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Discussion Thread for the stories of CAS
Posted by: Hespire (IP Logged)
Date: 2 September, 2020 03:58PM
Inspired by the poem appreciation thread and the recent thread for ranking stories, I thought it might be useful to make a thread in which we choose a CAS story to read and discuss together. Feel free to share any of your thoughts, feelings, critical assessments, notes, likes and dislikes, etc.

I can't think of any particular rules, since the discussions here are so fluid, but as with the poem thread, we should at least focus on one story at a time. Should we give each story suggestion a certain number of days before suggesting the next one?

Anyway, I have no story in mind right now, so the next poster can decide what to read and discuss!

Re: Discussion Thread for the stories of CAS
Posted by: Sawfish (IP Logged)
Date: 2 September, 2020 07:10PM
If no other stories seem immediately more interesting, I'd suggest The Witchcraft of Ulua.

Sawfish
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Life is a tragedy to those who feel, a comedy to those who think."

Re: Discussion Thread for the stories of CAS
Posted by: Dale Nelson (IP Logged)
Date: 2 September, 2020 08:09PM
A good idea for a thread, Hespire!

Re: Discussion Thread for the stories of CAS
Posted by: Hespire (IP Logged)
Date: 2 September, 2020 09:36PM
I thought a thread like this might be just the thing for this website. It's surprising how little his individual stories are discussed online, even though many Lovecraft fans at least know of him.

Ulua? What an unexpectedly bold place to start! But I like the idea. If everyone is okay with it, we can start off by reading "The Witchcraft of Ulua", which can be found right here:

[www.eldritchdark.com]

I understand, Dale, that you aren't into oriental-type settings, but it would be fun if you could participate here and there. We can try CAS' medieval, modern, and alien settings as well.

Re: Discussion Thread for the stories of CAS
Posted by: Dale Nelson (IP Logged)
Date: 2 September, 2020 10:19PM
I’m up for discussion of this one, at least, but will need to revisit the story.

Re: Discussion Thread for the stories of CAS
Posted by: Sawfish (IP Logged)
Date: 3 September, 2020 11:11AM
I'll kick things off with an over-arching observation about CAS's spiritual cosmos: there's no mention of hint anywhere I've looked, in any story he has written, of kinds of benevolent supreme being whose approval one should seek in order to have a happy, prosperous life, and to similarly obtain a euphoric eternal afterlife.

There are, however, vague hints of benefits conferred during life by evil entities at the price of some form of possibly eternal suffering, or at least bondage--becoming the eternal personal valet for Thasaidon, for example. This seems limited to those willfully and knowingly practicing the dark arts, and does not include the common man ignorant of the intent of these practices, with the sole exception (that I'm aware of being in Tolometh:

Quote:

...

And yet, in ways outpassing thought,
Men worship me that know me not.
They work my will.
I shall arise
In that last dawn of atom-fire,
To stand upon the planet's pyre
And cast my shadow on the skies.

So, basically, in CAS's spiritual universe, there's no theological reason to resist temptations of the flesh, as there is in much western literature written in the Christian-influenced tradition. In these, there's an implied reward for resisting prohibited activities.

OK, we know that The Witchcraft of Ulua (WOU for future brevity) is a tale of sexual and sensual restraint rewarded--or more to the point, the wages of sin being *avoided*--and conversely licentiousness of this type being concretely punished. But if there is no benevolent supreme being promising rewards, the underlying question is...

Why refrain? Is it to escape the sort of fate that comes to Ulua and the rest of Miraab, apparently? Is there no counterbalancing reward?

It's clear that CAS wants us to side with Amalzain's resistance to the temptations to be found in Miraab (I see it as being a lot like LA in the 80s...;^) )--and especially Ulua--and by connection, his great-uncle Sambon, and the "sage and archmage, Yos Ebni" as the supreme example of self-restraint. If this is the case, what is the "reward" for doing so?

I have my own ideas about this, but would like to hear the ideas of others here.

Sawfish
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Life is a tragedy to those who feel, a comedy to those who think."

Re: Discussion Thread for the stories of CAS
Posted by: Cathbad (IP Logged)
Date: 3 September, 2020 12:56PM
Not bad at all! Plus a happy ending! (for Amalzain, anyhow).

"I see it as being a lot like LA in the 80's" :)

It's actually been a while since I read a CAS story, so I guess what struck me first was how well his prose stands up - I don't think there was a word out of place, although I had to check up migniard, which means 'tiny'. Like Sawfish, I've never seen CAS as a consciously religious writer, but here we do get a villainess who's doomed to go to her black lord, Thasaidon, in the seventh hell, although it's unclear whether she'd regard this as punishment - as an evil person, maybe she'd be as happy in hell as a good person would be in heaven?

