Creep, Shadow! - A. Merritt - ebook

Creep, Shadow! ebook

A. Merritt



„Creep, Shadow! „ is the second novel in the Dr. Lowell series, preceded by „Burn, Witch, Burn! „. It’s short and it moves along very quickly but there’s plenty of tension and some genuinely creepy moments. Doctor Alan Carnac returns to the commonplace world of New York from the jungles of Africa, only to meet there a menace more mysterious and appalling than the savage magic of the witch doctors – his best friend has inexplicably committed suicide and Carnac begins a frantic investigation which will lead him to come across charming but sinister women and into the horror of obscure sacrificial rites... A masterpiece of horror, mystery and paranormal, A. Merritt’s novel will make even the hottest blood run cold.

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I unpacked my bags at the Explorers’ Club gloomily enough. The singularly unpleasant depression with which I had awakened in my berth the night before had refused to be shaken off. It was like the echo of some nightmare whose details I had forgotten but which still lurked just over the threshold of consciousness.

Joined to it was another irritation.

Of course I had not expected any Mayor’s Committee to welcome me home. But that neither Bennett nor Ralston had met me began to assume the aspect of a major tragedy of neglect. I had written to both before sailing, and I had looked for one of them, at least, to be on the dock to meet me.

They were the closest friends I had, and the queer current of hostility between them had often amused me. They thoroughly liked, yet as thoroughly disapproved of, each other. I had the idea that away down under they were closer each to the other than to me; that they might have been Damon and Pythias if each hadn’t so disliked the other’s attitude toward life; and maybe were Damon and Pythias despite it.

Old Aesop formulated their discordance centuries ago in his fable of the Ant and the Cricket. Bill Bennett was the Ant. The serious-minded, hard-working son of Dr. Lionel Bennett, until recently one of the modern, civilized world’s five outstanding experts upon brain pathology. I make the distinction of modern and civilized because I have had proof that what we are pleased to call the uncivilized world has many more such experts, and I have good reason to believe that the ancient world had others much further advanced than those of the modern world, civilized or uncivilized.

Bennett, the elder, had been one of the few specialists whose mind turned upon his work rather than his bank account. Distinguished but poor. Bennett, the younger, was about thirty-five, my own age. I knew that his father had rested heavily upon him. I suspected that along some lines, and especially in the realm of the subconscious, the son had outstripped the sire; his mind more flexible, more open. Bill had written me a year ago that his father had died, and that he had associated himself with Dr. Austin Lowell, taking the place of Dr. David Braile who had been killed by a falling chandelier in Dr. Lowell’s private hospital. (See Burn, Witch, Burn.)

Dick Ralston was the Cricket. He was heir to a fortune so solid that even the teeth of the depression could only scratch it. Very much the traditional rich man’s son of the better sort, but seeing no honor, use, nor any joy or other virtue in labor. Happy-go-lucky, clever, generous–but decidedly a first-class idler.

I was the compromise–the bridge on which they could meet. I had my medical degree, but also I had enough money to save me from the grind of practice. Enough to allow me to do as I pleased–which was drifting around the world on ethnological research. Especially in those fields which my medical and allied scientific brethren call superstition–native sorceries, witchcraft, voodoo, and the like. In that research I was as earnest as Bill in his. And he knew it.

Dick, on the other hand, attributed my wanderings to an itching foot inherited from one of my old Breton forebears, a pirate who had sailed out of St. Malo and carved himself a gory reputation in the New World. And ultimately was hanged for it. The peculiar bent of my mind he likewise attributed to the fact that two of my ancestors had been burned as witches in Brittany.

I was perfectly understandable to him.

Bill’s industry was not so understandable.

I reflected, morosely, that even if I had been away for three years it was too short a time to be forgotten. And then I managed to shake off my gloom and to laugh at myself. After all, they might not have gotten my letters; or they might have had engagements they couldn’t break; and each might have thought the other would be on hand.

