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The Plain of Sound
Verily do we know little of the other universes beyond the gate which YOG-SOTHOTH guards. Of those which come through the gate and make their habitation in this world none can tell; although Ibn Schacabao tells of the beings which crawl from the Gulf of S’glhuo that they may be known by their sound. In that Gulf the very worlds are of sound, and matter is known but as an odor; and the notes of our pipes in this world may create beauty or bring forth abominations in S’glhuo. For the barrier between haply grows thin, and when sourceless sounds occur we may justly look to the denizens of S’glhuo. They can do little harm to those of Earth, and fear only that shape which a certain sound may form in their universe.
Abdul Alhazred: Necronomicon
When Frank Nuttall, Tony Roles, and I reached the Inn at Severnford, we found that it was closed.
It was summer of 1958, and as we had nothing particular to do at Brichester University that day we had decided to go out walking. I had suggested a trip to Goatswood—the legends there interested me—but Tony had heard things which made him dislike that town. Then Frank had told us about an advertisement in the Brichester Weekly News about a year back which had referred to an inn at the center of Severnford as “one of the oldest in England.” We could walk there in the morning and quench the thirst caused by the journey; afterward we could take the bus back to Brichester if we did not feel like walking.
Tony was not enthusiastic. “Why go all that way to get drunk,” he inquired, “even if it is so old? Besides, that ad in the paper’s old too—by now the place has probably fallen down . . .” However, Frank and I wanted to try it, and finally we overruled his protests.
We would have done better to agree with him, for we found the inn’s doors and windows boarded up and a nearby sign saying: “Temporarily closed to the public.” The only course was to visit the modern public house up the street. We looked round the town a little; this did not occupy us long, for Severnford has few places of interest, most of it being dockland. Before two o’clock we were searching for a bus-stop; when it eluded us, we entered a newsagent’s for directions.
“Bus t’ Brichester? No, only in the mornin’s,” the proprietor told us. “Up from the University, are you?”
“Then how do we get back?” Tony asked.
“Walk, I s’pose,” suggested the newsagent. “Why’d you come up anyway—oh, t’look at the Inn? No, you won’t get in there now—so many o’ them bloody teenagers’ve been breakin’ the winders an’ such that Council says it’ll only open t’ people with special permission. Good job, too—though I’m not sayin’ as it’s kids like you as does it. Still, you’ll be wantin’ t’ get back t’ Brichester, an’ I know the short- est way.”
He began to give us complicated directions, which he repeated in detail. When we still looked uncertain he waited while Frank got out notebook and pencil and took down the route. At the end of this I was not yet sure which way to go, but, as I remarked: “If we get lost, we can always ask.”
“Oh, no,” protested our informant. “You won’t go wrong if you follow that.”
“Right, thanks,” Frank said. “And I suppose there will be passers-by to ask if we do go wrong?”
“I wouldn’t.” The newsagent turned to rearrange papers in the rack. “You might ask the wrong people.”
Hearing no more from him, we went out into the street and turned right toward Brichester. Once one leaves behind the central area of Severnford where a group of archaic buildings is preserved, and comes to the surrounding red-brick houses, there is little to interest the sight-seer. Much of Severnford is dockland, and even the country beyond is not noticeably pleasant to the forced hiker. Besides, some of the roads are noticeably rough, though that may have been because we took the wrong turning—for, an hour out of Severnford, we realized we were lost.
“Turn left at the signpost about a mile out, it says here,” said Frank. “But we’ve come more than a mile already—where’s the signpost?”
“So what do we do—go back and ask?” Tony suggested.
“Too far for that. Look,” Frank asked me, “have you got that compass you’re always carrying, Les? Brichester is almost southeast of Severnford. If we keep on in that direction, we won’t go far wrong.”
The road we had been following ran east-west. Now, when we turned off into open country, we could rely only on my compass, and we soon found that we needed it. Once, when ascending a slope, we had to detour round a thickly overgrown forest, where we would certainly have become further lost. After that we crossed monotonous fields, never seeing a building or another human being. Two and a half hours out of Severnford, we reached an area of grassy hillocks, and from there descended into and clambered out of miniature valleys. About half-a-mile into this region, Tony signalled us to keep quiet.
“All I can hear is the stream,” said Frank. “Am I supposed to hear something important? You hear anything, Les?”
