“I stabbed her with my dagger
Which was a bloody knife.
I throwed her in the river
Which was a dreadful sight.”
—from Down in the Willow Garden
Reading Clark Ashton Smith’s The Face by the River reminded me of this classic bluegrass murder ballad. The song is ancient, probably from England originally, with numerous versions. Its essential story is timeless and archetypal. A lot of people have been murdered down by a river. The song and Smith’s story share a number of similarities: the riverside murder of a sweetheart, a depiction of the murderer’s troubled mind, and the relentless arrival of justice.
However, the motive for the crime is different. In the song, the doomed narrator relates that it was his father who suggested to him “that money would set me free...if I would murder that dear little girl whose name was Rose Connally.” The subsequent murder is premeditated: he lures her to the riverside, gives her poisoned wine to drink, stabs her to death, and casts the body into the water.
Circumstances are different in Smith’s tale. Businessman Edgar Sylen has been having an affair with his stenographer Elise. But as his interest in her wanes, her demands for his attention increase. During a twilight walk by the Sacramento River, she threatens to tell his wife about their relationship. Sylen impulsively grabs her by the throat and strangles her—she falls into the water and rapidly sinks into the darkness. It seems almost defensible as an accidental homicide except that
Sylen was not aware of any consuming remorse for his act, in the usual sense of the word. But certainly he had reason to regret it as a piece of overwhelming and irremediable folly, into which he had been driven by the goading of some devilish fatality.
In the third verse of Down in the Willow Garden, the narrator does experience remorse for the crime. But it is oddly not for the victim so much as for his grieving “pappy”:
Now he sits in his own cottage door,
Wiping his weeping eye
Looking at his own dear son,
Upon the scaffold high.
Edgar Sylen’s path to justice is much more circuitous and psychologically driven. Soon after the murder he begins to see Elise’s face everywhere, especially in water, or in the faces of other women. He cannot bear to go near rivers, cannot establish new relationships, cannot settle anywhere. He is struck at how all the rivers and willow-lined banks he sees in his meanderings resemble the Sacramento River. It is probably no accident that willow trees and water imagery—traditional signs of the Divine Feminine—figure in both the old murder ballad and Smith’s The Face by the River. The only item missing from this motif the moon.
Sylen is increasingly disturbed and obsessed by a pale optical defect or illusion that persists in the corner of one of his eyes. It grows and shifts to the center of his view. Soon it is all he can see. This being a story by Clark Ashton Smith, one can expect the main character to circle back to the beginning, arriving there profoundly and irrevocably changed.
Clark Ashton Smith’s The Face by the River was written in 1930, but not published during his lifetime. (Interestingly, Down in the Willow Garden, though a very old bluegrass standard, was first recorded in the U.S. in 1927). The story is markedly different from the rest of Smith’s fiction. It takes place on Earth, in a familiar location, (California), during contemporary time, and depicts events realistically, without any supernatural overlay. The symptoms Sylen experiences can easily be explained in clinical terms—as the product of a mind under duress.
In some explanatory notes about Smith’s story, S.T. Joshi quotes H.P. Lovecraft, who wrote: “The element of relentless Nemesis-pursuit in ‘The Face’ is very effectively handled—& given a realism too seldom cultivated in tales with this theme”. It is interesting to compare The Face by the River to another of Smith’s tales of psychological horror, Genius Loci (1933). In the latter tale there is a strong supernatural element at the end, but much of the story resembles clinical observations of obsession and progressive loss of sanity in several of the characters. (See also When Your Genius Loci is a Spiritus Malus).