The Salem Horror (2/2)

That night Carson dreamed. He awoke just before dawn with his heart racing furiously and a curious feeling of uneasiness. Within the walls and from below he could hear the furtive scurryings of the rats. He got out of bed hastily, shivering in the cold grayness of early morning. A wan moon still shone faintly in a paling sky.

Then he remembered Leigh’s words. He had dreamed—there was no question of that. But the content of his dream—that was another matter. He absolutely could not recall it to his mind, much as he tried, although there was a very vague impression of running frantically in darkness.

He dressed quickly, and because the stillness of early morning in the old house got on his nerves, went out to buy a newspaper. It was too early for shops to be open, however, and in search of a news-boy he set off westward, turning at the first corner. And as he walked a curious and inexplicable feeling began to take possession of him: a feeling of—familiarity! He had walked here before, and there was a dim and disturbing familiarity about the shapes of the houses, the outline of the roofs. But—and this was the fantastic part of it—to his knowledge he had never been on this street before. He had spent little time walking about this region of Salem, for he was indolent by nature; yet there was this extraordinary feeling of remembrance, and it grew more vivid as he went on.

He reached a corner, turned unthinkingly to the left. The odd sensation increased. He walked on slowly, pondering.

No doubt he had traveled by this way before—and very probably he had done so in a brown study, so that he had not been conscious of his route. Undoubtedly that was the explanation. Yet as Carson turned into Charter Street he felt a nameless unease waking within him. Salem was rousing; with daylight impassive Polish workers began to hurry past him toward the mills. An occasional automobile went by.

Before him a crowd was gathered on the sidewalk. He hastened his steps, conscious of a feeling of impending calamity. With an extraordinary sense of shock he saw that he was passing the Charter Street Burying Ground, the ancient, evilly famous “Burying Point.” Hastily he pushed his way into the crowd.

Comments in a muffled undertone came to Carson’s ears, and a bulky blue-clad back loomed up before him. He peered over the policeman’s shoulder and caught his breath in a horrified gasp. man leaned against the iron railing that fenced the old graveyard. He wore a cheap, gaudy suit, and he gripped the rusty bars in a clutch that made the muscles stand out in ridges on the hairy backs of his hands. He was dead, and on his face, staring up at the sky at a crazy angle, was frozen an expression of abysmal and utterly shocking horror. His eyes, all whites, were bulging hideously; his mouth was a twisted, mirthless grin.

A man at Carson’s side turned a white face toward him. “Looks as if he was scared to death,” he said somewhat hoarsely. “I’d hate to have seen what he saw. Ugh—look at that face!”

Mechanically Carson backed away, feeling an icy breath of nameless things chill him. He rubbed his hand across his eyes, but still that contorted, dead face swam in his vision. He began to retrace his steps, shaken and trembling a little. Involuntarily his glance moved aside, rested on the tombs and monuments that dotted the old graveyard. No one had been buried there for over a century, and the lichen-stained tombstones, with their winged skulls, fat-cheeked cherubs, and funeral urns, seemed to breathe out an indefinable miasma of antiquity. What had frightened the man to death?

Carson drew a deep breath. True, the corpse had been a frightful spectacle, but he must not allow it to upset his nerves. He could not— his novel would suffer. Besides, he argued grimly to himself, the affair was obvious enough in its explanation. The dead man was apparently a Pole, one of the group of immigrants who dwell about Salem Harbor. Passing by the graveyard at night, a spot about which eldritch legends had clung for nearly three centuries, his drink-befuddled eyes must have given reality to the hazy phantoms of a superstitious mind. These Poles were notoriously unstable emotionally, prone to mob hysteria and wild imaginings. The great Immigrant Panic of 1853, in which three witch-houses had been burned to the ground, had grown from an old woman’s confused and hysterical statement that she had seen a mysterious white-clad foreigner “take off his face.” What else could be expected of such people, Carson thought?

Nevertheless he remained in a nervous state, and did not return home until nearly noon. When on his arrival he found Leigh, the occultist, waiting, he was glad to see the man, and invited him in with cordiality.

Leigh was very serious. “Did you hear about your friend Abigail Prinn?” he asked without preamble, and Carson stared, pausing in the act of siphoning charged water into a glass. After a long moment he pressed the lever, sent the liquid sizzling and foaming into the whiskey. He handed Leigh the drink and took one himself—neat— before answering the question.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Has—what’s she been up to?” he asked, with an air of forced levity.