The rushing stream we had just crossed effectively drowned most distant sounds, but I thought I heard a nearby mechanical whirring. It rose and fell like the sound of a moving vehicle, but with the loudly splashing water I could distinguish no details.
“I’m not sure,” I answered. “There’s something that could be a tractor, I think—”
“That’s what I thought,” agreed Tony. “It’s ahead somewhere—maybe the driver can direct us. If, of course, he’s not one of that newsagent’s wrong people!”
The mechanical throbbing loudened as we crossed two hills and came onto a strip of level ground fronting a long, low ridge. I was the first to reach the ridge, climb it and stand atop it. As my head rose above the ridge, I threw myself back.
On the other side lay a roughly square plain, surrounded by four ridges. The plain was about four hundred yards square, and at the opposite side was a one-story building. Apart from this the plain was totally bare, and that was what startled me most. For from that bare stretch of land rose a deafening flood of sound. Here was the source of that mechanical whirring; it throbbed overpoweringly upward, incessantly fluctuating through three notes. Behind it were other sounds; a faint bass humming which hovered on the edge of audibility, and others—whistling and high-pitched twangs which sometimes were inaudible and sometimes as loud as the whirring.
By now Tony and Frank were beside me, staring down.
“Surely it can’t be coming from that hut?” Frank said. “It’s no tractor, that’s certain, and a hut that size could never contain anything that’d make that row.”
“I thought it was coming from underground somewhere,” suggested Tony. “Mining operations, maybe.”
“Whatever it is, there’s that hut,” I said. “We can ask the way there.”
Tony looked down doubtfully. “I don’t know—it might well be dangerous. You know driving over subsidence can be dangerous, and how do we know they’re not working on something like that here?”
“There’d be signs if they were,” I reassured him. “No, come on—there may be nowhere else we can ask, and there’s no use keeping on in the wrong direction.”
We descended the ridge and walked perhaps twenty yards across the plain.
It was like walking into a tidal wave. The sound was suddenly all around us; the more overpowering because though it beat on us from all sides, we could not fight back—like being engulfed in jelly. I could not have stood it for long—I put my hands over my ears and yelled “Run!” And I staggered across the plain, the sound which I could not shut out booming at me, until I reached the building on the other side.
It was a brown stone house, not a hut as we had thought. It had an arched doorway in the wall facing us, bordered by two low windows without curtains. From what we could see the room on the left was the living-room, that on the right a bedroom, but grime on the windows prevented us from seeing more, except that the rooms were unoccupied. We did not think to look in any windows at the back. The door had no bell or knocker, but Frank pounded on a panel.
There was no answer and he knocked harder. On the second knock the door swung open, revealing that it opened into the living-room. Frank looked in and called: “Anybody at home?” Still nobody answered, and he turned back to us.
“Do you think we’d better go in?” he asked. “Maybe we could wait for the owner, or there might be something in the house that’d direct us.”
Tony pushed past me to look. “Hey, what—Frank, do you notice anything here? Something tells me that whoever the owner is, he isn’t house-proud.”
We could see what he meant. There were wooden chairs, a table, bookcases, a ragged carpet—and all thick with dust. We hesitated a minute, waiting for someone to make a decision; then Frank entered. He stopped inside the door and pointed. Looking over his shoulder we could see there were no footprints anywhere in the dust.
We looked round for some explanation. While Frank closed the door and cut off the throbbing from outside, Tony—our bibliophile—crossed to the bookcases and looked at the spines. I noticed a newspaper on the table and idly picked it up.
“The owner must be a bit peculiar . . . La Strega, by Pico della Mirandola,” Tony read, “—Discovery of Witches—The Red Dragon—hey, Revelations of Glaaki; isn’t that the book the University can’t get for their restricted section? Here’s a diary, big one, too, but I hadn’t better touch that.”
When I turned to the front page of the newspaper, I saw it was the Camside Observer. As I looked closer, I saw something which made me call the others. “Look at this—December 8, 1930! You’re right about this man being peculiar—what sort of person keeps a newspaper for twenty-eight years?”
“I’m going to look in the bedroom,” Frank declared. He knocked on the door off the living-room, and, when we came up beside him, opened it. The room was almost bare: a wardrobe, a hanging wall-mirror, and a bed, were the only furnishings. The bed, as we had expected, was empty; but the mark of a sleeping body was clearly defined, though filled with dust. We moved closer, noting the absence of footprints on the floor; and bending over the bed, I thought I saw something besides dust in the hollows left by the sleeper—something like ground glass, sparkling greenly.
