In the Light of the Lamp


Steven Paulsen


I

Peter Briggs and his girlfriend, Jocelyn Harris, stood shivering in the cobbled lane behind a small group of shops. "Back at two," read the scribble on the brown-paper bag taped to the stairwell door.
"He's out, damn it!" said Jocelyn, pulling a crochet shawl about her shoulders.
"Yeah," said Peter. "We needn't have rushed to catch that bloody train after all." He glanced at his watch and shrugged. "Half an hour. We've got to score, so we'll just have to wait." He ran his fingers through his long, lank hair, freeing some of the knots the wind had tied in it.
"Well it's too damn cold to hang around here, man. I'm freezing. And look at those clouds, there's rain on the way. Let's go and browse in the shops."
They left the lane -- the cold wind pushing them out from it -- and circled around to the front of the shops.
The buildings were old and dilapidated, superseded now by the all-in-one complex on the highway that had bypassed them twenty years ago. They seemed to huddle around the mostly quiet railway station as if it was their only hope; grimy, dull and forlorn.
Peter and Jocelyn passed one uninviting doorway after another: An espresso bar -- dark-eyed men playing cards, drinking thick black coffee from tiny cups; a derelict shop, its windows daubed in spray enamel with the words WAIT FOR WHEN THE STARS ARE RIGHT; the pizza shop, above which their dope dealer lived; a dingy book store displaying yellowed volumes of poetry by Justin Geoffrey; until finally they paused outside a cluttered bric-a-brac shop. Boxes, furniture, bolts of cloth and all manner of other merchandise were precariously stacked up against the inside of its grimy window, hiding the interior.
"This'll do," Peter said, squinting, trying to peer into the shop through the maze of oddments. He opened the door and they stepped inside.
The shop was relatively warm, but the air seemed somehow tainted; damp, dusty and aged. The only illumination came from a single fly-specked light-bulb suspended from the ceiling. It was dim -- so dim in fact that shadows obscured much of the stock, and parts of the shop were in darkness. The old, chipped glass sales counter, smudged with countless fingerprints, was deserted.
They peered into the gloom. Objects of unrecognisable shapes were hung and stacked all about. In one corner there seemed to be huge earthenware jars and amphorae, while from the walls trophy-mounted animal heads appeared to watch them with ominous and fiery life-like eyes. Behind the glass counter they could see hundreds of tinted-glass apothecary phials stacked in a tall rack.
"Let's look around," suggested Jocelyn, not really caring what they did. She strolled over to the nearest table, examining the objects laid out on it. Peter moved to another table and began picking through a selection of brass ornaments, suppressing a sneeze as he stirred dust with his movements.
Something tickled Jocelyn's ankle and she shivered uncomfortably. Then, suddenly, as she tried to move away it grabbed her ankle. She screamed, kicking her foot free, and a loud staccato screech from under the table made her scream again and run to Peter's side.
"Peter . . ." she managed between sobs, "there's something horrible under there."
He pried her grip from his arm and went to where she had been standing. Striking a match, he took a deep breath, bent over and thrust the flame below the table.
"It's a monkey!" he cried. "It's cool, come and have a look. It's only a monkey."
He struck another match and they both peered under the table. There, in a bamboo cage, sat a large-eyed, scrawny monkey with its head tilted to one side. It seemed to be laughing at them, revealing a shiny gold front tooth.
"Ah, he's cute," Jocelyn said, placing her hand into the cage, patting its head. "Hello there, boy."
Peter laughed. "A minute ago you thought he was horrible."
Suddenly the monkey swivelled its head and lunged at Jocelyn's hand. She snatched it away as his jaw snapped shut. "He tried to bite me!" She stood up. "Let's go, I don't think I like him after all."
