Nemesis of the Unfinished

Clark Ashton Smith

Two versions of this story are presented below. A common beginning is presented first, followed by the separate conclusions of the first two drafts. The second version is fragmentary, lacking its final page.

The authentic talent of Francis La Porte, fiction-writer, was allied with an industry no less than prodigious. Unfortunately, he was self-critical to an excessive degree. Dissatisfaction, morbid and meticulous, kept him from finishing more than one manuscript out of a dozen. Though editors importuned him for stories and bought readily the few that he submitted, Francis could seldom outdistance the wolf by a full running jump.

He had left hundreds of stories in various stages of incompletion, clipped together with the double or triple carbons that he was always careful to make. Many ran to the size of novelettes or novels; some existed only as a few beginning paragraphs. Often he had written several variant versions, carried to more or less length. There were also countless synopses of tales attempted or unbegun.

They crammed the drawers of his desk to overflowing, they bulged and towered in insecure piles from the boxes that were stacked along the walls of his study. These voluminous abortions were the labor of a lifetime.

Most of them were eldritch tales of horror and death, of wizardry and diabolism. Their pages teemed with specters and cadavers, with ghouls and loups-garous and poltergeists.

Often they haunted La Porte like a bad conscience. Sometimes they seemed to talk to him and reproach him with ghostly whispers in the dark hours before dawn. He would fall asleep vowing to complete one or more of them without further procrastination.

In spite of such resolutions, the dust still thickened on the piled reams. A new day would always bring Francis an idea for a new plot. Occasionally he would complete one of his shorter and simpler tales, and would receive in due time a small check from Outlandish Stories or Eerie Narratives. Then he would indulge in one of his rare debauches of food and wine, and his brain would fume with wild inspirations that he was seldom able to recall afterwards.

Though he did not suspect, La Porte was in the position of a necromancer who has called up spirits from the deep without knowing how to control or dismiss them.

He had fallen asleep one night after absorbing nearly a half-gallon of cheap claret, bought from the proceeds of a recent sale. His slumber was heavy but brief. It seemed that a vague commotion, in which he distinguished articulate voices, had awakened him. Puzzled, and still confused by his potations, he listened intently for some moments but the noises had ceased. Then suddenly there was a sound like the light rustling of paper. Then a louder noise as if great masses of paper were sliding and shifting. Then conversation, as if a crowd of people were talking all at once. It was an unintelligible babel, and he could determine nothing except that the noises came from the direction of his workroom.

La Porte's spine began to tingle as he sat up in bed. The sounds were eerie and mysterious as anything that he had ever imagined in his tales of nocturnal terror. It seemed now that he was overhearing some bizarre and sinister dialogue, in which voices of unhuman timbre replied to others that were apparently human. Once or twice he caught his own name uttered in strange gibbering tones, somehow fraught with the sense of inimical conspiracy.

La Porte sprang out of bed. Lighting an oil-lamp and going into his study, he peered into every corner but saw only the stacks of overpiled manuscripts. Apparently the piles were undisturbed but he seemed to see them through a thick haze. At the same time he began to choke and cough. Going closer to inspect the manuscripts, he perceived that the accumulated dust of months and years had been shaken from their massed reams.

He searched the room repeatedly but found no further sign of invasion either human or supernatural. Perhaps some sudden gust had performed the mysterious office of dusting the paper piles. But the windows were all closed, and the night outside was windless. He returned to bed: but sleep refused to visit him again.

There was no repetition of the rustlings and voices that had seemed to awaken him. He began to wonder if he had been the victim of some distempered dream inspired by the evening's wine. Finally he convinced himself that this was the only credible explanation.

The next morning, moved by an unwonted impulse, La Porte selected a manuscript at random from the heaps of unfinished material. It was entitled Incomplete Sorceries, and dealt with a man who had achieved partial power over demons and elementals, but was still seeking certain lost formulae that were requisite to full masterdom. La Porte had abandoned the tale through indecision regarding the alternate solutions of the sorcerer's problem suggested by his all too fertile fancy. He sat down at the typewriter, determined that he would finish the story to his satisfaction.

End of the common beginning; at this point the two stories diverge. The conclusion of Version I commences, followed by that of Version II.

