By: Van Tassel Sutphen
May 7, 2024

AI-assisted illustration for HILOBROW

Set ninety years after the cataclysmic pandemic of 1925, Van Tassel Sutphen’s The Doomsman imagines a Kamandi-like future in which medievalized American tribes struggle with the marauding Doomsmen for control of the ruins of New York City… where a mad priest worships a powerful technology. HiLoBooks is pleased to serialize this 1905–1906 proto-sf novel for HILOBROW’s readers.

ALL INSTALLMENTS: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30.




An hour wore on, and Constans was approaching the suburbs of the ancient municipality. But it did not suit his purpose to make a landing here. His plan was to reach the lower end of the island upon which the city was built, then to work his way northward on foot until he should discover the innermost citadel of the Doomsmen. To get a fair idea of his task, he proposed to ascend one of the immensely high buildings which stood crowded together in the down-town district. From such a vantage-point he could surely fix upon landmarks for his future guidance in penetrating the labyrinth of streets. It would not be a pleasant experience to lose one’s way, and, perhaps, stumble by mistake on Master Quinton Edge’s front door.

Now, as Constans travelled onward, the ruined city began to grow upon him in ever heavier and darker mass. Here and there a half-demolished church-spire raised itself above the neighboring roof-line; plainly this had been one of the old-time residential sections and of the better class. Still farther down the stream and the water-front stood crowded thickly with wharves and warehouses, the scene of the mighty commerce of the past. The ships themselves were there, great monsters of iron and steel, scaled and honeycombed with red rust. But the wharf-slips had long since silted up, and the vessels, careening little by little with the subsidence of the water, had finally broken away from the restraining hawsers and lay on their beam-ends in the mud, a sorrowful spectacle.

The moon was rising and it was time to go ashore. Accordingly, he directed his course for a pier that extended somewhat farther than its fellows into the stream. There was just water enough to float the canoe within arm’s-length of the girders — a fortunate circumstance, since Constans had not liked the idea of trusting himself upon the treacherous-looking mud-flat left uncovered by the ebbing tide. Securing the boat under shadow of the structure, he took his hunting-knife and basket of provisions and climbed easily to the floor of the pier, then picking his way across its broken planking he reached solid ground. At last he stood within Doom the Forbidden.

Now this street, which ran parallel with the river, was of unusual width, and Constans crossed it quickly, seeking for cover in some narrower and darker thoroughfare. A cross-street opened directly in front of him. He plunged into it without hesitation, for the moonlight was now in full flood and there might be sharp eyes about.

In the open spaces along the water-front grass grew thick and tall as in a meadow, but in this narrow, crooked lane the wholesomer, sun-loving plants found little encouragement to existence. In their stead, pale-colored creepers mantled the house walls, and everywhere were moss stains and the spore of the various fungoid growths. Constans’s footsteps fell hollowly upon the pavement slippery with weed and the August damp, and as he walked along an unearthly radiance suddenly illuminated his path; from every cornice and eaves-end hung balls of the pale St. Elmo’s fire; not a house but boasted its array of corpse-candles that flickered with a greenish flame.

A terrifying sight, but harmless. Far more dangerous, could he have known it, were the invisible but deadly gases from the century-old corruption that rose to meet him and were unconsciously inhaled. Then, as the fumes mounted to his brain, sober reason was ousted from her throne and imagination rioted unchecked, peopling the void with horrors and ineffectual phantoms. From the sashless windows grotesque faces stared down upon him, scowling malignantly, while others, with still more hideous smile, invited him to enter and become one of their dreadful company. Insane laughter re-echoed in his ears, and the music of lutes, irresistible in its languor-compelling potency. Already had Constans stopped twice to listen, and upon each occasion he had been obliged to exercise all his failing strength of body and mind to resume his forward march. If he halted again it would be forever; of that he felt perfectly assured, but neither the imminence nor the character of the peril in which he stood seemed sufficient to arouse him from his lethargy. Yet he kept on, walking with the shuffling stride of a mechanical doll; now he wavered and hesitated, as though the propelling spring had well-nigh run down. The night reek, hot and damp, hung like a poisoned veil upon his mouth and lips; he could not breathe; he gasped and threw up one arm as does a swimmer who looks his last upon a pitiless sun and sky.

The wind had risen with the moon; it had been growing in strength, and now a strong gust rattled among the chimney-pots. One fell with a crash, and a tiny fragment of brick struck Constans on the check, cutting the skin. The shock and the trickle of blood brought him to with a sharp shock; he ran forward a few steps and found himself sinking. The roadway immediately in front of him had doubtless been undermined by the action of water; for the space of a dozen yards or more the pavement was but a shell concealing an abyss.

