The last of my series on Clark Ashton Smith.
I wrote up a much shorter review, but readers of these CAS postings seem to like the details.
Raw Feed (2010): The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, Volume 5: The Last Hieroglyph, eds. Scott Connor and Ron Hilger, 2010.
I heartily endorse this fifth and last volume of the series that collects Smith’s fiction and presents it in the order of composition. Fans of Smith and those who have the rest of the series will definitely want it.
Those who are not Smith fans, though, will want to pass this one up. A Rendezvous in Averoigne: The Best Fantastic Tales of Clark Ashton Smith is a better introduction to Smith. This volume covers a much longer period of time than the others in the series. Its first story was finished in May 1933 and its last in July 1961. That period saw some of his best work but also a marked drop in the quantity and quality of his work after February 1935. Perhaps the demands of caring for his aging parents explain this decline or perhaps their death mitigated the need to sell fiction or the escape writing may have offered Smith.
Smith of beautiful, poetic prose is here as are entries in his Hyperborean and Zothique series.
“Introduction”, Richard A. Lupoff — Lupoff notes that the three famous writers associated with Weird Tales – Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith – all led unconventional lives for men of their time. They were all alienated from normal family life and marriage and making a secure living. All turned, out of economic necessity, (I wasn’t aware that Howard was also a poet) to writing for Weird Tales. Lupoff notes that, even for the standards of the time, the magazine paid poorly. For Smith, though, however much he chafed at it, it was the most friendly place for his unique stories. Lupoff argues, quoting a letter from Smith to R. H. Barlow, that Smith may have been the most alienated of all. He said of himself that, unlike Lovecraft, he was alienated not only from his time but his space. (This plays in with a notion of Brian Stableford that Smith’s highest output in terms of quality and quantity came when he may have most urgently felt the need to escape the demands of supporting and caring for his parents.) Lupoff is certainly right in that one does not read Smith quickly or with distraction but slowly and with attention to the language.
“The Dark Age” — In the story notes, the editors talk of Smith’s opinion of the story and quote an essay he did to accompany its publication in Thrilling Wonder Stories. Smith didn’t care for it much other than the last paragraph with its swipe at the alleged benefits of science and technology and how man finds happiness without it. In the essay, he talks about how emotion and chance play a large role in history and the difficulty of maintaining science and technology after civilization collapses. The story, which, for Smith, is unusually set in a post-apocalypse setting, violates our expectations. It perhaps would violate fewer expectations at the time of its 1938 publication, but readers have seen many more post-apocalypse stories published since then, and, in its embrace of the notion that a primitive life can be happy and technology is unlikely to be easily restored after civilization’s fall, it foreshadows George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides about ten years later. The super citadel of Custodians set up, before the fall of civilization via war, doesn’t achieve its purpose. Its original eight members can’t keep their numbers up due to inbreeding and consequent sterility and their inability, and, later, unwillingness to have anything to do with the barbarian hordes around them. Atullo, for mysterious reasons leaves the Custodians. (At story’s end, it’s revealed that it was because he had adulterous attentions toward another Custodian’s wife.) But he doesn’t jump start technology again. As Smith points out, he lacks even the basic tools. Indeed, he spends a lot of his time just trying to mine the necessary metals. He dies without passing much on to his four year old son except an interest in his mysterious books and devices. The son, Torquane, doesn’t end up with the young girl Varia after leading his tribe into defending the citadel – its force field no longer maintained because the equipment has finally broken down. Instead, through another case of misunderstanding and prejudice (as Smith has it in his essay), Varia and her father commit suicide when Torquane enters the citadel after defending it with his tribe. Science and technology don’t come back. The dark age continues. Smith doesn’t detail the problems of re-creating technology as much as he think he does (and the gunpowder bomb Torquane uses seems improbably powerful) but the story, despite what Smith said, is satisfying in its general technological, social, and psychological realism and pessimism.
“The Death of Malygris” — I liked this story even better the second time around. However, I found the ending with the coral viper familiar more ambiguous this time. Is Malygris final act of magic one last trick he plays or is his familiar the one doing the magic? I think the former interpretation is the right one. An excellent story.
