Weird Tales, across incarnations, has been arguably the most important outlet for dark fantasy and horror in the American market for the past century now. Yes, it’s been that long. The first issue of Weird Tales is marked March 1923 and would have appeared on newsstands in February (I’m not splitting hairs), and while it wasn’t immediately impressive it would become the quintessential pulp horror magazine within a decade. Given the nature of my site and how important Weird Tales is, I thought it appropriate (not to mention a break away from tackling serials) to do a month-long tribute by reviewing entirely short stories from this magazine’s pages—but make no mistake, this is not an attempt to cover its incredibly wide-spanning history. What I’m doing rather is to cover the most famous period of Weird Tales: from the mid-1920s to the end of the 1930s.
In a way this is not so much a tribute to Weird Tales as to the man who, more than anyone, made it the legend it now is: Farnsworth Wright. Wright hopped on as editor with the November 1924 issue and stayed until failing health forced him to step down after the March 1940 issue; he died only a few months later. But in the decade and a half that Wright was editor there was a profound change in the magazine’s contents, as it went from focusing on unassuming ghost stories to encompassing a wider range of “weird” fiction, including but not limited to sword and sorcery, operatic science fiction, and of course, cosmic horror. Ghost stories remained a firm part of the magazine’s identity, but under Wright we saw several big forerunners to modern horror and fantasy, including H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, and indeed Weird Tales was the birthplace of both Conan the Barbarian and the Cthulhu Mythos.
Weird Tales was not that friendly to novellas unless they were serialized, and anyway I figured it’d be more accurate a representation to review all short stories this month, which also allows for a more diverse set of authors. We’ve got some famous ones here, but also some deep cuts that I’m very much interested in exploring.
Anyway, here are the short stories:
“The Stolen Body” by H. G. Wells. From the November 1925 issue. This is the first true reprint I’ll be reviewing for Remembrance. “The Stolen Body” was first published in the November 1898 issue of The Strand Magazine, but we’re reading it as it appeared in Weird Tales, and apparently Wright (or somebody) deemed it major enough to make it the cover story despite its reprint status. Wells is someone who needs no introduction, and this is a story from his peak era.
“The Canal” by Everil Worrell. From the December 1927 issue. Not much is known about this author, but her vampire story “The Canal” has been reprinted several times over the years, including as a “classic” reprint in Weird Tales itself. Lovecraft was apparently a big admirer of this one, and he also didn’t seem immediately aware that Worrell was a woman. There’s a later revised version with a different ending, but we’re reading its first magazine appearance.
“The Star-Stealers” by Edmond Hamilton. From the February 1929 issue. Hamilton had made his debut in Weird Tales, and he soon proved to be the most prolific contributor of “weird-scientific stories,” or ya know, just science fiction. “The Star-Stealers” is the second entry in the episodic Interstellar Patrol series, which while not often read now was an early exmaple of space opera, which Hamilton helped codify alongside E. E. Smith and Jack Williamson.
“The Black Stone” by Robert E. Howard. From the November 1931 issue. This has to be the fastest I’ve returned to an author for my site, since only last month I finished covering Howard’s Conan serial The People of the Black Circle. “The Black Stone,” however, is not sword and sorcery but cosmic horror, and it’s supposed to be one of the best old-school Lovecraftian narratives, on top of being one of the first examples of someone taking cues from Lovecraft’s work.
“The Dreams in the Witch-House” by H. P. Lovecraft. From the July 1933 issue. Speaking of which, it’d be impossible to do a Weird Tales tribute without covering its most famous contributor, although Lovecraft was certainly not that at the time. Wright and Lovecraft did not get along, with Wright rejecting At the Mountains of Madness and “The Shadow Out of Time.” Still, this is one of his more famous short stories, and it even got adapted for TV recently.
“The Black God’s Kiss” by C. L. Moore. From the October 1934 issue. The only reread of the bunch, and that’s because I honestly did not give this one the attention I should have when I encountered it a couple years ago. Moore is now more known for collaborating with her husband Henry Kuttner, but she started as one of the more popular authors in Weird Tales. “The Black God’s Kiss” is the first in the Jirel of Jory series, featuring the titular sword-and-sorcery heroine.
“Vulthoom” by Clark Ashton Smith. From the September 1935 issue. The literary sorcerer returns! Smith was, for a brief time, one of the most prolific contributors to Weird Tales, although he mostly retired from writing fiction by the time Wright left. “Vulthoom” is a “late” Smith story, and you can tell because it was one of only a few he put out in 1935. It’s also a comparitibely rare example of Smith doing SF, with the setting being not Earth but a haunted Mars.
“Strange Orchids” by Dorothy Quick. From the March 1937 issue. As with Worrell we don’t know much about Quick, and unlike “The Canal” this has not been reprinted so often. I do remember first seeing Quick’s name in Unknown, the magazine that for a brief time usurped Weird Tales, but she appeared more in the latter; she basically stopped writing fiction once the first incarnation of Weird Tales shut down. Probably the most obscure pick of the bunch.
“Roads” by Seabury Quinn. From the January 1938 issue. Quinn was the most popular author to appear in Weird Tales during the Wright era, and yet his reputation dwindled enough since his death that he later “won” the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award. The posthumous obscurity could be because a lot of what Quinn wrote was hackwork, but “Roads” is distinct for apparently being one of those pieces that Quinn wrote out of passion, being an earnestly told Christmas story.
I know Halloween was only like five months ago, but truth be told it’s always Halloween in my heart. If I could get away with just reading and reviewing spooky fiction I probably would; nothing warms my bones like a good horror yarn. The greatest hits from Weird Tales are still cited after nearly a century, but I suspect there are also deeper cuts (especially by female authors, as there would’ve been several) that are worth our attention. We have a healthy variety of authors and a good deal of diversity as to this magazine’s contents, ranging from the supernatural to the weird-scientific.
But enough buildup…
It’s time to venture into the eerie, the uncanny, and the WEIRD!
We’re at the point where I probably don’t have to introduce Robert E. Howard to you, but I’ll do it anyway; or rather I’ll elaborate on what makes Howard special. Fantasy is a very old genre, but it’s much less so as practiced by American authors, at least if we’re talking fantasy as separated from horror. It doesn’t help that historically the magazine market hasn’t been very kind towards fantasy, but for a stretch Weird Tales was the most famous and most prolific outlet for American fantasy, and it was where Howard published much of his most famous work. Of course Howard was looking for several outlets at the same time, since he was such a massively productive writer, whether it be his fantasy, his horror, or hell, his stories about boxing. Oddly enough, though, he was basically absent from the then-growing science fiction scene, and one has to wonder if he would have eventually moved into SF had he lived longer.
Howard’s life was tragically short, and yet he wrote more in the span of a decade than most authors (especially today) write in fifty years. His tales of Conan the Barbarian alone take up several volumes, despite the fact that he was only able to write one Conan novel with The Hour of the Dragon. Conan is, of course, the godfather of sword-and-sorcery heroes, despite not even being Howard’s first such character. Conan is really more of an icon than a character with traits people recognize, whether it’s his very loose film depiction via Arnold Schwarzenegger or the more faithful paintings done by Frank Frazetta. As depicted in the original Howard stories, Conan shows himself to be quite different from people’s assumptions.
Part 3 was published in the November 1934 issue of Weird Tlaes, which is on the Archive. Because Howard has been dead for almost 90 years at this point, pretty much all of his work is in the public domain, including The People of the Black Circle, which you can read in its entirety on Project Gutenberg. If you want a book copy, you have plenty of options; the Conan stories have been perpetually in print (albeit subject to some editing fuckery early on) for the past several decades.
Sadly there’s not a whole lot for me to say about the conclusion to this gripping novella; not the story’s fault really, it’s more that I’m not a very good reader and even worse when it comes to action. Howard has a sixth sense for writing action and suspense, although given how much there is of it in the third installment you might start to get the impression that Howard is grasping at straws, or rather ways in which he can challenge his nigh-invincible anti-hero.
To recap, Conan has teamed up with fellow gun for hire Kerim Shah to rescue Yasmina from the Black Seers of Yimsha, with help from some redshirts under Kerim Shah’s leadership. Kerim Shah and the Black Seers were originally working for the same country but the latter went rogue and snatched up Yasmina for their own ends. A bit of a disappointment, albeit an inevitable one, with this installment is that Yasmina is absent for much of it; she’s too busy being a damsel. I bring this up because Yasmina is almost as good a Conan woman as Bêlit from “Queen of the Black Coast,” which if I remember right was my first Conan story. I may have set up an unfair precedent with that one. Howard wrote “Queen of the Black Coast” and The People of the Black Circle close to each other, and I get the impression that at this point in his career he got pretty good at writing women who have personalities and agency. Bêlit has the advantage of being a criminal, the titular queen of the black coast, while Yasmina is filthy royalty (no truce with queens), but nobody’s perfect.
Conan, now armed with the magic girdle Khemsa had given him in the last installment, proves to be very valuable; arguably it’s the only reason he’s able to get out of this conflict alive. Something I’ve noted before and which I still like is that the enemy Conan faces off with in this story is objectively way more powerful than him, and even Conan admits that defeating the Seers for good is basically impossible. The key objective then is not to beat the Seers so much as to rescue Yasmina and get the hell out of there as fast as possible—which, naturally, involves facing off with the Seers and their underlings to some capacity. I don’t feel like recounting every detail of that journey, since it’s one long action sequence and I’m tired, but I do feel like pointing out a few things, such as…
Howard seems to be of the belief that when in doubt, throw a big aggressive animal at the protagonist. Not even an animal that’s all that fantastical, just take a normal animal and make it the size of a car. One of the first enemies Conan fights in this installment is a really big dog. How exciting. We also get giant magical snakes later on, which are at least marginally more exciting because of how Conan has to defeat them; it involves balls. I’m also pretty sure these snakes inspired this memorable interior, courtesy of Hugh Rankin. I can easily imagine Conan stories, especially this one, being adapted into an adventure flick in the ’50s or ’60s with stop-motion effects by Ray Harryhausen, although I doubt the gore would be replicated.
Speaking of gore, I was wondering, at the end of the last installment, if Conan and Kerim Shah would fight the Seers together and then have an epic duel in the aftermath, or if there would be a betrayal beforehand; turns out I was wrong about both. The master of the Seers, who last we checked was subjecting Yasmina to some pretty far-out torture, doesn’t care too much about Conan and Kerim Shah invading his private space—not because he doesn’t mind them but because he sees them as little more than petulant flies. While Conan was able to deal with the underlings and the giant snakes at the cost of a few redshirts, this forthcoming battle won’t be as easy. Actually it’s a battle that Conan hopes not to win outright so much as to incapacitate the master long enough to rescue Yasmina.
A barbarian would have absolutely no chance against such a high-level wizard—not even a certified badass like Conan, were it not for that magic girdle. Indeed the gift from Khemsa had saved him before; the aforementioned big dog went after the redshirts but ignored Conan for reasons he did not understand at first. No doubt the girdle has symbolic value: Khemsa used it to good effect when protecting Gitara, his girlfriend, while Conan is using it to help him in rescuing Yasmina. Is it quaint that we’re supposed to believe Conan and Yasmina love each other despite having known each other for less than a week and being mostly on the run during that short time? Maybe, but what’s a good old-fashioned adventure yarn without some high-spirited romance? Even for a super-macho guy like Conan.
There Be Spoilers Here
I was gonna discuss Kerim Shah’s death in the previous section, but realized a) it really is a spoiler, and b) I should probably hold off on talking about it. I just say that because it’s pretty gnarly; it’s the most memorable part of the novella’s concluding installment. The Conan series is not averse to gore at all, but even by its standards this man goes out in a gruesome fashion. When Conan and Kerim Shah confront the master of the Seers the creepy guy YANKS KERIM SHAH’S HEART OUT OF HIS BODY. Like it’s the easiest thing in the world, too. Since Kerim Shah isn’t protected by any kind of magic, well, honestly he probably should’ve seen that coming. Even so, Howard’s talent for describing visceral action kicks into high gear and the result is almost mesmerizing with how grotesque it is.
