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 sonnets 13-24 in the “Fungi From Yuggoth” sonnet cycle, all written over the 1929-30 winter break (December 27 to January 4, and don’t you feel unproductive now?). They were published individually in various magazines over the next few years, and first appeared together in Arkham House’s Beyond the Wall of Sleep collection in 1943.
The winter sunset, flaming beyond spires
And chimneys half-detached from this dull sphere,
Opens great gates to some forgotten year
Of elder splendours and divine desires.
- Hesperia: Winter’s flaming sunset opens gates to elder splendors and divine desires, a land where beauty’s meaning flowers and Time begins its course. We can only approach it in dreams, for lore insists that human tread has never soiled its streets.
- Star-Winds: In autumn twilight the star-wind pours down deserted streets; at its touch, dead leaves and chimney-smoke dance in alien geometries. Poets know what fungi sprout in Yuggoth, what flowers fill Nithon, but for each dream the winds convey, they sweep off a dozen of our own.
- Antarktos: A great bird whispers to the dreamer of a black cone thrust from the polar ice. The Elder Ones guess its origins. If men see it, they’ll suppose it nature’s work. But the bird speaks of vaster parts hidden under mile-thick ice. God help any mad dreamer who glimpses dead eyes in crystal gulfs below!
- The Window: In an old, sprawling house there’s a window sealed with stone. Narrator as a dream-plagued child used to stare at it, oddly unafraid, with wonder. Grown, he has masons pierce the seal, but they flee at the breath of alien voids. Through the cleft, narrator sees the wild worlds of his dreams.
- A Memory: Steppes stretch half-limitless under starlit night. Alien campfires reveal shaggy, belled beasts. Far south is a zigzagging wall like a huge petrified python. A form rises from a campfire, calling narrator by name. Under its hood is a dead face. Narrator ceases to hope, for he understands.
- The Gardens of Yin: These lie beyond a sky-high wall of ancient mossy towers, rich with flowers and fauna, bridges over warm lotos-pools, temples and cherry trees and herons in a pink sky. Old dreams open the gate. Narrator hurries to the wall but finds there’s no longer a gate.
- The Bells: Long has the narrator faintly heard deep-toned bells on midnight wind, yet never found their source. He recalls an ancient spire in Innsmouth where gulls tarried. One rainy night he recalls elder towers where mad clappers tolled. But they’re sunk in sunless tides on the sea’s dead floor.
- Night Gaunts: Every night these beasts, black and horned, with membranous wings and barbed tails, snatch narrator off on monstrous voyages into the gray worlds of nightmare. They cross the peaks of Thok and descend to nether pits where shoggoths splash. Oh, if only they weren’t so silent. If only they had faces.
- Nyarlathotep: From inner Egypt comes the dark One, cryptically proud, wrapped in red robes. Throngs press around, frantic for commands which they afterwards can’t remember. Awed whispers spread that wild beasts follow him and lick his hands. Soon the sea births forgotten lands. The ground is cleft and auroras roll down on man’s citadels. Then idiot Chaos crushes what he molded in play–and blows Earth’s dust away.
- Azathoth: The daemon bears narrator into the mindless void, past dimensioned space. There the Lord of All mutters about dreams he can’t understand, surrounded by bat-things that dance to the whining of a cracked flute. Chance combines those sounds into the eternal law of each frail cosmos. “I am his Messenger,” the daemon says, striking his Master’s head in contempt.
- Mirage: Narrator often sees a violet-misted lost world of towers, lapping rivers, labyrinths and vaults of light. Vast birds wheel over sedgy shores, and an ancient white-steepled village on a windswept hill. He listens for its chimes still, though he doesn’t know the land’s name or dare to ask when he was, or will be, there.
- The Canal: In dream there’s an evil place where deserted buildings crowd a narrow canal. Its oily currents reek of frightful things. Beyond lanes of decrepit houses there may or may not be known streets. Moonlight shines on dead windows. The only sound is the water’s lapping. No one can tell when the stream washed this place from the world of clay into dream.
What’s Cyclopean: No kidding, Lovecraft does very well with the constraints of iambic pentameter. Some lovely adjectives result: “dream-plagued” and “stone-lanterned” are two notable neologisms this week. [And “puffed shoggoths”! Puffed! –AMP]
The Degenerate Dutch: Pretty minimal this week. Eastern “fellahs” bow to Nyarlathotep, but then so does everyone else.
Mythos Making: Innsmouth gets a brief shout-out. “The daemon” is revealed as Nyarlathotep, and takes narrator to visit/mock Azathoth. Nightgaunts and shoggoths and elder things, oh my. More vital to the Mythos than all this, one core description: from the whining flutes that we’ve heard about so often “flow the aimless waves whose chance combining/ Gives each frail cosmos its eternal law.”
