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 “Azathoth” and “Nyarlathotep.” “Azathoth” was written in 1922 and published in Leaves in 1938; “Nyarlathotep” was written in 1920 and published in the November 1920 issue of The United Amateur. You can read both stories here. Spoilers ahead.
In an aged world, the wonder and dreams of childhood have yielded to gray cities and smoky skies, and learning has so stripped the earth of beauty that poets stare inward with bleary eyes. A man obscure in both name and abode toils all day in a gray city, then goes home to a room with one window. The window looks into a dim courtyard, but if the man cranes out, he can stare up at the stars. To watch them, to call them by name, to imagine their courses beyond his little square of sky—this becomes the man’s habit. One night the “dream-haunted” skies swell down into his room and make him part of their wonder. The tides of far spheres bear him through the dreams men have lost until one dawn beyond the dawns of this world they leave him sleeping on a flower-starred shore.
The world’s not only in political and social upheaval: For some months, everyone’s been afflicted with free-floating anxiety, a nightmarish apprehension of “hideous physical danger.” Last straw, even the weather’s out of joint, for the autumn remains hot and stifling.
Now Nyarlathotep comes out of Egypt with the mien of a Pharaoh. He claims to have “risen up out of the blackness of twenty-seven centuries,” but he fiddles around with strange glass and metal instruments and uses both electricity and psychology in his popular exhibitions, along with motion photography, for his shows also include films of eerie prophetic images.
Our nameless narrator goes to see Nyarlathotep. On the screen he sees visions of hooded forms and evil faces and the world’s end as it falters around a cooling sun. Electricity raises the spectators’ hair. Grotesque shadows squat on their heads. The narrator protests that Nyarlathotep is a fraud. At this, Nyarlathotep drives the spectators into the hot midnight streets, where the electric lights fade even as they try to reassure each other the city hasn’t changed.
Left with only the weirdly greenish light of the moon to guide them, seemingly mesmerized, they split into columns and waver through weed-choked ruins. One column heads up an alley; one down into a subway laughing madly. The narrator’s column strikes out into open country, where the unnatural autumn has given way to snow glittering green under the moon. A path through the snow leads to a black gulf into which the walkers vanish one by one. The narrator has will enough to hang back, but only for a while. Then he too is sucked into a vortex of “rotting creation,” “corpses of dead worlds,” “charnel winds.” Beyond these, the “revolting graveyard of the universe,” is a trans-spatial chamber beyond time, in which the ultimate gods dance to the beat of drums and the whine of flutes. The gods are blind and voiceless and mindless, and Nyarlathotep is their soul.
What’s Cyclopean: We get a few good adjectives here—audient void, opiate oceans—but nothing cyclopean.
The Degenerate Dutch: Should one consider it insult or honor that out of all Earth’s nations, only Egypt produces our very own homegrown Mythos deity? But that he leaves Egypt and goes “into the lands of civilization” is pretty funny given the extent of Egypt’s history. He’s often (though not here) referred to as “the black man” which, even when modern writers make him black-like-the-void or something else less human, gets kinda awkward. We also get “yellow evil faces” in Nyarlathotep’s prophetic film.
Mythos Making: “Nyarlathotep” marks the first appearance of a central member of the Mythos pantheon, one who later undergoes significant changes. In fact, the maddening drums and monotonous flutes will later become signatures of Azathoth.
Libronomicon: Avoid movie night at Miskatonic.
Madness Takes Its Toll: A portion of Nyarlathotep’s audience descends into a subway entrance howling with mad laughter. In Azathoth madness comes from a more mundane source: a view limited to “mere walls and windows.”
And this tiny prose poem is only two paragraphs longer than the summary above! It is, in fact, the only surviving fragment of a novel Lovecraft intended to write. He described it as “a weird Eastern tale in the 18th century manner,” like Beckford’s Vathek (1786) and Lord Dunsany’s early work. Daemon-sultan and Outer God Azathoth appears for the first time, but only in the title—the closest the fragment gets to the Mythos pantheon are the “strange dolphins and sea-nymphs of unrememberable deeps” that bring to mind the Deep Ones (and, even more strongly, the undersea creatures Count Karl encounters on his way to “The Temple.”)
