Emperor of Dreams: Remembering Clark Ashton Smith
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
posted by Al Harron
There are some authors who can tell a new story, and yet make it feel as if it’s been told for eons. Something about the inherent truth within the work, combined with the sincere approach, has the tale feel like it was first told, albeit in an altered style, in Mesopotamian city-states, or Germanic campfires, or wattle huts in Africa. Neither allegorical, nor inextricably reflective of a period, the plot is essentially timeless. The details might change, but the story would remain. An example of this sort of story, for me, is Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Empire of the Necromancers.”
For a short while after I discovered him, Clark Ashton Smith was my favourite author. Nowadays, I don’t feel I have a single favorite author, but Smith in my pool of ten or so “favourite authors.” Smith was the last of the Weird Tales trinity I encountered, after Howard and Lovecraft respectively: it was sometime in college I first read his work, in the Fantasy Masterworks collection The Emperor of Dreams.
I really, really need to get Stephen Jones a bottle of wine one of these days, since his anthologies and work on so many books has introduced me to a great many authors. In this case, he writes an excellent afterword “The Lost Worlds of Klarkash-Ton,” and includes many great stories. The Emperor of Dreams was a good introduction to Smith’s fantasy, but unfortunately many great tales were left out: “The Colossus of Ylourgne” was probably inevitable given its length, but I really wish Jones bit the bullet and did two volumes of Smith’s work, as he did for Howard’s Conan stories. After all, he found space for no less than four Moorcock volumes: I’d be happy with one, maybe even two, but three would be pushing it, let alone four, when other fantasy masters like Merritt and Wagner get the short shrift.
Bow down: I am the emperor of dreams:
I crown me with the million-colored sun
Of secret worlds incredible, and take
Their trailing skies for vestment, when I soar,
Throned on the mounting zenith, and illume
The spaceward-flown horizons infinite.
–Smith’s “The Hashish-Eater, Or, The Apocalypse of Evil”
One of the hurdles–or joys, depending on your personal lexicon–of Smith’s fiction is his simply immense vocabulary. It’s practically cyclopean: if Smith’s mental thesaurus was a dinosaur, it would rival Amphicoelias in Brobdingnagian magnitude. One would need to have a dictionary by their side at all times, or risk feeling ravelled at Smith’s magniloquent grandiloquence that may border on the orotund (OK, I’ll stop now.)
Smith loved words, and clearly took great delight in using all manner of eclectic vocabulary. That’s not to say Smith was a mere purveyor of purple prose. In stories that happen to make use of obscure, archaic, or otherwise rarely encountered words, Smith’s skill in selecting the precise word necessary actually helps the narrative flow. Saying, for example, “iridescent” rather than “changing color when looked at from different angles” is simply a good way to save text space, even without considering its concision. However, something that distinguishes “The Empire of the Necromancers” is a remarkable economy in comparison to some of Smith’s more elaborately articulate stories. Every word seems perfectly chosen, yet the text is also incredibly accessible. It lends itself well to that sense of story, that this isn’t so much an author’s work, so much as an ancient oral tradition.
“The Empire of the Necromancers” is part of Smith’s Zothique Cycle. Zothique, much like Howard’s Hyborian Age, Lovecraft’s Dunsanian fantasies, or Smith’s own Hyperborea, is earth in a different age, where sorcery dominates a pre-industrial world, and the very shape of the continents is unfamiliar. Zothique is different, in that it is set in a far future, not the past: it’s effectively post-apocalyptic Sword-and-Sorcery. Science has all but disappeared, and the foul arts of necromancy, demonology, blackest magic and other dark sorcery hold sway. Great empires reminiscent of the ancient world have replaced the long-lost ruins of modern cities and constructions. As with Howard, Smith was inspired by theosophic concepts of continental drift, such as in Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine.
Though Zothique itself is criminally neglected as a classic fantasy milieu, its influence has led to some of the greatest fantasy and science fiction works of the 20th century. The highly celebrated works of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth and Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun are staunchly in the tradition of Smith’s Zothique, and writers as disparate as M. John Harrison, Michael Moorcock, Philip Jose Farmer, Brian Aldiss and Arthur C. Clarke have written works reminiscent of Smith’s style of the “Dying Earth” subgenre. With a world populated by necromancy, demons, monsters, Cthulhoid horrors, grand empires, mighty warriors and the like, I can’t fathom why it isn’t as popular as Howard’s Hyborian Age, or Lovecraft’s Yog-Sothothery milieu. Those two have legions of RPGs, board games and computer games. Then again, Smith himself is less famous than his Weird Tales brethren.
“The Empire of the Necromancers” is my favourite of the Zothique tales, and probably all the stories I’ve read for that matter. The two antagonists, Mmatmuor and Sodosma, are emigrants from Naat, an island infamous for its necromancers. Having been driven out of Tinarath for practicing their unspeakable rites, they travel to Cincor: a wasteland, where the once-glorious civilization centered around Yethlyreom was extinguished by plague two hundred years previously. It is a land strewn with the remains of the dead: what better place for two necromancers to found a new empire?
