Monday, March 1, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Beast of Averoigne

First appearing in the May 1933 issue of Weird Tales, Clark Ashton Smith's "The Beast of Averoigne" is, in many ways, very similar to another CAS-penned Averoigne tale, "The Colossus of Ylourgne," which appeared immediately after it in June 1933. Both stories concern themselves with a "man of science" whose superior knowledge enables him to deal with a dark threat that the ignorant, religion-besotted inhabitants of 14th century France simply cannot. What sets "The Beast of Averoigne" apart from its successor is that it might be called a science fiction tale rather than a fantasy one, for the titular Beast is not some demon from Hell or a necromantic abomination but an alien invader.

The short story is divided into three parts, each one told from the perspective of a different character. This structure allows Smith to demonstrate his skill in characterization, as each part is colored strongly by the personality and worldview of its narrator. The end result is quite interesting and, while not wholly satisfying as a tale in and of itself, is nevertheless a delight to read. CAS does a superb job in conjuring up the inhabitants of medieval Averoigne and much of the story's tension stems from the fact that the reader likely has a clearer sense of what is going on than do some of its narrators, who simply cannot comprehend the truth of it all.

The first narrator is Brother Gérôme, "the humblest monk of the Benedictine Abbey of Périgon," who tells of the "a strange evil that is still rampant, still unquelled," which may have come to Earth from a red comet.
The horror stood erect, rising to the height of a tall man, and it moved with the swaying of a great serpent, and its members undulated as if they were boneless. The round black head, having no visible ears or hair, was thrust forward on a neck of snakish length. Two eyes, small and lidless, glowing hotly as coals from a wizard's brazier, were set low and near together in the noseless face above the serrate gleaming of bat-like teeth.
Brother Gérôme tells of the Beast's depredations and of efforts to stop them, particularly prayer, whose efficacy proves insufficient, as is revealed in the next narrator's tale, that of Théophile, abbot of Périgon, in his letter to his niece. Frightened by the Beast's increasing boldness, Théophile turns to ever more extreme rituals and mortifications of his flesh in the hope that they might drive away the alien creature and save the lives of his brother monks, many of whom have fallen victim to it.
And I know not where the horror will end; for exorcisms and the sprinkling of holy water at all doors and windows have failed to prevent the intrusion of the Beast; and God and Christ and all the holy Saints are deaf to our prayers.
The story concludes with narration by Luc le Chaudronnier, an alchemist and sorcerer to whom the authority, secular and religious, turn for help when faith proves insufficient:
"You, Messire le Chaudronnier," said the marshal, "are reputed to know the arcanic arts of sorcery, and the spells that summon or dismiss evil demons and other spirits. Therefore, in dealing with this devil, it may be that you shall succeed where all others have failed. Not willingly do we employ you in the matter, since it is not seemly for the church and the law to ally themselves with wizardry. But the need is desperate, lest the demon should take other victims. In return for your aid, we can promise you a goodly reward of gold and a guarantee of lifelong immunity from all inquisition and prosecution which your doing might otherwise invite.
Luc agrees to help them, using his superior knowledge, which his contemporaries deem magic, to deal with the Beast and the terror it has unleashed on the province of Averoigne. He concludes the tale of his involvement by stating
Indeed, it were well that none should believe the story: for thin is the veil betwixt man and the godless deep. The skies are haunted by that which it were madness to know; and strange abominations pass evermore between earth and moon and athwart the galaxies. Unnamable [sic] things have come to us in alien horror and will come again. And the evil of the stars is not as the evil of earth.
It's a terrific ending, one that calls to mind both Lovecraft and the concluding line of the 1951 film, The Thing from Another World. I'm a big fan of the classic "alien invaders" story and placing such a story within a medieval setting only heightens its effectiveness in my opinion. As regular readers know, I'm increasingly fond of including literally otherworldly beings in my fantasy games, a fondness that has only increased since re-reading this Smith short story. It's worth a read if you've ever toyed with the idea of adding extraterrestrials to your fantasy campaigns.

5 comments:

  1. Wow. That last line of Luc's is marvelous, and you're so right about the echo in Scotty's closing lines in The Thing. I love to mix horror with fantasy, and that statement is perfect. Does this story appear in a currently available collection?

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  2. I'm not sure about collections, but you can read it online here.

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  3. Very cool synopsis. It's adding to my library of examples re: the uselessness of the clergy in classic pulp.

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  4. Anderson's The High Crusade also deals with the extraterrestrial invasion theme, albeit in more whimsical, adventurous terms.

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  5. The High Crusade is a terrific book and I wrote a Pulp Fantasy Library post about it some time ago. It's being re-released by Baen in September.

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