Science or Sorcery?

Note: I was surprised when I re-read this article on CAS from 2004, because I didn’t find its prose particularly painful or embarrassing. I’ve made only one big change, restoring the comparison that I originally began the essay with but which I suppressed for publication at the Eldritch Dark for fear of seeming gratuitously offensive. Everything in the essay, including the comparison, is of course intended to be taken with complete seriousness. Tolkien is one of the authors I have most often re-read, but, as I’ve said before, I wish that someone would translate Lord of the Rings into English.


Science or Sorcery? Interrogating the Supratextual Interface of Klarkash-Ton and the Hobbitual Offender, Simon Whitechapel

The scientific spirit, which cannot leave anything alone and aspires to draw the whole universe of objects, people, ideas and even feelings into its own dull, inhuman empire, was certain, sooner or later, to cast its screwed-up, calculating eyes on the splendour in the grass and the glory in the flower. — Peter Simple, The Stretchford Chronicles (1980).1

Où sont les neiges d’antan? (Where are the snows of yesteryear?) — François Villon, Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis (1461).

If the Earth were a human body, the United States of America might well be identified as a cancer. There are three strong parallels: growth, greed, and influence. Cancers grow explosively, gobble energy, and spread in their worst forms to every part of the body. Mutatis mutandis, the United States has done the same, growing in a couple of centuries from a tiny colony to a continental superpower that now consumes perhaps a fifth of the world’s resources with only a twentieth of the world’s population,2 and that exports its culture and language to every corner of the world. More and more people outside its borders are growing up to think, act, and talk like Americans, discarding their own histories and cultures as they do so. This American triumph has coincided with, and in part been built on, the triumph of modern science, and like science the United States is based on a rejection of tradition and a belief in the possibility, and even the necessity, of progress.

But as Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727), one of the founders of modern science, pointed out, for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. He was talking about physics, but actions have reactions in the mistier world of culture too and simultaneous with the rise of America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries came the rise of the literary genre of fantasy. Like its coeval science fiction, fantasy represents a flight from the present, but where science fiction flies more or less optimistically into the future, fantasy flees more or less pessimistically into the past: it could be defined as an attempt to write as though America did not exist. America offers democracy, science, and rationalism; fantasy rejects them in favor of monarchy, magic, and mystery.

And understandably so: like America itself, democracy, science, and rationalism are profoundly unnatural things, appearing very late in human existence and truly accepted and appreciated by very few of us, for they do not appeal to the irrational and numinous aspects of our nature. America is unnatural because it is deracinated, a conscious, rational experiment in nation-building whose immigrant citizens are cut off from their roots in ancestral history and homeland. The popularity of fantasy in America and the societies its rootless culture has most heavily influenced proves that millions of us feel the loss. Fantasy’s rejection of science and flight from the scientific American present can be summed up by these lines from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954-5) in which the wizard Gandalf describes his confrontation with the wizard Saruman, who has recently exchanged his white robes for robes of many colors:


“I liked white better,” I said.
“White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”
“In which case it no longer white,” said I. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”3


Isaac Newton broke white light in precisely that way with a prism, gaining knowledge as he discarded wisdom. But there was more to Tolkien’s rejection of Newtonian reductionism than simply science: Newton was also a Protestant, and America is a Protestant nation. Like science, Protestantism is based on a rejection of tradition, and because, like America, it is deracinated, it withers very readily: where its offspring rationalist secularism leads, Protestantism sooner or later follows.4 Tolkien (1892-1973) was Catholic, belonging to a church with deep roots, and though his books are early symptoms of her present decadence, they contain all the anti-rational, loss-assuaging ingredients listed above: monarchy, magic, and mystery. One of those books is, after all, called The Return of the King, and the pessimistic, future-fleeing aspects of fantasy are clearly symbolized by the way Tolkien sets his evil empire of Mordor in the east, where the sun rises, and his haven of peace in the west, where the sun sets.

But beside being Catholic and anti-rationalist, Tolkien was, more importantly, a bad writer. His most famous book, The Lord of the Rings, epitomizes what Europeans would see as the worst failings of American popular culture: it is sentimental, shallow, and clumsy.5 His attempt to flee the American present in some ways carries America with it. And that is one of the great ironies of fantasy literature: its most popular, and least subtle, exponent is European, while one of its greatest and most subtle is not merely American but Californian, living and dying in the most “future-crazed”6 state of all: Clark Ashton Smith was born in 1893 in Long Valley, near Sacramento, and died in 1961 a few miles north in Auburn.

But CAS had an English father and did not grow up in any of California’s cities, which may be much more important than it appears. California is one of the youngest states of one of the world’s youngest nations, but its landscape is ancient and its landscape is what CAS was most familiar with: he grew up on his father’s “forty acres” of homestead.7 Straight lines and right angles are rare in nature, ubiquitous in modern cities, and they may have much stronger effects on our psychology than we realize.8 In the old worlds of Europe and Asia, where cities are thousands of years old, streets wind and twist, because the cities of Europe and Asia have grown rather like plants; in the new world of America, streets run in straight lines intersecting at right angles. American cities are planned, rational attempts to conquer and control unplanned, irrational geography, and perhaps the reputation of New Englanders for subtlety and guile rises from their surroundings. Cities like Boston are old enough to have grown in the winding, twisting old world fashion, and perhaps they train their modern inhabitants in the oblique and indirect. CAS’s friend and mentor H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) was an urban New Englander: could he have developed his subtle, allusive fiction had he grown up in a city like Chicago or New York, where the streets may train the mind in linearity and directness?9 Could the rural CAS have developed his subtle, allusive fiction had he grown up in a city like San Francisco or Los Angeles?

I would suggest not, but that there is more to an artist’s growth than his physical surroundings is clearly proved by Tolkien, who lived in ancient, alinear England and wrote his crude fantasy amid the winding, twisting streets of Oxford. However, human beings inhabit societies too, and though Lovecraft and CAS may have escaped the stultifying effects of American town-planning, perhaps they benefited from the liberating effects of American politics. The races of Tolkien’s world are clearly based on the English class system: the hobbits, for example, are the rural proletariat and minor bourgeoisie, the orcs are the industrial proletariat, and the elves are the aristocracy whose well-nourished scions Tolkien encountered at Oxford. Compare these passages, the first from Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford novel Brideshead Revisited (1945), the second from Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937):


About six of them came into my room, the rest stood mouthing outside. My dear, they looked too extraordinary. They had been having one of their ridiculous club dinners, and they were all wearing coloured tail-coats – a sort of livery. ‘My dears,’ I said to them, ‘you look like a lot of most disorderly footmen.’ Then one of them, rather a juicy little piece, accused me of unnatural vices. ‘My dear,’ I said, ‘I may be inverted but I am not insatiable. Come back when you are alone.’10


‘Well, well!’ said a[n Elvish] voice. ‘Just look! Bilbo the hobbit on a pony, my dear! Isn’t it delicious!’ ‘Most astonishing wonderful!’ Then off they went into another song as ridiculous as the one I have written down in full. At last one, a tall young fellow, came out from the trees and bowed to Gandalf and to Thorin.11

Tolkien and Waugh were both snobs and both, as it happens, of below average height. Tall Lovecraft’s and tall CAS’s fiction does not suffer from this snobbery, and although the stories of their friend Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) – who grew up in rural Texas – continually pluck the chords of monarchy, magic, and mystery, his hero Conan becomes a king by brawn and brain, not by birth. But Howard, although a far better writer than Tolkien, is the least interesting of the Weird Tales triumvirate, and CAS’s fiction is aristocratic in more than its mention of kings and emperors. He did not write for the canaille, which is why he used words like canaille:


Yes, indeed, one could write numerous reams on the subject of style. The style – or lack of it – required by nearly all magazine editors, [sic] would require a separate treatise. The idea seems to be that everything should be phrased in a manner that will obviate mental effort on the part of the lowest grade moron. I was told the other day that my “Door to Saturn” could only be read with a dictionary.12

One of the reasons popular American culture has been so successfully exported is that it has evolved to appeal to the lowest common denominator: it is “phrased” so to “obviate mental effort”, and ideally to bypass the intellect altogether. The simplicity and directness of an American export like rock’n’roll, whose appeal is based on strong rhythms and high volume, are mirrored in the simplicity and directness of American exports like hamburgers and Coca-Cola, whose appeal is based on fat, salt, and sugar. In short, American culture is democratic and inclusive, not aristocratic and exclusive like European culture. And so a second great irony of fantasy literature is that the European Tolkien is far more democratic and far more successfully exported than the Californian Clark Ashton Smith: Tolkien’s writing is crude and strongly flavored, the literary equivalent of hamburger and coke, while the haute cuisine of CAS remains unknown to many of the millions who read and re-read Lord of the Rings – or watch and re-watch its recent translation into film.

