The Abominations of Yondo

July 11, 2011

“The sand of the desert of Yondo is not as the sand of other deserts.”  So begins one of Clark Ashton Smith’s early works, “The Abominations of Yondo.”  Already from the description of the dark sands, washed up from other worlds by the tides of the cosmos, the story draws me in.  I find the images of “the gray dust of corroding planets, the black ashes of extinguished suns” particular evocative, for I have a particular hatred of black, volcanic ash.  I have trekked long miles and ascended mountains, and of all the surfaces a hiker may walk upon, I like that coarse lava dust the least.  My feet sink into it as I set down every step; then it trickles into my shoes and sucks at my heels as I try to lift my leg for another stride.  By midday, the ash is baking hot, and if I should stumble and fall, tiny hot shards scrape at my exposed skin.

So from the moment this story begins, I find myself sympathizing with the narrator.  He is brought forth from prison by the priests of the lion-headed Ong, against whom he had committed some undescribed heresy.  They abandon him in a rotting forest of cacti, and from there he progresses to the edge of the desert, where he meets the awful gray-black sand.  Amidst the desert of Yondo he finds ancient ruins and horrible creatures that drive him back into the waiting arms of the evil torturers who had so recently set him free.

The story is simple, mostly just a progression of monsters—variously deformed, illusory, spectral, and undead.  Each one gets no more than a few paragraphs, which keeps the encounters from getting stale.  The story is short enough that the vivid descriptions of the desert and its queer denizens are sufficient to maintain my interest.  Having read it many times, I often find myself wondering what other monstrosities dwell in that unholy desert, so close to the rim of the world.  I tend to imagine that they are no two alike, but instead every abomination is a unique creation, born from one of the innumerable curses that have fallen on that land.

This is another example of a narrative that is very heavy on description.  The plot keeps moving, but it’s not central to the appeal of this story.  We know essentially nothing about the protagonist, and he declines to tell us about the events that incite the wrath of the Ong’s priests.  These things just serve as a framing device for introducing the desert.

Sometimes I wish Smith had taken the time to extend the story; it seems almost a pity to leave this striking vignette so totally unmoored and devoid of context.  Yet perhaps “The Abominations of Yondo” was best left as it is.  I’m not so fond of another story Smith wrote about a man committing crimes against a god and his evil priesthood, “The Charnel God.”  Keeping a plot going was not one of the author’s strengths, and he freely admitted that he had been unable to manage a whole novel.

Yondo is a place of nightmares.  I have seem places like it in my worst dreams.  So I’m glad I shall never meet the inquisitors of the lion-headed god Ong.


9 Responses to “The Abominations of Yondo”

  1. retrochef Says:

    The concentration on setting is well done, but a setting without a plot doesn’t feel as much like a “story” as just “writing.” He’s surely got a knack for putting you in a place, but not really for showing you something that’s happening.

    • Buzz Says:

      That’s exactly why I thought it might have been better for Smith to have expanded this fragment some more. Some more context, motivations and background for the characters, etc. might really have improved things. On the other hand, if we get to “The City of the Singing Flame,” we’ll have an instance he began with something that was really just a setting and mood piece; but then he expanded it and tried to give it a more active plot, which turned out not to be an improvement.

  2. Diapadion Says:

    Its been a while since I’ve read some Smith, and it reminds me how clearly I prefer him over Lovecraft, Howard, and the like.

    Lovecraft is all about presenting the events at great distance, often by a narrator who is a friend or acquaintance or citizen of the same town as the main character. It works, but this story reminds me of all that is missing from that approach (again, @tMoM is a great counterexample of my usual Lovecraft gripes).

    In particular, the first mention of the lake, and that “sharp and corrosive sting in that immemorial brine” appeals to a basic human sense to great effect. The rest of Smith’s images are similarly appealing; I also was immediately drawn in by the opening paragraph of description, though for different reasons. There isn’t a lot of sense or story to any of it, I admit.

    Though of course, Smith could never write a story without mentioning a Charnel-house at least once.

    • Buzz Says:

      Smith was certainly an interesting writer, and his choice of language was idiosyncratic. There are some phrases or comparisons that recur again and again. Many of them puzzle me actually, since they don’t necessarily seem that effective. Obviously, the “charnel house” thing was evocative for him, but it doesn’t really work for me.

      I often wonder about some of Smith’s word choices. Sometimes I’m not sure whether he really understood the connotations of all the terms he used. For reasons that are not really clear, he quit school after the eighth grade and educated himself thereafter. His methods included reading the complete Britannica and dictionaries. I wonder if some of his odd writing habits, like using “rune” as a generic synonym for “spell” came from learning a lot of words this way. Or perhaps he intentionally chose to use some words in ways that didn’t quite fit with their historical usages. (After all, I know I’ve done that it my own writing!)

  3. “for I have a particular hatred of black, volcanic ash. I have trekked long miles and ascended mountains, and of all the surfaces a hiker may walk upon, I like that coarse lava dust the least. …Yondo is a place of nightmares. I have seem places like it in my worst dreams.”

    …You seem to be adopting a rather eldritch tone for parts of this blog entry, heheheh

    As for the term ‘rune,’ for whatever reason, fantasy writers, especially old ones, seem to use it to mean ‘spell’ quite a lot, perhaps most notably in Dunsany’s ‘The King of Elfland’s Daughter.’

    • Buzz Says:

      I suppose I wrote the post that way because I was so viscerally moved by the depiction of the dark cosmic dusts of Yondo. It awoke some images from my memory that I wanted to capture.

      Regarding the use of “rune,” I had also noticed in in Dunsany, although I may have found it less jarring (or just less frequent) in his writing. I can’t recall coming across the same usage in other writers’ work, but I’m sure I have. I still don’t care for the term, which probably has a lot to do with how cool I think real Norse runes are. (And that may itself go back to Journey to the Center of the Earth.) It seems to devalue the word to use it for a mere spoken incantation.

  4. It’s understandable. I sometimes absorb the prose sensibilities of writers I’ve been reading, and it can be fun to imitate–though Smith and Lovecraft had a bit of a pretentious feel to the way they did things, sometimes.

    I think I mostly agree about runes, though there’s something much more obscure and mysterious about the fantasy term ‘rune’ than with the word ‘spell,’ or even ‘enchantment.’ Perhaps because it suggests an encoding in some alien language. I guess I don’t quite feel it devalues it, then–Dunsany’s runes are irreplaceable spells, limited in number, handed down from old, that have the capacity to fundamentally alter reality–but it does arguably cause some distortion.

    • Buzz Says:

      I can’t really remember how Dunsany used the term “rune,” except that I noticed it. I’m meaning to do a full reading of The King of Elfland’s Daughter here eventually. So I may discuss it further then.

  5. […] many terrifying creatures, all of which defy comprehension and classification. As Buzz from The Doom That Came blog points out „The story is simple, mostly just a progression of monsters—variously […]

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