It was the unmistakable bark of my bulldog-jowled editor, Heinrich von Nordsberg. Despite his aristocratic last name, Heinrich (or Henny, as he liked to be called) was gruff in the way that dock workers are. Conversely, his language (when he chose to talk to at all) was always littered with curse words. He smoked cigars obsessively, and sprinkles of ash always pockmarked his clothes. I was looking at one such cluster near his right breast when he gave me the assignment that would forever alter my life.
“There’s an old kook who claims that he knows what happened to U-29. He says it has something to do with the lost Greek city of Atlantis. Interview him, make it a column and a half, and have it on my desk by Saturday.”
“That’s quite the load you just dropped on me, Henny. First of all, isn’t U-29 that submarine that went missing during the war? I thought I heard that it was last spotted somewhere in Central America.”
“Yes, near the Yucatán.”
“Pretty far from Greece, no? Besides, this guy sounds rummy, so why even bother? And more importantly, why do you keep plugging me with the crazy ones lately?”
“You’re a victim of your own success, Stellmann. The thing you did about that Asian cult really captured the attentions of our readers. You know the American idiom: it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
“Yeah, I used to hear that a lot when I worked in New Jersey. It was a Turkish cult, Henny, and it nearly killed me.” The summer before, after the disappearances of two girls in Wisborg, I was sent to what was believed to be a routine murder investigation (which had become all too common after the war and the failed revolution). As I got deeper and deeper into the case, I kept hearing snatches about a strange pasha who was leading a group of Ottoman deserters. The Wisborg docks were terrified of this group, who, as the rumors went, were looking for German girls to throw into the Baltic as sacrifices for the god Dagon—an old Philistine deity that is mentioned in the Old Testament.
After making extensive contacts with the shipping company in charge of the Wisborg docks, I found a way to camp out for the night on the very same patch of waterfront where the cult was supposed to congregate. I spent many hours bored with just my acetylene torch and notepad. Since I expected them at midnight (a prejudice acquired after too many Edgar Wallace novels), I decided to fall asleep after they didn’t show-up at the strike of twelve. In hindsight I should have gone back to my flat, for my sleep was terminated by the pounding of strange drums.
At first they were faint—just a pitter-patter like rain. Then as I regained my senses, I could discern the noise growing louder and louder until it felt like the drums were right on top of me. I crept as quietly as possible from behind my makeshift quarters, and when I got my eyes to clear the top shipping crate, I saw a small boat illuminated by interior lights. The boat itself was a private yacht and it was anchored not too far from the pier. I checked my clothes and found them replaceable, so I decided to swim up to the vessel in order to get a better look.
I approached it from the starboard side, where I could see that a porthole offered a chance to peer into the main cabin. I ever so quietly inched my way up to the Odin-eyed window, and once assured that I had gone undetected, I pressed my face up against the glass.
For a moment, all I could see was fog. It was a cold night and my swimming had required significant exertion. When the condensation cleared on its own accord, I began to see a circle of eight men, all of whom were wearing the natty uniform of the unemployed. Their poor appearance was only heightened by the illustrious personage who was leading them in their musical drumming. He was a tall figure with an aquiline nose and the green eyes of a cat. His robe was crimson and was decorated with symbols that I had never seen before, but somehow registered as either Ancient Egyptian or Mesopotamian. He moved his hands like an insane conductor until he made a cutting motion that killed the drumming and started the room’s deep silence. None of the other men made even the slightest of movements except for the robed leader. He had gone somewhere out of sight before returning with a canvas bag that contained something relatively heavy…and alive.
The strange pasha reached inside of the bag with his predator fingers and pulled out a stray dog that looked approximately seven months old. He held it by its scruff and gave it a brief tour of the room. Then, after being handed a curved blade that was unlike any weapon that I had seen previously, he slit the poor creature’s throat. What sickened me beyond comprehension was what happened next. The raggedy men around him took to drinking from the cur’s wound. And instead of a disordered mob, they calmly and quite efficiently took turns imbibing the blood. A few were sloppy drinkers, and I had to hold back the contents of my stomach when I saw the blood dribble down their chins.
