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The Emperor Of Dreams
Clark Ashton Smith
Gollancz paperback £7.99
review by Patrick Hudson
Clark Ashton Smith was a contemporary of Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft and, with them, one of the most influential of the Weird Tales authors. All three were instrumental in laying the foundation of modern fantasy and horror, but Smith has been somewhat neglected in comparison with his celebrated peers. Gollancz has addressed this oversight by adding this fine selection of his stories to their already excellent Fantasy Masterworks series.
Smith was born in 1893, and was gifted with a prodigious talent for poetry. In 1912, at just 19 years old, he published a volume of poetry - The Startreader And Other Poems - that was feted in its time as the debut of a great talent. He continued to write highly praised poetry throughout his life, but never regained the acclaim of his youth as the market for his brand of ornate, macabre verse dwindled. He found a market, however, in the pulp magazines, selling his poetry to Weird Tales from the mid-1920s. At the urging of Lovecraft and others he turned his hand to fiction and sold his first story in 1928. His great creative period was from 1928 to about 1940, during which time he published over 100 stories in the pulps but after that his output became more sporadic, and he was forced to work at a variety of menial tasks to get by that left him drained of energy and enthusiasm. He died in 1961, largely forgotten by the fantasy community. His stories have been re-issued from time to time - by Panther in the early 1970s, and more recently in limited editions by specialists such as Necronomicon Press - but this is the first widely available collection of Smith's work for nearly 30 years.
Like his contemporaries, Smith worked on a series of related story cycles. This isn't really represented in this anthology, which is a shame: the Panther paperbacks of the 1970s collected the stories by theme and were, I think, better because of it. (As an aside, can someone go back in time to 1995 and give me a big slap as I take my copy of the Zothique volume to the secondhand shop? Ouch!)
Averoigne is an imagined version of medieval France where troubadours and courtly maidens pursue romantic intrigues. These high romantic medieval fantasies feature witches, vampires and werewolves, evoking the folklore and literature of the Old World. They have a charming fairy tale quality, and reading them brings to mind swashbuckling films of Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power. Hyperboria is Smith's imagined prehistoric world, similar to Howard's Hyborian Age. These stories usually have a humorous bent, although of the blackest sort as in The Weird Of Avoosl Wuthoqquan, where a greedy merchant ends up as dinner for the alien god Tsathoggua. The thief Satampra Zeiros, who appears in several of the stories, typifies the jocular, morally flexible scoundrels that populate Hyperboria, bringing to mind the work of Damon Runyan, where similarly roguish characters plot to rob their enemies and each other. The Theft Of The Thirty-Nine Girdles in particular has an intricately planned heist at its heart that comes straight from a hardboiled crime story. Other stories in this cycle emphasise strange magic, weird gods and alien creatures, such as The Doorway To Saturn and The Coming Of The White Worm, but again give matters a weird, delightful humour.
Smith's other major setting, and perhaps his greatest, is Zothique, the last continent in the far future when the Earth is old and the sun is dying. The Zothique stories all share a morbid, erotic tone and tendency toward wild melodrama. They are often about love frustrated in some way, with healthy doses of sadism and necrophilia thrown in for good measure. A striking example is Necromancy In Naat, wherein a young prince Yadar goes in search for his lost love Dalili and finds her animated corpse serving three necromancers on an island of the coast of Zothique. Via a somewhat complicated plot, Yadar falls victim to the necromancers but by the end of the story the necromancers are all dead, and their mindless undead servants continue to perform their duties. Smith's mastery of dreamlike, melodramatic prose produces a moment of genuine frisson as Yadar is reunited with Dalili in death:
And Yadar, being with Dalili in that state now common to them both, was drawn to her with a ghostly
yearning; and he felt a ghostly comfort in her nearness. 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.
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