There was an afternoon newspaper on the bed. I noticed that it was of the day before. My eye fell upon some headlines. I stopped laughing. The headlines ran:


No Reason Known for Act–Fourth New York Man of Wealth to Take His Life Without Apparent Cause in Last Three Months– Police Hint Suicide Club.

I read the story:

“Richard J. Ralston, Jr., who inherited some $5,000,000 when his father, a rich mine owner, died two years ago, was found dead in his bed this morning in a bedroom of his house on 78th Street. He had shot himself through the head, dying instantly. The pistol with which he had killed himself was lying on the floor where it had fallen from his hand. The Detective Bureau identified the finger marks on it as his own.

“Discovery was made by his butler, John Simpson, who said that he had gone into the room about 8 o’clock, following his usual custom. From the condition of the body Dr. Peabody, of the coroner’s office, estimated that Ralston must have shot himself about three o’clock, or approximately five hours before Simpson found him.”

Three o’clock? I felt a little prickling along my spine. Allowing for the difference between ship time and New York time, that was precisely when I had awakened with that strange depression. I read on:

“If Simpson’s story is true, and the police see no reason to doubt it, the suicide could not have been premeditated and must have been the result of some sudden overmastering impulse. This seems to be further indicated by the discovery of a letter Ralston had started to write, and torn up without finishing. The scraps of it were found under a desk in the bedroom where he had tossed them. The letter read:

“Dear Bill, “Sorry I couldn’t stay any longer. I wish you would think of the matter as objective and not subjective, no matter how incredible such a thing may seem. If Alan were only here. He knows more–

“At this point Ralston had evidently changed his mind and torn up the letter. The police would like to know who ‘Alan’ is and have him explain what it is that he ‘knows more’ about. They also hope that the ‘Bill’ to whom it was to have been sent will identify himself. There is not the slightest doubt as to the case being one of suicide, but it is possible that whatever it was that was ‘objective and not subjective, no matter how incredible’ may throw some light on the motive.

“At present absolutely no reason appears to exist to explain why Mr. Ralston should have taken his life. His attorneys, the well- known firm of Winston, Smith & White, have assured the police that his estate is in perfect order, and that there were no ‘complications’ in their client’s life. It is a fact that unlike so many sons of rich men, no scandal has ever been attached to Ralston’s name.

“This is the fourth suicide within three months of men of wealth of approximately Ralston’s age, and of comparatively the same habits of life. Indeed, in each of the four cases the circumstances are so similar that the police are seriously contemplating the possibility of a suicide pact.

“The first of the four deaths occurred on July 15, when John Marston, internationally known polo player, shot himself through the head in his bedroom in his country house at Locust Valley, Long Island. No cause for his suicide has ever come to light. Like Ralston, he was unmarried. On August 6, the body of Walter St. Clair Calhoun was found in his roadster near Riverhead, Long Island. Calhoun had driven his car off the main road, here heavily shaded by trees, into the middle of an open field. There he had put a bullet through his brains. No one ever discovered why. He had been divorced for three years. On August 21, Richard Stanton, millionaire yachtsman and globe-trotter, shot himself through the head while on the deck of his ocean-going yacht Trinculo. This happened the night before he was about to set out on a cruise to South America.”

I read on and on... the speculations as to the suicide pact, supposedly entered into because of boredom and morbid thrill-hunger... the histories of Marston, Calhoun, and Stanton... Dick’s obituary...

I read, only half understanding what it was I read. I kept thinking that it couldn’t be true.

There was no reason why Dick should kill himself. In all the world there was no man less likely to kill himself. The theory of the suicide pact was absurdly fantastic, at least so far as he was concerned. I was the ‘Alan’ of the letter, of course. And Bennett was the ‘Bill.’ But what was it I knew that had made Dick wish for me?

The telephone buzzed, and the operator said: “Dr. Bennett to see you.”

I said: “Send him up.” And to myself: “Thank God!”

Bill came in. He was white and drawn, and more like a man still in the midst of a stiff ordeal than one who has passed through it. His eyes held a puzzled horror, as though he were looking less at me than within his mind at whatever was the source of that horror. He held a hand out, absently, and all he said was: “I’m glad you’re back, Alan.”

