Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Twilit Journey Between Utah and Oregon

Once again, Halloween, the official Christian holiday of The Sci Fi Catholic, has come upon us, the day we set aside to celebrate the triumph of reason and Christianity over superstition and paganism.  On this day, we put the likenesses of goblins, ghosts, and witches on adorable children to represent that we have no fear of goblins, ghosts, or witches.  We revere the children, because children are sacred, but we do not revere monsters or warlocks, because monsters and warlocks are nothing.

I have not posted lately because, frankly, I am still recovering from the harrowing journey that brought me from Utah to Oregon.  No doubt you all know of this monstrous highway, I-84 between Brigham City and Twin Falls, of which I have written before.  It is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but to my mind is more properly called one of the great blasphemies or abominations of the world, for it stretches through the Waste Land, the twilit world surrounding the Great Mountain, the realm between the land of the dead and the land of the living, the realm man was not meant to tread.  In the old days, no one entered this dark world of shadowy plains, cold mountains, and gaping pits exhaling sulfurous gases or burbling with multicolored muds vomited up from the nether regions of the Earth, no one except the Tukuarika, who knew the cabalistic rites for banishing the malevolent dead, rites first taught them by Raven and Coyote.  But when the White Man, who neither knows nor understands the olden ways, entered this forbidden land, he defied the spirits and built this foul highway, insisting arrogantly that with his categorized and scientific modes of magic, he could drive off all evil influences that might harry the travelers on this dark road.

Alas, if only it were true.  The highway is there, to be sure, and people do indeed travel it.  But no one who enters that stretch of barren waste can leave it unchanged.  Every man who sets forth on that dark path is doomed to spend his days with a canker in his soul.

Before setting out on that three-thousand-mile stretch of road, I was obliged to stop in at the station where travelers are briefed for the journey.  I had been through this routine before, so I barely listened as an agent of the Utah Highway Department reminded us that, due to time dilation, this journey would appear to last fifty years, though it would take one day of real time.  We were instructed on what to do if we found ourselves contemplating suicide, we were warned not to make the journey if we had any family history of vampirism or incubii, and we were instructed on what to do if caught in our vehicles after dark.  After this general briefing, of course, came the private consultation with a registered exorcist, who asked various questions about genealogy and family lore, and sternly warned me that I was automatically barred from this trip if any legends indicated my ancestors were involved in unnatural doings around Salem, Massachusetts, in the late seventeenth century.  I was then debriefed on the techniques of lucid dreaming and the methods of distinguishing the Gate of Ivory from the Gate of Horn, and then I went back outside to supervise the exorcism of my pickup truck.

The first exorcist to apply his arts was a Catholic priest, and after he had finished I chatted with him while the ministers of six other religions went about their business.  At one point, I scowled as a shaman rattled a fetish over my windshield.  The priest, grinning slightly, asked me, "Something wrong, son?"

I waved dismissively at the shaman and answered, "This.  It just seems a little superstitious."

The priest shrugged and nodded toward the Waste Lands.  "The creatures out there," he said, "they're superstitious, too."

I took his point.

The drive was as miserable as always.  Days stretched into weeks, weeks into months, months into years, and years into decades.  Although I did not age in the natural sense, my body grew decrepit from the long exposure to that unwholesome atmosphere.  I drove for time out of mind down long stretches of blank highway, moving from one gray, blasted settlement to the next, filling my tank at indistinguishable gas stations and eating tasteless food at indistinguishable diners.  I saw other travelers, to be sure, but we all hunched over our cold meals, never speaking to one another.  Even the people who live their lives in that dark land, cheek by jowl with the realm of the dead, rarely speak to each other.

The nights were the worst, for no one can travel then.  As the sun begins to settle in the west and the reddish glow from the ring of fire around the Mountain's peak grows more ominous, anyone out of doors must quickly seek shelter if he wishes to be alive and sane the next morning.  The small, rickety motels and hostels in the Waste Land do not have beds, for that would be too dangerous.  Every traveler must spend the night on a cold slab within a magic circle inscribed in a pentagram, for that is the only way to keep out the ghouls and other unmentionable things that seek to sap the life or pervert the souls of the unwary.  In the cheapest of these motels, the circles are drawn in chalk on wooden tables.  In the more expensive motels with the more elaborate wards, a man might rest on a granite block inside a ring of human blood.

