Tuesday, October 25, 2016

THE AVATAR STONE - A Tale of the Cthulhu Mythos

Every American horror writer, it seems, goes through a phase where they are fascinated by the powerful works of Howard Philips Lovecraft, the creator of the "Cthulhu Mythos".  I started reading Lovecraft's works in high school and loved them from the very first.  So it was only natural, as I wrote my short stories in college, that I make at least one attempt to imitate the master's style, and contribute a tale to the eerie legacy of Great Cthulhu . . . this one is pretty long, like THE DERELICT, so I'm going to break it in two.  As always, please comment and let me know what you think!


THE AVATAR STONE

By

Lewis B. Smith

(from the memoirs of VADM James Thompson, USN)

 

This story is dedicated to the memory of Howard Phillips Lovecraft,

the man who still inspires us all

 

(Editor’s Note:  I have been in the habit of reading Admiral Thompson’s journals and then writing a third-person account of the events concerned.  In this instance, however, Thompson’s own prose – written many years after the events described – was so superior to anything I could have come up with that I left it untouched except for some very minor editing here and there.)

 

          Hong Kong has long been my favorite port of call.  I have enjoyed numerous visits there, and once spent a fantastic month of leave prowling the bustling streets and narrow, shopfront alleys.  Hong Kong was also the place where the most terrifying incident of my adult life started (and my life is somewhat remarkable in the number of weird and horrible adventures it has contained).  It is of that horrible experience that I write now, and the years have not dimmed the stark fear it brought, or the nightmares which plague me to this day. 

          It was 1969, and I was for the first time holding the position of department head – operations officer, to be precise – on a warship.  It was a heady rush of responsibility for a man who had been a second-class gunner’s mate just a few years before.  The USS Davison, our old Destroyer Escort,  had been recalled to service in the escalating Vietnam War, and we had just finished three months’ worth of carrier escort and gunnery support off the coast of the Indochinese Peninsula.  Now we were pulling into Hong Kong for a well-earned three week port visit.

          Eager to do some shopping, I finished the last of the paperwork relating to our visit, gave the operations keys to the duty section leader, and hit the gangplank. I ignored the swarms of Lilith-eyed maidens plying their trade as close to the pier as the Shore Patrol would let them and headed for the Star Ferry to Kowloon to do some serious browsing.  I acquired early in life a fascination for artifacts of all sorts. As a boy, it was Indian arrowheads and Civil War relics; as a man, it was carvings and statuettes from every country I visited.  Today my home is a veritable museum of such artifacts.

          The best way to shop in Hong Kong is to get off the beaten track as quickly as possible.  I avoided the well-lit, garishly painted “sailor traps” and plunged into dark alleys with the fearlessness of the young and strong of limb.  Taking several quick turns and wandering down numerous side streets, I finally slowed my pace a bit and noticed a likely looking establishment on my left – a tiny shop precariously squeezed between a seedy motel and a pornographic bookstore. The windows were grimy, but I could see they were jammed with numerous bits of carved jade and ivory, as well as musty books, old records, and some mahogany bookends.  I pushed open the door, setting two tarnished brass bells ringing.  Would to God I’d gone drinking instead, with the other officers, or done my shopping on the other side of the bay!

          The proprietor came bustling out to greet me, and to my surprise, I saw he was British – a wizened old fellow with gigantic muttonchop sideburns and prominent yellow teeth.  Pinned to his threadbare waistcoat were several old and tarnished medals, among the British DSO and the French Medaille Militaire. A veteran of the First World War, I thought to myself.  His eyes took in my dress whites and lit up.

          “A Yank officer, bless me heart!” he cackled, rubbing his hands together.  “Ah, me dear sir, I’ve got many things to show ye!  Don’t get many Yanks in here – they all hit the bars and the brothels!”  His voice was smooth and mellow with age, and I thought he might be genuinely glad of some Caucasian company, not just eager to make a sale. 

“Is it books on the art of love ye’d be interested in?” he asked.  “I have here an old Chinese lithograph detailing over two hundred positions of -”

I interrupted him with a laugh.

 “If I was interested in that sort of thing I would have gone next door,” I told him.  Actually, I’d like to look at those old carvings in your window if you’d be so kind as to let me move those bookshelves out of the way.  I couldn’t see too clearly from outside, but it looks like you have some really nice jade and ivory pieces there.”

