Patrick Shaffer, “The Black Spire”

The Black Spire

by Patrick Shaffer

To: Dr. L. Scavuzzo

February –-, 19—

Dear Mentor,

Photo by Gerry Gomez_For The Black Spire by Patrick Shaffer (1)

© Gerry Gomez

I hope this letter finds you well. Word of my alleged condition has no doubt reached your ear; gossip is the defining characteristic of the academic community, after all. I write to you to prove such notions of mental illness, but I fear my efforts may be insufficient. I have written many drafts of the following tale, and each of them has only served to condemn me further. If you read this letter and find me to be insane, then I shall accept it as fact and rest easy knowing that the horrors I have faced were a product of my own sickness, and not the sickness of an unknowable reality.

The madness began after I received word of my distant uncle’s death. I was studying at Miskatonic University in Arkham at the time, but as there were no other close relations to care for his estate, I was forced to travel to the swamps of Louisiana to sell off his property and collect my inheritance. His property lay in W—— Parish, far removed from civilization and nearly inaccessible by motorcar. I chose to travel by train and horse by recommendation of my uncle’s lawyer, and made the appropriate arrangements to take the rail to the station nearest to my late uncle’s residence. Though I had a technical knowledge of equestrian pursuits, Arkham had not prepared me for the strenuous journey that lay before me. After half a day of exhausting riding, I found myself in front of the strange home. I stabled my horse, almost tripping over an errant axe that had been buried beneath the molding hay. I stood it next to a small drum of kerosene and made my way to the mansion.

My uncle had affection for the architecture of the Victorians, but the decorative sense of a world traveler. The mansion showed little regard for the climate it was built in, with heavily curtained rooms that rippled with heat in the humid Louisiana summer. Desperate for relief from the intense heat, I drenched myself in water and found the first room I entered dim and comparably cool, so I collapsed and rested. When I awoke, night had fallen and the room was bathed in darkness. I heard a scratching noise, which I assumed to be rats. I lit a match from my pocket, then a candelabrum to be sure that the room was well illuminated. I found that this room was full of artifacts from the African and South American continents, masks and horns of great beasts that my uncle had encountered in his travels.

I left the room, carrying the candles with me as I searched for the study. I spent much of that night studying my uncle’s documents of his estate. I sat at his desk until the candles burned low, reading through document after document as I pondered how I should liquidate his property so I could return to my studies. Initially, I had no intention of staying; my life was in Arkham. The nights I spent in the mansion were plagued by heat and melancholic stress. Although I slept in a guest bed, I could almost feel my uncle’s spirit inhabiting the walls of the mansion. I had recurring dreams that they pulsed as I slept. I slept very little.

Over the next few months, I met with my uncle’s lawyer several times and he frequently voiced concerns that he would not be able to sell the property due to its intense seclusion and the speed at which I wished to sell. Although I expected to grow more and more furious, my uncle had kept a diverse and obscure library. I soon found myself making arrangements to stay however long was necessary to sell my uncle’s collection of artifacts and the property; the well-organized library would become my own and the substantial profit of selling the antiques would help me buy a mansion to house my new bounty in Massachusetts. I became grateful to the mansion and its strange contents, despite my continuing aversion to sleep.

I set about cataloguing, describing, and pricing the artifacts using the books in my library, boxing them and sending them off in weekly shipments on a truck so large that it seemed impossible that it could even travel the thin dirt roads to the mansion. After the first two trips, the shipping company decided that they would be carried to the warehouse in several smaller trucks. Despite the considerable efficiency and numbers of movers, they could scarcely match the pace of my research. Within months, the vast majority of the collection had been taken to market and purchased by museums and antiquarians. There were so few pieces left that I felt it was reasonable to crate much of my new library.

I was having trouble with a particular piece, a large spire-shaped pyramid that inhabited the main room’s mantle. After exhausting the section devoted to antiquities, I moved on to another piece and thought little of it. If I failed to place it, I could merely sell it as a souvenir of questionable origins at a severely discounted price. I was not, and am not, greedy. It was only by random happenstance that I identified it and found it unsellable. 

