A Reminisce of Dr. Samuel Johnson
According to the intro given by the eldritch entity that is Barnes and Noble, this story is Lovecraft writing a send-up of 18th century literature. As part of that tradition, Lovecraft attempts to pass the fiction bit off as being a truthful report, in the way of eighteenth century literature where everything is allegedly true despite it being very obvious that in fact it is total fabrication.
Tho’ many of my readers have at times observ’d and remark’d a Sort of antique Flow in my Stile of Writing, it hath pleased me to pass amongst the Members of this Generation as a young Man, giving out the Fiction that I was born in 1890, in America.
Oh, also, Words are capitalized at Random and all proper nouns are italicized, though I should imagine that the fictional 200-year old Lovecraft in this story would regardless put emphasis on how scandalous it would be to actually have been born in America. In the style of the eighteenth century, the entire piece is a meander through random vignettes, some of which have practically nothing to do with the nominal subject of Dr. Samuel Johnson, and some of which are just a list of people who attended a certain club that Johnson was a member of, punctuated by a random vignette concerning one of the club members dropped into the middle of the list apparently just because the author recalled it at exactly that moment and wanted to write it down before finishing the list. And it’s not clear why the list was even included.
Lovecraft knows exactly what he’s doing, though:
It wou’d afford me Gratification to tell more of my Experiences with Dr. Johnson and his circle of Wits; but I am an old Man, and easily fatigued. I seem to ramble along without much Logick or Continuity when I endeavour to recall the Past; and fear I light upon but few Incidents which others have not before discuss’d.
The whole piece is humorously self-aware of how flawed the 18th century style was, in a way that seems accurate to me (Barnes and Noble agrees), though I read very little of that time precisely because it’s so unrefined as to be almost painful to read.
This story is only like five pages long (and thank God, because it was starting to drag even then – which is the point and all, but still), so we’re doing a double feature by also covering the next story in the book, which is Polaris. Funny enough, it’s even shorter.
If Dagon is the first inkling of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories, then Polaris is the first inkling of his Randolph Carter stories. Our narrator begins by telling us about how his dreams are haunted by the eponymous star.
Just before dawn Arcturus winks ruddily from above the cemetery on the low hillock, and Coma Berenices shimmers weirdly afar off in the mysterious east; but still the Pole Star leers down from the same place in the black vault, winking hideously like an insane watching eye which strives to convey some strange message, yet recalls nothing save that it once had a message to convey. Sometimes, when it is cloudy, I can sleep.
Jesus, man, just get a room on the south side of the building.
The main bit of the story is the dream city, though:
And it was under a horned waning moon that I saw the city for the first time. Still and somnolent did it lie, on a strange plateau in a hollow betwixt strange peaks. Of ghastly marble were its walls and its towers, its columns, domes, and pavements. In the marble streets were marble pillars, the upper parts of which were carven into the images of grave bearded men. The air was warm and stirred not. And overhead, scarce ten degrees from the zenith, glowed that watching Pole Star.
Lovecraft’s descriptions still tend to run long, and so far as my recollection of his much later work go (famous things like Call of Cthulhu and Shadow Over Innsmouth), I don’t think he ever shakes this. His descriptions are pretty good, though, which takes the sting out of a lot of it. Here, we have a description that doesn’t overstay its welcome, but instead establishes a very vivid image of the dream city and then moves right along to the city stirring to life:
Long did I gaze on the city, but the day came not. When the red Aldebaran, which blinked low in the sky but never set, had crawled a quarter of the way around the horizon, I saw light and motion in the houses and the streets. Forms strangely robed, but at once noble and familiar, walked abroad, and under the horned waning moon men talked wisdom in a tongue which I understood, though it was unlike any language I had ever known. And when the red Aldebaran had crawled more than half way around the horizon, there were again darkness and silence.
I haven’t cut a single sentence between this quote and the last one. You could perhaps stand to trim a word here or there, but even then, I’m not certain. The craft here is really quite excellent, and although the alien-ness of this world is pretty tame compared to what Lovecraft gets up to elsewhere, the basic ideas are mystical and compelling. Closer to Hogwarts than R’lyeh (though still distinctly Lovecraftian), it’s nevertheless worth describing and is described well.
But, y’know, the whole point of good description is that you take it in without hardly even noticing how good it is, because you just feel like you’re actually seeing it, like you’re actually there, which means I’m absolutely murdering the effect with my interjections of praise. Just, uh, just trust me that it was really fun to read without the commentary.