And perhaps that is another part of the key to CAS: fiction that can be translated readily and successfully into film, as Tolkien’s has been, tends to be superficial and direct. CAS’s greatest stories could not be successfully translated into film without being transformed in fundamental ways; that is, without being mutilated. This is another way in which CAS is profoundly un-American. America’s most successful and most characteristic export, advertising its culture to the world, has been film, and film, because it is the most powerful of media, is also the most destructive, killing imagination and feeding passivity and voyeurism.13 Cinema’s inbred cousin, television, exaggerates cinema’s failings and commits the additional crimes of trivialization and superficiality: watching a film at the cinema at least has a sense of ritual and occasion, and lasts about as long as a religious service; watching the same film using a television has no sense of ritual or occasion and can be interrupted and postponed at will.

CAS, born blessedly long before television and no movie-goer, was defiantly logophilic and logocentric, and in that sense is far more modern than artists who work in or are influenced by film: vision has existed for many millions of years among animals and the art based on it, appealing to universal simplicities, crosses boundaries of culture and even species with relative ease: recall the Greek tale of Zeuxis’s trompe l’oeil grapes pecked by birds. True language, on the other hand, appeared only with human beings and the art based on it, being far richer and far more subtle, does not cross barriers of culture with ease and without transformation and distortion. And here is a third great irony of CAS’s relation to JRRT. Tolkien, the professional scholar of language in the homeland of English, wrote with far less sensitivity and richness, beating drums and blasting trumpets where CAS played flutes and citheræ. But if fantasy is an attempt to write as though America did not exist, perhaps it took an American to know precisely how best to perform the nullification.


Notes

1. The Stretchford Chronicles: 25 Years of Peter Simple, The Daily Telegraph, Purnell & Sons, Bristol, 1980, “A graded land”, pg. 165.


2. A factoid often dragged out (with varying figures – sometimes consumption goes as high as two-thirds) by whining liberals and eco-puritans. The precise ratio is impossible to know, but America certainly out-consumes Europe, just as Europe out-consumes the Third World.

3. The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, ch. II, “The Council of Elrond”.

4. “Mark 4:5 And some [seed] fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: 6 But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away.” Because they have deep roots, Catholic and Orthodox Christianity resist the scorching sun of secularism much more effectively.

5. The Hobbit, with much less ambition, achieves much more.

6. Peter Simple, The Stretchford Chronicles: 25 Years of Peter Simple, The Daily Telegraph, Purnell & Sons, Bristol, 1980, “Let them be left”, pg. 173: “Environmentalists, conservationists, anti-pollutionists: the dull, pseudo-scientific words, endlessly repeated – imports, like so much else, from future-crazed America – can arouse in certain moods a perverse rage to build oil-refineries all over Dartmoor.”

7. “As I Remember Klarkash-Ton”, George F. Haas, from The Black Book of Clark Ashton Smith, Arkham House (see online copy).

8. In one famous psychological experiment, Zulus who lived in round huts and ploughed in curves were found to be much less susceptible to certain optical illusions (e.g. the Müller-Lyer arrow illusion). See, for example, the discussion in R.L. Gregory’s Eye and Brain: the Psychology of Seeing.

9. See Lovecraft’s short story “Haunter of the Dark” (1936), set in the New England city of Providence but with a protagonist from the straight-lined, right-angled Wisconsin city of Milwaukee: “As Blake climbed higher, the region seemed stranger and stranger, with bewildering mazes of brooding brown alleys leading eternally off to the south. … Twice he lost his way …”

10. Op. cit., Book One, “Et in Arcadia Ego”, ch. 2

11. Op. cit., Chapter 3, “A Short Rest”.

12. Clark Ashton Smith: Letters to H.P. Lovecraft, Necronomicon Press, West Warwick (Rhode Island), 1987, pg. 23, “c. mid-December 1930” (see online copy).

13. In fantasy’s sister genre, horror, England and America again provide the most successful writer and one of the greatest, but this time England wins: the American Stephen King (1947-     ), the most successful writer of horror, is a cinematic writer weaned on film and has nothing of the subtlety and depth of the English M.R. James (1862-1936) (see CAS’s appreciation “The Weird Works of M.R. James”).

© 2004 Simon Whitechapel

Get Your Ox Off

Boustrophedon (pronounced “bough-stra-FEE-dun” or “boo-stra-FEE-dun”) is an ancient Greek word literally meaning “as the ox turns (in ploughing)”, that is, moving left-right, right-left, and so on. The word is used of writing that runs down the page in the same way. To see what that means, examine two versions of the first paragraph of Clark Ashton Smith’s story “The Demon of the Flower” (1933). The first is written in the usual way, the second is written boustrophedon:

Not as the plants and flowers of Earth, growing peacefully beneath a simple sun, were the blossoms of the planet Lophai. Coiling and uncoiling in double dawns; tossing tumultuously under vast suns of jade green and balas-ruby orange; swaying and weltering in rich twilights, in aurora-curtained nights, they resembled fields of rooted servants that dance eternally to an other-worldly music.


Not as the plants and flowers of Earth, growing peacefully
.iahpoL tenalp eht fo smossolb eht erew ,nus elpmis a htaeneb
Coiling and uncoiling in double dawns; tossing tumultuously
;egnaro ybur-salab dna neerg edaj fo snus tsav rednu
swaying and weltering in rich twilights, in aurora-curtained
ecnad taht stnavres detoor fo sdleif delbmeser yeht ,sthgin
eternally to an other-worldly music.


Boustrophedon writing was once common and sometimes the left-right lines would also be mirror-reversed, like this:
CAS_text1


You could also use the term “boustrophedon” to describe the way this table of numbers is filled:

primes_table


The table begins with “1” in the top left-hand corner, then moves right for “2”, then down for “3”, then right-and-up for “4”, “5” and “6”, then right for “7”, then left-and-down for “8”, “9” and “10”, and so on. You could also say that the numbers snake through the table. I’ve marked the primes among them, because I was interested in the patterns made by the primes when the numbers were represented as blocks on a grid, like this:

primes_large


Primes are in solid white (compare the Ulam spiral). Here’s the boustrophedon prime-grid on a finer scale:

primes

(click for full image)


And what about other number-tests? Here are the even numbers marked on the grid (i.e. n mod 2 = 0):

mod2

n mod 2 = 0


And here are some more examples of a modulus test:

mod3

n mod 3 = 0


mod5

n mod 5 = 0


mod9

n mod 9 = 0


mod15

n mod 15 = 0


mod_various

n mod various = 0 (animated gif)


Next I looked at reciprocals (numbers divided into 1) marked on the grid, with the digits of a reciprocal marking the number of blank squares before a square is filled in (if the digit is “0”, the square is filled immediately). For example, in base ten 1/7 = 0.142857142857142857…, where the block “142857” repeats for ever. When represented on the grid, 1/7 has 1 blank square, then a filled square, then 4 blank squares, then a filled square, then 2 blank squares, then a filled square, and so on:

recip7_base10

1/7 in base 10


And here are some more reciprocals (click for full images):

recip9_base2

1/9 in base 2


recip13_base10

1/13 in base 10


recip27_base10

1/27 in base 10


recip41_base10

1/41 in base 10


recip63_base10

1/63 in base 10


recip82_base10

1/82 in base 10


recip101_base10

1/101 in base 10


recip104_base10

1/104 in base 10


recip124_base10

1/124 in base 10


recip143_base10

1/143 in base 10


recip175_base10

1/175 in base 10


recip604_base8

1/604 in base 8


recip_various

1/n in various bases (animated gif)


Sime Time

I came across the writings of Simon Whitechapel a year ago after picking up the first twenty or so issues of Headpress, a 1990s ’zine that dealt with the relentlessly grim, the esoteric and prurient. His style was fascinating, coming across as intelligent and well-read and — at least from first reading — subtly ironic.

In fact he must have impressed some other people during this time too as Headpress’ Critical Vision imprint spun his collected articles together for publication under the title Intense Device: A Journey Through Lust, Murder and the Fires of Hell — they have all the typical interests that run through Whitechapel’s work — there is an obsession with numerology, with Whitehouse-style distortion music, with Hitler and de Sade. There are also articles on farting, on Jack Chick and novelisations of TV shows. They are fascinating, written in a scholarly way with footnotes aplenty but never difficult to understand. He also wrote two non-fiction works during the late 1990s and early 2000s that centred around sadism and the murder of women in South America. They are dark.

There are also the works of fiction. To say that Whitechapel is transgressive is an understatement. His writing bleeds. The ‘official’ work The Slaughter King is filled with the detailed descriptions of sadistic murder, beginning with a serial killer murdering a gay prostitute whilst listening to distortion-atrocity music. The plot is schlocky but serviceable, jumping around inconsistently but the images it creates are terrifying. A bourgeois dinner party straight out of Buñuel and Pasolini’s nightmares where guests are served poisons as if they were the finest consommés: they eat bees until their faces swell, dropping dead at the table, finishing with a trifle “made from the berries of the several varieties of belladonna, of cuckoo-pint, and of the flowers of monkshood”. It’s a sinister book, but nothing compared to his second work.

