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Proverbial wisdom tells us that the journey matters more than the destination. This is all well and good if the journey is a readily understandable metaphor for life. But what would happen if people no longer went on journeys? What if we never had to walk along paths, down roads, through a wood, over a hill, or around a bend? How would we conceive of life if it were possible to go anywhere we wanted instantaneously?

The Stars My Destination "The Jaunt" Mefisto in Onyx

The lineup of "jaunt" fiction. Left to right: Bester's novel, and collections containing King's and Ellision's stories.

The word "jaunt," as it is used today, has a fairly positive connotation. Yet jaunting—or teleportation, movement between two places without traveling through the intervening space—is not so clearly beneficial in speculative fiction. Three writers have taken up this specific motif: Alfred Bester, in the novel The Stars My Destination (1956); Stephen King, in a short story called "The Jaunt" (1981); and Harlan Ellison, in the short novel Mefisto in Onyx (1993). Jaunting as a word and concept unites these stories,[1] but all three of them also treat the same themes and elements, such as isolation, darkness, the quest for knowledge, and the nature of the human mind. These three writers explore the ramifications of unlimited movement, either of body or mind (teleportation or telepathy), only to find that the removal of those limits causes as many problems as it solves. In all three, to jaunt is to face death.

These three examples of the use of jaunting comprise a tradition—the use of an idea from the past to create something new. It is a short tradition, so far, but an interesting one nonetheless. Moreover, it is a tradition fully acknowledged by those who continue it. King includes a reference to Bester in his story, putting it in the mouth of his protagonist, Mark Oates. As he explains to his children as they await their first Jaunt: "[T]here's a story by a man named Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination it's called, and this fellow Bester made up the word 'jaunte' for teleportation in it. Except in his book, you could Jaunt just by thinking about it, and we can't really do that" (234).

Ellison refers to Bester in his "Acknowledgments." He claims that one of the resonances to which he responded in his story "was 'jaunting' as used by the late, most excellent Alfred Bester, a dear friend much missed." Ellison's is the only one of the three stories that doesn't involve physical teleportation; it's about mindreading.

Each writer presents a different idea as to what jaunting is. The earliest, Bester's, is as King claims: a function of the human mind. Bester's trailblazer, Charles Fort Jaunte, discovers that he can do it in a moment of crisis. When he needs to extinguish the flames that will consume him, he suddenly finds himself next to a fire extinguisher. Scientists, of which Jaunte is one, conduct a series of tests and determine that it wasn't a fluke, that they weren't hallucinating, and that others can do it, too. Soon, most of humanity can jaunte, and life completely changes. All of this is prologue to the plot of the novel, which is actually about the person who finds out that humanity can jaunte through time as well as through space, and through vacuums, which had previously prohibited jaunting. Thus, the story begins in prologue with one development of the mind and ends as another development is discovered.

King's "The Jaunt" moves teleportation into the realm of technology. Like The Stars My Destination, it is set in the future (circa 2197), but much of the story consists of the history of the invention of the jaunting devices by a man named Victor Carune. This history is related by another character, Mark Oates, who is talking to his children as they await their turn to Jaunt. King admits that the science is "wonky" (570), and, indeed, it's not really relevant here. The worthwhile component is that it is still the invention of the human mind, and furthermore, that Jaunting has a profound effect on the mind. The story of Carune's invention is far less interesting (to readers as well as to the fictional audience of Oates's kids Patty and Ricky) than what happens to those who Jaunt. First, Carune uses mice, who come through it catatonic and soon die. As Jaunting becomes institutionalized, convicts are used in experiments, and those who are anesthetized come through fine. Those who aren't, go insane. These stories are told by Oates as legends, something that no one can verify for sure, and the kids latch on to them. Oates's daughter wants to know what happened to the mice, and to the people. Oates doesn't tell her, but he has heard other stories, which he deems too disturbing to tell his children. He has heard that to Jaunt while conscious is to go mad, and then to die. The convict who did make the Jaunt with his mind awake came through and lived long enough only to utter one sentence, "It's eternity in there," before he died.

As the Oates family is being anesthetized for their Jaunt, the son, Ricky, holds his breath and thus makes the Jaunt conscious. The price is madness: "Longer than you think, Dad," Ricky says as they emerge. He howls and gyrates spasmodically, eventually gouging out his own eyes. He had discovered the truth of the legend that jaunting might be instantaneous physically, but an eternity to the conscious mind.

