…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 neighbours 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 neighbours 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 dishevelled 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 humour 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 neighbours 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 odour 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…

Donald Wandrei
The Web of Easter Island

We walk in darkness with phantoms and spectres we know not of, and our little world plunges blindly through abysses toward a goal of which we have no conception. That thought itself is a blow at our beliefs and comprehension. We used to content ourselves by thinking we knew all about our world, at least; but now it is different, and we wonder if we really know anything, or if there can be safety and peace anywhere in the wide universe.

Donald Wandrei
Strange Harvest

the Lovecraft Circle

December 4, 2019

Lovecraft’s work was kept alive not just in the stories he told, but in the growing shared universe that was created in his wake. August Derleth, Lin Carter, Donald Wandrei, and many others promoted and reprinted Lovecraft even as they contributed to a flourishing corpus of tales inspired by his writings. Lovecraft’s coalescing legend was foundational in the creation of the publishing company Arkham House, and grew beyond that as more writers discovered his work, its variegated offspring, and the laudatory missives of the Lovecraft Circle. In those early years, not only was Lovecraft’s work being gathered and codified, it was explicitly put forth as a storyworld that could be reworked and imitated, one with greater depths and literary potential than its pulp beginnings could contain.

It is this conceit, this intertwined shift in both reading protocols and in textual refashioning, that elevates the Lovecraftian corpus to a more significant and interpretable level. His stories are no longer “mere” pulp or obscure, tortured prose; they are rich in fantastical possibility and contain themes that are construed as uncomplicated, powerful,  and reproducible, simplified in the Mythos by Derleth and able to be reused as individual creators saw fit. “Cthulhu Mythos” became a shorthand not just for such borrowings but for a discrete subgenre of horror/fantasy fusion literature that expanded over time.

John H. Stevens
The Improbable, Inevitable Domestication of the Great Old Ones: HP Lovecraft’s Iconic Influence on 21st-Century Fantastic Literature and Culture