THE BLACK TOME OF ALSOPHOCUS
by H.P. Lovecraft & Martin S. Warnes
Originally appeared in New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, Arkham House, 1980.
My memories are very confused. There is even much doubt as to where they begin; for at times I feel appalling vistas of years stretching behind me, while at other times as if the present moment were an isolated point in a grey formless infinity. I am not even certain how I am communicating this message. While I know I am speaking, I have a vague impression that some strange and perhaps terrible mediation will be needed to bear what I say to the parts where I wish to be heard. My identity, too, is bewilderingly cloudy. I seem to have suffered a great shock—perhaps from some utterly monstrous outgrowth of my cycles of unique, incredible experience.
These cycles of experience, of course, all stem from that worm-riddled book. I remember when I found it in a dimly lighted place near the black oily river where the mists always swirl. That place was very old, and the ceiling-high shelves full of rotting volumes reached back endlessly through windowless inner rooms and alcoves. There were, besides, great formless heaps of books on the floor and in crude bins; and it was in one of these heaps that I found the thing. I did not learn its title at the time, for the early pages were missing; but it fell open towards the end and gave me a glimpse of something which sent my senses reeling.
There was a formula—a sort of list of things to say and do—which I recognized as something black and forbidden; something which I had read of before in future paragraphs of mixed abhorrence and fascination penned by those strange ancient delvers into the universe’s guarded secrets whose decaying texts I loved to absorb. It was a key—a guide—to certain gateways and transitions of which mystics have dreamed and whispered since the race was young, and which lead to freedoms and discoveries beyond the three dimensions and realms of life and matter that we know. Not for centuries had any man recalled its vital substance or known where to find it, but this book was very old indeed. No printing press, but the hand of some half-crazed monk, had traced these ominous Latin phrases in uncials of awesome antiquity.
I remember how the old man leered and tittered, and made a curious sign with his hand when I bore it away. He had refused to take pay for it, and only long afterwards did I guess why. As I hurried home through those narrow winding mist-cloaked waterfront streets, I had a frightful impression of being stealthily followed by softly padding feet. The centuried, tottering houses on both sides seemed alive with a fresh and morbid malignity—as if some hitherto closed channel of evil understanding had abruptly been opened. I felt that those walls and overhanging gables of mildewed brick and fungoid plaster and timber—with eyelike, diamond-paned windows that leered—could hardly desist from advancing and crushing me… yet I had read only the least fragment of that blasphemous rune before closing the book and bringing it away.
I remember how I read the book at last—white-faced, and locked in the attic room that I had long devoted to strange searchings. The great house was very still, for I had not gone up till after midnight. I think I had a family then—though the details are very uncertain—and I know there were many servants. Just what the year was, I cannot say; for since then I have known many ages and dimensions, and have had all my notions of time dissolved and refashioned. It was by the light of candles that I read—I recall the relentless dripping of the wax—and there were chimes that came every now and then from distant belfries. I seemed to keep track of those chimes with a peculiar intentness, as if I feared to hear some very remote, intruding note among them.
Then came the first scratching and fumbling at the dormer window that looked out high above the other roofs of the city. It came as I droned aloud the ninth verse of that primal lay, and I knew amidst my shudders what it meant. For he who passes the gateways always wins a shadow, and never again can he be alone. I had evoked—and the book was indeed all I had suspected. That night I passed the gateway to a vortex of twisted time and vision, and when morning found me in the attic room I saw in the walls and shelves and fittings that which I had never seen before.
Nor could I ever after see the world as I had known it. Mixed with the present scene was always a little of the past and a little of the future, and every once-familiar object loomed alien in the new perspective brought by my widened sight. From then on I walked in a fantastic dream of unknown and half-known shapes; and with each new gateway crossed, the less plainly could I recognize the things of the narrow sphere to which I had so long been bound. What I saw about me, none else saw; and I grew doubly silent and aloof lest I be thought mad. Dogs had a fear of me, for they felt the outside shadow which never left my side. But still I read more—in hidden, forgotten books and scrolls to which my new vision led me—and pushed through fresh gateways of space and being and life-patterns towards the core of the unknown cosmos.
