Saturday, March 29, 2014

Reincarnation with Hallucinogens

The work of Lord Dunsany had enormous influence on writers like H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, especially his earlier collections, The Gods of Pegāna (1905) and Time and the Gods (1906).  This influence can be seen in Clark Ashton Smith’s The Chain of Aforgomon, which was published in the December 1935 issue of Weird Tales.  The exotic place names, fable-like structure, and occasional regression into 18th Century English diction make Smith’s story appear superficially Dunsanian.  But Smith was much more adept than Lovecraft at incorporating Dunsany’s style into his own creation, and The Chain of Aforgomon contains many elements that are unique to Smith’s fiction.  It is one of his most impressive and memorable stories, in my view.

Because the author excels at fashioning stories that end almost exactly where they begin, it pays to reread the first few pages of this story after right after reaching the end of it.  The reader will then have a greater appreciation for what Smith has done to express his grim vision of reincarnation and the hazards of tampering with time.

The story begins ominously.  The narrator, who is the executer of the late John Milwarp’s estate, describes how the author suffered a bizarre death—a kind of spontaneous human combustion—in his study.  Milwarp has left behind a journal of the hallucinatory adventures he experienced after taking a drug called souvara. His executor publishes the diary entries in a magazine “as part of my endeavor to revive and perpetuate Milwarp’s memory.” 

There is some urgency here.  Despite the ghastliness of Milwarp’s death, even the narrator himself is beginning to forget details about him.  Even the ink with which Milwarp wrote his manuscript is beginning to fade into invisibility.  His last novel has been turned down by publishers despite being of equal quality to his earlier work.  “They say that his vogue has passed.”  It is as if the memory of John Milwarp is being relentlessly erased from the minds of those who knew him.  The narrator begins to wonder if he ever existed.  This perhaps is Smith’s sad comment on the fleetingness of success and renown.

The notion of an individual’s erasure from past, present and future time is reminiscent of a short fable by Lord Dunsany—“The King That Was Not”—found in Time and the Gods.  King Althazar enrages the gods of Pegāna by having statues made of all of them, but with his face on each statue.  “Slay him not,” the gods say, “for it is not enough that Althazar shall die…”  Instead, his punishment is to be forgotten out of existence.  Clark Ashton Smith takes this idea and adds his trademark preoccupation with time travel, necromancy, blasphemy, torture and justice.

Milwarp experiments with souvara only once or twice, but the effects are devastating.  He travels back in time, experiencing various lives in different historical vistas.  Eventually Milwarp goes backward to a time before the creation of the earth, and finds himself in the city of Kalood, on the planet Hestan.  He is now Calaspa, a priest of the time god, Aforgomon.  But contact with this earlier version of himself proves hazardous, because the two personalities, separated by aeons of time, begin to meld together—Milwarp soon begins to experience the dissolution of his identity.

A similar hallucinatory experience can be found in Clark Ashton Smith’s earlier story Ubbo-Sathla (1933).  The motif of reliving past lives also appears in the stories of several of Smith’s contemporaries, for example, H.P Lovecraft’s Polaris (1920) and Frank Belknap Long’s The Hounds of Tindalos (1929). 

In Ubbo-Sathla, Smith’s character reinhabits his life as an ancient wizard who travels back millions of years to examine the primordial entity of the same name, using a mysterious crystal.   In Lovecraft’s story, contemplation of a star produces the vision of a past life in which the character failed to prevent a cataclysmic attack on his beloved city of Olathoë.  He is left guilty and confused over whether the past or the present constitutes his real life.  In The Hounds of Tindalos, Long’s character wants to travel forwards and backwards in time using the ancient Chinese drug called Liao—the reader suspects immediately that this excursion will end badly.

In Clark Ashton Smith’s The Chain of Aforgomon, Milwarp—as Calaspa the priest of the time god—turns his back on his religious training and commits sacrilege by desecrating the altar of his deity.  He invokes the time god’s arch rival Xexanoth, “the Lurking Chaos”, in a ceremony reminiscent of Satanic rituals.  Why?  In order to spend just one more hour with his deceased beloved, Belthoris.  But this blasphemous distortion of time will have implications for his future lives, and those of others as well.

In all of these stories, the implication of reincarnation is not that souls improve through successive reiterations, but that the evils of the past color and bleed through into the lives of people in the present, and draw them backwards in time to the original horror.  As a Calvinist, it is tempting to see in this depiction of reincarnation a recrudescence of original sin, working its way out through successive lives. 

The circular structure of Smith’s story masterfully drives home the karmic insight, which is also relevant to the psychology of a single individual.  John Milwarp’s ultimate question of identity is not ‘Who am I?’, but ‘Who were we?’  The Chain of Aforgomon is strongly recommended reading; it is also interesting to compare Smith’s treatment of reincarnation with those of his contemporaries. 

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