The Corner

The Vault of The Beast

Reader Hank Davis sets me straight on A.E. van Vogt’s story “The Vault of

the Beast,” and says I can use his name. Hank!! How could I NOT use his

name?!

“Dear Mr. Derbyshire—I have to differ with the synopsis of the short story

’The Vault of the Beast’ by A. E. van Vogt which you’ve quoted on the

corner. I may make a mistake myself — I’ve read the story at least three

times, but the last time was over 20 years ago — but that synopsis (which I

assume a reader emailed to you) definitely gets it wrong. It isn’t the

greatest mathematician who’s shut up in the vault, and the vault doesn’t

have a time lock.

“Here’s the situation as I recall it — but WARNING! reading this may spoil

the story for you. . . .

“A monstrous Thing from another dimension came into our spacetime, arriving

on Mars eons ago, but its passage rendered it unconscious. The Martians read

its thoughts, realized it was a terrible threat, but could not (would not?)

kill it, so they built a vault of indestructible material with a door that

had a combination lock, and shut it inside before it awoke. The combination

that will open the lock is ‘the ultimate prime number.’ Eons pass, the

Martians are extinct, humans have a Martian colony, and the Thing has

managed to — find? create? (my memory is vague here) — a creature which

can imitate anything it encounters, like a human, or part of the wall of a

spaceship, and sends it to Earth to ‘find the greatest mathematician.’ The

shapechanger finds said mathematician, gets him back to Mars, and gets him

to open the vault. The Thing charges out, ready to conquer the Solar

System — and disintegrates. It can’t survive in our spacetime. The

shapechanger is now dying (I don’t quite recall why), but tells the

mathematician that it knew that the Thing would not survive, but didn’t tell

it because it wanted it to be destroyed. The end.

“Now, this sounds terrible, told this way, and I may have killed the story

for you, but all of this is revealed to the reader in a scattered fashion

(the story beings with the shapechanger already on a ship to Earth), and van

Vogt keeps all the balls in the air in a brilliant breathless razzle-dazzle

fashion, rather like a classic Hitchcock movie, and the reader never stops

to think about the problems of the story, which are obvious in my synopsis .

. . such as, why did the Martians put a combination lock on the door instead

of just sealing the critter inside permanently, and if the Thing couldn’t

survive in our spacetime, why didn’t it go poof when it initially landed on

Mars? But while I was reading it (even on the third reading when I was in my

30s) van Vogt’s storytelling magic kept me turning the pages.”

A.E. van Vogt was one of the true greats from the golden age of sci-fi

(1940s & 1950s, roughly). Among many other things, he wrote Slan, the

archetype of all telepathy novels, now apparently out of print, and The

World of Null-A

, about which I remember

almost nothing except that I couldn’t put it down. (The “A” in “Null-A”

stands for “Aristotle,” by the way — in those days, even the authors of

space opera shoot-’em-ups believed they had a duty to make the reader think

a little.)

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