“Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be break-through. It is potential liberation and renewal as well as enslavement and existential death”: R.D. Laing (1927-89)
“The place was strange, dark and half-lost, as quiet as the bright-shining moon which slid inexorably through the starlit sky” Maude, his nurse, stopped mid-motion, ran to her notebook and took up her pencil. It had been weeks since Archie had experienced even a moment’s lucidity. Over the past months she had filled page after page with the stories that spilled forth from him, between the drooling and snarling, the crying out of names she had never heard, often ceasing momentarily to be replaced by the morose silence, in which Archie would stare, hour after hour beyond the walls and windows while sobbing inconsolably.
Surpassing all hope, medication and surprise from the ward staff, today it was as if his senses had been returned to him and the man she had heard so much about was sitting there before her, ready to regale her with coherent tales from his past. Although Archie’s tales were far from rational, she hoped that within the retelling she would glean the explanation for his psychological breakdown and deep mental anguish. “It’s always important to set the scene for a good story”, he exclaimed patting the chair beside him, as he beckoned her closer with a broad but forced smile.
Archie cleared his throat, “As a boy I had been enthralled with the folklore and legends of the wooded hills bordering my hometown, and like a farmyard cat, my curiosity always got the better of me. It has propelled me around the world, you see? It has sent me off wandering and searching, discovering places long lost to us”, Maude looked up from her note-taking; a sparkle rested within his eyes and a smile, more natural now, crossed his face, as if he remembered a time, not long passed, before his madness had taken hold. “Whispered old stories and mournfully sung shanties tell of some strange folk who had taken to an odd sort of ‘worship’ up in the hills and those who said prayers at these gatherings returned somewhat different. Some spoke of those being possessed by something that lived deep within the Earth, something that would surface when Her worshiper’s cavorting, fueled by their blood rites, insatiable lust and the insane beat of the broken land and howling of the stars, had reached its peak in raucous laughing, singing and screaming into Cimmerian murk.
The Chosen Faithful, I believe they called themselves. Come she would, devour them she did, only to regurgitate them anew, as something not quite what it once was. Changed is a word which barely scratches the surface of what was unfolding in that backwater community. Eyes not like our eyes, their smell highly abnormal. The old church goers regarded these people as odd types to be feared and mistrusted, they knew of the gatherings but chose to ignore them; preferring instead to dwell upon their families, businesses and day to day tasks.
These times are now long forgotten and blame for the disappearance of people has been placed firmly upon the traveler’s unplanned and unaccustomed footing, lack of skill and getting hopelessly lost in the thick fogs. Still, the place is avoided by most and most are unsure why – they have never looked deep enough. Those who do happen to venture back, come with curious stories of disembodied sounds, of amorphous shapes shifting beneath the water or winding between the pitch black aisles of gnarled trees. So, these happenings become myth and part of our collective folk memory, but no one dared to walk these hills after dark, and upon entering adulthood and after my mother died, I inherited her diaries; an excerpt will haunt me until the day I die.
‘She stepped forth from the trees and surveyed those who lay naked and prostrate against the ground before Her. Her horns pointing blasphemously at the heavens and the nipples of Her thousand breast stood taught and erect. The blackness contorted around Her and reaching out from about Her form were hundreds of writhing tentacles, flooding the hollow like spilled ink upon water. Oh how they screamed for the Goat Whore of a Thousand Young!’
My mother had never taken to these tales in my memory and her words shocked me at first, confused me and worried me. Again, I was curious. Why had my mother never spoken of this? I had to find now the Goat Whore of a Thousand Young.”
He then described to Maude, his journey through the forested hills, the forlorn pools in which lurked things beyond our wildest imaginings, atramentous and sinuous. Maude scribbled as she listened, being taken on a journey along with the words, which fell now at a rate she’d never experienced, from his lips; as if he knew the insanity would again strike soon.
“I can remember the scent of the grass as I crushed it underfoot, careful not to make a sound. I had come to find the entrance to the caves deep below the hills; I had heard tell that they could be accessed, not very easily, through a tunnel about halfway up the rock escarpment. Somewhere. It took me close to a month to find it, but find it I did; entangled with bramble, fern and vine. I could smell charcoal and granite, the harsh fungal aroma of the deeply veiled Earth at long past midnight and decaying black fruits – blackberries, juniper and sloe – and blood, I’ll never forget the blood!
