Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Back to Averoigne

In the early 1930s, Clark Ashton Smith wrote a series of closely related stories set in a richly imagined medieval setting, where Christendom shares an uneasy co-existence with pagan sorcery and Satanism.  The Holiness of Azédarac is one of these, originally published in the November 1933 issue of Weird Tales.  Smith’s typical preoccupation with near universal corruption and decadence clouds any clear demarcation between the Christian good guys—usually monks of the Benedictine order—and the pagan bad guys.  He avoids taking any side in the struggle between such differing world views, and heroes can emerge from either corner.   

It is interesting to compare The Holiness of Azédarac with The Beast of Averoigne, published earlier in the same year, (See also 4. And Finally, a Pestilent Extraterrestrial Snak...).  In a sense, both stories have happy, though unexpected resolutions.  However, the reader is left with a sense that neither good nor evil have triumphed in the end.  This unresolved tension makes these stories memorable and haunting.

Other stories in the “Averoigne” cycle include A Rendezvous in Averoigne (1931), The Maker of Gargoyles (1932), The Colossus of Ylourgne (1933) and The Disinterment of Venus (1934).  In all, there are about 11 of these stories, and most were published in Weird Tales.

The Holiness of Azédarac is an intentionally ironic title, because Azédarac is anything but holy.  Nominally the Bishop of Ximes, he is in fact a sorcerer, and very knowledgeable of the Old Ones and their ways.  It is the Book of Eibon that he is most likely to consult, rather than the Old or New Testaments, and it seems very probable that his expertise in occult matters helped him advance in the church hierarchy.

It is amusing to spot the Lovecraftian references in this story.  Azédarac swears “By the ram with a Thousand Ewes”—not to be confused with Shub-Niggurath, the Goat with a Thousand Young.  Traditional members of the Cthulhu Mythos have francophonized names:  Iog-Sotôt (Yog-Sothoth), Sodagui (Tsathoggua), and so forth.

The pious Brother Ambrose discovers the truth about Azédarac, and takes the Book of Eibon with him to present as evidence to his uncle, Archbishop Clement of Yvones.  Eager to protect his position, Azédarac sends his henchman to intercept Ambrose.  An early Machiavellian, Azédarac at one point explains:

“It is regrettable…that any question of my holiness and devotional probity should have been raised among the clergy of Averoigne…the chief difference between myself and many other ecclesiastics is, that I serve the Devil wittingly and of my own free will, while they do the same in sanctimonious blindness.”

Through subterfuge, the henchman is to get Ambrose to drink a special potion that he has created, using an ancient formula—and he succeeds in this task.

The potion is not a poison, but a substance that can send its imbiber backward in time.  This is an idea that shows up in other stories by Smith and some of his colleagues.  For example, one of Frank Belknap Long’s characters experiments with a drug called Liao in The Hounds of Tindalos (1929), achieving even more drastic results than Azédarac.  In Smith’s The Chain of Aforgoman (1935), an author takes a drug called souvara that takes him back to his previous incarnations, causing him to spontaneously combust in the present.  In H.P. Lovecraft’s Hypnos (1923), two men use exotic drugs to explore the nature of reality.  Though not specifically referenced, some time travel is implied in their hallucinatory experiences.

After drinking Azédarac’s potion, Brother Ambrose travels back to the time of the Druids, materializing on one of their sacrificial altars.  He is about to have his heart ceremonially removed by a Druid priest when he is rescued by a beautiful enchantress Moriamis.  She also knows the formula for the time travel potions, and is actually a spurned lover of Azédarac.  Will she help Brother Ambrose get back to the future in time to thwart the evil Azédarac?  But it turns out that Azédarac and Brother Ambrose are not the only ones with a plan…  

The Holiness of Azédarac is a pleasure to read—several of Smith’s Averoigne stories are—for its surprising ending, clever word play, and vivid detailed setting.

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