states to which he was prone. Lovecraft knew all about fugue states from his late mother’s psychotic ramblings and rantings. It was Lovecraft who suggested that Wilcox visit old Professor Angell in an effort to decode the hieroglyphics on the bas-relief that the young artist had sculpted out of the stuff of his dreams. There was an ulterior motive behind his suggestion, of course.
Lovecraft was certain that there was some deeper cause, some underlying knowledge, behind his mother’s insanity. He felt certain that there was some meaning to be found in his mother’s rants. Perhaps she could not actually “see” the haunts that peopled her visions; perhaps they were not really “there.” But to Lovecraft’s scientific mind there had to be some sense to it all. If he could have divined the root cause of his mother’s mental imbalance, he was sure that he could have cured her of her disease.
Wilcox provided an opportunity for Lovecraft to test his theory. After all, Wilcox was having very similar delusions. Wilcox was seeing things that were not there. Wilcox was to be found wandering the streets at night, shuddering at shadows and pointing at invisible beings. Lovecraft wasn’t able to get his mother to see an analyst, and she died in hospital of complications due to gall bladder surgery, mad as a hatter to the very end. The specter of that hospital bed and his mother’s tortured mind haunted him.
His last chance was to get Wilcox to see the famous Professor Angell. If there was any reason, any truth, to the dreams and nightmares that tortured poor Wilcox, then he might be able to use that information to understand his mother and salvage what was left of his life.
It was a desperate plan, but one that suited Lovecraft’s nature. He would use Wilcox as a surrogate, and determine whether the Things that haunted the artist were the same Things that had troubled his mother. If the professor could provide a solution—at least insofar as an identification of the Things—then Lovecraft could move on to the next step in his program: a psychiatric cure of his own devising.
For while Lovecraft fancied himself a scientist and an atheist, insanity— with all its visions and hallucinations, auditory and visual—was a challenge to his worldview. If he could find the cause of his mother’s insanity, then he could formulate a program that would cure the world of the excesses of religious fervor and ecstatic conversions. To Lovecraft, religion itself was a form of insanity, of mass hysteria and self-hypnosis.
Why, then, was the vision of Wilcox one of a strange god and its obscene cult if religion was not at the root of his mental disorder?
At first, things seemed to go as planned. Old Professor Angell agreed to see Wilcox, and was intrigued by the sculpture as well as by the account of the young man’s dreams and nightmares. In fact, over the next few weeks, Wilcox actually went from bad to worse, with Professor Angell keeping a careful record of everything Wilcox said and did. During this time Lovecraft had only the vaguest idea of what the two men discussed as Wilcox was often unreachable through his mental fog. Determined to get a better idea of what was transpiring between the two, he resorted to following Wilcox to the professor’s home and trying to eavesdrop through a window or door.
And when that didn’t work—and when Wilcox was taken to his family’s home for observation due to his nervous breakdown, and was thus effectively out of reach—Lovecraft decided that he had to go to the professor and find out for himself what was wrong with the artist.
It was this bold move, so out of character for the reclusive author, that would result in the crisis that not only gave birth to what may be his most famous story but also to Lovecraft’s lifelong feud with the entire Angell family.
It was late March, 1925. On the night of March 21-22, the vernal equinox, Wilcox had taken a turn for the worse. Several days later, his curiosity getting the better of him, Lovecraft decided to call on Professor Angell in his role as Wilcox’s friend and confidant. He hoped he would be able to convince the academic to discuss at least some of the case with him. However, when he reached the Angell residence he was informed that the professor was out and would return shortly. Lovecraft was led into the old man’s study to wait.
Lovecraft had always considered himself to be a gentleman of the old school. He was fussy that way, and fastidious in his manners and in his dealings with people in general. He fancied himself a kind of nobleman with intellectual pretensions. That is what makes the incident at the Angell residence so out of character and bizarre.
