A Tour of Yuggoth

Fungi From Yuggoth Ballantine Books cover

The question of whether there is actually any form of continuity in HP Lovecraft’s sonnet cycle Fungi From Yuggoth is a question that has perplexed both scholars and readers for many years. After the opening three sonnets which form a linked narrative, the cycle plunges from location to location, through different worlds and times, and crosses a plethora of genres. And as we saw in the first part of this article, while some have argued that there a thematic thread linking the poems, noted Lovecraft expert ST Joshi firmly believes there is not -

Thematic resonances within the cycle do not establish ‘continuity’ of plot or structure any more than the analogous resonances within Lovecraft’s stories make them one large novel”

If we were intended to interpret Fungi From Yuggoth as a poetic anthology, then this statement is perfectly logical. However Lovecraft had not previously assembled any of his poetry in a grab-bag manner; three poems written in 1918 ‘Oceanus’, ‘Clouds’ and ‘Mother Earth’ were entitled A Cycle of Verse. Similarly the only other collection of verse in his poetic career was Poemata Minora Vol II written in 1902, and this was a collection of five poems about Roman times which, as the dedication makes clear, are intended to be read as a series. Therefore there is no reason to assume that Lovecraft was merely anthologising disparate verses with Fungi FromYuggoth; this approach is simply too slapdash for the Old Gentleman. If he united these thirty six sonnets under a single banner then he most likely had some design for this arrangement. And Mr Joshi’s assertion is somewhat flawed, for surely the repetition and consistent exploration of the same themes within a single work does constitute a continuity of sorts.

But the question remains – what form does this possible continuity take? A major stumbling block and what perplexes many readers and critics is the way the cycle shifts through different genres; sonnets like XII – The Howler recalls Lovecraft’s New England horror tales such as The Picture in the House and In The Vault, others like XVIII – The Gardens of Yin feel like his Dreamlands tales such as Celephais and The White Ship, and yet others clearly belong to the Cthulhu Mythos.

However, perhaps approaching the cycle in terms of the genres Lovecraft wrote in is the problem. Generally readers generally come know Lovecraft through his stories first, and then go on to discover his other literary works such as his poetry and his letters. Therefore we tend to come to Fungi From Yuggoth with categories based upon his fiction in mind.

Typically a new reader coming to the Lovecraft canon will be reading his Cthulhu Mythos tales first, and given the tantalising nature of this created mythology the novice will then be scouring all his works for further references and allusions. And as one progresses though his body of work or delves into the work of Lovecraft criticism, you soon begin to pick up the idea that different tales fit into different schools of stories. And once you are well versed in all things HPL, then one can play the time honoured game of ‘Mythos or not’ - for there is much debate over which stories count as Cthulhuvian tales. For example, should you ever wanted to stir up a nest of Lovecraft scholars simply ask whether The Colour Out Of Space belongs to the Mythos - differing opinions will fill the air like a swarm of angry wasps!

However it should be noted that Lovecraft himself did not acknowledge any such distinctions. In hindsight we may discern evolving trends in the development of his fiction - for example the series of Dreamlands stories he wrote in the early ‘20s after he discovered the works of Lord Dunsany. And reading his fiction chronologically one can track such influences as they come and go, and see his own approach and onw literary voice developing. Lovecraft himself was merely trying with each successive work to create the perfect weird tale, and the creation of what we now refer to as the Cthulhu Mythos was just one of the literary devices he employed to evoke the feelings of fear and cosmic awe he was striving for.

Therefore when we read Fungi From Yuggoth and begin slotting the sonnets into different categories, we are in fact creating artificial divisions; building critical walls that obscure whatever continuity may be there in the complete cycle. And if we dispense with these literary classifications and concentrate on the imagery, tone and atmosphere of the verses, Fungi From Yuggoth begins to appear far more coherent.

To begin, if we survey the placement of the different varieties of verse, although the content and style may seem to be randomly jumping around, there is a distinct flow. It is telling that the more philosophical vignettes cluster around the close of the cycle, seeming to serve as conclusions to the motifs explored. Similarly throughout the cycle other verses that share similaritys of theme or content are found nestling close to each other.

