The Key to the Castleblakeney Key

The Story Behind One of Dr. Lambshead's More Macabre Possessions

We’re pleased to be able to bring you Caitlín R. Kiernan’s weird and creepy story from
The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities: Exhibits, Oddities, Images, and Stories from Top Authors and Artists, an original anthology published earlier this year by HarperVoyager and featuring Mike Mignola, Holly Black, Lev Grossman, China Mieville, Helen Oyeyemi, Cherie Priest, and over 80 others. Although billed as a general fantasy anthology, the Lambshead Cabinet contains a number of horrific and strange stories that tend toward the darker side. 

If you enjoy the story, please consider sending us a donation. Indicate it is specifically for Kiernan’s story. You can also donate from the main page of this site. — The Editors


Excerpt from a postcard found among the correspondence of the late Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead, from Ms. Margaret H. Jacobs (7 Exegesis Street, Cincinnati, Ohio) to Lambshead, undated, but postmarked January 16, 1979:

…kind of you to give me access to the collection. Such marvels, assembled all in one place! It was like my first visit to the Mütter, so crammed with revelation. But the hand, the hand — well, I’ll have to write you at length about the hand. I had a dream…

Excerpt from Archaeological Marvels of the Irish Midlands by Hortense Elaine Evangelistica (2009; Dublin, Mercier Press):

…and is undoubtedly one of the more curious and, indeed, grisly side notes to the discovery of the “Gallagh Man” bog mummy. The hand clutching the key is severed just behind the wrist, bisecting the radius and ulna bones (short sections of which protrude from the desiccated flesh). The bronze skeleton key is held firmly between the thumb and forefinger in such a way as to give one the impression that the hand was lobbed off only moments before the key would have been inserted into the lock for which it must have been fashioned. The key measures just under seven centimeters, from the tip end of the shank all the way back across the diameter of the bow, and the bit has three prongs. As mentioned earlier, the hand clutching the key is exceptionally small, measuring not much more than nine centimeters, diminutive even for a small child.

Littleway (2006) suggested the hand was not human at all, but, in fact, belonged to a species of Old World monkey (Cercopithecidae), probably a baboon or mangabey. This suggestion was subsequently rejected by Davenport (2007), who noted that no species of Old World monkey possesses claws, and even those few primitive New World species that do (Callitrichidae, the marmosets and tamarins) lack opposable thumbs. Certainly, the sharply recurved claws at the end of each finger remind one more of the claws of a cat or bird of prey than anything even remotely human. After his thorough examination of the hand, Davenport (ibid) concluded it to be a hoax, a taxidermied chimera fashioned from the right hand of a primate and the talons of a barn owl, then treated with various acids, salts, and dyes so as to give it the appearance of having been excavated from the peat deposits at Castleblakeney. Prout (2007) agreed with Davenport that the hand wasn’t that of a primate, but insisted it belonged to a three-toed sloth (despite the presence of five digits). Regardless, Davenport’s hoax explanation appears to have run afoul of carbon-dating carried out at Brown University (Chambers and Burleson, 2009b), which indicated the hand likely dates from between 300 – 400 BCE, which would make it much older than “Gallagh Man.” Also, a biochemical analysis of tissue samples taken from the hand reveal that it differs in no significant way from bog mummies known from Ireland and other locations across Northern Europe.

However, even if we accept that the strange hand from the late Dr. Lambshead’s cabinet is almost twenty-five hundred years old, we’re left with still another conundrum: the oldest known metal skeleton key (or passkey) dates back no farther than 900 CE. Also, as Davenport was quick to point out, the only indication that the hand was recovered from the vicinity of Castleblakeney is a charred and faded label apparently written in Thackery Lambshead’s hand.

As it stands, the matter may likely never be resolved to anyone’s satisfaction. Following a break-in on the evening of April 12,2010, the hand and key were discovered to be missing from the collection of Brown University’s Department of Anthropology, where the artifact was on long-term loan from the National Museum of Ireland (Ard-Mhúsaem na hÉireann). Reports indicate that the thieves took nothing else…

Excerpt from “An act of rogue taxidermy? Preliminary report on the morphology and osteology of the ‘Castleblakeney Hand’” P. O. Davenport, American Journal of Zooarchaeology, Vol. 112, No. 1 (2007):

