There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The green stone that ate Willy: The Web of Easter Island and Dead Titans, Waken! by Donald Wandrei

The Web of Easter Island is a 1948 revision by Donald Wandrei of his unpublished 1932 novel Dead Titans, Waken!

In the last two weeks I have read both novels. They are the first novels by Wandrei I have read. (I also read His collected weird fiction, Don't Dream.)

The revisions from the 1932 book to the 1948 book are not major changes to the story. Easter Island has reduced Wandrei's orgy of pseudo-scientic jargon on display in Titans. This 1932 passage:

....I wish I could grasp the abstract principles of mathematics that are now current, and which are as far beyond Einstein as he was beyond Euclid. An understanding of them might go a long way toward a clarification of the farrago. According to this system, the geometry of solids is based upon three tangibles: length, breadth, and thickness; and two intangibles: time, and omega; the omega representing a fourth dimension which is the totality of the universe, obtained by the triunarization of infinite space, this hypothesis being that all matter is both infinite and eternal because its line of direction is so curved that it reverses upon itself and can be conceived as elliptical. Thus comets follow ellipses, planets have ovoidal orbits, straight lines become reversibles at omega, and an expanding universe such as Jeans and Eddington postulated in my period would ultimately be a contracting universe. Furthermore, relativity is integral to this mathematics. There is no specific, ultimate, fixed absolute in any of the tangibles or intangibles. Each bears a fluctuable relation to the four other elements of the mathematics, and to any observer at any point in the universe, observer, point, and universe themselves being fluctuant. “Among the corollaries of this mathematics is the assertion that the three tangibles expand to a lesser organism than man, but the two intangibles contract; and that, to a higher organism than man, the three tangibles contract, while the two tangibles expand. Thus, to a little ephemeris fly, length, breadth, and thickness are enormities; but time and omega are brevities, for its entire existence is consummated in fulness in a single day; but to a hypothetical super-organism, length, breadth, and thickness would be trifles, while time and omega would be concepts of mind-surprassing magnitude.

“Another corollary is that, if any consciousness could be transferred to the condition of a lesser or greater organism, its perspective and relationships likewise would violently change.

is now reduced to this 1948 passage:

The new mathematics, however, was so abstract, so far advanced even from the level of Einstein, Whitehead and Russell, that he realized he would never comprehend it. It was based on five dimensions; to length, breadth, thickness, and time, a fifth dimension called Ru had been added. Graham not only did not learn the laws of the five-dimensional mathematics; he did not succeed in obtaining more than a vague notion about the dimension called Ru. For Ru, as a tool for measurement like the other dimensions, differed from them in being of itself measureless; it was a fluctuation, a changeable, representing the continuous mutability of observer, object, and universe each in relation to the other. Farther than this Graham could not follow; decades of study might provide him the background for understanding, but he did not even have days remaining, if his fears were correct.

The character Dan Farrell appears in both novels, though to more dramatic advantage in Easter Island.

When Wandrei's protagonist Carter E. Graham is injured during a trainwreck, Farrell swipes his valise and flees the scene. (In Titans Farrell is a thief on the run. In Easter Island, a wife-murderer.)

In Titans, Farrell boards a clipped flying to New York. In Easter Island, he boards a passenger ship. On each trip, he opens Graham's valise and finds the pan-dimensional idol Graham discovered in the Devil's Graveyard in Isling.

Farrell has an erotic encounter in each version. In Titans, it is with a stewardess.  In Easter Island, it is with a fellow passanger; ironically for Farrell, he reminds her of the husband she murdered a year before.

At which point, Wandrei disposes of Farrell. Which is too bad; he is a much more compelling make protagonist than Graham. We could have had a Tom Ripley versus the Titans were Wandrei a cannier and more patient writer.

