Mythos I

Part 1: Let’s Get the Conversation About Madness Out of the Way
Part 2: The Beast in the Cave
Part 3: The Alchemist
Part 4: The Tomb
Part 5: Dagon
Part 6: Double Feature
Part 7: Beyond the Wall of Sleep
Part 8: Old Bugs and Juan Romero
Part 9: The White Ship
Part 10: The Street, the Doom That Came to Sarnath, and the Statement of Randolph Carter
Part 11: The Terrible Old Man, the Tree, and the Cats of Ulthar
Part 12: The Temple
Part 13: Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family
Part 14: Celephais and From Beyond
Part 15: Nyarlathotep and the Picture in the House
Part 16: Sweet Ermengarde
Part 17: The Nameless City
Part 18: The Quest of Iranon
Part 19: A Conclusion For Now

For those of you reading these as they come out, you’ll remember that I meant to post this on Saturday, wound up reviewing a bit of Leaves of the World Tree instead, which I was originally going to review on Monday, but then Conan the Indomitable arrived early, so I started in on that. Conan the Indomitable is shaping up to be no fun at all, although that’s mainly because of its villain, who will hopefully not feature very much. In any case, I am procrastinating that by posting a wrap-up post for the first chunk of Lovecraft’s work.

I’m reading these stories in order of writing, because that’s the order Barnes and Noble presents them in their Lovecraft collection that I’m reading from. This means that this chunk covers his work from 1905, when he finished the Beast in the Cave, to 1921, when he finished the Other Gods. It covers Lovecraft’s early Poe period, several of his Lord Dunsany inspired dream works, and the first inklings of the Cthulhu Mythos in stories like Nyarlathotep, Dagon, and the Other Gods. Also, there’s a couple of stories that are basically just racist propaganda, because unlike most of these old timey authors, Lovecraft is pretty much exactly as racist as you’ve been led to believe.

At this point, Lovecraft’s stories are all very short, usually clocking in at less than ten pages (albeit ten pages of Barnes and Nobles’ large-ish hardback collection books), and they cover such a massive breadth of subject matter that it’s hard to summarize. This is the danger of reviewing collections by the same author rather than ones with any kind of unified theme or a single, larger work, I suppose. Lovecraft has written comedy that fell flat (Old Bugs) and comedy that worked really well (Sweet Ermengarde). He’s written spooky stories that are recognizably Lovecraftian (Dagon), that are more Poe-like (the Tomb), and ones where the basic fear is that black people exist (Arthur Jermyn). He’s got a surprisingly wide range.

The range on quality is pretty wide, too, although naturally for a collection that starts from when the author is fifteen, there’s a noticeable increase in quality over time. The Beast in the Cave and the Alchemist are of mainly historical interest, but starting with the Tomb and Dagon we get into some actually good Lovecraftian stories. Quality veers all over the place, as Lovecraft often hits duds when writing outside his comfort zone, as with the Tree, about Greek sculptors, and some of the stories have just aged really poorly, like the Street or Arthur Jermyn.

The only one of the sub-sub-genres that Lovecraft will ultimately be famous for that really get explored here is his dream writing. Polaris, the White Ship, the Doom That Came to Sarnath, and the first appearance of Randolph Carter (albeit not in any kind of dream world) are all amongst these stories. Dagon and the Nameless City give us glimpses of Call of Cthulhu, but Lovecraft’s dreamscape isn’t just glimpsed, but already pretty fully formed. The basic idea of a dream world full of alien wonders is a compelling one, but Lovecraft doesn’t always deliver on the alien wonders. The White Ship was a tour of all kinds of weird places, but the Quest of Iranon was basically just a list of weird names attached to pretty normal societies. There was a Calvinist place, and there was fantasy Las Vegas, and that was basically it so far as fantastical locales went.

It’s hard to really write about what Lovecraft’s written so far without thinking about what’s still coming, though. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, the Call of Cthulhu, and the Shadow Over Innsmouth are all still in the future, and it’s hard to see these stories as really anything more than build-up to that. Lovecraft’s whole career may actually just be a series of prototypes building up to his best works.

Mythos: A Conclusion For Now

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.

The Moon-Bog

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.

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Mythos: The Quest of Iranon

The Quest of Iranon

Into the granite city of Teloth wandered the youth, vine-crowned, his yellow hair glistening with myrrh and his purple robe torn with briers of the mountain Sidrak that lies across the antique bridge of stone. The men of Teloth are dark and stern, and dwell in square houses, and with frowns they asked the stranger whence he had come and what were his name and fortune.

Yup, Lovecraft’s writing fantasy again. This time our hero is the titular Iranon, a wandering minstrel who has come to a city where fun is frowned upon. It’s not quite banned, though, so he’s allowed to sing his songs in the town square.

