The Path to the Dark Side: Max Gladstone’s Last Exit (Part 17)

Welcome back to Reading the Weird, in which we get girl cooties all over weird fiction, cosmic horror, and Lovecraftiana—from its historical roots through its most recent branches.

This week, we continue Max Gladstone’s Last Exit with Chapters 33-34. The novel was first published in 2022. Spoilers ahead!


“This was the end of the world. This was the end of the world. Wasn’t it?”

On the princess’s balcony, seeing both June the monstrosity and June the girl, Zelda’s torn between the conviction that they’ve reached the end of the world and the irrepressible bird-flutter of hope. “You can’t let yourself see,” June tells her. “There’s too much that’s not you in your head. But I can show you, if you let me.”

Zelda struggles toward June, Sarah beside her. High midnight arrives, and the black-flower path takes shape. At its end are the crossroads, whispering: What do you want? What will you give? Spin pours out of June. Black lightning flashes. Far off, striding to meet them, is Sal, no longer a demon but “just Sal herself.” Older, wiser, coming home. A moment later, Zelda sees only the horror of angles gone wrong, but now she knows it isn’t the truth.

June steps out onto the black-flower path.

Meanwhile, in the vizier’s room, Ish watches the black mirror resolve into the cowboy, who urges him to keep “walking the line.” He shows the image of June poised on the balcony above, the Sal-monster approaching, Sarah fallen and Zelda on her knees, eyes filled not with horror but with awe. Ramon regains consciousness. Ish knocks him out with the gun’s butt.

He struggles up to the balcony, led by the gun. June, “robed in spider legs and crowned with thorns” is on the path already. The gun raises his arm. He shoots—but Sarah knocks the bullet from its trajectory with her knack, and stands between him and June. She sees in his pale halo “the afterimage” of the cowboy’s hat. When did he yield to fear, changing from the “brave and tiny mouse” she used to imagine into “this old hand-me-down monster”? She holds her ground. Ish’s hand shakes, but the gun speaks and Sarah drops, gut-shot.

Ish was supposed to save her, save Zelda. Instead, the cowboy’s voice assures him, he’s done what was needful. June sees Sarah fallen. Distracted from the intent required to hold the black-flower path whole, she falls. Zelda lunges to catch her. Sal draws closer. Ish must go all the way, now, he thinks. He must reach the crossroads first, and so he jumps onto the path, three bullets left in his gun.

Zelda catches June’s wrist but hasn’t the strength to pull her up. Ramon, recovered from Ish’s blow, arrives; together they haul June to safety. The gravely wounded Sarah commands their attention. Zelda spots a white-hatted Ish on the path. Sarah tells her to go after him. June, Zelda sees, has expended all her spin to summon Sal. Ramon, too, is exhausted, but Zelda must trust them to get Sarah to a hospital back home while she pursues Ish.

Ramon and June carry Sarah out of the palace, but the cowboy himself now chases them. With June tending Sarah in the back seat, Ramon guns the Challenger across the drawbridge. The cowboy commandeers a robo-horse, and rides after them.

Ramon drives from alt to alt, through storm and bullets. The cowboy gains. His minions join the chase on motorcycles, in a squad car. June tells Ramon Sarah’s that fading. Of course there are more cowboys the closer they get to home: home is the cowboy’s place, and the alt-roads are his roads. Hearing this, Ramon conceives a desperate plan. His knack churning, the Challenger protesting, he veers off the road and into the dark, trailblazing.

The black-flower path abhors Ish, presses him back, makes his gun heavy and hot. Between steps, he finds himself back at college, on the Halloween fourteen years ago when he was to win Zelda, but instead she won Sal. He dodges through costumed partiers. Zelda comes up behind him. Ish, gun in hand, becomes the pursuer, Zelda the pursued. He must convince Zelda that she’s wrong about Sal and put things right. But he’s torn between the shadow under the trees, the serpent at the world’s roots, and a vision of Zelda’s hair shining in the sun.

Zelda races through the “shattering past.” None of the partiers notice the road splitting apart beneath them. Where are these kids now? Do they agonize too about whether they’ve fucked up? Whether they had any choice to begin with? She stunt-leaps across the rift, but so does Ish. They end up on the roof of the Brutalist A & A Building, Zelda and Ish and the cowboy. The cowboy offers to give Zelda what she wants out of saving the world: everything fixed, the monsters gone, herself safe at home with a girl who at least looks like Sal. Zelda realizes that the cowboy’s been inside her all along.

