Prompt: 21. A very ancient colossus in a very ancient desert. Face gone—no man hath seen it.
Resulting Story: The Shedu
This prompt brings to mind a number of the things. Firstly, and most obviously, the poem Ozymandias :
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.” (Shelley)
In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:—
“I am great OZYMANDIAS,” saith the stone,
“The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
“The wonders of my hand.”— The City’s gone,—
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place (Smith)
The poem of course relates to the great Pharaoh Rameses II, and supposedly the Pharaoh of Moses time. Egypt held British imagination, and by extension Mr. Lovecrafts, for a multitude of reasons. Firstly was its staggering age. Egyptian civilization ranges from 5000 B.C.E. to 0 C.E., longer than any civilization elsewhere in the world. The preservation of that nation, the elaborate burials and the sand covered monuments, also elated the modern world which played with the notion of eternity. It was a bit of otherness that was nearby and attached to antiquity.
And Egypt is famed for a number of monuments, perhaps most famously the Pyramids and the Sphinx. The Sphinx surely is more in line with our prompt (since the pyramids bare no face), and is common in Mr. Lovecraft’s conception of Nyrlanhotep. The Crawling Chaos’s most famous name is ascribed to ancient Egypt, as a lost Pharaoh lost Pharaoh of a bygone age. His faceless form (here conceived by cyanyurikago) may well have been created in response to this prompt.
But the sphinx offers some interesting potential. The prompt elicits some prehuman creator, and if we are to construct a monument that has been created by something inhuman, an inhuman body might help. There is the precedent of similar forms across the ancient world (as the ancient aliens people have noticed, albeit incorrectly), particulary with Greek sphinxs, the Lamassu of Mesoptamia, and a number of creatures in Southeast Asia.
We then have a few notions tied up in the story. Firstly, we have the idea that some knowledge has been forever lost to humanity (the face, at the least), and that some intelligence has robed mankind of its place as the first to build (an existential dread, as others have come and gone before), something of the nature of time (the desert evokes worn down nations, and with certain organizations attacking the remains of desert dwelling civilizations lately, a topical fear), and something of the nature of life. After all, if the makers cast it in their image, they certainly only barely resemble human beings.
To its lost nature, we certainly have a precedent in Lovecraft and elsewhere, with a number of lost cities to pick from. To leave Egypt, we have the city of pillars,Irem. Located in the Arabian desert, Irem was supposedly the home of occultists and things worthy of God’s wrath. Mr. Lovecraft expanded it as the home of disturbing and alien creatures, particularly reptilian things. We might also look to the ancient Zoroastrian and Persian texts that talk of Hankana, a fortress for Afraisiab.
From all this, however, we can gather a notion of who serves the best protagonist. Whoever suffers the most from the horror, feels its stings the most accutely, should be the victim. Best, then, some archaeologist or antiquarians, who worries about what has been lost. Given the Middle Eastern nature of most of these, our good friend the British Empire might provide a good servant. There is some trouble, constantly poking at the Empire for protagonists, however. Some other arrogant power would have to do. A cold war expedition, perhaps from the United States in the region?
The problem there is that the Union has never felt eternal. Always it seems to be at risk, and its reign as superpower has been punctuated by existential dangers (from within and without). Perhaps the other direction then? Something more ancient? We could return to the era of the Ottoman Empire,who held sway over both Egypt and for a time Arabia. Certainly we could lead into our story with a discovery by our lost investigator. An Ottoman occult investigator certainly is something I haven’t heard of. Or an occult institution.
What is added, however, to the horror of each empires? The British discover of course, that their place is not special. That civilization did not spring from the Isles or Rome, but somewhere they would right off as backward and worthless. The Union finds that as well as increased dread that something that cannot be known exists in the world. The United State’s age of supremacy was built upon an understanding of the world that was near complete (or felt so). What wasn’t known could be discovered, nothing was beyond the pale of human understanding.
The Ottoman Empire of course suffers a bit like the British (though depending on the placement of the desert, not nearly as much) and its own eternity is a bit more imperiled. Depending on the time of it’s discovery, the dual element of declining empire and the lack of men as mighty as the prophets may play into the decay as well. The British and the United States lack a belief or idea of decline, for the most part. The old man of Europe died a much more awful death than England did, a decay more than a sudden dispersal. Still, I’m torn.
What do you say, dear brothers and sisters? From which land shall we sew our lost story? For some added difficulty, I may try and complete the latest horror prompt from these fine folks, and draw from the word “seed pod”.