“Hode of the High Place” (1984) by Jessica Amanda Salmonson

For the first time he recognized that the possession of an object was never as ecstatic as the seeking; the reality never as pleasurable as the dream.
—Jessica Amanda Salmonson, “Hode of the High Place” in The Last Continent 201

There is no pithy word for stories that are inspired by Clark Ashton Smith, that partake of his style and essence, are reminiscent of his darker moods and most erotic intimations. When someone writes a tale that draws inspiration from H. P. Lovecraft, or involves him in some form, we call it “Lovecraftian.” For the Bard of Auburn, we might say “Smithian,” but there are many Smiths. “Klarkash-Tonian” is a bit of a mouthful. Nothing seems to succinctly embrace the whole concept.

It is a rare story where we have need of such a word.

“Hode of the High Place” is not set explicitly in Smith’s Zothique, or any other fantasy world we know. In mood, in device, in tone, it could well be. It fits neatly among the other neo-Zothique tales of The Last Continent: New Tales of Zothique (1999), one of the very few anthologies where authors are encouraged to play in Clark Ashton Smith’s imaginary worlds. Smith himself might well have smiled and recognized this story as a literary descendant, had he lived long enough to read it.

When considering those who follow Smith, there is a tendency toward pastiche, as in “The Vulviflora of Vuutsavek” (2008) by Charlotte Alchemilla Smythe. Salmonson is wise enough to not try and mimic the same tendency for arcane vocabulary, but there are elements of Smith that readers will recognize in the tone, the omniscient third-person perspective which is almost voyeuristic in following the triumphs and tragedies of this story. Then there is the erotic element.

A gelatinous mass flowed over him, oblivious to his thrashing, smothering him as the water had smothered the flames. Then he felt something expected and pleasant: gentle, rhythmic constrictions around his genitals.
—Jessica Amanda Salmonson, “Hode of the High Place” in The Last Continent 197

One of the hallmarks of Smith’s fiction was a fascination with scenes of unnatural carnal pleasures, necrophilia (or perhaps more accurately, a love that extends beyond death), assignations with witches, lamia, and succubi, etc. It isn’t in every work, and it isn’t in any sense explicit by contemporary terms, even his play The Dead Will Cuckold You (1951) is concerned with character and relationships rather than actually describing the actions of genitalia. Some of Smith’s stories which could only be published in expurgated form during his lifetime, such as “Mother of Toads” (Weird Tales Jul 1938), are quaint in terms of actual sexual content, though still potent in terms of image, plot, and suggestion.

This reticence toward explicit sexual description in Smith’s fiction, and his frustration with the standards of his day that censored even that, can be easily understood. Clark Ashton Smith was writing weird fiction of which sex was a part, but not weird erotica or pornography with a weird setting. The point of Smith’s stories was not to sexually excite the reader, not in the way of Victorian erotica like The Way of a Man With A Maid. The erotic element was always intimately tied to the weirdness in some fashion, as with the work of Arthur Machen. Perhaps Smith might have been more explicit if editors and laws had allowed it, but there was no way it could have been published in the 1930s under existing censorship laws.

Contemporary writers don’t operate under the same restrictions. It is much more acceptable these days to be much more explicit about sexual relations. Salmonson could no doubt have gotten away with far more sexual content in this story; other tales are more explicit. Yet this is not a case where the point is to titillate the reader; it is a necessary plot point for the story. Ultimately, I would say that “Hode of the High Place” shows admirable restraint, getting just explicit enough to cross that conceptual line between “suitable for young adults” to “suitable for adult audiences,” but not becoming particularly lurid or distracting from the rest of the story…indeed, the brief sexual scenes are ultimately critical.

It was fashioned in the shape of a bone with a serpent wrapped around, the universal insignia used on jars of poison, pictured on no-trespassing signs to prove the warning adamant, and marked on maps to show where wayfarers had best not go.
—Jessica Amanda Salmonson, “Hode of the High Place” in The Last Continent 206

If “Hode of the High Place” is not set in Zothique itself, it still feels like it could be set beneath a dying sun on a dying world, one last tragedy being acted out with all of its follies and its terrible inevitability.

Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s “Hode of the High Place” was first published in Beyond Lands of Never (1984), the second volume of the fantasy Lands of Never (1983). It was republished in The Last Continent: New Tales of Zothique (1999), and in her collection Dark Tales (2002).

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“Pale, Trembling Youth” (1986) by W. H. Pugmire & Jessica Amanda Salmonson

Dykes, kikes, spics, micks, fags, drags, gooks, spooks…more of us are outsiders than aren’t, and that’s what the dear young ones too often fail to understand.
—W. H. Pugmire & Jessica Amanda Salmonson, “Pale, Trembling Youth”
in An Imp of Aether 173

This brief story could be a memory—and probably it is, several memories, all bundled up together. Pugmire & Salmonson had history like that. Punks. Not pop-punk, queercore, or Riot Grrrl, but the older, original punk rock, the substratum on which the newer sounds and aesthetics and even politics are built. Patti Smith and William S. Burroughs. The same visceral rebellion that John Shirley would pay tribute to in A Song Called Youth trilogy (1985-1990), the same energy and themes that would show up in the early cyberpunk fiction of Pat Cardigan, Bruce Sterling, and William Gibson. Writers whose vision of the future would give inspiration to Cthulhupunk works like “Star Bright, Star Byte” (1994) by Marella Sands.

“Pale, Trembling Youth” isn’t Cthulhupunk. There’s nothing of the Mythos in its few pages, no dark cults or alien entities. It is a spiritual by-blow, the kind of story that feels like it should have inspired something. Reminiscent of “Beckoner of the Nightwatch” (1989) by Jessica Amanda Salmonson and Pugmire’s editorial vision on Tales of Lovecraftian Horror. There’s Lovecraft in the literary DNA, but not the part of Lovecraft enshrined in pop media as Cthulhu and the Necronomicon.

It’s “The Outsider.”

Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness. Wretched is he who looks back upon lone hours in vast and dismal chambers with brown hangings and maddening rows of antique books, or upon awed watches in twilight groves of grotesque, gigantic, and vine-encumbered trees that silently wave twisted branches far aloft. Such a lot the gods gave to me—to me, the dazed, the disappointed; the barren, the broken.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Outsider”

Lovecraft’s universe is amoral, mechanistic, often antagonistic to human life. Yet it is not without empathy, nor is it incapable of inspiring sympathy. Wilbur Whateley was recast as a sympathetic figure in stories like Stanley C. Sargent’s “The Black Brat of Dunwich” (1997) and Robert M. Price’s “Wilbur Whateley Waiting” (1987). The sympathetic view of the Innsmouth residents is at the heart of “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys and “All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts” (2016) by Sonya Taaffe.

At it’s heart, there is horror in “Pale, Trembling Youth”—but not quite eldritch horror. The real, visceral, street-level horrors of kids burning bright, ignorant of history but starkly brilliant, the stars that flare twice as bright and half so long—runaways tired of getting beaten by their parents, living rough on the street, burning the candle at both ends with speed, finding beauty in noise, seeking and finding their own self-destruction. Nameless kids dying sad deaths far too young.

So there’s nothing new. Least of all pain. It’s the oldest thing around. I want to tell them, “Yes, you’re outsiders. Yes, this thing you’re feeling really is pain. But you’re not alone.” Or not alone in being alone. A poison-bad planet. For everyone.
—W. H. Pugmire & Jessica Amanda Salmonson, “Pale, Trembling Youth”
in An Imp of Aether 174

The narrator is nameless. The place is real, in Seattle. You can go and visit the park, see the pipes. There is a very Lovecraftian construction to the story, though a sneaky one. A chance meeting, a tale that Zadok Allen might have told for a bottle, but offered for free. Sudden impulse driving the narrator on…and after that…maybe a touch of M. R. James. Mythos? No. Lovecraftian? Absolutely.

“Pale, Trembling Youth” was first published in Cutting Edge (1986); it has been reprinted many times, most recently in the collection An Imp of Aether (2019).