For once, he did not hesitate over variant wordings or divergencies of plot-development. It all seemed miraculously clear to him, and he wrote steadily through the forenoon and afternoon and evening. At midnight he ended the last paragraph, in which, after many perils and tribulations, the sorcerer stood triumphant amid his infrangible circles, compelling the dread kings of the four infernal quarters to serve his least whim.

La Porte felt that he had seldom written so well. The story should bring him a substantial check, as well as the acclaim of his many faithful but impatient admirers. He would send it out in the morning mail after a few possible retouchings. A new title was manifestly required by the denouement: he would think of one easily after a night's sleep.

He had almost forgotten the queer dream that had followed his recent bacchanal. Again he slept deeply, but not too soundly. At intervals some portion of his brain, emerging numbly from oblivion, seemed to hear the recurrent clatter of his old Remington in the next room. Drugged with fatigue, he did not awaken fully to the strangeness of the sound under such circumstances but accepted it without question as one accepts the unexplained vagaries of dreamland.

After his meager breakfast La Porte began to reread Incomplete Sorceries, with his pencil poised for errors of typing or minor revisions. He found nothing to change in the first few pages, written months before, and hastened over their familiar incidents to the point at which he had begun his continuation of the sorcerer's vicissitudes. Here he paused in astonishment, for he could not remember writing a single sentence of the freshly typed paragraphs! The astonishment became stupefaction as he went on: the plot, the incidents, the whole trend of development, were alien to what he had conceived and set down.

It was as if some demon-guided hand had reversed and perverted the story. Pandemonium, and the lords of Pandemonium, prevailed throughout. The sorcerer, with all his formulae, was a mere pawn moved hither and thither at their will, in a monstrous game for supremacy over souls and planets and galaxies. The very style was foreign to La Porte's usual manner: it was studded with strange archaisms and neologisms; it burned with phrases like hellish gems; it blazed and vapored with images that were like censers of evil before Satanic altars.

More than once, La Porte wanted to drop the horribly transfigured tale. But a baleful fascination, mingling with his dumbfoundment and incredulity, held him to the end where the hapless necromancer was crushed into pulp beneath the ponderous grimoires he had collected in his lifelong search for mastery. It was only then that La Porte could lay down the manuscript. His fingers trembled as if they had touched the coils of some deadly serpent.

Tormenting his brain for some tenable explanation, he recalled the dreamlike clattering of the Remington that he had seemed to hear in slumber. Was it possible that he had risen from his bed and had rewritten the story in a somnambulistic state? Was it the work of some spectral or demoniac hand? Unmistakably the typing had been done on his own machine: several slightly blurred letters and punctuation-marks occurred throughout the entire manuscript.

The mystery disturbed him beyond measure. He had never found in himself the least tendency to sleepwalking or to trance states of any kind. Though the supernatural was, so to speak, his literary stock-in-trade, his reason refused to accept the ideas of an extrahuman agency.

Unable to resolve the problem, La Porte tried to busy himself with the beginning of a new tale. But concentration was impossible, since he could not dismiss the unanswered riddle from his thoughts for a moment.

Abandoning all further effort to work, he left the house with hurried steps, as if driven by the spurs of an incubus.

It was many hours later that La Porte wandered homeward rather unsteadily by the rays of a cloud-strangled moon. Forgetting his usual economy, he had consumed numberless brandies at a village bar. He did not care for the people who frequented such places; but somehow he had been reluctant to leave. Never before had he been loathe to face the solitude of his cabin, peopled only with books and manuscripts, with unwritten and half-written fantasies.

Still dimly troubled by the mystery that had driven him forth, he fell across the unmade bed without undressing or even lighting a lamp, and slid into drunken slumber.

Wild dreams came to visit him anon. Weird voices shrieked and muttered in his ears, indistinct but nightmarish figures milled around him like the dancers of some demonian Sabbat. Amid the voices that seemed to conspire against his peace and safety, he heard the incessant click and rattle of a typewriter. There was a clacking as of drawers opened and shut without cessation, a multitudinous rustling as of paper slithering from place to place in unaccountable sibilant movement.

La Porte awoke from endless repetitions of this dream—to find that the noises still continued. Again, as on a former occasion, he sprang from bed, lit his lamp, and entered the workroom from which the sounds and voices appeared to come.

