Wednesday, October 15, 2014

“…do not offend the djinn!”

But of course, someone almost always does.  As described in Islamic mythology, a djinn is a sub-angelic spirit capable of taking human or animal form.  Its motives are not always clear.  Does it intend good? Evil? Something in between?  This is not the “Genie” of Aladdin’s lamp, and certainly not the character of “Jeannie” played by Barbara Eden in the late 1960s sitcom.   The root of the word can be translated as “the hidden”.  In some sources a djinn is believed to be invisible to humans, and composed of a very hot but smokeless flame.  They often take the role of guardian spirits, either of individual people, or of hallowed property.

And some fairly unhallowed property as well.  In Robert E. Howard’s entertaining The Fire of Asshurbanipal (1936), an entity that the locals call a djinn is most likely an avatar of Yog-Sothoth or even Cthulhu—despite the desert setting. This inventive tale will almost certainly remind readers of one of the adventures of Indiana Jones, but it also borrows heavily from some of the best known creations of H.P. Lovecraft.   It is primarily an adventure tale involving two hapless adventurers, a fabled lost “City of Devils”, a mysterious gemstone, and a bad guy named Nereddin El Mekru—he is the one who manages to offend the djinn.  Its Lovecraftian trappings make The Fire of Asshurbanipal a ‘mythos’ story.

Steve Clarney, an American, and his Afghan sidekick Yar Ali are trying to find the famed and dreaded city of Beled-el-Djinn, mentioned in the Necronomicon of the mad Arab Alhazred.  The relationship between these two men parallels that of Solomon Kane and N’Longa, though the former duo is perhaps a bit more light hearted—insofar as that is possible in a Howard story.  Hidden in the shadowy ruins of a temple in Beled-el-Djinn is the “Fire of Asshurbanipal”, a mysterious stone thought to have belonged to an ancient Assyrian king.  Howard is masterful in reworking the ancient history of Persia, Assyria, and Nineveh to form a seamless backstory to his tale.

Aside from its entertainment value, The Fire of Asshurbanipal (1936) is interesting because of its connection with an earlier story of Howard’s, The Thing on the Roof (1932), as well as H.P. Lovecraft’s classic The Haunter of the Dark (1936).  All three of these stories are focused on the effects of a strange stone, which has the capacity to psychically link its admirers with other dimensions and open doors to various eldritch horrors. 

As in The Fire of Asshurbanipal, the titular ‘thing on the roof’ is summoned by the theft of a powerful ruby colored stone—in this case, one carved into a toad-shaped Tsathogguan idol—which originally belonged to a temple high priest.  An arrogant archaeologist locates the stone in an ancient ruin in Central America, with the aid of a copy of Von Junzt’s Nameless Cults. Lovecraft refers to this tome as the Unaussprechlichen Kulten.  (See also Always Read the Manual First.)
In The Fire of Asshurbanipal, the hazardous stone had belonged to a magician with the suspiciously Mayan sounding name of Xuthtlan.  Howard cleverly used names and geographic locations to imply a worldwide connection of prehistoric worshippers of the Old Ones.  In both of these stories the stone acts as a key to release a horrific guardian entity that is mercifully never fully described. 

H.P. Lovecraft’s The Haunter of the Dark (1936) is the well-known story of Robert Blake’s fateful encounter with the “shining trapozohedron”, an item he finds in the belfry of an ancient, desecrated church.  This large gem-like rock was also used by an occult priest to summon “something that can’t exist in light.”  Blake cannot resist gazing into the crystal, which initiates a kind of psychic possession and the eventual appearance of a version of Nyarlathotep.  Interestingly, both Lovecraft’s The Haunter of the Dark and Howard’s The Fire of Asshurbanipal appeared together in the December 1936 issue of Weird Tales.

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