The verdict is in: the tales of Averoigne are my favorite pulp fantasies after Stormbringer. And since the Elric novel is in a rather exceptional deified category, that’s saying quite a lot. Why it’s taken me decades to read Clark Ashton Smith, I don’t know. Probably because I could never locate a copy of the Averoigne stories when I tried.
I’ve known Averoigne — experienced it even — through the D&D module Castle Amber. Exactly 40 years ago, in 1981, I went to Averoigne as a mage, and had to keep my spells under wraps lest I fell prey to the inquisition. In the D&D game, Averoigne is lifted right from the stories of Clark Ashton Smith: a province in a parallel world similar to medieval France, but where magic is real and considered to be an evil pagan practice. Clerics (priests and bishops) don’t cast spells, and spell casters in general are viewed with suspicion and subject to arrest by the church authorities.
Of course, Smith wrote his stories long before D&D was a thing. The Averoigne tales were published between 1930-1941. But he may as well have been gazing into the late ’70s and early ’80s. Averoigne is practically a blueprint for a D&D campaign setting.
What Smith actually intended Averoigne to be was a fantasy version of the province of Auvergne in particular, with the capital Vyones standing for Clermont (where the First Crusade was preached), and St. Flour the most likely analog for Ximes. According to Glenn Rahman:
“Smith’s Averoigne was an isolated mountain country covered by magical forests and springs, a center of Druidic worship from time immemorial. In the medieval period its castles were peopled by witches and monsters. This description fits the fact and folklore of Auvergne better than any other part of the French landscape. Champagne and Alsace-Lorraine, likewise forested and remote, yet fail to make a convincing match. Eastern France has always stood at the crossroads of Latin and Germanic culture and of political disturbance. Provincial Auvergne, in the quiet center of France, is much more in the spirit of Smith’s creation. Moreover, the story ‘The Maker of Gargoyles’ implies the proximity of Averoigne and Provence. A glance at the map will show that Auvergne abuts upon Provence.
How do the geographies of Auvergne and Averoigne compare? Vyônes, the capital of Averoigne, must be identified with the chief city of Auvergne, Clermont-Ferrand. Like Vyônes, Clermont-Ferrand stands at the heart of the province and boasts of an excellent cathedral—although, unlike Vyônes, Clermont-Ferrand does not house an archbishop. The town of Ximes, often mentioned by Smith, should be sought in one of Auvergne’s other cathedral towns—St. Flour or Le Puy. Of the two, St. Flour’s claim is favored, since, like Ximes, it is also the site of a Benedictine abbey.
The Benedictines were preeminent in both Averoigne and Auvergne. Smith but seldom mentions any other order, and while Perrnonstratensian, Cistercian and Augustine monasteries flourished the length and breadth of medieval France, all the great abbeys of Auvergne were Benedictine. Smith’s Périgon Abbey, the setting of several stories, is to be identified with either Aurillac or La Chaise Dieu, both monastery towns. La Chaise Dieu’s claim is stronger because, like Périgon, the associated town was comparatively small. Furthermore, La Chaise Dieu’s higher prestige in Auvergne rivals Périgon’s eminence in Averoigne.
Averoigne’s physical geography also reminds us of Auvergne’s. Auvergne is a highland centering upon a wide, volcanic valley. Smith, in ‘The Colossus of Ylourgne,’ mentions the ‘outlying, semi-mountainous hills of Averoigne.’ “
I’ll review each of the stories below. But first, here they are in chronological order — the order presented in the book. I assume that the editors guessed where to fit the stories with unspecified dates.
Mother of Toads
The Maker of Gargoyles – 1138 AD
The Holiness of Azédarac – 1175 AD
A Night in Malnéant
The Colossus of Ylourgne – 1281 AD
The Enchantress of Sylaire
The Beast of Averoigne – 1369 AD
The Mandrakes – 1400s AD
A Rendezvous in Averoigne
The Disinterment of Venus – 1550 AD
The End of the Story – 1789 AD
Now here they are, ranked and reviewed. Don’t read them if you want to avoid spoilers.
