Clark Ashton Smith was a very good poet, much better than his friend H. P. Lovecraft.
As a fiction writer, Lovecraft gets the better of him.
Lovecraft didn’t really try to support himself through his own fiction and was very reluctant to revise his work at editors’ request.
Clark Ashton Smith was the opposite. He wrote more fiction than Lovecraft, and he wrote it to sell, and it was more varied fiction in tone and style.
His most productive period for fiction was the autumn of 1929 through 1934. Not so coincidentally, argued Brian Stableford in “Outside the Human Aquarium: The Fantastic Imagination of Clark Ashton Smith”, this was a period of great stress for CAS (as his fans dub him). He was poor and tending to two aged and infirm parents in the isolation of a primitive cabin (no running water, no electricity) in the mountains around Auburn, California. Stableford thinks that the exotic worlds of Smith’s imagination were an act of escape for their creator during this time.
His prose is pretty exotic, especially his lexicon. Keep a dictionary handy when reading him. I’ve found the most useful to be Webster’s Universal Unabridged Dictionary in two volumes. Published in 1937, it’s roughly contemporaneous to CAS.
This was the first CAS collection of fiction I read.
[Update: This is not a complete review of the collection.]
Raw Feed Low-Res Scan (2005): A Rendezvous in Averoigne: The Best Fantastic Tales of Clark Ashton Smith, 1988.
“Introduction”, Ray Bradbury — Very brief introduction in which Bradbury talks about his first exposure to Smith’s work.
“The Holiness of Azédarac” — This is one of Smith’s medieval stories set in the fictional French area of Averoigne. It exhibits a certain cynicism about religion (at least medieval Christianity) and, to a lesser extant, women. A young Brother Ambrose discovers that the Bishop of Ximes, Azédarac, is corrupt and a worshiper of dark gods. Specifically, he worships — or at least evokes — Dagon and Iog-Sotôt aka H. P. Lovecraft’s Yog-Sothoth. His library doesn’t contain the Necronomicon , but it does have Smith’s own addition to the collection of sorcerous tomes — The Book of Eibon. The Bishop is also said — and his exact age, as well as his ultimate fate, is unclear — to have Hypoborean lore — a reference to another invented world of Smith’s which was also utilized by Lovecraft. This exhibits the casual, joking and not at all systematic way Lovecraft and his friends accreted props around Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos.) Fearing that he will reveal this to the Archbishop, Azédarac’s henchman slips the Brother a potion which transports him back in time to the Druids. A sorceress and former lover of Azédarac saves the Brother, introduces him to the delights of her beautiful body, and then gives him a potion to return to his native time. He returns later than he left to cynically find Azédarac has been promoted to sainthood with legends surrounding him that his body was transported to heaven at death and not buried. His mission now irrelevant and somewhat disillusioned, Brother Ambrose opts to return to the arms of Moriamis — who does not tell him that she deliberately mixed the potion to bring him to far into the future.
“The Colossus of Ylourgne” — This story has one powerful central image (as befits the poetically talented Smith): a huge corpse composed of the revived bodies of various dead people. The dwarfish sorcerer Nathaire, angry at the people of Averoigne, renders bone and flesh down from corpses and uses them to build a huge creature.
“The End of the Story” — Another of Smith’s Averoigne stories. This one is relatively late, set in 1789. It’s protagonist, a young lawyer, stumbles, in his travels, on a monastery with a library rich in scholastic treasures. The abbot gives him access to every book — except one which he says the is dangerous to the narrator because he is “young, ardent, full of desires and curiosities”. Of course, it’s the one book the narrator takes steps to secretly look at and thus discovers the tale of one Gérard de Venteillon who, in the ruins of the Château des Faussesflammes, meets a satyr who promises that he will him forget Christ and his fiancé and turn his back on the world for the beauty of hidden “pagan ecstasies”. The lawyer goes to the ruins of the chateau and meets the lamia Nycea who, despite the warnings and efforts of the abbot, he finds irresistibly alluring though she will devour him. At story’s end, the narrator of this discovered manuscript, the lawyer, is planning to be “brave and patient” and return to the vampire Nycea.
“A Rendezvous in Averoigne” — This is a somewhat peculiar tale, ambiguous in its ending. The setup is relatively straight forward. The troubadour protagonist is on his way to an assignation with the noble woman Fleurette and comes across an illusionary house people by the legendary and vampiric Sieur du Malinbois and his wife, a house actually above their tomb. The protagonist notes the seeming enthrallment of Fleurette who is also captured by the vampires. But, after killing both of the vampires, Smith does something very different than the usual happy ending. Rather than happily continuing her life as before with the story’s hero, we get this final sentence involving Fleurette: “But Fleurette was still bemused with wonder, and could only respond to his words with a kiss.” It is as if she has been morally corrupted by her time with the vampires, distracted from now living in the normal world. (It should also be noted that she is responding to troubadour Gérard’s claim that their next rendezvous will not be interrupted by “Sieur du Malinbois and his chatelaine.”) This could simply be one of those the-monster-is-not-dead moments. The notion of moral taint and corruption, of self-destruction, of continued longing for the entity literally sucking the life out of you, is, of course, unique not to the vampire story. If this interpretation of the ending is correct, it shares the theme with Smith’s “The End of the Story”.
