Sunday, July 24, 2005

The Shoggoth's Corpse

My name is Charlie Montgomery and the name of my village is Crawford. When I was a boy, Crawford was a small university town of around 20,000 people or so. Now it’s a community of about 350 people who are clinging on to the tattered edges of survival. The fact that there’s even that many of us is my father’s doing.

He was a professor of antiquities at the university. His specialty was the study of the so-called Pnakotic manuscripts. He was, according to him, one of the foremost experts in his field which, he admitted, wasn’t much given that very few people, even in academia, had heard of them and most of those who had were convinced that they were a hoax.

Dad believed that they were genuine. He told me that he believed that they predated humankind. He said that they were a kind of secret history of the world that detailed other, older races that existed before the advent of mankind and which also predicted that certain of these “Great Old Ones” would someday return.

Eventually he became convinced that the time of return was imminent. He would take me out with him on strange errands where we’d deposit stones etched with curious signs into seemingly random locations. At night, he’d lock himself into his office for hours on end. I’d press my ear up against his door and hear him mumbling and, occasionally, chanting. Mom thought that he was losing his mind. I was thirteen years old at the time: old enough to have reached that conclusion on my own.

A few days before the end, she threatened to leave him. He told her that he’d kill her, especially if she tried to take me with her. By that point his hair was disheveled and the university was growing concerned because he not only hadn’t showed up for work for a week but the university’s copy of the manuscripts had gone missing and they wanted to know if he had taken them.

The day before it happened, she woke me up and told me to come to the car. I knew what she was doing and didn’t ask any questions. We were both frightened of what dad was becoming and wanted nothing more than to get out of there. We actually got in the car but, for some reason, she just couldn’t bring herself to turn the ignition. I’ve wondered about that in the years since then but, at the time, I thought that she was just too confused by her love for him. In the end, we got out of the car and went back into the house. She wished me good night. That was the last time I ever saw her.

I don’t remember what happened afterwards. No one does. There was a long, long nightmare filled with things that none of us either can or want to remember. Sometimes, when I have bad dreams, I hear screams and smell smoke. Other times, I see things that look like eyes but which I somehow know aren’t. Eventually, one by one, we woke up from the nightmare and found how much our world had changed.

The town was gone. Where once there had been miles upon miles of suburban residences, there was only a few hundred acres of cleared land bounded by a forest with a wide trail to one side. At first, we thought that we had been transported somewhere but we’ve since found the ruins of the university below us. We would also discover that some of the trees were over a hundred and fifty years old but we, apparently, hadn’t aged at all. It was just the first of many mysteries to face us.

Dad said that he was the first one to have woken up and that he was able to direct the rest of us while we were still sleep walking – or so he claims. At any rate, we woke up to discover that the village was already in place. He said that he was the one who ensured that we would survive The Transition, as he called it, and told us that we were the last human beings left alive in the world.

Everyone thought that he was crazy, of course. I didn’t, though. I had seen what dad looked liked when wasn’t in his right mind and he didn’t have that look anymore. His expression was colder than I remembered it used to be but it was, in my opinion, rational. Never the less, no one wanted to believe him. That first day we took stock of our situation. The next day, we sent out an expedition to Brimward, which was the next town over. Dad yelled at us and told us that we were being foolish and that anyone who went beyond the limits of the village was doomed. He was shouted down and laughed at.

We sent twenty people out, following the trail to the east of the village. They did not, of course, come back. Nor did the ten we sent after them. Nor the next ten, either. After that, we lost our sense of exploration aside from a few folks to went into the woods to explore. Only one of the ones who did that came back. His name was Roger Vine and he came back naked, utterly pale, and covered with elaborate lacerations. He was babbling and he continued to babble until he finally died a few days afterwards from the infections that he had developed.

