Saturday, October 8, 2016

Vintage - but blazing hot - MC

painting by Zdzisław Beksiński
Before there was H.P. Lovecraft, there was Robert W. Chambers. I'm betting that you don't know who Chambers is, but that you'd recognize at least some of these names: The King in Yellow, the Yellow Sign, Hastur, and Carcosa. Lovecraft and Lovecraft's followers took them all and ran with them (Well, Chambers actually took Carcosa from Ambrose Bierce and ran with it, but then Lovecraft's gang took it too and ran even further).

Chambers is a much better writer than Lovecraft. In fact, Lovecraft once said, "Chambers is like Rupert Hughes and a few other fallen Titans – equipped with the right brains and education but wholly out of the habit of using them" - by which Lovecraft meant that Chambers was a fool to stop writing weird fiction and to shift instead to romance and adventure. I wish Chambers had written more weird fiction, myself, but at least he gave us five "King in Yellow" pieces and several other good spook stories, including one called "The Case of Mr. Helmer" in which you'd swear Neil Gaiman's own famous Death makes an appearance. Just for my own pleasure, I made an e-book of Chambers' "King in Yellow" stories and some of his other best work, and you're welcome to download a free copy if you like. All his work is in the public domain, so none of us will get in trouble for it. Here's the Dropbox link. And here's a hint: The very best "King in Yellow" story is "The Yellow Sign."

But all the above is just preface. After Chambers went mainstream, he wrote a handful of other supernatural novels, including one called The Slayer of Souls. It's about a young woman named Tressa who's captured by a devil-worshiping cult and escapes after learning all their magic. She then joins the US Secret Service in an attempt to track down and eliminate the cult leaders, who can control human minds and turn them to the worship of Erlik, the devil. It's a pretty cool concept, and especially cool when you realize that the novel was written just as women were beginning to get voting rights, yet Tressa is far more powerful than any man in the story. Then there's another powerful woman, one of the villains, who has this encounter with Tressa's so-called protector, Cleves:

