Psycho-geographically speaking, an island is an excellent setting for a horror story. Land encircled by water seems able to concentrate or distill what is weird and frightening. Fog Island. Voodoo Island. Skull Island. Isle of the Dead. The Island of Lost Souls. Island of Terror.
Though there may be rumors of its existence, the typical island of horror is a place almost completely unknown, far away from well-traveled routes and not on any ordinary map. Its treacherous isolation makes it difficult to find or approach—and nearly impossible to escape. Often the island is found by accident, as a result of shipwreck or navigational error or sheer desperation.
In some sense, ‘horror island’ is a psychological and spiritual place, and so unlikely to appear on any map. It is a miniscule patch of verdant land, some rocks, a beach, some hills, a mountain crest, a saving brook of fresh water—adrift in a roiling oceanic unconsciousness. It is a dimly lit circle of awareness somewhere in the human mind—the scariest place on earth. What island horror is waiting there for the hapless explorer or desperate castaway to discover?
Clark Ashton Smith’s The Uncharted Isle (1930) was originally published in Weird Tales; it shared that November issue with—among others—Robert E. Howard’s Kings of the Night, Edmond Hamilton’s The Cosmic Cloud, and one of H.P. Lovecraft’s poems, Fungi from Yuggoth: 4. Antarktos, (“And only pale auroras and faint suns/Glow on that pitted rock, whose primal sources/Are guessed at dimly by the Elder Ones.”).
In The Uncharted Isle, a castaway named Mark Irwin awakes from several days of delirium at sea to find himself in the lagoon of a mysterious island. Everything about the place is strange, from its weirdly archaic flora and fauna, to the oddly positioned sun above. That this is no ordinary bit of geography is clear from the narrator’s initial response:
“More and more decisively, I knew that there was something wrong: I felt an eerie confusion, a weird bewilderment, like one who has been cast away on the shores of an alien planet; and it seemed to me that I was separated from my former life, and from everything I had ever known…”
Smith skillfully blurs the distinction between reality and delirium; in the The Uncharted Isle the narrator might just as well be describing a nightmare, or elaborating on a dream journal entry. He climbs to the top of a ridge and peers down. Below him is the unfamiliar architecture of an ancient harbor town. As he explores the town and observes its strange inhabitants, the dream-like elements intensify. He cannot attract the attention of the inhabitants and seems invisible to them. Their activities are fascinating, but mysterious. What are they doing?
For their part, the citizenry seem as anxious and disoriented as he is. They are preoccupied with maps and contraptions that they calibrate to the position of the sun overhead. Something is wrong, perhaps with time and space itself. At night Irwin observes that the stars and constellations are distorted. Desperate and fearful, the townspeople resort to a solution which horrifies the narrator, and drives him from the island in panic.
S.T. Joshi notes that The Uncharted Isle was one of Clark Ashton Smith’s favorite stories. In a footnote, he quotes the author as remarking that “while having a basis in theoretic science, the tale is not merely an ordinary science fiction story, but it can be read as an allegory of human disorientation.”
Yet with the exception of some speculation about a localized “abrogation of dimensional laws” somewhere in the south Pacific, and descriptions of exotic technology, there is actually little science in the story. Rather, the sense of disorientation Smith creates is that of a vividly recalled dream, of awareness and lucidity adrift in a sea of unconsciousness. What will it discover there?