After draining the dead dog dry, the mysterious pasha again grabbed the curved blade. This time instead of attacking the animal’s throat he struck its torso, and before long, he produced a bloody red heart. He held this gory trophy aloft as the other men looked on in wonder. I expected that they would soon fall to feasting upon the object, but I was proven wrong when the leader turned his back and gazed upon a large figure that had before escaped my vision.
It was a stone figure that was slightly smaller than the average man. It looked very old—so old that lichen overran most of its body. From my admittedly strained vantage point, I could make out that the figure was supposed to represent some sort of toad deity. Its squat body was in the shape of a beer keg, while its face bore the clear hallmarks of malevolence. Its mouth was opened and showed a small army of shark-like teeth. Its eyes too held evil in them, and their big, protruding character reminded me of the primordial Levantine idols that an expedition from Heidelberg had recently uncovered in French Syria. The pasha placed the detached heart into the monstrosity’s mouth, and then wiped the remaining blood across the stone deity’s chest. As he began chanting in some unknown tongue, he placed both of hands on his temples, curled them into fists, and then stuck his thumbs out sideways thus giving him the appearance of a horned devil. I watched as he rocked back and forth, saying all the while “Ia! Ia! Azef. Ia! Ia! Azef-Cthulhu. Ia! Ia! Djezef-Erlig. Erlig-Tsathoggua!”
By this point in the ceremony, all of the men were up and off of their feet. They were dancing like deranged dervishes, and their fast motions were shaking the wooden yacht with some force. I decided that my concealment was no longer guaranteed, so I submerged once again and retreated to the pier.
The next afternoon, after staying awake in order to write down my findings, I handed my story to Henny, who, as per usual, was at his desk smoking a cigar. I stood in his office as he read through the sheets, and once he was done, he snuffed out his cigar and mumbled: “utterly fabulous. I don’t know if anyone will believe it, but I think we should print it.”
The story was a success and caused quite a local stir. The amount of weird sightings on the Wisborg docks increased, and due to the sheer number of complaints about impromptu lynching parties, the police spent more time keeping the peace than hunting down the whereabouts of the two missing girls. For my part, my mail became flooded with correspondence, most of which were from cranks claiming to have more information about Germany’s extensive occult network. I tried to read as little of the letters as possible, and I even begged Henny to take me off of the police beat. The work was keeping me up at night, I told him, plus I was uncomfortable with my middling fame. He agreed to my stipulations for a while, and then of course he put me on the trial of Franz Hackenschmidt—the obscure little man who knew about the lost U-29.
I found Herr Hackenschmidt in a beautiful, but ruined townhouse not too far outside of the city. The townhouse was ringed with dying plants and even the walk-up was composed of crumbling stone. Even before meeting him, I understood that Franz Hackenschmidt was a member of the gentile poor—a once proud man brought low.
Still, despite the pervasive atmosphere of decline, I was shown into the home by a well-dressed butler. The man wore black evening clothes and spoke with a noticeably Bavarian accent. He told me that Herr Hackenschmidt was upstairs in his study. I told him that I could find my own way.
As I made my way up the noisy stairs that led to Herr Hackenschmidt’s room, I noticed that almost every space in the entire house was occupied by books. There were books in the kitchen, in the living room, and all along the stairs. The hallways were similarly decorated, and after occasionally stopping to examine certain volumes, I noticed that all of the books dealt with outré topics. The first one I picked up was about mesmerism, while the second and third were about lycanthropy. Herr Hackenschmidt himself was even reading a book when he ushered me in to his study, and after shaking his cold, limp hand I noticed that the volume was called Nameless Cults.