Now, grasping his pistol but not drawing it, he began another stealthy tour of the apartment, exploring every nook and cranny. And, at the end, had discovered nothing new.
When at length he realised that, as far as he could discover, there was not a living thing in the place excepting himself, a very faint chill grew along his neck and shoulders, and he caught his breath suddenly, deeply.
He had come back to the bedroom, now. The perfume of the orchids saturated the still air.
And, as he stood staring at them, all of a sudden he saw, where their twisted stalks rested in the transparent bowl of water, something moving—something brilliant as a live ember gliding out from among the mass of submerged stems—a living fish glowing in scarlet hues and winnowing the water with grotesquely trailing fins as delicate as filaments of scarlet lace.
To and fro swam the fish among the maze of orchid stalks. Even its eyes were hot and red as molten rubies; and as its crimson gills swelled and relaxed and swelled, tints of cherry-fire waxed and waned over its fat and glowing body.
And vaguely, now, in the perfume saturated air, Cleves seemed to sense a subtle taint of evil,—something sinister in the intense stillness of the place—in the jewelled fish gliding so silently in and out among the pallid convolutions of the drowned stems.
As he stood staring at the fish, the drugged odour of the orchids heavy in his throat and lungs, something stirred very lightly in the room.
Chills crawling over every limb, he looked around across his shoulder.
There was a figure seated cross-legged in the middle of the bed!
Then, in the perfumed silence, the girl laughed.
For a full minute neither of them moved. No sound had echoed her low laughter save the deadened pulsations of his own heart. But now there grew a faint ripple of water in the bowl where the scarlet fish, suddenly restless, was swimming hither and thither as though pursued by an invisible hand.
With the slight noise of splashing water in his ears, Cleves stood staring at the figure on the bed. Under her chinchilla the girl seemed to be all a pale golden tint—hair, skin, eyes. The scant shred of an evening gown she wore, the jewels at her throat and breast, all were yellow and amber and saffron-gold.
And now, looking him in the eyes, she leisurely disengaged the robe of silver fur from her naked shoulders and let it fall around her on the bed. For a second the lithe, willowy golden thing gathered there as gracefully as a coiled snake filled him with swift loathing. Then, almost instantly, the beauty of the lissome creature fascinated him.
She leaned forward and set her elbows on her two knees, and rested her face between her hands—like a gold rose-bud between two ivory petals, he thought, dismayed by this young thing's beauty, shaken by the dull confusion of his own heart battering his breast like the blows of a rising tide.
"What do you wish?" she inquired in her soft young voice. "Why have you come secretly into my rooms to search—and clasping in your hand a loaded pistol deep within your pocket?"
"Why have you hidden yourself until now?" he retorted in a dull and laboured voice.
"I have been here."
"Here!... Looking at you.... And watching my scarlet fish. His name is Dzelim. He is nearly a thousand years old and as wise as a magician. Look upon him, my lord! See how rapidly he darts around his tiny crystal world!—like a comet through outer star-dust, running the eternal race with Time.... And—yonder is a chair. Will my lord be seated—at his new servant's feet?"
A strange, physical weariness seemed to weight his limbs and shoulders. He seated himself near the bed, never taking his heavy gaze from the smiling, golden thing which squatted there watching him so intently....
She lifted one hand and with her forefinger made signs from right to left and then downward as though writing in Turkish and in Chinese characters.
"It is written," she said in a low voice, "that we belong to God and we return to him. Look out what you are about, my lord!"
He drew his pistol from his overcoat and, holding it, rested his hand on his knee.
"Now," he said hoarsely, "while we await the coming of Togrul Kahn, you shall remain exactly where you are, and you shall tell me exactly who you are in order that I may decide whether to arrest you as an alien enemy inciting my countrymen to murder, or to let you go as a foreigner who is able to prove her honesty and innocence."
The girl laughed:
"Be careful," she said. "My danger lies in your youth and mine—somewhere between your lips and mine lies my only danger from you, my lord."
A dull flush mounted to his temples and burned there....
Look upon me, my lord!
There was a golden light in his eyes which seemed to stiffen the muscles and confuse his vision. He heard her voice again as though very far away:
"It is written that we shall love, my lord—thou and I—this night—this night. Listen attentively. I am thy slave. My lips shall touch thy feet. Look upon me, my lord!"
There was a dazzling blindness in his eyes and in his brain. He swayed a little still striving to fix her with his failing gaze. His pistol hand slipped sideways from his knee, fell limply, and the weapon dropped to the thick carpet. He could still see the glimmering golden shape of her, still hear her distant voice:
"It is written that we belong to God.... Tokhta!..."
Over his knees was settling a snow-white [shroud]; on it, in his lap, lay a naked knife. There was not a sound in the room save the rushing and splashing of the scarlet fish in its crystal bowl.
Bending nearer, the girl fixed her yellow eyes on the man who looked back at her with dying gaze, sitting upright and knee deep in his shroud.
Then, noiselessly she uncoiled her supple golden body, extending her right arm toward the knife.
"Look upon me attentively, my lord!
Her smooth little hand closed on the hilt; the scarlet fish splashed furiously in the bowl, dislodging a blossom or two which fell to the carpet and slowly faded into mist.
Now she grasped the knife, and she slipped from the bed to the floor and stood before the dazed man.
"This is the Namaz-Ga," she said in her silky voice. "Behold, this is the appointed Place of Prayer. Gaze around you, my lord. These are the shadows of mighty men who come here to see you die in the Place of Prayer."
Cleves's head had fallen back, but his eyes were open. The Baroulass girl took his head in both hands and turned it hither and thither. And his glazing eyes seemed to sweep a throng of shadowy white-robed men crowding the room. And ... his stiffening lips parted in an uttered cry, and sagged open, flaccid and soundless.
The Baroulass sorceress lifted the shroud from his knees and spread it on the carpet, moving with leisurely grace about her business and softly intoning the Prayers for the Dead.
Then, having made her arrangements, she took her knife into her right hand again and came back to the half-conscious man, and stood close in front of him, bending near and looking curiously into his dimmed eyes.
"Ayah!" she said smilingly. "This is the Place of Prayer. And you shall add your prayer to ours before I use my knife. So! I give you back your power of speech. Pronounce the name of Erlik!"
Very slowly his dry lips moved and his dry tongue trembled. The word they formed was,

Not bad at all for a novel published in 1920, eh? And you can find The Slayer of Souls for free too, since it's in the public domain. I forgot where I found my copy, but I'll be glad to put that in my Dropbox too if anyone asks for it. Just be warned that the rest of the novel isn't anywhere near as hot as this scene; it's all very, very Christian; and Chambers thinks socialism and "lamaism" (by which I think he means Buddhism) are tools of the devil. The best thing about it, IMO, is its secret feminism. I'm not sure Chambers himself knew what he was implying by making Tressa the most powerful character in the book.


K said...

Well that was surprisingly hot. Though one must wonder if that fish is often used as part of an induction.

thrall said...

well, since no one's likely to want to read the whole novel, I'll go ahead and explain the fish. It's really a sorcerer in disguise: the sorcerer Cleves was actually looking for when this lissome young woman materialized out of thin air. Actually, though, I think the MC scene would work just as well if the fish was just part of the illusion (along with the flowers) that the woman is using to entrance Cleves. Its helpless, increasingly frantic thrashing among the stems reminds us of a prisoner behind bars - and also of Cleves himself, trapped by the sorceress' spell...In fact, I guess that's why the sorcerer-disguised-as-a-fish was thrashing. That was *his* contribution to the spell: to make Cleves feel trapped and bound.