The Final Pronunciation

By Bruce Turlish
Illustration by Mike Strick

Chain Border

I want to make perfectly clear that I was not the driving force in all this; Harbison was, and Harbison is dead.

Deservedly so, of course, dragged down and devoured by the monstrosities that he was so instrumental in unleashing. So that does diminish my culpability, doesn't it? Dear God, doesn't it? So please forgive me, mankind. Please forgive me for what I helped start, for this hell on earth. Iris, poor, sick, half-mad, breast cancer-ridden woman, can you forgive me also? If your soul still exists somewhere in the void, can you hear my plea and somehow extend forgiveness? Can't you? I mutilated you, I deformed you, I violated you, but you agreed to it, didn't you? Didn't you, you poor, sick woman, didn't you?

For there is no upright judge in this world now who will hold me accountable for violating my Hippocratic oath, for abusing a patient, for all that I've done; the world is wrecked. I helped wreck it, so did Harbison, but it was Harbison who was the driving force. He manipulated us, he inveigled us into it, so that does lessen my guilt, doesn't it? Oh, Dear God, doesn't it? Doesn't it?

The Final PronunciationThe bare facts of the case are these. My name is Richard Upjohn. I was, when the world was still intact and functioning, a 37 year-old physician, a surgeon who specialized in plastic and reconstructive surgery. Although unmarried, I had achieved and acquired most of the things that denote material success in this earthly existence. I maintained a successful medical practice in a major city on the East Coast, and was considered by those who knew me, both professionally and personally, to be a respectable and well-adjusted member of society.

One facet of my existence that may not have been considered typical of those with my status, however, was my interest in literature dealing with the supernatural and outre. The one author who I held in highest regard was H.P. Lovecraft, a writer with a tremendous cosmic vision of the universe, whose narratives were imbued with a profound sense of the horror that operates beneath the surface of a coldly indifferent universe. As is natural with those who have such intense interests, I became a member of a small group of people who had a similar interest in horror fiction and, most particularly, in Lovecraft. I want to say here that, at first, my interest in Lovecraft's fiction was limited to just deriving entertainment and intellectual stimulation from it; I did not seriously believe that Lovecraft's vision of the universe was anything more than a fictional artifice.

Indeed, most of the other members of our group had a similarly rational mind-set. There was an exception, however: a plain, middle-aged woman named Iris. This woman, through some combination of personal eccentricity and emotional instability, had convinced herself that Lovecraft's writings were more than just fiction. She believed they were actual descriptions of terrible monstrosities that threatened mankind's existence--monstrosities that were not currently visible to us owing to the fact that they were somehow "sequestered away in another dimension," as she put it. Understandably, this woman had a number of other peculiar beliefs relating to astrology and various aspects of pseudo-science, but no one in the group felt threatened by her, and most tended to view her as just a harmless eccentric.

What caused this situation to move in a more sinister direction was the appearance of a man named William Harbison, who found out about our group through a co-worker. Harbison was a scientific programmer who, after joining our group, distinguished himself almost immediately by the obvious intensity of his interest in Lovecraft's writings and also by the sheer force of his personality. As with our fellow group member, Iris, this man, whose appearance was in no way remarkable, held the conviction that Lovecraft was a visionary whose writings hinted at a reality that we were prevented from appreciating owing to humankind's sensory and constitutional limitations.

What differentiated this man from Iris was the extreme persuasiveness of his arguments in support of his beliefs. Claiming that he had subjected the content of Lovecraft's writings to a rigorous scientific analysis, he implied that he had, as a first step in his analysis, resolved the confusion relating to the pronunciation of the exotic terminology that Lovecraft used in his writings, which to most readers appeared to be nothing more than a jumble of unpronounceable consonants.

