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 “The Doom That Came to Sarnath,” first published in the June 1920 issue of The Scot. You can read the story here. Spoilers ahead.
Summary: Ten thousand years ago, in the remote Dreamlands region of Mnar, there was a vast lake, and on its shore stood the imperial city of men called Sarnath. Immemorial years before the building of Sarnath, however, the gray stone city of Ib overlooked the lake, peopled by beings who were green-skinned and flabby-lipped and bulging of eye and voiceless. It’s believed that lake and Ib and beings all came down from the moon one night. The beings worshipped the great water-lizard, Bokrug, and danced horribly before his sea-green idol when the moon was gibbous.
Men eventually colonized Mnar, and the most adventurous founded Sarnath on the shores of the vast lake, where they had discovered tempting deposits of precious metal. Their wonder at the Ibites soon gave way to hatred, because ugly and weird and way too ancient for comfort. Also the beings were weak, easy prey. One night the warriors of Sarnath slew all the beings and shoved the bodies into the lake, along with their gray stone monoliths, because also weird, and who needs reminders of a whole slaughtered species?
The statue of Bokrug, however, the men kept as an emblem of victory—or tried to. The day after they installed it in their temple, it vanished. The high priest Taran-Ish lay dead as if from terror. Before dying, he scrawled “DOOM” on the altar.
Well, that was upsetting, but even the other priests got over it after a while. Sarnath’s metal-driven economy boomed, and eventually its warriors conquered all the cities of Mnar. Also busy were the builders and craftsmen, who made Sarnath the wonder of the world and pride of mankind, opulent beyond the dreams of hedge fund managers. Palaces! Temples! Gardens! Golden lions and ivory thrones and pavements of onyx and mosaic floors of gemstone! Also amphitheaters for the blood sport without which no empire is complete.
The memory of Taran-Ish’s warning faded, while the priests of Sarnath continued to perform rites in detestation of Bokrug, and the city held an annual feast to commemorate the destruction of Ib. Nobody paid much attention to the ominous way the lake rose every year on that same feast day, or to the ominous underwater lights the priests sometimes beheld from their lofty towers. And on the 1000-year anniversary of Ib’s defeat a feast of special magnificence was held.
People came from all over Mnar. In the king’s banquet hall, nobles gorged on viands of incredible rarity, succulence, and detailed description. But the high priest Gnai-Kah noticed shadows descending from the gibbous moon and green mists rising from the lake, even as it swelled to unprecedented flood. Visiting revelers also noticed these omens and began clearing out. At midnight, those who hadn’t gotten the clue earlier poured out of Sarnath, maddened by what they had witnessed. For the king and nobles had vanished from the banquet hall, replaced by hordes of green, flabby-lipped, voiceless things that danced horribly in the light of uncouth flames.
Nobody visited Sarnath again until the bold dudes of Falona (very Nordic with their blond hair and blue eyes) came to have a look. They found no trace of doomed Sarnath, only a sea-green idol half-buried in rushes: Bokrug, the water-lizard. The idol ended up in the city of Ilarnek, where the people were smart enough to worship it properly beneath the gibbous moon.
What’s Cyclopean: Nothing, but there are THREE gibbous moons. “Gibbous” may be a relatively ordinary word, but this seems excessive.
The Degenerate Dutch: First we have the green people, so detestable that to know them is to want to commit genocide. Then we have the dark people, who commit said genocide and then party for a thousand years. Then we have the yellow-haired, blue-eyed people—explicitly unrelated—who are braver than the dark people, brave enough to explore a place that fell to DOOM.
Mythos Making: The green people of Ib, worshipping their great water lizard, might be another precursor of the Deep Ones—or it might just be that Lovecraft really, really hated the ocean.
Libronomicon: No books this week.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Those who flee DOOM show on their faces a madness born of horror unendurable.
An early Dreamlands story, very much after Lord Dunsany in its dreamy yet subtly ironic tone. One might find the description of Sarnath excessive, as ornate and overwrought as the city itself; it takes up a full third of the story. This read, however, I rather like the bardic intonation of details, especially those of the 1000-year feast, which (as in the labeling of modern-day produce) includes the place of origin of each dish: the camel heels from the Bnazic desert, the nuts and spices of the Cydathrian groves, the pearls from wave-washed Mtal dissolved in the vinegar of Thraa. Mmm, that vinegar of Thraa. Makes a great engine cleaner!
And maybe the point is that the splendor of empire can make you forget, for a few paragraphs that it sprouted from soil enriched with the blood of conquered rivals. We hear in passing that Sarnath eventually kicked the butt of every other city (presumably city-state) in Mnar. No need to go into detail—we all know how men are, constantly scrapping for dominance among themselves. The original sin of Sarnath is another sort of aggression, and a far less pardonable one: unprovoked genocide.
Our unnamed narrator, a magisterial storyteller, starts off ambivalent about the beings of Ib (Ibites, for short.) They are odd and ugly, but then again, you’d expect that of creatures from a world “yet unchoate and rudely fashioned,” so not their fault. The “unchoate” world may not even be Dreamlands Earth, but the Dreamlands moon. Those familiar with The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath will recall that the dominant moon species is not called “beast” for nothing, being pretty nasty in its habits and aligned with Nyarlathotep to boot. I’m thinking the green Ibites might have left the moon to get away from the snout-tentacled moon-beasts, in which case they’re refugees and even more sympathetic.
