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Sometimes just a title can be enough to evoke a sense of awe and weird anticipation. In my case, it also recalls several joyful years of my adolescence, during which I discovered Arkham House and many of its treasures. Evangeline Walton’s Witch House was at best semi-precious except as a book by that great publisher, but it was the first Arkham book I owned, and the list of other publications and their contents on the back cover was worth the price of the volume. I mean that literally. While I waited for my copies of those books to arrive I often reread the titles of stories—“The Thing that Walked on the Wind”, “The Space-Eaters”, “The Nameless Offspring”, “The Dweller in the Gulf”… Not all the stories lived up to the delicious dread and suggestiveness their titles conveyed to me, but one author’s work did and does. He was Clark Ashton Smith.

“None strikes the note of cosmic horror as well as Clark Ashton Smith. In sheer daemonic strangeness and fertility of conception, Smith is perhaps unexcelled by any other writer, living or dead.” Lovecraft’s summation, quoted to promote Smith’s book The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies, only added to my sense of delightful apprehension (and now it slyly leads me to wonder whether any dead writer might excel the competition by continuing to write beyond the grave). Few enthusiasts have Lovecraft’s ability to conjure up the power of another fantasist’s imagination, but perhaps I can repay a little of the pleasure Smith brought to my waking dreams. Even the name of “The Abominations of Yondo” did, but it’s nothing to the tale.

“Yondo lies nearest of all to the world’s rim…” In just a sentence Smith declares his allegiance to outright fantasy, which remakes reality in a form more alluring to the imagination. The opening paragraph is a prose poem in itself, evoking a landscape as haunted as any of Poe’s but more alien by far. Smith peoples it with a gallery of nightmares incarnate, depicted in language that imbues the grotesque and horrible with poetry. Though there’s a minimum of plot, the tale has its own cruelly logical structure, progressing from terror into glimpses of daunting awe before it dies to an inevitable conclusion. In this early tale it’s already clear that the plea he addresses “To the Daemon” (which we may assume to be his muse)—for fantasies “of which there are no myths in our world or any world adjoining”—is capable of being brought to fruition by his own work. Indeed, we might fancy that the demon has answered by narrating “Sadastor”, which compresses into four pages more imagery than many fantasists could conjure up at much greater length. It’s worth noting that while Smith was a painter and sculptor, many of his sentences in such a tale are paintings in themselves.

Perhaps no writer could be expected to maintain this level of intensity throughout his work, but Smith’s scarcely flags as he transforms his immediate environment into an altogether darker landscape in “The Ninth Skeleton”, throwing the bones that underlie the countryside, not to mention all humanity, into luridly luminous relief. It’s followed by his first Atlantean tale. Like “Sadastor”, “The Last Incantation” deals with ennui. In this parable of age and loss it’s terminal, but redeemed for the reader by Smith’s style, a rainbow of colour and light with attendant shadows. “The End of the Story” transports us to Averoigne for Smith’s first evocation of that mediaeval kingdom. It begins surprisingly conventionally—thunder, lightning, sylvan disorientation, even tree branches that clutch—but soon grows more personal, especially when a Machenesque passage about paganism leads to images more openly and sinuously erotic. Might Smith have found it politic to woo Weird Tales, more specifically Farnsworth Wright, with material less immediately imaginative than his earlier work? Certainly “The Phantoms of the Fire” reads as if he had tamped his fancy down, which failed to satisfy him even if it sold the tale to the Unique Magazine.

No such reservations apply to “A Night in Malnéant”, which returns us to Averoigne. It’s all the more apparent that the kingdom is a landscape of the mind, as darkly romantic as any in Poe. Indeed, the poignant central notion of this parable is at least as potent as the bonds between the Ushers and their house. The version printed here restores sonorousness to some edited sentences and adds to our sense of the place, however paradoxically vague. Farnsworth Wright’s rejection of this draft may have led Smith to retreat into writing “The Resurrection of the Rattlesnake”, a variation on a standard theme, executed with deftness professional enough to border on the impersonal. Equally, “Thirteen Phantasms” suggests an attempt to modernise and render more prosaic a theme already addressed in his earlier tales, though perhaps the recurrence also implies it was dear to his heart: dear enough that he didn’t risk submitting the piece to Weird Tales? Despite a lack of any real weirdness, “The Venus of Azombeii” found favour with Farnsworth. It’s an erotic tribute to the incarnation of a fancied Africa, narrated with—one might say—a discreet leer and a turgid pulse.

