Zothique and the End of the World

the fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith

James Lecky

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          He who has trod the shadows of Zothique

          And looked upon the coal-red sun oblique,

          Henceforth returns to no anterior land,

          But haunts a later coast

          Where cities crumble in the black sea-sand

          And dead gods drink the brine.

                                                                   – Zothique by Clark Ashton Smith


           On Zothique, the last continent on Earth, the sun no longer shone with the whiteness of its prime, but was dim and tarnished as if with a vapor of blood. New stars without number had declared themselves in the heavens, and the shadows of the infinite had fallen closer. And out of the shadows, the older gods had returned to man: the gods forgotten since Hyperborea, since Mu and Poseidonis, bearing other names but the same attributes. And the elder demons had also returned, battening on the fumes of evil sacrifice, and fostering again the primordial sorceries.

(The Dark Eidolon, 1935)

          The end of the world has long held a fascination for writers of the fantastic – from Mary Shelley's The Last Man (1826), through H.G Wells The Time Machine (1895), William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land (1912), Jack Vance's The Dying Earth (1950), M. John Harrison's Viriconium sequence (beginning with The Pastel City in 1971), Michael Moorcock's The Dancers at the End of Time (1972 – 77), Gene Wolfe's Books of the New Sun (1980 – 83) and Mark Charan Newton's Legends of the Red Sun (2009 – 12) – sometimes as a hellish post-industrial landscape (Viriconium), a baroque playground (The Dancers at the End of Time) or a colourful and fantastic backdrop for tales of high adventure where the arcane is all-but indistinguishable from science (The Dying Earth).

          For the American writer Clark Ashton Smith, however, the last days of Earth were shadowy and decadent, where science had long been forgotten to be replaced by the dark arts of sorcery and necromancy.

Welcome to the Last Continent. Welcome to Zothique.

          The 1920s, 30s and 40s saw a golden age for popular fiction, the boom in 'pulp' magazines (so-called because of the cheap, grainy paper stock on which they were printed) gave rise to numerous titles covering every time of fiction from westerns and detective stories, to sport and historical adventure, science fiction and fantasy.

          While many of the titles have faded into obscurity, a select few retain their literary importance, particularly in the realms of genre fiction – Black Mask (first published in 1920) published the hardboiled stories of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Amazing Stories (1926 onwards) edited by Hugo Gernsback, which helped define and popularize science fiction and Weird Tales (first published in 1923) which, under the editorship of Farnsworth Wright published a wide range of fantastic fiction, including work by Robert E. Howard and H.P Lovecraft.

          Described by the author and editor Robert Weinberg as “the most important and influential of all fantasy magazines”, Weird Tales holds a unique place in the history of modern fantasy with the British fantasy historian Mike Ashley contending that "somewhere in the imagination reservoir of all U.S. (and many non-U.S.) genre-fantasy and horror writers is part of the spirit of Weird Tales."

          From the late 1920s to the late 1930s, Weird Tales was dominated by three writers – H.P Lovecraft (1890 – 1937), Robert E. Howard (1906 – 36) and Clark Ashton Smith (1893 – 1961). Howard (arguably the originator of sword and sorcery with his tales of Conan the Barbarian) and Lovecraft (in particular his 'Cthulhu mythos' stories) continue to exert an influence on contemporary fantasy –  to the extent where “Lovecraftian” has become almost a genre definition in itself, and Howard's Conan continues to be the popular default imagery when referring to sword and sorcery/ heroic fantasy – but Clark Ashton Smith has to a large degree slipped off the critical radar.

          A sculptor and poet as well as an author of fantastic fiction, Clark Ashton Smith was born on January 13 1893, in Long Valley, California, but spent the majority of his life in the nearby small Californian town of Auburn. Like his contemporary, H.P Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith lived a reclusive life, seemingly determined to spend his life in self-exile from the twentieth century, although, conversely, he often professed to hate the provinciality of Auburn.

          Largely self-educated (he is said to have read Webster's Dictionary word for word and minutely studied the Encyclopeadia Britannica, as well as teaching himself both French and Spanish), in his early twenties he was part of the bohemian and literary circle of San Francisco, who's membership included – at one time or another – Jack London and Ambrose Bierce, and his first volume of poetry, The Star Treader and Other Poems was well received by critics, by whom he was described as “the Keats of the Pacific coast”. But his early success was arrested by both a nervous breakdown and an attack of tuberculosis (the latter continuing to trouble him intermittently for the rest of his life). He continued to write and publish poetry (including a number of translations of the French poet Charles Baudelaire, who's work would have a profound effect on Smith's own) and although still lauded –“Among the (living) poets he stands alone” wrote one critic – any real financial success eluded him.

