"He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works."
The Maltese Falcon (1929)
by Brian Lumley
(1974, DAW Books)
Is The Burrowers Beneath a madman's jigsaw puzzle? Is it a collage glued together by an asylum inmate so as to spread his symptoms? August Derleth certainly needs to be held to account for inspiring such a fix-up of short stories into a Frankenstein's monster of a novel plot.
Did Lumley read Colin Wilson's 1967 novel The Mind Parasites? Famous as a novel Derleth dared the Lovecraft-skeptical pseudo-philosopher to write, it recounts the adventure of two men learning the frightful position of humanity in the cosmos. One friendly and forgiving reading of The Burrowers Beneath might be as an arch full-throttle mocking of Wilson's novel. Except that there is no intentional humor in The Burrowers Beneath.
Is this the way the world really works? Can it all be reduced to a checkers match between humans and wind, water, earth, and fire elementals? If you live on a house boat, you might be safe from the get of Shudde-M'ell, but watch out for Sea-Shoggoths...
I - The Nethermost Caverns
Titus Crow knows something is up. He tells his cutting service: "I require all cuttings, one copy of each, from all forty-three dailies normally covered, of current occurrences involving earthquakes, tremors, subsidences, and like phenomena (and backdated to cover the last three years where at all possible), to continue until further notice."
Crow also follows closely the report of Northeast Coal-Board inspector Raymond Bentham:
....Other than mentioning briefly certain outlines which you say you found etched in the walls of those new and inexplicable tunnels which you discovered down there cut (or rather "burned," as you had it) through the rock a mile below the surface, you seem reluctant to describe in detail the content or actual forms of those outlines. Might I suggest that this is because you did not wish to be further ridiculed, which you feared might well be the case should you actually describe the etchings? And might I further tell you what you saw on those unknown tunnel walls; that those oddly dimensioned designs depicted living creatures of sorts—like elongated octopuses or squids but without recognizable heads or eyes—tentacled worms in fact but of gigantic size?
Benthan reports to Crow: "The floor was flat enough but crumbly, almost earthy, and right in the middle of the place I found four great cave-pearls. At least, I think they're cave-pearls."
Spoiler: those are not cave pearls, and the breed of Shudde-M'ell will burrow anywhere in pursuit of them. [Reminding me that the fmundanity.Cs (1990) is unintentionally superior mythos fare.]
II - Marvels Strange and Terrific
From the Notebooks of Crow's gormless Watson, Henri-Laurent de Marigny.
'I became aware of these survivals, initially at least, through the medium of dreams; and now I consider that those dreams of mine have been given substance. I've known for a good many years that I'm a highly psychic man; you are of course aware of this as you yourself have similar, though lesser, powers.' (This, from Titus Crow, a statement of high praise!) 'It's only recently, however, that I've come to recognize the fact that these walking "senses" of mine are still at work - more efficiently, in fact - when I'm asleep. Now, de Marigny, unlike that long-vanished friend of your late father's, Randolph Carter, I have never been a great dreamer; and usually my dreams, irregular as they are, are very vague, fragmentary, and the result of late meals and even later hours. Some, though, have been … different!'
"You know, of course, de Marigny, the basic theme of the Cthulhu Cycle of myth; that at a time yet to come Lord Cthulhu will rise from his slimy seat at Deep R'lyeh in the sea to reclaim his dry-land dominions? Well, the whole thing was horribly frightening, and for a long time I morbidly collected cuttings and articles dealing with Surtsey's rising. Nothing further occurred, however, and Surtsey eventually cooled from its volcanic state into a new island, barren of life but still strangely enigmatic. I have a feeling, Henri, that Surtsey was only the first step, that those ropy things of my dreams are in fact real and that they had planned to raise to the surface whole chains of islands and oddly-dimensioned cities—lands drowned back in the dim mists of Earth's antiquity—in the commencement of a concerted attack on universal sanity … an attack led by loathly Lord Cthulhu, his 'brothers,' and their minions, which once reigned here where men reign now."
