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 White Ship,” first published in the November 1919 issue of United Amateur. You can read it here.
“Blue, green, grey, white, or black; smooth, ruffled, or mountainous; that ocean is not silent. All my days have I watched it and listened to it, and I know it well. At first it told to me only the plain little tales of calm beaches and near ports, but with the years it grew more friendly and spoke of other things; of things more strange and more distant in space and in time. Sometimes at twilight the grey vapours of the horizon have parted to grant me glimpses of the ways beyond; and sometimes at night the deep waters of the sea have grown clear and phosphorescent, to grant me glimpses of the ways beneath.”
Summary: Basil Elton keeps the North Point lighthouse off Kingsport, just as his father and grandfather did before him. The days of the great trading ships are over, and on his sea-bound rock he sometimes feels like the last man on earth. But the ocean, greatest lore-keeper, speaks to him. Like it, space and time are fluid; many visions he glimpses in parting mists or phosphorescent depths are not merely of the present or of the common ways of men.
The recurrent vision of a White Ship appears from the south when the moon is full. It glides silent and smooth no matter the weather, and from its deck a bearded and robed man beckons.
One night Elton heeds the call and walks to the ship on a bridge of moonbeams. Somehow he knows the soft language the bearded man speaks and understands the songs of the oarsmen. The White Ship sails south again and passes many fabulous lands.
First is Zar, verdant with gleaming white roofs and temples. It harbors the dreams of beauty seen once, then forgotten. Elton recognizes things he’s glimpsed in mist or depths. More splendid still are the visions of poets who died before the world would hear their songs. The White Ship sails by, for those who set foot in the meadows of Zar can never return home.
Second is Thalarion, City of a Thousand Wonders. Here dwell all the mysteries man has never been able to fathom. Its spires rise beyond sight; its walls stretch beyond the horizon. Both fascinated and repelled, Elton wants to visit the city, but the bearded man warns that its only inhabitants are demons and mad things that were once men. The streets are white with the bones of those who have glimpsed the eidolon Lathi!
They sail on, following a strange azure-feathered bird.
Third comes Xura, Land of Pleasures Unattained. Its groves and bowers ring with music and faint, delicious laughter. Elton is eager to stop here until the White Ship draws nearer, and he smells the fetor of plague-stricken towns and uncovered cemeteries.
On they sail, at last reaching Sona-Nyl, Land of Fancy. Beyond its crystal headlands, men know neither time nor space, suffering nor death. For many aeons Elton lives here. Then, in the year of Tharp, the azure bird returns, bringing Elton yearnings for far Cathuria, a land unknown to men. It’s said to be the Land of Hope and dwelling of the ideals of all men. The bearded man cautions against sailing through the Basalt Pillars of the West, beyond which Cathuria supposedly lies, but Elton won’t yield. The White Ship, manned by a reluctant crew, sails once more, west.
The celestial bird flies before, while Elton pictures the glories of Cathuria. Through the pillars they venture, to find no city, just a rushing sea that bears them to the cataracts at the end of the world. The bearded man cries that the gods are greater than men and have conquered, and Elton shuts his eyes against the mocking azure bird that hovers above the brink.
The White Ship goes over with a crash. When Elton opens his eyes, he finds himself back on the crag that supports the North Point lighthouse. Its light has failed for the first time since his grandfather was keeper, and a ship lies broken on the rocks below.
Elton goes into the lighthouse, where the calendar still shows the date on which he departed. In the morning he finds only two relics of the foundered ship: a preternaturally white spar and a dead bird with azure feathers.
The ocean shows Elton its secrets no longer, and though the moon still cycles to full, the White Ship never sails again from the south.
What’s Cyclopean: Probably a lot of things in Sona-Nyl, but none described as such. Best word of the day is “natheless.”
The Degenerate Dutch: Nothing other than some rather pedestrian orientalism.
Mythos Making: Elton gets a shout-out in later stories as a “fellow dreamer” to Randolph Carter. There, his lighthouse is retconned or confirmed to be in Kingsport, supporting our hypothesis that the strangest of Lovecraft County towns sits right on the Dreamlands border and occasionally slips over onto the wrong side.
Libronomicon: Books offer the North Point lighthouse keeper tales of gay temples on far eastern shores. You can learn more from the ocean, but it’s harder to fit on a bookshelf.
