"Haunted Atoms" (1951) - a rare golden-age sci-fi story by A. E. van Vogt

(actualisé le ) by A. E. van Vogt

Five hundred years after a mysterious disaster had destroyed an advanced but now-forgotten civilization, a farmer is killed when digging near a long-abandoned (atomic) powerhouse.
His house rapidly acquires a reputation for being haunted and uninhabitable until the farmer’s niece and her husband move in and manage to convince academics from a nearby university to explore the mysterious source of energy that has caused all the trouble.

This 3,700-word story was first published in the Spring 1951 issue of the quarterly sci-fi "10 Story Fantasy" magazine.

Republished in two other sci-fi magazines in the fifties, it is one of the rare golden-age van Vogt stories never to have been published in any hardcover or pocketbook anthology since then.

We have included here the original artwork by Fischer.

e-books of this very readable story are available for downloading below.

AT THE first attack more than five hundred years before, the seething stuff was cascaded into a dozen separate underground chambers. The bomb that fell gouged an entire valley out of the ground but didn’t quite reach the chambers.

A city was gone, and the radiant liquid forgotten. Each segment simmered with a mindless patience in its prison. The centuries ticked away, and finally a man probed into the resisting earth. Accidentally, he broke down the rotting barrier between two of the receptacles.
There was an instant, savage interchange of immensely potent energy.

John Roberts found himself perspiring. He climbed out of the hole and, pulling out his handkerchief, wiped his forehead. He was a middle-aged man with greying temples and a pioneer gleam in his eyes.
"Sure got hot all of a sudden," he surmised aloud to the empty yard. "Feel kind of faint."
He looked anxiously toward the house. It was about a hundred yards away and seemed to be receding. He staggered, felt amazed, nearly fell, and grew alarmed. He had taken ten steps when he began to realise that he wasn’t going to make it. He sobbed with a sharp awareness of the death that was coming.

A neighbouring farmer found his body lying quietly on the grass. And that night the haunt lights were first seen.
A local doctor noted the third-degree burns on the body, but since they were inexplicable he made out his certificate: "Heart failure." A legal official came down from Megalopolis and took possession of the farmhouse in the name of the new owner of the property, Mrs. Peter Nichols (née Janie Roberts), niece of the dead man. The official put up a "For Rent” sign, and took one of the rooms for the night.
At midnight, when the place was already glowing with visible lights that sparkled in every room, he was seen to emerge from the back door in his pyjamas, and leap hurriedly into his sky car. The machine took off with a hiss.

During the next three months, two families moved into the house for brief periods. When they were gone hastily, no more home seekers appeared. In the hole, the uranium 235 boiled and burned and bubbled, seeking freedom, rele asing floods of energy upon the nearby house. Certain plastics sparkled with flame. Metals grew hot, and shone in the dark, and crackled, and made sounds no human car had heard for half a millennium.
The "haunt" lights were not dangerous. The materials involved were safety compounds, which resisted radioactivity with an almost helium-like inertness.
Gradually the vibrations of the bubbling brought down loose dirt and broken bits of the stuff which had formerly contained the uranium. After six months the energy was sealed in.

On the night that the owner and her husband moved into the house, the radiant fire was already settled—if not disturbed-for another five hundred years of virtual frustration.
No one, of course, knew that.

