On “Nyarlathotep” 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.

What if Tesla… was Black?

When I first started this re-reading project, I knew that I was going to struggle with a lot of the Dream-cycle stories. My tolerance of secondary-world fantasy is already not that great and I tend to get really quite impatient when you combine that mode of writing with fantasies of racial persecution and endlessly repetitive descriptions of artfully ruined temples. To be honest, I nearly binned this entire project after the one-two punch of “The Street” and “Poetry and the Gods”. Thankfully, something in Lovecraft’s process evidently shifted after “Poetry and the Gods” and since then we’ve had one absolute banger after another.

Nyarlathotep” was first published in the November 1920 issue of the United Amateur (full text) and is frequently billed as a ‘prose poem’. Having not studied literature in a formal context since the age of about 15, I’m only vaguely aware of the difference between a prose poem and standard prose beyond the faintly sarcastic suggestion that while the latter is expected to make some kind of sense, the former is free to provide little beyond aesthetically-pleasing mouth-sounds and weirdly-compressed and grammatically implausible hyper-kinetic sentence fragments. Somewhat less sarcastically, I would assume that a prose poem is a piece of poetry with neither a pre-determined meter nor the kinds of formal structures you would expect of poetry such as rhymes and line-breaks. In other words, a prose poem is piece of writing that looks like standard prose but actually makes use of poetic techniques to deploy a similar kind of literary payload. Think evocative imagery, metaphor, and the arrangement of both words and syllables to produce a particular aesthetic effect.

What this means in practice is that even by Lovecraftian standards, “Nyarlathotep” starts at about an 8 before rising to a shrieking, garment-rending 10. The interesting thing about this is that while “The Doom that Came to Sarnath” saw Lovecraft experiment with a similar hyper-caffeinated style of writing, that story’s lack of light and shade made it feel rather flat whereas the same set of techniques attached to a different plot results in “Nyarlathotep”, a story so atmospheric that you can almost smell the stale night air.

I remember being in London during the finals of the 1996 European cup. I remember I had been to see some friends in Central London and I had decided to walk home through the city in the belief that the England-Germany game might keep people off the streets. I remember it was a hot evening and the bins were overflowing as they so often did back in those days. I can remember that people were already drunk at mid-day and the city was full of coppers meaning that the entire place not only stank but also felt just insanely menacing. I can remember howls of outrage and angry shrieks echoing through the streets as England were turfed out of the competition. I can remember the sense of dread and the way that drunken violence seemed to erupt all around me as I tried to make my way home. I have never forgotten the feel of the city on that night and Lovecraft perfectly re-creates it in the opening sections of this story.

Nyarlathotep” is set in an un-named contemporary city where things are not going well. Even before the plot kicks in, you have an eerie sense of dread and fear hanging over the city:

The general tension was horrible. To a season of political and social upheaval was added a strange and brooding apprehension of hideous physical danger; a danger widespread and all-embracing, such a danger as may be imagined only in the most terrible phantasms of the night. I recall that the people went about with pale and worried faces, and whispered warnings and prophecies which no one dared consciously repeat or acknowledge to himself that he had heard. A sense of monstrous guilt was upon the land, and out of the abysses between the stars swept chill currents that made men shiver in dark and lonely places.

Suddenly, there are rumours of some sort of mythic figure rising from Egypt. A man who is said to resemble a pharaoh of the old blood and he who claims to have risen from the depths of ancient Egypt. The soon man travels from Egypt and arrives in America where he begins putting on shows that are 50% spiritualist séance and 50% weird science experiment. Others have speculated that Lovecraft might have been inspired by the way that Nikola Tesla would tour the country demonstrating his inventions but I am reminded of the suggestion in “From Beyond” that while science is all well and good, too much science can result in the discovery of dangerously unpalatable truths:

Nyarlathotep, swarthy, slender, and sinister, always buying strange instruments of glass and metal and combining them into instruments yet stranger. He spoke much of the sciences—of electricity and psychology—and gave exhibitions of power which sent his spectators away speechless, yet which swelled his fame to exceeding magnitude.

It is worth noting that Nyarlathotep is not only one of Lovecraft’s best-known Named Entities, he is also one of only a handful of Named Entities to not just recur in separate stories, but also to feature prominently in the story’s foreground. Even more interesting is the fact that, unlike Dagon, Nyarlathotep is not just a long-forgotten god who surfaces in the modern world, he is a long-forgotten god whose emergence in the modern world finds him adapting to the world around him.

One of S.T. Joshi’s best-known takes about Lovecraft is the idea that while he may have started out working on the borders of literary Fantasy and Horror, Lovecraft’s most mature and successful stories saw him using techniques more closely-associated with Science Fiction. “Nyarlathotep” may not be a fully mature work but it is interesting to note that Nyarlathotep is neither a wizard nor a mouldering monstrosity like Dagon, Nyarlathotep is a scientist whose anachronistic understanding of reality forces the boundaries of science all the way back into the realms of the mystical and the forbidden.

The narrator attends one of Nyarlathotep’s demonstrations and behaves like a sceptic at a spiritualist meeting, shouting about static electricity in front of a restive crowd. While the narrator claims to not believe whatever it is that Nyarlathotep is preaching and others flock to his banner, it’s pretty clear that their hearts aren’t in it as Nyarlathotep’s dark prophecies seem to bring the town to a rolling boil of madness and every night is punctuated by hysterical screaming.

The narrator ventures out onto the street and loses himself in the crowd. Suddenly it surges out of the city but the narrator barely complains as his section of the crowd march all the way out of town and onto the moors where, despite the stifling heat of the city, they encounter first snows then a kind of sinister portal into the madness of the beyond:

Screamingly sentient, dumbly delirious, only the gods that were can tell. A sickened, sensitive shadow writhing in hands that are not hands, and whirled blindly past ghastly midnights of rotting creation, corpses of dead worlds with sores that were cities, charnel winds that brush the pallid stars and make them flicker low. Beyond the worlds vague ghosts of monstrous things; half-seen columns of unsanctified temples that rest on nameless rocks beneath space and reach up to dizzy vacua above the spheres of light and darkness. And through this revolting graveyard of the universe the muffled, maddening beating of drums, and thin, monotonous whine of blasphemous flutes from inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond Time; the detestable pounding and piping whereunto dance slowly, awkwardly, and absurdly the gigantic, tenebrous ultimate gods—the blind, voiceless, mindless gargoyles whose soul is Nyarlathotep.

This shit here? This is the good shit. This is what we like… this is why we came.

It’s also interesting to note that despite being an incredibly satisfying and engaging piece of writing, “Nyarlathotep” was originally self-published by Lovecraft in his own amateur zine. In fact, the story did not see commercial publication until the early 1940s when Arkham House decided to bundle it up in a collection named for “Beyond the Walls of Sleep”.

On the one hand, I wonder whether the choice of venue combined with Lovecraft’s decision to describe it as a ‘prose poem’ might not suggest that “Nyarlathotep” was originally intended as an experimental piece.

On the other hand, I also suspect that the market for genre short fiction in the early 20th Century was probably a good deal more formally conservative than today’s and while I can imagine “Nyarlathotep” sailing into the pages of Black Static or LampLight without causing much of a ripple, I suspect that readers in the 20s might have bristled at the absence of substantive character or plot.

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