The Double Shadow: A Clark Ashton Smith Podcast

Transcription for Episode #15: “The Last Incantation”

Episode 15 show notes

P = Phil, R = Ruth, T = Tim.

R: I have called up in all my years of sorcery / P: inch by inch, with baleful terror / R: no god nor devil / T: the red moon, ominous and gibbeous / R: no demon nor lich nor shadow / T: had declined above the terraces / P: of the wormy corpses that he dug with his hands from unconsecrated graves / R: and the thing was a streaming ooze of charnal pollution / R: dreaming of conquests / T: It is verily known by few / R: and of vaster necromancies / P: there were people — mostly priests and women, it is told — whom he picked up as they fled / T: It is verily known by few, but is nevertheless an attestable fact / P: and pulled limb from limb as a child might quarter an insect / T, P, R: The Double Shadow — A Clark Ashton Smith Podcast.

T. Hello and welcome to The Double Shadow, a podcast exploring the weird fiction of 20th-century writer Clark Ashton Smith. I’m Tim.

P. I’m Phil.

R. And I’m Ruth.

T: And this week we’ll be covering “The Last Incantation.” And this cycle of stories is not set in Averoigne, as we wrapped up in our last few podcasts.

R: No, we are moving on to Poseidonis.

P: It’s a whole new world.

R: Poseidonis is like Atlantis, but it’s the last remaining part of Atlantis, which, I don’t know how long it’s been, but it seems like centuries that Atlantis has been slowly breaking off and falling into the sea. Finally all you’ve got left is this small island-continent. I take it it’s much smaller even than Australia.

P: Yeah, it doesn’t seem like it’s very big, although we don’t learn a lot about it in this story.

R: No, we learn who is a person who is very powerful in this story. The next story, we really do learn a lot about Poseidonis as such.

P: So this story first appeared in the June 1930 issue of Weird Tales, which comes kind of close to fitting my perfect Weird Tales issue criteria because it also featured “The Rats in the Walls” and part 3 of Robert E. Howard’s tale “The Moon of Skulls,” which I don’t think is a Conan story, but —

R: That would give extra points.

P: Yeah, “The Rats in the Walls” and “The Last Incantation,” that’s not bad. It’s not perfect, but it’s close.

T: I also can’t stop picturing a moon made out of skulls right now.

P: Yeah, it’s an evocative image.

T: [laughing] It really is. It might also be worth noting that Smith based Poseidonis on Theosophical scripture about Atlantis. That’s Madame Blavatsky and her whole crew, were the Theosophists.

R: Didn’t he also base it a bit on Mu? Or… is it “Moo” or “Myoo?”

T: I always said “Moo,” like a cow says.

R: But Mu and Lemuria would be the sunken cities in the Pacific and Indian.

T: (reading)

Malygris the magician sat in the topmost room of his tower that was builded on a conicall hill above the heart of Susran, capital of Poseidonis. Wrought of a dark stone mined from deep in the earth, perdurable and hard as the fabled adamant, this tower loomed above all others, and flung its shadow far on the roofs and domes of the city, even as the sinister power of Malygris had thrown its darkness on the minds of men.

Now Malygris was old, and all the baleful might of his enchantments, all the dreadful or curious demons under his control, all the fear that he had wrought in the hearts of kings and prelates, were no longer enough to assuage the black ennui of his days.

P: Boom. Done.

R: I love the bored necromancer.

P: I’ve been saying “Maly-gree.” Is it “Maly-griss?”

R: I’ve been saying “Maly-griss,” just because we’re not in France, and… or, well, Averoigne.

P: Huh. Well, I guess I just failed Poseidonis test number one.

T: [laughs] Yeah, I’ve been saying “Maly-griss” too, but I kind of like “Maly-gree.” Maybe we… it’s our job to come up with the grammar and pronuncation of all these Poseidonian words.

