Clark Ashton Smith’s “Mother of Toads”

Back in the early 90’s I used to frequent the Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop on Newbury St in Boston, Massachusetts. It was conveniently right across the street from my job at Tower Records, the atmosphere was great, the staff was friendly, and the selection was awesome. I spent many an afternoon there as well as a generous amount of my hard earned cash! It was there that I really began to delve into the writings of the Weird Tales crowd as well as other writers of Horror and Fantasy. For instance,it was there that I bought the Donald Grant editions of Charles L Grant’s Oxrun novels featuring the classic monsters. It was there that I first found Les Daniel’s Don Sebastian de Villanueva novels, and it is there that I found the Necronomicon Press chapbooks featuring the unexpurgated writings of H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, et al.

Although I had read a little Lovecraft already by this point, I had only heard of C.A. Smith, most likely from having read L. Sprague de Camp’s “Lovecraft: A Biography”. The chapbooks were colorful, scholarly researched and contained such strange content, and because of their indie press look, I felt like I was in on a secret that only the enlightened (benighted?) few were aware of.  Every paycheck, I would go across the street and see what fresh horrors awaited me on the shelves. Usually, I would buy two, which would run me around $10, being at that time about $4.95 a piece. Now, having been out of print for so long, they fetch exorbitant prices on Amazon.com.

An assortment of Smith titles from Necronomicon Press. Although this image is from the Internet, I do own all of the titles featured here.

An assortment of Smith titles from Necronomicon Press. Although this image is from the Internet, I do own all of the titles featured here.

I tried a few of the different writers covered by the series, but found that I preferred the Lovecraft and Smith stories to everything else. In particular, the chapbook “Nostalgia of the Unknown” featuring the complete prose poetry of Clark Ashton Smith, had an impact on me as a writer of both poetry and prose, echoes of which can still be discerned in my work today.

Nostalgia of the Unknown (1993, Necronomicon Press).

Nostalgia of the Unknown (1993, Necronomicon Press).

Of the stories, I believe my favorite was “The Mother of Toads”, which takes place in Smith’s fictional medieval French province of Averoigne.

A map of Smith's Averoigne.

A map of Smith’s Averoigne.

I think I liked that it was more of a Horror tale and less Sci-Fi, as some of his work can be. It also had a bit of an unsavory sensuality to it which I am sure appealed to my still adolescent 20-something tastes. Apparently, Smith had intended it to be a sort of weird bawdy tale and tried to sell it to Spicy Mystery Stories, but they rejected it. After another rejection from Esquire, he toned down the more lurid parts and sold it to Weird Tales, which published it in their July 1938 issue.[Smith, Clark Ashton. The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies. pp 357-358. New York: Penguin, 2014. Print.]

Mother of Toads (1987, Necronomicon Press).

Mother of Toads (1987, Necronomicon Press).

The story is of a young apothecary’s assistant named Pierre, who is sent by his boss to retrieve a magic philtre from the witch Mère Antoinette, who is apparently known around town as La Mère des Crapauds, the Mother of Toads, partially because of the veritable infestation of  large toads that surround her residence, which are rumored to be her familiars, and also because of her “batrachian” aspect. Here, Smith is a bit heavy-handed with the hints of things to come, comparing her voice to a croak, and comparing her physical features to that of a toad,  even down to her webbed fingers and “huge breasts” which he describes as “pale as frogs bellies”.

To make matters worse, the witch seems to have a thing for the young assistant and is always hitting on him every time he visits on an errand for his master. On this particular visit, she lays it on thick and even offers him a drink of mulled wine to fortify him on his long walk home in the cold. Hesitant at first, he relents and of course, lives to regret it–for a while anyway.

Although it is fairly obvious where the story is heading, it is told so masterfully and in such gorgeously baroque and evocative language, that one cannot help but read on to the inevitable and grotesque denouement.

“Mother of Toads” also bears the distinction of being one of the few Clark Ashton Smith tales to have been adapted to film. In the 2011 portmanteau film “The Theatre Bizarre”, director Richard Stanley filmed a segment which is a sort of modern retelling of the story. In his interview with Unfilmable.com he explains, ” I have always been a huge fan of Smith’s work and as much of his fiction is now in the public domain it seemed to me that the time was ripe to produce a cinematic homage, based around the folkloric character of the ‘Mother of Toads‘ herself and assimilating various elements of the Lovecraft canon such as the dreaded Necronomicon and the cult of the Old Ones. Smith’s story was a grim fable recounting the erotic misadventures of an apothecary’s apprentice in dark age France whereas I think you’ll find that our similarly titled short is a rather different animal. The completed film is firmly rooted in the 21st century and concerns a young American anthropology student and his girlfriend who come into contact with the fictional sorceress’s real life counterpart with bizarre and ultimately ghastly consequences.” [http://unfilmable.blogspot.com/2010/11/unfilmablecom-interview-richard-stanley.html, retrieved 07-02-15]

My only real complaint about this version, aside from the modern setting, is the mention of H.P. Lovecraft and the Elder Sign. This is one of the very few adaptations of a Smith story (the other adaptation of note is the Night Gallery episode of “Return of the Sorcerer”, with Vincent Price, which took a really creepy, somewhat gory tale of black magic and turned it into a campy romp) and if they were going to bring things into the real world so to speak, why did they not mention Smith instead of Lovecraft? To anyone seeing the segment, they might get the impression that it was just another Lovecraft tale.

Stanley does get points, however, for his use of the French countryside, which is gorgeous and not a little ominous looking. The segment starts off with a couple at a fair in the ancient French village of Montsegur, where the girl spies some unusual looking earrings. The young man, Martin, recognizes the design as the Elder Sign, and goes on about H.P. Lovecraft. The vendor, a spooky looking woman in what looks like a black burqa, seems taken with him. The girl insists on having the earrings and Martin begrudgingly buys them for her. The witch lures the young man to her lair with talk of possessing the Necronomicon. Once there, things wind up more or less as they did in the original tale.

Catriona MacColl as Mère Antoinette.

Catriona MacColl as Mère Antoinette.

The witch, played by veteran horror actress Catriona MacColl, is suitably intense and creepy, but a bit too attractive to have the same repulsive affect on Martin as Mère Antoinette had on Pierre. The rest of the segment plays out like the original tale with the added fate of the girlfriend. I understand what Stanley was going for, and he gets points for atmosphere and for the bits that did follow the original tale, which were fun to see.

I understand that the rest of the Theatre Bizarre is hit or miss, as most films of this type tend to be, but I did enjoy this segment, warts and all, if only to see one of my favorite tales by one of my favorite authors brought to life on the silver screen.

The Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop closed down years ago, but apparently has an online presence which can be found at http://avenuevictorhugobooks.com/.

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One Response to “Clark Ashton Smith’s “Mother of Toads””

  1. “What fresh horrors awaited me on the shelves”… love that.

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