Monday, April 19, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Coming of the White Worm

I've remarked before that Clark Ashton Smith's weird tales are something of an acquired taste, lacking the more immediate appeal of the stories penned by his contemporaries H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Their florid vocabulary, poetic diction, and mordant humor are not to everyone's liking -- a judgment as true in his own day as now.

Smith often had a difficult time selling his stories to Weird Tales, the premier pulp magazine of the time, resulting in many of his efforts appearing in more obscure publications. Such was the case with his Hyperborean yarn "The Coming of the White Worm," which first saw print in the April 1941 issue of Stirring Science Stories, nearly eight years after he'd finished writing it and after its having been rejected by Weird Tales as "too poetic."

There's no doubt that "The Coming of the White Worm," which presents itself as an English translation of a French manuscript (written by Gaspard du Nord of "The Colossus of Ylourgne"), which is itself a translation of Chapter IX of The Book of Eibon, is a challenging text. CAS pulls out all the stops, layering archaisms upon lyricism to present the tale of Evagh the warlock, who finds himself the captive of a monstrous white worm named Rlim Shaikorth, who makes his dwelling upon a mobile iceberg known as Yikilth. Evagh is not the worm's only captive; he soon discovers that many other sorcerers have also been kidnapped and brought to serve him for initially unknown purposes.

In due course, Rlim Shaikorth reveals himself to Evagh and the warlock is horrified by his appearance. Nevertheless, the gigantic white creature explains his reasons for bringing Evagh to his lair:
"Behold, O Evagh," said the voice. "I have preserved thee from the doom of thy fellow-men, and have made thee as they that inhabit the bourn of coldness, and they that inhale the airless void. Wisdom ineffable shall be thine, and master beyond the conquest of mortals, if thou wilt but worship me and become my thrall. With me thou shalt voyage amid the kingdoms of the north, and shalt pass among the green southern islands, and see the white falling of death upon them in the light from Yikilth. Our coming shall bring eternal frost on their gardens, and shall set upon their people's flesh the seal of that gulf whose rigour paleth one by one the most ardent stars, and putteth rime at the core of suns. All this shalt thou witness, being as one of the lords of death, supernal and immortal; and in the end thou shalt return with me to that world beyond the utmost pole, in which is mine abiding empire. For I am he whose coming even the gods may not oppose."
The aforementioned dialog is typical of the story and probably goes some way toward explaining why Weird Tales rejected it. (In fact, the version of the story published in 1941 eliminates some of the text's archaisms and obscure vocabulary; it was only in 1989 that an unabridged version of the story finally saw the light of day)

As one might expect, Evagh is skeptical of Rlim Shaikorth's claims, no matter how attractive his offer of immortality in the face of the coming end of Hyperborea and the world of which it is a part. He sets out to discover the truth about the white worm, despite the dangers such an undertaking poses to himself. The result is a memorable, doom-laden story that plays well to Smith's strengths as a writer. "The Coming of the White Worm" certainly is poetic, like all of Smith's best stories, but it is not for that reason inaccessible. Indeed, I actually think its poetic cadences give it the air of a "dark fairy tale" into which one can more easily be caught up than straightforward exposition.

It's worth noting that "The Coming of the White Worm" includes frequent references to the Old Ones, which are, of course, originally Lovecraft's creations. Smith apparently considered this story to be one of his contributions to HPL's evolving pseudo-mythology, although, in his hands, that mythology has a very different feel -- less "cosmic" and more "atavistic," which is to say, rooted in dim intuitions all men possess but which their rational minds reject. This feel is not so much unsettling, as Lovecraft's tales frequently are, but strangely liberating, calling to mind thoughts and images one lacks the words to describe:
Frorely burned the sun above Mhu Thulan from a welkin clear and wannish as ice. At eve the aurora was hung from zenith to earth, like an arras in a high chamber of gods. Wan and rare were the poppies and small the anemones in the cliff-sequestered vales lying behind the house of Evagh; and the fruits in his walled garden were pale of rind and green at the core.
There's a lot of great images and ideas to mine in this story for gaming, especially if one's tastes tend toward the weird and apocalyptic. I am told that Expeditious Retreat Press's OSRIC module The Conqueror Worm is inspired by "The Coming of the White Worm." Given that it's written by Alphonso Warden, who also wrote the brilliant The People of the Pit, I am not the least bit surprised. I may have to check it out.

4 comments:

  1. The story is a favorite of mine. I've read it four times, each time taking something new from it. I consider it an inspirational building block for campaign development. I'd never seen that _Stirring Science_ cover before. Great post, James.

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  2. I always enjoy your Clark Ashton Smith posts. This story is superb, but so are most of his stories.

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  3. I've never ready any of these stories and I was wondering if you could recommend a collection of his books that I might be able to read.

    I've heard wonderful things about this author from a wide number of sources and I'd like to start reading some of them.

    Thanks,

    GP

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  4. God I love this story! Thanks for bringing it to people's attention! The Coming of the White Worm is such perfect and beautiful gem of weirdness!

    We should all be thankful that CAS didn't compromise his style to seek publication in the more mainstream outlets.

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