Thursday, September 19, 2013

An Eldritch Education: "The Nameless City"

Spooky Synopsis: The crazed poet Abdul Alhazred murmured mysterious lines about The Nameless City, intoning, "That is not dead which can eternal lie, / And with strange aeons even death may die." The narrator of this tale will soon learn what the couplet means, for he has just stumbled across that very crumbling metropolis. As sandstorms spin in an icy wind, he will feel his way amongst the ruins as he searches for shelter, yet he will find none. Instead, he will discover labyrinthine caverns in which lie the dreadful remains of a civilization far older than that of man.

Lovecraftian Language: "Remote in the desert of Araby lies the nameless city, crumbling and inarticulate, its low walls nearly hidden by the sands of uncounted ages. It must have been thus before the first stones of Memphis were laid, and while the bricks of Babylon were yet unbaked. There is no legend so old as to give it a name, or to recall that it was ever alive; but it is told of in whispers around campfire and muttered about by grandams in the tents of shieks, so that all the tribes shun it without wholly knowing why."

Eerie Evaluation: Horror scholar S.T. Joshi notes that "The Nameless City" was "one of HPL's favorite stories," which only goes to show that authors cannot be trusted to objectively judge their own work. To put it frankly, the tale is a contrivance-laden slog. In my opinion, Lovecraft's homages to Lord Dunsany have always proved his weakest work, what with their often inverted sentence structures and an even greater reliance on flowery diction to detail exotic fantasy worlds. "The Nameless City" adds to Howard Phillips' stylistic woes the sin of failing to impart even a marginally believable motivation to the main character. Why does the narrator descend into the depths from which issue an eldritch, icy wind? "I was more afraid than I could explain, but not enough to dull my thirst for wonder." Why does he continue downward through a nightmarishly cramped passage for hour after hour? "I was quite unbalanced with that instinct for the strange and unknown." Why does he venture onward through a hall of terrifying mummies and into a pit shining with otherworldly luminosity? "But as always in my strange and roving existence, wonder soon drove out fear." Curiosity can't always carry the day, Howard! At least try to give us something we can believe in. Combine that with a limp ending, and you realize why "The Nameless City" is largely forgettable.

Number of Sanity-Shredding Shoggoths (out of five):

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To visit the story index for "An Eldritch Education" (my year spent reading H.P. Lovecraft's work), please click here.

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