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A Study in Horror

"So what do you think?"

"I think the characters are flat, but a good story, overall."

"That's it? Just good?"

"Like I said, the characters didn't really engage me."

"That's the point. It's a horror story."

"What do you mean?"

"They're not supposed to be detailed."


"For effect. If there's no detail, you bond with them more."

"Sounds like an excuse. I know you can write characters."

"I know. But I gotta restrain myself in a horror story. Not too much detail."

"Yeah, but you can't have all characters be flat. I mean, come on, Philip, you have to have someone to triangulate against."

"True. I'll grant you that, but you still don't want to reveal too much."

"Why not? I find characters fascinating."

"Of course you do, but horror isn't about the characters. It's about the cosmic malevolance in the setting and plot." Philip got up and walked to his bookshelves. Books covered all of two walls in his library, and most of a third, those shelves built carefully around the doorway. Only his desk, a window with a view of the sea, and a few macabre paintings saved the fourth wall from permanent burial behind thousands of weighty, dusty tomes.

Philip went to a section of the shelves near his desk. The books there were not as dusty as the others. Bill, his guest, lost himself scanning the spines for titles, and on some shelves, languages, which he could recognize.

Outside, a quiet morning rain tapped the water and the awning over Philip's deck. A ceiling fan lazily wafted the cool salt air through the room from the open window.

Philip selected a book and sat back down in the chair opposite Bill. Philip had the most comfortable chairs for reading in his library. The parquet floor, oak panelling, and Persian rug made the room perfect for devouring a good book, regardless of the season. The rain outside practically forced people to sit in the library and discuss books, much to Bill's delight.

"Here, Bill. Try this one. H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness. Hardly any characters, human ones anyway, and full of sheer cosmic terror. I love it." Philip handed the book to Bill.

Bill handled it, admiring the art on the cover. "Yeah, I liked it, but way too prosy. Lovecraft tended to go on and on. No way would he get away with that today."

Philip frowned. "He didn't write for today. He wrote for his day. He knew what it took to get published and wrote to that. Besides, not all his stories dove into thick descriptions. He's got some tightly-spun tales in his corpus. And they all have that cosmic punch to them, at least after he realized he should have one."

Bill shifted in his chair. "He still didn't have any good characters. Well, the ghoul Pickman was a good one. But he was it."

"Exactly, Bill. Exactly. Pickman was an outsider, defined to make your skin crawl and feel glad you weren't him. Put him next to the bland Randolph Carter, describe his scabrous, degenerated, formerly-human body and everyone jumps right into Carter's character. He's a safe, undefined haven." A salty breeze gave the room a brief chill. "You also have to consider the universe itself as a character in Lovecraft's work."

"That would make it the best-defined character of all."

"And the most terrifying, as well."

"Strange, huh?" Bill sat up on the edge of his chair. "We're supposed to fear the unknown, but the more definition we have of a character or scene, the more we fear it."

Philip shook his head. "You miss the point. Lovecraft didn't define to explain his phenonema. He defined to drop hints and leave so much more unsaid. He let you in on how much a mystery the cosmos could be. He put details together so you'd start forming conspiracy theories of your own about the universe. After he drops a hint, the rest is left to your imagination."

"How is that so terrifying?"

"Elementary, dear Bill." The two men laughed. "We all have something inside us we fear most."

"Like what Orwell has in 1984. The rats and all in Room 101. I still get shivers when I think of the cage, strapped to Winston Smith's face, the rat ready to be released if he doesn't-"

"Yes! Precisely! As long as you leave it free for the reader to imagine, you can tap that deepest fear anytime you leave the most terrible thing of all unsaid. Sure, you have a few details and trimmings to get the reader in the right frame of mind, but at the end, you cut him off and turn his imagination loose."

Bill sat back in his overstuffed throne. "But what if your readers don't have much imagination?"

"They can go to hell. I'm not writing for dullards. If you don't know what ululation is, don't read my stuff."

"Oh come on, don't be so harsh. You could give them some more help, like throw in a few murders or a gory monster."

Philip's face took on a sanguine tone. "That's not horror. That's shock. Horror, good horror, is like humor. If it bends, it's funny. If it breaks, it's not. Same in horror. You have to bend the imagination, not shatter it. Sure, a serial rapist and killer is terrifying, but describing everything is just nauseatingly shocking. Dropping hints of something more terrible beyond what is seen is horror. Horror has to bring in the cosmos in a very chilling and uncomfortable way, to remind the imagination to put things together and realize how pathetic existence can be in a cruel universe such as ours."

"Oh, come on, Philip. Someone dies in just about every horror story, and they die in a gruesome fashion. Shock is horror."

