Benjamin Lassiter was coming to the unavoidable conclusion that the woman who had written A Walking Tour of the British Coastline, the book he was carrying in his backpack, had never been on a walking tour of any kind, and would probably not recognise the British coastline if it were to dance through her bedroom at the head of a marching band, singing "I'm the British Coastline" in a loud and cheerful voice while accompanying itself on the kazoo.
He had been following her advice for five days now and had little to show
for it, except blisters and a backache. All British seaside resorts contain
a number of bed-and-breakfast establishments, who will be only too delighted to
put you up in the "off-season" was one such piece of advice. Ben
had crossed it out and written in the margin beside it: All British seaside
resorts contain a handful of bed-and-breakfast establishments, the owners of
which take off to
He had added a number of other marginal notes, too. Such as Do not repeat not under any circumstances order fried eggs again in any roadside cafe and What is it with the fish-and-chips thing? and No they are not. That last was written beside a paragraph which claimed that, if there was one thing that the inhabitants of scenic villages on the British coastline were pleased to see, it was a young American tourist on a walking tour.
For five hellish days, Ben had walked from village to village, had drunk sweet tea and instant coffee in cafeterias and cafes and stared out at grey rocky vistas and at the slate-coloured sea, shivered under his two thick sweaters, got wet, and failed to see any of the sights that were promised.
Sitting in the bus shelter in which he had unrolled his sleeping bag one night, he had begun to translate key descriptive words: charming he decided, meant nondescript; scenic meant ugly but with a nice view if the rain ever lets up; delightful probably meant We've never been here and don't know anyone who has. He had also come to the conclusion that the more exotic the name of the village, the duller the village.
Thus it was that Ben Lassiter came, on the fifth day, somewhere north of
Bootle, to the
On the seafront were three bed-and-breakfasts next to each other: Sea View, Mon Repose and Shub Niggurath, each with a neon VACANCIES sign turned off in the window of the front parlour, each with a CLOSED FOR THE SEASON notice thumbtacked to the front door.
There were no cafes open on the seafront. The lone fish-and-chip shop had a CLOSED sign up. Ben waited outside for it to open as the grey afternoon light faded into dusk. Finally a small, slightly frog-faced woman came down the road, and she unlocked the door of the shop. Ben asked her when they would be open for business, and she looked at him, puzzled, and said, "It's Monday, dear. We're never open on Monday." Then she went into the fish-and-chip shop and locked the door behind her, leaving Ben cold and hungry on her doorstep.
Ben had been raised in a dry town in northern
The Innsmouth pub was called The Book of Dead Names and the
sign over the door informed Ben that the proprietor was one A. Al-Hazred,
licensed to sell wines and spirits. Ben wondered if this meant that they would
serve Indian food, which he had eaten on his arrival in
The Saloon Bar was almost empty. It smelled like last week's spilled beer and the day-before-yesterday's cigarette smoke. Behind the bar was a plump woman with bottle-blonde hair. Sitting in one corner were a couple of gentlemen wearing long grey raincoats and scarves. They were playing dominoes and sipping dark brown foam-topped beerish drinks from dimpled glass tankards.
Ben walked over to the bar. "Do you sell food here?"
The barmaid scratched the side of her nose for a moment, then admitted, grudgingly, that she could probably do him a ploughman's.
Ben had no idea what this meant and found himself, for the hundredth time, wishing that A Walking Tour of the British Coastline had an American-English phrase book in the back. "Is that food?" he asked.
"Okay. I'll have one of those."
"And to drink?"
"We haven't got any Coke."
"Well, what do you have? Sprite? 7UP? Gatorade?"
She looked blanker than previously. Then she said, "I think there's a bottle or two of cherryade in the back."
"That'll be fine."
"It'll be five pounds and twenty pence, and I'll bring you over your ploughman's when it's ready."
Ben decided as he sat at a small and slightly sticky wooden table, drinking something fizzy that both looked and tasted a bright chemical red, that a ploughman's was probably a steak of some kind. He reached this conclusion, coloured, he knew, by wishful thinking, from imagining rustic, possibly even bucolic, ploughmen leading their plump oxen through fresh-ploughed fields at sunset and because he could, by then, with equanimity and only a little help from others, have eaten an entire ox.
