Monday, October 10, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Devotee of Evil

After last week's post, I thought it might be worthwhile to take a look at the third story featuring Clark Ashton Smith's author insert, Philip Hastane. Entitled "The Devotee of Evil," Smith finished writing it in early 1930 but had difficulty in finding a market for it. After failed submissions to Ghost Stories, Galaxy, Illustrated Detective Magazine, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, he included it in his self-published The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies, which appeared in June 1933 (and also included the eponymous "The Double Shadow" and "The Maze of the Enchanter"). Almost a decade later, it re-appeared in the pages of the February 1941 issue of Stirring Science Stories. 

The story concerns new owner of "the old Larcom house," 

a mansion of considerable size and dignity, set among oaks and cypresses on the hill behind Auburn's Chinatown, in what had once been the aristocratic section of the village. At the time of which I write, it had been unoccupied for several years and had begun to present the signs of desolation and dilapidation which untenanted houses so soon display. The place had a tragic history and was believed to be haunted.

This owner is one Jean Averaud of New Orleans (hence Smith's submission of the tale to the Times-Picayune). Averaud – whose name is reminiscent of the French province of Averoigne – is reputed to be "a recluse of the most eccentric type" as well as "extravagantly rich." He moves into Larcom House with his beautiful woman "who was believed to be his mistress as well as his housekeeper." 

Hastane serves as the story's narrator and mentions that, before their first formal meeting, he had seen Averaud several times and made an assessment of him based on his appearance.

He was a sallow, saturnine Creole, with the marks of race in his hollow cheeks and feverish eyes. I was struck by his air of intellect, and by the fiery fixity of his gaze — the gaze of a man who is dominated by one idea to the exclusion of all else. Some medieval alchemist, who believed himself to be on the point of attaining his objective after years of unrelenting research, might have looked as he did.

In time, though, Averaud specifically seeks out Hastane, whose reputation as a novelist of the weird has elicited his admiration. When he finds him, Hastane is in the midst of reading an item in the local newspaper about an "atrocious crime," namely the murder of a woman and her two young children. Averaud takes note of this and uses it as an opportunity to philosophize on the subject of evil.

"I believe in evil — how can I do otherwise when I see its manifestations everywhere? I regard it as an all-controlling power; but I do not think that the power is personal in the sense of what we know as personality. A Satan? No. What I conceive is a sort of dark vibration, the radiation of a black sun, of a center of malignant eons — a radiation that can penetrate like any other ray — and perhaps more deeply. But probably I don't make my meaning clear at all."

To the contrary, Hastane understands his meaning quite well and is intrigued by his musings. Some time later, Averaud invites the novelist to Larcom House, an offer he accepts, in part to sate his curiosity about both the ancient building and its newest inhabitants. In Averaud's library, he finds "an ungodly jumble of tomes," dealing with "anthropology, ancient religions, demonology, modern science, history, psychoanalysis and ethics. Interspersed with these were a few romances and volumes of poetry. Beausobre's monograph on Manichaeism was flanked with Byron and Poe; and "Les Fleurs du Mal" jostled a late treatise on chemistry." 

"You have been looking at my books," he observed immediately. "Though you might not think so at first glance, on account of their seeming diversity, I have selected them all with a single object: the study of evil in all its aspects, ancient, medieval and modern. I have traced it in the religions and demonologies of all peoples; and, more than this, in human history itself. I have found it in the inspiration of poets and romancers who have dealt with the darker impulses, emotion and acts of man. Your novels have interested me for this reason: you are aware of the baneful influences which surround us, which so often sway or actuate us. I have followed the working of these agencies even in chemical reactions, in the growth and decay of trees, flowers, minerals. I feel that the processes of physical decomposition, as well as the similar mental and moral processes, are due entirely to them.

"In brief, I have postulated a monistic evil, which is the source of all death, deterioration, imperfection, pain, sorrow, madness and disease. This evil, so feebly counteracted by the powers of good, allures and fascinates me above all things. For a long time past, my life-work has been to ascertain its true nature, and trace it to its fountain-head. I am sure that somewhere in space there is the center from which all evil emanates."

Averaud further explains that his studies have led him to believe that "certain localities and buildings, certain arrangements of natural or artificial objects, are more favorable to the reception of evil influences than others." He adds that he has a theory that, because of some manner of "interference with the direct flow of malignant force," there has never been an instance of "pure, absolute evil" manifesting itself in the world, only echoes of varying degrees of potency.

Averaud intends to initiate an experiment that test this theory. He tells Hastane that

 "By the use of some device which would create a proper field or form a receiving station, it should be possible to evoke this absolute evil. Under such conditions, I am sure that the dark vibration would become a visible and tangible thing, comparable to light or electricity." He eyed me with a gaze that was disconcertingly exigent. Then:

"I will confess that I have purchased this old mansion and its grounds mainly on account of their baleful history. The place is unusually liable to the influences of which I have spoken. I am now at work on an apparatus by means of which, when it is perfected, I hope to manifest in their essential purity the radiations of malign force."

Hastane soon takes his leave of Averaud, unsure of just what to think about the eccentric fellow and his plans. Though fascinated by Averaud's notions about the true nature of evil, he is less certain about the feasibility – not to mention desirability – of finding a means of manifesting pure, absolute evil in the world. The remainder of the story details what happens when Hastane returns to Larcom House to witness a supposed demonstration of a device invented by Averaud for this very purpose – and the consequences of its operation.

"The Devotee of Evil" is frequently criticized as little more than an imitation of better works of H.P. Lovecraft. While I can understand why one might make such criticisms, I don't think they're entirely fair. Certainly, the story is not one of Smith's best – it's much too short to do justice to its intended subject, for example – but its central conceit, the idea of evil as a fundamental force of the universe akin to those of the Standard Model of particle physics is a genuinely clever idea. Indeed, it's one I'd love to see developed further in one form or another. Consequently, I have some fondness for "The Devotee of Evil" and recommend it as an all-too-brief examination of a chilling notion.

An illustration by the great Hannes Bok that accompanied the story


  1. The core idea of the story reminds me of Nethescurial and The Tsalal by Thomas Ligotti.