“The Tomb-Spawn” — An effective, stylish Zothique tale about how two brothers fulfill the prophecy about how two brothers revive – and destroy (along with themselves) King Ossaru and demon (actually a being from outer space) Nioth Karghai. The plot was nothing special though the style was good.
“The Witchcraft of Ulua” — A story which Smith had some trouble getting placed due to its erotic content. Said content shown in the appendix with the erotic content being a more blatant declaration that Ulua wants to sleep with protagonist Amalzain. Ulua is the daughter of Queen Lunalia and King Famorgh who are also mentioned in another Zothique tale, “The Weaver in the Vaults”.) It’s amusing and well told, essentially a tale of Amalzain, a youth from the provinces, being warned about the traps of a decadent court.
“The Coming of the White Worm” — Nothing much more to say from the first time I read this fine story.
“The Seven Geases” — My remarks upon first reading this story still stand and are fairly insightful in linking the theme of cosmic indifference exhibited here to H. P. Lovecraft’s
“The Chain of Aforgomon” — Upon reading this story the second time around, I was struck by its poetry in describing the longing of wizard Calaspa aka John Milwarp in our time for his dead love and the idea of a natural order violated by his reliving a lost hour from his past.
“The Primal City” — This story – three men tracking clues found in occult texts to a legendary “alien city” built by Earth’s “primal inhabitants” and encountering strange, cloud-like beings who kill all but the narrator – strikes me as one of Smith’s most Lovecraftian stories, and Lovecraft himself admired it. Smith said the story was based on a dream he had when younger. While the setting – a high mountain desert in South America – is completely different from Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness”, it is that Lovecraft story it most reminds me of. However, Lovecraft’s tale is longer and filled with the sort of technological and scientific details that Lovecraft threw in not only, I suspect, for verisimilitude but because science and technologically generally interested him more than Smith. Lovecraft, writing this plot, would not only have described the location and geography of the city but also detailed the alien inhabitants and occult volumes that hint at the city’s existence. Still, I thought this was an effective, atmospheric effort by Smith.
“Xeethra” — The editors see an autobiographical element in this story of Xeethra, a shepherd boy who, after entering the underground land of the god Thasaidon, develops the belief that he is actually King Ameros of the far off land Calyz. Specifically, they compare him and his feelings of strange exile to Smith, hailed as a young man as the “Boy Keats of the Sierras” (and when he went to San Francisco was one of the few times in his life he left his home of Auburn, California) with the exiled Ameros. The young man journeys far to arrive at Calyz – which turns out to be a dead kingdom whose former capital city is inhabited by lepers. There he makes another sort of bargain with an emissary of Thasaidon: he will relive all his life as a king. He then, back in time, becomes dissatisfied with his lot as king and wishes to be a shepherd again. Realizing he will be happy nowhere, he consents to permanently enter Thasaidon’s realm. It is true, as the editors note, that there is a Faustian bargain of sorts in the plot, and it is perhaps possessing an autobiographical element of Smith maybe ruing the life he could have had, but there is also an element of the theme found in Smith stories like “A Star-Change”. Here, though, the protagonist is not physically rendered incompatible with his environment, just psychologically and spiritually.
“The Last Hieroglyph” — A fine story about not so competent astrologer Nushain who sees, in some of his old books, evidence of his future fate. There is some wonderful imagery (with moving hieroglyphs) as Nushain, his black servant and dog, are guided through the realms of earth, water, and fire before meeting the god Vergama. The life of men, including Nushain, is compared to figures on a page. When the page is turned, their life is over. So Vergama tells them. The book with the hieroglyphs for the servant, dog, and Nushain is compared to destiny:
“Vainly do men seek to resist or evade that destiny which turns them to ciphers in the end. In my book, O Nushain, there is room even for a bad astrologer.”
The three shrink out of existence. (The grotesquery of the large – whether always outsized or becoming outsized during the course of the story – is a common Smith theme – especially in his early stories.) At the end of the story, Nushain is just a hieroglyph on the page Vergama turns. A witty ending which, as usual with Smith being witty, is a puncturing of pretension, a mordant observation on life.
