Thursday, October 24, 2019

In the Runup to Halloween, a CAS Classic

It's the busy season for me at work, so it's the time of year when I post a lot of links to Hallowe'en-appropriate content. Longtime readers will know that I am a huge fan of Clark Ashton Smith, considered (along with H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard) to be one of the 'big three' authors featured in the classic pulp magazine Weird Tales. CAS wrote 'weird fiction' that was typically characterized by gloriously purple prose and a sly, sardonic sense of humor. Many of his short stories involved antiheroes who go through their paces in bizarre sword-and-sorcery settings, only to meet ridiculous demises in the course of their arduous quests.

CAS wrote several 'series' of stories sharing a common setting. One of his better-known settings for a story-cycle is a fictional French province named Averoigne, a heavily forested, monster-and-sorceror-infested landscape. While most of the stories in the 'Averoigne Cycle' are tales of struggles against necromancers and sorcerous monsters, CAS snuck a pretty straightforward sci-fi/horror story (though it DOES feature a somewhat 'magical' McGuffin) into the mix... The Beast of Averoigne is an epistolary short-story about a community of medieval monks facing an alien invasion, a visitation from a monster which wouldn't be out of place in a Ridley Scott movie. The story starts out with the deposition of a friar who is certain that the threat facing his abbey is not of this Earth:

I, a poor scrivener and the humblest monk of the Benedictine Abbey of Perigon, have been asked by our abbot Theophile to write down this record of a strange evil that is still rampant, still unquelled. And, ere I have done writing, it may be that the evil shall come forth again from its lurking-place, and again be manifest.

We, the friars of Perigon, and all others who have knowledge of this thing, agree that its advent was coeval with the first rising of the red comet which still burns nightly, a flying balefire, above the moonless hills. Like Satan's rutilant hair, trailing on the wind of Gehenna as he hastens worldward, it rose below the Lion in early summer; and now it follows the Scorpion toward the western woods. Some say that the horror came from the comet, flying without wings to earth across the stars. And truly, before this summer of 1369, and the lifting of that red, disastrous scourge upon the heavens, there was no rumor or legend of such a thing in all Averoigne.

As for me, I must deem that the beast is a spawn of the seventh hell, a foulness born of the bubbling, flame-blent ooze; for it has no likeness to the beasts of earth, to the creatures of air and water. And the comet may well have been the fiery vehicle of its coming.

This original, unabridged version of the story was rejected by the editor of Weird Tales, but an abridged version, omitting the first two chapters of the epistolary story, was published in the May 1933 issue. CAS also changed the method of 'exorcism' of the monster, the original method being overly similar to the climax of The Colossus of Ylourgne.

The story, while one of Clark Ashton Smith's best, tones down both the trademark purple prose and mordant humor, it's Smith playing it as straight as he ever does... for this reason, it's one of his more accessible tales. Be warned, though, Smith's body of work is in the public domain, so reading one of his tales might send you down a glorious, eldritch rabbit hole.

No comments: