Sunday, 28 January 2007
Arthur reviews two recently-reprinted Clark Ashton Smith compilations.
"You shall know Tsathoggua by his great girth and his batlike furriness and the look of a sleepy black toad which he has eternally. He will rise not from his place, even in the ravening of hunger, but will wait in divine slothfulness for the sacrifice."
- The Seven Geases
Bison Books - an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press - have as part of their Frontiers of Imagination series reprinted Lost Worlds and Out of Space and Time, two classic collections of Clark Ashton Smith short stories, in nice paperback editions with new introductions by Jeff VanderMeer. This is important, and a reason to celebrate: Smith is in many respects the "missing member" of the Weird Tales triumvirate of the 1930s. Conan the Barbarian is a uniquely iconic and controversial figure, enough so to ensure that Robert E. Howard's work has remained well-known, if not necessarily well-loved. Lovecraft's name has been invoked by just about every important horror writer for the last seventy years, and Cthulhu has become a beloved (if somewhat played-out) geek icon. Smith's work, meanwhile, has remained frustratingly obscure, often languishing out-of-print, despite the fundamental importance of his work to fantasy and science fiction. The stories of CAS were major influences on Jack Vance, especially with regards to Vance's first Dying Earth stories. The Dying Earth, meanwhile, deeply impressed Gene Wolfe, and inspired The Book of the New Sun. And Smith, Vance and Wolfe, between the three of them, have influenced just about every SF/fantasy author you could care to name.
If Smith's work has been neglected, though, it has at least remained relatively unspoiled. Lovecraft's reputation was damaged for decades by third-rate pastiches written by August Derleth and published under Lovecraft's name in order to promote HPL's work (as well as Derleth's personal theories about the Cthulhu Mythos, which aren't even slightly supported by Lovecraft's own writings). Howard's Conan stories were heavily revised and, in some cases, rewritten by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, the unaltered texts remaining out-of-print for years, and there was even a point where Conan stories by other authors were flooding the market while Howard's writings were out-of-print. Smith avoided this fate through the simple expedient of not dying: unlike Lovecraft and Howard, he lived to see the first mass market anthologies of his work published. Smith was the third author - after Lovecraft and August Derleth - to be published by Derleth's Arkham House publishing firm, and in a series of six volumes (Out of Space and Time, Lost Worlds, Genius Loci, The Abominations of Yondo, Tales of Science and Sorcery and Other Dimensions) they would publish a complete collection of his SF, horror and fantasy short stories. As the first two volumes of this set, then, the two Bison Press volumes are both ideal introductions to his work and important summaries of it.
Smith was an artistic prodigy, and the stories collected in these books were mostly written between 1930 and 1936. Before then, he mainly wrote poetry, and after 1936 - and the deaths of Howard and Lovecraft - he mostly stopped writing short stories and spent most of his time working in sculpture, including a number of pieces inspired by Cthulhu Mythos entities. It's his background in poetry which really comes across in his fiction writing, his prose style employing the same thesaurus-gouging range of words as Lovecraft but in a far more pleasing manner. Where Lovecraft is wooden, Smith is lovingly carved, and his descriptions of the utterly bizarre worlds and situations he imagines are incredibly vivid. Plot and characterisation are of a secondary priority to having fun with language: whilst Smith does frequently succeed in presenting excellent stories and surprisingly nuanced characters, he occasionally gets lost in descriptive ecstasy.
While Smith has a distinctive prose style, he is able to be far more diverse in theme and tone than Howard or Lovecraft ever managed. Howard never could quite pull off writing which didn't fit in the sword-and-sorcery genre, and Lovecraft's attempts to stray outside his niche tended to be disasterous (witness his Dreamlands stories, terrible attempts to mimic Lord Dunsany's style). Smith, on the other hand, ranges from eldritch horror to comic fantasy. Two different Smith stories might have a similar theme - a wizard using black magics to inflict a hideous vengeance upon those who wronged him in the past, say, or a forlorn protagonist falling foul of powers beyond his ken - but could be melancholy or hilarious, depending on his mood. Smith is, in addition, the only writer in the Weird Tales triumvirate who could write about love and have it ring true; whereas Lovecraft entirely skirts the subject and Howard veers on the misogynistic, Smith can pull romance off without making me want to throw the book across the room.