“By all means, Lieutenant, go ahead,” he replied.  I tuned out his chatter as I moved the shelves out of the way and slid back the dirty glass to reveal a jumble of carvings.  Dragons were much in evidence, the largest one about eight inches tall.  A nicely carved jade one caught my eye and I immediately pulled it out for a closer look.  It was badly cracked on the other side, though, so I returned it to the shelf and pulled out an ivory sailing ship.  At this moment a dusty old book which had been leaning against the corner fell outwards, revealing a dark green statuette behind it.  Ignoring the old man’s shouts to be careful with his merchandise, I pulled it out and held it up to the light.

It was a fascinating thing. The material was a very dark jade unlike any I’d seen before, but I only noticed that later.  The carving itself occupied all my attention at the moment.  A solid base perhaps four inches square, supported a hideous image, a pagan idol perhaps, grotesque and covered with tentacles and teeth.  On its back rested a pair of folded, bat-like wings, and a single burning eye leered at me from above a tooth-lined mouth.  Its outline was altogether bizarre, calling to mind some of the blasphemous Elder Beings painted by Webber to illustrate the only American edition of The Necronomicon.  Along the base of the statue were carved some very worn and obscure runes, completely strange to me, even though I had read numerous books of arcane lore during my studies at Miskatonic University two years before.  Overall, the squatting creature depicted in the carving bore features of squid, ape, and dragon, as well as some that were wholly alien.

Strangest of all, though, was a smooth, five-pointed, starlike object suspended from the creature’s neck by a fine gold chain.  This item was carved out of a light greenish-grey material much like soapstone but harder, and bore the faint pattern of seemingly random dots in its center.  The whole thing was so delicately crafted, down to the last detail – one could easily imagine it moving to a shambling, half-sentient life – not a pretty thought!

Nevertheless, it fascinated me, and I was determined to add it to my collection.  I asked the old man where he’d gotten it.  For a moment, he studied it, and then spoke slowly.

“That’s about the oldest thing in my shop, by my reckoning.  I guess it were nigh on thirty years ago that a Chinese fisherman brought that piece in – said he’d dredged it up in his nets in the South China Sea.  I did a little research and found that stretch o’ocean floor has been submerged for twenty million years. Could be it fell off’n a passing ship, though.  Ugly enough, ain’t it?  The fisherman let me have it for a song – he said it were jinxed; for no sooner had he dredged it up than a storm came along that pretty near swamped his old trawler.  Said he seen things in the water during that storm that didn’t look like no fish the gods ever put there, too!  Me, I don’t put no stock in it, but I still don’t like the thing.  I’ll let’chee have it for five American dollars.”

I was prepared to pay five times that for it, so I gave him the money without haggling, picked up a few other items of interest, and went on back to the ship to stow them in my locker before joining some of the other officers and the Captain at a popular pub.  I promptly forgot about the statue until the day after we put out to sea, when I invited my good friend, Lieutenant (j.g.) Waite, up to my stateroom to view all my purchases.  He was an intelligent young officer who had graduated from Miskatonic while I was studying naval history there after my first tour in ‘Nam.  A solid officer with a good head for maneuvers and tactics, he would’ve gone far in the service had it not been for the events that followed.

His family originally hailed from Innsmouth, a half-deserted old ghost town on the Massachusetts coast with many dark stories connected to it.  He’d taken me up there once to show me his ancestral home, but had refused to answer any of my questions as to why his family had suddenly left eighty years before.

He was looking with some indifference at the other pieces when I pulled the unique statue out with a flourish.  He glanced at it, and then paled, his stare growing into an uncomfortable silence.

“What’s wrong, Daryl?” I asked him when he had not spoken for at least a full minute.

“Where did you get that thing?” he asked in a low voice.

“A tiny little antique shop way off the beaten path,” I said.  “I always shop away from the well-known areas – you get better deals that way!  It looks like something straight out of the Necronomicon, doesn’t it?” I asked with a laugh, although few people ever spoke of that hellish volume with a smile.

He looked at me strangely.

“You couldn’t have said it better,” he said.  “It should be safe, though – as long as the Elder Sign remains attached.”

It was my turn now to give him a strange look.

“Elder Sign?  What on earth are you talking about?” I asked.

“Jim,” he said with a sigh, “I am one of the few people who has read the Miskatonic’s copy of the Necronomicon from cover to cover.  I’ve also seen the ancient Pnakotic Fragments that are kept under lock and key, and I’ve even read the Cultes de Ghoules.  My professors let me study that far because they knew my family was under the Innsmouth curse, and we had to protect ourselves.   Look at this!”

He reached under his T-shirt and pulled out a fine gold chain, with an identical, although somewhat smaller, soapstone star hanging from it.

“I think you read a bit too far into those creepy old books, my friend,” I said.  “Even the professors at Miskatonic are now admitting that the whole Chtulhu myth cycle is just a primitive, ancient religion and nothing more. Look!”

