Tag Archives: Clark Ashton Smith

No Sleep Till Zothique—Part Two

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).


No Sleep till Zothique—Part One

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,