Monday, November 15, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Door to Saturn

Appearing in the January 1932 issue of Strange Tales, Clark Ashton Smith's "The Door to Saturn" is part of his Hyperborean cycle, although very little of its action actually takes place in that ancient far northern realm. Instead, as its title suggests, the story is set on the planet Saturn, called Cykranosh by the Hyperboreans, a world that is totally unlike the Saturn of science. Cykranosh possesses a surface with Earth-like topgraphy, a breathable atmosphere, and at least two intelligent humanoid species: the Blemphroims and the Ydheems.

The story thus has more in common with Edgar Rice Burroughs than "true" science fiction, which should come as no surprise, given that its protagonist, the wizard Eibon, makes his journey to Cykranosh by means of magic -- a journey he undertakes only because he is being pursued by an inquisition led by Morghi, high priest of the elk-goddess Yhoundeh. Eibon's crime is the worship of "the long-discredited heathen god Zhothaqquah," known in later times as Tsathoggua. Rather than face death at Morghi's hands, Eibon uses
a large thin oval plate of some ultra-telluric metal, ... fitted as a hinged panel in an upper room of his house. The panel, if swung outward from the wall on open air, would have the peculiar property of giving admittance to the world Cykranosh, many million miles away in space.

According to the vague and somewhat unsatisfactory explanation vouchsafed by the god, this panel, being partly wrought from a kind of matter which belonged to another universe than man's, possessed uncommon radiative properties that served to ally it with some higher dimension of space, through which the distance to astronomically remote spheres was a mere step.

Zhothaqquah, however, warned Eibon not to make use of the panel unless in time of extreme need, as a means of escape from otherwise inevitable danger; for it would be difficult if not impossible to return to Earth from Cykranosh — a world where Eibon might find it anything but easy to acclimate himself, since the conditions of life were very different from those in Mhu Thulan, even though they did not involve so total an inversion of all terrene standards and norms as that which prevailed in the more outlying planets.

Morghi follows Eibon through the panel, intent on arresting him according to the doctrines of the elk-goddess.
"Detestable sorcerer! Abominable heretic! I arrest you!" said Morghi with pontifical severity.

Eibon was surprised, not to say startled; but it reassured him to see that Morghi was alone. He drew the sword of highly tempered bronze which he carried, and smiled.

"I should advise you to moderate your language, Morghi," he admonished. "Also, your idea of arresting me is slightly out of place now, since we are alone together in Cykranosh, and Mhu Thulan and the temple-cells of Yhoundeh are many million miles away."

Morghi did not appear to relish this information. He scowled and muttered: "I suppose this is some more of your damnable wizardry."

Eibon chose to ignore the insinuation.

"I have been conversing with one of the gods of Cykranosh," he said magniloquently. "The god, whose name is Hziulquoigmnzhah, has given me a mission to perform, a message to deliver, and has indicated the direction in which I should go. I suggest that you lay aside our little mundane disagreement, and accompany me. Of course we could slit each other's throats or eviscerate each other, since we are both armed. But under the circumstances I think you will see the puerility, not to mention the sheer inutility, of such a proceeding. If we both live we may be of mutual use and assistance, in a strange world whose problems and difficulties, if I mistake not, are worthy of our united powers."

Together, this odd couple traverses across Cykranosh, encountering strange gods, equally strange Saturnian life forms, and sparring with one another by means of typically Smithian dialog. "The Door to Saturn" soon becomes a darkly humorous tale, full of wit and wonder. It's a bit of sardonic fun rather than anything deep or substantial, but I find it difficult not to enjoy it.

Reading the story, I am reminded once again that Smith presents a universe almost as weird and inhuman as Lovecraft's but one whose alienness is suffused with equal parts whimsy and horror. It's a combination not everyone finds congenial and I can certainly appreciate that reaction, but, for me, it's the perfect antidote to the kind of self-seriousness that HPL can sometimes engender in his readers. Smith regarded "The Door to Saturn" as one of his best stories and there's a lot to recommend in it, especially if you enjoy the idea of planetary romance seen through a slightly twisted lens.


  1. I love the society of the Blemphroims.

    James, have my e-mails regarding Petty Gods illustration made it through to you? I sent them from a gmail account.

    Andrew W

  2. I love this story - I can just read it over and over again.

    I bet a story like this would never get published these days.

