fantastic sprawling shapes

January 12, 2020

It was mossed and lichened with antiquity; and there was a hint of beginning dilapidation in the time-worn stone of the walls. The formal garden had gone a little wild from neglect; the trimmed hedges and trees had taken on fantastic sprawling shapes; and evil, poisonous weeds had invaded the flower-beds. There were statues of cracked marble and Verdigris-eaten bronze amid the shrubbery; there were fountains that had long ceased to flow; and dials on which the foliage-intercepted sun no longer fell.

Clark Ashton Smith
The End Of The Story

in the rain

The four books of short stories written by Montague Rhodes James, Provost of Eton College, have been collected in a single but not overly bulky volume under the imprint of Longmans, Green & Co. One can heartily recommend the acquisition of this volume to all lovers of the weird and supernatural who are not already familiar with its contents.

James is perhaps unsurpassed in originality by any living writer: and he has made a salient contribution to the technique of the genre as well as to the enriching of its treasury of permanent masterpieces. His work is marked by rare intellectual skill and ingenuity, by power rising at times above the reaches of pure intellection, and by a sheer finesse of writing that will bear almost endless study. It has a peculiar savour, wholly different from the diabolic grimness of Bierce, or the accumulative atmospheric terror and rounded classicism of Machen. Here there is nothing of the feverish but logical hallucinations, the macabre and exotic beauty achieved by Poe; nor is there any kinship to the fine poetic weavings and character nuances of Walter de la Mare, or the far-searching, penetrative psychism of Blackwood, or the frightful antiquities and ultra-terrene menaces of Lovecraft.

The style of these stories is rather casual and succinct. The rhythms of the prose are brisk and pedestrian, and the phrasing is notable for clearness and incisiveness rather than for those vague, reverberative overtones which beguile one’s inner ear in the prose of fiction-writers who are also poets. Usually there is a more or less homely setting, often with a background of folklore and long—past happenings whose dim archaism provides a depth of shadow from which, as from a recessed cavern, the central horror emerges into the noontide of the present. Things and occurrences, sometimes with obvious off-hand relationship, are grouped cunningly, forcing the reader unaware to some frightful deduction; or there is an artful linkage of events seemingly harmless in themselves, that leave him confronted at a sudden turn with some ghoulish spectre or night-demon.

The minutæ of modern life, humour, character—drawing, scenic and archaeological description, are used as a foil to heighten the abnormal, but are never allowed to usurp a disproportionate interest. Always there is an element of supernatural menace, whose value is never impaired by scientific or spiritualistic explanation. Sometimes it is brought forth at the climax into full light; and sometimes, even then, it is merely half-revealed, is left undefined but perhaps all the more alarming. In any case, the presence of some unnatural but objective reality is assumed and established.

The goblins and phantoms devised by James are truly creative and are presented through images often so keen and vivid as to evoke an actual physical shock. Sight, smell, hearing, taction, all are played upon with well-nigh surgical sureness, by impressions calculated to touch the shuddering quick of horror.

Some of the images or similes employed are most extraordinary, and spring surely from the daemonic inspiration of the highest genius. For instance, take the unnamable thing in The Uncommon Prayer Book, which resembles “a great roll of old, shabby, white flannel,” with a kind of face in the upper end, and which falls forward on a man’s shoulder and hides this face in his neck like a ferret attacking a rabbit. Then, in Mr. Humphreys and his Inheritance (one of subtler and more inferential tales) there is the form “with a burnt human face” and “black arms,” that emerges from an inexplicable hole in the paper plan of a garden maze “with the odious writhings of a wasp creeping out of’ a rotten apple.” In The Tractate Middoth one meets an apparition with thick cobwebs over its eyes—the lich or spectre of a man who, obedient to his own rather eccentric instructions, had been buried sitting at a table in an underground room. And who, upon reading The Diary of Mr. Poynter, can fail to share Denton’s revulsion when he reaches out, thinking that a dog is beside his chair, and touches a crawling figure covered with long, wavy, Absolom-like tresses? Who, too, can shake off the horror of Dennistoun, in Canon Alberic’s Scrap Book, when a demon’s hand appears from beneath on the table, suggesting momentarily a pen-wiper, a rat, and a large spider?

Reading and re-reading these tales, one notes a predilection for certain milieus and motifs. Backgrounds of scholastic or ecclesiastic life are frequent and some of the best tales are laid in cathedral towns. In many of the supernatural entities, there recurs insistently the character of extreme and repulsive hairiness. Often the apparition is connected with, or evoked by, some material object, such as the bronze whistle from the ruins of a Templars’ preceptory in Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad; the old drawing of King Solomon and the night-demon in Canon Alberic’s Scrap Book; the silver Anglo-Saxon crown from an immemorial barrow in A Warning to the Curious; and the strange curtain-pattern in The Diary of Mr. Poynter which had “a subtlety in its drawing.”

