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The Nyarlathotep Cycle: Stories about the God of a Thousand Forms (Chaosium fiction) Paperback – June 15, 2006
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This collection starts with three short prose pieces.
The first two are excerpts from Lord Dunsany, highlighting the possible origin of the name and concept from which Lovecraft created his Nyarlathotep. They are only tangentially related to the rest of the stories, however, and could have easily been left out (or explained in the introduction).
Then follows Lovecraft's short prose poem, featuring the first appearance of Nyarlathotep in the Mythos. This is a short, but atmospheric piece that sets the stage for the rest of the stories.
Unfortunately, it is followed by three more poems. They don't add too much to the concept and, again, could have been left out.
As usual, a couple of Lovecraft stories starts off the collection proper - The Dreams in the Witch House and The Haunter of the Dark. A follow-up story by August Derleth, The Dweller in Darkness, is next. Since most Mythos fans are familiar with these works I won't waste time commenting on them here.
Here's what I thought about the rest of the offerings...
The Titan in the Crypt, by J.G. Warner, is a cross between The Festival and Pickman's Model. It is set in New Orleans, and tells the story of a dark ceremony that takes place at the end of Mardi Gras each year, far below the surface of the French Quarter.
Fane of the Black Pharoah, by Robert Bloch, is about a British archaeologist who has an unhealthy interest in the secret lore of the Egyptians. I think Bloch's Mythos stories are some of the most creative. They carry just the right mix of dark humor and menace. This piece introduces the Black Pharoah, also known as Nephren-Ka, who often serves as Nylarathotep's physical embodiment or historical double.
The Curse of the Black Pharoah, by Lin Carter, is your pretty standard mummy story and coming in at 75 pages it is the longest one of the bunch. Much like The Dunwich Horror, it features a learned scholar (the occult detective, Anton Zarnak) facing off against an unspeakably evil entity. Some Mythos fans think Carter's stories are sub par, but I think he's okay in small doses.
The following two stories, The Curse of Nephren-Ka by John Cockcroft and The Temple of Nephren-Ka by Philip J. and Glenn A. Rahman use the same basic plot, telling of the discovery of Nephren-Ka's final resting place. I prefer the latter, just for the fact that it was slightly longer and more fleshed out. I'm not sure why the former story was included at all, since it is barely four pages long.
The Papyrus of Nephren-Ka by Robert C. Culp is essential a scientific treatise about the place of Nephren-Ka in the dynasty of the Egyptian pharaohs and Nylarathotep's sinister role in his reign.
The last short story in the collection is The Snout in the Alcove by Gary Myers. This is a tale set in the Dreamlands of Lovecraft. Taken by itself it is a perfectly fine story, bu unfortunately it doesn't really fit in with the theme or style of the others. The only connection to Nylarathotep I can see is a passing reference about his second coming signaling the approaching apocalypse.
The book then ends with more poems about Nylarathotep - one by Richard L. Tierney and five by Ann K. Schwadder.
Looking back, this collection is hampered by two things. First, there are only seven "new" stories here that haven't been repeatedly reprinted in other collections. Secondly, there's only so many different ways to tell a mummy story.
The set-up of the collection follows the well-known structure. First we get some stories that inspired Lovecraft, then we get Lovecraft's most important stories about the entity (in this case Nyarlathotep, Dreams in the Witch House and The Haunter of the Dark) followed by a series of stories by his followers, dealing with the same entity. I always find the inspirational stories interesting to read and re-reading Lovecraft's tales in the context of the cycle books helps to see what part of the Mythos was Lovecraft's and what were additions of others.
As always, the quality of the stories differs. There's a nice Dreamlands tale by Gary Myers and Block's Fane of the Black Pharaoh (although The Shadow from the Steeple might have been more appropriate, being the sequel to Haunter). A rather inconsistent side of the book is the fact that most of the stories deal with Nyarlathotep's links to Egypt and the Black Pharaoh Nephren-Ka. On one hand this makes the few stories that deal with Nyarlathotep's other forms feel rather out of place. Second, this approach does not do the Crawling Chaos justice since there's been loads of stories about his other forms. Third, after a while one gets a bit fed up with the repeated Egyptian theme.
70 pages in the book are claimed by Lin Carter's 'Curse of the Black Pharaoh'. It never mentions Nephren-Ka or Nyarlathotep, but according to Price this was what Carter has in mind. This is a rather questionable theory. After all, a disciple of the Mythos like Carter, why would he try to disguise a Mythos story like that? The novella itself is pure pulp and I'm still not sure if I liked it or not ... It left me feeling rather unfulfilled and it lacks in originality.
There's also a fair amount of poetry in the collection, liking these is probably also a matter of taste ...
All in all, a bit of a disappointing book. It's got it's good moments but a Cycle about a diverse and colorful entity like Nyarlathotep could have been much better.