The words should not have been there. Grant suspected at once that it was a misprint. There really was no other explanation. Still, it was unnerving. He had flicked from one page of the cheap paperback to the next and found himself hit with a sudden discontinuity. Spy and love machine George Macalister, was loading another round of ammo in his uzi when . . . He checked to make sure that he hadn't skipped ahead. No, this was the next page; despite its lacking of a page number. The words were in a serif font, absolutely different to the main text and totally unfamiliar to Grant. Half of it was gibberish, the other half English. None of it made any sense.
Nyarlathotep, beware his gaze. Beyond the ken of those who seek the deathless plains. Come, Shub-Niggurath! The goat with a thousand spawn. The black woods writhe. They are not voids.
Ph`nglui mglw`nafn Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn.
Soon wakes. Soon wakes.
It continued in this fashion for the two page spread, then the old narrative returned -- a hail of bullets and a dash for cover -- on the following page. Grant shook his head, then flipped the page back and found that the words had fled; the two pages were gone. Unnerved even more, he flipped through the book; tried to find those pages and failed. At last he sighed and glanced at
the world around him. Main beach was hot, the sun a relentless, burning eye. Tanned bodies melted in his vision. He looked at his own pale flesh and grimaced. He was starting to burn. He slipped on a T-shirt and headed for the pines that marked the boundary of the park land running onto Byron Bay's main beach.
He had better get out of the sun. It was obviously frying more than his skin.
Grant found a bench, in the cool shade of the pines, and started to read again. He was determined to relax. These were his last holidays before final year at university.
Last semester had been a soul destroying grind. One that he was still amazed that he had pulled off with two passes, a credit and a distinction. He was a computing major. He loved computers, he really did, but found the maths a struggle. He got by only through work and work and more work; jealously watching as those intuitive maths-heads breezed along. He picked up the distinction in a marketing unit he took as an elective. It seemed a strange choice at the time, but, God, how glad he was that he had taken it when the marks came in. That distinction had lifted his confidence a hell of a lot. Maybe he wasn't as crappy a student as he thought.
He didn't want to think about uni -- or what came after -- at all for the next week or two. Then, he'd pick up the books and get a little early work in. All he was interested in at the moment was this book and that pile of paperbacks he had back in the caravan. He had promised himself plenty of time for reading what he wanted to read. And he was going to have it.
He read another thirty pages, then someone tapped him on the shoulder. Startled, he jumped, then spun to face a grinning man of medium height, with sky-glare blue eyes, hardly any hair and a bit of a paunch. He looked about as threatening as a wet paper bag.
"Hey, didn't mean to frighten you. It's just I haven't seen a copy of Touchstone in ages. Where'd you find it?"
"Woolworths," Grant said. "In the dollar book bin."
The man chuckled.
"Not much of a surprise. Most of my books end up there, call it the midrange author's grave yard. Used to depress me when I was younger. Now . . ." He shrugged his shoulders. Then reached out a hand, Grant shook it, the fellow's grip was firm, his palm a little sweaty. "My name's Cal Derwint and you can close your mouth now if you want; could swallow a fly."
Grant did his best.
"Um," he said.
"And your name is?" Cal Derwint asked.
"Grant," he murmured. "Grant Phyliss."
"Good to meet you, Grant. Sorry, I don't normally come up to people like this. But this would have to have been the last place I ever expected to see a copy of Touchstone. I have been coming to Byron for my 'working holidays' for nearly thirteen years -- I own a little unit just off the beach -- and I have never seen anyone reading one of my books. How do you like it?"
"Marvelous critical assessment and perhaps a little too kind. I never really spent all that much time on the Macalister series. I needed the money, so I could afford to come here and write my historical novels. I'm working on one right now, covers the whole North Coast region. I'm quite pleased with the way it's going and now this! Grant, you have made my day."
He slapped him on the shoulder and pointed at the book.
Cal walked away, leaving Grant feeling very perplexed. Today was turning out to be very weird.
Noon came around and he walked over to the caravan. The holiday season was petering out now, January coming slowly to a close. However, he still hated thinking how much it had cost him to rent the caravan for two weeks. His parents had chipped in, lowering the expense considerably. But it even so it was costly. You paid for the privilege of staying in Byron -- and generally through the mouth.
He made himself a devon and salad sandwich. The bread was a little stale and the devon had hardened and started to roll up at the edges -- just about time to do some shopping. Grant poured himself a glass of coke and ate under the caravan's dull grey canvas annexe. The air was still and less than comfortably humid. In an hour or two he'd go for a swim, then buy a loaf of bread and think about making dinner.
