Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Naked Terror

John Quidor. Money Diggers, 1832

The weather was grim.

It had not stopped raining for five days straight and the ship’s captain had begun to suffer from a mysterious disease. The doctor onboard had tried to treat the fever and vomiting, but the captain’s convulsions became more frequent and what little medicine we had had already been used in a failed attempt to assuage the captain’s suffering. Nothing the doctor did had a positive effect on his condition though and by the fourth day Captain McKaid began to hemorrhage profusely from every orifice, drowning in a fountain of his own blood.

For my part, I was one of the pallbearers at the Captain’s naval funeral, it was the least that I could do for the man who had saved my life from the living nightmare that we had stumbled on. If it were not for him and many of the ship’s crew I fear that I would have been the one to suffer the terminal illness that stole the Captain’s life or worse abandoned and left to fend myself against the strange monstrosities and cruel gods on that hellish island on the Pacific.

We had set sail for the Melanesians in December of 1922, leaving Manhattan port in late winter and had hoped to arrive at our destination by early spring. The recluse millionaire, Barnabas Marsh, had commissioned our ship, the S.S. Lenore, to travel to the Pacific in search of an island that Marsh’s grandfather Obed Marsh, a sea captain himself, had discovered during his adventures in the mid-18th century. Rumors abound that the spry captain had befriended some natives and even brought a few back to his hometown of Innsmouth to work their black magic on the town in hopes of rejuvenating it’s flagging fishing and milling industries. 

Young Obed’s intuition supposedly paid off though and in a matter of month’s the strange rituals that the dark natives had performed brought great prosperity to the town of Innsmouth. Many New England towns looked upon the economic miracle that occurred in Obed’s hometown with envy and would often send someone to investigate in an attempt to replicate Innsmouth’s great success but rarely did any stranger who ever entered and stayed longer than an afternoon make it back to report anything. One gentleman who had managed to survive was found miles away from Innsmouth babbling incomprehensibly about anthropoid fish-men who had come out of the sea to perform queer rituals during the night.

As a native of Massachusetts I had heard these tales of old Innsmouth all my life and by the time I had matriculated to my father’s alma mater Miskatonic University I could not help but attempt to answer the mystery of Innsmouth and with the help of my friend and professor Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee I began to pursue a correspondence with Barnabas Marsh. I wrote him letter after letter, introducing myself as a student of history and the occult, and that I had desired to write a book on Innsmouth and it’s greatest son Obed Marsh, old Barnabas’s grandfather. It took several months before I got a response but eventually Barnabas responded to one of my letters. He agreed to meet with me at his estate.

Professor Peaslee, a man only in his early 40s but due to his infamy in the town of Arkham for having gone mad for a spell, losing everything that mattered in his life, and then one day returning to full sanity within a matter of five years, had over the years learned to harness a sixth sense for danger and warned me to meet old Barnabas in a far more neutral location. I asked him his reason for doing so but he would not give me any clear answers, but being an obedient pupil I agreed with my mentor and wrote back to Marsh’s office and asked if we could meet in the nearby town of Newburyport since it was far closer to Arkham and would allow me the chance to interview the man and still make it back to the University to attend my late evening classes. Obed replied to my request with the Teletype message, “3 pm at the Hotel Ulthar. 11/19.”

By the time I received the message it was already the 18th and I had only a short time to prepare my questions for ol’ Barnabas Marsh and acquire a ticket to Newburyport. I managed to do everything I needed though and still had my evenings free to meet Peaslee for our weekly dinners. During these meals I would assail my mentor with a slew of questions about Innsmouth, the Marshes, and his travels around the globe in search of evidence of a race of polymorphous jelly-like creatures he called the Yithians.

When I had first heard his tales about giant cities in earth’s past and technology which would allow creatures from different points in space-time to transfer their minds to a host at anytime during the space-time continuum, I had my doubts as to the validity of his stories, but the more I interrogated my ginger-haired friend and mentor the more I came to believe in his tales. Unlike typical madmen who always scream at you that their stories are unequivocally the truth my friend merely told his tales without any excess of emotion, as if he were trying to hold back the full extent of the horrors he knew. And it was these eldritch stories that had dis-lodged the boyhood tales I heard about Innsmouth from my mind and made me decide to make that peculiar town the subject of my dissertation. 

The first time I brought up the topic of that antediluvian town to Professor Peaslee he listened to all my queer theories on Innsmouth, nodded, and then told me that it was a fine subject for a thesis. The approval of my mentor spurred me to do some more research. Luckily, Miskatonic had a treasure trove of daemonic texts, the best of which was a complete and original copy of the Necronomicon by the mad “Arab” Abdul Alhazred. That night before I was to interview Barnabas Marsh, though, I suffered a terrible shock to my system as I stared at the sickly yellow moon that was the color of stained ancient pottery. I could not stop pondering as to exactly what secrets old Obed might deposit from his foetid mouth into my ear. I wanted to comprehend all the secrets of the world but was unsure if I could handle the burden of that knowledge. Eventually though all my ruminating was cut short by a deep sleep that I had no difficulty falling into after about eight to ten brandy snifters.

Waking up quite early and with no hangover to slow me down I easily made my way from Arkham to Newburyport early enough to do some site seeing. During my early college years I quite enjoyed day trips to the town. Its various antiquarian shops helped me pass the time and sometimes even aided in my research. Eventually though the clock struck three and I made my way to the dilapidated Hotel Ulthar. Though the town of Newburyport had begun to modernize, initiating a town-wide ordinance to pave over its cobblestone streets with concrete, tearing down the oil lamps to make way for the far more practical electrical lamps that dotted modern cities like Boston and Cincinnati, and even the mills and factories began to hire workers from the immigrant rabble that were making their way throughout New England. Even with all these modernizations the Hotel Ulthar never changed, a crumbling eyesore when compared to the other concrete buildings on Machen Boulevard. 

Having been built at around the time of the second war with Britain the building that would come to be known as the Hotel Ulthar was first owned by Oliver Bixby, a man who was reportedly born in the Caribbean to a family who owned five large sugar plantations and countless slaves. No one knows exactly when and how young Oliver made his way to Massachusetts; only that on the day he arrived he had commissioned the town father’s to grant him some land to build his mansion. They apparently did have reservations about giving Bixby, whose swarthy complexion had confused many of his paternal lineage, but eventually the town hall acquiesced after Oliver Bixby presented several large satchels of gold to the town fathers. Several months later, the Bixby estate was built and Oliver’s mulatto maid and servants were shipped to the town of Newburyport. 

It’s said that all matter of loathsome acts were committed in that house. A few of the townsfolk brave enough to look in at night reported iridescent lights and odd screams coming from the house’s cellars. During the summer, neighbors would often complain of a terrible smell emitting from the Bixby estate. And it was also during this time that a rash of graveyards around the county were being burgled of its fresh corpses. Needless to say, the local constabulary placed their newest resident as a prime suspect, but before they could bring him in for questioning a mob of superstitious townsfolk had stormed the gates of the Bixby estate and charged into Oliver Bixby’s accursed underground sanctuary to force the young man to answer for all his suspected crimes. 

Inside Bixby’s dank cavernous basement witnesses said that they saw all manner of torture devices and stacks of dead surgically mutilated monstrosities piled shoulder high. In metal cages, human specimens ranging from Negroes, Chinamen, and even a few mixed breeds were being chained up; some had body parts hacked off and a few, to the consternation of many eyewitnesses, had foreign limbs attached to their bodies and tumorous outgrowths protruding from their face, neck and torso.  The unruly mob went there to only put the man on trial, but once they saw those horrors it was decided that Bixby and all memory of him had to be wiped out. And so they set fire to the mansion, turning all things living and dead inside into black ash. As for Bixby the mob dragged him from his burning home, tied a rope to his neck, and hung him from a tree to dangle; his last words being an incomprehensible mix of English, Creole, and devil’s tongue. 

It was decades before anything was built on the Bixby estate.  Many feared that the grounds were cursed, but over time the stories of Bixby’s horrors were forgotten and the town fathers decided to build a place for all the incoming visitors to the town and thus the establishment was christened during the year of our lord 1873, The Hotel Ulthar. During its day, the building was an elegant site to behold. A grand structure designed in the Georgian style it was the place for businessmen and travelers from all over to come and relax. And I’m certain it would have continued to be so if science had not been so quick to make oil and candle obsolete. The coming of electricity brought unemployment to more than half the residents of Newburyport, whose primary town export was whale blubber for use in traditional lamps, and thus to pay off mounting debts it was decided to sell the landmark to the highest bidder, but buyers were hard to come by in New England at that time and eventually the once magnificent building was just left to slowly crumble. On occasion, it does have a few guests, for example old Barnabas, but most townspeople here can’t be bothered to remember a past they were never even part of.  

Though I had arrived exactly on time I was surprised to find that when I entered the hotel that Barnabas Marsh was already seated at a table and apparently enjoying a cup of coffee and some biscuits. It did not take long for him to see me in the lobby and beckoned me to come over with his hand. I calmly approached Barnabas’s table like a child walking towards an unfamiliar relative.  When I arrived within earshot of him Barnabas remarked, “I was worried that you’d be late for our meeting Mr. Delapore.”

I inhaled and received a strong cloud of stale air.

“I’m quite sorry for making you wait Mr. Marsh. I often get lost in my thoughts roaming the streets of Newburyport.”

The old man let out a wheezy cough, “I understand. When I was a boy Newburyport was always a fascinating place to explore. The docks were always busy and teeming with all matter of cargo from all over the world. The riches of the world on those ships were equal to Solomon’s own.”

I had never seen a picture of Barnabas Marsh before that day. Although I knew he had been on this earth for only 40 years his skin had already begun to be terribly mottled and sections of flesh on his neck had begun to crust over like scales on a fish. As for his eyes, though still imbued with a youthful glint, it appeared that the lid over them had retracted quite a bit into his sockets giving the impression that ol’ Barnabas was some sort of ichthyoid offshoot. Needless to say, it took great strength to stifle the feeling of revulsion I had for the man as his thin brownish lips flapped about as he chewed on a piece of bread. 

“So what is it that you want to speak to me about Mr. Delapore?”

I calmly sat down and began to state my intentions of writing a book on Barnabas’s grandfather and the town he came from. As I spoke I could not help noticing one corner of the old man’s lip that was positioned in an odd way, as if he was smirking at me. Was the old man merely smiling innocently or was he laughing at me? I did not have much time to ponder the question for long as Barnabas interrupted me mid-way through my rambling speech.

“You’ve got a headful of theories Mr. Delapore. A lot of interesting ideas about my town, but what evidence, aside from third person accounts, do you have?”

“Well….nothing at all, Sir. That was why I was hoping to talk to you today, Sir. I had thought you could shine a light on the scurrilous rumors that people have been spreading about your town…and your family.”

Barnabas let out a wheezy laugh.

“Rumors are spread by cowards, weak-willed men who can’t muster the strength to challenge their foes. My family and I can’t be bothered by such trivial concerns. Those who don’t belong to Innsmouth will never understand Innsmouth.”

I wondered what he meant by “belonged to Innsmouth”, but instead of asking him to clarify his previous statement I opened my mouth to ask a foolish question.

“But don’t you want to set the record straight?”

Barnabas’s laugh grew a little louder. 

“Set the record straight? How would a book written by a college student, a non-native son of Innsmouth to boot, repair my town’s reputation in this county? As tempting as an influx of armchair scholars to Innsmouth is I think I’ll pass.”

I thought about what I could say to change the man’s mind but could only blunder a meek response.

“I care to know what others have failed at understanding.”

Barnabas’s smirk grew.

“I don’t think you’ve got the intestinal fortitude to see your quest to the end, Mr. Delapore. My grandfather traveled around the world and back several times in search of knowledge also. He saw things no book of yours could ever do proper justice in describing and almost lost his life several times over….”

I looked Barnabas in the eyes trying to understand what the old man was driving at.

“If you want to begin to learn about my town and my grandfather, Mr. Delapore, you’ve got to start at the beginning.”

What “beginning” was he talking about? Before I could ask he had read the expression on my face and elaborated.

“You know the stories about my grandfather? Well not all of them are legends. A few of the fantastic ones have even managed to actually have a grain of truth in them. Do you want to know which ones?”

“Yes, of course. That is why I’m here, Sir. I desperately want to know.”

“I think you might regret that, Mr. Delapore. Ignorance is often a far more safer place to inhabit than the harsh realm of reality.”

“Mr. Marsh I assure you I am no child. I came here as a scholar, an academic, to learn the mystery of Innsmouth.”

Barnabas let out another laugh.

“A few have tried.”

“I don’t care about the others.”

My defiant streak though amusing to Barnabas, soon had the opposite reaction I wanted as he got up from our table and then started walking away. I was clueless as to what to do. Further aggression on my part could end any further contact from the man and so I just sat watching him leave.

I felt dejected at my failure to get any information from Barnabas Marsh. I had high hopes that maybe he would agree to another meeting with me, and after two days I sent him a message asking for a second meeting. No response came, though, and so I spent my days doing idle research at the Arkham library. I spent two entire weeks buried in forgotten tomes trying to piece together the cryptic clues Barnabas Marsh had left me during our last conversation yet the books could not offer me anything in the way of new information.

By the time Thanksgiving had come and gone I was relegated to the fact that my quest to learn about Innsmouth would not be aided by any of the Marshes and thought maybe a proper visit to the town might yield some clues. I had planned to visit the town during Winter break but then during the first week of December I received a letter from Marsh. 

Dear Mr. Delapore,

I hope the holidays find you well. I myself loathe this time of year. Most of my family is far away and I have no one to spend my time with except for my maidservants and butlers. During our last meeting I asked you if you are prepared to go the distance in your quest to learn the history of my town and family. I will ask you this question again. 

Think hard about your answer Mr. Delapore for I will not be responsible for your sanity or your safety. The world we live in has borne great monstrosities that magic and science have tried to label or explain but only a few handful have truly peered in the abyss and come back alive. My grandfather Obed was one of those men. As an explorer he traveled in search of riches when he was young. By middle age he grew tired of petty baubles and looked for something more substantial. He found it eventually on one of his voyages. As your research might have told you he had discovered an undocumented island in the Pacific, off the coast of Indonesia. He befriended the natives there and they taught him of their ways and their rituals. He took that knowledge and something else back to Innsmouth to help our town during a terrible recession. Without my grandfather the wealth and prosperity that my town enjoyed would never had existed. Over the years my grandfather had made many trips back and forth from Innsmouth to that island he had found until without warning it simply vanished. All trace of geographic landmark or people vanished as if swallowed up by the ocean.

If you truly desire the knowledge that my grandfather had then make preparations rightly because I have commissioned a ship and it’s crew to voyage to the Pacific in search of that island. We leave Manhattan port on the 28th of this month. Do not reply to my letter. Just come to the appointed place that I have stated if your answer is yes.

Signed,
Barnabas Marsh

I don’t know how many times I read his letter, but I knew the moment I finished it that I would be on that ship. On that ship traveling to God knows where. I would traverse the same path that Obed’s ship traversed in search of something that he had found and apparently ol’ Barnabas had both invited me to help find and warned against its discovery by me. What was so horrific? I wish I had never pursued the journey to find out.
  

To be continued…

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