Authors: Clark Ashton Smith
Tags: #Fantasy Fiction, #Comics & Graphic Novels, #General, #Fantasy, #American, #Fiction, #Short Stories
Volume three of
The Collected Fantasies Of
Edited by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger
With an Introduction by Michael Dirda
Night Shade Books
A Vintage from Atlantis
© 2007 by The Estate of Clark Ashton Smith
This edition of
A Vintage from Atlantis
by Night Shade Books
Jacket art © 2007 by Jason Van Hollander
Jacket design by Claudia Noble
Interior layout and design by Jeremy Lassen
All rights reserved.
Introduction © 2007 by Michael Dirda
A Note on the Texts © 2007 by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger
Story Notes © 2007 by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger
Bibliography © 2007 by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger
Night Shade Books
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By Michael Dirda
lark Ashton Smith (1893–1961) was one of the three great contributors to
(along with H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan)—and, just possibly, the greatest of all.
Consider the testimonials: Lovecraft himself maintained that “in sheer daemonic strangeness and fertility of conception, Clark Ashton Smith is perhaps unexcelled by any other writer dead or living.” Two of our contemporary grandmasters of fantasy and science fiction, Jack Vance and Ray Bradbury, clearly modeled their own early “poetic” styles after his. According to Bradbury, Smith “filled my mind with incredible worlds, impossibly beautiful cities, and still more fantastic creatures on those worlds and in those cities.” And he did this largely through his gorgeous style and the courtly pacing of his sentences. “Take one step across the threshold of his stories,” declares Bradbury, “and you plunge into color, sound, taste, smell, and texture—into language.”
Smith’s formal diction and syntax have often been likened to prose-poetry, or even incantation. Some people can’t bear this “grand manner,” as Smith once described his taste for the ornate, and simply resent “all that savors of loftiness, exaltation, nobility, sublimity, and aristocracy.” Yet as he explained in a letter, his reason for resorting to a luxuriant vocabulary was solely “to achieve precision, variety and richness. The words are never plugged in for their own sake, but simply because they expressed a finer shade of meaning or gave the tone-color that I wanted.” You can hear Smith’s “painted speech” at its best, in the opening sentences of his very first fantasy story, “The Abominations of Yondo” (1926):
“The sand of the desert of Yondo is not as the sand of other deserts; for Yondo lies nearest of all to the world’s rim; and strange winds, blowing from a gulf no astronomer may hope to fathom, have sown its ruinous fields with the grey dust of corroding planets, the black ashes of extinguished suns. The dark, orb-like mountains which rise from its pitted and wrinkled plain are not all its own, for some are fallen asteroids half-buried in that abysmal sand. Things have crept in from nether space, whose incursion is forbid by the watchful gods of all proper and well-ordered lands; but there are no such gods in Yondo, where live the hoary genii of stars abolished, and decrepit demons left homeless by the destruction of antiquated hells.”
Frankly, I think this excellent prose of its kind—elegant, rhythmic, original in diction, sonorous in tone, at once evocative and precise.
In Smith’s best stories, this style serves the operatic, death-obsessed grandeur of his vision. For example, “The Dark Eidolon”—arguably Smith’s finest story (yet to come in the Night Shade Collected Fantasies)—requires a language full of majesty just to match a sorcerer’s grisly, poetic vengeance on the king who wronged him. It begins this way:
“On Zothique, the last continent of earth, the sun no longer shone with the whiteness of its prime, but was dim and tarnished as if with a vapor of blood. New stars without number had declared themselves in the heavens, and the shadows of the infinite had fallen closer. And out of the shadows, the older gods had returned to man: the gods forgotten since Hyperborea, since Mu and Poseidonis, bearing other names but the same attributes. And the elder demons had also returned, battening on the fumes of evil sacrifice, and fostering again the primordial sorceries.
“Many were the necromancers and magicians of Zothique, and the infamy and marvel of their doings were legended everywhere in the latter days. But among them all there was none greater than Namirrha…”
After reading sentences like that you know you’re embarking on a real Story by a real Storyteller, one working in the tradition of the fairy tale, the Arabian Nights, and the fin-de-siècle decadents. This is vision, opium-dream, imagination at work, not some disguised memoir or slice of life about adultery in Connecticut. That paragraph also conveniently mentions three of Smith’s favorite fantasy realms: the ancient lands of Hyperborea and Poseidonis and the over-ripe, far-future Zothique. A fourth is Averoigne, a part of an imagined medieval France, a darker version of James Branch Cabell’s Poictesme. In all of them magic and sorcery are the tools of ambition, avarice and lust. By contrast, Smith’s Golden Age-style science fiction stresses sheer wonder and the utterly alien, while his occasional straight horror tales call to mind a gruesomeness we associate with old comics like
Tales from the Crypt
Fantasy realms of magic, the fates of empires, Grand Guignol horror, the completely “other,” the last days of Earth—such colossal themes encourage a grave or formal diction, full of descriptions of the undescribable, and always balancing the ineffable and sublime against the histrionic and sententious. When Smith takes a misstep or simply goes overboard, his baroque vocabulary and elaborate harmonies may actually cloud our minds and dull rather than illuminate his transcendental visions. To my mind, his most effective work nearly always focuses on the fate of individuals. But Smith shared with Lovecraft the belief that in a tale of wonder “the real actors are the terrible, arcanic forces, the esoteric cosmic malignities,” and so often downplayed his human characters.
