Mythos: The Nameless City

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.

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Mythos: Sweet Ermengarde

Unlike the last time Lovecraft satirized prohibition, this comedy’s jokes are pretty apparent to me even writing as I am from 2019, nearly a full century after the end.

Her name was originally Ethyl Ermengarde, but her father persuaded her to drop the praenomen after the passage of the 18th Amendment, averring that it made him thirsty by reminding him of ethyl alcohol, C2H5OH.

That’s kinda funny. There’s another couple all in the first paragraph:

She had large black eyes, a prominent Roman nose, light hair which was never dark at the roots except when the local drug store was short on supplies, and a beautiful but inexpensive complexion. She was about 5ft 5.33…in tall, weighed 115.47 lbs. on her father’s corn scales—also off them—and was adjudged most lovely by all the village swains who admired her father’s farm and liked his liquid crops.

Ermengarde has a villainous suitor who hopes to marry her and so gain the vein of untapped gold that he alone knows is under her father’s farm. Why that doesn’t belong to her father is unclear. But Ermengarde has another suitor, one Jack Manly:

Close by the village dwelt another—the handsome Jack Manly, whose curly yellow hair had won the sweet Ermengarde’s affection when both were toddling youngsters at the village school.

Bad news for Squire McVillainous, the childhood friend always wins. Jack proposes, and Ermengarde is overtaken with joy:

[“]Such is your natural nobility that I had feared—I mean thought—you would be blind to such slight charms as I possess, and that you would seek your fortune in the great city; there meeting and wedding one of those more comely damsels whose splendour we observe in fashion books.[“]

Shit, you think that would work? Maybe this proposal is a mistake.

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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.

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Mythos: Celephais and From Beyond

Celephais

We’re back in the dream world today, and our protagonist dreams because there is nothing left for him in the waking world:

Perhaps it was natural for him to dream a new name; for he was the last of his family, and alone among the indifferent millions of London, so there were not many to speak to him and remind him who he had been. His money and lands were gone, and he did not care for the ways of people about him, but preferred to dream and write of his dreams. What he wrote was laughed at by those to whom he shewed it, so that after a time he kept his writings to himself, and finally ceased to write. The more he withdrew from the world about him, the more wonderful became his dreams; and it would have been quite futile to try to describe them on paper.

So I guess that’s the end of the story, then?

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Mythos: Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family

On Sunday, I nearly got a hit by a car. Now, “nearly” means “not actually hit” means I suffered no actual injury at all, but I was whacked out on adrenaline for like three hours and then crashed super hard afterwards, so the post that should’ve been written on Sunday for Monday has instead been written on Monday for Tuesday, and will appear alongside an article coming three hours from now, at the usual posting time. I’m also taking the opportunity to throw things up at slightly weird times and see if it affects traffic at all. These posts are mostly written 24-48 hours in advance, so I figure if the 9 AM time gets more traffic than the 12 noon, then hey, may as well schedule it for then.

Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemoniacal hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous. Science, already oppressive with its shocking revelations, will perhaps be the ultimate exterminator of our human species—if separate species we be—for its reserve of unguessed horrors could never be borne by mortal brains if loosed upon the world.

The idea that being sheltered and ignorant is actually a good thing is something that Lovecraft will come back to at least a few more times, and something he’s pretty famous for. The unknown is frightening, so the idea that learning about something is inherently deadly means that it is, in theory, perpetually scary. In practice, the ambiguous contents of darkened rooms only hold the imagination for so long, and once you have described a fictional horror, no matter how much you insist afterwards that you have described only part of it, what you described will ever after be all of it, and its horror will wear away until it becomes mundane.

Anyway, while the idea that there can be types of knowledge that are inherently dangerous is a compelling fictional concept, it is sometimes overshadowed by Lovecraft’s actual neuroses poking through. For example:

Arthur Jermyn went out on the moor and burned himself after seeing the boxed object which had come from Africa.

