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Title: The Shadow on the Screen

Date of first publication: 1938

Author: Henry Kuttner (1914-1958)

Date first posted: Apr. 1, 2021

Date last updated: Apr. 1, 2021

Faded Page eBook #20210403

This eBook was produced by: Alex White & the online Distributed Proofreaders Canada team at https://www.pgdpcanada.net

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The Shadow on the Screen





First published Weird Tales, March 1938.

A weird story of Hollywood, and the grisly horror that cast its dreadful shadow across the silver screen as an incredible motion-picture was run off

Torture Master was being given a sneak preview at a Beverly Hills theatre. Somehow, when my credit line, “Directed by Peter Haviland,” was flashed on the screen, a little chill of apprehension shook me, despite the applause that came from a receptive audience. When you’ve been in the picture game for a long time you get these hunches; I’ve often spotted a dud flicker before a hundred feet have been reeled off. Yet Torture Master was no worse than a dozen similar films I’d handled in the past few years.

But it was formula, box-office formula. I could see that. The star was all right; the make-up department had done a good job; the dialogue was unusually smooth. Yet the film was obviously box-office, and not the sort of film I’d have liked to direct.

After watching a reel unwind amid an encouraging scattering of applause, I got up and went to the lobby. Some of the gang from Summit Pictures were lounging there, smoking and commenting on the picture. Ann Howard, who played the heroine in Torture Master, noticed my scowl and pulled me into a corner. She was that rare type, a girl who will screen well without a lot of the yellow grease-paint that makes you look like an animated corpse. She was small, and her hair and eyes and skin were brown—I’d like to have seen her play Peter Pan. That type, you know.

I had occasionally proposed to her, but she never took me seriously. As a matter of fact, I myself didn’t know how serious I was about it. Now she led me into the bar and ordered sidecars.

“Don’t look so miserable, Pete,” she said over the rim of her glass. “The picture’s going over. It’ll gross enough to suit the boss, and it won’t hurt my reputation.”

Well, that was right. Ann had a fat part, and she’d made the most of it. And the picture would be good box-office; Universal’s Night Key, with Karloff, had been released a few months ago, and the audiences were ripe for another horror picture.

“I know,” I told her, signaling the bartender to refill my glass. “But I get tired of these damn hokumy pics. Lord, how I’d like to do another Cabinet of Doctor Caligari!”

“Or another Ape of God,” Ann suggested.

I shrugged. “Even that, maybe. There’s so much chance for development of the weird on the screen, Ann—and no producer will stand for a genuinely good picture of that type. They call it arty, and say it’ll flop. If I branched out on my own—well, Hecht and MacArthur tried it, and they’re back on the Hollywood payroll now.”

Someone Ann knew came up and engaged her in conversation. I saw a man beckoning, and with a hasty apology left Ann to join him. It was Andy Worth, Hollywood’s dirtiest columnist. I knew him for a double-crosser and a skunk, but I also knew that he could get more inside information than a brace of Winchells. He was a short, fat chap with a meticulously cultivated mustache and sleeky pomaded black hair. Worth fancied himself as a ladies’ man, and spent a great deal of his time trying to blackmail actresses into having affairs with him.

That didn’t make him a villain, of course. I like anybody who can carry on an intelligent conversation for ten minutes, and Worth could do that. He fingered his mustache and said, “I heard you talking about Ape of God. A coincidence, Pete.”

“Yeah?” I was cautious. I had to be, with this walking scandal-sheet. “How’s that?”

He took a deep breath. “Well, you understand that I haven’t got the real lowdown, and it’s all hearsay—but I’ve found a picture that’ll make the weirdest flicker ever canned look sick.”

I suspected a gag. “Okay, what is it? Torture Master?”

“Eh? No—though Blake’s yarn deserved better adaptation than your boys gave it. No, Pete, the one I’m talking about isn’t for general release—isn’t completed, in fact. I saw a few rushes of it. A one-man affair; title’s The Nameless. Arnold Keene’s doing it.”

Worth sat back and watched how I took that. And I must have shown my amazement. For it was Arnold Keene who had directed the notorious Ape of God which had wrecked his promising career in films. The public doesn’t know that picture. It never was released. Summit junked it. And they had good cause, although it was one of the most amazingly effective weird films I’ve ever seen. Keene had shot most of it down in Mexico, and he’d been able to assume virtual dictatorship of the location troupe. Several Mexicans had died at the time, and there had been some ugly rumors, but it had all been hushed up. I’d talked with several people who had been down near Taxco with Keene, and they spoke of the man with peculiar horror. He had been willing to sacrifice almost anything to make Ape of God a masterpiece of its type.

