The tower was a thing of echoes, a lonesome hooning sounding from it throughout the wee small hours of each and every morning, keeping dreams at bay from the minds of those who heard it instead inviting nightmares in. Sarah had been listening to the sonorous songs of the tower for all of her life. Every night, she would lie awake when she should have slept, her ears tuning into the emptiness which had settled and found its voice in that crumbling hollow horn of stone. There were no houses near to the tower, it was a thing alone, a beacon of solitude, hemmed in by a wasteland of shattered rock and excavated mud. From her window, Sarah could see it and, when the house was quiet, and she was alone, she looked out upon the tower, wishing it would sing to her but it never did, not in the daylight.
Sevengraves was a queer town on the coast of England in the south-eastern county of Felfolk. It was not quite there, time ran slow around its borders and mermaids were said to safely frolic in its waters without fear of capture or torture by lascivious men. The manners and mode of dress there were considered to be quaint by outsiders who strayed along its ornate streets and cobbled roads. Few of them stayed though because the tower, when it sang in the night, sent those not of the town into spasms of fear and desperate self-loathing. They often fled on foot, crying out to all they passed that demons were after them, bulbous creatures with porcine features and long black knives for fingernails. No such demons were seen and the townsfolk let the outsiders go on their way.
Sarah was the daughter of a merchant. A heavy-hearted man who had lost his wife to the wasting sickness which often plagued Sevengraves during the winter season. For this reason, Christmastide was a sombre affair in their household, being a festival spent reflectively in memoriam. Though Sarah found it hard-going, year after year, because she had never known her mother. It was difficult to annually mourn someone who was not even a pleasant remembrance from childhood afternoons. Sarah understood her father, that he meant well, but she also knew that he was keeping her. She had not been schooled and had no profession she could call her own. In her father’s eyes, she was meant to forever sit upstairs in her room, a hermetically-sealed miniature of her mother, to be fed and tended to but never to be allowed out into the world. She knew that was the thought that her father could not bear, of harm coming to her, in any form. It was in his eyes when they were together at breakfast, lunch and dinner. His eyelashes would shimmer with the expectorant that comes before true tears. A tremble would pass through him, from top to toe and then he would suddenly be sober again and the sudden tightness in her chest would come undone.
Thus trapped and restricted in her life and movements, Sarah turned inward, fashioning her own world, using the books from her dead mother’s modest library for inspiration. She read of the Greeks, the Romans, the Norse and the Celts. Her dreams would be peopled with the gods and goddesses of yesteryear. The gay abandon of barefoot dances at midnight in woodland faerie rings, grand high adventures in forgotten cities, exploring the burial grounds of black-hearted dragons, these were her fantasies. For a time, in this way, she was content.
But as she grew and blossomed, she came to know that fantasy was not enough alone.
“Something must be done,” she said to no-one, one day, for she had no friends, apart from her black cat, Entwhistle, who she sometimes liked to pretend was her Familiar.
Sarah sat down and began to write. Not at the usual times, for her father was a worrisome man and might be suspicious if he saw her scribbling away in the daylight hours. Writing was a long-recorded symptom of discontent and he would deduce that meant she was moving away from him, if not in body, in thought and spirit. So, Sarah wrote at night, by starlight, keeping a lone candle burning low as she scratched her words down onto paper. She listened always to the sound of her father’s snoring, stopping her work and snuffing the candle if she heard him become disturbed in his sleep. This was not a frequent occurrence though as the man was a heavy sleeper, a fact for which she gave thanks to the gods.
As she wrote and her portfolio of poems, tales and vignettes proliferated, she noticed odd words appearing, curious phrases that she could not remember putting down. Writing at night, she often found herself dozing, leaning over into the inviting abyss of sleep. Most times, she rallied herself but sometimes she did not. She became certain that it was on these latter occasions that she wrote the strangest of her stories, her fingers guided by some Other’s subtle hand, unseen. These stories were not of the Greeks, the Romans, the Norse or even the Celts but drawn from some other sphere of influence, some darker doctrine she could not recall having read at all. I have puzzled long over these passages she left behind, they read not as narrative but almost as incantations, prayers invoking unpronounceable names, histories of planets where the cities are fashioned glass, people are wreaths of smoke, and flowing through it all there is a music, an ancient sonorous song conveyed not by mere words but by some arcane syllabic construction of sound that it is beyond my mortal abilities to decipher.
Now, I am not going to tell you that she was somehow able to free herself of her father’s suffocating influence and then elope with a fair young man for that is the stuff of saccharine romances and not the truth I wish to impart here.
Her father did die and so, left alone, one might expect Sarah to have left the merchant’s ageing hovel for the wider world but she did not. However, from reading her work since, I now know that an escape was always uppermost in her mind though none of us guessed back then what manner of escape this would be.
Sarah’s fantastic dreams had given her a sensitivity, a yearning that might be best described as the most exquisite form of sehnsucht possible, as a magician is able to divine places both blessed and cursed by the working of their spells, Sarah was able to divine her path out of this world and into one more in keeping with her desires by the exercise of this finely-wrought emotive acumen and the tower, her lonesome companion down through the years, which sang to her when she was writing out her sweetest and darkest of dreams, was to be the key to her escape.
She had once gone wandering to it as a small child, her heart possessing her in her sleep. Her frantic father found her there, stumbling, chafing her knees as she tried to ascend the broken steps leading to the tower’s apex. He brought her home and spent whole nights awake watching over her, this was before the time her writing began, but she never repeated the expedition and he believed the fixation was a thing of the past. Dull naivety on his part, this assumption, for a careful soul can keep deep and profound love a secret, if it so wishes, and so Sarah did for many, many years.
