Jordan Hofer reminds us in this dread-full tale that sanity is a gift easily stolen.
“Life in the oceans must be sheer hell. A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger. So much of hell that during evolution some species crawled, fled onto some small continents of solid land, where the Lessons of Darkness continue.”
Werner Herzog, April 30, 1999
Judd Farmer feared the sea. He more than respected the ancient and indifferent nature of its forces. The relentless crashing surf could not care if he were caught in its fury and dashed upon the lacerating coral. When the ocean did care about him he was the object of hunger, food to be devoured by abysmal jaws with rows of serrated teeth. And then there was its incomprehensible vastness, the open and endless depths that concealed fears formed of shadow and dream, of memories so old they had no name and could not be recovered in full conscious form from the primordial sleep.
Even at only twenty-one, the young man sensed these eldritch truths. He studied Nature in safe air-conditioned college classrooms with abstracted symbols on the blackboard representing anatomy and physiology and the complex organic pathways that filled him with dread.
His philosophy was If human life were a deathly game for gods and forces from beyond the Earth and the Cosmos Itself, then a man’s sanity might be measured by a number, perhaps 99 at the peak of an untroubled intellect. Any student with true discernment of the revealed truth would lose at least 10 upon close reading of On the Origin of Species.
The ocean was inside of him; he was the fish that colonized the land—and that fish was always afraid. Purely distilled, Fear was the ocean’s most basic element of life. Deep fear. Not deep-seated. But deep-seeded, that was more accurate. The seed of fear that had grown through billions of years as the Roots of Terror at the base of the Tree of Life “which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth.” For Darwin speaks pure terror of time whose depths are greater than any ocean, death persistent and forever active as reproduction fights the negative gross for the struggling net: “We do not see, or we forget, that the birds which are idly singing round us are thus constantly destroying life; or we forget how largely these songsters, or their eggs, or their nestlings are destroyed by birds and beasts of prey … as if by some murderous pestilence.”
Murder was an omnipresent terror on St. Thomas. The island was drowning in the drug trade, specifically cocaine and methamphetamines, and the local police forces were as corrupt as the criminal traffickers they were apprehending. On a gibbous moonlit night five cops dragged a struggling man into the waters of Brewer’s Bay and drowned him, then hung him by the neck from a palm tree on the beach. A month later Judd was walking up the lighted pathway to his dorm when he heard what sounded like fireworks from beyond the university’s golf course. He was startled as a campus security guard with a squawking walkie-talkie excitedly exclaimed to him, “Didjoo hear it, mon? Cop jest got shot in Lindbergh!” Drug dealers with a vendetta had called the cop out of his home in his underwear and shot him seventeen times. Gunshots were as prevalent a night chorus as the cicadas. Judd lay awake in the small hours, anxiously listening to the staccato blasts of “fireworks” erupting from the gutted Lindbergh projects, and he never slept without fear. His dreams were awash in violent death. The island’s runoff spilled blood into the sea.
Returning to campus from a night of drinking at the Beachcomber Bar in Lindbergh Bay, Judd and Budd encountered two sailors from the United States Navy on shore leave. The men were merrily intoxicated, shirtless, and especially raucous in their articulations—breaking all the taboos of the local culture.
“They’re really asking for trouble,” Judd commented.
Budd nodded. “I doubt they make it through the night alive.”
These conjectures proved particularly prescient.
The United States Navy canceled port calls to St. Thomas following an attack on three sailors from the U.S.S. Yorktown. They had been beaten with baseball bats and two of them shot. Lieutenant Robert D. Bartlett later died from his injuries. If the island was too dangerous for the military, Judd thought, then what the hell was he doing there? Down another 10 points of sanity to 79.
He awoke every morning with a clenched jaw, the temporalis and masseter musculature tight with tension from fear of impending fatality and paralyzing culture shock. Like most of the white students, he had segregated himself from the Caribbean islanders. Their accent was so different from his, a more lyrical and musical vernacular, that he could rarely comprehend what was being spoken. This linguistic divide was enough to frighten him into his familiar insular tribe of Mainland whites.
While gazing at the ocean before organic chemistry class one morning, a striking young black woman from Vermont confronted Judd with acid in her voice: “So, how does it feel to be the minority?”
He responded with a friendly yet hollow rejoinder and the young woman savored his awkward discomfort. He had seen other whites react with flagrant racism to their recently relegated racial rank. But Judd did not hate anyone; he was merely naive and fearful, having grown up in the white middle class of Salem, Massachusetts. And he attended college at Miskatonic University in Arkham. His upbringing was provincial and the study abroad program was testing his precious liberal values in the raw. Xenophobia preyed on slipping sanity: 69 points of sanity remaining.