Still dazed with sleep and inebriation, his eyes beheld a vast chamber whose roof and walls receded beyond the illumination of the lamp he carried in shaking fingers. Amid this chamber his manuscripts rose in massive piles, multiplied and magnified as if by the black sorcery of hashish. They seemed to loom above him with topless tiers, lost in the reaches of some Avernian vault.

On the desk of the room's center his Remington, operated as if by some unseen entity, ran and clattered with infernal speed. Black lines appeared momently on the sheet that emerged rapidly from the roller.

The floor was covered with other sheets, lying singly or in heaps, that slid and rustled about the chamber in mysterious perpetual agitation. The air was filled with the eerie gibberings and whispers that had haunted La Porte's dreams and awakened him. They came, it seemed, from nowhere and everywhere—from the scattered pages on the floor, from the typewriter desk, from the tiered boxes and reams that beetled into nightmare vastness, and from the apparent vacancy of space itself.

La Porte felt on his face the breathing of terrible powers, of eldritch and forbidden things, as he stood in hesitant stupor on the threshold. A wind sprang up, he knew not whence, winding and wreathing about him in icy serpentine volumes. He thought that the room grew vaster, that the floor heaved and tilted at strange impossible angles, that the towers and battlements of swollen manuscripts leaned toward him in perilous inclination.

The weird wind strengthened and swiftened, sweeping up the numberless loose sheets in a wild storm, and extinguishing the lamp that he held in his nerveless hand. Darkness fell-—a darkness of vertigo and delirium, into which La Porte was hurled resistlessly, falling through endless gulfs, battling with countless evil things that swooped upon him from all directions, and heating a thunder as of loosened avalanches ....

Neighbors, noticing the absence of smoke from La Porte's chimney, and missing him on the road to the village, became sufficiently alarmed to investigate after the third day. Opening the unlocked outer door, they saw the littered paper, mingled with fragments of a shattered kerosene lamp, that overflowed the threshold of his workroom.

Ream upon ream of paper almost filled the room itself: a mountain of heaped and disheveled manuscripts covering the one chair and desk and typewriter with its high-piled summit. They found Francis La Porte lying in a convulsed posture beneath the pile. In his rigid hands, up-thrust protectively before his face, were clutched the sheets of several thick manuscripts, torn and ripped asunder as if in some violent struggle. Other sheets, torn to confetti-like pieces, strewed his upturned body. Still others were locked in a tetanic rigor between his bared teeth.

End of Version I; the conclusion of Version II commences. We return to the scene in which La Porte begins to work on his story Incomplete Sorceries.

For a while he wrote steadily, without hesitating over variant words or divergencies of plot development. It seemed that some magic lamp illumined his brain, clarifying all that had baffled and eluded him heretofore. The sorcerer, Guillaume de la Coudraie, had procured an ancient chart of mouldy parchment, giving the location of a ghoul-guarded tomb in which were hidden the essential formulae that he had long vainly sought. The formulae contained the words of power, the secret names by which the dread kings of the four infernal quarters, as well as many lesser spirits, could be summoned, constrained and dismissed. The procuring of the parchment itself had entailed many obscure perils both to soul and body. The path to the designated tomb, moreover, was fraught with preternatural dangers and deadfalls.

At this point La Porte's inspiration became once more confused and indecisive. He wrote page after page, only to discard them as unsatisfactory. The magic light, illumining the story so briefly, had dimmed and gone out like a necromancer's lantern in smoky darkness.

The day wore on in this frustrating, brain-fettering labor; only to leave La Coudraie still conning the musty, worm-frayed parchment in his tower chamber lined with ponderous tomes of goety and demonology.

At last La Porte abandoned the fruitless task in something that bordered upon despair. It was nearly sunset; perhaps a walk to the neighboring village would refresh his jaded brain.

It was many hours later when he wandered homeward rather unsteadily by the rays of a cloud-strangled moon. Forgetting his usual strict economy, he had consumed numerous brandies at a local bar. He did not care for the people who frequented such places; but he had been reluctant to leave and face again the unsolved problems of his sorcerer, in a cabin peopled with half-written and unwritten fantasies.

