Short Story Review: “Genius Loci” by Clark Ashton Smith

(Cover by Margaret Brundage. Weird Tales, June 1933.)

Who Goes There?

Clark Ashton Smith was, along with H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, one of the defining contributors to Weird Tales during its “classic” period. Smith and Lovecraft had come into contact early on, circa 1922, when both were little more than amateurs with regards to their short fiction craft; the difference is that Smith had already been a published author for a decade, having a book of poetry published while still in his teens. Indeed, Smith was a poet first and foremost, although the subject matter of his poetry (often fantastical and cosmic) was by no means unconnected with his short fiction. Like Lovecraft, Smith was a bookworm who was also often plagued by illness, and like Lovecraft he resented being published in pulp magazines like Weird Tales and Wonder Stories, thinking of himself as more of a serious artist. Still, Smith turned to writing short stories as a way of pilling the bills—and he would need that money too, taking care of two elderly parents without a stable income. As such, Smith’s short fiction output between 1930 and 1937 is staggering, a real meteor shower of stories that dwarfed what came before and after.

In the early to mid-’30s Smith wrote prolifically, running the gamut from high fantasy to horror-tinged science fiction; his output was, it must be said, more varied than Lovecraft’s. Whereas Lovecraft loved to return to his pet themes over and over again, a Smith story cannot be tied down so easily. Sadly, once both of his parents were dead, the financial burden lifted, Smith would virtually stop writing short stories; by 1937 he had become once again what he had started as: a poet. Having been in touch with Lovecraft for so many years and having contributed to the newfangled Cthulhu Mythos, it’s possible that Lovecraft’s death that same year also demoralized Smith. A shame. While he would continue to write poetry (and venture into sculpting), it’s Smith’s short fiction that keeps his legacy alive today.

Placing Coordinates

First published in the June 1933 issue of Weird Tales, which is on the Archive. Incidentally this was also the first issue to don what might be the most famous logo design in SFF magazine history, and hey, you gotta love that lurid M. Brundage cover artwork. “Genius Loci” was first reprinted in Genius Loci and Other Tales, and for a long time would not be reprinted often. The past decade or so has been a pretty good time for this story, though, as it’s been reprinted in three major collections. We have American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps, edited by the late Peter Straub; it’s a Library of America hardcover, so that’s how you know it’s important. We have The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, a monstrously big anthology edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. Finally, we have the most recent of the single-author collections for Smith, The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies, edited by S. T. Joshi. The latter two are well in print and you can get The Eidolon and Other Fantasies pretty easily; hell, I accidentally got two copies of that one, long story.

Enhancing Image

We have two lead characters, Murray and Amberville, a writer and a painter respectively. Murray owns a ranch and invites his friend Amberville over, with Amberville working on his paintings while Murray works on his novel. We have a classic horror trope with the narrator/protagonist being a writer, although Murray being a writer doesn’t really matter outside the fact that he’s an artist; he could be a sculptor or musician and nothing else would change really. Not a problem! Amberville is the more interesting character anyway, in no small part because we’re not allowed to completely understand what his deal is. If the narration was in third person then I would complain about the lack of streams of consciousness, but given that Murray is just some guy and that he himself is trying to make sense of events as he recounts them, I would say less is more here.

Indeed, the thing that makes “Genius Loci” work most is that we’re unable to understand fully what is happening. We don’t get to know much about old Chapman, a neighboring rancher whose death prior to the story’s beginning is left mysterious in its circumstances. We aren’t given a history of the Chapman ranch or much explanation for the meadow Chapman kept, or the kind of power it seems to hold over people who gaze upon it. Certain other writers would spend several pages dishing out Expositionese regarding the setting and some spooky events that had happened previously, but Clark Ashton Smith is not one of them. Amberville wanders the landscape and soon becomes obsessed with Chapman’s meadow, producing several paintings based on it, and at first we’re not sure why he would do this.

A little warning about Smith’s writing. You know I like to quote whole lines from stories I’m reviewing; I think these quotes give something of a proper taste as to an author’s style, on top of illustrating plot beats. Smith is a hard writer to quote without slicing and dicing his lines because he’s about as fond of long winding paragraphs as I am of parenthetical asides (which is to say he’s very fond of them). Even in a piece as low-key (by Smith’s standards) as “Genius Loci” one gets the impression that, like Lovecraft, Smith has a penchant for the flamboyant, which, also like Lovecraft, makes his style easy to poke fun at. Personally I think it works, at least here, partly because our leads are artists, and thus probably used to articulating their thoughts, and partly because their efforts to make sense of the meadow only reinforce its elusive nature—the strange notion that it might be somehow alive.

