Category Archives: Zothique

No Sleep Till Zothique—Part Four

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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.

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The Dark Eidolon by SergiyKrykun

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.

SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

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.

FURTHER READING:
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.

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No Sleep Till Zothique—Part Three

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A Dying Sun, A Necrophagist Cult, and the Creepiest Courtship EVER

lllustration by SergiyKrykun at DeviantArt

“The Charnel God.” lllustration by SergiyKrykun at DeviantArt.

WARNING: some spoilers herein. Normally I am loathe to reveal any plot details of a story, you crazy kids really should read these stories with a fresh mind and minimal expectations. But “The Charnel God” offers up a fairly elaborate plot, so in discussion of this one, divulging some story detail may be inevitable. I’ll do my best to minimize that, nonetheless–LG

“Mordiggian is the god of Zul-Bha-Sair.”

That’s the solemn edict that sets up the story we’ll be exploring in this the third installment of my exploration (and in this case, re-examination) of Clark Ashton Smith’s dark fantasy story cycle Zothique. In this post, we’ll explore “The Charnel God,” published in the March 1934 issue of Weird Tales.

I’ve been lining up some practical matters for my surgery this month so I haven’t been posting as often as I’d like, but have nonetheless resolved to offer at least some base-level insight for every CAS Zothique story before Necronomicon 2017 next summer. It seems fitting that I should pick one of the most grim and grotesque stories of Zothique, and one of my absolute favorites.

TCG was actually the first CAS story I heard when I began exploring him on Audible (my commute sometimes restricts me to audiobooks, which is a great way to discover new writers). The version I found is actually set up like an old-school radio drama, which makes the creepiness of the story all the more immersive.

A young exiled prince Phariom enters the remote desert city of Zhul-Bha-Sair, unaware that its supreme and foremost law is that everyone who dies within its walls becomes the property (read: dinner) of their god Mordiggian. His masked and powerful priests see to that with a startling and unwavering punctuality. Their hidden and masked visage does little to betray their physical ninja-level physical strength. The cult along with their god then literally eat the corpses once inside their temple, often waiting for days so that rot has set in nice and proper. Hey, we’ve had worse at Arby’s, haven’t we?

When Phariom’s wife Elaith succumbs to a seizure (obviously misdiagnosed narcolepsy), Mordiggian’s priests are summoned to their inn, force their way in, and make off with Elaith. All others are convinced she is dead, despite the explanations of her true condition by Phariom. Consequently, the young exile spends the next phase of the story tracking these priests down to the massive, dark temple of Mordiggian that lies at the center of Zhul-Bha-Sair, but once inside he meets a new obstacle he could not have anticipated.

The plans of Abnon-Tha, resident necromancer of Moriggian’s temple, are as simple as they are creepy. The dude obviously can’t get laid, so he uses his admittedly advanced sorcery to fatally poison Arctella, a young noble maiden of the city to whom he has taken a certain necromantic shine. He then plans to resurrect her within the confines of Mordiggian’s temple, and by way of his magic and with the assistance of his pupils Nargei and Vemba-Tsith, plans to resurrect her from death and make her his “unquestioning slave.” They will all then leave Zhul-Bha-Sair in short order, leave the ghoul cult of Mordiggian in their dusty wake, and make tracks for balmier climes in the south of Zothique to the realm of Tassuun. They know all-too-well that to remove any dead from the temple is a dire blasphemy rewarded with extreme wrath. Abnon-Tha haughtily dismisses this threat, and they proceed with their plan.

As this parallel track returns to Phariom, he sneaks into Mordiggian’s charnel fane under cover of darkness, and he runs afoul of the sorcerers when they suddenly decide, upon seeing his wife Elaith laid out on the slab next to to Arctella, to take her along for the ritual. The apprentice necromancer Vemba-Tsith is taken with Elaith’s beauty, unaware of both her betrothal to Phariom and her narcoleptic condition. They are also of course convinced that she is quite deceased, and thus a prime candidate for resurrection, whereas Phariom realizes with horror that she could awaken at any moment.

As Phariom watches the sorcerers commence their ritual in a remote antechamber of the temple, Elaith does awaken from her seizure, but due to shock and disorientation she finds herself unable to move. Her supposed resurrection pleases the apprentice Vemba-Tsith, who boasts to his master that his incantation for Elaith had been quicker than Abnon-Tha’s sorcery with Arctella. No sooner is this spoken when Arctella herself then rises from her couch, but with more of the effect intended by the necromancers: she is still and emotionless as an “automaton,” and stands before Abnon-Tha awaiting only his directives.

Phariom then bursts into the chamber in hopes of rescuing Elaith from the sorcerers. After confronting the group, he succeeds in bringing his wife to his side, and as the necromancers make ready to kill him, they are all interrupted by a new guest: The Charnel God of Zhul-Bha-Sair.

