By the time your eyes cross this page, my dearest Helen, I pray that I shall be dead. If not, worse will have come to pass.
I know you must feel betrayed even as you open this letter – had I not told you that I was going for a mere afternoon saunter, to aid in my (delicate, owing to a family history of nervous disposition and artistic temperament) digestion? But damn my wandering feet – yes, damn them, even unto their very soles! – they led me astray from the sunny thoroughfares of our fair little town of Millford and through doors unknown to me. While my mind was pleasantly preoccupied by the question of biscuits or jams for tea-time, my foul legs were plying their treacherous work, driving me blind and heedless into uncertain paths.
But at last the deception could be hidden no longer: I walked into a post. And with that sharp, vicious slap to my sinuses and the stabbing pain of shattering cartilage, I cast about with wild glances and found myself a stranger amidst strangers.
And such strangers! A stooped, haggered crone of degenerate heritage leered at me from behind an alien desk of pale and shining complexion; a quarrel of noisome little urchin youth gabbered away in their strange jabbering tongue; an aged and rotted man with few teeth and a stained beard.
And all of them ignoring me, immersed in their books. And they were not spoilt for choice, Helen, for this was a true archive: a collection to rival that of Alexandria before the torch. Great steely shelves towered above out of my sight, stacked with manuscripts whose covers boasted lurid covers that only tempted one to speculate upon the depravities within.
“Are you lost, dear?” inquired the crone. My heart in my mouth, I retained what little strength of wit of which I could be sure of and managed a sharp jerk of the head. Simultaneously my groping hand found a bannister, and I fled up it, praying to the very feet whose treachery I had so recently cursed to spare me from this foul place.
Above was quieter, untroubled by the murmuring yammer of the hordes below. But it was no comforting hush, Helen: this was a sound I had heard before only in my boyhood illness, in the deathly-still wing of the hospital past the witching hour. It was the silence of an open grave, and in its thickness the walls grew ever higher.
Here is where my pen nigh-fails me, my dearest love, for it is here that I must admit the greatest stupidity that could be committed under the circumstances: alone, fearful, and bereft of companionship, I thought to myself that reading might be my solace, and I plucked a tome from the nearest – and lowest – of those cyclopean shelves. May I be forgiven for such hubris!
Helen, if your innate smallness and feebleness of spirit threatens to overcome you, I must warn you now: TURN AWAY! For the truths I must speak – and damn them, they ARE truths! – will utterly destroy, annihilate, and mangle any who stumble upon them unprepared. I would have never read them, but having done so, I find they must be expressed, as if they were a terrible venom lurking within my mind.
The first tome alone was more than I could believe. Within the slim pages of this volume, a ghastly series of images was prepared. They began innocuously enough – with a fish, of all things, a humble dinner-companion! – but lo! and horror, the very next page illustrated the beast crawling forth from the water to stand upon legs! My mouth dropped open, but my fingers turned even as they shook, and I saw the un-fish rendered swift and predaceous, possessed of a great shock of teeth and fierce will to boot! Hair sprouted from its pores, its forelimbs mangled, and its gait became bipedal until, at the very last page, the fish had become a man!!!
A fit of wildness overcame me, and when I was next lucid I was fetched against a wall, back aching; in my horror I had stumbled. The book was gone, but by chance – BLACK-HEARTED BITCH – another had toppled from the shelves and landed in my lap.
I opened it. Damn me for that. Perhaps I had thought that all the world’s lunacy had enveloped me, and that this would be soothing balm to a fevered brain.
The spheres. I swear on my grandmother’s grave, Helen, it spoke of the heavenly spheres. It shewed their orbits across the skies, it described their features and properties as vividly as I might my own back yard! It revealed those too far-removed for the most powerful of hand-held telescopes, it treated them as friends! And the numbers… god, no, no, no, there was no god in those pages, Helen, only numbers, ABOMINABLE numbers, figures of such size and scope as to render our dear Earth and all its inhabitants into utter nothingness in the teeth of a screaming void whose scope was immeasurable for it encompassed ALL WORTH MEASURING!!! The universe was empty, and we and all that we knew did not dignify notice even as a speck amidst specks – for the sum totally of all those specks was rounded to oblivion itself!
When I next knew the breath of life again, my watch and the daylight creeping through the unnaturally-formed windows of that dreadful place told me that some time had passed. How long had I been overcome? Who knew. My only thoughts now were of flight and home and bed and your arms, dear Helen, that might persuade me that all I had seen was but a fancy of a monstrous figment. Far better that my mind might harbor such deviant illusions than that they be reality itself.
Reality asserted itself heartlessly. Across my lap the book’s cold weight lay, as if a dead thing. My skin crawled, and – more’s to the pity – mine eyes did too. It was not the book I had perused. It was another.
Rocks. It was a book on stones.
I collected rocks as a child, Helen. It was a virtuous, nourishing habit that bolstered my frail frame and increased my health greatly. I loved nothing more than a nice amble to a lovely outcrop. But now those childhood memories led me into my final blasphemy, for it was in the coddles of their kindness that I stupidly made my final error and turned the page.
Have you any inkling, I wonder, of the horror that is time? Of the repellant nature of the second, the vileness of the minute, and the inutterable THING that is a millennium?
What of a million of them?
What of a million of THEM?
Time, time, time. The world was drowned in it, rotted and pustulent – it sores were bones gone to rock, its tumours the black lumps of oil and coal. Millions, Helen. Billions. Never speak those numbers again, and never let another say them to you. The ancient pharaohs were clamouring youths among the mammalia; the mammalia upstart peasants against the arthropods; the very existence of life grander than a cell a novelty, and life itself but a breath, a faint squeak, at the coldest and farthest edge of the mindlessly vast blade of the clock that measured the universe.
At this I screamed and vomited for a time. When I woke once more, I was writing. Writing this.
Only one thing remains left of my own will as I finish this revolting letter, Helen. Besides sharing my insanity with you, I must forwarn you of it. As I sat, pen in hand, my gaze hunted restlessly for some means, some beacon, some sign of which to warn you away from this place, lest its horrors infest all of mankind’s thoughts as mine had. And god help me, right above my very skull, on a foully obsequious and tidy plaque, I found it.
I slumped in my feet, my scream ate itself in my mouth. The unspeakable, inutterable, madness-ridden truth was revealed in the emblazoned placard: