Since there seems to be some interest in Clark Ashton Smith (as well there should be), I will continue my series on him.
Actually, I was going to do it anyway.
After reading A Rendezvous in Averoigne, I decided to start buying Night Shade Books The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith.
Unfortunately, I was reading like a normal person in 2007 meaning I didn’t make notes on a lot of things, and that includes only partial notes on this volume.
So, it’s a …
Low Res Scan (2007): The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, Volume 1: The End of the Story, eds. Scott Connors and Ron Hilger, 2006.
“Introduction”, Ramsey Campbell — Besides a brief account of Campbell’s youthful delight on reading the titles of a Smith collection — to say nothing of the actual stories, Campbell manages a number of concise one sentence summations of many stories in this collection as well as saying how certain stories pre-figured more famous stories by other authors.
“To the Daemon” — Not a story but a prose-poem from something called Acolyte (the date is 1943, many years after most of Smith’s stories here but the work could have been written earlier) in which Smith, in his fine poetic ways, tells, in the space of less than a page, how he is tired of stories “that lies between the bourns of time or the limits of space”. He even mentions the Oriental themes of his earliest fiction — “the isles that are westward of Cathay”.
“The Abominations of Yondo” — A very simple plot here: a tortured man is released by his captors into the desert of Yondo where he encounters several disturbing sights including a “monstrous mummy of some ancient king” which cause him to flee back to the comfort of his captivity. There is little here except wonderful language, especially the opening paragraph, no moral except perhaps the cynical, weird idea that even captivity and torture are preferable to some things.
“Sadastor” — Framed as a story told by the demon Charnadis to a lamia whose “beauty has grown an evil legend” deterring any potential lovers, it is the account of how the younger Charnadis once met the siren Lyspial on the world of Sadastor. Loving her, he offered to take her away. However, she can not leave, her fate tied to the “lessening of the bitter waters” of her world. There is sort of a conciliatory purpose here, the philosophy of appreciating a plight “infinitely more dolorous and irremediable than thine own”.
“The Ninth Skeleton” — One of Smith’s tales using the locale of his native Sierra Nevadas. A man going to meet his secret fiancé accidentally enters a dimensional doorway and travels through an alien land where he sees several skeletons carrying infant skeletons who vanish. The ninth skeleton carries no infant but grabs the narrator and leads him to an open grave. It grabs at his elbow, motioning him to enter the grave. Then the narrator, in a Poesque way, is roused from his otherworldy reverie by his fiancé. One is tempted to see some sort of subconscious significance in character names and locations. Smith, according to the story notes, was evidently inspired for the story by a camping trip with his friend Genevieve Sully and her daughters. (I’m not sure if Sully was ever Smith’s lover, but she did urge him to write weird fiction for income to support his family.) It is interesting that infant skeletons show up (inspired by Sully’s daughters?). Was the 34 year old Smith expressing regret at not having children? Was Sully, in the guise of the narrator’s fiancé Guenevere, rescuing his alter ego from death?
“The Last Incantation” — The second time I’ve read this story, one of the best I’ve read by Smith. Essentially this tale of sorceror Malygris resurrecting, out of despondency, depression, and ennui, his first love via his incredible necromantic powers and finding her not nearly as desireable as he remembered is a philosophic tale of innocence lost or, as the story has it: “no necromantic spell could recall for you your own lost youth”.
“The End of the Story” — The first of Smith’s Averoigne stories. The title refers to the nested version of the narrative. The story is presented as the 1789 account of a law student on a visit to his father and how seeking shelter from a storm leads him by accident to take refuge in an abbey. The abbey has an erudite abbot and an impressive collection of manuscripts — including many ancient works considered lost or never even known. But the abbot warns the narrator to stay away from one manuscript. Of course, the narrator can’t; seeing it becomes an obsession he gives into when the abbot leaves. (In a religious context, a bit like the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil — especially since the consumption of the manuscript leads to carnality like Adam and Eve’s decision does.) This nested narrative relates the story of how Gérard, Comte de Venteillon, centuries ago, met a satyr in the forests around the abbey. The satyr promises to reveal a secret which will cause the knight to abandon the fiancé he is to marry in the morning. As is befitting of Smith who often was to deal with alluring secrets, the satyr’s words are not repeated. (This also fits in with the unknowable secret which was to feature in the gothic pulps of Smith and H. P. Lovecraft.) From then on, Gérard is changed. He goes to the ruins of an old house and the caverns below rumored to be the haunts of sorcerors and succubi. What Gérard finds there is not revealed. The narrator, interest aroused, follows in his literal footsteps. Another similarity between the Genesis fruit and the secret here is that both Adam and the narrator are warned, in effect, that their interest can lead to lethal consequences. The narrator encounters Nycea, a dangerously alluring figure. (Her name sounds like Nylissa — the subject of the protagonist’s futile revival in Smith’s “The Last Incantation”.) Brian Stableford in his essay on Smith, “Outside the Human Aquarium: The Fantastic Imagination of Clark Ashton Smith”, comments on how common the figure of the alluring, frequently alien woman/lamia is in Smith’s work. Perhaps she is a sexualized, erotic version of what he sees as the defining characteristic of Smith’s best fiction: escape from reality but not escape into consolation a la J. R. R. Tolkien but escape even if into destruction of spirit and/or body. Nycea seems to have been waiting for the narrator (perhaps he is an incarnation of Gérard but that is never explicitly said), perhaps as the fulfillment of an unstated prophecy. Back when he returns to the abbey, the abbot comes across Nycea visiting the narrator and drives her away. It is explained by the abbot that Nycea is a pagan survival. (Stableford also notes that the supernatural paradigm for many of Smith’s tales linked to reality, historic or contemporary, is Catholicism.) At story’s end, in an ending reminiscent of his friend H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, the narrator yields to the soul annihilating temptation of union with the inhuman, though the erotic element is much less with Lovecraft. However, the manuscript dates (October 1929 for Smith, October 1931 for Lovecraft) indicate any influence went from Smith to Lovecraft.
“The Phantoms of the Fire” — Smith himself said this was nearly the least favorite of his stories, and one can readily see why. There is none of Smith’s incantory, evocative, poetic language. This is a simple tale of a man who has left his family in Smith’s native Sierra Nevadas and returns months later and sees a vision of them which is lost in a blur. It later turns out they were killed in a forest fire. Smith’s friend, H. P. Lovecraft, said he kind of liked the story since it had “local colour”, but there is nothing special here.
“A Night in Malnéant” — The influence of Edgar Allan Poe is obvious. The narrator enters the city of Malnéant to forget the death of his lady Mariel. The tone, the language remind one of Poe, particularly Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” — a tale, after all, also dealing with a structure intimately connected to a dead/dying woman. Here the narrator finds everywhere he goes reminders of his dead love — coffins and services and bells rung. The death of a loved woman is, of course, a quintessential Poe theme (at least, proportionally, in his most famous work if not in his work as a whole). You can see this story as a psychic counterpart to the above Poe story. Just as Roderick Usher prematurely tried to bury the body of his sister, the narrator here tries to prematurely bury the memory of his love.
“The Resurrection of the Rattlesnake” — Smith’s friend Lovecraft liked this story, inspired, Smith said, partly by Ambrose Bierce. [I now believe the story was Bierce’s “The Man and the Snake“.] It, like Smith’s “The Phantoms of the Fire”, is slick, forgettable, and devoid of Smith’s characteristic poetry. It tells the story of how a stuffed rattlesnake seems to come back to life and kills a man with fright.
“Thirteen Phantasms” — It could be argued that this takes up a similar theme to Smith’s “The Last Incantation” in that both stories deal with an old man — here dying — thinking back on the true love of their life. It was a sorcerer resurrecting his old love in “The Last Incantation”. Here the dying protagonist, a well known rake, sees thirteen phantoms. Thirteen is the number of women whose heart he is publically known to have broken. But all these phantoms look like Elspeth, his first, unknown love who leaves him, a young man, after a quarrel and dies shortly thereafter. As with “The Last Incantation” there is some question as to the reality of Elspeth. Did his first love exist, all other lovers partaking of some, if not all, of her qualities? “Which one was Elspeth? Or had there ever been a real Elspeth?”
“The Venus of Azombeii” — Smith himself noted there was nothing supernatural in this story. The death by slow, painful shrinking of the organs and body suffered by the protagonist and his lover Mybaloë, Queen of the Azombeii, is achieved by a fantastic poison. Ramsey Campbell, in the introduction to the collection, is right in calling this an eroticized incarnation of Africa in the character of Mybaloë. Though set in contemporary times, this romanticized darkest Africa is not much different than the Africa Puritan Solomon Kane finds in Robert Howard’s nearly contemporaneous work. In fact, Mybaloë isn’t exactly the incarnation of Africa. The Azombeii interbred, centuries ago, with some Roman explorers. (Romans penetrating Africa and establishing a sort of civilization was a part of Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan and the The Lost Empire published in 1928, and this story was written in 1929 though I have no idea if Smith ever read Burroughs.) The romantic reverie, including bathing in crocodile infested waters, between Mybaloë and the hero is a feature here as is the stock figure of the scheming priest who, rebuffed by Mybaloë, becomes murderous. You can see the plot in most of its elements as going back to Haggardesque romance. However, you can also see some of what Brian Stableford described as Smith’s ultimate theme: escape from the mundane even if the escape is not pleasant or conciliatory. Here hero Marsden seeks to escape his life and go to Africa which has always intrigued him. There he finds love — and a horrible death. Love’s bitter nature, something of a minor Smith theme, is here. Marsden and Mybaloë agree not to watch each other die — a repudiation of romantic convention — and die apart.
“The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” — This strikes me as the first Smith story to have the style he is associated with: lush exoticism and decadence told in evocative, poetic prose. Ramsey Campbell, in his introduction to the collection, rightly notes this is a balance of drollness and terror that never undermines the “exotic and marvelous”. Plotwise, the story is simple. Narrator Satampra Zeiros, a thief, and his friend, Tirouv Ompallios, are down on their luck and decide to loot the “lost treasures of Commoriom”, a city devoured by the jungle centuries ago after the populace left to escape a dire prophecy. (This story is set in Smith’s Hyperborea world.) Zeiros’ prose combines Smith’s poetry with the sort of affected gentlemanliness you would expect in a humorous tale. But there is nothing humorous about the elder god Tsathoggua, a toadish god now worshipped mainly by “the furtive and ferocious beasts of the jungle, the ape, the giant sloth and the loong-toothed tiger”. The descriptions of the jungle around Commoriom and the city itself are effective. When the two men awaken Tsathoggua, horror — and humor — ensues. The two bolt from the city and into the jungle — only to come full circle back to the temple. Ompallios is devoured after Zeiros bids him farewell. Zeiros himself looses a hand to the god’s mouth. Tsathoggua became a second tier addition to H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos after Lovecraft read Smith’s manuscript. He put the entity in a story he ghost-wrote for Zealia Bishop (virtually all but a couple of paragraphs of the story are Lovecraft’s) called “The Mound” which, because of timing issues, was actually published before this story. Lovecraft also used the creature in this “The Whisperer in the Darkness” which has a reference to “Klarkash-Ton”. Lovecraft thought the story very Dunsanian.
