The sounds behind the stars (part 1)

Peter paused in the corridor between his bedroom and the bathroom, listening intently. The phenomenon appeared to be reaching a new phase of complexity, he noted. Simply leaning to the left or the right while remaining otherwise still placed enough stress on the floorboards to set up a complex system of resonances and harmonies. These combined with the weird atonal whistling produced by the wind passing through the half-opened bedroom window and exiting via the bathroom’s air vent to constitute an eerie sonata that set Peter’s teeth on edge – the effect was not unlike that of spinning around very quickly on the spot and then suddenly stopping. He shook his head to dispel the sensation, then marched smartly into the bedroom and slammed down the sash window.

It was at this point, Peter realized, that the whole phenomenon had undergone a phase transition from simply interesting to subtly menacing.

   *      *      *     *     *

This document records the known facts in the last three months of the life of Peter McCririck, as far as they are available to the author, Dr K—– ——, his former doctoral supervisor. The author has attempted to limit conjecture to a bare minimum, although the extremely unusual nature of the case and the existence of large gaps in the narrative have necessitated a certain amount of guesswork. If the reader considers that the text presented below falls short of the objectivity naturally expected of a scientist, please bear in mind the severe emotional strain that Mr McCririck’s accident and its aftermath have placed on the author, to the extent that she has taken an indefinite leave of absence from the College.

The flat occupying the third and top floor of 46 Gordon Square, WC1E, has always been regarded by the student body and auxiliary college staff alike as ill-omened, or simply ‘spooky’, although most of the academic personnel have tended to disregard any such claims, and those few that did not were invariably members of faculties that aroused, if not contempt exactly, at least a certain amused suspicion from many of those involved in the more objective or applied fields of inquiry. There was nothing outwardly visible about this part of the building, or the building as a whole for that matter, to inspire any sense of the weird or uncanny; it was just another stately, four-square, late Georgian townhouse which, like much of the surrounding area, had been acquired by one or other of the University’s many colleges and institutions for use as teaching, research or administrative spaces – or, as in this case, to accommodate students.

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The backstory to the tales about the third floor apparently begins a century ago, when Stefan Vock came to London to study applied mathematics – and, happily for him, to avoid conscription into the German Imperial army during the Great War. This unlikely arrangement had been made possible through the personal intervention of the great mathematician and Germanist Karl Pearson, although his case was no doubt strengthened by the British nationality of Vock’s mother. Vock, who had already distinguished himself while at Heidelberg in his final-year thesis on systems of Lissajous curves in high-dimensional spaces, arrived in London as a fresh-faced 22-year-old just as his former classmates’ tanks rolled towards Ypres. Contemporary accounts describe him as boyish in the extreme, bespectacled, small-framed and quiet, in fact almost unable to speak – despite his fluent and nearly unaccented English – unless spoken to first. Clearly, the German Empire’s armed forces had not been hobbled too badly by being robbed of the chance to conscript Stefan Vock.

It was during the second year of his Batchelor’s degree that Vock had first encountered Pearson, who was on a lecturing tour of continental Europe shortly before the crisis that precipitated the outbreak of war and had made a stop at his alma mater of Heidelberg. The young Vock was entranced by Pearson’s innovations in statistics and probability and also by his wide-ranging interests in the natural sciences, philosophy, politics and German culture and literature, and had overcome his natural timidity to speak to Pearson after the lecture. Pearson had been struck at once by the young Westphalian’s penetrating intelligence and original ideas on some of the most advanced mathematical topics of the day. The two men had struck up a correspondence that continued despite the outbreak of war, thanks to Pearson’s standing as an academic, and led eventually to Vock being offered the chance to study for a Master in Mathematics at University College under Pearson’s personal tuition.

Unusually, given Pearson’s specialization in statistical theory and methods, Vock’s programme of study appears to have revolved around vibrations, harmonics and the perception of sound. None of Vock’s original papers remain – it is debatable whether this should be seen as bad or good fortune – but Pearson’s notes and personal diary speak of his student’s interest in the burgeoning science of psychoacoustics and growing fascination with interactions between sound, the nervous system and various unusual mental states, inspired in large part by the work of his late countryman, Hermann von Helmholtz. Pearson also cryptically alludes to Vock’s growing interest in Vajrayana Buddhism and Tibetan and Mongol cultic practices, being drawn in particular to the unique meditative states supposedly achieved by the throat-singers of the Tuva region in the Russian Far East – all subjects which, at this time, were just starting to become known to Western anthropologists and other academics, as well as a wide variety of esoteric societies and early New Age movements.