He argued further that any attempts to achieve an accurate pronunciation for Lovecraftian terminology would be frustrated by the fact that the human oral structure was not suitable for the sort of alien pronunciation that Lovecraft intended for his terminology. He finished the presentation of his findings by saying that, not only had he developed the proper phonetics for the terminology, but also concluded that the human mouth could be altered with some minor anatomical adjustments to achieve a correct pronunciation. In support of his theories, he presented a number of computer-generated graphics which he said visualized the necessary contours that the human mouth would have to have in order to produce the desired sounds.

I must say that while listening to all this, I had doubts about the man's sanity. Yes, he argued his case with the utmost lucidity and coherence, but what he contended was almost pathologically bizarre, in my view. The other group members appeared to be similarly skeptical of Harbison's theories; they sat in stony silence during his presentation, with expressions of tight-lipped cynicism upon their faces.

There was an exception, however: Iris. She appeared spell-bound during Harbison's presentation, and frequently interrupted the flow of his narrative with questions. One of the questions she asked related to the issue of whether these theories could be tested to determine their validity. Harbison understandably replied that any such testing would require, as a starting point, the participation of an experimental subject who would allow the necessary anatomical modifications to be made.

After the group meeting concluded for the evening, I noticed with some feeling of uneasiness that Iris continued to be engrossed in a conversation with this man Harbison. It appeared she had found a kindred spirit who shared her convictions about the authenticity of the subject matter upon which Lovecraft based his stories. As the two of them left the meeting-room together, I felt an almost irrational compulsion to rush up to Harbison and demand that he leave our group at once, saying that it was not intended for fanatical people who held occult or delusional notions about Lovecraft. In retrospect, my failure to do this was the first missed opportunity to prevent catastrophe.

The next development that played a pivotal role in this grotesque situation was Iris learning that she had breast cancer. About five months after Harbison had joined our group, I noticed that Iris seemed withdrawn and preoccupied; qualities which were not consistent with her normal behavior. When I observed her at our meetings, it appeared that her colloquies with Harbison had taken on a more serious, even grim character, if one were to judge by their demeanors. Moreover, I noticed that, on occasion, Iris would gesture in my direction while in the midst of a heated discussion with Harbison.

I did not have long to wait to discover what was going on. I received a phone call from Iris at my home late one evening. In a distraught and tearful tone, Iris related the fact that she had been diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, and told by her physician that the prognosis was not good; she was told to realistically expect no more than six months of life. She continued on by saying that Harbison had revealed to her his conviction that I, as a plastic surgeon, had the ability to make the minor anatomical adjustments which he had expounded upon, if I could be persuaded to do so and if a suitable and willing subject could be found.

She concluded by saying that, since she was destined to die very soon, she wanted to do something with the final days of her life which would gratify this tremendous fascination she felt about achieving a true and authentic pronunciation of Lovecraft's bizarre terminology. In short, she wanted me to perform on her the surgery which would allow her to be the first human being to correctly pronounce Lovecraft's terminology as it was meant to be pronounced.

I was flabbergasted with the import of this torrent of words that Iris poured forth over the telephone. I told her that she was overwrought and confused, that Harbison had filled her head with a lot of fanatical and unscientific nonsense. These protestations of mine fell on deaf ears; Iris wanted me to perform this surgery which, as Harbison had assured her, was relatively minor and not likely to produce a profound disfiguration of her features.

She blurted out also that she would very likely do away with herself if I didn't acquiesce to her demands. When she told me this, I realized that she could very well be serious, since I had seen enough of her behavior in the past to know that she was emotionally both unstable and impetuous. Since the hour was late, I told her that I would consider her proposal and give her a final answer after I had discussed the matter with Harbison.

Early the next day, I called Harbison and told him in no uncertain terms that I considered it criminal that he had misled Iris with a bunch of nonsense. His reaction was cold and restrained; he said he happened to believe very seriously in the theories that he had expounded upon at our meeting, and that he was not responsible for the illness that now afflicted Iris nor for her emotional instability. He pointed out that, given the dire circumstances that Iris now found herself in, the most humane and reasonable thing would be to give in to her desires; he stressed that the surgery that he had described in his presentation would be only minimally disfiguring and very limited in scope.

