By J. R. Walker
When you have the sort of evening I had that chilly November night, strange, even disturbing dreams don't seem especially unusual; indeed, one might have even expected them after a raucous time out with my friends, drinking perhaps a little too much, definitely partaking liberally in the merriment of the Los Angeles club scene. Sometime after two or three in the morning, after disembarking the cab we had shared to the various places we call home, I managed to stumble through my doorway after only wrestling a minute or two with the keyhole, which seemed to leap mischievously away every time I jabbed my key toward the knob.
Upon finally acquiring entrance to my apartment and piously offering up my prayers to the Porcelain God, I slipped into bed still wearing my eveningwear and drifted off into an alcohol-soaked sleep.
I awoke what seemed like mere moments later, strangely refreshed despite being assured by no more than three of my friends that I was going to feel awful the next day. My hand was halfway to the nightstand to snatch up my phone in order to brag to those naysayers of my steely constitution when I came to the abrupt realization that I was no longer in my own bed. In fact, I wasn't even in my own apartment.
The room around me was like something out of a period film about Colonial New England. The windows were paned with bullseye glass, each sheet having the distinctive frozen ripple effect in its center, like a pebble dropped into a still pond. I lay in a four-poster bed made of thick, heavy oak, dressed in hand-loomed blankets, and felt too frightened to move. Had I been snatched from my own bed and spirited away to…wherever this was? I glanced around the sparsely furnished room, looking for any clue as to where I had been transported. Aside from being somewhat out of time, nothing seemed particularly unusual. There was a basin of water beneath the quickly lightening window and a few finely carven rich oak chairs upholstered in distinctly antiquated fabric. The drapery was of similar old-fashioned design and I couldn't locate any source of electricity in the room; there was no telephone, no computer or television, not even a lamp. The stub of a candle sat firmly affixed to the bedside table amidst a pool of solidified wax.
I looked directly upwards and noticed a curious thing hanging on the wall above my head. At first, I assumed it to be a crucifix as its placement was congruent with the placing of the cross in most Christian households I had witnessed, but the more I studied it, I began to notice that its lines were skewed and it hung at a queer angle. The room lightened enough that I could make out the figure in greater detail. It appeared as a simple representation of a tree branch, a diagonal slash rising left to right with three smaller intersecting slashes above and two below. Though I was certain I'd never seen the symbol before, I felt a sense of strange familiarity as I gazed upon it. I noted also that it was wrought from a metal unfamiliar to me, appearing iridescent, like a gasoline-slicked puddle. Depending on my angle of view, I saw it as green or yellow or red. And where the light did not strike, it appeared the deepest black.
A noise startled me and as I glanced away from the odd symbol, the room's heavy wooden door opened on squeaky hinges and a man in bizarre robes, as entirely out of place in this antique setting as I was, stepped over the threshold.
"Come," he said in a deep voice. His head was entirely devoid of hair and atop its shining dome he wore a grotesque but finely crafted crown of gold depicting otherworldly creatures blending the appearance of man, fish, and amphibian. His robes were of deep purple embroidered with strange symbols in fine gold thread. He wore the most fantastically styled beard I had seen before or since; it was fashioned into dozens of dreadlocks and arranged in such a way that it mimicked the undulating tentacles of an octopus. Were I not as frightened as I was, I might have laughed out loud at his ridiculous appearance.
"Where am I?" I asked him in a shaky voice. "Why did you bring me here?"
