The Horror

January 5, 1929 — I have now fully resolved to kill Doctor Henry Moore, and a recent incident has shown me how I shall do it… A party from Uganda brought in a black with a queer illness which I can’t yet diagnose. He was lethargic, with a very low temperature, and shuffled in a peculiar way. Most of the others were afraid of him and said he was under some kind of witch-doctor spell; but Gobo, the interpreter, said he had been bitten by an insect. Spectral-looking — I don’t wonder the boys lay it to black magic. They seem to have seen cases like it before, and say there’s really nothing to do about it.
— H. P. Lovecraft, “Winged Death,” 1933

The Kingdom of Mali, 1375. It is the golden age of this African empire, with trade flourishing between its polar cities of Marrakesh and Timbuktu. Islam is growing here in Central Africa, due to a persuasive peace between local Central Africans and educated immigrant Arabs. But the kingdom is ruled by a cruel and arrogant despot, Sultan Diata II, whose lavish train of elephants, slaves, and golden carriages on his pilgrimage to Mecca made the continent gasp at his ostentatious display of wealth. Unfortunately for Diata, his days of opulence are numbered. The North African historian Ibn Khaldoun wrote that the Sultan “had been smitten with the sleeping sickness, which frequently affects the inhabitants of that region, especially the chieftains… Those afflicted are virtually never awake or alert. Sultan Diata had suffered for a duration of two years, after which, he died.”

Old N’Kora, one of the Galla boys at the post, says it must be the bite of a devil-fly, which makes its victim waste away gradually and die, and then takes hold of his soul and personality if it is still alive itself — flying around with all his likes, dislikes and consciousness. A queer legend — and I don’t know of any local insect deadly enough to account for it… There certainly is a strange germ present, but I can’t even remotely identify it. The nearest thing to it is the bacillus one finds in oxen, horses and dogs that the tsetse fly has bitten; but tsetse flies don’t infect human beings, and this is too far north for them anyway.

The Coast of Guinea, 1734. An English naval surgeon, John Atkins, is aboard a ship patrolling the waters for pirates. While at sea, he takes notes for a textbook regarding how to dress battle wounds. In the appendix of a later edition, he includes a section on African tropical diseases, including this passage: “The Sleepy Distemper (common among the Negroes) gives no other previous notice, other than a want of appetite two or three days before; their sleeps are sound, and sense of feeling very little; for pulling, drubbing or whipping will scarce stir up enough power or sense to move, and the moment you cease beating, the smart is forgot, and down they fall again into a state of insensibility, driveling constantly from the mouth, as if in a deep salivation… The judgement usually pronounced is Death, the prognostic seldom failing. If now and then one of them recovers, he certainly loses the little reason he has, and turns idiot.” The textbook is never recognized by the medical community.

April 12, 1930 — Back in M’gonga after my long trip. Everything has come off finely — with clockwork precision. Have sent the flies to Moore without leaving a trace… Made a very good mailing container with room to include some germ-tainted crocodile meat as food for the envoys… Think I took the right tone — interest of a brother-scientist, and all that. Was artistically casual in emphasizing the “complete harmlessness” of the specimens. Nobody suspected anything.

Sierra Leone, 1796. A young English doctor by the name of Thomas Masterman Winterbottom, working for the colonial corporation, notices that the natives afflicted with the sleeping sickness have thickened necks, the mark of enlarged lymph nodes. Back in England in 1803, he publishes the first recognized account of the African sleeping sickness: “The Africans are very subject to a species of lethargy, which they are very much afraid of, as it proves fatal in every instance… At the commencement of the disease, the patient commonly has a ravenous appetite, eating twice the quantity of food he was accustomed to take when in health, and becoming very fat. When the disease has continued some time, the appetite declines, and the patient gradually wastes away… The disposition to sleep is so strong, as scarcely to leave a sufficient respite for the taking of food. Even the frequent application of a whip — a remedy which has been frequently used — is hardly sufficient to keep the poor wretch awake.”

Sept. 12, 1930 — Victory! Another line from Dyson says that Moore is really in an alarming shape. He now traces his illness to the bite, which he received around noon on June 19, and is quite bewildered about the identity of the insect… Of the hundred-odd that I sent, about twenty-five seem to have reached him alive. Some escaped at the time of the bite, but several larvae have appeared from eggs laid since the time of mailing. He is, Dyson says, carefully incubating these larvae… He says Moore is utterly at sea about the hybrids that came from the larvae and is beginning to think that the parents got their blue wings in some artificial way. Has to stay in bed most of the time now.