          By 1925 he had turned his attention to fiction, but it was not until the late 20s and the beginning of the Great Depression that his work began to sell and between 1929 – 36 he produced over a hundred short stories, the majority of which saw publication in Weird Tales and other pulp magazines.

          Broadly speaking, Smith's fiction falls into four series – Hyperborea, a lost continent of the distant past, Poseidonis, the last remnant of Atlantis, Averoigne, a vampire-haunted region of historical France, and Zothique, “the last continent of earth, when the sun is dim and tarnished.”

          Zothique, vaguely suggested by Theosophic theories about past and future continents, is the last inhabited continent of earth. The continents of our present cycle have sunken, perhaps several times. Some have remained submerged; others have re-risen, partially, and re-arranged themselves. Zothique, as I conceive it, comprises Asia Minor, Arabia, Persia, India, parts of northern and eastern Africa, and much of the Indonesian archipelago. A new Australia exists somewhere to the south. To the west, there are only a few known islands. . . To the north, are immense unexplored deserts; to the east, an immense unvoyaged sea. . . The science and machinery of our present civilization have long been forgotten, together with our present religions. But many gods are worshipped; and sorcery and demonism prevail again as in ancient days.

(Clark Ashton Smith. Letter dated 1953)

          Comprising sixteen completed short stories, a one-act play and several story-fragments, the Zothique cycle represents Smith at his imaginative best. Dark and decadent, written in jewelled prose and shot through with mordant, often morbid, humour the stories remain as singular now as when first published. Echoing Edgar Allan Poe (the critic L. Sprague de Camp said of Smith that “nobody since Poe has so loved a well-rotted corpse”), Lord Dunsany, William Beckford (author of the nightmarish gothic novel Vathek), Ambrose Bierce and Charles Baudelaire (in particular his Paris Spleen collection of prose poems), yet with a style uniquely of Smith's own.

          The first Zothique story, The Empire of the Necromancers, appeared in the September 1932 issue of Weird Tales and serves as a perfect introduction to both the tales that would follow and the world of Zothique itself.

          Two sorcerers raise up an entire people from the dead in order that they may reign over them, making them their slaves, warriors and concubines.

           Tribute was borne to them by fleshless porters from outlying realms; and plague-eaten corpses, and tall mummies scented with mortuary balsams, went to and fro upon their errands in Yethlyreom, or heaped before their greedy eyes, from inexhaustible vaults, the cobweb-blackened gold and dusty gems of antique time.

          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.

(The Empire of the Necromancers, 1932)

          However, the dead finally revolt against their new masters, condemning them to a fate far worse than death:

          Hestaiyon lifted the great sword and struck off the head of Mmatmuor and the head of Sodosma, each with a single blow. Then, as had been directed, he quartered the remains with mighty strokes. And the necromancers gave up their unclean lives, and lay supine, without movement, adding a deeper red to the rose and a brighter hue to the sad purple of their couches. . . There, as the tablets had directed him to do, he made trial of those spells of elder necromancy which he had known in his former wisdom, and cursed the dismembered bodies with that perpetual life-in-death which Mmatmuor and Sodosma had sought to inflict upon the people of Cincor. And maledictions came from the pale lips, and the heads rolled horribly with glaring eyes, and the limbs and torsos writhed on their imperial couches amid clotted blood. . . men say that their quartered bodies crawl to and fro to this day in Yethlyreom, finding no peace or respite from their doom of life-in-death. and seeking vainly through the black maze of nether vaults. . .

(The Empire of the Necromancers, 1932)

          The Empire of the Necromancers exposes both Smith's strengths and (particularly for the modern reader) weaknesses as a fiction writer. The prose is elaborate, seeming to hark back to an earlier age, and far removed from, say, the more comparatively straightforward style of Robert E. Howard:

          The room was large and ornate, with rich tapestries on the polished panelled walls, deep rugs on the ivory floor, and with the lofty ceiling adorned with intricate carvings and silver scrollwork. Behind an ivory, gold- inlaid writing-table sat a man whose broad shoulders and sun-browned skin seemed out of place among those luxuriant surroundings. He seemed more a part of the sun and winds and high places of the outlands. His slightest movement spoke of steel-spring muscles knit to a keen brain with the co-ordination of a born fighting-man. There was nothing deliberate or measured about his actions. Either he was perfectly at rest - still as a bronze statue - or else he was in motion, not with the jerky quickness of over-tense nerves, but with a cat-like speed that blurred the sight which tried to follow him.

