Mythos: Nyarlathotep and the Picture in the House

Nyarlathotep

There’s a fellow named Nyarlathotep who came out of Egypt and who ruins every city he comes to. Despite this, not only do people not try and keep him out, they willingly show up to attend his lectures. The protagonist is one such person, and after exiting the lecture, he finds himself with the rest of the attendees in Silent Hill.

Once we looked at the pavement and found the blocks loose and displaced by grass, with scarce a line of rusted metal to shew where the tramways had run. And again we saw a tram-car, lone, windowless, dilapidated, and almost on its side. When we gazed around the horizon, we could not find the third tower by the river, and noticed that the silhouette of the second tower was ragged at the top.

Nyarlathotep’s audience is then beckoned like lemmings off the edge of a cliff and into a terrible abyss. You’d think after the first couple of times this happened, people would stop asking Nyarlathotep to give demonstrations in their cities.

This very short story is based on a nightmare, and it shows. There are compelling ideas, but they are held together by pure dream logic. First the protagonist is in a theater seeing terrible visions, and protests that they must be scientifically explicable. An enraged Nyarlathotep throws him and the audience out into the city, which slowly decays around them, and they are pulled towards a great rift that swallows them up. It has a mood, but no plot or even really any characters. Things happen, and those things fit the atmosphere, but they have no causal connection to one another.

The Picture in the House

Most horrible of all sights are the little unpainted wooden houses remote from travelled ways, usually squatted upon some damp, grassy slope or leaning against some gigantic outcropping of rock. Two hundred years and more they have leaned or squatted there, while the vines have crawled and the trees have swelled and spread. They are almost hidden now in lawless luxuriances of green and guardian shrouds of shadow; but the small-paned windows still stare shockingly, as if blinking through a lethal stupor which wards off madness by dulling the memory of unutterable things.
     In such houses have dwelt generations of strange people, whose like the world has never seen. Seized with a gloomy and fanatical belief which exiled them from their kind, their ancestors sought the wilderness for freedom. There the scions of a conquering race indeed flourished free from the restrictions of their fellows, but cowered in an appalling slavery to the dismal phantasms of their own minds. Divorced from the enlightenment of civilisation, the strength of these Puritans turned into singular channels; and in their isolation, morbid self-repression, and struggle for life with relentless Nature, there came to them dark furtive traits from the prehistoric depths of their cold Northern heritage. By necessity practical and by philosophy stern, these folk were not beautiful in their sins. Erring as all mortals must, they were forced by their rigid code to seek concealment above all else; so that they came to use less and less taste in what they concealed. Only the silent, sleepy, staring houses in the backwoods can tell all that has lain hidden since the early days; and they are not communicative, being loath to shake off the drowsiness which helps them forget. Sometimes one feels that it would be merciful to tear down these houses, for they must often dream.

Courage House

It’s funny how much this kind of decay puts me off, and probably for entirely personal reasons. I have a much older sister, who I can barely remember sharing the house with before she moved out to college. When she was in high school, she was big on horror. Sometimes I’d find her old Stephen King novels lying around moving boxes and storage rooms much, much later. I can’t remember how prominent it was, but I know she had at least a couple of posters or books or something that featured the whole gothic American vibe. Decaying wooden buildings and stern Calvinists who look like they disapprove of the very concept of happiness. The kind of thing that the Addams Family was blending with 60s suburban romcom. The general vibe of this image:

Gothic Americana

This kind of thing is pretty clearly modeled more on what’s probably 1820s-1830s America rather than the pre-Revolutionary era that Lovecraft is describing, but the basic vibe is the same: Ancient, decaying remnants of a bygone era, a combination of age and neglect that suggests a horrific stagnation.

Anyway, our protagonist has come to one such house in order to escape a storm in Miskatonic Valley near the town of Arkham. Between this, Innsmouth, and Nyarlathotep, there’s a lot of what will eventually become the foundations of the Mythos coming into focus in these last few stories.

