To Sarnath

July 9, 2011

I am establishing this blog as a place to record and disseminate my thoughts about the science fiction and fantasy I’ve read and enjoyed over the years.  This gives me a venue to detail the reactions, ideas, complaints, and analyses that have run through my head over the years.  From what undoubtedly very limited readership I shall have, I hope to get some comments and feedback in response.

My brother (who is actually a fantasy writer) says my taste in science fiction and fantasy is “anachronistic.”  I suppose this is, to a significant extent, true.  A lot of the things that I like are not recent.  But why should they be?  There is a long history of fantasy, science fiction, and horror literature; most of what’s good out of that is unlikely to have been composed in the last few years.

So I have chosen the first short story I’m going to write about to be emblematic of my retrograde preferences.  And it’s my personal preferences that will determine the subject matter of this blog.  Many of the tales I will be commenting on will be old.  (I plan, for example, to discuss the greatest exemplar of the Victorian epistolary novel at some point.)  But not everything will be so backward looking.  Since my interests are not limited to written narratives, my blogging will not be either; I plan to post about films and other media, not just novels and short stories.

The inaugural story is “The Doom That Came to Sarnath,” by Howard Philips Lovecraft, and for it the blog is named.  (I considered shortening it to “doomcame” in the Web address, but my wife said that sounded like a superhero comic book villain.)  I don’t want any readers complaining about spoilers, so I suggest they read the short story now.

“The Doom That Came to Sarnath” tells of how men came to the land of Mnar and built the city of Sarnath beside a lake that had no streams flowing in or out.  Nearby was the gray stone city of Ib, populated by flabby, voiceless, green-skinned creatures.  Eventually, the men of Sarnath slew the beings of Ib and threw down their city.  Although that marked the beginning of a thousand-year empire, Bokrug the water lizard, the God of Ib, left a deadly reminder that a violent DOOM would come to Sarnath too.  A millennium later, as the folk of Sarnath celebrated their annual festival, commemorating the slaughter at Ib, the lake rose, fog rolled over the city, and the dumb race of Ib returned, obliterating Sarnath utterly.

It is interesting to observe the mixing of fantasy and science fiction that was common even long before the Space Age.  (Something similar can be seen in “The Tower of the Elephant,” chronologically the first of the Conan stories penned by Robert E. Howard.)  The being of Ib are (or at least believed to be) aliens, perhaps having come from the moon.  They are described only briefly, and I tend to imagine them as almost human-looking creatures, but some illustrators have taken different approaches, making them much more visibly alien.  What makes their liturgical dancing so horrible is unclear.  (I find it hard to believe that mere choreography could rattle my nerves, but I’ve never seen a hideous alien in the flesh, so perhaps I am not qualified to judge.)  Everything about the beings of Ib is mysterious, because the main events of the story—the total destruction of the two cities by the lake—get very little written about them.

The largest chunk of the narrative is taken up with a description of imperial Sarnath at its height.  It is a metropolis of gargantuan proportions.  In fact, the city would be an impossibility in our world.  The walls and buildings are too tall, the population (fifty million!) too great to be manageable at the technological level the narrative implies.  Of course, that’s part of the point; the sheer over-the-top extravagance of Sarnath is a key element of the fantasy.  This is surely a city that could only exist in a dream.  (Much of Lovecraft’s early fiction was dreamlike, before he began writing the stories of the Cthulhu Mythos.  He later systematized these stories into a relatively coherent cosmology, in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, which tells of Randolph Carter the arch-dreamer, a man from Boston who wanders through the settings of Lovecraft’s earlier dream stories as he searches for a dream that has been stolen from him.)