In spite of my growing detestation for the man and his crack-pot theories, I felt the need to question him about the extent and nature of the surgery he described. He replied that from his own clinical inquiries with some practitioners within the plastic surgery field, he had determined that a procedure to slightly thicken and protrude the upper lip, along with some reshaping of the tongue, was all that would be required. He reminded me that he had shown some graphics during his presentation that attested to the modest nature of the changes that would be effected by the surgery. I conceded that, from my recollection of what he had shown at the meeting, the anatomical changes did not appear to be that severe. I concluded the conversation and hung up the phone.

LipsWhat caused my decision to grant Iris' wish by agreeing to perform the surgery is not something that, to this day, I really understand. I like to think it was because I had a very profound conviction that Iris would, in fact, kill herself if I did not comply with her demands. At the time, I thought this would be the humane thing, the merciful and reasonable thing to do. Harbison's persuasive arguments made it easier to arrive at this conclusion, but I like to think it was altruism towards Iris that played the major role. This was another time that I could have prevented this whole nightmare by acting differently. But I didn't. The fact that I might have had Iris committed to a mental hospital for her own protection is now just a bitter, mocking speculation. Yes, I could have handled it all so differently. But I didn't.

I contacted Iris and informed her that, despite my reservations, I had concluded that performing the requested surgery would be acceptable to me, once I had determined that her prognosis was as bleak as she had portrayed it. She agreed to the release of her medical records and, in fact, the situation was as she had described it: advanced breast cancer with metastasis and with no viable options for treatment indicated. I determined also at this time that Iris would be able to tolerate the minor surgical procedure that was planned, and that the surgery could be performed without appreciable risk as an outpatient procedure in my office. Understandably, I also had Iris sign a consent form for my own protection.

Of the details of the surgery I will say little. Clinically, the surgery was without incident, nor was it particularly demanding from a technical standpoint. What stays in my memory, however, is how little I grasped, while performing the surgery, how alien the changes were that I was perpetrating upon Iris' features. The changes I made to her facial anatomy were subtle and limited in scope, but, as I was to see, the impact those changes had when viewed by others was considerable.

Within two days of the surgery, Iris was well enough to attend a meeting of our Lovecraft group. Harbison would be there, and a demonstration of Iris' attempts to achieve a correct pronunciation of Lovecraftian terminology was to be given. Arriving early to the meeting in the company of Iris, whose lower face was still covered with surgical gauze, I had little inkling of the catastrophic events that were shortly to be set in motion. Harbison arrived a short time later, obviously pleased to again be able to expound upon his theories.

Once all members of our group were present, Harbison strode to the front of the room and called the meeting to order. He announced, with obvious excitement, that those present would soon witness something remarkable and without parallel. Very much in command of the situation, he motioned Iris, still wearing her gauze facial covering, to come forward and take a seat near the equipment that Harbison had set up for the meeting. Iris came forward and sat in the chair that Harbison motioned her to.

Gesturing at his equipment, Harbison said that the first step of the demonstration would be for him to play a recording of the sounds that he had synthesized electronically of an authentic rendering of the Lovecraftian phrase "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn," which is so well known to devotees of Lovecraft's fiction. He directed Iris to pay particular attention to the sounds, as she would very shortly be expected to attempt a pronunciation of those sounds. He also proceeded to hand out to everyone a sheet containing a precise phonetic breakdown of the phrase, again, with the intent of making possible an understanding of the correct pronunciation for the phrase.

Switching on his tape mechanism with a flourish like a magician, Harbison stood with arms folded as everyone in the group listened to the sounds that his mechanism produced. The sounds that issued forth were harsh, metallic and strange. I believe I was able to recognize the individual words that composed the phrase, but I had never imagined that they could sound quite as they did in that recording. I think it was at this point that I and, I suspect, many of the group, began to experience the first intimations of a deep-seated sense of unease about the activity we were engaged in.