It was an unusual picture—there was no question about that. There’s only one master print of the film, and it’s kept in a locked vault at Summit. Very few have seen it. For what Machen had done in weird literature, Keene had done on the screen—and it was literally amazing.

I said to Worth, “Arnold Keene, eh? I’ve always had a sneaking sympathy for the man. But I thought he’d died long ago.”

“Oh, no. He bought a place near Tujunga and went into hiding. He didn’t have much dough after the blow-up, you know, and it took him about five years to get together enough dinero to start his Nameless. He always said Ape of God was a failure, and that he intended to do a film that would be a masterpiece of weirdness. Well, he’s done it. He’s canned a film that’s—unearthly. I tell you it made my flesh creep.”

“Who’s the star?” I asked.

“Unknowns. Russian trick, you know. The real star is a—a shadow.”

I stared at him.

“That’s right, Pete. The shadow of something that’s never shown on the screen. Doesn’t sound like much, eh? But you ought to see it!”

“I’d like to,” I told him. “In fact, I’ll do just that. Maybe he’ll release it through Summit.”

Worth chuckled. “No chance. No studio would release that flicker. I’m not even going to play it up in my dirt sheet. This is the real McCoy, Pete.”

“What’s Keene’s address?” I asked.

Worth gave it to me. “But don’t go out till Wednesday night,” he said. “The rough prints ’ll be ready then, or most of them. And keep it under your hat, of course.”

A group of autograph hunters came up just then, and Worth and I were separated. It didn’t matter. I’d got all the information I needed. My mind was seething with fantastic surmises. Keene was one of the great geniuses of the screen, and his talent lay in the direction of the macabre. Unlike book publishers, the studios catered to no small, discriminating audiences. A film must suit everybody.

Finally I broke away and took Ann to a dance at Bel-Air. But I hadn’t forgotten Keene, and the next night I was too impatient to wait. I telephoned Worth, but he was out. Oddly enough, I was unable to get in touch with him during the next few days; even his paper couldn’t help me. A furious editor told me the Associated Press had been sending him hourly telegrams asking for Worth’s copy; but the man had vanished completely. I had a hunch.

It was Tuesday night when I drove out of the studio and took a short cut through Griffith Park, past the Planetarium, to Glendale. From there I went on to Tujunga, to the address Worth had given me. Once or twice I had an uneasy suspicion that a black coupé was trailing me, but I couldn’t be sure.

Arnold Keene’s house was in a little canyon hidden back in the Tujunga mountains. I had to follow a winding dirt road for several miles, and ford a stream or two, before I reached it. The place was built against the side of the canyon, and a man stood on the porch and watched me as I braked my car to a stop.

It was Arnold Keene. I recognized him immediately. He was a slender man under middle height, with a closely cropped bristle of gray hair; his face was coldly austere. There had been a rumor that Keene had at one time been an officer in Prussia before he came to Hollywood and Americanized his name, and, scrutinizing him, I could well believe it. His eyes were like pale blue marbles, curiously shallow.

He said, “Peter Haviland? I did not expect you until tomorrow night.”

I shook hands. “Sorry if I intrude,” I apologized. “The fact is, I got impatient after what Worth told me about your film. He isn’t here, by any chance?”

The shallow eyes were unreadable. “No. But come in. Luckily, the developing took less time than I had anticipated. I need only a few more shots to complete my task.”

He ushered me into the house, which was thoroughly modern and comfortably furnished. Under the influence of good cognac my suspicions began to dissolve. I told Keene I had always admired his Ape of God.

He made a wry grimace. “Amateurish, Haviland. I depended too much on hokum in that film. Merely devil-worship, a reincarnated Gilles de Rais, and sadism. That isn’t true weirdness.”

