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

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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.