Wednesday, 7 August 2013

'The Charnel God' - Clark Ashton Smith

So I was mooching around on Amazon 'New and Used' yesterday, having a look at how much I could pick up second hand Fantasy Masterworks for. Yep, I'm still on the lookout for those books (definitely a long game this one…) and Amazon is a good place to start - a little too easy perhaps but that's another story. I'd never read anything by Clark Ashton Smith so was quite pleased to see that 'Emperor of Dreams' has gone down in price from 'Wow that's extortionate!' to 'Hmmm, might just have to treat myself to that at some point…' I wanted to read something now though (dammit!) and a little more online mooching led me to this site where I managed to download a whole load of Clark Ashton Smith's short stories. Where does a guy begin when faced with a lot of short stories and no idea where to start? In my case, I will invariably go for the story with the coolest sounding name and so my 'Clark Ashton Smith Reading' began with 'The Charnel God'…

"And all who die within the walls of the city are sacred to Mordiggian. Even the kings and the optimates, at death, are delivered into the hands of his muffled priests. It is the law and the custom. A little while and the priests will come for your bride."
"But Elaith is not dead," protested the youth Phariom for the third or fourth time, in piteous desperation…'

The more I read, the more I find myself after a baited hook that will catch me as quickly as possible. I don't know about you but I just don't have the time these days to wait and see if a story will catch the imagination. It's not that I won't give a book a chance, some books ultimately prove that they're worth persevering with. I just want it to do its job as quickly as possible. 'The Charnel God' does an admirable job, of baiting that hook, within a paragraph. A beautiful bride is about to be offered up to a hungry god; can her husband exploit the one loophole that might save her? Tell me that you read that paragraph and didn't want to find out what happened to Elaith. I wanted to know and I didn't stop reading until I found out. I'm not sure whether the conclusion to the tale was predictable or not (more on that in a bit) but the experience as a whole was dark and richly satisfying. I don't think I would want to read more than one short story in a sitting but I will be reading more.

A matter of life and death is playing out on the dark streets of Zul-Bha-Sair but it feels like the city itself takes centre stage as a fine example of how Ashton Smith can create a setting steeped in myth and dark legend. Phariom certainly spends enough time wondering around the streets while waiting to breach the temple of Mordiggian. This did make me wonder if the story should have been balanced a little more in favour of the plot but I couldn't really complain all that much when I got to wonder 'the gloomy, serpentine streets of Zul-Bha-Sair' with Phariom. 

'The sun had risen above the over jutting houses, but it seemed to him that there was no light, other than a lost and doleful glimmering such as might descend into mortuary depths. The people, it may have been, were much like other people, but he saw them under a malefic aspect, as if they were ghouls and demons that went to and fro on the ghastly errands of a necropolis.'

I like what Ashton Smith does here, basically saying that the city is a dark and gloomy place, with those over jutting houses, but a lot of this is down to Phariom's state of mind (and you can't really blame him for that). A great way to get double the insight for the price of one paragraph.

Like I said, I thought that Phariom perhaps spent a little too long wondering the streets, mention of 'furious, aimless haste' felt rather apt but the cityscape is worth it, giving the first time reader (me!) a little insight into Ashton Smith's world as well as the city itself. It's when we get to the temple itself that the plot decides to make an appearance with a nice twist that renders a seemingly straightforward tale a little more interesting.  Abnon-Tha, 'sorcerer and necromancer', is looking to double cross the priesthood of Mordiggian and this leads him into direct confrontation with Phariom (thanks to his apprentice taking a keen interest in the body of Elaith). There are some very tense moments here that are geared to make the finale as exciting as possible but the arrival of Mordiggian just overshadows everything, quite literally…

'Its form was that of a worm-shapen column, huge as a dragon, its further coils still issuing from the gloom of the corridor; but it changed from moment to moment, swirling and spinning as if alive with the vortical energies of dark eons. Briefly it took the semblance of some demoniac giant with eyeless head and limbless body; and then, leaping and spreading like smoky fire, it swept forward into the chamber.'

What an amazing description of something that clearly cannot be described. Something that is clearly holding a larger part of itself outside of human comprehension. As is right and proper in a pulp tale like this, the villains of the piece meet their end but I really wasn't sure about Phariom and Elaith being allowed to leave. Was it predictable that the 'good guys' win through? Or was it a bit more of a surprise, given the dark environs that they had found themselves in? I'm going to have to give that one some more thought…

For now though, 'The Charnel God' was a lovely slice of the darkest fantasy and I can see myself going back for another helping sooner rather than later.

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