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 “Hypnos,” written in March 1922 and first published in the May 1923 issue of The National Amateur.
“I said to myself, with all the ardour of a sculptor, that this man was a faun’s statue out of antique Hellas, dug from a temple’s ruins and brought somehow to life in our stifling age only to feel the chill and pressure of devastating years. And when he opened his immense, sunken, and wildly luminous black eyes I knew he would be thenceforth my only friend—the only friend of one who had never possessed a friend before—for I saw that such eyes must have looked fully upon the grandeur and the terror of realms beyond normal consciousness and reality; realms which I had cherished in fancy, but vainly sought. So as I drove the crowd away I told him he must come home with me and be my teacher and leader in unfathomed mysteries, and he assented without speaking a word.”
Unnamed narrator dreads sleep, in which he and his only friend once plumbed impious depths of dimension-defying dream. His friend paid for this hubris, and narrator fears the same fate.
Flashback, as narrator comes upon a classically beautiful man lying in a fit at a railway station. He’s entranced by this Greek statue in the flesh–and thrilled to see in the stranger’s luminous eyes that he’s plumbed regions beyond normal consciousness that narrator longs to visit. He demands the stranger come home with him, and the man silently assents.
By day, narrator carves busts and ivory heads of his friend. By night they take strange drugs to experience spheres of existence beyond ordinary human perception. They soar through dark abysses, tearing through “viscous, uncouth clouds or vapors” to venture farther into the unknown. They stop aging. Their ambitions grow too unholy to mention, but let’s just say that friend wants to become master of the universe. Narrator insists he never had such grandiose aspirations.
One night narrator gets stuck in an especially dense, clammy barrier, while friend rushes onward into “unvisitable hells” that wake him screaming. Friend announces they must never again venture into dream; now they must take drugs to stay awake!
They begin to age rapidly. Friend dreads solitude and nightly rushes them into every resort of the young and gay—even if their decrepitude makes them objects of derision, insult is better than being alone. The constellation Corona Borealis is scary too.
Dissipation and drugs leave the pair impoverished. They still share a garret in London. But one stormy night, friend sinks into deep slumber from which narrator cannot wake him. Narrator hears a mocking whine from the northeast, where Corona Borealis rises. A red-gold shaft of light descends from the northeast corner of the room to illuminate friend’s face. The whine grows louder. The light draws friend, gaping in inexpressible terror, back to some hideous source. Narrator glimpses it, and falls into such a fit of shrieking that neighbors and police break in.
People later tell narrator he never had a friend, for “art, philosophy and insanity had filled all [his] tragic life.” On the couch where he thought his friend lay is now a bust with his own face at twenty-five, god-like, poppy-crowned. A broken man, he can only adore the marble deity, on whose base is carved the name “Hypnos,” the “mocking and insatiate” lord of sleep.
What’s Cyclopean: Lots of good turns of phrase to choose among, from “viscous, uncouth clouds” to the Corona Borealis’s “scintillant semi-circle of stars.”
The Degenerate Dutch: The vague description of a “man with oriental eyes” who guesses that time and space are relative… that seems a little weird. What overgeneralized ethnicity is the rest of him? [ANNE: I thought he meant Einstein, and that he was using “oriental” in some figurative sense, like, um, full of deep and exotic wisdom. Because Einstein has pretty occidental eyes, in my opinion.]
Mythos Making: The connection to the Mythos is more in mood than in specific call-outs. But it still gets to the core of cosmic horror: the universe that invites exploration, and then punishes it through answers to questions you really ought to have thought twice before asking.
Libronomicon: Baudelaire, man. That guy knew what was up with dreams.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Narrator’s accused of insanity by neighbors who don’t recall his “only friend.” He insists his madness comes from that one, terrible glimpse at Corona Borealis…
As promised, this story is slashtastic. I’d argue, however, that “The Hound” still has it beat. Even with one of the couple a Greek god (insert Marxian eyebrow-waggle here), these two seem likely to leap out of bed mid-tryst to scribble down clever ideas for TAKING OVER THE UNIVERSE. They’ve just got too much going on to really descend into decadent sensory experimentation, whereas the couple in “Hound” had no interest in anything outside each other, and their shared obsession with, um, decadent experimentation.
Last week, I complained about “Ex Oblivione’s” failure to acknowledge the not-so-sublime implications of becoming one with the Mythos. “Hypnos” has the courage of its cosmic horror canvas. It strikes a balance between telling you that no, it really can’t possibly explain anything about what happened, it’s all so unnamable—and then giving you the creepy, compelling detail that invites you to try and fill it all in for yourself. The godlike dude passed out at the center of the crowd—what was he doing there? What did they think when our dilettante narrator swooped in to carry him off? (Assuming that happened at all.) Our narrator’s terrified friend, lover, mentor, partner in universal domination—and what’s up with that? How arrogant do you have to be to take on Azathoth? (Not as arrogant as you have to be to seek oneness with it, I’ll bet.)
Anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah. Narrator’s godlike beloved, called out for his hubris by… something. And leaving behind an extremely godlike husk. Was he, in fact, a wayward god? It would explain a lot: the mysterious appearance (later unremembered and undocumented), the uncanny facility with astral travel, the extremely ambitious goals, the access to stimulants that would make any med student green with envy. So did this god-guy actually encounter something beyond the ability of his puny consciousness to comprehend? Or did he—thinking about the usual relationship between Earth’s gods and the Other Gods—just get caught? I have a suspicion his terror wasn’t so much a limited mind confronted with Mythosian revelation, as a kid getting dragged home by a decidedly unsympathetic guardian. Much like that time everyone played hooky and ran off to Randolph Carter’s sunset city, Nyarlathotep ain’t gonna be pleased with little Hypnos acting as Brain to some random human’s Pinky.
How often does this sort of thing happen? Sometmes Earth’s gods seem happy to dance and play and be picturesquely nostalgic under the Others’ watchful guardianship. And sometimes they seem pretty eager to run off. Are the Other Gods protectors… or conquerors? Guardians or masters? Is Hypnos the only one plotting rebellion, and the sunset city their only attempt at independent refuge? Many later authors take the tack of Charlie Stross’s Laundry series, in which Mythos gods represent the “One True Religion,” all others regretably false. Dozens of pantheons competing with Cthulhu and company might be harder to reconcile on a cosmological level, but seems ripe for storytelling.
Doctor “Wolfie” Freud analyzed this dream-like and dream-obsessed story at length, but alas, his interpretations have so blown my mind that I refuse to blow other innocent minds by reproducing them here.
Once again we have the problem of how to name the unnamable, how to describe the indescribable, how to suggest things beyond all normal human perception without falling back on human perception. We get some generic (for Lovecraft) descriptions of “shocking, unlighted, and fear-haunted abysses.” More interesting is that highly tactile, icky representation of dimensional barriers as “viscous,” “sticky,” and “clammy,” sort of like vast globs of cosmic mucus or perhaps proto-protoshoggoths. The red-gold light shining on only the face of its victim is eerie, too. But for the most part, I’m left cold by the dream-travel in this story. It’s not on the same level as the vividly detailed hyperspatial geometrics of “Dreams in the Witch House” or even the hallucinogenic excesses of the “Silver Key” stories.
Hey, though. It turns out poor narrator never had a friend after all! Or so he’s told by the authorities. Nope, not unless you count imaginary friends like Mr. Perfection of Classical Beauty, who’s maybe named after nemesis Hypnos, or who’s maybe Hypnos himself in temporary human form. Or a statue of Hypnos briefly animated by Hypnos and sharing the god’s ambitions until turned back into a statue. Or maybe that inscribed “Hypnos” is the sleep-god’s signature, a sign he’s avenged himself on the overweening human who dared bust through the ultimate mucus barrier to surprise old H in the bath.
Or, and this is my own sleep-deprived favorite theory: the beautiful and inspiring stranger is an early Tyler Durden, the confidence-challenged narrator’s projection of his ideal self, whose entrepreneurial success is based on statuary instead of soap and who asserts his dominance not in fight clubs but in plans to vie with the gods themselves for control of the universe.
Yes, definitely sleep-deprived.
Before I try to do something about that, here’s my answer to the question Ruthanna proposed last week: Is “Hypnos” the slashiest Lovecraft story? Given the conclusion, I actually find it more autoerotic than homoerotic. For me, the decadent duo of “The Hound” are slashier, and Edward Derby remains the character Lovecraft did his utmost to designate as (unnamably) gay. “Thing on the Doorstep” also features an early gay marriage, since Edward marries a woman who’s actually a man, and I say he married Asenath because he sensed she was a he at heart (or soul.)
Ergh, time for bed and what dreams may come.
But wait, there is one super image/concept in this story: “The cosmos of our waking knowledge, born from such an universe as a bubble is born from the pipe of a jester, touches it only as such a bubble may touch its sardonic source when sucked back by the jester’s whim.”
Where the universe is Azathoth, and Nyarlathotep blows and pops bubble cosmoses on whim!
Next week, in “Quest of Iranon,” the prehistoric Dreamlands just don’t appreciate storytellers the way they should.
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.