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  • Great Breakthroughs In Darkness (Being, Early Entries From the Secret Encyclopaedia Of Photography)
  • Marc Laidlaw

[Previously published in England as part of New Worlds 2, ed. David Garnett (Victor Gollancz, Ltd., 1992).]

“Alas! That this speculation is somewhat too refined to be introduced into a modern novel or romance; for what a denouement we should have, if we could suppose the secrets of the darkened chamber to be revealed by the testimony of the imprinted paper!”

— William Henry Fox Talbot

-A- Aanschultz, Conreid (c. 1820 - October 12, 1888)

Inventor of the praxiscope technology (which see), Professor Aanschultz believed that close observation of physiology and similar superficial phenomena could lead to direct revelation of the inner or secret processes of nature. Apparent proof of this now discredited theory was offered by his psychopraxiscope, which purported to offer instantaneous viewing of any subject’s thoughts. (Later researchers demonstrated that the device “functioned” by creating interference patterns in the inner eye of the observer, triggering phosphene splash and lucid dreaming.) Aanschultz’s theories collapsed, and the Professor himself died in a Parisian lunatic asylum, after his notorious macropraxiscope failed to extract any particular meaning from the contours of the Belgian countryside near Waterloo. Some say he was already unstable from abuse of his autopsychopraxiscope, thought to be particularly dangerous because of autophagous feedback patterns generated in its operator’s brain. However, there is evidence that Aanschultz was quite mad already, owing to the trauma of an earlier research disaster.

Aanschultz Lens

The key lens used in Aanschultz’s notorious psychopraxiscope, designed to capture and focus abaxial rays reflecting from a subject’s eye.


A skylight or aperture for admitting light to a studio, or an arrangement for securing the same end by reflection. In the days when studios for portraiture were generally found at the tops of buildings not originally erected for that purpose, and perhaps in narrow thoroughfares or with a high obstruction adjacent, I found myself climbing a narrow, ill-lit flight of stairs, away from the sound of wagon wheels rattling on cobblestones, the common foetor of a busy city street, and toward a more rarified and addictive stench compounded of chemicals that would one day be known to have contributed directly to society’s (and my own) madness and disease. It was necessary to obtain all available top light in the choked alleys, and Aanschultz had done everything he could in a city whose sky was blackly draped with burning sperm.

I came out into a dazzling light compounded of sunlight and acetylene, between walls yellowed by iodine vapor, covering my nose at the stench of mercury fumes, the reek of sulfur. My own fingertips were blackened from such stuff; and eczema procurata, symptomatic of a metol allergy, had sent a prurient rash all up the sensitive skin of my inner arms, which, though so bound in bandages that I could scarcely scratch them through my heavy woollen sleeves, were a constant seeping agony. At night I wore a woman’s long kid gloves coated with coal tar, and each morning dressed my wounds with an ointment of mercuric nitrate (60 g.), carbolic acid (10 ccs), zinc oxide (30 g) and lanoline (480 “), which I had learned to mix myself when the chemist professed a groundless horror of contagion. I had feared at first that the rash might spread over my body, down my flanks, invading the delicate skin of my thighs and those organs between them, softer by far. I dreaded walking like a crab, legs bowed far apart, experiencing excruciating pain at micturition and intercourse (at least syphilis is painless; even when it chews away one’s face, I am told, there is a pleasant numbness)—but so far this nightmare had not developed. Still, I held my tender arms slightly spread away from my sides, seeming always on the verge of drawing the twin Janssen photographic revolvers which I carried in holsters slung around my waist, popular hand-held versions of that amazing “gun” which first captured the transit of Venus across the face of our local star.

The laboratory, I say, was a fury of painfully brilliant light and sharp, membrane-searing smells...

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