The Past is Preamble
I am Justin Geoffrey Cole, and I am a madman born of a line of madmen.
My father was mad, and his father before him. Perhaps you have heard of my grandfather, the mad poet Justin Geoffrey, who died screaming in an asylum in 1926?
The learned, the well-informed, the so-called experts will tell you that Justin Geoffrey died childless: “without issue”, in the parlance of his time. But I know differently, for am I not blood of his blood, heir to his legacy of genius and madness?
In the summer of 1925, Justin Geoffrey returned from an ill-considered and fateful quest into the isolated mountains of Eastern Europe. That quest ended abruptly in the quaint little Hungarian hamlet of Stregoicavar, a name which translates loosely as “Witch-Town”. While there, or more accurately in a nearby mountain valley, he witnessed something which stretched his already fragile poet’s sanity to the breaking point, and haunted him with nightmares, waking and sleeping, until his death.
Upon his return, he eschewed the tender mercies of modern psychiatry, and instead sought relief from the traditional rural healers of north central Massachusetts, what the denizens of the lower Appalachians of Virginia and West Virginia call “conjure folk”, wise men and a women whose degrees came not from Harvard or Miskatonic, but from institutions somewhat less perceptible than the hoary halls of traditional education, whose traditions and lineages stretched back through Arkham, and Salem before it, across the cold bosom of the pitiless Atlantic to the depths of primeval forests and fathomless caverns that to this day remain, unsuspected and unseen, in the bustling urbanity of the Old World.
Some question why he did not seek out those very forests and caverns when he yet bided across the remorseless waves, but I think I can guess. He had some sense of where he might make contact in the New World, but could not scent the trail in the Old. It was, perhaps, a poorly thought out decision, but then his mind was already beginning to crumble under the stress of the curse that had been laid upon him by the hideous rite he witnessed at the foot of the infamous Black Stone on the Eve of Midsummer. Then again, perhaps it showed more calculation and logic than one might first credit: he might have wasted what little time he had left trying to find what he sought on the Continent or the British Isle, whereas he had at least some idea where to commence his search Stateside: the witch-stalked and legend-haunted valley of the Miskatonic River.
Whatever the case, in the autumn of that year, he returned to the States and found his way to a dreary village on the banks of the upper Miskatonic, just in time to experience the eldritch calamity that would later be known as the Dunwich Horror.
It was recorded, in the private correspondence of the late Henry Armitage, that a sort of psychic shockwave propagated down from the top of Sentinel Hill when Wilbur Whateley’s unnamed – and, it is reputed, unseen – twin died at the hands of Armitage and his fellows. Although I have no proof, I believe that it was this phenomenon, this blast of alien, inhuman mental pressure, that finally snapped Geoffrey’s already weakened mind. He had no direct contact with the Horror, so far as I can tell, but his proximity to its death-throes was enough to doom him, even as the same emanation laid physical and psychic waste to the countryside for miles around.
At the time, Geoffrey was lodging with a branch of the “un-decayed” Whateleys, and had apparently attracted the admiration of one of their daughters, as poets of a certain fragile and doom-haunted cast often will. Whether he lay with her before or after his final departure from sanity I cannot be certain, but from what I can tell, it would have made little difference to his paramour. Ambivalent mental health was part and parcel of life along the upper reaches of the Miskatonic in those days, even among what few relatively healthy bloodlines still existed.
I prefer to believe that the critical liaison, the one that ultimately produced my father, happened after the frightful, tumultuous conclusion of the Horror. I like to think that my grandfather was just that much more insane when he passed on his genetic heritage.
Not long after the passing of the Horror, and my grandfather’s final, decisive break with reason, his ravings became too much for even the numbed and jaded sensibilities of the Whateleys. Once again, the aid and counsel of Professor Armitage were sought, and after a thorough examination and a sadly forgone diagnosis, Geoffrey was removed by members of the psychiatric faculty of Miskatonic University to the shrieking halls of the Arkham Sanitarium.
Less than a year later, on May Eve – Walpurgisnacht – 1926, Geoffrey died raving in his cell.
Within the hour, miles to the northwest, my father was born into this world, not in a hospital or farmhouse, but within a windswept circle of stones on a brooding, rounded hilltop not far from Dunwich. The Whateleys of Wilbur’s line, you see, were not the only branch of the family that kept alive certain old traditions and practices. While they had no desire to see the world conquered and destroyed by alien god-entities from beyond the walls of space and time, my grandmother’s family nonetheless insisted that certain…formalities be observed, upon the birth of a new generation.
As one might expect after that bit of ominous foreshadowing, my father’s childhood was far from usual. At the same time, it lacked the maniacal, driving fanaticism that characterized the short, abhorrent life of his none-too-distant cousin, Wilbur. His rather extended family of origin had no overarching agenda, sought no nefarious goals and, in so far as possible, desired only to live and prosper in peace among their more commonplace neighbors.
To be sure, he was exposed to a somewhat more diverse catalog of classics than other boys his age, and the authors that illuminated – and sometimes shadowed – his youth included Alhazred, von Juntz and Prinn in addition to Haggard, Burroughs and Verne. Until the age of ten, he was home-schooled, according to the custom of the time and locality, in the basics of “reading, writing and ‘rithmetic”, but his quotidian education was supplemented by esoterica and arcana that were not to be found in the average rural schoolhouse.
