The Space Eaters (1/4)

The cross is not a passive agent. It protects the pure of heart, and it has often appeared in the air above our sabbats, confusing and dispersing the powers of Darkness.
—John Dee’s Necronomicon

The horror came to Partridgeville in a blind fog.

All that afternoon thick vapors from the sea had swirled and eddied about the farm, and the room in which we sat swam with moisture. The fog ascended in spirals from beneath the door, and its long, moist fingers caressed my hair until it dripped. The square-paned windows were coated with a thick, dewlike moisture; the air was heavy and dank and unbelievably cold.

I stared gloomily at my friend. He had turned his back to the window and was writing furiously. He was a tall, slim man with a slight stoop and abnormally broad shoulders. In profile his face was impressive. He had an extremely broad forehead, long nose, and slightly protuberant chin—a strong, sensitive face which suggested a wildly imaginative nature held in restraint by a skeptical and truly extraordinary intellect. My friend wrote short stories. He wrote to please himself, in defiance of contemporary taste, and his tales were unusual. They would have delighted Poe; they would have delighted Hawthorne, or Ambrose Bierce, or Villiers de l’Isle-Adam. They were studies of abnormal men, abnormal beasts, abnormal plants. He wrote of remote realms of imagination and horror, and the colors, sounds, and odors which he dared to evoke were never seen, heard, or smelt on the familiar side of the moon. He projected his creations against mind-chilling backgrounds. They stalked through tall and lonely forests, over ragged mountains, and slithered down the stairs of ancient houses, and between the piles of rotting black wharves.

One of his tales, “The House of the Worm,” had induced a young student at a Midwestern university to seek refuge in an enormous redbrick building where everyone approved of his sitting on the floor and shouting at the top of his voice: “Lo, my beloved is fairer than all the lilies among the lilies in the lily garden.” Another, “The Defilers,” had brought him precisely one hundred and ten letters of indignation from local readers when it appeared in the Partridgeville Gazette.

As I continued to stare at him he suddenly stopped writing and shook his head. “I can’t do it,” he said. “I should have to invent a new language. And yet I can comprehend the thing emotionally, intuitively, if you will. If I could only convey it in a sentence somehow—the strange crawling of its fleshless spirit!”

“Is it some new horror?” I asked.

He shook his head. “It is not new to me. I have known and felt it for years—a horror utterly beyond anything your prosaic brain can conceive.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“All human brains are prosaic,” he elaborated. “I meant no offense. It is the shadowy terrors that lurk behind and above them that are mysterious and awful. Our little brains—what can they know of vampire-like entities which may lurk in dimensions higher than our own, or beyond the universe of stars? I think sometimes they lodge in our heads, and our brains feel them, but when they stretch out tentacles to probe and explore us, we go screaming mad.” He was staring at me steadily now.

“But you can’t honestly believe in such nonsense!” I exclaimed.

“Of course not!” He shook his head and laughed. “You know damn well I’m too profoundly skeptical to believe in anything. I have merely outlined a poet’s reactions to the universe. If a man wishes to write ghostly stories and actually convey a sensation of horror, he must believe in everything—and anything. By anything I mean the horror that transcends everything, that is more terrible and impossible than everything. He must believe that there are things from outer space that can reach down and fasten themselves on us with a malevolence that can destroy us utterly—our bodies as well as our minds.”

“But this thing from outer space—how can he describe it if he doesn’t know its shape—or size or color?”

“It is virtually impossible to describe it. That is what I have sought to do—and failed. Perhaps someday—but then, I doubt if it can ever be accomplished. But your artist can hint, suggest….”

“Suggest what?” I asked, a little puzzled.

“Suggest a horror that is utterly unearthly; that makes itself felt in terms that have no counterparts on Earth.”

I was still puzzled. He smiled wearily and elaborated his theory.

“There is something prosaic,” he said, “about even the best of the classic tales of mystery and terror. Old Mrs. Radcliffe, with her hidden vaults and bleeding ghosts; Maturin, with his allegorical Faust-like hero-villains, and his fiery flames from the mouth of hell; Edgar Poe, with his blood-clotted corpses, and black cats, his telltale hearts and disintegrating Valdemars; Hawthorne, with his amusing preoccupation with the problems and horrors arising from mere human sin (as though human sins were of any significance to a coldly malign intelligence from beyond the stars). Then we have modern masters—Algernon Blackwood, who invites us to a feast of the high gods and shows us an old woman with a harelip sitting before a ouija board fingering soiled cards, or an absurd nimbus of ectoplasm emanating from some clairvoyant ninny; Bram Stoker with his vampires and werewolves, mere conventional myths, the tag-ends of mediaeval folklore; Wells with his pseudo-scientific bogies, fish-men at the bottom of the sea, ladies in the moon, and the hundred and one idiots who are constantly writing ghost stories for the magazines—what have they contributed to the literature of the unholy?

“Are we not made of flesh and blood? It is but natural that we should be revolted and horrified when we are shown that flesh and blood in a state of corruption and decay, with the worms passing over and under it. It is but natural that a story about a corpse should thrill us, fill us with fear and horror and loathing. Any fool can awake these emotions in us—Poe really accomplished very little with his Lady Ushers, and liquescent Valdemars. He appealed to simple, natural, understandable emotions, and it was inevitable that his readers should respond.

“Are we not the descendants of barbarians? Did we not once dwell in tall and sinister forests, at the mercy of beasts that rend and tear? It is but inevitable that we should shiver and cringe when we meet in literature dark shadows from our own past. Harpies and vampires and werewolves—what are they but magnifications, distortions of the great birds and bats and ferocious dogs that harassed and tortured our ancestors? It is easy enough to arouse fear by such means. It is easy enough to frighten men with the flames at the mouth of hell, because they are hot and shrivel and burn the flesh—and who does not understand and dread a fire? Blows that kill, fires that burn, shadows that horrify because their substances lurk evilly in the black corridors of our inherited memories—I am weary of the writers who would terrify us by such pathetically obvious and trite unpleasantness.”

Real indignation blazed in his eyes.

“Suppose there were a greater horror? Suppose evil things from some other universe should decide to invade this one? Suppose we couldn’t see them? Suppose we couldn’t feel them? Suppose they were of a color unknown on Earth, or rather, of an appearance that was without color?

“Suppose they had a shape unknown on Earth? Suppose they were four-dimensional, five-dimensional, six-dimensional? Suppose they were a hundred-dimensional? Suppose they had no dimensions at all and yet existed? What could we do?

“They would not exist for us? They would exist for us if they gave us pain. Suppose it was not the pain of heat or cold or any of the pains we know, but a new pain? Suppose they touched something besides our nerves—reached our brains in a new and terrible way? Suppose they made themselves felt in a new and strange and unspeakable way? What could we do? Our hands would be tied. You cannot oppose what you cannot see or feel. You cannot oppose the thousand-dimensional. Suppose they should eat their way to us through space!”

He was speaking now with an intensity of emotion which belied his avowed skepticism of a moment before.

“That is what I have tried to write about. I wanted to make my readers feel and see that thing from another universe, from beyond space. I could easily enough hint at it or suggest it—any fool can do that—but I wanted actually to describe it. To describe a color that is not a color! a form that is formless! “A mathematician could perhaps slightly more than suggest it. There would be strange curves and angles that an inspired mathematician in a wild frenzy of calculation might glimpse vaguely. It is absurd to say that mathematicians have not discovered the fourth dimension. They have often glimpsed it, often approached it, often apprehended it, but they are unable to demonstrate it. I know a mathematician who swears that he once saw the sixth dimension in a wild flight into the sublime skies of the differential calculus.

“Unfortunately I am not a mathematician. I am only a poor fool of a creative artist, and the thing from outer space utterly eludes me.”

Someone was pounding loudly on the door. I crossed the room and drew back the latch. “What do you want?” I asked. “What is the matter?”

“Sorry to disturb you, Frank,” said a familiar voice, “but I’ve got to talk to someone.”

I recognized the lean, white face of my nearest neighbor, and stepped instantly to one side. “Come in,” I said. “Come in, by all means. Howard and I have been discussing ghosts, and the things we’ve conjured up aren’t pleasant company. Perhaps you can argue them away.”

I called Howard’s horrors ghosts because I didn’t want to shock my commonplace neighbor. Henry Wells was immensely big and tall, and as he strode into the room he seemed to bring a part of the night with him.

He collapsed on a sofa and surveyed us with frightened eyes. Howard laid down the story he had been reading, removed and wiped his glasses, and frowned. He was more or less tolerant of my bucolic visitors. We waited for perhaps a minute, and then the three of us spoke almost simultaneously. “A horrible night!” “Beastly, isn’t it?” “Wretched.”