(Robert E. Howard, The Phoenix on the Sword, 1932)

          Yet Smith's Zothique stories proved immensely popular with the readers of Weird Tales and The Empire of the Necromancers was soon followed by The Isle of the Torturers, described by Smith himself as “a strange mixture of eeriness, grotesquery, bright colour, cruelty, and stark human tragedy.”

          Fleeing the Silver Death which has laid waste to his kingdom, Prince Fulbra makes an unwilling landfall on the Isle of Uccastrog:

  . . .which lay far to the east of Cyntrom, was commonly known as the Isle of the Torturers; and men said that all who landed upon it unaware, or were cast thither by the seas, were imprisoned by the inhabitants and were subjected later to unending curious tortures whose infliction formed the chief delight of these cruel beings. No man, it was rumored, had ever escaped from Uccastrog; but many had lingered for years in its dungeons and hellish torture chambers, kept alive for the pleasure of King Ildrac and his followers.

(The Isle of the Torturers, 1933)

          Reminiscent of Poe's The Pit and The Pendulum or Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's 1888 short story, A Torture by Hope, The Isle of the Torturers layers cruelty upon cruelty on its hapless protagonist:

          Of that which was done to Fulbra for the wicked pleasure of King Ildrac and his people, it were not well to speak fully. For the islanders of Uccastrog had designed innumerable torments, curious and subtle, wherewith to harry and excruciate the five senses; and they could harry the brain itself, driving it to extremes more terrible than madness; and could take away the dearest treasures of memory and leave unutterable foulness in their place.

          On that day, however, they did not torture Fulbra to the uttermost. But they racked his ears with cacophonous sounds; with evil flutes that chilled the blood and curdled it upon his heart; with deep drums that seemed to ache in all his tissues; and thin tabors that wrenched his very bones. Then they compelled him to breathe the mounting fumes of braziers wherein the dried gall of dragons and the adipocere of dead cannibals were burned together with a fetid wood. Then, when the fire had died down, they freshened it with the oil of vampire bats; and Fulbra swooned, unable to bear the fetor any longer.

          Later, they stripped away his kingly vestments and fastened about his body a silken girdle that had been freshly dipt in an acid corrosive only to human flesh; and the acid ate slowly, fretting his skin with infinite pangs.

          Then, after removing the girdle lest it slay him, the Torturers brought in certain creatures that had the shape of elllong serpents, but were covered from head to tail with sable hairs like those of a caterpillar. And these creatures twined themselves tightly about the arms and legs of Fulbra; and though he fought wildly in his revulsion, he could not loosen them with his hands; and the hairs that covered their constringent coils began to pierce his limbs like a million tiny needles, till he screamed with the agony. And when his breath failed him and he could scream no longer, the baby serpents were induced to relinquish their hold by a languorous piping of which the islanders knew the secret. They dropped away and left him; but the mark of their coils was imprinted redly about his limbs; and around his body there burned the raw branding of the girdle.

          King Ildrac and his people looked on with a dreadful gloating; for in such things they took their joy, and strove to pacify an implacable obscure desire. But seeing now that Fulbra could endure no more, and wishing to wreak their will upon him for many future days, they took him back to his dungeon.

(The Isle of the Torturers, 1933)

          Cruelty and torture are common elements in the Zothique stories, whether carried out for revenge, profit, lust or simple sadistic enjoyment – in The Garden of Adompha (1938), the titular king maims his mistress and condemns her to a living death, only to fall victim himself to supernatural revenge, in The Dark Eidolon (1935), the sorcerer Namirrha seeks vengeance upon the Emperor Zotulla only to find that there are darker gods than even he knows, and in both The Tomb Spawn and The Weaver In The Vault (both 1934) strange, deadly forces overwhelm those who would seek to unearth lost secrets.

          This is not to say that the Zothique stories themselves are inherently cruel or sadistic, rather that the world in which they are set has become morally, as much as physically, decayed and corrupt, and the cruelty of the characters is often a response to the ennui of a world waiting patiently to die.

