Two years after the publication of her fungal body horror piece, The Beauty, Aliya Whiteley follows up with another Weird fiction novella, The Arrival of Missives. It is set in the village of Westerbridge, near Taunton (p. 32), just after the First World War, a small, rural place, far away from anything big or important. Electricity hasn’t arrived here yet (p. 34), and the community has been decimated by war and disease. Another reminder of the war is the presence of field workers, who seem to be POWs, "but they work hard, as does everyone on the farm, including the animals" (p. 3), our naïve protagonist, Shirley Fearn, tells us. Shirley is just about to finish school and her plans for the future revolve around her teacher, Mr. Tiller. The reason for this is obvious, since she shouts it from almost every page: "I am in love: Shirley Fearn, landowner’s daughter, is filled to the brim with love for Mr. Tiller" (p. 3-4). A former soldier, the young teacher has moved to Westerbridge just after the war, and everyone seems to be speculating about the nature of his injury, due to which "he isn’t a real man" (p. 2) anymore. Shirley tells us: "Sometimes I wonder what is under his shirt and waistcoat. I imagine something other than flesh to be found there: fine swan feathers, or a clean white space" (p. 2). At the time we still think this is just her imagination and/or a nice turn of phrase.
Mixed in with Shirley’s puppy love for Mr. Tiller is her dream of becoming a schoolteacher alongside him. She spends a great deal of time daydreaming of the "delights of the teaching trade" (p. 7) and (over-)interpreting every single one of Mr. Tiller’s looks and gestures: "I finish the task and look up to find Mr. Tiller smiling at me, an expression not just of pride in a student, but perhaps a future companion? I am moved beyond delight. It is as if he too has pictured our future, and found it pleasing" (p. 8). However, she doesn’t seem to be quite certain about her actual ambitions: "I want to find others who dream, like me. Or perhaps I would rather that this weakening need for company would pass. I do not think mingling with lesser minds would be good for my intentions" (p. 6). And yes, both the swooning and the exaggerated ego get sort of annoying after a while.
Then something happens. Shirley, watching through Mr. Tiller’s kitchen window, catches sight of her teacher’s war injury.
He unbuttons all the way down to the line of his trousers, pulls open the leaves of his shirt front, and then I see the scar is not a scar. It is a pattern revealed, which decorates the entire of his chest and stomach, and lower; I cannot comprehend so many lines and angles, made in his flesh. Except in the centre of the pattern, where there is not flesh at all. There is rock. (p. 18)
The moment we realise that what is being described is an actual piece of rock merged with a man’s flesh, the genre of this book is established as speculative fiction, and potentially Weird.
Forbes Phillips and R. Thurston Hopkins's War and the Weird collects real accounts of soldiers who came back from the front of the Great War and reported having seen angels come to their aid. Supernatural visions are therefore an established element in the history of war trauma. Meanwhile, Weird fiction, too, has a long history of using metaphors that connect to war and trauma. So: is Whiteley using the rock as a metaphor for the trauma of war, and/or is she doing something else with it, something more science-fictional? The trauma angle makes sense at first: "Mr. Tiller has fought a war, and he has returned from it a changed man. I did not truly understand that until this moment. Something terrible, beyond my experience, has befallen him" (p. 20).
Having been spotted, Shirley runs—but Mr. Tiller catches up with her and starts to explain. "[. . .] It is not exactly an injury, Shirley. I would be dead without it" (p. 23-24). And he promises to tell her the full story of what happened to him, later, in writing. He has a task for her as well, and even though he tells her that he is "not capable of being a husband" (p. 26), he seems to imply that if she succeeds, they might have a future together—or maybe that’s just what Shirley wants to hear.
In bits and pieces, over a series of secret letters from Tiller, Shirley (with the reader) learns about the nature of the rock. "It is a visitation from a different time, and it commands me to certain courses of action" (p. 35); "[. . .] I try to change things for the better because of what the rock tells me [. . .]" (p. 35); "I receive visions, instructions from the rock, and much is at stake. I was guided to this village to shape the destiny of those within it, but I find the actions I must undertake are too difficult for me" (p. 36). And this, apparently, is where Shirley comes in. She never questions that she was chosen, or why. Her illusions about her own importance and predestination are a big factor in this: "I feel strong, powerful, ripe with possibility" (p. 12). Mr. Tiller is used to directing young, malleable minds. He knows exactly what to tell her.
