“And the evil of the stars is not as the evil of Earth.”—Clark Ashton Smith
Strictly speaking, The Beast of Averoigne is not a snake, though the creator of this monster clearly emphasizes its serpentine qualities. Clark Ashton Smith published this story in Weird Tales in May of 1933. That issue also contained stories by Donald Wandrei, (Spawn of the Sea) and Robert E. Howard, (Moonlight on a Skull).
The setting of the story and the origin and manifestation of the monster is unusual. The plot—which involves Benedictine monks teaming up with a renowned sorcerer—is original and imaginative. Smith employs archaic language effectively to create the experience of a medieval society, its people certain of the existence of miracles, magic and demons. He might as well be writing about the life and works of some forgotten medieval saint, except that the hero of the story is a sorcerer. The language is never intrusive or encumbering—not the leaden King James Bible-ese that Lovecraft sometimes employed.
In the summer of 1369, the Abbey of Perigon and its surrounding towns are besieged by a terrible pestilence. The creature appears just as a mysterious red comet approaches Earth and illuminates the sky above. Though its movements are snake-like, it has numerous appendages, with which it extracts the bone marrow of its victims, who suffer an awful death. It comes out at night, “a black and slithering foulness clad in changeable luminescence…” About its head is a “hellish nimbus”, a mark of its otherworldly spiritual power.
The death toll soon mounts. The beast first preys on wild animals and livestock, then corpses, and finally begins to attack people, consuming more than forty of the local townspeople and several of the monks. Piety, prayers, and holy water are completely ineffective. In desperation, the monks turn to Luc le Chaudronnier, “sometime known as astrologer and sorcerer.” Can he deliver them all from this awful menace? They offer him gold and “a guarantee of immunity from all inquisition which your doings might otherwise invite.”
It being the Middle Ages, the wizard has a powerful array of sorcerer paraphernalia, not the least of which is a jeweled ring containing an imprisoned demon. You never know when a ring of Eibon might come in handy; it is best to keep one in the sack at all times. The wizard and two men-at-arms hide outside the Abbey and wait for the creature. Lately the monster seems to focus its attention and activity in or around the monastery. The wizard’s ministrations are effective, but reveal a disturbing connection between the comet above, ‘the beast of Averoigne’, and the Abbey.
The story contains an interesting twist on the theme of deliverance from an evil predator. The characters cannot rely on a strong human hero, or the trappings of the local traditional religion for divine intervention. Instead, the malevolent creature from beyond our world is dispatched by an evil demon from this one. Clark Ashton Smith uses an overtly religious setting to show that the race is not necessarily ‘to the swift or the battle to the strong’, but it might be to the clever and resourceful.
This concludes a brief survey of snakes and their depiction in horror fiction. Snakes take many roles, from the sublime to the hideously malevolent. Whether a marauding predator, ally of the gods, or spiritual enemy of mankind, the serpent is wonderfully versatile for a creature without arms or legs.