THIS is silly," said Janie.
The house loomed up in the darkness, as they slowly climbed out of the car. Peter shook off her words as if they were leaves that had fallen on him from the dying tree under which he had parked. Far off to the right, he could see the light of another house.
It was a cloudless night, and the stars were like points of varicoloured light in a sky of blue ink. The pale cup of a moon seemed neither to add to nor subtract from the darkness.
He hesitated, then turned to his wife. "Now, look," he said firmly, "let’s not start getting jittery. We’ve figured this thing out on a cold commercial basis. You inherited this property, and we darn well need to get some rent money out of it. But the only way we’ll ever rent it is to live in it for a while, give parties, have week-end guests and so, gradually, persuade the stupid local people that it isn’t haunted. Meanwhile, we rent our town house, and get a little financial breathing spell. Remember?"
He paused, then gruffly: "It’s your own fault, leaving everything to the last minute. I intended us to get here this afternoon. It doesn’t really matter though. The agent said it was all ready, nuclearicity connected and everything. Actually, nothing to worry about, is there?"
"No." Janie spoke faintly.
He took her arm. “Come along,” he said.
The key rattled in the lock, and the door opened with the faintest of squeals. Then there was silence.

Intense silence. The silence of an isolated country house. Peter found himself straining against the darkness, as if there were sounds in it beyond the range of human hearing. He cursed under his breath as he realised what he was doing, and began to probe the hallway with his flashlight. Abruptly, he found the nuclearic switch.
The flood of brightness brought a sigh from Janie’s lips. In a few minutes they had turned on every light in the house, upstairs and down. The agent had done a good job. The furniture was uncovered and arranged, rugs were on the floor and the place was clean. The cleaning woman, who, for double pay, had come in during the daylight hours of the past week, must have tried to wash away all the evil spirits. Every room in the house smelled fresh and clean.
In the master bedroom, Peter stretched lazily on the large double bed, and studied the tinted wallpaper. "Which way is the old place?" he asked.
"Over there." She pointed towards the south wall. "I showed you when we were here last week."
"That was daytime, and I have trouble with directions anyway."
After a moment he climbed to his feet, made a part of the south wall transparent, and peered out into the darkness. The light reflections from behind him kept the night opaque at first, but gradually his vision cleared. He could see the shadowy shapes a hundred yards away.
"What did you say those things used to be?"
"An atomic powerhouse."
He snorted. "My God," he said. "That kind of nonsense really gets on my nerves. Lord knows I’m a credulous person; I’ll believe almost anything. But this atomic stuff is the last straw. For three hundred years there’s been a blurred mythology about a wonderful atomic age. If it was so wonderful, what’s happened to it?"
"I admit,” he went on, drawing the blind again, and turning back into the room, that this is a decadent era we’re living in, but I’m getting awfully tired of superstition."
He sat down on the bed. "Now, look," he said, "I can see you’re still tense. Please sit down in that chair." He waited till she had complied, then: "Janie, for heaven’s sake, relax. There, that’s a little better."
He sprawled back on the bed. "How old is this house?"
"A—about seventy-five years."
He nodded smugly. "And that—that atomic powerhouse, how old is it supposed to be?"
"They say— " She hesitated. "Oh Peter, this is all so silly. I admit it."
He was determined. “How old is it supposed to be?"
"Well, they say— " She shrugged "they say it was still in operation five hundred years ago."
"Who are they?" She made a vague gesture with one hand,
"And how long," Peter persisted, "did the so-called golden age last before that?
"A thousand years." Her tone was defiant. "Now, Peter, you know that there must be something in it. There are books in the museums, which science can’t explain in any other way than that there was once a mighty civilisation on Earth."
"Science!" He spoke in a derogatory tone. Then he frowned. "But let’s use your figures, and see where they leave us."
She sighed resignedly. “Darling, you’ve said all this before."
"It didn’t sink in," he accused, or you wouldn’t be acting the way you are." He yawned. "I don’t want you to spend the night in shuddering wakefulness. You said a thousand years, didn’t you?"
"You know I did."
He ignored her sharp tone. "Then another five hundred years since that atomic plant stopped working. By the way, what made it stop working?"
His wife was annoyed now, very definitely. "Peter, you know perfectly well that’s a period of history nothing much is known about. There are old-wives tales about a war that blotted out civilisation, but history knows nothing about that. Our written history begins about three hundred years ago."
"Yeah," he said, and he tried successfully to make the word an insult to all historians.
"All right, all right," he said finally. "Let’s get back to the figures. The glorious, wonderful super-civilisation lasted a thousand years, then four hundred and twenty-five years passed during which it was all forgotten, then this house was built, and people lived in it for generations. About three years ago, your uncle was found dead near a tunnel he had dug under this so-called powerhouse and the place has been haunted ever since. That’s the picture, isn’t it?"
His wife nodded reluctantly.
"Now, I ask you," said Peter triumphantly, how can anything reach across five hundred years of time and kill a man?"
"There were burns on his body that were never explained."
"But what was the doctor’s verdict?"
Janie hesitated.
"It was heart failure, wasn’t it?" Peter said.
His wife stood up. "Oh, please, darling, stop driving home so many points. You’re not cheering me up. You’re depressing me. I know everything you can possibly say. Only— "
"Only what?"
"I wish people hadn’t suddenly started seeing lights in the house three years ago, and hearing sounds, and getting themselves burned by fires that no one can see."
"It’s all in the imagination."
"Yes," she said wearily, yes, I know, darling. But let’s get undressed and go to bed."
He grunted as he removed his shirt. "I can understand nuclearicity. You turn a switch, and it works. You turn it again and it goes off. That’s the end. It’s finished. It doesn’t reach across five hundred years of time and space and make a light shine. The same thing goes for nucleonite. It operates an engine according to a simple principle, and it doesn’t reach across—“
Janie finished the sentence hastily, "I know—five hundred years."
"But this atomic power stuff," said Peter. "That gets me. People use the word, and then look blank when you ask them what it means. I’m tired of it, frankly."
"So am I," she said. "Right now."
Peter mumbled something about being married to a woman who never let him finish a thought, then: "Shall I sleep with you," he asked, "or take one of the guest rooms?"
"With me."
He grinned at her. "What’s this?" he said. "Young Mrs. Got-to-have-room-of-her-own getting dependent?"
She did not reply, and presently, when she was under the covers, he turned out the lights and crept in beside her. Silence settled.