Philip stood up and went to his desk, sitting on it at an angle to take in the view and Bill simultaneously. "Shock is not horror, Bill. Not in a million years. Shock can be an aid to bringing one to a proper mind-set to appreciate horror, but won't give a haunting thrill the way true horror does. Nobody dies in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, yet it's a classic of the genre. Moody, decrepit, brooding buildings surround the narrator, who only glimpses the secrets dreaming beneath the gambrel roofs."

The rain fell harder. Bill pitched his voice louder to compensate. "So you think you can scare me without killing anyone or dropping a huge monster in front of me?"

Philip nodded.

Bill grinned. "I'd like to see that."

"If you have enough imagination and let it roam freely, you will." Philip pointed out the window. "What do you see out there?"

"Water. The bay."

"Right. That's the beginning of terror."

"Oh, please."

"Don't be so hasty in judgment. It's an unknown. Look at it. It's all murky and dirty from sediments and the rain. What's under all that?"


"Sure, we know there's fish in there... somewhere. But where exactly? What kind of fish? Any of them dangerous?"

"Yeah. Could be jellyfish in there."

"OK, where? Can you see them before it's too late?"

"No. Not always. I know. Those fartknockers sting."

"So if you went walking there in the shallows, would those be the only dangers?"

"No. You could step on a shell, cut yourself... see a shark fin."

"And that can happen in broad daylight. Scare you in the middle of a crowd of humanity." Philip leaned toward Bill. "Now say you're out there, wading, waist-deep water, and something grabs at your feet. You stumble. You fall underwater and are completely immersed."


"Your heart's pounding, isn't it?"

"Yeah, well, I'm just imagining it. I once got dragged out to the deep end of a pool when I was a kid before I knew how to swim. The bully thought it would be funny to see me splash around and touch the bottom. I hate the idea of drowning."

Philip smiled. "It's a variant of being buried alive. Nobody wants that. We know suffocation: we've all held our breath. We just don't know what lies beyond."

"So get me out of the water already."

"No. Not now. It's your greatest fear and I'll leave you there. Struggling."

Bill had a little difficulty breathing. How could he breathe when his fictional counterpart probably just went unconscious from lack of oxygen? The guilt oppressed his lungs. He had to change the subject. "OK, so what if drowning isn't my number one greatest fear?"

"Oh, it's up there, though. Nobody likes being buried alive. It's on the top ten list of all-time scary things. The horror comes into play when you're confronted with that mystery, that icon of terror, and it has supreme power over you." Philip looked out at the water, enchanted by the ripples on its surface. He turned back to Bill. "But for those who don't consider drowning such a bad thing, I can use a device to keep them there. Powerlessness in a crisis is another great fear to play on."

"So what's keeping me there?"

"An undertow, perhaps. Yes, just an undertow. That's what you figure when you right yourself and get back up."

Bill exhaled deeply and drew in a fresh breath. He could feel the salt water leaving his nose and mouth.

"Of course, this being a horror story, something grabs you again and this time it's no undertow."

Bill stopped breathing momentarily.

"You're sure it's got a grip on you. A spider-like claw, a serpent's coil, a tentacle, perhaps? It has you and pulls you under."

"So what is it? What's got me?"

"You can't tell. Your struggle stirred up a lot of sand. The water's very murky. All you know is it's got your leg and the grip is painfully tight. Then you feel it grab your other leg."

"OK, you scared me. But I wind up dead in this one. You lose."

Philip shook his finger. "I'm not finished. You're still underwater, drowning. Your mind blacks out, then recovers. With a huge effort, you break free to the surface, breathe in almost as much water as you do air from all your splashing, then back underwater. You reach to free your legs and feel the slimy appendages around your ankles. You strike them and they release you. Quickly, you regain your composure and swim direct to shore."

"Cop out. I should have died."

"Yes, but you didn't and you still faced some horror."

"Not a lot." Bill tried to get comfortable again.

"Cocky, eh, not that you're done with it? You should have seen your face when I left you underwater, neither dead nor alive. The uncertainty killed you."

"Yeah, but I recover fast."

"Would you recover if you got out of the water and saw the marks on your ankles? Would you recover if normal animals avoided you if they caught scent of the flesh there? Would you be able to take a bath again without wondering what would come out of the drain for you?"

Bill continued to fidget in his chair. "Whatever you do, don't mess up the toilet for me. I gotta be able to think clear when I go to the bathroom."

"I bet you hated summer camp in the wild, then?"

"You bet. Always thought there'd be a wasp nest inside those latrines and I'd get stung if I was blocking the wasp's way out."

Philip went back to his chair. "But we digress. There you are, marks on your legs. They never heal. Nobody knows what made them. Best guess is some kind of octopus or squid."

Bill scowled. "Couldn't you pick something else?"

