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Ancient Exhumations +2
By Stanley C. Sargent
Elder Signs PressCopyright © 2004 Elder Signs Press, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The Rattle of Her Smile
"... the unintelligible is necessarily hideous."
- Maurice Levy: Lovecraft: A Study in the Fantastic
Two years ago, I began gathering information for the biography I planned to write, based on the life of Ashley Farland. I wanted my first book to be a bestseller, and Farland seemed the perfect subject — an internationally acclaimed artist whose bizarrely evil sculptures were rumored to be inspired by the supernatural. My fifteen years as a journalist had given me the ability to write well, my subject was a celebrity, and as a bonus, he had vanished mysteriously a few months before I contracted for the book. I assured my editor I could discover Farland's whereabouts, whether he had vanished from his ancestral home in Aylesbury, Massachusetts to continue his work sequestered from all outside intrusion, or had met with foul play. In keeping that promise, I exchanged my assumption that the world is a safe and familiar place for the sure knowledge that it can be, at times, a nightmarish realm of unsuspected horror.
The public is most familiar with Farland's work through the popular coffee table collection of photographs published over five years ago. That volume purports to represent the best of Farland's often horrific efforts, yet many of his best pieces were deliberately deleted from that book as being "too repulsive and shocking" for widespread appeal. Aside from those censored sculptures (Copulating Demons, Soul Less Torment, The Ecstasy of Agony, etc.), which currently reside in various private collections, every gallery and museum of import, both here and abroad, boasts at least one Farland among its acquisitions.
I easily accumulated a tremendous amount of material concerning Farland's family and career, yet I had not discovered the slightest clue as to what had become of him, information absolutely vital for my book's success. I finally received a break in late May, when a letter arrived from the only man with whom Farland had maintained any regular contact during those final months. The letter was an invitation to meet with Dr. Jeffrey Markson, an expert on Pre-Columbian art whom Farland had befriended some eighteen months before his curious evanescence. All of my previous attempts to contact Dr. Markson had met with failure, so it was with great excitement that I accepted this opportunity for the potentially important interview. I could not help feeling puzzled at this unexpected invitation to meet with Markson at his home in Middleboro, Massachusetts, for although he had shied away from contact with the press throughout his entire career, he had obstinately refused to discuss Farland in any way even when the authorities officially declared the sculptor "missing." I wasted little time in responding to the offer, fearing Markson might change his mind; I caught the first available flight to Providence via Boston's Logan Airport. Once in Providence, I rented a car and immediately drove to Markson's address in the tiny town of Middleboro.
I had come across photos of Markson in the course of my research, but I was still surprised at the haggard appearance of the man who greeted me at the door. I knew Markson to be only fifty, yet he looked much older. Although he was obviously uncomfortable over the coming discussion, he nonetheless did his utmost to act the gracious host, introducing me not only to his charming wife, Barbara, but also their quietly observant teenage son, Tyler.
After an exchange of pleasantries, Mrs. Markson offered to bring tea to the two of us in the library, to which we then adjourned, accompanied by "Jenkin," the professor's ubiquitous German shepherd. I immediately accepted a seat in a comfortable chair near the warmth of a low fire, but the nervous Markson preferred to remain standing.
"As I am sure you are aware, Mr. Hathorne," he began, "I have avoided any mention of Ashley Farland for some time." After a moment's pause, he added, "I am willing to breach this subject only now that my health is failing. According to my doctor, my life expectancy is limited to under a year. I have therefore decided, contrary to my wife's advisement, that it would be wrong for me to pass on without first communicating any information I possess concerning Ashley and my interaction with him."
I offered my regrets over his failing health then, noting his reluctance to say anything further on the subject, I waited in silence for him to proceed.
"It is essential for you to understand that not only was Farland one of the most brilliant artists mankind has ever produced, but also a man haunted by that same talent. It tormented him to such a degree that he often reminded me of the dementedly driven surgeon of Mary Shelley's acclaimed novel. Over time, he grew increasingly dissatisfied with everything he produced, fanatically propelled by an urgency to surpass all of his previous accomplishments. He felt compelled to expand the boundaries of art so that his sculptures might approach and even achieve, as he called it, an 'intrinsic essence' of their own, independent of the consideration or even existence of any outside agency.