The man cocked his head to the side and gave me a queer look. "What are you talking about, girl? I have brought you nowhere. You are in your own bed. And late to rise, I might add. Services begin in a quarter of an hour and I am due in the Temple. Dress yourself and do not be late." As curiously as he had arrived, the man turned and departed. I heard heavy footfalls descending a hardwood staircase and a door open and close somewhere below. The way the man had spoken, with such familiarity, it was as though I was exactly where I belonged, like he knew me and the only oddity was my apparent amnesia. I threw back the covers and found myself clothed in a long nightdress that stretched down to my ankles. My sleeves ended in frilly cuffs and when I caught sight of myself in the small mirror hung beside the water basin, I nearly let out a scream of horror. The face staring back at me was not my own! I had shoulder-length red hair, hazel eyes, and a sharp chin. The girl in the mirror was a homely specimen with a round jaw, dark brown/black eyes, and stringy brown hair. Dark bags hung beneath her eyes and her teeth were crooked and a diseased yellow/brown. I watched as my own horrified expression spread across the face of this wholly unknown person and felt, at that moment, that I had well and truly gone mad.
I rushed to the window and gazed out over my surroundings. Dozens of people were already wandering the streets of what looked to be an old Colonial village. Bells had begun to ring, their peals echoing sharply off the gambrelled rooftops of such antiquated design that I began to wonder if I might not have somehow found myself transported into the country's Colonial past.
Fearing what the strangely dressed man might do if I didn't respond to his summons, I quickly dressed from decidedly dated clothing I found hanging in a small cedar wardrobe and cautiously made my way downstairs and out the front door. The whole town, it seemed, was filing in the same direction, towards the queerly clanging bells, which rang at a pitch I had never before heard but which gave me a deep sense of dread and loathing. It was such an unnatural note being struck that it seemed to penetrate my mind and stimulate my deepest fears.
Deciding that following the crowd would take me to wherever I was meant to go, I kept as low a profile as I could and fell into step with the rest of the townspeople. Eventually we seemed to be approaching a large stone temple, which stood out in stark contrast with the primarily wooden structures making up the rest of the village. The edifice rose up like a queer mockery of a cathedral, shaped by strange geometry and bizarre angles that frightened me to gaze upon and I could see that the ringing bells appeared to be fashioned from the same strange metal as the fetish hanging above the bed I had awoken in. But as uncomfortable as the architecture may have made me, nothing was so terrible as the carven figures adorning the stone façade. Grotesque shapes of the same fish people I had seen worked into the man's crown were rendered as large as life and in awful detail. Their roughly human form was twisted and hunched over and mutated into a blasphemous amalgamation of human and fish. Their bulbous heads sported bulging, lidless eyes and gaping fish mouths. They had long arms and legs ending in webbed hands and feet, clearly designed for life in the water. But even more terrible was what the fish people were depicted doing. The carved reliefs showed them dancing around a large fire, and from the center of the fire rose a pillar, atop of which was an idol. And the figure they seemed to be worshiping was even more terrible than they were. A monstrous tentacled beast, hunched over with long clawed fingers and toes and a pair of dragon-like wings sprouting from its back, the creature was unlike anything I had ever seen, and yet, somewhere in the back of my mind, something was telling me I knew what this was.
I filed into the temple along with the rest of the town and took my seat, gazing around at the almost entirely unadorned interior of the enormous structure. The walls were naked stone and the support columns were simple and uncarven. The only decoration was found at the head of the large hall, where a finely wrought pedestal stood atop a short dais. The pedestal, which held a large and very old-looking tome, was seemingly cast from even more of that odd iridescent metal in the shape of writhing tentacles. On the wall behind the dais hung a tapestry that would have been beautiful if not for the horror woven in gold into the emerald fabric. It was the tentacled creature from the relief outside, but fifteen feet high and rendered in frightening detail. Those blasphemous tentacles seems to squirm as the tapestry rippled gently from some unseen air current, and the eyes staring out from its elephantine head seemed to catch my own and bore straight into my soul. Its dragon wings were spread behind it and one clawed hand appeared to be reaching out to snatch up the entire congregation.
When it seemed like the last of the townspeople had taken their seats, the pealing of those terrible bells finally ceased, and in their place, grotesque piping issued from unseen pipers at either side of the dais. The sound was indescribable. It was a frenzy of bizarre notes and melodies that I thought sounded like insanity expressed through music. The tones were as queer as the geometry of the temple and I found that they made me feel just as uncomfortable. When I thought I could take it no more, the damnable piping ceased and the man from my bedroom took to the dais.
"Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn," he said as he stepped up behind the pedestal and the entire congregation repeated the chant back at him. He opened the book and flipped to some predetermined page and began to read. "'This was that cult; it had always existed and always would exist, hidden in distant wastes and dark places all over the world until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R'lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway. Some day he would call, when the stars were ready, and the secret cult would always be waiting to liberate him.'"
One word immediately leapt out at me: Cthulhu. I'd heard it before, but where? I strained my memory, searching for the strange name. I knew I had heard it before waking up in that bed, back in the real world. But the memory seemed to hover frustratingly just outside my reach.
The robed man continued. "As we come upon the two-hundredth year since Great Cthulhu issued His terrible call and flooded all the world with the water from His grave, we must look back to our forbearers and ensure we never repeat their mistakes, which brought Doom to mankind. We of the Esoteric Order of Dagon, we who pay homage to the Deep Ones, the Star-spawn of Great Cthulhu, were alone spared. We have rebuilt the world as described in the ancient manuscripts to please the Elder Gods, the Outer Gods, the Other Gods, and the Great Old Ones that still reside here in the blackest pits of the world.
"The words of the Prophet Lovecraft tells us that this symbol, forged from the metal of R'lyeh itself," he pulled a chain from beneath his robes and held it up to the congregation so that they might see the odd branch-like symbol dangling from it, "will protect us should they again become displeased with our service to their greatness. But let us not allow such protection to dull our faith, nor our fear of those we worship. Great Cthulhu rose two hundred years ago and destroyed the world before sinking back below the frothing waves to His dead city of R'lyeh, waiting for the opportunity to once again scour the impure from the surface of the earth. The Elder Sign will not protect you from the cleansing waters. Piety to the Deep Ones, the servants of Dread Cthulhu, is all that will save you when the time comes for Him to call again. And at that time, when the blasphemers and the unfaithful are swept away by the holy waters, we will be transformed, called home by the Deep Ones whom we serve. We will be welcomed into their fold and remade in their glorious image, to live forever in the realm of Dagon and Great Cthulhu Himself."
Finally the pieces had come together in my mind. Cthulhu, Dagon, the Elder Gods, all of them rang bells in the vaults of my mind, but it wasn't until the mention of the Prophet Lovecraft that everything became clear. My high school boyfriend had been a devout follower of the writings of H. P. Lovecraft and had tried a thousand times to get me to read some of the writer's stories. But that's all they were, stories. Lovecraft was a writer of so-called weird fiction. He created a vast mythos of gods and monsters, but none of it was real. Yet here these people were, worshipping those very same fictitious deities. The robed man had even mentioned an attack of some kind by Cthulhu himself that had wiped out most of the world.
The service continued for some time, but I was too busy trying to make sense of the situation I found myself in to pay any attention. Why did these people believe the works of a science fiction author were gospel accounts of true events and real cosmic gods? What was this global catastrophe that had apparently been the cause of this strange society? And exactly what was that strange iridescent metal that seemed so important that religious idols and church bells were cast from it?
I was brought out of my tangled thoughts when the entire congregation repeated the frightful words, "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn," and rose to their feet. They all began filing back out the way they'd come and the robed man disappeared off to the side of the dais, presumably to some back chamber or office. I slipped behind one of the large stone pillars and hid until the last of the townspeople had exited the temple and the doors shut. Then I rushed up to the dais to the pedestal, upon which sat the old book. I gazed down at the pages, which were brittle and looked to have suffered from water damage. Carefully closing the volume, I could barely make out the faded title printed on the cover: "The Complete Works of H. P. Lovecraft." It was a storybook, a collection of Lovecraft's stories. But these people treated it as a holy text, as the words of a prophet. Why?
"You shouldn't be here," said a voice and I spun around quickly, my heart racing, to see an old man standing in the aisle between the two sections of pews.
"I-I didn't realize anyone was still here," I sputtered as adrenaline flooded my body, urging me to flee.
"Left my hat," the old man said, lifting his hat slightly for me to see. "Came back fer it. But you shouldn't be here," he repeated. "No one but the High Priest is allowed to read the Prophet's words. Bein' the High Priest's daughter, you know that."
"I—," I started to say something, but the words failed to come.
"Eh," the old man said finally with a shrug. "Not like them gods is real. All symbolism, innit? Just a way to keep us in line an' decent."
"You don't believe in the gods?" I asked cautiously. What if this was some sort of test to see if I was one of the faithful?
"Nah," said the old man. "I come to these services like a pious man oughta an' I say the words an' I live the lifestyle, but I don't really believe." He suddenly looked very nervous. "But I oughtn't be talkin' of such things in the temple, especially to the High Priest's kin." He turned to leave.
"Wait!" I cried out and ran to his side. "Please, it's okay. I won't tell my, erm, father. I'd actually like to talk with you some more, if that's alright?"
The old man shrugged again. "If you want to listen to an old fool ramble on, I won't stop you."
We left the temple and walked a ways, beyond the sight of those terrible carven figures and the unearthly bells which hung mercifully silent for now. The old man took me to his home, a small wooden house on the outskirts of the village. He lit a fire and put a kettle on to boil. After we each had a steaming cup of tea in our hands, he spoke. "So what is it you want to hear?"
"Well," I started slowly, not exactly sure myself. "I guess I'd just like to hear your take on the Prophet Lovecraft. Do you think he was real?" If this old man questioned the core beliefs of this whole society, maybe I could get some facts from him to help me piece together what really happened.
The old man seemed to think the question over a few moments before answering. "I do," he said finally. "I believe a man named Lovecraft walked this earth an' I even believe he wrote those words that we all take as the gospel truth."
"But you don't believe they are the truth," I pressed.
The old man shook his head. "That, I do not," he answered.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because I have never seen a shred of evidence that supports them," he said simply. "We're told that Great Cthulhu rose up from R'lyeh an' smote the non-believers from the world with the waters from his grave," he continued, "but I seen the river flood real bad two or three times in my life and kill a lotta good people, faithful people. Was that Great Cthulhu, too, or just a lotta rain? I felt the earth rumble and quake 'neath my feet. Was that the Elder Gods or some natural process of the earth? I got no doubt something happened two hundred years back, like they said. No doubt at all. Evidence is everywhere fer that. But if'n it was Great Cthulhu, why'd he leave? The words say he'll come a-callin' and take dominion over the earth. Nowhere have I ever read anything about him sendin' waves to wash the land clean of the impious and then going back to slumber in his sunken city."
"What about the metal?" I asked. "The stuff that's supposed to be from R'lyeh itself. What is it?"
"Ain't got an answer fer that one, I'm afraid," the old man admitted. "Comes from strange rocks people find every now and then. It's real light and real strong, though. An' you have to heat it hotter'n any other metal to melt it down."
"There must be a lot of it around," I said, probing further. "To make those bells and all those symbols, I mean. I notice you have one, too." I pointed over the old man's shoulder. "Do people find this rock a lot?"
The old man gave me a strange look at this point. "Why're you askin' me these things, girl?" he said. "You act like you ain't lived here yer whole life. Bein' the High Priest's daughter, you outta know more'n most about all this."
I wasn't sure how to respond. I was afraid to tell anyone what I was experiencing, but if there was anyone I could trust in this insane world, this old man seemed to be it. So I decided to tell him the truth. "I'm not from here," I admitted. "When I went to sleep last night, I was somewhere else, in my own bed, in my own apartment. And when I woke up, I was here, in this village, in this body." I grabbed a handful of my dark hair. "This isn't me!" I cried, tears welling up for the first time since waking up into this nightmare. "I don't know who this is, but I've been put in their body and dropped in this world and I don't know what's going on!" It felt so good to share my fear and confusion and frustration with someone who might be able to help me to understand.