“The Last Incantation” — The first of the collection’s stories to capture the flavor of Smith’s poetry. The great and powerful sorcerer and necromancer Malygris is dying and puts all his learning and skill to resurrecting Nylissa. She is his first love, a “slender and innocent child” who loved him and who he loved dearly before his ambition and drive to master the dark arts made him the feared figure he is now. She is the symbol of all he has lost. And he succeeds in resurrecting her, but he is unsure if the girl he resurrects is really Nylissa. Her lips and brow are less lovely than his memory, the hair a “common black”, the neck “an ordinary pallor”. And then Malygris despairs and sickens at “the death of his evanescent hope”. He can no longer believe in “love or youth or beauty” or even their memories. He sickens in despair. And his viper familiar explains the hard lesson he needed to learn for himself: his sorcery can’t retrieve Malygris’ own “lost youth or the fervent and guileless heart that loved Nylissa”.
“The Death of Malygris” — The Malygris of the title is the necromancer of the earlier (in time and composition) “The Last Incantation”. I liked this story telling how the other sorcerers of Susran, unable to tell if the feared and powerful Malygris is dead. He is a sorcerer so powerful that the tribute keeps coming though he has not given any sign in over a year that he is still alive. The structure of the tale is somewhat odd. Two brothers, anxious to boost their prestige amongst the town’s sorcerers, volunteer to enter Malygris tower and come to a bad end after finding him alive. Another sorcerer concocts an involution which he causes to age and, thereby, kill Malygris. It works, but not before Malygris kills the sorcerer in a similar way. I suppose the two brothers and their deaths are their to not only to provide some atmosphere and fantastic imagery but to show that Malygris has been alive all this time before the sorcerer Maranapion attacks him.
“A Voyage to Sfanomoë” — I’m not sure if I was supposed to see more than “ironic” reversal in this story. In the past, on the island of Poseidonis (seemingly the setting of many of Smith’s Atlantis stories), two brothers resign themselves to the death of Atlantis and their culture, the futility of the attempts to preserve their culture from the sea. They set off in a homemade spaceship to the planet Venus aka Sfanomoë. After a long voyage during which they unwittingly become old men, old men who look upon Sfanomoë with expectation, they become the first (but, Smith assures us, not the last) humans to land on Venus. Their the native flora takes over their body and they are absorbed by the Venetian ecosystem. I suppose we are to see this as a tale of futility. The brothers, Smith might be telling us, might as well have stayed home on their doomed island and enjoyed their lives rather than engaging in futile pursuits. I beginning to sense that unhappy endings, endings that point up futility or ennui, are characteristic of Smith.
“The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan” — This is something of a moralistic biter-bitten tale set in Hyperborea, Smith’s world that H. P. Lovecraft partially used in some stories including the god here, the toadish Tsathoggua. Avoosl Wuthoqquan is the most rapacious money-lender in the Hyperborean city of Commoriom. After he refuses to give a beggar some money in exchange for some prophecies, the beggar gives him a “prophecy gratis”, specifically that the treasures of earth will allure and ensnare him. (It is cleverly not stated that this was a curse so maybe Avoosl’s fate would have been the same even if he would have given the beggar money.) Years later, Avoosl comes in possession of some cursed, obviously magical jewels. Rather than doing what a normally prudent person would do — let them magically roll on their way — he follows them into a cavern and is destroyed by Tsathoggua.
“The Seven Geases” — This is a fascinating story. In its motif of cosmic indifference repeated seven times as protagonist Lord Ralibar Vooz is cursed by a wizard, whose incantations he has disturbed, to travel below Hyperborea and meet several of the Old Ones including Tsathoggua. Each of the seven parties that Vooz meets simply can’t be bothered to put him to their usual gruesome uses — including those serpent-people and Tsathoggua. Each sends him on his way after a humiliatingly finding no use for him. Ultimately, he dies in something of an accident. The whole story is an example of what Smith’s friend Lovecraft would have called cosmic indifference. The universe, as symbolized by the seven parties, isn’t out to get Vooz (though it’s clear that if he hadn’t come along just when he did many of the seven would have killed him). He’s returning to the surface, having survived all the encounters, when he dies. Several of the things he meets are quite striking. He meets, in the Cavern of the Archetypes, a globular, inchoate entity who is revolted by how Vooz’s human form is a perversion of the original. Abhoth is a grey blob that spins out weird forms like bodiless legs and arms and heads which flail about before being redevoured, but he refuses to digest Vooz.
