To Zothique

Saturday , 4, March 2017 39 Comments

When you hear “the Dying Earth,” of whom do you think? There’s a good chance that Jack Vance springs to mind. Though Vance’s contribution to the titular subgenre is indeed major, he was by no means the first to write of old and ravaged worlds sinking into decay and death. While some “dying earth” writers’ works lack the magical elements so characteristic of Vance’s world (see Byron’s “Darkness” or H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine), Clark Ashton Smith’s “Zothique” cycle holds much in common and almost certainly served as a major inspiration for Vance.

In case you’re unfamiliar with Clark Ashton Smith, he was one of the “big three” of Weird Tales magazine and one of the major contributors to the Cthulhu mythos (along with Robert E. Howard and of course H.P. Lovecraft). Unfortunately Smith’s popularity waned over the years, and he never enjoyed the resurgence necessary to preserve his name along Howard and Lovecraft as one of the grandmasters of cosmic horror.

As to the “dying earth,” one of Smith’s major settings was called “Zothique.” In this world the sun has faded, the continents rearranged themselves into a Pangaea-like formation, and magic has usurped science. Demons and sorcerers plague the earth, as the cyclic rise and fall of civilization has finally given way to entropy. Sound somewhat familiar?

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.

The first Zothique story, “The Empire of the Necromancers,” tells the tale of two necromancers who travel to a dead land, raising the entombed and expired that they find along their path. Eventually they have reanimated an entire nation, setting themselves as lords over their newfound kingdom and laying plans to build an empire of undeath.

The prince of this undead country somehow throws off their control and is able to rescue his people from their doom, while sealing the fate of the two evil sorcerers. Sound somewhat familiar?

I haven’t gotten very far into Zothique yet, but it’s already clear to me that Smith’s influence far outreaches his current renown. Stylistically, he strikes me as somewhat of a middle ground between Lovecraft and Howard. His writing is poetic and epic; perhaps less laborious than Lovecraft but without the action and heroics of Howard. If this sounds up your alley, I highly encourage you to check him out.

A huge amount of Clark Ashton Smith’s work can be read at the Eldritch Dark.

PCBushi can also be found on Twitter or at the PCBushi blog, where he ruminates on scifi/fantasy, games, and other spheres of nerd culture.

  • deuce says:

    Klarkash-Ton influenced everyone from HPL himself –who was something of a CAS fanboy at the beginning — to Leiber, Bradbury, Ellison, Brian Stableford and Gene Wolfe. Robert E. Howard — no mean poet, either — said he’d give his trigger-finger to write verse like CAS. His fans may not have overhwelming numbers, but they are steadfastly loyal to the Emperor of Dreams.

    • john silence says:

      Humble “Return Of The Sorcerer” paperback, introduced by Gene Wolfe, was the first proper CAS collection i have bought some years ago. Good times.

  • JohnnyMac says:

    While I would agree that Clark Ashton Smith is not as famous as REH or HPL (no one has made any movies based on his work (as far as I know)) he is still well known in the fantasy field. Most of his work is still in print which puts him ahead of 99% of his contemporaries.

    CAS’s Zothique stories are some of his best work. The paperback collection of them that Lin Carter edited around 1970 is a treasured part of my library.

    Fritz Lieber used Smith as a character in his classic urban horror novel “Our Lady of Darkness”.

    • PC Bushi says:

      This may come down to the generational gap Jeffro, JC Wright, and others have spoken of. I only became aware of him in recent months, and I introduced his stuff to a friend of mine who’s been a huge Lovecraft/REH fan for years.

      • Agreed, heard of CAS in passing, never seen any of his stuff anywhere. 33yo here.

      • deuce says:

        CAS is relatively unknown these days and his work — other than a story in an anthology here and there — has been out of print for about a decade. Bushi and Constantin, your experiences are emblematic of Millennials’ and Gen Z. I frequent a big Mythos gaming forum and CAS rarely comes up even there, despite HPL explicitly name-dropping CAS in his stories. Recent generations have been fed derivatives and Nth-gen copies of the Founding Fathers of SFF. I feel bad for you guys. But hey, you’ve got so much new cool stuff to discover!

