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the Nameless City

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Author Topic: the Nameless City  (Read 384 times)
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« on: February 27, 2007, 12:14:44 am »


H.P. Lovecraft

When I drew nigh the nameless city I knew it was accursed. I was
traveling in a parched and terrible valley under the moon, and afar I
saw it protruding uncannily above the sands as parts of a corpse may
protrude from an ill-made grave. Fear spoke from the age-worn stones of
this hoary survivor of the deluge, this great-grandfather of the eldest
pyramid; and a viewless aura repelled me and bade me retreat from
antique and sinister secrets that no man should see, and no man else
had dared to see..

Remote in the desert of Araby lies the nameless city, crumbling and
inarticulate, its low walls nearly hidden by the sands of uncounted
ages. It must have been thus before the first stones of Memphis were
laid, and while the bricks of Babylon were yet unbaked. There is no
legend so old as to give it a name, or to recall that it was ever
alive; but it is told of in whispers around campfires and muttered
about by grandams in the tents of sheiks so that all the tribes shun it
without wholly knowing why. It was of this place that Abdul Alhazred
the mad poet dreamed of the night before he sang his unexplained

That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons death may die.

I should have known that the Arabs had good reason for shunning the
nameless city, the city told of in strange tales but seen by no living
man, yet I defied them and went into the untrodden waste with my camel.
I alone have seen it, and that is why no other face bears such hideous
lines of fear as mine; why no other man shivers so horribly when the
night wind rattles the windows. When I came upon it in the ghastly
stillness of unending sleep it looked at me, chilly from the rays of a
cold moon amidst the desert's heat. And as I returned its look I forgot
my triumph at finding it, and stopped still with my camel to wait for
the dawn.

For hours I waited, till the east grew grey and the stars faded, and
the grey turned to roseate light edged with gold. I heard a moaning and
saw a storm of sand stirring among the antique stones though the sky
was clear and the vast reaches of desert still. Then suddenly above the
desert's far rim came the blazing edge of the sun, seen through the
tiny sandstorm which was passing away, and in my fevered state I
fancied that form some remote depth there came a crash of musical metal
to hail the fiery disc as Memnon hails it from the banks of the Nile.
My ears rang and my imagination seethed as I led my camel slowly across
the sand to that unvocal place; that place which I alone of living men
had seen.

In and out amongst the shapeless foundations of houses and places I
wandered, finding never a carving or inscription to tell of these men,
if men they were, who built this city and dwelt therein so long ago.
The antiquity of the spot was unwholesome, and I longed to encounter
some sign or device to prove that the city was indeed fashioned by
mankind. There were certain proportions and dimensions in the ruins
which I did not like. I had with me many tools, and dug much within the
walls of the obliterated edifices; but progress was slow, and nothing
significant was revealed. When night and the moon returned I felt a
chill wind which brought new fear, so that I did not dare to remain in
the city. And as I went outside the antique walls to sleep, a small
sighing sandstorm gathered behind me, blowing over the grey stones
though the moon was bright and most of the desert still.

I awakened just at dawn from a pageant of horrible dreams, my ears
ringing as from some metallic peal. I saw the sun peering redly through
the last gusts of a little sandstorm that hovered over the nameless
city, and marked the quietness of the rest of the landscape. Once more
I ventured within those brooding ruins that swelled beneath the sand
like an ogre under a coverlet, and again dug vainly for relics of the
forgotten race. At noon I rested, and in the afternoon I spent much
time tracing the walls and bygone streets, and the outlines of the
nearly vanished buildings. I saw that the city had been mighty indeed,
and wondered at the sources of its greatness. To myself I pictured all
the spendours of an age so distant that Chaldaea could not recall it,
and thought of Sarnath the Doomed, that stood in the land of Mnar when
mankind was young, and of Ib, that was carven of grey stone before
mankind existed.