“The Monster of the Prophecy” — In his letters to his friend H. P. Lovecraft, Smith said of this story that he “satirized pretty nearly everything”. He specifically says that with the mechanism of the story’s “space-annihilator”. Some of his other targets are the poor, disrespected lot of poets. His hero is a poet (who, like Smith, writes cosmic poetry) who is so poor and despondent that he contemplates jumping off a bridge only to be interrupted by an alien who offers to transport him to the alien world of Antares. (It’s only after his mysterious disappearance — noted in an odd, omniscient opening section before the story settles down to poet Alvor as a viewpoint character — that most of his poems and prose become marketable.) His recruiter is the alien scientist Vizaphmal. And he too seems a figure of satire as does his traveling gadget. Vizaphmal is one of the rare scientist among the races of Antares. But, far from being a rational, humanitarian scientist dedicated to stamping out superstition (perhaps the image or ideal Smith either had of a scientist or what he thought they should be? If so, that would make his treatment of Vizaphmal satirical?), Vizaphmal is going to use Alvor to validate a centuries old prophecy about the appearance of an “unheard-of monster with two arms, two legs, two eyes and a white skin”. (This use of the viewpoint character, a regular human, as a pawn in a political struggle involving religion strikes me as very reminiscent of H. Rider Haggard, but I don’t have enough familiarity with his work to be sure). To me, Alvor’s taking up, at story’s end, after escaping an alien inquisition brought on by Vizaphmal’s intrigues and disappearance, with alien princess and poetess Ambiala is a satire on our cultural statements about love. Supposedly we are to seek out soulmates regardless of attraction. Thus Ambiala has “five arms and three legs and three eyes”. Her inhuman anatomy is just “an abundance of anatomical features upon which human love was wont to set a by no means lowly value on”. Her odd coloring and “outlandish hues” are simply reminiscent of “modernistic paintings”. Smith’s letters mentioning the story say that satire is generally directed at “intolerance of all kinds”. But I think it is a mistake to see this story as making some comment about people’s intolerance to certain romantic pairings. Also, Smith is making a wry statement on making the best of a bad lot. Alvor isn’t fond of Ambiala’s looks but talks himself into staying with her by the rationalization that finding such a kindred spirit is hard even in the same species. Thus, using the rationalizations above, he stays with her. On the other hand, Smith might have been going, unsuccessfully I think, for a general statement on intolerance with the story’s final line: “It would seem, from this, that the pople of Omanorion had mastered the ultra-civilized art of minding their own business.” Smith may, in that last line, have been expressing some disgruntlement at his life in the small town of Auburn, California. However, there is very little government interference and busy-bodyiness in this story. Vizaphmal’s repression and deceit seem an evil of a different sort. I think I detected a bit of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” in the part where Alvor escapes his tormentors by chance. (The half-animal, half-plant creatures that are used to torture him seem a favorite Smith motif.) Oddly, Smith plotted out a sequel that involved Vizaphmal and not Alvor.
“The Metamorphosis of the World” — In his introduction to the collection, Ramsey Campbell makes some insightful observations about this story. First, he rightly notes that it pre-figures the works of J. G. Ballard in its apocalyptic transformation of the land. The year is 2197 and parts of the world are being transformed into strange, desert like areas of literally unearthly minerals and alien atomic structures. A group of scientists explores one for a major part of the story and the horrors they discover (including some more of Smith’s characteristic half-animal, half-plants) include madness and a disease much like leprosy except it is fast-acting, lethal, and turns the skin odd colors. Others suffer “locomotor ataxia” and blindness during the day. However, unlike a Ballard story, it is a group of scientists and not a solitary wanderer exploring these alien zones. (Smith, in his correspondence, refers to them as “odious” — perhaps jokingly.) And, unlike a typical Ballard story, the encroaching apocalypse is fought for it turns out that the zones are being induced on Earth by invading Venutians. Perhaps Smith was partially inspired by H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds with its Martians bringing along the Red Weed though Smith describes this story as hack work because the plot seems obvious due to his not having read a lot of sf when he wrote it. It is not a novel plot, but Campbell is right in that Smith approaches it in a documentary tone (and none of his baroque vocabulary) worthy of his friend H. P. Lovecraft. As for the plot not being novel, well there are logical consequences to such a premise and obvious points of interest in such a story so people taking the idea up often have similar plots. Smith does a pretty good job with this tale of 20 years of warfare (still being fought at story’s end) between man and Venutian even if it is unlike his usual story.