There was a knock on the wall of the caravan, then a head peered round the canvas. Quite a pretty head. Grant smiled.
"Emily, come in, if you dare."
Emily's face creased with gently mocking humour. She shook her head.
"I don't know, the last time I looked in there, I thought I saw a pair of socks crawling along the bottom of the bed. They looked hungry. Grant, you are one of the slobbiest people that --"
"You've ever had the privilege to meet. And I love you, too, my dear."
Emily was staying with her parents. He knew them and they knew him, with what Grant sensed was a slight suspicion at this person, come to take away their girl. She split her time between him and her parents and if it wasn't exactly equal then Grant didn't mind. He had Emily all year, her parents rarely got to see her at all. They needed time together, to be family, even if it was only for a few days and Grant wouldn't have had it any other way.
She walked in and gave him a warm kiss; it lasted for a while. Finally, Emily pulled away, her lips parted with a wry smile.
"Devon and coke, not a wonderful combination."
Grant shrugged his shoulders.
"Hey, I couldn't find the corkscrew so I had to leave the Chardonnay alone."
"Ha, ha. Now, how has your day been?"
Grant told her about his encounter with Cal -- avoiding, though, any reference to the far stranger experience on the beach. She didn't seem surprised about the author.
"A lot of writers and artists hang around here. Who can blame them? If you've got to create, where better than paradise? But trust you to run into one and not even get their autograph."
Grant picked up the book, it clung wetly to his fingers.
"He's probably tired of signing autographs."
Emily laughed, Grant shivered; how he loved that sound.
"From the sound of it, he'd be lucky if anyone has read his books, let alone wants an autograph."
Grant shook his head.
"He isn't that bad. No, he's pretty damn good, really. I've found it hard to put this one down."
"Not too hard, I hope," Emily said, reaching out for him. He smiled and held her close and, for a while, the book was forgotten.
That evening it happened again. He turned a page and found not fast-paced action but unfamiliar words in a font that was becoming all too familiar.
The Dark One comes. Azathoth flares wild. The walls shall shatter for the flame.
Come the shades of those of Leng. The Catacombs ring with screams. The bell tolls, in these the darkening hours.
Grant looked away. It was all in his mind. It had to be. He turned his gaze again to the pages and they remained. The words appeared to shift in the lamplight. He shuddered. This had to be a dream.
All of a sudden the air had grown viscous. Sounds became hollow and sluggish; strangely disconnected from their source. In the distance could be heard the beating of some vast heart or machine; slow and sonorous. None of it should have been connected with the words on those pages. However for reasons he did not even remotely comprehend, Grant was sure that it was. He stepped outside.
Nothing was right; everything seemed alien. He couldn't pick what the problem was exactly, or what had changed. Things just had.
A broken chip of moon leered down through a break in the clouds. The trees by the toilet block seemed to shift and claw at the air, though there was no wind. The caravans and tents took on shapes and angles that were . . . wrong. And yet, everything was as it should be. But for that distant beating.
The caravan fronted onto the beach, and from where Grant was standing he could see the surf and the ocean behind, a massive bulk of soft-roaring darkness. Far out to sea he thought that he could see lights. A faint, dancing, faerie glow. The beating grew louder. Somewhere, in a nearby caravan, there was laughter. A strangely knowing chuckle. Grant didn't like that sound, he didn't like it at all. Quickly he walked back inside. The caravan had grown dark, the lights wan as though encased in thick and jealous shadow.
He had to shut the book. A sudden dark and hideous insight told him that if he didn't, he would be in big trouble.
He reached over towards it and it seemed to shy away from his touch. He picked it up, closed the book and breathed softly in relief.
The beating had stopped and with it the sense of oddness. The darkness fled, the lights regained their bland radiance. Cautiously, he walked back outside. Everything was as it should be. A breeze was blowing in from the sea, a woman was laughing with her husband, who spoke in soft tones to her, at some private joke. Out to sea, a fishing trawler was slowly making its way north, following the currents. The lighthouse to the south beat its familiar lambent pattern. Grant shook his head and groaned.
He really had had too much sun that afternoon. The best thing he could do was get a good night's sleep.
The next day he felt much better about the world. A good night's sleep even had him doubting what had happened the evening before. Most probably it was nothing more than a vivid nightmare. He even started reading the book again. After all, it really was very good. Cal Derwint or as the cover had it, C.R. Derwint, knew exactly how to pace a story. The pages turned with startling speed; each sentence drawing the reader deeper into the dark web that was Macalister's life. If it wasn't so good, he would have thrown it away; particularly after what had happened last night.
