Black Hill

By Orrin Grey

 Black Hill, illustration by M.S. Corley

Black Hill, illustration by M.S. Corley


    That place was still called “Black Hill” when I come there, though it was as flat as a plate and nothing stood taller'n a man's shoulder far as the eye could see, 'cept the shacks and the derricks. Not a tree nor a lick of grass to be seen, everything stomped dead by the men and the horses and the trucks.

    My first day there, I asked Burke why they called it “Black Hill” and he laughed and stamped his foot on the bare, brown dirt. "The hill's unner there," he said. "Not a lake nor a river, like they say it, but sure enough a hill, all piled up an' waitin', pressin' up on th' ground, clawin' ta get out. Nothin' but the dirt 'tween it an' us. We poke a hole in th' dirt an' up it jumps!"

    Burke had been out there from the beginning. He was there when they drove the Stapleton #1, and he saw the black gold just well up from the ground and come pouring out. Enough, it seemed, to make any man rich.

    He bought up a parcel of land out west of El Dorado with the money he made and started the Black Hill Oil Company. By the time he sent for me, the Black Hill field was already putting up more'n three hundred thousand barrels a day.

    I didn't know why he needed me and I said as much, though I was thankful for the work. He just shook his head. "This here's only th' beginnin'," he said. "There's another world down there, Smith. Things the like-a-which Man ain't never dreamed, let alone seen. If all I wanted was ta be rich, I coulda quit by now, but there's somethin' more down there. Somethin' else. I cain't say what, exactly, but I aim ta find it." 

    Burke and I had worked together in Iowa for a spell, years back. I wasn't nothing but an amateur geologist. I'd delivered the mail, 'fore I ruint my leg, and I'd taught a bit of school. I had a wife and two girls back in Iowa, but there weren't no work for a man like me in those days anywhere but in the fields, so the fields was where I worked. And when Burke called for me, I came because the money was good and I knew him for a man I could put my back against.

    I lived in the shacks, like most everyone else who worked the fields. As field geologist, I had one to myself, but it still weren't much more'n four walls and a bed. There was a desk against the wall, under the one window, and I sat there and wrote letters to Matilda and the girls when I could.

    Burke worked the men hard but fair. He strode about the field, barking orders and working with 'em side-by-side. He was as tall and rudely constructed as a derrick hisself, and his hair and beard were as bristly and red as an oil fire. He was missing two-and-a-half fingers on his right hand, lost to one of the walking boards. His left ear was gone and half his face a mess of scars, owing to a mishap with some nitroglycerine.

    He'd been married back when I knew him, but his wife had since passed and left him with a pretty little dark-eyed girl who, I gathered, lived with some spinster aunt at the hotel in town. Whenever I rode in with Burke on one errand or another, he'd always insist we stop by the hotel so he could buy her a root beer or an ice cream, and pick her up in his long arms and spin her above his head. It was a sweet sight, seeing how he doted on her. The only thing it made me regret was my own girls being so far away, and how I was missing watching them grow up.


 NEVER BET THE DEVIL & OTHER WARNINGS, now on Kickstarter! Black Hill and ten other stories by Orrin Grey are collected in this premium hardcover edition, illustrated by M.S. Corley.  Live on Kickstarter  now! 

NEVER BET THE DEVIL & OTHER WARNINGS, now on Kickstarter! Black Hill and ten other stories by Orrin Grey are collected in this premium hardcover edition, illustrated by M.S. Corley. Live on Kickstarter now! 

    I'd been at the field three weeks when Burke rode up with a pair of horses, told me to mount up and follow him. We rode out past the edge of the field, past the last of the derricks, to a spot where a copse of trees once stood, 'fore they were all dragged down and sawed up for timber. The ground was swept as smooth and flat as if it was the floor of some fella's house. 

"This here," Burke said, "is what I bought this land fer. There was somethin' here when I come out, a wheel a stones like them the Injuns set aside, though I could'n find nobody from 'round here could say which tribe mighta put 'em up. I come out 'fore the men, moved them stones myself, by hand. Didn' want nobody gettin' spooked off. They's a wild mix a folks works th' fields, as you well know, an' some of 'em are too superstitious fer their own good. But look here; I don' think this was no burial ground nor nothin' of th' sort. I think them Injuns, whichever ones they was, knowed they was somethin' unner this ground an' they marked th' spot."

    "You mean oil?" I asked. I knew some folks believed oil was medicinal, that they'd set up shacks and stagecoach stops around tar springs and drunk the black stuff that bubbled up to cure everything from gout to infertility. And I knew the Indians were better geologists than anybody'd ever given 'em credit for, better able to find the flow of underground rivers and stratas of good rock than they'd any right to be. So, I didn't suppose it was unreasonable to think they mighta known there was oil down there, or marked the place to find it.

