Night of the Haunter

Part One: Arkham

Half price pint night at the Arkham Ale House.

The Miskatonic University crowd, looking for reprieve from preparation for summer semester’s impending finals, filled it wall-to-wall. Just such a need brought Jonathan there, looking to relax with his friends, Vanessa and Bobby, and to escape the black hole of physics textbooks waiting to devour him in his dorm room. Vanessa sat in quiet spirits, gorging herself on a bowl of pasta, while Bobby eyed two attractive, young hippy girls hovering near the jukebox. Jonathan knew where this was going; the Miskatonic rowing team star would try to rope him into playing wingman, poorly, while he worked his ample charms. Bobby liked to use Jonathan’s bottomless pocketbook to break the ice. Jonathan couldn’t really blame him. He would probably do the same thing if he didn’t have a trust fund to abuse.

At Bobby’s insistence, Jonathan broke down and called over the waiter. He proceeded to order two beers for the women, and the waiter sent them over. When the girls offered glances back to their table, and polite smiles in thanks, Bobby stood and made his way over to the jukebox. As Godzilla, the recently released single for Blue Oyster Cult’s upcoming new album, helped energize his groove, Bobby invited both girls back to their table, and the women accepted. It turned out to be Bobby who steered the entire conversation, and captured all the attention of the young ladies, as Jonathan’s mind stayed behind with his studying and Vanessa couldn’t shake the foul mood a rejection letter for internship at the Boston Herald had put her in. When one of the women asked Bobby if he liked to party, before using her tongue to feed him acid in a lengthy, sloppy kiss, Jonathan paid the bill and bid everyone goodnight, offering to walk Vanessa back to campus safely. Equally seeking to escape the public display of affection, she readily agreed.

Vanessa looked forward to a long night in the campus library. The Herald criticized her student journalist portfolio for lacking a necessary level of ambition. Well, earlier in the day Vanessa learned the school paper wanted to assign her the task of interviewing Laszlo Pendergast, a visiting lecturer from Oxford University, and writing the subsequent front page article. She intended to use this opportunity to prove the Boston Herald wrong. After saying goodnight to Jonathan, she went straight to work. She knew Professor Pendergast stopped in Arkham as part of a U.S. tour promoting his recently released autobiography, Cold Comforts, and was surprised to find a copy of the book already on the school’s shelves—but then again, Miskatonic had always been known for its exceptional library, counting some of the rarest texts in the world among its available titles. She proceeded to seek out any of his other titles that might be available, stumbling upon copies of Gods and Monsters, Cosmicism, and The Children of Thule. Strangely, not a single copy of his last title, When the Stars Are Right, written over twenty years ago, could be found among the school’s musty collections. Regardless, a long night, and following day, of reading and preparation clearly awaited her if she intended to be fully prepared for a face-to-face encounter with the sixty-four year old super-intellectual who founded the twentieth century’s most controversial philosophical movement.

Armed with her completed research, and lacking a proper amount of sleep, Vanessa attended Professor Pendergast’s lecture, which preceded her planned interview. Jonathan and Bobby accompanied her for moral support, which turned out to be a wise decision—on several occasions during the lecture, Vanessa started to nod off, only to be saved from missing insightful moments by the nudge of Jonathan’s elbow. The majority of the lecture focused on material she already knew well, from Cold Comforts—Pendergast’s thoughts on being a creature from two worlds, having grown into manhood isolated in the rural countryside of Lancashire and subsequently escaping that world to embrace life as a cultured, urbanized intellectual during college and onward. Clearly he felt that resolving these two lifestyles, which he saw in distinct opposition to one another, played a large role in his development as a philosopher—as much of a role, in fact, as the horrors of World War II may have played in the crystallization of his philosophical system of Cosmicism.

As the lecture drew to a close, Bobby found himself more and more unnerved by an ignorance he believed Pendergast to be exhibiting. Despite his rural roots, he seemed overly critical of simple country folk, likening them on several occasions to the barbarians waiting to storm the gates of Rome. Bobby rose from his seat as the professor received applause, weaving his way through a flood of attendees working their way forward to capture Pendergast’s signature on their copies of his work. Containing his own anger, he challenged the doctor’s opinion on the subject, pointing out that if it hadn’t been for cultures that predated so-called civilized society working toward its end, everything Pendergast valued never would have come to fruition to begin with. Pendergast countered that to be the very nature of evolution, biological, social, or otherwise. Sensing Bobby’s dissatisfaction, he clarified his message, saying that he had nothing but respect for people who chose to live a simple life beyond the walls of urbanization; however, as urban culture increasingly became the gold standard of societal development, it was inevitable not only that the countryside be riddled with those who lived the simple life, but that it also became the lair of society’s outsider, its dark “other,” so aberrant in thought or behavior that the city’s underbelly could not even contain it, and so pushed it ever outward in rejection of its vile spirit. “Take for instance New York’s own .44 Caliber Killer, the so called Son of Sam. In the city, you find the serial killer,” Pendergast said, “because it is a cancer within the progress itself. Yet, such a person is truly unfathomable to a sane mind. So what of that which lurks beyond the gates, not by choice but by necessity? The rotting cruelty of such people is not merely unfathomable, dear boy. It is truly unthinkable.” Bobby thought of a few possible answers, but opted to keep his mouth shut as Pendergast signed one last autograph before disappearing from the auditorium.