“What’s happened?” Tony asked in a rather frightened tone.
“Oh, probably nothing out of the ordinary,” said Frank. “Maybe there’s another entrance round the back—maybe he can’t stand all the noise, whatever it is, and has a bedroom on the other side. Look, there’s a door in that wall; that may be it.”
I went across and opened it, but only a very primitive lavatory lay beyond.
“Wait a minute, I think there was a door next to the bookcase,” recollected Tony. He returned to the living-room and opened the door he had noticed. As we followed him, he exclaimed: “My God—now what?”
The fourth room was longer than any of the others, but it was the contents that had drawn Tony’s exclamation. Nearest us on the bare floor was something like a television screen, about two feet across, with a blue-glass light bulb behind it, strangely distorted and with thick wires attached. Next to it another pair of wires led from a megaphone-shaped receiver. In between the opposite wall and these instruments lay a strange arrangement of crystals, induction coils, and tubes, from which wires hung at each end for possible attachment to the other appliances. The far corner of the ceiling had recently collapsed, allowing rain to drip onto a sounding-board carrying a dozen strings, a large lever and a motor connected by cogs to a plectrum-covered cylinder. Out of curiosity I crossed and plucked a string; but such a discord trembled through the board that I quickly muffled it.
“Something very funny is going on here,” Frank said. “There’s no other room, so where can he sleep? And the dust, and the newspaper—and now these things—I’ve never seen anything like them . . .”
“Why don’t we look at his diary?” suggested Tony. “It doesn’t look like he’ll be back, and I for one want to know what’s happened here.”
So we went back into the living-room and Tony took down the heavy volume. He opened it to its last entry: December 8, 1930. “If we all try and read it, it’ll take three times as long,” he said.
“You two sit down and I’ll try and read you the relevant bits.” He was silent for a few minutes, then:
“Professor Arnold Hird, ex-Brichester University: never heard of him—must’ve been before our time.
“Ah here we are—
“ ‘January 3, 1930: Today moved into new house (if it can be called a house!). Noises are queer—suppose it’s only because there’s so much superstition about them that nobody’s investigated before. Intend to make full study—meteorological conditions, &c: feel that winds blowing over ridges may vibrate and cause sounds. Tomorrow to look round, take measurements, find out if anything will interrupt sounds. Peculiar that sound seems to be deafening in certain radius, relatively faint beyond—no gradual fading.’
“ ‘January 4: Sleep uneasy last night—unaccustomed dreams. City on great mountain—angled streets, spiraling pillars and cones. Strange inhabitants; taller than human, scaly skin, boneless fin- gers, yet somehow not repulsive. Were aware of me, in fact seemed to await my arrival, but each time one approached me I awoke. Repeated several times.
“ ‘Progress negative. Screens on top of ridges did not interrupt sound; undiminished though little wind. Measurements—northwest ridge 423 yards . . .’ Well, there’s a lot more like that.”
“Make sure you don’t miss anything important,” Frank said as Tony turned pages.
“ ‘January 6: Dreams again. Same city, figures as though waiting. Leader approached. Seemed to be communicating with me telepathically: I caught the thought—Do not be afraid; we are the sounds. Whole scene faded.
“ ‘No progress whatever. Unable to concentrate on findings; dreams distracting.’
“ ‘January 7: Insane perhaps, but am off to British Museum tomorrow. In last night’s dream was told: Check Necronomicon— formula for aiding us to reach you. Page reference given. Expect and hope this will be false alarm—dreams taking altogether too much out of me. But what if something on that page? Am not interested in that field—impossible to know in normal way . . .’
“ ‘January 9: Back from London. Mao rite—on page I looked up—exactly as described in dream! Don’t know what it will do, but will perform it tonight to find out. Strange no dreams while away—some influence existing only here?’
“ ‘January 10: Didn’t wake till late afternoon. Dreams began as soon as sleep after rite. Don’t know what to think. Alternatives both disturbing: either brain receiving transmission, or subconsciously inventing everything—but wd. sane mind act thus?
“ ‘If true that transmission external, learned following:
“ ‘Sounds in this area are equivalents of matter in another dimension. Said dimension overlaps ours at this point and certain others. City and inhabitants in dream do not appear as in own sphere, but as wd. appear if consisting of matter. Different sounds here correspond to various objects in other dimension; whirring equals pillars & cones, bass throbbing is ground, other varying sounds are people of city & other moving objects. Matter on our side they sense as odors.
