“The Doom That Came to Sarnath”, first published in The Scot, No 44, June 1920.
This is the the third entry in my read through of the commemorative edition of Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H P Lovecraft.
This story is very heavy with description of bejewelled thrones and ornate robes and Cyclopean towers of black stone, and very light on story. It's written more like a myth than the kind of character-led story that we enjoy so much these days, and the effect is a little like the kind of info dump that could be the prologue of a fat fantasy all in italics. Here we get the whole thousand-year story in the stentorian universal God like perspective of a movie trailer voice over.
I know that this story is set in H P Lovecraft's Dreamlands, because I've read the Call of Cthulhu supplement that tells me all about it – I've been there more than once in RPG sessions and once ran a short-lived Rolemaster campaign there. I've also read some of those fantasy novels by Brian Lumley set in the Dreamlands, but that was a long time ago.
Lovecraft never referred to these as his Dreamlands tales, of course. Joshi identifies the direct influence as Lord Dunsany, and calls these tales Lovecraft's “Dunsanian” works. I think HPL was trying to describe a certain sensation - a heavy sensuality – rather than a particular place in these stories, so that seems right to me. I've read a little bit of Dunsany, and I can hear a certain almost liturgical mode, that's clearly the source for this type of weird fantasy.
Howard was up to something a little different, more a kind of H Rider Haggard fantasy (although I don't know who Howard's great influences were); Clark Ashton Smith was much closer and better at this type of fantasy than Lovecraft. Lovecraft shares Dunsany's romantic inclinations and sly sense of humour, but Smith a better eye for plot. He peoples his stories with more dynamic characters, and his stories are just more interesting.
Ironically, hardly any of the “Dreamlands” stories were actually inspired by dreams, unlike the two earlier, non-Dreamlands stories in this collection. Perhaps it's the lack of connection with HPL's inner workings that makes these stories somewhat pale in comparison with his more urgent work. There's something very affected about this style that doesn't sit right compared to the (relatively) more contemporary, urgent voice in The State of Randolph Carter.
However, it's another example of undersea creatures rising up and usurping humanity. What is it that bothers HPL about these primordial depths so much? In this story, and in Dagon, he seems to almost admire the beasts. In Dagon, the protagonist almost wills the creatures to rise, while here the citizens of Sarnath clearly brought their own fate down on themselves. One way or another, we deserved it!
Next up: "The Cats of Ulthar".