Whitechapel wrote The Eyes. This is clear just from a simple comparison between his texts, the fascination with language, with sadism, with de Sade. The thing is, The Eyes is supposedly written by some guy called Aldapuerta, Spanish apparently. ‘Aldapuerta’ can be written Alda Puerta — ‘at the gate’, a telling description of these short stories, which go past this point many, many times. The tale of ‘Aldapuerta’ himself is too exact to be believed: a young boy with an interest in de Sade, corrupted by the local pornographer, medical-school training that honed his knowledge, then a mysterious death (echoing shades of Pasolini’s own) and finishing with the “and he might be baaaack” closer. But this point isn’t really an issue and it’s understandable that Whitechapel would want to keep his name away from this work. It is also surrealistically brilliant at times: amongst the brutality, the images it creates are unforgettable.

Of course, Whitechapel is a fake name, redolent of Jack the Ripper, and even Simon was taken from elsewhere — a colleague perhaps? He disappeared during the 2000s, no longer writing for Headpress, a few self-published chapbooks pastiching Clark Ashton Smith… where did he go? There are the rumours of prison time — they are convincing to my mind, as they too revolve around different identities, around extremity and anonymity. I wonder though, if true, just how much this individual actually believed in them. His most recent writings, at his tricksy blog, hint at this, as well as make his ‘relationship’ with Aldapuerta clearer but it’s not in my ability to directly connect the personas.

If you want to be fascinated and repulsed, then the non-author Simon Whitechapel is for you.

Lancashire


Elsewhere other-posted:

It’s The Gweel Thing…Gweel & Other Alterities, Simon Whitechapel (Ideophasis Books, 2011)

The Power of Babel

“…par la suggestive lecture d’un ouvrage racontant de lointains voyages…” – J.K. Huysmans, À Rebours (1884).

The language you know best is also the language you know least: your mother tongue, the language you acquired by instinct and speak by intuition. Asking a native speaker to describe English, French or Quechua is rather like asking a fish to describe water. The native speaker, like the fish, knows the answer very intimately, yet in some ways doesn’t know as well as a non-native speaker. In other words, standing outside can help you better understand standing inside: there is good in the gap. What is it like to experience gravity? Like most humans, I’ve known all my life, but I’d know better if I were in orbit or en route to the moon, experiencing the absence of gravity.

And what is it like to be human? We all know and we’ve all read countless stories about other human beings. But in some ways they don’t answer that question as effectively as stories that push humanity to the margins, like Richard Adams’ Watership Down (1972), which is about rabbits, or Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves (also 1972), which is about trisexual aliens in a parallel dimension. There is good in the gap, in stepping outside the familiar and looking back to see the familiar anew.


Continuing reading The Power of Babel

The Isle of the Torturer

Front cover of The Doors of Perception by Aldous HuxleyAldous Huxley (1894-1963), the author of Brave New World (1932) and After Many A Summer (1939), is a bad but interesting writer. One of his bad but interesting books is The Doors of Perception (1954), in which he discusses mescalin and mysticism. I like this comment a lot:

In a world where education is predominantly verbal, highly educated people find it all but impossible to pay serious attention to anything but words and notions. There is always money for, there are always doctorates in, the learned foolery of research into what, for scholars, is the all-important question: Who influenced whom to say what when? (Op. cit., pg. 61 of the 1985 Panther paperback)

It’s an insightful and entertaining point. There are analogous questions in biology: what genes influence what and where do they come from? But biologists can answer questions like that much more precisely, because genes are physical entities, susceptible to precise chemical analysis. They can be easily mathematized, turned into statistics, tested for correlations and other patterns. We can’t yet do that to “words and notions” and get the same precise answers. That’s why it’s sometimes easier to answer questions about human prehistory over hundreds of millennia than about human history over decades. For example, we now know that ancient human beings migrating from Africa picked up genes from Neanderthals and a lesser-known group called the Denisovans, while those human beings that stayed behind in Africa picked up genes from other archaic hominids.

But we don’t know whether the Californian author Clark Ashton Smith (1894-1961) influenced the British author Ian Fleming (1908-64). At least, I don’t know, because I think I am the first person to raise the possibility. After all, they aren’t obvious literary associates: Smith wrote highly ornate fantasy set on a quasi-mediaeval far future earth; Fleming wrote vice-and-violence spy-thrillers set in contemporary Europe, America and Japan. And in the Caribbean, which is why the question of CAS’s influence occurred to me. Fleming was the creator of James Bond and one of his Bond adventures, published in 1958, is called Dr. No. It is named after its anti-hero, a Chinese-German megalomaniac called Doctor Julius No who lives on the mountainous island of Crab Key near Jamaica. He is conducting research into the human capacity for suffering:

“Silence!” Doctor No’s voice was the crack of a whip. “Enough of this foolery. Of course it will hurt. I am interested in pain. I am also interested in finding out how much the human body can endure. From time to time I make experiments on those of my people who have to be punished. And on trespassers like yourselves. You have both put me to a great deal of trouble. In exchange I intend to put you to a great deal of pain. I shall record the length of your endurance. The facts will be noted. One day my findings will be given to the world. Your deaths will have served the purposes of science.” (Op. cit., ch. XVI, “Horizons of Agony”)

Front cover of Dr No (Pan paperback)

He is talking to James Bond and Bond’s companion, the beautiful blonde Honeychile Rider. Bond will have to run an “obstacle race, an assault course against death”, which is designed to be unbeatable. Meanwhile, Honeychile will be “pegged out” on the mountain-side as part of another experiment. With sadistic relish, Doctor No reveals what will happen to her:

“This island is called Crab Key. It is called by that name because it is infested with crabs, land crabs — what they call in Jamaica ‘black crabs’. You know them. They weigh about a pound each and they are as big as saucers. At this time of year they come up in thousands from their holes near the shore and climb up towards the mountain. … The crabs devour what they find in their path. … And tonight, in the middle of their path, they are going to find the naked body of a woman pegged out — a banquet spread for them — and they will feel the warm body with their feeding pincers, and one will make the first incision with his fighting claws and then… and then…”

And then Honeychile faints. But, like all the best super-villains, Doctor No mixes sensibility with his sadism. This is what Bond and Honeychile first see when they step from a lift into the heart of Doctor No’s underground lair:

It was a high-ceilinged room about sixty feet long, lined on three sides with books to the ceiling. At first glance, the fourth wall seemed to be made of solid blue-black glass. … Bond’s eye caught a swirl of movement in the dark glass. He walked across the room. A silvery spray of small fish with a bigger fish in pursuit fled across the dark blue. … What was this? An aquarium? Bond looked upwards. A yard below the ceiling, small waves were lapping at the glass. Above the waves was a strip of greyer blue-black, dotted with sparks of light. The outlines of Orion were the clue. This was not an aquarium. This was the sea itself and the night sky. The whole of one side of the room was made of armoured glass. They were under the sea, looking straight into its heart, twenty feet down.

Front cover of Dr No (Pan paperback)

Bond and the girl stood transfixed. As they watched, there was the glimpse of two great goggling orbs. A golden sheen of head and deep flank showed for an instant and was gone. A big grouper? A silver swarm of anchovies stopped and hovered and sped away. The twenty-foot tendrils of a Portuguese man-o’-war drifted slowly across the window, glinting violet as they caught the light. Up above there was the dark mass of its underbelly and the outline of its inflated bladder, steering with the breeze.

Bond walked along the wall, fascinated by the idea of living with this slow, endlessly changing moving picture. A big tulip shell was progressing slowly up the window from the floor level, a frisk of demoiselles and angel fish and a ruby-red moonlight snapper were nudging and rubbing themselves against a corner of the glass and a sea centipede quested along, nibbling at the minute algae that must grow every day on the outside of the window. (Op. cit., ch. XIV, “Come Into My Parlour”)

Yes, the sea-window is a fascinating idea, but where does the idea come from? Here is another literary character, King Fulbra, in the underground domain of another sadist:

After descending many stairs, they came to a ponderous door of bronze; and the door was unlocked by one of the guards, and Fulbra was compelled to enter; and the door clanged dolorously behind him. The chamber into which he had been thrust was walled on three sides with the dark stone of the island, and was walled on the fourth with heavy, unbreakable glass. Beyond the glass he saw the blue-green, glimmering waters of the undersea, lit by the hanging cressets of the chamber; and in the waters were great devil-fish whose tentacles writhed along the wall; and huge pythonomorphs with fabulous golden coils receding in the gloom; and the floating corpses of men that stared in upon him with eyeballs from which the lids had been excised.

That is from Clark Ashton Smith’s short story “The Isle of the Torturers” (1933), which was originally published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales. Like the evil King Ildrac of Smith’s story, Doctor No lives on an island, tortures people and has a glass wall set onto the undersea. But that is not all they have in common. Here is Fleming’s description of Doctor No:

He stood looking at them benignly, with a thin smile on his lips. … (Bond was to get used to that thin smile) … Bond’s first impression was of thinness and erectness and height. Doctor No was at least six inches taller than Bond, but the straight immovable poise of his body made him seem still taller. The head also was elongated and tapered from a round, completely bald skull down to a sharp chin so that the impression was of a reversed raindrop — or rather oildrop, for the skin was of a deep almost translucent yellow.

