P = Phil, R = Ruth, T = Tim.
R: I have called up in all my years of horror / 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 that explores the life and works of 20th century weird fiction author, Clark Ashton Smith. I’m Tim Mucci, and I’m joined by —
P: Phil Gelatt.
R: And I’m Ruth…Whatley.
R: This week, I think.
T: The mysterious Ruth Whatley. Today, we will be discussing our first story…
R: Yes! “The End of the Story,” which…kind of sounds like we should do it last.
T: I know. Yeah! So “The End of the Story,” which is the first story in the Averoigne setting. That is Clark Ashton Smith’s, um, fictional medieval France.
R: Medieval France with monsters.
T: Right. With ghosts and spirits and…maybe werewolves?
R: Maybe werewolves.
P: There are werewolves, we just never get to hear about them! [all laugh]
T: It was published in Weird Tales, in 1930…
R: And according to one of his letters to — I believe it was to H.P. Lovecraft — um, the feedback he got from Weird Tales was that readers really liked this one. In fact, he mentioned later of his stories, he said that I don’t know if it’ll be as popular as “The End of the Story,” but I think it’s better. But that’s…another story of his. So this seems to have been a fairly popular story of his, one that he referenced…ah…a few hundred pages apart in his selected letters book, so.
T: I didn’t check up on who this actually was, but distinguished writer and critic Benjamin Descaseres [spelling?] wrote in to The Eyrie [“eye-ree”]…or is it pronounced the —
R: It’s The Eyrie [“airy”].
T: Yeah. Which is Weird Tales’ letters department. And he wrote regarding “The End of the Story” that it is “not only a philosophic thriller, but possesses real literary quality, which is not lost — quite the contrary — on the readers, such as you have, of imaginative tales.”
R: I think actually Descaseres may have been an art dealer, if I remember right? I seem to remember letters from Lovecraft saying that he had given Descaseres, ah, copies of Smith’s art, to see if they could get sold. This would have been actually in, ah, ’26 or ’27, so Descaseres was familiar with Smith before — [laughs]
P: It’s a — it’s a plant! That’s not… [laughs]
R: Might have been! [all laugh] But he had a high opinion of him, obviously.
P: Yeah, that’s true. [laughs] Still, though, I feel a little bit sullied all of a sudden.
R: Sorry. [all laugh]
P: That’s all right.
T: So: “The End of the Story.” What’s it about?
P: You tell us, Tim.
P: What do you think it’s about?
T: This is the first sentence. “The following narrative was found among the papers of Christophe Morand, a young law-student of Tours, after his unaccountable disappearance during a visit at his father’s home near Moulins, in November, 1798.” So from that we know it’s about a guy who’s traveling, in Averoigne, visiting his father in 1798.
R: Which is one of the later Averoigne stories. [agreement from Tim and Phil] But it does tie back to, um…well, we’ll talk about…tie back to a medieval story later in the text.
R: So the tale within the tale is more medieval Averoigne.
T: Did he…disappear in 1798? Or was his narrative found in 1798?
R: I’d say if he was at his dad’s place…um…his narrative would have been found pretty quickly after he disappeared?
R: I see this as kind of like, he left a letter on the pillow.
R: And rode off in the middle of the night or something.
R: Which, I have to say, is a very extensive letter to leave on the pillow.
T: It really is.
R: Like, let me tell you all of the reasons and everything…like, not just where I’m going and why I’m going, but let’s, let’s get into like why I ended up there, and…yeah.
T: We know it’s about this young law student, who’s traveling…Phil, did you want to read…
P: Yes, I did want to do that for you.
A sinister brownish-purple autumn twilight, made premature by the imminence of a sudden thunderstorm, had filled the forest of Averoigne. The trees along my road were already blurred to ebon masses, and the road itself, pale and spectral before me in the thickening gloom, seemed to waver and quiver slightly, as with the tremor of some mysterious earthquake. I spurred my horse, who was woefully tired with a journey begun at dawn, and had fallen hours ago to a protesting and reluctant trot, and we galloped adown the darkening road between enormous oaks that seemed to lean toward us with boughs like clutching fingers as we passed.
With dreadful rapidity, the night was upon us, the blackness became a tangible clinging veil; a nightmare confusion and desperation drove me to spur my mount again with a more cruel rigor; and now, as we went, the first far-off mutter of the storm mingled with the clatter of my horse’s hoofs, and the first lightning flashes illumed our way, which, to my amazement (since I believed myself on the main highway through Averoigne), had inexplicably narrowed to a well-trodden footpath. Feeling sure that I had gone astray, but not caring to retrace my steps in the teeth of darkness and the towering clouds of the tempest, I hurried on, hoping, as seemed reasonable, that a path so plainly worn would lead eventually to some house or chateau. where I could find refuge for the night. My hope was wellfounded, for within a few minutes I descried a glimmering light through the forest-boughs, and came suddenly to an open glade, where, on a gentle eminence, a large building loomed, with several litten windows in the lower story, and a top that was well-nigh indistinguishable against the bulks of driven cloud.