"Why should I? The cephalopods have it all. They combine spiders with snakes, giving you a 2-for-1 deal on that, and are highly intelligent, thinking creatures. Theirs is an alien intelligence to us, far more alien than a dolphin or chimpanzee. Whatever it was, that squid-thing had a purpose in grabbing you, and it wasn't for food."

"How do I find that out?"

"Dreams. Dreams are excellent ways of conveying information. You have a dream where hints of the great squid god Teuthis and his brooding phosphorescent courtiers, in his mad palace of statues covering the floors, walls, and ceilings in a vast underwater grotto where altered men worship him in terrible lost rites."

"Where the hell did all that come from?"

Philip pursed his lips, taken aback by Bill's realism. "It's from a story fragment of mine."

"And Teuthis? Where'd you get a name like that?"

"It's part of the species name for squids. I think it's Greek. And you know... your reaction tells me you'd rather not hear any more of this. I think you've hit your limit and your imagination is shutting down. It's exceeding its boundaries and can't take much more. The drowning was too much for you and now you try to master your fear by ridiculing the unknown, so you don't have to face it."

"No, no, Philip, I'm just playing. Go on with your story."

Philip shook his head. "No, I can't. You're not in the proper frame of mind. If you put these details together, it would blast your mental processes. You'd never think the same way again. Your mind is defending itself against what it cannot handle."

"Hey, I'll admit you had me going with the drowning thing and the tentacles, but the squid god thing is too unrealistic. I couldn't go for that. There's a rational explanation for what got me. Some undiscovered species or mutant did it and the dreams are just nightmares born of a damaged subconscious."

Philip sat up now, his visage fired with a stern passion. "All right, that's what you tell yourself and everyone agrees with you. But you have this nagging. What exactly was it that dragged you under? What was it that left those indescribable markings? You can't rest until you know what it was. You must know it so you no longer have this unknown the rest of your life. You can't live with these marks staring at you every day, reminding you of the vast secrets under the sea. You must have an explanation so you have closure."

"I'll go with that." Bill relaxed in his chair. He wanted to hear the rest of the story. He had to find out the mystery of the markings.

"You go to expert after expert and not one of them has a clue beyond what is already speculated. Except one. He-"

"No, Philip. Not the one guy who has a lead. That's so trite."

"OK, forget him. No experts have clues. You hire a clipping service to pull up all articles on things squid and octopus related and learn a lot about those creatures in the process, but nothing of your situation. Only your dreams speak to you."

"I ignore them."

"No you don't, Bill. You've never had dreams this vivid before. You have them every night. They haunt you during the day. You hear the strange music constantly in the background. Flashes of colors start to make sense to you in strange ways. The dreams are all you have to go on for solving this puzzle. The dreams tell you the god is stirring--"

"Wait a minute, Philip. This big squid is a monster."


"You said no monsters to scare me."

"This one isn't scaring you."

"I think I would be scared if I was dreaming big squid monster things with mutant people."

"That's just it. You're not scared."

"How are huge squids not scary?"

"It's the cosmos that's scary, not the agent of the cosmos."

"You lost me."

"The marks on your legs, that's the cosmos. Something happened to you. Something that should not have happened, did."

Bill stood up and walked over to Philip's desk so he wouldn't have to talk so loud. "You could say that about an industrial accident or a plague."

"Absolutely. That's when the cosmos tells you you're insignificant. You have no power to stop it from doing as it pleases. Its idiot whims lash against sanity every moment of time, without reason or mercy. We're only a meteor away from being vaporized as a planet... a terrorist away from losing a loved one."

"So why the squid?"

"It represents the raw, naked terror of the cosmos. The order of things that retains much of the primordial chaos. Cronos devouring his children as they are born."

"Does it have to be a squid?"

"Why not? I get the snakes and spiders, like I told you. The cosmos isn't pretty, and I want to make sure the message gets across to you."

Bill looked at the rain on the water. It fell much faster than before. He looked out on the horizon, where sea, sky, and land blended together inscrutably into grayness. "I'm still not buying it. The drowning was good, but now this fantasy business I'm not following."

"I told you your imagination wasn't ready for it." Philip folded his arms.

"You got anything else?"

Philip stared at the bookshelves.

"Come on, give it another try. You're a creative guy."

Philip looked back at Bill. The shadow of the storm cast an eerie light in the room. "How much do we know about the universe? Really know?"

"We think we know a lot compared to the ancients. I suppose we got a lot of it figured out. I mean, space is the final frontier because we handled the other ones, right?"

"That's the television version. Everything gets summed up in most programs so you feel good about them, pay attention to the advertisers, and you don't leave the set spouting strange conspiracy theories."

"Well, there's a lot we don't know about. I'll grant that."

"You'll grant it, but you won't add it all up. I add things up. I see the world differently."

"You're crazy, too." Bill laughed.