She followed Peter to another table, casting backward glances into the dark recess she knew contained the strange gold-toothed monkey. She felt uneasy about it and slightly suspicious about this place. Catching up to Peter, she noticed the counter was still unattended.
Peter stopped before a tall brass water-pipe. "Far out! Hey Joss, get a load of this hookah will you."
"Oh, wow . . ." Jocelyn stared at Peter's find. "Isn't it great. I wonder how much they want for it?"
"Salaam, young Effendi, young Madam."
Peter and Jocelyn span around. Jocelyn gasped. Peter took hold of her hand. Before them, as if from nowhere, stood a tall, swarthy hook-nosed man, dressed in flowing robes and a turban. He was smiling but his eyes held an unnerving glint.
"In answer to your question, Madam, two hundred dollars is the price for the hubble-bubble. Hand tooled by Tso Tso craftsmen. A bargain, don't you think?" His words oozed politeness, but a mocking tone seemed to deny servility.
Jocelyn raised her eyebrows at Peter.
The man smiled, his top lip curling up in one corner. "Can I show you something else? Some trinkets perhaps, or a talisman?"
"It's cool," said Peter. "Just looking, man."
"Just looking," repeated the shopkeeper. "Then please allow me to draw your attention to some very special merchandise." He strode to a table in the middle of the shop, easily avoiding the obstacles that cluttered the gloom. "These items are bargain priced, 'on special', I think you say. For a very short time, just for you Effendi, everything on this table is priced at a mere five dollars." He gave his curled-lip smile, bowed and moved quietly away to stand behind the counter.
"Junk," whispered Jocelyn, the urge to leave growing in her.
"You never know," Peter said as he began to sift through the unusual assortment of paraphernalia. "There could be something good in here."
Every so often he paused to examine one of the curios or trinkets as its presence caught his attention: an octagonal piece of thick red glass; a multi-faceted black-red sphere suspended in a lidless box; a rusty dagger with a serpentine blade; a sheaf of handwritten parchment fragments in Latin or some such; a cloudy jewel-like orb about the size of a tennis ball. Finally he paused a bit longer over one particular object -- admiring it, looking at it from different angles.
"Hey, look at this, Joss."
Looking up from playing in the dust with her feet, Jocelyn said, "Come on, Pete, let's go. Dealer-Bob'll be back any time."
"Yeah, okay, just look at this first." He held out a tarnished metal object.
Jocelyn glanced at it, disinterested. "What is it, Peter? A teapot or something?"
"It's an old oil lamp, I think." Peter ran his fingers lightly over the surface of the metal body. "You know, like Aladdin's lamp. Yeah, listen . . ." he shook it ". . . you can hear the oil sloshing around inside."
Jocelyn smiled crookedly, then giggled, her heavy mood lifting briefly. "Maybe there's a genie in it -- let's polish it and see."
"Maybe there is," said Peter, pretending to be serious, "it looks really old. Look, it's even engraved with runes and hieroglyphics. I think I'll buy it."
"Don't be silly, we can't afford it. Besides, it was probably made in Taiwan last week."
"I don't care if it was, I'm still going to buy it."
"Well, just make sure you've still got enough to pay Dealer-Bob! And hurry up."
Digging into the pockets of his thread-bare jeans, Peter counted five dollars in coins onto the counter. The shopkeeper nodded, verifying the amount, but Jocelyn was already leading Peter from the unusual shop. As she opened the door, a shaft of cold sunlight broke into the shop, revealing an empty bamboo cage under a nearby table. Peter closed the door without either of them noticing it.
When they had left the man laughed aloud, showing his teeth for the first time; his gold front-tooth glinting, catching the light from the feeble light-globe.