All at once I came upon a place where the bed rock rose stark
through the sand and formed a low cliff; and here I saw with joy what
seemed to promise further traces of the antediluvian people. Hewn
rudely on the face of the cliff were the unmistakable facades of
several small, squat rock houses or temples; whose interiors might
preserve many secrets of ages too remote for calculation, though
sandstorms had long effaced any carvings which may have been outside.

Very low and sand-choked were all the dark apertures near me, but I
cleared on with my spade and crawled through it, carrying a torch to
reveal whatever mysteries it might hold. When I was inside I saw that
the cavern was indeed a temple, and beheld plain signs of the race that
had lived and worshipped before the desert was a desert. Primitive
altars, pillars, and niches, all curiously low, were not absent; and
though I saw no sculptures or frescoes, there were many singular stones
clearly shaped into symbols by artificial means. The lowness of the
chiselled chamber was very strange, for I could hardly kneel upright;
but the area was so great that my torch showed only part of it at a
time. I shuddered oddly in some of the far corners; for certain altars
and stones suggested forgotten rites of terrible, revolting and
inexplicable nature and made me wonder what manner of men could have
made and frequented such a temple. When I had seen all that the place
contained, I crawled out again, avid to find what the temples might

Night had now approached, yet the tangible things I had seen made
curiosity stronger than fear, so that I did not flee from the long
mooncast shadows that had daunted me when first I saw the nameless
city. In the twilight I cleared another aperture and with a new torch
crawled into it, finding more vague stones and symbols, though nothing
more definite than the other temple had contained the room was just as
low, but much less broad, ending in a very narrow passage crowded with
obscure and cryptical shrines. About these shrines I was prying when
the noise of a wind and my camel outside broke through the stillness
and drew me forth to see what could have frightened the beast.

The moon was gleaming vividly over the primitive ruins, lighting a
dense cloud of sand that seemed blown by a strong but decreasing wind
from some point along the cliff ahead of me. I knew it was this chilly,
sandy wind which had disturbed the camel and was about to lead him to a
place of better shelter when I chanced to glance up and saw that there
was no wind atop the cliff. This astonished me and made me fearful
again, but I immediately recalled the sudden local winds that I had
seen and heard before at sunrise and sunset, and judged it was a normal
thing. I decided it came from some rock fissure leading to a cave, and
watched the troubled sand to trace it to its source; soon perceiving
that it came from the black orifice of a temple a long distance south
of me, almost out of sight. Against the choking sand-cloud I plodded
toward this temple, which as I neared it loomed larger than the rest,
and shewed a doorway far less clogged with caked sand. I would have
entered had not the terrific force of the icy wind almost quenched my
torch. It poured madly out of the dark door, sighing uncannily as it
ruffled the sand and spread among the weird ruins. Soon it grew fainter
and the sand grew more and more still, till finally all was at rest
again; but a presence seemed stalking among the spectral stones of the
city, and when I glanced at the moon it seemed to quiver as though
mirrored in unquiet waters. I was more afraid than I could explain, but
not enough to dull my thirst for wonder; so as soon as the wind was
quite gone I crossed into the dark chamber from which it had come.

This temple, as I had fancied from the outside, was larger than
either of those I had visited before; and was presumably a natural
cavern since it bore winds form some region beyond. Here I could stand
quite upright, but say that the stones and altars were as low as those
in the other temples. On the walls and roof I beheld for the first time
some traces of the pictorial art of the ancient race, curious curling
streaks of paint that had almost faded or crumbled away; and on two of
the altars I saw with rising excitement a maze of well-fashioned
curvilinear carvings. As I held my torch aloft it seemed to me that the
shape of the roof was too regular to be natural, and I wondered what
the prehistoric cutters of stone had first worked upon. Their
engineering skill must have been vast.