“The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” — The city of Commoriom which Avoosl Wuthoqquan comes from in “The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan” and Vooz hails from in “The Seven Geases” is now a city deserted for centuries and shrouded in jungle. A couple of thieves, including the narrator who looses a hand in the expedition, encounter the god Tsathoggua in the ruins. One thief dies. Nothing conceptually special, but it was still a enjoyable story for Smith’s language.
“The Coming of the White Worm” — This haunting story — haunting because Smith is masterful in using his poetic talents to create an eerie story full of villages falling under a wave of sorcerous cold — probably works especially well on me because I’ve always had a fondness for stories in icy settings. The frozen village, the bloated Rlim Shaikorth using the magicians he has spared for food, and the ships, at the beginning of the story, full of leprously white and dead crews are particularly powerful images.
“The City of the Singing Flame” — The ranking of Smith is usually first poet, then fantasist, and then sf writer. This is his most famous sf story. (Bradbury specifically mentions it in his introduction to the collection.) It’s a fine story. I suspect it’s origin is very simple: a sf takeoff on the aphorism “like moths to a flame”. The narrator finds himself under a compulsion, at story’s end, to return to the alien city he has found, an eerie place where aliens of all species willingly incinerate themselves in the singing flame. The narrator is burdened with ennui, the unreality of his life, and a “splendid”, “glorious” death calls to him and, as he says at story’s end, “I have no longer any will to fight the ever-insistent music which I hear in memory. And — there seems to be no reason at all why I should fight it.”
“The Dweller in the Gulf” — An effective story, part of a small series of stories that Smith did set on a dusty Mars full of ancient ruins and degenerate aliens. (One suspects this may have had an influence on writers like Ray Bradbury and C. L. Moore.) Here a group of prospectors find their way into a Martian cavern in whose depths the degenerate survivors of the Martian race of Yorhis still live and worship — and are occasionally eaten — by the horrible, toadlike Dweller. The most horrifying parts of the story are when the survivors encounter Chalmers, another human captive, who tells them that, like him, they’ll be broken into accepting — and eventually not be bothered by — their captivity and its horrible diet and rites. They won’t even know when the Dweller devours them. The other horrifying part is when, having nearly escaped, the new human captives encounter the real Dweller — as opposed to its idol with its strange powers — and have their eyes taken out before being herded back underground.
“The Chain of Aforgomon” — This is an interesting story about a man placed under a curse, in one of his past lives, by Aforgomon, “god of the minutes and the cycles”. The protagonist’s past self blames the god for taking his beloved away and casts a blasphemous spell to meet her for one hour. His spell is not only unsuccessful, but he incurs the wrath of Aforgomon who curses him with perennially, through the ages, being able to again reunite with his love for any time and, when the memory of what he did finally returns to him, to be obliterated from history. The framing narrative about the story tells how the ink on the protagonist’s manuscript is fading as is the memory of his past writings in the minds of the living. This is another cautionary Smith tale, like his “The Last Incantation”, about trying to attain one’s wish, specifically the revival of a dead love.
“Genius Loci” — I’m beginning to think that obsession and compulsion are two large themes in Smith’s works. As with his “The End of the Story” and “The City of the Singing Flame”, this is a story of an unhealthy compulsion. Here a landscape artist falls under the sway of a unwholesome place of meadow and pool. The artists feels it haunted by an evil spirit and returns again and again to paint it. His friend, the narrator, becomes worried about his obsession and calls the artist’s fiancé to distract him from the place. To no avail, though. Both people end up dead in the pool, the victims of the place, their “curdled” faces visible to the narrator in the landscape. As with the narrator at the end of “The City of the Singing Flame”, the narrator himself feels compelled to a place he knows will be his doom.
“The Maze of Maal Dweb” — Another impressive story from Smith, here at his most baroque and outré as well as showing the usual themes of frustrated desires and ennui. The story has a somewhat typical beginning. Tiglari, the protagonist, is on a mission to rescue his beloved from the clutches of the “all-wise, the all-powerful” sorcerer Maal Dweb who has his own uses for beautiful women. Tiglari enters Maal Dweb’s mountaintop palace where, despite his hunter skill, he is caught be the wizard who sentences him to find his love Athlé in his maze. Smith seems to rarely be one for happy endings, and here is no exception. Tiglari finds Athlé petrified and “beyond the changes and corruption of Time”. Tiglari’s lower body, below his head, is turned into a beast, and he is condemned to wonder the maze for the wizard’s amusement. But, if Tiglari is frustrated like many of Smith’s protagonists, Maal Dweb is suffering from another typical complaint of those in Smith’s stories: ennui. Talking to one of his automaton, he reveals he shall not again deal with a man or woman as he has with Tiglari and Athlé. It is good, one automaton says, for him to diversify his enchantments. The talking automatons, who always agree and “spare him the tedium of argument”, weary him. Maal Dweb seems dissatisfied with his lot in life.