In his first letter he includes an account of how he received his original injury from a German soldier, who thrust his bayonet into him and left him for dead in a tangle of barbed wire. "I see his keen face afresh every time he comes to mind" (p. 40). The rock came later, from space, and saved him: "Even if my organs decorated the fence, my eyes still worked. And I knew, as I raised them up to the sky, that something was coming for me. Something beyond my comprehension" (p. 41).
The Weird meteorite falls into him, fills the tattered hole left by the German’s bayonet, and merges with his flesh, saving and preserving his life. And when he touches it, it speaks to him.
It bore a missive, activated only by the touch of my palms upon it. How can I explain it? The rock itself was a tool of communication, and it opened a . . . portal within my mind. A portal to the future. [. . .] I have conversed with the leaders of the future. They are fearful. They plant images into my mind of the wars that await us and are befalling them, and they have devoted their lives to finding a way to end all such conflicts. They use the rock to reach back and enlist aid in their struggle (p. 44).
And this is the endeavour in which he wants, needs, Shirley's help: to save the world. How could she say no?
However, she is clever enough to consider the possibility that he is mad. "I know men have returned from the war with many ailments, including those of the mind" (p. 45). Which leaves us with several potential outcomes. I kept turning the pages, even when the plot felt drawn-out and all too transparent—I needed to find out whether Mr. Tiller’s story of the mysterious origin and nature of the rock was just a ruse, or whether there was truth in it.
The tasks that the teacher has for Shirley revolve around simple, everyday things. It all starts with fetching horseshoes from the village smithy in preparation for the upcoming May Day celebrations. Is it coincidence or by design that she keeps running into Daniel Redmore, the smith’s younger son?
Entangled with the story line are Shirley’s memories of growing up together with Daniel, and signs of Daniel having a crush on Shirley, as well as hints at the war and the resulting gaps in the community, and everyone’s expectations for the future. Naturally, these expectations include Shirley and Daniel, and Shirley’s father’s hopes for a son-in-law who will take over the farm.
"[B]ut I see you watch [Mr. Tiller] and I see you hope for him," says Daniel, "and it’s embarrassing to look upon."
"There is no mooning on my part, Master Redmore! Not after anyone. Not even you." (p. 30-31)
Shirley’s errands for Mr. Tiller bring her and Daniel together, and she realizes more and more how much she really likes him. She always reports back to the schoolteacher, who is very interested in the developments. When her father refuses to let her train at Taunton College for Women after she finishes school, Mr. Tiller seems understanding but simultaneously eager to keep her in the village to bring his plans to fruition.
Their relationship is a strictly hierarchical one, and Shirley never questions the teacher’s decisions and requests. And even while he has her openly courting Daniel Redmore, she is still dreaming of marrying him and teaching at the village school.
Finally, as his secret letters reveal the content of the rock’s message, it becomes clear exactly what it is that Mr. Tiller is asking of Shirley. In the missive, clearly a sort of hologram, three venerable figures smile upon Mr. Tiller. They show him a family tree of all humanity. "Each family history is a vein in the body of the human race that will one day exist, and some veins are so very important amongst the others. [. . .] Then I realise that there is one tiny error within the part of the image that I am being shown—an error that contains the possibility to become a disease within time, spreading darkness over the picture until it is spoiled and dead. That error is a family line" (p. 77).
From his perspective it still sounds a bit like the trope of travelling back in time (in this case by proxy) to kill Hitler, or prevent Hitler from being born. Various writers have shown us how that would potentially turn out, perhaps most famously Stephen Fry in Making History, in which the exact gap in history left by Hitler is subsequently filled by somebody more competent, resulting in an even worse dystopia. And indeed, Mr. Tiller’s messages start taking on a darker tone.
I am hardened in ways you cannot begin to imagine. You will not understand this, I think, until you are much older. Then you will look back on this, on my next request, and see it in a different light, and not a good one. [. . .] You must make him love you, and you must bind him to you, before he becomes the instigator of destruction on a scale you cannot possibly imagine (p. 78-80).
And, believing that she is saving the world, and providing a safe future for humanity, Shirley obeys.