Dad still didn’t get any respect. If anything, he (and, by association, I) became something of a pariah. The general consensus was that whatever had happened was his fault and that, at any rate, he wasn’t telling us the whole truth. No one took his stories of ancient alien monstrosities and gods from beyond space and time with any seriousness. The only thing that kept the village from turning against us entirely was the fact that he obviously did know something about what had happened and the simple fact that there weren’t enough people, as it were, to attend to the farming that we had all had to take up on extraordinarily short notice. In the absence of evidence that he was, in fact, directly responsible for the catastrophe, they contended themselves with, literally, forcing us to the edge of life in the village.

It was nearly a full year before the shoggoths first came. Dad had been warning us that they were coming for months. According to him, the shoggoths were great, shapeless beasts that had originally been bred as creatures of burden hundreds of millions of years ago by “star-headed aliens” that he called “Old Ones”. According to him, the word shoggoth meant something like slave and something like tool. He said that the shoggoths had never died out but that they had, for millions of years, been confined to the Antarctic but that this was no longer the case. Above all, he warned us that the shoggoths were coming.

When we had woken up, the village had been laid out in a rough U-shape. The trail, at the east end of the forest, extended into the center of the village. Around this central trail, which was about thirty feet wide, were the houses of the village and, around them, the fields where we would raise our food and, around that, the forest. Dad warned us, again and again, not to place any buildings into that gap. Naturally, as with the rest of his advice, he was ignored.

They came on the fourteenth of March. The first hint that we had of the shoggoths coming was a diffuse sense of dread. For no apparent reason, our hearts started to beat faster and we found ourselves sweating. The first sign of these feelings was in the morning and they continued to grow until early afternoon, by which point we found ourselves verging on a state of panic. Then we heard shuffling noises from the east, from the trail, accompanied by a weird kind of fluting. Dad yelled at us, then, to get into our homes, to crawl into our basements and hide.

In spite of being considered the village lunatic for the last year, no one thought to contradict or disobey him. Everyone, at that moment, knew that the shoggoths were coming and not a single one of us could bear to face the sight of them. We ran into our homes, bolted our doors behind us, and scampered down into our crude basements (another gift from dad).

The insane piping grew louder and the ground started to quiver. We could feel the shoggoths above us, in our village. It felt like our souls were being pounded on an anvil. There came a point where the fear we felt reached such a crescendo that I think that our minds must have simply shut down. It wasn’t until sundown that the shoggoths left and we returned to ourselves.

The buildings that were in the paths of the shoggoths had simply been pushed aside as though by immense bulldozers. None of those homes had basements, fortunately, so no one had tried to seek shelter in them. Never the less, not everyone remained. Mary Innsworth and Larry Jones were nowhere to be found after the shoggoths left. Their families swear that they had been with them. The bolts on their doors were still secure but, somehow, they had been taken. We were all of us perfectly certain that they had been taken and not, say, eaten although none of us could say where our certainty came from.

In the year before the attack, the village had put together a small democratic council to run things. After the attack, the council remained intact, as did all the procedures for electing new ones every few years, but everyone had a tacit understanding that my dad was really the one who was in charge of things. I guess that, before the shoggoths, no one really believed that we now lived in a world of monsters and alien forces. Afterwards, it was simply impossible to deny.

Even dad couldn’t stop the shoggoths from returning and he told us so in plain terms that first night. He could, at least, tell us when they were coming and he could keep the casualties to a minimum if we followed his lead, which we all too willing to do.

They have never come more than once or twice a year. Each time they have come, they have taken a few people with them. We’ve tried putting locks and chains on our doors and other such barriers, but it hasn’t mattered. One year, the town tried putting spikes and bulwarks across the shoggoth trail but they simply swept them aside. One year there was a suggestion to try making some explosives but dad flatly forbid that idea. That was a tense year that almost lead to a mutiny against his authority but, ultimately, he carried the day.

The shoggoths haven’t come every year. One year, a fever swept through the village. Forty-two people died over the course of three months and there was the very real concern that it would, ultimately, take everyone. The mood, afterwards, was grim and dad seemed to be personally angry about it although I couldn’t say why. It had been eight months since the last visit so we were expecting the shoggoths to add their contributions to our misery soon enough. But they didn’t come. Not that year, nor for another three years afterwards. There was a certain hopefulness that the attacks were, at long last, over, but dad warned us that this was not a permanent respite – a stance that earned him quite a bit of resentment.