    Burke just shrugged at me, didn't answer my question straight. Instead, he said, "Gonna build me a derrick here. Gonna dig deep, deeper'n any well we dug so far. I want you on it, 'cause I know I kin count by you."

    And I didn't think nothing more of it, save that I was proud to be trusted, to be depended on. The next day, we started digging.


    The digging didn't go easy. It seemed like every day, there was something new went wrong. A storm come up and dropped bucketfuls of hail on the whole field, blew a derrick over. Two of the men got into it over something, and one pulled a knife and killed the other. Three of the men took sick and couldn't work. Four more vanished over the course of a week and weren't never found. And, through it all, the pipe went down and down and down.

    We passed over several promising-looking strikes, 'cause they weren't whatever Burke was looking for, and the men working the towers got restless. Still we went down and down, until finally we hit something else.

    There was a sound come up from the hole, like a gasp. The men figured we'd hit a pocket of gas and everyone backed off in case it was like to burn. Then the derrick shook all the way up and the ground seemed to slide a little under our feet. There come a noise from the hole like I ain't never heard the ground make in all my years. When I was a boy, my pa'd known a man who worked a whaling ship and he said that whales sang to one another. He'd put his hands together over his mouth and blown a call that he said was as close as he could do to what they sounded like. This sounded like that call.

    All the men went back another pace, not knowing if maybe we'd hit a sinkhole, or God knows what. There was another groan, then an old cave stink, and then the black stuff started coming up around the pipe like a tide. I'd seen gushers in my day, the pressurized wells that blew the tops off the derricks, but this weren't the same. This weren't no geyser; this were a flood, the oil pouring up from under the ground like a barrel that's been overturned. Everybody was silent for another minute and then the men gathered 'round all cheered, 'cause they knowed we'd finally hit whatever it was we'd been aiming at.


    I'd expected Burke to be blown over by our success, but when he come out to look at the well, his smile didn't touch his eyes none.

    That night, he invited me to eat dinner with him in his shack, which weren't really much better'n mine, though it had a coupla rooms. I remembered his wife and little girl had lived in it with him when he started the field, back before his wife got carried off by whatever it was carried her off.

    Burke served me a dinner of baked beans and set out a bottle of whiskey on the table between us. He seemed distracted, thoughtful. “Pensive,” as they say. He told me I'd done a good job on the well, but didn't seem to want to talk much more about it.

    "I got no need ta tell you what oil is," he finally said, after we'd drained most of the bottle. "Dead stuff. Rotted a thousand years, pressed down by th' dirt. You know who th' first wildcatters in this country consulted 'fore diggin'? Not geologists. Mediums. Spiritualists. They knowed, even then. Hell, mebbe they knowed better. Mebbe it's us has forgot."

    He stopped and raised his glass, only to find it empty. He sat it back down and continued, without refilling it, "Somethin' dies an' you put it down in th' dirt; it' don' disappear. It stays, forever. They's not a place on this earth somethin' ain't died, where somethin' don' lay buried. All this world's a boneyard an' us just ghouls crouched on top, breakin' open tombs. I made my peace wi' it. A man does, ta live th' life we live. But here…" He reached over to a sideboard and took up an old, worn black Bible and opened it up. From the back, he took out a scrap of paper, brown and worn smooth by years of handling, and passed it to me. "Kin you read that?" he asked.

    I could, but only just. The handwriting was careful but uneven, like it'd been copied down slow by a palsied hand. It was just one line: THAT IS NOT DEAD WHICH CAN ETERNAL LIE.

    "Took that off a feller came ta shut down th' field," Burke said. "Fancied hisself some kinda preacher, though nota-th' Word a God. He said all sortsa things, crazy things, 'bout there bein' somethin' underneath us, somethin' that dreamed though it was dead. He had a gun. Managed to light a buncha th' place on fire. Took an ax ta one-a-th' derricks, 'fore I shot him wi' my rifle. He had that in his pocket. Can't rightly say why I kept it, but I thought about it a lot since. An' damned if it ain't right, just a bit. Oil, right? It's dead, jus' dead stuff crammed down there in its tomb, but it can lay there forever, cain't it? An' when we dig it up, there it is, waitin' to come out, fulla heat an' fire an' life. What does that tell ya?"

    I didn't get a chance to answer him and I don't rightly know what I'd've said if I had, because right then, he noticed the flicker of the shadows against the wall. "Fire," he breathed and my heart jumped up, 'cause fire's the worst curse there is when you're in the field.

    Burke rushed out, already barking orders, and I followed him. If the doubtful and morbid thoughts of a few minutes before were still in him, as they must've been, then he kept 'em well hid. He shouted to the men and they jumped to, fighting to keep the fires away from the pipes and the nitroglycerine trucks.