This may very well be my favorite story so far of the Zothique cycle, matched perhaps only by “The Weaver in the Vault,” but keep in mind I’ve got about twenty more stories to go in the cycle, many of which I have not read.

CAS doesn’t speak much about the inner workings of TCG in his published letters, but the elaborate nature of the plot in addition to the smothering, dark atmosphere conveyed within make me think that the story may have gone through multiple drafts. Of course, the often florid prose characteristic to Smith’s dark fantasy writing may not be to everyone’s liking–adverbs abound throughout, but as many pulp writers were paid by the word, let’s keep in mind that CAS was trying to make a living selling these stories during The Great Depression, a time that may have had a direct influence on his portrayal of the dying world of Zothique–a once prosperous era full of wine, promise, high fashion, and cakes is suddenly plunged into chaos, disease, bewilderment, and searing pain. I’ve been wholly familiar with this constant sensation and given reality my entire life, which may be another reason the stories of this cycle, a dying world and our desperate, fumbling efforts to survive within its trappings, appeal to me so readily.

ALSO RECOMMENDED:
1.) The Double Shadow podcast (devoted entirely to discussing CAS) recently posted an episode about The Charnel God, and I encourage anyone interested to not only listen to what they have to say about the story, but to subscribe to them as well and follow them on Twitter.
2.) Connors, Scott, and Tim Kirk. 2006. The freedom of fantastic things: selected criticism on Clark Ashton Smith. New York: Hippocampus Press.
Among other marvelous insights into the dark fantasy and poetry of CAS, this volume contains the chapter “As Shadows Wait upon the Sun: Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique” by Jim Rockhill, much of which has informed this series of blog posts I am attempting to share with you.

NEXT UP: “The Dark Eidolon”
I am not familiar with this story, which is apparently one of Smith’s most renowned, and also appears to involve a world where sorcery is the default and actions have dire consequences. Sign me up for the ride!

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“Incredible worlds, impossibly beautiful cities, and still more fantastic creatures. . . Take one step across the threshold of [Smith’s] stories and you plunge into colour, sound, taste, smell and texture: into language.”Ray Bradbury

No Sleep Till Zothique—Part Two

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No Sleep Till Zothique—Part Two

I have verified that the Zothique cycle written by fantasy/pulp writer Clark Ashton Smith consists of sixteen short stories and one single-act play “The Dead with Cuckold You.” As I’ve mentioned last week, my intention is to read or in some cases re-read the stories of the cycle, hopefully one every week or two.

Honestly, my TBR pile is growing and teetering,so my timeframe is likely to vary. But with Necronomicon 2017 next summer, I have every intention of qualifying myself for a potential CAS discussion opportunity with some horror luminaries whom I greatly admire.

Now, while the first story of the cycle, Empire of the Necromancers (WT 1932) dealt with complacent capitalism in a fairly satirical (if grotesque) way (but come on, it is CAS), Isle of the Torturers (WT 1933) deals with rare, even mystical disease and bodily degeneration with a scoatch more doom and gloom. Of course, it opens with that opulent, somewhat overwrought but doubtless immersive style so characteristic of CAS’s fantasy fiction =

The Isle of Torturers

“The Isle of Torturers.” No attribution. But this is too cool. Does anyone know whose illustration this is? I wonder if they’re from Uccastrog.

**//”Between the sun’s departure and return, the Silver Death had fallen upon Yoros. Its advent, however, had been foretold in many prophecies, both immemorial and recent. Astrologers had said that this mysterious malady, heretofore unknown on earth, would descend from the great star, Achernar, which presided balefully over all the lands of the southern continent of Zothique; and having sealed the flesh of a myriad men with its bright, metallic pallor, the plague would still go onward in time and space, borne by the dim currents of ether to other worlds.

“Dire was the Silver Death; and none knew the secret of its contagion or the cure. Swift as the desert wind, it came into Yoros from the devastated realm of Tasuun, overtaking the very messengers who ran by night to give warning of its nearness. Those who were smitten felt an icy, freezing cold, an instant rigor, as if the outermost gulf had breathed upon them. Their faces and bodies whitened strangely, gleaming with a wan luster, and became stiff as long-dead corpses, all in an interim of minutes.

“In the streets of Silpon and Siloar, and in Faraad, the capital of Yoros, the plague passed like an eery, glittering light from countenance to countenance under the golden lamps; and the victims fell where they were stricken; and the deathly brightness remained upon them.

“The loud, tumultuous public carnivals were stifled by its passing, and the merry-makers were frozen in frolic attitudes. In proud mansions, the wine-flushed revelers grew pale amid their garish feasts, and reclined in their opulent chairs, still holding the half-emptied cups with rigid fingers. Merchants lay in their counting-houses on the heaped coins they had begun to reckon; and thieves, entering later, were unable to depart with their booty. Diggers died in the half completed graves they had dug for others; but no one came to dispute their possession.

