The Horror from the Bridge

A Story from the PS Publishing Reissue of the Classic Collection...

Ramsey Campbell is one of those iconic, award-winning British writers of weird and horror fiction who needs little or no introduction. And as is widely known, early in his career he was championed by August Derleth, the keeper of H.P. Lovecraft’s legacy. The front matter for this new edition notes, “After Lovecraft’s death August Derleth took control of his mythos, adding to and organising it more systematically than its creator ever had. Derleth was a jealous guardian of Lovecraft’s reputation, and insisted on vetting any stories by new writers that used the mythos. Few found his favour until 1961, when a Liverpudlian fifteen-year-old [Ramsey Campbell] sent him the first drafts of several Lovecraftian tales. The outcome was a ten-year professional relationship and the appearance in 1964 of the first book of previously unpublished Lovecraftian fiction for five years. It was The Inhabitant of the Lake.”

Now PS Publishing has released a wonderful 50th anniversary edition of Campbell’s The Inhabitant of the Lake & Other Unwelcome Tenants. The stories are all set in Campbell’s own Lovecraftian milieu, the Severn Valley of Great Britain. This hardcover edition is superbly illustrated by Randy Broecker in the great tradition of Weird Tales, includes the original correspondence between Campbell and Derleth, the original and final version of the stories, and the author’s afterword on writing and revising the stories. It makes an extraordinarily great holiday gift for the weird horror readers in your life. You can order the book directly from PS Publishing and read WFR.com’s interview with Campbell.

We’re pleased to bring you, with the publisher’s and author’s consent, a story from that collection, “The Horror from the Bridge” (with a Campbell interview to follow shortly). As Campbell notes in the Afterword, the story was inspired by Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror,” “not just in the relative sobriety of my prose but in the structure, although the story borrows from other Lovecraft sources too. Wentworth’s soliloquy takes its cue from Dr Armitage’s in the Lovecraft tale, and his formula  is all too reminiscent of the one Armitage flings at Wilbur Whateley’s brother. The monsters  are my bid to equal Lovecraft’s monstrous inventiveness in that story, but apparently I had to scrounge an element from [Clark Ashton] Smith’s ‘The Dweller in the Gulf .’ While the final shift into first-person narrative is borrowed from ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’, it appears to express the writer’s dream of having a Lovecraftian  experience.” – Ann & Jeff VanderMeer


(image by J. Coulthart)

1.

Clotton, Gloucestershire, is not a name which can be found on any map, and of the inhabitants of the few leaning red-brick houses which remain of the uptown section of the once-prosperous town, there is not one person who can remember anything of that period of horror in the town in 1931. Those in Brichester who heard the rumours that filtered out of the terror-clutched town deliberately refrain from recounting what they learned, and they hope that the monstrous series of events will never become generally known. Nobody, in fact, knows quite why that twenty-feet-high concrete building was erected on the bank of the Ton, the tributary of the Severn which flows near what used to be the riverside section of Clotton. Nor can they tell why a band of men tore down all the buildings which lay anywhere near the river, leaving only that sparse remnant of uptown Clotton. And of the eldritch sign which was clumsily engraved in each wall of the concrete riverside building, Brichester folk do not like to think. If one asks the professors at the University, they will answer vaguely that it is an extremely ancient cabalistic symbol, but one is never told exactly what the symbol is supposed to invoke, or against what it may be intended as a protection. The whole affair, in fact, is a curious conglomeration of hints and avoidances; and perhaps it would never have been known what actually took place in Clotton in 1931, had not a typed document been found in the house of a deceased Brichester recluse. It seems that this recluse had recently been preparing the document for publication, and possibly it may be better that such a document was never published. For, in fact, the document is a description of the horror, by one of those who tore down the riverside buildings; in view of what he recounts, it is understandable that he became reclusive.

The writer, Philip Chesterton, obviously intended his document to be as scholarly a document as possible. His reclusiveness, stemming, for reasons not to be conjectured, from 1931, allowed him a great deal of time to investigate the historical aspects of the affair through his large stock of volumes on the Roman occupation of Britain and following events. Other tomes, indeed, made it possible for him to include a good deal of historical and genealogical data about the people of Clotton, though this does not give more than a composite picture of the small population of the town, and does not add any information for those seeking to learn all factors affecting what erupted at the beginning of that cataclysmic period. Admittedly, however, certain legends and quasi-historical tales about some of the people of Clotton may be taken as hints of the eventual explanation of that problematic flood of 1931, but it is undeniably difficult to assess the true worth of various peculiar tales which Chesterton seems to have believed. The intrinsic value and veracity of several pivotal descriptions in the following transcription, which is a version, in some places severely cut, of the document found in the Brichester house, must therefore be considered carefully by the reader.

In 1800, according to the manuscript, a strange visitor moved into an empty house on Riverside Alley, a little-tenanted street within sight of a bridge over the Ton. The townsfolk could learn little about him, save that his name was James Phipps, and that he had come from Camside because his unorthodox scientific researches were distasteful to the inhabitants. Of course this was when the Reverend Jenner’s witch-hunts were at their height, so that these “researches” may have been taken for witchcraft. People living near the riverside street noticed the anomalous instruments and cases which were carried into the house by two furtive-looking rustics. Phipps seemed to direct operations with singular care, and came near to fury when one of the men almost slipped while carrying something which appeared to be a statue wrapped in thick canvas. The gaunt, pallid-faced man, with his jet-black hair and long bony hands, must have affected the watchers with strange feelings.

After some days had elapsed since his arrival, Phipps began to haunt taverns near the river. It was noticed that he never drank anything, and was once overheard to remark that he was averse to alcohol. It seemed, in fact, that he came there solely to discuss affairs with the less reputable inhabitants of Clotton—in particular, to learn of the prevalent legends of the countryside. In time, of course, he heard of the legend that a demon had once lurked nearby, and showed great interest in the story. The inevitable elaborations reached his ears—the belief of one or two people that a whole race of abominations was entombed somewhere in the vicinity, and the idea that a monstrous underground city could be discovered if one found the entrance which was reputed to lie submerged under the turbulent river waters. Phipps showed unaccountable interest in the further idea that the alien monster or race had been sealed up in some manner and could be released if the prisoning talisman were removed. He apparently held much stock by these curious legends, for he rewarded his informants very highly. To one or two he even suggested that they should send their sons to him for education in the sciences, but those approached were not interested in offers of this sort.

It was in the spring of 1805 that Phipps left his home one night. At least, he must have moved in darkness, for nobody knew of his temporary removal until the silence and lightlessness of the building on Riverside Alley made them aware of it. The strange tenant, it seemed, did not deem it necessary to set any guard upon his house, beyond locking the doors and shuttering the windows; and, indeed, nobody was sufficiently curious to investigate, for the barred house near the river remained silent and untouched.

Some months later, in early November, Phipps returned to take up tenancy again. This time, however, he was not alone, for during his absence he had taken a wife—a woman with a similar corpse-like pallor, who was heard to speak little and walked with a peculiarly stiff gait. What information could be gathered about her was sparse, only revealing that her husband had met her in Temphill, a nearby town in the Cotswolds, whence he had journeyed to procure some extremely rare chemicals. They had met at some unnamed gathering, and Phipps showed strange caution in speaking of this mysterious gathering.

Nothing more need be noted about the curious couple in the house bordering the river for some time after this. In late 1806 a son was born in that darkly brooding house, and some consider that this was the actual beginning of a series of events to reach so devastating a climax in 1931. The child, who was named Lionel by his science-seeking father, was born on a day in November, of lashing rain and skies ripped by lightning. The people living near Riverside Alley used to say that a throaty and muffled rumbling had seemed to come from below the ground rather than from the throbbing sky; a few would even insist querulously that the lightning, often striking near the river, had once struck, in the form of a scintillating pillar of energy, directly through the roof of the Phipps homestead, even though no marks of such a phenomenon were afterwards found. The son was, at any rate, born of strange parents, and no such superstitious accounting for his abnormal inclinations in later life need be believed.

It was in 1822, when Lionel Phipps would have been seventeen or eighteen of age, that his rumoured instruction by his father commenced. Definitely passers-by would see faint gleams of light through the shutters which nearly always now were closed over the windows, and frequently muttered discussions or arguments between father and son were overheard. Once or twice these low-voiced conclaves took on a faintly ritualistic flavor, and those hearing the words would experience a vague sense of unease. A few passers-by would become sufficiently interested to peer through a crack in the shutter, upon which they might see the younger Phipps poring over some large and ancient tome, or assisting at some unknown and vaguely sinister-looking apparatus. It seemed obvious that the boy was passing through a period of initiation or instruction in some branch of knowledge, of a definitely outré kind, if one were to judge from reports.

This period, it appears, continued well into the late months of 1823, and at its latter end a change was noted by the neighbours of the antique building on Riverside Alley. For one thing, whereas before only the woman of the household had been seen to leave the house, a series of nocturnal journeys now commenced. These were made by father and son with what seemed an extreme degree of caution, and the usual destination was thought to lie near the river. At one time the two were followed by a puzzled passerby, who returned to report that they had been engaged in some sort of survey of the ancient, moss-grown river bridge. They had even clambered down the bank to balance precariously above the swirling ebon waters, and at one time the father, examining one of the supports by the light of a lantern, let out a cry of what sounded like realisation. His son seemed equally surprised when he joined the seeker, and both disappeared under the bridge. The watcher could not view proceedings without revealing himself, and he made his way home with a turbulent mind.

Then came that particularly anomalous occurrence which may explain a seemingly inexplicable accident which befell a visitor later. The younger Phipps was seen to leave the house following the strange visit to the bridge, and those who took interest in the actions of this family soon discovered that the young man had visited the local general supplier’s to purchase pickaxes and spades—for what purpose he would not tell. Those expecting to see the two secretive tenants of the river-bordering lane engaged in some form of excavation were puzzled when no such occupation was noticed.

While no excavation was visible anywhere on the surface, the peculiar evidence of some occupation of the men and woman was soon evident. The nearby residents began to hear muffled sounds of digging and the noise of metal striking stone from somewhere adjoining the cellar of that much-discussed house in the alley. This series of sounds was not static in its location, for the sounds of excavating metal moved slowly, it seemed, in the direction of the river. These noises continued for some weeks, during which neither of the men was seen at all outside the house, and the woman only seldom. Finally, one night perhaps two months later, a party of three men entered the Riverside Alley building, carrying, among other things, doors and frames and an unaccountable amount of material apparently intended for reinforcing the doors. A great noise of working came from below the ground, mostly located near the house and later near the archaic river bridge. After the cessation of the sounds, lights were seen in the room thought to be the laboratory or room where the men carried out their secretive experiments. Next came a reverberation which suggested that the party was returning to the underground region, following which there was a silence lasting some moments, and finally a sound of rushing waters somewhere below the earth. Shouts of amazement or terror were borne to the ears of those listening above, and a few minutes later a sound of some-thing wooden crashing against stone, while an unpleasant reptilian odour rose to the shimmering stars. In an hour or so the party of men departed singly as stealthily as they had come.

Early in 1825, the escape of a criminal from the nearby prison on Mercy Hill led a party of searchers from Brichester to come to Clotton, antedating seekers after something  much more hideous by over a century. Despite James Phipps’ insistence that no refugee was hidden in his house, one of the group would not be satisfied by this reiteration. He went alone into the forbidding house while the others searched nearby, but when the man had still not joined the main party over an hour later they returned precipitously to Riverside Alley. They discovered him lying by the side of the road outside the house, unconscious and covered with water and slime.

 Upon regaining consciousness the searcher recounted a strange tale. According to Chesterton’s research, his tale ran:

“When you all left, this man Phipps waited till you were out of sight, and then he showed me in. Upstairs there’s only bedrooms, and so bare that I didn’t even need to go over the threshold to see that there was nobody hiding. Almost too bare—Phipps seems wealthy enough; where’s all his money spent, then? Downstairs there’s the usual sort of thing, except facing on the street there’s some sort of laboratory. He wouldn’t show me in there at first, but I insisted. The place was full of machinery and bookcases, and over in one corner there was a sort of glass tank full of liquid, with a— well, something like a green sponge covered with bubbles—floating in it. I don’t know what it was, but looking at it almost made me sick.

