If you’ve heard of Clark Ashton Smith, chances are high that you’re an H. P. Lovecraft fan, or else one of those readers with a bent for searching through old issues of pulps like Weird Tales and discovering ever more outré writers. Lovecraft was a great admirer of the Californian Smith, and his endorsement has served for many as an unofficial blurb, encouraging readers to take the time for his work — though time itself is something Smith’s tales frequently leave behind.
An associate of Ambrose Bierce — Bierce gave his approval, no mean accomplishment — who lived long enough to see Roger Maris chase Babe Ruth, Smith wrote like no one else had ever dared to, thought to, or some combo of the two. He regarded himself as a poet and disdained fiction — but poetry didn’t pay the bills, and Smith was always poor, so he turned his imagination to short fiction, and the examples collected here make this volume necessary for any lover of weird lit.
There’s a wild, wonderful topography to the language of a Smith story that you pick up on, quite apart from the meaning of his sentences. Huge, granitic paragraphs fall one after another, with elongated words, like textual centipedes, flash-signaling to eyeballs in line upon line. But lest one think this is all a matter of managing overgrown thickets of language, Smith defies expectations: the stories are dead easy to read, no matter that they take place in worlds that never existed, or in sword-and-sandal-meets-Conan the Barbarian realms, in which wizards are waited upon by mummy servants.
“The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” is an apt choice to start off this collection, with all of the Smith hallmarks firmly in place. Regarding the words you might not know (medicaments, prelacy, armillary, irremeable, ebon, liquescent, ebullition) — no biggie. The context of their deployment assures meaning without distraction — Smith is no idle showman — as does their repetition as linguistic leitmotifs. Descriptors become characters unto themselves or patches of incidental music, as we journey with two alien thieves/highwaymen/rogues/writerly types to an abandoned jungle settlement, where they aim to loot a temple and end up encountering one of those typically punchy Smith monsters who enjoys a bit of sport as much as a bit of killing.
The reader is often told, first person-style, that yeah, this is not going to end well, but what the hey, I’m curious, and so I’m going to hang out with some succubi later on tonight. The setting is almost immaterial, a rarity when it comes to so-called weird tales, where fantastic science and exotic scenery so often comprise the main entertainments, because Smith hangs more of his effects on the framework of human experience and emotion, with knowledge being a kind of ultimate end.
To wit: “Genius Loci,” one of two unique approaches here to the vampire tale. A painter comes to visit his friend in the woods of the American West and becomes obsessed with a sort of dead zone in the forest, an arboreal life-sucker. Smith’s characters are ever curious, even when it comes to evil — especially, one might say, when it comes to evil. While they don’t go gently into that good night, they do go as empiricists hoping to understand just what the hell has been going on, if only to possess that knowledge for the few seconds, presumably, it takes them to die. For they believe that moment/knowledge to be worth it, and this is precisely how Smith gets you: you tend to think it is, too, as though you have come under his sway as his characters have come under the influence of whatever is beckoning them on.
And then there is the Martian vampire tale “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis,” an all-out horror fest that, frankly, will mess you up. A human expedition, with Martian guides, explores an abandoned community, ending up in a temple underground, where, as it turns out, the parameters of the vampire tale are extended. The passivity of the guides, who wait back at the camp, is every bit as horrifying as what goes on down in the dark, with some of the most graphically evocative gore — none of it being gratuitous — you will encounter in a lifetime of reading. If you are an underliner, you might find yourself casting aside pen in these instances so as not to be jarred immediately into near-nausea the next time you flip open the story. The tale ends with the narrator’s life in abeyance, but this just kicks the horror up another level, because you are cognizant of all that he is cognizant of and you know what he now wants, and you want it for him, even. Thus one becomes complicit in a kind of physic ghoulishness, which is not probably what you think you’re going to get yourself up to when you sit down to read for an hour or two. But that’s Smith — he’s going to get you up to stuff, just like his assorted malevolencies are going to commandeer his characters. Or grant them their true freedom, depending upon your point of view.