Observe in all its glory:
He held out his hand as if to receive something, and the Turanian cried out sharply like a man in mortal agony. He reeled drunkenly, and then, with a splintering of bones, a rending of flesh and muscle and a snapping of mail-links, his breast burst outward with a shower of blood, and through the ghastly aperture something red and dripping shot through air into the Master’s outstretched hand, as a bit of steel leaps to the magnet. The Turanian slumped to the floor and lay motionless, and the Master laughed and hurled the object to fall before Conan’s feet—a still-quivering human heart.
Anyway, Conan manages to “defeat” the master, nab Yasmina, and get the hell out of Yimsha, although by Conan’s own admission his defeat of the master is by no means permanent; it’s mighty hard to kill such a powerful wizard. But wait, we’re not quite out of the woods yet! In the previous installment Conan’s henchmen, by way of misunderstanding, thought he had betrayed them, so now we have to tie up that loose end with one last battle where Conan makes it clear that he was loyal to his homies the whole time. We also get what is implied to be the final appearance of the master of the Seers, in the form of a big bird (not to be confused with Big Bird), because, like I said, when in doubt just take an animal and super-size it.
The ending sees Conan and Yasmina parting ways, as is to be expected. Yasmina is the love interest of the week, and as is custom she must either die or be unable to “tame” the Cimmerian. I’m not sure if this story takes place before or after “Queen of the Black Coast,” but probably after. Bêlit was, as far as I can tell, the closest Conan had to a true love, which due to tragic circumstances was not to be. Yasmina is in many ways a worthy partner, but as queen of Vendhya she has an obligation to her people—an obligation that Conan refuses to take part in; wisely he chooses his nomadic lifestyle over being forced into becoming something he’s not in the name of love. This all reminds me of the back end of Robert Heinlein’s Glory Road, albeit more concise and without those weird Heinlein-isms.
Now I’m just thinking about what the field would look like had Howard and Heinlein crossed paths, since they’re both such unique personalities and have such odd views of how man ought to interact with the society around him. Mind you that Heinlein started out as a quirky New Deal Democrat and only later became the quirky right-libertarian we recognize him as, and meanwhile Howard’s political outlook is… harder to parse. At least in the Conan stories, however, his sympathy for barbarism (or rather his definition of barbarism, which involves being quasi-civilized) is easy enough to understand. Conan’s capacity to stay a free individual and keep himself outside the confines of normal society is what makes him such a noble figure despite his penchant for criminal activities, at least for Howard. So ends yet another adventure for the Cimmerian.
A Step Farther Out
I’m conflicted about the length of this thing. It could’ve been streamlined and shortened, but also it could’ve been expanded to novel length so that we get more character development. The scale Howard invokes here is enough to fill a modern fantasy novel (so like 600 pages), but he’s content to give us a novella that would fill 90 to a hundred pages. I might still prefer “Queen of the Black Coast” if we’re talking Conan, but it’s hard to fault The People of the Black Circle for its heightened ambition. Also, while there is some old-timey misogyny at play, Howard proves once again that he was pretty ahead of his time with regards to writing female characters. The relationship between Conan and Yasmina is a bit rushed but both parties are assertive types with their own agendas, and while Conan clearly has an upper hand physically they’re mostly shown to be equal partners. This is also one of the longest of the original Conan stories (albeit still a novella), so now I’m curious as to what the sole Conan novel (that Howard wrote) looks like.
Looking back on it, many of the most important figures in fantasy are British. J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Lord Dunsany, William Morris, and of course we have William Shakespeare, whose fantastical plays (namely The Tempest) are essential to our understanding of the genre, even down to the language we use. As far as American fantasists go, though, few are more important (or more American) than Robert E. Howard, whose life was tragically short but who managed to produce a truly alarming amount of work in that short time. Across a near-endless supply of short fiction and poetry he ventured between low fantasy, horror, and the western, sometimes mixing the three to produce stories that were more invigorating than those written by his fellows. He was arguably the first literary swordsman, although he would probably prefer the position of “barbarian poet.”
Howard ran several series during his brief career, and Conan the Cimmerian was easily the most popular of the bunch, at least with hindsight; it, more than anything else, gave Howard a life after death as scord and sorcery’s key founder. While not Howard’s first sword-and-sorcery hero (or rather anti-hero), Conan was the final synthesis of Howard’s developing philosophy regarding man’s relationship with civilization.
Part 2 of The People of the Black Circle was published in the October 1934 issue of Weird Tales, which is on the Archive. You can also read the whole novella (the individual installments are pretty short, totaling about 30,000 words) on Project Gutenberg in a variety of formats. Because this is a Conan story, and one of the more famous ones, you won’t have a hard time finding it at all, be it online or in print.
Picking up where we left off, Conan and Yamina are on the run yet again after Conan is accused of murdering an ally of his—an act actually committed by Kemsha, the wizard who, along with his girlfriend Gitara (she has a name now), turned his back on the Black Seers of Yimsha and is now trying to take Yasmina as ransom of his own. Part 1 saw us starting out in the Hyborian equivalent of India, and now we’ve moved towards the equivalent of the Himalayan mountains. You start filling in the blanks once you realize these locales are based on real places.
The romantic/sexual tension between Conan and Yasmina continues to grow when the former proposes that the latter ought to take on the clothes of a local girl so as to disguise herself; after all, at least three parties are looking for her. Conan trades with a local girl and gives her a gold coin for her troubles, although perhaps wisely he sees her running off in the buff rather than giving her Yasmina’s clothes, since if the girl were found with those clothes she could be tortured and, worse yet, Our Heroes™ could be found out. It’s a bit of a comedic scene and it provides some relief after what amounted to a prolonged chase sequence in the first installment. It’s also here that Yasmina’s attraction to Conan is written more overtly, and it turns out such attraction may not be one-sided: when Conan gives her the new robes he beckons her to change out of his sight—an unusually chivalric and modest move for the barbarian.