That said, Smith does tend to have a preferred tone - one which allows him to exercise a gruesome sense of humour and which tends to lead to bad endings for his protagonists. Occasionally, a Smith hero will survive the challenges before him and win the day, but more often their small victories will require the ultimate sacrifice, or they will perish utterly before forces far greater than they. You never know what's going to happen when you read one of Smith's stories, unlike Lovecraft (the protagonist is going to die, go insane, or win a temporary respite) or Howard (the protagonist will crush his enemies, have them driven before him, and hear the lamentation of their women).
The stories in Lost Worlds are grouped by setting, and those in Out of Space and Time are grouped by theme. The fictional backdrops Smith constructs for his stories, such as Poseidonis (last outpost of the doomed continent of Atlantis), the demon-haunted French province of Averoigne, and the warm Arctic continent of Hyperborea, are the real draw of his stories. Although Smith's familiar prose style remains the same, the atmospheres, themes, terrors and wonders differ subtly from setting to setting, and you get the impression that CAS had the most fun inventing and developing these places. Some of them are apparently part of a common timeline - the prehistoric realms of Hyperborea and Poseidonis are referred to in stories of Averoigne and far-future Zothique, and could conceivably be part of the same world as Howard's Hyborea and Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos - but locations like Xiccarph seem entirely separated from the continuity of the other stories.
Smith's work, when it is given any attention at all, is usually mentioned in the context of the Cthulhu Mythos, but put all of Smith's writings into that category. Smith developed his own mythologies at the same time that Lovecraft and Howard were inventing theirs, and all three borrowed elements from one another. There are slumbering Old Ones in the depths of the Earth in Smith's Hyperborean tales, it is true, but they have a distinctly different character from Lovecraft's elder gods. HPL never - except in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath - had a character converse directly with an Old One; Smith often has his characters converse with divine entities, and manages to avoid ruining the aura of mystery and power about them. Smith also varied the tone of his stories a lot more than Lovecraft did, occasionally veering into delicious comedy - could Lovecraft have written The Seven Geases, in which a selection of Old Ones - including Tsathoggua himself - pass around an unwanted human sacrifice like the last sandwich on the plate, because none of them are hungry but they are all too polite to throw him away? And then, of course, there are those mythologies of Smith's which remain untouched by Cthulhu's influence - like Xiccarph, the trinary star system ruled over by the arrogant and omnipotent sorcerer-scientist Maal Dweb.
The collections are not perfect. Like all pulp authors of the time, Smith occasionally wrote stories purely for cash, and indulged in racism. It's in The Letter from Mohaun Los, in Lost Worlds, that this finds the worst expression: the story is dull, the prose limp and entirely lacking the sparkle Smith normally invests his work with, and the character of Li Wong, the protagonist's Chinese manservant, is an appalling charicature: he's described as being "the most discreet and intelligent of mortals", but his response when informed that he and the narrator are going on a voyage through time is to say "Me go pack... You want plentee shirt?"
Luckily, this story is pretty much the only bad one in the collection. Smith's racism usually only exhibits itself as a sort of cheerfully patronising elitism. None of the stories in this collection try to turn inter-racial relationships into a source of horror, as Lovecraft did; nor does he ever write a story that consists of a protagonist slicing through hordes of black people, as Howard would occasionally have Conan do. He does, however, tend to throw in negros and orientals when he wants to add some exotic spice to proceedings, and he does pull out the old Lovecraftian "white rationalists finds hidden truths within ethnic superstition" plotline on occasion. In at least one of his stories his human protagonist ends up falling in love and living happily ever after with an alien woman - something neither Howard nor Lovecraft could conceive of.
As far as writing stories to pay the bills goes, the tales within Smith's invented mythologies tend to all be solid gold - it's the tales which don't fit into any specific series which tend to be a bit ropey, although even then most of them have something to recommend them. A couple of them even rank amongst his best work - The Light From Beyond begins with a tale of strange sightings in the woods which could have come straight from a UFO book (impressive, considering that it was written over a decade before UFOs became big news), and ends up making occult allusions to the Tree of Life, and The Demon of the Flower gives a fascinating glimpse of a planet ruled by malign plants.
Smith's stories are enjoying a surge of popularity at the moment, but if past form is anything to go by this won't last. Go and pick these anthologies up while you still can, and his work is absolutely central to the development of the fantasy genre. 10 quid for 300-odd pages of incredible originality is excellent value.