I think it worth noting that Lovecraft's epigone Derleth, and Derleth's epigones, have in nearly a century transformed Lovecraft's fictional antagonists into a whiteboard Cosa Nostra crime family hierarchy of stupefying mundanity.
III - Cement Surroundings
A previously published short story made part of The Burrowers Beneath's fix-up collage structure. Writer Paul Wendy-Smith and his explorer uncle Sir Amery Wendy-Smith recount their adventures.
Paul finds these notes on his uncle's desk shorty before both disappear:
122-128 a.d. Limestone Bank. (Gn'yah of the G'harne Fragments?) Earth tremors interrupted the diggings, which is why cut basalt blocks were left in the uncompleted ditch with wedge-holes ready for splitting.
W'nyal Shash. (MITHRAS?)
The Romans had their own deities - but it wasn't Mithras that the disciples of Commodus, the Blood Maniac, sacrificed to at Limestone Bank! And that was the same spot where, fifty years earlier, a great block of stone was unearthed and discovered to be covered with inscriptions and engraven pictures! Silvanus the Centurion defaced it and buried it again. A skeleton, positively identified as Silvanus' by the signet ring on one of its fingers, has been lately found beneath the ground (deep) where once stood a Vicus Tavern at Homesteads Fort -but we don't know how he vanished! Nor were Commodus' followers any too careful. According to Atullus and Caracalla they also vanished overnight -during an earthquake! AVEBURY.
(Neolithic A'byy of the G'harne Fragments and Pnakotic Manuscript???) Reference Stukeley's book, A Temple to the British Druids - incredible!
Druids, indeed! But Stukeley was pretty close when he said snake worship!
Worms, more like it! COUNCIL OF NANTES. (9th Century.) The Council didn't know what it was doing when it ordered: 'Let the stones also which, deceived by the derision of the demons, they worship amid ruins and in wooded places, where they both make their vows and bestow their offerings, be dug up from the very foundations, and let them be cast into such places as never will their devotees be able to find them again …' I've read that paragraph so many times that it's become imprinted upon my mind! God only knows what happened to the poor devils who tried to carry out the Council's orders … !
DESTRUCTION OF GREAT STONES. In the 13th and 14th Centuries the Church also attempted the removal of certain stones from Avebury, because of local superstitions which caused the country folk to take part in heathen worship and witchcraft around them! In fact some of the stones were destroyed - by fire and douching - 'because of the devices upon them'. INCIDENT.
1320-25. Why was a big effort made to bury one of the great stones at Avebury?
An earth tremor caused the stone to slip, trapping a workman. No effort appears to have been made to free him … ! The 'accident' happened at dusk and two other men died of fright! Why? And why did other diggers flee the scene? And what was the titanic Thing which one of them saw wriggling away into the ground? Allegedly there was a smell… By their SMELL shall ye know them … Was it a member of another nest of the timeless ghouls? THE OBELISK.
Why was the so-called Stukeley Obelisk broken up? The pieces were buried in the early 18th Century but in 1833 Henry Browne found burned sacrifices at the site … and nearby, at Silbury Hill … My God! That devil-mound! There are some things, even amid these horrors, which don't bear thinking of - and while I've still got my sanity Silbury Hill had better remain one of them!
1928. What actually happened and why did the Federal Government drop depth-charges off Devil Reef in the Atlantic coast just out of Innsmouth? Why were half Innsmouth's citizens banished - and where to? What was the connection with Polynesia and what also lies buried in the lands beneath the sea? WIND WALKER.
(Death-Walker, Ithaqua, Wendigo, etc.) Yet another horror -though of a different type! And such evidence! Alleged human sacrifices in Manitoba.
Unbelievable circumstances surrounding Norris Case! Spencer of Quebec University literally affirmed the validity of the case … and at…
But that is as far as the notes go, and when first I read them I was glad that such was the case. It was quickly becoming all too apparent that my uncle was far from well and still not quite right in his mind. Of course, there was always the chance that he had written those notes before his seeming improvement, in which case his plight was not necessarily as bad as it appeared….
