Clark Ashton Smith

Since I’ve been in my teens I’ve had an intermittent liking for the works of a group of friends who, once upon a time, published stories in a Depression-era pulp magazine called Weird Tales. I don’t believe they ever met each other, back when travel was harder and the economy was straitened, but the three writers corresponded and their writings became somewhat incestuous; they created a world of terror influenced by the Bible, the Arabian Nights, and ancient Greek and Roman mythology.

These three writers were H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith.

Lovecraft, a New England resident, is perhaps the best known these days, for his tales of ancient evil well-seasoned (or ill-seasoned) with racial paranoia. My favorite is Clark Ashton Smith. Smith had a way of using obsolete words to create scenes of mythic weirdness. Here’s an example, an over-the-top scene which still impresses me; it’s from a short story called “The Dark Eidolon”:

Then, into the hall, there filed an array of tall mummies, clad in royal cerements of purple and scarlet, and wearing gold crowns on their withered craniums. And after them, like servitors, came gigantic skeletons who wore loin-cloths of nacarat orange and about whose upper skulls, from brow to crown, live serpents of banded saffron and ebon had wrapped themselves for head-dresses. And the mummies bowed before Zotulla, saying with thin, sere voices:

“We, who were kings of the wide realm of Tasuun aforetime, have been sent as a guard of honor for the emperor Zotulla, to attend him as is befitting when he goes forth to the feast prepared by Namirrha.”

Then with dry clickings of their teeth, and whistlings as of air through screens of fretted ivory, the skeletons spoke:

“We, who were giant warriors of a race forgotten, have also been sent by Namirrha, so that the emperor’s household, following him to the feast, should be guarded from all peril and should fare forth in such pageantry as is meet and proper.”

Witnessing these prodigies, the wine-bearers and other attendants cowered about the imperial dais or hid behind the pillars, while Zotulla, with pupils swimming starkly in a bloodshot white, with face bloated and ghastly pale, sat frozen on his throne and could utter no word in reply to the ministers of Namirrha.

Then, coming forward, the mummies said in dusty accents: “All is made ready, and the feast awaits the arrival of Zotulla.” And the cerements of the mummies stirred and fell open at the bosom, and small rodent monsters, brown as bitumen, eyed as with accursed rubies, reared forth from the eaten hearts of the mummies like rats from their holes and chittered shrilly in human speech, repeating the words. The skeletons in turn took up the solemn sentence; and the black and saffron serpents hissed it from their skulls; and the words were repeated lastly in baleful rumblings by certain furry creatures of dubious form, hitherto unseen by Zotulla, who sat behind the ribs of the skeletons as if in cages of white wicker.

Several of Smith’s strange tales can be found here:

Short Stories By Clark Ashton Smith

Larry

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Clark Ashton Smith

  1. bev

    Smith had a way of using obsolete words to create scenes of mythic weirdness.

    I’ve often thought how it is that at least a generation or two of readers of that genre of the macabre, as well as the swords-and-sorcery genre that perhaps grew from it, were exposed to an odd array of archaic words which would otherwise have died in the dictionary dust pile. Scimitars, cerements, dirks, chalices, palfreys, cabochons, and on and on. Our vocabularies have been enriched by such imagery as well as that created through the neologisms of science fiction in a quest to describe that which has yet to exist. How wonderful a thing is the written word!

  2. Joan

    To Larry.. I have only read Lovecraft…that was enough to set my childhood nerves into a state of insomnia. The Dunwitch Horror… Cthululu ..great times!
    To Bev..How wonderful is the written word, and ‘what a piece of work is man’ to have written it. You are so right! And much as I hate to admit it, we must credit the The swords and sorcery genre for uplifting the vocabularies of kids who wouldn’t do it on their own. I’m not a lover of sci fantasy as I prefer my medieval served straight up and the same with fantasy, but lately, I have been curious about the wildly popular “Game of Thrones” books, made into a series on cable. (which we don’t have), My son downloads the episodes and puts them on a zip drive for Brian. This is one terrific series. I came to scoff and remained to worship. (grin)

  3. Joan

    Also:

    Books

    You’re on the road. You’re in a tent.
    Your car has broken down
    But none of these cause major pain
    Cause what you have around
    Is books! You’ve got your books right there .
    What joy! callooh callay!
    And you’ll be never bored at all
    With what they have to say.
    On darkish night, no moon in sight
    There’s Lovecraft, even Poe
    By day, a flora/fauna book
    To plump up what you know
    Of camping in the desert as a solitary man.
    You’re living out a dream
    As well as working on a tan.
    If you should get real hungry
    You will know just what to do.
    Just find the book with recipes
    Of rattlesnakey stew.
    And while you are in mind of this
    A first aid book’s real handy
    As doctors are not found too much
    In deserts bare and sandy.
    So find a nook and grab a book,
    Works better when it’s light.
    At night it is more difficult
    And harder on your sight.
    Causing living in the desert there
    Your body can survive
    But reading books will always serve
    To keep your brain alive.

  4. Nice one, Joan! How many writers have poetic commentary on their lives?

  5. Well, Larry. It’s a mixed blessing when you consider the quality of my so called ‘poems’. (grin)

  6. Larry, I’m not familiar with Clark Ashton Smith, though I do love my “weird.” These posts were fun to read – I cannot imagine a life without books. Joan – I enjoyed your poem – a delight. I’ve thought of checking out Game of Thrones, everyone raves about it. I’m a True Blood gal, but I might rent that series.

  7. Joan

    Leslie, my eldest is a True Blood fan also but he is totally mesmerized by Thrones, as is apparently, a good percent of the population. I am intermittently tempted to whine because we don’t have cable. Last time was during the ascendancy of The Sopranos. Usually, however the good ones come out on disk eventually. Luckily there are the books in the case of Thrones.

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