Sifting the Good from the Bad: A Quick and Dirty Evaluation of Clark Ashton Smith Stories
As noted in October, I spent a fair amount of my reading time coming back to the Big Three of 1930s Pulp Fantasy and Horror: H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard (https://phuulishfellow.wordpress.com/2022/11/26/revisiting-the-big-three-of-weird-tales-h-p-lovecraft-c-a-smith-and-r-e-howard/). Well, in November and December, I have followed that up via reading all the complete Clark Ashton Smith stories off the online Eldritch Dark collection:
For those keeping track at home, that’s one hundred and thirty Smith stories total, plus three collaborations. Quite a lot of Smith, I dare say. And today I thought I would put that to some use – actually giving an overview of this vast collection, with a view to giving pointers about where to start with this regrettably lesser-known author. Clark Ashton Smith not only wrote a lot (more than Lovecraft), but the quality of his stories is incredibly variable, and there’s the danger of falling into one of two traps:
(1) Getting your hands on a general collection of Smith stories – like The Emperor of Dreams (2002) – and being put off by the weaker stories before the stronger ones have a chance to grip you. Also, those ‘representative’ collections tend to leave copious good material out.
(2) Blundering into the Eldritch Dark, and not knowing how to sift the good from the bad. Anyone attempting to read Smith stories in alphabetical order by title will run into a certain godawful work (An Adventure in Futurity) very early on.
Really, I think the correct way to read Smith is to binge-read the recurring settings first. That will get you many of his better works under your belt before you find yourself stumbling around looking for the remaining half-decent material. And that in itself is why I am writing this blog post at all – I think Smith’s comparative obscurity is not simply a matter of his ornate prose, but also that people often aren’t given enough of a guide as to where to start with him.
So without further ado, onto settings:
This might be Smith’s easiest setting to get to grips with, in the sense that it is really just an imaginary province of medieval France. Nothing too outlandish, but there are copious witches, wizards, werewolves, lamiae, and other sinister pagan remnants running around in dark corners, despite the best efforts of the stuffy-yet-broadly-decent Church. This is also Smith at his most fairy tale-flavoured erotic, with the somewhat libertine conception that being on the receiving end of supernatural seduction can be kind of cool (“that sorceress might be morally dodgy, but she’s smoking hot!”). For an author writing in the 1930s, Smith’s material can come across as horny on occasion. Genuinely horny, and not simply an attempt to nab the cover art via inserting a gratuitous woman-on-woman whipping scene, a la Robert E. Howard.
There are eleven complete Averoigne stories, listed here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Averoigne. Some are better than others, but none of them stand out as being bad. My favourite is The End of the Story. I would personally recommend reading The Colossus of Ylourgne last, on account of the sheer length of the thing.
The most famous of the Smith fantasy settings, Zothique is a far-future continent where necromancers and other all-sorted cruel and unholy sorcerers run rampant over the last vestiges of humanity. It’s all about the death and dark magic, to a level where the macabre is turned into art-form… and yet it is strictly dark fantasy and not horror. Smith is not trying to scare anyone with this stuff, no matter how bizarre and grotesque he gets. Rather, he’s trying to mesmerise you with decadent atmosphere. Zothique is also heavily inspired by William Beckford’s Vathek, an eighteenth century Arabian Nights-flavoured Gothic novel.
There are sixteen complete Zothique stories, listed here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zothique. The likes of Necromancy in Naat and The Dark Eidolon are rightfully considered among the best prose stories Smith ever produced. On the other hand, The Master of Crabs and The Voyage of King Euvoran are a bit weaker, and The Black Abbot of Puthuum comes across as buying into some nasty racism. Smith’s generally aged pretty well there, and he’s certainly no Lovecraft, but even he has his bad days.
If Zothique is far-future, Hyperborea is a continent in the distant past. As with Robert E. Howard’s Conan, the premise of the setting is looted from then-popular Theosophist nuttery, and in contrast to Averoigne or Zothique, Hyperborea sees the sensuous dark fantasy elements take a back-seat to a twisted and ironic sense of adventure. It is the most overtly light-hearted of Smith’s fantasy settings, though that does not necessarily make much difference for our protagonists, and is the one that has tended to feed through into the wider Cthulhu mythos.
There are ten Hyperborean stories, listed here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperborean_cycle. For my money, The Coming of the White Worm is the best of the bunch. It’s also sufficiently dark (and focused on atmosphere) that Smith perhaps ought to have moved it to Zothique, while Zothique’s Voyage of King Euvoran feels much more Hyperborean. Overall though, I find Hyperborean stories to be weaker, and The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles is actually poor.
