The Lovecraft Reread

Things Man Should Still Avoid Knowing: Leonid N. Andreyev’s “Lazarus”

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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 reading Leonid N. Andreyev’s “Lazarus,” first published in Russian in 1906. (Trying to find out the original publication venue when one doesn’t speak Russian is tough—reader insights welcome.) The version we read was translated by Avraham Yarmolinsky and first appeared in 1918 in Lazarus/The Gentleman from San Francisco. Spoilers ahead.

Only the great desert, enfolding the Holy City, came close to the threshold of his abode. It entered his home, and lay down on his couch like a spouse, and put out all the fires.

Summary

When Lazarus rises from the grave after three days, no one notices “the evil peculiarities in him that were later to make his very name terrible.” His sisters Mary and Martha rejoice, as do his friends. They dress him like a bridegroom, and seat him at the head of a great feast. Strangers join the celebration and buzz around the house “like so many bees.”

Lazarus has not returned unchanged, however. Blue shadows and ruptured grave-blisters mar his body; he has grown bloated and exudes the “fetid, damp smell of putrefaction.” Eventually the scars and stench fade, but they never disappear completely. Worse, his character has changed—in his first life, Lazarus’s good humor won the love of the Master. Now he is grave and silent, seldom speaking and then only “words as much devoid of sense and depth” as animal sounds. Around him the feast goes on and musicians play joyously.

Then someone unthinkingly lifts the veil by asking, “Why do you not tell us, Lazarus, what was There?” Lazarus sits silent, eyes downcast. “Is it so terrible There?” the questioner persists. Lazarus remains silent, and as people start to notice his ghastly demeanor, the music and gaiety falter. Prodded a third time, Lazarus finally looks up, “embracing all with one glance, heavy and terrible.”

Since that moment, many have realized that Lazarus’s gaze destroys. It is a gaze utterly indifferent to life and the living; it does not change the bright world, but makes those who meet it unable to perceive brightness. Most victims fade listless into a slow death, like “trees withering on rocky ground.”

Through “the black rings of [Lazarus’s] pupils, as through dark glasses, the unfathomable There gazed upon humanity,” and humanity fled. Dutiful Martha stays with her brother longest, but at last she too leaves. Alone in his increasingly ragged bridegroom’s finery, Lazarus sits all day gazing at the merciless sun. At night he wanders into the desert, pursuing the sinking sun. Neighbors all shun Lazarus, but strangers come with “audacious curiosity” to confront the supposed revenant. Whether warriors or priests, merchants or careless youths, all stricken by Lazarus’s gaze fall under its life-deadening curse.

Those few who can describe their plight say a darkness envelops their whole universe, down to the very particles of the particles of its substance. A “vast emptiness” disunites everything. They lose all sense of time; beginnings and endings merge. And “surrounded by Darkness and Empty Waste, Man trembled helplessly before the dread of the Infinite.”

From Rome comes the celebrated sculptor Aurelius. His works hold immortal beauty, but he’s not satisfied. Love of life shines in his eyes, and yet he can’t quite transmit that radiance to marble and bronze. He hopes to revive his jaded energies by persuading Lazarus to share his appreciation of life. Aurelius requests the revenant’s company for the night; in his determined heartiness, he laughs off Lazarus’s lack of bed, or light, or wine—no wonder Lazarus is so gloomy! The weight of Lazarus’s gaze soon swamps Aurelius’s bravado. By morning he’s a grievously changed man.

Aurelius, however, insists to his friends that he has “found it!” He works eagerly on a new marble statue, then calls in judges of the art. The viewers sorrow to see the monstrous thing he’s created, “crooked, strange, unsightly, shapeless heaps of something turned outside in… wild fragments that seemed to be feebly trying to get away from themselves.” Under one fragment is a gorgeously sculpted butterfly. Aurelius can’t say what the butterfly means. It will be the only bit remaining after a friend destroys the terrible sculpture.

It is the last Aurelius makes. Afterwards, faced with any work of beauty, he will wearily say, “But all this is—a lie.”

Finally the Emperor Augustus summons Lazarus to Rome. Barbers and painters groom Lazarus into the semblance of a good-humored grandfather, but they can’t buffer the “incomprehensible There” that stares from his eyes.

Nevertheless, Augustus meets Lazarus, believing himself the invincible ruler of “an empire of the living.” He commands Lazarus to look at him, though the revenant’s gaze fills his mind with the “awful horror of the Infinite.” Augustus’s despair saves him, the dread of leaving his people to this doom. He orders Lazarus’s eyes burned out. Afterwards, while his days still bring him the joys and sorrows of life, his nights are haunted.

Lazarus returns to desert solitude. Hot iron has driven his cursed knowledge from his eyes into his brain, but all still fear its potential ambush. By day he lifts his sightless face to the burning sun. By night he gropes after the westering orb, his “outstretched arms” giving him “the semblance of a cross.”