I don’t always like stories that focus primarily on descriptions of the setting.  In my opinion, of the elements of narrative, plot is usually the most important (and character the least, I feel).  However, in “The Doom That Came to Sarnath,” the pages of description work.  They draw me into the weird and beautiful city, which the reader knows from the outset is doomed.  I tend to like images of fantastical places.  (So while I dislike O. Henry‘s masterpiece of setting, “The Furnished Room,” I also admire Titus Groan, in which the descriptions of the great castle cover hundreds of pages.)  But I find even the most unusual descriptions can get tiresome.  A great deal of the fiction written by Clark Ashton Smith and Leigh Brackett seems to fall into this category, although certainly not all.  In a fairly short story, a vivid run of descriptive prose can carry the whole narrative on its back, but as the text gets longer, the need for a detailed plot becomes ever greater.

The annihilations of the neighboring cities serve as bookends for the descriptive matter, and the brevity in the description of these crucial events may actually serve to enhance their effect.  The accounts of death and destruction appear quite abruptly in the text, echoing the violence of the events they are recounting.  The sudden contrast between the luxurious prose describing the luxurious imperial capital and the death that sweeps swiftly over the city may be the tale’s greatest strength.

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15 Responses to “To Sarnath”

  1. retrochef Says:

    This reminds me why I’m not much of a fan of H. P. “OMG thesauraus!!!1” Lovecraft… the so-called-story is a descriptive festival with plot feeling like an afterthought. I also dislike his predilection for making everything about creepy elder gods; it’s religion fiction, not science fiction.

    • Buzz Says:

      The issue of gods is an interesting one. Personally, I rather like fantasy worlds with many little gods fighting for dominance, either directly or through their exotic cults. There are many gods in Lovecraft’s stories, but the gods of Earth’s Dreamlands are actually revealed to be a rather pathetic bunch. In “The Other Gods,” we learn that the local gods are protected by much more powerful beings, the Outer Gods, who throng mindlessly around Azathoth, the nuclear chaos at the center of the universe. (Of course, “nuclear chaos” sounds much more evocative now than it did in before the Second World War; Lovecraft just meant “nuclear” to mean “at the very center.”)

      Lovecraft’s dream stories were mostly written relatively early in his career. His later work was in many cases more science fiction than fantasy, and he was a pioneer of the idea that so-called “gods” were really nothing more than powerful alien lords. The changes in how he wrote about powering beings are really quite interesting. In “The Call of Cthulhu,” considered first tale of the Cthulhu Mythos, the great evil one has what certainly seem to be magical powers. But in later stories, like At the Mountains of Madness and “The Whisperer in Darkness,” the aliens are much more technological and less seemingly exotic. They are less gods and more monsters. Lovecraft actually tries to explain away this difference, saying that Cthulhu and his minions came from a very distant part of the cosmos, and they are not composed of ordinary matter (while the Elder Things and the Great Race of Yith, powerful and sinister as they are, are creatures of common, material flesh).


  2. I like the blog title and concept.

    Colin Wilson and David Langford suggest in ‘The Encyclopedia of Fantasy’ that Lovecraft was clearly moving toward non-horror, non-grotesque science-fiction when he died, toward superhuman things that were ‘interesting,’ rather than disgusting or deathly.


  3. I think your idea of character being ‘least important’ of the traditional elements is problematic, which is to say, first, that I don’t really believe in separating them out and looking at ‘character’ apart from its interdependencies within the story (‘What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?’ – Henry James, with ‘incident’ being a rough synonym for plot; granted, this is, predictably, a somewhat character-centric statement, but otherwise it’s good material), but, that said, character is often tremendously important to the way most (not all) good stories are constructed.

    For evidence, I present Star Wars. Can you imagine the movies being anything like what they are, without Obi-wan, Yoda, Vader, the Emperor, Luke, Han, and Leia? Think what they add to that material, how necessary those characters are for the story to be what it is, and do what it does.

    The importance of different narrative elements varies with the story, but, in general, character is a critical integral part of the best fantasy and science fiction, as well as other genres. Many of the best plots feed off it, and many of the best characters have an integral place in the larger plotting.

    • Buzz Says:

      I agree that the very best fiction needs to have strongly constructed characters, but they also must have developed plots and settings. The necessity of these things is what makes them the primary elements of the narrative form, but it does not require that they be of equal importance or entertainment value.

