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Essays

THE THING THAT COLLECTED BLOCH

A Fictionalized Tribute For Serious Blochophiles

Randall D. Larson


It all started on a golden afternoon. The old house was standing high on a hill behind the motel, amid thin wisps of fog that settled about it like a ghostly cowl. From a distance, the building looked quite normal - it was only when one trudged farther up the hill that the ruin became apparent.

The house was charred black; its frame stood boldly as it had for many years, but the structure was weakened by the flames that had recently consumed its strength. Windows were gone, as was the detail from the wooden walls. Flies buzzed about the ruins, and there seemed something devilish about that, as though Beelzebub itself once visited here. Beetles swarmed out the mouth of a shambled window.

Norman turned his eyes from the house, and looked back at the trail behind him. Alfred's large form was just now appearing through the dew-covered underbrush, and he stopped next to Norman and gazed at the old building. The early morning stillness clung about it protectively, and the mist lent a cool dampness to the air.

"We finally made it!" Alfred wheezed, his eyes opened wide as he looked up at the old house on the hill. "There it is," he sighed in wonderment. "The infamous House That Dripped Mud."

"So named," Norman added, as if reciting from an ancient and wonderful legend, "because of the sod roof which, in heavy rains, would occasionally trickle the water-soaked dirt onto the ground below."

"At least, that's what Clayton said. . ." Alfred added, noticeable skeptical. "Don't be too quick to doubt Richard's work, Alfred," Norman said. "He'd had a strange fright when he visited this house, before it burned; one which eventually led to his madness, that big binge, and his awful death. The things he told me fit perfectly with the legends."

"You could be wrong, " Alfred shrugged, and the two of them looked again toward the burned house.

"In any case," Norman said as he began walking up the final rise of the hill, "we'll find out up there."

Within, the house was a shambles. The staircase was caved in, and most of the second floor to which it led had also fallen through to the ground level. Stilled ashes rested upon the ground, flaking from charred and burnt walls, furniture, banisters. The harsh stench of the burnt wood drifted through the skeletal corridors, mingling with the scent of the cool mist.

Norman and Alfred made their way through the ruins, stepping through mud and ashes, kicking broken timbers out of the* way. The morning sun shone through the roof where the second floor had caved in, making the black portions of walls stand out like the monolithic stones of some ancient druid temple; a hint of warmth came with it as the sun slowly drove away the fog.

"This is all ruined," Alfred noticed, the sun shining off his thinning scalp, making him resemble a baldheaded mirage. "We won't find anything here . . ."

"Are you mad?" Norman sharply snapped. "What's up here isn't important! Remember what Richard said about the basement? That is where we'll find the manuscripts! "

"If it's true . . . Richard did have a good imagination, you know," Alfred said, remaining the portly skeptic.

"Richard gave us his word of honor," Norman frowned, shuffling through the ruins. "Get rid of your case of stubborns, Alfred. It has to be true." A darker tone colored his voice as he stepped through shadows. "Humankind has known it for years, but chooses to ignore it as folly. But there are those who know. Don't you remember? The head abbot who served us that memorable feast in the Abbey, he knew the truth of the Old Ones, how it had been a veritable Hell on Earth in those days, strange eons ago, when the Old Ones walked the Earth. It was a frightful time, then - Earth was a Fear Planet until the Old Ones made their final performance and were banished to distant realms."

"I know that," Alfred nodded impatiently. "I am aware that they continue to exist, striving to regain their stronghold here. As a constant reader, I've come across enough evidence in the writings and supposed fantasy of Lovecraft, Howard, Derleth, Collier, Young and more straightforward occultists. What I cannot believe is that the creature you suggest, that Richard suggested - this thing that is even more formidable than Nyarlathotep itself - could exist in the guise of a human mortal. What an unspeakable betrothal that would be!"

