Copyright
Lloyd Arthur Eshbach.

Isle of the Undead online

. (page 1 of 3)
Online LibraryLloyd Arthur EshbachIsle of the Undead → online text (page 1 of 3)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Produced by Sankar Viswanathan, Greg Weeks, and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net







Transcriber's Note:

This etext was produced from Weird Tales October 1936. Extensive
research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on
this publication was renewed.


[Illustration: "One hand closed on his thin neck, and the other, a
rock-like fist, made a bloody ruin of his mouth."]


Isle of the Undead


By LLOYD ARTHUR ESHBACH


_A gripping, thrilling, uncanny tale about the frightful
fate that befell a yachting party on the dreadful island of
living dead men_

* * * * *




_1. A Horror from the Past_

A drab gray sheet of cloud slipped stealthily from the moon's round
face, like a shroud slipping from the face of one long dead, a coldly
phosphorescent face from which the eyes had been plucked. Yellow
radiance fell toward a calm, oily sea, seeking a narrow bank of fog
lying low on the water, penetrating its somber mass like frozen yellow
fingers.

Vilma Bradley shuddered and shrank against Clifford Darrell's brawny
form. "It's - it's ghastly, Cliff!" she said.

"Ghastly?" Darrell leaned against the rail, laughing softly. "One
cocktail too many - that's the answer. It's given you the jitters.
Listen!" Faintly from the salon came strains of dance music and the
rhythmic shuffle of feet. "A nifty yacht, a South Sea moon, a radio
dance orchestra, dancers - and little Clifford! And you call it
ghastly!" Almost savagely his arms tightened about her, and the
bantering note left his voice. "I'm crazy about you, Vilma."

She tried to laugh, but it was an unconvincing sound. "It's the moon,
Cliff - I guess. I never saw it like that before. Something's going to
happen - something dreadful. I just _know_ it!"

"Oh - be sensible, Vilma!" There was a hint of impatience in Cliff's
deep voice. A gorgeous girl in his arms - dark-haired, dark-eyed, made
for love - and she talked of dreadful things which were going to happen
because the moon looked screwy.

She released herself and glanced out over the sea. "I know I'm silly,
but - - " Her voice froze and her slender body stiffened.
"Cliff - look!"

Darrell spun around, and as he stared, he felt a dryness seeping into
his throat, choking him....

Out of the winding-sheet of fog into the moonlight crept a strange,
strange craft, her crumbling timbers blackened and rotted with
incredible age. The corpse of a ship, she seemed, resurrected from the
grave of the sea. Her prow thrust upward like a scimitar bent
backward, hovering over the gaunt ruin of a cabin whose seaward sides
were formed by port and starboard bows. From a shallow pit amidships
jutted the broken arm of a mast, its splintered tip pointing toward
the blindly watching moon. The stern, thickly covered with the
moldering encrustations of age, curved inward above the strange high
poop, beneath which lay another cabin. And along either side of her
worm-eaten freeboard ran a row of apertures like oblong portholes. Out
of these projected great oars, long, unwieldy, as somberly black as
the rest of the ancient hulk.

Now a sound drifted across the waters, the steady, rhythmic
_br-rr-oom, br-rr-oom, br-rr-oom_ of a drum beating time for the
rowers. Its hollow thud checked the heart, set it to throbbing in
tempo with its own weary pulse. Ghostly fingers, dripping dread,
crawled up Darrell's spine.

Stiff-lipped, Vilma gasped: "What - what is it?"

Cliff answered in a dry husky voice, the words seeming to trip over an
awkward tongue. "It's - it's - it _can't_ be, damn it! - but it's a
galley, a ship from the days of Alexander the Great! What's it
doing - here - _now_?"

Closer she came through the moon-path, a frothing lip of brine curling
away from her swelling prow. Closer - her course crossing that of the
_Ariel_ - and the watchers saw her crew! They gasped, and the blood
ebbed from their faces.

Men of ancient Persia, clad in leather kirtles and rusted armor, and
they were hideous! In the yellow moon-glow Cliff could see them
clearly now - a lookout standing motionless in the stem, the steersman
on the poop-deck, the drummer squatting beside the broken mast, the
rowers in the pit - and all, _all_ were a bloodless white, the skin of
their faces puffed and bloated and horribly wrinkled, like flesh that
had been under water a long time.

Dead men ... men whose movements were stiffly wooden ... as dead as
their faces. But most horrible was the fact that they were there, that
they moved at all!

* * * * *

"A queer mirage, isn't it?" A hollow voice spoke suavely behind them.