The aspect of Vock’s work that seems to have been the most startlingly original, and certainly the most deranged, was the notion that not only could unusual psychological modes be accessed through extended listening to certain combinations of frequencies and rhythms, but that material reality itself operates on principles intimately connected with vibrational frequencies – and that by means of a sound-induced trance, the human mind could access causally disconnected volumes of space-time. Indeed it was in 1916, as the worldwide mathematics and physics communities was reeling from the impact of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, that young Vock made discoveries which, by rights, should have earned him a place in mathematical history alongside Gauss, Riemann, Poincaré and Einstein himself, but could equally well have seen him bracketed with Wilhelm Reich, Kenneth Grant and Carlos Castaneda.

 *      *      *     *     *

Peter had initially put down the strange effect the building seemed to be having on him to the occasional creaks and groans and general atmosphere only to be expected in a house some two centuries old, combined with the mental discombobulation caused by his recent break-up with his girlfriend of some two years and relocation from a quiet residential suburb of Edinburgh to central London. As the weeks passed, however, he came to understand that the pattern of sounds and the odd sensations associated with them were much too specific to be explained purely by chance. It was this that prompted him to initiate a series of informal experiments in which he was not only the observer but also the measuring instrument and, indeed, the specimen under test.

 *      *      *     *     *

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These notes I’ve assembled so far represent the result of several months of painstaking research into Vock, his work, his connection to Pearson and his residency at 46 Gordon Square. As already noted, none of Vock’s original manuscripts survive; the outline of Vock’s academic (and esoteric) career in London has been derived from scattered notes in Pearson’s personal journal and correspondence, some of it in the British Library, some in College records (for which I am grateful for the assistance of Mr C—– ——– of the College library staff).

As it turns out, I am not the first person – or even the second, if one counts McCririck – to have taken an interest in the history of the building and the unusual rumours which began to circulate around it shortly after Vock’s sudden disappearance in 1922. Mr C—– ——– has been aware of the site’s reputation since the early ’90s, he tells me, and although he was unaware of Vock’s residence there, he kept a sort of scrapbook of quotes and articles relating to the building – most of them, it must be said, firmly in the established tongue-in-cheek style of student publications. The following excerpts are those most explicit and most relevant to the case.

Pi Magazine, May 1957: “STUDENT DES-RES REMAINS ODDLY EMPTY. College accommodation officers have expressed puzzlement at why, for the fourth year running, no takers have been found for the highly desirable top-floor flat at 46 Gordon Square. Master’s students who’ve turned down the opportunity to live so close to the central College site in the attractive, historic building have expressed unease at the ‘weird’ atmosphere in the top floor, citing widespread rumours of ill health that have plagued previous occupants of the flat, although Estates Management has insisted that the property was wholly free of damp, mildew and vermin in a recent inspection. Pi Magazine declines to comment on the remark allegedly made by a former tenant that the malaise he suffered while lodged at the address was ‘more spiritual than physical in nature’, although we note that the student in question, a philosopher, went on to take the degree of Doctor of Divinity at another university after leaving the College.”

Sennet Magazine, November 1968: “STUDENT TAKEN TO ASYLUM AFTER HALLOWE’EN PRANK. Third-year medical student Mary Channing was taken to the Maudsley Psychiatric Hospital in the early hours of November 1 following being locked in the ‘haunted’ upper story of 46 Gordon Square as a Hallowe’en prank by fellow students. It is understood Miss Channing became increasingly agitated while in the apartment, and upon being released fell into an insensible fit. She made somewhat of a recovery while being conveyed to the hospital but doctors and family alike remain frustrated in their attempts to communicate meaningfully with her, the only words she is capable of uttering being ‘the sounds behind the stars’. Her friends who were with her that night deny that any member of their party had consumed drugs other than alcohol and cigarettes. Sennet wishes Miss Channing the speediest possible recovery from her ordeal and hopes no other students are subjected to unpleasant tricks of this nature, since the ‘power of suggestion’ associated with places such as 46 Gordon Square is evidently enough to induce panic even in those of a thoroughly sceptical and scientific cast of mind.”

Pi Magazine, April 1979: “NEW-AGE STUDENT GROUP TO HOLD ‘EXORCISM’ OF ‘HAUNTED’ GORDON SQ FLAT. The College’s so-called Theosophical Society has announced it is to ‘exorcise’ an alleged ‘evil spirit’ from the top-floor flat at 46 Gordon Square, a postgraduate student residence long regarded as having a ‘weird’ or unpleasant atmosphere. The details of the planned ceremony have not been divulged to Pi, and attempts to contact the society’s committee members were met with a somewhat impolite no-comment statement. It should be borne in mind that outsiders have debated whether the society is a bona-fide esoteric group or an elaborate practical joke ever since it was founded eight years ago.”

