Friday, June 26, 2020

Lost Worlds - Clark Ashton Smith: Review by SE

Lost Worlds by Clark Ashton Smith
S.E. rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have been a huge fan of Clark Ashton Smith (as well as his ~1930’s Weird Tales compatriots Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft). CAS’s Zothique tales won me over as a fan and encourage me to interview authors on the topic of “Beauty in Weird Fiction”. His beautiful language and focus on grim tales (really grim) are powerful & unique. Check out the website dedicated to sharing his poetry, fiction, and letters at The Eldritch Dark website. Thanks to the Sword & Sorcery Goodreads group for hosting a “Lost Worlds” topic covering any author/work (by chance matching the title of this book). I decided to finally read this 400+page volume. The introduction by famed weird fiction writer Jeff VanDerMeer is short and trite; it covers the first two tales only and is hardly flattering. CAS does appear to be less well known that REH or HPL (currently), and that may be due to the consistent killing of his characters (i.e., no episodic Conan here); his elegant prose is admittedly dense, so it is rarely fluffy, easy reading.

Lost Worlds (reprinted from 1971) serves as a great introduction to CAS, with twenty-three tales covering his main mythoses/cycles: Hyperborea, Atlantis, Averoigne, Zothique, Xiccarph, and others. Below I capture highlights from all stories and summarize the milieus, but first let us explain what new readers should expect:

Grim Doom: Everything ends. Almost invariably, the main character and the world they inhabit dies; their loved ones fail and become irreversibly corrupted. Sometimes stories are is so over-the-top dark you may laugh aloud. CAS was self-aware enough to sprinkle in humor. Like the Coen brother’s movies like Fargo, or Burn After Reading? It’s like those.

Isolated, Passive Protagonists: These are all adventure stories, but the protagonists are not swordsmen or warriors. All are male, and are intellectuals: historians, antiquarians, scientists and sorcerers… perhaps long-lost kings who enjoy passively witnessing the end the world. Many seem to be loners who pine for a lost love, recumbent partner, or leave partners to dig up ancient mysteries instead of having a relationship. CAS seems to have a fetish with turning people into stone.

Organic Antagonists: hostile worlds and creatures often have floral components, even the robots; sometimes the vegetation, as intelligent and meaty as it may be, features metallic petals. CAS had some strange fetish with vegetation.

Language: CAS had an insane grasp of vocabulary and science; his style is unique. Excerpts below.

An overview of sections/cycles:

Hyperborea: These resonate with HPL’s Cthulhu mythos, exhibiting many tie-ins. Many eldritch gods are linked to the land or temples made in their honor. These may be the funniest of the group.

Atlantis: These do not reflect my impressions of a prediluvian, even postdiluvian, Atlantis as portrayed in most fiction. Frankly, these are nice tales but do not present much in a unified milieu; these could easily have been tucked into the other sections [to me “The Last Incantation” and “The Death of Malygris” feel like Zothique stories (i.e, necromancy!), and “A Voyage to Sfanomoë” a Xiccarph tale (i.e., planetary, evil flora!)].

Averoigne: These are deeply ironic tales of a medieval, Christina-Europe infused with sorcery. Inquisition-like Christians and Catholic tendencies inform the atmosphere.

Zothique: My favorite section features an apocalyptic future on a doomed continent where necromancy reigns!

Xiccarph: Planetary adventure with evil flora!

Uncategorized: Most of these are anchored to the real world in present-day (1930’s), with time & space travel aplenty.

Story notes below (may contain spoilers).

(1) "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros" 1931: Composed by the one-handed thief Satamphra Zeiros; he and his buddy go looting abandoned temples and stumble upon the elder-god Zhothaqquah. Dark, full of terror, and actually dry humor…and CAS’s dry humor shines through: “I felt that it would be highly injudicious to disturb the entity in the bowl while it was digesting Tirouv Ompallios; but there seemed to be no other way if I was ever to leave that abominable fane.”

(2) "The Door to Saturn" 1931: Morghi (goddess Yhoundeh follower) hunts the sorcerer Eibon (worshipper of Zhothaqquah); he left the area of From Mhu Thulan on an otherworldly adventure, fins Eibon and partners with him; they are forcibly encouraged to mate with a headless queen, (very dry/funny) and they learn they have been misinterpreting the will of the gods.

