Annihilation (Southern Reach, #1)

In most social circles, profession is what most characterizes a person, in a far larger degree than the name or any other individual characteristic. “What’s your job/occupation?” is usually a default question when coming into more-than-trivial conversational contact with someone, and profession tends to extensively colour our thought-form of most persons. It could be said that name and surname are necessary evils only in situations where the same occupations is shared by more than one person.

Enter the Annihilation’s 4-person expedition into Area X. A quartet of women, each with a different professional specialisation, inside an area empty of people. Suddenly names become unimportant; we are left with the surveyor, the psychologist, the anthropologist, and our protagonist, the biologist. Though it is implied later in the book that there might be yet another cause for this abandonment of names, it is also true that in a situation like this (where the only humans in the vicinity each have a different occupation) names are superfluous. Thing is, this equation of one’s being with one’s profession is a bit contradictory in a society where work and personal life are (ideally – for society at least) two completely separated spheres of one’s life.

Enough with this detour. Annihilation, the first part of the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, is a rather short horror/sci-fi novel, which tracks the aforementioned expedition’s trek into Area X, an uninhabited area, demarcated from the rest of the world by a Border of unknown properties. Our expedition is the eleventh to brave Area X’s depths according to the Southern Reach, the vague organization behind the Area’s exploration. Written from the biologist’s first person view, the book reads like a journal of sorts, which mixes the present-day exploration’s narration with flashback fragments of the heroine’s past life.

Annihilation is laconic both in its cast of characters (four main ones, along with two or three more orbiting around them) and its spatial diversity. The whole novel takes place in Area X (though flashbacks connect us with the outside world); or, to be more specific, it unfolds in three landmarks inside the Area: the Camp, the Tower, and the Lighthouse.

«Scientific expedition» + «dangerous, uninhabited, and maybe infected zone.» This aggregate, evident from the book’s first pages, screams of science fiction and has a touch of apocalypse (could it be zombies that I see?) on the horizon. Not exactly my cup of tea as far as horror fiction is concerned. Thankfully, the story grows quickly towards the uncanny and weird side of horror, with a fairy-tale-esque touch towards the end. This is quite a feat, all things setting-wise considered. The unfolding of the story borders on the Lovecraftian, the ghost story, the post-structuralist linguistics, never quite letting any of these dominate. Allusion, implication, and the absence of graphic violence and gore are pillars of the book. The whole idea of the Crawler/Tower complex is pleasantly disturbing and archaic, almost mythological in hue. The despairing uselessness of written-speech-sans-reader is a theme resonating throughout parts of the narrative.

On the negative part of the spectrum I would put the somewhat anti-climactic resolution at the end, though I understand that it is the first part of a trilogy (and yet quite able to stand on its own, though many things are left unexplained). One other thing that bothered me (though not terribly) is the over-abundance of the protagonist’s personal and emotional details in the flashbacks. I understand that there really is one character, so she should be expanded upon, yet I think we could do with slightly less such material, since it tends to weigh down the narrative (this is obviously a matter of personal taste – I like my horror rather de-personized).

Annihilation is a great read, graced with several ideas and images that tend to stick in one’s mind. An excellent genre crossover, it emits an air of vagueness which satisfyingly rewards active imagining initiatives.

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10 Monster Underworld (#tenmonstersetting)

The entrance to a spriggan’s crypt

A couple of months ago the 3toadstools blog posted a challenge: choose a monster manual book, pick 10 monsters out of it (1 for each category mentioned in the original post), and then create a mini-setting using these monsters, giving each of them a twist. Well, a bit late to the party, but here is my own.
The setting is an underground world of endless depth; there seems to be no surface world. Moving south the climate gets colder, moving down it gets wetter. Rigid social and political structures are almost non-existent – only the Jermlaine organize their society in such a way.
On to the monsters, selected from the AD&D 2nd Edition Core Monster Manual:

Giant/Ogre/Troll: The Spriggan Gnomes live in the wide expanses of the arid central caverns of the world, where the three last flames of Xasmo-Luur burn eternally. These creatures are normally giant-sized (20ft tall), but they are able to become small (3ft) or tiny (1ft) at will. Their mode of reproduction has nothing to do with intercourse as we know it: all new spriggans are found in crypts inside the earth, usually by members of their own race that dig for this exact (reproductive, one could say) purpose. It is unknown how the new spriggans come to be there in the first place – most believe that they are created by crypt things (see below), while some claim that the earth itself gives birth to them. They are adults when found – there are no young spriggans. They are great crafters and artists by need – they gain sustenance through crafting, not by eating food.

Undead: The body of a new spriggan is always connected to a Crypt Thing via an extremely cold leather chain. The undead guards it ferociously and has to be somehow disposed of, in order for the new member of the race to awake. The crypt things constantly whisper to the «unborn» spriggans they are connected with. They are gnarled, thin, and each has in its possession a small non-magical artifact of remarkable craftsmanship.