The night of her second expedition to the tower is the tale I now have to tell. It was late on a Christmas Eve, when the town was drowning in the sound of boisterous revels, that she set out, crossing the coarse wastes surrounding the tower’s base, she felt a gust of fetid wind tugging at her clothes, whispering to her in warning astral tones but she was not so easily deterred.
Coming to the tower she found that, whilst there was no doorway, decay had left certain openings. Being petite, she was able to squirm her way through, revelling briefly in the dirt and roughness that her sheltered home-life had denied her. Then, she was through and inside, climbing the spiral staircase which wound around the tower’s interior. She came across a number of curious eldritch signs carved into the bare stone, their curvatures made her think of Medusa, the serpents in her hair. Running her fingertips over these queer depressions made her start, wet electric shocks passing through her, coursing down to her toes, as words of diseased gold and enseamed silver took shape behind her eyes. These words she would need to know when she came to the top of the tower for they were a prayer to the thing she sought to bring forth from Outside.
There was a nocturnal rustling, followed by a weird whooping call, and then a fluttering as of colossal moth wings. Sarah stepped away as the air whistled, parting violently, and it came soaring up, out of the black space below. Thin and faceless, its skin was the colour and texture of spilt ink, its pterodactyl wings were beating it into sure flight with long-nailed hands thrust out and the scorpion barb of its segmented tail trailing, swaying, passing close to her, the hook of it glistening with a noxious bead of benighted venom. Then, it was gone, leaving a scented violet mist trailing in its wake. It was a demon from her dreams, one of the Night-Gaunts, they who carry their victims away to abysmal mountain lairs, using wicked fingernails and tail-barbs to tickle such unfortunates into insensibility. Fortunately for her, this one appeared to have another purpose tonight than seeking out prey for such games. When the tower was once more quiet and the air settled, still, she continued her ascent.
Atop the tower, Sarah stood, looking out over the festive vista of the town and its harbour. Men and women were dancing in the streets, shouting and yelling their joy, their greetings. Children were all abed, stockings hanging, eagerly tacked open. Parents, in the dark, sneaking parcels into these cotton sheaths, leaving kisses on their little ones’ brows. This was what she was leaving behind and she felt a twinge in her heart but no more than that.
The words of the prayer were acrid on her tongue, bitter from being kept there, unspoken. Sarah slipped out of her shoes, letting her bare soles earth her to the tower, drawing upon its forlorn depths of bound and fettered power. Closing her eyes, she spoke, feeling storm-winds lashing about her as she did, hearing the Night-Gaunts, their charnel fingers and tail-tips clicking, swirling down out of the sky and then circling her, in orbit around the tower.
This is what she cried out from on high that weird, wonderful night, “Ia! Ia! Shub-Niggurath! Ygnaiih! Ygnaiih! I call upon you, the Black Goat, she who bore the Thousand Young. Hear me and heed my words for they are true and of my heart.”
So called upon, Shub-Niggurath came, out of the night, at one with the storm, a boiling black froth of protean cloud, edged with sickly silver traces, depths streaking and screaming with a thousand lost faces, maybe more, all of them singing the same desolate, wordless song as the tower. Sarah found that she was singing too though she was cold and the wind of the storm cut her to the bone. The soles of her bare feet were tickling with nacreous lines of electricity as her heart began throbbing in time with the febrile humming of the tower’s tortured matter. She called out to the spreading storm above, which now hung so low overhead, waiting, eager, fierce and intent on her, its diminutive summoner.
“Darkest Mother of All, take me with you on this night, I would see what thou seest and then feel what thou feelest also. I would know Yaddith and the Ghooric Zone, I would see the Gardens of Yin and the ancient things that dwell therein.”
As the last words were spoken, as was promised, as she had long hoped and dreamed, Sarah was taken up, disappearing completely into the churning black belly of the storm-bred colossus. She cried out, not entirely in pain, as she was absorbed into the other-matter of the Great Old One’s amorphous being and she saw what the Darkest Mother and her Thousand Young saw and felt as they felt. It was the purest ecstasy. To forever be one with those others who dreamed the worlds into being. Now, she too could see the shores of other realms and esoteric modes of existence; the emerald cities of Shaggai and its chittering insect shamen, the fungoid crustaceans that people the plains of far-off starless Yuggoth, the undimensioned spaces between realities where, kept shapeless, the Great Old Ones wait until the stars are right so they can Be and Become, once more.
With them, she would fly, shriek, laugh and cry through Yog-Sothoth, the Animate Gate, to behold places, experiences and sensations never meant for those of us who shuffle on down to this mortal coil’s dismal and depressing end. We never saw her again after that night, when that sudden storm brought us the most beautiful snow ever seen in Sevengraves’ august history, it shone of all colours and hues, some even that we did not know, it came down sparkling from the quieting skies, casting a haze of ethereal rainbows over the mournful face of the moon.
And, sometimes, in the years that have come after, when the night air is keen and ragged clouds run over my windowpane like spilt ink, I think I hear her, our Sarah, out there, her laughter frolicking on the sea breeze, lost in some fine nightmare of paradise, and I smile for I know that she is content.
This Sunday, I would also like to give a shout-out to the Booze & Books Facebook group who have chosen Shapes in the Mist as one of their books of the month alongside Greg Sisco‘s Thicker Than Water. Thank you for the support and mine’s a double whiskey on the rocks!