Clark Aston Smith is a largely forgotten fantasy writer who, along with H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard (author of Conan the Barbarian), were the major contributors to the influential Weird Tales magazine established in 1923. His work, along with Lovecraft’s, is often categorised under the term ‘Weird Fiction’, a nebulous genre that roughly describes a story which has a supernatural element blended with fantasy or science fiction, but is sometimes more of an aesthetic: a suspension of reality, sometimes speculative, sometimes schizophrenic, often uncanny; these stories feel like a waking dream.
Smith is possibly in a category of his own, and he created a number of story cycles that take place in fantasy worlds that include a medieval French province, a continent in a future dying Earth, a prehistoric civilisation and even Atlantis. His fantasy is dark and his stories are often populated by evil and power that bends and breaks others.
One reason why his writing may not have fared well over the years is that it has a very antiquated style, full of long descriptive sentences that are weighed down by Latinate words and heavy-handed metaphors. Harlan Ellison described it as “prose so purple it sloshes over into ultrviolet”. It is not to everyone’s taste, and to be honest I find it can get in the way of Smith’s soaring imagination. He is a first-rate world-builder, and most people assume it his language –the code– that makes his worlds so alluring. Personally, I think it is his originality and weirdness that grabs us and the language is often a stumbling block.
One of my favourite Smith stories is a brilliant reworking of the Cretan labyrinth myth, and it fits the ‘eternal wanderer in the maze’ trope I described in my post about The Shining. In fact, given that evil is such a presiding force in both stories, this is a fitting extension to that post. I read The Maze of the Enchanter more than ten years ago and its imagery still lingers. However, reading it again I found the verbose language even more distracting and so I set myself the task of rewriting the story in a much simpler prose. It would be sacrilege to even suggest my version improves on the original, but it has allowed me to get closer to the kernel of the story, and also it might be more accessible to those not accustomed to the genre. It is, in essence, a dark fairy tale, and it deserves to be read.
Note: I have also changed the story from third person to second person. I did this because I want the reader to feel the entrapment of the character, and to experience the limited perspective of the maze (not the God-view of third person).
The Maze of the Enchanter Redux
With only the skinny light from the four crescent moons, you cross the bottomless swamp where nothing dwells except that heaving mass of ooze that breathes with a breathless sentience. You carefully avoid the high causeway of white crystal walls, and instead thread your way across each gelatinous island, each step a sinking-second before you shift your weight to the next crust.
When you reach the solid shore you avoid the pale-pink staircase that winds upwards like a needle piercing the sky, and crosses floating peninsulas and steep clefts cut into the gleaming rock. Eventually that winding and convoluted path reaches the terrible enclave of Maal Dweb.
The staircase and the causeway are guarded by iron giants who mindlessly serve their master. Their arms are long crescent blades whose tempered edges deal swiftly with trespassers.
You have smeared your naked body, from top to bottom, with a juice that is toxic to all fauna on this planet. With this protection, you hope to pass, unharmed, all the ape-like creatures that roam through the cliff-hung gardens and halls of Maal Dweb. You carry a coil of root-fibres weighted at one end with a brass ball for the purpose of scaling this impossible mountain. Your only weapon is a poisoned knife.
Many before you have tried to hunt down Maal Dweb in his fortress. None have ever returned. You hope to reverse that fortune. Hand over hand you scale the sheer heights, finding slithers of crystal as footholds and hurling the weighted coil around projecting angles of rock. Finally, you manage to attain a narrow buttress beneath the final cliff face. From here you can just reach, with your coil, the crooked and sinewy branch of a tree from Maal Dweb’s garden.
