Nyarlathotep . . . the crawling chaos . . . I am the last . . . I will tell the audient void. . .
Of all the pantheonic creatures of mythos created by Lovecraft, Nyarlathotep is perhaps second only to old tentacle face himself in its impact upon popular culture. I say ‘it’ because Nyarlathotep is an ‘it’, not a ‘he’. Yet it is also the only old god that appears in human form, though that is but one of its forms, and indeed in other tales, Lovecraft went on to write, Nyarlathotep is referred to or appears in a myriad of ways. From the ‘tall, swarthy man’ who resembles an ancient Pharaoh of Egypt several times. But also appears as, ‘the black man‘ in ‘The Dreams of the Witch House‘, ‘A bat-winged tentacled monster’ in ‘The Haunter of the Dark’ and is mentioned in passing in other tales. My favourite description of him is from ‘The Rats in the Walls‘ where he is mentioned almost in passing as the ‘faceless god in the caverns of Earth’s centre‘. Which in part is what makes him so attractive as an antagonist in both Lovecraft own work and beyond. Nyarlathotep walks among us, whereas the rest of the Outer gods are both utterly alien, exiled to the stars or sleeping fitfully beneath the waves in the case of Cthulhu.
Nyarlathotep walks among us, sowing seeds of disorder, a crawling chaos indeed. A creature of a thousand faces and none. Servant of Azathoth, the messenger of the outer gods, a bringer of madness for madness sake. An Outer, who can appear human and interact on a human level in ways that Yog Saraoth, Hastur, Cthulhu and all the rest can never do. Little wonder he has so much appeal to other writers, not to mention computer game designers, role-playing gamers, musicians, filmmakers and much more besides. The impact of Nyarlathotep on popular culture is extensive by any measure. Which is a little strange for a creation that began back in 1920, as the centre of a short piece of prose published in ‘The United Amateur’ in November that year. Though Lovecraft himself went back to Nyarlathotep more than once over the years to come.
With Nyarlathotep having such a huge impact, and tendrils reaching so very far through the Zeitgeist of popular, and importantly geek, culture, it is perhaps a little odd that I must admit until I reach ‘Nyarlathotep‘ in this blog series I had never read the original story. I have previously read most of the other Lovecraft tales in which he makes an appearance. I have also come across him in so many other ways over the years, from Call of Cthulu games, to novels and in pixels all over the place. But never in this first and original form. Which I will admit lent a certain degree of anticipation to reading the tale which has been on the ‘coming soon’ list of the Lovecraftian more or less since I started the blog series, gradually moving down the list as I got closer to it with a strange sinisterness about it. ‘Nyarlathotep‘ has been coming since day one. What is the saying about ‘never meet your heroes…‘? Would it apply here? Never meet your ‘faceless god in the caverns of the Earth’s centre’? You’re just asking to be disappointed after all…
So then, what is ‘Nyarlathotep‘ about when it comes down to it? The tale itself, rather than everything that came after it. Did it indeed disappoint? The answer to the latter question is no. The answer to the former… that is more a matter of interpretation. For what it is worth what follows is mine, but it could be read in any number of ways… But my own view stems from this particular passage, early in the prose.
A sense of monstrous guilt was upon the land, and out of the abysses between the stars swept chill currents that made men shiver in dark and lonely places. There was a daemonic alteration in the sequence of the seasons—the autumn heat lingered fearsomely, and everyone felt that the world and perhaps the universe had passed from the control of known gods or forces to that of gods or forces which were unknown.
It is a tale of the end of times, or the end of one age and the beginning of another. A time, to steal a little from elsewhere in Lovecraft’s writings, when ‘The Stars are Right‘ or on the cusp of becoming so, and madness rules. The world of logic and science has had its veils of sanity stripped away and magic of the old, dark, sinister kind is seeping into the world once more, and its harbinger is Nyarlathotep, emerging from old Egypt and walking among us. Everywhere he goes he leaves madness behind. Opening the eyes of humanity to the cosmos it can not even begin to comprehend.
There is a lurid quality to the tale. In many ways, this is Lovecraft at his most descriptive. Where in other tales he hints, in this, he uses that description as a blunt instrument on the senses of the reader. Yet it is a blunt instrument used with enviable precision.
A sickened, sensitive shadow writhing in hands that are not hands, and whirled blindly past ghastly midnights of rotting creation, corpses of dead worlds with sores that were cities, charnel winds that brush the pallid stars and make them flicker low. Beyond the worlds vague ghosts of monstrous things; half-seen columns of unsanctified temples that rest on nameless rocks beneath space and reach up to dizzy vacua above the spheres of light and darkness.
This is a masterpiece in creative writing. If you ever wish to know how to get under the skin of a reader, to raise a heartbeat and constantly build to your conclusion, this is the tale to study. It builds with a slow progression through only 1149 words from beginning to end, but relentlessly as it does so. Like a piece of music progressing towards a crescendo in the final passages.
maddening beating of drums, and thin, monotonous whine of blasphemous flutes from inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond Time; the detestable pounding and piping whereunto dance slowly, awkwardly, and absurdly the gigantic, tenebrous ultimate gods—the blind, voiceless, mindless gargoyles whose soul is Nyarlathotep.
There is something of terror in this tale. Something of horror, and something primal about it. A fireside tale told by the damned. If you let it seep into you and go with the rhythm of it. Which is why I sought out a public domain audio recording of the tale because it’s a tale to be told, as much as to be read.
Listen to it, if you have the time, but if you listen, really listen and imagine you are sat around a campfire in the ruins of the old times… and I defy you not to feel the chill of the east wind, and perhaps to fear those six tentacles that are creeping towards you through the darkness….
As ever Further Lovecraftian witterings