[The following letters are the only contemporary record of Arnold Klein’s research trip to Papua New Guinea. Klein, a postgraduate student with the University of Lancaster School of Languages, went there in July 1957 to further the work on his thesis, reassessing and re-evaluating the work of the nineteenth century German linguist Hienrich Jaekl. Klein stayed in Port Moresby, the capital, for 9 days, and it is known that he spent this initial period there in an apartment and using an office that had been secured for him by a local agent. It was during these, the last dates that Klein’s whereabouts can be verified, that the first four of the letters were written and sent. The last two, assuming they are real, were written after that time; Klein’s whereabouts during this period remain unknown. These last two letters were never sent, but were discovered in papers of the private safe of the agent, Dischoff, following his death. How they got there, and why he kept them for over fifty years, must remain conjecture. At the request of Klein’s family, the letters are recreated here in their entirety.]
An office in the middle of nowhere
Well, it’s as bad here as you said it might be. This place reminds me a little of what you said about Mexico – it’s very colourful and not a little desperate; you’d hate it. The poverty’s fairly extreme, and it’d offend your delicate socialist sensibilities, ha ha! Actually, joking aside, it offends my sensibilities a little. It’s hard to see kids crippled and begging while idiots like Dischoff lounge around in offices bigger than some of the houses I saw on the way in. Speaking of which: Dischoff. I met him on my first afternoon here, and he’s a fool. He was genial at first, and very accommodating, but I was getting nowhere with him. He wouldn’t tell me anything, and then I worked out why – he wanted a bribe! I mean, the amount of paperwork and ‘grants’ that’ve bounced between the department, his office and the German consulate, the amount of form-filling we’ve had to do, not to mention all that communication with Jaekl’s family, and after all that, he sits expecting payment. I’m afraid I lost my temper a little (well, a lot) and may have said some fairly unpleasant things to him. Can you let Millner know that he may be receiving a complaint about me already? That’ll cheer him up!
Anyway, once Dischoff realised that he wasn’t going to get anything extra from me, he took me to the office. Half the things that were agreed aren’t here; there’s no typewriter, hence this being handwritten, half the background documents we were promised aren’t in the files, the travel visas are incomplete or missing (although Dischoff insists that these will get me “anywhere”, although God knows how or where I’d want to go, I’m already feeling like I stand out like a communist at a God Bless America rally!)). There’s a reel-to-reel, thank God, and a stack of old New Yorker magazines, which should keep me occupied, assuming I wanted to read about the cold war, or the weird details of American suburbia. Incidentally, the office is in one of the government buildings and I’m surrounded by what appear to be civil servants, who look at me very strangely when I leave the office. I can’t help but feel putting me here is deliberate, a subtle way of reminding me that I’m a visitor. Which is, I suppose, fair enough, seeing as I am. The advantage of it is, of course, that they deal with things like my administrative needs (need more paper, sir? Certainly!) and my post, speaking of which I’d best sign off if I want to get this in this week’s airmail bag!
Take care and be in contact again soon. Hope Marie’s okay.
It’s taken me three days, but I finally got the tapes from Dischoff. And guess what? There are only two of them! That’s right, after all the bureaucracy that we went through to see the original thirteen tapes from Jaekl’s collection, only two still exist. Two! When I queried this (lost my temper again), Dischoff simply shrugged and gave me one of those teutonic, This is what happens when you let inefficient people run your archive, looks. There didn’t seem much I could do, so I brought what I’ve got back to the office and started work.
Firstly, I’ve made a straight translation without referring back to (and therefore hopefully not being influenced by) any of Jaekl’s work. The first of the tapes (labelled “2”) deals with the day-to-day life of the Kaloni tribe. The speaker (the Kaloni chief? it isn’t clear) talks about hunting, the tribe’s history, its arts and literature, etc. The quality of the tapes isn’t great, and there are sections I’ve had to listen to over and over again just to decipher the words. It doesn’t help that a crowd surrounded the main speaker when the recording was made, who sometimes chip in with extra information. Every now and again, Jaekl comes in, asking a question. It’s odd, hearing his voice after thinking about him as the enemy for so long. He sounds like a pleasant guy.
