We have seen the nightmares
Winging down the sky,
Bat-like and silent,
To where the sleepers lie;
We have seen the bosoms Of the succubi.
We have seen the crystal
Of dead Medusa’s tears.
We have watched the undines
That wane in stagnant weirs,
And mandrakes madly dancing
By black, blood-swollen meres.
–From “Nyctalops” by Clark Ashton Smith
Inferno is a release that is all about context: the context of its creators, of its label, of its place within the alternative literary landscape. This means that there’s more to say about this nine minute long recording than is said on this deceptively slight 7” EP. Beautifully packaged and carefully curated, this reading of poetry written by ultra-prolific early 20th Century fantasist Clark Ashton Smith doesn’t so much have “crossover appeal” as it has “very passionate but slender Venn Diagram intersection appeal.”
Based out of Syracuse, NY, Cadabra Records has been releasing lovingly designed vinyls of spoken word recordings for about a year. In that time, they’ve garnered no shortage of praise for their efforts that bring together sound artists, scholars, and visual designers to celebrate the unique subgenre known as “weird fiction.” To sum up weird fiction–a type of story that combines horror, fantasy, and suspense with more than a little purple prose–look no further than its most celebrated practitioner, H.P. Lovecraft. It’s hard to find a literary figure whose influence looms larger in the world of metal than Lovecraft, whose tales of cosmic horror and visceral dread are referenced by bands as diverse as Metallica, Electric Wizard, and Morbid Angel. In Lovecraft’s shadow are a host of influences and contemporaries that shared that author’s fascination with the unknown, creating a legacy of weird fiction that is undergoing something of a renaissance in the Internet Age.
One of the more important names in this universe is Clark Ashton Smith, a writer admired by Lovecraft and later published alongside the titan of New England macabre in the pages of Weird Tales. Like Lovecraft, Smith was in many ways a man out of step with his time, favoring archaic word choices and mystical world-building over the two-fisted adventures more typical of the golden age of pulp fiction. The author of scores of short stories, Smith’s true passion lay in poetry, where he could exercise his love of language in short, rich passages that frequently described the sinister rites, ancient spirits, and fantastical worlds characteristic of weird fiction.
Five such poems–”Inferno,” “The Eldritch Dark,” “Nyctalops,” “Nightmare,” and “To Howard Phillips Lovecraft”–are recorded on Inferno, voiced by leading scholar of weird fiction S.T. Joshi. In addition to his authorship of the definitive Lovecraft biography, Joshi has also co-edited an edition of Clark Ashton Smith’s poetry and is at work on a comprehensive bibliography of that author’s work. Possessing an authoritative, professorial voice, Joshi brings an epic dignity to Smith’s evocative words that might have become histrionic if given a more theatrical treatment.
What brings true life to the recording is the addition of soundscapes by Theologian, an industrial project of mastermind Lee Bartow. Atmospheric, dense, and darker than dark, Theologian’s work flirts with song structure and melody just enough to create unease with its suggestions of familiarity. In this, their music provides the perfect complement to Smith’s formal but unsettling poetry. The temptation to embrace literal interpretations of Smith’s mention of “wizard winds” and “gothic wings” might have proven overwhelming to others, but Theologian provides sound accompaniment that underscores Joshi’s reading without overwhelming it.
The real catnip to collectors lies in Cadabra Records’ physical release. Limited to 500 copies and offered in three color variations with a lavishly illustrated gatefold cover, Inferno is accompanied by biographical notes written by S.T. Joshi. This is a labor of love for all parties, a deluxe celebration of little-known works by a time-obscured author. An intersection of vintage writing, old tech, and reborn fandom, this is a unique release that will delight enthusiasts of the dark and esoteric.
Inferno was released on June 3, 2016 via Cadabra Records.