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Nyarlathotep Cycle: Stories about the God of a Thousand Forms
edited by Robert M. Price
Chaosium, 239 pages

Nyarlathotep Cycle
Chaosium, Inc.
They are the makers of Call of Cthulhu, a horror RPG set in the supernatural world of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. Mulder and Scully have never met the Elder Gods. As well, they publish Elric, a heroic sword & sorcery RPG and Pendragon, set in King Arthur's Britain.

Chaosium, Inc.

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Stephen M. Davis

The Nyarlathotep Cycle contains a collection of short stories centered around the figure of Nyarlathotep--the messenger and "Crawling Chaos" of the Old Ones-- and as a short story collection, this book succeeds admirably.

The book begins with an article by Mr. Price in which he attempts to persuade his readers that "Nyarlathotep is the Hindu god Nath, or Siva." I think he fails to prove his thesis, but the article is not long, and the reader can safely ignore it.

What exactly is Nyarlathotep? H.P. Lovecraft, Nyarlathotep's originator, wrote in a letter to Reinhardt Kleiner that "Nyarlathotep is a nightmare--an actual phantasm of my own," and he had envisioned the creature as being "a kind of itinerant showman or lecturer who held forth in publick [sic] halls and aroused widespread fear and discussion with his exhibitions."

This is a far cry from a Hindu god, and while Nyarlathotep grew in Lovecraft's fiction to embody far more than the persona of a showman, "It" was certainly never meant to be appended to one of the world's major religions.

Fortunately, the stories and poems in The Nyarlathotep Cycle can be enjoyed simply as a story collection, with contributions by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, Lin Carter, and Lord Dunsany.

The best-known fiction from this collection is certainly Lovecraft's "The Dreams in the Witch House" and "The Haunter of the Dark."

"The Dreams in the Witch House" is the story of Walter Gilman, a student at Miskatonic University in Arkham, who takes a room in a house with a bad history. Gilman spends much of the story in a feverish state, walking at night outside our known dimensions with a witch named Keziah Mason and her familiar--Brown Jenkin. Gilman descends ever deeper into Keziah's machinations, which culminate on the evening of April thirtieth in a child sacrifice and a combat between Gilman and Keziah. As always, Lovecraft does a better job with this sort of story than his host of imitators generally manage.

"The Haunter of the Dark" is not quite as successful in rousing the reader's sense of horror, possibly because it suffers from one of those endings where we're expected to believe that a man in mortal fear for his life spends his last moments writing "I see it--coming here-- hell-wind--titan blur--black wings--Yog-Sothoth save me--the three-lobed burning eye...."

There is, in this story collection, the usual--and unfortunate--piece by August Derleth. Generally, Derleth's pieces appear in anthologies because he edited them, but here Mr. Price believes this to be "one of Derleth's finest." There are moments when "The Dweller in Darkness" takes on a menacing air, but for the most part, Derleth's characters are laughable. One professor writes in his journal: "Partier says I am on the wrong track. I'm not convinced. Whoever it is that plays the music in the night is a master of hellish cadence and rhythm. And, yes, of cacophony."

The best piece in The Nyarlathotep Cycle is quite possibly the novelette "Curse of the Black Pharaoh" by Lin Carter. The pharaoh, in the form of a mummy, is seen by Robert Price as a form of Nyarlathotep. There is some evidence for this, as Lovecraft, in "The Haunter of the Dark," has a passage that closely resembles the plot-line of Carter's piece. In "Curse of the Black Pharaoh," an expedition discovers the Lost Pyramid of Khotep, and raids the Black Pharaoh's burial chamber. Carter does an excellent job in setting his scenes throughout his work, and the description of the mummy is quite vivid:

The gaunt cadaver was tightly wrapped from head to foot in spiced linen bandages which time had withered into dirty brown strips of crumbling cloth, splotched here and there where the preservative gums had leaked through to stain the bandages. The wrappings over the face had rotted away, exposing the ghastly skull-like face of the thing. Here and there it had grown scaly and leprous with decay, and on the brow it had rotted away entirely, exposing the brown bare bone of the skull.
There are nice touches throughout Carter's story, and his knowledge of Egyptology gives the story an authoritative air. I have no idea if Carter actually researched the many details of ancient Egypt and mummification that are found in this story, but Carter seems to know what he's talking about, and that's all that really matters in fiction, anyway. The plot-line is contrived, and Carter introduces a romantic element that has all the fire of a piece of soggy bread, but this was a story that made me go look in my walk-in closet before I turned out the lights.

With the exception of the aforementioned story by Derleth, I found The Nyarlathotep Cycle to be an enjoyable story collection. I might quibble with Mr. Price about what W.B. Yeats is doing in this anthology, but generally, I was pleased with what was included and found the inclusion of some short pieces by completely unknown authors refreshing.

Copyright © 1997 by Stephen M. Davis

Steve is faculty member in the English department at Piedmont Technical College in Greenwood, S.C. He holds a master's in English Literature from Clemson University. He was voted by his high school class as Most Likely to Become a Young Curmudgeon.

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