The Weird – Genius Loci – Clark Ashton Smith

After a break of a couple of months, just to get some perspective again, it’s back to blogging the stories in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird. We now turn to Clark Ashton Smith’s ‘Genius Loci’.

by Mark Berthelmy

In classical times, the genius loci was the protective spirit of a place; more recently, the term has come to mean the atmosphere of a particular place – ‘the body of associations connected with, or inspirations that may be derived from it’, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it. There is, I think, an ancillary assumption to this, that the body of associations will be in some way pleasant or spiritually elevating. Clark Ashton Smith, it seems, has other ideas.

‘It will all sound so simple and ordinary’, says Amberville as he describes the place he has found to the narrator (223). He goes on to describe a ‘dreary little stream’, ‘boggy ground’, a ‘stagnant pool’, all very enticing. The trees are worse: ‘several sickly-looking alders seem to fling themselves backward, as if unwilling to approach it. A dead willow leans above the pool, tangling its wan, skeleton-like reflection with the green scum that mottles the water’ (223). This is a place so unhealthy that even the flora and fauna don’t actually want to engage with it. Amberville insists the spot is evil: ‘it is unholy in a way that I simply can’t describe’ (223), and yet he also feels compelled to draw the place, although it is not the kind of landscape he usually portrays.

Murray, the narrator, when he looks at the sketches, echoes Amberville’s suggestion that it is ‘simple and ordinary’, in very similar terms. The willow leans at a ‘prone, despondent angle, as if mysteriously arrested in its fall towards the stagnant waters’ (224). And ‘the alders seemed to strain away from the pool, exposing their knotted roots in eternal effort’ (224). Dreariness and gloominess also pervade in the narrator’s description yet he echoes Amberville’s contention that this was ordinary enough.

Murray goes on to claim that he can see ‘a profound horror that lurked in these simple elements and was expressed by them as if by the balefully contoured features of some demoniac face’ (224). He concludes that ‘The evil conveyed was something wholly outside of humanity – more ancient than man’ (224). Murray describe the meadow as having the air of a vampire, perhaps appropriately given he seems to be a writer of weird stories; Amberville seems more circumspect in giving a shape to whatever it is, eventually calling the presence a ‘genius loci’ while remaining uncertain as to what it actually looks like.

Something odd is going on here. Amberville, the visual artist, can’t give the thing a shape, although he has experienced its effects at first hand, while Murray piles on the words and determines the nature of the presence without ever having visited the place. One might ascribe this to the power of Amberville’s sketches, of course, but I find myself unpersuaded by this argument, for a number of reasons.

Murray, as a first-person narrator, is almost by definition untrustworthy, insofar as the reader has no way of testing his responses against those of anyone else, because Murray is also the story’s mediator. But we have a narrator, a writer, who informs us that ‘I […] was wont to apply myself assiduously to an antique Remington typewriter’ (223), and who can talk about the ‘pictorial potentialities of landscape’. These are ugly phrases, suggesting that the narrator’s writing skills are less than they might be. He’s reaching for a certain effect, naturally, but always overdoing it. His response, without even having been to the haunted meadow, seems to be overheated. One begins to have a sense of a man who is performing the role of a writer rather than someone who genuinely is. It is perhaps revealing that he says ‘I had purchased an uncultivated ranch and had retired for the privacy so essential to prolonged literary effort’ (223). He is clearly keen to present himself as a Writer.

Given all this, just how reliable is his artistic judgement generally? Murray  describes Amberville as ‘one of the foremost landscape painters of his generation’, and notes that since his visit began, he ‘had already found the theme of more than one lovely painting’. From Murray, one has the sense that Amberville’s work, with its ‘grace and vigor’, represents landscape in a particular way, one that is not threatening, certainly not ‘outré’. A later reference to the artist Sorolla and to Amberville’s predilection for ‘scenic brilliance and gayety [sic]’ seem to confirm this sense of Amberville as being talented but maybe a little bourgeois in his tastes?

There is another hint of this later when Murray, concerned for the changes in his friend brought about by his work in the meadow, invites Amberville’s fiancée, Avis Olcott, to stay. ‘She was young, lissome, ultra-feminine, and was altogether devoted to Amberville. In fact, I think she was a little in awe of him’ (229). The implication is that theirs is a very traditional relationship of dominance and submission, not the bohemian equality that Murray seems to wish for: ‘[a] stronger woman might have saved him’ (229).

