Night Falls in the Empire of Dreams:
a review of Zothique, by Clark Ashton Smith
Introduction: In Search of Zothique
To find what I was looking for, I did not go to those great Emporiums which are built in busy marketplaces. I knew that the old master was unknown in places where freshly bound volumes are sold; his reputation had fallen into disrepair, and his works tottered upon the brink of wretched obscurity. His writing is known solely to those deeply versed in ancient things, and is to be found only in shops which cater to a clientele pinched of purse, but rich in spirit: students, poets and philosophers, opium addicts and hashish eaters, vagabonds of every kind.
Among the men who scrape out a living on the sale of orphaned books, his name was quite familiar. They always nodded knowingly at the mention of his most celebrated work…but alas, they told me, they had none of his books in stock. Those volumes were so vanishingly rare, so much in demand, that they were always snatched up immediately, the very moment they were placed upon the shelf. It would be a miracle to find a copy.
I continued wandering through many narrow winding streets, asking always the same question, receiving always the same answer, until at last I came to the westernmost quarter of the city. There, a stiffened finger of land points accusingly toward the black expanse of the Pacific ocean; at the tip of that barren, bony finger, I found a strange tiny shop which dealt exclusively in rare antiquities.
Awash in the smell of mummy dust and pressed dreams, I found a man sitting at a cluttered desk. His eyes and hair were the color of tarnished silver, although his face was alarmingly youthful. He assured me, with cold laughter in his voice, that he was the owner of all I saw before me.
Hesitantly, I inquired after the Book.
“I have no books by the Emperor of Dreams.” He spoke softly, as if he might wake the books. “And even I did, they would be spoken for already. I have many wealthy patrons who wait for nothing else, for years on end, than the tomes which bear his name.”
“I can pay.”
“Everyone can pay.” He smiled. “But these books come to me only rarely. They are sold by the foolish children of a weird old gentleman who has died. They are rescued from a fire which has consumed all else in a great and noble library. And once, an old sea chest washed up on the shore near here, the flotsam of a ship which sank many decades before; in that trunk I found a brine-swollen volume of the old master’s poems.” His grin was shark-like and cruel. “The proceeds of that sale saw me through a hard winter.”
Defeated, I nodded my understanding. “Well, I have come a very long way; perhaps I can find something else of interest.”
I browsed the shelves, trying to lift my fallen spirits, and selected a few books. When I took them to the cluttered desk, the proprietor totted up the sale on a slip of paper.
“You do not try to haggle over the price.” His white hands passed over the books, gentle as a father caressing a sleeping child. “Some of these are in poor condition; the spines are broken, the covers are torn.”
“Yes, this is true,” I allowed reluctantly, “but the greatest beauty of a book is in the writing, not the binding. Every one of these is a bargain. I will not find them anywhere else.”
His eyes narrowed, as if in some secret calculation. “Perhaps I have something for you after all.”
From the crumbling piles beneath his desk, he produced a small book—a slender text of less than 300 pages. It was bound in battered paper, its cover illustrated with the image of dead-eyed sorceress spreading her arms wide over a scrying bowl; the folds of her blood-red cloak billowed in an invisible wind. The spine was split, the corners bent, and the paper cheap and rough; time had darkened the pages to the color of sherry.
Nevertheless, the old master’s name and the title of the book were clearly stamped in black upon its cover, and I cheerfully paid five times what it had cost at its first printing.
Thus did I acquire my copy of Zothique, by Clark Ashton Smith.
Part One: The Emperor of Dreams
“Bow down: I am the emperor of dreams;
I crown me with the million-colored suns
Of secret worlds incredible, and take
Their trailing skies for vestment when I soar.”
–Clark Ashton Smith, “The Hashish Eater”
For those of you who might be as clueless as I was, at the beginning of my quest, here’s the basic lowdown on the man called Clark Ashton Smith:
He was born in the first fortnight of the year 1893, in Long Valley, California. His first brush with death came at age four, when scarlet fever nearly took him off; according to one of the biographies I read, the disease sapped his vitality for years afterward–which may explain why he chose to forgo the joys of public education, later in life. It doesn’t answer for that decision completely, of course; Smith also had financial problems and he was a classic introvert of the most extreme sort.
