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Lot and Lot's Daughter
By Ward Moore
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1954 Ward Moore
All rights reserved.
by Michael Swanwick
"Lot" and "Lot's Daughter" are more than just terrifying stories. They are bleak works indeed, so horrifying as to be difficult to read at times and, as such, a complete success. But one of the duties of a writer (honored, perhaps, more in the breach than the observance) is to engage the most serious issues of the day. By which standard these works are something more. They are a portrait of an age. They are a dissection of the dark psyche of 1950s America. And they are the nightmares of my childhood.
To appreciate the magnitude of Ward Moore's accomplishment, it's necessary to know a little about the period in which these stories were written, the decade immediately following World War II.
At the time, nobody doubted that nuclear war would come. Indeed, Edward Teller, best known as "the father of the H-bomb," was actively lobbying for a pre-emptive first strike against the Soviet Union for that very reason. His argument was that since World War III was inevitable, the longer it was put off, the more fearsome the weapons that would be used and the worse the devastation for the survivors. A significant fraction of the American public agreed. Those who didn't had no choice but to take precautions anyway.
When I was in first grade, Woodlawn Elementary had a three-signal alarm system. For a fire, one long siren blast. For an air raid, two blasts. For an atomic bomb, three. When we heard three blasts, repeated, we were drilled to crawl beneath our desks and huddle up as small as we could, hands over our heads. This was to protect our skulls from shards of flying glass.
I was horrified at the thought of long slivers of glass penetrating my hands. In my imagination I could feel them slicing through the muscles and scraping against the bones. The thought was so vividly painful it made my flesh ache. So I tucked my hands into my armpits until the teacher scolded me into putting them where I'd been told. But secretly I resolved that when the real bomb fell, I wasn't going to listen. I was going to keep my hands where they were safe, no matter what the teacher said.
We were also taught that if we were at home when the sirens signaled the approaching missiles, we should go into the basement and cower in a corner, where the timbers of the collapsing house were most likely to leave some small space. Enough, perhaps, to survive within.
One Saturday the inevitable happened. I heard a siren sound three long blasts, over and over. Maybe they were trying out a new system at the fire station. Perhaps a factory was having a drill. In any case, I believed what I had been so carefully taught. I went into the basement and cringed in a corner, hands tucked firmly under my arms. And I waited.
In the afternoon quiet I could hear the unconcerned world outside. Cars were going by. Dogs barked. Somebody was mowing his lawn.
My parents and sisters were not at home when the siren sounded. They had gone out in the car on some errand — to buy shoes for Patty, or take Mary to the doctor for her yearly check-up. I prayed to God as fervently as I could that they would make it to a shelter in time.
I was only six years old.
Now, some forty years later, the memory of that time still angers me, not for the terror I personally experienced, but because there was nothing special or unusual about what happened to me. This terror was forced upon children everywhere. A moral evil so pervasive it had to be taught alongside counting and our ABC's was loose in the world. It had been fashioned at least in part by our own leaders.
What kind of monsters were they, to create such a world?
In that same horrifying world, Ward Moore wrote "Lot" and "Lot's Daughter." The existence of the atom bomb was revealed to the world on August 6, 1945, at Hiroshima. In 1953, "Lot" appeared in print. In literary terms it was a staggering accomplishment. Right at the very beginning of the atomic era, Moore nailed the nuclear holocaust survival story. Nobody has ever told it more convincingly. Even after four decades of dizzying change, the reader still thinks, Yes, this is the way it would be.
A year later, in 1954, "Lot's Daughter" tied up the loose ends.
But these are more than just victim tales or deromanticized takes on survivalist fantasies. For Mr. Jimmon — censorious, resentful, elated by the destruction of civilization — is the personification of the mind-set that brought the world to the brink of extinction. He is the Patriarch gone mad, not merely a survivor of the holocaust, but its architect.
Grim-jawed and intolerant, Mr. Jimmon would certainly agree with Edward Teller's unprovoked doomsday attack as the only reasonable thing to do. He uses his hard-headedness as a weapon. His recurrent demands that his family "face reality" are his means of keeping them in line and his justification for whatever dark impulses he may feel. He defines the world in the ugliest possible terms, and by so doing drives it toward that ugliness. His is the voice of self-justifying pragmatism, and because it admits to neither doubts nor alternatives, it is unanswerable.
In "Lot," Ward Moore answered the unanswerable. He faced down the logic of brute toughness, cut it open, and laid out its workings for all to see. He showed the obscenity that lies at its core.
The decision to write a sequel must surely have been at least partly in response to the first story's critics. Because such people never change, it's easy to hear their voices. "Yes, but Mr. Jimmon survived," they say. "Morality is a luxury that depends first of all upon survival."
"Lot's Daughter" puts the nails in Mr. Jimmon's coffin by demonstrating how perfectly unfit such a man would be for the hard work of rebuilding a culture. More importantly, it makes explicit that the real tragedy has nothing to do with what becomes of Mr. Jimmon. The real tragedy is what he makes of his offspring.