  3. The story is brilliant, one of my favorites by CAS. An excellent short essay, James. Well done. Cheers, --Jeff T.

  4. This is a great story. Funny stuff!

  5. that second excerpt is some truly terrible writing. Is the whole thing that clumsy and pretentious? It's like gary gygax doing powerpoint or something.

  6. What's terrible (and pretentious) about it exactly?

  7. portentous speech; describing emotions directly ("Eibon was surprised") rather than presenting information from which the reader can infer emotions; unnecessarily complex language in place of actual descriptions. What on earth is "inutility"? It's unnecessarily wanky. The paragraph describing the door is unnecessarily complex for a very simple explanation. It's just poor quality writing that replaces descriptive power with description.

  8. "I have been conversing with one of the gods of Cykranosh," he said magniloquently.

    --To add to faustusnotes, we're taught not use adverbs to describe speech in this manner. What does it exactly mean to say something 'magniloquently'? Here, a more detailed description works better. Perhaps this is more modern day than what was taught in the 30s? Nonetheless, I'd agree with faustusnotes on all counts.

    Although I've enjoyed some tales by CAS (like the short story that inspird the cover of the Castle Amber module, 'Colossus of Yl--') and HPL, reading most of their works is a chore.

    If they (HPL and CAS)were new, young writers attempting to break into print today, most of their stories would not be accepted for publication. They simply break or ignore too many rules of creative writing. HPL's tales of straight narration, lack of dialogue, lack of character development, or character identity would be stuffed into an envelope and returned straight away, without being read completely by an editor.

    Folks, it's bad. Their works don't stand up to the test of time. It's bad.

  9. Folks, it's bad. Their works don't stand up to the test of time. It's bad.

    Both Lovecraft and Smith wrote as they did for very specific reasons and, while I can understand that it's not to everyone's taste, I think it's stretch to call their prose "bad" without qualification. HPL, for example, self-consciously modeled his prose on that of Addison, Swift, and Steele, so to expect him to write according to contemporary (then or now) literary standards is to misunderstand his purpose. Likewise, Smith viewed himself primarily as a poet and his style has been likened to that of Keats. Consequently, his prose can be quite florid and he frequently breaks other "rules" of writing your English teacher taught you in high school.

    As for the suggestion that their works don't stand up to the test of time, I think it's laughable, given both their wide influence over many other writers and the rise in their literary standing over the last few decades. The Library of America, for example, now has a volume of Lovecraft's tales, an honor that strongly suggests his works have stood the test of time. It's cool not to like his (or Smith's) stuff, but that's different from denying that it has lasting value. I mean, I'm no fan of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but, no matter how much I dislike their writing, I'd never claim they weren't worthy of serious consideration.

  10. @ Soren:

    "Perhaps this is more modern day than what was taught in the 30s?"

    Yes, the more modern style is to shun adverbs as much as possible, on the grounds that they weaken one's prose by draining it of energy and vigor. I'm not sure when it became the vogue, but I seem to recall being taught that back in grammar school in the 60s. It's a position I'm sympathetic to.

    Regarding HPL and CAS, I find myself still enjoying Lovecraft, purple prose and all, perhaps because I discovered him in my teen years and still have a nostalgic fondness for his works, whereas I only recently started an extensive reading of Smith. I'm working my way through "The Sorcerer Returns" collection and, well, "working" describes it nicely. Some stories I've enjoyed quite a bit, such as "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis," but that was in spite of his florid writing, not because of it. Often I find myself reading a passage and thinking "Oh, get to the point, will you?" But, perhaps that's reflection of my own lack of patience rather than a weakness in CAS's writing. (Though, I have to admit, I almost threw the volume down in disgust with the ending of The Seven Geases.")

    That said, beyond a doubt there is a lot of great material to be mined for games in these stories.

  11. There's pointlessness and irrelevance and then there's moaning about "bad" writing in a long running column about pulp fantasy.

  12. James, Lovecraft could have survived the test of time due to his ideas rather than his prose... just as Hemingway may have survived due to his appeal to the macho, and his involvement with various political movements. Not every book survives due to its prose quality - look at the Brontes for definitive proof of that. I don't think the rules of prose are just a high school intro to prose writing, either.

    Andrew, I think we can see the soft bigotry of low expectations in your comment. Just because it's pulp doesn't mean its writing is beyond criticism. RE Howard, for example, is an excellent writer, as is Fritz Leiber. The assumption that "pulp" and "high fantasy" works can be allowed to meet a lower standard than other arms of literature is part of the reason fantasy is not considered literature by so many people. The ideas in the story from the OP are clearly pretty cool, and could potentially appeal to more people if they were more readable.