That metallic smell assaulted me more than anything, so strong it was, I could taste it. It was a mingling of scents that hinted at a journey underground, and that’s where I would be going. Carefully, very carefully I would have to scale those old stones, lichen-encrusted and covered with moss; treacherous underfoot”, he paused to take a breath and Maude feared that the madness would soon descend again; she implored him silently to hold on.
“I had squeezed myself into the opening in the face of the hill, and entered into a large chamber, what I saw there sent chills down my spine and made my blood run cold. Before me lay eyes, a multitude of eyes, covering the floor they were. Plucked and thrown there to guard the way, as far as I could see, to watch those who entered into these dark spaces. Do you know what the light of a lantern looks like reflecting off thousands of glittering plucked eyes?” Maude raised her eyes from her notes to meet his, but said nothing. “Their optical nerves still attached and writhing like a new found species? Tumbling over one another, like an undulating wave of tentacle and sphere? It’s beautiful…” his attention was caught then by a flurry of activity outside the window.
A sudden squall of dark feathers, dust and ruffled blurring against El-Greco clouds, which were set to burst over Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, home for the mentally deranged, in a fearsome storm that very evening. As he watched the two Sparrows fighting over a scrap of food, the vacant expression returned to him. Sadness descended upon his fragile mind, and with the return of deep melancholy, the drooling and indecipherable whispering began again.
Although Maude took her notes still, her hands were shaking now and the colour had drained from her face, as she listened closely to the guttural tones that emanated from somewhere deep within Archie, she shivered visibly. Whatever this man had witnessed, had broken his mind. She stared down at her furiously scribbled notes and sighed, these stories he told her had to be another symptom of his insanity, even though he seemed so lucid, with his full faculties about him, and if she may allow herself to think so, in fact quite charming. These pages were proof enough of the man’s sickness. How could a man such as this dream up these vile stories, one after the other? There couldn’t be a remote chance that anything he had confided to her, oft times in the darkest hours of the night, could possibly have happened the way he said it had.
Maude took to her room, her shift was long over and here in the confinement of these walls, simply furnished with a bed, a chair, a chest of drawers and a mirror, which hung on a barren wall, she could find some respite from the day. She changed swiftly into her nightgown and sat before the mirror brushing out her long hair, which had been tied up in a bun, working out the knots in a repetitive motion over and over again.
She stared into the mirror at her own gaunt reflection. The stories tonight had been longer than usual and Archie’s tales had certainly shaken her. She was jumping at shadows, she saw them shift and move behind her as she brushed, but she knew an overactive imagination had always been her curse.
She quickly knelt beside the bed, as any good Catholic woman does before sleep, and ran her fingers over the rosewood beads of her rosary. She tried to let herself be calmed and soothed by her prayers, but the warmed wood between her fingers gave her more pleasure this evening than the empty words she uttered into the darkness. As the flickering candle once again set the room to motion in a swirl of capricious ebon shades, she gave up and crawled into bed, clutching her rosary to her chest.
Maude was close to sleep now, visions from Archie’s stories had infiltrated and embedded themselves into blackness behind her closed eyelids, and as she drifted off she found herself at the entrance of his cave.
Across its front, spiders had woven their webs into a shawl of lace, the work of long decades. In the gloom Maude could hardly see anything, but still she sank deeper, her only source of light was the candle she carried. In contrast to the dancing shadows, the excitement that had lit her eyes, which had been awakened from the catching of webs on her hair and shoulders, almost veil-like, had given way to a strange calm. There she stood, candle in hand, draped in glittering spider-lace and upon ground that was patched unevenly with black ivy, almost another being entirely. Movement caught her attention and the sound of slithering drifted upon the near-silence, she dared not look down as she knew what she would find there; a mass of eyes, looking for her, watching her, guarding the way. So she stepped carefully, her own eyes drawn to a flickering light at the back of the cavernous depths, which caught upon the moving ground like a thousand shimmering black diamonds. Beautiful.
