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 Eater: 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”.

The Authentic Voice of Wizardry

Sometimes I need a little reminder of why I read fantasy.

A Wizard of Earthsea, cover by David Smee

“He looked for a spell of self-transformation, but being slow to read the runes yet and understanding little of what he read, he could not find what he sought. These books were very ancient, Ogion having them from his own master Heleth Farseer, and Heleth from his master the Mage of Perregal, and so back into the times of myth. Small and strange was the writing, overwritten and interlined by many hands, and all those hands were dust now…”

(…from A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin.)

“Thou read the book, my pretty Vivien!
O ay, it is but twenty pages long,
But every page having an ample marge,
And every marge enclosing in the midst
A square of text that looks a little blot,
The text no larger than the limbs of fleas;
And every square of text an awful charm,
Writ in a language that has long gone by.
So long, that mountains have arisen since
With cities on their flanks — thou read the book!
And every margin scribbled, crost, and crammed
With comment, densest condensation, hard
To mind and eye; but the long sleepless nights
Of my long life have made it easy to me.
And none can read the text, not even I;
And none can read the comment but myself;
And in the comment did I find the charm…”

(…from “Merlin and Vivien” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Read it here.)

Tales of Zothique, cover by Jason C Eckhardt and Homer D Eckhardt

“Now, in all ways that were feasible, we interrogated the shadow, speaking through our own lips and the lips of mummies and statues. But there was no determinable answer; and calling certain of the devils and phantoms that were our familiars, we made question through the mouths of these, but without result. And all the while, our magic mirrors were void of any reflection of a presence that might have cast the shadow; and they that had been our spokesmen could detect nothing in the room. And there was no spell, it seemed, that had power upon the visitant. So Avyctes became troubled; and drawing on the floor with blood and ashes the ellipse of Oumor, wherein no demon nor spirit may intrude, he retired to its center. But still within the ellipse, like a flowing taint of liquid corruption, the shadow followed his shadow; and the space between the two was no wider than the thickness of a wizard’s pen…”

(…from “The Double Shadow” by Clark Ashton Smith. Read it here.)

The Dark Is Rising (cover)

The Dark is Rising, cover by Michael Heslop

“The window ahead of them flew open, outwards, scattering all the snow. A faint luminous path like a broad ribbon lay ahead, stretching into the snow-flecked air; looking down, Will could see through it, see the snow-mounded outlines of roofs and fences and trees below. Yet the path was substantial too. In one stride Merriman had reached it through the window and was sweeping away at great speed with an eerie gliding movement, vanishing into the night. Will leapt after him, and the strange path swept him too off through the night, with no feeling either of speed or cold. The night around him was black and thick; nothing was to be seen except the glimmer of the Old Ones’ airy way. And then all at once they were in some bubble of Time, hovering, tilted on the wind…”

(…from The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper.)

“I have been in wastelands beneath the moon’s eye, in rich lords’ courts with the sound of pipe and heartbeat of drum… I have been in high mountains, in hot, small witches’ huts watching their mad eyes and fire-burned faces; I have spoken with the owl and the snow-white falcon and the black crow; I have spoken to the fools that dwell by thousands in crowded cities, men and women; I have spoken to cool-voiced queens…”

(…from The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A McKillip.)

In the Land of Time, cover by Sidney Sime

“But as the feet of the foremost touched the edge of the hill Time hurled five years against them, and the years passed over their heads and the army still came on, an army of older men. But the slope seemed steeper to the King and to every man in his army, and they breathed more heavily. And Time summoned up more years, and one by one he hurled them at Karnith Zo and at all his men. And the knees of the army stiffened, and their beards grew and turned grey, and the hours and days and the months went singing over their heads, and their hair turned whiter and whiter, and the conquering hours bore down, and the years rushed on and swept the youth of that army clear away till they came face to face under the walls of the castle of Time with a mass of howling years, and found the top of the slope too steep for aged men. Slowly and painfully, harassed with agues and chills, the King rallied his aged army that tottered down the slope…”

(…from “In the Land of Time” by Lord Dunsany. Read it here.)

On Writing Well by William Zinsser

I found William Zinsser’s On Writing Well for 15¢ in a charity shop in Los Angeles, and it was the best 15¢ I’ve ever spent. (Not that I’ve spent many ¢ents. I tend to stick to pence.) It’s about writing non-fiction, not fiction, but what it teaches still works, I think, as a basic grounding in wordcraft. It’s also the best example of a test I apply to every book on writing I’ve come across since: if a book is about writing, it ought to be well written, to prove the author knows what they’re talking about.

Whenever I read an excerpt from Zinsser’s book, it provides the perfect instruction by example alone. His basic tenet is best set out in his own words:

“…the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what — these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.”

I find something lean and persuasive in Zinsser’s very style.