1. The Holiness of Azédarac (1175 AD). 5 stars. A tale of heresy, time travel, and forbidden love: a cleric of the inquisition investigates a bishop whom the church suspects is a black sorcerer in league with demons (which is indeed is true). This bishop, Azédarac, realizes he is being spied on, and traps the cleric by sending him back in time 700 years. The cleric finds himself in the year 475 AD, before Christianity became the state religion of France and he falls in love with Azédarac’s arch-enemy Moriamis – a rival sorceress who time-travels and has lived for centuries. He ends up discarding his faith in a pagan-dominated France, but his happy ending with Moriamis comes by her shamelessly manipulating him. Meanwhile in present, Azédarac’s evils go unchecked and unproven, and when he dies many years later he is canonized a saint. Sweet tragedy, bitter injustice, and the best character in the Averoigne series (Moriamis)… I mean, what more can you ask for in a 20-page story?
2. The Beast of Averoigne (1369 AD). 5 stars. I wish I had the chops to write a horror piece like this. Every paragraph drips with gothic menace. The story is told in three parts, first from a Benedictine monk who is later slain by the beast that prowls at night; second from Théophile, the Abbot of Périgon, who turns out to be the actual beast, undergoing a change every night that he can’t remember the next day; and third, the alchemist-hero Luc le Chaudronnier, a white sorcerer whom the Christian authorities turn a blind eye to when he uses magic in the cause against evil. Le Chaudronnier uses an ancient artifact, the Ring of Eibon, to unleash a demon on the beast, and while Théophile’s fate is predictably tragic, he is at least exorcised before he dies. One of Smith’s most famous and cherished stories, and rightly so. First-rate storytelling.
3. The Maker of Gargoyles (1138 AD). 5 stars. Another terrific horror piece, telling of a stone-carver who was commissioned by the archbishop of Vyônes to carve a pair of gargoyles for display on top of the city’s new cathedral. On the face of it, it’s a strange commission given the pious Christian attitudes against demonic creatures, and indeed once the gargoyles go up, the people of Vyônes are appalled at what looks like a horrific sacrilege: “the workman had informed these figures to the glory of Belial rather than of God, and had thus perpetrated a sort of blasphemy; a certain amount of grotesquery was admittedly requisite in gargoyles, but in this case the allowable bounds had been egregiously overpassed”. Vyônes then becomes terrorized, as citizens are murdered savagely in the streets and women are lewdly assaulted. It turns out the gargoyles are the culprits; they come to life periodically, and one of them is a savage killer, the other a lascivious rapist. Awesome story.
4. The Colossus of Ylourgne (1281 AD). 5 stars. The best known Averoigne story delivers a socking punch in the form of the Colossus — an 80-foot tall giant built of human corpses that destroys everything in its path: people, houses, walls, and towers. It’s impossible for me to think of the Colossus without thinking of the season-three Mind Flayer of Stranger Things, and I wonder if the Duffers were inspired by this classic story. But I think even more of the Erol Otus cover of Castle Amber, which has been my interpretation of the Colossus ever since going to Averoigne myself as a D&D character 40 years ago. This is phantasmagoric horror at its best: corpses rising en masse from graveyards, at the summons of a necromancer who molds and reforms them to a hideous purpose in an abandoned castle.
5. The End of the Story (1789 AD). 4 ½ stars. The first published Averoigne story is the one that comes chronologically last, set in the late 18th century, long after the Middle Ages. It has a medieval feel nonetheless, involving an abandoned ruins near Périgon — the ruins of Faussesflammes — which for untold years has been “the haunt of unholy spirits, of witches and demons; and festivals not to be described or even named; no weapon known to man, no exorcism or holy water, has ever prevailed against these demons; some say that the demons are abominable hags whose bodies terminate in serpentine coils; others, that they are women of more than mortal beauty, whose kisses consume the flesh of men with the fierceness of hell-fire”. The story’s protagonist is a law student from northern France visiting Averoigne, and he finds himself drawn inexorably into the castle of Faussesflammes, despite stern warnings from the monks.
6. The Enchantress of Sylaire (early 1300s AD?). 4 ½ stars. This the last Averoigne story Smith wrote; the only one he wrote after the ’30s. (It was published in ’41.) It’s about a hermit named Anselme who has been pining for a ditzy woman who cruelly spurned his romantic intentions. He ends up finding better (or does he?), an enchantress named Sephora who lives in an Otherworld known as Sylaire. She takes him through a magic gate to Sylaire and showers favors on him in her domain, but he later encounters a werewolf who used to be Sephora’s lover before she grew tired of him and cursed him. The werewolf warns Anselme that Sephora is an evil being, and gives him a Mirror of Reality, which reveals all illusions, deceptions, and true intentions. Anselme uses the mirror to see the horrific natures of certain individuals — including the ditz who had scorned him — but the twist ending is a bit of a surprise: he refuses to use the mirror on Sephora, saying that he is “content with what his eyes tell him” in her case. The story ends with them bonding in romance in the fey world of Sylaire, a seemingly happy “fairy tale” ending though it’s probably ultimately a very bad one for Anselme. Considering this is Smith’s last story, I wonder if he had reached a point in his life where he wanted to advocate savoring all the happiness possible, even if that involves turning a blind eye to the inevitable treacheries that happiness may carry.
