The Lovecraft Reread

Sometimes a Skull-Faced Lotus is Just a Skull-Faced Lotus: “Ex Oblivione” and “What the Moon Brings”

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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 two very short stories: “Ex Oblivione,” written in 1920 or 1921 and first published in the March 1921 issue of The United Amateur, and “What the Moon Brings,” written in June 1922 and first published in the May 1923 issue of The National Amateur. Nowadays we have fewer magazines with “amateur” in the title, and more internet.

Spoilers ahead.

“Silent and sparkling, bright and baleful, those moon-cursed waters hurried I knew not whither; whilst from the embowered banks white lotos blossoms fluttered one by one in the opiate night-wind and dropped despairingly into the stream, swirling away horribly under the arched, carven bridge, and staring back with the sinister resignation of calm, dead faces.”

EX OBLIVIONE

Nameless narrator retreats into dream, escaping the gray mundanity of waking life that’s driving him mad. He sails south, languorous, under strange stars. He rides a barge down a subterranean stream to a twilit world of iridescent arbors and undying roses. Many times he walks through a golden valley, then a ruin-studded grove, to a massive vine-covered wall with a little bronze gate. Taking opiates to prolong his dreams, he develops an obsession with the bronze gate, beyond which must lie a country of no return, lovely and radiant. But he can’t find the hidden latch of the gate!

In Zakarion, he finds a yellowed papyrus written by dream-sages. Some claim that wonders lie beyond the bronze gate, others that only horror and disappointment dwell there. The mystery lures narrator on. Learning of a drug that can open the gate, he procures and takes it. He drifts through the gate into a realm neither of land nor sea, wonder nor horror, for it is the white void of unpeopled and limitless space. Narrator is happy to dissolve into “that native infinity of crystal oblivion from which the daemon Life had called [him] for one brief and desolate hour.”

WHAT THE MOON BRINGS

Nameless narrator (presumably a different one) hates the moon, for it makes the familiar strange and hideous. One spectral summer he follows a stream through a garden whose walls dissolve under the moonlight. The stream’s ripples are weirdly yellow-lit; it seems to hurry toward an unknown ocean, bearing the dead faces of lotus blossoms.

At last he comes to a silent sea. The lotus blossoms vanish into the depths before they can tell him the secrets the moon brings. As the sinister satellite descends in the west, the tide ebbs to reveal a sunken city festooned with seaweed. A black condor flies toward a vast reef. The bird vanishes in the distance before narrator can ask it about those he’d known when they were alive.

As the tide continues to ebb, the stench of all the world’s dead wafts from the still-rising city, for they’ve been brought there from all the world’s churchyards for puffy sea-worms to gnaw on. Eww, even when the moonlight wanes, ripples on the sea tell of the worms writhing below. And wait! The reef is no reef, but an eikon, basalt-crowned, so tremendous that its vile hooves must paw ooze miles below the surface of the sea.

Before the eyes of the colossus can rise to look at the narrator, he plunges gladly into the sea, where fat sea-worms feast on the world’s dead.

What’s Cyclopean: Fewer ten-dollar words this week, but some cool and unusual choices nevertheless. “Unvocal waves” is a particularly nice one—the alternative is rather alarming.

The Degenerate Dutch: This week’s stories are pretty personally focused—unless you count a little Dreamlands exceptionalism, there’s little to take offense at.

Mythos Making: Neither story connects directly to the Mythos, but “Moon” does include the Ur-aquatic-city, of the sort that fills the Mythosian ocean to overflowing.

Libronomicon: That’s an awfully convenient papyrus that the narrator of “Ex Oblivione” finds. Written by sages too wise for the waking world—well, la de da, let’s sing a round of “I’m Too Sexy” in their honor.

Madness Takes Its Toll: Lunaphobia is not a fun condition.

 

Anne’s Commentary

When Lovecraft wrote these two pieces, he’d already penned such little masterworks in the Dreamlands milieu as “The Doom that Came to Sarnath,” “The Cats of Ulthar,” “Celephais” and “The Other Gods.” They could be fragments, though as prose poems they can stand complete. They could also be polished-up dream records, “What the Moon Brings” in particular.

