The Lovecraft Reread

It Was All a Dream… No It Wasn’t… Yes It Was… No, Wait: “Polaris” and “Memory”

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Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s original stories.

Today we’re looking at two early stories: “Memory,” written in 1919 and first published in the May 1923 issue of The National Amateur, and “Polaris,” written in 1918 and first published in the December 1920 issue of The Philosopher.

Spoilers ahead.

“One night as I listened to the discourse in the large square containing many statues, I felt a change; and perceived that I had at last a bodily form. Nor was I a stranger in the streets of Olathoë, which lies on the plateau of Sarkis, betwixt the peaks Noton and Kadiphonek. It was my friend Alos who spoke, and his speech was one that pleased my soul, for it was the speech of a true man and patriot.”

POLARIS (1918)

Unnamed narrator habitually watches the night sky from his chamber window, fascinated by Polaris, the Pole Star. It hangs ever in the same spot, far above a swamp of muttering trees and a cemetery on a low hillock. Winking like an insane eye, it tries to convey a message it can no longer recall.

When it’s cloudy, narrator can sleep.

Under a horned waning moon (yes, another one), narrator first dreams of the city, all marble on a strange plateau between strange peaks. Sometimes night reigns over the city. Sometimes a low sun never sets. Tall bearded men with grave faces and gray eyes converse in public squares. Initially narrator is content to visit the city as an incorporeal presence. But then he longs to join the inhabitants, realizing the marble city cannot be a dream. Indeed, how can he prove that the stone and brick house near the swamp and cemetery is the greater reality?

One night he achieves his desire to walk in the city, embodied as a grave man among other grave men. Nor is he a stranger in Olathoe, betwixt the peaks Noton and Kadiphonek. He is a citizen of the land of Lomar, and he must help his friend Alos, who commands the Lomarian forces in their fight against the Inutos, “squat yellow fiends” intent on conquest because not honorable like the tall gray-eyed men.

Sadly, narrator is subject to fainting in adverse conditions. However, though he’s long studied the Pnakotic manuscripts and other tomes, his vision remains keenest among his fellows. Alos assigns him to duty on the watchtower. Should the Inutos try to invade through the passes, narrator must signal the defenders.

Narrator watches for many days, fighting fatigue. Then, under the light of a waning moon, Polaris peeps into the tower and murmurs a poem:

“Slumber, watcher, till the spheres
Six and twenty thousand years
Have revolv’d, and I return
To the spot where now I burn.
Other stars anon shall rise
To the axis of the skies;
Stars that soothe and stars that bless
With a sweet forgetfulness:
Only when my round is o’er
Shall the past disturb thy door.”

Narrator struggles to connect these words with the tomes he’s studied, but his drowsiness increases. He succumbs at last to sleep and passes into a dream of the stone and brick house near swamp and cemetery. He cannot wake though Lomar depends on his vigilance. Screaming at the dream-creatures around him does no good. These daemons insist he isn’t dreaming and that there is no land of Lomar except in his fevered imagination. What he calls Lomar has been a wilderness of ice for millennia, inhabited only by “squat yellow” people the daemons call “Esquimaux.”

As narrator writhes in guilty agony over his unwilling betrayal of Olathoe, Polaris leers down, winking to convey a message it can no longer recall.

MEMORY (1919)

The valley of Nis lies under a horned waning moon. Its trees are overgrown, its vegetation rank. Creeping vines and dank moss overrun its ruined palaces. Toads, snakes and little apes reign here now, along with nameless scaly things and forms not meet to be beheld. The river Than runs through the valley, slimy and weedy, its waters inexplicably red.

The Genie of the moonbeams asks the Daemon of the Valley (who is Memory) about those who built the palaces. Memory responds that the builders were like the waters of the Than, not to be understood, while their deeds were but of the moment. They looked rather like the little apes in the trees, and their name was Man.

The Genie flies back to the horned moon, and the Daemon observes a little ape in a tree that grows in a crumbling courtyard.

