Tuesday, June 15, 2010


The Doom that Came to Sarnath and Other Stories is a collection of short stories written by H. P. Lovecraft between 1917 and 1935. Most of this is his earlier work; much of it is from his Dunsanian period, and none of these stories is part of the Cthulhu mythos.

This kind of atmospheric horror is tricky to write: if it’s too vague, it’s not compelling; if it’s too detailed, it ceases to be “weird” and easily becomes silly. Lovecraft always keeps safely to the vague side of the line (occasionally to the point that a story will fail to be interesting); flashes and hints of the supernatural keep the horror of mystery intact.

Yet even as he only hints at the attributes of his many lurking horrors, Lovecraft vividly describes every other element in his tales. He frequently name-checks fictitious places and things to add verisimilitude to his stories. And he loves nothing so much as the adjective; indeed, one is hard-pressed to find many unadorned nouns in his writing. But where else can one find sentences like, “It was in mid-summer, when the alchemy of nature transmutes the sylvan landscape to one vivid and almost homogeneous mass of green; when the senses are well-nigh intoxicated with the surging seas of moist verdure and the subtly indefinable odors of the soil and the vegetation” (“The Tomb”)? This is Lovecraft. Every sentence is like that.

Thanks to this and other talents, Lovecraft excels at creating atmosphere, which is so key to good horror. There is something appealing about the ancient – lost, alien, mysterious, eldritch things, and Lovecraft’s enthusiasm for them is evident in his writing.

Many of the stories here are dream-fantasies that are heavily influenced by the writings of Lord Dunsany. The trouble here is that after a couple such stories, the reader may realize that they’re all much the same, and one can readily see where most of them are going well in advance. “The narrator has vague interactions in malevolent dimensions resulting in madness and/or doom” (Lovecraft loves madness and doom) could be a plot synopsis for at least half the stories in this volume. His later, proto-Cthulhu tales are more interesting, and “In the Walls of Eryx” (Lovecraft’s only piece of science fiction), co-authored with Kenneth Sterling, is the best story here.

The Doom that Came to Sarnath and Other Stories is, on the whole, a decent collection that is too often hampered by repetition of plot, theme and device.