Beyond the Golden Stair by Hannes Bok
Hannes Bokwas the pseudonym of Wayne Francis Woodward, a science fiction and fantasy illustrator and artist who also wrote. In 1948, Bok published a 35,000-word novella called “The Blue Flamingo” in Startling Stories. For decades, rumors circled the science fiction community that “The Blue Flamingo” was an excerpt from a larger novel. In 1970, after Bok’s death, Lin Carter found the manuscript and published it as Beyond the Golden Stair.
In his foreword, Carter talks about Bok’s adulation of Abraham Merritt, who, with books like The Moon Pool and Dwellers in the Mirage, had extended the subgenre of “the lost world.” Bok’s fantasy stories and books took the reader to strange lands where the natural laws of our world were suspended.
Beyond the Golden Stair is an interesting historical tidbit, and Bok’s descriptions are painterly and beautiful, but having finished this short novel, I understand why editors shortened it to novella length.
John Hibbert, the book’s main character, has been haunted by strange dreams ever since he was a child. Now an adult, Hibbert is a wounded World War II veteran sitting in a jail cell, because his army buddies set him up to take the fall for their criminal endeavor. Hibbert’s cellmate is a genial, murderous thug named Scarlatti. When Burks, Scarlatti’s cold-blooded partner, engineers an escape, they bring Hibbert along for the ride. They go deep into the Everglades, where they meet Scarlatti’s girlfriend, the swamp-woman Carlotta. Hibbert is more of a hostage than an accomplice, but Carlotta treats him with suspicion and jealousy. Carlotta agrees to lead them across the swamp so they can escape the manhunt.
Bok exquisitely depicts the Everglades, describing a float downstream through a tunnel of willows: “the limp branches hanging dejectedly down to the water in dispirited Narcissism.” As the trip progresses, Hibbert becomes caught up moment-by-moment, centered in the present:
He remembered a lovely chameleon distending its rosy throat like a child’s toy balloon; alligators swimming underwater with only their nostrils and popeyes showing on the surface –one could estimate the size of the beasts by the distance between the three protruding points.
In the middle of the swamp, the four travelers find a staircase that ends at a blue pool, with a blue flamingo guarding it. The staircase leads to an MC-Escher-like world called Khoire, and the four are confronted by a human-looking person named Patur, who has a crystal mask. He tells them that they will not be allowed to stay in Khoire, and that within a day they will transform, their physical selves changing into what they truly are.
Beyond the Golden Stair suffers from uneven pacing. The first several chapters, moving through the Everglades, quiver with tension. The golden stair is a symbol of strangeness and mystery. Once we meet Patur, though, we are given a twenty-three-page infodump as our foursome sits and watches a movie on the history of Khoire, projected by the mask.
Soon, Hibbert meets the girl of his dreams, literally, in Mareth of the Watchers, who comes to see them out of curiosity. Her description sounds a lot like one of Bok’s paintings.
Her oblique eyes were like two great emeralds mounted in the black enamel of her long and sweeping lashes. For a mouth she had the soft, velvety bud of a large crimson flower awaiting the sun. Her hair was morning light swept up from her brow in a golden casque like Athena’s helmet, restrained by combs of jade.
In a book this short, it would take a better storyteller than Bok to create a strange world, a fast-paced plot and dynamic characters. Bok succeeds in his physical descriptions, but the plot is predictable and the book sags in the middle. Of all the characters, Burks is the best-drawn. It is probably no accident that Carlotta’s and Scarlatti’s names nearly rhyme. They are the least developed; he is a spontaneous brute and her only characteristic is a dog-like loyalty. This seems to be a class statement. Burks was born to the upper class but raised by cold and strict parents, so he rebelled. We never know anything about Hibbert’s upbringing, even though he is the main character. Scarlatti and Carlotta are both “swarthy” low-lifes, and in a sequence where the crystal mask reveals each character to the others, Bok outright mocks Carlotta’s desire for love, culture (as she imagines it) and a better life.
The writing is beautiful, even if the rules of Khoire don’t make much sense. Bok has the eye of a visual artist and gives it free rein in this book. The prose is lovely; for me, though, it wasn’t enough. The Startling Stories editor who insisted this be shortened by 40,000 words made the right choice.
I recall having read this book back around the mid-Seventies. I was aware of Bok’s reputation as an illustrator, and as a writer/illustrator myself I was curious to read his work. Apparently it didn’t make a big impression on me. because I really can’t recall a thing about it. I can’t even recall his style, whereas it’s easy to get lost in, say, C.A. Smith or Lord Dunsany. I suppose if Bok had written more books I would have a clearer memory of this one. At leastI retain my admiration of his artwork. :-)
I think his strength was definitely as a visual artist.