These trees bear sharp metallic leaves which seem to slash the air when the wind catches them. Rumour has it that Maal Dweb, with no human aid, carved his fortress into the rock, fashioning walls, cupolas and turrets and then levelled this great space around the mountain. On this mesa he placed loamy soil in which he planted these curious trees and also many toxic and carnivorous flowers which he gathered from his exploration of the outlying planets. His garden of earthly delights was full of colour and rich perfume, but everything here was bent sinister: bleeding orchids, tendrils that shot out like a frog’s tongue and wet with a saliva that stuck your eyes and blocked your airways, giant throaty leaves that snapped shut and slowly grew over you, huge flutes in the mossy soil that you might slide down –landing in a bath of acid– and many strange vegetable animals; spongy and clumsy copies that were attached umbilically to their host plants and moved by various sacs of air that were crude pistons. Some had teeth and others poisoned fangs; others still would explode in a cloud of spores that once inhaled would later grow and lead to an excruciating death from inside.
This labyrinth of traps upon traps was the safest way into the palace grounds but it was only the first and most loosely designed labyrinth. It was said that on the opposite side of the mountain, bathed in light from three suns, a lush topiary had been formed into an almost infinite maze which contained an even greater variety of capricious traps designed by Mal Dweb himself.
You crouch in the shadows and listen to the thick silence produced by this hungry and patient forest. You take in the nightmare around you, this mish mash collage of forms: roots like giant, hairy spider’s legs, roots that slither through the undergrowth and then seem to stop and sniff the air, flowers that chirp and shake excitedly as you get near and then rise up suddenly to head-height to reveal a monstrous leering face made from thick wads of petals, vines that hang down and occasionally lash from side to side exposing a seam of tiny mouths. You pass through all of this with careful calculation and by stopping frequently to adjust your path.
You are driven by a consuming hatred. A girl was taken from you. Her name is Athle, the rarest and most beautiful person you know. Strong and kind and intelligent –she was to become the leader of your tribe and you have sworn protection of her. You love her selflessly. Your caste cannot marry hers. It is forbidden, and perhaps she doesn’t share your deepest feelings. You spend your days with her, learning from her, and she is your closest and only friend.
Maal Dweb, a man or demon or something else, is, like many powerful tyrants, a collector. His tastes, not uncommon for those with power, focus on the asthetics of women, and he summoned the splendor of tribes across many planets to his lair. His iron-like voice could be projected limitlessly, and came down among the cosmic radiation –it cut through the wind and sandstorms, flew through walls and stone and echoed across plains. His made his decrees and the women, no less that fifty in the three decades of his imperium, came voluntarily –to refuse would mean certain destruction for their homes.
They came one by one, and they ascended the porphyry staircase and the doors to the palace opened and they were never seen again.
Athle was engaged to a man chosen as her suitor. He was from the upper caste and had all the spoils of education and refined sensibility. His name is Mocair. When you learned that Athle had been spirited away, you did not announce your intention to follow her since Maal Dweb has eyes and ears everywhere, and it is said that he can see through the eyes of beasts. Morcair was not present during the lamentations of the tribe, and it is not unlikely that he left before you on the same mission.
Now you stand in the final grove of the forest and peeping from the darkness are the saffron lights from the lower windows of the palace. A dense throng of domes and turrets blot out the night sky. Suddenly you are emboldened and you leap out into the garden, dodging the knife-like leaves, and cross the lawn that squirms underfoot like a carpet of worms.
To one side of the path you see a discarded coil of rope and know that Morcair has preceded you. The whole building is as still as a mausoleum and lit by windless lamps. No shadows can be seen behind the yellow frieze of windows. You mistrust the solitude and lack of sentries and so you follow the bordering paths for a while before approaching an entrance.
Then you spot movement. Out of the gloom shuffles an apish monster: hairy, bulky and with a long, sloping forehead. There is a group of them. Some run on four-feet while others maintain the upright posture of anthropoids. They go forward in a single-minded fashion and if they see or sense you they slink away, whining like a dog. You presume this is due to the foul extraction coating your body.
You come to a dark portico with crowded columns. There are many silent fountains and banks of marble all about. The blue veins of the marble remind you of pale skin, and you feel again, as you have done all along, that you are walking on something alive and dimly conscious of you.