Libronomicon: The middle of this cycle focuses not on books, but dreams.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Uncomprehending Azathoth gets no respect. Maybe next time try surrounding yourself with sane dancers, or at least ones with better musical training.
As in the first twelve sonnets, Lovecraft experiments with several variations on the form. There are standard English sonnets, fairly standard Italian sonnets, and Italian/English hybrids. Most interesting is a variation on the Italian sonnet Lovecraft seems particularly taken with, since he uses it in four poems of this set. The rhyme scheme is abbaabba/effegg, and it appears in “Star Winds,” “The Gardens of Yin,” “Nyarlathotep,” and “The Canal.” Is this an already named and claimed variation or can we call it the Lovecraftian sonnet?
Also as before, a rhyming couplet closes even the most Italianate sonnets.
“Hesperia” makes me picture Howard himself gazing at a winter sunset from the terrace of Prospect Park. From that vantage, I’ve seen dying light flame on the spires and chimneys of Providence, and there is something mystical about it, something that might “half detach” the gilded buildings from this “dull sphere.” The title, I guess, refers to that mythological garden far west of Greece, where nymphs called the “Daughters of Evening” tended, well, whatever nymphs like to grow. Opium poppies and hemlock? Cannabis and nightshade? Heirloom tomatoes? Oh, and those golden apples that grant immortality, yawn.
The “moral” of “Hesperia” is echoed by the other Dreamlandy poems here, such as “Star-Winds,” “Antarktos,” and “The Gardens of Yin.” Dreaming shows us worlds beyond Earth, worlds of ultimate beauty, wonder and adventure, the very stuff of poetic desire. But there’s always a volta, a turn, if not in the sestet then the closing couplet. Either no human foot has trodden the blessed realm, or for every gained dream we lose a dozen, or gates into bliss have disappeared. Dreamers of mad vision look through mile-thick ice only to glimpse dead eyes in crystal gulfs, and dream-wanderers meet cloaked figures with dead faces who kill hope with comprehension. “The Window’s” close is ambiguous, but I find it the most cheerful of this bunch: narrator seems quite pleased to peer through mundane masonry into the wild worlds of his dreams. Keep chipping away, buddy.
Along with flaming sunsets, tricky stonework, spires and chimneys and steeples and towers, bells and chimes recur frequently in this fey circle of Fungi. They’re central, not surprisingly, to “The Bells,” where spectral peals recall for the narrator a “quiet” Innsmouth of white gulls and ancient spires. But one night the bells recall a literally deeper truth, in which “mad clappers” toll from elder towers in sunken oceanic valleys. Y’ha-nthlei, perhaps? But where’s all the glory gone? What’s with the sunless tides and dead ocean floor? Lighten up, man, gills rock.
“The Canal,” we’re told outright, bisects an evil place somewhere in the dream worlds. I guess it was at one point part of the “world of clay,” that is, the waking world, but the oily stream at some point washed it to its present location. Hmm, there’s an intriguing idea. As for the name of the “dream-lost” region, I’m going for the Rue d’Auseil. Smelly waterway, buildings so old they lean across the street toward each other, streets with doubtful ends and no footfalls to be heard. Maybe there’ll be violin playing later, though?
And at last, my two favorites, “Nyarlathotep” and “Azathoth.” I’ve always been intrigued by the relationship of these two Outer Gods. Like, exactly what does the job of “Soul and Messenger” entail? Is it a Holy Ghost or Hermes kind of gig? One thing’s certain: it comes with as many avatars as you can don, depending on which inferior beings you’re dealing with at the moment. The well-tanned or maybe ebon black humanoid Nyarlathotep is one of them. Here he gets an eye-catching outfit in sunset flame—those sunsets again! People are bewitched without remembering why. Beasts lick his hands. Licking beasts could get old, especially St. Bernards, but they’re impressive, part of the whole divine charisma thing.
This particular apparition of the Coolest Outer God, alas, presages the end of our world. As if noxious upheaving spires and cleaving ground and mad auroras weren’t enough, along comes this idiot Chaos to crush Earth. My first question: Who’s doing the crushing, Nyarlathotep (sometimes called the Crawling Chaos) or his boss, Azathoth (the ultimate Chaos and also a blind idiot as we’re often told.)
I say the careless planet-crusher is Azathoth, because Nyarlathotep may be many things (literally) but he’s no idiot. And along comes the next sonnet to clarify things a bit. Ah hah! That daemon of Sonnet Number Five seems to be back to his old tricks of bearing narrator into voids On this trip, narrator beholds Chaos (Azathoth) as a muttering Lord of All who dreams without comprehension and hangs with shapeless flopping bat-things and, of course, monstrous flautists. Cracked flutes are absolutely diagnostic of Azathoth.