…that evidence provided by these high-resolution x‑ray CT images leads the author to the conclusion that the artifact is no more representative of the remains of a single animal than are other chimeric forgeries, including jackalopes, Barnum’s “Feejee mermaids,” the Minnesota iceman, the Bavarian Wolpertinger, Rudolf Granberg’s skvader, or the fur-bearing trout of Canada and the American West. As will be demonstrated, these x‑rays reveal fully-intact terminal ungual phalanxes (bones and keratin sheaths) indistinguishable from those of members of the Family Tytonidae(barn owls), articulated to the proximal metacarpophalangeal and ginglymoid surfaces of the phalanges of an adult Barbary macaque (Macaca sylvanus). It is not possible, at this time, to determine whether or not Lambshead himself was involved in fashioning the hand or whether he believed it to be authentic, having been duped by its creator, but that question is irrelevant to the current investigation.

The form and function of claws varies significantly among vertebrate species, though the composition of the claw sheath does not. Claw sheaths, nails, and hooves are comprised of an exceptionally tough class of fibrous structural protein monomers known as keratin (Raven and Johnson, 1992), which protects the bone of the terminal phalanx and assists in providing traction during such activities as climbing, defense, prey acquisition, and intraspecific combat associated with mating (brief review in Manning et al., [2006]). Mammalian claw sheaths are composed of α‑keratin (helical), while those of avians, nonavian archosaurs, and non-archosaurian reptiles are composed of β‑keratins (pleated-sheet) (Fraser and MacRae, 1980). The results of this study leave no doubt that the claw sheaths associated with the Castleblakeney artifact are composed of β‑keratin and so cannot have originated from any primate of other mammal. Before addressing…

Excerpt from a letter found among the correspondence of the late Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead, from M. Camille Dussubieux (n°50, Rue Lepic, Paris) to Lambshead, dated November 17, 1957):

…do hope that your time abroad in the States was not in any way especially inconvenient, and that it proved helpful and productive in all your various researches. I hope to one day see Chicago and Manhattan for myself.

Setting aside casual pleasantries for another day and another letter, I am writing this evening to inform you that Monsieur Valadon and his circle of associates continue to press the matter of — — -, that objet curieux now residing in your care. Indeed, I begin to believe that you may have made a terrible error in taking the thing from les carrières de Paris. As you well know, I’m not a superstitious man, nor am I even particularly religious. But my concern is that Valadon’s “warnings” that you may be visited by some mystic, infernal retribution are, in fact, thinly veiled threats of physical violence by members of his order now residing in Britain. If there’s any truth to his unsavory reputation (and I have no reason to believe otherwise), these threats should be taken with the utmost seriousness. I would caution you to make such precautions as you may, if, indeed, I cannot persuade you to immediately divest yourself of that abominable relic.

It is beyond me what you hope to learn from — — -, and seems far more likely, my dear friend, that you have merely convinced yourself it has added an additional measure of mystique to your cabinet. By now, I know you well enough to feel confident in drawing such a conclusion, and I hope you won’t find it too presumptuous. You must not consider possession of — — - to be a privilege or to carry any prestige. It is, at best, a burden.

I have taken the liberty of contacting our mutual acquaintance at le Musée Calvet à Avignon, who assures me that — — - would be safe in that institution’s care, even  from the likes of Valadon, Provoyeur, and Rykner. She is also willing to travel to England to receive — — - in person, rather than entrusting it to any courier or post. She only awaits word from me that you are agreeable to this arrangement.

Those passages you quoted from Balfour’s Cultes des Goules are grim enough to rattle the nerves of even an old skeptic like myself…

Excerpt from “Artifact, Artifice, and Innuendo” by Tyrus Jovanovich, Art Lies: A Contemporary Art Quarterly (Issue 62, Summer 2009):

…and so have allowed questions of biological and historical “authenticity” to dominate the discussion. Insistent, unrelenting authority intervenes, and we are not allowed to view an object as a work. The potential for message is denied by the empirical demand for objective meaning. If we are to gain access to the intriguing conceptual dimensions and dialectics presented by this hand and this key, by the unity of hand with key, key with hand, it becomes necessary for us to invert, or entirely disregard, the inherent limitations of that scientific enterprise and its attendant paradigms. First off, we must cease to view the work— as it is now reconsidered, rescuing it from the mundane —as fragmentary or in any other sense lacking in fundamental wholeness, though questions of fundamental [un]whole[some]ness will be evaluated in light of complexities of the object-subject relationship.