Semi-intelligent humanoid: Sometimes rats find the crypts of the unborn spriggans, manage to stay beneath the Crypt Things’ notice, and start gnawing on the leather chains connecting the undead to the unborn, tearing them apart. From these leftovers, Jermlaine are formed – leather humanoid figures that prowl the underground in small well-ordered bands, looking for gems and the way to the surface, where they hope that they can find an ordered world. Their orderly, structured way of behaving is the closest thing to a lawful, ordered social organization in the world.

Ancient fey race: The Atomie Sprites dwell in the seemingly endless taiga caverns of the south parts of the world. They grow deadly mushrooms which they consider to be their priests, translators of the divine. The divinities in question are the numberless trees of their habitat. Through communion with their mushroom priests the fey try to discern the gods’ words, directions that are supposed to lead to the long-lost stars. The atomies are the only race ancient enough to remember the sky.

Great wyrm or lizard: The Behirs of the southernmost tundra-like caverns are twelve-legged reptilian scholars that wander upon and dwell within the walls of their vast caves. Their knowledge is vast and they may accept to trade a piece of information for a body piece of the inquirer; alternatively, they will accept a body part coming from the Living Wall (see below). The paths that are carved upon the walls by their indolent movement are rumored to hold untold secrets for anyone able to see them in their totality – alas, completely lighting one of their vast caves in order for the paths to become simultaneously visible, is beyond the power of any mortal flame, natural or otherwise.

Aerial creature: In their journeys through the western labyrinthine corridors of the world, people have glimpsed strange mists of deeply dark orange colour. They are Crimson Deaths, vaguely humanoid (though extremely elongated), gaseous creatures, the only animated remnant of the lost city of Xasmo-Luur. Even centuries after the ancient settlement’s disappearance, its burning sewers remain infamous; in them, for countless years, undying flames devoured hecatombs of sacrificial victims. The Crimson Deaths are the smoky remains of said sacrifices, the only thing that escaped the sewer grates. They will attack anyone holding or lighting a fire. Thus travelers are advised to avoid all flames within this area.

Something to lurk in the water: All waters of the world are connected, from the smallest stream to the huge sunless sea of Albixuatot to the contents of any water flask. When someone immerses her ear in any body of water, she can hear the faint splashing of the Dragon Turtle crawling and she can feel the creature’s ravenous hunger. The turtle is never far from any accidental fall in water. Whenever a boot steps in a seemingly innocent puddle of water only to find it surprisingly deep, when a thirsty wanderer kneels to drink from a lightless river, the huge turtle may pull the unlucky person into depths apparently impossible yet fatally real.

Something from another dimension: Commerce is scarce in the underground world, not only due to the difficulties of subterranean travel. The Arcane, towering creatures from another world, are the bane of merchants. Any transaction that involves profit has a chance of attracting the attention of these blue humanoids, which have been stuck for half a millennium on this world. They blame their plight on the mercantile ways of their past. They will approach any merchant they can detect and will force an unbreakable contract upon her with their telepathic powers: to find a way for them to escape this world, or die trying.

A classic creature from mythology: There is a seemingly endless network of stone staircases spanning much of the world: they cross the spriggan caverns, the ruins of Xasmo-Luur, the shores of the viscous Albixuatot Sea, and many other sunless places. The omnipresent handrails of these stairs have a scaly surface that sometimes writhes under the touch of whoever holds it. The rails are the countless necks of an enormous Lernaean Hydra. They may branch at seemingly random moments, creating new paths (and even locations as some fathom). There are those that say that the necks try to lead wanderers to the mouth they connect to; other claim that there are only necks; most agree that the hydra loves the taste of Atomies.

Some foul crawly thing that infests the underworld: All underground people have legends about the Living Wall that is sometimes encountered in the darkest of passages (always in total darkness) – a mosaic that is firstly sensed by touch: a bit of flesh where rock should be, a tooth, some bones, a writhing tongue. Then faint twinkling lights appear upon a frothing surface, usually the last thing someone sees as an individual being. The Wall seems to have existed for millennia, crawling, spreading throughout the bowels of the earth, incorporating (in the truest sense of the world) a legion of beings and things and cities (for the great city Xasmo-Luur now lives in the wall’s folds). It’s said that in some of its most ancient surfaces, far beneath the waters of the Albixuatot sea, the moon and the sun and the clouds can be seen. Some believe that if one passes through the living wall one reaches the surface world.

The Village of Sirtol

On the north shores of river Dubul, looking west. On the left can be seen one of Banks’ houses.

This is the first of a series of posts describing a small riverside village (which once a year becomes a pilgrimage destination) and the surrounding areas. The settlement is split in two parts by a large chasm; this separation is also mirrored in the unusual social stratification of the population. In my setting the village is on the edge of a large forest, climbing on the foot of some wooded hills, in a secluded valley far from any sizable human civilization – the whole valley is very strongly influenced by real world animistic beliefs. (As a sidenote, the village’s name is a reference to the city of Sirtel, from the namesake Slauter Xstroyes song)

Facts about the village:

  • The village is split in 2 parts: a riverside (Banks) and an uphill one (Slopes). Between them lies a (10m wide, 1km long) chasm of unknown depth; this is called the Mouth. The settlement is bordered by the river Dubul on its north and western sides.
  • Once per year, vapors rise out of the Mouth for two weeks (always from a New Moon to a Full Moon). When this happens, pilgrims come: the villagers help them to descend with ropes (they are sacred ropes made of tree fibers and corpse hair) and sleep in small crevices on the upper chasm walls to get prophetic (and other kind of interesting) dreams – alas, some dreams are nightmares. Most of the pilgrims return to the surface.
  • The villagers, due to their permanently living in the area, are unaffected by the vapors. Some of them have slightly prophetic abilities (they frequently get glimpses of next day’s events or sometimes of something more distant in time).
  • The village population, mainly human with halfling clusters, has an unusually high number of twins. Twinship is the axis upon which the village is organized: Slopes is home to all non-twins, as well as the younger twins (those that exited last from the uterus). Banks is where all elder twins reside – they control the dock and maritime communication.
  • The population has remained roughly the same for the past two centuries ~ slightly less than 300 persons.
  • Almost no metal. Most things (weapons and armors included) are made of wood, bone, horn, earth, clay, scales, and other nature-occurring materials.
Rough preliminary sketch of Sirtol village

Slopes:

  • Roughly 30 single-floor houses spread over 20 square minutes.
  • Buildings have thick (2m wide) rounded adobe walls. The extreme thickness is due to the following burial custom: after decomposition, the bones of the dead are inserted in the house walls and covered with adobe mud.
  • Roofs are thatched and very wide, reinforced with hair of the aforementioned dead. Thus they become unnaturally sturdy, water- and heat-proof.
  • A bell chime from the temple of Fliria (goddess of the eastern fields) in the east end marks sunrise, while sundown is signaled by a gong sound from the shrine of Dubul (the namesake river-god) in the west end.
  • Slopes smell of earth, manure and hearth smoke (hearth fires burn almost throughout the year).
  • Domesticated animals include mostly hens, a few goats (for milk and hair), and semi-domesticated pigs which graze in the forested hills to the south and southeast. The swine may occasionally attack and eat a child or very frail person that wanders alone in their territory. Those pigs that dine on human flesh are able to move on the spectral paths of the dead.

Banks:

  • 15 houses, two- or three-storied, made of dark (almost black) wood. They have sloped roofs, covered with stone tiles (which are pretty stable, though it is not unheard of for some passerby to die due to a tile falling to his head – they are considered chosen by the winds, and are taken south, to the nearest mountaintop, and left there).
  • Banks smells of river and dump, of hearth smoke, and of sweet bread (this is an oddity due to a paradoxical property of the earth beneath the particular area).
  • Semi-domesticated animals include otters and ducks.
  • Banks has a hollow tree-like rock. Inside there are steps descending to a small cave whose walls are mirror-like. Therein are kept the sacred ropes that are used to lower the pilgrims to the chasm.
  • At four points of Banks there are the remains of a stone-paved road. It seems that at some era it connected the chasm to the river and beyond. The people will take great pains to avoid stepping on any of these parts.

The Mouth:

  • It is taboo to bridge the chasm in any way. The villagers will actively hunt down anyone trying it. The same goes for any attempt to place a fence.
  • During its steaming time, the Mouth’s vapors thicken each day. During the last night, when it is full-moon, the fog is so thick that nothing can be seen beyond half a meter.
  • There is a natural spring on the western edge of the Mouth, emptying in the chasm. Its water tastes like wet cotton.
Typical village scene when a hunt is under way

Seven Scenes:

  1. A procession of yellow-clothed villagers carry the body of a young man up to the hills, to release it to the winds.
  2. Under a horned moon, a trio of naked old women drive a wooden plowshare through the fields to bless the earth.
  3. Children chipping at their house’s (extremely thick) walls reveal a skeletal hand; the palm holds a clay eyeball-sized sphere.
  4. Someone is whipping his shadow, on the wall of a house.
  5. Villagers return from the monthly forest hunt, their bounty plentiful, though their eyes are clouded by grief – three of their numbers were claimed by the forest. A feast is joined by both village sides.
  6. At night, halflings are seen in their gardens, their feet immersed in the moist earth, eyes star-gazing.
  7. Scarecrow-like figures made of garments can be seen throughout the village, both outside and inside the houses. The clothes that form them seem to be in good condition. (Before embarking for the hunt, the villagers leave their normal clothes at their houses. They place them so as they resemble human figures – empty clothes sitting upon chairs, lying on the beds, standing in the garden. They want to trick the animal spirits into believing that they are still at the village.)

Five Adventure Seeds:

  1. A halfling woman seeks help – her only daughter has disappeared in the forest, where she had gone the night before last, as it is customary for all Sirtolian girls to spend the night before their 13th birthday at the forest. [If they ask around the PCs will learn that the girl was way taller than any halfling. There are rumors that her parents adopted a human child or a hag spawn.]
  2. A woman with newborn twins seeks help – her husband has been burning small animals to their hearth for the past days, and now she’s worried that he will sacrifice the twins to the flames. [He is trying to burn the mortality out of the creatures that he immolates, making them immortal. All this is according to knowledge he gathered from a tower across the river, just an hour deep in the forest.]
  3. Vapors emerge from the chasm, thicker than ever. But the ropes of lowering have vanished!
  4. The gong of Dubul’s shrine has disappeared and sunset refuses to come.
  5. Last week there was a large storytelling gathering at Banks. Since then, two creatures from the story have been rumored to roam the village at night: a leper and a horned snake.

Clark Ashton Smith Collected Fantasies, vol 4 – The Maze of the Enchanter

The fourth volume is a bit more focused thematically, including 5 stories of the Zothique circle, 3 of the Averoigne one and two Hyperborean ones. This doesn’t mean, of course, that there is any aspect of Clark Ashton’s writing that is not represented here. There are many good and great stories here, with quality peaks at the beginning and at the second half, and a stellar high at the Charnel God/Dark Eidolon combo.

Bad:
-The Dimension of Chance: In the far future of 1970s (the story was written in the ’30s) an American military plane ends up in a strange world after chasing a Japanese aircraft. There, random probability has a much more active role in shaping the world, resulting in creatures whose physiology is pluralistic to say the least.
Nice idea, whose materialization is, however, doomed from inception to be rather tiresome when injected into words. Of the weird science-fiction CAS genre, of which I am not a fan.

Mediocre:
-A Star-Change: Alien beings take the protagonist with them to their planet.
One of CAS’s exercises in descriptions of weird environments, imbued with the fatalistic conception of mankind’s limitations. Not much to keep.

-The White Sybil: In Hyperborea, a poet catches glimpses of the White Sibyl, a divine oracle, follows her up a mountain, sees another world, yet when he touches the woman the mirage is shattered.
This has a poem-like quality, lots of description, and not much in the way of plot or action. It is definitely beautiful but rather tiresome.

-The Isle of the Torturers: After his nation is wiped by pestilence, a king (who has immunity by wearing a magic ring) sails for a distant land. A storm throws his vessel on an island famed for its sadistic inhabitants.
Of the Zothique circle, yet not much in the way of plot. Obvious resemblance to the Masque of Red Death, (also, a very early manifestation of Melnibone?) quite predictable, it unfortunately doesn’t rise above mediocrity.

-The Dweller in the Gulf: A trio of Earth people descend into a huge Martian cave, where they encounter a strange race and the Dweller in the Gulf.
Though it could theoretically be slotted in the dungeon crawl genre, this is more descriptive and eloquent than needed. It has a nice escalation, but feels rather unpolished.

-The Secret of the Cairn: An artist discovers a strange stone in the forest, which he cannot approach – when he does, it seems that it keeps distancing itself, without changing position. Afterwards it is revealed as part of an elaborate alien ritual -the aliens take the protagonist for a short visit to their world.
This had potential to be great, sylvan cairn and all, but the alien edge along with the overwhelming weirdness of the alien world description weighs it down a lot.

Good:
-The Mandrakes: A sorcerer kills and buries his wife in the garden; in this spot start sprouting female-shaped mandrakes.
Part of the Averoigne cycle, a solid short story with grand overtones of rural witchcraft.

-The Beast of Averoigne: The appearance of a comet heralds the coming of a strange beast in the vicinity of a monastery, a terror that hunts in the night. The aid of a sorcerer is finally enlisted to thwart the devil.
Part of the Averoigne cycle, a grand narration from three different points of view/characters, with a brooding twist in the end. Excellent medieval horror.

-The Disinterment of Venus: An ancient Venus statue is unearthed in a monastery garden, inducing the monks to satyriasis.
Part of the Averoigne cycle. A nice, unusually sexually suggestive story which reeks of hidden monastic lust, an exultation of pagan carnality with a satisfying ending.

-The Maze of the Enchanter: A man trying to locate his abducted fiancé enters a wizard’s territory, ending up in the sorcerer’s notorious labyrinth.
Top-notch CAS dark fantasy. The descriptions are evocative and rich like elder vitae. Just a bit more of plot action would take it to the grand category.

-The third episode of Vathek: The completion of an unfinished Vathek appendice, in which twin brother and sister indulge in forbidden love and pacts with the Devil.
A majestic capture of Vathek’s atmosphere, this is overally excellent, though it could perhaps be edited to a lesser word count.

-Genius Loci: A painter seems to be maliciously affected by a locale with a pond and some gnarled trees. His friend, trying to save him, calls the artist’s girlfriend, who however proves incapable of overpowering the locale’s influence.
The spirit of the place as a vampiric entity: this is the core idea of this beautiful little story. Not much to dislike here, apart from the slightly slow pace.

-The Voyage of King Euvoran: The stuffed bird forming the crowning jewel of a king’s crown is revived by a necromancer and flies away. The King embarks on an expedition to retrieve it.
Part of the Zothique cycle, yet unusually humorous in tone, this has very memorable locales, an island ruled by birds, and a fitting fairy-tale-esque ending.

-Vulthoom: Some humans who have been stranded on Mars descend to the planet’s interior and are offered a mission by a god-like entity – a task that involves preparing Earth for colonization.
A nice case of CAS-ian sci-fi, that focuses on plot rather than heavy descriptions.

-The Flower-Women: The omnipotent wizard from the Maze of the Enchanter visits another planet out of boredom. There he meets plant sirens and reptilian sorcerers.
An almost light-hearted story that reveals an almost humane side of the stern enchanter. Very pleasurable.

Scene from the Dark Eidolon, by Mockman

Great:
-The Ice Demon: Three persons embark on a quest towards the oncoming glacier that heralds the coming Ice Age; they seek an ice chamber holding a frozen army, along with royal gemstones. The glacier seems to be imbued with malevolent consciousness and agency.
An ode to ice and cold. Set in the later days of Hyperborea, the story contains amazing descriptions of arctic vistas and ice-sculpted monuments. The demon itself and its signs of attack are a study in majestic subtlety. Strangely reminiscent of Algernon Blackwood’s The Sacrifice, as far as atmosphere goes.

-The Charnel God: A city dominated by the temple of a death god – all people who die in its walls end up in there. The protagonist must rescue his wife, who has the symptoms of death, but remains alive.
Part of the Zothique cycle, it showcases pulpy dark adventuring done right. Not of the sword & sorcery kind where heroes indulge in their skill, but of the one that reads like a good dark fairy-tale.

-The Dark Eidolon: A mighty wizard returns to the city of his birth to wreak revenge upon the prince that once scorned him. With him, he has the dark eidolon of a demon god.
Part of the Zothique cycle, and one of CAS’s most grandiose creations. Has there been a more majestic description of oncoming doom than the one of the beings coming upon the city? This is the stuff apocalypse is made of.

-The Weaver in the Vault: Three imperial guards go to a necropolis to fetch an ages-old mummy to their liege.
Part of the Zothique cycle. When CAS focuses on dungeon crawling he excels. With nice background hues of steppe-like camaraderie, and amazing, atmospheric descriptions of the charnel grounds.

Volume 2
Volume 3

Found in a Forest tables

Matazo Kayama, Frozen Forest

PDF version

10 weird things found in a forest clearing

1. A cart wheel made of marble, with a very tall candle at its center. While the candle is unlit it serves as a solar and lunar clock. If the candle is lit, the clock acts as a compass: its shadow points to a specific place (as suiting the DM’s needs). For as long as the candle is lit, and 24 hours after it is snuffed, the person that lit it is unable to rest and sleep.

2. A black flower that always moves away from the hand that tries to pick it. If somehow picked, a portal to the Underworld opens.

3. Three unbreakable, untearable yet quite flexible giant leaves (1 metre wide each). There appears to be no matching tree around. If taken out of the forest they try to constrict and suffocate whoever carries them.

4. A boar tusk, roughly the size of an open hand, with a serpent-like symbol engraved on it. If shaken, something can be heard inside it. It is resistant to any normal damage. Can be broken only by a charging boar, at which point the spine of a small snake is revealed.

5. The journal of a ranger’s shadow. It is made of the shadows of big leaves, bound with silver hair. The book can be grasped normally (it feels like touching cold dandelions). It is full of bitter entries: the shadow is bound to follow its owner around, never able to do what it wants.

6. Three little holes recently dug, as if someone wanted to plant something but then left in a hurry. The holes only accept teeth – anything other put in is ejected. If teeth are planted the next night a full-grown double of the tooth’s owner sprouts. Tusks also work.

7. A saw made entirely out of wood. Useless against wood, cuts stone easily. Will not let its owner rest in any settlement larger than a small village.

8. A rope ladder tied on a large tree branch. Cannot be separated from it. However, each person can cut and take one and only one step out of it. The step can be used to reach a safe place once – then it disappears forever.

9. A full helm (its closed visor is sculpted in the realistic likeness of a human face) half buried in the vegetation. If opened there emerges a small plant head on a very long, branch-like neck, waiting to be fed.

10. Α dead baby hanging from a tree branch. Stillborn, it was left in the air so as the soul would be reclaimed by birds (it has already been taken).

8 weird beings found in a forest clearing

1. (Only at night) An old man who despises the sun. He will pay handsomely for a piece of the sun or anything that is related to the star of day; he will then proceed to ritually destroy the object. If somehow tricked into staying with the characters until morning, he is bound to the nearest tree for a year.

2. The ghost of a long-dry stream. Appears as a pond of silvery water and will communicate with anyone that drinks from it (its water tastes like gaseous honey, its voice is like water dripping from a corpse’s lips). Will reveal the location of a magical dowsing rod (that leads to lost memories) to anyone carrying some of its water to a large city well. Only a special container will do the trick, which can be crafted from the hoof of a legendary forest boar.

3. A single cow moving backwards, part of a god’s stolen herd. If slain its meat will restore any wounds and heal all fatigue, but if its bones are not buried afterwards, the god-owner of the herd will know of the deed.

