Spiderwebs In The Dark
Darrell Schweitzer is the author of three novels, The White Isle, The Shattered Goddess, and The Mask of the Sorcerer, and about 300 short stories, which have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Twilight Zone, Interzone, Amazing Stories, Night Cry, Cemetery Dance, and Postscripts. He has been nominated four times for the World Fantasy Award and won it once, for Weird Tales, of which he was coeditor for nineteen years. He has also edited or coedited anthologies, including The Secret History of Vampires, Cthulhu’s Reign, Full Moon City, and That Is Not Dead (forthcoming from PS Publishing in 2014).
Sure, I can tell you how I first met Walter Stephens,or G. C. Coleman or Charles Comnenus-Paleologus or whatever he was calling himself that week. Yes, the poet, sometime-novelist of indeterminate age, nationality, everything—and if you’re writing a book about him some of this may even prove to be of use. But I think I’d rather cast it as a tale. We can even imagine that you and I are two well-traveled gentlemen sitting together on a stormy, wintry night like this one, in some terribly exclusive club, and the fire is burning low, and after the waiter has served the last round of drinks and slipped out, silent as a cat—
I’m afraid not. Strictly no alcohol allowed here, but I could get you a bottled water, I suppose—
Never mind. In such an atmosphere, some old duffer (me) suddenly stirs and mumbles reflectively, “You know, it was on such a night as this when I happened to be in a particularly remote district of rural Sweden”—or maybe Zamboanga or Trebizond or just a part of the New Jersey Pine Barrens that nobody has ever heard of—”that I encountered something odd.”
Use your imagination. On a night like this, well into winter when the sun sets in the middle of the afternoon and if you look out of a window—and I ask you, how many people bother to look out beyond the immediate boundaries of their lives these days, or even out a window? But I digress. You see the landscape fade into muted browns and then grays and a steely blue, then it’s so black you can’t tell the earth from the sky and the few lights from the distant neighbors might also be stars—I digress again to explain that this was in the old days when I still ran the Headless Shakespeare Bookstore, on Paoli Pike, Chester County, well west of Philadelphia. Hence the specific, faded palette in winter, because this really was Andrew Wyeth country. It was called the Headless Shakespeare because the old barn with add-ons which I’d converted into both a dwelling and a place of business happened to have in the front yard a kitschy Victorian marble statue of the Bard, in doublet and tights, holding a pen in one hand and in the other a skull (engraved YORICK in large letters just in case you didn’t get it), but, alas, missing Sweet Will’s head. What to do with a fine old antique like that? Junk it? Hell no. I installed a little shelf, and in good weather used it to display a few of the four-for-a-dollar books, with my sign leaning against Will’s knees. It became something of a landmark. There are pictures of it in older editions of Weird Pennsylvania.
Suffice it to say that in such a place, on such an evening, I did indeed encounter something odd, in the person of Walter Padraic Eochaid Nera O’Blarney, the very subject of your investigative biography.
I was closing up. The last of the regulars, Mrs. Templeton, who sometimes seemed to spend all day in the romance section but always left with a satisfactory amount of purchases, had just gone. I flipped the sign around to read CLOSED. I flicked off the outside lights, and it was then that I heard a noise from deep within the store.
“Is anybody there?” I called out.
There was a distinct shuffling, and then a low voice. Something that almost sounded like chanting.
I followed the sound around several corners and down a couple aisles until I saw, in front of the shelf in the Classics section, a quite large figure in a shabby raincoat, with his back to me. He was indeed muttering softly, in a kind of a sing-song. But more to the point, I distinctly saw him take a ballpoint pen and mark something in the book he holding—a little green volume, probably one of the Greek Loeb editions.
“Hey!” I said. “You scribble in it, you bought it!”
He turned around suddenly, and I will admit I really did cringe backward when confronted by—to reach for the nearest handy cliché—an immense bear of a man with wild black hair, enormous, drooping moustache, and scruffy beard, easily twice my own size, with a look on his face that was—I will not spare the phrase—quite, quite mad, as if he’d been utterly caught up in something and was decidedly unhappy about being interrupted. But that look was gone in an instant, like a mask falling off, and he said in a perfectly calm voice, “Of course I’ll pay for it.” He swept several more off the shelf. “I’ll take the whole set.”