P: So as far as an introduction to a new setting, I thought this was pretty awesome and instantly Clark-Ashton-Smithian. Because — I mean we know, because we know what Poseidonis is, that he’s on the last isle of a sunken continent — but even beyond that, you have this sort of woeful, sad old super-powered necromancer who has “black ennui of his days.”

R: It answers the question: what happens when a necromancer learns everything?

T: Yeah, I know! And he kind of goes out of his way in these first two paragraphs to let us know just how much of a bad dude Malygris was. “The sinister power of Malygris,” and “the fear he had wrought in the hearts of kings and prelates.” And then the first image we get of him is just sad, hanging out in his chair that’s fashioned of the ivory of mastodons.

P: He has some amazing stuff in this room. And I don’t have the story in front of me, stupidly, so I can’t remember what else is in there, aside from the carpets made of the hair of, like, black and white ape-men or something?

T: Yeah, he’s got this stuff scattered about his room: the skulls of men and monsters; phials filled with black or amber liquids — just black or amber [P: Mm-hm, mm-hm.] [R: Only those two.] — he’s got little drums, apparently many, of vulture-skin [R laughs]; crotali made from the bones and teeth of cockodrill, which are crocodiles; his mosaic floor is partly covered with the skins of enormous black and silver apes…

P: And here comes the last and best part. Tim, tell us.

T: [laughs] “Above the door there hung the head of a unicorn in which dwelt the familiar demon of Malygris, in the form of a coral viper with pale green belly and ashen mottlings.” So not the skull of a unicorn. [R: I love it!] The head of a unicorn.

R: [laughing] No, the head.

P: [laughing] I think we really need to focus in on this image because I can’t quite fathom it.

T: I know!

P: Like, it’s… it’s hung, but like… how high is it hung, and by what means? Is it, like, on a meat-hook? [T laughs.] Because again, it’s not a skull…

R: I think of it as mounted.

T: Like on a plaque.

R: I don’t know if it’s stuffed or not, or just magically preserved, but yeah, on a piece of wood.

P: How big is a coral viper?

R: I don’t know, but I think it lives in its mouth and maybe has eaten out the brain. This is just my theory.

P: I like to think that it’s like a genie-in-the-bottle kind of thing, and the coral viper demon has a cushy living area, and, like, sits in there and smokes a hookah pipe until he gets called upon.

R: Well it is technically a demon.

P: Yeah, it’s a demon in a coral viper form.

R: Coral vipers are pretty big though, I think.

P: Oh, are they?

R: I remember this from…. snake… reading…

T: From snake school? [P and R laugh.]

R: Special interests.

P: Did you get an A+ in snake school? Did you graduate with honors?

R: No, I got an A+ in bats and polar bears.

P: [laughs] If coral vipers are big, then I’m wondering on what scale unicorns in Atlantis existed. Like, were they the size of mammoths too? And if so, awesome. [T laughs.]

R: [laughing] Yeah, that would be much more awesome than I had thought.

P: So what’s Malygris’s problem? Why is he so emo?

R: He’s done everything. [P: Yeah.] Just, it’s done. And we learn in a later story about him, which will be our last Poseidonis story, but I think it’s OK to say here, they say he has thrown his darkness over the minds of men, and people bring him tribute, and he’s totally set up sweet. And he’s bored. He’s like Alexander, and there are no more worlds to conquer.

The thoughts of Malygris were dark with immitigable melancholy, and weariness filled his heart as ashes fill the hearth where a great fire has died. Immovable he sat, implacable he mused, while the sun of afternoon, declining on the city and on the sea that was beyond the city, smote with autumnal rays through the window of greenish-yellow glass, and touched his shrunken hands with its phantom gold and fired the balas-rubies of his rings till they burned like demonian eyes. But in his musings there was neither light nor fire; and turning from the grayness of the present, from the darkness that seemed to close in so imminently upon the future, he groped among the shadows of memory, even as a blind man who has lost the sun and seeks it everywhere in vain.

