THE PRISM OF DARKNESS
Darrell Schweitzer is the author of The Shattered Goddess (Donning/Starblaze, 1983), The White Isle (Borgo Press, 1989), The Mask of the Sorcerer (NEL, 1995), Living with the Dead (PS Publishing, 2008), and others. His more than 300 short stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. He has published books about H. P. Lovecraft and Lord Dunsany, and much other literary nonfiction. He is a four-time World Fantasy Award nominee and one-time winner and was for nineteen years coeditor of Weird Tales.
THE LAST NIGHT ON EARTH OF DR. JOHN DEE, MORTLAKE, England, March 1609:
He knew what was coming for him on the stairs. What he found fearsome about the dark was not the unknown terrors it might hold, or the fathomless abyss which he had come to contemplate more and more in these past weeks and months, but that he knew precisely what was there.
He heard the footsteps.
The room filled with a black mist. The candle on the desk where he worked assumed a strange halo.
Still, as if this were no more than an ordinary visitation, he puzzled over a difficult passage in the Greek text he was translating, and jotted down some notes without looking up until he was done.
Before him, like a paper lantern floating in swirling black smoke, hovered a yellow mask, strangely fashioned, the shape behind it not quite possessing the familiar contours of humanity.
The eyes opened, and they were very dark, but somehow intense at the same time, like obsidian fire.
Remembering a play he had once seen, back when he’d had time for such things, he spoke aloud, “Ah, Mephistophilis…”
The other quoted back at him, “Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of Heaven.”
Dee laughed. “I hardly think so. I hardly think you have come to offer me that, my old friend.”
“Am I your friend,” said the other, “or your patron?”
He looked at the growing piles of pages before him, the fragile, half-charred copy of the Greek text, and the newly scribbled, growing pile of the English version he had worked so long to render. Yes, this other had commissioned it of him, when all his human colleagues turned away from him and laughed, or just forgot about him, as the king and the emperor had forgotten about him in his old age and poverty.
Only his a new patron cared.
Or his master.
He looked at the pages. Even as he sat there, his palsied hands trembling, his fingers barely able to hold his pen, the pages seemed to increase in number all by themselves, covered with his own handwriting or something like it, as if the dark and forbidden work on which he had embarked now had continued from its own inertia, as if the book were translating itself, without any further effort on his part.
What was the purpose of the translation anyway? He could only wonder. Surely learned men could already read the Greek, or, easier still, a Latin version that was purported to exist, and this was hardly the sort of thing to be popular with the half-literate, rowdy crowds that finger-stained their way through broadsides and quarto copies of frivolous plays.
Surely the only purpose for such a translation was so that the content of the book, the thoughts and vistas and terrors that it contained, could be filtered through a single mind, even a mind as drifting, as failing as his own. If that was what was really going on. If the book really was, now, translating itself. He was no more than a focal instrument now, like a prism through which light passes. Or in this case, darkness.
“A prism of darkness,” he said aloud.
Indeed, the darkness seemed to close around him. The candle’s light lost its color, until it was almost gray.
The mask floated before him, and before him too, as if revealed from out of the folds of some infinitely dark, indistinguishable cloak, was a single pale hand, not quite skeletal, but thin, delicate, and somehow shifting before his uncertain eyesight like mercury made flesh.
“Are you ready to go with me then?” said the other.
“I am. I would see these wonders about which I have thus far only read.”
He reached out to take the hand that reached for his. He slid down from his high stool, but his legs buckled under him, and he stumbled, and fell, and hit his head on something.
“Father!” someone cried. “Father! Oh, help him up!”
Strong hands took hold of him. He reached up to where his head hurt. A more gentle hand pulled his own away.
“I think it’s only a bruise.”
“Shall we send for a doctor of physic?”
“Sister, I am a doctor of physic.”
They were helping him to his feet, and the deeper of the two voices said, “Can you stand, sir?”
“Will he be well?”
“I think we should get some wine in him. Then put him to bed.”
“He’s worked so hard at his labors.”
“He needs rest.”