Mefisto in Onyx deals not with movement of the body, but with movement of the mind. In it, Ellison allows not only the fantasy element of mindreading (which his protagonist, Rudy Pairis, calls jaunting the landscape), but also the related ability to detach the mind from the body and move it to other bodies. It is, in effect, a permanent possession of another human body. One of its more compelling conceits is that Pairis, a man with an ability many would love to possess, is constantly hindered by it. Reading others' minds hasn't given him happiness or success. It's shown him how dark and foul humanity can be. Though mind reading is an ability that Rudy Pairis possesses naturally, he must learn about the possession. A man who learns quickly, Pairis masters it and is able to use it to his advantage on the first try.

Ellison's plot deals with Pairis being asked by a friend to visit a convicted serial killer, Henry Lake Spanning. She wants him to jaunt into the Spanning's mind to determine without doubt whether or not the guilty verdict was correct. Pairis does, and in doing so comes to the realization that he, Pairis, is in fact the killer. He had mentally blocked out the murders because he couldn't face the horror of what he'd done. He confesses and Spanning goes free. While in prison, however, Pairis pieces together that Spanning is really another mind reader who has tricked him into confessing. They confront each other as Pairis is about to be executed, which is when Pairis learns how to mentally leave his body, trapping Spanning in the electric chair.

All three of these stories deal in the ramifications of jaunting; it's part of what makes them speculative. In the first two, radical changes come of jaunting. For Bester, nearly every level of society has been affected by humanity's ability to teleport. Architecture, security, business, gender relations, and even language have all been altered. Of the three, Bester explores the ramifications most fully, perhaps because he makes jaunting a pan-human ability and therefore somewhat unpredictable in its uses. It stands opposite King's Jaunting, which appears as a regulated technology. Sometimes, mere hints surface of the full extent of the changes wrought by jaunting in Bester's future, as when Jisbella McQueen tells the protagonist, Gulliver Foyle, "You don't know what jaunting's done to women, Gully. It's locked us up, sent us back to the seraglio" (74). Later, Foyle refers to a situation wherein he and McQueen can see no possible way to stay alive, as a "no-jaunte jam" (89). It is literal—they are trapped in an unfamiliar location in the darkness, preventing them from teleporting—but it is also a trope that could easily be used in other situations. Jaunting becomes a metaphor for Bester's characters, and as such is perhaps on its way to replacing the journey metaphor so common today.

The Stars My Destination is science fiction. People in it regularly engage in space travel. Warfare involves weapons unheard of in today's world. But the important elements are not rooted in science. Jaunting does receive an empirical explanation early in the book, but the narrative dismisses it even while presenting it, calling it "unsatisfactory" (9). The narrator tells us that jaunting requires visualization, concentration, and, above all, faith (11). Anyone can do it once they learn how. The science most relevant is not physics or rocketry, but evolution.

Anyone can Jaunt in King's story as well, but that is because it is a result of technology rather than of the mind. For Bester, jaunting is an active process, taught and learned. For King, it is the product of inspiration, experimentation, and craft, and hence something that can be mass distributed. It requires two portal machines, one to send and one to receive. Most importantly for those engaging in it, Jaunting is a passive activity. They are put to sleep so as to avoid the one side effect, which Oates's son simply cannot live without exploring.

Aside from the side effect of insanity, King explores few of the ramifications. He treats it as merely another form of transportation. Because of its status as a technology, it is much more thoroughly regulated than the jaunting in Bester's book. "The Jaunt" is much shorter than The Stars My Destination. Its structure leaves little room for, say, a discussion of the security changes that come with Jaunting. Still, King does include a large amount of these ramifications, told by Oates as sorts of legends. They include the stories about uses of Jaunts without a receiving portal as a murder method. Overall, however, King's Jaunting has not radically altered society in the same manner as it does for Bester. It has not appreciably affected language, nor has it altered women's status.

In an interesting parallel to Bester, King describes Jaunting as having come along "at the last possible moment" (235), meaning that oil shortages were causing crises all over the world. The world was, according to Oates, "slipping into a new dark age" (236) because of insufficient energy resources. Although science provides the means, need drives the advent of Jaunting here as well.

Ellison's Rudy Pairis has no explanation for his ability to jaunt. He's adopted, so there can be no tracing it through his absent (dead?) parents. Yet he's not the only one who can do it; he meets Spanning, a man who has been intruding into the minds of others for centuries. If Spanning knows how it's possible, he does not reveal it. For Spanning, jaunting (which isn't his word for it, he calls it "shrike") has provided the opportunity to commit atrocities. He has seen no other ramifications, implications, or possibilities of his ability.