Rather than attend the local public schools, Smith ripped through the entire Encyclopedia Britannica not once but twice—and followed that with a close reading of an unabridged dictionary, paying special attention to matters of etymology. Self-taught, his accomplishments as an artist and a scholar were still formidable. He learned enough French to make translations of Baudelaire. He learned enough Spanish to write poetry in that language.
Perhaps more importantly, he also gained sufficient command of the English language to begin writing fiction at the age of 11, and to have his first stories published in the prestigious Overland Monthly (which also debuted the writing of Jack London and Ambrose Bierce) at the age of 17. His work was picked up twice by the famous short story magazine from Boston, Black Cat, at roughly the same age. Moreover, he went on, in later years, to be one of the most unique talents ever to grace the field of SF, an unparalleled stylist whose poetry and prose have never been surpassed for uncanny beauty.
His main focus in the early years of his career was poetry. At 18 he was taken under the wing of the established poet George Sterling, who showed Smith’s verses to his mentor, Ambrose Bierce. Very shortly, people were calling Clark Ashton Smith “the Boy Genius of the Sierras” and “the Keats of the Pacific Coast”. The opulent vision and luminous use of language in his verses impressed a great many readers. His first book, The Star Treader and Other Poems, was published in San Francisco at the end of 1912; it sold over 1,000 copies, although Smith only made about 50 bucks in royalties.
Many things of interest took place between 1912 and 1922, and if we had the time I’d spend a few paragraphs telling you all about it. For purposes of this review, however, it’s probably better to skip ahead a decade. Suffice it to say that despite his genius, Clark Ashton Smith, like Keats before him, never did make enough money with his poetry to support himself. He was obliged to rely on donations from wealthy patrons and whatever odd jobs he could find, to make his living—and rather more of the latter than the former, as the years wore on.
The first letters between Clark Ashton Smith and his most famous correspondent, H.P. Lovecraft, were exchanged in 1922. Lovecraft was an admirer of Smith’s poetry, especially “The Hashish-Eater”…a piece which HPL called “the greatest imaginative orgy in English literature”. The two men had a great deal in common, personally and artistically, and from their first contact Lovecraft had a profound influence on Smith’s writing, sculpture and thought. This influence lasted not only for the duration of their correspondence–which went on until Lovecraft’s death in 1937—but for the whole of Smith’s life, which lasted considerably longer.
One of the CAS biographers I read refers to HPL’s impact on Smith’s life and letters as a “mesmeric literary influence”…but this, I think, is a vast overstatement of the case. Rather than resorting to melodramatic Svengali imagery, we should probably call the relationship between these two men what it was: a meeting of two very like minds. Lovecraft did not create Smith’s fascination with the weird; in fact, HPL initiated the correspondence between them because he recognized Smith as a kindred spirit…an artist who had already accomplished, in his poetry and paintings, a great deal of what Lovecraft himself hoped someday to achieve.
Despite being separated by the length of a continent, the two men were also very similar in terms of temperament, background and interests. Both writers were hyper-intelligent, introverted souls who had suffered from a nervous breakdown in their teen years. Neither one of them managed to get a high school or college diploma; they both opted for extensive self-education instead. Both men were plagued by poverty and extremely attached to their families, as well as their places of birth: CAS lived the vast majority of his lifetime in and around Auburn, California, and Lovecraft was never truly happy living anywhere but Providence, Rhode Island.
Both were deeply influenced by Poe, The Arabian Nights, and the horror writers of the Gothic school. Both were attracted by the macabre, the Arabesque, the antiquarian and the ancient. The synergy when these two intellects collided was immensely powerful, and the admiration each had for the other was sincere. Lovecraft mentioned Smith’s work in his famous essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature, for a reason; he genuinely meant it when he said:
“Of younger Americans, none strikes the note of cosmic horror as well as the California poet, artist and fictionist Clark Ashton Smith, whose bizarre writing, drawings, paintings and stories are the delight of a sensitive few. …In sheer daemonic strangeness and fertility of conception, Smith is perhaps unexcelled by any other writer dead or living.”