T: So he’s riding through the forest, a storm starts, and he seeks shelter…
P: This is something that happens a lot in Averoigne…well, I don’t mean a lot, but definitely with some frequency in Averoigne stories? People are often in the woods and end up someplace that they don’t expect to end up.
P: Ah…and even within this story, I think that happens again in the story within the story, right?
P: Um…I don’t know what to make of it, just that it’s an interesting…it seems to be a fairly common story device in, ah, in Averoigne stories. But yeah, he ends up at a monastery…
R: And these aren’t ascetic monks. They, um, they have very nice food, and their abbot is both well-read and well-fed. His name is Hilaire. It’s the abbey of Perigon. Or Davigon [spelling?]. I’m not actually sure about that one.
P: Does the abbey of Perigon actually exist, or was that made up for the purposes of Averoigne?
R: I’m pretty sure that was made up for Averoigne.
T: This is what I love about Abbot Hilaire. When he opens the door, after Christophe knocks using the dog’s-head knocker, and Hilaire opens it, and he says, “I bid you welcome to the Abbey of Perigon,” in “a suave rumble.” [all laugh] So this guy talks in a suave rumble. Just how he sounds.
R: I’ll keep that in mind.
P: Who, in reality, do you think speaks in a suave rumble? Like, I’m just trying to…I can’t even imagine what a suave rumble sounds like. That may be the most fantastical thing in this story.
T: [laughs] Right.
R: Not quite.
T: [laughs] It ranks up there, though. Um…so yeah. So he goes in, the monks take his horse, and they sit him down to eat…they talk about what their, their religious…they’re a Benedictine order, who live in amity with God and with all men; they do not hold that the spirit is to be enriched by the mortification or the impoverishment of the body.
R: So these are comfy monks!
T: Yeah, they live it up a little.
R: And I have to say, I like the monastery, mostly because it has the most amazing library, which the abbot tells him about over dinner and then takes him out to see, and there’s some really, really cool stuff in there. There’s, um, there’s old manuscripts, there’s incunabula, which are books that were printed before 1500, but on a printing press.
P: Oh, wow.
R: Which are kind of rare. Because, you know, that was kind of a short period.
R: And then there’s this mysterious drawer.
T: Yes. So Hilaire takes Christophe down to this fantastic library. He’s showing Christophe all of the crazy rare books that he has. There is the —
R: There’s a copy of Ovid that was owned by Petrarch.
T: The somewhat infamous Histoire d’Amour, by Bernard de —
R: [with better pronunciation] Histoire d’Amour.
T: By who? Bernard de…Vaillantcoeur…
R: [again with better pronunciation] Vaillantcoeur.
T: There we go.
P: Does that mean “valiant heart?”
R: I believe so, yes.
P: Is that an actual book, or is that made up?
R: I…I think that’s also made up. I can check, though…
T: It seems like these are all books that, if you knew about ancient literature? These are…it seems like he’s listing these off, like, holy crap, they have things that nobody has. It’s like, this place has —
P: I have to say, I love this library, too, and I feel like it may not be of the same caliber of some of the other famous fictitious libraries of literature, but I would definitely call it like the younger brother of, ah…of Name of the Rose, or…
T: Yes. Yeah.
P: Or something out of Borges. It definitely has that feeling about it. Which is very cool.
R: And besides having all of these, he has this…well, he has this special drawer, which includes some of these odder and rarer books, but then he has this one book in there, ah… [reading] “it contained a few sheets of closely-written manuscript in old French.”
T: And when Christophe asks about it, Hilaire kind of…he freaks out a little bit.
R: I have to say, it’s a little weird that he would keep it with these other ones he wanted to show him? A little bit of a tease, like…
R: “I’m gonna show you all these awesome — oh, but you can’t look at that one!” Lame. If I were him, I would keep that one somewhere else.
T: You would think he would lock it away in a safe, but no. It’s just with the stuff.
P: [laughs] I think like…and maybe this is a better question to discuss at the end of the story…
P: The end of “The End of the Story.” [all laugh] What is the deal with this monk? Ah…in particular, he makes a case that they’re sort of like, well-read monks, and he does this like weird tease thing with the book…I feel that they assume knowing damn well what’s going to happen? And at the end sort of presents…I don’t know, he doesn’t really present a choice, but like…he feels like a very odd character to me…
P: So I think at the end of the story, we should come back…
T: We’ll talk more.
P: Discuss it a little bit more.
T: He’s…I definitely have some questions as to the motivation of this monk. He tells Christophe that, uh, these pages are cursed, don’t look at ‘em. Don’t touch ‘em.
P: [laughs] Don’t you look at them.
T: “But I’m gonna put them right back in this drawer.”
