David Hambling is the author of two Mythos novellas, “The Elder Ice” and “Broken Meats” (available on Amazon), and a new collection from PS Publishing “The Dulwich Horror and others.”
“The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones… the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom.”
HP Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu
I visited Josh a week after his world ended, bringing him a takeaway curry and six bottles of Cobra beer.
Josh had not been diagnosed with cancer. He had not suffered a stroke, or any of the other medical emergencies that set phones ringing at three in the morning. His wife was safe and healthy, not killed in a car crash. When I say his world ended, that’s exactly what I mean.
Josh’s Armageddon ran to a timetable, and we had been through the countdown. It had started months before, when Josh began sending me emails about the coming apocalypse, cut-and-pasted web collations studded with PHRASES IN UPPER CASE about aliens and quantum physics.
We knew Josh had been under pressure at work, and things had been going badly between him and Siobhan for a while. After they separated, I helped him move his stuff to a poky little flat over an estate agents in Crystal Palace in South London. Josh had little to say about leaving his wife of five years as we ferried endless cardboard boxes up two flights of stairs. He just wanted to tell me all about the coming destruction of the planet. I let him talk.
I don’t know exactly when he left his job in IT, but I think it must have been around the same time.
Josh’s world officially ended on August 20th, which according to him marked the death knell for human civilization.
I rang him first thing in the morning that day. Josh was less talkative than usual, but seemed calm. We traded texts throughout the afternoon, and I called him again in the evening.
“How you doing, Josh?”
“It’s definitely started,” he said. “Have you seen the news from Indonesia?”
“No, I haven’t. But are you okay, personally?”
“Personally? Fine, yeah.”
I never did find out what the news from Indonesia was. The next morning there was a small piece in Metro about a doomsday prediction going viral. Josh was not the only one who had bunked off work. Many offices had empty desks, though most workers had just taken the day off or thrown a sickie.
Josh sounded fine. I hoped he would snap out of it in a day or two. The bank might even take him back, given that he was not the only one caught up in it. But when Josh was still holed up seven days later, I decided to go round to see him, stopping to pick up the traditional curry.
I managed to park nearby, an unusual stroke of luck. I hoped it was a good omen.
I hit the button at street level and Josh buzzed me through. There was a spyhole in the door upstairs, but it had been there when he moved in.
“What if he decides you’re, like a zombie or something, and tries to stab you?” Helen had asked.
“I’ll be careful,” I said. People with mental illness are more dangerous to themselves than others. Terry had stressed the importance of sympathy. I could understand my wife being cautious, but Josh was my brother and I knew him better than that.
In spite of my confidence there was a cold weight in my stomach as he opened the door. I was all too aware what might happen next.
There were no heavy bolts and chains drawn back, just the click of a single Yale. Josh looked well, his face lighting up with a smile as he saw the familiar white carrier bag in my hand. Rather than the hollow-eyed, twitchy survivalist I had feared, he was as chilled as I had seen him for months. His shirt and jeans were clean, freshly-ironed even. His hair was tidier than mine.
“Welcome to the bunker, bro,” he said.
The furniture consisted of a new futon, a coffee table and nothing else. The cardboard boxes I had helped carry up were stacked against one wall with the open ends facing outwards, repurposed as a tidy bookcase-cum-storage unit. Folded shirts and socks alternated with logjams of secondhand paperbacks. Horror anthologies and true conspiracy titles blared at me. The curtains were half-drawn.
Josh’s iPad stood upright on the table, showed a rolling news feed branded with a logo I did not recognize. The video quality suggested it was beamed from someone’s bedroom. He pushed the iPad aside to make room, leaving it where he could see the screen. I unpacked foil containers from the white plastic carrier bag, deciphering the scrawled letters on the lids.
“For your dining pleasure tonight: one order of onion bhaji, one mixed pakora, mixed plain and spicy poppadoms, lamb pasanda, chicken madras, mixed veg curry, pilau rice, tarka dall, nan bread – and here’s the pickles for the poppadums . And a plastic bag of salad. From the Indian Post,” I added.