Vilma gasped at the sudden sound, and they whirled. A foot away stood
the tall, lean figure of the _Ariel's_ captain, Leon Corio. A queer
smile twisted his thin lips.

"What's the idea - sneaking up on us?" Darrell demanded angrily. He
didn't like this man, hadn't liked him from the moment he had
approached Cliff to sell him the yacht. But Cliff had bought the craft
because she was a bargain, and in accordance with their agreement he
had hired Corio as captain.

The tall man's smile remained fixed, and he bowed gravely. "Sorry,
sir. I always walk softly. A habit, I suppose." He gestured toward
the galley. "It looks quite life-like, don't you think so?"

"Life-like?" Cliff spoke between his teeth as he again faced the black
ship. "It looks _dead_ to me!"

The galley had almost reached them _now_, _veering sharply to draw up
beside_ the _Ariel_. The drum quieted, and the oars trailed in the
water, motionless except for the swaying imparted by the waves. A
musty, age-old odor filtered through the air like a breath from a
grave. The music and dancing had stopped. A fear-filled hush shrouded
the yacht.

Vilma drew Cliff's arm about her shoulder. He glanced back at the
motionless captain.

"_Do_ something, Corio!" he rasped. "Don't stand there like a dummy!"

Corio nodded with his same queer smile. His hand darted to an inside
pocket, came out bearing a curious instrument like four twisted cones
of silver bound together with silver thongs. As he raised this to his
mouth, his eyelids were slits behind which burned the embers of his
eyes.

Out over the sea crept a single note, deep, hollow, laden with eery
minor wailings - a sound that summoned imperatively, yet a sound that
repelled. It was a moan, hideous as the moan of a dying demon. It
raked the heart with fear-tipped claws. It rose, and fell, and rose
again, and as it died, it awakened the crew of the ancient galley to
motion, sweeping them in a horde to the rail of the yacht.

Cliff swung toward Corio in bursting fury, fury mingled with dread.
His fist lashed out at that glittering silver instrument and the face
behind it, but Corio avoided him like a wraith, still smiling fixedly,
the horn again at his lips. Cliff cursed, and hurled himself through
the air. One hand caught a bony shoulder; he felt fingers like hooks
close on his own throat. He wrenched free, landing a stunning blow on
Corio's face - saw him reel and crash to the deck - and then he heard
Vilma scream!

He whirled. She was struggling between two of the _flabby-faced things
from_ the galley! In an instant he was upon them, his fist thudding
against icy flesh, burying itself in something horribly soft and
yielding. Startled, Cliff swung a second blow; and an arm, tomb-cold
and strong as the tentacle of an octopus, wrapped itself around him - a
vise of thin-covered bone! A dead, drowned face peered over his
shoulder, staring blankly. Other arms seized his legs, and though he
struggled and writhed with the strength of a mounting fear, he was
borne to the rail. Over they went, and dropped to the rotting deck of
the galley.

A numbness was creeping through him like a contagion, spreading from
those crushing hands of ice. His struggles ceased. With eyes that
turned stiffly in their sockets he looked for Vilma, saw her raised
high above the heads of two other pallid creatures, saw them climb
over the rail. Then the blackness of a dank and musty cabin enveloped
him; and he was dropped with jarring force. His captors bulked black
against the moonlit doorway, treading soundlessly, and were gone.

Cliff lay in rigid paralysis, every sense keenly alive, his mind
striving to clutch a single spar of reason in this chaotic whirlpool
of the incredible. This _couldn't_ be! Soon he'd awaken to laugh at
his absurd nightmare.... Yet it seemed horribly real.... It _was_
real!

From the _Ariel_ boiled a fearful bedlam. Screams of terror. Curses.
Then other shadows loomed in the doorway, and Vilma, motionless and
rigid, was dropped brutally beside him on the spongy floor.

Furiously Cliff struggled against the maddening restraint of
paralysis. He couldn't lie here helpless! Vilma needed him! He'd - he'd
_have_ to do something. With an effort that studded his forehead with
rounded drops of sweat and sent the blood throbbing through the
distended veins of his neck, he sought to move. And like a cord
snapping, his invisible bonds fell from him.

He was crouching over Vilma, rubbing her wrists, calling to her, when
again he heard the silver horn of Corio. A low droning utterly unlike
the note that had awakened the galley's crew, it drifted languidly
along a channel of endless sleep. It seeped through the ear-drums,
touching every nerve-tip with resistless lassitude. Doggedly Cliff
fought against the sound, pressing his hands over his ears, gritting
his teeth, holding his eyelids wide. Yet he felt his muscles weaken,
began to relax, knew dimly that his mind, sodden with drowsiness, was
creeping toward the pits of slumber - and the vibrant drone ended!