He entered, lit the lamp, and seated himself resolutely once more before the typewriter. Removing a partly finished sheet from the roller, he crumpled it, cast it aside, and inserted a fresh one. Then, groping foggily for a sentence with which to resume the tale, he slid into drunken slumber.

Wild dreams came to visit him anon. Eldritch voices shrieked and muttered in his ears, conspiring against his peace and safety; indistinct but nightmarish figures milled around him like the dancers of some demonian Sabbat, swirling and leaning ever nearer with gestures of hideous menace.

In one of the dreams, he was Guillaume de la Coudraie, sitting in his tower with the time-fretted chart, stained with nameless corruption, unrolled before him. He was girt for the journey to the hidden tomb; his scrip was packed with such impediments of magic as he might require; and the arthame, the wizard sword of consecrated metal, potent for defense against demons and liches and phantoms, glittered unsheathed on the table close to his right hand. But still he lingered, pondering the chart, whose lines and drawings and letterings, inscribed in the blood of vipers, seemed to shift and change beneath his anxious scrutiny till the route they indicated was another than the one that he had longed yet feared to follow.

By this sign, La Coudraie knew that the powers he had sought to control were working against him. He was mocked by those whom he had dreamt to dominate. He trembled, and peered fearfully about his chamber, seeing now that other signs had begun to manifest themselves. Curious red and nacarat flames, in the form of reptilian salamanders, had sprung up from the unlit, cinder-choked brazier that the wizard used in his incantations. They seemed to lengthen and lean toward him in uncoiled menace, with heads whitening to intolerable brightness. Pallid vapors, flat as papery tongues, issued from the piled grimoires and swelled interminably, darkening and thickening to the semblance of malign genii whose eye-sockets seethed with lurid fire under night-black brows.

Lowering his gaze in terror, the necromancer saw that the changing lines and ciphers had been wholly erased from the chart before him. In their stead, on the blank surface, appeared the lineaments of a baleful and infernal visage. Though the livid eyelids were shut, the face was that of Alastor, demon of vengeance . . . . Slowly, dreadfully, it emerged from the flatness of the parchment, rearing on a python-like neck till it confronted La Coudraie on a level with his own face. Slowly, horribly, the eyes opened ....

La Porte awakened, or seemed to awaken, from his necromantic nightmare. At least, he was conscious of being back in his cabin, seated before the typewriter just as he had fallen asleep. The profound terror of the sorcerer La Coudraie still possessed him; nor, in the circumstances of his awakening, was there anything to mitigate the terror.

By the light of the oil-lamp, burning stilly beside his Remington, he found himself stating into the same Satanic face that had risen from the sorcerer's chart and had opened its basilisk eyes upon him in his dream. The face was mounted on the same scaled ophidian neck. Algae-green, with ashen mottlings, the neck thickened downward, seeming to issue from the blank sheet of paper, newly inserted, that curved back across the Remington's roller. Clear and rigid as icicles, twin shafts of light poured from the unpupilled eyes, transfixing his very marrow, filling the darkest cells of his brain with their searching, searing illumination.

Inch by tedious inch, like one half-paralyzed, he turned from the direct gaze of the apparition—only to confront the shapes and faces of Pandemonium. Like those that had sprung from the wizard's brazier, burning elementals rose amid the charred logs in his fireplace, breathing smoke and heat as they serpentined outward into the room. Endless vapory scrolls unfurled from between the leaves of his massed manuscripts, dilating into Powers and Dominations. Bloated incubi swam toward him on the air, levitating themselves pronely, quivering like obscene jellies, and lolling their fulsome vermilion tongues from taurine mouths.

Out of all these shapes, that seethed and fumed in perpetual agitation, there pulsed an insufferable horror that centered upon La Porte: a horror older than man, older than the world, deeper than the earth's caverns or the crypts of the brain.

It seemed that he had not awakened from his dream: that he was still the sorcerer La Coudraie, facing the vengeful demons over whom he had secured an incomplete power. And yet he was still Francis La Porte who, metaphorically, had summoned such beings; had imagined and described them in stories that were like unfinished incantations, lacking the spells of compulsion and dismission.

