Published: Stories first published between 1926 – 1989 (this collection 2002 by Gollancz)
My copy: Bought in paperback
Memorable quote: “The place has the air of a thirsty vampire, waiting to drink me in somehow if it can. It is a cul-de-sac of everything evil, in which an unwary soul might well be caught and absorbed. But I tell you, Murray, I can’t keep away from it.”
Born in 1893, the Californian poet, writer and artist, Clark Ashton-Smith was, like his friend and correspondent H.P. Lovecraft, a regular contributor to the now-legendary pulp magazine Weird Tales. Yet while Lovecraft’s name has become immortalised – sometimes, I think, in a way that has become increasingly divorced from his actual writings – Smith’s has encountered the same kind of obscurity and neglect as the tombs he so atmospherically describes in many of his stories. Issued in the Fantasy Masterworks series, this collection of 46 of Smith’s tales, sets out to redress the balance. And if you enjoy dark fantasy tales then Smith is well worth discovering. Clark Ashton Smith considered himself first and foremost a poet and his fascination with sublime language creates a tone that sets his work apart from that of his contemporaries and imitators. Smith is never one to scrimp on adjectives and, while reading this collection, I often found myself reaching for the dictionary to illuminate some of his more obscure language choices. This could have been a frustrating habit, if it weren’t for the fact that, having defined the word, I inevitably found myself agreeing that it was, technically speaking, absolutely the right one for the situation. Smith brings this kind of tone – at once archaic and rigorous – to the worlds he creates.
And what an assortment of worlds! As well as tales offering a dark revision of life in 1930s America or Britain (“The Hunters From Beyond”, “The Gorgon”) Smith conjures several very different repeat destinations, from the vampire-haunted Medieval European province of Averoigne, to the pre-historic Hyperborea or the atmospheric Zothique: the last inhabited continent where sorcerers and demons hold in the twilight days of a dying Earth. Indeed, having finished the book I found it was some of the incidental details and descriptions of these vividly-realised imaginary worlds that stayed with me more than any of the specific characters or plot points of the tales set within them. This is not to say that Smith’s plots are bad. But I think this is a collection that should be appreciated above all for its settings and atmosphere. Indeed, one of my very favourite tales, “Genius Loci”, is precisely about the chilling lure of a certain environment, a vampiric meadow that lures an artist ever more fatally into its folds. It’s true that many of Smith’s plots do follow a similar narrative trajectory, ending in the inescapable (and often ironic) death of the protagonist. Although – as in the chilling “The Double Shadow” – the interest lies in the following the twisting paths along which Smith’s characters reach this impending doom, this repetition does have the effect of making particularly memorable those tales like “Morthylla” that in some way subvert this grim narrative trend.
Such is intensity of Smith’s world that this is a collection best enjoyed in small doses. It has taken me over a year to read this complete anthology, usually just a tale or two at a time, between other books (in fact this has been my go-to reading in the bath paperback for some time now, possibly a somewhat macabre companion for a relaxing soak!) In small doses this is a enjoyable anthology, fantastic and wonderful in the most literal sense of these words. Devoured too greedily, however, the flaws in Smith’s work become unpalatable: the wilfully arcane language, the unpronounceable names – “Avol Wuthoqquan” anyone? – and of course the great criticism that can also be levelled at Lovecraft, the casualness of his racism. This is a flaw that is hard to ignore in many weird tales of the 1930s and a few of Smith’s stories of cannibals and black demons are quite hard to stomach. Similarly there are rather too many passively beautiful slave girls and for my taste, although Smith seems more aware of his own prejudices with regards to gender and when when this trope is subverted – as in “The Black Abbot of Puthuum” – the results are pleasing.
The Guardian recently ran an interesting piece on Lovecraft asking why his work remains so popular despite his racism. I think the answer in the case of both Lovecraft and Smith – whose work deserves more acclaim than it has received – is that while their social politics may be distinctly uncomfortable this – thankfully – is never the main component of the atmosphere their works are trying to achieve. Smith’s politics may be uncomfortable at times but his imagination is uncomfortable in a way that is far more consistent and impressive. It is the sheer force of Smith’s darkly poetic imagination and world view that ensures The Emperor of Dreams is a walk on macabre side that is still well worth taking – albeit walking slowly!