As we refocus our attention from a normative default, it is neither the hand nor the key that consumes our need for understanding. Rather, we find, literally, new direction by implication. The hand holds the key, and the key moves our eyes from the visible towards the invisible. Here, a moment is brilliantly captured, and yet entirely escapes stasis. The hand is always and forever acting upon the key, and the key is ever pointing, moving, urging us towards the implicit lock, which is the truest locus in this configuration, even if the lock exists only by implication. So too, the existence of a mind behind the hand and key and lock is unspoken, but no less essential. Finally, the efficacy and undeniable kinetics make themselves known, and we are drawn away…

Excerpt from a letter found among the correspondence of the late Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead, from Ms. Margaret H. Jacobs (7 Exegesis Street, Cincinnati, Ohio) to Lambshead, undated, but postmarked May 4, 1979:

…to put it out of my mind. But the dreams return night after night, each incarnation almost identical to every other, except that they grow worse, more horrifying. They’re unrelenting. I’ve never suffered insomnia, but now I find myself afraid to sleep. I put off going to bed as long as possible. The thought of a catnap is enough to make me anxious.

As I’ve said, the dreams didn’t begin until shortly after my visit with you last December. Don’t get me wrong, Dr. Thackerey [sic]. I’m still grateful for having been allowed to view your collection and photograph the key. But I’m beginning to think I’m paying an awful price for that opportunity. Yes, I know how that must sound to a man of science such as yourself. By divulging my situation, I more than half suspect I might find myself described in some future edition of your medical guide. But I don’t know who else I would tell this to. Friends or family? No, they all think me odd enough already. They would dismiss it all, and ridicule me in the bargain. A psychiatrist? A priest? I can’t abide the former, and, despite my Catholicism, have always been unable to open up to the latter.

That leaves just you, Doctor. I suppose it’s like they say, and no good deed goes unpunished.

Please don’t feel obligated to read what follows. Just because I had to write it down and send it to you doesn’t mean you have to subject yourself to these grotesque, absurd ramblings. But I implore you again, please, please destroy the key (as I have destroyed the pictures I took). If I am certain of anything at all (and I doubt that more each day), I’m certain that the destruction of that thing will stop the nightmares, just as I believe my lifting it from its box, and daring to hold it, triggered them. And I suspect, too, there’s something greater than my sanity at stake. How can I convince you that what you’re harboring beneath your roof is more virulent than any disease? Burn it, Doctor. Melt the damned key to slag, and scatter the ashes of that mummified claw to the four winds.

The dream always begins with me looking out to…

Excerpt from “The Monkey’s Paw Redux,” Jones, Z. L. I. Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 30, No. 3 (May/June 2006):

…that has yet to be addressed by any of these investigators is the inconsistent nature of the second digit, even though it is obvious from the most cursory glance at photographs of the “Castleblakeney hand.” On the thumb, and digits three, four, and five, the nails curve downward, exhibiting the normal condition for primates (and, for that matter, the ungues of all tetrapods). Yet, on the second digit, the nail displays a feat of anatomical gymnastics and curves upwards. Three possible explanations for this irregularity come to mind: 1) sloppiness on the part of the hoaxer; 2) a simple and intentional signal that the hand is indeed a hoax; 3) an attempt by the perpetrator of the hoax to make the hand/key contrivance seem even more bizarre.

For the moment, I’ll focus on the second option, though it is probably the least likely of the three. I’ll assume, for the sake of argument, that the hoaxer is an educated individual who would be well aware of the faux pas presented by the upturned nail. I will even go so far as to consider the possibility than it was his or her intent to embed in this intentional mistake some hidden meaning. Pause to consider the significance of the index finger in Western art and culture. For example, in Leonardo da Vinci’s St. John the Baptist (c. 1513 – 1516), the right hand of the subject is raised, pointing heavenward, the index finger extended. In Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam (c. 1511), it is the index finger of the creator’s right hand (digitus paternae dexterae) that is shown delivering the spark of life to the index finger of Adam’s left hand. Comparable instances from Christian iconography are too numerous to list, though it is worth noting an altarpiece in the basilica of…

Excerpt from a letter found among the correspondence of the late Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead, from M. Camille Dussubieux (n°50, Rue Lepic, Paris) to Lambshead, dated January 23, 1954):

