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 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.


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

Dice in the Witch House

“Who could associate mathematics with horror?”

John Buchan answered that question in “Space” (1911), long before H.P. Lovecraft wrote masterpieces like “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926) and “Dreams in the Witchhouse” (1933). But Lovecraft’s use of mathematics is central to his genius. So is his recognition of both the importance and the strangeness of mathematics. Weird fiction and maths go together very well.

But weird fiction is about the intrusion or eruption of the Other into the everyday. Maths can teach you that the everyday is already Other. In short, reality is weird — the World is a Witch House. Let’s start with a situation that isn’t obviously weird. Suppose you had three six-sided dice, A, B and C, each with different set of numbers, like this:

Die A = (1, 2, 3, 6, 6, 6)
Die B = (1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 6)
Die C = (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

If the dice are fair, i.e. each face has an equal chance of appearing, then it’s clear that, on average, die A will beat both die B and die C, while die B will beat die C. The reasoning is simple: if die A beats die B and die B beats die C, then surely die A will beat die C. It’s a transitive relationship: If Jack is taller than Jim and Jim is taller than John, then Jack is taller than John.

Now try another set of dice with different arrangements of digits:

Die A = (1, 2, 2, 5, 6, 6)
Die B = (1, 1, 4, 5, 5, 5)
Die C = (3, 3, 3, 3, 4, 6)

If you roll the dice, on average die A beats die B and die B beats die C. Clearly, then, die A will also beat die C. Or will it? In fact, it doesn’t: the dice are what is called non-transitive. Die A beats die B and die B beats die C, but die C beats die A.

But how does that work? To see a simpler example of non-transitivity, try a simpler set of random-number generators. Suppose you have a triangle with a short rod passing through its centre at right angles to the plane of the triangle. Now imagine numbering the edges of the triangles (1, 2, 3) and throwing it repeatedly so that it spins in the air before landing on a flat surface. It should be obvious that it will come to rest with one edge facing downward and that each edge has a 1/3 chance of landing like that.

In other words, you could use such a spiked triangle as a random-number generator — you could call it a “trie”, plural “trice”. Examine the set of three trice below. You’ll find that they have the same paradoxical property as the second set of six-sided dice above. Trie A beats trie B, trie B beats trie C, but trie C beats trie A:

Trie A = (1, 5, 8)
Trie B = (3, 4, 7)
Trie C = (2, 3, 9)

When you throw two of the trice, there are nine possible outcomes, because each of three edges on one trie can be matched with three possible edges on the other. The results look like this:

Trie A beats Trie B 5/9ths of the time.
Trie B beats Trie C 5/9ths of the time.
Trie C beats Trie A 5/9ths of the time.

To see how this works, here are the results throw-by-throw:

Trie A = (1, 5, 8)
Trie B = (3, 4, 7)

When Trie A rolls 1…

…and Trie B rolls 3, Trie B wins (Trie A has won 0 out of 1)
…and Trie B rolls 4, Trie B wins (0 out of 2)
…and Trie B rolls 7, Trie B wins (0 out of 3)

When Trie A rolls 5…

…and Trie B rolls 3, Trie A wins (1/4)
…and Trie B rolls 4, Trie A wins (2/5)
…and Trie B rolls 7, Trie B wins (2/6)

When Trie A rolls 8…

…and Trie B rolls 3, Trie A wins (3/7)
…and Trie B rolls 4, Trie A wins (4/8)
…and Trie B rolls 7, Trie A wins (5/9)

Trie B = (3, 4, 7)
Trie C = (2, 3, 9)

When Trie B rolls 3…

…and Trie C rolls 2, Trie B wins (Trie B has won 1 out of 1)
…and Trie C rolls 3, it’s a draw (1 out of 2)
…and Trie C rolls 9, Trie C wins (1 out of 3)

When Trie B rolls 4…

…and Trie C rolls 2, Trie B wins (2/4)
…and Trie C rolls 3, Trie B wins (3/5)
…and Trie C rolls 9, Trie C wins (3/6)

When Trie B rolls 7…

…and Trie C rolls 2, Trie B wins (4/7)
…and Trie C rolls 3, Trie B wins (5/8)
…and Trie C rolls 9, Trie C wins (5/9)

Trie C = (2, 3, 9)
Trie A = (1, 5, 8)

When Trie C rolls 2…

…and Trie A rolls 1, Trie C wins (Trie C has won 1 out of 1)
…and Trie A rolls 5, Trie A wins (1 out of 2)
…and Trie A rolls 8, Trie A wins (1 out of 3)

When Trie C rolls 3…

…and Trie A rolls 1, Trie C wins (2/4)
…and Trie A rolls 5, Trie A wins (2/5)
…and Trie A rolls 8, Trie A wins (2/6)

When Trie C rolls 9…

…and Trie A rolls 1, Trie C wins (3/7)
…and Trie A rolls 5, Trie C wins (4/8)
…and Trie A rolls 8, Trie C wins (5/9)

The same reasoning can be applied to the six-sided non-transitive dice, but there are 36 possible outcomes when two of the dice are thrown against each other, so I won’t list them.