    I was a few paces behind Burke and when the ground shivered under my feet, I stopped and swung my eyes across the field. The fires seemed like they was burning everywhere, like they'd sprung up from every corner of the place at once. I could see the whole field, it seemed like, all licked with curling orange tongues, the derricks that wasn't yet burning standing like the silhouettes of ships' masts before the flames.

    The ground gave another shake under me, like the flank of a horse shivering to throw off flies. Through the smoke, I saw my derrick sway. I ran toward it. The fire hadn't reached it yet and I was prob'ly needed someplace else, but I somehow had a feeling that the derrick was where I had to be. 

    As I got right up to it, I heard that same sound, the one I remembered from earlier in the day, and I saw the derrick start to topple. At the same time, a crack opened up below me like a mouth in the dirt. I felt my feet going out from under me and saw that big skeleton of wood and metal coming down toward my head. The next thing I remember, I was hanging from the derrick where it laid across an empty black chasm, a pit that seemed like it went down all the way to the center of the earth. Down in that darkness, I saw something move.

    In the years that've intervened since that night, the doctors have tried their best to convince me that I misremember some of what come next, but I know they're wrong. I remember it clear as day. There was something down in the dark below me, something that heaved itself up toward the surface, toward the light, toward me. I remembered suddenly why that place was called “Black Hill.” I saw that great bulk heave and slop toward me in the dark. I saw what looked like golden eyes opening and closing, and hungry mouths smacking. I smelt a smell like what sometimes comes up from caves and holes that've been closed away fer too long. I heard a hiss and a groan, and I believe I closed my eyes. Then I heard Burke's voice.

    He was shouting, but there was something different about the sound. It was ragged and hoarse, but that wasn't it. It was like he was talking straight at a feller, not like he was yelling all around as he had been before.

    I opened my eyes up again and I saw him, standing by the edge of the crack in the ground, looking like some heathen god with the fires burning behind him. He was shouting down into the pit.

    "What more kin you take from me?" he demanded. "What more could you want? You took ma hand, ma face, ma wife! I done give you ever'thin' I got, damn you, ever'thin' I am. I ain't got nothin' left you kin take, nothin' but her, an' her y'll not have! I'll see you in hell myself, first."

    And then he stepped into the hole. Other men in the field heard Burke shout and saw me hanging there on the tipped-over derrick. But if anyone else saw what happened to him, they pretended not to. They said they saw him standing there, and that they saw him fall, but that's it. I know, though, that he didn't fall. That he went down there to spite the Devil, or whatever it was he saw down there, and something came up to meet him, something black and old and putrid as a rotted log that's set for months at the bottom of a pond. I saw him go down into that blackness like a mammoth being pulled down into a tar pit. That's the last thing I saw 'fore I blacked out.


    By the time I come to, the fires had been put out. The men told me that, even though I'd been unconscious, it'd taken three of them to pry my arms off the derrick's supports.

    Soon as I was able to walk again, I made a man take me out to survey the field. The damage was bad: nearly half the derricks lost, barrels of oil burned up, and one of the nitroglycerine trucks had exploded. My derrick still lay on its side, but there was little enough to show that the crack had ever been beneath it. I asked the man with me. He said that the ground had shaken again and the crack sealed up. There was just a scar to mark its passing, an uneven place where one lip of the ground was higher'n the other.

    Burke had a business partner, a banker from Wichita, who took over his interest in the Black Hill Oil Company and sold it off to one of the other concerns. In his will, Burke had left a stipulation that his daughter never have a stake in it. By the time she was of an age to marry, she was provided fer nicely by the investment of Burke's money into other ventures.

    I never worked the fields again. When my wife died, I come here to the sanitarium, where I've stayed ever since. My two girls are grown and married now, but they take turns coming to visit me. They've taken such good care of me since the incident.

    There're days when I think I could leave this place, move in with one of them and have a life outside these walls, long as I stayed out of automobiles and away from oil fields. And maybe I would, were it not fer the dreams.

    I dream, not of the world, but of the future. The future that Burke and I helped to bring about and that I'm powerless to prevent. I see a country criss-crossed with roads where thousands of automobiles drive every day. I see ships as big as whales, plying the sea with bellies full of black blood. I see a world of perpetual light and motion, powered by the unquiet dead.



    I actually grew up right near where this story is set. The real place was called Oil Hill, and it was long gone by the time I lived there, its passing only marked by the name of my elementary school and the occasional pump jack in someone’s pasture. But there were photos up here and there around town that showed what the fields had looked like back in their heyday, and I always thought they’d make a great setting for a weird story. When the call came in for Historical Lovecraft and I started thinking about all that oil down there, made up mostly of ancient organic matter, dead but not inert, well, that sounded pretty Lovecraftian to me.

    Since its original publication in Historical Lovecraft, "Black Hill" has gone on to be one of my most successful stories to date, being reprinted first in audio form at Pseudopod, and then in Ross Lockhart's Book of Cthulhu II