My heart is gently warmed, in particular, by the many works left by an obscure writer who lived in Providence in the early twentieth century. when I read his work, I am strangely suffused with warmth, as though I have found a friend from beyond the seas.
—“A Night at Yuan-Su,” Inverted Kingdom: Lairs of the Hidden Gods Vol. Two 279
“A Night at Yuan-Su” (2005) by Nanjō Takenori (南條竹則) was published in the second volume in the Lairs of the Hidden Gods series from Kurodahan Press, edited by Asamatsu Ken (朝松健). It is the English-language translation of the 2002 story ユアン・スーの一夜 (Yuan Sū no Yoru); the translator was Usha Jayaraman.
In his letters, H. P. Lovecraft decried the loss of old buildings, old ways of life. He was not a Luddite, but his sense of aesthetics was tied to antique styles, and he despaired when an old block of buildings was torn down to make way for something new, as a piece of the past was lost. In this sense, he felt a stranger in his own century. Some of these sentiments are apparent in his fiction, in stories like “He” and “The Outsider.” The idea is expressed most succinctly in sonnet XXX of the Fungi from Yuggoth cycle, “Background”:
I never can be tied to raw, new things,
For I first saw the light in an old town,
In this brief tale, Nanjō Takenori sketches the story of a different outsider, thousands of miles away, lamenting the slow loss of historic Tokyo. There are nods to Lovecraft here and there—and a certain kind of humor. The narrator’s deprecation of human beings could almost have turned into one of Lovecraft’s rants about immigrants, the new people displacing the old, but stops short; “A Night at Yuan-Su” is not “The Street” or any other kind of racist fable. It is, ultimately, about a lonely creature out for a drink and a bit of quiet companionship.
This is where the narrative takes a turn, from the atmospheric descriptions of Yuan-Su (really Harajuku in Tokyo), its old buildings torn down to make way for housing developments, to the more fantastic. Reminiscences of a bar named HE, where Imhotep serves araq to an odd clientele. Odd reactions, fragments of names. Unlike Lovecraft’s eponymous Outsider, there is no final revelation in the story…but there is still that peculiar sense of humor. Earlier in the tale, the nameless narrator describes the evil spell of Betelgeuse, the red star, has on them. At the end, finally settling down with a beer and a bowl of tofu, they are thwarted by a shot of ergoutou (Chinese sorghum liquor)—one of the popular brands of which is Red Star.
Given the setting, I almost suspect there are parts of the joke I’m missing. Perhaps the narrator’s particular attributes reflect some specific species of yōkai which Japanese readers might be more familiar with; perhaps the fragmentary names of bars contain more half-hidden meanings for those familiar with Mandarin and Japanese. Whether this is the case or not, doesn’t really matter for the enjoyment of the story. It’s a mood piece, a snapshot of a night, a moment, an attitude. We have all been outsiders, at times; there’s an empathy there for those who desire simple comforts which are then denied.
Never again will I go into that dirty town. Not even on a bright, moonlit night! I have no need to. If my loneliness gets the better of me, if I feel like visiting a friend, I can always go to Celephaïs, the city of dreams, wrapt in its golden aura…
—”A Night at Yuan-Su,” Inverted Kingdom: Lairs of the Hidden Gods Vol. Two 285
In a dream I fled from that haunted and accursed pile, and ran swiftly and silently in the moonlight. When I returned to the churchyard place of marble and went down the steps I found the stone trap-door immovable; but I was not sorry, for I had hated the antique castle and the trees. Now I ride with the mocking and friendly ghouls on the night-wind, and play by day amongst the catacombs of Nephren-Ka in the sealed and unknown valley of Hadoth by the Nile. I know that light is not for me, save that of the moon over the rock tombs of Neb, nor any gaiety save the unnamed feasts of Nitokris beneath the Great Pyramid; yet in my new wildness and freedom I almost welcome the bitterness of alienage.
The end of “A Night at Yuan-Su” is curiously ambiguous. Does the nameless narrator mean literally that they will go to Celephaïs, or is that a poetic statement to refer to diving once more into Lovecraft’s fiction, finding comfort in the old familiar tales? It can be read either way; nothing the narrator says or does up to this point is explicitly supernatural. Whether they are a human recluse or something else is left up to the reader—and many readers will want to believe in the stranger, more fantastic option. It is a meaner, uglier world that doesn’t allow for a bar named HE to stand on some corner of Harajuku, where exiles from fantastic lands can sip anise-flavored liquors with their collars turned up and their big hats dipped low over their faces, speaking of distant planets and the depths of the sea.