“Necromancy in Naat” — A masterful story, a Zothique tale, from Smith with a sardonic and beautifully worded ending. Yadar, a nomad prince, goes on a quest to find his true love, Dalili, who has been taken by slavers. Eventually, following her trail, he sails on a ship that follows a current, the Black River, to the Isle of Naat also known as the Isle of the Necromancers. After his ship is wrecked, he is saved in the surf by a beautiful woman who turns out to be Dalili. But she doesn’t recognize him. Like most of the inhabitants of the island, she is a lich, one of the revived dead, revived by the sorcerer Vacharn and his sons Uldalla and Vokal. Every month a particularly worthy individual is sacrificed to a familiar of Vacharn’s after they spend a month in a magically induced state of lassitude. After seeing such a sacrifice, Yadar realizes he’s going to be next month’s victim so, when Uldalla and Vokal ask him to help them murder their father, he is ready to do so. The act goes horribly awry and is told in a horrifying and slightly farcical way. Yadar is cut down immediately by Vacharn and sees the whole murder while dying. There is much description of Vacharn dancing about with blood gushing from his neck, his head still attached to his body by a narrow strip of flesh. He eventually dies, but his familiar kills Vokal. Yadar becomes another of the island’s lichs. Now by himself, Uldalla goes mad and kills himself. After his death, the reanimated dead go about their somnolent return (rather like the lassitude, mechanistic state of Yadar as he waits to be sacrificed. This is another Smith story where the idea, used in his Martian tale “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” and other stories where people are under magical compulsion, of mechanistically awaiting your fate is present). Yadar gets a shadow of his desire (evidently, this was not the originally published ending but Smith’s preferred one) as the story ends (in perhaps the best story ending of Smith’s since “The Uncharted Isle”):
The quick despair that had racked him aforetime, and the long torments of desire and separation, were as things faded and forgot; and he shared with Dalili a shadowy love and a dim contentment.
It is a wonderfully worded, sardonic violation of a reader’s hopeful expectations. The editors (with no actual proof for the contention however likely it sounds) suggest the ending is Smith’s wry refutation of the end of Andrew Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress”: “The grave’s a fine and private place/But none, I think, do there embrace.”
“The Treader of the Dust” — A fine, effective story with its main feature, the “god” Quachil Uttaus aka the Treader of the Dust, being particularly inventive since he brings dusty decay with him. It’s the fate of being turned into dust that befalls protagonist John Sebastian after merely reading about Quachil Uttaus in the book of the Necronomicon-type library introduced here: The Testaments of Carnamagos.
“The Black Abbott of Puthuum” — Another good Zothique story that reminded me, with its tale of two warriors being sent on mission by their kind (here to pick up a concubine) and an underground secret. Here the original abbot of Puthuum, Uldor, has been rotting to death for almost a 1,000 years under the monastery – a fate decreed for him by Ujuk, the Black Abbott, who is his offspring by way of a succubus. In a story of sexual predation, it was amusing to see the concubine pick her own mate after the soldiers gambled for her.
“The Death of Ilalotha” — Smith himself referred to this tale, approvingly, as “poisonous” and, indeed, it is in a literal sense. Queen Xantlicha poisons her lover and may have poisoned Ilalotha, former lover of protagonist Thulos, before he took up, under compulsion given her reputation as a poisoner, with the Queen. It is also erotic at beginning and end with Smith’s poetic language hinting at erotic debaucheries at Ilalotha’s funeral and the ecstasy the dying body of Thulos exhibits when, under magical compulsion, perhaps from kissing the corpse Ilalotha’s lips or some other charm of hers,. (Thulos, ), visits her burial. (At one point, Thulos is said to have no interest in love potions and charms apart from the charms already given women by nature.) Xantlicha, after Thulos misses a midnight appointment with her, discovers a hideous, half-woman, half-demon like creature being caressed by the dying Thulos. The Queen is driven mad. This fine story, in the physical description of the graveyard and its cypress trees, has what I take to be a Southern flavor (though, like Smith, I’ve never visited the Deep South) The opening epigraph, allegedly from an letter to Thasaidon, makes this a Zothique tale. This story also marks the diminishment of Smith’s writing. Not in its quality, yet, but in his output. Smith finished it in February 1937, two years after he had finished his last story. The editors quote a letter from Smith to Robert Barlow in which Smith remarks on his dying father and his dolorous and terrible circumstances which make writing hard.
