Monday, June 17, 2013

A Shriek in Araby

And the stars that shine above,
Will light our way to love.
You'll roam this land with me,
I'm the Sheik of Araby.

This is a verse from an old jazz standard, popular in the early 1920s.  Lovecraft wrote two of his “Araby” stories around this time, which are among his earliest publications.  The stories are interconnected, and take place somewhere in the Arabian peninsula, though at very different times in Lovecraft’s fictional universe.

The Doom That Came To Sarnath (1920) is clever antediluvian history, probably modeled on Hebrew, Egyptian and Babylonian accounts of the rise and fall of ancient cities.  He employs archaic, pseudo-Biblical language to describe the rise of Sarnath, a human city built in the land of Mnar, beside a primordial lake, “that is fed by no stream, and out of which no stream flows”.  The people of Sarnath thrive, but at the expense of the original inhabitants, whose ancient city of Ib, also on the shore of the lake, is completely destroyed—except for a mysterious sea green stone idol.  The statue is the image of Bokrug, a water lizard, presumably their principle deity, and whom they physically resemble.  Ominously, the high priest in Sarnath makes a prophecy of doom shortly before he dies.

Much of the story is description of the rich and mighty city of Sarnath, in text that sounds like the King James Bible.  Some of the descriptions are reminiscent of passages in 1 Kings 7, describing Solomon’s palace and the construction of the first temple in Jerusalem.  But there is probably material used from other sources as well: ancient descriptions of Babylon and other famous cities of the region.

A millennia passes and the high priest’s prophecy comes true.  Sarnath is completely devastated by a reappearance of the vengeful inhabitants of Ib.  They emerge from the lake.  Ironically, they arrive in the midst of a celebration in Sarnath of the ancient defeat of Ib.  At the end of the story it is implied that the worship of Bokrug, the water lizard, has re-established itself in the land of Mnar.   The Doom That Came to Sarnath is not an easy read because of the archaic language and poetic ornamentation of the prose, but it provides important context for its companion story.

The Nameless City (1921), takes place 10,000 years later, in modern times.  A loan archaeologist finds the ruins of an ancient “accursed” city in the middle of the desert.  It seems haunted by odd metallic clanging and whirlwinds that seem to arise from nowhere.  Though eager to find the city, the narrator is also ambivalent:  “And as I returned its look I forgot my triumph at finding it, and stopped still with my camel to wait for the dawn.”

As in many Lovecraft stories, the narrator makes a perilous descent down ancient stone stairways, and crawls through curiously low passageways.  He sees murals that appear to depict the history of the creators of this edifice, and their rise and fall as a civilization.  Eventually he finds what appears to be a vast mausoleum, although the remains interred there may not actually be dead.  He also finds a door way into a weirdly lit abyss.  Before it slams shut he observes a glimpse of the creatures who built this subterranean citadel.  Their reptilian appearance links them with the inhabitants of Ib in The Doom That Came To Sarnath.  It may even be that the archaeologist is deep beneath the ruins of Ib.   He escapes to the surface, but is marked for life by what he has seen.

Both stories are interesting because they contain elements that Lovecraft develops much further in his later stories.  The narrator's descent and observation of the ancient murals in The Nameless City will remind readers of a similar passage in At the Mountains of Madness. Abdul Alhazred’s famous couplet is quoted here:  “That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die.”  The preoccupation with ancient and primordial history is strong in both stories and becomes a familiar feature of later work.

Incidentally, there is an excellent graphic depiction of The Nameless City in the second volume of The Lovecraft Anthology, published by SelfMadeHero.

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