On his first dive in Brewer’s Bay, Judd was twenty feet down, investigating the dark hold of a sunken boat. A multi-limbed arthropod monstrosity had chased him out, a lobster the size of a mastiff; nothing bearing an exoskeleton should ever be allowed by nature to grow so obscenely large. Its hideously giant claws were like those of a nightmare alien from beyond distant Yuggoth. Sanity points: 59.
And then there was the alarming incident off the island of Savannah. Judd had been down thirty feet with three other divers when a strong current caught him alone. His dive buddies paddled farther ahead of him before either they or he realized that the group had been split. He was kicking at full strength and speeding backwards. Accepting his helplessness, he resigned to the current’s awful force and allowed it to whip his inert body around a promontory of the island into a little cove and up to the surface in a matter of seconds. Judd had then gashed his knee on a sharp outcropping of coral in Savannah’s cove, and bled profusely into the water. A very big barracuda circled him as he awaited rescue from the dive boat. When he climbed on board, the blood coursed down his knee in a free seep onto the deck. He had brazenly laughed, but only because he was out of the water. Sanity: 49.
For the young, diving in the tropical depths is sensual, the pressure of three or more atmospheres pushing on the body like the naked embrace of a lover in a warm bath; and in this way the ocean evokes sexual longing. But the clinical indifference of sexual selection can slay a young man’s spirit.
Judd was in desperate love with a girl two years younger than he, a beautiful Danish countess who was well versed in biology and Steinbeck, enjoyed Rum & Cokes in beachside bars, and was herself a dive master. Their romantic involvement had been evolving favorably until a man two years older than Judd arrived on St. Thomas from Michigan. His name was Budd (the rhyme was lost on neither of the young men, merely heightening their competition) and the countess had dropped Judd flat. She had chosen, acted as the eternal agent of sexual selection, and cut the younger man in favor of the older, taller, tougher teddy bear from the Midwest. Judd could no more blame her than one could hold accountable the faster shark as it devoured the slower prey. Sex was a weapon of terror. Sexual selection was the direct action of that terrible weapon.
Judd had certainly lost sanity in the affair. Young women who might have found him attractive earlier now regarded him as the loser in sexual competition. He was dreadfully aware of their pitying glances that also proclaimed he was undesirable. On one intoxicated evening the countess’s older sister had sat between his legs and rubbed the back of her blonde head on him; the next morning she feigned ignorance of the affair.
On the way to the dining hall one morning Judd met Budd outside the dormitory.
“I’m headed for breakfast,” Judd said. “Want to join me?”
“I already had some Danish for breakfast,” Budd replied with a roguish grin.
“Some Danish? Where did you—? Oh, for Christ’s sake.”
Budd barked a laughed full of mischief.
One dreadful night the young Countess slipped a letter under Judd’s door that proclaimed she surely would have loved him had not her ideal suitor arrived. The misguided cruelty and compounded Darwinian selection pressures drove him madder in the tropical nights, leaving him thrashing on his bunk like one demon-possessed. Sanity: 39.
But the terror he did not know—that which his academic pedagogy would reject simply because he was taught to deny it—was the obscurity of the named but unnamable pantheon of abominations known to the occult and the cultists. In the ocean’s plumbless depths he instinctively feared resided also the unspeakable abhorrent creatures of fathomless time: the Deep Ones, the Shoggoths, Dagon, Cthulhu. All conspicuously absent from the taxonomies found in the expensive pages of the dense biology textbooks. Yet their presence could be sensed emanating from the dark deep. And their companions, as well unacknowledged by the academic mind, those other terrible aliens in their unidentified submerged objects, the ships glowing a pale green that yet overwhelmed the bright bluish haze of Noctiluca. Too tenuous was Judd’s sanity for such beings elder to Man.
Tellingly, the native Caribbean islanders rarely ventured into the ocean and were terrified of frogs. A large Cuban tree frog found its way into the common area of the dormitory one morning amidst much shrieking. Judd tried to catch the frog but was vehemently cautioned: “Juddy, mon, no! Dese frogs not like yours! Dey poisonous, mon!”
He had seen interlopers on the campus with bulging eyes and strangely wide mouths, reminding him of the inhabitants of Innsmouth. One of these wretched souls had a purplish tumor as large as a yam growing out the back of his neck, lined with gruesomely pulsating puce veins. Sanity: 29.
The islanders had also warned him of the Jumbie that lived underground, beneath his dormitory: “Da Jumbie, it will geetchoo, mon!”
The Jumbie was an evil spirit made flesh: shape-shifting, carnivorous, insatiably voracious. Perhaps the Jumbie had taken form as the cat that Judd fed deep-fried fish biscuits on the porch, in which case Judd must have been recognized as its attentive servant and mercifully spared. Or maybe it was the mysterious night visitor who smoked cigarettes beneath the screened window of his dorm room. He caught sight of it one night in the shadows, too hideously long-limbed to be human. Sanity: 19.
