Lost Worlds by Clark Ashton Smith
The golden age of pulp fantasy is often considered to be the years when the American magazine Weird Tales was being published (1923-1954) and particularly the decade when it was dominated by three great authors: H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith. Lovecraft created a new take on horror whose effects are still obvious, while Howard’s approach came to be known as sword & sorcery, but Smith’s style is harder to define. His stories ranged from Lovecraftian horror to science fiction, though his most characteristic stories can be described as macabre fantasy; but, whatever he wrote, it’s recognisable as a Clark Ashton Smith story.
Smith was born in 1893 in California, and spent most of his life in a cabin just outside the town of Auburn. Due to health problems, he was home-schooled from high-school age. This mostly took the form of voracious reading, including every word of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the unabridged Webster’s Dictionary. Since he had an eidetic memory, this left him with a wide range of knowledge and a vast vocabulary, which he used to the full in his fiction.
Though he was a poet, author, painter and sculptor, Smith had to work at a string of mostly menial jobs to make a living. He dabbled in fiction early on, but first made his name as a poet, moving in circles that included Ambrose Bierce and Jack London. It was the publication of his long poem The Hashish Eater that led to his friendship by correspondence with Lovecraft, and in the later 20s, he began writing short stories, partly to make more money than poetry offered.
Over the next decade, he published about a hundred stories, a large proportion of them in Weird Tales. He was one of the members of the Lovecraft circle who contributed to the Cthulhu Mythos, and Lovecraft responded, with an uncharacteristic flash of humour, by incorporating references to an ancient dark wizard named Klarkashton.
In the course of 1936-1937, Smith lost both his parents and two of his closest author friends—Howard to suicide, Lovecraft to cancer. It’s been speculated that these bereavements contributed to his abandonment of fiction, but he wrote little after this, although his stories were collected in a number of volumes from Arkham House. He concentrated on art, instead. Smith finally married in his sixties and died in 1961, following a series of strokes.
Unlike the other writers I’ve featured in this series, Clark Ashton Smith published no novels, and his stories don’t fall into convenient series like Leiber’s Fafhrd/Gray Mouser tales. Rather, therefore, than trying to cover his whole output, I’ve concentrated on the collection Lost Worlds*. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, Smith himself is said to have selected and arranged the stories to be included. Secondly, it has a high proportion of fantasy, as opposed to his horror and science fiction. Thirdly, it’s conveniently divided into sections representing five of his principal settings.
These are Hyperborea, a continent proposed by the Theosophists (whom Smith admired) as the original, primeval human civilisation; Poseidonis, the last island of Atlantis to sink beneath the waves; Averoigne, a fictional province of mediaeval France, perhaps inspired by Cabell’s Poictesme; Zothique, Earth’s last, far-future continent beneath a dying sun; and the exotic planet Xiccarph, with its three suns, four moons and five neighbouring planets. The collection also includes some stories that fit into none of Smith’s cycles.
Though all five main settings feature “typical” Smith stories, all involving dark sorcery, each has its individual character. The stories set in Hyperborea tend to feature ancient evil and alien gods, intersecting with the Cthulhu Mythos. The Door to Saturn, for instance, involves the god Zhothaqquah who had come down by way of other worlds from a foreign universe, and who helps his disciple, Eibon, to escape persecution by way of a magical door to the planet Saturn. The Seven Geases takes the protagonist, Ralibar Vooz, through meetings with a series of powers more and more primal, culminating in Abhoth, father and mother of all cosmic uncleanness.
Poseidonis, though populated with sorcerers in plenty, takes a slightly more scientific approach. The Atlantean scientists had subverted the elements, had constrained the sea, the sun, the air, and the force of gravitation, compelling them to serve the uses of man; and lastly they had found a way to release the typhonic power of the atom… Nevertheless, two of the three Atlantean stories included here involve the magician Malygris, most powerful and most feared of the sorcerers of Poseidonis.
The tales of Averoigne suggest a more gothic tone than the others, especially The Beast of Averoigne, which concerns a strange monster preying on the countryside. The solution to the mystery is, perhaps, a touch obvious to anyone who knows how such stories work, but the tale is no less entertaining.