4. Three acorn spirits in the guise of children. They will ask to be guided out of the forest, and will try to climb on the three stronger characters, mentioning that they are very tired. If they are allowed to, they slowly and almost imperceptibly immerse themselves in their carriers’ bodies (8 hours). If completely immersed, they turn the carriers’ bodies to earth within 3 days, and a little tree sprouts from each.

5. A heavy-backed mother of three, her head always covered with a thick woolen kerchief. She will lead the characters to a destination within the forest, if they help her with a mundane chore. However, if the PCs refuse to help her with the chore, she removes the kerchief.
If the acorn spirits are on the characters she will immediately chase them away, saving the characters.

6. Large crows dining on a long table, upon golden goblets and silver plates. They are ancients of their species, and can cover huge distances very quickly; they can even fly up to the sun and bring a piece of it back. If they are disturbed while eating, or they are not addressed in a polite way, they trap half of the PCs in the other half’s shadows.

7. A peddler of hair, fur and wigs has spread his merchandise all around the clearing. Is currently looking for customers, as well as providers of exotic hair. For a sample of his merchandise roll on attached table.

8. A noble old man trying to make a compact with a spirit of darkness. He needs the blood of a special animal to craft the ink for the contract. If the PCs aid him he will reward them handsomely with his new powers. If they refuse and try to stop him, nightmares will haunt them, while in the forest, making rest impossible.

Table – Hair-peddler’s merchandise

1A wig made of scarecrows’ straw hair. Any kind of bird is unable to harm, or even approach the wearer, who however becomes slow in his movements and reactions.
2Hair of a corpse, still growing (one centimeter per night). They are unbreakable, but will try to subtly arrange for the hanging of anyone who uses them.
3Patches of boar fur boiled in liquid shadow. They can be used to walk on quicksand and pit traps without danger.
4A whip made from the gold-coloured ponytail of a long dead acrobat, renowned for her skill, notorious for her cruelty. It can be used to make a horse jump impossible distances, even walk on walls; however, as soon as the horse stops it falls dead. Horses will not willingly go near anyone carrying the whip.
5The complete (280cm long) fur of a winter snake, a species long thought to be extinct. A scabbard covered with this will break any faulty weapon inserted in it, no matter how tiny its flaw. Thus it is prized by weaponsmiths.
6A shoulder-length wig made of silver hair; the whole thing is extremely polished, so as to act as a flowing mirror when under moonlight. Any animal reflected in the wig can verbally communicate with the wearer.

Clark Ashton Smith Collected Fantasies, vol 3 – A Vintage from Atlantis

Despite the larger number of stories and pages in comparison to volume two, the third tome of Clark Ashton Smith’s Omnibus, was overall better, containing no pages that forced skipping. On the contrary, the good stories are many, and the great are among the author’s most exquisite writings.

Mediocre:
-Beyond the Singing Flame: The sequel to the City of the Singing Flame takes us back to the great city of Ydmos, and even beyond, explaining some of the Flame’s mysteries.
A rare sequel, this story builds on the success of its predecessor, and tries to elaborate on the Flame’s hazy nature. The cosmic and psychedelic elements are increased, the atmosphere becomes more ominous and tenebrous, even apocalyptic (somewhat reminiscent of Dunsany’s gods), but the truth is that the weirdness, a crucial part of the original’s magic, is here reduced. Solid, though somewhat tiring in alien descriptions.

-The Eternal World: A man finds himself in a place beyond space and time, where he, along with three other omnipotent beings, is abducted by a mysterious spaceship.
An interesting idea, yet the implementation is tiring, as tends to be the norm with CAS’s hard space science fiction

-The Demon of the Flower: An empire ruled by plants, with a demonic flower as a divine emperor. A man travels to find a way to banish the tyrant.
This one is a mix of fairy tale and weird fiction, an intriguing combination that unfortunately proves less than stellar in this one, most probably due to the weirdness immensely overpowering the flow.

-The Invisible City: Two explorers wander through Gobi desert and reach a city with invisible buildings and denizens.
A stellar idea which however was is less than stellar in its execution. Things are rather forced and sped up, especially in the latter half.

-The Immortals of Mercury: A man is captured by the immortal people residing in Mercury’s interior, and is to be used as an ingredient for a metal alloy.
A typically protracted sci-fi story which however has a nice Underdark (deep cave) feeling. Still, more a train of gonzo and action scenes than a proper story. The idea of heat-resistant giant lizards used as grills was amazing.

Good:
-The Holiness of Azedarac: Part of the Averoigne circle, this centers around the pious monk Ambrose, his quest of exposing Azedarac’s satanic faith, and his sudden disappearance.
Not an astounding plot, yet here Clark Ashton’s pen indulges in a wealth of verbal delights. Good sylvan atmosphere and a pinch of archaic druidic mysteries. Also, the end is unusually kind and optimistic, pushing aside the cold hand of duty that is many times unmoving in such fairy-tale-like legends.

The Maker of Gargoyles: Also part of the Averoigne circle, this concerns two malevolent gargoyles, imbued with their creator’s spiteful instincts and desires.
An essentially magical way of thinking, the transference of and animation with powerful emotion to creations. The story is not unpredictable, but it nicely zooms in the setting, town and particular period, offering also a wealth of lore.

-Seedling of Mars: An empty martian spaceship kidnaps (somewhat) a number of humans and takes them to Mars, who is revealed to be an almost animated planet. What follows is a battle between open-mindness and exploration lust on the one side, and conservative human nature on the other.
Finally, a very good science fiction story. This is part philosophical, part action, vibrating with the wonder of novelty.

-A Vintage from Atlantis:A pirate crew finds an ancient jar in a beach, containing a wine from Atlantis. Once drunk, the wine bestows visions of the now-sunken continent.
Magnificent prose, jewel-encrusted words that flow like amber wine through the pages. An oneiric atmosphere.

-The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan: A miserly moneylender pawns a couple of huge emeralds which start rolling from his reach. He chases them through city and forest to a cave, where doom awaits.
A quirky story with a weird idea (gems rolling on their own), completely on the side of fairy-tales. Almost great.

-The Seed from the Sepulcher: Two Amazonian explorers looking for rare plants. One of them becomes infected by a parasitic plant.
Grotesque, with a fear of hybrids and impurity in its core. A bit verbose, it could benefit from a tighter editing.

-The Second Interment: The protagonist is deathly afraid of premature burial, having already been buried alive once. The story follows his mental and bodily sensations as he sinks in the despair of the inevitable second coming of his dreadful situation.
A Poe-like thematic story which traces the manic, panicked and feverish thoughts of a phobic man that dreads the grave.

-Ubbo-Sathla: An artifact found in a pawnshop is revealed to be a divination implement, able to bridge eternities. Using it, the protagonist’s consciousness is slowly merged with that of an ancient sorcerer, and then a primordial god.
A nice story of sorcerous might and hubris, it kind of fails to rise to stellar levels.

-The Plutonian drag:An extraterrestrial drag causes anyone imbibing it to perceive near future and past visually, flattening time into perspectiveless space.
The core idea of this is ingenuous and very well presented. Alas, it could be expanded a bit more; right now it is just a rough uncut gem.

-The Supernumerary Corpse: A man poisons his nemesis but ends up with two identical (and far removed in spatial terms) corpses.
This has a very short and weird plot, which remains essentially unexplained. Very nice.

Empire of the Necromancers

Great:
-The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis: A team of settlers from Earth ventures into the ruins of a forgotten race on Mars.
An amazing dungeon crawl in Martian ruins, better than your best dungeon crawl adventure (fantasy or otherwise).

-The Nameless Offspring: Someone finds himself in the vicinity of his childhood neighborhood. He ends up in the manor of an old acquaintance, who hides a secret offspring.
A gothic manor story which has everything: the decrepit owner, the dead spouse, crypts, the deformed spawn, the butler. This is the stuff CAS lived and died for, who in this particular case throws in both Necronomicon verses and ghoulish delights.

-The Empire of the Necromancers: Two necromancers leave a region populated by the living, in order to establish an empire, in a province long decimated by plague; their empire is populated by undead animated by their spells.
This is how the archaic undead rises through the pen of a true master. This is how terrible majesty and arcane wonder is evoked. One of the best CAS stories.

-The Double Shadow: A sorcerer’s apprentice watches his master’s approaching doom as a conjured unfathomable being slowly approaches his shadow.
Clark Ashton Smith at his best. Sorcerous evocation, a weird and utterly unexplainable horror from the dark past.

-The Colossus of Ylourgne: The dead start leaving their graves and converge in a ruined castle where a sorcerer plans his revenge upon the world.
Magnificence incarnate in the Averoigne circle. A long story with highly atmospheric parts, a solid plot and parts that could well have influenced such a masterpiece as «In the Hills, the Cities.» Reified awe.

Volume 2
Volume 4

Clark Ashton Smith Collected Fantasies, vol 2 – The Door to Saturn

The second tome of Clark Ashton Smith’s collected works gathers a number of stories, ranging from choked-in-action sci-fi (A Captivity in Serpens) to oriental weird (The Willow Landscape, The Ghoul) and good old grotesque horror (Return of the Sorcerer). Obviously, the reader’s disposition towards a particular genre will be of the uttermost importance concerning the pleasure derived from each story, structural issues notwithstanding. Thus, not being a huge fun of pulpy science fiction I was exhausted by the sheer length of «The Red World of Polaris,» «A Captivity in Serpens,» and «The Letter from Mohaun Los.» The sheer weight of the never-ending descriptions in these three stories required a Herculean effort to navigate which proved too much for me. Thus I consider them the weakest of the bunch.

These three aside, the others can be put in the following three qualitative categories:

Mediocre:
The Door to Saturn: The collection’s namesake kicks off in a promising way, with a sorcerer hunting another through a portal that leads from Earth to Saturn, and their consequent travels in the alien planet.
Alas, the Saturnian landscape, fauna and flora, edges on the gonzo side of the aesthetic spectrum. The descriptions are not as lengthy and numerous as in the aforementioned trio of sci-fi stories, there is bizarreness aplenty, but still, the story is rather distanced from my personal taste. Of course, for those whose mind exalts in such settings, this is a very well-written specimen.