During Carnival, the Jumbie appeared in garish colors with sharp spines extending from its head, striding unnaturally wide through the thronged streets on long stilt legs, reveling in the chaotic din that consumed the island in joyous voodoo madness. The white man fled St. Thomas during the week of Carnival, abdicating his imperial hegemony to forces far older and more enduring than four hundred years of that infernal institution.
So the white students had departed on April 28 to dive off St. Croix, the largest of the United States Virgin Islands to the south.
On the morning of April 30, the university dive boat Charlotte set anchor on the south shore of St. Croix, to the west of where Salt River entered the sea. The ocean’s surface was an azure crystalline clarity with a deeper cerulean betraying its precipitous drop into the abyss.
“Stay with your buddy,” the dive master and Charlotte’s captain was reciting. “The West Wall falls off deep and fast, so watch your depth. You can be at dive limit before you even know it.”
Judd and Budd were buddied up for this dive. They had paired the day before at North Star Jungle. The young Danish countess, as usual, was with her older sister; they were dive buddies and always had been, blood thicker than seawater.
“And no bullshit narcing out!” the captain yelled, turning his attention to a group of four crazy white guys who were always up to something nuts, usually involving violence and drugs. “Goddammit, I mean it! If you pull another stunt like yesterday, I’m turning this boat around and heading back for campus. You’ll fuck up the trip for everyone else! Am I clear?”
The crazy white guys nodded and grumbled. Judd watched their expressions and was certain they would do it again. The day before they had descended to what must have been well over two hundred fifty feet. Under that much pressure nitrogen became a narcotic in the bloodstream, what Stills and Young had called the “rapture of the deep.” He heard the lyrics in his head from the haunting song “Black Coral”:
Nitrogen comes and goes, gets you high
It’s an alien atmosphere …
They call it rapture of the deep
Be you not afraid, you’re too far down by now to be scared …
Judd followed Budd’s gaze and saw him glaring at the crazy white guys. He knew they would go too deep again, too. The suicidal fools had run out of air down there and if there had not been a spare air tank hanging from the boat at thirty-five feet they never would have made it to the surface alive. Even with the emergency tank they easily could have died of an embolism as the dissolved gases in their bloodstream bubbled out from the pressure difference, just like a shaken soda bottle when its cap is opened.
“All right,” the captain continued, “watch your pressure gauge and your bottom time and have a good dive. The emergency air tank is at thirty-five feet but no one’s going to need it, are they?” He scowled at the crazy white guys. “See you back on the surface in about half an hour.”
The countesses were the first in the water. They signaled “okay” and sank beneath the surface. Then the crazy white guys. The four of them dove together. Budd and Judd were last.
“This is gonna be sweet, buddy,” Budd said, placing the regulator in his mouth.
Judd looked through his mask into the depths below him. He saw a rapidly descending sandy floor in clear water and then the West Wall, dropping down to over two thousand feet. The jet blackness was darker than his deepest depressions, and he was filled with dread. But he nodded to Budd and gave him an “okay” signal. Budd replied with his thumb motioning down. They vented the air in their buoyancy vests and began to sink.
The interphase between the two worlds of air and water, even though it lasted only a second or two, was always the most terrifying moment of a dive for Judd. Not of one world, not of the other—a membrane in between, like dying. It was a fact that most scuba deaths occurred at the surface. Ed “Doc” Ricketts, immortalized in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, had always been terrified of having the ocean over his head—a significant caution coming from a marine biologist. But the moment of interphase passed quickly and the buddies descended into Cousteau’s “Silent World,” thanks to the man who had invented scuba.
After nearly a year of study at the University of the Virgin Islands on St. Thomas, Judd was convinced of two revealed truths concerning the study of biology. A student of biology must at some point in his life spend time residing on an island. Islands were living examples of genetic drift and natural selection, of species evolving separately from their mainland counterparts. Also, a biology student must venture into and under the ocean. The ocean was in his blood, like a biological reverse scuba for the land invaders. His ancestors left the oceans for permanent terrestrial dwelling as reptiles three hundred twenty million years ago. And with the use of technology, that three hundred twenty million years could be rewound for short periods of time. As Theodore Sturgeon wrote in his story “The Man Who Lost the Sea”: “For no farmer who fingers the soil with love and knowledge, no poet who sings of it, artist, contractor, engineer, even child bursting into tears at the inexpressible beauty of a field of daffodils—none of these is as intimate with Earth as those who live on, live with, breathe and drift in its seas.” That intimacy also bred fear and madness. Saltwater itself was a madman’s elixir; it was a truth that if a man drank too much he would lose his mind.
Once beneath, they could see the Countesses gamboling like beautiful dolphins, daughters of Amphitrite, chasing the silver flash of barracuda.
