A Lovecraft homage I wrote a couple of years ago.
Keep Portland Weird
Well, of course this was a myth. Portland wasn’t weird, any more than any other city in America. It just had a reputation for weird, deserved or not, and that reputation brought self-conscious eccentrics crawling from all corners of the world to try to get in on whatever amorphous weirdness existed here.
And yet, was it not, perhaps, the inexorable influx of those very same eccentrics into our fair city, the mass migration that caused us to dig up the city’s land and build more and higher and more expensive apartment blocks, which led to the discovery that brought all of the horrors that followed?
A worker at a building site found the artifact. The site was one of the hundreds of similar projects going up all over the city – a big hole in the ground, the potential of architecture, another apartment block to replace a crumbling but charming old house. Postmodern brutalism, that monotone jangle of glass, concrete, and steel, the skin of the 21st century stretching itself inexorably over the city. The building would have three floors of apartments that, even in this city’s endlessly skyrocketing housing market, would cost more to rent than a reasonable mortgage. The bottom floor would have space for retail, and would go unleased and empty for months before it was occupied either by some inexcusably twee little coffee shop or a vintage-inspired barber who justified his exorbitant prices by giving away tiny shots of liquor to his customers.
I suppose I am a little bit jaded about the city. In my capacity as a possessor of several advanced degrees in the arcane and the occult, Portland had always piqued my interest – a town that existed as a tangle of temporal conflation, anachronistic meta-fashions and the fetishization of the mundane past. Portland never embraced the present moment, preferring instead to find joy in dissecting, juggling, and recombining tropes, trinkets, and trivialities from all over the world and backwards through time. I found a kind of derisive joy in sifting through the cultural gibberish that the town produced, and grew to love Portland all the more for it.
But I digress.
The construction worker who found the artifact tossed it aside and continued his work. It was his coworker, who was an old boyfriend of mine (don’t ask), who picked it up and looked it over. Knowing somehow that I’d find it interesting, he’d put it in his pocket and brought it to me straight after his shift ended. I, being at work, was fiddling with a fussy milk steamer and cursing the world while several waiting patrons glared at me.
“Hey,” he said, and I looked up to find his pug nose and irritating mustache staring over the coffee machine at me.
“Busy, Mike, what’s up?”
“Oh Sean, you’re never too busy for me, darlin’,” he said in a fake Texas drawl he liked to pull out when he was trying to be clever.
“Yeah well…shit…” The milk steamer was jammed in a way that only a milk steamer could be. I fiddled with it.
“Listen, I found this thing at a job site. Thought you might want to take a gander at it,” he said. I looked up and found him holding a gray, pentagonal stone, the size of a salad plate, smooth at the edges, with a symbol on it that immediately filled me with dread. I forgot about the steamer and grabbed it from him.
“Hey, I’m still waiting for my—” said someone far away who didn’t matter at the moment. I stared at the talisman in my hand. It couldn’t be what I thought it was. It had to be a clever forgery.
The symbols on it were in an ancient and dark language, a tongue unknown to modern man, and if uttered aloud might just summon –
“Sean, stop staring at whatever that is and fix the damned steamer!” It was my manager, a fetus named Cody just out of high school who was saving up to tour Europe with his band or some other irrelevant nonsense. I didn’t even glance up at him.
“Shit,” he said, and ran to attend to the steamer. I assume. I wasn’t paying attention.
“Where?” I whispered the question at Mike, because the rest of my voice had run in terror from the thing in my hand.
“65th and Belmont.”
“I need to see that site.”
“I don’t know—”
I walked around the counter, reached out and grabbed Mike by the lapel and brought him close to my face. His eyes widened.
“I need…to see…that site.” I was still whispering, but like a tornado whispers when it’s far away. It was a whisper full of menace, urgency, the threat of destruction.
“Ok…I’ll figure it out,” said Mike. “Let go of me.”
I let go of him. He straightened his lapel.
“Get me in,” I said in that same whisper.
“I’ll try,” he responded. “What is it?”
“Just get me in to the site,” I said again.
I brought the dread stone with me to the downtown library, that edifice of stone and books that harkened back to an earlier era where learning was king and intelligence a virtue. Now it mostly served as a day center for the homeless, although at least they were learning something instead of shooting themselves full of poison.
