Nightscapes





The Cursed Zone by Joseph Robert Davis



I

There are things in this world that are better left unknown and areas of knowledge better left unexplored. With my background as an anthropologist and folklorist, trained to think as a scientist, I should reject such conclusions out of hand. Pursuit of knowledge, wherever it might lead, whatever unpalatable facts might surface, has ever been my highest aspiration. Nevertheless, the things I have experienced, the abominations I have seen with my own eyes, have led me to this conclusion. How comforting it would be if the experiences I am about to relate only reflected a psychotic episode!

The events surrounding my stay in Mexico and subsequent hospitalization have already become a fertile source of gossip, rumor, and innuendo among my academic colleagues. What a pity that men and women, supposedly dedicated to science and learning, would stoop to such pastimes, stereotypically associated with the ignorant and unintelligent; nevertheless, such is the sorry case.

I feel that I must clarify the facts of my experience, set the record straight so to speak. For this reason I am writing down the present account, which many readers will no doubt dismiss as the ravings of a lunatic, or the product of some drug induced hallucination. Nevertheless, I will describe the events that transpired as I experienced them. Most of what I now write is taken from notes I recorded carefully as the events occurred. I fortunately had the intuitive foresight to mail these notes to a trusted friend and colleague at the university prior to the horrible night in June of last year, concerning which I shall presently elaborate. The reader is, of course, free to draw his or her conclusions. As for myself, I fear that I may not have much time left, and I do not want to go to whatever fate awaits me in silence.

Had I not chosen to accept the invitation, proffered by an old acquaintance of my days as a graduate student, to explore a strange legend in Mexico, I would be a saner man now. I would still be comfortably ensconced in a tenured position with a prestigious eastern university, still secure in a rational world governed by the well-understood laws and principles of physics. Lamentably, any such concept of reality is now irrevocably lost for me. I know that things exist in this world, in this universe, that all sane and rational laws decree cannot exist. I have gazed upon an abomination barely hinted at in even the darkest and most fabulous corners of myth and legend. How I envy the multitude of humanity that continues to dwell in the smug illusion of an orderly, mechanistic cosmos!

My insane odyssey began almost one year ago. I had been invited to present a paper at an international symposium on religion, mythology, and folklore being held in San Antonio, Texas. At the end of the three day session I had received a call from Carl Rousseau, a former classmate of mine at Columbia whom I had not seen in a number of years.

To my surprise, Rousseau suggested that we meet for dinner. In reality, we had never been close friends. Nevertheless, my old classmate insisted that he had a story to share with me, one that I might find very interesting, considering my recently published research. In summary, I had uncovered and documented evidence pointing to a single very ancient tradition that seems to underlie most of the world's magical and mythological systems.

We met early that same evening at a small restaurant on the famous San Antonio River walk.

"Dr. Shapiro, good to see you again." Rousseau's greeting sounded cheery enough, though his formality surprised me somewhat. "Go ahead and order," he added, "I'm only going to have coffee."

As I perused the menu Rousseau fumbled a bit with his napkin. "I'll try to explain this the best I can; . . . hope you won't think I'm too crazy, but what you're about to hear is the God honest truth. I swear it."

"Really? Go ahead," I replied. Rousseau's manner disquieted me a little.

"I know you must be wondering why I decided to contact you after all this time; I mean, I know we weren't ever especially close . . . "

"No matter. How can I help you?"

"Dr. Shapiro . . . "

"Reuben," I interjected.

"O.K., Reuben . . . I don't know if you'd heard, but I've been living in Mexico, also some in Central America, for the last ten years or so."

"Yes, I knew that your area of interest lay in the pre-conquest folk traditions of that region."

"But Doc . . . uh . . . Reuben, my interests went beyond mere anthropological studies of folklore . . . more into the esoteric and occult aspects of those traditions. I am convinced that much knowledge from the pre-Columbian civilizations survived the Conquest and the Inquisition and is still preserved in secret by groups or individuals who carefully pass the knowledge on from one generation to the next. As you probably remember, I never pursued my academic studies as far as you did. Actually, I never even finished writing my master's thesis."

