The Ineffable Perfect Sentence

Saki (H.H. Munro)
Saki (H.H. Munro)

Take this sentence from Saki’s short story, “The Background”:

There were stormy scenes in the Spanish Parliament, and the University of Copenhagen bestowed a gold medal on the German expert (afterwards sending a commission to examine his proofs on the spot), while two Polish schoolboys in Paris committed suicide to show what they thought of the matter.

This is a perfect sentence. One does not even need to know its context to appreciate it. It’s timeless, witty, and flows without resistance. But there’s also some ineffable quality to it that goes beyond relevance, wit or readability. I do not know what this is. Does anyone else notice this when they have come across something similar?

What Caused the Black Rains of Slains?

When Bob Lazar was at Area 51, he was led down a hallway and instructed to move quickly and keep his eyes fixed at the floor in front of him. Like anyone else with even a modicum of curiosity, Lazar took a peak into one of the rooms. There, he says he caught a glimpse of a small, grey alien before being shoved along by a guard.

Reading Charles Fort is much like being marched down the hallway where the aliens are kept. All sorts of tantalizing events are dropped before us, only to be swept up away before we can grasp them.

In The Book of the Damned, Fort offers us a passage on black rains. One such incident stood out from the rest: the Black Rains of Slains.

According to Rev. James Rust (Scottish Showers):

A black rain at Slains, Jan. 14, 1862–another at Carluke, 140 miles from Slains, May 1, 1862–at Slains, May 20, 1862–Slains, Oct. 28, 1863.

But after two of these showers, vast quantities of a substance described sometimes as “pumice stone,” but sometimes as “slag,” were washed upon the sea coast near Slains. A chemist’s opinion is given that this substance was slag: that it was not a volcanic product: slag from smelting works. We now have, for black rains, a concomitant that is irreconcilable with origin from factory chimneys. Whatever it may have been the quantity of this substance was so enormous that, in Mr. Rust’s opinion, to have produced so much of it would have required the united output of all the smelting works in the world. If slag it were, we accept that an artificial product has, in enormous quantities, fallen from the sky. If you don’t think that such occurrences are damned by Science, read Scottish Showers and see how impossible it was for the author to have this matter taken up by the scientific world.

The first and second rains corresponded, in time, with ordinary ebullitions of Vesuvius.

The third and fourth, according to Mr. Rust, corresponded with no known volcanic activities upon this earth.

La Science Pour Tous, 11-26:

That, between October, 1863, and January, 1866, four more black rains fell at Slains, Scotland. The writer of this supplementary account tells us, with a better, or more unscrupulous, orthodoxy than Mr. Rust’s, that of the eight black rains, five coincided with eruptions of Vesuvius and three with eruptions of Etna.

The fate of all explanation is to close one door only to have another fly wide open. ….. four discharges from one far-distant volcano, passing over a great part of Europe, precipitating nowhere else, discharging precisely over one small northern parish?  But also of three other discharges, from another far-distant volcano, showing the same precise preference, if not marksmanship, for one small parish in Scotland.

I don’t know if it is because saying “the Black Rains of Slains” is so rhythmically pleasing or what, but the incident has become a minor obsession of mine. When in a room with a piece of chalk and a board, I find myself writing “What caused the Black Rains of Slains?” in much the same way people used to write “Kilroy Was Here” on boxcars. When I’m in a meeting and someone asks if there are any questions, I softly clear my throat and rise with the words “What caused the Black Rains of Slains?” tumbling from my mouth. I’m sure that if I were in a gang, my graffiti tag would be three black raindrops for “black,” “rains,” and “Slains.”

My life will be complete, if and only if, I find out what caused these black rains. This has proven quite difficult. I was able to find another reference to Rev. Rust’s Scottish Showers in Symons’s Monthly Meteorological Magazine, Volume 1, but not the book itself. It may well be that between Fort and Symon’s, I have all the pertinent facts. Still, I cannot see any harm in encountering Rust’s work directly. If anyone can direct me to a copy, either in physical or digital form, please email me. If you know what caused them, call your local emergency services and ask for me.

Until then, I am off to ascend the nearest mountain, and, like a Swiss horn blower, bellow, “What caused the Black Rains of Slains?”

“This is one of those strange apparitions I have often heard of. I will watch it as carefully as I can.”

The best ghost stories do not come from people who lurk about haunted houses with recording equipment they cannot afford, they come from people who least expect to see them. Take this tale from G.N.M. Tyrrell’s Apparitions (1953). It is one of the better ghost stories I’ve heard and is worth quoting in full:

The narrator and his niece were sitting in the drawing-room about 2 p.m. ‘I saw what I supposed at the first moment to be dirty soapy water running in at the door; and I was in the act of jumping up to scold the housemaid for upsetting the water, when I saw that the supposed water was the tail or train of a lady’s dress. The lady glided in backwards, as if she had been slid in on a slide, each part of her dress keeping its place without disturbance. She glided in till I could see the whole of her, except the tip of her nose, her lips and the tip of her chin, which were hidden by the edge of the door. Her head was slightly turned over her shoulder, and her eyes also turned, so that it appeared fixed upon me. She held her arm, which was a very fine one, in a peculiar way, as if she were proud of it. She was dressed in a pale blue evening dress, worked with white lace. I instantly recognized the figure as a lady whom I had known some 25 years or more before; and with whom I had frequently danced. She was a bright, dashing girl, a good dancer, and we were good friends, but nothing more. She had afterwards married, and I had occasionally heard of her, but do not think I had seen her for certainly more than 20 or 25 years. She looked much as I used to see her —with long curls and bright eyes, but perhaps something stouter and more matronly. I said to myself, “This is one of those strange apparitions I have often heard of. I will watch it as carefully as I can.” My niece, who did not see the figure, in the course of a minute or two exclaimed, “Uncle A., what is the matter with you? You look as if you saw a ghost!” I motioned her to be quiet, as I wished to observe the thing carefully; and an impression came upon me that if I moved, the thing would disappear. I tried to find out whether there was anything in the ornaments on the walls, or anything else which could suggest the figure: but I found all the lines close to her cut the outline of her figure at all sorts of angles, and none of these coincided with the outline of her figure, and the colour of everything around her strongly contrasted with her colour. In the course of a few minutes, I heard the door-bell ring, and I heard my brother’s voice in the hall. He came upstairs, and walked right through the figure into the room. The figure then began to fade rather quickly, at first losing the colours and then the form….’

Some years afterwards the percipient found that the lady had died, about seven months after the apparition, of cancer in the face. ‘She never showed me the front of her face,’ he says; ‘it was always concealed by the edge of the door.’

Apparitions is long out of print, but you can buy a used copy off AbeBooks for a reasonable price.