…only tell you what little I know of this odious thing, though surely there must be far less repellent subjects upon which you could fixate. It is a mummified hand, as small as a child’s, gripping a bronze key. The fingers bear long talons, and the hand is so shriveled the bones show through. Both the hand and key are mottled with rot and verdigris, with a scab of long ages hidden away in darkness and damp. As for its provenance, I have heard a story told that it was discovered by Howard Carter in the spring of 1903, during his initial excavations at the entrance of the tomb of Thutmose I and his daughter Hatshepsut, though the key is clearly not of ancient Egyptian origin. I have also heard a claim that the hand is the remains of an homunculus created by John Dee, for Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, and also that it came to France from China, and even that it was found in an Irish peat bog. I see no reason to give credence to any one of the tales; they seem equally outlandish.

I first saw it seven years ago, when it was very briefly on display in the Galeries de Paléontologie et d’Anatomie comparée on the rue Buffon. However, the Muséum national’s former director, Achille Urbain, apparently ordered its deaccession from the museum’s catalogue, following a scandal of some sort (I confess, I do not follow such sordid affairs). In 1952, it resurfaced in a peculiar little antiquities shop on the Rue de Richelieu, near the Bibliothèque nationale. Though, some say this hand was no more than a clever counterfeit of the original. Either way, it was purchased by a Mlle. Dominique Provoyeur, an occultist who, in her younger days, is said to have had dealings with Crowley and others of his ilk. At this point, I caution you, we must descend into the sheerest sort of hearsay, but it may be that Provoyeur made a gift of the hand to another black magician, Erik Valadon. There are rumors that the pair used it during profane rituals somewhere within the catacombs, perhaps l’Ossuaire Municipal.

By all accounts, Valadon is an especially execrable fellow, a drunkard and heroin addict, obsessed with various arcane texts and the notion that these texts contain rituals capable of summoning some manner of prehistoric deities, banished from the world before the evolution of mankind. Indeed, it is all quite completely ridiculous. Which is why I suggest you focus your energies elsewhere, Thackery. Your prodigious intellect should not be squandered on this sort of foolery. Let us speak no more of any…

Excerpt from a letter found among the correspondence of the late Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead, from Ms. Margaret H. Jacobs (7 Exegesis Street, Cincinnati, Ohio) to Lambshead, undated, but postmarked March 12, 1981:

…by now, you must have stopped even opening my letters. I wouldn’t blame you if that’s the case. I wouldn’t blame you if you write back and tell me please never send another. I think you’ve been too patient with me, too lenient, Doctor, these last two years, and it’s difficult for me to imagine why. It must be wearing thin, and I picture you rolling your eyes at the arrival of every envelope bearing my name.

Oh, good heavens. It’s that dreadful woman from Ohio,” you might say. Something like that. I truly have become “that dreadful woman,” here in my own mind. That woman filled with little but dread.

Still and all, here I am, regular as clockwork, writing you again. Writing you again about my dream, my nightmare, which I cannot ever stop believing began with my visit to your home more than two years ago. But at least, this time, I’m writing to say that something has changed. Beginning last week, last Wednesday, a new wrinkle has been added to the dream narrative, which by now has become so threadbare and monotonous (but has lost none of its nerve-racking hold over me) any change is welcome.

It starts as it always does. Me waiting on the shore for the ferry, looking out across the sea, the waves thundering against the rocky jetty. The ferry arrives, and it delivers me to the island where the sickly yellow house stands alone amid that shaggy grove of hemlocks and the overgrown rose garden. Nothing’s any different until after I’ve spoken with the ravens and the silver-eyed women and the Bailiff, until after the cannibalistic banquet and the disturbing images that old film projector spits out onto the parlor wall. But then, when I’m lead [sic] to the cellar door, the women both turn back and leave me to make the descent alone! Never before have they done this, but you know that. They shut the door behind me, and bolt it, and I go by myself down those creaking wooden steps.

I think, at least for a few moments, that I’m less afraid of what I’ll see down there than I am surprised that they’ve allowed me to go without a chaperon. It’ll sound strange, no doubt, but it makes me proud, as if I have been accepted as an equal, as one of the house’s monstrous inhabitants. There is a sense of belonging. How can there be any comfort in such a thought? I can’t say, only that this is what I feel.