“Mother of Toads” — An erotic horror story, part of Smith’s Averoigne series. Basically, an apothecary’s apprentice resists the sexual advances of a witch and discovers that she is, as the story indicates, the “mother of toads” with a grotesque conflation of breasts and toad anatomy.
“The Garden of Adompha” — This seems, because of the reference to Thasaidon, another Zothique tale. It features several elements of Smith’s best grotesque, decadent tales no matter where they are set: bored King Adompha (rather like the titular sorcerer of his “The Maze of Maal Dweb”) has lovers and courtiers who annoy or bore him furnish some of their body parts, on their murder, to the very-Smith human-plant hybrids that furnish his garden. (Maal Dweb turned people into statues.) Said plants, that feature the breasts and other parts of old lovers, are described in erotic terms. Eventually, the king murders the sorcerer Dwerulas who has been the one to actually create this fantastical garden and the only one to know about it other than the king. Eventually, he wonders into the garden and is attacked by the human-plant hybrids (led by Dwerulas) made from the parts of those determined to have their revenge on the king.
“The Great God Awto” — Smith in his satirical mode, specifically against the automobile. (This story was written in 1937, so it is after the 1928 publication date of David H. Keller’s “The Revolt of the Pedestrians”.) This is one of that sub-genre of stories where future archaeologists completely misunderstand contemporary society. (It’s a sub-genre that, in some ways, goes back to Edgar Poe’s “Mellonta Tauta” though, strictly speaking, that story does not feature archaeologists since the discipline was still in its infancy.) Here a professor of “Hammuriquanean Arechaeology” postulates that we Americans worshiped the great god Awto (“an abstract principle of death and destruction”) as evidenced by temples (“grahages”), priests (“mekniks” – the best bit of the story is the mention made of several mummified remains in “sacerdotal raiment blackened by the sacred oil”, and sacrificial victims (auto accident victims). The story ends on a note of punctured modern smugness when the professor is killed in a “stratosphere ship” accident.
“Strange Shadows” — The editors speculate that Smith wrote this story for Unknown magazine. (It was never published in his lifetime.) It concerns a businessman who suddenly gets the ability to see strange shadows cast by people and animals. Those cast by people are often bestial, never complimentary. Those cast by animals are often like people. The shadows (the protagonist’s shadow is rather like a satyr or gargoyle in appearance) reveal true natures, hidden events (the affair the protagonist’s secretary and business partner are conducting with each other), and prophesy hidden events such as the protagonist’s girlfriend cheating on him or the embezzlement of his business partner and secretary. Ironically, at story’s end, the knowledge doesn’t do him a bit of good. In an alternate version published in the appendix, the embezzlement is thwarted by the protagonist’s shadow killing his partner and becoming a “black and bestial doppleganger”.
“The Enchantress of Sylaire” — Smith’s last Averoigne tale. In it, Anselme, a man who has lived as a hermit for thirteen months after being snubbed by Dorothée, encounters Séphora, an enchantress of strange realm. However, Anselme is warned that by one of her ex-lovers, now a werewolf, that Séphora’s true form is hideous. He is given a magic mirror to see that true form. While he hands it to Dorothée so she can see some unpleasant truth about herself, he refuses to view Séphora with it, saying “I am content with what my eyes tell me … “. This theme of deception, especially self-deception, as a basis of romantic coupling and staying together is typical of Smith, especially the end of his “The White Sibyl”.
“Double Cosmos” — Another one of his not entirely successful sf tales which involves a wonderous drug. Here a man gets involved with his double in a twin dimension. Eventually, he communicates mentally with his double who tells the narrator that his is the superior mind because he inhabits one more dimension. He will commit a series of acts which compel the narrator’s death. However, this other being says that he can go in and out of a vacuum dimension where the laws linking the events in the two beings’ lives are inoperable. One being, in our world, the narrator, will die. The other, now forever free from the twin life which will compel his death, plans on immortality. However, this scheme is in doubt (and the story ends without a resolution – Smith never published it in his lifetime) since this extra power, supposedly derived from existence with a higher dimension than our world, may be leaking into the narrator who might be able to turn the tables.