I removed the chain from the idol’s neck and shoved it into his hands.

“See?” I said.  “Nothing! You’re getting way too worked up over a hunk of carved jade, Daryl!” 

Actually, I did feel something – was it a slight lowering of the room’s temperature, or just the scent of dead fish wafting in from the sea?  Whatever it was, I was not going to admit to noticing it in front of my nervous companion. He did not calm down, but instead grew more agitated.

“Fool!” he snapped.  “Put that back!  I tell you, I recognize the runes on this statue.  They are from the Pnakotic manuscripts, and they go farther back than all recorded history!  Old professor MacDonald even said that they may predate our species.   God, the shopkeeper was lucky they didn’t get separated all these years.  Please, Jim, put it back!”

“OK, OK,”  I said in exasperation, taking the statue from his hands and trying to slip the chain back over its malformed neck.  The touch of the cold stone startled me – or was it, as I originally thought, that the stone abomination had actually squirmed in my grasp for a split second? No matter the cause, the result was the same – I dropped both statue and star to the deck.  The heavy jade image landed on top of the soapstone star and crushed it to fragments.  Waite cried aloud in anguish.

“It has destroyed the Sign! After all these years, it is free again!”

“Daryl, you yo-yo,” I laughed.  “I just dropped them both and the statue landed on top, that’s all. Don’t get so upset over nothing.  This little monstrosity is a carved hunk of rock and nothing more!”

“I hope you’re right,” he said with a shudder.  “But for your own safety, and my peace of mind, put this on it.”  He drew his own soapstone star from around his neck and deliberately placed it over the idol’s.  Again I got the very brief impression of movement, of the myriad tentacles squirming in horrible unison. Judging from my friend’s expression of disgust, he felt it too.  But when I picked up the statue and returned it to my locker, I only felt the smooth, age-polished stone.

Waite left my quarters shortly afterwards, and we put Hong Kong Harbor far behind us.  We were both busy with our respective jobs – we were scheduled for a month of intensive radar and weapons drills before returning to hour homeport in Yokosuka, Japan for upkeep.  But little by little, rumors filtered back to me – conversations between enlisted men before they were aware of my presence, finally even whispers in the wardroom when Waite came in for supper.  The lieutenant was looking strange, and acting even stranger.

His eyes, always large, had begun to bulge noticeably, and he never seemed to shut them anymore.   He was also losing his hair, and some sort of scaly eczema was developing on his back, according to his roommate, Ensign Landry.

“And you should have heard him screaming in his sleep the other night!” said the garrulous young Texan. “Some words in a language I’d never heard before, and don’t want to hear again!  It was weird!  Do you think he might have some sort of drugs stashed away somewhere?”

“That’s enough!” interrupted Captain Collins.  He was a tough officer, stern and fair, with little tolerance for gossip.  “Lieutenant j.g. Waite is having some medical problems, a recurring skin condition, nothing more.  If there is any scuttlebutt going around contrary to that, it’s up to you officers to squelch it, not perpetuate it!” He fixed each of us with an icy stare at that last phrase.

That night, after finishing my watch, I woke up to see Waite standing over me, his eyes seeming to glow softly in the dark.  I called his name softly, but he did not acknowledge me.  Moving slowly and deliberately, like a sleepwalker, he moved to my open locker.  I scarcely recognized the man I’d sat and talked to just a few days before.  His eyes, in addition to the unnatural glow, were bulging hideously and seemed to have grown, if such a thing were possible.  His hair was indeed thinning, and I could see the scaly eczema creeping up the back of his neck, giving him a bizarre, almost reptilian look.

He stared over at me for a moment or two to see if I was asleep (my eyes were in the shadows and he couldn’t tell I was watching him), and then he took the statue from my locker and lifted the star-stone from its neck.  He held the thing in front of him, and then paused.  For a moment his appearance returned to normal, and he blinked twice.  Then that strange otherness imposed itself once more, and he dropped the necklace to the floor and ground it under his heel.  With a final glance at me, he replaced the statue and left my stateroom.

Afterward, the cool air and the gentle rocking of the ship overpowered my senses, and I lapsed into a strange dream of titanic underwater cities, and fishlike beings that swam through them, paying homage to the great Elder Gods from outside, who slumbered still in the deeps of the sea.

When I awoke at 0600 hours, I felt strangely drained.  The smell of rotting fish seemed to pervade the entire ship.  Listlessly, I stumbled down the passageway towards the showers, towel in hand.  Then, suddenly, an ear-splitting scream jerked me fully awake. 