T: That’s one of the best sunsets I’ve ever read in fiction, by the way.

P: Yeah, it’s a good one. Yeah, my note on this was just that it doesn’t get much more quintessentially Clark-Ashtonian than an agéd evil necromancer staring across a doomed world and thinking about how awesome the past was. [T and R laugh.]

R: Clark Ashton Smith, captain of the Obsessed With the Past Poetry Debate Team. I don’t even know what that would mean, but I like it.

P: It means you get up and you do slam poetry about obsessions with the past.

R: Oh, OK.

P: But like romantic slam poetry. Let’s move on.

T: Yes, please. What conclusion does he come to here? What thoughts does he rest on in his musings?

R: Well, he remembers before he was a necromancer, back when he was in love with a beautiful girl named Nylissa.

P: And I love this passage: he loved her “in days ere the lust of unpermitted knowledge and necromantic dominion had ever entered his soul.” [All laugh.] I’m imagining that he was, like, five. Because I feel like if you’re Malygris, at the age of six you’re like “yeah, you know what? All of this? It will someday be under my shadow.” [All laugh.]

R: Well, I like the theory that he became this because she died. She died and he conquered the world in…

P: That’s true, but the implication is that he’s totally forgotten about her when he has this memory.

R: It’s true. So it’s not like conquered the world and… well, maybe he conquered the world to forget about her.

P: I don’t know, Ruth, you’re throwin’ out some bombs here. [T laughs.] I can’t even keep up.

R: [laughing] OK, fine…

T: Ruth is definitely trying to put the “romance” in this “necromancer.”

P: I mean it might be the creating moment in his life. It could be, I mean I don’t know. Who knows?

R: Well, the fact that she died of a mysterious fever on the eve of their wedding day makes me think that he reacted by, say, I don’t know, burying himself in forgotten lore.

T: Yeah, that would be interesting, if he delved into his arcane path to do what, essentially, he does in this story later on. But then just forgets about it because he gains all this power, and now it’s this little half-forgotten memory.

R: Necromancy is a mistress all her own.

P: What do you think the implication of her dying of a mysterious fever coincidentally on their wedding day is? It feels to me like a whole unwritten story, just in the fact that it’s not a fever, it’s a mysterious fever, and that it happened the day before they got married. It feels to me like she was killed, but…

R: It feels like a setup, but there’s no real hints.

P: Yeah, there’s nothing beyond that one phrase to say that there’s anything…

R: Maybe it’s just meant to make it extra sad.

T: It seems like a total afterthought at this point. Like “oh wait, wasn’t I gonna get married?… Wonder what happened to that girl?” [P and R laugh.]

R: “In his dreams arose the irretrievable suns of youth…” and that’s not “sons,” because that would be weird.

P: So he has this thought about this girl that he had forgotten about, and it was clearly… I guess what we can say is that it was the moment that Malygris lost his innocence. I think. I think we can say that with assurance. [R: Mm-hmm.] And then there’s this line: “Now, addressing the demonian viper that dwelt in the head of the unicorn…” [R laughs.] Which is… just awesome.

R: That’s pretty fantastic. [P: Yeah.] [T: That’s great.]

P: So Malygris says to the demon inside the unicorn head:

“Viper, am I mot Malygris, in whom is centered the mastery of all occult lore, all forbidden dominations, with dominion over the spirits of earth and sea and air, over the solar and lunar demons. over the living and the dead? If so I desire, can I not call the girl Nylissa, in the very semblance of all her youth and beauty, and bring her forth from the never-changing shadows of the cryptic tomb, to stand before me in this chamber, in the evening rays of this autumnal sun?”

R:

( as the viper, with distorted voice)

“Yes, master… it is possible, if you so desire.”

P:

“Viper, is it well, is it meet, that I should summon her thus? Will there be nothing to lose, and nothing to regret?”