Zothique, the last continent beneath a dying sun, is a pioneering cycle in the Dying Earth sub-genre, and almost certainly influenced Jack Vance’s much more developed work in that format. Smith vividly describes the black sapphire heaven from which the aging but despotic sun glared down with implacable drouth on the kingdoms of Zothique as well as many realms, but without any sense of development or purpose—it’s as if the peoples of Zothique are sleepwalking into oblivion. In contrast with the sorcerers of Hyperborea, Poseidonis and Averoigne, ravenous for power and knowledge, the most common form of magic in Zothique is necromancy, summoning up the dead for no more reason than to be subjects and servants to the sorcerer.
The two stories here about Xiccarph are the only two Smith wrote, but it’s possibly the most exuberant of the cycles. Actually a whole solar system (the second story, The Flower-Women, is set primarily on Votalp, the sixth planet of the system) Xiccarph has the kind of exotic flora and fauna that couldn’t be found on Earth, even in the distant past or more distant future. Both stories revolve around the all-powerful, utterly bored sorcerer Maal Dweb—the first as antagonist, the second as protagonist. He’s an engaging character as either.
The “other” stories range from The Demon of the Flower, a fantasy set on a planet as exotic as Xiccarph which Smith never revisited, through the Mythos tale The Treader of the Dust, to the almost straight (if somewhat unsatisfactory) science fiction of The Plutonian Drug.
This is certainly not sword & sorcery. In place of straightforward barbarian warriors, Smith’s protagonists are often the decadent, tyrannical sorcerers and worshippers of dark gods that such heroes customarily fight against. Even when a character does seem more S&S-like—Yadar, for instance, the nomad searching for his kidnapped lover in Necromancy in Naat, or the two over-courageous thieves in The Tale of Satampra Zeiros—they invariably come to a bad end.
Though many of the stories are macabre to the point of morbidity—L. Sprague de Camp observed that nobody since Poe has so loved a well-rotted corpse—Smith is far from the humourless seriousness of his friend Lovecraft. His comedy is bizarre and subtle, but he frequently mocks his characters and brings out the absurdity of the situation. The Door to Saturn offers a good example of this, while The Seven Geases is more or less a grisly shaggy-dog story.
Most of all, though, Smith is a writer of stunning detail, whether gorgeous or horrific. He had a painter’s eye for the visual, together with a poet’s facility to describe it and a vast vocabulary, courtesy of Webster’s Dictionary, which he wasn’t afraid to use. In The Demon of the Flower, he describes the cup of a monstrous flower:
It smouldered with sullen ruby at the base; it lightened into zones of dragon’s blood, into belts of the rose of infernal sunset, on the full, swelling sides; and it flamed at the rim to a hot yellowish nacarat red, like the ichor of salamanders. To one who dared peer within, the cup was lined with sepulchral violet, blackening toward the bottom, pitted with myriad pores, and streaked with turgescent veins of sulphurous green.
Not all his descriptions depend on such length, though. He’s a master of the precise visual image: he was clad in vestments of a strange hue, like sea-purple brightened with fresh-flowing blood; or a wily smile that preceded the words and lingered after them.
These stories certainly aren’t for the reader who loves minimalism and just wants to get on with the plot. Nevertheless, as Lin Carter pointed out in his 1969 anthology The Young Magicians (which included The Maze of Maal Dweb), Smith had the poet’s ear for unusual words and singing rhythms and the artist’s eye for color, but he had a strong sense of the storyteller’s art… Anyone who enjoys soaking in the fine imagery will also get an entertaining tale.
Still, Smith isn’t perfect for a modern reader. Neither his style of writing nor his way of putting a story together is as favoured by today’s reader as in his time, and the stories, though absorbing, can seem very stilted. His characterisation is rudimentary, and there’s really only one female character in the collection who’s more than an object of either desire or terror. Also, his attention to consistency isn’t good. At one point, he refers to the summer solstice being celebrated in a city he’s only just described as “equatorial”.
I, for one, certainly wouldn’t want all fantasy to be written like Smith. Fortunately, we have plenty of books with perception characterisation, thrilling action, terse narrative and consistent world-building, and I enjoy many of them. Now and then, though, it’s well worth turning down the side-roads through time and space to wander through the bejewelled beauty and exuberant horror of Clark Ashton Smith’s lost worlds.
*The version I own is the two-volume paperback edition published in 1974 by Panther Books. This is a UK publication, but maintains the original US spelling.