Lands Beyond Strange: Clark Ashton Smith’s World of Zothique

Lately I’ve been blogging a lot about the sword & sorcery creations of Robert E. Howard.  I thought I’d shift gears just a bit by discussing the fantasy of one of Howard’s contemporaries, Clark Ashton Smith.  During the golden age of the magazine Weird Tales, which spanned from the late 1920s through the late 1930s, three regular contributors to the magazine proved to be its most popular authors:  Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith.

While Smith’s works haven’t been lost to the ages, they have failed to achieve the same followings as those of Howard & Lovecraft.  Howard gave us an icon in the form of Conan, and the fascination with this character has in turn led to a great deal of interest with all his works.  And let’s not forget he is also the acknowledged godfather of modern sword & sorcery.  H.P. Lovecraft also made his contribution to modern pop culture with his Cthulhu tales, and he has influenced an entire generation of horror writers, including authors such as Stephen King & Clive Barker.  Recent years have also seen his work transcending the genre shelves and creeping into accepted Western literature.

Then we have Clark Ashton Smith.  He was just as popular as Howard & Lovecraft during their Weird Tales days, but this is far from the case today.  Smith actually considered himself more of a poet than a writer.  Writing short stories proved more lucrative in those days, and churning out the prose allowed Smith to support his ailing parents.  Although he lived until 1961, most of his stories were written during the golden age of Weird Tales.  Between 1930 and 1935 he was the magazine’s most prolific author, appearing in its pages over fifty times.  But soon after the deaths of Howard & Lovecraft in 1936 & 1937, Smith’s output tapered off.  Even so, Smith left quite a sizable amount of work from the short period of time he focused on his prose.

Perhaps his most lasting and important creation is the world of Zothique. Zothique is a dark, primal jewel of a place.  The sun is red and dying, the world is in its last days.  The prose is highly stylized, the vocabulary impressive enough that it will leave the smartest readers reaching for the dictionary (although if you don’t want to interrupt your reading to look up the words, you can understand the story based on context).  But his use of this impressive wordage isn’t meant to show off; it adds to the mystique that is Zothique, adding layers of texture and lushness that gives the world a feel of its own.

That feel is somewhat reminiscent of Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age, but Zothique is darker and more decadent.  There is no unifying character in the stories like Conan.  It is the world that Smith is most interested in exploring, though he was able to create interesting characters in most of his tales.  Clark Ashton Smith also takes more risks in his work than Howard did.  The poet in him was determined to bare his soul in all its ugliness and all its beauty.  The result proves to be something that toes the line of horror as much as it does fantasy, and it leaves the reader envisioning some rather off-color things in rather startling detail.  The content of Smith’s stories—Zothique and otherwise—were far often ahead of his time.

If parts of what I’m describing sound somewhat familiar, it might be because you’re thinking of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series. Vance published his first Dying Earth tales in 1950, almost twenty years after Smith published his first Zothique tale.  Vance’s works would in turn influence Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, but to the best of my knowledge, it was Smith who provided the original model for these sorts of tales (though they have evolved in a rather different direction).  This is perhaps his greatest contribution to fantasy, and why he deserves remembering.

Like Howard, Smith had his shortcomings. His writing depicted a racist attitude toward black people, and while I can’t confirm it, I’ve also heard in more than one place that he was anti-Semitic. But like Howard, the man knew how to spin a yarn. I’ll add that like many of the authors from the pulp era, his stories are of varying quality. But when the man is on his game, his stories are as haunting and dark and primal as you could possibly want.

Nightshade Books is currently putting out a wonderful series of books that collects all of Smith’s fantastical short stories (including his forays into science fiction) into five volumes.  The first volume is The End of the Story.  You can also visit this site, which includes most of Smith’s fantastical writings, and read his works for free.  My personal favorite is “Necromancy in Naat,” which is one of his Zothique tales.  If you like this one, then take pleasure in having discovered a veritable treasure trove of fantastical tales of the macabre by one the true masters of the pulp age whose praises are not sung nearly enough.

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