THE BLACK ROOM by Carlton Herzog
I don’t respect boundaries. That impulsivity has me made me an outcast even in my own family. In their placid ignorance, my various counsellors and therapists settle for pedestrian explanations, such as a dysfunctional home life or genetic misfire. I know better: I have a black room inside me wherein lie monsters, shadows of the outer worlds, and all other things of vile understanding. Its door is always open so that my darker impulses and secret devils can roam free and mingle with their larger counterparts beyond the veil.
That revelation occurred when I moved in with my grandfather. He was not my first choice for a handler. But when my parents decided to take a second honeymoon in Australia, he was the only relative willing to have me, and then only after a substantial cash bribe.
Mind you, my relatives are not mean-spirited people. It’s just that they fear my thieving ways. I have never been able to pass up a locked door. Such barriers are standing invitations for me to snatch the property of others.
When they packed me off to Pop’s house, I was just coming off a probation stint for breaking and entering. So, I desperately wanted to walk the straight and narrow, even though my inner kleptomaniac was screaming for some action.
I promised my parents, my grandfather and myself that I would be on my good behaviour. At the time, it seemed like an easy promise to keep. After all, my grandfather did not own the kinds of consumer goods I was known to steal. Instead, he possessed occult things, the worth of which he claimed lay in their mystical power rather than any pawn value.
On my first day, I learned that my grandfather had a strange obsession with ancient Egypt. I regarded it as nothing more than cultural afterburn from an archaeological career spent rooting through the tombs of the pharaohs. But he took it far beyond the quaint and endearing eccentricity of an old man to something dark and pathological.
Every room had shrines to Isis, Osiris and Ra. He always wore a linen bag tunic and cone-shaped hat with tassels. In e-mails and polite conversation, he called himself Imhotep. Then there was that long black wig woven with beads and strands of gold. Not a day went by that he wasn’t sporting amulets, heart shaped scarabs, bracelets and rings. He maintained an extensive library of Egyptian arcana, which included a copy of the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the life-giving Scroll of Thoth. Thus, while his body had left Egypt long ago, his spirit remained there.
However, the most curious aspect of his fetish consisted of two facing doors on the third floor, one false one real. He had emblazoned both with the image of Osiris, Egyptian Lord of the Underworld. To wit, a green skinned deity wearing a pharaoh’s beard and distinctive crown while holding a crook and flail.
The real door had been fashioned from Nile Valley Lotus trees. He always kept it locked and doubly secured it with a deadbolt and padlock.
On my third day, he brought me to the head of the third-floor stairs and no further. He gripped my shoulder to hold me in place then warned me never to step onto the third floor:
“This floor is my sanctum sanctorum. None but I may walk here. None but I may open the real door, for that is the black room. No light shines there in that black sea of infinity save for that of torturers, tricksters and tempters who would lure you to your doom. Promise me you will never come up here.”
I agreed never to set foot on the third floor, let alone try to pry open the door to the black room. But I didn’t take his melodramatic mumbo-jumbo seriously. After all, what could possibly be in there that might threaten either my sanity or my life. But as a matter of form, I avoided the third floor.
When I asked him about the opposing false door, he said “That is divinity’s conduit and therefore not for you either. To open it would be to invite the antagonism of the wrathful deities who guard it for Osiris.”
I doubled down on my no trespassing promise. After all, there could be nothing behind either door that was as interesting as gaming or the new friends I had made in town. If the old coot didn’t want me monkeying around on the third floor, that was fine by me.
My attitude underwent a slow but ultimately profound alteration. My sea change began with the unusual sounds emanating from the third floor. It was the sound of a thousand tiny feet skittering and scurrying, sometimes across the hardwood floors, sometimes up and down the walls, and sometimes on the ceiling.
I told my grandfather about the sounds. I told him that he might have raccoons or rats in his house. My grandfather dismissed the idea. Instead, he said, the house was old, and the wood was bending and cracking with age. Those sounds were being echoed and amplified by the peculiar acoustics of the black room’s irregular geometry.
But the sounds persisted. Along the way, they took an ominous turn. I heard heavy breathing. I heard screeches, groans, whistles, cackles, barks, squawks, yowls, caws and roars. It was an acoustical nightmare expressed in wild frequencies and bandwidths that reached a crescendo late at night—every night.
My grandfather told me to ignore it. But I couldn’t leave it alone. I pestered him day and night about the sounds. Finally, he said the house was haunted by poltergeists. Renegade psychic energy that ran wild but was benign.