I suppose I could have found what I needed on the internet. Everything is on the internet. But this stone called for a certain kind of reverence for the timeless art of research. Methodical, thoughtful research. I had to focus my mind. Really focus it. Because if I let my thoughts about the artifact become disorganized, chaotic, then I would surely be lost.
I found what I was looking for – what I hoped not to find – what I dreaded being right about – in the old journal of a man named Hopley, who’d explored obscure towns and villages in New England at the turn of the 20th century. Why the Portland Public Library had a copy of Hopley’s journal was not a mystery relevant to the current situation.
Hopley had been following the trail of a man named Gafney, who’d left behind his own journal and a mystery – a chaotic screed ranting about arcane monsters and impossible architectures, about fish people and for some reason, cats. Gafney, it turned out, had also found some obscure papers in an attic, and had been using them to piece together a mystery of his own. In fact, the papers that Gafney mentioned in his journal also mentioned following the trail of an obscure journal found in an attic. Gafney, for his part, had apparently died, or committed suicide, during his quest, as had the author of the mysterious papers he found.
I was following the trail of a journal, following the trail of a journal, following the trail of some papers found in an attic, following the trail of a journal.
But I was definitely on the right track.
The engravings on the stone matched an etching on a page of Hopley’s journal, with the inscription: “Do not ever read this aloud” scrawled underneath it. I heeded that warning. I knew what it said and what it portended. What I didn’t know was what it was doing in Portland.
To this day, I wish that Mike hadn’t handed me that stone. I really do. I can’t ever undo what happened. I’m so sorry. We are such tiny things. Such tiny, fragile things, and there are so many horrible dimensions just waiting to snuff us out. I stare out of this impossible stone parapet at the ruined city beneath me, and I weep. Or I would weep. I would weep.
The train let me off a block from my apartment on the eastern fringe of the city. I clutched Hopley’s journal to my chest along with several other books on arcane languages that I thought might be useful to me. It was night, and the streetlights were shrouded with the kind of fog that streetlights get shrouded with in stories like these. It was exactly the kind of night where one might expect a mysterious figure to accost me about the stone artifact on my way home, and in fact, that is precisely what happened.
“Show me the stone,” said a figure in the shadows. He was wearing a hooded sweatshirt that said “Miskatonic” on it in collegiate lettering. I’d heard of the school, shrouded in legend though it was.
The figure moved toward me at an angle that didn’t make sense. It startled me, and I nearly dropped my books. Then the figure was in my face, and I realized he didn’t have one. A face. The sweatshirt’s hood was a black void, and I felt myself falling into it. I screamed. My scream disappeared into the sweatshirt’s hood.
“Show me the stone,” the figure repeated, the voice coming from somewhere in the blackness.
I shuffled my books under one arm and pulled the stone out with my other hand, the blackness where the figure’s face should be lulling me into hypnotic compliance.
The figure reached out and took…absorbed…the figure had the stone. Just like that. I had no control. I swear, if this was the moment when I failed, when it all went wrong, when the horror started, just know this. I had no control.
Then the worst thing of all happened. The voice – I couldn’t stop it. It said the words. It said the words on the stone. Out loud.
The stars…my god. What was wrong with the stars? They started moving. Overhead. Forming shapes and patterns. Was I the only one who noticed? What awful creatures had the power to move the stars?
Blackness took me. I wish something more had happened, but what else does the body do when faced with extreme stress and horror but simply let go of consciousness?
“Wake up,” said something very far away. I swam in darkness, a wet, slithering darkness, a darkness that…
I woke up.
I was lying on a bed in a concrete room with one dim bulb in the ceiling. A bearded man stood over me. He wore a professorial tweed suit and a look of concern on his face from which his brown hair receded as if in fear.
“Well you’ve done it,” he said.
“I’ve done what?” My voice seemed to come from somewhere else, my mouth disconnected from my consciousness.
“You gave the stone away.”
“Well it’s not like I had much of a choice,” I protested as I tried to sit up. The world swam away from me. I winced and forced unwilling consciousness to return.
“If you knew anything about those creatures, and you should, knowing what we do about your background and credentials, you’d have known how to prevent it getting the stone from you.”
“But those…those can’t be real. Those things exist in lore and legend. Ancient legend, only scraps of which still exist today.”
“You’re telling me the thing you saw with your own eyes can’t be real?” The man reached over and handed me a glass of what I could only hope was water. I sipped it, then drank it down, my mouth a desert.
“I’m telling you…” But I wasn’t sure what I was telling him. “I’m not sure what I’m telling you.”
“That you’re useless and stupid?”
“Very eloquently put, Mr. James.” The sarcasm dripped off the man like ichor.
He did have a point – I had just given the creature the stone. I was useless and stupid.
“Who are you, anyway?” I asked.
“I am Professor Erik Crane, most recently of Miskatonic University’s archaeology department. We look for things like the stone you lost for us. Such items – artifacts belonging to the Old Ones and the Deep Ones and even great Cthulhu Himself – have a peculiar quantum signal that is slightly out of phase with the rest of the known universe. That’s a gross oversimplification, of course, but the point is that over the past few decades we’ve developed methods to track down these artifacts and gather them for safekeeping in the University’s secure vault.”
Crane’s utterance of the name of that dread god of R’lyeh – He Who Lays dead but dreaming in his impossible fortress of nightmares under the sea – sent such shivers through me I worried my spine might spontaneously detach and run away. I had studied the Old Ones, of course, through the writings of Lovecraft and others, but always with the understanding that these were legends, myths, clever fictions at best. To now be faced with the reality…therein lay true madness. Still, asking the professor to repeat himself, to confirm, to reassure me that what he’d told me was indeed true – that seemed a waste of time. I let the knowledge wrap scaly tentacles around my mind, let it settle there, resisted the urge to rip my own head off my body and hurl it at the man.
“H….” Words. I needed words. I blinked at Dr. Crane.
“I can only assume you are about to ask how you can help me, Mr. James. And in fact, you can.”
He handed me Copley’s journal. I blinked at it. My mind was full of tentacles and static.
“We don’t have much time, Mr. James. Please come to your senses.”
I shook my head from side to side, slapped myself in the face, and let out a barbaric yawp. I blinked at Dr. Crane again and nodded slowly.
“I think…I think I have my senses.”
“Excellent news. Now. Please turn to the page with the etching of the stone.”
I did so. There was the symbol…the symbol of something I now knew to be as real as the sun, as real as the mattress upon which I was perched, as real as the mustache on Dr. Crane’s face. Ia! Ia! The chant came unbidden to mind.
“Tell me, Mr. James.”
“You know I also have a couple of doctorates, so… you can call me Dr. James. If you, you know, want to.”
“Is that so? Tell me, Mr. James, what Mr. Copley’s notes say about how to stop the Shoggoth that this stone summons once it has been summoned.”
“The summoner must…travel to the ocean and throw the stone into the sea while reciting the incantation backwards.”
“And if the summoner gets the backwards incantation wrong?”
“It would be bad. But hey, I didn’t summon the damned Shoggoth. That …faceless thing…”
“That faceless thing made you say the incantation, my friend,” said Dr. Crane.
I remembered now. The void in the hooded sweatshirt…it had engulfed me…had pried my mouth open…had taken control of my lips. Had made it seem like the creature was saying the words, but in fact…it was me. I had said the incantation.
My mind began to crack. I whimpered. I mewled. But before I could get too far into my psychotic break, we were interrupted by a low rumble from outside.
“It has started,” said Dr. Crane.
“What has?” I managed.
“The ascension. That Shoggoth was the key to unlocking something much, much worse. A dread force that lives now…lives now…” The way he said “lives” filled me with a kind of terror that I cannot, even now, after all that has happened, begin to describe, “that lives now underneath the Cascadia Subduction Zone.”
“The…fault line that’s supposed to destroy half of the West Coast when it blows?”
“The very same! And through arcane means that no human can possibly understand, under the fault line lies R’lyeh itself, and it is beginning to rise. And with it…with it comes great Cthulhu, the greatest and most terrible of the Elder Gods. The stars are right once more, my dear Mr. James, thanks to your incantation, and dread Cthulhu wakes from his slumber and begins to rise!”
I think I screamed. The earth shook. Dr. Crane grabbed my arm, chanted something, and I found myself somewhere else.
The rumbling had stopped. People were out in the street with flashlights checking on damage. It was classified as a minor earthquake, and the news was assuring everyone that it wasn’t the “big one,” even though the epicenter was off the coast. Still, there was a sense of tension in the air, as everyone checked on their emergency supply kits and finally investigated earthquake insurance.