A little gripe to shove in here before we get to the big action set piece of this installment. I’ve said before that Howard tends to use the same words to describe things when a perfectly fine alternative doesn’t present itself immediately, like Howard is in a mad dash to get the words out and has to go with what comes to mind first. For example, I feel like there has to be a better word to describe an attractive woman’s spine than “supple.” Actually Howard throws the word “supple” at several body parts, and it only works occasionally. This is a small price to pay for writing that is, far more often than not, narratively adept. Howard, on top of having a superhuman work ethic, also had a sixth sense for plotting, both in sustaining narrative momentum and also coming up with twists and turns that’ll hold the reader’s attention.
Speaking of which, here’s one now!
Kemsha and Gitara catch up with Conan and Yasmina, quite miraculously considering Kemsha got damn near run over by Conan’s horse at the end of the previous installment, but their reunion is short-lived when the big (i.e., the true) villains of the story make their first in-person appearance. Four of the Black Seers appear out of a dark cloud, above Our Heroes™ and well out of reach, and while we were led to believe the Black Seers meant business before, this is the first time we get to see them.
Howard doesn’t miss here:
The crimson cloud balanced like a spinning top for an instant, whirling in a dazzling sheen on its point. Then without warning it was gone, vanished as a bubble vanishes when burst. There on the ledge stood four men. It was miraculous, incredible, impossible, yet it was true. They were not ghosts or phantoms. They were four tall men, with shaven, vulture-like heads, and black robes that hid their feet. Their hands were concealed by their wide sleeves. They stood in silence, their naked heads nodding slightly in unison. They were facing Khemsa, but behind them Conan felt his own blood turning to ice in his veins. Rising, he backed stealthily away, until he felt the stallion’s shoulder trembling against his back, and the Devi crept into the shelter of his arm. There was no word spoken. Silence hung like a stifling pall.
The Seers are mainly here to get at the one who betrayed them. On the one hand, fair, but also despite being a villain we’ve come to sympathize with Kemsha. Howard has a gift for creating characters who are, if not totally rounded, at least recognizably human; while we haven’t spent that much time with Kemsha and his girl we understand their motives. Surprisingly, Gitara is not a Lady Macbeth figure who bullies Kemsha into taking power so that she can rule vicariously through him; she genuinely cares for him, and he cares for her, which is a connection that is ultimately held to be true, even if what comes next is tragic.
I hate to bring up another blocky quote like this, but I had to copy down some of the confrontation between Kemsha and the Seers as told from Yasmina’s perspective. The wizards have a bit of a Dragon Ball Z standoff, and despite facing off against four wizards more powerful than him, Kemsha is able to hold his ground. We knew he was more powerful than he appeared from he was able to do in Part 1, but this battle of wills is easily the greatest test of Kemsha’s strength, both as a wizard and as a human being. Yasmina, however, being far from a brainless damsel, figures out how Kemsha does not immediately succumb to the Seers, and how he probably is only able to do this with Gitara by his side.
The answer, simply is love.
The reason was the girl that he clutched with the strength of his despair. She was like an anchor to his staggering soul, battered by the waves of those psychic emanations. His weakness was now his strength. His love for the girl, violent and evil though it might be, was yet a tie that bound him to the rest of humanity, providing an earthly leverage for his will, a chain that his inhuman enemies could not break; at least not break through Khemsa.
Unfortunately something has to give. The Seers, similarly to Yasmina, pick up on Kemsha’s love for Gitara as his shield and proceed to use it against him. Redirecting their efforts at Gitara, she unfortunately is not able to withstand their efforts and is thus guided off the mountain’s edge, taking Kemsha with her to their apparent deaths. Again, despite being villains, their downfall is framed as tragic, and such framing works as we feel their loss. With their biggest opponent (who isn’t Conan) out of the way, the Seers snatch up Yasmina and take her to their lair, with Conan getting the fuck away just by the skin of his teeth. If you’ve read a few entries in this series before then you know Conan ain’t scared of shit, except… well, maybe these creepy bald guys. Admittedly a barbarian, while he can punch and slice his way out of most trouble, would probably get ass-blasted by some high-level wizards.
The People of the Black Circle is a later Conan story and it definitely feels like a later entry, on top of being the longest written up to that point. Conan has loved and lost before, and faced off with some pretty scummy bad guys, but the Black Seers actually make the guy retreat and think hard about how he can get his girl back. Of course it’s a hard conflict to spoil since we know in advance that Conan will come out on top somehow, but it’s more a question of how many people have to die for the bad guys to get taken down. Speaking of which, there’s a character who only appeared for a second in Part 1 who makes a big reappearance here, and his crossing paths with Conan may well lead to quite the final battle with the Seers…
There Be Spoilers Here
There is one player I’ve not mentioned till now, and that’s Kerim Shah. He was allies with Kemsha in Part 1 for like five seconds before the latter decided to go rogue, but now that Kemsha is dead (well, not quite yet) it’s up to Kerim Shah to rescuse Yasmina (and by “rescue” we mean capture her for his own ends) with or without Conan’s help. Since Our Hero™ is at his lowest point towards the end of this installment and since all his allies are now either dead or think him a traitor (his own Afghuli henchmen, having thought he killed the glorified redshit from Part 1, are now after him as well), he might do well to enter a temporary truce with Kerim Shah.
The two thus join forces.
What I find entertaining about this arrangement is that Kerim Shah makes no secret of wanting to take Yasmina as ransom; he states clearly that he and Conan have different goals in mind, and that even if they were to defeat the Seers they would still fight over Yasmina. They team up anyway. Kerim Shah might be a mercenary and a bit of a shithead, but he’s nothign compared to the creepy bald guys who spend the final scene of Part 2 subjecting Yasmina to some rather esoteric torture. Hero versus villain? Yawn. Hero teaming up with Villain B to take down Villain A? Now that’s more interesting. Of course what separates Conan from Kerim Shah is that he’s not a dog for bureaucracy and he actually seems to care for Yasmina. Again, Conan is really an anti-hero; he’s the guy we root for because the people he faces off with are always much worse than him.
