Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
This week, we’re celebrating National Poetry Month! H.P. Lovecraft’s “Nemesis” was first published in the June 1918 issue of The Vagrant, while Gemma Files’s “Haruspicy” first appeared in Strange Horizons in October 2011. Spoilers ahead (such as they are).
Thro’ the ghoul-guarded gateways of slumber, past the wan-moon’d abysses of night…
In Which Anne Does Not Attempt to Summarize
The closer prose approaches poetry, the more impertinent a summary of the piece becomes. To put it in Austenesque terms, PROSE is SENSE and POETRY is SENSIBILITY. That’s stating the matter way too broadly—or boldly, or baldly, to fumble poetic. Still, the distinction appeals to me as the cudgel to knock our bird to the ground so we can take up the dissection scalpel.
Of course, if you knock a bird to the ground, you’ll likely damage the finer points of its anatomy. Even more likely, that’s one bird that won’t fly again. Not that, say, an ostrich would have flown anyway, but we’re talking more larks here, and nightingales, and whippoorwills in honor of our Howard. Besides, try and cudgel an ostrich; you’ll discover those long muscular legs are made for kicking as well for as running like all get-out.
My point is that as impertinent as summarizing poetic prose may be, summarizing the actual beast (poetry, not ostriches) is an even bigger bitch. So go ahead and read today’s offerings intact, raven-black feather by leathery bat-wing by sky-spanning dragon-pinion. “Nemesis” is here and “Haruspicy” is here!
Read them word by word, soak in just this ordering of lines and stanzas, just this rhythm, just these syllables—murmur them aloud to taste the poems as they stream over the lips, wait for the vibration of their sound, like the hum of the void or the rumor of claws digging downward toward your coffin. Or upward. Either way will work.
Sure, you could wear void-cancelling headphones or sound-proof your coffin, but where’s the fun in that? Enjoy the horror that lurks at the links above!
What’s Cyclopean: There are fog-foetid fountains.
The Degenerate Dutch: No matter how strongly two cultures despise each other (Files points out), eventually we’re all meat and bones.
Mythos Making: It’s ghouls all around this week, overtly in the Lovecraft and by implication in the Files. The ghoul-guarded gateways of slumber are presumably in the Dreamlands.
Libronomicon: More reading entrails than reading books. Which may be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on which book it would have been and whose entrails they are.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Lovecraft’s Nemesis is being driven to madness with fright.
So, what is a poem anyway? We can identify one at a glance: It’s words arranged on the page funny, that is, without the sensible margin-to-margin amble of prose. The Oxford Dictionary takes a whack at a general definition: A piece of writing that partakes of the nature of both speech and song that is nearly always rhythmical, usually metaphorical, and often exhibits such formal elements as meter, rhyme, and stanzaic structure. It adds a second, metaphorical, definition: Something that arouses strong emotion because of its beauty. For example: The way Eleanor stretched herself awake each morning was a poem in itself.
The second definition implies that poems must be beautiful and arouse emotion. Is that always true? Is “Nemesis” beautiful? Is “Haruspicy”? Are they meant to be? Do they rouse emotion, and if so, what kind? What kind do the writers want to rouse, and what kind do they manage to rouse in you, the only reader who can answer with certainty for yourself?
To play fair, I’ll take the quiz first. I think both this week’s poems are beautiful. “Nemesis” positively exhilarates me with dread. “Haruspicy” positively exhilarates me with revulsion—haruspicy, after all, is the art of divining through the examination of an animal’s entrails. Couldn’t we just use a crystal ball or tarot cards? Oh all right then, slice open that goat, or hanged man. What’s a little gore between haruspex and client? Besides, in the end “Haruspicy” gives me the warm fuzzies of fellowship. Ghoul or human or a hybrid of the two, we’re all going to face the void together one day, presumably after divining the eve of doom via chicken liver.
Or hanged man liver.
Settled: We have two poems here, though very different in form. Lovecraft makes his opinion of what constitutes proper versification clear in several essays, of which “Metrical Regularity” pulls no punches. Paragraph one, Howard states:
Of the various forms of decadence manifest in the poetical art of the present age, none strikes more harshly on our sensibilities than the alarming decline in that harmonious regularity of metre which adorned the poetry of our immediate ancestors.
Take that, you free-verse advocates! Here’s a follow-up jab:
The [result of metrical laxity] cannot but be a race of churlish, cacophonous hybrids, whose amorphous outcries will waver uncertainly betwixt prose and verse, absorbing the vices of both and the virtues of neither.