  13. The Door to Saturn would make for a great odd-couple buddy flick like Midnight Run.

    CAS ignores techniques by using excessive language with frequent use of adverbs and adjectives as descriptors, which gives his prose a flattening effect, while leaving his meaning ambiguous.

    This is a feature, not a bug- the florid prose gives a gravitas to the tale, which heightens the humor of what is essentially a grotesque black comedy. Also, the pulps paid by the word, so the superfluous adverbs and adjectives stretch a short-short story, in the manner that bread crumbs stretch a meatloaf.

    Lastly, CAS was also a poet, I think it's safe to say that he considered the narrative to be subordinate to the imagery conjured by his rococco style.

  14. Soren's right though, Scallop Skulled Skald, that the language actually serves to deaden or flatten the story, rather than conjure up imagery through a "rococo style." If the issue were words on the page, then talking around the adjectives and adverbs rather than resorting to a single overblown word would be a more effective way to get paid.

    The florid pose doesn't lend gravitas to the work - it makes it harder to read, and pretentious sounding (same thing as gravitas?) and it makes the author look like a try-hard amateur.

    All creative work breaks conventions but those conventions exist for a reason, and you need to be a good writer to run over them. It would appear CAS hasn't managed to do that in these excerpts.

  15. Faustus:

    Soft bigotry could also be levelled at a reader that always approaches a piece of writing with immediate criticism of a writing style. I'm not trying to make personal comments there, but plenty of people read fiction, genre or otherwise, with no in-depth knowledge of the rules of writing.

    I'm not really sure what you mean by "soft bigotry" anyway to be honest-or having low expectations. On another blog recently I read a snide comment about pulp literature from one poster to another along the lines of "Feel free to continue reading indiscriminately into your old age" which struck me as being a truly bizarre comment, as if somehow reading writing of a "lesser" writer would cause the anyone who enjoyed it to lose d6 INT points.

    Assuming they were operating in a vaccum free of internet snark, how would someone know how to implement "positive discrimination" and only pick up books that "they should". People read for all sorts of different reasons.

    On a slightly different note, not all of CAS dialogue is like this. Perhaps you'll think I'm just looking into it too much but aren't these supposed to be pompous, pretentious wizards anyway?

    All I'm trying to say is that I don't pick up stories featuring gods called Hziulquoigmnzhah to criticise the technical abilities of the writer. Not everyone that reads does it to hone their own writing abilities. I have a fairly broad range of classical music and I'm basically tone deaf.

    yours magniloquently,


  16. Additionally, regarding the comment about why so many people don't consider fantasy to be real literature: if you walked outside into the street and showed someone a fantasy novel and a non-fantasy novel, asking which of the two wasn't real literature, they would point to the fantasy one and say it's "because it isn't real, innit".

  17. Andrew, "Soft bigotry of low expectations" simply means, setting the bar for quality too low because you're used to the genre under-achieving. In this case, the claim was that you shouldn't expect the work to be great, since it's pulp fiction. I disagree! I think you should expect pulp fiction to be well written, and be disappointed when it's not. In this case, we have excerpts with interesting ideas, which lose their impact a little because poorly written. Which isn't to say that one "should" or "shouldn't" read them (no-one should ever suggest that!) but this is a review post, and the quality of an author's writing is up for question in a review.

    I think that the vox populi example you give would end with the person saying "because it's fantasy innit," showing that they feel they can judge a book by its cover because of the weight of critical opinion telling them that fantasy ain't serious.

  18. Folks, it's bad. Their works don't stand up to the test of time. It's bad.

    You're stating as objective truth subjective decisions. If you are using "the test of time" in an objective manner, H. P. Lovecraft is the most well-known writer of fantastic literature of the period he was writing, and has been many horror authors, including the most popular modern horror author, Stephen King, as a major impact on them.

    As for Clark Ashton Smith, time hasn't been as nice to him. Still, on LibraryThing, more members have copies of books with his name on them then Henryk Sienkiewicz or Ivan Bunin or a host of less notable winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature, or in the same field, Robert W. Chambers, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen or William Hope Hodgeson. Again, in the sense of still being read, Clark Ashton Smith has stood up where many of his contemporaries have fallen.

    Personally, when I read Weird Tales: 32 Unearthed Terrors, "The Isle of the Torturers" stood out above most of the other stories, in part because of this style that gave the story almost a fairy tale feel.