Monday, January 2, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Maker of Gargoyles

January is upon us and so I bid farewell to Pulp Science Fiction Library (though it may return in the future). For the first installment of Pulp Fantasy Library of 2012, it seems only fitting to turn to my favorite pulp fantasist, Clark Ashton Smith, and my favorite of his recurring settings, Averoigne. This time, the story in question is "The Maker of Gargoyles," which appeared in the August 1932 issue of Weird Tales. The short story walked a difficult road to publication, having been rejected multiple times by both Weird Tales and its competitor, Strange Tales. It was only after several revisions, the most significant of which was suggested to Smith by August Derleth that it was at last accepted for publication.

As its name suggests, "The Maker of Gargoyles" is about a stone-carver named Blaise Reynard who had been commissioned by the archbishop of Vyônes to carve a pair of gargoyles for the city's new cathedral. Smith describes the circumstances of Reynard's employment, as well as the popular reaction to both his work and his person in the opening of the story:

Among the many gargoyles that frowned or leered from the roof of the new-built cathedral of Vyônes, two were pre-eminent above the rest by virtue of their fine workmanship and their supreme grotesquery. These two had been wrought by the stone-carver Blaise Reynard, a native of Vyônes, who had lately returned from a long sojourn in the cities of Provence, and had secured employment on the cathedral when the three years' task of its construction and ornamentation was well-nigh completed. In view of the wonderful artistry shown by Reynard, it was regretted by Ambrosius, the archbishop, that it had not been possible to commit the execution of all the gargoyles to this delicate and accomplished workman; but other people, with less liberal tastes than Ambrosius, were heard to express a different opinion.
This opinion, perhaps, was tinged by the personal dislike that had been generally felt toward Reynard in Vyônes even from his boyhood; and which had been revived with some virulence on his return. Whether rightly or unjustly, his very physiognomy had always marked him out for public disfavor: he was inordinately dark, with hair and beard of a preternatural bluish-black, and slanting, ill-matched eyes that gave him a sinister and cunning air. His taciturn and saturnine ways were such as a superstitious people would identify with necromantic knowledge or complicity; and there were those who covertly accused him of being in league with Satan; though the accusations were little more than vague, anonymous rumors, even to the end, through lack of veritable evidence.
However, the people who suspected Reynard of diabolic affiliations were wont for awhile to instance the two gargoyles as sufficient proof. No man, they contended, who was so inspired by the Arch-Enemy, could have carven anything so sheerly evil and malignant, could have embodied so consummately in mere stone the living lineaments of the most demoniacal of all the deadly Sins.
The two gargoyles were perched on opposite corners of a high tower of the cathedral. One was a snarling, murderous, cat-headed monster, with retracted lips revealing formidable fangs, and eyes that glared intolerable hatred from beneath ferine brows. This creature had the claws and wings of a griffin, and seemed as if it were poised in readiness to swoop down on the city of Vyônes, like a harpy on its prey. Its companion was a horned satyr, with the vans of some great bat such as might roam the nether caverns, with sharp, clenching talons, and a look of Satanically brooding lust, as if it were gloating above the helpless object of its unclean desire. Both figures were complete, even to the hindquarters, and were not mere conventional adjuncts of the roof. One would have expected them to start at any moment from the stone in which they were mortised.
Ambrosius, a lover of art, had been openly delighted with these creations, because of their high technical merit and their verisimilitude as works of sculpture. But others, including many humbler dignitaries of the Church, were more or less scandalized, and said that the workman had informed these figures with the visible likeness of his own vices, to the glory of Belial rather than of God, and had thus perpetrated a sort of blasphemy. Of course, they admitted, a certain amount of grotesquery was requisite in gargoyles; but in this case the allowable bounds had been egregiously overpassed.
As the story begins, Vyônes is being terrorized by a series of terrible murders of reputable and respectable citizens, including members of the clergy. In time, these murders are joined by a series of attacks upon the young women of the city, leading many to believe that demons are at work. This, in turn, inspires equal parts superstitious fear and blasphemous abandon in Vyônes, as some of its inhabitants look to God for salvation while others see recent events as evidence that Satan holds sway over their home.

In the midst of this tumult, Blaise Reynard spends his time in a tavern, where he lustily eyes the serving girl, Nicolette. For her part, Nicolette shows little interest in Reynard, which only inflames his passion for her:

