The horror draws closer.
⁓The Voice before the Void
The Shadow over Innsmouth
edited by The Voice before the Void
It must have been some imp of the perverse — or some dark pull from hidden sources — that made me change my plans. I had long before resolved to limit my observations to architecture alone, and I was even then hurrying toward the Square in an effort to get quick transportation out of this festering city of death and decay; but the sight of old Zadok Allen set up new currents in my mind and made me slow my pace uncertainly.
I had been assured that the old man could do nothing but hint at wild and incredible legends, and I had been warned that the locals made it unsafe to be seen talking with him; yet the thought of this aged witness to the town’s decay, with memories going back to the early days of ships and factories, was a lure that I could not resist. After all, the strangest myths are often merely allegories based upon truth — and old Zadok must have seen everything that went on around Innsmouth for the last ninety years. Curiosity flared up, and in my youthful egotism I fancied I might be able to sift a kernel of real history from the extravagant stories I would probably extract with the aid of raw whiskey.
I knew that I could not accost him then and there, for the firemen would surely object. Instead, I would prepare by getting some bootleg liquor at a place the grocery boy had told me about. Then I would loaf near the fire station in apparent casualness, and fall in with old Zadok after he had started on one of his frequent rambles. The youth had said that he was very restless, seldom sitting around the station for more than an hour or two at a time.
A quart bottle of whiskey was easily, though not cheaply, obtained in the rear of a dingy dime-store just off the Square. The dirty-looking young fellow who waited on me had a touch of the staring “Innsmouth look.”
Reentering the Square, I saw that luck was with me, for, shuffling down the street, was the tall, lean, tattered form of old Zadok Allen himself. I attracted his attention by brandishing my bottle, and soon realized that he had begun to shuffle after me as I turned down a street on my way to the most deserted region I could think of.
I was heading for the abandoned stretch of southern waterfront. The only people there had been the fishermen on the distant breakwater; and by going further south I could get beyond those, find some abandoned wharf, and be free to question old Zadok unnoticed. Before I reached Main Street, I could hear a faint and wheezy “Hey, Mister!” behind me, and I allowed the old man to catch up and take copious pulls from the bottle.
As we walked amidst the desolation and ruins, I found that the aged tongue did not loosen as quickly as I had expected. At length, I saw a grass-grown opening toward the sea between crumbling brick walls, with the weedy length of a wharf projecting beyond. Piles of moss-covered stones near the water promised tolerable seats, and the scene was sheltered from view by a ruined warehouse on the north. Here was the ideal place for an undisturbed interview; so I guided my companion down the lane and picked out spots among the mossy stones. The atmosphere of death and desertion was ghoulish, and the smell of fish almost insufferable; but I was resolved to let nothing deter me.
About four hours remained for conversation if I were to catch the 8 o’clock bus for Arkham, and I doled out liquor to the ancient tippler, meanwhile eating my own frugal lunch. After an hour, his furtive taciturnity showed signs of disappearing, but much to my disappointment, he still sidetracked my questions about Innsmouth and its shadow-haunted past. He would babble of current topics, revealing a tendency to opinionize in an ornery village fashion.
Toward the end of the second hour, I feared my quart of whiskey would not be enough, and was wondering whether I should go back for more. Just then, however, chance made the opening which my questions had been unable to make; and the man’s wheezing rambling took a turn that caused me to lean forward and listen alertly. My back was toward the fishy-smelling sea, but he was facing it and something had caused his wandering gaze to light on the low, distant line of Devil Reef. The sight seemed to displease him, for he began a series of weak curses. Then he bent toward me, took hold of my coat, and hissed out hints that could not be mistaken.
“Thar’s whar it all begun — that cursed place of wickedness whar the deep water starts. Gates of hell — sheer drop down to a bottom no soundin’-line can touch. Ol’ Cap’n Obed done it – him that found out more’n was good fer him in the South Sea islands.
“Everybody was in a bad way back then. Trade fallin’ off, mills losin’ business — an’ the best men killed privateerin’ in the War of 1812. Obed Marsh, he had three ships. He was the only one kept on with the East-India and Pacific trade.
“Never was nobody like Cap’n Obed. Heh, heh! I can remember him a-tellin’ about furren parts, an’ callin’ all the folks stupid for goin’ to Christian meetin’ an’ bearin’ their burdns meek an’ lowly. Says they’d oughta git better gods like some o’ the folks in the Indies — gods that could bring ’em good fishin’ in return for their sacrifices, an’ could really answer folks’s prayers.
