This is the fictional biography of a New England road. Lovecraft describes how it was made by Puritan settlers, expanded in the colonial days, got industrialized, and was then ruined when all those immigrants came, because Lovecraft.
Then came days of evil, when many who had known The Street of old knew it no more; and many knew it, who had not known it before. And those who came were never as those who went away; for their accents were coarse and strident, and their mien and faces unpleasing.
New kinds of faces appeared in The Street; swarthy, sinister faces with furtive eyes and odd features, whose owners spoke unfamiliar words and placed signs in known and unknown characters upon most of the musty houses. Push-carts crowded the gutters. A sordid, undefinable stench settled over the place, and the ancient spirit slept.
But Lovecraft doesn’t just hate immigrants. He also hates Communists!
Swarthy and sinister were most of the strangers, yet among them one might find a few faces like those who fashioned The Street and moulded its spirit. Like and yet unlike, for there was in the eyes of all a weird, unhealthy glitter as of greed, ambition, vindictiveness, or misguided zeal. Unrest and treason were abroad amongst an evil few who plotted to strike the Western Land its death-blow, that they might mount to power over its ruins; even as assassins had mounted in that unhappy, frozen land from whence most of them had come. And the heart of that plotting was in The Street, whose crumbling houses teemed with alien makers of discord and echoed with the plans and speeches of those who yearned for the appointed day of blood, flame, and crime.
I say he hates Communists. Really, it’s more that he hates Russians, and would probably have been perfectly okay with Communism had it ever become popular in New England.
The Street thwarts the Communist revolution by collapsing its own buildings, though, adding the one touch of the fantastic to an otherwise realist fiction. I say “realist,” but of course I mean realism in the sense that it is meant to be realistic. In actuality, associating Communist revolutionaries with primal, chaotic anarchy didn’t prove to be a winning prediction.
Of course, Lovecraft can’t really be blamed for failing to predict how militaristic Communism would turn out to be, writing as he was in 1919. I just like posting that Mayday Parade picture in response to people presuming that left-wing political dominance necessarily means government as designed by your annoying college-age little sister who won’t shut up on Facebook, a presumption that is much stupider today than it was when Lovecraft was writing.
But while that particular criticism isn’t especially Lovecraft’s fault, the Street does constantly reinforce the idea that this is a struggle not between ideologies, but between peoples, that Communism is not what unites the anarchists of the Street, but rather being foreign. Some of them are Russian, some of them are ambiguously “swarthy,” but the important thing is that they’re not New England WASPs, the only virtuous people in Lovecraft’s world.
Casting Communists as the ethnic villains is particularly braindead in execution, because the whole “workers of the world, unite!” concept is never even referred to except maybe in the most oblique of ways in that both Russian and “swarthy” immigrants are referred to in the same paragraph in a way that kinda-sorta implies some kind of affiliation between them a bit. While individual Communist nations often made hypocritical alliances with ethno-centric populist movements, Communism as an abstract ideology is explicitly opposed to the very concept, and here Communism is depicted not as fundamentally ideologically opposed to ethnic jingoism, but as just being the banner of Russian ethnic jingoism. And this is 1919, Communism as a political force is still pretty similar to Communism as an abstract ideology. Lovecraft doesn’t do the usual fascist thing of reframing this as a cunning trick by which lesser races steal from their superiors, he just ignores completely the ideology of his primary antagonists. They are Russians, and therefore inherently evil, and the details of their beliefs don’t even matter.
If you ever need a story to point people at in order to prove that Lovecraft was racist, The Street is a pretty good candidate. It’s short and very straightforward in its spite for immigrants of even slightly different ethnicity than Lovecraft’s own.
The Doom That Came to Sarnath
Lovecraft is imitating Dunsany again, telling us of the mighty city of Sarnath in the ancient land of Mnar. In this land, there dwell some proto-orc fantasy monster creatures:
It is told that in the immemorial years when the world was young, before ever the men of Sarnath came to the land of Mnar, another city stood beside the lake; the grey stone city of Ib, which was old as the lake itself, and peopled with beings not pleasing to behold. Very odd and ugly were these beings, as indeed are most beings of a world yet inchoate and rudely fashioned. It is written on the brick cylinders of Kadatheron that the beings of Ib were in hue as green as the lake and the mists that rise above it; that they had bulging eyes, pouting, flabby lips, and curious ears, and were without voice.
There’s definitely some primitive fantasy elements going on here, but you can also see some distinctly Lovecraftian elements as well, with the Iblings being vaguely fish-like and worshiping at green stone idols some ancient lizard god.