Beckoning me to come forward and stand beside Iris, Harbison asked me to remove the surgical gauze that had, up to now, concealed the lower portion of her face. Doing as he asked, I began to cut through the gauze with a pair of surgical scissors. As I did this, I can remember thinking how much like a confused and frightened little girl Iris seemed. I felt a tremor of self-disgust run through me as I thought again of my own role in this strange situation. Having completed the cutting, I removed the gauze.

I don't believe any of us in the room were prepared for what we saw. I felt the hairs stand on the back of my neck and heard the sharp intake of breath that several people in the room took when Iris' face was revealed. I don't believe words can convey the utter strangeness of Iris' face. Although in no sense grossly deformed, her upper lip had a shape to it that suggested something alien and unnatural, yet the strangeness was not that of deformed human features, but rather of something truly unhuman, difficult as that might be to understand. Feeling another pang of self-reproach at my role in this sordid business, I moved away from Iris and Harbison, walking to the back of the room, where I stood by myself. I believe it was this gesture that allowed me to survive.

TentacleHarbison bent down to Iris and whispered to her, while pointing to the phonetic analysis sheet she was holding. The two talked quietly for a time, then Harbison stood erect and announced that Iris was now ready and able to render the Lovecraftian phrase as it was meant to be rendered. Iris stood, glancing nervously in my direction as she did so, and proceeded to utter the words of the phrase "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn."

As the last word of the phrase was uttered, a sound like the angry electric buzzing of a defective fluorescent light became audible. Things began to happen very quickly after that. One of the female members of the group stood up and began screaming hysterically "we shouldn't have done this," over and over. The buzzing sound increased in volume until it ended with an explosive bang like a pistol shot. Iris screamed once and fell back into the arms of Harbison, who struggled to keep her upright. Suddenly, in an explosion of blood and gore, a tendril-like thing emerged from Iris' chest.

This tendril, which seemed to have the width of a human leg, quickly extruded itself out of the bloody and torn remains of the now quite dead Iris, and proceeded to flail itself about the room, reaching a length of about 20 feet as it did so. Several people were struck down as it lashed about; I was certain they were killed when struck by the thing. Further, as this tentacle flailed about, it seemed to throw off things from its rugose surface which hit against the walls, floor and ceiling of the room; a few people appeared to be struck by these flying things as well. As quickly as it had come, the tendril then disappeared, seeming to withdraw into the ripped body of Iris, lying dead on the floor. The tentacle had been present in the room for only three to four seconds before disappearing, but this was not the end of the horror.

The objects that the tentacle had thrown off during its brief appearance began to pulsate and jump about the room. I can only describe these things by likening them to the freshwater organism known as the hydra. They had a polyp-like structure, consisting of a cylindrical foot-stalk which terminated at one end in a cluster of tentacles; they were about ten inches in length. These creatures proceeded to bound about the room on their foot-stalks for a moment, then suddenly, as if realizing that the humans in the room were their prey, began to jump upon and fasten themselves to several of the people standing in the room. After fastening themselves, the bodies of these hydra-things began to pulsate and swell; it was obvious to me that the hydra-things were sucking the fluids from the bodies of their victims.

One of the victims so attacked was Harbison. A moment before rushing from the room in a blind panic, I made eye contact with him, and remember the look of stark, uncomprehending horror upon his face. As much as I hold the man responsible for the horror that has befallen mankind, I still feel a pang of emotion when thinking of the beseeching look in his eyes; a look that was a cry for help, even though he realized none would be forthcoming.