“Mr. Stellmann, I presume. It is a pleasure to meet you. As a dedicated reader of the Neue Preußische Zeitung, I would like to tell you that I always look forward to your reports. I particularly liked your piece about that Eastern group in Wisborg. You showed considerable bravery.”
“Thank you, Herr Hackenschmidt. A lot of people seemed to like that one. It certainly made me famous, plus it’s given me the reputation of a, sorry to say, ‘spook worker.’”
“And that is why you are here, no doubt. It is sad to see such uncompromising skepticism. One would hope that humanity wouldn’t be so quick to shove aside that which it cannot readily define or describe. For instance, what do you honestly think you saw that night in Wisborg?”
“Well, if we are off of the record here, then I’d say that I don’t rightly know what I saw. The best I can figure is that I stumbled upon some foreign religion that has very ghastly rituals.”
“I’m afraid I don’t quite follow, Herr Hackenschmidt.” The man seated opposite me was weasel-like, and his small, furtive features maintained a steady watch on the entire room (which looked more like a public library than anything else). He was fond of stroking his black mustache when he talked, and likewise he kept a vigilance on his eyebrows. All of this struck me as being rather vain and it fit in well with Herr Hackenschmidt’s neatly pressed suit.
“Let me clarify, Herr Stellmann. What I mean to ask is this: do you think that that cult could mean more than just simple superstition? Could it be that there is some truth to the ancient world’s great fear of morbid gods?”
I did not know how to answer this. Sure, what I saw that night was highly unusual and was partially responsible for many sleepless nights, but I couldn’t believe that it was anything other than a sinister collection of ill-bred individuals. Still, there was definitely something dreadful about that toad figure, especially after my research came up with nothing whatsoever. I told this much to Herr Hackenschmidt, who in turn uttered a chilling laugh.
“You were undoubtedly looking in the wrong books. No public or university library would help you to find Tsathoggua, just like no ordinary book can teach you the true capabilities of the human mind. My friend, I know about both of these things, and I can tell you of their power.”
A threatening gleam came into his eye as he said these words. It was the look of a madman and it made me no longer feel comfortable to be in the same room with the odd bibliophile. His voice too, which was strangely hollow sounding, put me ill at ease. My fear was so great that when Herr Hackenschmidt shot up out of his chair without warning, I flinched so violently that I dropped both my pencil and my notepad.
“I have read and I have studied the forbidden texts of the ancient Arabian tribes. I know of many supposedly lost books that speak about the time before time. Most importantly, I know about the things that live beneath this world and above it. In the stars at night I can see their tentacles and their thousand eyes. And when I walk along the beach at midnight, I can see their phosphorescent glow bubbling up from the very depths of the sea. I, Herr Stellmann, have acquired all the magic that is outlined in the Necronomicon, one of which is the ability to see that which is not present. The future is a part of it, and so too is the past.
“One night while I was studying the alchemy of Paracelsus, an image came to me—an image of a modern ship being navigated by a single individual. The lone captain was a strong man—a military officer with a thick neck and the tell-tale signs of monocle-wearer. Although this man was noted for his bravery in combat and his steely reserve to subordinates, in this image he was frightened beyond human acceptance. With my mind’s eye I saw his hands tremble as he composed a letter to posterity. Through this letter I learned that the captain’s ship (a submarine, I believe it is called) had recently experienced strange occurrences. There had been many deaths, all of which the former crew had attributed to a piece of carved ivory.
“At first, this solitary officer (whom I presume to be the lost Karl Heinrich, Graf von Altberg-Ehrenstein) did not believe the superstitions of his men. He called them foul names and he wrote them off as womanish provincials. But then, after the men died one-by-one, he began to lose faith in his iron willpower until it finally broke down completely. Do you know why it broke, Herr Stelmman?”
I used my head to say “no.”
“It broke because he saw a city beneath the waves. It was a city of great beauty, with large, white columns of ivory. It contained a temple too—a temple that showed signs of recent activity. But how this be, he wondered. No life can dwell so far from air. It must be some other kind of life, he thought. Maybe it was possible that this was a dead city inhabited only by the undead.”