I was interested. “That’s correct. But the film had genuine power——”

“Man has nothing of the weird in him intrinsically. It is only the hints of the utterly abnormal and unhuman that give one the true feeling of weirdness. That, and human reactions to such supernatural phenomena. Look at any great weird work—The Horla, which tells of a man’s reaction to a creature utterly alien, Blackwood’s Willows, Machen’s Black Seal, Lovecraft’s Color Out of Space—all these deal with the absolutely alien influencing normal lives. Sadism and death may contribute, but alone they cannot produce the true, intangible atmosphere of weirdness.”

I had read all these tales. “But you can’t film the indescribable. How could you show the invisible beings of The Willows?”

Keene hesitated. “I think I’ll let my film answer that. I have a projection room downstairs——”

The bell rang sharply. I could not help noticing the quick glance Keene darted at me. With an apologetic gesture he went out and presently returned with Ann Howard at his side. She was smiling rather shakily.

“Did you forget our date, Pete?” she asked me.

I blinked, and suddenly remembered. Two weeks ago I had promised to take Ann to an affair in Laguna Beach this evening, but in my preoccupation with Keene’s picture the date had slipped my mind. I stammered apologies.

“Oh, that’s all right,” she broke in. “I’d much rather stay here—that is, if Mr. Keene doesn’t mind. His picture——”

“You know about it?”

“I told her,” Keene said. “When she explained why she had come, I took the liberty of inviting her to stay to watch the film. I did not want her to drag you away, you see,” he finished, smiling. “Some cognac for Miss—eh?”

I introduced them.

“For Miss Howard, and then The Nameless.”

At his words a tiny warning note seemed to throb in my brain. I had been fingering a heavy metal paperweight, and now, as Keene’s attention was momentarily diverted to the sideboard, I slipped it, on a sudden impulse, into my pocket. It would be no defense, though, against a gun.

What was wrong with me, I wondered? An atmosphere of distrust and suspicion seemed to have sprung out of nothing. As Keene ushered us down into his projection room, the skin of my back seemed to crawl with the expectation of attack. It was inexplicable, but definitely unpleasant.

Keene was busy for a time in the projection booth, and then he joined us.

“Modern machinery is a blessing,” he said with heavy jocularity. “I can be as lazy as I wish. I needed no help with the shooting, once the automatic cameras were installed. The projector, too, is automatic.”

I felt Ann move closer to me in the gloom. I put my arm around her and said, “It helps, yes. What about releasing the picture, Mr. Keene?”

There was a harsh note in his voice. “It will not be released. The world is uneducated, not ready for it. In a hundred years, perhaps, it will achieve the fame it deserves. I am doing it for posterity, and for the sake of creating a weird masterpiece on the screen.”

With a muffled click the projector began to operate, and a title flashed on the screen: The Nameless.

Keene’s voice came out of the darkness. “It’s a silent film, except for one sequence at the start. Sound adds nothing to weirdness, and it helps to destroy the illusion of reality. Later, suitable music will be dubbed in.”

I did not answer. For a book had flashed on the gray oblong before us—that amazing tour de force, The Circus of Doctor Lao. A hand opened it, and a long finger followed the lines as a toneless voice read:

“These are the sports, the offthrows of the universe instead of the species; these are the weird children of the lust of the spheres. Mysticism explains them where science cannot. Listen: when that great mysterious fecundity that peopled the worlds at the command of the gods had done with its birth-giving, when the celestial midwives all had left, when life had begun in the universe, the primal womb-thing found itself still unexhausted, its loins still potent. So that awful fertility tossed on its couch in a final fierce outbreak of life-giving and gave birth to these nightmare beings, these abortions of the world.”

The voice ceased. The book faded, and there swam into view a mass of tumbled ruins. The ages had pitted the man-carved rocks with cracks and scars; the bas-relief figures were scarcely recognizable. I was reminded of certain ruins I had seen in Yucatan.

The camera swung down. The ruins seemed to grow larger. A yawning hole gaped in the earth.

Beside me Keene said, “The site of a ruined temple. Watch, now.”

The effect was that of moving forward into the depths of a subterranean pit. For a moment the screen was in darkness; then a stray beam of sunlight rested on an idol that stood in what was apparently an underground cavern. A narrow crack of light showed in the roof. The idol was starkly hideous.

I got only a flashing glimpse, but the impression on my mind was that of a bulky, ovoid shape like a pineapple or a pine-cone. The thing had certain doubtful features which lent it a definitely unpleasant appearance; but it was gone in a flash, dissolving into a brightly lighted drawing-room, thronged with gay couples.