“ ‘The inhabitants can transmit whole concepts mentally. Leader asked me to try not to make sounds in radius of point of connection. Carried over to their dimension. My footsteps—huge crystals appeared on streets of city. My breathing—something living which they refused to show me. Had to be killed at once.
“ ‘Inhabitants interested in communication with our dimension. Not dream—transmission—frequent use of Mao rite dangerous. Translator to be built on this side—enables sound to be translated into visual terms on screen, as in dream, but little else. When they build counterpart link will be effected—complete passage between dimensions. Unfortunately, their translator completely different from ours and not yet successful. Leader told me: Look in The Revelations of Glaaki for the plans. Also gave me page reference & said where to get copy.
“ ‘Must get copy. If no plan, all coincidence & can return to normal research. If plan, can build machine, claim discovery of other dimension!’ ”
“I’ve been thinking,” I interrupted. “Arnold Hird—there was something—wasn’t he asked to leave the University because he attacked someone when they disagreed with him? Said he’d return and astonish everybody some day, but was never heard of again.”
“I don’t know,” said Tony. “Anyway, he continues:
“ ‘January 12: Got Revelations of Glaaki. Had to take drastic measures to obtain it, too. Plan here—book 9, pp. 2057–9. Will take some time to build, but worth it. To think that besides me, only superstitious know of this—but will soon be able to prove it!’
“Hmmm—well, there don’t seem to be any very interesting en- tries after that. Just ‘not much progress today’ or ‘screen arrangement completed’ or here ‘down to Severnford today—had to order strings at music shop. Don’t like idea of using it, but must keep it handy in case.’ ”
“So that’s it,” Frank said, standing up. “The man was a lunatic, and we’ve been sitting here listening to his ravings. No wonder he was kicked out of the University.”
“I don’t think so,” I disagreed. “It seems far too complex—”
“Wait a minute, here’s another entry,” called Tony. “ ‘—December 7.’ ”
Frank gave him a protesting look, but sat down again.
“ ‘December 7: Got through. Image faint, but contact sufficient—beings aware. Showed me unfinished translator on their side—may take some time before completion. Few more days to perfect image, then will publicize.’
“ ‘December 8: Must be sure about weapon I have constructed. Revelations give reason for use, but way of death is horrible. If unnecessary, definitely will destroy. Tonight will find out—will call Alala.’ ”
“Well, Frank?” I asked as Tony replaced the diary and began to search the shelves. “Crazy, maybe—but there are those sounds—and he called something that night where his diary ends—and there’s that peculiar stuff all over the bed—”
“But how will we know either way?” Tony asked, removing a book.
“Set up all that paraphernalia, obviously, and see what comes through on the screen.”
“I don’t know,” Tony said. “I want to look in the Revelations of Glaaki—that’s what I’ve got here—but as for trying it ourselves, I think that’s going a bit far. You’ll notice how careful he was about it, and something happened to him.”
“Come on, let’s look at the book,” interrupted Frank. “That can’t do any harm.”
Tony finally opened it and placed it on the table. On the page we examined diagrams, and learned that “the screen is attached to the central portion and viewed, while the receiver is directed toward the sounds before attachment.” No power was necessary, for “the very sounds in their passing manipulate the instrument.” The diagrams were crude but intelligible, and both Frank and I were ready to experiment. But Tony pointed to a passage at the end of the section:
“The intentions of the inhabitants of S’glhuo are uncertain. Those who use the translator would be wise to keep by them the stringed sounding-board, the only earthly weapon to touch S’glhuo. For when they build the translator to complete the connexion, who knows what they may bring through with them? They are adept in concealing their intentions in dream-communication, and the sounding-board should be used at the first hostile action.”
“You see?” Tony said triumphantly. “These things are unfriendly—the book says so.”
“Oh, no, it doesn’t,” contradicted Frank, “and anyway it’s a load of balls—living sounds, hah! But just suppose it was true—if we got through, we could claim the discovery—after all, the book says you’re safe with this ‘weapon.’ And there’s no rush back to the University.”
Arguments ensued, but finally we opened the doors and dragged the instruments outside. I returned for the sounding-board, noticing how rusted it was, and Tony brought the volume of the Revelations. We stood at the edge of the area of sound and placed the receiver about midway. The screen was connected to the central section, and at last we clipped the wire from the screen to the rest.
