We can’t help but wonder what Counselman would think of Annihilation.
The Black Stone Statue
by Mary Elizabeth Counselman
Museum of Fine Arts,
Today I have just received aboard the S. S. Madrigal your most kind cable, praising my work and asking—humbly, as one might ask it of a true genius!—if I would do a statue of myself to be placed among the great in your illustrious museum. Ah, gentlemen, that cablegram was to me the last turn of the screw!
I despise myself for what I have done in the name of art. Greed for money and acclaim, weariness with poverty and the contempt of my inferiors, hatred for a world that refused to see any merit in my work: these things have driven me to commit a series of strange and terrible crimes.
In these days I have thought often of suicide as a way out—a coward’s way, leaving me the fame I do not deserve. But since receiving your cablegram, lauding me for what I am not and never could be, I am determined to write this letter for the world to read. It will explain everything. And having written it, I shall then atone for my sin in (to you, perhaps) a horribly ironic manner but (to me) one that is most fitting.
Let me go back to that miserable sleet-lashed afternoon as I came into the hall of Mrs. Bates’s rooming-house—a crawling, filthy hovel for the poverty-stricken, like myself, who were too proud to go on relief. When I stumbled in, drenched and dizzy with hunger, our landlady’s ample figure was blocking the hallway. She was arguing with a tall, shabbily dressed young man whose face I was certain I had seen somewhere before.
“Just a week,” his deep, pleasant voice was beseeching the old harridan. “I’ll pay you double at the end of that time, just as soon as I can put over a deal I have in mind.”
I paused, staring at him covertly while I shook the sleet from my hat-brim. Fine gray eyes met mine across the landlady’s head—haggard now, and overbright with suppressed excitement. There was strength, character, in that face under its stubble of mahogany-brown beard. There was, too, a firm set to the man’s shoulders and beautifully formed head. Here, I told myself, was someone who had lived all his life with dangerous adventure, someone whose clean-cut features, even under that growth of beard, seemed vaguely familiar to my sculptor’s-eye for detail.
“Not one day, no sirred” Mrs. Bates had folded her arms stubbornly. A week’s rent in advance, or ye don’t step foot into one o’ my rooms!”
On impulse I moved forward, digging into my pocket. I smiled at the young man and thrust almost my last two dollars into the landlady’s hand. Smirking, she bobbed off and left me alone with the stranger.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” he sighed, and gripped my hand hard. “Thanks, old man. I’ll repay you next week, though. Next week,” he whispered, and his eyes took on a glow of anticipation, “I’ll write you a check for a thousand dollars. Two thousand!”
He laughed delightedly at my quizzical expression and plunged out into the storm again, whistling.
In that moment his identity struck me like a blow. Paul Kennicott—the young aviator whose picture had been on the front page of every newspaper in the country a few months ago! His plane had crashed somewhere in the Brazilian wilds, and the nation mourned him and his co-pilot for dead. Why was he sneaking back into New York like a criminal— penniless, almost hysterical with excitement, with an air of secrecy about him— to hide himself here in the slum district?
I climbed the rickety stairs to my shabby room and was plying the chisel half-heartedly on my Dancing Group, when suddenly I became aware of a peculiar buzzing sound, like an angry bee shut up in a jar. I slapped my ears several times, annoyed, believing the noise to be in my own head. But it kept on, growing louder by the moment.
It seemed to come from the hall; and simultaneously I heard the stair-steps creak just outside my room.
Striding to the door, I jerked it open— to see Paul Kennicott tiptoeing up the stairs in stealthy haste. He started violently at sight of me and attempted to hide under his coat an odd black box he was carrying.
But it was too large: almost two feet square, roughly fashioned of wood and the canvas off an airplane wing. But this was not immediately apparent, for the whole thing seemed to be covered with a coat of shiny black enamel.
When it bumped against the balustrade, however, it gave a solid metallic sound, unlike cloth-covered wood. That humming noise, I was sharply aware, came from inside the box.
I stepped out into the hall and stood blocking the passage rather grimly.
