The Skull

Philip K. Dick - CombinedPhilip K. Dick (December 16, 1928 – March 2, 1982) was an American writer who wrote mostly in the Science Fiction genre. Most of his stories focus on ordinary people, authoritarian governments, and altered states of consciousness. Philip struggled with life almost from the moment of his birth when his twin sister died at only 6 weeks old. His parents had an acrimonious divorce and fought over his custody. His mother took Philip and fled from their home in California to Washington, D.C. to ensure that she alone raised him. Philip tried college but extreme anxiety problems forced him to drop out. He went through five wives. Wife number two’s socialist and left wing activities resulted in an FBI visit and investigation in 1955. Philip, himself, was anti-Vietnam War and anti-government (and many of his novels reflected this) but he generally tried to stay out of the political scene. Although his anti-war pledge to pay no taxes did result in the IRS confiscating his car in 1968.

Philip sold his first story in 1951 and his debut novel, Solar Lottery, was published in 1955. He dreamed of having a mainstream literary career but failed miserably. All of his mainstream novels, except one, Confessions of a Crap Artist, were returned. He was only successful selling to the relatively low paying SF publishers and that low pay meant Philip suffered financial troubles throughout his life. However, when it came to the SF genre, even if it offered little money, he was quickly hailed as a genius. Philip won a Hugo Award in 1963 for The Man in the High Castle (now a TV series at Amazon) which is considered to be “a defining novel of the alternate world subgenre”. In 1963, Philip won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Novel for Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.

Philip K. Dick - color picPhilip experimented with drug use, mostly amphetamines but also, briefly, psychedelics. He claimed that all of his books published before 1970 were written while he was on amphetamines. When his fourth marriage fell apart so did his entire life. Philip’s drug abuse increased; he even allowed other drug users to move in with him. His house was possibly burglarized and his safe blown open and papers missing, although the police suspected he did it himself. His behavior a few months later at a Vancouver Science Fiction convention was highly erratic. He seemingly fell in immediate love with a woman he met at the con but she ended up fleeing the relationship. He also briefly moved in with another con attendee but had to be forced to leave. The following month, March 1972, Philip tried to commit suicide by overdosing on a sedative, potassium bromide. He recovered and sought help through a Canadian recovery program then returned home a month later.

Unfortunately, Philip’s life continued to spiral into chaos. Two years later, in 1974, he began to experience strange hallucinations. At first, Philip shrugged them off as the result of medication he was using for an impacted wisdom tooth but the hallucinations continued to increase. Eventually, Philip began to believe that he was living two lives: one life as himself, the SF author, and another life as Thomas, a first century Christian suffering under Roman persecution. Philip even came to believe he had been possessed by the prophet Elijah. Philip struggled to understand what was happening and to question his sanity and perception of reality for the rest of his life. This struggle, and related themes of mental illness, appear in many of Philip’s books.

Finally, in 1982, Philip seemed to be edging onto the road of financial success. His 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, was being made into the movie Blade Runner. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blade_Runner ) Originally Philip had been apprehensive about the movie but after seeing some of the special effects and having a respectful discussion with director Ridley Scott, Philip changed his mind and fully backed the film. Sadly, just four months after the film’s release, Philip completed an interview then began complaining that his eyesight seemed to be failing. He was told to go to the hospital but refused and the next day was found unconscious on the floor. He had suffered a stroke. He suffered a second stroke in the hospital and was declared brain dead. Philip was taken off life support five days later. He is buried next to his twin sister. When he died, most of Philip’s novels and short stories were out of print and his was pretty much only known by Science Fiction fans. If he had lived, Philip might finally have found the financial and literary success he had always sought. Since Blade Runner, eleven films have been made based on his works and they have earned more than one billion dollars US.

Philip K. Dicks’ story The Skull was written early in his career. It was originally published in the September 1952 issue of If Worlds of Science Fiction. If was a moderately successful magazine begun earlier that year. The magazine won the Hugo Award for best professional magazine three years running (1966 to 1968) and included some award winning stories (including Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) but was generally considered to be a second tier magazine as far as quality. And, of course, in line with Philip’s ongoing financial problems, If Worlds of Science Fiction also paid less than the top tier SF mags.

The Skull - cover from FeedbooksThe Skull focuses on Conger, a somewhat mysterious character who has been imprisoned by a harsh government. Conger’s background is shadowy. He grew up on Mars and was a hunter, possibly of men not just animals. Exactly why he is locked up is never made clear although the harsh government is obviously ruthless and corrupt. The Speaker offers Conger a deal: suffer another six years in prison or kill someone for them. Conger agrees to be their assassin and the Speaker and his soldiers, with a reluctant and confused Conger in tow, break into a Church and steal the skull and bones of the Church’s unnamed Founder. The Speaker and his cronies want the First Church gone, it is too successful at obstructing their “social progress” but they have been unable to face it head on. Their new plan: to send Conger back in time so he can kill the Founder before the mysterious man can speak the few words that eventually gave birth to the Church. Conger is to use the 200 year old skull to compare and ensure he has made the right kill. But the skull holds other secrets, especially one big secret that Conger will soon be forced to confront.

The Skull touches on several of the recurring themes found in many of Philip K. Dick’s books. The issue of social control is addressed with the authoritarian government pulling Conger’s strings but also in the twentieth century Midwestern American society that manages to maneuver Conger into a corner. The story also touches on the nature of God in the mystery of who, exactly, the unnamed and unknown Founder was. Finally, The Skull, raises the question of false realities. What is real for Conger? His present in the future or the past and his future? How does his actions affect the reality that forces him to those very actions? Despite the somewhat heavy themes, The Skull is not unduly weighed down. Conger has a job to do and he also discovers he has a mystery to solve.

The Skull is a short story, less than eight thousand words. The Librivox audio book versions are both less than an hour long. The Skull is in the Public Domain and there are several versions available FREE online. Feedbooks and Project Gutenberg both have versions of The Skull that can be downloaded or read online. The Skull can also be downloaded from the Internet Archive but they do not have a read online option for the story. LibriVox has two audio book versions of The Skull. The first version is in the anthology Beyond Lies the Wub and The Skull. This version has Philip’s story Beyond Lies the Wub (read SyllieBee’s excellent post for more on this story) and The Skull as read by Phil Chenevert in two parts (part one is 23 minutes long, part two is nearly 29 minutes long). LibriVox has a second version of The Skull in the anthology Short Science Fiction Collection 030. This version is story number 14 and is read by Gregg Margarite. It is just short of 50 minutes long.

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