Monday, November 14, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Demon of the Flower

In previous posts about the stories of Clark Ashton Smith, I've sometimes mentioned contemporary criticisms of them. The claim that Smith's fiction often consists of prose poetry is a common one, followed closely by the suggestion that his tales often lack action. That was certainly August Derleth's assessment of "The Demon of the Flower" when he read a draft of it before CAS sent it to Strange Tales. He felt certain that Harry Bates, editor of the magazine, would reject it for this very reason. As it turned out, Derleth was partly mistaken. Bates initially accepted the story for publication. only to be overruled by his publisher, William Clayton. The story met the same fate when Smith submitted it to Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales. 

Eventually, "The Demon of the Flower" found favor with F. Orlin Tremaine of Astounding Stories, who published it in the December 1933 issue (note the Blue Eagle of the National Recovery Administration on the left side of the cover). While there's some truth to Derleth's assertion that the story lacks action, its central idea is powerfully evocative – so powerful that it more than compensates. In my opinion, this is true of much of Smith's oeuvre and it's the reason why I consider his yarns every bit as inspirational as those of more celebrated pulp fantasists like Howard or Lovecraft.

"The Demon of the Flower" takes place on another world, a planet called Lophai, whose plants and flowers were utterly unlike those of Earth.

Many were small and furtive, and crept viper-wise on the ground. Others were tall as pythons, rearing superbly in hieratic postures to the jeweled light. Some grew with single or dual stems that burgeoned forth into hydra heads, and some were frilled and festooned with leaves that suggested the wings of flying lizards, the pennants of faery lances, the phylacteries of a strange sacerdotalism. Some appeared to bear the scarlet wattles of dragons; others were tongued as if with black flames or the colored vapors that issue with weird writhings from out barbaric censers; and others still were armed with fleshy nets or tendrils, or with huge blossoms like bucklers perforated in battle. And all were equipped with venomous darts and fangs, all were alive, restless, and sentient.

Of all these sentient plants, the most important was the "supreme and terrible flower known as the Voorqual, in which a tutelary demon, more ancient than the twin suns, was believed to have made its immortal avatar." The Voorqual grew atop the summit of a step-pyramid in the equatorial city of Lospar, where also dwelled King Lunithi. Lunithi also served as the leader of a priesthood that served the nourishment of the Voorqual. 

This nourishment consisted first of "a compost in which the dust of royal mummies formed an essential ingredient," but it also consisted of the lifeblood of one of its priesthood, chosen each year at the summer solstice by the demon within the ancient and monstrous plant. This year, the Voorqual had chosen the priestess Nala as the sacrifice, a young woman who was to be wed to King Lunithi in a month's time. Needless to say, Lunithi was none too pleased by this turn of events and impiously begins to ponder how he "could cheat the demon of its ghastly tribute."

Amid such reflections, Lunithi remembered an old myth about the existence of a neutral and independent being known as the Occlith: a demon coeval with the Voorqual, and allied neither to man nor the flower creatures. This being was said to dwell beyond the desert of Aphom, in the otherwise unpeopled mountains of white stone above the habitat of the ophidian blossoms. In latter days no man had seen the Occlith, for the journey through Ayhom was not lightly to be undertaken. But this entity was supposed to be immortal; and it kept apart and alone, meditating upon all things but interfering never with their processes. However, it was said to have given, in earlier times, valuable advice to a certain king who had gone forth from Lospar to its lair among the white crags.

In his grief and desperation, Lunithi resolved to seek the Occlith and question it anent the possibility of slaying the Voorqual. If, by any mortal means, the demon could be destroyed, he would remove from Lophai the long-established tyranny whose shadow fell upon all things from the sable pyramid.

When the king at last comes upon the Occlith, which looked like " a high cruciform pillar of blue mineral," he prostrated himself before it and asked its counsel concerning the Voorqual. 

"It is possible," said the Occlith, "to slay the plant known as the Voorqual, in which an elder demon has its habitation. Though the flower has attained millennial age, it is not necessarily immortal: for all things have their proper term of existence and decay; and nothing has been created without its corresponding agency of death... I do not advise you to slay the plant... but I can furnish you with the information which you desire. In the mountain chasm through which you came to seek me, there flows a hueless spring of mineral poison, deadly to all the ophidian plant-life of this world..."

The Occlith went on, and told Lunithi the method by which the poison should be prepared and administered. The chill, toneless, tinkling voice concluded:

"I have answered your question. If there is anything more that you wish to learn, it would be well to ask me now."

Lunithi dared not ask any further question, but instead set off to find the poison of which the Occlith had spoken and then to return to Lospar to save his betrothed. This being a Clark Ashton Smith story, I do not think it will surprise anyone to learn that things do not go quite as the priest-king had planned.\

"The Demon of the Flower" is a short and no-nonsense story that nevertheless presents its fanciful, almost fairytale-like narrative, in lovely, hypnotic language. It's one of those stories that almost demands to be read aloud. More importantly, its central idea – a world where sentient plants ruled "and all other life existed by their sufferance" is a potent and frankly creepy one, all the more so when one reads the details of the annual choosing the Voorqual's sacrifice. It's well worth a read if you have twenty or thirty minutes to spare.

1 comment:

  1. "This being a Clark Ashton Smith story, I do not think it will surprise anyone to learn that things do not go quite as the priest-king had planned."

    Reading a lot of CAS's work in a short period definitely brings on the same feeling I get when binging the Twilight Zone show. We get it already, the poor sap of the main character is headed for some ironic and generally awful fate. Does your dog do any other tricks or is that it?

    Even Smith's writing skills can't quite offset the effect after a while, which is why I prefer to re-read him in small doses.