The house has at least one inhabitant, a man who seems quite healthy for all that he is terribly old.

His speech was very curious, an extreme form of Yankee dialect I had thought long extinct; and I studied it closely as he sat down opposite me for conversation.
     “Ketched in the rain, be ye?” he greeted. “Glad ye was nigh the haouse en’ hed the sense ta come right in. I calc’late I was asleep, else I’d a heerd ye—I ain’t as young as I uster be, an’ I need a paowerful sight o’ naps naowadays. Trav’lin’ fur? I hain’t seed many folks ’long this rud sence they tuk off the Arkham stage.”

Oh, God, a phonetic accent. The true horror has arrived.

Our protagonist is doing genealogical studies on the region – I’m going to assume he’s Mormon, based on that – and it pretty quickly becomes clear that he is absurdly old. As is often the case with Lovecraft protagonists, they’re a little bit slow on the uptake, and don’t realize that when this guy says “I traded for that book back in ’68,” he means 1768.

There’s a particular book that the protagonist has been looking at, some fanciful description of Africa from the 16th century. The old man who lives in the house describes how much he loves one picture in particular, a picture of a human being butchered. Like, literally, as though for meat. The old man never admits to anything, but it becomes pretty clear that he has somehow divined from this book he cannot read (it’s in Latin, though it’s not clear if this guy can even read English) some kind of cannibalistic ritual for life extension.

As I says, ’tis queer haow picters sets ye thinkin’. D’ye know, young Sir, I’m right sot on this un here. Arter I got the book off Eb I uster look at it a lot, especial when I’d heerd Passon Clark rant o’ Sundays in his big wig. Onct I tried suthin’ funny—here, young Sir, don’t git skeert—all I done was ter look at the picter afore I kilt the sheep for market—killin’ sheep was kinder more fun arter lookin’ at it—” The tone of the old man now sank very low, sometimes becoming so faint that his words were hardly audible.

 

“Killin’ sheep was kinder more fun—but d’ye know, ’twan’t quite satisfyin’. Queer haow a cravin’ gits a holt on ye— As ye love the Almighty, young man, don’t tell nobody, but I swar ter Gawd thet picter begun ta make me hungry fer victuals I couldn’t raise nor buy—here, set still, what’s ailin’ ye?—I didn’t do nothin’, only I wondered haow ’twud be ef I did— They say meat makes blood an’ flesh, an’ gives ye new life, so I wondered ef ’twudn’t make a man live longer an’ longer ef ’twas more the same—” But the whisperer never continued.

A drop of blood drips onto the page from up above, interrupting the old man’s monomania. Realistically speaking, it could just be another butchered sheep, but given the pacing of the story, it can’t be anything but a butchered human ready for cannibalization.

A moment later came the titanic thunderbolt of thunderbolts; blasting that accursed house of unutterable secrets and bringing the oblivion which alone saved my mind.

Wait, so our narrator is actually dead? Or was he just knocked unconscious? Either way, that’s the end of the story.

There’s a good sense of creeping dread to this story, even through the phonetic accent (the vibe could’ve been gotten across with diction alone, “funny how pictures set you to thinking” has an accent without needing a bunch of apostrophes and misspellings to communicate the idea). The abrupt ending is probably for the best. It’s not clear where the story would’ve gone from there. There’s several obvious directions, but all of them are less tense than what’s already been established, so just getting out once the climax has hit is probably better than having some chase scene, or having our protagonist captured and brought upstairs for a more explicit revelation of what’s already been shown with at least some vestige of subtlety.