No, he corrected himself. What had not happened last night.
Emily came around at about nine and they went to the beach. The novel languished for a while on his towel as they swam, caught waves and teased one another. After an hour of sunshine and smiles, Emily kissed him goodbye, promised to see him that night and went off to do some shopping. Grant could have come along, but he'd pretty much shopped himself out the day before -- and, besides, shopping made him feel too much like a tourist. He wanted to get a little more reading in.
Grant watched her leave, a grin plastered to his face. She was beautiful. Grant sometimes found it hard to believe that she could really love him. He didn't know what he'd do without her.
He picked up the book, it felt hot. The front cover was warping from the sun, turning into one big curl. Grant frowned a little guiltily. He really hated doing that to books. He should have covered it with his towel. It was too late now though. He straightened the cover as best he could, then opened the book to the page he had marked. He groaned, his eyes widened. It was happening again.
Ph`nglui mglw`nafn Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn.
Ph`nglui mglw`nafn Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn.
Ph`nglui mglw`nafn Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn.
Ph`nglui mglw`nafn Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn.
The beach towel seemed to shift beneath him; the air grew still and sour. The sound of the waves underwent a dramatic change, becoming slow and thick, the splashings of some subterranean sea. A woman was laughing. Grant looked up, turning his head towards the sound. She was topless, rubbing sun screen into flat, squamous breasts. She stared at Grant and smiled, her eyes gleaming with a green light; a long, slit tongue flicked out between pale, bloodless lips.
Overhead the sky dimmed, changing everything through his sunglasses to sepia tones. Children leered at him, over strangely shaped sand castles or flopped and slithered in the slow crashing waves. A grotesquely obese man eating an ice cream, bled long trails of chocolate from his thick fists to his gut. Gulls screamed and fell from the sky in dark flocks to glare at him with malevolent eyes. Far out to sea the beating had resumed.
Grant closed his eyes, took a deep breath and snapped shut the book. The change was instantaneous; normality returned with a loud crash of waves and the cheerful shriek of a child. Grant yelped and hurled the book away, picked up his towel and ran like blazes from the beach.
The third time. The third time. What the hell was happening to him?
He stopped running when he made it to the park and just stood for a moment by a tap, panting, his mind still racing. Jesus, this sort of thing couldn't be happening. It was absolutely crazy. He shook his head. He refused to believe he was crazy. A grim smile twisted across his face. Who ever thinks they're crazy?
He started to slow his breathing, turning to relaxation techniques he had learnt at uni, breathing deep into his gut, then holding before release. Within a minute he had found some sort of calm. He crouched down by the tap, let it run a while, then drank handfuls of water, splashing quite a deal of it over his face. He shook his head, forced a grin, then walked slowly over to the caravan.
Once there he slumped down in the fold-out chair beneath the awning and tried not to think of anything. Finally he started feeling thirsty again. He pulled himself slowly from the chair and went inside to get a glass of coke.
His eyes scanned the clothes strewn around the interior of the caravan. He froze. The book was beside his bed, the cover curled up like a conch shell, and coated with sand. He nearly fainted, grabbed at the small, dining table for support, and began to shake. What the hell was going on?
He decided to pay C.R. Derwint a visit.
It wasn't hard to find him. His number was in the phone book. Grant called -- not mentioning the visions, just saying he wanted to talk to him. Mr Derwint seemed affable enough, telling him he could come over if he wanted to. Grant did, by God, he did. He took the book with him, holding it uneasily. How fat the pages looked, he thought, as though something was trying to get out, an inner truth, or darkness. He held it uneasily but firmly, he didn't want it to open again. Not even by accident.
He knocked at the door. The author answered it and smiled. They shook hands.
"I'm glad that you could see me, Mr Derwint," Grant said and the author grimaced.
"Please, call me Cal." He led him into his home.
Cal Derwint's flat was not at all how he expected it. It was a quite new apartment with a view of the sea and very modern decor. Like most modern houses it had eschewed clutter for a kind of minimalism. There was very little in the way of furniture, though what there was looked very comfortable. Cal lead him through the house to his study. Where the living room had been neat and almost Spartan, his study looked as though someone had dropped a bomb in it. There were piles of books everywhere, reams of paper were strewn over the floor, countless notes and articles were pinned to the walls.
Cal motioned for Grant to sit down in one of the two chairs he had in the room. The author settled in the other and grinned guiltily.
"I really must clean this up. Normally I'm not so messy. It's just once I start writing, well, any attempt at neatness goes out the window."
