Monday, April 17, 2023

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Mandrakes

Of Clark Ashton Smith's three main cycles of fiction – Zothique, Hyperborea, and Averoigne – I encountered Averoigne first, thanks to the Dungeons & Dragons module, Castle Amber. Consequently, I've retained a great affection for that "sorcery-ridden province" of pre-modern France, even though my estimation of Zothique has since eclipsed it. Averoigne is a place of sinful passions run amok, where pride, envy, wrath, and, above all, lust are given full vent, with frequently horrific results. 

"The Mandrakes," which first appeared in the February 1933 issue of Weird Tales, is a good illustration of prcisely what I mean. The short story tells the tale of a married couple, Gilles Grenier and his wife, Sabine. The pair came "into lower Averoigne from parts unknown or at least unverified" and soon established themselves in a little hut
close to those marshes through which the slackening waters of the river Isoile, after leaving the great fosest, had overflowed in sluggish, reed-clogged channels and sedge-hidden pools mantled with scum like witches' oils. It stood among osiers and alders on a low, mound-shaped elevation; and in front, toward the marshes, there was a loamy meadow-bottom where the short fat stems and tufted leaves of the mandrake grew in lush abundance, being more plentiful and of greater size than elsewhere through all that sorcery-ridden province. The fleshly, bifurcated roots of this plant, held by many to resemble the human body, were used by Gilles and Sabine in the brewing of love-philtres. Their potions, being compounded with much care and cunning, soon acquired a marvelous renown among the peasants and villagers, and were even in request among people of a loftier station, who came privily to the wizard's hut. They would rouse, people said, a kindly warmth in the coldest and most prudent bosom, would melt the armor of the most obdurate virtue. As a result, the demand for these sovereign magistrals became enormous.

Initially, the couple worry that their activities might attract unwelcome attention and, with it, charges of witchcraft. Instead, they find the opposite: they enjoy "a repute by no means ill or unsavory," even among the local clergy, "because of the number of honest marriages promoted by the philtres." 

Ironically, Gilles and Sabine themselves do not seem enjoy such a marriage.

It was rumored by visitors that [Sabine] had oftentimes been overheard in sharp dispute with her husband; and people soon made a jest of this, remarking that the philtres might well be put to a domestic use by those who purveyed them. But aside from such rumors and ribaldries, little was thought of the matter. 

Consequently, when, five years after their arrival in Averoigne, Sabine is no longer seen with her husband, the locals simply accept the explanation of Gilles, namely that " his spouse had departed on a long journey, to visit relatives in a remote province" even though "there had been no eye-witnesses of Sabine's departure." For his part, the sorcerer took to

living tranquilly with his books and cauldrons, and gathering the roots and herbs for his magical medicaments, was well enough pleased to have it taken for granted. He did not believe that Sabine would ever return; and his unbelief, it would seem, was far from irrational. He had killed her one evening in autumn, during a dispute of unbearable acrimony, slitting her soft, pale throat in self-defense with a knife which he had wrested from her fingers when she lifted it against him. Afterward he had buried her by the late rays of a gibbous moon beneath the mandrakes in the meadow-bottom, replacing the leafy sods with much care, so that there was no evidence of their having been disturbed other than by the digging of a few roots in the way of daily business.

Gilles, we soon learn, "was not sorry that he had killed Sabine," as "they had been ill-mated from the beginning" and "it was far pleasanter to be alone." 

The following spring, "there was much demand for his love-philtres among the smitten swains and lasses of the neighborhood" and so Gilles "went forth at midnight beneath the full May moon, to dig the newly grown roots from which he would brew his amatory enchantments." 

Smiling darkly beneath his beard, he began to cull the great, moon-pale plants which flourished on Sabine's grave, digging out the homunculus-like taproots very carefully with a curious trowel made from the femur of a witch.

Though he was well used to the weird and often vaguely human forms assumed by the mandrake, Gilles was somewhat surprized by the appearance of the first root. It seemed inordinately large, unnaturally white; and, eyeing it more closely, he saw that it bore the exact likeness of a woman's body and lower limbs, being cloven to the middle and clearly formed even to the ten toes! These were no arms, however, and the bosom ended in the large tuft of ovate leaves.

Gilles was more than startled by the fashion in which the root seemed to turn and writhe when he lifted it from the ground. He dropped it hastily, and the minikin limbs lay quivering on the grass. But, after a little reflection, he took the prodigy as a possible mark of Satanic favor, and continued his digging. To his amazement, the next root was formed in much the same manner as the first. A half-dozen more, which he proceeded to dig, were shaped in miniature mockery of a woman from breasts to heels; and amid the superstitious awe and wonder with which he regarded them, he became aware of their singularly intimate resemblance to Sabine.

When Gilles digs up another plant "with less than his usual care," he accidentally cuts into "one of the tiny ankles."

At the same instant, a shrill, reproachful cry, like the voice of Sabine herself in mingled pain and anger, seemed to pierce his ears with intolerable acuity, though the volume was strangely lessened, as if the voice had come from a distance. The cry ceased, and was not repeated. Gilles, sorely terrified, found himself staring at the trowel, on which there was a dark, blood-like stain. Trembling, he pulled out the severed root, and saw that it was dripping with a sanguine fluid.

With that, "The Mandrakes" becomes a story of revenge, as the murdered Sabine seemingly seeks satisfaction from beyond the grave. Smith handles this turn effectively in my opinion, as Gilles receives his much deserved comeuppance. "The Mandrakes" is brief and to the point, wasting no verbiage on extraneous details, focusing instead on the crime of Gilles Grenier and the supernatural retribution it brings about. It's an enjoyable little yarn that somewhat reminds me of Poe – a compliment I suspect Smith would have gladly accepted.


  1. While I enjoy all of CAS's settings, my favorite is Hyperborea. It feels the most D&Dish to me.

  2. This and a few other stories from CAS in which sexual/lustful/romantic passions come to the fore are in stark contrast to HPL's decidedly asexual protagonists.

  3. Replies
    1. It's easily found online in both text and audio form. No reason not to experience it for yourself.

  4. Not one of my favorite CAS stories. We're told Gilles killed in self-defense, but afterward he's repeated called a murderer. I don't see how his comeuppance was "much deserved."