These anecdotes offer more promising material than the narrative Lumley has actually developed into The Burrowers Beneath.
IV - Cursed the Ground
"The spawn of Shudde-M'ell," I quietly commented, placing the box back on the desk and examining the sphere in my hand. "The eggs of one of the lesser known deities of the Cthulhu Cycle of myth. Bentham did send them to you, then, as you requested?"
He nodded an affirmative. "But there was no letter with the box, and it seemed pretty hastily or clumsily wrapped to me. I believe I must have frightened Bentham pretty badly … or at least, something, did!"
"....These things are on the move, Henri, and who knows how many of their nests there may be, or where those nests are? We know there's a burrow in the Midlands, at least I greatly suspect it, and another at Harden in the Northeast—but there could be dozens of others! Don't forget Sir Amery's words: ' … he waits for the time when he can infest the entire world with his loathsomeness …' And for all we know this invasion of 1933 may not have been the first! What of Sir Amery's notes, those references to Hadrian's Wall and Avebury? Yet more tests, Henri?"
"....It looks to me as though some years ago, anything up to a century ago, the spells or star-stones—whichever applies in Shudde-M'ell's case—were removed from G'harne by some means or other. Perhaps by accident, or there again, perhaps purposely … by persons in the power of the Great Old Ones!"
"....You are asking me to believe that the Cthulhu Cycle of myth is nothing less than prehistoric fact—which means in effect that the very foundations of our entire sphere of existence are built on alien magic! If such is the case then 'occult' is normal and Good grew out of Evil, as opposed to the doctrines of the Christian mythos!"
"I refuse to be drawn into a theological argument, Henri," he answered. "But that is my basic concept of things, yes. However, let's get one or two points quite clear, my friend. In the first place, for 'Magic' read 'Science.'"
V - Evil the Mind
"Think of it, de Marigny," he had told me. "Just think of trying to destroy the likes of Shudde-M'ell with flamethrowers! Why, these beings themselves are almost volcanic! They must be! Think of the temperatures and pressures required to fuse carbon and chrysolite and whatever else into the diamond-dust composition of those eggshells! And their ability to burn their way through solid rock. Flamethrowers? Hah! They'd delight in the very flames! It truly amazes me, though, the changes these beings must go through between infancy and adulthood. And yet, is it really so surprising? Human beings, I suppose, go through equally fantastic alterations—infancy, puberty, menopause, senility—and what about amphibians, frogs, and toads … and the lepidopterous cycle? Yes, I can quite believe that Sir Amery killed off those two 'babies' of his with a cigar—but by God it will take something more than that for an adult!"
VI - That Is Not Dead
Crow and de Marigny go to ground - so to speak - on de Marigny's river-going house boat Seafree.
VII - Not from His Charnel Clay
Still on the Seafree, Crow and de Marigny get a late night visitor, the remains of Sir Amery Wendy-Smith.
....'Please listen.' The nodding blackness on the chair spoke again, its stench wafting all about the cabin in thick gusts, blown by the warm breeze from the open door. 'I have been sent by Them, by the horrors beneath, to deliver a message … glug … and to let you see what hell is like! They have sent me to - '
'Do you mean Shudde-M'ell?' Crow cut in, his voice a trifle stronger.
'Indeed.' The horror nodded. 'At least, by his brothers, his children.'
'What are you?' I found myself asking, hypnotized. 'You're not a … man!'
'I was a man.' The shape in the chair seemed to sob, its lumpy outline moving in the flickering shadows. 'I was Sir Amery Wendy-Smith. Now I am only his mind, his brain. But you must listenl It is only Their power that holds me together - and even They … glug … cannot keep this shape solid much longer!'
'Go on,' Crow said quietly, and I was astonished to discover a strange -compassion? - in his voice.
"This, then, is Their message. I am Their messenger and I bear witness to the truth of what They have to say. It is this: If you leave well enough alone, as of now, They will let you go in peace. They will bother you no more, neither in dreams nor in your waking moments. They will lift all enchantments . . . glug … from your minds. If you persist - then in the end They will take you, and will do with you what They have done with me!'
