The Belgariad by David Eddings

Asked what he and his co-author wife Leigh had brought to the fantasy genre (in an interview by David J Howe for Dreamwatch magazine in March 1999), Eddings’ reply now seems about 180 degrees off target:

“Quite probably, our major contribution has been gritty reality. Our people get hungry; after a week of strenuous activity, they stink; they do argue with each other; the boy-people do notice the girl-people (and the girl-people notice them right back.) We tried our best to ignore Alfred Lord Tennyson and Tolkien and to return to Malory—which is where the good stuff is.”

Compared to the likes of Game of Thrones, “gritty reality” The Belgariad most certainly ain’t. Its characters may sweat and bicker, but none of the main ones die, and nor are they ever in any serious danger of doing so. All the good characters, though lightly flawed, are clearly good, and basically get on with each other. Only the clearly-telegraphed villain-types ever stab anyone in the back, and they get their comeuppance right away. Even the comparison to Malory is stretching it, as The Belgariad has nothing like the moment in Le Morte Darthur when King Arthur dies and suddenly all that’s good and noble goes out of the world, leaving it nothing but a bloody battlefield strewn with dead or dying knights being looted by opportunistic peasants. In The Belgariad, things go wrong only to be, at the end, set right back to how they were at the start — if not better.

Pawn of Prophecy, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

Eddings admired Tolkien (fondly calling him “Poppa Tolkien” in interviews, and including The Lord of the Rings on the syllabus of a lecture course on “The Modern Novel” he gave while teaching in the 1960s — see this article for some interesting insights into Eddings’ teaching days), but — particularly now we have the Peter Jackson films, whose success and style paved the way for Game of Thrones — it’s hard to judge The Belgariad as “gritty reality” compared to Tolkien’s harrowing epic of endurance in the face of overwhelming despair, or his insistence that power can corrupt even the noblest of souls. There are no serious betrayals in The Belgariad, and the series’ five book quest is hardly harrowing, its central character, the boy Garion, being pretty much constantly in the company of his super-sorcerer guardians, along with a solid cadre of highly capable helpers, to protect and guide him every step of the way.

What Eddings probably meant by “gritty reality” is that his characters, far more than Tolkien’s and Malory’s, come across as very ordinary. They bicker, they complain, they have a sense of humour, they make friends with one another, and they remain friends. The thing that really powers the books is the gentle everydayness of their emotional lives — in particular the boy Garion’s relationships with his Aunt Polgara and Grandfather Belgarath (both, in fact, age-old sorcerers whose relationship to him, though genuine, is far more distant), and his mostly comic romance with the Tolnedran Imperial Princess Ce’Nedra. Garion is, perhaps unlike any prior teenager at the centre of a world-saving fantasy epic, a real-seeming adolescent, given to moodiness, sulks, and stubbornness, as well as occasional bursts of good sense.

Queen of Sorcery, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

(The same goes for Ce’Nedra, and if The Belgariad does have a claim to have made an advance in the fantasy genre, it may be that it contains more interesting, active, and real-seeming female characters than the commercial fantasy epics that came before it. It’s no feminist landmark, but it certainly outdoes Tolkien and Malory, as well as Donaldson and Brooks, in this respect.)

Even Eddings’ millennia-old sorcerers — on the good side, at least — make sure we know that, deep down, they’re basically ordinary folks. After every grand gesture or (brief) moment of high poetry, someone says something to deflate the situation, to bring it back to normal, to let us know the characters know they’re putting it on:

“Dost thou question my word, Sir Knight?” Mandorallen returned in an ominously quiet voice. “And wilt thou then come down and put thy doubt to the test? Or is it perhaps that thou wouldst prefer to cringe doglike behind thy parapet and yap at thy betters?”

“Oh, that was very good,” Barak said admiringly.