Die A = (1, 2, 2, 5, 6, 6)
Die B = (1, 1, 4, 5, 5, 5)
Die C = (3, 3, 3, 3, 4, 6)

Elsewhere other-posted:

At the Mountains of Mathness
Simpson’s Paradox — a simple situation with a very weird outcome


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 #27

Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:

Sex/Dream Metaphors – Extreme Metaphors: Selected Interviews with J.G. Ballard, edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara (Fourth Estate 2014)

DNAncientNeanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes, Svante Pääbo (Basic Books 2014)

The Cult of CthulhuH.P. Lovecraft: The Classic Horror Stories, edited by Roger Luckhurst (Oxford University Press 2013)

Rauc’ and RoleMortality, Christopher Hitchens (Atlantic Books 2012)

#BooksThatShouldNotBe — Tip-top Transgressive Texts…

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

At the Peaks of Prejudice

<gag> The Evil White Male. <retch> When will Persons of Color, Persons of Wombyn-ness, Persons of LGBT-ity, Persons of All Alternative Ontologies finally succeed in cleansing the world of his tenebrose toxicity? When will the Rainbow Days of Equality, Justice and Harmony begin? When will his uncountable victims truly be able to say: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank the Lady Almighty, we are free at last!”?

Not soon enough. In the meantime, the E.W.M./Yoom continues to pollute the so-called white-male-invented so-called Internet with his foulness and fetidity. But most depraved, deplorable and despicable of all are those occasions when one Yoom “celebrates” the work of another Yoom.

A case in point:

Cosmic Horror – Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890–1937)

“Unspeakable” is not the word. (If it were, then it wouldn’t be “unspeakable”, would it?)

Previously pre-posted (please peruse):

Hateful, Bestial, Demonic
Knowing Mi, Knowing Yoom

Jug is the Drug

In “The Gems of Rebbuqqa”, I interrogated notions around the concept of priestesses who permanently juggle three giant eye-like gems, a ruby, a sapphire, and an emerald, atop a sandstone altar. In “The Schismatarch” (forthcoming), I will interrogate notions around the concept of a Himalayan sect that believes this universe is one of three juggled by a god called Nganāma. Each of these universes contains a smaller Nganāma who juggles three dwarf universes; et sic ad infinitum. Moreover, the Nganāma juggling our universe sits in a larger universe, one of three juggled by a giant Nganāma in a larger universe still, which is one of three on a higher plane; et sic ad infinitum. The cosmology of the Nganāma-sect is fractal: ut supra, sic infra: as above, so below. Here are some animated gifs inspired by these two stories and based on juggled eye-gem fractals.

A fractal of three juggled blue eyes

 A fractal comprising three juggled eyes

A fractal of three sets of three juggled eyes

A fractal comprising three sets of three sets (sic) of three juggled eyes

A fractal based on juggled eyeballs

A fractal of three juggled eyes, in front of each of which three more eyes are juggled

A fractal of 27 juggled eyes

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”

A Swirl of Shadows

I tell of the planet of Gdarrujh, far, very far, in space and time. There is a spot there, by a vanished sea, whereon, at certain times of the year, a swirl of shadows will appear on a broken floor of ancient marble. And these shadows are very strange, seeming those of living creatures, yet with likeness to none ever known on that world. Travellers who return from the spot compare the shadows to those of autumn leaves able to hover and flutter at will between sun and earth, shading the latter with their shape. Yet these shadows have heads and limbs, after a fashion, and certainly pertain to the animal, not the vegetable, and even to the human, as though the arms of Gdarrujh-folk were broad-bladed oars and men could row the very insubstantiality of air, ride there at will, though they remained solid flesh and sturdy bone.

And this shadow-swirl has nourished several schools of speculation on Gdarrujh. Some philosophoi say it is nothing real, being a mirage or trick of some long-dead, high-cunning’d mage, whose magick works on down the millennia, tempting the foolish to belief in nonsense and chimæras. But others say, nay, nay, the shadows are those of real creatures, past or to come, and are shown by design of the gods, that men might throw down their walls of dogma, topple their towers of certitude, and know that the Universe holds more than man sees or woman dreams. And a smaller school of the realitarians holds that the shadows are not of the past or future, but rather of the present, being cast somehow through a chink that separates known Gdarrujh from another Gdarrujh that exists in hidden parallel, where creatures dwell not only the land and sea, but also the air, being able to take to it, delight in it, partake there of the lightness of leaves and the grace of fish.

And the creatures of the shadow-swirl have mouths like knives, which gape as though they call, but, in repudiation of whose claims, in confirmation of whose, in relevation of what mysteries, no sound reaches the speculators of Gdarrujh.

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.)))))