“There was no time to flee from the strange, inevitable scourge. Dreadfully and quickly, beneath the clear stars, it breathed upon Yoros; and few were they who awakened from slumber at dawn. Fulbra, the young king of Yoros, who had but newly suceeeded to the throne, was virtually a ruler without a people.”//**

King Fulbra is the main character who leaves Faraad behind in search of survivors. He has survived the plague because of the enchanted ring. He steers his vessel for the Island of Cyntrom in the southern sea, but is blown off course by a hurricane and ends up at Uccastrog, which, yep you guessed it, is more commonly known in Zothique as The Isle of the Torturers.

King Ildrac of the island then put Fulbrah through a series of increasingly elaborate ordeals from which his magic ring cannot protect him but all the while he is given quiet words of encouragement and consolation by Ilvaa, a strange, beautiful woman of the island.

I don’t want to spoil the ending, but my main problem with the story (apart from its somewhat xenophobic overtones) is that I could see the turnabout coming from miles away, it is SO predictable. Granted, this was written in 1933 and in order to sell his writing to the pulp markets (and care for his aging parents), CAS often had to paint-by-numbers according to the editor’s whims, even if they were formulaic.

The ending of IotT doesn’t completely ruin the story for me, far from it. I read CAS for the colors and the shapes, and sometimes he really does manage to reach a deeply rooted part of me that yearns for magic and adventure in real life, just as I had when I was a child. But see, it’s best to not linger too long because I see “The Charnel God” is number 3 in the Zothique cycle, and boy is that story incredible for its atmosphere and yes for its plotting (two parallel tracks collide at the end).

#NoSleepTillZothique
larissa

No Sleep till Zothique—Part One

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No Sleep till Zothique—Part One

As part of my preparation for geeking out at Necronomicon 2017, I have determined to read all of the Zothique cycle stories written by Clark Ashton Smith in chronological order of their publication.

Necronomicon is essentially a huge Lovecraft-love fest but they also program panels for horror, markets, publishing, all the fun things. It takes place in downtown Providence, of course. They also cover other writers with Lovecraftian ties: Clark Ashton Smith was a contemporary of Lovecraft along with Robert E. Howard, and I generally prefer his stories.

Zothique is my favorite fantasy cycle because it depicts a grim, dying earth plagued by ecological decay and widespread anarchy. That said, this possible future appeals to me: our current religions have become extinct (superseded by regional cults practicing varying degrees of hospitality), and all technology has been replaced by sorcery and proto-medievalism. The new world has essentially reverted to the very, very old.

The first story in CAS Zothique is “The Empire of the Necromancers,” published in Weird Tales, September 1932. Of course, he starts grim right out of the gate with his description of Zothique (it reminds me of the Skeksis castle/valley in “The Dark Crystal” actually):

zothique map//**”The legend of Mmatmuor and Sodosma shall arise only in the latter cycles of Earth, when the glad legends of the prime have been forgotten. Before the time of its telling, many epochs shall have passed away, and the seas shall have fallen in their beds, and new continents shall have come to birth. Perhaps, in that day, it will serve to beguile for a little the black weariness of a dying race, grown hopeless of all but oblivion. I tell the tale as men shall tell it in Zothique, the last continent, beneath a dim sun and sad heavens where the stars come out in terrible brightness before eventide.”**//

Brother necromancers Mmatmuor and Sodosma are exiled from the west of the continent for political reasons. During their travels into the deserts of Cincor, once home to a great civilization, they raise an army made entirely of the dead and enslave the souls to their will. As the necromancers settle into the ruins of Yethlyreom in Cincor, however, they become lazy and complacent and forgetful of their own powers. Meanwhile, the dead long for a return to their rest. Ultimately, one of the enslaved nobles of a late Cincor dynasty uncovers a prophecy that offers the dead their liberation and vengeance upon their oppressors.

This is a characteristic Smith fantasy–excessive, bold, ribald–but entertaining nonetheless. I think other Zothique stories like “The Charnel God” and “The Weaver in the Vault” present a more tactile atmosphere, a more compelling cast of characters, along with more satisfying reversals of fortune, but this is the start of the Zothique cycle and I’ve signed on for the whole wild, grimdark ride.

So much of Smith’s influence obviously stems from The Arabian Nights, which I am ashamed to admit I have not read, but I purchased a good unabridged 3-volume set from Penguin Classics and I’m going to be reading those right along with Zothique. If and when I find vivid parallels between these sets of fables, I hope to share my insights.

The Empire of the Necromancers can of course be read in its entirety at The Eldritch Dark and The Double Shadow Clark Ashton Smith podcast devote an entire episode to the story (their insights are always entertaining, often hilarious). And yes, as you can tell, I am quite the CAS fangirl.

Enjoying the dim sun and sad heavens,
as always,
larissa