Take this bit, for example, when Murray confronts Amberville about his fascination with Chapman’s meadow and the pond especially:

“What’s wrong?” I ventured to inquire. “Have you struck a snag? Or is old Chapman’s meadow getting on your nerves with its ghostly influences?”

He seemed, for once, to make an effort to throw off his gloom, his taciturnity and ill humor.

“It’s the infernal mystery of the thing,” he declared. “I’ve simply got to solve it, in one way or another. The place has an entity of its own—an indwelling personality. It’s there, like the soul in a human body, but I can’t pin it down or touch it. You know that I’m not superstitious— but, on the other hand, I’m not a bigoted materialist, either; and I’ve run across some odd phenomena in my time. That meadow, perhaps, is inhabited by what the ancients called a Genius Loci. More than once, before this, I have suspected that such things might exist—might reside, inherent, in some particular spot. But this is the first time that I’ve had reason to suspect anything of an actively malignant or inimical nature. The other influences, whose presence I have felt, were benign in some large, vague, impersonal way—or were else wholly indifferent to human welfare—perhaps oblivious of human existence. This thing, however, is hatefully aware and watchful: I feel that the meadow itself—or the force embodied in the meadow—is scrutinizing me all the time. The place has the air of a thirsty vampire, waiting to drink me in somehow, if it can. It is a cul-de-sac of everything evil, in which an unwary soul might well be caught and absorbed. But I tell you, Murray, I can’t keep away from it.”

Something I like about “Genius Loci” is that the supernatural potential of the meadow is left ambiguous for most of it; actually, for a while you could be made to think that nothing supernatural is going on at all. There’s a quote from Smith himself that I’ll get to later, regarding the kind of story he was writing and how different it must’ve been for him, but while he doesn’t cite the dude by name, I can’t help but wonder if Smith was inspired more by Henry James than his usual inspiration, Lord Dunsany, when writing “Genius Loci.” James isn’t often known for his ghost stories, despite “The Turn of the Screw” being his most famous story at any length, but James’s other (also more concise) ghost stories similarly play on the notion that a ghost may or may not be pulling an epic prank on our protagonist. Maybe supernatural, maybe psychological. Maybe both! Something about the meadow draws Amberville to it, compelling him to try to capture its essence in his art, like it’s a kind of dark muse.

I’m talking about Amberville more because despite being the one recounting events, Murray’s kind of a passive character; he doesn’t do much. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since the crux of the conflict is Amberville. Would the story have been improved by Amberville being the narrator and not Murray? I would say no, simply because if we were stuck in Amberville’s head the whole time, we would know too much. With horror my philosophy is that usually (NOT ALWAYS), one’s imagination is scarier than the things that are revealed. Lake Mungo is not a perfect movie, but it might be the scariest fucking movie I’ve ever seen because while it’s a simple ghost story on paper, we’re only allowed to see little slivers of the ghost that seems to be haunting the family at that movie’s center. So with “Genius Loci” we have a ghostly meanace whose intentions (if it has intentions) and boundaries are ill-defined. The scary part is that Murray doesn’t know how to help his friend because he’s not totally sure of what is happening.

In a slow, somnambulistic manner, without giving me a second glance, he began to work at his painting, and I watched him for a while, hardly knowing what to do or say. For long intervals he would stop and peer with dreamy intentness at some feature of the landscape. I conceived the bizarre idea of a growing kinship, a mysterious rapport between Amberville and the meadow. In some intangible way, it seemed as if the place had taken something from his very soul—and had given something of itself in exchange. He wore the air of one who participates in some unholy secret, who has become the acolyte of an unhuman knowledge. In a flash of horrible definitude, I saw the place as an actual vampire, and Amberville as its willing victim.

Admittedly when I saw Murray comparing the meadow to a vampire, I felt like tearing my hair out. I had already reviewed three vampire stories (in a row!) before this, and I was under the impression “Genius Loci” would break the streak—which in a way it does. I wouldn’t consider it to be a vampire narrative exactly, although “vampire” and “vampiric” being attributed to the meadow makes sense; it’s like a siren, seducing Amberville into a place of no return. You know something bad is gonna come from all this, but you’re not sure how, because the meadow is ultimately just a meadow; it can’t suddenly grow hands and strangle Our Heroes™ as far as we know.

But more on that in a minute.