Magician’s Gambit, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

If it’s comparable to anything, I’d say The Belgariad is most similar to Star Wars. Begun in about 1979, and published between 1982 and 1984, its five books came out mostly in the years between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and Garion’s learning to harness his burgeoning sorcerous abilities is strongly reminiscent of Luke Skywalker’s coming into his powers as a Jedi. The Belgariad’s “Will and the Word” is pretty much identical to the Force: only a few (Jedi/Sorcerers) can do it, and it’s all about imposing one’s will via mind-force on the world. Even the way Belgarath teaches Garion to do it — by having him move a big rock — is similar to Yoda’s getting Luke to try levitating his beswamped X-Wing.

But the main thing that makes the two so similar — apart from their huge success, of course — is the way both made no bones about their blatant reliance on basic templates from myth and fairy tale. Both Luke and Garion start out as orphaned farm-boys who come to learn that they have royal/Imperial connections and sorcerous power, and that their family history is deeply tied up in long-term world/galactic conflicts between good and evil. As Eddings says in his introduction to The Rivan Codex:

“I planted more mythic fishhooks in the first couple of books of the Belgariad than you’ll find in any sporting goods store.”

Castle of Wizardry, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

Inevitably, The Belgariad has come under a lot of criticism. One man’s archetype is another’s cliché, and anyone who didn’t fall under the series’ spell tended to be affronted by its commercial success and accused it of being nothing but a cynical rehash of genre clichés. (As also happened with Star Wars.) And it’s hard to argue against this, The Belgariad is so nakedly archetypal. Its fantasy world is nothing but a grab-bag of characteristic historical eras (in an interview with Stan Nicholls, Eddings called it “dropping three or four aeons of western European culture into a blender”), with its equivalent of Imperial Romans (Tolnedra) peacefully coexisting with Norman-era French (Arendia), Vikings (Cherek), Cossacks (Algaria), and a sort of overheated Weird Tales version of Ancient Egypt (Nyissa). (The ghost-haunted land of the Marags, presided over by an eternally-mourning god, is perhaps its most original and quietly powerful touch, in this respect.)

In addition, so that none of Eddings’ world-building goes to waste, the quest for the vaguely super-powerful Orb takes our heroes on a convenient tour through every land on the map. But to say this is contrived is to miss the point. The quest, in The Belgariad, is like a Hitchcock Macguffin — an excuse to get the story started, and to keep it going, while the real stuff happens. The search for the Orb isn’t really the point about The Belgariad, and all the time it’s going on you, as reader, if you’re captured by the series at all, don’t actually want them to find the Orb — not in the same way as, when you’re reading The Lord of the Rings, you really, really want the One Ring destroyed.

Enchanter’s End Game, UK cover by Geoff Taylor

What I think The Belgariad is doing while you’re following its characters on their vaguely world-shaking quest, is casting a readerly spell of gentle enchantment for the duration of its five books. It’s not a particularly forceful or wildly magical spell. Perhaps the best word for what it does is the simplest and least magical of all magical terms: it charms. Its charm is in the easy humour of its characters (sometimes belaboured — Eddings has a tendency to underline his punchlines not once but twice), their low-scale emotional ups and downs, and in the quiet but lasting development of their friendships, loves, and companionship. All this is leavened with a generous smattering of lightly thrilling adventure, and an evenly-paced uncovering of the series’ mysteries — about Garion’s identity, and the true nature of the quest they’re on — drip-fed at just the right speed.

The Belgariad perhaps only works if you come to it at the right age — Garion’s age, early adolescence. Fortunately, I did, and I have to say the books certainly worked their charm-spell on me, as well as convincing me of the undeniable power of a simple, fairy-tale coming-of-age narrative — and, perhaps only because I came to it when I did, it continues to work the same spell whenever I re-read it.

The Belgariad may not have the grit of Game of Thrones, it may not confront the darker forces that The Lord of the Rings does, but I’d certainly miss its charm, its air of comradely companionship, and its gentle fairy-tale power, if the genre were ever wholly given over to nothing but “gritty reality”.

