The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, Volume 2: The Door to Saturn

My Clark Ashton Smith series continues.

This one has an introduction by Tim Powers, the author that got me interested in re-trying Smith.

Raw Feed (2007): The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, Vol. 2: The Door to Saturn, eds. Scott Connors and Ron Hilger, 2007.the-door-to-saturn

“Introduction”, Tim Powers — Powers observes two things about Clark Ashton Smith’s work: the pagan sense of fate and the dooming of true love. The glamours of Smith’s work, he says, are inextricable from the “merciless field-equations of Fate”.

The Door to Saturn” — Smith said this was one of his favorite works. He operates in a satiric vein, here, but the satire is more obvious than, say his “The Monster of Prophecy”. And it’s better too. Smith constantly denies expectations and dramatic payoffs and formulic plotting all the while relating his story in a deliberate, detached, yet wry, prose of wonder. Morghi the inquisitor pursues, from Smith’s Hyperboria to Saturn, fellow sorceror Eibon. The former is a devotee of the mainstream god Yhoundeh. The latter worships the primitive god — something of an alien exile on Earth — Zhothaqquah. Eibon is granted a magical escape hatch to Venus by Zhothaqquah in gratitude for his worship. The god’s relatives on Saturn can barely understand Eibon’s language, but bare him no will and speak an enigmatic phrase to him. Eibon thinks it’s important, develops a missionary zeal for delivering the message to others. After Morghi catches up to him, the two put aside their differences. They encounter a frightful animal which turns out to be a beast of burden owned by the headless Bhlemphroims — the latter are in a state of “eugenic sorrow” having devolved from their former headed condition. Rather than get caught up in tribal politics a la H. Rider Haggard and other lost race novelists or attempting to convert the tribe to the worship of their individual gods, the wizards are well treated and bored. They are expected to mate with the sole fecund female of the tribe, a “mountainous female” (a comic image reminiscent of Smith’s “The Root of Ampoi”) — and then eaten by them. The two decide to leave. But Smith doesn’t deliver a daring escape or chase. The tribe simply lets them go. Eventually coming to the Ydheem people, Eibon delivers the message of the relatives of his god. Their translation turns out to be banal, unexpected, yet still significant: “Be on your way.” The Ydheems, hearing it after their city is buried in an avalanche, build a whole new city on the divine revelation. And the two wizards settle their dispute for the rest of their life, a life of disappointments — Morghi can get an inquisition going, Eibon becomes a “minor prophet”. There are the compensations of the “potent though evil-tasting” fungus-wine and females “if one were not too squemish”. After several non-adventures it is said their life is not “so radically different from that of Mhu Thulan …”, their home, “… or any other place”. Such is Smith’s anti-adventure, the relatively mundane and mixed bag of life even if lived on an exotic planet. A final irony is that their absence on Earth, triggers the revival of Zothaqquah worship in Hyperborea.

The Red World of Polaris” — This was a story never published in Smith’s lifetime, a sequel to his “Marooned on Andromeda” and the result of an unexpected commission to do a series of Captain Volmar tales. In a letter to H. P. Lovecraft, Smith said he had little interest in the “mythology of science”. However, this story sort of anticipates some later transhuman themes of sf. The crew of the Alcyone is pulled into a metal shelled world inhabited by an alien race who has transferred their brains to customizable metal bodies they discard at well. It is not an upload of a consciousness into a computer or cyborg a la the transhumans, but it has many similarities. Furthermore, the inhabitants of the world have a control over constituent atoms that is like nanotechnology. They also have a problem with runaway experiments in life conducted by various scientists. However, I think these were all incidental plot matters to Smith who was most interested seemingly, given his comments to Lovecraft, about the poetically described apocalypse that destroys the alien world at story’s end. It is an apocalypse brought on by a characteristically Smith menace — a blob of living matter that has animal and plant characteristics. It can be seen as a metaphor for the cancer gnawing away, literally, at the heart of this technological civilization which has more than a tint of racial senescence and individual decadence in the experiments of some of its scientists. Given that it’s a red world, it’s something of a worm in an apple.