And we know how Howard felt about “churlish, cacophonous hybrids” and all things “amorphous.” Not surprisingly, his poems exult in meter and rhyme, even (tongue-in-cheek sporadically) his farcical take on modern poetry: “Waste Paper: A Poem of Profound Insignificance.” [RE: I looked up this poem to link it, but… decided not to. He’s written worse, but it has a couple lines that, let’s just say, have not aged well.] In “Metrical Regularity,” Lovecraft waxes so loving of his metrical feet that he singles out one, “the lively anapaests of Sheridan and Moore.” The anapaest (or anapest) is a foot of three syllables, unaccented-unaccented-accented, as in “But we loved/with a love/that was more/than love.” The first three feet of that line are anapests, the last an iamb (unaccented-accented.) It comes from Poe’s “Annabel Lee.” Poe was quite fond of anapests, and so was Lovecraft. And, ironically, so was Dr. Seuss. The anapest is often considered a light and tripping foot, well suited to humorous and children’s verse.
Anapest has the opposite effect in the mournful “Annabel Lee” and the ominous “Nemesis.” To dive into the technicalities of the latter poem, its meter is basically three feet per line, nearly all the feet anapests, so, da-da-DA/da-da-DA/da-da-DA, or anapestic trimeter. The last line of each stanza, as printed, has six feet and so is twice the length of the lines above; I find this slows me down whether reading silently or aloud. A neat device, since thus Lovecraft keeps the reader from gaining too much momentum, from rollicking along with the short bouncy lines.
Another crafty way Lovecraft slows the poem is to add a demi-foot to the end of the first and third lines of each stanza—they read da-da-DA/da-da-DA/da-da-DA/da. That final unaccented syllable encourages a pause, a little gasp, before one plunges into the next line. (Or you could count the last foot of the first and third lines as a four-beat foot, da-da-DA-da, which would make it a tertius paeon, which sounds like the name of a thrice-victorious Roman general, how cool is that. I prefer the notion of the demi-foot gasp, though.)
Each stanza has five lines, again as printed, but I tend to read the long last line as two lines that mirror the structure of the line-pairs preceding, a “three-and-a-half” foot line (da-da-DA X 3 + da) followed by a three-foot line (da-da-DA X 3). Once more, it acts as a device for slowing the pace of the poem.
For me, the combination of a “fast” metrical foot with slowing devices makes “Nemesis” feel more dreamlike, or more nightmarish to be exact. You know how in nightmares you’re running as fast as you can and yet you’re still going sooo slooow? By creating this effect via meter, Howard shows himself at the top of his form. He rhymes nicely too, ababb, none of the rhymes forced to my ear.
As for the sense of “Nemesis,” I initially wondered if the goddess of divine retribution herself was the “I” of the poem—I mean, you have an entity here older than the Pharaohs, older than prelapsarian humanity, an entity who’s been there, seen that, probably doesn’t condescend to wear T-shirts. The concept doesn’t hold up. This narrator is more pursued than pursuer, more doomed to endure divine retribution than to dispense it, and deservedly so, since narrator is “vile,” weighted down by a great “sin of my spirit.”
But look at the mini-scenarios of each stanza—a dark universe with black planets, a daemon-haunted ocean, a primordial forest, cave-ridden mountains and fog-fetid fountains, a vast ivy-clad palace with sinister tapestries, tombs of the ages, smoke-belching Erebus, realms where the desert sun consumes what it cannot cheer. Why, this sounds like a catalogue of Lovecraft’s personal Dreamlands, from which he claimed to derive stories whole, along with the settings for many more. So, Howard, are you the “I”? Is dreaming (and story-weaving) not only your gift but your Nemesis?
Gemma Files’ biography at Aqueduct Press calls her relationship with poetry “an enduring yet ambivalent one.” Her earliest professional sale (at age eleven) was a poem. Eventually she stopped writing poetry, for what she calls the usual reasons: “embarrassment, social discomfort, the fact that she mostly wrote stuff like a cycle of poems chronicling the original Planet of the Apes movie series.” I’m glad she’s returned to poetry as an adult. “Haruspicy” is an elegant piece, however Howard might sniff at free verse. Fun that it’s dedicated both to Howard and Caitlín R. Kiernan, whose love story we read last week. I read Files’s poem as another tale of difference-complicated attraction, as omen-o’ershadowed as “Nemesis.”
Here’s my reading of the subtle and supple narrative. Yours may well vary widely, given its ambiguous nature!
The opening stanza introduces a haruspex—one who gleans omens from entrails. She “open(s) a hanged man up like a book,” which is a gorgeous expression of a gruesome act. Ghouls come to observe, called by the poem’s narrator, a ghoul-human hybrid.
He addresses “Madame,” apologizing that his mixed morphology keeps him from dancing to “either tune,” human or ghoulish. I don’t know which “Inquisitor” he waits to beckon him—the beckoner’s title is our one clue, plenty to fire the imagination. Poor hybrid. He apologizes unnecessarily, since he didn’t choose his form of existence.
