“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”
We started as five. Five members of an expeditionary division for the newly founded West Africa Trading Co. My long time friend Lt. Stanley Graves was our protection, and a veteran of the Great War in Europe. He suffered from shell shock and has been a mute since returning from the Somme. Elizabeth Huxley was our resident geologist and cartographer, we wouldn’t get very far without her. Mr. John Black was asked on as a translator, but it was later discovered that he studied medicine as well as African language at Harvard University. He had signed on late and had recently been on an exploration expedition to this part of Africa before, his experience in the field would be valuable. Wadsworth Billings was a trivial man from across the Atlantic, he was a professor of Anthropology at Oxford and jumped at the opportunity to join our expedition. With me as the leader of the party, we totalled five.
Our mission was to establish friendly relations with the natives and scout for good areas to use for hunting grounds in the region translated literally to be “The Dark Place”. This “Dark Zone” was suspected to be a place of great riches according to German Colonial records. Though it has not been explored or mapped in its entirety.
For the most part, the expedition was purely to prove the feasibility of a West Africa Trading Co. to the Federal Government, which was eager to subsidize the company after said feasibility study was completed. Of course, along the way we were to take note of any items that could be plundered from the natives when we returned with the full backing of the United States Government.
We cast off from Port Charleston, South Carolina August 17th, 1921 in a trading vessel bound for Kamerun. The former German territory had been seized after the Great War and divided amongst members of the League of Nations. The French had been kind enough to allow us to do our study on their portion of the territory, and offered to sell a good deal of land to us afterwards, should we find it suitable, for a great bargain. The voyage was mostly uneventful, with very little rain or rough waves. Wadsworth, a very superstitious man, took this to be a good omen and was very optimistic about the outcome of our little excursion.
As we neared the continent, we could see land through the thick fog and everyone simultaneously began swatting at mosquitoes that seemed to appear out of nowhere. The city of Douala was to be our first stop, where we had been given instructions to meet a Frenchman named Mr. Mercier at the Koch Pharmaceutical Co. for information on the area known to us as the “Dark Zone”.
I notified the party to ready themselves and their belongings. We were to be the first to leave the boat when it docked. We were eager for our meeting with Mr. Mercier. We thought it best to hurry so as not to get caught up in the chaos of unloading the vessel.
As we pulled into the bay where the city was located, we could not help but notice the strangeness of this place. Bustling ports and lines of steamships were transporting goods from further mainland via the Wouri River. A handful of buildings clustered together near the top of a hill showed indication of German ownership through the architecture and quality of craft. No doubt where the German colonists called home. The majority of the buildings were small huts slightly suspended from the ground and connected by boards. Wadsworth mentioned that the natives were preparing for heavy rain and Mr. Black confirmed that many were worried about washed out crops and the wrath of the gods. Despite the simplicity of its residents, it was a city in its own right. People carrying crates of cocoa and coffee moved diligently through the maze of walls and narrow boards. The natives were cautiously overseen by German colonists brandishing wholly outdated firearms. Everyone was busy and few people paid us mind.
We hastily made our way to the German part of town to meet with Mercier. Mr. Black was fairly familiar with the area, so he was able to guide us through the maze of planks and huts. As we passed the busier parts of the city, we noticed that it seemed rather empty and quiet. The pulsing sounds of the jungle began bleeding through the silence and we were reminded how wild a place this was. Elizabeth began to look around nervously. We could all tell that it bothered her.
When the party and I had finally made it to the top of the hill, we welcomed the sight of paved roads, horse-drawn carriages, and the Koch Pharmaceutical Co. Elizabeth especially voiced her relief at finally “finding civilization”. As we walked into Koch Pharmaceutical Co. we were greeted by a shady voice.
‘A pleasure to finally make your acquaintance Americains!’ The voice exclaimed in a heavy French accent. As we turned, we saw a man dressed in the light blue uniform of a French infantryman. There was a bottle of brandy and a half empty glass on the table where he sat. ‘Bonjour, I am Monsieur Mercier. And I presume you are the Yanquis with the obsession over this piece of merde territory?’ The Germans running the business in the background looked visibly angry at Mr. Mercier.
‘Ah, yes. We were told you could provide us with information on the area known as the “Dark Zone”?’ I replied anxiously. The Germans turned and looked at us with the same hatred that they had reserved for Mercier.