"It's no worse than my room, believe me," he said and began to feel rather awkward. He didn't know what to say. He knew what he wanted to say, it was just he didn't have a clue how to say it without sounding insane. Cal stared at him, waiting for him to speak. In the end Grant just took a deep breath and blurted it all out.
Cal took it all very well; he listened to the end, only interrupting to ask that Grant clarify this event or that. When the tale was told. Grant shrugged his shoulders and grinned wanly.
"You can ring the guys in the white suits now if you want to."
Cal smiled in return.
"Not just yet. I'm not really sure how I can help, but trust me, I'm not nearly as skeptical as you might think." He paused and stared out the window. It was growing dark, the street lights were flickering on. A few flying foxes were tracing the sky in umber. "Have you ever heard of the 'Goblin Universe' theory?" Grant shook his head. "Well, basically, it suggests that there are worlds, whole universes really, that run parallel to our own. Things have been known to try and break out of these parallel universes and into ours. Every now and then they succeed. Most of these . . . I suppose visitants is the best word . . . though not all, can only be perceived by 'sensitives.' People a little more attuned, so to speak, to those other worlds." He changed tack. "Have you ever noticed how sometimes the pages of a book just don't seem right, seem a little too thick, like there just might be pages beneath? Secret pages trying to get out. Books are portals to other worlds now, aren't they. You open a book and suddenly, if it's done well, and even if it isn't, you're in another place, in other people's heads." He chuckled darkly. "It isn't necessarily a better place.
"Ever read any H.P. Lovecraft?"
Grant shook his head, he had never heard of the guy. Cal seemed surprised, but he continued nonetheless.
"He wrote a lot about parallel worlds, just touching on our own and things desperately, hungrily, trying to get through. A very perceptive author was Howard Phillips Lovecraft. He wrote a wonderfully scary story called, 'The Colour Out of Space.' It describes with a prophetic, almost uncanny accuracy, the effects of atomic radiation on living creatures. If he was right about that, maybe he was right about other things as well. I've met people who swear they've actually seen and read copies of Lovecraft's supposedly nonexistent creation the Necronomicon. They always look haunted and more than a little afraid. They're the kind of people that are constantly glancing back over their shoulders, who never turn off the lights in their house, who jump at the slightest sound. Crazy isn't it?"
Grant shuddered and Cal patted him on the arm.
"Strange things do happen in this world, Grant. I've seen some terrible things myself. Things I don't particularly want to talk about. I don't think you're going crazy. But whatever is happening might well drive you mad if it doesn't stop. Can I have a look at the book?"
"Sure," Grant said, relieved that someone had taken him seriously. Cal flicked the novel open; Grant watched him. The pages still seemed too thick and misshapen as though --
"Good lord," Cal gasped his eyes widening with horror. Grant cursed beneath his breath and not nearly as politely. The book was bleeding.
"You, you can see that?" Grant asked and Cal nodded, slapping the paperback shut. Grant didn't know whether to cheer or scream with horror. The blood remained, a wet stain that coated the author's hands and a ten or twelve-centimetres-wide patch of the study's carpet.
"Yes, and whatever it is, it's getting stronger." He pulled a handkerchief from a pocket and began to wipe the blood from his hands. "That wasn't any paper cut. I think this book should remain closed. In fact, I don't think that's enough. As much as I hate to destroy one of my own works, we're going to have to burn this one."
Grant shook his head.
"I don't think it's one of your books any more, Cal," he said and the author laughed grimly, passing the book back to Grant. It seemed to shift and struggle in his grip, the glossy cover didn't feel like paper now, but rather like the rough skin of some living thing. Grant's senses recoiled at the touch, but he did not let go.
"I think you better find some matches," he said.
Cal nodded and ran into the kitchen. Grant could hear him digging around in there, mumbling worriedly to himself until, at last, he gave a cry of triumph and dashed back into the study.
Quickly, he pulled the metal bin that sat under his writing desk next to Grant and half filled it with papers. He lit a match and dropped it into the bin. It sputtered out before touching the paper. He cursed and tried again. This time, carefully brushing the flaming match against the paper till it started burning.
"Quick," he said. "Drop the book in there."
Grant did so. The fire blazed, flared up for a moment, then died. They both stared into the bin and gasped with dismay. The book was barely singed.
"We're going to need a little more potent fuel. I have a can of petrol in the garage. That should do the trick, I hope." Grant didn't like the sound of that. Cal glanced outside. It was getting late.
"We'll have to hurry. I have a feeling that as the night progresses this thing is going to get stronger. Lovecraft's other worlds were night places. They came closest to this one after the sun had set."
