The winning entry of the Machen competition
In March we announced a competition for a specially signed copy of The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales by Mark Samuels, inviting readers to decode the message written in an alien language on the book’s cover.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, the language has proved to be too strange and alien to yield up its secrets in the form of a literal translation of what it says. We shall, then, save that mystery for another day. However, there is a winner to the competition – the one who came nearest in spirit the secret hidden in the alien writing. The winner is Brendan Moody. The specially signed copy of the book will be winging its way to him soon. In the meantime, with Brendan’s kind permission, we reproduce his winning entry in full below:
What It Means
I had intended to enter the competition in a timely manner, but a recent personal tragedy, so mundane that beneath equally mundane grief lay a certain resentment that my life should take such a prosaic path, had necessitated a delay. The deadline was drawing near as I sat at my newly-cluttered kitchen table with a pad of notepaper, a pencil, and my well-read but immaculate copy of the red book. The light from the breast-shaped fixture overhead seemed dimmer than usual, and when I looked up I could see that one of the two bulbs within had burnt out at some time in the past week. The sickly yellow glow was, however, strong enough to work by, and I was too exhausted to clatter through cabinets looking for a replacement.
I wasn’t expecting the code-breaking to require much time. It looked likely to be a simple substitution cipher, akin to the cryptograms that fill the pages of mass-market puzzle magazines, and I was reasonably adept at such things. Identifying and extrapolating from the simple logic that guided them had always been a source of deep satisfaction for me. (My wife had often jokingly linked this hobby to my work as an accountant, suggesting that my life was defined by numbers, their order and lack of ambiguity. I had always resented this joke, but had never told her so, and now that resentment was a source of festering, pedestrian guilt.)
But when I took my first close look at the symbols on the cover of the red book, I realized that this puzzle would be more difficult than I had realized. The problem was that the symbols of this new alphabet were so small and so similar, and the gaps between them so minute, that it was difficult to tell where one ended and the next began. Did the message begin with two words of three letters, or one word of six? Were those two symbols identical, or was one at a slightly skewed angle, and therefore unique? I tried copying them onto my notepad in larger print, but halfway through the first line I tossed my pencil down in despair. Suddenly my failure to crack the code became symbolic of other, more serious recent failures, and there seemed no alternative but to slink out to the couch, where I had been sleeping for the past week, and hope that this time I would be able to rest through the night.
It was not to be. I woke in the early morning, with an aching head and a mouth full of saliva. I stumbled to my feet, rubbing brittle sleep-dust from my eyes, and headed for the kitchen, to take a plastic water bottle out of the refrigerator and chug from it until I felt my stomach expanding. But on the way there I happened to glance at the kitchen table, and in the faint light coming through the window from a flickering streetlight outside, I recognized my copy of the red book.
Suddenly, more than water, or sleep, or any other nepenthe, I wanted to know what message lay beneath that bright cover, which seemed almost to mock me, to be laughing at my matted hair, my dirt-encrusted black suit, the crumbs caught in my beard and mustache. I snapped on the kitchen light — even its half-illumination was an assault on my tired eyes — and sat down once more. At first I was as unable to make headway as I had been before, and my frustration grew, reaching its usual peak in a strange sensation, almost like physical arousal, that pierced my genitals, pleasant and yet at the same time unbearable. Just as I thought I would have to retreat for the second time, I blinked, and when my eyes opened again I could see everything.
It was small wonder that my earlier attempt had failed, for what was revealed to me was nothing that could ever be communicated through the incremental, rational processes of frequency analysis and persistent guesswork. This message was of another order altogether, brought to me in what were clearly words of a sort, yet which defied translation into English, or any other human tongue. It was beautiful, promising discovery and clarity, and yet there was something faintly mechanical about it; I felt, without knowing precisely why, that it was appropriate that the cover of the red book should show this message emerging from an old-fashioned typewriter: grace and industry combined. The symbolism was so perfect that I laughed aloud. Perhaps that laughter that prevented me from hearing approaching footsteps. But I think not.
When the door that led from the kitchen to the front porch swung open, I was leaning forward, about to reread the message, if “reread” is an appropriate term for the return to something so fundamental, so circular, that once discovered it is inescapable. I was too excited by my discovery to feel any surprise as I looked over at the shadowy doorway. Even when I recognized the figure emerging from it, I felt only that this, too, must be contained within the message on the cover of the red book. If I looked down at it, all would surely be explained. But I found myself unable to turn away from the creature that had been my wife.
All the signs of the petty tragedy that had destroyed her were gone, and at first she seemed rather ordinary. It was only when she opened her mouth and began to speak that I saw the change, how the hinge of her jaw had been ingeniously altered so that it opened wide, like the mouth of a dummy or puppet. A terrifying thing, I suppose, in the abstract, yet the words she spoke distracted me from any fear. It was a language of buzzes and clicks, like the sound of ancient machinery, and somehow I knew that it was the oral equivalent of the spindly symbols on the cover of the red book.
I could hardly tell where one word ended and the next began, but I knew what she was telling me, this thing that might be wife or might only have borrowed her form. With each buzz, each click, each step toward me across the grey tiles of the floor, she drove further home the message that I had, by some quirk of mind and hour, opened a door that few would ever perceive. There would be no turning back; “turning back” was not a concept that had any meaning on the other side of the threshold across which she was about to lead me. Her wide, wide mouth would cover mine, to make the necessary adjustments, and that would be that. As I prepared myself for what I knew would be a cold, sharp, tantalizing kiss, I managed to turn my head and take one last look in the direction of the red book. I was not at all surprised to find that, its purpose fulfilled, it had disappeared.
Brendan Moody (who couldn’t translate the code and decided to find another way to amuse himself).