Happy Halloween everyone. Here’s a story, my gift to you on this most wonderful of days.
The Fiddle is the Devil’s Instrument
When Cannon Danvers invited me to one of his famous séances, my first inclination was to decline. Others would have given their right arm or other critical body part to receive such an invitation. Cannon Danvers was a name whispered from the shrouded cities of the Far East to the still-smoldering capitals of Europe to the hills of Kentucky, where I claim ancestry. He was the man who, in the earliest flower of his youth, finally convinced Houdini of the power of mysticism. He had predicted both World Wars and had, in the darkest days of the latest conflict, assured President Roosevelt in a private meeting that we would come through—even if, like Moses of old, the president would not live to see it.
And he just so happened to be my uncle, my mother’s older brother and a stain on the family name. My mother had been a pure-hearted, God-fearing woman, and if she knew her boy was going to be sitting at a table with a known devil-worshiper—and while he attempted to communicate with the spirits at that—well, I guess she’d drop dead right there. She’d passed the spring before, a week after we celebrated VE day. I’m glad I’d made it home on leave from France to be with her in those final moments. But my point being, she was gone now to the Jesus whom she trusted and loved, and nothing could trouble her. As for me, I’d seen enough of war and death to have lost more than a little faith in God. So ironically, I figured a little proof of the devil would be good for my soul.
I’d never met Cannon Danvers. I wondered if his invitation was some attempt to close old wounds, or maybe even to reward me for my service to my country. Whatever was the case, I returned the RSVP with an affirmative and spent a significant portion of my combat pay on a new dinner jacket.
The night came, April 30, the May-eve, which some folks call the Beltane. I knew a little bit about it, about the fires the ancients built to chase away the evil spirits that were said to gather on that evening. I’d read about that—and a lot of other things some folks might frown upon. I guess I have a little bit of my uncle in me after all.
Still, I’d never gone so far as to partake in any of the forbidden rites or celebrations of pagan festivals about which I’d read. I’d never been ready to make that leap of dark faith. Then came the invitation.
Cannon lived on a plantation east of Georgetown, Kentucky, called Haven’s Crest, the home of the Danvers line since Temperance Danvers brought his branch of the family down from Massachusetts following the War of Independence. It passed to Cannon, he being the eldest son, when my grandfather died—well before Cannon began his career as a spiritualist. I suspected my mother resented him as much for the inheritance that had been denied her as for his ungodly ways. And I wondered sometimes if she resented me a little bit, too. For while it might have been the case that my grandfather saw fit to bypass her because she was a woman, it was just as likely that he had frowned upon the fact that she had a child out of wedlock with a man who was a mystery. Truth is, I don’t even know my father’s name. Though Mother might have died godly, everyone makes mistakes.
I arrived at Haven’s Crest an hour after sundown, as instructed, driving the 1937 Model T that had belonged to my mother prior to her death. An attendant directed me to a parking spot next to a line of newer, finer models, and it struck me that I would probably feel more comfortable amongst the staff than the other guests at this party. I parked and fell in line behind an older couple who had also just arrived. I followed them up the path, lit by torches that ran to the front of the house. Music wafted down, beckoning us onward.
That night I entered the ancestral home of my family for the first time—and I did so as a guest. It struck me as ironic, how the accident of birth can change things; how, if I’d been born a generation before in the place of my uncle, such an estate would be mine. Instead, I had little but a shack and forty acres to my name. I’d pondered it often during the war, as I fought and killed men who I might have been, had the spin of the wheel gone differently.
The house was as elegant within as without. A great staircase hugged the wall, twisting down to the grand foyer where I stood. Now doubt it had made for dramatic entrances by southern belles in an age dead and gone if not yet forgotten. The house evidently had electricity; it would have been passing strange for it not to. But our gracious host had chosen to light it this night with tall, black candles. There were hundreds of them, and though the comingling of their illumination provided enough visibility, a hazy smoke hung in the air. The flickering flames danced within it, and the shadows they cast seemed to have deeper forms and more substance than they should have.