“I’ve been checking up the records,” Leigh said, “and I find Abigail Prinn was buried on December 14th, 1690, in the Charter Street Burying Ground—with a stake through her heart. What’s the matter?”

“Nothing,” Carson said tonelessly. “Well?”

“Well—her grave’s been opened and robbed, that’s all. The stake was found uprooted nearby, and there were footprints all around the grave. Shoe-prints. Did you dream last night, Carson?” Leigh snapped out the question, his gray eyes hard.

“I don’t know,” Carson said confusedly, rubbing his forehead. “I can’t remember. I was at the Charter Street graveyard this morning.”

“Oh. Then you must have heard something about the man who—”

“I saw him,” Carson interrupted, shuddering. “It upset me.”

He downed the whiskey at a gulp.

Leigh watched him. “Well,” he said presently, “are you still determined to stay in this house?”

Carson put down the glass and stood up.

“Why not?” he snapped. “Is there any reason why I shouldn’t? Eh?”

“After what happened last night—”

“After what happened? A grave was robbed. A superstitious Pole saw the robbers and died of fright. Well?”

“You’re trying to convince yourself,” Leigh said calmly. “In your heart you know—you must know—the truth. You’ve become a tool in the hands of tremendous terrible forces, Carson. For three centuries Abbie Prinn has lain in her grave—undead—waiting for someone to fall into her trap—the Witch Room. Perhaps she foresaw the future when she built it, foresaw that someday someone would blunder into that hellish chamber and be caught by the trap of the mosaic pattern. It caught you, Carson—and enabled that undead horror to bridge the gulf between consciousness and matter, to get en rapport with you. Hypnotism is child’s play to a being with Abigail Prinn’s frightful powers. She could very easily force you to go to her grave and uproot the stake that held her captive, and then erase the memory of that act from your mind so that you could not remember it even as a dream!”

Carson was on his feet, his eyes burning with a strange light. “In God’s name, man, do you know what you’re saying?”

Leigh laughed harshly. “God’s name! The devil’s name, rather—the devil that menaces Salem at this moment; for Salem is in danger, terrible danger. The men and women and children of the town Abbie Prinn cursed when they bound her to the stake—and found they couldn’t burn her! I’ve been going through certain secret archives this morning, and I’ve come to ask you, for the last time, to leave this house.”

“Are you through?” Carson asked coldly. “Very well. I shall stay here. You’re either insane or drunk, but you can’t impress me with your poppycock.”

“Would you leave if I offered you a thousand dollars?” Leigh asked. “Or more, then—ten thousand? I have a considerable sum at my command.”

“No, damn it!” Carson snapped in a sudden blaze of anger. “All I want,is to be left alone to finish my novel. I can’t work anywhere else—I don’t want to, I won’t—”

“I expected this,” Leigh said, his voice suddenly quiet, and with a strange note of sympathy. “Man, you can’t get away! You’re caught in the trap, and it’s too late for you to extricate yourself so long as Abbie Prinn’s brain controls you through the Witch Room. And the worst part of it is that she can only manifest herself with your aid—she drains your life forces, Carson, feeds on you like a vampire.”

“You’re mad,” Carson said dully.

“I’m afraid. That iron disk in the Witch Room—I’m afraid of that, and what’s under it. Abbie Prinn served strange gods, Carson—and I read something on the wall of that alcove that gave me a hint. Have you ever heard of Nyogtha?”

Carson shook his head impatiently. Leigh fumbled in a pocket, drew out a scrap of paper. “I copied this from a book in the Kester Library,” he said, “a book called the Necronomicon, written by a man who delved so deeply into forbidden secrets that men called him mad. Read this.”

Carson’s brows drew together as he read the excerpt:

Men know him as the Dweller in Darkness, that brother of the Old Ones called Nyogtha, the Thing that should not be. He can be summoned to Earth’s surface through certain secret caverns and fissures, and sorcerers have seen him in Syria and below the black tower of Leng; from the Thang Grotto of Tartary he has come ravening to bring terror and destruction among the pavilions of the great Khan. Only by the looped cross, by the Vach-Viraj incantation, and by the Tikkoun elixir may he be driven back to the nighted caverns of hidden foulness where he dwelleth.

Leigh met Carson’s puzzled gaze calmly. “Do you understand now?”