“Matt Eliot, his first mate, talked a lot too, only he was against folks’s doin’ any heathen things. Told about a Pacific island whar they was a lot o’ stone ruins older’n anything, kind o’ like them on Ponape, but with faces like the big statues on Easter Island. Thar was a little volcanic island near thar, too, whar they was other ruins with diff’rent carvin’ — ruins all wore away like they’d ben under the sea once, an’ with pictures of awful monsters all over ’em.
“Wal, Sir, Matt he says the natives there had all the fish they could catch, an’ wore jewelry made out o’ a strange kind o’ gold an’ covered with pictures o’ monsters jest like the ones carved on the ruins on the little island — sorta froglike fishes that was drawed in all kinds o’ positions likes they was human beings. Nobody could figure out whar they got the stuff, and the other Islanders wondered how they managed to have fish when the next island had none. Matt, he got to wonderin’ too an’ so did Cap’n Obed. Obed, he notices, besides, that lots of the handsome young folks would drop out o’ sight fer good from year to year, an’ that they weren’t many old folks around. Also, he thinks some of the folks looked damned strange even for Islanders.
“It took Obed to git the truth out o’ them heathen. I don’t know how he done it, but be begun by tradin’ fer the gold-like things they wore. Asked ’em whar they come from, an’ if they could git more, an’ finally wormed the story out o’ the old chief — Walakea, they called him. Heh, heh! Nobody never believes me now when I tell ’em, an’ I don’t suppose you will, young feller.”
The old man’s whisper grew fainter, and I found myself shuddering at the terrible sincerity of his tone, even though I knew his tale could be nothing but drunken fantasy.
“Wal, Sir, Obed he learnt that there’s things on this earth that most folks never heard about — an’ wouldn’t believe if they did hear. It seems these Islanders was sacrificin’ lots o’ their young men an’ maidens to some kind o’ god-things that lived under the sea, an’ gittin’ all kinds o’ favor in return. They met the things on the little island with the strange ruins, an’ it seems them awful pictures o’ frog-fish monsters was supposed to be pictures o’ them. Maybe they was what got all the mermaid stories started.
“They had all kinds a’ cities on the sea-bottom, an’ this island was heaved up from thar. That’s how the Islanders found out they was down thar. Made sign-talk as soon as they got over bein’ skeert, an’ struck a bargain afore long.
“Them things liked human sacrifices. Had had ’em ages afore, but lost track o’ the upper world after a time. What they done to the victims, I guess Obed didn’t want to ask. But it was all right with the heathens, because they’d ben havin’ a hard time an’ was desp’rate about everything. They give a sarten number o’ young folks to the sea-things twice every year, regular as could be. What the things gave in return was plenty a’ fish — they drove ’em in from all over the sea — an’ a few gold-like things now an’ then.
“Wal, the Islanders met the things on the little volcanic island — goin’ thar in canoes with the sacrifices, bringin’ back the gold-like jewelry. At first, the things never went onto the main island, but after a time, they wanted to. Seems they wanted to mix with the folks, an’ have joint ceremonies on the big days. Ye see, they was able to live both in and out o’ the water. The Islanders told the things that folks from the other islands might wanta wipe ’em out if they found out about their bein’ thar, but the things say they don’t care much, because they could wipe out all human-kind if they was willin’ to bother. But not wantin’ to bother, they’d lay low when anybody visited the island.
“When it come to matin’ with them toad-lookin’ fishes, the Islanders kind o’ balked, but finally they learned something that put a new face on the matter. Seems that human folk got a kind a’ relation to water-beasts — that everything alive on land came out o’ the water once an’ only needs a little change to go back again. Them things told the Islanders that if they mixed bloods there’d be children that would look human at first, but later turn more’n more like the things, till finally they’d go into the water an’ join the main lot o’ things down thar. An’ this is the important part, young feller — them that turned into fish-things an’ went into the water wouldn’t never die. Them things never died excep’ they was killed violent.
“Wal, Sir, it seems by the time Captain Obed found them Islanders they was all full o’ fish blood from them deep-water things. When they got old an’ begun to show it, they was kep’ hid until they felt like goin’ into the water. Some was more touched than others, an’ some never did change enough to go into the water; but mostly they turned out jest the way them things said. Those that went into the water gen’rally came back to visit, so’s a man could sometimes be talkin’ with his own five-times-great-grandfather who’d left the dry land a couple o’ hundred years before.
“Everybody got out of dyin’ — excep’ in canoe wars with the other Islanders, or as sacrifices to the sea-gods down below. They thought what they got was well worth what they had to give — an’ I guess Obed come to think the same thing himself.