However after taking a fresh look at the cycle, I believe the arrangement goes further than Lovecraft merely orchestrating recurring themes. Examining closely each verse, they appear to pick up on a specific element from their immediate predecessor. While some sonnets echo their predecessors’ dominant concepts or continue a theme, but other transitions are almost cinematic with verses sharing a similar location or geography.

Now if you have not read the cycle yet – find it here - now would be the time to do so as I’m going to get up close and personal with the text in order to illustrate my findings.

Before we begin, I should point out that the following interpretation is just a tentative theory and make no claims that the continuity I have found is the correct reading Lovecraft intended. And indeed there aren’t perfect links between all the sonnets, however I think the following detailed examination of the verses does show that Fungi From Yuggoth is far from being as utterly random as some believe it is. As stated my first article, I do subscribe to the notion that after the introductory verses, the cycle represents a series of visions and/or occult journeys to other times, places and dimensions.

So then after the first three verses, whose links are explicit, Sonnet IV can be read as continuing the narrative. Sonnet III – The Key refers to visions the narrator has had of “sunset spires and twilight woods that brood/beyond this earth’s precisions”, while Sonnet IV – Recognition is set in a “hollow of old oaks” on the grey world of Yuggoth. Now I don’t think it is too much of stretch to suggest that this first vision from the book is of the afore mentioned “twilight woods”, which The Key implies have been haunting the narrator for years. Also it is worth noting at this point that Sonnet XXXIV – Recapture could well be a sequel to Recognition – featuring as it does a similar strange wilderness and ancient ruins – certainly it would explain the closing lines of Recapture.

Sonnet V – Homecoming has the narrator, having been horrified by the trip to Yuggoth, ‘the daemon’ – a figure that arguably reappears later – whisks him away to another time and place. And the next scene is viewing the panorama of a fantastic city – the “sunset spires” alluded to in The Key. Again we may infer from The Key that Sonnets III and IV are the book and its daemon revealing to the narrator the origin of these twin visions that have been haunting him.

The closing lines of IV come from the daemon itself “ ‘here was your home’ he mocked ‘when you had sight’ ”. And fittingly the next three entries in the cycle are themed around vision and perplexing sights - VI – The Lamp closes with “vast shapes” seen in “a mad flash”, and these maddening glimpses are echoed by the insane sight the mailman experiences in IV – Zaman’s Hill. Finally this ‘sight’ trilogy concludes with VIII – The Port where the verse’s narrator is troubled by the sight of darkness swallowing the streets of Innsmouth.

From the sinister gloom of Lovecraft’s infamous seaport, IX – The Courtyard also takes place in an “ancient, leprous” city by the sea, with the narrator wandering through the dark lanes and alleys. If we visualise the poems, you can easily see how from the hill-top view of Innsmouth the camera could zoom in or dissolve to the location of The Courtyard. It concludes with him being surrounded by a strange ritual throng. Also is it possible that ‘the man’ the narrator is going to meet is in fact the earlier mentioned daemon?

X – The Pigeon-Flyers again takes place in a strange dark city, opening with the lines ‘They took me slumming’, and again, I don’t think we are stretching a narrative point to interpret this as the narrator being swept away to darker places by “the mad revels of the dragging dead” of the previous verse.

Now there is more of a leap of faith required to connect the next verse. The horrors of The Pigeon-Flyers concludes upon certain things being unearthed from alien crypts, whereas XI – The Well has New England farmers delving deep into the bowels of the earth and discovering madness and death. Yes, this link may be subtle to the point of tenuousness but there is a faint accord here. Incidentally the Thog mentioned in this verse is, one of the twin moons of Yuggoth according Lovecraft.