What's the pay-off for Amalzain? Stories like this often revolve around a conflicted character - somebody who succumbs to temptation only to see the light - but Amalzain is pretty much a boy scout from the start. He doesn't change. Maybe another way of looking at the story is to see Ulua as the mc? (something that gains additional credence by how the story is named after her) - in which case, this is a story about a witch who overreaches herself and pays the price? Except that Ulua has no more emotional range than Amalzain - ie, she's as wicked as he is good. So any thoughts Sawfish (and anybody else!) might have in this regard would be much appreciated.

Re: Discussion Thread for the stories of CAS
Posted by: Hespire (IP Logged)
Date: 3 September, 2020 02:13PM
(in response to Sawfish, since Cathbad posted while I was typing this!) You're right that "The Witchcraft of Ulua" is unique in its morality. Most of CAS' romantic stories feature protagonists—even good Christians—renouncing moral expectations in favor of passionate, forbidden, spur-of-the-moment love-making with lamias, witches, etc. When I first read this story, I expected it to end with upright Amalzain falling for Ulua's charms, and the reveal that Sabmon's celibacy was foolish! But I was satisfied by this change in formula.

I can't remember every story written by CAS, but I feel that most of his stories about forbidden love were portraying the liberation of people from the restraints of a needlessly restrictive society, or from a monotonous existence, and all the lamias, witches, sirens, etc. represented the mystery, ecstasy, and excitement needed to make life worth living, even with, or especially with, that risk of danger. Many of his poems also yearn for the archetypal siren, rather than shun her, and equate her with other worlds and magical ecstasy.

But in WOU, I had the impression Ulua represented something worse. Sabmon is portrayed from the beginning as a dignified wise old man who experienced much of life, both in its mundane and supernatural facets, so he knows a few things about the world. He's also portrayed as a self-made outsider, rather than a leader or member of some cult or temple, and CAS' stories tend to empathize a little more with outsiders. His home is composed of bones, chosen for their whiteness. I don't know if CAS felt any special significance in that description, it could simply be a weird detail befitting Zothique. But since Sabmon is a sorcerer and he chose those bones specifically for their whiteness, I thought they represented a sort of spiritual purity derived from a worldly perspective that doesn't shun the grit and roughness of life (death, decay, inhuman nature, etc.). Whiteness and bones represented purity and sorcery in a few real cultures after all, such as ancient China.

But Ulua dwells in a city known for its endless decadence, for its people who are not only sinful but drunk on petty pleasures. CAS enjoyed writing about decadent societies and corrupt kingdoms, but his stories don't often admire them, except maybe in a fascinated way. I recall his story "The Planet of the Dead" and how the two lovers found relief not so much in the masked throngs of drunken revelers, but in the lonely tombs far away from the mad cities. And in "Morthylla", the protagonist searched for something more meaningful or ecstatic than the simple reveries of his dying city. Ulua, on the other hand, dwells at the very center of this decadent society, and doesn't offer much outside of it, almost like she represents the heart of that doomed city. And as beautiful and mysterious as she is, her role is notably more malignant and aggressive than the lamia from "End of the Story", or the mischievous enchantress from "Holiness of Azedarac."

Every story carries its own perspective, but when considering CAS' fiction as a whole, I think WOU doesn't necessarily contradict his other stories' worldviews, it simply identifies a darker side to carnal pleasures and a lighter side to self-restraint.

Of course, this is only my perception, and it might not be worth much, but that is how I came to view the story after my initial confusion. Even if someone else had written this story, or if it was the only story by CAS I've read, I would still come out of it with the same conclusion, though the contrast with CAS' other supernatural lover stories makes it more fascinating.

As for the story as a whole, I'll have to comment on that later, gonna be busy today!



Edited 6 time(s). Last edit at 3 Sep 20 | 02:43PM by Hespire.

Re: Discussion Thread for the stories of CAS
Posted by: Sawfish (IP Logged)
Date: 3 September, 2020 04:12PM
Great comment!

I'll reply interleaved. (I strongly agree with certain of your points, but differ somewhat on others...)