"He first wrote to me shortly after he became fascinated with Amerind art. We had met briefly while attending a series of lectures at Boston University, at which time I had expressed my admiration for his work, so he later felt free to seek my aid in attaining a deeper understanding of the antique styles of the Maya, Olmec, and Aztec cultures. I was quite flattered by the attention of such a well-known artist, realizing only later the true extent of his fanaticism.
"For several months I provided him with the information he requested, most of it fairly general in nature, but in those final months, he demanded research of a more specialized nature.
"He came upon a peculiar statue of an ancient Aztec goddess in a museum in Mexico City and, from that time on, its visage haunted his every waking thought. You may have seen photographs of the gruesome thing, eight feet tall and universally considered the most abhorrent piece of carving ever created by man. Yet it was more than just the piece's defiance of every tradition and definition of art that appealed to Farland's psyche; the abomination has a vile and evil presence about it. When he later found mention of a similar statue in a copy of the fabled Necronomicon, he believed he'd stumbled upon some ancient secret. I now regret helping him gain access to that and other equally damnable books, as they most certainly contributed to his psychological deterioration."
I was surprised at the direction Markson's tale had taken, having expected to hear more of a man obsessed, not possessed.
"He insisted on discovering everything about the goddess depicted in the monument, even going so far as to familiarize himself with the bizarre theories proffered by such pseudo-scientists as that Von Daniken fellow. Luckily, he quickly recognized such trash for what it is — a mishmash of conjecture, fantasy, ignorant misinterpretation, and quackery. By that time, I'd become rather irritated at his excessive demands upon my time, so it was with a certain relief that I informed him of the dearth of legitimate information pertaining to that particular subject."
Markson hesitated, once again lost in thought. He absentmindedly began to seat himself opposite me, then thinking better of it, he continued his pacing back and forth. After the passage of several minutes, I felt it prudent to disrupt his reverie.
"If you don't mind, Dr. Markson, I am not at all familiar with the statue to which you are referring. Would you mind providing me with a few details concerning its history?"
He started as if he had forgotten my presence. "Pardon me, Mr. Hathorne, it's just that for some time I have made great effort to forget any and everything connected with Farland, such that I now find it rather disturbing to recall it all.
"All that aside, however, you have asked about Coatlicue. She must actually be seen in all her heinous distortion to be appreciated." He turned and strode over to a bookshelf to remove a small volume, which he opened to a marked page before handing it to me.
"I describe the statue as if it were an atrocity, but you must decide for yourself whether or not I exaggerate."
At that moment, I glanced down at the revolting form which leered menacingly up at me from the page before voicing my agreement with Markson's assessment of the thing. I continued to stare at the photo even after he had resumed speaking, overcome with a vivid presentiment of timeless evil.
"For her history we must turn to the Post-Classic legendry of the Aztec as documented by the Spanish and augmented by contemporary folklore. Certainly this insidious creature had been highly revered by the Aztec, who recognized her as a great Earth Mother.
"According to legend, her original consort was another creation god, Yigcoatl, known to the Plains Indians of the Southwestern United States simply as 'Yig.' He proved too passive for the blood thirsty Coatlicue who, despite her gravid state, immigrated to the desert of Mexico where she gave birth to four hundred male offspring of a divinity less than her own. These sons are simply described as 'diamonds,' representing stars of the southern night sky. The goddess had previously conceived a daughter, Coyolxauhqui, whose paternal origin remains obscure. Her appearance differed from that of her brothers to the extent that her symbol was the lunar disk.
The story goes on to state that Coatlicue established residence in the heights of Coatepec, the 'Serpent Mountain,' where she came across a curious ball of feathers. She tucked the ball in her bosom for later examination, but when she subsequently sought to retrieve the thing, it had slipped down and impregnated her. Upon hearing such a bizarre explanation for the pregnancy, Coatlicue's four hundred offspring, at the behest of their sister Coyolxauhqui, beheaded their mother."