"Everything else has proven to be true," Norman shrugged. "So far all that we have found backs this up as well." He spied a blackened door, partially hidden in the corner by fallen timber and piled ashes. "But enough of this talk. I know the manuscripts are here - Richard said they were. If you won't believe it, then the devil with you!"

Norman walked over to the door and cleared away the debris, coughing as a cloud of black soot swirled up into his face.

The door was locked, but it had been weakened enough by the flames so that Norman was able to give it the big kick, after which it crumbled inward. The sunlight streaming in through the torn roof revealed a staircase beyond the door; its steps leading deep into darkness. Norman reached into his coat pocket and produced a small flashlight - its beam revealed nothing but further blackness. He glanced at Alfred, who was starting to become interested again. "That's the proper spirit! " He grinned.

Norman crouched and stepped through the cracked wood of the door, and proceeded down the steps, the small flashlight barely lighting the way. He heard Alfred's footsteps following him, though there was a greater rustle of clothing-against-wall than when he had passed through. After about ten steps, the descending hallway made a sharp turn to the right, and Norman's flashlight discovered a small room that had been spared the damage of the fire.

There was a kerosene lamp extending from one wall, and upon lighting it, Norman could make out the room much better. It was in quite good order, only the upper timbers of the walls and ceiling were scorched, and some watermarks stained a far corner. The room appeared to be a storehouse of some vast collection of particularly esoteric materials: books crowded walls of shelves, a small typewriter sat on a well-organized desk next to a telephone book and a box of pins, and an old, extremely and bizarrely detailed rug lay on the floor.

Alfred arrived around the comer and was the first to spy the armchair in the comer; he promptly sat in it and gazed about the room with hungry eyes.

On all four sides were built a series of shelves, rising above a large floor panel, which were inset into the walls. On the same side as the armchair were two ornately carved cabinets, one on either end.

Norman stared at the bookshelves. Here were volumes upon volumes of rare and fantastic writings. Alfred opened one of the paneled cabinets and discovered stacks of aged magazines within.

"Norman! " he cried, carefully removing an old but plastic-sealed volume. "An early edition of Teared Whales, one of the whispered dream-cycles of the mad Chicagoan, Worthright Farns! These are almost unheard of!"

"Weird!" Norman said in amazement, then fumed to one of the bookshelves. "And here. These are all Bloch books!"

Alfred looked at them hesitantly, with a worrisome expression. "Just as Clayton hinted . . ."

"No wonder Richard aged so rapidly," Norman mused as he examined the Bloch collection. "If the rest of what he suggested is true. . ."

"Norman, here!" Alfred exclaimed as he opened the second glass-paneled cabinet. "Good Lord, here are the tomes . . . "

Norman looked into the cabinet: a stack of dusty and brittle manuscripts lay within, covered with a scent of catnip that made his tongue itch. Norman muttered an excited gasp as he lifted out one of the loosely bound volumes and carefully thumbed through it.

"Dear Mother!" Norman exclaimed. "Alfred, this is a hand-copied version of Prinn's De Vermiss Mysteriis..." He handled the collection of worm-eaten pages gingerly.

The two of them were astounded by the age and rarity of the legendary book, for this was one of the most infamous of the legend-haunted tomes that spoke of the fearsome Old Ones. Nor did their astonishment end there, for as they inspected the other books and manuscripts that lay within the cabinet they discovered more items of untold age and priceless rarity.

They found books such as Feery's Notes on the Necronomicon, Dagur's jewel-encrusted Book of Tchem-Lam, young Osborne's Deserted House Notebook, the persuasive Mesmerisms of Gustav Marcks, Subotsky's edition of Garden Tortures (rumored to be a forgery), worn editions of works by Edgar Gordon and Barnaby Codd, hand-scribbled notebooks filled with passages taken from other antiquated books. A number of roughly-stapled and poorly printed periodicals (with crude names like F'hapa and Unusually Marvelous Tales for The Fantasy Fan) were also found, some in many pieces - these appeared to be products of some sort of organization or collection of individuals and they, too, were devoted to the same dark subjects as the older manuscripts.

