"The Nameless City", first published in The Woverine No 11, November 1921.
This is the the fifth entry in my read through of the commemorative edition of Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H P Lovecraft.
After the Cats of Ulthar, this one is practically a masterpiece. Lovecraft puts aside his Dunsany licks and – it seems to me – is trying to find a contemporary setting for the rarefied Dunsany style that he clearly admired so much. The tone is still somewhat affected and declamatory (Lovecraft never loses that) but there's less floweriness than in the last two stories.
The “Dreamlands” locations of Sarnath and Mnar get a name check, but this is clearly set in the real world. The explorer looking for lost ruins would have been a contemporary figure for Lovecraft – Carter was in Egypt, and major explorations and excavations were just getting started in South America and Asia and the Middle East. The possibility of lost, ancient cities was still a real one in those days, although it was the twilight of the gentleman archeaologist pursuing his own explorations without the support of any university or local authority that was more a figure of the nineteenth century.
More importantly, this story represents a real development in plot and character. The narrator faces genuine choices throughout the story, and expresses doubt about going forward, an element of agency that was signally absent from the previous four stories. Plot progression – of a sort – comes from the narrator's descent into the underground caverns of the city, allowing for a finely graduated graded increase in the eeriness until the denouement, which carries a nice uncanny charge.
An H P Lovecraft Encyclopedia tells us that “Although the tale remained among HPL's favourites, he said it was 'rejected by all the paying editors'”. Joshi seems to find this an inferior tale, saying in A Life that “The absurdities and implausibilities in this tale, along with the wildly overheated prose give it a very low place in the Lovecraft canon.”
That seems a bit unfair to me, and I think it's one of the more effective early tales, certainly the strongest so far in this volume. I'd speculate that HPL's enduring fondness for it perhaps comes from it being a bit of breakthrough piece. Compared to the previous stories here (which aren't all the stories he'd written up to this time, but represents the best known) this one reads more like a real story than an exercise in atmosphere and prose.
It's also notable for the first appearance of Abdul Alhazred, author of a terrible book on ancient witchcraft (which is not named here), and the first appearance of the nonsense couplet “That is not dead which can eternal lie/And with strange aeons even death may die”. I'm sure I'll have more to say on this character and his tome later, but this is where he pops up first.
Next up "Herbert West - Reanimator".