Creator / Clark Ashton Smith
Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961) was an American writer of horror
and Science Fiction
. He is most notable for being one of the founders of the Cthulhu Mythos
along with H.P. Lovecraft
, Robert E. Howard
Compared to Lovecraft's, Smith's stories tend to focus less on the Cosmic Horror Story
and more on the pure exoticism of the setting. Some Mythos entities recur between them, such as the god Tsathoggua, but these entities tend to be less malevolent in Smith's portrayal than in Lovecraft's.
Also unlike Lovecraft, sexuality plays a strong role in many of Smith's works and female characters are a lot stronger and more prominent than in Lovecraft (most likely to Smith having a much more... active
love life than Lovecraft). Unlike Howard, sorcerers in Smith tend to have the upper hand against swordsmen
and Smith has many sorcerer protagonists, both good and evil. And finally, Smith was not as much a racist or a xenophobe as Lovecraft, which can be seen best in stories like The Great God Awto
and A Star-Change
, although reading his Zothique stories show he was still very much a man of his time.
Smith was fond of playing with tropes and his stories occasionally feature Black Comedy
. The classic Dungeons & Dragons
module Castle Amber
draws inspiration from his stories set in his fictional Averoigne setting.
Tropes found in Clark Ashton Smith's works:
- Action Girl: Vixeela in The Theft of Thirty-Nine Girdles.
- Action Hero: Subverted. Most protagonists favor spellcraft and or cunning. The few that rely on weapons tend to die faster.
- Affably Evil: Smith's creations in The Seven Geases employ the same cultured, if often circuitous, language as the human beings that populate Hyperborea in great quantities, even if their motivations are every bit as alien as those in Lovecraft.
- After the End: The setting of the Zothique stories.
- Alien Invasion: In The Metamorphasis of Earth.
- Alien Sky: Suns of unusual color and non-standard numbers appear repeatedly.
- Ambiguous Ending: Morthylla, the last and most oblique Zothique short story, has a circular, ambiguous ending involving a man who kills himself, but 'forgets' that he has died. A meeting in graveyard, a debauched party… the customary business of the last continent is all here.
- Anachronism Stew: Smith mentions that the Hyperborea stories occur "in the last centuries before the onset of the Great Ice Age", possibly meaning the last long interglacial period, the Eemian Interglacial (130,000-70,000 BP). The mention of mammals common to this epoch, such as sabre-tooth cats, aurochsen and mammoths, further places the period as the recent Pleistocene, before the start of human civilisation. However, in Ubbo-Sathla, Smith gives a different period in history for Hyperborea: the Miocene, approximately twenty-three million years past, which concluded in a glacial advance. A Tyrannosaurus and an Archaeopteryx appear in The Seven Geases alongside mentions of sabre-tooth cats and mammoths.
- Anyone Can Die: And they often do. In The Dark Eidolon, nobody makes it out alive. The Zothique and Hyperborea stories in general typically end with high body counts.
- Apothecary Alligator: In "The Return of the Sorcerer":
There were tables strewn with archaic instruments of doubtful use, with astrological charts, with skulls and alembics and crystals, with censers such as are used in the Catholic Church, and volumes bound in worm-eaten leather with verdigris-mottled clasps. In one corner stood the skeleton of a large ape; in another, a human skeleton; and overhead a stuffed crocodile was suspended.
- Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: What happens to someone who steps into the Singing Flame:
Any attempt to describe the experience would be foredoomed to futility, since it seemed that a whole range of new senses had been opened up in me, together with corresponding thought-symbols for which there are no words in human speech. I was no longer Philip Hastane, but a larger, stronger and freer entity, differing as much from my former self as the personality developed beneath the influence of hashish or kava would differ.
- Attack of the 50-Foot Whatever: The Colossus of Ylourgne. A story about an undead giant made of hundreds of corpses.
- Atlantis: One of Smith's main cycles of stories is set in Poseidonis, the last isle of foundering Atlantis.
- Author Avatar:
- The recurring character Philip Hastane is in many ways an analog of his creator. He lives in a cabin in Auburn, California, writes wrote poetry and weird fiction, and is associated with a large number of artists and dilettantes whom he met through letters and conferences.
- The protagonist of Morthylla, Valzain, can also be seen as one. He is a young poet for whom earthly pleasures no longer have any meaning, and restlessness afflicts him. His dreams taunt him with a beautiful and unreal world: “Do such dreams have any source, outside the earth-born brain itself? I would give much to find that source, if it exists. In the meanwhile there is nothing for me but despair.” It is easy to imagine the aging Clark Ashton Smith, a poet for nearly forty years, pondering such questions.