Roughly half an hour later, Vanessa waited for Laszlo Pendergast in the Miskatonic University faculty lounge. She found herself overcome by his presence and poise when he arrived, and nervously looked through her notes to regain her bearings for the interview. Fortunately, the doctor’s experience with interviews came into play, as he talked casually with her at the start, making a few jokes to help her loosen up. They discussed some of the thematic elements of Children of Thule, the cultural zeitgeist that gave rise to his theories in Cosmicism, and his opinion of the literary value of his first work, Gods and Monsters which, while commercially successful, was clearly, Vanessa felt, written purely to fulfill his dissertation requirements. Following up on Bobby’s concerns, she spoke with Pendergast about his theories on the divide between rural and urban culture. She also asked him about When the Stars Are Right, as she’d failed to find a copy of it to study. He spoke of it only briefly, saying, “When the Stars are Right may have been too dark for the times, certainly far too heady if your reactions to what I’m saying are any indication. It wasn’t terribly popular, which is why you probably couldn’t find it. In summary, I attempted to apply non-Euclidean geometry to astrological systems, as well as historical research into various religious and superstitious mythologies, in an effort to formulate a plausible theory about the fate of mankind following the conclusion of the Mayan calendar in the year 2012. Too much,” he laughed, “for people in the nineteen-fifties.”

Pendergast concluded the interview, cutting it short because he had a couple hours worth of further obligations at the campus before he could retire to his hotel for the night. Vanessa faced reality. Nothing here would help her change the Herald’s opinion about her work. But then Pendergast let slip, off the record as they parted ways, that after a two-decade long absence from publication, beyond mere essays, he was presently putting the finishing touches on a new book. “It’s the one I think I’ll be remembered for,” he answered, when she asked what it was about. “My publisher hasn’t even made the announcement yet, so I can’t say anything more.”

Vanessa seized the opportunity. Rushing to the Arkham Ale House, she found Bobby and Jonathan, and told them everything that happened. She intended to break into Pendergast’s hotel room, but she didn’t want to do it alone. She needed their help.

“I don’t know,” Bobby said. “We could get arrested.”

“I don’t get arrested,” Jonathan corrected.

“So you’ll help?” she asked.

“Sure, why not,” Bobby shrugged.

“Yeah,” Jonathan agreed. “Let’s do it.”

Vanessa walked into the Hotel Miskatonic and approached the front desk clerk. “Excuse me,” she said. “My grandfather is in town, and he doesn’t know I’m coming by to visit. I’d like to surprise him. I was wondering if you could tell me what room he’s in, and maybe give me a key?”

The clerk gave her an odd look. “What’s his name?”

“Laszlo Pendergast.”

The clerk looked through the guest registry. “Yes, he’s here. He’s in room thirty-two, but I can’t give you a key. You’re just going to have to knock. I’m sure he’ll still be surprised to see you though.”

She thanked him, and waited until the clerk busied himself with other things before leading Jonathan and Bobby upstairs to Pendergast’s room.

“What do we do now?” Vanessa asked. “We have to get inside. He didn’t give me a key.”

“We pick the lock,” Jonathan said.

“How?”

Jonathan shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m a future engineer, not a locksmith.”

After a few seconds of silence, Bobby sighed. “Move over.” He knelt down, produced a set of lock picks from his pocket, and effortlessly picked the classic, tumbler style lock on the aged, gilded doorknob.

“Well,” Jonathan said. “You learn something new every day.”

“I used to have a summer job when I was a kid. It’s no big deal.”

“Oh?” Vanessa asked. “What job?”

“Breaking and entering.”

