Scenario: a team of explorers in an exotic, harsh environment enter an ancient structure and awaken something terrible – something alien, inimical and implacable. While the explorers have gone in with the best intentions they discover they have bitten off more than they can chew and one by one they die in horrific ways before a single survivor makes it out to an uncertain future, marked indelibly by the ordeal.
It should, it’s a tried-and-proven formula. Many would think of the original Alien, that SF classic now approaching forty years old. However, I was even more struck with the formula after watching the more recent instalment in the saga, Prometheus, yet was still not thinking specifically of that opus.
A few days earlier I had read the self-same theme/motif/concept in a volume of classic fiction, Return of the Sorcerer, a 2009 anthology from Prime Books, edited by Robert Weinberg, bringing together 18 stories by that master of the macabre, Clark Ashton Smith.
Smith’s most intensive writing was in the early to mid-1930s, and while he is best-known for his fantasy and horror work, he also wrote very much in the science fiction vein, a number of stories being set apparently on the Mars envisioned by Percival Lowell, at a time after human explorers have reached and colonised many worlds in the solar system. The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis is one of these, in which human explorers travel to an ancient ruin shunned by the living Martians of today with a rigid taboo, and discover the funerary vaults of a long-lost culture which remain cursed – with a long-lived alien organism which attaches to the victim’s head (reminiscent of Alien’s face-hugger, it must be said) and consumes both body and mind. This is a linear horror scenario placed into a science fiction context, and one is excused for seeing it as an archetype for the better-known outings to come.
Smith’s story appeared in Weird Tales for May, 1932, and must have stuck at the back of many a creative writer’s mind. An organism attaching to the face and taking over the host’s will featured in a strip story in TV-21 in the late 1960s, a truly strange outing for a kids’ comic, and one which, in retrospect, seems to echo Smith’s conception as surely as pre-guessing at least one element of Alien.
So, are these ideas just so timelessly perfect in their strangeness, their appeal to that in us which appreciates being scared witless, they are originated independently in different generations? Perhaps. But it might also be that a high fantasist set this particular ball rolling 84 years ago and an idea so good just can’t be left to lie between the long-yellowed pages of magazines from the golden age of pulps.
Cheers, Mike Adamson