“Look here,” I snapped. “I know who you are, Kennicott, but I don’t know why you’re hiding out like this. What’s it all about? You’ll tell me, or I’ll turn you over to the police!”
Panic leaped into his eyes. They pleaded with me silently for an instant, and then we heard the plodding footsteps of Mrs. Bates come upstairs.
“Who’s got that radio?” her querulous voice preceded her. “I hear it hum-min’! Get it right out of here if you don’t wanta pay me extry for the ’lectricity it’s burnin’.”
“Oh, ye gods!” Kennicott groaned frantically. “Stall her! Don’t let that gabby old fool find out about this—it’ll ruin everything! Help me, and I’ll tell you the whole story.”
He darted past me without waiting for my answer and slammed the door after him. The droning noise subsided and then was swiftly muffled so that it was no longer audible.
Mrs. Bates puffed up the stairs and eyed me accusingly. “So it’s you that’s got that radio? I told you the day you come——”
“All right,” I said, pretending annoyance. “I’ve turned it off, and anyhow it goes out tomorrow. I was just keeping it for a friend.”
“Eh? Well——-” She eyed me sourly, then sniffed and went on back downstairs, muttering under her breath.
I strode to Kennicott’s door and rapped softly. A key grated in the lock and I was admitted by my wild-eyed neighbor. On the bed, muffled by pillows, lay the black box humming softly on a shrill note.
“I n—n n—ng—ng!” it went, exactly like a radio tuned to a station that is temporarily off the air.
Curiosity was gnawing at my vitals. Impatiently I watched Kennicott striding up and down the little attic room, striking one fist against the other palm.
“Well?” I demanded.
And with obvious reluctance, in a voice jerky with excitement, he began to unfold the secret of the thing inside that onyx-like box. I sat on the bed beside it, my eyes riveted on Kennicott’s face, spellbound by what he was saying. plane,” he began, “was demolished. We made a forced landing in the center of a dense jungle. If you know Brazil at all, you’ll know what it was like. Trees, trees, trees! Crawling insects as big as your fist. A hot sickening smell of rotting vegetation, and now and then the screech of some animal or bird eerie enough to make your hair stand on end. We cracked up right in the middle of nowhere.
“I crawled out of the wreckage with only a sprained wrist and a few minor cuts, but McCrea—my co-pilot, you know—got a broken leg and a couple of bashed ribs. He was in a bad way, poor devil! Fat little guy, bald, scared of women, and always cracking wise about something. A swell sport.”
The aviator’s face convulsed briefly, and he stared at the box on the bed beside me with a peculiar expression of loathing.
“McCrea’s’ dead, then?” I prompted.
Kennicott nodded his head dully, and shrugged. “God only knows! I guess you’d call it death. But let me get on with it.
“We slashed and sweated our way through an almost impenetrable wall of undergrowth for two days, carrying what food and cigarettes we had in that makeshift box there.”
A thumb-jerk indicated the square black thing beside me, droning softly without a break on the same high note.
“McCrea was running a fever, though, so we made camp and I struck out to find water. When I came back——”
Kennicott choked. I stared at him, waiting until his hoarse voice went on doggedly:
“When I came back, McCrea was gone. I called and called. No answer. Then, thinking he might have wandered away delirious, I picked out his trail and followed it into the jungle. It wasn’t hard to do, because he had to break a path through that wall of undergrowth, and now and then I’d find blood on a bramble or maybe a scrap of torn cloth from his khaki shirt.
“Not more than a hundred yards south of our camp I suddenly became aware of a queer humming sound in my ears. Positive that this had drawn McCrea, I followed it. It got louder and louder, like the drone of a powerful dynamo. It seemed to fill the air and set all the trees to quivering. My teeth were on edge with the monotony of it, but I kept on, and unexpectedly found myself walking into a patch of jungle that was all black! Not burnt in a forest fire, as I first thought, but dead-black in every detail. Not a spot of color anywhere; and in that jungle with all its vivid foliage, the effect really slapped you in the face! It was as though somebody had turned out the lights and yet you could still distinguish the formation of every object around you. It was uncanny!