"Pity," I sighed, "you have the brains to become an outstanding teacher and researcher."

Rousseau frowned slightly. "Yes, but that's not where my interests lie. Publish or perish, I think they call it. Anyway, I was lucky; I inherited enough money that earning a living isn't a major concern for me."

"We should all be so fortunate . . .," I replied, then added, "What can I do for you Carl?"

"I was just getting to that," he answered, quickly adding, "I've recently spent some time . . . several months in fact, living in northern Mexico, a little town called San Facundo, only a couple of hours south of Brownsville, Texas. I was originally attracted to the town by some old writings I came across . . . stuff by early Spanish friars bent on christianizing the local Indians, but some really weird stuff."

"Most likely propaganda to justify some of the atrocities they planned once the benefits of the Inquisition were made available to the natives," I replied, wondering where our conversation was leading.

"That was the first thing that occurred to me also, but there were other things . . . I mean twelve priests were locked away in a monastery by order of the Archbishop of Mexico City. It was stated that those priests had been blinded and their tongues cut out at the Church's behest. The Superior of the Augustinian Order operating in the province asked the Church authorities for permission to burn hundreds of Indians at the stake, a request that was granted after he explained the circumstances to a secret tribunal of the Holy Office.

"After that," he continued, "any person, Spaniard or Indian, suspected of engaging in certain practices, things that were known to the investigators, but which the writers of the chronicles were explicitly forbidden to describe, was to be put to death instantly and the corpse burned to ashes."

"Horrible," I grimaced, "but not too unusual for the times. I know. Some of my own ancestors suffered at the hands of the Inquisition."

"Yes, Reuben, but it gets stranger. A large section of landscape, several leagues in length and breadth, was declared forbidden ground. No Christian could set a foot in that area under pain of excommunication. To this very day it's known in the region as la zona maldita, 'the Cursed Zone'."

I rolled Rousseau's account over in my mind for a moment. It did seem to have the makings of an interesting piece of folklore. I told him as much.

"But why call it to my attention specifically?" I queried. "I'm a specialist in mythology and folklore, that's true, but is there something special in this odd bit of history you've uncovered that you think I should take any special note of?"

"Absolutely." Rousseau's voice seemed calmer now. "After reading all I could find out about this . . . this strangeness, for want of a better term, I decided to actually spend some time in the area and find out what I could first hand. The town of San Facundo, founded in the early seventeen hundreds, sits right at the edge of it . . . I mean the 'Cursed Zone'."

"Yes, go on." I couldn't help it. My interest was growing.

"Well, the locals are a strange lot, to say the least," he continued. "You know how it goes, you have an isolated rural community, for many generations, and a lot of genetic fermentation occurs."

"Often that can be the case," I replied.

"Anyway," continued Rousseau, "they tend to be very clannish, tightlipped with any outsiders, and with me, an Americano, well, you can imagine. But after a while I did gain the trust of a few, and what they told me really piqued my interest."

Rousseau paused for a moment, sipped his coffee, by now almost cold, and wiped the corners of his mouth with his napkin.

"A little south of San Facundo," he went on, "not too far off the main highway, there's a singular hill. It's known locally as El Tinieblo, the place of darkness . . . juts straight up some five hundred feet above the surrounding landscape. The friars regarded it as an especially evil place. It lay right in the middle of the Cursed Zone, and the locals fear it to this day, at least those who aren't part of it." Rousseau's emphasis on the word "part" caused me to feel an odd sensation in the back of my neck.

"It seems," he continued, "that a couple of years back some federales, federal police from the Attorney General's office, went up there to investigate reports of night time activity, you know, lights, strange noises and such. They suspected drug traffickers at work. Anyway, of fifteen federales that went up that hill, only two came back down, both of them traumatized and completely incoherent. As far as anyone knows, no bodies were ever recovered. You've got to remember, those men were all equipped with automatic weapons and were trained to deal with almost any contingency. At any rate, the Mexican government clamped a tight security lid on the whole thing."

