Kingdom of the Living Dead by Joseph Rubas

(The following account was written by Stanly Ford in Reno, Nevada, between July 3 and 4, 1928. The events described reportedly took place between on June 18 of that same year somewhere in the desert west of Austin, Nevada. Though no hard evidence has ever been discovered that would definitively prove or disprove the events herein related, Mr. Ford was able to convince a number of scientific figures of the day, including the folklorist Howard Lovecraft, who wrote a lengthy article on the Ford case which he published as part of his Eldritch Myth in 1942. In researching his article, Lovecraft met with Mr. Ford, who had been found “wandering in the wilderness, vacant and babbling” on the morning of June 28 by a nature photographer from National Geographic. In Lovecraft’s opinion, Stanly Ford was a “Frank and intelligent fellow whose eyes shone with honesty.” This account was first published in Amazing! Magazine on February 18, 1956, under the title “Attack of the Fifty-Foot Ghoul.”)
My name is Stanly T. Ford, and I was born twenty-eight years ago in the town of Patricia, California, which straddles the Oregon border. As a child, my pursuits were normal and wholesome. I attended church, sang in the choir, played sports with the other boys, and aspired to one day become a missionary in strange and foreign ports. I eventually abandoned the calling, but remained faithful.

What I have to write today is, then, not a delusion born of morbid fascinations or exaggerated whimsy. I come before the world with the truth. Already, the papers in town are calling me mad, and while that perturbs me to no end, I am resolved to stand firm in the face of ridicule.

God help me, I’m not lying when I say that I and my colleagues encountered something hideous in the badlands of central Nevada, a creature which has no rightful place in this world, a foul, soul-petrifying thing escaped from the most depraved of Arabic folklore. I beg you all to take my words to heart.

It, whatever it was, is out there now, shoved into some dark subterranean chamber, waiting to rise once more. God help us, it might even be coming this way as I write.

The firm for which I work, Birchen Asphalt Co., was contracted by the government to erect a highway between Austin and Ely, Nevada, a distance of some fifty miles. As the house surveyor, it fell to me to scout the best possible route for this proposed highway.

I arrived in Ely on the fifteenth of June along with my partner, a stout and brutal former doughboy named Lewis, and a sixteen-year-old apprentice by the name of Elroy. We checked into the Union Hotel on State Street around noon that cursed day, and then took our lunch in the café across the street. As we waited for our food, Elroy picked my brain, so to speak, and Lewis sat to himself, seeming to gaze into the ether.
The day was well over 100 degrees, and the café felt like an oven. The combination of the heat and Elroy’s incessant questions began giving me a headache, and, as politely as I could, I excused myself before it could progress into a full-scale agony.

Outside, the arid breeze washed over my fevered face; compared to the stuffy air of the diner, it was blissful. I closed my eyes and leaned back against the wall flanking the door. Slowly, the pain faded, ebbing away like spring runoff.

“Hot day, isn’t it?”

I opened my eyes, and saw, before me, a brown man in khaki shorts and shirt. At first, I mistook him for a negro, but quickly realized that he was, indeed, a white man, albeit one whose prolonged exposure to the sun had baked his skin an unhealthy shade of dull brown.

“It is,” I replied, “much warmer than California. I’m afraid I’m no good in such brutal climes.”

The man chuckled, a raspy, rusted sound that grated the nerves. I feared that my headache would flare back up like an ember buried deep within a seemingly extinguished campfire.

“California man, eh? What brings you here? And in summer?”

I told him, and he grinned. “Looks like we’re coworkers, almost. My name’s Sam Johnson, and I’ll be doing some digging in that area.”

Johnson, in a surprisingly plainspoken manner, told me that he was a professor of archeology, and was conducting a dig along with members of his college’s folklore department.

“Looking for evidence of Old Ones,” he said, nearly whispering the last two words.

“Old Ones?” I asked uncertainly.
Johnson nodded. “Those who walked the earth before us.”

Intrigued, I invited Johnson to accompany me, and, together, we returned to the table, where Elroy was making the grave mistake of questioning Lewis. For his part, Lewis sat with his arms reservedly crossed over his broad chest.

I introduced the Doctor, and then listened rapt for what must have been a half an hour as he regaled us with tales of these Old Ones. From what he told me, the world was once ruled over by strange beings unlike anything ever seen since. With the advent of man, the Old Ones went “underground,” so to speak, and have been biding their time, waiting through untold eons to retake what is theirs.

