Review: The Beast of Averoigne

Dr Hermes

Lately, I've been rediscovering Clark Ashton Smith. The problem was that when I first started reading his stories, I was too young and got the mistaken idea they were all just huge impenetrable blocks of unfamiliar words and that nothing much was really happening beyond the pretty language. Well, you live and (hopefully) learn. Since then, I've been recently realizing what a wonderfully creative and ironic writer he really was. This also means that I can now look forward to checking out a hundred stories or so by him.

"The Beast of Averoigne" (from the May 1933 issue of WEIRD TALES) is a very neatly done tale combining science-fiction and the supernatural without seeming strained at all. (Lovecraft of course was famous for this, but not too many writers could blend the two genres well. Stories about vampires on spaceships and so forth always seemed a bit forced to me.)

"Indeed, it were well that none should believe the story: for thin is the veil between man and the godless deep. The skies are haunted by that which it were madness to know; and strange abominations pass evermore between earth and moon and athwart the galaxies." Great stuff, as evocative as Lovecraft's famous, "We live on a placid isle of ignorance" passage.

This is a tale from 14th Century France, written down for us by its protagonist, the astrologer and sorcerer Luc de Chaudronnier. During the summer of 1369, a red comet appeared in the skies and was visible every night over Averoigne. Well, this seems to be one time that the old folk lore about comets being bad omens was right on the money, because the Beast immediately started turning up. This brute is a black horror with a reddish glow around it, sort of like a seven-foot serpent with flexible tentacle-limbs, a snake-like head with glowing eyes and plenty of teeth you could shave with. The monster has a unique diet, too, as it limits itself to ripping out the spines of beasts and humans, and devouring the marrow. (Sort of a specialized diet, like the koala or panda.)

As the weeks go by and the list of victims starts getting longer, the countryside is understandably in a panic. Figuring that the monster is some sort of devil literally from Hell (connected somehow with that terrifying red comet in the sky each night), the abbot of Perigon vows to track it down. So, taking a group of Brothers with plenty of both faith and courage, they set out and search the countryside each night with torches. No luck. The darn thing even gets bold enough to start picking off the monks themselves and all the prayers, crosses and holy water don't seem to even slow it down.

Slightly desperate, the clergy resort to asking Luc de Chaudronnier for help. They're not wild about dealing with a sorcerer but they have to admit their traditional exorcisms just aren't working. De Chaudronnier agrees to track down the Beast and refuses their offer of reward. Luckily for the countryside, de Chaudronnier is not just a misunderstood pioneer scientist, experimenting ahead of his time in chemistry and astronomy. No, sir -- he's a genuine necromancer and practitioner of black magic.

Most intriguingly, he possesses a ring passed down to him from his fathers, wizards before him. "The ring had come down from ancient Hyperborea, and it had once been the property of the sorcerer Eibon.... In the gem an antique demon was held captive, a spirit from prehuman worlds, which would answer the interrogation of sorcerers."

It turns out that the dread Beast is in fact coming down from the comet every night, and its natural form is both invisible and intangible... in order to make its kills, it has to taken on physical form through possession of a living thing. Even then, there is only one way it can possibly be destroyed. Yikes. Nevertheless, de Chaudronnier sets out to confront the horror that night, accompanied by two burly men-at-arms, mounted and armored and carrying swords and halberds. The sorcerer leads them, but all he takes with him is a small hammer. (Hmm. that's strange, what is he up to?)

Smith's Averoigne stories are actually the most accessible and traditional of his various cycles. The ones he set in ancient Hyperborea or in Zothique, when the sun is dying and the world is coming to its end, are packed with names I would hate to try to pronounce (my poor Spellchecker is going to hate me) and his admittedly impressive vocabulary skids out of all control. Still, they are very much worth the effort to read; once you settle into his rhythms and sly humor, the stories are very enjoyable. In his day, he was one of WEIRD TALES' elite trinity of authors. While Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft have certainly gotten their share of renewed popularity and critical evaluation, Smith is way due for the same.

© (Aug 31, 2005) Dr Hermes Reviews

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