Authors: Scott Thomas
Tags: #lovecraftian, #lovecraft, #novel, #ezine, #mythos, #book
The Sea of Ash
, a free online magazine featuring
Fiction, Cosmic Horror, and the Cthulhu Mythos:
Copyright © 2009 Scott Thomas
Front Cover Art by
Kenneth W. Cain
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Table of Contents
Never had the universe felt so vast, and I so
small within it. I had, through circumstance, been made aware of
something, but of what? Something either too horrible or too beautiful for
humans to know.
In my capacity as
The Lovecraft eZine
, many books are sent to me in the hope
that I will enjoy and promote them. And many of them are wonderful, to be
sure. But in the four years that I've been publishing the
no book has impressed me as much as
The Sea of Ash
, by Scott
Scott gave me a copy
of this novella in August 2013 at NecronomiCon (a Lovecraft convention held
every two years in Providence), and I read it on the plane ride back home.
I don't remember much
about that flight.
The Sea of Ash
utterly and completely
captured my imagination. At once disturbing and beautiful, it is a fresh
take on the themes of Lovecraft and cosmic horror. I am not exaggerating
when I say that it is one of the best books I have ever read.
For the complete story
The Sea of Ash
came to be, read Jeff Thomas'
Afterword. For now, suffice it to say that I soon realized that
Sea of Ash
wasn't widely read, and it certainly deserves to be.
After reading it, I think you will agree.
There is a world
beneath the world, and the universe is not what it seems. Turn the page,
and begin a journey into wonder.
1. QUEEN ANNE
The photograph is a sepia thing
showing Dr. Albert Pond shortly before his disappearance in 1920. He's handsome
enough, clean shaven, with even features and slick dark hair parted above his
high forehead. A serious fellow to be sure, looking a touch older than his
forty-four years. I hold the picture closer and study his eyes. Intelligent
eyes, keen eyes, their sting tempered by weariness, as if they have seen more
than human eyes are meant to see.
By contrast, the photo I took of
his family home is colored and bright, snapped in the warm flush of afternoon.
I HAD to start there, after all, for a sense of completeness. Originally the
Whitman parsonage, the house was built in Eastborough, Massachusetts in the
mid-eighteenth century. It's a fine center hall Colonial with sparrow-beckoning
chimneys, and ancient clapboards infused with generations of paint from
Whitmans, and the Ponds that followed.
This is a ritual stillness, this
sitting at my desk with the pictures, my gear ready and packed for the journey.
I am stirring myself, inspiring myself, tuning in. I've waited years for this.
Now I am gazing at the only
surviving photograph of the baby. The thick paper is brittle and brown with
age, more so for the fire that ate away the left side -- the part that showed
the child's head. How unfortunate. The babe is a shadowy blur, unclothed, the
rounded limbs like sausage links. It lies limp in a rumpled puddle of blankets,
as described in Dr. Pond's writings.
I have never seen a picture of the
child's mother, though it is said that she, unlike her offspring, was
"I find it difficult to
imagine a childhood more mundane," Albert reflected in the early pages of
his single published work. And... "Perhaps that was the appeal."
The same can be said of mine. It
was comfortingly unspectacular; you might even say insular. I was raised by my
grandmother, just four and three-quarter miles from the house where the good
Doctor grew up. That explains some of the kindredness I feel.
Nana was a naturalist. She would
likely have been a Luddite if she had been born in London. While the front lawn
of our house was an insignificant little square, the back was a glorious jumble
of vegetation, deep and green, flowered and ferned. It was like a library of
plants, and she knew all their names, both the charming folksy ones and the
exotic Latin designations that sounded to me like snippets of magical
Whereas my siblings were imaginary,
Pond had three sisters, one older, two younger. Samantha, Hope and Annie. His
predilection for the healing arts manifested quite early -- he became a master
doll mender to the girls. A curious aside...Annie's favorite doll (the one with
long red human hair) would be found facing east whenever it rained.
Following his quiet childhood,
Albert Pond went on to study at the best colleges, earning his medical degree
with honors. He drifted up the coast, settled in Salisbury on the North Shore,
and opened his practice.
In the snow of 1906 he met Bethany
Miller. She was watching the Atlantic, watching the boats turn white, listening
as gulls called to the snow, became snow. That silver afternoon, before dusk
reared up from the sea, they walked and laughed under flakes and wings. Pond
later noted that his heart was "fumbling and exhilarated." It also
"felt lighter in my chest, a younger man's heart borrowed back from whom
I'd been before."
Bethany was five years younger
than his thirty, full and fair, with modest blue eyes. He courted her,
proposed, and the following spring they were married.
They built the house on Powell
Street then moved in during the autumn of 1911. It was a steep Queen Anne,
asymmetrically Victorian, a doll's house with porch and peaks and shingles.
Bethany planted frivolous annuals; Albert raised a brooding hedge of holly.
They were never to have children.
Albert more than hints at ambivalence in this regard. The long-awaited
pregnancy ended in miscarriage, and Bethany was unable to conceive thereafter.
The loss cast a greyness over her -- a shade that stayed with her to the end.
Over in Bosnia, at the end of
June, 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, along with his wife, was
shot to death in his motorcar following an inspection of troops stationed in
Sarajevo. The assassin was a disgruntled Serb student, bitter over politics. A
few simple bits of lead, a few coughs of smoke and the world went spinning on
its way to the Great War.
