Diplomacy

by Gary Budgen

Read in Lovecraftiana: The Magazine of Eldritch Horror (2016-17)

(This review contains spoilers)

This story is the contents of a diary by Thomas Bolitio written in 1916. Which is really just him going through the contents of a manuscript written in 1885 by one Captain Edwin N., an English soldier. And I’m here telling you about both in 2022, so we’re in real deep today, folks.

Anyway, the manuscript was found in an auction tucked away behind some other items and brought to Thomas Bolitio’s attention because of its strange contents. The journal tells us how this was written in a convent about his time in Malay and further details that won’t matter or make sense until later and then switches over to the soldier’s story.

Captain Edwin N., I’m just gonna call him Ed, has what he admits is a childish ambition: To hunt down a tiger. I guess that is a big deal to these hunter types. Poor kitties. He quickly secures a local guide named Robert. Robert is a good and loyal man and quite effective as a guide and, eventually, friend.

Eventually, I say because Ed has many racist qualities beaten into him by the life in service of the Crown and conquering other races. It is fair to say he is not a bad guy, merely a product of his times. I point this out as he undergoes a bit of character growth, slowly fighting back against these prejudices throughout the story.

The pair trek through the jungle, going village to village chasing rumors of disappearing people, assuming, of course, it must be a tiger. To be fair, were we not reading a horror story, we could reasonably assume that as well. They finally come across a person who knows of the exact place, and despite the person’s warnings, they are ignored, and away the two go.

Ed and Robert arrive at the village and are greeted by a broken, run-down village. There is barely anyone here, and everything is just a complete mess. Ed sees a white man and native children surrounding a hot air balloon ride, trying to inflate it.

The two do not get along and get into a petty argument. The man tells Ed he must quit whatever he came for and come along with him quickly, which of course, is rejected. He really wants that tiger. The conversation is interrupted by a man in a suit arriving, causing the man to draw his gun. He never fires it, though

The man in the suit introduces himself as Smythe. He’s the leader of a company that has taken over this village for its operations. He tells Ed the man with the balloon’s name is Bertrand. Smythe invites Ed to his office, and despite Bertrand’s warning not to go with this man, he does. Smythe does not allow Robert inside with them, however, and Ed doesn’t put up a fight as ‘Robert is just a native.’

Smythe’s office is a mirror of the disaster that is the village. Documents are thrown about everywhere, just another complete mess. Ed tries to take a map to get his bearings, but it is snatched away quickly. They have a conversation about what brought Ed here, and Smythe agrees to help with finding the tiger. But not today. The day after tomorrow. Ed isn’t happy about this but feels forced to agree and leaves the office to go to a place that has been prepared for him.

While leaving, he notices Robert has gone missing. He wants to go back and bring the issue up with Smythe but feels embarrassed to do so as ‘it is his own duty to look after his servants.’ Yep. When he arrives at the place he is led to, he finds a bible, falls into a bed, and dozes off while reading it.

He dreams of a glowing stone pyramid that he tells himself was because he was reading Noah’s Ark beforehand. He sees Bertrand’s balloon flying above it. He feels lost and confused by what he is seeing and wakes up. It is now the morning, and he decides he will not wait the day after for Smythe and hunt down the tiger alone.

Despite this plan of action, he still feels the need to go tell Smythe about this. He never says that, but I guess the narrative needed to lead us back to Smythe’s place to figure out the next plot point. I’m not really sure otherwise. Why wouldn’t he just head off? But anyway, while going there, he notices everyone is gone now from the village. It’s a complete ghost town. This worries him.

While in Smythe’s place, he also finds no one but realizes now he can inspect that map from before. It shows rubber plantations set up around the area and gives the impression that all is well with the company’s operations. Ed knows this is a complete lie and has what he calls a battle of conscience. He abandons his hunt for the tiger and instead tries to track down Smythe. He feels he must bring him to justice, and he feels a bit bad about Robert, as he believes he represents his ‘Colonial Masters’ and must represent them well by looking after his servant. Yep.

