Saturday, October 30, 2021

Clark Ashton Smith, The End of the Story (2015)

It is definitely a bit jarring to go from the relentless understated realism of Anthony Powell to...the opposite of that.  But that's what I've gone an' done here!  Smith was one of those dudes writing "weird fiction" for pulp magazines in the early-mid twentieth century, along with people like Lovecraft (with whom he had a long-running literary friendship) and Robert E. Howard.  This is the first of five volumes collecting the stories he wrote in that vein.

The man had talent; there's no denying that.  He comes out of the gate with a bang with "The Abominations of Yondo," which depicts a traveller's surreal, nightmarish encounters in a wasteland near the end of the world.  It has little or no plot, but the important thing is the style: I have no idea where Smith picked up such an expansive, esoteric vocabulary, but there are plenty of words here that defied the ereader's dictionary.  That stuff can be showy and obnoxious, of course, but at his best, Smith uses it to really effectively create an atmosphere.  This also spills over into the next story, "Sadastor."  And yet, he's also able to work in a more restrained idiom: "A Night in Malnéant" (yes, Smith has a habit of mashing together French words in an unnatural-looking way) is spooky and melancholy without being overly loud or overbearing.  He definitely had more range than Lovecraft, and you get the impression he was less freaked out by humanity and a lot more cosmopolitan; you picture Lovecraft as a sort of hermit sitting in his garret cranking out his missives of doom, whereas Smith clearly has a greater sense of history and cultural context.  So that's good.

Mind you!  None of that is to say that the stories here are all hits; far from it.  There's a lot here that's...pretty bad.  Uninteresting.  Things like "The Resurrection of the Rattlesnake," where some a couple of friends try to play a trick on a writer by replacing the stuffed rattlesnake on his desk with a live (non-venomous) snake, only then the actual rattlesnake come to life and they run away and one of them dies of, like, fright I guess, and that's it.  It's really not scary or interesting or much of anything.  There's a lot of dross like that.

I have to admit, though, even when they're not necessarily that good, the stories can be kind of interesting.  You might wonder: is Smith comparably racist to Lovecraft?  Indeed you might.  Well, I wouldn't want to make a final judgment without looking at the rest of his work, but "The Venus of Azombeii" is a good case study.  It starts with a frame narrative where the narrator's friend has returned from Africa, but he's...changed.  And he is slowly dying of something that no one can make out.  So then after he goes ahead and does that, the narrator reads the account he had written of his time there.  Now, the story really does set up one of these typical "Africa, the dark and menacing continent with horrifying terrors that White Men cannot comprehend," but the actual reality of the story doesn't really bear that out.  There's only one actual bad guy, the witch doctor who ends up poisoning him, and the main thing that happens is that he becomes romantically involved with a (black) woman there--a relationship that seems like it would've continued perfectly happily if not for the poison.  Is there something a li'l fetishy there?  Yeah, probably.  But all the same, it's an awful lot more broad-minded than you'd expect.  Smith was of course subject to the usual prejudices of the time, but it's generally pretty tolerable.  

On that note, I'd also like to point to "The Monster of the Prophecy."  It's a long, meandering story that doesn't seem quite sure what it wants to be: there's a poet, Theophilus Alvor, living in New York in difficult circumstances; he's contemplating suicide, but then he meets a being from Antares who wants him to come back so that he can take the places of the titular monster, because the prophesy says that whoever comes back with a being like him can be king (apparently Alvor was chosen just because he'd written a poem called "Ode to Antares;" lucky break).  So this works out, but eventually the said king is overthrown.  Alvor is going to be tortured to death, but he escapes, and travels to a more enlightened part of the country inhabited by nicer people, and ruled by a poet queen, whom he becomes close to: "he reflected that after all her five arms and three legs and three eyes were merely a superabundance of anatomical features upon which human love was wont to set a by no means lowly value."  Of course!  So they become lovers, and Smith finally decides that what he's aiming for is wry social comedy, as the story ends:

When it became known in Lompior that Alvor was the lover of Ambiala, no surprise of censure was expressed by any one.  Doubtless the people, especially the male Alphads who had vainly wooed the empress, thought that her tastes were queer, not to say eccentric.  But anyway, no comment was made: it was her own amour after all, and no one else could carry it on for her.  It would seem, from this, that the people of Omanorion had mastered the ultra-civilized art of minding their own business.

Well, that was unexpected, but things like this seem to demonstrate that when Smith writes about unfathomable terrors, he's doing it for fun, not out of any hysterical Lovecraftian xenophobia.

So this was a pleasant enough book to read, in spite of the frequent misfires, and sometime in the future I will doubtless check out the other volumes.  If you want a quick cheat sheet, here are the stories that I would, to one degree or another, recommend:

"The Abominations of Yondo"


"A Night in Malnéant"

"The Tale of Satampra Zeiros"

"A Murder in the Forth Dimension"

"The Devotee of Evil"

"The Planet of the Dead"

"The Immeasurable Horror"

"A Voyage to Sfanomoë"


Blogger Achille Talon pontificated to the effect that...

Hm… Although you wouldn't guess so from his actual stories, I believe that Lovecraft himself was not incapable of joking about his works in his correspondence and such — I recall, in particular, that a letter where he explained how the name "Cthulhu" was meant to be pronounced included a footnote noting that this was only how you would say it with a human palate, and how to pronounce it if you had an octopus mouth ringed with foul tentacles was left as an exercise to the reader — or something of the kind.

10:18 PM  

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