Reading Clark Ashton Smith For the First Time Again, Part 2

A recap: some time after I did my original overview of the work of Clark Ashton Smith, I replaced my copies of his Arkham House volumes with Night Shade Books’ expansive collection of his fiction, arranged in chronological order over five volumes. A little while back I had a look at the first volumeThe End of the Story, now I am looking at the second, The Door to Saturn.

The first book in this series contained material spanning from 1925 to 1930. By comparison, the stories here all hail from between July 1930 and April 1931, so we are truly in the midst of an incredible burst of creative energy. Smith’s fiction output was spurred in part by his artistic development taking him in that direction (he was also a prolific poet, sculptor, and artist), in part because it was a fun hobby to share with his pen pal H.P. Lovecraft, but largely out of necessity – cranking out material for the pulps allowed Smith to get a modest income to help support his ailing parents.

By this point, Smith had refined his technique and ideas to the point where he could reliably crank out some types of story (especially travelogues in which people encounter various weird things and trippy visuals until the story has hit its word count). He was also now familiar enough with the process of writing for the pulps that he had something of a grasp of what the editors wanted.

A hack who took less pride in his work would have been satisfied with just mass-producing material calibrated to be accepted by editors and call it a day there, but Smith had a certain pride in his work and wanted to develop his technique further. However, this was also set against the need to have the money coming in on a reasonably regular basis. As such, this collection is a bit of a mashup between works where Smith is genuinely stretching his writing muscles and continuing to develop and cheapies knocked out for a quick buck.

Very much occupying the former category is The Door To Saturn, one of Smith’s Hyperborean stories. In fact, it is one with some bearing on the Cthulhu Mythos, for the latter includes in its portfolio of ancient grimoires the Book of Eibon, and this story pertains to its author, Eibon himself. Eibon is introduced to us as a worshipper of Tsathoggua (spelled Zhothaqquah here), and at the start of the story he is pursued by inquisitor Morghi, the priest of a rival deity who is offended by Eibon’s trafficking with the great toad-bat-sloth entity.

Having been tipped off by Tsathoggua that the hammer is coming down, Eibon makes good his escape through a one-way portal to Saturn, where Tsathoggua formerly lived and some of his relatives – as well as a plethora of strange local cultures – still dwell. Morghi gives chase, only to realise he must team up with Eibon and follow his lead if he is to survive here. The emphasis here is on comical fantasy rather than cosmic horror – it’s one of the better examples of Smith’s picaresque travelogues through surreal territory, which by now had become something of a stock story type of his. That said, the note that the disappearance of Eibon and Morghi causes a revival of the worship of Tsathoggua before the Ice Age ends Hyperborea lends a slight apocalyptic hint to affairs at the end.

The contrasting of Eibon and Morghi’s attitudes, and the fact that Eibon wants to have friendly chats with weird monsters to begin with, underlines the point I made last time that whilst Lovecraft and Howard were xenophobes, Smith was very much a xenophile – not an unproblematic approach in its own right, but a much more sympathetic one and a far better starting point than many.

Our other visit to Hyperborea here is The Testament of Athammaus, a story which jumps backward in the timeline of the Hyperborean tales to tell the story of the abandonment of Commoriom, a tale alluded to but not explained in The Tale of Satampra Zeiros (the first of the Hyperborean stories to be written). In keeping with the prehistoric setting of the Hyperborean saga, Smith gives passing reference to vestiges of pre-human hominids still being active in the world at this point in time, and like Howard and to an extent Lovecraft the narration here presents these hairy proto-humans as bestial savages – though Smith’s Voormis are not invested with features that make us think of any particular ethnicity or race, and what’s more we are being told about them in the voice of a narrator who very clearly has his own priorities and prejudices.

It also helps that the Voormis do not actually come into the spotlight – instead, the titular Athammaus’ story does not focus on the Voormis themselves, however, but the mysterious Knygathin Zaum, a demigod descended on his maternal side from Tsathoggua himself who has set himself up as a bandit warlord served by Voormis. Athammaus himself is the executioner of Commoriom, and his narration is very much delivered from the point of view of that trade, which adds flavour. Knygathin Zhaum takes after his ancestor when it comes to his bouts of hunger interspersed with indolent rest, and in the oddly whimsical air to his evils. And of course, like Tsathoggua’s spawn in general, he’s a shapeshifter. When it comes to decapitating such as him, the complications that arise are very startling.

Followers of Robert E. Howard’s work like to hype up its supposed “amoral” quality to it as a means of excusing the fact that his protagonists are often kind of shitty people by modern values. If you look at the actual texts, though, it is clear from the tone of the narrative and the general outline of the story that there are folk we are supposed to root for, and folk we are supposed to dislike, and the folk we are supposed to dislike are being horrid and monstrous and the people we are supposed to root for, even if they may be rogues, tend to put a stop to the villains’ nastiness.