(3) "The Seven Geases" 1934: For sport, the chauvinistic, royal Ralibar Vooz hunts the barbarous, mountainous Voormis people. He stumbles into Sorcerer Ezdagor who curses him with “geases” to have him sacrificed. Ironically, Tsathoggua and six other Old One/Elders under the mountain do not accept Vooz as a sacrifice (deeming him inedible or "no use in our economy.”).

(4) "The Coming of the White Worm" 1941: Eibon makes a surprise cameo, but the story is all about Yikilth approaching Mhu Thulan; it is an iceberg/ship of frozen stars. Evagh is a male sorcerer abducted, and he conflicts with the worm-god Rlim Shaikorth.


(5) "The Last Incantation" 1930: Malygris is a sorcerer who misses his love Nylissa--deceased long ago. His buddy is a snake. He summons Nylissa’s apparition back who has not aged, but he can’t change his corrupted, older self.

(6) "A Voyage to Sfanomoë" 1931: The last two survivors of Atlantis, brothers Hotar and Evidon, fly away from the earth as it collapses under cataclysm; they head to Venus (Sfanomoë) and fall prey to a beautiful flora.

(7) "The Death of Malygris" 1934: The titular necromancer is ambiguously dead (and his viper too); his hold over humans and the King Gadeiron continues (and his sorcerer Maranapion, who wants to rule without Malygris’s presence).


(8) "The Holiness of Azédarac" 1933: St Azedarac is an accused demon lover, and brother Ambrose investigates. Demons are real and the whole church is corrupted by them. Book of Eibon (Hyperborean cycle) is evidence of Azedarac’s evil sorcery. Moriamis, a woman from the past desires the chivalrous Ambrose, and potion-enabled time-traveling take center stage.

(9) "The Beast of Averoigne" 1933: Luc le Chaudronnier (secular astrologer and sorcerer) aids religious institutions struggling with horrors unleashed by a comet (at immune to their prayers). The sorcerer saves the abbey and covers up for the Church’s corruption.


(10) "The Empire of the Necromancers" 1932: This one opens with humor, and sets the stage for two necromancers raising a whole abandoned city:
Mmatmuor and Sodosma were necromancers who came from the dark isle of Naat, to practice their baleful arts in Tinarath, beyond the shrunken seas. But they did not prosper in Tinarath: for death was deemed a holy thing by the people of that gray country; and the nothingness of the tomb was not lightly to be desecrated; and the raising up of the dead by necromancy was held in abomination.

So, after a short interval, Mmatmuor and Sodosma were driven forth by the anger of the inhabitants, and were compelled to flee toward Cincor, a desert of the south, which was peopled only by the bones and mummies of a race that the pestilence had slain in former ti

(11) "The Isle of the Torturers" 1933: A plague of icey/silvery death wipes out civilization and Fulbra, the king of Yoros, is doomed to witness it all. He is protected by a ring given to him by his Vemdeez sorcerer/vizier….who also said that Fulbrsa should seek counsel from an isle called Cyntrom. Finding several slaves in the subterranean depths, and a ship, he embarks there but is waylaid on the Isle of Uccastrog. Here King Ildrac would care for him. Fulbra is tortured immensely in great detail, but manages vengeance when the Silver Death is released upon the ring being removed.

(12) ‘"Necromancy in Naat" 1936: Yadar after his lost love, Dalili, finds her dead/possessed. Necromancer sons usurp their father. Splendid near comical gory fight of undying sorcerers (foretelling Monty Python’s “I’m not dead yet” played out by necromancers).

(13) "Xeethra" 1934: A child shepherd is possessed by a doomed king Amero, and he relives the demise of the kingdom Calyz. Devouring sacred fruit from a tree is a reoccurring theme:
To the boy from the parched hill-country, this realm was an Eden of untasted delights. But, for a little while, he was stayed by the strangeness of it all, and by the sense of weird and preternatural vitality which informed the whole landscape. Flakes of fire appeared to descend and melt in the rippling air; the grasses coiled with verminous writhings; the flowery eyes returned his regard intently; the trees palpitated as if a sanguine ichor flowed within them in lieu of sap; and the undernote of adder-like hissings amid the foliage grew louder and sharper.