There were few people in the tavern that evening. The girl Nicolette was serving wine to a mercer's assistant, one Raoul Coupain, a personable youth and a newcomer in the neighborhood, and she was laughing with what Reynard considered unseemly gayety at the broad jests and amorous sallies of this Raoul. Jean Villom was discussing in a low voice the latest enormities and was drinking fully as much liquor as his customers.
Glowering with jealousy at the presence of Raoul Coupain, whom he suspected of being a favored rival, Reynard seated himself in silence and stared malignly at the flirtatious couple. No one seemed to have noticed his entrance; for Villom went on talking to his cronies without pause or interruption, and Nicolette and her companion were equally oblivious. To his jealous rage, Reynard soon added the resentment of one who feels that he is being deliberately ignored. He began to pound on the table with his heavy fists, to attract attention.
Villom, who had been sitting all the while his back turned, now called out to Nicolette without even troubling to face around on his stool, telling her to serve Reynard. Giving a backward smile at Coupain, she came slowly and with open reluctance to the stone-carver's table.
She was small and buxom, with reddish-gold hair that curled luxuriantly above the short, delicious oval of her face; and she was gowned in a tight-fitting dress of apple-green that revealed the firm, seductive outlines of her hips and bosom. Her air was disdainful and a little cold, for she did not like Reynard and had taken small pains at any time to conceal her aversion. But to Reynard she was lovelier and more desirable than ever, and he felt a savage impulse to seize her in his arms and carry her bodily away from the tavern before the eyes of Raoul Coupain and her father.
I don't think I'm giving anything away when I say that the resolution of Reynard's unfulfilled desire and the horrific events in Vyônes are connected. Neither do I think the nature of connection will come as a surprise to anyone. Despite that, "The Maker of Gargoyles" is nevertheless an enjoyable tale well told. As ever, Smith is a master of prose poetry and his descriptions of both people and events are terrifically suggestive without ever lapsing into luridness. Just as important is Smith's portrait of the psychology of Reynard, for the success of the whole story depends heavily on it. Some might find it unsatisfying, but I think, in a tale as brief as this one, one can only reasonably expect a certain amount of depth. Even given that criticism, Reynard is a quite well realized character and a solid foundation on which to build this tale of obsession in a fantastical medieval France.

11 comments:

  1. Sounds interesting! Do you have this WT issue?! Or, where is this story anthologized?

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  2. "As ever, Smith is a master of prose poetry and his descriptions of both people and events are terrifically suggestive without ever lapsing into luridness."

    We'll have to agree to disagree on this. Having worked (and I used that word advisedly) my way though collections such as "The Return of the Sorcerer" and "The Colossus of Ylourgne and Three Others," Smith's prose struck me mostly as tedious, overwrought, and precious. While there were some stories I enjoyed, such as "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis," "The Charnel God," and "The Disinterment of Venus," overall his style made reading a chore for me, not a pleasure. REH is much more to my tastes.

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  3. I became aware of CAS through "Castle of Amber" and HPL. I became a fan as soon as I read Timescape's edition of "City of the Singing Flame".

    Can I read long doses of him at once? Not really. But his prose often sings of long ago (or far ahead), decadent vistas reeking of hashish, where strange things move in the darkness, and sorcerers call up things better left uncalled.

    And he can be darkly funny. And there're monsters. Good stuff and I need to catch up on my Night Shade omnibuses.

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  4. @ Jason Carney

    CAS's works have passed into the public domain. All of his short stories can be found below...

    http://eldritchdark.com/

    I agree with Anthony. In fact, I have already, some time a year or two ago on this very blog. There are a couple of his stories I enjoyed, but overall, pretty much as Anthony described--tedious. I'd lump HPL's works into the tedious category as well, but that's a topic for another blog.

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  5. God, this would of made a great horror film for Hammer studios staring Vinent Price. What a shame these things never come to pass.

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  6. @Soren

    Regarding Lovecraft, I find myself more tolerant of his florid prose; I'm not sure why. I put it down to discovering him in my teen years, when I was finding science fiction and fantasy in general, thus leaving me with fond memories of his stories.

    For those looking for the story our host reviewed, the specific link is http://is.gd/vYfhPM .

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  7. Smith's stories are not in the PD. His literary estate allowed the Eldritch Dark to post his material at a time when he was out of print as a means of making it available to new generations of readers. The following notice may be found on the About the Eldritch Dark page: "Permission has been granted for the non-profit use of Clark Ashton Smith material on The Eldritch Dark website by - CASiana (the Estate of Clark Ashton Smith) and Arkham House." Scott Connors

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  8. Don't give up on an author too quickly -- or rather, go back and check on them periodically. There comes a time in life when boring Austen becomes funny Austen, when snoozer Vance becomes astounding Vance, when Howard becomes accessible and Drake becomes darkly wise.

    I'm not sorry to have read certain things in my youth, when I could enjoy them; and I'm glad to discover formerly closed doors of imagination continuing to open to me as I age. There are always new literary worlds waiting.

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  9. "my favorite pulp fantasist, Clark Ashton Smith"

    I recently have had the pleasure of reading through a considerable number of CAS's stories, thanks to the collection The Return of the Sorcerer and the 'Eldritch Dark' website. Indeed, I think that I've read through all (or at least most) of CAS's Zothique, Hyperborea, Poseidonis, and Averoigne stories.

    And I thoroughly enjoyed them all. CAS is a brilliant story teller, and I think that he surpasses even HPL and REH. His stories certainly possess a dark humour that those of his contemporaries generally lacked. (And it is clear now to me what a huge influence CAS exerted on Vance's style.)

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  10. God, this would of made a great horror film for Hammer studios staring Vinent Price.

    You pain me with such an idea! How I would have loved to have seen such a movie.

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  11. There comes a time in life when boring Austen becomes funny Austen, when snoozer Vance becomes astounding Vance, when Howard becomes accessible and Drake becomes darkly wise.

    That's very well said -- and true -- in my own experience.

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