H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith are probably the three best known authors of weird fiction from the 1920s and 1930s, and arguably the most influential, at least in America. Each of them has relative strengths and weaknesses as writers. Of the three, Smith is the best and most representative of what can be achieved in the genre, in my opinion.
His stories contain greater focus, vivid imagery, and multiple layers of meaning. He demonstrates greater sophistication with the depiction of human relationships. More than Lovecraft and Howard, he was able to incorporate the styles of predecessors, notably Poe and Dunsany, as well as contemporaries like Lovecraft—and make them his own.
This ability to assimilate other styles effectively is in view in Smith’s short prose poem A Night in Malnéant (1933). This appears to be a transmutation of dream material into the rhythmic structure of a fable, somewhat reminiscent of an early Dunsany tale. But there is an overlay of gloomy gothic imagery and prose style that closely resembles Edgar Allan Poe. In fact, the frequent intrusion of “sepulchral bells” in the narrative makes one think immediately of Poe’s poem The Bells:
“Here the tolling of the bells—Iron bells!
What a solemn thought their monody compels!
In the silence of the night,
How we shiver with affright
At the melancholy menace of their tone!”
A Night in Malnéant is deceptively simple in form, but contains many allusions and subtle cleverness with symbolism. The narrator is a wanderer who unintentionally happens upon the city of Malnéant “during a period of my life no less dim and dubious than that city itself…” That Malnéant is no ordinary city is clear at the beginning, when the narrator crosses a gloomy river to reach it. The river is compared to Styx and Acheron –clearly he has crossed a threshold, a supernatural boundary. The city, he will discover, is the representation of a very painful memory, one he has tried to avoid and to repress.
We learn early in the story that the narrator’s beloved Mariel took her life when he did not return her affections. Since that tragic event, he has sought oblivion, just as Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft often did. In the twilight streets of Malnéant he hears the tolling of bells. He wants to find a place where he can drink and spend the night, but has trouble getting the attention of the occasional citizens that pass his way. They appear in groups of two: two female shroud-weavers pass by and respond to him, and later two male coffin-makers do the same. They each say essentially the same thing: they are preparing for the funeral of the Lady Mariel.
This is not a coincidence, though the narrator clearly hopes that it is. He is also denied lodging at two different inns in town, both eerily alike. Everything seems oddly paired. He too was once part of a duo, a relationship that might have been, and its tragic ending is why he has been wandering aimlessly across the world, “followed and forever by a belated remorse.” In Malnéant he can find no lodging and must continue to wander alone; he literally can no longer sleep with this terrible memory.
Eventually he finds his way to a church where the funeral service is to be held. It will be no surprise at this point who is lying on the funeral bier. He does not stay long, and leaves before the service is completed. The narrator struggles to escape the dark maze-like streets of the city, and eventually breaks through to “a dull and sunless daylight” beyond the wall of the city. He continues to wander, presumably for the rest of his life. Though he vows never to revisit Malnéant, memory has a life of its own, especially a painful, unresolved one. It seems likely the unfinished obsequies will lead him back to this city again in the future—and this is the most haunting aspect of the story.