Monday, August 4, 2014

Malygris and the Hazards of Necromancy

The necromancer Malygris is a character who appears in several stories by Clark Ashton Smith—two in particular: The Last Incantation (1930), discussed below, and The Death of Malygris (1934).  The last title is misleading, for the magician’s demise is far from conclusive in that tale.  Malygris is also referred to in Smith’s nightmarish The Double Shadow (1933).  He is the evil predecessor and mentor of Avyctes, the narrator’s instructor in the darker arts.  

“All men have heard the fame of Avyctes, the sole surviving pupil of that Malygris who tyrannized in his necromancy over Susran…who lay dead for years while men believed him living; who, lying thus, still uttered potent spells and dire oracles with decaying lips.”

(The Double Shadow was discussed in an earlier post; see Me and My Shadow)

The small cycle of stories that feature Malygris are set in Susran, the capitol city of Poseidonis.  This fantastic and decadent country is Smith’s version of Atlantis.  Both The Last Incantation, and The Death of Malygris are very short stories, and really seem more like prose poems.  However, the latter contains much more of a narrative, with some suspense near the end, as a group of conspirators presumes to declare the evil magician—to paraphrase the munchkin undertaker—“not only merely dead, he’s really most sincerely dead.”  Both are a pleasure to read for their richly imagined setting and well wrought, lyrical sentences.  Here is an example from The Last Incantation:

“About him were the scattered all the appurtenances of his art; the skulls of men and monsters; phials filled with black or amber liquids, whose sacrilegious use was known to none but himself; little drums of vulture-skin, and crotali made from the bones and teeth of the cockodrill, used as an accompaniment to certain incantations.”

The Last Incantation was originally published in the June 1930 issue of Weird Tales, along with a Solomon Kane Story by Robert E. Howard, (The Moon of Skulls), and H.P. Lovecraft’s gustatory delight, The Rats in the Walls.  (The Death of Malygris was also published in Weird Tales, several years later.)

Despite the trappings of dark fantasy, the tone of the story is not one of horror or anxiety, but of sadness and regret.  Malygris consults with his familiar, a demonian viper, regarding the wisdom of revisiting the past, in particular, to see his beloved Nylissa, a young woman he loved before becoming a necromancer, long ago.  He wants to resurrect his dead love, and gaze upon her in the fading light of an autumn afternoon.  The serpent is wisely noncommittal, neither condoning nor opposing this plan.  Malygris uses his magic to bring about this experience of being with his beloved again, but the event is a very painful one.  “I have learned nothing except the vanity of wisdom…” he says, nearly paraphrasing Ecclesiastes.

The demonian viper appears again in the later story, and is in fact the last thing moving at the end of The Death of Malygris.  In his gliding movements he seems to represent the eternal attraction of evil, idolatry and decadence, moving ahead through time and distance.  Surely this viper, or a close relative, appears a bit later on in history, in the vicinity of Eden.


The Eldritch Dark is a site devoted to the appreciation of Clark Ashton Smith’s work and is well worth a visit.

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