On March 20, 1937, a tropical storm system, having formed off the coast of east Africa, struck the eastern seaboard of the United States with tremendous force, devastating parts of the Carolinas and Virginia. The hardest hit areas were those along the central Virginia coastline. The town of Fredericksburg, while somewhat inland, was particularly hurt, as the river which borders it (the mighty and majestic Rappahannock) swelled and burst its banks, sending a flood crashing into the Old Towne district. Many historical landmarks, from the colonial period to the Civil War, were utterly destroyed, their loss striking antiquaries especially hard.
In the days after the flood waters abated, it was discovered that a hitherto unknown series of catacombs existed under the city. Appearing of Rome design, they were dubbed the “Fredericksburg Tombs” by the media.
In July 1938, I was contacted by the archeological department at Miskatonic University; they had obtained permission to explore and document the Tombs, and wanted a local journalist to be present. As I was the author of a highly popular column in the Arkham Advertiser, my name was naturally the first to come up.
Being a student of the arcane and antiquated, I jumped at the chance.
The expedition, headed by the famed Jean-Terri Sebech, a French-Canadian archeologist who had studied strange and unutterable ruins in the Arabian Desert, left Arkham on the first of September. The team consisted of several other researchers, a team of negro laborers, myself, and Hugo Mansfield, dean of the school. We traveled south in a caravan, and reached Fredericksburg at dusk on the second: seen from a distance, the Old Towne district rose grandly back from the river, its shaded streets lined with archaic buildings. A gothic church spire rose into the dusky sky, and a big white plantation house stood on the highest hill (Marye’s Heights), keeping watch over the narrow lanes, forgotten courtyards, and age-encumbered alleyways.
The house, as fate would have it, was where we were to stay; owned by the Fredericksburg Historical Society, it still bore the marks of General Burnside’s disastrous invasion of December 1862. Standing on the columned porch and looking out over the sweep of the Virginia countryside, I was filled with a fervent admiration for the Southern spirit of the region. Below, the city clustered closely together along the riverside, its grid-like streets busy with cars, horses, and people enjoying the evening. I imagined the horror of the invasion, Burnside and his men storming across the ice-choked river like locusts, buildings smoking and aflame, and for the first time in my life, I was ashamed to be a Yankee.
After we had settled into our accommodations, we supped in the grand banquet hall. Or, rather, the white men did; the negros ate in a separate dining hall.
Over our meal, I pumped Sebach for information, asking his opinions on the Tombs.
“I can’t say what they mean, Wilmarth, but I suppose they could be anything. Romans very well could have made their way to the new world. There is some evidence of it in Maine and Vermont, alters to Roman gods crumbling in the higher hills. As to how they were forgotten, I can’t say that either. I’m almost certain the catacombs predate the city, so it could very well be that no one ever knew they were there.”
After dinner, I retired to my room and wrote down my initial impressions of the trip and dinner. To think: Romans in America, standing proudly on the sandy shores of Virginia, an entire legion dispatched beyond the borders of the known world on some strange and forgotten mission. Is it possible that these proud warriors landed here? If so, how many of their works did they leave behind? What happened to them? Surely the Indians musty have fought them the way they fought later Europeans, but they would have presented no real threat.
The next morning, we woke, ate breakfast, and started for the catacombs before eight, led by a short, talkative fellow named William Johansen who headed the FHS.
The Tombs, he said, were discovered when one of the older buildings along the waterfront collapsed under the weight of the floodwaters. The foundation itself had been washed away, revealing a gaping hole he said must have been formed by the water. The hole opened on a long, decorated passageway that led deep into the bowels of the earth. No one had ever gone far into it, but those who did emerged quickly, complaining of strange sensations. Sebach was certain that their unease was caused by infrasound, vibrating sound waves that cause disquiet, fear, and panic. It was Sebach’s opinion that infrasound is responsible for “ghost” sightings. Whether that’s true or not remains to be seen.
The building atop the hole had been set slightly away from the rest of the city. A brick wall of perhaps six feet had been left on three sides. The inside was dusty, protected from rain by a blue canvas stretched tautly over the gaping, sixteen by sixteen crater in the earth.
“Let us begin,” Sebach said.
Sebach, myself, and Dean Mansfield were the first into the cavern. Using electric torches, we traced the ornamentals adorning the rough stone walls: Figures, hieroglyphics, designs the likes of which none of us had ever seen.
“It’s not Roman,” Sebach said.
“What is it, then?” Dean Mansfield asked.
“I don’t know.”
Sebach sent for the negro workers, and when they were in the corridor, he ordered them to trace as much of the strange writings on paper as possible. While they set to work, Johanson descended the ladder the negros had set up, and led us as far as anyone had ever gone.
“This is the place,” he said, “where no one passes.”
The “place” was high, vaulted room, the bulk of which stretched out before us. Catwalks edged along the walls.
In the wavering light of the torches, strange and eldtrich shapes loomed from the darkness. Sebach’s light froze on the twisted face of a stone idol which stood in the center of the room, its arms open before it as if to embrace us. I could sense something in the man had changed. He was uneasy.
“What is it?” Dean Mansfield asked.
“I’ve seen this before,” Sebach said. “In Iraq.”
“What is it, man?”
The words rolled low and reverently from his tongue, echoing grotesquely in the subterranean crypt. Johanson didn’t seem to grasp the meaning of the name, nor did Dean Mansfield, but, I, for one, nearly swooned. K’yleth’a’tu, the moon worshipped god of sex, was, so I had read, the most evil deity mentioned in the Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul-Alhazard. Even then she was mentioned only in shuddery brevity. She was studied at length in the disgusting Forbidden Book of Chinese sadist Le-Yu-Kang, who praised her spirit of sexual depravity, commanding his followers to couple in the shadow of her likeness, offering her not mere intercourse but abominable sodomy.
“Who were these people?” Dean Mansfield asked with a shudder.
“Devils,” Sebach said.
We started along the catwalk. “It’s here that it begins,” Johanson said, and even before the words had left his lips, I became aware of a strange and wholly repellant sensation along the back of my neck, a tingle of sorts, but sharper than such, like a pointed legs of some disgusting insect. The others in my party felt it as well, for pained and revolted expressions crossed their faces. The farther we went, the more intense the sensation became, until our entire bodies were atingle with the numb, stabbing pins-and-needles sensation most associated with inert appendages. I began to catch glimpses of unfathomable things from the corner of my eye, but when I turned to face them, they would dart away.
“It’s infrasound!” Sebach cried through clenched teeth. “Make for the other side!”
The catwalk ended ahead, at the vaulted entrance to a passageway. When we reached it, the eeriness faded away, and normalcy returned to us.
Panting, we made sure we were all alright.
“What lies beyond?” I asked Johanson.
“I don’t know,” he said.
I looked to Sebach. Shouldn’t we wait for the others? Would it be safe for only the four of us to continue on?
It was, he assured me. Even now, I remember the mad gleam in his eye. He was like a bloodhound onto a scent.