The second of the tapes (“12”) is about the Kaloni’s religion and myths. The crowd behind the chief (I’m going to assume that’s what he is; what else can I do?) are far quieter on this tape, which means it’s easier to make out what’s being said, and already I’m fairly sure that I’m onto something. Jaekl’s always claimed that the Kaloni’s religion bore such striking resemblances to Christianity that it must prove the absolute reality of the Christian stories, yes? The creation, the flood, the saving of man through the sacrifice of God’s child – he said all of these were in the Kaloni’s religious beliefs, didn’t he? Well, they’re not, not according to my translation anyway. Their beliefs seem to be that the world was spun or extruded from out of the chaos somehow, and is watched over at all times by a creature resembling a huge spider. The flood is in there, but only peripherally – water is supposed to be the only place of refuge from this spider God (who lives in a giant pyramid structure, incidentally). There’s no talk of its children coming and being sacrificed either; the Spider leaves one child here to keep mankind in check, and it demands sacrifices. I’d like to think that Jaekl’s theories stem from simple ignorance, or a lack of skill in translating the language, but you and I both know that’s not the case. His work on the field is legendary, and there’s enough research material by him published at the turn of the century to show that he knows the language well enough. No, Jaekl was trying to force everything he came across into a shape that supported his hard-line Christian views, and I’m positive that that’s what I’ll find when I compare his own direct translations to mine. I may make a name for myself in this game yet!
I have him! After my last letter to you (which I’ve realised will probably arrive at the same time as this one, seeing as they’ll both l go in the same mailbag), I spent the next few days comparing Jaekl’s translations to mine, going back to the tapes where we differed. There are so many things he’s done, my God, you wouldn’t believe it! At one point, the chief talks about the creation of the world – you know I said that they believe God to be a sort of spider? Well, the Spider God doesn’t exactly make the world, but rather, tries to overcome it or conquer it. The chief’s words are “…covered the land with terrors from out of his belly stretched out in a web that lay thick and caught the dust and dirt over itself to form the ground we walk on.” And how does Jaekl translate this? “..making the world out of dirt, even the spiders and their webs.”
The chief talks a lot about how water is the only place that this Spider God can’t go, saying things like “..and the sea cannot hold his [God’s] weight…” and “…we must flee to water when he comes from his temple for the depths contain other Gods that may harm the Spider God…”. And Jaekl’s translations of these two passages? “..the sea is from God..” and “..the sea is also his temple..”.
The worst though, Jimmy, the worst of all is the passage about the sacrifice of God’s child that Jaekl used to argue so forcefully for the religious supremacy (read: actual existence) of Jesus as the son of God. The chief says “…and the God left a creature like himself but small enough to walk through the trees and on the land, and He made him a temple which rises to a point [a pyramid?], and sacrifices must be made to Him. When the temple appears in the appointed place, the sacrifice is taken into the temple to be wrapped in His cords, until it can provide no more sustenance. With sacrifice, God will leave the world untouched.” Jaekl, however, translated this bit as: “..and God’s child was came to the earth and worshipped in temples, and was sacrificed and will come again to make his mark upon the world”. The arrogance of the man! To simply ignore what they were saying in order to make it fit his own views! And it’s not simply poor translation skills; quite apart from his earlier work, his translation of the first tape is perfect. This is deliberate manipulation of material, and I can prove it!
Incidentally, the Spider God and the things in the depths do have names, but I’m not even going to attempt to write them down. They’re full of altogether too many consonants and too few vowels – even saying them’s hard. They’ve got glottal stops and plosives that feel all wrong for my vocabulary and vocal cords. Speaking them aloud is like trying to swallow something unpleasant and spit up something spiky all at once, and I swear that it leaves a bad taste in my mouth when I try. Weird, don’t you think?
One other thing: I had an odd conversation with Dischoff today. He came to the office, and at first I thought he was prying, but it seems to have been quite the opposite. I think that he may have been shamed by my complaints (and I do know you’ve just thought “temper tantrums” to yourself, old friend!), and he’s offered to help me. Apparently, some of the Kaloni still live out in the jungle, and he’s going to see if he can arrange for me to visit them and talk with them. He says that the visas we have permit that kind of travel – I hope he’s right! I have enough money to cover the extra costs, so may take him up on it. While he was here, he let slip that he was descended from the Kaloni, so I wonder if part of this is him trying to regain his people’s religious belief’s for themselves, rather than leaving them as a sidestory in the Jaekl Christian Crusade?
Anyway, I’m going now. I think I deserve a whiskey, don’t you? Love, as ever, to Marie.
Fast message as I want to catch the mailbag, so you’ll get three letters at the same time, you lucky soul! Good news! I’m going with Dischoff tonight and he’s found a phonetic transcript of another tape. Tell Millner I want a bonus when I publish proof that Jaekl was deliberately lying.