The study was like something out of a reader’s dream. It was lined, floor to ceiling, with bookshelves and these were groaning with the weight of thousands of heavy tomes. The shelves themselves were of mahogany,
polished to a high luster, and the books crowding them covered archaeology, anthropology, Biblical exegesis, linguistics, and ritual. There were books in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, as well as in Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, and others Lovecraft could only guess at. There were records of excavations at Babylon and Ur, as well as others in Egypt, Ethiopia, and the Sudan. And there were artifacts from dozens of countries and countless historical periods. The study was the record of a life lived in the mind, but also a life lived in the field. For a man who would never leave North America in his entire life, it was like a magic carpet to a fabled Oriental kingdom.
And it was unfair.
Lovecraft had to drop out of school due to his own nervous ailments. He failed at his dream of becoming an astronomer because of that. His father had died when he was young, and his favorite grandfather died leaving Lovecraft in the care of his crazy mother and his spinster aunts. He was poor. His family was poor. Although he had married shortly after his mother’s death, the marriage was—predictably, perhaps—not working out and his wife had left him for a job in Ohio. He was effectively alone. And he would never have a library like this, or travel to exotic places on the other side of the world. His brilliant mind would go unrecognized. His ideas would be ignored. There would be no “emeritus” after his name. No associations would honor his work, or praise his learning.
He gazed at the bookshelves with something like lust. The knowledge of the ages was at his fingertips, but his reach exceeded his grasp. Before all that burnished leather and gold-stamped bindings, all that published erudition, he felt insignificant, almost unclean.
That is when he noticed the ornately-carved wooden desk with its throne-like, velvet-backed chair. The professor’s desk.
Knowing that he would be alone for at least a few more moments, the nervous author could not resist sneaking a glance. There, at the very top of the central pile of documents and correspondence, was a large file marked “CTHULHU CULT” in capital letters.
Thus I rediscovered what writers have always known … books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.
—Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
Brooklyn Heights 2014
Gregory Angell stood up from their table and walked over to the window overlooking Montague Street. Aubrey had turned silent, and the restaurant itself was as soundless as an empty church on a warm and dusty Saturday afternoon. Across the street, denim-jacket man stood up suddenly from his stretch like a dog sniffing the wind. There were rain clouds. Boat whistle sounds from the docks down by the East River. And somewhere the click of a round being chambered.
Gregory broke the silence, in a voice close to a whisper, as if out of respect for the solemnity of the subject matter or maybe just because a gloom had descended on the table, the restaurant, the street outside and Brooklyn itself with this evocation of dead souls from the ancient past. Aubrey as magician; Gregory as medium.
“Yes, I knew about the Cutha artifact. It’s a legend that’s been passed down from generation to generation in our family. The legend, not the artifact itself. As far as I know, it never really existed.”
A bizarre-looking thing, they said. Ancient. An anomaly. Something that should not have existed at all, outside of a Marvel comic or a madman’s nightmare.
“So you knew about George Angell’s visit to St Louis and his talks with a police detective from New Orleans about a cult that worshipped a statue like that?” Aubrey’s tone was kindly, gently urging Gregory along a path he knew was strewn with landmines.
“Not everything in that story is accurate. Lovecraft made shit up. But the dates, the places are roughly the same. I researched it in grad school. There was a cult. Well, today it would be called something different.”
Gregory shrugged, and returned to the table.
“A religion. Voudon, Santeria, Palo Mayombe, Candomble … whatever Afro-Caribbean belief system it represented. Calling it a cult is problematic. A throwback to colonialism and the ‘white man’s burden.’”
“You’re talking like a professor.”
Gregory was silent. Aubrey leaned over the table and passed a small photograph across to his guest.
It was an old monochrome photo, and there were notations on it from the New Orleans Police Department. It was marked “evidence.”
It showed a statue surrounded by a small field, in the center of a circle of trees: palms, and banyans. The form and shape of the statue was hideous, like an octopus about to give birth to an elephant. Everything about it was repugnant, as if some sick psychopath had done his best to create something that would disgust everyone but some other sick psychopath.
