dr_hermes (dr_hermes) wrote,

"The Colossus of Ylourgne"

From the June 1934 issue of WEIRD TALES, this is one of Clark Ashton Smith's longer tales. "The Colossus of Ylourgne" is a Monster On the Loose epic that is hard to beat for sheer gruesomeness. It's 1281 in the province of Averoigne, and the sorcerer Nathaire is near to dying. This triple threat warlock (alchemist, astrologer and necromancer) is twisted in every sense of the word. A particularly wicked and malicious villain, he is also a deformed dwarf, lame because of a cobble thrown at him by a mob. Like the similarly aggrieved Narthos in "The Black Eidolon", Nathaire is not one to quickly forgive and he has long nursed a bitter hatred for the town of Vyones.

With his ten apprentices, Nathaire abruptly drops from sight but is soon spotted in the ruins of the castle of Ylourgne. You'd have to be a deranged little sorcerer to consider taking up residence in this haunted rubble, "built by a line of evil and marauding barons now extinct". A mile away on the opposite side of the valley, the brothers of Cistercian monastery can't help but notice strange lights and suspicious noises coming from the ruins at night.

Even for Averoigne, which has quite a long history of assorted monsters and demons, things get out of hand as corpses start digging their way up out of the graves and rushing through the countryside toward the castle. Only freshly deceased men in good condition are summoned this way, and (as you might imagine) the morale of the population is not improved by experiencing weeks of migratory stiffs leaving their resting places to run off eagerly for some unknown reason.

What exactly is Nathaire up to? Why has he smashed out the interior walls of the old castle to make one immense chamber? Why are his disciples hacking up the newly arrived cadavers into chunks of flesh and separate bones? What the hell, dude? When two monks rather bravely enter the ruins, they find their crosses and holy water and prayers don't work worth a dime. Nathaire humiliates them and sends them back with the suggestive warning, "They that came here as many shall go forth as one."

Gasard du Nord is a former student of Nathaire's, who dropped out of the classes when he saw they were going to be a bit TOO unholy and vile for him to take. He's as close to a traditional hero as Smith seemed to get; even then, he's a sorcerer himself who believes only black magic can fight black magic. Gaspard suspects his former teacher is planning some tomfoolery that no one in the countryside is likely to survive; he goes to investigate but ends up thrown in a slimy pit. Now it seems like this might be the final Averoigne story, as Nathaire's Colossus rears his ugly pale head up one hundred feet above the ground and sets out.

The Colossus is not your mere Japanese kaiju lumbering about and causing destruction without noticing it, nor is he a sympathetic ape searching for the waif who won his heart. Nope, this atrocity is actively evil. He stomps all over the landscape, "leaving behind him, as a reaper his swath, an ever-lengthening zone of havoc, of rapine and carnage." Even worse, he deliberately defiles and abuses his victims in ways we'd be better off not knowing about. The Colossus doesn't even bother to pluck arrows and spears from his carcass as he cheerfully makes Nathaire's darkest wishes come true.

You get used to Smith's esoteric vocabulary quickly enough. Even when a word is so obscure it's almost unfair to use it, the context helps. So there are no places where you are baffled enough to lose track of what's going on. Smith also has a skill at choosing exactly the right phrase to give a medieval atmosphere, provide a strong visual and add to the grisly nightmarish quality of the story -- all at the same time. In fact, Smith's wordcraft is so polished and precise that I was jarred when he repeated himself. "Like a death-drunken Cyclops" and "like a maniacal Cyclops" appear a few pages apart, and there are very few pulp writers who I would notice using similar phrases like that. (In fact, most pulpsters repeated themselves so much that certain tags and descriptions became almost like comforting slogans.)

You might notice too that organized religion is in for some abuse in Smith's tales. Sorcery, necromancy, black magic and that sort of mischief work just fine. But holy symbols and prayers are repeatedly shown to be quite useless. The monks who assail the castle of Nathaire have their large heavy crosses taken away and are then beaten with them. Adding insult to injury, I calls that. It's understandable that Nathaire is out specifically to smoosh cathedrals and monasteries under the Colossus' unattractive feet; he was forced to flee his abode because of the threat of the Inquisition.But there's a certain glee in the way the Colossus degrades his clerical victims, which makes me wonder about Smith's religious views and whether he had some philosophical grudge. I'd like to see G.K. Chesterton read a few of the Averoigne stories while hooked up to a blood pressure monitor.

The final fate of the Colossus is quietly haunting and rather macabre, but frankly, it's a bit of an anticlimax after the monster's rampage. I was expecting a more dramatic finale, but the final image sticks in the memory. There's a temptation to go on a binge of Clark Ashton Smith stories, but I think he's a writer better taken in doses spaced out so the experience lasts longer.
Tags: clark ashton smith, pulps

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