Ish watches the cowboy target Zelda. He tells himself to remember the serpent, but he thinks of the friends he’s failed, who are more real than either serpent or cowboy. He forces his gun up. It’s the cowboy’s gun Zelda spends her spin on fouling, while Ish’s bullet takes out the cowboy—and himself at the same time, as he knew it would.

The cowboy leaves no body. Zelda kneels by Ish’s. He lost so many times to fear and need, but at the end he understood, and won. The rest is up to her. A chain link fence at the end of the roof separates her from the crossroads. Sal taught her to climb it once. Now Zelda puts on Sal’s iron ring, says “I love you,” and climbs. She’s unfolding now, growing, seeing differently. She drops to the other side, where a hand lifts her and she hears the voice she’s missed.

“Took you long enough,” Sal says.

This Week’s Metrics

Fighting the Cowboy: We’re still a long way from fully learning this world. Look, new species just dropped!

What’s Cyclopean: Ramon ponders the unicorn tapestry in Elsinore: “a symbol of purity in this place of poets stripped naked at knifepoint.”

Weirdbuilding: Are the wrong angles of the beyond a violation of the physics that keep us whole, or just the distortion of looking at the shore from underwater? The Hounds of Tindalos have opinions.

Madness Takes Its Toll: Everyone this week is less sure about what counts as sane, so it’s no surprise that the wind screams and laughs in “babbling mad voices,” that a “mad world” is contrasted with the gun’s “logic,” and that the Halloween party is full of “mad voices, whispers.”

Ruthanna’s Commentary

I’m the sort of person who hears about new popular music on NPR, and who got earwormed by “Texas Hold ‘Em” in the lobby of a theater. Which in combination are why I’m writing this to the strains of Beyonce’s newly-dropped Cowboy Carter, an album that deconstructs the mythoses both of country music and of ahistorically-white cowboy movies. (It’s also what I think the kids these days call a bop. Several bops? Can an album be a bop or only an individual song?) The Cowboy would not approve.

The thing about the lie that protects civilization-as-we-know-it is that it’s a lie. The white-hatted line-walker wouldn’t care to recognize the Native American vaqueros, or the formerly-enslaved Black cowboys making their homes on the range after the Slaveholder’s Rebellion, or Annie Oakley. The lie is that there’s only one line. That to imagine alternatives is to destroy everything, to let in the serpent and Cthulhu and the inevitable robot (translated from the Czech) uprising. That there’s nothing on either side of the road but tentacles and teeth.

One nasty truth from the liar: “So long as the world’s there, we can take the things we want from it.” But that truth leads to all the lies. The ability to extract is confounded with the ability to exist. The ostensible stakes are heightened until it only makes sense to follow the logic of the gun. To do what hurts because at least that way you know you’re still walking the line.

Poor Ish. Failing to fail, failing to allow for failure, failing to allow for being wrong. And putting on the white hat, just as Zelda and Sarah and Ramon are coming around to admitting that yes, maybe Sal was right. I love the way that, as they make that admission, the imagined alternatives waver between toothy tentacle and flowering otherland—and they glimpse Sal not as monster or college-aged innocent, but as herself a natural decade older, graying and strong with her experiences. It’s not an easy switch, that change in perspective. Glimpsing it once doesn’t make you immune to the fearful illusion. But the illusion is a little weaker afterwards. The cowboy tries increasingly desperately to argue for it—first that it’s the only real option, then that it’s the only option that won’t hurt.

Wonder and glory are worth a little heartache, aren’t they?

Over the fence, on the far side of the cowboy’s reality, everything looks like metaphors and references and questions. We need such tools, to grasp at a hint of trying to understand. We’re looking at angles skewed by the water’s boundary, or we’re wading through black flowers, or we’re cracking the world’s eggshell a la Utena. (We’re also having a car chase, just in case you were wondering whether that reference was deliberate.) (And “the cowboy followed,” maybe like the gunslinger in The Dark Tower.) We’re turning off the road, questioning the assumptions of the whole road trip genre. We’re standing in the gale from the “demon wind of yes”. (James Joyce reference? Yoko Ono?) We’re running through a Halloween party where Zelda once made a choice about who to be and who to love: the first place where she imagined possibilities she hadn’t before. Where else would you find the Crossroads? Where else would you finally put on a ring and climb a fence and complete that choice you started making all those years ago?