7. Mother of Toads (early 1100s AD?). 4 stars. The first story in the collection makes for a wonderful entry. Set in the swampy regions of Les Hiboux, it’s about an apothecary’s apprentice who gets seduced and raped by a grossly fat witch. Short and sweet (or not so sweet, as it were) and sets a most appropriate tone for the land of Averoigne. Imagine being molested by a fat sow like this, who had “eyes full-orbed and unblinking as those of a toad; the folds beneath her chin swelled like the throat of some great batrachian; her huge breasts, pale as frog-bellies, bulged from her torn gown; in the hollow of those breasts a moisture glistening like the dew of marshes, like the slime of some amphibian”. The last paragraph of the story is utterly horrifying.
8. The Mandrakes (1400s AD). 4 stars. I’ve found mandrakes creepy since watching Pan’s Labyrinth, but in the wake of this story they freak me out completely. It’s a about a husband and his wife who sell love potions, though the husband is nasty and one day secretly kills his wife and buries her beneath mandrakes out in the meadow. The next season when he digs up the mandrakes over his wife’s grave, he is startled to see the mandrakes having more than the usual vaguely human form; these bear the exact likeness of his wife; the roots squirm and writhe when he holds them, and scream in his wife’s voice when he cuts them. When he uses these mandrakes to make and sell his love potions, they have the adverse effect: “Husbands were turned against wives, lasses against their lovers, with speeches of bitter hate and scathful deeds. A certain young gallant who had gone to the promised rendezvous was met by a vengeful madwoman, who tore his face into bleeding shreds with her nails.” At least this son of a bitch gets his just deserts in the end.
9. The Disinterment of Venus (1550 AD). 3 ½ stars. Smith’s scathing satire on prudishness. When the monks of Périgon Abbey dig up a statue of Venus in their vegetable garden, they become absolutely sex-crazed. Many are brought before the abbot and found guilty of open lechery. Some have sexually harassed the local peasant women, and others outright raped them. In rage one of the self-righteous monks takes a hammer to the statue, determined to smash it to pieces… but he is the one who ends up “with a shattered skull and lips bruised to a bloody pulp, lying crushed beneath Venus’s marble breasts, his arms clasped about her in a stiff embrace”. If this story was Smith’s sermon to the prudish, I commend him entirely. It’s one of the lighter Averoigne tales, but very amusing in parts.
10. A Night in Malnéant (1200s AD?). 3 ½ stars. Some scholars say this isn’t an Averoigne tale since it doesn’t mention the place or any location in the other Averoigne tales, but it seems fair to include it. After all, according to the editor, “it was written a scant two weeks after Smith’s first recognized Averoigne tale ‘The End of the Story’ and obviously utilizes an old world French setting with a super-romantic theme closely aligned to that of many other Averoigne tales”. It’s a haunting story about a guy who wanders the streets of a fog-filled city, asking for directions and other help, only to be rejected because everyone is obsessed in preparing for the funeral rites of some lady that apparently he might have known himself. Nothing is resolved in the end; it’s a pretty effective and unnerving tale.
11. A Rendezvous in Averoigne (late 1400s AD?). 3 stars. The most accessible (or “mainstream”) of the Averoigne stories is perhaps the most mundane, telling of a troubadour and his lady-love who get abducted by vampires, trapped in their castle in a grim forest, but end up killing their hosts (via a stake in their hearts) a bit too easily. There’s no denying it’s atmospheric, but this could have easily been a 5-star story if the stakes (pun) had been raised and if the vampires were more dangerous as vampires should be.
12. The Satyr (1600s AD?). 3 stars. The shortest story in the collection (6 pages) isn’t bad, just sketchy. Set at the castle in La Frênaie, it tells of the wife of a count who is smitten by a troubadour. She and her song-poet go off into the woods and run afoul a satyr who inflames their passions. The count hunts them down and impales them both with his sword as they are making love on the forest floor. It’s an okay story, but six pages can only do so much for any story.