II

Sitting, polishing the lamp later that night in their small, bare living-room, Peter Briggs marvelled at the quality of the workmanship as the grime and tarnish came away. It looked just like he had always imagined Aladdin's lamp would look -- like a squat, oblong teapot sort of thing stretched to a spout at one end with a handle on the other.
Jocelyn had knelt by him on the floor when he first began to clean it, but soon lot interest when her genie failed to appear. Now she was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of his chair, preparing a joint on a Cheech and Chong record album cover with the marijuana they had bought from Dealer-Bob.
The lamp gleamed in Peter's hands as he gave it a final buff with a soft cloth, more the colour of gold than brass; but for five dollars that was impossible.
"I think I'll light it," Peter said as he pulled the wick from the spout with a pair of tweezers.
"Do you have to, man? The damn thing'll probably smoke and stink out the room -- or even worse, what if it blows up or catches fire or something?"
Peter laughed. "It won't blow up, and that's just the brasso you can smell."
"You can't be sure -- it mightn't be safe. Anyway, I just don't like it. It makes me uncomfortable. You can light it if you like, but I'm going to bed, to sleep, if you do."
"Aw, Joss, don't be like that." He put the lamp on the coffee table and got down on his hands and knees, nuzzling his face into her small breasts.
"Careful, you nearly spilled the dope." She squealed and pushed him away as he playfully took her nipple between his lips through her thin cotton kaftan.
"Peter, I mean it!"
"Okay already. I won't light it."
"Thank you."
Outside then, a flash of lightning suddenly flared brilliantly, starkly illuminating the entire room. Peter's head jerked up and Jocelyn gave a little gasp, gripping Peter's arm tightly. It was followed moments later by a violent peal of thunder that rattled the windows in their frames and seemed to shake the very foundations of the house.
"Wow!" exclaimed Jocelyn, putting her hands over her ears.
"Jeez, that was close." Peter got to his feet and returned to his armchair. "Looks like we're in for a doozey storm."
"I don't like storms." Jocelyn went to the windows and pulled the blinds down over them. Thunder rumbled deeply in the distance and the light in their room flickered off and on. She came back to Peter and sat on the arm of his chair. "I really don't like storms."
"Well let's light this then. It'll make you feel better."
Peter leant over and picked up the reefer and a box of matches from where Jocelyn had left them. He sat back and lit the oversized cigarette, inhaling the smoke deeply before he passed it to Jocelyn.
"Anyway," Peter said as he exhaled the smoke, "there's nothing to worry about. The chances of actually being hit by lightning are billions to one. And even if --"
He was cut short by a flash of lightning so bright it illuminated the room through the blinds. Then the lights went out, plunging the house into darkness, and a mighty crack of thunder pounded against the windows.
"Peter!"
"It's all right Joss, hang on a sec . . ." A match flared. Peter cupped it in his hands. "There."
"Have we got any candles?"
"Not that I know of -- no candles, no torch, no nothing. Ouch!" Peter shook out the match and blew on his burnt finger.
"Well do something." There was a note of panic in her voice.
He struck another match. "I suppose I could light the lamp . . ."
"Light the lamp, then."
"But you said --"
"I don't care what I said, just light it."
He leant over and picked up the lamp from the coffee table, putting the burning match to it. The flame sputtered for a moment then stabilised. The light the lamp gave was surprisingly strong, illuminating the room with a warm, steady brilliance.
"There," Peter said smugly. "That's done the trick. See, it doesn't smoke and it hasn't blown up after all." He placed it back on the table. "Look, it's even better than a candle would've been."
But Jocelyn wasn't listening; instead she was engrossed in something across the room, her fear of the storm and the dark shocked from her mind.
"Peter," she said slowly, shakily, holding the joint up in front of her face, "what's in this stuff we're smoking? I think I'm hallucinating."
"It's just grass, what --"
Then they both stared dumbfounded, for now Peter too wondered if he was hallucinating. All around them the walls of the room had come to life. Everywhere the light from the lamp fell, images and scenes were forming before their very eyes. Except, that is, where shadows fell onto the walls from furniture and the like; there the scenes were empty, incomplete, like pieces missing from a nearly finished jig-saw puzzle.
Pictures formed and faded away before they could properly make them out. Peter stared incredulously, blinking every so often and rubbing his eyes.
Then the kaleidoscope sensation began to ease and a scene slowly began to come into focus. Before them now lay a wooded slope leading down to a flat riverbank. Around them stood dark-green trees, tall, majestic. It was as though they were standing looking out from a glade on a forest hillside. Peter thought he could almost smell the freshness of pine, of dew, feel the subtle, ghostly sensation of a breeze brushing lightly against his face. The storm that had moments before thrilled him was now forgotten.
"Look!"
Jocelyn pointed as a figure, a boy, came into view by the dark river. He stopped, looking towards them, then slipped from sight behind some trees on the wooded riverbank.
Then the scene twisted out of focus, shifting, changing, and another began to appear.
Peter took Jocelyn's hand in his. "It's the lamp . . ." he whispered huskily, "not the dope. I can feel it." He turned back to the images.
Before him now stretched a boundless white-blue landscape. Mighty mountains of ice and stone thrusting out from immense frozen plains. Peter felt drawn towards them, fascinated, enthralled. He imagined he could step into the scene as though it were just beyond a doorway. Holding his arm before him, fingers outstretched, he shuffled towards the icy panorama on the wall.
Jocelyn reached out and took his other hand in her own, subconsciously holding him back.
