Unfamiliar place names (Lephara, Susran, Poseidonis), 18th century diction, and exotic natural resources (orichalchum, byssus, sable stone, samite) are strong indicators that an author may have been influenced by the early work of Lord Dunsany, in particular, his The Gods of Pegāna (1905) and Time and the Gods (1906). This is certainly the case in Clark Ashton Smith’s The Double Shadow (1933), though the author handles the style much more effectively than some of his contemporaries, such as H.P. Lovecraft. Smith’s use of idiosyncratic names and archaic grammar never hinders the flow of this nightmarish tale or detract from its impact—unlike the Dunsanian influenced stories of Lovecraft and others.
Pharpetron is the “last and most forward pupil” of a wizard named Avyctes, who awaits an unspecified fate in the high towers of a fabulous mansion by the North Sea. Smith’s description of this edifice recalls that of H.P Lovecraft’s The Strange High House in the Mist (1931), although the tone of Smith’s story is much darker and less ethereal. Avyctes, unlike his evil and acquisitive mentor, has left the cities of Pseidonis for a more contemplative life in the solitude of a sea side retreat. Pharpetron shares in his mystical practice, and reveres his master’s seeming mastery of occult lore. But Avyctes is increasingly drawn to darker subjects.
In particular, Avyctes is determined to decipher the “mirror bright tablet of the lost serpent people.” It is a triangle shaped metallic volume that washes up on the nearby shore following a storm. Translation of the weirdly carved script proves arduous and time consuming for Avyctes and Pharpetron. They cast a spell that sends the ghost of a dead man back in time to do reconnaissance on the serpent people—he returns with information that allows the two to translate the text.
The book contains instructions for the evocation of some unnamed entity, and ominously, no procedure for dismissing it once conjured. Avyctes’ hubris drives him to try the evocation despite his Pharpetron’s misgivings and his futile attempts to caution the master. The two follow the directions, but without any immediate result. Nothing observable happens, and the wizard and his apprentice are lulled into a sense of security. For a time, they return to their ordinary routine of occult studies.
Later, Pharpetron is the first to notice a weird, undulating shadow that follows his and Avyctes’ shadows as they walk the grounds. It seems to be getting closer to his mentor, and appears even when there is no light source to produce it. Their magical attempts to communicate with the snake-like shadow or to resist its presence fail, and Avyctes becomes increasingly alarmed. For all their expertise in occult matters, nothing they know will work against it. The strange shadow draws ever closer to the wizard’s own, and is soon just a hair’s breath away…
Smith’s story has the powerful coherency of a nightmare, and circles back to its beginning in one long serpentine movement of dread. Typical of his stories, a vividly imagined world is created full of wonders and horrors that obey arcane rules—but you have to know the rules. The story is also a pleasure to read simply to enjoy the colorful language of the text. The Double Shadow contains numerous well wrought and memorable poetic lines. One of my favorites: “…I write this tale with a hasty hand, scrawling an ink of wizard virtue on the grey, priceless, antique parchment of dragons.”
It is interesting that the origin of the serpent people’s book is the sea. The ocean can often represent the unconscious with its dark unknown depths, while serpents frequently symbolize evil or forbidden knowledge. In this sense, The Double Shadow seems a commentary on the psychological consequences of discovering—or remembering—dangerous, soul-shattering knowledge.