The Illusion of Lewis Carroll

By Lawrence Dagstine

art by Jay Berkowitz

Here’s a candid look at the man at his writing desk

 

     At his desk in the Central Register, Lewis was writing swiftly, his quill-tip pen skimming across the page. A satisfied smile crossed his face as he dithered to read through what he had just created.

Alice realized at last that the queen was in fact the most monstrous and cunning villain. There was no punishment too severe for the crimes her enemies had committed. It was for this reasonthat she proceeded upon a plan to put an end to Alice’s life.

     He sat thoughtfully for a second.

     “Off with her head,” he said under his breath.

     “Then again,” he added, “it doesn’t bode so well with the literary crowd. Perhaps something more of a croquet element.”

     A sharp, insistent buzzing sound broke his train of thought, and he glanced up from his manuscript. A red light above the door flashed, and Lewis pressed a button, saying “You may enter…”

     A moment later, a crotchety old man with a cane and broad-brimmed hat emerged from a doorway, walking towards him. He looked as if he were sleepwalking; his unresponsive attitude was disturbing, and his face without expression of any kind.

     “Ah, Mr. Rosenthal, splendid,” Lewis greeted him jovially. “Come in, come in.”

     The old man stood rigidly at attention, staring straight ahead, and saying “I just got your message, Mr. Carroll.  I must say that your clerk was prompt in his delivery. This has something to do with the manuscript, I presume?”

     “Yes, indeed it does.  Now then—I’d say about ninety percent is finished. I’m up to the part where the queen is infuriated by Alice’s pleasantry and innocence. Would you like me to read you a short excerpt from the story?”  He settled his glasses more firmly on his nose, and began to read aloud.

     “No, no,” Rosenthal cut in, “that won’t be necessary.  How long will you be?”

     “Not too long,” Lewis assured him. “All I have to do is download the finished drafts into the main computer, create a hologram chip from it, and see how plausible Alice is.”

     “And how do you plan on doing that?”

     “By splitting a laser beam down the side of the ‘Wonderland’ program. Once I inject the chip, I’ll enter a hologram world, a plane of pure illusion, where I can become one of the characters and compete in the story line.  I flatter myself that it is rather ingenious.”

     “Playing with holograms can be dangerous,” warned Rosenthal. “My sister died in a program involving shark attacks.”

     But Lewis wasn’t worried. He had a book to publish, and the only way he’d know if it was bestseller material was if he played the story from beginning to end. In his society, holograms were style, a parting of the ways, where the real world was concerned, the end and the beginning, a celebration of alienated consciousness, a mythical voyage into the present, a period, a semi-colon, a question mark; part art, part physical, part time, part space…but just how did it work?

     Lewis had once said that the programs were based on amorous subjugation; basically, they lived off captured emotions—also known as the Splintering Effect. Mind conditioned machine, and absorbed feelings of shadowy beauty and grave ecstasy and inexhaustible restlessness. The hologram world was one of stoned perfectionism and imprisoned perceptions—a world of perplexities and uncertainties in which people can imagine, or hope at best to achieve, their goals.

     Rosenthal repeated, like a bright schoolchild reciting lessons, “It can be dangerous.”

     “Mr. Rosenthal, do try to think logically,” said Lewis, as he made his way to the processing area. “The programs are made up of fictional characters—they’ll go on existing in their own world. I’m sorry about your sister, but that was probably due to bad memory inputs. You cannot be killed by a fictional character, plain and simple.”

     Rosenthal frowned unfavorably. Lewis shook his head. “Now, I’ve seen that expression before. You have every right to worry, but don’t. I’ve done this at least a dozen times. And once the book is finished, you can deliver it to Lady Fenshyn [whom he’d based the queen’s character upon] herself.”

*

     When Lewis reached the hologram room, the operating table was empty.  Rosenthal was walking about the control area checking instrument readings.  A tall machine in the back of the room caught his eye. It was some kind of processor, a machine that photographs and extracts the entire depth of art and literature, and then feeds it into a computer.  He nodded towards the table. “Is that where you’ll be lying?”

     “Once the processing is complete,” Lewis said, as he gestured towards the computer modems.  He fed his finished drafts to the processing machine, inserting them six pages at a time, through a wide slot at the top of the main modem. To the rear of the main modem was a similar slot, but much smaller, where, a few minutes later, a chip popped out. Lewis grunted with an anticipation. “Well, I guess that’s it. I’ve entered the book’s title, theme, and character lineup—all data is now on the memory server.”

     “So what does that mean?”

     “The chip has been coded.”  He injected the chip into his arm and rolled on the operating table. The remote by his side was unnecessary, for Rosenthal would be keeping track of his progress manually.  Careful observation was essential on the part of the person in charge of mind entry; one foul-up could result in loss of brain matter.

