Let’s call it Steve!
I should have known that the Arabs had good reason for shunning the nameless city, the city told of in strange tales but seen by no living man, yet I defied them and went into the untrodden waste with my camel.
This is the first real Cthulhu Mythos story we’ve had, one in which ancient temples in forsaken wastelands hold cosmic horrors. It’s not just a ghost story where the ghost is actually a scientifically plausible (according to the pop sci of the time, at least) alien, nor is it a dream journey to a fantastic otherworld. This is the same sub-niche of Lovecraft’s work in which Cthulhu lies dreaming in R’lyeh. It even introduces us to Abdul Alhazred and his famous couplet:
That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.
Kind of him to make sure it rhymes in English, when presumably it would have been written in Arabic originally.
It’s Lovecraft writing about Arabia, so naturally the first question is “how racist is this?” The answer so far is “maybe slightly, but not enough to be a big deal.” In fact, Lovecraft (probably accidentally, but still) repudiates one of the most enduring racist tropes of modern literature:
I should have known that the Arabs had good reason for shunning the nameless city, the city told of in strange tales but seen by no living man, yet I defied them and went into the untrodden waste with my camel. I alone have seen it, and that is why no other face bears such hideous lines of fear as mine; why no other man shivers so horribly when the night-wind rattles the windows.
The trope of the European explorer defying local tales with his enlightened understanding of science and reason and thus conquering the shadows that the natives had lived in fear of for centuries? In fairness, that trope has its roots in the storytelling need to 1) have a protagonist who can learn about an unfamiliar setting by proxy for the reader, who, whatever culture they come from, is probably not exactly the culture the story takes place in, 2) establish a sense of ancient and foreboding danger, which the protagonist will nevertheless face, and 3) have a fun action schlock climax in which the danger is overcome. That this paints the natives as helpless idiots in need of saving by a foreigner is probably not intentional, although to be clear, that makes it less bad but still does not make it okay.
But that’s all just general criticism of adventure fiction. That’s not how Lovecraft works. In Lovecraft, when the natives tell you not to disturb the ancient evils in a nameless temple cloistered in forsaken wastelands, you better fucking listen.
Of course, Lovecraft’s protagonists never actually listen, because then there wouldn’t be a story. It just doesn’t usually end well for them. Best case scenario, they end up haunted by what they saw for the rest of their life, with the only consolation prize being that they killed a few stray Mythos monsters and the Mythos monsters didn’t kill you or drive you completely insane in return. Worst case scenario, you just die for nothing. We’ll see which bucket our current protagonist sorts himself into.
In and out amongst the shapeless foundations of houses and palaces I wandered, finding never a carving or inscription to tell of those men, if men they were, who built the city and dwelt therein so long ago. The antiquity of the spot was unwholesome, and I longed to encounter some sign or device to prove that the city was indeed fashioned by mankind. There were certain proportions and dimensions in the ruins which I did not like. I had with me many tools, and dug much within the walls of the obliterated edifices; but progress was slow, and nothing significant was revealed.
Well, yeah. You’re an archaeological expedition of one guy, how much digging did you expect to accomplish?
There’s some dream world references in the middle of the expedition:
At noon I rested, and in the afternoon I spent much time tracing the walls, and the bygone streets, and the outlines of the nearly vanished buildings. I saw that the city had been mighty indeed, and wondered at the sources of its greatness. To myself I pictured all the splendours of an age so distant that Chaldaea could not recall it, 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.
Maps of Lovecraft’s dream world that I’ve found place these cities firmly in that other reality, not sharing the same world as Arabia. In fairness, however, the lost land spoken of in Polaris is also located by those maps within the dream world, despite quite clearly having been located in some arctic or near-arctic locale in actual Earth in the story of Polaris itself. I’m not sure if this is something Lovecraft will retcon himself later on, or if it’s fans sorting Sarnath into the dreamlands just because it seems like a better thematic fit there.
Our protagonist explores a few shrines and temples, each of which seem to have been created for a species much shorter than humanity. That night, a gale starts up apparently coming from one of the temples, this one larger, having been formed from a natural cavern, and our protagonist investigates. The temple holds a staircase that goes deep down below the earth and ultimately into a catacomb filled with glass sarcophagi that contain inhuman mummies.
To convey any idea of these monstrosities is impossible.
