On “The Doom that came to Sarnath” by H.P. Lovecraft

Canon Fodder is an occasional series in which I write about classic works of horror fiction. This particular part of the series is devoted to the complete published works of H.P. Lovecraft, which I will slowly be working my way through.

Everything louder than everything else.

“The Doom that Came to Sarnath” is believed to have been written in 1919 but it was first published in a June 1920 issue of The Scot, a Scottish amateur fiction magazine. This choice of venue may seem a touch odd but it was significant in so far as it was (I think) the first time that Lovecraft had published his work in a magazine that he was not himself editing. In contemporary terms, Doom was the moment when Lovecraft stopped putting stories out on his blog and started trying to get them published by other people.

People who know about these things suggest that while Doom may be a story that is associated with Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle, it is not actually a part of said cycle. I have seen this disclaimer repeated in six or seven different places but I’m not sure as to its foundation. For example, while Wikipedia may be no authority in these matters, it suggests that “Polaris” and “The White Ship” are both part of the cycle despite having been written earlier. Given that Doom shares a similar style and subject matter to those earlier stories, I can’t see why you would choose to exclude it but I guess the rationale may become more obvious to me the further I go.

Joshi says that this was Lovecraft’s first deliberate attempt to ape the style of Lord Dunsany. As I noted in previous entries, a lot of these Dreamy story feel like Dunsany but the similarities there were accidental whereas here they are quite deliberate. There’s even a more-or-less direct lift where Lovecraft talks about a throne carved from one gigantic piece of ivory and apparently there’s a Dunsany story that has a gate carved from a single gigantic piece of ivory too.

I am going to come out and admit that I find the work of Lord Dunsany both unreadable and profoundly silly. No shade on the people who love and respect the man’s work but if you asked me to point to the kind of stuff that makes me run a mile from fantasy fiction I would point my finger directly at tropes like Dunsany’s faux-archaic prose style, his love of secondary worlds, and the tone of dream-like awe that many people adore but which I detest.

To sharpen the critique: I tend to struggle with secondary worlds as I think that once the ontological connection to reality is severed, you find yourself in a fictional space where literally anything can happen and, on a dramatic level, if anything can happen then nothing matters. Fictional stuff seems miraculous or significant because we are forever comparing the stuff we see in books and films to our daily experience of the real world. If a story loses its connection to the real world then it deprives the reader of the yardstick they instinctively use to judge the fictional events. For example, if someone dies in a story set in the real world and then they come back to life we know it’s big fucking deal. Conversely, if someone dies in a story set in a world with radically different natural laws then maybe their coming back to life is not that big a deal. Think of Tim Burton’s 2005 film Corpse Bride where the protagonist accidentally marries a dead woman only for her to rise from her grave and start acting like his wife. As the film progresses, it turns out that the film takes place in a world where the worlds of the living and the dead have completely porous boundaries meaning that accidentally marrying the dead is a bit like accidentally marrying your next-door neighbour and what’s fantastical or interesting about that?

Aside from struggling with secondary-world fantasy in general, I also struggle with the prose style that features in Dunsany and the work of his imitators. Though famous for his eccentric vocabulary and purple prose, Lovecraft’s best known stories show an ability to shift between different styles and registers to augment particular dramatic beats. For example, At the Mountains of Madness has all the stuff about the Shoggoth and the abandoned city but all of that ornate, purple stuff comes after pages and pages of dry and almost journalistic writing about polar exploration. The shift in prose-style heralds a shift in the world and the re-emergence of horrors long buried. To be more blunt: A paragraph of archaic, purple prose has impact whereas pages and pages of the stuff is nothing more than monotonous:

“But more marvellous still were the palaces and the temples, and the gardens made by Zokkar the olden king. There were many palaces, the least of which were mightier than any in Thraa or Ilarnek or Kadatheron. So high were they that one within might sometimes fancy himself beneath only the sky; yet when lighted with torches dipt in the oil of Dothur their walls shewed vast paintings of kings and armies, of a splendour at once inspiring and stupefying to the beholder. Many were the pillars of the palaces, all of tinted marble, and carven into designs of surpassing beauty. And in most of the palaces the floors were mosaics of beryl and lapis-lazuli and sardonyx and carbuncle and other choice materials, so disposed that the beholder might fancy himself walking over beds of the rarest flowers. And there were likewise fountains, which cast scented waters about in pleasing jets arranged with cunning art. Outshining all others was the palace of the kings of Mnar and of the lands adjacent. On a pair of golden crouching lions rested the throne, many steps above the gleaming floor. And it was wrought of one piece of ivory, though no man lives who knows whence so vast a piece could have come. In that palace there were also many galleries, and many amphitheatres where lions and men and elephants battled at the pleasure of the kings. Sometimes the amphitheatres were flooded with water conveyed from the lake in mighty aqueducts, and then were enacted stirring sea-fights, or combats betwixt swimmers and deadly marine things.”