- Better Living Through Evil: The Evil Sorcerer Namirrha's backstory in The Dark Eidolon
- Big, Screwed-Up Family: One of Smith's more notable contributions to the Cthulhu Mythos is the idea that the various Eldritch Abomination are all related to each other in some way or another like a classical pantheon, rather than a bunch of random, unrelated extradimensional aliens. For instance, Hastur is supposedly Cthulhu's half-brother. And he's married to Shub Niggurath and therefore, presumably the father of at least some of her enigmatic Thousand Young.
- Black Comedy: Hyperborea in particular, though a good many of Smith's stories weren't above poking fun at the sillier aspects of Cosmic Horror tropes.
- Body Horror: In "The Seed from the Sepulchre", there is a horrific man-to-plant transformation.
- Body of Bodies: "The Colossus of Ylourgne" features a giant zombie created out of hundreds of corpses by a mad necromancer in the Middle Ages to serve as a sort of undead Humongous Mecha.
- Cannibal Tribe: The hero of The Symposium of the Gorgon runs afoul of a cannibal tribe who proceeds to worship him as a god.
- Cerebus Syndrome: The Ice-Demon, The White Sybil and The Coming of the White Worm mini-cycle differs from the rest of the Hyperborea series: humourless and seeming to imitate Smith’s two other fantasy worlds, Averoigne and Zothique.
- Charm Person: Part of the repertory of every self-respecting evil female caster.
- Clarke's Third Law: Maal Dweb rules over all the kings of Xiccarph through the power of his knowledge. Likely the knowledge is scientific, and Smith describes Maal Dweb’s extraterrestrial travel, genetic experiments, and advanced mechanics (the animated iron statues that serve him may be robots). But from the view of the people of Xiccarph and the readers, Maal Dweb is a wielder of magic.
- Continuity Nod: In The Colossus of Ylourgne, Gaspard du Nord, while climbing up into Vyones Cathedral, hides behind a gargoyle with features identical to the lustful stone carving that tormented the city over a hundred and fifty years ago in The Maker of Gargoyles.
- Deadly Decadent Court: All of them. Zothique especially is full of crumbling cities ruled by mad or aging nobles that when not backstabbing each other, performing some flavor of curse or plague, they're having orgies and drugging themselves into oblivion to forget the depression of the world's demise.
- Deal with the Devil: In Xeethra. Played with in that the demon manages to twist Xeethra's wish of seeing his kingdom's old glory for a day, only to be consumed by loss and regret with the vivid memories. The pain is so strong that when he asks if the demon will take his soul, he decides living is a far worse fate for him and leaves without anything in return.
- Death by Materialism: In The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan. Avoosl Wuthoqquan’s avaricious pursuit of two magical gems leads him into the lair of a Tsathoggua-esque monster with a snide sense of humour.
- Death Seeker: In The Empire of the Necromancers, two necromancers raise the kingdom of Cincor from the dead and enslave the shambling corpses, letting them shuffle about in forgetful imitations of their former lives. But the strength of longing for true death proves too powerful for the former living of Cincor, and the first and last rulers of the royal family awaken to plot revenge against the sorcerers who cheated them of death’s release.
- Direct Line to the Author: Smith frames The Coming of the White Worm as Chapter IX of the fictitious Book of Eibon, from a translation by Gaspard du Nord, the hero of the Averoigne tale The Colossus of Ylourgne. This device explains the complexity of the story’s diction, Byzantine even considering the author’s usual style.
- Druid: A bunch of Gaulish druids appear in The Holiness of Azédarac, which is partially set in 475 CE; they are depicted as savage practitioners of Human Sacrifice.
- Elaborate Underground Base: The underground city complex of Ravormos, where Vulthoom and its worshippers dwell under the surface of Mars.
- Even Evil Has Standards: In The Dark Eidolon, the archdemon Thasaidon, Lord of the Seven Hells, refuses to help the sorcerer Namirrha in his plan for vengeance. This may be because all the people who would be killed by the plan are evil, and therefore unwitting servants of Thasaidon.
- Evil Is Deathly Cold: The Coming of the White Worm and The Ice Demon bring the reader toward the eventual doom of Hyperborea beneath the advancing glaciers. Eventually, as the White Sybil augured, the glacier of Polarion destroys Hyperborea and leaves behind the land we know as Greenland.
- Fate Worse Than Death: In The Isle of the Torturers, Smith’s prose delights in the viciousness of the torments inflicted on Fulbra and his companions. Smith presents death as a blessed relief, with existence as the torture. Beneath its gruesome veneer, The Isle of the Torturers makes death a pleasant prospect: the ultimate escape from pain.
- Faux Death: Played for horror in The Charnel God and The Second Internment.
- The Future: The tales of Zothique, the last continent on Earth, take place in an unimaginably far future haunted by demons and ghosts.
- Garden of Evil: In "The Garden of Adompha" The King and his evil sorceror have one such garden walled off in the palace for their own private use, wherein they graft human organs to the plants. Well until the King decides to kill his companion and bury him in the selfsame garden. It doesn't end well..
