Monday, January 31, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Flower-Women

Clark Ashton Smith clearly had a fondness for the character of Maal Dweb. After the completion of "The Maze of the Enchanter," he penned a second story set on the alien world of Xiccarph, entitled "The Flower-Women." Like its predecessor, the story met with resistance from the editor of Weird Tales, Farnsworth Wright, who called it "well done" but deemed it "a fairy story rather than a weird tale proper." Lovecraft, who was ardent admirer of many of Smith's efforts, didn't think much of this particular yarn either, calling it "below par" in a contemporary letter to R.H. Barlow. 

Wright eventually changed his opinion and "The Flower-Women" was published in the May 1935 issue of Weird Tales. The story opens with Maal Dweb experiencing intolerable ennui, an emotional state he resolves to alleviate.

"There is but one remedy for this boredom of mine," he went on — "the abnegation, at least for a while, of that all too certain power from which it springs. Therefore, I, Maal Dweb, the ruler of six worlds and all their moons, shall go forth alone, unheralded, and without other equipment than that which any fledgling sorcerer might possess. In this way, perhaps I shall recover the lost charm of incertitude, the foregone enchantment of peril. Adventures that I have not foreseen will be mine, and the future will wear the alluring veil of the mysterious. It remains, however, to select the field of my adventurings."
I doubt I'm alone in finding this set-up quite compelling – and reminiscent of the kind of thing a high-level D&D character might do after finding his most recent adventures insufficiently challenging. Maal Dweb then consults his magical orreries and resolves to pay a visit to the farthest planet of the star system, Votalp.

Votalp, a large and moonless world, revolved imperceptibly as he studied it. For one hemisphere, he saw, the yellow sun was at that time in total eclipse behind the sun of carmine; but in spite of this, and its greater distance from the solar triad. Votalp was lit with sufficient clearness. It was mottled with strange hues like a great cloudy opal; and the mottlings were microscopic oceans, isles. mountains, jungles, and deserts. Fantastic sceneries leapt into momentary salience, taking on the definitude and perspective of actual landscapes, and then faded back amid the iridescent blur. Glimpses of teeming, multifarious life, incredible tableaux, monstrous happenings, were beheld by Maal Dweb as he looked down like some celestial spy.

By means of "a deep and hueless cloud," which affords Maal Dweb "access to multiple dimensions and deeply folded realms of space conterminate with far worlds," the mighty sorcerer makes his way to Votalp. There, he makes his way into a valley where heard "an eerie, plaintive singing, like the voices of sirens who bewail some irredeemable misfortune."

The singing came from a sisterhood of unusual creatures, half woman and half flower, that grew on the valley bottom beside a sleepy stream of purple water. There were several scores of these lovely and charming monsters, whose feminine bodies of pink and pearl reclined amid the vermilion velvet couches of billowing petals to which they were attached. These petals were borne on mattress-like leaves and heavy, short, well-rooted stems. The flowers were disposed in irregular circles, clustering thickly toward the center, and with open intervals in the outer rows.  
Maal Dweb approached the flower-women with a certain caution; for he knew that they were vampires. Their arms ended in long tendrils, pale as ivory, swifter and more supple than the coils of darting serpents, with which they were wont to secure the unwary victims drawn by their singing. Of course, knowing in his wisdom the inexorable laws of nature, he felt no disapproval of such vampirism; but, on the other hand, he did not care to be its object.

I find it interesting that, while Maal Dweb is the protagonist of this tale, Smith does not shy away from the fact that he is an evil man. His ready acceptance of vampirism contrasts with the reactions of more traditional pulp fantasy protagonists, who would likely view the flower-women as frightful creatures. Instead, Maal Dweb finds them "lovely and charming." There isn't a hint of fear or condemnation, only the recognition that he must be wary of them. 

The sorcerer nevertheless forgets himself and falls prey to their "wild and sweet and voluptuous singing, like that of the Lorelei." He finds that the melody "fire[s] his blood with a strange intoxication" and he is soon drawn to the flower-women. Once in their presence, he regains something of his mental faculties and uses his "power of divination" to learn more about them. He then discovers that five of their kind had been uprooted over the course of five successive mornings by "certain reptilian beings, colossal in size and winged like pterodactyls, who came down from their new-built citadel." Known as the Ispazars, these reptile-men were themselves magicians of no mean talent, as well as "masters of an abhuman science."

Now, through an errant whim, in his search for adventure, he had decided to pit himself against the Ispazars, employing no other weapons of sorcery than his own wit and will, his remembered learning, his clairvoyance, and the two simple amulets that he wore on his person.

"Be comforted," he said to the flower-women, "for verily I shall deal with these miscreants in a fitting manner."

With that, "The Flower-Women" suddenly becomes a different story, one in which the villainous Maal Dweb, the tyrant of six worlds, becomes more than the protagonist of the story. To the flower-women, at least, he becomes a hero, as the remainder of the story chronicles his efforts on their behalf, avenging the destruction of their kind by the Ispazars. It's quite a startling thing to read and I found myself wondering whether or not Smith had intended this shift, however subtle, to point toward a change in Maal Dweb's character. Even if that wasn't his intention, he does seem to signal an intention to tell more stories of Maal Dweb's adventures among the worlds he rules.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. "The Flower-Women" is the second and last story of Xiccarph. No further stories of the magician ever appeared and, so far as I know, there's no evidence any more were planned. It's a pity, as Maal Dweb is a genuinely interesting character, and I can't help but wonder what more might have awaited him. In just two stories, he went from antagonist to protagonist to something approximating a hero. That's the kind of transformation that few writers could pull off, but Clark Ashton Smith made a good start of it here. 


  1. CAS was generally very good at imbuing his characters with depth, especially considering the short format of his writings. They generally weren't very pleasant people, but they lived in dangerous settings and rarely if ever lapsed into one-dimensional villainy for villainy's sake. Even his most reprehensible necromancers had understandable (if vile) motivations.

  2. I read...and wrote about...this story last week:

    ...and found that it really gave me a hankering to play a magic-user in D&D. That's something I almost never feel.

    I think the pulp/S&S genre it is VERY unusual to find sorcerers as protagonists in stories, and almost unheard of for authors to grant insight into their thoughts and feelings. Certainly Lovecraft never does, and Howard (so far as I can recall) only ever does so with The Black Circle.

    It's one of the reasons (perhaps) that I so enjoy Moorcock's (later) works, as he's always showing insights into the human emotions, foibles, and pettiness of individuals possessed of "cosmic powers."

    [some of Bradley's work is good in this regard, too]

    Smith is a great read in this particular regard.

    1. Howard's Scarlet Citadel (which is a terrific example of dungeoncrawl, among other things) comes kind of close in the character of Pelias, the wizard Conan saves from imprisonment in said dungeon. We don't get his actual thoughts but his interactions with Conan do show him to pretty aware (and somewhat rueful) of his human weaknesses while also proud of his magical prowess, and he's more than just helpful to our barbarian hero. OTOH, Conan's also clearly uncomfortable about working with so much magical aid, and well glad to get out from between Tsotha and Pelias' magical feud at the end of the story.

      No Maal Dweb, but at least a not-entirely-hostile take on a spellcaster in a Howard story.

      Oh, and re: your post, my grandfather used to define "odalisque" as "a fancy word for smut" but he was probably using the looser artistic definition of the word rather than the original. Unless I mis-heard him and he said "slut" instead. :)