Then a brighter flare of the fantastic flame showed that form which
I had been seeking, the opening to those remoter abysses whence the
sudden wind had blown; and I grew faint when I saw that it was a small
and plainly artificial door chiselled in the solid rock. I thrust my
torch within, beholding a black tunnel with the roof arching low over a
rough flight of very small, numerous and steeply descending steps. I
shall always see those steps in my dreams, for I came to learn what
they meant. At the time I hardly knew whether to call them steps or
mere footholds in a precipitous descent. My mind was whirling with mad
thoughts, and the words and warning of Arab prophets seemed to float
across the desert from the land that men know to the nameless city that
men dare not know. Yet I hesitated only for a moment before advancing
through the portal and commencing to climb cautiously down the steep
passage, feet first, as though on a ladder.

It is only in the terrible phantasms of drugs or delirium that any
other man can have such a descent as mine. The narrow passage led
infinitely down like some hideous haunted well, and the torch I held
above my head could not light the unknown depths toward which I was
crawling. I lost track of the hours and forgot to consult my watch,
though I was frightened when I thought of the distance I must have be
traversing. There were changes of direction and of steepness; and once
I came to a long, low, level passage where I had to wriggle my feet
first along the rocky floor, holding torch at arm's length beyond my
head. The place was not high enough for kneeling. After that were more
of the steep steps, and I was still scrambling down interminably when
my failing torch died out. I do not think I noticed it at the time, for
when I did notice it I was still holding it above me as if it were
ablaze. I was quite unbalanced with that instinct for the strange and
the unknown which had made me a wanderer upon earth and a haunter of
far, ancient, and forbidden places.

In the darkness there flashed before my mind fragments of my
cherished treasury of daemonic lore; sentences from Alhazred the mad
Arab, paragraphs from the apocryphal nightmares of Damascius, and
infamous lines from the delirious Image du Monde of Gauthier de Metz. I
repeated queer extracts, and muttered of Afrasiab and the daemons that
floated with him down the Oxus; later chanting over and over again a
phrase from one of Lord Dunsany's tales--"The unreveberate blackness of
the abyss." Once when the descent grew amazingly steep I recited
something in sing-song from Thomas Moore until I feared to recite more:

A reservoir of darkness, black
As witches' cauldrons are, when fill'd
With moon-drugs in th' eclipse distill'd
Leaning to look if foot might pass
Down thro' that chasm, I saw, beneath,
As far as vision could explore,
The jetty sides as smooth as glass,
Looking as if just varnish'd o'er
With that dark pitch the Seat of Death
Throws out upon its slimy shore.

Time had quite ceased to exist when my feet again felt a level
floor, and I found myself in a place slightly higher than the rooms in
the two smaller temples now so incalculably far above my head. I could
not quite stand, but could kneel upright, and in the dark I shuffled
and crept hither and thither at random. I soon knew that I was in a
narrow passage whose walls were lined with cases of wood having glass
fronts. As in that Palaeozoic and abysmal place I felt of such things
as polished wood and glass I shuddered at the possible implications.
The cases were apparently ranged along each side of the passage at
regular intervals, and were oblong and horizontal, hideously like
coffins in shape and size. When I tried to move two or three for
further examination, I found that they were firmly fastened.

I saw that the passage was a long one, so floundered ahead rapidly
in a creeping run that would have seemed horrible had any eye watched
me in the blackness; crossing from side to side occasionally to feel of
my surroundings and be sure the walls and rows of cases still stretched
on. Man is so used to thinking visually that I almost forgot the
darkness and pictured the endless corridor of wood and glass in its
low-studded monotony as though I saw it. And then in a moment of
indescribable emotion I did see it.