Pi Magazine, May 1979: “CULT SOCIETY PRESIDENT HOSPITALISED: SOCIETY DISBANDED. Aaron Richardson, leader of UCL’s controversial and oft-derided Theosophical Society, has been hospitalised with unspecified complaints following an attempted ‘exorcism’ of the supposedly ‘weird’ top-floor flat at 46 Gordon Square. His family have refused to comment, as has his tutor. Three other members of the Society, who have asked not to be named, have taken an indefinite leave from their studies but are apparently not in hospital. Pi understands the Society has since been disbanded following an overwhelming vote by its members against its continued existence.”

The Cheesegrater, 18 Jan 2005: “GRANT TELLS ‘MOST HAUNTED’ TO SPOOK OFF. The Provost has reacted with admirable rationality – although, the Grater feels, perhaps also with just a little lack of imagination – in turning down a request by the hit TV show ‘Britain’s Most Haunted’ to base an episode around the allegedly ‘cursed’ top-floor flat at 46 Gordon Square. Now while we surely can’t have the College’s reputation as a world-class centre of learning and research tarnished by association with blatant mumbo-jumbo, we also can’t help but think that the angry faculty head who threw out Drs. Venkmann, Stanz and Spengler at the start of Ghostbusters must have rather regretted his hasty decision by the end of the film…”

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The crucial tipping-point in the case of Peter McCrirrick appears to have come halfway through the first semester of his doctoral studies when two technicians from Facilities and Estates were doing routine electrical maintenance work in the hallway in McCrirrick’s flat. This necessitated the removal of some of the original Georgian wooden panelling in order to access the wiring behind it. McCrirrick had intended to be visiting his parents at the time but unplanned engineering works on the rail network had made this unfeasible. It is purely for this reason that he was at home when one of the workmen called his attention to a curious set of inscriptions on the inside of one of the panels, as it seems unlikely they’d have bothered reporting the find had an interested bystander not been present at the time.

“Interested” is of course a great understatement, as is still plainly visible in McCrirrick’s emails to me from this time. He had discovered, he said, nothing less than the missing pieces of Vock’s work on psychoacoustics and relativity, picking up precisely where his written work left off, as far as can be judged from Pearson’s notes. The authorship of the notes was not in question, McCrirrick said, since the shape of the writing was identical to the few remaining pieces of Vock’s correspondence, allowing for the fact it was crudely incised into hardwood with a pocketknife – and in any case, Vock was surely the only person in the world to have trodden this particular path of arcane inquiry.

These obscure formulae and diagrams inscribed in oak a century ago described nothing less than a comprehensive system for accessing far-flung regions of spacetime by adjusting the natural frequencies of a chamber is such a way as to induce the mental states necessary for this incorporeal exploration. And below the formulae were lists of figures: the dimensions and frequencies relevant to the naturally resonant sounds produced by air movements and tensile stresses in the flat Peter McCrirrick currently called home.

Of course, Vock had not simply happened upon a residence that creaked and whistled in just the right way to bring about a trance enabling psychocosmic travel. Rather, Vock had undertaken a programme of ‘tuning’ the flat during the time he lived there by subtly altering the tensions in the floorboards and load-bearing beams and adjusting the sizes of the doorways to regulate the flow of air through the flat, and therefore the pitch and timbre of the sounds produced, when the wind was allowed to blow in through one window and out of another.

It may be hard to imagine how a postgraduate student got away with making physical alterations to the fabric of College property, and indeed it appears from Pearson’s diary that it was only his personal intervention on several occasions – pleading for tolerance of the eccentric behaviour of his exceptionally gifted student – that prevented Vock being expelled and, in all likelihood, sent back to Germany in disgrace. That said, the changes he made were not particularly visually noticeable and it is not surprising that his modifications were not remarked upon for a century apart from isolated instances of psychic disturbance caused by the flat’s strange sounds and its resultant reputation as an ‘uncanny’ space.

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 *      *      *     *     *

So this is it: Vock’s final equations, and calculations based on them for the top floor of 46 Gordon Square. And I’d never have seen them were it not for those electricians repairing the distribution point behind the panelling. Why did he write them down here, of all places? I mean, if he considered them too sensitive to publish, then fair enough…but why not write them down in a private journal? Unless he perhaps had some inkling that he wouldn’t be around for much longer, and left this here for someone who might come after, living in the same space and perhaps having similar interests. I should make further inquiries into the circumstances of Vock’s disappearance – he can’t just have vanished into thin air, can he?