Xeethra, however, was deterred only by the thought that a region so fair and fertile must belong to some jealous owner who would resent his intrusion. He scanned the unpeopled plain with much circumspection. Then, deeming himself secure from observation, he yielded to the craving that had been roused within him by the red, luxuriant fruit.

The turf was elastic beneath him, like a living substance, as he ran forward to the nearest trees. Bowed with their shining globes, the branches drooped around him. He plucked several of the largest fruits and stored them thriftily in the bosom of his threadbare tunic. Then, unable to resist his appetence any longer, he began to devour one of the fruits.


(14) "The Maze of Maal Dweb" 1938: The barbarian Tiglari searches for his stolen bride Athlé taken by the sorcerer who turns women into statues and men into apes. Flowery demons with metallic fronds and metal automatons (robots?) abound. This is either a very weird fantasy or sci-fi.

(15) "The Flower-Women" 1935: Maal Dweb is less of a meany here in this pseudo-sequel to The Maze. Maal Dweb goes adventuring and murders reptilian humanoid sorcerers who were, in turn, murdering the vampiric, female flower women (specifically, chopping them up into alchemical slurries). The beauty of paralyzed Athlé, echoes the turning-to-stone fate of the “Gorgon” stories.

(16) "The Demon of the Flower" 1933: On the planet Lophai, floral gods and lord flower Voorqual (the titular demon) demand sacrifice of humanoids, that is until Lunithi (protagonist) rebels. His betrothed priestess Nala is selected and he poisons the Voorqual, yet Nala is doomed [very Xiccarph-esque].

(17) "The Plutonian Drug" 1934: I had to research the history here to learn when elements were actually discovered (named). Plutonium was named after the planet, as was Neptunium and Uranium was discovered in 1789 named after the planet Uranus, which had been discovered eight years prior. Anyway, here Dr Manners offers time-trip inducing drug to Rupert Balcoth who experiences a truncated mind trip. Balcoth reports his experience and learn his future is short due to his imminent death.

(18) "The Planet of the Dead" 1932: Francis Melchior is a recluse antiquarian with a love for past things and an immedicable distaste for all that is present. He falls through his telescope onto another planet, assumes the role of Antarion. Here he finds love, retreats to Phanion as that world comes to an end.

(19) "The Gorgon" 1932: Twentieth-century London; here the narrator is a connoisseur of horrors. He barely survives a chance meeting with a mysterious man claiming to have Medusa's head. BTW, the Gorgon theme also echoes in Hunter from Beyond AND Treader of Dust.

(20) "The Letter from Mohaun Los" 1932: Domitian Malgraff and his Chinese servant Li Wong go missing, but somehow a letter makes it back to Domitan's betrothed: Syvlia Talbot. Domitian had preferred to meddle with time-travel than be with her. This is a planetary adventure, sans swashbuckling…with grand battles of machinery.

(21) "The Light from Beyond" 1933: Dorian Wiermoth, a painter, seeks seclusion in the mountains. He contacts strange celestial lights and vegetation from Beyond. Eating fruit from sacred trees occurs again (Xeethra-like), and our artist loses his creativity.

(22) "The Hunters from Beyond" 1932: This rivals/complements HPL’s "Pickman’s Model": Ghouls from other world are portrayed in sculpture by Cyprian Sincaulher and his lover Marta is affected; the narrator Philip Hastane, Cyprian's cousin, is book lover, weird fiction writer, who also experiences the ghouls first hand. With Jason Ray Carney's Weird Tales of Modernity: The Ephemerality of the Ordinary in the Stories of Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft n my mind, I was floored to see Charles BAUDELAIRE (1821 - 1867) called out by name in this story (Baudelaire is a weird poet who coined the term: Modernity).

(23) "The Treader of the Dust" 1935: Again the petrification of Gorgon theme occurs, this time via the stars of Quachil Uttaus. Be forewarned, John Sebastian's house of relics and books was cursed when he opened a magical tome:
…The olden wizards knew him, and named him Quachil Uttaus. Seldom is he revealed: for he dwelleth beyond the outermost circle, in the dark limbo of unsphered time and space.-Dreadful is the word that calleth him, though the word be unspoken save in thought: For Quachil Uttaus is the ultimate corruption; and the instant of his coming is like the passage of many ages; and neither flesh nor stone may abide his treading, but all things crumble beneath-it atom from atom. And for this, some have called him The Treader of the Dust.
—The Testaments of Carnamagos.

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