The three set about searching Pendergast’s room. Vanessa found the typed manuscript, currently bearing the title Strange Horizons, and a collection of hand-written notes on the material, stashed under the bed, in an old shoe box. Armed with her Polaroid camera, she quickly snapped a few pictures—title page, a few sections of manuscript text, some unsettling and very odd illustrations, and any hand-written pages which seemed ripe with information on the work’s overall purpose. Bobby focused a lot of attention on the notes while Vanessa captured stills of the actual manuscript, and concluded from a few references, as well as a well-worn and referenced map, that the city of Providence was critical to the material in some way. Jonathan also found items of interest—notably, the illustrations. At first glance, they reminded him of the strange symbols often seen in horror films involving satanic rituals and the like, except that these images were not occult in nature. They drew heavily on high-end geometric concepts which should be far beyond that of a philosophy professor. Perhaps that rationale explained why Pendergast seemed to be forcing upon them some kind of non-mathematical or non-scientific meaning. Lacking context, Jonathan failed to grasp their exact purpose, but they fascinated him nonetheless.

They did their best to leave the hotel room exactly as they found it. Afterward, Vanessa felt like she finally had something to prove her value to the Boston Herald. It was Bobby who pointed out she shouldn’t get ahead of herself. “You know he’s writing a book. You have some blurry Polaroids. That’s it. Big deal. If you really want to prove to these people you’re a go-getter, you need more. You need more info, and you need to take more risks. We should see if we can’t figure out what this thing is about. You know, investigative journalism. That thing you’re in school to learn how to do.”

The three friends headed to the library and worked together to pull up everything they could on Providence, RI. During their search, they tried to keep their minds open to anything and everything about the town which could appeal to someone of Pendergast’s interest. The only thing that stood out to them was a couple of references in a handful of old, archived newspaper clippings to something called the Church of Starry Wisdom, founded in the 1800’s and disbanded in 1877. Beyond that, remarkably little about the organization could be unearthed, besides the name of its founder—one Enoch Bowen. Vanessa read through some of the captured images of Strange Vistas, and decided it was likely Pendergast might be attempting another alternate history, much like Children of Thule, except centered on the city of Providence. Bobby proposed a road trip to Providence might be in order, and they discussed the pros and cons of doing so in the middle of summer finals, before heading back to the dorm, to their respective rooms, and to sleep.

They shared a dream.

Standing in the cold, outside an ominous church, with a terrifyingly knife-like steeple that seemed intent on piercing the bowels of god, each looked on, alone, at the untouched structure, calling to them from some alien horizon. Each made their way through its ornate doors, of a wood so dark it may as well have been the blackest obsidian, or a portal into nothingness. They walked down the aisle, between rows of pews as dark as the doorway that led inside. At the far end, an altar waited; behind it, strange whispers calling them closer even as their hearts beat quicker with every step. Reaching it at last, looking over the podium, they stared into not a person, nor an idol of some anthropomorphic god or devil. What they stared into was forbidden geometry itself personified—something whose angles were so off, so terrible, so utterly and inalienably wrong, that to see it was like not seeing it, for their minds failed to comprehend its size, its depth, its texture, its color. And in a chorus of hungry, whispering voices, it pleaded:

“Let us show it to you.”

They each awoke in the dead of night, unable to return to sleep, and weary as though from the end of a long journey. It wasn’t until they were all fully awake that they realized they had not woken up in the middle of the night—but the following evening. Vanessa, Jonathan, and Bobby gathered outside of the dorm. She mentioned her dream first. The more Jonathan finished her sentences, the more terrified they became. Bobby did his best to keep it together, remaining silent, but even he was unnerved.

The decision was quickly made: they all climbed into Jonathan’s van and began their road trip to Providence. They made their way out of Arkham, into the countryside of New England. Several hours into their trip, in the middle of night and the middle of nowhere, the van suddenly died and rolled to a halt. Jonathan turned the key, and the engine failed to turn over. Vanessa froze with fear. Jonathan’s hands shook. Bobby quietly breathed, maintaining his own composure. He grabbed a flashlight and climbed out of the van. Jonathan followed suit. Both men went to the front of the van. Jonathan opened the hood and tried to diagnose the problem while Bobby provided the necessary light. It didn’t take him long to isolate the problem—nothing Jonathan’s ample skill with engines couldn’t solve.

“But there’s one problem,” he said to Bobby. “I’m going to need a part to fix it.”

They argued for awhile about whether or not it was smarter to walk forward along the road, into the unknown, or back the way they had come, into familiar territory. Eventually they decided to continue backward, and walked together, a terrified Vanessa refusing to move out from between the two. Half an hour down the road, a starry glow came up behind them, rapidly approaching—the headlights of a beat-up Chevy truck, which slowed and stopped beside them. The driver-side window rolled down, revealing a sweaty, hollow-eyed, bearded man in faded Levi overalls, chewing something like tobacco, which in the moonlight gave off a deep, ruby red hue. His jaw slacked a little as he sucked on his cheek. His eyes bore into the three friends, cruel and cold. “Y’kids duhn out ‘er? These wuds’s no place fer yuh.”