R:

The viper seemed to hesitate. Then, in a more slow and measured hiss:

(as the viper, with distorted voice)
“‘It is meet for Malygris to do as he would. Who, save Malygris, can decide if a thing be well or ill?”

P: I love the equivocating snake demon. “Hey boss, you do what you want, y’know? I’m not gonna tell you to do it, I’m not gonna tell you not to do it. You know, let’s just see what happens.”

T: “It’s your call, dude!”

R: I also like the fact that they emphasize that this is an “autumnal” sun, and it’s just, it’s so many images in that. You’ve got Poseidonis, which is dying. You have Malygris, who is aging. You have the idea of him calling her forth into this autumnal — and sunset, of course, is always the end of the day anyway, so it’s just — so many metaphors! So many allusions tied up in just that fact that it’s an autumnal sunset.

P: That’s true. Do you think that the demon is afraid of Malygris? Or do you think that if he told him no, he would have done it anyway, and he knows that? Or… what do you think the relationship between the unicorn-head-dweller and Malygris is?

T: I think it’s… the demon that lives in the unicorn head knows, probably, more than Malygris knows, because Malygris is ultimately a human. He’s aging, he’s dying. As powerful as he is, he’s still limited by humanity. But the coral viper seems to know… to answer your question, I think the coral viper — and I think he goes back and says this later — the coral viper knows what’s gonna happen, but he also knows that yeah, if he tells him “no,” Malygris is gonna say “well, you know what? I’m gonna do it anyway.”

P: Right.

R: Yeah, I don’t think that the snake is especially afraid of him. I just think he’s…

P: Yeah, it’s probably more like he just knows him well enough to know that… ’cause he’s also super flattering, which is…

R: Yeah, so in fact Malygris thinks about it, and then he says “you know what? I’m gonna do it.”

P: And there’s this whole big ritual thing that I didn’t have any readings from, but it’s a really cool description of a ritual.

T: Yeah, it is. It’s a lot of chanting, and burning of incense, and reading…

P: Doesn’t he, like… he lights fires and then blows them out, but the light stays? [T: Yeah.] Which I thought was pretty cool.

T: Yeah, and a long narrow scroll of gray vellum with purple and vermilion runes. Very cool.

R: You get the feeling from it that maybe he hasn’t done any fun and exciting spells in a while. [T, laughing: Right!] Like, he’s had this power for so long that it’s like “ooh, I get to dust off all my stuff and use it!”

T: Yeah. He’s like “you know what? I’m gonna do it all ritual. I’m gonna ritual this one out. Takin’ my time with it.”

P: [laughing] You make him sound so dirty.

T: [[laughs] I think — and this just popped into my head now — I think if there was a movie of Malygris the Magician, I would get Rip Torn to play him. [P and R laugh.]

P: [laughing] Oh God! Yeah, that’s, uh…

R: Wooooow, that’s…

P: I would love to see that. Like, Man Who Fell to Earth-era Rip Torn would be awesome. ‘Cause he just wants to bone, you know? [T and R laugh.] [R: Rip Torn, yeah, um…] Rip Torn just wants to bone and get trashed.

R: And have a beard. His beard isn’t as long as Malygris’s though, which is really freakin’ long…

P: Isn’t Rip Torn the one who there’s a video of, like, stabbing some famous author?

T: I don’t know. He’s a crazy dude though.

P: [laughing] I mean, he’s legit a crazy man. It’s awesome.

T: He got drunk and tried to break into a bank because he thought it was his house. [P and R laugh.]

R: Maybe he lives in a house full of money!

P: [as Rip Torn] “I lives where the money is.”

T: I think that was his reasoning. “Hey, I’ve got a lot of money. This must be my house.”

P: Yeah, OK, here’s what it is. Rip Torn and Norman Mailer had a brawl — [T: Oh God…] [R gasps.] — in which… [laughing] I don’t know who stabbed who. But it was, uh… OK, here’s how it goes. Torn hits Mailer in the head with a hammer — [T laughs] [R, horrified: what?!] — and then Mailer responds by trying to chew off Rip Torn’s ear. [laughs]

R: [horrified, laughing] What?! Wow, that’s… that’s really special.