“Chief Walakea showed Obed the ceremonies that had to do with the sea things, an’ let him see some o’ the village folks that had changed from human shape. But he never would let him see one of the regular fish-things from right out o’ the water. In the end, he gave him a funny kind o’ thingumajig made out o’ lead or something, and he said it would bring up the fish-things from any place in the sea whar they might be a nest of ’em. The idea was to drop it down with the right kind o’ prayers an’ such. Walakea said the things was scattered all over the world-ocean.
“Matt, the first mate, he didn’t like this business at all, an’ wanted Obed should stay away from the island; but Cap’n Obed was sharp fer gain, an’ found out he could get them gold things so cheap that he could focus his trade on ’em. Things went on that way for years, an’ Obed got enough o’ that gold-like stuff to start the refinery. He didn’t sell the pieces like they was, for folks would be askin’ questions. All the same, his sailors would get a piece now and then, even though they was swore to keep quiet; an’ he let his women-folk wear some o’ the pieces.
“Well, come about ’38 — when I was seven year’ old — Obed found the island people all wiped out. Seems the other Islanders had found out what was goin’ on, and took matters into their own hands. They didn’t leave nothin’ standin’ on the main island or the little volcanic island excep’ the ruins was too big to knock down. Folks all wiped out. The nearby Islanders wouldn’t say a word about the matter; they wouldn’t even admit there’d ever been people on that island.
“Wal, that hit Obed pretty hard, seein’ as that was his main trade. It hit the whole of Innsmouth, because in those days, what profited the master of a ship profited the crew. Most of the folks was in bad shape, because the fishin’ was bad and the mills weren’t doin’ well.
“Then Obed, he begun cursin’ the folks fer bein’ dull sheep an’ prayin’ to a Heaven that didn’t help ’em none. He told ’em he’d knowed folks that prayed to gods that give ye somethin’ ye really need, an’ says if men would stand by him, he could maybe get a hold o’ certain powers that would bring plenty o’ fish, and gold. O’ course, those sailors that served with him and seen the island knowed what he meant, an’ weren’t none too anxious to get close to sea-things. But folks that didn’t know got kind o’ swayed by what Obed said, and begun to ask him what he could do to set ’em on the way to the faith that would bring results.”
Here the old man became silent, and glanced over his shoulder, and then turned back to stare at the distant black reef. When I spoke to him he did not answer. The insane story I was hearing interested me profoundly, for I believed it was a sort of allegory based upon the strangeness of Innsmouth and elaborated by an imagination full of scraps of legend. The account held a hint of genuine terror if only because it referenced the strange jewelry like the bizarre tiara I had seen at Newburyport.
I handed Zadok the bottle, and he drained it to the last drop. He licked the nose of the bottle and slipped it into his pocket, and then began to nod and talk to himself. But he was forming words, and I could hear most of them.
“Poor Matt — he always was against it — tried to get folks on his side — no use — the Methodist preacher quit, and they run the Congregational preacher out o’ town — never did see the Baptist preacher again — I was little, but I heard what I heard, an’ seen what I seen — Dagon an’ Ashtoreth — Belial an’ Beelzebub — Golden Caff — abominations — Cthulhu –”
He stopped again. But when I gently shook his shoulder he turned on me with astonishing alertness.
“Don’t believe me, huh? Then jest tell me, why did Cap’n Obed an’ twenty other folks used to row out to Devil Reef in the dead o’ night an’ chant things so loud ye could hear ’em in town? Tell me that. An’ tell me why Obed was always droppin’ heavy things down into the deep water on the other side o’ the reef? An’ what did they all howl on May-Eve, an’ again on Hallowe’en? An’ why did the new church preachers — who used to be sailors — wear them strange robes an’ them gold-like things? Huh?
“Heh, heh, heh, heh! Beginnin’ to see, huh? At night, I seen the reef thick with shapes… Obed an’ his folks was in a boat, but them shapes dove off the far side of the reef into the deep water an’ didn’t come back up…”
The old man was getting hysterical. He laid a gnarled hand on my shoulder, and it was shaking.
“S’pose one night you seen somethin’ heaved off of Obed’s boat beyond the reef’, and then next day you learned that a young feller was missin’ from home. Huh? Did anybody ever see Hiram Gilman again? Did they? Or Nick Pierce, or Luelly Waite, or Henry Garrison? Huh? Heh, heh, heh, heh…
“Wal, Sir, that was the time Obed begun to make money again. The refinery started workin’ again, and his daughters started wearin’ them gold things. Other folks was doin’ well, too — fish begun to swarm into the harbor. Some Kingsport fishermen heard about the fishin’ an’ come up in their ship, but they was all lost; nobody never seen them again. Our folk organized the Esoteric Order o’ Dagon, an’ bought the Mason’s Hall for it… heh, heh, heh! Matt Eliot was a Mason an’ against the sellin’, but he disappeared about then.