Knowing how much Lovecraft hates everyone who isn’t a New England WASP, the idea that the whole story might just be an allegory for the inherent cosmic horror that somewhere out there black people exist (scare chord) immediately punches the momentum out of it. I don’t even know if that allegory is going to be borne out, but its mere plausibility harms the story. On the one hand, that isn’t this specific story’s fault. I only know that because I have a greater understanding of Lovecraft’s work. On the other hand, part of the point of this project is taking Lovecraft’s works as a collective, as a shared universe, picking through them to see which parts of them are the Cthulhu Mythos. And there’s a pretty good argument for including both the Street and the Terrible Old Man.

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Mythos: The Temple

For the first time in his career so far, Lovecraft delivers a story that reaches the staggering length of ten pages. We’ll probably need a single full blog post to dedicate to this one.

Our protagonist is the commander of a German U-boat during WW1, and he’s leaving this document in a bottle in hopes that it will reach the surface, for he does not expect to survive his current predicament. After torpedoing a British ship, they find a sailor’s corpse in the wreckage and guess that he is Italian or Greek and in possession of an ivory carving of a laurel-crowned young man’s head. I assume this will be relevant to the plot, otherwise our protagonist is just letting us know that the sailors under his command engage in looting corpses for no other reason except, presumably, to make sure the audience knows that the Germans are meant to be the villains of WW1. The corpse takes it pretty well.

The Boatswain Müller, an elderly man who would have known better had he not been a superstitious Alsatian swine, became so excited by this impression that he watched the body in the water; and swore that after it sank a little it drew its limbs into a swimming position and sped away to the south under the waves. Klenze and I did not like these displays of peasant ignorance, and severely reprimanded the men, particularly Müller.

The weird thing is that I’m 70% sure this is supposed to paint our German protagonist in a bad light. The “Alsatian swine” is totally correct, after all, and our hero’s unwillingness to entertain superstition is probably what’s about to lead to his sub getting wrecked. But Lovecraft just wrote the Street like three or four months before this story. Is he really so lacking in self-awareness as to try and characterize a villain using petty racism while engaging in near-identical petty racism himself? I can imagine someone who would agree, if you presented it to them, that racism against Alsatians is dumb but racism against Portugese is totally fine, but Lovecraft seems like he’s actually bringing up of his own volition a criticism of how petty some German (Prussian, probably?) officer’s racism against Alsace is.

The crew are haunted by nightmares of the drowned dead coming for revenge, and the sub commander is too thick to toss the ivory carving that is clearly responsible. Even assuming we absolutely ignore any potential supernatural cause to the nightmares, clearly chucking this thing would be good for morale, and it’s not exactly hard to throw something into the ocean. They’re surfacing regularly, partly because WW1-era submarines have to, but also we know they are because (and I’m getting slightly ahead of myself to say this, but) two of the crew eventually kill themselves by jumping overboard. We wouldn’t have a story if the commander behaved at all sensibly, though, so stubborn refusal to display any hint of believing in superstition it is.

On June 20, Seamen Bohm and Schmidt, who had been ill the day before, became violently insane. I regretted that no physician was included in our complement of officers, since German lives are precious;

Erich von Falkenhayne didn’t seem to agree with this assessment, if Verdun is anything to go by. Regrets or no, our hero executes the two. This is followed shortly by the two aforementioned suicides.

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Mythos: The Terrible Old Man, The Tree, and the Cats of Ulthar

The Terrible Old Man

It was the design of Angelo Ricci and Joe Czanek and Manuel Silva to call on the Terrible Old Man.

They’ve got foreign names, though, so the safe bet is that these three are actually the villains and the Terrible Old Man is either misunderstood or else (more likely) brings well-deserved suffering on those who dare be Italian, Polish, and (according to Barnes and Noble) Portugese.

