Monday, July 5, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: Fane of the Black Pharaoh

In keeping with the unexpectedly Lovecraftian turn the blog has taken over the last week, I thought a story in a similar vein would make a good entry for this week's Pulp Fantasy Library post. Rather than turning to Lovecraft himself, though, about whom I've already written a great many entries, I thought instead it might be worthwhile to look at a tale written by one of the Old Gent's protégés, Robert Bloch. Bloch, of course, is well known as the writer of the 1959 horror novel, Psycho, famously adapted for the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name a year later. But he already had been a professional writer for nearly two decades prior to the publication of the celebrated novel, in large part due to the encouragement of Lovecraft, to whom he first wrote a fan letter at the age of 16.

Under Lovecraft's tutelage, Robert Bloch learned a great deal about the crafting of weird fiction. He was also introduced to many other writers in the wider "Lovecraft Circle," such as August Derleth and Clark Ashton Smith, with whom he began separate correspondences. He sold his first story to Weird Tales just a few weeks after graduating high school and the Unique Magazine quickly became the primary outlet for his early fiction. Lovecraft's death in 1937 came as a huge shock to Bloch, who would later state that "part of me died with him."

Fittingly for a story published in the same year as HPL's demise, "Fane of the Black Pharaoh" (Weird Tales, December 1937) picks up and elaborates upon hints offered in Lovecraft's "The Haunter of the Dark" concerning the "Black Pharaoh," Nephren-Ka. "The Haunter of the Dark" is a creditable tale in its own right, but, for the moment, what concerns us is that its protagonist – who does not survive its depicted events – is a young writer named Robert Blake. This is a dark jest on the part of Lovecraft, one of many he and his colleagues played upon one another in their writings. By all accounts, Bloch was amused and flattered by his mentor's jape, so it's not at all surprising that he would continue to make use of ideas laid out in the story in his own work.

"Fane of the Black Pharaoh" tells the story of "the scholarly captain" Carteret, a retired military officer who served in Egypt and Mesopotamia during wartime (presumably the First World War, given the publication date). 

It was here that the captain had first become interested in archeology and the shadowy realm of the occult which surrounded it. From the vast desert of Arabia had come ancient dread, and the lost legends of vanished empires. He had spoken to the dreaming dervishes whose hashish visions revealed secrets of forgotten days, and had explored certain reputedly ghoul-ridden tombs and burrows of an older Damascus than recorded history knows.

Carteret – a name that probably intentionally recalls Howard Carter, discoverer of Tutankhamen's tomb – became obsessed with secret lore and forgotten mysteries, an obsession that eventually returned him to Egypt

land of lurid curses and lost kings, [which] has ever harbored mad myths in its age-old shadows. Carteret had learned of priests and pharaohs; of olden oracles, forgotten sphinxes, fabulous pyramids, titanic tombs. Civilization was but a cobweb surface upon the sleeping face of Eternal Mystery. Here, beneath the inscrutable shadows of the pyramids, the old gods still stalked in the old ways. The ghosts of Set, Ra, Osiris, and Bubastis lurked in desert ways; Horus, Isis, and Sebek yet dwelt in the ruins of Thebes and Memphis, or bided in the crumbling tombs below the Valley of Kings.

How one reacts to passages like this will, I think, determine whether one enjoys the story. Bloch, who was only 20 at the time of its publication, is exceptionally fond of purple prose and evocations of Orientalist exoticism in "Fane of the Black Pharaoh." I don't mean that in a critical way, only that I have little doubt that some readers might find these tendencies sufficiently distracting that they're unable to enjoy his tale. 

The story proper begins when an unnamed Arab approaches Carteret in the middle of the night, claiming his "brotherhood" had discovered the fabled location of the temple-tomb of Nephren-Ka. Nephren-Ka, we are told, was "a Pharaoh of no known dynasty … a priestly usurper" who

renounced all religion save that of Nyarlathotep. He sought the power of prophecy, and built temples to the Blind Ape of Truth. His utterly atrocious sacrifices at length provoked a revolt, and it is said that the infamous Pharaoh was at last dethroned [and] the new ruler and his people immediately destroyed all vestiges of the former reign, demolished all temples and idols of Nyarlathotep, and drove out the wicked priests who prostituted their faith.

Bloch seems to be drawing on the real world history of Akhenaton, the pharaoh who attempted to introduce some form of monotheism into Egypt and whose name and works were erased after his death (and whose son was the aforementioned Tutankhamen, originally named Tutankhaten). In any case, Carteret initially does not believe the news the Arab brings. Even after the captain becomes convinced, he is suspicious of the Arab's motives, wondering why, if his brotherhood preserves the memory of Nephren-Ka as he claims, he wouldn't simply enter the temple himself. The answer he explains is quite simple: prophecy. 

The brotherhood has preserved the prophecies of Nephre-Ka, granted to him by Nyarlathotep and, he claims, they speak of Carteret entering the tomb and learning its secrets. Though continuing to maintain his skepticism, Captain Carteret's curiosity inevitably gets the better of him and, just as the mysterious Arab predicted, he agrees to enter the temple-tomb and learn what it holds. Needless to say, the fane holds nothing good – at least not for Carteret.

No one would call "Fane of the Black Pharaoh" great literature. As Lovecraftian pastiche, it's a fun diversion. The prose drips with breathless, extravagant verbiage that serve rather than distract from its pulpy, Indiana Jones-esque yarn of ancient Egyptian tombs, secret brotherhoods, and dark revelations. It's the sort of story I loved as a younger man and, even now, I get a kick out of the energy Bloch imparts to it. If nothing else, it's fascinating to read an example of an established writer's juvenilia, to see the inchoate origins of his later work.

And the original version included this amazing piece by Virgil Finlay

10 comments:

  1. Carteret doubtless also refers to Randolph Carter, Lovecraft's protagonist in multiple stories who was a stand-in for HPL himself.

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  2. Always nice to see a Finlay piece I hadn't encountered before.

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    1. And nightmare fuel to boot! Finlay was one of the greats and he had a real flair for illustrating the Weird.

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    2. Indeed. His work is a good argument for reading pulp in the original format (or a scan of it, at least) whenever possible.

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  3. Lovecraftian Egyptology is the best.

    Related to recent topics, this pastiche of a Lovecraft tale has its protagonist enter a strange and mysterious location, in this case a tomb. The notion that CoC shouldn't have dungeoncrawls ignores HPL stories like The Nameless City, At The Mountains of Madness, The Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath and others.

    Lovecraft's dungeons are filled with flavor and dread. Their rumors come from forgotten legends, unholy books and dreaming dervishes instead of from taverns. Their monsters are unknowable and their treasures are cursed. But they are dungeons none the less.

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    1. I'd contend that there's a significant difference between a dungeoncrawl (where a group is actively seeking monsters to slay and treasure to steal from their lairs and corpses) and the kind of...let's call it "delves" that Lovecraft wrote. Mythos delves see the protagonist(s) either unaware of the dangers or hoping to avoid them altogether while collecting knowledge, knowledge that they often regret obtaining even when they do succeed. Exploration and trepidation, not combat, heroics, and glory/XP.

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    2. Sorry, I wrote "dungeoncrawls" when I should have written "dungeons."

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    3. Ah, fair enough. Yeah, Lovecraft and those following in his footsteps certainly did explore settings that fit the definition of "dungeon" nicely. It's the motivation and behavior of the explorers more than the actual contents that really define the tone of a dungeon IME.

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  4. Didn’t Bloch do in Lovecraft first in “The Shambler from the Stars”?

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