The Last Notes of Henry Ryan
By Kenny Gould
Dictated by Henry Ryan
Recorded by J. E. I.
Prepared by J. E. I.
14 March 1939
London, England / Oxfordshire, England
J.E.I.: Are you ready?
Henry Ryan: Just a minute. Ah, that’s better. Damn thing keeps poking me.
J.E.I.: So, just to be clear, you’ve hired me to take this dictation and turn it into a story?
HR: Right. To be published and distributed after my death. My lawyer will take care of that.
J.E.I.: And you don’t want the names changed?
HR: Right, the names stay the same. This is nonfiction.
J.E.I.: Okay, then. The recorder is on. You can begin.
HR: Yes. Well, let’s see. As children, my sister Maude and I visited my Uncle Emmerick’s country mansion. He’d had been married, then; my Aunt Millie died in childbirth a few years later, leaving my uncle with a son, Alistair. All I remember about her was that her hair looked like a bird’s nest and she smelled like boiled peanuts. She liked to dress up in lace, like she was going to a ball, but she never left the house. Alistair, I never met. But my uncle… in front of a roaring fireplace, he’d told us of the night he spent curled up in a moth-ridden sleeping bag on the floor of the family mausoleum, surrounded by candles, crystals, and pentagrams, searching for evidence of the afterlife.
“Like ghosts?” I’d asked. “Are they real?”
His dark brown eyes blazed crimson in the light. “Oh, very real,” he said. “Very, very real.”
That’s the kind of thing you remember as a child. But throughout our childhoods, and well into adulthood, he existed only as a distant specter. We didn’t think of him much until we each got a letter, some thirty years later, inviting us to visit. I think Maude and I both surprised each other by accepting. But an isolated country retreat sounded just the thing, and I did want to meet my distant cousin. I didn’t know what he’d look like. Because even my mother, who had always given Uncle Emmerick and his family the benefit of the doubt, admitted that her nephew was a bit “off.” She’d never once met him. No meetings, no pictures. Nothing. So I wanted to meet him. During our train ride, I was a bit worried that we’d spend the week wiping drool from our old uncle’s chin, but when the hired car that picked us up from the station pulled up to Uncle Emmerick’s mansion, I found him to be not at all like I expected.
J.E.I: How’s that?
HR: Well, like I said, I expected him to be an old geezer. Senile. But he was entirely lucid, entirely pleasant. The second we stepped from the car he rushed to take Maude’s valise.
He invited us inside. There was no doubt that he was my mother’s brother. He bent and stared into Maude’s eyes. “Ah,” he said. “Just like Melissa’s. And you,” he looked at me, “your mother’s smile. I was so sorry to hear about her passing.”
Now of course my mother had died a decade earlier, and that gave me reason for pause, but I could not get over how good he looked. Trim waist, bright eyes, glowing skin. He must have been seventy but looked ten years younger.
“Thank you for having us, Uncle Emmerick,” I said. My uncle tried to take my briefcase but I brushed him off. But really, it looked like he could’ve taken Maude’s and my own and run two miles! That’s how good he looked. He gave us a tour. The outside of the house sparkled, but the inside was old and somewhat sad. Much the opposite of today, where I can’t keep the facade clean for a season, but the inside shines. It’s that damn white paint. Anyways, much of the furniture had been covered with white cloth, and the tour was confusing, far more twisted than I remembered. Several hallways seemed to lead to nowhere and stairs that should’ve gone to the attic stopped halfway to the ceiling. We’ve since had those taken out. I got turned around several times but Uncle Emmerick always pointed out the way with a chuckle and a clap of his hands, as if he found my confusion delightful. At some point we came to a door where someone had painted “Keep Out” in black letters across the upper third. That struck me as odd, until my uncle said, “This is Alistair’s room.” He knocked but no one replied. “Alistair?” he said. “Alistair?” When no one answered, he said, more loudly, “Your cousins are here. They’ve come all the way from the city.” Still, there was no response.
“A shy boy,” he said, and then leaned in and confided, as if it were a secret, “He doesn’t like strangers.”
After that, Uncle Emmerick left us to our own devices. You’d think that, after his pleading letter, he’d want to spend time with us, but no. He sat in his study and smoked his pipe while Maude and I walked around. There were all sorts of interesting things to see around the house, much more interesting than what we have now. He kept a robust collection of death-related ephemera, including skulls and funerary vases and urns, one of which supposedly contained the ashes of Akhenaten, the heretic pharaoh, father of King Tut. I’ve since donated them to the British Museum. And I walked the grounds, which run for miles. Maude spent most of her time in the solarium, writing notes in the margins of her novel.