P: “Oh, and by the way, tomorrow I’m outta here, so…”
T: [laughs] Right, right. They go back up, Christophe stays the night…
R: Well, when he wakes up the next morning, he looks out across the, uh, across the forest, and he sees this ruined castle on the hill, thinks, “Huh. That’s kind of weird.” There’s something about it that…
T: Actually, let me read that passage.
R: …catches his eye.
T: It’s pretty cool.
When I awoke, a river of sunshine clear as molten gold was pouring through my wmdow. The storm had wholly vanished, and no lightest tatter of cloud was visible anywhere in the pale-blue October heavens. I ran to the window and peered out on a world of autumnal forest and fields all a-sparkle with the diamonds of rain. All was beautiful, all was idyllic to a degree that could be fully appreciated only by one who had lived for a long time, as I had, within the walls of a city, with towered buildings in lieu of trees and cobbled pavements where grass should be. But, charming as it was, the foreground held my gaze only for a few moments; then, beyond the tops of the trees, I saw a hill, not more than a mile distant, on whose summit there stood the ruins of some old chateau, the crumbling, brokendown condition of whose walls and towers was plainly visible. It drew my gaze irresistibly, with an overpowering sense of romantic attraction, which somehow seemed so natural, so inevitable, that I did not pause to analyze or wonder; and once having seen it, I could not take my eyes away, but lingering at the window for how long I knew not, scrutinizing as closely as I could the details of each timeshaken turret and bastion. Some undefinable fascination was inherent in the very form, the extent, the disposition of the pile — some fascination not dissimilar to that exerted by a strain of music, by a magical combination of words in poetry, by the features of a beloved face. Gazing, I lost myself in reveries that I could not recall afterward, but which left behind them the same tantalizing sense of innominable delight which forgotten nocturnal dreams may sometimes leave.” So he wakes up and he runs to the window and he sees this.
R: And he’s stuck there gazing at it, and that’s when Hilaire shows up. And I like that Hilaire is described as giving him, [reading] “I thought, gave me a keen, inquiring look, which was quickly withdrawn, as, with the suave courtesy of a good host, he assured me that there was nothing whatever for which I need apologize.” Namely, he’d been apologizing for being distracted.
R: So I like that Hilaire’s kind of noticing. So it’s over breakfast that Christophe finds out that Hilaire’s going away for the day. And he asks to use the library, and Hilaire says, “Oh, sure, knock yourself out.” But hasn’t removed the manuscript, doesn’t say anything about that, just, “Go for it.” So of course he runs down there, and first thing he does is he sits himself by the window and he’s looking through this manuscript. He even knows how to open the secret drawer.
R: He was watching last night.
T: Yeah. And the manuscript sounds pretty cool. There were only six pages, uh, the writing was…peculiar, with [reading] “letter forms of a fantasticality I had never met before, and the French was not only old, but well-nigh barbarous in its quaint singularity.”
R: This is our medieval tie-in.
P: Yeah. And I wonder, like I wonder how, um…if this piece of writing is supposed to exist contemporaneously with Averoigne stories that we’ll read in the future. Uh…and I guess there’s really no way to know, but it’s kind of interesting that every other story he writes in this setting takes place in a time that we could assume to be around when this manuscript was written.
R: I’m trying to remember; I think Faussesflammes may have been mentioned once in another story, but we’ll have to see when we get to it.
P: Yeah, I’m pretty sure it is, um —
T: I think it’s in the next story, right?
P: I think it is in the next story, I think it’s in “Rendezvous in Averoigne.” But yeah, it’s a pretty fascinating little manuscript.
T: So what’s it about, Phil?
P: Ah, it is, uh…well, first of all, he notices that it doesn’t really have an ending. Which is, I think, the first reference to the end of the story that this story is named after. Uh, and it is about a knight who is supposed to meet…let me look at the actual description of it so I’m not trying to —
R: A count.
P: Yeah, he’s a count. Hold on. Yeah. Okay. So he…uh…he’s a count, and he is…sorry. You tell me what it’s about, I’m losing it over here.
T: [laughs] Okay. Ah… [reading] “It concerned one Gerard, Comte de Venteillon…” How would you say that? Ruth.
R: Comte de Venteillon.
T: There you go. [reading] “…who, on the eve of his marriage to the renowned and beautiful demoiselle, Eleanor des Lys, had met in the forest near his chateau a strange, half-human creature with hoofs and horns.” So he was a knightly youth, the manuscript describes him as a true Christian, and he sees this pagan creature prancing in the woods. So he calls the creature to account for himself. The creature laughs wildly in the twilight, capers, and cries out —
‘I am a satyr, and your Christ is less to me than the weeds that grow on your kitchen-middens.’
Appalled by such blasphemy, Gerard would have drawn his sword to slay the creature, but again it cried, saying:
‘Stay, Gerard de Venteillon, and I will tell you a secret, knowing which, you will forget the worship of Christ, and forget your beautiful bride of tomorrow, and turn your back on the world and on the very sun itself with no reluctance and no regret.’