Just when my fancy merged into real sight I cannot tell; but there
came a gradual glow ahead, and all at once I knew that I saw the dim
outlines of a corridor and the cases, revealed by some unknown
subterranean phosphorescence. For a little while all was exactly as I
had imagined it, since the glow was very faint; but as I mechanically
kept stumbling ahead into the stronger light I realised that my fancy
had been but feeble. This hall was no relic of crudity like the temples
in the city above, but a monument of the most magnificent and exotic
art. Rich, vivid, and daringly fantastic designs and pictures formed a
continuous scheme of mural paintings whose lines and colours were
beyond description. The cases were of a strange golden wood, with
fronts of exquisite glass, and containing the mummified forms of
creatures outreaching in grotesqueness the most chaotic dreams of man.
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« Reply #1 on: February 27, 2007, 12:15:23 am »

To convey any idea of these monstrosities is impossible. They were
of the reptile kind, with body lines suggestion sometimes the
crocodile, sometimes the seal, but more often nothing of which either
the naturalist or the palaeontologist ever heard. In size they
approximated a small man, and their fore-legs bore delicate and evident
feet curiously like human hands and fingers. But strangest of all were
their heads, which presented a contour violating all known biological
principles. To nothing can such things be well compared--in one flash I
thought of comparisons as varied as the cat, the bullfrog, the mythic
Satyr, and the human being. Not Jove himself had had so colossal and
protuberant a forehead, yet the horns and the noselessness and the
alligator-like jaw placed things outside all established categories. I
debated for a time on the reality of the mummies, half suspecting they
were artificial idols; but soon decided they were indeed some
palaeogean species which had lived when the nameless city was alive. To
crown their grotesqueness, most of them were gorgeously enrobed in the
costliest of fabrics, and lavishly laden with ornaments of gold,
jewels, and unknown shining metals.

The importance of these crawling creatures must have been vast, for
they held first place among the wild designs on the frescoed walls and
ceiling. With matchless skill had the artist drawn them in a world of
their own, wherein they had cities and gardens fashioned to suit their
dimensions; and I could not help but think that their pictured history
was allegorical, perhaps showing the progress of the race that
worshipped them. These creatures, I said to myself, were to men of the
nameless city what the she-wolf was to Rome, or some totem-beast is to
a tribe of Indians.

Holding this view, I could trace roughly a wonderful epic of the
nameless city; the tale of a mighty seacoast metropolis that ruled the
world before Africa rose out of the waves, and of its struggles as the
sea shrank away, and the desert crept into the fertile valley that held
it. I saw its wars and triumphs, its troubles and defeats, and
afterwards its terrible fight against the desert when thousands of its
people--here represented in allegory by the grotesque reptiles--were
driven to chisel their way down though the rocks in some marvellous
manner to another world whereof their prophets had told them. It was
all vividly weird and realistic, and its connection with the awesome
descent I had made was unmistakable. I even recognized the passages.

As I crept along the corridor toward the brighter light I saw later
stages of the painted epic--the leave-taking of the race that had
dwelt in the nameless city and the valley around for ten million years;
the race whose souls shrank from quitting scenes their bodies had known
so long where they had settled as nomads in the earth's youth, hewing
in the virgin rock those primal shrines at which they had never ceased
to worship. Now that the light was better I studied the pictures more
closely and, remembering that the strange reptiles must represent the
unknown men, pondered upon the customs of the nameless city. Many
things were peculiar and inexplicable. The civilization, which included
a written alphabet, had seemingly risen to a higher order than those
immeasurably later civilizations of Egypt and Chaldaea, yet there were
curious omissions. I could, for example, find no pictures to represent
deaths or funeral customs, save such as were related to wars, violence,
and plagues; and I wondered at the reticence shown concerning natural
death. It was as though an ideal of immortality had been fostered as a
cheering illusion.