I remember the night I made the five concentric circles of fire on the floor, and stood in the innermost one chanting that monstrous litany the messenger from Tartary had brought. The walls melted away, and I was swept by a black wind through gulfs of fathomless grey with the needle-like pinnacles of unknown mountains miles below me. After a while there was utter blackness, and then the light of myriad stars forming strange alien constellations. Finally I saw a green-litten plain far below me, and discerned on it the twisted towers of a city built in no fashion I had ever known or read of or dreamed of. As I floated closer to that city I saw a great square building of stone in an open space, and felt a hideous fear clutching at me. I screamed and struggled, and after a blankness was again in my attic room sprawled fiat over the five phosphorescent circles on the floor. In that night’s wandering there was no more of strangeness than in many a former night’s wandering; but there was more of terror because I knew I was closer to those outside gulfs and worlds than I had ever been before. Thereafter I was more cautious with my incantations, for I had no wish to be cut off from my body and from the earth in unknown abysses whence I could never return.
Nevertheless, wary as I was, still my grasp on familiar scenes faded into infiniteness as my new unholy vision asserted itself and made my every glimpse of reality seem unreal and geometrically disturbing. My hearing also became affected. The chimes that came from the distant belfries sounded more ominous, terrifyingly ethereal, as if the sound was carried by disembodied wraiths from nether regions, where tormented souls eternally cry out in anguish and pain. With every passing day I drew farther away from temporal surroundings, aeons removed from earthly perspectives, and dwelt among the unnameable. Time became extrinsic, and my memory of events and people I had known before ever I acquired the book drifted away on dim mists of unreality no matter how desperately I attempted to cling to them.
I remember the first time I heard the voices; weird unhuman sibilant voices, issuing forth from the outer reaches of blackest space, where amorphous beings cavort and caper before a great black fetor-belching idol worn by the passing of uncountable centuries. With the commencement of these voices came visions of horrifying intensity, dread chimeras of dual black and green suns, shining on towering monoliths and citadels of evil, which rose, tier upon tier, as if seeking to escape their earthly attachments. But these dreams and illusions were as nothing compared to the dread colossus that was later to encroach upon my consciousness; even now I cannot recall the horror in its entirety, but when I think on it I have an impression of vastness, of size beyond measure, and groping tentacles, pulsating, as if with an intelligence of their own, alive with malignant depravity. Around this base enormity pranced cadaverous monstrosities, their voices rising in a cacophonous chant:
“Mwl’fgah pywfg fhtagn Gh’tyaf nglyf lghya.”
These horrors were with me always, as was that shadow from beyond.
Still I would study the books and scrolls and pass blacker gateways into unknown dimensions, where dark beings would instruct me in arts so infernal that even the most prosaic of minds was likely to be blasted at the thought of them.
I remember how I discovered the title of the book; it was late at night as I sat poring over the vermiculated pages that I came across a passage which threw light on the mysterious volume:
“Nyarlathotep rules in Sharnoth, beyond space and time; in his gigantic ebony palace he awaits his second coming, served by his minions he broods and festers in blackest night.
“Let none meddle with spells and enchantments concerning him, for he is quick to trap the unwary. Let the ignorant beware, heed the Black Tome, for terrible indeed is the wrath of Nyarlathotep.”
In secret delvings I had found mention of this “Black Tome”: that legendary manuscript written centuries ago by the great necromancer Alsophocus, who lived in the land of Etongill before ever modern man had taken his first uncertain steps upon the earth.
The mystery was explained; this was indeed the blasphemous Black Tome. With this knowledge I eagerly began devouring all the evil lore in that book; runes of binding, naming, and shaping were all within my grasp, and I basked in my new power. New gateways and thresholds were made available, demons of the darkest reaches were at my command; but there were still barriers I dare not pass, those black unplumbed depths of space beyond Fomalhaut, where the ultimate terror lurked, crouching obscenely and gibbering blasphemies older than the stars. In Ludvig Prinn’s De Vermis Mysteriis and the Cultes des Goules of the Comte d’Erlette I sought for elder secrets, but all those ancient mysteries were as nothing compared to the evil knowledge of the esoteric Black Tome. This book contained incantations of such awesome power that perhaps even Alhazred himself would have trembled at the contemplation of their use: the citing of Boromir, the foul secrets of the Shining Trapezohedron—that window on time and space—and the calling of great Cthulhu from his watery palace in the oceanwhelmed city of R’lyeh; they were all there, waiting for him who would be brave, or insane, enough to use them.
I was now at the height of my power; time expanded or contracted at my will, and the universe revolved around my ever-growing intellect. My hold on all earthly aspects of life was broken by my occult studies, and my strength became such that I attempted the inconceivable, the passing of that final dreadful threshold, the gateway to the black secrets of beyond, where the Old Ones hold their court and plot their return to the earth from which they were banished by the Elder Gods. In my obtuse vanity I imagined that I—a tiny speck of dust in the vast cosmos of time—could pass through the black gulfs of space beyond the stars, where iniquity and chaos rule, and return with my mind intact and untouched by the aeons-old corruption that dwells there.
Again I made the five concentric circles of fire on the floor, and standing in the innermost one, invoked powers beyond all imagining with an incantation so inconceivably terrible that my hands trembled as I made the mystic passes and symbols. The walls dissolved and the great black wind swept me away through dark gulfs of space and grey regions of matter. I travelled faster than thought, past unlit planets and vistas of unknown realms which swirled and shifted across immensurable distances; the stars flashed by so rapidly that they appeared as gossamer-fine threads of brightness interlaced across the universe, minute shooting stars of brilliance shining against black aether that was darker than the fabled depths of Shung.
A minute may have passed—or perhaps a century—and still I was rushed along. The stars had thinned considerably: they were clustered in groups, as if attempting to find solace in the company of others; nothing else changed. I suffered utter loneliness on that journey; hanging suspended in space and time I appeared stationary, although the speed of my flight must have been phenomenal, and my spirit cried out at the awesome solitude and the dreadful stillness and silence of space; I was as a man entombed in a grim black sepulcher while yet alive. Aeons passed, and then I saw far ahead the last star cluster, the last light for countless millennia; beyond there was nothing but impenetrable blackness, the end of the universe. As on that earlier terrifying occasion I screamed and struggled, but to no avail; I continued on my endless quest through corridors of silence and dread.
For endless eternities I travelled, with no change except the unsteady beating of my heart. And then it came, a green-tinged light, or perhaps only a suggestion of light; I had passed through an absence of time and matter; I had passed through Limbo. Now I was beyond the universe, unrelatable distances from the cosmos that is normally imagined; I had crossed the final threshold, that last gateway before oblivion. Ahead were the dual suns of my visions, towards which I drifted at what now seemed to be an infinitely slow speed; around these black and green prodigies rotated a single planet; I knew it for the home world, Sharnoth.
Toward this dark cold globe I floated slowly, and as I approached I saw the green-litten plain far below me, upon which rested the gigantic twisted city of my earlier visions, looking misshapen and out of proportion in the unnatural glow. Over the roofs of this dread metropolis I drifted, noting the crumbling masonry and the cracked pillars that stood stark and frightening against the broken black skyline. In all the city not a thing moved, and yet there was a feeling of life there, of evil prurient life that sensed my presence.
As I descended towards that city I felt my physical senses returning; I felt cold, ice-cold, and my fingers were numb and paralyzed. I alighted on the edge of an open space, in the center of which was a gigantic square stone building with a tall arched doorway that yawned blackly like the maw of some terrible primeval creature. From this building radiated an aura of palpable malevolence; I was stunned by the intensity of dread and despair that assailed me, and as I stood outside that monstrous edifice I remembered a small passage from the Black Tome:
“In an open space in the centre of the city stands the palace of Nyarlathotep. Here all secrets may be learned, although the price of that learning is terrible indeed.”
I knew beyond doubt that this was the abode of grim Nyarlathotep. Although the thought of entering that dark structure appalled me beyond measure, I walked unsteadily towards the doorway, my legs guided by some intelligence other than my own. Through that mighty portal I passed and into utter blackness as dark as my unlit journey through the aether to this abominable place. Gradually the impenetrable gloom gave way to the weird green glow that lit the outer planet’s surface; and in that sickly gangrenous light I saw that which no man should ever be condemned to see.
