A weird pulp fiction fantasy adventure story of lost worlds and the Cthulhu Mythos.
⁓The Voice before the Void
Henry S. Whitehead with H.P. Lovecraft
Powers Meredith, at his shower-bath before dinner in the bathroom adjoining his room in his New York City club, allowed the cake of soap to drop on the tiled floor. Stooping to recover it he rapped the side of his head against the marble sidewall. The resulting bruise was painful, and almost at once puffed up into a noticeable lump….
Meredith dined in the grill that evening. Having no after-dinner engagement he went into the quiet library of the club, empty at this hour, and settled himself with a new book beside a softly-shaded reading lamp.
From time to time a slight, inadvertent pressure of his head against the chair’s leather upholstered back would remind him unpleasantly of his accident in the shower-bath. This, after it happened several times, became an annoyance, and Meredith shifted himself into a preventive attitude with his legs draped over one of the chair’s rounded arms.
No one else came into the library. Faint, clicking noises came in from the nearby billiard-room where a couple of men were playing, but, absorbed in his book, he did not notice these. The only perceptible sound was that of the gentle, steady rain outside. This, in the form of a soothing, continuous murmur, came through the partly-opened, high windows. He read on.
Precisely as he turned over the ninety-sixth page of his book, he heard a dull sound, like a very large explosion coming from a vast distance.
Alert now, his finger holding his place in the book, he listened. Then he heard a rumbling roar, as though countless tons of wrecked masonry were falling; falling; clearly, unmistakably, the remote thunder of some catastrophic ruin. He dropped his book, and, obeying an almost automatic impulse, started for the door.
He met nobody as he rushed down the stairs. At the coatroom, which he had to pass on his way to the doorway, two fellow members were chatting easily as they took their checks. Meredith glanced at them, surprised. He rushed on, to the doorway, and out into the street, where he paused. An empty street!
The rain, reduced now to a mere drizzle, made the asphalt shimmer in the street lights. Over towards Broadway, certainly, there must be clamor! But when he reached it, he found only the compound eleven o’clock bedlam of Times Square.
Along Sixth Avenue, countless taxi-cabs weaved in a many—hued stream, jockeying for position in the maëlström of the night-traffic about the Hippodrome. On the corner, a solitary rubber-coated policeman swung long efficient arms like a pair of mechanical semaphores, and skillfully directed the crawling traffic. To his ever-increasing wonderment, everything seemed normal. But what then had been that catastrophic sound?
Returning to the club entrance, he hesitated, a frown creasing his brow. He mounted the three steps hesitatingly, and entered, pausing at the door-man’s desk.
“Send me up an ‘extra,’ please, if one comes out,” he told the clerk. Then he went up to his bedroom completely puzzled.
Half an hour later as he lay in bed wakeful and trying to compose in his thoughts the varying, incongruous aspect of this strange affair, he was all at once acutely conscious of a distant, thin, confused, roaring hum. The most prominent element in this sound was the deep, soft, and insistently penetrating blending of countless voices. Through it ran a kind of dominant note—a note of horror. The sound chilled his blood. It was eerie. He found himself holding his breath as he listened, straining every faculty to take in that faint, distant, terrible clamor of fear and despair.
Of just when he fell asleep he had no recollection, but when he awakened the next morning there hung over his mind a shadow of remembered horror, not wholly dissipated until he had bathed and begun to dress. He heard none of the sounds at the time of his awakening.
No “extra” lay outside his bedroom door, and a little later at breakfast he opened expectantly and scanned several newspapers vainly and with a mounting sense of wonderment for any account of a catastrophe which could have caused the sounds. Gradually the implication grew upon him. He had, actually, heard the convincing, unmistakable evidence of such a catastrophe—and no one else knew anything about it!
He fell asleep immediately after turning in.
The following morning was Sunday. The reading—room was full, and he carried his book up to his bed-room after a late breakfast to read the rest of it in peace. Soon after he became immersed in it, his attention was distracted by the tapping of a window-shade, blown in and out by the breeze. It was annoying and he paused in his reading, intending to rise and adjust the shade.