“Incantations and elixirs!” Carson said, handing back the paper. “Fiddlesticks!”

“Far from it. That incantation and that elixir have been known to occultists and adepts for thousands of years. I’ve had occasion to use them myself in the past on certain—occasions. And if I’m right about this thing—” He turned to the door, his lips compressed in a bloodless line. “Such manifestations have been defeated before, but the difficulty lies in obtaining the elixir—it’s very hard to get. But I hope . . . I’ll be back. Can you stay out of the Witch Room until then?”

“I’ll promise nothing,” Carson said. He had a dull headache, which had been steadily growing until it obtruded upon his consciousness, and he felt vaguely nauseated. “Good-bye.”

He saw Leigh to the door and waited on the steps, with an odd reluctance to return to the house. As he watched the tall occultist hurry down the street, a woman came out of the adjoining house. She caught sight of him, and her huge breasts heaved. She burst into a shrill, angry tirade.

Carson turned, staring at her with astonished eyes. His head throbbed painfully. The woman was approaching, shaking a fat fist threateningly.

“Why you scare my Sarah?” she cried, her swarthy face flushed. “Why you scare her wit’ your fool tricks, eh?” Carson moistened his lips.

“I’m sorry,” he said slowly. “Very sorry. I didn’t frighten your Sarah. I haven’t been home all day. What frightened her?”

“T’e brown t’ing—it ran in your house, Sarah say—”

The woman paused, and her jaw dropped. Her eyes widened. She made a peculiar sign with her right hand—pointing her index and little fingers at Carson, while her thumb was crossed over the other fingers. “T’e old witch!”

She retreated hastily, muttering in Polish in a frightened voice.

Carson turned, went back into the house. He poured some whiskey into a tumbler, considered, and then set it aside untasted. He began to pace the floor, occasionally rubbing his forehead with fingers that felt dry and hot. Vague, confused thoughts raced through his mind. His head was throbbing and feverish.

At length he went down to the Witch Room. He remained there, although he did not work; for his headache was not so oppressive in the dead quiet of the underground chamber. After a time he slept.

How long he slumbered he did not know. He dreamed of Salem, and of a dimly glimpsed, gelatinous black thing that hurtled with frightful speed through the streets, a thing like an incredibly huge, jet-black amoeba that pursued and engulfed men and women who shrieked and fled vainly. He dreamed of a skull-face peering into his own, a withered and shrunken countenance in which only the eyes seemed alive, and they shone with a hellish and evil light.

He awoke at last, sat up with a start. He was very cold.

It was utterly silent. In the light of the electric bulb the green and purple mosaic seemed to writhe and contract toward him, an illusion which disappeared as his sleep-fogged vision cleared. He glanced at his wrist-watch. It was two o’clock. He had slept through the afternoon and the better part of the night.

He felt oddly weak, and a lassitude held him motionless in his chair. The strength seemed to have been drained from him. The piercing cold seemed to strike through to his brain, but his headache was gone. His mind was very clear—expectant, as though waiting for something to happen. A movement nearby caught his eye.

A slab of stone in the wall was moving. He heard a gentle grating sound, and slowly a black cavity widened from a narrow rectangle to a square. There was something crouching there in the shadow. Stark, blind horror struck through Carson as the thing moved and crept forward into the light.

It looked like a mummy. For an intolerable, age-long second the thought pounded frightfully at Carson’s brain: It looked like a mummy! It was a skeleton-thin, parchment-brown corpse, and it looked like a skeleton with the hide of some great lizard stretched over its bones. It stirred, it crept forward, and its long nails scratched audibly against the stone. It crawled out into the Witch Room, its passionless face pitilessly revealed in the white light, and its eyes were gleaming with charnel life. He could see the serrated ridge of its brown, shrunken back. . . .

Carson sat motionless. Abysmal horror had robbed him of the power to move. He seemed to be caught in the fetters of dream-paralysis, in which the brain, an aloof spectator, is unable or unwilling to transmit the nerve-impulses to the muscles. He told himself frantically that he was dreaming, that he would presently awaken.

The withered horror arose. It stood upright, skeleton-thin, and moved to the alcove where the iron disk lay embedded in the floor. Standing with its back to Carson it paused, and a dry and sere whisper rustled out in the dead stillness. At the sound Carson would have screamed, but he could not. Still the dreadful whisper went on, in a language Carson knew was not of Earth, and as though in response an almost imperceptible quiver shook the iron disk.

