I never wrote it down, but a couple of posts into this Mythos review I decided that I’d go to the bottom of the first page of the table of contents of my Lovecraft collection, about 200 pages in. This was pretty consistent with how long a lot of the novels I’ve reviewed have been, so I figured I’d get my standard dozen-ish posts out of it. This is not how that has worked. The pages-read-per-review-words-written ratio has been seriously damaged by the need to constantly re-establish the premise and reintroduce main characters with every new story. In longer books, there sooner or later comes a point where you get who the characters are, how the setting works, where the plot is headed, and I can summarize ten pages in one paragraph. With short stories, that never happens, so these perfectly typical 200 pages (not even quite that, even) of material have sprawled out all over the place. I am gonna go ahead and finish it out because I’m already in the home stretch, but my God I have been reviewing Lovecraft for way too long now and I need a good long break from him. There’s three short stories left before the bottom of the table of contents’ first page, let’s see if we can get through all of them today. Quality may take a hit, as I’m mainly concerned with getting these stories out of the way. The Lovecraft project reinvigorated the blog when it began, but now it’s the thing draining the life away, so we need to put a bow on this and move on.
This story begins with a description of Irish-American Denys Barry, who is descended from Irish aristocracy. Did this happen? Did Irish nobles come west to America? I guess it’s probably happened ever, but America was always the destination for poor people. Except the southern plantations, actually, those were settled in part by nobles-in-exile who were on the wrong end of a civil war (this became a habit for them). But the standard Irish immigrant was an indentured servant to one of those guys.
Anyway, Denys Barry returns to his family’s abandoned castle and rebuilds it with his American wealth, and everything goes great until he starts trying to drain a nearby bog. He invites the protagonist over to hear more, and the protagonist apparently has nothing better to do but make a cross-Atlantic trip in 1921 to listen to an old friend’s real estate development troubles. The protagonist and Denys Barry have a good long laugh together at how superstitious the peasants are. In fairness to them, they don’t know they’re in a horror story, but back on the other hand, when you’re a brand new foreigner who has no idea how things work around here and the people who’ve lived her their entire lives tell you that a witch lives in the swamp, odds are fantastic that whether or not a literal witch lives out there, fucking with the swamp is a super bad idea, especially if the locals prove how deadly serious they are about it by abandoning paying jobs en masse when they realize you’re mucking with the bog.
Our protagonist goes to sleep and has strange dreams of the ruins of the city that once lay where the bog now is. The weird thing is, the ancient city is Greek. Not even Roman, but Greek. In Ireland. It’s really overt, too:
Influenced by the legends that Barry had related, my mind had in slumber hovered around a stately city in a green valley, where marble streets and statues, villas and temples, carvings and inscriptions, all spoke in certain tones the glory that was Greece.
So it’s not like this is a generic ancient city that wound up looking Greek because that is what Lovecraft thinks of when he thinks “ancient ruin” and he didn’t realize that Irish ruins look different. The ruin is explicitly Greek.
In the night, the narrator looks out over the fields from his guest room in the castle and sees the laborers brought in from elsewhere in Ireland to drain the swamp dancing with ghostly naiads. The laborers don’t remember a moment of it in the morning, although they are constantly tired, and the narrator dismisses the ghost dance as a dream.
The next night, there is another nightmare, but this time the new workers get pied piper’d straight into the bog, where it’s implied they’re all turned into frogs, and if not that then they presumably just drowned. It’s not clear exactly what happened to Denys Barry, but the narrator sees some grotesque shadow of him in the distant bog ruins before fleeing the town, so presumably something awful has occurred. No explanation is ever given for why it’s all Greek.
Our hero this time is some guy who grew up in a castle without ever having known any other human being. He somehow learned to read and recognizes that he must’ve been cared for by someone in order to reach early childhood without starving, but doesn’t recall who they are, except a faint memory that they were old and shriveled. So this guy must’ve been alone from the time he was, what, three? Who taught him to read? He says he learned everything he knows from books, and implies when saying he can’t recognize spoken words that he can recognize written words. And what does he eat?
My aspect was a matter equally unthought of, for there were no mirrors in the castle, and I merely regarded myself by instinct as akin to the youthful figures I saw drawn and painted in the books. I felt conscious of youth because I remembered so little.
So I guess you never thought to examine your torso and limbs and compare them against the illustrations? Your entire front side below the neck is pretty easy to examine even without mirrors.
This castle is also apparently shrouded in permanent darkness:
Then in the shadowy solitude my longing for light grew so frantic that I could rest no more, and I lifted entreating hands to the single black ruined tower that reached above the forest into the unknown outer sky. And at last I resolved to scale that tower, fall though I might; since it were better to glimpse the sky and perish, than to live without ever beholding day.
I guess there’s a lifetime supply of lantern oil in here? Or else when he says “to live without ever beholding day,” he means particularly bright and sunny days, and the castle is overcast but still sufficiently well-lit to read by. Upon reaching the summit of the tower, our protagonist emerges onto…ground level of a churchyard. It’s impossible that he’s spent his entire life underground until now, because he’s attempted to flee the castle into the woods before, unable to find any other sign of civilization before fear pushed him back to the familiar. Exploring the wood at the top of the tower, he eventually finds another castle, which seems familiar but different, and is currently hosting a party. I’m pretty sure this is some kind of time travel to back when the castle was inhabited, and was less collapsed than it is now? And possibly before a renovation which subsequently fell to ruin again, depending on how immediately and thoroughly horror is going to descend upon the castle.
When horror does descend, it’s…really vague. Like, even by Lovecraft standards. People flee in a panic, and the protagonist is just like “wow, something scary must be going on,” but apparently he can’t see it? Probably they’re scared of him, because he’s some kind of fish monster and has somehow never looked down at his own body to notice?
That would definitely gel with his being appalled by his own voice, when he now uses it for the first time ever, having apparently never made grunting or screaming or humming noises before in his entire life:
As I approached the arch I began to perceive the presence more clearly; and then, with the first and last sound I ever uttered—a ghastly ululation that revolted me almost as poignantly as its noxious cause—I beheld in full, frightful vividness the inconceivable, indescribable, and unmentionable monstrosity which had by its simple appearance changed a merry company to a herd of delirious fugitives.
‘Course, you might think that him actually seeing the monster rules out his being the monster.
I cannot even hint what it was like, for it was a compound of all that is unclean, uncanny, unwelcome, abnormal, and detestable.
As usual, Lovecraft will immediately reveal himself to have been lying about this.
It was the ghoulish shade of decay, antiquity, and desolation; the putrid, dripping eidolon of unwholesome revelation; the awful baring of that which the merciful earth should always hide. God knows it was not of this world—or no longer of this world—yet to my horror I saw in its eaten-away and bone-revealing outlines a leering, abhorrent travesty on the human shape; and in its mouldy, disintegrating apparel an unspeakable quality that chilled me even more.
And again, you’d think that this would put an end to the “protagonist is the monster that caused the panicked flight” theory, because how could he possibly have failed to notice his own limbs having this putrid, rotted appearance when he has enough light to read by?
He flees from the horror and finds himself unable to get back into the tower he emerged from. He apparently doesn’t want to go back, which is weird, considering that he tried.
Now I ride with the mocking and friendly ghouls on the night-wind, and play by day amongst the catacombs of Nephren-Ka in the sealed and unknown valley of Hadoth by the Nile. I know that light is not for me, save that of the moon over the rock tombs of Neb, nor any gaiety save the unnamed feasts of Nitokris beneath the Great Pyramid; yet in my new wildness and freedom I almost welcome the bitterness of alienage.
For although nepenthe has calmed me, I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men. This I have known ever since I stretched out my fingers to the abomination within that great gilded frame; stretched out my fingers and touched a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass.