I had the newspaper in my other hand. He took it and looked at the date. He said: “Yesterday’s. Well, it’s all there. All that the police know, anyway.”

He had said that rather oddly; I asked: “Do you mean you know something that the police don’t?”

He answered, evasively I thought: “Oh, they’ve got their facts all straight. Dick put the bullet through his brain. They’re right in linking up those other three deaths–”

I repeated: “What do you know that the police don’t know, Bill?”

He said: “That Dick was murdered!”

I looked at him, bewildered. “But if he put the bullet through his own brain–”

He said: “I don’t blame you for being puzzled. Nevertheless–I know Dick Ralston killed himself, and yet I know just as certainly that he was murdered.”

He sat down upon the bed; he said: “I need a drink.”

I brought out the bottle of Scotch the club steward had thoughtfully placed in my room for homecoming welcome. He poured himself a stiff one. He repeated:

“I’m glad you’re back! We’ve got a tough job ahead of us, Alan.”

I poured myself a drink; I asked: “What is it? To find Dick’s murderer?”

He answered: “That, yes. But more than that. To stop more murders.”

I poured him and myself another drink; I said: “Quit beating about the bush and tell me what it’s all about.”

He looked at me, thoughtfully; he answered, quietly: “No, Alan. Not yet.” He put down his glass. “Suppose you had discovered a new bug, an unknown germ –or thought you had. And had studied it and noted its peculiarities. And suppose you wanted someone to check up. What would you do–give him all your supposed observations first, and then ask him to look into the microscope to verify them? Or simply give him an outline and ask him to look into the microscope and find out for himself?”

“Outline and find out for himself, of course.”

“Exactly. Well, I think I have such a new bug–or a very old one, although it has nothing whatever to do with germs. But I’m not going to tell you any more about it until I put your eye to the microscope. I want your opinion uncolored by mine. Send out for a paper, will you?”

I called the office and told them to get me one of the latest editions. When it came, Bill took it. He glanced over the first page, then turned the sheets until he came to what he was looking for. He read it, and nodded, and passed the paper to me.

“Dick’s reduced from page one to page five,” he said. “But I’ve gotten it over. Read the first few paragraphs–all the rest is rehash and idle conjecture. Very idle.”

I read:

“Dr. William Bennett, the eminent brain specialist and associate of Dr. Austin Lowell, the distinguished psychiatrist, visited Police Headquarters this morning and identified himself as the ‘Bill’ of the unfinished letter found in the bedroom of Richard J. Ralston, Jr., after the latter’s suicide yesterday morning.

“Dr. Bennett said that undoubtedly the letter had been meant for him, that Mr. Ralston had been one of his oldest friends and had recently consulted him for what he might describe roughly as insomnia and bad dreams. Mr. Ralston had, in fact, been his guest at dinner the night before. He had wanted Mr. Ralston to spend the night with him, but after consenting, he had changed his mind and gone home to sleep. That was what he had referred to in the opening sentence of his letter. Professional confidence prevented Dr. Bennett from going into further description of Mr. Ralston’s symptoms. Asked whether the mental condition of Mr. Ralston might explain why he had killed himself, Dr. Bennett guardedly replied that suicide was always the result of some mental condition.”

In spite of my perplexity and sorrow, I couldn’t help smiling at that.

“The ‘Alan’ referred to in the letter, Dr. Bennett said, is Dr. Alan Caranac, who was also an old friend of Mr. Ralston, and who is due in New York today on the Augustus after three years in Northern Africa. Dr. Caranac is well-known in scientific circles for his ethnological researches. Dr. Bennett said that Mr. Ralston had thought that some of his symptoms might be explained by Dr. Caranac because of the latter’s study of certain obscure mental aberrations among primitive peoples.”

