It is not surprising that such a foundational book as the Bible should be a frequent source of inspiration for the creators of horror, science fiction and fantasy. The nearly 70 books that comprise Holy Scripture cover the gamut of what human beings are capable of doing in the absence of moral and spiritual guidance, whether you believe that such guidance comes from above or from ethical traditions developed by humans over time. (See also Isn’t Horror Better Than Sunday Worship?)
Though not all would agree, H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos seems mainly to be a riff on the Old Testament horror of idolatry. This is especially the case in such classic Lovecraft stories as The Call of Cthulhu (1928), The Dunwich Horror (1929) and The Horror at Red Hook (1927). Lovecraft borrowed imagery from the Old Testament to describe modern day survivals of pagan terrors, for example, his “altar-crowned slopes of Sentinel Hill” near Dunwich. (See also Old Testament Lovecraft)
His colleague Clark Ashton Smith—a much stronger writer in my view—artfully reimagined biblical themes in his work, especially in stories he set in his fictional world of Zothique. Smith was adept at creating such vividly detailed worlds; the tales he told in them contain profound insights about human nature—a depth not typically seen in Lovecraft. S.T. Joshi notes that Smith’s Zothique cycle of stories is his most extensive, containing sixteen stories, some poetry, and even the script of a play.
Smith’s Xeethra (1934) is closely related to other stories in the Zothique cycle, including The Dark Eidolan (1935), The Isle of the Torturers (1933), and The Planet of the Dead (1932), among others. They are all worth reading and in my view represent some of Smith’s finest weird fiction.
In Xeethra, a humble shepherd boy of the same name stumbles upon a lush valley while herding his animals across a desert in late summer. At one end of the valley he discovers a recent fissure in the wall of a cliff, as if the rock face had opened itself for him to explore. Readers know intuitively that entering this cavern will be life changing for Xeethra. The boy descends both physically and figuratively into the earth, and as he does so the story transmutes from an adventure yarn to a mythological fairy tale.
Xeethra loses his light and his way in the cave, but emerges in a vast glowing hallucinogenic garden—Smith’s version of the Garden of Eden. The boy’s attention is drawn to “an orchard-like grove of tall, amply spreading trees, amid whose lush leafage he descried the burning of numberless dark-red fruits.” Having just crossed the dry desert, the boy finds the fruit irresistible—perhaps even more so than Adam and Eve did in their verdent paradise. But the apples belong to Thasaidon, a powerful demon and the principle deity in the world of Zothique.
The consequence of eating the fruit drives the rest of the story, and is the most interesting aspect of the work. What Smith has done is to re-imagine the Garden of Eden story, in which a forbidden fruit that grants a circumscribed knowledge is consumed, bringing damnation. Xeethra lives in a distant future where the sun—now an engorged red giant—is dying. Human civilization has collapsed into decadence and barbarity. Instead of the familiar Judeo-Christian God, the inhabitants fear Thasaidon, an all-powerful but insightful and world-weary avatar of Satan. Yet Thasaidon is not evil in the same sense that Satan is; in fact, he may be what our God will become after thousands more years of human depravity.
For Xeethra, the consequence of eating the forbidden fruit is not being cast out of paradise, but a much crueler fate. This fruit did not come from some mere “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”—a notion that would be considered quaint in Zothique. Hallucinogenic properties in its juice confer memory and recollection of past and future lives, effectively unsticking an individual in time, (As in Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Slaughterhouse Five).
During the rest of the narrative, it is uncertain whether Xeethra is still under the effects of the “apple”. He finds it harder to distinguish and keep separate these different realities. The experience is one of disorientation, not only of time and place, but of personal identity. The boy travels across a dream scape of vibrant cities juxtaposed with ruins and beings that are beyond death. He longs to resume the throne of distant Calyz, where he was once known as King Amero, but he also yearns to go back to the simpler life Xeethra enjoyed.
The knowledge Xeethra acquires is beyond good and evil, as Nietzsche might say. Being able to recall and relive past lives dooms Xeethra to the torment of irreconcilable desires for one life over another—he learns ultimately that in “…all times and in all places your soul shall be part of the dark empire of Thasaidon.”
Joshi notes that Smith’s story is similar in some respects to H.P. Lovecraft’s The Quest of Iranon (1935), possibly the worst story Lovecraft ever wrote. Both involve a poor young man who wanders across a fantastic landscape, believing he will find his former kingdom and resume his throne. Reportedly, Lovecraft lent a manuscript of his story to Smith, who reread it the summer of 1930. But the resemblance is superficial. Lovecraft’s The Quest of Iranon is a mawkish, self-pitying fairy tale about unrecognized genius—presumably, his own. Smith’s story is much deeper, more disturbing, and more universal in its portrayal of the spiritual horrors of reincarnation.
Several other stories in Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique cycle have been discussed in previous posts. Interested readers may want to look at the following:
Evil Sorcerer vs. Tyrannical Despot (The Dark Eidolon)
Plague as Engine of Justice (The Isle of the Torturers)
H.P. Lovecraft’s Antarian Adventures (The Planet of the Dead)