Ex Oblivione

Bonus feature! This is another “prose poem” that barely reaches a full page in length, presented here in its entirety:

When the last days were upon me, and the ugly trifles of existence began to drive me to madness like the small drops of water that torturers let fall ceaselessly upon one spot of their victim’s body, I loved the irradiate refuge of sleep. In my dreams I found a little of the beauty I had vainly sought in life, and wandered through old gardens and enchanted woods.
     Once when the wind was soft and scented I heard the south calling, and sailed endlessly and languorously under strange stars.
     Once when the gentle rain fell I glided in a barge down a sunless stream under the earth till I reached another world of purple twilight, iridescent arbours, and undying roses.
     And once I walked through a golden valley that led to shadowy groves and ruins, and ended in a mighty wall green with antique vines, and pierced by a little gate of bronze.
     Many times I walked through that valley, and longer and longer would I pause in the spectral half-light where the giant trees squirmed and twisted grotesquely, and the grey ground stretched damply from trunk to trunk, sometimes disclosing the mould-stained stones of buried temples. And always the goal of my fancies was the mighty vine-grown wall with the little gate of bronze therein.
     After a while, as the days of waking became less and less bearable from their greyness and sameness, I would often drift in opiate peace through the valley and the shadowy groves, and wonder how I might seize them for my eternal dwelling-place, so that I need no more crawl back to a dull world stript of interest and new colours. And as I looked upon the little gate in the mighty wall, I felt that beyond it lay a dream-country from which, once it was entered, there would be no return.
     So each night in sleep I strove to find the hidden latch of the gate in the ivied antique wall, though it was exceedingly well hidden. And I would tell myself that the realm beyond the wall was not more lasting merely, but more lovely and radiant as well.
     Then one night in the dream-city of Zakarion I found a yellowed papyrus filled with the thoughts of dream-sages who dwelt of old in that city, and who were too wise ever to be born in the waking world. Therein were written many things concerning the world of dream, and among them was lore of a golden valley and a sacred grove with temples, and a high wall pierced by a little bronze gate. When I saw this lore, I knew that it touched on the scenes I had haunted, and I therefore read long in the yellowed papyrus.
     Some of the dream-sages wrote gorgeously of the wonders beyond the irrepassable gate, but others told of horror and disappointment. I knew not which to believe, yet longed more and more to cross forever into the unknown land; for doubt and secrecy are the lure of lures, and no new horror can be more terrible than the daily torture of the commonplace. So when I learned of the drug which would unlock the gate and drive me through, I resolved to take it when next I awaked.
     Last night I swallowed the drug and floated dreamily into the golden valley and the shadowy groves; and when I came this time to the antique wall, I saw that the small gate of bronze was ajar. From beyond came a glow that weirdly lit the giant twisted trees and the tops of the buried temples, and I drifted on songfully, expectant of the glories of the land from whence I should never return.
     But as the gate swung wider and the sorcery of drug and dream pushed me through, I knew that all sights and glories were at an end; for in that new realm was neither land nor sea, but only the white void of unpeopled and illimitable space. So, happier than I had ever dared hoped to be, I dissolved again into that native infinity of crystal oblivion from which the daemon Life had called me for one brief and desolate hour.

Lovecraft seems to be writing an awful lot of stories about people who die in order to embrace a dream world right here around 1920. Wonder if he was doing okay? An idea that fascinates an author isn’t always one that’s directly based on their experiences, but also, y’know, sometimes it is. Doesn’t really matter, dude’s long dead either way, but I do wonder.

1 thought on “Mythos: Nyarlathotep and the Picture in the House”

  1. > Wonder if he was doing okay?

    There was absolutely never a period when he Lovecraft was doing okay. His father died early. His mother had a mental breakdown, was abusive, and is on record saying that “[Lovecraft] is so hideous he only goes out at night, so that nobody could see him”.

    And when they died the only thing they left him was a host of mental illnesses and hereditary diseases.

    Lovecraft had a fascination with science, but could not seriously pursue it as even basic algebra would give him terrible headaches and anxiety attacks.

    To our knowledge the only time Lovecraft was kinda happy was when he was married. But even that was rough on him. Being kissed by his wife for the first time gave Lovecraft a panic attack as he has never been kissed in his life by any woman.

    Like

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