None of the foregoing tales quite prepares us for “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros”, fiction of a kind few writers other than Smith could have written (although Jack Vance comes close in his own quirky way, and perhaps there are traces in Leiber). Seldom have the droll and terrible been so delicately balanced together, while never undermining a sense of the exotic and marvellous. Equally, “The Monster of the Prophecy” succeeds in combining sly satire with a powerful sense of cosmic alienation. Once our poet hero has been transported by a creature we might take as the incarnation of his or the author’s interstellar muse to an Antarean planet, the tale triumphantly achieves one of the ambitions Smith shared with Lovecraft—the sense of psychic dislocation a human being would experience when confronted by the utterly alien. The tale goes further, however. After a decidedly Freudian torture scene in the clutches of the priests of the Cosmic Mother, the poet finds fulfillment of an erotic kind whose invention is generally credited to Philip José Farmer in “The Lovers” more than two decades later. Once again Smith was ahead of his time. Remarkably, this conclusion wasn’t censored when the story appeared in Weird Tales; nor was the name of the Cosmic Mother, which one might have thought unprintable in 1931. Smith deleted the prologue at Wright’s behest, however, but here it is restored together with slighter material.

The freakish weather that brings about “The Metamorphosis of the World” seems more ominous now than when it was written. It develops Smith’s transformation of landscape with an intensity and apocalyptic ruthlessness that prefigure Ballard, though the documentary approach is Lovecraftian—indeed, it recalls that author at his bleakest. Perhaps Smith found that the approach insufficiently engaged his imagination, but it’s not apparent in the telling; the tale is emphatically not the work of a hack. Still, his dissatisfaction with it may have driven him back to the weird in the shape of “The Epiphany of Death”, to some extent a tribute to Lovecraft and published as such, if one decidedly more ghoulish than Bloch’s “The Shambler from the Stars”.

Smith was also unhappy with “Murder in the Fourth Dimension”. Perhaps the trouble was that, having trapped his narrator in a landscape out of Poe (who is directly recalled in the early pages), Smith can find little for him or the authorial imagination to do (though that’s part of the point of the tale). “The Devotee of Evil” gives him more scope; indeed, its project is unexpectedly close to Lovecraft’s cosmicism—the isolation of evil not incarnate but wholly abstract, a principle underlying all existence and as disinterested as the colour out of space. “The Satyr” takes us back to Averoigne, which once more embodies the inmost feelings of those who enter its landscape. In this case the feelings are erotic, and—in the image of “limp unison” revealed in this restored text—may be seen as so potent they’re enacted after death.

“The Planet of the Dead” takes its protagonist on an interstellar voyage, the product of a yearning powerful enough to overcome the shock of the alien. Few apocalypses are so succinct or so romantic. The alienation experienced on “The Uncharted Isle” is temporal as well as spatial, and all-embracing while the delirium lasts. Smith thought of it as metaphorical. Despite the shifts of tone in “Marooned in Andromeda”, which rollicks from monster to monster in order to embroil its mutineers in fresh adventures and ends by conjuring a sequel, Smith’s inventiveness sees him through, and his evocation of the dread attendant on making planetfall at dead of night is especially memorable. As for “The Root of Ampoi”, might it have begun in Baudelaire? Certainly its colossophilia recalls that poet’s, though here it is put to satirical use.

“The Necromantic Tale” revives Smith’s theme of a romantic yearning so great that (as in “The Planet of the Dead”) it can effect bodily transference. The piece also celebrates, however darkly, the incantatory power of language. His fecund prose reaches full flood in “The Immeasurable Horror”, a science fiction nightmare set on a Venus of the fantastic kind to which a 1968 anthology bade farewell. Its landscape reappears in “A Voyage to Sfanomöe”, where it proves capable of the most spectacular transformation Smith had conceived to that date.

Many more will be found in the succeeding volumes of the present edition—greater wonders too. The crypts of memory that store the classics of our field are vast, and it’s time to illuminate once again the hall of gorgeous treasures and extravagant chimeras that is the legacy of Clark Ashton Smith. It’s my privilege to hand you the taper. Don’t go too fast through this treasure house or the light may desert you. Take your time to savour the imagination and the language. It has aged like Atlantean wine.

Ramsey Campbell

Wallasey, Merseyside

Halloween 2006

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