CLARK ASHTON SMITH
All over this book (and various places on the internet) it’s advertised that Clark Ashton Smith was one of the Big Three contributors to Weird Tales, along with H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Specifically, there was a short period from 1930 to 1936 when these three constituted to primary material of weird fiction. You already know what I think of Robert E. Howard, and I think that my admiration for Lovecraft, and his particular ability to blend a nihilistic view of man’s relation to the cosmos (or more precisely, the reverse) with the furniture of gothic fiction, has been made apparent. So how does the third member of the trifecta measure up?
First of all, he’s not an imitator of Howard or Lovecraft. Although all these authors have influence on each other, as should be expected, Smith is definitely carving out his own territory. And where is that territory? Well, it seems to fit comfortably between Lovecraft, Howard, and a third writer I haven’t had the opportunity to talk about called Lord Dunsany. Ever since I first read him, I’ve felt that Lord Dunsany is one of those authors who have been tragically neglected by the popular consciousness. Sure, he’s well-known among the fantasy crowd, but in my opinion he’s the kind of writer people should be reading and talking about all the time—I honestly find his work much more interesting than Lewis Carroll, and much, much more interesting than C.S. Lewis. Writing fantasy at the turn of the century, his works feel their heritage in Romantic poetry in that they continually seem to be trying to evoke, or even create, new worlds. For those very familiar with Lovecraft, his early work, and anything in what is sometimes referred to as his ‘Dream Cycle’, is heavily influenced by Dunsany. Dunsany’s impressionistic, surreal evocations of the unknown have had a tremendous influence on fantasy as a genre, continually serving, alongside Carroll, as a sort of counterpoint to the rigidly constructed worlds of Tolkien, his many imitators, and the many RPGs based off of these.
It’s important to talk about Dunsany before talking about Smith, because it is Dunsany’s way of painting fantasy that Smith often brings to the table. Reading through his collection is a sort of exhilarating time travel; one minute one may be at an abbey in France in the late middle ages, and the next in Oakland in the early 1900s, or in ancient times coexistent with Robert E. Howard’s Conan, or in the distant future, on “Zothique, the last continent, beneath a dim sun and sad heavens where the stars come out in terrible brightness before eventide.” Yes, the prose is purple, but it is the prose of evocative dream poetry, and it works as such. The reason some purple prose (Barker, for example) bothers me is that it’s out of place in the universe the writer is trying to create, usually a gritty one that would be better served by a more minimalist or psychological approach. Clark Ashton Smith, who was better known during his lifetime as a poet, writes his descriptive passages like prose poems.
But there’s one thing that distinctly separates Clark Ashton Smith from Dunsany and other fantasy writers, and that’s the horror element. Smith writes horror fantasy, often with a healthy balance between the two, but when he emphasizes the horror he does a fantastic job of it. There are some moments from several of his stories—”The Return of the Sorcerer”, “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis”, “The Isle of the Torturers”—that will stick in my mind forever, moments just as horrifying as the worst visions conjured up by Lovecraft. Even when he doesn’t explicitly evoke horror in this manner, there are elements of horror in his fiction; tales with happy endings often involve monstrosity, manipulation, necromancers, and death. They tend to have ambiguous endings, happy for some characters and not for others. They are, in short, much more complex and nuanced than a great deal of the other pulp—Howard, Chambers, etc—that I’ve read.
There’s one more point I’d like to make before we get to the story. Feminist readings have been haunting a lot of these reviews, as they must necessarily do of pretty much anything relating to the horrible, which tends, for better or worse, to gravitate to issues of gender, sex, and bodies. As before, I’ll say that I have not performed close readings of these texts, but in my initial reaction, I’m impressed with how Smith approaches the issue of sexuality. Sure, these stories are almost exclusively written from the male perspective with women sometimes not even appearing, but they show an awareness of and an engagement with the lives of women that I haven’t seen in other texts from this period and genre. Stories like “The Monster of the Prophecy” and “The Enchantress of Sylaire” play off of old stereotypical stories about women, deconstructing certain assumptions. Other stories are willing to treat the pain caused to women as equal to the pain caused to men, a very rare thing in pulp. Sure, some uncomfortable tropes pop up, but these stories seem light-decades ahead of the simplistic views on sexuality offered by writers like Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and they have an awareness of women completely lacking from Lovecraft’s grim world. The very suggestion, popping up in several places, that there may be individual happiness or even salvation in a dark and ultimately doomed world opens up vast heterotopic possibilities that hopefully someone has explored more in depth—or if not, that I may return to in the future, as Smith’s fiction certainly warrants deeper reading than I am prepared to give here.