The story proper began at that point. None of the actors or actresses was known to me; Keene must have hired them and worked secretly in his house. Most of the interiors and a few of the exteriors seemed to have been taken in this very canyon. The director had used the “parallel” trick which saves so much money for studios yearly. I’d often done it myself. It simply means that the story is tied in with real life as closely as possible; that is, when I had a troupe working up at Lake Arrowhead last winter, and an unexpected snowfall changed the scene, I had the continuity rewritten so that the necessary scenes could take place in snow. Similarly, Keene had paralleled his own experiences—sometimes almost too closely.

The Nameless told of a man, ostracized by his fellows because of his fanatical passion for the morbid and bizarre, who determined to create a work of art—a living masterpiece of sheer weirdness. He had experimented before by directing films that were sufficiently unusual to stir up considerable comment. But this did not satisfy him. It was acting—and he wanted something more than that. No one can convincingly fake reaction to horror, not even the most talented actor, he contended. The genuine emotion must be felt in order to be transferred to the screen.

It was here that The Nameless ceased to parallel Keene’s own experiences, and branched out into sheer fantasy. The protagonist in the film was Keene himself, but this was not unusual, as directors often act in their own productions. And, by deft montage shots, the audience learned that Keene in his search for authenticity had gone down into Mexico, and had, with the aid of an ancient scroll, found the site of a ruined Aztec temple. And here, as I say, reality was left behind as the film entered a morbid and extraordinary phase.

There was a god hidden beneath this ruined temple—a long-forgotten god, which had been worshipped even before the Aztecs had sprung from the womb of the centuries. At least, the natives had considered it a god, and had erected a temple in its honor, but Keene hinted that the thing was actually a survival, one of the “offthrows of the universe,” unique and baroque, which had come down through the eons in an existence totally alien to mankind. The creature was never actually seen on the screen, save for a few brief glimpses in the shadowed, underground temple. It was roughly barrel-shaped, and perhaps ten feet high, studded with odd spiky projections. The chief feature was a gem set in the thing’s rounded apex—a smoothly polished jewel as large as a child’s head. It was in this gem that the being’s life was supposed to have its focus.

It was not dead, but neither was it alive, in the accepted sense of that term. When the Aztecs had filled the temple with the hot stench of blood the thing had lived, and the jewel had flamed with unearthly radiance. But with the passage of time the sacrifices had ceased, and the being had sunk into a state of coma akin to hibernation. In the picture Keene brought it to life.

He transported it secretly to his home, and there, in an underground room hollowed beneath the house, he placed the monster-god. The room was built with an eye for the purpose for which Keene intended it; automatic cameras and clever lighting features were installed, so that pictures could be shot from several different angles at once, and pieced together later as Keene cut the film. And now there entered something of the touch of genius which had made Keene famous.

He was clever, I had always realized that. Yet in the scenes that were next unfolded I admired not so much the technical tricks—which were familiar enough to me—as the marvelously clever way in which Keene had managed to inject realism into the acting. His characters did not act—they lived.

Or, rather, they died. For in the picture they were thrust into the underground room to die horribly as sacrifices to the monster-god from the Aztec temple. Sacrifice was supposed to bring the thing to life, to cause the jewel in which its existence was bound to flare with fantastic splendor. The first sacrifice was, I think, the most effective.

The underground room in which the god was hidden was large, but quite vacant, save for a curtained alcove which held the idol. A barred doorway led to the upper room, and here Keene appeared on the screen, revolver in hand, herding before him a man—overall-clad, with a stubble of black beard on his stolid face. Keene swung open the door, motioned his captive into the great room. He closed the barred door, and through the grating could be seen busy at a switchboard.

Light flared. The man stood near the bars, and then, at Keene’s gesture with his weapon, moved forward slowly to the far wall. He stood there, staring around vaguely, dull apprehension in his face. Light threw his shadow in bold relief on the wall.

Then another shadow leaped into existence beside him.

It was barrel-shaped, gigantic, studded with blunt spikes, and capped by a round dark blob—the life-jewel. The shadow of the monster god! The man saw it. He turned.

Stark horror sprang into his face, and at sight of that utterly ghastly and realistic expression a chill struck through me. This was almost too convincing. The man could not be merely acting.

