Saturday, June 1, 2013

Short Take: "The Doom That Came to Sarnath," H. P. Lovecraft

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Story illustration by Brad Rigney

H. P. Lovecraft's early short story “The Doom That Came to Sarnath” is derived from the portraits of Troy in Homer and Virgil's epic poetry. The piece is largely a descriptive writing exercise presented in the context of a faux-legend. The ancient city of the title is referred to as “[t]he wonder of the world and the pride of all mankind.” Lovecraft revels in describing the glories of its architecture and the luxuries enjoyed by those within its walls. Both are recounted in extensive detail. As for the story's ersatz-legend aspects, well, like Troy, Sarnath comes to a terrible, catastrophic end. However, the cause of its destruction is not, as with Troy, the pride of kings. The city is destroyed as part of a what-goes-around-comes-around scenario that is rooted in the distant past. Sarnath is located on the site of an even more ancient city. The earlier city had been populated by a race of alien beings who may have descended to earth from the moon. The founders of Sarnath slaughtered those beings, demolished their city, and built a new one in its stead. Centuries later, Sarnath is leveled in what appears to be the aliens’ revenge. Lovecraft’s treatment of this material is completely lacking in suspense. The story is all exposition, there are no developed characters, and there is no dramatic momentum. The only conspicuously crafted effect is the ironic coda. An object that is a trope for the undying pride of the aliens--the one thing they would not allow Sarnath’s founders to keep as a trophy--becomes the only thing that survives either city. Overall, the piece is a very minor effort on Lovecraft’s part. The story lacks resonance, and several hallmarks of Lovecraft’s material, such as the desolate landscapes and the notion of humanity having no inherent claim to earth, aren’t presented in a fresh way. The story was first published in the June 1920 issue of The Scot.