Now some serious cosmology: Between Azathoth muttering and the bat-things dancing and the monstrous flautists tooting, aimless waves are engendered whose chance combination creates the each frail cosmos’s eternal law! Awesome though random, right? But Nyarlathotep doesn’t seem satisfied, because he swats Azathoth one. On the head! And gets away with it, because either no one else wants his job or Azathoth is too stoned on idiot omnipotence to notice.
Take this in: The Soul and Messenger smacks his MASTER upside the head. In contempt! Oh the joy, it’s just as I always suspected. Nyarlathotep is the LUCIFER of this cosmos! He is not thrilled with the cosmic bureaucracy. He’s sick of being the smartest Outer God in the room and still a gofer. No use trying to take over his own parallel universe—Azathoth makes them all and holds the right of mindless annihilation. So Nyarlathotep’s got to use his inimitable powers of persuasion and schmoozing to network with other beings, divine or mortal, who cares, a vote is a vote, metaphorically speaking.
Then, what if you spend millennia jollying along the humans, and Az happens to burp at the center of creation, setting off a tsunami of force that vaporizes all those hard-won cultists? Sure, you’ve got zillions of other irons in the fire, but it’s still got to hurt.
Oh, the angst.
I’m so ecstatic with Mythic insight right now. That overarching cycle “plot” or lots of stand-alones question? I’ll have to deal with it next week, when I (let’s hope) stop gibbering.
Snowed in, during a whiteout blizzard, turns out to be the perfect setting to read these poems. Lovecraft is comfort reading, and the sonnet is a comfortable form. And blizzards, like form poetry, can constrain action and imagination to produce intriguing results. Life today is family and writing within a few warm rooms, while outside howls something indifferent and unfathomable. Kind of a metaphor for something…
Last week I focused on the poems as Howard’s notes for formalizing and expanding the Mythos, and as—perhaps—a coherent narrative. This week I’m struck by the themes. None are new here–Lovecraft was a remarkably consistent writer, theme-wise, across the 18 years of his professional career. But some of those themes, it turns out, are particularly well-suited to poetry.
Dozens of Lovecraft’s stories involve narrators who feel like strangers in their own everyday lives, who seek (and sometimes find) a true homeland seen only in dreams. In “The Silver Key” the search is eye-rollingly maudlin, in “The White Ship” doomed, and in “Dream-Quest” it turns out that there’s no place like home. “The Festival” and “Rats in the Walls” offer ancestral homelands that never should’ve been sought in the first place—dreams are clearly a healthier map to one’s true home than family.
In “Fungi,” though, we find that this search is one and the same with the tempting/repulsive search for esoteric knowledge that forms another major thread of the Mythos tapestry. The narrator (assuming only one) reads dread tomes, summons Nyarlathotep as astral guide, skulks the Innsmouth docks, in search of a home glimpsed in childhood dreams. And he catches glimpses of that home both in gambreled sunset rooftops and in sunken valleys on the sea’s dead floor—in the elegiac imagery of the soppiest Dreamlandscapes, and the touch-it-and-run-away nightmares of purest cosmic horror. Explains a lot, doesn’t it?
It’s about how I feel about the Mythos, really. You would never want to live there—but it’s hard to convince yourself you don’t. The best parts are so familiar as to feel like home—Stross would say because they map so well to whatever apocalypse happens to be imminent. The delicious familiar shiver the first time I heard people talk about Cthulhu. Of course something beyond human comprehension sleeps just over the horizon, ready to wake and overturn all order. You already knew that—you just managed to avoid thinking about it until someone brought it up.
This merged theme continues into upcoming masterworks. Outer Ones offer true and terrible knowledge alongside cosmopolitan community. Yith offer the same plus the chance to leave your own mark on that knowledge, and minus the ability to stay in the world’s greatest salon. And Y’ha-nthlei, at the summit/depth of all Lovecraft’s sunset cities, will welcome you to dwell forever in glory even after you’ve pushed it away as hard as you can—even to the point of calling in soldiers and torpedos to try and tear it down.
Any reader of horror, or specfic in general, can probably identify with this contradiction: universes that feel like home and yet utterly alienating. Settle into Marvel’s New York City and watch Spiderman swinging overhead, knowing that his existence implies that Galactus is out there somewhere eating lunch. Make your way up to Vernor Vinge’s Beyond, enjoy the fruits of not-quite-posthuman civilization, and don’t think too hard about how the Blight is waiting to awaken.
Okay, any reader of spec-fic can identify with this, because the influence of the Mythos is pervasive. I’m having trouble thinking of any well-developed universe that doesn’t carry its mark. And “Fungi” is where Lovecraft lays it all out and brings it together: you can’t have the wonders without the terrors, the comfort of your hidden homeland without the terrors that lurk in its shadows.
Next week, we wind up with sonnets 25 through 36 of the “Fungi From Yuggoth” cycle. Bells, the High Priest Not to Be Named, and introspection.
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.