning, hail-fellow-well-met style he could muster. ``Not to hurt your feelings, old boy; it's all very well to talk about darling little Teddy and Melissa as they get to know more about their grandfather. I'm not saying there's no place for that. But it's the modern way to throw a hint of the old what-for into a story. I'm sure the typical Big Buick reader would find it quite invigorating if you would... well... add some completely unwarranted, gratuitous violence to your stories.''
Von Nostrilman recoiled in horror.
``You insult me, sir! You would have me taint the sincere outpourings of my heart with the sordid, the base, and the cruel? Can you really ask me to compromise the purity of my Vision in order to pander to the lowest common denominator of Man's animalian longings?''
``Yes, old chap, I'm afraid so,'' Hastings replied. ``If you want your work to continue appearing in The Big Buick, that is.''
Von Nostrilman left The Big Buick's offices in a daze. That night, the stark reality of his choice began to sink into his brain: Either submit a bastardized corruption of his most sincere work for publication, or else resign himself to never again seeing his stories in print. Oh, sure, he could try to find some other periodical to showcase his writing, but would he ever again relish the heady ambience that so naturally attended The Big Buick's prestige and reputation? This was unlikely. After all, The Big Buick had won the ``Most Hard-Hitting and Relevant Award'' from the Association of Independent Journals and Magazines for eleven straight years. Von Nostrilman's spirit was willing, but his flesh was weak. In the end, he began to think that, yes, maybe just a suggestion of unpleasantness --- not out-and-out violence, mind you, merely an allusion to the conflict which sometimes clouds the azure sky of human relationships --- might help to liven up his stories a bit.
And so that night he sat down to write ``The Disconcerting, Almost Acrimonious Quarrel.''
Two days later, he seated himself in the plush naugahide armchair in Morton Hasting's office and anxiously awaited the editor's critique of his latest effort. ``By Jove, von Nostrilman, I daresay you're getting the hang of it! This is fine stuff, spirited stuff, material we at The Big Buick would be proud to run under our banner! The scene where Roger McIntyre kind of... well, brushes his knuckles against Andrew's nose in a fit of pique... . That's capital entertainment! That's the modern way, old boy! Our readers are going to have a regular camping holiday with this one!''
And so von Nostrilman's writing career, which until now had run the gentle course of a mighty but peaceful river --- a river secure in its wisdom and flowing implacably toward the dual goals of enrichment and enlightenment --- took a rather abrupt turn. The river's serene power became, in von Nostrilman's heart, the turbulent chaos of the waterfall. And his stories reflected this chaos, each fresh effort drawing author and reader alike closer to a glimpse of the maelstrom, the unfathomable abyss, that lies at the base of the soul's phantasmal falls.
Three months --- and several published pieces --- later, he confronted Hastings with the most recent product of his heart's fancy, ``Paul's Pubes.'' Hastings read the manuscript eagerly, but toward the end a frown spread across his usually jovial features. ``I say, old fellow. This is rather pungent stuff. I mean, that part where the two combatants with the enormous man-tubes engage in their... what did you call it? Ah, yes, their `spewge war'... and the one gladiator dissolves in a pool of his antagonist's `angry, living seed'...! What I'm trying to tell you, my dear von Nostrilman, is to have a care. Have a care, old chap! You're still providing the reader with a rollicking good battle, I'll not deny that. But the implications, sir! I ask you to examine the implications of what you're saying! Is all that spewge-ing and whatnot necessary? Will the reader find wholesome diversion in all those wildly exuberant references to `gushing cream-stream geysers of acidic immolation'? Must the damage your characters inflict upon one another be so relentlessly grotesque? Did I mention all that horrid spewge? You are approaching the boundaries of good taste, old man. Think of the women and children who read The Big Buick! Think of all that spewge!''
But his remonstrances fell upon deaf ears. Von Nostrilman had compromised his Art, and the road to degradation which had so rapaciously welcomed travel in the descending direction would in no wise acquiesce to easy passage in the reverse. Von Nostrilman's journey, a journey of the Inner Man, would begin in the false dawn of compromise and end in darkness. Perhaps a glance in his eyes would have revealed to the discerning onlooker a bittersweet, nostalgic reflection of the man he had once been. Morton Hastings possessed no such gift of discernment, however, and as he read von Nostrilman's next offering, ``Sondra Mosli's Moist, Tasty Cakes of Damnation,'' he could find little time for eulogizing the author's sacrificed integrity. In fact, he found himself hard pressed to remain master of his own gorge, and at length he turned his head from the manuscript and projectile-vomited a chunky torrent of partially digested lunch. When at last he could speak, he turned his tormented eyes upon von Nostrilman and gasped, ``What are you thinking of, old fellow? Where is the Humanity in this?''
Quite a few of The Big Buick's readers tossed their loads too, as ``Sondra Mosli...'' hit the stands in the next issue.
When the end finally came, it featured a lurid stageshow, dinner, drinks... and for cover charge, the Fate of a World.
Von Nostrilman walked into The Big Buick's offices three weeks later and placed ``The Truly Horrendous Story'' before Morton Hastings. The editor picked it up with trembling hands, turned the page, and began to read. Somewhere around the sixth page of the manuscript, a pitiful whine began to build in Hastings' throat. His eyes seemed to bulge under the relentless pressure of some unseen, internal bodily swelling; great droplets of lymph `n' blood, struggling for release from the confinement of his pores, arranged themselves in globular clusters on his waxy skin. At the next-to-last page, a coterie of violent muscular twitches introduced his body to the convulsive writhing of spasm's dominion. He concluded the story, sprang from his chair and moaned from the ruined depths of a soul that was no longer fully sane,
``For the love of God, von Nostrilman! For the love of God!''
With that, he sank a clawing hand into his pocket and withdrew his car keys. The whine now burst into a scream of panic and despair as he savagely (and somewhat redundantly, as things turned out) drew the keys in jagged, scarlet arcs across his wrists. Then he turned from von Nostrilman, slammed into the office's plate glass window, and plunged to his death forty stories below.
The Big Buick hit the streets the next day.
And that's when the rioting and looting began.
The White House subscribed to The Big Buick, and when the President picked up the latest issue and read ``The Truly Horrendous Story,'' he immediately called in the Joint Chiefs of Staff. All across the country, puzzled and frightened young soldiers manning our missile silos received instructions to turn their keys and initiate launch sequences. A lethal barrage of nuclear firepower sped mindlessly toward every point on the globe. In the Kremlin, the Premier flung down his Cyrillic issue of The Big Buick, picked up the red phone on his desk, and impetuously ordered, ``That's it. Do 'em now. Do all of 'em. Do 'em on up. Throw everything we have at everyone.'' At No. 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister staggered away from the pages spread before him and delivered the globe's epitaph: `` `Tis better to snuff the guttering candle of Man now than to permit this putrefaction to debauch the Cosmos.''
As the fool's parade of life on Earth sounded its last reckless trumpet blast, von Nostrilman sat back in his study's easy chair. The television provided the room's sole illumination. A pale newscaster was reading portions of ``The Truly Horrendous Story,'' pausing periodically to beg of his audience, ``Please, someone --- anyone --- kill me. I don't want to live anymore.'' Von Nostrilman's tired, care-worn hands cradled the manuscript of his first published piece, ``The Joy that Kittens Bring.'' He marvelled at the innocence of his early work: How sweet had been his draughts from the fountain of Imagination in those days! He had little time for revery, though: He turned his face to the study window, and the blinding flash from a nearby nuclear surface blast claimed his eyes. Oblivion followed momentarily, and von Nostrilman drank deeply of the silvery-dark waters of Lethe.