Dubious, I led him back to the counter. On the way I caught about half of his babble about how words of power, or keys to vibration or somedamnsuch were to be found randomly scattered throughout books, as if all literature were one vast cipher to be decoded with “cosmic results,” and I thought, well, sure, fine, he was a complete wacko, and I could only hope he was a wacko with money, which he was. He paid for the books with dirty, wadded-up twenty-dollar bills that seemed to be rolled into balls in his pockets. I never saw a wallet. The books turned out to be a set of Euripides, and he even showed me, for just a second, the passage he had underlined, but it was on the Greek side of the text and I couldn’t make it out. As I was ringing it up and uncrumpling those bills, he tapped a finger on the glass case and said, “Oh, and I’ll take that too,” indicating a fine first edition of Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House that was priced at five hundred dollars. I didn’t doubt he had more of those bills. He went on producing them, but still I hesitated for just a second, reluctant to turn over a volume as nice as that to somebody who might scribble in it, but he met my gaze and he seemed to read my thought and he said, with a half-laugh, “Oh no, that’s not for my research. It’s for leisure reading.” Then he loomed up over me—it was as if he’d been slouching all this time—like an avalanche ready to let go, and he said, “Philip, you and I are going to be fast friends.”
I supposed he’d gotten my name from somewhere, like the little stack of my business cards on the counter.
And he said further, “Don’t ask how I know. I just do. I’ve looked back on it all and seen it.” There was one more word I couldn’t make out, something almost unpronounceable, sort of like “fhtagn.”
Which was odd, you must admit, and it was stranger still that when he went out the door and I locked up after him I didn’t see any headlights or hear a car pull away—hard to imagine a big, fat guy like that walking for miles in the dark and the wet, no matter how well the books were wrapped in plastic. I didn’t even hear footsteps on the gravel driveway. Just sleet rattling against the glass. I almost expected him to come back in a minute, but he didn’t; which was, undeniably, at least mildly inexplicable, if not nearly as much so as the fact that his prediction or prophecy or whatever you want to call it actually came true.
You have to give Walrus credit—yes, he insisted that his closest friends, none of whom I ever met, really did fondly alter his first name Walter into Walrus; and sometimes his moustache and his girth did give that impression—he was a really good storyteller. The best I have ever known. The very next night, at precisely the same hour, he appeared in precisely the same manner (how did he get in past me, when I was sitting at the counter by the door?) and told me a perfectly fascinating story of how he’d met Shirley Jackson once and what she’d told him, which revealed a secret of her life that has evaded all biographers, and which changed his. And before I could think it through—wait a minute, she died in 1965, which would make him how old?—he merely said, “Of course I was quite a bit younger then.” Then he started talking about Paris, and some of the people he knew when he lived there. I almost thought he’d start telling me about Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, but, no, it was a very funny if disquieting story about getting drunk with Gore Vidal when he lived there. Did Vidal ever live in Paris? I’d have to look it up in the biography. Before I could even think about it, Walrus was right past me with something else. He had lots of stories like that. He told them supremely well. He kept me entertained for a lot of long evenings, well after closing.
He was independently wealthy, so it seemed, and very widely traveled. I will tell you that sometimes he disappeared for weeks at a time, and postcards arrived from very distant parts of the world, with real (sometimes) messages in his handwriting and real, foreign postage stamps. Yes, once I actually got one from Zamboanga. (I didn’t make that up; real place, in the Philippines. “The monkeys have no tails there,” he said obscurely.) But much of the time he showed up at the Headless Shakespeare. (“I think I know where the head is,” he told me once. “But it’s like the arms of the Venus de Milo. You don’t want ‘em.”) You know, I don’t think I ever did see him come in through the front door. I’d just turn around and he’d be there. “Boo!” And I’d say “How the fuck did you do that?” and he’d just tell me a story. He was there so much that sometimes people I half knew would give me that look as if to say, Good for you Philip, you’ve finally found someone, but, no, it was not like that at all, it was never like that, even when we got very, very close, as it worked out, because in addition to his having been everywhere and met everyone, Walrus had the disconcerting habit of knowing everything about someone he met. I saw him do it to others. It really spooked them. He did it to me. He’d make a casual reference to an incident in my childhood, maybe something really painful, like, “That time you caught your sister stealing and she got you blamed for it, and you never forgave her, well maybe you should have because once she was dead it was too late.” And before I could say, “Wait a minute, I never told you that!” he would be on with some other anecdote (involving famous people, in exotic parts of the world) that illustrated in a very gentle, very real, very emotionally resonant manner why I should have forgiven her, because sometimes to get anywhere in the world you have to know when to let go and just let things happen, as if you’re a leaf floating in a stream.
