Friday, October 4, 2013

Always Read the Manual First

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, is was not uncommon—at least in horror fiction—for rich white hobbyists to leave their estates and travel to obscure tropical locations, pilfer mysterious old ruins of their gold and jeweled artifacts, and then die horribly—as well they should. 

The consequences of disturbing a pharaoh’s tomb, whether done by grave robbers or a team of archaeologists, are familiar and dire.  Ignorance of the inevitable ancient curse is no defense.  The principle is not limited to the timeless burial monuments of Egypt.  It is applicable to hallowed and unhallowed sepulchers on all seven continents.  Therefore greed and curiosity in these matters must be tempered by precaution, though it rarely is.

‘Anything worth doing is worth doing well’.  If one is going to rob an ancient grave of its sacred talisman or mysteriously powerful figurine, he or she should know the right way to do it.  This seems to be the moral of Robert E. Howard’s The Thing on the Roof, a story published in the February 1932 issue of Weird Tales. The story shared the pages of that magazine with Donald Wandrei’s The Tree Men of M’bwa and Frank Belknap Long’s The Horror in the Hold, among others.

In Howard’s story, two archaeologists decide to make amends after a bitter professional dispute.  Tussman needs help in obtaining a first edition of Von Junzt’s Nameless Cults, since neither of them have access to a decent copy of the more reputable Necronomicon.  (Incidentally, you want the 1839 edition of Von Junzt’s book, if you are looking for it.)   Tussman, who is described as having repellent “mercenary instincts”, agrees to publicly apologize and retract his criticisms of the narrator’s scholarly work.  In exchange, the narrator will obtain for him the original 1839 version of Nameless Cults, also known as the Black Book, “not from its color, but because of its dark contents.”

Tussman needs the book to help with his expedition to a remote area of Honduras, where he had earlier located the mysterious “Temple of the Toad”.  The narrator supplies him with the desired volume, and Tussman eagerly skims through the tattered pages.  They describe a great red jewel carved in the shape of a toad, an ancient deity worshipped long ago, a tomb of the mummy of the last high priest, and a sealed underground chamber filled with treasure.  The jewel is referred to in various sources as a ‘key’. 

If Tussman can just break into the mummy’s tomb, steal the necklace with the big red jewel off the mummy’s neck and open the sealed chamber, all that gold underneath will be his.  It seems fairly straightforward.  Tussman heads for Honduras immediately, leaving the book by Von Junzt behind.  Meanwhile, the narrator continues reading at the point where Tussman had left off.  Uh-oh…

Several months later, an agitated Tussman invites the narrator to his estate and asks that he bring the Black Book.  Tussman gives him a vivid description of his expedition to the Temple of the Toad, how he broke into the crypt, obtained the red jewel from around the neck of the mummy, and used it to open the hidden door to the subterranean chamber.  But—there was no treasure there.  In disgust, he left that door wide open, exited the ancient temple, and returned home.  But it turns out that treasure is not what the ancient high priest kept down there, beneath the hidden door in the altar. 

Tussman leafs through the book again, and finds passages warning about the hazards of waking sleeping things, “that seem dead, but only lie waiting for some blind fool to wake them…” (This must surely be a paraphrase of the Lovecraftian couplet “That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die.”)

And speaking of ‘some blind fool’, Tussman says these words near the end of The Thing on the Roof, as his fate becomes ever clearer:  “—I should have read further in the Black Book…” 

You have to know what you are doing.

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