Thursday, July 05, 2012

The Bottomless Bottle of Beer

Protagonist and Mr. Faland Em
Illustration by Terrance Lindall

I have written a story titled "The Bottomless Bottle of Beer," and it's being illustrated by the noted artist Terrance Lindall, known for his illustrations in such magazines as Creepy and Heavy Metal and in such classic texts as John Milton's Paradise Lost. The story runs over 50 pages, and Terrance plans about 50 images, so the book will exceed 100 pages. Prior to its publication later this year, a somewhat shorter version with a couple of images will appear in Carter Kaplan's Emanations II around August or September, published by International Authors. Here are the story's opening paragraphs:
The world sometimes just declines to cooperate with my good intentions. I had been drinking a bit more than my wife thought reasonable for my health and our pocketbook, and after a close encounter with a breathalyzer that I managed to confound by sheer dint of will, I bowed to her legalistic position on laws against drunk driving and even agreed to stop drinking altogether. I didn't intend to pursue the twelve-step route to complete spiritual indoctrination, so I resolved to quit entirely on my own. But I reasoned that such a significant occasion called for a drink, and I wanted that drink to be extraordinary, even unforgettable. My wife grudgingly acceded to my desire for just one more bottle to celebrate my decision, and I began to wander the town looking for that perfect beer.

My quest took me down to an old part of the city that I'd never seen before, and I was surprised at its narrow and twisting, cobblestone streets. The area looked vaguely European, too archaic for the New World, but I shrugged the impression off, figuring the streets and buildings had been designed to draw tourists. Such traps are never what they seem to the unwary, but I had to marvel that the effect was so authentic. I noticed a few wine shops, and their selections were truly excellent -- again an authentic touch -- though the shops seemed to stock only older vintages, but I wasn't looking for wine anyway.

At length, on a back street that twisted like a wandering maze, only to decline into a dead end, I came upon a shop above whose door was a metal arrow extending, sharp point outward, perpendicular to the shop's fa├žade and from whose shaft, suspended by two hooks, was a small sign bearing some rather puzzling words in Gothic script that I managed to make out after a fair bit of close inspection:
Our Back's Ratskeller
Mr. Faland Em, Proprietor
I could at first only imagine an exterminator of rats, but the word was not "Ratskiller." Definitely "Ratskeller." Was it a misspelling? Curious, I attempted to peer through the window, but the shop was dark, and I could make out nothing of the vague room's shape, nor of anyone within, nothing distinguishable in member, joint, or limb, just seemingly insubstantial shadow.

Overwhelmed with curiosity, I tried the door and found it unlocked, so I entered. The room was indeed dark, and there seemed no electrical lighting, nor any switch near the door, though I fumbled for one. Gradually, my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, allowing weak light filtering in through the front window to provide sufficient illumination. I still saw no one present.

"Mr. Em?" I called out, though weakly, unsure I should be in the shop. I waited a moment and was ready to turn and leave when I heard a creaking to the left. I looked in that direction and in the midst of dim obscurity glimpsed a tall form entering the room through a door that had been pushed open. Or I thought the form tall; as it limped toward me, it seemed to diminish in height. "A man?" I wondered. As I looked more closely, the form appeared no longer to limp. I accounted my errors in vision to a trick of the poor lighting.

"Mr. Em?" I asked the form.

"Yes," came the reply in a smooth, rich baritone, a lovely voice with a wisp of smoke in its timbre. "I'm Mr. Em. How might I help you?" He had by now crossed the room, more quickly than expected, and I seemed to catch the slight hint of a foreign accent.

"Well . . ." I hesitated. "I really don't want to trouble you." I looked him over, trying not to stare, but the person was somehow compelling. He had very dark eyes, though the room was not well-lit enough to judge clearly, but I hazard to say that the iris of each eye was fully as dark as its pupil. Like deep wells into which one might stumble. His hair was dark, too, jet black. In contrast, his skin was light, though not fair. One might find him handsome. I thought some woman might, some eve or other, find him seductive. He looked to be in his forties, and he waited patiently, perhaps accustomed to being looked at. "I don't really wish to trouble you," I repeated.

"Oh, it's no trouble at all," he assured, putting me entirely at ease.

"I was wondering about the name," I said.

"The name?" He sounded puzzled.

"Yes, this shop's name."

"Ah, I see. You mean 'Our Back's Ratskeller.'"


"Well, it should more correctly say 'Our Back Ratskeller,' but the ones who made the sign weren't proficient in English. 'Our Back' refers to this shop's location here at the back end of the street."

"I was particularly curious about 'Ratskeller,'" I admitted.

Mr. Em smiled sympathetically. "Ah, that. My apologies. I should have understood. The word is German. 'Keller' is the same word as 'cellar,' and 'Rat' is short for 'Rathaus,' or 'city hall.' It refers to the basement of a city hall. Beer was traditionally served in such places."

"Beer?" I echoed, surprised.

"Oh, yes. Beer," he affirmed. "It's conducive to discussion. Think of how much advice bartenders offer when talking to drinkers. There's even an English philosopher who has scrutinized the culture of alcohol and claims that virtuous drinking has contributed to the Western tradition of democratic rule because it loosens the tongue without loss of reason."

I stared at the one standing before me. Who was this individual, I wondered? Was he from England? He'd mentioned some English fellow, yet I hadn't caught an English accent. But there was definitely some obscure hint of an accent, though he spoke with fluency. I glanced about the room, seeking some national clue . . . a flag, a map, a foreign book, but nothing. At that moment, I saw the cat. It was an enormous, black tomcat, heavy, nearly as large as a hog, sprawled out in an armchair and apparently napping.

