On “The Nameless City” 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.

The Shape of Things to Come.

“The Nameless City” (full text) was written in January 1921 and first published in the November 1921 issue of The Wolverine, an amateur press journal. Lovecraft repeatedly described “The Nameless City” as one of his favourite stories and he put a lot of effort into trying to get it picked up by a professional magazine but it wound up being turned down by a number of venues before eventually being picked up by Charles Hornig’s Fantasy Fan immediately prior to the magazine’s implosion.

Some consider “The Nameless City” to be the first proper Cthulhu Mythos story in that it is set in the ‘real world’ and marks the first appearance of Abdul Alhazred but I think this implies degrees of organisation and project separation that were not really present in Lovecraft’s working practices at the time.

While the story is indeed set in the real world, and comes not long after Lovecraft wrote a manifesto story entitled “The Picture in the House” in which he laid forth his desire to write stories set in the real world, I just don’t think it’s possible to draw a line in the sand and argue that the Mythos stories started here: Firstly, the two stories that Lovecraft wrote after issuing his manifesto were both extended riffs on the Dreamlands. Secondly, like most of the Dreamland stories this piece is also based upon one of Lovecraft’s dreams. Thirdly, it isn’t just influenced by Lord Dunsany, it even goes so far as to quote an entire sentence from one of his stories (“the unreverberate blackness of the abyss”). The picture is further complicated by the fact that the story’s narrator makes a direct reference to the fall of Sarnath, thereby raising questions as to whether the events described in “The Doom that came to Sarnath” were taking place in the distant past, the world of dreams, or both.  The ambiguous ontological status of places like Sarnath means that you cannot really draw a clear line between Mythos stories and Dreamlands stories. In truth, Lovecraft drifted from one style to another and brought all of his named entities with him when he did.

“The Nameless City” is set somewhere in the deserts of the Middle-East. Lovecraft nerds have suggested Yemen but the archaeological vibe to the story set-up seems more like a reference to Egypt. The story’s unnamed narrator is travelling through the desert in search of a place so ancient that its name is forgotten and it does not even feature in myth. The idea of a place that is so old that there aren’t even any myths or legends about it is a lovely little riff on Machen-style deep time: There’s old, there’s ancient, there’s the stuff that’s so old that it is referenced in ancient myth, and then there’s a whole other layer of old stuff that pre-dates even that.

 According to an old edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the nameless city appears to be a riff on an idea that Lovecraft included in his commonplace book. The Commonplace Book is a weird Lovecraftian artefact in its own right in that it was essentially a notebook that contained all of Lovecraft’s notes and story ideas. It has been published a few times but not recently and finding a copy nowadays tends to be both difficult and expensive. So in other words, it’s a book containing a list of writing cues dreamed up by H.P. Lovecraft and finding a copy involves you either paying a small fortune or delving through the archives of a second-hand bookshop looking for a copy of the book that may have been dumped onto the market by an estate sale. All you need is for it to have been cursed or bound in human skin and it becomes its own book of Forbidden Lore. Anyway… the Commonplace Book reportedly makes reference to:

“Irem, the city of Pillars […] which yet, after the annihilation of its tenants, remains entire, so Arabs say, invisible to ordinary eyes, but occasionally, and at rare intervals, revealed to some heaven-favoured traveller”

I think the most obvious link here is the Middle-Eastern setting and the suggestion that the Nameless City might be invisible as abandoned cities full of pillars are present in literally every other story that Lovecraft wrote in the early ‘20s.

The narrator arrives in the city and begins digging in and around the ruins. Harassed by a wind blowing from somewhere, he eventually finds his way into one of the larger temples and comes across some writings and pictograms dating back to the city’s original inhabitants:

“On the walls and roof I beheld for the first time some traces of the pictorial art of the ancient race, curious curling streaks of paint that had almost faded or crumbled away; and on two of the altars I saw with rising excitement a maze of well-fashioned curvilinear carvings. As I held my torch aloft it seemed to me that the shape of the roof was too regular to be natural, and I wondered what the prehistoric cutters of stone had first worked upon. Their engineering skill must have been vast.”

The narrator then discovers a door cut into the living stone and stumbles into catacombs beneath the city where he discovers the remains of the people who built the city, a race of reptilian humanoids.