The Doll Who Ate His Mother by Ramsey Campbell

The Doll Who Ate His Mother, Millington Books HB, 1977

Driving her brother Rob home one night, Clare Frayn is forced to swerve into a lamppost when a man suddenly appears in the road in front of her. The accident severs Rob’s arm, killing him, but when the emergency services arrive, they can’t find either the man who caused the accident or Rob’s arm… A few months later, Clare is contacted by Edmund Hall, author of such non-fiction crime books as Secrets of the Psychopaths, The Homicidal Heart, Love Has Many Weapons and Sinister Sirens. He believes the man who caused the accident and made off with Rob’s arm is a local boy he knew from school, Christopher Kelly, whom he once saw bite into a bully’s arm and refuse to let go, and whom he believes responsible for another local crime, in which a man entered an old woman’s house and ate her dog, causing her to die from a heart-attack. Hall recruits Clare and two other people who’ve suffered from Kelly’s crimes to hunt down this monster and bring him to justice.

I think the deliberately lurid title of Ramsey Campbell’s first novel (published in 1976 in the US, 1977 in the UK), is a sort of goad, a backhanded hint that you should look beyond the obviously sensationalistic aspects of the story. This being Campbell, the characters are drawn with too much subtlety to fit neatly into the usual horror categories of victims, heroes, and, even, monsters. And although Kelly does some undeniably monstrous things, this is not, ultimately, a book about how a human being can be a monster. It’s about the very human means by which monsters are not only made, but kept monstrous.

The ultimate source for the evil that’s in Christopher Kelly is the influence of John Strong, a man who believed that:

‘Sometimes, in its evolution, the Universe bears a mind that will grasp and wield its unity; such a mind is mine.’

Bobbs-Merrill, US HB, 1976

Strong had the ability to exert his will over others, and used it to control and degrade anyone who came under his influence. When Kelly’s mother, Cissy, went to him thinking his ‘black magic’ could terminate her unwanted pregnancy, he instead forced her to keep the child and dedicate it to him. Strong, though, is not a character we get to know in Doll except through a pamphlet he wrote (called Glimpses of Absolute Power) and the devastating effect he’s left in his wake. We cannot know the how or the why of him. (‘Of my birth I shall say nothing,’ he writes in his pamphlet.) He represents a perhaps necessary blank wall as far as tracing the ultimate origins of Christopher Kelly’s evil are concerned. All we know about him is that he is the cause of life-ruining degradation and powerlessness in others.

What matters more is how that degradation and powerlessness are sustained by less supernaturally-endowed hands. Mrs Kelly — Cissy’s mother, and the one who raises the boy Christopher — doesn’t have any special powers, but she’s just as controlling, repressive and degrading as John Strong, only she does it in the name of God. Justifying the control she exerted over her daughter, she says:

‘All we asked was that she was home by nine every night, and told us everything she’d done during the day. And what she was going to do the next day.’

And this is when her daughter was a young woman, going out daily to work. Her rejection of the pregnant Cissy is what drives this young woman into John Strong’s hands, and even before Christopher is born, Mrs Kelly has decided what he is:

‘The Devil had made him clever — pretending to be a little boy, waiting for the chance to be a monster.’

John Strong made dolls by which he magically controlled human beings; the likes of Mrs Kelly, by prejudging and repressing at every stage, do their best to make people into less-than-human dolls.

1978 cover, image from Too Much Horror Fiction

The family of George Pugh (whose mother was the old lady who died when she found Kelly gnawing at her dog), though by no means perfect, is the opposite of Mrs Kelly’s approach. The Pugh household allows for both religion (mother Alice Pugh saying grace before dinner) and scepticism (‘George bowed his head, but Clare could see it was a token gesture’) without any conflict, and is obviously nurturing of both its two children, and their pets. George, it turns out, was raised on Shakespeare (‘Everything is in Shakespeare. He makes you feel things as if you’ve never felt them before’), and his parents’ sacrifices were not made in the name of an Old Testament deity, but for the running of a chain of local cinemas. It’s Alice Pugh who, at the end, offers Kelly his chance to rejoin the human race, by convincing him to accept responsibility for what he’s done and hand himself in to the police. But then Edmund Hall, who has consistently made crude, instant judgements about everyone he meets, and who has already made up his mind that Kelly is a monster and must meet a monster’s end, comes blundering along and ruins things.