However the next poem fits more comfortably; XII – The Howler is another micro weird tale set New England. It is almost as if the guiding force behind the visions is saying ‘and further down the road from Seth Atwood’s farm... this happened’. Many commentators identify “the four pawed thing with human face” as a precursor to Brown Jenkin in Dreams in the Witch-House which Lovecraft would write two years later. However it could well be a reference to the ghasts featured in Zealia Bishop’s The Mound which HPL *ahem* revised i.e. heavily rewrote in the same period as penning Fungi From Yuggoth. Alternatively, more likely in my opinion, this mystery beast is a call back to Pickman’s Model which features Lovecraft’s conception of the legendary ghoul (the model for these beings in many RPGs and video games, fact fans). And that tale explicitly states these bestial beings can evolve from humans and have strong ties to the old witch cults – “One canvas shewed a ring of them baying about a hanged witch on Gallows Hill, whose dead face held a close kinship to theirs”.

Moving on, The Howler takes places at sunset, and the next verse XIII – Hesperia follows this with a truly cosmic vision inspired by “the winter sunset, flaming beyond spires/and chimneys”. Again this is another visual dissolve with one sunset bleeding into another. And Lovecraft continues with another imagery based link, for after sunset comes twilight which according to Sonnet XIV is when the star winds blow, breathing strange dreams across the land.

So then XV Antarktos is a verse concerning oneiric visions; it begins “Deep in my dream”. Incidentally Mythos fans might like to know that the vast ice entombed horror is one of the Great Old Ones, Gol-goroth. This particular demon was first created by Robert E Howard, and in The Fishers From Outside Lin Carter links Howard’s stories with this sonnet, claiming that Gol-goroth is entombed in the Antarctic beneath Mount Antarktos (for further elder lore on this eldritch monstrosity see here).

However from horrors buried beneath centuries of glaciers, XVI – The Window brings us more benign visions. While the two poems may seem unconnected, I suspect what Lovecraft is doing here is sticking with the motifs of hidden secrets and revealing dreams but is presenting a contrast – after all not all dreams are nightmares. Antarktos deals with dream visions that blast the sanity, whereas the curious aperture in The Window reveals wonders; it is a portal to “all the wild worlds of which my dreams had told”.

Again perhaps stretching a point, but if we imagine the cycle in visual terms, as a movie if you will, the exotic landscape of Sonnet XVII – A Memory conceivably is one of the “wild worlds” we reach by travelling through the window. On more certain ground however is XVIII – The Gardens of Yin which “old dreams had flung open the gate to that stone lantern maze” and concludes this quartet of dream related verse.

However overlapping into the next sonnet, XIX – The Bells, is the theme of questing for revelations (as seen in XVII and XVIII) – the narrator in this verse scours his “dreams and memories for a clue” to the persistent phantom peals. However The Bells also begins a quartet that explore the Cthulhu Mythos – firstly we are in Innsmouth and once again this benighted town leads to alien locations in the nether world, hinting of the undersea horrors Lovecraft would later detail in The Shadow Over Innsmouth.

Next we have XX – Night-Gaunts whose narrator is swept away by the titular beings to encounter other aquatic horrors. The location of the Peaks of Thok (sometimes spelled ‘Throk’) is somewhat obscure; in his early fantasy novel The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath Lovecraft locates these titanic mountains in the Underworld of his Dreamlands, however other sources and writers have identified Thok as one of the moons of Yuggoth.

Incidentally this particular verse was inspired by HPL’s childhood nightmares and previously the Night-Gaunts had appeared in Dream-Quest, one of his tales centring on his recurring Randolph Carter who in this work sets out to find a sunset city seen in his dreams...