I thought about this for a moment, then replied, "So you think something strange happened to them, like violent cult activity maybe?"

"I thought that at first." he responded quickly. "I thought, perhaps, they had stumbled onto some secret ceremony or something, and just bit off more than they could chew. People can be quite dangerous when someone threatens or interferes with their religious practices."

He paused again, staring briefly at his lap.

"But I know now that it was something else. I truly wish that it was only a matter of some weird cult or violent religious sect."

"So, what leads you to believe it wasn't?" I insisted.

"The two survivors . . . they both died within a few weeks of causes that were undetermined, as best as I could find out, even after bribing a couple of government officials for information. I talked to a doctor in the state capital who had been involved in their treatment. He told me that one of them only sat, you know, drawn up into a fetal position and making meaningless whining sounds; but the other, he would stare vacantly into space most of the time, then suddenly start shrieking at the top of his lungs . . . something about 'los demonios que no tienen forma . . . que te comen el cuerpo y el alma'."

Though my Spanish was probably not as fluent as Rousseau's, I understood the meaning of his words . . . devils without shape that feed on body and soul . . .

Rousseau continued his account, providing further details about the history of the region and the nature of its inhabitants. Especially intriguing was his mention of certain physical peculiarities, apparently genetic in nature, that characterize some elements of the local population.

"Some of the locals actually seem almost frog like, I mean, like their eyes are round and bulging, they have almost no necks or chins, and their skin . . . well, it seems oddly rough, I might even say scaly."

"You mean something like ichthyosis," I suggested. "That's a hereditary condition you know . . . "

"Yes," he answered. "I've seen examples of that in my travels, but this . . . this is well . . . different. It does seem to run in the same families though."

I thought for a moment, then suggested, "Probably some unusual mutation due to doubling up defective recessive genes. That sometimes happens with too much inbreeding. I've seen some real oddities in our own southern Appalachian mountains. Even back in Massachusetts, I've heard stories of a decaying fishing town on the coast just south of Newburysport, as well as certain backwaters in the central part of the state where a very high incidence of genetic anomalies seems to occur."

"I fear there's more to it than that," Rousseau replied. "The other local people, the normal ones, avoid the . . . the strange ones like the plague. They seem to actually be terrified of them."

"Sounds like a simple case of superstitious fear to me," I offered, adding, "Ignorant people often react that way to anyone who's different or strange."

"What if the fear were justified?" he retorted. "There was a case I looked into personally. It seems that a rural family, . . . lived out from town a little distance . . . Anyway, they had a child who wandered onto some property owned by one of the strange families. The child disappeared. Of course, the family was frantic. Then the child turned up . . . what was left of it, only a few gnawed bones with some shreds of flesh attached. The local police said it was coyotes, but I swear that the tooth marks I saw on the bones were not those of coyotes, or any other predator found in that region. They were not exactly human teeth, but were set in a human-like jaw, judging from the spacing."

"Hmmm . . .," I pondered. "Might bear looking into, but . . . "

"Why don't you take some time and come see for yourself?" demanded my companion. "There are direct flights from here to Brownsville or Harlingen. After that it's only a couple of hours driving time to San Facundo. I have a house rented there. Nothing luxurious, to be sure, but comfortable enough for a few days. You can stay there with me."

Our meeting ended at this point, aside from the usual leave-taking remarks and exchange of business cards and hotel telephone numbers. I headed straight to my hotel and presumed that Rousseau had done the same. Arriving at my room, I proceeded almost directly to the shower (the night being very warm). Inadvertently, I left the bathroom door open, a habit born of many years of living alone. As I brushed my teeth, I caught sight in the mirror of a slight movement at the base of the hallway door. I called out, but received no answer. Quick to investigate, I discovered a sheet of paper, folded in half, inserted beneath the door.