I ran down to Waite’s stateroom, whence the cry had come, and found the Captain and the Chief Corpsman straddling the struggling, bug-eyed form of my friend.  Of the talkative ensign who shared his stateroom, a ripped and bloodied corpse was all that remained.  Blood was everywhere – except on Waite’s struggling form.  When he saw me, he threw off the Captain and the Chief and grabbed me by the shoulders.

“The statue!” he screamed.  “You must destroy it – it is an avatar – aaggh! N’gai yog rl Cthulhu vor R’lyeh! They are pulling at my mind – the Deep Ones calling!  I had to destroy the sign – they told me to.  I tried to fight, but they are too strong!  Throw the image overboard and they will subdue it – it’s your only hope!  Already he wakes! Look at poor Landry – do you think I did that to him?  It came in here and ripped him up as I watched . . . it MADE me watch.  Read the sixth chapter of the Necronomicon – it will tell you how to lay the avatar to rest once it has been awakened.  But it calls to Great Cthulhu – and God pity us all if he should answer!  Professor MacDonald – he knows! He has read the accounts of the last time Cthulhu awoke. Throw the statue over the side – the Deep Ones can put it to rest.  NO!! I am not – I will not!  Aaargh!  Yog-Sothoth, HELP ME!”

I trembled to hear my friend invoke the name of that hideous deity, but then an even greater horror rooted me to the spot.  As the three of us watched, frozen in terror, a hideous transformation shook Waite’s body.  With a ripping sound that echoes in my nightmares to this day, the skin of his face tore away.  His bulging eyes, huge and fishlike, now stared at us in agony from a green, scaly face.  Rows of sharklike teeth glittered in his gaping mouth, and he reached his hand towards me – a hand that was already sprouting long claws and growing webs between the fingers.  His back hunched and his arms seemed to shrink as his legs grew longer and more powerful.  The back of his khaki trousers ripped apart, revealing a long, scaly tail.

We all stood there, stunned, unable to move.  Then Daryl Waite – or what had once been Daryl Waite – gave me a last, tortured look and spoke one more time.

“He awakes!  They call me to join them! The Elder Sign – use it!” 

I shall never forget those tortured, croaking syllables as long as I live.  As soon as he finished speaking, he left the room in a motion that I can only describe as a hop.  That sudden move broke the paralysis that held us.

“After him!” cried Captain Collins.  He scrambled out the hatch, and we followed, but Waite’s froglike gait outdistanced us rapidly. He headed straight for the ladder that led topside, bowling over a terrified messcook, and emerged from the skin of the ship onto the deck.  With the three of us on his heels, he reached the lifeline and vaulted over it into the sea.  I reached the rail first, and wish to this day that I hadn’t.  For there were others in the water, waiting to meet him, even more shocking and alien in their form than he had become.  They helped him swim away after fixing us with their hellish glares for a moment first.

The Captain gave me a long, hard glance as they disappeared into the deep.

“I don’t know how much you know about this, Mister Thompson,” he said in a grim voice, “but you are going to tell me everything.”

So after we had hastily concocted a story to tell to the crew, we went to the Captain’s cabin and I gave him the full story – my buying the statue, Waite’s wild words when he first saw it; and his sneaking visit to my cabin the night before.   Then I gave him my theory.

“Sir, I’ll confess my knowledge of arcane lore is nowhere near what Waite’s was, but I think I have an idea of what it is that he was trying to prevent.  Have you ever heard of the Innsmouth Curse, or the Cthulhu cult?”

“I do recall some wild tales, years ago, about folk from Innsmouth breeding with things from the sea,” he said reflectively.  “That story’s been circulating up and down the Massachusetts coastline for a century or more, but I never held any truck with it. Although, come to think of it, I ran across a classified report in the COMSUBLANT archives years ago when I was shredding old documents.  A submarine fired a spread of torpedoes into a reef near Innsmouth to ‘sanitize a severe biological hazard’ back in the thirties.  I never really connected the two stories before, though.  Now as far as the Kthew-whatchamacallit goes – that sounds like bad Latin to me.”

Then I filled him in on the scant lore I recalled from glancing through the musty, ill-preserved copy of the Necronomicon at the Miskatonic Library, and what I knew by rumor of the Pnakotic manuscripts.

“Cthulhu himself was a tremendously destructive water elemental,” I explained.  “Sort of a Poseidon from outer space, who dwelt on a great island city long ago, and was worshipped by ancient humans, and possibly other races, as a god.  The Great Old ones, a race from beyond the stars, managed to sink the island of R’lyeh where Cthulhu slept and imprison him there forever, using the star-shaped stones called Elder Signs.  But at certain times, when the stars are right and certain sacrifices are made, or if an avatar awakens, the sunken city rises.  Then Great Cthulhu can be awakened from his slumber to terrorize the world again.  That last part is mostly conjecture, because I didn’t read that portion of the Necronomicon very closely.”