I moved cautiously from the entrance to the parlor, my palms sweating. Guests milled about, chatting, laughing, though their friendliness seemed forced to me, as it always did in these settings. I did not care for the wealthy. Or, I should say, I did not care to be amongst them, particularly in large groups. I did not belong. I knew it. They knew it. What’s the point in fighting it? I filled a cup with punch from a bowl made of carved crystal and set out to explore the house.
My feet carried me to where the voices died, away from the crowd, into the depths of the home. I walked down a hall that ended in two polished wooden doors. One was cracked open, and flickering light spilled into the hallway. I opened it, and stepped into a mighty library. It was the kind you’d see in the films, with shelves that went all the way to the ceiling and a ladder that moved on a track from one corner of the room to the next. And books, so many books, too many to arrange neatly, so they were stacked upon one another in several places. And in the center of the room, reading by the light of an electric lamp, sat a man who could only be Cannon Danvers.
“Mr. Danvers,” I said, feeling foolish to have interrupted him, even more foolish to refer to him by my own last name. He looked up at me, studied me for an instant before his face softened and he broke into a smile.
“Why my good fellow, I believe I could certainly call you the same. You must be my sister’s boy.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, standing straighter as he rose from his chair, as if he were an old drill sergeant checking to see if my boots were spit-shined. I’d known natural leaders before, the good and the bad; certain men can command a room merely by their presence. Patton was that kind of man. So was Cannon Danvers. As he strode across the room, I knew he was someone other men would follow. He was not at all what I expected from a spiritualist and a medium.
“So you are Amelia’s son,” he said, shaking my hand. “I was sorry to hear of her loss. And I was sorrier still that we were never able to mend the…break that separated us.” His eyes fell to his feet, as if the shame of it was truly more than he could bear. My questions about the impetus for my invitation were answered. Cannon Danvers wanted to make amends with my dead mother through me.
“I know she always loved you, sir,” I said, and I thought there was at least a good chance it was true. Blood, after all, cleanses all manner of sins.
“Perhaps, perhaps. She’d probably kill me, and maybe you too, if she knew you were here tonight. But I’m glad you came.”
“Well sir, I love my mother, but it’s hard to come back from war and remain prudish about such matters. I figure God let me get through it so I could see everything there is to see, even if some of those things are forbidden.”
The corner of his mouth crept up into a smile. “Yes, I like that view. I like it very much. It is one I have always followed myself. Come over here,” he said, beckoning to me before turning and walking back to his desk. I followed.
A book lay open on the table, its pages yellowed, cracked. Cannon tapped the lamp with a finger.
“Special light bulb,” he said. “It won’t damage the paper in the book, even when it’s as old as this one. The candles outside are for show, of course. Atmosphere. But in here, we don’t take chances with such things. Do you know what this is?”
I did not, of course, but I hesitated to be so bold in my ignorance.
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of, my boy. There are few who would. It is a Latin translation of an ancient work, the Egyptian Book of the Dead.”
From somewhere deep within the house came the shrill sound of a bow drawn across a fiddle.
“Pyramid funerary text?”
A fire leapt into my uncle’s eyes, and he flashed a toothy grin. I felt a surge of pride in myself. This had pleased him.
“Very good. You know your ancient faiths. But no, this is something different, something most scholars have never imagined, much less seen. This is the true Book of the Dead. Not a text on how to send man into the afterlife. No, this is the book that can bring him back.”
The distant fiddle sounded again, tingling a high pitched squeal as the player sawed heavily with his bow.
“Bring them back,” I said, shivering. “Why would you want to do that?”
“Oh many reasons, my boy. Many reasons. To reveal secrets lost. To impart mysteries undreamt of. Or, as the case may be, to simply show that I can.” Someone hollered in the rooms beyond, and the band kicked off a reel. Cannon glanced toward the door. “So the party begins. Shall we join them?”
“What about the book?”
He grinned. “The book is for later”
He led me back through the maze of corridors, into the grand hall that must have dominated the house. For it was massive, spanning the length of the structure, with great high ceilings that sparkled like the heavens. A stage had been erected at one end, and upon it a band played bluegrass. A man fiddled like the devil, and the caller sang out a song I had never heard about nine yards of other cloth.
“I’ll leave you now,” said Cannon. “But don’t worry. I’ll find you again. Make yourself at home.”