What’s Cyclopean: These stories seem to have both dipped their vocabulary from the same bucket of words. Horned waning moons and daemons abound.

The Degenerate Dutch: Oh, hey, it’s the squat, hellish, yellow Inutos who invaded Lomar 100,000 years after one of their kings exchanged places with a Yith. Who are apparently ancestors to “squat yellow creatures, blighted by the cold, whom they call “Esquimaux”. Nothing says clever worldbuilding like trying to make white guys the original original inhabitants of the Americas, yeah?

Mythos Making: Oh, hey, it’s Lomar, one of whose kings exchanged places with a Yith 100,000 years before invasion by the squat, hellish, yellow Inutos.

Libronomicon: The otherwise feeble hero of “Polaris” has learned much from the Pnakotic manuscripts (did that king bring them back from the Archives, one wonders?) and the wisdom of the Zobnarian Fathers.

Madness Takes Its Toll: Is the narrator of “Polaris” mad when he thinks the modern world a dream, or when he thinks “Lomar” a dream? Or does the madness lie in the north star itself? Shades of “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.”

 

Anne’s Commentary

Two early Dreamlandy pieces. Lovecraft had apparently not read Dunsany when he wrote “Polaris”; later he was struck by its stylistic similarity to the older “dreamer’s” tales. “Polaris” was based on an actual dream, which Lovecraft described in a letter, where he was present in the strange high city only as an incorporeal observer. “Memory” reads more like a fable than a dream. Or maybe it’s Arabian Nights fan-fiction, given the focus on genies and daemons.

I prefer the shorter of these flash fics. “Memory” packs a lot of eerie and evocative imagery into a tiny narrative space. As so often happens in Lovecraft’s more poetic prose, the moon makes an appearance, its phase as ever explicit. Here we have no gibbous or full moon but a waning crescent which tears “a path for its light with feeble horns through the lethal foliage of a great upas-tree.” Antiaris toxicaria, it turns out, is a real tree related to the figs and widely found in the tropics, where its latex has been used for dart or arrow poison. However, the frequent and colorful literary accounts of its lethality were exaggerated. One 18th century writer claimed it could wipe out all animal life within a fifteen mile radius, but I guess the upas-tree isn’t what got the human civilization in the valley of Nis. Other potentially poisonous or venomous creatures abound, though, including the toad, the snakes and those unnamed scaly things. I’d be careful what I touched in Nis, and I’d wear high boots. The vegetation in general is marvelously dynamic, creeping and crawling and twining and heaving. Whether the Than river runs red with plant tannins or blood, I’m not drinking its water.

I can’t say much about the forms that move in the shadowy nooks of the valley. They’re not meet to be seen, or described. Did they bring about the destruction of Man? Or did the little apes do it, and that’s why Memory stares so at one? My first idea was that Memory was pondering the ape’s evolutionary possibilities. But what if those little apes carried some Ebola-level pathogen relatively innocuous to them but super-deadly to humans? I love pandemic stories, as long as they don’t feature zombified victims. A hemorrhagic fever bad enough to eternally pollute the river with the blood of the dying, that would be much more interesting to me.

“Polaris” returns us to the fabulous dream-city trope, and to the common sub-trope of dream-city as more vital and compelling than any earthly setting, even an earthly setting featuring a very promising swamp and boneyard. The story also poses Lovecraft’s perpetual puzzle: Which is the REAL scenario here? Is the narrator a madman confined to the house of stone and brick, where “daemons” (staff) cannot convince him that Olathoe is a mere delusion? Or did Polaris somehow curse the Lomarian patriot to everlasting slumber in a dream-asylum? If the second, Polaris is a real jerk, because after twenty-six thousand years of serene oblivion, he let the narrator realize he’s trapped in dream when he should be defending Olathoe from those pesky Inutos.

Speaking of whom, maybe Randy Newman was right about short people. They got no reason to live, unless it’s to overcompensate for their squatness via military conquest minus the honor. Because you’ve got to be tall and gray-eyed to engage in military conquest with honor, wiping out any pesky Gnophkehs that might be standing in the way of your expansion. Gnophkehs are hairy and long-armed and cannibalistic, and none of those things are good. Think about white gorillas. Think about wookiees, I mean, if wookiees ate other wookiees. Actually, I think they’re vegetarians – those long canines are strictly for defense.