So I guess the story just ends there, then. Once again, however, Lovecraft is lying about how indescribable the mummies are, and he goes on to convey an idea of these monstrosities:
They were of the reptile kind, with body lines suggesting sometimes the crocodile, sometimes the seal, but more often nothing of which either the naturalist or the palaeontologist ever heard. In size they approximated a small man, and their fore legs bore delicate and evidently flexible feet curiously like human hands and fingers. But strangest of all were their heads, which presented a contour violating all known biological principles. To nothing can such things be well compared—in one flash I thought of comparisons as varied as the cat, the bulldog, the mythic Satyr, and the human being. Not Jove himself had so colossal and protuberant a forehead, yet the horns and the noselessness and the alligator-like jaw placed the things outside all established categories.
A mural depicts these creatures as inhabitants of the city, but our protagonist assumes this is a metaphor, like the she-wolf that allegedly raised Romulus and Remus or how Egypt really liked cats. Apparently the people of this city withdrew into a fantastic subterranean world where their civilization grew to unparalleled might, beyond that which its successors in Egypt could ever have dreamed (it’s not clear how they stack up against later, greater civilizations, even things like the Roman or Ottoman Empires, let alone the glittering wonders of modern technology). Also, the inhabitants appear to have been biologically immortal.
As is usually the case, Lovecraft’s protagonist is extremely slow in the uptake:
The allegory of the crawling creatures puzzled me by its universal prominence, and I wondered that it should be so closely followed in a pictured history of such importance. In the frescoes the nameless city had been shewn in proportions fitted to the reptiles. I wondered what its real proportions and magnificence had been, and reflected a moment on certain oddities I had noticed in the ruins. I thought curiously of the lowness of the primal temples and of the underground corridor, which were doubtless hewn thus out of deference to the reptile deities there honoured; though it perforce reduced the worshippers to crawling. Perhaps the very rites had involved a crawling in imitation of the creatures. No religious theory, however, could easily explain why the level passage in that awesome descent should be as low as the temples—or lower, since one could not even kneel in it.
In Lovecraft’s defense, it’s a thin line to walk between “protagonist is so slow to accept the supernatural that he comes across as thick” and “protagonist is so quick to accept the supernatural that he seems to know he’s in a horror story.” Still, by this stage, I’d expect him to at least be entertaining the idea that these mummified creatures were the city’s actual inhabitants, with a sort of “it can’t be. Can it? No. Maybe?” sort of waffling.
Our hero comes across a brass door leading into some luminescent mist, presumably the subterranean wonderland into which the creatures ultimately descended. According to the murals, the last time a human tried to enter, the lizard people tore him apart.
When alien chanting starts up from the mysterious mist and a gust of wind threatens to blow him inside, our protagonist finally finds the limits of his suicidal curiosity, and manages to scrounge up the good sense to flee. He sees the inhabitants of the city behind him at some point – I think he’s fleeing, but the events are a bit jumbled at the end as the protagonist’s recollections succumb to panic-induced madness – but evidently manages to escape without any physical harm. He is forever haunted by what he has seen, but still seems to be functional and is physically unscathed. So far as Lovecraft protagonists go, he’s batting about average.
This is another one of those stories that, to the modern reader if not at the time, it seems really weird that the experience should be so haunting. A close brush with death is definitely something that can shake you up, for obvious reasons, but our protagonist here is supposed to be more horrified of the existence of these primordial creatures than simply the fact that they tried to kill him and his escape seems to have been pretty narrow. Bear in mind, they pose no ongoing threat, they’re shut up in their subterranean wonderland and show no interest in coming topside ever again, plus it’s not clear how they’d measure up against an infantry regiment if it came down to open warfare for control of the surface. The frightening thing is that they are.
But, like, that’s not super frightening? Maybe the idea that intelligent, city-building creatures pre-dating humanity was frightening in Lovecraft’s era, but these days you say “primordial aliens whose civilization predates our own by millennia” and my first thought is “I have returned.” Other people might first think of the Covenant, or the Vulcans, or just the ambiguous idea of aliens in general. Either way, if the idea is frightening at all, it’s because we assume a species that got their start a million years ahead of us is probably still a million years ahead of us, and that gives them a pretty serious advantage in any military confrontation. The idea of finding ancient ruins on Earth that are not ultimately from Earth is frightening only to the extent that their builders might come back.
Here in Lovecraft, we’re apparently supposed to be scared just because it turns out we’re not the only sapient species in the universe? Seems like the same basic horror as “somewhere out in the world is a black person! (scare chord),” not that the reptilian creatures here seem like they’re meant to be allegorical to any human race or even the idea of other races in general, just that the ultimate horror is that there exist things out there which aren’t like us, and that by itself is supposed to be frightening.