Woodrow Wilson resisted
involvement until German subs took to sinking American ships. Albert enlisted
and crossed the Atlantic in 1917, but it was months before he and the other
Yanks saw action. He was a medic, of course, which set him in the trenches. He
writes of his experiences in his book -- one cannot underestimate the impact
the war had on him. I think he found it especially difficult to have so many
patients die, but, as he quite bluntly puts it, "the scalpel is no match
The worst of it occurred in the
smoky, shattered woodlands of the Argonne. Pond likened the horrors there to a
slaughterhouse and took home images that replayed in his sleep. One dream would
deter him from rest for days on end, even when he returned to the doll's house
Here is how he describes the
dream: "I could not close my eyes that I would not see a great pale face
as tall and wide as a sky. It was a young soldier's face, speckled with blood,
the thin lips numbly repeating, 'bleeding...bleeding...bleeding...bleeding...'”
As the war was staggering toward
its end in 1918, Albert received word of Bethany's death. She had suffered an
allergic reaction to a bee sting and died alone, face down in the mums she had
been weeding, her throat swollen shut.
Dr. Pond writes: "I have seen
the frailty of the human body illustrated with terrifying clarity, and yet mine
has survived the dangers of war to pen these words. Despite the bombs and the
gas, the cannons, bayonets and rattling Maxims, I sit here whole, while a
seemingly innocuous insect, no bigger than a pistol shell, has robbed my
Bethany of her life. This is the cruelest of ironies, and it torments me.”
I am heading north. It is
"day one" and the weather is promising, the mist in the hills burning
away to make room for sunlight. The traffic is light this early; my speeding
neighbors are mostly large trucks. For once I've made a tasty cup of coffee --
I'll take that as a good omen.
I think of Pond's New England as I
drive along Route 9, or “The Pike,” as Nana called it. I try picturing the
less-congested landscape, the noble structures, the cars of that period.
Glimpses of old homes bolster the illusion, but the fantasy is spoiled when I
pass the inevitable golden arches and the glimmering seas of consumers'
vehicles worshipfully cluttered about titanic malls.
Crows are huddled over something
small and dead by the side of the ramp that takes me onto 495. Soon there are
only trees to either side and steep perilous cliffs where ledge was blasted to
accommodate the road. The highway snakes up through crowded Lowell.
There is a grey sensibility in
this city...even in sunlight the bleakness permeates like the ghost of silenced
industry weltering in the shadows of abandoned mills.
Albert Pond resumed his medical
practice upon returning from Europe, and though he indulged a select number of
close friends, his existence was largely solitary, but for the company of a
dog. Having had his taste of adventure, he was glad for the uneventful thing
that his life had become, relieved to be back in the familiar Queen Anne. Peace
of mind, however, remained elusive...
His dreams of war intermingled
with nightmares about Bethany's death. He would envision her sitting rigid,
creaking in a rocking chair at the foot of his bed, her face a damp mask of
crushed flower petals and garden soil, which largely obscured her bloated red
features. He was thankful for the obstruction.
Over time the night intrusions
became less frequent, the great muttering soldier's face went silent and the
compressed semblance of blooms died away like the annuals that once graced the
I can feel my excitement building
as I grow closer to my first destination. To think that I will actually be
seeing the house where Pond's journey began...how thrilling! I am now leaving
the highway, having driven for roughly an hour; I find myself amongst houses
and convenience stores, gas stations and other modern-day necessities. Before
long I am turning left onto Powell Street and pulling up outside the Queen Anne
that Pond built.
I recognize it immediately, for
I've seen a photograph of it taken in the mid-eighties for the obscure magazine
HAUNTS AND WONDERS, which ran an article on the Pond case. Incidentally, I
tried to track down and contact the author of that piece, only to find that he
had died in 1993.
The place does indeed look like a
doll's house, steep and Victorian, with a front-facing gable, bay windows and a
band of patterned shingles that runs above the porch-line. It has changed, of
course, the present owners having painted it green with white trim. They also
hung window boxes, and sometime between 1920 and now, the dark hedge of holly
was removed. Still, I shiver at the sight of the house. This is where it all
It was May, according to Dr.
Pond's journal, though the seasons might have been misaligned, for the chill
spoke more of November, and the sea was the color of ash. Not a religious man,
his rituals at that time were comforting repetitions...tea in the morning, the
rustling Telegram, a stroll along the shore with his retriever, Rooney.
The beach was empty but for gulls
and crows like chess pieces on the sand. The tide was coming in, as were rain
clouds. It was the dog that found the naked woman lying in the wet sand. Albert
heard the barks and saw the animal in the distance, dancing in agitated
half-circles at water's edge. Moving closer, he too saw the body. Incoming
waves draped rippling translucence over her legs and lower belly.
She was young and fetching, the
hair on her head as dark as the patch below. Her legs were closed and pointing
out to the open sea, her arms flung to either side, as if to mock Christ on his
cross. The doctor rushed to her side and bent down, first off thinking that she
must have drowned -- her coloring suggested as much; she was as pale as the
foam that nudged her limp arms. "She appeared so peaceful," Pond
wrote, "as if she were merely sleeping."
Before Albert could place a hand
on her throat to feel for a pulse, he saw her flattened breasts rise and fall.
The hand instead went to her cheek and rested there. "I spoke to her and
her eyes opened. Never had I seen such lovely eyes, nor have I since. They were
also the darkest eyes that I have ever witnessed."
The woman regarded the stranger
without alarm, or any other clearly identifiable expression, for that matter.
Pond asked her if she thought that she could move, and she sat up slowly,
dripping, her hair running down her throat like ink. He explained to her that
he was a doctor and that he was going to take her to safety.
He helped her to her feet and
noticed the impression her body had made in the grey sand, an imprint of her
graceful back. Waves tripped over each other as they rushed to swallow it.