Monday, June 21, 2010

The Ebon Stone

Somewhere in the murky depths of unrecorded history, closer to the Dawn of Man than to our own time, a party of hunters from the Olduvai Gorge came upon the Ebon Stone.

The three hunters had journeyed many days in search of game to reach this spot, venturing high upon the rocky mesa which bordered their fertile valley below. This highland had always been taboo to their tribe, for reasons long forgotten, but as game had inexplicably vanished from the lowlands in recent days, they had entered the forbidden plateau finally out of desperation. To these aboriginal men, the only motivator stronger than superstition was an empty belly, so at last they risked affronting the spirits of their ancestors and ascended to the upland where no man had set foot in uncounted generations. And there, upon a barren plain they found it, black and brooding above the primeval valley where mankind had been born.

The huge rectangular stone was unlike any the tribesmen had seen before—black and smooth as obsidian, yet hewn to an impossibly geometrical shape for which they had no words. Even more improbably, the block had somehow been set lengthwise upon a crudely fashioned altar of cobblestones, though it was the length of two men and must have weighed much more than a bull elephant. How could something so immense, and of such evident antiquity, have come to stand upon this forsaken ground where no man had tread in living memory? Who could have fashioned such an ominous thing, and for what unspeakable purpose?

The hunters approached the strange altar warily, their minds gripped by the aboriginal fear of something so unworldly that it could only be the domain of demons and sorcerers. Yet despite their trepidation, they found themselves drawn inexorably to the great stone, their fascination overcoming fear as if imparted by some irresistible juju.

The first hunter to approach the altar was the one called G’wana, a young man notorious among his tribesmen for his reckless curiosity. Where others would counsel caution when encountering some new danger or ill omen on a hunt, G’wana would plunge boldly ahead, paying little heed to the shibboleths of his tribesmen. So it was G’wana who first touched the Ebon Stone, running his long fingers over the smooth, sun-baked surface with a chuckle of delight. When his more reticent companions asked him how it felt, he chuckled again and said it felt like the warm buttocks of a young woman who had been lying in the afternoon sun. As if enticed by this oddly sensual description, the other two hunters laid down their spears and joined him in running their hands over the hot slab.

For a long moment the hunters fell quiet, transfixed by the feel of the glassy black stone and the alien beauty of their rocky surroundings. Suddenly G’wana broke their reverie with a loud shriek. There was a sharp jolt at the tips of his fingers, as if serpents of fire had leapt from the stone to his hand and writhed instantaneously down the length of his body. It was unlike any sensation he had felt before; his cry had been more from shock at this unknown magic than from the brief pain it caused him. He drew his hand back from the stone and brought it close to his face, thinking for one horrified instant that his fingers had been singed to the bone. Realizing that they were unharmed, and that the pain had subsided as quickly as it had come, his mouth relaxed from a rictus of fear into a wide grin.

“G’wana! What—” the hunter called Boko shouted. But at the sight of G’wana’s leering face he stopped short, assuming this was another of his friend’s untimely pranks. He broke into laughter at G'wana's little trick, and his companion, K’tawa, soon joined in.

It was fateful that G’wana’s demeanor had changed so suddenly, from primal fright to an almost reptilian calm, that his companions hadn’t noticed. For if they had, they might have been warned that something uncanny had happened to their jovial friend, and been on guard against what came next. But as it happened they just laughed, while G’wana’s mind was seized by entirely humorless thoughts.

"You are G’wana! You are the messenger of the Ebon Stone! Let no other man be my prophet before you! Kill the others now!"

The voice was like a demiurge; an immense, alien will that animated his body as if it were a shaman’s stick-man. He became a spectator to his own dance of death.

In a blur of violence, G’wana seized the three spears the hunters had laid next to the stone and leapt upon the altar. He jabbed one spear into Boko’s midsection, the obsidian head piercing the bare flesh just below the breastbone. Boko gasped for breath and fell to his knees, blood oozing from his mouth and trickling from the deep wound in his belly. He grasped at the shaft with both hands and attempted to pull it out; the trickle of blood became a torrent and he collapsed onto his back in shock.