     For some time Rosenthal had been wandering around the room examining everything with a curiosity that was somehow both casual and intense at the same time.  He turned around and looked with satisfaction at the writhing form on the table. Lewis was resisting the effects of the system for an amazingly long time, but soon he’d have to give way. Rosenthal wished he could stay and watch the entire process, but on the eve of Lady Fenshyn’s banquet he had many other duties.  He sank into a chair and glanced idly at the manuscript before him.  He picked up the next-to-last chapter, read it, and saw that there was no continuation to the queen’s grasp over Alice.  “Strange. A story without a future….”

     Lewis opened his eyes and responded to this observation with the same adamant look that Rosenthal had greeted his earlier remarks with.  He waited for him to say something, but under his poker-faced influence, Lewis found himself repeating in a soothing whisper, “Wonderland is a land of fiction—it does not exist.”

     Then there was silence.

     The silence, which came so abruptly that is was like a physical blow, astounded Lewis.  The humming in the background ceased instantly, and the old man’s shadow that had been looming over him disappeared.  Frightfully, Lewis turned his head—and found that the room was empty. The light from the kerosene lantern in the wall continued to flicker and leap, illuminating no horrid spectacle—until finally it too disappeared.

     There was an electrical surge, and a cloud of white, pungent smoke. When the fumes died away, the Central Register had vanished.  Lewis was alone, totally changed.

     He lay there exactly as he’d been at the moment the chip was injected into his body, with his head upraised and the table under his back—but he had undergone an extraordinary transformation. He was stiff and motionless, translated into two dimensions, like a cardboard cutout. It was as if he’d suddenly ceased to be Lewis, and in his place was an ink drawing—a lifelike picture from the pages of a book. And then, suddenly, he felt a cool breeze, as if he were outdoors.

     From total darkness, the faintest glimmer of light began to slide across the rim of the sky, and for the first time Lewis could see vague, looming shapes surrounding him. Tall trees—unbelievably tall and straight—like the pillars and arches of a cathedral; they were of different sizes and shapes, clustered closely together in strange patterns, almost like a maze.  He rose to his feet with a little difficulty, supporting himself by holding onto the end of a branch of a nearby tree which, it just so happened, had been supporting the edge of the operating table like a knitted hammock.

     How shockingly stiff and sore he felt; his bones creaked as he flexed his body.

     He screwed up his eyes, trying to see more clearly—but it was still very dark. The forest tree trunks disappeared upwards into spine-tingling blackness. Here and there, between tall columns, he could glimpse a small patch of starry sky, streaked with green light—but that was all. Dawn was just around the corner, and an awakening was about to take place.  The awakening of Lewis’ story…

     A little way off among the towering tree trunks, Lewis was still trying to find a place—a role to play in the hologram.  But he couldn’t, for there was something wrong with the program.  It seemed too real, much different from his previous ventures.

     “Alice…I’m here!” he said energetically, trying to project his voice as far as possible.  “Are you there?  I’ve come to guide you!”

     He hurried on, terrified that he would lose his way.  To be so near and yet so far—it was almost too much to bear.  As he dodged around one of the immense tree trunks he saw a small girl.  Her skirt was snagged on a grarled twig, and she twitched it away irritably.  Then she stopped to fix her stocking.  As she did, she turned around and shot her creator a curious glance. Lewis stopped as well, to catch his breath. It had to be her—she wore a pale blue dress, with a silk sash at her waist, and a fluffy skirt, puffed out by stiff under-petticoats; she also wore high-buttoned boots—and upon her head was a band of ribbon tying back her long blond hair.

     “Alice?” he said.

     At the end of the forest was a giant mushroom with a caterpillar atop it, half hidden in the shadows.  A second later there was a flash of white fur and a flustered rabbit scurried by. Lewis blinked. Could the rabbit really have been consulting a pocket-watch? Nonsense—he must have been imagining things.  Besides, this forest was very deceptive—it played tricks with your eyes.  If only he’d read up, revised his work, and been more familiar with Alice In Wonderland, he might have been better prepared for a trap.

     Halfway through a clearing he was brought to a standstill, for a brick wall faced him—a wall with a door in it.  But the door was too small, and the wall seemed to go on, in both directions, forever; there was no getting around it.  He turned to retrace his steps—and found another wall right behind him.  He put an effort into catching up  with Alice, and realized with a loathsome feeling of doom that he’d been boxed in, caught between four walls which hadn’t been there a moment earlier.  He looked right and left.

     “Alice!” he cried in sudden panic.  “Where are you?”

     But his voice bounced back at him from these four blank walls. No one could hear him; he was imprisoned.

     He returned automatically to the first wall, because that at least had a door in it…perhaps it promised a way of escape.  But he was too big to fit through the midget entrance.  The door kept swinging back on rusty hinges with a high-pitched creak that set his teeth on edge.  In the palm of his hand was a cookie that he popped in his mouth.  He closed his eyes.  A second later, he was the same size as the door.

