Monday, January 3, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Last Incantation

January is the month of Clark Ashton Smith's birth – along with several other notable writers – so I thought I might devote the next five Mondays to works that are part of his lesser known story cycles, such as Mars, Poseidonis, and Xiccarph. These cycles contain fewer stories than those of Averoigne, Hyperborea, and Zothique, which may partly explain why they have received comparatively little acclaim. That's a shame, because they're every bit as rich in both ideas and hypnotic prose as his better known efforts.

A near-perfect case in point is "The Last Incantation," which first appeared in the June 1930 issue of Weird Tales. It's one of Smith's earliest published works of fiction and the influence of his years as a poet is quite evident. Indeed, the story is scarcely a story at all, being little more than a brief, melancholy vignette. Despite its concision, "The Last Incantation" is a thoughtful, heartfelt meditation on age and the limitations of memory. Re-reading it shortly after the turn of another year granted it a greater degree of poignancy than I had expected.

The tale concerns the magician Malygris, who dwelled in a tower "above the heart of Susran, capital of Poseidonis," the last outpost of the once-great civilization of Atlantis.

Malygris was old, and all the baleful might of his enchantments, all the dreadful or curious demons under his control, all the fear that he had wrought in the heart of kings and prelates, were no longer enough to assuage the black ennui of his days.

A long-time reader of Smith might well be tempted to roll his eyes upon reading this passage; he's already seen this many times before. Remember, though, how early CAS wrote "The Last Incantation." Consequently, Malygris is likely the first of Smith's sorcerers to be so afflicted and, as I will argue, his affliction is a truly moving one. 

We soon learn that Malygris has a familiar, who took "the form of a coral viper with pale green belly and ashen mottlings" and lived within the head of a unicorn that hung above the door to his chambers. The demon keeps watch over his master, as he attempts – and fails – to derive any pleasure from the power and possessions he has amassed after a long lifetime. He takes no joy in his present and sees little hope for a positive change in his future.

Then Malygris groped backward to the years of his youth, to the misty, remote, incredible years, where, like an alien star, one memory still burned with unfailing luster – the memory of the girl Nylissa, whom he had loved in days ere the lust of unpermitted knowledge and necromantic domination had entered his soul. He had well-nigh forgotten her for decades, in the myriad preoccupations of a life so bizarrely diversified, so replete with occult happenings and powers, with supernatural victories and perils; but now, at the mere thought of this slender and innocent child, who had loved him so dearly when he too was young and slim and guileless, and who died of a sudden mysterious fever on the very eve of their marriage, the mummy-like umber of his cheek took on a phantom flush, and deep down in his orbs was a sparkle like the gleam of mortuary tapers.

Feeling genuine emotion for the first time in so long, an idea occurs to Malygris and he asks his familiar:

"Viper, am I not Malygris, in whom is centered the mastery of all occult lore, all forbidden dominations, with dominion over the spirits of earth and sea and air, over the solar and lunar demons, over the living and the dead? If I so desire, can I not call the girl Nylissa, in the very semblance of all her youth and beauty, and bring her forth from the never-changing shadows of the cryptic tomb, to stand before me in this chamber, in the evening rays of this autumnal sun?

His familiar replies that he can indeed do this. Even so, Malygris hesitates and wonders aloud whether he should do this – a moment of doubt not common in Smith's haughty necromancers, who rarely question the probity of their actions.

The viper seemed to hesitate. Then, in a slow and measured hiss: "It is meet for Malygris to do as he would. Who, save Malygris, can decide if a thing be well or ill?"

"In other words, you will not advise me?" the query was as much a statement as a question, and the viper vouchsafed no further utterance.  

With that, Malygris casts aside his doubts and commits to "the ritual that summons the departed," so that he might once more see Nylissa, whom he had loved in his youth and whose memory, even now, quickens his heart and fills his soul with longing. 

Of course, this being a Clark Ashton Smith story, I do not think anyone will be surprised to learn that events do not go at all as Malygris had hoped. "The Last Incantation" differs from other similar stories (such as "Xeethra") in that Malygris suffers neither a grisly fate nor a divine curse. Rather, he learns a lesson – a painful one, to be sure, but a lesson nonetheless, one from which I think more of us, in this nostalgia-soaked age, might well profit. 

8 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing the link to this story. I found it almost unbearably moving. But I think that is more to do with me and where I am in my life.. But yes, a short but punchy tale.

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    1. Ditto, on all counts. Thanks for sharing, James.

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  2. Thanks for this appreciation! What strikes me about his Xothique, Xiccarph, Hyperborea, Atlantis, etc. wizard stories is the interchangeability of settings.

    Notwithstanding a few small details of fauna and landscape, one place and time is much like the other in its array of weird magic and monsters in a vaguely Ottoman-like society. There are no science-fantasy elements in the far-future Zothique; it would fall to Vance and Wolfe to add that element to their dying earths. In this regard the Averoigne stories stand out because they draw much more heavily on existing European folklore.

    And really, given that the most advanced wizards can travel through space and time, it is not entirely absurd that their trappings and motivations in different places should be similar.

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  3. Great story, and very apropos. The all consuming quest to relive the games of our youth isn't about the games at all. It's about our youth. :)

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  4. I rather hope the only other Smith I’ve read, “Empire of the Necromancers”, is more typical of what is regarded as his best work. I guess I don’t really appreciate this kind of simple moral fable, especially when it fails to ring true: I don’t picture an old man at the peak of his power, like Trump or Biden or Berlusconi or the somewhat younger but more awful Putin or Xi, indulging in such introspective moping. And he really dug into his thesaurus of archaic language here (marge? coign?).

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    1. None of those real-world examples have anything like the real power or depth of experience that Malygris does. He's older than the kingdoms of the world around him, and isn't in any danger of dying of old age without deliberately allowing it happen. He's got immortal ennui syndrome, something that no real world politician will ever suffer from. And thank goodness for that, the sooner all of those people finally die of old age (or more likely in several cases, being executed by their own citizens) the better. Undying politicians are far more terrifying than anything Smith could possibly conjure up. It's bad enough so many of them can inflict their wills on whole nations for a paltry few decades.

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    2. I think you’re reading more into his age than CAS states. The only timespan I see mentioned is decades and at one point “he arose, with a long-unwonted celerity and sureness of movement that belied his wrinkles”. It doesn’t read like he’s taking too good care of himself.

      But obviously you appreciate the story more than me.

      And when wishing death on politicians it’s worth considering who the replacements will be.

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  5. A fine job shining some much needed light on these gems. CAS is easy to forget and his Poseidonis stories are almost all hit, a bit more esoteric and varied then his Hyperborean tales.

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