“Dr. Franklin can tell you much more than I ever could,” Johnson finished, taking a sip of water, which the waitress had brought with our meals. Looking around like a man just woken from a long coma, I saw Lewis, drumming his fingers on the table and looking impatient. The plate before him was clean. Elroy, like me, had been listening intently. His eyes were large and boyish, and he had hardly touched his food.

“He’s the head of the folklore department,” Johnson explained. “Say, how about we all meet up tomorrow? We can take you surveying, and then you can come with us on the dig? I’m sure Dr. Franklin wouldn’t mind.”

I jumped at the idea, as they say, and we arranged to meet in the lobby of the Union the following day.

Back in the hotel, Lewis, Elroy, and I spent rest of the day relaxing. I wrote a lengthy entry into my diary (which I seem to have lost in the desert), and read a newspaper. When it came time to sleep, I was restless, and laid awake long past midnight, my mind spinning. I cannot say that I believed in Johnson’s Old Ones, but he had offered compelling evidence, and the singular nature of the whole thing awoke in me a hitherto unknown chasm of dark curiosity.

Perhaps there was something to it. I do, and did, believe that there are things which man cannot explain. Or rather, there are things that conventional and intolerant science cannot explain. Men like Johnson and this Dr. Franklin are our only chance at truth, for the scientific community, despite its tremendous strides in the past hundred years, is stubborn in its refusal to entertain things like the paranormal, and dismisses what it cannot account for as stupidity, superstition, or flat-out falsehood.

Thus wired, my sleep, when it finally came, was light and fitful. When dawn crested in the east, I rose and hurriedly dressed. When the appointed time came, my compatriots and I met with Johnson and a small group of swarthy men in the hotel lobby. With them was a small, rotund man with large glasses and a bald pate. Dressed haphazardly in a tweed jacket and a pair of dirty slacks accented by a yellow bowtie, Dr. Franklin was not an impressive specimen. When I spoke to him in the car, however, I found him to be a genius of the highest magnitude.

I’m embarrassed to admit this next part, but I, after little thought, called off that day’s work so we could accompany the Johnson-Franklin group to its campsite, roughly thirty miles west of Austin, and fifteen miles south from there. I was like a giddy child who ignores his studies in favor of playing in the dirt, and my professional nature recoils in hindsight. Then, though, I was concerned only with the blasted dig.

On the way, Franklin told me more of these Old Ones. An assorted race of star dwellers who came to earth several millennia before the accepted dawn of time, they built weird and futuristic cities and regularly traveled between here and unknown planets in space. Godlike, the Old Ones are monstrous in appearance and intent, and, Franklin whispered, may have even created humankind themselves.  

My head swam with the frightening subject matter, so much so that I was struck speechless until we arrived at the campsite sometime after noon. Horror suddenly forgotten, I was agog at the starkly beautiful terrain surrounding us; Strange and alien rock formations rose from vast seas of sand, and mountains that seemed somehow off towered into the duty skies on three sides of us.

At once we set about getting set up. Lewis approached me at one point and demanded to know when we would be leaving. “Tomorrow,” I told him, though, and again I regret to even say it, I was lying. I was consumed. So much so that I can’t help but think that that thing was influencing me all the while, pulling strings from a distance.

Within an hour, a virtual tent city had sprung up. There were twenty people in the party, not including us, but in that isolated waste, they seemed multiplied; I could have sworn there were twice as many.

Ever the amiable host, Dr. Franklin invited us to stay with them as long as we liked. That night after dinner, as we sat around a small fire, I told him that we would most likely be leaving in a day or so. Was it a lie? I don’t know.

“Well, then,” Dr. Franklin said with a grin, “I suppose we had better follow up the most promising leads first.”

“Leads?” I asked.

Franklin nodded. “I told you earlier that there were many types of Old Ones. They are like man, grouped into races, classes, what have you. I did not tell you, though, which Old Ones we are looking for.”

“No,” I replied, “but that…”

Ignoring me, Franklin went on: “They are popularly called ghula, or ghoul. In Near East mythology, the ghoul is a demonic entity that dwells in the wilderness, usually near cemeteries and oft traveled highways. Cannibalistic by nature, ghouls are incorporeal, and thus are forced to take on the form of the poor wretch they last ate. Most ghouls eat only the dead (and so appear as the dead). Others, however, are more…daring, and kill living humans…”

Trailing off, Dr. Franklin poked the fire with a stick, sending a shower of sparks into the night. For the first time in what may have been hours, I became aware of the camp around me. Dark and silent, it was asleep. Dr. Franklin and I were alone with the night.