Hespire Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> (in response to Sawfish, since Cathbad posted
> while I was typing this!) You're right that "The
> Witchcraft of Ulua" is unique in its morality.
> Most of CAS' romantic stories feature
> protagonists—even good Christians—renouncing
> moral expectations in favor of passionate,
> forbidden, spur-of-the-moment love-making with
> lamias, witches, etc. When I first read this
> story, I expected it to end with upright Amalzain
> falling for Ulua's charms, and the reveal that
> Sabmon's celibacy was foolish! But I was satisfied
> by this change in formula.
>
> I can't remember every story written by CAS, but I
> feel that most of his stories about forbidden love
> were portraying the liberation of people from the
> restraints of a needlessly restrictive society, or
> from a monotonous existence, and all the lamias,
> witches, sirens, etc. represented the mystery,
> ecstasy, and excitement needed to make life worth
> living, even with, or especially with, that risk
> of danger.

Not sure that I agree that he seems to portray sexuality as transcendent and mostly positive in his prose--I think maybe he sees it as outside of moral consideration, for good or ill. I'll have to think about it some more.

> Many of his poems also yearn for the
> archetypal siren, rather than shun her, and equate
> her with other worlds and magical ecstasy.
>
> But in WOU, I had the impression Ulua represented
> something worse.

YES! YES!

Much, much worse.

Self-abasement and loss of personal dignity; immediate gratification at the cost of future enlightenment. Irreparable.

> Sabmon is portrayed from the
> beginning as a dignified wise old man who
> experienced much of life, both in its mundane and
> supernatural facets, so he knows a few things
> about the world.

Yes. He's portrayed as a tough, but admirable, character who has grasped the nature of existence, and it's not all roses, that's for sure. He has no time for nonsense at this stage of his life.

When presenting the protective amulet to Amalzain, he tells about Yos Ebni, a knowledge seeker cut from the same cloth as Sambon, it seems (or rather, vice-versa). He described Yos Ebni as:

"...sage and archimage, who won supremacy over men and demons in elder years by defying all mortal temptation and putting down the insubordination of the flesh."

Sounds like an unmediated argument between superego and id, doesn't it?

Sambon is saying that personal will power in the pursuit of knowledge is paramount and that without it, it's not possible to attain uncircumscribed power over men and demons.

In this sense, that sort of knowledge is linked to purity of mind and body.


> He's also portrayed as a
> self-made outsider, rather than a leader or member
> of some cult or temple,

Yes. An opinionated realist, beholden to no one.

> and CAS' stories tend to
> empathize a little more with outsiders. His home
> is composed of bones, chosen for their whiteness.
> I don't know if CAS felt any special significance
> in that description, it could simply be a weird
> detail befitting Zothique. But since Sabmon is a
> sorcerer and he chose those bones specifically for
> their whiteness, I thought they represented a sort
> of spiritual purity derived from a worldly
> perspective that doesn't shun the grit and
> roughness of life (death, decay, inhuman nature,
> etc.). Whiteness and bones represented purity and
> sorcery in a few real cultures after all, such as
> ancient China.

Not sure about whiteness being included in the story to represent anything, but maybe it is.

What really struck me was that after reading the first three paragraphs, you knew a whole lot about a) Sambon, and b) the nature of what Miraab was all about: it was a place where if you sucked up to corrupt power, you were likely to succeed:

"...This post, obtained for him by influential friends of his father, was much coveted among the youth of the land, and would lead to high advancement if he were fortunate enough to win the king's favor."

So Miraab is an awful and corrupting place, and Ulua is its perfect, complete personification.

>
> But Ulua dwells in a city known for its endless
> decadence, for its people who are not only sinful
> but drunk on petty pleasures. CAS enjoyed writing
> about decadent societies and corrupt kingdoms, but
> his stories don't often admire them, except maybe
> in a fascinated way.

That's right: he's observing them and marveling in their surface opulence, but is simultaneously aware that they are corrupt and decadent, and also what that implies: loss of innocence, dignity, pride of accomplishment, etc.


> I recall his story "The
> Planet of the Dead" and how the two lovers found
> relief not so much in the masked throngs of
> drunken revelers, but in the lonely tombs far away
> from the mad cities. And in "Morthylla", the
> protagonist searched for something more meaningful
> or ecstatic than the simple reveries of his dying
> city. Ulua, on the other hand, dwells at the very
> center of this decadent society, and doesn't offer
> much outside of it, almost like she represents the
> heart of that doomed city.

Yes. Closely bound, she's almost a distilled symbol of all that is wrong with Miraab--and there's a lot.