Bracketing the central horror/tragedy is the subtler and more human tale of Clare, whose self-judgements (having once been told she has ‘stumpy legs’, she’s self-conscious about her every movement) show us a normal human being making herself a little bit monstrous, a little bit unacceptable, in the way so many normal human beings do, while herself being completely understanding of others. She wasn’t raised by anyone as toxic at Mrs Kelly, but we learn that her brother Rob thought their ‘Father and Mother put down everything I was…’, and that this may have made him a little monstrous, too, in the way he makes himself into something he’s not (he fronted an outspoken ‘Working Class Hero Show’ on Radio Merseyside, despite not really being working class, and Clare thinks this made him ‘aggressive, dogmatic, secretly unsure’). We never learn what effect her upbringing might have had on Clare, only that, at the end of all the horror, she finds herself weeping.

‘What is it, Clare?’ Dorothy said.
‘Oh, everything,’ she said indistinctly. ‘It goes back so far.’

And her ‘everything’ can be no way near as horrifying or lurid as Christopher Kelly’s ‘everything’, but it’s still her ‘everything’, which she has to deal with, something that requires, in a humanity-starved, sensation-hungry world, a little extra understanding, a breaking down of judgement and self-judgement, so she can, in her own small way, start to heal.

It’s only, I think, by allowing itself to look beyond its own sensational elements that horror can go full circle into catharsis or healing like this, and its rare to find books in the genre that really try. Particularly rare to find one with a title like The Doll Who Ate His Mother.

The House on the Brink by John Gordon

Cover to 1982 Penguin Plus edition, art by Neil Reed

Walking home after his literature evening class’s end-of-term party, sixteen-year-old Dick Dodds gives in to an impulse to nab a boat and let it drift him down the river. But the dare turns dangerous when he loses the row-boat’s only oar and finds himself being drawn helplessly out to sea. Saving himself, he has to plod through the fens back to dry land, and as he does, he passes a track in the mud that sends a chill up his spine:

‘I stepped into that trail and it seemed to put the moon out. Everything darkened. I went cold and stiff and then I fell. I must have done. I was on my hands and knees just a short distance away from the trail and I could feel the moon on my back.’

He discovers, the next day, that he can still feel the trail as it crosses dry land. Following it, he meets Helen Johnson, who on the night of Dick’s escapade saw something passing her father’s farmlands:

‘It was like a man all tied up, no legs and no arms. But it kept moving. Sort of gliding…’

The two begin an off-and-on investigation of the trail, driven by bursts of impulsive determination from Dick, but hampered by the ups and downs of the pair’s incipient romance. Visiting a local water-diviner, Mrs Shepherd, they learn that they share her ability to detect water running underground, and think at first this explains the chilling effect of the trail, until they follow it a bit more and encounter the thing — ‘A black, smooth, round, bald-headed old post’ — Helen saw that night, which is not a post, but may in fact be the mummified body of one of King John’s men, said to have been charged with guarding the treasure the king lost in the fens hundreds of years ago. And, dead though it clearly is, it moves.

The mystery begins to centre on a young widow, Mrs Knowles, whom Dick knows from his literature class. She believes:

‘My house… has a good side and a bad. The river is on the dark side. Everything it contains is contaminated… And out the back of my house… somewhere in the distance, there is something that when it appears always gives me hope… I call it the Silver Fields.’

Mrs Knowles tells Dick of how she was out walking by the river one day with a friend, local solicitor Mr Miller, when she saw ‘a piece of wood’ that ‘the river had made… evil’, and Dick realises it’s probably the same thing whose trail he and Helen have been investigating. Mr Miller, it turns out, is interested in the legend of King John’s treasure — he tried to talk Mrs Shepherd into using her water-divining powers to locate it — and now Dick begins to suspect Miller of having some sort of unpleasant plan for Mrs Knowles.

