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.