In any case, “mesmeric literary influence” or not, Lovecraft can take little blame for the fact that Smith turned to writing fiction in the early 1920’s. Smith was moving in that direction long before their correspondence began. The man always needed money to support his family and himself…and the fiction markets of the day were far more reliably lucrative than poetry could ever be, a fact of which the Boy Genius of the Sierras was keenly aware.
It is generally agreed that the best and most skillful of the writers who submitted their work to Weird Tales were H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith. Each of these men profoundly affected SF as we know it—albeit in very different ways. Lovecraft’s shadow falls over virtually every significant horror writer of the last seventy years, and he also established countless tropes of modern science fiction, especially the ones we see in American cinema. Howard radically transformed the realm of heroic fantasy; his picaresque heroes and exquisitely decadent settings have informed every writer of fantastic adventure stories since 1936.
But what, exactly, did Clark Ashton Smith accomplish?
If the man’s books were still widely available for mass consumption, no one would have to ask. You see, now that I’ve read my single battered, broken copy of Zothique…I know the secret. This was a 30-year-old paperback printed by Ballantine Books and edited by Lin Carter. It was this volume I described in my introduction, with its cover illustrated by the dead-eyed sorceress, her blood-red cloak billowing in an invisible wind. I’m sure a great many Smith fans know it well—it was, after all, one of the last times that the Zothique stories were printed for the mass market, here in North America.
Just a single reading of the Zothique cycle reveals a great truth: Clark Ashton Smith’s reputation was richly deserved. His stories, to put it bluntly, kick some serious ass. In fact, reading his work for the first time made me feel like Richard Burton looking out upon the headwaters of the Nile. This man’s poetry and short stories are a great wellspring of genius in weird fiction, an inky lake which has flowed into many deep-running tributaries, fed many pens. To a person with a discerning palate, a single sip of Smith’s cool, clear prose brings to mind a half-dozen writers downstream…writers that I’ve always considered the most accomplished literati in the field.
Some of my older readers will doubtless roll their eyes to hear that all this was some kind of a revelation to me: to you, this is old news. “Where the hell have you been, Arinn?”
To this I have only one response: damn it, shame on all of you! I’ve been a voracious reader of this genre since I was a child. It took me twenty years to find Clark Ashton Smith—and to my mind, this can only mean that there is something seriously goddamn wrong with the way SF is published in North America. Lord knows, I’ve spent thousands of dollars on books; I probably own thirty pounds of paper devoted to H.P. Lovecraft alone!
Fact is, the works of Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft have been readily available throughout my adolescence and adulthood; I’ve been able to find Conan and Cthulhu whenever I went to the local Book Trough. Not so Clark Ashton Smith: even a casual glance at Smith’s bibliography reveals a rapidly dwindling presence in the mass market since his death in 1961…terminating with a long, deathly silence for nearly twenty years.
Why is it, then, that Lovecraft and Howard are both still in print, their books and stories readily available for consumption by the Great Unwashed (of which I am a card-carrying member)—while the voice of their equally talented contemporary, CAS, has faded into the distance? Why is it that in the last decade, only one small, hard-luck, hard-working American company—Necronomicon Press—has kept the faith with a man who was one of SF’s only true poets? Why has everyone forgotten Clark Ashton Smith, who lends legitimacy and literary firepower to a genre which so desperately needs both to compete in the larger arena of English letters?
Part Two: The Dying Earth
“He who has trod the shadows of Zothique
And looked upon the coal-red sun oblique,
Henceforth returns to no anterior land,
But haunts a later coast
Where cities crumble in the black sea-sand
And dead gods drink the brine…”
–Clark Ashton Smith, “Zothique”
I’ve now answered my first question: “Who the devil was Clark Ashton Smith?” But in doing so, I’ve stumbled onto more questions than I had before. And now I have some serious concerns about the birthright of all SF readers and writers, which I’m starting to believe has been sold in a back alley for the proverbial mess o’ pottage (a pottage which, I must say, doesn’t taste too damn good to me).
Turning aside from these sticky matters for a moment, it might be wise to ask another question: what is Zothique?