Constans had already proceeded too far for retreat; he must go on or founder where he stood. He flung himself forward, the oblong blocks of granite, with which the street was paved, grinding together underneath his feet as the mass yielded to the downward pressure. He was sucked in to his knees, but instinctively he kept the upper part of his body extended horizontally, his out-stretched hand seeking for some chance holdfast. Then, as he was beginning to despair, he found it, a section of small diameter lead piping that had been uncovered by the breaking away of the surrounding earth. It bent under his clutch but did not give way. With one last effort he pulled himself clear, gained the firm ground beyond, and lay there trembling.

When afterwards he came to reason soberly over the adventure, the conclusion seemed obvious that the pitfall had been a consequent upon the breaking out of one of the ancient springs, so that the water, in endeavoring to find an outlet, had finally undermined the whole roadway. The chasm, as he looked back upon it, extended clear across the street. Its depth was only conjectural, but the mass presented the treacherous appearance of quaking sand, and Constans shuddered as he gazed. Yet he had escaped; the peril was past; let him forget what was behind and press forward.

Half a block farther on and he found himself in a cul-de-sac. The street was filled from house-wall to house-wall with an immense mass of broken stone, brick, and other débris. The cause was not far to seek.

Immediately upon the left rose one of the fabulously high buildings for which the ancient city had been famous. It could not compare in magnitude with the tremendous structures that he could discern still farther ahead, but its dozen and a half of stories loomed up imposingly when contrasted with the moderate sized houses adjoining it. Constans looked up in wonder at its towering façade, then started back with an exclamation of alarm.

It appeared that the foundations of the structure had in some way become weakened, for the whole building had settled and was leaning over at a terrifying divergence from the perpendicular. Being constructed of iron truss-work similar to that of a bridge, the essential framework still held together, but the outside walls, mere shells of stone and brick, had cracked and given way under the strain, falling piece-meal into the street below. Even as he looked, a stone dropped from a window pediment and crashed into splinters on the pavement a few yards beyond where he stood. The angle of inclination seemed to grow larger as he gazed at it; the enormous mass poised itself above him, monstrous, informed, threatening to strike.

With that uncomfortable contraction of the scalp-skin that attends upon the sudden presence of peril, Constans backed hastily away; not for worlds would he have ventured again under that overhang of artificial cliff. Yet behind him was the stretch of sunken pavement; he could not risk another passage of that. A single alternative remained — to enter one of the small houses that lined the street, ascend to its roof, and so escape to the nearest cross thoroughfare.

With a sigh of relief, Constans threw open the scuttle and climbed out upon the leads. He had entered at random one of the mean-looking edifices that hemmed him in at the right and left, and it was pleasant to escape from the close atmosphere of its long-unused staircases and corridors. Apparently the house had been occupied as a tenement in the ancient time; the marks of its degradation had survived the universal decay, and there was even a fetid suggestion in the air of old-time squalor and disease. Glad he was to be free of it all, and he let the scuttle fall to with a bang.

After surveying the different routes as best he could, Constans determined to work his way to the southward. He took one forward step and stood transfixed; from below then came a faint but unmistakable tap, tap upon the closed scuttle. The bare suspicion that there could be some living thing in that hideous interior, that it was appealing to him for aid, made him physically sick. But better to meet any horror face to face than to wrestle longer with the invisible presence of Fear; he threw aside the hatch, and a big white owl flew out, its wing grazing his face. He could have shouted aloud, so nakedly had his nerves been laid bare in the last quarter of an hour; then setting his teeth hard he took hold of himself and laughed at his own vaporing. The worst was over now; he was sure of that, and so again took courage.

It was an easy matter to pass from one connecting roof to another, and thereafter down a fire-escape to the side street. A few steps took him round the corner and into a wide thoroughfare leading directly to the more important business quarter.

Constans looked about him in wonderment. The high buildings stood shoulder to shoulder, hemming him in on every side; the street itself was but a fissure in a mountain-range. The moon had now risen high in the heavens, and her beams performed odd tricks of shadow play as they danced through these colossal halls of emptiness and silence. Nothing seemed real or substantial; these enormous masses of masonry and iron looked almost dreamlike, the ghosts of a forgotten past, shadows that must surely vanish with the morning sun.

To sober his imagination, Constans began counting the number of stories in a sky-scraper that reared its monstrous bulk directly in front of him. Thirty-six in all, and so higher by half a dozen floors than any of its neighbors. It should make an excellent observatory, and he determined upon exploring it.