“Nom nom,” said Josh, and went to rummage in the galley kitchen for plates and cutlery while I removed cardboard lids and arranged the containers. On the screen a man was talking silently. A blurry caption identified him as “Dr Bernard W Jackson, Former NASA Chief Scientist.” The background was a stock nebula picture from Hubble.
I didn’t bother trying to avoid the elephant in the room. Any conversation would run into it in two lines. Nice weather today — for the end of the world? Done anything nice, or just watching the planet disintegrate?
“We’ve all been very worried about you,” I said.
“I’ve been worried about you,” Josh replied, coming back with plates piled with cutlery and holding a bottle opener on one hand. He deftly opened open two beers and raised one. I grabbed the other and we clinked bottles.
“Good to see you, bruv,” he said, and took a long pull.
“Likewise.” The lager was cold and fizzy. “Glad to see you in good shape.”
Josh tore open the foil wrapper and spilled poppadums on to a plate, breaking them up into manageable fragments with jabs of his forefinger.
“Have you been out of the flat at all in the last week?” I asked.
“Yeah, couple of times. Just across the street.”
Terry had warned me this was where it was going to get difficult. You cannot argue with people with delusions. If you try they turns against you. But you have to make the effort.
Ever tried to have a reasoned discussion with a racist? Facts mean nothing to them.
With genuine psychotic delusions it’s even worse. If someone is convinced their headaches are cancer, no X-rays or MRI scans or blood test can tell them otherwise. You cannot prove to an anorexic that they are not fat just by standing them on the scales or getting them to look at themselves in a mirror. You will never convince someone with depression that things are not really as bad as all that. Deluded people cannnot see what the rest of the world sees.
Therapists are good at talking around the issues and avoiding arguments, but I waded straight in. I couldn’t believe that he really couldn’t see it.
“You know what’s it’s like out there then,” I said. “Not much sign of the apocalypse between here and Sutton.”
He snapped off a fragment of poppadum, swizzled it in hot lime pickle and took a bite.
“Yeah well,” he said. “It’s like Douglas Copeland said. ‘The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed’. Wow, that is fierce.” He shoved the plastic pot my way. “Eat some fire.”
I wanted to drag Josh to the window and shout “Look! Are there riots in the street? Do you see burning cars? Are the towers of Canary Wharf still standing?” But I already suspected that he would have an answer to everything. As far as he was concerned, the world had ended. Terry had explained about Cognitive Dissonance.
In 1954 a Chicago flying saucer cult called the Seekers were convinced that floods were about to destroy the Earth, and only they would be rescued by friendly aliens. When the world failed to end as planned the group was the focus of famous study. Psychologists got a close-up view of what happens when belief runs smack into the solid brick wall of reality.
Faced with a stark yes/no situation when beliefs are proved wrong, do people shrug, smile awkwardly, say “Looks like we were wrong then?” and listen to common sense?
Of course not. Failure just deepens their core beliefs.
The Seekers were not broken by the spectacular public failure of their prophecy. They were elated. Because of the holiness they radiated in their final vigil, God had changed his mind and decided to spare the planet. Their faith was strengthened. The Seekers changed from being furtive about their religion to evangelical, and started putting out press releases for the world.
It’s not just weird alien religious sects that do it. All of us experience cognitive dissonance all the time. We have a boundless ability to blank out the gulf between expectation and reality. When something happens that we are not ready to accept emotionally, we reframe our understanding of the world to incorporate the new information.
When you’re on a diet and someone offers you a chocolate brownie, it ought to be an easy decision. Unnecessary calories shouldn’t even rate thinking about. But then cognitive dissonance kicks in. It changes the setup, saying that you can easily burn off the brownie with an extra half hour at the gym. The brownie is allowed. You’re virtuous. The brownie starts to become necessary: you’ll need it to make it through that gym session. Cognitive dissonance beats rational thought to a pulp and walks off laughing, eating that brownie and forgetting about the gym.
