The Path Back to Aira: H.P. Lovecraft’s Quest of Iranon

It always comes back to Lovecraft, for me.

When I peel back the opaque shroud of time from my mind, I remember that H.P. Lovecraft was pretty much another writer like Edgar Allan Poe to me, before I actually read his work. Certainly, when I read “The Tomb” in those early days, it didn’t disabuse me of that notion, though I had no idea of the depth of his terrifying vision and how it fit into — and beyond — the evolution of humanity until I read “The Rats in the Walls”: problematic elements, and all.

Then, one day, after getting and reading The Dream Cycle of H.P. Lovecraft with Neil Gaiman’s introduction telling us how extremely racist he was, as if it hadn’t already been clear, and my own head being filled with Lovecraft’s epistolary first-person scholarly tales of meeting horrific things that have always lived side by side with what we think is normal, though devoid of sex beyond anything squeamish and disgusting, and certainly far from intimacy tat was anything other than camaraderie I found “The Quest of Iranon.”

I remember reading it that first time. It was evening, I think, and I was sitting on the bench at Vanier College at York University. This was my Undergrad year after all my carefully laid plans fell apart, and I was tired of being so structured: and I just wanted to take the courses that interested me and — for the first time — genuinely explore my surroundings. I was pretty young then, about twenty-four or so, and between the end of my first relationship, quitting my Creative Writing Program, and not taking a full course load anymore I guess I was in the place where these stories would affect me.

They spoke to me then, with grandiose language — heightened diction, my teachers called it — but also about dreams, and nostalgia, and loss. “The Quest of Iranon” has gotten some flak over the years. Some have said it is heavily derivative of Lovecraft’s favourite writer and once of his influences, Lord Dunsany. I imagine others have seen it as a lot of navel-gazing on the part of the protagonist, and melodramatic self-pity. I know at least one person who has no patience for this story, and saw it as tremendously self-indulgent and perhaps even a little preachy. When I was reading Leslie S. Klinger’s The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft: Arkham and Beyond, he referenced Brian Humphreys in his “Who Is Iranon?” who read the ending of the story to mean that Iranon’s physical translation is literal and entails that he is related to the Gods, or the Great Old Ones in some way before stepping into a space that changes him. It is the closest horror interpretation, or Mythos one, I’d seen at that point.

For me, aside from some Cthulhu Mythos or Dream Cycle references — world-building crossover — the horror of the narrative is entirely different. I read the story as as a parable or a metaphor. Iranon is an artist. He fuels himself on his passion and his dreams. He goes to one place that wants him to get a “proper job” in order to survive, only mildly tolerating his natural abilities, and completely ignoring the fact that they just toil for the sake of work, and forgetting the finer things with which they could strive. It’s the dreamer verses the cold, grim real world trope, which I’m sure has felt trite to people who have actually worked at manifesting their dreams, but it’s also an observation about how fickle fame or respect for someone’s art can be as Iranon goes to another city and eventually, for all his initial favour, is replaced by the new. A lot of these ideas and themes are refined in Lovecraft’s later works “The Silver Key” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.”

But Iranon’s goal, to return to Aira — this beautiful land where he is a Prince — is the one thing that keeps him going. He travels the world, telling stories about this place where he feels like he belongs, and he understands things, and it allows him to remain vital. This impulse maintains his sense of youth. I imagine that others can’t even believe it, like his friend Romnod who follows him as a young boy, his constant companion for a time, only to settle in a city and die an old drunkard.

People laugh at Iranon. Or they ignore him. Or they simply don’t see him at all. And yet he continues traveling, and playing, and making his songs, still seeking his lost home. He still wants to return to Aira.

It’s only at the end, when he encounters an old shepherd at the edges of a desert, that he realizes the terrible truth of the matter.

There is no Aira.

The implication is that the shepherd and Iranon were friends years ago, beggar’s children. Iranon himself had been an orphan telling everyone about the magical city of Aira where he said he was a Prince. When Iranon remembers this truth, his self-delusion is gone. His dream is dead. He withers away, looking and feeling every bit his age. And realizing that his whole life was basically a lie, he goes to die in the quicksand rather than continue on with the rest of his miserable existence.

It’s that whole trope of “Forbidden Knowledge” or “You can’t handle the truth” that leads this formulaic story — with Iranon constantly asking every stranger he meets if they know where Aira in an almost poetic verse — to that predictable place. It’s so easy to scoff at that, or say it isn’t scary, or look down your nose and have no patience for dreamers that aren’t professional and don’t see their passion as actual work. You can even argue that it’s something of a maudlin tragedy, and you can see it in Lovecraft’s other stories: in “The Outsider” whose protagonist realizes he is an abomination and tries to forget, and some of his more racist works like “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” or even “The Shadows Over Innsmouth” where the protagonists realize they have inhuman ancestry in their blood, and either flee from their fraying humanity, or kill themselves.

Lovecraft has always stated that humanity’s greatest fear is that of the unknown, while at the same time positing that if people realized the ultimate truth, it would destroy their sanity.