One night he chases the sun and doesn’t return. Thus ends the second life of Lazarus, who was in “the mysterious thraldom of death” for three days, then “miraculously raised from the dead.”

What’s Cyclopean: The adjective of the day, unfortunately, is “corpulent.” Some of the less-repeated descriptions of Lazarus are excellent though, from his skin, blistered and covered in “reddish glistening cracks,” to his “cadaverous, heavy odor.”

The Degenerate Dutch: The adjective of the day, unfortunately, is “corpulent” (again). Everything else scary about Lazarus is obviously related to his time in the grave, but why would being dead make you gain weight—and why treat that as so particularly disturbing? (He’s also described as “bloated,” which makes more sense but is very different.)

Mythos Making: PSA: Avoid looking too closely into the truths behind the veil of life as we know it. You may find Italicized Concepts!

Libronomicon: It’s hard to read books when your eyes are a conduit to the unbearable truth of entropy. Would it work if the book were The King in Yellow, do we suppose?

Madness Takes Its Toll: Of the people struck by Lazarus’s gaze, those who scream in madness sometimes come back to life; but the others, never.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

There are so many things man was not meant to know. Or that certain powers would be perfectly happy to have man know, but that are nevertheless a very bad idea. Unwanted revelation may come via scientifically-developed device or transcendent artistic depiction, or just paying careful attention. There are any number of books available on the topic, and sometimes only the briefest scrap of writing is necessary. Most of these methods require someone to make the extremely interesting choice to communicate that which has robbed their life of meaning. Or, sometimes, given them a terrible meaning. Lazarus takes this a step further: his knowledge is contagious. By eye gaze. Masks would seem warranted.

The similarity between Lazarus’s revelations and those to be found amid the Mythos are not entirely coincidental; Lovecraft owned translated collections of Andreyev’s work. Not surprising, given Andreyev’s devotion to Poe. Which makes the differences particularly interesting. There’s a lot of resurrection in Lovecraft’s work, ranging from self-imposed to forced, magical to scientific. But while Lovecraft can turn an obscure biblical reference at need, the elder gods are not generally prone to rescuing their followers from death itself. Andreyev, on the other hand, appears to be using the New Testament as a jumping off point for meditations on the inadvisability of doing so—Jesus as the equivalent of the urban legend protagonist who wishes for a loved one back without sufficiently specifying their condition.

Though I do wonder how close that jump really is. Jesus is not, in point of fact, mentioned in the story at all, save obliquely as “the Master.” Lazarus’s rise from the grave is described in the active voice: He rises and returns, no calling forth necessary. And when I went to look up his story in more detail (Christian gospel not actually being my forte) I was reminded that the biblical Lazarus is dead for four days rather than three. This version gets up and walks out on his own before any deific savior can get there. The Russian Orthodox church also apparently has a fair amount of tradition around Lazarus’s post-resurrection biography, and staring at the sun doesn’t enter into it. (He becomes a bishop.) So is the name just there to explain the “seen death, got the regalia” set-up, or are the exclusions a deliberate Bible AU?

Another interesting choice—and not precisely a cosmically horrible one—is giving the Roman emperor some actual ability to constrain Lazarus’s harm. Russia in 1906 is quite the time to be writing approvingly of imperial power, and Augustus’s power here comes from being a good ruler—caring about his “empire of the living,” feeling tender towards his subjects, being determined to protect them. It’s because his despair would be the despair of his whole society that he’s able to hold it in check. And of course, it’s because he has absolute power over that society that he’s able to have Lazarus’s dangerous eyes burnt out.

The other person who gets some level of resilience, at least temporarily, is the sculptor Aurelius. And that resilience comes not from any external authority, but from his ability to channel the terrible things he’s seen into art. The perfect butterfly with the iceberg of horrible chaos beyond it seems like an apt depiction of what Lazarus imparts. And what does that sculpture really say? Is the butterfly and illusory and temporary extrusion from the ugliness? Or is the ugly truth necessary to support the existence of the butterfly?

But, ancient Rome not being a haven for abstract and modernist art, ugliness is sufficient to justify the art’s destruction—and with it, the possibility of answers to those questions. More than the argument for emperors, this quiet argument for weird, grotesque, and depressing art is what sticks with me even after Lazarus’s eyes are rendered powerless.

 

Anne’s Commentary

Leonid Nikolaievich Andreyev (1871-1919) wrote novels, short stories and plays that critics have labeled everything from romantic to realistic, symbolic to expressionist to protoexistentialist to plain old pulp. Through his broad stylistic range runs a thread of the grotesque and fantastic that has earned him the title of Russia’s Edgar Allan Poe. No surprise, then, that Lovecraft admired Andreyev’s work—he had the opportunity to read “Lazarus” in translation when it appeared in the March 1927 edition of Weird Tales. He also owned two of Andreyev’s books, The Red Laugh and The Seven Who Were Hanged. Robert E. Howard even contended that Andreyev was one of the seven “most powerful” writers of all time.

