Authors: Basil Copper
First published in Great Britain by Robert Hale Ltd 1974
Copyright ©Basil Copper 1974
Published by Sphere Books Ltd 1980
For Howard Phillips Lovecraft and August Derleth
Openers of the Way
There are those — and they have been many - who were inclined to dismiss my theories as the ramblings of a man in fever. Certainly, the circumstances surrounding the Great Northern Expedition were such as to drive a sensitive person into mindless idiocy. The shifting lights in the sky which preceded the Coming in the spring of 1932 passed generally unnoticed by the world’s press, but the disappearance of so distinguished a field worker as Professor Clark Ashton Scarsdale into the blank void of those vast, unknowable spaces, could hardly fail to arouse comment.
And I, the solitary survivor of the penetration made by the small group of five, have seen enough, God knows, to make the strongest man unhinged. And so I must live on, my story unbelieved, and scorned, until such time as the truth emerges. The world may indeed fear if that period should ever come.
Meanwhile I continue the only man on earth who knows why and how poor Scarsdale went into the Great White Space, never to be seen again by mortal men. But what gibbering, formless things he may now dwell with apart from the world — it is this and other knowledge, long pent within my overheated brain, which makes me start at shadows; or awake fearfully at the night wind’s insidious tapping at my bedroom blinds.
It is the wind itself which makes me abhor the winter in these latitudes; keening from off the world’s dreariest places it seems to freeze the very heart. Robson, my old friend, and the one most inclined to place some small faith in my theories, has truly described me as ‘a man without a shadow’. He meant only that my emaciated form and spectral aspect were hardly substantial enough to imprint their own image on the ground; to me the phrase suggests awful things and in particular that dreadful day in which the Great White Space first came within the knowledge of living men.
In setting down these sketchy notes before the events which they describe have irrevocably burned themselves into insanity within my mind, I do not expect to be believed. At best they will confirm the prejudiced in their bigotry; at worst, if discovered untimely, they will undoubtedly lead to my speedy committal to some secluded asylum where I shall assuredly end my days. That these are numbered I have no doubt; yet even the relief of oblivion is denied me for may I not, beyond the wall of the thin veil that men call life, meet those Others who gyrate and ponderously undulate far out in the utmost reaches of space?
And to be brought face to face with the thing that once was Scarsdale, is a fear too frightful to be contemplated; an eternity in such company and the terror of other beings which are such blasphemies that even I dare not hint at, makes me cling to such poor life as I have. I can still sleep occasionally without dreaming, thank God; this at least is something. And the notes, if they serve the small purpose of warning one sensitive person of the dangers overshadowing the earth, may yet spell great goodness for mankind.
But where to begin? This is indeed the first of my problems, lest my sanity be mocked at the outset. I was born then, Frederick Seddon Plowright; such life as I enjoyed until attaining my majority is no concern of this narrative, still less of interest to the general reader. After graduation I studied various outre subjects on the fringe of my scientific knowledge and eventually drifted into photography. I became an excellent portrayer of scientific and geographic subjects and accompanied a number of important expeditions earlier in the century, notably von Hagenbeck’s penetration of the Quartz Mountains of Outer Mongolia; and of Francis Luttrell’s major earth-boring investigations in the Nevada Desert of 1929, an adventure which almost cost me my life.
My films, depicting as they did, fantastic and extraordinary landscapes and animals at the ends of the earth attracted much attention not only in scientific and geographic journals but in the popular press so that I began to find my services in greater demand. I was living comfortably and as I had the sagacity to secure all the copyrights to my negatives I found in my mid-thirties that I had more than enough money for my needs. So I began to choose my assignments with more care, selecting only those which promised adventurous and even bizarre circumstances in their commission. It was in 1931 that I first heard the name of Clark Ashton Scarsdale.
It was, I believe, in connection with the great sledge journey made in the Antarctic by the late Crosby Patterson; the cruel and tragic fate of Patterson and his five companions is too well-known to bear repetition, but Scarsdale had been consulted on certain aspects of their end. His opinions were widely reported in the press and I remember vividly one photograph, which depicted a strong, bearded figure, examining some of the curious rock inscriptions which had been found at the spot where the six Polar explorers had met death in a most terrible form.
A year or two after this I was myself commissioned to photograph the inscriptions by the Board of Trustees of the Chicago Museum which had originally financed Patterson’s great journey; this was a fascinating task and took me upwards of three weeks, though the inscriptions and their background are not relevant to this narrative. I later applied to and was given permission by the Trustees to publish a number of the photographs in Geographica, a learned magazine in which the increasing bulk of my work was to appear.
This material itself was the cause of further publicity and it was some two months following the publication of the Geographica pictures that I received the first of several enigmatic letters from Professor Scarsdale. But the preliminary contact with a being who was to have such a profound effect
upon my life, was prosaic in the extreme. He merely offered congratulations on the technicalities involved in securing such original photographs and commented that they had been extremely helpful to him in his investigations.
