The Hoofprints of Retribution—”The Dark Eidolon”
Here we are with installment #4 of our continued waltz through the Zothique fantasy cycle of Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961). To briefly review, CAS was part (the best part, IMHO) of the ‘Lovecraft circle’ that also included Robert E. Howard (1906-1936), a regular contributor to the pulp fiction magazines of the Great Depression era, of which Weird Tales is perhaps the best known.
One of my main regrets in life is that I came to Smith so damn late—after reading a few of Lovecraft’s tales in my twenties, I don’t mind telling you I was bored stiff by his pedantic style. Smith is a whole other animal of prose accomplishment (although admittedly purple and archaic) and engagement with fantastic landscapes—now let’s also consider that CAS started life as a poet and considered HPL a mentor of the highest order. CAS doubtless leaned a great deal from Lovecraft. But I’ve experienced so much fucking overblown hype over HPL I really started to burn out after revisiting his complete works during my thirties. That should not be surprising because he hadn’t grabbed me during my twenties, either. But Smith arrived on my reading list just in the nick of time. And his physical hotness (I mean Jesus fucking Christ!) never threw his appeal, either.
Okay, there’s the lead-up. We have well-over a dozen Zothique stories to experience and discuss (comment away and/or hit me up on Facebook/Twitter if you give a fuck). I say we get to it, because “The Dark Eidolon” is one of the most epic stories of the cycle, certainly one of the most grim.
“The Dark Eidolon” is the title story in the volume of collected fantasies and poetry edited by S.T. Joshi for Penguin Classics in 2014. Considering that HPL has at least three similar issues of his collected works on offer from Penguin (Lord Dunsany also has one), this was a pretty big deal for the CAS fangirl over here. This was my first time reading the story, and it struck me as being the most Arabian Nights-influenced of the Zothique cycle so far. Sorcerers, reanimated mummies, and gilded chimeras are the absolute reality of this world (specifically, Xylac in the northwest quadrant of continental Zothique, think of it as Seattle, LOL), evocation and world-building are in full swing right out of the gate. Perhaps this is why Zothique is my favorite cycle, second only to Hyperborea (the farthest past of the same this-our-terrene planet). As I stated above, much of Smith’s work was derided for its dark content, but that is exactly the characteristic that drew me to his work.
“The Dark Eidolon” is an evocative fable of revenge gone awry. Both of its principal characters (and antagonists), the Emperor Zotulla and the Sorcerer Namirrha, engage in a battle of wits and hallucinatory intrigue that affects not only their city-state of Ummaos, but also the citizens who hadn’t had the foresight to get the fuck away from them when the getting was good (more on that later). The narrative is largely told in summary, rather than scene–here is a mode I like to use sparingly in my own writing, but Smith’s command of language, elements, and color qualify this. We should also consider that this narrative mode dates back to the 1930s, and fantasy fiction had a considerable road in its ongoing development. We are told of how the young noble Zotulla (not yet emperor of his city) had spurned and trampled (with his horse) Narthos, a beggar child of similar age. Smith goes on to tell of how Narthos recovered from his injuries and went into self-imposed exile from Ummaos, and almost perished in the desert wastes of Tasuun until he was taken in and apprenticed by the lone sorcerer Ouphaloc.
Smith himself wrote in a 1932 letter to August Derleth =
“It’s a devil of a story…there is one scene where a wizard calls up macrocosmic monsters in the form of stallions that trample houses and cities under their hooves like eggshells. The tales end with the wizard gone stark mad and fighting his own image in a diamond mirror under the delusion that the image was the enemy on whom he had sought to inflict all manner of hellish revenges…”
–Clark Ashton Smith, letter to August Derleth, December 24, 1932
After the apprenticeship of Narthos, he reinvents himself as a dread and formidable sorcerer Namirrha who after a time returns to Ummaos, bent on avenging the inignity perpetrated upon him by the haughty Zotulla.
Zotulla himself becomes emperor of Ummaos after his father is smitten by a viper in his bed, and Smith wastes no time in describing the debaucheries and excesses of the freshly minted king. Better yet, the people of Ummaos seem nonplussed by their regent’s debauched priapism, because if the people are amenable to the same impulses why complain?
One morning Zotulla and his people awaken to the sight of a entirely new and stately palace built next door to his own. As the king learns that Namihrra, the dread sorcerer whose renown is by that time the primary fear of all in Xylac, then begins a battle of wits, imposed nightmares and hallucinations, and finally a full-scale feast of nercomantic spells that culminates in mutual damnation for both players and the downfall of the city.
See, all along Namihrra had concentrated most of his power and desire in the underworld god Thasaidon, familiarized in a huge columnar statue within Namirrha’s palace. Namihrra hopes the god will aid him in besting Zotulla. When it turns out the god has his own plans for Zotulla, the battle between the sorcerer and emperor reaches a hellish new level that none of them could have prepared for. If a moral or lesson is to be had from this story, we might consider that it’s never wise to place all of our trust in one resource, no matter how infallible or formidable it seems. When it comes to revenge, diversify your portfolio. The god Thasaidon does exactly that.
Maybe this is part of why I love the CAS Zothique cycle the most–almost everyone is so extreme due to the ecological disaster surrounding them (and the religions that currently dominate and terrorize our modern era are but a footnote, at best, and never mentioned). Zothique is like The Road meets Las Vegas with blasphemous necromancy as a given reality. How is that not the coolest world ever. Mordor looks safe by comparison.
Okay so next up in Part Five is Smith’s “The Voyage of King Euvoran.” I heard an audio version of this tale a little over a year ago and remember that it touches upon the same themes of greed, pride, and the curse of the self. It also contains the fantastic adventures and beasts we can expect in any tale of the Zothique cycle, so stay tuned and let the mayhem continue.
Stay safe out there, and defy this newest encroachment of the worm.
Smith, Clark Ashton, and S. T. Joshi. 2014. The Dark Eidolon and other fantasies. ISBN 9780143107385.
Smith, Clark Ashton, and Scott (edt.) Connors. 2008. The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith: the Maze of the Enchanter. Nightshade Books. ISBN 9781597800310.
Hoppenstand, Gary. 2013. Pulp fiction of the 1920s and 1930s. Hackensack, NJ: Salem Press. ISBN 9781429838276.
Connors, Scott, and Tim Kirk. 2006. The freedom of fantastic things: selected criticism on Clark Ashton Smith. New York: Hippocampus Press. ISBN 0976159252.
Smith, Clark Ashton, David E. Schultz, and Scott Connors. 2003. Selected letters of Clark Ashton Smith. Sauk City, WI: Arkham House. ISBN 087054182X.