Monday, January 9, 2023

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Satyr

H.P. Lovecraft's career as a writer was seriously hampered by the fact that he would regularly withhold publication of his stories unless they were printed without alteration. His friend and colleague, Clark Ashton Smith, whose 130th birthday is this coming Friday – Friday the 13th, appropriately enough – had no such qualms. He understood well that, if one were to make a living as a writer of pulp fiction, one had to be both prolific and willing to acquiesce to even the most whimsical of editorial alterations. Consequently, Smith saw a phenomenal number of his stories published during his lifetime. Weird Tales alone published fifty-three of his tales, more even than Robert E. Howard, another of HPL's friends who understood the compromises necessary to make money as a writer.

Smith's willingness to compromise extended not only to the content of his writing, but also to the markets to which he'd peddle his work. In the case of "The Satyr," one of the earliest stories in his Averoigne cycle, he made concessions to both. After repeated rejections from his usual publishers, who regarded it as "overly risqué," he sold it to La Paree Stories, a "spicy" pulp, whose pages were filled with erotic fiction and nude photography. Further, he changed the story's original ending to make it less ambiguous – a man's gotta eat, after all! The link above, sadly, goes to the version that appeared in the July 1931 issue of La Paree Stories; the original ending would not be restored until 2006.

As so many of Smith's tales do, "The Satyr" opens amusingly:

Raoul, Comte de la Frenaie, was by nature the most unsuspicious of husbands. His lack of suspicion, perhaps, was partly lack of imagination; and, for the rest, was doubtless due to the dulling of his observational faculties by the heavy wines of Averoigne. At any rate, he had never seen anything amiss in the friendship of his wife, Adele, with Olivier du Montoir, a young poet who might in time have rivalled Ronsard as one of the most brilliant luminaries of the Pleiade, if it had not been for an unforeseen but fatal circumstance. 

The references to Pierre de Ronsard and La Pléiade place the story in the mid-16th century, which is later than most of his Averoigne stories, whose time period is more clearly medieval. Count Raoul, despite his usual trusting nature, somehow begins to suspect that perhaps there is something untoward in the relationship of his wife and the handsome young poet who composes "melodious villanelles and graceful ballades ... in celebration of Adele's visible charms." 

it is hard to know just why M. le Comte became suddenly troubled concerning the integrity of his marital honour. Perhaps, in some interim of the hunting and drinking between which he divided nearly all his time, he had noticed that his wife was growing younger and fairer and was blooming as a woman never blooms except to the magical sunlight of love. Perhaps he had caught some glance of ardent or affectionate understanding between Adele and Olivier; or, perhaps, it was the influence of the premature spring, which had pierced the vinous muddlernent of his brain with an obscure stirring of forgotten thoughts and emotions, and thus had given him a flash of insight.

So, when he discovers that his wife and Olivier had recently left his chateau to go "for a promenade in the forest," he sets off after them – armed with his rapier.

Even ignorant of what her husband has planned, Countess Adele is worried. 

Adele and Olivier had wandered beyond the limits of their customary stroll, and were nearing a portion of the forest of Averoigne where the trees were older and taller than all others. Here, some of the huge oaks were said to date back to pagan days. Few people ever passed beneath them; and queer beliefs and legends concerning them had been prevalent among the local peasantry for ages. Things had been seen within these precincts, whose very existence was an affront to science and a blasphemy to religion; and evil influences were said to attend those who dared to intrude upon the sullen umbrage of the immemorial glades and thickets.

Olivier, however, is not concerned, claiming that Adele's worries are based on "stories to frighten babes and beldames." He reassures her, "There is enchantment here, but only the enchantment of beauty." The pair proceed deeper into the forest, until at last they come upon a beautiful clearing that possessed both "an air of antique wisdom" and "tranquil friendliness." "Was I not right?" Olivier queried. "Is there ought to fear in harmless trees and flowers?"

I doubt it will come as a surprise to anyone that Adele's fears are well grounded. Even as "the spell of their desire" is upon them and "everything beyond their own bodies, their own hearts" is "vaguer than a dream," they nevertheless become aware that they are being watched.

The apparition was incredible; and, for the space of a long breath, they could not believe they had really seen it. There were two horns in a matted mass of coarse, animal-like hair above the semi-human face with its obliquely slitted eyes and fang-revealing mouth and beard of wild-boar bristles. The face was old - incomputably old; and its lines and wrinkles were those of unreckoned years of lust; and its look was filled with the slow, unceasing increment of all the malignity and corruption and cruelty of elder ages. It was the face of Pan, as he glared from his, secret wood upon travellers taken unaware.

In both versions of the story, the leering vision serves as a catalyst for Adele to fling herself into the arms of Olivier and, at long last, they give into the unspoken ardor that they had long felt for one another. Later, their passion consummated, they lie together in the clearing, at which point Raoul finds them. In the published 1931 version, the Count prepares to impale both lovers with a thrust of his blade, but is prevented from doing so by the sudden appearance of the titular satyr, who grabs Adele and carries her off while laughing maniacally. In Smith's original version, Raoul succeeds in slaying the adulterers as he had planned. The satyr never appears in the flesh; instead, the count only hears his laughter.

Both endings have their merits. For myself, I prefer Smith's version, as there is some ambiguity as to whether or not the satyr exists at all or whether it might instead be a manifestation of Raoul's own bloodlust. In any case, "The Satyr," though a lesser work within the Smithian oeuvre, is a quite effective tale of horror and passion – fitting perhaps, given its title. 


  1. Effective indeed. I've only read the version published in 1931 and that was more than 40 years ago, but that story still haunts my memory. No one else quite like CAS.

  2. This sounds a good one. The idea that satyrs are malevolent has sat quite firmly in my mind since I was a child. I think I saw an early film or TV version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and picked up on Mr Tumnus' betrayal. That coupled with a representation of the devil as a goat-like beast in a drawing of Tam O'Shanter.