I was in a long hall with a high vaulted ceiling that was supported by pillars of purest ebony; along both sides of this chamber were lined creatures of various nightmare shapes. Khnum the ram-headed was there, as was jackal-headed Anubis and Taueret the Mother, terrible in her obesity. Leprous beings gibbered and leered, and cancerous things eyed me with malignity; through these ranks of amorphous and hellish creatures my body dragged itself against my will. Talons clawed at my arms and legs, and my stomach twisted with revulsion at the touch of diseased flesh. The air was filled with the sound of their titterings and screamings as they danced obscenely and capered around me in a blasphemous ritual of depravity; and at the far end of the hall was the most terrifying sight of all, that dread black colossus of my visions, the inhabitant of the palace, Nyarlathotep.
The Old One looked upon me intently, his gaze tearing at my soul and filling me with a horror so terrible that I screwed my eyes shut so as not to see that terrible visage of unnameable evil. Under that gaze my being began to melt away, as if it was being absorbed by some irresistible force. I was losing what little identity was left to me; my necromantic powers, which I now realized were as nothing compared to the powers of the inhabitant of this dark world, were stripped from me and scattered across the universe, never to be recovered.
Under that gaze my mind and soul were attacked from all sides by fear and loathing; I staggered as he tore at my being, peeling away my life layer by layer. Sheer desperation took hold of me, but I was powerless to fight, unable to hold back the irresistible force that overwhelmed me. Slowly something was drawn out of me, something insubstantial, but totally necessary to my future existence; I could do nothing, in my folly I had taken a step too many, and now I was paying the ultimate penalty. My vision clouded in a myopic haze; images and visions of my home and family swam before my eyes and then vanished as if they had never existed. And then, slowly at first, I felt myself melting, dissolving into nonexistence.
I rose upward, bodiless; above the heads of that nightmare throng I drifted, passing through the cold stone ceiling of the palace that was no obstacle to my progress, and out into the evil light of the planet. I was something less than alive, yet death had been made unavailable to me. The city spread out below me in a panoramic view of splendor and terror, and from that grim black edifice that was the palace of Nyarlathotep I saw a gigantic amorphous mass spreading over the whole metropolis. Slowly it radiated outward until all was hidden from sight, and when it had covered the whole landscape as far as my eyes could survey, it contracted to form once more the black colossus of my visions. Inwardly I shuddered, but as I rose ever higher, away from the city, the scene shrank to microscopic proportions and I viewed the spectacle with a more detached interest.
Gradually the land mass below me took on the appearance of a globe as I journeyed away from the planet and into the black depths of space. Hanging motionless, neither moving towards nor away from the realm of the Ancient One, I witnessed the last act in the drama that had unfolded before me. From the planet’s surface there issued forth a beam of light or energy, travelling away from that world and into the starless night, voyaging, I knew, to the planet of my birth. Then all was still, and I was left totally alone in that universe beyond the stars.
My memories fade by the hour; soon I will remember nothing, soon I will be empty of all vestiges of humanity. And as I hang here, suspended in time and space as I shall be for all eternity, I feel something akin to contentment. I have peace here, a greater peace than the dead will ever know; but this peace is disturbed by one barely remembered thought, and I am glad that soon it will be put from my mind forever. I do not remember how I know this, but I am more certain of it than of my own existence. Nyarlathotep no longer walks the surface of Sharnoth, he no longer holds court in his great black palace, for that beam of light that journeyed into the dark aether carried with it the scourge of mankind.
In a small dimly lighted attic room a body stirs and raises itself to its feet. His eyes burn like smoldering black coals, and across his face plays a dreadful enigmatic smile; and as he surveys the roofs of the city through the small dormer window, his arms rise in a gesture of triumph.
He has passed through the barriers set upon him by the Elder Gods; he is free, free to walk the earth once more, free to twist men’s minds and enslave their souls. It was I who gave him his chance of escape, I, through my insane quest for power, supplied him with the means he needed for his return to earth.
Nyarlathotep walks the earth in the guise of a man, for when he took my being and my memories he also took my physical aspect. My body now houses the immortal essence of Nyarlathotep the Terrible.