Bob Leman applies Possible-Worlds Theory to cosmic horror in “Window” (1980), a weird fiction story that has one of the grimmest endings in the entire VanderMeer anthology.
The window is an inter-dimensional border into what at first appears to be a nostalgic Victorian past. An old fashioned house and a resident family appear in a rural field, on the site of the house of a man named Culvergast who was experimenting in ESP (Extrasensory Perception). The house and man have disappeared, leaving only the trans-dimensional window.
Anything that breaches the cube-like border around the house disappears instantly. By shooting ice cubes at it every minute using a machine, it has been assessed that there is a five-second window every fifteen hours that something can get through.
When Reeves, a man taken in by nostalgia for the past, jumps through the portal during that interval, the child of the family steps out of the house, naked. He bites Reeves in the throat, and his blood gushes over the grass. Then the entire family comes out to feed. Whatever they are, they are not human.
Overcome with terror, the surviving characters watch as the husband confers with his wife, then enters the house, reappearing with a Bible that is revealed to actually be a spell book that uses the principles of ESP to open dimensional portals. The house disappears, along with the border, in a cloud of dust.
However, with the portal gone, they are far from safe. Culvergast was merely experimenting with ESP spells when he created the window into the universe of these Victorian cannibals. However, the cannibals have mastery over this kind of science.
Bones appear out of thin air, as if thrown into our dimension from another. The characters realize the cannibals are watching them through an inter-dimensional window, and could break through from their dimension into ours as soon as the invisible barriers are penetrable.
Humanity cannot even trust that it will be safe for another fifteen hours. A constant alertness that borders on torture is our only hope of standing up to the menace, and even then the threat can have ways of invading that are as-yet unknown.
Lovecraft wrote about threats emerging from the infinite unknown of deep space. Leman takes this a step further and portrays a bleak picture where the very worst and most dangerous universe you can imagine must exist, due to Possible-Worlds Theory. These worlds can break through due to ESP at any time. The characters gain a clear vision of humanity’s tenuous and precarious existence.
The “window” in this story reminded me of the border of Area X in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, at least at first. Whatever touches the border disappears, though it is hinted they go somewhere else that is unknown. The portal’s very existence also invites the characters to question the privileged place humanity imagines for itself in the universe. However, the idea of a border that behaves this way may be quite common in stories of inter-dimensional travel in general.
This type of story invites the reader to make their own speculations about the nature of the transdimensional beings. Do they adopt their Victorian disguises on purposes, using nostalgia as a lure for humans the way an anglerfish uses its bioluminescence to attract prey? Or are their Victorian disguises directly caused by the perception of those who watch them? An equally likely answer is that they need no explanation; they’re simply cannibal Victorians, who exist as such in one of an infinite number of possible worlds.
Next week, I’ll be reading Ramsay Campbell’s “The Brood” (1980).