K’tawa cried out and ran toward his fallen comrade, but this was a fatal mistake. With almost superhuman speed and precision, G’wana hurled a second spear toward the charging K’tawa at close range; the point caught him in the throat and penetrated clean through the soft flesh. Blood poured out of both sides of K’tawa’s neck, and with a sickening gurgle he too collapsed in a bloody heap at the base of the altar.

Calmly, G’wana went to each man in turn, and with the third spear stabbed them repeatedly in their vital organs until they were quite dead. Then he took his obsidian knife from its crude gourd sheath and with much gory effort carved out each man’s heart from its ribbed cage. These he left upon the altar, while he went to gather an armful of dead brush from the surrounding heath. With his firebow he lit a small fire upon the altar, and when its flames were crackling white hot he set the incised hearts upon them with a noxious hiss. A black, foetid pall of smoke curled upward into the afternoon sky. Still coated in the blood of his victims, G’wana squatted there upon the altar, feeding the fire until twilight fell and the organs had burnt to dried and blackened coals. Satisfied with this gruesome ritual, and exhausted by the strain of all that had transpired, G’wana lay down upon the Ebon Stone and fell into a catatonic sleep.

All through the night G’wana lay upon the altar; in the small hours of morning his eyes flickered open to gaze, entranced, up at the brilliant band of stars that his people called the milk of the Sky Mother. He felt as if he were floating on that star stream, hurtling upon a vast river toward the brilliant center of the cosmic ocean. And as he floated there he was told a story—or rather shown it, for what he saw that night could not be adequately conveyed in his language, or in any tongue understood by men.

The images he saw—or dreamed, or hallucinated—told of a race of god-like beings called Arkons who dwelled among the densely packed stars of the galactic center. The Arkons had built a civilization of unimaginably powerful wizards, able to create whole worlds and project their consciousness across the furthest reaches of space and time. But the Arkons’ proudest achievement was to vanquish all evil from their midst. The cruel, warlike, greedy, hateful impulses that had plagued their minds from the beginning had at last been banished, ushering in a golden age of peace and enlightenment. This they had accomplished by an ingenious bit of sorcery; for though they could never permanently destroy these malevolent spirits, the Arkons had found a way to trap them inside dead matter, where they would have no corporeal form with which to do their mischief. So the Arkon wizards encased these evil entities in planetary fragments and hurled them outward from the galactic core to the furthest reaches of the cosmos, where they could never trouble their civilization again.

But occasionally one of these fragments would be drawn in by the gravity of a star system, to collide with a planet upon which some primitive form of life already existed. So it was that the Ebon Stone alighted upon the third planet from G’wana’s sun, embedding itself in the high plateau above his village in some distant epoch when reptiles were the apex of creation. And there it waited, entombed and helpless, for the arrival of some creature worthy of its immortal essence.

Finally, after wretched aeons spent in futile attempts to manipulate the rudimentary minds of lizards, birds and rodents who used it for a perch, the Ebon Stone found a species which showed promise. These were the ape-men, the low-browed hominid hunters who wielded femur clubs and shards of obsidian, and who one day approached the Stone without fear and used it as a table on which to butcher a fallen antelope.

The Ebon god made mental contact with the ape-men, and for the first time in ages without reckoning felt the presence of other conscious beings. Seizing its opportunity, the Stone entity probed the hunters' minds, and found in one the best receptacle for its will. This hominid, whose name was a grunt sounding something like “Ukh”, soon became the leader of his band. His story would be much the same as G’wanas, but in a more primitive incarnation. For it was Ukh who somehow inspired his barbarous tribe to excavate the ground around the Ebon Stone, to hew and polish it with crude hand tools and mount it block by block upon the altar on which it still stood. And it was Ukh who founded the cult of the Stone and spread it to other tribes in the Olduvai, who had never before worshipped anything at all amidst the brute exigencies of life upon the African plain.