“The Epiphany of Death” — This story is dedicated to Smith’s friend H. P. Lovecraft and was inspired by re-reading the latter’s “The Statement of Randolph Carter”. Protagonist Tomeron, last of an “otherwise extinct family” knocks about, “pale and cadaverous”, in the ancient, “semi-ruinous” mansion. The resemblance to Lovecraft goes further. The narrator says his friend “seemed never to belong to the present; but one could readily have imagined him as living in some bygone age.” Lovecraft was a famous dreamer. Tomeron, besides taking occultism seriously (unlike Lovecraft who simply saw it as story research), holds the belief that “life and death were not the fixed conditions” commonly believed. Eventually, Tomeron reveals himself to the narrator as a long dead man after the former leads the narrator to a crypt where Tomeron’s long dead corpse resides. (Tomeron has the narrator briefly leave the room, so he doesn’t witness this final transformation of state.) Smith himself thought the story a bit like Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” though he told August Derleth that he wrote the story before reading that Lovecraft work. There is some similarity in tone and setting and ghoulish imagery, but there are a lot of differences from viewpoint character to plot. Both stories do, though, end with their hero’s true state revealed.
“A Murder in the Fourth Dimension” — This story was published in Amazing Detective Stories and is not particularly remarkable. Smith, the story notes say, didn’t like mysteries because they had no sense of real mystery about them. He thought Edgar Allan Poe right to abandon the genre after mastering it. The opening page of the story strongly echoes, in the narrator’s stated desire to affect a “safe and adequate” revenge on the man who wronged him by marrying his love, Poe’s narrator of “The Casque of Amontillado”. He whisks his victim away to a fourth dimension using a device invented as the result of his obsession. There he fatally stabs him. However, the portable “vibrator” he expected to use to return to our world doesn’t work, and the narrator finds himself forever trapped in a largely timeless dimension. He is trapped in a “drear and primitive desolation”, a dimly lit limbo where no time exists except the “time-sequence” created by his voluntary moments, and he relates his tale in a manuscript, delivered by the vibrator to our world, before he goes mad.
“The Devotee of Evil” — This story, completed March 9, 1930, is reminiscent of some of H. P. Lovecraft’s work in mixing scientific and occult imagery and treating evil (as many Christian sects unconvincingly do as a motivating, external agency rather than a description of acts) in a scientific way. Here a rich man buys a house (in Smith’s hometown of Auburn, California and, in fact, the stated house was the site of notorious murders happening as related in the story) for his nexus to evil which he regards as an external force that can be manifested via the scientific-like apparatus he has built. Smith’s conception of evil is pretty broad. It is a “dark vibration, the radiation of a black sun”, “monistic” and the “source of all death, deterioration, imperfection, pain, sorrow, madness and disease”. (In fact, after seeing this force manifested in Averaud’s apparatus, narrator and local novelist Philip Hastane finds his mind forever after “charred and blackened a little”.) Averaud is described as a madman, a fanatic on the nature of evil who, in the past, would have been a sorcerer and devil-worshipper. Smith, I think, nails down, in one sentence, the psychology of not only Averaud but modern Satanists: “His was a religious soul that had failed to find good in the scheme of things; and lacking it, was impelled to make of evil itself an object of secret reverence.” I say it is reminiscent of Lovecraft, but, actually, Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House” was written almost two years after this story. Averaud is eventually turned into a sort of blackened statue by his exposure to evil.
“The Satyr” — This is Smith’s second story set in the medieval French province of Averoigne. The plot is fairly simple. Nobleman Raoul, Comte de la Frenâie largely ignores his beautiful young wife Adèle who is most decidedly not ignored by Olivier du Montoir, a poet. One day — coincidentally the same day Raoul finally gets jealous about their, as yet, non-sexual intimacy — they go into the forest, a region “whose very existence was an affront to science and a blasphemy to religion”, a zone inhabited by pagan spirits older than the Christian deities of Christ and Satan. The woods, however, hold no evil imagery for the young couple. Rather the forest brings on an open declaration of their long-standing love for each other. Smith signifies the pending erotic manifestation of their love by vegetable imagery: “The wood thickened and the arching boughs above were a weft of manifold gloom.” The couple’s desire for each other makes them oblivious to the “foul, obscene deformity” about them in the forest; they only smell strange perfume and see beautiful flowers. We may take the line
… neither she nor Olivier was aware of anything sinister or doubtful in the unison of exquisite beauty gnarled quaintness which the old forest offered them
as symbolic of an oblivion to the consequence of their soon physically manifested love. In the published version of the story, Raoul comes across the couple in “open adultery” and slays both with a single sword thrust. He is then puzzled by a laugh he hears, the laugh of a satyr introduced early as he watches the couple from the tree tops. There is an insinuation that the satyr has not only provoked the final descent to adultery but the bloody vengeance for it since it is explained in the story that why Raoul’s suspicions were aroused that day, and not before, is unknown. In Smith’s original version, the satyr carries Adèle off just as Raoul is about to stab the couple to Raoul’s and Olivier’s “complete stupefaction”. Oddly, editors Connors and Hilger seem to think the published version is something of a morbid light comedy and the original more powerful and reminiscent of a medieval tragedy. I think just the opposite.
