I have always enjoyed aquariums. There are few things more relaxing than looking at brightly coloured fish as they move gracefully through their tanks. There is so much beauty in the depths of the oceans. Yet it was in an aquarium that I saw the most terrifying and disturbing sight of my life, a sight that revealed to me the madness that lies so close to the world we inhabit.
I was on holiday in a town on the south coast, not far from Brighton. Though it was summer, the weather was atrocious and spending any time outdoors was imprudent. Of course our English seaside towns cater well for all weather patterns and there were plenty of things to do out of the rain. Among these was a visit to the small aquarium.
I have visited many aquariums and I have been scuba diving in several tropical reefs. I count myself as having a reasonable amateur knowledge of marine biology. Yet I was struck by how many species in this aquarium I did not recognise. Many of the specimens in the tanks had an oddly unearthly and disturbing quality. There were bloated fish with vicious teeth and a frightening array of poisoned spines, crabs covered in thick chitinous armour with long, spider-like legs, disturbingly large marine leeches and molluscs with curiously anti-geometric shells. In the corner of the main exhibition was an octopus whose true size was obscured by the darkness of its tank.
When the aquarium keeper came out to feed his charges, I naturally approached him to enquire about some of the more puzzling specimens. The keeper was a grizzled man in a set of greasy blue overalls with a thick beard. His tanned and weather beaten skin suggested much travel in tropical parts.
After a fascinating conversation about the marine leeches I had just seen he said to me:
"I see you are a gentleman with a real interest in marine life. Let me show you a really rare specimen. I caught it myself. I could probably sell it for a fortune, but I can't bear the thought of being parted from it."
This immediately raised my suspicions. There was something of the Victorian showman about this man.
"I suppose you are about to show me a mermaid. No doubt with lovely golden hair and a very convincing tail," I said.
For a moment the keeper looked very hurt
"Oh no, sir. Something much better than a mermaid."
I raised my eyebrow.
"Have you ever read Professor Dyer's account of his ill-fated expedition to the Antarctic?" he asked me.
This was something I had not expected. I had read Dyer's short book some years ago and was convinced it was the work of a man suffering a gross delusion, exploited by some cynical publisher. Whatever the case, there was certainly something intriguing about Dyer's tale of a lost alien city and an ancient cosmic war.
"The ravings of a sadly disturbed mind," I replied.
"Really? The man was a renowned scholar of Miskatonic University," the keeper argued. "I'll show you something that might just change your mind."
The keeper led me into a drab back room. He pulled back a curtain and revealed a huge tank.
I gasped with horror at what I saw behind that glass.
The thing had a bulbous, cucumber-like body. From this sprouted several thin tentacles and a pair of membranous wings. At the top of it's torso was a head like no other head on any living thing. It was shaped like a starfish, with each ray ending in a globular eye.
It was one of the very creatures that Dyer had described in his account!
"Where did you find this thing?" I spluttered.
"In the south pacific, deep in an ocean trench. Dyer said some of his elder creatures lived deep in the ocean. This must be one of them. Maybe it's the last of its kind," explained the keeper.
I stared at the creature. Just what was it? An animal? A vegetable? A radiate? Or just a monstrosity beyond imagining?
The creature was alert to our presence. Its eyestalks wiggled and it seemed to fix its multi-eyed gaze on me. The look it gave me felt like one of pure hatred.
The creature thrashed about the water, thrusting its form against the glass of the tank. I knew that if it was free, those tentacles would be about my neck.
Professor Dyer had supposed, rightly or wrongly that these things had come from another world in the primordial past. He had theorized that they were the true creators of life on Earth. In his view, the elder ones were a great civilization, characterised by wisdom and nobility.
I looked at the creature flapping about in the murky water, scanning it for any trace of wisdom or nobility. There was nothing. The creature was utterly savage and feral.
Did it have any consciousness of the greatness of its ancestors? Had millions of years taken away all intelligence, every shred of sophistication and culture? Was a great civilization now reduced to animalistic savagery?
Perhaps the last of its kind, the elder thing was just a lost, forgotten sad creature. A lonely haunter of the black depths.
Was this to be the fate of humanity? Would the human race one day be reduced to such deprivation? I tried to imagine the last human being a naked savage, beating furiously at the glass of its prison. A sad specimen in a glass tank; its civilization lost forever.
I turned away from the thing in the tank. Whatever it had been, I knew that in that tank I had beheld the face of a god.