(Download the audio version of this story here, or click the play button below. Read by Vincent LaRosa. Story illustration by Sascha Renninger.)[audio https://lovecraftzine.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/a-thousand-smokes.mp3]
A Thousand Smokes
It towered, the twisted entity, above the ground-mist that enveloped me as I swept into that hollow of old oaks. I confess that it felt strange, knowing once again the uncanny sensations that I had experienced as a youngster; for I had put childish things behind me, had become absorbed in my studies at Harvard and Miskatonic, had done my best to abolish the farm boy from Dunwich. Yet here I was, an adult, standing before the grotesque oak that had bewitched me with fear and wonder as a child. It enchanted me still, with its incredible height and extensions of menacing branches that spread out as though they were hunting for some nourishing prey to pluck from the ground. My sister had mocked my sense of peril whenever we approached that tree on our way to our altar in the hollow; yet now I was returned to Dunwich, because Elana’s corpse had been found tangled among the tallest branches of that old oak.
The grey mist was the same that I had known when I was young, and its smell was an odor that had found me in dream no matter how far I had travelled from this land. There are aromas that can be found in Dunwich only – or perhaps we who are bred here have developed uncommon senses with which to detect the region’s aberrant nature. Those perceptions awakened now, as I walked into the hollow’s depth and found the megalithic site that had been a boyhood haunt. It had enchanted me then – and bewitched me still, the circle of tall stone pillars that bespoke of incredible age and mystery. There was something unearthly in the way the stones had been assembled, and the sight of them now touched my eyes with a chilly wonder that seeped to my brain and touched it with frigid reminiscence. I saw again the rough-hewn altar stone within that monolithic circle, and could smell the herbage, rank and wild, that clung to that sinister slab. My liquid eyes peeped through mists of time and saw the body that reclined on that dank stone, and I knew that it was I. I felt, again, that other chaff, those weeds of delirium that I thought I had expunged by leaving Dunwich and dwelling among ordinary folk. It clung to my skull still and infected my brain, the immortal madness that is a Dunwich heritage.
I suddenly recalled the one infiltration of that familial folly when I was at Miskatonic. Elana had come to visit me, on a whim, her first venture out of Dunwich Village. I had ushered her into an abandoned science room, so as to hide her deformity from the other students; for my sister wore the fleshy remnants with which some of our kindred were cursed, a kind of swarthy texture to the skin that did not look natural to human kind and that led to talk of witch-blood and traffic with strange forest presences. I noticed a kind of cruelty in her slanted ochre eyes as she laughed at my rush to sequester her from notice.
“Ye’ve done well, my brother, hiding your ancestry from kindred students. Do any of them know that ye were squeezed out of a Dunwich womb? Peculiar, I call it, how so many young village lads are lured to Miskatonic University. Heh? Now I heard they has a lot of books here, just like the one grand dad borrowed from the Whateley farmhouse right afore the Horror. Remember that book, how we used to study it until mater found us with it and hurled it into ye hearth? Ma didn’t know about my notes, did she? Nar! And she never saw me dig remembered sigils in yon farmyard dirt. What’s the matter, my brother, you’ve got one of your headaches? Here, rest on this metal table here, it’s long enough to hold all of you. Oh look, a little knife. What, it’s a scalpel? A science tool? Hell, we could have used it in the hollow, when I rested ye on that altar and etched diagrams into your hide. There, rest your head, Elias.”
Her words were ever soothing. One could resist her nothing. I climbed onto the operating table and shut my eyes as my ears drank the sweetness of her voice. I was almost unaware of the sharp scalpel blade that began to etch schema into my skin.
Memory faded and I regained my sense of place. Unaware, I had walked to that altar stone in the hollow and reclined upon it. I fancied that I could smell again the alchemical fragrance of incense and occult candles that Elana and I had burned as part of unholy rite. As if in dream, I could remember her chanted phrases, copied from that ancient tome and memorized by my sibling. I recalled the smoke of candle and incense that mingled with the grey ground-mist; and then I saw the banks of other emission, the thousand smokes that herald the coming of that Nameless One whom we adored with sacrament. It oozed toward us, the One who wore a mask of fire, ushered by the smoky hooded phantoms that surrounded the altar and pressed their ashy kisses to my exposed flesh. Then I saw the additional phantom, a spectre that stood a little ways from the others. Although clothed in cloud and shadow, its contours were familiar. I watched its movement as it filtered to me and saw that it held a ritual dagger. I kissed that dagger as the apparition touched it to my mouth, and my eyes brimmed with tears as familiar sigils were etched into my flesh. A cosmic wind arose, and the phantom’s hood was loosened so that I could behold her odd beloved face. Behind her, the Nameless One reached past the starry voids and clutched a strange grey world, of which Elana and I had read in an ancient tome. I could feel the streams of my liquid mortality seep from new-born cuts and mingle with the ashy remnants of phantom kisses. Reaching out, I clutched my sister’s hand and floated off the altar, joining with her into the embrace of that Nameless One who guided us to past space and time, to hoary Yuggoth, where we would dance in ecstasy among immortal fungi.
Wilum Pugmire spent this past summer writing his brains out and finished a new book, BOHEMIANS OF SESQUA VALLEY, to be published in March by Arcane Wisdom Press. For a forthcoming issue of FUNGI he has written a new novelette, his Sesqua Valley version of Lovecraft’s The Lurking Fear. His newest book, THE STRANGE DARK ONE–TALES OF NYARLATHOTEP, has just been published by Miskatonic River Press, and his book written in collaboration with Jeffrey Thomas, ENCOUNTERS WITH ENOCH COFFIN, will be published next year. He is presently working on his first novel, a Sesqua Valley version of THE LURKER AT THE THRESHOLD.
You can browse and buy W.H. Pugmire books on his Amazon page.
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Story illustration by Sascha Renninger.
David–your comments intrigue me. I rarely try to emulate Lovecraft’s style–I don’t think any other writer CAN, not truly get it right. So if I sound like Lovecraft, it’s entirely his influence seeping in, not a direct attempt by me. I love the idea that my writing evokes HPL, and see it as a wonderful compliment to my work. Thanx!
An eerie and powerfully poetic tale.
You definitely have the lovecraftian style down pat. I’ve tried to imagine imitating Lovecraft, but I just don’t have it in me. The happy ending was a bit of a surprise. I thought I happy ending in a Lovecraft story was when the narrator managed to survive to the end with his sanity intact.
Wilum, I finally read one of your stories. It did not disappoint. I do like a happy ending.
Delicious as always, my Queen. Let me wallow forever in your morbid mire.
Breathtaking prose, as always.
Brilliant as always Wilum! And great art by Sascha!