“Lazarus” is the only Andreyev story I’ve read, but it packs a punch of such weirdness and terror that I’m not dismissing Howard’s statement as hyperbole. Tales of revenants—those come back from the dead—are for me the most chilling, and intriguing. Zombies. Ghosts. Vampires. Every culture’s variations thereupon. The Biblical figure of Lazarus, though? I was much more creeped out by the “other” Laz, that leper who lies under the rich man’s window with dogs licking his sores, than by the one Christ summoned from the tomb. I imagined the Lazarus of John 11 rising in decent shape, like he’d just been napping on the couch waiting for Martha to shout “Dinner’s ready, my lazy-ass but cute brother!” Unwind his shroud, brush out the bedhead, and he’d be ready to party.

Andreyev’s Lazarus is not the Lazarus of my Catechism class. He’s much more like the first Lazarus to jolt me, which is the one in Rembrandt’s painting of the miracle. Even Jesus looks startled by the gaunt, head-lolling result of his necromancy. Maybe sister Mary throws her hands up in joyful greeting, but I’m reading something more like Oh hell no, not what I signed up for. I’d never questioned why Jesus would resurrect a (in the Bible four-days-entombed) corpse; probably I was suffering from miracle-overload by that point in the New Testament, water-to-wine, fishes-and-loaves, water-walking, leper-healing, this guy does it ALL, so why not the-dead-back-to-life, pass the popcorn, oh, and Jesus, sorry but, doesn’t this resurrection kind of make your own a tiny bit anticlimactic?

Andreyev mentions Jesus only once in his story, and then only as “the Master” who loved Lazarus. In fact, if you didn’t know the Biblical account, you wouldn’t know Jesus had anything to do with Lazarus’s revivification—the opening states that Lazarus “rose from the grave,” as if of his own accord. Or, as later developments suggest, he may have returned simply because the universal Emptiness has random bursts of malice or sheer chaotic carelessness. Jesus doesn’t matter. In fact, Jesus as Godhead can’t exist in the cosmic There that lurks in Lazarus’s gaze. If there’s any divinity in the There, it’s one like Azathoth, mindless force engendering and penetrating even the particles of particles, dark, empty, rendering time itself an illusion.

It’s a bitch trying to visualize the ultimate terror that is the There or Azathoth. How do you express the Nothing-in-All, cosmic hypergeometries? The reaction of Aurelius’s friends and critics to his last marble indicate that he took a reasonable stab at the impossible feat, producing fragments so wild and hideous the sculpture must be destroyed. Poignantly, Aurelius includes one recognizable element—a butterfly that can’t escape the horror surrounding it. In many cultures, butterflies symbolize the human soul or psyche. Here, it represents Aurelius’s crushed spirit.

There are things man’s not meant to know. The “mysterious thraldom of death” is high on the list, particularly where death brings knowledge of an ultimate reality before which all beauty is a lie, all human aspiration meaningless. Maybe the There is all right as long as you stay There—you belong, you comprehend it. If you’re subsequently dragged back into quasi-life, the There comes along minus proper context, a burden to yourself and a threat to the living around you. One trope regarding ghosts is that they cannot (or aren’t allowed to) describe the afterdeath to a living person. The brainless undead, like most zombies, can’t describe anything, so they convey physical rather than spiritual horror. Vampires tend to retain intellect and personality or at least cunning. Lovecraft’s revenants are a mixed lot. Dr. Munoz (“Cool Air”) seems pretty well-adjusted to second life, apart from his need for refrigeration. Joseph Curwen is reconstituted with all his mental faculties and the ability to pass as normal on cursory examination. Herbert West’s subjects come back screaming and/or animalistically violent, so yeah, they’re not thrilled with the process, nor are those around them.

Andreyev’s Lazarus takes revenant horror to a higher level. His corpse-like features supply the physical component. His harmless demeanor heightens tension once we know how it deceives. Finally, there’s what he does—how his mere glance is contagion, slowly inflicting a death-in-life like his own. The kicker: Most victims court his killing company through hubris—they will be strong enough to look Truth in the face.

As so often in weird fiction, few can handle a glimpse of ultimate reality. Best to let the dead sleep!

At least until we need another great scare.

 

Next week, we return to traditional seaside horror, and possibly the Dreamlands, in H.P. Lovecraft and Winifred V. Jackson’s “The Green Meadow.” Looking further ahead, the stars of streaming service and enthusiastic reviews have indeed converged: We’ll cover the first few episodes of Lovecraft Country for our own 300th episode!

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.

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