The Thing On The Roof by Robert E. Howard
First published in Weird Tales, February 1932
They lumber through the night
With their elephantine tread;
I shudder in affright
As I cower in my bed.
They lift colossal wings
On the high gable roofs
Which tremble to the trample
Of their mastodonic hoofs.
—Justin Geoffrey: Out of the Old Land
LET me begin by saying that I was surprised when Tussmann
called on me. We had never been close friends; the man's mercenary instincts
repelled me; and since our bitter controversy of three years before, when he
attempted to discredit my Evidences of Nahua Culture in Yucatan, which
was the result of years of careful research, our relations had been anything
but cordial. However, I received him and found his manner hasty and abrupt,
but rather abstracted, as if his dislike for me had been thrust aside in some
driving passion that had hold of him.
His errand was quickly stated. He wished my aid in obtaining a volume in
the first edition of Von Junzt's Nameless Cults—the edition
known as the Black Book, not from its color, but because of its dark
contents. He might almost as well have asked me for the original Greek
translation of the Necronomicon. Though since my return from Yucatan I
had devoted practically all my time to my avocation of book collecting, I had
not stumbled onto any hint that the book in the Dusseldorf edition was still
A word as to this rare work. Its extreme ambiguity in spots, coupled with
its incredible subject matter, has caused it long to be regarded as the
ravings of a maniac and the author was damned with the brand of insanity. But
the fact remains that much of his assertions are unanswerable, and that he
spent the full forty-five years of his life prying into strange places and
discovering secret and abysmal things. Not a great many volumes were printed
in the first edition and many of these were burned by their frightened owners
when Von Junzt was found strangled in a mysterious manner, in his barred and
bolted chamber one night in 1840, six months after he had returned from a
mysterious journey to Mongolia.
Five years later a London printer, one Bridewall, pirated the work, and
issued a cheap translation for sensational effect, full of grotesque
woodcuts, and riddled with misspellings, faulty translations and the usual
errors of a cheap and unscholarly printing. This still further discredited
the original work, and publishers and public forgot about the book until 1909
when the Golden Goblin Press of New York brought out an edition.
Their production was so carefully expurgated that fully a fourth of the
original matter was cut out; the book was handsomely bound and decorated with
the exquisite and weirdly imaginative illustrations of Diego Vasquez. The
edition was intended for popular consumption but the artistic instinct of the
publishers defeated that end, since the cost of issuing the book was so great
that they were forced to cite it at a prohibitive price.
I was explaining all this to Tussmann when he interrupted brusquely to say
that he was not utterly ignorant in such matters. One of the Golden Goblin
books ornamented his library, he said, and it was in it that he found a
certain line which aroused his interest. If I could procure him a copy of the
original 1839 edition, he would make it worth my while; knowing, he added,
that it would be useless to offer me money, he would, instead, in return for
my trouble on his behalf, make a full retraction of his former accusations in
regard to my Yucatan researches, and offer a complete apology in The
I will admit that I was astounded at this, and realized that if the matter
meant so much to Tussmann that he was willing to make such concessions, it
must indeed be of the utmost importance. I answered that I considered that I
had sufficiently refuted his charges in the eyes of the world and had no
desire to put him in a humiliating position, but that I would make the utmost
efforts to procure him what he wanted.
He thanked me abruptly and took his leave, saying rather vaguely that he
hoped to find a complete exposition of something in the Black Book which had
evidently been slighted in the later edition.
I set to work, writing letters to friends, colleagues and book dealers all
over the world, and soon discovered that I had assumed a task of no small
magnitude. Three months elapsed before my efforts were crowned with success,
but at last, through the aid of Professor James Clement of Richmond,
Virginia, I was able to obtain what I wished.
I notified Tussmann and he came to London by the next train. His eyes
burned avidly as he gazed at the thick, dusty volume with its heavy leather
covers and rusty iron hasps, and his fingers quivered with eagerness as he
thumbed the time-yellowed pages.
And when he cried out fiercely and smashed his clenched fist down on the
table I knew that he had found what he hunted.