What’s notable about The House on the Brink is that it’s not a straightforward kids-investigate-the-supernatural type of story. It’s as much about the moment-by-moment feeling of being a teen on the verge of adulthood, experiencing the world in new ways, entering into a first relationship, getting glimpses of the dark world of adult secrets. Dick is impulsive, at times touchy, at times shy, given to the need to prove himself in sometimes dangerous ways. The book’s terse, poetic style emphasises this feeling of teenage life being a series of intense but fragmented moments of pure experience:

He dropped the bicycle on the verge and turned in the road with his arms outstretched. ‘I am the key in the lock of the world,’ he said. He let himself believe it for a moment. Then he picked up his bike. ‘And I’m also mad.’

As so often happens in YA books, the teens are central to the story because, being caught between the two worlds of childhood and adulthood, they’re free to move between, and look into, other worlds, too.

There’s the worlds of social position, for instance, that the children move between, or are caught by. Mrs Shepherd, the water-diviner, is working class, while Mrs Knowles is obviously very well-off, but both accept the teens into their lives without the class prejudices they might apply to adults. When it’s revealed that Mrs Knowles’s man-friend, whom Dick has already started to suspect of being up to no good, is a solicitor, he feels that ‘He might have known it would be somebody like that’, and I certainly read ‘somebody like that’ to be a judgement in terms of social standing. (Miller is later described as having ‘a long face with a golf-course tan.’) Dick feels that his smaller house puts him in a lower class than Helen (‘Dick’s shame began at the backyard gate. With two bicycles in it the yard was crowded. At her house there was space…’), while Helen feels that, when she goes round to Dick’s for dinner, the Dodds being ‘Town, not country’ puts her subtly in a lower class (as Dick’s father wears a suit, ‘not a farmer’s shirt-sleeves.’). Later, she says Dick can’t ‘know anything about fen people. Real fen people’, because he lives in the town.

Far more explicit are the two worlds of belief in the supernatural and dismissal of it. Helen tells her mother about the thing she saw passing their farm that night, ‘But that sort of thing doesn’t sink in.’ Dick alone of his literature class understands what Mrs Knowles means when she talks of the river being ‘bad’ and the Silver Fields being ‘good’, to the extent that he cycles out one morning to find those ‘Silver Fields’.

Belief in the supernatural is tied to an ability to understand the less intellectual aspects of poetry (Mrs Knowles asserts ‘You have to feel a poem. You can’t analyse it.’), but also being open to emotional instability and madness. Mrs Knowles, standing daily on the balcony of her ‘House on the Brink’, is herself on the brink of insanity, of being lost in the instability of her unbalanced feelings, and Dick at one point puts his and Helen’s involvement in the trail and the spooky old ‘log’ down to:

‘How people’s feelings seem to cross and get tangled. That’s what’s been happening, isn’t it?’

Mr Miller, being a solicitor — a shrewd thinker used to dealing with down-to-earth issues — is Mrs Knowles’s opposite in terms of rationality and intuition, and it’s perhaps because of this that he ultimately can’t save her from her own mental instability, but the kids — who can understand both worlds — can.

In an interview published on the Ghosts & Scholars site, John Gordon says that, in The House on the Brink, he was:

‘…writing about the time in everyone’s life when you suddenly realise that the real world is more mysterious and magnificent than the static wonders of fairy tales.’

Ultimately, it’s a book that shrugs off easy divisions. Its world is not one of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, nor is it one where it’s easy to tell the supernatural from madness, and the implication is that part of growing up is learning to realise this.

The Hashish Eater by Clark Ashton Smith

Discussing Lord Dunsany’s style in his rather vituperative survey of fantasy literature, Wizardry and Wild Romance, Michael Moorcock quotes this passage from Thomas de Quincey as one of its possible sources:

“I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paroquets, by cockatoos. I ran into pagodas, and was fixed for centuries at the summit, or in secret rooms; I was the idol; I was the priest; I was sacrificed… I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and crocodile trembled at. I was buried, for a thousand years, in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.”

The Hashish-Eater, from Necronomicon Press. Cover by Robert H Knox.