...And the main adversary in that curious tome is the star of Sonnet XXI – Nyarlathotep. Also, like its predecessor, this verse is based on a nightmare Lovecraft had, which incidentally the Old Gentleman had previously attempted to turn into a short story back in 1920. This vision of the apocalypse closes with the line “the idiot Chaos blew earth’s dust away” and the next verse details this entity, the daemon sultan Azathoth, who incidentally also appeared in Dream–Quest, and the afore-mentioned Peaks of Thok are colloquially named ‘Azathoth’s Teeth’. As Mythos scholars will know, Nyarlathotep serves the Other Gods, of whom Azathoth is chief, and hence “the daemon” mentioned in XXII is indubitably the same entity, and I’d argue, is the same daemon we met earlier in V- Homecoming

The sonnet Azathoth states this being, bubbling in the centre of all infinity creates all worlds and dimensions in the cosmos, and appropriately the next two poems concern strange worlds in hidden dimensions. XXIII – Mirage concerns a lost realm “floating dimly on Time’s stream” and XXIV – The Canal features an evil place “somewhere, in dream”. Now this isn’t as much as a stretch as it first seems as in Lovecraft’s fiction dreams are often visits to other dimensions. With its tolling bells and uncertain placement in time and space, Mirage echoes both sonnets XIX and XVII. The world of The Canal appears to be a dark counter part of the realm detailed in XIII, but also recalls the grim dead cities of IX and X.

And in a similar shift between IX and X, the dark deserted streets of The Canal dissolve into “the mad lanes” “south of the river” where the great black spire of St Toad’s lurks in Sonnet XXV. As Lovecraft scholar Robert M. Price points out in his article on the mysterious St Toad, this sonnet possibly inspired one of the scenes in The Shadow Over Innsmouth where the protagonist Robert Olmstead stumbles across a not dissimilar church. Considering we have twice returned to this benighted town in the cycle, it is not difficult to believe that Innsmouth is the home to St Toad’s. Certainly it would appear we are back in our world, somewhere in Lovecraft’s haunted New England.

And both the geographical setting and the theme of blasphemous worship are continued in Sonnet XXVI – The Familiars. Another of the New England horrors, this verse tells the tale of an isolated farmer who becomes obsessed with hidden lore and after “he began those night howls” – presumably some form of ritual or worship – his neighbours who fear for his sanity discover him “talking to two crouching things that at their step flew off on great black wings”. Note that possibly these beings could well be the Night-Gaunts from XX, and if that is so leads us neatly to XXVIII – The Elder Pharos, where another hermit, this time in Lovecraft’s mythical region Leng, talks “to chaos with the beat of drums”.

Incidentally Leng is frequently mentioned in Lovecraft’s fiction. However the location of this mountainous region is unclear – in some tales such as The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath it appears to be on the edges of Lovecraft’s dream world, but in others such as The Hound and The Call Of Cthulhu it would appear to be located somewhere in the Himalayas, an evil counterpart to other unmapped realms like Shambhala or Shangri-la. Seemingly like the Peaks of Thok in XX, Leng would appear to exist in both the waking world and the dimension of the Dreamlands.

However as well as communication with eldritch entities, The Elder Pharos also features a mysterious light that shines out from the fantastic vistas of Leng, whose origin many “in man’s first youth” have sought out but have never returned. And the next verse, XXVIII – Expectancy, echoes this theme of questing into mysteries that can never be unravelled. Again this is a contrasting pair – The Elder Pharos contains a sinister mystery that dooms all who seek to unravel it, whereas Expectancy is about rewarding yet never quite grasped transcendent hints some things inspire in us. Like Antarktos and The Window, this pair highlights the fact that awe and terror are two sides of the same revelatory coin.

XXXIX – Nostalgia also addresses the questing theme, and in this case we have both a lost legendary location, echoing The Elder Pharos and the mysterious inner hints of Expectancy. Here the birds fly out looking for a city “in some land their inner memories know” but which is now vanished beneath the waves. And aside from continuing a theme, tonally this sonnet has the same air of what I would term ‘magical melancholy’ as the preceding verse.

illustration by Jason Eckhardt

And this feeling, nostalgia is its truest sense, continues in the next sonnet which explores a similar bonding with landscape and architecture. However in XXX – Background the narrator of this verse has discovered the key to his own transcendent visions – the historic townscape of his youth. However not all such ancient buildings are offering such delightful reveries, as the next sonnet reveals.

