13 August 2007

Terror in Old Ægypt: "Nyarlatophis"

I have to admit I'm actually a bit torn about reviewing "Nyarlathopis," for two reasons.

  1. Sargent has an obvious affection for the source material.
  2. Whatever else I can accuse "Nyarlathopis" of, it definitely was not lazily written.

The concept for the story certainly has a lot of promise: Nyarlathotep (Nyarlathopis being the more accurately Egyptian version of his name) tries to conquer Egypt in the 13th century BC but does not succeed. The story is based on the first-hand account of the Pharaoh's lead adviser at the time. Considering that Nyarlathotep is a vaguely Egyptian figure, putting him into an Egyptian milieu should generate some interesting results. And Sargent provides a lot of historical detail, covering everything from Egyptian mythology to its governance structure.

Despite all this potential, the story never really transcends the level of mere pastiche at which most Cthulhu mythos fiction seems to aim.The story is beset by anachronisms which serve to undermine whatever sense of suspense or weirdness the plot should generate. Sargent writes in a straightforward descriptive style which whatever its merits is completely wrong for this story, for it fails to capture the feel of an ancient text documenting an epic struggle against an unimaginable evil. Certainly a style more in keeping with that associated with ancient texts (the Bible, Hammurabi legend, Beowulf, etc.) would have been more appropriate. It would not even have had to be particularly authentic to provide the requisite atmosphere of weirdness. (And being a weird tale, however derivative, a sense of the weird is always a plus.)

The stylistic problems are compounded when more outlandish concepts are introduced. (And this being a Cthulhu mythos tale, outlandish concepts are kind of a prerequisite.) Concepts such as "the other side of the universe" or the primal chaos at the center of creation are handled as if they were fairly straightforward concepts, despite the fact that they are being presented by a narrator who thought the sun was a chariot and had never seen a body of water larger than the Nile. (Or perhaps the Mediterranean.)

A few other factors serve to dull the atmosphere, among them the muddling of the mythos and the author's info dumping. Sargent sets up a religious war between the Egyptian gods and the Cthulhu Mythos, a somewhat Derlethian approach which reduces Nyarlathotep to a cartoon villain. As for the info dumping, because the author has placed the story in a setting with which his audience is likely unfamiliar, he has to provide quite a bit of background information. At first, this is provided by the framing story of the translated papyrus, but a lot of information is still provided by the narrative itself which leads to inauthentic digressions while the narrator explains things that his expected audience should be familiar with. While some people may consider the use of footnotes in fiction distracting or (even worse!) postmodern, when you're tale is framed as a historical document it is an effective way to bridge the gap between the fictional audience and the real audience. After all, what is the point of all those details to add veracity to the tale if they are introduced in a way which completely undermines that veracity.

I am perhaps being a bit harsh; as I said before, most of this kind of writing is written at the level of pastiche. The story certainly ranks above average in comparison with the majority of mythos fiction, lifted a bit by the detailed historical setting. If you're a fan of Lumley's Titus Crow or August Derleth's various works, you would probably enjoy this story. If you're, like me, a bit jaded regarding Cthulhu Mythos fiction, you'll probably find it sadly lackluster.

Next up is my final entry regarding "The Taint of Lovecraft"

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