Monday, June 9, 2014

Mater Dei!

One of the most interesting items in Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne cycle of stories must surely be The Disinterment of Venus (1934), originally published in Weird Tales.  Along with Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, Smith was a member of a trio of writers who achieved lasting renown in that publication.  In my view, Lovecraft receives more attention than he deserves these days, chiefly through the skilled marketing of his hagiographers.  Though lacking the philosophical and historical depth of Lovecraft, the other two writers are superior with respect to plot and action, (Howard), and imaginary power, (Smith).  At the risk of making a blasphemous comparison, Lovecraft, Howard and Smith can be seen as roughly occupying the same positions as the Father, Son and Holy Ghost in a rather unholy trinity of weird fiction writers, circa the late 1920s through the 1930s.

One of the racier offerings in Weird Tales at the time, The Disinterment of Venus is effective on several levels.  The story takes the form of a fable—there is no dialogue—but the moral of the tale is certainly “for adults only.”   Not only can it can be seen as a metaphor for the consequences of sexual repression, but also of the age old denigration of the feminine.  There is certainly historical resonance, too:  the monks have uncovered and then seek to swiftly bury a recrudescence of pagan polytheism and goddess worship.  Of course, the story can also simply be enjoyed as a “haunted statue” tale; it is about an alluringly feminine Golem-ess that lures otherwise upstanding men to their doom.

That the story is primarily about repressed sexuality is clear even from the opening lines, which describe three Benedictine monks “spading lustily” in the monastery garden.  The youngest of the three, who has just taken his vows, is “…moved with an especial ardor, in which the vernal stirring of youthful sap may have played its part…”  He digs more vigorously, shoving his spade repeatedly into the soil of the garden, and strikes what he thinks is a boulder.  The other two assist in clearing the mud and grime from the object, which turns out to be a statue of—Mother of God!—a naked woman.

In fact, it is an ancient, life sized figure of Venus, the goddess of love.  This archaeological finding throws the monastic community into chaos.  The men are initially ambivalent about how best to deal with the statue.  They are touchingly gentle in their attempts to clean the statue and set it upright.  But shouldn’t they hammer this pagan idol into bits?  The image of Venus becomes a distraction from the work routine of the monastery, and soon some of the brothers disregard their vows and run amuck, drinking and whoring in local establishments.  Something must be done.

It is no surprise that the most orthodox and enthusiastic monk, the ill fated Brother Louis, presumes to attack the statue on his own with a mallet.  He winds up beneath the fallen statue, crushed beneath the stone in the very hole from which it was unearthed.  The statue has mysteriously altered her posture toward one of—as Smith puts it—“an attitude of an amorous enlacement!”  Unable to remove Venus from their cloistered garden, the monks must move their garden to the opposite end of the monastery grounds.  This seems a comment on the persistence of the pagan world view despite the efforts of Christendom to remove all trace of it—literally to plant a garden over it.  It is nearly always hazardous to dig too deeply in the ancient soil, much less in memory.

The Disinterment of Venus shows the often close connection between horror fiction and religious thought: transgressing laws and traditions has the consequence of inflaming temptation, producing unresolved guilt, and incurring the application of supernatural and often gruesome justice.  Violation of conventional morality and social expectations and the consequence for doing so is a recurring trope in horror fiction. Often the appearance of an idol brings this issue to the fore, as in numerous Cthulhu Mythos stories and their imitations.  The figure embodies sinfulness, temptation, and forbidden knowledge, but is also concretely a disruption of the routine—Smith uses the monastic setting to exaggerate this dynamic.   

But Smith goes further than this trite accommodation to prevailing mores—he is also concerned about the psychological and emotional consequences of too zealous an attempt to live according to the rules. 


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