Masters of Terror by 
James Ambuehl and Laurence J. Cornford

The clock really wasn't there . . . or was it?


The highest state of mankind lies in his capacity for dream -- to imagine. It's what most sets us apart from the other varied life forms of our humble sphere called Earth.

Please allow me a moment to introduce myself. My name is Howard Phillips Lovecraft, Esq., and I am what you might call a mere dabbler in outre fantasies and weird fictions. Perhaps you've read some of my humble efforts published in, most notably, The Conservative, but also in such lurid markets as Weird Tales? Yet I assure you, what I pen here is no humble fiction! Despite the fact that I can recall nearly every moment and every detail in a crystal clarity mainly afforded me upon waking from my dreams into harsh daylight, I have the strangest conviction that the adventure I partook upon really did take place -- somewhere!

This singular dream -- if dream it truly did be -- was of remarkable length and detail, although at times lacking in coherence. I lay it out here for your own perusal as best I can.

I have always had a keen interest in the more interesting and picturesque features of New England geography. I had journeyed to Chepachet, Rhode Island, from my own beloved Providence, in order that I might quest for the location and conduct a subsequent exploration of a certain nameless swamp hidden far from the town of Chepachet proper. And now, on hindsight, I remember the old adage: 'Let sleeping giants lie,' but of course, hindsight is next to the uneducated guess in its uselessness.

I had been tramping about the rough wilderness environs since early that morning, my clothes torn from the foliage and my exposed skin severely ravaged by the insects of Chepachet, my muffled curses to every dark god and daemon scarcely imaginable rang out in the stillness -- when just after midday I sensed a peculiar air of foreboding.

I stopped to take in my surroundings, then moved directly forward into a wall of nigh-
impenetrable thickets. Making my way yet cautiously forward, I spread the dead, brittle vegetation before me and peered within. I could not help but to gasp audibly, for there before me lay that nameless swamp.

To say that it was truly alive would be the utmost fallacy, for in these environs no insect hummed, no bird sang, and it was almost as if the swamp were holding its breath, so palpable was the feeling of its placidity, it's utter stillness. Dark green sludge scummed its waters, and where the water was so vegetatively-encumbered, the water looked to be dark, murky, stagnant and foul. And though the sun was still high overhead, no beams of warm daylight sun seemed to fall to light upon its surface. It was truly one of those places as are hidden and shunned, that lay in all corners of the world -- forgotten since early man dared to venture forth from his cave in ages long past . . . and, yes, perhaps even before the advent of man! Suffice to say, the swamp fevered my imagination, and I resolved to explore her shores further.

To do so, however, I saw that I would have to circle around the thickets, and I reluctantly withdrew my gaze to do just that. As I was rounding the voluminous vegetative patch, a strange sound came to my ears: a harsh croaking, mixed with the occasional sibilant hiss. And I could make out, too, that these were at least a pair of such voices, and as I listened I detected a structure to the noises that was horribly suggestive of conscious vocalization -- although just what language they seemed to be speaking I could not surmise. And more than that, I felt sure that from the tortuous collection of sounds they were the voices of beings that were surely inhuman. The sounds seemed to be emanating from within the swamp!

I'm afraid my curiosity rather got the best of me. Heedless of the scratching and tearing branches, I raced around the thickets toward my goal, finally putting on a burst of almost superhuman zeal and broke through the vile, decomposing vegetation, to the intriguing body which lay within.

To my utter disappointment, and perhaps my secret relief, I espied no figures in that dismal landscape, but as I made my way slowly and cautiously to the pool's edge I discovered a profusion of strange tracks leading around to a spot about half the circumference of the pool. I began to follow them, feeling just then the peculiar sensation of an old-world explorer. This was how Robinson Crusoe must have felt upon discovering the signs that his island was inhabited by cannibals -- the instantaneous dissipation of all the certainties which I had built up, for again, I felt certain my quarry was indeed not human; these tracks were approximately man-sized, but looked to be slightly web-footed. Too, I espied something glittering in the base of one of the tracks, something unmistakably foreign, and bending down to pick it up I was startled to see that it appeared to be a scale!

