The translation of this phrase, scrawled on the bottom of the bottle by the half-caste hands of the conjurors responsible for brewing this vile and misbegotten fluid, was obtained in extremis from the captured members of two distinct ritual cults separated by thousands of leagues of earth and ocean. During his studies of the writings of Professor George Gammell Angell while at Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts, Professor Phineas Humulus Lager identified these cults as the Esquimau wizards of Slovakia, and the degenerate swamp-priests of Louisiana (this prior to his running mad and being confined to the Sanitorium of Saint Benedict of Nursia in Providence, Rhode Island).
Editor’s note: If you would like to skip the story you can scroll down to the actual tasting note at the end.
I came by this noxious beverage by way of my own inquiries into an unusual occurrence in the isolated hamlet of Saint Helens, Oregon. It was brought to my attention when my sister, who studies sculpture and painting at a nearby artists’ colony, related to me a tale of an odd encounter she had had with an excitable and tautly-strung young man named Wilcox while working in her communal studio just a few days prior. Apparently the last scion of an old and wealthy Saint Helens family, young Wilcox was known amongst the artist community both for his genius and great eccentricity. Though the colony found him quite hopeless as a working artist or meaningfully contributing member of the group, he was allowed to come and go as he pleased on the strength of his name and his generous donations to the commune.
On the occasion of this particular visit, according to my sister’s telling, the young man burst into the sculpture studio, loudly and excitedly demanding the benefit of the chief sculptor’s knowledge in identifying the hieroglyphics on a clay bas-relief plaque he was carrying. Clearly freshly made, the master questioned the youth on the provenance of the piece. Speaking in a dreamy, stilted manner, Wilcox replied, “It is new, indeed, for I made it last night in a dream of strange cities, and dreams are older than brooding Tyre, or the contemplative Sphinx, or garden-girdled Babylon.”*
*Wilcox’s reply so struck my sister that she scribbled down his words verbatim.**
It seems that there had been a slight earthquake tremor the evening prior, the largest to occur in the area in some time. This had so affected Wilcox’s imagination that upon retiring he had experienced fevered and vivid dreams of great Cyclopean cities covered in hieroglyphics. Through these a dark and lumbering miles-high form wandered, muttering primal sounds which seemed to twist and pry at his very consciousness. Though he insisted that these chaotic sensations could not be properly rendered into sounds alone, his attempt at writing them down resulted in the nearly unpronounceable jumble of letters, “Cthulhu fhtagn.” The bas-relief had been completed at once in a frenzy of sculpting immediately upon waking. It was a rough rectangle perhaps an inch thick and about five by six inches in area. Above the odd hieroglyphics was an impressionistic shape seeming to suggest a monster, or perhaps a symbol representing a monster, of a form only the most diseased imagination could conceive. In description, though thankfully I was never to view the artifact myself, it suggested a grotesque combination of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature.
It was at this point that the young man, seemingly overcome by fear and paranoia, uttered an unearthly mewling squeal, snatched up the tablet, and bolted from the studio. Several weeks later I learned through my sister that Wilcox had reportedly returned to his home and collapsed immediately into a feverish sleep. His servants summoned the local doctor, who upon examining the young man could recommend nothing more than keeping him warm and observing his rest. Upon waking three days later Wilcox claimed to have no memory of the evening following the earthquake, nor of his visit to the studio. The sculpture itself was not with him when he reached his home, nor has it been located since. He has reportedly given up all artistic pursuits, and emerges from his home but rarely, and then only for short walks at mid-day when the sunlight is strong and unobscured by clouds.
My sister, knowing of my fascination with queer cults and odd tomes such as Frasier’s Golden Bough, the Pnakotic Manuscripts and Ludwig Prinn’s disturbing De Vermis Mysteriis, passed this tale along to me with relish. I could not have been more enthusiastic about the opportunity to pursue a true mystery in my own back yard rather than poring through dusty, faded manuscripts. The following Sunday we packed up a lunch basket and loaded into the car for a trip to Saint Helens, hoping to find Wilcox and persuade him to tell us more about his strange experience.
I had never heard of Saint Helens until learning that Wilcox called it his home. It was oddly not listed on any electronic maps or recent road atlases I could find, and so we had to resort to an old road map of Oregon my grandfather had given me when I got my first car to determine how to get there. The only significant description I could dig up in the local library came from a history of steam shipping in Oregon. It was apparently founded in the 1840s by Captain H. M. Knighton, a New England native of obscure ancestry. Located in a remote location on a Northern bend of the Columbia River, it was originally intended to be a stop for steam ships on their way to Portland. In the 1850s Portland’s merchants began a boycott of the port due to its unsavory reputation, and it has since remained an obscure backwater. Other mentions in admittedly less reputable local histories were brief, and hinted vaguely about rumors of a quasi-pagan cult brought to the town by immigrants from unnamed islands in the South Pacific around the time of the town’s founding.