He said, with an air of supreme annoyance, “It’s reacting to your presence. Sooner or later it will calm down and accept you here. So quit bugging me about it and go do whatever it is kids your age do nowadays.”
That was easier said than done, for in addition to my natural adolescent curiosity and rebelliousness, there was a force drawing me to the third floor. So, one day, while my grandfather worked in his garden, I crept up there. No sooner had I stepped into the hallway than my hair stood on end and my skin tingled. The floor vibrated as did the doors, both false and real.
I walked up to the false door and listened. The moment I pressed my ear to the wood, I was carried down a dark passage. I found myself standing in an enormous throne room. There were enormous pillars engraved with hieroglyphs.
From behind me, I heard elephantine feet thudding my way. An enormous hand closed around me. A moment later, I was in my bed shaking off sleep’s fog. I couldn’t believe the whole thing had been a dream.
The next day, I went back to the false door and pressed my ear to it. This time nothing happened. So, I walked over to the locked door. I leaned and listened. I thought I heard faint voices on the other side. The call to penetrate the mystery became compelling. I decided to ignore my grandfather’s warnings and take matters into my own hands.
On the day my grandfather went to town for supplies, I stayed behind under the pretext of waiting on a phone call to his landline. I knew that he would be gone for a solid two hours. After he left, I went to the tool shed and retrieved a screwdriver, crowbar and hacksaw.
As I sawed away at the padlock, the door vibrated and there was a smell of rotten eggs in the air. The deeper I cut into it, the more the door vibrated as did the false door across the hall.
The moment the padlock came free the door bulged outward. Its wooden rigidity had changed to a rubbery pliancy. The false door opposite it did the same.
I didn’t care, since I was halfway home. I worked the crowbar between the door and its frame to separate them. Then I used the screwdriver to push back the bolt.
By now, the door was vibrating furiously. But I soldiered on until it popped open a tiny bit. I kept my foot against it so it could not open all the way.
A swirling green mist issued from the opening. Mephitic, it burned my eyes and throat. It was a god-awful industrial stink.
I knew that I didn’t have much time. On the one hand, the stench was more than I could bear. On the other, my grandfather would be home soon. At the very least I wanted to see what I wasn’t supposed to see before he sent me packing for breaking into his inner sanctum.
I slowly opened the door. I saw nothing but solid black. No floor, no walls, no windows. Just blackness that could have been room sized or the black infinite depths of the cosmos themselves.
Then out of the blackness, I saw a mass of bodies being blown back and forth like a flock of birds. They shrieked and lamented and cried as some unseen wind whirled and lashed them before me.
I saw a landscape of open graves from which emerged twisted, emaciated corpses. I saw bodies fused to dead trees and bodies devouring one another. I saw bodies writhing in a bubbling black luminescent pitch. I saw others with dislocated joints having the flesh torn from their bodies by battalions of centaurs and harpies.
As I stared into that immense remote, I felt a presence around me. It was, I think, the room itself, or the nefarious black space it contained, calculating, in its own ghostly way, what to do with me.
I saw a myriad of bright yellow eyes moving toward me. I was hypnotized and could not move. They grew larger and larger in my field of vision until they filled the doorway.
A long green nine-fingered hand reached out from the inky gloom and wrapped itself around my wrist. I could hear voices in my head babbling in languages I could not understand, some in an unknown phonetic tongue and others in animal clicks and whistles.
The hand kept me in place as two more reached out and wrapped themselves around each of my legs. The eyes continued to stare. But now they weren’t just looking at me. They were looking inside me. I could feel their presence moving through my body as they studied me.
When they reached my mind, they ransacked my memories in such a way that I relived my life in mere minutes. I felt sick and threw up on the floor. I was sweating profusely.
The three hands started to pull me into the void. Gently, for I was not struggling, nor could I had I wanted to. As my one leg crossed the threshold into the void, I felt a hand on my shoulder and heard my grandfather’s voice say, “No!”
He pulled me back. When he did, a battalion of spider things with semi-human heads rushed through the opening in a wave of monstrous proportions. They ran up the walls, across the floor and down the stairs. They grabbed and snapped at mine and my grandfather’s feet and legs. They bit deep into my arms. They even bit into the three slimy hands that had me in their grasp. It was a feeding frenzy like that in the veldt where lions and hyenas compete for a kill.
Their razor-sharp teeth tore through my pants. They began sucking the blood out of me. For his part, my grandfather smote them with his crook and flail. Whenever he hit one, blue sparks would shoot out from the contact and the tiny nightmares would explode.
But there were too many for my grandfather to handle. So, he petitioned Osiris himself for help: “Osiris, Lord of the Dead and guardian of the Passage between Worlds, hear my prayer. Save us from these Fiends.”
As he spoke, I turned my head to look at my grandfather. Over his shoulder, I saw the false door glowing with a brilliant light. The next moment, I saw the image on the door transform itself into the three-dimensional figure of Osiris. His crook and his flail were afire, shooting flames that incinerated the eight-legged horrors.
Next, he stepped forward and walked right through me and my grandfather into that sea of eyes. When he did, the eyes fused together into a thing with a curved snout, long rectangular ears, forked tail and canine body. I would later learn that the abomination was Osiris’s brother and arch-nemesis, Set, god of chaos and ruler of Hell.
I and my grandfather watched the two otherworldly brothers contend in a vast unbounded arena devoid of anything save themselves.
My grandfather spoke as we watched them contend:
“This is a drama as old as time itself. It began when the universe was young and will still be fought long after it is gone.”
They shot fire and blue lightning at one another. When that had no effect, the great black background in which they fought changed into a sea of stars. And they assumed their form and magnitude as cosmic titans. Thereafter, they hurled blazing suns with gravitationally entrained solar systems behind them. Each tried to kill what cannot be killed. One star after the other exploded on impact and spread its burning plasma into a chaos of shimmering photons and madness. If any of the worlds dragged to their death were home to life, then surely entire civilizations were being sacrificed.
My grandfather pulled me back from the abyss and closed the door. He affixed another padlock. Then he said another incantation, a protection spell to recharge the mystical seal that kept the door in place. Then he fit his crook and flail into the padlock’s loop as an extra measure of protection.
After he was finished, he did not recriminate. Instead, he elucidated the why and wherefore of the doors and everything that happened since I had disobeyed his injunction not to open the portal.
He said, “There are two ways to characterize this. One suitable for a simpleton and one for those with a more granular and nuanced understanding of things. First, the fairy-tale: Osiris was the pharaoh. That did not sit well with Set, his brother. Set tricked Osiris to climb into a box and then filled it with lead. After Osiris was dead, Set hacked the body to pieces and scattered them throughout Egypt so they could not be resurrected. Isis, however, turned to the lesser god, Thoth for help and together they brought Osiris back. Set and Osiris have been battling ever since.”
I said, “I thought the gods of Egypt were just myths, stories told by primitives who believed the world was haunted by demons and gods.”
He said, “Words like demon and gods are just placeholder expressions for things we can’t fully comprehend. A lay person would say that you opened the door to hell. The truth is that the membrane between this reality and several others is very thin here. So, Osiris patched the growing hole with the lotus wood door and imbued it with mystical energy. He then created the false door to allow himself quick passage. into this world should any problems arise. He stamped his image on both as a warning to defiant trespassers such as yourself.”
I asked, “I get it: the false door is a wormhole. Is hell on the other side of the real door?”
My grandfather said, “Hell is a poetic name for another dimension or membrane with other domains of life besides the three that evolved here, namely, Archaea, Bacteria and Eukarya. I’ve seen what’s in there and it’s not pretty. Hideous, deformed blasphemous things that would like nothing better than to slide and slither into this world and devour everything in sight—like the thing that grabbed onto you. Iridescent slimes in loathsome profusion that pass through one another and even through solids that would dissolve all life here if given the chance. Not because they are nefarious but simply because that is what their universe evolved them to do.”
I asked, “Why is that gateway here?”
He said, “The walls between universes are like the things in the universe; they decay and grow weak with time. This is not the only thin spot. They’re everywhere. Each has a human manager to watch and fortify it as needs be. I brought you here to test the door’s strength. It proved weaker than I thought. And I wanted to see how susceptible others were to the Black Room’s call. Even now the Children of Osiris—former archaeologists like myself—are en route from Thebes to help me mystically shore up the door. Until then we must be cautious.”
It seemed fitting that my grandfather, who had spent decades breaking into tombs, should be tasked with protecting the security of this reality. After all, law enforcement routinely uses hackers to punch up cyber-security.
As for me, I want to open that door again, even though I’m aware of the danger to myself and others. But like I said in the beginning, I have a problem with impulse control. And now, I have a cosmic prompt from Hell itself to do so. Time will tell if I answer the call.