“The Return of Sarnath” was published in the original anthology Cthulhu Fhtagn! Weird Tales Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by Ross Lockhart and published by Word Horde on 15 August 2015.As with “Of Melei, of Ulthar”—a story to which this one is inextricably linked—this story is set in a version of Lovecraft’s Dreamlands setting, albeit one that is far in the future of the Lovecraft wrote about. Specifically, the setting is a future Dreamlands that has changed and progressed, as any world would, over such a long stretch of historical time that the Dreamlands we know from Lovecraft’s work are essentially ancient history.
Perhaps because they seem to be inherently removed from the politics of his world, and a place of high fantasy adventure (albeit always tinged with the grim and the gloomy, and with more than a hint of Cthulhu’s shadow), I find Lovecraft’s Dreamlands to be the least revisited of all Lovecraft’s milieu, at least by recent Lovecraftian writers. (The only author who comes to mind is Brian Lumley, and his Dreamlands books… well, they weren’t for me.)
But the setting—and its potential for development—fascinates me. How does that looming shadow of Cthulhu and his fellows change the place over aeons of time? How do the denizens of the Dreamlands regard their own world (which, for them, is just the everyday “real world,” and not a “Dreamlands” at all), and how does the link between their world and our world change over time and in different circumstances? Do doorways become rarer over time, or more plentiful, and how and why do the changes relate to the shifting fortunes of humanity on Earth?
Obviously, the story is most directly a nod to Lovecraft’s “The Doom That Came to Sarnath” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” (which I agree with Lovecraft wasn’t his best work, but for which I still have a soft spot) but there’s plenty of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” in the eco-horror of my future-Earth, and I see my future-Dreamlands here as more like the Mediterranean during the Renaissance—that is, more “complete” than Middle-Earth or Dunsany’s Pegana—in the presence and interplay of colonial powers, plagues, technological and political upheavals, slavery and revolts off in the distance… oh, and of course, it answers (in a Mythos-compatible way) the question of just who the denizens of that ancient, unnamed city beside Sarnath were. Also, Cthulhu’s long-prophesied rising from the depths of the ever-rising ocean makes sense as a metaphor for climate change, if you ask me.
Perhaps there’s a whole book’s worth of stories worth telling in this version of the Dreamlands.Who knows? I have a few other stories set in this Dreamlands on hand, but we’ll see how long it takes them to see print. (This tale, it’s worth noting, was finished in 2012, but it took until 2015 for a suitable market to crop up soliciting submissions.)