When all is madness…
…there is no madness.
Is there wisdom in insanity? Enlightenment in blackest despair? Higher consciousness in the depths of chaos? These are the stories of the men and women who choose to cast off from the shores of our placid island of ignorance and sail the black seas of infinity beyond. Those who would dive into primeval consciousness in search of dark treasures. Those who would risk the Deadly Light for one reason: it is still light.
I’m pleased down to my meat-socks (feet, I believe one calls them) to announce my involvement in the Cthulhusattva: Tales of the Black Gnosis anthology. Longtime readers might’ve noticed a certain predilection toward cosmic horror around these parts, so it was a real treat to get a chance to play around with the concepts left behind by Lovecraft himself (the good ones; not so much with the xenophobia and misogyny).
My contribution, “Keys in Stranger Deserts,” starts with the attempted theft of the Necronomicon; turns into a road trip involving a con artist looking to make some of that sweet, sweet cult money and probably the only student to ever actually be expelled from Miskatonic without raising some unspeakable horror (and even then…), and ends…well, I wouldn’t want to spoil it.
Venture on for a sneak preview of “Keys in Stranger Deserts.” Happy reading!
It took three years of study, endless summers of extracurricular padding, and a fleet of recommendations (though none, spiting popular rumor, were required to be sealed in blood—which didn’t stop me from surreptitiously dribbling a few blots onto the postage stamps to cover my bases) to gain admittance to Miskatonic University, and the course of one afternoon for me to leave it. The end result had a lot to do with the suited figure sitting across from me, though it had started long before her.
“I hear you tried to steal the Necronomicon.” She propped her chin on her hand, seemingly boneless with confidence as she draped across the leather armchair.
“Bullshit!” This was the fifth third degree I’d had in as many hours, and maybe my nerves were a little tender. I tried to reel back. “If that’s what they told you they’re liars. I had a senior student to make sure everything went back where it was supposed to. Real supervision and everything.” At this she raised a skeptical eyebrow, but I was already tired of having that particular argument with the higher-ups. “Nothing would have left the collection.”
“So, why the lock pick?” Her booted foot was twitching a tap-tap-tap on the Dean’s ornate carpet. So gracious of him to lend us this room, symbolically declaring they were done with me even if the paperwork hadn’t been signed.
“I got tired of jumping through their hoops.”
My focus on a practical education drowned almost immediately in the thick atmosphere of Arkham. I was lulled by whispers at the orientation and stories traded by bonfire on the coast, sated by legends of stuffed tweed suits who’d gone mad and cars full of undergraduates who never returned from adventures to neighboring inlets. With all those distractions, it was almost a full year before I ran into my first roadblock.
Despite a mild dose of notoriety that emerged from its medical department, I imagine you know about the true crown jewel of Miskatonic: its library of rare books, dusty manuscripts spotted with blood and the spittle of the raving tenured, some rumored to be bound in the flesh of human skin. I immediately put in a request for an afternoon in the collection.
“I’m afraid that access to those volumes is limited to postgraduate study and guided mentorships.” The desk clerk frowned over his typewriter, handing my application back. For a minute his eyes raked past the soft fuzz that remained of my natural hair, and I bristled instinctively.
“Isn’t there some kind of exception? Do you need someone in there to make sure I won’t rip any pages out? I don’t mind. I just, I have to—” I found myself at a loss to explain the why of this driving urge. Sinking every hour I had into studying for a decent scholarship hadn’t left me with a cultivated taste for campfire stories, and I had entered orientation fully intending to enter some field of practical, financially soluble work. But even now, just thinking about it, I was once again folded into a stranger’s bunk at two in the morning with their voice washing over me.
“So finally, three days out on this rickety old boat, he sees it. Something beneath the water.” And here the senior paused, reeling their audience in. “It’s a city. Even though the water can’t be more than ten feet deep, he knows he could reach down for a mile and never grasp it. And he starts crying, like that’s the end of his life right there if he can’t reach out to one of those deep, mossy spires. And the lady on the wharf who had to pull him out, she says,
‘Crazy bastard just fell in! Started sinkin’ like a rock.’