Now, albeit half unwillingly, Gerard lent the satyr an ear and it came closer and whispered to him. And that which it whispered is not known; but before it vanished amid the blackening shadows of the forest, the satyr spoke aloud once more, and said:
‘The power of Christ has prevailed like a black frost on all the woods, the fields, the rivers, the mountains, where abode in their felicity the glad, immortal goddesses and nymphs of yore. But still, in the cryptic caverns of earth, in places far underground, like the hell your priests have fabled, there dwells the pagan loveliness, there cry the pagan ecstasies.’ And with the last words, the creature laughed again its wild unhuman laugh, and disappeared among the darkening boles of the twilight trees.
T: Now that’s…I find that really interesting. Like, what does…the power of Christ has prevailed like a black frost on all the woods, the fields, the rivers, the mountains, blah blah blah…what does that mean?
P: I think there’s a lot that’s fascinating about this passage in particular…
P: Like, about this story, and then also possibly about Clark Ashton Smith’s writing in general? Because it seems to set up just sort of a…like an aggressive distinction between the old world — which he seems to really be painting as romantic and beautiful and colorful…
P: And…in a sense, I mean, it’s not a modern world, since it’s set in 1798…Christianity, in a sense, as this pall, like that comes and just makes everything ugly. Like…like almost a pollution. Like a black cloud. And I think, like, this passage…again, like, when we get to the end of the “The End of the Story,” is really interesting in terms of like what actually happens at the end of “The End of the Story.” Um…I don’t know if I have an answer to it, but it…
P: It’s a really fascinating…and I also, and the other thing that I love about this is that he…the satyr says all this stuff, but there in the middle of these things he says, there’s something that he says that we don’t get to know.
P: And I think that’s absolutely fascinating, because he seems to be saying…because he seems to be…you know, I don’t know what else he would have said, but I…
P: …But I…yeah, it’s really interesting. Is that one thing that we don’t know he said the most important thing he said? I can only assume it was. But we just don’t get to know what it is.
T: Right. Right! Because then what does Gerard do?
P: Ah, he…changes. That’s what it says — “From that moment, a change was upon Gerard.” And he gets…like, he’s not a happy man anymore. [laughs]
R: And this all happens in one night, which I think is interesting; they describe him sitting and pacing in silence and scarcely eating food and not visiting his beloved, but it’s all one night.
R: It’s the night before his wedding.
T: The next morning…
R: Well, actually at midnight.
T: Oh, right.
R: He heads out.
T: Right, yeah.
R: And he goes through…to the ruins, so it’s already a ruined chateau, des Faussesflammes — so, “false flames.” Pretty literal. Um, and this is the part where we find out that it stands on the hill outside the Benedictine abbey of Perigon, so the abbey’s already there, the chateau is already there, and it’s already ruined. And in fact the manuscript goes on to say that these ruins are very old, and avoided by people of the district.
P: Because of the legendary, immemorial evil that clings about them.
T: [laughs] Ah…so then he, Gerard, finds a flagstone. A kind of trapdoor. That opens up and leads to a flight of granite steps that lead down into the earth. And…he goes!
R: That’s it!
T: He goes down into the earth. The manuscript goes on to say, [reading] “On the morrow, his betrothed, Eleanor des Lys, and all her bridal train, waited vainly for him at the cathedral of Vyones, the principal town of Averoigne, where the wedding had been set. And from that time his face was beheld by no man, and no vaguest rumor of Gerard de Venteillon or of the fate that befell him has ever passed among the living…” So he disappears.
R: I kind of have a question: Who wrote the manuscript?
R: I’m just wondering.
T: Yeah, I don’t think it’s ever…uh…
T: Ashton Smith doesn’t say.
R: This one’s very…you know, it’s the note on the pillow thing…
R: …For the overall story, but this little manuscript…like, who would have been out there and known about what the satyr did or said, you know…
R: Was it maybe a page or something with him? And then that’s why he didn’t know what the satyr whispered in his [Gerard’s] ear? Possibly?
T: Yeah. Um…it’s…
T: It says there was no title and no date, and the writing was a narrative which began almost as abruptly as it ended. So…who knows?
P: And it’s…and I mean, it’s…uh…the manuscript itself, it says after, in the passage immediately following when he’s read it, it…like, these questions obsess our hero. I mean, he —
P: He doesn’t question the reality of the story, but he feels an incredible burning curiosity to know how that story ends. What did Gerard find when he disappeared into the earth?
R: So he goes and solicits a monk and, um, the monk tells him that those indeed are the ruins of the Chateau des Faussesflammes…
T: Right. Right!
T: Which he kind of…it’s clicked in his mind once he read that, like, “Oh, those ruins I saw, that might be these ruins, in the manuscript.”
R: And the ruins that he was very obsessed with in the morning. And the monk goes on to warn him about this, that [reading] “…they have been the haunt of unholy spirits, of witches and demons; and festivals not to be described or even named are held within their walls. No weapon known to man, no exorcism or holy water, has ever prevailed against these demons…” and so forth. And he goes on for a while about succubi and bodies that terminate in serpentine coils…
P: [laughs] Other really cool stuff.