“There was black sand on the ground as far as I could see. Not soft jungle-soil, damp and fertile. This stuff was as hard and dry as emery, and it glittered like soft coal. All the trees were black and shiny like anthracite, and not a leaf stirred anywhere, not an insect crawled. I almost fainted as I realized why.
“It was a petrified forest!
“Those trees, leaves and all, had turned into a shiny black kind of stone that looked like coal but was much harder. It wouldn’t chip when I struck it with a fallen limb of the same stuff. It wouldn’t bend; I simply had to squeeze through holes in underbrush more rigid than cast iron. And all black, mind you—a jungle of fuliginous rock like something out of Dante’s Inferno.
“Once I stumbled over an object and stopped to pick it up. It was McCrea’s canteen—the only thing in sight, besides myself, that was not made of that queer black stone. He had come this way, then. Relieved, I started shouting his name again, but the sound of my voice frightened me. The silence of that place fairly pressed against my eardrums, broken only by that steady droning sound. But, you see, I’d become so used to it, like the constant ticking of a clock, that I hardly heard it.
“Panic swept over me all at once, an unreasonable fear, as the sound of my own voice banged against the trees and came back in a thousand echoes, borne on that humming sound that never changed its tone. I don’t know why; maybe it was the grinding monotony of it and the unrelieved black of that stone forest. But my nerve snapped and I bolted back along the way I had come, sobbing like a kid.
“I must have run in a circle, though, tripping and cutting myself on that rock underbrush. In my terror I forgot the direction of our camp. I was lost— abruptly I realized it—lost in that hell of coal-black stone, without food or any chance of getting it, with McCrea’s empty canteen in my hand and no idea where he had wandered in his fever.
“For hours I plunged on, forgetting to back-track, and cursing aloud because McCrea wouldn’t answer me. That humming noise had got on my nerves now, droning on that one shrill note until I thought I would go mad.
Exhausted, I sank down on that emery-sand, crouched against the trunk of a black stone tree. McCrea had deserted me, I thought crazily. Someone had rescued him and he had left me here to die—which should give you an idea of my state of mind.
“I huddled there, letting my eyes rove in a sort of helpless stupor. On the sand beside me was a tiny rock that resembled a butterfly delicately carved out of onyx. I picked it up dazedly, staring at its hard little legs and feelers like wire that would neither bend nor break off. And then my gaze started wandering again.
“It fastened on something a few dozen paces to my right—and I was sure then that I had gone mad. At first it seemed to be a stump of that same dark mineral. But it wasn’t a stump. I crawled over to it and sat there, gaping at it with my senses reeling, while that humming noise rang louder and louder in my ears.
“It was a black stone statue of McCrea, perfect in every detail!
“He was depicted stooping over, with one hand holding out his automatic gripped by the barrel. His stocky figure, aviator’s helmet, his makeshift crutch, and even the splints on his broken leg were shiny black stone. And his face, to the last hair of his eyelashes, was a perfect mask of black rock set in an expression of puzzled curiosity.
“I got to my feet and walked around the figure, then gave it a push. It toppled over, just like a statue, and the sound of its fall was deafening in that silent forest. Hefting it, I was amazed to find that it weighed less than twenty pounds. I hacked at it with a file we had brought from the plane in lieu of a machete, but only succeeded in snapping the tool in half. Not a chip flew off the statue. Not a dent appeared in its polished surface.
“The thing was so unspeakably weird that I did not even try to explain it to myself, but started calling McCrea again. If it was a gag of some kind, he could explain it. But there was no answer to my shouts other than the monotonous hum of that unseen dynamo.
“Instead of frightening me more, this weird discovery seemed to jerk me up short. Collecting my scattered wits, I started back-trailing myself to the camp, thinking McCrea might have returned in my absence. The droning noise was so loud now, it pained my eardrums unless I kept my hands over my ears. This I did, stumbling along with my eyes glued to my own footprints in the hard dry sand.