This one is much easier to answer. Zothique is a series of 16 brief, gloriously depraved short stories written by Clark Ashton Smith, all of which share a single milieu and a common pool of imagery and theme. This was a common practice for Smith, whose submissions to Weird Tales often fell into one story cycle or another. He also authored a Hyperborea cycle, for example, which consists of 13 stories, and an Averoigne cycle, which contains another 13; in fact, most of his fiction can be organized into one cycle or another. (Not all of his stories belong to a cycle, of course—there are a few which stand on their own, some of which are still much loved. According to Fritz Leiber, Harlan Ellison once told him that “The City of the Singing Flame” was the reason he started writing science fiction…which is ample reason for any literate fan of SF to track the story down, in my opinion.)
Zothique was the name which Smith gave the last continent, the only landmass remaining in the final days of Earth. Millions of years hence, when countless civilizations have risen and fallen, when the sun has become a red cinder and the stars blaze at noon, Mankind is still alive…if not entirely well. The themes of these stories are many-fold and linked like a chain of black pearls: death, darkness, damnation and deserts; sensuality, selfishness, sadism and suffering; boredom and blasphemy; madness and torture; necromancy and necrophilia; cannibals and vampires; perverse pleasures and dissipation of all kinds, especially addiction to opium and wine.
All the stories in the cycle touch on one or more of these things…but there is more to Zothique than I can convey in a laundry list of dark business. I’ve still said nothing about transcendence, or the eternal verities that Smith has made to flower in this great desert of iniquity: frail and delicate things, but somehow all the more precious because they are so much at risk…of being bent, being broken, or simply sapped of their essence by the dry heat of a harsh realm.
Love, hope, friendship and honor: all of them poke up amid the rocks and bones. Piety, purity, and devotion come in small patches as well. In the occasional spark of wholesome human feeling or decency, in a single clean, unselfish motivation, Smith creates an oasis for the reader—it gives us a moment’s respite in our passage through a desolate world.
Zothique, in short, is a very effective metaphor for all human existence.
Perhaps more important than the substance of these stories, however, is the skill and style with which they are told. This is Smith’s true achievement, and the reason that he is revered by so many ambitious writers of SF-as-Art. There is a burgeoning glory to his prose that simply beggars my poor powers of description; the only way I can even hint at this ineffable power is to point toward the writers who’ve been touched by it. Gene Wolfe is Smith’s most obvious literary descendant, especially when it comes to the Zothique material: the parallels between Smith’s Zothique and Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun are immediately apparent to anyone who has read both. But Fritz Leiber was also much moved by Smith, and so were Ray Bradbury, Jack Vance, Theodore Sturgeon, and Harlan Ellison…to name but a few.
Little as these writers may resemble one another on the surface, CAS was a powerful influence on all of them; that influence simply manifested itself in different ways. What they all have in common, though, is a certain striving: for beauty and a sense of play in the language, that fingerprint of diction we call an author’s voice; for grace and power in the images; for meaningful symbols; and perhaps most of all, for truth…the kind of truth that emerges from especially vivid and sometimes terrifying dreams. Above all, what they all reach for is artistic relevance…a goal which may seem to be beyond the grasp of any SF writer, until you run into a story like “Necromancy in Naat”!
Reading Zothique for the first time, it was easy to see that Clark Ashton Smith must have embodied the hopes of all of these writers at one time or another. In 1935, Robert E. Howard wrote a letter to CAS which said, “I’d give my trigger finger to make words flame and burn as you do.” I think many of us feel the same, after reading Smith’s work. Anyone can drown the world in sand; Smith took a dying planet and raked its deserts into a Zen garden.
Part Three: The Unkindest Cut
All this being said, the fact remains: the last mass-market issuance of Zothique was twenty years ago, and the copy I personally own is as old as I am—and I’m past the age of being trustworthy, or leaving a good-looking corpse! Clark Ashton Smith, one of the greatest writers this field has ever known, is standing on the brink of nothingness. But why? Why? I can’t think of anything more tragic and senseless.
Outside a very rarified crowd of weird fiction aficionados, the work of this old SF master is virtually unknown. Why?
Well, perhaps because unlike Howard and Lovecraft, Smith actually lived past the year 1937…even though he almost completely ceased publishing after the deaths of his two famous compatriots. His long and terrible silence from 1940 until his death in 1961 gave no one the license to write fan fiction based on his work, but he didn’t maintain his own career by continuing to produce new stories and poems for publication. According to some reports, he was so disgusted by the way this field treats its best writers (and by the back-stabbing peccadilloes of the Weird Tales crowd in general) that he washed his hands of the whole genre.
