On “The Quest of Iranon” 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.

And More… much more than this… I did it My Way.

“The Quest of Iranon” (full text) was written on February 28, 1921 and first published in the July/August 1935 issue of Galleon magazine before eventually being picked up for publication by Weird Tales in 1939. In An H.P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia, S.T. Joshi declares it to be “among the best of HPL’s Dunsany imitations” and it is easy to see why: The imagery is cohesive, the language is relentlessly flowery and antique, and the entire story is infused by a dream-like sensibility that makes you suspect the enterprise might be allegorical except that the allegory never quite manages to latch onto anything substantial. If you would like to know how I felt about this story then please consider this photograph of me taken while I was reading the story:

It’s funny… reading the commentary surrounding a lot of the more obscure, early stories as Lovecraft nerds are forever finding traces of the author that Lovecraft would eventually become. For example, “The Picture in the House” was read as a manifesto for Lovecraft’s decision to turn away from secondary-world Fantasy and begin writing out-and-out horror except that it was immediately followed by two of the dreamiest dream-stories he had ever written. Similarly, “The Nameless City” was read as the first true Cthulhu Mythos story except that it was immediately followed by this rather tedious re-visitation of ground already covered in “The White Ship” and “The Doom that Came to Sarnath”.

As I said in my piece on “The Nameless City”, it is pointless to try and draw a line in the sand between Dreamlands and Mythos stories as all of these stories were written within a couple of years of each other and Lovecraft evidently spent those years dashing back and forth across the line with armfuls of shared material. Even If we accept the (logical, reasonable, righteous, and correct) view that mythos cosmic horror stories are the ‘mature’ Lovecraft while the Dreamlands stories are a load of juvenile pastiches written by an author who was still trying to find his own distinctive voice, then we must think of late ‘teens and early ‘20s as the era of ‘two steps forward, one step back’ as every break with the practices and formulae developed during the Dreamlands years is immediately followed by a return to more comfortable creative ground. So were those Lovecraft nerds recognising a line drawn in the sand by changes in Lovecraft’s thinking or were they doing the critical equivalent of looking out a window onto the pouring rain and going ‘I think it might be lightening up’.

As much I found “The Quest of Iranon” to be the literary equivalent of standing in the pouring rain waiting for a squid-faced bus to turn up, it was undoubtedly comfortable creative ground for Lovecraft: The plot is a re-working of “The White Ship” while the set dressing is the same as that developed in stories like “The Doom that Came to Sarnath” and “Polaris”. In fact, the story even includes references to established named entities including both Sarnath itself and Lomar from “Polaris”.

The plot revolves around a golden-haired youth named Iranon with vine-leaves on his head and purples robes upon his back. He arrives in the city of Teloth and begins telling tales of the city of Aira where he was once a prince. Iranon sings whenever and wherever he can but audiences are less than receptive, some even tell him that his music is an enormous waste of time and he might as well do an apprenticeship as cobbler. Sick burn, don’t give up your day job.

Eventually, Iranon is run out of town and he hooks up with another young man who has been exiled from the city. The boy, named Romnod, suggests that they travel together to the town of Oonai, which Iranon convinces himself is his native town of Aira. The pair take years to complete their journey and upon arriving in Oonai, Iranon is disappointed to learn that he has not in fact returned home. However, because the people of Oonai seem to appreciate Iranon’s music, he agrees to stay.

As time passes, the people of Oonai grow increasingly tired of Iranon’s playing and start to sing the praises of some dancers who have wafted in from the desert. Meanwhile, so much time has passed that Romnod has aged and taken to drinking. When he dies, Iranon decides that there is nothing left for him in Oonai and sets out again to find Aira. After years of searching, he encounters an old shepherd who remembers Aira from his youth and how the son of a beggar used to sing until his claims to be of royal blood saw him laughed out of the city.

His identity pierced, Iranon convinces himself that Aira was never real to begin with and so loses his eternal youth before losing himself in quicksand and sinking to his death.