In several stories there are hints of bygone Satanism and wizardry whose malign wraiths or conjured spirits linger obscurely in modern time; and in at least one tale, Casting the Runes, the warlock is a living figure. In other tales, the forgetful and vanishing phantasms of old crimes cry out their mindless pain, or peer for an instant from familiar pools and shrubberies. The personnel of James’ Pandemonium is far from monotonous; one finds a satyr dwelling in a cathedral tomb; a carven cat-like monster that comes to life when touched by a murderer’s hand; a mouldy smelling sack-like object in an unlit well, which suddenly puts its arms around the neck of a treasure-seeker; a cloaked and hooded shape with a tentacle in lieu of arms; a lean, hideously taloned terror, with a jaw “shallow as that of a beast”; dolls that repeat crime and tragedy; creatures that are dog-like but are not dogs; a saw fly tall as a man, met in a dim room full of rustling insects; and even a weak, ancient thing, which being wholly bodiless and insubstantial, makes for itself a body out of crumpled bed-linen.

The peculiar genius of M. R. James, and his greatest power, lies in the convincing evocation of weird, malignant and preternatural phenomena such as I have instanced. It is safe to say that few writers, dead or living, have equalled him in this formidable necromancy and perhaps no one has excelled him.

Clark Ashton Smith
The Weird Works of M.R. James
From: The Fantasy Fan February 1934

cthulhu_rises_by_silberius-d7mlm8d

Well, it’s pretty generally known in the States that I got into writing because of Lovecraft. He’s taken a lot of blame for a lot of things that he’s not really responsible for. But I did send my first fan letter to him because I read about his previous stories in the letter column of Weird Tales. There was nowhere to get them. They weren’t reprinted; they weren’t available. So I wrote to him and asked whether he knew where I could find some of this stuff and he offered to let me borrow all of his published work. And then at about the fourth letter on he suggested I try my own hand at writing — he’d be glad to read it and comment on it. And he also gave me a list of correspondents that formed what would later become known as the ‘Lovecraft Circle’. The result of that I got in touch with August Derleth, who lived out at Sauk City about 125 miles from where I was, and Clark Ashton Smith, Eddie Hoffman Price, and J. Vernon Shea, who was not a professional writer, but certainly one of the most avid fans and one of the most knowledgeable. And this increased my area of operations considerably, and some of the people I remained in correspondence with for many, many years to come. It was a very rewarding experience.

Bear in mind I’m talking about times when I was 16, 17, 18 years old, and it was quite a thrill to associate with such people even through correspondence, or know people like Weinbaum and Farley and work with them in the Fictioneers group, where we didn’t read stories or anything but helped each other with plot problems. That was very, very interesting.

Robert Bloch
Fandom Panel: Cinecon 20th April 1981

It may sound fantastic to link the term “realism” with Conan; but as a matter of fact — his supernatural adventures aside — he is the most realistic character I ever evolved. He is simply a combination of a number of men I have known, and I think that’s why he seemed to step full-grown into my consciousness when I wrote the first yarn of the series. Some mechanism in my sub-consciousness took the dominant characteristics of various prize fighters, gunmen, bootleggers, oil field bullies, gamblers, and honest workmen I had come in contact with, and combining them all, produced the amalgamation I call Conan the Cimmerian.

Robert E Howard
Letter to Clark Ashton Smith, July 23, 1935

Conan2

I’m rather of the opinion myself that widespread myths and legends are based on some fact, though the fact may be distorted out of all recognition in the telling. While I don’t go so far as to believe that stories are inspired by actually existent spirits or powers (though I am rather opposed to flatly denying anything) I have sometimes wondered if it were possible that unrecognized forces of the past or present or even the future work through the thoughts and actions of living men. This occurred to me when I was writing the first stories of the Conan series especially. I know that for months I had been absolutely barren of ideas, completely unable to work up anything sellable. Then the man Conan seemed suddenly to grow up in my mind without much labour on my part and immediately a stream of stories flowed off my pen or rather, off my typewriter almost without effort on my part. I did not seem to be creating, but rather relating events that had occurred. Episode crowded on episode so fast that I could scarcely keep up with them. For weeks I did nothing but write of the adventures of Conan. The character took complete possession of my mind and crowded out everything else in the way of story writing. When I deliberately tried to write something else, I couldn’t do it. I do not attempt to explain this by esoteric or occult means, but the facts remain. I still write of Conan more powerfully and with more understanding than any of my other characters. But the time will probably come when I will suddenly find myself unable to write convincingly of him at all. That has happened in the past with nearly all my rather numerous characters; suddenly I would find myself out of contact with the conception, as if the man himself had been standing at my shoulder directing my efforts, and had suddenly turned and gone away, leaving me to search for another character.