He did not at that time suggest a meeting and I should no doubt have soon forgotten this fleeting correspondence had I not, in replying to him, sent him a complete set of prints I had taken for the Museum. These, of course, were greater in number than those which had appeared in the public press and the detail into which I had gone in the matter of enlarging certain portions of the diagrams and hieroglyphs caused the Professor considerable excitement. I shortly received a letter couched in extremely cordial terms and suggesting a meeting at some time and place mutually convenient.
I was living in London at the time and the Professor’s letter was written from an address in Surrey so there was no great difficulty in arranging to meet; my first view of Scarsdale in the flesh was in the incongruous surroundings of a small tearoom not far from the British Museum. We had arranged to meet beneath the portico but in the event of either of us being delayed had suggested the alternative; in the event the Professor had missed his train and came on to the restaurant where I had already ordered tea.
It was one of those dim places, all pewter, brass and oak settles and as the Professor slumped into place opposite me, his back to the light, it took me some minutes to form an exact impression of his features. He was an enormous man, more than six feet three inches tall, I should have said, and proportionately broad. His hair was quite white but despite this I should not have put his age at more than about forty-five and he showed great vigour and determination in his movements and general aspect.
He had a small clipped Van Dyke beard, very clear blue eyes that seemed to look right through a man and his neat blue bow tie above his well-tailored grey suit re-echoed the eyes. Despite his height and bulk his figure was trim and athletic and I sensed that here was a man not only a scholar and deeply read in strange, out of the way subjects, but one well able to take care of himself in a tight corner. I felt somehow in my heart, even before he sat down, depositing a brown shooting-hat with game-birds feathers in the brim on the settle beside him, that I had already committed myself to his affairs, before he even broached the subject of our meeting.
We were on our third cup of tea and the last of the toasted scones before we engaged in general conversation. He had been sizing me up between the comings and goings of the waitress and I sensed also that I had met with his approval. He was an American, of course, but one of that type who seemed to belong to no special country or time; he lived nomadically, wherever he happened to have affairs that interested him. He was immensely wealthy and thus able to indulge his tastes and as he was unmarried and likely to remain so through choice, it did not matter where he made his abode.
As he spoke now his accent seemed to re-echo faintly the European rather than the American and then I remembered that despite his name - it had been Anglicised in his father’s time - he came of old Central European stock. He touched at first on the general technicalities of the work I had been doing and I was astonished how much he knew about me and my career. He had even seen TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH, the motion picture I had shot on the Luttrell Earth-Bores, and I gathered he had a print run for him at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York. It is pleasant to be praised, particularly by so eminent a man in his field as Clark Ashton Scarsdale. Not that he was effusive; but his few clipped words of approbation amounted to the same thing in a person of his reticent character.
I said little; it was not my place to enlarge on my talents, small as they were, but I must confess his words warmed me; I wanted to draw him out as I felt sure there must be more to come.
He waited until we had finished the last of the pastries - I am particularly fond of those which have liberal quantities of Cornish clotted cream in their make-up — and then gave me a tight smile, which showed strong, even yellow teeth beneath the light beard.
‘You must have thought this an incongruous place for a meeting,’ he ventured at length.
‘On the contrary, this is just what I should have done in your place,’ I said.
‘Oh.’ He folded his arms on the edge of the table and looked at me keenly.
‘Neutral ground,’ I said.‘If I hadn’t fitted your requirements, you would merely have concluded the interview in a non-committal way and I should never have heard from you again.’
I fancied I saw a faint flush start out on his cheeks but he merely observed coolly, ‘You have an admirable grasp of the situation, Mr Plowright. You are the man for me. I had already come to that conclusion and I propose to offer you the adventure of a lifetime.’
My face must have looked as startled as the thoughts that were already chasing themselves through my mind, for he burst out laughing, causing a serious dent in the facade of the two old ladies at the next table. From the look on their faces they suspected an anarchist plot at the least.
‘We cannot talk here,’ said the Professor, laying his hand on my arm. ‘I have some business at the Museum and then I will be in a position to put a proposition before you. One I think which will present some points of interest to a man of your character. I would suggest another meeting this day week at my home in Surrey, if the time and place suit you. You could then meet some of my colleagues and be able to make up your mind.’
He scribbled some details on a card he took from an inside pocket; he slid it over and I glanced at the address. I had already made up my mind to go but put on a show of hesitation, though I don’t really think it deceived him for a moment.
‘An expedition,’ he said hesitantly, a half-smile at the corner of his mouth. ‘You will come?’
‘I’ll be there,’ I said at length.
He drew his breath in with a long gasp as though my going was important to him.
His hand crushed mine in a gesture of farewell and then he was gone, his enormous form stooping to dodge the irregularities in the beamed ceiling of the tea-shop.
I went home to sort out some of my photographic equipment and then sat up late smoking and pondering the nature of the Professor’s next venture. It was nearly two a.m. before I gave it up and sought my bed. I would not have slept very soundly had I known exactly what the next few months were to bring.