What goes around, comes around. The sins of the father are visited upon the children. Lot had a daughter and she turned out about as you'd expect. Posterity would not justify the coming war.
The war which never came.
I don't want to exaggerate these stories' part in the aversion of thermonuclear holocaust. But the fact remains that we're still alive, long after we were all supposed to die. For which I credit a host of people who, when the need was greatest, stood up and were counted. Who spoke truthfully and argued persuasively. It took thousands of decent, sane, outraged people to turn away that onrushing monster. Ward Moore was among them.
Moore wrote these stories in a strong, unadorned prose. It was the only voice that could answer the Mr. Jimmons of this world. Let the glorifiers of nihilism argue not with his words, but with the facts. Let them deny that this is how it would be. Let them try. There are no rhetorical flourishes, no auctorial intrusions upon the action, and certainly no tacked-on morals.
I, however, am under no such constraints. We no longer teach our children that they will die in a nuclear holocaust. Instead, we teach them that they will inherit a blighted world in ecological collapse. This is an improvement, perhaps, but not much of one. At what point do warnings become prophecies? When does horror turn to desire?
These are the bleakest of stories. But they are not despairing. Anger radiates from these pages in a white haze. They could not have been easy to write. But Ward Moore wrote them as a warning, and a warning is an act of hope. If we are to resist the poisoned logic of Mr. Jimmon and his kind, we have to do as has been done here: Face our fears without despair. Speak the truth. Teach our children hope.CHAPTER 2
Mr. Jimmon even appeared elated, like a man about to set out on a vacation.
"Well folks, no use waiting any longer. We're all set. So let's go."
There was a betrayal here: Mr. Jimmon was not the kind of man who addressed his family as "folks."
"David, you're sure ...?"
Mr. Jimmon merely smiled. This was quite out of character; customarily he reacted to his wife's habit of posing unfinished questions — after seventeen years the unuttered and larger part of the queries were always instantly known to him in some mysterious way, as though unerringly projected by the key in which the introduction was pitched, so that not only the full wording was communicated to him, but the shades and implications which circumstance and humor attached to them — with sharp and querulous defense. No matter how often he resolved to stare quietly or use the still more effective, Afraid I didn't catch your meaning, dear, he had never been able to put his resolution into force. Until this moment of crisis. Crisis, reflected Mr. Jimmon, still smiling and moving suggestively toward the door, crisis changes people. Brings out underlying qualities.
It was Jir who answered Molly Jimmon with the adolescent's half-whine of exasperation. "Aw furcrysay Mom, what's the idea? The highways'll be clogged tight. What's the good figuring everything heada time and having everything all set if you're going to start all over again at the last minute. Get a grip on yourself and let's go."
Mr. Jimmon did not voice the reflexive, That's no way to talk to your Mother. Instead he thought, not unsympathetically, of woman's slow reaction time. Asset in childbirth, liability behind the wheel. He knew Molly was thinking of the house and all of the things in it: her clothes and Erika's, the television set — so sullenly ugly now, with the electricity gone — the refrigerator in which the food would soon begin to rot and stink, the dead stove, the cellarful of cases of canned stuff for which there was no room in the station wagon. And the Buick, blocked up in the garage, with the air thoughtfully let out of the tires and the battery hidden.
Of course the houses would be looted. But they had known that all along. When they — or rather he, for it was his executive's mind and training which were responsible for the Jimmons' preparation against this moment — planned so carefully and providentially, he had weighed property against life and decided on life. No other decision was possible.
"Aren't you going to phone Pearl and Dan?"
Now why in the world, thought Mr. Jimmon, completely above petty irritation, should I call Dan Davisson? (because, of course it's Dan she means — My Old Beau. Oh, he was nobody then, just an impractical dreamer without a penny to his name; it wasn't for years that he was recognized as a Mathematical Genius; now he's a professor and all sorts of things — but she automatically says Pearl-and-Dan, not Dan.) What can Dan do with the square root of minus nothing to offset M equals whatever it is, at this moment? Or am I supposed to ask if Pearl has all her diamonds? Query, why doesn't Pearl wear pearls? Only diamonds? My wife's friends, heh heh, but even the subtlest intonation won't label them when you're entertaining an important client and Pearl and Dan.
And why should I? What sudden paralysis afflicts her? Hysteria?
"No," said Mr. Jimmon.
Then he added, relenting, "Phone's been out since."
"But," said Molly.
She's hardly going to ask me to drive into town. He selected several answers in readiness. But she merely looked toward the telephone helplessly (she ought to have been fat, thought Mr. Jimmon, really should, or anyway plump; her thinness gives her that air of competence, or at least attempt), so he amplified gently, "They're unquestionably all right. As far away from It as we are."