At least, that’s how the narrative sells. Looking at what Iranon actually sings:

“O Aira, city of marble and beryl, how many are thy beauties! How loved I the warm and fragrant groves across the hyaline Nithra, and the falls of the tiny Kra that flowed through the verdant valley! In those groves and in that vale the children wove wreaths for one another, and at dusk I dreamed strange dreams under the yath-trees on the mountain as I saw below me the lights of the city, and the curving Nithra reflecting a ribbon of stars.[“]

Maybe the Telothians just dislike him for constantly singing about how his city is so much better than theirs.

In fairness to Iranon, he is an exiled prince of Aira, so he’s not just singing about how great his city is for pride’s sake, but also because he misses the place terribly and cannot return. The next morning, however, it turns out fun is soft banned in Teloth, when a city archon comes to tell Iranon that he must do boring, shitty work in order to live here:

“Thou art a strange youth, and I like not thy face nor thy voice. The words thou speakest are blasphemy, for the gods of Teloth have said that toil is good. Our gods have promised us a haven of light beyond death, where there shall be rest without end, and crystal coldness amidst which none shall vex his mind with thought or his eyes with beauty. Go thou then to Athok the cobbler or be gone out of the city by sunset. All here must serve, and song is folly.”

At least there’s guaranteed jobs.

Teloth kinda sucks, though, so when a Telothian youth named Romnod asks Iranon to go to a nearby city of artists and songs called Oonai, Iranon agrees. As far as I can tell, Iranon never even made it to his apprenticeship before leaving. Romnod even says that Oonai might be Aira, since names can change and Iranon’s been gone for a long time, but Iranon warns Romnod that he’s journeyed very, very far to find Aira, and early in his journeys he often thought that this or that city would welcome him and he could make his home there, but only Aira was ever truly his home, despite the many seemingly promising cities he visited on the way. The itinerary gets a Sarnath reference.

The weird thing is, if Iranon isn’t actually from Aira, how is he its prince? I’m starting to get suspicious of this story.

From the way Romnod talked about it, Oonai seemed like it was maybe a couple of weeks away, but it takes the two years to get there, and Romnod has grown into a man by the time they arrive, while Iranon remains unchanged. Also, Oonai turns out to be less of a dream paradise and more like Las Vegas.

When dawn came Iranon looked about with dismay, for the domes of Oonai were not golden in the sun, but grey and dismal. And the men of Oonai were pale with revelling and dull with wine, and unlike the radiant men of Aira. But because the people had thrown him blossoms and acclaimed his songs Iranon stayed on, and with him Romnod, who liked the revelry of the town and wore in his dark hair roses and myrtle.

So, y’know, everyone parties all the time and there’s tons of glitz and glamour and the whole town is dedicated to having a good time, but also the mafia is secretly behind it all and there’s probably some metaphorical or literal blood sacrifices going into propping up the whole glittering edifice. Also, Romnod ODs. No, really:

Then one night the red and fattened Romnod snorted heavily amidst the poppied silks of his banquet-couch and died writhing, whilst Iranon, pale and slender, sang to himself in a far corner.

I’m reminded of that Breaking Bad scene where Walter White tells Jessie that he could’ve saved his girlfriend from her OD, but he didn’t, because she was a methhead and he wanted her gone.

Iranon then leaves Vegas to continue searching for Aira. Eventually, he finds an old shepherd, who reveals without knowing it that he knew Iranon when they were children:

“O stranger, I have indeed heard the name of Aira, and the other names thou hast spoken, but they come to me from afar down the waste of long years. I heard them in my youth from the lips of a playmate, a beggar’s boy given to strange dreams, who would weave long tales about the moon and the flowers and the west wind. We used to laugh at him, for we knew him from his birth though he thought himself a King’s son. He was comely, even as thou, but full of folly and strangeness; and he ran away when small to find those who would listen gladly to his songs and dreams. How often hath he sung to me of lands that never were, and things that never can be! Of Aira did he speak much; of Aira and the river Nithra, and the falls of the tiny Kra. There would he ever say he once dwelt as a Prince, though here we knew him from his birth. Nor was there ever a marble city of Aira, nor those who could delight in strange songs, save in the dreams of mine old playmate Iranon who is gone.”

So indeed, Iranon has fabricated Aira. But also he’s immortal. Except, not?

And in the twilight, as the stars came out one by one and the moon cast on the marsh a radiance like that which a child sees quivering on the floor as he is rocked to sleep at evening, there walked into the lethal quicksands a very old man in tattered purple, crowned with withered vine-leaves and gazing ahead as if upon the golden domes of a fair city where dreams are understood. That night something of youth and beauty died in the elder world.

Iranon, for context, is always described as wearing tattered purple. So either he was only young in his own mind, and when his delusions of Aira are shattered here, he realizes how old he is, and commits suicide, or alternatively, this being the dream world of Telnoth and Oonai and Sarnath, Iranon may have actually been young until this moment, when he realized there was no Aira, and all the aging he didn’t do caught up with him all at once.

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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