Tuesday, July 16, 2013

"Retro Review of 'The Monster of the Prophecy' (1932) by Clark Ashton Smith" up on Fantastic Worlds

"Retro Review of

'The Monster of the Prophecy'

(c) 1932


Clark Ashton Smith"

(c) 2013


Jordan S. Bassior

Introduction:  Reviewing Clark Ashton Smith stories is always fun, because first one has to read them, and I don't think that Clark Ashton Smith was capable of writing bad prose.  Whatever he writes is always a joy to read.  "The Monster of the Prophecy" is no exception, and is indeed one of Smith's better works.

Synopsis:  This is a simple but weird little tale, for all that it spans a considerable domain of space and time.

Theophilus Alvor, a young poet, came to New York City hoping for fame and fortune.  But his money has run out, he is still unemployed (remember, this is 1932), and nobody appreciates his poetry -- especially a strange "Ode to Antares" especially dear to him.  He stands on the Brooklyn Bridge planning to commit suicide.

At this moment a very strange man steps up to Alvor and offers him an unspecified "vastly different fate."  The man invites Alvor home for dinner, and Alvor (whose only other alternative appears to be suicide) accepts.

After an excellent meal the man reveals himself to be Vizaphmal, a scientist-sorceror from a planet of the star Antares, and that he wishes to bring back to his planet a volunteer from Earth, and will treat this Earthly guest very well.  He shows Alvor his true form, which is quite nonhumanoid.

This being was more than seven feet in height, and had no less than five intricately jointed arms and three legs that were equally elaborate. His head, on a long, swan-like neck, was equipped not only with visual, auditory, nasal and oral organs of un- familiar types, but had several appendages whose use was not readily to be determined. His three eyes, obliquely set and with oval pupils, rayed forth a green phosphorescence; the mouth, or what appeared to be such, was very small and had the lines of a downward-curving crescent; the nose was rudimentary, though with finely wrought nostrils; in lieu of eyebrows, he had a triple series of semicircular markings on his forehead, each of a different hue; and above his intellectually shapen head, above the tiny drooping ears with their complex lobes, there towered a gorgeous comb of crimson, not dissimilar in form to the crest on the helmet of a Grecian warrior. The head, the limbs and the whole body were mottled with interchanging lunes and moons of opalescent colors, never the same for a moment in their unresting flux and reflux.

Alvor accepts his offer, and they travel to Antares in a most peculiar spaceship,

... there stood a curious mechanism, wrought of a dark metal which Alvor could not identify. It was a tall, complicated framework with many transverse bars and two stout upright rods terminating at each end in a single heavy disk. These disks seemed to form the main portions of the top and bottom..
 whose operation Vizaphmal explains:

'You behold here ... an invention which, I flatter myself, is quite unique anywhere this side of the galactic suns. The disks at top and bottom are a vibratory device with a twofold use; and no other material than that of which they are wrought would have the same properties, the same achievable rates of vibrations. When you and I have locked ourselves within the framework, as we shall do anon, a few revolutions of the lower disk will have the effect of isolating us from our present environment, and we shall find ourselves in the midst of what is known to you as space, or ether. The vibrations of the upper disk, which we shall then employ, are of such potency as to annihilate space itself in any direction desired. Space, like everything. else in the atomic universe, is subject to laws of integration and dissolution. It was merely a matter of finding the vibrational power that would affect this dissolution; and, by untiring research, by ceaseless experimentation, I located and isolated the rare metallic elements which, in a state of union, are capable of this power.'

  essentially, an Interwar Era version of what we would today call an Alcubierre Warp Drive.

They board Vizaphmal's ship and travel to his homeworld, the warp field causing Alvor some most peculiar and unpleasant sensations and eventual unconsciousness.

He awakes in a luxurious palace on an alien world.

Amazement grew upon him as he looked about with reviving faculties, for all that he saw and smelt and touched was totally foreign and unaccountable. The floor of the pavilion was wrought in a geometric marquetry of ovals, rhomboids and equilaterals, in white, black and yellow metals that no earthly mine had ever disclosed; and the pillars were of the same three metals, regularly alternating. The dome alone was entirely of yellow. Not far from the couch, there stood on a squat tripod a dark and widemouthed vessel from which poured an opalescent vapor. Someone standing behind it, invisible through the cloud of gorgeous fumes, was fanning the vapor toward Alvor. He recognized it as the source of the myrh-like odor that had first troubled his reanimating senses. It was quite agreeable but was borne away from him again and again by gusts of hot wind which brought into the pavilion a mixture of perfumes that were both sweet and acrid and were altogether novel. Looking between the pillars, he saw the monstrous heads of towering blossoms with pagoda-like tiers of sultry, sullen petals, and beyond them a terraced landscape of low hills of mauve and nacarat soil, extending toward a horizon incredibly remote, till they rose and rose against the heavens. Above all this was a whitish sky, filled with a blinding radiation of intense light from a sun that was now hidden by the dome. 
Vizaphmal explains that he is a noble of the kingdom of Ulphalor, which occupies the northern hemisphere of Vizaphmal's planet Satabbor, the inmost planet of Sanarda (as the natives call the star Antares).  On his world there is an ancient prophecy that

