Sometimes you hear about eerie stories that “They don’t write ’em like they used to.” Well, please allow us to present Exhibit A of the defense. It riffs on the Egyptian tales Lovecraft used to write, sometimes under his byline, sometimes under another’s. But notice how the author sidesteps pastiche and makes this tale all his own.
“This is your office for the summer. You are expected to keep it useful and you are expected to keep it tidy. As it is now yours, it will belong to another after you leave.”
“I understand,” said Sarah. She resisted the urge to check if she had tracked any desert dust in on her shoes.
“Welcome to Cairo Museum.”
“Thank you. I’m really thrilled to be here.”
A wraith of a smile faded into and then out of the face of Anit el-Masri, Sarah’s supervisor. The air conditioner rattled as it cycled on and struggled to cool the little office.
“I have work to do.” Anit turned and left the intern to become acquainted with her new office space. Her footsteps clacked down the long hallway until they faded away.
Sarah Linstrom relaxed as she felt the grip of first-day tension release ever so slightly. She dragged her finger across her phone to unlock it, and sent a message to her friend Kate, I’M HERE! IN CAIRO! IN _MY_ OFFICE!!! Deep within her office, it seemed. The long connecting hallway and lack of windows gave it a cavernous yet confined feel.
She flopped into the black leather of her wheeled office chair and kicked to the side, spinning around in celebration. The high back of her chair whirled around and plowed into the lamp on the desk, sending it flying off the edge and into the wall.
She slammed her feet downward. Her chair, breath, and heart all stopped.
Her phone buzzed. Kate had responded its 330 in the morning but yay dont break anything.
Sarah felt the tears burning in her eyes.
The lamp rested unbroken against the wall. However, the wall, thinner than it appeared, had a huge gash punched through it. She replaced the lamp on the desk and tapped a message back to Kate. I’m sorry, I was excited. And now I broke the wall.
What the heck wall how did you break the WALL never mind appeared, followed by Whats inside the wall and Can you see anything.
Sarah’s thumbs hammered on her phone Yes, Lord Carnarvon, wonderful things. Then she clicked her phone off and shoved it into her pocket.
She buried her head into her folded arms on her desk and stamped her feet, then sighed and peeked at the hole: still there. She leaned over the edge of her desk, and with the lamplight over her shoulder, looked into the hole.
There was, in fact, something there.
The thin wall proved easy enough to push through and to widen. Inside, Sarah could see the end of a weather-worn wooden crate. She dragged it out and placed it on the opposite side of the room, where the rest of her office contents had been delivered and stacked.
Her desk was heavy, but she managed to push it against the wall and forward inch by inch until it hid the hole.
The side of the crate was lettered in a roughly hewn WADI AL MULUK. It was hinged and latched but not locked, and all the metal parts had rusted fast. She pulled at the latch and was at length able to wrestle it free from the hasp. Her face scrunched into a mass of wrinkles as she strained against the top of the crate on its protesting hinges. As the top lifted, a small fly buzzed out on a crooked and wandering path.
The dry, dusty smell of old wood and books and sand surrounded Sarah as she peered into the crate. Inside she found an odd assortment of papers, notebooks, and other such objects. She took out the top notebook and sat next to the crate to read.
I am a man of science,” she read from the diary. The paper was crisp but not brittle, and the script was drawn with faded strokes of India ink. “And, as such, not one given slightly to whim or to fancy, or to coincidence or such concepts borne of an unobservable or unproven nature. However, I am a man of open mind and of considered skepticism, and so, refuse to discount the possibilities afforded to one by the careful employ of imagination. My experienced life has brought to me answer upon answer with regards to the mysteries thereby encountered, and yet, as time advances, I find myself continuing to return to a single moment of indecision, which, despite concerted effort, continues to elude my efforts of conclusion.
Sarah flipped quickly through the book. The diary went on for many pages and she thumbed through until she discovered the identity of the author, one Alfred Lucas, who had dated most of the entries from 1943, 1944, or 1945.
She slid her phone open and searched for entries about Lucas. An image search showed grayscale photos of the dapper scientist, whom she found to have been a chemist who worked with Howard Carter in the early 1920s during the excavation of tombs in the Valley of the Kings.
Well, that explains the crate, she thought while absently waving off a fly hovering lazily around her.
Lucas, it seemed, was key in the recovery and preservation of artifacts, and credited with ensuring the preservation of a vast majority of the objects discovered.
One website stated, “Though the motives and intentions of many of the individuals associated with the excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun were often called into question, Lucas’s were always considered beyond reproach. In a recent historical account of the excavation of the tomb, Lucas was portrayed as likely the only honest man associated with the project.”
She smiled at the notion of a man of integrity and looked back into the crate. Had Lucas preserved more about this project than anyone knew?