'And what was that?' I asked in awed tones, still trembling violently, peering at the horror in the chair.
For while the voice of - Wendy-Smith? - had been speaking, I had allowed myself the luxury of simultaneous concentration, taking in all that was said but thinking equally clearly on other matters, and now I found myself straining to see the thing in the chair more clearly.
It looked as though our visitor was clad in a large black overcoat, turned up about his neck, and it looked, too, as if he must have something covering his head - which perhaps accounted for the clotted, distorted quality of his voice - for I had caught not a glimpse of any whiteness to suggest a face there atop the oddly lumpy body. My mind, I discovered, allowed freely to ponder other things, had trembled on the verge of a mental chasm; the mad observations of Abdul Alhazred in his Necronomicon as reported by Joachim Feery: '… Till out of corruption horrid life springs, and the dull scavengers of Earth wax crafty to vex it and swell monstrous to plague it…' I hastily brought my wandering mind back under control.
The thing in the chair - which had allegedly been a man - was answering my question, telling what it was that the Cthonians had done to him, what they would do to Crow and me if we refused to do as they ordered.
'They … glug …' the clotted voice gobbled, 'They destroyed my body -but kept my brain alive! They housed my mind in a living envelope of Their manufacture; a shapeless, immobile mass of filth; but with veins and … glug … capillaries, and a heart of sorts - with all the machinery needed to keep a human mind alive! Don't ask me how They … glug-glug … did it. But They've had practice, over the centuries.'
'Go on,' Crow prompted when the horror that housed Wendy-Smith's mind paused.
'Why did they keep your brain alive?'
'So that They could … glug … milk it, drain off its knowledge bit by bit. I was known as a learned man, gentlemen. I… glug-glug … had knowledge of all sorts of things. Knowledge which They wanted. And my knowledge was immediately to hand. They didn't have to … glug … employ dreams to get what They wanted.'
'Knowledge?' I prompted, steadier now. 'What sort of knowledge? What did they want to know?'
'… Glug … locations. The locations of mines -especially inoperative mines - like those at Harden and Greetham. Drilling operations, like the Yorkshire Moors Project and the North-Sea search for gas and oil. Details of city and town populations … glug … of scientific progress in atomics, and - '
'Atomics?' Crow again cut in. 'Why atomics? And another thing - Harden has only become inoperative since your … transition. And in your day there was no North-Sea search in progress; nor was there a Yorkshire Moors Project. You're lying!'
'No, no … glug … I mention these things because they are the modern counterparts of details They wanted at that time. I have only learned of these later developments through Their minds. They are in constant contact. Even now…'
'And atomics?' Crow repeated, apparently satisfied for the moment with the initial answer.
'I can't answer that. I only … glug … know what They are interested in, not why. Over the years They have drained it all from my mind. All I know, everything. Now I have nothing … glug … that They are interested in … glug … and this is the end. I thank God!' The horror in the chair paused. Its swaying and nodding became wilder in the flickering light.
'Now I must be … going.'
'Going? But where?' I babbled. 'Back to - Them?'
'No … glug, glug, glug … not back to Them. That is all … glug … over. I feel it. And They are angry. I have said too much. A few minutes more and I'll be … glug … free!' The pitiful horror climbed slowly to its feet, sloping somehow to one side, stumbling and barely managing to keep its balance.
VIII - Peaslee of Miskatonic
After the dissolution of Sir Amery Wendy-Smith, Crow and de Marigny gter a visit from friendlier climes: Wingate Peaslee of Miskatonic.
Peaslee is part of a kind of international X-Files project focusing on the Cthonian danger, similar to the Arkham Project in Bloch's 1978 novel Strange Eons.
This chapter contains page after page of back-fill to further the picture of a global campaign against Cthonic creatures.
