Monday, June 28, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Double Shadow

"The Double Shadow" by Clark Ashton Smith is a story of Poseidonis, the last outpost of Atlantis, after the rest of the fabled island-continent has sunk beneath the waves forever. Smith told Donald Wandrei that it was a personal favorite of his and H.P. Lovecraft praised it as "full of vivid colour & creeping menace, & with an atmosphere worthy of E.A.P." Despite this, "The Double Shadow" had difficulty being published, with Weird Tales rejecting it in 1932. It was accepted by rival periodical, Strange Tales, but the magazine folded before the story could be published. Smith then re-submitted it to Weird Tales, where it was again rejected, leading him to self-publish it, along with several other of his stories, in 1933. The twin blows of the deaths of Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft made Weird Tales more receptive to Smith's submissions and, at his insistence, the magazine finally published "The Double Shadow" in February 1939, nearly seven years after he completed it.

The story relates the events leading to the doom of its narrator, Pharpetron, an apprentice of the great wizard Avyctes, with whom he has studied for years.
Together, we have delved more deeply than all others before us in an interdicted lore; we have solved the keyless hieroglyphs that guard ante-human formulae; we have talked with the prehistoric dead; we have called up the dwellers in sealed crypts, in fearful abysses beyond space. Few are the sons of mankind who have cared to seek us out among the desolate, wind-worn crags; and many, but nameless, are the visitants who have come to us from further bourns of place and time.
As you can see, Smith is at his best in this story, combining his gift for prose poetry with his command of archaic vocabulary. The rhythm of his words carries the reader along effortlessly, painting an enthralling picture of decaying Poseidonis and its jaded sorcerers plumbing the depths of esoteric knowledge in an effort to stave off the ennui that has overthrown the rest of their dying culture. I am reminded of his story of Zothique, "The Empire of the Necromancers," except that, instead of reading like a dark fairy tale, "The Double Shadow" is more immediate and personal, perhaps due to its first person narration.

In his quest for ever greater mastery of the arcane, Avyctes dares to delve beyond anything he has ever done before:
Well had it been for Avyctes -- and for me -- if the master had contented himself with the lore preserved from Atlantis and Thule, or brought over from Mu and Mayapan. Surely this would have been enough: for in the ivory-sheeted books of Thule there were blood-writ runes that would call the demons of the fifth and seventh planets, if spoken aloud at the hour of their ascent; and the sorcerers of My had left a record of a process whereby the doors of far-future time could be unlocked; and our fathers, the Atlanteans, had known the road between the atoms and the path into far stars, and had held speech with the spirits of the sun. But Avyctes thirsted for a darker knowledge, a deeper empery; and into his hands, in the third year of my novitiate, there came the mirror-bright tablet of the lost serpent-people.
The mention of serpent people never bodes well, as Kull discovered, and as Avyctes and Pharpetron also learns after exerting great effort to solve the mystery of their ancient tablet -- "the formula for a certain evocation, which, no doubt, had been used by the serpent sorcerers." Alas, "the object of the evocation was not named" and "there was no corresponding rite of exorcism nor spell of dismissal." Despite Pharpetron's anxiety at these facts, Avyctes nevertheless proceeds with the rite, boasting
"I have called up, in all the years of my sorcery, no god or devil, no demon or lich or shadow, which I could not control and dismiss at will, And I am loath to believe that any power of spirit beyond the subversion of my spells could have been summoned by a race of serpents, whatever their skill in demonism and necromancy."
Such arrogance seals the fate of Avyctes -- and Pharpetron too -- but the story of that fate is one well-told. Smith's unique talents as a writer are powerfully on display here and "The Double Shadow" moves along at a brisk pace. Despite the archaism and formality of its characters' speech, it never once feels forced or stilted. Instead, it comes across as a suspenseful record of actual history, relating dire events from the distant past. Its a superb effort and one of Smith's masterpieces. I recommend it without hesitation.


  1. Whoa -- a thing I did not realize -- people were using the word "lich" to mean "monster" before D&D came along. Wonder how old that usage of the word is?

  2. Smith uses "lich" a lot to mean a corpse, which is its traditional meaning, although occasionally he uses it in a way that suggests some kind of undead thing. If I recall correctly, the first use of the term in the sense in which D&D uses it -- as an undead sorcerer -- comes in a later pulp fantasy author whose name escapes me at the moment. In any event, the RPG meaning of lich, though clearly non-standard, nevertheless has a long pedigree. It wasn't invented by Gygax et al., even if he did popularize it.

  3. - Roll for Initiative talks about the lich in AD&D with Jeff Grubb.

    My favorite type of lich is the revenant (like The Outsider by HPL, or the nobles in The Empire of Necromancers by CAS) instead of the more recent scholarly mastermind lich (like the innumerable ones in Forgotten Realms).

  4. This is one of those few stories that really creeped me out at the end. Smith does an awesome job of building up the story and even though you can see the end, thinking of it on a personal level is devastating.

  5. Speaking of shadows, the shadow of James Churchward looms large over all of "weird fiction". Has anyone reasearched the occult/theosophist roots of the fiction which inspired the games?

  6. I've never come across any specific studies of Churchward's influence on pulp writers, but I recall reading discussions of the ideas that HPL took from him (as well as from Blavatsky). I think a fuller examination of the topic would be very interesting and, had I the time, it might be something I'd take up myself. It's a fascinating subject!