Clark Ashton Smith was born on January 13 in 1893. He was one of the greatest fantasists of the Weird Tales era on indeed any era. Writing contemporaneously with Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft, Smith was considered one of the big three of what many consider to be the golden age of Weird Tales.
Unfortunately, he has not fared as well as those two in the years since he died. (Smith died in 1961, but he had stopped writing fiction years before.) He is still revered among fans of weird fiction, but he is not as well known among the general public. This is highly unfortunate.
There are probably several reasons contributing to this relative obscurity compared to his two contemporaries named above. For one thing, he never had any series characters, such as Howard did, with Conan being the most well known. Much of Lovecraft’s work was set in what has become known as the Cthulhu Mythos, uniting a variety of stories against a common background with common elements. Smith wrote multiple tales set in a number of story cycles, but for the most part these works shared a setting with no recurring characters and no mythos to link them.
Smith’s style is probably the biggest obstacle a modern reader needs to overcome. He started out as a poet, and with its lush prose, his work reflects that. Smith knew his way around a dictionary and wasn’t afraid to use it. While this might be off-putting and not in line with contemporary trends, I personally find it a good thing. While reading Smith might involve some mental work, and not something to be attempted at bedtime if you’re tired, I have always found reading Smith to be rewarding.
For my observance of Smith’s 125th birthday, I chose to read “The Dark Eidolon”. It’s set in the Zothique cycle of stories, in which there is a single continent on a dying planet. It bears certain resemblances to Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories, although the Zothique stories were written years prior. “The Dark Eidolon” was first published in the January 1935 issue of Weird Tales. It’s been reprinted a number of times.
In this one a young beggar sees Prince Zorulla riding by and asks for alms. Zorulla’s response is to trample the boy, who nearly dies from his wounds. He manages to crawl to his hovel, where he recovers. In time he eventually leaves the city for a nearby desert kingdom.
The beggar comes upon an oasis where a hermit sorcerer lives. The boy becomes the apprentice to the sorcerer and upon his mentor’s death adopts the name Namirrha. He pledges himself to the god of the seven hells. It’s not long before he has a reputation as an evil sorcerer. In fact he’s renowned and feared for his evil in a kingdom of evil. Zorulla has become king, most definitely of the evil variety, and even he fears the name of Namirrha.
After a night of debauchery, Zorulla wakes to find a palace has appeared next to his. Namirrha has taken up residence next door.
I’ll not spoil the ending; I’ll just say that Thasaidon, lord of the seven hells, considers both Namirrha and Zorulla his servants, although the latter serves unknowingly. He isn’t pleased with Namirrha’s plans for revenge. This displeasure, of course, creates complications.
This was a dark story, and it doesn’t have a happy ending. I hadn’t read this one before, but I totally enjoyed it. Zothique is not one of the story cycles I’ve read much of. It’s a place I’m going to return to. Even though Smith’s style is complex and full of words that may be unfamiliar to products of today’s educational system, “The Dark Eidolon” was quite readable. Smith is a writer I’m going to read more of.