The Clark Ashton Smith series continues with an actual retro review from 2010.
Sorry, I made no real notes on volume 3.
Review: The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, Volume 4: The Maze of the Enchanter, eds. Scott Connors and Ron Hilger, 2009.
Clark Ashton Smith is undergoing something of a revival these days. As well as an amateur artist who even illustrated some of his stories for Weird Tales, he was also a superb poet of the fantastic. (The Last Oblivion: Best Fantastic Poetry of Clark Ashton Smith is an affordable, excellent introduction to that side of his talent.) [Or you can just go the site with all things CAS: The Eldritch Dark.]
And, of course, there are the stories. Smith was not as good a writer as poet, but he could still be very good. This series collects his stories in the order Smith wrote them with the editors working very hard to present Smith’s preferred versions and alternate versions as well as Smith’s opinion of those stories as well as that of his famous friends, H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth. This volume’s stories were written in 1932 and 1933 and have Smith working in the many universes he had already established or writing sequels to his popular past stories. In all cases, the stories stand alone even when part of a series.
Smith’s greatest and most influential creation, the decadent, magical, grotesque far future of Zothique, Earth’s last continent, is the setting for many stories here. Showing the influence of Smith’s idol Edgar Poe at several points, “The Isle of the Torturers” has a king and fellow sparse survivors of a plague ending up on said island, a place given to the sadistic pleasure of all kinds of torture. “The Charnel God” has a young nobleman braving the temple of Mordiggian to rescue his dead wife from its priests. (She only seems dead, more shades of Poe.) “The Dark Eidolon” is Smith at the top of his form with a sorcerer determined to avenge an injury he suffered, when still a beggar boy and not Zothique’s most feared man, at the hands of a future emperor. And there’s a god who has his own ideas of justice. A poetic, dark tale of two unpleasant men marred only by a misstep in final imagery. “The Voyage of King Euvoran“, obsessively undertaken to recover a royal symbol and right a slight, ends up in a satisfying, wry conclusion. “The Weaver in the Vaults” has three soldiers sent on a mission to recover a royal mummy so it can be ground up for magical potions. They encounter a strange, vampiric creature underneath a city “where Death has made his capital”.
There are further entries in the French medieval world of Averoigne. “The Mandrakes” has wedded sorcerers selling illegal love potions – and being murderously unhappy in their own marriage. “The Beast of Averoigne” is an effective werewolf story. “The Disinterment of Venus” pits erotic pagan magic against Christian chastity at a monastery.
The magical prehistoric Earth of Hyperborea is the setting of two stories. “The White Sibyl” is a prose-poem about the obsession of the poet Tortha for the titular woman who foretells the glaciers about to engulf the city of Cerngoth. The fate of a doomed expedition to stop those glaciers and a plot to loot its remains is the subject of “The Ice-Demon“.
“The Maze of the Enchanter” introduces the bored magician Maal Dweb. Here a barbarian tries to rescue his lover from Maal Dweb’s clutches. Wry insouciance mixed with decadence. Still oppressed by ennui, Dweb decides to live dangerously and rescue “The Flower-Women” with only the powers of his novice days.
As evidenced by its title, “The Third Episode of Vathek: The Story of the Princess Zulkaïs and the Prince Kalilah” finishes off a fragment from William Beckford’s Vathek; An Arabian Tale, the first Arabian fantasy. I didn’t remember Beckford being so entertaining. Smith added about 4,000 words to Beckford’s 14,000.
Horror and science fiction mix in the last two installments of Smith’s Ahai aka Mars series. “The Dweller in the Gulf” has a trio from Earth encountering a nasty leftover from the past in a cavern. Effective horror despite some clumsy dialogue and exposition. “Vulthoom” is the most minor of the Ahai series but still, for Smith, a fairly successful science fiction story. Some earthmen discover a plot to invade and subjugate Earth via an alien drug. (Some have seen an influence on Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch).
Most of Smith’s straight science fiction doesn’t work too well. Its plots characteristically have self-destructively obsessed protagonists or heroes returning as psychological or physical cripples after their encounter with the alien, alienated from their homes in the end. “A Star-Change” has an excellent idea – a man having his senses so altered by extraterrestrials that life in his old home is unbearable – but the execution is boring and jargon filled. Americans pursuing Japanese spies end up in “The Dimension of Chance“, a place so chaotic that general categories of minerals and plants are unknown and gravity is mercurial. But, again, the execution is annoying. The dialogue is bad too which is perhaps why Smith thought the story worked as satire more than anything else. “The Secret of the Cairn” works better than “A Star-Change” at exploring the alienating effects of the alien.
“Genius Loci” is a fine story bearing the mark of Algernon Blackwood in its plot of an artist’s obsession with an unwholesome landscape.