Henry Wells frowned. “Tonight,” he said, “I—I met with a funny accident. I was driving Hortense through Mulligan Wood….”

“Hortense?” Howard interrupted.

“His horse,” I explained impatiently. “You were returning from Brewster, weren’t you, Henry?”

“From Brewster, yes,” he replied. “I was driving between the trees, keeping a sharp lookout for cars with their lights on too bright, coming right at me out of the murk, and listening to the foghorns in the bay wheezing and moaning, when something wet landed on my head. ‘Rain,’ I thought. ‘I hope the supplies keep dry.’

“I turned round to make sure that the butter and flour were covered up, and something soft like a sponge rose up from the bottom of the wagon and hit me in the face. I snatched at it and caught it between my fingers.

“In my hands it felt like jelly. I squeezed it, and moisture ran out of it down my wrists. It wasn’t so dark that I couldn’t see it, either. Funny how you can see in fogs—they seem to make the night lighter. There was a sort of brightness in the air. I dunno, maybe it wasn’t the fog, either. The trees seemed to stand out. You could see them sharp and clear. As I was saying, I looked at the thing, and what do you think it looked like? Like a piece of raw liver. Or like a calf’s brain. Now that I come to think of it, it was more like a calf’s brain. There were grooves in it, and you don’t find many grooves in liver. Liver’s usually as smooth as glass.

“It was an awful moment for me. ‘There’s someone up in one of those trees,’ I thought. ‘He’s some tramp or crazy man or fool, and he’s been eating liver. My wagon frightened him and he dropped it—a piece of it. I can’t be wrong. There was no liver in my wagon when I left Brewster.’

“I looked up. You know how tall all of the trees are in Mulligan Wood. You can’t see the tops of some of them from the wagon-road on a clear day. And you know how crooked and queer-looking some of the trees are.

“It’s funny, but I’ve always thought of them as old men—tall old men, you understand, tall and crooked and very evil. I’ve always thought of them as wanting to work mischief. There’s something unwholesome about trees that grow very close together and grow crooked.

“I looked up.

“At first I didn’t see anything but the tall trees, all white and glistening with the fog, and above them a thick, white mist that hid the stars. And then something long and white ran quickly down the trunk of one of the trees.

“It ran so quickly down the tree that I couldn’t see it clearly. And it was so thin anyway that there wasn’t much to see. But it was like an arm. It was like a long, white, and very thin arm. But of course it wasn’t an arm. Who ever heard of an arm as tall as a tree? I don’t know what made me compare it to an arm, because it was really nothing but a thin line—like a wire, a string. I’m not sure that I saw it at all. Maybe I imagined it. I’m not even sure that it was as wide as a string. But it had a hand. Or didn’t it? When I think of it my brain gets dizzy. You see, it moved so quickly I couldn’t see it clearly at all.

“But it gave me the impression that it was looking for something that it had dropped. For a minute the hand seemed to spread out over the road, and then it left the tree and came toward the wagon. It was like a huge white hand walking on its fingers with a terribly long arm fastened to it that went up and up until it touched the fog, or perhaps until it touched the stars.

“I screamed and slashed Hortense with the reins, but the horse didn’t need any urging. She was up and off before I could throw the liver, or calf’s brain, or whatever it was, into the road. She raced so fast she almost upset the wagon, but I didn’t draw in the reins. I’d rather lie in a ditch with a broken rib than have a long, white hand squeezing the breath out of my throat.

“We had almost cleared the wood and I was just beginning to breathe again when my brain went cold. I can’t describe what happened in any other way. My brain got as cold as ice inside my head. I can tell you I was frightened.

“Don’t imagine I couldn’t think clearly. I was conscious of everything that was going on about me, but my brain was so cold I screamed with the pain. Have you ever held a piece of ice in the palm of your hand for as long as two or three minutes? It burnt, didn’t it? Ice burns worse than fire. Well, my brain felt as though it had lain on ice for hours and hours. There was a furnace inside my head, but it was a cold furnace. It was roaring with raging cold.

“Perhaps I should have been thankful that the pain didn’t last. It wore off in about ten minutes, and when I got home I didn’t think I was any the worse for my experience. I’m sure I didn’t think I was any the worse until I looked at myself in the glass. Then I saw the hole in my head.”