Now with all that said, onto a quick summary of a story that will relate very little to any of these things. Why this one then? Because there’s quite a few I don’t want to give away the ending to, and I feel this is sufficiently good to convey Smith’s skill.
THE DOUBLE SHADOW
First of all, the story starts out with this: “My name is Pharpetron”. I know it’s juvenile, but I couldn’t help laughing at this name. The purpose is to tell us that we’re now in the times of ancient Greece, but when spoken aloud (as I sometimes do when reading) this name is just hilarious.
That aside, Pharpetron is studying under the aged necromancer Avyctes. “For six years, I have dwelt apart with the aged master, forgetting youth and its wonted desires in the study of arcanic things.” We get a lush description of the mansion and the history of Avyctes, enough to evidence that he is a skilled summoner and a master of darkness. “But Avyctes thirsted for a darker knowledge, a deeper empery; and into his hands, in the third year of my novitiate, there came the mirror-bright tablet of the lost serpent-people.” The tablet was found in the sand the morning after a great storm. Made of “some nameless metal, like never-rusting iron, but heavier” the triangular tablet is covered in uninterpretable marks.
Knowing nothing of the tablet’s history or purpose, it becomes an object of frustration for Avyctes over the months. “At last, by the use of a chance formula, in idle experiment, he summoned up the dime, tenuous ghost of a sorcerer from prehistoric years [which wouldn’t be nearly as long if this is really ancient Greece, but anyway]; and the ghost, in a thin whisper of uncouth, forgotten speech, informed us that the letters on the tablet were those of a language of the serpent-men, whose primordial continent had sunk aeons before the lifting of Hyperborea from the ooze.” Unable to summon the ghosts of serpent-people, Avyctes instead sends the prehistoric ghost further into the past, and finally conjures it back and thus learns the secret of the language, and therefore that the tablet is the formula for an evocation.
Avyctes is certain he can master whatever he summons, and soon they perform the ritual. At the end, “Avyctes uttered a single word whose sense was obscure to us; and Oigos [their resurrected undead servant], being animated by sorcery and subject to our will, repeated the word after a given interval, in tones that were hollow as a tomb-born echo; and I in my turn also repeated it.” But after the ritual is complete, nothing happens or arrives, and they deem the summoning a failure. They give up, and as time goes by they forget about it.
Then, one day walking “I saw the blue shadow of Avyctes and my own shadow on the marble; and between them, an adumbration that was not wrought by any of the cedars.” The strangely-colored shadow seems to be following Avyctes, and, as time goes by, closing in on him. Finally, Pharpetron informs Avyctes of the shadow and Avyctes says,
“This thing is a mystery beyond my lore; but never, in all the practice of my art, has any shadow come to me unbidden. And since all others of our evocations have found answer ere this, I must deem that the shadow is a veritable entity, or the sign of an entity, that has come in belated response to the formula of the serpent-sorcerers.”
They try to communicate with or command the shadow, but nothing works. Avyctes is not even able to keep the shadow at bay with a barrier that should repel everything. “Now, on the face of Avyctes, horror had graven new wrinkles; and his brow was beaded with a deathly sweat. For he knew, even as I, that this was a thing beyond all laws, and foreboding naught but disaster and evil. And he cried to me in a shaken voice, and said:
“‘I have no knowledge of this thing nor its intention toward me and no power to stay its progress. Go forth and leave me now; for I would not that any man should witness the defeat of my sorcery and the doom that may follow thereupon. Also, it were well to depart while there is time, lest you too should become the quarry of the shadow and be compelled to share its menace.'”