I found myself growing strangely uncomfortable as the story progressed, never dreaming that the rest would prove even worse.
"The headless Coatlicue was immortal, so she gave birth on the spot to a male child who sprang forth from her womb, dressed in full armor and ready for revenge. That male was Huitzilopochtli, the great god of war and incarnation of the Sun, who thereafter defeated his matricidal siblings. The Aztecs believed each dawn marked the supernal reenactment of Huitzilopochtli, as the Sun, driving away and defeating the stars and the Moon. I needn't add that Farland was intrigued by every aspect of this odd mythological vignette."
He paused to finally seat himself in an overstuffed chair opposite me. "And what became of Coatlicue after all of this?" I asked.
"She, as I stated, couldn't die. The two great gouts of blood that gushed from the terrible neck wound congealed into two giant rattlesnakes whose heads created a new face, or rather faces, for the goddess, when joined nose-to-nose. As you can see in the photo before you, the statue depicts her with her new head, bearing a face in both front and rear. Her hands were also severed, the blood from each wrist condensing into a single reptilian head.
"Legend claims the goddess' statue came to life during blood sacrifices to her, but due to her strong aversion to light, the statue had to be kept within the heavily curtained interior of "The Black House," the temple dedicated to her in Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital city. In 1519, the Conquistadors witnessed ritual sacrifices to Coatlicue that so sickened and enraged them that, to the horror of the worshippers, the idol was cast roughly down the temple's steps and buried on the spot. The fractured likeness of Coatlicue was only rediscovered in 1824, buried beneath Mexico City's Cathedral Square. She was reassembled as you see her here," he said, indicating the photo in my lap.
Markson remained in his seat, but leaned forward to wearily cover his face with his hands. A moment later he gazed intensely into my eyes, adding in a whisper of growing intensity, "It was with this she-fiend of hell that Ashley became obsessed, almost enamored; his ultimate goal being to sculpt a likeness of Coatlicue so perfect that, with the aid of incantations from the Necronomicon and other profane incunabula, it could actually be animated and imbued with life!"
Shocked at this last statement, I asked, "Are you telling me that Farland was mad? Certainly no sane person could entertain such a concept! You are describing nothing less than a megalomaniac, possibly even a dangerous one."
Enigmatically he replied, "I have never contended that Farland was mad, and I would not do so now."
"But ..." I began, only to be silenced by Markson's upraised hand. He lifted a large bundle of papers from an adjacent desktop and extended it toward me.
"It is all here, recorded in his letters to me. I feel it would be more profitable for you to read them for yourself rather than hear an encapsulation of their contents from me. I want you to take them with you; I have no further use of them."
Overwhelmed by his stern but generous offer, I objected, insisting I could just as easily study and return the documents after making copies of any I deemed necessary for quotes in my text.
He became agitated suddenly and pressed the letters upon me. "Please understand, Mr. Hathorne, as I will soon be beyond any concern for such things, Barbara has pleaded with me to dispose of these letters so she will not be left with them."
"But they could easily become very valuable in the near future," I told him. "You must consider your son's future if nothing else."
Markson, unmoved by my argument, stated he hoped his son never found opportunity to read the letters — they were mine. As I relieved him of the bundle, the professor rose to mark the conclusion of the interview, though I felt the need to query him on one final point.
"Sir, in your opinion, just what has become of Ashley Farland?"
Markson carefully weighed his words before responding ominously. "I fear I cannot answer that question. I know he had completed his sculpture of Coatlicue; in his last letter, he asked if I would attend its 'christening.' The appointed date, however, fell during the final week of the exams preceding summer break, so I wrote him not to expect me.
"I tried unsuccessfully to contact him by phone several times before the scheduled date, finally contacting the sheriff of Aylesbury. It was from him that I learned Farland had not been seen for nearly a week, having failed to collect supplies he had ordered from the town grocer, although he had insisted they arrive well before the date on which he planned to unveil his creation. I haven't the slightest doubt that his experiment backfired in some way or other; I only pray that death was the worst that overtook him." As he continued, there seemed to be a hint of nervousness in his voice.