With that he seemed to glide into the crowd, vanishing into a throng of his gala-clad guests.
“He’s something, isn’t he?”
I turned to find a woman, dressed in a long, black gown, wearing a mask to match it, adorned in feathers the color of ravens.
“Why, yes, yes he is.”
The woman smiled, her lips parting to reveal perfectly straight teeth.
“You’ve never been here before, have you?”
“This would be my first visit.”
“Come on,” she said, taking my hand. “Let me get you a drink.”
I followed her to a bar that had been erected on the far side. A waiter chipped away ice from a massive block into a glass, drowning it in generous pours of bourbon. It was my kind of party.
“So how do you know Cannon?” The band fired up a Virginia reel, and even the well-heeled Louisville and Lexington types showed their country blood.
“We’re related, actually. He’s my uncle.”
“Ah,” she said, “so you are the famous nephew. Cannon speaks highly of you.”
“Well that’s flattering, ma’am, though I can’t say what he would know about me.”
“Oh, Cannon knows a great many things, more than any normal man. You should understand that.”
“I’m coming to. So how do you know my uncle?”
“We were lovers once. Oh don’t look so scandalized. I’m a grown woman, and I can do as I like.” She took a step toward me, reached up and rubbed the collar of my jacket between her thumb and her forefinger. The sound of the band had died away as quickly as it had roared to life; now only the fiddler played, sawing a lonesome song of love lost. She leaned forward, her lips touching the small hairs on my ear. “But I’m all on my own, now. And so very lonely. Look for me, when the end is near, if you need a guide to find your way.”
The crowd surged forward, and she receded into it, swept away from me like a pebble on the beach. I had no time to think on it for Cannon Danvers had taken the stage.
The room dimmed as servants extinguished all but a handful of candles. The members of the band vanished into the growing darkness. All save one—the fiddler, who stood behind Cannon, bow set at the ready.
“My friends, thank you all for joining me on this very special evening. Many of you have come before. Some of you have seen extraordinary things. But I assure you, nothing can prepare you for what you will witness tonight.”
A murmur spread through the crowd, excitement and fear, not unlike what I had once heard on the battlefields of Europe.
“I am no maker of tricks or conjurer of illusions. I see things other men cannot see. I know things other men cannot know. In the last few years we have come to understand the essence of matter itself. We have harnessed the power of the atom. For good…and for destruction. But there is knowledge far older, and far more powerful, knowledge that can be found in this book.”
He held up an ancient tome, and even in the dim light I could see that it was the Egyptian Book of the Dead he had shown me in the library before. The fiddler, who until then had stood still and silent, now drug his bow across the strings of his instrument, playing a harsh and evil note that rung just barely within the range of human hearing. The atmosphere thickened, and I grinned. My uncle was quite the showman.
“Yes, I have powers undreamt of by the common magician, and unimagined even by mighty Solomon himself, the lord king of all the mystics. But for the magic we will do tonight, I will need your help. All of your help.” The fiddler’s note quivered. “When I speak the words of power, each line requires an answer. That answer, you will give. Say it simply. Say it loud. Iä! Iä! Say it!”
The crowd answered back—“Iä! Iä!” But I stayed silent. I had read in my studies that while a Christian man could fear no evil if he happened to find himself in the midst of a black mass—however such a predicament might come to pass—he who took part in the ceremony, even if in jest, bound himself to the coven. He had become a member of it, as sure as if he’d pledged his fealty to it, or signed the Black Book in his own blood. Superstition, perhaps, but I was not about to cross it.
I felt eyes on me, and I wondered if maybe someone had noticed my reticence, someone who might report me to my uncle. I looked about, and my gaze locked on hers—the woman whom I had met earlier was staring at me, her dark eyes shining behind her mask. I thought she was grinning, but then a figure passed between us and when he was gone, so was she.
“Very good. Very good,” said my uncle. “The power is strong tonight, and I do believe that we will find profitable magic this Beltane. You will notice that no fires burn in my fields this evening. No, we have not lit the bane, nor shall we. For we do not seek to chase away the spirits, but to welcome them.”