“Now for the kicker,” said Bill, and pointed to the next paragraph:

“Dr. Bennett talked freely with the reporters after his statement to the police, but could add no essential facts beyond those he had given them. He did say that Mr. Ralston had withdrawn large sums in cash from his accounts during the two weeks before his death, and that there was no evidence of what had become of them. He seemed immediately to regret that he had given this information, saying that the circumstance could have no bearing upon Mr. Ralston’s suicide. He reluctantly admitted, however, that the sum might be well over $100,000, and that the police were investigating.”

I said: “That looks like blackmail–if it’s true.”

He said: “I haven’t the slightest proof that it is true. But it’s what I told the police and the reporters.”

He read the paragraph over again and arose.

“The reporters will soon be here, Alan,” he said. “And the police. I’m going. You haven’t seen me. You haven’t the slightest idea of what it’s all about. You haven’t heard from Ralston for a year. Tell them that when you get in touch with me, you may have something more to say. But now–you don’t know anything. And that’s true–you don’t. That’s your story, and you stick to it.”

He walked to the door. I said:

“Wait a minute, Bill. What’s the idea behind that bunch of words I’ve just read?”

He said: “It’s a nicely baited hook.”

I said: “What do you expect to hook?”

He said: “Dick’s murderer.”

He turned at the door: “And something else that’s right down your alley. A witch.”

He shut the door behind him.


Not long after Bill had gone, a man from the Detective Bureau visited me. It was evident that he regarded the call as waste motion; just a part of the routine. His questions were perfunctory, nor did he ask me if I had seen Bennett. I produced the Scotch and he mellowed. He said:

“Hell, if it ain’t one thing it’s another. If you ain’t got money you wear yourself out tryin’ to get it. If you got it, then somebody’s tryin’ all the time to rob you. Or else you go nuts like this poor guy and then what good is your money? This Ralston wasn’t a bad guy at that, I hear.”

I agreed. He took another drink and left.

Three reporters came; one from the City News and the others from afternoon papers. They asked few questions about Dick, but showed flattering interest in my travels. I was so relieved that I sent for a second bottle of Scotch and told them a few stories about the mirror-magic of the Riff women, who believe that at certain times and under certain conditions they can catch the reflections of those they love or hate in their mirrors, and so have power thereafter over their souls.

The City News man said that if he could get the Riff women to teach him that trick, he could lift all the mirror-makers in America out of the depression and get rich doing it. The other two morosely agreed that they knew some editors whose reflections they’d like to catch. I laughed and said it would be easier to bring over a good old-fashioned Bulgarian mason or two. Then all they need do was to get the mason a job, decoy the editor to the place and have the mason measure his shadow with a string. After that, the mason would put the string in a box and build the box in the wall. In forty days the editor would be dead and his soul be sitting in the box beside the string.

One of the afternoon men glumly said that forty days would be too long to wait for the ones he had in mind. But the other asked, with disarming naiveté, whether I believed such a thing possible. I answered that if a man were strongly enough convinced he would die on a certain day, he would die on that day. Not because his shadow had been measured and the string buried, but because he believed that this was going to kill him. It was purely a matter of suggestion–of auto-hypnosis. Like the praying to death practiced by the kahunas, the warlocks of the South Seas, of the results of which there was no doubt whatever. Always providing, of course, that the victim knew the kahuna was praying his death–and the exact time his death was to occur.

I ought to have known better. The morning papers carried only a few lines to the effect that I had talked to the police and had been unable to throw any light on the Ralston suicide. But the early editions of the naive reporter’s paper featured a special article.


Dr. Alan Caranac, noted explorer, tells how to separate yourself safely from those you don’t want around, but the catch is that first you have to make ‘em believe you can do it.

It was a good story, even if it did make me swear in spots. I read it over again and laughed. After all, I’d brought it on myself. The ‘phone rang, and Bill was on the line. He asked abruptly:

“What put it in your head to talk to that reporter about shadows?”

He sounded jumpy. I said, surprised:

“Nothing. Why shouldn’t I have talked to him about shadows?”

He didn’t answer for a moment. Then he asked:

“Nothing happened to direct your mind to that subject? Nobody suggested it?”