This is one of those moments when Lovecraft’s enthusiasm for science gives way to nostalgia and to melancholy over the current state of the world. Where is the wonder of childhood? Where are the poets who sought beauty instead of picking at internal sores? The nameless protagonist overcomes his dull gray existence only by a persistent gazing outward, at the stars. Magic happens, or schizophrenia, and the realm of dreams comes to him. In fact, dream is dynamic, swelling down to his window and into the close air of his room and swirling him away in “wild streams of violet midnight” and matching purple prose.
The loveliest bit of the piece is the closing, which is reminiscent of Frodo’s vision as he approaches eternity. In The Return of the King, a “grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.” In “Azathoth,” the dreamer-protagonist is left “sleeping on a green sunrise shore; a green shore fragrant with lotus-blossoms and starred by red camalotes.” The references I looked at most frequently associate “camalote” with water hyacinths or water lilies, which would make that green shore a soggy, boggy bed, but the word itself is evocative.
I guess the dream-traveler is dead, wafted from a body that still leans stiffly in the window, face toward the stars. But where’s AZATHOTH? For this abandoned novel was Lovecraft even thinking of the blind and mindless deity we’d come to know under this name?
Oh well. Azathoth will appear by implication in our next piece, named for his faithful Soul and Messenger.
Given the tone of this very short story, I’m not surprised to learn that it was based on a dream—it has all the oppressiveness and inescapable logic-illogic of nightmare. Lovecraft wrote to Reinhardt Kleiner that the “Nyarlathotep” dream was the most realistic and horrible one he’d had since childhood. He was even able to quote from a letter that figured in the dream, supposedly from his friend Samuel Loveman: “Don’t fail to see Nyarlathotep if he comes to Providence. He is horrible—horrible beyond anything you can imagine—but wonderful. He haunts one for hours afterward. I am still shuddering at what he showed.”
And wow, what an introduction this is to the most personable of the Outer Gods—indeed, the most personable of any Mythos deity. Apart from the Deep Ones, he’s the only Lovecraft creature who bothers to interact much with humans, and he often does it in one of his human (or semi-human) avatars, as here. As control of our world seems to be shifting from “known gods or forces,” Nyarlathotep walks out of Egypt with the ancient dignity of a Pharaoh and the show business acumen of a Barnum. Whatever else he may be up to—if there is anything dearer to his heart—he spreads madness wherever he appears. How terrible it is that once he’s played in a town, rest vanishes—the small hours are rent by the screams of people gripped by nightmare. Then there’s that little problem of entranced columns heading off into cosmic chaos. That can really mess up your urban workforce. Not that the cities themselves seem to long endure Nyarlathotep’s visit. He puts out the municipal electricity! He rusts trams and topples towers and grows weeds to block subway entrances! Add large-scale vandalism to his list of achievements.
You could get a nice long novel out of this set-up, to place alongside Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. Mr. Dark would be no match for Nyarlathotep, though. As our nameless first person narrator of the week learns in his involuntary whirl through the cosmos, Nyarlathotep is the soul of the gods themselves. And here we finally glimpse Azathoth, though he’s not named or singled out from the other gigantic and tenebrous, awkward and absurd dancers at the end of space and time. We know he’s got to be one of them, though, because who else would be surrounded by those iconic mad drummers and monotonously piping flutists?