“I thought I’d seen all the house, and then I heard footsteps coming up from below. A woman appeared in the kitchen—Phipps’ wife—and I went in to ask her where she’d been. He gave her a sort of warning look, but she’d already blurted out that she’d been down in the cellar. Phipps didn’t seem to want me to go down, but finally he opened a trapdoor in the kitchen floor and we went down some steps. The cellar’s quite large and bare. Tools and panes of glass, and what looked like a row of veiled statues; nowhere you could hide.

“I was just making for the stairs when I noticed a door in the wall to the left. There was a lot of carving on it, and a glass window in the top half, but it was too dark for me to see through the glass; anyway, it looked like a good hiding-place. When Phipps saw where I was going he yelled out something about its being dangerous, and started down the steps. At first I didn’t see how it opened, because there was no doorknob—then I noticed a brick in the wall just to the right of it which looked loose, and I pushed it in. There was a sort of grating noise, and another I couldn’t place at the time, but now I think it was Phipps running back upstairs.

“The rest of what happened I don’t understand. The door swung open as I expected when I pushed the brick into position—and then a flood of water poured into the cellar! I don’t know what was behind that door—the water threw me backward too quickly for me to see anything—but for one minute I thought a figure was standing in the opening before it floundered into the cellar with the water. I only saw it as a shadow,  but it was like something out of a nightmare—towering—neckless—deformed—ugh! It couldn’t have been anything like that really, of course. Probably one of those statues I was telling you about. I didn’t see it again, and I can’t remember anything else till you revived me outside the house. But what sort of man is it who has doors in his house leading to underground rivers?”

No amount of pounding on the door of the house could elicit a response, and those in the party did not particularly like to enter that building of brooding secrets. They went away intending to return later with a warrant, but somehow this intention was forgotten on their return to Brichester. Their later capture of the escaped criminal restored a kind of sanity, and the peculiar rumours of daemon-haunted catacombs were almost forgotten.

2.

The  death of James Phipps came in 1898, on a day of howling wind, on which the hills in the distance muttered subterraneously in curious rhythms; the people of the country spoke of invisible primal mountain presences which chanted in nighted caverns, even though professors at the university in Brichester told them of the probability of underground rivers. The nightjars which now and then skimmed over the hills cried in peculiarly expectant tones, almost as if they expected to capture the soul of the dying man, as the legends told in that countryside hinted. For a long time through that May afternoon Peabody’s voice could be heard, strangely distorted, from a shuttered upper-floor window; at times it seemed to address someone, while at others the voice would wail nonsensical fragments in unknown languages. It was not until after the rise of the miasma-distorted moon that an anguished groan came from the dying man, followed by a united rising of affrighted nightjars, from where they perched lengthwise in the trees and watched the house from across the river with glinting eyes. They flew as if escaping from some pursuing horror, which some believe these psychopomps to have attempted to capture. Close upon this came faintly-heard footsteps upon the stairs in the house, followed by the sound of creaking hinges and muffled splash rumoured to have been heard in the lower regions of that house.

Nothing was ever heard concerning the burial of any remains of James Phipps, although the son said he preferred to dispose of the corpse himself. The Clotton people could understand this, since the corpse of a man who had apparently lived decades over a century, and practiced unknown sciences and experiments in secret, might necessarily be hidden from the eyes of the curious. It is very probably fanciful superstition which leads to scattered references to late travellers glimpsing someone very like Phipps in appearance near various hills topped by rings of monolithic stones, long after his death; but these same stone-capped hills often bore a nauseating reptilian odour which is not so easily explicable when linked with ensuing events.

Lionel Phipps and the unnamed Temphill woman were left in sole possession of the house, and evidently a rift began to open at once between them. For some days a light burned at most times behind the shutters of the laboratory, where the son was thought to be studying whatever books he now inherited. This attracted the attention of the owner of the adjoining house, Mary Allen; and as she could easily hear the conversations from next door through the thin wall when she was interested, her discoveries supplied Philip Chesterton with very useful information. Some days after Phipps’ death, for instance, Mrs Allen overheard an interesting altercation. She heard only part of it, actually entering her own house just as Lionel Phipps began to shout angrily.

“I need the tables for the position of the orbits, I tell you!” he was shouting. “He must have copied it down somewhere, but there’s nothing about it here. If he left it in the laboratory, it’s certainly not in there now— are you sure you haven’t…?”

“I haven’t seen them,” came the terrified answer. “You know I wouldn’t go near them. Maybe I was in the Temphill gathering, but this sort of thing terrifies me more than what I learned—down there . . . . Why do you have to carry on his meddling? Whoever shut away that from outside must have known what they were doing, so why do you have to be so bent on setting it free?”

“You’ve taken the chart, haven’t you!” threatened Lionel Phipps. “You’ve taken it so I can’t let them back in!”

“No, no, I haven’t,” his mother protested. “Don’t jump to conclusions until you’ve been through the whole house, at least.”

This temporarily satisfied Phipps, who presumably went to the laboratory, for the lamp in there was lighted again a few minutes later. The search of the house proved unavailing, however, and another furious argument took place. The mother still insisted that she neither knew of the hiding-place of the notes nor did she know the actual information which he sought. “Well,” Phipps conceded, “perhaps you don’t but anyway it makes no difference now. Before the time comes I’ll go down to London and look up the British Museum copy of the Necronomicon; that’s bound to have the chart. And don’t try to persuade me not to go ahead with father’s work! Of course, you don’t have to stay around—it might be better if you went back to your coven in Temphill. Satanism is so much healthier, isn’t it?”

“You know I need—” began his listener.

“Oh, of course, I forgot,” admitted Lionel Phipps satirically. “Well, just don’t interfere in my business here—I won’t stand for it.”