Told in the Desert” — Sure this story about an old man wandering in the Arab deserts searching for the magical, wonderful woman Neria whose blissful company he long ago and foolishly left is something of a morality tale about man’s inability to remain content even in eternal bliss and a something of a satire, and it’s nothing really new. But it has Smith’s wonderful poetic language even though he thought it “rather uneven” (it’s only a bit uneven in the quality of its language).

The Willow Landscape” — A nice bit of Oriental fantasy from Smith. Essentially this is a tale of escapist fantasy of the sort endorsed by J.R.R. Tolkein in his famous remark about jailers being those most bothered by the idea of escape. I suspect Tolkien would have especially liked the focus of the escape here being a work of art. The story involves an impoverished, single Chinese scholar forced, to support himself and his brother, to sell his familial inheritance of art slowly over a course of time. Eventually, he has to sell a beloved painting of a wonderful Chinese landscape with the figure of a woman crossing a bamboo bridge in the foreground. When he last looks at it, he is rewarded for his decades of admiration by being transported to the land of the painting and the company of its woman. The purchaser is a bit puzzled to find a figure he didn’t remember in the painting, a figure who looks like the scholar. Smith ends the tale on a bit of a randy note when he says that the two figures, when not viewed, enjoy “other diversions than that of merely passing the time of day on the bamboo bridge”.

A Rendezvous in Averoigne” — My impressions of this story are different on this, a second and more careful, reading. First, Fleurette is not a noble woman. Second, the ending seems more simple this time. Fleurette is simply dazed by being fed on by vampires and her brush with sorcery. She is not, as I first speculated, permanently alienated from the world now, enthrall to a moral taint the vampire’s bite has instilled in her. However, my first reading is not beyond the realm of possibility with a writer like Smith who is given to ironies.

The Gorgon” — As the editors point out in their story notes, this tale revolves around an image that continually fascinated Smith in his poetry: the enticing, beautiful, fatal gaze of the Medusa.  (“The Stress of Her Regard”, a memorable phrase from Smith, was used to title a Tim Powers’ novel.) Here a man encounters Medusa in a strange part of London and successfully resists the temptation to gaze unmediated upon her. The tale has a Lovecraftian flavor about it. Narrated in the first person by a former connoisseur of the outre and the ghastly who now rues his new knowledge of the world’s dark wonders, the mysterious environ in the middle of London, and the odd man that tries to lure the narrator into becoming one of the Medusa created statues in his collection.

An Offering to the Moon” — In the story notes, there is an interesting exchange of letters between Smith and friend H. P. Lovecraft about the images and landscapes and impressions which inspire their fiction. Smith also mentions dreams.  This exchange was either inspired by Lovecraft’s reading of the tale or took place about the same time as its composition and involved what Lovecraft usefully terms “mnemonic tales” which “vaguely suggest reincarnation or other dimensions”. This story fits the mold. Two very different archaeologists find themselves pulled back through time to complete an interrupted ritual in the ancient land of Mu: the sacrifice of one archaeologist by the other. The story has a good atmosphere about, particularly when Morley, the character who feels an odd relation to the past and the Pacific Island ruins he’s excavating, goes up a hill and the foilage turns to a type not seen in aeons. I also liked the touch of the literal minded Thorway, who we have no reason to believe has any relation to ancient Mu, being revealed, when he goes to look for Morley, to be the priest that was supposed to sacrifice Morley all those centuries ago.

The Kiss of Zoraida” — Smith seems to have been of two minds about this story. At one point, he called it junk. At another point, he said it was a fairly well done un conte cruel. I think the latter estimate more accurate. The central irony of a rather fickle and selfish lover, who no doubt professed eternal love to his adulterous mistress, being forced to kiss her poisoned lips is, while predictable, still effective.