“And suddenly I brought up short. Directly ahead of me, under a black stone bush, lay something that made me gape with my mouth ajar.
“I can’t describe it—no one could. It resembled nothing so much as a star-shaped blob of transparent jelly that shimmered and changed color like an opal. It appeared to be some lower form of animal, one-celled, not large, only about a foot in circumference when it stretched those feelers out to full length. It oozed along over the sand like a snail, groping its way with those star-points— and it hummed!
“The droning noise ringing in my ears issued from this nightmare creature!
“It was nauseating to watch, and yet beautiful, too, with all those iridescent colors gleaming against that setting of dead-black stone. I approached within a pace of it, started to nudge it with my foot, but couldn’t quite bring myself to touch the squashy thing. And I’ve thanked my stars ever since for being so squeamish!
“Instead, I took off my flying-helmet and tossed the goggles directly in the path of the creature. It did not pause or turn aside, but merely reached out one of those sickening feelers and brushed the goggles very lightly.
“And they turned to stone!
“Just that! God be my witness that those leather and glass goggles grew black before my starting eyes. In less than a minute they were petrified into hard fuliginous rode like everything else around me.
“In one hideous moment I realized the meaning of that weirdly life-like statue of McCrea. I knew what he had done. He had prodded this jelly-like Thing with his automatic, and it had turned (him—and everything in contact with him —into shiny dark stone.
“Nausea overcame me. I wanted to run, to escape the sight of that oozing horror, but reason came to my rescue. I reminded myself that I was Paul Kennicott, intrepid explorer. Through a horrible experience McCrea and I had stumbled upon something in the Brazilian wilds which would revolutionize the civilized world. McCrea was dead, or in some ghastly suspended form of life, through his efforts to solve the mystery. I owed it to him and to myself not to lose my head now.
“For the practical possibilities of the Thing struck me like a blow. That black stone the creature’s touch created from any earth-substance—by rays from its body, by a secretion of its glands, by God knows what strange metamorphosis—was indestructible! Bridges, houses, buildings, roads, could be built of ordinary material and then petrified by the touch of this jelly-like Thing which had surely tumbled from some planet with life-forces diametrically opposed to our own.
“Millions of dollars squandered on construction each year could be diverted to other phases of life, for no cyclone or flood could damage a city built of this hard black rock.
“I said a little prayer for my martyred co-pilot, and then and there resolved to take the creature back to civilization with me.
“It could be trapped, I was sure— though the prospect appealed to me far less than that of caging a hungry leopard! I did not venture to try it until I had studied the problem from every angle, however, and made certain deductions through experiment.
“I found that any substance already petrified was insulated against the thing’s power. I tossed my belt on it, saw it freeze into black rock, then put my wrist-watch in contact with the rock belt. My watch remained as it was. Another phenomenon I discovered was that petrifaction also occurred in things in direct contact with something the creature touched, if that something was not already petrified.
“Dropping my glove fastened to my signet ring, I let the creature touch only the glove. But both objects were petrified. I tried it again with a chain of three objects, and discovered that the touched object and the one in contact with it turned into black rock, while the third on the chain remained unaffected.
“It took me about three days to trap A the thing, although it gave no more actual resistance, of course, than a large snail. McCrea, poor devil, had blundered into the business; but I went at it in a scientific manner, knowing what danger I faced from the creature. I found my way again to our camp and brought back our provision box—yes, the one there on the bed beside you. When the thing’s touch had turned it into a perfect stone cage for itself, I scooped it inside with petrified brandies. But, Lord! How the sweat stood out on my face at the prospect of a slip that might make me touch the horrible little organism!
“The trip out of that jungle was a nightmare. I spent almost all I had, hiring scared natives to guide me a mile or so before they’d bolt with terror of my humming box. On board a tramp steamer bound for the States, I nearly lost my captive. The first mate thought it was an infernal machine and tried to throw it overboard. My last cent went to shut him up; so I landed in New York flat broke.”