"Here you go. Ploughman's," said the barmaid, putting a plate down in front of him.
That a ploughman's turned out to be a rectangular slab of sharp-tasting
cheese, a lettuce leaf, an undersized tomato with a thumb-print in it, a mound
of something wet and brown that tasted like sour jam, and a small, hard, stale
roll, came as a sad disappointment to Ben, who had already decided that the
British treated food as some kind of punishment. He chewed the cheese and the
lettuce leaf, and cursed every ploughman in
The gentlemen in grey raincoats, who had been sitting in the corner, finished their game of dominoes, picked up their drinks, and came and sat beside Ben. "What you drinking?" one of them asked, curiously.
"It's called cherryade," he told them. "It tastes like something from a chemical factory."
"Interesting you should say that," said the shorter of the two. "Interesting you should say that. Because I had a friend worked in a chemical factory and he never drank cherryade." He paused dramatically and then took a sip of his brown drink. Ben waited for him to go on, but that appeared to be that; the conversation had stopped.
In an effort to appear polite, Ben asked, in his turn, "So, what are you guys drinking?"
The taller of the two strangers, who had been looking lugubrious, brightened up. "Why, that's exceedingly kind of you. Pint of Shoggoth's Old Peculiar for me, please."
"And for me, too," said his friend. "I could murder a Shoggoth's. 'Ere, I bet that would make a good advertising slogan. 'I could murder a Shoggoth's.' I should write to them and suggest it. I bet they'd be very glad of me suggestin' it."
Ben went over to the barmaid, planning to ask her for two pints of Shoggoth's Old Peculiar and a glass of water for himself, only to find she had already poured three pints of the dark beer. Well, he thought, might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, and he was certain it couldn't be worse than the cherryade. He took a sip. The beer had the kind of flavour which, he suspected, advertisers would describe as full-bodied, although if pressed they would have to admit that the body in question had been that of a goat.
He paid the barmaid and manoeuvered his way back to his new friends.
"So. What you doin' in Innsmouth?" asked the taller of the two. "I suppose you're one of our American cousins, come to see the most famous of English villages."
"They named the one in
"Is there an Innsmouth in the States?" asked Ben.
"I should say so," said the smaller man. "He wrote about it all the time. Him whose name we don't mention."
"I'm sorry?" said Ben.
The little man looked over his shoulder, then he hissed, very loudly, "H. P. Lovecraft!"
"I told you not to mention that name," said his friend, and he took a sip of the dark brown beer. "H. P. Lovecraft. H. P. bloody Lovecraft. H. bloody P. bloody Love bloody craft." He stopped to take a breath. "What did he know. Eh? I mean, what did he bloody know?"
Ben sipped his beer. The name was vaguely familiar; he remembered it from rummaging through the pile of old-style vinyl LPs in the back of his father's garage. "Weren't they a rock group?"
"Wasn't talkin' about any rock group. I mean the writer."
Ben shrugged. "I've never heard of him," he admitted. "I really mostly only read Westerns. And technical manuals."
The little man nudged his neighbour. "Here. Wilf. You hear that? He's never heard of him."
"Well. There's no harm in that. I used to read that Zane Grey," said the taller.
"Yes. Well. That's nothing to be proud of. This bloke—what did you say your name was?"
"Ben. Ben Lassiter. And you are…?"
The little man smiled; he looked awfully like a frog, thought Ben. "I'm Seth," he said. And my friend here is called Wilf."
"Charmed," said Wilf.
"Hi," said Ben.
"Frankly," said the little man, "I agree with you."
"You do?" said Ben, perplexed.
The little man nodded. "Yer. H. P. Lovecraft. I don't know what the fuss is about. He couldn't bloody write." He slurped his stout, then licked the foam from his lips with a long and flexible tongue. "I mean, for starters, you look at them words he used. Eldritch. You know what eldritch means?"
Ben shook his head. He seemed to be discussing literature with two strangers in an English pub while drinking beer. He wondered for a moment if he had become someone else, while he wasn't looking. The beer tasted less bad, the farther down the glass he went, and was beginning to erase the lingering aftertaste of the cherryade.