Kneeling, I plucked the scale from the mud and slipped it into a small envelope I carried in my pocket . . . reasoning that for such a find my latest letter to C.M. Eddy, Jr., could surely wait to be posted when I returned home for a replacement envelope. Carefully folding the newly-filled envelope into a vest pocket, and placing the recently-extricated letter into another, I turned my attention again to matters at hand. I studied the prints for a moment, feeling a bit like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective, pondering upon what might have made such tracks. I could think of no species known to man that would fit the bill, so to speak. Again a sound came to my ears, the sound of plunging water. I moved forward again, quickening my pace excitedly, and reaching the spot where the tracks petered out I found at the base of them a bubbling miasmic pool of water -- a sumphole!

I knelt again to study the prints around the edge of the pool. As I watched, ripples began to form on the surface of the dark water. Then, to my utmost horror, a prodigiously-clawed reptilian limb burst forth from the small pool -- to clutch at my leg with powerful eldritch talons. The claws gripped me like a steel trap and slowly, inexorably, I was dragged forward toward the pool. I shrieked in mindless fear as that irresistible grip began to pull me in, and down into those murky depths. Then merciful unconsciousness overcame me as I underwent a monstrous descent through watery abyss.

* * *

How long I remained unconscious I know not, but when the dream recommenced it was a slow trickle of familiar sensations. I deduced that I had been insensible for several hours, for my clothing was now nearly dry. The air here was warm, too, -- almost muggy -- perhaps denoting a geothermal activity such as the volcanic? I became aware of a simple latticework of seemingly hastily-constructed wooden bars forming a cage about me. Beyond my makeshift prison lay a large twilit grotto, lit by some obscure species of luminous lichen or fungus adhering to the cavern walls. I became aware of a shape moving purposefully back and forth in this dim fungoid light, just outside the cage which held me. I suppressed the urge to shriek again. It was a kind of anthropomorphic and heretofore unknown species of lizard, which stood upright but favored the balls of its feet rather than laying them flat to the heel as primates do. The skin was a dark green and scaled like that of a snake or fish, and it seemed to be fiercely-clawed on both talons and toes. A slight webbing extended between the latter, confirming my surmise that this was indeed one of the subjects I had heard speaking and later discovered the tracks thereof. As the lizard-man turned its gaze full upon me I saw that directly in its strangely-crested forehead, set above its two normal eyes, was a third, red, unwinking eye. I do not know why, but at the sight of this face my anxiety grew to panic and I almost fainted there and then, for deep within my racial memory a warning signaled to me that this creature was inimical to mankind.

As it became aware of my wakeful state it gave forth a strange high-pitched cry, whereupon I heard the sound of a multitude of tramping feet of these nameless denizens of Tartarus swiftly and unhesitantly approach. Too, the creature's third eye began to glow with a fierce red light, and my cage door swung open seemingly of its own accord. I recalled the Oriental myths of the mental power harnessed by the third eye -- a channel of spiritual power. Could this remarkable creature be the root source of these myths?

My guard was swiftly joined by another of its fellows, and the two reached forth Herculean limbs and grasped me tightly by both arms, drawing me from the cage. They began to march me down a hollowed-out rock corridor -- the remainder of the nightmare throng following closely upon out heels -- and my then hazy mind struggled to take in the details around me. The rock walls had been covered with pictoglyphs, scenes of these outre lizard-men, and I struggled to focus upon their meaning as I was dragged inexorably on toward my doubtless waiting doom. They seemed to depict the scenes of daily life and culture of the lizard-beings. And as we stopped in that nightmare hall, for some reason unfathomable to me, my eye fell upon a particular scene which met my stunned gaze. It seemed to depict a worship ceremony featuring scenes of blasphemous carnage -- human sacrifice! -- and arrayed at the head of these proceedings stood the abominable form of a monstrous lizard-god that made me think at once of both my colleague Robert E. Howard's Set, serpent-god of ancient Stygia, and my own Bokrug, the water-lizard of doomed Sarnath in the Land of Dreams. I felt that I had more than an inkling now, of the unnamable fate I had in store at the culmination of this fiendish ordeal.