Paul Kennicott laughed and spread his hands. “But here I am. I don’t dare go to anyone I know just yet. Reporters will run me ragged, and I want plenty of time to make the right contacts. Do you realize what’s in that box?” He grinned with boyish delight. “Fame and fortune, that’s what! McCrea’s family will never know want again. Science will remember our names along with Edison and Bell and all the rest. We’ve discovered a new force that will rock the world with its possibilities. That’s why,” he explained, “I’ve sneaked into the country like an alien. If the wrong people heard of this first, my life wouldn’t be worth a dime, understand? There are millions involved in this thing. Billions! Don’t you see?”
He stopped, eyeing me anxiously. I stared at him and rose slowly from the bed. Thoughts were seething in my mind—dark ugly thoughts, ebbing and flowing to the sound of that “i—n n— n n g—n n g!” that filled the shabby room.
For, I did see the possibilities of that jelly-like thing’s power to turn any object into black stone. But I was thinking as a sculptor. What do I care for roads or buildings? Sculpture is my whole life! To my mind’s eye rose the picture of copilot McCrea as Kennicott had described him—a figure, perfect to the last detail, done in black stone.
Kennicott was still eyeing me anxiously—perhaps reading the ugly thoughts that flitted like shadows behind my eyes.
“You’ll keep mum?” he begged. “Do that for me, old boy, and I’ll set you up in a studio beyond your wildest dreams. I’ll build up your fame.”
His gray eyes fastened on my dirty smock.
“Some kind of an artist? I’ll show you how much I appreciate your help. Are you with me?”
Some kind of an artist! Perhaps if he had not said that, flaying my crushed pride and ambition to the quick, I would never have done the awful thing I did. But black jealousy rose in my soul— jealousy of this eager young man who could walk out into the streets now with his achievement and make the world bow at his feet, while I in my own field was no more to the public than what he had called me: “some kind of an artist.” At that moment I knew precisely what I wanted to do.
I did not meet his frank gray eyes. Instead, I pinned my gaze on that droning black box as my voice rasped harshly: “No! Do you really imagine that I believe this idiotic story of yours? You’re insane! I’m going to call the police— they’ll find out what really happened to McCrea out there in the jungle! There’s nothing in that box. It’s just a trick.”
Kennicott’s mouth fell open, then closed in an angry line. The next moment he shrugged and laughed.
“Of course you don’t believe me,” he nodded. “Who could?—unless they had seen what I’ve seen with my own eyes. Here,” he said briskly, “I’ll take this book and drop it in the box for you. You’ll see the creature, and you’ll see this book turned into black stone.”
I stepped back, heart pounding, eyes narrowed. Kennicott leaned over the bed, unfastened the box gingerly with a vary expression on his face, and motioned me to approach. Briefly I glanced over his shoulder as he dropped the book inside the open box.
I saw horror—a jelly-like, opalescent thing like a five-pointed star. It pulsed and quivered for an instant, and the room fairly rocked to the unmuffled sound of that vibrant humming.
I also saw the small cloth-bound book Kennicott had dropped inside. It lay half on top of the squirming creature—a book carved out of black stone.
“There! You see?” Kennicott pointed. And those were the last words he ever uttered.
Remembering what he had said about the power of the creature being unable to penetrate to a third object, I snatched at Kennicott’s sleeve-covered arm, gave him a violent shove, and saw his muscular hand plunge for an instant deep into the black box. The sleeve hardened beneath my fingers.
I cowered back, sickened at what I had done.
Paul Kennicott, his arms thrown out and horror stamped on his fine young face, had frozen into a statue of black shiny stone!
Then footsteps were dumping up the stairs again. I realized that Mrs. Bates would surely have heard the violent droning that issued from the open box. I shut it swiftly, muffled it, and shoved it under the bed.
I was at my own doorway when the landlady came puffing up the stairs. My face was calm, my voice contained, and no one but me could hear the furious pounding of my heart.