Now they were gently easing him down the stairs. They sat him in a large, comfortable chair before a table. There was a cup pressed into his hands.
For a time it seemed that the voices around him were that almost bird-like babble-babble of the Enochian tongue, the language of the hosts of angels, which he had once tried so hard to learn. But no, they were only speaking English, and he knew them.
He opened his eyes fully and saw that he was seated before the table in his own dining room, on the first floor of the house. There was no swirling black mist. The candles had no strange halo, nor had the color been leached out of their light. A fire burned merrily in the fireplace.
“Father, look,” said his daughter, Katherine, who cared for him in these last years, “it’s Arthur, come to visit.”
“Back from school?”
“No, Father. From court. I spoke to the king some days ago.”
“Ah yes, God save His Majesty… ”
“Here drink this.” Someone pressed the wine cup to his lips. He drank, and it did seem to relax him. Once brother Arthur and Katherine were convinced that he had not injured himself in his fall, that he was as sound as he might be at such an age, they all sat together. An hour or so passed. They dined. He ate little. Arthur, who was a grown man now, not the boy who had gone away to school, chattered on about his attempts to find royal favor, and how, if he did, the king might send him to Russia in a few years.
“I’m not sure when I’ll be back. It might be a while.”
He understood what that meant—that he would never see his eldest son again. But then, he would never see his first wife again, whom he could hardly remember, because she was dead, or his second wife, Jane, who was dead, or several of his children, who were dead, so it made very little difference to add one more to that list, and after tonight, he knew, nothing much mattered. He wouldn’t be seeing Katherine again either. Something about ever-moving spheres of Heaven, and voices that were not the voices of angels.
“This has been a very pleasant dream, and I am grateful for it,” he said, as he got up from the table.
Suddenly the room was dark again, and he felt that darkness somehow draw away from him, as if from a small room in a wood and plaster house he had now stepped into a vast cavern without seeing that he did so.
Then the lights came up and he was in a place he knew, in the palace at Whitehall, and Her Majesty the Queen (whom he knew to be dead) sat before him in all her glory, and she said to him, “Doctor Dee, will you scrye for me?”
Indeed, all his instruments had been placed on a table before the throne, and there was a chair provided, and he sat, and he began to work his art, peering into his black Aztec mirror until he saw there the faces of his dead wives and children, and he saw many others he had known, who were dead, including that rogue and scoundrel, Edward Kelley, who had so cruelly used him and robbed him of gold, honor, reputation, and even for a time his Jane’s favors…but that was all fading now, and he spoke to the queen of what he saw with the aid of his magic stones and mirror and crystal ball…and it must not have pleased her when he described monsters lying deep within the earth, made of the very stone, yet still alive and dreaming. He told, too, of black worlds rolling in the infinite darkness inhabited by winged demons made of living fungus (but no angels), and of depths deeper still, wherein lurk such powers as have no concern for mankind or mankind’s doing’s or mankind’s imaginings.
“And what of God, then?” demanded the queen.
“I do not see him here, Majesty. With regret…”
There was a sharp tone in her voice, a rising displeasure, and he imagined that she frowned, but he could not see it because her face was like the mask of a porcelain doll. He knew she painted makeup onto makeup as she assumed her seemingly timeless, regal state, and wore at least an inch of it, so that indeed the pale mask through which her angry eyes blazed seemed to float in a room otherwise filled with black, swirling mist.
In time he rose, and bowed as gracefully as the infirmities of his age allowed, and, without permission, he left the queen’s presence, saying only, “This has been a pleasant dream and I am grateful for it.”
He only dared do that because as he turned from her he took the hand of the figure in the yellow mask, which led him into the darkness once more. Slowly, painfully, he climbed a cramped, twisting stair and found himself again in his own study, in the upper story of his house, where the candles had burned low and the light had lost all color, fading into a dull gray, like the color of a foggy evening, as the night closed in.
