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 Nameless City,” written in January 1921 and first published in the November 1921 issue of The Wolverine. You can read the story here.
“This hall was no relic of crudity like the temples in the city above, but a monument of the most magnificent and exotic art. Rich, vivid, and daringly fantastic designs and pictures formed a continuous scheme of mural painting whose lines and colours were beyond description. The cases were of a strange golden wood, with fronts of exquisite glass, and contained the mummified forms of creatures outreaching in grotesqueness the most chaotic dreams of man.”
Summary: Deep in the Arabian desert lie ruins ancient beyond all cities of men. The Arabs shun them, though Abdul Alhazred dreamed of them and wrote his famous couplet: “That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die.” Nevertheless, our narrator seeks the city, accompanied only by his camel; he’s always sought the strange and terrible.
He finds the ruins at night but waits to enter until dawn, when the sun rises through an oddly local sandstorm and a metallic clash seems to reverberate from deep underground to greet the day. The crumbled foundations offer little illumination into the history of the city, for time and blasting sand have long obliterated any carvings. Night comes with a chill wind that raises another local sandstorm amidst the gray stones.
The next day the narrator discovers a cliff riddled with low-ceilinged temples. He explores on hands and knees, more and more disturbed by the disproportionate lowness of the temple fixtures—disproportionate, that is, for human use. Night finds him still in the city. While attending to his suddenly edgy camel, he notices that the sand-stirring evening wind issues from a particular point in the cliff. Though troubled by a spectral presence, he goes to the spot and finds a larger temple with traces of painted murals, altars with curvilinear carvings, and an interior door opening onto a flight of curiously small and steep steps.
Equipped only with a torch, the narrator crawls feet-first down innumerable steps and through low tunnels. His torch dies. He keeps crawling, cheering himself with snippets from the daemonic lore he’s read. At last he comes to a level corridor lined with wood and glass boxes like coffins. Here he can kneel upright as he scrambles onward. Subterranean phosphorescence begins to light the scene, and he sees the boxes are indeed coffins containing not the human makers of the place but the preserved bodies of vaguely anthropomorphic reptiles, richly arrayed.
Huh, these must be totem animals of supreme importance to the ancient people, since they also take the place of people in the fantastic murals that cover the walls and ceiling of the passage. The narrator can’t read the script, but the pictures tell him the whole history of the race from its nomadic youth to its heyday to the coming of the desert that drove it deep underground, to a world foretold by its prophets. Death is shown only as the result of violence or plague, yet the allegorical reptiles seem gradually to be wasting away and growing more fierce in their hatred of the outer world—the final scene depicts them tearing apart a primitive-looking human. Some foreign tribesman, no doubt.
The narrator reaches the source of the phosphorescence—beyond a great brass door lies a descent into a vast space of misty light, the entrance into that promised inner world. He rests on the threshold in uneasy speculation, then starts at the sound of moaning coming from the coffin-lined passage. But it can only be the wind, returning home with the dawn.
He braces to withstand its force. The wind seems animated by a vindictive rage that claws and drags him toward the misty-bright underworld. Somehow he withstands it. As it passes over him, the wind curses and snarls in an unknown language, and he thinks that against the lit portal, he sees a rushing crowd of semi-transparent reptilian devils—the true inhabitants, after all, of the nameless city.
The wind dies with the last of the creatures to descend, and the great brass door clangs shut, leaving the narrator in utter darkness. Presumably he crawls back to the surface to write down this account, and to shiver when the night wind rattles his windows.
What’s Cyclopean: “Cacodaemoniacal” is the adjective of the day.
The Degenerate Dutch: There’s a little bit of orientalism here, though nothing that would be out of place in another author of the same period.
Mythos Making: We have here both the first appearance of Abdul Alhazred, and of the couplet that eventually turns out to be A) from the Necronomicon, and B) about the Big C himself. We also get a shout-out to the Dreamlands cities of Sarnath and Ib.