The fellow noted where I was looking "Oh, don't mind Behemoth," he assured. "My friend is harmless . . . for the most part."

I stared at the oddly named, grotesquely large cat and vaguely remembered from some history course a book of that title about Nazi Germany. I looked again at the stranger beside me and recalled the detailed Ratskeller explanation. "Are you German?" I asked.

"No, no," he replied, then fell to thinking and reconsidered. "Yes, perhaps I am German."

Bewildered, I sought familiar ground. "You mentioned beer."

"Yes, I did." He smiled again, an encouraging smile. "Why?"

"I'm looking for a fine beer. I need the best. Do you deal in beer? I mean . . . this being a Ratskeller."

"Certainly. Precisely what we deal in. We have an excellent stock of truly magnificent beers. What, might I ask, is the occasion?"

"I'm a little embarrassed to say," I admitted, "but I plan on drinking just one more bottle of beer and then swearing off alcohol."

"Ah," he remarked, his voice full of proper sympathy. "I see." He considered the complicated situation for a few long moments, as though scanning with his mind's eye an endless list of potential beers. Finally, he focused again on me. "I believe we have just the one for you, something we call 'Shoggoth's Old Peculiar.' In the Triple B selection, naturally."

"Triple B?"

"Oh, goodness, but I'm not being clear, am I? The Triple B is our Bottomless Bottle of Beer."

I stared at the stranger. What was he talking about? What in hell was a Bottomless Bottle of Beer? Was the odd fellow joking? How could a bottle without a bottom ever hold beer?

He seemed to understand my visible perplexity. "Come," he beckoned. "We have several below, down in the cellar." He turned toward the door to the left, and I followed into a narrow hallway lit by candlelight. As we passed through the doorway, he said, "Behemoth, close the door behind us, please." I looked back and from the dim, yellow light saw that the huge cat was following close behind. The creature appeared to be dropping down onto four feet, as though it had been standing fully erect on its hind legs to pull the door to. That was surely an optical illusion, but how had the cat tugged the door shut?

"Watch your step," cautioned Mr. Em, drawing my attention from the cat.

The narrow hallway began a steep descent by stone steps as the left wall abruptly ended in darkness, leaving the steps to descend along a narrow ledge. I followed carefully, keeping to the remaining wall, but glancing fearfully into the abyss of darkness to my left. The steps continued their descent, growing darker, then brighter as we ventured from one candlelit spot to the next. I found myself wondering who maintained all the candles. Mr. Em had mentioned others responsible for the shop sign, but that number would surely be small, no more than two, maybe three. Far too few for the scores of candles. "What the hell am I doing here?" I muttered, considering whether to complain. A prospective customer surely ought to be served, not made to wander dangerously along the margin of such utter darkness, where a single false step would send one plunging confounded from the light, however dim . . .
The story continues, of course -- indebted to Neil Gaiman for the Shoggoth's Old Peculiar -- and while I won't serialize it here on my blog, you can get a preview to some of the story in an eight-and-a-half-minute video presenting some of Terrance Lindall's illustrations accompanied by a bit of text (and one can watch just for the images, ignoring the text to avoid any potential plot spoilers).

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At 10:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The story grabbed my attention. Would love to read it when published. It reminds me in part Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" and in part Stephen King's works.
Behemoth is a popular death-metal band in Poland, of which members were accused of tearing the Bible during their concert and had to face the judge in a very public trial. It could make the story popular in Poland.


At 1:15 PM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

Wow! Your career as a novelist starts in a big way!

At 2:57 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Behemoth is just the sort to do that kind of thing, Jacek.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:58 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

More of a "novella-ist" . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:42 PM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Where did you get the idea, how did you develop it; when did you write out the first draft, how long did it take, and so on?

At 2:39 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I was enjoying a beer after exercise last January and had the abrupt thought that a bottomless bottle would be great.

I then was struck by the further thought that this could make a great temptation story. The Faustian plot was an obvious one.

When I had time in February, I wrote about 50 pages in two weeks and had the entire story. I read it to a friend trained in law because I needed advice on the courtroom scene, and he helped me rework the terminology.

I've spent some time -- when I wasn't busy with student papers -- proofreading and sharpening some points, partly due to good advice from friends.

The story is a cautionary one, of sorts, that questions scientism and postmodernism, but with humor. I try to work in a lot of allusions to other works with similar themes concerning deals with the devil -- or other such arrangements.

There are verbal echoes of Milton's Paradise Lost, Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, Goethe's Faust, Gaiman's "Shoggoth's Old Peculiar," and many other stories. I've put these there to be noticed, but I don't have citations since this isn't scholarship, but a creative, intertextual work.

Most of all, I try to tell a good story.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is a good story. Congratulations on the pending publication.


At 6:27 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Pat. The illustrations alone would make a good story, and I'm fortunate that the tale appealed to Terrance.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:00 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Ordered your book today, Jeff. Looks interesting. I'll do an Amazon review after I read it. :)

At 8:39 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, I assume you mean the ebook.

The hard copy, unavailable on Amazon, is an earlier version that had some errors I missed in a rush to publication. One of the mistakes resulted in the loss of nearly an entire paragraph at the very beginning.

But if you're reading the ebook, you'll be on target. Thanks.

Jeffery Hodges

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