Monday, April 19, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: Beyond the Singing Flame

Clark Ashton Smith's 1931 story, "The City of the Singing Flame", was, much to his surprise, one of his most popular stories — so popular that CAS decided to write a sequel to it. However, it was not an easy task for him, since so much of the power of the original story comes from he called, in a letter to David Lasser, its "suggestive vagueness." Consequently, Smith struggled a bit with the right approach to a sequel and the end result, I think, evinces some of the difficulties with which he wrestled. The resulting story, "Beyond the Singing Flame," which first appeared in the November 1931 issue of Wonder Stories, is thus not quite as remarkable as its predecessor, though it still has much to recommend it.

Like "The City of the Singing Flame," this tale is told from the perspective of its narrator, Philip Hastane, who admits that he "was still doubtful as to whether the incidents related [in the journal of Giles Angarth] … were fiction or verity." His doubts were driven by the fact that the journal's entries were "very much the sort of thing that Angarth might have imagined in one of the fantastic novels for which he had become so justly famous." Ultimately, though, he comes to accept that Angarth's journal describes real events, since the disappearance of Angarth and his friend Ebbonly made no sense otherwise.
Both were well-known, the one as a writer, the other as an artist; both were in flourishing circumstances, with no serious cares or troubles; and their vanishment, all things considered, was difficult to explain on the ground of any motive less unusual or extraordinary than the one assigned in the journal. 

At first, as I have hinted in my foreword to the published diary, I thought that the whole affair might well have been devised as a somewhat elaborate practical joke; but this theory became less and less tenable as weeks and months went by and linked themselves slowly into a year, without the reappearance of the presumptive jokers. 

Hastane soon found himself pondering the mystery "perpetually, and more and more … was possessed by an overwhelming wonder, and a sense of something which no mere fiction-weaver would have been likely to invent through the unassisted workings of his own fantasy." He then sets his affairs in order and travels to Angarth's abandoned cabin south of Crater Ridge, which he visits briefly before trying to retrace his friend's path. After three days of attempts, he succeeds in finding the "open, circular, rock-surrounded space" Angarth had described in his journal as the gateway between worlds.

Hastane hesitates in entering the circular space, simultaneously fearful that Angarth's tale was true and that it was a mere fiction. After spending a night in the cabin, his "brain excited by formless, glowing premonitions, by intimations of half-conceived perils and splendors and vastnesses," he sets off again toward the circle with weapons and supplies. Hastane steps into the circle and finds himself transported, just as Angarth had described. The other world, too, was just as Angarth had described, including "the city with its crowding tiers of battlements and its multitude of overlooming spires" that drew him toward it with "invisible threads of secret attraction." 

Yet, all was not well.

I saw in the far distance the shining towers of what seemed to be another city – a city of which Angarth had not written. The towers rose in serried lines, reaching for many miles in a curious arc-like formation, and were sharply defined against a blackish mass of clouds that had reared behind them and was spreading out on a luminous amber sky in sullen webs and sinister, crawling filaments.

Subtle disquietude and repulsion seemed to emanate from the far-off, glittering spires, even as attraction emanated from those of the nearer city. I saw them quiver and pulse with an evil light, like living and moving things, through what I assumed to be some refractive trick of the atmosphere. Then, for an instant, the black cloud behind them glowed with dull, angry crimson throughout its whole mass, and even its questing webs and tendrils were turned into lurid threads of fire.

Seeing this, Hastane briefly considers leaving this world and returning to California the way he came. He puts aside his fears and instead makes his way down the immense road Angarth had described in his journal, so that he might make his way to the nearer city. As he did so, he became aware of the fact that he was alone. No other beings, such as those Angarth encountered, could be seen. Hastane began to wonder, "Was the city forsaken by its people …? Was it no longer open to the pilgrims who came from outlying lands …?" 

Hastane has little time to ponder these thoughts before he is picked up by "two flying creatures, whom [he] can compare only to gigantic moths," who carry him to the nearer city. As he descended toward the city, carried by the alien lepidoptera, he

knew that war was being made with unearthly weapons and engineries, by inimical powers that I could not imagine, for a purpose beyond my conception; but to me, it all had the elemental confusion and vague, impersonal horror of some cosmic catastrophe.

 It's then that the author comes to realize that fear and revulsion he felt upon seeing the far-off city is an omen of its warlike intentions. War is being made upon the city Angarth called the City of the Singing Flame and its inhabitants are utterly weaponless and without any means of defending themselves against such aggression. Is this why Angarth and Ebbonly had not returned? Was there nothing that could be done?

Though clearly a lesser work than "The City of the Singing Flame," I nevertheless have to give credit to Smith for not merely repeating himself. "Beyond the Singing Flame" develops the world beyond the gateway, expanding on its nature and inhabitants, as well as altering the status quo through the advent of war. At the same time, it's precisely these things that, to my mind anyway, marks this as an inferior story. Though the prose is as luxurious as ever, its rhythms are more mundane and less hypnotic, due, no doubt, to the necessities of exposition. Where "The City of the Singing Flame" is a finely woven tapestry of thoughts, feelings, and impressions, its sequel is a much more conventional pulp fantasy story of extra-dimensional travel. It's a very well made example of the genre and full of inspirational ideas, but it lacks something I can't quite put my finger on, which is why I like it less than its predecessor.


  1. I think the sequel lacks whatever indefinable bit of genius the original had. Identifying and duplicating that spark is something even the best authors struggle with, which is why so many sequels and spinoffs disappoint. Of course, you're usually not trying to write a sequel unless there was something special about the first story* so the bar is higher to start with.

    *Well, unless you're hacking out series books on contract as fast as you can, like practically everything ever shelved under "Men's Adventure" at the book store. Looking at you, "Don Pendleton" and company.

  2. Oh, and let me just add that the cover art there proves a longstanding contention of mine - you can never trust a d4. Not only do they always roll the wrong number when you need it most, they're also even more painful than Lego pieces when it comes to playing the "improvised caltrop" role.