Private— Keep Out! by Phillip MacDonald from Vol 1 Num 1, 1949
The unnamed protagonist is leaving his job one day when he runs into an old friend, Charles Moffat, who he hasn’t seen in years. Charles is obviously ill and distressed, clutching a briefcase, and so the protagonist offers to buy him a drink. Charles’s constant fiddling with the case frustrates him, and so Charles lets him see inside. It’s a random assortment of objects: the base of a tennis trophy, the playbill for a Broadway show, a picture frame that the protagonist remembers being on Charles’s desk but has clearly never been opened. He demands that Charles explain.
By way of answer, Charles asks him if he’s seen Archer lately. The protagonist says that he doesn’t know anyone by that name. Then, Charles asks him if he ever feels that he almost understands the Key, the secret of the universe that no person is allowed to grasp. He says he feels that way sometimes, maybe once or twice a year. Then, Charles tells him the story of their mutual friend, Adrian Archer.
Adrian had been their friend at school. He played doubles tennis with Charles, and when they gradated, became a star on Broadway, and eventually, Hollywood. He married and moved into a house that the protagonist helped him choose. One night, he, his wife, Margaret, and Charles got drunk together and talked about this Key. Adrian believed himself to be close to figuring it out. That night, Margaret called Charles in a panic, and hung up before she could explain what was wrong. The next morning, Adrian’s house was gone. Every mention of him in every document had been removed, and every person had forgotten who he was.
The protagonist feels like he should think Charles is crazy, but somehow, he doesn’t. As he mulls this over, Charles goes to make a phone call. It takes a long time, so he asks the barman to see if Charles is still back there. The barman tells him that no one is there, and that the protagonist has been alone this whole time. It ends on this chilling line: “I wonder how much longer there is for me.”
This is one of the most gripping, haunting stories I’ve read, just like ever. My summary doesn’t do it justice. I found it hard to analyze because I was so wrapped up in the drama of the story. And it’s such a quiet little piece of horror, too. No ghosts to punch, no vampires, no murder. Just the universe silently unmaking anyone who gets too close to the truth. It’s like Lovecraft without the racism or the tentacles.
I’ve enjoyed reading both of the other stories so far, but in a year’s time, I won’t remember much about them. This one, I don’t think I’ll ever forget. It’s the kind of story that makes you question the tenants of your life. Are your memories true? Could something about your world change hugely without your noticing? It’s a frightening question.
The use of detail is good – things are set up at the beginning of the story that are paid off at the end in a satisfying way. The picture frame, the barman, all the trips Charles takes to the phone booth, they all tie in to the central plot. The author manages to create a sense of growing dread without use of dramatic language, or even all that much specific detail, which is really hard to pull off. He does it though. It rocks.
Yes, the language feels very 1940s, moreso than any of the stories so far. The prose reminded me a bit of the Nancy Drew books, actually. Obviously, the content is super different, but the tone and the dialogue are similar. But other than that, there’s very little that alienates me about the story. There’s no sexist language or dumb plot devices to keep me away from the story, and so I’m sucked in. It’s awesome.
Honestly, it’s almost too good for me to have anything interesting to say. The story’s been anthologized a couple of times, it looks like, so you can probably find it if you look. Read it yourself. Question everything. Try not to disappear.
Final Word: Does it hold up? Yes/No/Sorta
Holy shit yes.