Carter E. Graham is a prig. In the course of Easter Island he gets two colleagues killed, which hardly phases him. Waking in hospital after the train wreck that nearly kills him, he has this interaction:

....He estimated he had been conscious for at least fifteen minutes, since it seemed like hours. He raised himself cautiously again to see if he could reach the service-bell without another wave of nausea. He managed to press the button, though fiery lancers dueled in his brain. After a few minutes a nurse entered. She possessed a plain, cheerful face, and tawny blonde hair the color of taffy.

Nature had assembled her lavishly. She bore an impressive superstructure and an equally prominent extension in the opposite direction; assets and attributes that overbalanced her, coming and going, but not without attraction of a massive kind.

Graham mused, “Outstanding examples of developments that are both steatopygous and mammosus.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“The Greeks and the Romans had words. The Anglo-Saxon equivalents, while pungent, are less esthetic.”

The nurse looked blank. “Did you ring?”-

“No, the bell did,” he responded with a trace of brusqueness. He hated superfluous questions, especially those of feminine origin.

She smiled like a tooth-paste ad at his unexpected reply and retorted, “If I were to answer in kind, I’d say that Sir Warren left a piece of his own mind, such as it is, in you.”

“Sir Warren?”

“Yes, the surgeon, Gifford. He operated on you yesterday for skull fracture and concussion of the brain. A minor operation, of course.”

One chapter in The Web of Easter Island, recapitulating part of "The Call of Cthulhu," finds Graham collating media reports of mass outbreaks of global insanity as the Titans' advent approaches.

(Wandrei seems to have an understanding of Africa copied from Sanders of the River).

A dispatch from Cape Town announced:


The outbreak of violence among tribes of the interior is spreading rapidly. First reported last week from Rhodesia and the Transvaal, the uprisings have now extended to Tanganyika, the Congo, and other areas as far north as the Sudan.

Authorities have as yet taken no repressive measures. It is felt in official circles that the natives are participating in tribal ceremonies of ritual importance. However, it is understood that troops are available in case counter-action becomes necessary.

There is some doubt as to the exact cause and nature of the unrest which has made the drums beat incessantly day and night throughout all Africa.

Lt. Col. James Mulreavy, returning from Tanganyika, states that the natives there are at the wildest pitch of excitement he has ever seen. He believes that the witch doctors are responsible. Every sort of black magic is being practised. Human sacrifices, he declares, have been made in large numbers. Flagellation, torture, and primitive rites of a degrading nature are common. He adds that the witch doctors claim they are preparing for the return of their gods.

According to another observer, Mr. T. H. Wilson-Grant, a licensed trader at Mepli, the tribes have developed a kind of group madness. He says that weird images and objects have suddenly appeared in great quantity, that the natives are in a dangerous state of revolt, and that the witchmen are using fear and superstition to inflame the tribes. He reports also that they are proclaiming the visitation of some monstrous deity from the skies.

Another story came from Calcutta:


The rioting that swept Pranjhipok last night has been brought under control by national police. More than two thousand Moslems, Hindus, Sikhs, and foreigners were killed during the outburst of violence that came shortly after sunset.

Armed with knives, daggers, pistols, and rifles, the population suddenly ran amok, attacking each other as well as occupants of the European quarter. In addition to the known dead, several thousand were injured. Serious fires are still burning in many parts of the city but have begun to subside. Widespread looting that accompanied the violence ended with the imposition of martial law. Property damage is estimated in the millions.

The reason for the rioting has not yet been established, but religious mania is believed responsible. Shrines, temples, and holy men were literally besieged by mobs. There is some obscure rumor current to the effect that ancient gods are about to be reincarnated.

The Moslems claim that Mohammed is ready to make his second appearance on earth. The Buddhists, Brahmans, Tsao-ists, and members of other sects assert that their respective deities are returning.

Additional troops are en route to Pranjhipok from Calcutta and Bombay.

Of a different kind was a feature that originated in New York:

Artist Leaps From
Park Avenue Studio

The body of Glen Kalen, internationally famous painter and sculptor, was found yesterday at 4:15 p.m. in the courtyard of the Wilmyn Arms, where he had resided for the last three years.