It was impossible to tell Doctor No’s age: as far as Bond could see, there were no lines on the face. It was odd to see a forehead as smooth as the top of the polished skull. Even the cavernous indrawn cheeks below the prominent cheekbones looked as smooth as fine ivory. There was something Dali-esque about the eyebrows, which were fine and black, and sharply upswept as if they had been painted on as makeup for a conjurer. Below them, slanting jet black eyes stared out of the skull. They were without eyelashes. (ch. XIV, “Come Into My Parlour”)

When King Fulbra is shipwrecked on Uccastrog, the Isle of the Torturers, this is his first sight of its inhabitants:

The people drew near, thronging about the barge and the galley. They wore fantastic turbans of blood-red, and were clad in closely fitting robes of vulturine black. Their faces and hands were yellow as saffron; their small and slaty eyes were set obliquely beneath lashless lids; and their thin lips, which smiled eternally, were crooked as the blades of scimitars. (“The Isle of the Torturers”)

Fulbra surrenders to them with misgivings and is taken to the throne-room of his fellow king, where his misgivings grow:

Soon he came into the presence of Ildrac, who sat on a lofty brazen chair in a vast hall of the palace. Ildrac was taller by half a head than any of his followers; and his features were like a mask of evil wrought from some pale, gilded metal; and he was clad in vestments of a strange hue, like sea-purple brightened with fresh-flowing blood. About him were many guardsmen, armed with terrible scythe-like weapons; and the sullen, slant-eyed girls of the palace, in skirts of vermilion and breast-cups of lazuli, went to and fro among huge basaltic columns. About the hall stood numerous engineries of wood and stone and metal such as Fulbra had never beheld, and having a formidable aspect with their heavy chains, their beds of iron teeth and their cords and pulleys of fish-skin. (Op. cit.)

Master of the Crabs from Weird TalesThe similarities between Doctor No and “The Isle of the Torturers” are obvious. But how likely is it that Fleming had read Smith’s story and then incorporated elements of it into his novel, consciously or unconsciously? Smith wrote of a tall, slant-eyed, yellow-skinned king who ruled an island and oversaw ingenious tortures. Fleming wrote of a tall, slant-eyed, yellow-skinned scientist who ruled an island and oversaw ingenious tortures. The scientist also used crabs as weapons, like the wizard Sarcand in Smith’s story “The Master of the Crabs” (1948):

So saying, he raised his hand and described a peculiar sign with the index finger, on which the ring flashed like a circling orb. The double column of crabs suspended their crawling for a moment. Then, moved as if by a single impulse, they began to scuttle toward us, while others appeared from the cavern’s entrance and from its inner recesses to swell their rapidly growing numbers. They surged upon us with a speed beyond belief, assailing our ankles and shins with their knife-sharp pincers as if animated by demons. I stooped over, striking and thrusting with my arthame; but the few that I crushed in this manner were replaced by scores; while others, catching the hem of my cloak, began to climb it from behind and weigh it down. Thus encumbered, I lost my footing on the slippery ground and fell backward amid the scuttling multitude. (“The Master of the Crabs”)

And that doesn’t exhaust the parallels between Smith’s stories and Fleming’s novel. Here is more of Doctor No’s appearance:

The bizarre, gliding figure looked like a giant venomous worm wrapped in grey tin-foil, and Bond would not have been surprised to see the rest of it trailing slimily along the carpet behind. (ch. XIV, “Come Into My Parlour”)

This is from Smith’s story “The Coming of the White Worm” (1941):

At sight of this entity, the pulses of Evagh were stilled for an instant by terror; and, following quickly upon the terror, his gorge rose within him through excess of loathing. In all the world there was naught that could be likened for its foulness to Rlim Shaikorth. Something he had of the semblance of a fat white worm; but his bulk was beyond that of the sea-elephant. His half-coiled tail was thick as the middle folds of his body; and his front reared upward from the dais in the form of a white round disk, and upon it were imprinted vaguely the lineaments of a visage belonging neither to beast of the earth nor ocean-creature. (“The Coming of the White Worm”)

I can’t claim that it’s probable that Fleming had read Smith or even a strong possibility that he did so, but the shared elements are suggestive. The fact that Doctor No and King Ildrac are both tall could easily, on its own, be a coincidence: size is an obvious and widely used marker of importance and dominance. But each additional similarity reduces the possibility that Fleming was inventing Doctor No ex nihilo. He was certainly familiar with American popular culture and the cheap publications in which Smith’s work appeared. Here are descriptions from two more Bond novels:

There were two or three all-night diners to choose from and they [Bond and a girl called Solitaire] pushed through the door that announced “Good Eats” in the brightest neon. It was the usual sleazy food-machine — two tired waitresses behind a zinc counter loaded with cigarettes and candy and paper-backs and comics. (Live and Let Die, 1954, Chapter XII, “The Everglades”)

At 12.30 they [Bond and his companion Felix Leiter] stopped for lunch at The Chicken in the Basket, a log-built Frontier-style road-house with standard equipment — a tall counter covered with the best-known proprietary brands of chocolates and candies, cigarettes, cigars, magazines and paperbacks, a juke box blazing with chromium and coloured lights that looked like something out of science fiction … (Diamonds Are For Ever, 1956, Chapter 10, “Studillac to Saratoga”)

Smith’s themes – death, pain and suffering – would certainly have appealed to Fleming, who practised sado-masochism with his wife Ann and returned again and again to those themes in his Bond books. This is from You Only Live Twice (1964):

“That is so. You are indeed a genius, lieber Ernst. You have already established this place as a shrine to death for evermore. People read about such fantasies in the works of Poe, Lautréamont, de Sade, but no one has ever created such a fantasy in real life. It is as if one of the great fairy tales has come to life. A sort of Disneyland of Death. But of course,” she hastened to add, “on an altogether grander, more poetic scale.” (Op. cit., Part 2, ch. 17, “Something Evil Comes This Way”)

So it seems that Fleming had read and appreciated Poe and Lautréamont. If he had come across Smith’s work during his trips to America, I suggest that he would not have dismissed it. And it may indeed have influenced his novel Dr. No. Perhaps literary forensics will be able to confirm or reject the hypothesis in future by analysing patterns in Smith’s and Fleming’s work.

At present, the influence of the obscure Californian Smith on the world-famous Briton Fleming remains just that: a hypothesis. But I think there is a stronger case for another influence, this time flowing in the opposite direction: from world-famous Briton to obscure Californian. I quoted above from “The Master of the Crabs”. Here is some more:

Even as we veered landward through the crystalline calm, there was a sudden seething and riffling about us, as if some monster had risen beneath. The boat began to shoot with plummet-like speed toward the cliffs, the sea foaming and streaming all around as though some kraken were dragging us to its caverned lair. Borne like a leaf on a cataract, we toiled vainly with straining oars against the ineluctable current.

Heaving higher momentarily, the cliffs seemed to shear the heavens above us, unscalable, without ledge or foothold. Then, in the sheer wall, appeared the low, broad arch of a cavern-mouth that we had not discerned heretofore, toward which the boat was drawn with dreadful swiftness.

“It is the entrance!” cried the Master. “But some wizard tide has flooded it.”

We shipped our useless oars and crouched down behind the thwarts as we neared the opening: for it seemed that the lowness of the arch would afford bare passage to our high-built prow. There was no time to unstep the mast, which broke instantly like a reed as we raced on without slackening into blind torrential darkness. (“The Master of the Crabs”)

NKing Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggardext comes the encounter with giant crabs quoted previously. So Smith’s short story describes a boat drawn by an irresistible current beneath a low entrance to an encounter with giant crabs. Now try H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain (1887), a sequel to King Solomon’s Mines (1885). Haggard’s adventurers are hunting wildfowl on a lake when they are caught in a strong current:

We realized our danger now and rowed, or rather paddled, furiously in our attempt to get out of the vortex. In vain; in another second we were flying straight for the arch like an arrow, and I thought that we were lost. Luckily I retained sufficient presence of mind to shout out, instantly setting the example by throwing myself into the bottom of the canoe, “Down on your faces — down!” and the others had the sense to take the hint. In another instant there was a grinding noise, and the boat was pushed down till the water began to trickle over the sides, and I thought that we were gone. But no, suddenly the grinding ceased, and we could again feel the canoe flying along [on an underground river]. … (Allan Quatermain, Chapter IX, “Into the Unknown”)

By the river’s edge was a little shore formed of round fragments of rock washed into this shape by the constant action of water, and giving the place the appearance of being strewn with thousands of fossil cannon balls. … And here … we determined to land, in order to rest ourselves a little after all that we had gone through … It was a dreadful place, but it would give an hour’s respite from the terrors of the river, and also allow of our repacking and arranging the canoe. Accordingly we selected what looked like a favourable spot, and with some little difficulty managed to beach the canoe and scramble out on to the round, inhospitable pebbles. … The gloom was so intense that we could scarcely see the way to cut our food and convey it to our mouths. Still we got on pretty well, till I happened to look behind me — my attention being attracted by a noise of something crawling over the stones, and perceived sitting upon a rock in my immediate rear a huge species of black freshwater crab, only it was five times the size of any crab I ever saw. This hideous and loathsome-looking animal had projecting eyes that seemed to glare at one, very long and flexible antennae or feelers, and gigantic claws. Nor was I especially favoured with its company. From every quarter dozens of these horrid brutes were creeping up, drawn, I suppose, by the smell of the food, from between the round stones and out of holes in the precipice. (Allan Quatermain, Chapter X, “The Rose of Fire”)

The similarities between Allan Quatermain and “The Master of the Crabs” seem stronger and clearer than those between “The Isle of the Torturers” and Dr. No. Haggard is widely read even today, in the twenty-first century, and was hugely popular in Smith’s lifetime. It is very difficult to believe that Smith was not familiar with most or all of his work. But if he borrowed ideas from Allan Quatermain, he transformed what he borrowed and produced a better and subtler story. He was, in fact, a much better writer than his probable influence H. Rider Haggard and his putative influencee Ian Fleming. That is part of why he achieved little of their success: he wrote too well, transcending his genre but not the ghetto of his genre.