Pairis has been equally limited up to the point that he meets Spanning. For him, the most potent ramification of jaunting is the difficulty life presents him. Being able to read minds is, for Pairis, not the delightful jaunt that many might speculate. Instead, reading someone's mind is "always foul" (12). An ability which people might consider equivalent to a winning lottery ticket is for Pairis a detriment. He does it only when it cannot be avoided, and he's a "wreck for weeks after" (12). It's been this way for him for decades.

And yet . . .

Pairis is lying to himself. Only at the end of the story, when he's put everything together, does he admit to himself that jaunting isn't his problem, nor is his race (he's black), nor even are other people. He finally concludes that he had "always been one of those miserable guys who couldn't get out of his own way" (91), a particularly apt statement given the common metaphor of life as a journey. An attentive reader might have been able to pick up Pairis's self-imposed difficulties early. Despite Pairis's claims to be a wreck after every time he jaunts into somebody's landscape and sees the horror that it is to be simply human, he performs this feat several times throughout the narrative without any such ramifications. He jaunts into a fry cook's head and suggests that it's time for a break; he jaunts into his friend Alison Roche's head to find out the truth of her feelings about someone; he jaunts into a pair of prison guards' heads to suggest that they leave him alone with Spanning. He makes four jaunts without negative repercussion.

The only conclusion to make here is that the jaunts originally did make him sick, but that time and practice have increased the precision with which he enters others' minds. Where once he could not shut out anything undesirable and upon entering a person's mind would be bombarded with, for example, "all the garlic he's been eating for the past month because his doctor told him it was good for his system" (13), now Pairis is able to do more than read specific thoughts in a person's mind—and he can also implant suggestions.

The garlic brings up another important aspect of jaunting: it's a full sensory experience. There are thoughts, and there are also tastes and smells and sounds and sights. Even before we learn of shriking (or possession), jaunting is a lot like teleportation. Pairis has merely prevented himself from seeing its possibilities. What could have been for him a way to connect with people has become, because of his own failure to see beyond the ugliness that lies beneath the surface of humanity, a way to keep himself disconnected.

Dealing with easy connections between people and places, these stories also deal with the opposite—isolation. In all three stories, one or more of the characters must endure lengthy isolation. In Bester and Ellison it takes the form of imprisonment. In King's story, it's the ineffable and eternal nothingness of the space between spaces. Bester, whose story is the longest, also includes the confinement of Foyle in a wrecked space craft.

Unlike King, Ellison and Bester force confinement on their characters for a limited time. These characters use this time to their advantage. In Foyle's first confinement, he builds his anger and rage into grim determination to live when he might have given up. In his imprisonment, Foyle becomes educated with the help of McQueen. Pairis spends a year in prison, during which he figures out the truth of his situation. Their confinements last, at most, a year. Ricky Oates, of "The Jaunt," spends only 0.000000000067 of a second in his Jaunt, but mentally he's there for eternity. He's also completely alone. Loneliness almost drives Foyle insane during his time in the wrecked craft. What saves him from madness in prison is his lucky communication with McQueen. Pairis does have company in prison, but in reality his whole life has been a prison of sorts because of his inability to, as he puts it, "get out of his own way." In other words, he's looked for and found his own prison walls wherever he needed them. Yet it's during his year in prison that he solves the puzzle of Henry Lake Spanning. He figures out the ruse, and how to trap Spanning using his own tricks.

Faustus by Rembrandt (c. 1650)

Doctor Faustus: above, an etching by Rembrandt (c. 1650); below, the cover of an early printing of Marlowe's play (1620).

Faustus from an early printing of Marlowe's play (1620)

Foyle and Rudy learn. They come out of their prisons as better men, able to overcome their obstacles. Here is where Ellison's title, Mefisto in Onyx, really crystallizes into an evocation of death as a journey. Christopher Marlowe's play, Doctor Faustus, has as its protagonist a man who is granted virtually unlimited power for twenty-four years, at the end of which interval a devil, Mephastophilis (or Mefisto), will claim his soul for Hell. Faustus spends that time doing little more than playing practical jokes: tricking a man into buying a straw horse, flinging plates around a room with unseen hands, and so on. When his time is up, as the hour is ending the day and his life, he is offered redemption but cannot imagine a God who would forgive him for his sins. He is taken to Hell because he despairs.