P: Yeah, this is how… they were shooting a movie together. Rip Torn allegedly decided to take it upon himself to quote-unquote “improvise” an attack by hitting Mailer on the head with a small hammer — [T, quietly: oh, my God…] — drawing blood. Mailer retaliated by tackling and then nearly chewing Torn’s ear off as they grappled viciously. And it rapidly escalated into an unhinged, on-camera brawl as Mailer’s horrified kids screamed in terror. [All laugh for several seconds.]

R: [laughing] Wow, that’s… that’s horrifying… wow…

P: I hope that makes it into the episode. I think that’s one of our greatest digressions. Yeah, Rip Torn as Malygris, I’m into it.

R: [clears throat, settles down]

T: OK, so he does this ritual. And then what happens? Is he able to summon Nylissa?

R: Yeah, she totally shows up.

P: Yep. And he asks — so the apparition shows up, and he aks the apparition, “are you Nylissa?” And the apparition says “yeah, I totally am.” Not in those words, but she answers in the affirmative.

T: She says “Yes, I am Nylissa.”

P: It’s a pretty utilitarian line as far as Clark Ashton Smith is concerned.

R: Yeah. It is Nylissa, and at first he looks at her and he’s like “yes, this totally looks right.”

T: But then he starts to doubt. Something about it is just a little bit… off. Something about her just doesn’t quite match his memories of her.

R: She starts looking kind of ordinary.

T: Yeah.

P And I think at first he questions his own abilities, like maybe his incantaiton was wrong. And then the more he looks at her, the more off it seems. And in the end — I thought this was crazy — he just dismisses her. He doesn’t even say good-bye to it, he just snaps his fingers and she’s gone. Which is pretty brutal.

T: Yeah.

R: Yeah, and it’s not like she’d even gotten old or something. You know, her hair had been “ebony” and “black” and “lustrous,” and now it’s just “dark.” And she’d been “slender,” and now she’s “skinny.” It’s harsh.

P: So after the phantom is gone…

Malygris turned to the viper and spoke in a tone of melancholy reproof:

“Why did you not warn me?”

R:

(as the viper, with distorted voice)

“What would the warning have availed? All knowledge was yours, Malygris, excepting this one thing; and in no other way could you have learned it.”

P:

“What thing?” queried the magician. “I have learned nothing except the vanity of wisdom, the impotence of magic, the nullity of love, and the delusiveness of memory… Tell me, why could I not recall to life the same Nylissa whom I knew, or thought I knew?”

R:

(as the viper, with distorted voice)

“It was indeed Nylissa whom you summoned and saw. Your necromancy was potent up to this point; but no necromantic spell could recall for you your own lost youth or the fervent and guileless heart that loved Nylissa, or the ardent eyes that beheld her then. This, my master, was the thing that you had to learn.”

P: And that’s the end of the story.

R: Yep.

T: Yep.

R: It’s like a story with a lesson!

T: [laughing] Yeah, it’s totally…

P: I know, I love… this story feels strangely biblical to me. Not because of the snake, but just because it’s, like, a weird parable about how you can’t claim things… what am I trying to say?

T: That things in your memory can never really be real. Like, your thoughts and your memories are different from real life. And you can’t lust after something that’s passed…

R: You can never go home again.

T: Yeah, exactly, you can never go home again.

P: True, but there’s also — yeah, I agree with all that. I also think that it’s interesting that the viper is saying to him that he isn’t even looking with the same eyes.

T: Right.

P He’s just changed too much. It’s like, you know, “you can never enter the same stream twice” kind of thing.

T: Yeah. That’s true.

R: Yeah, it’s not just the stream that changes, it’s you.

