For today’s sermon I take as my text some pairs of words from the Grauniad cryptic crossword, No. 25,733, set by Chifonie. There we will find, when we have solved the puzzle, NORMAL BUTCHERS (15 across and 18 across), OMINOUS STORAGE (16 down and 1 down), and DERANGED PENANCE (12 across and 7 down).
We may imagine, at the outset, a NORMAL BUTCHER. He is normal insofar as he wears standard butchers’ apparel, makes use of conventional butchers’ knives and cleavers and slicers and mincers, and sells only those cuts of meat one is likely to find in any butchers’ shop throughout this land. He even has a normal butchery name, something like Mister Brinks or Mister Greaves. If you were to pass his shop, on a normal street in a line of shops including a greengrocers’, a haberdashery, a newsagent and a bakery, you would not feel a shudder of Lovecraftian terror. If, instead of passing by, you popped in, to make purchase of sausages, say, the transaction would be conducted absolutely normally, and you would take the sausages home and cook them and chew them and swallow them and you would lean back in your chair and pat your sated tum and there would be no catastrophic consequences whatsoever. All is normal, you would think, in the world of that butcher.
But there is normal and there is outwardly normal, and they are very different things. Mister Grimes the butcher may look and act as normally as one expects a butcher to look and act, but what his customers perceive may be a mere carapace, concealing a monstrous and abnormal inner maelstrom of seething chaos. It may indeed be a studied normality, honed and perfected over many years, the better to hide the awful reality.
Let us ask, does Mister Jarvis ever allow anybody into the back room of his butchers’ shop? Why is it always locked, and locked doubly or trebly, with padlocks and chains? Does he have the radio in his shop tuned to Butchers’ Playtime airing Xavier Cugat number after Xavier Cugat number at a loud volume simply to muffle the eerie and spine-tingling noises otherwise to be heard from that locked back room? What on earth does he keep in there, and is it alive?
We may be unable to provide answers to those questions, but we can say that the back room is used for OMINOUS STORAGE. There is something stored in there, and it is ominous. And if we study Mister Smethwick’s countenance carefully, we might notice that, as he serves us our sausages, wrapping them in greaseproof butchers’ paper and tying the package with butchers’ string, his eyes dart occasionally towards that locked door, and for all his normality there is in those eyes an expression of mad intensity. Whether it be fear or murderousness is harder to ascertain. We are likely to dismiss it as a trait or a tic, that darting, insufficient in itself to convince us that the butcher is in any way abnormal. In any case, as we wait to be handed our sausages, we are clicking our fingers to the catchy beat of Xavier Cugat. It serves not only to drown out the gruesome noises from the back room, but to distract us from wondering too deeply about the butcher’s darting eyes.
There is, to be sure, ominous potential in any storage facility, be it a butcher’s back room or an extensive warehouse surrounded by an electrified fence in the desert. Unless we personally go a-rummaging through all the boxes and crates and cartons and vats and canisters and what have you, neatly arranged in rows upon shelving units or piled up higgledy-piggledy or in any number of other dispositions, we can never be certain what is contained therein. That sense of doubt is not always ominous, but it can be. Just as we would jump out of our skin if we spotted a slithering vegetable tendril tapering to a palpitating sucker emerging from a crate in a storage shed, so we would shudder if, undistracted by the butcher’s skilful sausage-wrapping and the Xavier Cugat music, we noted that the locked door of the back room was shaking on its hinges, as if something within were trying to break its way out and crash through into the normal world.
And this explains why, at nightfall, when the butcher’s shop is closed and the shutters are down, we will find Mister Perkins sprawled on the bare stone floor of his cellar, abasing himself in an act of DERANGED PENANCE. He is gibbering words seldom encountered outside the pages of an H. P. Lovecraft story. Words? Perhaps it would be better to say hideous strangulated cries. These cries, these gibberings, are addressed to a mud idol standing on a slab. There are nails driven into the idol, and two glistening gemstones embedded in its head, to serve as eyes. And though it is mere mud and metal and jewel, all inanimate, the butcher knows in the deepest core of his being that those eyes can see him. They glare and sparkle and bore into him, and he grovels ever more abjectly on the floor, doing his deranged penance to his god.
If we were to understand his hellish gibbering, we would learn that Mister Wilkins is pleading with the mud idol to forgive him for what he has done. And what has he done? What was it he did, those many years ago, that forced him to avert suspicion by seeming so normal, that forced him to lock and lock again and lock yet again the door to his back room? What thing has he kept trapped in there? Only the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred could tell us that.
And as the night soil man roves the streets of the town under fierce moonlight, he makes his way down the alley behind the butcher’s shop, and hears, from within, oozing and chthonic, the repeated sound “Glubb… Glubb… Glubb…”