The similarities with “The White Ship” are pretty obvious: Both tell of a malcontent who dreams of being in another place so they leave home only to be met with wave after wave of disappointment as each new place fails to live up to their high-standards. Eventually, the malcontent winds up back where he started, the magic having passed through him without finding anything upon which to gain purchase.

“The Quest of Iranon” is maybe a touch more psychologically sophisticated than “The White Ship” in so far as the unhappiness is not general but tied to the question of being appreciated as an artist. There is also an interesting psychological knot in the form of Iranon having deliberately forgotten his true origins and this act of forgetting somehow granted him an eternal life denied those who are content to just put down roots and seek pleasure.

“The Quest of Iranon” is another of these low-key Fantasy melodramas that deals in big imagery and invokes big emotions without Lovecraft ever getting his hands dirty. In “The Tree”, Lovecraft looked at love, devotion, jealousy, and artistic flourishing but he chose to evoke the space containing these emotions rather than exploring them. Quite possibly because his up-to-that-point sheltered existence meant that he had never actually experienced any of the emotions he had chosen to write about. The result, in both “The Temple” and “The Quest of Iranon”, were stories that felt pallid, bloodless, and evasive when they should have been passionate and intense.

This approach to artistic expression rather reminds me of Lovecraft’s weird obsession with the trappings of antiquity: His stories are full of ruined temples with elegant columns but the temples are always empty and their gods are long dead. I suspect that someone like S.T. Joshi would see this as evidence of Lovecraft’s atheism but I think that this is more likely a product of Lovecraft’s repressive classicism: He loves the aesthetics of antiquity because time has scrubbed them of humanity. He loves the pure white marble of a classical nude throwing a discus but he would be appalled by the stench, the sweat, and the sexuality of an actual nude man flexing his muscles. These bloodless evocations of antiquity are so Victorian in their locked-down cowardice – Yet another reminder that before he was ever a literary genius, Lovecraft was a loser who instinctively fled from the vicissitudes of human existence. Heaven forfend that someone should get a boner or have bottles of piss slung at their head because they don’t know how to play their own lute.

The desire to avoid dealing with big feelings also serves to blunt the story’s psychology. The first couple of times I read “The Quest of Iranon”, I wondered whether there wasn’t some attempt to cultivate a parable about art, acceptance, and truthfulness to oneself, but despite turning the story over and over in my mind a few times, I can’t quite get the pieces to fit. I think it’s quite interesting and psychologically evocative that Iranon loses his youthfulness when the truth about him is revealed, but I am not sure how that lines up with thoughts about art and acceptance. Maybe Lovecraft was attempting to make a point about the psychological serving to ‘ground’ the wonder of artistic expression but I am not sure that makes much sense either.

As in “The White Ship”, the protagonist of this story comes across as little more than a whining malcontent but while the protagonist of “The White Ship” seemed to embody a sense of existential alienation, Iranon just seems unhappy that nobody considers him a genius. This despite the fact that he actually seems to have made a go of it in Oonai until his failure to develop as an artist led to his audience getting bored and moving on. Lovecraft presents this as a kind of unjust persecution that Iranon must escape through self-exile but the guy actually had an audience! He was the toast of the town. That’s more than most artists ever get, which leads me to conclude that Lovecraft wrote this story when he was way too young.

In 1921, Lovecraft’s artistic journey had barely started and he was still being habitually turned down by professional markets forcing him to self-publish a lot of his own work. This was not a man who had experienced the dizzying highs of professional success and the cavernous lows of having an audience turn on you. Lovecraft deciding to write a story like “The Quest of Iranon” is a bit like if the lead singer from Baby Metal decided to release a cover version of Sinatra’s “My Way”: Sure… they might be able to pull it off on a technical level but melancholy musings on the career of an artist are poignant when they come from veterans and chippy (or sneeringly homophobic) when they come from the young.

To put it bluntly, this story was dull, over-written, inauthentic, and lacking in humanity. The sooner Lovecraft stops trying to write pastiches and allegories the better. Howie… you’re not Frank Sinatra, you’re a weirdo loser who is terrified of the world, write about that instead!

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