MORNING. Peter yawned, then climbed out of bed. Janie was still sleeping. He grinned down at her, remembering her ceaseless plaint about a separate bedroom because it was impossible for her to sleep with anyone else in the room.
Downstairs, he punched out a menu for breakfast, slow-timed it for fifteen minutes, and went outside. The car was parked where he had left it, under the whatchamacallit tree. It bobbed a little in the breeze, which startled him. He had left the power on. He walked over and switched it off, then stood gazing towards the line of low mounds that began a hundred yards to the south.
"I’ll go over there one of these days," he decided, "and see if we can’t clear that junk away."
When he returned to the house, Janie was taking a shower. Over the breakfast table, he explained his plan. She looked at him, blue eyes pitying.
"You poor dunce," she said, “and who are you going to get to do the work?”
Peter hadn’t thought of that. "I suppose," he said disconsolately, these superstitious country folk couldn’t be persuaded to earn a little money."
Besides," said Janie practically, "where would you get the money?"
"Then I guess I’ll have to do the work myself."
"You and uncle," said Janie.
"My gosh, you’re helpful." Peter complained, and let the matter drop. He had momentarily forgotten her dead uncle.

On the way to town, Peter had another idea. "As soon as we can afford it, I’ll have an expert from the university come and look at the mounds."
Janie screwed up her small face. "Darling," she said. "you bother me. When’ll we be able to afford an expert in any foreseeable period? Answer me that."
Peter shrugged, then sneered, "Little Mrs. Braveheart is talking awfully big now that the daylight has come again." He broke off impatiently, "Look, baby, I’m doing this for you, understand. Y-O-U. You’re the one that’s going to be seeing the lights, and hearing the sounds, and I imagine in a crisis you might even develop some pretty good burns."
"It was the first night that I was afraid of," Janie said complacently. "I slept like a log, didn’t I?" She touched his arm with a jerk. "Heavens, darling, is that Megalopolis?"
Peter nodded. "I was trying to see how fast we could do it in a pinch. Five hundred and eighty-one miles in thirteen minutes and— " He glanced at the eye level dashboard— “and eight seconds," he finished cosily. "Not bad for this old bus."