I think Nyarlathotep travels so much because he can’t deal with the noise of the Outer Gods’ house band for long. He’s probably not crazy about all that awkward dancing, either, and it must be tedious to try to converse with the voiceless and mindless. I’m not so sure the whole Messenger-Servant role he claims to fill isn’t a Loki-esque ploy to put the blame for his actions on poor old no-brains Azathoth. Cop to it, Nyarlathotep! You are the SOUL! Who’s in charge of this continuum if not you? And don’t say Yog-Sothoth or Shub-Niggurath, because they pretty much wait to be summoned or for the stars to be right, whereas (barring your iterations thwarted by Shining Trapezohedrons exposed to light) you saunter in wherever you please.
Not that I don’t love you for it, because I do.
We have here two deific “first appearances,” albeit one somewhat different from later versions and one only by name. Two sketches in which the unbearable limits of the mundane city push people into realms beyond those we know—one considerably more pleasant than the other.
“Nyarlathotep” starts with a season of social and political upheaval, and lingering autumnal heat—immediately I picture this taking place toward the end of a particularly contentious presidential election. A quick search confirms 1920 as Harding versus Cox—both relatively unknown at the election’s start. Harding, promising a “return to normalcy” after Roosevelt’s reforms and the uncomfortably international aftermath of the world wars, won in a landslide. But this was the first election in which women could vote, probably making things feel pretty uncertain to privileged male voters of earlier years. 1920 was also marked by strikes, riots, and terrorist attacks, enough to tweak even a less nervous author’s apocalyptic musings.
So yeah, HP had something specific in mind, though you’ll excuse me if I imagine the whispered prophecies and prophetic films passed through social media during a modern presidential wrangle.
“Azathoth,” by contrast, begins in a vaguer yet likewise distressing place: the gray and mundane city where aged humanity forgets how to dream. Here as elsewhere, I feel like HPL sees the impending death of wonder and dreams and sanity as a bit more imminent than I do. The whole “last man who dreams” thing is a well-trod trope by this point—I’m thinking particularly of the World of Darkness Changeling games that were among my college role-playing standards. The idea inevitably feels a bit overdone to me at this point, though I don’t know that it’s fair to judge a 1922 story on those grounds.
The other story’s dead city-scape, where Nyarlathotep’s audience plays out the script of the apocalypse, rings more true to me. Unlike Lovecraft I’m pretty fond of New York, and of cities in general. But I’m a child of the late Cold War, and one of the things I like about cities is the way some homey larger-than-life dystopia always seems to lurk around the corner. Go into the wrong subway entrance, misread the schedule of stops, and you just might come out at the end of the world. The wild energy of the human crowds carries something larger and less human—and potently alluring—in its wake.
This early version of Nyarlathotep appears more huckster than herald, at least at first. Wikipedia offers up Will Murray’s suggestion that he was inspired by Nikola Tesla’s fabulous electrical demonstrations. But demonstrations of electricity and psychology make me think of mesmerism, and early attempts to use electrical stimulation for hypnosis, healing, even mind control.
And we definitely get mind control here—and more than mind control, as the prophetic films send audiences stumbling out into their denouement, forced to play out the apocalypse in full. Creepy. I wonder how they’re going to vote.
Nyarlathotep moves swiftly from hypnotic popular speaker to the “soul of mindless gods.” In later works he’s elaborated into herald, messenger, and spokes-entity, but you can see how one gets from Point A to Point B.
On the other hand, we get nothing recognizable of Azathoth in his namesake story. What we do get is actually… kind of nice. Sure, the guy gets sucked out of his body, but he didn’t like where his body was anyway. And he ends up traveling through a cosmos that sounds pretty pleasant, his voyage ending comfortably in a land of distinctly non-fungous greenery.
Weird. And given the title and author, I can’t leave well enough alone with the seemingly happy ending. What’s lurking amid those dreams men have lost? They can’t all be good dreams.
Join us next week for “The Festival.” You know where to go; you know how to celebrate when you get there.
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.” Her work has also appeared at Strange Horizons and Analog. She can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal. She lives in a large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “Geldman’s Pharmacy” received honorable mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Thirteenth Annual Collection. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” is published on Tor.com, and her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen. She currently lives in a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island.