Swamps, bogs, and marshes make excellent locations for both nightmares and horror fiction. These are “thin” places, disturbing because they are in-between, not entirely water or land. Nor are their inhabitants committed to making a final choice between dry land and the dark, watery depths. Evolution’s relentless progress is stalled here—‘bogged down’—so that the primitive swims with the advanced, each trying to drag the other into its sphere. This is the realm of the amphibian, born in the water, able to crawl on land, attracted to light, but always linked physically and spiritually to the deep, dark, watery origin.
In terms of Jungian dream psychology, wetlands typify the albedo stage of dream imagery—especially when glowing by the silvery light of moon or stars, and obscured by wandering mist. Dream imagery is in flux in this locale. What is separated or opposed is united, if only temporarily, in an ever shifting, unstable balance. Categories lose their boundaries; things change shape. Tadpoles become frogs and toads, who must later return to lay their eggs in the water, hopping, crawling and swimming around a primordial circle.
Psychologically, the albedo stage is suffused with a creative energy that is directed toward a search for solutions. Resolution of spiritual and psychological conflict brings the dawn, a final stage where there is brightness and clarity. Failure to find a solution leads to sliding back into darkness and deterioration, into the slime and murk, where the process begins again. It is the sliding backwards, the sinking into the miry depths, which forms the gist of a nightmare—and a horror story.
Clark Ashton Smith’s Mother of Toads (1938) is an interesting if not particularly edifying fable. It may say something about humanity’s troubled relationship with Nature. If the tale has any wisdom to impart, it is probably something like ‘hell hath no fury like a toad-shaped sorceress scorned’, to misquote William Congreve. Mother of Toads is in Smith’s Averoigne cycle of stories, along with The Disinterment of Venus (1934), and several others. These are set somewhere in medieval France, where a barely established Christendom vies with paganism, witchcraft and magic.
Both Mother of Toads and The Disinterment of Venus contain surprisingly overt sensuality and sexuality, given the timeframe in which they were published. (See also Mater Dei!) As a result, stories by Clark Ashton Smith often sound more contemporary to today’s readers than the work of many of his peers.
S.T. Joshi notes that Mother of Toads was originally sent to Spicy Mystery Tales, where it was rejected. It seems that the story would not have been a good fit with that publication, despite the prurient content of some of the passages. The sexuality in Smith’s tale does not seem designed to titillate, as was the case with the typical contents of that magazine. Its purpose is to amplify a perennially disturbing theme: masculine fear of the “Earth Mother”, and horror of the feminine in general. Mother of Toads was eventually published in Weird Tales after the author cleaned up the more salacious passages.
In Mother of Toads, a young apprentice to the local apothecary rejects the advances of an obese sorceress, whose physical attributes closely resemble those of the many toads that surround her bog side abode. He attempts to escape from her following a night of drug-addled love-making, but must face her countless batrachian familiars, who leap up in waves to block his flight. Unless the reader has a phobia of toads or frogs—that is bufonophobia or ranidophobia—this scene and the climax are more revolting than horrifying. This may have been the author’s intended effect.
Despite the prevalence of toad imagery, Smith makes no reference to Tsathoggua, the amphibious god who was his contribution to the pantheon of Cthulhu Mythos deities. Tsathoggua first appeared in Smith’s The Tale of Satampra Zeiros (1929). It may be that the appearance of this entity is limited to the author’s Hyperborean cycle of stories.
Several of Clark Ashton Smith’s colleagues wrote stories especially tailored for bufonophobes and ranidophobes, H.P. Lovecraft and Manly Wade Wellman among them. These will be discussed in a subsequent post.