The setting of Poseidonis is another borrowing from contemporary Theosophy – specifically, it is supposed to be the last remnant of Atlantis, which has yet to sink beneath the waves. Smith developed this setting less than the previous three, but it is definitely another one that runs with a Zothique-style emphasis on dark and mysterious sorcery.
There are only five Poseidonis stories: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poseidonis. Three of the five (The Last Incantation; The Death of Malygris; The Double Shadow) are deserved classics – the other two are weaker, but hardly bad.
Here we are starting to stray from Smith’s overtly fantastic settings, and more towards something science fictional. Not too much, thankfully: Smith’s efforts at pulp science faction tend towards the godawful, whereas with his Mars stories, Smith utilises a more “horror” brand of science-fiction. Think “things that man was not meant to know,” a Lovecraftian-style takedown of contemporary faith in scientific exploration.
There are only three Mars stories:
- The Dweller in the Gulf
- The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis
Vaults is a stone-cold classic, Dweller is very good, and Vulthoom – the most pulpy of the three – is mediocre fluff.
The sixth and last of Smith’s recurring settings is Xiccarph. Ostensibly another extra-terrestrial setting after the manner of Mars, this one is actually more science-fantasy than science-horror, and exists to explore that perennial theme of Smith’s decadent inspirations: ennui. Specifically, the ruler of Xiccarph, one Maal Dweb, is omnipotent… and bored out of his tree as a result.
There are two Xiccarph stories:
- The Maze of Maal Dweb/The Maze of the Enchanter
- The Flower-Women
Both are pretty good, to my mind.
Binge-reading these various settings will get you a total of forty-seven Smith stories (out of one hundred and thirty), give you many of his truly great works, and will only give you two comparatively poor ones (The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles, and Vulthoom). As such, I definitely recommend this approach to reading Clark Ashton Smith.
But what about the remaining eighty-three stories? Are they invariable bad? Well, again, this is why I am bothering with this blog-post – I want to shine a torchlight onto the obscure, and work out the worthwhile material, the average material, and the godawful material. From my viewpoint anyway. Tastes will inevitably differ.
To this end, I thought I would try to sort these remaining stories into more-or-less applicable subgenres:
Other Secondary World Fantasy/Horror
Here we find the material that is genuinely not-of-this-Earth fantastical, and yet which by strange chance does not actually fit within the conventional recurring settings.
Good stuff in this vein:
- The Abominations of Yondo (feels like Zothique, but isn’t).
- The Demon of the Flower (beware plants in Clark Ashton Smith).
- The Weaver in the Vault
- The Tomb-Spawn
- The Stairs in the Crypt
It turns out Smith is indeed pretty good at straight Horror and Gothic Horror, even the variety removed from his more fantastical settings (we’re basically talking material set on contemporary Earth here).
Good stuff in this vein:
- The Seed from the Sepulchre (arguably this one is better than good, and once again demonstrates Smith’s fixation with dangerous plants).
- The Chain of Aforgomon
- The Devotee of Evil
- Genus Loci
- A Night in Malneant (very, very Poe. This one gets lumped here because it is clearly framed as a dream).
- The Epiphany of Death
- The Gorgon
- The Hunters from Beyond
- The Kiss of Zoraida (another of Smith’s sex-and-death combinations. Zothique’s Morthylla is another).
- The Nameless Offspring
- The Resurrection of the Rattlesnake
- The Return of the Sorcerer
- The Second Interment
- The Treader of the Dust
- The Supernumerary Corpse
- Thirteen Phantasms
Stories that straddle Science-Fiction and Horror without fitting into the established Smith settings. These also tend to be good.
Good stuff in this vein:
- The Master of the Asteroid
- Murder in the Fourth Dimension
- The Plutonian Drug
- Double Cosmos (labelling this as Science-Fictional Horror might be a stretch, but I needed to put this blasted story somewhere).
- Monsters in the Night
Here we are looking at stories set on Earth, where Smith sends his protagonists travelling to strange and exotic places. I think this stuff tends to be more middling.
Good stuff in this vein:
- The Uncharted Isle
- The Venus of Azombeii (rather like a sexually liberated take on Rider Haggard, this one…).
- An Offering to the Moon
- The Primal City
- The Root of Ampoi
- The Tale of Sir John Maundeville
- The Ghoul
- Told in the Desert
- The Invisible City
- The Justice of the Elephant
- Symposium of the Gorgon
These are scenarios where the protagonist enters a strange realm via some form of door on Earth – a sort of variation on Adventure Fantasy. This does not include alien abductions or machine travel.
