Even without the benefit of hallucinogenic drugs, many of us perceive—in the random arrangements of clouds, trees, rocks, grass—faces and figures both familiar and strange. If the breeze is a bit more spirited, we may even see, up in the tree tops, animals stalking each other, faces conversing or grimacing, and oddly distorted figures standing over us or even approaching.
As daylight begins to smolder on the horizon, rocks and shadows may combine to form gods, or demons, or ghosts. These are probably illusions, an attempt by our minds to impose order and form on the chaotic stimuli that nature presents us. These playful illusions are mental projections, inseparable from the thoughts and perceptions that create them. We hope.
If we maintain the distinction between the operations of our minds and what is realistically present in the fluttering leaves or rippling water, these visitations can be intriguing and entertaining. This is especially the case when the experience is shared, as for example in “the man in the moon”. Yet with an increase of imagination—or, some would say—a decrease in mental health, these illusions may become independent of our minds, and exist on their own, waiting for us or the next person to observe them in the swaying of grass or the rolling of clouds overhead. These visitations need not be visual; much is heard before it actually can be seen.
It is a small step from here to understand that a place may contain its own spirit, an entity which may use chance arrangements of landscape, architecture and atmosphere to reveal its presence. Which landscape will be typically unkempt, its architecture, decrepit, and its atmosphere nearly always misty or clouded. The ancient name for this is genius loci, and it is a key element of both religious sensibility and horror entertainment. (I fear I may have left some of my more materialistic readers behind at this point.)
There are many examples of horror fiction and film that make use of this principle, beginning with the gothic writers of the 18th Century on up to the present day. Why do the Ghost Hunters on SyFy set up their equipment in old run down psych hospitals, prisons, or castles, if not to detect the residual genius loci? Why is it nearly a rule that ghost stories take place in locations where murders have occurred? H.P. Lovecraft was masterful in creating this weird sense of place. He understood that horror resides as much in the setting and atmosphere of story as it does in the characters and their personal experiences, if not more so.
The Latin phrase is often interpreted literally as ‘the spirit of the place’, but the phrase genius loci also contains such related meanings as the character or atmosphere of a location, its resident deity, its distinctiveness. This presiding spirit may be protective, or tutelary—that is, a guardian or a teacher. But what if the genius loci is also a spiritus malus, a spirit of evil? This is the premise of Clark Ashton Smith’s story of the same name.
In Smith’s story, the narrator is an author who has invited his friend Amberville to stay with him as a guest. Amberville is a landscape painter, and while his host works on his novel, the artist begins to sketch and paint a dreary little pond at the edge of an abandoned farm. As an artist, Amberville must visually concentrate on the scene he is trying to render, and soon becomes aware of a ghostlike figure in the periphery of his vision. The writer and the artist become increasingly aware of something supernaturally evil about this place, and the backstory—the previous owner was found mysteriously dead near the edge of the pool—is horribly suggestive.
The narrator becomes alarmed as Amberville’s personality and health begin to deteriorate. In a ploy to break his friend’s obsession with the place, the narrator invites Amberville’s fiancé, Avis to visit. However, all three people soon find themselves being drawn to the banks of this queer shallow pool. As the genius loci becomes more visible to the characters, its power over them grows. In some sense this evil spirit is created or perhaps recreated whenever humans give it their attention. This is a version of the notion that the world—for us individually as well as collectively—is created by what we attend to.
One reviewer interpreted the author’s emphasis on tree imagery as simply reflective of our ambivalence and even anxiety about nature—insofar as we feel separate from the natural world and do not truly understand it, much less control it. Smith’s story does not explicitly state that the evil presence actually exists outside the perceptions of both the narrator and his guests. Perhaps it is all in their imaginations. But with a body count of “three” going on four at the end of the story, it seems that more than perception is at play. In my humble opinion, it is because we are in fact so inextricably linked with nature, inseparable from it, that genii locorum all over the world can have such power over us.
Genius Loci was originally published in the June 1933 issue of Weird Tales, along with Paul Ernst’s The Iron Man, Robert E. Howard’s Black Colossus, and August Derleth’s Nellie Foster. It often appears in anthologies of early 20th Century horror and fantasy fiction.
[Originally posted at The R’lyeh Tribune on 7/18/14 as “When Your Genius Loci is a Spiritus Malus”.]