I brought a box of books on my journey, imagining that in a fifty-year span I would have plenty of time to read.  Imagining that I was preparing well to confront the Waste Land's creeping darkness, I packed mostly light reading, amusing, silly, and happy stories of the sort I enjoy when my mind is taxed.  But the darkness of the Waste is a mental darkness more than a physical one.  Any who travel that land will find their tastes changing.  Soon, the happy stories I formerly enjoyed became repugnant to me so that I could not even bear to look at the volumes containing them.  Instead, taking advantage of the stocked bookshelves with which most of the motels are supplied, I dove into the esoteric writing of the Decadents, the Romanticists, the dreamers, and the mystics.  Imagining that I was delving into the darkest secrets of the universe, I thrilled over the cabalistic writings and artworks of the pre-Raphaelites.  I worked long hours at twilight attempting to discern deeper meanings behind the more opaque scrawls of Huysmans, Villiers, and the French Symbolists.  Though I am ashamed to admit it now that I have returned to the light of natural day, I even opened the more dangerous texts of occult lore, the ones that most universities wisely keep under lock and key, but which are freely available to the unhealthy tastes of the Waste Land's denizens, who share the same perverse interests I developed during my travels.

With great glee, fancying that through arcane knowledge I was becoming a god, near to unlocking the Ultimate Gate, I examined the Book of Eibon, and I carefully studied the hideous, unmentionable rites described in lurid detail in the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of Friedrich Wilhelm von Junzt and the Cultes des Goules of the Comte d'Erlette.  I even--yes, though I hang my head in shame as I say it--explored the hideous Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul al-Hazrad.  I acquired my own copy in the inferior English translation of John Dee, the court magician of Elizabeth I, but in time I was able to compare it to Wormius's superior Latin version.  Through this study, I was able to reconstruct--and even memorize!--the blasphemous rituals and incantations by which I could call down Yog-Sothoth from the higher realms.  Late at night, while I lay on my cold table with the hairs on my neck prickling as malevolent spirits probed for weaknesses in my wards, I even contemplated performing the abominable rite by which I might sell my soul to Azathoth and gain access to the fourth dimension.

It was late in the forty-eighth year of my journey that the crisis came.  All the day--I know not what day it was, for days grow indistinguishable in the Waste Land--I was dreading the thought of another night on a cold, hard bed, surrounded by the protective magicks recommended by the thick Highway Department Manual for Traveling Interstate 84 in Comfort and Safety.  I had gone as far as I believed I could go in my amateur study of occultism and fourth-dimensional mathematics, so even re-reading al-Hazrad's blasphemous depiction of the execrable corpse-eating cult of Leng in the inaccessible reaches of Mongolia could not amuse me.  In addition to the darkness that had already settled over my mind, I now felt the crushing weight of ennui.

That night, I once again wearily performed the choreographed motions--designed to correspond to certain indescribable shapes of the higher dimensions glimpsed by ancient mystics--around a rickety wooden table chalked with a white circle.  The tallow candles in the room flickered as I carefully checked the druid's claw for gaps and placed at its five points, as per the instructions in the Manual for Traveling, a vial of holy water, an icon of St. Michael, a blessed Bible, a crucifix, and a garlic clove.

I lay down on this cold and miserable bed, trying to relax in the fumes wafting from the censer of olibanum, but my ennui had made even that cloying, sepulchral scent repugnant to me.  I was wide awake, and my active mind pored back over the witchery I had lovingly memorized during my several years of travel on this lonely road, yet each secret I had uncovered now brought me nothing but boredom and mental nausea.

As I was thus indulging in self-pity and disgust, I heard a curious scratching at the window, as if a cat were eager to get in.  But there are no cats in the Waste Land, or at least, no natural tomcats such as exist in the outer world.  I tried to dismiss the sound; I closed my eyes and attempted in vain to quiet my mind, but the noises only grew louder and more insistent.  Then a voice, unmistakably human, joined that insistent scratching of glass:

"Please.  Please let me in."

You will think me a fool, but perhaps you will understand when I describe the quality of the voice I heard, and my sensations upon hearing it.  For almost fifty years now, I had spoken to almost no one.  I had exchanged no more that five or six words with anyone at a time, and our exchanges were in low, noncommittal voices, little more than grunts.  For almost fifty years, I had heard no music, nor the voice of a child.  But that voice pleading softly at my window was a sweet child's voice, clear and musical, I daresay angelic.  It was soft, timid, even frightened, but very insistent, and I felt a powerful draw toward it: A need welled up in my soul, a need to rush to the window and throw aside the curtain to behold the owner of that melodious voice, to rescue from danger a frightened child trapped after dark in the Wastes.  But even so, even though driven by such emotions, I doubt I would have done what I did if I were not already suffering from the acedia that had sensitized me to every possibility of leaping at some new diversion.  I jumped from the table and ran to the window, knocking over one of the tallow candles as I did so.  Breathing hard, both frightened and elated, I threw up the sash.

I wish I could say that the horror I beheld drove me into merciful oblivion, but alas, what I saw is etched all too clearly on my memory, and I fear it will never fade.  There at the window was a ghoulish monstrosity hideous enough to blast a man's brain and hurl him headlong into the deepest pits of madness.  Abominable beyond all description, a mass of rotting flesh and protruding bones all matted with thick tenebrous hide and blood-caked hair, it turned to me a loathsome visage full of hunger and malice beyond the human capacity to perceive.  With malevolent glowing eyes and a great wide, drooling mouth full to overflowing with crooked fangs that it appeared to have borrowed from several species of predator and carrion-eater, it grinned as its unspeakable claw scratched persistently at the glass.  Out of its burbling throat, through its forest of mismatched teeth, it uttered again that angelic refrain in the voice of a little child, a voice that had now taken on the hint of a triumphal sneer:  "Please.  Please let me in."  Then the creature drew back its claw and clenched it into a fist in preparation to smash the glass.

As I stared into the horrific face of death, I felt the long years in the Waste Lands drop away.  My occult studies were nothing to me now.  My aspirations to godhood appeared risible.  All that remained was one lonely fool looking out a window at what must inevitably be his end, the end he had brought upon himself.  But sometimes, when everything else is stripped away, something previously buried or suppressed might at last be able to show itself.  As I stared at the monster out the window, which had finished pulling back its arm, and was now at the fatal pause before it delivered the blow, my occult aspirations and my boredom disappeared, but with them, my horror disappeared as well.

And I laughed.  I laughed at the monster with its mismatched teeth.  I laughed at its glowing eyes, like a spook in an amusement park ride.  I laughed, too, at this whole damn Waste Land and its legions of ghouls.  I laughed at the petty magicks men use to drive the ghouls off.

The creature did not thrust its fist through the glass nor try to reach me.  It paused, cocking its head, looking at me first in bewilderment and then in fear.  I laughed all the harder.

I threw down the sash, still laughing, and destroyed the room.  I knocked down the tripod of smoldering olibanum, sending its mess of charcoal and tree sap across the floor.  I pulled down the bookshelf full of occult lore and ripped out all the leaves from the tomes it contained.  I smeared the chalk lines on the table, gathered up my Bible and the other holy objects, and then kicked over the table.  After I made this thorough mess, I stood in the midst of the destruction, breathing heavily, and looked about.  Silence had settled.  No monsters scratched at the glass.  No malevolent spirits plucked at my clothes or plucked at my soul.  My ennui had lifted, and my occult learnings now looked like so much childish, petty dabbling.  Calmly, I pulled a blanket from my luggage, wrapped myself in it, and lay on the floor.  I slept soundly for the first time in years.

The next day, I payed an extra fee for the damage to the room and then continued my journey.  I felt good for the first time I could remember.  After I had journeyed a few miles, I buried my occult books, along with the Manual for Traveling Interstate 84 in Comfort and Safety, by the side of the road.  When I stopped for lunch, I smiled at the waiter and chatted with him; he look bewildered, clearly uncertain how to interpret my behavior.  Other travelers, too, looked up at me with uncertain frowns.  They could not understand how I could smile, or why I could stand straight and walk with a spring in my step here in the midst of the Waste Land.

That night, and for all the nights following, I forewent the rituals for safe sleeping, and I slept on floors instead of inside magic circles.  In the evenings before bed, instead of reading abominable texts of eldritch lore, I read the light, amusing tales I had originally packed for the journey.  Until I at last left the Waste Land behind me, my nights were peaceful, my sleep unharrassed.  Even my health gradually returned.  For I had learned the secret; when that creature raised its fist to shatter the window and crush me into oblivion, a quotation entered my head, the words of G. K. Chesterton:

That is, I fancy, the true doctrine on the subject of Tales of Terror and such things, which unless a man of letters do well and truly believe, without doubt he will end by blowing his brains out or by writing badly. Man, the central pillar of the world, must be upright and straight; around him all the trees and beasts and elements and devils may crook and curl like smoke if they choose. All really imaginative literature is only the contrast between the weird curves of Nature and the straightness of the soul. Man may behold what ugliness he likes if he is sure that he will not worship it; but there are some so weak that they will worship a thing only because it is ugly. These must be chained to the beautiful. It is not always wrong even to go, like Dante, to the brink of the lowest promontory and look down at hell. It is when you look up at hell that a serious miscalculation has probably been made.

Happy Halloween.
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