Still nearer the end of the passage was painted scenes of the utmost
picturesqueness and extravagance: contrasted views of the nameless city
in its desertion and growing ruin, and of the strange new realm of
paradise to which the race had hewed its way through the stone. In
these views the city and the desert valley were shewn always by
moonlight, golden nimbus hovering over the fallen walls, and
half-revealing the splendid perfection of former times, shown
spectrally and elusively by the artist. The paradisal scenes were
almost too extravagant to be believed, portraying a hidden world of
eternal day filled with glorious cities and ethereal hills and valleys.
At the very last I thought I saw signs of an artistic anticlimax. The
paintings were less skillful, and much more bizarre than even the
wildest of the earlier scenes. They seemed to record a slow decadence
of the ancient stock, coupled with a growing ferocity toward the
outside world from which it was driven by the desert. The forms of the
people--always represented by the sacred reptiles--appeared to be
gradually wasting away, through their spirit as shewn hovering above
the ruins by moonlight gained in proportion. Emaciated priests,
displayed as reptiles in ornate robes, cursed the upper air and all who
breathed it; and one terrible final scene shewed a primitive-looking
man, perhaps a pioneer of ancient Irem, the City of Pillars, torn to
pieces by members of the elder race. I remember how the Arabs fear the
nameless city, and was glad that beyond this place the grey walls and
ceiling were bare.

As I viewed the pageant of mural history I had approached very
closely to the end of the low-ceiled hall, and was aware of a gate
through which came all of the illuminating phosphorescence. Creeping up
to it, I cried aloud in transcendent amazement at what lay beyond; for
instead of other and brighter chambers there was only an illimitable
void of uniform radiance, such on might fancy when gazing down from the
peak of Mount Everest upon a sea of sunlit mist. Behind me was a
passage so cramped that I could not stand upright in it; before me was
an infinity of subterranean effulgence.

Reaching down from the passage into the abyss was the head of a
steep flight of steps--small numerous steps like those of black
passages I had traversed--but after a few feet the glowing vapours
concealed everything. Swung back open against the left-hand wall of the
passage was a massive door of brass, incredibly thick and decorated
with fantastic bas-reliefs, which could if closed shut the whole inner
world of light away from the vaults and passages of rock. I looked at
the step, and for the nonce dared not try them. I touched the open
brass door, and could not move it. Then I sank prone to the stone
floor, my mind aflame with prodigious reflections which not even a
death-like exhaustion could banish.

As I lay still with closed eyes, free to ponder, many things I had
lightly noted in the frescoes came back to me with new and terrible
significance--scenes representing the nameless city in its heyday--
the vegetations of the valley around it, and the distant lands with
which its merchants traded. The allegory of the crawling creatures
puzzled me by its universal prominence, and I wondered that it would be
so closely followed in a pictured history of such importance. In the
frescoes the nameless city had been shewn in proportions fitted to the
reptiles. I wondered what its real proportions and magnificence had
been, and reflected a moment on certain oddities I had noticed in the
ruins. I thought curiously of the lowness of the primal temples and of
the underground corridor, which were doubtless hewn thus out of
deference to the reptile deities there honoured; though it perforce
reduced the worshippers to crawling. Perhaps the very rites here
involved crawling in imitation of the creatures. No religious theory,
however, could easily explain why the level passages in that awesome
descent should be as low as the temples--or lower, since one cold not
even kneel in it. As I thought of the crawling creatures, whose hideous
mummified forms were so close to me, I felt a new throb of fear. Mental
associations are curious, and I shrank from the idea that except for
the poor primitive man torn to pieces in the last painting, mine was
the only human form amidst the many relics and symbols of the
primordial life.

But as always in my strange and roving existence, wonder soon drove
out fear; for the luminous abyss and what it might contain presented a
problem worthy of the greatest explorer that a weird world of mystery
lay far down that flight of peculiarly small steps I could not doubt,
and I hoped to find there those human memorials which the painted
corridor had failed to give. The frescoes had pictured unbelievable
cities, and valleys in this lower realm, and my fancy dwelt on the rich
and colossal ruins that awaited me.

My fears, indeed, concerned the past rather than the future. Not
even the physical horror of my position in that cramped corridor of
dead reptiles and antediluvian frescoes, miles below the world I knew
and faced by another world of eery light and mist, could match the
lethal dread I felt at the abysmal antiquity of the scene and its soul.
An ancientness so vast that measurement is feeble seemed to leer down
from the primal stones and rock-hewn temples of the nameless city,
while the very latest of the astounding maps in the frescoes shewed
oceans and continents that man has forgotten, with only here and there
some vaguely familiar outlines. Of what could have happened in the
geological ages since the paintings ceased and the death-hating race
resentfully succumbed to decay, no man might say. Life had once teemed
in these caverns and in the luminous realm beyond; now I was alone with
vivid relics, and I trembled to think of the countless ages through
which these relics had kept a silent deserted vigil.

