“But, surely, to make such a statement, you’d need to read the entire Lovecraft canon, Jared, which you haven’t,” Peter Hundt said as he and Jared Barlow walked through the crisp, wintery sunshine of early November, making their way back to their adjacent offices in the Humanities building.
“I’ve read all I need to,” Jared replied with enough volume to make an echo between the college buildings. His booming voice carried the same acidic edge to it as when he found an article that agreed with his negative opinion of Poe’s poetry and demanded that Peter read it. “And as one who teaches creative writing, I’ll not taint my mind—or my students’ minds, God help them–with Lovecraft’s appeal to the weak minded. That’s why I say that I hate Lovecraft. His constant pandering to the so-called dark aspects of human nature simply underscores a self-defeating attitude. And his woeful prose, Hundt? All that lurid detail, his lack of specificity, the telling rather than the showing? Mood without meaning, I tell you!” Students pointed at them, giggling, as Jared Barlow’s opinion thrust itself onto the world.
“Perhaps, Barlow,” Peter said in more reserved tones, reverting to his friend’s last name as he often did to show the man when he ventured too far, “but does your opinion need to be asserted over a student so forcefully? I just watched as that lad you lectured on the sins of Lovecraft lost enthusiasm for the work you assigned him. How is he supposed—”
“I saved him the trouble of finding that there is no decent research, no critical opinion or detailed analysis done on Lovecraft’s work, beyond the merely encyclopedic—”
“—supposed to develop a critical mindset of the fiction he loves?” Peter finished with force of his own. It stopped Barlow’s rant, though just for a few strides. As they neared the Humanities Building, an assembly of young women stood before the door, and Jared Barlow found his voice again:
“I simply will not stand by and see my student waste his time. Whose job is it, if not ours, to direct these poor, misguided students,” here, he waived in grand fashion to the listening co-eds, “into better, more worthwhile things? Besides, it makes a paper a tautological nightmare: ‘H.P. Lovecraft’s exciting descriptions makes his work classic horror.’ It turns what could be at least basic analysis into a recitation of lurid passages. God! I hope never to read such a thing again!” The young men shook their heads and walked away. The young women beamed at Barlow, who winked back at them.
“Guiding would be one thing,” Peter said as they entered the hum of the central Humanities offices. They stopped, each, at the door of his office. “Simply bulldozing that boy’s perspective does more harm than good, Barlow, regardless of his interests. Surely, we must guide as we allow room for growth? Why not simply suggest to him better writers, Bloch or Derleth, say? Readers must start somewhere. After all, by your own admission, you started with Kenneth Robeson and Robert Howard as a young reader, and you say that you can no longer stand to read either of them now.”
“True, Peter,” Jared replied, his hand on his office door, ready to shut out Peter Hundt’s opinion, “but those men I read, as flawed as their prose might be, both eschewed the weak-minded protagonist. Their characters, often rudely drawn, true, forged ahead, adapted to, thought and fought their ways through all obstacles with the strength of their minds as well as their fists or weapons. Lovecraft simply panders to the weak-willed fascination with hidden knowledge, the lure of occult fixes to human problems, Hundt. Lovecraft’s people delight in their own destruction. They are too ready to believe the fantasy that if something is hidden in the dark, it is worth more than what is presented, clearly, in the light. Puerility, Professor Hundt, is counterproductive to the development of the critical mind.”
Though his door did not slam in Peter Hundt’s face, it did close with a very final thud, signaling the end of the un-asked for lesson. Hundt sighed and dropped his head, partly in relief. These talks with Jared Barlow tired him, partly because he did not share Barlow’s sense of certainty about his own critical methods. Besides, Jared Barlow was something of a local star. Peter Hundt offered no creative writing courses, despite having studied in the same school, same degree program as Barlow. The latter did publish a poetry chapbook that won some award or other, so the creative writing courses went to him. Hundt taught only composition classes, and he cared, perhaps, too much for his students. They were, after all, so young and inexperienced, with a lifetime ahead of them, to work with the tools he sought to give them.