A scattering of two-holed, ruled papers looked like they had been tossed into the crate. They lacked numbering or dates, but she stacked them neatly. Some appeared to be terse phrases of notes, as if to document an inventory of items bearing no scheme of organization or order themselves apart from order of the discoveries they reported.
One of these sheets read “Tutankhamun excavation – Small Chamber” and listed:
- carved stone plate, stained color, figures rank and file
- carved stone plate, stained color, figures, chiseled gouges, nearly destroyed
- gold plate, hammered or pitted, black figure central
- small box of various glass and metal items, nothing of this era
- six spheres, hollow glass, various size
- blown glass bent object, six inch span, unknown purpose
- blown glass bent object, elongate, metal contrivance attached
- metal device compatible with contrivance, elaborate, intricate
- metal contraption or instrument, pipes, actuators, musical or medical?
- book, thick, bound brown leather, hasp, Arabic script? not of this era
- sculpture, green stone, aquatic and human, wings, crouching, unfamiliar inscription, not of this era
Not of this era. Sarah repeated the phrase to herself.
She flipped the diary open again and leafed through, looking for mention of any of these specific artifacts until she came across an entry from early 1943.
Professor Carter, typically level-headed and careful in action, was entirely outside of his senses tonight. We had gone back and forth for hours at one point about the nature of the contents of the small chamber, and his anger with me over the matter escalated to madness. His point was that if Carnarvon directed that we destroy the artifacts, then there would be no discussion. Mine was that, regardless of rank or employ, we are preservationists, a stance with which Carter normally agreed with without exception, and I reminded him. At length, anger took him over and he hurled his arm against the glassware we had recovered, which raked it all from the table and smashed it to shards against the stone floor.
The air conditioner went silent as it cycled off. Sarah’s fingers felt stiff and cold and she flexed them to warm up. She read on.
He went so far as to grind the metal contrivances under his heel before leaving. It was immediately that night that I carefully wrapped the tablets and other items from the small chamber and stored them away in a location unknown to him.
“Lucas hid these things,” she whispered.
Deeper in the crate, Sarah found, layered with soft cloths, several tablets or panels of stone, each about a foot or so on the side and heavy, but thin enough to be lifted. They appeared to be portions of larger works that perhaps were removed from a larger wall of similar carving.
All were in the Egyptian style typical for the artwork found inside the tomb of Tutankhamun. The tablets depicted scenes she was unfamiliar with, despite her studies. They showed armies, she presumed of slaves, in rank and file, seemingly engaged in laborious tasks. She could not discern from the scenes exactly the intent of the gathering.
One of the tablets showed an army upright in the front ranks, then progressing in stages to lying in stacks of bodies near the rear of the group. Were they bodies prepared for burial? Were they an exhausted workforce being revived? It was unclear.
Heading the group was a figure carved larger, more ornate, godlike. He, or it, was dressed in the typical manner of skirt-like garment and crooked staff. Its headdress, though, did not fit. The headdress seemed to be constructed of round-ended and straight-edged wings with angular ribs, like those of a housefly. Its legs were articulated in the reverse, and covered in short spikes or thick sparse hairs. All of the plates showed stories of this god.
She felt somehow uneasy looking at him. Or it.
At the bottom of the crate, Sarah found a final plate wrought in pure hammered gold. This plate featured this same fly-god in various poses encircling a central figure painted thickly in matte black all but for the eyes, which were left to shine through in gold.
The circle of carved figures all seemed to be aspects of this same winged god in different poses, arranged in supplication to itself as this black central figure. The black god was mostly human in form, most of the time. It seemed to shift, however, to crawl around chaotically as she gazed at it, making it nearly impossible to describe. At any one time, it appeared insect-like, or globular, or tentacled, or wholly amorphous. The she would blink, and it looked mostly human again.
Beneath the depiction of the black god was an oblong cartouche of figures that were much like the typical script she had studied, but every attempt she made to translate didn’t result in anything that made sense. The glyphs too seemed to crawl around and look different with each glance.
She re-packed the golden plates carefully into the crate.
Then, there was the book, as the notes of Lucas described. Not of this era.
Hasped and brown, the thing seemed to seep an oppressive, miasmic stench that gave Sarah a sensation of pressure or insistence. She carefully opened it and looked through the pages.
Inside, the script was familiar as vaguely Arabic, but the meaning still eluded her. It was filled with diagrams of beastly creatures, some formless and some terrifyingly precise; some bulbous and gelatinous; and others odd blends of crustacean or ichthian with suggestions of a human shape.
One creature—she assumed it was a creature—was almost entirely formless, but then seemed mound-like, then somehow flowing, yet unmoving. In the margin next to this creature was a hurried sketch that looked remarkably like the cartouche of the black fly-god on the tablets she had just examined.