The Face by the River” — This tale of what Smith called psychological realism was written in one day. As Smith noted, there is little of the cosmic here unless you want to stretch the definition and say its plot — a respectable business and family man who impulsively kills his adulterous mistress, then sees her face everywhere, and then returns to the scene of the crime where his vision causes him to fall in the same river (how Celtic for a scene of murder) as his victim — is a ghost story. H. P. Lovecraft liked the face as a pursuing Nemesis. Curiously, Smith, the very day after he wrote the story, wrote Lovecraft telling him tha the had become completely disenchanted with realistic fiction as too limiting though he thought Thomas Hardy’s novels had a sense of cosmic mystery about them. The story actually reminded me, as Smith does sometimes, of Poe, particularly the latter’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” with a murderer constantly imagining a presence from his victim. Here, though, instead of leading to self-incrimination as it does with Poe, it leads to accidental death.

The Ghoul” — One of Smith’s Oriental tales, specifically, with a nod to William Beckford’s Vathek, set in the Arabic kingdom of the Caliphate Vathek. A upright young man makes a ghastly bargain with a ghoul: in exchange for leaving the body of the man’s dead wife inviolate the man will provide the ghoul with eight bodies. The man is captured after killing his seventh victim. The judge has some sympathy given the man’s former flawless reputation and his motives (including the importance of keeping a bargain, a common feature of legend and fairy tale however odd it seems in this context), and he suggests an elegant combination of atonement and fufillment of the bargain. The last body the man provides the ghoul is his own.

The Kingdom of the Worm” — Smith and his literary correspondents H. P. Lovecraft and Frank Belknap Long were all fans of Sir John Mandeville’s tales, and here Smith adds his own. Mandeville, in Armenia, comes across a strange kingdom of death and decay ruled by an enthroned worm, a characteristic, outre Smith symbol of Leveler Death and, in general, the decadence so much of his fiction embraced. After an effectively depicted imprisonment and escape, Mandeville escapes the area. The editors note that Smith frequently used the figure of the enthroned worm in his poetry.

An Adventure in Futurity” — Smith regarded this story as junk. It was written at the request for a time travel story by the editor of Wonder Stories. Smith’s friend H. P. Lovecraft thought it had the tone of action the pulps frequently demanded (“eckshun-hounds” in his words) without their frequent banalities. And the editors note its element of Venusian and Martian immigrants to a future Earth colluding to otherthrow the native Terrans appealed to the generally anti-immigrant Lovecraft. The story is interesting in that the narrator is transported to a future America after he meets a scientist from the future. That future is somewhat utopian: lifespans are long, labor is sparse, people are rich (though they still have slaves), disease has been conquered, art is produced. However, between ours and the narrator’s time, civilization was destroyed in the Amazonian wars which wiped out a tyrannical matriarchy, fertility is low, and a sort of racial senesence has set in (I sense the possible influence of Oswald Spengler) because of the lack of struggle. Smith sort of borrows from contemporary politics and history in his depiction of extra-terresterials. The Venutian, brought to Earth as slaves (and many sold by their own people) are brutish, dumb, and occasionally cannibalistic). The Martians are smart but addicted to an opium-like drug imported from Mars (and smuggled to the Venusians on Earth). Californian Smith was obviously inspired by notions of Chinese immigrants. At story’s end, biological warfare is waged on the Terrans by their colluding Venusian-Martian enemies and man’s future is in doubt. The narrator returns to our time with, as expected, a much different perspective on events.

The Justice of the Elephant” — This is reminiscent of a conte cruel by Villiers de L’Isle-Adam. (In fact I had to get out the anthologies I have of him to refute the notion this is a retelling of one of Villier’s tales). The ending, with the elephant trainer being the lover of the executed woman, was hardly unexpected and telegraphed by the title. Smith himself said the story was based on a story he wrote in boyhood during his first bout of fiction writing. Still, the story was satisfying.

The Return of the Sorceror” — Well, with a lot more Smith stories under my belt than the first time I last read this story almost two years ago, I no longer regard this story as un-Smithian or the worst story he did. However, I do not think it worthy of the high opinion he held of it. If it is not a standard biter-bitten story, it is not that special. And my opinion may be colored by Swamp Thing comics (from which I dimly recall a similar story though, obviously, it was written after this story). I do not think it is remarkably different than some other Smith stories I’ve read.