“This hall was no relic of crudity like the temples in the city above, but a monument of the most magnificent and exotic art. Rich, vivid, and daringly fantastic designs and pictures formed a continuous scheme of mural painting whose lines and colours were beyond description. The cases were of a strange golden wood, with fronts of exquisite glass, and contained the mummified forms of creatures outreaching in grotesqueness the most chaotic dreams of man.”

The narrator then discovers more frescoes and writing that describe how the lizard-people once lived in a teeming metropolis that eventually surrendered to time and the encroachment of the desert. Realising that the desert containing the nameless city was once verdant and teeming with life, he is struck not only by the horror of time but also by the absolute fragility of civilisation:

“An ancientness so vast that measurement is feeble seemed to leer down from the primal stones and rock-hewn temples in the nameless city, while the very latest of the astounding maps in the frescoes shewed oceans and continents that man has forgotten, with only here and there some vaguely familiar outline. Of what could have happened in the geological aeons since the paintings ceased and the death-hating race resentfully succumbed to decay, no man might say. Life had once teemed in these caverns and in the luminous realm beyond; now I was alone with vivid relics, and I trembled to think of the countless ages through which these relics had kept a silent and deserted vigil.”

Descending further, the narrator stumbles onto the source of the wind that blows through the city at night and finds him being sucked into a portal to another place, a place of absolute blackness where he ponders the fate of the reptile people and the fall of their civilisation:

“And as the wind died away I was plunged into the ghoul-peopled blackness of earth’s bowels; for behind the last of the creatures the great brazen door clanged shut with a deafening peal of metallic music whose reverberations swelled out to the distant world to hail the rising sun as Memnon hails it from the banks of the Nile.”

My summary of the plot feels a little light because I rather struggled with this story.

To be blunt, I found it rather dull and its details struggled to remain lodged in my mind. My major problem with the story is stylistic in that, like “The Doom that came to Sarnath”, the entire story is slathered in purple prose and written in a tone that one might charitably describe as melodramatic. While I generally adore Lovecraft’s poetic flourishes, I think they work best when used sparingly as ‘going purple’ from time to time gives the story a sense of prosodic light and shade: Normal prose for normal stuff; bat-shit prose for bat-shit stuff. The problem with “The Nameless City” is that it starts at about a 9 and so when it needs to rise to a climactic 10, you find Lovecraft describing mind-scrambling horrors in very similar terms to those he used describing a frightened camel. With no stylistic light-and-shade, the story feels affectively inert and nothing really sticks out. This brings me to my second problem with the story…

This is basically just a dry-run for At the Mountains of Madness. The plot is absolutely identical: A Western researcher goes to an inaccessible place and finds the ruins of a city so ancient that it seems to pre-date humanity. After fussing around outside the city, the researcher finds a way in and discovers ancient writings describing the fall of a once-proud civilisation. A civilisation that fell to a menace that is apparently still alive and present inside the city. Interestingly, when Lovecraft came to re-work “The Nameless City” and turn it into At the Mountains of Madness, he reigned himself in: The purple prose and the melodrama are definitely still there but they are used sparingly and their usage really stands out when positioned opposite the dry voices of scientists describing their Antarctic expedition.

Had I come to these stories completely fresh, I suspect I would have adored “The Nameless City” as the bones of the story combined with the imagery are all very good. On a sentence-by-sentence level, the prose does not ring out the way it does in some other stories but I suspect that may just be down to the fact that there is so much of that style of writing in this story. The fact that I read it after reading a load of other stories means that I cannot help but break it down into its component parts: Plot comes from Mountains, the descent comes from “Rats in the Walls” and the idea of a gate into blackness recalls not only “The Temple” but also a load of other Lovecraftian works. Having moaned about the suggestion that this could be read as the first work of Cthulhu Mythos, I must admit that this story does feel Lovecraftian in a way that many of the earlier stories do not. The fact that Lovecraft supposedly adored this story also explains why he kept returning to these ideas elsewhere and why the repetition of these ideas came to form the hallmarks of the stories that made him famous. I can see why Lovecraft loved this story and I can see that it was clearly a huge step-forward for him as a writer but the lack of discipline to the monotonic purple prose means that the story simply did not work for me. This being said, I can see myself linking back to this story quite a lot in future as it does seem like an important moment in Lovecraft’s artistic development.

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s