“The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” — This 1932 story stands, I suspect, close to the source of a whole sub-sub-genre of sf horror: the alien parasites who, having destroyed at alien race, wait in their ruins for new prey — namely us. This story belongs to the same setting as Smith’s “The Dweller in the Gulf”. The degenerate Yorhis have been absent from Mars for at least 40,000 years, and we find out, in an expedition to excavate one of their cities, what happened to them. A plague of parasitic brain leeches, able to suborn their bodies, killed the race — and attach themselves to the humans hapless enough to enter the ruins. The story is narrated by that device so loved by Smith’s colleague H. P. Lovecraft — the narration of a doomed man. Here the sole survivor of the expedition to the Yorhis city recounts his tale in a hospital — before, in the grip of a strange compulsion, returning to the ruins. This is an effective and grisly story.
“The Uncharted Isle” — This simple, eerie story has one of the most memorable lines in Smith’s fiction. A shipwrecked sailor comes across a strange island with strange people who seem obsessed with escaping the island — and incapable of noticing him. At story’s end, as the narrator is making preparations to escape the island, he seems to see a local idol come to life and a small child possibly sacrificed to him. The memorable line is the last line of the story, so powerful and poetic and evocative: “But often in my dreams, I see again the incognizably distorted stars, and share the confusion and bafflement of a lost people, as they pore above their useless charts, and take the altitude of a deviated sun.” As with his poetry, part of the effectiveness comes from the odd restatement of stock phrases — “pore above” for “pore over” — and uncommon synonyms — “incognizably” for “unrecognizably”.
“The Planet of the Dead” — This story is another striking example of a Smith character racked by dissatisfaction and boredom with his life to the point where he regrets escaping destruction. Protagonist Francis Melchior is an antiques dealer by trade and an astronomer by avocation. One night, when observing a star, he finds himself unaccountably transported in spirit to a far planet where he is the poet Antarion madly in love with Thameera. He is reunited with her in the decadent necropolis of Saddoth. The city has a prophesied doom hanging over it (the decadence is a “dread implacable ennui of racial senescence”). As a universal orgy is undertaken under the dying light of the sun Phandiom, Antarion and Thameera flee the city with their slaves. Under the dying sun they “clung to each other in despairing rapture” as oblivion approaches. Then, Melchior finds himself back on Earth. And he feels a “dull regret” he ever awoke from death with Thameera.
“Master of the Asteroid” — There’s a bit of the flavor of Edgar Allan Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym about this story of shipboard madness and shipwreck and odd entities encountered in distant places — all narrated, as with Poe’s story, in the first person. A group of misfits steals a ship from Mars. Madness strikes some of the three; violence ensues. Eventually, the sole survivor crashes on an asteroid where a race of insect-like, sentient aliens worship him as his air and supplied slowly run out in the capsule. At story’s end, with death near, he sees a new alien form whose half-transparent tentacle somehow reaches through the capsule. And there the log ends. It’s an effective and engaging tale, understandably one of the sf tales, along with “The City of the Singing Flame”, mentioned in regards to Smith the sf writer.
“The Empire of the Necromancers” — This is Smith at his most decadent and baroque. The first of Smith’s Zothique story’s I’ve read, all set on a far future, dying Earth (reworked as a setting by Jack Vance among others), has two necromancers entering a dead kingdom and resurrecting its dead to rule over, cater to their lusts (necrophilia shows up fairly frequently in Smith), and be subjects to rule over — before the last of the old emperors shakes off his stupor and takes magical vengeance on them. One of the wizards has the suggestive name Sodosma.
“The Charnel God” — Another Zothique story — Zothique is Earth’s last continent — with a necromancer. Here traveler Phariom desperately tries to rescue his wife Elaith from the mysterious priesthood of the town of Zul-Bha-Sair. They may or may not consume their dead, may even kill people to take them to their subterranean halls. In a rather Poesque twist, Elaith is given to death-like fits, and Phariom thinks she is not dead, just in a coma-like state. Intersecting with Phariom’s story is the necromancer Abnon-Tha who has drugged a girl he wants so she is taken away as dead as per the local customer. He will then retrieve her from the priests. In the end, the god Mordiggian is revealed to not kill innocents — but he does wreck vengeance on the duplicitous Abnon-Tha.
“Xeethra” — This tale from 1934 reminded me very much of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Quest for Iranon” from 1921. Both feature humble figures, here a goat herder, in search of a dream realm they are sure they belong to.