Monday, October 12, 2020

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Abominations of Yondo

Though Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft have succeeded in ascending from the netherworld of the pulps to the heights of popular acclaim and impact, the same unfortunately cannot be said of Clark Ashton Smith. Lovecraft's shadow continues to fall over horror more than eight decades after his death and Howard, through his creation of Conan the Cimmerian, stands shoulder to shoulder with J.R.R. Tolkien as one of the most widely influential writers of the fantasy genre. Smith, on the other hand, is barely known at all. His name does not even appear in Gary Gygax's Appendix N

Speaking as a long-time partisan of Smith, that's a shame, as his command of language is rivaled only by Jack Vance, but I can nevertheless understand his comparative obscurity. For one thing, Smith's stories are rarely accounts of heroic derring-do. Instead, they tend to be decadent tales of doom that revel in melancholy and the macabre. Further, few of his stories can be called tightly plotted. Most evince the dreamlike, even mesmeric rhythms of a stream of consciousness report rather than the structure of a conventional pulp yarn. Thus, readers looking for the shocking revelations of "The Dunwich Horror" or the bloody intrepidity of "Red Nails" will find only disappointment in even the best of Smith's output.

A good example of what I'm talking about can be seen in his short story, "The Abominations of Yondo." The piece debuted in the April 1926 issue of the California literary magazine Overland Monthly after it had been rejected by Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright as "a fascinating bit, but a prose poem rather than a weird narrative." "Yondo" was, according to Scott Connors and Ron Hilger, "Smith's first full-fledged effort in the realm of the weird tale." Smith himself, in a letter to Samuel J. Sackett, claimed that he had written it under the influence of H.P. Lovecraft, with whom he had also been corresponding for several years. 

Regardless, "The Abominations of Yondo" shows all the hallmarks of Smith's unique voice and preoccupations and has, in my opinion, one of the truly great openings of any pulp fantasy.

The sand of the desert of Yondo is not as the sand of other deserts; for Yondo lies nearest of all to the world's rim; and strange winds, blowing from a pit no astronomer may hope to fathom, have sown its ruinous fields with the gray dust of corroding planets, the black ashes of extinguished suns. The dark, orblike mountains which rise from its wrinkled and pitted plain are not all its own, for some are fallen asteroids half-buried in that abysmal sand. Things have crept in from nether space, whose incursion is forbid by the gods of all proper and well-ordered lands; but there are no such gods in Yondo, where live the hoary genii of stars abolished and decrepit demons left homeless by the destruction of antiquated hells.

What follows is a short, first-person account by an unnamed individual who claims to be "a careless traveler from far-off lands" whose "indiscretions" led him "into the power of those dreadful magicians and mysteriarchs who serve the lion-headed Ong." Arrested and tortured, he is then blindfolded and taken by camel to a cactus-forest many hours away, This forest lies at the edge of the desert of Yondo and the inquisitors who brought him there release him into the desert with only "a loaf of coarse bread and a leathern bottle of rank water by way of provision."

Thinking himself fortunate, the narrator then sets off into the desert on foot, heading north in hopes of meeting nomadic tribesmen reputed to live there. His naïve hopes begin to fade, as he quickly realizes that the desert of Yondo is indeed unlike any other desert. He finds himself followed by long-legged insects, "the color of a week-old corpse" and "as large as tarantulas," which he tries to ignore, focusing instead on his efforts to reach the edge of the desert. Unfortunately for him, the insects are the least of his worries. Trekking "under a huge sun of sickly scarlet," he comes face to face with a succession of weird, unsettling, and outright terrifying sights, each of which further weakens his resolve in pressing forward to freedom. At one point, he hears laughter emanating from the mouth of a cave.

With a fearful intentness I stared at the black opening. The chuckle grew louder, but for awhile I could see nothing. At last I caught a whitish glimmer in the darkness; then, with all the rapidity of nightmare, a monstrous Thing emerged. It had a pale, hairless, egg-shaped body, large as that of a gravid she-goat; and this body was mounted on nine long wavering legs with many flanges, like the legs of some enormous spider. The creature ran past me to the water's edge; and I saw that there were no eyes in its oddly sloping face; but two knife-like ears rose high above its head, and a thin, wrinkled snout hung down across its mouth, whose flabby lips, parted in that eternal chuckle, revealed rows of bats' teeth. It drank acidly of the bitter lake then, with thirst satisfied, it turned and seemed to sense my presence, for the wrinkled snout rose and pointed toward me, sniffing audibly. Whether the creature would have fled, or whether it meant to attack me, I do not know; for I could bear the sight no longer but ran with trembling limbs amid the massive boulders and great bars of salt along the lakeshore.

The remainder of the story consists of the narrator's flight from one horror to another, each one stranger and more disquieting the last, building toward an inevitable climax that is at once obvious and unexpected. I can understand Farnsworth Wright's criticisms of it as "a prose poem." even if I don't see that as a flaw. Like all of Smith's best work, "The Abominations of Yondo" is an evocation of mood, in this case of abandonment and desolation, rather than a story in the common sense of the word. Yet, I think it's well worth reading, particularly if you're alone while doing so. It's one of my favorites and I hope others will enjoy it as much as I do.

7 comments:

  1. Lovecraft has many -- justified -- critics these days but one thing he did right was his championing of other authors. Without Lovecraft I would never have heard of CAS, for example, and that would have been a shame.

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  2. My favouurite "cycle" of stories are those set in Averoigne. I always wanted to run an all-cleric campaign, a sort of alternative Spanish Inquisition, but set in CAS' Averoigne.

    Do you think its possible that EGG never read any CAS before creating Dungeon's and Dragons?

    APIC

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    1. I'm fairly certain that Gygax admitted as much somewhere. It was (I think) Rob Kuntz who first introduced him to CAS after the creation of D&D.

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  3. "The Abominations of Yondo" was the first story by CAS I've read, and it got me hooked immediately.

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  4. If I had to chose among the works of the three big names of weird fantasy, CAS would certainly be my favorite, followed by the more Dunsany-esque of Lovecraft's tales.

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  5. I just read Yondo for the first time recently. Its descriptions struck me as incredibly imaginative. Certain of Smith’s stories seem to transport me to another world (e.g., City of the Singing Flame) and Yondo is one of those specially enthralling ones. It is as if the real world fades away, and all you can see is Yondo stretching out before you. That’s descriptive power.

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  6. I’ve been sporadically running a megadungeon set in a “prequel period” to Yondo, tying it in with Zothique a bit
    - http://elderskull.blogspot.com/2019/09/the-red-manse-of-oumkha.html
    - http://elderskull.blogspot.com/2019/10/xothesque-adventurer-origins.html

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