Clark Ashton Smith, of course, was one of the mainstay writers of the old Weird Tales, with Howard and Lovecraft. Smith was chiefly a poet, and also a sculptor, but after a breakdown in health, during the Depression, he wrote more than a hundred bizarre short stories (between 1929 and 1934) to pay his bills. Like Howard, he contributed to Lovecraft’s famous Mythos.
Of the three, Smith’s writing was the most literate and urbane, with a strong vein of morbid, ironic humour. Some of his stories were almost in the conventional heroic fantasy vein, like his exploits of the master thief Satampra Zeiros, or “The Black Abbot of Puthuum” which pits a stalwart archer and pikeman, long time army buddies, against a monstrous incubus to protect the royal concubine whose escorts they are. (While she flirtatiously plays them off against each other.)
That last bit is an example, a mild one, of the eroticism Smith’s stories often expressed, within the limits of 1930s pulp convention. The relationship between the sculptor and his model in “The Hunters From Beyond” is clearly more than professional. The emperor and his favourite concubine in “The Dark Eidolon” are both as depraved as can be. She’s a cruel minx from Uccastrog, the Isle of the Torturers, with a record de Sade’s Juliette would admire, and as far as the emperor is concerned, she, “alone of women had power to stir his sated heart.” The witch-vampire Ilalotha and the debauched, jealous Queen Xantlicha of Tasuun in “The Death of Ilalotha” are – well, not quite the sweet girls next door. In Tasuun, funerals at the royal court are observed with feverish three-day orgies, “that prodigal debauchery which was believed to honour most fitly the deceased.”
In “The Monster of the Prophecy”, a discontented Earthman (the “monster” of the title) travels to a planet of Antares. After various adventures, he meets a sympathetic alien queen, and finds her attractive despite her multiple arms and legs. She reciprocates, and they become lovers! Her people do consider this relationship a bit odd, but, “… it was her own amour after all, and no-one else could carry it on for her. It would seem, from this, that the people of Omanorion had mastered the ultra-civilized art of minding their own business.”
All the above stories, except “The Hunters from Beyond” are in Smith’s collection Out of Space and Time. It was first published in 1942, in hard cover, from Arkham House, with a jacket illustration by the incomparable Hannes Bok. Panther Books issued it as a two-volume paperback in 1971, and it appeared again from Bison Books as a trade paperback in 2006. You like urbane but really terrifying horror writing and have never read this collection? Get it!
Some of Smith’s stories show an influence of Poe. “The Second Interment” reminds me of Poe’s “The Premature Burial,” but while the latter is more of an essay than a story, Smith’s tale is definitely a story, a harrowing one of neurotic phobia and fraternal treachery. (Don’t read it at bedtime if you’re claustrophobic. Actually, if you weren’t before reading this one, you may be afterwards.) His stories of necromancers and ghouls show how right L. Sprague de Camp was with his comment, “Nobody since Poe has so loved a well-rotted corpse.”
The collection is divided into sections. “Out of Space and Time” contains two stories set in Smith’s imaginary medieval province of Averoigne, populated by troubadours, students, pretty women, corrupt bishops, sorcerers, vampires, werewolves, and a few supernatural beings from Classical myth such as satyrs – hold-overs from Roman times.
“A Night in Malnéant" is another tale reminiscent of Poe, and has no definite background. The narrator is guilt-haunted over the death of a woman named Mariel who loved him, but who suicided because of his cruel treatment. He wanders into a strange, fog-shrouded city where the people are endlessly occupied in preparing for the funeral of a “Lady Mariel.” He’s troubled, but reflects that since his Mariel died years ago, these obsequies must be those of a different woman. It’s a mere coincidence of names… isn’t it?
The “Hyperborean Grotesques” won’t be to everybody’s taste. They are grotesque, and some may find them ludicrous. One concerns a headsman with the job of executing a homicidal outlaw, only partly human, who keeps coming back after each successive decapitation. Another concerns an avaricious money-lender who buys (cheaply) two magnificent emeralds he feels sure were stolen, then learns the hard way that he was right, and who their owner is.
“Judgements and Dooms” is the section which contains the most harrowing stories. “The Last Heiroglyph” delivers, sardonically, the message that the “shrouded lords” who rule the universe are indifferent to human beings and care neither for their status or their morals. “Vainly do men seek to evade that destiny which turns them to ciphers in the end.” This section, too, contains “The Dark Eidolon”, an account of a sorcerer’s monstrous revenge. It’s worth noting that for malevolent, inhuman wizardry and bizarre entourages, Smith’s Namirrha and Malygris can stand on equal terms with Robert E. Howard’s Master of Yimsha and Tsotha-lanti.
Completely worth adding to your bookshelf.