This ICHF was written by Glarnboudin, who you can find at https://glarnboudin.tumblr.com/. I may have made a few touch ups and notes here and there, but the bulk of this entry is their work!
Out of all of Lovecraft’s stories, The Doom That Came to Sarnath proooobably isn’t going to be topping most people’s lists of favorites. It’s a rather small one-off story that was published more than half a decade before he started Call of Cthulhu in a much smaller magazine than the pulps that would come to house the majority of his work, tied into his larger works for Kadath but never really brought up again aside from one-off references. And yet, it greatly stands out compared to his other stories, primarily because of how straightforward it is. There’s no existential dread or anything particularly indescribable, nor do any characters go insane from mad revelations – in fact, there aren’t even really any specific characters to begin with. Instead, Doom is framed as the recounting of a legend that plays out in a manner somewhat akin to a conventional myth, a pretty big departure from the way that Lovecraft characterized his elder horrors in direct opposition to the stories and religions that he grew up with. You could very easily read this as his take on a story like Masque of the Red Death, and not just in the structure.
Our story begins ten thousand years ago in the land of Mnar, on the shores of a vast still lake. Here stood the great stone city of Ib, which is itself peopled by strange fish-like beings; exactly where these things came from isn’t quite known, for they were there long before men came to the shores of the lake, but one story suggests that they originally came down from the moon, stone city and all. While the people of Ib are certainly ugly-looking, with green skin, huge bulging eyes, fin-like ears, and pouty flabby fishy lips, they’re peaceful enough, and not much information about them survives even in the records of other ancient civilizations. Only one thing about them is known – namely, that they worshipped a sea-green stone idol of a creature called Bokrug, the Water-Lizard, who they conduct strange dances around to the light of their fires when the moon turns gibbous.
After many aeons of peaceful Water-Lizard worship, human beings come to the land of Mnar, with one group building the city of Sarnath on the shores of the vast. At first, they regard the people of Ib with curiosity, but that curiosity quickly turns to revulsion – not because of any children going missing or any eldritch summonings as you’d expect from a Lovecraft story, mind you, but because Sarnath thinks that the people of Ib (Who they call the thuum’ha, or ‘Voiceless’) are icky and gross and their statues are creepy. Seriously, that’s the explanation offered; no terrifying cults or eldritch sightings, just a case of “Fuck those guys”. And so Sarnath sends out its warriors to Ib, where they proceed to wreck the thuum’ha’s collective shit – as ugly as they are, the fish-people’s flesh is soft and squishy, easily pierced by spears and javelins. Every last Ibbinite (Ibbinese? Ibber?) is slain and their bodies dumped into the lake, and every last brick of Ib itself is torn down, the great statues cast into the lake with the beings who carved them. The only thing that the Sarnath conquerors leave standing is the great idol to Bokrug, which they bring back home as a trophy… but the night after it’s set up in the city’s great temple, it’s found to have gone missing, and the high priest of said temple is found dead in its place. There’s no marks on the body, and it seems like he died while in the grip of absolute terror, but not before writing out a single word on the temple’s main altar: DOOM.
The titular DOOM, however, isn’t coming anytime soon – centuries pass, and Sarnath grows and grows, the stricken-dead priest fading from the memory of the people within a couple of generations as the mineral wealth along the shores of their vast lake brings the city into an age of prosperity. Great caravan routes connect them up to the rest of the world, and armies are raised to conquer all of Mnar and bring it under the banner of Sarnath – the lion’s share of the description, however, goes to the lavish beauty of Sarnath itself. From the dimensions of the vast walls (300 cubits high and 75 across, wide enough for teams of chariots to pass by one another on the top of them, and extending more than 500 stadia; that’s 450 feet tall, 112 feet wide, and 375 miles of distance for non-metric readers) to the precious stones that the streets were paved with and the domed roofs of the houses, everything is given great detail to illustrate the incredible glory of Sarnath, but the most attention by far is given to the palaces, the temples, and the gardens. All of these are beyond luxurious – the throne of the king is carved from a single massive piece of ivory, the floors are tiled with mosaics of precious stones, the walls are covered in vast paintings depicting Sarnath’s many glorious victories, and amphitheaters for spectacular gladiatorial events are everywhere. The vast gardens are packed with exotic plants, rare birds, and fancy water features, with a great glass dome enclosing everything that boasts models of the sun, stars, and planets above it all, but by far the gaudiest of the sights of the city has to be the temples. The city boasts seventeen temples in total, the largest and magnificent standing as tall as a skyscraper – all of them are built from shining multi-colored stone and boast steps carved from pure zircons, with gorgeous idols to their gods so realistic that they almost seem like they could come alive at any moment. Vast crowds flock to these temples to worship the gods of Sarnath, dousing the statues in perfumes until the shrines almost permanently smell of flowers. It’s a truly incredible sight to imagine, a city of greatness and decadence that would make the most extravagant emperors of Rome look like pious monks by comparison.
Every year, a festival is held in Sarnath to celebrate the destruction of Ib; this too is given lavish description of how much of a spectacle it is. There’s toasts to the spirits of the warriors who destroyed the voiceless things of Ib, merriment and drinking and debauchery all around, clowns and jesters dressed up in parody of the thuum’ha and their horrible god. The king himself makes a speech to curse the bones of the people of Ib and celebrate the greatness of Sarnath for putting an end to them all, much to the delight of the citizenry; the priests grumble at first about it all, but as the memory of their struck-dead brother fades from their minds, they soon join the festivities without a care… and high up in the tallest tower of the tallest temple, they perform a cryptic ritual to spite the monstrous god of long-dead Ib around the graffitied altar that their long-dead forefather scrawled upon all those centuries ago.
For year after year, century after century, this annual festival goes on without a hitch, save for the waters of the lake rising unusually high against the city’s seawall, itself just as grand and imposing as the rest of the place, and the occasional unearthly lights from beneath the water. But now the thousandth anniversary of Ib’s destruction is coming up, and the rulers of Sarnath are going all-out to make this year’s festival the greatest one of all. Preparations were begun a full decade in advance of this, the ultimate party – royalty and nobility from across the globe come and set up their tents and pavilions, delicacies from far-off lands are stockpiled, and the cooks and chefs work nonstop to produce lavish feasts to feed a thousand men, serving up vast fish from the lake and exotic beasts from half a world away on platters of gold and encrusted with precious gems. The festival comes, and it’s as if half the civilized world has come to live it up in Sarnath; the king and his nobles are gorging themselves in the palace, spitting curses to the loathsome things of Ib all the while, priests are partying with princes and paupers alike, and every man, woman, and child in the city is out to celebrate Sarnath’s greatness.
Until, that is, strange shadows start to descend from the gibbous moon and down onto the lake, met by greenish mist that rises and rises up over the great seawalls to pour over Sarnath and smother its domes and towers in a verdant haze. Those partying outside of the vast walls of the city notice that one of the lake’s big landmarks, a massive boulder rising from the water like a miniature mountain, has almost completely submerged. As they take such notice, the seeds of fear suddenly begin to grow within the foreign nobles and princes and the many travellers, along with the unexplainable yet overwhelming urge to get right the fuck out of here, and now. Most quickly pack up and take their leave, and not a moment too soon; for as the clock nears midnight, the bronze gates that bookend every street in Sarnath burst open, and the people of Sarnath pour forth in a single frenzied horde, their faces contorted in terror-stricken madness and shrieking in barely-intelligible eldritch tongues. Those few whose words were still coherent scream and babble about the king – in the windows of the royal palace, not a trace can be seen of the king or his nobles or his priests, only the shadowy silhouettes of a horde of monstrous figures with huge bulging eyes, fin-like ears, and pouty flabby fishy lips, holding burning gem-encrusted platters high as they cavort about in a frenzied dance. What few visitors that remained quickly flee at the horrible sight; those that dare to look back upon Sarnath notice that the great stone has completely submerged just before the mists of the lake descend upon the doomed city and upon its throngs of maddened wretches – the last that anyone shall ever see of Sarnath, for its DOOM has finally come.
For a long time, it’s not specified how long, nobody dares to venture anywhere close to what was once the city of Sarnath; the tale of what happened to that mighty land spreads like wildfire throughout the remaining kingdoms of Mnar, now free from Sarnath’s rule. Finally, curious adventurers from distant lands come to Mnar to see the prosperous city (and try to raid the ruins for valuables, of course), but when they journey to the shores of the vast still lake, they find… nothing.