Curious, and a little annoyed, I picked up the paper, and saw scribbled thereon, in common black ballpoint, the references Rev. 13; Rev. 13: 13, and Koran 25:29. These cryptic citations, taken from the Christian New Testament and the Muslim Qran, puzzled me. What could such a thing mean, and why would anyone slip such a note under my door? In that instant I remembered that most hotel rooms in the United States contain copies of the New Testament, distributed by some Christian evangelical organization.

A brief search in the drawers of the end table produced the book I was looking for. I fumbled through the limp pages of the cheap copy until I found the passage in question.

The thirteenth chapter of the Book of Revelations did nothing to resolve the mystery for me, as I read, "And I stood still upon the sand of the sea. And I saw a beast ascending out of the sea. . . ." Reading along to the thirteenth verse, I found, "And I saw three unclean spirits like unto frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon and out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet."

I was perplexed by these strange passages, and even more puzzled as to the purpose of the note. Those verses meant nothing to me. How could this antique eschatological imagery possibly relate to a person such as myself, a tenured professor of anthropology and folklore at a world-renowned Ivy League university? I would have liked to dismiss the whole affair as the misplaced zeal of some "born-again" bellhop, just another hawker of Christian fundamentalism of the type so common these days. But a zealous Christian would hardly cite a reference from the Islamic holy book. I did recall that Rousseau had mentioned the frog-like appearance of some San Facundo natives, but failed to see any relationship between that assertion and the material I had just read.

Still curious about the Qranic reference, I fumbled in my wallet for the card of a certain Monsignor Zacchardi, a Jesuit scholar and professor of Comparative Religion at a local Catholic university. I had met Zacchardi at the conference earlier that week.

The priest answered after several rings.

"Good evening, Doctor Zacchardi," I offered. "Sorry to disturb you so late, but I have a question. Do you have a copy of the Qran at hand?"

Answering in the affirmative, Zacchardi assured me that my inquiry was no trouble at all. He asked me to wait a minute while he brought the copy from his study. A few moments later he returned.

"What, in particular, did you want to know from the Qran?"

"The twenty-fifth Surah, twenty-ninth verse, what does it say?"

I could hear him leafing through the book. Presently, he answered, "This is strange. It reads 'Beware mankind, for Shaitan is Khadhulu.' I had never noticed that particular passage before. I'd have to look into it more deeply before I could give you a possible interpretation."

"No, that's quite all right," I answered. "I just saw that Surah and verse mentioned in a novel I am reading and it stirred my curiosity."

"Yes, I understand the feeling perfectly," replied the priest. "Is there anything else?"

"No. Thank you for your help, I truly appreciate it. Good night."

This brief conversation left me even more mystified than before. Many weeks later, I would come to realize the deeper, and very sinister implications of those cryptic passages, taken from the holy writ of two major religions.

Rousseau's story had undeniably captivated my interest, even overwhelming my native skepticism. I had some vacation time coming up; why not join Rousseau on a little junket down to Mexico? I might uncover some interesting material for further research. Even if I didn't, I might continue south and spend a few days relaxing on the beaches in Veracruz. Never did I imagine how I would come to regret my acceptance of Rousseau's invitation!


II

The hour long flight to Brownsville was boringly uneventful. Rousseau was strangely quiet and seemed rather apprehensive during the brief trip. The drive across the border and into Mexico was another story. After Rousseau picked up his vehicle, a four-wheel-drive Nissan, at the airport in Brownsville, we proceeded to the new international bridge, one of three bridges linking Brownsville, Texas with its sister city of Matamoros, Mexico. Mexican customs and immigration caused us remarkably little delay. Afterwards, we wound our way through the traffic of Matamoros, perhaps chaotic to an unaccustomed American, but rather orderly by the standards of most "third world" cities I had experienced. Eventually, we found ourselves on the main southbound highway, passing through open countryside. Rousseau kept up a steady conversation, explaining in great detail the history and folk traditions of the region through which we were passing. He was obviously very knowledgeable about those matters.