"Eldritch. Means weird. Peculiar. Bloody odd. That's what it means. I looked it up. In a dictionary. And gibbous?"
Ben shook his head again.
"Gibbous means the moon was nearly full. And what about that one he was always calling us, eh? Thing. Wossname. Starts with a b. Tip of me tongue…"
"Bastards?" suggested Wilf.
"Nah. Thing. You know. Batrachian. That's it. Means looked like frogs."
"Hang on," said Wilf. "I thought they was, like, a kind of camel."
Seth shook his head vigorously. "S'definitely frogs. Not camels. Frogs."
Wilf slurped his Shoggoth's. Ben sipped his, carefully, without pleasure.
"So?" said Ben.
"They've got two humps," interjected Wilf, the tall one.
"Frogs?" asked Ben.
"Nah. Batrachians. Whereas your average dromederary camel, he's only got one. It's for the long journey through the desert. That's what they eat."
"Frogs?" asked Ben.
"Camel humps." Wilf fixed Ben with one bulging yellow eye. "You listen to me, matey-me-lad. After you've been out in some trackless desert for three or four weeks, a plate of roasted camel hump starts looking particularly tasty."
Seth looked scornful. "You've never eaten a camel hump."
"I might have done," said Wilf.
"Yes, but you haven't. You've never even been in a desert."
"Well, let's say, just supposing I'd been on a pilgrimage to the Tomb of Nyarlathotep…"
"The black king of the ancients who shall come in the night from the east and you shall not know him, you mean?"
"Of course that's who I mean."
"Stupid question, if you ask me."
"You could of meant someone else with the same name."
"Well, it's not exactly a common name, is it? Nyarlathotep. There's not exactly going to be two of them, are there? 'Hello, my name's Nyarlathotep, what a coincidence meeting you here, funny them bein' two of us,' I don't exactly think so. Anyway, so I'm trudging through them trackless wastes, thinking to myself, I could murder a camel hump…"
"But you haven't, have you? You've never been out of Innsmouth harbour."
"There." Seth looked at Ben triumphantly. Then he leaned over and whispered into Ben's ear, "He gets like this when he gets a few drinks into him, I'm afraid."
"I heard that," said Wilf.
"Good," said Seth. "Anyway. H. P. Lovecraft. He'd write one of his bloody sentences. Ahem. 'The gibbous moon hung low over the eldritch and batrachian inhabitants of squamous Dulwich.' What does he mean, eh? What does he mean? I'll tell you what he bloody means. What he bloody means is that the moon was nearly full, and everybody what lived in Dulwich was bloody peculiar frogs. That's what he means."
"What about the other thing you said?" asked Wilf.
"Squamous. Wossat mean, then?"
Seth shrugged. "Haven't a clue," he admitted. "But he used it an awful lot."
There was another pause.
"I'm a student," said Ben. "Gonna be a metallurgist." Somehow he had managed to finish the whole of his first pint of Shoggoth's Old Peculiar, which was, he realised, pleasantly shocked, his first alcoholic beverage. "What do you guys do?"
"We," said Wilf, "are acolytes."
"Of Great Cthulhu," said Seth proudly.
"Yeah?" said Ben. "And what exactly does that involve?"
"My shout," said Wilf "Hang on." Wilf went over to the barmaid and came back with three more pints. "Well," he said, "what it involves is, technically speaking, not a lot right now. The acolytin' is not really what you might call laborious employment in the middle of its busy season. That is, of course, because of his bein' asleep. Well, not exactly asleep. More like, if you want to put a finer point on it, dead."
" 'In his house at Sunken R'lyeh dead Cthulhu lies dreaming,' " interjected Seth. "Or, as the poet has it, 'That is not dead what can eternal lie—' "
" 'But in Strange Aeons—' " chanted Wilf.
"—and by Strange he means bloody peculiar—"
"Exactly. We are not talking your normal Aeons here at all."
