C. S. Lewis is renowned worldwide for his children’s fantasy novels, especially the Chronicles of Narnia, but his less known works include a trilogy of science fiction novels plus an unfinished fourth (The Dark Tower.) An intended fourth entry to The Cosmic Trilogy, it was never finished or published. It was discovered among paperwork being destroyed after Lewis’ death by the lawyer of his estate and, despite evidence suggesting that segments of this work were read at the famous gatherings of The Inklings (a group of literary enthusiasts, including Tolkien, who were mostly associated with the University of Oxford who met and read excerpts and discussed fantasy and science fiction literature) there was controversy around the authenticity of the writings.
It is estimated that this story was written in the early forties, predating his more famous fantasy works (and some elements from this story seem to make their way into the Chronicles of Narnia which wasn’t published until the early fifties.) The intriguing nature of this story is how it starts off with several scientists discussing the nature of time travel and ends up being a gothic-horror story about inter-dimensional travel.
One of the academics, Orfieu, discloses to his companions that, as time travel itself is impossible he has focused his research into simply viewing time, and has created a machine called the chronoscope. This device lets the men view a fixed but undisclosed place they call ‘The Othertime’. It is a dark and oppressive place, where The Stingingman (a man with a large, seeping horn growing through his skull) stabs volunteers in the stomach, injecting them with venom and transforming them into willing automaton-like slaves called Jerkies (because of their movements) who are laboring to complete construction of a great but dark tower.
Orfieu’s assistant, Scudamour, discovers with horror that he has an exact double in this Othertime, who as the story progresses, is imprisoned and mutates into the next Stingingman, replacing the previous one. One of the other academics observes that this incomplete building is actually a replica of the new Cambridge University Library, where the men are presently situated as they observe all this.
I shall leave any plot discussion here so to avoid spoiling the story. There are a few twists and a few genuinely unsettling moments. Stylistically, this story is unlike anything of Lewis’s that I have read, and this is also the basis as to why the authenticity is still debated by academics. The story is dark and uncomfortable to read – the setting is unidentifiable (possibly set in post-war time) but feels like it could be a Victorian gothic story, with the sense of growing dread and nihilism common in H. P. Lovecraft’s works. The characters, though underdeveloped due to the unfinished nature of the story, are suitably sympathetic with clear motivations.
I was thoroughly enjoying this story and was sorely disappointed when it came to an abrupt, unfinished end. The Dark Tower and Other Stories discusses the story in more depth, and pre-warns readers that it is missing sections and unfinished, but this does nothing to diminish the feeling of disappointment as such a gripping and dread-inducing tale is suddenly ended.
For fans of Lovecraft or C. S. Lewis or cosmic-horror in general, this story is a great look into the creative prowess of a man who could write for children and adults alike, a man who refused to be categorized as a genre writer.