Mmatmuor & Sodosma are typical of Smith’s dark sorcerers: callous in the extreme, manipulative, arrogant, corrupt beyond the bounds of humanity, and unfathomably depraved. In many ways, I’d say that some of Howard’s own sorcerers might have a certain kinship with them. When they come to Yethlyreom, they set about resurrecting–or rather, reanimating–the bones, corpses and mummies littering the once flourishing land. Soon, Yethlyreom was bustling with movement, in a pale, cruel mockery of its former vitality, with the moldering bones of farmers and slaves and labourers repeating their actions in life:
Dead laborers made their palace-gardens to bloom with long-perished flowers; liches and skeletons toiled for them in the mines, or reared superb, fantastic towers to the dying sun. Chamberlains and princes of old time were their cupbearers, and stringed instruments were plucked for their delight by the slim hands of empresses with golden hair that had come forth untarnished from the night of the tomb. Those that were fairest, whom the plague and the worm had not ravaged overmuch, they took for their lemans and made to serve their necrophilic lust.
In all things, the people of Cincor performed the actions of life at the will of Mmatmuor and Sodosma. They spoke, they moved, they ate and drank as in life. They heard and saw and felt with a similitude of the senses that had been theirs before death; but their brains were enthralled by a dreadful necromancy. They recalled but dimly their former existence; and the state to which they had been summoned was empty and troublous and shadow-like. Their blood ran chill and sluggish, mingled with water of Lethe; and the vapors of Lethe clouded their eyes.
Compare to the un-life of Khosatral Khel’s resurrected Dagonian girl Yateli in “The Devil in Iron,” who retains something more of her youthful countenance (to Conan’s relief):
“I remember when they were our slaves. But they revolted and burned and slew. Only the magic of Khosatral Khel has kept them from the walls –” She paused, a puzzled look struggling with the sleepiness of her expression. “I forgot,” she muttered. “They did climb the walls, last night. There was shouting and fire, and people calling in vain on Khosatral.” She shook her head as if to clear it. “But that can not be,” she murmured, “because I am alive, and I thought I was dead…”
“…A cloud of smoke hid everything, but a naked, bloodstained devil caught me by the throat and drove his knife into my breast. Oh, it hurt! But it was a dream, because see, there is no scar…”
“I can not remember,” she murmured, nestling her dark head against his mighty breast. “Everything is dim and misty….”
Mmatmuor and Sodosma revel in their necromantic regime, with even darker intentions in mind: they plan to use the restless dead of Yethlyreom to exact vengeance on Tinarath. This idea of necromancy being used to resurrect an empire, and conquer the world, was famously employed in Howard’s The Hour of the Dragon: like Khosatral Khel’s Dagonia, however, I suspect the reborn Acheron would’ve been a similar “mockery” of its former existence.
However, the two necromancers did not count on the rebellious spirit of Illeiro. He was the last emperor of Cincor’s Nimboth dynasty, under whose rule the land was most prosperous: he was among the first to succumb to the plague, and so was entombed in the royal mausoleum. Whether his life was stronger for being struck down in his prime, or because he was among the first to fall, aspects of Illeiro’s true existence started to flicker in the darkness of undeath:
Like something lost and irretrievable, beyond prodigious gulfs, he recalled the pomp of his reign in Yethlyreom, and the golden pride and exultation that had been his in youth. And recalling it, he felt a vague stirring of revolt, a ghostly resentment against the magicians who had haled him forth to this calamitous mockery of life. Darkly he began to grieve for his fallen state, and the mournful plight of his ancestors and his people.
The story now turns from an apocalyptic horror to a dark revenge parable. Illeiro struggles to regain control of his withered, mummified husk, and is a lone sentience in a realm of shambling zombies. He seeks the aid of the first ruler of his dynasty, the wizard Hestaiyon: by this time, he is a near skeleton, barely kept together by musty dessicated rags. Together, the first and last of a dynasty plot the downfall of the vile usurpers, and seek to return themselves and their people to that blissful oblivion from whence their minds were cruelly torn. The finale of the story is poignant, and tinged with ironic horror, as with the very best weird tales.
“The Empire of the Necromancers” thus has a timeless appeal: reading like the English translation of a lost legend. I would say it’s almost like a fairy tale–a real one with blood and terror, not the hideous bowdlerizations today’s children have to endure–except I can’t think of what the moral would be. Of course, it doesn’t have to end with a message, as in Aesop’s fables: at its heart, “The Empire of the Necromancers” is a tale of cruelty avenged from beyond the grave, equal parts heartwarming and horrific. Howard considered this to be something of a detriment to some of Smith’s tales, where he reacted with full-blown belly laughs to some of the sly allusions.
Yet Smith was not restricted to this sardonic fantasy, this “subtle mirth” with “piquant zest” as Howard put his stories in a letter to Lovecraft: he was capable of bone-chilling horror, rousing heroic adventure, even science fiction. “The Colossus of Ylourgne” is as exciting as any Sword-and-Sorcery stories this side of Robert E. Howard, and “The City of the Singing Flame” is positively Merritt-esque. “The Return of the Sorcerer” is stark gothic horror in the tradition of James, Poe and Kipling. “The Beast of Averoigne” is a real genre-blender, with science fiction, horror and fantasy combining in one truly weird tale.
Today would be Clark Ashton Smith’s one hundred and seventeenth birthday, the middle child between older Lovecraft and younger Howard. Smith has been treated as that “middle child” for a long time, his fiction perceived as not as “weird” or “horrific” as Lovecraft’s, or not as “heroic” or “exciting” as Howard’s. It’s nonsense, frankly. Smith is as versatile as either author, and totally deserves to be considered one of the greats not just of “pulp fiction,” but the fantasy genre at large.
Howard thought so. Lovecraft concurred. Wolfe and Vance, two modern masters, agree. When will the rest of the world catch up?