As he withdrew his eyes, and part of his attention, from his book, all at once he heard a new sound. It was precisely as though a distant, sound-proof door had been abruptly opened.
As he listened, fascinated, there came back to him and grew upon him a paralyzing, cold fear. There seemed to be no stopping it. The faint penumbra of a slight nausea shook him. He could distinguish overtones now, high tones, cries of battle; the impact of a charge against a resistant horde; noise of plied weapons.
The window-shade tapped again against the window casing. He snapped back into the familiar environment of his bedroom. He felt a little sick and weak. He rose shakily, walked across the room and into the bathroom, and, noisily splashing the water about, washed his hands and face.
Then he paused, suddenly to listen again, a towel gripped between clenched hands. But he could hear nothing now, nothing except the tapping of that window-shade in the fresh breeze blowing through the open window. He hung the towel on its porcelain rod and walked back to his chair.
It was an hour too early for lunch, but he wanted urgently to be where there were people about, even waiters, people who were not “hearing things”!
In order to prolong his companionship with old Cavanagh, the only other early luncher, Meredith ate somewhat more than usual. The unaccustomed heavy meal at such an hour made him drowsy, and after lunch he stretched out on a davenport before one of the two open fireplaces in the now unoccupied reading-room, and fell at once into an uneasy sleep.
A little before three he awakened, stale, and as he came to conscious wakefulness he began to hear, at first quite distinctly, and then with increasing loudness and clarity as though a steady hand were opening up a loudspeaker, that same sound of fire and human conflict, and the dreadful, menacing roar of a thunderous ocean’s incalculable anger.
Then, Old Cavanagh, napping on the other davenport, struggled with senile deliberation to his feet with many accompanying “hums” and “ha’s,” and began lumbering across the room towards him.
“Lord’s sake, what’s the matter?” he demanded.
Kindly goodwill looked out of the old man’s distorted countenance. Meredith, unable to control himself any longer, stammered out his incredible story.
“Hm! Strange…” was the old man’s comment when Meredith ended. He produced, lighted deliberately, and puffed upon an enormous cigar. He seemed to cogitate as the two sat side by side in a pregnant silence of many minutes. At last he spoke.
“You’re upset, my boy, naturally. But, you can hear everything that’s going on around you, can’t you? Your actual hearing’s all right, then. Hm! This other ‘hearing’ starts up and goes on only when everything’s perfectly quiet. First time, you were here reading; second time, in bed; third time, reading again; this time—if I wasn’t snoring—you were in perfect quiet once more. Let’s test that out, now. Keep perfectly still, and I’ll do the same. Let’s see if you hear anything.”
They fell silent once more, and for a while Meredith could hear nothing of the strange sounds. Then, as the silence deepened, once again came that complex of sounds indicating devastating battle, murder, and sudden death.
He nodded silently at Cavanagh, and at the old man’s acquiescent murmur the sounds ceased abruptly.
It took urging before Meredith could be persuaded to consult an aurist. Medical men, Cavanagh reminded him, would keep quiet about anything strange or embarrassing. Professional ethics….
They went uptown together that afternoon to Dr. Gatefield, a noted specialist. The doctor heard the story with close-lipped, professional attention. Then he tested Meredith’s hearing with various delicate instruments. Finally he gave an opinion.
“We are familiar with various ‘ear-noises,’ Mr. Meredith. In some cases, the location of one of the arteries too close to the ear-drum gives ‘roaring’ noises. There are others, similar. I have eliminated everything of that kind. Your physical organism is in excellent condition, and unusually acute. There is nothing wrong with your hearing. This is a case for a psychiatrist.