Hundt entered his own office, where, of course, a pile of papers awaited his attention. He set down to work, leaving his door open to the noise of the outer office, to the coming and going of students. Peter reflected for a short time on Barlow’s tendency to cleave to a single idea at the cost of all others. When Jared Barlow considered himself right, then all other positions were wrong. He had the force of personality, too, to carry off most debates.
With pencil in hand, Peter started to work on the essays, reading through each and detailing his first response on the final page, before he went back through and started his comments. Grading was an exhausting necessity, which Peter often tried to finish in his office or in a neighborhood coffee shop before he went home to his wife and children, his main priorities. With another hour or so until lunch, Peter sat and graded, listening to music on his office computer, having brief chats with other faculty and students who stopped by his door. They all could see him at work, so none of them stayed long.
Usually, when noon came, Jared would lean on Peter’s door frame and ask if he was ready to go to the cafeteria. Peter knew that they would not talk of their morning disagreement; whatever insult, threat, or condescension he’d uttered earlier would be forgotten, which was okay. There were movies, books, music—a world of entertaining things to chat about over a sandwich before their afternoon classes. Barlow, despite his stiff neck, was a good colleague, one who took his work seriously, a credit to his division. Had he not volunteered to rewrite all the English and Humanities course descriptions for the following semester catalogue and asked Hundt to proof and revise his copy where needed? Barlow was just…Barlow, a man always ready with an opinion that at least sounded well thought out.
Then, after lunch, he and Barlow would take seats on a courtyard bench, where Peter would finish his morning pipe and Jared several cigarettes. Those were good for Barlow’s humor would take center stage. Students, male and female, would stop, too, listen to Barlow’s jokes, especially his flirtatious ones, and none of the young ladies took him seriously. Peter, the inveterate lifter to Barlow’s distance runner, was dutifully married and would always call Barlow, a single man, back from the precipitate edge of humor, when he took things too far with the girls.
As Peter worked, the outer office got quiet for a time as students and faculty wandered off to their 10:40 classes, while dark clouds rolled in over the small community college campus. Peter, at home with his grading, lost track of the wind beginning to rattle his office window, whistling around its frame. Lost in his work and Mahler’s Fifth symphony, that majestic soundscape, Professor Hundt grew tranquil, even with a pile of essays on his legs, his feet propped up on the edge of his computer table. He lost his sense of time until the rattling of the wind stopped. He looked up, startled, by a dark shape that appeared suddenly in his doorway.
“Er, yes. May I help you?” he asked the figure who stood in the shadows of the darker outer suite and his well-lit office. His first impression was that she was clothed in black, from head to foot, in a flowing robe, a silent houri, who materialized out of nothing, for a strange woman stood there, sans books, backpack, and the other assorted accoutrements of the commuter students he served. With a blink of his eyes after his startled first look, Peter saw that it was her hair, not a cloak, which framed her pale, heart-shaped face, and flowed down over her shoulders to her waist. She was actually clad in a black t-shirt, black jeans, and black canvas shoes. Her attire accentuated her alluring shape, which was difficult to not notice, though Peter had long schooled himself on looking into a student’s eyes. A faded design, like vague tentacle shapes adorned her shirt front, but he dared not look closer to determine what it was. Besides, students wore the most incomprehensible t-shirts.
She stood with her pale hands clasped together below her waist. They held a single rectangle of paper, most likely a drop slip, Peter thought. It was late in the term for dropping a class, yet Peter often signed them upon request. Barlow would not, insisting that “An F is a better lesson than a Withdrawal on their transcript. More honest, all around.”
“Professor Barlow?” the strange woman asked. Her voice was low, though not loud at all, yet it filled Hundt’s office with a kind of power that made him listen, as though the very room was intended for its sound. Not to be outdone by feminine charms, Peter thought that English was not her first language. Her face, as she took a step closer, had an exotic, almond-eyed, high cheek boned look. Perhaps eastern European, Peter thought. He had several current students who came from Russia, Serbia, and the Czech Republic. Barlow often spoke of the beauty and allure of such female students and was rumored to date older students from time to time. This woman would fit Barlow’s usual type: not at all old, she was definitely mature.
Peter frowned. She didn’t know him from Barlow. She was looking for a man she had not met. An odd thought occurred to him: had the wind brought her?