Pharpetron follows his command, but as he leaves he sees “that the alien umbrage, creeping like a noisome blotch on the floor, had touched the shadow of Avyctes. And at that moment the master shrieked aloud like one in nightmare; and his face was no longer the face of Avyctes but was contorted and convulsed like that of some helpless madman who wrestles with an unseen incubus.” Pharpetron flees but finds that he cannot escape; as he nears the edge of the terrace it lengthens before him, keeping him trapped with unknown magic. So he returns to the house. “And climbing the white stairs in the low, level beams of the crag-caught moon, I saw a figure that awaited me in the portals. And I knew by the trailing robe of sea-purple, but by no other token, that the figure was Acyvtes. For the face was no longer in its entirety the face of a man, but was become a loathly fluid amalgam of human features with a thing not to be identified on earth. The transfiguration was ghastlier than death or the changes of decay; and the face was already hued with the nameless, corrupt, and purulent color of the strange shadow, and had taken on, in respect to its outlines, a partial likeness to the squat profile of the shadow. The hands of the figure were not those of any terrene being; and the shape beneath the robe had lengthened with a nauseous undulant pliancy; and the face and fingers seemed to drip in the moonlight with a deliquescent corruption. And the pursuing umbrage, like a thickly flowing blight, had corroded and distorted the very shadow of Avyctes, which was now double in a manner not to be narrated here.”
The thing grabs hold of Pharpetron and leads him to Oigos, the resurrected mummy who had assisted in the ritual. By the lamp-light Pharpetron can see that the shadow of Oigos is followed by a shadow like the one that had followed Avyctes, “and so I knew that the horror had come to Oigos in turn, and would wreak itself upon the dead even as on the living. For the foul, anonymous thing that we had called in our presumption could manifest itself to mortal ken in no other way than this.” It is now a day later, and Pharpetron sees that there is a shadow following his own. The monstrous forms of Avyctes and Oigos watch him, waiting. He has taken the tablet and thrown it into the sea. “And now I must make an end, and enclose this writing in the sealed cylinder of orichalchum, and fling it forth to drift upon the wave. For the space between my shadow and the shadow of the horror is straitened momentarily . . . and the space is no wider than the thickness of a wizard’s pen.”
Obviously, Smith’s prose relies on an unnecessarily vast vocabulary, not unlike Lovecraft. But this doesn’t detract from the story for me; Smith is himself involved in an evocation, and the world he brings forward with his writing is distinctly alien but nonetheless terrifying. Many of these tales are familiar stories—indeed, this, the mad scientist/wizard story, is one of the oldest and most familiar archetypes in horror—but they feel fresh in Smith’s hand because of his focus on creating a new world. I don’t know the historical accuracy of a lot of Smith’s period pieces, although I have suspicions that they range far away from truth, but they work well to create a sense of transhistorical horror, of dark forces looming beyond the known world through all of time. As you can probably guess, I’m going to give a big recommendation for Clark Ashton Smith, for fans of both fantasy and horror. His writing might be too pulpy and too verbose for some, but if you can enjoy or look past that his ideas are often quite intelligent and interesting, particular his concern for the subjugated figures in history—women in some cases, but also the undead servants used as slaves by many of the necromancers in various stories. The book I’m reading in particular is The Return of the Sorcerer: The Best of Clark Ashton Smith. The selection of stories is great, but it could have done with some more editing; there are several typos and errors, the most obvious being that the header for “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” reads “Vaunts” instead of “Vaults”. Still, it’s hard to get hold of any Smith volumes right now—I could only get this one by buying it off Amazon, despite searching several well-stocked used bookstores for years—so I’m grateful for this effort to make Smith available in print again.
As a final side note, Clark Ashton Smith also happens to be just about the most well-known author to come out of Auburn, California, my hometown. I didn’t actually find this out until now, living away from Auburn, but it’s bizarre to see my little town popping up in the pages of a book, particularly one spanning such wide vistas of history as this.
Tomorrow we take a look at a modern master of nightmares, Thomas Ligotti.
All quotations from The Return of the Sorcerer by Clark Ashton Smith copyright Prime Books 2009.
Everything else copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.