Monday, April 12, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: The City of the Singing Flame

The works of Clark Ashton Smith thoroughly bewitch me. Everything about them – their characters, their settings, their themes, and, most of all, their words – command my attention. I regularly find myself drawn back to them, as if by a siren's song, because of the almost hypnotic nature of Smith's prose. 

Just as H.P. Lovecraft's composition and word choices impart his fiction with an air of antiquity, Smith's choices give his writings an incantatory feel, as if he were intoning a spell that ensorcels its reader. After completing one of his tales, I sometimes find myself having to clear my head and take stock of my surroundings once again, so completely has he seized my mind.

That's certainly how I feel about "The City of the Singing Flame," which first appeared in the July 1931 issue of Wonder Stories. Editor David Lasser (or perhaps owner Hugo Gernsback) thought so well of it that he gave Smith's story the cover, illustrated by the legendary Frank R. Paul. The story itself takes the form of a series of journal entries written by Giles Angarth, a Californian "whose fame as a writer of fantastic fiction will probably outlive that of most other modern magazine contributors." 

The journal had come into the possession of Angarth's friend, another writer named Philip Hastane, who, based on his biographical details, seems to be Smith's author insert. Hastane provides a foreword to the journal entries, describing "the double vanishment" of Angarth and the artist Felix Ebbonly, who had illustrated several of Angarth's stories. The foreword also explains that Angarth had sent the journal to Hastane, with a note attached stating that he has permission to "publish this journal sometime, if you like." The note also predicts, "People will think it the last and wildest of all my fictions – unless they take it for one of your own."

The story proper begins with Angarth describing a walk he took on Crater Ridge, about a mile or so from the cabin where he lives. While strolling amidst the rubble fields of the area, he comes across 

a clear space amid the rubble, in which nothing grew – a space that was round as an artificial ring. In the center were two isolated boulders, queerly alike in shape, and lying about five feet apart. Their substance, a dull, greenish-grey stone, seemed to be different from anything else in the neighborhood; and I conceived at once the weird, unwarrantable fancy that they might be the pedestals of vanished columns, worn away by incalculable years till there remained only these sunken ends.

Drawn to the two greenish-grey boulders, Angarth steps between them and then …

Nothing is more disconcerting than to miscalculate the degree of descent in taking a step. Imagine then what it was like to step forward on level, open ground, and find utter nothingness underfoot! I seemed to be going down into an empty gulf, and at the same time the landscape before me vanished in a swirl of broken images and everything went blind. There was a feeling of intense, hyperborean cold, and an indescribable sickness and vertigo possessed me, due, no doubt to the profound disturbance of equilibrium. Also – either from the speed of my descent or for some other reason – I was totally unable to draw breath. My thoughts and feelings were unutterably confused, and half the time it seemd to me that I was falling upward rather than downward, or was sliding horizontally or at some oblique angle.

When he finally regains his senses, Angarth finds himself "in the midst of a landscape which bore no degree or manner of resemblance to Crate Ridge." All around him is violet grass, dotted with monolithic stones; nearby there are meadows of purple and yellow vegetation. In the distance, "not more than two or three miles away," was a city of red stone, with immense towers and spires :such as the Anakim of undiscovered worlds might build." 

As I viewed this city, I forgot my initial sense of bewildering loss and alienage, in an awe with which something of actual terror was mingled; and, at the same time, I felt an obscure but profound allurement, the cryptic emanation of some enslaving spell.

Angarth soon regains his senses and then worries about being able to return home. He seeks out the place where he first appeared in this weird realm, hoping that he might be able to pass back to the world he knows. Though frightened, "unlike the heroes of [his] own tales, who were wont to visit the fifth dimension or the worlds of Algol with perfect sang froid," Angarth manages to transport himself back to Crater Ridge. Relieved, he returns to his cabin, albeit "like a man in a dream."

The experience of visiting that other realm is so powerful that Angarth can think of nothing but returning to it, despite the unease he felt while he was there. After a day of "fighting the temptation to go back," he does so. This time, he boldly "stole toward the looming city," traveling along "a road paved with stupendous blocks of stone at least twenty feet square." As he makes his way along the road, he becomes aware that he is not alone. Instead, "several singular entities" that are "hard … to describe or even visualize" appeared behind him, making colossal strides toward the same city he was seeking. 

Around the same time, Angarth begins to hear music.

It was faint and far-off, and seemed to emanate from the very heart of the titan city. The melody was piercingly sweet and resembled at times the singing of some voluptuous feminine voice. However, no human voice could have possessed the unearthly pitch, the shrill, perpetually sustained notes that somehow suggested the light of remote worlds and stars translated into sound.

Though drawn to it, Angarth is frightened too and, as he did last time, he returns to the portal through which he came here, transporting himself back to California. Needless to say, he is haunted by the music he heard and finds himself thinking of that other world and its bizarre inhabitants. The journal chronicles his subsequent forays back and forth, as he gains confidence enough to venture farther and stay longer, eventually to the point where he invites Ebbonly to accompany him, precipitating the disappearance Hastane describes in the foreword.

"The City of the Singing Flame" is an excellent weird tale, replete with strange imagery and strange feelings. Angarth wrestles with both his fear of the unknown and the queer allure of the titular city, which, despite its terrors, all but compels him to venture beyond its falls to find the source of the piercingly sweet melody that emanated from its heart. Though similar in many respects certain of Lovecraft's Dreamlands tales (or "The Tomb"), where a man of our world finds himself drawn to something he cannot fully comprehend, Smith's mesmeric, prose-poetic style gives "The City of the Singing Flame" a different and, to my mind, more powerful cast – a self-destructive, reckless abandon that is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. That might well explain its popularity with the readers of Wonder Stories and with writers like Harlan Ellison, who credited it with having inspired him to become a writer. I can think of no higher praise.

7 comments:

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    1. There was indeed – and it's my next post in this series, as it turns out.

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  2. A great story. Along with "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros" one of my favourites. The imagery is very striking and paints wonderful pictures in the mind, well my mind anyway.

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  3. Unlike some authors, his use of language does not feel gaudy, but far more baroque, antiquated and lush with that sense you get in medieval monestaries. It's a thing I thoroughly enjoy about CAS. His snub in Appendix N still smarts, but his inclusion in B/X warms my heart.

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  4. Smith's literary "voice" is one of the very few that truly stands out to me as being entirely unique, up with Jack Vance, Lord Dunsany, Lovecraft, Howard, and Moorcock.

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  5. "an incantatory feel, as if he were intoning a spell that ensorcels its reader"

    Well put, Sir. That is the best description I have seen of the power of CAS's writing. At least, that is how his words strike me. Along with Shakespeare and REH, Clark Ashton Smith's tales sometimes grip me so powerfully that I find myself speaking his words aloud.

    Great post.

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