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 “Celephais,” written in November 1920 and first published in the November 1922 issue of Rainbow. You can read it here.
“Kuranes had awaked the very moment he beheld the city, yet he knew from his brief glance that it was none other than Celephaïs, in the Valley of Ooth-Nargai beyond the Tanarian Hills, where his spirit had dwelt all the eternity of an hour one summer afternoon very long ago, when he had slipt away from his nurse and let the warm sea-breeze lull him to sleep as he watched the clouds from the cliff near the village. He had protested then, when they had found him, waked him, and carried him home, for just as he was aroused he had been about to sail in a golden galley for those alluring regions where the sea meets the sky. And now he was equally resentful of awaking, for he had found his fabulous city after forty weary years.”
Summary: Kuranes is our protagonist’s name in the Dreamlands; few among the “indifferent millions” in London know his waking world name, for he’s the last of his line and has lost his ancestral wealth and property. Unlike modern writers, who strip reality to its naked ugliness, he writes of his dreams until he’s laughed out of writing altogether and loses himself in fancy and illusion.
Gradually the dulling poison of experience leaves him, and he returns in dream to his childhood home in Cornwall. From the ivy-draped stone manor, he creeps to the nearby village of Innsmouth. Age has eaten it away, and all the people are asleep or dead. He passes on to the channel cliffs, where the world falls away into infinity. Driven by strange faith, he leaps over the edge and floats down through dreams undreamt. A rift opens, and he sees the Valley of Ooth-Nargai beyond the Tanarian Hills. Mount Aran flaunts its snow-cap and breeze-swayed gingkoes. Between its foot and the sea, the city of Celephais rises, minarets glittering, galleys riding gentle swells in the blue harbor.
As a child, Kuranes dream-lived in Celephais “all the eternity of an hour” before rude adults woke him. Now, forty years later, he’s found the city again. Nothing and no one there has aged; time seems to have stood still, waiting for his return. He meets the galley captain Athib and sails with him to the horizon where sea meets sky. The galley sails on into the clouds until they come to pink marble Serannion, built upon the ethereal coast whence flows the west wind.
Then Kuranes awakens. For many nights after he searches the Dreamlands for Celephais. He encounters great wonders and horrors, but no one can direct him to the place for which he longs. He starts taking drugs to prolong his sleep. Hashish sends him to a part of space where form doesn’t exist, and he confers with the violet gas, S’ngac.
Out of money at last, he wanders into the countryside. Fulfillment finds him in the shape of a knightly entourage on roan horses. Their leader explains that Kuranes created the land of Ooth-Nargai in his dreams and must now reign there as chief god. He rides with the knights as through the centuries, back into time, back to the abyss of dreams. The horses bear them down through the aether and the brightness of the vapors furl back to reveal the greater brightness of Celephais.
While Kuranes holds court in Celephais and Serannion, the tides below Innsmouth cast the body of a tramp onto the rocks by ivy-draped Trevor Towers, where a millionaire brewer now enjoys the purchased atmosphere of extinct nobility.
What’s Cyclopean: There’s an unspeakably ancient wall, vast and unthinkable in its proportions… perhaps not referred to as “cyclopean” because behind it lies a cheerful field of pretty flowers.
The Degenerate Dutch: Cry woe for the tragedy and vanished beauty of English nobility who are no longer quite so rich as they were at the height of empire. They are doomed to become opium-addled tramps who wander off cliffs… so that they can become rich nobility some place even more awesome than England.
Mythos Making: Kuranes will appear again as an old friend of Randolph Carter’s in “Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” where he will turn out not to have reigned happily forever after all. The friendly violet gas from a region of unrecognizable physics is likewise a friend of Carter’s, and the high priest not to be named an enemy of the same. And… WTF? Innsmouth, England? If we knew Kuranes’s waking name, do you suppose he’d be a Marsh, or a Gilman?
Libronomicon: No books appear in this story, although a certain childhood reading taste is implied by Kuranes’ preferences in imaginary cities.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Is it really a drug problem if you’re taking it to ease travel between worlds? No? What if it makes you walk off cliffs?
Appropriately enough, this early foray into the Dreamlands was inspired by Lovecraft’s dream of “flying over a city.” It reads like a dry run for the much longer journey Lovecraft will undertake six years later in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. Kuranes is the British counterpart to Randolph Carter, a master-dreamer obsessed with refinding that one place in the fantastic realm that speaks directly to his heart. His story is rendered the more poignant by his poverty—while Carter remains Boston “aristocracy,” Kuranes has fallen from former glory, last scion of a noble line. In this he resembles the protagonist of “Azathoth,” who resides in a dull gray city until death releases him to rest upon green shores starred with red camalotes. Kuranes also resembles the protagonist of “The Festival” in that he too takes a long walk off a short clifftop, down down to the uncaring sea. However, Festival-man survives to remember his psychic journey into Kingsport’s past, while Kuranes dies. That’s okay. His spirit survives to make one final journey to Celephais.
Before that climactic leap, Kuranes covers a Dreamlands itinerary Carter will replicate, including stops in lush garden spots, dead cities, and that can’t-miss destination, the prehistoric Leng monastery wherein dwells a high priest in a yellow silk mask. His most impressive journey is to the formless infinity of colored gases, violet S’ngac being evidently the most talkative of them. It counsels Kuranes to steer clear of the central void where Azathoth seethes and to shun Nyarlathotep. Helpful S’ngac will go on to aid Carter at the crisis of Dream-Quest, pointing him the way back from the central void.
