Review: The Dweller in the Gulf and Mother of Toads, by Clark Ashton Smith

Stefan Dziemianowicz

Necronomicon Press, 1987, $2.50

In his annotation to a letter dated March 1, 1933, in Clark Ashton Smith: Letters to H.P. Lovecraft, Steve Behrends notes: "Upon the publication of 'The Dweller in the Gulf in the March 1933 issue of Wonder Stories, Smith discovered that his conclusion for the tale had been severely and inexpertly edited. As a result of this episode, Smith wrote no further tales for Wonder Stories. A significant market was thereby closed to him, and this incident contributed to his withdrawal from fiction in the mid-to-late 1930s." A statement like that calls for further explanation, and Behrends supplies it with his restored edition of "The Dweller in the Gulf," the second book in the Necronomicon Press's "Unexpurgated Clark Ashton Smith" series.

"The Dweller in the Gulf" appears to have had a curse on it from the start. Farnsworth Wright rejected it under its original title, "The Eidolon of the Blind," as too gruesome for Weird Tales. The next potential market, Strange Tales, went out of business. Smith re-titled the story "The Dweller in the Gulf," and sent it to Hugo Gernsback who sent it back with suggested changes. Smith tried Weird Tales one last time, found Wright adamant, and reluctantly made the changes Gernsback suggested. The story appeared in Wonder Stories under the title "The Dweller in Martian Depths," sans much of Smith's description and with the ending, of which Smith was particularly proud, mangled.

When The Abominations of Yondo was put together, Smith restored the story's original ending. For this edition, Behrends has gone back to Smith's first draft of "The Eidolon of the Blind" and used it as his guide for removing new passages that appeared in the final draft sent to Gernsback. Although Behrends includes the Wonder Stories ending as an appendix, you'll have to compare this booklet to the Arkham House edition of the story to see what changes Smith made to please Gernsback, and any reader with a copy of The Abominations of Yondo should, for it reveals much about Hugo Gernsback's ideas on science fiction and why Smith should never have submitted stories to this vital (for him) market if he had any reservations about artistic compromise.

In a nutshell, "The Dweller in the Gulf" concerns three Earthmen prospecting for gold in the Martian outback. Driven into a cave by a storm, they encounter a race of blind creatures who hustle them into a cavern where they all participate in an orgiastic ritual around the eidolon of a monstrous beast. When the men try to escape, the monster itself appears and drives them back to the other creatures.

The story is as much a mood piece as anything else Smith wrote. Once inside the cavern, it could have taken place in the Arizona desert or some earth locale as well as on Mars (and perhaps it should have: Smith's spacemen walk around Mars without suits and armed with Colt revolvers). Gernsback, though, wasn't big on mood. He was big on scientific fact and often published fiction in which the explanation of a gadget or a theory was the whole plot of a story. This could explain why in his second draft Smith introduced Chalmers, a bedraggled archaeologist who pops out of the blind horde long enough to explain to the Earthmen the origin of the monster and its worshippers and what will happen to the three of them. With this change, Smith not only sacrificed the surprise at the end for the sake of "scientific" credibility, he also violated the nightmarish quality of the Earthmen's experience by introducing dialogue into a part of the story that was originally told through description and sense impression.

Smith also had to "harden" his science for Gernsback. In the original draft, he describes the power emanating from the eidolon of the dweller in these terms: "From it, in heavy ceaseless waves, a dark vibration surged: an opiate power that clouded the eyes; that poured its baleful slumber into the blood." This was changed to: "From it, in heavy ceaseless waves, there surged an emanation which could be described only as an opiate magnetism or electricity. It was as if some powerful alkaloid, affecting the nervous through superficial con- tact, was being given off by the unknown metal." (Surely Smith must have been poking fun without Gernsback realizing when he continued: "Musing drowsily, they tried to explain the phenomenon to them- selves in terms of terrene science; and then, as the narcotism mounted more and more like an overwhelming drunkenness, they forgot their speculations.")

Gernsback's altered ending was really unnecessary, and perhaps the only explanation for it is that he published lots of stories with heroes who got out of scrapes at the end and may have felt the ending as Smith wrote it was too bleak. The appendix shows that Smith had every right to be furious. Several sentences indicate that whoever did the surgery probably didn't understand the meaning of some of Smith's words.

It comes down to this: Gernsback should have rejected a story that Wright should have accepted. However, in 1933, in spite of Gernsback's hardware bent, science fiction and fantasy were just beginning to disentangle themselves from one another and Gernsback may have been under the impression he could make a fantasy story science fiction if he could pump enough fact into it. If so, it shows as much arrogance on his part as it shows bad judgment on Smith's for agreeing to make changes in the first place. The upshot of this debacle-was "The Boiling Point" controversy that bubbled in The Fantasy Fan and Smith's virtual withdrawal from fiction writing for several years (although I'm puzzled by Behrend's observation that Smith didn't publish anything in Wonder Stories again until "Great God Awto" appeared in the re-named Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1940; the copyright page of The Abominations of Yondo shows that "The Dark Age," the story on the contents page directly after "The Dweller in the Gulf," appeared in Wonder Stories in 1938).

Sad to say, but by 1938, several such incidents of editorial and editorially induced tampering must have left Smith feeling whipped. When "Mother of Toads" was bounced by Spicy Mystery Stories and Esquire, he didn't even submit the story to Wright before purging 300 words of mostly erotic description from the text. Wright accepted it the first time, so we'll never know how much of Smith's cutting wasn't necessary, though Behrends notes that smith used Wright's rejection of "The Witchcraft of Ulua" as a "sex story" three years earlier as a guide.

Because Smith did the editing himself, not much is lost from the story except explicit descriptions of the title character's anatomy. Most of the material came out in a three-paragraph-long scene. Several changes were easy: in the line "'I'd rather drown in marsh waters than sleep with you again,'" for example. Smith substituted "stay" for "sleep." Still, Smith must have felt foolish doing this kind of nitpicking, especially because at its heart the story remained what it had been from the start, a grotesque seduction scene. It's ironic that Smith felt compelled to remove specific references to breasts and thighs, but knew he could gee away with writing in the abstract ("the lumpish limbs and body had grown voluptuous") or suggestively ("His blood, a seething torrent, poured tumultuously and more tumultuously through his members") .

Whether or not these restored texts will show as much about Smith as restored texts did for Lovecraft remains to be seen. It is to be regretted that Arkham House has decided not to use Behrends' texts for their forthcoming collection of Smith's best stories. Behrends' scholarship is to be praised. It shows that Smith was justified in his battles with editors, and it reveals that Smith's half-romantic allusions to being out of step with his time only partially concealed a truth of which Smith was very aware: outside of Weird Tales, and perhaps one or two of the more short-lived fantasy magazines, there was no market for Smith's type of fiction. Had Smith published several decades before, he might have found a comfortable home in "decadent" journals like The Yellow Book. Several decades later, he might have gained esteem coming in the wake of J. R. R. Tolkien (though the Ballantine Books' Adult Fantasy editions of his books were poor sellers). But in the 1930s, there was really only one editor who appears to have understood him even some of the time, and so the margin for error was slimmer for him than for either Lovecraft or Howard. It will be interesting to see in future entries in the "Unexpurgated Clark Ashton Smith" series how far from that margin Smith strayed before being forced back.

From: Klarkash-Ton: The Journal of Smith Studies, Nunmber 1

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