Reading that little fever of opiate orientalism, I immediately wanted more, but, surprisingly, it’s about the only passage of its kind in Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Far more in this feverish-visionary vein is to be found in Fitz Huw Ludlow’s The Hasheesh Easter: Being Passages from the Life of a Pythagorean (first published in 1857, and avowedly in the tradition of de Quincey). But that sort of febrile fantastia finds it apotheosis, for me, in Clark Ashton Smith’s similarly-named mini-epic of cosmic consciousness gone wrong, “The Hashish-Eater: or The Apocalypse of Evil”, perhaps the greatest of all fantasy poems:

If I will,
I am at once the vision and the seer,
And mingle with my ever-streaming pomps,
And still abide their suzerain: I am
The neophyte who serves a nameless god,
Within whose fane the fanes of Hecatompylos
Were arks the Titan worshippers might bear,
Or flags to pave the threshold; or I am
The god himself, who calls the fleeing clouds
Into the nave where suns might congregate
And veils the darkling mountain of his face
With fold on solemn fold; for whom the priests
Amass their monthly hecatomb of gems—
Opals that are a camel-cumbering load,
And monstrous alabraundines, won from war
With realms of hostile serpents…

Smith mentions a number of inspirations, influences, and works that fed into the writing of “The Hashish-Eater” in his letters at the time. De Quincey and Ludlow are named in a 1923 letter to Frank Belknap Long (whom he warns against trying the drug itself, because Smith — who hadn’t — knew people who had, and “The reaction is terrible, especially in those of a nervous temperament.”). Writing to his poetic mentor, George Sterling, on March 29th 1920, Smith mentions two short poems, one by Thomas Bailey Aldrich (“Hascheesh”, 1861), one by Arthur Symons (“Haschisch”, 1899). The Aldrich poem compresses Smith’s near 600 lines to a bare 24, with a beautiful, fantastic vision (“A Palace shaped itself against the skies:/Great sapphire-studded portals suddenly/Opened upon vast Gothic galleries”) being swiftly followed by a horrible one (“Fanged, warty monsters, with their lips and eyes/Hung with slim leeches sucking hungrily”), while the Symons poem ends with a verse that particularly pleased the cosmicist Smith:

Who said the world is but a mood
In the eternal thought of God?
I know it, real though it seem,
The phantom of a haschisch dream
In that insomnia which is God.

But if Smith’s poem has any progenitor beside his own unique imagination, it must be Sterling’s own “A Wine of Wizardry”. Like Smith’s, a long poem in blank verse, it strings together a series of red-hued fantastic visions, sparked into life by the glints and bubbles seen inside a glass of wine. It gained a certain notoriety when its publication (in the September 1907 issue of Cosmopolitan, of all places) was accompanied by an encomium by Ambrose Bierce, saying it ranked alongside the works of Keats, Coleridge and Rossetti. Indignation, rebuttal, and satires followed (as detailed in this article on the poem’s centenary).

In a letter to Sterling on the 10th July 1920 (the year “The Hashish-Eater” was written), Smith added the name of yet another influence:

“I’m sorry people think “The H. Eater” a mere extension of “A Wine of Wizardry”. That’s no mean compliment, however—The “Wine of Wizardry” has always seemed the ideal poem to me, as it did to Bierce. But the ground-plan of “The H.-E.” is really quite different. It owes nearly as much to The Temptation of Saint Anthony as to your poem.”

In Smith’s poem, the protagonist achieves his visions “By some explanation of cosmic consciousness, rather than a mere drug”. According to Gary Lachman’s A Secret History of Consciousness, “cosmic consciousness” was a term coined by R M Bucke for a paper he read in 1894 to the American Medico-Psychological Association, and later popularised in a book of the same name in 1901, based on an experience he himself had, in which:

“…the cosmos, which to the self conscious mind seems made up of dead matter, is in fact far otherwise—is in very truth a living presence… that the universe is so built and ordered that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all…”

Smith’s version of “cosmic consciousness” has none of this all-pervading benevolence. It is — at first, at least — simply a means by which the titular Hashish-Eater can pry into all the wonders and secrets the universe contains, voyeuristically channel-hopping an endless series of fantastic worlds, and arrogating to himself the loftiest of titles:

Bow down: I am the emperor of dreams;
I crown me with the million-colored sun
Of secret worlds incredible, and take
Their trailing skies for vestment when I soar,
Throned on the mounting zenith, and illume
The spaceward-flown horizons infinite…