-An Offering to the Moon: The Pacific Ocean, two explorers, and a jungle temple of a long-lost tribe.
Rather standard «exotic» material without much of an edge. Nothing spectacular.

The Kiss of Zoraida: The fate of two illicit lovers is sealed in a brutally ironic way.
Descriptive grotesquerie galore, but other than that this snapshot-like, fatalistic and very short story doesn’t boast a supernatural element or something spectacular.

-The Face by the River: A killer haunted by his victim’s visage.
This is more of a study in the emotional deterioration of a ghost-tormented individual, rather than a ghost-story in itself. Well-written nevertheless, it will definitely appeal to some.

-An Adventure in Futurity: A lengthy time-travel story that begins with slight hues of the weird mystery before taking us to a rather distasteful far future of humanity, where human superiority is characterised by emotional detachment and cold intellectualism, as well as the enslavement of beings from Venus.
Apart from the excellent beginning there was little to personally enjoy in this story.

-The Justice of the Elephant: A short story of justicial revenge (somewhat fairytale-esque) set in the East.
Very short and rather satisfying, it nevertheless doesn’t manage to set itself apart.

-The City of the Singing Flame: A man discovers a portal to a strange gigantic city, in whose center is a Flame that sings, luring everything in it.
A fantasy thematic with sci-fi-like descriptions (as far as their overwhelming abundance is concerned). This borders on the Lovecraftian oneiric/fantastic of Kadath and Randolph Carter. The central idea of the Singing Flame is extraordinary, but the realisation seems somewhat faulty.

Good:
Told in the Desert: A story of the Arabian Tales sort with a mythological core (the extraordinary bride setting a rule that must not be broken).
Beautiful, evoking description of the desert, of the campfire, of the oasis, of the tormented protagonist himself.

-The Willow Landscape: An oriental-themed short story about a magical painting, this is a good-hearted, touching and satisfactory story.
Not much else to say without spoiling the plot.

-The Gorgon: A man is led to the depths of London, where he faces (sort of) the head of the Medusa.
Bordering on greatness, yet just missing the final step, this is a masterful blending of the contemporary urban with the mythological. Ominous escalation of the macabre, amazing hinting at heroic artifacts, and greatness in the description of the Medusa lair. Still, it stumbles just before the end.

-The Ghoul: A man is forced into a horrendous pact with a ghoul, in order to save the corpse of his deceased loved one.
Arabian Nights on grotesque steroids, this delivers all that the title implies: ghoulish delights steeped in gothic drama.

-A Good Embalmer: An embalmer makes sure that his body will, after death, stay clear of his business partner’s less-than-perfect funereal art.
Due to the setting it reminded me somewhat of the funeral house in Neil Gaiman’s «American Gods.» This is a light-hearted narrative that could be part of a Hammer horror-anthology extravaganza. Beautiful and pleasantly shocking.

-The Testament of Athammaus: Set in an unspecified ancient era, this is an executioner’s narrative of how his city was deserted, after a convicted outlaw (and possible distant relative of Tsathoggua) refuses to stay dead.
I had difficulty deciding if this is good or great – it certainly borders on the latter. I finally settled on very good. A fairy-tale-esque recurring motif, heaps of graphic description, and the helplessness in front of the abhorrent – the consumption of passers-by is of monumental conception and execution (sic).

-The Hunters from Beyond: An artist taps into the occult to enhance his work and (obviously something goes wrong).
Not the most original of stories, somewhat related to Lovecraft’s «Pickman’s Model,» yet it comes out solid due to the sheer weight of Clark Ashton’s language and atmosphere evoked.

Moonlight on Boulder Ridge, Clark Ashton Smith

Great/Amazing:
A Rendezvous in Averoigne: A man, his lover and two servants are lost in an ancient, labyrinthine forest, ending up in the castle of an ancient aristocrat.
One of the best vampire stories of all time, this is graced with an incredibly evoking gothic atmosphere. The rich language flows like blood falling on velvet curtains, it smells of ancient mysteries and crypts just opened.

-The Kingdom of the Worm: Sir John Maundeville (a knight that features in a 14th century book) travels through the cursed land of Antchar, beholding unnerving visions before coming to the court of the Worm in all its terrible majesty.
Written in the style of the original «Travels of Sir John Mandeville» the story is steeped in medieval, religious horror. Antchar is revealed as a land out of Poe’s more terrible fantasies. A piece of art to be visited again and again, bound to reveal new unholy treasures each time.

-The Return of the Sorcerer: The protagonist is employed by an old man as a secretary. The employer requires both the man’s linguistic skills in Arabic as well as the presence of another living being in the huge empty house.
A claustrophobic, dark and brutally suggestive story, that ends in a crescendo of implied grotesqueness. (There is an alternative ending that is of less quality) A classic in the spirit of Lovecraft’s Charles Dexter Ward.

Volume 3
Volume 4