As she leafed through this book, her senses became occupied and engulfed as the world around her drained away from her consciousness.
She snapped back to her normal sense of awareness only when the persistent fly startled her by flying almost directly into her eye, causing her to reflexively wave it away in exasperation. She closed the book and set it aside.
Next, and perhaps strangest of all, Sarah found in the crate a copy of a magazine of amateur fiction. For some reason, Lucas saw fit to include the November 1920 issue of The United Amateur, an inexpensively printed publication of short stories typical of the time. Flipping rapidly through the page edges, she noticed one had been folded down as a bookmark. She pulled the pages apart at the fold, page 128, which contained a story by H. P. Lovecraft called “Nyarlathotep.”
Could fiction and fact have collided this way? The tablets, the book, the story; could this all be referring to the same Nyarlathotep?
She quickly read through the story.
“Makes no sense whatsoever,” she murmured to herself and flipped the magazine closed. The story had been published in 1920, and Carter didn’t even enter Tutankhamun’s tomb until late 1922. If Lovecraft had invented this “pharaoh,” there could be nothing in the tomb referencing that name as belonging to an actual historical figure. The fly droned by Sarah’s head again and she sprang to her feet, rolling and wielding November 1920’s United Amateur.
She swatted at the bug a few times before it circled upward and stuck itself to the wall just out of reach of the magazine.
Sarah sat back down next to the crate and sorted through the stack of loose papers she had previously assembled. They all were notes from the months Lucas spent restoring and preserving artifacts with Howard Carter at the Tutankhamun tomb site.
Again today I find myself at odds with Carter on the same topic, the only topic of contention between us as of late. I have reaffirmed my insistence that we take the stance of completion, for we, as historians, must report, in whole and in full, everything we find, without bias and without filter. Carter, for as much as I admire him, rests steadfast on his decision. Carter insists that to reveal the contents of the cache of the small chamber is to reveal secrets to mankind that are better left forever forgotten to history. In this, I find myself infuriated. We must be complete in our task, or we will have crafted our own fate forever in being dishonest.
Another sheet of paper was folded in half by length, which Sarah carefully unfolded and read, “I broached the topic of Nyarlathotep to Carter.” She stopped there and read the name again. Lucas did think this was the black god!
I showed him the story of this dark pharaoh, this character of crawling chaos. To my surprise, he bore the patience to hear me out. Carter is a man of no leisure reading, and so finds nothing of merit in the reading of texts failing to relate directly to matters at hand. Being a chemist and student of experimentation, I am not so rigid in my partaking of reading to pass time. In that, my curiosity wanders, and so has alighted upon a piece of fiction by an author named Lovecraft, which, having been published recently, I was able to read and become quite excited by, for it mentions the story of a pharaoh of Egypt who possessed qualities of horrible malevolence that have been mentioned heretofore in no books of history with which I am acquainted. Indeed, this matter made no impact upon me at all until Carter and I first took stock of items stored in the small chamber. It was at that moment, upon seeing the hammered gold plate depicting the black god, that it struck me that this was much more than coincidence. Carter rejected all of this outright.
Sarah suddenly noticed how cold she felt, as if all the blood had retreated from her extremities, fleeing into the core of her body.
On yet another leaf of loose diary page, Sarah read:
‘Destroy it.’ he insisted. ‘But Carter, listen to yourself,’ I told him. ‘History is sacrosanct but for the ravages of time and of the elements. The work we do, the work of preserving these artifacts, is duty on the honored level of that the ancient Egyptians themselves held godlike; preserving and protecting the course of human knowledge against the realm of the forgotten.’
She hugged her knees and tried to relax her jaw from clenching as she read secrets long lost to the world.
‘Destroy it all.’ he repeated, almost in anger at me. ‘You know as well as I that among the concepts that every generation of Egyptians held dear was the act of destroying a history they felt should never had existed. It was part and parcel of the culture to chisel away and erase entire courses of history from walls to artwork to legislation as balances of power shifted. This is no different. I’m not to say their myths and legends are real or fabricated, but, if they wiped out Nyarlathotep for a reason, it seems to me, there must have been a very good reason.’ He finished his drink in one hefty gulp and stood, saying only ‘Carnarvon ordered it destroyed.’ Then he left, saying nothing more. He never mentioned Nyarlathotep or the small chamber to me ever again.
Sarah felt a cold stone sink in her abdomen and tried to breathe deeply to release the tension. She stacked the loose sheets together and flipped back through Lucas’s diary once again.
October 15, 1944. I’ve had years to mull over the cache of items unearthed in the small chamber and yet I remain unsure as to what to do from here. I sit amid the horrid objects that have evaded for centuries the many attempts to destroy them, and these terrible things … they compel me to protect them.