The old man eyed me suspiciously. "You say you went to be one person, in one place," he said, "and woke up here, in New Arkham, in the body of the High Priest's daughter?"
"Yes!" I said, tears streaming down my face. "Where I'm from, the Prophet Lovecraft is just H. P. Lovecraft. He was an author of horror and science fiction stories! None of this," I said, looking all around me and out the window toward the bizarre temple hidden behind the tall roofs of the Colonial homes, "is real! Or it is but it's based on stories, on fiction. Lovecraft was just an author," I reiterated. "He made it all up, Cthulhu and the Elder Gods and R'lyeh, all of it!"
The old man sat in stunned silence for what seemed like ages and I was left to wonder if I had made a monumental error in trusting him with my secret. Finally, he spoke again. "As fantastical as your story is," he said slowly, "there's bits of it that I can't deny make a heap o' sense."
"That book that the High Priest reads from," I said, relieved that the old man believed my story, "it's a book of Lovecraft stories. Where I come from, people read that book for fun. For entertainment. All of this was created from a fictional universe. I think," I began, having pieced together a rudimentary theory, "that some survivor of that catastrophe two hundred years ago must have come across that book and thought it was real. Maybe he read it and it gave him an explanation for what happened. I don't know. Could I see your Elder Sign?" I pointed to the metal symbol hanging on the wall behind the old man. He nodded and retrieved it. I turned it over in my hands, amazed by how light it was, just like he had said. "This looks like some of the meteors I've seen," I said finally. "In museums and on TV. They have this weird iridescence to them like this. I think this came from space."
"Space?" the old man asked.
I pointed up. "Out there," I explained. "I think I may know what happened here. I think—god, this is so insane," I scoffed. "I think there was some kind of impact from space," I told him. "I think it must have hit in the ocean, based on the story of the waves washing the land clean. And I think the strange rocks scattered everywhere must be parts of the meteor or asteroid or whatever it was that hit the Earth."
"I can't deny the logic in yer argument, girl," the old man admitted. "It's as fine an explanation as any. But a word o' warning; be careful who you tell. The folks round here, they don't tolerate the impious. I live alone by choice; I live alone so's I can express my beliefs in private without no one here to tell the High Priest about me."
Before I could respond, however, the wooden door burst inward and we were showered in splinters. Half a dozen men poured through the opening and the robed man was silhouetted in the doorway, his terrible crown still planted on his bald head.
"Ezra Wilmarth Jenkins," bellowed the robed man, his tentacled beard undulating as he spoke, "you have been found guilty of blaspheming in the Temple of Our Great Cthulhu! You should be more careful about where you spread your heresy," he spat. "You never know who might be within earshot." The robed man then turned to me. "And you," he growled. "You share in the crimes of this heretic. You are no longer any daughter of mine; you shall receive no leniency from me, nor will you find mercy at the hands of the Deep Ones."
"No!" cried the old man. "Spare her! Take me, but the girl has done naught to deserve punishment! Is it a crime to listen to a tottering old fool?"
"It is when the tottering old fool is preaching lies and heresy and the listener is a willing participant in blasphemy," the robed man answered venomously. He nodded to the metal piece in my hands. "Keep it," he said. "You will need all the protection you can get." He turned to the six men surrounding us. "Bind their hands and feet," he barked. "And make certain my daughter doesn't drop her Elder Sign. If she is devout, perhaps the Deep Ones will spare her."
