Monday, November 8, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: Mother of Toads

"Mother of Toads," which first appeared in the July 1938 issue of Weird Tales is a short but very disturbing story by Clark Ashton Smith. Like most of the tale set in the fictitious French province of Averoigne, this one touches upon sexual themes but in a way that's far removed from the prurience and titillation that were hallmarks of the pulps. Here, Smith uses sex – and the regret it can engender – as the basis for revulsion, horror, and, ultimately, doom. 

The titular Mother of Toads is a witch called Mère Antoinette who dwells in the swamps not far from the village of Les Hiboux. Pale, obese, and possessing "eyes full-orbed and unblinking," she is also knowledgeable in the ways of potion making. It's for this reason that the villagers sometimes call upon Antoinette, including Pierre Baudin, the hapless apprentice of the apothecary Alain le Dindon. 

Pierre's master had sent him to obtain from Antoinette a "vial contain[ing] a philtre of curious potency." He'd done this many times before, but he hated it, for the old woman clearly harbored a lust for him and regularly propositioned him: "Stay awhile tonight, my pretty orphan. No one will miss you in the village." Pierre was repulsed by such amorousness and hoped to finish his business with Antoinette as quickly as possible.

The witch was more than twice his age, and her charms were too uncouth and unsavory to tempt him for an instant. Also, her repute was such as to have nullified the attractions of a younger and fairer sorceress. Her witchcraft had made her feared among the peasantry of that remote province, where belief in spells and philtres was still common. The people of Averoigne called her La Mère des Crapauds, Mother of Toads, a name given for more than one reason. Toads swarmed innumerably about her hut; they were said to be her familiars, and dark tales were told concerning their relationship to the sorceress, and the duties they performed at her bidding. Such tales were all the more readily believed because of those batrachian features that had always been remarked in her aspect.

During his latest visit, Antoinette offers Pierre "a goodly measure of red wine" that she has mulled specifically for him. The youth is suspicious.

"I'll drink it," said Pierre a little grudgingly. "That is, if it contains nothing of your own concoction."

"'Tis naught but sound wine, four seasons old, with spices of Arabia," the sorceress croaked ingratiatingly. "'Twill warm your stomach … and …"  She added something inaudible as Pierre accepted the cup.

Pierre drinks and declares that it is truly good wine but, having quaffed it quickly, he explains that he must be off to his master. Too late, he realizes the mistake he has made.

Even as he spoke, he felt in his stomach and veins the spreading warmth of the alcohol, of the spices … of something more ardent than these. It seemed that his voice was unreal and strange, falling as if from a height above him. The warmth grew, mounting within him like a golden flame fed by magic oils. His blood, a seething torrent, poured tumultuously and more tumultuously through his members. 

Smith is a master of subtlety and suggestion, making excellent use of innuendo to make his points. He is equally adept at bluntness, often in service of horror. In what follows next, he employs both approaches, describing the "philterous ardor" that overtakes Pierre's senses as he suddenly sees in Mère Antoinette – and her propositions – in a new and disturbing light.

She led him to her couch beside the hearth where a great cauldron boiled mysteriously, sending up its fumes in strange-twining coils that suggested vague and obscene figures. The couch was rude and bare. But the flesh of the sorceress was like deep, luxurious cushions …

"The Mother of Toads" is an unsettling tale, not solely for the events it depicts or the frightful luxuriance Smith deploys in describing them but more for the realization that inevitably dawns on Pierre, as he understands what has transpired. It's that psychological element that I think elevates the story and stays with the reader after the story reaches its tragic, inevitable conclusion.


  1. Listened to an audio reading of this just last week, although I'd read it back in the 80s when I was in college. I still feel the same way about it I did then - wonderfully creepy and evocative story as you'd expect from CAS, but most easily summarized as the "Always BYOB and Beware of Beer Goggles" story.

  2. Below is a link to the original and sexier version:

    Below is a link to the abridged version:

    What strikes me is that the abridged version is not simply an edited version. It actually adds some content such as "Her short flat fingers, outspread on her soiled apron, revealed an appearance as of narrow webs between their first flanges." Thus I recommend reading both versions to get the full effect.