I can’t remember reading “Ex Oblivione” or “What the Moon Brings” before, though I might have and since forgotten it. They’re of more interest as summaries of Lovecraft’s obsessions than as stories per se. Nor am I the only one who’s thought so. On a recent trip to Arkham, I visited Mr. Horrocke’s infamous bookstore, and he was good enough to gift me with a slim black notebook, much worn and yellowed with age. It was the property of one Wolfgang Siegfried Gregor Freud, a cousin of the “Father of Psychiatry,” several times removed. Really removed. Evidently he left Vienna in a hurry, pursued by malpractice suits. Doubtless the suits were unwarranted, for the notebook proves him a capable follower of the great Sigmund.

Doctor W. S. G. Freud, or Wolfie as his friends called him, settled for a time in Providence. More curious than credulous, Lovecraft consulted him concerning the meaning of his vivid dreams. Here’s what Wolfie had to say about the night-visions behind today’s offerings.

And I quote, extensively, translating from the German.

“The last two dreams Herr L. related seem typical. They indicate sexual and somatic concerns of long standing and some complexity. We might say that each dream departs from the station of the conscious mind and passes through a subconscious land of fanciful moons and gardens and temples and ruins and sages and unlikely birds to the depths of the id. The journey is often represented by a voyage on stream or sea, to subterranean labyrinths or bottomless abysses. The natural and man-made settings are either idealized, lots of flowers and gilded spires and marble and incense; or else it is degenerate and decayed and diseased, lots of twisted trees and uncanny fungal illuminations, slimy marine growths and portentous statuary and stenches.

“Let us consider the dream Herr L. has transcribed as ‘ex oblivione’ or ‘from oblivion.’ He tells me he has read Schopenhauer and is intrigued by the idea that oblivion should be preferred to life, as it puts one beyond desire. Indeed, desire—of the self-thwarted variety—appears to be Herr L’s primary neurosis. I was as ever struck by the imagery of what Herr L. calls ‘the Dreamlands.’ In one phase, it is given over to aspects of the Feminine, such as soft and scented breezes, languorous sails, gardens and arbors and twilights and roses. Here a ‘golden valley’ (cleavage) leads to ‘shadowy groves’ and ‘mighty wall’ (pubic hair and mons veneris); in the ‘wall’ is a ‘little gate of bronze,’ closed (vaginal opening, hymen intact.) Beyond that ‘gate’ Herr L. imagines a world whence there can be no return (loss of virginity/sexual innocence.) Some ‘dream-sages’ write that the new world is glorious; others that it is disappointing, even horrible. In any case, there’s a drug that will open the gate.

“Herr L. asserts that he is a teetotaler, and I believe he does have little to no experience with alcohol, or he would know that ‘drugs’ that open some ‘gates’ will often inhibit rather than propel penetration of those ‘gates.’

“What Herr L. envisions beyond the ‘gate’ is blissful oblivion. Several possible meanings: the ‘death’ of sexual gratification, or actual death, or he’s fudging it because he has no clear idea of what might follow, so yes, vague generalizations such as ‘native infinity’—return to the womb? See notes on mother fixation.

“Re this dream Herr L has transcribed as ‘what the moon brings’—certainly I will write a monograph about it! Cousin Sigmund himself has not had the fortune to come upon a mental artifact so fraught with sexual apprehension. Here I would say that Herr L. has imagined himself as experienced, even libertine. The moon, of which he often writes with trepidation, may represent an Eternal Feminine more destructive than nurturing (unlike the Mother-Sun whose light it merely reflects.) Herr L. is driven by its influence to leave a known walled garden and pursue a stream bearing fallen lotus blossoms (females possessed but now seen as resigned and dead!) Hastening along the stream, he crushes flowers (more females.) The lotuses have ‘lips’ that whisper and bid (lips of a nether variety?) Bridges passed through are ‘grotesque’! At the end of the stream is a vast sea and a dead city slowly emerging as the tide ebbs (post-coital satisfaction giving way to long-held fears of the consequences of sex?) Dare I consider the ‘puffy sea-worms’? Their flaccid avidity is suggestive, yet on reflection I believe they may represent disease agents, such as those bacteria shown to cause syphilis, which are of a most twisting, writhing, worm-like form. Herr L. has told me his father died of ‘nervous exhaustion,’ but I wonder if he does not have doubts and fears about that vague diagnosis.

