Welcome to another installment of Stone Skin on the Rocks, our weekly column where our authors provide a liquid pairing suggestion for their short fiction. This week brings us a brief essay by Ramsey Campbell, wherein he suggests a very tipple with a reputation to accompany his contribution to The New Gothic.
My tales try to shine a strange light on things we take for granted – to make the reader look again, which I do myself in the act of writing – and so it seems to me there’s only one tipple to accompany “Reading the Signs”: absinthe, that once fashionable drug, now back in the shops.
Drugs! How much creativity would have been lost without them? The honest answer is that nobody knows. We would lack at least the early novels of William Burroughs, of course, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, not to mention Fitz Hugh Ludlow’s splendid Hashish Eater (which demonstrates that Victorian cannabis was impressively potent) and de Quincey’s rather calmer contemplation of opium. Can we be sure that any of Cocteau’s fantasies owe their genesis to the same substance, though? Would Philip K. Dick’s later work have been much different without his years on amphetamine? Graham Greene’s use of Benzedrine may have lent extra edge to his vision in The Power and the Glory, but it was already enviably sharp. Perhaps that’s the truth: drugs may confer or increase imagination, but it takes a user who is already a disciplined artist – or at the very least prepared to be one – to wield it with any artistic worth. Still, it’s fun to imagine a drug that brings the Muses down on the indulger. The more unavailable the drug, the more legendary its effects are likely to grow, and the more of a Grail it may seem. Think of William Burroughs’ search for Yage. Think of laudanum, or indeed of pure opium, an experience beyond the reach of most of us. Think of absinthe while you may, since it or a liqueur called by its name can again be had.
I once sampled a bottle of the Spanish variety. The preparation is a ritual in itself. I was reminded of the well-nigh religious, not to say interminable, rite of rolling a joint with tobacco, as they used to do in Britain; many’s the stoner, I imagine, who entered a stupor before the joint was even licked into shape. I was never deft at rolling, and proved to be equally inept at firing up the sugar cube on the antique absinthe spoon. By the time I’d finished poking the cube with the flame of a lighter, the tips of my thumb and finger were candidates for caramelisation too. Still, once the lump doused in absinthe had done writhing and popping, the results ended up in the glass, which I sipped with suitable solemnity. I’m happy to report that the effects weren’t quite like being drunk, nor the same as other psychoactive experiences. I had a sense of heightened clarity warring with intoxication rather than merged together, as is the case with psychedelics. My eye was drawn to anything green in the room, and as the colour glowed it touched off other colours. They and the textures of the kitchen seemed on the edge of revealing more about themselves, while the grain of every wooden surface grew keenly defined. Objects began to take on the quality of visual puns I’d first encountered in my childhood. When I had a second glass of absinthe I was delighted to gaze for a while at an elongated drop of caramelised sugar, which had borrowed a pallid luminous green from the drink beneath it, and enjoy its resemblance to spun glass.
I have to admit that while all this was pleasant, it produced no ideas other than the observations I’ve noted, a somewhat introverted outcome, you might think. At least it was more productive than my one trial of opium. Perhaps I wasted that by awaiting its effects, as Cocteau warned us not to do. What may come of reading prose while quaffing absinthe? The adventurous reader may test the experience. There’s no green in my tale, but perhaps the drink will add a special spectral glow.
There’s only one way to find out, isn’t there? À la vôtre!