But she says it with this echo, like she’s squintin’ at something with her voice. When the paramedics found them she’d been doing resuscitation on the old man for almost thirty minutes, but nothing. He keeps breathing, but he won’t wake up.
‘He just kept coughin’ up water. Musta been a gallon,’ she swears.
They take him to the hospital and leave him there, holding down an old bed like a paperweight. They’re waiting for something to happen. And one night the night nurse comes in, and he almost throws up. It stinks like a barrel of bloating fish in there, and the floor’s covered in a long, slimy trail that starts at the window and stops at the bed. And the old man’s eyes are finally open, staring at nothing. He’s cold and stiff, like he’s been dead for days, even though they checked on him that morning. And there’s a grin on his face, bigger than what should fit on a human skull.”
Looking back in the cold light of day, it was easy to start poking holes in the story. How did they know what the man had seen, if he’d been in a coma? How could some unearthly visitor enter from nowhere and leave a visible sign of its presence? Why the hell would it bother? But no matter how many skeptical needles I produced, none of them could deflate the awe that now sparked in my chest at the mere mention of the preternatural.
From the day of that first rejection I made the library my home. I made stubborn eye contact with the clerk every morning, taking a stack of books for study in what I’d nominally declared a Classics major. Like most curriculums at Miskatonic, it was all about planning one’s course of study around the best access to your particular peculiarities. I would sit in view of the locked reading rooms, paging through books cross-referenced to any word in the card catalogue that might be even tenuously connected to what I was seeking.
That was the trouble, of course. I was digging after a feeling supposed by a dead man, with nothing to anchor it in the geography of academia. The librarians who’d acted as secondary parents in my childhood hadn’t taught me how to accommodate for this many unknowns. Three weeks in I wasn’t accomplishing anything but coming in with my cold, habitual “Terry” to the front desk and then wasting three hours learning about the horrible minutiae of crustacean exoskeletons, making a show of how much I deserved to be there, and not absorbing a damn thing.
When I wasn’t at the library, I was concocting reasons for why my professors absolutely needed to help me plan an extracurricular study course—you had to say it that way, since the creation of a syllabus lent it a feeling of gravitas. Every one of them came back with the same response.
“Your work is exceptional, Ms. Devereux, but I’m afraid your suggested topics require a firmer grasp of context. Maybe in a few years…”
Or some variation thereof. It was just after sophomore midterms, and I had chosen the furthest table still technically in view of the coveted private library. It was a good spot for holding back a frustrated cry, allowing a slip up every so often that prickled the seams of my eyelids. That was when Darlene found me.
She was a senior, wearing a wool skirt and sweater so out of date she must’ve asked H.G. Wells to help her shop. Her hair was up in bobby pins, and there was a real sophisticated air about her when she wanted it. Boys hung around her at an appropriate distance, and her grades were good-not-great in every class. The perfect WASP veneer. The armchair set loved it.
“You look downright lovesick.” She greeted me, spinning a chair under her hand before noticing a small study group out of the corner of her eye and redirecting herself to sit, primly, on the edge of the seat.
“What’s it to you?” I grumbled, too tired to snap.
She leaned in, laying a gentle pat on my arm. Her grin was pointed. “Two grand in a betting pool. I laid odds on December 18th. Makes it a nice Christmas gift for you, see? And me.”
“Came over here just to gloat?”
Her eyes widened, genuine, for almost a second. Then the nonchalance settled back in. “Why bother? You’re going through hell as it is. I say why not make it work for both of us.”
On the one hand, I was shooting myself in the foot. On the other, I was tired of seeing moldering book covers in my dreams and fighting the urge to trip Terry down the stairs. And Darlene’s reputation was sterling.