The expected trip to London and the British Museum came in early 1899, and Lionel Phipps found little difficulty in gaining access to that section of the library which contains the rarer books. The librarian did not like the pallid face and leanness of the visitor, but he unlocked the bookcases containing the restricted volumes readily enough. The seeker speedily realised that the monstrous work of Abdul Alhazred would be useless to him in his quest; while it did contain an astrological table, this was very incomplete and long outdated. The even older tome, the Book of Eibon, appeared to him a possible source, with its records of the knowledge of an elder civilisation. The librarian discovered that Phipps was attempting to find the position of some sphere Glyu’uho in an obscure relationship with a system of orbits on a certain autumn night—Glyu’uho, translated from that terrible primal tongue, being Betelgueze. That little-known table in the complete Book of Eibon which gives positions of suggestive far worlds was quickly found by Phipps, from which he copied down parts of the table. The keeper of the books shuddered as he peered over the visitor’s shoulder and translated the names of Aldebaran and the Hyades in Phipps’ notations. He disliked, too, the walk of the seeker as he left the echoing room, for it appeared that he had some slight difficulty in using his limbs. The librarian might have shivered more had be known of the forthcoming results of this visit.

The return of Phipps, late in the evening, to the house on Riverside Alley, brought the most serious, and last, quarrel between the two remaining inhabitants of the building. Toward its end both were screaming at each other, and the listening Mrs Allen found their remarks vaguely terrifying.

Phipps was yelling something which first brought Mrs Allen to listen closely. “All right, you try and stop me,” he told his mother, “and I’ll forget to operate next time you need it. You have to keep in my good books, or else you won’t last out. You wouldn’t even be here on this earth if it wasn’t for that meeting in Temphill. You’ll tell them about my plans, will you? If the people in this town knew what they found in Temphill in 1805 just after the day they met, you might be disposed of quickly . . . ”

She shrieked back: “The people in this town won’t be able to do anything if you go on with your father’s work—there’ll be other tenants in Clotton. Wasn’t the tunnel from the gate to the cellar enough?”

“You know I wouldn’t be able to protect myself if I let them through the cellar entrance.” Phipps sounded defensive.

“So just because you’re a coward, do you have to let them through the other way?” she inquired. “Once the sign’s removed there’ll be no way to keep them in check—they’ll just multiply until they let the Old Ones back on the earth. Is that what you want?”

“Why not?” suggested her son. “We both worship the Old Ones; the river-creatures won’t harm me. We’ll exist side by side as Their priests, until They return to rule the world.”

“Side by side—you’re naïve,” Phipps’ mother scoffed. “Still, perhaps the juxtaposition of Fomalhaut and the Hyades won’t be enough; even you may get tired when you have to wait more than thirty years . . . I’m not staying to see what happens. I’ll go back to Temphill and chance what should have come years ago—perhaps it’ll be the best thing.”

At about eleven o’clock that night the front door opened, and the strange woman began to walk down the street. A vaguely terrible picture was presented to the warily watching Mary Allen, as James Phipps’ widow made her way with that half-paralytic gait which seemed to be characteristic of all the Phipps family, between the dark houses under a lich-pale moon. Nothing more was ever heard of her, though a woman was seen walking very slowly, and with some difficulty, along a road some miles away in the direction of Temphill. Daylight showed a strange horror; for a little way further on a woman’s skeleton was found, as though it had fallen at the side of the road. Body-snatching seemed the most plausible explanation, and the matter was discussed little. Others to whose ears it came, however, linked it indefinitely with references to something that “should have come a century ago.”

After this breach Lionel Phipps began to make an increasing number of journeys to that immemorially-constructed river bridge, and was noticed to go underneath to peer into the water frequently. At night he would step into the street at various hours and examine the sky with an excessive degree of impatience. At such times he appeared to be interested in a portion of the sky where, from directions given, Fomalhaut would have risen. Toward the end of March 1899, his impatience began to ease, and a light would be seen more often in the laboratory. He seemed to be preparing for something extremely important, and those who heard the sounds which emanated from the shuttered laboratory disliked to consider just what he might be awaiting.

Early that autumn came the night concerning which the Brichester people begin to grow reticent. Fomalhaut now glared like the eye of some spatial lurker above the horizon,  and many tales began to be whispered abroad about the increasingly frequent happenings around Gloucestershire and the Severn. The hill rumblings were louder and more coherent, and more than once people forced to take forest routes had sensed vast and invisible presences rushing past them. Monstrous shapes had been glimpsed scuttling through the trees or flapping above the stone circles on the hills, and once a woman had come fleeing into Brichester, shrieking a tale of something which had looked very like a tree but had suddenly changed shape. On a night at the peak of these bizarre occurrences, Phipps made his first experiment.

He was seen leaving the house on an evening of late October 1899, and seemed to be carrying a long metal bar of some sort. He arrived on the river-bank near the bridge at about midnight, and immediately began to chant in ritual tones. A few minutes later the hill noises redoubled in intensity, and a peculiar sound started up close at hand, near the bridge—a monstrous bass croaking which resounded across the countryside. What appeared to be a minor earthquake followed closely on the beginning of the croaking, shaking the river-bank and causing slight turbulence in the water, though nothing more. Phipps then disappeared under the bridge, and through his continued chanting rang the sound of metal scraping on stone. Upon this sound came a subterranean commotion, with a rising chorus of voiceless croaking and a sound as if of Cyclopean bodies slithering against one another in some charnel pit, with a nauseating rise of that alien reptilian odour. But nothing came into view, even though the scrape of metal against stone continued with greater ferocity. Finally Phipps appeared above the bridge’s shadow again, with an expression of resignation on his face. He made his way back to the house in the alley, as that abominable commotion died out behind him, and entered, closing the door stealthily. Almost at once the light filtered out from the shuttered laboratory where, presumably, he was again studying the inherited documents.