Sarnath hasn’t been merely destroyed – it’s gone. Where the most beautiful and prosperous city in the ancient world had stood, there’s only a vast stretch of empty marshland. The towering walls are gone – where once were vast and mighty towers, vaults filled with treasures, and temples like none other, there isn’t so much as a couple of rocks stacked on top of one another. The mines are completely filled in, as if no pick had ever touched the earth here, not a pebble remains of the magnificent roads, not a trace of the domed gardens remain,
and there’s no sign of even a single soul out of the millions that had once lived here in utter luxury.
It’s as if Sarnath had just suddenly ceased to exist – as if there had never been anything here but this lizard-filled swamp. The great stone island is as it was before, there are no lights or mists coming from the lake… but standing in the middle of the swampy expanse is the stolen idol of Bokrug, half-buried in the mud and muck and encrusted with seaweed. The idol is quietly taken to another city in Mnar and dedicated at the highest temple… and when the moon grows gibbous, the people across the land of Mnar make sure to give the Water-Lizard its due.
The Doom That Came to Sarnath is a pretty major departure from the themes that one would typically associate with Lovecraft’s work – if anything, it’s somewhat of an antithesis to a lot of his later projects. The people of Sarnath are very explicitly the villains of this story – while Ib’s fish-men were given the standard Lovecraft descriptions of how creepy and horrible they were, they were entirely content doing their own thing as long as they were left alone. Sarnath unequivocally threw the first stone and committed a horrific act against Ib for no other reason than irrational fear of those who looked different from themselves, and they paid an equally horrible price for their atrocities. Notably, though, we don’t know what that vengeance even really was – in typical Lovecraft fashion, your imagination is allowed to run wild and fill in the blanks yourself. Bokrug themself doesn’t even make a physical appearance aside from its idol, as well as the implication that the great standing stone in the lake was its vast slumbering form. It’s rather evocative of the kaiju genre that would come many decades later in more ways than one, something that kind of pops up with some regularity among a lot of Lovecraft’s stories, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
The writing style is unmistakably Lovecraft’s, from the way that the atmosphere is built and built like a bomb fuse sizzling down to detonation to the explosive finale itself, swift and concise but full of the frantic, half-mad tone that comes from baring witness to horrors beyond what man was ever meant to see, but the tone is far from the Cosmic Horror that Lovecraft pioneered.
The structure of TDTCtS itself bears a lot of similarities to Masque of the Red Death in how the victims of the story’s main slaughter bring their fate upon themselves – like the Red Death, the sole targets of Bokrug’s ire are the corrupt upper class as they celebrate their awfulness together at the expense of the people they trod upon to get where they are now. Unlike the titular specter of that story, though, the scope of the Water-Lizard’s wrath is far greater than just a few nobles. Like the kaiju that would come later, the sheer scale of Sarnath’s DOOM goes above and beyond just offing a few corrupt nobles – anything less simply wouldn’t be proportionate punishment for the atrocity that Sarnath inflicted upon Ib.
This vast extravagant empire of wealth and luxury was built upon the bones of untold thousands of innocent people (and Lovecraft makes it clear that the thuum’ha were people, as unusual as they were) – rather than let their crimes fade away into the past and put it all to rest, its people took pride in what they had done and turned their greed to other lands, all the while celebrating their original act of monstrous cruelty and viciousness. As a collective society, Sarnath took savage delight in desecrating the first victims of their hatred, until the last remnants of those long-gone victims finally manifested something that could return the favor. The foreign travellers and princes and dignitaries were spared from the wrath of Ib; it was not their sins that had brought DOOM upon Sarnath. In a way, nor was it the sins of anyone in particular who was partaking in the ceremony. No, DOOM had come for Sarnath itself – for the entire corrupt, rotten system that had not only enabled this tragedy, but worn it as a badge of honor for centuries on end..
A society that reaps the consequences for the sins of their past at the hands of a monster that was awakened as a direct result of their evil – the parable of Ib sits quite firmly on the bridge between Imperial Gothic and good old Atomic Horror, paving the way for even greater beasts to come. Quite an unusual story from old Lovecraft… but then again, it’s only fitting that the guy who pioneered unknowable horrors would have some surprises in store.