Part of which existence is “faint noises” from his cellar, announcing the arrival of relatives. Presumably “Madame” wouldn’t relish their society; less apologetic now, narrator admits he’s unlike “Madame,” BUT—“still more as you than either of us would like to think.” No offense, ma’am, but narrator isn’t 100% pleased with his human heritage; as he remarked in the first stanza, hybrid cubs are “halflings cursed with human faces.”
Comes the turn: When skin’s peeled away (as by a haruspex), we’re both “flesh, blood, guts… a red-bone rosary, fit for telling,” freighted with meaning, not mere “soundless depth, awful dream, darkness.”
The deep dreaming darkness is as unavoidable as Nemesis, I expect. Is its dream’s end—and ours—what the ensanguined omens predict? The sun goes out, the peoples huddle together, “two great cultures reduced to a tumult of cemeteries.” “Tumult” is a great word choice here, meaning both a confusion and a loud uproar. Can’t you see all those cemeteries collapsing into chaos with stony protests?
And then will come another act of haruspicy, the “final communion” of ghoul and man as they lie opened, “insides steaming… meat, as memory.”
What will read the last entrails, proof that “we ever squatted on the void’s thin skin together”? Is the Void itself a haruspex?
The last word of the poem is “together,” a power word set alone on its line. Not by accident. Good free verse runs on keen intention in the poet’s decisions big and small, and that’s the care that gives it form and—
It’s ghouls all the way down this week, in two poems written 93 years apart. I’ve mocked Lovecraft sometimes for thinking a century an awe-inspiring slice of deep time—but then sometimes I feel it too. So much of published imagination is forgotten almost as soon as it sees print. The worlds, characters, ideas that echo through decades and centuries are rare: Arthur, Holmes, Frankenstein, a smattering of myths and fairy tales… and this weird agglomeration of phantasmagoric entities and settings and fears that this one weird guy and his friends barely started to tie together into a coherent Mythos before death caught up with him. To be remembered even a century, poems dedicated to your name, is a rare survival, and the void yawns on all sides…
The vertiginous depth of time plays out in both poems, genesis to grave in “Nemesis” and grave to apocalypse in “Haruspicy.” “Nemesis” is a more traditional cosmology than Lovecraft is usually prone to, and might in fact be deliberately biblical. Though most Christian scholars probably don’t place the untainted Eden on a “far Arctic isle.” The cosmology in “Haruspicy,” by contrast, is… ghoulish? The sun burns out, and we all crouch together as corpses, sharing a “final communion” with “our two great cultures reduced to a tumult of cemeteries.” I love the imagery in both, but that one wins for simplicity, vividness, and grotesque egalitarianism. It also feels like a subtle scolding of Lovecraft himself—he’s honored in the dedication, but he was at least as terrified by the idea of multiple great cultures as he was by the idea of deep time. We’re all squatting on the void’s thin skin together; maybe you needed to get over the idea that that’s a bad thing.
“Nemesis” is from 1918, relatively early in the Lovecraftian timeline—the only well-known story to precede it is “Dagon.” (It’s also not too long after “Sweet Ermengarde,” which I mention mostly for the contrast.) In an earlier batches of poems, we noted that Lovecraft sometimes played with ideas in verse before teasing the most obsessive ideas out in prose, and that’s particularly impressive here. The timeline rolls through the rest of his career. Three years on: A variant of the nemesis’s horrific exile shows up in “The Outsider,” whose titular character might also claim that “I, and I only, was vile.” Eight years: Ghouls get more detail in “Pickman’s Model” in 1926. 13 years: “At the Mountains of Madness” provides a closer look at Mount Erebus and the horrors surrounding it. Finally, 17 years later, the rolling black planets get a callback in the epigram to “The Haunter of the Dark.” Dreams, gateway to terror and insight, wind through everything.
Both poems are personal as well as cosmological. Files’ ghoul-changeling cub, apologizing for their very existence, shares a deep self-hatred with Lovecraft’s ancient and nightmare-ridden nemesis. Lovecraft’s narrator is dramatic, overwrought, and intense—and the Lovecraft who writes that intensity is young, talented but not prone to even the minimal nuance he’ll develop in later years. Files, older and wiser, shades her cub’s angst with wry awareness and dark humor. The nemesis wants to tell you about himself and his scary, solitary existence. The ghoul wants to tell you about us, and the scariness of all our existences—and eventually work around from self-hatred and other-hatred to love for the guts we have in common.
That seems like a conclusion we might be able to live with. So to speak.
[ETA: In the course of my search for appropriate cover art, the internet pointed out to me that “Nemesis” scans well to “Piano Man.” This knowledge reverberated dreadfully in my head, and now it can do the same in yours.]
Next week, we delve weird fiction’s gothic roots with Gertrude Atherton’s “The Bell in the Fog.”
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is now available from Lethe Press. You can find some of her fiction, neo-Lovecraftian and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is online on Twitter and Patreon, 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 young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.