In the Walls of Eryx, by H.P. Lovecraft and Kenneth J. Sterling

A post about another invisibility science fiction story, in anticipation of the release of my non-fiction book Invisibility: The History and Science of How Not to Be Seen!

When I started researching invisibility stories, I was not only surprised by the number of stories out there that I was unaware of, but was also amazed by the number of stories that focus on the concept of invisible buildings! I haven’t written about any of these yet, but they include “The Monster God of Mamurth,” by Edmond Hamilton (1926), and “The Invisible City,” by Clark Ashton Smith (1932). Honorable mention should also be given to “The Invisible Man Murder Case” by Henry Slesar (1958), which doesn’t have an invisible building but suggests that one application of invisibility could be making unsightly buildings invisible.

The most famous of this category of tales, however, is probably “In the Walls of Eryx,” written by H.P. Lovecraft and Kenneth J. Sterling and finally published in 1939.

I only recently learned that this story was technically co-authored. Most collections in which I have seen the story tend to credit Lovecraft alone, though the story was published with Sterling as a coauthor. Lovecraft often helped ghost-write stories for authors hoping to break into the magazine market, and “In the Walls of Eryx” is one of those collaborations. Kenneth Sterling was a high-school student who sent Lovecraft a draft of a story about an invisible maze, inspired by the aforementioned Hamilton story “Monster-God of Mamurth.” The original draft was lost, but it is assumed that Lovecraft extensively rewrote it, as the prose of the tale is very much unmistakably his.

The story was rejected by most publications during Lovecraft’s lifetime, and was only published posthumously by Weird Tales two years after his death.

Story spoilers follow, so if you’ve never read the story before, you can read it here.

Though arguably all of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror tales are science fiction to some extent, “In the Walls of Eryx” is his only true science fiction story. It is set on the planet Venus, which is imagined as a vibrant tropical world filled with life and tribal “man-lizards,” though its atmosphere is unbreathable for humans. The planet has massive deposits of crystals that serve as power sources, however, so of course the Crystal Company of Earth has set up outposts to harvest them. This is a problem for the natives, who venerate the crystals and are perfectly willing to fight to protect them.

The story is the first-person narration of one of the prospectors of the Crystal Company, later identified as “operative A-49, Kenton J. Stanfield.” Note the similarity to the co-author’s name; Lovecraft would occasionally name characters after friends, and once had a very amusing back-and-forth with Robert Bloch where they murdered each other in their stories! While out hunting for new specimens, Stanfield’s crystal detector picks up the signal of a very large sample. As he gets close to it, he runs into a truly unprecedented problem:

It is now that I must begin to be careful in making my report, since what I shall henceforward have to say involves unprecedented—though fortunately verifiable—matters. I was racing ahead with mounting eagerness, and had come within an hundred yards or so of the crystal—whose position on a sort of raised place in the omnipresent slime seemed very odd—when a sudden, overpowering force struck my chest and the knuckles of my clenched fists and knocked me over backward into the mud. The splash of my fall was terrific, nor did the softness of the ground and the presence of some slimy weeds and creepers save my head from a bewildering jarring. For a moment I lay supine, too utterly startled to think. Then I half-mechanically stumbled to my feet and began to scrape the worst of the mud and scum from my leather suit.

Stanfield has literally run into a large invisible structure. As he circles its exterior, he sees a human corpse within: a prospector that had gone missing some time before. Eventually, he finds an opening to go inside, and makes his way in short order to the body of the prospector, which he finds clutching the large pure crystal that he had been tracking.

Illustration from the original Weird Tales publication.

At this point, most people would take their prize and leave, but this is a story by a horror author, so Stanfield decides to explore the invisible edifice further. He soon finds himself lost — it is an invisible maze, and the crystal within was planted by the natives as bait for greedy human prospectors. The natives arrive, and stand outside the maze, watching as Stanfield struggles to find a way out before his oxygen runs out…

The means by which invisibility is achieved is not explained in the story, though Lovecraft and Sterling clearly understood a bit about the difference between transparency and invisibility, and what is required to achieve the latter:

All my curiosity about the strange edifice now returned, and I racked my brain with speculations regarding its material, origin, and purpose. That the hands of men had reared it I could not for a moment believe. Our ships first reached Venus only 72 years ago, and the only human beings on the planet have been those at Terra Nova. Nor does human knowledge include any perfectly transparent, non-refractive solid such as the substance of this building. Prehistoric human invasions of Venus can be pretty well ruled out, so that one must turn to the idea of native construction. Did a forgotten race of highly evolved beings precede the man-lizards as masters of Venus? Despite their elaborately built cities, it seemed hard to credit the pseudo-reptiles with anything of this kind.