He left two short notes in his studio. One to a friend identified as Marva said, “Good-bye, dear, join me as soon as you can. I would rather take my own life than be taken by them.”

The second note was addressed to an unidentified “Septhulchu.” It merely said, “When you come, I at least will be gone.”

In Kalen’s studio were found a number of remarkable paintings which experts say are among his best works, though all are highly fantastic. One of them is strikingly three-dimensional, entirely in shades of green, and depicts a kind of luminous fog or sea through which terrifying shapes are beginning to emerge. A startling piece of sculpture also was discovered. This bore some resemblance to an Easter Island statue, and showed a demonic creature engulfing a mass of tiny human beings.

Kalen’s friends reported that his behavior had been very unusual recently, and that he seemed worried, although he had ample means and no known illness or personal problems. According to them, he had become depressed after complaining of being disturbed by remarkable dreams. These nightmares persisted so vividly that he attempted to capture them in his work. He made references to a great calamity that he asserted would overwhelm mankind.

While no witnesses have been found, police are convinced that in a fit of despondency or temporary insanity he leaped from his studio window on the eighth floor.

The next addition to the batch of clippings originated in San Francisco:


The body of Jane Dorel was discovered early this morning in Oakland Bay, the ninth victim of the maniac who has spread a reign of terror in the San Francisco area. Three children, two men, and four women have been murdered in the past ten days.

An autopsy disclosed that the 19-year-old blond had been dead at least forty-eight hours. Like the other victims of the slayer, she had been murdered and the body then mutilated. The murderer made more than one hundred gouges before pushing the body into the Bay.

Police are without clues to the slayer, and have not yet located the actual site of the killings and mutilations.

“The murders are completely senseless,” according to Police Chief Heggens. “None of the victims was tortured, and none of the women attacked or raped. The only thing that the killings have in common is that each victim was strangled with piano wire and that the bodies were then gouged or pitted in the same gruesome manner. Obviously they are the work of a homicidal maniac.”

A curious item from an obituary page related to the death of Aubrey Lellith, a young poet who had died by his own hand, leaving behind him no explanation for his act, except a fragment of a poem which he had left unfinished. The fragment in its entirety consisted of only a half-dozen lines:

The titans will waken on valley and highland,
When four-dimensioned vaults dissolve and open wide;
They will spew from the void and advance from Easter Island,
From time-gulfs and planes of space they will glide.
The titans have prophecied the day of returning
When the stars have attained the positions they proclaimed
And skies turn to flame

Another news feature concerned a catastrophe in Bavaria:

A general alarm has been broadcast throughout Bavaria warning the inhabitants that more than twenty of the insane who escaped yesterday are still at liberty.

A full account of the disaster has now been pieced together, after thorough investigation by Dr. Hugo Brauning, superintendent of the Heussen State Hospital for Criminal Insane. At sundown a spontaneous uproar swept the whole asylum where approximately three hundred dangerously insane inmates were confined. They screamed of impending doom and wingy things coming down from above.

Reserve guards were immediately ordered on duty, but attempts to quiet the inmates failed. Five men in the left wing rushed two guards who opened fire, killing three of the maniacs. The remaining two overpowered and fatally injure! both guards.

During the assault the rear wing had been set afire. The fire spread beyond control while other guards were herding the inmates to the recreation area. A general riot ensued.

Thirty-eight inmates died in the holocaust, seventy-one were injured, five guards were killed and nine others wounded. About thirty-five inmates escaped, of whom only a dozen have been recaptured.

On the walls of the charred cells the search parties found remains of many weird drawings that had an unusual similarity. These portrayed monsters crushing or sweeping away or digesting human figures. Dr. Brauning states that an identical obsession, a mass madness, appears to have seized the inmates….


Wandrei did not publish Dead Titans, Waken! in his lifetime, and he showed good judgment in not doing so. It is uneven, to speak politely. Wandrei whipsaws chapter by chapter from surprising strength and concision to self-indulgent post-Lovecraft Lovecraftian rhetorical overkill.