        CAS’ publishing history at isfdb:

        Hardly anything for the last decade.

        • Martin A says:

          “his work — other than a story in an anthology here and there — has been out of print for about a decade.”

          I find that claim a little strange.

          The Collected Fantasies series, containing virtually all of his stories, is in print from Night Shade Books. The Complete Poetry and Translations are in print from Hippocampus Press. There is even a Penguin Classics volume, THE DARK EIDOLON, containing both stories AND poetry. Heck, his single novel, THE BLACK DIAMONDS, which was an experiment he wrote at the age of 14, is in print!

          • JohnnyMac says:

            I came back to offer evidence in support of my assertion that CAS’s work is currently in print but I find I have been beaten to it by the knowledgeable Martin A. Well done , sir!

            The Collected Fantasies of CAS is a 5 book set from Night Shade Books. The individual titles are “The End of the Story”, “The Door to Saturn”, “A Vintage from Atlantis”, “The Maze of the Enchanter” and “The Last Hieroglyph”.

            I would also like to offer my thanks to the late Lin Carter who did great work as a fantasy editor for the Unicorn’s Head imprint of Ballantine Books back in the late 60s-early 70s. Among other classic works, he brought back to print 4 volumes of Smith’s stories. Titles are:
            “Zothique” (1970), “Hyperborea” (1971), “Xiccarph” (1972) and “Poseidonis” (1973).

        • deuce says:

          I bow to your greater knowledge, Martin. Looks like someone needs to update ISFDB and the bibliography at Eldritch Dark:

  • keith says:

    If I’d had to conjure video game connection myself, it would be From Software’s Souls series with their dying, ruinous yet beautiful worlds.
    Zothique stories are quite something.

    • PC Bushi says:

      I’ve only played (and not beaten) Dark Souls, so I can’t speak extensively to that, but can definitely see where that might be an apt comparison. It did have that feeling of a doomed world, full of ghosts and horrors, and as you say, elements of beauty.

    • NARoberts says:

      “In this world the sun has faded, the continents rearranged themselves into a Pangaea-like formation, and magic has usurped science. Demons and sorcerers plague the earth, as the cyclic rise and fall of civilization has finally given way to entropy. Sound somewhat familiar?”

      Very. This is almost EXACTLY the world of Dark Souls. Though in Souls it would seem that the rise and fall into entropy is itself cyclical, and we only see at its lowest points.

  • caleb says:

    ‘Tis a tragedy that he stopped writing. I do recall reading how it wasn’t just tragic, premature ends of his close friends and colleagues that contributed to that, but that one critic also made it his hobby to pick on CAS, attacking his fiction for being too dark and weird. Tho, I cannot find anything on that now. I can imagine him being more sensitive to such criticism than most pulp writers were, given his conventional artistic background.

    In any case, I can’t imagine that he would have fared well with critics and editors in following decades, I he kept to it. His style and themes were as a much of a far cry from what followed, as he himself (old timey poet, womaniser, with a mystic and supernaturalist bent) was from majority of popular genre fic writers of following decades.

  • Oghma_EM says:

    Well said. I’m firmly in the category of saying that Smith is the most important of the appendix N authors. I might’ve said that a time or four via twitter. That man, had a mind for the uniquely odd. The Dark Eidolon is a story I consider to be the best example of self destructive revenge I’ve ever read.

    The Weaver in the Vault is as far as I’m concerned the very blueprint of a dungeons and dragons adventure. It’s fantastic.

  • icewater says:

    Man was a painter with words. Sort of writer where you read his sentence aloud for their beauty alone.
    Relentlessly bleak and morbid in his Zothique tales, though. (with one huge, hilarious exception ).
    They really require particular state of mind in order to be properly appreciated.