There’s a typo shared between both the online version I use for quoting and the paper version I read from, so maybe that typo made it into the original manuscript? Anyway, I’m putting a corrected version on record:
For although nepenthe has calmed me, I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men. This I have known ever since I stretched out my fingers to the abomination within that great gilded frame; stretched out my fingers and touched A COLD AND UNYIELDING SURFACE OF POLISHED GLASS!
There are some similarities between this story and The Tomb from way back in Lovecraft’s kinda-like-Poe period, and this whole story seems like it belongs more in that period than here in 1921. The only thing particularly Lovecraftian about this Lovecraft story – beyond the fact that Lovecraft wrote it and it is therefore 100% Lovecraftian by definition, but you know what I mean – is that Egypt is a land of sinister sorcery, and even that is less cosmic sorcery and more Universal horror sorcery than Lovecraft’s immortal pharaoh-gods usually get up to. Barnes and Noble’s mystery commentator says the death of his mother had Lovecraft in a more Poe-ish mood than usual, and it’s definitely a break from the kinds of stories he’d been writing around this time.
The Other Gods
Atop the tallest of earth’s peaks dwell the gods of earth, and suffer no man to tell that he hath looked upon them.
Thirty-two years after the writing, Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary would tell the gods to fuck off.
I decided to make that joke immediately after reading the first line, but apparently no, that’s actually what happened:
Lesser peaks they once inhabited; but ever the men from the plains would scale the slopes of rock and snow, driving the gods to higher and higher mountains till now only the last remains.
The gods are done fucking around, though, and have decided that if anyone scales Everest (bizarrely misspelled as “Kadath” in this story), they’re going to regret it. This is apparently a change from when they lived on places like Olympus? But I’m pretty sure Greek legend is pretty clear about people who try to ascend Olympus getting struck down.
Our protagonist, naturally, plans to climb the mountains anyway. He’s cunning and wily and knows all the secrets of the gods, and thinks he can use his knowledge to shield himself from their wrath. The mountain he’s climbing is actually Hatheg-Kla, which the gods visit sometime, and which is, I guess, more easily climbable. With all his god lore, our protagonist knows when the gods will be visiting, and goes up to see them. Upon reaching the summit and hearing the gods, he immediately begins shouting at his acolyte Atal.
“I have heard the gods! I have heard earth’s gods singing in revelry on Hatheg-Kla! The voices of earth’s gods are known to Barzai the Prophet! The mists are thin and the moon is bright, and I shall see the gods dancing wildly on Hatheg-Kla that they loved in youth! The wisdom of Barzai hath made him greater than earth’s gods, and against his will their spells and barriers are as naught; Barzai will behold the gods, the proud gods, the secret gods, the gods of earth who spurn the sight of men!”
Dude, isn’t this supposed to be a stealth mission? Unless the gods are all deaf, your cover is super blown.
Barzai’s got bigger problems, though:
“The moon is dark, and the gods dance in the night; there is terror in the sky, for upon the moon hath sunk an eclipse foretold in no books of men or of earth’s gods. . . . There is unknown magic on Hatheg-Kla, for the screams of the frightened gods have turned to laughter, and the slopes of ice shoot up endlessly into the black heavens whither I am plunging. . . . Hei! Hei! At last! In the dim light I behold the gods of earth!”
And now Atal, slipping dizzily up over inconceivable steeps, heard in the dark a loathsome laughing, mixed with such a cry as no man else ever heard save in the Phlegethon of unrelatable nightmares; a cry wherein reverberated the horror and anguish of a haunted lifetime packed into one atrocious moment:
“The other gods! The other gods! The gods of the outer hells that guard the feeble gods of earth! . . . Look away! . . . Go back! . . . Do not see! . . . Do not see! . . . The vengeance of the infinite abysses . . . That cursed, that damnable pit . . . Merciful gods of earth, I am falling into the sky!”
It’s very kind of Barzai to narrate his horrifying demise for Atal like this.