I was bound with rope at my wrists and ankles and hauled out of the house by three of the men. The other three did the same to the old man. We were carted through the village, my "father" heading the procession, which grew as the townspeople joined the march. We travelled a short ways outside of town to a windy bluff overlooking the sea. Waves crashed loudly against the rocks far below and I struggled against the men holding me. I screamed and pleaded with them, tried to explain that it was all a mistake, but the robed man backhanded me across the face and put a stop to it. I wept openly now, wishing I could use the idol bound to my hands to bludgeon my captors and escape, but even if I could, there were hundreds of others standing by who would block my way. These fanatics were there to see two people die and nothing was going to rob them of the opportunity to watch heretics meet their forsaken gods.
"Lord Dagon, Great Cthulhu," the robed man called out toward the sea, "we cast these blasphemers down into the waves, where the Deep Ones may claim them as sacrifice to your greatness. They have forsaken the teachings of the Prophet and lost their faith in your terrible glory. For that they pay the ultimate price; denial of the Kingdom of the Deep and the holy form of the Children of the Sea." He turned to the men holding the old man. "Cast his body down," he ordered. The three men approached the lip of the bluff, the old man in their arms. His face was calm and his eyes were closed. He didn't struggle or cry out. With a great heave, the three men hurled their burden out over the edge and after a brief moment when the old man seemed to hang suspended in the air, flailing his limbs about, he fell out of sight without a sound.
"Bring her!" the robed man said and I was carried to the edge myself. The man stepped up to me and glared down into my eyes. "You were my daughter," he said coldly. "I raised you to fear and revere the Great Cthulhu and his godly brethren, not to cavort with heretics. I cast you down with added shame that you are of my own blood." He placed a rough hand on my cheek and for a moment, he seemed genuinely regretful. But that moment was as fleeting as the sea wind and soon he gave the command to cast me into the water.
When I left the arms of the three men, I felt myself flying, like a bird. And for just a moment, I was at peace. It was an amazing feeling, like soaring weightless through the air. But then I began to fall and that feeling turned to terror. My insides rushed up as I plummeted toward the writhing foamy water below and the wind whipped at my clothing. I struck the water feet first and began to sink instantly. Above me, bright sunlight glittered and sparkled off the million ever-changing facets of the water's surface. It was beautiful, but it was a quickly dimming beauty. The inky blackness of the deep water below was rising to swallow me, cutting me off from the light of freedom above. My lungs burned and the pressure began to build. It wasn't long before the darkness took me in its infinite embrace and all sensation faded.
Next I knew, I was sitting bolt upright in bed—in my own bed. I was gasping for air and drenched in sweat, feeling as though I were still drowning. I looked around at the darkened room. It was all there. All as I had left it. Glancing down at myself, I saw the body I belonged in, still clad in my favorite club dress. My alarm clock glowed steadily on my nightstand, showing it to be at least an hour before sunrise. It had been a dream. All a dream. The village, the crazy Lovecraftian religion, being thrown into the ocean to drown, all just a terrible dream.
I laughed out loud, releasing the nervous tension building in my chest. Just a dream. I got up and splashed cold water on my face in the bathroom (checking my face in the mirror just to be safe), changed into my nightclothes, and climbed back into bed. Satisfied that the whole experience had been nothing more than an alcohol-induced nightmare, I gave a sigh of relief and settled in under the covers. But that relief was short-lived, because as I slid my hand beneath my pillow, my fingers brushed against something hard and cold. I grasped the strange shape and pulled it out, screaming as I did so. It was the Elder Sign, the same idol that had been bound to my hands when I was thrown into the sea in my dream.
I've spent these last seven years in Bellevue, a mental hospital for those who are determined to be a danger to themselves and others. Most days I just sit by a window, clutching that queer bit of metal. But today I heard the most interesting news. An astronomer in a little town in Massachusetts has discovered a new asteroid. Scientists swear the space rock doesn't present any danger to us, but I know differently. The man who discovered the asteroid is a Lovecraft fan, you see. He named it R'lyeh. And in R'lyeh, Dead Cthulhu slumbers until the stars are right for him to rise and claim dominion over all the earth.