Captain Spaulding on Skull Island

Gene Wolfe Tribute

February 12th, 2020

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Here’s a short story I wrote for a tribute show Gumbo Fiction Salon did shortly after Gene Wolfe’s passing.

Twenty years ago, an anthology of horror stories came out called 999.  It had stories by Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, F. Paul Wilson, Joyce Carol Oates, Ramsey Campbell, Joe R. Lansdale, William Peter Blatty – to name just a few.  On September 9th (9-9-99), there were book signings all across the country.  We were lucky enough to have Gene Wolfe signing at our wonderful genre bookstore The Stars Our Destination.  I went and had Gene sign his fantastic contribution “The Tree Is My Hat” (which you should read if you haven’t). 

I’d just had my first story published and this came up in our small talk.  Gene seemed so happy for me!  We talked for a moment or two about short stories and how, when he started writing, you could pay 6 months of your mortgage with 2 short story sales.  He was incredibly encouraging to this young writer and gave me acceptance into an elite club that I was just joining.

I wrote this shortly after he died.  It was slightly inspired by his BOOK OF THE NEW SUN series, and also by the fact that he helped invent the machine that bakes Pringles.

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“The Book of the New Sun-Pringles” by John Weagly

Scarcity is a zest to be savored.

The Pringles potato chip company issued a new flavor in the spring – Sun-Pringles.  Each chip was dusted cheddar-orange like a distant sun in the final throes of death and had a light sprinkling of Venusian salt (which actually came from an Alkali Sink near the Pilot Mountains in Utah) and a drop of antediluvian stardust Balsamic vinegar.  The chips were baked to perfection in a machine that was an engineering marvel and that guaranteed every snack was sublime excellence. 

Each taste of the new chips was supposed to be ambrosia.

They were scarce.  They were rare.  The Sun-Pringles were only available for a limited time and I wanted them.

Times were dark.  The long winter months had me perpetually remembering distant summers and the inertia of regret trapped me in my somber burrow on the north side of the Windy City.  Getting out into the open would do me good.

I left my dingy apartment and stepped out into the still brisk April air.  The 7-Eleven on the corner was always a good haven for snacks.  The electronic chime knelled as I stepped through the door and I made my way to the cramped chip aisle.  Nestled among the Cheetos, Tostitos, Fritos and Doritos, among the Ruffles and Duffles and Wayz and Lay’s, there they were – The Pringles.

There was one cylinder of the new Sun-Pringles left.

I reached out to claim them, my mouth watering at the thought of the first rapturous crunch, when a large hand clad in a black, leather glove took them from the shelf.

I looked at the man who stole my quarry and my heart closed in dread.  He was near seven feet tall and wore a fuligin cloak.  At his hip, he carried an Executioner’s sword.

“You… uh… um…,” my voice tremored.  “You’re a member of the… uh…”

He glared down at me with eyes like the cinders of Hell.  Fuligin cloaks are only worn by members of the Torturer’s Guild – Seekers for Truth and Penitence.  They travel around performing executions, torturing heretics and wastrels and generally striking terror into anyone who crossed their path.  I took his medieval glare as a yes.

I could smell the fear gurgling in my blood, yet I had something I had to say.  “So, I… uhhh… I came here, to this place, to… ummmm…”

Indifferent to my stammering, the beast’s jaw twitched and he turned to leave with the last vessel of my soul’s desire.

“Those are my chips!”

His hand flexed on the cardboard cannister.  A low growl rose from his throat.

I pointed at the Sun-Pringles in his devastating hand. 

“I was sitting at home on my couch and I got really hungry and I remembered seeing commercials for these new chips and I thought ‘Those would be really good’ so I got dressed and put on my shoes and walked over here even though I hate going outside and that is the last tube of Sun-Pringles and I was going to get it but then you just snatched it up right in front of me so you can chop off my head or subpoena my thumbs or crack my elbows like walnuts or whatever it is you guys do, but those are my chips.”

The torturer’s agitation seemed ready to boil over.  He clenched his jaw and slowed his breathing and the tension in his skin looked like it couldn’t contain the anger in his bones.  After what seemed several fortnights, he spoke.

“I’m so sorry,” he said.  “Take them.  I’ll have something else.”

He handed me the last tube of Sun-Pringles, grabbed a cannister of Salt and Vinegar and lumbered to the front of the store.  After grabbing a bottle of Diet Root Beer, the scourge of a man paid and left. 

When I got home, I tasted of my treasure.  Ambrosia?  No.  The chips had kick, but they left an aftertaste like an old, wet shoe.

-the end-

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