T: And I’m sure there’s a loup-garou in there somewhere.
P: [laughs] Or is there? Who knows?
T: I don’t know! We’ll find out.
R: It sounds kinda like a party, though.
R: I would be wanting to go.
T: So Christophe — his mind is made up. He wants to go. Now.
R: He decides to go that very afternoon.
T: Oh, right.
R: Before Hilaire gets back. Because he knows that Hilaire would never let him go there by himself.
T: Right. So he puts a small taper, a heel of a loaf of bread, and a little dagger that he always carries about him in his pockets, and ventures forthwith into the forest. And eventually he finds the, um…how do you say it…Faussesflammes?
R: [with better pronunciation] Faussesflammes.
T: He finds it.
P: [laughs, and in the style of dramatic music] Dun dun dun!
R: He finds the chateau, and he finds the trapdoor.
P: Yep. [reading]
Climbing the last declivity of the boulder-strewn slope, I came suddenly within view of the chateau, standing close at hand in the center of the level table which formed the summit. Trees had taken root in its broken-down walls, and the ruinous gateway that gave on the courtyard was half-choked by bushes, brambles and nettle-plants. Forcing my way through, not without difficulty, and with clothing that had suffered from the bramblethorns, I went, like Gerard de Venteillon in the old manuscript, to the northern end of the court. Enormous evil-looking weeds were rooted between the flagstones, rearing their thick and fleshy leaves that had turned to dull sinister maroons and purples with the onset of autumn. But I soon found the triangular flagstone indicated in the tale, and without the slightest delay or hesitation I pressed upon it with my right foot.
A mad shiver, a thrill of adventurous triumph that was mingled with something of trepidation, leaped through me when the great flagstone tilted easily beneath my foot, disclosing dark steps of granite, even as in the story. Now, for a moment, the vaguely hinted horrors of the monkish legends became imminently real in my imagination, and I paused before the black opening that was to engulf me, wondering if some satanic spell had not drawn me thither to perils of unknown terror and inconceivable gravity.
T: So he’s —
R: Kinda catching on. [laughs]
T: Yeah. [laughs] He knows where he is, and he’s totally okay with it.
P: And he seems to constantly be wondering…like, on the edge of fear, like acknowledging that he should be afraid…
P: …But then not actually afraid.
T: Right. So then he goes down into this low, narrow, musty vault with, ah, cobwebs and…then what happens? What does he see?
R: Well, I was not expecting this. I was expecting some kind of tapers on the walls, and some sort of satanic court [I think?] and musty things, but…
T: Like a dungeon!
R: Yeah. Kind of a Dungeons & Dragons kind of thing. [imitating a dungeon master] “You go downstairs, and you’re met by twenty zombies and a necromancer,” or something.
P: Ah…so what does he see?
R: A world, and a sky, and grass! And he sees it’s beautiful, and he realizes that there’s an ocean nearby, and it’s not October anymore. And he sees laurel trees, and he’s really not sure because there’s no laurel trees in Averoigne, and the sea is hundreds of miles away. And there are nymphs running by, and all of this stuff. And he sees a building, and so he starts heading toward it.
T: [reading] “The dark green of ilex-trees was mirrored in the golden river, and far away I saw the pale gleam of a marble acropolis on a low summit above the plain.” So he’s in, as he says, a land of classic myth, of Grecian legend. So he’s in this completely different world.
R: Greek Narnia.
T: Ah…and he finds a grove. And sees the satyr. Prancing around, running around. So he follows it. And then he’s greeted by two women in the costume of ancient slaves.
P: Ah, actually, well, I have a question here…it’s…
P: He says he sees…[reading] “and once a shaggy, goat-like creature with human head and body” that ran across his path, right?
P: But he doesn’t, he doesn’t ever acknowledge it to be the satyr. Which I think is interesting. But that’s clearly what that is, right?
T: Right. I just took it for granted that it was a satyr…maybe not the —
P: But not necessarily the satyr of the…right.
T: Of the previous tale.
P: Yeah, I wasn’t sure if it was intended to be the same, or if it was just another one that was hanging out down there.
T: And the people down here…or here, because we know he went down, but he’s in this completely different world…ah, they speak Greek. And he understands them.
T: Yeah. [Phil laughs] So they, uh…they tell him that their mistress has been waiting for him. Nycea?
T: And they —
R: And she’s gorgeous.
T: And she’s gorgeous. [reading]
…[O]n a couch of gorgeous fabrics, there reclined a woman of goddess-like beauty.
At sight of her, I trembled from head to foot with the violence of a strange emotion. I had heard of the sudden mad loves by which men are seized on beholding for the first time a certain face and form; but never before had I experienced a passion of such intensity, such all-consuming ardor, as the one I conceived immediately for this woman. Indeed, it seemed as if I had loved her for a long time, without knowing that it was she whom I loved, and without being able to identify the nature of my emotion or to orient the feeling in any manner.