I can’t pass up this opportunity. I shan’t pretend the work is mine – no-one would believe me, anyway – but how much further could Vock have taken these ideas? He’d practically invented new fields of mathematics, cosmology and psychology at a single stroke…and to think where these could be taken with the algebraic and experimental advances of the last hundred years! Assuming, of course, it all actually works; so I must try it out, personally, practically. But I must not let what happened to him, happen to me, if his work had anything to do with his vanishing act. Yes, I shall be cautious.

Peter had the first of what he came to think of as his ‘travelling dreams’ some two months after moving into the flat, and almost immediately after he’d begun re-tuning the floorboards and beams of the property according to the values inscribed by Vock in the oak panelling. As far as he could remember upon waking, the dream began with the usual assortment of more or less meaningless images and sensations, but as it went on, these faded away and Peter was left with the impression of being suspended in a vast, abstract space. Darkness that somehow seemed to have a thickness to it, a soft, velvety texture, surrounded him on all sides, and all sense of direction or orientation was utterly absent. There was no fear or even apprehension, just a breathless expectancy; a sensation of infinite potential. That was all, the first time; just the endless, inchoate darkness, and then a sensation of falling at great speed in a direction perpendicular to any Euclidean dimension. Peter awoke with a slight start and it was some time before he felt entirely comfortable as an intelligence embodied in the rough, sluggish matter of his body. He washed, dressed and went to his classes as usual, but it was evening before he was able to shake off this odd feeling of being a stranger in a world of atoms.

It was perhaps two or three nights later that the same impression occurred while Peter, or at least Peter’s body, slept in the apartment as wind crept in through a slightly open window with a low moan that was more a voice than a simple aleatoric noise. The great featureless expanse of undifferentiated space felt instantly familiar; in fact Peter was struck at once by the sensation of having come home, of being in the place or state in which he truly belonged and had, in truth, always resided, while the crude stuff of his body moved around on reality’s material surface, pulled this way and that like a marionette by a will that did not originate in the same sphere of being. The same expectancy was there, and this time it was not unfulfilled. Peter’s consciousness was suddenly joined by a presence which announced itself through a subtle change in the feel of the soft, dense blackness all around; there was a sensation of stirring, of subtle currents running together into something like a self-organized vortex with Peter’s mind at the centre of it – although nothing definitely visible was apparent. Peter had the curious feeling that he was being observed and somehow evaluated; measured up…

The Presence articulated concepts in a fashion that Peter was at a loss to describe in any concrete terms, and those concepts corresponded roughly to the words: SO ANOTHER OF YOU HAS SOUGHT ME.

Peter felt unsure how to respond. This was far beyond anything he had expected, even given the gradually increasing intensity of the unusual mental and somatic states he had been experiencing recently. As before, any sense of fear was completely absent; he seemed to exist now in a realm of pure intellect, of abstracted thought – of structure without substance.

He composed his thoughts and, without it taking any apparent effort, radiated back at the Presence a train of semiotic impulses approximated by: Yes, although I did not know that was what I was doing. What are you? What is this place?

YOU MAY THINK OF THIS AS THE INTERIOR, came the reply. WHAT YOU THINK OF AS REALITY IS THE SURFACE.

Peter thought about this for a moment. It was not, he decided, entirely outlandish or unexpected, given recent advances in cosmology that made use of the concept of holography and theories of physics that invoked higher dimensions. And what are you, then?, he projected.

I AM A SHADOW OF YOUR OWN MIND CAST ON THE UNIVERSAL WILL.

This really gave Peter pause for the first time since the dream began. His parents were lapsed Catholics both, and he’d never really questioned the default materialism he’d grown up with. But this certainly didn’t feel like talking to ‘God’, by any means – it was more like conversing with some vast, impersonal intelligence – an intelligence of which his own mind seemed to be some aspect or facet.

What happened to the other man, Vock?, Peter radiated back the Presence. He is said to have vanished without trace in 1922. Is he here, in the Interior?

HE IS…AROUND AND ABOUT.

Peter was about to ask the Presence to expand on this elusive and disturbing answer, but at that moment he felt the now-familiar sensation of falling rapidly in an undefined direction and awoke with a start. Recall of the dream was – unusually for him – perfect, as if he’d just had a real-life conversation. His burgeoning curiosity, now bordering on obsession, with the bizarre properties of this apartment and still stranger realms of experience to which it was apparently giving him access were now contending with a creeping apprehension that these were perhaps territories it would be unwise to explore further. Even if this tenebrous ‘Interior’ and the crytpical ‘Presence’ that inhabited it – or was perhaps identical with it – were purely figments of his dreaming imagination, would it not be better to consider his long-term mental health and cease his investigation into Vock and his work – and perhaps quit the apartment itself and find a temporary let somewhere else for the remainder of the academic year?

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