But, if he was, his acting was superb, and so was Keene’s direction. The shadow on the wall stirred, and a thrill of movement shook it. It rocked and seemed to rise, supported by a dozen tentacular appendages that uncoiled from beneath its base. The spikes—changed. They lengthened. They coiled and writhed, hideously worm-like.

It wasn’t the metamorphosis of the shadow that held me motionless in my chair. Rather, it was the appalling expression of sheer horror on the man’s face. He stood gaping as the shadow toppled and swayed on the wall, growing larger and larger. Then he fled, his mouth an open square of terror. The shadow paused, with an odd air of indecision, and slipped slowly along the wall out of range of the camera.

But there were other cameras, and Keene had used his cutting-shears deftly. The movements of the man were mirrored on the screen; the glaring lights swung and flared; and ever the grim shadow crawled hideously across the wall. The thing that cast it was never shown—just the shadow, and it was a dramatically effective trick. Too many directors, I knew, could not have resisted the temptation to show the monster, thus destroying the illusion—for papier-maché and rubber, no matter how cleverly constructed, cannot convincingly ape reality.

At last the shadows merged—the gigantic swaying thing with its coiling tentacles, and the black shadow of the man that was caught and lifted, struggling and kicking frantically. The shadows merged—and the man did not reappear. Only the dark blob capping the great shadow faded and flickered, as though strange light were streaming from it; the light that was fed by sacrifice, the jewel that was—life.

Beside me there came a rustle. I felt Ann stir and move closer in the gloom. Keene’s voice came from some distance away.

“There were several more sacrifice scenes, Haviland, but I haven’t patched them in yet, except for the one you’ll see in a moment now. As I said, the film isn’t finished.”

I did not answer. My eyes were on the screen as the fantastic tale unfolded. The pictured Keene was bringing another victim to his cavern, a short, fat man with sleekly pomaded black hair. I did not see his face until he had been imprisoned in the cave, and then, abruptly, there came a close-up shot, probably done with a telescopic lens. His plump face, with its tiny mustache, leaped into gigantic visibility, and I recognized Andy Worth.

It was the missing columnist, but for the first time I saw his veneer of sophistication lacking. Naked fear crawled in his eyes, and I leaned forward in my seat as the ghastly barrel-shaped shadow sprang out on the wall. Worth saw it, and the expression on his face was shocking. I pushed back my chair and got up as the lights came on. The screen went blank.

Arnold Keene was standing by the door, erect and military as ever. He had a gun in his hand, and its muzzle was aimed at my stomach.

“You had better sit down, Haviland,” he said quietly. “You too, Miss Howard. I’ve something to tell you—and I don’t wish to be melodramatic about it. This gun”—he glanced at it wryly—“is necessary. There are a few things you must know, Haviland, for a reason you’ll understand later.”

I said, “There’ll be some visitors here for you soon, Keene. You don’t think I’d neglect normal precautions!”

He shrugged. “You’re lying, of course. Also you’re unarmed, or you’d have had your gun out by now. I didn’t expect you until tomorrow night, but I’m prepared. In a word, what I have to tell you is this: the film you just saw is a record of actual events.”

Ann’s teeth sank into her lip, but I didn’t say anything. I waited, and Keene resumed.

“Whether you believe me or not doesn’t matter, for you’ll have to believe in a few minutes. I told you something of my motive, my desire to create a genuine masterpiece of weirdness. That’s what I’ve done, or will have done before tomorrow. Quite a number of vagrants and laborers have disappeared, and the columnist, Worth, as well; but I took care to leave no clues. You’ll be the last to vanish—you and this girl.”

“You’ll never be able to show the film,” I told him.

“What of it? You’re a hack, Haviland, and you can’t understand what it means to create a masterpiece. Is a work of art any less beautiful because it’s hidden? I’ll see the picture—and after I’m dead the world will see it, and realize my genius even though they may fear and hate its expression. The reactions of my unwilling actors—that’s the trick. As a director, you should know that there’s no substitute for realism. The reactions were not faked—that was obvious enough. The first sacrifice was that of a clod—an unintelligent moron, whose fears were largely superstitious. The next sacrifice was of a higher type—a vagrant who came begging to my door some months ago. You will complete the group, for you’ll know just what you’re facing, and your attempt to rationalize your fear will lend an interesting touch. Both of you will stand up, with your hands in the air, and precede me into this passage.”