Daniel offers a way out of Mr. Tiller's schemes, suggesting that they go to Taunton together and to live there. "In a different way. Not the way everyone has laid out for us. If you go, can I come? Can we do that? [. . .] And forget Mr. Tiller" (p. 88). But Shirley is still too tangled up in tradition and everyone’s expectations to know what she really wants. "Why does he need me to lead his way to Taunton? He should be the one to lead. He is the man. If he wanted us to marry, and go to Taunton, I would think on that carefully. I might even say yes" (p. 88).
But even while she still clings to old traditions and thought-patterns, Shirley is witness to small acts by which others defy order, defy the bylaws by which the village is ostensibly run. During the May Day celebrations she notices how "Azariah Barbery and Jeremiah Crowe are holding hands under the trestle table that holds the jam and scones. Only I can see, from my position on this throne, the way their fingers touch, pull apart, touch. Their faces look away, in different directions, watchful, while all the time their fingers touch" (p. 92).
In the evening she takes Daniel down under the bridge, which we already know is a popular spot for secret lovers. What follows is a realistic enough scene of clumsy, not-quite achieved sexual intercourse. Soon after the teenagers walk back into the village and everyone knows what has happened between them (but what do they really know?)—the first small unexpected development occurs that kicks off a whole avalanche of plot twists on the last forty pages of this book. Shirley watches the predictable events unfold: how the community concludes that she must be pregnant now (even though she isn’t), and how consequently all the wedding preparations for her and Daniel are made in haste. She takes account of her situation and realises what a fool she has been.
They said I was clever.
I see now they meant I was bookish, and suited to becoming a learned woman. A learned woman is a very different object from a wise man. I have had no experience of life; how could I see all the traps, particularly the ones that looked most like my own choices, my own happiness? Keats did not warn me, and neither did Dickens. I did not find myself within their writings. (p. 99)
I thought nothing ever happened quickly in Westerbridge. Now I see I was wrong. When everyone of importance is in agreement, things can happen at an amazing speed.
Girls who are about to be married have other things to think about [than school], I was told quietly by my mother. I think she means girls who have disgraced themselves. They all fear I would be a bad influence on the others.
"Yes," I say. "I suppose I am sad about it."
I was once important to the very future of mankind, according to Mr. Tiller. He needed my help above all others, but now the job is done. (p. 102)
Daniel is still trying to make her feel at ease. "Once we are married, though," he continues, "we will not have to live the way they all say, will we? Then we can make our own rules" (p. 103). But these promises sound increasingly empty now, with their future—and the future of the farm—all planned out by their elders.
Sometimes I think I could be his wife, and find a way to be, in some degree, happy.
"I wish we had more time before the wedding," I tell him. "It’s all such a rush." (p. 103)
Shirley realises that she can only ever be reconciled to this future that was chosen for her by others if she finds out whether her sacrifice has at least served its purpose. She finds Mr. Tiller packing. He gives her the stereotypical speech: "My work here is done. I’m needed elsewhere" (p. 106). But this time, because all her future life and (un)happiness depend on it, she won’t let him get rid of her so easily.
"You did a marvelous thing on May Day evening. You changed the world." Mr. Tiller limps to the table, and strokes his hand over the wood.
"And I am supposed to take your word for it."
"As you have about so many things, my dear. About how to form letters, how to add numbers, how to understand the past and use it to view the future. [. . .]" (p. 107)
And this is the moment when, finally, it’s all too much for Shirley and she (finally!) questions authority. (Audible sighs from readers who have braved a hundred pages of naïve daydreaming and mindless following of orders.) No longer willing to put up with "because I say so," Shirley speaks up. It’s time for her to issue a "request".
"[I] am done with taking your words on this subject for granted. You will show me the rock, and I will speak with it."
He stares at me. Then he says, coolly, "What makes you think the rock will choose to speak with you?" (p. 108)
Can you see where this is going? The young woman finally knows one thing that she wants, and the man’s reaction is pure condescension. Maybe it’s just to prove her wrong, but he gives in and shows her the rock again. "It triggers revulsion in me, but I must touch it. I must have my answer" (p. 109). And the rock speaks to her in visions.
