Monday, June 16, 2014

Unseen, Unfeared, and Unheard

Phillip Hastane is a character created by Clark Ashton Smith, and appears in a number of his stories.  Hastane is a horror writer, like his creator, and typically narrates the tale. He often risks his own sanity and welfare in the process.  In The Hunters from Beyond (1932), his cousin offers him some literary criticism and advice: “You are very clever and imaginative…You try to depict the occult and the supernatural without even the most rudimentary first-hand knowledge of them…Your stories hardly show anything of the kind—anything factual or personal.  They are palpably made up.”

The cousin, a sculptor, encourages Hastane to “write what he knows”, to depict life as it really is—advice also taken to heart by H.P. Lovecraft’s more famous artist character, Richard Upton Pickman.  The cousin then proceeds to give Hastane a studio lesson in this concept:  he fashions statues of ghouls that have the power to summon their actual models from another dimension.  (Clark Ashton Smith in later life was also a sculptor.)  The Hunters from Beyond was discussed in an earlier post; see The Ghoul as Objet d’Art .

A year later Smith published The Devotee of Evil (1933), which is also narrated by Phillip Hastane.  In this story, Hastane befriends an eccentric he meets in a library, a Creole gentleman from New Orleans named Jean Averaud.  Averaud has moved into “the old Larcom house”, the site of a brutal murder some years previously.  His purpose is to use this haunted house to test out a device he has fabricated, a machine which detects and illuminates the presence of evil.  (It is an early version of the contraptions used by Ghost Hunters on the SyFy network.)

The Devotee of Evil will remind readers of other horror stories that involve similar devices, among them Francis Stevens’ wonderful Unseen, Unfeared (1919) and H.P. Lovecraft’s From Beyond (1934).  In both of these stories, scientists devise a means of amplifying the visual sense, revealing a horrifying evil ecology of beings swimming, crawling and squirming about us invisibly.  (See Don’t Look Now, But… )

It is interesting to compare Smith’s story to Lovecraft’s, which was published just a year later.  There are a number of similarities, in particular, the cumulative effects on the psyches of those using the sensory amplification devices.  However, in Smith’s story the sensory mode is not vision, but a form of hearing.

The most interesting aspect of The Devotee of Evil is the theory of evil that Averaud presents to Hastane:

“I regard it as an all-controlling power; but I do not think that the power is personal in the sense of what we know as personality…What I conceive is a sort of dark vibration, the radiation of a black sun, of a center of malignant eons—a radiation that can penetrate like any other ray—and perhaps more deeply.”

One thinks immediately of stellar black holes, from which not even light is able to escape.  Averaud’s device is a kind of musical instrument composed of precisely tuned dissonant bells and gongs.  When played, it acoustically deadens all extraneous vibrations except for those emanating from the source of evil, allowing a purer, more absolute evil to manifest itself.  Averaud has observed that places like the haunted Larcom house allow this evil to be more readily localized due to residual vibrations from past murders and mayhem. 

An initial trial of the device produces almost opposite effects in the two men.  Hastane experiences a hallucinatory nightmare that includes visions and sounds of Hell. The experience lingers in his psyche days afterwards.  Averaud has an ecstatic religious experience, a kind of rapture as he comes into close proximity to the source of his occult devotion.   Hastane quotes the poet Baudelaire: “the Hell wherein my heart delights.”  Readers will immediately suspect that habitual use of this device will not end well.
As in The Hunters from Beyond, a young woman is one point in a triangle of characters that includes Hastane and the doomed genius.  This one keeps her clothes on, but is unable to speak.  Her muteness is a device that ratchets up the level of fear, for she cannot share with Hastane the horror she has observed. Almost alone among pulp fiction writers, Clark Ashton Smith often included women as important characters in his stories.

Questions about the nature of evil, where it comes from, how it manifests itself among us and what to do about it—are ancient.  Smith’s theory in The Devotee of Evil is a unique hybrid of supernaturalism and the emerging proto-science fiction of the early 1930s.  

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