He reached the wall and placed his fingertips against it, holding them there for a second or two. Then all of a sudden he withdrew them with an audible sharp intake of breath.
"What's wrong?" hissed Jocelyn.
Peter removed his fingertips from his mouth and blew on them. "I thought they were burning . . . but they're cold."
"This is weird, Peter! What's going on? What do you mean, 'it's the lamp', huh? I think I'm freaking out on this stuff!" She threw Peter's hand aside and covered her face with her own as she began to weep.
"Don't cry, Joss. I'll show you. Look . . ."
Peter snuffed the lamp out with the side of the matchbox, throwing the room into a darkness that seemed to amplify the howling wind and driving rain, pounding against the windows, cascading from the overflowing gutters. Peter lit another match and held it up: now the images were gone from the walls with no sign of them ever having been there.
Jocelyn watched him as he re-lit the wick, and when she looked back at the walls in the light of the lamp, the familiar blank surfaces had been replaced by the shifting patterns of a new scene as it began to form. The sounds of the storm that moments before had reasserted their presence, seemed to recede into the darkness outside like a dying echo.
A time-worn city jutting from the sands of a vast desert came into focus all of a sudden out of a misty blurred image. Some of the ancient buildings and walls were half buried in the ever moving sand dunes, while others -- at the whim of the wind -- had their crumbling forms fully exposed.
But the image was fleeting, melting back into the swirling sand and mist before they could take in any details. And even as this nameless city disappeared, another scene was already beginning to form.
This time a moonlit hillock appeared before them in the distance, and the scene seemed to grow as if they were falling into it. Closer and closer it came -- until at last they saw movement on it, a tiny dancing creature, recognising it as the gold-toothed monkey from the curio-shop.
The animal raised its head, lifting its face to the moon and began to grow before their very eyes. It grew with impossible speed, and as it did its shape began to change. In a matter of seconds its size had doubled and its features were taking on human aspects. Then they recognised it as the swarthy shopkeeper -- his hands on his hips, his laughing head thrown back, a contemptuous sneer on his face. And still he grew and changed, his arms elongating, his hands replaced by huge pincer-like claws.
"I don't like this at all," Jocelyn said timidly. "How can a lamp do this?" But then anything else she might have said remained stuck in her throat as she tried to comprehend the horror before her.
The creature's face -- the thing now resembled neither monkey nor man -- was stretching and changing colour. Finally the shifting ceased and the fiendish horror raised the long blood-red tentacle that had once been its face towards the moon and howled. A howl that Peter and Jocelyn felt rather than heard, but a howl that clawed at their hearts with icy fingers.
Then the scene blurred. It was changing again.
"I can't take this, Peter!"
But Peter did not reply or acknowledge Jocelyn in any way. He stood motionless, transfixed, oblivious to anything other than the new scene now on the wall.
Steaming, mud covered and wet, a might Cyclopean city of spires and monoliths and confused geometry seemed to stretch interminably before him. Water poured from its black ramparts and queerly angled towers, and green slime oozed thickly down its pre-human edifices and walls, as though the city had suddenly burst into the sunlight after aeons at the bottom of the sea.
"R'lyeh," whispered Peter without knowing why, for the word had formed itself and issued from his lips of its own accord. He had the impression of many distant voices chanting monotonously. Then somehow he knew he had uttered the name of the dank, black city.
A movement high above the rest of the buildings caught his attention. He looked towards it. An immense gate or doorway had opened in the high citadel at the centre of the city, revealing a mighty cavern, so dark, Peter could only imagine what it contained.
But even though he could see nothing, Peter knew something was there. Something huge, something moving, something ancient . . .
Then they saw it.
Bloated and lumbering, it squeezed its rubbery mass through the immense gap and slopped itself into the sunlight. It was an obscene green scaly thing, sticky with ooze and slime. The tentacles around its kraken-like face writhed and whipped, and it lumbered forward on four clawed feet.
The chanting both Peter and Jocelyn had felt suddenly became ominously audible, and although the guttural words themselves meant nothing to either of them, in response the Thing seemed to increase its speed over the carven monoliths and masonry of the city. Then a hideous stench, not unlike putrid seaweed and decaying fish, permeated the room.
The guttural, monotonous chanting went on, louder and louder; a chant older than civilised man's collective memory. In a voice hardly louder than a whisper, Peter joined in the mesmerising chorus.
"Dear God," screamed Jocelyn. "What are you saying? What's going on? Stop it, Peter. Put the lamp out!"
The gelatinous bloated monster stopped and fixed its malignant gaze on Peter and Jocelyn. Leering, awful eyes pierced their very being, savouring their souls. Then it moved with uncanny speed, slavering and groping towards them.
"Put it out, Peter!"
But Peter hesitated, turning back to look as the slabbering rampant horror filled the wall with its unnatural bulk. And in that instant, a monstrous dripping, rubbery member lashed into the room and plucked Peter from where he stood.
Screaming, spittle flecking from her lips, Jocelyn dived for the lamp and clasped her hand over the flame. In the lamp's dying flicker, a nauseating sucking sound came from beyond the wall and she looked up in time to see Peter's limp form enveloped in a writhing mass of slippery tentacles. Then the room went dark and the sounds of the wind and the rain once again roared through the house, but even they could not blanket Jocelyn's shrieking.