After weeks of the near-endless archeological endeavor, I found myself exhausted yet unable to sleep. My uncle’s lawyer, after learning of my condition, had acquired for me anesthetic of questionable legality, which he guaranteed would bring me deep, restful, dreamless sleep. It did not. I waited a few days before using it, taking it one particularly fruitless afternoon. Shortly after achieving sleep, I awoke without control of my body. It rose despite my efforts to stay reclined. I found myself to be a prisoner as my body moved without my consent. My attempts to cry out were ignored. My body escorted me to my late uncle’s bedchamber, which I had avoided. I was allowed to control my body once more; I collapsed suddenly and struck my head on his bedside table.

As I lay on the floor and attempted to recover, my hands found a small leather-bound volume hidden under the large bed. As soon as I wrapped my hands around it, I fell unconscious once more. This sleep was restful and dreamless and long. I awoke a two full days later, malnourished and in the position I had fallen into. After recovering from the state of futile terror, I ate and hydrated myself until I felt I had recovered enough to read the small book I had found. It was my uncle’s diary, a record of the last years of his life. I shall summarize as best I can.

I knew that my uncle had always been a world traveler, spending years of his life on expeditions and safari. The diary began with an account of his travel to a small village somewhere in Northeast Africa (he promises geographical coordinates, but there is no trace of them in the volume). He was traveling with an English woman, but he gives little information regarding her identity. He mentions that she shared his love of exotic cultures, and that the two of them had planned to settle once they found a suitably hospitable tribe in Africa. They found such a tribe, and lived there for some months, possibly a year. She became pregnant. Although he initially seemed to trust the locals, they began to behave strangely near her. My uncle became suspicious and confronted the eldest member of the tribe. He is vague concerning the details of their conversation, but apparently the tribesmen were fearful that she would incur the wrath of a local god of some sort. The man invited my uncle to join in a ritual to appease the tribe’s god and he eagerly accepted.

My uncle left the village three days to fast in a nearby cavern. By the time he had returned, his spouse had fallen ill. She suffered from fever, fatigue, and intense swelling. In his diary, he briefly questions the causal relationship between the ritual and her sickness, but by the next entry, she had died. This loss affected him deeply; he immediately prepared to leave the village and return to Louisiana. Upon his return to the mansion, his entries become bizarre and begin to ramble incoherently. His handwriting quickly becomes illegible until the final page. He explains his planned method of suicide: hanging himself in the main room of the house in full view of a tall red pyramid, which contains the cremated remains of his wife and unborn child. This was consistent with the account his lawyer had given me, though my uncle’s claims that the pyramid was red were irreconcilable. I assigned the blame to his deteriorating mental state or mere metaphor.

I was initially uncertain of what to make of this information. I reasoned that it was a harmless if macabre treasure, and that it deserved to be studied as much as the other pieces of the collection; I decided to loan it to Miskatonic’s Anthropology Department to ascertain the tribe and their origins. I found that my thoughts returned to it constantly. One day, when my duty as curator was near completion, I touched the burial urn. It stung me, as if its smooth surface disguised retractable claws. Cuts appeared on my palm, significant enough to draw blood but not dangerous. I made my way to the kitchen and bandaged myself.

I warn you now, dear Mentor. We have reached the part of my tale that has spurred the rumors of my insanity.

When I returned to the main room of the mansion, I was struck with a bout of light-headedness. I stumbled to the mantle and tried to support myself, but found it impossible. I often wonder if it is fortunate that I did not feel it necessary to ignite the fireplace on that night. If I had, I surely would have burned to death. As I lay on my back, unconscious, I had the then-familiar nightmare of the pulsating walls. When I awoke, my nightmare continued and grew more violent. The walls, stripped of their valuable coverings, rippled and convulsed. I fled the room, but I could not escape.

