We are still recovering, insofar as that is possible, from the horrors of the 2016 election and its unfolding aftermath, an unfolding that resembles the noxious flowering of some bizarre spine-encrusted species of Echinops, or one of Baudelaire’s blooms from Les Fleurs du Mal, or what Clark Ashton Smith might describe as “the swollen, fulvous, dying and half-rotten growths…like no other cacti…”, (see below). I want to look away and attend to more important matters now: exploring the psychic residue, the masterful documentation of social nightmares circa the 1920s and 1930s that was completed by Smith and his colleagues in weirdness, H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, among others.
Back in 2013, when I began writing The R’lyeh Tribune, I offered the following as a statement of intent:
“It has been almost a century since Lovecraft died, but his influence remains pervasive. He and his contemporaries wrote horror, science fiction and fantasy during a period of enormous social and technological change—in some respects, a time not so different from our own.
We rely on horror writers like Lovecraft and his colleagues to document both our personal and collective cultural nightmares, so that we may revisit them, and study them, and come to a greater understanding of ourselves. Perhaps in so doing we will avoid catastrophe.”
Nearly four years later, I’m less certain we will avoid catastrophe through greater personal and social insight. As a Calvinist-sympathizer, I’m doubtful that mere self-awareness will counteract the total depravity of the human race. Though sympathetic to both Lovecraft’s (and S.T. Joshi’s) cosmicist view—that we are ultimately miniscule and irrelevant in in the face of enormous powers and malignities we cannot comprehend—my hunch is that we are nevertheless mostly deserving of that fate. Especially now, nearly a century later, as we recapitulate the shattering experiences of the early twentieth century, with its world wars, intense xenophobia, racism, class warfare, and partisan news media. “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce,” Karl Marx famously said.
But on a darker note, this evening’s post will focus on an interesting short work by Clark Ashton Smith, his well known “The Abominations of Yondo” (1926). It was one of the author’s earliest attempts at weird fiction, written in February of 1925, when the author was 32 years old. According to a footnote by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger, Smith was encouraged by H.P. Lovecraft to write the piece, and Lovecraft submitted it to Weird Tales at Smith’s request. The story was rejected by Farnsworth Wright, who felt it was “a prose poem rather than a weird narrative”.
“The Abominations of Yondo” was published about a year later in Overland Monthly, a regional magazine based in California. Overland Monthly was active from 1868 to 1935, and published work by such authors as Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, Will Cather, and Jack London, among others. Bret Harte, (“The Luck of Roaring Camp”, “The Outcasts of Poker Flat”) was probably the magazine’s most famous editor.
In “The Abominations of Yondo”, an unnamed narrator is tortured and then banished for heresy by the priestly “Inquisitors of Ong”. He is left at the border of Yondo, an immense and terrifying desert of ancient ruins. Crossing the forbidding landscape, he encounters a monstrous arachnid creature, the haunted marble figure of “a veritable Venus”, and other nightmarish entities. Like many stories by Clark Ashton Smith, this one contains a grim symmetry of events: the narrator will return to where he started, enlightened, but still damned.
“The Abominations of Yondo” is comparable to “Dagon” (1919), one of H.P. Lovecraft’s earliest stories, not in terms of content, but with respect to the position of the story relative to the author’s later work. Both prefigure ideas and themes that are developed later in much more elaborate stories. In “Dagon” the doomed narrator encounters an enormous aquatic humanoid among ruins brought to the ocean’s surface by volcanic activity. Readers can see the germ of ideas that later developed into such Lovecraft masterpieces as “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928) and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1936).
Smith’s early story already shows the author’s preoccupation with decadence and the irresistible decline of civilizations and worlds. In Yondo, the sun is already swollen and red, as in the Zothique cycle of stories, and the landscape exudes ruin, putrefaction, and the slow steady march towards oblivion and disintegration. The bizarre aspect of the terrain and its plants and animals is later amplified in Smith’s dark fantasies as well as his science fiction. (See for example, the 1930 story “Marooned in Andromeda”; see also an earlier post, With Captain Volmar, Somewhere Near Andromeda.) Here, Smith is reminiscent of his contemporary, Stanley G. Weinbaum, who excelled at creating alien landscapes and ecologies.
In its depiction of an exotic and hazardous location, Smith’s story recalls two older works, namely Ralph Adams Cram’s “The Dead Valley” (1895) and Ambrose Bierce’s “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” (1886). Both depict desolate, nightmarish regions. In the former, the narrator barely escapes a predatory tree nestled in a lonely valley. The evil tree emits “a sound, so awful, so ghastly, so horrible, that it seemed to rouse us from the dead spell that was on us.”
In “The Abominations of Yondo”, the narrator flees from the statue of a beautiful woman, from “the scream of a woman possessed by some atrocious agony, or helpless in the grip of devils.” In Bierce’s story—an inspiration for Robert W. Chambers’ classic The King in Yellow—the narrator can see and hear various wild animals and a mysterious figure, but cannot be heard himself. This turns out to be consistent with a shattering discovery he later makes about himself.
All of these regions—Yondo, the Dead Valley, Carcosa—are part of the psycho-geography depicted in the weird fiction of the time. Insofar as the borders of these nightmare lands overlap those of dream and myth, as well as contemporary anxieties of the time period, it would be interesting to study what Smith and his peers imagined they would find in these vast dark wildernesses.