If my memory of the journey is shadowy, my recall of the chamber we now entered is crystal clear. We came into a vast vaulted cavern, several times greater than anything I had ever seen so far, which bore comparison only to the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. Its outer reaches were lost in darkness, but I guessed that its whole expanse was taken up with row upon row of shelves or racks, so that the whole vast cavern resembled an eldritch library, but in place of books each shelf housed row upon row of glass-fronted sarcophagi, and peering carefully at the nearest of these I saw that each coffin held a lifeless reptilian form, identical to my captors. There must have been literally thousands of these coffins lining the shelves around the cavern!

To my right was a kind of lectern at which more of the repulsive creatures stood, studying its surface with interest. Behind them, half-hidden in a dark recess was a great and obscene statue crudely hewn from the rock, whose primary feature was a gaping mouth lined with jagged stalactite and stalagmite teeth. The bestial face showed absolutely no lineage of humanity, but I had seen the likeness before, in the cave paintings of the beasts. It was the face of the unnamable lizard-god!

But my attention was drawn from this wondrous spectacle when, abruptly, a human voice sounded in a cultured British accent!

"Ah, Tsolkvak, have you considered my offer?"

From a point behind the lectern a figure emerged. The man had a not entirely unhandsome face, with a dark, neatly-trimmed beard, but it seemed to be a face capable of great cruelty. His skin, too, seemed rather swarthy, like that of an Egyptian or an Arab. Piercing, deep-set, almost hypnotic eyes seemed to match with his rather saturnine look perfectly. He bore himself with great dignity, but dressed in a severe neat black suit which made me think of a military uniform, although it had none of the epaulets and insignia of a true military costume. His black leather gloves completed the look admirably.

As he spoke, one of the lizards turned and replied in a verisimilitude of English, although with a curious fluting, nasal tone as if its vocal cords were not made for such speech.

"We have no interest in your offer, Time Lord. We will obliterate all this primate life and clear off this planet for our return -- starting with you." Two of the lizard-men began to circle warily behind the dark figure. The creature called Tsolkvak continued: "We cannot let you warn the others. You will be -- sacrificed. The Great Old One will be hungry when he awakes."

"Sacrificed?" There was a mocking horror in the man's voice. "But I've helped you! Without me, you would still be slumbering in your subterranean tombs!"

"That is of no importance. This planet is ours and we shall reclaim it. The stellar danger is now passed. We can recolonize the planet."

"Yes, and I can help you. You've been asleep for many aeons. The universe has changed. You will need a guide!" He was fairly screaming in protest now.

"We do not need guidance from primates."

"You insult me! I'm no human. I wish their destruction as fervently as you!"

While this had been going on the attention of my captors had been focused on this dark, satanic man, and I took the opportunity to move stealthily closer to the lectern.

Looking over it, I found that its surface was highly engraved with symbols and patterns of a completely alien nature. But at the center of the pattern, resting in an indentation, was a curious claw-like object of tarnished silver -- nearly five inches long, of unknown and utterly exotic workmanship, and covered from end to end with hieroglyphs of the most bizarre description. Looking around at the reptiles to ensure that I was unobserved, I reached down and lifted this object from its rest. It was surprisingly heavy.

Just then the lead lizard-man ordered us to be shepherded toward the statue, so that I was manhandled in the direction of the bearded man. I instinctively held onto the curious piece of jewelry.

"I appeal to your sense of reason!" the man was protesting yet again, as we were forced closer to the maw of the statue. I began to observe that the jaw was hinged so that it functioned like an iron maiden of medieval infamy, and we would be surely crushed to death within. I struggled, but the squamous limbs of the creatures were unyielding.

"If you will not listen to reason, then maybe you will listen to -- this!"

At once the man drew from beneath his jacket a rod-like object of shiny black metal, which he pointed at the nearest of the man-lizards. Then the end of the rod emitted a bright light and a piercing sound cut through the air. The lizard flinched in the enveloping light, and diminished before us, literally shriveling into a doll-like cadaver. At this shocking occurrence, the lizards let go of me, and seemed to step back a pace. The man began firing wildly at the suddenly-scattering and wildly-fleeing lizard-men with his mysterious handheld weapon, and the scene began to resemble something from a Buck Rogers serial.

