“And before he died, Taran-Ish had scrawled upon the altar of chrysolite with coarse shaky strokes the sign of DOOM.” – The Doom That Came to Sarnath by H.P. Lovecraft.
Warning, major spoilers up ahead because this story made me cranky.
I know that it was cool in the first half of the 20th century for authors to use the word DOOM, but to modern eyes it’s unbelievably cheesy. When I read the above quote, I snapped my fingers and said, “Oh no he didn’t!”.
Firstly, an antiquarian like Lovecraft ought to know that DOOM simply means fate, and for all his professed hatred of what he calls “debased language”, you’d think he’d know that. Traditionally, you could say “His doom was to become a great scientist” as a perfectly non-ominous sentence. The problem is that DOOM just sounds ominous, making it an absolutely perfect target for what Lovecraft called “debasement” and I called “Evolution” of English.
Oh right, I’m reviewing fiction, not writing a linguistics paper. My bad.
The Doom That Came to Sarnath is about the rise and fall of a great city (guess what its name is?). The story begins with primitive humans and a pre-human race of squishy nasty things that worship a squishy nasty God. Fortunately though, the human tribes that found Sarnath have a very pre-1940s xenophobia, and lay down some unholy smite. Then they decide to build a big city near the place those nasty evil things were. Great idea. That won’t come back to haunt you at all.
1,000 years later, Sarnath is the regional superpower and on the 1,000th year anniversary, as the citizens and dignitaries from everywhere around are celebrating, Sarnath is destroyed, and no one ever comes back to the city, despite the mineral wealth of the nearby hills.
My first problem with this story is that Lovecraft CAPITALIZES DOOM FOR EMPHASIS. I’m not sure about the conventions of his time, but this comes across as loud even if the word he used wasn’t DOOM. Fully capitalized words are completely jarring. That’s why we hate it when people type in all caps, and it’s shorthand for online shouting. Also… seriously? You’re a professional writer CAPITALIZING FOR EMPHASIS? I thought that the prose’s style and diction was supposed to provide that. I mean, every time I see the word doom in text, it’s pretty much already capitalized. The word sticks out on its own.
Now there are times where all capital letters can be done well. I’m referring to when Death speaks in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, or the encounter between Barrick Eddon and a demigod in the Shadowmarch series by Tad Williams. Both cases use capital letters to emphasize the peculiar manner in which the characters speak. This is what tvtropes.org calls Painting The Fourth Wall. However, using capital letter in descriptive prose is NOT COOL and serves only as a cheap method of emphasis.
The dark fairy-tale feel of the story is great though, and despite my ranting, other than overusing DOOM, this one isn’t a bad read. The pacing is good, the narrative structure solid. The characterization is lackluster, but of course, it’s kind of hard to cover 1,000 years of a city’s history through one character without bending longevity laws, which would completely shift the thematic emphasis of the story to “wow, this immortal guy watched it all.” We’d be focused on him being immortal, not the doom of a mighty city.
Altogether, I’d say there are better Lovecraft stories to read first, but if you absolutely love his writing, this is a fairly short, pretty good read.
Also, this is a rare Lovecraft story without a singular occurrence of the word singular. Bravo.
You can read it as part of the collection below if you like the smell of paper, or google it since it’s public domain:
The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft (Knickerbocker Classics)