" 'But in Strange Aeons even Death can die.' "
Ben was mildly surprised to find that he seemed to be drinking another full-bodied pint of Shoggoth's Old Peculiar. Somehow the taste of rank goat was less offensive on the second pint. He was also delighted to notice that he was no longer hungry, that his blistered feet had stopped hurting, and that his companions were charming, intelligent men whose names he was having difficulty in keeping apart. He did not have enough experience with alcohol to know that this was one of the symptoms of being on your second pint of Shoggoth's Old Peculiar.
"So right now," said Seth, or possibly Wilf, "the business is a bit light. Mostly consisting of waiting."
"And praying," said Wilf, if he wasn't Seth.
"And praying. But pretty soon now, that's all going to change."
"Yeah?" asked Ben. "How's that?"
"Well," confided the taller one. "Any day now, Great Cthulhu (currently impermanently deceased), who is our boss, will wake up in his undersea living-sort-of quarters."
"And then," said the shorter one, "he will stretch and yawn and get dressed—"
"Probably go to the toilet, I wouldn't be at all surprised."
"Maybe read the papers."
"—And having done all that, he will come out of the ocean depths and consume the world utterly."
Ben found this unspeakably funny. "Like a ploughman's," he said.
"Exactly. Exactly. Well put, the young American gentleman. Great Cthulhu will gobble the world up like a ploughman's lunch, leaving but only the lump of Branston pickle on the side of the plate."
That's the brown stuff?" asked Ben. They assured him that it was, and he went up to the bar and brought them back another three pints of Shoggoth's Old Peculiar.
He could not remember much of the conversation that followed. He remembered finishing his pint, and his new friends inviting him on a walking tour of the village, pointing out the various sights to him "that's where we rent our videos, and that big building next door is the Nameless Temple of Unspeakable Gods and on Saturday mornings there's jumble sale in the crypt…"
He explained to them his theory of the walking tour book and told them, emotionally, that Innsmouth was both scenic and charming. He told them that they were the best friends he had ever had and that Innsmouth was delightful.
The moon was nearly full, and in the pale moonlight both of his new friends did look remarkably like huge frogs. Or possibly camels.
The three of them walked to the end of the rusted pier, and Seth and/or Wilf pointed out to Ben the ruins of Sunken R'lyeh in the bay, visible in the moonlight, beneath the sea, and Ben was overcome by what he kept explaining was a sudden and unforeseen attack of seasickness and was violently and unendingly sick over the metal railings into the black sea below…After that it all got a bit odd.
Ben Lassiter awoke on the cold hillside with his head pounding and a bad taste in his mouth. His head was resting on his backpack. There was rocky moorland on each side of him, and no sign of a road, and no sign of any village, scenic, charming, delightful, or even picturesque.
He stumbled and limped almost a mile to the nearest road and walked along it until he reached a petrol station.
They told him that there was no village anywhere locally named Innsmouth. No village with a pub called The Book of Dead Names. He told them about two men, named Wilf and Seth, and a friend of theirs, called Strange Ian, who was fast asleep somewhere, if he wasn't dead, under the sea. They told him that they didn't think much of American hippies who wandered about the countryside taking drugs, and that he'd probably feel better after a nice cup of tea and a tuna and cucumber sandwich, but that if he was dead set on wandering the country taking drugs, young Ernie who worked the afternoon shift would be all too happy to sell him a nice little bag of homegrown cannabis, if he could come back after lunch.
Ben pulled out his A Walking Tour of the British Coastline book and tried to find Innsmouth in it to prove to them that he had not dreamed it, but he was unable to locate the page it had been on—if ever it had been there at all. Most of one page, however, had been ripped out, roughly, about halfway through the book.
And then Ben telephoned a taxi, which took him to Bootle railway station, where he caught a train, which took him to Manchester, where he got on an aeroplane, which took him to Chicago, where he changed planes and flew to Dallas, where he got another plane going north, and he rented a car and went home.
He found the knowledge that he was over 600 miles away from the ocean very
comforting; although, later in life, he moved to
A couple of weeks after his return home Ben posted his annotated copy of A Walking Tour of the British Coastline to the author, care of her publisher, with an extensive letter containing a number of helpful suggestions for future editions. He also asked the author if she would send him a copy of the page that had been ripped from his guidebook, to set his mind at rest; but he was secretly relieved, as the days turned into months, and the months turned into years and then into decades, that she never replied.