      My choice of terminology in this matter may have been overly influenced by my college acting teacher. In his view, “character” was what the principals in a story brought to the action at the point when they arrived on the scene. How those preexisting “characters” developed belonged more to the “plot” category. However, even without this very limited view of what constitutes “character,” I still feel it is probably the least interesting of the major narrative elements (unless you count “theme” as such an element, which I do not—how can it be, when it doesn’t even need to be part of a narrative?). Some writers (H. G. Wells comes to mind) manage to tell quite interesting yarns with almost no characterization. There are certainly other authors who focus overwhelmingly on their characters, but I personally don’t tend to find such studies terribly interesting.

      I don’t think that Star Wars is necessarily the best example of a story with strong characters. The characters are effective, believable, and important elements of the films. But of the major characters, only Darth Vader seems to be consistently driving the action, rather than being driven before it. It seems to me that a large proportion of the character development occurs off-screen, in between the films. (And I think that’s really a good thing. In my opinion, attempting to cram all the important character development into the films proper was one of the biggest mistakes Lucas made in the attempted prequel trilogy.) That said, almost all of the climactic encounters are based around individual characters taking their destinies into their own hands and acting in new but still natural ways; that certainly is “character as the determination of incident.”

      Perhaps a better example of a film where character is really key to its effectiveness is Casablanca. There, the story is not that extensive, but the troubled characters are what keep the viewer interested.


      • “That said, almost all of the climactic encounters are based around individual characters taking their destinies into their own hands and acting in new but still natural ways; that certainly is “character as the determination of incident.”

        And there it is.

        As for the rest, your list of primary elements of narrative seems a bit arbitrary. When I teach narrative, I usually use a much longer list, while trying to make my students understand that they’re all interdependent, etc and that it doesn’t entirely make sense to be talking about them as separate entities. That said, yes, your acting teacher’s definition of narrative is too restrictive, and, yes, the idea that setting is (if we are to measure these things, which we shouldn’t be) ‘more important’ than character is a little odd.

        Re SW, you write:
        “The characters are effective, believable, and important elements of the films. But of the major characters, only Darth Vader seems to be consistently driving the action, rather than being driven before it”

        In which you seem to be defining the characters’ importance based on their dependency on the plot! So, yes, if you calculate everything in those terms, it’s possible to make character look somewhat unimportant, but charactery is usually central to the relationships among everything else in a good story–theme, plot, or what you will, and it strikes me as a little strange to say otherwise. But if you realy like all this Lovecraft/Ashton Smith description so much, I suppose I can see where you’re coming from.

        • Buzz Says:

          I think what I really mean is that I generally dislike character studies. And similarly, of the four basic narrative conflict types they teach you about in middle school, “man versus himself” has always been the least interesting to me. I do not have the same distaste for works that focus primarily on plot, or setting, or even theme. Of course, you need a balance of multiple elements in a long work, but that’s not necessarily true in a shorter one.

          [And, of course, I am aware that there are many aspects of storytelling that can be described as elements of narrative. However, I tend to balk at excessive categorization of such things. I think there’s more than just interrelationships between the myriad elements; in many cases, naming two different elements is (almost) creating a distinction without a difference. I remember trying to get my sixth grade English teacher to explain the difference between the “theme” and the “main idea” of a certain story, and I concluded that she was just blowing smoke. That’s not to say there can’t be examples where those two “elements” are distinguishable, but she certainly couldn’t enunciate any reason to differentiate between the two.]