You enter the palace through a large door stood open. A hallway stretches out in front of you and ends in darkness some twenty metres ahead. The silence here is thicker than ever. The air stings you with the scents of various strong perfumes mingling together. The darkness seems alive with breathing and unseen movement. You move inwards, deeper and deeper into the complex.
Slowly, like the opening eyes of the palace, the yellow flames rise one by one in copper lamps hung along the wall. You hide behind a heavily embroidered arras but minutes later, looking out, you see that the hall is still deserted. You continue onwards.
The doors on either side of the hall are all closed. Out of the shadows at the end of the hall emerges a double arras. Parting it slightly you peer into the next, brightly lit, chamber. Inside is a large circular room that appears, at first glance, to be the harem of Maal Dweb. There are perhaps all the girls summoned by the enchanter, all in various poses and some pressed against statues of bulls and other animals. They are all wearing the same two-piece, metal, heavily-jewelled garment. They are all painted in exotic make-up and their skin oiled, shining wet in the sharp light that poured into the chamber from some unknown source. None moved. They seem frozen and yet alive.
You approach the nearest statue, a girl with long flowing black hair, almost to her knees. She is kneeling on the floor, her body arched backwards in some spasm of pain or ecstasy –it is impossible to say which. You put your hand on her arm and it feels brittle, as if made from coloured glass. Her face is locked in an expression of absolute terror, the eyes fixed ahead. There is something about the eyes –they have a depth rather than reflecting the light. You lean in to examine them closely and while you stare into those black holes, the pupils dilate suddenly and move a fraction. You feel a small puff of stale air on your cheek. She is somehow alive, but trapped in a glass cage.
You stagger backwards and can only think of Athle. Where is she? Has this been done to her too? You search the room frantically but she is not among the glass mannequins. Mirrors hung everywhere, on the walls and on various frames, multiply the images of these women into infinity.
You cross the room, anger and despair knifing you forward. On the opposite side there is another exit covered by a double arras. Peering through first, you see a twilight chamber illuminated by two censers that give forth a variegated glow and blood-red fume. The censers are set on tripods in the far corners, facing each other. Between them lies a purple couch underneath a gauzy canopy of metal birds. On the couch a man reclines, as if weary or asleep. His face was very calm and placid. You have no doubt that this is Maal Dweb, the occult and omniscient scientist or sorcerer who is the unseen overlord of the galaxy.
Your rage consumes you then and you take silent steps forward and draw your blade. The man seems more in meditation than sleep, as if he wandered in a waking dream. The vapour from the censers had some hallucinatory effects, and your head swims in the shallow light. Mastering the vertigo, you raise your heavy arm and strike downwards towards the tyrant’s heart.
In mid-air above the vessel, your blade hits some impenetrable glass and the point breaks off and falls to the floor, breaking the silence. The impassive face seems to be touched by a faint and cruel amusement. You reach out and touch a vertical plane, a highly polished surface between the censers –a mirror that reflects the whole unbroken scene. You tried to kill a perfect image. Strangely, you are not reflected in this surface.
You whirl around and at that same moment the draperies on the walls pull back with an evil whispered rush and the chamber is flooded with light. Naked giants stand all around, each with hungry eyes and holding an enormous knife from which the point has broken off. It takes you a few minutes to realise that this is your reflection.
You turn again. The couch and canopy have gone and now the chamber stands empty. A candid laughter rises up from somewhere and envelops you. It peels off the walls and reverberates around the room.
“What do you seek Tiglari? Do you think to enter my palace with impunity. Many others have tried but all have paid a certain price for their temerity.”
“I seek my friend, Athle”.
“Your friend? The one who came before said ‘wife’. Does he not have a greater claim on her? Why take such risks Tiglari for friendship? I do not know whether to feel scorn or pity.”
“My love is greater than his.”
“It makes no difference to me. I have no need for emotions; they cloud my mind. They are a thing for beasts who live in shadows.”
“What have you done with her?”