Oh, and one last thing…
Gitara has fallen to her death, sadly, but for better or worse Kemsha’s death was not as swift. Conan finds Kemsha barely alive, apparently little more than a pile of broken bones, but luckily Kemsha lives long enough to give Conan his magical… girdle? Yeah, I guess you’d call it that. Conan is not a magician at all, but even a tool handed down from a skilled wizard will certainly help him in his inevitable confrontation with the Seers. Then Kemsha finally dies, sort of in a state of grace, broken but not destroyed, his humanity preserved. We actually get a spectrum of villainy with this story, from irredeemably bad (the Seers), to bad pragmatic and cool (Kerim Shah), to kinda bad but also kinda good (Kemsha). Howard has a way with bringing characters to life with relatively few words.
A Step Farther Out
Thing about Conan stories is that, like any other episodic series with a recurring protagonist, we know Conan will get out of this ordeal fine; the question is how and at what cost. Conan is wearing plot armor, but they must’ve run out of stock at the plot armor store because nobody else has it. People are dropping like FLIES! And yet the good news is that the plot is funneling into what looks to be an exciting climax. Will Yasmina make it out okay? Will Conan and Kerim Shah keep to their truce or will there be BETRAYAL? Most importantly, how the FUCK do people run around half-naked or just totally naked fine when we’re in the mountains? I’m pretty it’d be chilly at that elevation. Anyway, stay tuned.
Robert E. Howard is one of the most important practitioners of fantasy in the genre’s history, and this is impressive when you consider not only how young he was when he died but how much he wrote in that short time. He debuted in 1924 and wrote at a truly terrifying rate until his death by gunshot wound in 1936, with a slew of completed works and outlines in his wake. Among the authors who frequented Weird Tales in the ’20s and ’30s, Howard had to be one of the five most popular contributors to that magazine, not to mention one of the most prolific. Whether it was fantasy, horror, or the Western (though, oddly, not science fiction), Howard did it all, and with a zeal that few could match. Whereas others authors had maybe major series under their belt, Howard had several, and one of these would come to define a subgenre: Conan the Cimmerian, more popularly known as Conan the Barbarian.
Conan is the single most famous sword-and-sorcery character of all time, and he wasn’t even Howard’s first attempt at creating such a figure (see Kull the Conqueror); rather he was the final synthesis of Howard’s developing philosophy on man’s relationship with civilization. Hailing from a distant alternate past where sorcery and devilish creatures reign, Conan is both a classic anti-hero and Howard’s ideal man: a nomad, a man who doesn’t take orders, a man who can fight his way out of anything, and yet a man who is articulate and thoughtful despite his brawn. “The People of the Black Circle” was the longest Conan adventure published up to that point; the series had been going on for two years and would only last two more under Howard’s watch, ending with his suicide, until the scavengers came…
Part 1 was published in the September 1934 issue of Weird Tales, which is on the Archive. I do believe this is also the first story I’ve covered that’s on Project Gutenberg! That’s right, you have no excuse to not read this, unless you just don’t feel like it. And since it’s a Conan story, and one of the big ones at that, you won’t have a hard time finding it in print at all. With that said, the go-to choice would be The Bloody Crown of Conan from Random House Worlds. They put out a series of Howard collections and this is just one of several Conan collections, never mind Howard’s other work. I actually have the paperback for his horror fiction, and if that one is anything to go by these paperbacks are sturdy, thick, and heavy. Like physically heavy. Your wrists are gonna be sore after a while.
Of the Conan stories I’ve read (this is like the fourth or fifth one), this one has easily the best opening scene in my opinion. We start in the kingdom of Vendhya, the in-universe equivalent of India, where the king is on his deathbed and his sister the Devi Yasmina is by his side. However, the king is not dying via natural causes; rather he’s been cursed, by the Black Seers of Mount Yimsha, presumably the people of the black circle. The king, whose soul is bound to eternal damnation by the curse if something doesn’t kill him before it can take him, begs Yasmina to take his life and save his soul, as he’s too physically weak to do it himself. In tears, but know what she has to do, Yasmina kills her brother’s body but saves his soul.
It’s a tense and delightfully macabre opener, but more importantly it’s an effective establishing moment for Yasmina, the heroine of the story and arguably the true protagonist. This is not your typical “screaming wench” of old-timey fantasy—this is a woman who, though she may get emotional, will take action and will not take shit from anyone. Her establishing scene is so good that I can forgive the fact that Howard can’t help but mention her mammariesmommy milkerstitties breasts a couple times. The king’s death begins the plot, the ball only really gets rolling because Yasmina vows to avenge her brother and take on the Black Seers. This will, of course, be a massive and dangerous undertaking since the Black Seers are a league of incredibly powerful wizards, capable of cutting down a man from halfway around the globe. To take down these sorcerers will require cunning, might, and the will of an unstoppable man. Hmm…
Across the series we see Conan in a variety of occupations, from mercenary to pirate to bandit and generally anything that’s not all too reputable. Here we get word of him as the leader of a band of marauders, although he remains offscreen for a bit. Yasmina speaks with Chunder Shan, the governor of one of Vendhya’s provinces, about finding a man who may be able to enact her revenge. The good news is that Conan’s men have been captured recently and are waiting for execution, which makes them ample ransom material for Conan to join Yasmina; the bad news is that this news will undoubtedly piss off Conan, and Conan is not a man to piss off. I don’t see how this could possibly go wrong for Yasmina or the governor.
A couple scenes go by and you may notice that Conan has not shown up yet. This is not unusual for series. These stories are episodic in nature, with perspective characters usually not being Conan, but rather people with their own self-contained plotlines, never to appear again by virtue of dying or by simply never running into Conan a second time. The perspective shifts around here quite a bit, impressively so considering how short this installment is (about 10,000 words, if even that, the norm for Weird Tales serials), but ultimately Yasmina is the closest we have to a lead figure and it sure as hell is her story. None of this is a problem, since Howard has an almost supernatural ability to draw the reader’s attention, even when you’re unsure if he has everything worked out in advance.