At last they had emptied out the cabinet of its wealth of ancient material. Norman looked at the small stacks and marveled.

"Hold on, what's this?" Alfred indicated the bottom shelf within the old cabinet. It was an unusually thick shelf and as Norman looked closer he found it to be hollow; a thin slat of wood along the outer edge was pried offend within the small space Alfred withdrew yet another manuscript, this one a stack of hand-written pages held together by two loosely-elastic rubber bands.

"My God, Norman! I've heard rumors of this for years but I never dreamed I'd ever -- "

"Ointments From the Land of Blue Sky," Norman read, and his wide eyes darted toward Alfred. His voice wavered excitedly as he spoke. "I don't believe there are more than two copies of this in existence!"

"This is fantastic!" Alfred wiped his forehead with his shirtsleeve. "Richard hinted at an incredible find of ancient books, but this is more than I'd ever thought possible. And especially this, one of the most brutal of all secret tomes! "

"What fearsome secrets did the owner of this ruined house know, and what black bargain did he commit?" Norman gazed about the room. "And what became of him?"

"Reading all of these books probably drove him mad," Alfred suggested with a smirk.

"We all go a little mad sometimes," Norman replied, shaking his head. "I believe this collection was more than the hobby of an eccentric kook, and more than the study of some passive occult researcher."

"You mean he wasn't just a man with a hobby?" Alfred inquired.

"No. More likely he may have been the man who murdered tomorrow, if what Richard said is true."

"He looked like Napoleon, didn't he?" Alfred mused. "That's what Richard said about the resident of this house. And he said something about his taste for Hawaiian food . . ."

"The Man Who Collected Poi, I think he said."

"Yes, very poignant, but it doesn't make any sense, other than suggesting that Richard was a candidate for the Funny farm." Alfred fumed to Norman "So what do you make of it?"

"Whoever - or whatever, as Richard ventured - amassed such a collection of specifically esoteric materials much have been searching for one certain answer. He must have been on the verge of some diabolical discovery involving the Old Ones just before his untimely death. I think he was put out of the way on purpose."

"Ah, The Dead Don't Defy, is that it?" Alfred wobbled.

"Yes, exactly." Norman stared at the bookshelves, concern bulging the veins in his forehead. "Richard had almost learned what that discovery was, but he could only hint of such things, as if he were afraid to reveal everything too plainly. He alluded to Nyarlathotep, a Dark Isle, and spoke of a strange sign of the Skull."

"What a most unusual hoarder," Alfred frowned. "I wonder what he meant."

"These books puzzle me; they're almost all by Bloch." Norman stood for a moment, contemplating, before he went on. "Why Bloch, of all writers? Little of his work dealt directly with Cthulhian concepts."

Quietly, while they spoke and contemplated, a slight breeze swirled a wisp of ashes down the stairway and into the room, as if aroused by their talking. Alfred sneezed abruptly, but Norman was not distracted from the pages of the Ointments that he held in his hands.

"Why, this book deals greatly with what Richard had spoken of! The same whispered legends, and one terrible being . . ." Norman's eyes widened as the eldritch and agelessly evil name came to his lips as he read: "Rbrr'blog.. ."

Alfred's gasp caused Norman's eyes to dart away from the book, and they grew wide in terror as they focused on the strange, undulating black cloud that was forming at the bottom of the stairs, sending thin wispy tendrils wavering toward Alfred who sat, dumbfounded in the armchair. He tried to squeeze as far into the dusty cushions as he could, but the murky, silent shape crept closer. The cloud was like something alive, something purposeful, something familiar. . .

Norman's eyes quickly resumed to the book, recalling a section he had noticed earlier. He read aloud, seeking the section: ". . .the guardian and minion . . . preparer of the way . . . death is an elephant . . . doom to interferers . . . again the Sign of the Skull . . ."

"What are you reading?" Alfred whined, the cloud pulsing and quivering, a chilling coldness enveloping the room.