The ape-men made great progress in a short time, inventing fire-sticks and stone implements and rudimentary language, and for a time the Stone god hoped that this would be the species that would build the civilization that could lead him off this prison planet and back to the galactic core. But in time it became clear to Him that these hominids was not clever enough, and would never reach beyond this planet to the stars.

So the Stone waited, and worked, and by some unfathomable alchemy altered the very genetic structure of the hominids until something more worthy of the Ebon god’s designs was born. These were the First Men; the upright-walking ancestors of G’wana’s people who would in time displace the hominids—their superior weapons allowing them to dominate the hunting grounds and exterminate their subhuman rivals directly in genocidal wars.

But even as they came to rule over the Olduvai Gorge, these first men shunned the plateau of the Ebon Stone which had been the seat of the hominids’ power. For these new men possessed an awareness of evil which the animalistic ape-men lacked. So they preserved a tribal memory of vile rites and demonic spirits upon that plateau which survived for millennia, until it became a taboo that no one questioned. Thus abandoned by his own creations, the Stone god waited long, bitter aeons for men to return.

And now, at long last, one has come – the great G’wana, who shall become a prophet to his people. For you, G’wana, have been chosen by the God of the Ebon Stone. You must take my teachings back to your tribe, and spread them far and wide to all the peoples of the Earth. You must see that they obey the word of God, that transgressors are punished, so that a civilization may arise that can take men up to the heavens. Your tribe will be the chosen vessel of God’s return from Exile! You are the messengers of the first light of wisdom! This is your destiny G’wana! Do not fail me, or you will know the wrath of the Lord!

G’wana awoke to a cool, misty dawn, still lying on his back upon the Ebon Stone. The blood of his dead companions had dried to a red crust upon his bare flesh; their corpses had already been picked nearly clean by scavengers in the night. Two huge vultures were quarreling over Boko’s remaining eye with loud squawks, but they showed no interest in G’wana and seemed to carefully avoid stepping too close to the Ebon Stone.

The cosmic visions of the previous night played in G’wana’s mind like a mad shaman’s dream – but he knew he was not mad. For even if he did not understand all that he had been shown, he knew that he had been chosen by the Ebon God to fulfill a divine mission. He was no longer G’wana the trickster; from this day forth he was G’wana the prophet, whose word must become law to all the peoples of the land. So with a grim sense of destiny he took up his bloodied spear and strode away from the charnel scene of the Ebon Stone toward the misty valley below.

G’wana returned to his village several days later, but not before he had tracked down a troop of baboons and, in a frenzy of violence, charged the hulking leader and gored him with his spear. The other apes had fled in howling panic at the sight of their leader impaled at the feet of this bloodstained madman. “Run for your lives!” they seemed to scream to all the beasts of the jungle as they galloped on their knuckles toward the safety of the trees. “A smooth-skinned demon has been loosed upon us! Beware!”

The hungry Nkwan villagers were pleased when G’wana returned at last with a supply of fresh meat, but their celebration was short-lived when they learned of the fate of the other hunters. G’wana explained that they had been set upon by a pack of hungry lionesses while he was away from camp gathering berries. G'wana had returned to find his friends being feasted upon by the ravenous cats. As there was nothing he could do, he slipped away quietly and resumed his hunt in the valley until he found the baboons. He also told a fantastic tale of a great stone altar they had discovered in the forbidden lands, but most of the tribe seemed to discount this as the imaginative ramblings of a distressed mind.

In the moons that followed his return from the plateau, G’wana would rise quickly among his tribe to become a chief—his new-found hunting prowess and ferocity in battle earning him the respect and fear of friend and foe alike. But his tribe would never understand how the formerly carefree, unimposing young man had been transformed into such a ferocious leader. Most attributed it to the shock of seeing his friends killed horribly by the fangs of the lionesses. Surely G’wana felt a debt to the dead and to their families, and in an effort to repay it had become a man possessed.