On the one hand I find it hard to be spooked by Smith’s indulgences in typical Weird Tales-style pulp writing, talking of unholy secrets and dark rituals and all that, yet I also find what he chooses not to write about to be pretty effective—namely that none of the things he writes about are alien per se. Normally Smith writes about places he had invented, be they fantasy settings or other planets, but there’s almost a pastoral angle to “Genius Loci” with its rural locale. While Murray is concerned about his friend, he also admits that there is a desolate beauty to the Chapman ranch and the meadow especially, something about it that may even draw him into its clutches…

There Be Spoilers Here

So Murray invites Avis, who is apparently Amberville’s fiancée, to his ranch in the hopes that Avis will be able to convince him to leave. Unfortunately, both for the characters and for Smith (as he dabbles in some light misogyny when characterizing Avis here), it doesn’t work. The final scene is, while eerie and horrible, also tragic. I’ll just have Smith, or rather Murray, do the talking for me here.

Avis and Amberville were floating together in the shallow pool, with their bodies half hidden by the mantling masses of alga. The girl was clasped tightly in the painter’s arms, as if he had carried her with him, against her will, to that noisome death. Her face was covered by the evil, greenish scum; and I could not see the face of Amberville, which was averted against her shoulder. It seemed that there had been a struggle; but both were quiet now, and had yielded supinely to their doom.

It was not this spectacle alone, however, that drove me in mad and shuddering flight from the meadow, without making even the most tentative attempt to retrieve the drowned bodies. The true horror lay in the thing, which, from a little distance, I had taken for the coils of a slowly moving and rising mist. It was not vapor, nor anything else that could conceivably exist—that malign, luminous, pallid Emanation that enfolded the entire scene before me like a restless and hungrily wavering extension of its outlines—a phantom projection of the pale and death-like willow, the dying alders, the reeds, the stagnant pool and its suicidal victims. The landscape was visible through it, as through a film; but it seemed to curdle and thicken gradually in places, with some unholy, terrifying activity. Out of these curdlings, as if disgorged by the ambient exhalation, I saw the emergence of three human faces that partook of the same nebulous matter, neither mist nor plasm. One of these faces seemed to detach itself from the bole of the ghostly willow; the second and third swirled upward from the seething of the phantom pool, with their bodies trailing formlessly among the tenuous boughs. The faces were those of old Chapman, of Francis Amberville, and Avis Olcott.

We then end on this foreboding note of Murray contemplating returning to the meadow someday, despite him being aware of the risks. It’s foreboding because again, the story ends on this elusive note; we’re not sure what’s to become of Murray, but things are not looking good. It was typical for horror writers of the period to have their narrators write about their stories in an insane asylum or something, having gone mad from some revelation and being the only one to survive and tell the awful tale of the week. Not here. Murray is an effective (or at least refreshing) narrator for this type of thing because despite the terrible things that happen to people he cares about, he remains lucid enough to not go insane. Is still finding the cursed meadow alluring itself a kind of insanity, though? Hmmm.

A Step Farther Out

Given the restraint and discipline of his vision here, it’s weird to think Smith didn’t have much faith in “Genius Loci.” Smith was used to writing far-out tales on other worlds, whereas this was a comparatively “realistic” haunted house-type narrative that could happen in someone’s backyard. In a letter to August Derleth regarding the story’s publication, Smith wrote:

“It was all damnably hard to do, and I am not certain of my success. I am even less certain of being able to sell it to any editor—it will be too subtle for the pulps, and the highbrows won’t like the supernatural element.”

Of course Smith’s concern was unwarranted; Farnsworth Wright, the veteran editor over at Weird Tales, bought it without asking for revisions. It’s a damn good starting point for Smith, though I had read a few Smith stories beforehand and I wouldn’t say it’s totally characteristic of his writing. But then what is? “Genius Loci” feels like a classic ghost story—feeling less like 1933 and more like 1893, but I mean that in a good way. While Murray refers to the cursed pond as vampiric several times, this is not really a vampire story except maybe in the abstract sense, being about an artist who gets pulled in by an eerily beautiful location with a ghostly allure. That Murray ultimately becomes obsessed with the pond, albeit not the extent that Amberville is (though the ending hints at the obsession becoming just as deadly), could also reflect Smith’s lifelong fascination with the weird. The story itself has a haunting quality to it, and shows an artist normally known for his flamboyance zeroing in on a delicious little slice of atmosphere. It’s definitely spooky, and even a touch scary. I approve.

See you next time.


2 responses to “Short Story Review: “Genius Loci” by Clark Ashton Smith”

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