“It is believed that the first ghouls were created by a cannibal giant who lived under the Arabian Desert. This proto ghoul, I believe, was but one of a race, a race with lives even now beneath the deserts of the world.”

“What brings you to this particular spot, then?” I asked, “what leads do you have?”

Franklin smiled. “This…area has always been shunned by the Shoshone Indians, who have lived in this part of the country for centuries. There are stories of “Wendigos” haunting the deserts, giant cannibal creatures who turn human beings into flesh-eating revenants. This part of Nevada is particularly legend haunted. I’ve spoken to a few Shoshone, including a medicine man who claims to be one-hundred-and-fifty, and they all agree that there is, in fact, a “Wendigo” in the salt flats. They couldn’t agree on where it lived, but the medicine man says there is a “bottomless” cave about three miles south of here. That, my friend, is where we are going tomorrow.”

There, we ended the night.
I had no trouble sleeping, thankfully, but my dreams were plagued by giant, hoven creatures. By morning, I was fatigued and lethargic. When Franklin came around to rouse me, I nearly begged off, but forced myself out of bed anyway.

We began our trek into the desert at once, just Johnson, Franklin, two of their laborers, and myself. The heat of the day was astounding, the sun a boiling caldron of hellfire, and by the time we came into view of what Franklin believed to be the cave (a large, humplike mound of rock), all of us were heat sick.

Taking refuge under an out jutting rock, we ate lunch and excitedly discussed the looming hill, yet a mile off.
Done, we buried our trash in the sand and pressed on. Twenty minutes later, we stood before the mound. Composed of reddish rock, the hive-like mound rose perhaps eighty feet into the air. At its base was a yawning maw. A sort of pathway had been erected leading into it, stones laid out like fine jewels.

“I want you all to stay here,” Franklin said, pulling a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket. “I’m going to make sure the land is clear. Once I know it’s safe, I’ll come out and get you.”

We grudgingly agreed, and stood in the sun while he cautiously disappeared into the darkness.

“If we don’t find anything here,” I asked Johnson, “where is our next destination?”

“About two miles north of here. There’s a little oasis that near the mouth of another cave.”

            For the next several minutes, we waited in silence. Finally, Dr. Franklin appeared. “Come on!” he cried excitedly, “you have to see this.”

            Johnson and I looked at each other. Followed by the laborers, we went to Dr. Franklin, whose eyes shone. “It’s amazing! Simply amazing!” he babbled. “It all but confirms the presence of the ghula.”
            For the first time, apprehension blossomed in my stomach. I could see that Johnson was slightly rattled as well. Regardless, we followed Dr. Franklin into the cave, which was cold after the heat of the day. In the dim sunlight filtering through the entrance, I immediately  noticed strange hieroglyphics on the walls.

            “Arabic,” Dr. Franklin said, “it says ‘All entering, know that this is the kingdom of the living dead.’”

            A shiver trickled down my spine.
            Franklin, electric torch in hand, motioned for us to follow him deeper into the cavern. “And up here.”

            Close to what I imagined to be the back of the cave, we found a pit, perhaps twelve feet across and twelve feet long. “Down there,” Franklin said, “is where I believe the ghula to be.”

            Franklin shined the light down, but the beam only reached five feet. I cannot say what lay beyond that, but I sensed that it was forever.

Looking up, I then noticed that the walls were honeycombed with archways, gaping holes which no doubt led to hidden chambers. In one of them, I perceived, or thought I perceived, a flicker of movement, and my heart jolted against my ribcage. Behind me, one of the laborers muttered something under his breath, and the other spat the word “Evil.”

            “Dr. Franklin,” I stuttered, licking my sandpaper lips. Scanning the lopsided thresholds, I became convinced that each one held something living, something infinitely grotesque. “Shine the light up there.”

            “What?” he asked, turning. I pointed to the first entryway I had seen, and he gasped.

            “I hadn’t noticed those.” He raised the light, and at that moment a dreadful noise, much like a long, hollow moan, drifted from somewhere imperceptible.

            Almost simultaneously, the light fell upon the opening, revealing a figure in a dark, ratty robe, its face bluish and…crusted, for lack of a better term. I started, while one of the men behind me yelped.

