Monday, April 4, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Doom That Came to Sarnath

The early part of H.P. Lovectaft's literary career is marked by the influence of the Anglo-Irish author, Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron Dunsany, better known to posterity simply as Lord Dunsany. Between 1905 and 1919, Dunsany wrote numerous short stories that are set in a fictional world, Pegāna, with its own imaginary history and geography. These stories laid much of the groundwork for the evolution of the nascent genre of fantasy into what we know today (without which the hobby of roleplaying would likely not have been possible). 

Nowadays, Lovecraft's Dunsanian period tends to be overlooked, particularly by those enamored of his later, more famous tales of the "Cthulhu Mythos" (itself a term never employed by HPL himself). To the extent that these earlier stories are remembered, they're often mistakenly taken to be part of his "Dream Cycle." To some extent, Lovecraft himself is to blame for this misapprehension, because of the allusions and references he makes to his Dunsanian tales in works like The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. Likewise, Lovecraft's admirers have, as ardent fans so often do, attempted to impose upon his canon clear divisions whereby a work belongs in one category or another, despite the evidence that Lovecraft himself was far less rigid in his own thinking.

"The Doom That Came to Sarnath" is a good example of this phenomenon. Originally published in the June 1920 issue of the amateur fiction periodical, The Scot, the story was widely reprinted after Lovecraft's death, starting with the June 1938 issue of Weird Tales. Since I was unable to find an image of the issue of The Scot in which it premiered to accompany this post, I opted instead for the terrific cover of the 1971 Ballantine Adult Fantasy edition, painted by Gervasio Gallardo. My own introduction to the story came in the 1982 Del Rey collection of the same name with a cover by Michael Whelan, but I think I like the Gallardo version better.

The story begins in a way that makes clear Lovecraft's intentions:
There is in the land of Mnar a vast still lake that is fed by no stream and out of which no stream flows. Ten thousand years ago there stood by its shore the mighty city of Sarnath, but Sarnath stands there no more.

As I read it, "The Doom That Came to Sarnath" is a myth or legend coming down to us from the distant past, as Lovecraft implies immediately thereafter:

It is told that in the immemorial years when the world was young, before ever the men of Sarnath came to the land of Mnar, another city stood beside the lake; the grey stone city of Ib, which was old as the lake itself, and peopled with beings not pleasing to behold. 

The story is filled with phrases like "when the world was young" that suggest to me at least that the reader isn't to understand the tale he tells as taking place in an imaginary or dream land but instead in the ancient and forgotten past of our own world, though, as we shall soon see, the matter is not cut and dried. Regardless, Lovecraft establishes that the beings of Ib were "in hue as green as the lake and the mists that rise above it" and "they had bulging eyes, pouting, flabby lips, and curious ears, and were without voice." One of the reasons I chose the cover above is because it features Gallardo's interpretation of what the beings of Ib looked like. 

In time, men to the land of Mnar and founded the city of Sarnath. They marveled at the sight of the beings Ib.

But with their marvelling was mixed hate, for they thought it not meet that beings of such aspect should walk about the world of men at dusk. Nor did they like the strange sculptures upon the grey monoliths of Ib, for those sculptures were terrible with great antiquity. Why the beings and the sculptures lingered so late in the world, even until the coming of men, none can tell; unless it was because the land of Mnar is very still, and remote from most other lands both of waking and of dream.

The hatred of the men of Sarnath grew and, in time, resulted in a war in which all of the beings of Ib were slain and their "queer bodies [pushed] into the lake with long spears, because they did not wish to touch them." The men of Sarnath likewise toppled the monoliths of Ib and cast them into the lake. The only evidence of Ib the men kept was

the sea-green stone idol chiselled in the likeness of Bokrug, the water-lizard. This the young warriors took back with them to Sarnath as a symbol of conquest over the old gods and beings of Ib, and a sign of leadership in Mnar.

The men placed the idol in one of their own temples, but, on the following night, 

a terrible thing must have happened, for weird lights were seen over the lake, and in the morning the people found the idol gone, and the high-priest Taran-Ish lying dead, as from some fear unspeakable. And before he died, Taran-Ish had scrawled upon the altar of chrysolite with coarse shaky strokes the sign of DOOM.

The story's titular doom does not come quickly and Lovecraft spends the remainder of the story describing the next thousand years of Sarnath's history, as it grows in power – and pride – within the land of Mnar, eventually becoming the capital of a mighty empire founded on hate and greed. Lovecraft presents these facts in a way that seemingly implies admiration of Sarnath and its glory, but it soon becomes clear that this is a mask for condemnation of its excesses and, by the end, Sarnath and its people pay the price for their past sins.

To call "The Doom That Came to Sarnath" a morality tale is probably simplistic. At the same time, Lovecraft is not at all subtle in his connecting the destruction of Ib with the later doom that befalls Sarnath. In any case, the story is luxuriously written, redolent with adjective-laden description that reminds a bit of Clark Ashton Smith, though utterly lacking in his black humor. Its almost Biblical rhythms and cadences practically demand that the story be read aloud. In the grand scheme of things, it's one of Lovecraft's minor works but it's nevertheless a successful one for which I have a strange affection.


  1. The Whelen cover for the Del Rey edition of The Doom That Came to Sarnath and Other Stories was very compelling to teenage me and it was the very first Lovecraft work that I owned and read. So glad I did.

  2. Dunsanian Lovecraft and Dreamquest are my favorite Lovecraft, by far.
    Polaris and the White Ship made a great impression on me as a kid.
    Even though Moorcock's distaste for Lovecraft is well documented, I wonder of there may be a connection between the White Ship and Sailors on the seas of Fate.

  3. A particular favorite of mine out of Lovecraft's body of work. It's satisfying to see the hateful xenophobes of Sarnath suffer an inexorable doom as a price for their misdeeds.

    1. At a time when HPL is regarded by many as an irredeemable racist and xenophobe, this story is worth noting for its themes condemning colonial conquest and xenophobic aggression.

    2. "It's satisfying to see the hateful xenophobes of Sarnath suffer an inexorable doom as a price for their misdeeds."

      Except they don't. They live out the rest of their lives in luxury. The doom only happens a thousand years later.

    3. Indeed - "slowest doom ever" says Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons. 😁

  4. Not only Biblical rhythms, but echoes--the plundered statue parallels the story of the Philistines taking the Ark of the Covenant to the temple of Dagon. In this telling, though, the Dagon-figure is the spoils that turns out to have real power.

    Lovecraft's atheism brought him over and over again to a recurring theme: Religion is TERRIFYING when it isn't YOUR gods that turn out to be true.

  5. I really love Lovecrafts`s fantasy tales, especially Polaris, The Quest of Iranon, Celephais, White Ship, Cats of Ulthar -- actually I love them all. Some of them are like prose poems. And Lovecraft wrote some of them before even reading Dunsany. But maybe Dunsany got him interested in creating his own mythologies? In some way Lovecraft wanted to tie together his earlier fantasy stories with the Cthulhu Mythos, as in the Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath and when he mentions e.g. Lomar, Sarnath and Pnakotic Manuscripts in his later stories.

  6. One of my favorite Lovecraft stories.

    Alan Moore's Lovecraft-deconstructing comic series (The Courtyard, Neonomicon and Providence) cleverly solves the dichotomy of the "dream stores" occurring in the dreamlands AND in the past at the same time. Intriguing stuff.

  7. My first bit of D&D world-building, back in 1978, centered on a coastal city I called "Sarnath", named for this tale. Thank you for triggering that memory.