Here, however, Smith pens a truly amoral story – Zhaum and gang were brutal bandits, and yet Zhaum has his revenge on the city anyway. Were this a Howard story, odds are we’d have seen Conan reluctantly sent against Zhaum by the beleaguered city authorities and succeeding in slaying the unslayable in an epic battle, thereby yet again demonstrating Howard’s notion of the superiority of the hardened barbarian over softened civilised men. (Yawn.) Smith, in the form of Athammaus a city-dweller who, as executioner and occasional leader of warriors, is far from a soft hand – and yet also shows a decidedly civilised assessment of legal propriety and his duties, and when he can reasonably regard those duties as discharged (or outright rendered moot).

(The story also, in retrospect, adds further richness to The Tale of Satampra Zeiros, since it not only explains how the city ends up in the state that Zeiros and his colleague discover it in during their own era, but it is entirely possible that Zhaum is either the progenitor of the monster in that, or is in fact the monster in question…)

From one of Smith’s most celebrated series, we can turn our attention to one of his more less widely-celebrated ones, not least because it’s a series which is rooted in old timey space opera, rather than the tropes and imagery Smith is more famous for, and also because several of the stories just aren’t that good. The Red World of Polaris is another story of Captain Volmar and his crew, as seen in Marooned In Andromeda. It’s another rather by-the-numbers story churned out for the SF magazines; Smith’s heart wasn’t really in SF, but he’d been promised that the material would be picked up, so churn out more Volmar episodes he did. This one is a bit better than the first; the characters are still tissue-thin, but the world they encounter is pretty interesting as a an early depiction of extreme cybernetic intervention in science fiction societies.

The other Volmar story here is A Captivity In Serpens. This time around, the rather clichéd and poorly-dated science fiction tropes are at least accompanied with lots of frisky (if unlikely) action. Smith despised writing action sequences, though he was more willing to attempt it than Lovecraft – perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Smith disliked the narrow range of action (chases, fights, etc.) demanded by the pulps.

Told In the Desert is, at its kernel, a riff on Ambrose Bierce’s Haïta the Shepherd with more of an Arabian Nights aesthetic. Smith himself described it as a prose-poem and really the attraction is less in the story than in the manner in which it is told. A similarly brief, predictable, but undeniably pretty piece is The Willow Landscape, in which Smith tries to produce a Chinese folk tale, though it’s for others than me to judge how close he gets to the mark.

Of course, a certain Orientalism was widespread among readers of the day, and when Farnsworth Wright decided to set up Oriental Stories, a sister magazine to Weird Tales dedicated to Middle Eastern and Asian subject matter, this created a commercial opportunity for Smith. The Kiss of Zoraida was described by Smith himself as “pseudo-Oriental junk”, a brief piece knocked off in a hurry to pander to Oriental Stories‘ “all orientalism all the time” schtick. Strip away the affectations and it’s basically another one of Smith’s prose poems about how sexually alluring death is. The Ghoul is a superior story in the same vein, with a moral about the folly of trying to preserve transient beauty lurking about somewhere underneath its absolutely hideous implication that, perhaps, that preservation was worth the effort after all for one willing to pay the appropriate price.

Another story tailored for Oriental Stories, The Justice of the Elephant, is a simplistic revenge fantasy that Smith doesn’t seem to have expended much effort on, being by his own admission a bit of a rehash of one of his juvenilia pieces (The Mahout). The Kingdom of the Worm, also known as A Tale of Sir John Maundeville, was inspired by the fantastical travel writing of Sir John Mandeville (whose unlikely boasts about his Asian travels were immensely entertaining to Lovecraft and Smith), and again twists back to Smith’s morbid worldview, presenting a realm where death rules supreme in suitably macabre form.

Smith wasn’t averse to the odd European story either, of course.

Smith’s most famous European setting is, of course, the French region of Averoigne, represented here by A Rendezvous in Averoigne. This time around it’s set in medieval times and reads like medieval legend, much like the earlier End of the Story was set in the 18th Century and reads like an incident from a Gothic novel of the era. We also see the return of the idea from The End of the Story that vampires can create illusions, though the spectral castle of Malinbois is spooky and doomy whereas the realm of the lamia in preceding take was idyllic. Another carryover is the stifling hypnotic power of the vampires, chillingly realised here.

By and large, the story uses very, very well-worn vampire tropes, but that’s fine – the polish of the prose means that it transcends the stereotypical and becomes archetypal – and there’s an interesting hint that the vampires here are served by satyrs, which The Satyr has previously shown to us are to be found more widely in Averoigne which would be in keeping with the idea established in The End of the Story that Averoigne is a region where the power of the Hellenic or Roman deities never entirely waned.

In addition, there is something interesting going on with gender here; for the most part the women in the story are passive counterparts to the more active men… Except that it’s the lady vampire and not the suave Sieur who is the active hunter, taking on the duty of actually luring our heroes into their spectral realm in the first place.