"Listen!" he commanded, and he read to me a passage that spoke of an old,
old temple in a Honduras jungle where a strange god was worshipped by an
ancient tribe which became extinct before the coming of the Spaniards. And
Tussmann read aloud of the mummy that had been, in life, the last high priest
of that vanished people, and which now lay in a chamber hewn in the solid
rock of the cliff against which the temple was built. About that mummy's
withered neck was a copper chain, and on that chain a great red jewel carved
in the form of a toad. This jewel was a key, Von Junzt went on to say, to the
treasure of the temple which lay hidden in a subterranean crypt far below the
Tussmann's eyes blazed.
"I have seen that temple! I have stood before the altar. I have seen the
sealed-up entrance of the chamber in which, the natives say, lies the mummy
of the priest. It is a very curious temple, no more like the ruins of the
prehistoric Indians than it is like the buildings of the modern Latin-
Americans. The Indians in the vicinity disclaim any former connection with
the place; they say that the people who built that temple were a different
race from themselves, and were there when their own ancestors came into the
country. I believe it to be a remnant of some long-vanished civilization
which began to decay thousands of years before the Spaniards came.
"I would have liked to have broken into the sealed-up chamber, but I had
neither the time nor the tools for the task. I was hurrying to the coast,
having been wounded by an accidental gunshot in the foot, and I stumbled onto
the place purely by chance.
"I have been planning to have another look at it, but circumstances have
prevented—now I intend to let nothing stand in my way! By chance I came
upon a passage in the Golden Goblin edition of this book, describing the
temple. But that was all; the mummy was only briefly mentioned. Interested, I
obtained one of Bridewall's translations but ran up against a blank wall of
baffling blunders. By some irritating mischance the translator had even
mistaken the location of the Temple of the Toad, as Von Junzt calls it, and
has it in Guatemala instead of Honduras. The general description is faulty,
the jewel is mentioned and the fact that it is a 'key'. But a key to what,
Bridewall's book does not state. I now felt that I was on the track of a real
discovery, unless Von Junzt was, as many maintain, a madman. But that the man
was actually in Honduras at one time is well attested, and no one could so
vividly describe the temple—as he does in the Black Book—unless
he had seen it himself. How he learned of the jewel is more than I can say.
The Indians who told me of the mummy said nothing of any jewel. I can only
believe that Von Junzt found his way into the sealed crypt somehow—the
man had uncanny ways of learning hidden things.
"To the best of my knowledge only one other white man has seen the Temple
of the Toad besides Von Junzt and myself—the Spanish traveler Juan
Gonzales, who made a partial exploration of that country in 1793. He
mentioned, briefly, a curious fane that differed from most Indian ruins, and
spoke skeptically of a legend current among the natives that there was
'something unusual' hidden under the temple. I feel certain that he was
referring to the Temple of the Toad.
"Tomorrow I sail for Central America. Keep the book; I have no more use
for it. This time I am going fully prepared and I intend to find what is
hidden in that temple, if I have to demolish it. It can be nothing less than
a great store of gold! The Spaniards missed it, somehow; when they arrived in
Central America, the Temple of the Toad was deserted; they were searching for
living Indians from whom torture could wring gold; not for mummies of lost
peoples. But I mean to have that treasure."
So saying Tussman took his departure. I sat down and opened the book at
the place where he had left off reading, and I sat until midnight, wrapt in
Von Junzt's curious, wild and at times utterly vague expoundings. And I found
pertaining to the Temple of the Toad certain things which disquieted me so
much that the next morning I attempted to get in touch with Tussmann, only to
find that he had already sailed.
Several months passed and then I received a letter from Tussmann, asking
me to come and spend a few days with him at his estate in Sussex; he also
requested me to bring the Black Book with me.
I arrived at Tussmann's rather isolated estate just after nightfall. He
lived in almost feudal state, his great ivy-grown house and broad lawns
surrounded by high stone walls. As I went up the hedge-bordered way from the
gate to the house, I noted that the place had not been well kept in its
master's absence. Weeds grew rank among the trees, almost choking out the
grass. Among some unkempt bushes over against the outer wall, I heard what
appeared to be a horse or an ox blundering and lumbering about. I distinctly
heard the clink of its hoof on a stone.