'When, for the second time following this prediction, the two outmost moons of Satabbor shall be simultaneously darkened in a total eclipse by the third and innermost moon, and when the dim night of this occultation shall have worn away in the dawn, a mighty wizard shall appear in the city of Sarpoulom, before the palace of the kings of Ulphalor, accompanied by a most unique and unheard-of monster with two arms, two legs, two eyes and a white skin. And he that then rules in Ulphalor shall be deposed ere noon of this day, the wizard shall be enthroned in his place, to reign as long as the white monster shall abide with him.'
 (emphasis mine).

Vizaphmal has brought Alvor here to fulfill the prophecy.  The presentation of Alvor will make Vizaphmal king:  while Alvor will of course have to spend his days on Satabbor with Vizaphmal, this will be in high status, comfort and luxury.  Alvor readily consents to Vizaphmal's plan.

All passes as Vizaphmal promised:  the previous king abdicates and Vizaphmal becomes the new king.  But in time Alvor becomes unhappy, because the court of Ulphalor considers him to be but a monstrous buffoon:  he does not gain social acceptance.

Meanwhile, the priests of Ulphalor foment revolution.  In the end Vizaphmal is overthrown and must flee in his spaceship; while Alvor is captured by the priests.  The vindictive priests condemn Alvor to death, and are in the process of carrying out the sentence when he is saved by the fortuitous impact of a meteor against the temple.

Alvor escapes Sarpoulon and flees for many days in increased delerium and suffering.  Unknown to himself, he wanders over the border to the land of Omanorion, the realm of the empress Ambiala, where he finally faints.

He awakens, tended by a female whom he learns is no other than the Empress Ambiala herself!  Ambiala has taken personal charge of his case, since she is fascinated by his strangeness.   She understands the tongue of Ulphalor, and teaches him the language of her own land.  They become fast friends, united among other things by a shared fascination with poetry.  Alvor even finds her attractive:

In the full light of Antares, Alvor saw that his hostess was, from a Satabborian viewpoint, a really beautiful and exquisite creature. The iridescence of her coloring was very soft and subtle, her arms and legs, though of the usual number, were all voluptuously rounded, and the features of her face were capable of a wide range of expression. Her usual look, however, was one of a sad and wistful yearning. This look Alvor came to understand, when, with a growing knowledge of her language, he learned that she too was a poet, that she had always been troubled by vague desires for the exotic and the far-off, and that she was thoroughly bored with everything in Omanorion, and especially with the male Alphads of that region, none of whom could rightfully boast of having been her lover even for a day. Alvor's biological difference from these males was evidently the secret of his initial fascination for her.

Finally, she shares with him one of her own poems:  an "Ode to Atana," which turns out to be Arot, the Satabborian name for Sol!  When Alvor tells the Empress of his own "Ode to Antares," she is overcome and declares her love for him.

Thus Alvor finds his place as the acknowledged lover of the Empress, and lives happily ever after.

Analysis:  This is in many ways a standard wish-fulfillment science-fiction story where the hero, unhappy on Earth, travels to a strange world where he must surmount peril and in the end wins the love of a beautiful and virtuous alien princess.  But this being a Clark Ashton Smith story, he puts his own special spin on the concept.

The first point to notice is that Theophilus Alvor is a very passive kind of protagonist, especially for a planetary-romance tale.  His main decisions are to accept Vizmaphal's offer of adventure, to flee Sarpoulon after the meteor frees him from the Inquisition, and finally to accept Ambiala's offer of love.  Note that the first and last decisions are entirely passive ones (he is presented with opportunities and takes them) and the second active but only common sense (running away from a whole nation which has come to hate oneself).

He does not attack or kill anyone (he is a very friendly sort of "monster").  He does not reveal any extraordinary fighting skills (like John Carter) or technological abilties (like Hank the Connecticut Yankee).  In fact he is on a higher-gravity planet, and one at an overall higher level of technology than Earth.  In fact, the skills which he does use, and which brings him success in the end, are those of a charming young poet:  this wins him the friendship of Vizaphmal and the love of Ambiala.

Secondly, this is a story about reason against superstition, tolerance against xenophobia, lies against truth, and love against hate.