Back in the modern day, The Gorgon is a modern-day horror-fantasy in which someone who might be Charon could well be concealing the head of Medusa somewhere in modern London, or an ur-city to which modern London is connected. It’s an interesting exercise in injecting Smithian fantasy into the modern world, though he always seems more at home in his invented settings.

An Offering to the Moon might at first seem to be one of those “reincarnated person reverts to earlier personality” stories based on crank racial theories that Robert E. Howard cranked out, except there’s fairly unambiguous signs that something more is going on here than that. The term “Aryan” is used in the story, which is a little disconcerting, but if you pay close attention it is used to refer not to some blond-haired blue-eyed Nazi propaganda concept but to an olive-skinned man – in other words, Smith is using the term correctly to allude to someone who could plausibly have Indo-Iranian ancestry.

Smith tended towards the overtly fantastical far more than the realistic, but The Face By the River proves he could pull off a psychological horror story which may well have no supernatural aspect at all. The depiction of how the protagonist refuses to accept agency over their deeds, to the point where they think of them as a mere accident, seems especially plausible.

A Good Embalmer is a brief, morbid joke that’s amusing enough but, much like Lovecraft’s similar In the Vault, doesn’t exactly showcase Smith’s strengths. It feels like an idea he had to get out on paper properly so he could stop thinking about it, and indeed at the time he seems to have felt that he had little hope of actually selling it.

This collection also includes a couple of rather similar “eccentric chap goes on an adventure in space/time” stories. The first of these, An Adventure In Futurity, is just kind of overlong and tedious. The anti-immigration theme is also unwelcome, though Smith casts it in such absurd terms that it could almost be a gentle parody of more serious takes on the subject. Smith himself concluded that the story was “an awful piece of junk”, and I see little reason to dispute that.

The other, even worse story in this vein is The Letter From Mohaun Los. This is the really racist one I called out in my original Smith article, and I basically stand by my original appraisal. Li Wong’s treatment is so incredibly cartoonishly racist that I wonder if he isn’t meant to be a parody (though still a wildly offensive one) of the “exotic manservant” trope; Smith goes out of his way to emphasise Wong’s erudition and sophistication mere lines before we get his first dialogue: “Me go pack. […] You want plentee shirt?” If Smith wasn’t being deliberately comedic by this juxtaposition, he was as being utterly clueless.

We also have a range of Cthulhu Mythos stories to round off the collection, or at least stories which overlap enough with Mythos themes to be considered part of the whole game. The Return of the Sorcerer, which was collected in Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, is real gorehound stuff, full grand guignol. Use of Necronomicon and hints that, whilst one wizard serves Satan, his superior brother serves dark powers preceding Satan would be the main Mythos links, but largely this is an exercise in gruesomeness. I’m greatly reminded, in fact, of Lovecraft’s own The Hound – the story the Necronomicon originated in, and another piece where it is associated more with grey Satanism than otherworldly cosmic philosophy.

The City of the Singing Flame is ostensibly a typical “guy finds portal to other dimension” story, but the allure of the titular Singing Flame and its call to immolation makes this yet another Smith story about the seductive allure of death luring someone back to their destruction despite their misgivings. The narrator of first part seems to potentially be a Smith analogue, hailing as he does from a cabin in the mountains; he sends his materials to Philip Hastane, who seems to be intended as a Lovecraft stand-in (and is a recurring figure in Smith’s Mythos-adjacent work). The description both of the Earthly location of the portal and the other dimension are, as usual, extremely vivid. If Smith has a tendency to churn out stories which are at their root essentially description porn, it’s worth it when the result is a gorgeous word-painting like this.

The story represents a rare instance of Smith’s poetic image-evoking resonating with the public: in fact, it proved so popular that a sequel, Beyond the Singing Flame, was demanded and written. On the one hand, one can’t really blame Smith for jumping for a guaranteed sale given his pressing need for money. On the other hand, it is a bit of a shame that in subsequent reprints the two stories have been squidged together under one title, since having this text followed immediately by the description of what is found beyond the Singing Flame ruins the fascination-of-oblivion theme here!

The other Hastane story here is The Hunters From Beyond, deliberately composed as a sort of a response to Lovecraft’s Pickman’s Model, in that both involve an artist who uses Mythos entities in their art – but in this case their nature and mode of action is stranger than that of the ghouls and there is a human model at threat from them.

On the whole, I broadly enjoyed this compilation but I would not put it at the top rank of Smith’s work, or even on the level of the previous collection. The major issue here, as I stated at the beginning, is that we’re in a segment of Smith’s career where he was churning out a great deal of lukewarm material to pay the bills alongside his top-flight stuff, and he was still working on his craft enough that both the potboilers and the top-rank material had not yet attained the heights they would eventually accomplish.

For that matter, we’ve still not had any of the Zothique material, which I consider to be the absolute cream of Smith’s output, and so the best is very much still to come…