Good stuff in this vein:
- The City of the Singing Flame (original story only, not the version lumped with the sequel).
- The Planet of the Dead
- Beyond the Singing Flame
- The Light from Beyond
- The Dimension of Chance
Weird on Earth
This category is for Smith stories that do not involve exotic adventure, are not Horror or Romance or Science-Fiction, but which do take place on Earth. Essentially, everyday weirdness. We’re seeing weaker stuff here.
- The Necromantic Tale
- The Ninth Skeleton
- The Phantoms of the Fire (Lovecraft might have loved this one for its localised groundedness, but I find it average).
- The Willow Landscape
- A Copy of Burns
- A Good Embalmer
- The Parrot
Pulp Science-Fiction and Science-Fantasy
Now we’re running into the dreck Smith churned out to pay the bills: cheesy action-adventures on far-off planets, aliens, machinery, and generic technological silliness. This category is the reason I think this sort of guide might be helpful before you look up the Eldritch Dark – there’s the risk someone runs into this stuff by accident and thinks it is somehow representative of the rest of Smith’s work. That said, it is not uniformly awful.
Good stuff in this vein:
- The Schizoid Creator (not sure if it really fits here, but it’s the best I can do. It’s also a genuinely good story).
- The Dark Age
- The Eternal World (some people might rank this one higher or lower. It’s one of those clever-yet-too-clever pieces).
- The Great God Awto
- The Immeasurable Horror (I’m being kind here)
- The Monster of the Prophecy
- Phoenix (again, I’m being kind. Primarily because it’s short).
- An Adventure in Futurity (not sure if the slave-revolt thing is supposed to be ironic. But the story is terrible, as even Smith himself admitted).
- The Dart of Rasafa
- The Immortals of Mercury (there’s a nice twist, but the pain required to get there is not worth it).
- The Letter from Mohaun Los (possibly the worst single Smith story. Ludicrously long, and one of those unfortunate example of Smith racism).
- Marooned in Andromeda
- The Metamorphosis of Earth (I’m being a tad harsh here. It’s an interesting premise, but as with most of these stories, it’s just too long).
- Seedling of Mars
- A Star-Change
Romantic/Human Relationship Stories
These ones aren’t speculative fiction. They’re basically shallow sex-and-relationship stories, set in the contemporary world. I won’t bother ranking them (they’re all bad, at least from the point of someone reading Smith for the speculative element), but at least it’s worth listing them, so you can avoid them:
- The Expert Lover
- The Flirt
- The Perfect Woman
- A Platonic Entanglement
- Something New
The Eldritch Dark also has some stories from Smith’s youth. I don’t think it’s meaningful to rank these, but it’s worth listing them:
- The Bronze Image
- The Emir’s Captive
- The Fulfilled Prophecy
- The Ghost of Mohammed Din
- The Haunted Chamber
- The Haunted Gong
- The Mahout
- The Malay Krise/Creese
- Prince Alcouz and the Magician
- The Raja and the Tiger
- The Shah’s Messenger
And that brings us to one hundred and thirty. The Eldritch Dark is not actually a complete collection of Smith stories, but it’s the best one can do in an easily-accessible online context… and I hope this guide at least gives you some idea of what is actually in there, so you don’t accidentally run across An Adventure in Futurity, and leave thinking Smith is godawful tripe. If this also means the quality stories outside the famous recurring settings get more love and attention from speculative fiction readers, so much the better.
In rounding off this article, I also thought I would address the three collaborations I mentioned earlier.
- The Light from the Pole (with Lin Carter)
- The Nemesis of the Unfinished (with Don Carter)
- The Third Episode of Vathek (with William Beckford)
The Light from the Pole is Carter finishing off one of Smith’s posthumous fragments. It’s really a weak rehash/tribute to The Coming of the White Worm, and frankly you are better off just reading White Worm. The Nemesis of the Unfinished is a fun (but ironically unfinished) piece, with two versions, about a Smith stand-in writer haunted by his unfinished manuscripts. It’s unpolished, but it’s short and fun, and pretty inoffensive.
The Third Episode of Vathek is actually a case of Smith taking one of William Beckford’s posthumous fragments, and finishing it himself. The result is excellent, but not for everyone – for a start, it helps to be familiar with Beckford’s Vathek (1786), since the Episodes represent the hellishly damned people at the end of the novel revealing why they are stuck there. For another, this is Smith – himself an ornate writer – pastiching an eighteenth century writer. It’s also a long story. But I, for one, found it rewarding, for what it is worth.
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