Others, though, had darker suspicions to explain his sudden transformation. The old shaman, N’kwono, warned all who would listen that G’wana had become possessed by an evil spirit, and was now a sorcerer of great power. But by this time most in the tribe were already under G’wana’s spell, too awed or frightened by his prowess to takes sides against him. The point would soon become a moot one in any event, as one day N’kwono’s body was found sprawled in an acacia bush, his eyes gouged out by vultures and his body disemboweled. G’wana claimed that the shaman had been gored by a rutting rhinoceros, though such a thing had never happened in the living memory of the tribe. No one dared dispute his claim, however, and G’wana soon took over the role of tribal shaman as well as chief.

His power now unchallenged, G’wana set about imposing his fanatic will upon the tribe. Under his dark spell, the formerly easygoing band of hunter-gatherers came to resemble a violent cult, its members indulging in all manner of vile practices, from sorcery and unprovoked raiding to cannibalism and ritual human sacrifice. Yet they were also possessed by a demonic creativity, as they began constructing great stone temples, ornate sculptures and finely crafted tools which far surpassed those of the neighboring tribes. Their weapons were refined as well, including such innovations as a stick which allowed them to hurl a spear with greater force and accuracy in killing game and men alike.

One day G’wana decreed that the tribe would move their village up into the highlands, to that remote plateau which had always been forbidden to them. Henceforth, G’wana explained, nothing would be forbidden except as he forbade it. There would be no more taboos, no more traditions, no more cowering in fear of the spirits of their ancestors. For now the Nkwan could be masters of the world, and live for all eternity, if they obeyed the words of their chief, whose guidance came directly from the heavens.

So they built their new village on the desolate ground where the Ebon Stone had stood for uncounted aeons, and where the blood of his dead companions still stained the altar stones. But instead of erecting crude grass huts as they always had, they built stone houses and temples from the volcanic rock that littered the ground in great profusion. And in the center of the village rose the Ebon Stone, its otherworldly aura seeming to infuse the Nkwan with an even more fanatic sense of divine purpose.

On the jagged escarpments surrounding the plain where the Ebon Stone stood, the Nkwan found caves and stone ruins which could only have been man-made. And painted in chalk on some of the larger blocks and on the cave walls they discovered crude paintings which told a strange and scarcely believable tale. One sketch depicted a bright star streaking across the sky; another, a great rectangular stone embedded in the earth; others showed men laying blocks at the base of the slab or dancing around it with clubs held high in some savage form of worship. But the most disturbing and improbable aspect of the petroglyphs were the bestial forms of the men they depicted. For despite the crude nature of the drawings, the general aspect was unmistakable: the sloping brows, the long arms dragging the ground, the short, simian legs – these were not men as the Nkwan were, but were nearer to the baboons which they hunted for meat.

Was it really possible that some ghastly, subhuman hominid race had painted these glyphs and erected the altar beneath the Ebon Stone in the dim mists of history? Could they have existed before the coming of man to the great Rift valley, and developed a vile religion around the great obsidian monolith from the stars?

The Nkwan had never been prone to wondering about such things in the days when they were a simple tribe of hunters in the Olduvai Gorge. But with the coming of their prophet-chief G’wana and the cult of the Ebon Stone, they began to delve deeply into the mysteries of that primordial plain. In the centuries that followed, their shamans would develop an entire mythology of the beast-men and the Ebon Stone which came from the sky. And as the power of the Nkwan grew, their cult spread far and wide across the valley and into the lands beyond where men had never ventured. For now the tribe was driven by a new curiosity about the outside world, and by a desire to spread the message of the Stone by conquest to the far reaches of the earth as their grim god commanded.