Gregory stared at the photo, not daring to touch it, but the hairs on the back of his neck stood up anyway.
“Where did you get this?”
“From the archives of the New Orleans Police Department. This goes back to 1907, 1908. There are others. Whatever could be saved during Hurricane Katrina. Not everything from that time period had been digitized.”
They were both silent a moment, Gregory wracking his brain to come up with an explanation.
“This was photo-shopped.” “Excuse me?”
“You work for the government, right? You have the facilities to … to photo-shop something like this and make it look really old. You have … you must have … aged paper in stock…” his voice trailing off even as he lost the will to convince himself of his own theory. He stopped speaking because even he could hear the tremble in his voice.
Aubrey shook his head. “You know better than that, Doctor. You know this is genuine. You know that because you saw one just like it.”
It didn’t register at first. Just more graffiti on another shell-pocked wall in Mosul. A kid’s drawing, maybe. Something vaguely sexual about it, though. More an adolescent fantasy than a small child’s handiwork. They had just come from the dig, and were only a few streets from the place where the twenty-three Yezidis would be massacred in another ten minutes. Angell had been looking aimlessly out the window of the Humvee, lost in his own thoughts, and had noticed the splotchy-looking graffiti: wet as if it just had been painted, a dark and glossy black against the pale yellow of the plaster and the beige powder of the sand and dust all around them. It stood out for a brief moment, as did the scribbled Arabic word beneath it.
A word from the Qur’an. A word meaning “The Abandoner.” An epithet for the Devil. But to some, the name of a God.
Angell had strained to see the drawing more clearly before they turned that fateful corner behind the bus full of Yezidis returning home from their work at a local factory. And then the world exploded, and Angell forgot all about the curious graffiti in the horror that ensued.
“A cult gathering in 1907 in New Orleans. A mural on a wall in Mosul in 2007. Death surrounding both events. And an Angell in the middle of each one. The same figure, Doctor Angell. The same weird, anomalous figure in both places, thousands of miles and a hundred years apart. Joined together by blood and fanaticism. What are the odds against that? Look at it. Look at it!”
Angell calmed himself and stared down once again at the old photograph, willing himself to see something different, some detail that would mean the two figures had nothing in common. But there could be no doubt: the two dimensional image of the statue in Louisiana looked as if it
had been a photograph of the mural on the wall in Mosul. It was even from the same angle.
Angell looked up at the man across from him, trying to keep the pleading out of his eyes. Aubrey was having none of it.
“They killed people, Dr. Angell. They sacrificed human beings to this … this thing. And you want to give them the benefit of a doubt?”
The professor raised his eyes, feverish with the memory of so many murders, so much senseless suffering, to meet Aubrey’s stare.
“What religion hasn’t committed genocide in the name of God?” he hissed.
At that, Aubrey leaned back with a slight smile of victory.
“And there you have it, Professor. This is why we have come to you.”
At that moment, on the street outside, denim-jacket man seemed to have had a heart attack. He pitched over and fell to the sidewalk. A small crowd began to gather. Gregory was oblivious to the scene outside, lost within his own history, but Aubrey noted the event and turned to face the kitchen door.
It opened, and the old woman leaned out and nodded. A faint smell of cordite lingered, then dissipated, mingling with the odors of paprika and dill.
Aubrey and the professor descended the steps to Montague Street. On the other side an ambulance was blocking the road as EMT’s loaded a body onto a stretcher. There was a pool of blood where denim-jacket man had stood only minutes before. Angell remained unaware of the mayhem that had just been caused by the federal agent who had been speaking so kindly and patiently to him in the restaurant, the agent who had given the silent order to the cook. He was distracted, hearing Aubrey’s words but seeing a massacre of innocent people in Mosul more than a decade ago.
“There is worse to come, Professor. Imagine a cult—a religion—that claims millions of followers around the world and that has a grudge against everyone, every other human being on the planet. This … religion