...."Let me explain," Peaslee offered. "We have men with the big companies; with Seagasso, Lescoil, the NCB, ICI, Norgas, even in governmental circles. Now a few of these men are Americans, trained at Miskatonic and slotted in over here when opportunities presented themselves, but most are of course natives of Great Britain contacted and recruited over the years through the machinery of the Wilmarth Foundation. We have, too, interested parties in certain ministries: such as the Ministry of Land and Development, Agriculture and Fisheries, National Resources, etc.
"The 'Great Britain Operation,' as we call it, has been planned for some years now, but when this opportunity came along—that is, the opportunity to do a bit of incidental, valuable recruiting, as well as to intervene in what might well have turned out to be a very nasty affair—well, it seemed to me that this was the perfect time to put the plan into operation...."
IX - The Night Sea-Maid Went Down
Another folded-in short story. My thoughts from a previous reading of "Sea-Maid" here.
X - The Third Visitor
"....There's something out there, Henri, in the water. Something big! It just now made a rush at the boat—stopped about fifty feet short and sank down again into the water—a Sea-Shoggoth, I think, exactly like those dream-things I told you about."
....Miskatonic and the Wilmarth Foundation, the professor declared, had long suspected a deep-sea citadel north of the British Isles, peopled by such creatures as only the Cthulhu Cycle of myth might spawn. They had good reasons for such suspicions; apparently G'll-ho was given mention in a fair number of the great works of named and anonymous occult authors. ("Occult" is a natural part of my vocabulary; I doubt if I shall ever learn how to leave it out of my life or thoughts, written or spoken.) Abdul Alhazred, in the Necronomicon, had named the place as "Sunken G'lohee, in the Isles of Mist," and he had hinted that its denizens were the spawn of Cthulhu himself! More recently, Gordon Walmsley of Goole had recorded similar allusions in his alleged "spoof" death-notes.
Titus Crow, too, considering his dreams of a vast underwater fortress somewhere off the Vestmann Islands, where Surtsey belched forth in the agony of volcanic birth in 1963, concurred with the possibility of just such a submarine seat of suppurating evil....
XI - Horrors of Earth
....Lorries and smaller vehicles were now moving away from the perimeter of the work area, and running figures, fighting the buffeting wind and squalling rain on foot. Then came horror!
Even as I watched, the lightning began to flash with more purpose, great bolts striking down accurately at the rig and its appurtenances. Running figures burst into electric flame and crumpled while lorries and Land Rovers, careening madly about, roared up in gouting fire and ruin. Girders melted and fell from the now blazing rig, and great patches of the scant vegetation surrounding that structure hissed and steamed before crackling into red and orange death.
'Time's up,' yelled Jordan in my ear; 'the bomb should fire any second now.
That ought to put a stop to the bastard's game!'
Even as the Yorkshireman yelled the voice of the thing that had been Gordon Finch screamed from Peaslee's handset:
'I am STRICKEN! - Na-ngh … ngh … ngh-ya -Great Ubbo-sathla, your child dies - but give me now strength for a final drinking - let me stretch myself this one last time - DEFY the sigils of the Elder Gods - na-argh … ngh . . . ngh! - Arghhh-k-k-k! - Hyuh, yuh, h-yuh-yuh!'
As these monstrous, utterly abhuman exhortations and syllables crackled in hideously distorted cacophony from the walkie-talkie, so I witnessed the final abomination.
Dimly I was aware of Peaslee's incoherent cry as the very ground beneath us jounced and slipped; in the corner of my consciousness I knew that Jordan had attempted to get to his feet, only to be thrown down again by the dancing ground - but mainly my eyes and mind were riveted on the nightmare scene afforded me by Crow's accursed binoculars, those glasses that my nerveless fingers could not put down!
For down in the valley depression great rifts had appeared in the earth - and from these seismic chasms terrible tendrils of grey, living matter spewed forth in awful animation!
Flailing spastically - like great, mortally wounded snakes across the battered, blistered terrain - the tendrils moved, and soon some of them encountered the fleeing men! Great crimson maws opened in grey tendril ends, and-
Finally I managed to hurl the binoculars away. I closed my eyes and pressed my face down into the wet grass and sand. In that same instant there came a tremendous crack of lightning, the incredible flickering brightness of which I could sense even with my eyes closed and covered, and immediately there followed such an explosion and a rushing, reeking stench as to make my very senses temporarily depart…
XII - Familiarity Breeds
More bad news for the lads.