It is difficult to avoid the impression that Murray is casting this story in a very particular light, indeed that he is making it into one of his own stories and simultaneously criticising those aspects of the story that don’t comply with his vision of how it ought to be; neither Avis nor Amberville seem to do what is expected of them in fictional terms, and one senses a … disappointment in Murray that the story isn’t unfolding as it should. Which in turn suggests that Murray is something of a traditionalist.

What of Murray himself? His concern for his friend is balanced by his own curious lack of engagement. When Amberville returns from his earliest excursions and describes his experience, Murray says ‘I’ll have to come and look at the place myself, before long. It should really be more in my line than yours. There ought to be a weird story in it somewhere, if it lives up to your drawings and description’ (225), yet delays visiting the place, even though he can see his friend has been transformed by it. When he finally goes there, his own experiences seem to be a mixture of the genuinely hair-raising and the descriptively overblown.

First, the meadow seems to be merely ‘dreary and dismal’, as noted previously. Only after seeing Amberville’s painting, ‘an almost photographic rendering’ (227) does he begin to see again the evil that Amberville has referred to. There is the same sense of layering of experience that Murray described when he looked at the original sketches, as though he’s seeing through the surface of the place, like seeing through the scum on the pond. More than that, he sees something else; ‘Just beyond the focus of my vision, a figure seemed to stand in a furtive attitude, as if watching us both. I whirled about – and there was no one’ (227). Murray’s action is then immediately repeated by Amberville, who has caught sight of Murray and thought that he was the old man he had seen there before, previously identified as Chapman, the former owner of the place, dead in peculiar circumstances.

Indeed, the whole story, once one looks at it, is about forms of doubling, and immediately after this layering of sightings it happens again, when Murray decides that Amberville and the meadow are somehow in rapport with one another. ‘In a flash of horrible definitude, I saw the place as an actual vampire, and Amberville as its willing victim’ (228), which would be more of a revelation if Murray hadn’t already identified the place as having an air of the vampiric from Amberville’s sketches. Before he flees, Murray thinks he sees an aura about the place ‘reaching toward Amberville like ghostly arms’ (228). It may have been an illusion, he says, and in fact I suspect it is an illusion insofar as we can distinguish between what Murray actually experiences – that glimpse of a figure – and the literary embellishment of the ghostly arms of mist.

Murray deals with the problem by writing to Amberville’s fiancée and then deciding not to visit the meadow again for himself. His reasons for distancing himself are unclear. Possibly it is easier for him not to confront the oddity of an actual haunting as opposed to the tidiness of a fictional haunting. It is noticeable that Murray constantly resorts to the conventional image to describe what is going on while denying the reality of what is happening. ‘How it would end, I could not imagine’(230). One finds this hard to believe. Is Murray really saying that he, the writer, cannot honestly see what will happen? Perhaps not if he is expecting some sort of rescue to come from without, and his reaction to Avis suggests that this is what he is hoping for, again enabling him to escape responsibility.

It’s notable, for example, that he is only finally galvanised into action when Amberville and Avis go missing. At the same time, it is notable that he does not attempt to imagine what might have happened to them. When he finds the bodies, there is a moment when clarity finally asserts itself in his prose, with the simple statement: ‘It seemed that there had been a struggle; but both were quiet now, and had yielded supinely to their doom’ (231). Only that last word takes us back to Murray’s fictional world, and subsequent paragraphs lead us more deeply into his imaginings, with the appearance of the ghostly faces of Avis, Amberville and Chapman.

Slowly, inexpressibly, they merged into one, becoming an androgynous face, neither young nor old, that melted finally into the lengthening phantom boughs of the willow – the hands of the arboreal death, that were reaching out to enfold me. Then, unable to bear the spectacle any longer, I started to run. (231)

What are we to believe? This much is certain; there is something strange about the meadow, something which exerts an influence over those who spend a significant amount of time in the area. Its nature is unclear, as is its purpose. It is inexplicable. None of its victims – Amberville, Avis and Chapman – was able to explain what they experienced. Amberville perhaps came closest with his paintings and sketches. Murray, though, is aware of its presence and still alive. However, while he may be eager to represent himself as being threatened, one wonders whether Murray is truly so. He seems to be too embroiled in the business of constructing a weird tale to address the actual weirdness of Chapman’s meadow. And that in itself is weird.