Though containing exotic names and obscure multisyllabic vocabulary, words like inenarrable, invultuation, lethiferous, among other useful terms, Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Venus of Azombeii” (1931) is written in a realistic style, similar to stories like “The Face by the River”, (written in 1929, but published posthumously) and “Phoenix” (1954). The latter is interesting for being one of the relatively few science fiction stories Smith wrote. (See also Don’t Take Me to the River and Prometheus Returns the Flame.)
Strictly speaking, nothing supernatural occurs in these stories; the disturbing events ultimately have material explanations. In this regard, “The Venus of Azombeii” is not a typical Clark Ashton Smith story, though it deals with some of his favorite themes, among them the hazards of love in a decadent, treacherous world, and the fearfulness of mortality.
Others have noted Clark Ashton Smith’s disdain for realism, despite his success with the aforementioned stories. In a letter to Wonder Stories in August of 1932, (cited in one of S.T. Joshi’s notes in the excellent 2014 collection, The Dark Eidolan and Other Fantasies), Smith writes:
“To me, the best, if not the only function of imaginative writing, is to lead the human imagination outward, to take it into the vast external cosmos, and away from all that introversion and introspection, that morbidly exaggerated prying into one’s own vitals—and the vitals of others…”
However, the author seems to want it both ways in “The Venus of Azombeii”: the fantastic elements include an evil, vengeful sorcerer and a beautiful woman who may be an avatar of the famous goddess. But there is also a rational explanation—in this case, a slow acting poison—that accounts for the ghastly effects experienced by the protagonist.
There are aspects of the story that suggest that Smith was attempting to write an adventure story, accommodating that market by setting the tale in “deepest darkest Africa”, and including such familiar tropes as primitive tribespeople, bizarre orgiastic rites, weird anthropology, (the people of Azombeii may be the mixed race descendants of Roman explorers), and even dangerous crocodiles. As in his Captain Volmer stories, (see also The Terrors of Alien Zoology), readers may sense the tension between the author’s typical inclination to write dark, poetic fantasy and the pressure to write marketable, realistic action stories of a more rationalist bent.
Perhaps this conflict inherent in being true to his muse while accommodating the demands of publishing was in itself a spur to creativity. There is considerable cleverness and creativity in “The Venus of Azombeii”. Basic assumptions about the terrors of interacting with a so-called primitive, non-white culture are upended in this tale.
A number of horror stories from the colonialist period involve wealthy but doomed Caucasian adventurers. Either they have brought back stolen artifacts or are otherwise the recipients of a curse incurred by their activities among the natives in an uncivilized part of the world. The gist of the story is the working out of some terrible and inescapable rough justice. To what extent these stories reflect imperialist guilt or fear of retribution for the subjugation of native peoples would be interesting to explore.
“The Venus of Azombeii” seems to begin like one of these stories, with attention given to a mysterious black statuette that the narrator’s friend Marsden has brought back from a remote area of Africa. The image is of a beautiful African woman who seems to resemble conventionalized depictions of Venus, the Goddess of Love. The reader learns later that the artifact was a gift from a lover, and not stolen or “discovered”, as might be expected.
Marsden is succumbing to some strange malady which rapidly ages and “shrinks” him, and suffers bouts of high fever and delirium. He is seen by a local doctor who is emblematic of the rationalism of the West—“…a brisk and confident type of person, with the air of habitual reassurance, of professional good cheer, that goes so far in building up a doctor’s reputation for proficiency.” But the doctor cannot diagnose the cause of these symptoms, and in any case, Marsden already knows how and why he will die.
Readers of my generation and older are programmed via numerous voodoo horror entertainments to suspect that inexplicable fevers and alarming physical changes, so soon after a trip to the “dark continent”, indicate that the victim’s effigy is being worked on in real time by a witch-doctor in some remote African village. But this is not actually what is going on.
While his colleagues Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft saw Africa as the repository of atavistic evil, the lair of the Biblical serpent as well home to a variety of unaussprechlichen Kulten, Smith’s attitude is considerably more nuanced. He has his protagonist say this about the continent:
In the hot and heavy azure of the skies, the great levels of desert sand or of rampant jungles, the long and mighty rivers winding through landscapes of unbelievable diversity, I found something that was deeply congenial to my spirit. It was a realm in which my rarest dreams could dwell and expand with a sense of freedom never achievable elsewhere.
Marsden has written an account of his experience in Africa, but asks the narrator to wait until he is dead before reading it. Upon Marsden’s demise, the point of view shifts from that of the concerned narrator to that of Marsden the adventurer and doomed lover. The author has nicely set up this story: strange symptoms that call for a diagnosis, a mysterious statuette, a gruesome death. What happened to Marsden in Africa? Marsden’s statement describes his visit to Azombeii and his infatuation with the beautiful Mybaloë. She personifies the allure of the mysterious continent, which may also be the allure of the eternal feminine. He participates in a lunar religious festival which unites the two, but a treacherous local sorcerer, jilted by Mybaloë, plots their demise.
Mybaloë is an interesting character, depicted as powerful, regal, and beautiful. She rules a pagan matrilineal society that is seamlessly interwoven with the natural environment surrounding Azombeii. She rescues Marsden at one point from being eaten by crocodiles, even dispatching the reptiles herself. A heroic leader, she makes Marsden her consort as part of a pagan ceremony that emphasizes fertility and rejuvenation.
It is interesting to compare this story to those in Smith’s Averoigne cycle, for example, the 1934 story “The Disinterment of Venus” (see Mater Dei!). In that setting, Christian monks struggle to preserve civilization and propriety in a land still enthralled to paganism and magic. In “The Venus of Azombeii” it is Islam that is encroaching on pagan wildness, attempting to bring rationality and self-restraint. In both stories, a female entity is all powerful in bringing disruption and insanity to orderly masculine existence.
That this is a story about miscegenation is striking, given the time period and the prevailing attitudes towards race and ethnicity. In this regard, Smith was far-seeing and sophisticated in his treatment of relationships between men and women and among people of vastly different cultures.
“The Venus of Azombeii” originally appeared in the June-July issue of Weird Tales in 1931, along with David H. Keller’s “The Seeds of Death”, Henry S. Whitehead’s “Hill Drums”, Frank Belknap Long’s “The Abominable Snow Men” and H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Outsider”.