Whether awake or dreaming, he knew the deadly peril in which he stood. A frenzy beyond the frenzy of nightmares mounted within him, and his reason seemed to drown in some abyss of primordial fears. Without knowing whence they came, from what volume of dubious lore he had remembered them, he began to declaim the words of a cabalistic exorcism.

"I adjure ye by the living God, El, Ehome, Etrha, Ejel aser, Ejech Adonay Iah Tetragrammaton Saday Agios other Agla ischiros athan-atos---"

The long and orotund formula came to an end. It seemed that the specters had drawn back a little, facing La Porte in a sort of semi-circle. But, without turning, he knew that other visitants had gathered behind him. They guarded the door; they hemmed him in; they barred him from all hope of egress. Truly, he was no sorcerer to dismiss them, entrenched with intricate circles and pentagrams, and armed with the magnetized rod and the cross-hilted knife.

The pulsing horror deepened; the menace quickened like tightening coils .... And yet, among all these formidable shapes, there was nothing that he had not conceived and depicted in his half-abortive tales. They were, he tried to tell himself, mere images and ideas that he had never wholly discharged from his mind. Perhaps there was another mode of exorcism, surer and more potent than the one that magicians had employed. Trying to disregard his visitors, he stooped over the Remington and his fingers began to seek the familiar keys {sic}

Last page of Version II is missing.

Foot Note

Smith wrote "Nemesis of the Unfinished" with Don Carter, a friend from Bowman, California, whose wife Natalie painted the portrait of Smith that appears on the Selected Poems (Arkham House, 1971) dust-jacket.

For the following discussion, the completed draft will be referred to as Version I, and the one sans ending, Version II. The actual details of composition are obscure, although the surviving manuscripts hint at what went on. In addition to the two versions presented, an earlier draft of Version I (which bears the date July 30, 1947), a few pages of early drafting, and a fragmentary "pre-draft" have also been preserved. This typed "pre-draft," which bears no author's name, outlines Version I and forms Appendix II of this book [see below]. For reasons mentioned in the Appendix, one is led to see this piece as the work of Don Carter—although, of course, Smith may have written an earlier synopsis or draft, which Carter could have modified to produce the "pre-draft." On the other hand, the random pages of early drafting are in Smith's handwriting, and form the prose basis for most of the scenes in Version I.

It therefore seems likely that Carter approached Smith with the idea for the tale, along with his "pre-draft"—which was perhaps inspired by a visit to Smith's cabin!—which Smith fleshed out into Version I, after at least one trial draft, sometime during the summer of 1947. It also seems likely that Smith went on to compose Version II on his own, presumably dissatisfied with Carter's development of the story.

Version II is listed as being 2,700 words in length, so we are probably missing the last page.

Appendix II Nemesis of the Unfinished

DON CARTER'S OUTLINE

The following fragmentary draft or synopsis of "Nemesis of the Unfinished" was found among Clark Ashton Smith's papers; although titled, it bears no author's name. The pages of the typescript are numbered in a fashion unlike Smith's other typescripts, the prose itself is awkward, and the spelling is poor (grievously misspelled words have been preserved, and are noted), leading one to attribute the piece to Don Carter, rather than Smith. We note that all additions and overscorings or rewordings to the text are in Smith's handwriting, and in places represent major overhaulings of the prose.

^Francis LaPorte was a writer whose authentic talent was allied with an industry no less than prodigious. Unfortunately, his hypercritical trend prevented him from completing more than one ms. out of a score. Though editors importuned him for stories, he was seldom far from starvation.^ [Francis LaPort was an author of considerable talent but he could seldom complete a manuscript: Only one now and then to keep himself from actual starvation.]

Francis had manuscripts by the [scores and] hundreds together with the ^double or triple^ [extra] carbons that he was always careful to make. Also there were enumurable {sic} synopses of tales half written completed or unbegun. They crammed the drawers of his desk, they bulged and overflowed the boxes that were stacked in the corners of his work room and along the walls. Everywhere one turned there lay a story almost but not quite finished.

Many of them were weird uncanny tales of horror and death. Sometimes they seemed to talk to Francis in the dark hours of the morning. Always the plot was a new one for it seemed he never had time to finish the ones already begun. There were moments when he thought he could hear all the sheets rustling about after he had gone to bed. Finally he would fall asleep vowing he would resume work the next day and complete them without further procrastination.