As always, I reach the bottom of the stairs and find the cellar flooded by several inches of stagnant saltwater. The odor is overwhelming, and bloated fish and tangles of seaweed float all about me. Tiny crabs scuttle across the submerged cellar floor. This part is the same as always, of course. I try not to smell the rot, and splash between those moldering brickwork arches until I have come to the wall of gray granite blocks and gray mortar. Like always, it’s encrusted with slimy moss and barnacles. Like always, the moss and barnacles have grown in patterns that make them look like leering skulls. All of this is the same.

But when I reach into my pocket for the skeleton key the Bailiff always gives me, it isn’t there. There’s nothing there, and for a moment I panic. They’ve trusted me to go down to this place alone, and I’ve managed to lose the damned key! I stop, trying hard to remember each step across the cellar, each step down, everything that occurred before the silver-eyed women lead [sic] me to the cellar door, how I might have possibly mislaid the key (which I always put in my dress pocket immediately, the moment the Bailiff places it in my palm). My mouth goes dry. My heart is hammering in my chest. They’ll make me leave and never ask me back again, never again send the ferry for me (and, I know, I know, I should be glad, but in the dream I am mortified).

Then I look down, and there’s something hideous crouched in the water not far from me. It’s not much larger than a very large rat, and it has the key, clutched tightly in one hand. It isn’t human, the thing with the key, and immediately I turn away, the sight of it enough to make me feel ill. Gone are those feelings that I’ve disappointed the Bailiff and his pale companions, that I belong here, below the yellow house. I only want to run back to the stairs and hammer on the door until they let me out again.

Too late for that, Missy,” the crouched thing with the key says. I don’t look at it. I can’t bear the thought of ever setting eyes on it again.

Daresay, took you long enough to puzzle it out. Been waiting here so long I’ve memorized the names of all the crayfish, and I think I might have waterlogged.”

I don’t want to see any more,” I say, and it laughs at me. Or maybe it doesn’t laugh at me, but it laughs. It’s a small laugh, very small, and the sound makes me think of burning paper.

Best be minding your P’s and Q’s, Missy. Come too far to go lily-livered on us now, don’t you reckon?”

And I hear a clattering noise that I know is the crouched thing fitting the skeleton key into the hey hole in the granite wall. And I’m thinking how all this is wrong, that I should be at the key hole, that the women should be with me, when the granite wall swings open wide, and the barnacles scream, and…

Excerpt from Darkening Horizons: The American Supernatural Novel During the 1980s by Gerald Hopkins (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993):

…and, regrettably, the unjustly celebrated “Evil God, Out of Words” (Twilight Zone magazine #8, November 1981) isn’t much better than Chalmers’ earlier attempts to update the weird tale. Like Klein’s The Ceremonies, this story adopts the basic framework and themes of Arthur Machen’s “The White People”— a loss of innocence and the corruption of the untainted by way of induction into a secret witch cult —but does so far less effectively than Klein’s revisiting of Machen’s premise. And, to make matters worse, somehow, Chalmers has managed to write a story of only some eight thousand or so words that seems to go on forever, heedless of its size, not unlike the cursed real estate of Joseph Payne Brennan’s “Canavan’s Backyard.”

The genesis of “Evil God, Out of Words” proves a good deal more intriguing than the story itself:

The entire plot coalesced indirectly around a single childhood memory, something I saw when I was ten years old. This would have been 1946 or ‘47. My mother and I accompanied my father on a business trip to Paris. We rarely took proper vacations, and I think he was trying to make up for that. Anyway, we saw the usual sights one sees in Paris, but we also visited a natural history museum, which delighted me far more than all the Eiffel Towers and Arc de Triomphes combined. There was an enormous Victorian gallery filled with dinosaur skeletons! For a ten-year-old boy, how could the Louvre ever possibly hope to compete with Diplodocus, Allosaurus, and Iguanodon? Of course, though, none of these served as the story’s inspiration. But there was also a small glass case containing a sort of mummified hand, and the hand was gripping an old-fashioned key. I believe it was an Egyptian artifact of some sort, and it seemed entirely out of place there among the dinosaurs and mastodons. Perhaps this is why I recall it so clearly. The fingers had hooked nails or talons, and it reminded me immediately of W. W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw,” which I’d read by then, naturally. The odd thing is, decades later, I wrote the museum to inquire about the hand, wishing to compare my memories with the reality of what I’d seen. I received a somewhat terse response to the effect that there had never been any such artifact displayed at the museum. Now, I knew better. I’d seen it with my own eyes, hadn’t I? I wrote a second time, and they didn’t even bother to answer me. But what’s important here is that it set me on the path leading to “Evil God, Out of Words.”

Though the relic Chalmers may or may not have seen while in Paris as a child doesn’t appear in the story, it is plainly echoed in the recurring motif of keys, both literal and figurative. Most notably, the terrible old man who first speaks to the story’s l’enfant innocent of “the mysteries of the worm” describes nine magical keys. Each key bears the name of one of the muses of Greek mythology, as set forth in Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (1593). The old man tells the girl that the two most powerful keys, Polyhymnia and Calliope, are required for the ritual of resurrection (“shredding the veil, casting back, fetching up”). If Chalmers’ choice of these two muses is meant to hold a particular symbolic meaning, it escapes repeated…

Excerpt from “The Thousand-and-Third Tale of Scheherazade: A Survey of the Arabian Ghûl in Popular Culture,” Esther Kensky, The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 42, No. 6 (December 2009): 

…will, instead, quote at length from the summary provided by Niederhausen and Flaschka (1992): “This was the time before the war between the Ghûl (plural, Arabic  غول) and the other races of the Djinn (جني) —— the Ifrit, the Sila, and the Marid. In those days, the men of the desert still looked upon all the Djinn as gods, though they’d already learned to fear the night shades, the Ghûl, and guarded their children and the graves of their dead against them. Among the fates that could befall the soul of a man or woman, to have one’s corpse stolen and then devoured by the Ghûl was counted as one of the most gruesome and tragic conceivable. It was thought that to be so consumed would mean that the deceased would be taken from the cold sleep of barzakh, never to meet with the angels Nakir and Munkar, and so never be interrogated and prepared for Paradise (جنّة, Hebrew cognate jannah).

It is said that these demons fear both steel and iron, like the other Djinn, and so people wear steel rings or place steel daggers where protection from Djinn and ghouls is needed. Salt is another means of protection, since ghouls hate it. The names of God, Qur’anic verses, magic squares (Muska) or that group of magical symbols known as ‘the seven seals’ are frequently worn by people or attached to their property to ward off the demons.

One of the more obscure customs meant to provide a ward against the Ghûl is mentioned briefly in Jorge Luis Borges The Book of Imaginary Beings (Manual de zoología fantástica, 1957). According to Borges, these creatures have an obsession with keys and locks, and can be thwarted by scattering a dozen or so keys near a locked door or gate, none of which actually fit the lock in question. The ghoul will try each key repeatedly (despite its purported fear of iron), so doggedly determined to find the correct match that it immediately forgets a given key has already been tested. It may continue this for hours, neglecting to watch for dawn, and be destroyed by the rising sun. It’s believed that the severed hand of a ghoul dispatched in this manner, still holding tight to the last key it tried, is a powerful talisman against all manner of evils and misfortune. Interestingly, a similar predilection to arithmomania is ascribed to vampires in certain Chinese and European traditions, and to witches and other mischievous…”

Excerpt from a letter found among the correspondence of the late Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead, from Ms. Margaret H. Jacobs (7 Exegesis Street, Cincinnati, Ohio) to Lambshead, undated, but postmarked May 25, 1981:

…the crouching thing, that goddamned horrid thing like a huge rat, and it scampers over the threshold that hadn’t been there before it used the key. Its tiny claws scritch, scritch, scritch against the granite, a sound that makes me shudder whenever I remember it. I can be wide awake and driving to work, on a sunny day, and I recall that scratching noise and shudder. So, it crosses the threshold and calls for me to follow. I glance back at the flooded cellar, and see that the stairs have vanished, that it’s not even a cellar anymore. It’s a cave opening out onto the sea, a sea cave.

This is one of the new twists, Dr. Lambshead. Always before, always, when I’d pause and look back over my shoulder, the stairs would still be there. And they were a comfort to me, because the stairs implied a way out, that I could escape simply by retracing my steps. I could run back and hammer at the locked door until the silver-eyed women or the Bailiff came to let me out. It’s awful, just awful, not having the reassurance of those stairs. I look at the entrance of the cave, and it’s night outside, but I can see the water gets deep very fast out there. I’ve never been a very strong swimmer, Doctor.