“Now, you look a-here!” Mrs. Bates burst out. “I told you to turn that radio off. You take it right out of my room this minute! Runnin’ up my bill for ’lectricity!”
I apologized meekly and with a great show carried out a tool-case of mine, saying it was the portable radio I had been testing for a friend. It satisfied her for the moment, but later, as I was carrying the black stone figure of Paul Kennicott to my own room, she caught me at it.
“Why,” the old snoop exclaimed. “If that ain’t the spitting image of our new roomer! Friend of yours, is he?”
I thought swiftly and lied jauntily. “A model of mine. I’ve been working on this statue at night, the reason you haven’t seen him going in and out. I thought I would have to rent a room for him here, but as the statue is finished now, it won’t be necessary after all. You may keep the rent money, though,” I added. “And get me a taxi to haul my masterpiece to the express station. I am ready to submit it to the Museum of Fine Arts.”
And that is my story, gentlemen. The black stone statue which, ironically, I chose to call Fear of the Unknown, is not a product of my skill. (Small wonder several people have noticed its resemblance to the “lost explorer,” Paul Kennicott!) Nor did I do the group of soldiers commissioned by the Anti-War Association. None of my so-called Symphonies in Black were wrought by my hand—but I can tell you what became of the models who were unfortunate enough to pose for me!
My real work is perhaps no better than that of a rank novice, although up to that fatal afternoon I had honestly believed myself capable of great work as a sculptor some day.
But I am an impostor. You want a statue of me, you say in your cablegram, done in the mysterious black stone which has made me so famous? Ah, gentlemen, you shall have that statue!
I am writing this confession aboard the S. S. Madrigal, and I shall leave it with a steward to be mailed to you at our next port of call.
Tonight I shall take out of my stateroom the hideous thing in its black box which has never left my side. Such a creature, contrary to all nature on this earth of ours, should be exterminated. As soon as darkness falls I shall stand on deck and balance the box on the rail so that it will fall into the sea after my hand has touched what is inside.
I wonder if the process of being turned into that black rock is painful, or if it is accompanied only by a feeling of lethargy? And McCrea, Paul Kennicott, and those unfortunate models whom I have passed off as “my work”—are they dead, as we know death, or arc their statues sentient and possessed of nerves? How does that jelly creature feel to the touch? Does it impart a violent electrical shock or a subtle emanation of some force beyond our ken, changing the atom-structure of the flesh it turns into stone?
Many such questions have occurred to me often in the small hours when I lie awake, tortured by remorse for what I have done.
But tonight, gentlemen, I shall know all the answers.
About the Author
Mary Elizabeth Counselman (1911-1995) was a fiction writer and poet whose work appeared in such popular periodicals as Good Housekeeping, Colliers, and The Saturday Evening Post. She remains best known for her 30 horror and fantasy short stories in the long-running American pulp fiction magazine Weird Tales. Gentler and less gruesome than that of her peers, her writing reflects her birth on a plantation, her time at the University of Alabama, and her experience as a reporter for the state’s largest newspaper. Several stories take place on tenant farms built from decaying former slave quarters, and her urban settings suggest the larger cities in her native Alabama rather than the Northern or West Coast metropolises of other pulp writers.
About the Narrator
George Cleveland lives in Tamworth, NH where he cares for cats with Attention Deficit Disorder. He is the Executive Director of the Gibson Center for Senior Services in North Conway. For many years, George was known as The Voice of the Valley on New Hampshire radio, where he conducted over 3500 interviews with newsmakers from all parts of the world – George has spoken with most major Presidential candidates, a representative of an interplanetary confederation and many noted authors and musicians. An avid collector of tales and legends, he sniffs out new hauntings and reports of long lost treasure. He has frequently written on people and places of interest, including musicians and artists and has appeared before numerous historical and school groups in the United States and Hawai’i speaking about his grandfather, former President Grover Cleveland. He was featured on C-SPAN’s ‘American Presidents’ series when they broadcast from Cleveland’s birthplace in Caldwell, New Jersey.