"This section from Ointments - it speaks of a demigod called Sc't-Merdigh who prepares the way for the Cunning One!" Norman's eyes turned to Alfred's and his too became wide with apprehension.

"Alfred. I believe what we're seeing is Sc't-Merdigh!"

"Well if that isn't the devil's ticket!" Alfred moaned and sank deeper into the armchair.

The black shape continued to quiver and pulse, roiling with increasing vibration as it slowly moved closer, filling the doorway completely and spilling its grey wisps along the floor. The room began to darken, as if the throbbing cloud were draining the light as well as the heat from the room. Alfred whimpered and took a paperback book from the shelf, throwing it into the darkening mass, causing it to throb even more spastically.

"Don't bait him!" Norman said, shrugging off the cold chills. It will only enrage this king of terrors!" His eyes resumed to the Ointments. "There must be an incantation to return him to his night world!" In the dim light his eyes raced through the Ointments as he tried to learn more about the being that was drawing dangerously closer.

And then the cloud was no longer a cloud, but a quivering mass of charcoal blackness like the fluid in an old inkwell suddenly come to sentient life, bubbling and juggling itself like spilled mercury in the air in front of them. Two dark appendages slithered their way past the bookshelves toward the two men. A frigid tendril fingered Alfred's nose, causing him to cry out and flatten himself into the armchair.

"Ah, here it is!" Norman cried, triumphantly. Without any further explanation, he stood up, holding the book in both hands, and loudly read from the passage he had found.

"Sc't Merdigh! la! Ia! Bie'dha Awttrr Usiy-kho!"

Norman repeated the chant loudly as the black mass wriggled back and began to dissipate, clinging to the roof of the stairway and slowly withdrawing up the stairs. Wisps of cold darkness slithered away from the ceiling, and in a moment they were gone.

Then Norman dropped the book, and the two of them rapidly departed the House That Dripped Mud.

Daybroke with harsh sunlight, and the sweet chirping of his neighbor's imported Mandarin Canaries woke Norman from his Pleasant Dreams. He blinked the fog from his eyes and lay, still weary, in bed. He felt like a mannequin and it took him several moments to rouse his exhausted body and sit on the edge of the mattress. His thoughts were still cluttered by yesterday's occurrence - the discovery in the burnt house, the black shapeless presence that had threatened them, the long and tiresome drive back to Weyauwega's Lodge, and a fitful night of dream-haunted sleep. And Norman was still puzzled about what had lived in that dwelling and had amassed such a collection and why. He knew he had to find out, for the sake of his research, and for the sake of poor Richard.

Eventually, Norman took a quick shower, dressed, and after a pleasant telephone conversation with his mother in Fairvale, walked down the hallway to Alfred's room. The shades were still drawn and the door ignored his repeated knocks. Puzzled, for surely Alfred would not have gone out without leaving some communication, Norman tried the doorknob and found it unlocked. He hesitated, wondering if he should enter or keep on knocking until he was answered. It was, after all, a question of etiquette.

Shrugging, Norman walked in. He called out for his friend, but stopped calling when he looked at the bed and saw the frozen fear on Alfred's face and his mouth grinning like a ghoul and his eyes withered like a mummy's and his skin as lifeless as the box mattress on which he lay.

Norman stood for a moment in the doorway, staring at Alfred's body and his wildly contorted, fear-struck face. Then he glanced about, curiously. He noticed that there were four things open in the room: the bedroom door, the adjoining bathroom window, a box of crackers on the end-table, and the book to which Alfred's lifeless hands still clung. A book Alfred had never owned before.

In a moment there were two other things open in the room - Norman's gasping mouth and the front door as he wheeled and dashed out of the room and down the hall.

For he had noticed the book was Bloch's The Skull.

Egghead's home was a small and quaint one, set back behind some trees next to the Hungry House coffee shop. Norman, now calm, slowly walked up the front steps. He was a bit hesitant about visiting the Professor, for the man was quite eccentric, though his knowledge of things Cthulhian was quite invaluable. So Norman cast from his thoughts such things as how the Professor rarely slept and was known to his friends as a Night-Walker, and how his lack of sleep once sent him into a hallucinatory fit, confinement in a straitjacket and a stay at Castle's Sanatorium. Such ideas were surely All In His Mind, but some folks did fear that the man may be a psychopath.

But the Professor never walked that path; instead the doctors had corrected his somnambulism and saw that he took a Sabbatical and everything had seemed to work out all right after that. There were still those who thought he was out of his skull for collecting such a wealth of material and knowledge on the dark subjects, but it was in fact this very knowledge which drew Norman to his door in the hopes that Egghead could help answer his questions of the past few days, or at least point him in the right direction.

A tall man opened the door to his knocks, and Norman recognized him instantly as the Professor. Egghead, playing it square, gave a toothy smile when he recognized his visitor. Music could be heard in the background, and Norman recognized it as the Hungarian Rhapsody, yet it sounded darkly dismal, as though it was coming from Satan's Phonograph itself. Egghead wore a strangely colored suit, and Norman wondered what kind of a weird tailor might have made such a garment.

"Good afternoon, Professor," Norman said as the man showed him in.

"You needn't be so formal, Norman. Just call me . . . Jack," his host replied with a friendly gleam in his eye.

Jack led Norman down a hallway to the living room. Along the way Norman stumbled against a pair of roller skates and nearly fell. "Talent . . . " he muttered apologetically.

"Damn that child! " Jack spat, as he picked up the skates and put them on a shelf. "My daughter can never put things away," he explained as they proceeded down the hall. "Always leaves her toys out. Practically murder myself on them every day. Sometimes I'm sorry I even bought those toys for Juliette."

Norman chuckled to himself. The Professor always was a stickler for organization - after all, he owned many shares in the local organ bank. "She really needs her mother Betsy for that, though, but she passed on years ago," the professor continued. "I always thought Betsy would live forever. What a model wife she was . . . " Egghead's ramblings continued as they progressed down the long hallway. "I do have a tutor for her, named Lucy, but she never stays around."

When they reached the living room and sat down on the couch, Norman decided to cut the small talk. "Jack, I need to know whatever I can about Sc't-Merdigh."

"Mother of Serpents! " the Professor exclaimed, using an unfamiliar oath. "Where did you hear that name?"

Norman, pacing the floor, told the Professor of the letter which had been given to him after Richard's quiet funeral, the letter from Richard which hinted at his findings in the burnt house and which led Norman to contact Alfred and inspect the ruins personally. He told the professor of what they found there, and of Alfred's death and the Bloch book he'd held in his hands.

"First Clayton, then Alfred." Norman bemoaned. "What a double tragedy this has become."

"Or a double-whammy," Egghead remarked.

"What?"

"There is a sinister purpose at work here. I, too, have heard of Richard's work in the field. It was a shame that he had to ride that hell-bound train so suddenly." The Professor nodded sympathetically. "But that sounds like an amazing find, complete with Ointments and Teared Whales. The former is actually a forerunner of the cycle of insane myth, Revelations L 'Feep, found in the time-wounded Tanned Plastic Indentures. All of these tomes are virtual histories of one of the most fearsome of the Old Ones: the cunning Rbrr'blog, He Who Keeps Heart of Small Boy in Jar!"

Norman's heart thudded against his chest and the sound of the name filled him with an icy dread, just as it had when he first read it the previous day in the burnt house.

"Sc't-Merdigh is merely his minion, paving the way for his ghoulish appearances!" The Professor stood up as he continued, Norman listening intently. "Rbrr'blog is more deadly to humankind than the grinning ghouls who open the way to star shamblers, than the undersea throat-cutting Cove Creatures who dwell among complex edifices, the shambling crypt-creepers of brooding Bubastis or the soul-sucking Barsac beasts who herald the druidic doom, more awesome than the hordes of Satan's Servants, more mysteriously terrible than the meager dragons that nurse nightmares or the ghostly legions of dog-faced zander!"