As the lizards squealed and scattered headlong, he turned his dark, piercing gaze upon me as if just then noticing my presence. Then his arm reached out and yet again I felt that uncomfortable sensation of being pulled by a powerful grip towards the still-gaping mouth of the statue. Had this madman chosen to kill me as well? Then I was pushed roughly, toppling directly into the gaping mouth of the hideous idol!


The dream rapidly and inexplicably changed, so that I could scarce believe my eyes! Falling backward to my death in the crushing jaws, I now found myself sprawling over the floor just within the doorway of a cathedral-like chamber. I beheld spread before me a vista more fantastic than any I had ever known in dream! The room stretched before me was immense, seemingly interminable. I had had the occasion to use the term non-Euclidean now and then in my fictions before now, but now I truly beheld the very meaning of the word. Lights flashed severely and an electronic hum filled the air; an air seemingly filled with a static charge. The walls were pitted with circular depressions from which an inner light came. In the center of the room was a structure of scientific instruments around a central canister of swirling, colored lights and filaments that resembled nothing I had ever seen before, but most closely resembled the interior parts of a wireless.

"No need to lurk there upon the threshold," a thin voice called out with just the hint of a mocking sneer. "You may as well come in now, you know." The man passed over my prostrate form and strode toward the central machine.

Remembering the one about the spider to the fly, I rose to my feet and entered slowly. I turned my gaze full upon my host at last, that dark, unlikely savior who had rescued me from my likewise dark fate. And if I had expected that savior to be heroic in appearance and manner, I was swiftly disappointed. As I tried not to stare at him, he reached the bulky control console, then turned to look at me.

"I suppose you are wondering just who I am?" His fierce eyes burned in my direction as he pulled himself proudly erect and tugged his tunic down. "I am known as the Master!" His eyes flashed now, and he added in a small voice, "almost universally."

Not knowing what else to say to this almost Houdiniesque display of schoolboy theatrics, I glanced again about the room laid out before me.

"Most intriguing, this control room," I began. "I assume that the size anomalies can be explained as a product of some higher mathematical theory?"

He seemed surprised at my own comprehension of his. "Not too far from the truth, actually, sir -- but also dimensionally transcendental as well. Time And Relative Dimensions In Space, or tardis, as the device is known . . . rather annoyingly cute to my way of thinking, don't you agree?" He scowled down upon the console.

"A hyperdimension?" I gasped. It was curious how my dream conformed to so many of the ideas I had used in my own fictions. I also had cause to wonder at my almost perfect recall of nearly every detail, replete with incomprehensible dialogue!

He shrugged and looked up at me again. "And tell me, sir," he began, "just how are you called?"

"I am Howard Phillips Lovecraft," I managed, drawing up my fierce Anglo-Saxon chin and standing at my full height. "I am a Gentleman of His Majesty's Colony of Rhode Island, and a writer of macabre tales -- although I dare say they are less lurid than those mundane fictions of the masses!" I know not what instilled in me the urge to strive to better myself over this man, but it seemed a nigh-irresistable urge to do so.

"Ah, Lovecraft, I know the name well!" He smiled almost genuinely for the first time since our precipitous meeting. "I remember reading --" He was cut off abruptly as the ship began to spin and lurch sharply . . .

The Master flicked a switch and looked toward a black section of the wall. At once, a patch on the wall began to glow and form images, as if a motion picture was being projected there, but the picture was in color as well as possessing sound. It showed the cavern we had just escaped from, from a high angle, roughly above the vicinity of the statue. A number of the reptiles had gathered and were using arcane instruments on the now-closed mouth of the statue.

"They've worked out that the statue is my tardis," the Master said, almost to himself, "that I materialized directly within it. I don't think they have the technology to get in, Mr. Lovecraft, but I wonder why they are bothering to try? Surely, it can't just be revenge . . ."

"Maybe it has to do with this," I offered, opening the palm of my hand and showing the jewel.

The Master began to laugh heartily. "You took the key to their cryogenic unit! Why, Mr. Lovecraft, you are a man after my own heart!"

I tried to protest that I had retained the relic by accident, but my host seemed to find my embarrassment all the more comical.

"Well, they certainly will want that back," he said after his laughing fit ceased at last. "Without that key to boost their mental energies they don't have the power to revive their people. The few who are now awake will be forced either to live their lives out alone, trying to gather the materials to construct a new key, or go back into hibernation and hope for the best. Well, whatever they decide, we had best be well away from here, I should think!"