Our hero takes up a life amidst the city of the dream world, and comes to wonder if his life on Earth might not be the dream. When an invading army marches on the dream city in which he lives, he is assigned to the watch tower to warn the city of their approach, but Polaris curses him with sleep, and he awakens back in New England, which he is now certain is a dream. Desperately, he tries to convince the “dream-creatures” to wake him, although I’m not sure how exactly they’re supposed to actually do that.
It turns out that, although the narrator is too deluded to realize it, what he has actually been doing is recalling a past life, some tens of thousands of years ago. The invading army of strange yellow creatures he spoke of still occupies that land, for his own people were caught by surprise and destroyed thanks to the curse of Polaris. Well, actually, he falls asleep before the action starts, so maybe the invasion he saw approaching actually failed and then a hundred years later (a rounding error in a twenty-thousand year timeline) there was a second, more successful invasion. Point is, the fantastical dream landscape is now naught by ice and snow, ruled over by those strange yellow creatures, and the narrator is either too deluded with hope that he might yet waken and warn his fellows or else just really stupid and can’t put two and two together.
With Polaris, we have now seen precursors to each of the three main types of stories he would go on to write (though admittedly, the “Mythos ghost story” category is a bit of a reach):
- The Mythos ghost story. Stories like the Colour Out of Space and the Dunwich Horror, which are fundamentally ghost or witch stories in basic structure, but whose tone is radically altered by the villain being some Lovecraftian horror, alien and terrifying and monstrous but (at least according to the pop science of 1927) scientifically plausible. Someone is leading what seems to be an ordinary life, and is ambushed by some monster. The Poe-style stories like the Tomb and the Alchemist serve as precursors to these, although it’s a bit of a stretch to say that a pastiche of Poe’s straightforward (indeed, genre-defining) Gothic ghost stories are really a precedent for the distinct sub-genre of Mythos “ghost” stories.
- The dream epic. So far as I know, with the exception of a few precursor stories like Polaris, these are all in the Randolph Carter continuity, but seeing as I’ve only read a few highlights of Lovecraft’s work before, we’ll find out as we go. Polaris is our precedent.
- The Mythos epic. Stories like the Call of Cthulhu, which are globe-trotting investigations to reveal horrible secrets of forces far beyond the ken of humanity. Unlike the Mythos ghost story, the Mythos monster is not haunting a single New England village, but has the potential to destroy the world, often held in check either by dumb luck or just apathy: Nothing in the world is sufficiently nuisome to bother destroying. Dagon set the precedent here.
That’s right! In addition to two half-length short stories, I am also including a one-page “prose poem.” I’m actually skipping ahead a bit to get this one in, but I have an extra 500 words in this post and Beyond the Wall of Sleep (the next story in the B&N collection) is proper length and needs its own post. So here is Memory in its entirety:
In the valley of Nis the accursed waning moon shines thinly, tearing a path for its light with feeble horns through the lethal foliage of a great upas-tree. And within the depths of the valley, where the light reaches not, move forms not meet to be beheld. Rank is the herbage on each slope, where evil vines and creeping plants crawl amidst the stones of ruined palaces, twining tightly about broken columns and strange monoliths, and heaving up marble pavements laid by forgotten hands. And in trees that grow gigantic in crumbling courtyards leap little apes, while in and out of deep treasure-vaults writhe poison serpents and scaly things without a name.
Vast are the stones which sleep beneath coverlets of dank moss, and mighty were the walls from which they fell. For all time did their builders erect them, and in sooth they yet serve nobly, for beneath them the grey toad makes his habitation.
At the very bottom of the valley lies the river Than, whose waters are slimy and filled with weeds. From hidden springs it rises, and to subterranean grottoes it flows, so that the Daemon of the Valley knows not why its waters are red, nor whither they are bound.
The Genie that haunts the moonbeams spake to the Daemon of the Valley, saying, “I am old, and forget much. Tell me the deeds and aspect and name of them who built these things of stone.” And the Daemon replied, “I am Memory, and am wise in lore of the past, but I too am old. These beings were like the waters of the river Than, not to be understood. Their deeds I recall not, for they were but of the moment. Their aspect I recall dimly, for it was like to that of the little apes in the trees. Their name I recall clearly, for it rhymed with that of the river. These beings of yesterday were called Man.”
So the Genie flew back to the thin horned moon, and the Daemon looked intently at a little ape in a tree that grew in a crumbling courtyard.
I talked in the beginning of this series about how some of Lovecraft’s themes have been badly misunderstood. This is the first really clear example of the theme of apathy that gets mangled so routinely into malice. Not a word is said about how humanity was destroyed, and neither the Genie nor the Daemon seem to be at all responsible. The point here is that they persist while we do not. The horror is not that greater things than we are after us, but that they exist at all.