The Web of Easter Island reduces excessive quotation from Graham's diary and increases the use of third-person narration. This is particularly seen in the last chapter, when Graham finds he has been catapulted off the Easter Island of his own day and into year one million, five hundred thousand. To his horror, Graham quickly realizes the techno-utopia he discovers is doomed.

....All over the world, there had come a sharp rise in the numbers resorting to the Towers of Departure. The world capital, the largest of all communities, a city with a population of 30,000 in the Andean approaches of what had once been Brazil, reported forty-one exits in one day compared to its statistical average of nineteen one-hundredths, or .19, daily.

Other localities showed similar increases. Graham did not understand many passages in the council spokesman’s report, for he had only a rudimentary knowledge of the new language. He did, however, catch an allusion to a phenomenon taking place over ocean waters; if the location was given, he missed that detail also. But he did not need it; only one small area of earth could produce a phenomenon of a kind that would substantiate his fears. He waited until the spokesman ended her official report, when the unitel automatically reverted to individual control. He then closed the contact and began moving the selector needle toward the south Pacific.

As the needle moved, he glanced at the screen from time to time; and in the progress of the needle, he caught glimpses of many aspects of this civilization, quite by chance: a food specialist preparing nutrient solutions; startling paintings in an art gallery; a machine scooping up dirt and transforming it to tunics, wire, and energy; a technician inseminating a chosen mother by the insertion of an analyzed and prepared sperm on a sterile injector; two children playing an intellectual game by rearranging the yellow, blue, and red cubes in a three-dimensional suspension; a clump of strange white trees, with branches drooping like the strands of an inverted mop, that lifted their roots and walked away from a region of drought toward a mountain lake.

The selector needle left the coast of Chile; and now the screen showed only the vacant waters of the Pacific. Graham remembered the latitude and longitude of Easter Island, and brought the selector to that area. He saw Easter Island again, though its highest peak lay a hundred yards below the ocean surface. He saw it, for the vast column of alien energy had returned, driving the waters away. And in the crater of Rano Raraku, at the base of the implacable pillar, squatted the Keeper of the Seal, the green little statuette in a fury of mutation, pulsing and rioting through its cycle of expansions beyond the cosmos and contractions from other-time and other-space. Graham looked at the screen with a dullness of despair. By the state of the pillar, he knew that at least another day would pass before the link was completely open for the titans to enter. He could, if he wished, fly to Easter Island and challenge the Keeper again.

He visualized himself engulfed once more by that abysmal force, to be hurled farther and farther onward in leaps of one and one-half million years, until he receded into conjectural vistas of vanishing time. For the measureless column, like the corridor at Stonehenge, was a time-trap, though of different kind; and unless the inventors of it, from their abode in the hyper-time and the hyper-space above and beyond the universe, chose to alter its function and the function of the Keeper, Graham could for ever take the action that would defer the completion of the link. And for ever and forever he would be projected, in steps of one and one-half million years, intervals of absence and return, sliding down the utmost recesses of the future....

The Web of Easter Island, though superior to Dead Titans, Waken!, is not adequate to the promise of its material and scope. Quotations I have selected are from the novel's strongest moments.

But by far the best is the story embedded in chapter one. After several pages recounting the benighted history of the village of Isling, about ten miles from Stonehenge, Wandrei gives us a potent tale, graphic and pungent as folklore:

….in the late afternoon of a muggy July day, eleven-year-old Willy Grant returned to his cottage and proudly showed a little object he had found.

“What is it?” asked his mother, blinking her weary eyes as she turned from cutting a few selected roses in her flower garden.

“I dunno. Me an’ Bill an’ Jack found it, but I got it first, so it’s mine.”

“Where did you find it?”

The boy hesitated a minute. “Oh, we all went into the old graveyard when Bill dared us an’ I saw it stickin’ in the ground so I pulled it out an’ brought it along.”

“Give it to me,” she commanded in that final tone of voice with which there is no arguing. Reluctantly, Willy handed it over. She immediately hurled it toward the roadway. “Tomorrow,” she continued in the same tone, “you take it back where it came from and throw it over the hedge. Then, if you ever go near that graveyard again, you’ll get the strapping of your life. Now into the house with you.”