I am in a place I cannot name. [. . .] I feel—I feel knowledge, entering my mind, seeping inside. I am not learning, but having thoughts—thoughts that belong to the men—pushed into me. It is their vision of the future, and it is plain that they know so very much. (p. 110-111)
She is shown a journey in what is clearly a rocket ship, a journey which takes the humans on board to "another Earth." "There is no death or danger here. They proclaim it their new home. Here, in fresh soil, they begin again" (p. 111). And Shirley, too, is shown the map, the family tree of humanity—the perfect tree that contains flaws, flawed family lines, which lead to war. She describes how "great bombs, not of metal but of disease and decay, are unleashed," and how "[w]hen the war is over, billions live on without knowing how close they came to perfection" (p. 113). And each of the flaws, the infections that spoil the beautiful future, starts with one union. Just like the one she ostensibly prevented by agreeing to marry Daniel Redmore. The old men of the future need to change the past, but they cannot go back in time, so they send the rocks, which can (p. 114)—a bit like how time travel works in Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates.
And then Shirley asks the questions Mr. Tiller never thought of: "If that is the future of second Earth, what becomes of my planet? Why did you leave so many of us behind? Who chose who would stay and who would go upon the metal craft? And this is the question I must have answered above all others: How can I understand all of these things when you only give me the information you choose to share?" (p. 114)
She realises that the message is a recording. She cannot interact with it, or ask more questions. Just like Mr. Tiller has done all this time, "[t]hey decide long onto the future what is important, and expect me to be content with that. But I am not" (p.115). Scrutinizing the recording, she realises another thing: the future humans who enter the rocket ship are all pale old men (p. 115).
Perhaps it is a representation of an event, for how can there be no people of China, or the East Indies? No youths? No women, no women at all? How is that possible? [. . .]
So many births—births of women, upon that pristine soil. But not births of a kind I recognize, amounting from the intertwining of two strands. These women come from nowhere.
The pale old men did not take women on their journey. When they reached their destination they made them.
Everyone who did not belong to their kind was left behind. To face what, I cannot tell, for this recording will not show me.
How can the final pattern be so beautiful when it discards so many threads? But, of course, nature is not beautiful. It is not meant to form a pattern woven to perfection.(p. 115-116)
Shirley realises that Mr. Tiller is not mad, he is just a fanatic. He is fighting a fight that isn't his. And suddenly she finds herself on the opposite side. She cannot fight for this shocking eugenics project of the future. And this is the moment for which we've struggled through all the pages of kitsch and naivety and slow character development. Because this isn't just about the plot, it's about science fiction as a genre too: if old white men think they can make the future without a place in it for everyone but themselves, then . . . no. There are other, better futures. Finally Shirley stands up to Mr. Tiller: "Yes, he is not my master, and now I am free to hate him [. . .] I will not be a foot soldier for pale old men, no matter where they live or what pretty patterns they weave" (121-2). Finally she becomes the heroine that we need in Weird fiction, a genre long dominated by the influences of racist, sexist, "pale old men" (like H. P. Lovecraft himself, who named the genre).
But before Shirley can turn her back on the town that has been trying to control her all her life—so she can find her own way of living, even though she isn't sure what it might turn out to be—she has to try and stop Mr. Tiller. So she tells the village community that has assembled in the church that she has been manipulated, forced into this situation by the teacher. She knows that in order to be heard she must make him seem dangerous, and she has kept his letters. "He took off his shirt, and I touched his skin. We were alone, in his cottage. I cannot say more. Do not make me say more" (p. 132).
The villagers are outraged and decide to "track him down, and he will see justice" (p. 133). But he has already left the village, and (isn't this getting a bit much?) committed murder on his way out—to make sure that Daniel, having being spurned, doesn't marry "the wrong girl" after all.
And the last thing that happens is that Daniel joins Shirley on her way out of town and into a future that she will make for herself, and they get on (hold onto your seats, it's getting really tacky once more) a bicycle made for two (p. 137), and Shirley swears that she will find all the other rocks that bear missives, and that she will smash them all. "I will wage war against those that deem me, and others like me, unimportant. I will fight to make this world a better one" (p. 138). I am still convinced that it was worth reading through all the annoying and cloying parts just to get here. Whiteley makes it seem as if Shirley spends the major part of the book in a different narrative, one where characters like she belong, a love story maybe, but definitely a story of growing up and settling down. Until she does grow up, and she breaks out and turns the story into one belonging to a different genre, and into a metafictional one as well. And I enjoyed that a lot.