The geometry of the mansion became strange. I found myself walking in circles, re-entering the main room time and time again from rooms that had never connected to it. As I passed, the walls slanted. Many unfamiliar constricting hallways, each of them growing tighter and tighter as I passed through them, led to different rooms of the house. I was soon standing in my uncle’s bedroom once more, staring at the two opposite walls of the hallway stretching across the doorway. I looked out of the first story window. Desperate, I jumped through the glass and landed on the lawn.

From outside, the house looked absolutely normal, bathed in bright moonlight. As I circled around to the front, the large door that normally opened into the den swung open to reveal the main room, the mantle moved impossibly close to the door. It crossed my mind that I should run, but I was suddenly restrained. I lost control of my body once more, trapped as my legs dragged me closer to the mantle and my arms reached for the pyramid, which now glowed a bloodthirsty red. As I wrapped my left hand around it, my palm was scorched. The skin on my arm was shredded to pieces, cauterized as it was flayed. The pain disrupted my stupor; I recoiled. Numb from pain and adrenaline, I absurdly resolved to take revenge.

I left the room, sprinting to the stable. Though my left arm ought to have crippled me with pain, I was filled with single-minded rage and hate. I grabbed the axe from its resting place by the door and marched back to the house with it in one hand; my left arm hung limply at my side. The mansion had grown black roots that overturned the soil at its foundation. I walked through the front entrance once more and found that it now opened into the back of the house. I made my way through the twisting labyrinth of the house until I found the main room. I raised the axe to swing at the pyramid but the room was filled with a wail as loud as a siren. I felt as if my brain were being liquefied. I collapsed, unconscious once more.

Everything had returned to normalcy by the time I had woken up, axe in hand and arm covered in burns. I would not be fooled, however. I attacked the walls to challenge their solidity, and as I removed the first plank I saw that the innermost structure of the house was covered in blinking eyes, green pupils surrounded by black irises. Furious, I looked to the pyramid, which had grown to be twice its original size. Its faces shimmered with eyes, retracting and sprouting obsidian barbs as if it were challenging me. I rose to its challenge though, dear Mentor, I rose to it well. I still had enough hate to feel courage then, and I swung hard against it. The eyes of the black pyramid skittered away from my axe, but I cracked its side. I feel like I swung that axe a hundred times, but I suppose I merely lost count.

I used the head of the axe to pull it to the ground, and its contents spilled out of its opened side. I do not have the facilities to accurately recount its form; it was not glass or stone or ash, but flesh. Bones moved beneath its skin, and it made cries from unseen mouths. As it writhed on the floor, I was overcome with revulsion and disgusted pity. I dropped the axe and went to the stable to retrieve the drum of kerosene. As I returned with the fuel, the lawyer and several strong men arrived in a truck to collect the contents of my library. I did not see them, preoccupied as I was. I entered the house and began to spread the kerosene, though the creature was nowhere to be seen. The men I had hired tried to interrupt my work, but I fought them so that I may light the fuel.

Unfortunately, they overpowered me. The thugs tackled me, slamming me against the ground near the smashed pyramid. My burned arm was injured further when the shards of glass-like stone were embedded in my arm. I was restrained and tied; they drove me to the nearest university hospital and insured that my burns were treated and that I would be held in my “delirious state” until I recovered. They neglected to inform the doctors of my spreading the kerosene. For this I was grateful, but it did little to protect me from my own condemnation.

When I awoke, I told the doctors what I had experienced at the mansion. Apparently, Louisianans have little patience for such tales, and I soon decided to disavow my statements for fear of being sent to the asylum. (They are quite hateful towards information that conflicts with their worldview; some study at Miskatonic would do them much good.) I sat in my hospital bed for several weeks, tight-lipped as I waited for the wounds on my destroyed left arm to close. I will never regain use of it, they said. The muscles were still living but their connections had apparently been destroyed.

When my hospital stay had ended and I was collecting my personal affects, I inquired as to the whereabouts of the fragments of that accursed pyramid; they denied having recovered them. In a fury, I called my uncle’s lawyer to pursue legal action, but he corroborated them. Although he admitted to witnessing my fall upon them, he claimed that none had been extracted from my arm. As I ended the call, I quelled the anger at my useless arm that had been growing.

