Wednesday, January 29, 2014

With Friends Like These…

Out of over 2 billion human beings living on planet Earth in 1932, Vizaphmal of the planet Satabbor selects the one that is about to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.  This is Theobald Alvas, almost certainly a caricature of H.P. Lovecraft and a character in Clark Ashton Smith’s The Monster of the Prophecy (1932).  Numerous similarities as well as the use of ‘Theobald’—a version of one of Lovecraft’s most frequently used pseudonyms—clearly identify Smith’s character with his famous colleague.

It was not uncommon for people in Lovecraft’s circle of writers to use fictionalized versions of each other in their stories.  These authorial characters typically experienced gruesome ends, often prompting a similar story in response from the emulated writer. 

Probably the most famous example of this is Robert Bloch’s The Shambler From the Stars, (1935).  In that story, a version of H.P. Lovecraft is exsanguinated by an invisible tentacled creature, following the oral reading of a passage from Ludvig Prinn’s De Vermis Mysteriis.  In H.P. Lovecraft’s The Haunter of the Dark (1936), Robert “Blake” is dispatched in turn by an entity with a “three lobed burning eye.”   

Another example is Frank Belknap Long’s The Space Eaters (1928), which was discussed in a previous post, (see Howard and Frank vs. the Brain Eaters).  In that story, “Frank” chronicles “Howard’s” demise after contact with invisible brain-eating aliens from another dimension.

Smith’s The Monster of the Prophecy is unique among these stories for having a happy, even humorous ending.  Vizaphmal, who is telepathic, quickly surmises Theobald’s dismal situation.  Theobald is an unsuccessful poet and writer, trying to make a living in New York—just as H.P. Lovecraft tried to do from 1924 to 1926. 

Theobald has written a poem, Ode to Antares which reflects his—and Lovecraft’s—enthusiasm for astronomy.  Not coincidently, Vizaphmal is an Antarian from the planet Satabbor, which orbits the enormous red star, many light years away.  Rather than drown himself in the river, Vizaphmal persuades Theobald Alvas to accompany him to his home planet.

Vizaphmal uses a device somewhat similar to that in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine to transport the two to Satabbor.  Once there, Theobald discovers that he is a pawn in Vizaphmal’s plot to seize control of the government of Ulphalor, the largest principality on the planet.  It turns out that the appearance of Theobald—a ‘monster’ by Antarean standards of beauty—fulfills a prophecy in the Antarean equivalent of the Old Testament.  (That Lovecraft himself could fulfill a biblical prophecy is a nicely ironic touch.) Theobald’s host uses this fact to wrest political power from the reigning wizard.   

But Vizaphmal’s coup d’état is swiftly toppled by an angry mob of fundamentalist Cunthamosi worshippers, and Theobald’s fortunes under the old regime are abruptly and cruelly reversed.  He is soon on the run from religious extremists, who employ horrible procedures and devices very similar to Earth’s Inquisition.  Some readers—fans of Robert E. Howard in particular—may be disappointed in the nonviolent, happy ending, but others will appreciate the clever symmetry, given how the tale began.

Typical of a Clark Ashton Smith story is the wildly imaginative and hallucinatory description of the alien planet’s terrain, ecology and principle inhabitants.  This is primarily an adventure story, with some political intrigue and a touch of romance thrown in.  The Antareans have a complex social structure that mirrors their bizarre biology and ecosystem.  Their multiple and odd-numbered limbs and appendages suggests a Lovecraftian influence.  Underlying the novella is a deep affection and sympathy for the main character, who is finally able to achieve all the aspirations that were denied him on planet Earth.

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