As to the nightmare that life upon this planet has become, I can give only the narrow snapshot of details that my own experience has provided me. The hydra-things began to multiply. From that initial point-of-entry to our world in that room, they multiplied and spread rapidly. Highly mobile and possessing the ability to move with great speed, they also demonstrated the ability to fly and travel in water, sprouting membranous wing-like structures to do so. Also, they were capable of growing during their life-cycle to a much larger size; a mature specimen could easily reach a length of 20 feet or more. Above all, they were predatory. All organic life on this planet large enough to interest them became their prey, but man seemed to bear the brunt of their voracious appetites.

HydraMankind did try to fight back, but the hydra-things moved and multiplied with such astonishing speed that little could be done that was meaningful. More than one human population center was wiped out by desperate nuclear attacks that were intended to destroy large numbers of them; some were killed by these sort of attacks, but far more survived, and many innocent people died to prove the futility of the military's actions. Bounding about the landscape of earth on their muscular foot-stalks or swooping down on their victims' from above when it suited them, the hydra-things came to dominant the earth; there was little mankind could do but hunker down in some sort of shelter and hope to escape their notice.

Yes, to hunker down, as I am doing right now, as I reflect upon all that has befallen me and a mankind that didn't really deserve to suffer this sort of wretched demise. Just this morning, peering from the basement window of an abandoned house on the outskirts of the city in which I had maintained my successful but long-gone medical practice, I witnessed a scene of horror. I had seen many such scenes since this living nightmare began, but this was the worst.

A young couple with a child, apparently from a desperation born of hunger or just the cruel hopelessness of the situation, came rushing out into the open. Maybe thinking they could somehow run away from all the horror that life had become, they started to run in the direction of the countryside. Suddenly, hydra-things were everywhere, small and large in size; they rushed upon the young family and buried them under a mass of their pulsating shapes. When they had stopped their frenzied feeding, what remained was no longer recognizable as even having once been human, just a few scraps of tissue remained, nothing more.

So yes, I hunker down, thinking, reflecting on the past, trying to survive as long as I can, although I don't know what point there is to prolonging this now wretched and joyless existence. Yes, I had a hand in it, but I like to think my role was the most excusable, but then again, was it? I was a doctor, shouldn't I have known better? Was I acting out of concern for Iris in what I did, or was it a morbid fascination for Harbison's theories that I may have developed, if only subconsciously, in spite of my avowed skepticism? At this point, I don't think I would even want to know.

As for the hydra-things, what are they? If, in fact, a line of communication was briefly opened up between our world and some sort of Lovecraftian alternate universe because of Iris' enunciation of the Lovecraftian phrase, then it seems plausible that the tentacle that extruded itself from poor Iris' chest may have been the merest appendage of some sort of Lovecraftian monstrosity. Perhaps this monstrosity was huge beyond all imagining, and by glimpsing the tentacle, we were shown only a very small portion of it.

But again, what would that make the hydra-things? It is only an educated guess on my part, but one could speculate that the hydra-things were some sort of parasite or symbiotic organism that existed, flea-like, upon the exterior of the cosmic monstrosity whose tentacle we briefly saw. If that speculation is accurate, then I suspect even Lovecraft himself would be grimly amused at the fate that has befallen us: to be dragged down and devoured, not by the cosmic and colossal entities that he wrote about, but rather by the things that might live, like lice or fleas, upon their exteriors.

So now, I wait and try to live day by day. Yes, I am culpable, but what of it? What body of law or court of justice will mete out to me my just deserts? Thinking about it, was there really anything to what Harbison preached? I don't know. Maybe the perverted alchemy of the interaction of our three personalities brought this all about. Three personalities, embodied in Harbison's analytical fanaticism, Iris' half-mad, obsessive wish-fulfillment, and my own dilettantish dabblings in matters Lovecraftian; did we create all that has occurred just by believing in the reality of Lovecraft's vision and making it come true in the process? Again, I don't know. But I do know that life on earth is now a hell, and mankind is doomed. So, if there is a God, please forgive me for my role in all this. Somehow, please try and forgive me. Please. Please...

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