As well as becoming devoid of faith, Faustus loses his scholarly qualities. He does not learn a thing in twenty-four years. He lacks the requisite imagination to repent, or even to give up his pranks in favor of pursuing a more momentous life—for either good or ill. When the angels show him that the road to heaven is still there, he still can't get out of his own way—imaginatively speaking—so he cannot journey in that particular direction. He goes the other way, toward damnation—an eternity without hope. Faustus lacks the ability to better himself.

Foyle and Pairis possess that ability. They exist within limited worlds and are able to expand those worlds by expanding their minds. Unfortunately for Ricky Oates, he is confronted with eternity, a reality that his isolated and lonely mind is unable to face. Since the eternity is mental, he cannot die in it. His only choice is madness.

Is there a lesson here? The one story in which technology plays a major role in teleportation involves the anesthetizing (literally, making not able to perceive) of people in order to take advantage of it. It is also the most horrific of the three. Curiosity results in madness. Jaunting, in all three stories, has a nebulously defined relationship to dying. For Bester, jaunting is prompted by the fear of death and the drive to live. For King, Jaunting with the mind alert results in madness and, soon after, death. Ellison's equation of jaunting and death is more subtle, but nonetheless present. Pairis claims that he cannot be fooled because, when he jaunts, he "travels regularly to the place of dark where you can go but not return" (70). This, as he soon indicates, is the subconscious, where people repress undesirable memories. He calls it "the wall-safe in my drawing room. The four-foot-thick walled crypt encased in concrete and sunk a mile deep into solid granite," among other things (72). He asks Alison Roche and Spanning to attend his execution, claiming that he doesn't want to have to die alone, asking them not to make him "cross over into that place of dark, where you can go, but not return" (77). The imagery for death is exactly the same as the imagery for jaunting.

Though Rudy Pairis appears to be a condemned man, he pieces together what is happening to him, and formulates a way out of it. He possesses the imagination that Faustus lacks. Like Faustus, Pairis possesses extraordinary powers, but unlike Faust he learns to use them in beneficial ways. He realizes that the world doesn't damn him for his powers, but that he has been limiting himself. He overcomes his self-imposed limitations. His body may die in the electric chair, but his mind, the seat of the imagination, continues.

Death is often depicted in religion and in literature as a journey, usually of the one-way variety. To die is to go somewhere. That place is darker than the dark age into which King's earth was slipping, darker than the emptiness of space in which Gully Foyle begins his quest for revenge, darker than the depths of the human mind where Rudy Pairis has looked. In each of these three stories, to jaunt is to come close to death, which seems aptly characterized as the space between the darknesses already described. To jaunt is to travel next to that space between, and to brush up against its ultimate darkness. For Bester and Ellison, the human mind can get people out of that darkness. For King, since it originates outside the human body thorough technology, the mind cannot cope. Induced sleep, a sort of controlled death, is the only way through.

Yet in each story, to get through the darkness at all, humanity has to learn something. People must expand their minds and become more than they had been. For Bester, the expansion of the mind requires faith. People have to believe they can jaunte or they never will. King makes his characters put faith in technology, which deadens them a bit for their own good. For Ellison, expansion comes only when a person comes to fully know himself, when he's able to admit his faults and get out of his own way. When we lose the referents for our metaphors, especially for metaphors that help us cope with such gigantic concepts as life itself, we must replace them quickly. With the journeys of life gone, characters must grope for replacements. With jaunting, the metaphor isn't gone completely, and so the characters still go on journeys even when they're confined. In doing so, they face that place of dark. They must go there, and return knowing themselves a bit better, or go mad in the process. It's a journey everyone must make.

Footnote

[1] Each writer uses the term "jaunt" in a slightly different way: Bester puts an "e" at the end, reflecting the last name of his character C.F. Jaunte. King capitalizes it, "Jaunt." Ellison uses the current spelling and adds "the landscape" to it, furthering the spatial metaphor for the mental activity. This essay will maintain those distinctive uses.

Works Cited

Bester, Alfred. The Stars My Destination. New York: Vintage Books, Random House, Inc, 1956.

Ellison, Harlan. Mefisto in Onyx. Shingletown, CA: Mark V. Ziesing Books, 1993.

King, Stephen. "The Jaunt." In Skeleton Crew. New York: Signet Books, 1985.




Daniel Peretti is a folklorist who lives with his wife and son in Bloomington, Indiana. His essay, "Shelfscapes," was published in Frank de Caro's The Folklore Muse. You can find more information about Daniel at his website, or you can drop him an e-mail.
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