Uganda, 1903. An epidemic of sleeping sickness kills 250,000 people in the country, wiping out two-thirds of the population around the lakes. A plague like this has not been seen in the country since the late 1300’s. An Australian-born Scottish pathologist named David Bruce, living in Ubombo, South Africa, had been investigating a disease that was killing the Zulu’s cattle. In the bovine cerebral spinal fluid, he had discovered a red cell-eating protozoan parasite called a trypanosome. The trypanosome is a particularly evasive parasite, as it can disguise its outer surface protein so as to become unrecognizable to a host’s white cells; it’s a parasite that works like an autoimmune disease. Bruce knew that the trypanosome’s vector for cattle was the tsetse fly, and arriving in Uganda to study sleeping sickness, he immediately begins searching for the fly. He finds none… until his wife discovers two, landing on his back.

Oct. 7, 1931 — It’s over at last! News in the Mombasa Gazette. Moore died September 20 after a series of trembling fits and with a temperature vastly below normal. So much for that! I said I’d get him, and I did! The insect that bit him has now been fully identified from the surviving specimens and developed larvae, and the wing-staining is also detected. It is universally realized that the flies were prepared and shipped with intent to kill. Moore, it appears, communicated certain suspicions to Dyson, but the latter — and the police — are maintaining secrecy because of absence of proof.

One thing at the very end of the report — undoubtedly the cheap romancing of a yellow journalist — gives me a curious shudder in view of the legends of the blacks… It seems that an odd incident occurred on the night of Moore’s death; Dyson having been aroused by the buzzing of a blue-winged fly — which immediately flew out the window — just before the nurse telephoned the death news from Moore’s home, miles away in Brooklyn.

Tsetses are large flies, unusual in that they give live birth to their larvae. The trypanosomes they carry in their saliva have been devastating Africa since time immemorial. Trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness, was once carried primarily from antelopes and other ungulates to humans, but the disease really took off once we began domesticating cattle. It remains a constant, looming threat over the continent of Africa which will never be eradicated. It goes so far back that some zoologists believe that the zebra’s stripes were evolved not to confuse lions and cheetahs, but tsetse flies. It runs so close to the present that, even with a century of diagnoses and cures, an epidemic hit Uganda again in 2008, infecting 60,000 people. A quarter-million people in Africa die every year due to tsetses, wasting away in comas, their brains slowly eaten by parasites.

Jan. 15, 1932 — What is bothering me is an insect that invaded my room around noon today. Of course I have had all sorts of nightmares about blue flies of late, but those were only to be expected in view of my prevailing nervous strain. This thing, however, was a waking actuality, and I am utterly at a loss to account for it. It buzzed around my bookshelf for fully a quarter of an hour, and eluded every attempt to catch or kill it. The queerest thing was its color and aspect — for it had blue wings and was in every way a duplicate of my hybrid envoys of death.

It’s devilish queer that this fly should have happened to come into my room — of all places in the wide expanse of Africa! Seems to strain coincidence to breaking point. I suppose that if it comes again, I shall certainly kill it. I’m surprised that it escaped me today, for ordinarily these fellows are extremely stupid and easy to catch. Can it be a pure illusion after all? Certainly the heat is getting me of late as it never did before — even up around Uganda.

Providence, Rhode Island, 1933. H. P. Lovecraft, the American master of horror fiction, ghost-writes a story called “Winged Death” for the Weird Tales serial. The story followed the calculated revenge killing of an American doctor by a white South African doctor in Uganda, using a hybridized and disguised tsetse fly as a murder weapon. Lovecraft specialized in a cynical type of horror in which humanity was menaced by ancient, tentacled gods and the true face of reality would only bring men to madness. The world is fundamentally evil, thought Lovecraft, governed by forces both unknowable and unspeakable. The old gods are enormous and vengeful, disregarding human life or the spirit, as we are merely toys made to amuse these monsters. They tread on us without looking. They are as heartless as Nature itself. The only escape from them is death, or insanity, or simply to stay asleep.

Jan. 23 — Is this to be my last entry in this journal? It would be useless to try to deny what I suspect. Too often a grain of incredible truth lurks behind the wildest and most fantastic of legends. Is the personality of Henry Moore trying to get at me through this blue-winged devil? Is this the fly that bit him, and that in consequence absorbed his personality when he died? If so, and if it bites me, will my own personality displace Moore’s and enter that buzzing body when I die of the bite later on?… Strange powers in nature — Now I will drown what is left…


About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

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