III

The police patrol car cruised along the deserted street at little more than walking pace. A flurry of rain filled the beam of its headlights. Occasionally, the yellow glimmer of candle or lantern light shone from one of the blacked-out houses.
Constable Rex Whatley stopped the patrol car and peered out into the downpour at a narrow Victorian style house. He pulled the car over to the kerb and switched the engine off. The windscreen wipers clunked as they came to rest, and the heavy rain beat loudly on the metal roof.
"This's the place, Sarge," he said. "It's difficult to see if anything's going on from here."
"Yeah," said Sergeant David Finch. He picked up the heavy duty police flashlight from the seat beside him. "Grab your torch, Rex."
A disturbance had been reported by neighbours -- it sounded like a violent domestic -- and the two officers had reluctantly left their warm station house to check it out.
Splashing through the water in the flooded roadside gutters and the puddles along the footpath, they reached the front porch. Sergeant Finch knocked loudly on the door and it swung open a little, unlatched, but there was no reply from the darkened house. Finch motioned Whatley around to the rear, then knocked again, louder. Still no reply.
Cautiously, he let himself into the house, holding his breath while he listened. No sound. When he breathed again a fetid smell assaulted his nostrils. He switched on his torch and moved cautiously into the lounge-room. He shone his light around, noting a plastic bag full of marijuana on the floor and other drug paraphernalia on the mantelpiece and coffee table.
Over by the wall he noticed a pool of slimy liquid splashed across the floor. As he approached it the offensive smell became stronger. He screwed up his nose in distaste.
Another light flashed across the room, Constable Whatley appeared.
"The house seems empty, Sarge. Phew! What stinks in here? It smells like someone's left a dead cat in the corner."
"Something rotten's been spilt on the floor over there," said Finch. "Dirty bloody druggies." He shone his torch on the illicit drugs. "Looks like they shot through in a hurry."
The portable radio on Finch's belt crackled to life with their call sign.
"Richmond-203 responding," he said.
"Roger, Richmond-203," replied a tinny voice. "Code 12 and 16 on the corner of Belrose Avenue and Centre Road. Ambulance en route. Can you attend?"
"That's just around the corner," said Whatley.
"Affirmative, D24. We're on our way."

