Thursday, October 3, 2013

An Eldritch Education: "The Other Gods"

Spooky Synopsis: In days of lore, the gods dwelt in the lower reaches of the mountains, but men's prying eyes chased higher and higher up until they dwelt on earth's loneliest peak. There the sky shifts in color, the air grows thin and cold, and the gods stalk the cold wastes, dreaming of old haunts. But one man would seek them out, a sage named Barzai who possesses an almost divine insight. In all of his musings, though, Barzai has failed to comprehend exactly what terrors could await one who would tread in the high paths where gods themselves walk.

Lovecraftian Language: "Barzai knew so much of the gods that he could tell of their comings and goings, and guessed so many of their secrets that he was deemed half a god himself. It was he who wisely advised the burgesses of Ulthar when they passed their remarkable law against the slaying of cats, and who first told the young priest Atal where it is that black cats go at midnight on St. John's Eve. Barzai was learned in the lore of earth's gods, and had gained a desire to look upon their faces. He believed that his great secret knowledge of gods could shield him from their wrath, so resolved to go up to the summit of high and rocky Hatheg-Kla on a night when he knew the gods would be there."

Eerie Evaluation: Word choices come fraught with danger. For instance, take the term "average." If I were to say that "The Other Gods" is an average story, you might think that it's middle-of-the-road, simply serviceable, or slightly dull -- and that would be entirely wrong. No, this mash-up of fantasy and fright suffers not from quotidian composition, but rather from a flawed first half. Two-thirds of its page space elapses before Lovecraft definitively points out Barzai's hubris; earlier descriptions make him seem merely a tad too eager to explore the unknown. The distinction is crucial, because Barzai suffers a punishment only befitting one with exceedingly overweening pride. The ending is achingly good, and I don't want to spoil it, but here's a hint: Do you remember the childhood terror of staring up into a cloudless sky and wondering what might happen if gravity inverted? Lovecraft captures that sort of fear perfectly, only to handicap it with the aforementioned hazy motivation and plodding pacing. "The Other Gods" is average only because a bad beginning brings down an excellent ending.

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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