A new day would always bring him a new idea. Or else he would visit the neighboring town to spend a little of his sparse income for food. Occasionally he would receive a small check for one of his short tales. Then he would indulge in an orgy of food and wine, lurching to bed a little before dawn. The inevitable hangover deprived him both of the power and the desire to work.

Though he did not know it La Port was in the position of a necromancer who has called up spirits from the deep without knowing how to control or dismiss them.

Coming home rather late one night with a moderate cargo of wine, Francis crawled into bed at once . He slept immediately but his slumber was brief {... } in which he seemed to distinguish voices. {... } rustling of paper. Then a louder noise as if masses of paper were sliding and shifting. Then conversation, as if a crowd of people were talking all at once. The words were indistinguishable and it seemed that voices of unhuman timbre replied to others that were plainly human, in a bizzar {sic} and sinister dialogue, once or twice he caught his own name uttered in strange ^gibbering^ [metallic] tones, somehow fraught with inimical conspiracy.

Francis sprang out of bed. Lighting a lamp and going into his study he looked into every corner of the room but saw only the stacks of over piled manuscripts. Apparently the piles were undisturbed but he seemed to see them through a thick haze and began to chock {sic} and caugh {sic} with a dust that filled the room so mysteriously. Dumbfounded, he began to inspect the stacks of paper, perceiving that the accumulated dust of months and years had been shaken from the massed reams. ^After searching the room repeatedly he found no further sign of {... } either human or supernatural. He tried to think that some sudden gust of wind had performed the mysterious office of dusting.^

Francis slept no more that night. Puzzled and perturbed. He sat watching in his swiveled chair the {at} typewriter desk. There was no repetition of the rustlings and voices that had seemed to awaken him. He wondered if he had been the victim ^of some distempered dream,^ inspired by the wine of the previous night.

The next morning he started to go through the accumulated mass of stories. Selecting one at random he pounded all day at his typewriter and finally succeeded in finishing the tale a little before midnight. Reading it over he was well pleased with what he had written [and resolved to send it out in the morning mail. Francis had been unable to shake off entirely the strange incidents of the previous night. But the daylight made them seem more dreamlike and unreal than ever].

Rising very early he cooked his meagre breakfast and prepared for the trip to town. Before sealing the big envelope that contained his {... } checked it over for possible minor corrections.

{NOTE: One page is missing from the draft at this point.}

{... } surely removed before closing the machine and setting it on the floor.

He had arrisen {sic} in his sleep and resumed the interminable task. He had never detected in himself the least tendency to somnambulism.

Stupified by a terror he could not name, Francis began to reread the typescript. After the first few pages, he was disturbed by a feeling that the typescript, again swollen to unaccountable propertions, was thickening momently in his fingures {sic} and was twisting like a live thing.

The sheets dropped from nerveless fingers. Time ceased to move in the paralysis that has ceased him {sic}. Unable to stir, powerless to close his eyes, he saw the trembling and tottering of the high stacked manuscripts that lined the room.

He could not turn his head even when he heard the plopping and sliding of heavy masses of paper on the floor and the numberless rustlings that crept slowly but steadily nearer behind him; while in the desk before which he sat there was a sudden clacking as if all the drawers had opened similtaiosly {sic}.

It was then that the final madness came upon him: the delirium in which all things seemed to revolve and fall about him in an irresistible ever swifting vertigo ....

Neighbors, noticing the absence of smoke from La Port's chimney, and missing him on his frequent morning trips to the village, became sufficiently alarmed to investigate after the third day. Opening the unlocked outer door, they saw the litter of paper that overflowed the threshold of his workroom.

Reams of scattered paper filled the room itself; a mountain of heaped and dishiveled {sic} manuscripts covering the one chair and desk and typewriter with its high piled summit. They found Francis La Port lying in a convulsed posture beneath the pile. In his rigid hands, upthrust protectively before his face, were clutched the sheets of several thick manuscripts, torn and ripped almost asunder as if in some violent struggle. Other sheets, torn to confetti-like pieces littered his upturned body. Still others were locked in a titanic rigor between his bared teeth.

^xxx^ xxx was added by Smith.
[xxx] xxx was deleted by Smith.
{1947}

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Printed on: November 21, 2017