When I returned to the mansion, I found that the lawyer had arranged to have the carpeting in the main room replaced, the hole I had cut into the wall repaired, and my belongings removed. He jokingly chided me for abusing the drugs he had given me, under the assumption that all I had experienced was a product of my overuse of them. He also informed me that he had found a buyer for the property, and had therefore taken the initiative to prepare it for the next tenants. I would be allowed in the house for the remainder of the day to make sure he hadn’t forgotten any of my things, and then I would have no other business with my uncle’s estate. He followed me through the silent rooms and halls, suspicious of me. He had been quite thorough in packing my things. I examined the entire house and questioned him, but he had no traces of strangeness; I was afraid to interrogate him directly for fear of the asylum.

Finally, I stood in the main room and hesitated before the mantle. To leave then would be to leave work unfinished. The creature that had resided in the pyramid was on the property, and only I knew of it. I inspected the spot where it had sat, and a thought struck me. I asked the lawyer if he had found anything strange when he had collected the pieces of the pyramid. I am still unable to forget the look in his eyes when he delivered his reply, “Well, its contents were quite strange. It was filled with rats, each of them cut to ribbons. But I assumed you would not want to discuss your…shall we call them ‘recreational activities’? So I decided not to speak of it.” In a state of offended shock, I held my tongue and left the premises.

I know now that I should have razed the entire property seeking the beast’s destruction. The situation is beyond that now. I returned to Arkham less than three weeks ago. My sleep has been nearly non-existent. When I foolishly allow myself to rest my eyes, I am subject to terrible nightmares of the eyes opening on the walls. I have searched endlessly to find the origin of the damned pyramid, but no volume speaks of it. It is an utterly new and exciting find, and I have gained the admiration of my peers in addition to the wealth of my inheritance. It is all nothing but bitter ash to me. If I am sane, then nothing in the world can save me.

I now recount to you the events I witnessed last night. I had not slept in days; my body acted against my own will. I fell asleep in my office and I was once more subjected to a nightmare. I awoke and my left arm ached and throbbed and itched. I scratched it furiously, reopening the wounds that had closed. I heard someone knocking on my door, rapping loudly in neat groups of five despite the morning hours. I ignored it and tried to restrain my scratching, my left arm suddenly delivering the most excruciating pain imaginable. The knocking grew louder but remained polite and orderly, as if it were the beating of a drum. I am surprised that I was still able to hear it; I was screaming quite loudly. I nearly collapsed, but made my way to the door, hoping they would be able to offer some kind of assistance. I opened it on the second knock.

My uncle’s lawyer stood there, his arms at his side. His posture had changed from meek and servile. His movements were strange and unnatural, showing the utmost economy of energy. He said nothing, but his eyes changed before my very own; from common brown and milky white to pitch black and green. He raised his arm, displaying his palm, and the skin tore open in a clean diagonal line. An eye, identical to the creature’s and now his own, bulged from his palm. I felt movement on my left arm, and looked to see many eyes protruding from my flesh, each of them hostile and unblinking. I wept, and the lawyer laughed, his laughter deeper than any I have ever heard.

Please, dear Mentor, dear Laura, please assure me that I am insane. Even in the light of the morning sun filtering through my blinds, I feel the eyes moving. I am trying desperately to tell myself that it is merely the hairs on my arms pricking, the wind, a fly. But it cannot be any of those things. I hear the lawyer’s voice in my ear confirming my fears, my mind is like a broken dam, can shut none of it out. I shall end this letter now, while I still have the facilities to send it. Please, come to Arkham and confirm my madness. I beg you.

Dr. H—— L——–


Patrick Shaffer’s childhood was spent exploring the forests of West Virginia and the desert town Needles, California. Returning to Long Beach and enrolling at Long Beach City College, he began pursuing a career in Literature. Patrick is currently President of the English Majors and Minors Club at LBCC.


One comment

  1. This story has an excellent 19th century tone to it — very Poe-esque!

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