The Weird Studies of Harley Warren, by Berin Kinsman

Please remember, sirs, that it was I who came to you about this matter. Asking the same questions of me, again and yet again, will not compel me to give you an answer other than the truth to which I have already sworn. Yet I will repeat myself, at your request, until you finally gain some understanding, and that I may unburden my conscience and perhaps find some solace regarding what I have done.

Again I say, I do not know what has become of Randolph Carter. It was nine years ago that I last saw him, in Florida, near the Big Cypress Swamp, some 45 miles outside of Miami. There were few people there at the time of my residence, other than scattered villages of the native Miccosukee and Seminole tribes. Early white settlers had hunted herons and egrets there, and supplied feathers to hat-makers in New York City and Paris, France. There had been a citrus plantation there once, which had burned to the ground long before the abolition of slavery and not rebuilt. I had chosen the location for its remoteness, and for the small amount of money with which I was able to acquire a modest house in which to house my collection of books and other objects, and the perfect climate in which to conduct what has been referred to as my “weird studies”.

Why did Carter state that our home was somewhere off the Gainesville Pike? You may guess that as well as I, but given that you are disinclined to believe the majority of the statement he gave you, I do not understand why you choose this fact as the one to quibble over. There was neither toll road nor railroad line near there, only the Everglades, rank grass, moss, and weeds covering everything else. He was an unreliable narrator at best – you do know that he was a writer of fiction, particularly of weird fiction, spinning yarns of that which is not, and that which should not be. It was how we met.

He had a fascination with the occult, as did I. He was looking for truth in it, wishing to touch some greater cosmology in which humans are as insignificant as grains of sand in the ocean of the universe. It was also fodder for his wicked little tales, which he only sometimes submitted to a handful of magazines willing to publish such stuff, mostly circulating them directly via mail to fellow scribblers of such bunk.

My interests were scientific. My studies were in the field of Egyptology, namely the ritualization of certain scientific processes among ancient peoples. These included, yes, funereal rites, and the preservation techniques of corpses. Desiccation and mummification, the preservation of bodies, and how this was accomplished in warm, oft-times humid climes. I had a number of texts in Arabic, which Carter envisioned to be volumes of forbidden mysticism, but were merely medical texts, histories, and the occasional memoir or journal of a figure who’d worked first-hand in the Middle East.

Oh, how the man infuriated me! Constantly complaining about his lot in life, always wishing he could read other languages, that he had my skills for translation and interpretation. For seven years – seven years! — I listened to him go on so, but in that time he did nothing to improve his station. It came to a point where he was interrupting my work. He was under foot while I was doing research, never actually offering to help but lamenting his inability to do what I did. He would prattle on while I was reading, or worse still, while I was trying to carefully translate some ancient tome from a difficult and obscure language. At times it almost seemed as if he wished me to feel guilty that I had the certain talents he lacked. That I had spent years studying and developing these talents, while he frittered away his time constructing bad fiction, did not seem to register with him.

Yes, I did make attempts to speak with him on the matter. I tried to establish some boundaries, so that he would not disturb me in my work. He would pout like a child, and try to explain that I was his only friend and that he was only trying to help. He had nothing else to do, while I was in my researches, as if I were responsible for his constant entertainment. To encourage him to get out and make other friends, or to take up some hobby, was but another lesson in frustration. He would become deeply self-deprecating, and dismiss such things as impossible, beyond his ability.

Do not ask me why I tolerated his presence for seven years. He was pleasant enough company, in the beginning. We had enough in common to sustain some rousing conversations. Having a partner to share expenses would have been reason enough, for neither my pursuit of weird studies nor his writing of weird tales provided more than modest incomes, and those being irregular and unpredictable paydays at best. My intolerance of him was a gradual thing. He’d annoy me one day, but not the next, so I let it go. I made allowances, accepted that this was simply how he was, who he was, and that I should be more forgiving and accepting of a close friend. Over time, however, the small irritations built and soured into resentments, until one day I could no longer bear to look at him. I needed to be rid of him.

No, I do not know what happened to him, or anything of his recent disappearance. All these events happened years ago, and while I admit that my actions likely contributed to his mental condition, Randolph Carter had such issues before we met and long after we parted. I will not be held responsible for that man’s madness! There was no foul play on my part, only a boyish, you may even say childish, prank.