P: I love his response though, because it’s so… I love that he says he hasn’t learned anything, and then proceeds to list these three, or no, four incredibly ridiculous over-the-top things. The vanity of wisdom, the impotence of magic, the nullity of love, and as if that wasn’t enough, the delusiveness of memory. [All laugh.] Chill, Maly-grease. Chill.

R: And that’s where we leave him… until he dies.

P: Tim and I have a disagreement about how to envision Malygris and his playhouse. I choose to view it as some kind of weird, off-kilter, heavily decayed Pee-wee’s Playhouse. [R laughs.] I think largely because of the, like… you call on this weird thing in a box, even though the box is a unicorn head, and… [laughs]

R: Totally like Pee-wee’s Playhouse.

T: Oh, is that where this is coming from? It’s Jambi?

P: [laughing] Yeah, it’s Jambi! If Jambi lived in a unicorn head, imagine how amazing — I mean Pee-wee’s Playhouse is pretty amazing anyway, but imagine how amazing that would have been.

T: Yeah, I picture it more as a… kind of exactly what Smith is writing about. [R laughs.] You know, he’s this withered…

P: Uuummm, Tim, I don’t know that I like your implication. [R continues laughing.]

T: This withered necromancer that has nothing to do with children’s shows.

R: I do like the idea of a disillusioned necromancer. ‘Cause we haven’t gotten one yet.

P: Tim, your view of a necromancer is jaded by the nearly 100 years that separate you from the writing of this story.

T: [laughs]

R: Oh, for Pete’s sake.

P: All I’m saying is, imagine Rip Torn, shirtless with a cape on, and probably just underwear, stomping around Pee-wee’s Playhouse and demanding that a snake emerge from a unicorn head.

T: [laughing] He’s probably doing that right now. [P and R laugh.] So you say in your notes: where do we put Malygris on the scale of necromancers? I would put him pretty high, if not at the top.

P: I would too, yeah.

R: I would have to put him at the top just because he’s a necromancer who managed to control an entire dying continent.

P: And he’s kind of, like, despite the amount of necromancers in Averoigne, we’re not really ever brought close to their perspective. I really — even though this is a very short story and Malygris doesn’t do much, I really feel like I know him. [R: Mm-hmm.] I feel very close to Malygris. I want him to uh…

R: You want him?

P: I want him.

T: And it’s funny, ’cause one of the last stories, if not the last story, also deals with Malygris, and it’s a completely different take on the character. [R: Mm-hm.] It’s more how other people are viewing him, and it’s pretty frightening.

R: Yeah, I find that just a fantastic opener and closer. [T: Yeah.] And you have his effect on everybody, which is another reason why I would rank him so high.

T: Yeah, I would put him at the top with an asterisk because we haven’t gotten to Zothique yet.

P: Of the necromancers that we’ve become intimate with — [T and R laugh] — I would rank him as the best performer. [T laughs.]

R: It’s true. But he doesn’t have a skeletal empire.

P: God, I love those necromancers.

R: Aw man.

P: So we want to remind you that we have forums that you can sign up for and discuss stories and, you know, anything that we didn’t mention, or anything that we got wrong, you know, feel free to go on the forum and chastise us. What’s the — I don’t know the URL off the top of my head.

R: It’s just thedoubleshadow.com/forums, and there’s a link to it on our main site too.

P: Join today.

R: Also, speaking of our main site and our general setup, we’ve put a link in our sidebar which allows you to donate to the show. Anything is appreciated. We have hosting, and we also have media hosting that we do so that we can have the site, the forums, and have the podcast hopefully never crap out on us. Seems like a good media host so far. So anyway, if you like the podcast, we’d appreciate any little bit of change you threw our way.

T: Next week, we voyage to Sfffsfffmmuh. [P and R laugh.] Sfufmumoee.

R: Sfanomoë. Sfanomoë? Venus!

T: Yes. Next week, we voyage to Venus.

[outro music]

P: Oh, hello. Tim, are we on? Is this live? Oh. Hello, listeners!

Episode 15 show notes

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