“I am not suggesting anything like mental derangement, you will please understand! But I recommend Dr. Cowlington. This seems to be a clear case of what is sometimes called ‘clairaudience,’ or something similar—his department-; not mine. The aural equivalent of ‘clairvoyance’ is what I am indicating, you see what I mean. ‘Second-sight’ has to do with the eyes, of course, but it is mental; although there is often some physical background, I have no knowledge of those phenomena. I hope you will take my advice and allow Dr. Cowling—”
“All right!” interrupted Meredith. “Where does he live? I might as well go through with the thing now as later.”
Dr. Gatefield showed traces of sympathy under his rather frosty professional exterior. He dropped the diagnostician, became the obliging, courteous gentleman. He telephoned to his colleague, the psychiatrist, and then surprised both Meredith and Cavanagh by accompanying them to Dr. Cowlington’s. The psychiatrist proved to be a tall, thin, and rather kindly person, with heavy, complex spectacles on a prominent nose, and then, sand-colored wisps of hair in a complication of cowlicks. He showed marked interest in the case from the start. After hearing Meredith’s story and the aurist’s report, he subjected Meredith to an examination of more than an hour, from which, feeling more or less as though he had been dissected, he nevertheless derived a considerable sense of relief.
It was decided that Meredith should arrange at once to take several days off, come to Dr. Cowlington’s house, and remain “under observation.”
He arrived at the doctor’s the next morning and was given a pleasant, upstairs room, with many books and a comfortable davenport on which, in a recumbent position, the psychiatrist suggested, he should spend most of his waking hours, reading.
During Monday and Tuesday, Meredith, now after Dr. Cowlington’s skillful reassurances no longer upset at hearing the strange sounds, listened carefully for whatever might reach him from what seemed like another—and very restless—world! He heard as he listened for long periods uninterrupted by any aural distractions, the drama of a great community in the paralyzing grip of fear—fighting for its corporate life—against irresistible, impending, dreadful doom.
He began, about this time, at Dr. Cowlington’s suggestion, to write down some of the syllabification of the cries and shouts as well as he could manage it, on a purely phonetic basis. The sounds corresponded to no language known to him. The words and phrases were blurred and marred by the continuous uproar of the fury of waters. This was invariably, and continued to be so, the sustained, distinctive background for every sound he heard during the periods while he remained passive and quiet. The various words and phrases were entirely unintelligible. His notes looked like nothing which either he or Cowlington could relate to any modern or ancient tongue. When read aloud, they made nothing but gibberish.
These strange terms were studied over very carefully by Dr. Cowlington, by Meredith himself, and by no less than three professors, of Archeology and Comparative Philology, one of whom, the Archeologist, was a friend of Cowlington’s and the other two called in by him. All of these experts on ancient and obsolete languages listened with the greatest courtesy to Meredith’s attempt to explain the apparent setting of the sounds—most of them were in the nature of battle-cries and what Meredith took to be fragments of desperately uttered prayer—some of the material having come to him in the form of uncouth, raucous howls—and with the greatest interest to his attempts at reproducing them orally. They studied his written notes with the most meticulous care. The verdict was unanimous, even emphatic on the part of the younger and more dogmatic philologist. The sounds were quite utterly at variance with any known speech, including Sanskrit, Indo-Iranian, and even the conjectural Akkadian and Sumerian spoken tongues. The transcribed syllables corresponded to nothing in any known language, ancient or modern. Emphatically they were not Japanese.
The three professors took their departure, and Meredith and the psychiatrist Dr. Cowlington went over the list again.
Meredith had written: “I, I, I, I;—R’ly-eh!—Ieh nya, —Ieh nya; —zoh, zoh-an-nuh!” There was only one grouping of the words which formed anything like a section of continuous speech, or sentence, and which Meredith had been able to capture more or less intact and write down—”Ióth, Ióth,—natcal-o, do yan kho thútthut.”
There were many other cries and, as he believed, desperately uttered prayers quite as strange and off the beaten tracks of recognized human speech as those noted down.
It was quite possibly because of his concentration on this affair of the remembered words–his own interest in them being naturally enhanced by Dr. Cowlington’s and that of the three experts–that Meredith’s dream-state impressions just at this time, and suddenly, became markedly acute.
Continued in part 2.