‘I’ll tell you all we know about the place. And that is that it is that way.’ Mercier gestured to the east. ‘There is a reason it has been called the Dark Zone. No one knows what is there. Any you may have heard to the contrary has been exaggerated. We fly aeroplanes over the Dark Zone and surrounding areas every few days. The jungle is very thick there. To make matters worse, native guides from the local tribes refuse to take anyone near it. They have been candid with us thus far with everything we have asked them. So we take their word when they say that it is an evil place, filled with evil things. We stay away from the Dark Zone.’ He took a swig of the glass of brandy on the table. Wadsworth looked around nervously at the mentioning of the word “evil”. ‘The best I can do is give you the maps of the areas surrounding the Dark Zone. Maybe you can fill in the gaps for us?’ He slowly placed the maps on the table and smiled at us with his crooked teeth. Elizabeth shivered at the sight of his devilish grin. Mr. Black comforted her as Lt. Graves proceeded to scowl back at the Frenchman.
I grabbed the maps and stormed out of the building. Mercier was less than helpful. He had shaken the morale of the group before we had even set foot in the jungle.
We left Douala the next morning after a restless night at a local inn. Restless from enduring the howls of the monkeys and piercing shrieks of unknown creatures of the night. We met at the edge of town. Mr. Black seemed a bit intoxicated from the night before, but he assured us that he was fine, Elizabeth was busy studying the maps as per my instruction, and I took inventory of our shared equipment. Though it was troubling that our supply of whiskey was three times as high as the amount we had requisitioned. We could not afford to carry all the extra weight. Graves and Wadsworth came later with a donkey they had purchased from a local trader. A beast of burden that we decided to name Babe, after Paul Bunyan’s famous blue ox. Babe’s presence meant less for us to have to carry in our packs. Mr. Black assured us that he had talked to the natives and that they had told him to follow a lone dirt path on the southeastern edge of town. Elizabeth protested, saying that we should follow the river, but eventually agreed with Mr. Black. Taking the native’s advice was probably more accurate than the maps that Mercier had provided us. So we headed into the jungle, with only a meager dirt path to guide us.
A few hours in, Mr. Black began vomiting. He insisted that it was just his nerves, and we outfitted him with an extra canteen of water. He continued to vomit periodically. Elizabeth seemed worried for him, but Graves grunted to assure her that he would be fine. The monkeys antagonized us as we trudged on.
Later that evening, we made camp along the dirt path. Elizabeth and I set up the canvas tent while Graves and Wadsworth gathered firewood. Mr. Black was too sickly to engage in strenuous work. We had him gather smaller sticks from the ground. Elizabeth expressed concern over his condition. I assured her not to worry, and that I would have a talk with him about his health. Though when I greeted Mr. Black upon his return, his breath stank of whiskey and he claimed he had vomited several times in the past hour. I decided to keep this information from the group to avoid fighting so early into the expedition.
When Graves and Wadsworth returned, we made a great fire to ward off the jungle and welcomed another restless night filled with the terrifying noises of the African Continent.
The next day, the path we had been following so adamantly ended abruptly at a wall of solid vegetation. Graves, Wadsworth, and I unpacked machetes from the donkey and immediately began hacking at the vines and leaves. Mr. Black, still vomiting every hour or so was instructed not to let Babe out of his sight as Elizabeth studied the maps and used the compass to find us a bearing. We cut away a path for a little over three days until we reached a clearing in the brush.
The smaller plant life shrivelled and was replaced by gigantic trees that blanketed the jungle floor in a deep darkness. There was something otherworldly about this darkness, something unnatural and strange to us. It was midday, yet we had trouble seeing each other in the sheer blackness of it all. A stale stench, that grew stronger the further we walked into the dark became almost unbearable. Babe became uneasy, but was quickly calmed by Mr. Black’s presence. She had taken a liking to him. The ground was littered with dry sticks that presumably had fallen from the canopy above. Their constant crackling with every step, echoing in the void was unnerving to say the least. Mr. Black began unpacking lanterns for us to combat this sudden darkness, while Graves and I kept a watchful eye out, in vain for sudden movement in the impenetrable blackness.
The moment Mr. Black struck a match to light the lantern, Elizabeth let out a bloodcurdling scream. I, myself was briefly paralyzed in fear over what I saw there in the shadow of the great trees.
Remnants of a horrific scene, rivalling the death and destruction of modern warfare. Thousands of bones scattered beneath our feet, and as far as the eye could see. The bones on top were seemingly ancient with older still beneath, slowly sinking into the muddy jungle floor.
