Tuesday, February 3, 2009


“On Zothique, the last continent on Earth, the sun no longer shone with the whiteness of its prime, but was dim and tarnished as if with a vapor of blood. New stars without number had declared themselves in the heavens, and the shadows of the infinite had fallen closer. And out of the shadows, the older gods had returned to man: the gods forgotten since Hyperborea, since Mu and Poseidonis, bearing other names but the same attributes. And the elder demons had also returned, battening on the fumes of evil sacrifice, and fostering again the primordial sorceries.”

Together with Robert E. Howard and H.P Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith was one of the writers who helped to put the ‘weird’ into Weird Tales in the 1930’s. But while Lovecraft and Howard have achieved posthumous fame and critical acclaim, with reissues of their works reaching bookshelves on a regular basis, Clark Ashton Smith remains, to a large extent, the forgotten man of weird fiction.

In some ways, it’s not difficult to see why. His writing is dense and baroque, filled with difficult and obscure words, a style that was challenging even then but more challenging for a modern audience. But it is that very challenge that makes reading the work of Clark Ashton Smith so rewarding. At his best his imagery rivals, and often outdoes, the cosmic horrors of Lovecraft and his tales of swordsmen battling dark forces are as blood-soaked as anything that Howard created.

The combination of naked steel versus the bleak unknown reaches its finest expression in the stories that Smith wrote about Zothique, the last continent. Set in the distant future when the earth itself has reached the end of its life and the sun is ‘a monstrous ember in a charred heaven’ and humanity is ‘a dying race, grown hopeless of all but oblivion’, the Zothique cycle represent Smith’s largest collection of stories. Their influence can be felt throughout the evolution of science fiction and fantasy: in Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth, in M. John Harrison’s Viriconium sequence and in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun (and in my own Shining Cities tales – but that’s another ramble for another day).

Like the milieu in which they are set, the tales of Zothique are grim and dark, characters rarely survive unscathed and, more often than not, are utterly transformed or destroyed by the dark forces they encounter. More than this, even the antagonists of the stories – long dead sorcerers, ancient alien gods, torturer-kings and ambitious necromancers – rarely reap any reward other than their own destruction. In Zothique nothing is certain except extinction itself.

In the utterly horrific story The Dark Eidolon, for example, a thirst for revenge brings about the destruction of a decadent king, his kingdom and the sorcerer who seeks a dark and terrible justice for a long-forgotten wrong. Similarly, The Empire of the Necromancers sees a lust for power bring about an empire of the reanimated dead who turn upon their creators, while The Isle of the Torturers, surely one of Smith’s most fascinatingly cruel stories, sees a combination of magic and plague lay waste to a kingdom where gleeful sadism is the order of the day. But now and again, Smith allows a small flicker of hope – however dark and twisted – to shine through, as in the reunion of the undead lovers Yadar and Dalili at the conclusion of Necromancy in Naat or the climax of The Charnel God which, nonetheless, sees a glimmer of hope for its two young protagonists.

More pessimistic than Howard, more graphic than Lovecraft and unburdened by either a central protagonist such as Conan or a readily identifiable mythology such as Cthulhu mythos, the Zothique stories allowed Smith’s considerable imagination to rove through eldritch places that Howard or Lovecraft rarely reached.

Unique then, unique now, Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique stories are a heady wine to be savoured in small but utterly satisfying sips and remain one of the finest achievements of fantastic fiction.
For more on Clark Ashton Smith check out The Eldritch Dark, a wonderful site on the man, his life and works: http://www.eldritchdark.com/

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