* * * * *

His head cleared rapidly, and he bent over Vilma. As he touched a limp
arm, he knew she had passed from paralysis into a deep, quiet sleep.
He shook her. It was useless. He listened, heard her steady breathing;
and at that instant realized that the noises from the yacht had
ceased.

Rising, he strode toward the square of chalky moonlight. A foot away
he halted, fell back. He had heard a faint footfall, had seen an
armor-clad figure climbing over the rail! With silent haste he flung
himself down beside Vilma.

And there he lay while the crew of the galley carried his friends from
the _Ariel_, all slumped in that unnatural sleep, and stretched them
out on the floor of the black cabin. Unmoving, he watched through
narrow lids till all save Corio had been carried aboard, and the
drowned things had gone back to their places in the rowers' pits.
Again the hollow voice of the drum began throbbing through the
silence, and the oars creaked a faint accompaniment. He could feel the
galley cleaving the oily sea.

On his feet, he peered through the doorway. The backs of the rowers
rose and fell with stiff, mechanical rhythm. Beyond the galley's stern
came the yacht, slinking along like a thief, only one dim light
showing, her Diesel engines purring almost soundlessly.

He turned and bent over Vilma, still in thrall to that strange deep
slumber. As he traced the delicate outlines of her lovely face, now so
lifeless and pale, bitter wrath flared within him, wrath and hatred
for Leon Corio. But as he thought of the ghastly _undead_ things out
there in the galley pit, thought of this water-soaked anachronism
which had no right to be afloat, his skin crisped with a sense of
foreboding, a fear of what was yet to come. He must do something!

Stepping over the still forms of his friends, he moved to the forward
wall where a beam of radiance crept fearfully through a gap between
two boards. His hands touched the hull - and he jerked them away.
Rotten, clammy, like a decayed corpse, partly frozen. Crouching, he
peered through.

Far ahead, a blotch of evil blackness squatted on the horizon, an
island crouching low like a black beast ready to spring. Around it the
moonlight seemed to dim, as though it were striving to hide some
nameless horror. Interminably Cliff watched while the shadowed mass
drew closer ... closer....

They were headed for a towering wall of black basalt; and as the
galley neared it, Cliff saw that it bore striking resemblance to a
gigantic human skull, its rounded surface broken by caves that the
sea had carved into hollow eye-sockets and an empty nasal cavity. The
rock wall ended high above the water; beneath it lay a gaping chasm of
pitchy darkness. And the galley, drum silenced, oars at rest, slid
under the ledge, into the mouth of the skull!

Just before total blackness fell, Cliff sprang to Vilma's side and
raised her in his arms. If he hoped to do anything, he must do it now!
He groped his way to the starboard bow and moved one hand along the
dank timbers, searching. He found what he sought, a wide gap at the
edge of a board. Gently lowering Vilma to the floor, he gripped the
slimy wood with both hands and thrust outward mightily. A wide strip
of decayed timber burst free. He dropped it into the sea and attacked
the next board. In moments a wide irregular opening yawned in the
galley's hull.

Leaning out, Cliff looked down. He could see nothing. Then suddenly a
faint light appeared, and he heard the hum of the _Ariel's_ motors as
she entered the cave. The humming ceased instantly, but the faint
light persisted.

Now he could see the blackness of waters, a rock wall beyond. He drew
back - and a he did so, he heard movements on deck! At any moment the
rowers might enter! He'd have to risk a drop into the water with
Vilma - there was nothing else to do. If only she were conscious!

He stooped and raised her, holding her firmly with one arm. Gripping
the hull with the other, he climbed through the opening, inhaled
deeply, and dropped! A heart-stopping plunge - and cold water closed
over them. Down, down - then they shot upward, reached the surface; and
even as Cliff gulped a single gasping breath, something struck his
skull a blinding, stunning blow! The oars!

With rapidly numbing arms and legs Cliff kicked and flailed the water,
striving for land. Dimly he knew he no longer held Vilma; dimly he
visioned her as were those ghastly undead; then his body scraped on
something hard, and a blackness that was not physical blotted out
consciousness.