Henry Wells leaned forward and brushed back the hair from his right temple.

“Here is the wound,” he said. “What do you make of it?” He tapped with his fingers beneath a small round opening in the side of his head. “It’s like a bullet-wound,” he elaborated, “but there was no blood and you can look in pretty far. It seems to go right in to the center of my head. I shouldn’t be alive.”

Howard had risen and was staring at my neighbor with angry and accusing eyes.

“Why have you lied to us?” he shouted. “Why have you told us this absurd story? A long hand! You were drunk, man. Drunk—and yet you’ve succeeded in doing what I’d have sweated blood to accomplish. If I could have made my readers feel that horror, know it for a moment, that horror that you described in the woods, I should be with the immortals—I should be greater than Poe, greater than Hawthorne. And you—a clumsy drunken liar…”

I was on my feet with a furious protest.

“He’s not lying,” I said. “He’s been shot—someone has shot him in the head. Look at this wound. My God, man, you have no call to insult him!”

Howard’s wrath died and the fire went out of his eyes. “Forgive me,” he said. “You can’t imagine how badly I’ve wanted to capture that ultimate horror, to put it on paper, and he did it so easily. If he had warned me that he was going to describe something like that I would have taken notes. But of course he doesn’t know he’s an artist. It was an accidental tour de force that he accomplished; he couldn’t do it again, I’m sure. I’m sorry I went up in the air—I apologize. Do you want me to go for a doctor? That is a bad wound.”

My neighbor shook his head. “I don’t want a doctor,” he said. “I’ve seen a doctor. There’s no bullet in my head—that hole was not made by a bullet. When the doctor couldn’t explain it, I laughed at him. I hate doctors, and I haven’t much use for fools who think I’m in the habit of lying. I haven’t much use for people who won’t believe me when I tell ’em I saw the long, white thing come sliding down the tree as clear as day.”

But Howard was examining the wound in defiance of my neighbor’s indignation. “It was made by something round and sharp,” he said. “It’s curious, but the flesh isn’t torn. A knife or bullet would have torn the flesh, left a ragged edge.”

I nodded, and was bending to study the wound when Wells shrieked, and clapped his hands to his head. “Ah-h-h!” he choked. “It’s come back—the terrible, terrible cold.”

Howard stared. “Don’t expect me to believe such nonsense!” he exclaimed disgustedly.

But Wells was holding on to his head and dancing about the room in a delirium of agony. “I can’t stand it!” he shrieked. “It’s freezing up my brain. It’s not like ordinary cold. It isn’t. Oh, God! It’s like nothing you’ve ever felt. It bites, it scorches, it tears. It’s like acid.”

I laid my hand upon his shoulder and tried to quiet him, but he pushed me aside and made for the door.

“I’ve got to get out of here,” he screamed. “The thing wants room. My head won’t hold it. It wants the night—the vast night. It wants to wallow in the night.”

He threw back the door and disappeared into the fog. Howard wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his coat and collapsed into a chair.

“Mad,” he muttered. “A tragic case of manic-depressive psychosis. Who would have suspected it? The story he told us wasn’t conscious art at all. It was simply a nightmare-fungus conceived by the brain of a lunatic.”

“Yes,” I said, “but how do you account for the hole in his head?”

“Oh, that!” Howard shrugged. “He probably always had it—probably was born with it.”

“Nonsense,” I said. “The man never had a hole in his head before. Personally, I think he’s been shot. Something ought to be done. He needs medical attention. I think I’ll phone Dr. Smith.”

“It is useless to interfere,” said Howard. “That hole was not made by a bullet. I advise you to forget him until tomorrow. His insanity may be temporary, it may wear off; and then he’d blame us for interfering. If he’s still emotionally disturbed tomorrow, if he comes here again and tries to make trouble, you can notify the proper authorities. Has he ever acted queerly before?”

“No,” I said. “He was always quite sane. I think I’ll take your advice and wait. But I wish I could explain the hole in his head.”

“The story he told interests me more,” said Howard. “I’m going to write it out before I forget it. Of course I shan’t be able to make the horror as real as he did, but perhaps I can catch a bit of the strangeness and glamour.”

He unscrewed his fountain pen and began to cover a sheet of paper with curious phrases.

I shivered and closed the door.

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