“The Buddha said that,” he said.
Did he really? I wanted to ask him, but did not. How did you two get along? Before you had the falling out over Attila the Hun, I mean.
There were times when I just couldn’t believe a word of this, when I refused to believe, when what I thought there the remaining tatters of my reason told me that if someone tells you one remarkable story, it’s interesting, but when he tells you fifty, he must be a goddamn pathological liar. It’s like the difference between seeing a UFO and being abducted by aliens every week. But he always had an answer for me, even when I more or less openly challenged him. So why did he travel all over the world and use a dozen aliases and publish books under more pseudonyms than anybody could ever track down? “Are you a secret agent or something?” I wanted to know, and he merely smiled and replied, “If I told you, it wouldn’t be a secret, now would it? No, I am not a secret agent. That’s only my cover.”
“So, if you’re some incredibly special muckety-muck whatever, why are you devoting all this attention to me?”
He actually looked a little hurt when I asked him that. “Because we are friends,” he said. “As I told you, I looked back on all this and saw that we had become fast friends. Like Damon and Pythias. David and Jonathan. Frodo and Sam. I thought you understood that. Well, I think it is time to change your perspective. To make things clearer for you.”
Did he make things clearer? As clear as the view you might enjoy while taking a ride in a washing machine. Things got quickly weirder after that. Now I have said that one of the things that kept me fascinated, caught like a deer in headlights, is the way that he did somehow seem to know the most intimate things about my life, or lack of life really. He knew that I’d had literary ambitions myself as a young man and nothing had come of them, and that I’d been a nerd before nerds had become fashionable and never managed to ask a girl out, and I had more or less drifted through life to the age of fifty-three without really living any of it. I had absolutely no family, no future except more of the same until the grave, no one to pass on even my accumulations to. My customers used to say I owned more books than God, but God’s piles of clutter are probably to some purpose. Mine were just there.
I can’t deny he was good for me. He did know how to comfort and encourage, and he even got me writing again.
You know the results. Negligible, but undeniably published.
But I must digress into metaphysics. One evening in the store Walrus asked me if I had the Necronomicon in stock and I said only the paperback, that Simon thing. “That’s crap,” he said. “Never mind.” And he launched into his theory again, if you could call it that, that all reality, the universe, everything, was one vast palimpsest of texts, one written on top of the next. No, he wasn’t turning onto a deconstructionist on me, he said. Not like that at all. Reality itself was an immense cipher. You had to recognize the words, which could be anywhere, and if you could string them together and repeat them just right—and, yes, it did sound like chanting—then you could set up a vibration and—whatever.
“Did you ever wonder how sorcerers call up demons?” he said. “I mean, why should some extra-earthly being come streaking over light-years and through dimensions just because some human being on this tiny speck of dust said the magic words?”
That is, assuming there are such things as sorcerers and demons and the both of us were not certifiably insane at this point. I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
“Really good hearing?” I said feebly.
All this while he had been scribbling frantically on a notepad. He held up the result. There was a solid black circle in the middle, and all sorts of wiggly lines spreading out from it in all directions.
“What’s that?” I said. “The hairball that exploded?”
“Look—there.” He reached out and seemed to take hold of something in the air in front of my face, like a drifting hair or something. “Do you see that?”
I wasn’t going to admit I’d seen anything. Had I seen anything?
