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.)

Hello World

My new novel, Hello World is out today. (I actually announced it back in October 2015 as coming out the following year, so it’s only a year late!)

It’s a story about growing up in the 1980s, the new and exciting world of home computers, and living with the very real-seeming threat of nuclear war. Unlike my previous novel, The Fantasy Reader, it contains no fantasy elements, but has the same basically comic tone, while dealing with similarly serious topics. But there’s a connection with my last Mewsings entry, on Walkabout, as in part it looks at the idea of rites of passage in the modern world. But it’s got silly jokes about school, too.

You can find out more in the book’s mini-site, and I also did a book trailer:

Also, I’ve recently changed the cover of The Fantasy Reader, which never quite looked how I wanted it to. That was an oil painting; this new version was done digitally, in Painter, though based on the same original sketch. There’s a book trailer for that, too, now:

Finally, I’ve been adding a few poems to the main site recently, including Mr Was, The Sad Pirate, and I want to be on the moon. More to follow!

Mewsings began 10 years ago!

Yes, the oldest entry on this blog was posted on 23rd April 2006, a review of John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns, a film in the Masters of Horror series. To celebrate, I ran the whole of Mewsings through Wordle. This is the result:


I’m not sure what I expected to learn from this, but I was pleased to find the phrase “weird lovecraft woman magic” in the top lefthand corner…

As if this wasn’t celebration enough(!), I’ve also added a new poem to the main site: The Beast

The Beast, by Murray Ewing

Thanks for reading Mewsings!

The Laughing Ghost

Not a poem for Halloween, this time, but a song:

It’s easy to summon a demon

A poem for Halloween, one of a very occasional series.

It’s easy to summon a demon…

imp by mje

It’s easy to summon a demon
You’ll need paper, a pencil, and something to lean on
A wide, flat space and a chunk of chalk
A parrot or raven you’ve taught to talk
A brace of candles in candlestick-holders
Two contracts in two foolscap folders
A sound-proofed room with a double-locked door
A key that’s never been used before
A cloth, a towel, a bottle of water
A looking-glass and a vicar’s daughter
An hour of your time, a year off your life
A conscience that’s clear and a tongue like a knife
An iron-strong will and a singular aim
A clean length of twine and a secret name
And then, only then, you’ll be ready to start
Oh — I hope you’ve thoroughly practised your Art?
If you haven’t, God help you, and all of your kin
You’ve no idea of the mess that you’re in!

The Earliest English Poems, translated & edited by Michael Alexander

The Earliest English Poems, Michael AlexanderThere’s a vitality to these poems, written as they were at a time when life was so much more embattled, more desperate and fragile, when spear-wielding enemies arrived by the seasonal boat-load demanding ransom or death, when every venture forth from home was to risk not coming back, and when every day was rounded by off by darkness laying siege to the little island of light and warmth that was the mead-hall, in which people gathered together to eat, drink, give gifts (gold rings and swords with heroic pedigrees), and listen to stories chanted in a primitive but vital meter. The values of these thousand-year-old societies were simple but profound: loyalty to one’s lord (and, crucially, his to you), kinship, companionship, bravery in battle, and reverence for “Wierd” (as Michael Alexander chooses to spell it, to separate the word from its current usage): that essence of Dark Ages fatalism, a pagan dourness lingering amidst the new hope of Christianity, encompassing both the way things work in the world, and the doom all men inevitably move towards:

“either illness or age or the edge of vengeance
shall draw out the breath from the doom-shadowed.”

These Beowulf-era poems are perhaps most well-known for their use of kennings, poetic prevarications like “welkin-wanderer” for “moon” and “whale’s riding” for “sea” — standard devices used by oral poets to fill out the meter as they think up the next line. But there’s a vitality in their use of language — even in translation — that brings out the sheer facts of living and dying in that era: “grave’s grasp” is death, an old man is “winter-wearied” and “heavy with friend-loss”, battle is “hard wood-talk” and “shield’s answer to shaft”.

Indeed, this thumping, thudding, drum-beat alliteration is particularly good for describing battles. For instance this, from “The Battle of Maldon”, the longest poem in the book, which Michael Alexander calls “without doubt the finest battle-poem in English” (inevitably, it’s one of defeat):

“Then was a splintering of shields, the sea-wolves coming on
in war-whetted anger. Again the spears
burst breast-lock, breached life-wall
of Wierd-singled men.”

The battle-poems are tales of men together. The poems of men and women as individuals are inevitably ones of exile and separation. Of all the poems in this book, it’s “The Wanderer” I re-read the most. It begins:

“Who liveth alone longeth for mercy,
Maker’s mercy. Though he must traverse
tracts of sea, sick at heart
—trouble with oars ice-cold waters,
the ways of exile — Wierd is set fast.”

Another such exile appears in “The Seafarer”:

“No man blessed
with a happy land-life is like to guess
how I, aching-hearted, on ice-cold seas
have wasted whole winters…”

The kennings I mentioned above are usually seen as circumlocutions for things like the sea (“swan’s riding”), or a ship (“sea-steed”), but the Seafarer talks of “breast-drought I have borne, and bitternesses too” — and that “breast-drought” is a kenning, but one that can’t be replaced by any single modern English word, yet still manages to go straight to a still-living meaning, and make it vividly alive.

