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 Crawling Chaos,” a Lovecraft and Winifred V. Jackson collaboration first published in the April 1921 issue of The United Cooperative, under the noms des plumes “Elizabeth Berkeley” and “Lewis Theobald, Jr.”
“I beheld such a sight as I had never beheld before, and which no living person can have seen save in the delirium of fever or the inferno of opium. The building stood on a narrow point of land—or what was now a narrow point of land—fully 300 feet above what must lately have been a seething vortex of mad waters. On either side of the house there fell a newly washed-out precipice of red earth, whilst ahead of me the hideous waves were still rolling in frightfully, eating away the land with ghastly monotony and deliberation.”
Unnamed narrator (UN, you know) muses on the pleasures and pains of opium, which he (or she?) only took once, in the year of the plague. The overworked doctor overdosed him, and he sank from the pounding agony in his head into the farthest reaches of narcotic dream. In this state he saw such horrors that he has never taken opium since. And oh, by the way, those horrors aren’t just hallucinations—even Baudelaire never dared hint at the direction and nature of the journey on which opium sends its dreamers.
Intoxicated, UN seems to fall through unseen throngs, or else the universe and ages fall by him. The pounding in his head becomes external, a sound like the thunder of colossal waves breaking on a desolate shore. He wakes in a beautiful and many-windowed room, exotic yet not alien. The pounding continues. At first he avoids looking outside, overcome by a nameless apprehension, but curiosity leads him at last into a hall that ends in an oriel window.
The building, he sees, stands on a narrow and narrowing spit. Three hundred feet below, a purple-black sea hurls 50-foot waves against the crumbling land, while black storm clouds lurk on the horizon. Weirdly, the view differs on the other sides of the promontory. To UN’s left, the sea is green and gently heaving under a bright sun; to the right, it’s blue and calm, though the sky is growing darker.
The land grows narrower even as he watches. Perceiving that his position is precarious, UN flees inland. The air is hot, the flora tropical, studded with giant palm trees. One particularly huge tree draws him through a valley of high grass. Some terror stalks through the swishing grass, a Tiger or Beast. UN thinks it’s the tiger, as described by the ancient (ancient?) writer Rudyard Kipling, but he dares not return to the house to seek the book.
UN reaches the tree and rests in its shade. A haloed child drops from the branches and tells him in silvery tones that it’s the end, for “they” have come from the stars. No problem: More radiant beings appear, a god and goddess who take UN’s hands. They’ll take him to Teloe and Cytharion beyond the Milky Way, where only youth and beauty and pleasure abide. Accompanied by an ever-increasing throng of vine-crowned youths and maidens (singing and playing lutes), they all ascend into the heavens. The child warns UN not to look back.
But the pounding of the waves far below makes UN disobey. He stares down at an already ruined Earth relentlessly devoured by the oceans. In the greatest desert, a rift opens, and the oceans pour down into it to burst into steam — the dark gods of inner earth are stronger, it seems, than the god of the waters. The oceans are lost, leaving behind only the ruins of now-forgotten cities. Looking back up, UN realizes his companions have disappeared.
Just before he wakes from opium stupor in his own bed, he witnesses the cataclysmic explosion of the Earth. The fury dissolves the moon as well, leaving only “cold, humorous” stars as backdrop for a dying sun, and mournful planets searching for their sister.
What’s Cyclopean: You know, if you’re going to describe the sea as having “sinister, colossal breakers,” you may as well describe those waves as cyclopean. But he doesn’t. We do get mellifluous choriambics and a plutonic (but not Yuggothian) gulf.
The Degenerate Dutch: Our dreamer mentions Asia as a land of hideous antiquity, teeming with nebulous shadows. Thanks, orientalism.
Mythos Making: “The Crawling Chaos” will eventually become one of Nyarlathotep’s epithets, but here refers to a less anthropomorphic incarnation of entropy—though one that’s equally fond of reality-draining abysses.
Libronomicon: De Quincey and Baudelaire get shout-outs for opium-induced storytelling, and Kipling for tigers—presumably The Jungle Book.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Bad trip.
Okay, let’s get confusing. “Elizabeth Berkeley” is really Winifred V. Jackson, while publicly credited coauthor “Lewis Theobold, Jr.” is really H. P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft wrote “The Crawling Chaos” based on a dream Jackson had. The Crawling Chaos, that is, Nyarlathotep, doesn’t appear in this story, at least not explicitly. Apparently Lovecraft just liked the sound of the title. And, really, who wouldn’t? If anything’s worse (or cooler) than Chaos, it must be a Chaos that gets around, however slowly.
I guess we could assume that doom-bringer Nyarlathotep is among the “they” who have come down to earth from the stars, ending everything. Maybe he’s come to egg on the gods of earth (remember those slackers from the Dreamlands?), setting the dark inner-earth deities against the evil water deity. Maybe he’s smirking among those “humorous stars” that view the aftermath of the Terran Apocalypse. That would be like him. “Crawling Chaos” could also refer to the rampaging oceans themselves, especially as seen from high above the planet, UN’s eventual vantage point.