And he explained at great length and with remarkable clarity, enough to dampen down any doubts, skepticism, or remaining shreds of sanity, that the whole universe, the cosmos, the macrocosmos, the whole kablooey was filled with lines of touch, as he called them, force, energy, something like that, but none of those words quite described it. Think of spiderwebs in the dark. Most people can’t see them, but some people, the very sensitive ones, the sort who become Ascended Masters or black magicians or whatever, can feel them as they walk through the world. The way you call a spirit from the vasty deep is to set up just the right vibration, which attracts the attention of something very far away, which comes skittering down the web or whatever it is.
“You mean the way a struggling fly attracts the spider?”
“Something like that,” he said.
“I don’t think I’d care to meet that kind of spider.”
“The trick is not getting stuck.”
So he decided that then and there I needed a practical demonstration, and that I was ready for it.
“Here, take this,” he said, reaching into the air for another drifting strand of nothing.
And I took it, and whether or not I actually saw something—like a hair, like a thread, like a line of fire scratched in the air—I cannot truly say; but he took it between his fingers and I took it between mine, and with his other hand he held my free hand very tightly. He was chanting something, which might have been in Greek, or might have been a mathematical formula, or a little bit of both, and then we were gone, falling in darkness for just a second. Then I came to a stop with a jerk and opened my eyes and saw that we were in a moving car, my car, only Walrus was driving. It was dark. A couple of farmhouses passed by. I thought I knew where we were, but not quite. Somewhere out in the country. Then we came to a little town and went along a street past white picket fences—even in the dark I could see this was all Norman Rockwell stuff, idyllic, perfectly maintained late Victorian houses—and we pulled into a driveway. Walrus pointed the porch light, to the front door.
“You just go up there and go in. Don’t even knock.”
I was enough under his spell by then, or completely crazy, or sufficiently convinced this was a dream, that I obeyed. I shuffled across the leaf-covered lawn, up to that door, and went in. There was a woman inside, wearing an apron. She’d just come from the kitchen. She looked surprised to see me, but not surprised as if a complete stranger had just burst into her house, but as if she knew me but had expected I’d be out shopping or something.
But before either one of us could say anything two little girls, maybe seven and four, came running into the room, screaming, “Daddy! Daddy! Come and see our Christmas tree!”
So I followed them into the living room and admired the Christmas tree, and then we were called into dinner and the woman who presumably took me for her husband and the mother of these children looked at me very strangely and asked guarded questions, and it was all I could do not to laugh out loud at the irony of my reply that I didn’t feel entirely myself today. After dinner I got up and nervously paced around the room, and back into the living room, noticing the pictures on the walls, some of which had me in them, and this woman, and these kids. I stopped before a cabinet filled with books, many of which had my name on the spine. I recognized my first (and, as far as I knew it, only) novel, Into the Abyss, but there were at least a dozen more, three of them sharing the byline with none other than Walter Stevens. One was a children’s book entitled The Walrus Came Back.
But before I could wrap my head around any of this the front door opened and there stood a man who looked exactly like a less shabbily dressed version of myself, holding a bundle of wrapped presents up to his chin. He dropped everything as he let out a gasp and half of a curse; and his eyes and mine met, and ,i>he knew. The wife screamed. I pushed my way out of the house, into the night. I couldn’t waste time wondering how they worked that one out, because in a minute I seemed to be falling again into darkness, and then I was in the speeding car with Walrus, and there was, very visibly, a fiber of some sort, like a luminous piece of string floating in the air in front of my face. It extended out through the windshield into infinity, or at least very, very far up into the sky, and before I knew what was what Walrus and I had both grabbed onto it, and we were both chanting something that was definitely not Om mani padme hum, I assure you, and then we were falling again, and we hit the dirt and rolled to a stop right at the edge of a cliff, before a hole in the ground the size of the Grand Canyon, only it was filled with fire down there, and there came a sound rising up, which might have been the wind or volcanic gases escaping or God knows what, but sure reminded me of a million voices screaming all at once in terror and pain.
