Saturday, March 11, 2017


In the previous post there was discussion snake imagery as it appears in the work of Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith.  Reference was made to Clark Ashton Smith’s well-known “The Last Incantation” (1930) and a closely related tale, “The Death of Malygris” (1934).  Besides the wily sorcerer Malygris, both stories contain “the familiar demon…a coral viper with pale green belly and ashen mottlings.”  The snake is pivotal in both stories, insofar as a snake can be said to pivot.  Smith uses the serpent very effectively as a symbol not only of the persistence of evil—as Robert E. Howard inevitably does—but also of wisdom, memory, power, and the awesome tenacity of life.

Enthusiastic readers of Clark Ashton Smith know that the two stories about Malygris are part of small cycle of fictional and poetic works set in the imagined geological remnant of Atlantis, a doomed island continent called Poseidonis.  Susran is its capital, Lephara its principle port; in both cities the inhabitants are eventually resigned to their unavoidable demise.  By the time of Hotar and Evidon, the scientist-brothers in “A Voyage to Sfanomoë” 

It was well known that this isle, with its opulent sea-ports, its aeon-surviving monuments of art and architecture, its fertile inland valleys, and mountains lifting their spires of snow above semi-tropic jungles, was destined to go down ere the sons and daughters of the present generation had grown to maturity.

A later passage describes the philosophical perspective of the two brothers.  Their world view, like that of their creator, is imbued with a pervasive fatalism:

Knowing the nearness of the final cataclysm, they had never married, they had not even formed any close ties; but had given themselves to science with a monastic devotion.  They mourned the inevitable passing of their civilization, with all its epoch-garnered lore, its material and artistic wealth, its consummate refinement.  But they had learned the universality of the laws whose operation was plunging Atlantis beneath the wave—the laws of change, of increase and decay; and they had schooled themselves to philosophic resignation…

It is hazardous—though intriguing—to interpret fictional text as psycho-biographical material. It is not hard to imagine that Hotar and Evidon’s attitudes were parallel to those of Clark Ashton Smith and his “brothers” Lovecraft and Howard.  On a more macro level, one can also see the inundation of Poseidonis as a metaphor for the collapse of the world economy during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The theme of decadence and decline, so prevalent in Zothique—that other doomed world—is present in the Poseidonis cycle from the very beginning.  It is hinted at in the two Malygris stories as well as in “The Double-Shadow” (1933).  With the exception of the latter, the five short stories in the Poseidonis cycle were first published in Weird Tales between 1930 and 1934.  (A somewhat abridged form of “The Double-Shadow” appeared in Weird Tales in 1939, after its initial appearance in a pamphlet the author self-published.)  They appeared in no particular order relative to the fictional periods they depict, but if one were to arrange the five stories according to the cycle’s fictional history it might yield this sequence:
 “The Last Incantation” (1930)—Malygris, of advancing years, conjures his deceased beloved and experiences a painful insight.
“The Death of Malygris” (1934)—assassins and rivals manage to dispatch Malygris using a weird occult methodology, but suffer unanticipated consequences.

“The Double-Shadow” (1933)—Avyctes, a vainglorious student of Malygris brings doom on himself and his apprentice by incautious experimentation with an extraterrestrial spellbook.

“A Voyage to Sfanomoë” (1931)—two survivors of the cataclysm that destroys Poseidonis land their spaceship on Venus.

“A Vintage from Atlantis” (1933)—pirates encounter a cultural artifact that causes them to experience the last days of Susran.

Given the quality and vividness of the five stories, it is unfortunate that Smith did not have the time and energy to complete “gaps” in the historical record with additional works.  It would be surprising if contemporary fantasy and horror writers have not already attempted to do just that, in the same way that De Camp and others elaborated on Robert E. Howard’s original Conan adventures.

It is interesting to compare the timeframe of Smith’s Poseidonis cycle with the cotemporaneous publications of his two well-known colleagues at Weird Tales.  A fascinating project, at least to me, would be to map out the matrix of ideas in circulation among “the big three” and their fellow creators of horror entertainment in the early twentieth century.  (Or any other period for that matter, though we are probably too close to our own time to recognize emerging patterns in our cultural products.) 

The chart below attempts to put Smith’s Poseidonis cycle in the context of work done around the same time by Lovecraft and Howard.   