That said, Clark Ashton Smith doesn’t, in fact, always sound like the young M.P. Shiel on steroids. He can vary his approach considerably, as the stories in this volume testify. A science fictional adventure, like “Seedling of Mars” or “The God of the Asteroid,” can relate an alien encounter with clipped, Asimovian efficiency. “The Eternal World”—despite its longueurs—offers a cosmic vision of the universe in the grand manner of Olaf Stapledon, with a touch of H.G. Wells’
The Time Machine
. “A Vintage from Atlantis” might almost be one of the leisurely club tales of Lord Dunsany’s Joseph Jorkens, just as “The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan” and “The Holiness of Azédarac”—two of my own favorites— possess something of the refreshing black humor of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories. One could readily imagine “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” emerging from the pen of H.P. Lovecraft, while “The Seed from the Sepulchre,” which takes up a similar theme, neatly complements well-known horror classics by William Hope Hodgson and John Collier. The plot of “Ubbo-Sathla” approaches a Borgesian fable of identity, almost a mixture of “The Aleph” and “The Circular Ruins.” “The Double Shadow” even opens in a voice that recalls any number of Borges’ stories:
“My name is Pharpeton, among those who have known me in Poseidonis; but even I, the last and most forward pupil of the wise Avyctes, know not the name of that which I am fated to become ere tomorrow. Therefore, by the ebbing silver lamps, in my master’s marble house above the loud, ever-ravening sea, I write this tale with a hasty hand, scrawling in an ink of wizard virtue on the grey, priceless, antique parchment of dragons.”
Much of Smith’s finest work leavens his histrionic impulses with humor, generally sardonic or macabre. In these tales, the finale usually takes the form of the biter bit, the tables turned, the greedy or proud receiving their just, if unexpected, comeuppance. (See “The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan” for a good example.) Smith’s many decadent themes—black magic, doubles, Faustian pacts, metamorphosis, love potions, vampires and femmes fatales—readily invite such conte cruel treatment. But whatever the theme or plot, Smith ’s stories nearly always maintain their dreamlike and incantatory character, sometimes as the hypnotic testimonies of the doomed, at other times as folkloric legends of death and transfiguration recited by ancient bards. Smith’s protagonists seldom come to happy ends—and those who don’t would often prefer a clean death to the noxious destiny in store for them. For example, several characters in “A Vintage from Atlantis” become the host bodies, then the nourishment, for a parasitic alien entity.
Smith insisted throughout his life that his brilliantined style aimed to evoke “an atmosphere of remoteness, vastness, mystery and exoticism” and, unlike ordinary magazine prose, allowed him “more varied and sonorous rhythms, as well as subtler shades, tints and nuances of meaning.” Certainly, “A Vintage from Atlantis” shows how well he could create his particular verbal magic, whether in visions of the sublime, spells of enchantment, or conjurations of sheer horror. Not every story in these pages is a masterpiece—after all, the great benefit of any author’s collected works is that it allows us to see a master trying out ideas that don’t quite succeed. Nonetheless, those drawn to Smith’s work will be glad to have virtually everything readily available, not just the classics like “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis,” “The Seed from the Sepulchre,” and “The Double Shadow.” Because of the scrupulous research, textual scholarship, and expert annotation of Scott Connors and Ron Hilger, coupled with Night Shade’s fine book-making, we can now read a major American author in an authoritative and handsome edition. This alone is cause for celebration.
Michael Dirda, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for
The Washington Post Book World
, is the author of the memoir
An Open Book
and of four volumes of essays:
Readings, Bound to Please
Book by Book
Classics for Pleasure
OTE ON THE
lark Ashton Smith considered himself primarily as a poet and artist, but he began his publishing career with a series of Oriental
that were published in such magazines as the
. He ceased the writing of short stories for many years, but, under the influence of his correspondent H. P. Lovecraft, he began experimenting with the weird tale when he wrote “The Abominations of Yondo” in 1925. His friend Genevieve K. Sully suggested that writing for the pulps would be a reasonably congenial way for him to earn enough money to support himself and his parents.
Between the years 1930 and 1935, the name of Clark Ashton Smith appeared on the contents page of
no fewer than fifty-three times, leaving his closest competitors, Robert E. Howard, Seabury Quinn, and August W. Derleth, in the dust, with forty-six, thirty-three and thirty stories, respectively. This prodigious output did not come at the price of sloppy composition, but was distinguished by its richness of imagination and expression. Smith put the same effort into one of his stories that he did into a bejeweled and gorgeous sonnet. Donald Sidney-Fryer has described Smith’s method of composition in his 1978 bio-bibliography
Emperor of Dreams
(Donald M. Grant, West Kingston, R.I.) thus: