Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Short Fiction: The Terrible Parchment

(A part of the ongoing look through the short fiction of Manly Made Wellman's collection, Sin's Doorway. This tale was found online, at one of the more reputable sources for public domain fiction.)

The Terrible Parchment
(To the memory of H. P. Lovecraft, with all admiration)
by Manly Wade Wellman
"Here's your Weird Tales," smiled my wife, entering the apartment.
"Thanks, Gwen," I said, rising and taking the magazine she held out. "But surely it's not the first of the month."
"Not for two days yet," Gwen assured me. "But just as I came to the front door, a funny old man bobbed up with an armful of magazines — advance copies, I guess. He stuck a copy of WT. right under my nose. I gave him a quarter and — oop!"
I had opened the magazine and a page fluttered to the floor. We both stooped for it, both seized it, and we both let go-Gwen gasped and I whistled. For that fallen page had a clammy, wet feel to it. Dank is the word, I think. Still stoop- ing, we grimaced at each other. Then I conquered my momentary disgust, picked up the page, and held it to the light of my desk lamp.
"It's not paper," Gwen said at once.
No more it was, and what could it be doing in Weird Tales'! Though it looked weird enough. It was a rectangle of tawny, limp parchment, grained on the upper side with scales, like the skin of some unfamiliar reptile. I turned it over. The other surface was smoother, with pore-like markings and lines of faint, rusty scribbling.
"Arabic," I pronounced. "Let's phone for Kline to come over. He reads the stuff."
"There's a Greek word," Gwen said. Her pink-tipped finger touched the string of capitals at the upper edge:
"Necronomicon," she spelled out. "P would be rho in Greek. Sounds woogey."
"That's the name of H. P. Lovecraft's book," I told her.
"Book? Oh, yes, he's always mentioning it in his stories."
"And lots of WT. authors — Clark Ashton Smith and Robert Bloch and so on — have put it into their stories," I added.
"But Lovecraft imagined the thing, didn't he?"
I laid the parchment on the desk, for my fingers still rebelled at its strange dankness. "Lovecraft describes it as the work of a mad Arab wizard, Abdul Alhazred, and it's supposed to contain secrets of powerful evils that existed before the modern world. It's become legendary."
Gwen stared at it, but did not touch it. "Is it some sort of Valentine or April Fool's joke, stuck in to thrill the sub- scribers? If so, it's cleverly made. Looks a million years old."
We pored over the rusty scrawl of Arabic, our heads close together. If it was a fake, there was every appearance of dimmed old age about the ink.
"Kline must have a look at it," I said again. "He may know what it's doing in Weird Tales."
Gwen studied the last line of characters.
"That part isn't faked," she said suddenly. She paused a moment, translating in her mind. "It says, 'Chant out the spell and give me life again."' She straightened. "Let's play some cribbage."
We both felt relief as we turned away. Light as had been our talk, we had been daunted by a sense of prodding mystery. I got out the board and the cards and we began to play on the dining table.
Ten minutes later, I turned suddenly, as if a noise had come to my mind's ear. The parchment was no longer on the desk.
"It's blown off on the floor," said Gwen.
I rose and picked it up. It felt even more unpleasant than before, and this time it seemed to wriggle in my hand. Perhaps a draft had stirred it. Dropping it back on the desk, I weighted it with an ash tray and went back to the game.
Gwen beat me soundly, adding to her household money thereby. I taunted her with suggestions of a girlhood misspent at gaming-tables, then turned idly toward the desk. I swore, or so Gwen insists, and jumped over to seize it.
"This is getting ridiculous," said Gwen, fumbling nervously with the cards.
I studied the thing again. "You said the last line was in Latin," I remarked.
"It is in Latin."
"No, in English." I read it aloud. "Chant out the spell and give me life again." And the next to the last line was in English, too, I realized. It also was written with fresh ink, in a bold hand:
Many minds and many wishes give substance to the worship of Cthulhu.
Gwen looked over my shoulder. "You're right, dear, 'Many minds and . . . ' — what does Cthulhu mean? Anything to do with the chthonian gods — the underground rulers the Greeks served?"
"I shouldn't be surprised," I said, and it sounded even drier than I had intended. "Cthulhu's a name that Lovecraft and Smith and the others used in their yarns. A god of old time, and a rank bad one at that."
Gwen shuddered, and turned the shudder into a toss of her shoulders. "Maybe the many minds and wishes gave substance to this page of the Necronomicon."
"Nonsense, the Necronomicons only Lovecraft's imagination."
"Didn't you say it had become a legend?" she reminded, utterly serious. "What's the next step after that?"
"What you suggest," I said, trying to be gaily scornful, "is that so many people have thought and talked about it that they've actually given it substance."
"Something like that," she admitted. Then, more brightly: "Oh, it'll turn out to be a joke or something else anticlimactic."
"Right," I agreed. "After all, we're not living in a weird tale."
"If we were, that would explain things." She warmed to the idea. "It was turning deliberately into language we could read. When we hesitated over the Latin — "
"It accommodatingly turned into English," I finished.
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy."
"Trite but true. Still, my name's not Horatio, and it's bedtime. Let's not dream any philosophies that'll turn into nightmares." Once more I picked up that clammy parchment. "I'm putting this under stoppage."
Opening the dictionary on the stand beside my desk, I laid the parchment inside and closed the heavy book on it. "There it stays until we get Kline here tomorrow. And now to bed."
To bed we went, but not to sleep. Gwen squirmed and muttered, and I was weary in every portion of my body except the eyelids. We got up once for sandwiches and milk, and again for aspirin. A third time we lay down and I, at least, dozed off.
I started awake to the pressure of Gwen's fingers on my shoulder. Then I heard what she had heard, a faint, stealthy rustle.
I reached for the light chord above the bed. The room sprang into radiance, and through the open door I could see the living room. I sat up in bed, staring.
Something hung down from between the leaves of the dictionary by the desk, something that moved. Something that would be rectangular if laid flat, but which now seemed to flow from its narrow prison like a trickle of fluid filth.
"It's going to come here for us," breathed Gwen, almost inaudibly.
The parchment worked free and dropped to the floor with a fleshy slap, as though it had soft weight. It began to move across the rug toward the bedroom door. Toward us.
Perhaps I might describe painstakingly how it looked as it moved, how it humped up in the middle and laid its corners to the floor like feet. But how can I convey the horrid nastiness of it, how visualize for you the sense of wicked power that it gave off in waves almost palpable? You might get an idea by draping a sheet of brown paper over a creeping turtle . . . no, that sounds ludicrous. There was nothing funny in the way that parchment moved, not an atom of humor.
Gwen crouched, all doubled up and panicky, against the headboard. Her helpless terror nerved me. Somehow, I got out and stood on the floor. I must have looked unheroic with my rumpled hair and my blue pajamas and my bare feet, but I was ready to fight.
Fight what? And how?
It came hunching over the door sill like a very flat and loathly worm. I saw the writing on it, not rusty-faint but black and heavy Snatching a water glass from the bedside table, I hurled it. The foul thing crumpled suddenly sidewise. The glass splintered on the floor where it had been. The parchment came humping, creeping toward my bare toes.
"Smash it," wailed Gwen. She must have been ready to faint.
Against a chair leaned her little parasol, with a silken tassel at its handle and a ferrule of imitation amber. I seized it and made a stab at the invader. The point thrust the center of it against the floor, pinning it there for a moment. Then I saw in what manner it had changed.
At the top ΝΕΚΡΟΝΟΜΙΚΟΝ still stood in aged ink, but the Arabic writing was transformed into English, large and gold and black as jet. Stooping to pin it, I read at a glance the first line.
A thousand times since I have yearned to speak that line aloud, to write it down, to do something to ease my mind of it. But I must not, now or ever.
Who shaped so dreadful a thought? Abdul Alhazred is a figment of Lovecrafr's imagination. And Lovecraft is human; he could never have dreamed those words that lie on my mind like links of a red-hot iron chain. And they were but the start of the writing. What could it have been like in full?
I dare not surmise. But suddenly I knew this for truth, as I tried to crush the parchment beneath the inadequate parasol — the formless evil of centuries had taken form. An author had fancied the book; others had given it being by their own mental images. The legend had become a fearsome peg on which terror, creeping over the borderland from its forbidden realm, could hang itself, grow tangible, solid, potent.
"Gwen," I called, "hide your eyes. Don't look. Don't read."
"What?" Her pale face moved close as she leaned across the bed.
"Don't read!" I yelled at her.
The parchment squirmed from under the tip of the parasol. It reached my foot, it was climbing my leg.
Would it scale my body drape itself upon my face, force its unspeakable message into my mind? Because then I'd have to speak.
The burden would be too great. My lips would open to ease the torture. "Chant out the spell ..." and the world would be crushed under the fearsome feet of Cthulhu and his brother-horrors. What sins and woes would run loose? And it would be I, I who spoke the words to release them.
Dizzy and faint, I ripped the thing from my leg. It clung, as though with tendrils or suckers, but I dragged it free and dashed it into a metal waste basket, among crumpled bits of paper. It tried to flop out again. I snatched my cigarette lighter from the bedside table. It worked; it burst into flames and I flung it into the basket.
The mass of paper kindled into fire and smoke. Up from it rose a faint, throbbing squeak, to be felt rather than heard, like a far-off voice of a bat. Deeper into the little furnace I jabbed the outcast messenger of destruction. It crinkled and thrashed in the flames, but it did not burn.
Gwen was jabbering into the telephone.
"Father O'Neal!" she cried. "Come quick, with holy water."
Then she hung up and turned to me. "He'll be here in two minutes." Her voice quavered. "But what if the holy water doesn't work?"
It did work. At the first spatter, the parchment and its gospel of wickedness vanished in a fluff of ashes. I pray my thankfulness for that, every day I live. But what if the holy water hadn't worked?

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