Thursday, February 27, 2014

"And the Evil of the Stars is not as the Evil of Earth."

Clark Ashton Smith is often spoken of in the same breath as H.P. Lovecraft. That's because the two were friends--they exchanged letters regularly for 15 years, though I can't for the life of me remember if they ever met in person. They both wrote horror stories often published in Weird Tales, often borrowing place names and and names of hideous Elder Gods from one another. Both presented a world in their fiction that was made frightening by the implication that there are powerful and inhuman beings flitting about the universe and occasionally stopping by Earth to sow a little bit of death and madness. In their worlds, there's a lot of stuff out there we're literally better off not knowing about.

In fact, it's really not hard at all to assume that Smith's and Lovecraft's stories take place in the same universe.Smith's "The Beast of Averoigne," for instance, was published in the May 1933 issue of Weird Tales.  Set in 14th Century France, it involves a creature that first appears on the night a red comet first appears in the sky. The horror "rises to the height of a tall man, and it moved with swaying of a great serpent, and it's members undulated as if boneless." It proves to have a taste for human bone marrow and feeds on a monk at an abbey and a couple of nearby villagers.

Smith, like Lovecraft, is a master of word choice and sentence construction--his Wikipedia entry accurately refers to his vocabulary as "wide and ornate."  There's an archaic feel to his prose--a style that fits his subject matter perfectly.

Smith's unique voice is what makes stories like "The Beast of
Averoigne"--which is essentially a pretty straightforward monster story--so much scary fun to read; the prose draws you back in time and sets you down in a different time and place. This time, we're transported to the side of a sorcerer who is recruited to destroy the beast. Using an ancient ring that contains a demon inside, he discovers that the beast "belonged to a race of stellar devils that had not visited the Earth since the foundering of Atlantis."  He also discovers a way of destroying it, but the act of doing so reveals something even more horrible about its existence here on Earth than was previously suspected.

It is, in fact, almost impossible not to assume the story is set in the same universe as Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu" or "The Shadow of Innsmouth." Heck, the Beast could have been of the same race as Cthulhu or other Elder Things--maybe a toddler only a few million years old.

Gee whiz, now the toddlers I care for in my church's nursery don't seem so ill-behaved after all.

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