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Literature / In the Walls of Eryx

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A short story by H. P. Lovecraft and Kenneth J. Stirling originally written in 1936, but not published until 1939, after Lovecraft's death, in an issue of Weird Tales magazine.

The story is told through the logs of Kenton J. Stanfield, a prospector employed by a crystal company to harvest energy-producing crystals from Venus, each one holding vast amounts of energy. Unfortunately for Stanfield and other company prospectors, the crystals are also worshipped by Venus' hostile natives, referred to as Man-lizards. Stanfield's search eventually brings him to the Erycinian highlands, better known as Eryx, where he finds himself stuck in an invisible maze.

The story is unique in that it's Lovecraft's first and only foray into straight-up science fiction and in how much it diverts from his standard tropes. While it does involve aliens, there's no supernatural or cosmic horror to be seen. Nothing but the fear and isolation faced by Stanfield as tries to navigate the maze while his supplies are running low. Furthermore, it concludes with what is essentially a message against colonization and colonialist greed, which, for Lovecraft, is an uncommon position to say the least.

Can be read here. A reading can be heard here.

Provides Examples Of

  • Aliens Are Bastards: The Man-Lizards attack humans on sight and often cut the water pipes feeding to the Terra Nova colony. Not that they don't have their reasons.
  • Ancient Astronauts: When Stanfield is wondering who could have created the invisible maze, he briefly considers - and immediately discards - the idea of some "prehistoric" human colony.
  • Angry Fist-Shake: Done by Stanfield to intimidate the Man-Lizards when they gather around the maze. They're not exactly intimidated.
  • Apocalyptic Log: The story is told through the logs in Stanfield's record scroll as he spends days trying to navigate the maze. The after action report confirms he died.
  • Artistic License – Space: While awaiting his first night in the maze, Stanfield notes the Sun setting in the west. Venus is covered in impenetrable clouds, rotates the other way (opposite to every other planet in our solar system), and the Venusian day is longer than its year, so sunset would be unnoticeable in the short term, all of which was mostly-known in Lovecraft's time.
  • Asshole Victim: As bad as his situation might be, it's hard to call Stanfield sympathetic. He's scornful, heartless, exploitative, and even considers urging his superiors to just exterminate the Man-Lizards after he's tired of their attacks. Attacks that wouldn't be happening if humans didn't keep trying to steal their crystals. His entire situation wouldn't have happened if it weren't for his desire to claim one particularly large crystal. He does come to regret his actions shortly before his death though, asking that humanity vacate Venus and let them keep the crystals.
  • Bizarre Alien Senses: The Man-Lizards seem able to sense the energies emitted by the crystals.
  • Brown Note Being: Before finding the maze, Stanfield encounters a "mirage-plant", whose mere proximity can cause vivid hallucinations.
  • Closed Circle: The invisible maze is a roofless, floorless construction full of winding tunnels and pathways and only one way in. Getting in is easy, but getting out is a damn challenge. One Stanfield and his predecessor Dwight failed.
  • Company Town: The Crystal Co. prospectors on Venus stay in company-provided housing in the city of Terra Nova, suggesting that at least part of the colony is fully under corporate control.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Stanfield crosses it by the third day, out of energy to keep searching for the exit and nearly through his supply of Food Pills and chlorate cubes. He accepts that he's not going to survive and continues his log only in the hope that it'll help someone someday avoid his and Dwight's fate.
  • The Dog Bites Back: The Man-Lizards, whether or not they built the maze, definitely used it to trap unsuspecting crystal-hunters after everything they did to them.
  • Downer Ending/Cruel Twist Ending: An after action report by the crystal company reveals Stanfield died a slow death in the maze and, in his exhaustion and despair, had overlooked a path that could've let him back into the main chamber. A path that was right behind him when he collapsed from despair. Additionally, the company writes off Stanfield's pleas for humanity to leave Venus as delusional, but does commit to his suggestion to wipe out the natives entirely after this incident. Given that they are eventually able to break through the material of the maze, it seems likely - but not certain - that their total conquest will eventually be successful.
  • Driven to Suicide: Stanfield considers this must be what happened to Dwight, who lost hope of escaping the maze and pulled off his mask. When he gives up hope of escaping, he swears not to speed up the process.
  • Fantastic Flora: Venusian plant life is leathery and swells immensely when it rains. The Efjeh-weeds also seem to be carnivorous and stretch their vines over things to eat, albeit slowly.
  • Fire-Breathing Weapon: One item in Stanfield's arsenal is a flame pistol, which seems to be a miniature handheld flamethrower. It makes short work of native Venusian life, but ultimately has no effect on the maze walls.
  • Final Solution: After the maze incident, the crystal company promises to commit to the total genocide of the Man-Lizards.
  • Food Pills: While traveling, prospectors eat by slipping food tablets through their masks. According to Stanfield, they taste wretched and hardly count as eating. They're also equipped with potassium chlorate cubes that provide oxygen.
  • The Future: It's not made clear how far into the future, but humans first arrived 72 years before the story takes place.
  • Glowing Gem: The planet Venus has glowing crystals as small as a chicken egg that each contain enough energy to power a city for a year.
  • Greed: Stanfield, in one of his final logs, notes that humanity already has more than enough crystals to meet our energy needs and there's plenty to be shared with the natives. Yet the crystal company keeps sending them out to gather more and men keeping paying for them with their lives.