'....Titus!' I gasped out loud. 'Titus, where the hell are you going? We're not on the route we intended to take. We ought to have turned across country miles back, following the A-Sixty-Nine to the Northeast coast as we planned!' I gazed fearfully out of my window at the steep declivity falling away, and on the other side of the car, the now almost vertical wall of rock reaching up into misty heights.
Crow had jumped nervously as I commenced my outburst, and now he applied the brakes and brought the car to a halt. He shook his head, dazedly rubbing at his eyes. 'Of course we should have followed the A-Sixty-Nine,' he eventually agreed, frowning in concern. Then: 'What on earth … ?' His eyes lit feverishly, strange understanding, horrible recognition showing in them.
'De Marigny - I think I understand why the Foundation has recently been plagued with an inordinately high percentage of freak "accidents", suicides, and deaths. I think I understand, and I think that we're the next on the list!'
No sooner had he spoken when, with a suddenness that caused the hair of my head to stand up straight and the shorter hairs of my neck to bristle and prickle, the ground beneath our stationary vehicle trembled; the rumble was audible even over the noise of the idling engine!
The next instant, I admit it, I screamed aloud; but Crow was already in action, releasing the handbrake, revving the engine, throwing the car into reverse gear. Nor were his instantaneous reactions any too soon. Even as the car lurched backwards on spinning wheels a great boulder, followed by smaller rocks, pebbles, and tons of earth, smashed down from above on to the road where the Mercedes had been but a moment earlier. At the same time, too, we heard (with our minds if not actually with our ears) the morbid, alien dronings of an all too recognizable chant: Ce'haiie ep-ngh fl'hur G'harne fhtagn, Ce'haiie fhtagn ngh Shudde-M'ell.
'Nowhere to turn,' Crow gasped, still reversing, 'but if I can back her up far enough -'
Shattering his hopes and the unspoken prayers of both of us, the mist, as if answering some hellish call (which I can readily believe it was), fell in opaque and undulating density all about us.
XIII - The Very Worm That Gnaws
6th Dec. Cthulhu strikes back! Angered beyond endurance (Peaslee has it), Cthulhu has finally lashed out, proving once and for all his definite continued existence and potency here and now on Earth. How the Foundation and its many worldwide departments have managed to cover it all up—what chains they've put on the free world's presses—I don't suppose I shall ever learn.
Alerted by powerful, telepathic currents emanating from somewhere in the Pacific, five Foundation telepaths—receptive where others mercifully are not, it appears—tuned in on the fringe of the most terrifying mental wave band of all. Great Cthulhu, dreaming but not dead, has for the past six days been sending out the most hellish mental nightmares from his House in R'lyeh. He has turned his wrath on all and everything. The weather, even for this time of the year, has never been quite so freakish, the sudden virulent outbreaks of esoteric cult activities never more horrible, the troubles in the insane asylums the world over never more numerous, and the suicide rate never so high. Sunspot activity has for the last two days been so bad that radio and television reception is worse than useless; meteorologists and other scientists in general have no answer for it. Last night top vulcanists in four different countries issued warnings that at least seven volcanoes, four of them thought to have been long extinct and most of them many thousands of miles apart, are on the point of simultaneous eruption—"Krakatoa will have been as a firecracker," they warn. I admit to being terrified....
XIV - Winds of Darkness
....My hopes for the two comrades are further bolstered by the fact that, despite the incredible extent of the damage to Blowne House, the bodies of the two were nowhere to be found in the ruins—which to me is hardly surprising. It only remains for me to say that during that "freak storm" Crow's ancient clock seems likewise to have vanished; for no single trace of that—conveyance?—could be found, neither a splinter nor even the tiniest fragment; and I think I know what Crow meant when he wrote: " … this is our way out, but God-only-knows where it may lead … ."
4th March 19—
16 June 2020