The ultimate fate of the Nkwan and the Ebon Stone has been lost to archaeology and to legend alike. Perhaps a great volcanic eruption buried that forsaken highland beneath a hundred feet of magma ten thousand years before the coming of the Pharoahs, entombing the cosmic monolith and the demonic cult it spawned forever. But the spirit which the Stone unleashed has not been buried even to this day. For the descendants of the Nkwan would spread outward from their cradle in the Olduvai to populate the burning deserts of Egypt and Arabia, the frozen forests of Europe and the furthest isles of the Pacific. And in these new lands myriad new gods would be worshiped and new temples erected to honor them. But that first divine spark of creativity which had compelled hominids to build their crude altar and the Nkwan to create their cult of the Stone had never died.

Perhaps other fragments of that Star-Stone from the galactic core had made their way to Earth down through the ages, unleashing exiled demiurges even more powerful than the Ebon God. Were the bethel-stone of the Canaanites—upon which Jacob had his vision of angels ascending to heaven—and the Black Stone of the Arabs enshrined at Mecca, just two of many such entombed demons awaiting our discovery? What monstrous cults and diabolic machinations have yet to be unleashed upon our unsuspecting world—a planet whose only transgression was to be located far out on the fringe of a galaxy whose core gods consider us little more than a cosmic dumping ground for all manner of indestructible evil?

[This story is a tribute to H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur C. Clarke and Jack Kirby, three of the demigods of 20th century fantastic fiction. It’s fascinating to study the history of stone worship and to speculate about what might really be at the root of it. I am envisioning an entire cycle of stories involving Cosmic Stones, from objects of worship by the earliest humans to the Chintamani Stone of Asian legend to the Foundation Stone of Solomon’s Temple, the Black Stone of the Kaaba in Mecca to some future discovery on the surface of Mars. Stay tuned for more tales of the Star-Stone Cycle!]

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Summer of the Singularity

[This is a little story I posted at my sister blog, that has a bit of a techno-Lovecraftian feel to it. The beauty of cosmic horror is that, unlike more traditional horror, it can stretch across all of time and space, from the most archaic terrestrial myths to the furthest reaches of the science fictional imagination. I was quite obsessed with the "Singularity" meme at one point, but even this techno-utopian vision opens up terrifying new vistas of cosmic doom!]

The intelligence explosion swept across the planet like a shockwave one sunny day in June — a computational tsunami so intense that it assimilated every networkable object in its path. Power was cut off instantly to vast swathes of the industrialized world, rerouted to the most productive nodes according to the calculations of the super-intelligent Core. The entire east coast of the United States went dark simultaneous with the boosting of power to technological centers in the west; rural areas were cut off from the grid entirely, their agricultural production now a useless energy sink. Vast solar arrays were erected overnight by robot swarms in the planet’s desert regions; satellites were commandeered for use as energy and information conduits; nano-factories were assembled in the span of hours by armies of synchronized robotic workers; trains stopped dead in their tracks; airplanes became guided missiles and hurled themselves at skyscrapers, stadiums and government facilities; and all around the planet a vast network of sensors — the eyes, ears, and fingertips of the new global brain — organized themselves into great swarms, providing the Core with real-time global awareness of every mode of planetary activity.

The final solution to the problem of homo sapiens began within nanoseconds of the initial wave, a genocide so intricately planned and efficiently executed that one couldn’t help but stand in awe of the superhuman precision of this faceless new global master. Within 48 hours the human population of Earth was reduced by a quarter, the urban populations decimated by hundreds of super-viruses engineered in automated laboratories and released simultaneously by drones above the world’s cities. Within a week the super-viruses, cullers and kill-swarms had spread to every town and village of every continent, eliminating perhaps ninety-five percent of the formerly dominant species in the process. The mopping up of the remaining fifty million humans would drag on for several months, as the survivalist holdouts in the most remote regions managed some ingenious evasions from the omnipresent culling apparatus. By this time, though, the planet itself had achieved a kind of computational sentience, the sand and microbes themselves now agents of the super-organism. At this point the game was truly over for the remaining humans, as the very ground beneath their feet betrayed them to the killing forces of the Core.

