“The Nameless City” by H. P. Lovecraft

Review by John Kosmic, the Kosmicscribbler

     One of Lovecraft's better stories, it has a semi lyrical style, sprinkled with odd words and the use of archaic spelling. These two techniques are literary devices Lovecraft used frequently, archaic spelling gives the impression of age and decay and unusual words gives the story an odd weird feel.

     Told in the first person the narrator is an explorer or an archaeologist who makes a lot of mistakes and seems to be careless and amateurish. Alone he descends into the underground catacombs or vaults of a lost city with nothing more than a torch. He has no water, food, or some other source of light let alone someone to help him if he gets into trouble. As the readers can easily guess the torch goes out . What else could it be? But have no fear, Lovecraft tells us that the walls of the catacombs which are supposed to be miles below the surface are covered with "illuminating phosphorescence." Otherwise and obviously the story would come to an abrupt end. Although this plot twist is very contrived but by itself it does not damage the story too much.  Actually this is a hackneyed plot device used countless times in pulp stories before Lovecraft used it. As for descending miles below the surface that's obviously unbelievable.

     The story really only has two characters, the narrator and the nameless city; of the two the latter is more realistic.  While the lost city is mysterious and holds the reader's interest it really isn't all that different from all the other lost cities found in typical pulp stories about lost civilizations.

     The plot is a series of mistakes committed by the narrator that leads to his destruction or maybe not because it's never made clear just what is his ultimate fate. But HPL gives a hint on the very first page that the narrator survives the ordeal. Actually that's just a matter of opinion. This is another one of those literary devices using a mystery wrapped up in foreshadowing. The outcome is left in doubt and the readers gets some suspense.

     The story implies that the nameless city was constructed by reptiles in the desert of Araby. Also mentioned is another fictional character, Alhazred, wholly made up by Lovecraft. The short appearance by Alhazred seems cartoon like and silly. There is also mention of Lord Dunsany who was one of Lovecraft's favorite authors and in fact one of his inspirations.

     One of the puzzling questions about this story is why did Hugo Gernsback publish it in Amazing Stories? It isn't s-f and not really up to the editorial requirements, just my opinion. Lovecraft got $27.50 and was paid late.

     About one third of the way through the story Lovecraft tells the reader: "In the darkness there flashed before my mind fragments of my cherished treasury of "daemonic lore." What's Lovecraft trying to say here? Why does the narrator have so much "daemonic lore" memorized and why does he call it a "treasury"? Is this a Freudian slip? Lovecraft says in one of his published letters that he's a materialist. If the statement is taken at face value that would explain it. The passage is just another one of Lovecraft's literary devices in which the narrator seems to be mixed up in some kind of cult or has some type of forbidden knowledge or both. No doubt this tells us something about the mysteries surrounding the Cthulhu cycle of stories which connects the reader to the theme of this story. Forbidden knowledge leads to madness, destruction and death.

      Throughout the story Lovecraft's narrative voice is at times way too formal as if he were giving a lecture instead of telling a story. It doesn't fit the material and sounds artificial, almost aristocratic. But is that Lovecraft's real voice or is it a copy? Probably he acquired the habit by trying to imitate other authors. But to his credit he's consistent throughout the story.

     After some consideration I can say I would recommend this story because it is mildly entertaining and yet I was disappointed by it because it is supposed to be frightening but isn't, it doesn't even come close. It seems to be more like a weird adventure tale with overtones of the supernatural tossed in. So while it works up to a point it's no masterpiece, it's more like a pretty good pastiche.