Oh, and being yellow isn’t good either. Asiatic peoples aside, there are kings and wallpaper, as mentioned last week.

And a final oh: William Fulwiler suggests that “Polaris” is an autobiographical expression of Lovecraft’s frustration over his unfitness for active duty in WWI. That both the narrator and Lovecraft were scholarly, with a tendency to faint under certain adverse conditions, is suggestive. Also suggestive is the asylum. The original buildings of Butler Hospital are indeed of brick and stone. The campus overlooks the Seekonk River and its swampy bottoms and ravines rich with red maples. And Swan Point Cemetery abuts Butler to the north, complete with plenty of low hillocks. One wonders what stars Howard imagined his parents gazing at from their windows at this hospital, and maybe what stars he might gaze at if he ever came to reside there, amateur astronomer that he was.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

At long last, we come down to two stories about cities—Lovecraft’s 3rd and 5th, respectively. Both cities will echo throughout his oevre, and Lomar itself—in fact, the invasion described in “Polaris”—gets a cameo and confirmation of its reality in “Shadow Out of Time,” his penultimate masterpiece.

In “Memory,” a brief and somewhat purple prose poem, Lovecraft creates his first ruined city. Maybe it’s the 2nd, if you count the displaced monolith in Dagon, but it’s certainly the first ruined human city. And of course, that’s the really scary part, that even humanity’s most ancient and noble deeds are fleeting things scarcely to be remembered by those with perspective. That triviality is the shadow in “Shadow Out of Time,” and underlies the madness in “Mountains of Madness.” Ephemerality and forgetfulness and entropy are at the core of cosmic horror, and here they are, in place right at the foundation.

The invocation of human ephemerality, of course, is neither fully developed here nor realized as evocatively as in those later stories. The Daemon and the Genie practically sit there holding up a sign with the Moral of the Story. And while humans degenerating into non-sapient primates seems to be one of Howard’s recurring nightmares—“The Lurking Fear” is only the most notable example—I’m afraid I can’t help picturing the “little leaping apes” in Disney-esque tutus, showing up to relieve the Lords a’Leaping as the holidays approach their close. It takes some of the sting out of devolution.

“Polaris” offers another recurring city type: the city that calls in dreams, the dreamer’s true homeland. You could fit in there, if only you could find it—and in this case, if you could manage to preserve it against its inevitable fall. This gives the story a certain power in spite of the eye-rolling nature of the threat. Carter’s sunset city may have summoned him on a grand quest—but while he never manages to dwell there permanently, the city itself is never in jeopardy. A homeland where you can never live is one thing; a homeland you discover only to live perennially in the moment of its destruction goes beyond sehnsucht into real nightmare.

I like that Lomar, thought it lacks much in the way of context or worldbuilding this early on, eventually gets fully integrated into the Mythos timeline. It ties these early images to Lovecraft’s more mature creations, although I could certainly do without the ongoing references to squat yellow Inutos. Plus the story works a lot better if you don’t think too hard about the implied timeline for northern Canada, and instead let Lomar slip into the Dreamlands’ endless cycle of invasions, civilizations overrunning earlier ones, and belated deific vengeance.

A final word: it’s pretty startling to find ourselves at the end of Lovecraft’s main oevre of stories! When we started a year and a half ago, it felt like a near-infinite supply of material. That’s the nature of all human endeavor, of course—even hundred thousand year old civilizations must eventually run out their time. Fortunately, enough people have played in Howard’s sandbox that we needn’t fear the degeneration of the reread any time soon.

 

Next week, we earn our poetic license with the first 12 sonnets of the “Fungi From Yuggoth” cycle. Be there or be trapezohedral.

Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com, along with the more recent but distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” will be available from the Tor.com imprint in Spring 2017. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story.The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with the recently released sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.

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