Vizaphmal is actually a rationalist:  he clearly does not believe the prophecy of  Abbolechiolor, since this is how he introduces it to Alvor:

'Several cycles ago, in what might be called an early period of our history, the worship of all our sundry deities was at its height. There was at this time a veritable eruption, a universal plague of prophets; who termed themselves the voices of the gods, even as similarly-minded persons have done in your world. Each of these prophets made his own especial job-lot of predictions, often quite minutely worked out and elaborate, and sometimes far from lacking in imaginative quality. A number of these prophecies have since been fulfilled to the letter, which, as you may well surmise, has helped enormously in confirming the hold of religion. However, between ourselves, I suspect that their fulfillment has had behind it more or less of a shrewd instrumentality, supplied by those who could profit therefrom in one way or another.'

It is very obvious from this that the sheer number and variety of prophecies ensured that some prophecy would be applicable to any age.  This is not only an implicit Take That to our own prophecies, whether from the Bible, Nostradamus, or any other source, but clearly demonstrates Vizaphmal's keen and rather cynical intellect (but then, he is the only one of his race to build a successful starship).

Vizaphmal is also obviously tolerant:  he not only uses Alvor, but from my reading of the story also befriends him.  He treats him better than he has to in order to merely fulfill the prophecy (though he is probably also has the social understanding to realize that treating Alvor well is the best way to ensure that Alvor "abides with" him as long as possible).  What cements it in my mind is the unexplained meteor which frees Alvor from the Temple of Cunthamosi -- neither Alvor nor the author ever question this good fortune, but it seems highly likely to me that this was the work of Vizaphmal, who in the end did not want Alvor to suffer for Vizaphmal's own schemes.  This would also count as a victory of Vizaphmal's (friendly) love over the hatred of the Inquisition.

Where Vizaphmal fails signally is in honesty -- he opposes a lie of his own (Alvor is the Monster of the Prophecy and hence I deserve to rule) to the lies of the priests (we are the chosen of the gods and hence deserve to have our candidate rule), instead of opposing a truth (rulership should be determined by fitness and right rather than superstition).  Vizaphmal does this, of course, because the people of Ulphalor would not accept the truth -- but then, he only feels that he must be king because he is driven by his own ambitions, good or evil though they may be (we never learn enough of the politics of Ulphalor to determine whether or not Vizaphmal would have made a good king had the rebellion failed).

Alvor flees the hatred of the Ulphalorians to Omanorion, where he is again taken in by the highest in the land -- the Empress Ambiala.  She is also a rationalist (though a romantic one):  she views Alvor first with toleration and then love.  And she is honest enough to admit her love for him, even though it must be socially awkward from her point of view, and accept him as her lover.  And thus the story ends happily.

But this is in part possible only because of the greater rationality and tolerance of her people.  As Clark Ashton Smith points out in the last words of the tale:

When it became known in Lompior that Alvor was the lover of Ambiala, no surprise or censure was expressed by any one. Doubtless the people, especially the male Alphads who had vainly wooed the empress, thought that her tastes were queer, not to say eccentric. But anyway, no comment was made: it was her own amour after all, and no one else could carry it on for her. It would seem, from this, that the people of Omanorion had mastered the ultra-civilized art of minding their own business.
 This denouement -- and especially its last phrase -- needs an understanding of the social context in which Smith was writing to be properly appreciated.

Strange Love Indeed

In the America of 1932, it was deemed evil and immoral for members of two different human "races" to openly express romantic love for one another.  The price might be beating, rape or even murder, with the officers of the law refusing to enforce justice against one's assailants.  A law -- the Mann Act -- originally passed to give the Federal Government jurisdiction against sexual slavers, was widely interpreted to allow the arrest of persons who had lovers of the wrong race, or taken in adultery.  Champion black heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson was actually railroaded into almost a year in prison for this "crime.

In this environment, to have not only a love story but one with a happy ending culminating in the indefinite union of a human and a non-humanoid alien was radical -- so radical, in fact, that I am almost surprised that Weird Tales was willing to publish it in 1932.  (I also wonder if H. P. Lovecraft, an openly anti-black racist to whose Mythos Clark Ashton Smith  was an important contributor, got what Smith was implying by this resolution).  The stinger at the end "mastered the ultra-civilized art of minding their own business" makes it obvious to me that the story's implications were wholly intentional.

Lest we in 2013 feel too superior to the people of eight decades ago, we should reflect that the love of Alvor and Ambiala would be illegal in the modern United States of America, and indeed probably in every nation on Earth, for one simple reason.  Ambiala isn't human, which means that it would be seen by us as "bestiality."  We have not yet developed a category for "sapient non-human" under the law.

Clark Ashton Smith frequently wrote weird tales in which inter-racial or inter-species love or at least sexual attraction figured.  Other obvious examples are "The Venus of Azombei" (run here and reviewed there), where the love ends tragically but the auctorial sympathies are clearly with the inter-racial lovers; and "The Door to Saturn" (avialable on The Eldritch Dark) in which Eibon (yes, that one) and Morghi don't exactly find "love" on Cykranosh (Saturn) but do find sexual consolation among the non-humanoid alien Ydheems.  Indeed, a positive attitude toward unusual romantic or sexual unions seems to have been a major theme of Smith's work.