I mean really, Afghulistan is Afghanistan? Iranistan is Iran? Who writes this shit? At least Vendhya for India is slightly more clever.
Anyway, a lot of misconceptions fly around because of how Conan’s been interpreted in other media, and admittedly I still get taken back a bit when reading one of the original Howard stories. I love Arnie and all, but his version of Conan barely fucking resembles the guy except maybe physically, and only if you’re staring through an empty beer bottle. Conan has become popularly thought of as a big dumb Germanic dude who barely talks, but in the Howard stories he’s a surprisingly articulate but still strong and nimble Celt; that last part is a bit of self insert hijinks considering Howard’s own Irish background. But no, Conan is not just dumb muscle, although to call him an anti-hero almost feels like a stretch; he comes off good because the people he faces off with are orders of magnitude worse.
We actually get a physical description of Conan when he decides to cut out the middle man and pay the governor an unscheduled and rather direct visit. You can see with your mind’s eye where Frank Frazetta’s legendary paintings of the man might have come from.
The invader was a tall man, at once strong and supple. He was dressed like a hillman, but his dark features and blazing blue eyes did not match his garb. Chunder Shan had never seen a man like him; he was not an Easterner, but some barbarian from the West. But his aspect was as untamed and formidable as any of the hairy tribesmen who haunt the hills of Ghulistan.
Things quickly get more complicated. Yasmina comes in and catches Conan and the governor in a behind-locked-doors conversation, and being a perfectly reasonable man Conan snatches up Yasmina and jumps the nearest goddamn window like it’s no big deal. Ah, the tables have turned! Yasmina, having offered Conan’s men as ransom, is now ranson herself, and in the arms of a man who will not be fucked with. He’s kinda cute, though. To make matters stickier Yasmina’s servant (who I don’t think is named in Part 1) runs off with plans of her own, conspiring with her boy toy Khemsa (who happens to be a wizard) to turn against the Black Seers and go after Yasmina themselves. Khemsa is an interesting character, and we’ll get back to him in a minute, but to complicate things even more we have Kerim Shah, a formiddable mercenary who was formerly in league with Khemsa but, upon overhearing the lovers’ plotting, seeks to strike out on his own.
At this point we have at least three factions with their eyes on the Devi, each for their own purposes, and honestly reminds me a bit of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, though obviously this is not a comedy. It is quite a fun time, though. In record time we’re introduced to an ensemble cast, on top of the sheer badassery of Conan himself, plus an exotic location, plus a MacGuffin of sorts, plus a sizable dose of intrigue. It’s a multi-threaded chase that’s maybe a bit overstuffed, but again, it’s consistently enthralling. Howard was not a refined writer, but somehow he found the energy himself to not only write with alarming speed but to convey that speed into the writing itself; the ffect is a wee bit intoxicating.
There Be Spoilers Here
Conan sometimes gets a love interest of the week; sometimes this translates to some woman who just needs rescuing and whom Conan will abandon as soon as she’s out of danger. To her credit, Yasmina is far from a nameless damsel, partly because, while normally a woman in her position would be captured by the villain of the week, Conan is the one doing the capturing here. Despite their circumstances, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out where their relationship is heading, especially once Yasmina starts putting on the tsundere “it’s not like I like you or anything” act deep into Part 1. What makes the budding relationship fun to read is that both of these characters are tops—that is to say, they’re both dominant types. Conan won’t take any of Yasmina’s shit and Yasmina conversely won’t take any of Conan’s; at most she’ll keep quiet as a pragmatic decision.
And of course Howard can’t help but describe in loving detail how physically well-toned both parties are. Look, I’m bisexual, I’ll take it.
Just as curious is the subplot with Khemsa, a wizard and underling of the Black Seers who goes rogue and who may be more powerful than he would seem. There’s a bit of Orientalism at play here, with Khemsa sometimes being referred to as “a man in a green turban”—ya know, to remind the reader that he’s From the East™. Some racism at play, no doubt, but it’s not that bad unless you’re at the age where you don’t know where babies come from yet. What makes Khemsa interesting is that he’s a villain for sure, but he’s also doing this for good pussy out of love, and he’s also clearly not the biggest threat, though we do get hints of how terrible his power can be. A glorified redshirt who knew Conan from a previous adventure feels the wrong end of a wizard-conjured spider. Still, he’s one player in a much grander scheme who hopes to become something much greater than just a mook; you could say he’s the rare mook who gains self-awareness and takes matters into his own hands, and damn his masters.
Unlike the other Conan stories I’ve read, this one has a distinctly “exotic” set of locales, encompassing central Asia and the Middle East. again there’s some racism at play, what with Howard repeatedly comparing Conan’s handsome (albeit deeply tanned) whiteness with the rest of the cast, which to Howard’s credit this is a mostly POC cast, including the love interest. Howard’s writing on race and gender can be messy, not helped by the tragic fact that he died so young, but unlike Lovecraft, whose depictions of non-white folks (or hell, non-WASPs) are almost always cringe-worthy and whose representation of women in his fiction is next to zero, at least Howard tries. This was 1934, and SFF writers (with a few exceptions) even two decades later struggled to write women and non-white characters as inclusively.
A Step Farther Out
There are maybe one too many plot threads going on, considering how short it is, but this is a train with no brakes on it and I just bought a ticket. Howard, even when he’s phoning it in, knows how to move a plot forward at breakneak speed and intensiity, and “The People of the Black Circle” is pretty far from him phoning it in. We get an expertly crafted opening scene and Conan’s not even in that, and while it does take a bit for him to show up, that’s by no means a bad thing as we’re given more time to know the supporting cast. The action starts right from the first page and it basically doesn’t stop, with gambit being piled on top of gambit and with characters plotting behind each other’s backs. Speaking of characters, some leading ladies in Conan stories are just there to be captured and then rescued, but Yasmina is much more thoroughly characterized than the norm, and one more example of how Howard is actually able to like, write women. Crazy to think about, I know. Howard’s ability to balance narrative momentum and characterization continues to astound me.