The inhabitants of Kingsport say and think many things about the Terrible Old Man

There’s more to this sentence, but what matters here is that Kingsport is now a thing. This shows up in a couple of other Lovecraft stories and also in Arkham Horror. Honestly, if you wanted to condense the Cthulhu Mythos down such that Kingsport and Arkham were the same town, that’d be defensible. They’re both New England towns and the only things that really distinguish Kingsport from Arkham are which specific stories and landmarks happen to be placed in one location or another. If you wanted to combine them, you could.

The Terrible Old Man, not otherwise named, is super creepy and weird. He lives in a creepy old house, he talks to bottles with little bits of lead suspended in them, and the lead moves, apparently in response. The people of Kingsport mostly leave him alone on account of how spooky he is, but our protagonists are immigrants, and therefore evil/stupid:

Those who have watched the tall, lean, Terrible Old Man in these peculiar conversations, do not watch him again. But Angelo Ricci and Joe Czanek and Manuel Silva were not of Kingsport blood; they were of that new and heterogeneous alien stock which lies outside the charmed circle of New England life and traditions, and they saw in the Terrible Old Man merely a tottering, almost helpless greybeard, who could not walk without the aid of his knotted cane, and whose thin, weak hands shook pitifully. They were really quite sorry in their way for the lonely, unpopular old fellow, whom everybody shunned, and at whom all the dogs barked singularly. But business is business, and to a robber whose soul is in his profession, there is a lure and a challenge about a very old and very feeble man who has no account at the bank, and who pays for his few necessities at the village store with Spanish gold and silver minted two centuries ago.

The plan is for two of the robbers to break into the house and torture the Terrible Old Man until he reveals the location of his hidden pirate treasure, whereupon the third robber will be waiting outside in the getaway car. Things do not go according to plan, in an ambiguous but spooky way:

Little things make considerable excitement in little towns, which is the reason that Kingsport people talked all that spring and summer about the three unidentifiable bodies, horribly slashed as with many cutlasses, and horribly mangled as by the tread of many cruel boot-heels, which the tide washed in. And some people even spoke of things as trivial as the deserted motor-car found in Ship Street, or certain especially inhuman cries, probably of a stray animal or migratory bird, heard in the night by wakeful citizens. But in this idle village gossip the Terrible Old Man took no interest at all. He was by nature reserved, and when one is aged and feeble one’s reserve is doubly strong. Besides, so ancient a sea-captain must have witnessed scores of things much more stirring in the far-off days of his unremembered youth.

Intriguingly spooky, but also possessed of strong undertones of racism. This story is pretty much Lovecraft in a nutshell, and it’s basically a replacement level Lovecraft story in terms of quality. If you picked a Lovecraft story at random, you’d probably get something about as good as this.

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Mythos: The Street, the Doom That Came to Sarnath, and the Statement of Randolph Carter

The Street

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.

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Mythos: The White Ship

I keep finding myself writing so late in the night that I discover I have no time left for a blog post before I need to sleep, so then I shuffle the blog post somewhere else and it ends up on the wrong day or at a weird time. I’m not even writing especially quickly, only about 1,000 to 1,500 words a day, which is good but not great and definitely not indicative of spending 3-4 hours a day on the work. I only hope that the extra time is coming through in the quality of the writing.

That has more connection than today’s story than just an explanation for why it’s being posted alongside a Tuesday article instead of on Monday where it belongs. The White Ship was written by HP Lovecraft after being inspired by Lord Dunsany, whose work he had recently been reading (we don’t even have to resort to guesswork on this one, as we often do, because Lovecraft conveniently says as much in one of his letters – that, or Barnes and Noble is lying to me). My current writing distraction was inspired by my recent study of Lovecraft.

Our hero today is Basil Elton, the latest in a long line of lighthouse keepers, because all lighthouse keepers without exception are grizzled old men in sailor’s coats with salty white beards whose father kept the same lighthouse, and his father’s father before that. Hereafter referred to as Lighthouse Guy, because this story is like five pages long and no way is that enough time to lodge the protagonist’s name in my head.

Past that beacon for a century have swept the majestic barques of the seven seas. In the days of my grandfather there were many; in the days of my father not so many; and now there are so few that I sometimes feel strangely alone, as though I were the last man on our planet.