Stop dawdling,” says the thing with key. Its voice is as wretched as everything else about it. Have I ever mentioned that before? “Maybe you want to get yourself left behind, is that it? Maybe you want to be around for high tide and the sharks?” It has a dozen of these “maybe” questions. At least a dozen and sometimes a lot more than that. “Maybe you got gills I can’t see?”

I tell it I’m coming, and I cross the threshold, too. This part’s like before. But on the other side of the granite wall, everything’s changed, the same way the cellar became a sea cave. Now, beyond the wall, where before there were only the winding tunnels, the Minoan maze where I used to wander for what seemed like hours before finding my way out into the cellar again, now there’s an enormous chamber. We’re still underground. That’s obvious. The air is dank, musty, foul, but dry after the sea cave.

This is the place it all begins,” the wretched rat thing says. It sounds proud, like it’s declaring some grand accomplishment, as if whatever begins here is its doing. Like that. “Now, was this anything that man, that Doc Sheepshead, ever told you about?” it asks me.

I know that it’s getting your name wrong on purpose, but I correct it anyway. “Lambshead,” I say, and it replies, in a sing-song sort of way, “Shut up, Maggie. Sheep or lamb, ram or ewe, it hardly matters to me.”

Yes, it knows my name. It knows my name, and it speaks my name. Surely, that should be enough to shock me awake, but I never wake until farther along.

Beginnings are just as important as whatever comes along and happens after,” it says. I want to cut its throat so I’ll never have to hear that wretched voice again, but I look at the chamber, instead. It’s an ossuary. I’ve never been inside an ossuary, but of course I’ve seen photographs of them. The floor below me is earthen, and there are two square pillars supporting the earthen roof. Between the pillars is a third column, made of blocks of granite held together with mortar and crowned with something like a huge bowl or basin or baptismal font or birdbath. I don’t know the word for what it is, and it’s not always the same. The wall beyond the three pillars is built entirely of the skulls and thighbones of human beings. The bones are very old. I know that just from looking at them.

You pay close attention to all this,” says the wretched not-rat thing. I tell it I want to go back. I ask it to take me back, but it doesn’t reply. I think it is selectively deaf, if you get my drift.

And I realize there are two other people in the ossuary chamber with us. A man and a woman. Both are wearing heavy black robes with hoods. The robes and hoods are lined with purple silk. The man is holding an open book in his right hand and a silver cup in his left. The woman is holding a dagger of some sort. There’s something dead on the floor between them, but I turn away before I can see what it might be. I don’t want to know. I can’t be blamed for not wanting to know that, can I?

The man and woman are chanting. It might be Latin, but I’m not sure. I’ve never studied…

Excerpt from “The Castleblakeney Key: Unlocking an example of the importance of uncertainty to ontological processes in social constructionism,” Siegfried Glaserfeld, Psyche: Journal of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, Vol. 12 (2006):

 …the unfortunate case of Margaret Jacobs, that we quickly arrive at a position where it becomes obvious that the important questions here have nothing to do with the objective origins of the hand and whether or not it’s genuine or a hoax. It makes no difference whether we say it came from an Irish peat bog or the Parisian catacombs, whether it belongs to a child, a monster, or a monkey. It doesn’t matter if Lambshead knew it was a hoax or was duped by Dussubieux (or anyone else). Any answer regarding its “authenticity” is, by necessity, only provisional, open to correction or revision at any time, and, hence, far from being a direct representation of a pre-existing singularity. All answers retain an inherently experimental character. Regardless of the hand/key’s status as virtual construct/s, they remain, however, selections from our sensory fields that are causally linked to the real and, therefore, may surprise us at any time and without…

Excerpt from a letter found among the correspondence of the late Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead, from M. Camille Dussubieux (n°20, rue de la Chaussée-d’Antin, Paris) to Lambshead, dated August 2, 1961:

 …that it pains me. The offer seemed more than equitable, considering you paid a mere 200 francs for — — -. And to accuse me of secretly acting as an agent for Valadon and Provoyeur! Such an allegation strikes at the core of all our years of friendship and trust, and yet you make it so lightly. Am I supposed to put that out of my mind now?