So saying, he returned his attention to the controls and the motion picture faded from view. Then his gloved hands began to fly over the console almost faster than my eye could follow. Abruptly, a grinding, almost wheezing deep sound made itself heard. A remarkable sensation, like sudden dizziness, passed over me. Then, as the noise died away, I felt normal and at relative ease once more.

"What," I asked, "were those lizard-men we encountered in the caves?"

"Silurians!" he spat as if the word left a bad taste in his mouth. "Earth reptiles. I recently had failed dealings with their aquatic cousins, the Sea Devils -- a sort of man-fish hybrid, you see -- and I foolishly hoped that their land-dwelling relatives might prove less obstinate, more trustworthy. I discovered the existence of that colony slumbering in the caves beneath the swamp in your time, and awakened them . . ."

A scowl darkened his face just then. "But, of course, this recourse failed as well. The ungrateful . . ." He continued to mumble curses under his breath. Then he ruminated a moment, seemingly deep in thought, then stood erect again and gestured dismissively:

"Ah well, all's well that begins well, Mr. Lovecraft. I have set events in motion which are sure to have cataclysmic results on your puny planet -- eventually." Pure hate seemed to darken his saturnine face even more just then. "Yes, I shall certainly have my revenge on him . . . he and his precious unit-friends. With the key I can yet bargain with the Silurians. I will conquer Earth in the 1930's, long before the Doctor and the Time Lords can meddle in my affairs. Imagine, Mr. Lovecraft, no unit, no space program, no Doctor!"

While his words were meaningless to me, it occurred to me just then that this doubtless powerful man, with his evident mastery over time and space themselves, seemed just then, with his head tilted morosely toward the floor, more like a little lost boy than a man certain of himself; a rejected little boy who was seldom, if ever, allowed to play with his peers. And though he was obviously megalomaniacal -- perhaps just as much so as Hitler just beginning to marshal his forces over in Europe, I felt sure that I held a certain affinity with him just then. He and I, we were both Outsiders, and I reached forth a surprisingly steady hand to clasp him gently on the shoulder. He looked up at me, surprise etched on his face.

"You, Mr. Lovecraft," he fairly shouted now, brightening visibly, "would have made a good . . . companion." He threw his arms wide. "Where shall we travel now? This machine can transcend the boundaries of space and time; in the blinking of an eye we can travel anywhere that imagination can contemplate. Perhaps you've longed to see firsthand the glories of Rome under the emperors, or visit the Court of King George? Shall we journey to another planet -- perhaps dim hoary Skaro or jungled Veltroch? Or instead visit the Land of Fiction and while away a few hours drinking down ambrosia in her taverns, or perhaps walk proudly side-by-side in the shining sunset halls of Peladon? Or shall we again return to Earth? We could venture to ancient Aegypt and explore the tombs of the Pharaohs together -- or travel to Araby -- I know you would like that, my friend! Or we could materialize the tardis beneath the ocean and visit Cth--"

"I wish to go home! I wish only for Providence!" I cried out, my passion fairly burning in my eyes. And I felt surely stunned at this last. Here, this . . . Master . . . was offering to show me sights such as I had dreamed often and vividly so -- and yet it was home that my bones ached for, my soul cried out for -- home. To sit again with my Aunts and talk with them of life and all its wondrous mysteries, and later to see them off to bed and then retire to my upstairs study to pen all that my dreams and fancies had revealed to me; and I had letters to write as well, to Klarkash-Ton, and young Belknapius, and many others. I was truly amazed, but I truly longed in my heart for the simple pleasures of -- home.

My host seemed to sense my inner turmoil. "Where," he asked again slowly, "would you dare to venture to, Mr. Lovecraft?"

"To 66 College Street," I answered certainly, "in my own beloved Providence, Rhode Island!"

He seemed disappointed at my decision. "Oh, then you feel you must leave me, my newfound friend?" -- I sensed he resisted the urge to utter 'as all the others before you have done.' "You know, I have enjoyed your company a great deal, and I am sorry to see you go. People such as you and I, Mr. Lovecraft, with minds such as ours, why we could rule the galaxy -- indeed, the very universe!"