    • deuce says:

      Donald Sidney-Fryer and others have noted that CAS would write his prose and then wander the hills of Auburn declaiming or “incanting” it to truly judge the quality. The man was a poet, first and foremost. If he’d had a better market for his poetry, we might never have gotten all of those wonderful tales.

    • zimriel says:

      Euvoran was supposed to be a Hyperborea story when CAS first plotted it out. But by that point the Zothique cycle was getting popular so he reskinned it. Man needed to pay his bills.

      Howard did a lot of this too, turning his Kull stories (which didn’t sell) into Conan stories (which did).

  • deuce says:

    ” In all literature, there are few works so sheerly remarkable, so purely creative, as THE NIGHT LAND. Whatever faults this book may possess, however inordinate its length may seem, it impresses the reader as being the ultimate saga of a perishing cosmos, the last epic of a world beleaguered by eternal night and by the unvisageable spawn of darkness.” — CAS

    Wells gave us glimpses of a “Dying Earth”, but Hodgson wrote an epic novel about it. It would seem that Smith took a spark from Hodgson — who was scarcely known in the US — and created something even greater. Definitely more readable. Vance read CAS and the torch was passed.

    Zothique was the last great setting Smith created and I feel it suited his talents and temperament best.

    • PC Bushi says:

      Great connection to make. Hodgson is another one on my list. Got the Night Land on my shelf waiting!

      • NARoberts says:

        This post inspired me to take a look on Gutenburg. Just a chapter or two in and it has great atmosphere. It feels like it would have been hard to picture the future he shows back in 1912…the ideas of technology and content seem much more modern.

        And then there is the prose, which is easier to read than Henry James but harder than anything else I have come across.

        • john silence says:

          So, I take it that you have nothing against the novel’s beginning? I am asking because it is popular to hate on it or to recommend that people skip it altogether.
          I actually like it and I think that it was pretty ingenious. Lovely and idyllic descriptions of character’s life at the beginning, juxtaposed with outlandishness and horror that come latter. Both are utterly alien from one and another, just as the eras they are set in are impossibly temporally distant one from another. Beginning just accents the strangeness of the novel.

          • NARoberts says:

            Beginning could mislead people who did not know what the novel was about. If he continues to tell a good story from here, I have no problem with it. He has every chance to show me that this beginning is tied into the rest of the story, even if he has not done this very much so far.

            If a lot of people drop it after the beginning because it gets too “fantasy” all of a sudden, I wouldn’t be surprised, but I have a high tolerance for clunky stuff (and that transition was clunky IMO)if I think I will like the book enough. I can’t really think of a better way he could have done it, anyway, so I will give him a pass on it.

            Think of Worm Ouroboros for comparison–that into was not very satisfactorily tied into the rest of the plot.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    Nobody scares me like Clark Ashton Smith. Edgar Allan Poe is breathing down his neck and H.P. Lovecraft is on his heels, but it is CAS that makes me leave the light on after I read his work at night.

    Dark is a good source for CAS’s fiction and so is (publishers of the Call of Cthulhu rpg), who sell a collection of his Cthulhu Mythos stories.

    • deuce says:

      “Genius Loci”, “The Double Shadow” and “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” are definitely as scary as anything from Poe, HPL or REH.

      • icewater says:

        Uh, “Yoh-Vombis” is quite chilling. I recall, in one of Wolfe’s New Sun novels, there are strange… things… in the shape of black cloth that attack heads, that were used in attempt to assassinate Sev. Do you recall that bit, perchance? I think it was when Sev and his comic relief pal were riding toward Autarch’s palace. I wonder if that was a nod to CAS.

        BTW, this one is nice little piece of nightmare fuel too
        It plays with parasitism and body horror.

      • deuce says:

        I believe they were called “noctules”. Wolfe is a big CAS fan.

        Yeah, “Sepulchre” is another good one.

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