The street doors stood wide open, and the entrance-way was half blocked up by piles of dust and other refuse blown in from the street by the winter storms. On the left, as one entered, was the principal suite of offices; it had been occupied by a banking firm, to judge from the desk fittings and the long array of safes and vaults. These latter were open and empty, the doors having been shattered by some powerful explosive. In all probability the vaults had been closed and locked by their owners, and had afterwards been looted by the criminals who thronged the doomed city and who would naturally seek their richest booty in the financial district. The floor was literally knee-deep in papers of all description, and in the heap were a number of bundles of the old-time bank-notes, neatly labelled and banded. These the plunderers had evidently discarded as beneath their notice, for all that they represented wealth so vast as to be well-nigh incalculable. With the Great Change at hand these paper promises had become valueless; only the precious metals themselves were worth the picking up, and the plunderers had accordingly made a clean sweep of the specie drawers. It was by the merest accident that Constans, in kicking aside a pile of elaborately engraved stock certificates, uncovered two of the smaller gold coins, a five and ten dollar piece. He put the treasure-trove carefully away, but in spite of this promising beginning he was not tempted to proceed further on this golden trail. He had another purpose in view, and so found his way to the principal staircase and began the upward climb.

Interminable it seemed, and the sense of loneliness and oppression, which lay heavy on Constans’s spirits, increased steadily as he went from one landing to another. Each succeeding story was so precisely like the one he had just left; it was always the same long, marble-paved corridor, with every door and window exactly duplicated. How could living men and women have endured the appalling uniformity of this human beehive? Everywhere, too, were the same recurring evidences of the
haste and panic that had characterized the final moments of that terrible hegira. Hats and garments, cash-boxes and account-books, littered the hallways, and were piled in little heaps at the entrances to the elevators — impedimenta that must inevitably be abandoned at the last if life itself were to be saved. And the final tragedy — an elevator cage that had jammed in its ways and so hung fixed between two landings. Its occupants had suddenly found themselves entrapped, with no one to hear or to help. One can fancy the growing uneasiness, the wild amaze, the terror that was afraid of the sound of its own voice. Constans hurried by; he had looked but that once.

Onward and upward, and at last he had gained the topmost floor. It was hardly worth his while to ascend to the roof itself, and so he walked into a room that faced the north and consequently commanded a view of the city along its longitudinal axis. He gazed long and earnestly into the obscurity, and far in the distance he caught the faint twinkle of a solitary light — a camp-fire, perhaps. He tried to fix its bearings in his mind; if it were a fire it must indicate the neighborhood of the Doomsman stronghold.

For a long time Constans stood at the window seeking to penetrate the mystery of the darkness that surrounded him; then at last nature asserted her rights, he yawned vigorously, and his eyelids fell. There was a brown leather lounge in the room, still in tolerable condition, and he threw himself down without even troubling to remove the thick coating of dust that covered it. He slept.


RADIUM AGE PROTO-SF: “Radium Age” is Josh Glenn’s name for the nascent sf genre’s c. 1900–1935 era, a period which saw the discovery of radioactivity, i.e., the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. More info here.

SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable | Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows | William Haggard’s The High Wire | Hammond Innes’s Air Bridge | James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen | John Buchan’s “No Man’s Land” | John Russell’s “The Fourth Man” | E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” | John Buchan’s Huntingtower | Arthur Conan Doyle’s When the World Screamed | Victor Bridges’ A Rogue By Compulsion | Jack London’s The Iron Heel | H. De Vere Stacpoole’s The Man Who Lost Himself | P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith | Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” | Houdini and Lovecraft’s “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” | Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sussex Vampire” | Francis Stevens’s “Friend Island” | George C. Wallis’s “The Last Days of Earth” | Frank L. Pollock’s “Finis” | A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool | E. Nesbit’s “The Third Drug” | George Allan England’s “The Thing from — ‘Outside'” | Booth Tarkington’s “The Veiled Feminists of Atlantis” | H.G. Wells’s “The Land Ironclads” | J.D. Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder | Valery Bryusov’s “The Republic of the Southern Cross” | Algernon Blackwood’s “A Victim of Higher Space” | A. Merritt’s “The People of the Pit” | Max Brand’s The Untamed | Julian Huxley’s “The Tissue-Culture King” | Clare Winger Harris’s “A Runaway World” | Francis Stevens’s “Thomas Dunbar” | George Gurdjieff’s “Beelzebub’s Tales” | Robert W. Chambers’s “The Harbor-Master”.