  • Hope Spot: At several points, Stanfield is sure he's found the trick to finding way out, only to be met with another obstacle. By day three, he gives up, ironically sitting down just in front of an opening that could've lead him back to the entrance.
  • Idiot Ball: At one point, in sheer desperation, Stanfield runs up and down the halls desperately trying to find an opening he missed. All he succeeds in doing is exhausting himself and burning up one of his chlorate cubes.
  • Insufficiently Advanced Alien: Stanfield isn't impressed with the Man-Lizards, who he considers hardly sapient tribal beggars whose only talents lay in building. Even then, he compares their cities to hardly anything more than anthills and beaver dams. It's one of the reasons he doesn't consider it possible that they built the maze. Whether or not they did, they're smart enough to use it as a trap, even baiting it with a huge crystal.
  • Invisible Wall: The material of the maze walls is smooth, uniform, glassy, and perfectly transparent, yet exceptionally strong and resistant to both marking and fire. It's nothing that Stanfield knows the Man-lizards or even humans could make. It proves to be breakable by diamond drills and explosives, and the crystal company demolishes it after recovering Stanfield and Dwight's bodies.
  • Lizard Folk: The native Venusians are described as being vaguely reptilian in appearance, though this is just coincidence. See Non-Indicative Name.
  • Man-Eating Plant: Early in the story, Stanfield is attacked by a "carnivorous blossom", but he's able to hack himself free of it without much difficulty. Less dramatically, the efjeh-weeds try to eat Dwight's corpse, but by the time they reach it, he's already been Stripped to the Bone by animal scavengers. So instead, the weeds eat his space suit.
  • The Maze: The titular walls of Eryx. Stanfield tries to think of everything that could help him get out: sketching the layout, breaking through the walls with his knife, digging under them, leaving a trail to mark his path. He unfortunately keeps running into new obstacles.
  • Mushroom Samba: Venus' native Mirage Plants produce a gas that penetrate every make of mask and cause intense hallucinations, which Standfield experiences firsthand at one point.
  • Non-Indicative Name: Stanfield notes that, despite calling them Man-Lizards, the Venusians share no connection with terrestrial reptiles. Up close, the only vaguely reptilian things about them are their flat heads and green skin. Otherwise, they border on being bipedal Starfish Aliens.
  • No Name Given: Stanfield's name isn't revealed to the reader until the after action report that confirms his death.
  • Posthumous Character: Dwight is another crystal company employee who died in the maze after trying to collect a particularly large crystal. Stanfield uses it as a landmark and laments that he may share Dwight's fate.
  • Precursors: Stanfield considers the possibility that the maze may have been created by some long-departed, highly-advanced race who once ruled Venus, but later comes to believe it was the man-lizards who built the maze after all. This plot point evokes - and tacitly rejects - the common colonialist trope of primitive natives squatting in the ruins of a greater civilization, as in the now-discredited theory that Great Zimbabwe was some lost Mediterranean colony, rather than the work of local Africans.
  • Sanity Slippage: As he runs low on food, water, sleep, and oxygen, Stanfield becomes increasingly desperate and less careful. In the Downer Ending, his superiors mistake his anti-colonial Heel–Face Turn for further evidence of his mental decline.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Many of the names for Venusian life- Ugrats, Skorahs, Efjeh-weeds, Akmans, Farnoth-Flies, Sificlighs, - are references to other sci-fi writers of the day. Not all of them are complimentary.
    • Kenton J. Stanfield's name is a spin on that of co-author Kenneth J. Stirling, though it was Lovecraft who named the character.
    • Early on, Stanfield complains about using "Carter oxygen masks", which could be a reference to the John Carter of Mars series of Planetary Romance novels. Lovecraft was a fan of them as a young man but eventually soured on them, finding them juvenile and unscientific.
  • Space Clothes: Played with. Because of the quick rotting rate of cloth in Venus' atmosphere, the crystal company issues its employees sturdy leather suits. Stanfield grouses in his diary about he wishes someone would make a suit of something like metallic foil instead.
  • Starfish Language: The Man-Lizards seem to communicate and even 'laugh' by waving the tentacles that hang from their chests. They do this to apparently mock Stanfield regularly after they gather around the maze.
  • Stripped to the Bone: During Stanfield's exploration of the maze, Dwight's body is gradually torn apart by the wildlife, leaving behind a skeleton in a tattered leather suit. Before long, even the suit starts to get eaten by the local plant life.
  • Swamps Are Evil: Though much of Eryx is a high, dry plain, it is also home to a grotesque, swampy land home to a maze you can't escape. Stanfield frequently complains about the discomfort of sleeping in the slime of the swamp, wishing instead he were on the drier plains.
  • Unobtanium: The Venusian crystals the company is after. One crystal the size of a hen's egg has enough energy to power a whole city for a year.
  • The Unreveal: It's never made clear who or what exactly built the maze, whether it was the Man-Lizards or some ancient race that used to inhabit Venus.
  • Venus Is Wet: Venus is depicted as a tropical planet filled with lush, swampy jungles and home to diverse wildlife. Some example of its geography include the Erycinian Highlands (or Eryx, for short), the Dionaean Plateau, and the yellow clay regions near the north pole. However, the atmosphere is not breathable to humans and would kill a man within thirty seconds. Stanfield laments having to wear heavy breathing masks and periodically changing filter cartridges and replenishing his oxygen supply.