Seemingly, Phipps was becoming unsure whether he was using the right chant, for that was what he told the British Museum librarian, Philip Chesterton, this now being the year of 1900. Phipps preferred not to say which incantation he needed, or what he hoped to invoke by its use. He made use of the Necronomicon this time in his search, and Chesterton noted that the seeker appeared interested in those pages which dealt with the commission of beings in tampering with the elements. The reader copied down a passage and continued to another section of the volume. Chesterton, reading over the other’s shoulder, noticed that he showed considerable interest in the following passage, and shuddered to think of possible reasons.

“As in the days of the seas’ covering all the earth, when Cthulhu walked in power across the world and others flew in the gulfs of space, so in certain places of the earth shall be found a great race which came from Outside and lived in cities and worshipped in dark fanes in the depths. Their cities remain under the land, but rarely do They come up from Their subterranean places. They have been sealed in certain locations by the seal of the Elder Gods, but They may be released by words not known to many. What made its home in water shall be released by water, and when Glyu’uho is rightly placed, the words shall cause a flood to rise and remove at last the seal of those from Glyu’uho.”

Phipps admitted to his listener that he would have a considerable wait before anything could be done toward the release of what he knew to exist; “But,” he continued, “it won’t be too long before those in Clotton will see shapes striding down their streets in broad daylight that would drive them insane at night! In the old days the shoggoths used to avoid those places where They peered out of the depths at unwary passers-by—what do you think will be the effect on a man who sees Their great heads break the surface—and sees what they use to view him instead of eyes?”

Then he left, possibly conjecturing that he had said too much; and Chesterton was alone, with various speculations. As time went by, he began to investigate the doings of this eldritch being on Riverside Alley; and as a horrible idea began to form concerning the woman from Temphill, he contacted an acquaintance in that town. Legends, he was told, existed of a monstrous coven in the 1800’s, which convened in artificial caverns beneath the graveyards. Often vaults would be opened, and newly buried corpses might be dug forth and reanimated by certain horrendous formulae. There were even hints that these living cadavers were taken as wives or husbands by favoured members of the cult, for the children resulting from such charnel betrothals would have primal powers which properly belonged only to alien deities.

So horrified was Chesterton by what he learned and suspected that he apparently decided to do something about it. In 1901 he resigned from his post at the British Museum and moved into a house on Bold Street in Brichester, working as a librarian at Brichester University. He was bent on preventing Lionel Phipps’ intentions; and those who visited Chesterton at his home in Brichester, where he lived alone among his vast collection of books, left oddly disturbed by his outré, half-incoherent ramblings. During library hours at the University he showed no signs of any such aberration as manifested itself in his free conversation, beyond a strange nervousness and preoccupation. But in his free time he tended to speak of nameless things in a frightful manner, half-describing hideous things in a way which promised cosmic revelations if the listener would only be patient.

“God help us—what alien powers has Lionel Phipps got, lying dormant in that mad brain? That woman James brought back from the Temphill meeting of which he never spoke—was she merely one of the coven, or something which they raised from the tomb by their awful rites? Lionel was overheard to say that he had to perform operations so that she would last out—maybe he meant that she would decay away if he didn’t preserve her ghastly half-life . . . And now he’s got the information he was after, there’s no telling what he may do. What lurking terror is he going to release from wherever he knows it is hidden? He said there would be a considerable wait, though—if one knew the right words, one might be able to seal up whatever is lying in wait . . . Or perhaps Phipps himself could be destroyed—after all, a being which has been born out of such an abnormal union must be prone to arcane influences . . . ”

As might be expected, those who heard his odd ravings did not act upon them. Such things might happen in Temphill or Goatswood, but they could not affect sane Brichester folk, where witchcraft was not, at least, practiced openly.

The period of more than thirty years passed; and nothing occurred which could shake the complacency of those who dismissed Chesterton’s theories with such assurance. To be sure, the staff at the University often met with terrors which they had never thought could exist, for they were sometimes called by the frantic inhabitants of various localities to quell phenomena which were rising from hiding. 1928 was a particular year of horror, with inexplicable occurrences in many places, both around the Severn and far beyond; and the professors were more inclined to credit the wild tales of beings from another plane of existence which impinged on this universe. But Chesterton was always very reticent in the presence of authority, and he mistakenly thought they would explain any unnatural situation in a supposedly scientific manner. He read astrological tables and arcane books more and more, and shivered when he noticed how closely the stars were approaching  certain positions. Perhaps he was even then formulating a plan for the destruction of the legendary threat which Phipps was to release; his narrative is not specific on this point.

Terror, meanwhile, was increasing among the more credulous Clotton inhabitants. They noted the loudness of the hill noises, and were quick to remark the frequent visits of Phipps to the bridge over the sluggish river, and the way the lights flashed far into the night in his laboratory. The importance attached to a seemingly trivial find by a child on Riverside Alley was startling; for all that had been found was a hurried sketch on a scrap of paper. The frantic search for this paper made by Chesterton, when he heard of it, startled the more enlightened men who knew him; though those at Brichester University might have been less inclined to scoff, for they were familiar with things whose existence is not recognised by science.

When Chesterton managed to acquire the paper and compare it with an illustration in the Necronomicon, he found that these depicted the same species of incarnate hideousness, though in markedly different postures. The only plausible explanation for the sketch seemed to be that it had been drawn frantically by an eavesdropper outside the Phipps house, copied from some picture glimpsed through the shutters; at least, that was what Mrs Allen suggested when she gave him the paper. From comparison with the sketch, Chesterton used the other picture to form a composite portrayal of the being, though the details of both pictures were vague. The thing had eight major arm-like appendages protruding from an elliptical body, six of which were tipped with flipper-like protrusions, the other two being tentacular. Four of the web-tipped legs were located at the lower end of the body, and used for walking upright. The other two were near the head, and could be used for walking near to the ground. The head joined directly to the body; it was oval and eyeless. In place of eyes, there was an abominable sponge-like circular organ about the centre of the head; over it grew something hideously like a spider’s web. Below this was a mouth-like slit which extended at least halfway round the head, bordered at each side by a tentacle-like appendage with a cupped tip, obviously used for carrying food to the mouth. The whole thing was more than a simply alien and horrific monstrosity; it was surrounded by an aura of incredible, eons-lost evil.