"Crazy is just creative without any commercial potential. It all involves connecting clues, seeing things as they are not. What happens when you die?"

"I don't know for sure. I haven't been there." Bill thought maybe they should turn on a light or something.

"Do you have any clues?"

"No. Do you?"

"Yes." Philip walked over to the bookshelf on the far wall.

"You do?"

Philip moved a rolling footstool over to the center of the shelves and started looking for a book on the top shelf.

"You want me to turn on the light?"

"Yes. Please. Thanks."

Bill pulled the cord on the fan to turn on the lights. The room went from the stormy gloom to a pleasant incandescent light. "What are you looking for, Philip?"

"Hang on, it's here, somewhere."

Bill looked back out the window. The rain came straight down. No wind blew except the artificial one in the room.

He stared at the rain and where it hit the water.

He saw motion on the water. Lots of motion.

Twenty wakes streaked past the house in the bay. Probably a school of fish. They move near the surface in the rain.

Bill looked to the left for the predator's wake, if there was any. He saw it, wide and long. Wrong size for a shark or big fish. He squinted to get a better view in the murk.

What was it? He caught a glimpse of an eye unlike anything he'd ever seen and... no, that couldn't be. The rain and an active imagination made him see something that wasn't there.

"Here it is." Philip got down from the stool and went back to his desk. He opened the book he'd found and let Bill take a look at it.

"What language is it in?"

"Nobody I've checked with knows."

"And this tells us about being dead?"

"Yes. It's a very interesting read."

Bill did a double-take. "You said nobody knew what language it was in."

"I said nobody I checked with knows. Then I had my vision."

"A vision?"

"I saw things. I sensed things. In my dream, it all became clear."

"How can a dream tell you what's in this book."

"That's what I mean, Bill. How can it? What little logic we know stares slack-jawed into what truly makes up the order of the universe. There is a method governing all experiences, but to us it is madness."

Bill leaned on the desk. He stared at the book and thought of that strange eye in the water.

"Imagine, Bill, death, the stars, dreams, the things beyond the stars: they're all related. They're all part of the experience we'll never have as normal, mundane mortals. We have to open ourselves to the risk of madness to put them together in a meaningful way. We have to risk not only discovering the unknown, but becoming part of it."

Something stirred in Bill's mind when Philip said, the things beyond the stars. He had no idea what Philip meant by that. Yet, it intrigued him. "Things beyond the stars, huh?"

"Other universes. Spaces our senses are unaware of. Those are the beginnings of that area. Care to truly plumb the unknown, Bill?"

"What do you mean by becoming part of the unknown? Can that happen to you before you discover everything?"

"I don't think I can find the words to further explain what it's like to become part of the unknown. I do know it's entirely possible to do foolish things and merge with the realm of extramortal experience prematurely."


"You can screw up and get yourself killed, sure."

"Oh." Bill began to feel uneasy so close to Philip. Philip never had this effect on him before. Bill enjoyed the conversation too much to end it.

Thunder rolled in gently from the distance.

The rain lightened somewhat and a breeze drove it at a slight angle.

"Where did you get this book, anyway? It's fantastic."

"Never seen anything like it, have you?"

"No, I haven't. I'd like to know more about it, though."

"No you wouldn't. It's the cosmos, here to crush your logic and violate your sanity."

"You seem to be doing pretty well with it."

Philip closed the book. "Am I?"

"Sure. You got this house, you're successful. It hasn't wrecked your life, at least not materially."

"Not materially." Philip took the book back to the shelves.

"What? What's in there?"

"I could tell you, but it would kill you."

Bill looked down and chuckled. "That's so corny."

Philip came down from the stepladder and sat in one of the huge, inviting chairs. "No. It really would kill you. You'd be dead to the rest of your world, once you know of the life beyond it."

"Why aren't you like that?"

"I'm not done with it."

Another peal of thunder, closer and malevolant, sounded. The wind pushed the rain harder.

"Give it up, Bill. You're not cut out do dig into space."

Bill sat up on the desk, cross-legged. "Why do you keep saying that? I think I can handle it."

"Same reason you don't get my horror. Every time I get to the good part, your imagination craps out and can't handle it."

"That's my imagination. When I'm dealing with reality, it's different. Put proof in front of me and I can take it."

"You miss the point. It's your imagination that puts everything together. Put proof in front of you and you'll reject it with insufficient imagination to link it to anything significant."

"Try me. That's all I ask."

"It's getting late, Bill. How about we go somewhere for lunch."

"I'd like to stay here, if I could. I'd really like to know more."

"You're not ready for it at all."

"Try me, Philip."

Philip surveyed Bill. Philip shrugged his shoulders. "OK." He rolled up his pants cuffs.

Bill's eyes dropped open. Breath failed him. "Oh, my... Philip... I..."

"You can see, Bill, I create my stories from experience."