Saturday, March 5, 2016

Necromancy and Low Self-Esteem

Clark Ashton Smith’s The Colossus of Ylourgne (1934) is one of the best and most elaborate stories in his Averoigne cycle, which also includes such gems as The Beast of Averoigne (1933) and The Disinterment of Venus (1934).  It appeared in the June 1934 issue of Weird Tales, along with Robert E. Howard’s The Haunter of the Ring, which features a Carnacki-like psychic detective named John Kirowan.

Averoigne is a geographic, historical and psychological region where Smith set approximately 11 of his stories, most written in the early 1930s.  The place names and descriptions of daily life suggest a location in south-central France.  It is a richly imagined medieval setting, where Christianity vies with paganism and sorcery, but without any clear demarcation between the two belief systems in terms of their relative effectiveness.  Smith’s typical preoccupation with universal corruption and decadence prevents this.  After two monks are chased back to their cloister by a cross wielding zombie

The whole monastery, thereafter, devoted itself to triple austerities, to quadrupled prayers; and awaiting the unknown will of God, and the equally obscure machinations of the Devil, maintained a pious faith that was somewhat tempered with trepidation.

Unusual for his time, Smith avoids taking any side in the conflict between such differing world views, and heroes can emerge from either camp.  The Averoigne stories tend to end more or less happily, but with unexpected consequences, and readers are left with a sense that neither good nor evil have triumphed. This unresolved tension and ambivalence about “good vs. evil” make these stories memorable and haunting.  Smith makes frequent use archaic grammar and obscure terminology—often alchemical in origin—to establish the setting for these dark fables.  However, his characters’ predicaments and the themes he explores have a very modern feel, exuding a cynical and fatalistic world view.

(It is interesting to compare Smith’s Averoigne stories with those which comprise the darker and more hallucinogenic Hyperborean and Zothique cycles.  In the latter, the ambivalence towards conventional good and evil that one finds in Averoigne is superseded by decadence and fatalism—the tone is one of resignation. In Zothique, characters often succumb to inexorable fate; in Averoigne, they are still struggling, even if against overwhelming odds.)

In The Colossus of Ylourgne, all of the necromancers in Averoigne, and the sorcerer Nathaire in particular, have suffered greatly “during a year of unusual inquisitory zeal”.  Nathaire is described as “thrice-infamous”, but as villains go, he is also depicted as one worthy of at least some sympathy:  he is a dwarf, lamed by an earlier stoning, and is considered ugly and repulsive.  Furthermore, he is suffering through the last stages of a terrible chronic disease.  He can’t get any respect, as the legendary comic Rodney Dangerfield used to say.  But misery loves company, and he will have his revenge on the good people who out of piety have oppressed him for so many years.  Nathaire has bought just the ticket to make a dramatic exit from his home town of Vyones.

I have made another bond than the one with which puling cowards try to purchase the good will and forgiveness of the heavenly Tyrant.  Hell may take me in the end, if it will; but Hell has paid, and will still pay, an ample and goodly price.  I must die soon, it is true, for my doom is written in the stars:  but in death, by the grace of Satan, I shall live again…  

Nathaire is a card the local political and religious establishment should have kept close to the vest, or perhaps, vestment.  After incurring the long overdue reprobation of the Church, he vanishes mysteriously, along with his ten acolytes and a number of bat winged minions. There is much speculation in Vyones about his location and status, and what he may be planning.

No one is more concerned than Gaspard du Nord, an ex-pupil of Nathaire’s, who knows all too well what his master is capable of doing with his diabolical expertise.  Gaspard has an ornate mirror, framed by intertwined serpents, which he stole from his master before departing his mentorship.  The mirror allows limited visual surveillance of Nathaire and his workshop in the castle of Ylourgne. 

This is a minor point in the story, and the device does not appear again.  However, it is an interesting detail, to me at least, because it recalls the mirror contraptions that show up in Robert E. Howard’s Rogues in the House (1934) and Red Nails (1936), which were published around the same time as The Colossus of Ylourgne.  Even H.P. Lovecraft, in his dream fragment The Evil Clergyman, probably written in 1933, contains a scene depicting a television-like device. 

Radio transmission of simple images became possible in the mid-1920s; the world’s first television station began broadcasting from Schenectady, N.Y. in 1928.  Color television also first appeared in 1928.  The visual imaging devices that are described in these stories by Smith, Howard and Lovecraft seem to be an example of an emerging technology appearing first in nightmares and then subsequently in weird fiction.  (How many of us currently dream about computers and smart phones?  Robots?  Automobiles that drive themselves?)

Much of The Colossus of Ylourgne is the suspenseful unfolding of Nathaire’s evil plan.  Gaspard and the monks of a monastery adjacent to Nathaire’s headquarters independently piece together the nature of the necromantic horror being fashioned there.  Events—and dead bodies—are set in motion when there is report of an increasing number of grave robberies in and around Vyones.  The cadavers of young men, killed in various violent situations, begin digging themselves out of their graves and marching towards the hilltop lair of the necromancer.  Without giving away too much of the plot, it is clear that the vengeful, diminutive Nathaire believes that “size matters”.  His gruesome necromantic procedure offers a unique perspective on the Latinate motto of the U.S.A.: e pluribus unum.

There are many features in this story that are worth a second or third look.  The character of Gaspard recapitulates a recurring theme in horror and fantastic literature, that of the apprentice who overcomes or outsmarts his master.  (Think of the 1983 song by Sting, “Wrapped Around Your Finger”, which precisely demonstrates this idea.)  Gaspard is imprisoned briefly in a dreadful nigredo-like chamber, a slimy, dark oubliette filled with snakes, filth, human remains, and rot.  It’s “stage one” in the Jungian explanation of how dream imagery changes over time from lead to gold.  Gaspard escapes from this dungeon in a sequence that surely must be emblematic of some sort of rebirth. 

Elsewhere in the story is a creative rewording of Falstaff’s famous line about valor, which may be one of the take-away quotes from this marvelous story.  Here, as in much of Smith’s fiction, there is a satisfying symmetry at the end; he is a master at returning full circle to the place where his dark fantasies begin.  As in The Beast of Averoigne (1933), the resolution of The Colossus of Ylourgne involves a collaboration with dark forces.  Good doesn’t triumph over evil; evil triumphs over evil, or perhaps the form of it that can be called human cunning and cleverness.   


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  2. Thank you so much--I will check this out!


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