Anyway, this piece shouts dream-derived, both with its abrupt and logic-free transitions and its vivid imagery. A flimsy but adequate frame corrals and justifies the phantasmagoria. UN, unlike the De Quincey he mentions, is no habitual opium-taker. He had the plague, see, and his doctor gave him the drug, and because there was this plague going on, Doc dosed UN out of his gourd and maybe far into the future, where Kipling’s an ancient writer. Interesting if a little strained detail to suggest UN is having a bona fide vision of what’s to come. My guess is that part of Jackson’s dream was the Tiger or Beast in the grass, which (dream-like) drops out of the “plot” after sounding its ominous note.
Too bad. I’m more intrigued by the Beast than by the radiant beings who suddenly jump out of the palm tree, literal dei ex machina (or ex palm) just in time to rescue UN. They promise him a very Dreamlands-like paradise out beyond the galaxy. You know, the usual golden rivers and ivory bridges and chalcedony cities, the standard eternal pleasure and flowers and music and laughter. But UN’s your classic contrarian. Tell him not to look back, and of course he must. Otherwise we wouldn’t get to see the cataclysm.
My favorite part of this story is the description of UN’s first look out the oriel window. Three ocean views for the price of one! Gorgeous and strongly evocative, for me anyhow. One of my recurring dream-motifs features an ocean all sunny and inviting one moment, raging the next, with a tsunami heading straight at me. I’m reminded, too, of Tolkien’s dream of a Great Wave that threatened the green lands, ineluctable. I think Faramir gets this dream in LotR, though Eowyn gets it in the movie.
Back to that alliterative Crawling Chaos. Azathoth, we know, is most strongly associated with chaos, but It probably just seethes and heaves and flops aimlessly, without the purpose and direction “crawling” implies. So Nyarlathotep, birthed from Chaos but with a mind and soul and imperative to deliver messages, is the crawling chaos. Except I’m not so sure He/She/It would relish that descriptor. How about Striding Chaos, or Speeding Chaos, or (for the alliteration) Careening Chaos? Or (when He/She/It is dealing with Earth’s gods) Irritably Pacing Chaos? Skipping? Ambling? Prowling? Tiptoeing?
Ah, the potential descriptors are as infinite as the Messenger’s avatars! He/She/It is truly Great and Old and Ultimate and Outer!
Last week, we found Poe obsessed with opium in a story that wasn’t remotely about it. This week, Lovecraft uses it as an excuse to make a vivid dream creepier. Note his clever use of “my reactions were probably far from normal” as an excuse to forestall critique from readers who’ve actually used the stuff. At the same time, it lets him claim connection with more romantic poets, and add an edge of decadence and real suffering to what’s essentially a dream report.
And indeed, this is one of Lovecraft’s stronger “writing down a dream” stories, maybe because the “opium gives you a glimpse of the apocalyptic future” framing actually works, maybe because it wasn’t his dream but Winifred Jackson’s. Trying to base a story (plot needed) on a dream (neural epiphenomenon) is notoriously difficult, but the dream’s chaos already needs to be shaped into a somewhat plot-like box in order to share it with a friend—or at least to do so successfully. Last night I dreamed about visiting Disneyland, and trying to figure out whether I was actually a goddess or just LARPing as one, but unless I figure out how to narrativize it, it’s unlikely to become even a footnote in anyone’s literary oeuvre.
But “Crawling Chaos” manages the balance between nightmare logic and having just enough narrative not to descend into titular disorganization. It’s full of creepy details: the sea eating the last of the land and then draining into the steaming abyss, the weird conviction that Kipling’s an ancient author, the moment of lost hope with the angelic emissaries from the nice part of the Dreamlands, the random fear of snakes in the grass. Admit it, that abyss is going to feature in some of your upcoming nightmares.
And it certainly sounds like one of Howard’s. Maybe his friend’s dream appealed to his muse because it so well matched his own fears. The ocean is terrifying throughout his oeuvre, usually with less cause than here, where it’s actually doing damage. He doesn’t even get around to the smell, this time. You know, the smell of rotting fish, impossible to escape in small coastal towns, or on islands new-risen from the sea’s dank floor. But AND THEN IT EATS EVERYTHING AND VANISHES INTO DARKNESS is in fact scarier, even or especially if you normally think an oceanfront view is pretty charming.
This is also one of the places where he manages to make deep time creepy. In “Shadow Out of Time” he makes you feel it through enumerated details of the years in between Now and Then. Here, it’s the subtler and more visceral hint of Kipling as ancient scribe—even more pointed when this was written, as the two authors were in fact contemporaries. Kipling was older, but died only a year before Lovecraft. He would have approved, too, one suspects. While the differences between their works are extreme, Kipling also cared about the history and continuity of culture, and of literature in particular. (I’m thinking particularly of “In the Neolithic Age,” though I could also make a long and somewhat uncharitable essay out of comparing the two men’s prejudices and beliefs about the irreplaceable value of Anglo civilization—Kipling would come out ahead on that one, I’m afraid.)(ETA: I’m not thinking of “In the Neolithic Age,” it turns out, but can’t track down the title of the poem I am thinking of. There is one, just trust me on that.)
And history and cultural continuity are, ultimately, the things that are Mythos-level scary in “Crawling Chaos”: not out-of-control erosion, not snakes, not getting left behind on your way to Cytharion, but the moment when the cities rise again from the drained ocean, and no one remembers them. Defend your civilization as you will, but time and the inexorable movement of the earth will eventually take it down to dust. After witnessing that, you can’t blame the narrator for deciding that from now on, he’s going to Just Say No To Drugs.
Next week, learn more about unspeakable cults in Robert Howard’s “The Black Stone.”
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.