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

Term-in-ator!

V. disappointed by China Miéville on BBC Radio 4’s Book Club (Sunday 1st November). It took him eight minutes to say “in terms of”.

Performativizing Papyrocentricity #28

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

HimmelangstNo Empty Chairs: The Short and Heroic Lives of the Young Aviators Who Fought and Died in the First World War, Ian Mackersey (Phoenix 2012)

Arioch’n’RollThe White Stuff: Archetype, Anomie and Allegorical Albinism in the Music of Hawkwind, 1972-81, Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (University of Nebraska Press 1996)

Jewels in the SkullThe Art Book, Phaidon (Second edition 2012) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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.

Keeping It Gweel

Gweel & Other Alterities, Simon Whitechapel (Ideophasis Press, 2011)

This review is a useless waste of time. I can tell you very little about Gweel. It’s a book, if that helps. It’s made of paper. It has pages. Lots of little words on the pages.

What I can’t do is classify Gweel into a genre, not because none of them fit, but because the concept of a genre doesn’t seem to apply to Gweel. It stands alone, without classification. Calling Gweel “experimental” or “avant garde” would be like stamping a barcode on a moon rock.

It may have been written for an audience of one: author Simon Whitechapel. If we make the very reasonable assumption that he owns a copy of his own book, he may have attained 100% market saturation. However, there could be a valuable peripheral market: people who want to read a book that is very different from anything they’ve read before.

It is a collection of short pieces of writing, similar in tone but not in form, exploring “dread, death, and doom.” “Kopfwurmkundalini” and “Beating the Meat” resemble horror stories, and manage to be frightening yet strangely fantastic. The first one is about a man – paralysed in a motorbike accident, able to communicate only by eye-blinks – and his induction into a strange new reality. It contains a rather thrilling story-within-a-story called “MS Found in a Steel Bottle”, about two men journeying to the bottom of the ocean in a bathysphere. “Kopfwurmkundalini”’s final pages are written in a made-up language, but the author has encluded a glossary so that you can finish the story.

Those two/three stories make up about half of Gweel’s length. The remainder mostly consists of shorter work that seems to be more about creating an atmosphere or evoking an emotion. “Night Shift” is about a prison for planets (Venus, we learn, is serving a 10^3.2 year sentence for sex-trafficking), and a theme of prisons and planets runs through a fair few of the other stories here, although usually in a less surreal context. “Acariasis” is a vignette about a convict who sees a dust-mite crawling on his cell wall, and imagines it’s a grain of sand from Mars. The image is vivid and the piece has a powerful effect. “Primessence” is The Shawshank Redemption on peyote (and math). A prisoner believes that because his cell is a prime number, he will soon be snatched from it by some mathematical daemon (the story ends with the prisoner’s fate unknown). “The Whisper” is a ghost story of sorts, short and achingly sad.

No doubt my impression of Gweel differs from the one the author intended. But maybe his intention was that I have that different impression than him. Maybe Gweel reveals different secrets to each reader.

I can’t analyse it much, but Gweel struck me as an experience like Fellini’s Amarcord… lots of little story-threads, none of them terribly meaningful on their own. Experienced together, however, those threads will weave themselves into a tapestry in the hall of your mind, a tapestry that’s entirely unique… and your own.

Original review


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Previously pre-posted:

It’s The Gweel Thing…