Speak soon, love to M.
I’m writing this letter in a hut in the jungle, because I’m here with the tribe – I’ll post it and anything else I write when I get back to the comparative civilisation of Port Moresby. Last night, Dischoff picked me up and drove me to a weird little slum suburb, where a funny looking guy took over looking after me (money changed hands between him and Dischoff – wonder what I’m worth?). The new fellow drove me for hours in silence, heading out of the town and into the wilds. It was a bit unnerving at first, but I soon got used to it and used the peace to translate the transcript (although the roads out here are little more than tracks, so the bouncing didn’t make things easy – we were driving in an old army jeep, and it was very uncomfortable). I’m fairly sure that the transcript must be of tape 13, as it follows on closely from tape twelve, and talks about the ceremonies and practises of the Kaloni religion, and it’s genuine as far as I can tell. The paper’s old, and although it’s typed, it’s covered in handwritten German notes. There’s a longer note at the end (also in German) basically attesting that it’s an “accurate and correct transcription from the tape in the phonetic Kaloni dialect”, signed by Jaekl.
Most of the transcript concerns the activities in and around the temple and has to do with appeasing or escaping the God, which returns to this earth whenever it needs a sacrifice (it and the temple apparently appear and disappear at will, coming back when the God needs more sustenance). I haven’t brought my other Jaekl translations or papers with me, but I don’t remember anything like that in them – just lots of stuff about making promises to God, although I’ll check that when I get back. The Kaloni religion is more violent than Jaekl’s Christianity: there’s lots of stuff about blood offerings and needing to keep the Spider God happy. The chief says, at one point, that without the offerings to the “creature in the temple” (that seem, incidentally, to act as a distraction as much as an offering, helping to keep its eyes off the rest of the world), it would “walk to the towns and eat its fill”. I’d love to hear the original tape, rather than just read this transcript, though. I get the impression that the Kaloni are frightened of their God, and that they don’t worship it so much as try to keep it happy and occupied.
What’s clear already is that the Spider God exists as part of a much wider mythology, full of terrible things (demons? fallen angels? I’m not sure, to be honest, but certainly monstrous and destructive whatever their classification) whose sole aim appears to be to feed off “…the creatures of the lighted world…” (i.e. us!). The Spider is one of a group called “old ones” (sometimes “deep ones”, it’s a little confusing) who at some point broke through (I can’t translate that any better, sorry) and was somehow repulsed by the Kaloni in the past, leaving them with the sacred duty of guarding against its return.
I reached the Kaloni village late at night, and I’m hoping to talk to the chief (or anyone!) later today. Wish me luck! Speak soon.
It’s taken me days, but I think I finally gained the Kaloni’s trust. I’m not sure Dischoff told them who I was, not properly at least, and they were quite aggressive at first. It took me a while, but I realised that they thought I was a colleague of Jaekl’s, that I’d come to carry on what he started and he’s not at all popular around here! Anyway, I’ve spent a good couple of days talking and taking notes and reassuring them, and I’m sure now that Jaekl lied in his reports. Their religion is massively complex, far more so than I first understood.
So: the Spider that created the universe came from outside it, according to their beliefs, from another place, (another dimension, I suppose you’d call it). The creature that got left behind isn’t its child, exactly, more like a part of itself that it left here to see if there’s a way to force an opening again for an invasion (again, this is hard to translate – it could also be ‘annihilation’ or ‘consumption’, I’m not entirely sure); like Jaekl’s Christian God (and this may be the only similarity the Kaloni’s religious beliefs have with Christian beliefs), there’s an ongoing and everlasting battle between good and evil, which is as real to the Kaloni as the physical world. It’s no wonder Jaekl wouldn’t report the Kaloni’s beliefs accurately, very little of it tallies with the heterodox Christian stories. There’s no redemption here, no love or understanding, simply horrors and violence and misery and the constant threat of these things returning to the world and enslaving or slaughtering everything upon it! Hardly very Christian.