The landscape itself was not particularly remarkable at first, consisting of flat coastal plane covered, where it had not been cleared for cultivation, with stunted, thorny vegetation of the sort typically found in semiarid regions. At irregular intervals this was relieved by meandering ribbons of lush greenery marking the course of some narrow stream. Gradually, as we traveled south, the landscape became more rolling and elevated. The dim blue outlines of mountains grew visible on the southwestern horizon.

Villages, such as they were, amounted to clusters of cinder block and adobe structures, usually with a small store or two and a school building. The inhabitants, mostly women and children it seemed, invariably appeared to be occupied outside the houses or congregating around the community bus stop. We passed through any number of such totally forgettable places until, we crested the top of a hill and the town of San Facundo, with its white Spanish colonial church tower, came into view.

San Facundo was laid out in typical Mexican fashion with the whole town extending out from a central plaza, but it was not exactly the dusty little adobe place I had imagined. The business district boasted a number of modern looking establishments, and the principal streets were paved, though often in disrepair. The people I observed on the streets were mostly of Spanish-Indian mestizo stock, with the European strain predominating somewhat, as is often the case in northern Mexico. They seemed normal enough.

"Where," I asked, "are the odd ones? I see nothing abnormal about the people hereabouts."

"They generally hang together," was Rousseau's answer. "Usually, you don't see them around until late in the afternoon, about the time the sun starts to set. They seem to be more nocturnal."

"Which doubtless adds to the suspicion and fear of the local people," I suggested.

Rousseau paused for a moment, then recommended that we get ourselves settled in our lodgings. "There'll be plenty of time for taking in the local atmosphere over the next few days," he added. "I am certain that you'll see even more than you bargained for, but right now let's get a shower and something to eat." The suggestion was more than welcome, as the day was very hot and we had not eaten anything since leaving Brownsville.

The house in which we would be staying was a two-story cinder block affair, plastered over and painted a rather gaudy shade of blue-green. Rousseau had taken it on lease from a local attorney who currently held a government position in another part of the country. There were three bedrooms, one of which would be mine during my stay, and a bath on the upper floor. Rousseau would be sleeping downstairs in the family room, which he had converted into a sort of study. I noticed that he had moved most of the owner's furnishings to the two unoccupied bedrooms, which he was using for storage.

After my shower, which had been difficult due to the extremely low water pressure, I joined Rousseau in the study.

"I've called my cook and she will have us something to eat shortly," he said.

"Good," I replied, "but what have we here . . . ?" What attracted my attention was a large book, bound in crumbling black leather with heavy brass corners and a brass hasp so that the volume could be locked shut. Obviously, it was very old.

"May I see it?" I asked.

"I thought you would find it interesting," replied Rousseau. "Can you read it?"

I studied the strange calligraphic script for a few minutes, presently recognizing it as Hebrew, a language in which I am fluent. The writing appeared to be on parchment in an archaic Sephardic dialect, but containing a scattering of Arabic words. On the title page I deciphered the words Sepher al Azif, followed by the legend: As written by Abd el Azrada the poet of Sanaa, may Adonai grant him mercy, in the city of Dimasq three centuries past. Rendered by my hand in the tongue of the Holy Covenant of Abraham in the four thousand nine hundred and sixteenth year of the Creation of the World, invoking the protection of Adonai in His Most Holy Name, which no man may utter. Beseeching hereof, His Great and Boundless Mercy, I am Isaac bar Z'evi, scribe to the Synagogue in the city of Cordoba.