“She has gone to find her fate in my labyrinth. Not long ago the prince, Mocair, went out at my suggestion to pursue his search amid the threadless windings of my maze. Go now Tiglari and seek her also. There are many mysteries and fortunes in my maze and perhaps there is one you are destined to solve.”
You see a door has opened in the mirrored wall. If Athle is lost in the maze then you will follow. You will not let her suffer alone. You walk out into the burnished sunrise and hear the doors clash behind.
The entrance to the fabled maze is right ahead. Its green walls rise ten metres or more and run in a straight line, to either side, until the sheer cliffs of the mountain. This single hedge must be at least ten miles long in each direction. Stepping inside you hear yourself take a short breath. This place holds such a mythological grip over so many countless tribes and cities and planets. You are now inside, waiting in the cool shadows; and yet you could still turn back. A few steps backwards, and you could follow the wall and quickly skirt the palace. Perhaps the metal servitors might even let you pass. But Maal Dweeb is no fool. Over generations men have come here following honour and duty. He resets the trap and we come for our nectar, and we fall on our swords, like bees stinging and dying to save their queen. We deem this a noble sacrifice, but he sees nothing but beasts, driven by lust and clouded by our self-love for the immortal warrior.
You walk forth into the maze, believing a moment that your true heart, your selfless love for Athle might spare you. Why do we still believe in fairy tales? The outlying districts of the maze are not as you expected. They are quaint, full of topiary animals and lush hedgerows that look smooth to the touch. The paths wind, taper until they almost touch and fork repeatedly but there are no dead ends. Sometimes you appear in a garden from which many paths radiate, with a fountain in the centre. The water is fresh and cold. The next time you find one of these fountains you presume you have doubled back, but on closer inspection this fountain differs from the first in that the statues are the mirror-image. You choose paths at will but after a few hours, having returned to the outer wall on one side you begin to pull leaves from the hedge and scatter them behind you. It is not until you find a thin trail of leaves meeting a solid wall that you finally understand. The walls are moving, changing the path of the labyrinth and you are being watched and toyed with.
Anger and humiliation are sometimes a useful spark. You begin to match the maze, becoming unpredictable. You increase your pace, and frequently double back, using your knife to strip off foliage as you go. Sometimes you double back several times. The walls begin to tremor and waves unfurl down their length as they attempt to block you in. You doubt your chances of actually cutting through the thickness of the walls, but you eventually try another path. You attempt to scale the walls and grab fistfuls of light twigs to stay your balance and try to ascend these thrashing, vertical gardens. It is only through your vice-grip, mastered as a climber –your tribe lives on top of a sheer escarpment– that you hold on and finally reach the summit of the hedge. Then all goes quiet, the walls still and you gaze out over the maze.
It leads impossibly to the horizon, and is build on many levels, some winding up and around spires and others tumbling down various plateaus. There are even some entrances underground and it looks as if there are subterranean parts to this continent of bizarre confusions. How can you ever find her in here? It is beautiful and overwhelming to the eye. You walk along the top of the hedge walls and gradually find your way deeper and deeper into the maze. Then the leafy and dense hedges begin to change in form. The leaves gradually give way to long snaking thorns and their number increases until you walk on a bed of snakes lined with teeth. You slip once and receive such lacerations that you realise it is impossible to go on. You backtrack and climb down, returning to the ground and a loss of perspective. From hereon in the maze darkens like it has been poisoned. There are no gardens or flowers, but instead there are enormous fungi with swelling bulges that hum with inner life, fetid pools full of leeches as big as your hands, cacti that spit out their spines as you pass close and even turn to face you, strange fruits and blossoms that mimic body parts or seem to contain them as if the dead here were dismembered and their limbs reconstituted by the cruel trees. The path went downward or scaled great heights. Sometimes you were in tunnels or walking on a narrow ledge around a needle-like spire, only to find the path then continued on a suspended forest to yet more anomalous growths and plants that looked like flesh and bone, metallic, chiming roots and channels of slime that you waded through up to your waist. Things moved and suckled your body in those depths and once a tail or tentacle grasped you and you felt patches of flesh ripped off but somehow you cut yourself free from those cupping mouths and got out of the trench before it dragged you under.