The planet Satabbor, figuring as far as I know only in this one story, is an interesting world.  Among other things the planet has a fascinating sapient race (more on that to follow), a long (and mostly unexplored) history, and a culture which varies between its several nations.  It is too bad that Clark Ashton Smith never revisited the place, but then the story as written has no obvious loose ends which would lead other Earth people there:  Vizaphmal could of course travel to Earth and recruit more Earthmen, but there is no obvious reason why he would do so, since the Ulphalorians have already rejected his Monster of the Prophecy.  Alvor is happy at the end, and would not willingly leave Ambiala, and Vizaphmal has shown no inclinations to recruit him forcibly.

There is one obvious problem with the nature of Satabbor, as described.  Their primary star  Sanarda (Antares) is a red supergiant star only around 15 million years old.  Hence, unless there is something very wrong with our astrophysical theories regarding this star, it is impossible for Satabbor to be the home of a civilization predating life on Earth.

On the other hand, this is the Mythos.  Perhaps Sanarda is not what it seems, and hence is far older than we realize.  Also, the Satabborians are demonstrably superstitious and may not be understanding their own history correctly.  I was willing to overlook this for the merits of the tale, especially since a lack of appreciation of the short lifespans of giant stars was a common fault in pre-1950's science fiction.

I don't see it as any real problem at all regarding the existence of complex native Satabborian life, since the planet might have been colonized from somewhere else.  This could be true whether or not the Satabborians are aware of this, or willing to admit to it.


Physically interesting and described earlier in this essay, the Satabborians also have an unusual biology and hence culture.  In Vizaphmal's own words:

There are two superior sexes, who are sterile, and who form the intellectual, esthetic and ruling classes, to whom I belong. We call ourselves the Alphads. The Abbars are more numerous, but we hold them in close subjection; and even though they are our parents as well as our slaves, the ideas of filial piety which prevail in your world would be regarded as truly singular by us. We supervise their breeding, so that the due proportion of Abbars and Alphads may be maintained, and the character of the progeny is determined by the injection of certain serums at the time of conceiving. We ourselves, though sterile, are capable of what you call love, and our amorous delights are more complex than yours in their nature.'

Evidently, something in the nature of Satabborian sexuality enforces a choice between dominance and fertility.  This may be because the requirements of fertility also enjoin greater caution (hence submissiveness -- and the Abbars are dull-hued, rather than opalescent like Alphad males or colorfully-iridescent like Alphad females) or use up metabolic resources which would otherwise enhance intelligence.  Such is in terms of evolutionary biology a mildly eusocial situation, in that the Alphads are giving up reproductive success for social status, which means that this social status must indirectly enhance genetic success (by enabling the most successful Alphads to breed more Abbars and Alphads from their own lineages, hence making the genes that produce the most successful Alphads the most common).

An obvious cultural effect of this would be that to the Alphads their own sexuality would be purely a matter of enjoyment and sentiment, since they breed their families and heirs from their enslaved fertile relatives.  This explains why Alvar is able to win the love of Ambiala despite her higher social status -- she is uninterested in most Alphad males (the story in fact implies that she was virginal) but she is attracted to Alvar (for his poetic nature). Unlike an Earthly monarch, the issue of her love has nothing to do with the issue of the succession, so her people are quite willing to accept her taking an alien lover.

(This makes Alvar's previous rejection by the ladies of the Ulphalorian court all the more painful, if he understood the culture well enough -- unlike high-status Earthwomen, they would not be seen as dishonored in any way by having a casual sexual relationship -- their rejection of him  really is because they find him bizarre and ugly).

A Low Joke

I wonder how many readers (then and now) got the fact that Clark Ashton Smith called the Ulphalorian all-mother goddess, served by a particularly intolerant and vindictive priesthood, "Cunthamosi" -- not just the first four letters of the name, but also what it sounds like spoken in English.  This in-story is of course fully justified by the fact that the Ulphalorians aren't English-speakers, so it would sound just fine to them.


This is an excellent short story in a weird and fascinating environment, and well deserves re-reading.  Yet another great piece from a great author of weird science fiction.



1 comment:

  1. The only review that I have found of this great Smith's story, very deep and interesting. Thanks 4 share this :) In some parts, similar to Lovecraft's The Shadow out of Time and own Smith's The Visitors from Mlok. I really like The Monster of the Prophecy, specially the beginning and the end. Smith is capable to mix a totally outer world with a totally human situation, similar to Bradbury (who began his sci-fi interest thanks to Smith's work). Regards!