An apprehension hounded at Norman, a dogged feeling he couldn't define or ignore. "But what does it have to do with the Bloch books?" he asked.

"I'm not really sure." The Professor scratched his cheek. "I'm a Robert E. Howard reader myself; something about his tales of iron-thawed sword-thrusts in the land of Dyme-Novell-Bolonia especially appeal to me. You may think I'm a Cluck for saying so, however. "

"But as far as the Bloch material goes, I think it may have something to do with the fact that, of all writers who have occasionally dabbled in Cthulhian material, Bloch's almost exclusively dwelt with Nyarlathotep."

"I don't follow you. . ." Norman interjected quizzically.

"Nyarlathotep, you know, is the powerful and dreaded messenger of the Old Ones, and he has many avatars, many incarnations. Each one is different in its role, each terrible to behold, and all horrible sinister in their purpose. Rbrr'blog is one of these avatars, as is Sc't-Merdigh."

"What black barter does he seek to perform in this guise?"

"His ability to incarnate himself in a variety of guises makes him among the most powerful of the Old One's minions. Something about the Skull - the sign of the Skull, whatever that may be, is thought to attract him." The Professor stood up and walked to a nearby cabinet, from which he withdrew a bottle of scotch and hastily poured two glasses. Handing one to Norman, he continued.

"Certainly you recall the black winged manifestation which was evoked from the Shining Trapezohedron in New England? That was Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos, the Howler in the Night, the Haunter of the Dark, Father of the Million Favored Ones, the Dweller in Darkness, Bringer of Strange Joy to Yuggoth, the Black Messenger of Karneter, the Star Timer, The Past Stalker, the World Master, the Shadow from the Peep-hole! He was known as the Dark Demon of medieval Europe's witch covens, the Faceless God of Egyptian myth, whose ferocity surpassed even the fame of the Black Pharaoh, the Head Man of Nazi occultism. the modern-day Closer of the Way Who Devours Shrunken Heads as spoken of in Freudian myth . . ."

"Quite a freak show, but what's in a name?" Norman said, wiping the spittle off his face (the Professor had gotten a little excited in his monologue).

"Each of these names refers to a unique avatar of the great Nyarlathotep. I believe that Rbrr'blog may be his greatest incarnation, for as subtle as it may be, his power is greater because of that very subtlety. Like the old cliche, the devil is all the more powerful when no one believes in him." The Professor took a gulp of scotch, then sat back in the armchair.

"What an unpardonable crime. " Norman rubbed his chin. "If this Rbrr'blog is so cunning, why hasn't he been more written of in occult legend?"

"Apparently his purpose is more suited to being unknown. Most people will scoff at the existence of Nyarlathotep, Cthulhu, Azathoth and the others, saying they are merely the inventions of writers like Lovecraft and the rest. But the gods are not mocked, they won't bear it. There are those who have seen, who know in their hearts that these Old Ones exist and that their purpose is terrible." The Professor seemed to shudder for a moment. He lit up a filter tip, and then continued. "But the being known as Rbrr'blog is different. I don't know his purpose in the scheme of the Old Ones, but from what I've discovered in perusing certain ancient manuscripts - and there are not many in which he is mentioned - is that he does not want his presence made known. Those who threaten him in that way must be destroyed. I believe that is what happened to the owner of the burnt house." He set the scotch glass down on a cabinet and stood up, gazing at Norman in a peculiar way. "And I fear I, too, am in danger for what I know about him." The Professor seemed to shudder involuntarily. "And, now that I've told you..."

"What!" Norman sat bolt upright.

The Professor chuckled. "Looks like we both may be at the end of our rope . . ." Norman looked henpecked and felt he might catch hell at any moment. He gulped and soon thereafter bid the Professor a warm farewell and then took his leave.