That’s my opinion, at least, but I can’t prove it, any more than I prove that Smith influenced Fleming or Haggard influenced Smith. Nevertheless, I would argue that the quality of a literary work is a mathematical phenomenon, dependant for its power on the way it manipulates the implicit mathematics of the language faculty in a reader’s brain. Given this, I think that it will some day be possible to analyse two texts mathematically and give objective reasons for preferring one to another. If that happens, I think Smith will be shown to be a literary equivalent of Mozart or Bach, far above the entertaining but crude pop or rock’n’roll of Haggard and Fleming.

It’s already apparent that the patterns of literature are akin to the patterns of music: like poetry, prose has rhythms, melodies, motifs and so on. Words are equivalent to notes, or rather to chords. A word has both a sound and a meaning, or layers of meaning. On the page or screen it has a shape too, but how important word-shapes are in good writing is a difficult question. Shape may be most important in onomastics, or naming systems. Compare two names: Katherine-with-a-K and Catherine-with-a-C. The letter C is more attractive than the letter K and I think the second spelling of the name is more attractive too. So would Smith’s Isle of Torture “Uccastrog”, with a double-c, be more effective as “Ukkastrog”, with a double-k? Or does the guttural sound clash effectively with the elegant double-c?

Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift

I think the latter and I think “Uccastrog” is an example of Smith’s onomastic skill. But the name has echoes of Gulliver’s Travels (1726), which describes the “great prophet Lustrog” (pt. 1, ch. IV) and the islands Luggnagg and Glubbdubdrib (pt. III). Smith certainly read Gulliver’s Travels and certainly shared Swift’s sardonic and satirical tastes. But how much did Swift shape those tastes, rather than merely chime with them? As we saw at the beginning, Aldous Huxley playfully reduced literary scholarship to a game of “Who influenced whom to say what when?” But it’s also a case of “What influenced whom to be influenced by whom?” Did Swift shape Smith, or merely chime with what was already there? If Clark Ashton Smith and his Isle of Torture did not influence Ian Fleming and Dr. No, how we do explain the shared elements? The shared personality of Smith and Fleming? Their shared genetics? Their shared reading of yet another text of which I am not aware? The questions can unwind for ever. But as we wait for science to answer them, the texts and their dark pleasures remain.

Poetry and Putridity

Poetry and Putridity: Interrogating Issues of Narrativistic Necrocentricity in A.E. Housman and Clark Ashton Smith

Thanatic fanatic. Say it. Savour it, if you’re that way inclined. I certainly am: I am obsessed with words. The sound of them, the shape of them, their history, meaning and flavours. If I were a Guardianista, I’d say I was “passionate about” words. But it’s partly because I’m obsessed with words that I’m not a Guardianista. The Guardian and its readers use them badly. I like people who use them well: A.E. Housman and Clark Ashton Smith, for example. AEH (1859-1936) was an English classicist, CAS (1893-1961) a Californian jack-of-all-trades. But they were both masters of the English language.

They were also thanatic fanatics: obsessed with death. But in different ways. You could say that Housman was more death-as-dying, Smith more death-as-decaying. Not that Smith didn’t deal in dying too: he wrote powerfully and disturbingly about our departure from life, not just about what happens to us beyond it. But Housman didn’t dabble in decomposition and decay. In A Shropshire Lad (1896), the death is fresh, not foetid: necks break, throats are slit, athletes die young, men muse on drowning, fiancées arrive at church in coffins, not coaches. Sometimes the effect, and affect, are ludicrous. Sometimes they’re not. Sometimes it’s hard to decide:

On moonlit heath and lonesome bank
  The sheep beside me graze;
And yon the gallows used to clank
  Fast by the four cross ways.

A careless shepherd once would keep
  The flocks by moonlight there,*
And high amongst the glimmering sheep
  The dead man stood on air.

They hang us now in Shrewsbury jail:
  The whistles blow forlorn,
And trains all night groan on the rail
  To men that die at morn.

There sleeps in Shrewsbury jail to-night,
  Or wakes, as may betide,
A better lad, if things went right,
  Than most that sleep outside.

And naked to the hangman’s noose
  The morning clocks will ring
A neck God made for other use
  Than strangling in a string.

And sharp the link of life will snap,
  And dead on air will stand
Heels that held up as straight a chap
  As treads upon the land.

So here I’ll watch the night and wait
  To see the morning shine,
When he will hear the stroke of eight
  And not the stroke of nine;

And wish my friend as sound a sleep
  As lads’ I did not know,
That shepherded the moonlit sheep
  A hundred years ago.

*Hanging in chains was called keeping sheep by moonlight.

A Shropshire Lad, IX.

That poem mingles beauty and bathos as it contemplates death. Other poems have more or less of one or the other, but for Housman death is metaphor and metaphysics, not morbidity and mephitis. He uses it as a symbol of loss and despair and those are his real concerns. There is no literal death here:

’Tis time, I think, by Wenlock town
  The golden broom should blow;
The hawthorn sprinkled up and down
  Should charge the land with snow.

Spring will not wait the loiterer’s time
  Who keeps so long away;
So others wear the broom and climb
  The hedgerows heaped with may.

Oh tarnish late on Wenlock Edge,
  Gold that I never see;
Lie long, high snowdrifts in the hedge
  That will not shower on me.

A Shropshire Lad, XXXIX.

That is an example of multum in parvo: “much in little”. Using simple words and simple metre, Housman creates great beauty and can conjure overwhelming emotion. He was one of the greatest classicists in history, an expert in the rich and complex literature of the ancient world, a profound scholar of Latin and Greek. But his poetry is remarkable for its lack of classical vocabulary. There is no Latin or Greek in the poem above and only two words of French. Clark Ashton Smith was quite different:

“Look well,” said the necromancer, “on the empire that was yours, but shall be yours no longer.” Then, with arms outstretched toward the sunset, he called aloud the twelve names that were perdition to utter, and after them the tremendous invocation: Gna padambis devompra thungis furidor avoragomon.

Instantly, it seemed that great ebon clouds of thunder beetled against the sun. Lining the horizon, the clouds took the form of colossal monsters with heads and members somewhat resembling those of stallions. Rearing terribly, they trod down the sun like an extinguished ember; and racing as if in some hippodrome of Titans, they rose higher and vaster, coming towards Ummaos. Deep, calamitous rumblings preceded them, and the earth shook visibly, till Zotulla saw that these were not immaterial clouds, but actual living forms that had come forth to tread the world in macrocosmic vastness. Throwing their shadows for many leagues before them, the coursers charged as if devil-ridden into Xylac, and their feet descended like falling mountain crags upon far oases and towns of the outer wastes.

Like a many-turreted storm they came, and it seemed that the world shrank gulfward, tilting beneath the weight. Still as a man enchanted into marble, Zotulla stood and beheld the ruining that was wrought on his empire. And closer drew the gigantic stallions, racing with inconceivable speed, and louder was the thundering of their footfalls, that now began to blot the green fields and fruited orchards lying for many miles to the west of Ummaos. And the shadow of the stallions climbed like an evil gloom of eclipse, till it covered Ummaos; and looking up, the emperor saw their eyes halfway between earth and zenith, like baleful suns that glare down from soaring cumuli.

“The Dark Eidolon” (1935).

