Saturday, April 16, 2016

Like a Moth to a Flame

Clark Ashton Smith’s The End of the Story (1930) features a portal or magical gateway, a device not uncommon in several of his dark fantasies, and generally familiar to readers of horror, fantasy and science fiction.  Probably the best known example in Smith’s work is The City of Singing Flame (1931) and its sequel Beyond the Singing Flame (1931).  Phillip Hastane, the author’s psychic detective and alter ego, attempts to determine the fate of a missing friend and fellow writer. In the process he discovers an ancient “trans-dimensional” portal, still in good working order, linking Earth and an alien planet in another dimension.  (See also An Early ‘Trans-Dimensional’ Portal and ‘Trans-Dimensional’ Portal Redux).

Portals of a kind are also featured in Xeethra (1934), a story from Smith’s Zothique cycle, as well as in the more straightforward occult tale, The Devotee of Evil (1933).  In Xeethra, the main character finds a lush green valley in the midst of a desert, and enters a fissure in the wall of a nearby cliff.  The cavern opens onto a vast subterranean garden that suspiciously resembles Eden.  When he consumes a forbidden fruit, sacred to the ruling demon Thasaidon, Xeethra becomes “unstuck in time”, not unlike Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s character of Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five.  (See also Forbidden Tree and Forbidden Fruit in Zothique.)

In The Devotee of Evil, Phillip Hastane is on hand again, this time to observe the weird demise of a megalomaniacal occultist named Averaud.  Averaud has developed a technology, best used in “thin” places—for example, an old house haunted by at least one murder—to amplify and allow passage to “perfect evil”.  This rarely turns out well, and doesn’t here.  (See also Unseen, Unfeared, and Unheard; compare Smith’s story to William Sloane’s 1939 novel The Edge of Running Water.)  Readers can probably supply many more examples of these weird gateways in the stories of Clark Ashton Smith and his colleagues.

Although the various portals in Smith’s stories differ superficially in setting and technology, all of them involve an ecstatic, even sexual experience for the user, and become an addiction and an obsession that cannot be escaped.  Readers in a more psychoanalytic mode can speculate about the underlying basis for these portals.  Here is a passage from The City of Singing Flame:  

But I had not gone much further when I realized the peculiar mental and emotional spell which sound was beginning to exert upon me.  There was a siren-like allurement which drew me on, forgetful of the strangeness and potential perils of my situation; and I felt a slow, drug-like intoxication of brain and senses.  In some insidious manner, I know not how nor why, the music conveyed the ideas of vast but attainable space and altitude, of superhuman freedom and exultation; and it seemed to promise all the impossible splendors of which my imagination has vaguely dreamt.

The attraction of the portal and what may lie beyond it is irresistible, and its victims are drawn to it like moths to a flame.  In fact, Smith cannot resist this homey metaphor, and describes the demise of two lepidopteran aliens:

The entities with scarlet wings, whom I previously mentioned, were standing a little apart from the rest of us.  Now, with a great fluttering, they rose and flew toward the flame like moths toward a candle.  For a brief moment the light shone redly through their half-transparent wings ere they disappeared in the leaping incandescence, which flared briefly and then burned as before.

The End of the Story is in Smith’s Averoigne cycle of stories.  Sometime in the late 18th century, a young law student named Christophe is enroute to his father’s house near Moulins, but gets lost in a storm. The highway he is travelling becomes a narrow footpath that leads to an old monastery.  Though a subtle change, he seems to have left the contemporary world behind and entered an earlier one, closer in time and sensibility to the events depicted in stories like The Disinterment of Venus (1934) and The Beast of Averoigne (1933).  The effect of going back in time via subtle changes in scenery and architecture is similar to what H.P. Lovecraft accomplishes in He (1926) and a few years later in The Silver Key.  (See also With Him, in New York City.)

Christophe’s diversion to the monastery is only a prelude to a more fateful passage.  As a guest of the abbot he is allowed unsupervised access to a library of ancient texts, both Christian and pagan. One of these he is forbidden by the abbot to read, and naturally, this is the one he is obsessed with studying.  It is the fragmentary account of one Gerárd de Venteillon, who visited the fearful ruins of the Château des Faussesflammes some years previously, and was never seen again. 

Interestingly, the Abbey of Périgon and the Château des Faussesflammes occupy the same psycho-geography as the Cistercian monastery and the ruined castle headquarters of the vengeful sorcerer in Smith’s The Colossus of Ylourgne (1934).  That is, they lie across from each other in close proximity, with a valley separating them.  Smith seems to intend a comparison or rough symmetry between conventional religion and occult or pagan practice.

Christophe becomes obsessed with Gerárd’s story and with the mysterious ruins he can see from a window in the monastery.  He wants to know what happened, wants to know “the end of the story”.  Beneath the ruins of the Château des Faussesflammes he encounters a portal to another dimension, a hazardous but alluring gateway to pagan Greece—and a rendezvous with one of its more disturbing female denizens.  Gerárd was the first of her male victims, of record at least, and Christophe will not be the last.

The narrative is artfully constructed, a story-within-a-story, and the announcement in the first few lines of the main character’s eventual disappearance emphasizes the sense of unavoidable destiny.  But Smith has more in mind than exaggerating the dangers of intimacy, sexual or otherwise.  There is interesting symmetry between past and present, youth and old age, Heathendom and Christendom, sunny, spring-like Greece and dour, gloomy Averoigne.   The End of the Story is remarkable for a pagan rant uttered by a satyr against Christianity:

The power of Christ has prevailed like a black frost on all the woods, the fields, the rivers, the mountains, where abode in their felicity the glad, immortal goddesses and nymphs of yore.  But still, in the cryptic caverns of earth, in places far underground, like the hell your priests have fabled, there dwells the pagan loveliness, there cry the pagan ecstasies.

But interesting questions remain:  Why does the abbot keep the manuscript, which sent the narrator and many others before him to their doom?  Who wrote the account of Gerárd’s disappearance, or observed its events?  Smith seems to suggest that Christendom and Heathendom are two halves of the same coin.  Or perhaps they are intertwined, snake-like—in a symbiotic relationship that is beneficial to both, but disastrous for their followers.

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