  4. Diapadion Says:

    I just read the Doom that came to Sarnath for the first time, and I must say that I was not terribly impressed. I had high expectations for the story, though I could not tell you precisely why. I’m new to the whole Dreamlands cycle, but I like them in the same way that I like CA Smith and Dunsany, so far. Sarnath in particular reminded me a bit of early Elric stories (in a good way).

    tDTCtS did not draw me into the world and events the way much of Lovecraft does. I believe that part of the reason why is that when Lovecraft presents his ancient history, its usually told through a mouthpiece as a part of a larger, ongoing saga. While it seldom happens “on screen,” we’ve heard the Sarnath tale time and time again. Yet, what happened in Sarnath lacks characters tied to a greater story (see Mr. Spelaeus’ comments) which would draw the reader in. I also agree that the depictions of Sarnath at its peak are the best part, and there should have been more of that stuff. As is, ’twasn’t enough to hook me.

    I’ve found that the more Lovecraft I read, the more unimpressed with the stories as I read them. Most recently, the Shadow out of Time. Its a highly regarded story, particularly by Lovecraft (not that the author’s preference ever meant anything), but I found it to be little more than a poor man’s At the Mountains of Madness.

    • Buzz Says:

      I may get to At the Mountains of Madness eventually. It’s one of my two or three favorite Lovecraft works, and I agree that “The Shadow out of Time” is a much lesser attempt. (I also remember wondering what Dyer might have thought about the excavation of the Great Race ruins in the later story, given his earlier experiences in those mountains of madness.)

      I also have to confess that I am not fond of Elric. I never tried reading the original material, from before Moorcock expanded it into novels. I did try the first novel, but the descriptions in the early chapters alternated between being intentionally boring (oh, the dancing), revolting (“Watch me cut off this guy’s balls while he’s hanging upside down!”), and ridiculous (had Moorcock ever seen an albino human?). The only Moorcock novel that I ever got to the end of was The Ice Schooner, which I don’t really remember very well. (The image I associate with the book is of a tall man with matted black hair, who usually carries a huge whaling harpoon, sitting at an upright piano atop a mesa of ice and playing a fast tune for the other characters. However, I don’t think this actually occurs in the book.)

  5. Diapadion Says:

    Ooh look, I still have a WordPress account.

    Heh, funny you mention the thing about Dyer, I wondered the same thing. Given Lovecraft’s usually treatment of his characters post-story, I would have thought Dyer would not have wanted anything to do with any more alien mysteries (poor Danforth!).

    I’m not one to defend Elric, honestly. Stormbringer was supposed to be a truly gripping conclusion, and admittedly there were some interesting elements within those several hundred pages, but through reading the earlier stories, I had become thoroughly repulsed by the world and its characters. I will maintain that the first book is an interesting read. I can understand how you would be disgusted by Melnibone, I happened to also find its decadence somewhat entrancing.

    Moorcock actually redeemed himself somewhat in my eyes with Dancers at the End of Time. Its got a dream-like quality about it as well, and since its inspired by Wilde, it doesn’t take itself so damn seriously.


    • Buzz, before condemning Moorcock, Stormbringer is really the one you want to read. Traditionally regarded as the best by a considerable measure, though I haven’t read nearly all of his Elric cycle. It’s pretty tightly written, and not that long, at the very least. Unfortunately, my copy of it features an illustration of Elric in which the poor Melnibonean lacks pants. Very sad.

      • Buzz Says:

        I’ve certainly heard that Stormbringer is the best of those novels, and I’ve considered reading it. So far, I haven’t, for three reasons: First, I disliked what little Elric I did try to read so intensely. Second, I already know what happens at the end. Third, it is The End, and I don’t usually care for picking up stories once they’re already in full swing. But maybe I should give it a try when I have a chance.


  6. In a way, Stormbringer isn’t ‘a story in full swing.’ It’s really just a collection of four related novellas about Elric, some of the first Moorcock ever wrote–I think he wrote five novelettes first, but that’s all. As for The End, well, I don’t think knowing it would change the experience much.

    That said, it sounds like maybe you just don’t like Elric, so maybe it’s not the thing.

    • Buzz Says:

      I don’t know that I really disliked Elric as a character, although I certainly wasn’t overly fond of him. The description you give of Stormbringer makes me think I might actually enjoy it, when I have a chance


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