Saturday, May 10, 2014

Geas Who Is Coming to Dinner

The Seven Geases, by Clark Ashton Smith, strongly resembles a Lord Dunsany story, with its exotic place names and obscure terminology.  But it also seems an amalgam of other influences, too, among them H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard.   It first appeared in the October 1934 issue of Weird Tales, along with The People of the Black Circle, a Conan story by Robert E. Howard, The Black God’s Kiss, by C.L. Moore, and Paul Ernst’s Old Sledge, among others.  (Ernst went on to publish The Microscopic Giants a couple years later; see also Between the Wars, Beneath the Ground.)

The Seven Geases tells of Lord Ralibar Vooz’ adventures on a hunting expedition in the Eiglophian Mountains.  This includes scaling the dreaded Mount Voomithradeth, and wandering its nightmarish caverns within.  Vooz is a man of action, somewhat boastful and arrogant, and these character traits will be his downfall. The local ecology of Mount Voomithradeth quite varied, and includes giant sloths, vampire bats, dinosauria, and the subhuman Voormis.   There is also a “night flying archæopteryx”, a wizard’s familiar, that accompanies Vooz’ on his dark journey.  Inside the mountain there is an even greater diversity of species.  A strength of the author is his ability to create vividly imagined worlds for his characters to explore, and later run screaming from.

Vooz comes upon the wizard Ezdagor, and interrupts the latter as he is just about to conjure some supernatural entities.  These creatures will not appear again “until the high stars repeat a certain rare and quickly passing conjunction,” so Ezdagor is infuriated.  The arrogant nobleman then insults the wizard, telling him that he is too “filthy and verminous” to add to his collection of taxidermic trophies.  For this impertinence, Ezdagor utters a geas upon Ralibar Vooz, a kind of curse that magically imposes an obligation he is powerless to resist.  (This is something Druids were famous for doing thousands of years ago.)  Specifically, the geas entails Vooz offering himself up as a sacrifice to Tsathoggua, who resides inside the mountain.  The wizard’s familiar, a primitive bird named Raphtontis, will guide the doomed lord to ensure that he arrives at this fate.

Thus the willful, arrogant man of action is converted into an automaton, no longer in control of his own body, much less his fate.  As in a nightmare, he is drawn against his will into the depths of the mountain.  But there is a glitch:  when he arrives before Tsathoggua, he discovers that the latter has recently dined, and is not interested at the moment in another blood sacrifice.  Tsathoggua issues another geas:  Vooz must now offer himself to the spider-god Atlach-Nacha.  But Atlach-Nacha is too busy repairing his enormous web.  He utters a third geas, sending Vooz to the “antehuman” sorcerer Haon-Dor.  And so forth.  Robot-like, Ralibar Vooz stumbles on in his somber journey to experience the remaining four geases and his ultimate fate.  As we say in legal and corporate circles, what happens when a curse is not actionable?

Because the main character cannot struggle against his fate, there is little conflict.  So not much interest can be generated by Ralibar Vooz’s efforts, or lack thereof.  The story relies instead on various fantastic settings and creatures to keep the reader’s attention, as well as the rhythm of each of the seven geases as they are presented.  The Seven Geases exhibits the repetitive structure of a fable, and this is where the Dunsanian influence is most clearly seen.  Some of the episodes, as when Vooz encounters the serpent-men, (whose principle occupation is chemistry and pharmaceuticals), seem intended as satire.  Clark’s story reminded me strongly of Dunsany’s “When the Gods Slept” in his wonderful Time and the Gods. The rhythm and tone is very similar, although Clark’s story is much darker and less symbolic.

Tsathoggua is mentioned early on in The Seven Geases.  This odious member of the Cthulhu pantheon first appeared in print in H.P Lovecraft’s The Whisperer in Darkness (1931).  In that story, the narrator reads a disturbing letter from one Henry Akeley, who has been visited and watched by “monstrous pinkish forms” from outer space:  “I found myself faced by names and terms that I had heard elsewhere in the most hideous of connections—Yuggoth, Great Cthulhu, Tsathoggua, Yo-Sothoth, R’lyeh, Nyarlathotep, Azatoth…” 

Later on in Lovecraft’s novella, Akeley describes the supernatural entity as “the amorphous, toad-like god creature” who is mentioned in various ancient documents, among them “the Commoriom myth-cycle preserved by the Atlantean high-priest Klarkash-Ton”—an amusing in-joke.  In my humble opinion, The Whisperer in Darkness is one of Lovecraft’s best attempts at proto-science fiction.  (See also ‘The Whisperer’—One of Lovecraft’s Best.)                                

But Tsathoggua seems to be Clark Ashton Smith’s invention.  He referenced Tsathoggua in an earlier story written in 1929, The Tale of Satampra Zeiros, which was eventually published in Weird Tales, also in 1931.  (Lovecraft’s story came out in August of that year; Clark’s in November.)   

As described in two of Clark’s stories, Tsathoggua is a supernatural entity somewhat resembling the combination of a toad, bat and sloth.  “You shall know Tsathoogua by his great girth and his batlike furriness and the look of a sleepy black toad…He will rise not from his place, even in the ravening of hunger, but will wait in divine slothfulness for the sacrifice,” as the wizard Ezdagor depicts him.   So he is horrible, but also a bit slow—“sluggish and baleful”.  Tsathoggua seems to embody one of Clark’s favorite themes:  decadence.  The entity appears in the author’s “Hyperborean” cycle of stories.

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