Willy whined and pleaded, but his mother would not listen. Superstitious Mrs. Grant repeated that if he ever went near the graveyard again or had anything more to do with the object, he would be whipped blue.

Near nightfall, John Grant came home from the day’s toil of delivering mail. While he took off his heavy walking shoes, Mrs. Grant scurried around preparing the evening meal. She said nothing to her husband about Willy’s discovery. Perhaps she had forgotten about it already, nor did she notice that the boy had slipped away for a minute and returned to his room furtively carrying something.

After the meal, the rest of the evening passed with the small talk that had concluded their every monotonous day for a dozen years. At nine-thirty sharp, Willy was sent to bed, and at ten John and Madge Grant followed, in the unvarying routine of their existence. The night hung still, but hot and damp. John Grant, a tiredness in his legs, quickly dropped off to sleep. His wife lay restless, and for a long time remained awake, but towards midnight she too finally sank into a troubled slumber.

For the first time in many months, she dreamed a dream; and her dream had an extraordinary and terrifying nature such as she had never before experienced. She thought she went walking past a graveyard where hundreds of old, white tombstones rose eerie everywhere. She wanted to run away, but the mesmeric power of dreamland held her. While she watched, a curious small gray thing with the face of her son scuttled across the burial ground and pulled a carven image from the earth. As it did so, the white tombstones suddenly turned into carven images and soared skyward until an army of colossal, implacable monsters stood before her. And beneath their feet, the tombs opened up and discovered vast corridors leading into the bowels of earth, and from their immeasurable depths rose the stench of ancient corruption. The thing with the face of Willy scampered away bearing its prize. She tried to cry out and warn it to drop its burden, but no sound came from her throat. The little beast scurried toward the safety of a blob of devouring darkness. Now the titans moved with great strides, to block that escape, until they formed a circle around the gray creature. Slowly, slowly, the giant limbs closed inexorably on the captive, the ring became smaller, impassive Gargoyle faces stared on the animal that whimpered wildly around trying to escape. She saw it forced toward the rim of a bottomless corridor, nearer, nearer-

From the realms of sleep, John Grant and Madge Grant awoke at the same instant, their ears filled with a shriek of terror. John Grant leaped from his bed and raced to Willy’s room while old Madge lighted a lamp with trembling hands and followed. She heard her husband call, “What is it, son?” But she heard no answer. She brought him the lamp, and together they looked in.

John Grant gave a hoarse gasp, but his wife made no sound as she slumped to the floor. The lamp crashed, and tongues of flame began to dance. Faced with a choice of the living from the dead, he carried his wife to safety. The grotesque form on the bed, of changing outline and phosphorescent shine, green and pitted as if some enormous worm had gnawed, bore little resemblance to the Willy who had been theirs; and the black, liquid eyes that stared blindly at them were never those of their son. John Grant gave silent prayer as the cottage burned to the ground.

Old Madge was Mad Madge when she became conscious. She mumbled of a “green little big stone that ate Willy”, and the neighbors shook their heads pityingly. She took to wandering along the Vadia, and prowling around the graveyard, with her hair matted and her eyes glary. If asked what she sought, she would answer that she was hunting for the green stone that ate Willy. Had she not been insane, her reply might have drawn persistent questions from the curious; but they considered her words the raving of a demented woman. John Grant remained taciturn. He chose to let the villagers think that his son had died in an unfortunate but accidental fire.

The days slipped by, one torpid afternoon following another as July drew to a close. A fortnight after the tragedy some of the neighbors saw Mad Madge running down the Vadia in the early twilight. She carried an object wrapped with her shawl, and gasped as if she had run far. She turned from the roadway and stumbled toward the vacant cottage which she and her husband were temporarily occupying.

As she entered the house, she found her husband already waiting. He looked at her with surprise and pity, noticing her disheveled appearance and the bundle she hugged tightly.