All this came out tonelessly and swiftly, quite as though it were a rehearsed speech. His hand slid over the wall beside him, and a black oblong widened in the oak paneling. I stood up.

“Do as he says, Ann,” I said. “Maybe I can——”

“No, you can’t,” Keene interrupted, gesturing impatiently with his weapon. “You won’t have the chance. Hurry up.”

We went through the opening in the wall and Keene followed, touching a stud that flooded the passage with light. It was a narrow tunnel that slanted down through solid rock for perhaps ten feet to a steep stairway. He herded us down this, after sliding the panel shut.

“It’s well hidden,” he said, indicating metal sheathing—indeed, the entire corridor was lined with metal plates. “This lever opens it from within, but no one but me can find the spring which opens it from without. The police could wreck the house without discovering this passage.”

That seemed worth remembering, but of little practical value at the moment. Ann and I went down the stairway until it ended in another short passage. Our way was blocked by a door of steel bars, which Keene unlocked with a key he took from his pocket. The passage where we stood was dimly lighted; there were several chairs here; and the space beyond the barred door was not lighted at all.

Keene opened the door and gestured me through it. He locked it behind me and turned to Ann. Her face, I saw, was paper-white in the pale glow.

What happened after that brought an angry curse to my lips. Without warning Keene swung the automatic in a short, vicious arc, smashing it against Ann’s head.

She saw it coming too late, and her upflung hand failed to ward off the blow. She dropped without a sound, a little trickle of blood oozing from her temple. Keene stepped over her body to a switchboard set in the rock wall.

Light lanced with intolerable brilliance into my eyes. I shut them tightly, opening them after a moment to stare around apprehensively. I recognized my surroundings. I was in the cave of sacrifice, the underground den I had seen on the screen. Cameras high up on the walls began to operate as I discovered them. From various points blinding arc-lights streamed down upon me.

A gray curtain shielded a space on the far wall, but this was drawn upward to reveal a deep alcove. There was an object within that niche—a barrel-shaped thing ten feet high, studded with spikes, and crowned with a jewel that pulsed and glittered with cold flame. It was gray and varnished-looking, and it was the original of Keene’s Aztec god.

Somehow I felt oddly reassured as I examined the thing. It was a model, of course, inanimate and dead; for certainly no life of any kind could exist in such an abnormality. Keene might have installed machinery of some sort within it, however.

“You see, Haviland,” Keene said from beyond the bars, “the thing actually exists. I got on the trail of it in an old parchment I found in the Huntington Library. It had been considered merely an interesting bit of folk-lore, but I saw something else in it. When I was making Ape of God in Mexico I discovered the ruined temple, and what lay forgotten behind the altar.”

He touched a switch, and light streamed out from the alcove behind the thing. Swiftly I turned. On the wall behind me was my own shadow, grotesquely elongated, and beside it was the squat, amorphous patch of blackness I had seen on the screen upstairs.

My back was toward Keene, and my fingers crept into my pocket, touching the metal paperweight I had dropped there earlier that evening. Briefly I considered the possibility of hurling the thing at Keene, and then decided against it. The bars were too close together, and the man would shoot me at any sign of dangerous hostility.

My eyes were drawn to the shadow on the wall. It was moving.

It rocked slightly, and lifted. The spikes lengthened. The thing was no longer inanimate and dead, and as I swung about, stark amazement gripping me, I saw the incredible metamorphosis that had taken place in the thing that cast the shadow.

It was no longer barrel-shaped. A dozen smooth, glistening appendages, ending in flat pads, supported the snake-thin body. And all over that grayish upright pole tentacles sprouted and lengthened, writhing into ghastly life as the horror awakened. Keene had not lied, and the monstrous survival he had brought from the Aztec temple was lumbering from the alcove, its myriad tentacles alive with frightful hunger!

Keene saved me. He saw me standing motionless with abysmal fear in the path of that gigantic, nightmare being, and realizing that he was being cheated of his picture, the man shouted at me to run. His hoarse voice broke the spell that held me unmoving, and I whirled and fled across the cave to the barred door. Skin ripped from my hands as I tore at the bars.

“Run!” Keene yelled at me, his shallow eyes blazing. “It can’t move fast! Look out——”

A writhing, snake-like thing lashed out, and a sickening musky stench filled my nostrils. I leaped away, racing across the cave again. The arc-lights died and others flared into being as Keene manipulated the switchboard. He was adjusting the lights, so that our shadows would not be lost—so that in the climax of The Nameless the shadow of that ghastly horror would be thrown on the cave wall beside me.