“Our car broke down,” Bobby said. “There an auto shop around here?”

The driver lifted his hand quickly, a switchblade snapping to life in his hand.

Vanessa and Jonathan jumped back.

Bobby stood his ground, and smiled.

The driver smiled back, and proceeded to pick dirt out from under his fingernails with the tip of the blade. “N’place open rund her, this time a night.” He spat out the window, saliva tinted by the blood red of the chaw in his cheek. “Know a guy though, prolly hep yuh’n the morn.”

“That doesn’t help us much. We have nowhere to go.”

The driver sized him up, coolly. “S’pose I kin put ye up sum’err. Got a rum’n muh place, r’cently came vay-cay-ted.”

“A room recently vacated,” Jonathan repeated, his heart pounding. “Why?”

The driver only laughed at him, and shook his head. “Y’not frum ‘ere, fer sure I figger. Anyway, ain’t got all night. Y’want a freeze, fuhn. Y’want a come, fuhn. But mek up yer muhn. Got things tuh do.”

“What’s your name?” Bobby asked.

“Clint,” he said, pocketing the knife. “Y’comin’ er wut?”

Bobby threw his duffle bag into the back of the truck. Following his lead, hesitantly, Vanessa and Jonathan climbed in the back. Bobby joined them. Clint drove them off a dirt path, deeper into the woods. The route ended at a small shack that looked like it hadn’t been given a fresh coat of paint in over a century. Clint led them inside. The whole place smelled like spoiled meat, curdled milk, ammonia, and cheap tobacco. He led them upstairs to a room with a single spring bed, no locks on the door, and all its windows boarded up from the outside.

“Make yer’sef at home.” His cold stare hung with them as he backed out of the room. Then, with a laugh and a shake of his head, he closed the door and they listened to his footsteps grow softer as he descended the stairs.

Bobby got a rowing oar out of his backpack and planted his back against the door, while Vanessa laid down on the bed and Jonathan spread out on the hardwood. He intended to stay awake through the night, guarding his two friends.

The sleepers woke up a few hours later, to what sounded like something being beaten with a stick outside, in the front yard. Jonathan crept over to the window and found a small crack in the boards, through which he could look and see what was happening. In the yard below, Clint stood over a large burlap sack, with a baseball bat raised high. Whatever the sack contained, it struggled and flailed about as Clint brutalized it with the slugger.

“He’s beating it,” Jonathan’s voice rasped, in his wide-eyed terror. “There’s something in a sack, it’s moving, and he’s just beating it!” He continued looking on, frozen, as the sack stopped moving and Clint grabbed hold of it with his free hand, dragging it slowly from view.

Vanessa planted her back against the headboard and curled her knees into herself, closing her eyes and shivering in fear.

No one went back to sleep.

When dawn came, Clint shouted up to them from downstairs, “”B’rkfust! C’m awn!”

They emerged into the kitchen, where plates of steak and eggs awaited them.

“Hope y’like uhm scrambled.”

“Actually,” Jonathan said. “Thanks, but we’re vegetarians.”

“Yes,” Bobby said. “We’re vegans.”

“No,” Vanessa said, “we’re vegetarians.”

“No, we’re vegans,” Bobby said.

“Vegetarians don’t eat meat. Vegans won’t eat anything that comes from the animal, including those eggs.”

Bobby smiled at her a, “Please shut up,” smile, and said, “Exactly.”

“Oh, right!” She looked at Clint and said, “We’re vegans.”

He scowled, “Fuhkin’ lib’rals.” He grabbed the chunk of meat off Bobby’s plate and held it like a candy bar, tearing the bloody flesh off with a ferocious bite and chewing with his mouth open. “Ain’t lived til ye et some coyote. Them’s good eatin’.”

“I’m sorry,” Jonathan said, clearing his throat. “Did you say coyote?”

“Yep. Li’l fuhk’r been et’in muh chickens fer munths. Caught ‘im las’ night, I did. Threw ‘im in a sack an’ tenderized ‘im good an’ ded. Don’t know wut yer missin’.”

After breakfast, they all climbed into the back of Clint’s truck. He turned up the radio as Jefferson Airplane came over the airwaves, singing along poorly in his thick dialect and enjoying every second of it as he drove Vanessa, Jonathan, and Bobby to a nearby auto shop. Jonathan bought the part he needed to repair the van, and then Clint drove them back to it. He said farewell before continuing on his way. It didn’t take Jonathan more than ten minutes to make the necessary repairs, and they all climbed back into the van, continuing along on their road trip to Providence.

In the light of day.

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Wintermancer

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