Fritz Leiber has a curious relationship with the pulp horror scene of the ’30s; he started in earnest in 1939, but he was already prepping for his writing career, and he was in contact with some pretty major figures, including none other than H. P. Lovecraft. Leiber’s correspondence with Lovecraft in the last year or so of the latter’s life had a pretty immense impact on the younger author, and actually I remember Leiber quoting Lovecraft a couple times in the first installment of Destiny Times Three. Unlike though, say, Robert Bloch, whose first stories were straight Lovecraft pastiches, Leiber found his own voice (or at least enough) right away with his first professional genre publication. Still, the legacy of Lovecraft stayed with Leiber, especially in his horror, which sometimes approaches the cosmic but which more often stays rooted in known reality. A key innovation of Leiber’s as a horror writer crossbreeding old terrors with what was then a newfangled modernity, no doubt influencing what we’d now call urban fantasy.
“The Hound” was published about a year after what is arguably Leiber’s most importan horror story, if not his best: “Smoke Ghost.” Genre historian Mike Ashley called “Smoke Ghost” “arguably the first seriously modern ghost story,” in that it’s a ghost story which is unique to the post-industrial urban setting; it’s not something that could’ve been written prior to the industrial revolution. What “Smoke Ghost” did for ghosts “The Hound” sets out to do similarly for werewolves, and indeed the two feel like companion pieces—being Leiber’s first real attempts at modernizing these old chestnuts of horror.
First published in the November 1942 issue of Weird Tales, which is on the Archive. It was soon reprinted in the Leiber collection Night’s Black Agents from Argham House, complete with a handsome-ass cover by Ronald Clyne. It’s been anthologized several times over the decades, although I’m not sure how many of them you can get new. While Masters of the Weird: Fritz Leiber looks to be a fetching collector’s item, it’s just that—a collector’s item. And before you ask, unfortunately no, “The Hound” was not included in the Ballantin collection The Best of Fritz Leiber, although given the breadth of his output it’s no surprise if several major short stories did not make the cut. The most viable option, if you don’t wanna prowl through used bookstores, is the collection Horrible Imaginings, although find it at your own risk, as it’s from—you fucking guessed it—Open Road Media. I swear these bastards exist just to give all the authors I like mediocre paperbacks with the intent on further burying their legacies.
You won’t be getting much in the way of plot synopsis here, mostly because “The Hound” might be the shortest short story I’ve reviewed thus far, and it’s also not densely told in terms of its plot, although it is dense in its imagery and its ability to invoke eeriness. It’s clear to me that Leiber wanted to capture a certain exquisite vibe more so than he wanted to tell a conventional werewolf story. Good for him!
Our “hero” of the day is David Lashley, although there’s nothing really heroic about him; he’s a put-upon young man with a job he doesn’t seem particularly fond of. At first I thought David was supposed to be younger, since he’s shown at the start to still be living with his parents, but actually it looks like he’s a good thirty years old. David’s parents are elderly now and he has to take care of them, both in physically looking after them and also paying the bills with his job. If this sounds a little like Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” that’s because it might be an homage, although I’m not sure if Leiber had read Kafka at this point; he probably did, considering his involvement with the so-called Lovecraft Circle and all that, and also because “The Hound” as a whole has a remarkable Kafkaesque vibe about it. I’m using “Kafkaesque” in the correct sense of the word here, because the short story touches on themes prevalent in Kafka’s work, such as alienation, both from one’s own family and society at large.
And then there’s the city. David has been having nightmares about a red-eyed monster, like a dog but not quite, stalking him for years now, and he’s reached a breaking point; there has to be something to these nightmares of his. Of course what David is really afraid of is not some werewolf which might gnaw on his bones in the middle of the night, but something much bigger than even the biggest dog: the city—urbanity. I said before that “Smoke Ghost,” that revolutionary story from the pages of Unknown, transplanted the ghost to the modern landscape—quite literaally, with the ghost being a personification of the factories, the garbage in the streets, the put-puttering of automobiles, of modernity. The potential threat of the werewolf unnerves David on its own, but what really gets to him is the werewolf as only the beginning—the first bite—of a vastly larger creature. We’re back to Kafka again, with the city as villain.
Take this early passage, which juxtaposes (and Leiber does it quite subtly here) the threat of the werewolf with David’s position as a “modern” man, a man of the city:
David Lashley clenched his hands in his overcoat pockets and asked himself how it was possible for a grown man to be so suddenly overwhelmed by a fear from childhood. Yet in the same instant he knew with terrible certainty that this was no childhood fear, this thing that had pursued him up the years, growing ever more vast and menacing, until, like the demon wolf Fenris at Ragnorak [sic], its gaping jaws scraped heaven and earth, seeking to open wider. This thing that had dogged his footsteps, sometimes so far behind that he forgot its existence, but now so close that he could almost feel its cold sick breath on his neck. Werewolves? He had read up on such things at the library, fingering dusty books in uneasy fascination, but what he had read made them seem innocuous and without significance—dead superstitions—in comparison with this thing that was part and parcel of the great sprawling cities and chaotic peoples of the twentieth century, so much a part that he, David Lashley, winced at the endlessly varying howls and growls of traffic and industry—sound sat once animal and mechanical; shrank back with a start from the sight of headlights at night—those dazzling, unwinking eyes; trembled uncontrollably if he heard the scuffling of rats in an alley or caught sight in the evenings of the shadowy forms of lean mongrel dogs looking for food in vacant lots.
