"Retro Review of
'The Venus of Azombeii'
Clark Ashton Smith"
Jordan S. Bassior
Julius Marsden, returns from a trip to Africa with a strange statuette of a Venus-like figure, done in an almost Roman style and carved from heavy black hardwood. Holly, his friend, is troubled when Marsden says that he is dying, of poison or sorcery he suffered during his trip. Marsden dies, and leaves Holly a manuscript describing what happened to him in Africa.
While traveling on the upper Benuwe, Marsden had discovered a strange tribe called the Azombeii, who seemed to be partly descended from the ancient Romans. Marsden's bearers fled, but Marsden was greeted in friendly fashion by Mybaloë, the priestess of their goddess Wanaôs, and the ruler of their people. Mybaloë fell in love with Marsden, and they shared a happy idyll.
This happiness was destroyed by the jealousy of the high-priest Mergawe, a sorceror who had hoped to wed Mybaloë. Mergawe poisoned Marsden with a dreadful slow-acting potion which would take months to kill him; a protracted withering death. Mybaloë, grief-stricken, also drank the poison. Mergawe and his henchman were both lynched by Mybaloë's outraged people, but this could not save the couple.
Rather than watch each other horribly decline, they sadly parted. Marsden returned to San Francisco to die, while Mybaloë remained in Azombeii.
This story is right at the intersection of science fiction, horror, (tragic) romance, and (vanished genre) the "spicy" story. While there is no Azombeii tribe, nor evidence of Roman influence south of Chad, and the specific poison Mergawe used on Marsden does not exist, there is no particular reason why these things could not exist, and stranger things than Mergawe's poison (such as curare and the tetradotoxin-datura combination "zombie drug" of Haiti) are real. It is notable that while Marsden calls Mergawe a "sorceror," at no point does Mergawe actually do anything supernatural. Furthermore, while this is defintitely a horror story, that horror which is not science-fictional in nature (Mergawe's poison) is essentially psychological: the horror of human jealousy and malice, and of two lovers who choose to part rather than watch each other die.
The romantic and sexual themes are very strong. Though Mybaloë comes from a culture that is obviously very casual about sex - the bawdiest part of the story is the description of the orgies of her worshippers, a description which is a masterpiece of deliberate vagueness:
Now, as if my enthronement with Mybaloë were a signal, the ceremonies took on a new excitation, with an orgiastic trend at which I can only hint. Things were done at which Tiberias would have blushed: Elephantis itself could have learned more than one secret from these savages. The cavern became a scene of indiscriininate revel, and the goddess and her representative were alike forgotten in the practise of rites that were doubtless appropriate enough, considering the nature of Wanaôs, even though they were highly improper from a civilized viewpoint.it is made very obvious that the love between Marsden and Mybaloë is more than merely carnal:
From that night there began for me a new life — a life which I will not try to defend, but will only describe, as far as any description is possibie. I had never before conceived of anything of the sort; I should never have believed myself capable of the sensuous fervor I felt for Mybaloë, and the almost inenarrable experiences into which her love initiated me. The dark electric vitality of the very earth upon which I trod, the humid warmth of the atmosphere, the life of the swiftly growing luxuriant plants, all became an intimate part of my own entity, were mingled with the ebb and flow of my blood, and I drew nearer than ever before to the secret of the charm that had lured me across the world to that esoteric continent. A powerful fever exalted all my senses, a deep indolence bedrugged my brain. I lived, as never before, and never again, to the full capacity of my corporeal being. I knew, as an aborigine knows, the mystic impact of perfume and color and savor and tactual sensation. Through the flesh of Mybaloë, I touched the primal reality of the physical world. I had no longer any thoughts, or even dreams, in the abstract meaning of such terms, but existed wholly in relation to my surroundings, to the diurnal flux of light and darkness, of sleep and passion, and all sensory impressions.
Mybaloë, I am sure, was indeed lovable, and her charm, though highly voluptuous, was not altogether of the body. She had a fresh and naive nature, laughter loving and kindly, with less of actual or latent cruelty than is common to the African. And always I found in her, even apart from her form and features, a delightful suggestion of the elder pagan world, a hint of the classic woman and the goddess of old myths. Her sorcery, perhaps, was not really complex; but its power complete, and lay as far beyond analysis as beyond denial. I became the ecstatic slave of a loving and indulgent queen.
And there is an aspect to this which would not shock us, but which must have to some extent shocked Smith's 1931 audience. Marsden is white, while Mybaloë is of course black -- though with a strong tinge of Classical Roman descent, as shown by her description:
Her skin was a lustrous velvet black, with subtle gleams of rapid-running bronze; but all her features and proportions, by some astounding anomaly, were those of an antique Venus. Indeed, I have seldom seen in Caucasian women a more consummate regularity of profile and facial coutour. As she stood before me without moving, she might have been a woman of Rome or Pompeii, sculptured in black marble by a statuary of the Latin decadence.Smith wrote this love story at a time when "miscegenation" between whites and blacks was not merely considered unacceptable and immoral, but was actually illegal in many American states. In part, this may have forced the story to a tragic end, as not only in-universe would it have been difficult for Marsden to have taken Mybaloë back with him to America, even had she wished to go, but from a publication point of view, I don't think many magazines would have touched a tale in which a white man and a black woman not only loved but lived happily ever after. The attitude of interwar America was that while premarital sex might be acceptable, it was legitimized only afterward by the fact of marriage ("making an honest woman of her"), and marriage between black and white was always wrong.
This is obviously not the opinion of the natives of Azombeii, engaged in orgiastic revels to honor Wanaôs, who is after all derived from the Roman Venus -- a most unchaste goddess. And Smith, himself a bit of a libertine, clearly sympathizes with the cultists. The cultists clearly approve of Marsden and his relationship with Mybaloë: it is Mergawe who destroys them, and the cultists kill Mergawe for this action.
This is more than a bit subversive from an Interwar Aemrican point of view. Recall: miscegenation is supposed to be evil, but it is the Wanaôs-cultists, who in many pulp stories of the era would have been the villains, who are sympathetic to the protagonist and his True Love; it is Mergawe, who is enforcing the code against miscegenation, who is clearly the villain of the tale -- even as he enforces the out-of-universe morality by administering the punishment which alone lets this story be published!
Daring, for its day. Most modern readers wouldn't realize just how and why it was daring, and might instead consider the story "racist" for its acceptance of common Interwar American assumptions (most particularly, the notion that the Azombeiians were superior to the surrounding Africans because of their tinge of white ancestry). The ironic thing is that up until the 1960's, this story may have been little-anthologized for its racially and sexually shocking aspects, while the very same aspects, inverted, may keep it from being much-anthologized now.
I enjoyed "The Venus of Azombeii," though I was a bit disappointed that it was in some ways a conventional "darkest-Africa" pulp adventure rather than one of Smith's weirder tales. I was very impressed by Smith's willingness to tell a tale of forbidden love and let it be consumnated, and in a manner which was sympathetic to both the main characters. As always, Clark Ashton Smith just couldn't tell a bad tale.