“Remember, I ain’t sayin’ Obed wanted things jest like they was on that Pacific island. I don’t think he wanted to mix and raise younguns to turn into fishes with the eternal life. He wanted them gold things, an’ I guess the others was satisfied fer a while…
“But, come ’46, the town done some lookin’ and thinkin’ fer itself. Too many folks missin’ — too much wild preachin’ — too much talk about that reef. One night, a group followed Obed’s gang out to the reef, and shots were fired. Next day, Obed and thirty-two others was in jail, with everybody wonderin’ how long they could hold ’em and how to charge ’em. Oh, if anybody had looked ahead… a couple o’ weeks later, when nothin’ had been throwed into the sea fer that long…
“That awful night … hordes of ’em … all over the reef and swimmin’ up the harbor and into the river … oh, that night in Innsmouth … they rattled our door, but Pa barricaded us in … my uncle climbed out a window with his musket … never saw him again … all the screams… When folks from outside later found half our people missing, they called it the ‘plague’… The only people left in Innsmouth were the ones with Obed, or the ones who would keep quiet…
“Obed took charge of the town after that, an’ says things is goin’ to be differ’nt … said certain houses have got to entertain ‘guests’ … they wanted to mix like they done with the Islanders, an’ Obed wasn’t goin’ to stop ’em. He says they brung us fish an’ treasure, an’ they should have what they wanted…
“The next year, Cap’n Obed took a second wife that nobody in town never seen — some says he didn’t want to, but was forced to… Had three children by her… Obed finally married them off by tricks to outside folks that didn’t suspect nothin’. But nobody from outside will have anything to do with Innsmouth folks now.
“And we was to keep quiet from strangers, if we knowed what was good fer us.
“We all had to take the Oath of Dagon, an’ later on there was second an’ third oaths. No use balkin’, fer they was millions of ’em down thar. They’d rather not wipe out human-kind, but if they was forced to, they could do it.
“Give ’em enough sacrifices an’ what else they wanted, an’ they’d leave well enough alone. They wouldn’t bother strangers that might tell stories outside — unless strangers got nosy. All of us the faithful — the Order of Dagon — an’ the children would never die, but go back to where we all come from … Ia! Ia! Cthulhu ftagn! Cthulhu R’lyeh ftagn — ”
Old Zadok was starting to rave, and I held my breath. Poor old soul. He began to moan now, and tears were running down his checks into his beard.
“Oh, what I seen — Cthulhu, Cthulhu ftagn! — the folks that went missin’, and them that killed themselves… Those that told stories in Arkham or Ipswich were called crazy, like you think I am right now — but oh, what I seen — They’d a killed me long ago, except I took the first an’ second Oaths of Dagon from Captain Obed himself, so I was protected … but I wouldn’t take the third Oath — I’d a died afore I’d do that –”
The sound of the incoming tide was growing insistent, and it seemed to change the old man’s mood from tearfulness to fear. He renewed those nervous glances over his shoulder and out toward the reef.
“Hey! How’d you like to live in a town like this, with everything rottin’ an’ dyin’, an’ boarded-up monsters crawlin’ aroun’ cellars an’ attics? How’d you like to hear the howlin’ from the churches an’ Dagon Hall? How’d ye like to hear the sounds from that awful reef every May-Eve an’ Halloween? Think I’m crazy, huh? Wal, Sir, let me tell you, that ain’t the worst!
“Yew jest set an’ listen to me — this is what I ain’t never told nobody — Yew want to know what the real horror is? Wal, it’s this — it ain’t what them fish-devils have done, but what they’re goin’ to do! When they git ready–”
The old man stopped abruptly. Looking past me toward the sea, his face became a mask of fear, and his bony hand dug into my shoulder. I turned my head to look at whatever he had glimpsed.
There was nothing that I could see. Only the incoming tide, with perhaps one set of ripples closer to shore than the far-out line of breakers. But now Zadok was shaking me, and I turned back to watch his face melt from fear into chaos. His voice came back — but as a trembling whisper.
“Git out o’ here! They seen us — git out fer your life! Don’t wait — they know now — Run for it– Get out o’ this town –”
Another heavy wave struck the wharf, and the old man, looking past me at the sea, screamed.
Continued in part 4.