“What is it, Madge? What is it you have there?” he asked kindly.

She sucked the air and raved incoherently that she had found Willy. A weird light of madness and joy glittered in her eyes, she clutched the shawl closer to her breast, she crooned meaningless phrases over it. John tried to see what it was that she carried, but she backed away snarling and hugged the object still more tightly. The shawl became loosened momentarily when she sat in a chair, but all he could see of what she held was that it seemed gray, or possibly greenish. She rocked back and forth, back and forth incessantly, talking and muttering to herself. John heard a phrase that got on his nerves, “The little green stone that ate Willy,” repeated over and over, together with mumbled pleas that something would “Please give back Willy, he didn’t mean any harm by it.”

Throughout the evening, heat lightning flickered in the sky, the air hung sultry and heavy. Clouds were piling up from the west, and it seemed as if a dry spell of weeks at last would be broken. Just after nightfall, the first big drops fell. There followed a minute’s hush, then the wind arose, and gusts of rain whipped against the windows.

At bedtime, Mad Madge let herself be led away, carrying the object still wrapped in the shawl. John made another half-hearted attempt to discover its nature and take it from her, but decided rather to humor her, when she drew her lips back like an animal at his slightest gesture toward the shawl.

She held the bundle even in bed, like a child with its doll. John heard her talking for a long time, till her voice finally died out. He lay awake a while after, thinking back on the mysterious death of Willy, and what to do with Madge. He wondered if it might not be that both of them were mad, and the whole occurrence merely a dream of delirium. What power could have caused so malignant and monstrous a change in Willy? Perhaps it resulted from some dreadful disease that gave no warning symptoms until it had progressed beyond hope of cure. He would never know, now; only that it must have been for the best that death came quickly. The ways of the Lord proved inscrutable.

The wind prowled around the house and whooped through the trees. Invisible fingers moved the shutters. Squalls of rain from time to time swirled against the windows. To the accompaniment of these elemental sounds, John was dozing off when he heard his wife begin to mumble again. He looked at her during a brief lightning flare. Though her eyes remained closed, her lips moved.

“N’ga n’ga rhthl’g clr’tl—”

What fantastic gibberish was this that came from Madge? It seemed meaningless. He could not recognize a single familiar word in that harsh jargon of consonants and breathings, nor did the low voice sound like that of his wife as it went on in a kind of rhythmic chant, “—ust s g’lgggar septhulchu nyrcg—”

During the night, giant bolts of lightning fissured the sky. Disturbed by the violence of the storm, a Mrs. Sayres whose home lay nearest to the temporary quarters of the Grants awakened just in time to see a dazzling flare envelope their house with a crash as of bursting worlds. She thought she saw a vast green smudge sprawl off the roof. During the intensity of blackness that followed, she stood with nose flattened against her window till the lightning crackled anew. The sky’s reflected glare showed the house still standing, and no trace of that strange, great shadow, though she convinced herself that the previous bolt had struck the house by the Vadia. A furious downpour now completely obscured her view. Satisfied no harm had befallen the Grants, since she had not detected a sign of fire or visible damage, and deterred by the wild night, she returned to bed.

John Grant did not appear at work the following day. Nor did Mad Madge come forth. In any small town or village the world over, the neighbors’ affairs are a vital part of everyone’s existence; and when no sign of life became evident in the Grants’ home by mid morning, idle curiosity developed into more immediate concern.

Several gossips remembered having seen mad Madge run down the Vadia clutching some object tightly.

“And you know,” said garrulous Mrs. Dakin, “Jack said he and Willy Grant and the Stacy boy went into the graveyard, let me see now, it must have been a fortnight ago, or maybe three weeks. Well, and they found something, that is, Willy did, and took it home with him, and Jack says it wasn’t like anything he ever saw before, a funny little stone man only it wasn’t a man at all. I always did say no good came out of the old graveyard, and now here it’s proved before our eyes, the Lord’s got his curse against it. Why you know their cottage burned to the ground that very night and poor Willy with it, and John had a great to-do to get Madge out in time, and now there’s no telling what’s happened to the both of them, poor souls. Something dreadful, you may be sure.”