Bear in mind, her dad, Famorgh, was mentioned in Weaver in the Vault as having sent three "bravos" to bring back the mummy of a previous king, on the apparent whim of Lunalia, his now aged wife, and mother of Ulua. Therefore, she is at least a 2nd generation trouble-maker... ;^)

> And as beautiful and
> mysterious as she is, her role is notably more
> malignant and aggressive than the lamia from "End
> of the Story", or the mischievous enchantress from
> "Holiness of Azedarac."

She's willful and self-indulgent and amoral.

Great combination, huh?

>
> Every story carries its own perspective, but when
> considering CAS' fiction as a whole, I think WOU
> doesn't necessarily contradict his other stories'
> worldviews, it simply identifies a darker side to
> carnal pleasures and a lighter side to
> self-restraint.
>
> Of course, this is only my perception, and it
> might not be worth much, but that is how I came to
> view the story after my initial confusion. Even if
> someone else had written this story, or if it was
> the only story by CAS I've read, I would still
> come out of it with the same conclusion, though
> the contrast with CAS' other supernatural lover
> stories makes it more fascinating.
>
> As for the story as a whole, I'll have to comment
> on that later, gonna be busy today!

Great! Looking forward to it.

Sawfish
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Life is a tragedy to those who feel, a comedy to those who think."

Re: Discussion Thread for the stories of CAS
Posted by: Hespire (IP Logged)
Date: 3 September, 2020 07:50PM
You're probably right about his use of sex and romance as a force beyond morality. Thinking back to "The Holiness of Azedarac", the seductive enchantress had nothing to do with the conflict between the church and the scheming wizard Azedarac, and she convinced the well-meaning hero to relax and have fun with her rather than help the church or defeat the wizard. Sex and romance weren't good or evil in that story, in fact they sounded preferable to the whole dichotomy. I still sense some feelings of liberation and freedom in it, for the hero is drawn away from what was troubling his pious soul to embrace a relationship with a magician, but perhaps the transcendent aspect is secondary, or only a possible product, of romance as something that is simply pleasurable and wholly beyond moral troubles.

And I didn't realize Famorgh was mentioned in another story! These days I read only one or two CAS stories every once in a great while, so I never catch those subtle allusions to other stories. The decadence of Miraab knows no end!

As for my thoughts on the story, it's one of CAS' more wild and disturbing rides! It relishes in so many rich and weird details while telling a competent, even story. Amalzain's simple character makes a good vehicle for observing the city's depravity and his uncle's contrasting character, and not to mention Ulua's enchantments, which are so viscerally described I found myself shuddering, especially the times he tried to sleep but kept feeling all these dead things touching him and caressing him in the dark! It becomes little more than a nuisance after a while, but a what a vile and schizophrenic nuisance.

It also appeals to my personality, as one who would rather dwell among the palms, the stars, and a simple bone-house to focus on nature and internal cultivation, rather than crowd my life with decadent distractions that are common in California. Well, I can't live exactly like that, and California is no Miraab, but I'm content to be living in my simple home at the edge of a forest.

Re: Discussion Thread for the stories of CAS
Posted by: Sawfish (IP Logged)
Date: 3 September, 2020 08:48PM
Very enjoyable exchange!

Before moving on, I'd sum up my personal reaction to the story...

I liked and admired Sambon, and by extension Yos Ebni. They really put in the effort to acquire their skills/knowledge, and that appeals to me, personally.

I was happy and gratified that Amalzain escaped without any great harm.

And as a reader, I could feel the seductive power of Ulua. A young femme fatal, and then some...

Sawfish
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Life is a tragedy to those who feel, a comedy to those who think."

Re: Discussion Thread for the stories of CAS
Posted by: Dale Nelson (IP Logged)
Date: 3 September, 2020 09:08PM
The description of his sufferings from the amorous intentions of the dead & so on reminded me of de Quincey on "The Pains of Opium" and painters' renderings of the temptations of St. Anthony.

Re: Discussion Thread for the stories of CAS
Posted by: Hespire (IP Logged)
Date: 3 September, 2020 10:07PM
Quote:
Cathbad
Like Sawfish, I've never seen CAS as a consciously religious writer, but here we do get a villainess who's doomed to go to her black lord, Thasaidon, in the seventh hell, although it's unclear whether she'd regard this as punishment - as an evil person, maybe she'd be as happy in hell as a good person would be in heaven?

CAS once said "It is better to go to hell in one's own proper and personal way than to go to heaven in someone else's proper and personal way." Who knows what it's like down there in Thasaidon's kingdom ("Xeethra" offers an almost Edenic hint of it, but the whole is unknown), but your suggestion sounds like something I'd expect in some of these stories. Ulua might be thriving with her fellow succubi!