Smith’s logomania could not be satisfied beyond the bounds of English, in Latin, Greek and French: he stepped outside history altogether and created his own languages to weave word-spells with. If you didn’t know CAS or AEH or their writing, who would seem more like the world-famous classicist? Based on what I have quoted so far, it would perhaps be Smith. But that is part of what is astonishing about his writing: he wasn’t merely a Beethoven of prose, creating gigantic melodies with rich and rolling words, he was a poorly educated Beethoven. Here is another contrast with his fellow thanatic fanatic. Housman was not poorly educated and was given a chance Smith never had: to attend and adorn one of the world’s greatest universities. The chance was dropped. Housman attended, but he didn’t adorn:

After showing himself, as an undergraduate [at Oxford], to be a brilliant – even arrogantly brilliant – student of Latin and Greek, apparently set for a lifetime of scholarship, he produced a performance in his final examination that astonished all who knew him. He handed in a series of blank, or nearly blank, papers and was failed outright. Retrieving the situation as best he could, he completed the requirements for a pass degree, got through the Civil Service examination, and secured a post at the Patent Office. (The Collected Poems of A.E. Housman, Wordsworth, 2005, Michael Irwin’s Introduction, pg. 8)

Housman would end his life, laden with honours, as a Professor of Latin at Cambridge, but that isn’t surprising. The fiasco at Oxford certainly was. Why did it happen? A nervous breakdown or failure to work, perhaps, because of his unrequited love for a fellow student: Moses Jackson, who was healthy, heterosexual, and had no time for classical scholarship. In later life, travelling to cities like Paris and Venice, Housman would indulge much more than his gastronomic and aesthetic appetites. But he seems to have believed that sex without love is like food without flavour. And he never ceased loving Jackson. When he completed volume one of his magnum opus, a definitive edition of the Roman poet Manilius (fl. 1st century A.D.), he dedicated it to Jackson in Latin, dubbing him harum litterarum contemptor, “a scorner of these writings”. That was in 1903, when Jackson was married and living in India. Jackson would later move to Canada, where he died of anaemia in 1923. His death was anticipated by this cri du cœur from Housman:

The half-moon westers low, my love,
  And the wind brings up the rain;
And wide apart lie we, my love,
  And seas between the twain.

I know not if it rains, my love,
  In the land where you do lie;
And oh, so sound you sleep, my love,
  You know no more than I.

Last Poems (1922), XXVI.

But cri du cœur is not the mot juste: it is a very simple poem with only a single foreign word. That is, if “apart” can be called foreign, after centuries on the tongues and lips of English-speakers. Almost everything else has been there millennia and that is part of Housman’s word-magic. His poems are really about depth, not distance. One of the most famous says, in the same simple vocabulary, that far away is close at hand:

On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble;
  His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
  And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

’Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
  When Uricon the city stood:
’Tis the old wind in the old anger,
  But then it threshed another wood.

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
  At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
  The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
  Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
  Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The gale, it plies the saplings double,
  It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
  Are ashes under Uricon.

A Shropshire Lad, XXXI.

Death for Housman, as it was for Swinburne, is “a sleep”: when the body is ashes, the brain is troubled no more. Death does not necessarily sleep in Clark Ashton Smith:

Natanasna (chanting):

Muntbauut, maspratha butu, [Mumbavut, lewd and evil spirit,]
Varvas runu, vha rancutu. [Wheresoever thou roamest, hear me.]
Incubus, my cousin, come,
Drawn from out the night you haunt,
From the hollow mist and murk
Where discarnate larvae lurk,
By the word of masterdom.
Hell will keep its covenant,
You shall have the long-lost thing
That you howl and hunger for.
Borne on sable, sightless wing,
Leave the void that you abhor,
Enter in this new-made grave,
You that would a body have:
Clothed with the dead man’s flesh,
Rising through the riven earth
In a jubilant rebirth,
Wend your ancient ways afresh,
By the mantra laid on you
Do the deed I bid you do.
Vora votha Thasaidona [By (or through) Thasaidon’s power]
Sorgha nagrakronitlhona. [Arise from the death-time-dominion.]

(After a pause)

Vachat pantari vora nagraban [The spell (or mantra) is finished by the necromancer.]

Kalguth: Za, mozadrim: vachama vongh razan. [Yes, master: the vongh (corpse animated by a demon) will do the rest. (These words are from Umlengha, an ancient language of Zothique, used by scholars and wizards.)]

(The turf heaves and divides, and the incubus-driven Lich of Galeor rises from the grave. The grime of interment is on its face, hands, and clothing. It shambles forward and presses close to the outer circle, in a menacing attitude. Natanasna raises the staff, and Kalguth the arthame, used to control rebellious sprits. The Lich shrinks back.)

The Lich (in a thick, unhuman voice): You have summoned me,
And I must minister
To your desire.

Natanasna: Heed closely these instructions:
By alleys palled and posterns long disused,
Well-hidden from the moon and from men’s eyes,
You shall find ingress to the palace. There,
Through stairways only known to mummied kings
And halls forgotten save by ghosts, you must
Seek out the chamber of the queen Somelis,
And woo her lover-wise till that be done
Which incubi and lovers burn to do.

That is from Smith’s The Dead Will Cuckold You (1951), “A Drama in Six Scenes”. It is also a drama with a sex-scene, by implication, at least. The re-animated corpse follows its instructions, seeks out the palace and enters the “chamber of the queen Somelis”, who addresses it thus as her husband, King Smaragd, beats on the locked door:

Poor Galeor, the grave has left you cold:
I’ll warm you in my bed and in my arms
For those short moments ere the falling sword
Shatter the fragile bolts of mystery
And open what’s beyond. (Op. cit., Scene IV)

I read the play daunted by its erudition, delighted by its epeolatry, and disturbed by its emetic extremity. Some of Smith’s work is about something other than death. This play is about nothing but death. Compare it with Smith’s short-story “The Isle of Torturers” (1933), which contains both poetry and putridity. It’s part richness, part retching. There is poetry like this:

Creaming with a winy foam, full of strange murmurous voices and vague tales of exotic things, the halcyon sea was about the voyagers now beneath the high-lifting summer sun. But the sea’s enchanted voices and its long languorous, immeasurable cradling could not soothe the sorrow of Fulbra; and in his heart a despair abided, black as the gem that was set in the red ring of Vemdeez.

Howbeit, he held the great helm of the ebon barge, and steered as straightly as he could by the sun toward Cyntrom. The amber sail was taut with the favoring wind; and the barge sped onward all that day, cleaving the amaranth waters with its dark prow that reared in the carven form of an ebony goddess. And when the night came with familiar austral stars, Fulbra was able to correct such errors as he had made in reckoning the course.

“The Isle of Torturers” (1933).

There is also putridity like this:

Anon the drowned and dripping corpses went away; and Fulbra was stripped by the Torturers and was laid supine on the palace floor, with iron rings that bound him closely to the flags at knee and wrist, at elbow and ankle. Then they brought in the disinterred body of a woman, nearly eaten, in which a myriad maggots swarmed on the uncovered bones and tatters of dark corruption; and this body they placed on the right hand of Fulbra. And also they fetched the carrion of a black goat that was newly touched with beginning decay; and they laid it down beside him on the left hand. Then, across Fulbra, from right to left, the hungry maggots crawled in a long and undulant wave…

In The Dead Will Cuckold You, the poetry never escapes the putridity. After reading it, you will understand why L. Sprague de Camp remarked this of Smith: “Nobody since Poe has so loved a well-rotted corpse” (Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: the Makers of Heroic Fantasy, Arkham House 1976, pg. 206). Nor has anyone since Poe so loved an ingenious torture: in Scene V of the play, King Smaragd threatens his guards with a “douche” of “boiling camel-stale”. There’s humour in Smith’s morbidity, but I think that he dwelt too long on unhealthy themes. It shows both in his stories and in his popularity: the Weird Tales Big Three, H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), Robert E. Howard (1906-36), and Clark Ashton Smith, are rather like the three stars in the belt of Orion. Lovecraft and Howard are bright Alnilam and Mintaka, Smith is dimmer Alnitak. His luxuriant lexicon explains part of this, but his necrocentric narratives must repel people too.

Housman wrote about death more delicately and distantly. His work doesn’t so much narrativize the necrotic as thematicize the thanatic. It talks about dying, not decaying, and it doesn’t relish the repellent as Smith’s work often did. This helps explain why Housman is a bigger name in English literature than Smith, though I don’t think he was a greater writer. Housman is a minor poet with a major name. I think he deserves it for the beauty and simplicity of his verse. He’s a word-magician who can conjure tears. Smith is a word-magician who can conjure titans. He did more with English and deserves some of Housman’s fame. With his poetry, he might have won it; with his putridity, he lost his chance.

Vapor Tales

Frogs: Inside Their Remarkable World, Ellin Beltz (2005)

Everyone say “eye”. Because I think that is one of the most important reasons that frogs and toads are so endearing. Their large eyes and their large mouths make them seem full of character and full of interest in the world. Their four limbs and plumpness are important too, I think, and I suspect that looking at them activates some of the same regions of the brain as looking at a baby does. All that would certainly help explain why we like them. The Californian herpetologist Ellin Beltz doesn’t spend long examining the roots of the human affection for and interest in the batrachians, as frogs and toads are called. “Is it perhaps that frogs look and act rather like people?” she asks and then gets on with the science. But she herself is obviously a dedicated batrachophile and she’s written an interesting and exhaustive introduction to what is indeed a remarkable world. There are frogs smaller than a human fingernail, like Psyllophryne didactyla, the gold frog of southeastern Brazil, and frogs larger than a human head. Or one species larger than some heads, anyway: Conraua goliath, the goliath frog of Cameroon. There are also frogs, the Malaysian Rhacophorus spp.,* that fly, or glide, at least, on the extended webbing between their toes, and frogs that literally stick around for sex: “males of the genus Breviceps from southern Africa” have very “short front legs” and “use special skin secretions to glue themselves onto the females” (pg. 149). Elsewhere, the Australian desert spadefoot toad, Notaden nichollsi, uses a “smelly skin secretion” to ward off predators (pg. 58).

(*Sp. = species, singular; spp. = species, plural.)

