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

Advertisements

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