A servant who eyed me suspiciously admitted me and I found Tussmann pacing
to and fro in his study like a caged lion. His giant frame was leaner, harder
than when I had last seen him; his face was bronzed by a tropic sun. There
were more and harsher lines in his strong face and his eyes burned more
intensely than ever. A smoldering, baffled anger seemed to underlie his
"Well, Tussmann," I greeted him, "what success? Did you find the
"I found not an ounce of gold," he growled. "The whole thing was a hoax
—well, not all of it. I broke into the sealed chamber and found the
"And the jewel?" I exclaimed.
He drew something from his pocket and handed it to me.
I gazed curiously at the thing I held. It was a great jewel, clear and
transparent as crystal, but of a sinister crimson, carved, as Von Junzt had
declared, in the shape of a toad. I shuddered involuntarily; the image was
peculiarly repulsive. I turned my attention to the heavy and curiously
wrought copper chain which supported it.
"What are these characters carved on the chain?" I asked curiously.
"I can not say," Tussmann replied. "I had thought perhaps you might know.
I find a faint resemblance between them and certain partly defaced
hieroglyphics on a monolith known as the Black Stone in the mountains of
Hungary. I have been unable to decipher them."
"Tell me of your trip," I urged, and over our whiskey-and-sodas he began,
as if with a strange reluctance.
"I found the temple again with no great difficulty, though it lies in a
lonely and little-frequented region. The temple is built against a sheer
stone cliff in a deserted valley unknown to maps and explorers. I would not
endeavor to make an estimate of its antiquity, but it is built of a sort of
unusually hard basalt, such as I have never seen anywhere else, and its
extreme weathering suggests incredible age.
"Most of the columns which form its facade are in ruins, thrusting up
shattered stumps from worn bases, like the scattered and broken teeth of some
grinning hag. The outer walls are crumbling, but the inner walls and the
columns which support such of the roof as remains intact, seem good for
another thousand years, as well as the walls of the inner chamber.
"The main chamber is a large circular affair with a floor composed of
great squares of stone. In the center stands the altar, merely a huge, round,
curiously carved block of the same material. Directly behind the altar, in
the solid stone cliff which forms the rear wall of the chamber, is the sealed
and hewn-out chamber wherein lay the mummy of the temple's last priest.
"I broke into the crypt with not too much difficulty and found the mummy
exactly as is stated in the Black Book. Though it was in a remarkable state
of preservation, I was unable to classify it. The withered features and
general contour of the skull suggested certain degraded and mongrel peoples
of Lower Egypt, and I feel certain that the priest was a member of a race
more akin to the Caucasian than the Indian. Beyond this, I can not make any
"But the jewel was there, the chain looped about the dried-up neck."
From this point Tussmann's narrative became so vague that I had some
difficulty in following him and wondered if the tropic sun had affected his
mind. He had opened a hidden door in the altar somehow with the
jewel—just how, he did not plainly say, and it struck me that he did
not clearly understand himself the action of the jewel-key. But the opening
of the secret door had had a bad effect on the hardy rogues in his employ.
They had refused point-blank to follow him through that gaping black opening
which had appeared so mysteriously when the gem was touched to the altar.
Tussmann entered alone with his pistol and electric torch, finding a
narrow stone stair that wound down into the bowels of the earth, apparently.
He followed this and presently came into a broad corridor, in the blackness
of which his tiny beam of light was almost engulfed. As he told this he spoke
with strange annoyance of a toad which hopped ahead of him, just beyond the
circle of light, all the time he was below ground.
Making his way along dank tunnels and stairways that were wells of solid
blackness, he at last came to a heavy door fantastically carved, which he
felt must be the crypt wherein was secreted the gold of the ancient
worshippers. He pressed the toad-jewel against it at several places and
finally the door gaped wide.
"And the treasure?" I broke in eagerly.
He laughed in savage self-mockery.
"There was no gold there, no precious gems—nothing"—he
hesitated—"nothing that I could bring away."
Again his tale lapsed into vagueness. I gathered that he had left the
temple rather hurriedly without searching any further for the supposed
treasure. He had intended bringing the mummy away with him, he said, to
present to some museum, but when he came up out of the pits, it could not be
found and he believed that his men, in superstitious aversion to having such
a companion on their road to the coast, had thrown it into some well or
"And so," he concluded, "I am in England again no richer than when I
"You have the jewel," I reminded him. "Surely it is valuable."