It turns out that both Kuranes and Carter have themselves created the cities of their heart’s desire. Kuranes appears to have fashioned Celephais out of whole cloth woven from poetry and myth. Turquoise temples! Sky-bound galleys! Pink marble cloud-towns! Knights in shining armor and cloth-of-gold! Whereas Carter’s sunset city is based on the New England he knows and loves so well.
And that makes all the difference. In “Celephais,” Kuranes lives in his creation happily ever after, jaunting between his dual capitols without a thought for his soggy earth body. In Dream-Quest, Lovecraft’s ideas about Kuranes’s fate have changed. The King of Ooth-Nargai tells Carter he can’t rest content in his kingdom, for it lacks a direct link to his earthly memories and feelings. Therefore he’s effected a reverse creation, reproducing his ancestral home in the Dreamlands and pretending to be the squire he would have been if not for financial collapse and the sale of Trevor Towers to a particularly fat and offensive brewer.
I wonder if Kuranes’s remembered England isn’t as fanciful as his Celephais and Serannion. From the somber tone of Dream-Quest, he’s not very happy in Trevor Towers/Dreamlands Edition. Unlike Carter, he has no waking world body to return to, and so he can’t go home again. Not that he could have anyhow, because of fat brewer. Lovecraft doesn’t care for the nouveau riche. He also doesn’t think well of beer, I’m afraid.
It’s cool that Innsmouth appears here, long before its shadowed namesake pops up on the coast of Massachusetts. It makes sense there should be a British Innsmouth, after which nostalgic New Englanders would have called their colonial town. You know, like Plymouth and Plymouth, Gloucester and Gloucester, even Boston and Boston, Carter’s hometown.
Oh, and what other fictional town is in Cornwall? Benson’s Polearn, that’s what. I wonder if the walking pestilence has visited Innsmouth, hence its edge-eaten appearance and scarcity of villagers.
Oh, for the lost beauties of childhood! The sylvan fields, the beloved ancestral houses, the loving families unmarred by characterization! Only in dreams can we partake of the perfection that has long since passed from the waking world, if it ever existed there at all.
This is my least favorite style of Lovecraft story: elegaic, sentimental, and with a view of childhood that seems fuzzy and stereotyped at best. Also, all non-genre writers are gray and uninteresting folk who seek solely to strip the world of its magic. We won’t even speak of those who read such things, save to hope that they don’t sully genre with any breadth of taste. “Celephais” improves over some other early Dreamlands with greater control over the language (no DOOM here), but the treacle remains strong with this one.
On the other hand, premonitions of better stories ahead are also strong.
It’s 1920, and we’re past the initial juvenalia that marked the start of Lovecraft’s career—but not far. We’ve introduced Randolph Carter—still in his post-war funk, not yet a Dreamer. We’ve seen the Dreamlands twice, though the tie between these stories isn’t yet obvious. We’ve caught our first glimpse of Lovecraft County in Kingsport. And we’ve seen the ocean as both a source of terror and a setting for wonder. Lovecraft will keep revisiting all these settings, characters, themes and plots, until he gets them right.
“Celephais” sits, if not at the fulcrum, at least in sight of it. Here we get a plot and setting reminiscent of Carter’s more thoroughly plotted, less purely elegaic Dreamquest (not to mention his equally elegaic, and nearly as obnoxious, search for the Silver Key). We get a glimpse of the terrible, glorious spaces beyond the reach of our own physics, and a reasonably friendly denizen thereof—but hints of the more frightening aspects that will dominate “Dreams in the Witch House” and mar the end of the Dream-Quest. And we get… Innsmouth?
I have to admit, I stopped and blinked at that one, and then tangented completely. It should be no surprise to find an Innsmouth in England—most towns in Massachusetts are copy-pasted from Britain if they aren’t badly transliterated Wampanoag. In “Shadow Over Innsmouth,” the hybridization with Deep Ones is ostensibly recent (y’all know I have my own opinions on that), so by Lovecraft’s canon their pre-immigration ancestors should be ordinary humans. Still, it takes a special sort of family to produce an Obed Marsh or an Ephraim Waite. What family’s fallen status in England might have led their descendants—the ones who didn’t seek less earthly pastures to rule—to be open to any extreme that might allow a reclamation of nobility?
Back to Celephais itself, did anyone else find the city’s timelessness, frozen waiting for Kuranes’s return, to be creepy? For once Lovecraft’s not going for that mood at all—it’s clearly meant to be reassuring, a part of childhood that can’t be destroyed. But imagine those guards, the ones who remained on duty all those years during their master’s absence. Are their minds also frozen, suspended from awareness for however long it might take him to get back? (And if so, how many frozen dreamworlds wait never to be awakened because their dreamer died or became an author of mimetic literary fiction or something?) Or are they conscious the whole time? There’s a horror story waiting beneath the surface of the nostalgic glurge, waiting to come out.
Next week, we explore Venus with Lovecraft and Kenneth J. Sperling—join us for “In the Walls of Eryx.”
Ruthanna Emrys’s non-Hugo-nominated 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 on October 27, 2015. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.