The Kaloni have proved a contradictory bunch as well. After the initial tensions, I think I’ve won them over and they’re mostly pretty friendly, but sometimes I catch them looking at me when they think I can’t see them, and they look almost sorry, as though they pity me. Heh, maybe it’s because they’ve heard about England and think that their lifestyle (which is a mix of traditional and modern things, a little like the Amish but with fewer clothes and higher humidity) is far more preferable to mine. Of course, given how dull and small England is, they may be right…
This morning, they brought me to the temple. It’s an astonishing structure, far more impressive than I would have expected. It’s a pyramid, built in the trees on an island in the centre of a small lake. It stretches up from just above the ground to the top of the canopy. The sides are (I assume) made of trunks lashed together, but it’s impossible to tell as they’re covered in leaves and branches. None of the villagers would come in with me when we first arrived – they rowed me over, dropped me off and left me to investigate by myself, saying that they’d be back later. Anyway, I looked around the island itself after they’d gone (no wildlife, thank God!), and then wrote up more notes (sitting in the sun drinking warm water from a canteen, which isn’t exactly heaven but beggars can’t be choosers) before coming inside the structure itself.
I’m writing this sitting inside it, in the shade, which is very heroic of me, don’t you think? There’s not much in the way of decoration in here, but when I’ve rested I‘m going to have a proper look around. One thing I want to check out is some sort of hanging figure near the apex of the temple, wrapped in cloth or rope – I imagine it’s a representation of the sacrificed man, left to dangle until it falls apart and gets replaced at the next ceremony (a bit like those corn Christs that you can sometimes get at harvest-time). This one looks pretty far gone, to be honest, and is mostly ruined, but it’ll be interesting to see it more clearly.
Past it, there’s another figure, this one much bigger – the Spider God itself, I think. It’s huge, quite creepy and surprisingly realistic, given that it must be made from branches and leaves and creepers – it’s hidden in the shadows, so it just looks like a real giant spider, sleeping in the top of its web. I’d love to know how they’ve managed to get it to the very top of the pyramid. It’s high enough to catch the breeze from outside, as every now and again, its legs shiver as though it’s moving, and once, before, it shifted around as though it wanted to look at me more closely. They’ve used shiny rock or something for its eyes, which look for all the word like they’re glittering and alive and staring at me. Below the eyes there’s a hole that might be its mouth, and I think something’s made a nest in there because I’m sure I saw something wriggle in the hole, twisting and turning; a snake, maybe, or a few of them all crawling around whatever they’ve used for the Spider’s teeth. Its skin is very dark, made of leaves or something else that’s mottled and patched with mould and it smells, of rottenness and dust and something else, something that smells tlike the taste trying to say the various demons’ names left in my mouth. I really don’t like it at all!
The breeze must be picking up, although I can’t feel it down here; the spider just moved again, turning and dropping slightly, and it’s legs are shifting about. It looks like it’s stretching and waking up! See, this is why language students should stay in the lab and not venture into the field – we give ourselves the a case of the fits, shivers and blind staggers! I hope my guides come back soon – apart from the company, they’ve promised that they’ll take these two letters to Dischoff so he can get them onto the mail plane. He’ll be pleased I’m rescuing the mythology of his people, don’t you think?
Anyway, see you soon. Love to Marie.
[No trace of Arnold Klein has ever been found. An investigation, carried out at the time, following a request of the British government, uncovered no evidence of his whereabouts after the 11th July and his notebooks have never been found; his paperwork was removed from the rented office and apartment and has also never been located. Pietre Dischoff denied ever arranging a trip for Klein, and the Kaloni villagers denied that he ever visited them. No pyramid structure has been recorded in the jungles in or around the Kaloni land.]
Simon Kurt Unsworth was born in Manchester in 1972 on a night when, despite extensive research, he can find no evidence of mysterious signs or portents. He currently lives on a hill in the north of England with his wife and child awaiting the coming flood, where he writes essentially grumpy fiction (for which pursuit he was nominated for a 2008 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story). He is tall, grouchier than he should be and the owner of a selection of really rather garish shirts. His work has been published in a number of critically acclaimed anthologies, including the critically acclaimed At Ease with the Dead, Shades of Darkness, Exotic Gothic 3, Gaslight Grotesque: Nightmare Tales of Sherlock Holmes, Never Again and Lovecraft Unbound. He has also appeared in three of Stephen Jones’ Mammoth Book of Best New Horroranthologies (19, 21 and 22) and is due to appear in 23 due out later this year, and also The Very Best of Best New Horror. His first collection of short stories, Lost Places, was released by the Ash Tree Press in 2010 and his second, Quiet Houses, from Dark Continents Publishing in 2011. He has a further collection, Strange Gateways, due out from PS Publishing in 2012 and his as-yet-unnamed collection will launch the Spectral Press Spectral Signature Editions imprint in 2013, so at some point he needs to write those stories.
Story illustration by Robert Elrod.
If you enjoyed this story, let Simon know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.