She was not tall, but was formed with exquisite voluptuous purity of line and contour. Her eyes were of a dark sapphire blue, with molten depths into which the soul was fain to plunge as into the soft abysses of a summer ocean. The curve of her lips was enigmatic, a little mournful, and gravely tender as the lips of an antique Venus. Her hair, brownish rather than blond, fell over her neck and ears and forehead in delicious ripples confined by a plain fillet of silver. In her expression, there was a mixture of pride and voluptuousness, of regal imperiousness and feminine yielding. Her movements were all as effortless and graceful as those of a serpent.
R: [in imitation of dramatic music] Dun dun dun!
T: I know!
T: And then she says, “I knew you would come. I’ve waited long for you.”
P: There you go.
R: It sounds like she knew who he was before…
R: …He even got to Perigon. I’m not really sure in this case that I buy her story on it?
T: Right. So how —
R: On the other hand, how did he end up at this random abbey, even though he thought he was on a main road?
T: True. So she’s a total babe, the slaves disappear, and this…I really like this part. [reading] “I flung myself beside the couch and kissed the hand she offered me, pouring out protestations that were no doubt incoherent, but were nevertheless full of an ardor that made her smile tenderly. Her hand was cool to my lips, but the touch of it fired my passion. I ventured to seat myself beside her on the couch, and she did not deny my familiarity. While a soft purple twilight began to fill the corners of the chamber, we conversed happily, saying over and over again all the sweet absurd litanies, all the felicitous nothings that come instinctively to the lips of lovers. She was incredibly soft in my arms, and it seemed almost as if the completeness of her yielding was unhindered by the presence of bones in her lovely body.” So there’s some stuff in that passage that…
T: …Is really awesome, because it really does…it kind of really describes that — when you meet someone that you’re really drawn to.
P: [laughs] And you’re like, “Oh, she’s kind of like a snake, and maybe she has no bones.”
T: Well, that’s the kicker part, is that…
R: That’s hot, right?
T: But all the stuff before that is like, really nice…like…the sun is setting, the sky is turning purple, they’re talking like baby talk to one another.
R: And we’ve already had more romance than in the complete works of H.P. Lovecraft.
P: I was just gonna say, this is more woman than you get in like any of the…in the entire works.
T: And he hugs her, and…it feels like she’s got no bones in her body. Then what happens?
P: Uh…they go to sleep.
R: Yeah, they have some food and go to sleep, and suddenly he wakes up and there’s Hilaire. Just watching him. And he begins to gibber in Latin. Which…I have to say, I actually like that. I’ve never thought of anybody gibbering in Latin. I think he’s performing some sort of exorcism. He’s got a large bottle…
P: Bear in mind that he has that voice — how is it described?
T: Ah…a suave rumble.
P: It’s like gibbering Latin in a suave rumble.
R: He’s got with him a large bottle, which I assume is holy water, and an aspergillus, which is a, um…it seems like he misused the word? I think it’s aspergillum? Because I looked it up actually to see what it was, and it’s the thing that you use to throw holy water…it’s like a…
T: Like a…
R: …Like a ball at the end of a stick? But aspergillus is a fungus.
P: So either a fungus or a… [laughs]
R: ‘Cause he uses it in a lot of his stories. So.
R: I think it’s an aspergillum, I believe it was.
T: That’s great. Ah…so yeah. So Hilaire comes in with his, like, his demon-hunting equipment, a look of absolute horror on his face, and performs this ritual. And then Nycea gives Christophe [reading] “a strange smile, in which I read an affectionate pity, mingled with the reassurance that a woman offers a frightened child.” She whispers to him, “Do not fear for me.”
R: So then the abbot basically casts her out, and everything starts to change. But he hears her voice coming to him, and it says, [reading] “‘Farewell for awhile, Christophe. But have no fear. You shall find me again if you are brave and patient.'”
T: Then there’s “a crash as of many thunders,” and then, um, everything disappears.
R: And now we are in that dungeon.
T: Yeah. And what does Hilaire say to him?
P: Hilaire says, [reading] “‘I thank God, my son, that I found you in good time[.] When I returned to the abbey this evening and learned that you were gone, I surmised all that had happened.'” As if that would be hard to figure out. [all laugh] So yeah. Basically, Hilaire knows that he read the manuscripts. Uh…and that he would come to these ruins, and basically knew that he would find our hero in exactly the compromising position that he was in.
R: And he reveals what the woman is, that she is a lamia, which is a…ah…kind of…vampiress? The original story is she had a child with Zeus, and of course — or maybe several children with Zeus — and of course Hera came down and killed them. And then she started eating other people’s children. But lamias are sort of serpent-women that are vampires and seductresses, and there’s a poem by Keats about one, which is actually where I first encountered it.
