27 August 2008

“The Gorgon” and The Gorgon (coming soon!)

In October, right in time for Halloween, we will finally have a DVD of the 1964 Hammer horror film The Gorgon, one of the most unusual of the Terence Fisher-Peter Cushing-Christopher Lee vehicles, featuring a monster of the classical era put into Victorian times. It's a wonderful find of a flick, and it should have gotten digital attention far earlier.

The anticipation of this disc inspired me to re-read a wonderful short story about the infamous snaked-head petrifying she-monster. No, not “Shambleau” by C. L. Moore, although that’s a phenomenal story as well, but “The Gorgon” by Clark Ashton Smith. It’s one of his modern horror tales, but as usual has the dross of the ancient, the creak of antiquarian. It's all sensation, and only a touch of plot, and just the right dose of decadence and word-poetry that you need on a dull Wednesday night.

The nameless narrator of the story (there are so many nameless storytellers in Smith's work, and they usually seem to be authorial stand-ins) has gone off London to wipe away the memory of the recent death of a woman he loved. He is a seeker of mysteries and wonders, and this draws to him a stranger from the fog: “He seemed to have stepped from an age and land of classical mythology, into the teeming turmoil of that London street…” The stranger invites the man to see a great wonder, the head the Medusa herself. He hints that warping of time and space has brought the head into contemporary London, a typical example of Smithian hand-waving turned effective by its very oddness.

The narrator follows the classically-styled stranger through the twists of London alleys and into an ancient mansion, where he can look upon the Gorgon's face safely through an acnient mirror. “But I must warn you again to be supremely careful;” the stranger reminds him, “and also, you must be prepared for its exceeding and overwhelming beauty no less than for its horror. The danger lies, as you may well imagine, in the former quality.”

This contradiction is one I see often in Clark Ashton Smith’s work. He unleashed beauty in the grotesque, and hypnotizes with abomination. His actual description of Medusa's head when the narrator beholds it in a tarnished mirror is one of the author's quintessential passages.

(This mix of beauty-horror fascination also appears in “Shambleau,” a story quite worthy of its own blog entry. You can read a bit about it in this essay I wrote on C. L. Moore’s popular series of Jirel of Joiry stories.)

“The Gorgon” originally appeared in the April 1932 issue of Weird Tales and is currently collected in Lost Worlds from Bison Books.

Update: Read the review of the movie.