But that’s speculation. We know from this particular story that the Ibites are no physical threat to men, being weak and jellyish. The worst crimes of which they can be accused are worshipping a water-lizard and dancing horribly. Well, so do an awful lot of humans. Dance horribly, that is. Do you have to qualify for Broadway or the Bolshoi before you earn the right to exist? And on top of it all, the poor things are voiceless. But, telling detail, they also have “curious” ears, which implies that they may be vocalizing at a pitch that men can’t hear but which others of their species can. Nevertheless, they can’t communicate with the humans and make their own case for tolerance. Then again, would the men of Sarnath have listened? They just don’t like the looks of these Ibites, who have the nerve to “walk about the world of men at dusk.”
Walking while Ibite. What’s that remind us of?
For me, it’s clear that the narrator wants us to recoil from the genocide perpetrated by Sarnath, which goes beyond killing the Ibites into destroying their monoliths, presumably repositories of their knowledge and history. Think of the Yith, and the Elder Ones of Antarctica, perhaps even the Yuggoth fungi we’ll visit next week. No matter how weird and dangerous-to-man these creatures are, Lovecraft always gives us a sense that they are admirable in as far as they value and promote the preservation of knowledge, whether as funky hinged books or omnipresent sculptural cartouches or (even?) canned brains.
The only thing Sarnath keeps from Ib is the Bokrug idol, presumably to gloat over during its rituals of detestation against the scaly god. Very bad judgment, showing a sad ignorance of central fantasy tropes: NEVER introduce antagonistic artifacts into your own strongholds—it can NOT end well. But Sarnathians are so full of themselves that a terror-killed high priest can scrawl a DOOM warning on their altar without making them blink much. And, yeah, they do seem to get away with their original sin for hundreds of years, only growing the more prosperous and powerful and gaudy in their decorations. This may be because Bokrug and the other old gods take a much longer view of time than men—for them, a thousand year gap between offense and retribution may be no more than the heartbeat between perceiving a bite and swatting the responsible mosquito. Or maybe Bokrug is just patient and wants to let Sarnath get as mighty and full of itself as possible before bringing it down.
At any rate, what starts in blood and obliteration, ends in blood and obliteration. Although it is unclear exactly what happens to the king and his nobles. Are they totally annihilated to make room for ghost-Ibite revelers, or are they turned into ghost-Ibites? I find the latter revenge still more satisfying: What you destroyed, you now are, and yeah, now you dance horribly, suckers.
Last note: The moon-shadows and green mist that signal the end of Sarnath’s reign! These give me the same creeps as my favorite moment from Demille’s hilarious yet intermittently epic Ten Commandments, when the green fog descends like a cataract of moon-contagion to kill the first-born children of Egypt. Here’s another important trope to remember: Green fog is NEVER a good thing—run!
So it turns out that I’m still not fond of Lovecraft trying to play at Dunsany. No single narrator to sympathize with, overblown language that isn’t nearly as fun as Lovecraft’s usual overblown language, and the usual italics-for-emphasis are upgraded (or downgraded) to ALL CAPS. On the plus side, I ran around the house for a few minutes shouting “DOOM!” Which is always a bonus.
Actually, this whole thing works better if I imagine it narrated by another DOOM. Doom does not approve of ugly green lizard cultists. Doom scoffs at your decadent parties. Your puny warriors will fall before Doom. Or possibly before Reed Richards, since they don’t exactly seem like good guys.
Seriously, Lovecraft trying to write like a myth leaves something to be desired. For me at least, it works best in small doses, as in the brief excerpts we see from the Necronomicon elsewhere. Here, it feels like bad pastiche mixed with oh look there’s a Lovecraftian sea idol. Pretentious feel the cubits and stadia, and by Yoda are object-subject-verb sentences best used in any great quantity.
There are nifty bits in here, moments where the imagery cuts through the attempted mytho-biblical stew. Hints of deep time in Sarnath’s ten thousand year old history. Lapis lazuli mosaics and porphyry benches. (Do the dreamlands have their own porphyry mine, or did they discover the Roman one a few thousand years early?) Ocean-filled amphitheatres with gladiators fighting sea monsters—kind of awesome, if barbaric. They hang up a fake sun and moon and planets whenever it gets cloudy, then take them back down? That sounds like a lot of work. Pearls dissolved in vinegar—I know it’s a thing, but yuck. Giant ivory throne implies GIANT ELEPHANTS WHERE ARE THEY.
The actual story—well. You have the green people of Ib, who are scary because they’re ugly by human standards and worship water lizards. What’s wrong with worshipping water lizards, I’d like to know. Bokrug seems like a pretty patient deity, if not terribly timely with his protectiveness. Then along come the humans, who hate the Ibites because they’re ugly and lizard-worshipping and easy to defeat. Then they hold feasts for a thousand years celebrating this easy defeat. Then inevitably Bokrug gets his revenge: the waters rise and DOOM. DOOM, I tell you!
We see this fear elsewhere in Lovecraft, that the things you’ve conquered (shoggoths, flying polyps, etc.) will rise against you. And as is often the case, he seems to mostly side with the conquerors. Unless this is intended as ‘just desserts’ horror like The Terrible Old Man, or ‘civilizations must inevitably fall’ horror like Shadow Out of Time. But the Ibites—weak flabby-lipped water-worshippers that they are—certainly don’t seem like anyone HP would be inclined to mourn. [Later note: Anne makes a good case that Lovecraft intended the Sarnathians to be pretty darn unsympathetic, and the Ibites to be a bit more so. I’m not entirely convinced, but perhaps willing to grant him a little more benefit of the doubt.]
DOOM is associated with the dream cycle, but not quite fully a part of it. Lovecraft briefly references Sarnath in some of the more overt Dream Cycle stories, but also gives it a shoutout at the Mountains of Madness. Perhaps the boundaries between waking and dreaming were a bit fuzzier, ten thousand years ago.
Next week, there’s a fungus among us in “The Whisperer in Darkness.”
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.