The situation complicates once you’re talking about fiction, of course, but I think the basic rule still applies. You still need to have every word earning its keep, it’s just that in fiction “its keep” needn’t be the communication of sense alone, it can also be mood, character, feel, and countless other things. Clark Ashton Smith’s highly poetic prose feels just as disciplined as Zinsser’s, it’s just serving a different end.

I usually come away from any good book on writing with one key good idea, but with Zinsser’s I came away with two. The first is his principle that the craft of writing non-fiction is to always think of the reader, to never let him or her fall asleep or get bored. You’ve always got to be making sure they’ll get what you want them to get from the words you’re using. The exception to this reader-first approach is humour. Zinsser’s rule here is that, if you find it funny, use it. Because there’s no universal sense of humour, you’re inevitably going to find some people just don’t get your jokes. But as long as you find them funny there’s a chance someone else will, so leave them in.

I know, if you glance through a few Mewsings, you’ll find enough examples that go against Zinsser’s principles to damn me to the nether circles of writerly Hell. But still he remains, for me, one of those ideals, those guides to always bring me back, when I need it, to a solid approach, a thing that works — the craft of writing, if not the art.

Though maybe a bit of that, too.

Conan the Hero

I recently read L Sprague de Camp’s seminal anthology, Swords & Sorcery, published in 1963, which was perhaps the first mass-market book to define the genre. De Camp followed it with a number of similar volumes, but the first contains fiction by Poul Anderson, Robert E Howard, Lord Dunsany, Henry Kuttner, Fritz Leiber, H P Lovecraft, C L Moore and Clark Ashton Smith. I love Fritz Leiber’s tales of Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser, and I love Clark Ashton Smith‘s decadent-fatalistic fantasies too, but the story that struck me as the most purely sword & sorcerous, and which most made it clear why its sword-swinging protagonist deserved to be the hero of his own tale, was Robert E Howard’s “Shadows in the Moonlight”. Whereas Leiber’s tales are carried along as much by their playful wit and comic undermining of the heroism of their twin leads, and Smith’s by an archaic word-magic and a deep sense of the cosmic un-heroicism of all human beings, Howard’s writing leaves you in no doubt that Conan is meant to be read as a hero, not an ironic comment on one. And this, to me, seems very much what sword & sorcery, at its purest, should be about. It is hero-fiction.

Much has been made of Howard’s invention of Conan — though perhaps “discovery” is a better word, because in Howard’s own words:

“I know that for months I had been absolutely barren of ideas, completely unable to work up anything sellable. Then the man Conan seemed suddenly to grow up in my mind without much labor on my part and immediately a stream of stories flowed off my pen — or rather off my typewriter — almost without effort…” [Letter to Clark Ashton Smith, Dec 1933]

As Anthony Storr points out, in his book The Dynamics of Creation, a period of apparent creative sterility can be the necessary precursor to a sudden burst of major creation, as a lot of work is being done unconsciously all the while, and although the actual details of Howard’s creation of Conan (his first Conan story was in fact a rewrite of a previously-rejected King Kull story, and many of the subsequent tales went through several drafts, rather than simply “flowing” into being) it certainly seems that the feeling, at least, that Howard is describing was true: in a way, Conan arrived like the solution to a creative problem Howard had been chewing over for some time, and the fact that his first tale was a rewrite of a story initially featuring a different character even seems to back this up. Where King Kull failed, Conan succeeded, and continued to do so. It is as though Conan simply encapsulated that much more of what Howard wanted to say.

So what was the creative problem Conan was designed to solve?

Every author has, in their imagination, an image of the world as it appears to them, and those that create heroic characters can be seen as doing so as a means of finding the perfect person to exist in that world, and to meet its various challenges. (Colin Wilson, in The Craft of the Novel, puts forward the idea that all novels can be seen as thought experiments in how to live, and shows how, for instance, George Bernard Shaw only truly found himself as a writer when he discovered a type of hero who embodied his worldview.) In a way, then, the hero and the world the writer creates can be seen as answering each other.

Take the first Conan story, “The Sword on the Phoenix”. Howard begins by providing us with a villain who is in many ways similar to his hero. Ascalante is plotting to remove Conan from the throne of Aquilonia, and though this may seem a villainous thing to do, we learn that Conan himself has only recently removed the previous king by violent means, so it can’t be mere intent that separates our hero from his opposite — Conan’s Hyperborea is a savage world, and getting to the top by murder is an entirely valid thing to do. Having learned of Ascalante’s plans, we shift to a scene with Conan, which parallels the scene with Ascalante in several ways. Ascalante, for instance, is introduced in the presence of the closest thing he has to a confidante (an enslaved sorcerer, the Numidian Thoth-amon); Conan, meanwhile, is introduced in the company of his closest friend, Prospero. Another minor parallel is how the talk, in both scenes, touches briefly on poets (one particular poet, Rinaldo, is involved in the plot to kill Conan). Ascalante is dismissive of the breed:

“Poets always hate those in power. To them perfection is always just behind the last corner, or beyond the next. They escape the present in dreams of the past and future.”

