Monday, October 3, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Hunters from Beyond

In addition to his more extensive (and well-known) story cycles, such as those of Hyperborea, Averoigne, and Zothique, Clark Ashton Smith also wrote several loosely connected stories with recurring characters or concepts. A prominent example of this is the character of Philip Hastane, who first appeared in his celebrated "The City of the Singing Flame." Hastane would seem to be a fictional analog of Smith himself, since he is not only a poet and writer of weird fiction but also lives in a log cabin near Auburn, California, as did the real CAS. 

Hastane's second appearance was in "The Hunters from Beyond," published in the October 1932 issue of Strange Tales. Strange Tales was a would-be competitor to Weird Tales that produced only seven issues between 1931 and 1933. During its brief run, the magazine nevertheless attracted several high-profile pulp writers to its pages, such as Smith, Robert E, Howard, and Jack Williamson, perhaps due to its higher rate of pay (2 cents per word compared to WT's one cent). This seems to have been precisely why Smith submitted "The Hunters from Beyond" to Strange Tales. Like most writers for the pulps, he was always on the lookout for more lucrative markets for prodigious output of weird fiction.

The story begins quickly. Hastane is making one of his biannual visits to San Francisco to call upon his "second or third cousin," the sculptor Cyprian Sincaul. While in the city, he drops by Toleman's bookstore and begins to rummage "among the curiously laden shelves." He comes across a "deluxe edition" of Francisco Goya's Proverbes and is "soon engrossed in the diabolic art of these nightmare-nurtured drawings." His reading is interrupted by a terrible sight, as "if some hellish conception of Goya had suddenly come to life and emerged from one of the pictures in the folio."
What I saw was a forward-slouching, vermin-gray figure, wholly devoid of hair or down or bristles, but marked with faint, etiolated rings like those of a serpent that has lived in darkness. It possessed the head and brow of an anthropoid ape, a semi-canine mouth and jaw, and arms ending in twisted hands whose black hyena talons nearly scraped the floor. The thing was infinitely bestial, and, at the same time, macabre; for its parchment skin was shriveled, corpselike, mummified, in a manner impossible to convey; and from eye sockets well-nigh deep as those of a skull, there glimmered evil slits of yellowish phosphorescence, like burning sulphur. Fangs that were stained as if with poison or gangrene, issued from the slavering, half-open mouth; and the whole attitude of the creature was that of some maleficent monster in readiness to spring.

Though I had been for years a professional writer of stories that often dealt with occult phenomena, with the weird and the spectral, I was not at this time possessed of any clear and settled belief regarding such phenomena. I had never before seen anything that I could identify as a phantom, nor even an hallucination; and I should hardly have said offhand that a bookstore on a busy street, in full summer daylight, was the likeliest of places in which to see one. But the thing before me was assuredly nothing that could ever exist among the permissible forms of a sane world. It was too horrific, too atrocious, to be anything but a creation of unreality.

Even as I stared across the Goya, sick with a half-incredulous fear, the apparition moved toward me. I say that it moved, but its change of position was so instantaneous, so utterly without effort or visible transition, that the verb is hopelessly inadequate. The foul specter had seemed five or six feet away. But now it was stooping directly above the volume that I still held in my hands, with its loathsomely lambent eyes peering upward at my face, and a gray-green slime drooling from its mouth on the broad pages. At the same time I breathed an insupportable fetor, like a mingling of rancid serpent-stench with the moldiness of antique charnels and the fearsome reek of newly decaying carrion.

In a frozen timelessness that was perhaps no more than a second or two, my heart appeared to suspend its beating, while I beheld the ghastly face. Gasping, I let the Goya drop with a resonant bang on the floor, and even as it fell, I saw that the vision had vanished.

Unsettled, Hastane leaves Toleman's in haste and makes his way to Sincaul's studio on the second floor of a nearby building. He finds the sculptor "wiping his hands on an old cloth" near "an ambitious but unfinished group of figures" covered in burlap. Nearby were other completed sculptures and a heavy Chinese screen. 

