Looking for a short story from pulp era that ended with "that way lies skunk stew". I believe it was scientists in a lab developing time travel device. They test it and they're alchemists working on philosophers stone. They test it and they're in a cave doing magic and one urges them to stop trying. Sorry I don't know more. It was a long time ago.

  • I believe you've got it! Amazing. Thank you, user14111.
    – David Lamp
    Sep 24, 2017 at 15:06
  • Sorry about not 'accepting' the answer immediately. I am new to this site and could not identify the check mark as something of significance. Hopefully, I've got it now. Your knowledge in SF is encyclopedic.
    – David Lamp
    Sep 25, 2017 at 13:04

1 Answer 1


Looking for a short story from pulp era

"Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne", a short story by R. A. Lafferty, first published in Galaxy Magazine, February 1967, available at the Internet Archive. It was also the answer to the question Short story about meddling time travelers and it was my (unaccepted) answer to the question Title and author of short SF story about a seemingly broken 'improvement' machine. There are many reviews of the story on the web, such as this one by Paul Kincaid.

that ended with "that way lies skunk stew"

"But we don't want it the way it was before!" Valery howled. "That's the way it is now, rump of skunk to eat, and me with nothing to wear but my ape cape. We want it better. We want deer skins and antelope skins."

[. . . .]

"Push the button, Epikt!" Diogenes barked. "I think I missed part of it. Let's try again."

"Oh, no, no!" Valery forbade. "Not again. That way is rump of skunk and madness."

I believe it was scientists in a lab developing time travel device.

"We have perfect test conditions," the machine Epikt said as though calling them to order. "We set out basic texts, and we take careful note of the world as it is. If the world changes, then the texts should change here before our eyes. For our test pilot, we have taken that portion of our own middle-sized city that can be viewed from this fine vantage point. If the world in its past-present continuity is changed by our meddling, then the face of our city will also change instantly as we watch it.

"We have assembled here the finest minds and judgments in the world: eight humans and one Ktistec machine, myself. Remember that there are nine of us. It might be important."
The nine finest minds were: Epiktistes, the transcendent machine who put the "K" in Ktistec; Gregory Smirnov, the large-souled director of the Institute; Valery Mok, an incandescent lady scientist; her over-shadowed and over-intelligent husband Charles Cogsworth; the humorless and inerrant Glasser; Aloysius Shiplap, the seminal genius; Willy McGilly, a man of unusual parts (the seeing third finger on his left hand he had picked up on one of the planets of Kapteyn's Star) and no false modesty; Audifax O'Hanlon and Diogenes Pontifex. The latter two men were not members of the Institute (on account of the Minimal Decency Rule), but when the finest minds in the world are assembled, these two cannot very well be left out.

"We are going to tamper with one small detail in past history and note its effect," Gregory said.

They test it and they're alchemists working on philosophers stone.

There are many changes, but no mention of alchemy or philosopher's stone.

"Did it work, Epikt? Is it done?" Louis Lobachevski demanded. "I can't see a change in anything."

"The Avatar is back and reports his mission accomplished," Epikt stated. "I can't see any change in anything either."

"Let's look at the evidence," Gregory said.

The thirteen of them, the ten humans and the Ktistec, Chresmoeidic and Proaisthematic machines, turned to the evidence and with mounting disappointment.

[. . . .]

"What are you fellows babbling about?" Audifax asked without really wanting to know. "The art of painting is still almost incandescent in its bloom. The schools are like clustered galaxies, and half the people are doing some of this work for pleasure. Scandinavian and Maori sculpture are hard put to maintain their dominance in the field where almost everything is extraordinary. The impassioned-comic has released music from most of its bonds. Since speculative mathematics and psychology have joined the popular performing arts, there is considerably more fun in life.

"There's a piece here on Pete Teilhard putting him into context as a talented science-fiction writer with a talent for outre burlesque. The Brainworld Motif was overworked when he tackled it, but what a shaggy comic extravaganza he did make of it! And there's Muldoom, Zielinski, Popper, Gander, Aichinger, Whitecrow, Hornwhanger—we owe so much to the juice of the cultists! In the main line there are whole congeries and continents of great novels and novelists.

"An ever popular art, graffiti on mingitorio walls, maintains its excellence. Travel Unlimited offers a ninety-nine day art tour of the world keyed to the viewing of the exquisite and hilarious miniatures on the walls of its own rest rooms. Ah, what a copious world we live in!"

"It's more grass than we can graze," said Willy McGilly. "The very bulk of achievement is stupefying. Ah, I wonder if there is subtle revenge in my choice of words. The experiment, of course, was a failure, and I'm glad. I like a full world."

"We will not call the experiment a failure since we have covered only a third of it," said Gregory. "Tomorrow we will make our second attempt on the past. And, if there is a present left to us after that, we will make a third attempt the following day."

They test it and they're in a cave doing magic

The four of them, the three humans and the ghost Epikt, who was a kachenko mask with a speaking tube, turned to the evidence with mounting disappointment.

"There is still the stick and the five notches in it," said Gregory. "It was our test stick. Nothing in the world is changed."

"The arts remain as they were," said Aloysius. "Our picture here on the stone on which we have worked for so many seasons is the same as it was. We have painted the bears black, the buffalos red and the people blue. When we find a way to make another color, we can represent birds also. I had hoped that our experiment might give us that other color. I had even dreamed that birds might appear in the picture on the rock before our very eyes."

"There's still rump of skunk to eat and nothing else," said Valery. "I had hoped that our experiment would have changed it to a haunch of deer."

"All is not lost," said Aloysius. "We still have the hickory nuts. That was my last prayer before we began our experiment. 'Don't let them take the hickory nuts away,' I prayed."

They sat around the conference table that was a large flat natural rock, and cracked hickory nuts with stone fist-hammers. They were nude in the crude, and the world was as it had always been. They had hoped by magic to change it.

  • One of my favorite stories!
    – zeta-band
    Sep 25, 2017 at 21:56
  • Lafferty is great. Have you read much of his other stuff?
    – user14111
    Sep 26, 2017 at 0:19

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.