As the men of Sarnath beheld more of the beings of Ib their hate grew, and it was not less because they found the beings weak, and soft as jelly to the touch of stones and spears and arrows. So one day the young warriors, the slingers and the spearmen and the bowmen, marched against Ib and slew all the inhabitants thereof, pushing the queer bodies into the lake with long spears, because they did not wish to touch them.
Okay, so, the men of Sarnath are the bad guys, right? Like, “they lived here first and had no quarrel with us, but we killed them all because we didn’t like the look of them” is some of the most straightforward villainy I can imagine.
Here Lovecraft indulges in what is probably his worst habit, the endless description of scenery that doesn’t really matter. The bottom line that Lovecraft takes multiple pages of his five page short story to relay is that Sarnath subsequently becomes very wealthy and looks very impressive.
Finally, a thousand years of mostly redundant city description later, doom comes to Sarnath. It is swallowed up by a green mist, and the inhabitants are turned into Iblings. Those who survive flee to other cities of the empire that Sarnath has conquered. Generations hence, explorers return to Sarnath to examine its remains, and find it totally gone except for one statue to the ancient lizard god worshiped by the Iblings. They bring the statue back to their home city, and the lizard god subsequently becomes worshiped throughout Mnar.
So, I guess the moral of the story here actually is that genocide is bad. Honestly, I was pretty sure Lovecraft was about to go completely beyond the pale, but although it’s not the actual genociders who pay for it, there is a terrible retribution for the destruction of Ib.
The Statement of Randolph Carter
In terms of milestones in Lovecraft’s career, the first appearance of Randolph Carter is almost on par with the first appearance of Cthulhu. Randolph Carter will go on to be the protagonist of what is, to my knowledge, the only set of stories to be direct sequels to one another. Also, Randolph Carter is probably a self-insert, so we’ll see how many more “amateur fan fiction writer” pitfalls Lovecraft manages to fall into during this story.
Randolph Carter begins the story under arrest and being interrogated by the police, insisting that there’s nothing more he can tell them except what he already has. He then recounts everything he told them. I’m not sure why, seeing as he has apparently told them everything already. He is accused of the murder of his own friend for, so far as the narrative relates, no better reason except that he was the last one to be seen with him. Apparently only the latter of motive, means, and opportunity is necessary to establish guilt.
Randolph Carter begins his explanation by saying that he and his friend were venturing into the swamp for a bit of occult-related grave robbing, that’s all. His friend descends into the depths alone, but with a telephone attached to a wire that he unspools behind him, allowing him to stay in touch with Carter as he descends into the swamp crypt.
“God! If you could see what I am seeing!”
I could not answer. Speechless, I could only wait. Then came the frenzied tones again:
“Carter, it’s terrible—monstrous—unbelievable!”
This time my voice did not fail me, and I poured into the transmitter a flood of excited questions. Terrified, I continued to repeat, “Warren, what is it? What is it?”
Once more came the voice of my friend, still hoarse with fear, and now apparently tinged with despair:
“I can’t tell you, Carter! It’s too utterly beyond thought—I dare not tell you—no man could know it and live—Great God! I never dreamed of THIS!” Stillness again, save for my now incoherent torrent of shuddering inquiry. Then the voice of Warren in a pitch of wilder consternation:
“Carter! for the love of God, put back the slab and get out of this if you can! Quick!—leave everything else and make for the outside—it’s your only chance! Do as I say, and don’t ask me to explain!”
Lucky for Carter he ignored this advice, because otherwise I’m pretty sure it would count as murder even if his report is totally accurate. Warren continues to beg Carter to replace the slab and seal up the tomb and flee, and Carter continues to refuse until the line goes dead.
After that was silence. I know not how many interminable aeons I sat stupefied; whispering, muttering, calling, screaming into that telephone. Over and over again through those aeons I whispered and muttered, called, shouted, and screamed, “Warren! Warren! Answer me—are you there?”
And then a response comes through the phone.
It was the end of my experience, and is the end of my story. I heard it, and knew no more. Heard it as I sat petrified in that unknown cemetery in the hollow, amidst the crumbling stones and the falling tombs, the rank vegetation and the miasmal vapours. Heard it well up from the innermost depths of that damnable open sepulchre as I watched amorphous, necrophagous shadows dance beneath an accursed waning moon. And this is what it said:
“YOU FOOL, WARREN IS DEAD!”
Then who was phone?!