“Why’d it stop?” I asked Dr. Crane. We were walking to the building site where the original stone talisman had been found. Dr. Crane’s instruments, the function of which I did not understand, but which whirred and beeped and had flashing lights and looked kind of like the thing the Ghostbusters used to detect paranormal activity, were pointing him to the building site as a potential source where we might find other eldritch souvenirs.
“That was just Cthulhu rolling over in His sleep, so to speak. Come, we must get to the building site.”
“Ok, that brings up another question. Why’d you decide to teleport us six blocks from the building site?”
“To avoid suspicion,” Dr. Crane responded as we crossed the intersection of 60th and Belmont. An easy answer, but I nodded and went with it, because having to walk five blocks was so far down the list of our concerns that it wasn’t actually on the list.
Patients milled outside the medical center on the south side of the street while a crew checked the old brick structure for damage from the tremor. There were small cracks in the sidewalk that I wasn’t entirely sure had been there before. Then again, my mind wasn’t really focused on what was around me right now. My mind was worried about what was coming.
The building site was a gaping hole where old trees and a few houses had been razed. At 65th, Belmont was a winding tree-lined path up Mount Tabor, that dormant, forested volcano in the middle of the city that nobody was afraid of. Yet.
Wait, why’d I think that? I shook it off. My brain came up with the strangest things sometimes.
“You’re wondering if you should be afraid of Mount Tabor,” said Dr. Crane.
“I’m telepathic. A little. Sometimes. It comes and goes. Anyway, you should. But not for a good...oh…I’d say thousand years or so. Ghatanothoa is still quite asleep.”
“The…volcano god? Is here?? Under one of the most inconsequential calderas in the world?”
“Where would you hide if you wanted to be inconspicuous?”
“Good point,” I said. Then I shivered, despite the warm weather. The Pacific Northwest was apparently crawling with Elder Gods who would one day destroy everything. Madness crawled at the edges of my vision, full of worms, full of terror. I pushed it away. I wondered how long I had left before it consumed me.
It was after 9:00 pm and the building site looked deserted. A long, rectangular hole had been dug into the hillside, and piers poked out at regular intervals. Dr. Crane cut a hole in the fence with a knife he pulled out of his satchel. I wondered why he didn’t just teleport us in there.
“Do you want me to teleport you into one of those piers by accident? It’s not a precise science.”
He was a rather inconsistent person, I thought, but still, we were in.
Dr. Crane’s device pointed us to the southwest corner of the site. Dr. Crane donned a flashlight headband which he turned on, but it didn’t illuminate anything.
“Battery dead?” I said, like an idiot.
“No indeed, Mr. James. This device is working perfectly. It illuminates things beyond dimensions that you can see. I have been trained in its use. You have not. Thus, you see darkness where I see a whole world.”
The earth shook again. I dropped into a crouch and held on. One of the construction piers screeched and started to fall, headed directly for Dr. Crane. I leaped and tackled him out of the way, just like the movies. The pier crashed to the ground inches from my head.
The earth rolled and cracked. A fissure opened nearby, and we scrambled to avoid falling into it. Above the rumbling, a dread keening could be heard, a wail, somehow beyond hearing but in it, like the crying of the dead. The wailing became a chant, a warbling call, Ia! Ia! Ia!
Dr. Crane chanted back at the darkness, words I cannot even begin to transcribe, words in an ancient and terrible language, the tongue of the Elder Gods. He chanted while the Earth shook, while the keening wail of Ia! Ia! wrapped tentacles around my mind once more.
The shaking slowed, then stopped. The ground was fissured and cracked, the distant sound of car alarms, the beginnings of smoke sharp in my nose.
“What did you do?” I managed, after catching my breath.
“Hit the snooze button, so to speak,” said Dr. Crane. “It won’t last. Quick, we need to find that other stone.”
His device pointed us toward a fissure that had opened in the ground, from which a strange light was emanating, a light made of darkness yet fully visible.
“It’s activated,” said Dr. Crane. He crouched near the fissure and put a hand in, reaching. “Aha!” He pulled out his hand. A second stone, the same as the one I had given to the Shoggoth, radiated pure darkness, a malevolent light made of colors that weren’t of this world, that didn’t belong here.