Somewhere among those blind paths you met one of the ape-like creatures, sleek and glistening like a wet otter. It passed you with a hoarse growl and recoiled away. It seemed driven forward, eager to keep moving. You hear a chorus of flute-like voices and then a series of quartz bells and gongs tolling out across the maze. Then, not long after you find yourself on a pavement of onyx and the maze seems different again –more ordered and yet much stranger. You are surrounded by towering bronzed stems that end in a long mouth of petals, like the heads of chimeras. You have finally, found a dead end. It is too late.
From the base of each of the chimera-plants a tendril shot out and fixed around your ankles. More followed and began to pull you off your feet. Despite your struggles your knife won’t cut the metallic skin and so you concentrate on finding purchase between the smooth stones and trying to get out of their leash. Those carmine mouths of flowers began to tilt down toward your body and then dip their heads over your knees. From their thick lips a clear, hueless liquid begins to drip –slowly at first and then running in rills. It covers your feet, and ankles and then slowly moves up your body.
Your flesh crawls from it and after a peculiar numbness passed your skin erupts in a furious stinging and burning. You watch in passivity as your legs undergo a horrifying change; becoming thicker and covered in a thick mat of hair, the feet longer and the toes thick and splayed out. You scream and thrash about but nothing can release you from their net. The heads are carefully and assiduously doing their work and now set to laving your hips and thighs in their thin slaver. Your whole body is in revolt to itself.
Then you hear the cry of a woman. Through the open gap in the hedge the walls seem to part swiftly and reveal a larger section of pavement on which stood a raised dais and altar. Climbing the steps to the centre with a hypnotic step is Athle. She is dressed as were the glass mannequins in the hall of mirrors. At the top she pauses and out of the dais rises a great circular mirror held upright. On it’s reverse side, visible to you only is the relief of a monster -an ugly, brutal face rendered in bronze. She seems captivated by some image in the mirror and steps toward it, her hands reaching forward. Her eyes widen in disbelief and the disc flashes for a moment and then flashes again in such a burst that you are temporarily blinded.
When the swirling blots clear from your vision you see that Athle is in a pose of statuesque rigidity and is still regarding the mirror with startled eyes. At that moment the chorus of voices sweep up again from nowhere and though you try to call out to Athle you realise she can’t hear you and she never saw you –she was alone when the end came.
Now the tilted blossoms are laving your arms and body and the transformation continues. You realise that the beast you passed earlier was probably Mocair and the other ape creatures were all those lost souls who had entered the maze. You wait for the end of the transformation, for the salve to cover your head but they seem to halt at your neck and retract.
Maal Dweb, in long purple robes, enters the space and the flowers retreat further, blending into the hedge. He looks over your body with the pride of an architect.
“I had intended to deal with you precisely as I dealt with Mocair and many others. However, I find that my whims are not always the same and I am getting bored of this enterprise. You, Tiglari, unlike the others shall remain a man from the neck upward, and you are free to resume your wanderings in the labyrinth and escape from it if you can. I do not wish to see you again, and my clemency arises from another reason than esteem for your kind. Go now, the maze awaits.”
You watch him disappear back into the maze and a strange volition holds you there, prevents you from rising to your feet. It passes moments later and when you get back up and try to pursue him he has already vanished. Then, overcome with melancholy you retrace your steps to the onyx pavement only to find that the maze has sealed this entrance and now you only have your memories of Athle and her fate lies close to you but out of reach.
You slouch onward, toward a horizon that will forever twist away from you. It will be no recompense to you that this will be the last time a woman is summoned by Maal Dweb. Even he has tired of this artifice and in wariness of power, will retreat further from the world until he is at last forgotten and his palace will be lost to myth until some distant time when an explorer ventures here and finds the hall of mirrors and the ape-men in their labyrinth still searching for their humanity.