Two nights later Norman returned to the House That Dripped Mud, shaken and upset. He'd learned earlier that night of the death of Professor Egghead, crushed beneath great mass that left his entire home shattered like an eggshell, as if something had broken through from below and burst out the House Of The Hatched, the mystified newspapers were quipping. No one really knew.

Except Norman. The Professor had suspected he was in danger, and he was correct. "His purpose is served best by his being unknown," he had said. "Those who threaten his exposure must be destroyed." Rbrr'blog, avatar of Nyarlathotep, Skulker of Skull-Signs, he had paid Egghead a visit. And now that Norman had shared this learning maze of unholy information, he was likely to meet Rbrr'blog's fangs of vengeance as well and likewise pay the fiddler's fee.

The answer had to be at the burnt house. He felt there must be something there that would tie it all together and equip him with knowledge to not only escape the fearsome Old One but to warn others as well. He arrived shortly after nightfall. Weary from a long drive but anxious to again peruse the library, he made his way up the hill past the old run-down motel, through the charred ruins and down the stairway into the small room. It remained just as he and Alfred had left it, and Norman was relieved to find the Ointments on the floor where he had dropped it. He'd brought a battery-operated light with him and he switched it on in order to inspect the collection in further detail. He left the ancient manuscripts in a stack before the cabinet, intending to get to them later, and stepped to the bookshelves. His eyes scanned the rows of books, reading the titles of the Bloch editions. He pulled a number of books off the shelves and sat in the armchair, looking through them.

He scarfed through novels like Strange Ions and American Gossip, story collections such as Blood Runs Moldy, smaller pamphlets like Vocabulary for S.F. Critics, a terrific scientific journal for the average writer which seemed to make a lot of sense. Norman thumbed through hardback collections, skimmed over stories like "The Girl Who Turned Into a Drugstore" and scholarly articles such as "Chiselers and Hacks - A Study Of Editors and Writers In Prehistory."

Hours passed but Norman wasn't aware of time, he was only aware of what he was reading. He was no longer an aloof observer, moving his eyes across the printed page, rather he was drawn into each story, captivated. He shared the horrors encountered by the protagonists; he gasped in real surprise at the grasping arm, the groping tentacle, the slashing knife; he groaned in enjoyable loathing at frequent puns and beat the armrest with his fist. Norman read, with bated breath, stories of killers and lunatic criminals and their justified ends; tales of weird, otherworldly terrors; punful stories of noodnick inventors; far-off adventures in space; down-home occurrences with the neighbor next-door.

And it wasn't long before everything became crystal clear. He didn't know how he came upon it, but it suddenly hit him; and he knew he had found the answer.

These stories, though only a very few concerned the Cthulhian themes themselves, did have very definite and very deadly connections with the Old Ones. Norman recalled the Professor's statements of the many avatars of Nyarlathotep, and the implication shocked him. For no matter how different the Bloch stories were, no matter how many different styles and genres they covered, and despite the pen-name, the writings could be nothing else but the writings of Rbrr'blog itself! Through the image and writings of Robert Bloch, the fearsome Old One was . . . almost human!

Norman swallowed hard and set the books aside. He had found half the answer- what he needed now was the reason, the sinister purpose for this grim charade. He found that in the Ointments.

Norman read how Rbrr'blog dwells in the hidden world of Tl'fiske, driven there strange eons ago by the Mysterious Other Worm, and there he laughs like a ghoul as he skillfully construes his writings. Norman read how he waits for the day when he, and all the other Old Ones, their minions and servants, shall return from Tl'fiske, from sunken R'lyeh, from far-off Yuggoth, from the Cavern Worlds of N'kai and Yoth and K'n-yan, from the sunset crests of the unspoken Gloating Place, from the secret observatories of the sea-kissed Screaming People of Water's Edge, from all the dwelling places at the rim of space and time, and shall again take hold over the Earth. And Norman read how Rbrr'blog is aiding in that goal, and how the owner of the burnt house was only one of many who figured in his plan.