     Through the door he could see nothing but darkness, and he hesitated for a moment; then he took his courage in both hands and told himself, “Perhaps it won’t be so gloomy once my eyes get used to it…and anyway, I’m not afraid of a hologram.”

     So he stepped fearlessly through the doorway—and at once the floor opened up beneath his feet, and he gave a shrill cry for help as he fell…and fell…and fell some more.  Would the fall never come to an end?

     Poor Lewis!  How could he know that it was only a rabbit hole, when he hadn’t made one for the most vital part of his story?

     He landed inside a glass cage in yet another gloomy forest. How awful—to be in yet another distorted, twisted-looking place, boxed in again.  This wasn’t how he imagined his story to be. Not this dark or loathsome. Outside his glass prison he saw two figures, tall and round and dressed equally. They were playing tricks on him. One threw a tomato and gawked at him from a clump of bushes, as one would an exhibit.

     Tweedledee and Tweedledum ran up for a closer look at this wonder of nature. From inside Lewis saw their faces pressed on the glass, flattened and distorted into hideous shapes like the masks of gargoyles.  He closed his eyes. Tweedledee looked at his twin. “What do you think it is?”

     “I’m not sure, but I think it’s the same species as that little girl.”

     “Then he must be human too.  We better let him go. Why? What would the queen say if we had this creature in our possession? You know how she is.  She’d OFF our heads!”

     “Oh, dear, you’re right.  I’ll get the key.”

     Lewis was crouched motionless, with his eyes still closed.  But when he finally stood up and opened them, the two had disappeared into the wilderness, and the cage was gone.  He got up and ran.

     He was getting weary, having been on the move a while, but he wouldn’t give up.

     “Alice,” he called, as he had been at intervals through the story.

     This time he heard a reply, loud and clear and close at hand. A purring voice.

     “Perhaps I can help you.”

     “Well, well! How do you do? If it isn’t the Cheshire Cat.  Perhaps you CAN.”

     “Call me Chester.  This is a corrupt program.  There was some kind of computer glitch upon entry, and that’s why you can’t escape this phase of the hologram. Luckily I’ve come to help you, just as you programmed yourself to help Alice.”  He pointed to an area of land overgrown with waist-high foliage, then disappeared, leaving behind a phantom smile.  Lewis hurried through the undergrowth.  It was much darker, and difficult to see.  He suspected the cat of sending him the wrong way and a feeling of panic began to grip him.  Suddenly he came to a path. Voices sounded ahead and a flicker of light illuminated the grass. He made out a small thatched cottage. As he watched, the low wooden door opened and the watch-consulting rabbit and a crazy-looking man with a top hat walked out. It was Mr. Rosenthal, and he was the Mad Hatter. The two walked briskly along the path toward him. He darted back into the bushes. They brushed past without noticing him and sat down at a table where piping hot tea was being served.

     For a second he was tempted to follow, but a voice inside his head told him to investigate the cottage.  It was just possible that one of the rooms inside was a way out of the hologram world.  He crept forward and opened the door.  The sight inside transfixed him with horror.  A monstrous hybrid lay on the bed, half eagle and half lion. The fabled griffin, no doubt.  The creature was dead.

     “You should be glad,” said a voice in the room. “This might have been you.”

     Lewis couldn’t speak.

     “This must be how the queen takes out her frustrations,” the voice continued, and a moment later Alice stepped out of the shadows.

     “You created him, didn’t you?” she asked.  He nodded. “What was he like?”

     “Why are YOU here?” he whispered.

     “Wonderland…Wonderland owns me, body and soul.”

     “I must get out of here. My fairy tale world is becoming a nightmare.”

     A cunning expression appeared on her face.  “Oh, please, let me come with you.  We’ll go together.”  She took him by the hand and started pulling him away. He hesitated. He could no longer be sure. Trying to conceal his fear, he said,

     “If you want my opinion, I don’t think you’re ready yet.”

     “You’re as bad as the others!”  Her voice became hard and rasping. “You want me to die! Wonderland wants me to die!”

     Alarmed, Lewis backed toward the door. As he did so he heard a noise from outside. Someone was entering the cottage! He looked around frantically for a back door as heavy footsteps ascended the porch. But it was too late. The Queen of Hearts had entered, her royal guard spreading out in an armed cordon.

     Lewis backed up against the wall, Alice hiding behind his coat-tail. From inside his head he could hear the voice of the Cheshire Cat saying, “Tsk, tsk, you’ve become an enemy of your own creation.  You found Alice, but how will you leave the hologram world and finish the story?”

     The Mad Hatter pushed his way through the armed cordon. He looked a little dazed, as if someone had drugged his tea.

     “I don’t quite follow—being your book agent and all—have I got to finish off another story?”

     “No, Mr. Rosenthal, not this time,” said Lewis.  “If you’ll allow me, I’ll simply add the last sentence…”

     And it was:

     Off with THEIR heads.

 

 

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