The Nameless City: The Complete Lovecraft #29

“That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons, even death may die.”

~Abdul Alhazred

There can be few tales of tales more Lovecraftian than ‘The Nameless City‘. A tale rejected by ‘Wierd Tales‘ twice and a succession of other professional titles, almost published in a magazine called ‘The Fantasy Fan‘ which manages to fold just after accepting the tale. Then finally been published six months before Lovecraft’s death in the ponderously titled ‘Fanciful Tales of Time and Space’ a quarterly magazine of such high reputation you probably never heard of it until now.

As an aside into sci-fi magazine history, ‘Fanciful Tales of Time and Space‘ ran for a whole one issue before it disappeared due to the amount it had cost to produce in the first place… it is now a very rare collector’s item, so rare in fact that even a copy of the 1977 facsimile reproduction would cost you $40 from a rare book dealer, an original 1936 copy in reasonable condition went for $350 at auction in 2007, which is the most recent sale of one I can find.  Lovecraft collectors, in particular, would pay a lot more than that now for a copy should you ever find one in an old attic somewhere. Not least because while this was not the first true Cthulhu mythos story to be published, it is considered by many to be the first of those mythos stories to be written by the old tentacle hugger. Of course, if you are a Lovecraft reader, crawling around old attics could play on your nerves somewhat, who knows what could lay in wait behind that moulder stack of cardboard boxes that smell of the rank fear of small rodents and strange fungi…

Regular readers will know I do not entirely agree with the orthodox view of ‘The Nameless City’ place as the first Cthulhu mythos story. There are hints, and suggestions aplenty in earlier works like ‘The Temple‘ and ‘The Doom That Came To Sarnath to name just two. Lovecraft had been finding his way to the streets of  ‘The Nameless City‘ for some time. Indeed, the latter of those examples crops up in this story when our narrator is describing the lost city he has stumbled upon in the Arabian desert…

 …and thought of Sarnath the Doomed, that stood in the land of Mnar when mankind was young, and of Ib, that was carven of grey stone before mankind existed…

The orthodox view stems in part from this tale holding the first mention of everyone’s favourite mad Arab and author of the Necronomicon, Abdul Alhazred. the writer of the ‘dreadful’ two line poem at the top of this entry. Dreadful in the literal sense, in that it encompasses dread and the doom that will come to all when the stars are right, the big bad who sleeps below the waves reawakens, and the old gods crash through the dimensions we laughingly call reality…  The mad old beard tugging, teeth gnashing, doom merchant Arab returns in most of the major mythos stories to come,  ‘The Hound’, ‘The Festival’, ‘The Shadow out of Time’, ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’, ‘The Dunwich Horror’, ‘The Whisperer in Darkness’, ‘At the Mountains of Madness’, ‘The Dreams in the Witch House‘, ‘The Thing on the Doorstep‘, and  of course, ‘The Call of Cthulhu‘. All of which were written after and almost without exception published before, ‘The Nameless City‘. To say Abdul Alhazred has an important role in the Cthulhu mythos is some what redundant… So the fact he is first mentioned here certainly adds strength to the orthodoxy. It’s also interesting that Lovecraft himself considered this to be among his favourites of his own stories, perhaps because this is where so many threads in his earlier work come together to form a greater whole. Certainly, I ain’t about to argue against the writer’s opinion of his own work. While I may disagree with the orthodoxy, ‘The Nameless City‘ is the ideal place to start if your interest in Lovecraft stems mainly from his Cthulhu mythologies…

2012-06-08-namelesscity-2-sketch7

Lovecraft may have considered this a favourite, but it is not without criticism. Lin Carter, who among other works wrote a number of stories based in and around the Cthulhu Mythos, once said of it…

“a trivial exercise in Poe-esque gothica”, “overwritten and over-dramatic”.

Lin’s pastiches are probably the largest body of Lovecraft inspired work to be centred directly on his mythos, indeed, he doubtless made a better living out of Lovecraft’s creations than Lovecraft ever did himself. Including a lot of work for Chaosium the makers of the ‘Call of Cthulhu‘ RPG games, who probably did more to bring Lovecraft to the attention of my generation than anyone else. That Lin calls the story Poe-esque is in ‘the pot calling the kettle to confirm its colour’ territory. Lin’s built he career the shoulders of other writers. His Lovecraftian tales are very much written in the style of Lovecraft, just as his Conan and Kull tales are written in the style of Robert E Howard (in this case to the point where he post-humorously co-authors several of Howard’s unfinished tales…). While he went on to write a lot of interesting, fun, and well-written work that was entirely his own, and in the style of Lin Cater, it is fair to say Lin was a master of the pastiche and has no leg to stand on accusing Lovecraft of borrowing from Poe in this way. At the same time, however, this does mean he is well placed to hold an opinion on whether ‘The Nameless City‘ is ‘over written‘ having spent so much time writing in the style of Lovecraft himself.

Lin has a point, though I am loathed to agree entirely. ‘the Nameless City’ does have an ‘over written’ feel to it. Take this passage…

In the darkness there flashed before my mind fragments of my cherished treasury of daemonic lore; sentences from Alhazred the mad Arab, paragraphs from the apocryphal nightmares of Damascius, and infamous lines from the delirious Image du Monde of Gautier de Metz. I repeated queer extracts, and muttered of Afrasiab and the daemons that floated with him down the Oxus; later chanting over and over again a phrase from one of Lord Dunsany’s tales…

In that one passage, Lovecraft drops more names and academically clever references than a desperate for attention starlet at a Hollywood party. Only the Mad Arab himself is entirely fictional. The tension of the narrator tale builds up steadily throughout, as Lovecraft stories are want to do, but even for Lovecraft, there is a piling on of tension that makes ‘The Temple’ seem like a merry little jaunt in a submersible…  Overwritten may not be entirely fair, as the tale sets out to build lay upon lay of fraught tensions as the narrator delves deeper and deeper into the nameless ruins of a city that predates all historical records, possibly predates even mankind. As he delves deeper, the more disturbed and the more disturbing his story becomes. This layered approach to the tale negates for me the over-dramatic accusation, it is what it is, and what it is supposed to be. A deep dive into the past, through the dust of aeons, in a city built by a race alien to our understanding, a race of lizard creatures whom may still survive in the depths of the ruins, waiting for a time to emerge once more…

I said at the start few tales of tales are as Lovecraftian as this, the same applies to the tale itself. This is for me Lovecraft writing for Lovecraft. He did not write this with the view to sell it (though god knows he tried to do so.) He wrote it for himself, for the writer he wanted to be, telling the stories he wanted to tell. Which is why I suspect it was among his favourites, we are always proudest of our true born… If it is over written it is done so on purpose, this is exactly what Lovecraft wished it to be. After all what is more Lovecraft than this passage towards the end of the tale…

Monstrous, unnatural, colossal, was the thing—too far beyond all the ideas of man to be believed except in the silent damnable small hours when one cannot sleep.

It is not perfect, but it close to being the perfect Lovecraft tale, for which alone I would give it five tentacles, groping out for us all from the dark recesses of its creator’s mind…

5out 6

It is another of the free to read tale available from the Lovecraft archive so if you fancy a walk through the ruins of a reptilian race not quite as dead as you might like them to be you can find it here:- and until next time I will leave you with a single thought, those Egyptian must have got the idea of Sobek the crocodile god from somewhere right, and you can hide a lot of cities under the sands of the desert… Lovecraft was just making all this up right?…

Further Lovecraftian witterings 

 

This entry was posted in Lovecraft, mythos, reads, retro book reviews, rites and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s