At a single glance I realized that a great change had occurred, both in Cyprian Sincaul and his work. I remembered him as an amiable, somewhat flabby-looking youth, always dapperly dressed, with no trace of the dreamer or visionary. It was hard to recognize him now, for he had become lean, harsh, vehement. with an air of pride and penetration that was almost Luciferian. His unkempt mane of hair was already shot with white, and his eyes were electrically brilliant with a strange knowledge, and yet somehow were vaguely furtive, as if there dwelt behind them a morbid and macabre fear.

The change in his sculpture was no less striking. The respectable tameness and polished mediocrity were gone, and in their place, incredibly. was something little short of genius. More unbelievable still, in view of the laboriously ordinary grotesques of his earlier phase, was the trend that his art had now taken. All around me were frenetic, murderous demons, satyrs mad with nympholepsy, ghouls that seemed to sniff the odors of the charnel, lamias voluptuously coiled about their victims, and less namable things that belonged to the outland realms of evil myth and malign superstition.

Sin, horror, blasphemy, diablerie — the lust and malice of pandemonium — all had been caught with impeccable art; The potent nightmarishness of these creations was not calculated to reassure my trembling nerves; and all at once I felt an imperative desire to escape from the studio, to flee from the baleful throng of frozen cacodemons and chiseled chimeras.

Sincaul notices Hastane's reaction to his work and and reacts with pride. Indeed, he boasts that he's "gone pretty far … Further even than you think, probably. If you could know. what I know, could see what I have seen, you might make something really worth-while out of your weird fiction, Philip. You are very clever and imaginative, of course. But you've never had any experience." This startles Hastane, who asks him what he means by this. Sincaul explains that, in the past, he'd tried to depict the supernatural without any firsthand knowledge of it, just as Hastane did in his stories, and the results were always mediocre. "But I've learned a thing or two since then." 

Especially in light of his recent experience at Toleman's, Hastane is keen to know more. Sincaul, though, is evasive initially. "I know what I know. Never mind how or why. The world in which we live isn't the only world; and some of the others lie closer at hand than you think. The boundaries of the seen and the unseen are sometimes interchangeable." This statement emboldens Hastane, against his better judgment to describe what happened to him at the bookstore. Sincaul listens before lifting the burlap from the figures on which he'd been working just prior to Hastane's arrival.

Before me, in a monstrous semicircle, were seven creatures who might all have been modeled from the gargoyle that had confronted me across the folio of Goya drawings. Even in several that were still amorphous or incomplete, Cyprian had conveyed with a damnable art the peculiar mingling of primal bestiality and mortuary putrescence that had signalized the phantom. The seven monsters had closed in on a cowering, naked girl, and were all clutching foully toward her with their hyena claws. The stark, frantic, insane terror on the face of the girl, and the slavering hunger of her assailants, were alike unbearable. The group was a masterpiece, in its consummate power of technique — but a masterpiece that inspired loathing rather than admiration. And following my recent experience, the sight of it affected me with indescribable alarm. It seemed to me that I had gone astray from the normal, familiar world into a land of detestable mystery, of prodigious and unnatural menace.

Held by an abhorrent fascination, it was hard for me to wrench my eyes away from the figure-piece. At last I turned from it to Cyprian himself. He was regarding me with a cryptic air, beneath which I suspected a covert gloating.

"How do you like my little pets?" he inquired. "I am going to call the composition 'The Hunters from Beyond'."

The reader can be forgiven for seeing a certain similarity between this story and H.P. Lovecraft's 1927 tale, "Pickman's Model." Such comparisons were made even at the time of the story's initial publication and for good reason: Smith acknowledged to August Derleth that HPL's yarn had served as one of his own inspirations. Ultimately, though, the two stories are quite different. Smith is much more interested in the creation of art and lengths to which artists will sometimes go in order to achieve something greater than they have ever achieved before. It's not a perfect story by any means, but it is a delightfully pulpy meditation on obsession and the madness it can engender – exactly the kind of thing at which Clark Ashton Smith has always excelled.

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