Grant bent down to pick the book up, then pulled back. It had snapped at him; for an instant he had had a glimpse of sharp, white teeth. Fearing to touch the book again, he picked up the bin and followed Cal outside.
It seemed darker than Grant could ever remember it being. He looked at his watch, it was only 6.20. There was no reason that it should be as black as this. There should still have been quite a bit of daylight left. However, the sun seemed to have surrendered to darkness much earlier this night. The street lights were dim and feeble. The street itself was empty. The distant beating had started up again, though this time it was closer, rising above the soft roar of the sea.
Grant could feel the book rattling inside the bin. He wondered if it might not be growing legs so that it could crawl out or, worse still, wings.
He could hardly believe that he had slept with it by his head on the bedside table, that he had sat, dozing, with it on his chest at the beach.
There was a soft chittering in the trees across the road, and the flap of leathery wings. Grant thought he saw the dull flickering of red eyes watching from bushes nearby and heard the soft leathern thudding of so many feet, slapping across the pavement in the distance.
Cal pulled open the roller door after fumbling with the keys for too long moments.
"Quick," Grant hissed. "Something's coming."
"You don't think I know that?" Cal snapped, dragging the door up and letting Grant past. Quickly, the author followed him, then turned and pulled the door down again, behind them. The author groped in the darkness for a moment, found the switch and clicked it on. Feeble ill-describes the lousy illumination that the light globe provided, but it was enough for Cal to
find the petrol beside his immaculately restored EJ Holden, and start tipping it into the bin and onto the book. It hissed and struggled, but could not escape. For good measure Cal scrunched up several balls of newspaper and dropped these on top of it, soaking them in petrol.
Outside the beating was increasing in volume, becoming a pounding in their ears; the approach of thunderheads angry and incredibly powerful. Things scraped against the garage door. Something slammed into it, leaving a bizarrely-shaped imprint -- the source of which Grant didn't even want to consider -- in the metal. The door buckled; it wasn't going to hold out much
"No incantations, no ethereal fire," Cal muttered. "Just burn, you hellish thing!"
He dropped a match into the bin. Something massive drove through the door, metal protested, then gave way. Grant turned his head; he didn't want to see whatever in Hell's name that was. Still, his eyes caught the suggestion of a dark bulk that filled the doorway, and the yellow, ravenous gleam of a saucer-sized eye. Before he could scream there was an explosion, and a
screech, so inhuman, so terrible that Grant found himself screaming in response, his hands slapped around his ears in a vain attempt to drive out the sound.
Then he passed out.
He came to when what felt like half the Pacific crashed over his skull. Blinking and spluttering, he cursed, then demanded why someone was trying to drown him. The sight of Cal's frazzled face brought his words to a sudden halt. Not a single hair on his once semi-bald scalp remained. Reflexively, Grant felt for his own hair and sighed blissfully when he found it all
there. He did, however, feel a rather large, and painful lump on the back of his head.
Cal laughed and hurled away the still dripping bucket.
"We stopped the bastard," he said. "Old Howard would have loved us."
"I'm sorry," he said. "But I have to tell you this."
"I really liked that book, but frankly I never want to read another one of your's again."
They both broke down and laughed.
The rest of his trip in Byron was indeed relaxing -- or at least he told himself this enough times so that, eventually, he believed it -- though he found he couldn't sleep alone for several days. He thanked God for Emily. She never realised how important she was to him those nights following. Of course, he never explained to her what happened or the source of his frequent nightmares (and he never got the chance; she dropped him a week later, the joys of summer love). And he never got around to reading any of those other glossy paperback novels he had bought. He dropped them off at the local second hand bookstore just before he went home.
He got back into the grind or, as he liked to think of it, the grind got back into him.
Grant walked into the University Co-op bookstore and groaned to find it crowded. He needed only one more book to make his second to last semester-in-hell collection complete. Luckily for him there where still a few copies left. He snatched up one of the hefty volumes, shaking his head at the extortionate price as he did so, and joined the queue.
He flicked through his book as he waited in line, scanning new information. It seemed basic enough. He sighed, he was tired, it had been a too long day already without waiting in this damn slow line. He looked at the introduction, then turned the page.
A scream caught in his throat. The book had opened onto text that shouldn't have been there. Words written in that hideous font.
Cthulhu waits. In R`lyeh he waits. We're coming for YOU, Grant. And this time we will not be stopped.
Someone chuckled. In the distance there was the suggestion of a heartbeat. He hurled the book away and began to run.
Created: December 5, 1999; Updated: August 9, 2004