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« Reply #2 on: February 27, 2007, 12:15:59 am »

Suddenly there came another burst of that acute fear which had
intermittently seized me ever since I first say the terrible valley and
the nameless city under a cold moon, and despite my exhaustion I found
myself starting frantically to a sitting posture and gazing back along
the black corridor toward the tunnels that rose to the outer world. My
sensations were like those which had made me shun the nameless city at
night, and were as inexplicable as they were poignant. In another
moment, however, I received a still greater shock in the form of a
definite sound--the first which had broken the utter silence of these
tomb-like depths. It was a deep, low moaning, as of a distant throng of
condemned spirits, and came from the direction in which I was staring.
Its volume rapidly grew, till it soon reverberated rightfully through
the low passage, and at the same time I became conscious of an
increasing draught of old air, likewise flowing from the tunnels and
the city above. The touch of this air seemed to restore my balance, for
I instantly recalled the sudden gusts which had risen around the mouth
of the abyss each sunset and sunrise, one of which had indeed revealed
the hidden tunnels to me. I looked at my watch and saw that sunrise was
near, so bracing myself to resist the gale that was sweeping down to
its cavern home as it had swept forth at evening. My fear again waned
low, since a natural phenomenon tends to dispel broodings over the

More and more madly poured the shrieking, moaning night wind into
the gulf of the inner earth. I dropped prone again and clutched vainly
at the floor for fear of being swept bodily through the open gate into
the phosphorescent abyss. Such fury I had not expected, and as I grew
aware of an actual slipping of my form toward the abyss I was beset by
a thousand new terrors of apprehension and imagination. The malignancy
of the blast awakened incredible fancies; once more I compared myself
shudderingly to the only human image in that frightful corridor, the
man who was torn to pieces by the nameless race, for in the fiendish
clawing of the swirling currents there seemed to abide a vindictive
rage all the stronger because it was largely impotent. I think I
screamed frantically near the last--I was almost mad--of the howling
wind-wraiths. I tried to crawl against the murderous invisible torrent,
but I could not even hold my own as I was pushed slowly and inexorably
toward the unknown world. Finally reason must have wholly snapped; for
I fell babbling over and over that unexplainable couplet of the mad
Arab Alhazred, who dreamed of the nameless city:

That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.

Only the grim brooding desert gods know what really took place--what
indescribably struggles and scrambles in the dark I endured or what
Abaddon guided me back to life, where I must always remember and shiver
in the night wind till oblivion--or worse--claims me. Monstrous,
unnatural, colossal, was the thing--too far beyond all the ideas of man
to be believed except in the silent damnable small hours of the morning
when one cannot sleep.

I have said that the fury of the rushing blast was infernal--
cacodaemoniacal--and that its voices were hideous with the pent-up
viciousness of desolate eternities. Presently these voices, while still
chaotic before me, seemed to my beating brain to take articulate form
behind me; and down there in the grave of unnumbered aeon-dead
antiquities, leagues below the dawn-lit world of men, I heard the
ghastly cursing and snarling of strange-tongued fiends. Turning, I saw
outlined against the luminous aether of the abyss that could not be
seen against the dusk of the corridor--a nightmare horde of rushing
devils; hate distort, grotesquely panoplied, half transparent devils of
a race no man might mistake--the crawling reptiles of the nameless

And as the wind died away I was plunged into the ghoul-pooled
darkness of earth's bowels; for behind the last of the creatures the
great brazen door clanged shut with a deafening peal of metallic music
whose reverberations swelled out to the distant world to hail the
rising sun as Memnon hails it from the banks of the Nile.

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