Saturday, 17 March 2018

Clark Ashton Smith: End of the First Impressions

I have finished Emperor of Dreams now, and intend to finish up or follow up any thoughts in this post.

Image result for Emperor of Dreams
From the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks collection. Cover by JK Potter.

That Weird Fiction of the 1930s United States has HP Lovecraft on the East Coast, Robert E Howard in Texas and Clark Ashton Smith on the West Coast seems very neat, if purely coincidental. [I want to see a Raymond Chandler pastiche where Philip Marlowe meets an old down-on-his-luck CAS in a California backwater.]

CAS still seems to like mummies - and has a very strong notion of them, not just as Egyptian themed vampires but as something more. If all monsters are supposed to tap into some kind of existing fear, it is interesting to consider what the mummy might be. Perhaps some kind of invocation of the past and being trapped in it; perhaps some kind of active, worldly malevolent power (Egypt as the oppressor - of God's Chosen, the Israelites) - one that firmly believes you can take it with you.

Same with Gorgons, incidentally. It would be interesting to encounter a horror story around Gorgons rather than retreading Perseus in some form.

'The Root of Ampoi' - decent stuff, this. Suitable framing device, well though through - it doesn't quite take sides, which is an advantage. Make this into a television episode or something [Black Mirror of Galadriel?] and it would become a wonderful salient in the Culture Wars.

There's some real Grand Guignol over-the -top horror here; apply yourself to 'A Good Embalmer' for this sort of thing. I have learnt that there was an adaptation of 'The Sourcerer's Return' starring Vincent Price. This does not surprise me.

Zothique never quite seems to coalesce into anything more definite for me than The Thousand and One Nights with a superfluity of mummies. The good stories set in Zothique never seem to be about Zothique or to rely on the atmosphere of Zothique. That the living kingdoms are outnumbered by the dead is clear - but it never embraces the Dying Earth so well as Vance or Wolfe. Not that we need blame CAS for this.

Averoigne turns into something a deal less delightful than one might perhaps have thought. The tale 'The Beast of Averoigne' is possibly the best in the collection. 'Mother of Toads' just feels rather crass.

Hyperborea continues to delight - 'The Seven Geases' vies with 'The Door to Turn in terms of scope and playfulness. 'The Theft of Thirty-Nine Girdles' is a good straightforward piece of roguery - something which more could turn their hands to, quite free of supposed heroics or attempts to make us get in touch with characters of a very different time and place. However, despite being a rather pure heist story, this tale also ends with the disappearance of a sorcerer - one who was instructed specifically to avoid the occult this time round and stick to chemistry.

It's this sort of thing that cuts across CAS's tales being described as decadent; no-one ever gets to delight overmuch in their wickedness, or so it seems. Perhaps it is not surprising that 1930s America would not publish such; perhaps this is the equivalent of the villainous gangster getting away with crime until the very end of the final reel when the police rush in - but it raises a wider question about 'decadent' literature. Is it ever totally decadent? Surely not, if some moral intervenes. But it would be difficult to call it literature (in the status laden, judgemental use of the word). A tale where a wizard summons up a succubus and has a jolly good time isn't really doing a great deal with the plot or characters, in some ways. It is pretty much pornography - whatever the actual content (IE, a wizard entreats a demon to destroy his enemies - and they are promptly destroyed with no ill consequences to the wizard). This needn't be bad - but it may well be limiting.

(A tale where a wizard summons up a succubus and she turns out to be a person in her own right isn't quite decadent, totally or partially; not so much a courting of otherworldly powers as getting to know someone from another culture. This is different from deliberately embracing that which one knows to be not of one's kind; something of definite otherness and irreconcilable difference. I have not seen The Shape of Water [TOPICAL] but it strikes me as being the former rather than the latter).

CAS's life is fascinating and oddly sad. An autodidact, raised in an isolated cabin in the Sierras, who dwelt with his parents until their death. An early-published poet, who never lived up to early promise and popularity. He never quite made a living from his stories, especially in later life, taking up part-work where he could find it. So, no, he never made it to France. He survived HP Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, but seems to have lived a life not unlike theirs. CAS was oddly in touch with the needs of reality for an author of such elaborate fantasies.


I am certainly glad to have read CAS's stories, however down on some of them I might have been. Part of this is just taking such a large dose of them; I am doing this with some of Tim Powers's short stories currently. This is a lifetime's work - it should not be odd if things repeat; they were not being written as close to one another as I read them. Take a trip to Hyperborea or Zothique yourselves; the journey is quite something.

Pick up the collection yourself, or head over to Eldritch Dark for short stories and some of Clark Ashton Smith's art and sculpture.

No comments:

Post a Comment