Time in the Hourless House
Here is a Lovecraftian tale that first appeared in Edward P. Berglund’s 2003 collection of “Blasphemous Tales of the Followers:” The Disciples of Cthulhu II. This is my idea of a shameless imitation of H. P. Lovecraft, an American writer who had a radical and enduring influence on my creative writing. I admire the audacity of his flamboyant style, influenced by Edgar Allan Poe and the lyrical Irish fantasist Lord Dunsany. And I meet with awe the deep horizon of his outlandish vision, which boldly acknowledges the unfathomable nature of reality.
In the digital age, the eccentric words Lovecraft favored pose less of an obstacle to readers, since definitions are just a click away.
Eldritch: eerie; weird; spooky
Old English el- foreign, strange, uncanny (see else) + rīce kingdom (see rich); hence “of a strange country, pertaining to the Otherworld.”
Time in the Hourless House
The more one knows, the less one understands.
— Dao De Jing
The Elder Gods lived there. Signs of them were everywhere in that place. But no one had actually seen them. I arrived, as most do, by losing the way. In my case, I made a wrong turn on a rain-dark street under a lamppost stoned blind.
Lean cats watched from between gnarled ash cans, their hot eyes aglow with faint lightning that trembled like stuttering neon in the narrow sky. Head bowed under the sifting rain, I paid more heed to the black cobbles and their oily haloes than to my surroundings.
When I did look up, I noticed curious rain-worn architecture, pale gables of crocketed marble and gargoyled eaves. A chalken frieze of griffins and winged lions surprised me, so incongruous did it seem in my small metropolis of trolley tracks, townhouses and chimneypots.
That was warning enough for me, and I turned about, determined to go back the way I had come before losing my way worse. But the alley lane seemed wholly unfamiliar. The cobbles had sunk to a cinder path between anonymous warehouses of gray, powdery brick.
The rain had cleared off, and a large moon of tarnished silver drifted in a day sky above the dismal buildings. Disturbed by what I saw and did not recognize, I would not go that way.
In the direction I had been walking, beyond the eroded marble edifices of angelic beasts, the alley opened onto warrens of withered weeds and ashy sleech. I wandered across that barren landscape toward a bleak pastoral of rubble overgrown with sedge and sumac.
Gradually, the terrain became more wild and profuse. Sunlight stenciled shadows in a dense wood of narrow trees. A small wind blew, tainted with leaf-smoke. Through the skinny trees, I spied a black pond, where a century of rain had collected. The drowned trees had leached the water to the color of night. Garish birds preened pink feathers among the cane brakes, and I surmised I had left the known world entirely behind.
My heart thudded dully in my chest, for I had read the arcane books that described this otherworld. I knew of the malevolent and dissociate aspects of this realm. Little doubt remained that I found myself among these sullen precincts as punishment for having read the forbidden texts. I knew that in the land of things unspoken, knowledge itself predicates violation. I had been summoned to these purlieus of the unimaginable by an unguessed kinship between mind and happenstance.
That strange equality had already been described by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote in The Conduct of Life that "the secret of the world is the tie between person and event ... the soul contains the event that shall befall it ... the event is the print of your form. Events grow on the same stem with persons."
Until the day that I found myself trespassing alien ground, I had considered Emerson's philosophy intriguing but not compelling. When I climbed the shale steps of a dried creek bed among the slender trees, their yellow leaves pouring around me in a sudden turn of cold wind, I knew what I would find atop the ridge. And so, though frightened, I was not terrified when I scrambled over the flat rocks, climbing from stone pool to pool, mounting a chine of heather swept by brisk sunlight and cloud shadows.
Atop that vast high country, I could peer down the curve of the world, and I saw in the blue sky, weird stars, red and green. And among them, loomed planets and moons pinioned in comet vapors bright as a webwork of incandescent cirrus. Notions of immensity, that on earth only the ocean could conjure, awed me. From atop my shelf of rock, I gazed a long time at that celestial vista and no doubt muttered to myself woeful thoughts and all things contained of dread therein.
The icy updrafts of gray mist eventually called my attention to what lay below—a stone path fiery green with lichen that descended through a high forest of pine into a dell of deformed apple trees, a gloomy orchard lit with mist and attached to a vineyard autumn had blackened. At the end of the bereaved valley, a grim house stood. Broad steps, tall fluted columns of rococo plinth and cornice fronted an immense and stark facade.
This was the Hourless House that I had read about, where the Elder Gods dwelled. I was not appalled that it possessed neither the physical stature nor the ancient traits necessary to house such preterit beings colossal of both space and time. This house, and all else since my wrong turning in the alley, was woven in the thin thread of dreams. Yet, I knew well, I knew very well indeed, it was therefore no less real.
Under the star-filled heavens, I climbed down the lichenous stone trace, cold, chilled by more than the wind, a blue animal trembling softly at what I realized awaited me. Ahead loomed the home of dark legends. From its ruined pillars dangled black ivy and gray dodder.
As I approached among the deformed trees of the apple garth, silver footsteps followed. The wind ran past with a figure of mist, then hung among the boughs in the shape of a dead woman. My soul, I understood, depended from those branches, faceless under her long hair, colorless locks aswirl like smoke.
My soul in the leafless tree, creaking the dry wood with her lonely weight, turned slowly. Her silent scream scattered crows from the orchard, and they blew across the sky like faded chords of music, black notes scattering among the slant clouds.
In the decayed vineyard, a dead angel sprawled. His raiment lay tattered and rain-bleached, impaled upon slatted ribs, one extra rib than man in that weathered brisket. Black mandrake sprouted among wingbones and what faded and frayed feathers remained. Thatched hair yet clung to his dried skull, and a perennial grin of perfect teeth greeted me from within a face naked of flesh.
This was the source of the wood-smoke I had smelled earlier. The carcass actually smoldered on its bed of loamy compost, seething barely visible fumes of decay that lofted a fragrance of charred leaves. Appalled by this grotesque sight, I did not linger in that arbor of eternal autumn but hurried on to the Hourless House.
I climbed past cracked urns, up dilapidated steps, and entered the foyer. Stricken bats gusted from their coverts in the vaulted ceiling. Dead cold spots in the air identified where other presences stood, entities of other realities, other times, who had arrived at the same house but by different reckonings.
Warped parquetry squeaked underfoot when I advanced into the main reception room. Shards of glass from broken panes glinted among the dust of bat droppings and furry lumps of inchoate dead shapes. No one emerged to receive me, save the invisibles that moved about as I did, felt only as cells of bright chillness and never seen.
Newel and finial stood intact upon the banister, and I mounted the slow curving stairs to the upper landing, where the balustrade had collapsed leaving behind only a few cracked spindles. Foliate scrollwork decorated the moldings of the water-stained walls and the prolapsed and broken plaster ceiling.
I called out the barbarous names I had learned in the arcane books. I called those ponderous names through the long, echoing rooms. As I climbed to the second landing, then the third, I called the thick names. I called them.
And they answered me.
"We are here!" they chimed as one, their cry awobble with echoes like submerged voices. "Here! We are here! Come to us!"
And I obeyed. I had read the arcane books. I knew the profoundly terrible import of those texts. And so I knew as well the frightful nature of those voices. Such dark knowledge did not impede my mesmeric advance. I climbed the broken stairs and the ladder of cobwebbed rungs to the topmost gallery.
Under the mansard, the ceiling pressed close, and I stooped to grasp the glass knob of the small door behind which voices whispered frantically, gibberishly sharing anticipation of my arrival.
The door opened upon them—the Elder Gods.
I stood astonished.
They are not titanic beings as the texts describe. They are small as dolls, and in the umber shadows their smiles are sad and evil. Dark, anarchic, restless thoughts pollute the curdled brains inside those bulbous heads. And a putrid stench, a rancid reek of cheesy flesh and carnal sulfur, packs the alcove where they squat.
Rickety limbs twitched at the sight of me. Then, all those grotesque dolls fell silent. Bald, dented heads bobbed, hollow eyes lidded blackly gold as toads' eyelids, dazed, concussed, dream-hooded, as if attentive to other voices or beholden only to their own minds' shapeless shapeshifting, whole worlds playthings in the graygreen smoke of their staring thoughts. Whole worlds—my world, your world, too, the worlds of every sentient being, provoked from nothing by these squalid, grinning things.
That dark encounter lasted but one unspeakable moment. I slammed the door, shutting away the abhorrent sight, and crashed down the ladder and the stairs. Terror propelled me across the dung-strewn reception hall and out into the bracing wind and the ruined land.
I would have kept running had I not read the esoteric literature. I knew what I feared and feared to know. I knew. There is no way back among the scattered black ponds and scrawny woods.
In a distant city after the rain, the shape of my absence goes on. But I will never find or fill that shape. For I am here now under the red and green stars of a day sky strewn with moons and planetary phases—and my soul hangs from a twisted bough, and the dead angel in the black vineyard grins, grins fiercely at the secret meanings of all that I know and fear to know.