In this, he certainly resembles Ludlow:

“I began to be lifted into that tremendous pride which is so often a characteristic of the fantasia [of the drug]. My powers became superhuman; my knowledge covered the universe; my scope of sight was infinite. I was invested with a grand mission to humanity, and slowly it dawned upon me that I was the Christ, come in the power and radiance of his millennial descent…”

But Ludlow has a warning about over-indulgence in his chosen drug that applies equally to Smith’s protagonist:

“Hasheesh is indeed an accursed drug, and the soul at last pays a most bitter price for all its ecstasies; moreover, the use of it is not the proper means of gaining any insight, yet who shall say that at that season of exaltation I did not know things as they are more truly than ever in the ordinary state?”

cover by Bruce Pennington

So many of the wonders Smith’s Hasheesh-Eater glimpses involve kings, giants, even gods, being plotted against and overthrown, often by the smallest or least-powerful beings, from dwarves stabbing titans in the toes with pin-like poisoned blades, to a plague of lichens (somehow) bringing down an empire. The Hashish-Eater, though, refuses to take the warning, even when he hears a word “whispered in a tongue unknown,/In crypts of some impenetrable world”, a “dark, dethroning secrecy/I cannot share…” He runs away from the first of his visions to turn on him, but soon finds himself pursued by an entire “Sabaoth of retribution, drawn/From all dread spheres that knew my trespassing…”

Finally, chased to the edge of everything, Smith’s protagonist comes face to face with the ultimate secret, and the first genuine revelation of his heretofore entirely self-indulgent, hedonistic, and unenlightening use of the gift of “cosmic consciousness”. In his “Argument of ‘The Hashish-Eater’”, Smith explains that, at the end, his Hashish-Eater:

“…is driven at last to the verge of a gulf into which falls in cataracts the ruin and rubble of the universe; a gulf from which the face of infinity itself, in all its awful blankness, beyond stars and worlds, beyond created things, even fiends and monsters, rises up to confront him.”

This “face of infinity itself” is all the Hashish-Eater is not. Where he is crowned with “the million-colored sun/Of secret worlds incredible”, it is lit by a light “as of a million million moons”. Where he has eyes greedy to see and know everything, it is “a huge white eyeless Face”.

Its size, its whiteness, and its rising up from an abyss, all point to another possible influence on the poem, the ending of Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket:

“And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow…”

cover by Bruce Pennington

Is this “face of infinity itself” what gives Smith’s poem its subtitle, “The Apocalypse of Evil”? Certainly it seems evil to the Hashish-Eater, who is so horrified to find it rising in front of him as he flees the horde of mythological beasts intent on his destruction. But if it seems evil to him, perhaps that’s because it represents the one thing he’s been escaping from all this time. Without eyes, this is the face of a thing that looks within, and its “lips of flame” could well be the lips of a poet enflamed by a genuine inner vision, not a mere list of eye-candy wonders and darkly thrilling but spiritually empty occult secrets. Although it wears the face of cosmic horror, this “face of infinity” could, in fact, be the genuine “emperor of dreams” that the Hashish-Eater sought, so arrogantly, to depose at the start of the poem: it could be his own unacknowledged unconscious, rising to confront him with his unregarded inner life, his inner evils and his more painful insights, everything he’s been trying so desperately not to face within himself, with all his ecstatic indulging in external wonders and gaudy secrets.

As Ludlow says of his own visions:

“In the jubilance of hasheesh, we have only arrived by an improper pathway at the secret of that infinity of beauty which shall be beheld in heaven and earth when the veil of the corporeal drops off, and we know as we are known. Then from the muddy waters of our life, defiled by the centuries of degeneracy through which they have flowed, we shall ascend to the old-time original fount, and grow rapturous with its apocalyptic draught.”

Smith’s “Hashish-Eater” is a Faustian parable, a warning about the improper uses of the wonders of imagination. And I think that, to echo Bierce on Sterling’s “Wine of Wizardry”, it genuinely stands alongside the great long fantasy poems, such as Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”, Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”, and Wilde’s “The Sphinx”.