Front cover of Frogs by Ellin Beltz

That species isn’t very dangerous, but the much smaller poison-arrow frogs of South America definitely are: “the golden dart frog, Phyllobates terribilis, is credited with producing ‘the most toxic naturally occurring substance’ ” (pg. 147). In captivity, deprived of the wild food from which they manufacture their toxins, the poison-arrow frogs are harmless, but their remarkable colours remain: they look like harlequins in all shades of the rainbow. Whether these rainbow frogs are also raines beaux, or “beautiful frogs”, as they might be called in French, is a matter of taste, but some frogs definitely are beautiful. So are some toads: the male golden toad, Bufo periglenes, is a vivid golden-orange. Or rather, was: it was once a tourist attraction as it swarmed “out to mate in great congregations” in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve in Costa Rica, but “photographs seem to be all that remains of this exquisite amphibian” (pg. 43). Yes, the ugliness in this book isn’t supplied only by the villainous-looking cane toad, Bufo marinus, which has been munching and poisoning its way through Australia’s native wildlife since it was foolishly introduced there in 1935. There’s also ugliness in the story of what is happening to the world’s amphibians. They’ve been disappearing everywhere and most of chapter four, “Environment & Adaptation”, is given over to the threats they face from pollution, bacteria, viruses, and various fungi, including the chytrid fungus responsible for “chytridiomycosis, a fatal fungus disease that leads to thickening and sloughing of the skin and death by unknown causes” (pg. 118).

African clawed frogs, Xenopus spp., are “asymptomatic carriers” of chytrid fungus. Because they were once used in pregnancy tests, they have been introduced all over the world and may have helped the fungus spread. However, the ever-growing human population is perhaps the greatest threat to the survival of wild amphibia, as it is to fauna and flora in general. More people mean more roads and more cars, for example:

Roadkill numbers are immense. Frogs don’t even have to be hit by a vehicle; the force of its passing can literally suck them inside out. Hundreds of flattened and inverted corpses lie roadways on rainy nights. (pg. 121)

Some species may be disappearing without ever being recorded. Perhaps the strangest and unfroggy-est frog in this book is Nakisakabatrachus sahyadrensis, the Kerala purple frog of southern India, which has tiny eyes and dark, leathery skin. It lives underground most of the year and was only described by scientists in 2003. Its tiny eyes are part of its adaptation to underground life. Eyes are a guide to ecology in other ways: a batrachian’s angle of vision is a clue to its edibility. Frogs, whose eyes are usually positioned so they can see both ahead and behind, are edible and fear predators. Toads, which usually can’t see behind themselves, are inedible and don’t fear predators. I can remember once picking up a tiny toadlet, or juvenile toad, and feeling my fingers sting from the secretions it released. Among Beltz’ personal anecdotes in this book is one about what happened when she and a colleague found a Couch’s spadefoot toad, Scaphiopus couchii, on the U.S.-Mexico border:

It was drizzling, and I brought the toad into the car for a good identification. We were paging through the field guide and put on the defoggers to clear the windows when we were overcome by a wave of noxious vapor emitted by the toad. It was like teargas and we exploded out of the car, put the toad into a ditch and tried to air out the car. Whatever toxin the toad let loose that night, I was down for 24 hours, sleeping with runny eyes and all the symptoms of a major cold. My colleague was similarly affected. Other reports of noxious fumes from southwestern toads have been [made]. (“Frog Miscellany”, pg. 149)

Stories like that are part of what makes this such an enjoyable book and although, at 175 pages with lots of large photos, it’s too brief to explore thoroughly all the biological topics it raises, there are pointers to some interesting aspects of evolution – and mathematics. Try this description of the Eastern spadefoot, Scaphiopus holbrookii, and plains spadefoot, Spea bombifrons, which live in deserts in North America:

When the rains fall, they congregate at temporary pools to breed. It takes the eggs two weeks to hatch into tadpoles. At this point, more rain is needed; otherwise the pools dry up and the plant-eating tadpoles die. Some tadpoles become cannibalistic under these harsh conditions, permitting some individuals to survive long enough to transform into frogs by eating the bodies of their herbivorous relatives. (ch. 2, “Frog Families”, pg. 37)

Consider the evolutionary mathematics of this cannibalism. It’s easy to understand genes instructing an individual to eat. Less easy to understand are genes that might instruct an individual to let itself be eaten. But the tadpoles in a temporary pool can be seen as a kind of super-organism. The super-organism initially has many mouths to turn algae and so on into tadpole-flesh. Then, as the pool shrinks, the super-organism begins to eat itself, having exploited the resources of the pool with maximum efficiency. It’s possible there is even a class of tadpole that exists to put on flesh fast and then be eaten by its siblings. It would never breed, but evolutionarily speaking that behaviour would be no more paradoxical than the sterile workers among ants, bees and wasps. Or the juvenile birds that let themselves starve to death in an over-crowded, underfed nest. The apparently suicidal genes of a cannibalized tadpole or sterile worker or starved nestling do not survive in that non-breeding individual, but they promote behaviour that enables unactivated copies of themselves to survive better in other individuals – as Richard Dawkins explains in The Blind Watchmaker (1986).

Swimming in another kind of pool is responsible for other evolved features in batrachians: their sometimes vivid colours or cunning camouflage. For millions of years, images of batrachians have been created in the chemical sludge of predators’ brains. And so, like snakes and wasps, batrachians signal their toxicity with colour. Or use colour to disguise their outlines or blend into the background. But batrachians are also like octopuses and other cephalopods: they can change their colour using special structures in their skin called chromatophores. One of the briefest but most interesting sections in this book discusses this shade-shifting and the cells responsible for it: the melanophores (responsible for black and brown colouration), xanthophores (yellow), erythrophores (red and orange), and iridophores (responsible for iridescence in the poison-arrow frogs). But what is briefly mentioned is extensively illustrated: almost every page has one or more colourful photographs of frogs and toads, usually in what appears to be their natural habitat.

There are also diagrams of batrachian anatomy and evolutionary relationships and pictures of art and sculpture in chapter five, “Frogs in Myth and Culture”. You’ll learn in the evolutionary discussions that toads aren’t a distinct group, because they don’t have a single common ancestor distinguishing them from frogs. But they look different to us and chapter five says that they were sacred to Heqet, the Egyptian goddess of childbirth and fertility. She’s depicted with an almost scientifically precise green toad, or Bufo viridis, on an ivory obstetric wand found near Thebes and dating from “around 2000 to 1700 BCE” (pg. 131). That “BCE”, like the “humanmade objects” mentioned on page 47, is a reminder that Ellin Beltz is a modern, and politically correct, American, unlike a Californian born in the Victorian era whose absence can’t, alas, be called a flaw in this book. The Auburn writer Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) and his interplanetary toad-god Tsathoggua and man-slaying toad-witch Mère “Mother of Toads” Antoinette aren’t famous and Beltz may never have heard of them. Instead, she discusses Shakespeare and the three toad-toxin-brewing witches of Macbeth (1611), Mark Twain and “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1867), and Kenneth Graham and Toad of Toad Hall from Wind in the Willows (1908).

In short, she covers all the batrachian bases, from biology to books by way of batrachophagous bats and a bee-eating Bufo japonicus. The batrachophage, or frog-eater, is the fringe-lipped bat, Trachops cirrhosus of Central America, which tracks its prey by homing in on their calls. And here’s another acoustic anecdote to end on, demonstrating that Hollywood’s hegemony is partly herpetological:

Chorus frogs, Pseudacris spp., include the Pacific treefrog, Pseudacris regilla, the “ribbet frog” known to every movie fan. At some time in the early days of talkies, someone recorded frogs in a pond, probably near the famous Hollywood sign. The same audio loop is used over and over again in movies, leading to hysteria among amphibian researchers who hear “ribbet” in darkest Africa, South America and Australia… The Pacific treefrog is actually restricted to the western edge of North America. (ch. 2, “Frog Families”, pg. 49)

C.A.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) was from Ulster, Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) from California. The two men wrote fantasy fiction, distrusted science, and rejected modernism. They had two initials in common too, but not much else. Like his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis believed in angels but, again like Tolkien, he didn’t write like one. CAS didn’t believe in angels, but did write like one. There is less literary magic in the whole of the Narnia series (1950-6) or Lord of the Rings (1954-5) than in a single of CAS’s Zothique stories, like “The Dark Eidolon” (1935) or “Empire of the Necromancers” (1932). If the English language is a harp, Lewis and Tolkien rarely plucked its sweetest strings. CASean notes do sound now and then in Lord of the Rings, like “The Mirror of Galadriel” and “The Pyre of Denethor”, but the prose of these chapters doesn’t match their titles. CAS, by contrast, could have written prose worthy of the titles. Elsewhere in Lord of the Rings, it’s the prose of a chapter that’s CASean rather than the title. But not very CASean, and not for very long:

The long journey from Rivendell had brought them far south of their own land, but not until now in this more sheltered region had the hobbits felt the change of clime. Here Spring was already busy about them: fronds pierced moss and mould, larches were green-fingered, small flowers were opening in the turf, birds were singing. Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness. (The Two Towers, Book IV, chapter 4, “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit”)