For the owner of the burnt house did not collect Bloch. It was Bloch, or Rbrr'blog, who collected him!

Norman felt a pang of sharp horror jolt through him, from his thinking cap all the way down to his creeping underwear, as he thought of the many other Bloch fans and collectors he'd met over the years. These stories they so innocently read and collected were veritable sneak previews of the true horror of Rbrr'blog!

The revelation gave Norman a change of heart over the whole matter, and he gazed wearily about the room, looking at the books written by Bloch; those sorcerous writings which thrill and amaze - and then, unbeknownst to the reader, ensnare and entrap until there is no escape. There was an awesome power in those words, and Norman could almost see it glowing now that he knew the truth. An awesome power which feeds on all those who have read the words. Even now Norman could feel the involuntary urge to reach for a Bloch novel and read it unceasingly, babbering in delight, captivated by its brilliant design and hidden spell, unable to put it down. His stomach knotted with worry and amok terror as he thought of all the other unsuspecting Bloch readers becoming entangled in the cunning spiderweb of Rbrr'blog's sinister will to kill. Norman realized it wouldn't be long before the legion of possessed Bloch fans, overcome by More Nightmares, would rise up with Rbrr'blog becoming the Opener Of The Way for the return of the Living Demons.

Suddenly Norman felt a desire to escape, a desire to warn others and perhaps save some of them, if not this whole Crowded Earth. He could at least give it the old college try - there must be a Cure! He pushed aside the ancient manuscripts and ran up the stairs, out of the ruined house and down the hill away from the motel. He ran down the street until, exhaustedly, he came to a stop, clutching at a lamppost.

As he panted, a pang of hopelessness gripped his heart like a living bracelet. How could he ever hope to escape the wrath of an Old One, consignor of the Deadliest Art, He Who Clutches At End Of Rope, He Who Keeps Heart Of Small Boy In Jar? Norman wiped the sweat from his forehead with his backhand, and his eyes darted about the street. A feeling inside of him urged him to remember something, but he wasn't sure what it was. A quotation from Ointments? Something the Professor had said? What was it? Norman clung to the lamp post as he exhaled loudly, looking about without actually seeing, his mind whirling in thought and terror, as the light gradually began to darken.

Something about the Sign of the Skull . . .

Then it dawned on him - the book Alfred had been reading, the book that probably even now lay grasped in his lifeless hands. Bloch's The Skull!

What was it that attracted Rbrr'blog?

Norman threw himself away from the lamppost and darted madly down the street. He stumbled off the curb and fell headlong into the deserted street. Lurching to his feet, he ran on. Suddenly he stopped in his tracks, eyes opened wide, his mouth wet and panting. He glared at the theatre marquee that glowed across the street, the grinning skeleton advertised on it burning its way into Norman's mind.

"The Skull of the Marquee" he said. "The Sign of the Skull!"

Norman fell to the ground and the darkness became darker and he tried to scream as the black wisps fingered out, slithering toward him.

   

This story was originally published in Eldritch Tales 25 (1991), and is reprinted with the kind permission of the author.

The former editor/publisher of CinemaScore, CineFan, and Threshold of Fantasy magazines, Randall D. Larson has written 8 books and more than 200 articles for fantasy, fire service, public safety, cinema, and motion picture music periodicals, books, CD booklets, and Web sites. Larson is currently the editor of 9-1-1 Magazine (public safety communications and response), and a senior editor for Soundtrack magazine. Avoiding spare time at all costs, Larson is also a writer for mania.com while maintaining a full-time career in the field of emergency services communications.

Larson is also the author of three of the major reference books on Robert Bloch and his writings -- a book of collected interviews, a readers' guide, and a detailed bibliography, all as discussed on the FAQ page. These books may be ordered from Larson directly.

Mr. Larson can be contacted at larsonrdl@aol.com.