The remains of a plantation, as I have mentioned, were a short walk up the road from our house. The only thing still visible was a cemetery, and that consisted mostly of tumbled stones scattered in orderly patterns across a strangely level plot of land. I had gone there, once, to see if I could do some rubbings of headstones, to gather names that I might learn more of its history, but time had worn away any legible engravings. Quite by accident I did discover the stone foundation of a small house, most likely servants’ quarters, and as it was still early in the day I poked about and explored. There was a great gaping hole, quite dangerous had I not been paying attention, with stone steps leading down. I surmised it was a passageway that led to the main house, a feature found in many plantations. This would allow servants – slaves, then – to bring food fresh and hot to the main house, and to travel to their master’s home without getting rained upon or wind-blown and thus presenting a disheveled appearance. It was well-built, sturdy and intact after two centuries or more, dry in spite of its proximity to the swamp, and I vowed to come back at some point with a lantern and visit the inside.

Upon my return home, Carter questioned where I had been, what I had done, and why couldn’t he have accompanied me. A letter had come, from a colleague in Egypt, inviting me to visit and perhaps do some research on-site. It was then that the first outline of a plan came to me.

There was no way in which I could simply tell Carter that I was leaving, going abroad without him. He would beg to go along. He would hinge until, unable to take any more, I would concede. If I were firm, he would still follow, finding a way to make passage, somehow tracking me down. There was but one way to be rid of him. I know what you are thinking. I could have wrapped my hands around his throat, crushed his windpipe, and left him in that hole I’d found to rot and never be found. I could have stove in his skull and dumped him in the swamp. I did none of those things, and have no motive now, for it’s been many years since I last saw him, and a far shorter time since he’s been seen.

My answer was to fake my own death, and in doing so both give him the adventure he’d long been craving and put such a fright into him that he’d lose all taste for such investigations and intrigues.

I made a show of opening some new line of inquiry, and was even less communicative about it than normal. This piqued his interest, and made him more bothersome than ever. I opened books long since packed away, volumes he hadn’t seen before. I made reference to my discovery of an ancient tomb, just down the road. He practically begged me to be included, and the more I shut him out, the more frantic he became. I told him that I would not, could not speak to him about the nature of my weird studies, as his fragile nature could not handle it. The man practically soiled himself with delight.

The few things that I needed to take with me were packed, and a few irreplaceable objects, mostly books and some personal effects, I sent on to friends in other cities to hold. The majority of my possessions I was willing to abandon, as I wouldn’t be able to take them on my foreign excursion. Let Carter have them. By the time the night was over, he would have earned them. I had hired a man with a car to wait for me further down the road from the plantation site, in the opposite direction of our – soon to be solely Carter’s – home. Carter saw him, and was brought in and questioned by the police as a witness, but he only stated that he saw the two of us walking along the road near the Old Cypress Swamp.

We had brought a large amount of equipment with us, to help sell the seriousness of this adventure to Carter. Chief among this was a telephone rig with long coils of wire, an artifact of the Great War. Such was the depth of my cruelty, and my desire to inflict shock and horror upon my friend. Carter had been in the war, and in the trenches. This was the source of his feeble constitution and vacillating nerve. I have often wondered, since that night, if that was why he wrote the sorts of stories he did, and had become fascinated by the occult. If there were forces at work outside man’s knowledge and understanding, perhaps this could mitigate man’s own humanity to man, in some way lessen the abominations he had seen, restore his faith in the goodness and men by being able to say “we are not at fault”.

It is a rationalization to say, thatif what I did next somehow confirmed Carter’s belief in the supernatural and somehow brought him peace, it would be a good thing and not merely a selfish and dreadful act on my part.

The sight of the telephone alone had made him tremble, and he dropped the coil of wire at least once upon our walk. When we arrived, the lantern light showed all color had drained from his face as he stared at the hole in the ground. I had managed to drag a flat slab, likely a remnant of some above-ground crypt, to partially cover the tunnel entrance. He did not work out for himself that we were no longer in the cemetery. It was hard enough for me to work that out in daylight, and it was now quite dark, fast approaching midnight.

The electric torches cast shadows in the long grass, and between the rocks and remnants of headstones. I advised him that I was going in, and he was not to follow, for surely he was far too frail in both body and mind to deal with what was to come next. I took the telephone, and had him unspool the wire as I went.