Wendell was already in the station wagon. With Waggie hidden somewhere. Should have sent the dog to the humane society; more merciful to have it put to sleep. Too late now; Waggie would have to take his chance. There were plenty of rabbits in the hills above Malibu, he had often seen them quite close to the house. At all events there was no room for a dog in the wagon, already loaded within a pound of its capacity.
Erika came in briskly from the kitchen, her brown jodhpurs making her appear at first glance even younger than fourteen. But only at first glance; then the swell of hips and breast denied the childishness the jodhpurs seemed to accent.
"The water's gone, Mom. There's no use sticking around any longer."
Molly looked incredulous. "The water?"
"Of course the water's gone," said Mr. Jimmon, not impatiently, but rather with satisfaction in his own foresight. "If It didn't get the aqueduct, the mains depend on the pumps. Electric pumps. When the electricity went, the water went too."
"But the water," repeated Molly, as though this last catastrophe was beyond all reason — even the outrageous logic which It brought in its train.
Jir slouched past them and outside. Erika tucked in a strand of hair, pulled her jockey cap downward and sideways, glanced quickly at her mother and father, then followed. Molly took several steps, paused, smiled vaguely in the mirror and walked out of the house.
Mr. Jimmon patted his pockets; the money was all there. He didn't even look back before closing the front door and rattling the knob to be sure the lock had caught. It had never failed, but Mr. Jimmon always rattled it anyway. He strode to the station wagon, running his eye over the springs to reassure himself again that they really hadn't overloaded it.
The sky was overcast; you might have thought it was one of the regular morning high fogs if you didn't know. Mr. Jimmon faced southeast, but It had been too far away to see anything now. Erika and Molly were in the front seat; the boys were in the back, lost amid the neatly packed stuff. He opened the door on the driver's side, got in, turned the key, and started the motor. Then he said casually over his shoulder, "Put the dog out, Jir."
Wendell protested, too quickly, "Waggie's not here."
Molly exclaimed, "Oh David. ..."
Mr. Jimmon said patiently, "We're losing pretty valuable time. There's no room for the dog; we have no food for him. If we had room we could have taken more essentials; those few pounds might mean the difference."
"Can't find him," muttered Jir.
"He's not here. I tell you he's not here," shouted Wendell, tearful voiced.
"If I have to stop the motor and get him myself we'll be wasting still more time and gas." Mr. Jimmon was still detached, judicial. "This isn't a matter of kindness to animals. It's life and death."
Erika said evenly, "Dad's right, you know. It's the dog or us. Put him out, Wend."
"I tell you —" Wendell began.
"Got him!" exclaimed Jir. "OK, Waggie! Outside and good luck."
The spaniel wriggled ecstatically as he was picked up and put out through the open window. Mr. Jimmon raced the motor, but it didn't drown out Wendell's anguish. He threw himself on his brother, hitting and kicking. Mr. Jimmon took his foot off the gas, and as soon as he was sure the dog was away from the wheels, eased the station wagon out the driveway and down the hill toward the ocean.
"Wendell, Wendell, stop," pleaded Molly. "Don't hurt him, Jir."
Mr. Jimmon clicked on the radio. After a preliminary hum, clashing static crackled out. He pushed all five buttons in turn, varying the quality of unintelligible sound. "Want me to try?" offered Erika. She pushed the manual button and turned the knob slowly. Music dripped out.
Mr. Jimmon grunted. "Mexican station. Try something else. Maybe you can get Ventura."
They rounded a tight curve. "Isn't that the Warbinns?" asked Molly.
For the first time since It happened Mr. Jimmon had a twinge of impatience. There was no possibility, even with the unreliable eye of shocked excitement, of mistaking the Warbinns' blue Mercury. No one else on Rambla Catalina had one anything like it, and visitors would be most unlikely now. If Molly would apply the most elementary logic!
Besides, Warbinn had stopped the blue Mercury in the Jimmon driveway five times a week for the past two months — ever since they had decided to put the Buick up and keep the wagon packed and ready against this moment — for Mr. Jimmon to ride with him to the city. Of course it was the Warbinns.
"... advised not to impede the progress of the military. Adequate medical staffs are standing by at all hospitals. Local civilian defense units are taking all steps in accordance ..."
"Santa Barbara," remarked Jir, nodding at the radio with an expert's assurance."
Mr. Jimmon slowed, prepared to follow the Warbinns down to 101, but the Mercury halted and Mr. Jimmon turned out to pass it. Warbinn was driving and Sally was in the front seat with him; the back seat appeared empty except for a few things obviously hastily thrown in. No foresight, thought Mr. Jimmon.
Warbinn waved his hand vigorously out the window and Sally shouted something.
"... panic will merely slow rescue efforts. Casualties are much smaller than originally reported ..."
"How do they know?" asked Mr. Jimmon, waving politely at the Warbinns.
"Oh, David, aren't you going to stop? They want something."
"Probably just to talk."
Excerpted from Lot and Lot's Daughter by Ward Moore. Copyright © 1954 Ward Moore. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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