He let Janie off at their town —there were things to do before the new tenants took over— and then drove up to the roof of the office building where he worked. When he picked her up at four she was aglow with excitement.
"Sweetheart, I’ve pulled a major coup. I was introduced to Mrs. Leard—you know the physicist’s wife—this afternoon, and I invited them out for this week-end. And, darling, they’re going to come.”
"What makes you think," said Peter, “that Professor Leard will be interested in digging in our back yard?"
Janie was smug. "My dear, how do you think I got them to come out? I told his wife the place was haunted by atomic energy."
"What did she say?"
"She said she thought her husband would just love that. Apparently there’s been talk around the cloistered walls of the university the last couple of years, and it’s no longer regarded as a myth. Some old duck has been looking at the sun, and has come out with the theory that it is possible for energy to exist in a—whatchamacallit—“
Peter was aware of her eyes studying him expectantly. "Don’t look at me," he said hastily. "I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about."
"—in a raw state," Janie finished uncertainly. "Does that seem to make sense?
Peter shrugged. "Only energies I know about are nuclearicity and nucleonite."
"How do they work?”
"They work by transference.”
"That’s awfully clear," said Janie.
"I mean," said Peter, “you get a block of the compound ready, then put it in with a block that’s already charged. A week later you take it out, and both of them are ready. You can pick it up with your hands or anything. It won’t operate until it’s fitted into an engine, or whatever it’s supposed to work with. Absolutely foolproof. I thought all energy was like that."
"Who made the first one?"
Peter shrugged irritably. "You can think of the hardest questions."
"Those," said Janie, "are the kind of questions they’re beginning to ask at the university. You’d better be smart, and pretend you thought of things like that long ago, and maybe—“
"Maybe what?"
"Don’t be such a dope. Maybe Professor Leard will arrange to have all the work of removing the mounds done at the expense of the university."
Peter grabbed her. “My gosh, darling, you’re a genius."
Janie rearranged her hair. "I’m not bad," she said with a simple self-assurance.

WE’LL DIG here," said Professor Leard.
Janie went to the car. "Peter," she called, "we’ve got some shopping to do if we’re going to feed all these wonderful people."
Up in the air, she sank back in her seat and fanned herself. "Phew!" she said. "I’m glad we’re away from there." She was silent, then: "Do you think they’ll blow up the Earth?"
"Huh!" He stared at her. "My gosh what goes on in that brain of yours?" He went on in a complaining tone, "You’ve got what you wanted, haven’t you? Scientists are cleaning up our property for nothing."
"Scientists my eye!" Janie retorted. "They don’t know any more about the stuff than I do."
"Well, I’ll be a— " Peter sagged back helplessly. "Look, my little lovey bunch, do you mean to sit there and tell me that you think Professor Leard and the others are going to melt into little blobs of hot liquid or something, and yet you pushed this business through."
His wife shrugged. “Somebody’s got to do it. If you monkeyed with it, people would say you were just another idiot like uncle—when you got killed, that is. If they melt like you said, why that’s another sacrifice on the altar of science. You’d be just one more dumb nut, but they’re heroes— What’re you doing?”
"We’re going back."
Janie grabbed at the wheel and jerked them back on their original course. Peter, white-faced, snatched her hand, felt the tense determination in it, and hesitated.
"Peter, don’t you dare hit me!"
He was outraged by the charge. "I wasn’t going to hit you."
"You were so! I know that look in your eye."
“What look? Have I ever so much as touched you?”
"You know better than that. I’d have you up in court so fast "
"You’re getting away from the subject," he snarled. "You’re the one that will be arrested."
"For heaven’s sake, Peter, listen to reason."
“Reason—from a little murderess."
"Don’t be so stuffy."
"Stuffy. To sit there, calmly waiting for an entire staff of a university to blow up."
"Don’t exaggerate. Peter, listen. You admit they’re among the Earth’s experts on this stuff?”
Peter sighed. "I suppose so."
"If anybody’s going to dig in there, it has to be somebody like that?"
"I guess so."
"Just because we can’t afford to pay them doesn’t mean anything. They get paid in fame."
"That’ll be nice for them when they’re dead." Sourly.
Janie stroked his arm. *There, there, darling, I know your conscience is going to bother you all the rest of your life. But at least it’ll be around to be bothered, not melted into blobs. Listen, honey, here’s my plan. We shop in a leisurely fashion. When it’s almost time for dinner, you phone up Professor Leard and ask him how things are going—“
"I will not."
"Then I’ll do it. But you can see now that I’m only being sensible. Can’t you?"
"Oh, I suppose so."
Janie sighed, but as Peter expected, she pressed her victory: “And you will make the phone call, won’t you?"
Peter supposed that he would.
It was late afternoon when he made the call. He turned away from the video plate, pale. “No answer," be said.
"But that’s impossible," Janie quavered. "Give me that phone."
The plate remained lifeless.
"Oh, my heaven," she moaned, "what have I done? What’re you doing?"
"Turning on the news."
The news failed to mention anything unusual. Peter guided the car into a speed channel. Janie said tremulously: “W-where are we going?"
"We’ll have to go and look, won’t we?"