“The Planet of the Dead” — The protagonist of this darkly lush and romantic tale, Francis Melchior, seems reminiscent of Smith’s friend H. P. Lovecraft in that Melchior is interested in astronomy and old things. (Professionally, he deals antiques.) There is a bit of an echo of Smith’s earlier “The Monster of the Prophecy” in that both stories feature a person from Earth being taken to an alien world and finding love their. However, there are several differences. The latter story is satirical. Smith doesn’t seem to have any satirical purposes in mind. The origin seems to be from a dream, perhaps by way of an earlier prose-poem “From the Crypts of Memory”, in which he had the sense of “stepping into some totally alien state of entity, with its own memories, hopes, desires, its own past and future … “. That fits the plot well. Melchior finds himself attracted to viewing a star (much like, in “The Monster of the Prophecy”, the poet Alvor finds himself drawn to writing about Antares). Eventually he finds himself magically transported to the world. (Editors Connors and Hilger see this as possibly inspired by Theosophy’s ideas of astral projection, astronomer and sf writer Camille Flammarion’s idea of palingenesis — souls of the dead inhabiting other worlds, and Frank L. Pollack’s story “Finis” about lovers of the last night of a doomed Earth. Those are all worth considering, and the last is the theory of one of Smith’s correspondents. However, I wonder if he also read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars.) Unlike poet Alvor who finds himself involved in impersonating a prophesized religious figure, Melchior feels right at home in the body and memories of the poet Antarion. Living in the city of Saddoth (inspired by Lovecraft’s Saddath?), Melchior, by way of his Antarion identity, finds himself reunited with his old love Thameera. They are both “the last representatives of noble ancient families”, inheritors of a decadent culture in which they are the most vital members, possessing “the ultimate refinement that is close to autumnal decay”. The planet Phandiom is something of a necropolis filled with elaborate tombs and the presence of the dead seems to oppress
with emmanations that welled from sepulchral reservoirs of death … and evil or opiate presneces came forth from the mausolean vaults, to crush and stifle …
But Phandiom has a month to live before dying in an astronomical disaster which will chill the world. The King Haspa, cruel, senile, and decadent, has turned his attention to Thameera. The two lovers escape into the ruins, against the backdrop of a final, decadent orgy of a masque in Saddoth. In an erotic, decadent finale set in the doom as the chill sets upon their world, the two lovers “clung to each other in despairing rapture” until the all consuming chill takes them into oblivion. Actually, Melchior returns to our world where he regrets being awakened from his time with Thameera (who, unlike the alien love Alvor finds, is not of an alien physique nor is their love described in satirical tones). This story seems a premiere exhibit in the argument that Smith was heavily inspired by French Decadents with Melchior finding his greatest release from the ennui of our world in the final days of decadent, doomed Phandiom and the last embraces of Thameera.
“From the Crypts of Memory” — The editors rightly cite this story as being the seed for Smith’s “The Planet of the Dead”. It truly is a prose-poem with Smith’s usual evocative language of the strange, decadent, dying, and doomed. As in the story, the poem is set on a world with a dying sun, a planet full of mausoleums. The narrator is an original inhabitant of the world, and he dies at poem’s end.