“Ah, no ma’am,” Peter replied, shaking his head to dispel the stupid question. “He is in his office, I think, just to your left, there. I have not heard him for a while, though. Been workin’ you know?” Peter said, lifting his pen and an essay he marked to show that he was occupied. She stared at him and stepped into his office, which Peter did not expect.
“You are hard on them, yes?” the woman asked, nodding toward the papers and giving him a cautious smile, which he could see better when she brushed her hair away with a languid, long-fingered hand.
“Me? Hard on my students? Well, no, I don’t think so… I suppose some of them might say so…” Peter replied. “I use a pencil for my comments, see, so that I do not ‘bleed’ all over their papers.” She took yet another step into his office, close enough for her compelling scent to envelop him. Her eyes, which he could see clearly, then, appeared to be black like her hair, all pupil, though certainly, he told himself that they were just very dark brown. He wanted to tell her that she was standing close enough, but he thought that such a comment might be rude. Different cultures have different standards of acceptable personal distance.
“Do they do what you tell them?” she asked, her ‘vhat’ for ‘what’ and the ‘zem’ for ‘them’ suggesting to him that he was right about her East European origins. She came a step closer, close enough to touch, which made the pencil shake in his hand. Her beauty was undeniable, though something about her caused him discomfort, as though a swift static charge ran over his skin.
“They do what they can to…ah…address the assignments I give them,” he answered, gripping the pencil harder. He pushed his chair back an inch or two. Her smile widened. Bright, white teeth bit her lower lip. She cocked her head to her right, making the fall of her silken hair shimmer.
“What if I told you I could give you the power to…help them see that you are right and that they should do as you say?”
“Oh, well, Ms…?” Peter waited for her to give her a name. Her right hand moved toward him, as though she would touch his shoulder. He saw that what was in her other hand was not drop slip. The paper was older, yellowed, as though torn from a piece of parchment. He could not tell what words the handwritten letters made, though he thought he saw the ‘http’ of a web site address. She moved her hand so slowly, that Peter began to feel the sweat bead on his brow as it came nearer. Her heady scent made him dizzy enough that he had to look away and collect his thoughts before he pushed his chair back a little more and finished his reply: “You see, it isn’t that they need to do what I think is right, but that they use the…um…tools I try and…teach them…to do what they can.”
Her head cocking to the left, then, she took a step back, at his reply, and her right hand dropped back to grasp the piece of paper she bore. She smiled, still, and the intensity of her gaze deepened, as though to look deeper within him. Peter’s curiosity about the note grew markedly, and he had the strongest desire to do anything he could to have her stay in his office, despite his nervous discomfort. Her scent alone was…no. Peter could not indulge such a thought. He forced himself to think of his wife.
“You are good man,” she said in a whisper, like a sigh. “Barlow, he is in his office?” she asked.
“I… think so,” Peter replied around a gulp, as he mastered his sudden response to her. “If not, you can leave your note for him in his mailbox opposite the reception desk, or you could leave it with…me.” To know her name was his sudden desire, though he shook that thought out of his head and whispered, “his mailbox is…better.”
“I will check,” she said, turning from him abruptly. His desk phone rang, its jarring notes making him nearly drop the essays on his lap. Fumbling for the receiver, he brought it to his ear, hearing the soft knock on Barlow’s door and a muted, unintelligible reply from within. The Dean was on the other end of the phone line, asking him again if he could do her a favor with a difficult student. Barlow’s door opened and closed again. The Dean had to explain herself several times before Peter could understand what she was asking. At last, he said, “Well, okay, sure. Send him over with the necessary paperwork, and I’ll see to it.”
Hanging up the phone and putting his work aside, Peter rose on suddenly shaking legs and stepped out into the office suite. Barlow’s door was still closed. The woman was nowhere to be seen. He turned to the student assistant at the reception desk and asked,
“Margy, did you see the woman who was just here, looking for Barlow?”
“No sir,” came her curt reply, “Just walked into an empty office, until you stepped out.” Peter rapped lightly on Barlow’s door. From within, Barlow’s computer keys tapped hurriedly. “What is it?” came his quick reply. There came a low laugh, which Peter could have sworn came from the woman.
