Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Witchcraft of Ulua”

Having enjoyed so much re-visiting my Necronomicon Press chapbook of “Mother of Toads”, from their “Unexpurgated Clark Ashton Smith” series, I decided to re-read “The Witchcraft of Ulua”, which first appeared in a slightly watered down version in the February 1934 edition of Weird Tales.

Weird Tales, February 1934.

Weird Tales, February 1934.

Apparently, as in the case of “Mother of Toads”, Smith had shopped it around, but was rejected because of its erotic overtones. Smith balked at the notion and is quoted in the forward to the chapbook as having said in a letter to August Derleth:

“As to the so-called sexiness, it would not interest me to write a story dealing with anything so banal, hackneyed, and limited as this type of theme is likely to be. Too many writers are doing it to death at the present time; I have ended [up] by revolting literarily against the whole business, and am prepared to maintain that a little Victorian reticence, combined with Puritan restraint, would harm nobody.” (The Witchcraft of Ulua, The Unexpurgated Clark Ashton Smith, 1988, Necronomicon Press)

"The Witchcraft of Ulua", by Clark Ashton Smith, 1988, Necronomicon Press.

“The Witchcraft of Ulua”, by Clark Ashton Smith, 1988, Necronomicon Press.

The scene which seemed to upset everyone at the time is the seduction scene where our young hero, Amalzain, a studious young man who has been offered the job of cup-bearer to the infamous King Famorgh, is tempted by the petite but exquisite nymphet, Princess Ulua. I must say, that even in it’s unexpurgated version, this all seems to be much ado about nothing. One night, during his downtime from his service to the king, Amalzain is snatched up and away from his studies by a “huge negress” and is carried to Ulua’s lair where…

“Angry, and full of discomfiture, he found himself deposited in a chamber hung with shameless designs, where, amid the fuming of aphrodisiac vapours, the Princess regarded him with amorous gravity from a couch of fire-bright scarlet. She was small as a woman of the elf-folk, and voluptuous as a coiled lamia. The incense floated about her like sinuous veils.” (The Witchcraft of Ulua, The Unexpurgated Clark Ashton Smith, 1988, Necronomicon Press)

Perhaps one might infer from the reference to her size that she might have been a bit on the young side, but this does not seem to be what publishers were griping about. At any rate, all she does at this point is tell him that there is more to life than musty old books and asks him if he is not attracted to her. Having been given a charm previously in the story by Sabmon the anchorite (a hermit, to us lay-folk) to ward off evil and protect him against Ulua’s wiles, he responds in the negative, which sets her off. She tells him he can go, but assures him he’ll be back before long, of his own accord. When he does not in fact return, the aforementioned witchcraft really begins to manifest as he is haunted by the image of Ulua. She is always on his mind, she always seems to appear everywhere he goes, and he feels her presence constantly. When even this fails to inspire his interest, the enchantment gets nasty and Amalzain begins to see rotting corpses in his bed and nasty specters at every turn. Fearing what may come next, he asks Ulua’s father, the King Famorgh, for permission to take a few days leave. Famorgh being pleased with the service the young man has done for him as a cup-bearer, and seeing his wan complexion (from lack of sleep) grants him leave.

Once back home, he visits Sabmon again who helps rid him of the curse and rid the world of the debauched King and his temptress daughter, along with their acolytes. If anything, the tale is a little moralistic in it’s association of libertine lifestyles with evil. Yes, Ulua did try to seduce him with magic when Amalzain wouldn’t succumb to her charms, but what if one were to take the fantasy element out and just make it about a popular woman who is intrigued by a suitor she cannot have, so she indulges in some underhanded tactics to sway him; should she suffer the ultimate punishment for this? Her biggest crime is that she was free with her charms, and her father was a lush who was usually too drunk to enjoy the orgies her threw. They weren’t torturing or murdering anyone, and I think their punishment was a bit extreme. Even so, the story was told, as usual, in beautifully wrought prose with evocative imagery.

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