The Nameless City
|"The Nameless City"|
The Wolverine, November 1921
|Author||H. P. Lovecraft|
|Published in||The Wolverine|
|Publication date||November 1921|
"The Nameless City" is a horror story written by American writer H. P. Lovecraft in January 1921 and first published in the November 1921 issue of the amateur press journal The Wolverine. It is often considered the first Cthulhu Mythos story.
The Nameless City, of the story's title, is an ancient ruin located somewhere in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, and is older than any human civilization. In ancient times, the Nameless City was built and inhabited by an unnamed race of reptiles with a body shaped like a cross between a crocodile and a seal with a strange head common to neither, involving a protruding forehead, horns, lack of a nose, and an alligator-like jaw. These beings moved by crawling; thus, the architecture of the city has very low ceilings and some places are too low for a human being to stand upright. Their city was originally coastal, but, when the seas receded, it was left in the depths of a desert. This resulted in the decline and eventual ruin of the city.
The protagonist of "The Nameless City" states:
- "That is not dead which can eternal lie,
- And with strange aeons, even death may die."
However, the reptilians still maintain some form of life in a vast luminous paradise located within a cavern beneath the Nameless City, preserved and placed along the walls in a subterranean chamber. Also within this chamber are hieroglyphs and reliefs that tell to the protagonist the story of the city's heyday of prosperity and its fall, as well as their eventual hatred of humanity.
Lovecraft said that the story was based on a dream, which was in turn inspired by the last line of Lord Dunsany's story "The Probable Adventure of the Three Literary Men", quoted in the story itself: "the unreverberate blackness of the abyss".
Another identified source is the 9th Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, whose description of "Irem, the City of Pillars" he copied into his commonplace book: "which yet, after the annihilation of its tenants, remains entire, so Arabs say, invisible to ordinary eyes, but occasionally, and at rare intervals, revealed to some heaven-favoured traveller."
Critic William Fulwiler argues that Edgar Rice Burroughs' At the Earth's Core was one of Lovecraft's primary inspirations for "The Nameless City", citing "the reptile race, the tunnel to the interior of the earth, and the 'hidden world of eternal day'" as elements common to both tales. More generally, Fulwiler suggests, the theme of "alien races more powerful and more intelligent than man", which recurs frequently in Lovecraft's writings, may derive from Burroughs' Pellucidar stories. However, both writers drew on an already existing and vast literature of "lost city" stories and novels.
The story contains the first mention of Abdul Alhazred, a fictional authority on the occult who would later be mentioned in most of Lovecraft's major Cthulhu Mythos stories, including "The Hound" (1922), "The Festival" (1923), "The Call of Cthulhu" (1926), The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927), "The Dunwich Horror" (1928), "The Whisperer in Darkness" (1930) At the Mountains of Madness (1931), "The Dreams in the Witch House" (1932), "The Thing on the Doorstep" (1933), and "The Shadow out of Time" (1934).
In "The Nameless City", Alhazred is not yet identified as the author of the famous Necronomicon, but the "unexplained couplet" that Lovecraft attributes to him is later established as coming from that work.
"The Nameless City" is an early example of Lovecraft's technique of mixing references from history, literature and his own fiction to create a persuasive background for his horrors. At one point, the narrator recalls:
To myself I pictured all the splendours of an age so distant that Chaldaea could not recall it, and thought of Sarnath the Doomed, that stood in the land of Mnar when mankind was young, and of Ib, that was carven of grey stone before mankind existed.
Later in the story, a single paragraph mentions Lovecraft's fictional Arab poet, an actual 5th century philosopher, a writer from the Middle Ages, a legendary Persian king, and one of Lovecraft's favorite fantasy authors:
In the darkness there flashed before my mind fragments of my cherished treasury of daemonic lore; sentences from Alhazred the mad Arab, paragraphs from the apocryphal nightmares of Damascius, and infamous lines from the delirious Image du Monde of Gautier de Metz. I repeated queer extracts, and muttered of Afrasiab and the daemons that floated with him down the Oxus; later chanting over and over again a phrase from one of Lord Dunsany's tales--"The unreverberate blackness of the abyss."
Though Lovecraft counted "The Nameless City" among his favorite stories, it was rejected (following its original amateur appearance) by a variety of professional outlets, including Weird Tales (twice), Fantasy Magazine and possibly The Galleon. It was accepted by The Fantasy Fan, which folded before publishing it. It eventually appeared in the fall 1936 issue of Fanciful Tales, published by Donald A. Wollheim and Wilson Shepherd, and was reprinted in the November 1938 issue of Weird Tales after Lovecraft's death.
Lin Carter described "The Nameless City" as "a trivial exercise in Poe-esque gothica", calling it "overwritten [and] over-dramatic". "[T]he mood of mounting horror is applied in a very artificial manner", Carter writes. "Rather than creating in the reader a mood of terror, Lovecraft describes a mood of terror: the emotion is applied in the adjectives." He does, however, allow that the tale has some "evocative power".
Lovecraft himself was powerfully moved by an emotion of awe and fascination when contemplating the mysterious ruins of unthinkable antiquity. This emotion he manages to convey in a sort of dreamlike manner, despite his coldly clinical use of adjectives.
- Lin Carter cites four different lists of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos stories — including his own and August Derleth's — and though each differs slightly from the others, each begins with "The Nameless City". Carter, pp. 25–26.
- H. P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters Vol. 1, p. 122; cited in Joshi and Schultz, pp. 181-182.
- Cited in Joshi and Schultz, p. 182.
- William Fulwiler, "E.R.B. and H.P.L.", Black Forbidden Things, Robert M. Price, ed., p. 62.
- Fulwiler, p. 61.
- H. P. Lovecraft, "The Call of Cthulhu", The Dunwich Horror and Others.
- Carter, pp. 21-22.
- Carter, pp. 21-23.
- Lovecraft, Howard P (1986) . "The Nameless City". In S. T. Joshi. Dagon and Other Macabre Tales (9th corrected printing ed.). Sauk City, Wisconsin: Arkham House. ISBN 0-87054-039-4. Definitive version.
- Lin Carter, Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Cthulhu Mythos.
- William Fulwiler, "E.R.B. and H.P.L.", Black Forbidden Things, Robert M. Price (ed.)
- S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia.
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