Mr. Black handed out lanterns to each of us while Graves distributed Springfield rifles to everyone. We all moved back to back against a mighty tree, facing out into the darkness. Then we began to hear it. The familiar crackling of bones underfoot. Yet, not one of us was moving. None of us dared take a step. The sound was deafening in the silence. It seemed to come from all directions. I heard a whimpering noise to my right, Wadsworth had dropped his rifle and was clawing at his ears while crying hysterically. I looked to my left and Elizabeth had closed her eyes and blocked her ears with her fists in an attempt to find some refuge from the loathsome noise. I could not see Graves, nor Mr. Black as they were on the other side of the enormous tree. I had to assume that they were crippled in the same way. I had to act.
I squeezed the trigger and fired a shot into the darkness. In that instant the terrible sound had vanished. Replaced by a cacophony of silence that, while bearable, still tugged at our sanity.
I stared into the void of black and it stared back. Though the few feet around us was illuminated by our lanterns, there was still a wall through which we could not see. The sudden complete and utter silence was loathsome. I did my best to end it for the good of our group. I instructed Graves to check that our supplies were still fastened to Babe and for Elizabeth to find us a way out of this place. We were disoriented in all the action and had no idea from which direction we came. The opening we had cleaved through the jungle seemed to have disappeared. Mr. Black took to Wadsworth, who had not yet recovered from the event. He was still clawing at his ears, blood ran down the sides of his face. He squirmed at the slightest comforting touch. I helped restrain him against the tree while Mr. Black injected him with a mild sedative. Wadsworth slowly stopped fighting and slid to the base of the tree, the bones crunched when he hit the ground. Barely conscious, he opened his hand to reveal a sizable piece of his earlobe that he had ripped off in his frenzy. Mr. Black hurried to dress the wounds on his head though the blood seemed to flow right through the bandages. Graves held a lantern close to my face and grunted, signifying that all of our gear was in order. I turned my attention to Elizabeth, who was digging past the layer of bones, into the soil beneath with a spade. Dismayed by the results, she frantically proceeded to dig another hole and appeared visibly disheartened. She pulled up a hefty stone and looked at it in shock. She held the rock up to the light for all to see.
‘Magnetite’ She exclaimed. ‘It’s everywhere. Our compasses are useless here. I have no idea where we are.’
My heart sank. We were lost in this horrible place.
Elizabeth and Mr. Black started fighting over who was at fault. Wadsworth began mumbling about our imminent deaths. Graves walked over to Babe and rummaged diligently through our supplies. The expedition was falling apart around me.
Graves walked over to me brandishing a flare gun and then gestured up toward the impenetrable canopy above. Although the thought had occurred to me earlier, I explained to him that firing a flare into the leaves would only serve to burn down the trees and us with them. But a glimmer of hope shined in my eyes.
I walked over to Mr. Black and Elizabeth, still fighting, and got their attention. I waited until all eyes were fixed on me to reveal my plan. We would move in any direction, numbering the trees we passed along the way. Either we would eventually find the opening through which we had entered, or we would spot an opening in the canopy where we could fire a flare that could be spotted by the aeroplane missions Mercier had mentioned.
Within minutes we had packed up and were ready to head out. Even Wadsworth seemed energized by my plan. I had given them hope that they would not die here, but I had not given my word. I couldn’t promise them that.
We had walked for what seemed like miles and the bones showed no signs of thinning. They still crackled with every step. We checked the compass periodically, but to no avail. The needle was spinning out of control due to the magnetite buried beneath the graveyard of bones.
At first we looked nervously around as we trudged into the unknown, but one by one we looked straight ahead, embracing the darkness in its entirety. There was not much conversation except for the occasional whisper coming from Wadsworth. He had kept the portion of ear he had so viciously ripped off. I had glanced back by chance to catch him whisper into it, but when he realized what I had seen he quickly returned the bit of flesh back into his pocket. I was concerned for his sanity.
We made camp when Mr. Black fell into a fit of vomiting. There was no firewood except for meager strips of bark Graves was able to cut from the massive trees that seemed to make us feel more and more claustrophobic. We used a couple of our precious few flares along with the bark to make a pathetic fire to huddle around. We ate our food cold and settled into our bedrolls. I decided to keep one of the lanterns burning while we rested. The lack of any noise at all made sleep all the more difficult. The silence was crushing. A deep pounding in my head kept me awake.
Some time later I heard the crunching of bones and the sound of rummaging coming from our stash of supplies. I grabbed the lantern and got up to investigate. As I neared our equipment I spied a familiar face. Mr. Black had located the store of whiskey and was forcing it down his throat like a crazed beast. He turned to me and I saw the face of a man possessed. I called for the others, and they stumbled over in a hurry. We watched in dismay as Mr. Black continued to drink. Tears rolled down his face. Elizabeth tried to take the bottles away, but he forced her back. It was then that Graves and I took it upon ourselves to restrain Mr. Black against the ground. Bones clattered everywhere and Mr. Black screamed in pain. He continued to fight. Wadsworth watched in horror. He thrust his hand into his pocket to retrieve his piece of ear.