Although there is Christian belief in these poems (one of the longer ones is “The Dream of the Rood”, a monologue spoken by the cross on which Christ was crucified), the main mood is a dark one of the inevitability of death, separation, and ruin:

“A wise man may grasp how ghastly it shall be
when all this world’s wealth standeth waste,
even as now, in many places, over the earth
walls stand, wind-beaten,
hung with hoar-frost: ruined habitations.”

But in the face of this there’s a defiance, a decision to hold fast to the code by which the people of that time lived, and to burn all the brighter for the briefness of their flame:

“Thought shall be the harder, heart the keener,
mood the more, as our might lessens.”

(Which Michael Alexander calls “the classic declaration of the heroic faith”.) This is the essence of what I like in the best sword & sorcery fiction, and here it is, straight from the source.

Fittingly, most of the poems translated here are fragments, ruins, victims of the ravening “Wierd” of history itself. But still the heroic voices come through — the old wanderer bereft of lord and hearth, the woman separated from her lover because of a feud (“If he comes to the camp they will kill him for sure”), the exiled poet eking out comfort from a sad refrain (“That went by; this may too”), the brave few battling to the end through loyalty to their dead lord.

What it says in “The Wanderer” could apply to them all:

“Their Wierd is glorious.”

Toby – a Halloween rhyme

They wondered why Toby was always so cold
He was only, they calculated, five years old
Yet his skin was the colour of moonlight on ice
And crystals of water had formed in his eyes
“I don’t feel cold,” he said, looking up
As they gathered around him and gave him a cup
Of cocoa as hot as they could possibly make it
And told him to drink it as fast as he could take it
“The problem,” one said, “is not the coldness of the skin,
“But the coldness of the child, as it were, within.”
They nodded, and asked, “Do you think cold thoughts?”
“I don’t know,” said Toby. “Do you think that I ought?”
They murmured, considered, and angled their heads
Then told him to lie on an unyielding bed
“Bend your knee” — “Cough hard” — “Open wide” — “Wag your ears”
They ordered, all at once, till he was in tears
But the tears didn’t fall, they just iced up his eyes
And a nurse had to come with a dropper and pliers
Then they gave him more cocoa, and conferred in a corner
On the best proven method to make Toby warmer
An operation, of course, was out of the question
A scalpel wouldn’t make the slightest incision
A pill might have worked, if they could be sure
That a pill could be found not to burn but to thaw
“And what of his brain?” one learned man asked
And ventured that he to this end might be tasked
For the psychotherapeutic, transcendental
Cure was his thing (though still experimental)
A second said that physiotherapy might
Given time make his joints less frozenly tight
A third disagreed. “A month of rest at least!”
While a fourth proposed a diet of malt extract and yeast
And Toby, in the corner, sipped his cocoa and wondered
Against which of the Commandments he had so blundered
To be stuck on a bed in a room with these men
And when he might be let out again
After hours of conferring, an elected man came
And smiled at young Toby, and addressed him by name
“We’ve decided at length,” this studious man said,
“That you cannot be helped, and must be declared dead.”
The man raised his eyebrows in question and waited
While Toby, mouth open, eyes wide, contemplated
Then asked, “Will I be allowed outside to play?”
“You’ll be expected to stay out all night and all day.”
“And will I be sent to some special school?”
“No school.” “Or a prison?” “That would simply be cruel.”
Then Toby, with a shrug, agreed to be dead
So they signed off his case, and then sawed off his head

(Previous Halloween ditties can be found here (2010) and here (2007).)

40th Birthday Giveaway!

To celebrate my 40th birthday, I’m doing a bit of a giveaway. I’m producing 40 booklets of a Poe-esque gothic mellodrama poem I wrote sometime last year, called My Vampire Bride.

Yes, I know vampires have been over-popular of late, but when the undead pay you a visit, you can’t ignore them! My Vampire Bride isn’t a vampire of the Twilight sort, nor even of the reconstructed Anne Rice variety, but goes back to something far more Hammer Horror-ish, all wispy flowing nighties and misty nighttime graveyards. But enough excuses. Nosferatu don’t make no steenkin’ excuses!

The booklet is A6, with card covers and eight internal pages. You can request a free copy, sent anywhere in the world by bat-wing courier, by filling out this form. As I say, I’m only making 40 available; once all 40 have been requested, the form will disappear like a vampire at sunrise!

Teach Yourself Terror!

A rhyme for Halloween…

Teach Yourself Terror! the book’s cover said:
“How to be frightened of things not-quite-dead!”
“How to be scared of the creatures of the night!”
“How to see things that aren’t there, and take fright!”
“How to imagine weird shapes in the dark!”
“How to hear werewolves at night in the park!”
“How to feel creepy things creep up your back!”
“How to know your mind is starting to crack!”
The table of contents was equally scary
With chapters on “Fear” and “Fright” and “Being Wary”
And “Tingling Sensations of the Lower Back and Spine”
And “Paranoid Psychosis — Know the First Signs!”
While one spoke of “How to be Mortified at a Glance”
Another was “Gut-Wrenching Terror (Advanced)”
The index alone could have given you chills
With its alphabetical listing of all sorts of thrills
From “Anxiety attacks” to “Zoomorphophobia”
Everything that was likely to shock, shake or scare ya!
The acknowledgements listed all the experts in fear
Most of whom, it turned out, had been dead many a year
While the author himself, to judge by his photo
Was a living wreck, and hadn’t much longer to go
What a book! What a fine work of scholarship it was!
Yet I left the shop without it, and did so because
A handsome, heavy volume, a deluxe slipcased edition —
The price alone was enough to scare me to perdition!

(And a previous one.)