“Nemesis of the Unfinished” — Though it only says it in the editors’ notes, this is the only case of Smith collaborating with someone on a story – his neighbor Don Carter. It seems that the idea and setting for this story – a pulp writer’s cabin filled with unfinished manuscripts – was inspired by Smith’s cabin. Rather like the fairy tale “The Tinker and the Elves”, the pulp writer awakes one night and hears strange voices. The next morning he comes across well written, finished manuscripts. However, the style doesn’t match his and the stories are poetic jewels of triumphant evil. At story’s end, the writer feels strange powers and is attacked by the manuscripts and found dead under them. It was a bit of a jokey story.
“The Master of the Crabs” — Zothique story about two competing sorcerers going on a hunt for a pirate’s treasure. The story ends on a grim joke as the crippled sorcerer Sarcand thinks to use his magical mastery of the crabs to survive while his leg mends. They will kill the narrator and his master, another magician. In a straightforward response, he is not defeated by magic but by a well thrown knife. Shorn of his hand and its magical ring, he no longer controls the crabs who kill and eat him. The story ends on a morbid joke when the victorious sorcerer tells his servant to prepare some crabs – but make sure they are fresh from the sea and haven’t fed on his competitor. The editors’ notes remark that this story has the distinction of making a slight contribution to Wiccanism. Its founder, Gerald Gardner, took the name of the sacred daggers in Wiccan ceremonies – athame – from the knives the narrator and his master use – described as arthame (for some reason Gardner dropped the “r”) – in this story.
“Morthylla” — Another lamia story from Smith, this time part of the Zothique series. It’s also another repetition of Smith’s theme that “in all love there is more or less deception”. Valzain, a famous poet suffering from ennui from his many debaucheries, is interested in the legend of the lamia Morthylla. He goes to a graveyard she is said to frequent, and he meets Morthylla there. The two rapidly fall in love though their love can not be consummated says the lammia. However, Morthylla turns out to be a woman of many lovers. Another woman, Beldith, seeking solitude from “carnal pleasures” in the cemetery – recognizes the poet and decides to impersonate Morthylla. When Valzain finds out, he is crushed, eventually kills himself, and returns as a spectre (who has forgotten he has died) to the cemetery where he meets the real Morthylla.
“Schizoid Creator” — Smith’s satire on Freudianism. A crazy psychoanalyst stumbles on the truth – Satan and God are simply personalities of the same entity.
“Monsters in the Night” — Short, about 1,100 words according to the notes, story with a central gimmick what at first seems a werewolf attacking a human turns out to be a futuristic tale of a werewolf attacking a robot. This one does not have Smith’s poetic language. Written for the Anthony Boucher edited Fantasy & Science Fiction, (Boucher was an admirer of Smith’s best, poetic stuff but told him the market had changed and readers no longer liked it), this is evidently one of Smith’s most anthologized stories. It was written in 1953.
“Phoenix” — No new reactions upon reading this story the second time.
“The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles” — This is Smith’s last Hyperborean story. It features Satampra Zeiros of Smith’s earlier story “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” – where he loses a hand to the Smithian addition to the Cthulhu Mythos – Tsathoggua. (I didn’t detect any reference to him only being one-handed here, but Smith was never all that concerned with internal chronology – especially in two stories written so far apart. Essentially, this is a slightly humorous heist story where Zeiros is double-crossed by one of his confederates. Because it didn’t have any fantastical elements, it was not published in Smith’s lifetime.
“Symposium of the Gorgon” — Anthony Boucher rejected this story for Fantasy & Science Fiction. He considered it too divorced from reality for his readers – evidently they liked their stories to have some tie to their world. It’s sort of a joke story – the narrator is unaccountably transported to a world of Greek mythological figures. He meets Medusa and is transformed partly by her gaze. He then ends up on a modern island of cannibals where, due to the immunity Medusa’s changes have wrought on him, he is a god.
“The Dart of Rasasfa” — This is the last story Smith wrote, finished in July 1961. And, as the editors note, it’s not very good though Smith may have conceived it as a satire on a type of story. Essentially, it trivializes the notion of space travel and makes it seem as routine as an auto trip with repairs easily done as well. A couple have a broken down spaceship that forces them on to a planet where they encounter hostile natives who they escape from and continue on their way. It was rejected by an editor on August 15, 1961 – the day after Smith died.