The above passage contains a useful example of what I’m talking about; towards the end Lovecraft mentions that the inhabitants of Sarnath would fill their stadia with water in order to battle sea monsters and while that idea reeks of awe and decadence, it is buried under paragraph after paragraph of stately temples and people with funny names. If you write an entire story that is nothing but ornately-written descriptions of architecture then the interesting bits are going to be lost but if you vary the tone, the register, and the style you can exert a bit more control over which bits pop. Later Lovecraft understood the importance of contrast but early Lovecraft struggled.

Conversely (looping back round to my previous point), earlier dream stories would often be bracketed in ways that established a connection to the real world: In “Polaris”, the narrator looks at the stars and finds himself transported to the distant past. In “The Green Meadow”, the dream-like vision is bracketed with all the stuff about manuscripts found in meteorites. In “The White Ship”, the protagonist starts off as an isolated lighthouse keeper before undertaking a (imaginary? Hallucinatory? Dream-based?) voyage that ends with him right back where he started. On one level, these exercises in ontological bracketing feels like unnecessary fluff and throat-clearing as there was nothing stopping Lovecraft from writing weird dream-like fantasy stories and so I can understand why you’d read that bracketing as a flinch or a lack of confidence. On another level, by situating the relationship between the events of the story and the real world, Lovecraft was either telling us how to interpret said events or inviting us to speculate as to their ‘realism’. By choosing not to present a story without a connection to the real-world, Lovecraft is asking us to engage with the events of the story on entirely their own terms and I think that makes for a weaker story especially seeing as how, despite being a fairly substantial piece of writing, Doom has little in the way of either plot or characters. In truth, very little happens in this story and what does happen gets buried under the pages and pages of descriptive prose.

Doom is an interesting intellectual counterpoint to such racialized fantasies as “Polaris” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth”. In both of those stories, we have normal people who look like Lovecraft and then we have a group of hideous, racialized Others. In “Polaris” the Others are explicitly identified as the ancestors of today’s South-East Asian people and in “Innsmouth” they’re a kind of metaphorical representation of the dangers inherent in multi-culturalism and miscegenation. The interesting thing about Doom is that while the story features a race of decadent fish-like ab-human monsters, Lovecraft paints them as victims of the exact same genocidal bloodlust he espouses in “Polaris”:

“As the men of Sarnath beheld more of the beings of Ib their hate grew, and it was not less because they found the beings weak, and soft as jelly to the touch of stones and spears and arrows. So one day the young warriors, the slingers and the spearmen and the bowmen, marched against Ib and slew all the inhabitants thereof, pushing the queer bodies into the lake with long spears, because they did not wish to touch them. And because they did not like the grey sculptured monoliths of Ib they cast these also into the lake.”

Having murdered their next-door neighbours and torn down their city, the people of Sarnath capture a statue of an alien god and drag it back home only for it to disappear in mysterious circumstances. The only person to witness the disappearance is found dead after having scrawled out the word DOOM.

Over the course of 10,000 years, the city of Sarnath grows ever-more powerful and ever-more sophisticated. However, rather than choosing to memory-hole the act of genocide that allowed them to build their empire, the people of Sarnath choose to celebrate their crimes in an annual festival dedicated to their victory over the beings of Ib.

The descriptions first of Sarnath and then of the festivities completely dominate the pages of Doom. Though rather monotonous, a case could be made for suggesting that this literary onslaught might be deliberate as the descriptions are interspersed with references to weird lights and people getting worried about signs and portents. These references are all quite short and are immediately overwhelmed by the richness of Lovecraft’s descriptive prose but I think that actually does a pretty good job of capturing the mood: Sarnath is a city that has reached the absolute apex of its powers. Over 10,000 years it has grown so fat and wealthy that it no longer fears the outside world. Those that do pay attention to what’s going on are immediately drowned out by talk of new temples and gladiators fighting sea monsters.

This drags on for a certain amount of time and more and more people start to notice the lights and then, almost too quickly to notice, the city is overwhelmed by the armies of Ib, draped in moonlight and desirous of vengeance:

“Through all the land of Mnar and the lands adjacent spread the tales of those who had fled from Sarnath, and caravans sought that accursed city and its precious metals no more. It was long ere any traveller went thither, and even then only the brave and adventurous young men of distant Falona dared make the journey; adventurous young men of yellow hair and blue eyes, who are no kin to the men of Mnar. These men indeed went to the lake to view Sarnath; but though they found the vast still lake itself, and the grey rock Akurion which rears high above it near the shore, they beheld not the wonder of the world and pride of all mankind. Where once had risen walls of 300 cubits and towers yet higher, now stretched only the marshy shore, and where once had dwelt fifty millions of men now crawled only the detestable green water-lizard. Not even the mines of precious metal remained, for DOOM had come to Sarnath.”

Though Doom tells the story of an extinct race coming back to exact revenge from their genocidal murderers, Lovecraft’s sympathy only goes so far. Rather than walking back the bloodlust he displayed in “Polaris” he ends Doom by making it clear that the people who committed the genocide were no kin to the “men of yellow hair and blue eyes”.

Racism aside, I think that Doom is a tedious piece of writing that nonetheless shows a few tricks and ideas that will re-surface in later works. I still don’t like these dream stories and I still dislike this style of writing but it is interesting to chart how Lovecraft worked his way through different sets of ideas.

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