Libronomicon: The narrator’s “cherished treasury of daemoniac lore” includes Alhazred (presumably the Necronomicon), Damascius (a Platonist not generally prone to “apocryphal nightmares”), Gauthier de Metz’s Image du Monde, Lord Dunsany (the quote’s from Probable Adventure of the Three Literary Men), and Thomas Moore (a search doesn’t turn up the direct quote but suggests it’s from Alciphron). One quote from de Metz which might have gone through the narrator’s mind: “The ether is of such startling brilliance that no sinner can gaze at it with impunity: this is why men fall down in a faint when angels appear before them.”
Madness Takes Its Toll: Alhazred is mad (by definition and title), and the narrator goes “almost mad” during his final not-quite-confrontation with the city’s inhabitants.
I talked a couple of weeks ago about Lovecraft’s obsession with old things—and how he has mixed success communicating the terror of antiquity. Here, where the time periods in question stretch far earlier than human history, it works. The alligator people of the Nameless City don’t quite illustrate the deep time rise and fall of civilizations as well as the Yith, but that’s a high bar. And this story is clearly an early rehearsal for some of those later takes on ancient cities, pre-human races, and long-lost civilizations that eternal lie.
The connection between the depths of the earth and the depths of time also works for me, and the contrast of the relic hall with what lies above… Here we are in what seems to be a relatively ordinary, if creepy, archeological site, descending into caves with absurdly limited safety equipment, finding carved stone rooms and stone altars. And then, we turn a corner, and there are wood-and-glass display cases. They’re so ridiculously out of place in their familiarity, so unlikely to have survived through unimaginable aeons, that they push over the hump of disbelief and become effectively shocking. And hell, maybe the alligator people just have really good preservatives. It’s a pity our intrepid explorer isn’t actually set up to retrieve decent samples.
Or to sketch out those fabulous murals. An image search turns up no illustrations that seem even remotely adequate to Lovecraft’s description. Anyone know of any good ones? Someone must have at least tried—I don’t do visual arts at all, and I got itchy fingers.
Something else I want to see—if Lovecraft thinks these alligator dudes violate all known biological principles, has anyone ever tried to replicate what his description of a platypus would sound like?
Then at the end, we get the alligator people ghosts. This part doesn’t quite work for me, as by this point my expectations have been raised to the point of expecting full-on live alligator people. But even this limited form of immortality is an interesting alternative reading on the Alhazred couplet—a couplet that Lovecraft later reused under more memorable circumstances. That re-use makes one wonder. Does the desert city have a connection to R’lyeh, the alligator people to Cthulhu? I kind of like the idea of a sunken desert twin to the more famous sunken ocean city.
Finally, the brief mention of Sarnath and Ib: I’ve always tended to think of the Dreamlands stories as largely separate from the Mythos stories, an interpretation that doesn’t stand up at all on this closer reread. This isn’t the only place where aspects of both appear together, and of course Randolph Carter has adventures touching on both. And yet the rules and style remain quite different. I hesitate to suggest this, because it certainly wasn’t authorial intent and Lovecraft would have screwed it up if it had been, but for “Dreamlands” should we be reading “Dreamtime”? Events and places that have prehistorical reality, but can also be reached under the right circumstances by modern seekers?
And of course we know that there are some important Mythos artifacts hidden in the Australian desert. I’d love to see a take on this—in story form or otherwise—from someone more familiar with Australian aboriginal cultures. As a bonus, they could also have a stab at that platypus description.
Another story based on a dream (per Lovecraft), this one does have the logistics of nightmare—the practical aspects of the narrator’s journey go neglected in favor of mood, atmosphere and improbable feats. I’m tempted to think our unnamed is actually Randolph Carter, that incorrigible seeker of wonder and terror, on another of his dream-quests. After all, he mentions Sarnath and Ib in the same breath as Chaldaea, as if they’re equally real to him. And how but in dream-quest can one camel carry enough water and provisions for such an expedition? And who but a dreamer would dare keep crawling into the bowels of the earth long after his single torch expired? Who but a dreamer could, in fact, “see” that a lightless passage was long, even before it was illuminated by underworld phosphorescence?