_2. The Dreadful Isle_

Red-hot hammers pounding against his temples wakened Cliff Darrell. He
opened his eyes to stare into total darkness crawling with mental
monsters spawned by his pain-stabbed brain. He lay half immersed in
shallow brine, his head resting on a jagged stone just above the
surface. Struggling to his hands and knees, he shook his head from
side to side, dumbly, like an animal in pain. Something had hit
him - and now he was in water - and there was no light. What had
happened? Where was Vilma?

Vilma! He groaned. He remembered now. They had dropped - and his head
had struck something - and - and - maybe she was floating out there even
now, dead eyes staring upward.

"Vilma!" he cried, his voice pleading. "Vilma!"

Only a mocking echo answered him. There was no other sound, not even
the whisper of waves swishing among the rocks.

Cliff pressed his hands fiercely against his throbbing head. The pain
had become a madness, matched only by the agony of his own
helplessness. He felt his reason reeling; he fought an insane desire
to fling himself shrieking into that silent expanse of water to search
for Vilma; then with a tremendous physical effort he jarred himself
back to sanity.

He staggered to his feet, groped stumblingly over the rocks away from
the water. His hand touched a rock wall broken and pitted by the
action of the sea; and he crept slowly inland, feeling his way like a
blind man. As he plodded on his thoughts blended into one fixed idea:
he must get to light, must get light to search for Vilma.

Gradually the insensate pounding in his head abated, and strength
returned to his body. When at last he saw light beyond a narrow
fissure around an angle in the cavern, he had almost recovered. In
moments he was gazing out over a plain bathed in the glow of a leprous
moon. As he stared, he shivered; and it was not because of the cold
draft drawing through the fissure, fanning his brine-drenched body.

Grim and starkly forbidding the plain lay before him, dead as the
frozen landscape of the moon. Once there had been life there, but now
only the skeletons of trees remained, lifting their wasted limbs in
rigid pleading to an unresponsive sky. Some, there were, that had
fallen, uprooted by the fury of passing hurricanes; these lay like the
scattered bones of a dismembered giant, age-blackened, and painted
with hoarfrost by the brushes of moonlight. Feebly the dead forest
stirred under the touch of a moaning wind, and the gaunt shadows cast
by the trees seemed to be multi-armed monsters slithering over the
rocky earth.

He looked beyond the trees, and he saw light. Little squares of pale
radiance cut high in the walls of an ancient black castle. Castle?
Cliff frowned. He could liken it to nothing else, though he could not
recall ever having seen a castle which thrust curving, needle-thin
spires into the sky like a devil's horns.

Impatiently Cliff stepped from the wall of rock and glanced along a
path that writhed through the forest; glanced - and crouched swiftly, a
low cry escaping him. A single spot of water on a smooth, flat stone!
A spot shaped like a woman's shoe! Vilma had passed this way!

But - might it not have been some other woman from the _Ariel_? No!
They had been carried - and even if they had walked, their feet were
dry!

Like a hound on the scent, Cliff Darrell sped along the serpentine
path. The wind moaned above him, and the soughing branches seemed to
whisper croaking warnings, but he ran on, his eyes constantly seeking
signs of Vilma's course. Here a drop of water shaken from her drenched
skirt, there another; and Cliff blessed the full moon whose light made
possible his trailing of the almost invisible spoor.

Now he had passed beyond the dead forest and was moving toward the
castle. The trail had been growing steadily fainter, but he managed to
follow it. It led him toward a narrow stone stairway climbing
crookedly to a misshapen opening in the wall. Light glowed faintly
lurid somewhere deep within; and now Cliff heard a blasphemous sound
belch from the depths of the castle - a wheezing, sardonic croaking
like the moan of a demoniac organ, rumbling an obscene dirge. His hair
bristled, and he stopped short.

He looked at the steps, searching for the fading trail - and he
stiffened. There on the second step was an irregular blotch of
moisture! What did it mean? Had Vilma crouched there? Had she ascended
those steps? Entered?

* * * * *

With drawn face he began to skirt the base of the black building,
searching every nook and cranny, scanning the bare walls. His heart
lay like ballast in his breast. If - if something had lured Vilma into
that demon-infested vault ... he checked the thought.

Suddenly he cursed. Mechanically he had begun to measure his stride in
time with the doleful dirge from the castle. He stalked on with
altered pace. As he rounded the corner at the rear of the structure,
he saw a shadow outlined against the sky, crouching on a ledge below
one of the little windows. He looked again - cried:

"Vilma!"

The figure above him stirred, looked down, then climbed hastily
earthward. It was Vilma ... Vilma, with black hair hanging stringily
about her head, face pale, eyes fixed in the wideness of fear ...
Vilma, with her wet clothing clinging to the lovely contours of her
symmetrical body.