On the other side of the fence, through the metaphors, are the questions. Who are you? What do you want? (Babylon 5 reference there, though B5 wasn’t pulling the angel’s and devil’s questions from nowhere.) Could there be a world beyond this one—no. Wrong question. What worlds are beyond this one? What dreams?

Took you long enough to ask.

Anne’s Commentary

So much is going on for Gladstone’s characters in these chapters. Still. Today I’m all about Ish.

In his first inaugural address, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is… fear itself.” It’s decent rhetoric, but inaccurate. If you’re an alt-rider, you can legitimately fear lots of other things, like giant flying centipedes, post-apocalyptic cannibal cultists, and active lava fields. Henry David Thoreau may have come closer to the truth in an 1851 journal entry: “Nothing is to be so much feared as fear.” This assertion allows for the fear of giant flying centipedes, post-apocalyptic cannibal cultists, and active lava fields, even if you should also fear your fear of these things, since capital-F fear is more fearsome still.

Of course, the last word on anything must go to Yoda. Or should we say the first word, given he dropped his aphorisms “long, long ago”? Anyhow, he said: “Fear is the path to the dark side.” By “dark side,” he didn’t necessarily mean an actual “path of lower luminosity” ending up in a wardrobe composed entirely of black garments. Nor yet could he have meant by “path” the “black-flower” one that Gladstone mentions, what with Gladstone’s book not having been around in Yoda’s day. Not that I’d ever underestimate Master Yoda’s ability to see into the future of SFF publications.

The point is: If your fear leads you to duck giant flying centipedes before they can grasp your head in their venom-dripping mandibles, it’s a good thing. But if your fear becomes chronic, a caustic dye that stains your fundamental perception of the world and leaves you a serpent-conjuring paranoid wreck like Ish, it’s a bad thing. It amplifies your defenses into offenses.

It makes the White-Hat cowboy take notice of you, and smile. He’s so glad that you hear a snake gnawing away at the rooty underpinnings of everything, even though snakes don’t actually gnaw roots so much as, say, naked mole-rats do. The cowboy knows that metaphors don’t need to make sense to be of use to him – the opposite, in fact. They need to trigger visceral emotion. He’s thrilled that you see everywhere the shadowy forest edges where bloody deeds are done. Were done, to and by your childhood self.

There was a nervous moment for the cowboy when Ish found Zelda. When Ish imagined that the light reflected from her hair could banish his under-tree shadows, that the fire of her intellect could immolate the serpent. Luckily for the cowboy, Sal came along. First, Sal made Ish think he could win Zelda, setting him up to be crushed. Second, Sal won Zelda away from him. Third, Sal proved unworthy of Zelda by embracing the enemy rot, becoming a monster and leaving Zelda to welter in guilt because she couldn’t save Sal from monsterfication. Fourth, Sal had to have a cousin just as unworthy as she was! Another monster that fooled Zelda, making it that much harder for Ish to save her.

As for Sarah and Ramon, let them just try to snatch Ish back from the whiteness of the cowboy. He’s as doomed as any Ahab whose mortal wound is not to the body but to the psyche. The difference between the characters is that Ahab can’t be saved by Starbuck’s reminder of his family—Starbuck can’t break open his cannibal Captain’s heart with his “See, see! The boy’s face from the window! The boy’s hand on the hill!” Ahab casts the evocation of his child down, “his last, cindered apple to the soil.” Whereas Ish—

As the cowboy takes aim at Zelda, Ish still aches from his psychic wounds, still feels himself in “the shadow of the trees.” But he can look beyond the shadow to “other worlds than his. Ramon and Sarah, Zelda and Sal. Cynthia.” His friends are to him, in the end, “more real than the trees, more real than the serpent, more real than the cowboy.” The whale has become Ahab’s only reality, and so he can’t turn from his own destruction. Ish makes the emotional reconnection to his better humanity, and so can stop walking the cowboy’s line and kill him, though in full knowledge he’s gone too far into the whiteness to save himself.

Ish, I’m glad you were never meant to be a deathspian or a tragic hero lost to his fatal flaws. I’m glad you instead found your redemption.

Next week, we celebrate National Poetry Month with Christina Rossetti’s classic “Goblin Market.” icon-paragraph-end

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