Rather than waste any time finger-pointing or ghoulishly bemoaning Smith’s long life, I would like to point out that Smith has been dead since 1961, and he direly needs a crowd of boosters as ardent and dedicated as the readers and writers of the Cthulhu Mythos, who have carried Lovecraft on their backs until the wider world could recognize his genius. He could use an imitator like L. Sprague de Camp or Robert Jordan, who will keep the demand for his books alive by writing crappy sequels and take-offs on his best ideas. He needs slavish imitators…not because their derivative stories will be High Art, but because they will save him from extinction—and they’ll do what fans do best, which is shout, rant, gibber, dance, and throw handfuls of money in the air until the man gets the attention and respect he deserves.
Every tribute volume, no matter how crappy, will pave the way and serve as a map that leads new generations to the headwaters of the Nile. Tribute volumes, however inferior they are to the original work, usually make ample mention of the author to whom they are dedicated—and by doing so, they help to create, increase, and maintain an audience (and more importantly, a market) for his work. They keep the old man alive, y’see…and hand him down to succeeding generations as nothing else can.
In this day and age, a writer must subsist on regular infusions of cash until someone can carry him into a college. We can have no illusions: the publishing business is driven by the Almighty Buck. Anthologies of derivative fiction—even those which offer hardly anything on the menu but trash—are useful for this reason alone! They serve the cause of both Art and Commerce…and when it comes to SF, the two are closely entwined. They have been for almost eighty years.
One of the main reasons that the writers of the Weird Tales crowd (and by extension, all SF writers that followed them) have so long been disdained by the elitist mainstream of English Literature is simple bigotry. They were poor, self-educated men writing for money; in the hallowed halls of the Ivory Tower, such people are always met with open disdain—and they probably always will be! The old pretensions linger, even after all this time. Even the most liberal academic secretly feels, in his snobby heart of hearts, that the production of Literature is a gentleman’s game…a task to be performed only by pure souls who can afford to devote themselves solely to lofty goals.
The finest stories published in Weird Tales, by contrast, were born of want. They were written by men who were driven to write them, written in poverty, written against the ticking clock while sickness, starvation, and beggary howled at the door. They were written by men living lives of shabby desperation. They are the stories of Scheherazade, written to appease the Sultan of Indigence…and keep the headsman at bay, night after dreadful night.
Given the circumstances under which they were composed, the hallucinatory quality of these stories can hardly be a surprise. For writers barred from Fitzgerald’s glitzy parties, new doors had to open; for those unable to join Hemingway in globe-trotting adventurism, new vistas had to be found. In Weird Tales we find the kingdoms of the Imagination rolling expansively before us, rich with beauty and danger. The doors to the palaces of thought are thrown wide, and we are turned loose in the corridors for a Beggar’s Ball: we can revel and gorge and get gloriously potted on a strange wine which is, in its way, more ethereal and heady than the finest champagne.
Once you’ve tasted the fruits of the Imagination, you can never fully belong to the real world again. They say Persephone was tricked, but I don’t believe it; her Mother just couldn’t understand the hunger that was satisfied by those six ruby red seeds.
Our Weird Tales roots have doomed us, in America at least, to ghetto-ization by the pretentious, the middle-class, and the mundane. But the rewards are too great to be negated by a few upturned academic noses. Our heritage is the literature of poor men rich in spirit: it vibrates with their longing, defiance and pain. Transcendent, satirical, soulful and truthful, the best SF does not and will never make sense to the comfortable; these stories were never written for them. Only if you are dissatisfied with the real world can you take an interest in worlds which never were–and some which never will be.
In short, I think it may take some doing for the Emperor of Dreams to resume his throne in the public mind. But I hope he will, and I hope this essay will help. The only thing I really hope to accomplish with this review is a tiny tribute of my own—a twig to feed the Eternal Flame. If a few people will find Zothique after reading my essay, when they might otherwise have never known it existed, I will consider myself amply rewarded. Do what I did: claim the crumbling legacy which is rightfully yours, and search the city like a woman possessed until you find Clark Ashton Smith.
I assure you that all the shops that trade in orphaned books, mummy dust and dreams will know his name.