"Oh, Cliff!" she gasped, a dry sob choking her. "Thank God - thank
God!"

She clung to him, her face hidden against his shoulder, quivering
uncontrollably. Then tears came, saving tears, relieving her pent-up
emotions.

Cliff said nothing, only held her close, strongly protective. And
gradually he felt the tempest of terror subside. At last she looked
up. Some of the dread had gone from her face, and she tried to smile.

"I guess - I can't take it," she said.

Cliff shook his head solemnly. "You're a game girl, Vilma! You've
nerve enough for two men. If you can, tell me what happened. Or if
you'd rather let it wait, just say so."

"I'll feel better if I get it off my chest," she said. "You probably
saw those - things - carry me from the yacht." Cliff nodded. "Well, I
was just about paralyzed when they dropped me in their terrible boat.
I remember, you tried to arouse me; then that horn blew, and I just
seemed to float away in an ocean of sleep.

"After that I can remember nothing till I awoke with water filling my
eyes and nose and mouth, choking me. Someone's arms were around me - it
must have been you, Cliff - and then they weren't there any more, and I
struggled wildly, out of my wits. I don't know how I got to shore, but
I did, and I lay there in the shadow of the galley, choking and
gagging, but afraid to cough. It wasn't altogether dark, and I could
see those dreadful things with people hanging over their shoulders,
carrying them along a narrow ledge close to the water's edge, heading
inland. I thought maybe you were one of those limp bodies; and I - I
almost died of fright. After a while the last one had gone, and the
light went out. Then I heard another pair of feet moving over the
rocks. Corio, I suppose. The sound died - and I was alone.

"That place was awful, Cliff. The blackness almost drove me mad. I
wanted to scream, but I was afraid to. Some terrible weight seemed to
be crushing my lungs. If I followed those undead things, they might
capture me, but it seemed worse to stay there in that dreadful dark.

"I got out of there somehow, though it seemed to take hours. Then I
didn't know what to do. I stood at the edge of the dead forest trying
to decide; trying, too, to keep myself from shrieking and
running - anywhere. Then Corio's horn blew again - a sound, Cliff, worse
than anything I've ever heard. It - it was a wicked sound, promising to
fulfill every foul desire that ever tainted a human mind. It repelled,
yet it lured irresistibly. And - I answered!"

She stopped, and buried her face in her hands. After a moment she went
on. "The sound stopped just as I found myself crawling on hands and
knees up the stone stairway on the other side. Another started - that
awful groaning - music - but it didn't draw me. I ran down the steps and
scurried away like a rabbit trying to find a place to hide.

"After a while I came back - I thought you must be in there - and I
climbed up to the window. And - and - Cliff, it's hellish!"

Her eyes, boring into his, widened in the same rigid terror he had
seen in them when he joined her.

"We could go back to the cove and get away on the _Ariel_, Vilma,"
Cliff said stonily. "And if you think we should, we will. But - I
brought our friends here, and - well, I want to get them out if I can."

With an effort Vilma nodded. "Of course. We can't do anything else."

He released her and stepped up to the wall.

"I'm going to see what's going on in there," he said. "You wait here
till I come down."

In sudden dread Vilma seized his arm. "No, Cliff. I couldn't stand
waiting here alone. I'll go with you."

He nodded understandingly. And together they began climbing the
precipitous wall, fitting hands and feet in step-like crevices that
made progress fairly rapid. Soon they were crouching on a wide stone
ledge, clinging to thin, rusted bars, staring into the black castle.


_3. The Steps of Torture_

A gigantic hall lay before them, a single chamber whose walls were the
walls of the castle, whose arched ceiling rose far above them.
Directly below their window a stone platform jutted from the wall,
spreading entirely across the chamber. A stone altar squatted in the
center of the platform, a strangely phosphorescent fire smoldering on
its top. And from the altar descended a wide, wide stairway ending in
the middle of the hall. All this Cliff saw in a single sweeping
glance; afterward he had eyes for nothing save the lethal horror of a
mad, mad scene, revealed by the dim radiance of the altar fire.

Behind the altar stood five huge figures clad in long, hooded cloaks
of scarlet. The central figure had arms raised wide, his cloak spread
like the wings of some bloody bird of prey; and from his lips came a
guttural incantation, a blasphemous chant in archaic Latin, in time
with the wheeze of the buried organ. Now his arms dropped, and he was


1 3

Online LibraryLloyd Arthur EshbachIsle of the Undead → online text (page 1 of 3)