The Captain looked at me with a skeptical air. I was racking my brain, trying to remember every bit of arcane lore about the Cthulhu Mythos I had ever heard, but I had hit my limit.

“My advice would be to contact Professor MacDonald at the Miskatonic,”  I told him.  “He knows more about this stuff than anyone alive.  If we just throw the stone overboard, the Deep Ones Waite told us about might silence it – and they might not.  They worship Cthulhu, according to some legends, but they also fear him.  I don’t want to take the risk.  We have to lock the stone up, though – it might come to life and kill again.”

“You don’t think Waite killed Landry, then?” he asked.

“No way,” I replied.  “There was no blood on his hands or on his body.  Besides which, there is not a man aboard strong enough to do that to another man with his bare hands.  That statue must be linked in some way to the life of Cthulhu himself.  We’ve got to find it and stop it.”

“Maybe if we search through Waite’s personal gear we’ll find something else to throw a little light on the situation,” said the Captain.

“Good idea, sir” I said, and we went to his stateroom.  The body of Ensign Landry had already been removed and stored in the reefer decks.

His personal belongings were few, and they revealed little to us.  I had almost despaired of finding anything useful when the CO began twirling the dial of Waite’s personal safe.

“Waite and I, and the Weps Boss, are the only ones with the combo to this,” he said.  “It contains all the classified ASW publications and maybe some of his papers as well.”

Captain Collins’ guess was correct, for behind the thick, plastic-bound publications was a small wooden chest with a note on the top that read:

TO BE OPENED BYTHE CAPTAIN ONLY IN THE EVENT OF MY DISAPPEARANCE AT SEA UNDER UNUSUAL CIRCUMSTANCES. SHOULD I DIE IN COMBAT OR DUE TO ROUTINE MISHAP, PLEASE SHIP TO MR. ARHTUR WAITE, 766 FEDERAL STREET, ARKHAM, MASS.

“It sounds almost as if he were expecting this,” Collins said, looking at me.

He took the key which was taped to the side of the box and opened it.  Inside was a long document entitled “Observations on the Innsmouth Phenomena”, laboriously typewritten many years ago, judging from the weathered look of the pages.   As the CO lifted it from the box, I saw to my wonder another object lying beneath it.  It was another one of the star-shaped Elder Signs!

“He could’ve protected himself with this,” I mused.  “I wonder why he didn’t.”

“The manuscript looks like it was typed up fifty years ago,” said Collins.  “He may not have even known the sign was in there, or he may have forgotten about it.  Or maybe . . .” his face grew sad, and I asked what he was thinking.

“If those things were pulling at his mind, he might have deliberately blocked out the knowledge of it so we would have a weapon to fight back with.  If that’s true, I find my respect for Mr. Waite growing,” he concluded.

“However it got here,” I said excitedly, “with it we can silence the avatar and cast it into the sea!”

“You’re right!” he said.  “Let’s go!”

We ran down the passageway to my stateroom. As we rounded the corner, Collins stopped short with a grimace.  Leading from the door of my room and on down the corridor was a trail of stinking green slime mixed with bright red blood. I ran to the door and looked in, already fearing what I would find.  There lay my bunkmate, Lieutenant Harris, the ship’s navigator, his body torn asunder and scattered across the room.  Hardened as I was by a rough combat tour in Vietnam three years earlier, I still gagged at the sight of Harris’ head tossed into one corner, his eyes staring blankly at us.  What horror had they seen in their last few seconds of life?

Collins grabbed my arm and dragged me from the sickening sight. 

“We must follow its trail!” he snapped, and I nodded in mute agreement. But before leaving, I stepped into the room and retrieved one article from my locker – my regulation U.S. Navy Officer’s Saber.   I took the greenish Elder Sign and carefully rubbed it up and down the blade, and said what I can only call a prayer to the Great Old Ones who came from outside before the earth’s crust had fully cooled. 

“If any memory of you yet lingers in the desolate places you once inhabited, help me destroy this abomination you once controlled!” I said.  With that, I left the pitiful remains of my fellow officer and followed my Captain.

The trail of green slime came to a sudden halt in the next passageway.  Looking up, I saw that the grill which covered a large ventilation duct had been ripped away, and the remnants of the creature’s foulness dripped from the torn edges. I looked at the CO, and he gave me a grim smile.

“We’ll have to warn the crew,” he said.

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