Wednesday, January 20, 2016

forth from that interminable cactus-forest

I’ve already mentioned, in the comments, the sensation of looking at the video for David Bowie’s Blackstar, and imagining that I saw the words "jewelled skull" in front of me on the page of a story by Clark Ashton Smith, and then the word "inlaid" came into my head, and "rubies," so that I was imagining the phrase, "a jewelled skull inlaid with rubies," though the skull in the video was not inlaid with rubies. It was wearing the rubies in a gold headdress. But "a skull wearing a headdress inlaid with rubies" was not what I wanted, it was, "a jewelled skull inlaid with rubies," that was the phrase that described to me this skull in the video that was not however, inlaid with those rubies. The fact that it was not inlaid with rubies was immaterial in some fundamental way and the phrase, "skull inlaid with rubies" described faithfully the skull wearing the headdress. Straight away I wanted Ashton Smith to be associated with this jewelled skull although I couldn’t remember any skull in his stories that was inlaid with jewels. There was "the crown that was set with sapphires and orange rubies" that is worn by "the monstrous mummy of some ancient king still crowned with untarnished gold" in The Abominations of Yondo, 1960, but I could not see any relationship between the golden crown of that mummy and the headdress, which might also have represented a crown, on the forehead of the skeleton in the Blackstar video.

Later you see the rest of the skeleton, robbed of its skull and denuded of the spacesuit it was wearing in earlier shots, fly through the air towards an eclipsed sun or black hole, where, you guess, it will lose itself forever, which became poignant, as everybody noticed, two days after the album was released, when Bowie was declared dead, and the nature of his body, its position, and the position of the animating factor, achieved a more perplexing degree of complexity than anyone had seen in it before. Alive in the video he plays more than one role: a man with bandaged eyes, a man in black holding up a biblical-looking book with a black star-shape on the front cover, and a craggy-faced individual grinning and clasping his fingers in a shadowy room. I will say now that I am not a Bowie fan, nor am I an unfan. I had heard several of his songs on the radio more than once and in addition to that I had seen him as the Goblin King in Labyrinth, therefore I knew who he was when people pointed out that he was dead; or say that I knew who he had been. The summary of the Yondo story on Wikipedia tells you that it is about "a man who has been released from being tortured by the priests of the lion-headed god Ong, and who tries to make his way to safety through the desert of Yondo, but is so perturbed by the horrors he encounters that he flees back to the realm of the torturers." I wanted to say that this description puts the order of revelation backwards, that you do not find out he is fleeing "those dreadful magicians and mysteriarchs who serve the lion-headed Ong" until the final paragraph, but now that I read it again I see that I am wrong. They are present in the first sentence of paragraph two. "It was noon of a vernal day when I came forth from that interminable cactus-forest in which the Inquisitors of Ong had left me, and saw at my feet the gray beginnings of Yondo."


  1. amazing what our brains come up with when we're not paying attention. i have "out of space and time" and "tales of science and sorcery" but "yondo" isn't in either of them. i didn't think he published much, but it must have been more than is on my shelf. anyway, i saw a picture of bowie once; he was skinny; the video thing sounded interesting with the black holes and eternity and all, but maybe a bit egoistic for my taste. i gravitate more toward earthworms and grass looked at from the underside...

  2. Bowie seems to be about the ego, the I -- what am I, how am I presenting myself, and how does this accord with my personal understanding of my I? If the earthworms had to decide whether they were going to wear their hair up or down today then he'd probably be more interested in them.

  3. My surprise at Bowie's death was caused by my mistaken image of him as a young man; I'd stopped following his career in the early 80s so to me he's forever about 40 years old.

    When I watched the "Lazarus" video, I kept thinking of that Niel Gaiman book where characters have buttons for eyes. Coraline, I think that was.

    A coworker keeps urging me to read Clark Ashton Smith, because I sometimes enjoy reading Lovecraft. So far I have resisted.

    1. I admire those buttons. They're a clever bit of costuming. I can see what the costume dept. has done -- I can see the whole mask -- but knowing the trick doesn't put me in the kind of cynical position that would allow me to dismiss it.

      I wonder if anyone has compiled a list of differences and similarities between Lovecraft and Smith. Smith owes more of a debt to Huysmans and Lovecraft owes more of a debt to William Hope Hodgson, and that's the shortest way I can think of to sum them up.

    2. huysmans made me dream in technicolor; what an imagination! or he had a dictionary fit...