“You’re getting curiouser and curiouser, as Alice puts it. But no, Bill, I brought the matter up all by myself. And no shadow fell upon me whispering in my ear–”

He interrupted, harshly: “Don’t talk like that!”

And now I was truly surprised, for there was panic in Bill’s voice, and that wasn’t like him at all.

“There really wasn’t any reason. It just happened,” I repeated. “What’s it all about, Bill?”

“Never mind now.” I wondered even more at the relief in his voice. He swiftly changed the subject: “Dick’s funeral is tomorrow. I’ll see you there.”

Now the one thing I won’t be coerced or persuaded into doing is to go to the funeral of a friend. Unless there are interesting and unfamiliar rites connected with it, it’s senseless. There lies a piece of cold meat for the worms, grotesquely embellished by the undertaker’s cosmetic arts. Sunken eyes that never more will dwell upon the beauty of the clouds, the sea, the forest. Ears shut forever, and all the memories of life rotting away within the decaying brain. Painted and powdered symbol of life’s futility. I want to remember friends as they were alive, alert, capable, eager. The coffin picture superimposes itself, and I lose my friends. The animals order things much better, to my way of thinking. They hide themselves and die. Bill knew how I felt, so I said:

“You’ll not see me there.” To shut off any discussion, I asked:

“Had any nibble at your witch bait?”

“Yes and no. Not the real strike I’m hoping for, but attention from unexpected quarters. Dick’s lawyers called me up after I’d left you and asked what he had told me about those cash withdrawals. They said they’d been trying to find out what he had done with the money, but couldn’t. They wouldn’t believe me, of course, when I said I knew absolutely nothing; that I had only vague suspicions and had tried a shot in the dark. I don’t blame them. Stanton’s executor called me up this morning to ask the same thing. Said Stanton had drawn substantial amounts of cash just before he died, and they hadn’t been able to trace it.”

I whistled:

“That’s queer. How about Calhoun and Marston? If they did the same, it’ll begin to smell damned fishy.”

“I’m trying to find out,” he said. “Good-by–”

“Wait a minute, Bill,” I said. “I’m a good waiter, and all of that. But I’m getting mighty curious. When do I see you, and what do you want me to do in the meantime?”

When he answered his voice was as grave as I’d ever heard it.

“Alan, sit tight until I can lay the cards before you. I don’t want to say more now, but trust me, there’s a good reason. I’ll tell you one thing, though. That interview of yours is another hook–and I’m not sure it isn’t baited even better than mine.”

That was on Tuesday. Obviously, I was puzzled and curious to a degree. So much so that if it had been anybody but Bill who had sat me down in my little corner chair and told me to be quiet, I would have been exceedingly angry. But Bill knew what he was about–I was sure of that. So I stayed put.

On Wednesday, Dick was buried. I went over my notes and started the first chapter of my book on Moroccan sorceries. Thursday night, Bill called up.

“There’s a small dinner party at Dr. Lowell’s tomorrow night,” he said. “A Dr. de Keradel and his daughter. I want you to come. I’ll promise you’ll be interested.”

De Keradel? The name had a familiar sound. “Who is he?” I asked.

“Rene de Keradel, the French psychiatrist. You must have read some of his–”

“Yes, of course,” I interrupted. “He took up some of Charcot’s hypnotic experiments at the Sâlpetrière, didn’t he? Carried them on from the point where Charcot had stopped. Left the Sâlpetrière under a cloud some years ago. Subjects died, or he was too unorthodox in his conclusions, or something?”

“That’s the chap.”

I said: “I’ll be there. I’d like to meet him.”

“Good,” said Bill. “Dinner’s at 7:30. Wear your dinner jacket. And come an hour ahead of time. There’s a girl who wants to talk to you before the company comes, as we used to say.”

“A girl?” I asked, astonished.

“Helen,” said Bill with a chuckle. “And don’t you disappoint her. You’re her hero.” He hung up.

