The Space Eaters (3/4)

Howard was writing when I entered the room.

“How is the story going?” I asked.

For a moment he ignored my question. Then he slowly turned and faced me. He was hollow-eyed, and his pallor was alarming.

“It’s not going well,” he said at last. “It doesn’t satisfy me. There are problems that still elude me. I haven’t been able to capture all of the horror of the thing in Mulligan Wood.”

I sat down and lit a cigarette.

“I want you to explain that horror to me,” I said. “For three weeks I have waited for you to speak. I know that you have some knowledge which you are concealing from me. What was the damp, spongy thing that landed on Wells’s head in the woods? Why did we hear a droning as we fled in the fog? What was the meaning of the shape that we saw above the trees? And why, in heaven’s name, didn’t the horror spread as we feared it might? What stopped it? Howard, what do you think really happened to Wells’s brain? Did his body burn with the farm, or did they—claim it? And the other body that was found in Mulligan Wood—that lean, blackened horror with the riddled head—how do you explain that?” (Two days after the fire a skeleton had been found in Mulligan Wood. A few fragments of burnt flesh still adhered to the bones, and the skullcap was missing.)

It was a long time before Howard spoke again. He sat with bowed head fingering his notebook, and his body trembled all over. At last he raised his eyes. They shone with a wild light and hi’s lips were ashen.

“Yes,” he said. “We will discuss the horror together. Last week I did not want to speak of it. It seemed too awful to put into words. But I shall never rest in peace until I have woven it into a story, until I have made my readers feel and see that dreadful, unspeakable thing. And I cannot write of it until I am convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that I understand it myself. It may help me to talk about it.

“You have asked me what the damp thing was that fell on Wells’s head. I believe that it was a human brain—the essence of a human brain drawn out through a hole, or holes, in a human head. I believe the brain was drawn out by imperceptible degrees, and reconstructed again by the horror. I believe that for some purpose of its own it used human brains—perhaps to learn from them. Or perhaps it merely played with them. The blackened, riddled body in Mulligan Wood? That was the body of the first victim, some poor fool who got lost between the tall trees. I rather suspect the trees helped. I think the horror endowed them with a strange life. Anyhow, the poor chap lost his brain. The horror took it, and played with it, and then accidentally dropped it. It dropped it on Wells’s head. Wells said that the long, thin, and very white arm he saw was looking for something that it had dropped. Of course Wells didn’t really see the arm objectively, but the horror that is without form or color had already entered his brain and clothed itself in human thought.

“As for the droning that we heard and the shape we thought we saw above the burning forest—that was the horror seeking to make itself felt, seeking to break down barriers, seeking to enter our brains and clothe itself with our thoughts. It almost got us. If we had seen the white arm, we should have been lost.”

Howard walked to the window. He drew back the curtains and gazed for a moment at the crowded harbor and the tall, white buildings that towered against the moon. He was staring at the skyline of lower Manhattan. Sheer beneath him the cliffs of Brooklyn Heights loomed darkly.

“Why didn’t they conquer?” he cried. “They could have destroyed us utterly. They could have wiped us from Earth—all our wealth and power would have gone down before them.”

I shivered. “Yes… why didn’t the horror spread?” I asked.

Howard shrugged his shoulders. “I do not know. Perhaps they discovered that human brains were too trivial and absurd to bother with. Perhaps we ceased to amuse them. Perhaps they grew tired of us. But it is conceivable that the sign destroyed them—or sent them back through space. I think they came millions of years ago, and were frightened away by the sign. When they discovered that we had not forgotten the use of the sign they may have fled in terror. Certainly there has been no manifestation for three weeks. I think that they are gone.”

“And Henry Wells?” I asked.

“Well, his body was not found. I imagine they came for him.”

“And you honestly intend to put this—this obscenity into a story? Oh, my God! The whole thing is so incredible, so unheard of, that I can’t believe it. Did we not dream it all? Were we ever really in Partridgeville? Did we sit in an ancient house and discuss frightful things while the fog curled about us? Did we walk through that unholy wood? Were the trees really alive, and did Henry Wells run about on his hands and knees like a wolf?”

Howard sat down quietly and rolled up his sleeve. He thrust his thin arm toward me. “Can you argue away that scar?” he said. “There are the marks of the beast that attacked me—the man-beast that was Henry Wells. A dream? I would cut off this arm immediately at the elbow if you could convince me that it was a dream.”

I walked to the window and remained for a long time staring at Manhattan. There, I thought, is something substantial. It is absurd to imagine that anything could destroy it. It is absurd to imagine that the horror was really as terrible as it seemed to us in Partridgeville. I must persuade Howard not to write about it. We must both try to forget it.

I returned to where he sat and laid my hand on his shoulder.

“You’ll never give up the idea of putting it into a story?” I urged gently.

“Never!” He was on his feet, and his eyes were blazing. “Do you think I would give up now when I’ve almost captured it? I shall write a story that will penetrate to the inmost core of a horror that is without form and substance, but more terrible than a plague-stricken city when the cadences of a tolling bell sound an end to all hope. I shall surpass Poe. I shall surpass all the masters.”

“Surpass them and be damned then,” I said angrily. “That way madness lies, but it is useless to argue with you. Your egoism is too colossal.”

I turned and walked swiftly out of the room. It occurred to me as I descended the stairs that I had made an idiot of myself with my fears, but even as I went down I looked fearfully back over my shoulder, as though I expected a great stone weight to descend from above and crush me to the earth. He should forget the honor, I thought. He should wipe it from his mind. He will go mad if he writes about it.

***

Three days passed before I saw Howard again.

“Come in,” he said in a curiously hoarse voice when I knocked on his door.

I found him in dressing-gown and slippers, and I knew as soon as I saw him that he was terribly exultant.

“I have triumphed, Frank!” he cried. “I have reproduced the form that is formless, the burning shame that man has not looked upon, the crawling, fleshless obscenity that sucks at our brains!” Before I could so much as gasp, he placed the bulky manuscript in my hands.

“Read it, Frank,” he commanded. “Sit down at once and read it!”

I crossed to the window and sat down on the lounge. I sat there oblivious to everything but the typewritten sheets before me. I confess that I was consumed with curiosity. I had never questioned Howard’s power. With words he wrought miracles; breaths from the unknown blew always over his pages, and things that had passed beyond Earth returned at his bidding. But could he even suggest the horror that we had known? Could he even so much as hint at the loathsome, crawling thing that had claimed the brain of Henry Wells?

I read the story through. I read it slowly, and clutched at the pillows beside me in a frenzy of loathing. As soon as I had finished it Howard snatched it from me. He evidently suspected that I desired to tear it to shreds.

“What do you think of it?” he cried exultantly.

“It is indescribably foul!” I exclaimed. “It violates privacies of the mind that should never be laid bare.”

“But you will concede that I have made the horror convincing?”

I nodded and reached for my hat. “You have made it so convincing that I cannot remain and discuss it with you. I intend to walk until morning. I intend to walk until I am too weary to care, or think, or remember.”

“It is a very great story!” he shouted at me, but I passed down the stairs and out of the house without replying.

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