“The Uncharted Isle” — Evidently, this was Smith’s favorite story and rightly so. It is one of his most memorable. He was proud of it because he regarded it as sf while he was mostly known as a fantasy writer. In the tale, a shipwrecked sailor comes across a strange island upon which he sees the images of what is a past human race and their civilization. But, while he sees their form and their attempts to leave the island, he can not interact with them in anyway. He is surrounded by mysterious people who he can never know, can never question, and who are unware of his existence. This leads Ramsey Campbell, in his introduction to the collection, to call this a story of alienation. Smith himself called it “an allegory of human disorientation”, perhaps meaning not only disorientation in the physical but social universe as well. Smith further thought the story to be in a “literate style” and free of “pseudo-technical explanatory matter”. The civilization the narrator walks among is ancient. In a typical Smith touch, he witnesses what first appears to be a child sacrifice to a half-human, half-animal idol that then comes to life. (In a more Lovecraftian touch, the narrator can’t remember what happens after that.) Smith was right in describing the story as having “no conventional plot complications”. There is no girl to rescue. The island’s inhabitants are never communicated with, their origin and time never discovered. No explanation is found for the island’s presence except perhaps some sort of spatial and temporal shift. The narrator is not pursued, his presence not even being known. [The story can be thought of as Smith’s version of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ms. Found in a Bottle”.] And the story does have a wonderful last line that sums up that “human disorientation” — not only of the narrator but the islanders:
But often in my dreams, I see again the incognizably distorted stars, and share the confusion and bafflement of a lost people, as they pore above their useless charts, and take the altitude of a deviated sun.
“Marooned in Andromeda” — This pulpy adventure tale of marooned spaceman encountering one alien menace after another — including half-intelligent pygmies and Smith’s characteristic animal-like plants — each one escaped with a greater menace then met, proved quite popular. Two more Captain Volmar stories were written and a fourth one planned. (The written ones were collected a view years ago as Red World of Polaris.) Captain Volmar is an instigator of the plot — he’s the one that maroons the three mutineers on an alien world at story’s beginning — but most of the time he’s off-stage. He appears at story’s end to rescue the two surviving mutineers since he needs them now because the other crew members have been killed in accidents. Smith saw this story as an opportunity for “fantasy, horror, grotesquery, and satire”. I suspect the satire part comes in when one of the characters remarks: “Even a fiction-writer wouldn’t dare to imagine this.”
“The Root of Ampoi” — Smith was none too fond of this story, but it’s an effective combination of humor, satire on male-female relations, and lost race story. Gigantically statured protagonist John Knox shows up in Auburn, California (Smith’s hometown) where he tells the story of how he went form a normal sized man to a circus freak. Attracted by tales of rich jewels to be had in the interior of New Guinea, Knox ventures there — where he finds the jewels and a lost race of giant women (and normal sized men). These eight-foot tall women are lighter skinned than the typical New Guinean though in “The Venus of Azombeii” he certainly showed the erotic appeal of black women. The queen takes a shine to him and marries him. Rather like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver being taken to the bosom of giant women (his were even larger and Swift described their skin in repulsive language), Knox finds giant women disconcerting. He thinks his wife beautiful enough and loving and kind but wishes she weren’t so giant nor domineering. He, like all the men of the tribe, has no legal rights, no privileges except those kindly granted them by the women. He even has to ask her permission to go out or to do anything. This, of course, is a satire on the usual marital arrangement of larger man to woman as well, possibly, of the woman’s place in Victorian society (Smith, after all, was born in the Victorian era) and men not liking female domination. Knox eventually finds the source of the secret root of Ampoi which grants the woman their size and takes it. He grows to giant sized. However, he returns to the queen and this rather humorous scene:
They were drawn up in a massive and appallingly solid formation, like an army of giant Amazons; and their utter stillness was more dreadful than the shouting and tumult of battlefields. Knox felt an unwilling but irresistible dismay before the swelling thews of their mighty arms, the solemn heaving of their gargantuan bosoms, and the awful and austere gaze with which they regarded him in unison.
I suspect this is a bit of a jab at men who proclaim a physical attraction to large, Amazonian woman. They may not like their wish fulfilled.
[I made no notes on the other three stories in the collection.]