Our trip took us over a surprising number of rickety bridges and barely-paved roads, but we arrived safely shortly before noon on that sunny Sunday. We quickly located Wilcox’s home, a large, if somewhat decayed, Victorian manor atop the only hill in town, but our repeated knocks at the front brought no answer. Discouraged we resolved to not waste the trip, and returned to the downtown area to examine the local shops. Disappointingly this consisted of primarily boarded up storefronts, with only a dilapidated gas station, a dusty drug store, and an old hotel with a small pub occupying most of the first floor in operation. We decided to make the best of our situation, and popped into the pub with the intention of sampling the local fare.
Our entry was greeted by the sullen stares of the pub’s only two customers, a pair of ancients with a particularly unpleasant cast to their features. Both stoop-shouldered with dull, expressionless visages, they had odd, narrow heads and bulging, watery eyes that never seemed to blink. We quickly seated ourselves at a table on the opposite side of the restaurant, and they returned to their cups and began muttering incomprehensibly to each other. At this point the proprietor emerged from behind the counter and shambled desultorily over to our table. I had not thought to encounter an uglier specimen than our fellow guests, but the barkeep proved striking indeed. Thick-lipped, coarse-pored and patchily-bearded, his skin seemed queerly irregular, as if on the verge of peeling away from some disease. His hands were large and heavily veined, with an unusual blue-grey tinge, and seemed to be covered in a sheen of moisture.
At this point my sister and I shared a queasy glance, and I asked our host where we might find something to settle my sister’s stomach before lunch. He grunted and gestured vaguely toward the window, through which we could see the local drug store. We thanked him and hurried out of that stagnant room, grateful that we had our packed lunches in the car.
My determination not to leave this town without something to show for our trip led to a low, heated exchange between my sister and I, she being of a mind to, “get the fuck out of Dodge.” We finally agreed that she would go gas up the car while I stopped in to the drug store to see if there were any local curios available that would satisfy my desire for a trophy. Upon entering, I was at first disappointed to see what seemed to be nothing more than a sparsely stocked neighborhood drug store (if a particularly grimy and ill-kempt one). Having not noticed the pale, sluggish young woman standing motionless behind the high druggists counter, I was startled when she gurgled what sounded like, “back room,” while gesturing crudely toward a curtained doorway at the back of the shop. A sudden wave of almost uncontrollable horror nearly caused me to turn tail and dash for the safety of my car, as if some primal instinct from generations past had risen up in an attempt to save me from my own folly. But my foolhardy determination led me to grasp what little nerve I had left, nod woodenly, and proceed through the curtain to see what trinkets might be housed in that dank interior.
The greasy feel of the curtain itself caused me to slide past it as quickly as possible, letting it fall closed behind me. This left me in a small, dim, windowless room, perhaps fifteen feet square, with similar curtains covering lightless openings in the other three walls. Most of the room was taken up by tables filled with crudely-carved and stained wooden representations of figures very like that described by my sister to be on young Wilcox’s plaque. It was clear that most of these had not been moved in quite some time, as they were draped with layers of rotting cobwebs and covered in dust. Despite their apparent neglect these figures radiated a certain horrifying presence, seeming almost to whisper verminous secrets just below the level of audibility. The walls of the room were of the same sort of whorl-grained wood, and were covered in hieroglyphics of a sort unlike any I had encountered during my haphazard studies. In one corner on a squat stool slumped a squashed looking old woman, somehow seeming at once fat and emaciated. Her canvas dress was filthy, and was reminiscent of a style fashionable many decades past. On a small table next to her sat the only things my suddenly feverish mind could clearly grasp: a stack of 24oz cans and a few old-style swing-top bottles. She looked me in the eye and held my gaze for a moment, and suddenly smiled a terrible batrachian smile. Gesturing broadly with one hand, she croaked, “What will you buy?”