“What to make of the condor, except that the bird perches on the obvious phallic object in this dream, the vast statue that rears higher and higher above the destruction it has both caused and suffered. Condor to that cruder word for prophylactic requires the change of only one letter, after all.

“To escape the inevitable, Herr L. rushes into it, which I hope he will not actually do. Not, at least, without a condor, as he’s already afflicted by hypochondriasis.

“Treatment plan. Herr L. has shown me stories he wrote called ‘Dagon’ and ‘The Nameless City.’ In these, I feel he better sublimated his anxieties and took a more expansive view of life, indeed on a vast historical and even cosmic scale. Not that these are cheerful tales, but still. Let us set aside the thinly veiled phobias and substitute tentacles and elder races, perhaps even some fantastic transmogrification of those clams which make Herr L. so queasy, and yet which are so delicious fried into fritters or chopped into chowders. Quahogs, I believe they are called. With his penchant for neologism, Herr L. could change that odd word into something suitably horrid yet faintly humorous to, how to say, take the edge off.”

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

Ex Oblivione is a slight thing, nasty or optimistic depending on your views of—well, of oblivion. For something impossible to experience, people do tend to have awfully strong opinions.

Myself, I still have little patience with the Dreamlands stories that go on about how gray and uninteresting the waking world is. Speak for yourself, man. For that matter, given that the waking world of the Dreamlands is in fact the Mythos, it may be many things—squamous, rugose, teetering on the edge of unimaginable voids that will devour your sanity—but not gray and uninteresting. Just because you don’t like the Colors, it doesn’t mean you’ll be bored by them.

EO goes one worse: not only is the waking world bleak and depressing, but the Dreamlands themselves are a pale reward compared with experiencing nothing at all. Even assuming some reuniting with a universal consciousness, a possible interpretation of the ending… again, that’s the Mythos universe. That’s one hell of a consciousness to be part of. I’m not sure Lovecraft has quite thought through what it means to become one with Azathoth.

On the surface, “What the Moon Brings” is a darker story. It is, after all, based on one of Lovecraft’s nightmares. It has corpse-eating worms, and floating dead faces/lotus flowers. But it doesn’t try to treat any of its horror as nice, let alone treacly. Give me anthropophagic worms and vast sunken cities over vaguely orientalist pastorale any day.

That sunken city is only lightly sketched—likely because Lovecraft was trying (and succeeding) for discomfiting dream logic rather than detailed worldbuilding. But it’s no shock that such cities show up in Lovecraft’s nightmares. This one seems kin to those mapped out elsewhere in loving detail: R’lyeh and Y’hanithlei, the vast metropoli of the Old Ones and the unnamed land of “The Temple.” The idea compelled and terrified him, and he managed to make it compelling and sometimes even terrifying, even if I do fall firmly on the “Cool, let’s go check it out,” side of any argument. One of these days someone needs to write a proper epic about the sociopolitical relationships between all these oceanic civilizations—sort of a Game of Thrones for the Deep One/Old One/Shoggoth set. Given what we humans get up to with only 30% of the planet colonized, it would be pretty spectacular.

Lovecraft is better known as a chronicler of fear than of beauty—and that rep is well-earned. I’ve criticized some of his stories for trying to portray everything as scary, making the massive universe-shaking terrors seem less alarming through a lack of contrast with, say, two-hundred-year-old houses. But EO typifies another stream of his consciousness: it’s one of many Dreamlands stories obsessed with beauty—and the conviction that it can only be imagined (and then experienced) by an elite few. Sometimes this works. It works particularly well, as in Dream Quest, when the beauty remains limned by fear.

So, really, my objection to stories like EO is the same as my objection to everything-is-terrifying stories: if the whole of creation is merely beautiful or dull, never ugly or terrifying, then the beauty is hard to appreciate. Y’hanithlei and the Yithian Archives and the tetrahedral visions of “Haunter of the Dark,” rich in both beauty and terror, are ultimately the most memorable of Lovecraft’s creations.

 

Is “Hypnos” really Lovecraft’s most slash-tastic story? Find out next week!

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.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” will be available from the Tor.com imprint in Spring 2017. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story.The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with the recently released sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.

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