The assemblage laughed and clapped and cheered. I glanced above and noticed that the few remaining candles cast eerie shadows on the ceiling. Undulating black globes that stared down upon us like great, empty eyes. On the stage, my uncle had placed the book on the stand before him. He flipped pages, staring down intently as he went, searching. Then he smiled wide, having apparently found the spell he was looking for. Behind him, the fiddler played so softly that you couldn’t quite hear him. Not with your ears at least. Only with your soul.
“And now we begin, my friends. Now we open the way. Now we call to those beyond. Now we shall see the forbidden.”
He held up his hands, shoulder length apart, palms facing us. Even from that distance, I could see him close his eyes.
“From the realm of the living to the realm of the dead, we beseech thee. Iä! Iä!”
The crowd answered as one.
“Anubis, open the gate. Khephri, purify our hearts. Ma’at, find us worthy. Thoth, record our prayer. Iä! Iä!”
The crowd answered again, louder.
“Come, Osiris! Come, Sekhmet! Come, Sobek and Heket! Iä! Iä!”
As the crowd chanted in reply, even louder than before, I felt a hand slip into mine. “You don’t want to be here when he finishes,” she whispered into my ear, as the discordant sound of the fiddle rippled up my spine.
“Why not?” I turned and looked at her, her eyes grabbing me no less forcefully than if she had clasped her hand upon my shoulder.
“You know why. You know what’s coming.”
“But I don’t,” I said. But as the words left my lips, I knew it was a lie. I did know, somehow. Even if it was only deep down, somewhere that I couldn’t quite see or understand. She smiled, and I let her pull me away, all the way to the door to the great hall. No one barred our way, no one stopped us. Not until she stopped, just beyond the threshold.
“You cannot stay,” she said. “But you must see.”
I looked back into the room. I squinted, and then rubbed my eyes. For something was wrong. The air shimmered. I felt as though I was looking through glass into a world that had sunk beneath the sea. The image was distorted. The people in the crowd seemed to sway, to extend beyond themselves, grotesquely and unnaturally. Only the stage was clear. Only my uncle, and the fiddler who played behind him.
“Make way for Hastur. Make way for He Who Walks in Shadow. Make way for the Crawling Chaos. Come forth, Nyarlathotep! Iä! Iä!”
There was a crack, sharp and sickening, like the breaking of many bones all at once. The crowd shrieked in unison, but they did not run. A shadow fell upon them, and then, as they screamed, they began to dance. Legs and arms jerked, spasmed, as if they did not fully control them. Or perhaps it was that their new masters were unfamiliar with such appendages. My uncle’s manic smile faded, and fear crept into the crevices of his face. Only one man seemed unfazed, the one who played a tune I thanked God above I could no longer hear. But he had changed, too, for he was no longer a man. No man’s skin can turn as black as the abyss. No man’s eyes can burn with a fire that would devour souls. No man smiles like that. And no man plays like that.
The candles flared, and the dancers turned to torches, skin melting off bones. And yet still they cried out. Still, they danced.
I saw the moment my uncle’s mind broke, as he gibbered and cackled on the stage, as he tore at his own eyes lest he see what he had done. And the last thing I saw, before the woman, my savior, pulled me mercifully away, was that man, that beast, still fiddling.
We ran. Out of the house. Down the hill. As the mansion burst into flames and turned night into day. We didn’t stop until we reached the road.
“You knew,” I said, as I doubled over with my hands on my knees. “You knew and you didn’t do anything to stop it.”
She stood there, as elegant as if we still danced in the grand ballroom that now burned with Satan’s fire. “I didn’t come to stop it,” she said.
“Then why are you here?”
She took a step forward, extended one lithe hand and lifted my chin with a single finger. An orange light flashed in her eyes, and it wasn’t from the flames. “I came for you. Cannon Danvers, his steps always led here, to this night, to this place. But you, Cyrus, you have many steps left to take. And what a journey it will be.”
There was the sound of rending fabric. Her dress fell away, and two great, black raven wings spread wide from behind her. With one mighty sweep they lifted her into the sky. The firelight flashed across her body as she blotted out the moon, and I let blessed unconsciousness take me into its waiting arms.