The realistic counter for “Nameless City” is the later and longer “At the Mountains of Madness,” another tale centered on the exploration of an ancient city whose history can be read on its walls, and where there are certain survivals. In “Mountains,” the logistics of the Miskatonic expedition are given in great detail, as are all its movements and findings on the frozen continent. In keeping with the heft of the novella, the survivals are material, no mere phantoms, and they are far from impotent. Along with the Australian ruins of “Shadow out of Time,” “Mountains” is the final flowering of Lovecraft’s love for the lost civilization trope.
But the basic themes and features are all in “Nameless City.” We have a narrator who is at once open to the weird but who nervously clings to conventional interpretations long after they’re tenable. The lowness of the structures and furniture in the ruins is “disproportionate” only because the narrator assumes the ancient people were humans. Maybe they were really short humans? And those reptiles in the murals and coffins can only be animal totems, so central to the society that they become universal avatars for the dominant humans. Long after the reader has figured it out (um, the mummies with their hand-like foreclaws and huge, even super-Jovean craniums?), our narrator begins to question his assumptions. Even then, he hopes that the memorials in the phosphorescent underworld will be more human. Hunger for the strange, for discovery, drives such men onward; fear of the unknown pulls them back. A constant tug-o-war for Lovecraft’s characters, and, I think, for Lovecraft himself.
Many of us can relate, can’t we?
Dyer and company, in “Mountains,” will initially assume the barrel-shaped organisms they uncover are animals, but they admit the truth much sooner. Good for them, and appropriate for the more science fictional story.
After the dynamics of wonder and fear, survival is the big concern of “Nameless.” Two kinds of survival, in fact, that of one’s self and that of one’s history. Lovecraft has enormous sympathy for the collective memory preserved in a society’s cultural artifacts, notably art and literature. In “Nameless,” the narrator is uneasy until he discovers carvings, painting and, critically, a written alphabet. Ah, the city previously personified as “inarticulate,” steeped in “unending sleep,” “unvocal,” “forgotten,” even “an ogre under a coverlet,” starts to come alive for him. The murals in the passage of coffins are the ultimate thrill, a comprehensive history of millions of years!
In “Mountains,” the history on the walls is more concrete—not painted but carven, since stone is much more likely to survive the eons than pigments. It’s also disjointed, but novella-length gives Dyer and Danforth time to piece together the narrative, tentatively, in the manner of realistic historical research.
For Lovecraft, the survival of collective memory, history, is overall a positive thing, even if he does worry about occult literature, like the Necronomicon, and about the ultimate knowledge that may make us flee back to ignorance. The survival of individuals (and even of species) is more of a problem. Look at what Joseph Curwen and friends must do for it. And the icy doctor of “Cool Air.” And Herbert West, the reanimator. And the Great Race of Yith. And the K’n-yan of “The Mound,” who fade into a ghostly semi-material existence, just like the reptilian race of “Nameless.” Interesting that the reptilian race also lives in a phosphorescent underworld, and have become cruel and ridden with hatred for the upper world.
On earth only the Deep Ones get away with living in glory forever, but then again, the narrator has discovered he’s one of them. Identity matters, it seems. Nameless narrator is overjoyed that the history of the nameless city survives. He’s not so happy about the survival, however phantasmal, of its inhuman inhabitants. Not that one can really blame him, considering how they do their windy best to rip him to shreds.
Oh well. We all must try to survive, and for Lovecraft, sympathy even for alien survivors will come in time.
Last word: Weird winds. Like green mists, never good. The flying polyps create them, and whatever invades Erich Zann’s attic, and now the reptilian phantoms of the nameless city! Better get you some good storm shutters.
Next week, we gaze into the starry abyss with “The Haunter of the Dark.”
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.