            The thing stood there watching us, its eyes as black as midnight on the ocean floor. Paralyzed, we could do little more than stare back, which we did for what seemed an eternity, but really couldn’t have been more than a minute. Finally, the spell was broken by Johnson, who yelped like a small dog tread underfoot. “Something has me!”

            Franklin turned the light, and we all beheld it; hands, gray with decomposition, were popping out of the ground like abominable serpents, and one held fast to Johnson’s ankle.
Panicking, Johnson pulled back, and the creature who had him, displaying a detestable premeditation, let go; screaming and pin wheeling his arms as though he were a bird, Johnson toppled into the chasm. Franklin reached out to grab him, dropped the flashlight, and was tripped by one of the hands, falling to his knees with a muffled umph.
With a cry and a rustle of feet, the two laborers fled, leaving me rooted to where I stood, too terrified to move, my heart thundering and my stomach tightening.

Dr. Franklin screamed; the darkness teemed. Seconds crept by, a minute, I stayed where I was, my legs like cinderblocks. I sense movement all around me.

“Damn it!” Dr. Franklin screamed, struggling with the creatures, “get off of me!”

In the beam of the fallen torch, his face was contorted in fear and desperation. There must have been five sets of hands rising from the floor, clawing, pinching, grabbing.

As I looked helplessly on, a head broke through the dirt not a foot from Dr. Franklin’s face. Its eyes were black like the others’, and its mouth, twisted in hateful hunger, worked up and down, chomp, chomp, chomp. The doctor wailed, and the creature, becoming aware of his presence, turned to him. I can’t be sure, but it looked like it smiled.
“No! No!” Franklin screamed.

The ghoul strained forward.

“Help me, Stanly!”

The ghoul bit. Blood gushed. Franklin howled.

With an electric jolt, my paralysis broke, and I threw myself toward daylight, teetering precariously on the brink of madness. All around my feet, hands waved mockingly back and forth, clawing at thin air, waiting to rip and tear. Close to the cave mouth, beyond which sanity lie, one of the ghouls had worked its way entirely free, and stood in my way, waiting to enfold me in its undead embrace.

A man more in his right mind might have stopped. I didn’t. I barreled right through the thing, knocking it aside, and exploded into the sun.

I had expected to find safety outside of that cave, as if such horrors could only exist in the dark. Instead, I found more terror. There were two, three dozen ghouls hobbling aimlessly to and fro. A number more were bent over two supine figures, partaking of their flesh.
  The ones not otherwise preoccupied quickly noticed me, and began shambling in my direction, their arms outstretched and their mouths working furiously.
With a muttered curse, I ducked heedlessly to my left, and almost fell over a boulder sticking out of the ground. Climbing over, I landed on my back and struggled to my feet. Before me, a long, sandy incline hugged the bottom of the accursed hill. Beyond, open desert.
            Panting raggedly, I got perhaps halfway down before I tripped in the deep sand and fell. Screaming, I rolled head-over-feet the rest of the way, striking hidden rocks with my knees and elbows.
            When I finally came to rest, I got back to my feet and spared a glance over my shoulder: A line of ghouls were picking their way down the hill.
I ran then. It seems I ran for eons before I again looked back, but it couldn’t have been more than five minutes. Thankfully, the ghouls had given up the chase. In the hazy distance, the hill stood like a beacon to the living dead.
Before I could turn my back one final time, something extraordinary happened. With a shake and a rumble, the hill collapsed on itself like a house of cards. Within seconds, the debris exploded into the air as something titanic rose from the depths, a gigantic stalk of organic horror fifty feet high and as wide as a building.
            The human mind can only handle so much, I’ve been told, and at this point, I lapsed into blessed catatonia.
When I came to, I was here, in Reno. How I came to be in this area is beyond me, as it is three hundred miles west of where I began. For several days after being found, I am told, I was stark raving mad. In fact, yesterday was the first moment of lucidity I’ve known in some time, though when I came to, I imagined that I was still in the desert, moments away from being trampled or eaten.
The others weren’t as lucky as I. The paper says that they are all missing, but I know what really happened to them.
As for the ghula itself, the animating spirit of dead flesh, I know where it is, if, God forbid, it isn’t in transit. You won’t see it, just a fraction of it.

My grandmother once told me that God was so big that the sky was but the iris of his eye, but even she could never comprehend the size of the ghula. For that rising stalk I beheld in the desert was not the ghula. Right before I blacked out, I recognized what it was, from ball-and-socket pivot to the jagged, misshapen crown. It was not the ghula. Or at least not its body, or even its arm. What I saw was but one single finger.

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