Conan has more respect for them:

“A great poet is greater than any king. His songs are mightier than my sceptre; for he has near ripped the heart from my breast when he chose to sing for me. I shall die and be forgotten, but Rinaldo’s songs will live forever.”

There are other similarities. Both Conan and Ascalante have small cadres of bodyguards who abandon them at a key point, and both have to face the same final trial alone. But of course the main point is that both are vying (one to gain, the other to retain) the kingship of Aquilonia — and, in a sense, Howard’s entire story-world.

There is a key difference between the two, the thing that makes Conan the hero and Ascalante the villain. Conan is a king, but is coming to realise that it’s not really what he wants. He made an excellent liberator, and slayer-of-kings, but now he’s on the throne, he feels hemmed in by responsibility. He’s not interested in exercising power for the sake of it, but wants to follow his own path, be his own man. Being a king seemed a good way of doing that at the time, but now it limits him. Ascalante, on the other hand, longs for power, and we can be sure he’ll enjoy tyrannising his fellow men as much as he can once he gets it. Ascalante is endlessly duplicitous, plotting to betray even his closest cohorts, while Conan is simply as you find him. If Conan doesn’t like you, he may lop off your head, but he won’t plot against you. And the reason for this difference is that Ascalante is civilised — is sick with the decadence of living at a remove from the pure, savage violence of the world in which the barbarian Conan was raised. Conan is a creature of instinct, appetites and action; Ascalante is a man of plots and plans, vengeance and resentment, greed and need.

This is a theme that runs throughout Howard’s tales. Civilisation, which provides comfort and security, separates men from true contact with the reality of life, and so breeds decadence, corruption, treachery, sorcery and perversity. Conan is a barbarian but is not uncouth — he may be brutal, but he is honest. He is intelligent, and cultured enough to enjoy a good poet, and to want to make an accurate map of the world as he knows it (which is what he’s doing at the start of “The Phoenix on the Sword”), but he’s in direct contact with his instincts, and acts on them without doubt or reserve. His over-civilised enemies, on the other hand, brood and stew their instincts, twisting them into treacherous plots and plans, and perverse desires.

But creating two similar but crucially different characters isn’t enough. In heroic fiction, one character has to prove himself superior, not simply be more admirable. Howard doesn’t do the obvious thing (let them fight it out and have Conan prove himself the better man through sheer physical superiority) but instead has both Conan and Ascalante face a sort of ultimate test of their worth in his world. Hyperborea is a savage place, where often the sword is the decisive factor, but rather like the contemporaneous world of Hard-Boiled Detective fiction, it’s also a world beset by a bleak, Godless view of human life — a grim place of struggle and darkness, where at the ultimate its heroes may have to face the dread, cosmic void of utter meaninglessness. So, both Conan and Ascalante face a being from the “Outside” — a semi-Lovecraftian creature which represents the ultimate awful nature of inhuman reality. (In appearance it’s a giant, mummified baboon-demon, thus combining animal savagery and the supernatural spookiness of un-death.) Before it, the over-civilised Ascalante freezes in horror, but Conan connects with a “frenzied fury akin to madness”, a burst of inner vitality that saves him from his rival’s fate, and proves him to be the true hero of Robert E Howard’s world — a hero fit not just to face savage swords and evil sorcerers, but the bleak truths of the 20th century’s psychological ills, too.

Howard makes Conan credible through an intense belief in the truths represented by the character. Life to him is savage and brutal at heart, so a savage is the best sort to thrive in it, though the only philosophical stance one can take in the face of such a world is Conan’s grim fatalism. Conan is the hero because he and his world are perfectly matched. His knowledge of his world is gained partly through a hard-earned, wide-travelled experience, and partly through an innate understanding of its savagery — Conan regards himself and the wild beasts of Hyperborea as little different, so can think his way into defeating the dragon in “Red Nails”, for instance, by knowing how it will act, and using that knowledge against it. (For me, the most powerful image in all the Conan stories is the one that strikes the greatest contrast with Hyperborea’s savagery —  the ugly alien creature trapped in “The Tower of the Elephant”, a piteous thing longing, above all, for the release of death, because it is so alone. It is, oddly for something so alien, the essence of raw human feeling, totally unsuited to Howard’s violent world, but nevertheless an essential part of it.)

“The Phoenix on the Sword” was published in 1932, only two years after another writer addressed the clash between the individual (the hero) and the repressive nature of modern life — Sigmund Freud, in his Civilisation and Its Discontents. Freud concluded that, in the face of civilisation’s repressive forces, humankind could only lapse into neurosis (which could only be treated by psychoanalysis); Robert E Howard had a different solution — connection with the adventurous savage within, and redemption through sword & sorcery.