Clark Ashton Smith’s The City of Singing Flame (1931) was discussed in a recent post, (See An Early ‘Trans-Dimensional’ Portal). In that story, Smith’s fictional character Phillip Hastane obtains the journal of a friend who disappeared mysteriously while exploring a section of Crater Ridge. The friend and an associate had stumbled upon a trans-dimensional gateway that took them to another planet, where they were lured to probable doom by the ‘singing flame’.
The enormous flame is located in a shrine in the middle of a strange city, and it has the power to draw humans and extra-terrestrials alike to its center where they appear to be consumed—like moths to a flame. Indeed, several of the aliens who succumb are giant “lepidopterous creatures.” The last journal entry that Hastane reads indicates that his friend intends to join the other victims of ‘the singing flame’.
About four months later, Smith published a sequel to this story called Beyond the Singing Flame (1931). Both stories appeared in Wonder Stories, a successor to Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories. The magazine flourished in the early 1930s, and was responsible both for developing the science fiction fan base and launching the careers of several familiar authors, among them Clifford A. Simak and Ray Bradbury.
Gernsback believed that scientific research would make the world a better place, and so his magazine featured nonfiction articles on scientific topics as well as stories like Smith’s. (An excellent resource for exploring pulp fiction publications can be found at The Pulp Magazines Project, http://www.pulpmags.org/default.htm.)
In Beyond the Singing Flame, Phillip Hastane resolves to investigate the fate of his friend Giles Angarth. He follows Angarth’s route to the portal and from there to the city. Hastane has stopped up his ears and anaesthetized them so that he can be deaf to the siren-like call of the city. However, when he arrives he discovers that something is wrong. Strange, threatening clouds are building on the horizon, and what appear to be the outlines of a second city are forming in the distance. Two of the giant moth-like aliens apprehend Hastane and fly him into the heart of the city.
The three plunge into the giant green flame—which turns out to be another portal. Hastane finds himself in the ‘Inner Dimension’, where he discovers his friend Angarth and an associate named Ebbonly. Because of their time in the Inner Dimension, the two men are now more spiritually evolved. They are ready for the next step up the ladder of being. They want to get to some place called ‘the second infinity’.
(Your humble blogger was disappointed at the news the missing men were now merely pursuing a spiritual path. In the earlier story he was led to believe they had been vaporized, which gave the tale a bit more of an edge.)
But Hastane and his friends must hurry, because the city of the singing flame, now called Ydmos, is under attack by the leaders of the Outer Lands. The enemy is upset that so many of its people are lured to the singing flame and transported to the Inner Dimension—they want to put a stop to it. “Even now their armies have closed in upon Ydmos, and are blasting the city’s ramparts with the force-bolts of their moving towers.” Being more highly evolved, Hastane’s two friends may be able to help Hastane get to the second infinity, even though he is unprepared and may risk his life in the process.
The rest of the story is hallucinatory, as Hastane and his friends attempt to escape a world that is literally crumbling around them. (There is again reference to opiates and hashish in several places). But the emphasis seems less on depicting a struggle with addiction—a theme in the first story—and more on the impact of an impending religious oppression. There is a battle raging between Ydmos and the rulers of the Outer Lands, but the details are unclear, so it is difficult for a reader to visualize, much less understand what is going on.
The earlier story about the singing flame began and ended with a mystery, achieving a single effect. The exploration of the alien planet and the discovery of the singing flame were vividly described. But the story’s sequel ends inconclusively and confusingly. What exactly happened? Beyond the Singing Flame bogs down in lengthy description and a cloudy metaphysics. The latter seems derived from Buddhist notions of different levels of spiritual development. In the end, Hastane and his friend stumble out of the ruins of Ydmos and approach the portal on the hill. Was there more to this story?
Both The City of Singing Flame and Beyond the Singing Flame are interesting in that they seem to be transitional stories—they fall somewhere between fantasy and the ‘harder’ science fiction that would begin to appear a decade later. The author makes a small effort to explain the technical workings of the trans-dimensional’ portal, and populates an exotic planet with numerous species of extra-terrestrial. But he still relies on dream-like and drug induced imagery to make events in the story coherent. The science is completely inadequate to shore up the reader’s belief—or rather, suspension of disbelief—in the events of the tale.