The finding of this only roused the fear of the Clotton people to a more hysterical pitch. And they were quick in their perception of Phipps’ growing stealth in his nocturnal ventures—the way he took devious routes in his ever-increasing visits to the river. At the same time, though nobody else was aware of it, Philip Chesterton was noting the approaching conjunction of stars and clusters, said to portend terrific influences. More—he was fighting against the urge to destroy the being in the house on Riverside Alley before the hidden primal race could be released. For Chesterton had pieced together a powerful formula from various pages of Alhazred, and he felt it might both destroy the surviving Phipps and seal the subterranean entities back into their prison. But dared he chance releasing elemental forces, even to prevent such impending hideousness as he suspected? Thinking upon the horribly suggestive illustrations he had acquired, his terror of the powers with which he was to tamper receded.

So it was that on the night of September 2, 1931, two men were attempting to push back the veils which hold the lurking amorphousnesses outside our plane of existence. As nightjars cried expectantly in the hills, and increasing reports of nameless things seen by travellers terrorised the superstitious, the lights burned in the study of Philip Chesterton far into the night, while he drummed on an oddly-carved black drum which he had procured from the University and began to repeat the dreadful formula he had worked out. At the same time, Lionel Phipps was standing on the bridge over the Severn tributary, staring at Fomalhaut where it glared over the horizon and shrieking words which have not been heard on the earth for eons.

It can only have been a startling coincidence that a party of young men, carrying rifles which they had lent to a rifle range for the day, was walking along the bank of the Ton. Even less believably, they were making for the bridge just as Phipps completed  the shocking evocation. At any rate, they saw what happened as the hysterically screaming voice ceased; and they recount things of such horror that one can only be thankful for Chesterton’s remote intervention. “What made its home in water shall be released by water,” Alhazred had said, and the words of the long-dead sorcerer were proved in that chaotic scene.

A bolt of lightning seemed to crash directly on the bridge, and the shattered stonework of a support momentarily revealed a circular seal, carven with an immense star, before the waters rushed to conceal it. Then the flood began, and the watching group had time only to leap back before a torrent of water shattered the banks and thundered repeatedly and with incredible force upon the spot where the carven circle had appeared. There came a shifting sound from under the throbbing waters, and as the three men in the party watching moved backward, a huge circular disk of stone rumbled through the liquid and smashed against the lower bank. It had been the seal over the legendary entrance to the hidden alien city.

What happened after this transcended in shocking terror everything which had gone before. Chesterton was nearing the completion of his own invocation at this point; otherwise the thing which was found dead on the riverbank could never have been destroyed by the men. It is surprising, indeed, that they could have retained enough sanity to try.

As the waters began to slow their torrential rush, the watching three saw a dark object break the uniformity of the surface. Then a titanic, shadowy thing rose from the water and rushed across the bank with a revolting sucking noise toward the town nearby. The three did not have a great deal of time, however, to concentrate upon that looming figure, for at that moment Phipps turned toward them. In the dim moonlight they saw him sneer dreadfully, and a look of fearful evil started up in his eyes. He began to move toward them, his eyes seeming to stare at each of them; and they noticed him beckoning behind him, after which there came a sound as of something huge splashing out of the river. But they could not see what was behind Phipps.

“So,” sneered that half-human being before them, “this is the total of the strength which can be mustered by the great Elder Gods!” Apparently he misunderstood the true intentions of the terrified three men. “What do you know of the Great Old Ones—the ones who seeped down from the stars, of whom those I have released are only servitors? You and your Celaeno Fragments and your puerile star-signs—what can you guess of the realities which those half-veiled revelations hint? You ought to be thankful, you imbeciles, that I’m going to kill you now, before the race below gets back into sway on the earth and lets Those outside back in!” And he moved toward them with the same dreadful look in his eyes.

But it was not upon Phipps that the watchers fixed their eyes in stark terror. For the moonlight, weak as it was, showed them what towered beside him, two feet taller than himself, shambling silently toward them. They saw the shining network of fibres over the one eye-organ, the waving tentacles about the gaping mouth-slash, the shocking alienness of the eight members—and then the two things were upon them.

At that minute, however, in a house in Brichester, Philip Chesterton spoke the last word of his painfully-acquired formula. And as the foremost of the men turned his rifle blindly on the two abominations before him, forces must have moved into operation. It can be only this that could account for the bullets’ actually penetrating the alien amphibian which Phipps had released; for the thing fell backward and croaked horribly for some seconds before it writhed and lay still. As Phipps saw this, he launched himself at the foremost of the party, who fired again. The change which took place in Lionel Phipps must indeed have been swift, for the man with the rifle, braced against the impact of the leaping figure, was struck by a skeleton, clothed with rags of flesh, which shattered upon contact.

The half-hysterical three turned toward the river, where a greater miracle was taking place. Perhaps moved by Chesterton’s invocation, the pieces of the shattered seal were recomposing in their original shape and location. It may only have been imagination which caused the men to think they saw a shape thrust back into the concealed entrance; it is at any rate certain that whatever lay below in its eons-forgotten prison was now once again sealed into the sunken hideaway.

The nightjars were quietening their expectantly vibrating cries, and the turbulence of the waters had almost ceased. Not just yet could the men bring themselves to look at the monstrosity which they had shot, to ascertain that it was dead. Instead, they stared toward nearby Clotton, toward which they had seen a dim shape plunge some time before. The monster from beyond was at last loose on the world.

3.

By the time that Philip Chesterton had reached the bank of the river outside Clotton, some time had elapsed, and during it several events had occurred. Chesterton, hastening to view the effects of his interference, had been delayed by the necessity of buying petrol, and also by his uncertainty where the sorcerer might be; though he knew the man would be somewhere near water, it was some time before the bobbing lights and commotion of the crowd of evacuees who had come from the nearby town attracted him to the bridge. There he found more things than he had expected.