The City of the Singing Flame” — This still strikes me as a fine story by Smith, a longing for self-annihilation in a mysterious singing flame found in an alien city of another dimension, a longing unconsummated by the narrator longer than the flame’s usual victims, but still consummated. As I said open first reading this story, it is about an escape from ennui in a “glorious doom”. And the ending is one of Smith’s most memorable:

  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.

A Good Embalmer” —  Smith didn’t particularly like this story, and it was never published in his lifetime. Correspondent and friend August Derleth didn’t much like it either perceptively calling it forgettable. Essentially, it’s a macabre joke story. Two morticians who are business partners have an argument. One, Turple, has no respect for the embalming abilities of the other, Udley, and warns the latter that, if he attempts to embalm him if he dies first, he will return from the dead. Events transpire as foreshadowed. Turple does die first. Udley does try to embalm him and dies from shock when Turple rises from the dead. Witnesses find the two men dead with Udley mysteriously embalmed.

The Testament of Athammaus” — This is the third tale Smith wrote in his ancient Hyperborea setting, and it seems to have been an inspiring milieu for him for he rightly regarded this as one of his most effective horror tales. It is related to his second Hyperborea tale “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros”. The deserted city of Commoriom that Zeiro enters looking for treasure, the city where he meets Tsathoggua, is the subject here — specifically how that city became deserted and how it fell under the influence of Tsathoggua. The titular Athammaus, the former headmen of Commoriom, tells, with the same unique Smith mixture of exoticism (he seems particularly fond of exotic adjectives beginning with “f” and “m” in this story), cosmic horror, wry humor, and a small bit of slapstick (the drunken card game at story’s end) as “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros”. The genuinely disturbing horror was the notorious cannibalistic outlaw Knygathin Zhaum, said to be the spawn of Tsathoggua and visitors from “elder worlds”. The ophidian looking Zhaum is repeatedly captured and repeatedly executed only to return — each time in a more disturbing form — until the last time when his giant, horrific form openly preys on citizens in the heart of Commoriom, and the city is abandoned.

A Captivity in Serpens” — This story, the third of Smith’s Captain Volmar series, is lackluster, boring, and too long. (The editors claim it is Smith’s longest piece of “mature fiction”.) Essentially a tale of capture by not very interesting and dwarfish aliens and escape. It’s only point of interest is at the end when Volmar and his crew speculate on the problems of communicating with aliens and that maybe the aliens didn’t mean them harm like they thought they did.

The Letter from Mohaun Los” — Nothing much to add to my previously perceptive remarks.

The Hunters from Beyond” — Smith was inspired by H. P. Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model” for this story of another artist, here a sculptor, whose grotesqueries are drawn from real life. (Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales, rejected the tale after unfavorably comparing it to Lovecraft’s story.) For a time, Smith thought this story better than his “The Return of the Sorcerer”. I agree with him that it possesses better atmosphere. His tale has some real tension as we worry about the danger Inez is in and the ultimate horror of her fate. (Lovecraft, characteristically, has no romantic interest to be endangered in his story.) Sculptor Cyprian is envious of and inspired by narrator’s Hastane’s occult interest. (Phillip Hastane is sort of an alter ego of Smith that seems to appear as the narrator of many characters. He’s a writer of occult stories, but the stories he appears in are never about him. He relates the odd and horrible events of others lives.) In a couple of senses, the story suffers compared to Lovecraft’s. There is a morbid humor in “Pickman’s Model” when we recognize the graves of the famous in Pickman’s paintings. No such humor exists here. Also, Smith is more explicit than Lovecraft in the describing the soul eaters of another dimension — who are called into this world by the desires of Cyprian and Hastane (the latter perhaps sees the Hunters because of his proximity to Cyprian or an innate sensitivity to the entities that have been hanging around his cousins) — and the lengthy description of them doesn’t evoke the necessary horror and tension by itself. It is simply their appearance and the behavior of Cyprian and Inez that do that. Smith could have shortened this tale, I think, with no ill effect.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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