The crazy white guys were nowhere to be seen; they were probably already at the West Wall, plunging to euphoria. Judd consigned them to their fate. Something in these islands would eventually kill them. If it wasn’t the ocean, then it would be drugs; if not drugs, then violence; and if not violence, then sex—HIV had infected up to 40 percent of the adult population on St. Thomas, and these crazy white guys weren’t safe with sex, either. They had been kind to him, however; one time they shared the longest, fattest joint with him that he had ever seen, a fat cigar of ganja that mellowed the island’s omnipresent threat around the edges.
Budd angled head down at forty-five degrees and kicked hard for the sandy ocean floor, slowing occasionally to equalize his sinuses, holding his nose and blowing air out his ears to counteract the increasing pressure. They followed the example of the countesses and chased the tails of barracuda, Judd reveling in reciprocating the fear he felt that day in February off Savannah when the large barracuda had smelled his blood and circled him with too much interest by far.
After the barracudas escaped, Budd and Judd followed the sandy bottom to the rocky West Wall. As they passed over the edge, Judd looked down beneath his flippers at the shadows and beyond them into the deathly black void. A sudden ringing of animal alarm sounded in his reptile brain as a shot of adrenaline coursed through his inner ocean. There was nothing, nothing but water between him and the abyss. He very nearly implored Budd to turn back but the thanatophobia itself was almost a narcotic—not nitrogen narcosis but a form of Thanatos narcosis. Scotophobia intensified the intoxication. As they sank along the West Wall, he could hear his heart in his ears. His sanity was teetering on the fulcrum of self-preservation; the deeper he went, the deeper he wanted to go.
The sea, unforgiving and she’s hard
But she’ll make love to you, show you glimpses of the stars …
Suddenly he felt Budd’s strong hands on his shoulders, shaking him. He held out his pressure gauge, showing Judd that they had dropped, precipitately and without awareness, to 105 feet, just fifteen feet above recreational dive limits. Judd gave a shudder of relief that his dive buddy had been paying closer attention to their depth than he had. They inflated their air vests enough to hang above the abyss at neutral buoyancy. And then Judd saw it. Something impossible a hundred feet below in the dark.
An enormous object was down there, green lights spinning around it clockwise and counterclockwise, with a pulsing green beacon in the center of the obscure disk. He pointed at it emphatically and Budd nodded. Judd shot hot piss into the water and his eyes dilated, as much from terror as from the ethereal darkness. Two indistinct forms, glowing with faint bioluminescence, moved sinuously like cephalopods above the enormous round shape. As his eyes adjusted to the abysmal phantasmagoria he was convinced that the living forms were unlike any cephalopod logged in the taxonomy of Earthly biology.
They were alien. Yet the ocean belonged to them and had for eons before any human walked on land. He was receiving arcane telepathic messages from them. They transmitted inscrutable communications and he saw stars, swirling space, and the immensity of unfathomable time. He felt something go “click” in his brain. The sea was a limitless hell of predators and prey, and he was an insignificant morsel, a speck of plankton.
The green lights went out and the aliens darkened into shadows and vanished. An eruption of bubbles burst up from the darkness, accompanying four lifeless bodies, their limbs limp as they shot for the surface with buoyancy vests fully inflated. They would certainly die from so rapid an ascent had they not already been dead. The crazy white guys had chased their dragon down to more than eight atmospheres of pressure. Sanity: 9.
Budd grabbed Judd’s arm and pointed at the countesses above paddling for the dive boat. But Judd did not understand. His mind, ever on the precipice, had finally lost too many sanity points, and he was plummeting into madness. Budd motioned up with his thumb. Judd looked down again.
The green lights had not returned or the aliens with them, but in their place a massive horrid creature as big as a whale was moving with ponderous purpose. It was festooned with reptilian scales, sharp spines and webbed ridges along its massive dorsal curve. A magnificent head crowned with spikes turned and peered upwards with malicious giant orbs. The creature opened wide its giant maw and revealed rows of long saber teeth. Budd paddled for the surface, too scared to look down and back. Judd screamed, releasing a surge of bubbles, and losing what remained of his mind: negative sanity points, permanently mad.
The great Dagon rose from below the West Wall of darkness and reminded all trespassers in his vast domain that they did not belong, not even for brief forays. The blasphemous entity stared into Judd’s eyes behind his mask and captivated the young man’s soul beyond mortal reason, commanding abandonment of all senses. Miniscule Judd obeyed Dagon with his own madness, pressing down hard on the inflate button of his buoyancy vest, committing suicide. He shot past Budd, then the countesses, and broke the surface of the water just aft of the Charlotte, his body breaching a meter out of the sea from the inertia of his ascent. He died in agony as dozens of embolisms erupted in his brain.
The die of the unholy gods rolled on.