“We, uh, are we going to the cafeteria?” Peter asked.
“No. I’m busy.” The low laugh came again, followed by Barlow’s “shushing” hiss.
“Did your student find you just now?”
Taking up his jacket, Peter closed his office and left the suite. The wind picked up again, blowing in his face from the east. As he walked to the cafeteria, that colder wind whipped down the main sidewalk of the campus, blowing at the already chilled students, who never dressed for the coming cold. Spotty, fat rain drops splattered on the sidewalk. They fell in odd patterns, making strange patterns appear before him. Those shapes hurt his eyes, but they ran and joined together in shapes, like many tentacles reaching towards him. He splashed through them as the clouds thickened over his head, joined by the steady timpani sounds of thunder all around him. Before he could reach the cafeteria, students were stopping on the cold, wet walkway to point and exclaim at something behind him. When he turned to see, Peter Hundt gasped, for it looked as though the heaviest clouds boiled above the Humanities building, joined together by bright, flickering threads of lightning. The flash-boom of the lighting striking down hit him like a weight on his chest. Insane thought as it was, Peter knew where the thunderbolt had fallen and by whom it was brought. Without checking his irrational impulse, Peter ran through the now driving rain back to his building. The lights in other buildings, Administration, Business, even Social Sciences, went out at the same instant as a long ululating cry, sounded with the thunder. Not a woman’s scream, but the wailing of a man from whom was exacted the last possible motes of pure terror. It stopped Peter in his tracks. It was as though the voice shouted something like a name, sounding like “Shoggoth!!!” in a long breaking wail that was hurled to the broken skies Students, staff, faculty bolted yelling, terrified, from the Humanities building, out into the driving rain, as though they, too, had lost their reason, dashing headlong away, only away.
Peter forced himself to run past them, into the darkened interior of the office suite which he had called his, just moments before. It would never wholly be so again. He knew exactly where to look. The door to Barlow’s office was opened just a sliver, a darker place in the new darkness that took away the midday.
“Jared, Jared! Are you—!”
Jared Barlow, the man who hated Lovecraft, still sat before his computer screen, his hands in a rictus of agony splayed above the keys, fingers broken, misshapen as though through their own energies. Jared Barlow’s eyes were gone, leaving only smoking orbits, and his teeth were clenched so hard behind lips bared in agony that they were broken in his mouth. A single stream of slow drool ran Barlow’s chin, onto his shirt and tie. The woman was not there, though Peter was sure he heard a lingering echo of her low laugh.
Hands over his mouth to keep his own screams in check, Peter Hundt backed out of Barlow’s office, sinking to his haunches in the dark of the outer office. Later, when the EMTs found him, Peter looked up at them as though looking on a human for the first time. They moved to lift him in a chair. He pulled away from them and hunkered back down on the floor where he held his head in his hands. One of them, a dark-haired woman, squatted down in front of Peter, her long hair falling around her face. Peter jumped back and cried out at the sight of her, though he saw it wasn’t the woman who promised things.
“Sir? Professor? Who are you? Will you let me examine you?”
“Me? I’m…of course. It wouldn’t be an object, not a glowing jewel or ceremonial artefact, would it?” he asked in a strained voice. “Now, they come through the internet!” He leapt from his seated position and ran into his own office to dash to the floor with wild energy, the force of madness itself, his computer monitor computer tower. They shattered, sending bits of plastic and broken hardware across the floor. The EMT screamed and ran out of the suite. Peter reached several more computer stations, smashing them to the floor, before security men were able to stop him. All the while, he shouted, “Lovecraft knew! They can reach us all, anywhere! Save yourselves!”
Later, Margy, the student assistant, found the slip of old parchment on Barlow’s floor, “http” the only legible letters left on the now burnt note. The power was back on, and Barlow’s body was taken away. Peter Hundt would never returned, Margy thought. She had always thought that English professors were crazy, ready to crack under the strain of their own weirdness. Now she had proof. She tossed the piece of parchment into the trash bin and locked Barlow’s door. The piece of parchment writhed, like short tentacles. Internet access came back first.
Nice twist – Barlow deserved it.