Think about it, “the endlessly varying howls and growls of traffic and industry.” Can I take a moment to gush about how a good a writer, sentence-by-sentence, Leiber is? At his best he becomes genuinely poetic, and (this is a hot take) I’d say he comes much closer to marrying sheer terror with the beauty of the English language than Lovecraft. The two men were only a generation apart, but Leiber still reads as modern (if occasionally pulpy) while Lovecraft reads like he’s from a totally different era—which he was, I suppose. Much of my joy in reading “The Hound,” even when not much was actually happening on the pages (which is a lot of it), came from the way in which Leiber wrote (almost sculpted, like he was carving a swan out of a giant cube of ice) about the dark world surrounding Our Hero™. That David’s paranoia feels rather unprompted is beside the point, although admittedly it does feel like we’ve been thrown into the middle of a larger narrative; there’s a lot about David we don’t get to know.
Well, we know a few things: we know David resents caring for his parents, we know he likes but is unable to settle down with this one woman he’s good with (Kafka again), and we know he wants to get the fuck out of the city but is unable to articulate this desire himself. He also has a friend, Tom Goodsell (which sounds like symbolism but probably isn’t), who has some rather odd things to say about werewolves and the supernatural in general when asked about them. In-story, Tom’s half-joking proposition about the evolution of the supernatural in relation to civilization probably didn’t help David’s paranoia, but on a meta level he summarizes Leiber’s mission statement pretty well. In short, the haunted castle narratives of the pre-Victorian era are no longer compatible with the “modern” conception of the supernatural, because between 1792 and 1942 we got, among other things, Darwinian evolution. The automobile. The airplane. And pretty soon, nuclear weapons.
Even the psychologically adept ghost stories of Henry James would struggle in the face of modernity, and God knows they would struggle even more in the wake of the atomic bomb. If our understanding of the nature changes then our understanding of the supernatural must also change. You might not agree with that statement; God knows there’s always a market for an old-fashioned vampire novel that barely treads beyond the ground mapped out by Dracula. But Leiber is making a grander statement here, not just about how we write about the supernatural has the evolve, but also that horror writing much evolve as well. The dude respected Lovecraft a great deal, and worked to preserve his legacy, but he also acknowledged that we (anyone who wants to become a practitioner of horror) has to, at some point, move beyong Lovecraft—into uncharted waters.
Consider this, from Tom:
I’ll tell you how it works out, Dave. We begin by denying all the old haunts and superstitions. Why shouldn’t we? They belong to the era of cottage and castle. They can’t take root in the new environment. Science goes materialistic, proving that there isn’t anything in the universe except tiny bundles of energy. As if, for that matter, a tiny bundle of energy mightn’t mean—anything.”
In part it reads like an essay on what a modern horror story should be, and there’s definitely a criticism towards “The Hound” that it reads almost more like what Leiber thinks a good horror story ought to read like than a good horror story on its own; in that sense it doesn’t hold up as well as “Smoke Ghost,” which is considerably more gripping as a narrative by comparison. And yet, Leiber probably figured (correctly) that it would be better to discuss what he thinks horror ought to become by way of demonstration rather than to lecture the read about it straight up. Also because presumably more people would read it as a short story than as an essay, but that’s neither here nor there. Another advantage is that with fiction Leiber is allowing himself to go full blast on describing David’s mindset, the setting around him, the way he doesn’t vividly describe the ghostly werewolf that’s stalking him, all that. It’s hard for this man to write a bad sentence.
There Be Spoilers Here
I’m not a fan of the ending. When David finally confronts the hound, I do appreciate that Leiber refrains from describing the creature much, partly because the scene is so darkly lit (a blackout occurs in the climax) and partly because Leiber at least knows that the unseen is much scarier than the seen. Even so, the ending commits the sin of having David saved by way of deus ex machina, albeit a mundane one in a vacuum: it’s just some guy with a flashlight, whose name and even face are unknown. It’s also, I have to admit, a little corny. When David asks if the rescuer had seen the hound himself, he replies with:
“Wolf? Hound?” The voice from behind the flashlight was hideously shaken. “It was nothing like that. God, I never believed in such things. But now—” Then the voice spoke out with awful certainty and conviction. “It was— It was something from the factories of hell.”
The dialogue up to this point had admirably stayed away from the typical oh-ye-gods Weird Tales brand of horror dialogue, and the omnicient narrator even pokes fun at the melodrama of it early on, but I suppose Leiber couldn’t help himself at the very end.
Now is a good time to explain why I like werewolf stories so much. I suppose it’s the inherent duality of the thing; a werewolf, by definition of its name, might not necessarily turn into a person, but it will always transform into something. There’s always the possibility of transformation with werewolves. A vampire will always be a vampire, whether they want to be or not, but a werewolf implies duality. In the case of “The Hound,” the werewolf and the city are all but said to be two sides of the same coin—that duality right there, the beast and the civilized. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Leiber started the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series, about two adventurers who would rather travel abroad than settle down in urbanity, around the same time he wrote “Smoke Ghost” and “The Hound.” He was a bit of a cosmopolitan, but I can’t help but find Leiber’s ambivalence toward urbanity palpable.
A Step Farther Out
Earlier I said that “The Hound” is like a companion to Leiber’s earlier horror story, “Smoke Ghost,” and while I think that’s true I also think “The Hound” got published in what was then the lesser magazine because it’s somewhat less refined than its older brother. While his fears are justified, David’s fear of the wolf feels inexplicable at first, almost like it’s more a product of his psyche (which itself is not in the best shape) than a flesh-and-blood creature. Even with a story this short, Leiber strings together only but the bare bones of a plot, with a few characters thrown in who appear once and then never show up again. The ending is oddly unsatisfying, but then at least it wasn’t quite as predictable as I was anticipating. And yet, something must be said of how eerie and prescient Leiber’s vision is, not to mention how poetic his descriptions can get. He doesn’t tell a narrative or give us insight into our lead character so much as he presents a colorful metaphor for what happens when—to cop E. M. Forster’s sentiment—the machine stops.
Leiber would return to urban horror again, perhaps most famously with his debut novel Conjure Wife, but it didn’t take long for him to move to greener pastures. Or hell, for him to dip his toes in every other subgenre of horror and fantasy.
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.
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.
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.