Kings made tombs more splendid than houses of the living, and counted old names in the rolls of their descent dearer than the names of sons. Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry; in secret chambers withered men compounded strong elixirs, or in high cold towers asked questions of the stars. And the last king of the line of Anárion had no heir. (Ibid., chapter 5, “The Window on the West”)

Queen Jadis rides a hackney-cab in nineteenth-century London

Lewis does better, or at least longer: he sustains a flight of CASean invention over two chapters of The Magician’s Nephew (1955). As usual, Pauline Baynes’ drawings are better than his writing, but the prose is conjuring something unusual for Lewis: a genuine sense of antiquity, mystery and desolation. The two young protagonists of the book, Digory and Polly, have been tricked into a “Wood between the Worlds” by the book’s magician. The wood is full of magic pools. Jump into one of them and you’ll be transported to another world. Digory and Polly jump into a pool and find themselves in an ancient abandoned palace lit by a “dull, rather red light”. They begin to explore:

Every now and then they thought they were going to get out into the open and see what sort of country lay around the enormous palace. But each time they only got into another courtyard. They must have been magnificent places when people were still living there. In one there had once been a fountain. A great stone monster with wide-spread wings stood with its mouth open and you could still see a bit of piping at the back of its mouth, out of which the water used to pour. Under it was a wide stone basin to hold the water; but it was as dry as a bone. In other places there were the dry sticks of some sort of climbing plant which had wound itself round the pillars and helped to pull some of them down. But it had died long ago. And there were no ants or spiders or any of the other living things you expect to see in a ruin; and where the dry earth showed between the broken flagstones there was no grass or moss. (Op. cit., chapter four, “The bell and the hammer” (sic))

The prose plods, but one’s aesthetics nods: Lewis is invoking a strange and powerful world. Then the children find a room full of richly dressed men and women frozen like statues. Some look kind and wise, some proud and cruel, some evil and despairing. One woman, the most richly dressed of all and, to Digory, the most beautiful, has a “look of such fierceness and pride that it took your breath away.” There is magic in the room and Digory triggers it, thereby breaking the spell that holds the beautiful woman in suspended animation. She is both a queen and a witch – the witch Jadis. Her name in French means “of old, in olden times”, but the children are not in France, as they discover when Jadis guides them out of the palace:

Much more light than they had yet seen in that country was pouring in through the now empty doorway, and when the Queen led them out through it they were not surprised to find themselves in the open air. The wind that blew in their faces was cold, yet somehow stale. They were looking from a high terrace and there was a great landscape spread out below them.

Low down and near the horizon hung a great, red sun, far bigger than our sun. Digory felt at once that it was also older than ours: a sun near the end of its life, weary of looking down upon that world. To the left of the sun, and higher up, there was a single star, big and bright. Those were the only two things to be seen in the dark sky; they made a dismal group. And on the earth, in every direction, as far as the eye could reach, there spread a vast city in which there was no living thing to be seen. And all the temples, towers, palaces, pyramids, and bridges cast long, disastrous-looking shadows in the light of that withered sun. Once a great river had flowed through the city, but the water had long since vanished, and it was now only a wide ditch of gray dust.

“Look well on that which no eyes will ever see again,” said the Queen. “Such was Charn, that great city, the city of the King of Kings, the wonder of the world, perhaps of all worlds…” (chapter five, “The Deplorable Word”)

Jadis and the city of Charn are Lewis’s most successful invocations of CASean themes like female beauty, sorcerous evil, and dying (or dead) worlds. But the prose is weak and insipid beside that of Clark Ashton Smith – as you can see for yourself by following the links below:

“The Dark Eidolon”

“Empire of the Necromancers”

“The Charnel God”

Palace in Numberland

The Palace of Primes

“Cur ad uvas per Zeusim depictas accursabant volucres?” – Iordani Bruni Ars Memoriæ (1582).

“Why did birds flock to the grapes painted by Zeuxis?” – Giordano Bruno’s Art of Memory.

“To mnemonicize the primes is to partake of the mind of God, as though one dipped a shell into plumbless nectar and drank thereof.” So runs the saying in the Cult of Primes, wherein prodigious feats of memory are demanded even of the neophytes, who must enthrone in a memory-palace the initial 931 primes (from 2 to 7,307) ere they can begin climbing, rung by jaden rung, the ladder of the Hierarchy. The Cult has a number-system based on thirty: which is to say, where we, with a base of ten, have nine number-symbols and the cipher, they have twenty-nine ditto and ditto. To each symbol, in their mnemonics, they assign a beast, bird, and flower; a metal, gem, and wood; a fur, cloth, and silk; a food, drink, and condiment; a colour, scent, and sound. Thus, a hummingbird hovering above an emerald amid scent of vanilla symbolizes the prime 1,667; an eye upon a silver harp the prime 5,059; and a porphyry scarab upon a cheetah’s fur the prime 11,173.

When once the neophytes have mastered the system of mnemonics, each sets to constructing his Palatium Primorum, his Palace of Primes. Herein, each Prime has Its Room, wherein It sits on a Throne studded with symbols of its attributes, whilst courtiers feast and musicians play before It. And in the Left Wall of the Room are many doors symbolizing numbers from 1 to 31. If one is in the Throne-Room of 137, for example, and one steps through the Door of 13, one finds oneself in the Throne-Room of 199, the Prime 13 places higher in the List of Primes; and similarly, mutatis mutandis, for other numbers and other doors. And in the Right Wall are an increasing number of doors leading to Primes lower in the list. Thus, the Throne-Room of 2 has no doors on the right; and of 3 has one door; and of 5 two doors; and so till 131, the 32nd prime, whereat the Right Doors reach their maximum. And each priest of the Cult, from his neophycy on, will toil a lifetime bedecking, manning, and extending the Palace, till it seems to him more real than the World, vaster than the Universe, and dearer to him than his heart-beat.

Nor, if earthly misfortune overtakes him, does the Palace fail of consolation, for a priest can resort thither for surcease of pain, if upon the rack; for oblivion of want, if destitute or starving; and for foretaste of Paradise, if dying. Yea, Paradise is a Palace, in the teaching of the Cult, a Palatium Omnium Primorum, of All Primes, primes numberless as beats of a deathless heart, as sands of an endless shore, as stars of a boundless heaven. And Herein the Doors of the Left Wall are infinite and the Doors of the Right increase for ever.

Lulu Lunatic Luz

It’s disturbing what you can find online…

Tales of Silence & Sortilege, Simon Whitechapel, Paperback, 111 Pages

May 28, 2012

If you love weird fantasy, if you love the English language, even if you don’t love Clark Ashton Smith, you should read this book. The back cover describes it as “the darkest and most disturbing fantasy” of this millennium, but that’s either sarcastic or tragically optimistic, because what these stories really are is beautiful. The breath of snow-wolves is described as “harsh-spiced.” A mysterious gargoyle leaning from the heights of a great cathedral has “wings still glistening with the rime of interplanetary flight.” Hummingbirds are “gem-feathered… their glittering breasts dusted with the gold of a hundred pollens.” If you cannot appreciate such imagery, then perhaps you are dead to beauty, or simply dead. These tales are very short, but some of them have stayed with me for years, such as “The Treasure of the Temple,” in which a thief seems to lose the greatest fortune he could ever have found by stealing a king’s ransom in actual treasure. Most of the stories are brilliant, one or two is only good, but the masterpieces are “Master of the Pyramid” and “The Return of the Cryomancer.” The sense of loss and mystery evoked by these two companion stories is almost physically painful, it is so haunting. There is nothing like these stories being published today. Reading them, I feel the excitement and wonder that fans of Weird Tales magazine must have known long ago when new stories would appear by H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard. Simon Whitechapel doesn’t imitate these authors so much as apply their greatest lessons to new forms of fantasy. This is one of the cheapest books I own, but I accord it one of my most valuable. It is easily the best work of art you will find in any form on Lulu. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The Roses of Hsūlag-Beiolă, Simon Whitechapel, Paperback, 154 Pages

Jun 8, 2012

This collection of weird fantasy is filled with mystery, wonder and a sense of the ineffable. Not every story is a mind-blowing masterpiece, but the best of them are absolutely spectacular. Even the worst are good and all are haunting in one way or another. My two favorites were: 1. “The Mercy of the Osmomancer,” wherein a knight on a mission to investigate the tower of a scent-wizard encounters demons made of smells and even learns the language of odors… 2. “The Swans,” in which a pawnbroker tracks down all the known paintings of a seemingly insane artist who paints his canvases entirely black, nothing but black, for reasons best and most poetically left to Simon Whitechapel to explain… Any fan of H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Edgar Allan Poe, Comte de Lautréamont, Charles Baudelaire or William S. Burroughs will find something wonderful to love in here. I sure did.


Even more disturbing is the thought that this individual may be able to pass themself off as normal in real life: there are no spelling mistakes or solecisms. (Then again, perhaps I’m reviewing my own books in my sleep. (But I wouldn’t compare myself to B*rr**ghs, surely? (Unless it’s a bluff or double-bluff. (Disturbing, as I said. (I agree.)))))