‘He’s evil’ Wadsworth whispered to it. ‘We’re going to die because of him.’
Elizabeth saw this and immediately snatched the ear from his hands. In a fit of anger Wadsworth screamed and cried for it back. But he was denied. Fearing for her safety, I instructed Graves to put restraints on Mr. Black and turned to face Wadsworth. In the dim light, he was nothing but a shadow. He immediately backed up against a tree and grabbed a rather sharp bone from the jungle floor to fend me back. With his attention turned toward myself, Elizabeth left and returned with a rifle. She shouldered it at Wadsworth, demanding that he calm down. This had the adverse reaction as Wadsworth went completely berserk. He lunged at me with the bone, managing to stab it into my thigh. I screamed in pain. The scream was enough to startle Elizabeth into firing. A bright flash blinded me. When I regained my vision, Wadsworth had tackled Elizabeth to the ground and was bludgeoning her face with a skull that had been near my foot. There was sheer ecstasy on his face. His mouth smiled with delight. His eyes were filled with an empty, animalistic rage. Elizabeth screamed and flailed her arms but to no avail. I kicked Wadsworth off and pinned him against the ground. He was howling in anger and trying to gnaw at my wrists. By this time Graves had finished restraining Mr. Black and had come to our aid. He held a machete to Wadsworth’s face. Wadsworth immediately stopped resisting and instead bulged his eyes out at Graves. I felt slightly disturbed at the intent I saw in those eyes, but Graves seemed unaffected. He kept the machete’s blade close to the soft skin of Wadsworth’s face.
Convinced that Graves again had the situation under control, I turned my attention to Elizabeth, who was now sitting up. Her face had been badly bloodied. Her left eye had swollen to the point where she could no longer see out of it. Blood seeped from the red impact marks all over her head. I helped her up to see that when she was tackled, she had been impaled by some of the splintering bones blanketing the ground. Luckily, they were mainly superficial wounds. I helped her pick out the pieces and looked for Mr. Black to sterilize the wounds.
I found him with his hands and feet tied in the area where I had left him with Graves. There was a mound of bile next to his head where he had vomited. He no longer seemed possessed by whatever had caused him to drink so voraciously. He looked at me and explained that it was the silence that drove him to it.
‘The silence made my head feel like it was going to explode until I just couldn’t stand it anymore. I needed something, something to calm my nerves. Anything to take his mind off of the absolute and total absence of everything.’ I shivered when I heard what he had to say. I had that same feeling. The pounding in my head. Slow, constant, and deep.
He had calmed down considerably, so I decided it was a good idea to release him from his restraints. He thanked me and began tending to Elizabeth. I noticed that he stumbled when he walked away. The man was definitely drunk. Elizabeth’s bandages were put on with shaking hands. I doubted that he performed a satisfactory job, and I told him do it again when he sobered up.
I looked around and saw that the silence had taken a toll on everyone in the party. All except for Graves. He seemed strangely at peace. I hadn’t seen him like this in years.
We decided to tie Wadsworth up against a big tree near camp. He whispered and cried when we left him. Elizabeth wanted to have him gagged as well, but I decided against it. We could use some sound to break the infinite silence. To that end, Wadsworth’s moans were almost comforting. We got into our bedrolls and finally were able to fall asleep.
We found Wadsworth dead when we woke. He had been strangled while we slept. Everyone seemed taken aback, but I knew the truth. One of us was a murderer.
I made the decision not to dwell on it and to keep moving forward. The death of Wadsworth, though cruel and malicious, was justified. There was no way we could continue with him after what he had done. It left a bad taste in all our mouths when we untied him and left him to rot on top of the sea of bones. But we had to keep moving if we wanted to survive.
We walked again for miles, crunching with every step, still marking every tree, still looking above for any sign of natural light. It was still black in all directions, a seemingly infinite amount of bones still covered the ground, and the great trees seemed to cluster closer and closer together. It seemed hopeless.
That’s when it started to rain. We heard no thunder or lightning, just the patter of water droplets dripping from the thick canopy. We were all soaked and shivering before we could unpack the ponchos from Babe. It was then that we noticed her getting weaker. Graves and Wadsworth had not purchased feed, anticipating that she could eat the dense vegetation we had seen around us before we foolishly ventured into this place. She had been remarkably calm this whole time and it troubled us to think about how we could go on without her.