Helen was Bill’s sister. About ten years younger than I. I hadn’t seen her for fifteen years. An impish sort of kid, I recalled. Eyes sort of slanting and yellow brown. Hair a red torch. Gawky when I saw her last and inclined to be fat. Used to follow me around when I was visiting Bill during college vacations, and sit and stare at me without speaking until it made me so nervous I stuttered. Never could tell whether it was silent adoration or sheer deviltry. That was when she was about twelve. Nor could I forget how she had led me, apparently innocently, to sit on a subterranean nest of hornets; nor the time when, going to bed, I had found it shared by a family of garter snakes. The first might have been an accident, although I had my doubts, but the second wasn’t. I had dumped the snakes out the window and never by word, look, or gesture referred to it, having my reward in the child’s bafflement at my reticence and her avid but necessarily mute curiosity. I knew she had gone through Smith and had been studying art in Florence. I wondered what she had grown to be.

I read over some of de Keradel’s papers at the Academy of Medicine Library next day. He was a queer bird without doubt, with some extraordinarily arresting theories. I didn’t wonder that the Sâlpetrière had eased him out. Stripped of their scientific verbiage, the framework of his main idea was startlingly like that expounded to me by the Many-Times-Born Abbot of the Lamasery at Gyang-tse, in Tibet. A holy man and an accomplished wonder-worker, a seeker of knowledge along strange paths, what would be loosely called by the superstitious–a sorcerer. Also by a Greek priest near Delphi whose Christian cloak covered a pure case of pagan atavism. He offered to demonstrate his hypothesis, and did. He nearly convinced me. Indeed, visualizing again what he had made me see, I was not sure that he hadn’t convinced me.

I began to feel a strong interest in this Dr. de Keradel. The name was Breton, like my own, and as unusual. Another recollection flitted through my mind. There was a reference to the de Keradels in the chronicles of the de Carnacs, as we were once named. I looked it up. There had been no love lost between the two families, to put it mildly. Altogether, what I read blew my desire to meet Dr. de Keradel up to fever point.

I was half an hour late getting to Dr. Lowell’s. The butler showed me into the library. A girl got up from a big chair and came toward me with hand outstretched.

“Hello, Alan,” she said.

I blinked at her. She wasn’t so tall, but her body had all the lovely contours the sculptors of Athens’ Golden Age gave their dancing girls. The provocative dress of filmy black she wore hid none of them. Her hair was burnished copper and helmeted her small head. The heavy chignon at the nape of her neck showed she had resisted the bob. Her eyes were golden amber, and tilted delicately. Her nose was small and straight and her chin rounded. Her skin was not the creamy white that so often goes with redheads, but a delicate golden. It was a head and face that might have served as the model for one of Alexander’s finest golden coins. Faintly archaic, touched with the antique beauty. I blinked again. I blurted:

“You’re never–Helen!”

Her eyes sparkled, the impishness that my experience with the hornets had set indelibly in my memory danced over her face. She took my hands, and swayed close to me; she sighed:

“The same, Alan! The same! And you–oh, let me look at you! Yes, still the hero of my girlhood! The same keen, dark face–like– like–I used to call you Lancelot of the Lake, Alan–to myself of course. The same lithe, tall, and slender body–I used to call you the Black Panther, too, Alan. And do you remember how like a panther you leaped when the hornets stung you?” She bent her head, her rounded shoulders shaking. I said: “You little devil! I always knew you did that deliberately.”

She said, muffled:

“I’m not laughing, Alan. I’m sobbing.”

She looked up at me, and her eyes were indeed wet, but I was sure not with any tears of regret. She said:

“Alan, for long, long years I’ve waited to know something. Waited to hear you tell me something. Not to tell me that you love me, darling–No, No! I always knew that you were going to do that, sooner or later. This is something else!”

I was laughing, but I had a queer mixed feeling, too.

I said:

“I’ll tell you anything. Even that I love you–and maybe mean it.”

She said:

“Did you find those snakes in your bed? Or did they crawl out before you got in?”

I said again: “You little devil!”

She said:

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