- Ghost City: Zothique has only crypts, mummified rulers, and the hollow remains of metropolises. Few living cities exist, and 'the sands of Zothique are full of lost tombs and cities'.
- Ghost Memory: In Xeethra, Xeethra partakes of one of those dark red fruits and is overcome with strange feelings and memories, soon forgetting who he was, soon coming to believe that he was "King Amero, who had newly come to the throne, [and] would rule as his fathers had ruled over all the kingdom of Calyz by the orient sea".
- Glamour Failure: Caused by the application of holy water in The End of the Story.
- God of Evil: Thasaidon, Lord of Evil, as his name suggests, is Zothique's equivalent of the Devil.
- Grim Up North: In The Ice Demon, and more extradimensionally also The Coming of the White Worm and The Light from the Pole.
- Harmless Villain: Azédarac mostly serves a comic purpose. He rants ridiculously with a froth of demonic names bubbling from his lips, but he seems more like a low-level office bureaucrat who’s afraid his manager will discover he has started embezzling from the company picnic fund. Compare him to the sorcerer Nathaire in The Colossus of Ylourgne, whom Smith portrays with maximum menace and minimum irony.
- Hellish Horse: In The Dark Eidolon, trampled as a child by a horse, Namirrha plots his vengeance with a horse theme. There are the ghostly steeds which thunder back and forth all night to terrorise Zotulla and there are the very impressive "macrocosmic stallions of Thamogorgos" which overrun the entire city, crushing its towers beneath their hooves.
- I Love the Dead: The sorcerers Mmatmuor and Sodosma in The Empire of the Necromancers raise royal corpses in a devastated palace to serve them; including empresses “they took for their lemans and made to serve their necrophilic lust”.
- Just Before the End: Zothique is the last doomed land, the death rattle of the planet Earth. It is an “End of History” scenario; its end is the world’s end, and nothing will come after.
- Karma Houdini: The titular villain from The Holiness of Azédarac. A malevolent sorcerer who has infiltrated the church and risen to the post of bishop is discovered while dabbling in the dark arts by a monk send to investigate the rumors about him. He manages not only to prevent the truth from coming out by having the monk whisked seven centuries back in time, but manages to be canonized as a saint after his death (which is strongly implied to have been faked). According to his notes, Smith planned to avert this in the aptly named sequel The Doom of Azédarac, but he never got around to writing that.
- Kill 'em All: Repeatedly, to various degrees of scale and completeness.
- Kiss of Death: Most notably the non-vampiric one in The Kiss of Zoraida.
- Lady Land: A surprisingly proto-feminist version in The Root of Ampoi.
- Magic Mirror:
- "The Enchantress of Sylaire". The title character has a mirror that reflects reality as it really is, ignoring all illusions and enchantments.
- "The Colossus of Ylourgne". The magician Gaspard du Nord has a mirror that allows him to see distant scenes and places.
- Malevolent Masked Men: In The Charnel God, the sinister priests of Mordiggian are never seen without their huge silver skull masks. Ultimately subverted: Mordiggian is actually a benign deity and is not malicious to those who have not personally offended him or his followers, like the hero and his Not Quite Dead wife.
- The Middle Ages: Where the Averoigne stories take place.
- Mind-Control Music: The prodigious green flame in The City of the Singing Flame, an eerie and alluring presence whose music draws alien creatures who prostrate themselves before the flame before immolating themselves in its fire.
- Muck Monster: Abhoth and its spawn, appearing in "The Seven Geases".
For the gray mass quobbed and quivered, and swelled perpetually; and from it, in manifold fission, were spawned the anatomies that crept away on every side through the grotto. There were things like bodiless legs or arms that flailed in the slime, or heads that rolled, or floundering bellies with fishes' fins; and all manner of things malformed and monstrous, that grew in size as they departed from the neighborhood of Abhoth.
- Mummies at the Dinner Table: In Necromancy in Naat, the hero spends a lot of time talking sweet nothings to his zombified girlfriend who had been turned into an undead servant of the necromancers. The girlfriend actually talks back, to a very limited degree.
- Naked First Impression: The eponymous character in The Enchantress of Sylaire is first seen bathing in a forest pool by the hero.
- The Last Incantation plays with this: the ancient necromancer thinks the lover he resurrected was brought back wrong somehow, as she's somehow less beautiful than he remembers, but as it turns out, the spell went off without a hitch. He has just grown too old and twisted to love her the way he did when he was young.
- There's also The Chain of Aforgomon. Calaspa could have had his beloved's body reanimated or her spirit called back by magic easily enough... but that wasn't good enough, was it? He just had to actually turn back time for an hour to when she was still alive...yeah. That didn't end so well.
- Nephewism: The orphaned goatherd Xeethra in the story of the same name lives with his uncle.
