Saturday, February 15, 2014

The attraction of compulsion

Not too long ago, I discovered that I could get the complete works of Clark Ashton Smith in e-book format here (Okay, it's in a weird e-book format, but you can find free apps that will open it). You can also read all CAS's stories online at The Eldritch Dark.

 So now I'm rediscovering the joys and aggravations of one of my favorite Weird Horror writers of my teenage years. At his best, as in The Dark Eidolon, CAS is every bit as freaky-good as Lovecraft. At his worst, well...let's just say that the collection I downloaded is so complete that I'm guessing he wrote a few of the stories when he was twelve.

A lot of CAS's fiction involves outright or at least implied mind control, and I thought I'd quote my favorite passage here. This is a fragment from The City of the Singing Flame, a story in which travelers cross a gateway into another world and find themselves irresistibly drawn to a fountain of green fire where they're tempted, against every survival instinct, to throw themselves into the flame. The narrator has already resisted the temptation before but can't stop himself from coming back - and bringing a friend along:
We crossed the plain, and came at length within earshot of the siren music. I warned Ebbonly to stuff his ears with cotton-wadding, but he refused.
'I don't want to deaden any new sensation I may experience,' he observed.
We entered the city. My companion was in a veritable rhapsody of artistic delight when he beheld the enormous buildings and the people. I could see, too, that the music had taken hold upon him: his look soon became fixed and dreamy as that of an opium-eater.
At first, he made many comments on the architecture and the various beings who passed us, and called my attention to details which I had not perceived before. However, as we drew nearer the Temple of the Flame, his observational interest seemed to flag, and was replaced by more and more of an ecstatic inward absorption. His remarks became fewer and briefer, and he did not even seem to hear my questions. It was evident that the sound had wholly bemused and bewitched him....
The streets were like the prolonged and bewildering labyrinth of a nightmare. But the music led us forthrightly, and always there were other pilgrims. Like men in the grip of some powerful current, we were drawn to our destination. As we passed along the hall of gigantic columns and neared the abode of the fiery fountain, a sense of our peril quickened momentarily in my brain, and I sought to warn Ebbonly once more. But all my protests and remonstrances were futile: he was deaf as a machine, and wholly impervious to anything but the lethal music. His expression and movements were those of a somnambulist. Even when I seized and shook him with such violence as I could muster, he remained oblivious of my presence.
The throng of worshippers was larger than upon my first visit. The jet of pure, incandescent flame was mounting steadily as we entered, and it sang with the pure ardor and ecstasy of a star alone in space. Again, with ineffable tones, it told me the rapture of a moth-like death in its lofty soaring, the exultation and triumph of a momentary union with its elemental essence.
The flame rose to its apex; and even for me, the mesmeric lure was well-nigh irresistible. Many of our companions succumbed, and the first to immolate himself was the giant lepidopterous being. Four others, of diverse evolutional types, followed in appallingly swift succession.
In my own partial subjection to the music, my own effort to resist that deadly enslavement, I had almost forgotten the very presence of Ebbonly. It was too late for me to even think of stopping him, when he ran forward in a series of leaps that were both solemn and frenzied, like the beginnings of some sacerdotal dance, and hurled himself headlong into the flame. The fire enveloped him; it flared up for an instant with a more dazzling greenness, and that was all.
This isn't the end of the story; it's just my favorite part. But If you choose to read the more on your own, I suggest you stop before Chapter 4 ("The Third Venturer"), because it's actually the start of a far-inferior sequel. "The Third Venturer" and everything that follows is to "The City of the Singing Flame" what The Matrix II was to The Matrix. You have been warned.

*The artwork in this post is by Hervé Scott-Flament


Tabico said...

CAS is actually my favorite of that series of authors - Lovecraft is deservedly the figurehead, but I prefer the more common touch in CAS' language.

The Dark Eidolon is a favorite, also The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis.

thrall said...

CAS's language has a "common touch"? Not that I can tell! ;-P

I like Yoh-Vombis, too (and am I right in thinking it was an inspiration for your "Blue"?), but I'd like it better if the goo did something other than what it actually did. That kind of took all the fun out of it. ;-)