I think “The Quest of Iranon” works for me because it makes me think of another interpretation of horror. Imagine you have this idea of who you are, and where you come from in relation to that. Consider that you are constantly having that sense of self challenged, and struggling to undertake the actions that make you happy. You go through all of that, and you keep that certainty alive and it strengthens you. Perhaps it is challenged, and you learn, but that core of you is still there, and it inspires you to go onward, and keep living.

And then imagine, one day, you find out that everything that you thought — that you genuinely wanted to be be true — is not only false, it never happened. You were never going to find your home. You were never going to find that peace. You were never who you thought you were.

The horror in “The Quest of Iranon” is more than just coming to the discovery that you are the alien, the monster, or the Other. It’s that you just aren’t that important. You’re not that special. And some people might cynically acknowledge that and think you were foolish for ever thinking otherwise, that this what adolescents and young adults have to accept in order to grow up, but consider what happens to someone when they believe they can never be happy unless they find the thing that, in reality, doesn’t exist. And everyone else is fine with that, or they can move on, or settle down, but you just … can’t.

I think that everyone has had a moment like this. Obviously, we don’t all go into quicksand and die, but sometimes we want to forget this disappointment. Sometimes you just want to forget those dreams that you thought were so important and now they just embarrass you, or anger you, or merely make you terribly sad in that they are not reality, and they will never be.

I’ve thought about Iranon from time to time, and Aira, and the place of youth that we all cobble together from our better memories as some kind of idyllic past that didn’t happen, but you wish it had. Or maybe it did happen in a different form. Even Iranon thought, despite knowing better, that some cities might have been his Aira and enjoyed them for whatever time they were worth.

To this very day, I don’t know the way back to a place that probably never happened, or didn’t the way I thought or wished it would. But there is nothing to laugh about that, or turn your nose up from. It doesn’t make you superior to believe that you are beyond this yearning, or nostalgia, and especially not if you look down at others for feeling this way. Maybe the horror is when you’ve felt like you lost something you never had, and everyone else just doesn’t — or doesn’t want to — understand you. Or see you.

It’s a haunting story, “The Quest of Iranon” especially during a time when dreams are important to take our minds off of a terrifying reality, or to add meaningful flavour to it. Art has kept us going through seclusion, and united us. Maybe Aira doesn’t exist, but perhaps something imaginary needs to have been, and to be.

I haven’t been in Undergrad in years. I’ve met and lost friends along the way. I’ve been in different places. I’ve still dreamed. Perhaps, one day, I will rediscover my Aira, or the very least find the strength and will within myself to let it go.

The Summer I Saw the Vampire Lesbians of Sodom

I considered making this story a Freak Speaks article, as opposed to a Dissections and Speculatives piece. The difference? Well, The Freak Speaks is when I directly talk about something personal about what I am trying to do with a horror topic and how it affects me, while Dissections and Speculatives is all about me taking something apart, and putting it together again in a way that would never make Humpty-Dumpty want to have a great fall around me.

Instead, I’m going to do something different. For those of you who read my previous articles on Cannibal Holocaust, please be relieved because I don’t intend for this to be over four thousand words of analysis: of taking something apart. I find personal writings, writing about the personal and how something affects you — that first person perspective of experience — is more relatable, and it’s a lesson I keep on needing to relearn each time I make a thing.

So it’s Pride Month, during a time of the Pandemic where many people are separated from one another due to social distancing, workloads, depression, and — in some cases — death. I had my first Pride in 2011. It was on Church and Wellesley in Toronto. My partner and I came to it later in the afternoon. We’d come at the tail end of the parades, and we kept to the shade as much as possible. She had been to a few Prides in her time, and finding out I never had — because I am pretty straight — she wanted to show me what she could. Sadly, we were both natural introverts, and we avoided most of the crowds, and people interaction.

After going into a few fetish gear stores, and a pub or two in the evening, feeling the summery heat linger in the night air, we went to a production of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. I know: all of these bombastic, incredibly exaggerated names, right? First, I talk to you all about Cannibal Holocaust, and then this. But I have always liked vampires, and I wanted to see the take on this.

Charles Busch, the creator of this play, explains that it is a story about a friendship, with its “ups and downs” over two thousand years. It’s a series of vignettes between a being called The Succubus, who later refers to herself as La Condessa or Magda Legerdemaine, and the female sacrifice she changes into a vampire from Sodom, Madelaine Astarte or Madelaine Andrews. The mother-goddess names, and the carnal words linked to them, are pretty blatant.

It is supposed to be a satire, or a comedy. And I will be honest with you, I have forgotten a great deal of it from that time. The production itself might have been the one directed by Jessica M. Rose at The Lower Ossington Theatre. I recall the night, and the heat, and my partner getting me an apple juice, and us trying to figure out a quiet conflict between us that had been unresolved despite talking over, and again. Just as I was fascinated to see what this production would be like, I was afraid of where the antagonisms in our own relationship would take us, and my own feelings on the matter.

It was a fascinating counterpoint to see these two immortals, sometimes allies and possibly lovers, and other times enemies, engaging with each other. But I think what I remember the most about Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, was the collateral damage the two of them caused with their feuds: from ancient times, to the silent movie area of the 1920s and 30s — the time of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, and eerily enough The Succubus resembled Count Orlock quite a bit in the production that I saw — all the way to the 1980s which is important to LGBTQ+ history for a variety of reasons.

But I guess this is where I break my rule here, in this post, and I talk about what I do remember: what stood out to me the most after so many years. Or, rather, who stood out the most.

In a vignette set during the Middle Ages, or the Renaissance, there is a dance. By this point, Astarte has become the thing she hates — having not wanted to have been turned by The Succubus in the first place. She and The Succubus have been finding other women during these millennia, and changing them into vampires as well.

It is a merry, summer dance. The men and women all seemed to be peasants enjoying the season. Or maybe it wasn’t summer, but autumn and the harvest. The music is airy, almost as innocent as the virgin — more for what it symbolizes in Western culture as opposed to fact — that Astarte used to be before The Succubus took her life away and turned her into something else, or perhaps helping her reveal the person she was always meant to become.

There is a girl in that dance. I don’t recall what she looks like, but she is happy, excited, and bright. She is dancing with everyone and giving herself to the ecstasy of the moment: to the passion, to the many colours around her, to life. During this dance — or ball — the other vampire women are also dancing, and feeding. One of them comes across this girl, and feeds from her: draining, and ultimately killing her while everyone else continues to celebrate, and not even notice her death.

After the main characters have an exchange, the ball ends, and everyone leaves. The music stops. The body of the girl is sprawled out on the floor, alone. And then, she wakes up. She gasps in terror. Then she moves around unsteadily. She tries dancing again, in the eternal silence, but her steps are clumsy, and uneven. Her sense of rhythm is gone. Her equilibrium changed. Something in her is broken, after having lost herself in the pleasure of the moment, and she is now a hungry being, wandering around, perplexed, sad, and abandoned.

That one scene, towards the end of the vignette has stayed with me for almost a decade. She ends up finding her way to the other vampires, and the one who made her, becoming part of the hangers-on, and she follows in her coterie the antics of the other protagonists. But when The Succubus and Astarte try to bury the hatchet, and not in each other this time, she and the other vampires get angry. They had been changed through this entire rivalry to hurt the other, and now their makers have made peace. They end up turning on them.

That’s what I remember, and I know that others who have watched the play — or it’s become their favourite — would correct me. It wouldn’t be the first time my brain has many stuff up in general, especially when I’ve forgotten so much in the interim.

But that scene with the girl, having participated in revelries, becoming involved with something she only partially understood until it was too late, but still in some ways never leaving the dance always stuck with me. It was a poignant moment that hurt, this profound sense of loss, and revelation. She had been shown what she was, then left to find the rest, and let herself get caught up in the group.

I don’t remember what happened after I saw the production with my partner and I, besides going home. But in retrospect, I saw a thing — and maybe it is a different version of the production than the original, perhaps all of them being creative variations of the first — from an outsider’s perspective. In Vampire Hunter D, Dracula apparently said to his Nobility with regards to their kind and human society that “Transient guests are we.” I’m mixing metaphors majorly like a madman on an alliteration kick, but I was a guest in that space and that story.

Did I identify with the girl abandoned after being turned at the dance that was fun until it wasn’t anymore? Did it say something about how easy it is to frolic in a space fraught with a cycle of violence until you are caught up in it? How something that seems to be a pageant and revelry over time had come from a rebellion between one being, and another? Is this when I began to realize that old friendships can change but the core of them is capable of surviving and even being discovered after a certain point in time? These are loaded questions, but these are particularly heavy times.

It’s a different time now. My partner passed away last month, an out and proud LGBTQ+ woman who had many of her own adventures and discoveries. Before that, we’d had our falling outs, and I moved away from our old apartment that we called Wonderland. I think about what I remember about what we watched together, and how much knowledge of that I lost. I think about that girl stumbling and alienated with a hunger she doesn’t understand, and scared, in a landscape of sickness and death where there had been just the promise of a party of many turned into a Dance of the Red Death. I wish someone would tell the story of that girl — not The Succubus or Astarte — just that one girl and how she found her people, also turned and discarded, on the margins of the story, and from her perspective how the play all ends for them, and why they do it.

Despite all the pain, and bickering, they still found each other. They still banded together. The girl might not dance as she once did, but she can do so with the friends that can’t sing or laugh the same. They are distant from the world they knew, from perhaps knowing their bodies as they once did, but they still feel passions, and they still have hope. They retain their solidarity with one another.

Like I said, I mix metaphors, and I’m only haphazardly looking beneath the surface of movements in a play I saw once almost ten years ago in another lifetime, another life, with another life I’ll never see again.

I think that is it for this June night. Until then, my friends, from a student of horror, have a happy and safe Pride Month.