Sunday, February 9, 2014

Plague as Engine of Justice

Clark Ashton Smith’s The Isle of the Torturers (1933) superficially resembles the early work of Lord Dunsany, with its exotic place names and fable-like structure.  Certainly Dunsany’s pseudo-mythic stories—see his The Gods of Pegāna (1905) and Time and the Gods (1906)—were in part an inspiration. Yet Clark Ashton Smith has made Dunsany’s verbal trappings a decoration for what is uniquely his own work.  Unlike other authors who emulated Lord Dunsany, (most notably H.P. Lovecraft), Smith was successful in assimilating the style of the Irish author into his own.

The Isle of the Torturers concerns the fate of the young king Fulbra of Yoros, one of the few survivors of the Silver Death, a plague that has devastated his kingdom.  He watches helplessly as his subjects succumb and become stiff, silvery cadavers almost overnight.  The plague descends from a star, and though its appearance can be predicted by astrologers, it cannot be avoided.  There is no cure.  Fulbra is spared because of a mysterious ring that the court wizard has fashioned for him.  It is made out of strange red metal.  He must never remove the ring from his finger, for then he will suffer a visitation of the plague, which is only delayed by the charm.

Shortly before his own death, the court wizard had advised Fulbra to go to the southern isle of Cyntrom, but on the way, a storm at sea diverts his ship to Uccastrog, a land ruled by the cruel King Ildrac.  You can tell from the names that this is a very bad place to land.  Fulbra is shipwrecked there with a few of his surviving slaves.  Another hapless ship has also landed there, and its occupants, along with Fulbra and his party are swiftly captured.  The people of Uccastrog delight in torturing their visitors with inventive contraptions—it seems to be the most popular recreational activity on the island.  Hence the name ‘Isle of the Torturers’.

Clark Ashton Smith seems to have been preoccupied with torture and the Inquistion, at least in some of his work.  Torture imagery and references to the Inquisition occur in such stories as The Beast of Averoigne, The Empire of the Necromancers, The Monster of the Prophecy, and others.

Fulbra is subjected to various and prolonged tortures to amuse King Ildrac.  The tortures are primarily physical, but also mental and spiritual as well, for his captors are diabolically thorough.  He is sustained by a girl named Ilvaa who visits him periodically to offer encouragement and hope, but she herself turns out to be an instrument of torment, in league with King Ildrac.  Fulbra’s experiences grow ever more hellish, and all seems lost, until he remembers the ring on his finger…

The Isle of the Torturers is another example of Clark Ashton Smith’s mastery of symmetry in a story, which seems to involve an administration of cosmic justice, a sort of ‘what goes around, comes around’ ethic.  Stories end at the place where they began, but with balance restored and characters irrevocably changed.  The other striking thing about Smith’s stories is the hallucinatory visual imagery, sometimes bright, colorful and exotic, other times dark and gruesome.  In The Isle of the Torturers there is disturbing graphic detail about torture, death, and decay—definitely a ‘bad trip’. 

Unlike the work of many of Smith’s contemporaries, there is a happy ending of sorts, (justice is done), and it is the result of one man’s self-sacrifice.  Though the Silver Death is inescapable, Fulbra is able to turn his disastrous fate into a weapon against evil.  This is very different from the passive acceptance of cosmic doom found in H.P. Lovecraft’s stories.

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