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“Beckoner of the Nightwatch” (1989) by Jessica Amanda Salmonson

To the many authors who fired my sense of wonder as a child, and to the anthologists who drew my youthful attention to the best stories of the time. These people, some living, some gone, are cumulatively responsible for those stories of mine that I call “little horrors,” the kind mainly selected for the present collection. A handful of these people are named in dedications for individual stories.
—dedication in John Collier and Fredric Brown Went Quarrelling Through My Head

for H. P. Lovecraft and Robert Bloch
—dedication to “Beckoner of the Nightwatch” (ibid. 103)

Jessica Amanda Salmonson gives the date that “Beckoner of the Nightwatch” was given as 1974. She was 24 years old then, editor of The Literary Magazine of Fantasy and Terror, and coming out as transgender—one of the first fans to do so—and continued on to a long career as writer, poet, editor, and anthologist.

“Beckoner” was either only published once, fifteen years after it was written, or it was published the first time in 1974 in a ‘zine so scarce as to have been missed by catalogers, and then again for the final time in 1989. Such things happen; not every story finds a home or an audience the year it is written. It is a slight tale; at three-and-a-half pages it definitely counts as a “short-short,” and despite the dedication the story has no overt connections to the Mythos that might otherwise have guaranteed it a slot in innumerable anthologies.

Which is rather interesting in itself. What is it about this story, so brief and yet complete in itself, that speaks to Salmonson—and to readers—of Bloch and Lovecraft? Those names together bring to mind their quasi-collaboration “Satan’s Servants” (1949), their triptych of Mythos stories “The Suicide in the Study” (1935), “The Shambler from the Stars” (1935), and “The Haunter of the Dark” (1936). Yet “Beckoner” doesn’t quite suggest those.

It is reminiscent of, if anything, Lovecraft’s “The Unnamable” or “The Picture in the House”, or Bloch’s “The Unspeakable Betrothal” (1949). “Little horror” is as good a descriptor as any; the scene is set and the action begins not someplace and time long ago and far away, but in the now, right here. The kind of horror that can find you at work, or in the apartment building, when it’s dark and you’re alone; where your own imagination may be playing tricks at you as something moves in the dark and you fill in the details of what might cause those sounds.

Yet this isn’t a sedate M. R. James ghost story. The horror, when it appears on the page at last, stepping into the light of a flashlight, beckoning for the protagonist to follow, blood oozing from the bullet holes in its belly…is real. Some solid, physical thing. A real horror, however uncanny. That was the transition, the hand-off from Lovecraft to Bloch in many ways. It wasn’t all clanking chains and bloody bones, horror could be, had to be both of the mind and have a physical existence outside of it; had to both repel and attract us. Perhaps that’s what Salmonson was trying to capture here. Because at the end, we still don’t know what the Beckoner was trying to beckon us to.

[…] intent rather than length is what define’s “little.” In my earlier collection of little horrors, HAG’S TAPESTRY published in England, I called them cyanide-laced candies in a chocolate sampler, as opposed to a condemned man’s final banquet. Hardly earth-shaking in importance, but entertaining. Although I admit to numerous influences or inspirations, I trust the end result is strictly my own.
—Author’s notes in John Collier and Fredric Brown Went Quarrelling Through My Head

In “The Picture in the House,” Lovecraft famously began: “Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places.” Yet his point was that there were plenty of horrors right at home, if you cared to look. In 1984, Salmonson wrote a poem titled “Searchers After Horror (Paraphrasing Lovecraft),” which serves as the proem to this book, which begins:

We searchers after horror haunt strange, far places:

We. There’s a sense of community among horror readers. An affection for old familiar horrors, the thrill of the chase in hunting down obscure books and films, a recognition of that inexplicable drive that sets us apart to look for and experience the ghastly, the morbid, the dark and grotesque…yet it is also the same sense of community that lets us delight in the Addams Family, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Gahan Wilson, Warren Magazines and Famous Monsters of Filmland, Mike Mignola and Eric Powell and Steve Niles.

Not every horror story has to be epic in scale. Cthulhu need not rise from the depths every story, the zombies need not overrun the world in every episode. If they did, then the shock and awe and grandeur of those horrors gets lost; one of those things Neil Gaiman hinted at in Only the End of the World Again. In this sense, little horrors are necessary for we searchers after horror.

Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s “The Beckoner of the Nightwatch” was published in John Collier and Fredric Brown Went Quarrelling Through My Head (1989). It has not been republished.

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).