The year is nineteen-sixty-something, and after endless millennia of watery sleep, the stars are finally right. Old R'lyeh rises out of the Pacific, ready to cast its damned shadow over the primitive human world. The first to see its peaks: an alcoholic, paranoid, and frightened Jack Kerouac, who had been drinking off a nervous breakdown up in Big Sur. Now Jack must get back on the road to find Neal Cassady, the holy fool whose rambling letters hint of a world brought to its knees in worship of the Elder God Cthulhu. Together with pistol-packin' junkie William S. Burroughs, Jack and Neal make their way across the continent to face down the murderous Lovecraftian cult that has spread its darkness to the heart of the American Dream. But is Neal along for the ride to help save the world, or does he want to destroy it just so that he'll have an ending for his book?
I was in Big Sur hiding from my public when I ﬁnally heard from Neal again. He had had problems of his own after the book came out and it started being carried around like a rosary by every scruffy party boy looking for a little cross-country hitchhiking adventure. They’d followed him around like they’d followed me, but Neal drank too deeply of the well at ﬁrst, making girls left and right as usual, taking a few too many shots to the face, and eating out on the story of our travels maybe one too many times. Those boozy late-night dinners with crazy soulless characters whose jaws clacked like mandibles when they laughed are what got to him in the end, I’m sure. They were hungry for something. Not just the college boys and beautiful young things, but those haggard-looking veterans of Babylon who started shadowing Neal and me on every street corner and at every dawn-draped last call in roadside bars; they all wanted more than a taste of Neal’s divine spark, they wanted to extinguish it in their gullets. Neal was the perfect guy for them as he always walked on the edge, ever since the ﬁrst shiv was held to his throat at reform school when he was a seven-year-old babe with a fat face and shiny teary cheeks. He wanted to eat up the whole world himself like they did, I knew from my adventures on the road with him, but I didn’t learn what was eating him ’til I got that letter that drove me to move under ground.
The letters had become more infrequent while I was out on Big Sur living in Larry’s little cabin, due to me at ﬁrst, I thought. I was working on my spontaneous writing, which sounds a bit contradictory but discoveries need to be plumbed, not just noted, and I was turning out roll after roll of pages about the stark black cliffs and how it felt that the world wasn’t just shifting under my feet but how I was sure one day I’d end up standing still while the big blue marble just rolled out from under me to leave me hanging over the inky maw of the universe. I didn’t take breaks except to pick my way into town every week or ten days to get some supplies: potatoes and beans, some cooking oil, whiskey, chaw, more rolls of paper which came in special just for me thanks to Larry, and stamps and my mail. Letters, only three were from Neal, most from mother and my aunt and one or two from my agent with checks so big I couldn’t even cash them but instead had to sell them for a dime on the dollar to the one-eyed shopkeeper at the general store that held my mail for me. By that time I could hardly stand to hear anyone’s voice so I never spent more than a few hours in town, just enough to do my errands, get my socks washed by the old unsmiling Chinaman and wolf down some cherry pie with ice cream. Even the great belly laughs of the old-tim-ers who had shufﬂed up from Los Angeles when the strawberry crops had turned black on the vine grated on me when I heard them now, but those curlicue swirls on Memere’s letters were soothing and stainless like the sky. I’d read them as I’d hike back up to the cabin, smoking a great Cuban just to have some light to read by if I didn’t get home before dark.
Neal’s letters were something else altogether, and he was still something else, too, as the kids say. The ﬁrst letter was typical Neal, full of big plans to play connect-the-dots between girls and writers. “Oh dearest Jack,” he wrote to me, “once you’re all settled and have ironed up after your latest crack-up I’ll come down from San Fran in Carolyn’s father’s great old battleship of a car, then drive right back up the coast in reverse through Oregon where the trees hold up the vault of the sky. Then we can tour Vancouver; it’s a wet warm pocket of life up in those frozen wastes and I know Carolyn has a friend named Suzette you might like as she is very deep into Spengler . . . ” and he’d spin more and more of his golden grift. I’d read his old letters over and over ’til the ink ran off the wrinkled page but only once got around to writing him back. It was too hard to think, being lost in the words of his letters, but they were the only things that kept the horrible roar of the ocean against the cliffs from overwhelming me. No matter what, I couldn’t ﬁnd the Buddha in the rhythmic crashing of the waves anymore, so instead I drank myself into concrete unconsciousness.
In Neal’s second letter, the empty spaces between existence became a bit more clear. He could feel it too, how the world was pulling itself apart somehow, and how some dark dream had begun to ooze into the American cracks. He didn’t need to say it; Neal was always best understood between the lines. “Far be it from me to suggest that two old Catholic boys take off their clothes, scramble down the bluffs and toss themselves into the foam just to stain the waves red for a precious heartbeat of a moment all to gain the attention of some Three-Lobed Burning Eye, but even when I’m nestled between Billie’s legs taking in her fecund smell, I just feel that we ought to . . . ” he wrote, but I knew he meant something else. He was trying to stitch something together; he had some weird forlorn hope that he could save the world from what we both could feel was lurking in the Outer Deep. Usually, I thought of smiling old Neal catting between wife and girlfriend, grinning and pretending to write, misunderstanding Nietzsche in the most brilliant of ways, but now I could only conceive of him as some blind ﬂy picking his way along highway webbing. I didn’t write him a letter back after that. Not at ﬁrst.