"You must read these letters with an open mind. If I've learned anything in my life, it's that a rigid mind is a most terrible weakness. Farland accepted much we normally consider preposterous, but his real error lay in his certainty that such things could be controlled and manipulated. I admit to the acceptance of certain aspects of the supranormal, yet I failed in turn to convince Farland of the peril he courted."
Noting my shocked expression, he gave further challenge. Before you decide I too am unbalanced, I suggest you take the opportunity to look into the recent case of three staff members at the university who entered an ancient Cretan tomb despite similar warnings; they too have vanished without a trace.
"I advise you to abandon your search. Ashley Farland was intent on delving into areas better left alone and unknown, and now you must ask yourself if this book is worth the risk of your sanity ... or your life."
I sat for a moment, unsure if I had been threatened, then Markson turned and walked toward the doorway to the hall. I followed, taking the letters with me. I hoped Mrs. Markson would arrive with the promised tea that I might have more time to question the academian further, but I was disappointed.
"I will say no more on the subject, Mr. Hathorne. You may consider this interview at an end."
Allowing me no opportunity for response, my host escorted me to the door and bid me good night. I left feeling sure that whatever disease had ravaged his body had also affected his mind. I felt so sure of this that I felt no need to investigate the other cases of disappearance to which Markson had directed me.
* * *
Markson's unexpected gift occupied all of my attention in the weeks that followed. To my delight, he had amassed Farland's letters in precise chronological order, methodically binding them in notebooks. The initial page of each letter was carefully dated in an altogether different hand, apparently Markson's, the oldest being dated nearly two years before Farland's disappearance.
The earliest letters reflected Farland's fascination with Amerind art, just as Markson had stated, the sculptor's inquiries being interspersed with his lengthy dissertations detailing his search for some means to elevate the "intrinsic essence" of his artistic endeavors. Much of this latter text struck me as being the result of his dissatisfaction not only with his work but also with the critical acclaim he had achieved. He repeatedly bemoaned the waste of his talent and effort in creating "relics" which, after momentarily exciting a few critics and gallery owners, ended up being little more than dust gatherers in some collection.
Excerpted from Ancient Exhumations +2 by Stanley C. Sargent. Copyright © 2004 Elder Signs Press, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Elder Signs Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPreface by Robert M. Price,
Author's Preface and Acknowledgements,
Introduction by Peter Worthy,
THE RATTLE OF HER SMILE,
THE HOPPWOOD TENANT,
THE BLACK MASSIF,
THE TALE OF TOAD LOOP,
WHEN THE STARS ARE RIPE,
THE PALADIN OF WORMS,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
There are 9 stories in this book, and, as I always say, whenever you pick up an anthology you're likely to find a few that you really like, a few you really dislike, and some that are just okay. Here's the contents list:The Rattle of Her Smile - This one was quite freaky re an Aztec goddess and someone who didn't know well enough to leave dark forces alone. This one was quite good.Dark Demonize -- I found this one to be rather silly; in it, a man bargains with a demon and gets much more than he bargained for.The Hoppwood Tenant -- One of the iffies; a couple of guys disturb the Hoppwood Tenant and cause a lot of mayhem.The Black Massif -- A la Clark Ashton Smith (whose writings I greatly admire) and his tales of Zothique. This one was most excellent; probably the one I liked the best in the entire book.The Tale of Toad Loop -- More along the Innsmouth lineWhen the Stars are Ripe -- this finds the narrator and a companion down in a cenote in a "scientific" investigation; they also get more than they've bargained for.The Paladin of Worms: Another one which I enjoyed...very creepy story. A sheriff shows up to check on the whereabouts of a man's missing hired hand, and hears a story that literally kills him. Quite well done.Self-Correcting Mechanism: Out in space; not one of my favorites at all.Famine Wood: Two missionaries come to the door of an elderly man and end up hearing a story that couldn't possibly be true...or could it? This one was well done, too.Overall, I thought this little book was nicely done, and I'd recommend it to those who enjoy Mythos lore as well as Clark Ashton-Smith's work.