The place, as they circled around it in the dim light of twilight, had a deserted look. Janie began to cry.
"They’re probably all blobs," she whimpered.
Peter put his arm around her. "It’s not your fault. After all, Professor Leard did take precautions. He knew what he was doing."
"Now, you’re giving me back my own arguments. I feel a-awful."
"Look, darling, the ground is absolutely level. There’s not a mound in sight. You know what I’m going to do?"
"I’m going to call Professor Leard up at the university."

The professor’s smooth face came on the video after about ten seconds. He was apologetic.
"After we got the stuff up," he explained, "I thought we’d better get it into larger safety containers as soon as possible." He grew enthusiastic. "I want to take this opportunity on behalf of the university to thank you for a valuable contribution to science."
Janie leaned across Peter. "Professor," she glowed. "Is it the stuff? Is it a source of raw energy?"
The smooth face on the video took on a cautious look. "Possibly. We might even— " He hesitated— "be able to make it explode . . . This is a great day for science."
Peter said practically, "What about the house? Will it be haunted again?
The professor shook his head. "We did a good job of cleaning up. I doubt if there’ll be any stray radiation."
Janie, who had been thinking, said, "Has it any value?"
"I was coming to that," said the professor in a subdued voice. "Naturally, we have no desire to have you young people feel as if you have been taken advantage of. So if you will sign a release, we will pay you five thousand dollars. So far as the university is concerned, that is purely a matter of clearing up the title."
Janie said, “Thank you, Professor, we’ll take it. Good-bye." She broke the connection.
Peter grabbed at her fingers. "Darling, you don’t just hang up on a man like Professor Leard."
"We’re through with him," Janie said, faintly. "And besides I was just about to faint." She caught his arm. "Honey, will you please land instantly? We’ve barely time. The new tenants are due to move into our town house tomorrow."
He brought the car down, protesting. "What’s the idea?"
Janie raced into the house, and emerged triumphantly with the sign. She slipped it into the slot on the terrace. "There," she said, "it’s for rent again."
"Quick now," she said as she climbed back into the car. "We’ve got to take possession of the town place."
"Are you nuts? We’ve a lease."
"We’ll refuse to let them in. We’ll tell them they can have this place, or go jump in a lake.
"To heck," she said, "with living in the country. It’s too dull."


Haunted Atoms - Kindle version
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