Shot from the film Nyarlathotep (Directed by Christian Matzke; 2001)
Nyarlathotep is one of Lovecraft’s most well known and more frequently cited entities (possibly second only to Cthulhu). According to Leslie S. Klinger (The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, 2014) Nyarlathotep appears as a character in six of HPL’s tales: “Nyarlathotep,” “The Rats in the Walls.” “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” “The Dreams in the Witch House,” “The Haunter of the Dark,” and one of the sonnets in “The Fungi From Yuggoth.” However, HPL also mentions Nyarlathotep in “The Shadow Out of Time” and the revision tale “The Mound,” which was ghostwritten for Zealia Bishop.
In this article we will specifically focus on the tale of “Nyarlathotep.” Of all of HPL’s Old Ones, Nyarlathotep is the most anthropomorphic (at least at times). However, this entity can also be thought of as HPL’s manifested and opposing feelings of wonder and fear when it came to science. In the tale Nyarlathotep a strange individual named Nyarlathotep comes out of Egypt during a global period of “political and social upheaval” to give exhibitions of electricity and psychology with the use of strange instruments of glass and metal. During one of these exhibitions, where the narrator of the story is in attendance, a film is seen essentially showing the destruction of the world. The narrator stumbles out of the show with others where the universe itself seems to falling apart (An H.P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia by S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz; 2001). As Kenneth Hite state’s, “It’s in “Nyarlathotep” that we get Lovecraft’s full-blown Apocalypse (Tour de Lovecraft: The Tales, 2011).
Nyarlathotep…Pharaoh…Crawling Chaos by King Ovrats (www.deviantart.org)
The story came to HPL in a dream where a good friend of his, Samuel Loveman, said about Nyarlathotep, “He is horrible – horrible beyond anything you can imagine – but wonderful.” This idea of something holding both horror and wonder is cited a number of times in the actual tale where the narrator’s friend said, “…and of the impelling fascination and allurement of his revelations, and I burned with eagerness to explore his uttermost mysteries..” Also, “My friend said they [Nyarlathotep’s shows] were horrible and impressive beyond my most fevered imaginings…”
Reading HPL’s tales alone one may get the impression that he did not like nor trust science; the first paragraph in “The Call of Cthulhu” certainly gives this impression. However, if you review his letters and essays, as well as examine the level of detail and effort he exerted in ensuring that the most scientifically accurate (for the time) data were included in his tales, a more complex view of HPL’s attitude toward science emerges.
Nyarlathotep (LMN El Faraon Negro; found on http://www.elhorrorcosmico.blogspot.com)
As I discussed in a previous article on HPL’s Materialism Philosophy, one of the primary reasons he decided not to commit suicide after the death of his grandfather in 1904 was his scientific curiosity – to know about the world and universe he inhabits. In addition, his love of chemistry early on in life, later followed with an obsession of astronomy also conveys HPL’s love for science. However, this love was similar to that he had for writing. HPL saw writing as something that one does to convey an artistic idea, mood or feeling and that writing for the sake of earning a living was beneath a “true artist.” In a sense, he felt the same way about science. HPL seemed to marvel at new discoveries, whether they were from interstellar space, investigations into the nature of the atom or from the Antarctic. Thus, basic science – science for the sake of increasing our knowledge of our world and universe – seemed like a noble endeavor to HPL. However, I believe HPL had many concerns about applied science – using science in some capacity, typically associated with technology.
While applied science certainly has its benefits associated with medicine, agriculture and transportation, HPL witnessed incidents in the early 1900’s that to him signaled the decline of western civilization, much of this associated with science. Written in 1920, the apocalyptic nature of “Nyarlathotep” is certainly a product of it’s time. From 1918 to 1919 anywhere between 21.5 and 40 million people died world-wide as a result of the influenza pandemic, with approximately 675,000 Americans included in this estimate of global mortality. Additionally, the horrors and abuse of science was clearly manifested in Word War I, where for the first time in human history chemical warfare occurred on a massive scale. In fact, World War I is known as the chemist’s war. On top of that there was a post-War recession from 1918 to 1919. These factors combined clearly contributed to HPL’s view of humanity and where it was going.
Nyarlathotep guiding humanity to “fin del mundo” (elhorrorcosmico.blogspot.com)
In a sense Nyarlathotep was not the cause of the apocalypse but the guide, showing humanity its future or path to its own destruction. This is one component of “Nyarlathotep” that makes it such a compelling story. There are no entities from other planets or dimensions coming to Earth. Instead, the primary threat is humanity itself using its knowledge. While Nyarlathotep may play a part in the future, humanity seems to chiefly responsible for its own extinction. Nyarlathotep may have provided knowledge to humans; the way the snake did in the Garden of Eden or the monoliths do in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the ultimate responsibility relative to the use and abuse of this knowledge goes to humanity. An interesting point to consider is how much of this is indeed free will and how much of it is the will of Nyarlathotep.
Monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. While the appearance of the monoliths seemed to represent leaps or triggers in human evolution and intelligence, the appearance of Nyarlathotep seemed to represent the downfall of humanity.
Finally, a number of authors and scholars have cited the similarity between the electric shows put on by Nyarlathotep and those conducted by Nikola Tesla in the early 20th century. Nikola Tesla was an engineer, inventor and futurist, who worked on a variety of subjects (development of alternating current (AC) electricity, use of X-rays, radio, etc.) and is best known for his pioneering work on electromagnetism in the late 19th and early 20th century. While there is some similarity between the two, and indeed HPL may have read or heard about Tesla’s demonstrations where bolts of electricity would fly over the audience, there is no specific documentation of HPL drawing inspiration from Tesla’s work for “Nyarlathotep.”
Nikola Tesla cira 1890 (www.wikipedia.org)
While discussed in a previous article, next time we will discuss the role of Nyarlathotep in “Dreams in the Witch House” in greater detail. Thank you – Fred.