On our third day I went to join her, except that she wasn’t there. So I sat and read a book that I’d found on the nightstand of my quarters: it was bound in soft red leather that felt like human skin and stamped across the front in gold typography. Really, it felt like human skin! Here’s a copy. Feel that. Does that not feel like skin?
J.E.I.: It feels like skin.
HR: Right. It’s called Gehenna, and it was written by my uncle. I think this might be one of five copies that exist.
J.E.I.: What’s it about?
HR: Well, let me read you the prologue. Here we are. In 1935, Erwin Schrödinger came up with a famous thought experiment to demonstrate the quantum theory of superposition, which states that the act of observing something causes it to exist. To demonstrate his theory, Schrödinger talked about placing a cat in a steel box with a flask of poison, a Geiger counter, and a bit of radioactive material so small that, over the course of an hour, there was a fifty percent chance that the Geiger counter would pick up some radiation, and a fifty percent chance that it wouldn’t. In the event that the counter detected radiation, the flask would shatter and the poison would kill the cat. Otherwise, the cat survived.
There are two leading interpretations for this experiment. The first says that until the box is opened, the cat is fifty percent alive and fifty percent dead. It’s the act of observation (opening the box) that forces the cat to take one of the states, but until that happens the cat exists in a blurred state of both life and death. This is called the Copenhagen interpretation. The second says that opening the box creates two different realities: one where the cat is dead, and another where the cat is alive. This is called the Many-Worlds interpretation.
In this book I present a third theory, a theory guaranteed to shatter convention and shake our conception of post-humous reality. With irrevocable proof, I shall demonstrate that the simple act of observing the experiment causes the cat to live, either in life or life after death; it is only when the cat is placed in the box and forgotten, alienated from any who might observe its passing, that the cat becomes doomed. For to make the transition without being observed—or, at the least, remembered—is to enter the heinous, horrifying, otherworldly realm of Gehenna.
J.E.I.: That’s quite the opening.
HR: Isn’t it? My uncle was a genius. Completely barmy, but a genius. The rest of the book is filled with mathematical proofs, graphs, incantations, and symbols. Chapter three details a method of connecting to this realm, which involves a complicated sequence of machinery, motions, and Ancient Egyptian funerary chants. If he’d just published the thing as fiction, he’d have made a million pounds! I’ve half a mind to publish the thing myself, though the times have changed. War looming, people don’t have time for books. And if they do, they don’t want something horrifying. There’s enough of that already. Chapter four contains clips of messages that my uncle had supposedly to retrieve from Gehenna, spoken by unnamed, unidentified specters. Let’s see if I can find a few, just so you can get a sense… Ah! Yes: “Why did I kill her? I sinned and now I suffer for it. I plucked out her eyes and she plucked out my soul. Now she laughs! She laughs!” Or, here’s another: “Hell. This is hell for sure. Why can’t I die?” And: “Beloved, beloved, come to me! Come to me, beloved!” There’s a note here that explains that this last phrase was repeated four hundred and forty four times. The voice remained silent for four minutes and forty four seconds before repeating the phrase four hundred and forty four more times.
HR: And not just that he heard these things, or thought he heard these things, but that he sat there and listened to someone saying, “Beloved, beloved, come to me,” four hundred and forty four times, and then waited through four minutes of silence before listening to it again! Just… bonkers!
HR: So this is what I was reading when Maude walked in and announced that Uncle Emmerick had shot himself in the temple.
HR: That’s what I said. I said, “What? In the temple? With a gun?”
“In the face,” Maude said. “With a gun. It appears to have been fatal.”
“So he’s dead, is what you’re saying,” I said.
“That’s what fatal means, yes,” Maude said.
J.E.I.: That’s absolutely insane.
HR: Yes. So we both acknowledged that we should call the police, but neither of us made a move toward the kitchen. Instead, we walked down a long corridor, through the mansion’s ornate entry to the west wing, where my uncle kept his private study. I remember that Maude paused with one delicate hand on the brass knob.
“You don’t get scared from blood, do you?” she said.
“No,” I said, which wasn’t true. I’m terrified of blood. But I wanted to see what had happened. So Maude pushed open the door. Uncle Emmerick sat slumped in a black leather chair, right here, right where I’m sitting now. His arms dangled loosely at his sides and blood and bits of brain and bone sullied the ancient books on the wall behind him. Already black flies had begun to collect around his sagging head. On the floor beside him lay a snub-nosed grey revolver with a wooden stock, and on the desk in front of him, right here, was Gehenna.
J.E.I.: This is where he shot himself? In this room?
HR: At this desk! You know what this stain is from then, don’t you?
J.E.I.: My god!
HR: That was my reaction. And I was staring at him when it occurred to me that someone ought to tell our cousin.