“Ah, Mephistopheles…” I whispered, and my voice was not my own. It was part of that rushing wind.
Or maybe he was going to play Virgil and lead me on a tour of the depths, all the way down to the frozen lake at the core of the world and safely out over the Devil’s butt, but I really doubted it, I really did; and I don’t know for certain if that was Hell at all, but I did notice that the air was foul and sulfurous and there were two huge suns glaring down at us through a murky orange sky.
Then, again, my friend and I were chanting, and grabbing hold of a thread that wove through the air, and falling in darkness, and once again we were in the speeding car. He had to swing the wheel wildly to avoid a head-on and get back into the lane while headlights blinded us and a truck’s horn blared deafeningly.
And again we were somewhere else, in a quiet, cold place, where we walked over an icy wasteland beneath a black and brilliant sky, toward a mountain that rose high above us, atop which a single, brilliant light gleamed like a baleful eye.
An infinity of worlds, he explained to me, not in the spaces we know, but between them, all of which opened up to the bold philosopher who had found the way into them, as he had.
Spiderwebs in the dark, leading everywhere and everywhen. When I asked him, again, Why me? Why had he singled out me for this revelation? he replied that he’d had many such protégés or apprentices in the course of his travels, but looking back from the future, he saw the already accomplished fact that he and I had become soulmates to a degree that surpasses understanding, and therefore, because it was already so, he came back and made it happen, materializing out of the air in the Classics section of the Headless Shakespeare Bookshop one wet wintry night, and the rest was, you might say, history.
An infinity of worlds, touch all times and places and possibilities. There was indeed a world in which my life had turned out very differently, and perhaps happily, and I had a family, and there was another in which mankind had never evolved on the Earth and organic life, if the term could even be applied to what dwelt there instead, was of a wholly different order.
There was an infinity in which Walrus Stephens really had been everywhere and met everybody and all his stories were true.
There was a world in which the two of us, not at all adequately dressed for conditions, were walking across the Cold Waste toward that very Kadath which is described in the Neconomicon—the real one, not that load of crap by Simon—and maybe in one variant of events we two froze to death before we got very far, and in another, perhaps, we were carried up to the summit by rubbery, faceless, winged things serving a master whose face is never seen; but before either of those things happened he and I caught hold of a thread of light in the air and spoke the words carefully attuned to its vibrations and found ourselves once more speeding along in the car, only this time I was driving and it was burning daylight outside and we were screeching bumpily along through a desert. I barely managed to brake before crashing into one boulder, then several, smashing in the whole front of the car, steam exploding from the fractured radiator, while I gaped down in terror at the realization that we were tottering on the edge of a canyon at least a mile deep, filled with fire and the screams of damned souls.
Now in one version of that reality, I am sure, the car tottered over with us in it, taking us to our deaths, but in another version I managed to scream and pound on Walrus with my fists and push him out the passenger door and crawl out after him before the car tottered over the edge and bounced again and again off outcroppings until it vanished from sight amid the swirling smoke.
There was only one sun in the sky this time, but it damn near fried us both to a crisp as we crawled amid the rocks in a desperate search for shade. We could only wait till nightfall—the sky was filled with strange stars, no familiar constellations at all—and then we reached up to the golden, fiery threads drifting down out of that sky, and climbed them, up, between the angles, between the spaces, toward a kind of terrifying glory I cannot begin to put into words.
Of course I was certain that I was completely insane by that point, and I weep to think of it, to think that being crazy is not the easy answer you expect it to be, the handy escape from all your pains and terrors. You think of that mad clergyman on Monty Python, the one from St. Looney-Up-the Creampuff-on-Jam who sings “Dee-dee-DEE-DEE-dee!”while smashing plates over his head. At least I think of him, and I weep, because I know it’s not as easy as that, though I have tried, God, I have tried, and maybe that’s why we only use paper plates here.
