Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
– Shelley: ‘Ozymandias’
My God, Carstairs, this damned heat is insufferable, growled the Major through gritted teeth.
We’re too far upriver to turn back now, said the lieutenant scanning the distant, hazy treeline through binoculars. The jungle seemed unreal, like a mirage, shifting and shimmering in the shuddering, humid air.
Blimey, what’s that noise? It was plucky Sergeant Knobbs, a blunt, down-to-earth fellow, if ever there was one, a trusty veteran of many a tight corner.
Seems like the natives are getting restless, said Lieutenant Carstairs.
Was it the sound of distant drums?
I’ll teach the bastards, snarled the Major mopping his forehead with a florid handkerchief, shifting uncomfortably in his torn, sweat-stained uniform. Bloody country! What are we doing here anyway? Then there was Carstairs. There were times when the Major thought the lieutenant was too damn clever for his own good; his nonchalance was an irritant out here in the back of beyond, a stupid affectation of careless superiority; just his luck to be saddled with another Sandhurst smart Alec with too many glib answers.
Things don’t look too good, sir, Carstairs said. The boats have been sabotaged by some unknown agent and Corporal Desmond is getting worse: he can hardly move his legs. He just rolls his eyes and stares up at the sky.
As though in a delirium, especially after dark, the afflicted Corporal would gibber, wheeze, and jabber in some vile, eldritch tongue; it was like the intoning of some inhuman litany; the hideous phrases of some ghastly ritual or a prayer to diabolical, hellish, forces – forces inimical to man.
Can’t you deal with him? Asked the Major. Not without fresh supplies, sir, we’re running out of kit, said the lieutenant.
Across the featureless, grass plain that stretched ahead of them, a distant, staccato, drumbeat continued to be heard from the direction of the trees. It was a muffled but relentless, morbid pulsation hinting at hostile power and danger. I don’t like it, sir. I just don’t like it at all, said good old Knobbs.
Now, there was a sinister movement among the twisted shapes of the tree-trunks and strange, tangled plants on the jungle floor. There, in the verdant depths were huge variegated tree ferns, coral belts, hart’s tongues, climbers, epiphytes and vast trumpet flowers of unnatural size exuding toxic odours and dizzying perfumes.. It was a labyrinth of Evil, a trackless maze of certain death. And there was something moving.
Steady on, men, said the Major. Steady on, men…
Can you see it? Knobb’s voice was cracking in suppressed panic.
God dammit! What the hell is that? Snapped the Major.
It looks like a giant, mutant, wingless, subterranean, mandibular soldier termite, to me, sir, said Carstairs in a matter-of-fact, almost offhand, tone. Nasty blighter when roused. The vile creature moved forward out of the shadows, into the glaring, pitiless sunlight, surrounded by an aberrant, screaming horde of primal semi-human bi-pedal primates. The creatures were covered in scars, self-inflicted wounds, body piercings, tattoos and crude, Expressionistic daubs of paint in primary colours. They danced wildly, chanting a harsh, incomprehensible war song in broken English.
Mounted on the thorax of the shuffling monstrosity, behind the huge head with its vicious, pincer-like mandibles and sensitive, quivering antennae was the semi-legendary, dread White Queen of The Mountains of The Moon. No man ever returned from her hidden lair, that vast underground palace of dripping, Cyclopean walls covered in sinister hieroglyphs and obscene pictograms. There were, in that frightful place of dreadful tortures, grotesquely carved idols, grinning gargoyles, lightless, Typhonian tunnels and measureless caverns carved deep into the dark volcanic heart of this malign, forbidden domain.. She – for it was she – sat imperiously upright, staring straight ahead with dazzling cobalt eyes. Her face was painted chalk white, her lips were berry red. Her long, golden hair fell in a cascade of elaborate braids to her waist. She carried a barbed, bone-tipped spear and, clenched between her dazzling white teeth was a gleaming, razor sharp dagger. She wore nothing but a striped cloth about her loins and thigh-high faux suede boots with block heels.
The dancing, prancing natives adored her with blind, obsessive loyalty. They paraded about, making obsequious fawning gestures and calling out in plaintive, high-pitched, piercing voices.
Next, at a fierce gesture from their Queen, they moved ahead of the shuddering, mutant monstrosity and lined up, gesticulating provocatively at the invaders.
Casually, Carstairs took out his revolver, spun the chamber and squinted along the barrel.
Then the horde advanced.
Take aim! Shouted Sergeant Knobbs.
The exhausted men snapped into action and levelled their Lee-Enfield rifles at the approaching horror…
Illustration Nick Victor