          Equally, though, Smith was capable of a delicate touch in his stories: Xeethra (1934) eschews baroque horror in favour of a much more meditative approach, focusing on the theme of memory and its importance in a dying world as a young man, possessed by the spirit of a dead king, searches for a long-vanished kingdom:

          The people gathered about him, calling him by name, and staring and laughing oafishy when he inquired the road to Calyz. No one, it appeared, had ever heard of this kingdom or of the city of Shathair. Noting a strangeness in Xeethra's demeanor, and deeming that his queries were those of a madman, the people began to mock him. Children pelted him with dry clods and pebbles: and thus he was driven from Cith, following an eastern road that ran from Cinor into the neighboring lowlands of the country of Zhel.

          Sustained only by the vision of his lost kingdom, the youth wandered for many moons throughout Zothique. People derided him when he spoke of his kingship and made inquiry concerning Calyz: but many, thinking madness a sacred thing, offered him shelter and sustenance. Amid the far-stretching fruitful vineyards of Zhel, and into Istanam of the myriad cities; over the high passes of Ymorth, where snow tarried at the autumn's beginning; and across the salt-pale desert of Dhir. Xeethra followed that bright imperial dream which had now become his only memory. Always eastward he went, travelling sometimes with caravans whose members hoped that a madman's company would bring them good fortune; but oftener he went as a solitary wayfarer.

          At whiles, for a brief space, his dream deserted him, and he was only the simple goatherd, lost in foreign realms, and homesick for the barren hills of Cincor. Then, once more, he remembered his kingship, and the opulent gardens of Shathair and the proud palaces, and the names and faces of them that had served him following the death of his father, King Eldamaque, and his own succession to the throne.

(Xeethra, 1934)

          Above all, though, what elevates the work of Clark Ashton Smith, and the Zothique tales in particular, above the morass of the pulp fiction is the sheer extravagance of his prose. A poet first and foremost, Smith had a delight in language which shines through time and time again.

          In 1936, the output of Smith's fiction dropped sharply and his work thereafter was sporadic (although he continued to write verse and to sculpt). In 1954, aged 61, he married Carol Jones Dorman and moved to Pacific Grove, California. In August 1961, he died quietly in his sleep aged 68.

          The readers of Weird Tales had been captivated by Smith's decadent tales of necromancy and necromania and his bleak visions of dust-filled empires under a dying sun, but it was not until 1970 that the stories were collected, under the editorship of Lin Carter, as part of the Ballantine Books' Adult Fantasy series and although his critical reputation has continued to grow (with Night Shade Books producing a definitive six volume collection of his short fiction) he, unfortunately, remains the least appreciated of the Big Three who contributed so much to Weird Tales and the development of the modern fantasy genre.

The Zothique Cycle.

Empire of the Necromancers (Weird Tales, September 1932)

The Isle of the Torturers (Weird Tales, March 1933)

The Charnel God (Weird Tales, March 1934)

The Dark Eidolon (Weird Tales, January 1935)

The Voyage of King Euvoran (The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies, 1933)

The Weaver in the Vault (Weird Tales, January 1934)

The Tomb Spawn (Weird Tales, May 1934)

The Witchcraft of Ulua (Weird Tales, February 1934)

Xeethra (Weird Tales, December 1934)

The Last Hieroglyph (Weird Tales, April 1935)

Necromancy in Naat (Weird Tales, July 1936)

The Black Abbot of Puthuum (Weird Tales, March 1936)

The Death of Ilalotha (Weird Tales, September 1937)

The Garden of Adompha (Weird Tales, April 1938)

The Master of the Crabs (Weird Tales, March 1948)

Morthylla (Weird Tales, May 1953)

The Dead Will Cuckold You (Published posthumously. In Memoriam: Clark Ashton Smith. 1963)

Mandor's Enemy (unfinished fragment)

Shapes of Adamant (unfinished fragment)

Zothique (Ballantine Books, 1970)

The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith (Night Shade Books)

Emperor of Dreams (Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks)

Donald Sidney-Fryer, Emperor of Dreams: A Clark Ashton Smith Bibliography. (Donald M. Grant Publishers)


The Eldritch Dark an excellent online resource containing the majority of Smith's work. (http://www.eldritchdark.com/)