Friday, December 20, 2013

An Early ‘Trans-Dimensional’ Portal

In a previous post, we had left the fictional writer Phillip Hastane with his cousin the sculptor, as the latter was busy smashing his depictions of ghouls from another dimension.  Creating the statuary had somehow summoned the fiends, who then snatched away his model, the beautiful Marta.  (See The Ghoul as Objet d’Art .) These events form the climax of Clark Ashton Smith’s interesting story, The Hunters from Beyond (1932).

Mr. Hastane himself is a creation, and he appears in an earlier story of Smith’s called The City of Singing Flame (1931).  Hastane is an author of books about occult and supernatural matters, but tends to be more of an observer than a participant in them.  His friends however seek out first hand experiences, often to their detriment. 

His cousin Cyprian, the sculptor, once chastised Hastane by saying that he was “very clever and imaginative…” but that he typically would “try to depict the occult and the supernatural without even the most rudimentary first-hand knowledge of them…”  Cyprian tells Hastane, “Your stories hardly show anything of the kind—anything factual or personal.  They are palpably made up.”  Ouch.

In The City of Singing Flame (1931), Hastane comes into the possession of his friend Giles Angarth’s journal, not long after Angarth and another friend have mysteriously vanished near Crater Ridge.  Giles Angarth is a writer of fantastic fiction.  The other missing man is Felix Ebbonly, an artist who illustrates Angarth’s books.  Most of the story is told in Angarth’s journal entries. 

While exploring a section of Crater Ridge, Angarth stumbles upon an unusual rock formation which in fact is a portal to another dimension.  Stepping between two oddly shaped boulders, Angarth finds himself suddenly on a different planet, staggering away from a similar arrangement of “soapy, greenish-gray stone”.  (Compare this experience to that of another portal which is the focus of A. Merritt’s 1917 story Through the Dragon Glass—see 3. Through a Gateway ) Smith imaginatively captures the disorienting effects and physical symptoms one might suffer when using a trans-dimensional teleportation device.  Who built this portal, and for what purpose?

In the distance he sees an immense city, set among exotic forests of purple and yellow trees and violet grass—“and at the same time, I felt an obscure but profound allurement, the cryptic emanation of some enslaving spell.”   Angarth finds this allurement irresistible—it is described as a vibration, but also as a kind of music with a feminine quality—and it draws him into the city toward its source, the ‘singing flame’.  

And not just him—Smith describes a fascinating and diverse menagerie of extra-terrestrials who like Angarth have an almost religiously ecstatic experience the nearer they come to the center of the city.  The metaphor of course is that Angarth is attracted like a ‘moth to a flame’.   But on his first close encounter, he has stuffed cotton into his ears to deaden the vibration and avoid self-immolation.  His fellow pilgrims are not as cautious or fortunate.

The description of being frightened yet simultaneously attracted to an unknown doom is reminiscent of A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool (1918), where a mysterious entity has the same influence on the principle characters.  (See also 1. Av-o-lo-ha!)  It gives a nightmarish feel to the setting of the story.  Angarth makes several return visits, and becomes obsessed with the city and its awesome shrine to ‘the singing flame’.  He decides to bring his friend Ebbonly, who can perhaps sketch the city and its bizarre contents.  Both men are literally playing with fire…

The obsession and evident slide to self-destruction depicted in The City of Singing Flame (1931) seem an allusion to addictions both physical and psychological.  Smith references opiate intoxication at several points in the story, but more figuratively, he seems to be commenting on slavish devotion to cultic religion or perhaps even political extremism.  However, the tale can also be enjoyed as an adventure story.  Clark Ashton Smith typically uses very vivid description—here to give readers the experience of being on another planet, amidst an alien and malevolent culture.   

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