Robert E Howard
Letter to Clark Ashton Smith, December 14th, 1933

The true function of phantasy is to give the imagination a ground for limitless expansion, & to satisfy aesthetically the sincere & burning curiosity and sense of awe which a sensitive minority of mankind feel towards the alluring & provocative abysses of unplumbed space and unguessed entity which press in upon the known world from unknown infinities & in unknown relationships of time, space, matter, force, dimensionality, & consciousness.

H. P. Lovecraft
letter to Clark Ashton Smith of October 17th, 1930

trees-and-mist

The true function of phantasy is to give the imagination a ground for limitless expansion, & to satisfy aesthetically the sincere & burning curiosity and sense of awe which a sensitive minority of mankind feel towards the alluring & provocative abysses of unplumbed space and unguessed entity which press in upon the known world from unknown infinities & in unknown relationships of time, space, matter, force, dimensionality, & consciousness.

H. P. Lovecraft
letter to Clark Ashton Smith of October 17th, 1930

The Stealer of Souls

June 20, 2014

Elric2

The Stealer of Souls
Michael Moorcock

What better hero could we ask for? A psychopathic, albino sorcerer, totally dependent on a hell-blade, Stormbringer, for his strength and vitality! Oh, yes. And that damned sword is the stealer of souls – semi-sentient, it consumes the living souls of its victims! Feeds Elric, the albino, with the vitality of its sorry victims.

So, a correction. It’s the black-bladed sword that’s the psychopath – not poor, ill-used Elric. The five stories within this book:

The Dreaming City

While the Gods Laugh

The Stealer of Souls

Kings in Darkness

The Flame Bringers

I Read these when originally published – stories owing a huge debt to Robert E Howard. And again we have civilizations in decline, decaying cities – Clark Ashton Smith eat your heart out…But, oh, too late, Stormbringer probably got there first!

The tone of these stories is tragic. Elric in attempting to rescue his lover, Princess Cymoril, not only fails to achieve his heart’s desire, but ultimately brings down his own, 10,000 year old Empire!

Oh, well…having muffed it big time what’s left? A question I’m sure we all must ask. And Moorcock’s Elric provides the answer – he embarks on a variety of quests with his pal, Moonglum. One only hopes he has more luck with him than with his Princess!?

Ummmm. That seems a tad homoerotic to me? I must take care where my keyboard takes me – it’s a bit like Elric’s Stormbringer! Has a life of its own…

So, are these stories little more than fuel for the Testosterone-driven daydreams of adolescent boys?

Yes, yes, of course they are that. But they also give us a glimpse of civilization in decline – a pawn in the control of vast, incomprehensible powers, Elric demonstrates that civilization is unnatural, that it must of necessity fall, and chaos rule in its stead.

Elric, poor cynical Elric, demonstrates all you need to survive is a sharp sword and a straight path to your enemies.

Ah, what pleasure I derived from these tales in my youth – cliché-ridden adventures, wherein we are confronted by dusky, naked maidens, sorcerers with blood-red eyes, and pale-skinned Elric ready to take on all comers…

Moorcock claimed that he created Elric as a deliberate reversal of Sword & Sorcery clichés, and that his weak, half-blind albino was the antithesis of REH’s Conan. Most of Moorcock’s S&S fiction contains elements of parody and satire of the genre as a whole (and long may it be so, for one should never take these things too seriously). However on a recent rereading of his tale “The fortress of Pearl” I was struck by the fact that the death toll ran into many hundreds of people by the tales close (I suspect parody or perhaps satire, rather than blood-lust?).

And truth to tell, Mr Moorcock at times was “a lazy stylist” in his early S&S works, which he banged out at a rate of knots for ready spending money to keep “New Worlds” from folding. Ah, yes, those were the days.

Yet, despite that, these tales are worth reading. The sword here is mightier than the pen. Yes, pure escapism – so what? We can walk with Elric, with the gods of chaos…gods of ecstasy and berserker furies who control his (and our) destiny.

Read these stories, boy and girls, and enjoy them for what they are.

A Vision?

February 21, 2009

The Demonian Face

About 1918 I was in ill health and, during a short visit to San Francisco, was sitting one day in the Bohemian Club, to which I had been given a guest’s card of admission. Happening to look up, I saw a frightful demonian face with twisted rootlike eyebrows and oblique fiery-slitted eyes, which seemed to emerge momentarily from the air about nine feet above me and lean toward my seat. The thing disappeared as it approached me, but left an ineffaceable impression of malignity, horror, and loathsomeness. If an hallucination, it was certainly seen amid appropriate surroundings; if an actual entity, it was no doubt the kind that would be likely to haunt a club in one of our modern Gomorrahs.

Clark Ashton Smith