Ask any smoker. Everyone knows rationally that smoking is bad for them. None of them ever has any trouble justifying it, whatever warnings they put in cigarette packs. Argument is futile because the fact is, humans are not rational beings.
Josh profoundly believed the world was ending, even though the electricity was still on the and Internet was still going. And, if he would only look out the window, he would see not the slightest trace of doom. None of it would shake his belief.
“Nice bunker you have here,” I said.
“It’ll do for the time being.”
“Are you armed?” I tried to make it sound casual.
“I can defend myself,” he said levelly.
I had spotted a wooden handle tucked under the futon. Samurai sword? Sawn-off shotgun? Or just a cricket bat? Josh had never been violent, but people can do strange things when they’re cornered and I had been alerted by the news stories.
A man had run down the street stabbing people at random in Southend, and a gang of bikers had gone on the rampage in Stockholm. There were hints that both were connected to an online apocalypse cult.
“There was a van dragging bodies down the street yesterday, a whole string of them,” Josh said suddenly. “Yesterday there were four police helicopters circling the hill, with snipers in them. I think they were shooting at something by the sports ground, but I couldn’t see. Things are starting to get intense.”
I wanted to remind him that you always get helicopters coming over this area. I have no idea what he saw being dragged behind a van. I had another swig of beer, bit into an onion bhajhi and tried a different angle.
“There hasn’t been anything like that in the news. I have to say it all seems fairly normal.”
“You watch different news channels to me,” Josh said.
“I think the BBC would, like, mention mass destruction, you know?”
“Yeah, well, it’s like Dawn of the Dead.”
Dawn of the Dead! That was a blast from the past, we’d watched that DVD hundreds of times together as kids. It was always one of Josh’s all-time favorites. “The zombies keep going to the shopping mall even though they’re dead. ‘Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives’. Everyone just keeps repeating the same stuff, doing what they’ve always done.”
“Josh, are you saying I’m a zombie?”
“No, bruv, of course not. But, you know, the world really has gone mad and people get caught up in it, they just keep going….”
This turned out to be the core of his explanation of what had happened. The end of the world actually meant ‘business as usual’ for most people. That was why the trains were still running, and why Josh had no trouble reconciling what he saw – an apocalypse that appeared only on the internet — with what he believed. Maybe the Seekers in Chicago would have acted differently if they could create their own reality, maybe they would have insisted that the floods had come on time and posted videos of tidal waves on YouTube.
“There’s a few others who seem to agree with you,” I said, gesturing at the iPad, now showing scuba divers moving through blue-lit underwater ruins, ‘Live from Hawaii’. “Or are some of the believers starting to defect and go back now. It must be a bit of a disappointment when the monsters don’t actually show up.”
Josh’s eyes were wide.
“Shit no! There’s really some momentum going now, numbers are shooting up. People are catching on.”
The apocalypse was not a religion or a cult. It was an internet meme. In some ways it was the exact equivalent of al-Qaida or ISIS, spreading through the fiber optics. You did not need to find a church, just visit a web site and let the firehose blast of conspiracy theory cleanse your mind of normal ideas and leave it sparkly brainwashed clean by the power of broadband.
“Are you – they – talking about doing anything about it? Fighting back against the alien invaders?”
Death cults don’t just predict the end of the world. Sometimes they decide to take a hand in bringing it about. Charlie Manson’s Helter Skelter killing spree. Japanese cultists releasing nerve gas on the Chiyodo Line. I doubted this lot were capable of more than denial-of-service attacks, but still.
Josh ran his fingers through his hair.
“What can we do against the Great Old Ones? Nothing, just….” He shook his head in despair. “All we can do is survive for as long as we can, any way we can.”
“Okay. I’m glad to see you’re surviving so well here.”
“There’s more people joining every day,” he said. “I won’t try to convince you again but…look around you. Keep your eyes open. There’s more and more stuff on the web every day. Wikipedia is still crap, but just google “Old Ones” and you’ll see, there’s so much stuff.”