IV

Run! Escape! were the only coherent thoughts in Jocelyn's terror seared mind. The other images and thoughts that jostled in confusion threatened to push her over the edge of sanity.
She fled from the house, vomit dribbling from her chin, oblivious to the rain, feeling no pain in her burnt right hand. Retching, gasping for air, she ran down the street, still clutching the lamp.
At the end of the street Jocelyn paused, confused, her breast heaving. Suddenly she realised she was still holding the lamp. Cold dread gripped her and she flung it away into the darkness. Somewhere in the back of her mind she heard a thud as it struck the ground, and she ran.
Jocelyn ran in fear for her very soul.
She ran blindly down the centre of the road, into the middle of an intersection.
A horn blared. Brakes screeched. Headlights illuminated Jocelyn's wan, hollow cheeked face. Her eyes wide, unseeing. There was a thud. Pain. Everything went black.
Somewhere in the distance Jocelyn could hear voices. She began to pray to herself. She had not said a prayer since she was a little girl. This one was for Peter, but somehow she knew he was beyond God's help.
She began to tremble, gibbering quietly to herself, unaware of the rain, the approaching siren, the flashing blue and red lights.
The two policemen made their way through the inevitable onlookers. Sergeant Finch went to the distressed driver and Constable Whatley went to attend the injured girl lying on the road. He could hear an ambulance wending its way to the accident.
The girl was lying quiet, the side of her face grazed and bloody, her lips and chin flecked with spittle and vomit. It looked to Whatley as though her leg might be broken. He reached out to wipe the girl's face clean.
Jocelyn was wondering how God could possibly allow such a horribly evil creature to exist? But her contemplation was broken by the sight of a tentacle, its wet suckers pulsing, reaching for her face.
"Put it out!" she screamed. "Out!"
She struck out at Whatley, her nails drawing blood from his cheek as she lurched away from him, scrabbling on her hands and one good leg. Gibbering and mumbling.
"The monkey's not a monkey . . . it's a man, but it's not really a man, it's a, a . . ." She began to sob. "Oh, help me. Dear God, help me. Got to destroy the lamp. Find the lamp."
Jocelyn reared up as they reached her, thrashing, screaming the words in their face as they restrained her. Her voice breaking.
"Find the lamp!"
All she could finally manage as they held her were gut wrenching sobs. The last thing she said was, "The lamp is a door."
The two policemen exchanged glances.
Finch shrugged.
Whatley shook his head. "The things these stupid kids do to themselves with dope."

V

The next morning, eleven year old Jamie Bonnar wheeled his bicycle from the garage on his way to school. The storm had passed during the night, but it was cold, his breath coming out in visible clouds.
He scooted his bike down the drive, avoiding the puddles of rainwater. But as he threw his leg over the saddle some burnished thing on the front lawn caught his eye and he stopped.
Jamie laid his bike on the ground and squelched across the lawn to retrieve the curious object. He recognised it immediately as a middle-eastern style oil lamp. What a find! It was made of brass, chased with obscure symbols and patterned scrolls. It even appeared still to have oil in it. And it was on his own front lawn!
He glanced about, wondering where it had come from, wondering if he had been seen. There was nobody in sight. Quickly, he took it around the back of the house to the cubby he and his mates had built behind the garage.
When his eyes adjusted to the dim light inside the ramshackle hut, he put the lamp in their secret compartment in the wall; behind the plywood where they kept their cigarettes and matches. It would be safe there for now.
Tonight, after school, they could try it out -- light it and see if it worked.





Originally appeared in Terror Australis, Hodder & Stoughton 1993.
Copyright © 1993 Steven Paulsen.
Reprinted with kind permission of the author.


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