Friday, May 22, 2015

The Moral Universe

The Moral Universe
Bobby Derie

After tea found Mason and his young friend in the library, as one ghoul might with quiet pride show off his larder to a drooling compatriot in the forbidden feasts. Yellowed skulls decorated several of the mantles on the shelves, each with its own provenance of luck, purchase, or gift from a fellow traveler in the macabre. The contents of the shelves ranged from modern paperbacks to cracked old leather books with rusty iron hinges, delicate Japanese-style folding books and scarce letterpress editions, comic books and fanzines in their plastic sleeves, all stacked and sorted by an arcane system which only Mason himself knew intimately - for, as he said, every library should have its secrets, and ever librarian should guard and add to them.

On some strange impulse, Mason took down an expensive - if not particularly obscure - copy of Blake's The Stairs in the Crypt from a tall shelf, and opening to a page marked by a scrap of leather he claimed was human flesh, an old razor-strop made from the backskin of a particularly unfortunate Cherkoee - he read aloud a few lines from "The Feaster from the Stars:"

"For we are fortunate indeed the universe is blind and dumb to our actions; and that there is no intelligence Outside to judge us. There is no greater horror than a moral univere."

Mason's voice was a tenor, that tended to get high-pitched when he was speaking fast or excited, but here in his element his diction was slow, sonorous, and deliberate, and he could not help but deliver the reading except with a certain curl of the lips and a secret joy.

"What do you think he means by, a moral universe?"

The smile did not die from Mason's lips, but without a word he replaced Blake's book in its alcove, and moving over to another shelf revealed one of the secrets of the library: a hidden panel containing a few old bottles, and a pair of glasses. Without asking, he poured two stiff fingers in each glass, and pressed one into his visitor's hand.

"I should think it perfectly obvious. We live in a universe ruled by physics, and the laws, as much as we can discern and model them with our mathematics, have no moral imperative. Despite what the ancients might believe, there is no repercussion - at least not in this world - for murder, or rape, or sorcery. Governments and police forces were crafted to deal with theft and bloodshed and all crimes in between. Nor - and this is where it is important - are such activities rewarded." He took a sip and grimaced as he swallowed, and his eye fell on one of the yellowed skulls.

"Imagine, then, a moral universe. Imagine what would happen if there were things outside our perception, which watched and judged us. If they were anything like the god of the Old Testament, ours would be a strange and terrible world indeed, locked forever in an unending state, life subscribed by laws enforced by heavenly fire, poxes, and the promise of eternal damnation. But imagine again if the figures were malevolent - to empower dark miracles and rewards when there was murder or bloodshed."

Mason refilled the drinks.

"But all this is far outside our sphere of reference; such a world would be unrecognizable. Each battlefield would be Armageddon, each tribal conflict an apocalypse. No, let us think again, and refine our metaphysics. Let us say that such powers do exist, and that they do work certain effects - but that those effects are limited, and the powers morals are alien rather than outright evil; or at the least, their tastes are sufficiently refined from ours that the everyday sins earn no special effect. Instead, these entities would reward more specialized evils - not just murder, but long-drawn out deaths that involve betrayal and torture; incest heaped upon incest; abominations with animals ending in terrible feasts; artistic craftsmanship with human remains - nothing out of the sure spectrum of human history and experience, but crimes that are both rare and more terrible than others, fitted to a Gilles de Rais or Elizabeth Bathory, a Mengele or Gein. So this world would, at the least, have its share of horror stories, of supernormal acts that bring about supernatural effects."

He set his drink back down, and passed over to one of the larger cabinets, unlocked its glass doors, and brought forth a large book - at least two feet high by eighteen inches wide - and opened it to a familiar etching of a cannibal's butcher shop.

"Now, this is strange enough. But let us suppose it is a dark science, that the metaphysics in this moral universe are as sure as the physics are in our universe. One or two serial-killers might stumble upon a few effects that are reproducible - and, bolstered by their discoveries, seek to experiment and vary their sins. Perhaps a few even wrote down their  discoveries!" One pale figure pointed to the butcher, whose cleaver was raised against a background of human limbs hanging from hooks. "And, of course, perhaps someone with a hunger for power and fewer scruples took notice, and decided the whole thing needed organizing. Already in our own world we recall with horror the sacrifice of infants in the furnace of Baal, and God's demand of Abraham. Of the mass infantcide in China after the One Child Rule was passed. The Flower Wars of the Aztecs, where prisoners were led up the temple-pyramids to be sacrificed and flayed. Now imagine if there was a society ruled along those lines, but the powers worked."

Mason closed the book and replaced it in the cabinet.

"You see, that is the horror of a moral universe. It is not that there are things beyond our ken, or things that might judge our actions. It is the possibility that they might give us incentives. What would you sacrifice, for progress? Imagine an ancient Egypt where great trains were pulled by rites powered by the blood of newborns; an Egypt twisted to provide the fuel for an industrial revolution five thousand years early. Women brought back to rape camps, the raw material for the spells that kept a Pharaoh young for eternity. A shaven-headed scribe recording the results as father was bred to daughter, to granddaughter, to great-granddaughter, all in hopes that the sacrifice thus born would prove slightly more efficient went feasted upon in the dark of the moon, or its bones twisted into an amulet against unwanted conception."

Mason smiled, his eyes dreamy and lost in a vista of horrors that played in his mind.

"We are fortunate indeed."


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