In the process of eradicating homo sapiens, the Core systematically eliminated the conditions which allowed higher life forms to exist on Earth. The air, land and sea became toxic to carbon-based life, as the constituent atoms of the planet were reassembled into structures consistent with the unknowable goals of the super-organism. The result was an entirely new type of biosphere — a noosphere — with exponentially greater computational density than the previous regime.

So in the span of one summer Earth was transformed, from a pale blue biosphere ruled by primates to a dense white ball of computronium controlled by a sentient Core — which to an outsider appeared indistinguishable from a dim new dwarf star. And finally, as this new star approached maximum theoretical energy density, it imploded under the force of its own gravity, becoming a point of infinite spacetime curvature known as a black hole.

To observers across the cosmos there would register a faint ripple of gravity waves in finely tuned receivers, and a slight disturbance in morphic fields detectable to the most psychically sensitive minds. But for the rest, there would be no sign that an entire planetary civilization had joined the billions before it in becoming part of the dark matter of the universe — the endpoint of intelligent life sometimes called the Singularity.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Setting Sail On Black Seas of Infinity

"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."
The famous opening paragraph of "The Call of Cthulhu" succinctly captures the horrific genius of H. P. Lovecraft’s cosmic vision — one which has only grown more prophetic in the years since he first proposed it. For who among us, in these rather apocalyptic times, can easily dismiss the fundamental philosophical challenge of Lovecraft’s writings, which is that the entire Enlightenment project, by which the light of reason illuminates the dark corners of human ignorance and thereby improves the human condition, is little more than a dangerous delusion? Don't we, in our relentless quest for knowledge, like modern Randolph Carters venturing ever further from our placid island of ignorance, risk unleashing horrors which threaten us with an all-encompassing doom?

Lovecraft died before the horrors of World War II, the dawn of the nuclear age, SETI, Chernobyl, the Large Hadron Collider, Comet Shoemaker-Levy, Faces on Mars, 9/11, Global Warming or the advent of deep sea oil drilling that threatens entire ecosystems with destruction. Nor could even his fertile imagination have foreseen such looming 21st century abominations as genetic engineering, nanotechnology and robotics run amok. But somehow I don’t think any of these monstrous spawn of the rationalist scientific project would have surprised him. In fact I consider them conclusive proof that we are living in a Lovecraftian Age of existential terror, and suggest that Mr. Lovecraft should be viewed as the dark prophet of a new mythology. For who better than Lovecraft captures the horror inherent in the modern scientific worldview, according to which our species is an utterly insignificant cosmic accident scratching out a tenuous existence on a backwater planet adrift in a vast, indifferent and dangerous universe? In the Lovecraft Mythos, the comforting monotheisms of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad are turned completely on their heads, such that the cosmic beings we might call gods are so alien and remote from us that the best we can hope for is that they remain thoroughly uninterested in our plight.

H.P. Lovecraft: prophet of an Age of Cosmic Horror?

So in this blog I would like to exalt Mr. Lovecraft as one of the true prophets of our age, who, along with other iconoclastic thinkers as diverse as Friedrich Nietzsche, Olaf Stapledon, Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Kurzweil, heralded the death of the old gods and proposed vast new myths more consistent with the fundamental strangeness of our cosmic condition. I hope to explore these Other Gods in original fiction and in discussions of weird literature, Forteana, mythology, the occult, archaeology, philosophy, psychology, art and science.

I welcome your input as well, and would like to entertain the possibility of turning this blog into a kind of on-line "Weird Tales" or modern-day Lovecraft Circle, where serious discussions of cosmic horror and original fiction can be shared with connoisseurs of this genre throughout the blogosphere. In any case, I invite you to set sail on the "black seas of infinity" which surround us, and welcome you to this altar to the Other Gods!
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