Likewise, to accuse me of lying, when you can have no foreknowledge of my dreams, excepting to the degree I may divulge them. I tell you, Thackery, with no guile in my heart, that I did stand there in l’Ossuaire, at Crypte de la lampe sépulcrale, and I saw the foul beast come trundling through an opening in the wall, which it clearly used the key to fashion. I did not in the least exaggerate the repellent nature of the dwarfish creature, nor did I exaggerate the fear and confusion in the eyes of the poor woman who followed it through that doorway. She never once looked directly at me, but kept her eyes on the obscene ritual being performed (except once, when she glanced over her shoulder). But enough. I’ve told you this already, and in exacting detail. You may choose to believe me or not. The offer stands. And I will endeavor to set aside your last letter, in hopes of preserving our friendship. I pray you will do…

Excerpt from a letter found among the correspondence of the late Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead, from Ms. Margaret H. Jacobs (7 Exegesis Street, Cincinnati, Ohio) to Lambshead, undated, but postmarked June 7, 1981:

…I can’t imagine I’ll ever write you again. Not because the psychiatrist has advised me to stop, and because of that very rude letter from your lawyer (if that’s really who he is), but because I’m losing heart at your persistent refusal to respond. When we met, you seemed like such a good man, so forthright and generous. But now, I don’t know.

So, probably this is the last time I’ll bother you. I’m sure you’re relieved at that news. Maybe I don’t blame you for being relieved. If I were you, I might feel the same way. Only, I’m not you.

The dream has a new bit at the end. Toward the place I usually wake up, which I think of as the end. I’ve followed the wretched not-rat beast into the ossuary, and the two robed figures are waiting there. We’ve interrupted them again. I try not to dwell on what manner of witchcraft they might be up to. They don’t look at me. They don’t look at the wretched thing with the key. They turn and look at a man who has just entered (stage left).

He’s a painfully thin man, and he looks like someone only half awake, or like a sleepwalker, maybe. A somnambulist. He’s barefoot. He’s come down a flight of earthen stares [sic] at [sic] stands at the bottom, gazing directly at me and the wretched thing. He says something, but it’s all French, and I’m not very good with French. I only catch a few words. I’m almost pretty sure he says, “Ne prenez pas cette route, Madame.” It’s happened twice now, and I wrote that down as soon as I woke the second time. He also says, in English, “Please, turn around, go back!” He’s very upset, and points at the hole the wretched thing made in the wall with the key. The robed figures are glaring at him now. The woman raises her dagger, taking a step towards him. The somnambulist turns and dashes back up the steps.

When he’s gone, the wretched not-rat beast scrambles up to the man with the open book, and they whisper to one another. Then the man looks directly at me, and his eyes flash red-gold in the gloom, the way a cat’s eyes will. He says, in English, “Heaven dost provide for all its children.” I’m so scared, I finally do turn around, meaning to run back to the cellar or sea cave, whichever, because anything’s better than this. But the hole in the granite wall is gone, and I’m trapped there. I slam my fists against the rock, over and over.

It shouldn’t surprise you that I hardly sleep…

Excerpt from a postcard found among the effects of Ms. Margaret H. Jacobs (7 Exegesis Street, Cincinnati, Ohio) following her suicide, from Lambshead, dated July, 10 1981 (postmarked July 13):

…can assure you, Ms. Jacobs, the letter in question did not come from my solicitors. I’ve inquired regarding this matter, and they’ve sent no such letter to you. Which is not surprising, as they aren’t in the habit of taking such action unless I’ve requested that they do so. However, this said, I do think we might both be happier if these reports of yours ceased. I don’t know what to make of them, and while I am obviously sorry if your visit set these unpleasant dreams in motion, I am not trained in psychoanalysis, and you’d be better served…

Excerpt from the obituary of Margaret Harriet Jacobs, The Cincinnati Post, July 8, 1981:

…a respected teacher and scholar, she was a tenured professor of Political Science at the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, University of Cincinnati. She is survived by her sister, Dorothy Frost (née Jacobs), and her brother, Harold Jacobs. In lieu of flowers the family prefers memorial donations in the deceased’s name to the Cincinnati chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Condolences may be expressed at…

(Art by Aeron Alfrey)

Caitlín R. Kiernan (1964 —  ) is an American author who has steadily moved beyond a reputation as an heir to the legacy of H.P. Lovecraft and Southern Gothic literature to become one of the most original and audacious weird writers of her generation. In addition to her many award-winning novels and stories, Kiernan has written scientific papers that reflect her love of herpetology and paleontology, also reflected in her fiction. Perhaps more than any other writer of the past thirty years, Kiernan places the reader somewhere alien and inhabits points of view that seem both luminous and edgy. 

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