(emphasis mine)

This quote actually leads into the most disturbing part of the story, which may or may not be an intentional move on the authors’ part. It is clear that Stanfield is stunningly bigoted against the natives — he cannot believe that the man-lizards could have built something so impressive as the invisible maze. It is very much the same sort of reasoning that makes people believe that the Egyptian pyramids were built by aliens — “how could something so advanced be built by such primitive people?”

This view of the natives as being inferior is used as a justification for genocide by Stanfield earlier in the story, mirroring the mass-murder of natives in the Americas throughout history:

Sometime I’ll urge the wiping out of these scaly beggars by a good stiff army from home. About twenty ships could bring enough troops across to turn the trick. One can’t call the damned things men for all their “cities” and towers. They haven’t any skill except building—and using swords and poison darts—and I don’t believe their so-called “cities” mean much more than ant-hills or beaver-dams. I doubt if they even have a real language—all the talk about psychological communication through those tentacles down their chests strikes me as bunk. What misleads people is their upright posture; just an accidental physical resemblance to terrestrial man.

Note how he dismisses all actual evidence of the natives’ intelligence, and uses this to rationalize his murderous views. However, he has a remarkable change of heart near the end of the story, as his oxygen runs low and he remains trapped, and he prepares a message for those who might find him:

If it does survive to be read, I hope it may do more than merely warn men of this trap. I hope it may teach our race to let those shining crystals stay where they are. They belong to Venus alone. Our planet does not truly need them, and I believe we have violated some obscure and mysterious law—some law buried deep in the arcana of the cosmos—in our attempts to take them. Who can tell what dark, potent, and widespread forces spur on these reptilian things who guard their treasure so strangely? Dwight and I have paid, as others have paid and will pay. But it may be that these scattered deaths are only the prelude of greater horrors to come. Let us leave to Venus that which belongs only to Venus.

*   *   *
I am very near death now, and fear I may not be able to throw the scroll when dusk comes. If I cannot, I suppose the man-lizards will seize it, for they will probably realise what it is. They will not wish anyone to be warned of the labyrinth—and they will not know that my message holds a plea in their own behalf. As the end approaches I feel more kindly toward the things. In the scale of cosmic entity who can say which species stands higher, or more nearly approaches a space-wide organic norm—theirs or mine?

Stanfield dies, ironically only minutes before rescuers arrive and only feet away from an actual exit to the maze. In his last moments, he appears to have recognized that the man-lizards should be treated with respect and left alone.

But his final entreaty is discounted as “mental decay,” and instead the search party report suggests following his earlier suggestion, of complete extermination:

Later, we shall adopt Stanfield’s suggestion—the sound one in the saner, earlier part of his report—and bring across enough troops to wipe out the natives altogether. With a clear field, there can be scarcely any limit to the amount of crystal we can secure.

This is where I wish we still had access to the original draft of the story by Sterling. I can see two interpretations of the ending of the story: one in which part of the horror is in recognizing the murderous instincts of humanity, and one in which the genocide is viewed (wrongly) as a reasonable course of action. Lovecraft is infamous for his racist views, so I wonder if we are supposed to view the murder of the natives as a “happy” ending? But we also have Stanfield’s recognition of the rights of the natives, which seems very un-stereotypically Lovecraft. Did that positive view of the natives come from Sterling’s original draft, kept over by Lovecraft, or did Lovecraft himself add that part? And was Lovecraft truly being sympathetic to the natives, or does he adopt the view of the search party that it is a sign of “mental decay?” I suppose we’ll never know for sure, but there may be something in Lovecraft’s letters to shed some light on it. I will have to do some research. One way or another, these musings add an additional level of disturbing ambiguity to “In the Walls of Eryx.”

One other meta-aspect of the story that occurred to me just now: throughout the story, it is stressed that the natives are particularly focused on the crystals, and tend to ignore any humans as long as they are not carrying any. If Stanfield had thrown the crystal out of the maze (which has no ceiling) to the natives, might they have shown mercy on him? Could the Walls of Eryx be alternatively considered as a life-or-death test of human greed?

This entry was posted in Invisibility, Lovecraft, Science fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to In the Walls of Eryx, by H.P. Lovecraft and Kenneth J. Sterling

  1. This guy failed to tell that a huge part of the book is about the science and technology of making a warship invisible:

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