He seemed to be mulling the decision over carefully. "You know, I could force you to stay -- but no, your mind is very strong . . . the struggle would consume too much mental energy, and I must conserve my energies for my upcoming battle with -- him.

"No, Mr. Lovecraft. I just couldn't risk it. Give me the key and I will indeed take you home."

"But," I protested feebly, "you will go back and awaken the rest of the Silurians!"

He chuckled. "Do not worry, my friend, I promise you that I will not return during your lifetime. I like to keep these things in reserve, as a contingency against my plans going awry. Actually, I have something planned next, involving Draconia . . ."

"I suppose it's not mine to keep," I said. After all, it was only a dream, and I knew I could not keep it upon returning to the waking world. But still, I kept a tight grip upon it.

When the Master saw that I would only relinquish the key once I was back in Providence, this Moriarty-like figure began to again manipulate a few levers and buttons upon the console arrayed before him, and the central column began to flash and move up and down of its own accord.

Again the unpleasant feeling of nausea buffeted me, but it soon passed, and the Master flicked yet another switch. The portal doors opened. I paused on the threshold.

"Do not worry, Mr. Lovecraft, I assure you, it is quite safe. There are no Silurians behind those doors, only your study and your cats lie beyond."

I walked through the black arch of the door and found myself in my study, the north attic room, where the pane of the monitor roof furnished admirable lighting. Here were my books and papers as I had left them. I looked back to see the man was standing near, behind me. At once I noticed an object which should not have been in the room, although I cannot say that it looked wildly out of place in such surroundings. From nowhere a curious grandfather clock, shaped something like a coffin, had appeared and now stood just behind the Master.

"Now, Mr. Lovecraft, if you would just hand me the key," he said, holding out his black-gloved hand. He kept his strange ray-gun in his other hand at his side.

"And if I do, what of the Silurians?"

"You needn't worry on that point. I think I shall see if an extra fifty years or so will make them any more cooperative. No, without the key they cannot revive their forces and those few left active will return to their hibernation. Their time is not yet come."

It would have been nice to have retained the curious key, and indeed I felt a curious compulsion to do just that. But I fought it off at last, and handed it over to him.

The Master nodded slightly in my direction, then began to proceed swiftly toward the curious coffin-clock. He now reached the abnormal clock, and fumbled with the tall, hieroglyphed door. The fumbling made a queer, clicking sound. Then the figure entered the coffin-shaped case and pulled the door shut after him.

Then, a most remarkable end to all that had transpired that amazing evening, the growling sound returned yet again, and as it did the clock faded like a ghost from my room.

Exhaustion overcame me just then, and I trudged wearily to my bed.

I awoke refreshed to find my cats keen to be fed. It had been a most singular dream, vivid and horrible -- yet wondrous as well. The remarkable image of the theatrical Master remains one of my strongest dream-impressions -- that, and his remarkable time-clock!

But I must cease this scribbling now, and return to the other more mundane matters at hand. Just today I opened a packet from E. Hoffman Price, and inside was a manuscript: "The Lord of Illusion," which is meant to be a sequel to my "The Silver Key." It looks rather intriguing, but the title won't do at all. Perhaps something on the order of "Through the Gates of the Silver Key"?

Yet, as I prepare to turn my thoughts to these matters, I yet retain the strangest conviction that should I look behind me, upon the floor, I will see a curious indentation exhibited upon the carpet as if a heavy weight had recently rested there -- and should I search my waistcoat pockets I will find a displaced letter written to C.M. Eddy, Jr., and an accompanying envelope in a further pocket which will rest in my hand rather heavily -- as if not quite empty.

Masters of Terror

Send your comments to James Ambuehl or Laurence J. Cornford


© 2001 Edward P. Berglund
"Masters of Terror": © 2000 James Ambuehl and Laurence J. Cornford. All rights reserved. This is reprinted from Perfect Timing.
"Masters of Terror" illustration: © 2001 Laurence J. Cornford. All rights reserved.
Graphics © 1999-2001 Erebus Graphic Design. All rights reserved. Email to: James V. Kracht.

Created: August 14, 2001; Updated: August 9, 2004