“Maybe they’re dead,” added Mrs. Sayres helpfully. “When I saw that big bolt strike, I says to myself, says I, ‘It’s a good thing it wasn’t you that it hit,’ meaning me, of course. Like as not both got killed or hurt bad, and they’re up there now waiting for somebody to come after them.

“Of course,” she tacked on apologetically, “I couldn’t go out in that terrible storm, there’s no saying what might have happened to me, it was that bad.”

“It’s just possible,” put in one of the more intelligent townsmen, “that Mad Madge got terrified of the storm and ran off, with John out searching for her. You never know about those things. Seems to me we ought to wait a while. I don’t like to put my nose in other folk’s troubles.”

“Well, I don’t like the looks of it,” went on Mrs. Dakin, “and if I had my way I’d have been gone from Isling all these years just to get away from that Devil’s Graveyard. Why, the storm woke me up last night and made such a racket you never heard in all your born days, and I thought somebody was shouting outside but I couldn’t understand a word of it. I never did like these foreigners, anyway, English is good enough for me and it’s good enough for anybody, I think.”

It was finally agreed that an investigation ought to be made. Three men elected to find out what had happened, or whether the Grants needed aid.

They walked up to the house and pounded on the door, but only the echo of their knocking answered them. They shouted to John and Madge, inquiring if they wanted assistance, but no voice came back to them. In the pause that followed they held a short consultation and agreed that duty now required them to enter.

The door had not been locked. They opened it, to be met by a heavy, nauseating stench that forced them to retreat until the foul air had partly cleared away. When they finally re-entered, the sickening odor compelled them to breathe through handkerchiefs.

A hurried search of the ground floor disclosed nothing amiss. They halted again at the entrance for breaths of fresh air, then climbed to the bedroom. Its door was closed. They pushed it, but though unlocked, it did not yield. A weight lay against it from the inside. With growing suspicions of what they might find, they put their shoulders against it and heaved it open far enough to enter. They could hear the weight dragging as they shoved it back.

In the room they found one body half-fallen from bed, and another that seemed to have been clawing at the door which provided no escape. Madge’s shawl lay empty on the floor; whatever she had wrapped in it had vanished.

Mad Madge and John Grant were dead, if indeed those forms had been theirs. For in that mass of greenish corruption, gouged and pitted, remained little of human resemblance. Before their horrified eyes, the bodies gave the illusion that they underwent a final transformation, as though shimmering in heat-waves, melting and changing from flesh to a less stable state, from man to beast to stone, a strange and awesome impression that sent the three searchers running downstairs.

An inquest was held; the verdict returned, “Death by lightning.” Unanswerable questions went unasked. How could lightning have caused so profound a change? Why had not the bodies charred or burned? What was it that Mad Madge held as she ran down the Vadia? Whose voice had rumbled guttural syllables while the storm raged? And if death had not resulted from lightning, what unimaginable agency wrought that metamorphosis of flesh? Nothing known to man could have brought about so rapid and total an alteration in the very organic structure of the two corpses. Against his will to believe, the village doctor denied that Madge and John might have fallen victims to disease. In his practice, in his experience, and in his medical studies, he had never encountered a case that bore the slightest relation to the baffling condition of the bodies.

The absence of strangers in Isling did not preclude, but argued against, a theory of homicidal attack. The absence of any known motive or any possible motive served only to make the riddle more inexplicable. For the analysis indicated many violences: exposure to heat of the order of suns, and to cold of the intensity of absolute zero; subjection to pressures as high as the bottom of oceans, and to vacuum as complete as the far spaces between stars.

Death by lightning seemed reasonable for the record, though it offered no explanation to those four who had viewed the bodies. Isling accepted this substitution of the familiar for the incredible. But the legends of the past lived again; and the new riddle provided a basis for legends to haunt the future….

12 August 2017

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