P: Yeah, actually, there’s a book that I haven’t read that apparently is very good, by, ah, Tim Powers, called The Stress of Her Regard, that’s all sort of like an epic reimagining of vampire and lamia mythology using…I think Keats is actually a character in the story? Um, and it’s all sort of all about vampires and lamias and all that sort of stuff? But interestingly enough, the title of the book, The Stress of Her Regard, comes from a Clark Ashton Smith poem. Which is kind of interesting.
P: Actually, I looked for a long time to try to figure out where he got the name Nycea for this lamia and I couldn’t come up with anything…I even tried to see if Tim Powers had used Nycea in his book, but wasn’t really able to discern if he picked that particular lamia to appear in his book. Um…yeah, I don’t really know, he must have just made the name Nycea up for this particular one.
R: And she’s apparently as old as paganism, and was exorcised back in the day. She…it’s all an illusion, what she looks like and how she feels; she’s actually a serpent. And that she’s been doing this for…I don’t even know how long. But that the abbot couldn’t actually kill her. He sent her out. In fact, I don’t even know if he really got her out of the dungeons there.
P: It’s a little vague, yeah…
R: He just destroyed her illusion.
R: And I assume that she’s just lurking in one of the other dungeons down there.
T: So then they, ah —
P: I think this…this whole thing is interesting to me, because I feel like if…like, if you imagine this setup in a Robert E. Howard story, and in an H.P. Lovecraft story, it ends completely differently for all three of them.
P: And I think it’s fascinating that, like…and I think this actually is maybe one of the reasons that I think Clark Ashton Smith isn’t as popular as they are, because his ending — which we’re about to get to — and what he finds in the bottom of that crypt is…so…ah…to me, it was not definitive? Like, if it was Robert E. Howard, it would have been Conan and he would have had a dagger, he would have had a sword, and he would have, like, killed this woman.
T: Right. Yeah.
P: And if it was H.P. Lovecraft, like, he would have encountered, you know…it would have been like the end of “Rats in the Walls” or something…
R: [laughs] He would have fainted and gone mad.
P: Yeah. And in this, it’s like…he kind of has a good time, and like…anyway…
R: He’s resentful!
R: He describes himself as feeling resentment, “a keen anger” at the interference of Hilaire.
P: Yeah. Um…anyway, Tim. Tell us how the story ends.
T: All right. So it ends…ah…Christophe is remembering her last words to him. “Have no fear, you shall find me again if you are brave and patient.” And then the last few sentences of the story read like this. [reading] “Soon I shall return, to visit again the ruins of the Chateau des Faussesflammes, and redescend into the vaults below the triangular flagstone. But, in spite of the nearness of Perigon to Faussesflammes, in spite of my esteem for the abbot, my gratitude for his hospitality and my admiration for his incomparable library, I shall not care to revisit my friend Hilaire.” So he’s gonna go back.
P: But I think the first line of the story tells you that he already has gone back. Right? Because the story starts with him already having disappeared.
R: He’s written this whole letter to explain where he is, but I’m guessing that they, you know, if they go there, by this point they’re not gonna find him.
T: He’s suffered the same fate as, ah, Gerard.
R: And many others apparently in between, according to the abbot.
R: And he just doesn’t care! Like, he knows, and he believes the abbot? Which is what I find interesting. But he doesn’t even care, because he thinks that whatever this is, it’s something better than what he has now.
T: Right. ‘Cause he fell in love. The way I see it, he legitimately fell in love with this woman, and then this…this buzzkill, this abbot comes in… [Ruth and Phil laugh] …and ruins everything for him!
P: Well, I kind of agree, but I also, like, I think what’s fascinating about this story is it doesn’t, um, it doesn’t really offer an objective truth between these two things. I mean, the abbot shows up, and sure that he manages to dispel whatever it was he was seeing, but it’s not like he dispels it and he’s in a room full of bones. It’s like he dispels it and he’s just in…
P: …Like, he’s back in reality. Like, it doesn’t…you know, which I think is really interesting. Like, it doesn’t give us…like, there’s no moment where he’s like, “Oh my God, thousands of men have been eaten by this woman.” It’s just — it’s just what the abbot tells him. You know? Which again, I don’t really know what to make of it, exactly. Like, the first time I read it, I thought to myself, I don’t know if I even believe that she is a lamia. Like, that could just be what the abbot believes her to be! I mean, there doesn’t seem to be any indication — aside from him saying she moves like a serpent, doesn’t have bones, feels like she doesn’t have bones — that that’s even really the case. I don’t know! Part of, I think, the power of the story for me is just that it doesn’t, um, despite being called “The End of the Story,” it doesn’t really offer any sense of exactly what has happened.
R: No, neither of the stories actually has an ending.
R: We know he went back, and we know Gerard went down there; we don’t really know what’s happened to them, and whether he stayed there…whether this is all some weird parallel plane?