HR: I said, “Alistair,” and Maude nodded as if I’d been suggesting that I be the one to tell him. Which of course hadn’t been my intention at all, but when I thought about it, it had to be one of the two of us, and I was probably in a better position to tell our cousin than Maude.
“Call the police,” I said. “I’ll meet you in the kitchen.”
So I walked outside to the foyer and began climbing one of those sweeping staircases. I got halfway down a corridor before realizing that I was walking in the wrong direction. It was another five minutes before I found the right way, and I have to tell you, it was one of the scariest five minutes of my life. This place can be disorienting, when you don’t know it, and every time I turned a corner I thought I’d run into my uncle’s mangled corpse. But finally I found my way back to the place where I’d gotten lost and pushed forward, turning the corner and arriving in front of Alistair’s room, which I recognized by the paint on the door.
“Alistair?” I said, knocking. Now, you have to understand, at this time I still hadn’t met him. “Alistair,” I said again, knocking again with more force. Still, there was no answer. “Alistair, I need to speak with you.”
I realized that the boy might be scared of me, a stranger asking him to come out of his room, so I quickly added, “It’s your cousin, Henry. Your father is my uncle.”
J.E.I.: Did he come?
HR: What do you think?
HR: Of course not. I tried the door, but it was locked. I went back down the hall, to try and find Maude, but again found myself lost. For one brief, crushing moment I thought that I was utterly alone. Then I heard Maude’s soft voice drifting through one of the corridors: “Henry, this way!” I’ve never been so glad to hear another voice in my life. We spent the next half hour trying to convince Alistair to come out, and when the police arrived, and he still hadn’t come, one of the officers suggested that we break down the door. There was no one to tell us not to, so we stood to one side as he rolled up his sleeves. On the fourth kick, the door finally flew inward.
“Alistair,” the officer said, stepping into the room. You know what we saw?
J.E.I.: Alistair was dead.
HR: No. He wasn’t dead. He didn’t exist.
J.E.I.: What do you mean?
HR: The room didn’t have any windows. It was a perfect, windowless cube: no bed, no furniture, no doors save the one. A thick layer of dust coated the floor. It wasn’t disturbed by anyone except me and the officer. No one had been inside the room. Alistair didn’t exist.
HR: That’s the question I asked myself. Why the charade? I have a hypothesis. I did some digging and you know what I found? Aunt Millie wasn’t the only one who’d died in childbirth. Alistair had died as well.
J.E.I.: I still don’t—?
HR: Here’s the genius of it. My uncle was a single bachelor living by himself. His magnum-opus was a book called Gehenna, about a hellacious, solitary realm where you go if you die without anyone remembering you. He believed in it. You see? He believed that this place existed, that he’d received messages from it. And he was scared for Alistair, that he might forget him. So what did he do?
J.E.I.: He pretended that Alistair never died.
HR: Yes, exactly. And what else? What about his soul? Who would remember him when he died?
J.E.I.: I see, now.
HR: That’s right. His niece and nephew. Because how could anyone forget the time that their uncle invited them on holiday and blew out his brains instead?
J.E.I.: I imagine that’d be difficult.
HR: His funeral took place on a rainy Saturday. Maude, myself, my uncle’s lawyer, the preacher, the mortician, and the mortician’s three sons were in attendance. Those three were ugly lads, thick armed and brutish, their faces pitted with acne scars and traces of what might one day become beards. I’d be surprised if any of them are still alive. They snickered behind their hands, and leered at Maude, but they helped carry the coffin, which was kept closed, on account of the damage to my uncle’s face. Maude and I had agreed not to inter our uncle in the mausoleum but to bury him in the family plot a short ways off from the house. The preacher performed the last rights, and then the mortician and his sons used ropes to lift the coffin so I could remove the bars from underneath. Once the bars were out of the way, the men lowered the coffin into the grave. After the funeral we met with the lawyer. To me, my uncle left his estate, and to Maude, a small fortune. An apology for making us the bearers of his memory, I think. And that’s how I’ve come to sit here forty years later. I’ve led a good life, though I never settled down to raise a family. Neither did Maude. With war on the horizon, we decided to leave London and move out here. With every passing day, it looks to be a better and better decision.
J.E.I.: I think history will prove you right, Mr. Ryan.
HR: Yes. We have a good life here. Though it occurs to me that if Maude goes, I’ll be the last living member of my family. I don’t quite know what I’ll do, then. Of course I don’t believe in Gehenna—the proof doesn’t make sense. But sometimes I wonder. Would it be too much trouble to hire an aide? Pay someone to watch me? Just to make sure? Or I could pay someone to prepare a tangible testimony to my life. A pamphlet. To be distributed upon my death, just in case.