He eyed it without favor, but with a sort of fierce avidness almost
"Would you say that it is a ruby?" he asked.
I shook my head. "I am unable to classify it."
"And I. But let me see the book."
He slowly turned the heavy pages, his lips moving as he read. Sometimes he
shook his head as if puzzled, and I noticed him dwell long over a certain
"This man dipped so deeply into forbidden things," said he, "I can not
wonder that his fate was so strange and mysterious. He must have had some
foreboding of his end—here he warns men not to disturb sleeping
Tussmann seemed lost in thought for some moments.
"Aye, sleeping things," he muttered, "that seem dead, but only lie waiting
for some blind fool to awake them—I should have read further in the
Black Book—and I should have shut the door when I left the crypt
—but I have the key and I'll keep it in spite of Hell."
He roused himself from his reveries and was about to speak when he stopped
short. From somewhere upstairs had come a peculiar sound.
"What was that?" he glared at me. I shook my head and he ran to the door
and shouted for a servant. The man entered a few moments later and he was
"You were upstairs?" growled Tussmann.
"Did you hear anything?" asked Tussmann harshly and in a manner almost
threatening and accusing.
"I did, sir," the man answered with a puzzled look on his face.
"What did you hear?" The question was fairly snarled.
"Well, sir," the man laughed apologetically, "you'll say I'm a bit off, I
fear, but to tell you the truth, sir, it sounded like a horse stamping around
on the roof!"
A blaze of absolute madness leaped into Tussmann's eyes.
"You fool!" he screamed. "Get out of here!" The man shrank back in
amazement and Tussmann snatched up the gleaming toad-carved jewel.
"I've been a fool!" he raved. "I didn't read far enough—and I should
have shut the door—but by heaven, the key is mine and I'll keep it in
spite of man or devil."
And with these strange words he turned and fled upstairs. A moment later
his door slammed heavily and a servant, knocking timidly, brought forth only
a blasphemous order to retire and a luridly worded threat to shoot anyone who
tried to obtain entrance into the room.
Had it not been so late I would have left the house, for I was certain
that Tussmann was stark mad. As it was, I retired to the room a frightened
servant showed me, but I did not go to bed. I opened the pages of the Black
Book at the place where Tussmann had been reading.
This much was evident, unless the man was utterly insane: he had stumbled
upon something unexpected in the Temple of the Toad. Something unnatural
about the opening of the altar door had frightened his men, and in the
subterraneous crypt Tussmann had found something that he had not
thought to find. And I believed that he had been followed from Central
America, and that the reason for his persecution was the jewel he called the
Seeking some clue in Von Junzt's volume, I read again of the Temple of the
Toad, of the strange pre-Indian people who worshipped there, and of the huge,
tittering, tentacled, hoofed monstrosity that they worshipped.
Tussmann had said that he had not read far enough when he had first seen
the book. Puzzling over this cryptic phrase I came upon the line he had pored
over—marked by his thumb nail. It seemed to me to be another of Von
Junzt's many ambiguities, for it merely stated that a temple's god was the
temple's treasure. Then the dark implication of the hint struck me and cold
sweat beaded my forehead.
The Key to the Treasure! And the temple's treasure was the temple's god!
And sleeping Things might awaken on the opening of their prison door! I
sprang up, unnerved by the intolerable suggestion, and at that moment
something crashed in the stillness and the death-scream of a human being
burst upon my ears.
In an instant I was out of the room, and as I dashed up the stairs I heard
sounds that have made me doubt my sanity ever since. At Tussmann's door I
halted, essaying with shaking hand to turn the knob. The door was locked, and
as I hesitated I heard from within a hideous high-pitched tittering and then
the disgusting squashy sound as if a great, jelly-like bulk was being forced
through the window. The sound ceased and I could have sworn I heard a faint
swish of gigantic wings. Then silence.
Gathering my shattered nerves, I broke down the door. A foul and
overpowering stench billowed out like a yellow mist. Gasping in nausea I
entered. The room was in ruins, but nothing was missing except that crimson
toad-carved jewel Tussmann called the Key, and that was never found. A foul,
unspeakable slime smeared the windowsill, and in the center of the room lay
Tussmann, his head crushed and flattened; and on the red ruin of skull and
face, the plain print of an enormous hoof.