The names "Al Azif" and "Abd el Azrada" stirred up memories in the back of my mind. During the early decades of this century a New England writer of horror fiction named Howard Phillips Lovecraft had based a whole series of stories around such a tome, more frequently referred to by its Greek title, Necronomicon. According to Lovecraft, Al Azif had been written or compiled in Damascus during the eighth century of our common era by one "Abdul Alhazred," apparently an Arab or Syrian magus who flourished at the time of the Umayyad Caliphs, and who was often referred to simply as the "Mad Arab." Though almost all serious scholars agree that such a volume had never existed outside of Lovecraft's imagination, much popular speculation had grown up around it, creating a sort of modern folklore, which was precisely the reason I was aware of it.

I also knew that several books had been published during the 1970's and '80's purporting to be the Necronomicon. I had read two of them myself, one merely a mishmash of Sumerian and Akkadian incantations and conjurations for summoning or exorcising various and sundry gods, angels, and demons, and the other a rather odd collection drawn from Elizabethan era grimoires. The latter also may have originally been derived from Mesopotamian magical texts. Nevertheless, here I had before me an apparently ancient volume that seemed to be the real thing . . . and in a hot, dusty provincial town in northern Mexico!

"Where did you get this?" My question was unavoidable.

"The attorney from whom I rented this house," was Rousseau's reply. "He, in turn, obtained it from an incredibly old gentleman who lived on a ranch near here. He gave it to my lawyer friend before he died. Said it had been in his family for many generations. God only knows where it originally came from or how it got here."

"It seems to have been written in Muslim Spain some time during the eleventh century," I replied. "But the author, or I should say translator, appears to have been a Jew." I paused for a moment to organize my thoughts before continuing.

"The original, if this is what I think it is, was written in Arabic some centuries earlier. Supposedly, there were later Greek and Latin translations, as well as an English version attributed to John Dee, court physician and astrologer to Elizabeth I, but no mention was ever made of a Hebrew rendering." Once again I paused. "Good God man! Do you have any idea how rare this volume must be?"

Rousseau remained silent for a moment.

"You have just confirmed what I already suspected." The tone of his reply was edged with fear and resignation, as one might hear from a man who has just received confirmation of a dreaded diagnosis.

"But I've always assumed that the Necronomicon was an entirely fictional work," I protested, "merely a literary invention used by Lovecraft and his circle as the basis for some early twentieth century works of science fiction or whatever . . . "

Rousseau smiled, rather sadly it seemed. "Obviously, that was, or is, not the case. You hold the evidence right there in your hands."

I stared at the leather bound volume I held before me. Suddenly, I felt an unexpected wave of revulsion, bordering on nausea, at the thought that such a horrible book could actually exist . . . and I had it in my own hands. Abruptly, I put the volume on the desk, exercising a fete of will not to drop it like the repulsive thing it was.

Rousseau grimaced a bit, then explained, "Lovecraft certainly had access to information that is beyond the reach of most researchers. Either he was an initiate into certain secret societies himself, or more likely, discovered documents in his grandfather's library that provided him with information normally available only to a very limited circle of high degree initiates." Pausing for a moment, he added, "Lovecraft's father and grandfather were both associated with a highly esoteric Masonic rite, one not generally recognized, or even known of, by most Freemasons. At any rate, he almost certainly had access to their private papers after their deaths."

The implications of Rousseau's words astounded me. If the dreaded Necronomicon did indeed exist, then the terrible secret cults described by Lovecraft in his series of tales probably existed too. Of course, I was not ready to accept the reality of such abominable entities as Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, or Shub-Niggurath, or places such as the sunken city of R'lyeh, that Lovecraft so often referred to in his fictional, or perhaps fictionalized stories.

"Do you really think what you've told me about this town could somehow be related to this book, or to the things described in Lovecraft's stories?" I asked incredulously.

"I'm hoping that you'll be able to determine if that's the case," Rousseau replied in a voice that was little more than a whisper.


CONTINUE

© 2003 Edward P. Berglund
"The Cursed Zone": © 2003 Joseph Robert Davis. All rights reserved.
Graphics © 1998-2003 Erebus Graphic Design. All rights reserved. Email to: James V. Kracht.

Created: May 3, 2003; Updated: August 9, 2004