Because, you see, I have only just gotten to the really crazy part, which I would have to be insane to imagine. It may be true that somewhere amid the infinite possibilities of infinite worlds we two reached the center of mindless, nuclear chaos at the center of the universe and danced worshipfully with the blind pipers there. It may be true that we became lords of planets, dark wizards whose very words and gestures destroyed whole worlds and races, or raised them up and molded them to our whims. It is entirely possible that we two learned the secret of everything and wrote it down, in modern handwriting, in ballpoint, on a parchment that was buried in some ruined, non-human city for a million years before emerging again to drive the finder as mad as either one of us already were.
What is distinctly true is that we discovered that the lines of force, or threads, or spiderwebs in the dark, or whatever you want to call them are inhabited, or perhaps I should say infested with something which is not, I think, the originating species that spun out such structures, not the spiders that may come skittering down the vibrating web to snatch up their struggling prey, but some kind of vermin, cosmic lice that move along those lines, between those spaces, with an agenda of their own, quite, quite beneath the notice of the great Powers and Presences whose existence we but dimly perceive, but quite noticeable enough to similar vermin, such as ourselves, who might presume to pry into secrets we were never meant to know and which only the insane would ever attempt to discover.
I was the first to see one of them. In the abyss, as we climbed between the worlds, amid the stars, with the galaxies spread out before us like foam, I looked back, behind us—my friend, mentor, guide, cicerone gazed only forward and upward—and I saw something following us, which did indeed look insectoid, like an enormous louse or bedbug—vermin of some kind, the size of a large dog, with a shape the eye and the mind could note quite sort out, for all it distinctly had golden, segmented armor and dozens, maybe hundreds of limbs, with distressingly human-like hands, and an even more distressingly human-like face, which looked like my own in the mirror, only bloated and distorted and mad. It screamed at me, some kind of chanting, almost words.
The most horrible detail of all, I discerned as it drew ever nearer, was that it too had vermin upon it, millions of tiny replicas of itself, swarming, so that its very surface rippled like boiling water.
Now in one version of infinite probability, as the thing crawled over us, as it touched me, Walrus Stephens, my dear, dear friend and buddy and mentor, scurried rapidly on ahead and left me there to my fate, like the old joke about the guy who takes his crippled friend walking into a dangerous part of town and explains, I don’t have to outrun the muggers. I just have to outrun you.
Vile treachery! All those visions, adventures, stories, pretensions, and protestations of friendship just so that I could be bait, a diversion, and he could escape to make his way onward to whatever indescribable glory he sought.
But in another version, which I feel is more true, as soon as the first of those awful limbs brushed lightly over us, before the thousand pale, wriggling fingers began to take hold, my companion let out a cry of amazement and disgust, grabbed me by the wrist and yanked me off the strand we had been climbing, until we were falling through space once more, into the endless abyss, while the million scattered, fiery spiderweb strands drifted about us in all directions; and I had the great vision which has never left me for an instant, which haunts me in even drugged sleep, of an infinity of time and space completely infested, swarming with vermin which most people can’t see, which wriggle in their immeasurable masses all around us, in the air, in the earth, in the walls of our buildings, in the very stones, writhing and crawling, ever ready to burst out and consume us all.
Very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am, but why will you say that I am mad? I’ve said it a hundred times, but you don’t have to agree with me! Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I tell you the rest—
We dropped out of the air, not into the Headless Shakespeare Bookshop or onto the seat of a speeding car—since the car was smashed up and destroyed, as I have already related—but into a shabby, trash-crammed apartment in a slum district in some northeastern city. I didn’t get much of a look around, only an impression. Glaring lights from outside. The place rattled as an elevated train roared by. I saw piles of rubbish of all sorts, one side room stuffed with file boxes of paper bursting out into a heap on the floor, books and manuscripts and letters and old junk mail ankle-deep everywhere, a pile of unwashed dishes in the kitchen sink, the whole place swarming with vermin, and I knew somehow that this was the core, the point of origin, back into which all the dreams and possibilities and wonderful, charming, tall tales of Walter Stephens (or whatever his name really was) collapsed like a house of cards into a debris of lies. Here they were not true, in this one place, cut off from infinity. Now that might have given one cause for hope, because if here, in this single reality, none of the foregoing was true, then the horrors which had followed us back out of that endlessly threaded infinity couldn’t be true either, and maybe, just maybe, if we just let go of everything and breathed very carefully, we could get on with our lives.