It quivered and began to rise, very slowly, and as if in triumph the shriveled horror lifted its pipestem arms. The disk was nearly a foot thick, but presently as it continued to rise above the level of the floor an insidious odor began to penetrate the room. It was vaguely reptilian, musky and nauseating. The disk lifted inexorably, and a little finger of blackness crept out from beneath its edge. Abruptly Carson remembered his dream of a gelatinous black creature that hurtled through the Salem streets. He tried vainly to break the fetters of paralysis that held him motionless. The chamber was darkening, and a black vertigo was creeping up to engulf him. The room seemed to rock. Still the iron disk lifted; still the withered horror stood with its skeleton arms raised in blasphemous benediction; still the blackness oozed out in slow amoeboid movement.

There came a sound breaking through the sere whisper of the mummy, the quick patter of racing footsteps. Out of the corner of his eye Carson saw a man come racing into the Witch Room. It was the occultist, Leigh, and his eyes were blazing in a face of deathly pallor. He flung himself past Carson to the alcove where the black horror was surging into view.

The withered thing turned with dreadful slowness. Leigh carried some implement in his left hand, Carson saw, a crux ansata of gold and ivory. His right hand was clenched at his side. His voice rolled out, sonorous and commanding. There were little beads of perspiration on his white face.

“Ya na kadishtu nil gh’ri . . . stell’bsna kn’aa Nyogtha . . . k’yarnak phlegethor. . . .”

The fantastic, unearthly syllables thundered out, echoing from the walls of the vault. Leigh advanced slowly, the crux ansata held high.

And from beneath the iron disk black horror came surging!

The disk was lifted, flung aside, and a great wave of iridescent blackness, neither liquid nor solid, a frightful gelatinous mass, came pouring straight for Leigh. Without pausing in his advance he made a quick gesture with his right hand, and a little glass tube hurtled at the black thing, was engulfed.

The formless horror paused. It hesitated, with a dreadful air of indecision, and then swiftly drew back. A choking stench of burning corruption began to pervade the air, and Carson saw great pieces of the black thing flake off, shriveling as though destroyed with corroding acid. It fled back in a liquescent rush, hideous black flesh dropping as it retreated.

A pseudopod of blackness elongated itself from the central mass and like a great tentacle clutched the corpse-like being, dragged it back to the pit and over the brink. Another tentacle seized the iron disk, pulled it effortlessly across the floor, and as the horror sank from sight, the disk fell into place with a thunderous crash.

The room swung in wide circles about Carson, and a frightful nausea clutched him. He made a tremendous effort to get to his feet, and then the light faded swiftly and was gone. Darkness took him.

Carson’s novel was never finished. He burned it, but continued to write, although none of his later work was ever published. His publishers shook their heads and wondered why such a brilliant writer of popular fiction had suddenly become infatuated with the weird and ghastly.

“It’s powerful stuff,” one man told Carson, as he handed back his novel, Black God of Madness. “It’s remarkable in its way, but it’s morbid and horrible. Nobody would read it. Carson, why don’t you write the type of novel you used to do, the kind that made you famous?”

It was then that Carson broke his vow never to speak of the Witch Room, and he poured out the entire story, hoping for understanding and belief. But as he finished, his heart sank as he saw the other’s face, sympathetic but skeptical.

“You dreamed it, didn’t you?” the man asked, and Carson laughed bitterly.

“Yes—I dreamed it.”

“It must have made a terribly vivid impression on your mind. Some dreams do. But you’ll forget about it in time,” he predicted, and Carson nodded.

And because he knew that he would only be arousing doubts of his sanity, he did not mention the thing that was burned indelibly on his brain, the horror he had seen in the Witch Room after wakening from his faint. Before he and Leigh had hurried, white-faced and trembling, from the chamber, Carson had cast a quick glance behind him. The shriveled and corroded patches that he had seen slough off from that being of insane blasphemy had unaccountably disappeared, although they had left black stains upon the stones. Abbie Prinn, perhaps, had returned to the hell she had served, and her inhuman god had withdrawn to hidden abysses beyond man’s comprehension, routed by powerful forces of elder magic which the occultist had commanded. But the witch had left a memento behind her, a hideous thing which Carson, in that last backward glance, had seen protruding from the edge of the iron disk, as though raised in ironic salute—a withered, claw-like hand!

Henry Kuttner, 1937


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