- No-Sell: In The Double Shadow, the Eldritch Abomination that Avyctes summons passes straight through magical barriers and can't even be perceived by his familiars.
- Only Sane Man: Ironically, the God of Evil Thasaidon espouses the most moral stance in The Dark Eidolon and shows a degree of wisdom the mortal characters lack: he warns that it is irrational to taken revenge on a person whose transgressions against you are what is responsible for making you powerful in the first place. But rationality is a weak force in Zothique.
- Patricide: In The Dark Eidolon, Prince Zotulla murders his own father with an adder to get the throne.
- Phlebotinum du Jour: Rays can do anything.
- Plant Aliens: The eponymous aliens in The Flower-Women are unusual creatures, half woman and half flower; as well as the blossoms of the planet Lophai in The Demon of the Flower.
- Plot-Triggering Death: The Death of Ilalotha opens with the funeral observances of Ilalotha, lady-in-waiting to the queen of Tasuun.
- Portal Door: In The Door to Saturn, from his tower in far northern Mhu Thulan, the sorcerer Eibon escapes through a panel that takes him to the planet Cykranosh.
- Religion of Evil: Smith featured corrupt, cruel, false or merely ineffectual and pompous authorities of orthodox religion in numerous stories.
- Revenge Before Reason: The sorcerer Namirrha ignores the warnings of Thasaidon as he plots against the king who slighted him as a youth and set him on the road of necromancy. But Namirrha should have paid attention to Thasaidon’s advice; in Zothique vengeance has an uncanny way of changing into irony.
- Running Gag: In The Seven Geases, when Ralibar Vooz interrupts the magical ceremony of the wizard Ezdagor, the enraged magician casts a geas on him to send him deep under Mount Voormithadreth to the lair of Tsathoggua. Tsathoggua has no use for the hunter, so he sends him to spider-god Atlach-Nacha. Who sends him to the inhuman sorcerer Haon-Dor. Who sends him to… Ralibar Vooz’s wanderings deeper and deeper into the subterranean realms beneath the Eiglophians and his encounters with foul gods and lost races resemble not so much a story as a amusement park dark ride.
- Satan: In Schizoid Creator, a psychiatrist tries to cure Satan, under the belief that Satan and God are just two sides of a split personality. This theory turns out to be true.
- "Shaggy Dog" Story: The Seven Geases. Nobody wants the victim and he ends up dying in an accident.
- Summoning Ritual: Shown onscreen in The Double Shadow. The wizard Avyctes is an expert at summoning every kind of spirit and demon. So when he discovers a summoning spell from a hitherto-unknown precursor race, he casts it the first chance he gets. This despite the fact that the spell (a) doesn't say what it summons, and (b) doesn't come with a matching rite of exorcism to make whatever it summons go away again. It doesn't end well.
- Supervillain Lair: Vulthoom has the underground city of Ravormos, while Maal Dweb has his elaborate labyrinth.
- Taken for Granite: Maal Dweb has the habit of having women look at a mirror 'whose sudden radiance turns the flesh to a stone that is fairer than marble and no less eternal'.
- The Time of Myths: Where the Hyperborea and Poseidonis stories take place.
- Time Travel: In The Holiness of Azédarac, the eponymous villain uses his magic to send the monk who can expose his activities backwards in time seven hundred years to 475 C.E.
- Torture Technician: There is a whole island of them in The Isle of the Torturers.
- To Serve Man: The god of Zul-Bha-Sair is Mordiggian to whom "it is the law and the custom" that all who die in the city be given to his priests and offered to him as food.
- Undead Laborers:
- In The Double Shadow Avyctes uses mummies and liches as his household staff.
- The necromancers in The Empire of the Necromancers reanimate the population of a city to serve as their slaves.
- Un-person: A victim of Aforgomon in The Chain of Aforgomon literally ceases to exist, all knowledge, memory, and record of them fading from existence.
- Unwanted Revival: The Empire of the Necromancers gives us the viewpoint of a corpse raised by the necromancers as their slave. It turns out that the dead preferred oblivion.
- Victory Is Boring: Affects Maal Dweb.
Maal Dweb: I suffer from the frightful curse of omnipotence. In all Xiccarph, and in the five outer planets of the triple suns, there is no one, there is nothing, to dispute my domination. Therefore my ennui has become intolerable. There is but one remedy for this boredom of mine, the abnegation, at least for a while, of that all too certain power from which it springs. Therefore, I, Maal Dweb, the ruler of six worlds and all their moons, shall go forth alone, unheralded, and without other equipment than that which any fledgling sorcerer might possess. In this way, perhaps I shall recover the lost charm of incertitude, the foregone enchantment of peril. Adventures that I have not foreseen will be mine, and the future will wear the alluring veil of the mysterious. It remains, however, to select the field of my adventurings.