But it’s not that simple. If only you could break a plate or two over your head and make a silly noise and that would change everything; if only—
It was not that simple. Walrus was there with me, in his apartment, and he was weeping as he locked the doors and windows and then poured out gasoline from a fuel can over the accumulated rubbish.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I really am. I didn’t want it to end this way. But there is no other way it can end now.”
Maybe just a little bit of my own sanity actually returned at that point, because I began to reason and to think like the guy who outran his crippled friend to escape the muggers.
“You don’t have to do this,” I said. “Stop. Just come outside with me. Let’s talk. Come home with me. I have a spare room.”
He sobbed. “Yes, I do have to do it, now, while some part of my mind is still clear, while it’s still my own—”
And I saw then that he was telling the truth, that he was right, that he had only perhaps minutes left while any part of his mind, of his soul, was still his own and free to act, because he, his very flesh, was swarming with vermin. Even as they wriggled unseen in the air around us, in the walls, in the very earth beneath our feet, those things, things, devouring things, which swarm through the very cosmos to infinity, which you can read about in the real Necronomicon, so they also wriggled and multiplied within him, and I, I whose eyes had been opened, could see them. I could see his face, and the flesh of his hands bubbling and rippling like boiling water. They were inside him. They were devouring him, and he, he, in all his terrible agony, remained sane enough, brave enough to attempt to be the savior of mankind by destroying himself and everything he knew, and every connection he had made to that hideous infinity.
Only I, like the base, treacherous coward who abandoned his crippled friend, I only thought of myself and tried to escape. Stephens was twice my size, a huge man, powerful even when not frenzied. I knew I couldn’t overpower him. So I backed slowly toward the locked door while he poured out the gasoline.
I looked about desperately. I grabbed a folder of papers. It was the manuscript of what was supposed to be his next book of poems.
“Look,” I said. “I’ll just take this with me and get it published, as a memorial volume. Wouldn’t you like that? It’s good stuff. It should be preserved.”
He tossed aside the gas can and waded toward me. He had a cigarette lighter in one hand.
With the other he caught hold of my wrist with a grip that seemed to be breaking bones. The papers scattered to the floor.
I looked into his face. His features were almost unrecognizable, bruised, blackened, bubbling, and writhing, his face bursting in splatters of blood as little, screaming, vermin-things chewed their way through the surface of his skin.
Only his eyes were still his. Only there did I catch one last, fading glimpse of my old friend Walrus. He was heroic at the end, I tell you. He held on to his humanity, his last shreds of self, to the very last minute, because he had to. I think that at the very end, he acted out of friendship. Not mercy, but desperate friendship.
“Somebody’s got to warn the world,” I said. “Someone has to tell them. About…everything.”
“Yes,” he said. “I guess someone does.”
He let go of my wrist, then reached up and unbolted the door.
I ran out onto the street. The apartment exploded behind me in a shower of hot glass as the windows blew out.
And that is how I escaped. That is how I am able to tell you this story.
But it’s not as simple as that. Nobody gets off so easily, you see, and it was only minutes before the morbid fear came over me that, if the vermin things had followed Walter Walrus Stephens out of hyperspace and infested him, they should have followed and infested me too. So of course I took the only logical course of action and with one of those hot shards that had blown out of the apartment I did my very best to cut the awful, screaming, wriggling things out of myself, and I’d done a pretty thorough job too before I fainted from loss of blood and the police found me; and since this particular mania—look, look, I have scars to prove it—falls well within the familiar paradigms of psychiatric medicine (it is a symptom of a particularly severe form of schizophrenia) or it least it is when you’re not really infested with wriggling, screaming, all-devouring vermin from beyond infinity—and so, well, conventional treatments were prescribed, and here I am, the only living witness to the fate of Walrus Stephens and the only person who can give you even a hint of the real truth about him.
I don’t have much more to say. Visiting hours are over anyway. You’ll have to go. You’re welcome. The least you could do is thank me for taking up so much of my valuable time.
Say, what’s that crawling on your shoulder?