XXXI – The Dweller is another micro tale, telling of an expedition to excavate some curious ruins that were “old when Babylon was new”. And rather than a treasure left “from times of cautious leaven”, these antediluvian ruins hold a frightening secret that has the archaeologists (a Miskatonic University party I’d wager) fleeing in terror. While providing a contrast to XXX, The Dweller also reintroduces the theme of strange revelations which is picked up in the next verse.

XXXII – Alienation deals with the price of gaining outré knowledge. Like Gulliver in Swift’s famous novel, the narrator here discovered that his mystic voyages have destroyed his connections to his family and his ordinary life - indeed the final two lines of this sonnet could be used as an apt epigraph for the finale of Gulliver’s Travels. Incidentally the Ghooric Zone is a region located on Yuggoth’s moon, Thog which we heard about in X - The Pigeon-Flyers, and later Cthulhu Mythos tales have identified as the location of the “foul lake where the puffed shoggoths splash in doubtful sleep” in XX – Night-Gaunts. The “piping from the voids beyond” is a reference to XXII – evidently the dreamer in this verse unwittingly found his way to the centre of all infinity and beholding the blind nuclear madness of Azathoth “giving each frail cosmos it eternal law” has destroyed all perception of meaning in his life.

And the piping from the Daemon sultan’s court can be heard again in XXXIII – Harbour Whistles. Here combining notes from the ships' whistles are “fused into one cosmic drone” that “echoes outer voids”. But also this naturally evolving sound recalls the transcendent hints contained in the “half-heard songs” of XXVIII and the occult keys to other realms the book itself contains.

And fittingly (if somewhat tenuously) XXXIV – Recapture appears to be almost a replay to the first vision from the book, IV - Recognition. As I remarked earlier, the imagery and setting is remarkably similar and the final lines would imply that the narrator has found himself once more in “that hollow of old oaks”. And if we interpret this sonnet as a return to that wooded altar on Yuggoth, then we could assume that this visit takes place before IV – note that the narrator claims he realises “what primal star and year” (my italics) has brought him back here. Combined with the title itself, Recapture, the implication appears to be that this is how the narrator ends up a “body spread on that dank stone”, an unclean feast for things that “were not men”.

And the cycle could have ended there, with the vision coming full circle. However two more sonnets remain. Throughout this series of verse, as we have seen Lovecraft has been alternately delivering poems that evoke terror and awe; for every dark benighted city where eldritch horrors dwell there is a fantastical place laden with beauty and inspiration. Hence XXXV is a bright reflection of Recapture – instead of the sinister dark woods and ruins, Evening Star has a rural meadow. And instead of some nameless fate in the hands of horrors from outside the stars, we have visions of the sunlit realms and magical landscapes evoked in earlier poems, such as the world beyond The Window, “the land where beauties meaning flowers” or The Gardens of Yin. And similar to its predecessor, this penultimate verse echoes an early vision from the book, V – Homecoming. However here we have the narrator himself experiencing the revelation rather than being informed by the mocking daemon, and reaching this inner knowledge provides an optimistic conclusion to all the other verses that detailing well-loved lands now lost and out of reach, and all curious vistas that have invoked dim impossible memories of previous visits.

The final sonnet XXXVI - Continuity is similarly conclusive (although in the light of this article somewhat ironically titled). While the exact nature of the secret hints, tantalising clues and hidden keys remain obscure, here we find Lovecraft finding both a balance and a purpose in these veiled signs. While other verses have been draped in melancholy and longing, Continuity sees the narrator finding that these mysterious impressions ultimately provide a connection to the cosmos, a sense of being part of “the fix’d mass whose sides the ages are”.

Perhaps very tellingly this verse strongly echoes Lovecraft’s own words on his writing which I shall quote again here –

I’m simply casting about for better ways to crystallise and capture certain strong impressions (involving the elements of time,the unknown, cause and effect, fear, scenic and architectural beauty and other ill assorted things) which persist in clamouring for expression”

However Continuity goes further, giving us the reasons why such impressions were so important to capture.