“God!” I said into the telephone, “If you could see what I am seeing!” There was no answer. I tried to sound excited, as well as frightened. “Carter, it’s terrible—monstrous—unbelievable!”

“Warren, what is it? What is it?” came his voice from the other end.

At this point I had found a place to settle in, and sat down comfortably with my back against a large, smooth stone. I kept pulling at the wire, to give the impression that I was continuing to travel downward. I was having difficulty not laughing. “I can’t tell you, Carter! It’s too utterly beyond thought—I dare not tell you—no man could know it and live—Great God! I never dreamed of THIS!”

There was a long silence then. I stopped pulling on the wire, and waited for some response. None come. It was time to put on the best act that I could. “Carter! For the love of God, put back the slab and get out of this if you can! Quick!—leave everything else and make for the outside—it’s your only chance! Do as I say, and don’t ask me to explain!”

“Warren, what is it? What is it?”

“Beat it!” I shouted into the phone. “For God’s sake, put back the slab and beat it, Carter!”

“Warren, brace up! I’m coming down!” he shouted into the phone, and I could hear his natural voice echoing down the tunnel. In his own report, he said that at this point he heard me scream, but the cry of despair was his own. I could not allow him to come down with me, and discover me hiding!

“Don’t! You can’t understand! It’s too late—and my own fault.” I tried to sound calm, in control, but I was genuinely panicking that my plan was not going to work. “Put back the slab and run—there’s nothing else you or anyone can do now! Quick—before it’s too late!”

I had a few tugs on the wire, then a huge yank, pulling more of the coil down into the tunnel. What was he thinking, at this point? That I was being attacked by ghosts? The living dead? The corpse of some ancient sorcerer? I had intentionally left my details vague, knowing that his imagination would conjure something more detailed than I could describe.

“Carter—hurry! It’s no use—you must go—better one than two—the slab…” I trailed off, and let silence settle in for a moment. Then I said, “Nearly over now—don’t make it harder—cover up those damned steps and run for your life—you’re losing time— So long, Carter—won’t see you again.” Here the laughter got the best of me. I could no longer contain myself. With a manic tone, gasping for breath, I cried out, “Curse these hellish things—legions— My God! Beat it! Beat it! Beat it!”

To stifle my laughter, I dropped the phone and with the electric torch in front of me ran toward the far end of the tunnel. Faintly, I could hear him speaking into the phone, repeating “Warren, are you there”. He wasn’t leaving. I felt a twinge of regret. This man had been my partner for seven years. He was not an evil man. He didn’t deserve this sort of depravity. He had seen bloodshed and death in the service of his country. He deserved better than this.

“Warren? Warren, are you there?”

He deserved better than me.

“YOU FOOL, WARREN IS DEAD!”

For a short time the police had suspected him of my murder, but as no body was ever found, no charges were brought against him. My understanding is that Randolph Carter returned to his childhood home in Boston and continued writing his weird fiction. It was from there that he recently vanished, without trace. I spent the intervening years in Cairo, continuing my studies, and only recently returned to New York. He was often in my thoughts, and I have always regretted what I had done. For a while I considered looking him up, writing him a letter of apology, or simply showing up on his doorstep. That always seemed to be cruel, so I continue to let him think me dead.

In the end, I was the one who was the coward. Better for him to go on thinking he had failed me, than to have him find out that I had betrayed him, his trust and friendship, in such a manner. I will live with my shame for the rest of my days. As for Randolph Carter, I hope that he is out there somewhere, and that he is doing well.

Berin Kinsman is best known as the father figure of tabletop roleplaying game bloggers, but he also writes Cthulhu Mythos fiction and tales of swords and sorcery. He’s currently working on a book of literary criticism centered on Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories.  Berin resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico with his wife, the artist Katie Kinsman.

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Story art by mimulux.

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7 responses to “The Weird Studies of Harley Warren, by Berin Kinsman

  1. Great story. More important to me is what I read in your bio- Fafhrd and Gray Mouser? OH MY! MY CHILDHOOD! I remember the AD&D Campaign with these two characters. If I am correct- Fafhrd is a Bard and Gray Mouser is a thief? There was the cover to one of the books, it had them standing at a corner in some city, Gray Mouser was peeking around the corner at some bar…

    Anyways, liked the story.

  2. Pingback: Berin Kinsman | Lovecraft eZine Mega-Packs·

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