Squinting against the flames from the torches everything appeared as watercolour, all drip and shimmer, lost edges of things gone forever, but is anything really gone forever? It was a strange thing to ponder in a place like this, especially as her feet fell now upon worn winding stairs that she hadn’t notice herself approach, a spiral staircase leading downwards. This was a dream all of her own devising now, as Archie’s reminiscing had stopped at this point earlier this evening. Even as strong as the torchlight may have appeared on entering it in no way dispelled the darkness, which seemed to eat at it, as if it imposed down upon the light and threatened to crush it out. Here and there thin beams, which should have been pools, threaded between stalagmite and stalactite within the brooding gloom, and filled slowly with dust motes; a myriad stars revolving, in slow grave order, around the empyrean vault.
Down and down and down. The stairs seemed to wind on forever as Maude stepped from one beam of light to another. She had been afraid to look too deeply into the shadows that surrounded her, but something grew within the dark margin to the side of her; a presence, terrifying and old. Oh so old. She could not see it, but she could feel it and fear grew upon her as she started to run, to careen down the stairs at a maddening pace. Maude lost her footing and fell. She did not know how long or how far she fell, but she landed upon cold stone hard enough to clear her lungs of air. From out of the shadows She stepped and the words from Archie’s mother’s diary rang in Maude’s ears – “Her horns pointing blasphemously at the heavens and the nipples of Her thousand breasts stood taught and erect. The blackness contorted around Her and reaching out from about Her form were hundreds of writhing tentacles, flooding the hollow like spilled ink upon water”.
What Archie failed to describe were the goat-like legs, and the coal-like lustre of her skin. Maude could not take her eyes of the thing that had manifested before her; truly horrifying yet deliciously stimulating and overwhelmingly seductive. She felt herself melt into these feelings, overcome by waves of passion and atavistic remembrance and any hope of resisting was replaced by the gradually moistening of mind, body and soul.
The ink-like tendrils that emanated from Her sought for Maude in the darkness, they knew what they were to find, what they needed to find. Slow and serpentine they slithered closer and closer until they were upon her. Upon her flesh; slithering, suckering, wrapping around her limbs. The hem of Maude’s nightgown was lifted as they searched with an urgency that made her head swim as she lay there, paralysed with fear. She could do nothing, her muscles were frozen in place and a scream caught in her throat as the writhing tentacles gripped a lock of her thick hair and dragged her head backwards. Her heart beat fast and furious within her heaving chest, her body was set to tingling from head to foot and spots appeared in the corners of her eyes, as unconsciousness threatened to take hold. Still the inklings sought their destination, a place where the light of Maude’s God refused to shine.
There was a ripping then, a tearing away of everything, all she had ever held as part of herself. The panic and arousal that had arisen in the girl snapped and spread out before her; as far as she could see, was an arid desert – desolate, windswept and scorched. Serpents meandered towards their lairs. She found herself then upon a forgotten and forsaken shore, a seething tumultuous sky pressing down upon her in vision. One after the other these landscapes surrounded her and passed through her. As her mind journeyed forth, it was as if she were walking into space, a place beyond all known universes, a place unfathomable to the human mind. Maude felt the growing pull towards the dark matter mirror, in which the broken howling stars reside, the edge of the abyss where all is destroyed and created, at the same time, for all of eternally. Unable to fight its irresistible gravity, Maude took a step forward…
…She awoke, sweating, shaking and calling out wildly “Ia! Ia! Shub-Niggurath!” in an unknown language, caught in the throes of the little death; the covers curling and wrapped tight around her silken thighs, her ankles, her wrists. As sanity returned to her she struggled against them, unwrapping her now naked form, and leapt from the bed. Her rosary glistened in the light of her dying candle, clear across the other side of her empty room. The shadows were silent.
“I cannot give the reasons
I only sing the tunes
The sadness of the seasons
The madness of the moons.”
Part 2 to follow shortly…
Text: Sarah-Jayne Farrer
Minor Editing: Matt Baldwin-Ives
Shub-Niggurath: Cobweb – Eolith Designs
Diary of a Mother: Matt Baldwin-Ives – Miles Cross
Blasphemous Shrines: Matt Baldwin-Ives – Miles Cross
Tress of Unreason: Matt Baldwin-Ives – Miles Cross