For a minute nothing happened. The screen stayed blank; the coils and wire did not respond. Tony looked at the sounding-board. The vibrations had taken on a somehow expectant quality, as if aware of our experiment. And then the blue light bulb flickered, and an image slowly formed on the screen.
It was a landscape of dream. In the background, great glaciers and crystal mountains sparkled, while at their peaks enormous stone buildings stretched up into the mist. There were translucent shapes flitting about those buildings. But the foreground was most noticeable—the slanting streets and twisted pillar-supported cones which formed a city on one of the icy mountains. We could see no life in the city brooding in a sourceless blue light; only a great machine of tubes and crystals which stood before us on the street.
When a figure rose into the screen, we recoiled. I felt a chill of terror, for this was one of the city’s inhabitants—and it was not human. It was too thin and tall, with huge pupilless eyes, and a skin covered with tiny rippling scales. The fingers were boneless, and I felt a surge of revulsion as the white eyes stared unaware in my direction. But I somehow felt that this was an intelligent being, and not definitely hostile.
The being took out of its metallic robe a thin rod, which it held vertically and stroked several times. Whatever the principle, this must have been a summons, for in a few minutes a crowd had formed about the instrument in the street. What followed may only have been their method of communication, but I found it horrible; they stood in a circle and their fingers stretched fully two feet to interlace in the center. They dispersed after a short time and spread out, a small group remaining by the machine.
“Look at that thing in the street,” said Tony. “Do you suppose—”
“Not now,” Frank, who was watching in fascination, interrupted. “I don’t know if it’d be better to switch off now and get someone down from the University—no hell, let’s watch a bit longer. To think that we’re watching another world!”
The group around the machine were turning it, and at that moment a set of three tubes came into view, pointing straight at us. One of the beings went to a switchboard and clutched a lever with long twining fingers. Tony began to speak, but simultaneously I realized what he was thinking.
“Frank,” I shouted, “that’s their translator! They’re going to make the connexion!”
“Do you think I’d better switch off, then?”
“But suppose that’s not enough?” yelled Tony. “Do you want them to come through without knowing what they’ll do? You read the book—for God’s sake use the weapon before it’s too late!”
His hysteria affected us all. Frank ran to the sounding-board and grabbed the lever. I watched the being on the machine, and saw that it was nearly ready to complete the connexion.
“Why aren’t you doing anything?” Tony screamed at Frank.
He called back: “The lever won’t move! Must be rust in the works—quick, Les, see if you can get them unstuck.”
I ran over and began to scrape at the gears with a knife. Accidentally the blade slipped and twanged across the strings.
“There’s something forming, I can’t quite see,” Tony said—
Frank was straining so hard at the lever that I was afraid it would snap—then it jerked free, the gears moved, the plectrum cylinder spun and an atrocious sound came from the strings. It was a scraping, whining discord which clawed at our ears; it blotted out those other sounds, and I could not have stood it for long.
Then Tony screamed. We whirled to see him kick in the screen and stamp ferociously on the wires, still shrieking. Frank shouted at him—and as he turned we saw the slackness of his mouth and the saliva drooling down his chin.
We finally locked him in the back room of the house while we found our way back to Brichester. We told the doctors only that he had become separated from us, and that by the time we found him everything was as they saw it. When they removed Tony from the house, Frank took the opportunity to tear a few pages out of The Revelations of Glaaki. Perhaps because of this, the team of Brichester professors and others studying conditions there are making little progress. Frank and I will never go there again; the events of that afternoon have left too deep a mark.
Of course, they affected Tony far more. He is completely insane, and the doctors foresee no recovery. At his worst he is totally incoherent, and attacks anyone who cannot satisfactorily explain every sound he hears. He gives no indication in his coherent periods of what drove him mad. He imagines he saw something more on that screen, but never describes what he saw.
Occasionally he refers to the object he thinks he saw. Over the years he has mentioned details which would suggest something incredibly alien, but of course it must have been something else which unbalanced him. He speaks of “the snailhorns,” “the blue crystal- line lenses,” “the mobility of the faces,” “the living flame and water,” “the bell-shaped appendages,” and “the common head of many bodies.”
But these periods of comparative coherency do not last long. Usually they end when a look of horror spreads over his face, he stiffens and screams something which he has not yet explained:
“I saw what it took from its victims! I saw what it took from its victims!”