Clark Ashton Smith
H.P. Lovecraft
Robert E. Howard
“The Last Incantation”
“The Rats in the Walls”
“The Hills of the Dead”
“A Voyage to Sfanomoë”
“The Whisperer in Darkness”
“The Black Stone”
“The Double-Shadow”
“A Vintage from Atlantis”
“The Festival” (originally 1925)
“The Dreams in the Witch-House”
“The Other Gods”
“The Slithering Shadow”
“The Tower of the Elephant”
“The Death of Malygris”
“From Beyond”
“Shadows in the Moonlight”
“The People of the Black Circle”
“Queen of the Black Coast”
“Rogues in the House”

Besides simply enjoying Smith’s unique stories, readers will find interesting content in the Poseidonis cycle.  In “The Death of Malygris” there is description of a peculiar occult methodology that brings about an end, in theory at least, to the depredations of the evil sorcerer:

Employing an unlawful Atlantean science, Maranapion had created living plasm with all the attributes of human flesh, and had caused it to grow and flourish, fed with blood.  Then he and his assistants, uniting their wills and convoking the forces that were blasphemy to summon, had compelled the shapeless, palpitating mass to put forth the limbs and members of a new-born child; and had formed it ultimately…into an image of Malygris…they caused the simulacrum to die of extreme age... the sorcerers waited for the first signs of mortal decay in the image.  If the spells they had woven were successful, a simultaneous decay would occur in the body of Malygris…

Without the supernatural elements, the process in “The Death of Malygris” seems very akin to cloning an entire human being, which is currently an unlawful American science.  In the story, the procedure is effective in hastening the deterioration of the wizard’s mortal remains, but is useless against his capacity for vengeance.

A puritan adventurer reminiscent of Howard’s character Solomon Kane appears in “A Vintage from Atlantis”.  The story depicts an event many centuries after Poseidonis sinks beneath the waves.  Smith may have been playing with the insight suggested by the phrase “in vino veritas”.  The narrator, a member of a marauding pirate crew, barely survives a reenactment of the last days of Susran brought on by an encounter with an ancient artifact.

“A Voyage to Sfanomoë” is especially interesting as a transition or bridge between Smith’s dark fantasy and the emerging popularity of science fiction.  Two scientist-brothers escape their doomed continent in a spherical spaceship.  They are headed to Sfanomoë, which is Atlantean for the planet Venus.  Smith depicts Venus as many of his colleagues did at the time, as a lush, tropical world tangled in bizarre jungle vegetation, some of it mobile and hungry. 

The brothers experience an unusual hallucinogenic demise, which may be more a transformation than actual death.  Compare Sfanomoë to Smith’s depiction of Venus and the Venusians in such stories as “The Metamorphosis of the World”, and “The Immeasurable Horror”—as well as Venus herself and how she is depicted in stories like “The Venus of Azombeii” and “The Disinterment of Venus”.  Perhaps Smith’s relationship with both the planet and the eternal feminine was problematic?

There is also a hint of the growing influence of science fiction in “The Double-Shadow”.  The race of primordial serpent men, the original owners of the mysterious tablet “wrought of some nameless metal, like never-rusting iron” may have been interacting with extraterrestrial forces, although this is not stated directly.  The entity conjured by Avyctes and his apprentice appears and behaves somewhat like the amorphous, amoebic life-forms in “The Immeasurable Horror” (1931) and “Ubbo-Sathla” (1933), both written around the same time as “The Double-Shadow”.  (For additional discussion of the amoeba as inspiration for horror and science fiction see also The Amoeba in the Attic.)

The four poetic pieces—“Malediction”, “The Muse of Atlantis”, “Tolometh” and “Atlantis”—round out the Poseidonis cycle.  As the title suggests, the first poem is a curse, a fervent wish that…“the curse be lifted never/That shall find and leave you one/With forgotten things forever.”  The next is essentially a colorful travelogue.  The last two are the best in my view.  “Tolometh”, the Cthulhu-esque god of the abyss, has an Ozymandias-moment beneath the waves that now bury Poseidonis in the watery depths.  “Atlantis” is a vivid depiction of a sunken, forgotten city.

Readers will enjoy a fuller experience of the world of Poseidonis by reading the five short stories and the accompanying poetry as a unit. And perhaps mourn that little more was retrieved from that strange land before it fell into the sea.    

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