When they returned, it felt like our very spirits were being crushed under their bulk. We knew, then, that the shoggoths were always going to be with us and that was that.

I was twenty-four when that happened. Something about the gap in the shoggoth’s visits bothered me. I decided to look over the yearly census records that we had been keeping. As I had suspected, the number of people taken by the shoggoths was fairly constant with the population growth of the village. Although they could have easily exterminated us, that wasn’t their goal. They were deliberately culling us or, perhaps, harvesting us. I went to confront my father.

After my dad had become the de facto leader of the village, I started to look up to him again. I resented the way that he had treated me and my mother and I was still bitter about having to spend a year as a virtual outcast but I realized that none of that was really his fault. I came to believe that he had saved us all, in spite of ourselves, and that he deserved our respect and my admiration. There was certainly a gap between us but I should, at least, try to bridge the gap. It wasn’t easy because he had, himself, grown remote from me.

One of the ways that I tried to get closer to him was by telling him that, some day, I’d need to take over for him when it was my time to assume responsibility for the village. I’ll freely admit that I wasn’t serious about actually running things after he was gone, and I think he knew it, but it was a pretext. Most of the questions I asked were pragmatic things – how to get along with the city council, how to manage the village’s records, and the like. Every so often, I’d try to ask him about the deeper things such as what was going on in the world beyond the village and how he knew when the shoggoths were coming. He rarely answered such questions and his answers were typically cryptic. One time, I asked him how he had saved us. He looked at me a long while and, finally, said, “I compromised.”

I was sure that I had understood the nature of the compromise, at long last, as well as how he knew when the shoggoths were coming. I went and knocked on his door, angry with the intention of confronting him.

He let me in and I asked him point blank, “Did you make a deal with the shoggoths?”

I had never noticed it, before, but, over the years, his eyes had turned gray. I found myself looking into those discolored eyes now, feeling unnerved but filled with the courage that rage can give you. He shook his head, at last, and said, “No. I never made a deal with the shoggoths.”

Something about the way that he said it struck me as a half truth. If he hadn’t made a deal with them, I was sure that he had made a deal with someone – with something. I demanded that he tell me the truth, the whole truth, or else I’d go to the council and tell the whole village that he had sold us out.

He laughed at me, then. It was just a quiet, little laugh but it had been the first time I had heard him do so in well over a decade. I think that’s what made it so unnerving.

“Are you threatening me, son? The things that threaten me don’t look anything like you.”

I didn’t follow through on my threat. I told myself that it was because the village needed him and that I shouldn’t question the fact that he had saved all of us from death and destruction. I told myself that, ultimately, I shouldn’t get involved in things that I didn’t understand. I was lying to myself, though. The truth is that he had scared me. I was more frightened of him, at that moment, then I ever was of the shoggoths.

He died last year.

Over the years, some of us had passed the time excavating the ruins of the old University. There wasn’t much left, under the ground, and the parts that remained were largely inaccessible. Never the less, it gave us a distraction from our daily toils and gave us a sense of connection with the past. Dad didn’t object and neither did anyone else.

One of the artifacts that we managed to salvage was an ancient ham radio set from the old media lab. It was badly damaged and, of course, we had nothing to power it. Never the less, we have a fair number of talented people in our community, many of them being ex-students and teachers. It was only a matter of time before the device was repaired and a hand-generator was rigged up.

For years, the only thing that came out of it had been static. Never the less, every so often, someone would crank it up for another listen. Last September, Old Jerry heard something else. It sounded a little bit like music and a little bit like words, but it was hard to make out. As soon as dad heard about this, he confiscated the set and told everyone that he needed to study the broadcast.

The university had been right to accuse dad of making off with the Pnakotic manuscripts. He had managed to hang on to them through the crisis. I was forbidden to have any access to them. Naturally, I did sneak peeks at them when I was still living with him but, to me, they were just a bunch of meaningless lines and diagrams. Never the less, dad treasured them.

He locked himself up with the radio. He was in there for three days before any of us dared to look in on him. When he didn’t respond to our knocks, I had them break the door down. He had gouged his eyes out and, somehow, had managed to strangle himself to death with his own hands. The manuscripts had been torn to shreds. We found fragments of them in my dad’s throat, his ears, his eye sockets and even his anus. The queer thing, to me, was the no one had heard anything. It was as though he had done this to himself quietly and methodically.

We destroyed the ham set immediately and buried my father shortly afterwards. No one spoke at the funeral. I guess they were expecting that I would say something but I didn’t know what to say.

Now that he’s gone, the council has resumed its control over the village. I’m sure, however, that none of them relish having their authority back. Being in charge means being responsible, after all, and who wants to take responsibility for this kind of world? I did tell them about my confrontation with my father, about my suspicions, but it hasn’t made me any friends. Before too long I was, once again, on the outside of village life waiting, along with everyone else, for the next shoggoth visit. I think we were all afraid that, if there was a deal, it was now void.

They came two weeks ago. The attack, itself, was just like all the others: a creeping, pounding fear that drives you down into your basement and out of your mind. When it was over we came out, into the twilight, wondering who would be gone. No one was lost, this time, but any relief we might have felt was spoiled by the presence of a dead shoggoth.

Its body straddled the trail at the point where it returned to the forest. Although dad had told us what shoggoths looked like, no description could have prepared us for the actual sight. I don’t think that even a drawing or even a photograph would have captured the actual horror of the thing.

First of all, it was huge. It was roughly lozenge shaped, being about ten feet wide and over sixty feet long. Dad’s contention that they were amorphous seemed to be accurate, at first, but a closer look proved that it did have structure, only one that was complex and difficult to follow. Its surface was iridescent except for one large patch on one of its sides that was a dull greenish hue. One of the most unnerving aspects of it was that its body seemed to be filled with eyes floating just underneath its skin. At least I assume that they were eyes. They reminded me of some of the things that have followed me into my nightmares over the years.

If you came closer than ten feet to it, you started to feel what I could only describe as a nausea of the soul. It was impossible to get any closer than five feet.

We had a town meeting that night to discuss what could be done about it. There was a lot of concern that the shoggoths would be mad at us (for what, I’m not sure). The usual people said that we should take a stand against them once and for all but the rest of us, for the most part, chose to ignore them. As for the corpse, it was quickly decided that there was nothing that could be done. Even if we could have approached it, we didn’t have the machinery to move something that large nor could we have built any with the resources we had. There was some concern about foul and, possibly, poisonous odors coming off of the body but, since the wind generally blew to the east, it was decided that we should be largely safe from any noxious gases… or at least so it was hoped.

For a week, we tried our best to pretend that it wasn’t there. By that point, however, it was becoming clear that the corpse wasn’t decaying. Even the flies stayed away from it. Worse, the zone of unapproachability around it was starting to grow. By that point, it had already extended itself another 5 feet beyond the body of the beast. We knew that if it kept growing, we’d eventually be pushed out into the forest where we’d have to face whatever swallowed up those others who went into it before. Another meeting was called.

Obviously, something had to be done, but what? Fighting the shoggoths continued to seem like an act of insanity as did the idea of trying to make it through the woods to safety. If all else failed, that would, of course, be what we would end up doing but there had to be a third option.

It was eventually decided that I was the third option. I was elected to go “talk” to the shoggoths. I told them that I didn’t even know where the shoggoths lived. It was pointed out that their trail was fairly obvious. I insisted that I didn’t know how to talk to them. This was met with flat skepticism. After all, I was my father’s son. I told them that I would refuse. They told me that they’d tie me up and throw my body into the woods if I didn’t go. I was assured that I was being given a great honor and that I would have, forever more, the gratitude and love of the village if I succeeded in my mission. They can say that all they want but I know the truth. I’m being punished for my dad’s death. He would have known what to do and it was somehow my fault for not knowing too.

At the very least, I would have thought that I could have gotten laid a few times before I had to set out on my suicide mission but I had no such luck. It was like the shoggoth’s taint had become attached to me. No one met my eyes when I finally left, hiking past the thing.

I want to be honest. My very first impulse was to get out of sight of the village and then to fuck off in a different direction. It wouldn’t have been hard. Once I had edged past the corpse, I would have been out of sight and no one had any idea of where the trail led anyway. To my dismay, the trail didn’t intersect with any other paths and the woods grew thicker to my side.

I, ultimately, decided to just hang out on the far side of the shoggoth for a few days and then return with some story about having met the shoggoths and… well, I’m not sure quite what I would have said but I was confident in my ability to improvise. I actually did turn back but found that the emanation from the shoggoth had extended to block the entire path and had, further more, extended into the woods. I would have risked the forest except for the fact that I had heard something in them, something that had been shadowing me.

You may think me a coward, and I won’t blame you. All I can ask is for you to put yourself in my shoes. For years on end, we’ve been suffering these visitations. The fear that we have to endure each and every time is not a normal fear. It’s corrosive. It eats at your mind, at your heart, and at your soul. I’m thirty-three years old now and I’ve been living with this nightmare for twenty years. I would like to think that, if I had had a normal life, I could have grown up to be a braver and better person, but my world ended on an August day when I was thirteen years old.

It was this realization, at last, that allowed me to go on and to fulfill my mission for the village. It was neither bravery nor cowardice but, rather, simple fatigue. If the shoggoths wanted to eat me, or dissect me, or whatever the hell it is that they did to their victims, I’d sooner be done with it and have an end to this miserable half-excuse for a life.

And so I marched on.

I followed the shoggoth trail for two days. At the end, it dropped into a valley. There’s a structure in the valley. It’s hard for me to estimate it’s size but it must be at least a five hundred yards at the base and, perhaps, eight hundred yards tall.

Just like the shoggoths, the initial impression is of randomness and shapelessness that eventually gives way to a sense of complexity and structure. Unlike the shoggoths, it’s beautiful. If I had to describe it, I would say that it looks like a loose collection of long, curved silver cylinders apparently looping over each other at random, but that would be as misleading as saying that shoggoths look like amoebas. For one thing, the cylinders cross over each other in ways that are hard for my eyes to follow. At one moment, the overall shape will look one way to me and then my eyes will shift focus and, suddenly, the whole thing looks different. It’s not like the shape of it actually changed but, rather, as though my understanding of the shape shifted. These changes in perspective happen every few seconds but the sensation is not uncomfortable. It is, in fact, mesmerizing.

There’s hundreds of shoggoths here. Maybe thousands. Many of them are clustered around the base but some of them, looking like nothing so much as slugs from this distance, crawl over the surface of the thing. In spite of that, they don’t detract from its beauty.

I’ve been here a whole day now, observing. At first I thought that the shoggoths had built, or were continuing to build, this thing but I’m not so sure about that anymore. I remember what dad said the word shoggoth meant. He said that it was something like the word tool and something like the world slave but not quite either. I think that this thing might not be the shoggoth’s creation or, if it is, that it’s also their owner and master.

Is this the thing that my father made his deal with? If so, is this the same thing that threatened him? I can’t believe that. After the shoggoths, I expected, if anything, worse horrors to lie beyond them. I am convinced that I am looking upon something that is transcendent, but I can’t believe that it is the source of our miseries. Perhaps dad lied, even with his implications. Perhaps he just wanted to own the village. For all I know, maybe the shoggoths were even trying to rescue us. At this point, anything may be possible.

Now that I’ve set my thoughts down, I know what I have to do. The shoggoths don’t scare me, anymore. I’m going to meet their master.


Haunted Jo said...

This was great, very interesting and well written. Love to read more!

Andrew Lias said...

Thanks, Jo! That's a very kind comment. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

jsalvati said...

I just want to say that this is extremely good fiction. I first read this story a few years ago, and I have come back to read it again twice.

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