More irrationally terrified than any other time in my life, yet even more fearful to deny her implicit command than anything else, I shakingly approached the table nearest her. Desperately averting my gaze from the carven figures all around me, I examined the stacked cans. I saw that they contained something called Milwaukee’s Best Ice, a surprisingly banal item to encounter in such a location. After peering at the bottles for a moment, I determined that much of the writing was in a language far removed from modern English. However I could make out the words Miskatonic Dark Rye near the label’s center. Suddenly the crone’s hand shot out, and she grasped my wrist with her bony claw. Pulling me close enough to smell her foetid, squamous breath she again smiled that froggish grin and pointed at the stack of cans. “Outsiders,” she croaked. Then, pointing at the line of bottles, she again spoke. “Initiated,” she hissed.
My last nerve having long since frayed beyond holding, I pulled my wallet out of my pocket with my free hand and clumsily removed all the cash I had ($87 being a cheap price to pay for your sanity). Scattering it on the table I picked up one of the bottles (no fool I, to drink whatever noxious swill they reserve for outsiders in a town such as this), and gave the ancient hag my best attempt at a smile (thought truly it was at best a sickly grimace). She abruptly released her clutch on my arm and leaned back into the corner, closing her eyes as she did so.
I bolted from the room without another thought (though perhaps I briefly shuddered at what might be concealed behind those other curtains), exploded out of the shop, and sprinted the two blocks to the run-down gas station. I leaped into my car, started the engine, and screamed out of the lot. It was fortunate that my sister had finished filling the car with gas and was already in the passenger seat, as in my terror I don’t know that I would have noticed if she hadn’t been (or even returned for her if she had been left behind). It was only much later, after I had somewhat calmed down from my panicked hysteria, that I noticed that I had brought the bottle of dark fluid with me from the shop.
We arrived home safely and without incident, and I dropped my sister off at her abode with an attempt at a cheery farewell. I stashed my trophy bottle in my beer cellar with a few others I’d been saving, happy for it to remain unconsumed as a simple token of an unusual afternoon adventure. Over the following weeks I attempted to put my experience in Saint Helens behind me, but found that it continued to weigh on me. Over time I began to bring the bottle out just to hold and gaze at, and at such times would be overcome by a queer lethargy. More and more I have felt a compulsion to open it and consume the contents, even while the rational part of my mind recoils at the thought of drinking anything made by the denizens of that blighted town.
As I write this I sit with the bottle before me, and know that I can resist its call no longer. Though terrified by what visions may be revealed to me once this tainted brew enters my body, I am at once eager to send my spirit out to wander among planes of existence beyond the ken of normal men. Perhaps I will even be given a glimpse of the great one that Wilcox saw in his own nocturnal wanderings! I know that I will not shrink from it as he did in his weakness!
Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!
Miskatonic Dark Rye
NOTES: 750 ml swing-top bottle, poured into pint glass
STYLE: Rye Beer (a dunkelweizen made with rye instead of wheat)
APPEARANCE: Cloudy dark reddish brown, much brighter reddish orangish brown when held up to the light.
HEAD: Three fingers of bubbly head somewhere between cream and tan, fading to about a quarter inch which lasts throughout.
LACING: Solid lacing, a bit more substantial than I would necessarily expect from my (relatively limited) experience with dunkels.
NOSE: Smells like a good dunkelweizen should, with a little bit of German funkiness (the younger, friendlier brother of Belgian funk), some malty sweetness, and a little bit more tang and spiciness than usual from the rye. (a caveat: I’m at the tail end of a cold, so take this with a grain of salt)
TASTE: I like the finish on this one. Begins with almost the malt profile of an English brown (with just a touch of banana ester), but rounds out quickly to give you a touch of rye malt bite, and wraps up with a somewhat lingering spicy bitterness that strikes me as being a very European hop profile. In fact, I’d be curious to know what they used to hop this one.
MOUTHFEEL: Moderate body, sufficient carbonation, balanced just about right for my taste.
DRINKABILITY: Excellent. I blew through this 750 pretty quickly, and could happily have drank another. This isn’t so incredibly complex that I would rush to put it in front a bunch of friends at a tasting, but it’s not supposed to be. This is a session beer that I wouldn’t hesitate to kick back with for a few pints at a pub (I have a feeling it would go great with a burger [yes, I know I was supposed to say bratwurst]). Easily a 3 hop beer from Captured by Porches. Which, incidentally, is one of my favorite new brewery names.
Did you know the Commander learned most of his pounding skills from the Necronomicon?
Talk about forbidden knowledge!
I bet he could give the Mad Arab, Abdul Al’hazred, some serious pounding lessons!
**This quote, along with paraphrases of various other material, are taken from The Call of Cthulhu by H. P. Lovecraft, and other stories published in the collection Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, Random House Publishing Group, New York. Copyright Arkham House Publishers, Inc., 1990.