“This is from that Lovecraft bloke, isn’t it, who just had his centenary?” Lovecraft, who Josh had admired ever since finding he invented the modern zombie. What a guy.
“He was a visionary. Lovecraft understood the universe at a gut level, even if he didn’t know everything.”
“He was writing fiction, it was all just from his imagination.”
“It came to him in dreams. All of his really powerful stuff — Dagon, Nyarlathotep, the lost cities — that was straight out of dreams Lovecraft had. He didn’t consciously make up any of it, and he never managed to put it together all into a coherent whole.”
“But he never said any of it was true…” I couldn’t finish the sentence in a way that didn’t sound like I was accusing Josh of being a lunatic. He did not seem to notice.
“That’s exactly how the unconscious mind works. It reveals things in dreams which your conscious mind cannot accept. Lovecraft wrote it all down without ever consciously accepting it. His conscious mind was more repressed, but maybe that’s why his unconscious mind could stretch out so far ahead of the curve.”
“So he had psychic visions because he was a tight-assed New Englander?”
“Not psychic,” Josh corrected. “All he did was realise the implications of modern science. Joined the dots to see the bigger picture that others just couldn’t see because they blanked it out.”
“A bigger picture of giant alien gods with tentacles?”
I expected him to see the funny side, but Josh wiped his hands on a paper towel, grabbed his iPad and started tapping.
A moment later he held up a picture of Japanese trawlermen. At their feet something big and dark squirmed in a net.
“That’s from New Scientist,” he said.
“A new sort of squid?”
“Fuck’s sake bro, it’s a Spawn, anyone can see that!”
“’A Spawn’, Is that what the scientists are saying?”
“Some of them! People are starting to wake up to it,” Josh said, replacing the iPad on its stand and swiping back to his loopy news feed. “Ships are disappearing, you’ll see.”
We ate in silence for a minute. The food was good.
Lovecraft wrote about a book called the Necronomicon that drove people mad. I might have seen Dawn of the Dead a million times, and maybe it did affect me, but I had not I had not read half the books that Josh had.
Maybe it was not a matter of reading one book. Maybe it was the cumulative effect if you read enough books. Maybe if you went over a certain threshold it started to affect your brain.
Back in 1930 or whenever Lovecraft was active there just were not that many post-apocalyptic horror stories around, not too many tales of the Old Ones devouring civilisation. Now there’s a whole industry. The big anniversary has pushed more and more people into reading the wrong sort of books. They had unconsciously drifted into a state where something tripped in their brains and the monsters became real. They started living in the blood-drenched, mutant-haunted wasteland ruled by alien gods. Thanks to the internet the cult of Lovecraft had reached a critical mass, encouraging and validating each other. Thousands of them.
But it only affected the ones who had been lured into reading one story too many. My world had not ended.
Josh opened two more beers, passed me one.
“Seriously,” he said. “You’ve got to start following this. It’s not too late. There’s a couple just across the road there who started preparing yesterday. I’ve been helping them. This thing, this apocalypse…it’s a slow-motion car-crash. You can still get out before it’s too late!”
That was how it worked. Everyone who believed was desperate to get others to believe. It was the ultimate internet meme. And the more of them that left their jobs and holed up in bunkers, the more it would start to look like the end of the world. When the shops could not open because there were no assistants, and the schools closed, and the doctors and the police gave up, that really would be it. There would be no food and the electricity would go off and there really would be rioting.
The total breakdown of society, simply because everyone believed that society was breaking down. Like a stock market crash, but for the whole planet. All driven by stupid horror stories. The Necronomicon is safe when it’s a dusty book in a library, but when it goes viral on the internet its madness infects the world.
Then it struck me. I could not be the only one who had realized the danger. There must have been others who had been tracking the growth of this thing, analyzing it, calculating what could happen if it spread.