I am convinced that several entirely unbelievable and apparently unconnected things are in fact links in chains of interwoven events. I am convinced of the truth of these accounts and of the truth that this “pharaoh” not only was a god among men, but an evil one. Furthermore, as little sense as this makes to the scholarly nature of my studies, I am convinced that certain connections exist, certain deep psychic connections, which linked artists and poets at the time to the opening of the tomb.
Nothing else could explain the uncanny concurrence between the truths of the objects found in the small chamber of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the fiction writings of Lovecraft, and, for that matter, perhaps uncounted others yet undiscovered.
Throughout the years following the opening of the tomb, I have continued to follow the stories of Lovecraft, beginning with his accounting of Nyarlathotep, and I have connected other threads of truths that have to this day gone undiscovered by others. Some compelling spirit, perhaps the same compulsion that called to Lovecraft, spurs me to record these things, and I can fight them no longer.
Sarah jumped as the air conditioner cycled on with a loud rattle. She continued reading:
Above all other mysteries is that the contents of the small chamber, with the exception of the tablets, were of a style and material of manufacture whose era of origin was a time after that of Tutankhamun. This mystery, too, I believe is solved by way of my studies and readings.
It was Nyarlathotep, “the crawling chaos,” who ruled over Egypt in different and uncharted periods throughout the course of eons. It was by his malign and powerful influence that masses of people were enslaved, murdered, and re-animated as mobs of will-robbed souls to do his bidding as countless armies of zombies.
It is thus no further wonder how these massive works of construction were undertaken. The blackest of gods, the general of undead armies, the puppet master of the populace, commanded hundreds—no, thousands upon thousands!—of people in a waking death, no doubt each in their own full awareness and terror, into cruel and endless tasks of laborious aspect.
Nor is it any wonder that, once he wandered away from the region in boredom, that the Egyptian people remaining scrubbed him from their history and from their memories with such complete and faultless finality.
It is also no small wonder that the brains of the dead were liquefied and drained from their very skulls and stuffed into jars, for the undead could be put at peace by no other methods.
The mercilessness of Nyarlathotep was to be forever expunged.
Sarah’s throat was so tight it nauseated her. She swallowed hard and inhaled deeply to steady herself. And read on:
And yet, something survived. Some scrap of this history, which should have been erased, which should have been destroyed, remained. That scrap which I now have studied and by which all these forgotten things have been learned again, by me, God help me.
The final mystery is revealed as Lovecraft wrote of “the mad Arab,” Abdul Alhazred, in his fiction. Yet, I hold before me a book, the book, the book of the mad Arab, the Necronomicon itself, which we retrieved from the small chamber within the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Is he only so much fiction, this Alhazred? I have his book! There can be no doubt whatsoever. There is only one conclusion that can be drawn.
The non-fictional and very real mad Arab had somehow become the caretaker of the devices, the glass and metal contraptions of Nyarlathotep, and he kept them, forgive me for knowing, forgive me for remembering the forgotten, forgive me for explaining it again.
Alhazred had become the custodian of the last tablets, which had escaped destruction, the only Egyptian record of rule of the black god.
It was Alhazred, don’t you see? It was he who first found the tomb, not Carter. It was Alhazred who broke into the tomb of Tutankhamun, centuries before Carnarvon employed Carter for the task, and it was Alhazred who left behind the tablets, the artifacts, and the Necronomicon, there to survive, there to persist, there to become immortal, within the small chamber.
It was I who completed his design, I who that stared into the empty gaze of the memory of Nyarlathotep. It was I who carried this knowledge onward. It was I who could not do what the Egyptians had thought they had already done, who could not do what Carnarvon had thought he had already done, and what Carter had insisted be done.
It was I who did not destroy these things that would erase the power of Nyarlathotep for all time. And now that it’s remembered and known, it is possible that incantations rendered in the Necronomicon can be recited, inviting the evil pharaoh god back to his throne.
I, for my success in what I do, have doomed us all.
Sarah shivered; her entire body shuddered, as she read:
Destroy it all. If you find it, destroy it. Do what I could not. Do not let anyone else know the truth. Kill this memory. Kill the ability of anyone to revive this nightmare and allow the king of zombies to breathe again. Kill this demon of limitless malevolent power, I beg you!
The black fly tucked back its wings and folded its legs tightly as it dove into Sarah’s arm, biting deeply into her skin. She swatted at it, but the fly seemed to be gone, leaving only her arm stinging where she had slapped it. But the bite burned, and suddenly she felt dizzy.
“Must hide it … no one else can know …” she said, and crawled her way clumsily back to the desk so that she could push it away and open the hole, to shove the crate back inside, hide it again forever.
She leaned on the desk to push it again, inch by inch, but the light grew dim and she collapsed, unmoving, onto the floor.