We made camp, thinking it wise not to push Babe too hard in her weakened state. The large canvas tent we shared offered some shelter from the rain for us, but Babe could not fit inside so we decided to tie her to a nearby tree.
The rain kept the silence at bay and granted us the first real sleep we had been allowed since we had left Kamerun. But it was not long before it was interrupted.
I woke to the sound of Babe in distress. I got up to wake the others only to see that Mr. Black was missing from his bedroll. The supplies had been rummaged through and I had no doubt that more than a few bottles of whiskey were missing. I woke Graves and Elizabeth, and we headed outside with lanterns, ready to restrain Mr. Black again if need be.
Nothing prepared us for what we saw. Mr. Black was crouched over Babe’s lifeless body, his fists were full of organs that he threw callously aside. He turned to look at us, blood dripping down his face. A confident, twisted grin betrayed his shaking hands. Elizabeth screamed in horror.
‘I had to do it again. I couldn’t help myself. I’ve been here before, I’ve seen you before. Only with different faces.’
Graves and I turned to run for the rifles we had stowed away in the tent.
‘Don’t you look away while I’m talking to you.’ Mr. Black picked up a rifle that lay next to Babe’s corpse. He aimed it at Grave’s head. His hands still shaking. Graves and I stayed where we were. Mr. Black continued to talk.
‘I’ve been here before. I know that only one of us can leave this place. I knew it all along, I led you here knowing it. I will die knowing it. After killing someone in this place you understand. You understand that this is how it has been for eternity. The Old Gods about whom we have all but forgotten. They long for the ancient pleasure of returning life to true darkness. That is why we are here. They want it, they’ve always wanted it. That’s why I want it.’
My expression was that of true horror. This place was not a jungle, it was a tomb. A place of death in ancient times, in modern times. For all time.
Graves looked at me and spoke. I was shocked. I hadn’t heard his soothing voice in a long time.
‘Time to go over the top. Eh, old friend?’ Graves smiled at me. His face looked serene.
I stared Graves in the eyes and nodded. Then turned to Elizabeth. She nodded at me. We had to rush him. We had to kill this evil thing to save ourselves from this terrible place. We counted to three in our heads before we broke out into a mad dash toward Mr. Black; and perhaps our deaths.
A shot echoed through the trees. The flash was so disorienting in the dim light that I tripped and fell among the bones. When I looked up I saw a figure that was once my dear friend Graves slink to the ground. I looked to my left and saw that Elizabeth had succeeded in reaching Mr. Black. They were fighting over the gun, but she was easily overpowered and pushed against the tree where Babe’s body lied. I got up to aid her, but by the time I was close he had caved her face in with the butt of the rifle.
With his attention still on Elizabeth’s corpse, I tackled Mr. Black to the ground. He still clutched onto the weapon, using it to try and force me off. So I pushed it back. Back up against his throat. I pushed with all my might. He let go and made a futile attempt to beat me away with his fists, but I kept pushing. He made loud gargling noises but I pushed the rifle harder so that they stopped. I looked into his bulging eyes as the last bit of life escaped his body. I will never forget what I saw. He gazed up at me with an eldritch stare, void of emotion or concern. A slow, crooked smile crept onto his face, almost like he saw something in that moment that gave him the greatest feeling of joy. Then his body went limp and lifeless.
I remember waking up alone at the end of the small dirt path that led us to that place. The dense vegetation that had previously barred us from the Dark Zone had grown again. I wept for my comrades but a supernatural feeling overtook me and I ceased immediately. I can’t explain it, but suddenly I wanted to go back. I needed to go back.
I followed the path back to Douala and caught a ship heading back to Port Charleston. When I returned I contacted the West Africa Trading Co. and tried to give a verbal report as to what had happened. They stopped me before I could begin and insisted that they had not yet sent an expedition to Africa. But they offered me a position based on the fact that I had experience overseas. They introduced me to the crew. A soldier that had recently returned from France, a geologist who was also quite skilled at navigation, an anthropologist from across the Atlantic, and the bold leader of the expedition. I went with them back to Africa, back to find the Dark Zone again. I told them my name was Mr. John Black and that I was a doctor and a translator although I was none of those things. It would not be easy to do, and I turned to whiskey to calm my nerves, but I needed to go back again. I realised that I would die, that the other three would die. Everyone played their role perfectly. Only one of us could leave that place. Only one of us would return. We would continue to go there for eternity; only with different faces.
They want it, they’ve always wanted it. That’s why I want it.