As my past and current literary investigations suggest, I tend to wander back through the history of media, paying relatively little attention to the big new thing and instead examining the past to see what has not crumbled. It’s an easy way to make sure I read mostly good literature. In fact, if you dig through my readings more randomly selected, like from the LitRPG genre where people largely directed me to whatever was popular right now or when I selected short stories almost at random from a Humble Bundle by a specific publisher, you’ll notice that I tend to be surprised and alarmed at how common certain shitty tropes or hacks are, because I’m used to reading the greatest fiction of any given decade, and that’s obviously a Hell of a yardstick to be measured against (I like to imagine that my focus on the greatest books improves my writing, but there’s no way it’s been improved to that level).

All this being a long walk towards saying that I feel a kinship with Lighthouse Guy here, whenever I wander into a multiplayer game whose time has come and gone. Like Lighthouse Guy, I didn’t personally see the golden age. I just hear about it from the greybeards left behind. Once, they say, there were so many players here that every town and quest hub, no matter how obscure, had at least a half-dozen other people visiting. Now? Now you see fellow travelers in the newbie zones leveling their latest alt, and you’ll see the main toons gathering in the designated last bastion of player interaction, but the rest of the game may as well be single player.

I feel for you, Lighthouse Guy. We did not see the golden age. We just live in its aftermath. Not ruined, but empty.

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Mythos: Old Bugs and Juan Romero

It’s another double feature! A lot of Lovecraft’s short stories are seriously only like eight pages long, so unless they require a lot of commentary, they can frequently be crammed two to a single blog post. Really, 15-20 pages of story per 2,000 words of commentary is a pretty bad ratio, but the problem with short story collections is that the constant gear shifting to new characters, concepts, and situations tends to thwart summary.

Old Bugs

This is Lovecraft’s second (published) comedy. That sounds like the setup for a joke, but the dude did have a bit of range.

Sheehan’s Pool Room, which adorns one of the lesser alleys in the heart of Chicago’s stockyard district, is not a nice place. Its air, freighted with a thousand odours such as Coleridge may have found at Cologne, too seldom knows the purifying rays of the sun; but fights for space with the acrid fumes of unnumbered cheap cigars and cigarettes which dangle from the coarse lips of unnumbered human animals that haunt the place day and night.

I said a bit.

Probably the most interesting part of this story gets dropped on us at the end of the first paragraph:

Over and above the fumes and sickening closeness rises an aroma once familiar throughout the land, but now happily banished to the back streets of life by the edict of a benevolent government—the aroma of strong, wicked whiskey—a precious kind of forbidden fruit indeed in this year of grace 1950.

Funny enough, this story was written in 1919 (probably, it wasn’t published until 1959, when Lovecraft was sufficiently well-regarded that you could dig through his back-catalogue and pick stories written on a lark for publication), which is very nearly the same year as when the King in Yellow takes place. Written in 1895, the stories (or at least some of them – I haven’t read them in a while) take place in 1920, although it’s not clear how much of the changes are real and how many are the fevered delusions of an insane protagonist.

In this story, Lovecraft imagines a future after thirty years of prohibition, not yet signed into law from when he was writing in 1919 (or perhaps very recently made law, if we’re wrong about the date and he actually wrote it sometime in or after 1920). Or at least, I think prohibition is supposed to be in effect? The eponymous Old Bugs is an alcoholic employee (paid mainly in booze) at a drug den where the chief items sold appear to be liquor and hashish, with emphasis on the liquor. On the other hand, a young patron of the establishment is said to have been part of a mock fraternity in college called “Tappa Tappa Keg,” which strongly suggests that some kind of alcohol consumption is legal? Back on the first hand, Tappa Tappa Keg is an unofficial fraternity and may be engaged in illegal but widely known and quietly tolerated alcohol use, like marijuana use is rampant on college campuses today and basically no one cares even though it’s still illegal in like 47 states.

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