Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Short takes: More Clark Ashton Smith

I'm plowing through my Arkham House edition of A RENDEZVOUS IN AVEROIGNE, a candybox of Smith stories. There's a selection from each of his created worlds, plus a random section of non-mythos stories. Nicely, I can skip about half of it after my recent readings.

Of most interest are Averoigne selections. Averoigne, for the uninitiated, is a mythical region of medieval France, haunted by witches and demons and what have you. You know, the usual Smith dark stuff.


First off is "The Holiness of Azedarac." The title character is the bishop of the city of Ximes, and is in reality a diabolical sorcerer using his holy office for all sort of unholiness. (It's broadly hinted that he's actually immortal, and this is just his latest disguise.) Brother Ambrose has been sent by another bishop to investigate, and is rushing off with his report when one of Azedarac's servants slips a potion into his drink at a wayside inn, which doesn't kill him, but projects him 700 years into the past, where he's nearly sacrificed by druids. However, he's rescued by a pagan sorceress....

While it's mostly about Ambrose, the title actually has a function. The story's crowning irony is that Azedarac's holiness is a sham, and even after Ambrose returns (albeit a generation after he left), he finds that Azedarac is now regarded as a saint. And Ambrose ends up returning to the past, shedding his holy orders to live happily with the pagan sorceress.

Thus we have what appears to be a theme of the Averoigne stories, the battle between Christianity and paganism, with Christianity almost always coming out on the losing end in one way or the other. In "The Holiness of Azedarac," all Christian piety is a sham, and even the most sincere believer ends up abandoning his faith for earthy pleasures.

Next up is "The Colossus of Ylourgne," in which we have another unholy sorcerer, Nathaire, swearing vengeance on Averoigne's ecclesiastical community for various reasons, summons newly-dead corpses to a remote castle and using them to construct a corpselike giant, into which he projects his own soul. He despoils the various churches in Averoigne until another sorcerer, Gaspard du Nord, foils him with a clever plot.

Again, there's a strain of anticlericalism here, as the church is helpless and ineffectual in battling the giant, and only another sorcerer can defeat the menace. And he's the only sorcerer left alone by the church afterward.

After that is "The End of the Story." Law student Christophe Morand is traveling and takes shelter in a remote monastery, where he befriends a jovial monk whose has an extensive book collection. He finds a bound manuscript that the monk warns him not to read, claiming it will lead to his destruction. Kinda like the cursed video in RINGU, he just HAS to read it. It tells the story of a knight who disappeared while exploring the ruins of the Chateau des Faussesflammes, which just happens to be nearby, although the manuscript is incomplete, not telling just what happened to the knight. Naturally, Christophe is curious and goes to the Chateau the next day, and in the catacombs finds a lovely grove inhabited by a beautiful woman...

Of course, things are not as they seem, and Christophe is at first rescued by the monks. the end, he cannot resist the call of the pagan enchantress, and goes to her, a triumph of pagan earthiness over Christian piety. Also, the book-collecting monk has his own share of culpability. He shows Christophe the manuscript, and if not for that Christophe would never have gone to the Chateau. The monk's collection is also eyebrow-raising; a complete manuscript of Sappho, odes by Catullus, an unknown dialogue of Plato, an Arabian work on astronomy that prefigures Copernicus, and the "somewhat infamous Histoire d'Amour," of which there are two known copies, the rest destroyed upon publication. Obviously, this monk's studies are hardly of the approved variety! Brother Hilaire is obviously an unwitting enabler of the dark forces in the Chateau, and perhaps a long-distance puppet?

The last story in the section, "A Rendezvous in Averoigne," is well-written but ultimately shallow fluff about lovers on the run who end up taking shelter in the Chateau des Faussesflammes and being menaced by vampires. (Presumably this takes place long before the events of "The End of the Story" but who knows?) Everything's dealt with quickly and easily, so it's entertaining, but without the depth of the others.

The "Atlantis" section has three stories that are OK fantasies, with good twists of irony, but just not very noteworthy aside from that. No real common theme unites them except for the irony. "The Last Incantation" has a sorcerer summoning a dead love, only to find her less beautiful; the irony being that he failed to summon up his own youth, so he could see her with young eyes. "The Death of Malygris" has the same sorcerer apparently dying, and his rivals taking almost absurd precautions, waiting years before they finally venture in...only to be felled by a final booby trap. "A Voyage to Sfanomoe" gives us two brothers, scholars and scientists, who flee a sinking Atlantis in a homemade spacecraft and land on Venus...where, while exploring Venus' fields of flowers, they are transformed into plants themselves. Nice stuff, well-written, but lacking a certain oomph.

I can skip over the "Zothique" and "Hyperborea" sections, leaving only the grab-bag "Lost Worlds" part which I started today. I'll report on that later...

1 comment:

Justin said...

Hello Mike! I checked out your blog after our conversation at Jackie's a few weeks ago. I wasn't familiar with Clark Ashton Smith before reading this post, although I'd read other HPL contemporaries like August Derleth. Anyhow, I've been having a blast reading CAS' work! As you say, most of it's completely over-the-top, lurid horror, and the language is even more overwrought than HPL's... but it's great stuff, very heady! Cheers for the informative reviews, I'll read through some of your 2009 recommendations as well.