He finds a spot on the map that was badly erased and assumes that’s where he must have gone and goes after him. He does a pretty damn terrible job of going through the jungle without Robert’s help and falls to fatigue and exhaustion rather quickly. He passes in and out of sleep many times and often has no idea whether he is dreaming or not. Eventually, he sees a light in the distance bobbing up and down in front of him and wanders after it.

When he reaches the light, he sees the glowing stone pyramid from his dream, surrounded by Smythe and other white company men carrying torches. They are driving the chained Natives from the village towards the pyramid, beating them with canes. He sees Robert is among them, and Robert sees him too.

Ed is enraged and rushes forth but is quickly dropped by a blow to the back of his head. He awakens, tied to a chair in a dark room with Smythe as company. Ed demands to know what is going on and to let the Natives go. Smythe rants to him about needing to see the bigger picture and allowing him to complete the work.

You see, just as they conquered the Natives, they would themselves soon be conquered by this Great Race. And, just as the smartest of the Natives negotiated their place in the new regime on their arrival, so must they before this Great Race. It’s just smart, it’s just survival, it’s just diplomacy. Hey, that’s the story’s name! Oh…

Smythe believes the Great Race will allow them to keep their own country and make them all-powerful, similar to how they themselves allow the Native’s their villages and gave them guns. He seems to believe they require a sacrifice, and of course, you guessed it: It’s the Natives. What a dick. He leaves Ed alone in the room and goes off to complete his ‘diplomacy.’

Left alone tied to the chair, Ed thinks of how wrong all this is, that the color of Robert’s skin, and maybe even the others, shouldn’t matter, and they deserve better than this. There you go, pal! Only took facing annihilation by an outer race to figure that out but good for you! He begins to rock back and forth on the chair until it falls over and breaks just enough to free himself. I’m sure you can imagine that scene in your mind straight out of many tv shows and movies.

He makes his way back to the glowing stone pyramid and tries to stop what is happening but once again is quickly stopped, this time by Smythe shooting him in the leg with a rifle. Smythe never gets the chance to finish him off, though, as something emerges from the pyramid.

It is beyond full description but seems to be cone-shaped and has many tentacles, perhaps pincers. Who knows? Ed relates its form keeps shifting, or maybe he just can’t process the whole of it at once and keeps seeing a different part each time. It has a photograph cylinder-like object in its “hand,” and it turns it on to release a throbbing hum.

Everyone at the scene, Smythe and his company men, the natives, and Ed, are drawn toward the noise and to the pyramid. Everyone was eager and desperately wanting to go to the sound. Everyone does so and disappears, save for Ed, who, due to his leg wound, is unable to get there before it stops. He is left alone and beings to pray for a while. When he comes to, he realizes he is safe inside of Bertrand’s hot air balloon, just like in the dream.

Bertrand claims to never have seen the pyramid or people being sacrificed to it. Ed is worried about this but doesn’t argue. Instead, he simply asks to go wherever Bertrand is going and quit being a soldier. He does ask himself, however, was Smythe’s diplomacy successful or not?

This ends Ed’s manuscript, and we return to Thomas Bolitio’s writing in the journal. He recounts how Ed was dishonorably discharged from service and led a life of poverty. However, he was never believed for what he said he saw, and he further became a dissenter who spoke against the Crown. He eventually ends up in that convent where he writes his manuscript.

He only lived there for two weeks before he was poisoned by Thomas Bolitio’s agents. Yep. He reveals he is in service of the Great Race and the encounter with Ed and Smythe taught them many things on how to deal with going further. He’ll be right there at their side, stopping any trouble as they come and conquer Earth. He then burns the manuscript along with other documents he has collected over thirty years of service, and the journal/story ends.

Another great story from this collection. It was the longest so far and had everything you could want crammed in there. I really had to condense a lot of it despite how long this review/recounting already is. I loved this one. I’m reading the collection in order, and so far, this is the best story, and I can’t imagine what could top it.

***** Five out of Five Stars (Great)

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