Monday, February 8, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Colossus of Ylourgne

The illustration to the left isn't from the first appearance of Clark Ashton Smith's June 1933 short story, "The Colossus of Ylourgne," but from a Dutch anthology bearing the same name. I included it with this post because I liked the look of it and because, as I've noted previously, Smith stories so rarely received cover art in the issues of Weird Tales in which they were published; this story is no different. Interestingly, we know from extant letters that "The Colossus of Ylourgne" is one of two stories (along with "The Dark Eidolon") that Smith offered to Universal Studios for adaptation into movies when they contacted him in 1935 about obtaining film rights to some of his work. Alas, nothing ever came of it.

Set in late 13th century France, "The Colossus of Ylourgne" is one of the longest pieces Smith ever wrote. It's also one of his more straightforwardly "adventurous" tales, which isn't to say the story diverges much from his usual approach, since it still retains all the characteristics one would expect from its author, including mordant satire and luxurious language. Nevertheless, the story is one that could easily be turned into a D&D adventure -- and indeed was, in the form Tom Moldvay's Castle Amber, which includes characters and events taken directly from "The Colossus of Ylourgne."

Nathaire, a "thrice-infamous ... alchemist, astrologer and necromancer, with his ten devil-given pupils" suddenly and secretly departs from the town of Vyônes for reasons unknown, although it is commonly believed "that his departure had been prompted by a salutary fear of ecclesiastical thumbscrews and fagots." In point of fact, the dwarfish, deformed necromancer has bigger things in mind, as soon becomes apparent:
Nightly, for a period of two weeks, the cemeteries of Vyônes, and also those of other towns, of villages and hamlets, gave up a ghastly quota of their tenants. From brazen-bolted tombs, from common charnels, from shallow, unconsecrated trenches, from the marble-lidded vaults of churches and cathedrals, the weird exodus went without cessation.

Worse than this, if possible, there were newly ceremented corpses that leapt from their biers and catafalques, and disregarding the horrified watchers, ran with great bounds of automatic frenzy into the night, never to be seen again by those who lamented them.
Only one person in all of Averoigne, Gaspard du Nord, "himself a student of the proscribed sciences, who had been numbered for a year among the pupils of Nathaire but had chosen to withdraw quietly from the master's household after learning the enormities that would attend his further initiation," has any inkling of what is transpiring -- and what is necessary to stop it.

The resulting story, while lacking the blood and thunder approach of more conventional pulp fantasies, is nevertheless a gripping adventure tale. Gaspard du Nord is neither a Howardian stalwart nor a Lovecraftian antiquarian, but rather a peculiar mix of the two. He's a man of action and integrity who uses "science" -- in this case, forbidden magic -- to protect people who would otherwise revile and fear him as a servant of the Devil. There's an almost Western "necessary barbarian" quality to Gaspard's portrayal, although I'm not sure Smith intended such a reading, preferring instead to use him and his former master as opportunities to poke fun at the medieval Church and religious sensibilities generally.

"The Colossus of Ylourgne" is definitely one of Smith's most accessible works. Its narrative structure and content are more in line with those of lesser pulp fantasy works, which probably explains why it was so well received by the readers of Weird Tales. Yet Smith sacrifices very little of his distinctive voice in this tale. Indeed, one could reasonably argue that, because its structure is more conventional, it affords Smith a greater opportunity to demonstrate his unique gifts as a writer. Regardless, "The Colossus of Ylourgne" is a classic and perhaps the crowning achievement of his Averoigne stories. It's well worth reading by lovers of weird fantasy generally and gamers in particular.


  1. “...that Smith offered to Universal Studios for adaptation into movies when they contacted him in 1935 about obtaining film rights to some of his work. Alas, nothing ever came of it.

    Alas? With all the film adaptions we would rather not have been made... ^_^

  2. Perhaps, but I still can't help feeling a little disappointed that we've never had the chance to complain about how bad an adaptation of a CAS story on the big screen has been :)

  3. This sounds intriguing, and fortunately, Amazon has it as part of a collection with other stories. :)

  4. The second paragraph of the block quote is wonderfully macabre. His use of language really brings the horror to life.

    It's funny, the group I DM for will likely be encountering the colossus this weekend, and this actually gave me much more flavor to lay on them--apart from my image of the beast having skin like uncooked sausage, with the corpses comprising it writhing beneath...

  5. This is a great story James and one worth highlighting.

    I thought to myself, when the protagonist approaches the ruins looking for an entrance, "Boy, this feels just like a bunch of D&D adventures I've played in!"

    CAS's disdain for god/organized religion gets highlighted in this story too. I laughed out loud several times while reading it.

  6. Clues:
    Gaspard de la Nuit (G. of the night) is a gothic character created by the poor-known Aloysius Bertrand (XIXth cent.).
    Gaspard des Montagnes (from Mountains) is another fictional character found amongst fantastic tales written by french and Auvergne-native Henri Pourrat (rather 1920-30's), whose grand-nephew was a classmate in Clermont-Ferrand (Auvergne capital city) high school (nothing mystic here).
    To my great shame, I must say I never tried to read his prose, given it was supposed a so traditionalist boring stuff to my teenage stubborn mind.
    Next week when in Auvergne I will give him the CAS treat.

  7. James, you've led me to more interesting books than any teacher ever did - keep up the good work :)

  8. I'm with Sean on that one. It actually sort of pisses me off that everyone learning to write in america has to read supposedly worthy and important dishwater like The Scarlet Letter (cue acomments from angry Hawthorne fans) and The Crucible while the gorgeous and innovative language on display in a CA Smith or Jack Vance story gets ignored.

  9. "Angry" Hawthorne fan here . . . just finished teaching Beyond the Black River in my fantasy lit. class here at the U of Illinois, and I was actually able to use the students' knowledge of The Scarlet Letter to help put Howard's achievement into context. (The comparison would have been even more apt had I been teaching The Black Stranger.) It's pretty clear that REH knew some Hawthorne and was able to riff on it in his own stories.

    (Enjoying James's posts on Smith nonetheless--I will be moving on to Tolkien after we finish Red Nails this week, but I will be reading my Fantasy Masterpieces edition of Smith's stories for fun in the evenings as a result of James's series.)

  10. "Smith stories so rarely received cover art in the issues of Weird Tales in which they were published..."

    So true. I think it's often the case, unfortunately, that so many great authors (read: Lovecraft) have a hard time 'making it' when so many mediocre authors (read: Stephanie Meyer) find success tossed into their lap.

    I just ordered a magnificent edition of Vance's The Dying Earth off of Amazon--because it wasn't for sale at any of the Barnes and Nobles that I went to.

    I find it my duty to 'advertise' the grandmasters of genre fiction to people whenever I can.

  11. Hey, I went to look for books that contain this story, and found the full text on this web site:

    I've been enjoying your blog greatly.

  12. I particularly liked the apparent title of this publication- Feh."

    That's exactly what my Jewish grandmother would have said if she caught me reading it.

  13. As a Dutch person I am delighted to see that cover. It's from the then-popular paperback series "Zwarte Beertjes" (Black Bears). Some readers may be interested to know the series logo, as well as the graphic design of this cover and many others is by Dick "Miffy" Bruna. The art here is by Bob van Blommestein, who became known for his magical realism waterpaints. All the series' covers can be viewed here: