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The Siren's Call: When these lethal ladies start singing, don't listen

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Stop up your ears with beeswax -- or with a pair of SmartFit industrial ear plugs. Use whatever's available. Then lash yourself to your desk -- there's no time to waste. She's calling you.

She might be a lone barefoot maid wandering by a barren lake. You might find her on a deserted path in a thick forest. She's there in the doorway when Sam Spade looks up from his desk: She says she needs his help to find a missing sister (yeah, sure). Or else a soldier on leave meets her in a nightclub, spends the night with her and notices -- poor fool -- the red hourglass on her stomach only when it's too late.

Though the guises are many, "she" is one and the same: the siren.

Robert Graves calls the sirens "ones who bind or wither" -- an apt description for creatures whose singing assured the entrapment (and destruction) of any sailor chancing to hear it. "Siren" -- in the Greek, "Seiren" -- derives from "seira," a word meaning cord or rope. And why do they sing?

The man from Majorca also tells us they lost a singing contest to the Muses. ("American Idol" of the gods, maybe?) Being who they are -- daughters of Phorcys (hell) and cousins to the Harpies -- they just want revenge. They use their vocal powers, still beautiful in defeat, to lure humans to their sepulchral isles. In Homer there are two Sirens -- and to resist them, wax in the ears is what Circe tells Ulysses to use. For a lovely illustration of that episode, you might turn to Bimba Landmann's new children's book, "The Incredible Voyage of Ulysses" (Getty Publications: 60 pp., $19.95). Landmann depicts their song as long, violet-colored streamers that, yes, indeed, wrap like cords around the body of the wandering Ithacan.

Aside from the world of myth or those dangerous isles, the Siren is a creature most at home in one other place.

The mind of the adolescent male.

Some may dress her up in abstractions, she might become a wish for death for psychotherapists or an allegory of temptation for early Christian writers, but all that fails to hide what she really is: a combination of extremes, of lethality and erotica. It's the kind of combo appealing to the target audience for the "Saw" movie franchise and . . . to all those older males hopelessly stuck with adolescent minds.

Lethal and erotic. Lurid and visceral. Here's one college kid, trying to cope with the urges stirred by the Siren's song by writing a poem about it:

Around her fountain which flows
With the voice of men in pain,
Are flowers that no man knows.
Their petals are fanged and red
With hideous streak and stain.

They sprang from the limbs of the dead.
We shall not come here again.
Panthers rise from their lairs
In the forest which thickens below,
Along the garden stairs
The sluggish python lies. . . .

The kid is T.S. Eliot, and the poem, "Circe's Palace," dates from his Harvard days. Though not a Siren, Circe's effect, it is clear, is most Siren-like. I don't need to tell you what those flowers "fanged and red" might be, or that sluggish python, do I?

It's not all that far from Eliot's prurient, fantasy images to the erotic gore of slasher films -- nor is it all that far to the images in Chris Achilléos' "Sirens" (Titan Books: $19.95). The illustrator presents a panorama of lethal, alluring females. He gives us the tribal warrior Boadicea in gold chain mail and fur; while the exposed breasts of a Masai warrior blend with her shield and spear so that they look like a part of her armor. Others -- eagle riders, Amazons, gun-toting partisans, a chrome-colored robot girl -- also possess these smooth symmetries and knife edges.

"The Siren's Remorse," which can't be shown in a family newspaper because of clothing issues -- she isn't wearing any -- shows a mermaid staring down at the ashen face of a dead man floating in the shallows. Remorse? Her expression is hardly remorseful! Stoic is more like it -- or else her expression seems to say, "And you thought I really cared about you?"

In the accompanying text, Nigel Suckling (really) traces Achilléos' career as a creator of images for fantasy novels (his interpretations of "Lord of the Rings," for instance, and Michael Moorcock's Elric stories); for TV series (including "Dr. Who"); as well as for films (the original "Clash of the Titans," "Heavy Metal").

Achilléos, born in Cyprus in 1947 and raised in London, tells Suckling that the decade of the 1970s, particularly the years 1977 and 1978, were the "high spot of Science Fiction and Fantasy publishing, a period when anything in the genre was rushed into print . . . for an illustrator at the time it was exhilarating."

There were endless gigs, good money, plenty of opportunities to see your work on an assortment of book covers. Achilléos counts among his influences the work of Frank Frazetta, Jack Kirby, Moebius and Syd Mead. He also says he was lucky he left college to try his hand as a book-cover illustrator: If he hadn't, he might have wound up as a technical illustrator -- something he had been trained to be.

Achilléos' illustrations are compelling, unreal and oddly successful. Most often his Sirens are depicted as loners, and that seems right. In myth, when women aren't ruling goddesses or temptresses, they usually appear in clusters: There are the Muses, the Pleiaides, Maenads, the Norns, Valkyries . . . you get the idea. But a group of Sirens? That just seems wrong -- how could there ever be a group of Sirens?

How could they, judging from the haughty looks on the faces of some of Achilléos' subjects, ever tolerate the company of other women?

CLARK ASHTON SMITH: At the end of January, Cory Doctorow posted at BoingBoing about a public domain manifesto drafted by the Communia network -- a manifesto calling for guaranteed free, unrestricted use of cultural materials "without restriction, in the absence of copyright protection." The comments thread is worth checking out for what people have to say about both sides of this issue.

For the purposes of this column, though, it would have been darkly poetic if Doctorow's post had appeared on Jan. 13, not Jan. 26. The former is the birthdate of Clark Ashton Smith in 1893 -- the 117th anniversary of the writer's birth was celebrated last month by several sites, with the Cimmerian leading the charge.

At the Cimmerian, you find posts about Smith as part of a trio that also includes H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. "There are some authors who can tell a new story, and yet make it feel as if it's been told for eons," writes Al Harron in the post "Emperor of Dreams." Jeffrey Shanks, in "Collecting Clark Ashton Smith," provides an overview of the writer's publication history -- it's a post you can't really read without also looking at what Deuce Richardson says about the availability of Smith's work and at Jackson Kuhl's post, "The Obscurity of Clark Ashton Smith."

While Del Rey, Bantam and others continue to release new editions of Howard's work, Smith's has mostly languished. What you learn from the Cimmerian is that "stalemate and stagnation are the order of the day" when it comes to Smith's literary estate. When Kuhl approached the estate seeking permission to use some of Smith's stories for a collection, he writes in his post that his efforts were rebuffed. One of the problems seems to center on what work by Smith is considered under copyright and what's in the public domain -- which made me think of Doctorow's post.

It's disappointing that Smith flies so low under the radar of publishing and reading audiences when, in a variety of inexpensive editions, the writer's profile could easily be raised -- and even flourish. Is it going to take Hollywood to one day rescue Smith's work? I could see animation crews champing at the bit to create the alien city of Ydmos and some of his other fantastic scapes and interplanetary creatures. The posts on why Smith remains in obscurity are enough to give anyone who appreciates the genre a case of heartburn.

Owchar is deputy book editor of the Times. The Siren's Call appears at www.latimes.com/books.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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