While some have brought madness and horror, others have revealed the wonders of the cosmos. And a handful are somewhat ambiguous - for example although his neighbours are horrified by what they discover John Whateley has summoned out of the nether world, is this rural occultist as terrified of them by his visitors? Similarly in The Window, while the masons are horrified by the opening of the portal, the narrator is enraptured. And in The Bells, is the realisation that the phantom tolling is emanating from a sunken city beneath the waves a revelation of horror or wonder? If you are familiar with the goings-on in Innsmouth, then one may assume this is a dread realisation, but it is worth recalling how the end of The Shadow Over Innsmouth plays out...

As I hope I have demonstrated, once you strip away the artificial categories we use to classify his fiction, the arrangement of sonnets in Fungi From Yuggoth actually contains a lot more links and continuity than has been previously noticed. And while Lovecraft uses a variety of different methods to establish a subtle flow throughout the cycle, striving and yearning for revelation are the dominant recurrent themes.

Therefore sonnets such as XXIII Mirage and XXXIV Recapture are not as different as at first they may seem – they may be written in different modes, employing dissimilar imagery but both detail a transcendent experience. As a devotee of weird fiction, Lovecraft understood the pleasure one gains from reading a tale that evokes a frisson of fear, and that feeling may “cut the moment’s thongs” in a similar way that a beautiful landscape may induce reveries - both fear and awe may be keys to transcendence.

When before beginning this epic tour of the Fungi From Yuggoth we alluded to the fact that structurally the placement of the poems is telling. And now having seen how Lovecraft has distributed the various different kinds of verse, we see that there is a definite progressive pursuit of themes through the cycle. Wonder and terror play off each other as we tumble through his universe; though some of those who seek to unravel the mysteries of the cosmos may well fall foul of the vast horrors that populate its myriad dimensions and worlds, others will discover marvels to behold.

Taken together these twin strands ultimately resolve into the conclusion of Continuity – indeed if one ventures too far one may be confronted with the final truth of all things, which in Lovecraft’s fictional universe is the dread horror that is Azathoth. However what distinguishes Lovecraft from the hordes of imitators and indeed many other horror writers, is the fact that the terror isn’t simply due to discovering there’s a monster behind everything. The real horror is that there is a ‘god’ that created our reality but he is mindless and indifferent, and humanity’s fortunes is left to whims of Nyarlathotep.

Reflecting Lovecraft’s own rational beliefs, with his devotion to science leaving no room for a benevolent god, the nuclear chaos that is the daemon sultan Azathoth is a symbol of the horror of realising we are adrift in a godless universe and our lives are not only cosmically insignificant but totally meaningless.

However despite his rationality, Lovecraft also clearly felt the lure of spiritual – although he could not countenance a belief in a god, mythology, legend and the arcane still called to him. And in literature, in history, and in his own dreams, he found a spiritual transcendence of his own devising. It may have been more aesthetic than religious in nature, but his reading of Machen, Blackwood, Dunsany and Poe, and his travels to visit antiquarian buildings opened these personal inner doors for him.

The close of the cycle seems to suggest that Lovecraft is saying that it is the savouring of mysteries and not their resolutions that matter. When speaking of these intimations of infinitude in XXVIII – Expectancy he remarks that “none gains or guesses what it hints at giving”, and as the cycle shows pursuing these strange hints and impressions may bring one to confront the shattering truth of Azathoth. However in the final two sonnets, we have arrived at a balance; one may not ever be able to discover the origin of these mystical impressions that haunt us, the land of lost dreams may remain out of reach, but if approached in the right manner that fact that they do move us may provide an anchor in a sea of uncertainty.

The guiding laws that govern our world may be the creation of Azathoth’s whims but we still can meaningfully connect with the cosmos – not all realms are wastelands of horror, and there is the bright world of dreams and visions where beauty and wonder flower. They may not be any cosmic salvation in Lovecraft’s cosmology but there is personal redemption in that through poetry, fiction, music and beauty we may step outside of ourselves and see a wider world of wonders, if only fleetingly.

JIM MOON, 3rd October 2010

revised February 2015