The crowd would in any case have congregated near the bridge, no doubt, since the noises of shots and other things would have drawn them; but actually they had been forced to evacuate from Clotton. Built above the normal flood-plain of the Ton, the town had been partially inundated by the abnormally-provoked flood; the section near the river had become a morass of submerged streets and basements. Those so driven from their homes had made for the bridge—the banks of the river were actually higher land than the low-lying downtown quarter of Clotton, and the hills which lay on the other side of the town were precarious at night if one wanted to hurry for help to Brichester. At the bridge, of course, the already frenzied townsfolk met with a scene which only aggravated their hysteria; and this was not alleviated by the tales of several people. Chesterton heard clearly the wails of one woman as he came up. She was telling the bystanders:

“I was just goin’ up to bed w’en I ’eard these shots an’ yells down be the river. I come downstairs an’ peeped out o’ the front door down the street, but I didn’t see anythin’. Anyway, all this runnin’ up an’ down ’ad woken me up, so I went into the kitchen an’ got a sleepin’ tablet. Just as I was goin’ back through the front room I ’eard this sort o’—well, I don’t know; it sounded like someone runnin’, but bare feet, an’ sort o’ wet-soundin’. Looked out o’ the winder, but there wasn’t anythin’. An’ then somethin’ went past the winder—big an’ black an’ shiny, like a fish. But God knows wot ’eight it was! Its ’ead was level with mine, an’ the winder’s seven foot off the ground!”

Nor was this all Chesterton heard recounted when he arrived. He had not yet seen the horribly incomplete remains of Phipps, nor that other object which lay in shadow some distance away, for the crowd was being skillfully directed away from the two monstrosities by a surprisingly sane three men—the same ones who had been partly responsible for their destruction. Now, however, the three, sensing his instinctive authoritative bearing, converged on him and began to recount their terrible experience, supplementing their account by pointing out the remains of Phipps and his dreadful companion. Even though Chesterton had formed a good idea of the appearance of the river-creatures, he could not suppress a gasp of revulsion as the being was revealed. The sketch and the Necronomicon illustration had not reproduced everything; they had not shown the transparency of the half-gelatinous flesh, revealing the mobile organs beneath the skin. Nor had they shown the globular organ above the brain, at whose use Chesterton could only guess shudderingly. And as the mouth fell open when they stirred the body, he saw that the being possessed no teeth, but six rows of powerful tentacles interlaced across the opening of the throat.

Chesterton turned away, nauseated by this concrete symbol of cosmic alienage, to move back and speak to one or two of the affrighted crowd, who had no idea of what lay nearby. He twisted around again as a choking cry of horror came behind him; and, under the fast-sinking moon, he saw one of the three men struggling with the tentacles of the river-monster. It stood semi-erect on its four lower legs, and was dragging the man toward those yearning members about the mouth. The globular device in the head was pulsing and passing through shocking metamorphoses, and even in this position, Chesterton noticed that the river had momentarily washed almost to the edge of the crowd, and the water was being levitated into an orifice in the head above the globe.

The distance between the wide-gaping mouth and the victim was momently lessening, while the companions of the man were standing seemingly paralysed with terror. Chesterton snatched a rifle from the hands of one of them, aimed it, and stood temporarily uncertain. Recollecting that the being had only been put out of action by the other bullet because of his own incantation, Chesterton doubted whether another shot would harm it. Then,  as he saw that pulsing sphere in the head, a conjecture formed in his mind; and he aimed the weapon at the organ, hesitating, and pulled the trigger.

There was a moist explosion, and the watchers were spattered with a noisome pulp. They saw the being sink to the ground, its legs jerking in spasmodic agony. And then came an occurrence which Chesterton would not write about, saying only that very soon almost no remains of the monstrosity existed.

And, as if they had reacted in delayed fashion to the destruction of the being, the crowd now shrieked in unity of terror. Chesterton saw before he turned that the intended victim was indeed dead, whether from pure terror or from the embrace of the tentacles—for where these had gripped, the man’s flesh was exposed. Then he turned to look where the mob was staring, and as they too stared in that direction, his two companions remembered what they had seen heading for the town in those recent lunatic minutes.

The moon had sunk nearly to the horizon, and its pallid rays lit up the roofs of the Clotton houses behind which it hung. The chimneys stood up like black rooftop monoliths, and so did something  else on one of the nearer roofs—something which moved. It stumbled on the insecure surface, and, raising its head to the moon, seemed to be staring defiantly at the watchers. Then it leapt down on the opposite side, and was gone.

That action was a signal to the waiting crowd. They had seen enough horrors for one night, and they fled along the riverside path which, dangerous as it was, seemed more secure than any other means of escape. Chesterton watched as the lights faded along the black river, and then a hand touched his arm.

He turned. The two remaining members of the party which had killed Phipps stood there, and one awkwardly said “Look, you said you wanted t’ destroy them things from the river, an’ there’s still one left. It was them did for Frank there, an’ we think it’s our—duty—to get ’em for ’im. We don’t know what they are, but they went an’ killed Frank, so we’re bloody well goin’ to try an’ kill them. So we thought that if you needed any help with killin’ that last one . . . ”

“Well, I told you something of what I know,” Chesterton said, “but— well, I hope I won’t offend you, but—you must understand certain things pretty thoroughly, to unite your wills with mine, and I don’t know whether you’d—What sort of work do you do anyway?”

“We’re at Poole’s Builder’s Yard in Brichester,” one told him.

Chesterton was silent for so long that they wondered what had occurred to him. When he looked at them again, there was a new expression in his eyes. “I suppose I could teach you a little of the Yr-Nhhngr basics— it would need weeks to get you to visualise dimensional projections, but maybe that won’t be necessary if I can just give you a copy of the incantation, the correct pronunciation, and give you the lenses for the reversed-angle view of matter if I can make any in time—yes, those plain-glass spectacles would do if I put a filter over to progress the colours halfway . . . But you don’t know what the devil I’m running on about. Come on—I’ll drive you to my house.”

