“Nameless City, The“

“Nameless City, The“
   Short story (5,070 words); probably written in mid- to late January 1921. First published in the Wolverine(November 1921); rpt Fanciful Tales(Fall 1936) and WT(November 1938); first collected in O;corrected text in D.
   An archaeologist seeks to explore the nameless city, which lies “remote in the desert of Araby.” It was of this place that Abdul Alhazred “the mad poet” dreamed the night before he wrote his “unexplainable couplet”:
   That is not dead which can eternal lie,
   And with strange aeons even death may die.
   The narrator burrows into the sand-choked apertures that lead into some of the larger structures of the city. He is disturbed by the odd proportions of a temple into which he crawls, for the ceiling is very low to the ground and he can scarcely kneel upright in it. He descends an immense staircase that leads down into the bowels of the earth, where he finds a large but still very low-built hall with odd cases lining the walls and frescoes covering the walls and ceiling. The creatures in the cases are very peculiar—apparently reptilian, but in size approximating a small man. Even though it is these anomalous entities who are portrayed in the frescoes, the narrator convinces himself that they are mere totem-animals for the human beings who must have built the city and that the historical tableaux depicted in the frescoes are metaphors for the actual (human) history of the place. But this delusion is shattered when the narrator perceives a gust of cold wind emerging from the end of the hallway, where a great bronze gate lies open and from which a strange phosphorescence emerges. He then sees in the luminous abyss the entities themselves rushing in a stream before him. Somehow he manages to escape and tell his story.
   HPL admits ( SL1.122) that it was largely inspired by a dream, which in turn was triggered by a suggestive phrase in Dunsany’s Book of Wonder,“The unreverberate blackness of the abyss” (the last line of “The Probable Adventure of the Three Literary Men”). A more concrete source is the entry on “Arabia” in the 9th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica,which HPL owned. He copied down part of this entry in his commonplace book (\#47), especially the part about “Irem, the City of Pillars…supposed to have been erected by Shedad, the latest despot of Ad, in the regions of Hadramaut, and which yet, after the annihilation of its tenants, remains entire, so Arabs say, invisible to ordinary eyes, but occasionally, and at rare intervals, revealed to some heaven-favoured traveller.” HPL mentions Irem in passing in his tale, suggesting that the nameless city was an even older city. A later entry in the commonplace book (\#59) is clearly an account of the dream that inspired the story: “Man in strange subterranean chamber—seeks to force door of bronze—overwhelmed by influx of waters.”
   Although the tale remained among HPL’s favorites, he said it was “rejected by all the paying editors” (HPL to Duane W.Rimel, February 14, 1934; ms, JHL). WTrejected it twice. In early 1932 the story was accepted by Carl Swanson for a new magazine, Galaxy,but it never got off the ground. The Fantasy Fanaccepted it but also failed before it could be published. Julius Schwartz’s Fantasy Magazinerejected it, and The Galleonmay also have done so. It finally appeared in the semiprofessional magazine Fanciful Tales,edited by Wilson Shepherd and Donald A.Wollheim, with “59 bad misprints” ( SL5.368).
   Abdul Alhazred makes his first appearance in HPL’s work in this story, although he is not yet declared to be the author of the Necronomicon . The basic scenario of the tale was utilized, with vast expansion of depth and detail, in At the Mountains of Madness
   See Dan Clore, “Overdetermination and Enigma in Alhazred’s Cryptic Couplet,” LSNo. 34 (Spring 1996): 11–13.

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