Quote:
Dale Nelson
The description of his sufferings from the amorous intentions of the dead & so on reminded me of de Quincey on "The Pains of Opium" and painters' renderings of the temptations of St. Anthony.

St. Anthony was the first thing I thought of after reading the story, emphasized by the presence of a desert-dwelling hermit. I'd love to see an ornate painting or two depicting Amalzain's hideous situation, with those bat-furred empusae and dancing lamiae.

Re: Discussion Thread for the stories of CAS
Posted by: Cathbad (IP Logged)
Date: 4 September, 2020 05:41AM
Never thought of Saint Anthony! There are definite corollaries.

And I think you may be onto something re Sabmon's home. Not only because the bones are white (equating them with purity) but because they've been divested of their flesh - reflecting how Sabmon himself has given up all interest in the sensual. Or maybe I'm just reaching?

Re: Discussion Thread for the stories of CAS
Posted by: Sawfish (IP Logged)
Date: 4 September, 2020 11:16AM
Cathbad Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> Never thought of Saint Anthony! There are definite
> corollaries.
>
> And I think you may be onto something re Sabmon's
> home. Not only because the bones are white
> (equating them with purity) but because they've
> been divested of their flesh - reflecting how
> Sabmon himself has given up all interest in the
> sensual. Or maybe I'm just reaching?


As a former English major, and proud holder of an English Lit BA--which I soon found that along with 50 cents would get me a cup of coffee (this was the 70s, you see), which is why I eventually ended up in SW development--I think that it's a lot of fun looking, after the fact, at these sorts of connections, but...

Do we really suppose that CAS had any of this in mind when writing WOU? I realize that it's both possible and likely that he'd be familiar with St. Anthony, but do we think that he made the conscious connection while writing WOU?

I can recall some of the stuff we wrote in those classes, competing to find possible connections that we, on broad examination, could see, but never once considering whether the author, him/herself, ever had this connection in mind, or indeed was even aware of the situations being compared.

Remembrances of my own undergrad work sickens me, it was so trivial, and yet at the time I felt so shrewd and enlightened. Years later, on re-reading many of the works we studied, I found that I had completely missed the actual aesthetic effect of the piece, simply because I was too busy trying to be a smart-aleck, coming up with new "deep cultural linkages" in Finnegan's Wake, etc.

For years afterward, I continued to read criticism and other commentary on literary works, that, in my opinion, relegated the work under consideration to a secondary role and vaulting the cleverness of the critic into the spotlight. It's impossible to count the number of times I've seen Moby Dick used as fodder for showboating in this fashion.

Now, I'm not suggesting we're doing that here; to me this is a forum for expressing the personal enjoyment of weird fiction (a marginally acceptable genre for folks our age, huh?), as produced by a few talented authors, and in some cases to compare it to other weird influences. Sometimes we also speculate on the methods employed to build an effect.

So I can understand mentioning the color of his house and also that white represents purity in most western cultures, and that Sambon counseled purity as a general course of action, and bones are devoid of flesh and this suggests a detachment from the temptatins of the flesh, but this begins to sound like that part of the song, "Ya Got Trouble", from The Music Man...

Quote:
Trouble, oh we got trouble,
Right here in River City!
With a capital "T"
That rhymes with "P"
And that stands for POOL!

Me, I'm 'way more interested that the directly stated benefit of such purity was because an earlier wizard "...won supremacy over men and demons in elder years by defying all mortal temptation". To me, this puts a very interesting wrinkle into *why* one should remain pure--it is known within the context of the story to provide great personal power, ostensibly when combined with diligent study.

Actually, significantly more power than Ulua has...

Too, I was much more intrigued with the idea of Sambon's brooms (besoms). They were made of mummy's hair.

YEOW! No respect for the deceased, huh? Sambon, that nice old man, apparently raids tombs and at the very minimum took the scalps of the deceased and used them for the mundane and demeaning purpose of sweeping out his house.

Hmmmm.... One wonders about the old coot... ;^)

And you know what: I doubt that *any* of this I just mentioned occurred to CAS when writing WOU, either. I think that used in the way he did, the besoms add immediate color and setting--this place is not like where we live. Houses are at the edge of deserts, made of bones of various animals and fitted together in such a precise way to exclude sand grains.

Have you ever *seen* such a thing? Have you ever imagined such a thing? Not me...

And what might one use to clean such a house, one might ask? Why, a broom made of mummy's hair, what else?

"We're not in Kansas any more."

Sawfish
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Life is a tragedy to those who feel, a comedy to those who think."

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