Madness Takes Its Toll: In Thalarion, City of a Thousand Wonders, walk only daemons and mad things.
“The White Ship” is one of the earliest tales of the Dreamlands. It predates “The Strange High House in the Mist” by seven years, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath by eight. The shorter masterpiece of the Dreamlands cycle shares the Kingsport setting with “Ship” and also its idea of the ocean as repository of mysteries. The longer masterpiece mentions Basil Elton, though not by name. Randolph Carter remembers him as “a fellow-dreamer of earth—a lighthouse keeper in ancient Kingsport.” From Elton, Carter learned of Zar and Thalarion, Xura and Sona-Nyl, places Carter speeds past as the moon-beast galleon bears him off to—yes, the Basalt Pillars of the West. Carter has heard that Cathuria lies beyond the Pillars, but he’s a wiser dreamer than Elton and knows they mark the end of earth’s Dreamlands, where its oceans drop into the empty spaces between worlds and, beyond these, the voids where the Outer Gods hold their endless dance party.
I can forgive Elton his ignorance, given Lovecraft must have been in the early stages of constructing his great fantasy milieu. Overall the Dreamlands of “White Ship” are more geographically vague than those in Dream-Quest. For example, the waters the White Ship traverses go unnamed; by Randolph Carter’s time, they’ve become the Southern Sea. Lands and cities are less detailed, less differentiated than they’ll be in the novel, and what’s more striking than any architecture or topography are the psychological faculties each place seems to provoke. Their sobriquets give away much—Zar is the only locality that doesn’t have a nickname freighted with meaning, but we could dub it the Land of Beauty Forgotten. I think of Zar as Sensibility. Or, more precisely, as the repository for those transcendent moments our sensibilities register too keenly (a la Marianne Dashwood) for the moments to last.
Thalarion is the City of a Thousand Wonders, containing all mankind’s unplumbed mysteries. Its primary appeal is to the Intellect. Over and over we’ve seen Lovecraft link wonder and terror, and he does it explicitly re Thalarion, which Elton calls “fascinating yet repellent.” Ah, intellectual curiosity, whose crowning discipline is science. We all know from at least “Call of Cthulhu” forward where science will lead man. To destruction! A new and reactive dark age! Madness! And sure enough, the streets of Thalarion teem with demons and madmen—in fact men who have gone so mad they’ve become “things.” More: these demons and mad things must crunch over the unburied bones of those who’ve seen an ultimate truth, the eidolon Lathi. Standing in here for Azathoth? And did Lovecraft make the name up, or does it have some obscure connection to the Hindi word for a long heavy stick or baton used as a weapon? (I’m guessing he made it up.)
Xura (or, as I’ve sometimes seen it spelled, Zura) is the Land of Pleasures Unattained. Its distinguishing features are flowers, bowers, music and most significantly faint and delicious laughter. In Lovecraft’s Dreamlands stories, I feel these details imply the hidden presence of women, sensuality, sex. Sex! The carnal impulses of our psyches! Elton, fresh from his lonely lighthouse, is at first hot to get off the ship at Xura. But Lovecraft, true to squeamish form, links the carnal with the charnel. Approach Xura too closely, and you’ll sniff out the end of all fleshly delight. Pleasure can be said to be unattainable when it’s dogged by disease, and death, and decomposition. Yes, no Marvell to his coy mistress here. Rather than “tear our pleasures with rough strife/Through the iron gates of life,” better just sail the ship right on by, fast.
Sona-Nyl is much safer than Thalarion or Xura, because it’s the Land of Fancy. For Fancy, I read imagination. Sona-Nyl is so responsive to what we human dreamers want that time and space, suffering and death, have no place within its blessed borders. You want green groves, fragrant (but not overly sexy) flowers, musical streams, cool fountains, unmarred grace and unalloyed happiness? Whatever you can imagine, you’ve got it!
But what if our imaginations are too weak to conjure the perfectly ideal? Could we call a yearning for the Ideal part of our spiritual faculties? At any rate, it’s the azure-feathered bird that jolts Elton out of contentment with Sona-Nyl. Maybe we’ve been wondering all along what this sky-hued guide is up to. That it’s “of heaven” and “celestial” imply a divine connection. Even in early days, it seems, the gods of earth are very incompletely merciful. Their avian messenger may lead Elton to Sona-Nyl, but it also tempts him onward, then mocks the destruction of his vessel and companions and punishes him with permanent expulsion from paradise.