When they were driving down the A38, Chesterton broke the silence again: “I’ll be frank—it was really because you work at Poole’s that I accepted your aid. Not that I wouldn’t be glad of help—it’s a strain to use those other parts of the brain with only your own vitality to draw on—but there’s so much I have to teach you, and only tonight to do it in; there wouldn’t even be tonight, but it’s crazy to attack while it’s dark. No, I think I can use you more in another way, thought perhaps you can help with the chant. So long as I still have the reproduction of that seal in the river . . . and so long as you can get used to artificial reversal of matter—I always do it without artificial help, because then it doesn’t seem so odd.”

And as he drew up the car in the driveway off Bold Street, he called back “Pray it stays near water to accustom itself to surface conditions. If it doesn’t—they’re parthenogenetic, all of them, and pretty soon there’ll be a new race to clear off the earth. Humanity will just cease to exist.”

 

4.

The next day was one of sickly-glowing sunlight and impeding winds. Chesterton had copied out the formula in triplicate and given a copy to each of the men, retaining one for himself. Now, in mid-morning, the librarian and one of his helpers were going through the streets of Clotton, gradually approaching the riverside section. On the bank of the river waited the third of the party, like his friend wearing the strange glasses which Chesterton had prepared the night before; his was the crucial part in the plan. The river-bank was otherwise bare—the human corpse and the others having been disposed of.

Chesterton concentrated on his formula, awaiting the finding of what he knew lurked somewhere among the deserted red-brick houses. Strangely, he felt little fear at the knowledge that the amphibian terror lurked nearby, as though he were an instrument of greater, more elemental forces. At the conclusion of the affair, upon comparing impressions, he found that his two companions had been affected by very similar feelings; further, he discovered that all three had shared a vision—a strange mental apparition of a luminous star-shaped object, eternally rising from an abyss where living darkness crawled.

Abruptly a gigantic  shape flopped out of a side street, giving forth a deafening, half-intelligent croaking at the sight of the two men. It began to retrace its journey as Chesterton’s accomplice started to chant the incantation; but Chesterton was already waiting some yards down the side street, and was commencing the formula himself. It gave a gibbering ululation and fled in the direction of the river, while the two followed it, never ceasing their chant. They were slowly driving it toward the river-bank— and what waited there.

That chase must have resembled a nightmare—the slippery cobbles of the watersoaked street flashing beneath their feet, the antique buildings reeling and toppling on either side, and the flopping colossus always fleeing before them. And so the infamous building on Riverside Alley was passed, and the nightmarish procession burst out on the bank of the river.

The third member of the party had been staring fixedly at the point at which they emerged, and so saw them immediately. He let in the clutch of the lorry in whose cab he sat, and watched in the rearview mirror while the two manoeuvred the thing into the right position. Perhaps it sensed their purpose; at any rate, there was a hideous period when the being made rushes in every direction. But finally the man in the truck saw that it was in the correct position. They could not aim for the head-organ of the being, for the flesh of the head was strangely opaque, as if the opacity could be controlled at will; but a bullet in the body paralysed it, as Chesterton had deduced it would. Then the lorry-driver moved a control in the cab, and the crucial act was performed.

Upon the paralysed body of the river-creature poured a stream of fast-hardening concrete. There was a slight convulsive movement below the surface, suppressed as Chesterton recommenced the incantation. Then he snatched an iron bar which had been thoughtfully provided, and as quickly as possible carved a replica of that all-imprisoning seal below the bridge upon the semi-solid concrete surface.

Afterward, Chesterton put forward enough money to have the building firm erect a twenty-foot tower over the spot, carved with replicas of the seal on each side—one never knew what agencies might later attempt to resurrect what they had buried. When the Clotton inhabitants began to trickle back, a chance remark by one of the two builders that more than one being could have escaped caused them to tear down the buildings in the riverside quarter, with Chesterton’s approval and aid. They found nothing living, although the Phipps homestead yielded enough objects to drive one of the searchers insane and turn many of the others into hopeless drunkards. It was not so much the laboratory, for the objects in there were largely meaningless to most of the seekers—although there was a large and detailed photograph on the wall, presumably the original of that sketch Chesterton had acquired. But the cellar was much worse. The noises which came from beyond that door in the cellar wall were bad enough, and so were the things which could be seen through the reinforced-glass partition in it; some of the men were extremely disturbed by the steps beyond it, going down into pitch-black waters of terrifying depth. But the man who went mad always swore that a huge black head rose out of the ebon water just at the limit of vision, and was followed by a blackly shining tentacle which beckoned him down to unimaginable sights.

As time passed, the remaining section of Clotton was repopulated, and those who know anything about the period of terror nowadays tend to treat it as an unpleasant occurrence in the past, better not discussed.

Perhaps it ought not to be so treated. Not so long ago two men were fishing in the Ton for salmon, when they came upon something half-submerged in the water. They dragged it out, and almost immediately afterward poured kerosene on it and set fire to it. One of them soon after became sufficiently drunk to speak of what they found; but those who heard him have never referred to what they heard.

There is more concrete evidence to support this theory. I myself was in Clotton not so long ago, and discovered a pit on a patch of waste ground on what used to be Canning Road, near the river. It must have been over-looked by the searchers, for surely they would have spoken of the roughly-cut steps, each carrying a carven five-pointed sign, which led down into abysmal darkness. God knows how far down they go; I clambered down a little way, but was stopped by a sound which echoed down there in the blackness. It must have been made by water—and I did not want to be trapped by water; but just then it seemed to resemble inhuman voices croaking far away in chorus, like frogs worshipping some swamp-buried monster.

So it is that Clotton people should be wary still near the river and the enigmatic tower, and watch for anything which may crawl out of that opening into some subterranean land of star-born abominations. Otherwise—who knows how soon the earth may return through forgotten cycles to a time when cities were built on the surface by things other than man, and horrors from beyond space walked unrestrained?


Original cover…

Ramsey Campbell (1946 – ) is an award-winning horror fiction author from Liverpool, England. In his stories, largely evoking working- or middle-class settings, Campbell manages to update the weird tale and, mentored by Lovecraft protégé August Derleth, apply his keen ability to evoke both subtle supernatural horror and portraits of modern life in England. One of the preeminent writers of his generation, Campbell has also edited influential supernatural fiction anthologies.

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