How many of the people hunkering down in their compounds and hideouts did not really believe in weird aliens? How many of them had come to the same conclusion that the end was inevitable because everyone else thought it was? Maybe only a handful of them were like Josh, but that was enough to tip everyone else over. If Josh was right, the movement had momentum.
I could not remember seeing a story that the absentees had gone back to work en masse. There were a few people away on holiday in my office, even more than usual for the time of year, but surely that didn’t mean…
They didn’t need to be believers. They just needed to project that curve forward in time to understand that the only sensible move is to stock up on cans of beans and head for the hills.
In fact, maybe I had been stupid waiting this long. If it was all going to go pear-shaped, did I want to be the last man in the street who had not bought in a supply of bottled water? Was I putting my family in danger because I had not whisked them out of London at the first signs?
It was crazy, all crazy. But it made sense. And actually seeing Josh made it all concrete. Now it had started, the madness was going to sweep away everything.
Unless, somehow, sanity could fight back against them. After all, sanity was on our side. There were people like Terry who could help.
“How about a deal,” I said. “I’ll read up on the apocalypse like you say, if you’ll talk to someone. Tell them about you and Siobhan, and your job and everything. Talk to her about Lovecraft.”
“What? Like, a psychologist?”
“I’ve found a therapist called Terry. She’s very good. She says there are a lot of people in your exact situation.” I paused two beats. “I think she really understands what you’re going through.”
It took some negotiating. By the time we had worked through everything but the salad – and finished with some Ben & Jerrys from Josh’s well-stocked freezer to quench the chili fires set burning by the chicken Madras – Josh had agreed to let me set up an initial meeting with Terry. Obviously she would have to visit him in the flat, but I had already checked that she would make a house visit.
In exchange, I went away with some thick paperbacks and Josh’s scribbled top five list of web sites to start following.
We shook hands on the deal. Maybe I had sounded lukewarm about following through, but it might be useful to get some insight into Josh’s mindset, his and all the others who thought like him. I couldn’t really bring him back to reality without knowing where he had gone off the rails.
Were they really dangerous books? Maybe I would start believing the world had ended, and take Helen and the kids to a compound in Montana. You could see the appeal. No more Monday mornings, no more endless bloody meetings, no more constant round from after-school to swimming to Cubs. But – bye-bye to the pension plan and the prospect of two weeks in Greece every summer. Montana looks cold in winter. And besides, nobody could actually believe that weird stuff.
I did not think I was quite ready to join the cult just yet, and I wasn’t going to be stampeded into joining a horde of lemmings just because they had lost confidence.
Maybe this was an opportunity. Thousands of people would be selling their houses in a hurry, cashing in their stocks and shares for whatever they could get. There had to be money to be made out of this if you played it right. I’m sure I could have bought Josh’s pension plan off him for a few six-packs of beer. And once the economy started to recover after Great Cthulhu’s great no-show, those who bought widely would have made a fortune.
As left the flat I noticed again how much the area was going downhill. The number of homeless alcoholics around now, for a start. There were three of them sleeping on the pavement, all in dark puddles of vomit or something equally disgusting. I stood back so a woman could weave her baby buggy past them.
“It’s just terrible,” she said, shaking her head.
When I pulled the car out I realized just how bad it was getting; there was man lying in the middle of the road, a half-naked and comatose drunk. I steered carefully around him.
In my rear-view mirror towered the dark mass of clouds I had noticed earlier. A summer thunderstorm was on the way. No doubt Josh would see that as another sign of the apocalypse. The cloud itself, its shape suggesting a monstrous miles-high torso looming over the city, would probably be enough to spook him.
It would be a long struggle, but I was sure we could bring Josh back from the brink of madness. Reality always wins in the end.
After that, the driving was easy and there was surprisingly little traffic all the way back to Sutton.
David Hambling’s “Shadows from Norwood” Mythos project — https://www.facebook.com/ShadowsFromNorwood – – now includes two novellas, “The Elder Ice” and “Broken Meats” (available on Amazon), and the new collection from PS Publishing “The Dulwich Horror and others.”