It was an infernal game of tag we played there, in those shifting lights that glared down while the camera lenses watched dispassionately. I fled and dodged with my pulses thundering and blood pounding in my temples, and ever the grim shadow moved slowly across the walls, while my legs began to ache with the strain. For hours, perhaps, or eons, I fled.

There would come brief periods of respite when I would cling to the bars, cursing Keene, but he would not answer. His hands flickered over the switchboard as he adjusted the arc-lights, and his eyes never paused in their roving examination of the cave. In the end it was this that saved me.

For Keene did not see Ann stir and open her eyes. He did not see the girl, after a swift glance around, get quietly to her feet. Luckily she was behind Keene, and he did not turn.

I tried to keep my eyes away from Ann, but I do not think I succeeded. At the last moment I saw Keene’s face change, and he started back; but the chair in Ann’s hands crashed down and splintered on the man’s head. He fell to his knees, clawing at the air, and then collapsed inertly.

I was on the far side of the cave, and my attention was momentarily diverted from the monster. I had been watching it from the corner of my eye, expecting to be able to dodge and leap away before it came too close; but it lumbered forward with a sudden burst of speed. Although I tried to spring clear I failed; a tentacle whipped about my legs and sent me sprawling. As I tried to roll away another smooth gray coil got my left arm.

Intolerable agony dug into my shoulder as I was lifted. I heard Ann scream, and a gun barked angrily. Bullets plopped into the smooth flesh of the monster, but it paid no attention. I was lifted through a welter of coiling, ropy tentacles, until just above me was the flaming jewel in which the creature’s life was centered.

Remembrance of Keene’s words spurred me to action; this might be the monster’s vulnerable point. The paperweight was still in my pocket, and I clawed it out desperately. I hurled it with all my strength at the shining gem. And the jewel shattered!

There came a shrill vibration, like the tinkling of countless tiny crystalline bells. Piercingly sweet, it shrilled in my ears, and died away quickly. And suddenly nothing existed but light.

It was as though the shattering of the gem had released a sea of incandescent flame imprisoned within it. The glare of the arc-lights faded beside this flood of silvery radiance that bathed me. The cold glory of Arcturus, the blaze of tropical moonlight, were in the light.

Swiftly it faded and fled away. I felt myself dropping, and pain lanced into my wrenched shoulder as I struck the ground. I heard Ann’s voice.

Dazedly I got up, expecting to see the monster towering above me. But it was gone. In its place, a few feet away, was the barrel-shaped thing I had first seen in the alcove. There was a gaping cavity in the rounded apex where the jewel had been. And, somehow, I sensed that the creature was no longer deadly, no longer a horror.

I saw Ann. She was still holding Keene’s gun, and in her other hand was the key with which she had unlocked the door. She came running toward me, and I went swiftly to meet her.

I took the gun and made sure it was loaded. “Come on,” I said, curtly. “We’re getting out of here.”

Ann’s fingers were gripping my arm tightly as we went through the door, past the prone figure of Keene, and up the stairway. The lever behind the panel was not difficult to operate, and I followed Ann through the opening into the theatre. Then I paused, listening.

Ann turned, watching me, a question in her eyes. “What is it, Pete?”

“Listen,” I said. “Get the cans of film from the projection booth. We’ll take them with us and burn them.”

“But—you’re not——”

“I’ll be with you in a minute,” I told her, and swung the panel shut.

I went down the stairs swiftly and very quietly, my gun ready and my ears alert for the low muttering I had heard from below.

Keene was no longer unconscious. He was standing beside the switchboard with his back to me, and over his shoulder I could see the shadow of the monster-god sprawling on the wall, inert and lifeless. Keene was chanting something, in a language I did not know, and his hands were moving in strange gestures.

God knows what unearthly powers Keene had acquired in his search for horror! For as I stood there, watching the patch of blackness on the cave wall, I saw a little shudder rock that barrel-shaped shadow of horror, while a single spike abruptly lengthened into a tentacle that groped out furtively and drew back and vanished.

Then I killed Arnold Keene.



[The end of The Shadow on the Screen by Henry Kuttner]