He saw that the stack of Englished pages was substantially higher than it had been, and he watched the delicate pages of the Greek text of the Necronomicon turn themselves slowly. It seemed that in some remote dream, or other existence, he still sat at that desk and did the work, but his eyes only beheld the pages increasing themselves, and the Greek text turning, and the hand-writing appearing on pages of blank paper, like some secret message in invisible ink, revealed by the heat of candle-flame (however colorless).
Said the other, quoting the old play again, “That time may cease, and midnight never come.”
“But midnight has already come, and is past,” said John Dee.
“Are you afraid?”
Dee looked around the room one last time, noting what remained of his beloved accumulation of books, and his instruments, after pillage and poverty had thinned the collection considerably.
“My life has been a pleasant dream, and I am grateful for it.”
The last thing he saw was that the stack of translated pages had ceased growing. The Greek text had closed itself. The work was done. It would go on now, of its own volition, through the years, finding its own readership, transforming (or corrupting) souls.
Somehow he had the memory of having done although not of doing, as if some other self, in another dream had wrought and labored, and read the matter that was accumulated there, writing all this into his own memory like a postscript.
He stepped forward, hand in hand with the one in the yellow mask, the one whose name and legend he knew, that Crawling Chaos which came down from the stars in ancient times and took the form of a man, and moved among men in secret, to subvert and to mock.
All this streamed and focused through his mind, like light through a prism, though it was more an anti-light, not any mere absence of light, but something more active than mere darkness. In this darkness then, he tumbled, as the other held him firmly by the hand. He fell among the stars of heaven, splashing among them as among glowing foam. Then there was more darkness again, and he saw shapes rising up around him, and he beheld their faces, serene and primal and utterly indifferent to him and his life and to his queen and his country and to all the strivings of mankind; beings which were both alive and dead, to whom humanity was not even a comedy to be laughed at, but nothing at all, and he knew the truth of what the book told him, that these were the masters of the earth and of the heavens, not Jehovah, not Jesus, not angels, that there wasn’t even a Satan in that dark abyss to work his damnation.
He thought one last time of that old play, and how the sorcerer screamed “Ugly Hell, gape not!” and prayed that his soul be changed into droplets of water and hidden in the ocean; but here, in the sequel, after he had been carried off, there was no Inferno to torment him. No devils waiting. Yes, he saw the fires that burned at the core of creation. Yes, he saw how the earth and the moon and the sun were all but infinitesimal specks in the chaos of the universe. He saw how spheres undreamed of by philosophers turned in spaces no words or mathematics could describe, and how when those spheres were aligned just so, the Great Ones would one day return and the earth, its trivialities, empires and kingdoms, lords and philosophers, learned treatises and absurd plays by some drunk who got killed in a brawl, theology, geography, mathematics, poetry, would all be reduced to the same measureless, unaccountable dust.
And in the end, after he had sojourned for a time upon some black planet beyond the reach of light and there absorbed vast wisdom from the whispers of beings that were like living stones, whose voices were like slow winds whispering over mountaintops, the one in the yellow mask, whose name, among others, was Nyarlathotep, came to him at last and bade him take the final step, to complete their journey to the dark chamber in the center of the universe where Azathoth howls blindly.
So they traveled, descending through a tunnel made of swirling worlds and stars and dust, and they heard the demon drumming, and the pipers, and the howling, and before the sound became deafening, the other spoke to him again.
“Have you any regrets?”
“All these dreams have been a pleasing diversion. I do not regret them.”
And they two bowed down before the dark throne and made their obeisance.
And even after that there was a kind of survival, a kind of duration, and he understood that the ultimate message of the Necronomicon had traveled through the prism of his own mind, through space to the end of space, and through time to the end of time, and now he could discern it at least dimly, in the very fabric of the cosmos (if that too were not also a dream).
And to his companion he said, “Everything to this point has been a lie, but I would have the truth.”
And before even those quicksilver hand could respond to stop him, he reached out and snatched away the yellow mask.
He felt an intense cold. Perhaps he heard a scream, or a whisper in the language of angels.
Perhaps he knew everything now. Perhaps he knew nothing. Perhaps there was nothing to know.