“Are you saying that a German…no, a Prussian naval commander found an underwater city full of vampires?”
Herr Hackenschmidt laughed for a second time, and once again it made me uneasy. The man was practically clawing at his mustache at this point, and I was afraid that before long he would be ripping apart his own skin.
“Such little imagination, Herr Stellmann. Not vampires, no. But dead life it was, and it was the dead souls of his recently lost crew. They came back to him as revenants and as worshippers, for in their un-life they had found the meaning behind the ivory idol. She, or rather it, spoke to them and they understood the mysteries of which she spoke. It told them to bring in the last remaining man from their ship, and they obliged. That is what happened to U-29.”
“But what about the ship itself? Why can’t anyone—German Navy, British Royal Navy, or even the Americans—find any evidence of the ship itself?”
“U-29—its captain and its crew—is no longer within our time. He who looks upon the lost city of Helike becomes lost in a different time—a time unchartered by human science.”
“Helike? I was told that you believed that the city was Atlantis.”
“‘Atlantis’ is what that fool Plato called it. The philosophers before him knew it as “Helike,” and yet they knew nothing of its real history. Helike is one of the oldest cities of Earth, and before it became known to man as a lost metropolis, it was the seat of an ancient maritime cult. The inhabitants of Helike worshipped the great god Tsathoggua, whose many forms have been called different names since the creation of writing. It was he who built Helike, but that is not what he called it. Its true name is R’lyeh and it exists still. It is underneath the waters and out of time and it dreams with its sleeping god. It waits for the reawakening. Occasionally sensitive souls make contact with it. Few survive, for most refuse to accept the realities of human existence. They succumb to madness, which is what happened to the men of U-29.”
“Herr Hackenschmidt, what do you mean by the ‘realities of human existence?’”
The room took on an inexplicable chill that was freezing, while the dim lighting in the study got noticeably darker. In near blackness Herr Hackenschmidt’s voice sounded like the bottom of an empty tomb. His face too took on a funereal pallor that was decidedly unnatural. Before answering, he temporarily halted his mustache stroking.
“Humanity is a cosmic joke accidentally brought to life by higher beings. Like all jokes, humanity will run sour. When it does (and it will soon, very soon), they will reclaim it once again.”
Herr Hackenschmidt’s laughter pierced through the night like a spear. It was maniacal and it was accompanied by his frantic scratching at his own face. Just before leaping past the stairs and rejoining the sane world, I saw Herr Hackenschmidt remove a large portion of his mouth. There was no blood.
After two days, I removed the paper from the typewriter. I had made little progress on my account of Herr Hackenschmidt, and I had finally given up on the topic. I refused to believe it, and as such I wanted it kept away from publication. I told Henny that society did not need to know such things, and to my surprise he agreed. I expected Henny to rant, rave, and call me a “lazy reporter.” Instead, he calmly accepted my explanation and even told me to take a short holiday. He suggested somewhere other than Germany. Italy, for instance, or maybe the Spanish coast. I took up his offer, for I could feel that my nerves were on the verge of collapsing.
Just as I was about to shut Henny’s door behind me, he removed his cigar and smiled.
“I told Hoffmann to look up the name “Hackenschmidt” in our “Obits” file. I had a feeling that you might have been conned, and guess what? “Franz Hackenschmidt” is the name of a man who was burned at the stake during the Thirty Years’ War. His neighbors claimed that he was a wizard, so when the Swedish army came marching through, they apprehended him and sent him on a hot express to the Almighty. Yes, you found quite a clever conman.”
Benjamin Welton is a freelance and amateur journalist who occasionally writes short stories and poems. He fails at all three. He is currently at work on a novel, runs a blog called The Trebuchet, and has two books available on Amazon for purchase – Hands Dabbled in Blood and Doomsters At the Drive-In.
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Story illustration by Dave Felton.