Nyarlathotep, babysitter to the gods of earth among innumerable other duties, won’t make his first fictional appearance for another year, in the prose-poem of the same name. Yet I’m tempted to speculate that the azure bird is another of his avatars, messing with poor Elton for reasons (as usual) inscrutable to us mere humans.
Ah. Again and again, through some privileged character, Lovecraft gives us the ultimate fantasy of travel to dream-marvelous destinations. Again and again he snatches that character (and us) back to mundane reality. Basil Elton will never see the White Ship again, and the ocean itself snubs him. Randolph Carter loses the key to dreams at age thirty, and when he gets it back, does he get to be a Dreamlands king, or does he get stuck in a funky alien body, with its alien consciousness always elbowing for room in their shared mindspace? In a reverse twist, Kuranes gets to be king of Ooth-Nargai, but then longs for his childhood home in England. I don’t know. Seems like the only dreamer perfectly happy in the end is the unnamed one in “Azathoth,” whose death frees him from a gray real-world city to slumber on “a green shore fragrant with lotus blossoms and starred by red camalotes.”
That’s just a fragment, though. What if Lovecraft had carried the story forward? And wait a minute. Fragrant lotuses, red camalotes. Sounds a little like Xura to me. Next thing you know, the guy will wake up to the sound of faint, delicious laughter, and we all know what THAT means….
Another early story—and as is usual, another early story that got broken down for spare parts in later, better stories. Dagon => The Shadow Over Innsmouth; Beyond the Wall of Sleep => The Shadow Out of Time; Doom That Came to Sarnath => non-sucky Dreamlands stories and every story where the scary people you conquered come back to bite you in the butt. “The White Ship” is arguably the first true Dreamlands story—dreams feature prominently in “Wall of Sleep,” but they take you to distant corners of the universe rather than to sentimentally alarming exotic cities. Now we can tell for sure that we’re in the Dreamlands because there’s porphyry.
And because we’ll get basically the same plot, but better done, in “Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” Guy obsessed with finding his perfect realm quests from place to place, ignoring warnings that he ought to leave well enough alone. A guide supports the final attempt to reach said perfection, which of course ends in disaster in the void (or in this case, just where the sidewalk ends)—and then he wakes up.
So… meh? Other stories have more of this, and better, and the descriptions here have the overwrought-yet-clichéd quality that I complained about in Sarnath. Lovecraft still hasn’t settled into his own voice at this point, and it shows.
The story also suffers from over-prototypical psychopomps. Where “Dream Quest” has corpse-eating ghouls and faceless nightgaunts showing the way, “White Ship” has a bearded captain—one who advises but does not ultimately contradict. He’s only really there to make somber pronouncements, and because however halfway competent Elton may be at running a lighthouse, he has no idea what to do with the flappy canvas things that make the ship go.
And where “Dream Quest” has Nyarlathotep snarking and gloating, “The White Ship” has a bird. Whatever its true identity, the closest the bird gets to snarky dialogue is that it has “mocking blue wings.”
One break from other stories, especially odd, is this one’s wholehearted approval of the ocean. Elton’s a lighthouse keeper, and that’s okay! He likes living by the ocean. He knows the sea and its many moods—and has earned its trust. It tells him stories, first little ones and then grand rumors of exotic shores. These are some of the most beautifully poetic passages in an otherwise mediocre piece. They are also some of the nicest things Lovecraft has to say about water, ever. He’s usually fascinated and repelled, describing at length the horrific stench of fish and seaweed while setting almost every story within a few minutes’ drive of the beach. Here there’s no ambiguity, just the more traditional view of the ocean as a gateway to distant adventure.
Another story this reminds me of is “The Strange High House in the Mist.” There, too, the ocean (and ocean god) is the key to adventure. But in “Mist,” the tales and the travel are implied rather than directly seen, and stronger as a result. “Mist” is properly weird, and no matter how I squint, “The White Ship” just isn’t.
Next week, we explore a tangent from Lovecraft’s oeuvre in Frank Belknap Long’s “The Hounds of Tindalos.” Good doggy. Nice doggy. Easy 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 and “The Deepest Rift.” 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. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com, and her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen. The second in the Redemption’s Heir series, Fathomless, will be published in October 2015. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.