P: Yeah, I mean, there really, there could be any number of versions of exactly what happened; all we know is that whatever she is, she didn’t like holy water. But I mean, that…you know, that could mean a number of things. Uh…and the story doesn’t really, you know, give us a frame to really understand the truth, which is…I don’t know, I think awesome, actually. [laughs] And another fascinating thing to me is, like, it’s not set up…like, I could imagine a version of this story where Christianity is explicitly set up to be the villain.
P: And that’s not the case here, because they go out of the way to make the point that these are Benedictine monks who live well, and read…like, they’re very well-educated people. So they’re not like…he’s not making the case that Christianity like, you know, that the old world was fantastic and Christianity ruined it. Although that argument does come up. But he’s not really endorsing it 100%. The story, like, kind of just kind of seems to exist in like a grey idea of morality and like, uh…this weird, intoxicating other world. Uh…that is certainly more attractive than I guess we can call it Christian-dominated 1798 France. [laughs] You know. But there isn’t anything…you know, it doesn’t seem to be answering the questions that it’s asking, I guess. I don’t know. Do you guys agree with that, or what do you think about —
T: Yeah. No, absolutely. And maybe that’s why the, um, this abbey is so important, is because they aren’t…they’re kind of free-thinking Christians, so maybe that’s why they’re more apt to understand their quote-unquote “enemies” and fight against them.
T: And, ah, I mean, I never noticed the little weirdnesses about Hilaire until you guys both brought it up here. But I mean, what if he’s using these young men as bait to go kill these creatures that live in the forest? You know. [Ruth laughs] Why else would he show him this manuscript —
T: — That he knows is cursed, that he knows he’s gonna come and get?
R: It’s like a proto-Buffy.
T: Yeah. [all laugh]
R: Using guys as bait. “Now bring out the lamia…try to kill the lamia…okay, fail…”
T: [laughs] Right.
R: “Get another one…”
T: I don’t know if Buffy ever spoke in a suave rumble, though.
R: That would be Giles.
T: Yes. There you go.
R: I’m gonna picture the abbot as Giles now.
P: I picture him fatter than Giles.
P: I think he’s tubby. [all laugh]
T: So what’s the story about? Is it about the curse of —
P: Well, I guess…
T: — Of knowledge?
P: I guess, but it’s not even, like, I don’t even know if you can call it a curse. Like, he doesn’t…you know, he’s not…again, like he keeps thinking, Oh, I should be scared, but he never really is.
P: Um, and he’s only…I don’t know what…again, it’s kind of a frustrating story, because I don’t even know if I can say exactly what it’s…well, there’s certainly a number of things that it touches on.
P: And it certainly is drenched in this idea of…the intoxicating effect of things that are gone. Like, ruins are really attractive…
P: And myths that are gone are really attractive, and that kind of stuff. But…
R: I think…um…some of what I saw in the…the bit where he wakes up, he’s looking out, he appreciates it especially because he lives in the city?
R: And I wonder if it’s sort of part of that nostalgia that people have for, oh, back in the, you know, this era when it was all, everything was romantic and medieval, and there were knights, and there were ladies, and there were lamias, and what would happen if somebody from nowadays ran into that? Would they be scared? Would they embrace it? Like, for him, he’s a law student, you assume he’s got a career ahead of him, but he doesn’t actually want that.
R: So is it about modern…
R: Escapism, yeah.
T: And Smith never lived in the city.
R: No. No. So I have to wonder if he’s imagining it. And thinking about his life, say, out in the mountains and stuff, compared to the lives of these friends he’s corresponding with. You think about how Lovecraft reacted to the city and was writing to people, about how it was the most terrible place ever…
T: [laughs] Yeah.
R: When he lived in New York.
T: Yeah, it’s pretty interesting how…um…just how vague it is, and how you can kind of plant negatives or positives wherever you want in this story, and the story will back it up. You know?
T: You could say the past is good, or paganism is good, but then you have these Benedictine monks who are living a great life, who are well-read and are embracing, like, the histories, the knowledge of the past.
P: Yeah, I mean, I…it’s…
T: And even with the lamia! I mean, she never tried to hurt him. You know? She never tried to overtly suck his blood.
T: That’s the —
P: It’s a riddle, the end of the story.
T: That’s the end of “The End of the Story,” by Clark Ashton Smith. You can find us on the web at thedoubleshadow.com. We’re also on twitter @thedoubleshadow.
R: We’re also actually on Facebook, at facebook.com/thedoubleshadow. If you’re interested in liking us, we’ll post updates there every time when there’s a story or possibly some other Clark Ashton Smith tidbits, or interesting quotes from the story we’re reading that week?
P: And Tim, what are we reading for the next podcast?
T: The next podcast will be…what is it? “Rendezvous at Averoigne.”
P: Ah, “In Averoigne,” yep.
R: “Rendezvous in Averoigne.”
T: Join in, well, next time. I won’t say next week. That might be…
R: Yes. We’re hoping to do about three of these a month.
T: Yeah. All right, so join us then. Rendezvous with us then. In Averoigne. [laughs] All right, thanks for listening; goodbye.