On the whole, he was encouraged to focus on the more commonplace aspects of his education. Notwithstanding the popularity of spiritualism and occultism at the time, and despite the inclinations of the older, more hidebound members, the consensus among the younger generations of the family was that the rational, scientific, humanistic tide was rising, and would eclipse the fanciful world of magic and mysticism within the decade. The family legacy of dark scholarship, knowledge and practices was viewed as the quaint remnant of a less enlightened era, fit for preservation only as a curiosity, the way other families preserved their links to more well-known historical figures and events. Such things had no more place or utility in the hard days of the Great Depression than did the family coat of arms. Materialist science, education and commerce would shape the world of the future, not chants, rituals and unseen, airy presences. Young Geoffrey ought, they argued most convincingly, to be as ably prepared to face the coming years of scientific and economic advancement as possible. Let him learn about the “Old Ways”, certainly, but let the focus be upon a firm foundation of modern education.
Even the rather dramatic circumstances of his birth were later viewed with considerable embarrassment by his relatives, who claimed in the decades following the event that they had permitted and participated in the ceremony only to satisfy the wish of the family patriarch, his maternal grandfather, who was terminally ill at the time. I can only speculate on the impact that hoary old fellow might have had upon the upbringing and education of my father, for he died of his disease when the latter was yet a lad of five or six, and my father’s memories of the aged man, such as they were, were hazy and fragmentary.
Even so, the pump, as they say, was primed, and my father’s initial exposure to the dark and dreaded texts of the world would later bear maddening fruit, enticing him into the deeper shadows of true occult, forbidden lore and praxis.
Still, as I have intimated, my father was not pressed into the service of unseen forces, nor did he develop the single-minded, obsessive scholarship of the young Wilbur. His surviving journals from the time, sporadic and elementary as they are, indicate that he viewed the writings of Alhazred and the others much as he did the works of Haggard and the rest – tall tales that might have been true, but probably weren’t. This despite the insistence of some senior aunts and uncles that the older tomes should be considered textbooks, and were not meant as entertainment for a precocious young boy.
In all other aspects, his early years were characterized by the same mix of work, eduction and play that one might expect of any ordinary lad in that time and place. In later, darker times, he would reflect upon those years with fondness and longing for that simpler, safer life in the Miskatonic Valley.
But those reminiscences were yet decades in the future. Although uncomplicated and relatively secure, the years of the Great Depression were hard and grinding ones, and when war erupted in Europe, and quickly spread to engulf the entire globe, the fire of wanderlust was kindled in my father’s breast. Along with many another lad of his generation, he attempted to enlist at the age of 15, but was turned away. He tried again the next year, and might well have been accepted, but was intercepted by watchful relatives. Twice thwarted and embarrassed, he resigned himself to wait until his majority, whereupon the decision became his alone.
Unfortunately for his naive, boyish dreams of laud and honor on the battlefield, he was singled out early in his military career due to his native intelligence and his generally thorough and well-rounded, though patently home-grown, education. He found himself assigned to “G-2”, military intelligence, and was deployed in the wake of Allied forces marching north from Normandy toward the German heartland. Despite his initial disappointment, he became fascinated with the work in short order, particularly when it involved identifying and hunting down Nazi agents and sympathizers, and liberating artifacts and treasures pirated by the Fascists. Deprived of open combat in the fields and hedgerows, he found more than enough danger in the alleyways and backrooms of liberated Europe. His duties and investigations took him as far afield as Poland, Yugoslavia and, finally, even Hungary.
It was there that he first learned that the story of his father’s final years, of the discovery and experience that precipitated his slide into madness, was not just the stuff of family legend. On impulse it seems, my father fabricated an excuse, involving the pursuit of a wanted Nazi collaborator, to visit the precincts of Stregoicavar, and the ancient, eon-shrouded monolith of the Black Stone. Until that time, my father had been a solid, obedient, perhaps even slightly hidebound cog in the military intelligence machine, and this departure from his normal workaday behavior is itself indicative of how profoundly he was affected by finding himself within striking distance of that unhallowed place.
Accepting as they were of both madness and the occult, my father’s family never tried to shield him from the truth of his father’s life and eventual downfall. He knew every detail ever recorded about his father, his works, his travels and his final mental illness, and like many another son, we found a terrible, irresistible compulsion rising within him to confront the Beast that had laid his father low, to face and defeat that dark and sinister specter, to challenge and best the mind-breaking, soul-devouring monster that dwelt in that unholy place, to unmask the Thing That Lurked Yonder.
He arrived in Stregoicavar in late March of 1945, following the last decisive battle over the Hungarian oilfields, and he could not maintain his fictional pursuit longer than a few days without risking the suspicion of his superiors and perhaps censure or disciplinary action. This was, I believe, fortuitous, for had the timing been somewhat later, he might have found himself, as had his father, gazing upon the Black Stone as the sun set on Midsummer Eve. But he did not escape entirely unscathed, for he spent the night in the presence of that unholy monolith on the vernal equinox, another night when certain venerable traditions hold that the veils between worlds grow thin and…permeable.
Of the phantasmagorical spectacle that so horrified and deranged his father, he saw nothing. In fact, he experienced nothing objective whatsoever, at least nothing that he consciously remembered. Like the relative of a certain innkeeper in pre-war Stregoicavar, however, he afterwards found his dreams growing increasingly shocking and disturbing, so that upon his return to his headquarters, he was the bane of many a roommate in the BOQ. But violent nightmares are not uncommon in the train of total war, so this new downturn in temperament was largely ignored, and after a time, the screaming stopped.
But he continued to wake, intermittently, in the cold-sweat, voiceless, paralytic grip of reasonless, soul-wrenching fear for the remainder of his life.