“Ok, but how do I ‘sync’ it with the first one so we can track down the Shoggoth and stop all this?”
Dr. Crane handed me the stone. It pulled me in a direction.
“See? As the one who chanted the incantation, this talisman is guiding you, and only you, to the place where the final ritual must occur – the final joining of the stones and sacrifice that will finally awaken and summon dread Cthulhu.”
“I thought he was already summoned.”
“Don’t be thick. Cthulhu has been dreaming his dead sleep for eons. It takes more than a gentle prodding to wake Him.”
I nodded. I was a little suspicious of all of this – nothing seemed to quite fit together, but Dr. Crane seemed to know what he was talking about.
“Come,” said Dr. Crane, and teleported us.
I found myself staring at a turbulent sea, a strange glow coming from within. Haystack Rock stood silhouetted by lightning flashes, while thunder rolled at strange angles to reality. Hooded creatures stood in a circle, a strange symbol written in the sand in the middle. The stone in my hand burned and brightened its terrible colors. It pulled me toward the circle of hooded figures. I stumbled in that direction, terror constricting my mind. Dr. Crane followed behind me. I focused on the crunch of his footsteps in the sand, something concrete and real, a sound that I could use to keep my mind from flying apart.
One of the hooded figures turned to me, blackness where his face should be, a blackness I could only see in flashes of lightning. I stared into the darkness there, petrified, unable to move. The sea roiled and crashed, lit from within by a sinister glow.
The Shoggoth raised a black hand and curled a finger, beckoning me forward. I found myself clutching the second stone in a tight fist, my hand shaking with the effort. The stone burned there, burned my hand, and I whimpered. It raised my arm and pulled me forward. I stumbled toward the circle.
“The sacrifice begins! Ia! Ia! C’thulhu Fhtagn!” It was Dr. Crane’s voice I heard. “Let the great dark lord rise from His City of R’lyeh, to raze the world and build it anew!”
I stumbled toward the circle, my mind in tatters, whimpering and mewling, the skin on my hand burning from the stone talisman. The black hood of the Shoggoth enveloped my vision, blocking out the world, an impossible void into which I was forever falling. I could not call out, could not fight, could not stop myself falling inexorably forward, toward that sinister circle of Shoggoths, with their arcane and horrible symbols and their hideous chanting.
The sea churned and boiled, and I saw something rise from it, a cracking shudder breaking through arcane dimensions. A stone tower, its proportions impossible, its angles inconceivable, folding in and back and through itself in ways that M.C. Escher would call confusing, pierced the roiling foam. A horrible noise, like the crashing down of Heaven itself. Haystack Rock began to shake itself apart, coming down in a massive rockslide, as the tower rose, breaking through the sea and into the land. The earth shook, and I lurched forward, pulled by forces I could not understand, kept upright by dark magic. Suddenly I was lifted off the heaving sand, and I found myself floating toward the circle of Shoggoths.
I found myself in the middle of the circle, lying prostrate on the sand with my limbs at angles to the symbol drawn there. The stone rose from my hand and the Shoggoth took it. I saw the Shoggoth join the two stones together, and a piercing light blinded me.
I could not move. I swear, dear reader, if I could have stopped the ritual, if I could have killed myself or disrupted the incantations, if I could have destroyed the symbol on the sand, if I could have taken the stones and flung them into the sea, I would have. You must believe me. I had no control. None.
A silver knife, curved and jagged, flashed in the lightning, held in a Shoggoth’s hand. It plunged downward, into me, through me, into the sand. I screamed. I died.
And yet, I live. I live because I am the Symbol. I am the Symbol and the Sacrifice. I sit in this impossible stone parapet, overlooking the ruined city of Portland, in my eternal prison cell, and I write this story. In my head. Over and over again. I must tell what happened. I must. I look down at the pentagonal scar on my stomach, where they cut out my soul, where my humanity bled out of me, and I am numb. Dear reader, dear imaginary reader, out there in a reality that now exists only in the shreds of my mind, oh how I miss the world.
Outside my window, the Old Ones roam streets where once the great and weird people of Portland lived their tiny lives. I see the ruined face of Portlandia herself, that once great statue, lying prostrate on the ground as if in supplication to the Elder Gods, and I weep. I weep for you all. Ia! Ia! How I weep…